Sunday, July 3, 2016

Apartment Tour



It's been a few months since I moved into my new apartment in Alexandria. I put together a little tour of the place for my friends and family who are far flung across the globe. 

https://www.facebook.com/jenniparks/videos/10154216725089740/

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Cookbook Review: Modern Flavors of Arabia

I’ve started a cookbook discussion and dinner party group that meets regularly (1x a month or so) at my apartment in Alexandria to discuss cookbooks and enjoy a shared meal cooked by the members from recipes published in the monthly selected cookbook.  

Each year we work our way through an eclectic mix of cookbooks, including time honored classics, rare finds from every corner of the globe, and current up and coming advanced evaluation copies.

For our July cookbook discussion and dinner party, we reviewed Suzanne Husseini's 2012 cookbook Modern Flavors of Arabia (Random House).

قائمة طعام (Menu)

Halloumi & Feta Cheese Bread Rolls
Labneh Three Ways
Shamandar (Beet Dip)
Hummus
Beet & Purslane Salad with Citrus Dressing
Kofta with Sweet and Sour Cherry Sauce
Roasted Cauliflower with Citrus Tahini Sauce
Lemony Braised Stuffed Vine Leaves
Shish Barak (Lamb Ravioli in Herbed Yogurt Sauce)
A Thousand and One Nights Pistachio Ice Cream
Arabic Shortbread (Ghraybe)
Rice Pudding with Date Compote
Mint tea






The table is set in preparation for the guests’ arrival.













Pistachio Ice Cream and Arabic Shortbread






This might be the first time in all of my years of cooking and reviewing cookbooks that I’ve sampled twelve different recipes from a cookbook and found every single one to be on point. I give the beet dip a solid 5 (out of 5) fork rating AND I DON’T EVEN LIKE BEETS. The Kofta were tender and the cherry sauce to accompany them was another highlight of the menu. Oh my gosh, and the cheese rolls, they were amazing. Tender, pillowy, and warm, they hid the perfect little tangy bite of cheese within. The grape leaves were savory and bright with the citrus flavor. Every single dish was hit. Husseini clearly has some kind of culinary magic up her sleeves. And I wasn’t alone in my assessment; Paige was so taken with the shortbread that she lost her capacity for coherent speech and just kept moaning as she nibbled through her serving of cookies.

This is definitely a cookbook that has earned a permanent space on my bookshelves in the kitchen and I urge to you pick up Modern Flavors of Arabia to add to your collection as well. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Trip Report: Turkey 2012

To round out my 2012 travels and push my Delta miles beyond the Diamond threshold, I dashed off on a quick weekend mistake fare trip to Madrid (where I stayed in the hotel nearly the entire time ordering room service while I was bogged down with work and studying), enjoyed another weekend spa getaway to Las Vegas (lounged by the pool most of the time and sampled some of the high end restaurants on the strip), and then ventured into Turkey for a long weekend. 

This was my second trip to Turkey and so on the first day, I set about revisiting all the spots in Istanbul I'd fallen in love with on the last trip.  That meant, of course, a visit to Cemberlitas Hamami on the European side of Istanbul (not far from the Blue Mosque) for a relaxing scrub and massage. This little slice of heaven is, hands down, my favorite place in Istanbul to recharge after a long flight from the Americas. I also spent some quality time in the spice market, picking up more Turkish Delight than is probably necessary as well as apple tea and other goodies. 

Having found a stay in the historic section of old Istanbul a bit inconvenient (not many good restaurants nearby and no nightlife) and overpriced on my last visit, I opted to stay at the Doubletree Modena in Kadikoy this time around. It's on the Asian side of Istanbul and very modern. It boasts a fantastic breakfast spread, affordable hotel pricing, and a dozen or more tasty restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood. It's become my go-to place to stay whenever I'm in the city. To get to the hotel you just take the tram from the airport down to the Sirkeci stop and then cross the street and take the ferry (1 Turkish Lira) from Eminonu to Kadikoy. It's an easy 15 minute ferry ride. 

I popped in and out a handful or gourmet shops in Kadikoy (picked up some rose petal jam!) before I took a flight into Izmir. Izmir is a bustling, touristy seaside town but it's relatively quiet in the winter. I was only in the city to pick up a rental car and transfer to Ephesus so I didn't do much exploring beyond grabbing a bite to eat. 

