Thursday, January 28, 2010

Martinique, January 2010 - Diamant Errands & Fort de France

Ambitiously, we thought it would be fun for the kids to try school in our town of Diamant. We had contacted the property owner ahead of our visit, and they had done some initial introductions, but we did spend the larger portion of the morning straining our brains to understand some realllly, realllly simple instructions. Finn will start school on Monday, and Maddie is in the works...
And, so we're also experimenting with AppleTV, which includes really simple & understandable instructions in English, and we brought it with us to be an economical cinema option. However, we neglected to bring---- the remote. The lovely & accommodating folks at Finn's school also helped us to look up the local Mac store which is in Fort de France. Through dumb luck, we eventually stumbled on that as well. Stupid touristes!
As we wound our way through town, Maddie captured some shots of the city which ambles up the hillside from the pier in buildings no taller than a half dozen floors.

Martinique, January 2010 - Trois Ilets

Trois Ilets - new excursion, same overall point of land, west side of Martinique, south of Fort de France. The smaller scale of the map & island takes some getting used to, and what we assumed might be a half-hour+ drive really only takes about half that time. Trois Ilets (named for the three small islands just off the coast) is a larger, swankier town with a bit more commerce dedicated to the tourist trade.
Everything seems to warrant a photograph: the church where Empress Josephine (of eventual Napoleon pairing) was baptized; a defunct water pump; a statue at the wharf; a traditional cottage. We wander a bit further afield to the Pointe du Bout section of Trois Iles which is on a peninsula opposite Fort de France. The kids were intriqued by jetski rentals to tour the harbor, but at a whopping 60 Euro (US$90) per half hour, we stayed on the beach to check out shells and awesome treetrunks....
As with much of this blog, photocredits to Maddie. Finn took the statue pic.

Martinique, January 2010 - Anse D'Arlet

First driving excursion is out around the point to the west and north - passing the famous landmark, Diamond Rock, which the Brits used as a vantage point to block entry into St Pierre in the early 1800s (including cannon hoisted up, and some 100 men sleeping in caves & tents.)
We're on a mission to find what is touted as a great snorkelspot. The roads are, well, precarious at best. Narrow, with laughable guardrails and absurd inclines & switchbacks. We manage to avoid inadvertent car-cliff-diving to arrive safely in the village of Anse D'Arlet. The little cove ("anse" in French) has zero surf, a few sailboats & catamarans, and a handful of traditional Martiniquan fishing dories. Bailey, Maddie & Finn don gear and immediately wade in at the beach to see what they can find. There a few vendors wrapping up at the market, where I purchase a bowl made from a calabash gourd. There is a little cinema, little pharmacy, and little library and a handful of shops - all closed, as it is mid-day. The beachfront restaurant - open. Phew! Snorkelers get hungry....
The next cove and village are even smaller, but there is an unbelievable diving spot with underwater cliffs dropping away unnervingly for even the most stalwart of snorkelers. Again, I take up post on the shore, peering into puddles at sealife while the rest of the family finds a few shells.
Fishermen row out to check the nets, signalling each other across the cove with conch horns. We figure out that they're about to haul in the nets, and scramble over to the beach to see what comes in. A dozen tourists lend a hand in dragging the huge net across the cove bottom. The results - a few conch and small basketload of undersized fish. We bought a fish of indeterminate kind for dinner - it was only about 14" long, and had an extremely stiff spine, but was quite meaty and delicious.

January 2010 - á Martinique - oh la la!

After a fun mini-reunion of sorts with Bail's family in Florida, we hopped a plane from Miami to Fort de France via San Juan (where the airport serves the world's most expensive flat beer for touristas-on-layover.)
All flights into Martinique seem to arrive at 10pm, so it's relatively cool, and the surprise of vistas are saved for the morning....
First order of business: play on beach.
We apparently have a place on Stock Photo Beach. Meander on beach toward town. Wave back to little crabs. Check out awesome greenalgae tidal pool - although the tide shift is fairly subtle due to closeness to the equator...? Check out little beachfront market in town for groceries - pineapple, breadfruit, starfruit, bananas, local vanilla beans, clusters of local cinnamon bark, rum/alcohol infusions....
Second order of business: afternoon rum taste testing.
The owner had gestured toward the stocked bar cart and said "zee bahr is openh!" There are 10 distilleries on this tiny island - about 50 long x 25 miles at widest. We plan to check them all out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

China July 2009 - Temple of Heaven & Earth Park

Saturday. In the park. A five-creature ranked building in the center of its own park, downtown Beijing. The elder generation gather early in clusters at their favorite park haunts along well-worn paths for t'ai chi, some sort of group/line dancing, music-making, and a hackey-sack style game played with a weighted shuttlecock of sorts.

China July 2009 - HoHai

Heigh-ho, to HoHai we go! A fabulous walking market area full of shops for locals & visitors alike. The vast number of students speak English, so stores have a double-benefit to advertising bilingually - although, of course, not everything translates in quite the same tone. Delicious lunch at a rooftop restaurant. Rental boats to pedal about the lake. Some very brave souls were swimming in the otherwise lifeless murky liquid.

China July 2009 - Drum&Bell Tower, Hutong

In classic tourist mode, we met Molly & Anne in front of the Bell & Drum Tower, to go for a pedal-taxi tour of a hutong - original-style neighborhood. Much has been altered to cater to tourists - but a lot of flavor remains. Many of the doorways are intricately decorated. The thresholds are to prevent bad spirits from entering, a secondary spirit blockade is a divider wall just inside the door - according to legend (and Molly, our translator), evil spirits can't surmount steps or go around corners. Gardening opportunities are carved out of seemingly unuseable space everywhere....

China July 2009 Temple of Confucius, Dacheng Gate

We visited this stunning temple with Molly and Anne - truly a peaceful oasis in a bustling metropolis. The gardens are beautifully kept, with all sorts of trees, including pomegranate. Finn wished on a prayer wheel.
More fun things along the street along the way - a gentleman walking a commercial-sized steamer down the street, fireworks, fireworks, fireworks....

China July 2009 - Cuisine

Lots of unusual food items to sample-- - - some, like scorpions-on-a-stick, not for the faint of heart. We did try the famous birds' nest soup one night. It's made with what appears to be a fine, flavorless glass noodle, and given your choice of spices - in our case, we selected a sweet coconut. The 'noodles' are actually bird spittle from some avian species that is able to fabricate their own substance - like a spider - to construct nests that can attach to rock/cave walls (as I understood the description.) The soup was a lightly sweet coconut & cinnamon flavor - quite nice.
There is a lot of very fresh options: approve the fish, it arrives prepared!
There is a subterranean mall at our hotel that includes a variety of restaurants, cinema and supermarket. The market features everything from beautiful little cakes to wrapped lychees to a package of gorgeous brown "century eggs" - we remembered these from that "Bizarre Foods" travel show.

From Wikipedia: Century egg, also known as preserved egg, hundred-year egg, thousand-year egg, and thousand-year-old egg, is a Chinese cuisine ingredient made by preserving duck, chicken or quail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months, depending on the method of processing. After the process is completed, the yolk becomes a dark green, cream-like substance with a strong odor of sulphur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, transparent jelly with little flavor or taste. The transforming agent in the century egg is its alkaline material, which gradually raises the pH of the egg from around 9 to 12 or more.[1] This chemical process breaks down some of the complex, flavorless proteins and fats, which produces a variety of smaller flavourful compounds. We were not as adventurous as Andrew Zimmerman....