Mulberries Stains from Eating

A Little Travel Memory … Foraging for Your Food, Mulberry Style

Spotting a huge mulberry tree on the side of the road after hours (okay, barely two hours really) of biking uphill read like salvation – like a thirsty man in the desert spotting a mirage this seemed too good to be true. It was hot, I was sick and forced to pull over frequently during the bike ride and the last steep hike to the top of the Bribirska Glavica archaeological ruins outside of Krka National Park in Croatia were just no longer worth the exertion. At least not when the alternative was foraging for perfectly ripened berries on a towering mulberry tree offering sweet treats, shade, and more importantly an excuse to stay behind while my two traveling companions hiked the last 20 minutes.

So Juicy and Delicious
Juicy and delicious mulberries fresh from the tree in rural Croatia.

I can’t begin to tell you about the archaeological site but I can share that mulberries are softer than a blackberry (though that’s what they most closely resemble) and about ten times as naturally sweet. No tart puckering no matter how under-ripe and just picking a berry softly from the tree sends the sticky purple stains running down your fingers!

Quick Travel Tips: Picking Berries (and other fruit from the side of the road)

Is it safe?: Depends on what you’re eating! But it can be great fun on a bike ride or hike to forage for berries as a break if you spot some on the side of the road…just beware of other people’s property, pesticides, and that they’re edible!
How do you know? Ask a local. Our guide hiking in the Himalayas pointed out a delightfully mild orange berry – once I knew they were edible I stopped to pick them whenever I needed a break.
When in doubt: Don’t eat it. The mulberries were pretty obvious but err on the side of caution if you can’t actually identify the food.

A Little Sweet… Six Fun Treats from Around the World

When you travel the world, you discover all kinds of new things: new dishes, new festivals, new cultures, new friends. The list is endless—it’s a parade of new things. Include sweet treats!

Sure, over the years I’ve found my favorite signature dishes that I will forever love thanks to sampling them in a new country—some are local delicacies, and others are just bizarre street eats.

But one thing that surprised me was the sheer number of fun snacks I would discover, as well as new flavors on old favorite treats. Some of my favorite new treats are sweet, some salty. But all are portable and can make a great treat on a long bus ride . . . interestingly, most of my favorites from my travels are centered in Asia!

1. Burmese Treat: Sour Plum Candies

sour plum treats from around the world
Hand-rolled sour plum candies made in the Bagan region of Burma.

What a delight are these slightly sour treats rolled in sugar and sold throughout the Bagan region of Myanmar! We found a women’s collective making them and selling them on a road-side as we traveled among the various temples of Bagan and we loved them enough that I stocked up on baggies of them to bring home as sweet treats for friends.

Thailand has a version of this treat made with the tart roselle flower (a version of hibiscus) that you can find during festivals and it’s worth sampling, particularly if you can’t make it to Bagan!

Also, jaggery candies are a runner up in Myanmar—it’s this treat of pure cooked sugarcane that you’ll most often find in served as a free dessert in Myanmar (usually there are chunks in a jar on the table). My niece and I stumbled upon a jaggery-making factory in rural Myanmar while riding our bikes and it was neat to see how they make this sweet treat. As much as we loved the experience though, it was the baggies of plum candies from Bagan that kept us in thrall throughout our month traveling across Myanmar.

2. Nepali Treat: Lapsi Candy

Lapsi candy from Nepal is a sweet treat from around the world
Lapsi candy from Nepal is a delight for any one looking for a decidedly sweet treat that’s not only local, but incredibly cheap, so you can sample all you want!

Topping my list of personal favorites from around the world is a sweet jellied candy called lapsi. I don’t even like chewy candies, but this one has a mild flavor and it’s deceptively easy to plough through a package in one sitting. The traditional/plain flavor is my favorite, but it was fun to shake things up with the spicy lapsi every few days too!

Nepali lapsi is made from hog plum and then additional sugar. You can also easily find lapsi candy made with chilli and other spices—it’s never the same twice, so you really should sample it throughout your travels in Nepal.

3. Jordanian Treat: Knafeh

Delicious knafeh sweets in Amman, Jordan
Delicious knafeh sweets in Amman, Jordan.

