Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In The Rainforest

Welcome to The Rainforest Lodge.

At the beginning of the day, I said to everyone: "No hiking or trekking." I just wasn't in the mood. I'm not up to the challenge.

But the girls wanted to go into the rainforest. Me? I'm not too keen on being in a place where animals and insects can crawl all over you. I enjoyed camping in the woods when I was younger, had my Land Rover and carried a gun.

In another life (or maybe this one), I think Isaiah was/is a tribal leader.

Instead, we've got Clare's Toyota Corona and Isaiah is navigating it along a rutted and sometimes rocky dirt road - the kind of road that I would relish driving my Land Rover on but not a five person saloon. We slide, bump, grind and crunch our way up the hills, around corners and up to the Rainforest Lodge, an eco-friendly resort in the middle of the rainforest.

It's actually a lovely place with dining facilities, pool and nice huts outfitted with all the necessities. You'd think you were an old-time Englishman on a safari in Africa - it's that nice. But what they don't have is television, telephones or internet.

Clare chooses Fanta.

The resort is broken down into sets of suites in individual buildings separated by stone walkways through the rainforest. They're not close together so you can get a feeling of privacy and then gather at the communal areas for food, drink and fireside gabbing.

I think it's pretty cool and imagine Nacho, CapSwell, TheSeed, BrowserMetrics and our families taking over the resort. Would be cool.

And so does Daphne and Alice.

Of course, the downside is that it's also The Rainforest. Meaning that there's all sorts of wildlife to watch and that are watching you, sensing who is the weakest of the group and when everyone's backs are turned, they strike!

I told Alice, if that Leopard comes running, I just have to stay ahead of you!

Source Of The Nile

Oh yeah, just moving a tank. In three pieces. No problem.

I've spent a week now on Kampala's slow-moving, traffic-jammed streets and the feeling of rocketing along Jinja Road at 100kph is slightly unnerving - especially when the pavement is pocketed with potholes, wavy surfaces, debris, people and the little Toyota Corona is packed with five of us and we're careening past hawkers, buses, livestock and even overwide trucks hauling massive tanks in three sections.

Once we break out of metropolitan Kampala, the road opens up and Isaiah (my driver) is gunning it for all its worth. By any estimate, 100kph isn't that fast, but here in Uganda, as we pass wreckages of other vehicles simply abandoned on the side of the road, I wonder if it isn't a death wish. I probably wouldn't drive this fast here.

Police recruits - at The Source Of The Nile.

Maybe it's because I've started off on the wrong foot. After the mornings' thunderstorm explosion, it's been pouring in the capital and when faced with a two hour one-way drive across the country or lounging and being catered to by world-class staff, I think I'd rather stay at home.

Outside the city, the weather clears up and it's bright and sunny. Gorgeous. Large fields of sugar cane blow lazily in the wind, ready for harvest. I miss seeing sugar cane. Years ago, back in Hawaii, we used to see sugar cane growing all the time, until American labor rates, combined with government subsidies for corn made sugar an unprofitable business in America and brought High Fructose Corn Syrup to dominance.

I wonder if they harvest the sugar like they did in Hawaii: by burning it. That's when I spot a crew in the field, hacking away at the cane with their machetes. In Uganda, they do it the old-fashioned way: hard labor. The workers strip the leaves from the cane and then chop each stalk, piling them onto a truck. It has to be grueling, physical work. But in a world where labor is cheap, sugar is still profitable.

Daphne doesn't want to go in the boat.

After the sugar comes tea trees (or perhaps tea shrubbery) planted in long rows. I've never seen tea before and I'm fascinated. My understanding is that they simply pick the top leaves and let the tree (shrubbery) continue to grow. They look manicured to me. These trees are for black tea - evidently the only tea that matters here in Africa. God Save The Queen!

From there it's miles of dense rainforest, pocketed by outposts of humanity. It's not the wild jungle you expect like along the Amazon but more forest looking. And unlike American forests, there are leopards in here awaiting the forlorn Muzungu tourist wandering about.

Clare is unafraid and ready for the boat.