I was so excited to take in the ruins of Ephesus. It's a city of key importance in Christian history and its first inhabitants date back to the Bronze Age. It's location has moved around within the region a few times (due to geographical/weather troubles, disease, and politics) but it's always been a notable community. The city rose to become one of the wealthiest Greek communities and the Temple of Artemis (Greek goddess) was constructed within it during that time of prosperity. The city passed to Persian rule, then was liberated and ruled by Alexander the Great's men, before coming under Roman rule through a bequest of a will. As we know from biblical accounts, Ephesus was visited by Christian missionaries many many times in its last chapter of vibrancy. What you may not know from those accounts is that the strong and successful campaign to convert the community to Christianity is what ultimately led to its descent into ruin. Prior to conversion, the city's educated townspeople (both men and women enjoyed freedom to learn) made a handsome living off the sale of worship paraphernalia associated with Artemis. Once Christianity took hold (and took hold in a big way as Paul spent three years here, Ephesus was designated the head of the seven churches in Asia minor, the city hosted Christian councils in the 5th century, and the gospel of John is thought to have been written here), the making of craven images was banned, the beautiful temple of Artemis was destroyed by Christian activists, and the revenue from the Artemis worship tourism industry dried up. At the same time, the advances in women's rights the city could previously boast of were rolled back as women were barred from working independently or teaching men. The city's only saving grace toward maintaining its prominence outside of Christian theology was its role as a sea port and when the river silted up in the 14th century that came to an end as well. Thus is the history of the spectacular city brought to its knees by Christianity. 

Here's a visual tour of my favorite buildings.


The stadium where the silversmiths were led into a near riot over the potential loss of idol making revenue as described in Acts 19:23-41.

23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.
32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people.34 But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
35 The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. 37 You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38 If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40 As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” 41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

      



Hadrian's Temple



Main Street



Beautiful arches


 The Library of Celsus


Saturday, September 12, 2015

International Cookbook Roundup Reviews

I have a vast and ever growing cookbook collection. It's sorted into 3 major groupings- international cookbooks (sorted by country), US regional cookbooks (sorted by state or region), and the hodgepodge that is the rest of the books (sorted by unifying theme such as "salads", "pressure cooker cookbooks", "cheese course", "desserts", etc). 

Just like it's a good idea to systematically rotate through one's closet at least once every few years - challenging yourself to find a way to incorporate each outfit you own before you allow for a repeat - it's a good idea for cookbook collectors to cycle through our culinary volumes.  

This summer I started working my way through the international cookbook section of my collection, starting with African cuisine. So far I've only made it up to Canada (cooking a few culinary treasures out of my Canadian cookbooks this week) and I have some thoughts to share on the various cookbooks I've been cooking out of the past two months. 

Africa

Cooking with an African Flavour (Sapra Safari Guide)
by Rosanne Guggisberg  (Author), Elaine Mwango (Editor)
My mother-in-law picked up this cookbook for me on one of her trips to Africa. It has a very colorful softcover binding. A fairly basic guide written for the English speaking audience on staples of African cuisine, it makes for a good introduction to the continent's ingredients. I've made chicken in yoghurt as well as glazed sweet potatoes following the recipes in this cookbook and both turned out well.

Recipes from the African Kitchen 

A friend of mine picked up this hardcover edition for me on his travels and I was delighted to receive it. The recipes are all very appealing and presented in an easy to follow format that will work well for both beginner and intermediate/advanced cooks. I like that the recipes often indicate where in Africa they originate (several are from Morocco for example) and that snippets of text on African culture are sprinkled throughout. The rice pilaf recipe is really good. I'd definitely recommend picking up this cookbook - it's easy to find on Amazon and it has a large variety of recipes to try. 

Andorra

Catalan Cuisine, Revised Edition: Vivid Flavors From Spain's Mediterranean Coast 
Many people associate Catalan cuisine with Spain (and indeed, the author writes extensively about the Catalan culture in Spain within this cookbook). but I was introduced to Catalan Cuisine on a weekend trip to Andorra (that tiny country nestled between France and Spain) a few years ago. It was love at first sight and I knew I wanted a Catalan cookbook to add to my collection. Spanish tortilla, shrimp in garlic butter, creme Catalan - all the classics are here in one volume plus so much more. I love to put together dinner parties featuring an assortment of small plates drawn from this cookbook and there hasn't been a recipe I've tried yet from Colman's book that hasn't turned out well.

