Saturday, August 29, 2020

One Happy Island

 The Aruba Health App (where you can get your test results back) didn't have a notification when I woke up Sunday morning, but I decided to log in and check anyway.  To my delight, our results were in and they were negative; we were "free to move about the cabin", or in our case, the outside world.  The email confirming our negative status was sent at 1:06am so that was a pretty good turnaround.  We putzed around for a bit and then decided a trip to the grocery store should be prioritized because although I had brought coffee with us, we didn't have any milk.  As it was Sunday, we weren't sure what would be open, but we found a small shop down the road from us.  Back at the apartment with coffee in hand we headed for the water.  

It was a 5-6min walk down the road to get to the water, but I wouldn't call it a beach.  Malmok 'Beach' is more of a rocky ledge of limestone and coral along the coast.  A nice place to snorkel (the Antilla Shipwreck is off-shore and visible because of the clear water) and swim according to the visitor guide, but definitely not made for sunbathing.  Despite only being 10am it was hot, so we sat under a palapa (little thatched umbrellas) and chatted while watching the little lizards (some of which are bright blue) scuttle around and reveling in the salt air and blue vistas before us.

Back at the apartment we live-streamed my pastor's sermon and then had some lunch.  Our third travel-mate was soon to be arriving, so we decided to hang out at the pool for a spell while we waited.  She had a vastly different experience at the airport (no lines it seems).  Plus she'd been able to get her PCR test before leaving the U.S., because of her line of work, so she ended up having to wait for us -- the directions on my phone to get to the airport were not the reverse of the route we'd taken the day before, so that slowed us down as I don't trust myself with directions.

We quickly collected her from Queen Beatrix Airport and went in search of coffee (she drinks coffee like I drink water).  Our first two attempts resulted in business that were closed so we headed towards the Cruise Terminal hoping the tides would turn.  We did find the "I 'heart'Aruba" sign and a stand selling empanadas.  Not knowing if our issues with closed stores was due to a Sunday or the pandemic we decided to just head back to the apartment when she spied an open coffee shop - point for us.  After showing us our little home for the week we quickly decided that we should do a sunset sail and we should do it tonight (the biggest discounts are on Sunday).  We booked and paid online, got dressed and headed out.  While standing on shore waiting to get on the boat we read a sign that said there was a rope swing on this cruise - which explained why everyone else was wearing swimsuits!

The boat was nice enough and the crew was entertaining.  We sailed south towards Eagle Beach and they put down the anchor so we could use the rope swing.  The youngest really wanted to go in and I wasn't opposed.  As our Grandmother had taught us: if you don't have a swimsuit, don't let that stop you, clothing dries!  I'm not a fan of heights but the swing wasn't that high off the water and the water was amazing.  We even did some tandem swings, which turned out rather comically.  The sunset on the way back to dock was just lovely and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The sun actually sets rather early here, so since two of us were already wet we figured some time in the pool was the perfect ending to our day.  Add some Domino's pizza delivery, eaten while in the pool, and a warm Aruba night - vacation perfection!

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Pandemic Travels

 As the world continued to reel from the effects of COVID-19 it became clear, in late April, that my trip (scheduled to depart at the end of May) to the Balkans was not going to happen.  I was incredibly disappointed that my long awaited trip to Croatia would not materialize and yet relieved that the decision on if I should still go was out of my hands.  With that trip post-poned to 2021, and vacation time to use, I scrambled to find a pandemic-friendly alternative.  Flights to Aruba were relatively cheap and who doesn't love a week at the beach?  But oh, what a roller-coaster just to get here.  Our first set of flights, on Spirit Airlines, were cancelled so we had to try to get our money back; the the rules about open/closed borders seemed to change week-by-week.  The accommodations I had booked were non-refundable so we decided to take our changes and book another set of flights.  Blessedly, my cousin did some research and found out that we had to get COVID tests prior to our arrival (I was just planning on showing up, we had a place to stay, what more did we need?).

