Nairobi, Kenya

I met this Maasai mother who was coincidentally also named Lucy. We were the same age (34) yet she was a mother to several children - including a 17 year old young Maasai warrior. She was the second wife of one of the Maasai men. We talked about the challenges of raising a big family, but the benefits of living in such a close and supportive community.

Lucy and her family are dealing with drought and food scarcity, so her and the other women in her village make traditional jewellery and crafts for visiting travelers to help raise money. I tip-toed around questions about sharing her husband with his other wife; all the time muting the urge to discuss gender roles and equality – instead taking the opportunity to listen and learn, and perhaps gain a new perspective and understanding of an unfamiliar culture.

Tokyo, Japan

It’s 9:00am and I’m hungry as hell. I woke up at 2:30 this morning to line up for the tuna auction, and now it’s time to taste the real deal. A stall catches my eye: a tidy sushi shopfront, two guys behind the counter wielding foot-long oroshi-hocho knives, and a big tuna head sitting there on a platter.

“Um…can I have two Chūtoro sushi please?” I say to the knife man. Chūtoro is the world-famous ‘fatty tuna’, basically the rolls Royce of sushi. It’s the finest cut of the finest fish in the market. “Sure. Sure.” The guy smiles, and pulls a neat block of flesh towards him. The knife glides like a lightsabre. “You like?” he says. “You see the tuna today?” I nod as he hands up a small white plate: plump slices of tangerine tuna, a green dob of nostril-blasting wasabi, a puddle of sweet tangy soy. The mouthful dissolves on my tongue and the guy gives me a big toothless smile. “Better than McDonalds yes?”

Trinidad, Cuba

It pains me that I cannot remember this gentleman's name because he was one of the most gracious hosts I've ever had.  After a long day of wandering the streets of Trinidad we were dropped off at our next Casa where we expected yet another clean but simple guesthouse.  

His home was different, it was noticeably more beautiful than the others and everyone was excited about it. We climbed the stairs to the rooftop patio to drink our freshly brewed espresso while the sun went down. Through broken languages and a little translation help from our leader, I learned that he is a carpenter by trade. His passion is bringing beauty to the homes in Cuba and in turn he has helped to transform his neighbors' livelihoods. Tourists gravitate towards the more beautiful homes, he explained. It was a simple fact that made me feel guilty. The beauty of the home didn't matter so much as the friendliness of our hosts in Cuba. He just happened to offer the best of both worlds.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

I met Nia Victoria in Suchitoto, up in the mountains of El Salvador. Suchitoto was once a guerilla town, the last stronghold of the left-wing rebels during the civil war of the ‘80s and early ‘90s; today, it’s a quiet, pretty colonial village filled with artists. Salvadorans on weekend vacations and a handful of foreign tourists come to Suchitoto to shop for indigo-dyed items and to eat pupusas from roadside stalls. Locals like to say there’s still history in the streets. Look close enough and you’ll find bullet holes in lamp posts, and the old guerilla hangout, El Necio, still stands, albeit now as a backpacker bar.

You can meet women like Victoria, who lived through it all, rolling cigars for neighbours and rebel soldiers. Her niece was one of the rebels, and has even written a book about it: Mil y una historias de radio venceremos. “A Thousand and One Stories of the Radio Venceremos,” an underground radio network run by the rebels, and which Victoria’s niece helped to operate. The war is now long over, but Victoria continues to roll cigars – just instead of selling them to rebel fighters, she’s now teaching tourists the delicate art (I couldn’t master it without ripping the leaves). Funnily enough, she’s never smoked a day in her life.

Ikh Uul, Mongolia

It was a bumpy ride across the Mongol steppe as news of our arrival began to spread around Ikh Uul. Within minutes our van was surrounded by excitable families eager to show us about the true nomadic way of life. Shortly after unloading we were shooting arrows, grazing livestock, drinking fermented milk and, well, playing cards.

It’s amazing how such a seemingly small thing like a deck of cards can break down cultural barriers and shed light on how alike we all are. Growing up playing cards with my brothers on a rainy day or while at the lake seems like a very North American thing to do. Little did I know, nearly 6,000 miles away in the middle of the Gobi Desert friends and family were doing the exact same thing. While I don’t have the best grasp of the Mongol language, “Go Fish” certainly appears to be a universal dialect. 

Vinales, Cuba

Cuba isn't exactly known for its food scene, but as somebody who loves all foods equally I was determined to find the best food possible on my trip. In Vinales we visited a locally owned restaurant where we met the chef Anna. She explained that because of the embargo, Cuban cooking varies with the seasons.  For a chef, this means you need to be resourceful, innovative and a little experimental if you want to enjoy more than a standard meal of beans and rice in the off-season. 

While you might use sweet potatoes in a recipe this month, you'll use taro root just a few months later. I was fascinated by Anna’s creativity with basic ingredients and her passion for food. Getting this perspective from a local chef and watching her cook gave me a real appreciation for the food culture in Cuba. Oh and the meal she made was delicious!

 

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