Australia

Tastes of the Outback


On my first trip to Sydney, I came across this cookbook in one of the local big box bookstores. The recipes looked very good, especially as I'd just had my first taste of Barramundi in one of the fish takeout shops downtown and wanted to know how best to prepare it. But I didn't want to haul the book around on vacation, so I noted the title and ISBN and made myself a promise to order it from Amazon when I got back home. Big mistake! Amazon.com does not carry the title and by the time I tracked it down on a rare books site out of the UK and paid shipping it was nearly twice the price of what I'd seen it going for in Sydney. Still, it was well worth the price because the recipes are fantastic. A few weeks ago we made the crisp skinned Barramundi (head to Whole foods to source this fish in the US) and the apple hazelnut cake. Just perfect in terms of flavor. One area where the cookbook could use some improvement though is in the editing of the detailed instructions for each recipe. The wording can be a bit vague and some of the ingredients shown in the finished dish and listed in the ingredient list aren't directly mentioned in the recipe text so it's a bit of guesswork to figure out plating and intent of the author. Because of this, I recommend this cookbook only for intermediate or advanced cooks who can handle such curve balls.  

Austria

Plachutta - Best of Viennese Cuisine 
A few winters ago I spent some time meandering around Austria and taking in the Christmas Markets. The food experience was unforgettable - the most delicate apple strudel, belly warming soups, schnitzel (the ancestor of American chicken fried steak), just to name a few. One night I dined at Plachutta. This restaurant in Vienna is known for their Tafelspitz, which is quite an involved culinary affair. You roast a cut of beef, create a flavorful soup out of it, then serve it in this way: first serve cups of broth from the soup (no meat) as an appetizer; then serve portions of the meat and vegetables from the soup as the entree with the accompaniments of potato pancakes, horseradish sauce, chive sauce, and applesauce. One of the best things I have ever eaten. Plachutta cookbook not only covers Tafelspitz step by step but also includes recipes for almost every other well known Austrian dish, such as those I've mentioned above. One of the best recipes in the book is for Salzburg Nockerl, a light an airy souffle type dessert that is heaven by the spoonful. BUY THIS BOOK. BUY THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW and be transported to the culinary wonderland that is Austria.

Belgium

The Food and Cooking of Belgium: Traditions Ingredients Tastes Techniques Over 60 Classic Recipes 
I really love this cookbook. I spent a couple of hours pouring over the available cookbooks on Belgian cuisine and this one best captured the essence of the culinary scene I experienced during my travels to Brussels and Bruges. Full color pictures, detailed expose on the culinary culture of Belgium, and recipes that are easy to follow and taste great. So far my favorites include mussels et frites, herbed crepes with cheese (I also serve with fresh fruit), and the recipe for rabbit stewed with cherries.


Belize

U Toucan Cook Belize 
by Alice Nord 
My father is French, born and raised in Haiti, but, while I grew up eating stewed chicken, rice and beans, and fried plantains, I didn't realize my culinary imprinting was influenced heavily by Caribbean cooking. That was, until I took a trip to Belize and was immersed in Caribbean cooking. In addition to Belizean versions of my Dad's recipes, I had a chance to sample a lot of other specialties of the region such as conch fritters and thick coconut pie. And fried jacks. MMM, the fried jacks! Similar to sopapillas, fried jacks are typically eaten with black beans for breakfast in Belize. 

I scoured the bookstores in Belize, and again after returning home, to find a really great cookbook featuring Belize cuisine. This was the best I could locate. It's missing some of the favorites I had in Belize (the coconut pie in this cookbook is nothing close to the fresh coconut pie I had in Caye Caulker and there are no spicy chicken soft tacos like I enjoyed at Lucy's taco stand in San Ignacio) but it's the best of what's available on the market. Alice writes in the style of your mom or your grandma, and sometimes the recipes are skimpy on important details (like temp of the oven) but the essence of the recipes shine through. 

This cookbook+Marie Sharp's Hot Sauce= happiness.

Note that the people of Belize have quite the cheeky humor as this book is title "U Toucan (toucan, get it?) Cook Belize", and another title out on Amazon is "I Belize you can Cookbook". 

