What did I learn: ISRAEL (Part 2)

Old City, Jerusalem

I already did a whole month on Israel (it actually was the second country I covered), but this month has been a part 2, as I had the great opportunity to travel to Israel for the first time this month. It’s also the first time I’ve been out of the country since the pandemic started – last time was Sep 2019 to Mexico City.

Masada and the Dead Sea

I covered a lot of turf in the three weeks I was in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights, Haifa, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, plus trips into the Palestinian Territories and Jordan. There was just so much to take in – the historical sites, the religious sites, the food, the conflicts, the politics, the diversity, and the stuff I had no idea about before I even went.

The Ethiopian section of Church of the Holy Sepulchre

There’s no way I can capture my whole experience, but I hope I’ve been able to share a bit of what hit me most. One of the things that hit me, especially as we stood on a lookout with some UN officers into what had been a Syrian warzone only a few years ago, was just how small and packed-together everything is. There’s little room to maneuver for anyone.

One of the best pictures I’ve taken in my life, up on the Golan Heights looking into Syria

Likewise, getting to see the most contested and controversial piece of real estate in the world, the Temple Mount, is something that I’ll remember my whole life. Touching the Western Wall, working my way up to the Dome of the Rock, and seeing these historic and modern flashpoints in person will definitely change how I see the next time that conflict breaks out.

The middle of it all

And speaking of conflict, getting to experience a “weekend war” of rockets from Gaza? As an Israeli friend put it, I definitely got the real Israel experience. Israelis really do treat attacks the way we Canadians take bad winter weather – be careful on the roads, but not a reason to panic.

That’s not the only conflict I got to witness. I’m still so pleased that, among all the contested and historic religious sites, I got to see the most important one of all: the immovable ladder.

Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

I also got to see some of realities that Israelis deal with every day, including a trip to the Knesset in the middle of the fifth election in three years. I was also hit hard by the fast-moving environmental disaster of the Dead Sea, likely to be gone in my lifetime. It enjoyed floating in it while I could.

(I also avoided getting sunburned to hell, somehow)

But Israel isn’t all conflict and tension, there were so many beautiful, fun, or even mundane things that I loved. The Haifa Carmelit. Good dark comedy. Cats everywhere. The Tel Aviv beaches. The markets. The fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The moment Avi, one of the best tour guides I’ve ever met, read out in his New York accent the last stand of the Jews from Josephus, as we stood on the spot on Masada itself.

I can also now say on good authority that 36C and 80% humidity is much worse than 44C and desert-dry. I’m already a winter person, but my god, if I ever complain about the snow in Ottawa, I’m going to remember just how sweaty Tel Aviv was.

Jaffa, Tel Aviv

Best of all on this trip was the food. So much amazing food and drink, and fresher than anything you’d get in Canada – I don’t think I can have hummus or falafel here anymore, there’s no competition.

And just to cap it off, this shirt is definitely on my “most hilariously out-of-pocket souvenir” list.

This month: ISRAEL (Part 2!)

I know, I know, I’m supposed to be picking a new country every month! I already covered Israel – it was the second country I looked at, back in January 2021.

But the pandemic is weakening (for now), and so I finally get to travel abroad again – I haven’t been out of Canada since fall 2019. And I’m going to Israel for the first time!

I’ll be there three weeks (I’m actually there right now) – one week for work and two for an actual vacation. I’ll share some of my experiences there this month, so my posts will be a bit more “travel bloggy”.

One of my biggest regrets from covering Israel was not exploring the food better; I know I’ll be in for a treat. I’m also looking forward to the historic and religious sites, and get a real crash course on the complexity on the ground.

I am also packing a LOT of sunscreen – I sunburn bad enough here in Canada, so who knows how I’ll face in the Middle East in August.

What did I learn: CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Celebrating the Assumption of Mary at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Bangui – Source

When I picked the Central African Republic for this month’s country, I knew it was a troubled country with chronic instability. I had hoped learn more about everyday life in CAR and to focus away from “doom and gloom“. But what I’ve learned this month is that the instability in CAR goes bone deep in everyday life.

I learned more about the excesses of la Françafrique, the French supporting and deposing chosen leaders, like the infamous Emperor Bokassa, the subsequent string of coups, including the fighting between Séléka and anti-Balaka insurgents, which has added a new Muslim vs. Christian dynamic that did not exist before.

