Cooking for a future - Lebanon
This Blog post is an article I wrote for Basler Zeitung (in german) and Cause Photo Travels.
Beirut, Lebanon. 1948 the first refugee camp for Palestinian refugees opened up in Beirut. At that time, temporary places with tents and the hope to go back home to Palestine again soon. 70 years later, the tents have been transformed into houses, even skyscrapers, made from stone. Temporary is not a suitable term anymore. The hope to go back home still lingers on.
In Lebanon, there are 12 refugee camps with more than 450’000 registered refugees, three of them alone in Beirut. Mariam Al Shaar, born and raised in Burj El Barajneh, the biggest of the three refugee camps, is the coordinator of all activities of the NGO Women’s Programs Association (WPA) in all 12 refugee camps.
The conditions in the camp are bad. On an area of one square kilometer live almost 50’000 refugees, mostly Palestinians, but since a few years more and more Syrians also. As a comparison, in Switzerland we have a population density of 204 persons per square kilometer. Not only due to this, the camp is busy – the very narrow roads are shared by pedestrians, motorcycles and shops at the same time. Even the pastime is taking place here, at least of the male population. In the Arabian culture, girls and women normally spend their time after work or school at home. Mariam Al Shaar wants to change that. With WPA they offer schools in those camps.
The teachers are Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese professionals. Just last week, the new school building has been finished. With the help of international donations, it was possible to buy a building, to move out of the now used, rental building that costs as much as 600 dollars a month. But this is not enough for Mariam Al Shaar. She is working hard to give the women and girls in the camps a future.
Last year, in collaboration with Cuisine sans frontiers, a swiss caritative organisation, they started the second round of the project “Soufra-Kitchen”. 25 women get a professional education in gastronomy, they learn to cook healthy food, the systematics of big kitchens and caterings and to work efficiently in the kitchen with preparations and everything.
Now the classes are finished for this year, and the women work and earn money with their work as chefs. They cater for schools and events inside and outside of the camp, they started a food truck business and a few months ago, they were invited to man a regular stand at the “Souk El Tayeb” – the weekly farmers market in downtown Beirut. Every Saturday, the women offer there all the Palestinian delicacies they produce in the camp kitchen. And besides all this, the Soufra project has also a social benefit on these women, as they have a new social community, new contacts and a generally improved social life.
The international press has already spotted Mariam Al Shaar also. Recently, she has made it with a double page and her portrait into the book «200 women who will change the way you see the world» and another entry into the 100 most inspiring women of our times is being discussed. Even a movie has been made about the kitchen project. The movie “Soufra” just was at the Cannes Festival and several others. In Switzerland, Cause Photo Travels is working to organise screenings of the movie and a presentation of the project to support the project with the funds raised through entrance fees.
But all of this is only a little bit of glamour in totally not glamourous day to day life in the camp. Most of the people there hardly ever leave the camp, and if they do, they feel estranged, unwelcome and uncomfortable outside in Beirut. Palestinians in Lebanon are not living an easy life. 72 professions are prohibited for them and the others are hard to get in to. Due to this situation, they tend to agree to jobs for payments, no Lebanese would agree on. And then they need to cope with the blame from the Lebanese for taking these low paid jobs and taking away the jobs of the Lebanese people.
Refugees are tolerated, but not widely welcome. And if they want to travel or leave, the government hardly ever allows it. A paradox situation. That is why most refugees spend their whole life in the camp, work there independently or open a shop – the only place where this is possible without restrictions.
Water and electricity in the camp are also not standard yet everywhere. Many relief organisations like the UNRWA are working to improve this, but it takes time. Especially electricity is a dangerous subject. In the last years, 60 people died from execution. A big number, but when you see the many and very low hanging electric cables, the number becomes surprisingly small. In some roads you have to duck down to not touch those cables.
The change is ever present in the camp. You see renovated buildings, newly painted houses and people working to improve the infrastructure. But in-between you also see broken down or destroyed houses and walls with many bullet holes from the various conflicts and wars in the last years.
Life in the camp surely is not an easy life. It lacks everything – except hope, kindness and generosity. And if you open your eyes and heart, you will experience the most amazing smiles you can see in the Near East.
What to eat in Peru
Peru is an Eldorado for foodlovers. To go there is to eat there. But be aware, if you are a vegetarian, it might be tough for you.