Britain

Brian Turner's Favourite British Recipes 
This was a difficult review for me. Sometimes it's hard to separate my feelings about the subject matter from those about the writing. And Brian Turner's writing here is very good; his instructions are easy to follow, his recipes are formatted nicely on the page, there are lovely pictures included, and his little stories sprinkled throughout the cookbook are fun to read. The problem is that it's quite challenging for me to find a recipe in the book that I enjoy, as a lot of British food just isn't that appealing to me. Still, for the sake of authenticity in my international cookbook collection, I didn't want to neglect to add a well written British cookbook to my shelves, and this seemed the best of the lot.  Recently I attempted the Jubilee Salmon dish and found it to be wonderful. Salmon, cooked just perfectly, topped with an herbed hollandaise and paired with asparagus.  That same week my kitchen partner prepared the Welsh rarebit and that was rather a disaster. I still don't know if we did something wrong or if the dish is supposed to taste like that (ugh) but it was just a more Cheddar-y version of Velveeta. 

Burma

Burma: Rivers of Flavor 

One of my favorite cookbooks in my international collection. Naomi has put together *the* best English language cookbook on Burmese cooking. And it's so much more than just a cookbook, as she weaves in stories of Burmese culture and her travelogue throughout the pages. This is a book that fun to read from beginning to end, before you ever sit down to make any of the recipes. When you do get to making them, you won't be disappointed. Everything I've tried here has been fantastic. Most recently, I made a late summer supper pairing of lemongrass chicken soup and shrimp salad (with the addition of fresh tomatoes from my garden). It was very well received. This is an essential cookbook on Southeast Asian cuisine to add to your collection. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Book Review: As American as Shoofly Pie


When I hear the phrase "Pennsylvania Dutch", I think of the Amish. I think most people do. So when I received a review copy of William Woys Weaver's latest book on the culinary history of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine, As American as Shoofly Pie, I have to admit I wasn't too excited. What's there to learn about pickled beans and shoofly pie really?

Well, as it turns out, the Amish are only a subgroup of the Pennsylvania Dutch (PD). Weaver explains that the PD include all German speaking (Dutch in the context of PD is a bastardization of Deutsch, the name for German language) peoples that immigrated to Pennsylvania during the 17th and 18th centuries. From Wikipedia: "The majority of these immigrants originated in what is today southwestern Germany, i.e., Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg; other prominent groups were Alsatians, Swiss, and Huguenots (French Protestants)". Weaver goes on to explain that about a third were the Palatinates, a third were Swiss (and this includes the Amish), and a third were the immigrants from Wuttemberg (known as Swabians - and these folks gave us the pretzel).

Weaver spends a lot of his pages describing in detail the cultural and culinary differences between these three major groups of PD and it's quite interesting. Among other things, we learn about the lost or forgotten PD recipes (like hairy dumplings), we learn how PD sauerkraut is made differently than the German variety, and we learn how the Amish culinary table (or what we think of as their culinary table) came to dominant the entire image of PD cuisine. And it's on this last point that Weaver seems quite bitter. To sum up his resentment in two clauses: it's unconscionable that everyone thinks PD=Amish and it's unconscionable that their food (as marketed and sold in restaurants and farmstands) is seen as THE authentic PD when much of their cuisine is derivative and can't be traced back to the old world.  For example, their chicken pot pie is just a riff on the traditional English recipe. And shoofly pie is just a variant of maple syrup pie made by the Canadians and New Englanders. But the Amish get all the press bc of their non-standard attire and their plain sect culture. Oh and he also has a beef with calling the PD German bc only 2/3rd of them immigrated from what is now Germany (don't forget about those Swiss and French!) and even those who did can't really be considered German since Germany was not a country at the time they came over.

The last section of the book is filled with PD recipes, both those that came over from the old world and the new that were created in Pennsylvania. As it turns out, I'm not much a fan of PD cuisine (its a bit too similar to German food which doesn't suit me) so I haven't attempted any of the recipes yet, but they're still delightful to read.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Trip Report: Amazon Jungle 2012

I've generally made a tradition of spending Thanksgiving out of the country and 2012 wasn't any different. I wanted to get away from it all and do something adventurous. I had my eye on traipsing around the Amazon rainforest but was hesitant to go by myself. I managed to talk a few friends into going with me and so after a couple of months researching the various jungle lodges in Peru, I settled on Muyuna Lodge. I was looking for a place that had plenty of scheduled activities and good food but was ensconced in the jungle and offered rustic accommodations (ie no tv or phone or internet). There's a handful of lodges that match those specifications but Muyuna was the only affordable option. 

