Rocky Road

Phase 3: We really get this show on the road. Or the dirt. In any case, this is the hardest, rockiest, bumpiest ride I have ever taken. Rickety doesn’t describe it. When I spoke to my mom, I felt more like I was chanting into an oscillating fan. How this vehicle even traverses this terrain, I will never know.  I do know that one should eat a light meal prior to climbing aboard, lest they inadvertently barf it up.

I disgustingly digress. Safari! Kruger National Park, South Africa! We made it! Twenty plus hours of planes, a swift jog through Doha, lots of F words from my mom and one very serious promise that one of us was never, EVER again, going to fly that distance ever as long as she shall live…and we made it to safari. Invigorating. Curious. Far. Different. Otherworldly. All these things describe it and yet don’t – it doesn’t describe it enough. There aren’t enough adjectives to accurately describe how it feels to roll up on some rhinos who truly couldn’t care less that you were there.

In a matter of hours, we had seen the big five, it didn’t take long at all. But each and every time we came upon some animals, it was absolutely magical. The park itself was so quiet, you hear nothing but the birds chirping in the distance or the leaves blowing in the breeze. Even the elephant, trotting alongside the car, makes no noise. Just the gentle crunch of his padded feets hitting the dirt. They truly are light on their feet.

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Nothing could prepare me, though, for the scope and scale of these animals. Their size is beyond imposing, and likening rhinos to the size of an SUV isn’t totally incorrect. Seeing them outside and not locked up in a tiny zoo – it really makes you reconsider those types of things.

Learning about the anti-poaching measures in the park, and then being able to see how peacefully these creatures exist is nothing short of sickening. Suffice to say, between this and the zoos, my perspective has either changed or my convictions grown stronger. It is impossible, completely impossible, to not fall in love with one if not many of the creatures in South Africa. It’s easy to forget how real poaching is, even in a protected park like Kruger. You’ll be quickly reminded when shown the skull of an animal bludgeoned and shot for its horns. Sigh.

After a few hours of seeing animals I thought only existed in Disney movies, and having my innards rearranged via tires, I was ready for a siesta. Back to the lodge for a nap and lunch, but not before seeing a pack of zebras hanging on the what’s essentially the front lawn. _DSC0975.JPG

By the end of the day, I had seen the big give, and some hyenas and birds that were such magnificent shades of blue I couldn’t believe they were real. The one thing about getting out of the Flintstones’ safari car is that as soon as my feet hit the ground, I want to climb back in.

Safari is real magic.

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This Isn’t a Movie

Phase 2: We made the plane, no one suffered the indignity of sweating their eyeliner off, and everyone was happy. Fantastic.

Landing in Nelspruit was by far and away the most amazing airport – no, no, airstrip from a former military base – I have ever been to. It is really nothing more than a landing strip in the middle of the bush. It lacks the formality of lanes and markers and other general aviation identifiers one might see at a regulation airport. What it does have, though, is a healthy population of impala and monkeys with their little bums exposed. They were just scampering about the side of the paved road, having lunch and chatting among their friends mostly. It was the most bewildering landing and taxi I have ever been a part of and by far the most exciting. I have never felt quite like I have arrived! anywhere they way I did when I hit the airstrip.

After a few minutes of this, we sort of screeched up to the main building of the strip and parked on an angle.  And then we just… jumped out, grabbed our luggage and headed to the exit. Everything was dusty and brown and excited me in a way that was so new and different, I truly felt that I was someplace special. Someplace I can’t believe even exists in real life and not in a Disney kind of way. But it does. And I was there!

I arranged for a transfer from the airstrip to the lodge inside Kruger because it was a good two hour ride. Our driver was a wonderful man who spent his life as a teacher, founded a school in some long forgotten area, turned it over to the village and then decided to stay working around Kruger solely for his love of the area. How incredible.

