Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Kiribati Part 2

One of the most amazing things about Kiribati, or any Pacific nation for that matter, is the sheer size of the territory it covers. Growing up in a small nation like Ireland, I have a really warped concept of distance and trying to imagine how much time it takes to get from Sydney to Melbourne, or New York to Los Angeles still baffles me immensely.

When I first moved to Russia, I naively imagined I would be able to hop on a train and easily visit places like Novosibirsk and Vladivostok, not really understanding that Vladivostok was eight time zones away from Moscow, and the distance is the equivalent of travelling from London to Cape Town.

In The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J Maarten Troost describes the mammoth journey he took with his wife from Washington DC to Tarawa, via Hawaii, Johnstone Atoll and the Marshall Islands. He also mentions that Kiribati covers a similar area of ocean that the US covers on land. It suddenly seems as though Kiribati is not such a small nation after all. In fact, with the sheer distances between atolls, I can't even imagine what that means in terms of communication and national identity.

On translating the Bible into Gilbertese the first missionaries were stumped when they found out that there is no word for 'mountain' in Kiribati. Apparently the native Gilbertese speakers had heard there was something higher than an atoll, somewhere down in Samoa, but with nowhere higher than 2 metres in their own islands, I imagine there was quite a bit 'lost in translation'. Mountains are pretty key in terms of symbolism to the bible, and without them, important biblical events, like Moses receiving the ten commandments, suddenly seem a lot less exciting.

As part of my learning experience, I've also been scanning September's news reports for mentions of Kiribati and one story that seems to be popular there at the moment is the arrival if British rower Roz Savage. Roz rocked up in Tarawa, the i-Kiribati capital, on the 9th of September after 104 days at sea. She is the first woman to row solo across the Pacific, so I'm sure she knows all about distances and the vast empty spaces of the Pacific.

I'm a big fan of stories like Roz's but, like most people, I often don't get to hear about other people's adventures until they are over. Roz's challenge is very much still on - she's hoping to make it all the way to Australia and is highlighting the impact of climate change as she passes through the Pacific islands most directly under threat. You can find out more about Roz's Pacific adventure at her website http://www.rozsavage.com/

Having completed the second stage of her solo row, she's currently taking a break and is cycling around Amish country in Pennsylvania.

Image credits
The beautiful image of the man walking on the beach is from flickr user gonzalez_ar who is from Buenos Aires in Argentina. See more at http://www.flickr.com/people/gonzalo_ar/

The painting of Moses with the Tablets of Law is by Rembrandt and is available for reproduction in the public domain.

The photo of Roz Savage arriving in Hawaii is by web developer, writer, father, husband, and semi-professional napper in paradise, flickruser Hawaii who is, not surprisingly, from Honululu.

Monday, 28 September 2009


Wow - it's taken me so long to catch up with myself. Jamaica was happening several weeks ago and a timely postal strike has left me adrift waiting on an Amazon delivery before I can start on a new country. So we're up to speed again and I'm no longer blogging retrospectively.

The next country I've chosen to learn about is Kiribati! Like most of you out there, I know precious little about this tiny Pacific nation. The first thing I've learned is that it's not pronounced Kiribati, but Kiri-bass, a local rendition of the country's colonial name of Gilberts.

The language of Kiribati is still called Gilbertese and Kiribati used to be part of the British colony Gilbert and Ellice islands, the Ellice islands bit being modern day Tuvalu.

Scanning through a brainful of memories, the only thing Gilbert and Ellice islands brings up is stamp-collecting. I was a big stamp collector as a child and dutifully kept little scrap books with a page for each country. I'm pretty sure Gilbert and Ellice Islands was one of those pages. I know what you're thinking, stamp collecting is for nerds. Well, I guess if blogging is the grown-up, 21st century if stamp collecting, then so be it!