We had two full-day layovers on the way to the lodge and we made the most of them by signing up for some tours. 

Our first layover was in Mexico City. We met up with Carlos, a local guide I'd found on Viator and he led us through the city, pointing out the highlights and history as we went along. During our tour of the Aztec ruins, I learned that one of my favorite Mexican dishes - posole- has a dark history. It seems that the Aztecs would celebrate special events with ritual human sacrifice and once the sacrifice was complete, they would cook up the unlucky victim into a tasty stew for all in the community to share in festive joy. When the Spanish came through and subjugated the Aztecs, of course this "special" tradition didn't sit too well with them and their Catholic ethos. Wanting to offer up alternatives, pork was suggested to replace human flesh as the star ingredient. That went over pretty well (it is said that pork tastes very similar to human) and the descendant populations of Aztec/Spanish heritage continued to cook up batches of the stew for special occasions, including the Christian holidays they embraced such as Christmas Eve. So, for my readers in the southwest who enjoy a pot of posole on Christmas Eve, may you enjoy your tasty stew whose origins lie in ritual human sacrifice.

Murals in the Franciscan Order

Metropolitan Cathedral

Aztec Temple Sculpture

Aztec Temple Sculpture


Our second layover was in Lima and this time *I* led our group on the tour of the downtown area. I'd been to Lima a few years before but only while passing through to Cuzco and had not really been out to explore the city so I was pretty happy about getting the chance to do so on this trip. We visited the Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral (which features a rendition of the last supper with guinea pig as the entree on the table), the Government Plaza (where we got the watch the changing of the guard set to some pretty bizarre music), and the San Francisco monastery. We indulged in traditional Peruvian cuisine for lunch and dinner (hello Pisco sours!) and then dropped in for a massage at a parlor that offered excellent Thai services but that also seemed to quietly offer happy ending services as well (of which we did not partake).

 The Palace Guard

Scenes from the Plaza

Scenes from the Plaza



Church Interiors







                                                               Jon and Jenni downtown


Our third day into the trip, we were finally off to the jungle. We flew from Lima to Iquitos (see the map below) and then got into a small boat for the trip south on the Amazon river into the jungle.


Muyuna Lodge is actually on a tributary of the Amazon - the  Yanayacu River (which means "black water" in Quechua). We arrived to the Lodge in the early afternoon and headed off in another boat again almost immediately after dropping of our things in our cabins. This first outing was designated as a bird watching trip and would be the first of many for that purpose. Our guide took us to Lake Sapote and pointed out all the amazing birds. There were parrots, jacanas, kingfishers (lots of kingfishers), herons, and many many other birds, most of which were quite noisy. After that, we made our way to Lake Moena for some sloth watching but no sloths showed up. Our guide was very good at pointing out animals that we would have otherwise never seen. Even now, looking pretty closely at the pics we took that I *know* have animals in the shot, I have trouble finding the creatures. They just blend in so well with the trees and other vegetation. 

                                                               Arrival at Muyana Lodge


Birds Birds Birds








                                                                    Cute Lil Critter


Dinner at the lodge that first evening was fantastic (fresh passion fruit and local fish, among other things) and we spent some time at the table getting to know the other guests. There were probably about 10 people staying at the lodge at the time but three years later the only guests that stand out in my memory are the young man and woman in their twenties who were both pilots for Lufthansa. 

Our second day at the lodge (and all days beyond) looked like this : eat, nature excursion, rest, repeat. In the morning after breakfast we set out in the boat to Lake Casha to look for monkeys and sloths and we were lucky enough to spot some, along with many birds. 


More beautiful birds 




The Birdwatcher




Gigantic Lily Pads


After lunch at the lodge, we went to Lake Purura to for Piranha fishing and were lucky in that too, each bagging a handful of fish. Piranha fishing , woo boy, is that an adventure. We used raw meat - chicken and fish I think - to catch them and they were very feisty. When it rains, the Piranha jump up and out of the water in great gymnastic maneuvers and it just so happens that while we were out it started to rain (it started to rain so many times while we were out on in the boat) and one of those little guys with the ferocious rawr rawr rawr teeth jumped right into our boat and onto Jonathan's lap. That was a sight to see. Jon was startled and jumped a bit of course, but not too much, which was good, because it only takes a little rocking to tip the boat. 


