Monday, September 30, 2013

Georgian Vacation Day 3 or “How to Hold Rocks with your Feet Like a Parrot”

Gohar is awake before me. We are both in pain. I realize my first time trying yoga shouldn't be when I cannot even walk without feeling my skin burning, so we decide to just go for a swim. We have our protein shake and head to the beach, where the lifeguard greets us and right away pulls out two fancy chairs for us. Gohar tries to pay him but he refuses. She tries a little more and gets the money in his hand but he then sneakily puts it on my chair. I accept defeat but Gohar the sly fox pretends we will leave and he finally takes it. We read for a bit and head right in the water, early enough that there is for sure no sun to worry about and we feel the water cooling our burns. The swim was great as usual and I still see no jelly fish. My knee feels almost 100% better as well which I celebrate in my own way of splashing a lot.

We get out about an hour or so later and get right to smashing walnuts – but this time on fancy beach chairs. We give one to the lifeguard and when Gohar goes back in to swim, comes out screaming because there were jellyfish and she can't stand touching them. I still don't know if they sting or not but we notice an Armenian family beside us and each one is obsessed with picking them up and playing with them, so I have to assume not. The youngest child picked one up and dropped it by the rocks and then tried to throw a rock at it in disgust (then why did you pick it up, annoying child?) and the older brother said “meghk a” (it is pitiful) and rescued the jellyfish. This kind of made my day.

When it is around 11am we decide to be safe and head back. The lifeguard brought us an umbrella by this time but we made a plan to avoid the sun until our skin healed. We ate cucumbers, carrots, peppers and nectarines and watched some more House – all the episodes were really sad and all the patients seemed to die (spoiler alert). I cried a little and wondered if Gohar did too. We read and around 4ish made the plan to head back to the beach at 5pm when the sun wouldn't be as scary. Outside our window looked quite shady so we felt confident and went for a “night” swim. We sat down and right away realized the sun was still way too strong and that our skin felt like it was fire. I wrapped Gohar's shawl all around my face and shoulders and chest and she did Yoga. We tried to meditate which only made me think of the dog I had in Yerevan for 2 weeks and then began to read.

Around 6pm we felt there was no change – but hearing the water splashing was too much of a temptation to bear. We kept debating to go in or not – but realized our already burnt skin would just get worse. We decided to go for a walk for an hour or so and then head back to swim. The options in Gonio were pretty limited. About 20 minutes into our walk, where we were sweating quite a bit, Gohar suggested we go back home and wait there to pass the time as we were still under the strong sun. I agreed and it took a good hour and a half for the sun to calm the fuck down. We realized it was officially the perfect time – the sun was just setting, the water was still relatively warm and the wind was calm.

We went in, which was still super painful for our feet and Gohar told me to “hold the rocks with my feet like a parrot” and I couldn't stop laughing. Apparently she could do this. We swam a bit, and I finally saw a jellyfish. And many more. And a lot of garbage. It was everywhere and things kept touching us and anytime we tried to do some distance swimming, felt like we were swimming directly into garbage. How could the sea have changed within a day? Either the area we were in was dirty or the waves were so strong during the day that they brought a bunch of garbage with them to the shallower areas.

We soon got out, dried off and Gohar lit an incense her friend brought for her from India, which was the first one that didn't give me a headache as a result of a fragrancy-like smell. We sat and made our plans for the following day, which included a run, swim and heading to Batumi after 4pm to bike with rent-a-bikes. I have a fear we would need credit cards to rent them, but we will see. With the sun finally setting, Gohar said what a wonderful view it was. I agreed, even though I felt like the sun was saying “I’ll get you again tomorrow, kiddies”.

We headed home and I decided to wash my sand filled hair. It made me realize how badly my face had burned as well and Gohar and I kept saying “tomorrow is another day”.

Observations: all Georgians have blue eyes.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Part 2/2 of Georgian Vacation Day 2, or “Flying a Little Too Close to the Sun”

The second half of our second day in Georgia...did we really get burned already?! Find out now!

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At some point we realized we were in pain. Everywhere. My face was hurting but it was nothing like the back of my calves. Gohar's thighs were on fire. We examined each other and realized we were much more sun burnt than originally assumed. It just took a while to kick in. We were red all over but Gohar's thighs and the back of my legs were the worst. We sat on a bench to read and felt it the most then – and I realized my butt was also burned as well. The worst areas of our burns made sense – the sun was strongest when we had the umbrella, but my calves were sticking out and Gohar was on her back so her thighs were exposed. We felt like failures who couldn't handle the first day of sun. I decided to never tell my mother.