CAR is an extremely fragile state, with limited government control outside of the capital of Bangui and more coups than elections. It is, however, very rich in natural resources – diamonds, gold, uranium, and illegally ivory. This means that CAR is open to interference from both inside forces, like the various insurgent groups, and outside ones. Chad, Libya, and South Africa all have had had a hand in CAR, and France even today continues its neo-colonial influence, but China, the EU, and most recently Russia have all staked claims.

For more detail into the geopolitics of CAR, I’d strongly recommend Making Sense of the Central African Republic.

A lot of Central African popular culture reflects these influences on everyday life. Didier Kassaï’s startling graphic novel Tempête sur Bangui is an eye-opening example, but there’s also a long thread of artists navigating their political reality through their work – from Prosper Mayélé’s run-ins with Bokassa, to current artists resisting and adapting through music, to Majora’s calls for peace, and Jospin Pendere-Yé’s balalaika for Putin.

But there is lots more than just about the conflict – there’s interesting books and music. I learned about the history and use of Sango, and got to try a dish that was really new to me – caterpillars. It was also really interesting to learn more about the Pygmy communities in the south – their music, their work on wildlife conservation, and the discrimination they face from other Africans.

This month: CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

This month I’m going to be learning about my third French African country – the Central African Republic. So, before I start this month, what do I know off the top of my head about CAR?

Well, like Togo and Gabon, I know it faces a lot of the same history and problems as other French African countries – poor but resource-rich, a former French colony that’s officially sovereign, but still under French influence as part of La Françafrique. The use of the CFA Franc, preferential trade deals with France, and France’s political and military involvement is a pretty common factor for all these countries.

As for the specifics, the only real bit of history I’ve heard of is at one point CAR had a dictator, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who routinely shows up in listicles of “craziest dictators“. I know he declared CAR the Central African Empire and held such a lavish and wasteful Napoleonic coronation that it emptied out the country’s coffers.

I don’t know much more than that on his rule, or what CAR’s political path has been since then, though I know there’s been serious conflict in the country in recent decades. I’m sure CAR also isn’t immune to instability and conflict in neighbouring countries, especially Chad, Sudan / South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I read an Economist article a few weeks ago that mentioned in passing that CAR has gone all-in lately on crypto, though the main subject was El Salvador’s crypto crash, so it’s probably not going too well.

But I also don’t want to focus just on doom and gloom – I’m interested in learning more about CAR as a whole. Music, art, literature, history, architecture, religion, the landscape, the cuisine (is more like Gabon’s central African cuisine, or is it more influenced by the Sahel?) Who are the thinkers, innovators, and dissenters? What’s daily life like? How dominant is French vs other languages? What’s big for pop culture?

As an aside – I really like the design of the flag. Simple, visually engaging, and distinctive – it incorporates the “red/green/yellow + star” motif that’s iconic to African flags while not being visually confusing. (As opposed to Chad to the north, which has an identical flag to a totally unrelated European country.)

I also have a feeling that finding topics specific to CAR may be tricky, since the demonym is just “Central African”, or “centrafricain” in French – wider regional stuff comes up instead.

What did I learn: BANGLADESH

Sylhet – Source

When I started this month, I knew a bit about Bangladesh – the bare details of Partition and Independence, that it’s a Muslim nation with a Mughal past, that Bengali is the easternmost Indo-European language, plus a vague idea about the cuisine (turns out, it is very spicy), but not much on culture, politics, or media. I was also going on a lot of assumptions. Some were right – the overcrowding and traffic is extremely bad, and the problems poor workers face, especially in the shipbreaking industry, are still very real.

However, Bangladesh is also such a dynamic country – there’s been serious economic growth in the last decade, a tech sector brimming with innovation, and political stability under powerful female leaders (who do, admittedly, throw each other in jail with a lot of regularity).

But what runs through so much of what I learned about this month is Bangladesh’s birth in 1971. While Bengali culture has a long, rich history, Bangladesh itself is a very young country. Partition created a split Bengal, with Bengali Muslims ending up tied much more closely to Muslims in Karachi rather than Hindus in Calcutta, their former neighbours. The dysfunction of two Pakistans collapsed in the face Bengali nationalism, and the bloody 1971 Independence War has left a long legacy. The war still shapes Bangladesh’s politics and culture, in films like The Clay Bird and Bapjaner Bioscope, in cricket, and in navigating its fluctuating relationships with Pakistan and India.