I love everything about knafeh and even though you can find versions of it across the Middle East, I truly loved the one I sampled in Amman, Jordan. The version I sampled in Istanbul had the fine noodle-like dough that you can find on some versions, but I was partial to the fine semolina dough sampled on this treat from Habiba Sweets’ small shop in Amman. What makes this stand out so deliciously is that it’s made with a savory cheese, but the dough is soaked in a sweet syrup. The combination of sweet and savory and the delicious texture of the cheese make this a perfectly balanced dessert!

4. Indian Treat: Fennel Seeds

Candy coated Fennel Seeds India
Candy coated fennel seeds are a traditional way to end any meal in India.

Restaurants in India serve a small bowl of fennel seeds at the end of many meals. This is a custom throughout many regions of the country and it acts as a palate cleanser. These seeds are a mixed medley of plain fennel, sugar-coated fennel, and small bits of crystallized sugar—once you’re used to ending each meal like this, it’s hard to leave the table without craving the strong licorice flavor! This was such a fun sweet treat from my world travels that I even shipped some home to my dad since he’s a licorice fanatic.

Even though I think the fennel seeds is a fun treat for those who had never before tasted it, it’s worth noting that India has other worthy additions to this list, including: makhania lassi, kheer, and gulab jamun. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these on the regular when I backpacked across India for two months.

5. Thai Treat: Mango Sticky Rice

I could write a poem just about my devotion and love of mango sticky rice.

This is probably the only true dessert on the list that I would be willing to eat on the regular, as an integrated part of my daily life. Many of the other treats make great snacks, or they are a special dessert you would eat on a special occasion. Mango sticky rice is just straight up delicious. It’s made by slicing up a perfectly ripe mango, adding a side of sticky rice, and then coating the entire concoction in sweetened coconut milk before you sprinkle on toasted sesame seeds. You can find mango sticky rice served from street stalls all over Thailand and I made this a weekly treat during that portion of my round the world travels. Your life will be better once you sample this Thai sweet treat.

6. Bosnian Treat: Turkish Delight

 Turkish Delight
There is no shortage of Turkish Delight for sale when you shop for this sweet treat in Bosnia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of my favorite countries on my round the world trip, in no small part because I lived on the sweets. As a vegetarian, I struggled to find a lot of vegetarian meals, but I was completely in the clear with the many tasty Bosnian desserts.

The huge Turkish population in Bosnia means that Turkish Delight is an authentic sweet treat here, and its different from what you can find in the U.S. and the West. I confess my first encounter with Turkish Delight was actually reading about it in the Chronicles of Narnia, and it was a full 15 years later that I managed to find this sweet treat. The soft jelly candy can greatly differ depending on your chosen flavor. Think: rose water with pistachios, sweet lemon, and sticky dates with chewy walnut. Like an ice-cream shop in the states, at the shops in Bosnia you pick your selection of Turkish Delight from a selection upwards of 15 flavors in some cases! Although this is not my favorite candy in the world, it’s fun to eat when you’re in the region.

7. Cambodian Treat: Black Sesame Seed Squares

Black Sesame Seed Squares from around the world

Did you know that such a thing existed as the deep, savory flavor of black sesame? It was not until I landed in Bangkok on my round the world trip that I first discovered my deep love for black sesame—lucky for me it’s used to flavor milk and any number of other delicious treats.

These sesame seed squares are the healthiest treat on this list because they pack in a lot of protein from the sesame seeds. Beyond that, the treat is incredibly simple as a lacing of honey or sugar syrup binds the sesame seeds together. These little powerhouse treats are a great way to tide over dropping blood sugar until you can find some food, and these are my go-to treat for a quick bus ride snack!

You can find these treats all over Southeast Asia, India, and Nepal had some less than inspired sesame seed sticks.

8. Middle Eastern Treat: Dried Figs

Dried figs from Nepal
My favored dried figs from a small shop in Nepal near by rural volunteer placement.

This one is actually a treat that I chalk up to my time in Nepal, since that is where I first sampled truly delicious dried/pressed figs. These were the best I had ever tasted and they are abundantly available if you walk into any of the stores in Thamel, Kathmandu—most shops sell little baggies of these deliciously fresh dried figs.

Figs however, were actually first cultivated by humans in Mesopotamia and were essentially the first sweetener used in desserts. Now as someone traveling the world, I’ve made a point to sample this sweet treat in locations as varied as Turkey, Nepal, Jordan, Spain, the U.S., and pretty much anywhere else I can find a selection of figs. I still hold a deep love for Nepali figs, but I admit that a fig jam sampled in Wadi Dana, Jordan made for a memorable tasty treat!

