Food, Politics and Peril: En Route to Antarctica

Food, Politics and Peril: En Route to Antarctica

In contrast to the stark, white world of Antarctica ahead, I spend a few weeks travelling on my own to four South American countries that are new to me, in a tidy arc from west to east. Months of online tuition helps revive my Spanish.

First, to Chile. The flight follows the long, snowy spine of the Andes. We land in a hot bath of 32 degrees shared with 8 million Santiago-ans.

I book a taxi at the airport and have difficulty finding it. A female police officer comes over to help. She says I am speaking to too many strangers and this is dangerous. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

This crazily thin country runs from the waist of the continent to its toes – almost 3 times the length of New Zealand. Home to ancient forests, volcanoes, fjords, ski resorts, sand dunes, an abundance of seafood and wine – and the world’s most extreme 9.6 earthquake ever recorded.

I do a day tour of Valparaiso. This foggy, hilly, San Francisco-like city is on the coast and filled with poets and painters, sailors and sex workers. Its street art is considered the best in the continent. There is a maze of steep streets, crumbling mansions and eccentric charm. Stores feature local lapis lazuli and our jolly eleven global travellers share food, sites, D&M conversations, and wine tastings.

Our guide, Diego, is a school teacher who must work two jobs to merely get by. Locals often speak of this and politics too are frequently discussed. Natalie, a smart, young Melbourne lawyer on our tour, comments on the contrast of how apolitical she and most of her peers are. This can be an unquestioned luxury when times are comfortable. Illustratively, on the bus ride back, large trucks start to block the motorway as a government protest. We just manage to squeeze past before gridlock.

In Santiago I stay in the old, cosmopolitan area. Filled with gracious plazas, museums with Mayan columns, innovative art galleries, and a central station designed by Gustave Eiffel. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is especially poignant. The exhibits tell the story of the abuses and ‘disappearances’ during the military government’s brutal control from the 1970s to the 1990s. Paving stones on some streets have the names of those known to be tortured and executed. Many have their ages inscribed as just 16 or 20. Some Westerners accuse their governments of being totalitarian. Criticise sure, but consider such stories as these to clarify your definitions.

On the street and in cafes there is eel soup; the largest cherries I’ve ever seen; chicken stew with walnut sauce; potato bread fried in pork lard; dried horsemeat; stuffed and braided intestines; desserts and beverages made with corn kernels; corn husks filled with vegetables and basil; shrimp, mullet, crab, oyster, octopus and abalone dishes. Food is history and culture on a plate.

Before any overseas travel, I check out the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. This year there are two in South America. When visiting Peru in 2017 I went to one, Central, which is currently ranked #2 in the world. Borago is now also on the list. This biodynamic farm is at the foot of one of the country’s highest mountains and achieves zero-kilometre cooking. Many courses are served on hot or cold rocks. One savoury starter looks convincingly like a slice of garnished chocolate cake. The shiny, uniform, dark exterior is actually moulded, aged venison. Inside is a vertical, heavily seeded cracker to provide upright structure and gateau-like crunch. Earthy, yet elegant and deft with surprise.

This year’s MasterChef New Zealand TV show had the local chef, Vaughan Mabee, as a host and judge. He is also the nephew of a yoga friend. I contacted him via Facebook and said how impressed I was to hear that he used to work at Noma in Copenhagen (world’s #1 restaurant for several years). I mentioned being booked for Borago. Vaughan said he is good friends with chef and owner Rudolfo. Small world!

Bolivia has the world’s most dangerous road. Rough, lined with rocks, the narrow passage crumbles toward a dizzying precipice. I leave Santa Cruz airport in a taxi and have a much scarier experience.

It is a mood challenging 41 degrees. Everywhere there is dirt, dust and neglect. Soon comes menace. Milling crowds are angry and despairing. Many are in the middle of the road and wave homemade weapons at us and other cars. At first, there seems to be no logic to this. Their argument is with the government and a proposed two year delay to the census. This might sound perplexingly trivial, but the census results are used to direct social spending. For related, politically fraudulent reasons, almost no one in Bolivia knows what the actual population is. Crazy. Today, passing drivers just happen to be more accessible for wrath than politicians. Also, throughout all these countries, what stirs general turmoil, eventually gets government attention.

