Archive | September, 2012

Waste Not! Foodies On a Budget

27 Sep

We only have one fork.

Cooking without a kitchen or my usual gadgets has made me a more inventive and skilled cook. My recipes are simpler, my dishes are few and I do just about everything by hand. Living out of the van has taught me to use my resources and to see every bit of food as having the potential for a gourmet meal. My boyfriend and I constantly surprise ourselves when we taste the dishes we’ve concocted and it’s inspired us to waste as little as possible and to stretch that dollar as far as we can.

We can still scratch our foodie itch while on the road and a budget – all it takes is a little creativity. We’ve always got a few non-perishables on hand, such as refried beans, canned veggies, rice, pasta and noodles, but we’ve also got the important stuff, like peanut butter, balsamic vinegar, truffle oil, olive oil, honey, Himalayan sea salt, and my homemade exotic spice kit. (We may be living out of a van but that’s no reason to leave my herbs de Provence at home!)

We also try to limit our trips to the grocery store, only buying fresh food once we’ve used up what we already have. However, sometimes we’re in remote areas and don’t have a choice. That’s when the real creativity blooms! Last week, for instance, we camped in Corindi Beach, NSW and the nearest grocery store was 30 minutes away. There was, however, a tiny corner store within walking distance but the half empty shelves, inflated prices and lack of gluten-free items forced us to see how long we could go before stocking up again. I saw it as a challenge.

Challenge 1:

We had some strawberries that had frozen and unfrozen and were no longer appetizing since they were a mushy mess. We also had some pork chops that needed to be cooked that night. We were coming up with side dish ideas when the light bulb went off and I suggested we mash the strawberries, add some honey and sage, and use it as a glaze for the pork chops.

“That could be alright,” said the boyfriend with a raised eyebrow, and I proceeded to cut off the leafy strawberry tops and mash the flesh with the glass bottom of my truffle oil bottle. I handed him the concoction for grilling and then chopped up some broccoli and spring onion (which was also approaching its expiry date) and tossed it in some truffle oil before giving it a quick saute.

The results were amazing and we mmm’d and smiled the whole meal through. We couldn’t believe how well we eat considering our circumstances. (I wish I had photos to share but it was one of those impromptu dinners made with a glass of wine in hand and some music in the background and, I guess I just wasn’t thinking about it. Sorry, readers!)

Challenge 2:

While looking through our “pantry” I found brown bananas that needed to be eaten two days earlier. Banana bread was out of the question so I made a toastie using our gluten-free bread, extra-chunky peanut butter, the sliced extra-ripe bananas, some honey and a little Himalayan sea salt. The ooey-gooey crunchiness of it all was enough to make me look forward to the next culinary challenge and that’s when I found the blue-brie cheese that expired in two days…

Challenge 3:

With the brie in hand I took stock of our fridge and some items stood out to me: a few slices of bacon, the last of the chicken lunch meat, some lettuce, one gluten-free wrap, a tomato, a very ripe avocado and heaps of condiments. This was a no-brainer: I’d make a chicken-cordon-bleu-style quesadilla! I smeared the wrap with our roasted raspberry chipotle sauce, covered one side with slices of the blue-brie, then layered the chicken and cooked bacon and threw it on one of the public barbies. I let it brown on each side then opened it up and added some chopped lettuce, tomato and avocado.

I surprised my boyfriend with half when he was elbows-deep in some IT work and he looked at me in wonderment, not knowing how I could look at the same half-empty fridge as he, and come up with this concoction. But then, he surprises me too sometimes…

Challenge 4:

Our fridge was empty. We had no meat, no eggs, no milk, no fresh veggies except for two small potatoes and half an onion. We were craving fish n’ chips and considered blowing our budget for the day and ordering some from the corner store. But then my boyfriend spotted the ‘prawn-man’ (think ice-cream man but with seafood, kangaroo, goat and duck meat instead of desserts).

My carnivorous boyfriend chatted up the prawn man and bought a couple of flake filets for the price of one mediocre fish n’ chips meal. He pan-fried some potatoes and threw in the filets, which he marinated in onion, lemon juice and herbs de Provence. It had  a beautiful flavor-complexity and was much healthier than the fried and battered stuff we could have gotten down the street. Halfway through the meal I asked what kind of fish flake was. He looked at me like I was a dumb blonde and said, “Shark, honey. Shark.”

I thought shark would be tougher for some reason but this was light and soft (which must be why Aussies call it flake). I ate the rest of my meal, with sadistic pleasure, happy there was one less shark in the water below.