We had our plans in place and about a week before we were to leave I decided I'd better read up on this Covid testing process and I realized our plan was fatally flawed.  Aruba was only accepting 1 type of test, the PCR test. In our area getting a PCR test is not that easy and even if you get one the results take 5-7 days.  Aruba was requiring you to be tested and upload your results within 72 hours of your arrival in their country.  If you do not do this you have to pay them $75 and they will test you at the airport.  You then have to go straight to your hotel and quarentine in your room until you get the results.  We were going to pay $90 here in the U.S. for a Rapid Test, but further digging revealed that it wouldn't be a PCR test, and therefore would not qualify...  

Well, it took a really long time to get out of the airport.  They were only allowing small groups into Customs & Immigration (despite the customs area being designed to handle large crowds), but I eventually managed to get my 2020 passport stamp and we headed off to baggage claim.  Another long line to get everyone through the bag X-ray and then on to the medical screening.  Once there the test was quite fast (since we'd paid already) - fast, but not comfortable at all.  A throat swab and a nasal swab, a little packet of face masks and they sent us to our apartment to await our results.

Bananas Apartments was landscaped to perfection and the Dutch caretakers were lovely - pandemic perk: we had the entire place to ourselves!  Our flight had left very early in the morning, so we were exhausted by the time we arrived.  Thanks to an hour spent in the pool we managed to stay up until 9pm.  I was keeping my fingers crossed that our test results would be in overnight and we could pick up our third member at the airport the next day with a clear conscience....

Thursday, December 12, 2019


How could one do such a remarkable woman justice in a few short minutes?  An entire lifetime of memories, and boy are we blessed to have so many wonderful memories with her.

How many of us grandkids can finish this chorus thanks to Grandma?  Skidda merrinky dinky dink…….  And I’m sure many of us can also say that we had our first sip of coffee at her house too; she loved having us spend the night.  She could never babysit just one grandchild, if she had to babysit one she would immediately drive to another one of her children’s homes and picked up their kids as well.  She was definitely onto something with that, she never truly had to babysit as we’d all entertain each other.  Sometimes she’d take us all to the pond, but we never seemed to have swimsuits (as half of us had been picked up spontaneously).  Not that Grandma minded, she’d always tell us, “You don’t need a swimsuit, just swim in your underwear!”  I don’t recall how our mother’s felt about that (or perhaps they didn’t know), but there are incriminating photos to prove that many of us did just that.

Most people have memories of their grandmother’s cooking, but by the time we all came along she’d already spent 20+ years in the kitchen.  I don’t think I ever saw her bake, ever.  But she always had a cabinet stocked with Chips Ahoy or Oreos and she would pull them out with a smile and joke that they were fresh from the oven.  Ramen Noodles, one would hardly call that cooking, but just the smell of them and I’m transported back to her sun-room, sitting around the lunch table with my cousins, slurping from a steaming bowl.  She would always cut and peel apples for our lunch as well, and one time she peeled a potato and snuck it onto the plate.  Seth and Zach were fighting over the last piece, and I believe Seth won the battle, but Zach and Grandma had the last laugh.  Since we’re on the subject of food and her jokes, here’s one she told a few times: “How do you turn anything into a vegetable?”  “Throw it up in the air, and voila, squash.”

When I think back, it’s a small wonder that none of us girls work in retail-sales considering the countless hours we spent in her basement buying and selling Shaklee products and playing “store”.  Speaking of Shaklee, we all have strong bones and teeth because she would always let us eat the protein bars off the shelf – to us they might as well have been candy bars.

How many of you remember the year she bought Christmas gifts, wrapped them all up and then put the name tags on them?  Inevitably many of the tags were mixed up and some of the boys received baby dolls and the girls received toy cars.  I distinctly remember receiving a baby’s playmat, so that had to have been Zachs.  After that she started taking us all to see Disney on Ice as our Christmas present.  I can’t say for sure how many years we went, but they were certainly a highlight and the memories lasted far longer than any toy ever could; she was ahead of her time in that way.
Even in her later years, she never lost her sense of humor or her mischief.  I know we can all remember a time when we weren’t entirely sure she was following the conversation, or even paying attention, and then she’d turn to you and give you some snappy remark.  If you ever had the pleasure of escorting her to Bingo, you surely heard this reply when asking her where she’d like to sit, “On my bottom of course!”  Speaking of Sunnyview, none of the single employees were safe when Barb was around.  Some of us grandchildren were very well aware of Grandma’s matchmaking attempts, others perhaps not so much.   The grandsons were easy targets as most of the employees are female, but she was an equal opportunity matchmaker. On more than one occasion she embarrassed me by asking me to push her down the hall so she could find someone, and low and behold, she was trying to introduce me to another one of her physical therapists! The worst was when the poor guy had to kindly explain that a match just wasn’t possible as he was already engaged.  These sorts of incidents never perturbed her…  Another one of the therapists moved away before I got a chance to meet him in person and I’m not sure she ever forgave me for not making more of an effort. 

