Back To The Stomping Grounds: Part 2 – Virginia & Texas

BBQ at last!

Virginia: the place I spent my formative years until I left in 1989 (or was it ’90?). Although I couldn’t wait to leave, looking back, I’m glad I grew up there. A place rich in history and no end of interesting museums to visit in Washington, D.C., it was a melting pot of ethnicities which shaped who I am today.

My mother, knowing full well my love of BBQ (and specifically, Blacks BBQ from Lockhart, Texas) placed an order of my favorite ribs and brisket for a post birthday celebration. These Flintstone sized ribs easily make for a few meals and are fall apart tender.

blacks bbq ribs

Since I only get these when I come to the States, I try to get my fill as much as possible. Having quite a few things on my foodie wish list, a couple of things fell by the wayside so I could eat these ribs as much as possible (it wasn’t easy).

Camille enjoying the friendly banter

Bob and Camille arranged their trip up north to coincide with my arrival in Virginia and we played catch up after 4 years. We had met at mom’s while we hashed out our book together. Although it was too chilly to go for a walk around the lake (she was hoping I’d encounter another snake), we snuck out for a short walk up the street.

Cute as a button mushrooms

After a lovely dinner (and chocolate souffles), Camille unwrapped birthday gifts ranging from New Zealand honey products to an assortment of flavored lip balms (something she’s never without).

Bob and I exchanged stories of Belize and reminisced of how it used to be which gave me the warm fuzzies. Maybe someday we can all go back there together!

Here’s to our 12 year friendship and many more!

Another thing I look forward to when visiting is going to the grocery store. While you guys take this for granted (and see it as a chore), my eyes light up like it’s Christmas and I could spend way too much time seeing the amount of STUFF available for purchase.

I was absolutely blown away by the different kinds of fruits I saw in the store in my mom’s small town. A testament to the amount of immigrants who want a taste of home. I had never before seen jackfruit anywhere but Central America, yet here it was, among dragonfruit, huge aloe leaves and many other fruits. I love the idea of dragonfruit and always want to buy it when I see it, but forget how it can often be quite bland. Mom told me to get it since she had never eaten one. We weren’t impressed. With a name and look like that, it should be extremely exotic tasting. I combined it with a mango for breakfast and the colors looked great together.

Now here’s a little example of the difference between the U.S. and New Zealand:

Ice cream aisle in the U.S. (yes, it goes all the way to the end)
Ice cream section in New Zealand
Cheese selection in the U.S.
Cheese selection in New Zealand

Now some may say, “How many choices do you really need?” And honestly, I can say I miss Monterey Jack, Velveeta on occasion and some types of swiss cheese. But other than that, I can’t complain too much. Plus, I rarely eat ice cream so that doesn’t bother me. But when I want a decent cheddar, a very small piece can cost $12 here which doesn’t thrill me.

This display, however, stopped me dead in my tracks:

Ohhhh yeah

Being that mom lives far from a major town, a lot of driving was done and we visited some smaller towns nearby, like Woodstock.

It was fun looking at the antique shops and I even picked up a “new” computer from my childhood days!

A “computer” from 1972 which worked in mysterious ways

We popped into a vineyard one day and immediately found #48 row to mark my current birthday. I’m still getting through 48 therapy.

There was a crazy Trump house along a road we’d pass by often, so I just had to take a photo. I’d be mortified to be a neighbor.

I also spent a lot of time going through my stuff in storage. Mom was great about keeping things that were important to me as a child; one of them being this giant teddy bear I received from my Great Uncle when I was a few years old.

Not as plush as he used to be, but heck, he’s as old as me (and I’m not as plush either!).

Unfortunately, the time went by quickly and I was off to the great state of Texas to visit with dad at his lakehouse.

7 out of 10 people prefer a truck

BBQ was first on the list so we went to Opie’s and parked right next to the meat smokers….YUM!

Upon entering, you’re presented with the board of choices and a big pit where they kept a selection on hand.

I opted for the ribs as usual. That pork loin at the top puts NZ’s to shame.