Piranha fishing


Back at the lodge, we relaxed in our cabins and munched on the spectacular buffet of treats my friends Michelle and Paula had brought along - minibar bottles of spirits and sweet snacks of every kind. We spent a good deal of time resting and watching the rain pour before dinner (where we got to dine on the Piranha we'd caught earlier in the day) and then we set off on a nighttime boat ride and hike to meet up with rainforest frogs. I had quite the interesting exchange with our guide in the boat during that evening excursion. I had brought, as had all my friends, Snickers candy onto the boat. I guess we looked quite foolish as the Americans carting around candy bars in the jungle but we were only following orders. We'd done so because it clearly says on the Muyuna Lodge website to bring "Snickers for use on the night boat ride". Midway through our outing, I asked our guide about it when I noticed he kept looking over at the candy, and at first, he just stared at me in reply. Then he said had no idea what I was talking about or why I'd bring chocolate with me. No one else at the lodge but my little group had done so (apparently we were the only ones who read the "what to bring" web page closely). I insisted that the website had specified it and he just shook his head and laughed. He laughed a lot. After a bit more conversation, I found out that snickers is some wacky British term for rubber boots. 


 
Amazon Frog


Jungle Tarantula


Day three in the jungle found me beginning to miss civilization a bit but still enjoying the serenity of the jungle. Our morning excursion was a longer hike in the jungle where we learned some survival techniques from our guide. He taught us how to find the vines that hold water, how to cut them and drink the clean water from them, and how to avoid many of the fatal hazards lurking in the jungle. 


                                                                 Jungle Tree

Creepy Crawlies

Jenni Drinks Vine Water


We spent the afternoon in the small village just down the river from the lodge and had good conversation with the locals. The kids were adorable and tugged at my heart. 


Our last evening at the lodge, we ventured out on another nighttime ride in the canoes to listen to wildlife in the pouring rain. It was very peaceful and a wonderful way to cap off the evening.

The next morning we got up early and took the boat upstream to the Amazon to swim in the mighty river. I was hoping to see an Anaconda but no such luck. What we did see, though, was pretty amazing. There are wild, pink dolphins that live in the Amazon and while shy, they swam close enough to us in the water to give us a chance to really get a great look at them.

As soon as we finished lunch on our last day at the lodge, we packed up our things and the lodge boat driver took us back up the Amazon to Iquitos, where we walked around the city for a bit and did some shopping before heading back to Lima and eventually, the United States. It was a fantastic trip, from beginning to end, and I think getting into the jungle and away from modern life as we know it should be something everyone does at least once.




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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Peer to Peer (P2P) Financing

I've been carefully researching Peer to Peer (P2P) financing as an investment vehicle for my portfolio. While P2P financing has always been with us in one form or another (think of no-bank-needed owner financed home sales) the mass market availability of P2P funding emerged as a disruptive force in the lending marketplace about 8 years ago. Someone in the UK wondered out loud if buyers and sellers could come together easily on eBAY, with eBAY taking a cut of every sale, why couldn't investors and borrowers come together on a similar platform with the platform owners taking a cut of every loan?  That way, borrowers could borrow at rates lower than the "evil faceless" banks charge and investors could earn a much bigger return than banks offer. Win-win all around, neighbor helping neighbor, kumbaya, and all of those fuzzy sentiments. Venture capital was secured, the concept was launched into production, and the money began rolling in.

Nearly a decade later and the idea has been copied again and again by entrepreneurs around the world. Today the two largest P2P lending platforms - Lending Club and Prosper - are both hosted in the United States. Measured side by side on all success indicators, Lending Club is the better investment vehicle, offering a greater range of loans to choose from, higher interest rates, and lower default counts. Mind you, even though Lending Club trades only prime loans (i.e you won't find anyone with a credit rating under 620 on the site) default counts are a matter of course; P2P lending is not for the faint of heart. On the Lending Club platform, loan investment information (loan purpose, borrower's credit report and score, borrower's verified income) is provided in detail for each loan, along with a summary grade (A,B,C,D, etc). The concept is simple - all else being equal, the lower the grade for a loan the higher the interest rate AND on average the higher the predicted default rate. Investors can fund all or part of a loan requested through the site (the latter is recommended for maximum diversification of investment assets) and loan terms are generally 36 to 60 months in length.