 I daresay we eat better on the road than at home, but at the very least we enjoy it more because of the strategizing that goes into each meal. When I think of all the times in the past that I threw out the perfectly good leafy tops of a celery bunch or those broccoli stems, or when I let veggies go bad because I bought too much of them, I cringe because I’ve trained myself to view food differently. Now, I’d make a soup, a giant salad or I wouldn’t have bought more than I needed in the first place.

Once you challenge yourself not to waste any food, eating your meals has an added sense of satisfaction to it. Now I’m passing the challenge over to you – whether you’re backpacking, living in a home, on a boat, in a flat or in a van – let’s see how little you can waste!

What are some of your favorite cheap meals that pass the foodie test? Do you have any tricks for minimizing waste?

Australian Wildlife Up Close

21 Sep

The week before I flew back to the states in June, my boyfriend and I had one last road trip from Mackay to Cape Tribulation where the Daintree, the world’s oldest rainforest, and the Great Barrier Reef meet. We stopped at quirky tourist attractions along the way: ordering mango shakes at the Big Mango, stopping for free cheese and yogurt tastings at the Mungalli Creek Biodynamic Dairy, strolling along the Mamu Rainforest canopy walkway and running as fast as we could to see the train as it passed through the Barron Gorge in the Kuranda rainforest village.

My favorite detour, however, was the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary in Townsville. I was leaving Australia and hadn’t seen a koala yet so I begged my boyfriend to pull over when we saw the giant billboard indicating that the sanctuary was only a few kilometers away. He wasn’t interested in going because growing up in Australia provided him with countless run-ins with kangaroos, crocodiles, koalas, dingoes, cassowaries and other exotic birds, so while he had a ‘lay down’ in the van, I ventured into the park, giddy as a schoolgirl, with my camera in tow and some change to buy animal feed.

Once inside I rushed to catch the last few minutes of the croc show and was shocked to find kangaroos wandering everywhere! Not only were there mamas, papas and joeys all around me, but they were incredibly social and persistent. I would stop to feed one kangaroo and then four would surround me, stand on their back legs and shove their way through.

At one point I had three roos eating out of my hand and my heart completely dropped. Time stood still. I’d been in Australia for three months and admired these animals from afar and just as I was about to leave the country I was face to face with them, locked in a cathartic farewell.

I meditated on the experience. I read all the educational signs, I watched the croc, bird and snake shows. I stood in the background as families got their pictures taken with koalas, living vicariously through them. I took videos of my conversations with birds and practically laid on the ground to film a joey making his way out of his mama’s pouch.

On principle I don’t really like going to zoos. It depresses me to see caged wild animals and the thousands of tourists that keep their captivity in demand. But the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary is not a zoo. It comprises 25 acres of bushland, is a certified advanced ecotourism destination and is not overrun by tourists. In the center of the park is a lake, which the birds love to fly over, and the animals, with the exception of the wallabies, kangaroos and ducks who roam free, are kept in spacious, fairly open habitats.

The wildlife sanctuary feels like just that – a sanctuary, and you can easily get lost in the experience of connecting with these animals while spending the day learning about them. If you want to experience Australian wildlife up close, I suggest skipping the overpriced and limiting zoos and spending the day at a sanctuary instead.

For more information on the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary in Townsville, visit their website here.

Trouble In Paradise: A Guide for Traveling With Others

20 Sep

We all like to imagine that traveling with a friend or lover will be blissfully conflict-free, but let’s face it – sometimes you never really know a person until you travel with them… and sometimes you don’t like what you see.

You’re spending 24 hours a day with them, planning your trip, your meals, your stays and dealing with the stresses of unexpected travel inconveniences. He wants to go there but you want to go here and it’s your first time in a foreign country so you aren’t comfortable splitting up. Or maybe it’s just been two months straight of sharing the same room with that person and if you hear them brush their teeth that loudly one more time you’re going to scream!

Traveling with others is a beautiful thing because it gives you someone to share the memories with and someone to turn to if you’re in need of support. However, living in close proximity with someone and developing a dependency on one another can bring out the worst in both of you and can ruin your relationship.

I’ve traveled alone, with a best friend, in groups of friends, with people I just met, and with a boyfriend. These are my tips for traveling with others and keeping your sanity:

1. Discuss how you will address conflict before you leave. 

This is important to discuss before you ever board that plane because you can come up with a system of keeping the peace before emotions get involved. Agree on a statement beforehand that opens the floor for communication (like: “hey, remember when we said no matter what happened we’d talk about things because our friendship/relationship is important?…)

Sometimes when we’re traveling with people we love we try to avoid conflict at all costs and we don’t say how we really feel which only leads to resentment, passive aggressiveness and a compromised trip. A friend of mine is a skiing, snowboarding and kitesurfing instructor who served in the Swiss army and he finds that the best way to teach someone or to handle conflict constructively is to use the “sandwich approach.” With this method you sandwich the concern or complaint in between two positive statements that show what is working so the person you’re addressing doesn’t feel attacked.