Although it doesn’t look like much, it sent me over the edge as far as getting hungry again anytime soon. We took a lot home (other stuff not pictured).

The lake was lovely and buzzing with animal activity! Things I used to take for granted like lizards, birds, fish and deer all caught my attention as if I had never seen them before. I’m really deprived in NZ of this stuff.

No room for you!

Too many turtles to count! I liked feeding the little fish off the dock and seeing all varieties of water birds and hummingbirds go about their day. The deer were all over the place with little Bambi’s running around with them.

We took his boat around the lake for a tour of the upper 3% and pretty much found nobody to be home.

We visited a nice winery with the most immaculately manicured vineyard I think I’ve ever seen. A gentle reminder not to carry your gun inside was present at the gate.

A fat lizard chased ants around the patio and sat still long enough for a shot.

Cashing in on my recent birthday, Dad arranged a dinner at the old Chainsaw Massacre house for me! My friend and I had gone there a long time ago to meet the cast, have dinner (not THAT kind of dinner) and watch Chainsaw Massacre outside on a big screen. We even spent the night in one of the railroad cars on site. It was nice going back. They had added on and there was a large bar area, separate from the house itself.

The original Chainsaw Massacre house in Kingsland, Tx.
Me being choked by Leatherface on the first trip there

Craving seafood, I got the fried shrimp and huge baked potato and was surprised by a chocolate brownie cheesecake with amazing mascarpone cheese topping.

With my time nearing an end, we drove into San Antonio on a typical 100 degree day.

Ahhh it was already feeling good to be back home. It had been five years since I was there and where my new life began in Costa Rica. I hardly recognized 281 when approaching the city limit due to the amount of stores and housing going up. We passed by the Thousand Oaks exit near where I used to live and work and the memories came flooding back.

Seafood fondue at Bourbon St. Cafe

My friends indulged me and my craving for seafood fondue at a restaurant that was down the street from my old house. This is my “death row” meal, consisting of shrimp, crawfish, mushrooms and plenty of cheese and garlic bread. Far too much for me to eat this time around for a mere $12.

Fondue at the Melting Pot was another place on my list and was just as good as I remember it. We could’ve used more chocolate (although my thighs were screaming NOOOOOO!).

Dad was staying downtown at the Emma hotel near the Pearl, which was pretty unrecognizable to me with a lot more buildings having gone in since I was there last.

Pool at the Emma Hotel

I went back to this area of the riverwalk over the next couple of days and took advantage of the river taxi to take us down to the original section of the river and save my feet.

Little duckies look like bumblebees

I also made a visit to the Witte museum and saw these animatronic dinos.

My last day in San Antonio provided a final lunch of BBQ across the street at the Smoke Shack. The line was out the door so you know it had to be good.

I can still taste those ribs and that mac n cheese with brisket was brilliant. What I’d give for this again.

As I was being driven to the airport to begin the long journey back, I became a little misty. Feeling like I didn’t have enough time to do everything I wanted and the memories of leaving five years ago only served to remind me of where I am now. I still don’t regret any of my choices I made back then and know that San Antonio will always be there when I want to come back. I miss the people and places I knew so well and will try not to stay away so long.

Thanks to friends and family for making my visit the best ever! It means so much to me that you took the time and indulged me in my culinary desires. You’re welcome any time to this side of the world (just be sure you eat plenty of Mexican and BBQ before you come)!

 

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Back To The Stomping Grounds: Part 1 Belize

The month of June took me back to the Americas with a birthday celebration in Belize for the seventh time. Travelling over 22,000 air miles round trip, it was not only a physical journey, but an emotional one as well. This is Part 1 of 2, starting off in Placencia, Belize.

I had decided that a night in Houston after my 14 hour flight was in order before heading to Belize the next day. A friend I hadn’t seen in 6 or 7 years picked me up and took me to my hotel where we caught up over a glass of wine. Even though my body time was about 10am, Mexican food was calling my name for dinner at 5pm.