We decided to continue walking around until we found a spot to eat dinner, and instead of swimming in Batumi, we would head home earlier and spend the rest of the night at the beach in Gonio to soothe our burns. We walked by a Church and I noticed Armenian writing so we went in to hear a little girls choir sing “Shogher jan”. After getting into two places that were not actually restaurants, we went into the next suitable place. They had beans and that was all that mattered. I noticed all the customers speaking Turkish and that the news channel was a Turkish one. The beans were a type I knew very well growing up. Lightbulb: this was not a Georgian restaurant but a Turkish one. Hungry, we sat and ate the delicious and familiar beans and decided the next time we went to Batumi would be the appropriate time for traditional Georgian food. At this point more than ever did we realize how badly our butts were burned. We still couldn't believe we failed at not getting burnt on the first day at the beach.

We headed to the market, and bought carrots, peppers, nectarines and cucumbers for beach snacks for the following day and got on the mashootka home. To our pleasant surprise, the driver was the same one who originally took us to Gonio and to his friend's house to stay. When a woman got off at our stop, we asked him to wait while we looked for our change. Defiantly, he began driving. Gohar awkwardly asked him again if he could just wait because we were looking for our change and he told us he would turn around and drive us directly home since our stop was on the other side of the road. We did the collective “awwwwww” and sat back down. But then he passed our damn house again driving fairly quickly. Did he already forget his promise? Did we sit too far back in the mashootka and he forgot about our existence? Gohar politely asked him to stop because we missed our house and he asked “don't you want to go back to Batumi?” and laughed. He knew a secret road that was a block down that would take us directly home. We were relieved and thanked him and went our merry way.

Our host-grandfather saw us and told us to put beer on our burns to make them feel better. We were slightly convinced—and desperate not to use madzoun as it is quite a process to take it off and our skin could not handle a shower, so we confirmed with out host-mom and she encouraged us to do it. I asked if there were any aloe vera plants but to no avail. We bought a beer and headed to the beach, which was a lot chillier and windier at night of course. Gohar the brave went in. Slowly and very robot-like, but she went in. She swam while I told her I didn't want to get sick when I came out since my towel was wet. I clearly forgot that night time is much colder. Once she came out and dried up, we opened the Georgian beer, tasted it, and begun rubbing it all over ourselves. I wondered how crazy we must look but desperate times call for desperate measures, creepy old man staring at us!

The lifeguard came and we explained what happened and he agreed that either beer or madzoun would help. He then said if we waited another hour, he would be off his shift and he could take us to Batumi. We realized he didn't know that we had already gone so Gohar had to awkwardly explain that to him while I was happy I didn't speak Russian. After all the flies in Georgia were having a party on Gohar's beer-soaked thighs, including there being a threesome (I swear), we decided to head back.

The Georgian lifeguard asked Gohar something and she said “da, kharasho” and then turned to me and said “I have no idea what he just said” and we started to think of the worst-case scenarios of what he asked. We would find out the next day. He said our burns were serioso and we couldn't help but laugh, even though in this context it was appropriate. I also realized I swam too strenuously and strained or injured my left knee. I would find out which it was soon enough. Tomorrow we plan to do yoga early and swim and not make the same mistakes. We are burnt but not broken. Well my knee may be, but for now I am in denial.

Observations: the peanut butter I brought has a creepy bear looking through a window with a perverted smile, as if he wants to watch you sleep. Why?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Georgian Vacation Day 2, or “Flying a Little Too Close to the Sun” Part 1/2

I wake up and feel the sun shining on me. I still roll over and ask Gohar if it is sunny. She says, “yes it is!”.

Reality: I was dreaming. I wake up and it is cloudy and gloomy and I ask Gohar if it is sunny because I am in denial. She says, “no it looks cloudy like yesterday”. We realize I slept-talked yet again and when she went to close the windows during the night because she was cold I told her not to for no reason. Life lesson: I am a jerk even when asleep.

We get up, drink water, put on our running clothes and decide that we will not let the weather stop us from doing the things we planned. We are here for adventure.

We head out and see our host-dad feeding their unintentionally adopted kitten leftover meat and I feel like this is a good start to our day.
Then as we try to get to our pre-planned running route, we see a huge truck with the Azerbaijan and Turkish flag intertwined. Mocking us.

We try to pass the only green patch to get to our destination, avoiding the rocky road for reasons unknown. Gohar yelps and before I ask why, I realize why: we both are stepping in the mushy water as a result of the previous nights rain. No matter which direction we go it gets deeper and a Turkish man sees us and laughs and we try chatting for a couple of minutes before getting to concrete ground and assessing how wet our shoes are.

We begin the run with a great view and a nice wind. The road stops a little over 15 minutes so we know it will be around 30 minutes by the time we head back and finish. The way back has an even nicer view – full of mountains and beautiful trees. It reminds me a bit of the Hrazdan gorge we run in Armenia. We stretch and head home to change because WE ARE GOING TO SWIM. As long as we didn't have measles, we were going to swim, rain or shine. As we change and eat some breakfast so our insulin keeps our cortisol in check, we notice a little beam of light in our room. I skeptically look outside and although it appears the clouds are parting, Gohar and I decide to be pessimistic and not celebrate. We head to the beach and see the lifeguard who tells us to sit near where he is and he will let us use the fancy white chairs at no cost. Gohar politely tells him that we want to head to a less crowded spot so we can relax and read. This of course seems a bit silly since in Gonio the “crowded” area has 3 people. We are lone wolves.

The sun is out. We are not imaging it. The clouds have parted and there is no turning back. WE WILL SWIM WITH THE SUN ON OUR BACKS. I am not used to such big and sharp rocks so getting into the water took longer than expected. I kept asking Gohar if this should be hurting as much as it did. The water was chilly but the kind that you get used to once you dunk your head in. So we dunked and never looked back. It was the best experience so far, swimming in the beautiful sea and knowing that it was still early and this was just the beginning. We swam for an hour or so, which included me teaching Gohar how to do front stroke but not being able to successfully explain zig-zagging her arms. Poor choice of words on further reflection.
The entire population of Gonio out for a swim
We headed out which was more painful than coming in. Gohar was braver than I and walked as soon as her feet could touch the ground. I swam until it was too close to shore to acceptably swim anymore before getting out to avoid hurting my feet on the huge rocks as much as possible. It didn't work and I ended up with sand in my pants. And everywhere else. I asked Gohar twice if she had sand on her in jealousy, I guess thinking if she looked hard enough she would find it and feel uncomfortable like me.

We ate our bananas, nectarines and smashed some walnuts caveman style before reading those books we couldn't get passed 2 pages the night before.
It was around 10am and the sun was out but not strong enough to worry. In about 30 minutes we both realized it was time to get in again and swim. Gohar had warned me about jellyfish, and although they only come out during the hottest part of the day, I kept checking around for them. The lifeguard came and visited a couple more times, talking with Gohar in Russian while I zoned out. Gohar realized that although Russian was the only common language they shared, his Russian was not very good and that he would say “seriously” (serioso) when he meant to say ‘really’ or almost any other adjective. So he would say things like “that area is serioso far”. Just a little note.

When we came out of the water we noticed the sun was a little stronger but still not strong enough to worry. We were very concerned about burning but there seemed little reason to worry – we told ourselves we would leave by 12pm  and head to Batumi until 4pm to avoid the strongest time for the sun. Once we got a little colour from the faint morning sun, we wouldn't burn as easy the following days, but we would still be careful. Around 11am it became strong enough that I began to worry and put a shirt over my face and shoulders – where I’m prone to get burned the worst. I once fell asleep as a kid on a family vacation in what was originally a shady spot and woke up to my face and some of my chest being covered in bubbles. I cooked myself. I couldn't open one of my eyes for a few days and people gave me weird looks. I would not make the same mistake again. I don't like using sunscreen because I believe in the idea that if you wouldn't eat it, don't put it on your skin. Sunscreen is full of chemicals and fragrances that most people wouldn't dare consume, but lather on their skin to be absorbed and cooked in the sun. There are alternatives to avoid being burned, but we assumed being out early was the solution for now.

The lifeguard brought us an umbrella for some shade, said some more things were serioso, and Gohar and him went for a swim while I kept reading “Freakanomics”. I crept under the umbrella so only the backs of my calves and feet were peeking out but lifting them up so they too were protected. Eventually I became tired and put them down. Gohar and I decided to leave in 30 minutes to head to Batumi. The lifeguard offered to take us there in his car when he was off his shift at 9pm and Gohar and I wondered like grandmothers why we would want to go to Batumi after 9pm. We left the beach and on the way home I saw a middle aged man with a full on sweater on, but with the part that was meant to cover his stomach rolled up, like a belly top. I think this confused me a little too much. I can't believe I may die never knowing the reason behind the belly top.

We changed and noticed some areas were a little burnt. My face, Gohar's thighs, but nothing crazy. We took our stuff and headed to the mashootka stop to wait for our ride to Batumi, where we planned to check out some markets, swim at the beach and have a nice Georgian dinner. We had both eaten a delicious red kidney bean dish when we had been in Georgia previously (separately) and we planned on having that. At some point on the ride, I noticed three men sitting behind me repeatedly making the sign of the cross a little frantically. I became very paranoid and assumed something bad was going to happen like the “calm before the storm”. I secretly relayed the message to Gohar in Armenian of what I noticed and she laughed and told me that in Georgia, even if someone is not very religious, it is very common to make the sign of the cross when passing a Church. I only felt a little silly. As usual we missed the stop at the centre but the mashootka driver told us he would turn around and take us back there. We began to explore Batumi and the beach and were impressed – but also happy we decided not to spend the majority of our time there as it was much more crowded and touristy.