After a few mis-guided directions from grumpy Boda Boda drivers, we find our way to The Source Of The Nile. It's a quiet tourist spot with not many tourists: mainly our group and a squadron of Uganda Police recruits whose female sergeant is constantly trying to get her troops to stop taking pictures and get back to the bus.

It's a bit of a walk down a stretch from the parking lot to the landing, along the way vendors sell all sorts of handicrafts and what seems to be decent prices. I'd like to buy some items but I'm very conscious of baggage limits when traveling.

Mahatma Ghandi assures us the boat is safe.

While this is The Source of the Nile, it's not actually "The Source". To see that, you have to rent a boat from anywhere between 150,000 to 250,000 Shillings, or between US$65-110. Not too bad for dollars but kind of expensive for Uganda. After some negotiation for the bigger boat, Clare and Daphne negotiate the price down.

However, I don't think any price is good enough for Daphne. It's her and Alice's first time on a boat and they're a bit skittish. We try to assure them that it will be okay. Alice asks me if I can swim if the boat sinks. I tell her: "Yes, I can swim. But I would probably die here."

It's not quite the reassuring message she was hoping to hear.

The blue and yellow boats have actually sunk to the floor.

And it's true. If our boat were to sink in the middle of the Nile, with the way the current is running, I probably wouldn't survive - especially if I tried to swim. I would have to remain calm and hope the swiftly moving water brought me downriver to shore. Otherwise, if I tried to swim against the current? Forget it.

The boat is an open deck, twin Mercury 60 engined skiff that's plenty roomy and plenty powerful for our tour. We cruise the edges of the river where we see birds, a monkey and the spot where John Speke "discovered" the Nile. I always find it curious that white men seem to have "discovered" places where other people already have formed civilizations.

We see monkeys!

Finally, we make our way to a small island at the mouth of the river where Lake Victoria begins to pour into the Nile. This is the true Source Of The Nile. How do I know that? Because there's a sign.

Off to one side a tree on a concrete pylon marks the "Zero Point" of the Nile where it begins it's long journey across Northern Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. It's a journey that will take the water we see at that moment four months to make. Incredible.

On the other side is a bubbling of fresh spring water. It's another important point of the Nile where fresh water mixes with Lake Victoria to produce what I'm guessing is Real Nile River Water. I want to drink it to see if it's good but I know that will only lead to misery. I pass.

Fresh spring water bubbles up at The Source Of The Nile.

There's a small gift shop on the little island and I think the people actually live there too. A little cat scampers by and I snap a picture of it for Ana before getting back in the boat.

The tour continues with more wildlife, a couple of lizards and a bunch of horny longshoremen at the Jinja docks who call for the girls to come join them. To them, I must look like a Muzungu Baller: big man, three women, a driver, a boat driver and a nice boat. Yes, I think I must be on my way to a meeting with President Museveni...

Here Lake Victoria begins its drain into the Nile.

With Isaiah, Alice, Clare and Daphne at the Zero Point.

A cat pic for Ana.

A lizard climbs out of the Nile.

Some fowl.

Workers at the Jinja docks unload freight off the ferry from Tanzania - a 23 hour journey.

This marks the spot that John Speke "discovered" the Source of the Nile.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

5th Uganda Barista Championship

Barista Jonathan Ddumba presents to Head Judge Clare and sensory judges Miriam, Richard, Evelyn and Emma.

A few weeks ago, I received a call from David Roche of the Coffee Quality Institute. He was calling to ask me if I would be willing to go to Kampala again to be the head judge and trainer for their barista championship. He said they had been asking for me personally. An honor.

Not too long later, I found myself boarding yet another trans-Atlantic and trans-African flight to Uganda where we would be holding two days of barista workshops, one day of judges training and then three days of competition.

Surrounded by competitors for a "photo op."

Last year, I thought it was a bit odd to have a barista training literally hours before the competition. I mean, how much could the competitors digest, make changes and (perhaps) improve right before the championship. But I was tasked to do a job and I did what I could and shared as much information as possible on how to compete, methods of flow and even ways to improve your scores.

