Sunrise on Mount Ramalaou in Timor-Leste (East Timor)

The sea of clouds was stunning and made the early wake-up worth it

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This sunrise photograph was taken on Mt. Ramelau in Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor). The highest mountain in Timor at 2963 meters, we started hiking in the middle of the night to arrive at the top just in time for this gorgeous view.

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Children begging in KosovoSitting outside on the patio of a small Kosovo cafe, a beer held at the ready to celebrate the end to another perfect day, we were suddenly descended on by six scruffy small children. Pitiful eyes pleaded with us for money as they spread out amongst our group begging. We ignored them in turn and somehow they managed to look even more desperate.

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I know, it sounds horrible and trust me it feels horrible. I have been traveling a long time and the scene is the same in most developing countries I visit. The orphans in Hanoi reciting their memorized English phrases, the legless beggars in Cambodia, the woman with her newborn child hanging limply from her breast as she begs amongst stopped traffic in Sri Lanka.

We weren’t a group of normal travelers, instead we were all seasoned development workers, used to working in harsh environments with marginalized and desperate people. We all wanted to help others, so why didn’t we give the children money? Why do I pass by the beggar on the street without looking into his eyes, at least acknowledging that he exists?

Of all the things I’ve learned from traveling, all the ways that I have grown as a person from my experiences around the world, this is the thing I hate most about who I’ve become. I hate how automatic it is to pass by someone who’s begging. It comes from the fear of being taken advantage of, of being hassled and having my “precious” time wasted, of supporting a lifestyle that I know is unhealthy.

There is a long list of rationalizations I can recite to help assuaged my guilt. The children should be in school, they aren’t acting on their own and are often being used by criminal networks. Even when they are not controlled by criminals there’s always some adult exploiting them for his/her own profit. Money to the children will not really help their situation and will just reinforce bad habits. Adult beggars usually have places they can go for food and support, and are usually found in the tourist areas of developing countries based on a market calculation. Don’t even get me started on the adults who use their children to plead their case, they upset me more than anyone.

But the feeling of guilt never goes away as I ignore the children or walk by the adults. I am glad it’s still there, and I hope I never become callouses enough for it to disappear. There are also times when everyone needs help. Not everyone is trying to rip you off, and some people genuinely need a hand extended in their direction. Thus the traveler’s dilemma becomes not one of to give or not to give, but how to give and to whom.

Everyone needs to decide for themselves how they feel about this. Some give money because it’s easier than dealing with their feelings of guilt. I would recommend staying in the area for some time to see who is truly needy, how the locals react to giving money and how much they offer. I don’t subscribe to the idea of giving pencils and books to kids as a local school would be able to manage the resources better. Try to seek out a local charity and support them, they will have a better idea of what will help most. Food is also a good gauge of people’s intentions. I often find people reject food as they want money, which usually means its going to someone else.

Following the above advice, I do tend to give away change if I have it in my pocket, the person asking is an adult and does not have a child with them. I need to feel humane too I guess, but I do have my lines. I would suggest you find your lines before you travel, it makes the inevitable heartbreak a little bit easier to bear.

Do you give money? What are you feelings about beggars? There’s no right or wrong answer so leave you thoughts below.

Japanese dish Nishoku Gohan ("two colored rice")

Japanese dish Nishoku Gohan ("two colored rice")

When it comes to Japanese food, many non-Japanese tend to think that Sushi is the only Japanese food and it’s hard to cook in their home country without having the right ingredients. To break this image, I will be introducing some Easy, Quick, and Tasty Japanese foods. Please note that they may not be authentic Japanese, but they are definitely popular among all Japanese across all age groups!

Today, I am introducing you to Donburi Menu called ‘Nishoku Gohan’. Donburi is a big rice bowl and Donburi menu refers to a dish that has a topping over a bed of rice in the big bowl. Nishoku-Gohan literary means ‘two-colored rice’ referring to rice with two colored toppings, which is one of the easiest dishes to cook and does not require different kinds of unusual Japanese ingredients. This is Todd’s and my ‘Comfort Food’.