I crouch low so I’m not mistaken as some symbol of foreign oppression. The driver manoeuvres like he’s doing Formula One, ploughing through several red lights and makeshift road blockades of rubbish bags and tree stumps. Buildings are set afire. Never before have I landed in a country and seriously considered immediate escape. There is no safe option though but to move forward fast.

My boutique hotel is a sanctuary in the city centre. I am not keen to leave until I am too hungry not to. Downtown is quiet. There is the poise of its Baroque architecture, though many buildings are in chronic disrepair and slough ruinously over the pavement. I stuff money in my bra and leave a little in my pocket as a decoy, in case I get stopped. Two fellow tourists I speak to, had their phones taken off them. Writing this, I feel more like a war correspondent than a tourist. It’s a dramatic travel story, as long as you get home to recount it.

Over 60% of the population is of indigenous descent. Music, dance, weaving with vicuna wool, and other textile arts and crafts are radiantly diverse. There are vast natural resources and a sparse population. Yet political crisis, social stratification, and electoral fraud make poverty and protests a way of life.

When dining, tripe is popular; lamb intestines; anticucho snacks of grilled beef heart; and soup made with vegetables, rice, and bull’s penis (the national hangover cure). Or you might prefer the regional pancakes with cloves; or bunuelo – a fritter-doughnut cross, sticky with aniseed syrup.

A patient contacts me. I urge her to await my return, but she is very concerned about her son. Despite wifi flickering like candlelight, we manage a video chat consultation. The modern world.

Bolivia can bring to mind images of bright garb, bowler hats and deserts with salt mines. Strikingly different is the relaxed and tropical east. Seated along cobbled streets, people listen to the music of the lowlands and drink chicha – a fermented corn drink. 500 acres of botanical gardens are filled with a sea of fragrances, towering orchids (Bolivia has about 3,000 species), swarms of butterflies, wandering sloths and large tortoises. Not far away in rugged, wild terrain – where Che Guevara once hiked – are pumas and bears. Beauty and danger mingle.

At the heart of the continent and beyond the usual gringo trail is steamy Paraguay. After the turmoil and rubble of Santa Cruz, I want to kiss the tarmac of capital city, Asuncion.

My hotel has a glorious pool, dependable aircon and wifi, and other worthy markers of civilisation. There are craft workshops and stalls, vibrancy and squalor, and, thanks to early British engineers, South America’s first railway. The country is resoundingly Catholic. Military service is mandatory. History is told through a succession of dictators with sprinkles of democracy. The Irish harp (originally an Egyptian invention) became the national instrument and is used to passionately play what they call polka. All culture is fusion.

I stroll through the city centre and get asked by police where I am going and why, as – guess what – there is a street protest nearby. About 65% of the population is under 30, which the teeming night life confirms. In rural areas there are Jesuit ruins; stealthy jaguar; isolated Mennonite communities; toucans and other bright, squawky look-at-me birds. I travel by taxi rather than bus, as armed robberies can occur on public transport. Not just the wildlife prowls with potential peril.

I delight in manioc bread; hot maize pudding with onion; yuca empanada; cassava patties; hot chipa rolls made with corn and peanuts; banana leaves filled with cheese and egg pie; and refreshing, cold yerba mate tea. For dinner, I eat at Bolsi, a popular restaurant since the 60s, and have two small, though filling courses and a glass of local wine for NZ$13.

In each country I book a 2 to 4 hour walking, history tour. Guru Walks offers thousands of these in over 100 countries. There is no fee and payments are based on tips. Great entrepreneurialism. It is lovely to meet many well informed and passionate guides, plus engaging fellow travellers. Here, as elsewhere, some of the young women participants say they are inspired by my solo travels. Nice for an old gal to get the nod. The world has dangers, but far more fellowship.

Finally, to South America’s smallest country. Uruguay is wedged like a round, seaside ball between the vastness of Brazil and Argentina. The population is only 3.5 million.

Before I travel, I register with the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Safe Travel site. They keep track of citizens abroad and send notice of political and natural dangers. Everywhere else on this itinerary (and previous ones in Africa and the Middle East) comes accompanied with strong warnings about crime and political instability.  In contrast, Uruguay is progressive, stable and sophisticated. The life expectancy and literacy rates are among the highest in Latin America.