9. Asia: Mango Flavored Everything!

Fun mango corn flakes!
Mango corn flakes for the win!

U.S. and European based companies target the flavors of their products to each region receiving the product, and outside of the U.S., mango is a pretty well-loved flavor.

My most fun find was mango flavored Corn Flakes in Nepal—bought as an addition a movie night with new friends, they were a huge hit . . . and so addicting the box was consumed in a few hours by just three of us!

Other mango treats found in the region include: sodas, chips, cookies, yogurt—just about anything that could take a mango flavor is on offer. There was also a wealth of freshly dried mangos as well!

10. Global Treat: Fun Chip Flavors

Mango wasn’t the only interesting change to a traditional flavor that we have stateside. I’ve made a career out of sampling chips from all over the world in flavor combinations that would never make the shelves of a U.S. grocery store. Prawn is a perennial hit in Asia that I’ve never tried being that I’m vegetarian, and I’ve also seen crab.

I am committed to buying every new vegetarian can of Pringles that I find—Pringles makes a dizzying array of bizzare international flavors. My go-to in regular life is salt and vinegar, but I’ve added to my sample list: paprika, balsamic vinegar, ketchup, emmental cheese, salt and seaweed.

This is just a sampling of what I’ve found and loved all over the world. I wrote an entire post about my love for sweet Czech dumplings as well. And across some areas of Asia I found sweet treats made from bean paste of all things (very common!) The world has more sweet and unique treats than you can even imagine.

What are your favorite unusual or unexpected treats from around the world?

Traditional Turkish coffee in Sarajevo, Bosnia

A Little Travel Memory … My Big Bosnian Coffee Blunder

I winced as I took my first sip of the jet-black Bosnian coffee—it was certainly not your average American brew! My couchsurfing hosts in Sarajevo, Furkan and his roommates Anida and Sidak, decided that I couldn’t leave Sarajevo without stopping in the Turkish quarter for a traditional Bosnian coffee complete with Turkish Delight. They were wonderful hosts and took me throughout the city in search of vegetarian food, they pointed out the points of interest and the highlights of the small and cute city, but I think it was the traditional setting of coffee that excited Sidak most in showing us around.

A traditional Turkish/Bosnia Tea
A traditional set-up of Turksih coffee with sweets (Turkish Delight) and sugar cubes to cut the acidic and strongly brewed coffee we were served in the Old Town section of Sarajevo.

After that first wince from the thick unsweetened coffee, Sidak got a kick out of watching me attempt to sip the battery acid…I mean coffee, from a delicate little cup and then through a sugar cube I was biting between my teeth (a traditional way to drink it); after dribbling more than a bit down my chin Sidak gave me a reprieve and suggested I bite a bit off and let it melt in my mouth as I sip the coffee – much easier and less stressful to boot!

Quick Travel Tips for Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sightseeing Sarajevo: The cobble-stoned streets of the Turkish area are a delightful a maze of small shops and fun knick-knacks – full of tiny coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall food vendors.
Hiking: Ask locals for a path and head to the hills surrounding the outside of the city.
Foods: The Burek – cheese, meat, or spinach and served with a tart plain yogurt – perfect for lunch!

California Saltwater Taffy

A Little Travel Memory … Sampling California’s Saltwater Taffy

I’m a chocoholic. That is a fact of life I have come to accept; if there is any choice between cake, hard-candies, or really any sweet and chocolate—chocolate wins by a landslide. Now, in all that lead-up, I have to admit that I betrayed my love-affair with chocolate for the saltwater taffy of Northern California while I was in the Sacramento area visiting a friend from my LA days. She took me to a candy-shop filled with barrels of flavors was too tempting and I felt like I had traveled back in time to the 50s. The only thing that would have made the picture more complete would have been a counter serving shakes in the corner and a guy in a pin-stripe hat.

California Saltwater Taffy

So I caved. Of course I caved, do you see those barrels of sweets?!

Even beyond the sweets though, this tiny shop in Old Town Sacramento offered up dozens and dozens of sweet, sour, and decidedly spicy taffies and the ambiance of it was as charming as any.  This photo sets my taste-buds watering in memory of the freshly made dark pink cinnamon flavored taffies, so creamy … taffy is pretty much a must for any trip to San Francisco.