While I was at first a bit skeptical, I'm now a fan of. One of the greatest problems in barista competitions is the disconnect between competitor and judge. One person within the USBC once remarked that the WBC Rules and Regulations are the only training manual you would need, but the interpretation of those rules can vary wildly from judge to judge and competition to competition. Add to that the WBC's reluctance, or outright refusal, to provide materials and information to illuminate these areas and you've got a situation where only a small percentage of competitors have the ability to truly be competitive.

Joseph Kyeyune rocks it to the Finals.

Of course, the pundits will argue that it's a "level" playing field and that one doesn't need to have money to win. These are also the same people who never comment that those who win have also spent time training with the likes of World Barista Champion Fritz Storm - whose rates are in the thousands. So much for the average competitor...

Which is what the majority of the competing world is comprised of: average competitors trying to learn finer points of our craft and doing a better job in the world. Everyone wants to do well and win a trip to Vienna, but not everyone has the resources available to them. And that's what the barista workshops are designed to do: bring the information to the competitors before the competition when they will have some time to perhaps make changes and incorporate them into their performances.

Daphne awaiting lunch.

And that's what I see here in Kampala. Lots of passion. Lots of interest and the desire to do well and improve. So, after two days of instruction, we're off to the races.

The competition itself went very smoothly. With a resident WBC Certified Judge, the duties of Head Judge were split between myself and Clare - relieving me of the intensity that comes from Head Judging 26 competitors non-stop.

As with any competition, we want to judge the competitors on the same level at the rest of the world. Meaning that a score of "5" is equivalent to a "5" elsewhere in the world. What we don't want is a "5" in Uganda to mean a "3" at the World Championship. We want a realistic evaluation according to world standards, which is a difficult proposition when you're trying to wrangle local judges who've never seen competition before (or maybe never outside of their country).

In my world, there's a bit of pushing, prodding and even outright challenge to judges' evaluations. Scores go up, scores go down, but always with lots of information, discussion and detail as to why. The hardest part is getting the judges to write enough information on their sheets to be helpful to the competitor later.

Finalists Emma Katongole, defending champion Mark Okuta, two-time champion Roberts Mbabzi and Joseph Kyeyune.

As the competition winded down and the finalists announced, I looked over the scores compared to last years competition and was pleasantly surprised. The average scores had improved considerably. Only one disqualification this year compared to four in 2010. And the finalists all performed very strongly - one could easily see the improvements from the previous year.

When the Finals got rolling on the last day, the excitement was palpable. The Defending Champion Mark Okuta versus the former two-time champion and a slate of some very tough competitors. Quickly, four of the finalists pulled away from the field. Nearly 100 points would separate the fourth and fifth positions. While Simon's cultural smoked milk electrified the audience, Mark's tour of the coffee bean was fascinating and Salim's dazzling performance rocked, it was the former two-time champion, Roberts Mbabzi who came a calling to reclaim his title as Barista Champion of Uganda.

They said I was looking "smart" at the barista awards party.

Many hours later, after the partying was over, some of the competitors came to me to ask how they had done. What they really wanted to know is: how could they have lost? And: how did Roberts win again? I understood their question because it's common amongst those who don't take the title. There's always the wondering if the competition isn't somehow, fixed. Especially for someone who always seems to win.

I sat down with them and pulled up the electronic scoresheets that I keep on file as the Certifying Judge for a national championship. And I compared their scores. Even without the actual notes of the scoresheets, the scores tell a lot. The top four were very close. Each of them within striking range of the Champion spot. An improvement in this set of espressos, or an improvement in your professionalism, plus a slight mistake on the part of the Champion could easily have switched positions. Even hitting an even 4.5 on cappuccinos taste balance could have scored you the title.

In the end, I discussed it with them to show that there's nothing rigged about the competition. The scores reflect the performance. Maybe that one puck was off and you served it because it would burn time to redo the shot. That shot got you 1.5 in scores. Maybe it would be worth it to burn the additional 30 seconds to grab a 3.5 in scores? All things that have to be considered by the competitive barista.

I think they all left understanding the process a little bit better. Perhaps still not happy that they "lost" but at least with a better understanding.

And if I can leave a place with a better understanding of our craft, then it's been a worthwhile trip.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Exploding Kampala

Outside the world looks grey, but it's still there.