But there’s also a lot of really good media overall – DJ sets, upbeat music jams, Dhallywood songs, innovative fiction like Djinn City, cheesy fun natoks, beautiful architecture and landscapes, and deep love of Tintin, of all things. I regret not getting deeper into more classical Bengali art and culture this month, including indigenous Bangladeshi culture, and I totally missed touching on a lot of pre-Partition history and culture, especially Tagore’s works. I also still have no idea about the rules of cricket.

What blew me away this month was the food – it’s so good. In Canada, the dominant South Asian food is Punjabi, and it’s great, but we’ve been sleeping on Bengali cuisine. I had great meals from Bangladeshi restaurants in both Montreal and Toronto, and got to try everything from proper chai, shemai, all kinds of snacks (1,2), stuffed parathas and puri, fluffy desserts, savoury spiced drinks with green mango or yoghurt, Bengali biryani, wood apples, bhortas, how mustard oil fires up chicken, and the hottest damn peppers on the market. There’s such variety, and such wonderful use of complex spice mixtures – and when they say spicy, they mean spicy. I’d argue this may have been one of the best months for food so far, up there with Thailand and Trinidad and Tobago.

This month: BANGLADESH

I spun my randomizer, and this month I’ll be learning more about Bangladesh! So, what do I know about Bangladesh already off the top of my head?

My main knowledge of Bangladeshi history was that it was part of the British Raj, then partitioned into East Pakistan – and so is majority Muslim, and lives with the same scars of Partition that all three of the countries created from it carry. I also know that Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in a war in 1971, but not much more about that – or how it’s relations are today with India or Pakistan.

I know that Bangladesh is extremely densely populated, and unfortunately tends to make the news due to natural disasters, vulnerability to climate change and sea level rise, or to issues with poverty, poor working conditions, and clothing supply chains.

As for culture, I know there’s a larger Bengal region that’s split between Bangladesh and India (Calcutta is on the Indian side), and that Bengali is the farthest eastern Indo-European language (and one with a huge number of native speakers). I don’t know much about literature, music, or art from Bangladesh, so I definitely want to use this month as a learning opportunity.

Food-wise, I know that Bengali cuisine tends to be focused on rice, beef, and fish, and both cashews and pistachios are common, which means I’ll have to do some creative allergy avoidance of those nuts. I’ve heard of pulao, a rice dish I think made with cashews, so I wonder what other nuts I might substitute and still stay pretty authentic.

I’m not sure how comparatively spicy Bengali cuisine is (I hope it’s hot!). My knowledge of South Asian food tends to be more on the Punjab-based cuisine that’s really common in Canada – I know there’s so much more variety all across the subcontinent, so this month will be a good regional focus for the larger area (kind of like San Marino was for the Italian peninsula).

I also know that Bangladesh is a strong cricket country – maybe this is the month for me to learn even just the basic rules of the game!

I was wondering why the Bangladeshi flag is ever just so slightly off-centre (unlike Japan’s, which is dead in the middle) – turns out this makes the red circle look centred when the Bangladeshi flag is hoisted on a mast. The difference in centring inevitably shows up in bilateral meetings:

Bangladesh, Japan, and Palau really should sit down and coordinate flags – Palau’s is also off-centre like Bangladesh, but at a different aspect ratio.

What did I learn: UKRAINE

Kherson Oblast, Ukraine – Source

This month was the first time I’ve covered a country that’s an active warzone, and the first time I’ve covered a country that’s massively topical. Between Ukraine being front and centre in the media, being the nexus of major changes in the international post-Cold War political structure, and with me being from the part of the world with a massive Ukrainian diaspora, I wasn’t starting from scratch this month.

However, the war has really crystalized a major theme that kept on coming up this month – the battle for Ukraine’s identity. The challenges and nuances of establishing the idea of Ukraine as a nation are deep and complicated, and build to the heart of the ongoing Russian invasion.

Ukraine has been reinforcing itself as a nation and a people, building its own identity and independence out of waves of Polish-Lithuanian, Austrian, Russian, and Soviet control over the centuries. The Russian invasion is an attempt to nullify Ukraine as it’s own nation once again, and this tension comes out in everyday life and media. Zelenskyy’s May 9th address, stand-up comedy in bomb shelters, war songs about Bayraktar drones, and podcasts looking at Ukraine’s past, present, and future all hit on this.

Currently, the war is focused on Donbas, and going on Stanislav Aseyev’s dispatches and the dark satirical movie Donbass, this is not going to be the easy united war of resistance that we saw when Kyiv was threatened.