Finding materials related to Kiribati hasn't been easy. I've had to resort to reading a book written by an 'outsider' The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J Maarten Troost. I've just started reading it and it's dead funny. I can totally relate to his desire to head off to some unknown part of the world and had a very similar incident when, after accepting a job in Uzbekistan, my first question to the interviewer was 'Where is it?'

Back to Kiribati, the thing that has struck me most since I started researching this country is the urgency and seriousness of the impact of Climate Change on this tiny nation. Like neighbouring Tuvalu the I-Kiribati people are facing the prospect of losing their country to the ocean. Unfortunately, it would seem as though it's already too late. I'm leaving you with this poignant appeal I came across on YouTube.

Whilst bigger nations are refusing to agree to the terms of the Kyoto protocol and make real commitments to reduce carbon emissions, smaller nations like Kiribati are struggling to remain in existence.

Image credits

The flag is from www.33ff.com/flags
The beautiful image of Kiribati is by flickruser Luigig who is from Rome in Italy.

The image of the stamp is copyright free from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Jamaica Part Three

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all was cooking a traditional Jamaican dish. And what could be more taditional than Jerk Chicken?

There are lots of great Jerk Chicken caffs in London, but I still haven't managed to get to one. So, with no idea of what it should look like or taste like, I gave it my best shot!

A site I've used a lot for recipes is http://www.allrecipes.com/ so I found a recipe there that seemed doable, two recipes in fact - one for Jerk Chicken and one for Peas Rice. I dutifully blitzed my marinade in the food processor and marinated my chicken in the fridge for no less than a day and a half. I get the feeling Jerk is something that is best made on a smoky street grill, rather than the relative sterility of my kitchen, but it turned out okay. The Scotch Bonnets gave it a kick and the Peas Rice was gorgeous and so easy to make.

You can see the results below.

Still want to try the real thing though!
Image credits The photo of the Red Stripe advertisement is by flickruser and amateur photographer born in Trinidad nicholaslaughlin
You can also check out his blog http://www.nicholaslaughlin.blogspot.com/

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Jamaica Part Two

Being a subscriber to Songlines magazine, I like to think I'm well up on world music and countries like Cuba certainly feature high in world music terms. Not so Jamaica. I guess reggae, ska and rocksteady don't really fit into our idea of what world music is. It's too mainstream. Which, in many ways proves that Jamaican music is incredibly popular in the Anglophone world and, indeed, has influenced whole generations of American and British artists.

And then there's Bob Marley.

A legend in his own right. I chose not to listen to the music of Bob Marley, for the same reasons I chose not to listen to the music of Bjork, when I was learning about Iceland. I wanted to learn something new. So, I ordered the Rough Guide to the Music of Jamaica.

As well as their series of guidebooks, the Rough Guides have also produced a series of music compilations. Not for connoisseurs perhaps, but a good introduction to a nation/culture's music nevertheless. I really enjoyed this CD. The early tracks, such as Basil Gabbidon's Going Back to Ja conjured up images of paradise beaches in Montego Bay and exclusive resorts where American film stars of the 50's and 60's used to hang out. The tracks seemed to move chronologically from a naive bliss to a much darker, drug induced paranoia, as some of the later tracks seemed to resonate.

The track I want to share with you this time is Don't stay away by Phyllis Dillon. In a male-dominated musical culture, it's refreshing to hear a voice as light and warm as a Caribbean breeze. I could go really over board and see this song as a love song from Jamaica to the rest of the world but, well . . . I won't :)

Image credits - the image of the reggae singer is by flickruser onlinejones who is a practising artist based in the West Midlands. You can find out more at his website http://www.onlinejones.co.uk/

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Jamaica Part One

Jamaica was quite a challenge for me.

I guess, like a lot of people I have a certain image in my mind of Jamaica as a homophobic, gangsta's paradise. It was good to learn that there is a lot more to Jamaica than the misconceptions we're fed by the media, although I still find homophobia a cultural difference that is hard to stomach. All the evidence of how LGBT people are treated in this country flies in the face of depictions of a people who are otherwise fun-loving, charitable and politically aware.