The temperature drops 10 degrees to a more comfortable 23. I leave the airport in the first clean – and most expensive – cab of this trip (as soon as I get free wifi then I use Uber).  Montevideo, the capital, looks prosperous and well tended. Prices are commensurate. What buys a glamorous hotel stay in Asuncion is more like youth hostel territory here. There are occasional homeless men, but no strings of families living on the pavement, nursing infants under sheets of plastic called home.

It is a ferry ride next door to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Uruguay is like a humbler ‘Canada’ to its brasher neighbour. I join a walking tour of the old port, glorious beaches, artisan markets, antiques, museum, plaza, and a food market with over 100 stalls and eateries. You can walk for hours along the stunning Rambla walkway that hugs the sea. The arts – both traditional and innovative – are a strong part of their culture and pride. In 2013 it was the first country to fully legalise cannabis.

Our fun, young, local guide (who worked in Queenstown for 4 years) tell us that Uruguay is the least corrupt country in South America – though he adds with a chuckle, that is a low bar achievement. There is a strong feminist and LGBTQ+ community. Most people describe themselves as secular and it is illegal for government institutions to promote religion. Officially and amusingly, Christmas is thus “Family Day”, while Easter is “Tourism Week”. Meanwhile stores look as traditionally festive as ours.

There is a museum dedicated to the famous Andean plane crash of 1972. It was immortalised by the book and later movie, Alive, with its tales of heroism, desperate cannibalism, and – after 72 sub-zero days – the unexpected return of 16 survivors. I well remember the news and global, water-cooler, moral discussions that ensued.

Later there is an evening tour that includes dinner and Tango dancing. Good thing I’ve been taking Tango lessons most of the year. Ole! It’s how today’s seniors roll, baby.

Outside the main centres there are hot springs, horseback riding and gauchos. I enjoy seaweed fritters; chickpea flatbread; and steak sandwich piled high with toppings.

All these countries are soccer-mad (games are broadcast at almost every café) and meat-mad, especially for beef. Their papaya is so deeply orange that it looks caramelised. Coffee and wine are dependably good. Some type of barbeque, empanada and chili sauce are everywhere. As well as creamy, caramel dulche de leche perhaps served as a pudding; slice; or a filling for cakes, meringues, churros or cookies, or a spread for toast. I take some home for the grandchildren to try. Here in Uruguay, it is also served with quince tart for breakfast. I manage to cope.

These lands are warm and boisterous with Latino life and centuries of culture. They are a staggering contrast to my journey’s next phase and the white temple of sacred silence that is Antarctica. Even in temperature, I must pack for the extremes of 41 degrees above to 38 degrees below.

Or so I think.

Three days before the Viking cruise is due to assemble and depart, a giant rogue wave damages the ship on the previous sailing as it nears port. The Drake Passage is listed as one of the world’s worst 5 bodies of water for dangerous seas. Broken windows kill one passenger and injure four more. Unusually, a few weeks previous, another company had two people die when a wave overturned their Zodiac landing craft. My cruise is cancelled with a full refund. Tragic for some and so disappointing for me.

I’ve been a wasteful, slow developer in this regard, but in the last few years I finally learned not to catastrophise. Ah, the more pleasant sanity of acceptance followed by action. I manage to book earlier flights home – at a cost. This will be an interesting test of my travel insurance. I have a few days in the graceful elegance of Buenos Aires. I, and life’s opportunities, move on.

Humans are notoriously poor at risk perception. Cruises and air travel have a death rate of 1 in 11 million. Our most likely form of accident of any type is being near a moving car, with a rate of 1 in 5 thousand. Hmm.

Onward huskies to another day, another year, when I will visit the seventh continent.

LONGEVITY: World’s Top 5 Zones and Why

LONGEVITY: World’s Top 5 Zones and Why

Food is a complex universe of interrelationships. It is art and science. Chemistry and biology. History, culture and psychology. It is politics, economics, water, power, fossil fuels, infrastructure, agriculture, land and animal welfare, transportation, advertising, packaging, imports, exports, global agreements.

It is BIG business. Food is the largest sector of the global economy – worth almost 30 trillion NZ dollars. 10 companies control the world’s food supply: its quality; its seeming choices. Would you like Pepsi or Coke with that? You will recognise most of the other names too: Nestle (often #1); Unilever; Danone; General Mills; Kellogg’s; Mars; Associated British Foods (owning Burgen, Tip Top, Patak’s, Twining’s and more); Mondelez (owning Kraft, Heinz, Cadbury and many others).