Apart from getting a better understanding of the current war, I also learned about some really interesting sides of Ukraine – I was pretty well versed on the Chernobyl disaster before, but I didn’t know about Chernobyl as a centuries-long centre of Hasidism, or Ukraine’s deep Jewish history. I also got to learn other pieces of Ukraine’s history – Saint Olga and the Kievan Rus (another source of dispute with Russia), the wild architecture of Horodecki, incredibly avant-garde films of the silent era, and the Soviet fighter pilot who allegedly turned up in an Indigenous community here in Canada.

Speaking of Canada, our large Ukrainian community (10% of my home province is ethnically Ukrainian) gave a good opportunity to try new Ukrainian food. There were old favourites like borscht, cabbage rolls, and pierogies / varenyky, and I got to try lots of new fillings, including Crimean meat, mushrooms and saurkraut, and sweet dessert pierogies. I also got to try for the first time both sweet and savoury pyrizhky buns, Ukrainian vodka and wine, herbal teas, chebureki, salo, and four posts’ worth of Ukrainian snacks (1, 2, 3, 4). I had a bit of a culinary failure making kasha, but I’m thrilled with how well pampushky garlic bread turned out, and how simple and utterly delicious the lemon horilka was.

I also got to try making pysanky for the first time, and while it was a very novice attempt, it’s really satisfying and fun – I think I’ll need to pick up some more eggs.

There’s plenty I wish I had looked more into this week – Ukrainian history and art and language, pop culture from before the war, more literature (including the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over Gogol) but I’m glad I got a good start. I hope there will be lots more opportunities to learn more about Ukraine, especially because despite the invasion, “Ukraine has not yet perished“.

This month: UKRAINE

This month is the first month I’m choosing the country deliberately, instead of at random. This month, I’ll be learning more about Ukraine. With the Russian invasion in February and the war still ongoing, Ukraine is already very much in the news. I’m hoping to get beyond the headlines and learn more about the country’s culture and history this month.

So, what do I already know about Ukraine?

Of course, with Russian invasion, we’ve all had a major crash course in Ukraine’s relationships with Russia, Europe, and NATO. We’ve seen the awful bombing, fighting, and war crimes in cities like Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, the rise of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a war leader, the bravery and resistance of Ukrainians, and the larger geopolitical ramifications of Russia becoming an international pariah. Here’s a really good primer from early March:

Here in Canada, we are a deeply pro-Ukrainian country, and have been for decades across the political spectrum. Canada actually has the largest Ukrainian population in the world outside of Ukraine itself and Russia (at least before the displacement of millions of Ukrainian refugees into Europe this year).

The Ukrainian connection is most deeply felt in the Canadian prairies, with Ukrainian-Canadians making up 10% of Alberta, 13% of Saskatchewan, and 15% of Manitoba’s population. I grew up in Alberta, and Ukrainian culture is so ingrained there that pierogies are a basic staple food, as common in grocery stores as pasta or sandwiches, and my family in Saskatchewan learned Ukrainian because it helps with work and with community events.

We also have a giant pierogi! – Source

Canada is also one of the few countries that recognize the Holodomor as an official genocide, and our Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is Ukrainian. She was banned from both the Soviet Union and Russia for her pro-democracy work in Ukraine in the 80s and 90s and her investigations as a journalist into Russian oligarchs after the fall of the USSR. When Russia invaded Ukraine, sentiment ran high here – Canada has supplied weapons, funds, helped gather allies, and …changed the street sign in front of the Russian embassy.

That’ll show Putin!

However, while I’m not going to put the current war or Canada’s connection with Ukraine totally aside this month, I really want to focus on Ukraine as a country itself – I’m planning to lean more into art and culture from Ukraine, including popular culture, film, music, and literature. Pierogies, borscht, and cabbage rolls are already familiar staples, but I also really want to dig deeper into Ukrainian cuisine. And I know Easter has already passed, but I want to take a crack at making pysanky – I’ve always wanted to try.

My current knowledge of Ukrainian history is mainly about the tragedies of the 20th century – dekulakization and Stalin’s Holodomor, the Eastern Front and the Holocaust, and Chernobyl. This month I really want to learn more about the larger story of Ukraine as a nation and the rise of the concept of “Ukrainian” – something that is clearly still contested today.

Addendum: A note on spelling. I’m following the linguistic shift that has happened recently in the West. We now use the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation for names, rather than the Russian. This is shift started around 2019 with a campaign by the Ukrainian government, but really solidified with the Russian invasion this year. While it is definitely political, it also reflects a larger shift of respecting what countries wish to be called – Czechia instead of Czech Republic, Eswatini instead of Swaziland, and Côte d’Ivoire instead of Ivory Coast.

