Supermarket Specials

Globalization brings with it many benefits, including the wide availability of specialized food products from around the world.  This is especially true in the United States, with its countless immigrant communities, but even in Kasane, Botswana, we learned, while grocery shopping for two days in a remote cottage.  Trying to figure out what we should cook, we joked that we could make Thai green curry, if only they had Thai green curry paste—and sure enough they did, Mae Ploy brand in little packets of red, yellow, and green (though we didn’t end up buying it).

But as universally popular as Thai curry paste may be, some food products remain local specialties, or at least local favorites.  As ubiquitous as Nestle and Maggi and Kellogg and Procter & Gamble may be around the world, below are some local specialties we’ve encountered on our recent trip, as well as one from prior travels.

Supermarket meat in most parts of the world is limited to chicken, beef, pork, and lamb.  Not so in Africa.

Creole culture makes use of many more parts of animals than a typical American household.  Not only did we see chicken necks for sale, but the bucket of pig tales pictured above.

We saw sugar cane growing all over Mauritius, and knew that they exported sugar, but didn’t realize that locals would be such sugar connoisseurs, able to differentiate and make use of so many varieties.

Without land to graze animals, the Pacific islands are big consumers of processed meat, including of course the global favorite Spam.  This supermarket in Guam, from our previous travels, had an astonishing selection.

Resort!

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We don’t stay often at resorts.

In part this is because we are (sort of) budget travelers, and decent resorts are expensive (and a lower-end resort would probably be more depressing than anything).  Not only are room rates at good resorts high, but the seclusion of resort layouts makes it difficult or unappealing to travel outside for drinks or meals, leaving one stuck with international hotel pricing for any food or beverage (unless, as Chinese tourists apparently do in the Maldives, you bring instant noodles to cook in your room electric kettle (but that doesn’t seem like a great way to spend your vacation)).  Menus and overall atmosphere will also likely be similar to any other resort around the world, if you substitute a few local spices and fruits—possibly great but also sort of bland as any hotel that caters to a wide range of nationalities, ages, and styles must be.  Even at a resort with a few different restaurants, dining options can feel boring or limited after a day or two, and the boredom may extend to more than just dining.  After you’ve done the two or three activities that you were most interested in doing, there may not be much left to do other than hanging out in your room or by the beach.

But that, of course, is precisely the point.

International travel is hard work.  As much as people enjoy it as a vacation option, for the variety and adventure it provides, having to figure out every logistic in an unfamiliar place isn’t trivial.  The way we travel, every day or two or three brings us to a new city where we have to figure out the lay of the land.  We have to know where we are and where we want to go, how to get there, what to see and do, where and what to eat, how to order, where to sleep, etc., etc.  Every interaction might have a language challenge and room for miscommunication, or there might be tiresome frustrations, like a thirty-minute walk carrying all your luggage, only to find out that Google maps misplaced your hotel.  Negotiating with taxi drivers is exhausting; safety can be a concern.  When the weather is hot, as it has been on this trip, each day can feel like a sweaty slog, counting the hours until the next opportunity to shower and let your clothes dry out.

A resort is a vacation choice without any of these challenges.  Temptation to sightsee or to search for outside restaurants is kept at a minimum, by isolating you in a self-contained world.  Activities are prearranged (you just sign up), and often child care is even provided, to give adults some real relaxation time.  Costs and payments are frictionless, with things simply billed to your room.  Air conditioning is always within a few minutes’ walk.

A resort is a vacation choice to minimize choices.  Our resort in Mauritius had us park at a parking lot and take a golf cart to our room—it wasn’t even clear that walking back to our car was an option, making the choice not to go sightseeing during the day an easy and lazy one.  Buffet dinners were included in the room rate, obviating the need to make ordering choices.  The biggest choices during our stay were how much appetite to save for which desserts, what to do for lunch, and whether to go for a glass bottom boat ride even though it looked like it might rain.  We spent a great deal of time enjoying our (rather impressive) room and sitting by the beach, reading or doing photo work.  To us, it wasn’t really travel, but a break from our travels.

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For us, travel isn’t really about relaxation—it’s about exploring the world.  Our curiosity and energy levels, not to mention relative lack of cares (e.g., stress of child rearing), are such that we’d rather spend our free, non-work time out in the wild discovering and learning new things.  But knowing that such travel is tiring, something from which we ourselves appreciate a little break every now and then, we can easily understand why others choose resorts—true, simple relaxation—for the duration of a vacation.  Yes, the opportunity cost is great, but sometimes one just needs a break.

PS:  Please excuse the privilege/“first world problems” reflected in this article.  What can I say—guilty as charged.

Language in Mauritius

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We first encountered French-speaking people of South Asian descent in Madagascar, in the coastal town of Tulear in 2005.  It felt like quite an oddity—similar to when one hears an East Asian person with an southern American accent.  I subsequently learned that there’s a country basically full of French-speaking Indians:  Mauritius.

Since then, I’ve been curious to visit Mauritius, largely because of its mixed colonial and ethnic history.  Mauritius was controlled by the Dutch, French, and English, before it became an independent country.  Uninhabited until colonial times, its population is entirely composed of people who came to settle or work:  largely Indians (68%), but also Africans, Chinese, and Europeans.  It was hard for me to imagine what a country with such a composition would look or feel like.  (I was also intrigued by its beaches and its status as a sort of tax haven for corporations.)  Mauritius has proved as interesting as I had hoped.

The most obvious remnant of its mixed French and English history (the Dutch period was early and brief) is language.  When the British took over Mauritius from France during Napoleonic times, they assured the local population that it could maintain its language, customs and laws.  To this day, almost all Mauritians speak a Creole French as their primary language.  With outsiders, however, Mauritians seem quite comfortable in both standard French and English—more than, I would say, the typical Quebecois, who probably feels significantly more comfortable in one language than the other.  Signs are often bilingual, but many are written in just English or just French, assuming bilingual literacy of consumers and drivers.

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The occasional advertisement is in Creole.

A quadrilingual memorial to the nation’s founder, located in the botanical garden in Pamplemousses.  The Chinese population is small, but concentrated in the capital and economically powerful.  Perhaps also due to the economic power of China, there is more signage in Chinese than I would have guessed.