Though I do not travel much in the United States anymore, we do have our charming areas and our slices of life that are worth indulging in. I especially loved that I could try on my travel habits after having been on the road for a couple years now—it changes the way I approach even traveling in a city or state I know pretty well. :)

valhalla macadamia nuts antigua

A Little Food…Macadamia Nuts and a Slice of the Expat Lifestyle

The chicken bus bumped to a stop in front of the Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm and I got my first glimpse of the expat lifestyle for Emily and Lorenzo, an expat couple that have created an entire non-profit movement in the region toward sustainable farming. The farm is about 15 minutes outside Antigua and fully trades the jostling elbowing on Antigua’s brightly colored streets for a vast expanse of trees lining the curved drive that leads into the nut farm.

Unsorted Macadamia Nuts
Unsorted Macadamia Nuts at Vahalla Farm in Guatemala

Walking down the dusty dirt path we dodge the low hanging branches and read over the signs that ask us to please leave all of the macadamia nuts on the ground. London backpacker Kat and I found the two line description of the macadamia farm in the Lonely Planet and decided it was worth the trip outside of town – a bit of adventure and escape from Antigua.

We were well rewarded for out trip outside of the city. The pace at the macadamia farm is subdued and as we wander the grounds Emily, an expat who has been running the macadamia farm for more than 30 years, scoops us out from between the macadamia trees and within minutes she’s plying us with various types of macadamia samples.

Macadamia and dark chocolate.

Cocoa covered macadamia nuts.

Macadamia nuts coated in cardamom flavored chocolate – my favorite.

Their Story and a Farm Tour

Emily and her American husband Lorenzo (he’s quite a character and will talk your ear off with good-natured cheesy jokes and his theories on the expat life in Guatemala) started the macadamia farm decades ago before it became fashionable to expat yourself in another country.

Emily from Valhalla Nut FarmRipening Macadamia NutsLorenzo from Valhalla Nut Farm

 

They’ve cultured some of the strongest and most disease resistant macadamia trees in the Americas and also run non-profit efforts to give macadamia trees to locals and help them create businesses and process and sell macadamia nuts.

The tour is short, sweet, and personally guided by Emily, so I was able to ask any of the questions that popped into my head about the process.

Then comes the best parts. Emily guides you into the corner of the farm’s small shop hut and Kat and I sunk back into reclining chairs. Within minutes we received our complimentary macadamia nut facial and a mini massage. It lasts a mere two minutes but the two Guatemalan women work a bit of magic in those two minutes, exfoliating your pours and then finishing it off with a dab of pure macadamia oil rubbed into your face.

Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm
The Entrance sign for the Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm outside of Antigua, Guatemala

Emily has me convinced as to the miracles of macadamia oil for keeping skin young – she’s over sixty but has the skin of a thirty year old. If you’re interested, a US-based woman ships this Guatemala macadamia oil throughout the US.

The Pancakes Alone are Worth the Trip

With freshened faces and a lot to think about we hunkered down at an outdoor table and prepared for some of their famous pancakes. The farm runs a small restaurant and we just couldn’t resist Emily’s sales pitch on the farm’s famous pancakes.

Macadamia and Blueberry Pancakes
Delicious macadamia pancakes smothered in macadamia butter and blueberries!

Two pancakes made with macadamia flour, smothered in the creamiest macadamia butter imaginable and topped with a dollop of blueberries from the blueberry farm they also own in own in a nearby region of Guatemala.

It was, in a word, fantastic. The macadamias are a subtle flavor but delicious.

And Emily and Lorenzo get to eat this every single day! Their farm is breezy, shady and relaxing and they both still wholly love their jobs and lives after thirty years of operating the small macadamia farm. Though I’m not saying I want to run a macadamia farm in Guatemala, it’s really fascinating to see how expats are able to make new lives in other countries that embrace completely alternative lifestyle choices than the standard nine-to-fivers and yet still find contentment.

A Little Aroma… Learning the Art of Coffee in Antigua, Guatemala

coffee beans on the Finca Filadelfia tour dry in the sun at a farm outside Antigua, Guatemala.