So Kiev is now Kyiv, Lvov is now Lviv, and Zelenskyy is spelled with two Ys (though one Y is also common, but not the Russian ending of “-ski”). There’s a few names that I’m keeping the old Russian spelling, specifically Chernobyl (instead of Chornobyl), since it’s so well known by that name.

What did I learn: ECUADOR

Guayaquil – Source

I feel like I haven’t fully given Ecuador enough of a look, I’ve only barely skimmed the surface. However, I started this month with pretty limited knowledge of the country (Bolivar, the Galapagos, and ceviche, basically) and I’m glad that I’ve gotten to at least a slightly better understanding.

Ecuador has some incredibly talented artistic output – Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda was one of the few horror novels that succeeded at being so deeply disturbing that it genuinely gave me nightmares. Dark, multi-layered plotlines also show up in Ecuadorian films – both My Time Will Come and Ratas, Ratones, Rateros were excellent.

I only got a brief taste of Ecuadorian music, but Pichirilo Radioactivo, Nicolá Cruz, chicha dance mixes, and Daniel Lofredo Rota’s lost tapes all mix traditional Latin and Andean music with modern beats in innovative and fun ways.

As for Ecuador’s history and politics, the Ecuador Reader added a lot of nuance and highlighted the geographic and political divisions in the country. I also learned about serious historical and political issues, like the many wars with Peru, the collapse of Gran Colombia, the perpetual reliance on cash crops, modern overtourism and environmental damage to the Galapaos. However, there were also slightly ridiculous events, like clowns in office, international spats with comedians, and the extreme anti-goat prejudice of Project Isabela.

Ecuadorian cuisine is something I want to keep on exploring. Maiz toastado was really fun to make, and I got to try Ecuadorian produce like naranjillas, guayusa, and tamarillos. A lot of the recipes I went for relied on tart fruit as a flavour profile, including colada de avena, mango ceviche, and fresh aji sauce. There’s lots of other flavour profiles in Ecuadorian food, like chaulafan de pollo, but I love sour flavours, and getting to cook with all this fruit was delicious.

All in all, Ecuador has been a beautiful and interesting country to learn about, and I wish I could have given it a deeper look, especially more into music, wildlife, and Indigenous culture in Ecuador – a month is so limiting!

This month: ECUADOR

Last month I was learning about Gabon, now I’ve randomly pulled another country on the equator, that has thick forests, rich biodiversity, and oil reserves – Ecuador! So before I start this month, what do I know about Ecuador off the top of my head?

  • I know it’s a smaller Latin state in South America, sitting along the equator (hence the name), and that a lot of people there have mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. The Andes run through the country and the capital Quito is one of the highest-elevation national capitals in the world. It’s generally a middle-income country with some oil reserves.
  • I know what’s now Ecuador was part of the Inca Empire, and also part of the larger Bolivarian independence movement from Spain, but I don’t know much more about those parts of history overall, or about their modern politics. It will also be interesting to see what similarities and differences there are with the other two Latin countries I’ve covered so far – Chile and El Salvador.
  • I know that the Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador, which are famous for their unique biodiversity and Darwin’s studies of finches on those islands gave led him to the breakthrough on evolution in On the Origin of Species. I also know that one of the Galapagos Islands was the original home of Lonesome George, the last remaining member of his species of tortoise – who lived for about 100 years.
  • As for Ecuadorean cuisine, I know there’s definitely some overlap with Peruvian cuisine, and dishes like ceviche hail from this region, but I don’t know much more than that. I do know that almost all the world’s guayusa comes from Ecuador – it’s a caffeinated plant similar to yerba mate. I’ve had it before and I quite like it.
  • I know that guinea pig is sometimes eaten in Ecuador. I don’t think I’ll be able to give it a try here in Canada; in 2011 a Montreal man was taken to court for importing guinea pig meat from Peru. However, the trouble seems to be more a blanket ban at the time on importing any meat from that country, but a quick google doesn’t seem to bring up anything for sale today in Canada.
  • I know that like other South American countries, there’s a rich literary tradition in Ecuador, so I definitely want to see what’s been translated into English!

Honourable mention also goes to German band Sash! with their eurodance song Ecuador – it has nothing really to do with the country (it was filmed in Spain and bald eagles are from North America), but if you had told me it was the most 1997 tourism ad for the country, I would have believed you: