Ireland- part 4

You may be tired of hearing about Ireland. I was only there a few days, after all. I suppose I could be succinct, but where’s the fun in that?

Friday morning we rolled out of bed at 4:45. We had packed our lunches the night before, so it didn’t take us long to get out the door and to the bus stop. Some of the grief from our place of residence had been eased by sleep. We were determined to love the day.

We had booked a day tour from Dublin (east coast) to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway (west coast). Our guide gave us a fascinating peek into Ireland’s history and culture as our coach bumbled out of Dublin. Then it was time to sit back and enjoy the scenery as the sun rose over the Irish countryside. Mists came up from the green rolling land, promising that fairies and leprechauns were real after all. It was breathtaking, but only one small part of a breathtaking day.

The weather was perfect: a mixture of sun and clouds and a constant but empty threat of rain. And the cliffs–Oh, the cliffs! No wonder the place was full of tourists with their cameras. My heart wanted to stop at the wild beauty of the place. (And having a cardiac arrest at the Cliffs of Moher would not have been so bad, really. Rather romantic.)

As we wandered up and down the marked trails, soaking it in, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I had stepped into a very beautiful photo.

the cliffs of moher
cliffs of moher

We traveled through the Burren, our driver skillfully maneuvering the mammoth tour coach down skinny roads next to steep drop offs. We made a brief stop for photos in the National Park where craggy rocks dropped off into the ocean in impressive cliffs.

craggy coast along atlantic ocean

Our guide gave us another fascinating history lesson before we stopped at the Kilmacduagh Abbey ruins. I wanted an hour or two to roam, not 10 minutes.

Kilmacduagh abbey ruins

Our last stop was Galway, an outstanding city on the west coast. Our guide told us just to go and enjoy the city without trying to see too much. That’s the best way to experience Galway, he said. He also gave us a list of restaurants, recommending the famous Galway fish and chips.

My friend bought us dinner at McDonagh’s for an early birthday gift–smoked fish and chips and fresh oysters. The last time I had tried oysters, I had wanted to gag. But that was in rural Illinois, about as far from the ocean as you can get. Would I gag this time? I was nervous as I squeezed lemon on my oyster. To make it worse, the place was packed even at this odd hour and we were sitting elbow to elbow with strangers.

But I didn’t gag. The smooth oyster that slipped from its shell into my mouth was fresh, clean, and sweet. I eyed the leftover oyster on the plate until my friend generously gave in.

fresh oysters with lemon

While my friend did a little shopping in an Aran Island wool shop, I sat outside to listen to buskers who looked like brothers. They seemed to enjoy my enjoyment of their harmony, maybe especially when I dropped coins in their guitar case.

The entire evening felt enchanted. I slipped a few euros in my pocket and we wandered the streets of downtown Galway, stopping to listen to almost every street musician, even the dude singing “Galway Girl.” The way the Irish value the arts is something one can sense, even in a brief interaction with the culture, such as I had.

galway city street

And, wouldn’t you know, we found another Butlers and strolled back to the bus, hot chocolates and truffles in hand. Darkness fell as we rode back across the island to Dublin. It was a day that made be believe I wanted to stay in Ireland forever.

Well, except the dirty little cottage that we had to return to.

It’s not easy being Murcia (Day 2)

I meant to start out earlier than I did. But I didn’t. I meant to take a morning tour of the bell tower of Murcia’s cathedral. But I didn’t. Instead, I read a sign that said tours were offered October through June and said nothing about tours during tourist season.

I gave up that plan for the time being and wandered over to the bus stop in time to climb on a bus to Rueda de la Ñora, a water wheel located in an otherwise unremarkable village outside of Murcia.

Still sleepy, I yawned the whole way out of the city. It would have been easier had I worn a mask that allowed yawns and didn’t grab both my nose and my chin in a vice grip. It was unfortunately one of those city buses that didn’t bother to say where it was or where it was going at any given time. Enter Google maps.

city streets from bus window

The water wheel was worth the visit. However, there was no shade and it made my visit shorter than I would have liked. I was the only tourist there. The wheel was commissioned in the 1400s although it’s been replaced various times.

working water wheel
Rueda de la Ñora

On my walk back to the bus, a dog gave me a series of ferocious barks from a terraza overhead. The sun tilted just right so I could see the gray shadows of his snapping jaws on the street beside me.

