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Christina Bolton

Tuesday, 01 January 2019

Making Chocolate in Belgium

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Streets of Brussels

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Pierre Marcolini, one of the best Chocolatiers in Belgium

Belgium is a chocolate lovers dream. I was astonished at how many chocolatiers were on every block in both Brugge and Brussels. Here-among the hundreds of shops-everyone seems to have their favorite one. After several days of sampling, it was now our turn to decide who's Belgium's best. We used the unscientific method of buying a couple at each shop and letting our taste buds do all the work. Finally, we decided to buy a box at Elisabeth, though Pierre Marcolini and Passion Chocolate were also at the same level of excellence.

In addition to chocolate sampling we had decided to get the most out of our journey by trying to learn some chocolate making skills we could take home. So we signed up for a 2.5 hour workshop where we'd learn the basics.

The Belgian Chocolate Workshop is by 1USUAL and also advertised on Airbnb "experiences". On the agenda was molding chocolate shells for pralines, making the ganache filling, covering the creations with a thin layer of chocolate and unmolding them. Also, while waiting for the chocolates to cool we'd make simpler chocolates - mendiants- covered with nuts and fruits and a Belgian hot chocolate - which is notoriously rich and delicious.

The workshop was informative and fun and I was excited to be making an entire box of chocolates to take home. There were 13 students from all over the world and one instructor. We learned how to temper chocolate and the proper way to hold the molds and tools to create the best product.

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Our handmade pralines

The company advertises that they have a vegan friendly version of the workshop and my husband is allergic to dairy so before booking the experience I had emailed to make sure he'd be able to do the vegan version of the experience while I was doing the regular one and the guy in charge said no worries, just inform the instructor at the beginning of the workshop. So that's what we did, though our instructor (who was friendly and competent in all other ways) seemed completely unsure and unprepared for how to handle a vegan or allergy situation, having to text her colleagues about what to use as a substitute. By the time we got to making the ganache (which is where the cream comes in) she still didn't answer me when I asked if we were taking a little of the melted chocolate base out to make a different variety of ganache for him with coconut cream or some other milk substitute, but she just said "we're making this ganache for the whole class" which didn't address my concern, but I decided to let it go rather than disrupt the class.

Eventually, she mentioned a different filling. Much to our horror she procured a bottle of molasses that they use in their waffle making workshop as syrup! She said he could squeeze some syrup directly into the chocolates, and I thought 'We're not in Belgium anymore'! No chocolatier would ever fill their pralines with molasses! This was after telling one of our fellow students- who was adding a very small amount of honey to our ganache- to be careful not to add too much as it would throw the flavor off. In the end he decided to just make the regular pralines and give the box away rather than ruin them all. We were not happy the best choice was to end up with a whole box of chocolates he couldn't eat and I didn't know why they wouldn't just have a cream alternative and an informed instructor.

I would not recommend the workshop if you're a vegan, but if you're not it was a good way to spend an afternoon with a delicious hot chocolate at the end. Our chocolates began to whiten a few days after class and that's a result of too much moisture or heat. That topic wasn't covered during class so if you attend then make sure to inquire.

 

 (C)Christina Bolton

 

 

 

 

Maasai Mara Tented Camp was a real indulgence – we had gone on safari in Tanzania and in Kenya's Ambosoli Park and had stayed in places that ranged from decent to very good, but nothing like this.

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We had a beautifully decorated tent overlooking the river with a fancy bathroom and large outdoor enclosed shower with a view (also an indoor shower if you prefer). The rugged tent kept out the monkeys that liked to sit on our front porch and had a large canopy bed and even a Nespresso machine.

 

There were lots of hippos in the river and there were viewing platforms in various spots overlooking where they congregated. They were very loud, especially around 4 am when they were getting back in the water after a long night of foraging. There were a number of crocodiles in the river too and they would sun themselves on the banks right in front of the main building that held the restaurant and bar.

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Speaking of the restaurant – the food was fabulous and plentiful and the service was great. For each meal you had the same waiter or waitress taking care of you, so they quickly learned all your preferences. He or she was also in charge of arranging your 'wake up coffee' service early in the morning when it was still pitch black out to get everyone up before the sunrise safaris.

