Money Does NOT Make the World Go Round – Food Does

There are so many things I love about travel, but as most of you already know, one of my favorites is food. I love to eat (no matter where I am), and if I can eat food from a different culture, I am a happy woman. Whenever Bob and I travel in different cities around the world, one of our first stops is always a local market. In my opinion, local markets have the best people watching, the most interesting stalls to browse, and, of course, the best food. I feel more like a local when I’m eating in a market, and the food never fails to delight me. Here’s a great example.

Last fall Bob and I spent time in four cities in Mexico; Mexico City, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and Queretaro. In each, we sought out the local market to browse, people watch and eat delicious food. In many cases, we were the only non locals in the market. Although the prepared food stall workers didn’t speak much (if any) English, and we speak very little Spanish, we were able to communicate via pointing and gesturing as to what we wanted to eat. With little mistake, we received exactly what we wanted. We ate enchiladas verde, chile rellenos, huaraches, tortas, fish tacos, churros, and so much more. We sat with workers on their lunch breaks, kids out from school, families, business people on lunch, and very few tourists. In some cases, we could look at a menu that wasn’t written in English, but did have pictures. In other cases, we just pointed at whatever was being cooked, carved or served up, and said por favor. We used our Google Translate a few times too, hovering Bob’s phone over the Spanish words on a menu, and seeing the English-ish translation.

Another favorite was the Mercado de La Boqueria, a food market just off the famous La Rambla in Barcelona. Bob and I ate at the Kiosko Universal in the Boqueria several times during our week-long stay in this great city. I remember a delicious sautéed mushroom plate, as well as great octopus and french fries too. We watched locals bellied up to the bar and drinking cups of espresso, right next to others drinking small beers. Stopping in a market for a snack or drink appears to be a part of everyday life. If I had a local market with food stalls, I would certainly try to make it a part of my everyday life.

And then there’s Bangkok. Sigh. My completely unscientific survey suggests that Bangkok might have the most food markets of any city. All should be visited with a camera in hand and an empty stomach in tow. It felt like there was a food market on every corner in Bangkok, whether we were in the Chinatown district, on the river, or at larger markets where everything from kitchen appliances to shoes and clothing is sold alongside terrific food stalls. We tried hard to pace ourselves in Bangkok. We’d eat a little snack – or a big snack – then walk around a market or neighborhood trying to make room in our stomachs. Then we’d find another delecatible food stall and eat another little or big snack. This included everything from whole fish cooked over an open fire inside banana leaves to barbecued ribs. And everything in between. One day we took a break from our market meals and ventured down a different aisle where we ended up getting 30-minute long foot and leg massages. My idea was the food could travel from our stomachs, and be spread via massage all the way down to our toes, making room for more food. I really am a scientist at heart.

I also have deliciously fond memories of paella from a busy market vendor in the Dordogne region of France, Iberian ham and mozzarella on skewers at the 100 year old Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, fresh pineapple on a stick from a floating market on the Mekong River in Vietnam, and barbecued chicken at a beach market in Caye Caulker, Belize. If you wonder whether my travel memories are based strictly on the dining we’ve done in markets, you wouldn’t be far from wrong. The only time this makes me sad is when I’m writing this story in my cold office in Ashland, Oregon, while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread. Not, mind you, a bad lunch, but not really in the same category. Thankfully, Bob and I are on our way to France at the beginning of February, where we’ll be sure to seek our more food market stalls to enjoy.

Advertisements

Bellying Up to a Cozy Brown Bar in Amsterdam

by Robert Bestor

Think about those establishments that you have encountered over the years that have left you with fond memories. Perhaps they were warm and cozy. Maybe they were fun and friendly. Or maybe they were just simply comfortable, homey and efficient, and without fuss or anything faux. Amsterdam has lots of places that tick all the boxes above, and each has a very high likelihood of leaving with you with just such memories – the locals know them as brown bars.

Amsterdam’s brown bars have a long history (the oldest, In Het Aepjen, dates back to 1519!) and there must be hundreds of them, as on our recent visit to the Venice of the North, every time we decided it was time for a beer and a bite, there was one nearby.

Brown bars get their generic nickname from their wooden interiors. And in almost all cases that wood has developed a warm patina from years and years of daily cleaning and polishing, constant use and, until recently, lots of cigarette smoke. Thankfully indoor smoking was banned more than ten years ago – long enough that there isn’t even any residual tobacco odor remaining.