Grandma was a gem and will surely be missed.  She always told me that “home is where you go when there’s no place else to go” and now she’s truly home.  She was ready to go, and we were never going to be ready...

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Winner, Winner, Tuna Dinner!

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the idea (from the Toad& Co. blog/newsletter) of a Grilled Cheese Competition.  About that time my church was planning a missions trip to Guatemala and I suggested it as a fundraiser.  One of my comrades latched onto the idea, and although we never did use it, she kept it in the back of her mind.  Each year our church does SummerFest and this year they decided to change the format a bit and do dinners after the special speakers.  The aforementioned comrade saw her opportunity and pounced!  It didn’t take too much for us to convince the fun & fearless kitchen leader to make it part of the schedule.  And so it was that the “GLC Meltdown” was born. 

Originally scheduled for early June, a flood and subsequent building damage pushed the date for the “Meltdown” to the middle of July, on what just happened to be one of the hottest days of the year.  As I overheard someone say that evening, “We’re having a meltdown either way you look at it!”  The rules were quite simple: a name for your entry was required, make 2 sandwiches for judging, each entry was judged based on “creativity, presentation, and taste”.  Since I appropriated the idea, one might assume I had a submission just waiting for the go-ahead.  And even with the date being pushed, I was still down to the wire on figuring out what I would make.  I googled ideas, searched my local Aldi for cheeses (they have tons of great options), and still didn’t have anything that was striking my fancy.  With not much time I turned to my travels for inspiration.

While living DownUnder, I stumbled upon the delightful world of flavored tuna.  Spicy Chili, Mexican Style, Zesty Vinaigrette, Indian Curry, Teriyaki, Tomato & Basil, etc.  They were delicious, straight out of the can – just grab some crackers and scoop! 

Upon my return to the Southern Hemisphere I revisited this tasty past-time.  Those who are long-time readers might remember how my Taranaki house sit involved leftover foods.  Some of the items they left in their fridge were cheeses and one was goat cheese.  My last known experience with goat cheese was in France when I was about 17 and it left a bad taste in my mouth, both literally and figuratively.  However, I didn't want to waste perfectly good food (if it was indeed perfectly good), so I decided to give it a try before I threw it away.  Some hearty, whole-wheat bread, a small smear of goat cheese, and a hearty topping of Tomato Basil flavored tuna - pop it in the toaster oven... Surprise!  I rather enjoyed it.

This memory is what spawned my submission.  My only problem was that there is no Tomato Basil Tuna in the U.S.  Thanks to the world wide web I was able to find the ingredient list to a can from Australia, but without amounts of each ingredient my result would be quite unpredictable.  I decided to try Pinterest to see if someone else had already beaten me to it, but alas, I was on my own.  The closest I found was a recipe for Tuna and Tomato Pasta.  I took the additional ingredients and decided I would just wing it.  As my younger brother likes to remind me, I rarely follow a recipe exactly anyway.  Saturday night dinner was my test run, but I didn't write down how much I added of everything, so it was a one-of-a-kind dish (I made sure to save enough of the tuna for the competition the next day).  I tested four variations (amounts of goat cheese, the addition of mozzarella and provolone, and home made wheat bread) on my family and based on their votes I had my finalized entry.  The name of my entry, "Tasman Tuna Toastie" was finalized before the sandwich - yes, I enjoy alliteration. The Tasman sea separates Australia and New Zealand, and in both countries a sandwich that is grilled or melted is called a "toastie", so the name fit like a glove.