My exploration of Jamaican culture centred a lot around the history of this nation. I read a very straight-forward and informative summary called History of Jamaica by Clinton V Black. Starting with the Carib tribes who colonised the island from their original homelands in what is now Venezuela and Guyana.

The word 'cannibal' is a corruption of Carib. The original American tribes were completely devastated by European diseases and the survivors systematically annihilated by the Spanish in, what would now be termed, 'genocide'. Spain's role in the New World was destructive to shocking proportions and, on some deep psychological level, I can't even begin to relate that to the Spanish nation as we know it today.

One thing I learned about Spanish colonisation was that, apart from wiping out the native populations, Spain had much more serious intentions in America than the English and French, who saw their American colonies purely as sources of revenue. The Spanish on the other hand wanted to create a New Spain in America, building magnificant cities such as Panama and La Havana.

The Spanish American 'dream' has roused an interest in me and I'm sure I'll learn more about this in due course. Certainly the societies established by Spain seem to have achieved a level of stability that we don't associate with their British and French counterparts, Jamaica and Haiti.

Of course, both Jamaica and Haiti were colonised by Spain before England and France got in on the action. The English and later, British, colonisers were given a lot of autonomy from the outset, but ultimately Jamaica became a giant plantation for the increasingly popular sugarcane, a labour intensive crop that required a massive African slave population to force a profit out of the land.

Many a coloniser made their wealth in Jamaica through the exploitation of slave labour, so much so that the expression, as rich as a West Indian planter, was common in 17th century parlance.

Interestingly, listening to a Jamaican talk show on Power FM, one caller was demanding that the British government pay reparations to the descendents of Jamaican slaves. Listening to a Jamaican talk show gave me the impression that Jamaicans are a people who are still painfully aware of historical injustice.

Being Irish, that's something I can easily relate to and I think we too, as a people, live with a great awareness of the past and traumatic episodes that have impacted on the national psyche, like the Great Famine, are talked about as if they happened yesterday. I guess this is essentially the inheritance of any post-colonial society.

Knowing a bit more about the history of neighbouring Haiti, it was interesting for me to map events in Jamaica onto what was happening in Haiti at the same time. Despite the fact that they so courageously seized control of their destiny 150 years or so before the Jamaicans, I can't help feeling the Haitians have fared much worse in the past few decades than their neighbours. Certainly Cuba and the Dominican Republic seem to contrast sharply with both nations.

Anyway, enough about history for now! More about food and music in the next post, I promise.
Image by flickr.com user David G
Other image credits:
Flag courtesy off www.33ff.com/flags
Map of Jamaica is copyright free, as is the drawing of an Arawak woman by John Gabriel Stedman

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


After doin G (Guatemala) and H (Hong Kong), the next letter in the alphabet was I, so I chose Iceland as my next country.

I've travelled a lot around the world and lived in some amazing places like Samarkand, Paris, Moscow and Bangkok, but the excitement I feel when I think about going to Iceland goes beyond all reason.

Reading about Iceland and listening to the music and cooking the food have just made me yearn even more for the landscape and poetry of such a country. So much so, that I think I'll finally get myself organised and go there next summer. I feel a calling to go there.

Anyway, one of the most surprising things I discovered about Iceland is that it's not really a 'land'. It doesn't belong to any continental land mass but is, rather, part of the earth's crust that has been pushed to the surface. No wonder anyone I know who has been there has been amazed by the landscapes.

Independent People, probably the most important book ever written by an Icelander (Halldor Laxness) was a revelation on so many levels, and such a joy to read. I'm convinced that, had this book been written by an American or an Englishman, we would all be really familiar with the story and there would be Hollywood versions etc. Apart from learning new words like, dottle, rime, gimmer and snath (all English words, by the way), I also got an insight into an important period in Iceland's history and learned a bit about Icelandic traditions and the mentality of the people there.