On a chilly night last January, Nancy and I found a couple of stools at the bar of Café De Dokter. While tiny in size, Café De Dokter is big in atmosphere. With about eight stools at its low bar and perhaps five small tables against the wall, there’s room for about 20 if everyone on hand doesn’t mind cramming in, or a little bump now and then when a fellow patron wants to move about the place. Opened in 1798 and known as Het Dokterjte (the Doctor) this brown bar is small enough for a single barkeep to keep everyone happy with beer, whiskey, wine, and snacks. The bar enhances its atmosphere with old jazz records played on an old record player, stuffed into a nook behind the bar. Also stuffed into a nook behind the bar is a small work area that houses a couple small wheels of cheese and some smoked meats that the barman slices and serves to order. He barely has room to move himself. 

We also checked out Café Hoppe, which we were introduced to by Zosia, the leader of our Hungry Birds food tour. Hoppe is larger than Dokter, but on our late afternoon visit, was just as crowded and vibrant with a clientele that ranged from a table of retirees who appeared perfectly at home, to business folk enjoying an after work tipple, and everything in between – even a couple of tourists (us!). Here we sampled jevener, which is Dutch gin. There are two types, oude (old) and jonge (young). We preferred the oude, but both are tasty and go great with a snack of olives and cheese. 

Brown bars, in a way, feel a little like a neighborhood clubhouse, and seem to cater to all its characters. And with their casual and unpretentious feel, they make a perfect spot to meet friends after work, or for a pre-dinner aperitif, or that final warm, languid nightcap at the end of an already memorable evening.

So when in Amsterdam, after you’ve marveled at the beautiful canals, houseboats and crooked buildings, and when you’ve finished strolling through the surprisingly tame red light district, and when you’ve dodged a few bicycles and made it to the dazzling Van Gogh Museum and the sobering Anne Frank House, you might just slip into a brown bar. It’ll be warm, cozy and friendly. And there’s sure to be one nearby.

Let’s Watch the Old Year Die, With a Fond Goodbye

by Nancy Bestor

2018 is over, and I’m reminded of the saying “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” It was a year that had a few challenges, and I’m not even talking about politics. Dear friends struggled with health issues, we said farewell to some local retail neighbors, and the wildfires of the West Coast wreaked havoc with our fresh air, and with some of our summer business as well.

But perhaps these lessons will remind us (or me anyway) that I have to remember what I’m thankful for. Because the truth is, I am blessed. Bob and I have lived for 25 years in a great small town.  We’ve raised our daughters in a community that cares, and as they embark on their lives in Portland and Seattle, I hope they can keep some of that small town community in their hearts.  In February, it will be 25 years that we’ve been running Travel Essentials. I’m certain in 1994 I didn’t imagine that we would be here 25 years later. But let’s be honest, when I was 27 years old, I didn’t picture myself as a 52-year-old woman with grey hair either.

Being a small independent retailer sounds glamorous. Or at least it did 25 years ago. Yes, I’m my own boss. I can make my own hours, and run my business the way I want to. But when I have to do something that I don’t like, I can’t pawn it off on the boss, because I am the boss. And it does have its challenges in the world of online corporate giant retailers too. But the negatives are far outweighed by the positives.

Every day, delightful long-time customers come in and tell us about their upcoming travels, or regale us with great stories of recent adventures. They ask about our kids, show us pictures of their grand-babies, let us pet their dogs, and remind us that good people are everywhere.

We work side-by-side with amazing coworkers who make us laugh and brighten our days. Our employees treat Travel Essentials like it is their own business, and I’d like to think that most, if not all, of our coworkers are also our friends.

And the people of our city care about their community. So many people have stopped in to check on our business after the summer smoke set everyone back. That heartfelt concern makes it somewhere I want to keep living and working.

Bob, Emily, Sarah and I have a family tradition that the four of us, and only the four of us, work together in the store on Christmas Eve. I was joking with our daughters about that recently, saying “some families hike or play games on Christmas Eve. Our family works.” They both said it’s a tradition that they love, and there’s no where else they’d rather be. Truth be told, I feel the same way.

We’ll look forward to seeing more of you in 2019, along with your grand-babies, your dogs, and your amazing travel stories. Happy New Year, from our family to yours.

Three Delightful Days in Mexico City

Bob and I recently returned from a two-week trip to Mexico (read all about it in our Winter Newsletter here). We spent time in Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and three delightful days in one of our new favorite cities, Mexico City. It was our second visit to Mexico’s capital, and we ate delicious food, visited interesting markets and museums, and stayed at our most favorite bed and breakfast ever, The Red Tree House.

Mexico City has it all. Great food, compelling culture, and a cosmopolitan big-city vibe. With a population of more than eight million, there is always something to do and see. One highlight of our visit was a morning at the Jamaica Market, recommended by Rachael, a super Red Tree House employee. We were looking for a true locals market, not necessarily to shop, but to people watch and browse the stalls that are filled with local delicacies and products, and the Jamaica Market covered all the bases. It is well known for its flower market, and with Dia de Los Muertos just a few days away, it was overflowing with red and yellow marigolds for purchase. But the Jamaica Market offers much more than flowers. It has terrific stalls offering meat, produce, souvenirs and more. We ate an early lunch at Rossy, a food stall that serves up delicious huaraches (masa dough and smashed pinto beans), nopales (cactus) and more, right in the heart of the market.

Another outstanding experience was a visit to the Museo de El Carmen, a former Carmelite Monastery. With beautiful courtyards, religious artifacts and great architecture, this museum is not to be missed. There’s a crypt below the museum too, with 12 mummies on display in beautiful, velvet lined coffins. Although it’s slightly out of the downtown area, the Museo de El Carmen has no entry fee and is well worth an Uber ride of $12.

We also spent about an hour in the Museo del Objecto del Objeto (Museum of Ordinary Objects). Well curated, and well displayed, the ordinary objects in the museum include sneakers, shaving implements, kitchen appliances, clothing, furniture, and more. Quirky, yet fascinating, the museum is located in a “protected” Art Nouveau building in Mexico City’s beautiful Condesa neighborhood.

We ate a delicious dinner in the Condesa neighborhood, at MeroToro, another recommendation from the Red Tree House. The restaurant was filled with locals, and we tucked into inventive dishes that included scallops in mole, and mushroom parmesan risotto. We also ate fantastic al pastor tacos at another spot in the Condesa, Taqueria El Greco. Who knew that a mash up of Greek and Mexican food could be so good? Delicious traditional taco meat served on not so traditional pita bread. They were better than I ever imagined they could be. We tried a few delicacies in the Condesa as well, including local tequila, mezcal and pulque. Pulque is something I don’t need to drink on a regular basis, as it tastes a lot like what you would imagine something made from fermented sap of agave would taste like. We also drank mezcal with a side of worm salt, not bad at all if you don’t think about the fact that there are worms in the salt. The tequila, and of course the beer, I do recommend.

Speaking of the Condesa neighborhood, it’s the location of our favorite bed and breakfast EVER—The Red Tree House. If you’re not familiar with this establishment, you might take a look at their Trip Advisor reviews. More than 1,100 reviewers give the Red Tree House five stars, and we concur. The staff is outstanding, the rooms and courtyard beautifully designed, and the daily included breakfast and happy hour all but guarantee you’ll meet fascinating people and make new friends as well. We can’t speak highly enough of this great B&B.

Mexico City has my heart, and my stomach as well. We will definitely return again.

Got the Gate on the Golden Gate

As a Bay Area native, I’d like to think I know all the great places to check out in San Francisco, Marin, and the East Bay, but the truth is, I’ve lived in Oregon for 25 years now, so my list of favorite spots may be a little outdated. Thus it was fun when I found two “new to me” places in the Bay on a recent trip to visit family. One I knew existed, but had just never checked out, but the other was a complete surprise.

I’ve always wanted to hike in San Francisco’s Lands End. I’ve been near the trail, but have never seen the Sutro Baths up close, nor hiked on the Lands End trail proper. It’s so beautiful, and if you’re there on a fog-free day, the views are some of the best San Francisco has to offer. My sister and I started at the parking lot near the Cliff House. We first walked down to the remains of the Sutro Baths, once a public indoor saltwater swimming pool. Built in 1896, all that remains of the baths today are pools of saltwater and crumbling cement walls. The walls are easy to walk on, you just have to watch your step for rebar and holes. And the location is terrific.

From the Sutro Baths, it’s very easy to pick up the path of the Land’s End hiking trail, a 3 ½ ish mile loop trail, with many sets of stairs, and several offshoots that get you closer to the water, and even to a beach or two. The trail offers outstanding views of the Golden Gate Bridge (if the fog doesn’t hide it that is), as well as bits of three sunken ships at low tide. All three ships crashed in the 1920-1930’s, and sunk just off the coast. Additionally, you can see the remains of the Miles Rock lighthouse, now just a short and squat tower on top of Miles Rock, with a helicopter pad on top. This is a popular trail and it was busy on our Saturday morning visit. There are lots of dogs on leashes as well.