I stumbled across a bakery on my way back to the bus. “Why not?” I thought and stepped inside. It was a real bakery, one where the cashier came to the counter with her hands covered in flour. She was brisk but kind as I carefully selected a chocolate-filled pastry.

bakery window

The bus deposited me at Circular Square, which is more or less a giant fountain in the middle of a roundabout. It was unoccupied, making me wonder if anybody in Murcia appreciates their own landmarks. (And do I appreciate the landmarks of Mytown?)

fountain and city sign

The Archeological Museum of Murcia was free so it was worth a look, I decided. I’m not much for museums and the history here in Spain is so ancient it becomes unremarkable after a while. I skipped the evolution of man section which put me ahead of the only others in the museum. So I basically walked through the museum alone except the security guard who greeted me every time he circled past. I should have tried to make off with a Roman pillar to give him something to do.

remnants of ancient pillars
An exhibit at the Museo Arqueológico de Murcia

On the way back to the cathedral tower (by this time, I had bought a tour ticket online), I passed through Plaza Santo Domingo and found a startling human rights monument in the middle of the plaza, like a silent scream.

monument of people standing in a circle
cathedral tower
Murcia’s cathedral bell tower

I arrived early for the tour, which didn’t bother me. I plopped down in the shade in front of the tower and people watched. We were a large group, not my favorite way to tour, but I had already decided that the pros would outweigh the cons. The tower’s history was fascinating, from how the construction paused for 200 years when the tower began to lean or how the resident rats nibbled the edges of the old manuscripts to avoid the poisonous ink.

The group was frantically taking selfies at every turn as I cruised past, photo bombing everyone. (Okay, that’s probably just what it felt like.) Tucked inside the walls, there was the impression of coolness, but it also felt muggy. But however hot and sweaty, we all made it up the 17 ramps. The quarter hour chime at the top was exhilarating. The bells thundered inside of my head.    

cityscape through through railing
bell hanging in tower overlooking city

After lunch in the air conditioning at my Airbnb, and some time to unwind, I tried to go to a coffee shop which was closed. “August,” I grumbled as I meandered through downtown and eventually ended up at CaféLab again where they recognized me and spoke to me in English.

chai latte

I picked up snacks at Día and then spent the evening on the couch with guacamole, fresh mozzarella, and a show on the fancy-schmancy TV that the Airbnb host had painstakingly explained to his clueless guest.

Recipe: relatively healthy oatmeal chocolate chip cookies

These cookies are like breakfast muffins except in cookie form… probably an attempt to trick your brain. So, if you’re looking for a crisp, chocolatey bit of sweetness, these cookies aren’t it. But they do carry their own charm if you’re willing to give them a try.

I started making these cookies about the time I tried to eliminate refined white sugar and flour from my everyday diet. I still make them today, but I added the “relatively healthy” modifier because although they’re healthier than regular cookies, I’m not sure how healthy they are when I eat them in uncontrolled quantities. 😉

Like most cookies, they’re best fresh. Make sure you serve them with milk or tea if they last for a few days.

unbaked cookies on baking sheet
  • 1 1/4 c. oats
  • 1 1/2 c. oat flour
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 5 Tbsp. (70g) coconut oil, melted then cooled
  • 1/4 c. honey
  • 1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce (I peel and puree an apple. 1 apple = about 1/2 c.)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • at least 100g chunked dark chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips

Mix ingredients. Chill dough for about 10 minutes. Press each dough ball before baking (see photo). The cookies hardly spread at all, so you can fit a lot on 1 cookie sheet.

Bake at 350° F. (180° C) for 15 minutes or until done. Makes about 30 cookies.

Recipe: arroz con leche

This recipe is one of my winter favorites. Warm, milky, cinnamony. Mmmm. You can make it how you like it. Sometimes, I add more milk. Most times, I skimp on the sugar.

  • 1 c. (200g) white rice
  • 4 1/2 c. water
  • pinch of salt
  • 6 c. hot milk
  • 1 1/2 c. (320g) sugar
  • 3 cinnamon sticks or 1 tsp. ground cinnamon (Cinnamon sticks come in varying sizes. Use 3 of the ones that fit inside spice containers. Use 1-2 of the long sticks.)
  • pinch of salt
  • 6 egg yolks, beaten
  • ground cinnamon
eggs and cinnamon sticks with dishes

Bring rice, water, and pinch of salt to a boil and then reduce heat. Cover and boil gently about 20 minutes, or until water is almost absorbed.

Add hot milk, sugar, cinnamon and second pinch of salt to cooked rice.

Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture is thick but still soft and moist. Remove from heat. Remove cinnamon sticks.

Slowly pour in egg yolks while rapidly beating them. (Note: you can use a whisk here, but I prefer using my hand-held blender which also smooths the rice and froths the milk. It’s your preference.)

Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve warm or chilled.

Recipe: chai

Looking for a warm drink to carry you through winter? This is still one of my favorite drink recipes, although it’s more American than Asian. (I am still learning how to make the real stuff.)

sieve with chai and cardamom seeds
  • 2 c. water
  • 2 chai or black tea bags , or 2 Tbsp. (4 g) if using loose leaf tea
  • 1 cinnamon stick (or 1/4 tsp. ground)
  • 6 cardamom seeds, crushed (or 1/2 tsp. ground)
  • 1 whole clove (or 1/8 tsp. ground)
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
  • 2 1⁄2 c. milk
  • 1/4 – 1/3 c. (50-67 g) sugar

Combine everything except milk and sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in milk, return to a boil for 1 minute. Stir in sugar (to taste) and strain before serving. Garnish with whipped cream, if desired.