For me the competition was rather uneventful, I didn't truly feel as if I was competing - I just made a sandwich because I felt like I should.  I'm not very competitive as it is, so winning wasn't really on my radar (to be honest I thought I might be disqualified for a lack of cheese in my submission).  Once my sandwich had been delivered to the judges I took my extra sandwiches and gave them to those sitting at my table to taste.  Without telling them the name no one could figure out my ingredients.  Tuna and goat cheese weren't on their radar at all.  I then took a taste over to my comrade (although, at this point, she was not viewing me as a comrade but a foe).  She made several wrong guesses as well and then finally said "seafood" to which I replied, "tuna".  She rather enjoyed it, but I still assumed I was still out of the running.  I was shocked, and a bit incredulous, when they declared my sandwich the winner of the Golden Spatula Award.  I still feel bad that someone who really wanted to win didn't win, but I guess there's always next year...

Life's been busy, but I finally found time to recreate the recipe for the tuna - ENJOY!

Tomato Basil Tuna

2 cans (5oz/142g) tuna (I used 1 in water and 1 in oil)
3.5 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp Basil
1 Tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
1/2 Tbsp minced onion (I used dried)
1 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp salt
splash of white wine
~ In a small skillet, combine all ingredients and heat through. 

To make my entry, I buttered and toasted two pieces of Mack's Flax Bread™ by Silver Hills Bakery (but any hearty bread with a bit of crunch will do).  Next I topped one piece with a nice spread of goat cheese and a thick layer of tomato basil tuna.  Sprinkle on a bit of mozzarella for some extra creaminess and then top with the second piece of bread and melt everything in a skillet or on a griddle.  **At home I normally make these open-faced (no top piece of bread), so I put it in the toaster oven to melt everything.  The leftover tuna is even better the second day as all the flavors have time to marinate.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


We had an early morning start to the day with our drive back to Istanbul, passing through Bolu (in the Black Sea region), and then crossing the bridge back into Europe.  The drive took our entire morning but we spend the rest of the afternoon walking to make up for all the sitting.  A tour of Topkapi  Palace Museum (specifically the Summer Palace and the Harem Apartments).  The complex is very large and includes at least three courtyards, with each courtyard having its own ornate gate.  Although Turkish coffee is something for which the country is known, the beverage was not part of their culture until the Ottomans invaded Ethiopia and were introduced to the drink.  The lasting memory of the palace was all the stunning tiles - I couldn't stop taking pictures of them!  They were absolutely magnificent!

The Harem Apartments include over 400 rooms as the sultan was allowed up to four wives.  The word harem, despite the connotations of the word when used today, actually means "forbidden".  My understanding is the there was no limit on the number of concubines the sultan could have and I think the concubines were slaves.  If they were lucky they might become a wife, but seeing as the number of wives was limited, the chances were not good.  The mother of the first born son had the highest status and therefore had the largest rooms in the palace.  The eunuchs were the bodyguards for the harem and had their own section inside the harem.  Oddly enough, Turkey has the world's 3rd largest collection of Chinese Porcelain (China and Germany hold 1st and 2nd place).

From the palace we walked to the Basilica Cistern, the largest of the hundreds that lie beneath the city.  Built about 500ft from the Hagia Sofia by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (also known as Justinian the Great).  It is estimated to hold 100,000 tons of water sourced from the Belgrad Forest, about 19km (12 miles) from the city.  This cistern has 2 Medusa heads and many beautiful Roman columns.  I found it so odd that they bothered making such beautiful columns inside something never meant to be seen, let alone visited by tourists!  Later research enlightened me: many of the columns were recycled from the ruins of other buildings. The most famous thing about this particular cistern (apart from its size) is the aforementioned Medusa heads.  The Atlas Obscura entry sums it up quite nicely, "The two giant Gorgon-head pillar bases at the far end of the cistern are an intriguing mystery. It is suspected that they may have been pulled out of an older pagan temple, where motifs of the famous Gorgon Medusa were used as a protective emblem. It is possible that the placement of these two faces — upside down and sideways, at the base of pillars — may have been a deliberate display of the power of the new Christian Empire. Or it’s possible that the stones were just the right size."
Hard to take photos down there...