Peru has so much to offer. The country is literally divided in 3 parts: the forest on the eastern side, the Andean mountains in the middle and the coastal part on the western side of the country. A lot of variety, in culture, architecture and of course also in food.
The flagship dish of Peru undoubtedly is the Ceviche. A soupy bowl of chopped up fish bits and onions etc. Even if that does not sound so yummy, it tastes fantastic. Personally, I prefer meat over fish, so most food I tried was meat based.
With meat, the most famous and at the same time most feared national dish surely is the cuy asado – the grilled guinea pig. Cuy has been on my (food) bucket list for many years. I have tried (and failed) to eat it already when I was in Ecuador or Peru. So, for me it was clear, I will not leave Peru without having tried the guinea pig. You can imagine, I had my mind (foodwise) set on the guinea pig and look at all the menus of the restaurants, asked every local we met where to eat the best one etc.
In the beautiful Andean town of Cajamarca it finally happened. In a small local restaurant, we ordered a whole cuy. It sounds big, but even though the guinea pigs there are a bit bigger than the European ones it was not so much for 2 people.
I expected to wait for quite some time, because the cuy needs to be on the barbecue for some time. My surprise was big when they already came with the plate after about 15min. Of course, first we took the mandatory images to prove to everyone that we finally did it, and then we tried. The taste was very good, I would say a mixture between rabbit and chicken maybe. And the meat was quite soft. Also, it came with all the good inner parts, the heart and liver and all. So, definitely a dish to try.
But Peru has much more to offer. For vegetarians it is a tough country. Even though they have fantastic veggies and fruits there, the usual Peruvian dish contains meat.
Chicken, beef or fish at the coast. And, like in Kenya, they follow the “all of it” principles and east also livers, hearts and other intestine parts.
When walking around in Peru, you will notice the word “anticucho” many times. There are even Anticucherias. Basically, an anticucho is meat on a skewer. While anticuchos can be made of any type of meat, the most popular are made of beef heart (anticuchos de corazón). And guess what, I tried it. Also this meal was delicious and I can only recommend it.
The most memorable dish for me was the Pachamanca. By now you know I love food and I love to learn about how different cultures live and prepare food. The Pachamanca is a good example for this. It is a traditional dish from the mountain region, cooked in a huatia, an earthen oven, similar to the Hangi from New Zealand. The preparation takes a while, with digging a hole in the ground, making fire, heating stones over the fire and then putting the meat on. All of this will then be covered with grass and earth and after around two hours, the meat is ready. Typically, a large amount of meat is cooked because of the long preparation. Of course, you don’t do this every day, so being invited to a Pachamanca is a high honour. Together with the meat, the Peruvians also bake potatoes, green lima beans and other veggies, depending on the region.
We were invited to a feast, the Pachamanca was so delicious. It was accompanied by some more potatoes, sweet potatoes (camote), humitas and tamales. Humitas and Tamales are a corn dough mixture with cheese or fruits (or regionally different contents) wrapped in a corn leave. Humitas are sweet, Tamales salty, but both are very nourishing!
Are you hungry yet? But wait, there is more!
One of the most surprising dishes was something very simple. For breakfast or for a snack during the day, a palta sandwich is simply amazing. Palta is the Peruvian, or rather quechua, word for Avocado. So, a palta Sandwich is simply some fresh cut Avocado in bread, warm or cold.
Now all I did was talk about food. What about drinks? Well, also here, Peru has a traditional drink that is very popular. No, not Inca Cola. This is also popular, but there is something more natural: Chicha Morada. Chicha’s main ingredient is black corn and it is usually made by boiling the corn with pineapple, cinnamon, clove, and sugar. In Bolivia they have the same under the name «Api» and it is really delicious.
Europeans will have a strange Christmassy feeling when drinking it, as the looks and the taste remind Europeans a lot of mulled wine from Christmas markets. But Chicha (or Api) usually don’t have alcohol in them, even though you can get Chicha also with alcohol.
Of course, if you need something a drink now, Peru has it covered. Just go to any bar and order a Pisco Sour. Perus National drink, and so yummy! And if you are lucky, it is accompanied by some warm Cancha Chulpi (check the images). Basically it is popped corn that pops on the inside - imploded Popcorn. You could easily live from Pisco Sour and Cancha Chulpi....