                END OF PART ONE! FIND OUT IF WE GOT REALLY BURNED SOON...!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Part 2/2 of Georgian Vacation: Day 1/8 or “Why I (Irrationally) Hate Intercontinental Hotels”

Today I arrived in Turkey with my parents, and decided it was time to post the exciting conclusion to our first day in Georgia! To catch up on the first half (so you get all the JOKES and REFERENCES), check out this link.

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Already reaching our exhaustion limit on this mashootka ride, I began to bother Gohar with questions of what we will do when we get to Gonio. What if we don't find any of these rooms in homes we could stay at like she mentioned? Were we just going to walk around until we found something with our bags? Gohar went to ask the mashootka driver about stops and such and he began to make a few calls and told us we passed Gonio and were headed to a more expensive area. He had a friend who rented a room to guests for a very good price in Gonio and he turned around to drive us directly to his drive way. The family was very welcoming and sweet and kept apologizing for a mess we couldn't see as they did not know they were having guests. Our rooms had two beds in it, a huge window and a closet. The bathrooms and shower were clean and big and had running water. I felt we had won a silent battle against Intercontinental Hotels, if they existed.
Our cute house - it is Gohar's finger ruining this shot, not mine
We took out all of our things and unpacked and went for a walk on the beach. It was cold and cloudy but just imagining what it would be like when it was sunny was enough. We skipped rocks on the ground because we were too lazy to make an effort and do it on the water and planned out where we could have our morning run. We decided to head back home and read and relax and decided that tomorrow would be the real beginning. We walked a good 20 minutes until Gohar asked me if I knew where we were. Nothing looked familiar. Just as we had finally found a place to rest our heads, we lost it. We went in every direction but couldn't tell if we were getting further away from our beds or not. We didn't have their address. We just assumed we wouldn't get lost on a 10 minute walk to the beach. FOOLS.

We saw a lifeguard who had told us not to swim because it was too wavy on our way there and swallowed our pride and told him that yes, the tourists were lost. He laughed and we told him the names of our host-family and he let us know he not only knew where they lived but that he would take us there. Because we could get lost again.

The route was an embarrassingly straight-forward one about 7 minutes away – we had just missed a turn. We then realized we were right beside a motorcycle shop and asked the lifeguard if we could rent bikes there. He said no but that he would lend us his and was off to save annoying children.
Badass biker panda!
Gohar and I decided to finally read on our beds, enjoying the quiet. I read two pages of a book she recommended to me, “Freakanomics” and felt my eyes closing. Not because the book was boring – I hadn't even made it passed the preface. But because that 12 hour bus ride was taking its toll. I didn't want to admit that I couldn't get past the preface to myself (much like my mentality while watching House on the bus) so I tried to secretly nap while holding the book so Gohar would not suspect a thing. The book fell twice as I fell asleep but I would wake up, hold it again and close my eyes, feeling like a spy. The third time the book fell, I thought for sure my cover was blown and that Gohar saw through my reading facade. I looked over to accept her judgment but to my surprise, Gohar was sound asleep, with the book on her side, showing she only read a few pages as well. Life lesson learned: people are usually as tired as you are.

We had the deepest naps ever for about an hour, showered, ate some peanut butter on lavash and planned the night and the following day. We would sleep as soon as it was socially acceptable to sleep (which is apparently 9pm), wake up early and go for a run,  go for a swim and then head to Batumi for the day. WHO KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN.

Observations: Georgian mashootkas are almost exactly like Armenian mashootkas, except their doors close AUTOMATICALLY.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Georgian Vacation: Day 1/8 or “Why I (Irrationally) Hate Intercontinental Hotels” Part 1/2

As you may have heard, my parents have come to visit me in the motherland. They arrived from Turkey, will stay in Armenia for 2 weeks, then head back to Turkey, with a third wheel (me!) who also happens to be their favourite child (sorry Laura & Varouj, but I think we can all agree on this by now).

As a result, I am running around juggling work, being an awesome daughter/tour guide, and still pretending to have a social life. For this reason, I thought it would be a good time to post about my 8 day vacation in Georgia, that Gohar and I took together in July—despite the threat of the measles outbreak. The following is part one of day one. I hope it will give those interested in traveling to Georgia some useful tips, helpful warnings and a reminder that the more mistakes you make during traveling, the more adventures you will have (probably):

On July 2nd, 2013, despite the fear of measles, Gohar and I bought our tickets to have our Georgian beach vacation. Nothing and no one can stop us anymore. Not even a bad camera:
On the train ride there we take magnesium pills and immediately start watching House until we can't keep our eyes open. Of course the antsiest I become is when there is just 10 minutes left. I am so tired I just want to shut it off, but investing 40 minutes already is reason enough to stay awake and finish. I begin to resent the show and characters.
This episode sucked
We get off right before Batumi at Kobuleti. We walk to the water so I can actually believe this isn't just another Lake Sevan in disguise. We enjoy the beautiful view—albeit without any sunlight and head back to where we were dropped off to catch a mashootka to Batumi, and then hopefully to Gonio. A man standing beside another man cutting watermelon asks us if we didn't like the view and if that is why we are leaving. We say that it is great, but we have decided on Gonio as a friend recommended it as a non-tourist version of the general area. He agrees that Gonio is beautiful and I get a sense of closure. We are doing the right thing. We are going to have the best vacation EVER.