Ingredients (for 2 people) Prep and cooking time: 15-20 minutes. Yes, it’s that fast!

2 cups of rice (Japanese, Thai, or California type of rice) and 2.4 cups of water

Nori-Seaweed (if available)

Meat topping

Minced meat (pork/chicken/beef- as you like) 200g

4 tablespoons of soy sauce

3 teaspoons of sugar

1 tablespoon of sliced ginger

If available, 1tablespoon of cooking sake (but not essential)

Tip: If the soy sauce is already sweet, you may want to put less sugar. Heinz soy sauce is usually already sweet enough. Kikkoman needs the sugar.

Egg topping

3 Large eggs

3 teaspoons of sugar

Pinch of salt

Rice: (if you have a rice cooker, skip this section but don’t forget to wash the rice!)

Wash rice about 5 times (or until the water is more or less clear). Add 2.4 cups of water (you need to cook rice with 20% more water). (Tip: It is suggested to soak the rice in water for 30 min to 1hr, but it’s not essential). Cook rice with a lid on a regular flame until it starts boiling. Turn down the flame slightly sliding the lid off a bit. Cook until the water evaporates (taste the rice to see if it is soft enough) turn off the stove and let it sit with the lid on for 5 min.

p.s. 2 cups of rice maybe too much for 2 portions of Donburi-menu, however, it is suggested to cook at least 2 cups of rice or else the rice will not turn out well. Save the extra for rice balls the next day (recipe coming soon!).

Preparing meat for Nishoku Gohan ("two color rice")

Preparing the meat

Meat topping

Put all the ingredients in a small pot, break up the meat while mixing, and cook until the meat is browned.

Egg topping

  1. Put the cracked eggs, sugar, and salt in a bowl and beat them.
  2. Cook them in a small pot. Please make sure that you keep mixing it really hard to make sure they become small crumbles. (Tip: use chop-sticks to help you to make the crumbles).

Scramble the eggs Japanese style, with chopsticks!

Serving

  1. Put some rice in a bowl and flatten the top.
  2. Put the meat and eggs on top of rice
  3. If you like, put some flakes of seaweed (tear them into pieces) on the top

AND, Nishoku-gohan is ready!

Did you like this recipe? Leave a comment and let others know how it turned out.

Note: Some people call this dish Soboro Gohan (meaning “crumbles and  rice”). If you feel anxious that we are using a different (be equally popular) way of naming this dish you are at the wrong blog :) This is simple Japanese food, that tastes great with no room for pretentiousness.

May Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by http://nihongoup.com

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Kay, the writer for K's Kitchen

Yup, she loves to travel too!

As a start to a beautiful new week I would like to introduce a new section to Todd’s Wanderings, K’s Kitchen, and my lovely wife Kay who will be doing the writing. People don’t usually get married because of their future mother-in-laws, but in my case Kay’s mom was a fantastic part of the deal. She is one of the sweetest women I know and a fantastic cook to boot. Besides cooking excellent Japanese food (she’s a Japanese mom after all), she is also an expert Chinese cook! Luckily, all this talent and homemade recipes, were transferred to Kay. Yes, I am a lucky man.

In K’s Kitchen, Kay will introduce a variety of international recipes that she loves. She’ll begin with some of our favorite Japanese and Chinese food and will move on to homemade recipes from the places we live and travel to. Kay’s mom has graciously allowed us to use her recipes as well! We know that cooking Asian food can be difficult at times and ingredients are not always available, or when they are they bear incomprehensible names and directions. Kay will do her best to work around these issues and suggest alternatives when ingredients aren’t available in your local Asian market.

To prove we are not full of empty promises here is Kay’s first recipe for Nishoku Gohan, “two colored rice.” A completely unsophisticated Japanese dish that is one of my favorite foods of all time. Bold statement? You bet, but try it out for yourself and I guarantee you’ll love it too.