Our final stop of the day was to the famous Grand Bazaar.  Oh my goodness, what a maze!  I honestly don't know how the shop keepers ever find their stores - there are over 4,000 shops!  It is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world.  As Rick Steve explains, "Sprawling over a huge area in the city center, Kapali Çarsi ("Covered Market") was the first shopping mall ever built. During Byzantine times, this was the site of a bustling market; when the Ottomans arrived, it grew bigger and more diverse. The prime location attracted guilds, manufacturers, and traders, and it grew quickly — its separate chunks were eventually connected and roofed to form a single market hall. Before long, the Grand Bazaar became the center for trade in the entire Ottoman Empire. At its prime, the market was locked down and guarded by more than a hundred soldiers every night, like a fortified castle."

Fittingly, we entered (and therefore needed to exit once finished) through Gate 1 (which is the name of our tour company).  Serdar assured us that if we simply asked for directions back to the Main Street (once once found themselves completely lost) and once there simply walk in the direction of the descending numbers and we'd find ourselves back where we started.  These days there are apps and special maps to find your way around, but even someone as directionally-challenged as myself was able to manage with those instructions as my guide.  I wandered around the Grand Bazaar by myself the whole time and although the reputation of the aggressive shop keepers is true (and the vast majority are male) I never felt threatened or uncomfortable.  To be fair, I'm told I give off a no-nonsense vibe, so that might have tipped the scale in my favor.

You're supposed to haggle with the shop keepers, but I'm incapable.  It's just not in my blood.  With a recent sermon on consumerism on my mind, I didn't end up buying any souvenirs.  I looked at a lot of beautiful pottery and scarves, but at the end of the day my suitcase was already full and I had absolutely no need for more items.  Couple that with my inability to haggle and the only thing I purchased was some Turkish Delight for my family and coworkers to try when I got home (and yes, I paid full price).  On our bus ride this morning Serdar mentioned that Turkey is quite popular with Medical Tourism.  Based on the number of men I saw at the Grand Bazaar with bandages and scabs on their heads it would seem that hair transplants are quite popular.

We returned to our hotel (where I think I might have been upgraded to a suite or something - the room was amazing) and then enjoyed a lovely farewell dinner with my tour-mates.  A fantastic trip and a nice way to end our tour together.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Ankara & Atatürk

We departed for Ankara this morning, a four hour drive, with our first top of the morning featuring ice cream!  You certainly can't go wrong there.  We tried Mado brand "dondurma", a Turkish mastic ice cream - it's a bit gummy because they add salep (a flour made from the tubers of orchids) and mastic (gum or resin from a specific type of tree) to the other "usual" ice cream ingredients.  On our drive we passed Tuz Gölü (literally meaning Salt Lake), the second largest lake in the country (the largest being Van Lake).  It is also one of the world’s largest hypersaline lakes: fed by two streams it has no outlet. Oddly, it is extremely shallow with a maximum depth of 5 feet!

Also en-route, Serdar treated us all to a honey soaked chestnut, kestane şekeri.  Since one of our main stops for the day was at the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, he spent part of the drive providing us with some history and background of the country's favorite son.

“Commander-In-Chief in Ilgen” with Atatürk on the left
Ankara is the capital and second largest city in Turkey and Atatürk is the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic.  Not only was he excellent in his various military roles, he also was the one credited for campaigning for independence and then fighting to expel the Greeks in 1919.  I find the last part slightly ironic as he himself was born in Greece.  The last Ottoman Sultan (Mehmed VI) left the country with the British Navy and in 1922 Turkey became a new country.  As the first president (he served from 1923 until his death in 1938), Atatürk completely reformed and westernized Turkey.  He changed the alphabet, the clothing styles, capitol city, education system, type of government, calendar system, he gave women the right to vote, and even introduced surnames -- it is astounding how much his people allowed him to change about their country!  