The ride was quiet for a while with not much to see. Until. Until the corrugated metal roof huts that were sized more like outhouses but were actually just houses. Some were in close clusters and others were farther away with some livestock scattered between. I didn’t see many people but if I were to describe it, I would say Sally Struthers needs to bring her infomercials down to the outskirts of Nelspruit. These little villages looked like poor people have too much money to throw around to visit there. It was shocking and heartbreaking and invited more questions than answers.

I could go on about what this looked like, but I don’t want to drag this down. But damn.

As we continued down the highway to the entrance of Kruger, the road started to turn from pavement to rocks to bumpy dirt. I was excited as the texture changed, because the surrounding area also changed. There were far more fences of varying heights keeping something in, or maybe just keeping me out. And then I see it. The most majestic giraffe I had ever seen. I am sure some of that is due to the fact that it was the first I had ever seen in the wild, but I don’t care. I loved her! And I know she felt the same. We were just so happy to see each other, you could feel the love flow through the air. IMG_2459.JPG

The ride was really quite long, but the animals along the road made it more than tolerable. Monkeys, buffalo, impala, all of it, bring it to me.

And then we started to slow down, as my guide noticed a car pulled over on the road. We approached and saw 2 young lions resting under a tree, having just dined on the dead buffalo in the distance.  I swear I could reach out and pet them as they relaxed, so close yet not disturbing them in the slightest. Apparently, they are so used to people rolling up, gasping at the sight of them, taking hundreds upon hundreds of photos, and moving along that they are no longer afraid. I am not sure if I am charmed by this or if it alarms me.

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After a while, we approach a bunch of buildings and other people at the entrance of Kruger. We need to get our access passes here but that is all handled by our lovely driver. You need proof of passage into the park upon entry but you also need to hold on to and present the same vouchers upon exit.

Finally, we arrive. A sprawling property with a covered walkway and Toyota’s parked outside. The dreamiest of safaris await.

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I Am a Sucker for a Deal

So, the price was right. An almost round trip ticket to Johannesburg, South Africa, from New York for about $435. Sounds reasonable. I booked it. I was going to have a little dream trip and go on safari to Kruger National Park and see me some cuddly wild cats.

After much research and planning, and dragging my long suffering mother along for the ride, I had identified my lodge, my transfers and the end game for the trip.

Phase One: JFK to Doha, 14ish hours. Here’s the thing: the ticket allowed ONLY 70 minutes to change planes in Doha. When I called Priceline to try and get a different outbound flight, they denied me, saying I had enough time. WELL. You people are wrong. Dead wrong. We landed and after the small delay at JFK, and then actually getting off the plane, it was a full on sprint. Doha airport was beautiful and clean and a big blur. Some running, a tram, finger crossing, and a great deal of cursing, we were one of the final few to board the plane. The cursing, by the way, was from my mother to me for making her run and literally drip sweat. But we made it and that’s what matters. Right? Are we having fun yet?

From Doha, a city I’d love to see at another time, we had another 8 hours to Johannesburg. And I have to say, it was a lovely and relatively easy flight. At least for me. My mother shot me side eye across the aisle as I slept comfortably.

After 20 plus hours of flying, running and educating the locals on American expletives, we arrived in Johannesburg. Customs was a long twisty line that appeared to be a mess yet went by relatively fast with a fair amount of indoor sweat. Again. After winding our way out of the airport to the shuttle area, and shooing away every single person asking for a tip for reasons unknown, we arrived at the Protea Marriott. It’s a delightful airport hotel modeled after an airplane, it even has the corrugated metal detail. Just delightful.

We grabbed a shower – a shower, which, by the way, was in the bathroom area. An area, not an actual room, as the shower and sink AREA, was sectioned off by a hospital curtain. Literally, you pulled the curtain around to separate the shower from the bedroom. Incredibly strange, but I guess it made sense in the interest of space, but still. At least the toilet had a door.

Dinner was in the hotel since we could barely hold our heads up. We had an early flight the next morning to Nelspruit, just outside Kruger. I hope we don’t have to run to make this flight.