Now, did you book your ticket to Peru yet? What are you waiting for? For sure, you will not return hungry!
What are your favourite world cuisine dishes?
Traveling with the Bishop – a unique experience in Kenya
Have you ever met a Bishop in person? Me neither. But last month I had the pleasure of traveling around Kenya with the “wild bishop”. Bishop Virgilio Pante is the head of the Catholic Diocese of Maralal – and he was our personal tour guide and chauffeur in Kenyas remote north for 10 days.
But first things first. Kenya was the first destination this year for my newest “baby”. Together with my partner, I organize the Cause Photo Travels, for a good cause.
Most tourists head to the Masai Mara to experience wildlife in Kenya. Our aim is different. We wanted to visit the north, Samburu County, to get in touch with remote villages and learn more about the Samburu and Turkana tribes, in order to organize our Cause Photo Travels in Kenya. These photo travels have a humanitarian background. The images produced on these travels will help our NGO Partners, like the Diocese of Maralal, to raise funds for their projects (building schools, supply materials etc.) and in addition, we bring Clothes, Shoes and more materials directly into the villages.
From Nairobi, we traveled up north, in the 4x4 Toyota of the Bishop, with him behind the steering wheel. First stop was his house in the mission of Maralal, his base and office. The Bishop has been in this area for over 40 years – first as a missionary and since 2001 as Bishop. He is a part of the Missioni della Consolata in Italy.
Never would we have guessed to have him as a tourguide, and even more surprising: he was terrific as tourguide. He told us interesting informations about all the areas, historical facts and named all the animals we saw along the way.
His luggage mainly consisted of many bottles of water. At least 5-6l per day. While on the road, we stopped from time to time when we met farmers on the way. While we engaged with the people and taking images, the bishop gave them water to drink. In these areas, running water is scarce, so farmers usually walk for miles to get water for themselves.
Traveling in the north of Kenya is not too easy. One hour from Nairobi and you are already very remote. Dirt roads in not the best conditions and no traffic signs whatsoever. So, without the bishop who knew all roads by heart, we surely would have gotten lost.
Our travel saw small towns and villages like Baragoi, South Horr, Tuum and Sererit, towns hardly known to usual tourists. Mzungu, a word we heard many times a day. White person! Most of these areas have not seen white people in years (or at all), except for the missionaries maybe. Babies usually started crying or staring at us in disbelieve when seeing us first, but the curiosity quickly took over and then they engaged with us. When they saw their images on our cameras, the smiles and laughter started, and the happiness spread quickly. I am always amazed how these smiles and expressions go directly into your heart. Most of the people were a bit shy at first but very friendly and warm after talking to them But of course, there are also the people who start throwing stones at you when aiming the camera at them. For this reason, the bishop strongly advised us to not take pictures of the farmers carrying guns. And there were quite many of them, all ages.
Having the Bishop with us all the way had another bonus – he is fluent not only in kisuaheli but also in the Samburu dialect, helping us with translations. He brought us to his parishes and we have been blessed to meet other missionaries who dedicated their life to help the people in Africa. The biggest surprise was Sererit. Far away from anything and no phone network, the mission in Sererit swept us off our feet. The whole mission has been built by Aldo Giuliani, the missionary on duty, including the chapel, the gardens from which they harvest all their fruits and veggies up to the many kilometers of water pipeline from the mountains to the mission and the village. But he also built the roads and schools in the area. He is now 78 and is working on a second water pipeline from the (mostly dry) river to the village, as a backup.
The Bishop opened up a new world and an amazing experience to us. We got to visit places we would not have had access to as normal tourists, we stayed in missions and convents and had lunch and dinner with priests and nuns. But most of all, we had the pleasure to meet this “wild” bishop with a deep love for Kenya and the people, who turns a Sunday mass at church into a happening and who can tell you exactly where to get the best food or which nun to ask for homemade mango icecream. Kenya for sure was an unforgettable experience and also changed my view on missionary work and the catholic church.
What is your opinion on missionaries or the church? Can you relate to my experiences? Leave me a comment, I am curious to hear more
I am a swiss photographer (www.fmphotography.ch),
a travel, wildlife, volunteer and outdoors addict who cares about zero waste, the environment and simply our planet.