 

The safaris here were timed to when the animals were most active – early am and late afternoon/early evening. Another bonus of the timing is you get to see the sunrise and the sunset and its fantastic lighting for photos. Many of the safaris we did in other places were day-long game drives, so you usually leave after breakfast instead of before and are out the whole day, but a lot of animals including the lions spend most of the day asleep, so if you want to see them active the schedule at Fairmont makes more sense. It also leaves you a lot more free time during the day.

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After the three hour morning game drive, we came back to the lodge for breakfast – a very nice buffet with many different stations – one with fresh fruits and vegetables, another with cereals and nuts, and then the large selection of hot dishes. In addition, the chefs will make you any kind of eggs. They even had lox, my favorite!

 

After breakfast most people opted for a nap, but there was also the pool and spa to spend time at. When we returned to our rooms the tents were spotless – which means the cleaning crew keeps the same crazy hours as us safari goers. We had the same person minding our room each day as well so they also got to know our needs. The staff were so friendly and helpful and always eager to please. Those are the little things that really make the place special – you feel so taken care of.

 

In the afternoon you could read a book by the pool or river or use the wifi at the stylish, comfortable lodge (the only place with wifi) and then go to lunch - which some days was a large healthy buffet and others was a beautifully plated 3 course meal - I'm not sure which was better!

 

The very best part of the place were the safari drives. We loved our driver, Anthony. He was extremely knowledgeable about all the animals, animated when telling stories about them, and both funny and personable while being completely professional. Fairmont also keeps you with the same guide the whole time, which was good because they knew what animals you'd already seen the day before and they always tried to show you something new. He was so well informed that I asked him lots of questions that had come up over the last two weeks of safaris in the different parks and he was very patient and answered all of them.

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We saw many lions – even while mating (which they do every 20-30 mins for three days straight during mating season!); also cubs playing with their mama's tails and jumping back and forth as they swished from side to side. One day we found a cheetah which are fairly rare. There were lots of wildebeest and zebras and all kinds of antelope – including some types we hadn't seen at the other parks and the mini species which is a favorite – the dick-dick. There were buffalo, elephants, ostriches, hyenas, giraffes and many bird species. The only one of the 'big five' we didn't see was the leopard. We kept searching, but leopards are solitary animals and spend most of their time in trees and are harder to spot. However, we had already seen them in Serengeti Park, so for us it was not crucial, though it would have been nice.

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The animal populations were less dense when we were there than in the Serengeti – partly because of the time of year (their migration sends them in a big circle through both parks – which is essentially the same park just on either side of the Kenya/Tanzania border) and partly due to being in the 'conservation area' of Maasai Mara. The animals know no boundaries and will go wherever there is food and water, but some areas have people living there and these places have fewer wild animals.

 

One very special animal that Anthony brought us to see were the rhinos. There are only two left in Kenya and they are highly protected – rangers guard them when they go out grazing during the day and at night they are caged behind an electric fence since their horns are so valuable – worth more than their weight in gold – and the poachers are fierce. The rangers house is also right next to the enclosure in case poachers try anything at night. So we did see them up close, though it was a semi- zoo experience I wasn't expecting. Rhinos are generally very far from humans (understandably), so its tough to see them close up in the wild – we did see them in Ngorogoro Crater but even with good binoculars they were barely distinguishable from other large animals.

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The rangers were kind and proud of the rhino protection project. They have a tough job of safeguarding Kenya's wildlife – in Maasai Mara its a little easier since its the most touristed park with the most resources, but in some more remote parks being a ranger is quite a dangerous job as the poachers are often involved with organized crime and have many weapons and will sometimes kill the rangers to get to the elephants or rhinos.

 

All in all, the Safari Club was an excellent escape and if you are a Fairmont rewards member like I am they regularly issue third night free certificates, so we only paid for two nights. One thing to consider is that the certificates are good for room only so if you plan to add on the meals ($90/night pp for full board) and the game drives ($60/each pp) it is about the same cost or sometimes more than just paying for the extra night, but if you want to take a 'day of rest' and just have one meal at the bar or add on one of their extra activities such as the visit to the Maasai village ($25/pp) then it could work out well.