The sound of a large explosion rousts my consciousness into awareness. As the rumbling from the explosion continues, I lie there in silence waiting for the building to collapse and crush me. For five long seconds, I'm scared.

Outside, I can hear a cacophony of car alarms and the muted howl of wind. Nothing has happened. I haven't been crushed. I start to think that I should investigate just what is going on.

My room at the Kampala Serena is build for sleeping. A plush, king-sized bed and three layers of drapes means that I can sleep in the middle of the day cocooned in comfort and darkness. As I make my way to the balcony, I wonder if I will find the world ablaze due to the works of the Lord's Resistance Army or Al Shabbab. I hear another explosion, this time a bit more distant.

As I peer out into the world, it is dark and grey. Rain and gale force winds whip through the capital. Turns out that the explosion is merely thunder. But thunder unlike I've ever heard before. In North America, the thunder cracks like a high-pitched whip. Here in Africa, it's got umph and when it hits over you (like it must have when it woke me), you think the world is falling.

Secure in the knowledge that this storm probably won't pancake my building, I return to sleep.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Two Guys Out On The Town

The nightlight is kicking at Cayenne.

It's nearly two a.m., the music is thumping, bodies writhe before us, a plate of grilled meat is half eaten, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label is nearly finished, and for reasons I don't quite understand, I've been smoking a shisha the whole night when a crazy (but very friendly) central Asian dude comes up to our table to offer greetings and shots of tequila.

After nearly a full bottle of Black Label, tequila of unknown origin has to be a bad idea. Somehow, the guy knows my girlfriend lives in Mexico City, asking me to bring back a bottle of tequila the next time I come back to Kampala (as though I'm here every few weeks). The tequila isn't bad - maybe Cuevo Tradicional (or similar). Slightly sweet and tart, and unlike America, there's not a salt shaker or wedge of lime in sight (gracias a Dios).

We've been here for hours and while sitting at our reserved table, I've seen the club go from comfortably open to insanely packed. It's a madhouse in here. And it's the most diverse crowd I've seen yet. Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans - everyone is here. Including that hooker I see at my hotel bar every night.

That's not to say Cayenne is a hooker bar, because it's not. People of all strata are here - mainly middle to upper class because everyone else can't afford the cover charge. Andreas knows the owner so we're comfortably ensconced at the best table in the house.

It's not the occasional hooker, or the older white men with young African girls, it's the sex tourists that surprise me. Not the stereotypical male hunting young girls (or boys), but rather the new breed of sex tourists: White (American or European) women of all ages on the hunt for real African cock. As one of our friends from the American Embassy tells us, the white girls ignore him (he's also white) because they're looking to get plowed by the fantasy.

Women sex tourists hunting men. If that isn't gender equality, then I don't know what is...

Everyone knows Andy (or so it seems). As we sit there, I meet a wide range of people who come to our table to say hi. Promoters, coffee industry types and one guy who at one point evidently was the head of Mossad in Tel Aviv. I make a mental note not to screw with that guy.

It's interesting and fun but at one point, I find myself asking "what are we doing here?" We're just sitting there, like uninteresting guys. Five years ago, Andy and I would be on the prowl. Shooting and looting. In a place like this, it would be Game On and out of control.

Instead, I'm smoking a shisha.

Two guys, once pirates, now committed, sitting at a reserve table with bottle service and smoking a shisha at 3am. Guess it's time to go home.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turkey On The Far Side Of The World

A little late to the party.

I've spent a number of holidays away from home but none of them has revealed itself as poignant as Thanksgiving. In America, Thanksgiving is ubiquitous. In many respects, it's the most important holiday of the year as families make great effort to spend that day together. This is the second time I've been away from family and friends for Thanksgiving.

It wasn't until this year that I started to feel just how important Thanksgiving is to Americans. Forget the whole thing about how it's a celebration of the white man raping, pillaging, stealing and plundering what rightfully belonged to the Native Americans. Like Native Hawaiians, the government may have offered an apology and given them crappy land to call their own, but they're still screwed.