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Costa Christina

I beach hopped each day. I visited the ports – Porto Cervo, Porto Brandinchi, Porto Rotundo, Puntaldia, and Golfo Aranci. I shopped the stores for regular junk to take home, like magnets and t-shirts. I shopped the stores for clothes I will never wear and never buy, and honestly, I don’t know who would or how those places even stay in business. Somewhere is an unfortunately dressed woman who is going to credit Sardinia with her brightly patterned look of coral and tropical fish and locals the land over will cringe. She’s likely sitting next to a man in pants that are too tight, too short, too linen and too pink to be useful anywhere else.

I more than enjoyed the local scenery – the limestone mountains, the cliffs, the sweeping seascapes. And I enjoyed the locals and the poor to nonexistent English. There’s something gently charming about being in a place where they can take you or leave you. I like this. Gesturing, pointing, trying to recall words that sound like other words in Italian that I have heard or read in the past, simply trying to fill my Fiat up with gas. It’s an adventure, each day a small challenge to be won.

My favorite is presenting my credit card and watching the merchant read my name. I often watch the expression on their face go from abject indifference to welcoming acceptance. On more than once occasion I heard something like, “Your surname….it’s Italian, yes?” Then it was like the front door of their home swung open, and I was ushered in, had a glass of wine thrust in my hand and sat at the dinner table. I was in. I just wish I was in enough to find out how they make a living and how much do cars cost and what the winter is like…

I found the whole island to be relatively undeveloped and therefore fascinating. The occasional roadside inn, pizzeria, food truck. A smattering of food stores and hotels. None such that you would know what you were looking at if you weren’t actually looking for it.

And each day was harder and harder to end, the sun just never set. Not until 10pm when it finally ducked behind the limestone mountains.  I didn’t feel I could end the day until the day itself ended.

I did spend many several hours on the beach and I was warned not to ‘overdue it’ but I don’t know what those words mean and now I am now permanently colored somewhere between rotisserie chicken and pulled pork.

Speaking of which, the food. Oh, dear, the food. The island itself is Italian, but it is very close to Corsica, which belongs to the French, and has some Spanish influence that dates back thousands of years. That being said, one might expect to find a thorough mix of these cuisines and maybe they can. But not me. That’s not my goal. My goal is to eat the Italian from morning to night. The fresh tuna, the blindingly tender clams and muscles, the mouth melting pasta – where does one begin? One evening, I went into the center of Olbia, and dined outside. I had an Ichnusa beer, the spaghetti with clams and panna cotta with a raspberry sauce that brought tears to my eyes. You know the food is fresh from the sea when along with the clams you chew a little sand. I didn’t mind much. So the dish was a little gritty, just like Sardinia itself.

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I spent each day exploring a different beach, fighting parking lot crowds because no matter how early it was, I simply wasn’t early enough. But I always found a good spot and managed to enjoy 10 or more hours reading, sleeping, and frolicking in the water. I snorkeled and picked shells; some already had occupants.

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In the evenings, I explored the center of the town, the shopping areas teeming with bright colors and billionaires. I fit in quite nicely, if you ask me.

Sardinia is my little dream island. It’s small but had everything, and nothing more than is necessary. The water and beaches are to die for, each one more spectacular than the next. The scenery was stunning no matter where I went. I thought it would be amazing based solely on the adverts in Fiumicino Airport, and it was.

I had an entire week of beach days, no rain, no clouds. I bounced around among the glitterati on the most beautiful island I have ever stepped foot on. I would recommend it highly but I prefer to keep it my little secret.

 

 

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I Said I Was Going

Last time I was in Italy, I passed large adverts on the airport walls for a land not far off.  A land of white sand, crystalline waters in shades of turquoise and emerald; happy, tanned people frolicking along the beach. I, too, wished to be one of these people diving off rocks into cerulean pools on the Costa Smeralda.

