Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Japanese Birthday Party: Not Just a Regular Party

Few things are as common as birthday parties. After all, we have birthdays every year, and generally, we celebrate it every year as well.

However, last week I received an unusual invitation for a Japanese Birthday Party.

After I received the invitation through an sms, an avalanche of questions ran through my head: How do Japanese people celebrate their birthdays? Will the birthday boy cook Japanese food for everyone or will he choose to serve Mediterranean food now that he is living is Spain? What will be the atmosphere like? Will there be a lot of people present?

As soon as I got the message, I tried to persuade some of my friends to accompany me to the reunion. However, I was unsuccessful.

In a different situation, I wouldn’t have gone to the party. But this time, my curious instinct was stronger than me. Even if I had to go by myself, there was no way I was going to miss that party: I had to experience how Japanese people celebrated their birthdays.

When I got to the party, the birthday boy was still cooking. Despite the fact there were not many people present at that time, judging from the amount of food on the table, I could sense it was going to be a big celebration.

After little time, the place started to fill up. I never imagined that we were going to be so many… and so many people from so many different countries.

There were people from Japan, Taiwan, Paraguay, Colombia, Germany, England, Spain… and surprisingly, everyone interacted with each other without problem.

This surprised me because many times when we organize reunions, we feel uncomfortable about inviting people from different groups because we are afraid they won’t get along, or they won’t find something to talk about.

However, it seems like Japanese people are more concerned about not leaving anyone out, and utilize they cordial ways, generosity and amiability to create a friendly atmosphere where everyone can get along.

That night I enjoyed myself meeting new people, trying new dishes (from Japanese to Spanish and Latin, sweet and salty, vegetarians and with meat).

It seems like in Japanese parties diversity is the key to success.

Pamplona: More Than a Gray City

Before I went to Pamplona, my friends and acquaintances talked about a gray city and cold city with wide streets.

No one had mentioned its horizons covered with mountains or its sunsets painted with pinkish violets and enraged yellows. No one talked about the Sadar River that runs through the South of the city appeasing the area, nor the copper and golden rugs of leaves that covers the forest tracks in the Autumn.

No one pointed out any of these secrets that the citizens of Pamplona have the pleasure of enjoying every day.

To eternalize these treasures, I decided to dedicate a little moment to them. After all, Pamplona is a lot more than the gray city that many people talk about.

Friday, November 24, 2006

An Afternoon Snack with Arepas in Pamplona

We rarely decline an invitation to go out to eat. While in Spain, an invitation to eat arepas is irresistible.

I arrived to my friend's house ready to eat a couple of delicious arepas made out of corn flour filled with queese, chorizo, or "carne mechada."

However, when I entered the kitchen I found a pile of round circles that resembled Mexican tortillas rather than the arepas that I had in mind.

After overcoming the inicial shock (I was only aware of the existense of one type of arepas), the lady of the house taught me how to eat this Colombian arepa: I had to place the toppings on top of the arepa and eat it like a toast.

Surprisingly, it didn’t only look different, but it tasted different as well, even though it was prepared with the same ingredients. Different, peculiar, but equality delicious.

The hot chocolate that the lady served us was different to the one that I was used to drink: This one had pieces of cheese inside of it that melted with the heat of the beverage!

On one hand, I loved the new type of arepas. But on the other, I think I will stick to the traditional hot chocolate recipe that excludes the cheese.

Nevertheless, I raise my glass, make a toss and thank the hostess for the afternoon snack!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bogota, Colombia, It's like New York on Crack-Cocaine

This time, it is the turn of one of my other foreign correspondents from Colombia: Manuel Camacho.

Enjoy the ride through Bogota, Colombia with Manuel:

The city of Bogota itself is a pretty awesome place to live in. Chaotic, super urban, fast-paced. It's like New York on crack-cocaine, with BMW's riding alongside horse-drawn carriages, graffiti art on the city walls waging war on fascism, very polite pedestrians (road-raged killers behind the wheel), and vallenato and salsa music everywhere.

In between the cracks of the concrete jungle, I've had the pleasure of infusing the increasingly present bass pounding of a growing hip hop movement, not to mention the quality of Colombian home-grown trip-hop, downbeat, tropi-pop, punk rock and reggae.

Public transport here is quite the experience. Imagine an army of bumper cars from the 1950's, racing all over the city. No bus-stops. You basically tell the guy where you want to get off, given he actually slows down enough for you to successfully ninja jump out of the bus onto a clear patch of sidewalk.