A fantasy series that I read and loved use a phrase that drove the heroine throughout the novels: all knowledge is worth having. The idea resonated deeply since closely echoes my own approach to life. I love to learn. Learning was a driving force for taking my round the world trip, and I love sharing cool little facts and tidbits that I’ve learned over the years (it’s a key characteristics most people either love or hate about me!).

That’s what brought me on a coffee tour outside of Antigua, Guatemala at the Finca Filadelfia Coffee Plantation.

It’s funny how I found out about the tour: I overhead another traveler complaining about an overly-detailed coffee tour they had just returned from—a tour that journeyed from the field to the tasting room, and explained everything in between about how coffee is grown, harvested, and roasted.

Sign me up for that!

So, join me on a coffee journey to the Finca Filadelfia Coffee Plantation—a working coffee farm, resort, and adventure destination located on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala. We’ll review the entire process of making this aromatic drink beloved by cultures all over the world.

Finca Filadelfia tour review: coffee at every stage of the process
Coffee beans at various stages of the process from seed to liquid joy.

1. It’s All About Bean Selection

splicing arabica and robusta plants for a heartier coffee tree
A spliced plant with a Robusta base and Arabica leaves.

Our tour started in lush surroundings—right among the fragrant coffee trees. Finca Filadelfia has over 130 years of tradition, having grown coffee from 1870. The grounds are vast and well maintained, and it’s a shady, beautiful walk as our guide details that any good cup of coffee starts with seed selection.

There are two main types of coffee. Arabica is the tastiest, but Robusta is hardier. Both beans also have different flavor characteristics. Although Robusta has a notably more bitter flavor, that’s spot on for taste preferences and a fair few countries actually only grow Robusta—likewise, some countries tend to produce Arabica varieties due to climate and soil.

Finca Filadelfia produces Arabica beans—but with a twist. Because Robusta trees are heartier and more resistant to diseases and bugs, the coffee plantation splices together baby plants, using the root system from Robusta seedlings and the actual Arabica plant. At this plantation, women do most of the splicing work because their fingers are smaller and better suited to the delicate task with such fragile seedlings.

Rows of coffee trees ready to be planted across the farm in the Guatemalan soil
Rows of coffee trees ready to be planted across the farm in the Guatemalan soil.

2. Cherry-Red & Ready to Pick

Coffee trees need three years to mature enough to produce coffee beans. You know a coffee bean is ready to pick with the bright red coffee cherries look plump and pretty among the leaves (note that red cherries actually come down to varieties—my Thailand coffee journey into the mountains north of Chiang Rai yielded both beautifully red and yellow fruits).

During the harvest season, more than 150 families move onto the plantation—kids and all. All beans are handpicked at the estate, and parents pick the beans while children attend makeshift schools and run through the rows of trees.

The cherry actually tastes like a sweet red pepper, which tastes completely bizarre if you anticipate anything like the end-product: a dark brown roasted coffee bean.

beautiful red coffee cherries at Finca Filadelfia near Antigua
These beautiful red coffee cherries are ready to pick!

3. Separate, Sort, Dry, and Sort Again

Huge trucks drive through the farm and to transport ripe and freshly picked coffee cherries to the processing center. It’s important this happens regularly to prevent fermentation. During this process, the cherry-like skin is removed, along a thin sticky layer covering the seed itself.

Once the coffee beans are free from gooey-outer layers, they are sorted by color—color at this stage is the first indicator of quality. Light and perfectly ripe beans are sorted for export or for sale to tourists, while dark and irregular colored beans are sold within Guatemala as a cheaper coffee brand.

Once the uniform, creamy white beans have been sorted, they are laid out and turned in mass for two weeks to dry in the fierce Guatemalan sun.

Semi-dry white beans smell a bit like white chocolate, a fact that had my stomach rumbling as I inhaled deeply into a sun-warmed handful of coffee beans.

Once dry, it’s time to sort beans by size—another key indicator of bean quality, and uniform beans are an essential part of ensuring an even roasting experience.

Machine to Take the Skin off of Coffee Beans
A giant machine process the beans and removes the skin before they’re laid out to dry in the Guatemalan sun.

coffee beans drying in the sun at Finca Filadelfia
Beans need a few weeks in the sun to fully dry, then they’re ready to continue to a final sorting before being either shipped off to stores unroasted, or to the roasting machines for local consumption.

breathing deep of the coffee beans in Antigua Guatemala
Warm, partially dried beans smell a bit like sweet white chocolate.