In a spur of the moment decision, with about 3 weeks notice, I booked a trip to Sardinia. Because why not. I had grandiose plans of visiting the caves and grottoes, seeing the ruins of Sardinia’s past and shopping in Cagliari. Well…

Turns out, there isn’t a lot of literature about this place, at least that I could find. And what I did dig up wasn’t very fruitful in terms of tourist friendly information. Is it possible I have found a land of relative seclusion? One where Americans are not the usual visitor? Tuns out, yeah, I kind of did.

I flew from Rome into the most northern port, Olbia. And pretty much stayed there. Why? Because 30 minutes in any direction from my hotel was a beach. And not just a regulation beach. But beaches so far into my wildest dreams, it was like I stepped clear out of my head and into those advertisements I saw on the airport walls. It is real.

From the road, you get glimpses of the coast line through the shrubbery, ragged and jutting into the sea. Vistas of navy blue water catching the sun, dotted by white – sailboats and yachts – mega yachts, even, that have dropped anchor just off the beach. Emerald and turquoise waters with gleaming silver tips,  calling my name from miles away.

I had a hard time getting to the water each day. I was more compelled by the homes I saw, jammed into the cliffs overlooking the water. I wanted to pull into their ornate stone driveways and knock on the door, offer to be a live in maid or nanny.  Whatever it takes. I don’t need a lot of space, really. Or perhaps these kind people would invite me in to have a look around. I imagined sitting down on the veranda scented with gardenia to discuss the things I really wanted to know. What are your property taxes? What do you do for work? Is it expensive here? Did you build this house new yourself? Do you stay just in summer? Do you have a landscaper for these ornate and perfectly pruned flowers of purple and pink and white that caress your custom made entrance gate? If not, do you want to hire me? Do you have any sons my age? Is that lunch?

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But I don’t because I have no interest in visiting a Sardinian jail lest it’s waterfront or has an infinity pool.

Anyway. Sardinia. Wow. It is one of the most rustic places I have visited. Rustic land, like upcountry Maui or Sicily or Montana. To get to the beach, I drive through dry grass, hills, sheep, rocky, unpaved roads. It seems like such a contradiction in terms. But it is real and it is magical.

But the beaches. My first beach required parking in a dirt lot. And here I thought arriving around 9am guaranteed me first crack at parking and a spot on the beach. Well, I could not be more wrong. I left my car in the middle of the alleged lot, grabbed my bag, and began a short hike to the beach, along with tens of other people. It was packed! It’s SO early! Ugh.

I eventually found a spot, dropped my hotel towel (thanks, guys!) and marveled at how pristine the sand was, how clear the water. I walked in up to my ankles, and looked down. The sand glistened and glittered like I was standing on actual diamond dust. With every step, I kicked up chunks of glittery diamond sand that billowed into shiny clouds of soft powder. It was so shimmery, had so much luster, that I felt I could sit down and pan for actual karats.

I looked around, the water was clear and turquoise as far as the eye could see. I watched the sun hit the gentle ripples in the water, and it actually looked like chunks of gold were washing ashore. The way the light reflected off the water made me feel like I was swimming in liquid gold. I stood there admiringly for so long my shoulders began to burn.

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That picture doesn’t do it justice, you’ll need to really envision my description.

I spent a whole 8 hours on the beach, in the water, reading, rotating, like I was on a spit.

And for the next four days, I did pretty much the same. Laying about, admiring the view. Marveling over the water, the glistening, the warmth, the Italian spoken around me, the cloudless sky, the powdery sand, the yachts moored just off the coast inspiring awe and envy.

But doing all that nothing takes quite a bit out of you.

I can’t tell you how tired I was 10 – 11 hours later! The thing is this, the sun never seemed to set. I didn’t know what time it was, ever. The crowds never thinned out such to indicate a certain time of day or a certain meal is approaching. I suppose I would have known by my own hunger pangs, but I brought some stuff with me, so I never felt like I needed to eat. Not that it mattered, because I determined not to leave until I absolutely had to.