This is because there is always a bus or two behind you trying to get ahead, if they get ahead, they take more fares because they are first in line; the more fares the more the drivers get paid at the end of the day, even if it’s at the cost of mass transit casualties.

Occasionally though, you get storytellers and poets on these buses looking for some change in exchange for their artistic services. They liven up the ride for just 5 American cents.

Apart from this, the characters and personalities I've met along the way are just too far out: Psychics, rouge nuns, clandestine magazine editors, kung-fu fighting rehab crack heads (literally), former guerilla and paramilitary members, a scientist probing for life outside the earth, and an Amazonian witch doctor. Yeah, it's been interesting.

Expressive Miscommunication at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Even though I was travelling by myself, I never felt alone in China.

No matter where I was, people always approached me wanting to talk in order to practice their English. They would talk to me about their families, they would narrate stories about the places I was visiting, and even give me advice regarding my love life based on my zodiacal sign.

They were more interested in the interaction than in the topic of the conversation itself. They just wanted to talk.

Tired of walking under the strong sun, and a little weary of fighting through the masses of tourists that gathered around the galleries of the Summer Palace, I retreated to a quiet corner close to an area that was under construction. There, I could rest and relax glancing at the lake, the parks and the buildings of the Palace.

After a couple of minutes, a lady and her daughter came to “my corner” to explore what section of the palace was under construction. Amused by their curiosity I looked at them and smiled in an attempt to express their presence did not bother me.

However, I think they interpreted my smile as an invitation. They sat next to me and begun to talk to me…. In Chinese….

The expression of surprise that took control of my face must have alerted them that I could not not understand what they were saying, since the daughter automatically switched to English before I could say anything.

Despite the little girl’s effort to start a conversation, and my attempt to communicate using the little Chinese I had learned, mutual understanding was difficult. Nevertheless, we continued talking and laughing.

After half an hour on “talking” with them, we learned very little about each other, but we were able to enjoy a nice time away from the tourist masses.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In Beijing, Enjoy the Food, No Questions Asked

One night, I went out to eat to a small local restaurant with a college friend who had been living in Beijing for a while. After we failed to read the Menu’s Chinese characters, we tried to use gestures to explain to the waiter what we wanted to eat.

First, we tried to point out at someone else’s dish, so we could order the same. However, we arrived late, and everyone at the restaurant had finished eating. They only had beer bottles on their tables.

Then, we attempted to enter the kitchen to show the waiter what we wanted to eat. But the cook obviously refused to let us in. At that moment my hunger blurred my rational thoughts, but now I wonder: What were they keeping in their kitchens? We’ll never know.

After several minutes of miscommunication, I took out a writing block and a pen from my purse and I started drawing out our order. Although the drawing wasn’t very clear, the waiter nodded to give us the impression she understood what we wanted.

Proud of our creative initiatives and satisfied with our accomplishment, we smiled as we eagerly waited for our food.

Before we could finish the first round of beers, the waiter brought our order. Even though it was not what we wanted, we could not complain in Chinese. So we shrugged our shoulders and digged into the dish. Luckily, it was delicious!

When I was in Beijing, I was never sure of what I ate, however, like this time, I was always pleased to savor new and delicious flavors.

Although I have to admit, I think I enjoyed the food so much because I never asked what I was ingesting. Sometimes it is better not to ask. At the end, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Right?

For more information about places where you can go eat in Beijing visit:

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Beijing: Paradise of Culinary Adventure

“Men are conquered through the stomach,” so the saying goes. Men… and me as well.

Well, the truth is that I am not that easy, although I cannot deny I love to try new flavors and I always enjoy a good dish.

For all those who like to savor exotic dishes as much as I do, let me inform you that Beijing is the paradise for culinary adventure.

Whenever you get hungry, you can choose where to go from an unmatchable list of varied restaurants that offer anything from the traditional Chinese cuisine, to French, Italian, Austrian, Vietnamese, Thai, Tibetan, etc. etc. The list just goes one and on.

Surprisingly, quality of food is not sacrificed at the expense of variety. Each one of these restaurants serves delicious options that resemble the original recipes.

The majority of these restaurants are located in “western islands”, which offer menus designed for westerners, and priced accordingly.

However, prices are still affordable, which gives you room to venture in a flavorful food feast, even if you are traveling on a limited budget. On top of that, in China, every dish comes with an interesting story as a side dish. Regardless of whether you like the food or not, the adventure is guaranteed.