I’d been dreaming of cheese enchiladas, rice and beans with a side of flour tortillas for a few years. Everything hit the mark and set the tone for my trip south where I’d be looking forward to Belizean food.

I showed up a day before my friend Dahnelle, to a lovely house along the canal in Placencia. This was a town I have flown into before, but never stayed, opting instead for accommodation on a caye. The landing strip was short, but at least the ocean was nearby in case the pilot overshot it (which has only happened once according to a local).

The Italian property manager, Stefano, met me there and gave me a run-down on the area. His thick accent and funny stories kept me in stitches and then left me as the sun went down to get acquainted with my home for the next 9 days. My first reptile encounter was this tiny gecko on the steps who willingly let me hold him for a photo then scurried off.

After an uncomfortably warm and humid night and being feasted on by mosquitoes and sand flies, I awoke to a purple sky around 5am.

I took the bicycle out early to see what was in town and naturally went the wrong way on the road, all the way back to the airport! Figures. Once I got back to where I started, the town wasn’t far and went on for longer than I expected. I stopped at a little shack that advertised tamales with a couple of locals standing around. How could I go wrong? They actually weren’t that great after all. I stocked up on groceries and started prepping a pot of pinto beans, fruit infused water and chopped up a pineapple.

One very odd fruit I had never seen before was this giant passion fruit. I’ve only seen the small round ones and had to buy it just to see for myself if it really was one. Sure enough, there is a giant variety and the flesh can be eaten (although it didn’t taste very good to me).

giant passion fruit

giant passion fruit
I know…it looks disgusting, but made fine juice!

Getting acquainted with the house, the ‘crow’s nest’ at the top provided a fantastic view of the lagoon and ocean, while on the bottom floor, the deck invited you into the water for a float or a swim.

Mango all over his body

Mango trees were in the yard (and everyone else’s, too) and small lizards went about their daily routine.

Blue mango tree

Placencia boasts having the narrowest sidewalk in the world. While only a small section of it still remained, it had been expanded for tourism and took you through shops, restaurants and homes until you reached the pier.

Depressing sight of conch shells being worked into jewelry

Lovely smelling flowers on a tree

The end of the pier
View of a storm approaching from the sidewalk

Unfortunately, the weather was awful most of the time, which is very unusual for the first week of June (the locals admitted to this, too). We only got out on the ocean ONCE. Dahnelle did a dive and I did some snorkelling with Sunny Side Tours out at Southwater Caye. I had stayed out there in 2007 or so, not realizing there was more to the island other than Blue Marlin lodge!

Southwater Caye, Belize

Southwater Caye, Belize

Southwater Caye, Belize

Southwater Caye, Belize

Southwater Caye, Belize

Southwater Caye, Belize

A man patiently tried his luck at catching a bonefish which were all swimming in a large group. We told him to just get in the water and catch one by hand…I don’t think he found the humor in that. A small barracuda floated near the dock waiting for something exciting to happen.

bonefish on Southwater Caye, Belize

barracuda Southwater Caye, Belize

pelican on Southwater Caye, Belize

The highlight of my snorkelling was seeing two squid, one of which was quite interested in my goofy appearance and got closer than most ever do.

We went out with Sunny Side for a tour of Monkey River where we saw, you guessed it…monkeys! There were a lot of cool creatures like bats on a tree, a boa curled up on a branch, a few small crocs in the water and a large one sunning himself.

Bats on a tree

We went for a walk in the forest and I took advantage of the offer to eat some termites. For some reason, they just sounded good and it’s one of those things I’d always wanted to try. The guide told us it’s like jungle Listerine…if you’re on a date and need to freshen up, just eat some termites. They were really minty, surprisingly!

Eating termites in Belize
Eating termites
Weird mushroom
Howler monkeys

 

Dahnelle enjoying a typical Belizean lunch of stew chicken, rice, beans and plantain

Since the weather wasn’t cooperating, we went on a spice and chocolate tour one day, heading toward the Maya mountains.