To read more about the architecture and building of the
museum itself, check out this site.
Our visit to Anitkabir (the beautiful mausoleum built for him) was good, albeit far too short for me. 
"The mausoleum complex is mammoth, with a grand staircase known as the Path of Honor, flanked by reclining Hittite lions, leading up to the Court of Honor where the mausoleum itself and a museum dedicated to Atatürk's life both sit".  I did not have enough time to soak up all the information available about such a fascinating historical figure. The museums many sub-sections were extensive and I simply had to skip many of them to ensure my group didn't leave me behind.  A quick perusal of his library was insightful and I loved looking at the beautiful old books.  I’m not sure how many languages he spoke, but he had many books in various languages.  We were able to see a changing of the guards before we left, but sadly it seemed marred by how many people were rude in their attempts to film the whole thing (thereby ruining it for countless others).  The security forces overseeing the entire affair were certainly used to dealing with the rudeness and were quite brusque in their directions and scoldings of the crowd.

Our last stop of the day was the Museum of Anatolian Civilization, but I just couldn't get interested in all of the 1200 B.C. Assyrian, Hittite, and Phyrigian artifacts - I'd have much rather spend more time at Anitkabir, but alas, that's the price you pay by not traveling on your own.
Statue of King Mutallu - a local king dependent to Sargon II
(king of Assyria) - sent to govern Aslantepe; circa 1000 B.C.

Back at our hotel for the evening, I got a call from Jonathan and Oak asking of I'd like to join them, Marcia, and Frank for a walk over to the mall for some dinner.  With nothing else to do than journal, upload photos, and repack, I decided to join them.  I always enjoy a wander through a grocery story (in this case MM Migros) while visiting new places, and it was interesting to see the food court at the shopping mall as well.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Nevşehir Province Part II

Lunch, on this beautiful Tuesday, was in Avanos at a local, built-to-look-original caravanserai restaurant called Hanedan. I tried a local pastry of pastrami and cheese (called Paçanga Böreği, I think) and washed it down with some cherry nectar.  The building was very impressive, however I was more taken with their beautiful pottery (a little taste of what was to come later in the day)!

Our next stop was the Zelve Valley (Zelve Open Air Museum) with it's mushroom-looking rock formations.  Known as Hoodoos (or Fairy Chimneys here in Turkey), they "once housed one of the largest communities in the region in an amazing cave town, honeycombed with dwellings, religious and secular chambers."  Even their police station is in a rock!
Unfortunately, the police officer standing in the doorway
went back inside seconds before I snapped the picture...
He must have been camera shy.
We soon moved on to the historic site of Özkonak Yeraltı Şehri, an underground village probably built by the Byzantines.  In 1972 a local farmer discovered an underground room (he couldn't figure out what kept happening to his excess crop water) and further excavation revealed an entire village.  Özkonak had a ventilation system,  water wells, a winery, along with many other living rooms.  It also had many moving stone doors to block off areas in case of attack.
 We walked through quite a bit of what is excavated, albeit rarely walking upright; I believe there are 10 levels, but you can only visit 4 of them.  They claim it could hold almost 50,000 people for three months.  It was very extensive and quite impressive; but I definitely wouldn't want to be in hiding for very long.

Our final stop of the day was at Ömürlü Seramik, where they have been making pottery since 1807 (or so their sign claims).  Oh my word, the carpets were amazing, but the pottery was even more spectacular, in my opinion anyway.  The history of pottery in this region dates back to the Hittites.  According to their website: "Avanos has now become a place where the Turkish art of ceramic tile making, inherited from the Seljuks, and improving with the Ottomans, continued to be kept alive, in this city along the banks of the longest river of Turkey, Kızılırmak."  The river is known for its red clay, which has been used by many generations of potters.  This ceramics company has about 45 Master Artists and we had a demonstration of pottery made on the ancient kick-wheel and then proceeded to their spectacular showroom.

The potter was making a Hittite Wine Jug, it was rather fascinating to watch how it is formed.

Sadly for me, even their small pieces were over $500 (US); not that I needed any pottery, but their works were captivating and I found nearly every piece to be stunning.

Since I was not shopping I decided to treat the show room as an art museum, and it certainly did not disappoint.  They have samples of historic, contemporary, geometric, phosphorescent, and floral designs.  A nice young man chatted with me about the various pieces and designs as I wandered around (knowing full well I was not going to buy anything most of the other salesmen had moved on).  A few people bought pieces and with that the day was spectacularly book-ended and we returned to our hotel.