4. But Wait: A Final Hand-Sort

The coffee making process at Finca Filadelfia is a hands-on event and there is no leaving to chance the process of selecting the beans that will make it into the plantation’s premium roasts.

A conveyor belt apparatus slowly drives the beans through another visual sort, where a pro coffee picker digs through the beans and plucks out any beans showing slight defects that will impact the final result.

By now, the beans have been spliced together for heartiness, fertilized, plucked, and sorted with intense scrutiny. Now it’s time for the final stages of the process that will eventually end with an aromatic, steaming cup o’ joe.

A conveyor belt is the last chance for quality control before the beans are ready for roasting!

5. Sampling a Slice of Heaven

Walking into the roasting room, the rich aroma of coffee beans flooded my senses. It smelled like lazy Sunday mornings.

Various machines process beans according to desired roast—light, medium, and dark. Darker roasts have more flavor, because it’s through the roasting process that the caffeine and flavor is released into the beans through the tiny coffee seed at the center of the bean.

Once we’ve walked through the roasting process our guide delivers the good stuff: a sample cup of the estate’s premium roast.

It’s good. In fact, it’s amazing.

Maybe knowing all the work that went into my cup is why it tasted exactly like a little slice of heaven. One thing is for sure, Finca Filadelfia knows how to make a fine cup coffee.


Quick Tips: Finca Filadelfia & Antigua Coffee Tours

Booking a Tour: The full two-hour tour is bookable directly through the Finca Filadelfia Plantation—it costs $20 for non-Guatemalans. There are also add-ons like an included breakfast, or an advanced coffee tasting sessions for true coffee aficionados. You could also make a full day of it on the plantation by booking a horseback ride, paintball, birdwatching, or—and this looks so cool—a camping experience that includes a nighttime hike in the cloud forest.

Where to Stay: For budget travelers, I just loved the Yellow House Hostel, it’s by far the best hostel if you like a social atmosphere but a decent night’s sleep, too. Mid-range travelers should look no further than Hotel Casa Cristina. And if you’re feelin like a treat, book the Finca Filadelfia Resort & Spa for so much more than coffee tour—the grounds are gorgeous.

Getting There: It’s a long but doable walk from the city center if you’re on a very tight budget, or the Finca usually offers a free shuttle several times a day. Or it’s about 24 quetzales for an Uber, which will likely cost about a third of hailing a taxi there (note that every traveler should have Uber on their phone, it comes in handy when you need it!).

Other Things to Do: If you loved the coffee tour and want another supremely cool experience outside of Antigua, look no further than the  Valhalla Macadamia Farm, which serves the creamiest, most delicious pancakes around. If you’re heading out of town, don’t miss a ride down Guatemala’s Rio Dulce River. Then pick up the Guatemala Lonely Planet for transport suggestions, and use my free Guatemala Travel Guide for a full list of the country’s highlights.

Guatemala Travel Guide

My free guide lists out everything I did and loved during a three month backpacking trip all over the country.

A Little Explanation…AKA Why I’m a “Don’t Ask” Vegetarian

My favorite snack - Plaintains! I won’t say that it’s the most asked question I get when I’m on the road, but it certainly ranks right up there in the top ten, perhaps after the standard “where are you from?” and “how long are you traveling for?”

People want to know why I’m vegetarian.

And not just why, but also how I fare on the road being a vegetarian.

That’s a tough question to answer – on both counts. Because how I’m faring directly relates to the country…and in some cases to the experience.

So let’s first get the why out of the way – pretty much every answer any other vegetarian has given is a part of mine:

  • I don’t agree with the hormones and antibiotics pumped into animals.
  • I think that animals are treated inhumanely and unethically at the slaughter houses and in factory farming.
  • I neither crave nor like the taste of meat (though I craved hotdogs for the first five years…disgusting, I know).
  • Animal farming for consumption is a big contributor to global warming.
  • I’m currently able to maintain a healthy diet being vegetarian, so it works for me.

Now, how I fare on the road is a whole other issue. I am a vegetarian and have been for nearly twelve years now…during that time though I have eaten both chicken and fish when necessary.

Hardcore veggies would argue – then you’re not a veggie.