The spice farm was planted on 500 acres by an Indian man from the U.S. and boy, did he do it right! They were putting up archways for a gorgeous backdrop when hosting weddings. The grounds were well taken care of and we were taken on a golf cart through the area to learn about the trees, vines and bushes which were all harvested throughout the year and sold locally.

Some of the highlights included the hundreds of orchids which produce vanilla. Since it’s very difficult for vanilla to be self-pollinated, teams of people go out during the very short flowering period and manually pollinate the flowers using a toothpick. And by short, I mean in a matter of hours. The flower only opens in the morning and that’s their window of opportunity. This happens daily until flowering stops. When we were there, there were no pods available to harvest or buy.

Vanilla orchids
Vanilla beans

To make vanilla extract takes approximately a year from the time the vanilla bean is picked, dried and bottled (usually in vodka) until the time you can purchase it on the shelf. No wonder it costs so much! I inquired about how many times you can “water down” (meaning, add more vodka) the bottle the pod is kept in and he said about 3. You can also use the pod in a jar of sugar to flavor it.

Nutmeg and mace in the same pod (mace is red)
A type of weird bamboo
Drying of cacao (chocolate) beans
Cinnamon bark
Black pepper

Nutmeg and mace

We had a browse through their lovely shop on the way out and picked up some spices, chocolate powder and coffee beans.

Next stop was a small place which made chocolate and gave very informative talks on the subject along with a delicious lunch.

Everyone was presented with hot chocolate upon arrival which was pure cacao powder and water only. We were then advised to add certain spices, one at a time, to see how the flavor was affected. First was chili powder, which cut the bitterness. Second was cinnamon, which added a bit of sweetness. Third was nutmeg (then one other which escapes me) before we could then add sugar. We were also given a bowl of hand made dark sugar which was almost like molasses.

Everyone was shown the inside of a cacao pod and was able to eat some of it. This brought back memories of Costa Rica when I could buy these on the street for a couple of dollars each. Sweet and bitter at the same time, it’s one of the most beneficial foods you can possibly eat.

Dahnelle’s eyes lit up when we were given a full plate of chocolate to sample which contained different fruits and spices.

We were given the opportunity to remove the shells of some roasted cacao beans and prepare them for grinding. Our master chocolate maker used a stone to smooth out the chocolate into a paste.

This was usually given as a gift to newlyweds in the Maya culture (think Cuisinart)
Roasted, unshelled cacao beans

Perfect little beginning of a cacao pod

A flycatcher watched on in a tree during the presentation and we were taken for a tour of their chocolate making facilities (which was VERY small). It was the perfect way to spend a day.

Finally, we went to a waterfall where a large party was taking place by the police force. Music was playing, lots of chicken was being BBQ’d, families were having fun and swimming. And keeping in my typical fashion of breaking up a party, within about 15 minutes, everyone was gone. I don’t know what it is about me, but this happens way too often to consider it a coincidence. The place was silent and we were the only ones left. Really weird. The only way you’d know anyone had been there was by the few trash bags left to be picked up. I have no idea how they put that BBQ out so fast or how that chicken even got cooked.

This spot was buzzing with activity just minutes before

Although the weather didn’t cooperate, it was still a great time in a place I love. It made me a little sad to see that it was becoming a lot more popular with tourists and that the airport had expanded almost beyond recognition. I had hoped it would remain a nice little secret, but not many of those places exist.

The locals were still friendly as ever and I reconnected with some I had met over the past years through other family members. My network continues to grow and I have no doubt I will see them again in the future.

One memory I have during this last trip was seeing a 60something Rasta guy squinting to look at his cell phone, as if it was a new, necessary evil. It didn’t look right, nor did it appear it felt right to him. I just don’t want it to be like that. My first visit to Belize 20 years ago was much different than it was this time. I miss the old Belize and the disconnect from technology it used to have. I miss being one of the few Americans that would visit it; instead only hearing American accents everywhere we went this time around.

Well, everything and everyone changes with the times…for better or worse. I wonder what it will be like the next time I go back?