One aspect of the novel's legends that really interested me was how our own Irish saint Colm Cille is a vestige of an older religion in Iceland and became an Icelandic devil or bogeyman, to scare naughty children or superstitious young girls.

The main character Bjartur is a crofter who recites poetry, buries successive wives and children and knows the old sagas off by heart. I've never read an Icelandic saga, but even the small pieces Bjartur recites are enough to make me realise the great debt Tolkien owes to this literary tradition and how we all, to some extent unknowingly, carry on this tradition by reading (and watching) the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As well as reading Independent People, I also listened to Agaetis Byrjun by Sigur Ross. It's one of those albums I just have to listen to again and again, especially the track Staralfur, which I've shared with you below. When the drums come in like fireworks, it sounds like the end of the world and gives me a weepy apocalyptic feeling and reminds me of how beautiful our Earth is and all the things we're doing to destroy it.

Finally, I cooked two Icelandic dishes. I was lucky enough to find an amazing blog http://icecook.blogspot.com/ and as a result of this I found myself cooking Lifrarbuff, which is liver patties, and Plokkfiskur, which is fish with white sauce. I was really impressed with the Lifrarbuff, as I'm not a big fan of liver, but cooked in this way, it was really tasty. Plokkfiskur is very similar to an Irish dish my Dad used to make us as kids. I guess it's official name in English is Fish Chowder? Anyway, pictures supplied below and tune in again for the next country.

Image credits:

Icelandic flag from www.33ff.com/flags
Icelandic landscape by flickr.com user t_buchele, who is from Sweden.

Food images by me :)

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Welcome to Learning about the World

As an avid traveller, I find those long weeks and months between trips frustrating. So I’ve decided to go on a ‘learning journey’ around the world, taking in every country, some that I’ve been to, many that I haven’t. I want to read a book by their most famous author, listen to some of their music, cook one of their most famous dishes.

I’m already on my fifth country, so in this introduction blog, I’m just going to give a summary of the journey I’ve been on until now.

Here is the story so far:

(All the images of flags on this blog were downloaded from http://www.33ff.com/ - they will let you do the same if you visit their site)


Quite randomly, the first country I started with was Guatemala.
I read The President by Miguel Angel Asturias. A really interesting read and quite claustrophobic in its study of a Latin American dictatorship.

I listened to Marimba music which, despite the fact I’m a big world music fan, I did find it hard to get into it!

I also cooked Tapado, a Guatemalan seafood soup, which was dee-lish! I’ll definitely be having that again.

It sounds like a really fascinating country and I haven't met a lot of people who've been there. Would love to go and visit the Mayan sites and the people are rumoured to be amongst the friendliest in the world!


Not an independent country as such, I started my exploration of Hong Kong by reading An Insular Possession by Timothy Mo. It's a long book and written in a style that would have made the Victorians proud. What's more, the book isn't so much about Hong Kong, as about everything that happened in the region, Opium wars etc., that ultimately brought Hong Kong into existence. The really exciting thing about this book is, I found out at the end, that the characters were based on real-life people. It must have taken years of research to pull everything together and, although it's not a book for the beach, I take my hat off to Mo's stylistics and sheer willpower.

I've never had the pleasure of visiting Hong Kong (well, not yet anyway, on my 'to do' list) but listening to metroradio via the Internet had me in a taxi driving along the South China sea, with the mountains of Hong Kong Island in the distance. I don't know a lot about Cantopop, but this following track My Left Eye sees Ghosts by Cantopop princess Sammi Cheng appeals to me on some unexplained level.

I also turned my hand to Sweet and Sour Pork Hong Kong style.

One thing that really struck me about the history of Hong Kong was how recently the city came into being. Neighbouring Macau has been around a lot longer, yet Hong Kong has surged forward with an energy all of its own.

Keep reading for another two countries tomorrow!