But Thanksgiving isn't important because of those pilgrims, today it's important because it's the time of gathering of family and friends and I find myself feeling the lack of family and friends. Even my girlfriend is nine time zones away, meaning I haven't had the chance to talk to her in nearly a week - all of which tends to be quite a bit isolating.

Being in Kampala, there's very little talk of American Thanksgiving. If anything, I've been hearing more about these mysterious Scottish Dances where Scots (or those who fancy themselves as Scots) come together to eat, drink and dance in skirts. I'm tempted to go but it's 75,000 Shillings and I'm just too darn tired to leave the hotel.

Not the typical Thanksgiving plate.

Instead I resign myself to another quiet Thanksgiving alone in some glorious hotel in Eastern Africa. After the gym, I stroll through The Lakes Restaurant to see just what they have on the buffet. I'm thinking of taking my dinner in the room but spy what was once a rather large turkey on the carving table. Seems that the kitchen here at the Serena are exploiting a little bit of America on its greatest holiday.

So, my Thanksgiving dinner consisted of turkey, turkey and cheese sausage, chicken tikka masala, vegetable curry, rice and a little Baked Alaska.

Not too bad for a guy in the middle of Eastern Africa.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Robusta, Naturally!

Welcome to Great Lakes Coffee - the honorary Consulate of Greece.

After eating a bit too much barbecue and partying together in Houston this past April, Andy invited me to visit his coffee factory the next time I was in Kampala (you know, because I always just happen to swing out to Africa).

And since I was in Kampala, I gave him a ring and off we were running in a Euro-spec Nissan Patrol careening through the streets of Kampala off to some far-flung place on the eastern side of the city, past rutted roads, mud huts and sinfully gorgeous gated mansions to this industrial section where I wondered how anyone navigated the "road" without a four wheel drive truck or SUV.

Where the women hand sort for defects.

Drive up and you face a gated wall that's simply ominous and forbidding. Until the armed guard with the Ak-47 swings the gate open with a friendly "You're very most welcome!"

Africa: Situation Normal.

Once inside the high, concrete walls, I'm reminded of my cousins rice mill in the Philippines. Large, flatbed trucks wait to haul away container loads of coffee and some kind of mill towers above all else.

A mosque for the Muslim workers.

Our tour begins with the sorting room. Here dozens of women sit on the floor, spread out with a bag of green coffee in front of them. Each of the women sit there sorting the coffee and picking out the bad beans. Those go into a hopper where they'll evidently be sold to Lavazza or Illy or Folger's, or any of the dozens of coffee companies looking for coffee of any quality - so long as it's priced below the C-Market.

For the women, it's a great way to make money and socialize. They sit in the large room, openly discussing the days gossip. Who's doing what to whom, and so on. Showing me a wooden desk that looks like an oversized cigar rolling table, Andy tells me that he once tried to create these work stations where the women would sit and sort. It would be more comfortable and more efficient, allowing these women (who are paid by the bag) to work faster and earn more.

Problem is that these workstations ended up being five feet high and when seated, the bin would obscure the women's view from each other, thus ending the social interaction that they enjoy more than cranking out another bag a day. The one model stands lonely in the space, a monument reminding the women that this is about sorting quality coffee AND discussing what that crazy muzungu lady must have been thinking wearing that outfit to church.

Laser sorting green coffee.

From there it's past the Mosque built specifically so that Muslim workers would have a place to worship and into the processing room where thousands of pounds an hour can be mechanically dried, hulled, sorted and bagged. It's a large and impressive operation with laser sorters that divide the beans at incredible speed.

Next to the processing area is the arrival storage area where the room is nearly packed to the ceiling with green coffees fresh from the fields. The harvest is starting to peak here in Uganda and we're seeing the greatest volume right about now.

Reaching the peak of harvest.

After a tour of the offices to meet the company principals (Dad, uncle, brother and Kat), I'm whisked into the lab where the fun really will begin. Andy, Corey and Emma have set up an 11 sample cupping for me to taste the latest crop arrivals along with some interesting specimens from the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and a freakingly interesting natural processed robusta.