My first day was actually quite overwhelming, despite doing not a whole lot. I think I was so enamored of this island, the breathtaking beauty of it. The completely clear water and it’s warm yet refreshing temperature. I am not sure I ever considered such a place existed.

 

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Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese

I am basically torn between “educate me and tell me everything about how this is done so I replicate it at home against my better judgement” and “can we please fast forward to the part where I get to put it all in my mouth?”

Alas, we aren’t there yet since raw milk products cannot be consumed before 60 days, so no eating the newly made product. We are at the point where things are taking shape, and so we move along the tour. But seriously, feed me.

As I walk along the hallowed corridors, I still faintly smell the pigs, but do not hear them.  I notice the halls are pristine, and are often decorated with posters and maps that celebrate the local area. Occasionally, I will pass an open window, letting in a gentle breeze. I notice that some rooms don’t have any vents or window units, no air or heat. The dairy really lets the environment do the work, and it is pure magic.

While the cheese is taking shape in the mold for 48 hours, still absent the parmigiana part of the process, all the natural lactic bacteria starts to create an unfriendly environment for competing bacteria. This is just natural protection against any potential invaders. It’s like it creates it’s own immune system. In doing so, the acidity is very high, and then the lactose turns to lactic acid, then it becomes lactose free – rendering it free of allergens. Hypo-allergenic cheese.  Aside from that, true parmigiana has 30% fat content, and it incredibly rich in nutrients because of the highest quality milk. The calcium content is among the highest in the world of any cheese product and it contains lots of protein. You might even call it a perfect food. If you won’t, I certainly will. And then I will enjoy it in large quantities.

It’s so perfect, in fact, that it is the first sold food given to infants in Italy as recommended by pediatricians. Take that, Gerber.

I am reminded that the cheese is just cheese until it meets the salt.  Down another hall and past some offices and behind double doors is where the transformation takes place.

I burst through the doors, and find a huge room with wall to wall vats of cheese wheels, delicately bobbing in salt water pools of maturity. The windows are open here as well, and the smell of the pigs outside wafts in and slaps me in the face. It is briny combined with that of farm animal. After a few minutes, I’ve forgotten all about it.

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The glorious wheels sit in a sea salt brine for 18-20 days, completely saturated, and are rotated on a daily basis. I can say with authority that it is strongly advised you do not poke the wheels in the water to watch them bob up and down in their salty pools of delicious.

This salting is the first agent that forms the rind. The salt hardens the cheese, both inside and out. This process makes the cheese officially parmigiana and no longer a generic cheese. And now,  we wait. It’s going to take one whole year to sit and swim before it is really, truly, officially parmigiana. Fortunately, no one is going to make me wait a year as that would be cruel and unjust.

These pigs that assaulted my nose, by the way, are born and raised on the same dairy land, and they are only allowed to eat the whey left over from the cheese making process. Windows in the facility are all open because the climate is just as crucial in this process as anything else. From local dairy farmers to the cheese makers to the pigs, the whole process is more than local – it’s regulated.  It’s clear that it is personal to everyone involved, and there is great respect in the process. Even the pigs are treated with reverie and fed only the best, most pure food, creating a circle of life type of feeling.

The next part of this process is something that my dreams are made of.  The wheels are shelved in a giant room with open widows where they rest for a year or more and under go quality checks. A massive library of parmigiana. Shelf after shelf, aisle after aisle of beautiful, aging, parmigiana reggiano, from floor to ceiling. file (1).jpg

I separated from my mom and tour guide at this point, and I ran up and down the aisles, running my hands over the wheels, letting the wind catch in between the buttons on my bunny suit. I heard harps play with each step. I paused to take photos with some wheels, others I just caressed with my cheek, leaving me with a shiny, greasy streak across my face. One I tried to wrap my arms around, just to see if I could. I whispered I love you,       I swear I heard it say it loved me, too.

