Best Send-Off Imaginable


When I lived in Brighton in the late nineties, I got to be friends with a South African couple, Paul Kapelus and Nicci Kurz. Paul was studying at Sussex and Nicci was working with local government in Brighton. Our friendship developed around shared meals and stimulating conversation about the kind of ideas one thinks about in grad school.

Our time in Brighton drew to a close and we said goodbye in 1999. As a complete (and happy) fluke, I bumped into Paul in the Washington DC metro one night in 2002. We embraced, smoked cigars and wandered the streets of Capitol Hill late at night, talking and catching up. But aside from a quick Skype call in 2014, our contact over the last 16 years has been fleeting.

As Louise and I planned the final, Southern Africa, leg of our journey, we reached out to Paul and Nicci to see if we could visit them in Jozy. We spent the final two days of our trip together and I was reminded of why we had such a great friendship in the first place. Instantly, we were back to the delicious food and great conversations of before.

Nicci teaches art at a nearby boys prep school. Paul is a consultant working in mining communities. Their daughters Maya and Grace are 13 and 11 years old, respectively. Ida and Saga fell in with Grace and spent a lot of time playing marbles. We all took one of their dogs for a walk in a beautiful park in Emmarentia. The girls bounced on the trampoline in the front yard. The art in the house is incredible.


South Africa’s constitution is one of the most progressive anywhere. On Tuesday morning we visited the Constitutional Court; the highest court in the land whose job is to defend the constitution. Paul’s nephew Max is a clerk for one of the Justices. He took us on a fabulous tour.



The Inside of the building is like an art gallery showcasing South Africa’s greatest artists.

The iconic Mandela image in miniature format




At the entrance to the courtroom


The courtroom itself is full of symbolism. The walls are made of bricks reclaimed from the jails. The Justices sit at the same level as court visitors, a reminder that the judges serve the people. The windows at eye level look out at the feet of people walking outside the courtroom, promoting humility. Max gave an incredibly engaging guided visit as well as an overview of recent court cases (including the one that could bring down Jacob Zuma).


Louise and I had frequently thought of how the final days of our trip would play out. It first came up in November when some friends were closing their own eight-month adventure through Asia. But whenever we thought about the end of our trip, the date seemed so far off and distant as to be unreal. And now all of a sudden it’s upon us (I’m writing this post from Jeddah Airport as we wait to board our final flight to Toronto).

On Tuesday night Nicci and Paul did the most thoughtful thing: they invited their gregarious and generous friends over to Nicci’s art studio for an evening of pizza and storytelling. There were about 25 people, parents and kids, and the four of us showed pictures and told stories of our travels. There were a ton of interest in our trip (all of the parents are about the same age) and questions about where we went, what we saw, whom we met and how we did it. Since we were in an art studio, Paul and Nicci had each of their friends draw a little picture to represent the evening’s conversation. At the end of the evening, we were given the collection of drawings as a little memento of the evening. The notes were so beautiful, so creative.

The evening gave us our first real opportunity to reflect on and talk in depth about our trip with others. The group was very receptive to learning about our experience. It’s a privilege to have 20 strangers interested in learning about our family trip. I felt a warm rush of happiness and thankfulness rise in my chest as I thought about how lucky we were to spend our final evening of the trip with this group.

We’re used to the metaphor of leading busy lives and juggling a lot of balls simultaneously. To continue the metaphor, some of those balls are glass and others are rubber. The glass balls are the ones that we can’t drop: our family, our happiness, our health. The other balls are everything else. They can drop and, since they’re rubber, they bounce back up.

Our trip was about keeping the glass balls in the air.


Eye Candy (Part 3)

Yesterday we arrived in Johannesburg. We’re staying with some old friends from Washington DC – Ananthy Thambinayagam and Dharma Sears – that we haven’t seen in more than a decade. 

Weekend markets in South African urban neighbourhoods are atracting a lot of visitors, and for good reason.  They have delicious food, lots of young families, great people-watching. We visited City Bowl Market in Capetown a couple of times; it reminded us of some of the markets back home in Toronto.