Awareness of Ugandan coffees is very low, with most people only knowing or hearing about Ugandan Bugisu. According to Andy, coffees from this Bugisu region can be very good - especially the select stuff from Mount Elgon. The problem with Bugisu is similar to that of Kona in Hawaii. Coffees from other parts of Uganda, which may be interesting on their own, are trucked across the country to be blended with coffees from the Bugisu region to become Uganda's "Bugisu" coffee.

Cupping New Crop arrivals.

Happily, Andy and company are forging ways to preserve the unique characters of the growing regions and develop a specialty market for these coffees. I'm interested in tasting these coffees and bringing them back to the United States.

Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that we buy and sell some of the best coffees available on the market at Spro, my personal exposure to the many cupping defects out there really is quite limited. By the time we receive our green or roasted coffees, they've already gone through a multi-stage process of cupping and vetting. Here, we're tasting the stuff as it's coming from the field and anything goes.

Screening 320 bags (container load) with my face.

One cupping sample (out of the five) immediately smelled of boiled peanuts when dry and wet potatoes when wet. There's that potato fungus right there. Sadly, while it was interesting to actually cup a coffee from the DRC, the coffee itself wasn't quite what we were looking for.

There were, however, several samples that I found really intriguing and I'm planning on following these coffees through the harvest to see exactly how they're going to shape up in the coming weeks.

UBC Barista Training - Day Two

Evaluating a cappuccino.

Day Two of barista training for the Uganda Barista Championship consists of mock trials. Originally, I had planned to show videos of World Barista Champion Alejandro Mendez but the dual punch combination of the incessantly excessive and irritating "sports commentary" while reviewing the footage in my hotel room the night before and the poor 3G reception in wireless Kampala, along with the stupidly difficult to load Livestream feed, meant that we were going to abandon watching "official" footage and instead focus on live interaction.

Which I think turned out much better than watching some streaming video of average quality over the Internet.

By placing the baristas in the role of judges, I think gave them a greater appreciation for what pressures the judges face and how difficult it really is to score accurately, consistently and impartially.

Can you give this a visual score upside down? Evidently, one barista judge did not think it was possible.

For this exercise, we would eliminate the signature drink because it's much more interpretive than the rest. Just espresso and cappuccino rounds with the baristas taking turns presenting and judging.

You might give it a "3".

Drawing their presentation order for The Big Day.

Monday, November 21, 2011

UBC Training - Day One

The prize of Eastern Africa.

With 20+C weather outside, Kampala is a lovely place filled with a cacophony of sounds, briliant sights and quite a bit of traffic. Making our way along the crowded streets is a demonstration of the mass humanity filling Africa's cities. Vehicles of all sizes, pedestrians and even the women balancing just about anything and everything on their heads.

Today is the first day of three days worth of training. Two for barista competitors and one for championship judges. I always find these trainings to be quite a challenge because you never know what you're in for. Everyone has been through basic training and passed a preliminary qualifying round, but even in this group of 21 baristas, the experience ranges from independent competitors learning competition coffee for just a few months to seasoned cafe and competition baristas with five years in the field.

In the end though, it all goes back to basics: the scoresheets and rules. Most of Day One was spent going over the scoresheets and making sure that they understand the scoring, how the categories are scored and a little bit on how to exploit the scoresheets to their advantage.

Pouring it out.

In the afternoon, we review visual identification techniques for cappuccino and espresso, giving the baristas the chance to judge scores on multiple examples of both, familiarizing themselves with just how the judges will be reviewing their drinks. Later, it's open stations for the baristas to make drinks and then we sit down and evaluate the drinks together - giving them the chance to visually score and taste their own drinks for deeper understanding.

Afterwards, the interested baristas hang out roasting coffee, talk about blending and work on more advanced techniques. It's interesting to see who stays behind until the bitter end - it may be an indication of the standings to come.

Uganda's 2010 Barista Champion: Mark Okuta.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Serena-ty Uganda

Poolside at the Kampala Serena Hotel in Uganda.

After leaving my house at noon on Thursday, I finally arrived at my room in Kampala, Uganda at 3am on Sunday morning: a total travel time of 55 hours (including a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany). Finally got into bed around 5am and slept until 1:15pm to find myself in what is easily the highlight of my entire years worth of travels.