When I was done being one with the wheels, I resumed learning. I heard something about quality testing and perked up. I was disappointed to discover that meant using a tuning fork type of hammer to determine how far along the cheese was in the aging process. There are expert testers who spend their formative years knocking on wheels and listening for the sound of perfection. And that is how they check – knocking on the cheese allows them to listen to hear how compact the inside is. That determines if it is ready to go. So simple.

Possibly my favorite fact: banks will take the wheels as down payment on a loan and have their own maturing facility. Wish those bands were on the tour.

At the end, amidst facts and figures about cheese making and the pigs and cows that are responsible for the glorious treat, I get to taste the finished product. I get the regular every day cheese, aged about a year, and then I get the fancy, holidays and special occasion cheese aged 36 months. I heard the harp again. I did a little dance. I cried out to the heavens that this was so good and ohmygoodnessohmygoodness.

But really, I was so tickled to have been allowed in the halls and processing facility, in the heart of Parma. I saw experts who train their whole lives to ensure the perfect product is created. I smelled pigs that are better cared for than I care for myself. And I tasted the final product. Who is luckier than me?

 

 

 

 

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The Cheese Stands Alone

Finding the hidden gems and local specialties that are tucked in the corners and verandas of Italy are part of why I continue to return. Each corner more beautiful than the next, with flowers and vines climbing the brick walls, woven in the wrought iron balconies. Smelling the baking dough and cheese waft from the pasticceria down the street. Walking under the delicately hung night gowns and other unmentionables that criss cross from window to window to dry. Charms that are inherent to ones imagination when thinking of spending a day lazily wandering the cobblestone streets.

What they are often missing is the history of those smells.

One of my most favorite things is in the world is cheese. Good, old fashioned formaggio. It was more than a pleasant surprise when I learned I could visit the cheese dairy from birth to storage. It was one of the greatest moments of discovery I have ever known.

So I embarked from Milan to Parma via train, early in the morning, to arrive at the dairy to catch the start of the day. As I pulled up in the cab, I watched the sun rise over the fields and could smell the sharp scent of pigs and their muck. I could not see them, but there was no question they were around.

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I was greeted by an extremely knowledgeable guide from the Parmigiana Consortium, which is a group of dairy farmers and cheese producers who work together to protect the identity and authenticity of the parmigiana. The producers, however, are not the cheese makers but the farmers with the milk producing cows. Imagine that this process is so intense and sacred that the people more intimately involved formed a group to protect the integrity of the cheese. Amazing.

I bunny-suited up from head to toe to protect the cheese from me, which, I suppose, makes perfect sense. We enter the dairy and I am in it, among the giant bell shaped copper vats of milk swirling and heating. Milk that was delivered fresh, early in the morning, and immediately put to use. A set of magicians are at the giant bowls, one vat at a time, to mix and add the fermented whey and rennents.10-23-2016-6-38-03-pm

While I contemplated leaving my Jersey life and moving to the Italian countryside to live among the cheese and pigs, I am reminded that each of the cheese magicians are trained and come from long lines of other cheese makers. I can’t just take up residence and start stocking my own wheels. So I am neither trained nor really welcomed in this respect. Which is just as well because they work every day including holidays and that isn’t really my style. Even Jesus took a day off.

I turn my thoughts to making some of this glorious cheese at home, given there are only 3 ingredients inclusive of the milk. I am quickly brought back to reality when I get to see a wheel in the mold with the etching that will give it authenticity and the rind we are all so familiar with as its imprinted with the dotted parmigiano reggiano brand.

Once in the mold, each wheel gets its own ID number, its first mark of origin so there is no question as to the authenticity of the product. It’s hard not to appreciate the thought that goes into this whole scenario. Especially since that ID number is directly related to the farmer producers so when it’s sold, the right people get paid. Tracking from the start of the supply chain all the to the consumer…Incredible! But, it’s still not official parmigiano yet. It’s just kind of wheel of..cheese-like stuff.

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But it is still a wheel of cheese-like stuff I want to take a bite of like an apple. However, I have discerned that this is likely frowned upon so I don’t touch anything.

Yet.

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