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Safari's are expensive all over Africa, but we both thought Fairmont Safari Club was a good value when compared to other options since it includes all meals and safari drives for two people at about $400/night. Most people seem to hire a guide in Nairobi and take the long 5 hour drive on bumpy roads to their accommodation, but once you add guide fees, the jeep, the meals and the place you stay -  its probably not going to be much less and the facilities will be tough to find at that price (plus you need to add national park fees which add up quickly to both options). The added bonus is you can take a 45 min scenic flight on a small plane and your guide picks you up right at the airstrip, offers you welcome drinks, and then starts with a short game drive before bringing you over to the club. Saving all that time on the transport allowed us to go to the elephant orphanage and the giraffe feeding sanctuary in Nairobi before flying in and to spend the afternoon at the pool upon our return.

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This was a very 'civilized' way to have a safari – with excellent guides, deep comfort, personalized service, indulgent food and naps – how can you go wrong?

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©Christina Kay Bolton

 

Fairmont Safari Club, Maasai Mara, Kenya: http://www.fairmont.com/masai-mara-safari/

Camino de Santiago, Spain (or Way of St. James) in pictures.

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Photos (c) Christina Bolton

 

Serengeti Heritage Luxury Camp is a unique tented camp in one of the most animal rich parks in East Africa. The amazing thing about staying within Tanzania's Serengeti National Park is how surrounded by animals you are. It is so different from staying outside a park in a small village like we'd done the previous few nights. Being in their habitat and territory can be pretty unnerving for us city folk!

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One of the things we loved about this tented camp was the presence of many fearless Masaai tribespeople who are not intimidated by animals – they've been living near them their whole lives. 'Doctor' is in charge of the camp. He's a very funny guy who had a good-natured way of poking fun of all our fears. When we first arrived and got out of the jeep and walked right past a hyena we were pretty scared (have you ever seen a hyena's teeth?). He said “Scared of a hyena?” “If you take a step toward him or throw a rock he'll run away.” We then peppered him with questions, mostly about how to deal with each species if we happen to walk past them on the way to our tent – which was the very last one at the edge of the camp. We learned not to run away or throw a rock at a lion or it will attack you. Just slowly, casually walk by and it will just think you’re part of the scenery. You aren't their normal prey. The million dollar question is: Can you stroll by a lion late at night without running for your life? Luckily we didn't have to find out as we never saw them that close – even though we heard them roaring near our tent all night long.

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The tents are nice and big, with a large sleeping area and a spacious bathroom so you don't have to go outside at night. There is running water to the sink, toilet and shower – though the hot water to the shower didn't work for us either day, but they say it’s a timing thing as the water is heated by the sun during the day and by wood in the evening during limited hours – so don't wait too late to take your shower. The beds were pretty with big canopies made with large mosquito nets and fresh white linens. In the rooms they had walkie-talkies so you could radio in to the main tent to get an escort. It was considered more dangerous to walk around at night so the rules were you had to call after dark and they would send a Masaai guy who carried a large spear to walk you to dinner. During the day most people walked by themselves, but not us! We usually called for an escort to and from the central canteen.

 

Down at the mess tent you could charge your phone or camera battery for the next day, as there were no outlets in the rooms. There was one fridge at the bar, but it was quite a small bar menu and things like ice were not a possibility given their solar setup for power. The food was served buffet style with several choices and was good, even though it must have been difficult to prepare with the limited facilities.

 

What really set this place apart were the people. Elias (our Masaai protector!), who always had a charismatic smile, Happiness (Yes, that's her name!) who was very happy and also determined to live out her dreams and generally a great person, and of course Doctor with his jokes, hugs, broad grin and a real desire to help us grow past and transform our fears. He even asked my husband (who was definitely the most scared person in the whole camp – or at least the most honest about it) to come stay there for a month and volunteer and he'd help him get over his fear.