For example, if you’re traveling with a best friend for the first time and you feel like he/she isn’t listening to what you want to do, say something like:

“I’ve enjoyed going to all these museums you found but I’d really like to change it up and start doing something off the beaten path. I think we’d both benefit from seeing the city in a different light.”

That will be much more effective than if you passive aggressively roll your eyes and say, “Another museum, seriously?”

Don’t foolishly assume that your relationship is so indestructible that you can handle anything that comes between you. Discuss the possibility for conflict before you leave and you’ll handle it better when it does happen.

2. Come up with a rough itinerary before you leave.

This is your chance to find out what each person is hoping to get out of the trip. Maybe one of your friends is a party animal and can’t wait to see the night scene in Barcelona and maybe you’re more interested in the history of the city. Use this pre-departure opportunity to come to a compromise and establish a few things that each of you definitely want to do, that way you’ll have a balance once you reach your destination.

3. If you need your space, take it. 

Don’t let bottled emotions explode and say things you can’t take back. Unaddressed tension can destroy a trip so if you feel yourself on the edge or you’re just the type of person who really enjoys her alone time, tell your travel partner(s) that you need to take some time for yourself. Then find an obscure cafe and people watch, take your book and head to the beach, or go for a walk to clear your head. A little of space can mean the difference between a lasting relationship and one that crumbles. And remember that little idiom about absence making the heart grow fonder? There is absolutely some truth to that. Test it out if you feel like you’re starting to take each other for granted.

4. Don’t be afraid to meet and travel with other people along the way.

Sometimes the best tension dissolver is the company of a new friend. A new group dynamic brings an air of lightness and before you know it the little things you were bickering about will seem insignificant and your perspective will shift. If it’s just the two of you, try couchsurfing for a night or stay in a hostel and go out for drinks with some of your dorm-mates. It’s human nature for you to tire of your travel partner, especially if this is the first time you’re learning all their quirks or spending this much contiguous time together. Don’t be dismayed, be proactive.

5. Go with the flow. 

Travel issues are bound to happen but it’s how you handle them that determines the quality of your trip. Your purse gets stolen, there’s no record of your reservation,  you get stranded in a tiny town or you get hopelessly lost… all of these situations are common and if you can handle them gracefully and make the most out of a bad situation, months later you’ll laugh back on that night when Charlie didn’t realize he was pick-pocketed and had to do the dishes at that restaurant with that big, hairy Russian woman who kept making moves on him. Some of my most interesting travel stories happen when everything goes wrong but I’m determined to stay positive. Keep your cool and learn from the experience.

6. If all else fails, be the bigger person.

No one said it would be easy but if whatever is bothering you is not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s time to suck it up and be the bigger person – for the trip’s sake!

You’re annoyed that your friend has a case of ‘travel love’ and now wants their exotic new lover around all the time? Tell the lover to invite some friends.

All your friend wants to do is get drunk every night? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, or go do your own thing while they recover all day.

There’s no real problem you’re just snappy with each other because you’ve spent too much time together? Have a ‘you’ day and then share all your experiences over dinner.

The annoyances, bickering, and resentment that can come with group travel might not happen to every group but it’s important to realize that it’s one of the most common travel complaints and why a lot of people decide to go it alone. The level of disturbance is directly proportional to the length of travel, the ease of travel, the dynamic of the group and the personalities involved. If you communicate beforehand, address situations as they’re happening and take the time to reassess and get back to what is really important, you’ll be just fine.

I’ll leave you with my favorite lines from Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem, Worth While.

It is easy enough to be pleasant
When life flows by like a song,
But the man worth while is the one who will smile
When everything goes dead wrong.
 
Do you have any group travel horror stories? What are your tips for seamless group travel?

Aussie Speak 101

17 Sep

Yes, we speak the same language but as an American living in Australia I find myself asking for linguistic clarification all the time.

“Can I pass the, what?…What did you just call him?…”

Aussie English is much closer to British English than American English is, but like us they’ve put their own spin on things, often truncating words by adding an -o or -ies at the end.