And food is intimate. We take it inside our bodies and it becomes our flesh, mind, mood and energy. Food is early memories, sentimental favourites, family, celebrations, traditions, birthdays, Christmas dinner, Diwali, Chinese New Year, community, dining out (and the budget to do that), creativity, duty, and gestures of love. And for all of us – from earliest hominids to today – food is about life and death, health and disease: survival.

So what should we eat? I would like you to do a little visualisation and picture a table overflowing with classic Italian dishes. What would it hold?  There might be pizza, lasagne, polenta, spaghetti with clams, peppers and eggplant stuffed with rice, herbs, nuts and dried fruit. Next picture a table covered with Japanese food. Perhaps sushi, sashimi, agedashi tofu, noodle soup, tempura seafood and vegetables.

Most people, even many children, if stood before the two tables could immediately determine which one was Japanese and which one was Italian. Right? However, the dishes are fundamentally the same. The deception lies in the presentation and seasonings. In terms of the foods used and the nutrition delivered, they are far more similar than different.

Both traditional cuisines share a foundation in minimally processed plant foods. There are 4 types:
1) Fruit, veg, herbs and spices;
2) Grains (eg wheat, rye, oats, barley, maize, rice, millet);
3) Legumes (eg dried peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, soy products);
4) Nuts and seeds (eg sesame, sunflower, almond, pistachio).

These 4 groups contain plant protein, carbohydrate, fat and they are our only source of fibre: the favourite food of a healthy gut microbiome. Plant foods are important sources of vitamins, minerals and thousands of antioxidants offering unique benefits.

Traditionally these cuisines include small amounts of animal foods (meat, fish, eggs; plus a small amount of dairy for Italians from buffalo, sheep, cow and goat milk). They both use herbs and spices. And they include fermented foods. For Italians: coffee, cheese, wine, wine vinegars, anchovy sauce, pickled vegetables. For the Japanese: tea; miso; natto; soy sauce; sake; pickled veg, fruit and ginger.

The diet and health statistics of the Japanese and Mediterranean populations have been well studied, starting in the 1950s. They live long and they live well. Tellingly though, when these nationalities move to western nations and jettison their traditional diet and lifestyle, they have the same sorry statistics as everyone else following the SAD approach (yup, it’s a thing and stands for Standard American Diet). In contrast those who move overseas, but maintain their cultural traditions, then also maintain health and longevity. So they aren’t relying on genetic good fortune.

In 2004, Dan Buettner of National Geographic, along with longevity researchers identified 5 Blue Zones which had the world’s most centenarians. Here people lived measurably longer and better: Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California (an intentional community of Seventh Day Adventists). There were 8 shared principles.

  1. Eat mostly plants: foods that are whole or minimally processed.

Related research has been done by scientists based in the US and UK. Their international Human Gut Project follows existing hunter-gathers (such as the Hadza in Tanzania) and assesses their more healthy and diverse gut microbiome compared to westerners. The scientists recommend a minimum of 25 different plant foods daily; ideally 50-75 for a healthily diverse gut microbiome.

This might sound close to impossible, but here is an example. My typical breakfast has about 25 plant foods. I bulk soak and cook cereal such as a mixture of barley, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, linseed, almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, cinnamon, ginger, raisins. On top is stewed fruit such as plums and figs, or apples and prunes. Next homemade or artisan bread made with wheat, rye, walnuts, sesame, caraway, thyme. Instead of butter it is spread with homemade Dynamite (my easy version of Vegemite; see my recipe) made with yeast and other plant foods. On top is peanut butter perhaps mixed with smoky sweet paprika and chilli. All preceded by herb tea of fresh mint or lemon balm with whole cloves.   
 
2. Stop eating when you are 80% full.

I carry a small container with me when dining out and regularly put a half portion or more to take home. This can also multiply your pleasure by letting you enjoy more later. Indicatively, especially since the 80s, many bakery and restaurant portions tripled. As did people’s corresponding girth.

3. Moderate alcohol. In all but one Blue Zone (Loma Linda), alcohol was consumed, but only in small amounts at any one time.

4. Move regularly and use daily activities as exercise.

Set an achievable goal such as 30 to 60 minutes of exercise 6 x weekly. This can be broken up into 10 minute segments, say before each meal (eg walk around your home, garden or office). Increased weight gain in western populations became common in the 80s. Being overweight is linked with less incidental exercise (eg more lifts, less stairs); more highly processed food and larger portions.