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At night it seemed the lions and hyenas had some form of dialogue going – I didn't know there would be any kind of cross species calls like that. The hyenas would go first and the lions would roar back, matching length and cadence, and that went on for hours. It really sounded like they were conversing directly outside of our tent.

 

On our first night walking back to the tent we saw a buffalo just behind the tents and its eyes glowed as it looked right at our flashlight. We were concerned then as buffalo are very territorial and are responsible for the second most deaths of humans in Africa (after only hippos). Us foreigners spend so much time being scared of lions when they actually have very few run ins with humans and these other animals are much more dangerous.

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Another great thing about the camp was the location – since we were inside the park all we had to do is roll out of bed and get in the jeep to see the animals at one of the best times of day – early morning when the sun is rising. The other best time is at dusk and if you're staying outside the park you will probably be gone by then as its difficult to drive at night in the remote areas near the parks without big floodlights.

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Also, getting into the parks generally is a big logistical nightmare, even though you're paying huge park fees to enter, as the people at the park offices will hold you outside the gates until their computer (which may be down and tough luck for you) confirms all the paperwork you have right in your hand stamped by the appropriate people which says you've already paid at the correct office for the correct number of days. By the way, if it’s not all exactly right you can get sent away to some office an hour away in the town to wait until it opens and pay there again. Tanzania was ridiculous in this regard. After going to four parks in Tanzania and probably averaging an hour at the border of each one, I was actually shocked when we went to Kenya and were allowed into a park without paying anything as their system was down and were just told to drive by the other gate at some point in the day and pay there. Perfectly logical. Maybe at some point the Tanzanian officials will start treating the tourists with a little less suspicion and if they have their mounds of paperwork in order actually let them into the park even if their computer happens to be down – which is quite common in these parts. If you want to see the animals when they are most active it’s easier to be inside the park already.

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The first morning we saw cheetahs just after leaving the camp, and cheetahs along with leopards are some of the most difficult animals to see. Actually, Serengeti was the only park where we ended up seeing leopards. We also managed to see the annual migration too. Massive herds of wildebeest along with zebras are on a big tract to their calving areas and back through fertile plains with fresh grazing while also crossing dangerous crocodile filled rivers and being chased by lions and other predators along the way.

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Heritage was one of the more affordable choices for tented camps in the area. Some of the places are unbelievably expensive especially once you add the park fees which are not included.

 

If you're looking for an authentic safari experience with fabulous people and a relatively safe experience (compared to the people camping in small pup tents who have to go out in the night to use the toilet) then look no further and give Doctor and his friends a call.

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©Christina Bolton

 

Serengeti Heritage Luxury Camp, http://serengetiheritagecamp.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 05 September 2017

Travel Photographs: Scotland

Travel Photography by Christina Bolton

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Photographs by Christina Bolton

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(c)Christina Bolton

Omo by Lynne Doran is a book of photographs highlighting the various indigenous tribes of Ethiopia's Omo Valley. She is able to witness some rare celebrations like weddings and coming of age ceremonies and portrays close ups of some of the most fascinating cultures left in the world. 

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Doran travels with Steve Turner, owner and guide of Origins Safaris, to these remote areas which are extremely difficult to reach. On his website, he says “The Omo River of south western Ethiopia is nothing less than the last great tribal land left in the world today, a real kaleidoscope of vanishing cultures.”

 

In her short introduction some of the more interesting customs are mentioned, though many are not and the stories are just told through the pictures. The portraits themselves are excellent and compelling, and though some people are smiling, many more are staring intently right at the camera.

 

One interesting part of the book is noticing how different these tribes are from one another, even though they developed in areas surrounding the Omo River not that far apart. While some may have traded with others at times, they certainly didn't adopt each others traditions, and the picture of what is beautiful in each tribe is quite unique – from dyed hair and headbands to face painting, armbands and piercings. 

 

Doran's photos are intense and honest, but the book may not be for everyone. Though the body painting, plaiting and beading may be beautiful some of the other things like the huge lip plates worn by women in Tulgit and the scars on women of the Hamar tribe from ritualized whippings may turn others away.

