Monday, May 25, 2015

Open Wine Cellar Days (Caves Ouvertes)

After living just outside of Napa for years and being able to just pop in for a wine tasting any time I wanted, I was surprised to learn that it doesn’t work that way in Switzerland. 

Sure, they will let you wander through the vineyards around the Lutry area, but you can’t just wander into a winemakers area and ask for a free sample of wine. And, I must say, that even though I had no idea Swiss actually produced wine, the wine they do produce is pretty tasty.


So when I heard Caves Ouvertes was happening May 23 and 24, I had to take advantage of it. For 15 CHF, you get a wine glass. With this glass you can visit 300 cellars and drink as much as you want. They do actually give you a full glass which is not what you’ll get in Napa –where you do get just a “taste”. And if you are really into wine, you can use the same glass on both days.

 There are some things to consider though. The route is hilly so don’t drink too much or else it will be long walk to the train station.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Coffee from beans pooped out of an animal

Beans harvested from Civet Poop
Would you drink coffee made from beans pooped out of an animal that looks a little like a house cat? Sure you would. I did and I don’t even like coffee – because when in Bali you try some strange things.

The woman roasting the beans
I learned about Luwak coffee while in the taxi on my way to the airport when leaving Bali. It sounded repulsive when I read about how the beans were picked out of the poop of a civet cat, but yet I was intrigued. Did it taste like normal coffee? Why would people even think of brewing coffee made from these beans that went through the cat’s digestive system? And was it really so good to warrant being the most expensive coffee in the world?

A coffee and tea tasting

Whether it’s myth or reality, my taxi driver told me the reason the coffee is supposedly so wonderful is because the civet only eats the best beans. And then when they are digested, formation occurs along the digestive tract producing more amino acids. I know. It still sounds disgusting.

But when he said we had time to drop into a place where they served it, I agreed.  I mean, this was something I wasn't going to get back home.

However, I learned afterward there is the whole “humane” thing that goes along with the process. Just like goose pate is banned in some places because of the force feeding of the goose, the civet coffee beans also went through a lot of backlash. Apparently, some farmers were caging the little guys and force feeding them the beans to make them poop more. In addition to being mean to the little animal, the pooped beans are less flavorful as the civet didn’t get to pick the “best” beans like it would have in the wild.

So if you do want to try this coffee, look for “wild” luwak coffee.

My cup of Luwak coffee
As I mentioned, this coffee is the most expensive in the world with retail prices reaching $700 per kilogram for the real stuff from the wild.

So how does it taste? Like coffee – but smoother.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bali…it really is all that

You always hear about Bali and how beautiful it is. It was because of all this hype that I had not gone. I had assumed it would be over commercialized and cheesy. I could not be more wrong. 

I arrived the evening before Silent Day and was surprised at how much culture is still very much alive in the area. The villages are filled with locals and you won’t find a Starbucks or any fast food venues anywhere. Keep in mind that I didn’t go to the beach area, but was staying in the jungle part of the island by Ubud. My reasoning? I wanted culture and I wanted to be rice farmer for a day.


Let me tell you that planting rice is sort of relaxing. First of all, you are barefoot and walking in muddy water that goes mid-calf. And then you are focused on planting a couple stems of rice every few inches apart in straight rows. It’s methodical and after a while you tune out and your mind has the chance to wander in a relaxing way. There is no multitasking, technology or pressure. It’s bend and plant, bend and plant, bend and plant.

But there are some downsides. It’s labor intensive and because you are bent over all day, it’s probably not amazing for your back. It’s also really hot in Bali – so even though the mud and water are cool, you still sweat a lot. It was a great experience though that made you hungry for lunch.


Why is it that cities like New York, Toronto, London and even Geneva are so blah when it comes to color? Everyone is in black and the streets seem gray. Bali is the opposite. There is so much color everywhere.  Bright blues, pinks, oranges, yellows and of course, the whole island is lush and green.


I had the chance to watch some traditional Balinese dancers and their outfits were incredible. The dancing was like nothing I had seen before as they dance with their eyes. No really. They do. They open their eyes wide and the pupils are part of their dance movements.

Finally, I have to tell you about the food. It’s good, but interesting. They use spices like Sri Lanka and Thailand, but their curries are more sweet and nutty with a lingering heat that is different from the other places I’ve been too. They also use a lot of browned shallots that you spoon into everything from rice to stir fries to broth soups. One of the locals told me that they make satays out of anything they can catch including bats.  I'm sure they taste good if you didn't know what they were.

Bali really is as beautiful as they say. And I did spend one day in the more touristy beach area and that was beautiful as well. There were more hotels lined up along the coast, but it still had a strong local feel to it.

I ran into Maria from Where in the World is Paradise while there.  You can check out her photos as they are amazing.   

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Relaxing Retreat in the Arizona Desert

There are times when you book something online and when you arrive, it’s even better than expected. That’s what happened when I arrived at the house from I drove up and was transported away.

First of all, Karen the owner, was there to greet me with a glass of wine and a plate of cheese. I mean, how amazing is that? I wish someone was at my apartment every day waiting for me to arrive with treats like that. Secondly, the studio I had rented in the house was bigger than some of my apartments and nicely decorated. And then thirdly, you have the view, which is to die for.


There was no one else staying in the house that week so I had it to myself. Karen opened the floor-to-ceiling 20 foot long glass doors from the living room to the patio and I think I might have gasped in delight like those women on the "Price is Right."

The house was perched on the top of a hill in Fountain Hills and overlooked the valley with views of the mountains in the distance.  Karen then showed me the pool and the lounge area. Already, I was regretting all the errands I had planned to do, because now all I wanted to do was have Karen pour me another glass of wine, sit out on the lounge and watch the sun go down over the mountains. I wanted to savor the moment.

But there was more. Karen then told me about the trail out back of the house that was a few miles long and took to you to the town of Fountain Hills. You know me and hiking. I can’t resist – especially when it’s in the deserts of Arizona. I love the mix of cactus, the color of the earth and how it all changes as the sun sets. But there was the wine…and the lounge. Decisions, decisions… I was like a kid on Christmas morning with too many new presents and not sure which one to do first.


So there I was watching the sun go down on my third day of hanging out at Karen’s Modern Desert Retreat, and all I could think about was what an amazing place this is. Karen, who is an event planner, agreed.

She said she bought the house saying she thought it would be a great place to host events, but hadn't gotten around to doing it.  It had that amazing view, it was spacious, it had this amazing kitchen and living room set up for mingling and it felt secluded, but really the city was just down the hill.

And then suddenly it hit me. Here I was talking to a woman who knew how to do events in a place that was amazing.  Could this be the place I had been looking for?  No, I'm not talking about buying -- although if I had loads of money, then yes, I would buy it in a heartbeat. But what I am talking about is a Fitness/yoga/wellness retreat.

I’ve been wanting to host a fitness retreat in Arizona for a few years, but every place I’d seen hadn’t felt right. Karen’s place didn’t just feel right. It was perfect.  And the more we talked about it and what we could do, the more perfect it became.


 Now imagine this…you've arrived at the house with your girlfriend and you’re greeted with a glass of wine and some snacks while given a tour of the house. That evening, you’ll either join me on a sunset hike or unwind by pool and spend some time relaxing on your own. In the morning, a yoga instructor arrives and conducts a class on the patio with the view of the mountains in front of you.

You then eat a healthy breakfast and get ready for your session with Soul Love Awakening founder, Tamara Hanson, who will guide and nurture your mind and spirit. From there, you’ll visit Sedona for an afternoon of hiking and guided meditation with a shaman. Then it time to return to the house to relax poolside while your dinner is prepared.

Sound good? And that’s just the first day.

Check out the rest of the retreat

Monday, May 11, 2015

Saying Farewell to Saudi Arabia

At KAUST wearing my favorite yellow abaya

When I moved to Saudi Arabia in 2014 to work at KAUST, I had no idea what to expect…and I had no idea I would like it so much. I met such wonderful people and learned so much about the culture, their humor, their creativity and their challenges.

Group selfie with my amazing co-workers

 I also learned about the real meaning of generosity as they don’t think twice when it comes to ensuring you are comfortable in their country – and instantly they embrace you as part of their family.

When I first moved to Saudi, I remember thinking that my heart was “thrifty” compared to theirs. They would offer to drive me places, would randomly pick up things for me like converters, organic peanut butter and other essentials just because I had mentioned it…and not because I asked. Never did they want anything back in return and were insulted when I tried to give them money. They said it was like I was trying to pay for their kindness and that wasn’t the way it worked.

Farewell dinner - miss you all!!