While waiting for the mashootka Gohar and I start to come to terms with the fact that we packed too much. We both had a carry-on size bag which should have been enough, but I also have a large canvas bag because Gohar forced me to take a pair of pants with me and I hesitantly agreed after she asked if I was crazy. I was bitter but decided if I was going to take another bag, I could fill it with more stuff, including those magnesium pills. Gohar also brought two yoga mats and had her own backpack and our deepest fear of looking like annoying tourists became a reality. I kept trying to convince myself—and her, unsuccessfully, that once we finished the peanut butter, nuts, dried fruits, protein shake, bananas and lavash, life would be lighter and of course better. LITTLE DID I KNOW.

We waited at the mashootka stop and in about two minutes a mashootka heading for Batumi was coming. These are the times I wished I learned how to speak Russian instead of being impressed with my ability to remember 10 words. I am less than fluent. We met a cute tourist from Czech getting on the same mashootka and because Gohar is Gohar, she made sure this tourist who couldn't speak Russian very well (but better than me because he asked someone how they were and I became jealous) felt confident in where he was going and that she would make sure he got to where he needed to be (a place creatively called BATUMI HOSTEL).

While our initial goal was to go to Gonio, Gohar had a plan we only briefly talked about. Her friend had a complimentary package deal from Intercontinental Hotels as a result of being a part of TEDx. It would give us a free night at one of their hotels as long as it was on a weekend. The catch? We had to have e-mailed them, simply e-mailed them once to get this deal activated. The due date? July 31st, 2012. Gohar and I weren't going to let a little detail like that stop us from getting a free night in a hotel. FREE NIGHT IN A HOTEL. After a 12 hour bus ride where we slept maybe 3 hours max, which was interrupted by falling off the chairs on the bumpier parts of the ride, I started to imagine this hotel and what it would do for our morale...our trip...our lives. I imagined nice bathrooms, a clean shower and the most comfortable beds in the universe and a balcony to look down upon other humans not staying at this hotel. When Gohar told me I should be a little more pessimistic about even being able to get in, I went into defense mode. What kind of stupid rule was that anyways? Did they need us to confirm we were alive by July 31st 2012 so we could one day stay at a hotel of theirs for free? If the due date they assigned was for the actual use of the hotel, then it wouldn't annoy me as much (or would it?). But this was not going to slide. We deserved the hotel. I started thinking of ways to trick the imaginary staff person I assumed would be there. She would be in a bad mood and simply look at us and say “as it says directly on this package in bold, you had to e-mail just about a year ago. Please leave as we have celebrities staying here and you are worrying them”. To that I would retort “but I DID e-mail!! Your incompetent staff didn't receive it! So I e-mailed again, and again, nothing! I do hard work for TEDx and deserve this and I will not be made to suffer in a common hostel because your staff cannot reply to a simple e-mail”. I would then give them my e-mail address and frown my eyebrows. It would work, because it had to. I was becoming stressed in this mashootka about this imaginary fight.

Eventually we came to a stop where Gohar, cute Czech guy and I were meant to get off, with a very nice Georgian man who offered to take us to our destinations. At no point were we sure that he knew that we and Czech guy had different destinations, but it was better than walking around aimlessly. We chatted with Czech guy about his adventures and eventually we found his hostel, which was labelled BATUMI HOSTEL. I was a little jealous at how straight-forward his plan was. For us, we were hoping to stay in a hotel we didn't have a location for, with a 4% chance they would let us stay. The Georgian man asked about 5-6 different people and cab drivers about this hotel, and no one had heard of it. Our fears of being embarrassingly rejected shifted to perhaps having to come to terms with the fact that this hotel did not exist in the first place. I saw a well dressed woman with black eyeliner on and thought we should follow her. Gohar didn't agree.

We walked around for at least 40 minutes with our bags and the Georgian asking Gohar to go to the beach with him. The catch, of course. After a fourth “lead” on this mystery hotel we finally felt some hope and waited across the street from what might have been our mirage. I started getting very nervous because if this was the hotel, I had to get ready for the performance of a life time. I wanted to back out and just go with begging them to let us stay cause we walked in the rain and were tired and our shoulders hurt. Before I decided what strategy to use, the Georgian came back saying that was not the hotel and offered to take us down another street. We declined, thanked him and decided to rest before finding a mashootka to take us to our original destination, Gonio.