 

All in all, it is a candid look at a handful of almost extinct cultures that have certainly been forgotten by most and it may serve to make you wonder about your own origins.

 

 

Omo by Lynne Doran, https://www.lynndoran.com/products/omo-book, $79

 

 

©Christina Bolton

 

 

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(c)Christina Bolton

 

 

Sunday, 01 May 2016

The Cubans

Cuba

 

The Cubans by Jay Seldin is a book of atmospheric portraits of the Cuban people taken while they're going about their daily lives. Though outsiders expect Cuba to be a colorful place, surprisingly, the book is all in black and white and this lends to the moodiness of the photos. It also gives the feeling that Cuba is perhaps stuck in a different era. This is supported by the old kitchens, cars and cameras in the photos.

 

The people look surprisingly resilient amidst the fraying buildings. Boxers, ballerinas and believers are all captured by Seldin, who traveled to Cuba many times over 10 years. From tobacco workers to May Day celebrants to schoolchildren he gives us a rounded look at the Cubans.

 

 

Even though I've known about the embargo my whole life, I was alarmed by the amount of squalor in the photos. In some, people's homes are crumbling around them. It reminded me more of my travels around India rather than what I picture in the Caribbean. I was also surprised a foreigner was able to get access to these shots, even showing people asleep in their homes. Yet the citizens don't seem especially disturbed by the circumstances around them, with both smiling and serious faces, and jubilant and thoughtful expressions.

 

There is a startling truth to these photos which is what all photographers are after. To buy the book or look at some of the photos, check Seldin's website: http://www.jayseldinphotos.com/.

 

 

 

©Christina Bolton

Ecbc's Sparrow wheeled garment bag was designed to make your life easier, at least at getting through security, so you won't need to unpack into a bunch of TSA trays and pack it all back up again while juggling your electronics, your carry-on and your shoes.

 

With ecbc's fastpass® system, all you need to do is fully unzip the outer packet which holds only your laptop on one side and your tablet or other small devices on the other and when your bag makes it through – zip it back up- no devices left behind.

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With the amount of pockets and zippers everywhere it actually takes it a step further and allows your whole bag to be a beacon of organization. The Sparrow even has its own valet where you can clip in hangers so when you get to your destination you just hang them up, no ironing! Two zip pouches easily use the triangular space around the hangers. There's an ID pouch and a water bottle pocket (which would also work well for a fold-up umbrella) on the side and a large compartment for clothes at the bottom. I could easily fit everything I need for a month long trip in this carry on – though I am used to traveling light.

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There is also a portable charging unit which comes with it and promises to charge your devices 3-5 times – though you may want to check your cables before you go anywhere. It charged my phone fine, but wouldn't work for my laptop as that won't charge off a regular usb connection.

 

The Sparrow will fit the carry-on size requirement for most airlines – though maybe not the weight – it is not the lightest bag out there at 9 lbs, as all those extra things – particularly the valet definitely add extra weight. Luckily, unless you're going on some of the really cheap airlines, most don't weigh carry-on's, just check-in bags, but don't take it on Wow Air, etc. as they weigh everything and will definitely charge you more.

 

The only thing it doesn't have is spinner wheels. I didn't think I'd ever go back to regular wheels after falling in love with spinners, but after my last trip to Europe and trying to roll my spinner on all those cobblestone streets I was less enamored with it – it actually seemed harder to roll than to just pull it, so now I'm open to regular wheels again. I do wish the valet part of this bag was removable for those beach trips where you don't need business type clothes and that would allow you to cut down on the weight a bit; the bottom part that folds over the clothes can already be zipped off, though that doesn't weigh much, but if you could remove the part that clamps the hangers down that would make a difference.

 

Any bag which promises a few less minutes in the TSA zone is great by me – I'm always trying to get out of there! And with the organization this bag promises, its a go!

 

 

©Christina Bolton

 

 

For more info: www.ec-bc.com http://www.ec-bc.com/sparrow-wheeled-bag.html

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