Well, I’m a “don’t ask, don’t offend” vegetarian on the road, and that’s why I’m fairly positive I’ve had both chicken and fish.Street Food in Antigua

I prepped you all a bit in my last post, about the amazingly warm Semana Santa dinner that I was invited to at a local Guatemalan’s house. This is one of those situations that veggies on the road have to fear. There’s an unknown element in the situation and it would be entirely inappropriate to request vegetarian food.

Roberto, my host, served a chicken casserole for dinner.

And I ate it.

I did not eat the chunks of chicken (it’s been years and I’m fairly certain I would have been ill) but I did give a huge smile as he served up the chicken, rice and pea casserole and dug in with the rest of the family and friends at the table. The kind man sitting next to me (also American) graciously accepted my chunks of chicken when no one was looking, and I ate up enthusiastically, pretending like my entire dish wasn’t soaked in chicken broth.

And I enjoyed the experience.

And I caused no offense.

And that is, ultimately, important to me. More important than not eating animal juices.

Papoosas: My Saving Grace I employ a similar theory when extreme hunger sets in…or depending on environment. Here in Central America, some of the beans are cooked with lard. I would never win the fight against the lard and would thus go hungry or miss many of the tasty street foods. So I don’t ask.

Similarly in Asia, fish broth is in nearly everything. Seriously. I was amazed by how many things had a dallop of fish broth for flavor.

So I stopped asking.

And I had a great time. And I ate well.

I wrote about surrendering to the experience, and this is one way that I give up control and prefer experience over hard and fast beliefs. I never seek out meat, and certainly choose the veggie option when I can, but there are times when I just surrender.

So, cheers to all you vegans and hardcore veggies out there, it’s a struggle and one I think we all have to attack differently. I’m hypoglycemic, which means when it comes down to it, I’m just going to eat something. But beyond that, I feel like there are already components of the experience I’m missing out on – flavors and foods I have no desire to try, but that surely compliment each new region of the world – so I adopt a “don’t ask and don’t offend” policy and the Universe hasn’t smited me yet by putting a huge juicy steak down in front of me…not sure what I will do in that situation!

A Little Misunderstood…Fall in Love (or at Least Like) with Los Angeles

Sometimes I hate Los Angeles. From the delightful orange smog coating the city skyline to a general lack of public transport, truly hellacious traffic (I’m not particularly prone to road rage, but the closest I come is when forced to navigate an LA rush hour) and the “Fake Factor” of plastic people and botox, there is a lot to hate

But I also love Los Angeles.

Cali Palms line the Street
Cali Palms line the streets of Los Angeles straight up into the clear blue skies.

And I feel like backpacker or passing travelers can easily come to LA and see all of the bad. But! with the eye of a local (I lived in the city for exactly and precisely two years to the day), it can be an incredibly fun city with awesome spots that aren’t in any guidebook.

So in defense of Los Angeles, and because I truly recognize it’s a hard city to love as a tourist (and this is partly referencing scathing words by another travel blog recently), I’d like to outline my perfect day in Los Angeles…and yes, it probably requires hiring a car to get it all done…or better yet, Couchsurf in the city and your host just might show you around! :-)

Spend a Day in Los Angeles…Shannon Style

So, here it is my friend, my perfect day in LA. Now that I no longer live in the city, these handful of spots are the “must-visits” every time I return. This will take you from breakfast until dinner and all of the snacks and fun you need in between…and if you visit just one of these places, make it lunch at Aroma…it’s truly my favorite LA restaurant.

Breakfast at an LA Institution, The Griddle Café

Start the day out right with a jaunt into West Hollywood for pancakes at The Griddle Café…the line can be absolutely ridiculous (just skip this recommendation if you’re visiting on a weekend…you’ll perish of hunger before you’ll be seated). On a weekday though, the experience is worth the small wait – they’re known for their enormous pancakes but the French Toast is also worth a try…this place makes my list of top ten breakfasting experiences.

A Trendy LA Lunch at Aroma Café

Located in Studio City (in the Valley) the Aroma Coffee & Tea Company was walking distance from my house while I lived in LA and has some of the best food in the city. It’s healthy, it’s quirky and even the fact it’s unbelievably trendy can’t take erode my love for this café.

Even during the very busy lunch rush you can usually snag one of the mismatched tables; then order up the Goat Cheese + Walnut Salad (my personal favorite – the dressing is killer and the herb encrusted goat cheese is generous and comes out pleasantly warm and candied walnuts hide underneath the layers of spinach), and either people watch (always fun in LA) or read a book.