We ate a banana (electrolytes, represent!), drank water and tried to rearrange our bags so our shoulders would love us again. We walked until a cross light, hoping on the other side we would find the mashootka to take us to our vacation. I noticed three construction men opening a sewer that was clogged with plastic and right away noticed how attractive they were. They would pull a plastic bag out of the sewer, look at us and smile and continue taking stuff out. We missed at least 2 green lights to walk because we were distracted by pretty blue eyed boys. Then when we realized someone was crossing so we too should be crossing, Gohar told me to look behind me. I assumed the worst and in my paranoid state looked in every direction  except the direction she wanted me to look in until finally a man passed us to walk (third light we missed) and she told me he had a Toronto Canada t-shirt on and I missed it. We were about to follow him (because it was a green light, not because we are stalkers) but the light turned red and we felt defeated.

We decided to look at the three cute guys again until Gohar saw a mashootka coming directly our way that had a GONIO sign. She made a weird hand gesture out of excitement and the driver surprisingly stopped. We confirmed it was headed to Gonio and got the hell on. Gohar and I realized if we hadn't been distracted by cute men working or by Canada-guy, we would have missed that mashootka because we would have crossed the street like normal humans. This is a life lesson to never forget: stop and stare at hot people (non-creepily, of course).

                                                           ...TO BE CONTINUED!

Friday, September 20, 2013

All About Protein



My parents have come to visit, so in the midst of a super hectic schedule, I thought I would share an article I wrote for a friend's vegan zine back in 2011. I wanted to clarify some aspects of protein, and dispel some common ideas when it came to vegetarians/vegans and protein. Enjoy!  

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Protein is one of those macronutrients that is largely misrepresented by meat-eaters & vegans alike. On one hand, meat-eaters can tend to assume that vegans can never get the huge amounts of protein we all supposedly need without consuming animals and animal products. Vegans, in turn, often downplay the importance of protein, citing studies that show how excess protein can actually be detrimental to our health, “proving” that protein itself is not as important as we are made to believe.

Protein is not needed in the amounts (excesses) often touted by meat eaters, but that should never give anyone the idea that it is not vital to our well-being.

So what exactly is protein?

Proteins are molecules made up of variations of the 22 natural amino acids. What are amino acids? They are the building blocks of protein and will help shed some light on the protein debate.

Amino acids fall under three categories: first, there are the essential amino acids, which our body cannot produce on its own, and therefore are needed through diet. Second there are the nonessential amino acids which our body can make, and third, the conditionally essential, which we can make after a certain age in our lives.

So there are essential amino acids - but why exactly are they essential? Let's look at some of the many roles protein has in the body:

*all enzymes are proteins (enzymes are responsible for digestion throughout the digestive tract)
*protein is a primary component of our muscles, hair, nails, eyes and internal organs
*protein can act as a "carrier" molecule - transporting nutrients such as vitamin A and minerals such as iron to be utilized
*many hormones such as insulin are proteins

Complete & Incomplete Proteins:

When we talk about complete proteins, this simply means that a given food has all the required amino acids within it. This is predominately reserved to animal-based proteins such as eggs and fish. While there are some complete proteins in the plant-based department, such as spinach and quinoa, by comparison the amounts of amino acids are lower than in the animal-based foods meaning that a LOT of spinach would be needed to provide sufficient amounts of complete protein.

While plant-based foods do of course contain protein, they are usually low in a given amino acid (incomplete), and if an effort is not made to "complete" the protein, deficiencies can arise. So what can we do to get a balanced amount of essential amino acids in our bodies?

Protein complementarity!

There is a very simple way of making sure that vegans get the complete protein they need: just mix & match incomplete proteins to make them whole. Amino acids are just looking for their partners (or soul mates, aw...) to be complete - and we can help! While some foods, such as legumes, will be low in a certain amino acid, another, like grains, will have that missing amino acid in high amounts and when combined, can be considered a complete protein. All this really means is to add a little company to dishes - instead of eating brown rice alone, add some kidney beans or seeds. Instead of eating a delicious bowl of quinoa alone, add some leafy vegetables, it can be that simple!

It gets even easier: our bodies do not even require the protein combining to happen within the same meal - or even the same day. Proteins can be complemented for up to three days - meaning if you eat the aforementioned bowl of brown rice on its own for lunch on day one, and then eat a handful of sunflower seeds as a snack on day two, these incomplete proteins will still combine to create a full protein. Just make sure to incorporate protein combining in as many meals of the day as you can to ensure sufficient amounts.