Here are some of the words or phrases I commonly hear:

Aussie – American

How ya going? – How are you doing?, How are you?

good on ya – well done, good for you

have a yawn – talk

she’ll be right – it’ll be okay

that’s alright – response to thank you

heaps – a lot, a bunch

mate – friend

reckon – think, agreement

piss – beer

get pissed – get drunk

have the shits- get upset, get pissed

too easy – that was simple

ratbag – trouble maker

root – fuck

rubbish – trash, bullshit, not very good

partner – boyfriend/girlfriend, fiance, spouse, same-sex lover

legs eleven – long, sexy legs that go all the way up to heaven

arvo – afternoon

whinge – complain

duner – comforter, blanket

i’m shouting  –  i’m buying, my treat, it’s on me

skull – chug (a drink)

boot – trunk

bonnet – hood

rego – register (car, etc.)

stuffed – messed up, full, fucked up

sunnies – sunglasses

uni – university

DNM – deep and meaninful (conversation)

tea – supper

lift – elevator

chemist – pharmacy

bottle shop – liquor store

serviette – napkin

takeaway – take out, leftovers

lolies – candy, sweets

gone 0ff (food) – spoiled

Maccas – McDonald’s

feed meal

esky cooler

flake shark meat

avos – avocado

holiday vacation

ambo – ambulence

cozzie – swimsuit

bikki – biscuit

brekkie – breakfast

billy – bong toke

bloke – guy, man’s man

Brizzie – Brisbane

chook – chicken

jumper – sweater

doodle – penis

doco – documentary, document

sheila – woman (derogatory)

The postcard I sent my mom during my first trip to Australia. Her name is Sheila.

footy – league rugby

old lady – mom

old man – dad

oldies – parents

pokies – poker machines, gambling slot machines

missus – wife, girlfriend

grouse – good, cool, awesome

joey – baby kangaroo

chubby – boner

journo – journalist

knock – criticize

mozzie – mosquito

no dramas – no worries

op shop – thrift store

petrol – gas

servo – gas (petrol) station

carton – case of beer

spunk – stud, babe

stickybeak – nosy person

tinny – small aluminum boat

ute –pickup truck

knackered – tired

grog- alcoholic drink

tomato sauce- ketchup

poof – gay man

nic- condition

Water and Bathing On the Road

17 Sep

 

No matter what kind of hygienic ritual we’ve become accustomed to most of us can forego hot showers, proper toilets, sinks and washer machines for a week or so when we’re “roughing” it outdoors or backpacking on a budget. But when it becomes a way of life, as it has for my boyfriend and I, you start looking at things a little differently.

When you’re camping, it’s easy to take cold showers for a week and let your leg hair grow out longer than usual because you know it’s only temporary and you’ve got that hot shower waiting for you back home. But when the road is your home, any shower or clean bathroom you come across feels like a trip to the spa and running water is viewed as an invaluable resource for washing dishes and clothes, brushing your teeth, bathing, and even drinking – if you’re so daring.

I come from a world of designer water bottles and giant wholesale markets where people can buy their fancy water in bulk. Now, I drink from whichever faucet is available as long as it passes the clarity and taste test. (And I’m basically living off tea because once the water boils I no longer worry about it.) Blame it on the three months I spent backpacking Asia or my trips to Mexico but now I look at water differently. If I’m in a first world country and there’s no sign that tells me not to drink it, it’s fair game.

The same goes for bathing water. If we stumble across a lake or find an outdoor shower by the beach and haven’t had a proper shower in days, we thank the heavens and muster up the courage to face the cold water. It’s not so bad in the summer months but in the winter it’s a whole different animal. That’s when we heat some water in a pot over our portable stove, squeeze in our minty shower gel and use a tea cloth to give ourselves a sponge bath. If it’s cold outside or if we’ve got neighbors, we’ll bring the pot inside the van, shut all the doors, lay a towel down and be careful to drip as little water as possible as we take turns wiping each other down. We’ll even drape a blanket over the two front seats to block the windows and give us some semblance of privacy.

Other times, like mostly recently when we camped by the Clarence River in Grafton, NSW (which you can read about here), we’ll own the fact that we’re dirty hippies in need of a scrub. One early morning, after my leg hairs had gone particularly feral, I set up our bathing station on the public picnic table under the gazebo we’d camped next to and shaved my legs. When I was mid-shin boaters towing water skiers drove past and I shamelessly waved right back with a giant smile on my face.

Once finished, I put on a new pot to wash our clothes and hung the freshly laundered garments on the rack on the front of the car and on our camping chairs. Then Matt proceeded to give the van a scrub down and we both felt accomplished and grateful to have found “free” running water. It was certainly a step up from our campsite on the beach where the only water came from the ocean.