Aren't you curious about where this is and what the context really is? (Source: my buddy Mike; well I asked him to take the picture)

We have all seen them, unfortunate English signs that have gone horribly, horribly wrong. It may be my stunted emotional age, but I still laugh whenever I come across them. I laughed constantly while I lived in Japan!

This picture is not from Japan though.

Where do you think its from? Leave a comment below and I’ll reveal the location later.

Do you have other crazy English signs or wording? Leave a comment below with your best stuff or post a picture to Todd’s Wandering’s Facebook Page.

Sri Lanka. For many people it conjures images of a strident Colombo with its pollution and bottleneck traffic, the relaxed idyllic beaches in the South and a suffocating civil war in the North and East. Quite a contrast and one that kept many people from visiting the country during the intense fighting that erupted from 2006-2009. Now that the war is over tourists are streaming into the country, filling up hotels and weighing down tour buses. Locals are also fanning out and visiting areas once considered too dangerous.

Called Serendib by Arab traders (the origin of the word “serendipity”), Sri Lanka has an amazing diversity for a small island and offers the possibility of experiencing vastly different climates, history, and cultures during a short vacation. In this Four Part Series I will share a glimpse of four vastly different areas of Sri Lanka that can, and should, be a part of any itinerary to the island of providence. I am leaving out the beaches and the south as I have covered them before (Southern Sri Lanka).

Trincomalee Harbor

Trincomalee, Sri Lanka is a magical place. A small town atmosphere pervades this eastern coast haven as it clings to narrow strips of land reaching out into one of Asia’s best natural deep-water harbors. Perfect tropical beaches extend to the north of the small “city” tantalizing visitors with their turquoise blue waters and abundance of tropical fish. It is often described as the Maldives of Sri Lanka. Until recently the area has been under military lock-down and few tourists were brave enough to venture there. Now things are changing and the limited number of  hotels that were operating are preparing for an explosion of visitors by upgrading and adding rooms. Unfortunately, coastal land is also being parceled out in a very nontransparent and unethical way to developers from Colombo leaving lingering questions of how equitable the economic boom will be for the Tamil and Muslim majority in the area.

Koneswaram Temple

If you are looking to beat the crowds and experience Trincomalee (called “Trinco” by the locals) before it’s overrun with atmosphere choking tourism planning (yes, I am being cynical here) now is the time to visit. Besides the beaches, the cultural heritage of the town is extremely interesting. One of the best places to experience this is the Hindu  Koneswaram Temple, which clings to high cliff on Swarmi Rock off the edge of the Portuguese era Fort Frederick. The old fort is now occupied, fittingly so, by the Sri Lanka military, and you pass their barracks as you climb the steep hill to the promontory holding the temple.

The front door to the Temple. Don't forget to leave your shoes at the gate house below.

A view of the bay at sunset from the temple.

The path leading up to the temple was lined with stalls selling everything from dried fish to plastic Chinese figurines of the God of Fortune and Wealth. Usually quiet and deserted the area was teaming with devotees praying and helping to prepare the temple for its annual festival. Besides the temple the view from the cliff is amazing and you are rewarded of a view of the town and fishing boats below.

Hindu Deities on the corner.

Women leave these cribs to pray for an easy birth. Below, the sea hides the remains of the ancient temple.

The temple’s main deity is Lord Shiva and evidence suggests worshipers have been using the area for over 2,500 years. The original temple is long gone, pushed into the sea by the Portuguese in 1624 in their attempt to control the area. However, it was rebuilt 450 years later fueled by myths which associate the temple with the popular Indian epic the Ramayana, and its legendary hero-king Rama.

Leaving the temple a skinny young man grabbed my arm and directed me towards the bay. “When the tsunami came the whole bay below dried up as the water was sucked out into the ocean,” a local stall owner recalled. He pointed to the bay’s opening, drawing a line from the cliff top temple to another temple across the way. “With the water gone we saw huge square stone slabs placed on the ocean floor in a straight line leading from this temple to the one across the way.”