To increase incidental movement, I walk around whenever I am on the phone. Just like saving or spending, little bits of exercise add up. Movement helps blood sugar and therefore mind, mood, joints, metabolism, sleep and more. The well studied and #1 exercise for blood sugar and thus weight management is to move for 2 minutes after every 20 minutes of sitting. Get water, go to the loo, dust, file and so on. There are always tasks beckoning.

5. Commit to family and loved ones.

6. Have a sense of higher purpose and daily purpose.

For both numbers 5 and 6, an example of their influence has been called the Roseto Effect. In the 50s and 60s this was the healthiest town in the US. Initially, researchers did not know why it achieved far greater longevity and half the heart attack rate. Towns nearby had similar water and health facilities for instance. The men did dangerous slate mining work. Food was cooked in lard. However, the population was mostly of Italian heritage. Three generations would live, eat and go to church together. That is until the 70s when single dwelling houses were built, young people moved away, old people lived alone, and increasingly worship was done at malls by conspicuous consumption. Roseto then had the same sorry health statistics as neighbouring towns. Researchers declared “social cohesion” as the missing tonic.

7. Maintain an application or ritual to downshift your way out of stress. Some used gardening, singing, calisthenics or contemplative practices.

8. Find your tribe. Four Blue Zones were born into their tribe. Tellingly, in Loma Linda they created one – so you can too.

From as far back as 1938, Harvard started studying its students and alumni for factors that led to good health and long lives. #1 was healthy relationships. (Interestingly, the initial cohort included the student, John F Kennedy – and for many years, no women, until they were permitted at Harvard). Research from longitudinal Framingham studies shows that smoking, obesity and happiness are what they termed, “contagious”. So if a new person joins a group that is primarily made up of happy people or smokers, they too will tend to be/do likewise.

It is estimated about 40% of people will be well served by the Blue Zone/Mediterranean diet. However, no one diet can ever fit all. Roughly 30% will need to emphasise more animal protein and fewer starches; more in the so-called Paleo direction. While 30% need to be more vegetarian with increased raw food.

So how do you know what serves you best? Alert experimentation is a good start; you could try out an approach for at least one month and make daily notes. One indicator that can be evident in 10 to 30 minutes after a meal is mood and vitality changes. A meal should leave you in the ideal zone of feeling alert, yet calm. If it leaves you anxious and unsatisfied, or grumpy and tired: that meal has not served you.

The other option is to find out exactly why you have these patterns, via a tailored clinical assessment. I create a full symptom profile. For example the nature of your hair, skin, nails, digestion, aches and pains, energy levels, sleep and more help tell the story of which foods work for or against you. Your basic body shape also suggests metabolic weaknesses and strengths. One assessor is where you hold your greatest strength or bulk. Or if you gain or lose weight does it first affect your face and upper body, your lower belly, or hips and thighs? All these aspects of physical appearance suggest particular hormonal and metabolic factors and thus specific dietary requirements.

Just one example of each person’s unique constellation of factors is the nature of their SNPS or single nucleotide polymorphisms. These are the most common type of genetic variation and used as markers to study the diversity of your 30,000 genes. Nucleotides are subunits of DNA: repeating base pairs called A and C, G and T (in full: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, Thymine). A SNP might affect one of those pairs, and play a subtle or direct role in that related gene’s function. It is estimated that on average a person’s genome has about 4 million SNPs. That is how unique you are.

An example of one potential SNP that might affect you adversely is in regards to a process called methylation. Every cell needs adequate methylation for growth and repair. Methylation tags toxic substances so they can be eliminated via bile, urine or sweat. Methyl groups are made of 1 carbon atom and 3 hydrogen atoms. They trigger or inhibit genetic expression. According to your SNPs, you might be prone to undermethylation. Without animal foods and their high methionine content (an amino acid that increases methylation) you won’t feel stable and grounded. Your vitality drops and you might turn to stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and starchy carbs to give you brief reprieve.

With overmethylation, you need lots of folate from plant foods, which are especially high in raw fruit and veg. Folate helps lower excess methylation. Although you might like the brief power burst that salty, fatty, savoury foods deliver, too many high methionine animal foods will leave you tired and heavy. A rough estimate is that perhaps 40% of people easily have balanced methylation, while the remainder tend to under or over methylation.