Ananthy and Dharma took us to Maboneng Precinct today to visit the Sunday Arts on Main Market. Very funky and diverse, it is a similar community event to neighborgoods. Maboneng used to be run-down and is now undergoing something of a revitalization; Arts on Main is clearly part of that renewal.  Here is how Lonely Planet describes it:

The Inner City itself, once a no-go zone, is becoming a tourist gem, with plenty of pleasant surprises. Oh, and there’s Maboneng. On the eastern fringes of the Inner City, this hipster-friendly urban neighbourhood is considered as one of the most successful urban-renewal projects in the world – it’s sure to seduce you.

There is also a lot of beautiful street art and graffiti. Here are some shots.



In the middle of it all were some kids performing on a corner. Three guitars, one of them connected to an amp and speaker.  Check it out.









New (Entrepreneurial) Beginnings

Dear Reader,

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we will  launch an importing business that Louise will run when we return to Toronto. Our dream is to bring superb Kampot peppercorns to as many North American tables as possible. More details below.

But, importantly, we have a question for you – our fellow foodies: what top two online communities/channels do you go to for inspiration about recipes and new ingredients? We’d appreciate it if you could respond to us through the WordPress site, on Facebook or by contacting one of us directly. Please also share this post widely with all of your friends and acquaintances who might be interested in Kampot Peppercorns. Thanks!

We expect to launch our online store in mid-June. We’ll keep you posted!


Pepper grows on peppercorn vines like miniature bunches of grapes. Popular around the world for its flavor-enhancing qualities, peppercorn plants are native to tropical climates like south India and southeast Asia. There are many different types of peppercorn and some of the popular names include India Malabar, India Tellicherry, Malaysian Sarawak, Indonesian Lampong and Madagascar. But of all of the different peppercorns, Kampot peppercorns are often said to be the best in the world. During the time we spent in Cambodia, we visited many Kampot Peppercorn plantations and were struck by their wonderful fragrance and taste. We blogged about it here.

We wanted to learn more about the peppercorn trade, and a good place to do that was in Goa, attending the International Spice Conference. I wrote a guest post about the conference for the Toronto Food Lab’s blog. Check it out here.

A Kampot Peppercorn plantation:


Since visiting the plantations, we’ve enjoyed Kampot Peppercorns with practically every meal, relishing how the peppercorn enriches our dishes’ flavours. The pepper is exponentially better than the regular peppercorns on the shelves of grocery stores.

Our trip has been about realizing dreams. For a number of years, we had dreamed about freeing up the time to travel together as a family. Setting up an importing enterprise is another dream of ours. It will be one of the ways for us to retain some of the time and flexibility that we freed up by taking this family trip together.

Our enterprise will import organic Cambodian Kampot black and red peppercorns to serve the North American market. We want to  enhance as many dishes on as many tables as possible. Kampot peppercorns are grown using farming techniques that are centuries old and proven to deliver the best flavour. We can trace each peppercorn back to the farm and small community from which it originated. This helps us understand how the peppercorns you buy help support Cambodian farmers. And like Champagne, Kampot peppercorns have a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) that safeguards their unique qualities. The PGI ensures that Kampot peppercorns deliver the subtle flavours and fiery heat that transform your food and linger on your palate.

Our dream is that our pepper will make your food extraordinary. And if it’s already extraordinary, our peppercorns will make it even more so.

We made our decision to import Kampot peppercorns early in our trip and we’ve already developed several aspects of the business. We’ve learned that a lot of business planning and setup is possible on the road using an (intermittent) internet connection, a basic mobile phone, an old iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. Some of the details we’ve been able to take care of include:

  • We’ve established relationships with different peppercorn growers. Our first order of peppercorns will ship to Toronto in May.
  • We’ve developed the first iteration of our webpage, logo and branding with the help of a Washington DC-based graphic designer.
  • We’ve consulted our tax advisor and will incorporate a few days after we return to Toronto.
  • We’ve learned the regulations for importing peppercorns from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and how they apply to our business.
  • We’ve developed a social media strategy that incorporates Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and Reddit.

Along the way we’ve had tremendous support from our friends and family. They have been of enormous help with their great ideas and enthusiasm.

As we continue to work towards a mid-June launch, we’d love to get your input on websites/online communities to help us create social media buzz prior to launch. What are your top two online communities/channels do you go to for inspiration about recipes and new ingredients?

The Animal Issue (Part II)


In November last year, the world’s second-largest gem quality diamond was discovered in Botswana. Weighing more than 1,100 karats, it is the biggest diamond to be discovered in Botswana and the largest find in more than a century. The size of a baseball, the gem is too large for the onsite equipment in Botswana. It has been sent to Antwerp for scanning and valuation.