The other stall owners crowded in, nodding away. “We were always told that God crossed the bridge in the past. Now we have proof,” another  man said. His face was deeply lined from a life spent in the tropical sun. As quickly as they swarmed they dispersed as a new group of devotees approached and they returned to the business of selling.

The local feeling of Trinco is its real charm. Everything is built and used by locals. If you get there now you might still be able to experience it.

If you go

Safety:

Like all places in Sri Lanka there are still dangers associated with the recent civil war. However, security restrictions have been eased in Trincomalee and besides a few check points on the way into town I found the area to be very safe. Of course normal common sense should always be followed and you should probably not go out at night, not that anything is open after dark in this sleepy town.

Getting there:

Sri Lanka is a tropical country and is very hot during the dry season. Don't forget to drink plenty of water.

Travel by car or bus is your only real option. The road conditions are improving every day and a new road is being built from Habarana to Trincomalee along the A6 road. At the time of writing about half of the road has been completed and is beautiful wide, smooth road. The second half is still pot hole ridden, narrow and windy and still takes quite a bit of time to navigate.

If you don’t like long car rides, consider spending the night in Habarana (don’t forget to check out the sites nearby like Sygiria and the Dambula Cave Temples) which is a 5-6 hour drive from Colombo. The final drive to Trinco should take about 4 more hours.

When to Go:

April to September when the East Coast is the driest and the monsoon has shifted the West Coast leaving the waters and beaches in the East perfect for swimming.

Please leave a comment and share your stories, questions, or thoughts on the article.

Jofukuji Temple, Shikoku Japan

So desperate to be different and yet still fit into a group. (Image courtesy of Royalt)

Japan is full of secrets hidden in plain view. To the casual observer Japan is a conservative and reserved society. Even those “breaking” with conformity tend to gather together and dress alike. But as most Japan insiders know, scratch the surface just a little and shocking secrets can come to light.

I discovered one such secret while visiting a rural Japanese Buddhist temple on the island of Shikoku. While walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage, a 900 mile route which hits 88 Buddhist temples, I stopped for a rest at a simple mountain village temple in Ehime Prefecture. Sitting between Temples 65 and 66, Jofuku-ji Tsubaki-do, is an unassuming and polite temple. Precise cedar beams mirror the thoughtful manicured garden as every detail of the clean temple grounds  was carefully planned out.  Japanese temples are wonderful places that incorporate the the more mundane concerns of folk religion right alongside the loftier goals of enlightenment.

WARNING: if you’re a statue or a doll below the age of 18 the following content may not be  suitable.

As I prayed at the temple steps in front of a golden statue of the Buddha I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being watched. Turning around I found four impeccably dressed statues starting at me.

She was looking as modest as can be, but with a curious knee poking out to the side.

Just your average conservative Japanese couple right? But what is the guy to the left doing?

I looked around to make sure I was alone. I didn’t want to be caught lifting the skirts off of statues after all, talk about an embarrassing conversation to have with a monk. The humid summer day ensured I was the only person crazy enough to be outside at mid-day, so I lifted away and here is their secret.

Fertility statues. Quite the pair, and pointed directly at the temple housing the main Buddha image!

Not so conservative after all...

Fertility and babies were a major preoccupation in historical Japan when the society was based around rice cultivation. As the fertility rates in the cities have plummeted, in recent years population grow has been negative, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from rural Japan. At the very least it is great that there is such a wonderful sense of humor about the subject.

Feel free to comment and/or leave stories of shocking statues you have found in Japan.

April Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by www.gakuranman.com

Live-aboard dive boat under the Maldivian setting sun

Welcome to a new weekly feature on Todd’s Wanderings. Each Friday I will bring you the best of my photographs from my travels around the world.

If you like the pictures please share with your friends, tweet it or ideally Stumble it!