Later that day, Matt and I decided three days of salty beach hair was enough and we jumped off the jetty and into the cold, murky river water to wash our hair. When I was alone in the water I stayed as close to the surface as possible because I was terrified a croc would swim up at any moment and take me down with him. I could hardly see a foot in front of me and my mind kept playing scenes from really bad horror films where unsuspecting lovers were suddenly attacked by piranhas, sharks or some other unknown mythical creature. But then I’d see children fly past us in their inner tubes, towed behind the family boat and I’d relax and be thankful I was finally washing my hair.

When you’re on the road for a year and every penny counts, you find yourself becoming a bit of a schemer. You scope out locations based on proximity to free public amenities over beauty and you’re always thinking about your survival or how to stretch that dollar. While sometimes I wish we didn’t have to resort to drinking water from a dodgy faucet (we’re working on installing a water filtration/shower system so don’t worry too much!) living this simple life makes me appreciate the little things more and that makes every cold shower worth it.

In a Van, Down by the River

14 Sep

When I went home for a Californian summer before moving to Australia I tried to explain the concept of living out of a van with my boyfriend to my friends and family. Most people looked at me with horror and asked, “But, how do you shower?!” or “What if you have to go to the bathroom?!”

Others quoted Chris Farley’s famous Saturday Night Live skit where he plays Matt Foley, the 35-year-old motivational speaker who tries to scare kids straight by telling them they could end up like him, “living in a van, down by the river.” I had to laugh to myself when within days of arriving in Australia, that was my exact living situation.

After a day in Brisbane, we started the trip in Minnie Water, NSW, where we discovered a gorgeous beach with clear water, surrounding headlands and not a person in site. We tanned naked and felt as though we’d washed ashore to our own private island. It was pure bliss. Fortunately, time was on our side because after we climbed the wooden steps to the top of the beach access for lunch, car after car drove up and our “private” beach wasn’t so private anymore.

The next morning we had a medical emergency and left our perfect camp spot to drive an hour to the nearest town and find a doctor. We ended up in a quaint little place called Grafton and after the emergency was sorted we decided to make use of our unexpected gas consumption and explore our new surroundings.

Once  it was dark we searched for a place to camp and found a park right on the banks of the Clarence River. We parked next to the public gazebo and made dinner in the picnic area with our portable gas stove. We had free power, free running water, a kitchen, and bathrooms within walking distance, so the fact that overnight camping wasn’t allowed wasn’t much of a deterrent. 

The next morning as we watched the sunrise over the river from the open “boot”, we knew we couldn’t leave. It was the local watering hole and a town favorite picnic spot. Over the course of the next three days locals parked all around us and launched their boats or set up their lawn chairs for lunch and beers while the kids splashed around in the water. Every few hours we had new guests join us under the gazebo for tea, breakfast or lunch. When we got to know some of them we’d tell them how we’d been camping there. They’d reply with, “Is that right? Good on ya!” and we’d tell them how we’d been taking our showers in the river.

On the second night, Matt and I fell asleep early since we’d been waking up for sunrise nearly every morning. We had the trunk of the car wide open, facing the river and just as I was dozing off a security guard woke me up to let me know if we didn’t leave now they were going to lock the gates and we wouldn’t be able to get out until they opened at 5a.m. In my haze I told him that was okay, we’re sleeping here and he just nodded and left.

This is what I love about Australia. The rural small towns, the slow pace, the natural beauty, the wildlife and the lack of crowds. Everyone seems to understand what we’re doing here. They’ve either done it before or wish they could. Most want to hear what we’ve done and where we’re going and they give us inside tips about the best beaches or places to find jobs, but a few look at us like we’re the dregs of society. I feel sorry for those people. I wonder if they’ve ever made love on a beach in broad daylight or if they’ve watched the sun rise over the ocean, with sand between their toes. I wonder if they really appreciate their daily hot showers, washer machines and microwaves or if it’s all become background.

This lifestyle isn’t for everyone and at times I’m shocked that I’m so okay with it being mine. I laugh when we do come across the people who think we’re a couple of strange hippies but, to me this is living and I feel more alive than I ever did in Orange County. Every day is a challenge because we don’t know where we’re going to sleep that night or when our next proper shower will be. But the freedom that comes with this lifestyle isn’t something you can put a price on and it’s not something I can fully explain. So though I spent several days “living in a van, down by the river” it wasn’t a low point in my life as it comically was for Chris Farley’s character.  It was a high one.

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