My hosts here in Kampala are gracious and generous enough to put me up at the gorgeous Kampala Serena Hotel where luxury and comfortable living is the norm and I highly recommend anyone staying here. The staff is wonderful and the attention just right. Not too overbearing but right there when you need it.

The only downside at the Serena is the crazy sporadic Internet connection. Maybe that spot you're sitting doesn't have great reception, but move five feet to the right and a step back and the kilobytes start flying. But no matter, if the problem is really serious, one of their service techs will be here right away to help you with the matter and find the optimum location for your laptop. They'll even move your beverages and umbrella to accommodate you.

For a few moments, I thought about calling some friends and heading out into the Big City, but how often in my life do I find myself with a day to luxuriate and do nothing in particular except enjoy just being alive? That week between Christmas and New Year's in Honolulu at The Porn King's bungalow overlooking Honolulu back in 2004 comes to mind.

Danke schoen Alemania for the Montecristos.

So what better way to spend the day than in t-shirt, board shorts, slippers and lounging poolside with a pack of Montecristo Minis, some cold beverages and the occasional swim in the pool? I should note that I did bring my Foodservice Management and Controls textbook with me as part of my continuing studies retinue (which I didn't crack open once this afternoon).

After laying down some bronzing foundation on my rapidly whitening winter skin, I decided to retire from the pool to the outside lobby bar to rest and recover from the constant movement trying to avoid the shadows cast poolside from the waning sun (it's difficult work!)

I also met a woman (with her visiting son) who has been living here for four years. I asked her how she liked Uganda and she clarified that she has been living here, in the hotel, for the past four years.

At the lobby bar, I've settled myself with a pot of African tea - an interesting and slightly odd blend of tea with ginger to give it a zing, already steeped with milk and served with sugars and some cookies. Somewhere from the pool area wafts strong traditional African music. It's alluring and wonderful, and I want to wander over there and watch the musicians but I'm too relaxed to do anything that strenuous.

Working at The Mist bar.

My mind wanders back to that woman and her son. Four years. I've always secretly envied those people who have found a way to live in the best hotels of the world. How does one even arrange that kind of arrangement? I can only imagine what the rate is here for my stay. Multiply that by a month then by years???

But what a fantasy. You're daily live tended to by the best hotel people in the world. Meals prepared in the nations best kitchens. There's always a pool and a spa, a bar and 24 hour room service to satiate your every desire. The baristas here make killer coffee to the standard which I desire. It would be heavenly - and when your time comes, you can rest assured that your remains will be disposed of with care and your loved one notified with the proper amount of discretion.

If I don't return to America by December 7th, you'll know where to find me...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Feeling the call to duty.

It's been sitting on my desk for three days now. I don't even know why I bought it knowing that I was leaving for Africa tomorrow. I could just have easily waited until I return in December, but noooo.

I've convinced myself that I can play just one (or two) levels and then I'll be done and can put the game away until I return...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Final Jeopardy

Another round of Hepatitis A vaccinations.

It's weird, because I've traveled quite a bit in my life but every once in a while I get hit with a bout of travel jitters. That slight heaviness of anxiety and trepidation that comes when you wonder if, maybe, this might be the time the odds catch up to you.

It hasn't actually happened to me in years, but back in the day, there were times when my nervousness over flying actually caused me to push a departure day back a day or two.

I don't know why because flying is statistically safer than driving - especially my driving. But with about 44 hours before my flight takes off, I'm feeling a bit apprehensive. I once had a dream about being in a plane crash. It wasn't pleasant, but I say "dream" instead of "nightmare" because I didn't wake up scared.

Over half a million miles and most of the die hard travelers around me seem to be doing the same thing: the nonchalance of sitting there sipping your pre-flight beverage feigning boredom and a "oh, it's just another day flying" kind of attitude. Meanwhile, I wonder if they're also like me: pretending, while secretly wondering is this might be the day we plummet to the ground in a crumpled mass of flesh and aluminum. Morbid: yes.

I comfort myself with the thought that at an flight level altitude between 35,000 to 41,000 feet, the pilots have five miles to correct whatever problem might occur over that cold and vast North Atlantic. Plenty of time to address a situation. Maybe.