So ignore extremists who say that everyone should eat in any one particular way. It is illogical. Remember too that many of the lessons of the Blue Zones have to do with social health. A practical plan is to be specific in your choices at home, and relaxed when out socially.

At home, a good starting point is to minimise highly processed food. Each time you shop, focus on one type of food purchase – say, crackers – and read every ingredient list to find ones that list wholefoods only. So no refined sugar, non-cold pressed oils, or artificial additives (tip: there are commonly only about three worthy types of crackers on the supermarket shelves!).

Shopping is powerful. Each time you make a purchase you are voting for the world you want to see. Your choices are highly scrutinised by big corporations who then redirect their resources accordingly.

When I came to NZ in the 70s and helped open a health food store, people hadn’t heard of free-range eggs, yoghurt, avocado, beansprouts, herb tea, tofu, hummus, plant milks, sushi, extra-virgin olive oil, gluten-free products and many more. Look how extensively the social norms have changed.

You, as a consumer, are powerful. Vote with your wallet to create a better you and a better world.

Food and Travel in Africa

Food and Travel in Africa: South Africa, Egypt and Morocco

South Africa

No matter where you live, genetically speaking, a trip to Africa is a journey home.

Local women might have the world’s most inventive hairstyles. Less attractive are the unemployment figures of 27%. And for the young, make that 56%. South Africa has the world’s greatest economic disparity between rich and poor. And it is a shining achiever of courageously sought democracy and justice.

In Johannesburg we visit the Apartheid Museum and spend the day in Soweto where blacks were forcibly removed from former mixed areas. There are about 3 million people in homes that range from comfortable brick houses to abject lean-tos with streams of sewerage. There is also dancing, singing and a nearby church reverberates with passionate gospel. Without African roots there would be no blues, jazz, reggae, rock, samba, salsa, tango and more.

Cape Town is Joburg’s beautiful older sister. The coastline is spectacular with crashing waves, sharks, baboons, ostrich, pods of whales and colonies of penguins. I join a walking history tour and later one focussed on cuisine. We sample local cheeses, impala sausage, seafood, sweet Afrikaans curries and custard-mad desserts, stewed antelope, springbok carpaccio with pickled figs, sophisticated wines, and gin with rose petals. South Africa is not yet a significant food destination – unless you are a four legged carnivore. As a marker, this nation on a major coffee growing continent has had artisan cafes and baristas for less than 10 years.

Next we safari at Kruger. This national park is larger than Israel. Each day at 5:30 am and near dusk a ranger takes us out in high-sided, open-air jeeps with tiered seating for 3 to 7 hours. Train your bladder as there is no exiting the vehicle except for lunch in a secure compound. There are repeated warnings that viewing game is a gamble like going to Vegas. Fortunately the weather is dry and cloudy, which animals prefer for heading to waterholes.

Amazingly, we see ibex, antelope, impala, hippo, rhino, eland, zebra, Nile crocodile, warthog, mongoose, honey badger and wildebeest. Many are less than 2 metres away. Lions creep through long grass to eye Cape buffalo. A hyena family plays with their cubs. They have jaw strength second only to crocodiles and they’ll take on a lion. A leopard holds onto his kill encircled by vultures. Giraffes playfully press necks while nearby sentry birds monitor for predators. Mother elephants and baboons nurse their babies. We live half a world away and yet grew up with stories of African animals. Big magic.

A typical greeting is Sawubona, which is Zulu for “I see you”. See you next in Cairo.

Egypt

Cairo is home to over 25 million people. All of them are on the road at once.

As usual in a new city, I join a walking food tour and try tamarind juice; cardamom coffee; mint and vinegar drink; flat bread filled with hummus, fresh coriander patties and super crisp potato; deep fried brains (a cross between scrambled egg and chicken) and numerous nut pastries, sticky with honey. We visit a 14th century market where Al Fishawi’s has served mint tea since 1773. It is now well over 40 degrees. Summer temperatures can reach 55. Businesses and even doctors cater to clients at a milder 1 am.

No one got the memo about the dangers of smoking. But there is lots to be awestruck over: the pyramids of Giza with their somehow manoeuvred stone in seamless symmetry while the Sphinx stands guard; Karnak Temple lit up at night in regal indigo; the Egyptian Museum with its towering statues and King Tut’s gold coffin.