So with just a little understanding and some effort, vegans can get the complete proteins in their diets that are so crucial. So add some variety in your diet and mix and match legumes, grains, seeds/nuts and leafy greens and become the talk of the vegan town!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Seasonal Squash Recipe

Today I promised I would post about my attempt at creating the recipe Sose sent to me, which is a roasted butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za'atar recipe.

I bought all the ingredients from a shuga (market), read the instructions and went for it. I was especially happy to see the skin of the butternut squash was meant to be left on (fibre, represent!). I grabbed the largest knife I could find and stabbed it a couple of times before putting on some music and beginning chop-fest '13, not paying attention to the sizes recommended of course:

I noticed my room mate's cat, Moogeeg (mouse), was lurking about and was up to no good. I gave him a dirty look and he licked his lips. He decided he would interfere and there was nothing I could do about it:
As I began to chop the onions, he came closer and closer and I heard a thump. I looked to my right and Moogeeg had made it to the chair, closer to the table where he could see exactly what I was up to, and so he could become the official unwanted taste-tester. He apparently thinks if he hides his head, I won't be able to see him:
I yelled at him at him in Armenian (lovingly) and he surprisingly scurried away. I become impressed with myself and gained the confidence to move on to the marinating portion of the recipe. I grabbed a pot, tossed in the butternut squash, the onions, some salt, black pepper and oil and stirred them all together. I then realized that this recipe has no hot pepper in it so I put an end to that nonsense, a decision my room mates will not be too happy about:
Once all cubes and wedges were nicely marinated, it was time to transfer them on to the oven tray for some baking. I never pre-heat, so they go in right before I set the oven. Of course since my room mates cannot make the oven work without worrying they will burn off their hands, I opt for the huge toaster oven that they luckily have:
It is meant to cook for around 40 minutes, but I left it in longer since it is baking in a toaster oven. The 40 minutes gives me time to wash the dishes, clean up, and begin to make the dressing. I began by chopping the garlic since I know I will let it sit for at least five minutes before adding it to the rest of the mix. Among garlic's many health benefits, it is an important anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. But once you chop or crush it, an enzymatic process begins converting the component within garlic called alliin to allicin. Alicin is actually what most of garlic's health benefits are attributed to. However, adding it to foods with a low pH (like the lemon juice in the tahini dressing) or to heat actually disrupts this process, stunting the conversion. So when a recipe calls for garlic, aim to chop it first to allow this important process to be completed!
You can almost see it happening!
Six minutes later I mixed it with the lemon juice, tahini, water and began rebelling by adding the za'atar to the mixture already (and some more hot pepper too, of course). The tahini is a welcome calcium-boost, and many people don't realize that sesame seeds are actually a better source of calcium than the typically recommended milk/dairy products. This is not only based on actual calcium content, but also because sesame seeds are alkaline, whereas milk/dairy products tend to be acidic, which is actually detrimental to bone health. Tahini is a good option because since sesame seeds are so small, and because people tend to not chew their food as thoroughly as they should, the seeds are often left completely intact, so the calcium is not absorbed.
Nayiry's za'atar, straight from Lebanon!
Steering completely off recipe, I added all the parsley
By this time I checked on one of the butternut squash cubes in the toaster oven, and since it was soft and delicious, I decided it was ready. I let it cool a bit before adding it to the tahini dressing. It had a wonderful colour:
Once it cooled, I added it all to the pot for the final mix. I added some more hot pepper and I only somewhat regretted that afterwards:

The dish smells great and is ready to eat! I put some into a plate and decorate it with some parsley and voila:
The final verdict: delicious, quite easy (even the stabbing of the butternut squash), and quite nutritious. Learn from my mistakes and only go for two doses of hot pepper. Some of the butternut squash cubes could have been cooked a little longer, but I like a nice crunch so I didn't mind! Definitely recommend trying this one out!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dedicated to Sose & Allen




An introductory post in a nutritional blog is a strange way to pay homage to two people who have passed away who I knew far too briefly. But considering that my relationship with Sose originated and was centered around food and nutrition, I wanted to share this story.

I was introduced to Allen and Sose through the Green Lane Market. They had heard about it from a friend and Allen e-mailed me asking to be on the list. We sent each other a few e-mails, added each other on facebook and then Sose became the main contact person for their orders. From the beginning Sose was very curious about everything we had – I was receiving constant e-mails from her about our products, where certain items were specifically from, etc. Eventually she would also send me questions about where to find items in Armenia that were staple back home. She would ask me where to find all-spice powder, red/white wine vinegar, and so on. Her questions were the kind that I loved to answer and I loved that she would always let me know when she found the desired product and what she used it for – giving me a weird sense of closure. It came to the point that I would come into work and look forward to hearing from Sose and about her adventures – even when I switched from working on the market to our other office to coordinate a project, I made sure Sose had my new e-mail address so we could continue to e-mail each other.