My itinerary has me flying a Boeing 777 across the Atlantic, an Airbus A340 down to Addis Ababa and then a two hour flight through darkness in a DeHavilland Dash-8 turboprop. Overall, it should be a pleasant enough trip - though the Dash8 doesn't offer premium seating, of which I fear the most.

The height of falling aside, I also comfort myself with the thought that the airlines are notoriously cheap. Forget all the amenities that have gone away over the years, the airlines are cheap enough that they A) don't want to lose airplanes because they cost millions, and B) they don't want to pay penalties, fines, legal costs and compensation to bereaved relatives. Not to mention the bad press and it's in their financial interest to land their passengers safely.

I often wonder why some of the other frequent flyers like to line up in the premium queue an hour before the flight. You know who I'm talking about: those strange folks (usually in a suit) standing on that tiny red carpet wanting to be the first on the plane.

Me? I've got little interest in being stuffed into an aluminum tube that may just take me to my demise. I like to be the last person on the plane. I'll wait until final call.

Deep down inside, I understand. Faced with the constant possibility of checking out in a fiery ball, we want to feel a little pampered. Ensconced in some semblance of civility and calm, as opposed to the mass huddle happening in coach.

So that maybe, as we plummet to the earth clenching our seventh "free" cocktail, after eating a four course meal, sitting in our leather-bound, lay flat reclining chair, we'll feel some semblance of comfort...

Meanwhile, I've got my vaccination card up-to-date, my bags to be packed and a healthy optimism that the airlines don't want to lose any more money!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Roxy Mas!

Coconut, tutti frutti, tutti frutti and the mystery orange flavor.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Carnitas Alfonso

Assorted pork goodies in the window at Carnitas Alfonso.

One of the nicest things about Mexico is that Mexicans are not afraid of pork.

Seemingly everywhere you turn, it's pork this and pork that. Pork, pork, pork. God love this place.

Of course, if you're Jewish or Muslim, you're kinda in trouble. Then again, I don't recall seeing a lot of pork places in Polanco where many of the Jewish community lives.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Mexico City in Naucalpan stands Carnitas Alfonso. Adriana and Hector have been raving about this place and on a recent Sunday afternoon, instead of being good Catholics and going to mass, we decided to worship at the altar of pork while watching futbol on the television.

Salsas y Limon.

Honestly, I can't imagine what it must be like to come to Mexico and be someone who doesn't eat pork. Like watching porn, you're missing out on half the fun.

And when you arrive at Carnitas Alfonso, you're greeted by windows of sheer and utter pork goodness. Not just the ribs or the belly or the shoulder, but by mounds of intestines, jowls and amazingly large sheets of chicharron. I mean sheets as big as your torso. Fantastic.

Pickled peppers and red onions.

If you so choose, you can eat outside while picking and choosing from the selections in the window. Or you can head inside, sit at a table and enjoy flowing plates of endless pork.

Our server brings us a large menu listing hundreds of items. He wants to know what we would like. Really, I want to tell him to simply bring me the tastiest pork stuff they make, prepared in a manner that I can readily and easily put it in my mouth to eat. Good thing Hector knows what to order.


In just a little while, a parade of plates starts making their way to our table. It's a blizzard of antojitos and I recall splashes of ground masa with cheese and pork, along with salsas and limes and tall, super cold glasses of freshly made horchata.

Gracias Hey-seuss (Jesus).


As they bring out the pile of carnitas by the kilo, I'm starting to realize that maybe I'm feeling a little on the full side. But the steaming pile of pork is too good to resist. Add the stack of hot tortillas and how is one supposed to resist? It can't be.

Oh but it's so delicious. Delicate, tender meat. Technically speaking, our meat isn't really "carnitas" but actually the rib meat - meaning it's got more fat and more flavor.

Carnitas por kilo.

In the end, the plates are empty and we realize that we should spend some time simply walking around to alleviate the pressure. It was a good meal. A tasty meal. A meal worth repeating.

And next time, we're going to explore the other bits.

Oh, chicharron!

Carnitas Alfonso
Blvd. Manuel Avila Camacho 865
Echegaray, Estado de Mexico
Tel: 5363 3229