Hike Runyon Canyon for a Look at the Hollywood Sign

Hopefully you’ve let your food settle and thoroughly relaxed at Aroma for a couple of hours because now it’s time for some exercise…LA style. Runyon Canyon is located right at the base of the Hollywood Hills and walking distance from the main touristy sites on Hollywood Boulevard – the Canyon has two main hikes (don’t go left at the start unless you want to partake in what my friend Jenn and I dubbed the Suicide Trail…it’s a bit hard) the path straight and then to the right is enough to get your blood pumping and also offers three awesome views:

  • A fantastic vantage point for the the Hollywood sign and all of the mansions in the Hollywood hills.
  • Clear views over Downtown LA, Hollywood, and straight out to the Pacific unless it’s a smoggy day.
  • Full opportunity to people-watch and hunt down some of those “plastic fantastic” people I previously mentioned…as well as the opportunity to see that LA really does have normal people too…they’re up there sweating and puffing just like you. :-)

Oh, and there’s never a dull moment in Los Angeles; in February 2010 the Hollywood sign was hijacked in an effort to stop the current plans to develop houses on the hill around the famous sign. People changed the Hollywood sign to say: “Save the Peak”.

The Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles saying Hove the Weak

Then, over the subsequent days after the hijacking it morphed. I caught site of this last month:

I can’t promise you’ll get quite so entertaining version of the Hollywood sign to look at, but you will get some great pictures.

Head back home after the hike for a shower (or stop off first at all of the touristy attractions in LA on nearby Hollywood Boulevard). Relax before heading out for dinner and drinks out in the city.

Feast on LA’s Best Indian Food at Electric Karma

It’s tasty and the closest you’ll come to feeling like you’re dining in India… Electric Karma has a great ambiance and opt for dining on the covered back patio at the low tables with cushy pillows. As for food ideas – their palak paneer (one of my favorite Indian dishes) is incredible and the garlic naan is spot on.

Head over to Venice Beach or the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica

Sunset on Venice Beach
Sunset on Venice Beach

Both Venice Beach and Santa Monica make a fun date night if you’re a couple. Stroll the along the boardwalk on Venice Beach and you’ll pass the very full paddle courts, games of volleyball and tons of street artists…don’t forget to dodge the roller-bladers though!

Santa Monica would be the more kid-friendly option. The Santa Monica pier is walking distance from the promenade…or you can hunt down any of the spots bars and nearby clubs for dancing and drinking.

Once you’ve digested all of your amazing Indian food, you CANNOT leave the Third Street Promenade without a visit to Pinkberry. They have this delicious frozen yogurt chain all over LA in case you’re all “foodied out” at this point…but make sure you don’t miss it.

Wrapping up the Day

At this point, the more party-tastic might be looking for the current hot-spot club in LA…and honestly, they can change monthly so it’s best you Google it…but you could easily entertain yourself for the whole evening in Venice or Santa Monica if you’re not seeking out the “scene” in LA. And I love the Getty Center, which has beautiful views over the valley, the city, and the ocean, so if you’re more into museums than beaches, check out my review of the Getty Center.

So that’s it! That’s my perfect day. I’ll be honest though, there’s no regard for budget here, just my favorite spots so doing all of them in one actual day could be pricey.

Oh, and cheers and thanks to my LA friends who cart me around to these spots now when I come to visit…would cry if I had to skip dinner at Aroma. 

Photo thanks to jleighb and rlerdof.

Quick Tips: Visiting Los Angeles

Transportation: Although I recommend renting a car if you’re comfortable with U.S. city driving and have a lot you want to see outside of the downtown/Hollywood area, there is also great public transportation for the major tourist sites in Hollywood. If you’re road-tripping California, you’ll definitely be driving, in which case—get ready for parallel parking as that’s the norm in L.A.!
Budget: If you are on vacation and planning to sightsee, then budget at least US $100 per day to properly enjoy the city. You can get by on a lot less though if you couchsurf for free accommodation!
Flights: For internal US flights, consider leaving from Burbank airport in the Valley, it can be a lot easier and faster.
Sightseeing: Consider being a movie extra, or studio audience! There are also some great City Passes that save money if you plan to visit many of the tourist spots: Hollywood, Southern California, and other great ones.