My surprise find of the Bay Area was Oakland’s Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden. My parents and I had taken a picnic lunch to Lake Merritt, where I got to hear details of my parents early days, including a look at the outside of an apartment my father lived in 60 years ago. We walked around parts of the Lake, and checked out the Science Center and the Boating Center, and we also discovered the Bonsai Garden, something I never knew existed (it’s only been open 15 years, so that’s probably why I’d never heard of it).

The free garden is the only all-volunteer bonsai garden in the United States. Nearly 100 bonsai are on display at all times, and another 100 are in reserve. It includes a 1,600 year old tree, given to the US Ambassador to China during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, as well as beautiful garden architecture, like the classical Japanese Mas Imazumi Gate, which is made with joinery woodworking and has no visible glue, nails or screws. The garden is beautiful, and quite peaceful. It’s a great place for a stroll on a beautiful sunny day in Oakland.

I’m sure there are numerous other spots in the San Francisco Bay Area that I know nothing about. I look forward to exploring more of them on future visits.

Communicating in Any Language

I always try to talk to cab drivers. First off, it’s polite. Secondly, so many of them have fascinating stories to tell. Our cab rides usually occur in Las Vegas (we have to go there on business), where English is the language of choice. Over the years, we’ve heard the abbreviated life stories of drivers from places like Yemen, Somalia, Turkey, Colombia, and countless other far-flung countries.

We briefly discussed Google Translate in last month’s eNews. And lo and behold, just about the time that email hit the interwebs, Nancy and I were putting Google Translate to good use in an Uber. It was during a 2.5-hour ride from Queretaro Airport to Guanajuato in Mexico. Soon after loading our bags into the trunk and hitting the road, our driver surprised us by launching Google Translate and then peppering us with questions. And amazingly, despite the major linguistic barrier, we had a nice “chat.” Although it was a bit slow, we covered all the topics you’d expect: hometowns, family, sports, weather, and more. Freddy has driven for Uber for about two years. He immigrated to Mexico from Cuba seven years ago and has a wife and two children. Freddy hates the cold, prefers Mexican cuisine to Cuban, and his son prefers baseball to soccer. You already know all about us, so I’ll spare our side of the conversation.

Even in a moving car in the dark, it was easy. We used the voice option of the app and everything we said into the phone was repeated in Spanish by the phone. Yes, we really do live in the future. It’s not perfect, as some of the things Freddy said did not translate well into English, and therefore I’d guess the same was true the other way around as well. But it was fun and informative anyway. Google Translate is now part of our bag of essential travel tools.

Ignoring a Gate Check Bag Request – Nancy Learns How to Break the Rules

by Robert Bestor

I am so proud of my wife. She has come such a long way. While she still has work to do, she is no longer quite the rule follower that she used to be. Best of all her progress is something that Travel Essentials just might learn something from.

On our recent Mexico adventure, we ran in to a little trouble with our carry-ons. We were boarding an Aeroméxico flight from Mexico City to Queretaro, and at the top of the boarding ramp, an Aeroméxico employee pulled us aside and said we’d have to gate check our bags, as the plane was going to be “very full.” It seemed pretty arbitrary, as other passengers had bags of similar size, and yet we were the only ones that were stopped. Nevertheless, he wrapped a gate check tag around the handles of each of our Briggs & Riley 21” carry-ons and gave us each a claim receipt.

What to do? We did not want to check our bags. It goes against everything we stand for! On top of that our bags are within Aeroméxico’s carry-on regulations, so we shouldn’t have to check them, right?

Here’s where it gets crazy. While we waited on the ramp to board, my wife, the rule follower, said “I’m just gonna cover this tag up with my hand and walk right on board.” Whoa! What just happened?

So that’s what we did. We held our bags with our hands cleverly covering up those gate check tags and walked right on board and nobody said anything to us – not the baggage handler at the end of the ramp, not the flight attendant who greeted us as we boarded, and not the flight attendant at the back of the plane who was assisting other passengers. After easily fitting both bags into the overhead compartment, we simply sat down and got ready for our short flight. No muss, no fuss and no checked baggage! Nancy may have sweat through her short sleeved top with worry, but that’s what deodorant is for.

So the next time an airline employee tries to make you gate check your bag, you just might consider looking deep inside yourself and finding your inner Nancy Bestor and see if you can get away with not following their arbitrary rules and random enforcement.