On my birthday, ‘Mariapatra’ is exotically on a 4 day cruise down the Nile. The world’s longest river is more than 4 times the length of New Zealand. The Egyptians invented the 365 day calendar to predict its flooding. Female commoners then could own property, run businesses and initiate divorce.

When travelling, I love my hour long buffet breakfasts. Though most Europeans are GDW (Guilty of Dining White) and stick to familiar pale starches, plus eggs. There are such usual items while I sample the many pickled fish, fruits and vegetables; herb and spice seasoned soft curd cheese speckled with caraway; eggplant everything; halva and comb honey; legume stews with a side of couscous and whole grilled chillies; filo parcels with spiced lentils. In the evening I try a national favourite: whole pigeon stuffed with rice and raisins.

Whether on the pool deck or out the open window of my elegant stateroom, there is a changing scene of banana palms, water buffalo, donkeys pulling carts of raw sugarcane, children swimming, and men fishing out of small sail boats. We stop and visit the Valley of the Kings and its tombs of Queen Hatshepsut and other rulers with their hieroglyphics telling tales from 3,300 years ago.

At night, the all-male crew play traditional instruments and show us men’s dance moves with lots of arm and shoulder action. On the river, young men will hire an open air boat, play music and dance together just as our youths might get together over beer and pizza.

Morocco

“Come with me to the kasbah”.

The Kingdom of Morocco is mint and mosaics; cedar wood forests, coastal life and snowy mountains; serpentine 9th century market places; and the towering dunes of the Sahara.

If you ask for a cup of tea you automatically get a glass filled with green tea and fresh mint leaves. It is Africa’s top tourist destination and second only to Hollywood as a film set. Over 70% of the population is under 30.

The current King Mohammed VI is progressive and upon ascension immediately improved employment, democracy, human rights, women’s rights and increased universities from 3 to 24 – and all free.

Arriving in Casablanca, I go on an old city walking tour. Sampling a popular fermented milk drink I notice that glasses are merely rinsed in a bucket. Good thing my immune system is old and invincible. We try prickly pear – a type of fruit from a cactus plant; rounds of polenta with butter and honey; ground almond, peanut and sesame cookies from a tiny adobe nook with praise from the New York Times on its wall.

We head north and east to exotic Fes. Its Medina has the world’s oldest university, Al-Karaouine, which was started by women. The lanes are the narrowest I’ve seen with endless small shops selling intensely coloured ceramics; live chickens; 5 kilo blocks of nougat and hanging camel heads. From an ancient wood fired community oven, rounds of hot bread come out on a paddle. I pull off sweet, nutty chunks.

Compared to Egypt, this is greener, cleaner. More prosperous and socially integrated. We dine at a riad, meaning a private home with a tree and fountain-filled central courtyard. Riad Arabesque is also a guest house with photos of visiting celebrities and royalty. There are vaulted ceilings, intricate tiles, chandeliers and a rooftop dining room to admire the city from. An array of eggplant, fig and other salads precede a succulent tagine (a conical clay pot cooked over charcoal) of spicy beef and dates, served with couscous.

Another day we stop to admire the King’s palace. Outside a joyful Jewish Moroccan bride and groom invite us to join the singing and dancing. Judaism preceded Islam here by 6 centuries. Later the French contributed bureaucracy, language and the best patisserie and honest bread of my trip.

Near dusk we take a jeep and drive to the Sahara. The dunes shimmer like sculptures of caramel meringue. Camel drivers undulate in the distance as I walk through the sands – checking for snakes and scorpions – and watch the sun set.

We drive past the pink, striated, Grand Canyon-like sheer rock of the Atlas Mountains; the shock of green oases thick with date palms; forests of cork; nomadic shepherds tending sheep and goats; fields of argan fruit and roses for oil production. Morocco’s wealth is not from oil or gas, but water for agriculture. This securely feeds its people and export economy.

Marrakesh is softly beautiful with its buildings pink from local clay. The vast souk or market here is a celebration of art, craft and human enterprise with its snake charmers, palm readers, drummers and lively vendors.

The seaside gem of Essaouira is known for its walled Portuguese core. Numerous outdoor seafood restaurants offer views of weathered fishermen in vivid blue boats and parasailing youths. I enjoy spicy, stuffed, palm-sized sardines with a glass of local chardonnay and toast the end of the journey.

A bientot