In addition to big diamonds, Botswana is also home to big mammals. The Mashatu Lodge Rangers that picked us up at the airfield brought us to a beautiful lodge in the middle of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. According to Wiki, the “Reserve is a private reserve covering an area of 46,000 hectares (110,000 acres) made up of savannah plains, riverine forests, open marshland and rugged outcrops of sandstone. It is the largest private reserve in Southern Africa. It has the largest elephant population in the world. In addition, more than 350 species of birds have been reported here”.

We spent about 12 hours in safari trucks viewing the animals at different times of the day. We saw two sister lionesses hunting at night and then one of them sleeping it off the following morning (pictured below). We heard the male lion roar at sundown, after seeing it resting beside its warthog kill the previous day. We giggled every time we saw the warthogs, busybodies scurrying through the bush with their tails raised like antennae.

In Africa, the “Big Five” game animals are the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and White/Black rhinoceros. Three of the five are present at Tuli (there are no buffalo or rhinos).


There is also the “Ugly Five”, consisting of the Hyena, Marabou stork, Vulture, Warthog and Wildebeest.

Here’s John’s shot of a wildebeest.

We had our own “Cute Five Six” that took great pleasure in seeing all the animals and checking them off in the lists of animal sightings in the kids workbooks that Mashatu staff thoughtfully provided.

Here’s the gang.



Our family has been traveling for more than seven months, in Asia and Southern Africa. We know that we’ve been high value targets for thieves in places like Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Saigon, Indian trains, Jaipur and Delhi and Cape Town. Our stuff- small knapsacks, money, cameras, tablets, phones and credit cards – attracts furtive, covetous glances on buses, in restaurants, on the street.  We take some precautions; in November, I had passport-sized pockets sewn into all of my shorts and, aside from border crossings, I haven’t taken our passports out of those pockets for five months. My thinking has been that we could easily part with most things; losing the passports would be more complicated and time-consuming to resolve than other thefts. Somehow we managed to not lose a thing before coming to Botswana.

At about noon on Friday, the Mashatu Rangers dropped us off at the local airfield. We got into our trucks to drive home to Gabstown, in what turned out to be an eight-hour journey. I drove the final three-hour stretch, mostly in the dark, with Louise, Lotte, Ida and Saga. We stopped in a shopping mall near the Gaborone airport to pick up a few groceries and Indian take-away while the others continued home. While we were getting the food, someone broke into our car and took Saga’s tablet and Louise’s knapsack containing a book and a couple of pairs of sunglasses. They also got my camera bag with my camera and all the photographs I’d shot on the trip.

There is a  gap in time between when we recognize that our stuff has been stolen and when we actually understand that our gear has disappeared. During those few seconds of disbelief, time stretches out, interminably. All the sounds around us fade into the background. Incredulous, we run through different scenarios: our stuff is under a carseat, left in the restaurant, the knapsack/ camera bag is actually still on our back. Finally, reality sinks in. It’s gone.

From Saga’s perspective, the biggest loss was her tablet. It has been with her through thick and thin all along; she’s a voracious reader and learner. Plus, in her words: “It’s the best tablet ever”. Louise was 500 pages into A Little Life, one of the finalists for this year’s Man Booker Prize; 200 pages to go in a riveting book. Prescription sunglasses are handy to have. The camera is a Fujifilm x100t, a Leica without the Leica pricetag, a good balance of quality and portability for a trip like this.

But the pictures were by far the most valuable: over 3,000 shots from our trip documenting all the places, people, and things that we’ve experienced. Since the beginning of this trip, Louise and I have sorted our shots every couple of days, selecting the ones we like the most, saving them to a phone or IPad or loading onto WordPress. We have more than 700 of the best shots from our adventures. It could be a lot worse.

Things went back to normal quickly. Saga and Ida’s birthsday was on Monday. Their Toronto grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins gave them each a new tablet. Lotte spent the day in Johannesburg yesterday and picked up A Little Life for Louise. Meanwhile, I’m spared the job of having to edit 3,000 photographs that I’ve already sorted and having to decide what to do with them and where to store them. As for the camera, I bought it for the trip and it made it through almost to the end. We’ll be back in Toronto next Thursday.