A year later, when I had a guest from the US come visit the university to speak, I was reminded again at how generous they were. As a woman, naturally I couldn’t drive my guest anywhere, but when I mentioned it to my co-workers, I had not only one volunteer, but four who couldn’t wait to show my guest around.

 They drove him to the mall, helped him pick out stuff for his wife and suggested the best dates in the world to bring back to his friends. And then, when my guest said he wanted a thobe (the traditional dress for men), they took him to a local place to get fitted for one and spent hours helping him dress, pick out the head gear and negotiating a reasonable price.

Man...I love these dates.  Best in the world.
If we had more time, they would have taken him back the next night to show him some of the landmark areas of Jeddah. It was fun to watch my friend learn what the people were like and see through his eyes the amazement at how authentically generous their culture is. Like me, he came in with a shield of mistrust and was surprised at how easy going they were, how funny and how they were willing to take him around without any hesitation.

Just a few of my Saudi family members

Now, as I’m leaving Saudi, I have to say goodbye to these wonderful people who treated me so well when I was so far from home. But I won’t be leaving with my thrifty heart. That one was replaced months ago with a Saudi heart. Well, maybe not quite that big yet as it takes a lifetime to learn to be as generous as they are. But it’s much more open and willing to trust the good in people than it was before.

Taken my first week in Saudi and will always remind me of Samia, who took me under her wing.

Thank you, my Saudi friends for making me a part of your family.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The skiing in Lebanon trip

Did you know you can ski in Lebanon and it’s supposedly pretty good? Someone mentioned this to me, and of course, I had to go and check out this novelty for myself. It’s not that I’m a big skier. Actually, I’ve never skied, but the exotic slopes of Faraya in Lebanon seemed like the perfect place to learn.

Beirut has been on my list of places to visit for years, but the whole war in Syria thing has made it a little off limits. I always assumed the war would be a little too close for comfort. But when I met other people from KAUST (where I was working) had gone for visits and said it was fine, I thought maybe it was doable. I’ve learned after I moved to Saudi Arabia and felt safer than I did in certain places of the United States that what you see on TV isn’t always reality. It’s generally better to talk to someone who has been there recently and get the real picture.
Also, I had two friends who thought skiing in Lebanon was a brilliant idea and were totally up for going.
We arrived on Thursday morning and it was raining. A storm front had rolled into the area which meant that yes, there was snow on the mountains, but what equated as a little rain in Beirut resulted in a blizzard in the ski area. No worries. We would spend the day exploring Beirut and could ski on Friday.


Beirut is a confusing, but beautiful city. We tried to find our way on our own, but Google Maps didn’t quite get the layout of the area and had us walking everywhere. Thankfully, my girlfriend could speak Arabic and could ask for directions…a lot of directions.

And in truth, being lost made the adventure even more fun.
This is considered a road in Beirut. Really.
 Walking in the rain added to our experience in a good way. Because we were cold and wet, our day became an adventure in eating as we had to stop for coffee, snacks, lunch, coffee, snacks, ice cream and more coffee along the way. We ate so much I was beginning to worry that my newly bought ski pants were not going to fit. 
Best Lebanese food. So good.
One of the best places we ate at was nearly impossible to find. It was recommended by the hotel concierge as being the best place to get authentic Lebanese food (I can’t remember the name but it was like someone’s kitchen).
It wasn’t on the main street, but down a narrow alley with stairways that looked like it was more of a path than an official road. It’s then you realize how old Beirut really is and that it was built long before cars existed.
The location of the oldest ice cream shop.
After lunch, our quest was to find the city’s oldest ice cream shop, which was even more of a challenge than the lunch place. This one was located on a real road, but the building was so old and full of bullet holes, we thought it was abandoned. And of course, it was closed that day because who would want ice cream in the freezing rain? We did go back the next day and get some though.

SO ABOUT THE SKIING…             

So what about the skiing? We tried. We really did. I even had bought ski pants and a jacket for the trip. The rain continued into Friday so that day was out. But Saturday the weather cleared and we drove up to the slopes. And yes, there was an amazing amount of snow. 

More eating at a bakery
Unfortunately, there was too much snow so the police would not let us drive up to the actual ski area as we didn’t have chains on our cheap rental car. Yeah, the skiing in part of the “skiing in Lebanon” trip was a bust. But it was a fun trip.

 I guess my destiny will be to learn to ski in Switzerland.

 Funny how that all worked out - considering I'm now living and working in Lausanne.