Recipe: Gingerbread cookies

Ever since North Africa, these cookies have been my Christmas tradition. Not only are they yummy, but they are also fun to make because they retain their shape. The original recipe can be found on thekitchenpaper.com. I’ve altered it very slightly and included some notes at the bottom. I’ve also included some of the weights in case you weigh your ingredients like I tend to.

  • 3 c. (384 g) flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1+ tbsp. ground ginger (a smidgen more for a better kick)
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 6 tbsp. (85 g) butter
  • 3/4 c. (150 g) brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 c. (160 g) molasses
  • 2 tsp. vanilla

Whisk the flour, salt, and spices together. Cream the butter and sugar until they’ve just come together. Add the egg, and mix until incorporated. Add molasses and vanilla. Mix. Slowly mix in the flour mixture until your dough forms. If your dough is crumbly, add 1 tsp. of milk at a time until it comes together. Roll out at room temperature on a lightly floured surface to 1/4″ thickness. Bake at 375° F. (190° C) for 8-9 minutes.

shaped gingerbread cookies on counter

Note: You really don’t want your dough sticky. It’s a headache. The more flour you add to keep them from sticking to your rolling pin, the less flavorful they will be.

Also note: If you like your gingerbread cookies thin and crispy, by all means, roll them thin. But don’t forget to decrease the baking time like I forgot to do this year. 😦

Third note: These turn out best when you’re listening to Christmas music. 🙂

Aisha- part 4

She lost her job. Just when things had been going well. Just when little by little she had been saving up to furnish the tiny salon. She had talked of buying an oven. She had talked of the circumcision party she wanted to hold for her son in April. Now that was gone. There were no more dreams because there was no more money.

Her husband was working a little, she explained, but she never saw the money.

“It goes for cigarettes and coffee with his friends at the coffee shop.”
“Praise God he doesn’t use your money for that!” I reminded her. But I still hurt for her.

Eventually she found work two days a week. Enough to survive, but not enough to live.

It seemed that every time I entered her home, there was a storm brewing between mother and daughter. Today was no exception.

When I had reached Aisha’s house, things were calm. We sat in the salon, talking and watching Bollywood. God’s grace bridged the language deficit. We talked about life, about marriage, about her children, about her job hunt.

Her daughter, Soukaina, disappeared to be with her friends. A long time later, Aisha hollered across the rooftops of that tiny, sunken neighborhood: “Soukaina! Soukaina!” Soukaina emerged from her friend’s house and soon thereafter two young men followed.

To a mother with no education, a girl’s purity and family honor are the only things worth living for. There is no other option. And with her husband generally absent, Aisha is the guardian of her daughter and, essentially, the family honor.

I just wanted to hide. I had already had an encounter on the street with a man who left my blood boiling in his wake. And upon arrival to Aisha’s neighborhood, I had an argument with the taxi driver whether or not it was safe for me to walk the ½ block from the taxi stand to Aisha’s house. I didn’t want to get involved in anything else, for goodness’ sake!

Aisha offered me a way out: to go with her to buy sweets for the afternoon tea.

But God said, “Stay here with Soukaina.”

So I stayed and listened to the 16-year-old, heart-broken side of the story. Then I touched her hot and teary face and wondered what kind of life lay ahead of this girl. What opportunities did she have? What opportunities would she have?

My own heart felt achy for the women of the family, even as we sipped syrupy tea and I made boats, airplanes, and trains out of each bite of cookie for Aisha’s 2-year-old son.

Aisha walked me to the taxis, telling me again and again how “dear” I am to the family.

I responded with the appropriate reciprocal response, but I really meant it. Aisha will always be dear to me. As we turned out of the neighborhood, the evening sky came into view with bright pinks and oranges. It was so breathtaking I started to cry from the bittersweet mingling of Aisha’s pain and God’s faithfulness.

Hungry or not, here I come

How exactly does a one hour tutoring lesson turn into eight hours? Simple: I agreed to stay for lunch.

It was my first day of tutoring. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure how the protective father would view my method of teaching his 5-year-old son.

Exactly ½ hour before we had agreed to meet, the father came to pick me up.

He took me to his house where I met his family, extended family, the maid, and of course, his son. After a long conversation–some of it typed in google translate–we had breakfast (their first; my second). Then I spent exactly one hour teaching and reviewing with the little boy.

“Will you stay for lunch?”

Noting the family sitting around the salon table, I agreed. But I soon realized that I wasn’t sitting down to lunch; this was pre-lunch! After two breakfasts, I was expected to fill up on bread, cookies, and tea and then eat lunch a little while thereafter.

When we finally did get lunch around 3:00 p.m., it was several courses: a salad followed by a beef and plum dish with another salad on the side, and then a huge chicken stuffed with vermicelli noodles and resting on a bed of rice. Everything was eaten with bread.

And all of the while, if I wasn’t reaching my hand into the platter, I was being told to do so. “Eat! Eat! Please eat!” The extended family kept a calculation of how much I ate while persistently informing me that it was not enough. We finished with luscious fruits for dessert, of which I was too full to enjoy.

This story has no moral, except not to take a tutoring job if you’re on a diet!