One day I walked into the Haleb shop with my then-room mate Mona to finally replenish my za'atar stash. I heard a familiar voice call out my name and turned around to see my friend Nishe with a person I had never met before. As soon as Nishe introduced me to her friend Sose, I knew immediately she must be the same Sose I had only known through e-mail. We introduced ourselves, talked a bit, and I went off to find my za'atar. The next workday, I had an e-mail from Sose asking where to find another item. I replied and we talked about how it was nice to finally put a face to a name. We talked about what we bought from Haleb and I let Sose know about my za'atar and tahini addictions. I gave her my famous za'atar pizza recipe and told her I put za'atar on everything. From that day forward, on top of our usual e-mails, Sose would continuously send me recipes she found that included za'atar or tahini (or both in the best cases) as the superstars. I would bookmark them all and my room mate and I would always say that when we had an oven, we would make them all. She sent me a book she bought revolving around cooking Mediterranean recipes and when I couldn’t open it, sent it to me in every format imaginable to make sure I could see the recipes that surprise, were inspired by za'atar and tahini.

When my room mate and I went to Mer Tagh to celebrate a sunny day in April by sitting outdoors and ordering meneyish, salad and beer, I saw Sose and Allen rushing by and called out to them. They were on their way to Dolmama and even though they were late, stopped to chat with us and I and I finally met Allen in person as well. I joked with Sose about how the only two times I had ever seen her was when I was buying or eating za'atar. When they rushed off, I told Mona I liked them and thought they were a “slick power couple” and we laughed. Little did I know that would be the last time I would ever see them.

Sose and I chatted about going to Haleb together the next time I needed to replenish my supplies (which was soon) and going for a coffee/tea afterwards. She felt the need to thank me for helping her find the items she wanted and I let her know I enjoyed doing it. With busy schedules I didn’t confirm a date to go and I of course regret that now. I was soon off to Canada for my brother’s engagement and let Sose know so she would facebook message me instead of e-mailing my work and I guess I assumed we would meet when I returned. The Friday I arrived in Canada, after talking to my parents for a couple of hours, I logged on facebook and right away saw a picture that was posted from their wedding day. I was used to seeing things posted about them in my newsfeed as they were newly-wed repatriates, so I almost skimmed it until I saw the text which announced their death. I felt that shock in my chest and was in complete disbelief. I went through my newsfeed to find many people and close friends of theirs posting about what had happened which unfortunately confirmed it. I quickly went into my inbox to message mutual friends about it—to talk about what and how it happened as I was so far away. Then I saw a new message from May 9th from Sose and got the chills as I opened it. It was a day before her untimely death and I hadn’t seen it yet. I opened it to see it was a recipe for a tahini and beet dip.

This is the full extent to which I knew Sose and Allen. To say it was brief is of course an understatement. But what I felt from hearing the news about their tragic death was not only the shock you would expect from hearing such sad news about people living in the same city as you and with so many mutual friends. As naïve as it might sound, I genuinely felt like I lost a friend – or I guess in my case, a soon-to-be friend. I couldn’t believe I would never receive another e-mail from Sose asking me where to find some random ingredient she needed, or that the tahini/beet dip recipe would be the last one from her I would ever bookmark. I broke down in tears telling my family about them and tried to read as many articles and posts about them as I could. I knew that what I felt was nothing compared to what those who were their family or knew them well felt, but I still felt completely affected by what happened. I realized I would never get the chance to know either of them better or go with Sose to the Haleb shop and joke about how our third meeting was za'atar-centric yet again.

As a result of this brief time I knew them, I can completely understand the shock and sadness expressed by those who, similar to me, barely knew them or in many cases, didn’t know them at all. People posting stories about their time together, or others saying they only heard about them through interviews/videos about their repatriation, but still felt like they had known them made me understand why I too felt a prolonged sadness by what had happened to two people I never got the chance to call friends.

From the first day I was introduced to Sose via e-mail, to the last message I will ever receive from her, she had shown me nothing other than generosity, kindness, humour and friendliness. It is my regret and loss to have never gotten to know this wonderful person better. For this reason I dedicate my first post to Sose and Allen, with a recipe she sent me that she tested herself and sent me a photo of to let me know that it was as tasty as it looked: roasted butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za'atar.

To Sose and Allen, whose incredible characters can easily be seen not only through the effect on those people who knew them well, but also through those who never had that chance.

Tomorrow’s post will feature making the recipe: http://www.amateurgourmet.com/2013/02/roasted-butternut-squash-and-red-onion-with-tahini-and-zaatar.html. Below is the photo Sose took of the result when she made it:

 
To find out more about Sose and Allen, please visit: http://www.SoseandAllen.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/soseandallen