Sunset from the Happy Hour deck in the Maldives

“You’re going to Maldives? I’m so jealous!” Pride radiated from my blessed face as I was fawned over by hundreds (OK a few) friends as I discussed my plans. “Which resort are you staying at? Or are you going on a safari boat again?” I was untouchable as rapture and envy captivated my audience.

The crowed hushed and shushed as it was clear I was about to speak. “I’m staying at the Holiday Inn.” Silence. Brains worked hard to grasp the shift in reality. I love shocking people with my travel plans, usually to war torn countries, but the Holiday Inn has so far received the greatest reaction…or maybe disappointment.

Most people would rather stay in one of the lavish resorts or even use Maldives timeshare resorts, but I wanted to try something different.

After a fresh dose of explanation and cajoling everyone finally agreed that a) it’s one of the cheaper options; b) I wasn’t talking about the one on the capital island, Male; and c) I just might know what I was talking about.

After a 45 minute speed boat transfer from the international airport, the resort on Kandooma island came into view over the impossibly turquoise blue waters. This is not the Holiday Inn most Americans think of and we soon find out that the brand has a higher market image in Europe, which the Maldives caters to.

Holiday Inn Resort on Kandooma

Plus, as three guys, we weren’t looking for an uber-romantic getaway week, just a nice room and access to world class diving at our dock. A few young people to talk to once we got on each others nerves would be helpful as well. The Holiday Inn on Kandooma gave us all that and more. First the hotel. Like most resorts in the Maldives it has its own island and is completely self-sufficient. With a choice of garden view singles, beach and water view duplexes (which just means a sandy lounge area on the ground floor), and the famous water villas that sit over the lagoon, there is something for everyone’s budget…everyone who considers $200 US a night an OK base price. Tip: if you book sign up for their rewards card as this gave us a room upgrade to a duplex beach view.

How would you like your fish cooked?

The staff is where the resorts shines. They are attentive, fun and from all over Asia. We never had a problem that was less than two people away from being solved. Of course the nightly entertainment was more geared to families and their children, so we opted out of the hermit crab races and drank beers in the lagoon all night. There are not too many things as pleasurable as floating on your back in the soft sea, full moon over head and a beer in one hand and a hand rolled cuban cigar in the other (the benefits of a friend just returning from Cuba…thanks Naoko!). If you are looking to save money, stick to two meals a day, drink your fill at happy hour, and go night fishing where they will cook your catch afterward as part of the fee. One concerned and confused customer, afraid he would have to share his fish with the rest of the group, snatched his catch out of the barrel and disappeared into the darkness as soon as we docked. I still have images of Smeagol eating raw fish in the bushes.

We had to make our own fun at times...only so much to do on an island and too many funny photographers to pass up the chance

Getting the tanks ready for the next dive. The yellow labels indicate enriched air call Nitrox which is fast becoming the standard in diving

The island also boasts a renovated, world class dive shop operated by Euro Divers. The island’s location puts it right in the middle of some of the best dive spots in the Maldives, with fast moving corners with the big fish and coral filled canyons teaming with soft and hard corals, perfect for drift diving. While the dive sites are amazing, I was less than impressed with the pricing at Euro Divers. Their staff and equipment was top notch, and their commitment to safety was perfect but they were more expensive than I had anticipated. Their website does little to help as it indicates 10 dives with full rental is US$400. When we arrived the pricing was actually 5 dives for US$400, definitely on the high end of my dive experiences around Asia. So if the corporate bosses read this take heed, your staff was great, but your pricing will keep me away on my next diving trip.

All in all picking the Holiday Inn was the right move and we were able to limit our predicted budget overrun. We had a amazing time, met some great people and had the pleasure of being circled by 15 six foot gray reef sharks while they had their teeth cleaned by tiny brave fish. However, if I return to the Maldives it will not be to a resort, but the more dive oriented safari boats.

Have you been to the Maldives? Leave your stories and tips in the comment section.

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