This morning, the girls joined Viggo’s class for the day. All the kids went to school together. They had a blast . Here’s a shot (from my phone) before they left.


The Animal Issue (Part I)

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the world’s driest and in some areas it receives only a few hundredths of an inch of rain per year.The massive banks of sea fog known as the camanchacas that roll off the Pacific Ocean do not produce rain – the moisture that makes up the fog is too fine to form rain droplets. To sustain itself, an indigenous wild relative of the llama, known as the guanaco, very delicately drinks the condensed fog from the spines of cacti that grow nearby. It’s an incredible act of tenacity and survival.

We’re in Botswana, a landlocked country with an arid or semi-arid climate. Up to 70% of its area is covered by the Kalahari desert. Last week we left for a six-day camping and safari trip in Botswana’s wilds. I wondered how thirsty we would get.

Botswana’s tourism is geared to meeting the needs of luxury safari enthusiasts. There are myriad lavish Bostwanan safari lodges that cater to every client need, providing not only access to wildlife sightings (the Big Five, the Little Five, the Ugly Five), but also delicious food, comfortable sleeping accommodations, air transport to and from lodges and much more.

We were going camping, however, and there’s not an infrastructure in place to support a camping culture. Renting 4×4 trucks is difficult. Hiring camping gear is nonviable. Maps and guidebooks for where to camp and how to get there are hard to come by and people generally rely on word of mouth recommendations. If someone visiting Botswana wants to put together his or her own camping trip, it’s nearly impossible.

Impossible, that is, unless you are lucky enough to go to the wilds with Lotte and John. They have gear of their own and could count on their friends to lend us the rest of the gear that we needed.

Sleeping bags, therma-rests,  camp stoves, ground sheets. 


Tent (red bag) and cooking gear (IKEA bag [of course]).


Chairs for around the fire.


Jerrycans full of diesel.


Back in January we had looked into a local car rental place that could set us up with a 4×4. By the time we’d arrived in Botswana the truck we wanted had evaporated and, since we wished to camp over Easter weekend, there were no 4x4s available from any of the other rental agencies. At the eleventh hour Lotte was able to magic us an Isuzu pickup. We loaded it up and were on our way. (More on our Isuzu ride in the next post.)


Our itinerary consisted of two nights at a campground in Goo Moremi Gorge, about 5 hours drive from Gaborone. The following two nights were at a campground on the Limpopo River. The final two nights would be at the Mashatu Lodge, in Northern Tuli Block, at a game reserve.

I was happy to learn that camping in Botswana isn’t much different from camping in Southern Ontario. An impala can double as a deer. Warthogs are a cross between porcupines, skunks, toads and feral pigs.  With a bit of imagination, a scorpion coud be a big wasp. It gets hot, especially at 1pm. And surprisingly, there’s a lot of water. The Limpopo River was high and at our second campground water was drawn from the river to irrigate a massive orange grove. No need to lick condensed fog from cacti.

We saw some of rural Botswana. The country is about 15% larger than Spain, but with a population of about 2 million, it has one of the lowest population densities in the world. The combination of dry red soil and low rainfall means that the land isn’t suitable for cultivation and Botswana imports much of its food. Agriculture consists mainly of livestock rearing (mostly cattle, as well as some goats, sheep and chicken) and accounts for around a tenth of Botswana’s gross national product. In fact, we learned that most families have a “cattle post”, meaning a small herd of livestock. Most of the cattle seemed to spend the day chewing grass on the side of the highway, occasionally wandering into traffic.

The camping was fun. We hiked through the Goo Moremi Gorge and visited waterfalls and vulture breeding grounds. We learned that the Baobab tree is actually a succulent; the one we saw at the foot of the gorge was more than 800 years old. As we packed up our camp on the third day, Louise uncovered a scorpion. In Botswana there are two kinds of scorpions: ones with big claws and small tails, others with small claws and big tails that are more poisonous. Louise’s scorpion had tiny claws.

Our campgrounds were far from any town or village. The sky was clear and the stars so bright that they seemed almost to create a caricature of a night sky.

Our food was good and there was a lot of it. On our fifth day we packed up our second campsite and drove into the northern Tuli Block game reserve. We left our cars at the airfield, Mashatu Lodge rangers picked us up at 1pm and took us to the lodge. I’ll write more about that in the next post.

In the meantime, here’s a shot of an elephant from the game reserve.