The platform offers loan investment screening so that investors can filter out loans based on their personal standards or preferences. For example, I filtered out loans requested for vacations or weddings because these are not things I want to encourage debt in pursuit of. Additionally, I filtered out loans to folks whose summary grade was so low that it would peg to high interest and high default rates because it is a hole I do not wish to enable my fellow man into dropping (best case scenario they are burdened with a high interest loan they must climb out of with great personal difficulty and worst case scenario they default and are worse off then they started thanks to my misguided intervention). My point of view is that when your credit is that poor or your income is that low, whatever the solution you need to get back on your feet (something tailor made to you? charity? money and budgeting courses?), more debt is not it. These are just my personal preferences of course, and when combined with my desire to push my rate of return as high as possible while keeping the default rate below 4%, they guided my portfolio to the intersection of a 13% average interest rate and a 3% projected default rate. That's 13% return BEFORE defaults or the platforms cut (~0.54%) are figured in. Net return is projected at 6-9%. In contrast, I've read several blog posts by investors who lend exclusively at the low grade end who have the stomach for the rollercoaster ride of high risk/high return (ie high interest rate/high default rate) and they're clearing typically 13-17% net AFTER the default rate and platform fee is subtracted.

The latest development in P2P lending that investors need to be aware of is the recent influx of institutional cash into the marketplace. Institutional cash = banks, hedge funds, mutual funds, and other "traditional" investors that P2P was originally designed to exclude. It seems that the marketplace became so attractive with the high demand, good returns, and low overhead, that even the big guys wanted to play. And while P2P lending represents just a fraction of the over 1 trillion dollar loan market in the US, institutional investors are already beginning to dominate both Lending Club and Prosper. These investors have deployed powerful algorithms that analyze new loan requests as soon as they are released and quickly sweep the most attractive ones up before ordinary investors can grab them. In fact, it's been reported that to outmaneuver the competing institutional investors some of them are even deploying their servers physically closer to the Lending Club and Prosper data centers in order to gain the edge on analysis triggered by new loan request alerts (every step closer to the platform routers on the internet can mean milliseconds in receiving the alerts faster). The net result of this race to fund is that the supply of P2P loans is now operating at a constant shortage and there is some concern among investors that loan requests remaining after the big banks cherry pick their spoils may not be quality investments (otherwise the banks would have scooped them up). Unfortunately, only time will tell if the banks know something the rest of us don't and if the requests rejected by their algorithms will evidence a higher default rate.

I'll post updates twice a year on my Lending Club portfolio performance so that you can get a better view through my eyes of the success of P2P investments.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Trip Report: Singapore 2012

So, it's been quite awhile since I've written a trip report. Not to worry, I've got my pics and itinerary notes for all the trips I've taken since the 2012 Guyana trip (that was the subject of my last travel entry). I just haven't been very disciplined about getting the reports on the web for everyone (I'm looking at you Suzanne!) to read until now.

A few months after the Guyana trip, I gathered up a group of friends and headed for Singapore for the weekend on a sale fare Delta Airlines was offering. We were to meet up in Singapore to check into our hotel and then we'd spend the rest of our weekend together, following the itinerary I'd written (I love to play tour guide!). Only problem was that I got confused while making the hotel reservations and noting that we arrived on Oct 27th, I made the hotel reservation beginning on the 27th. But...we arrived just after midnight on the 27th, which meant I should have made the reservation for the 26th. Oops! To make matters worse, once the mistake was caught, it was too late, our hotel was sold out for the evening and half of our little group had scramble to find a substitute hotel for the evening. I say half of our group, because the other half was still unexpectedly still en route to Singapore, our plane having left JFK late, which caused us to miss our Tokyo to Singapore flight. When the late coming half of the group (of which I was a member) arrived in Singapore just after 3am, we had already been made aware of the hotel snafu, so we just camped out at the overpriced airport hotel on spare points I had available.

After getting the bare minimum of sleep we needed to function, our half of the group (myself, Rob, and Jon) met up with the other half of the group (Aaron and Bob) and we started our whirlwind tour of the city. Our first stop was Little India where I was fortunate enough to try the best curry puff I've ever tasted in the Indian food market.

 Little India

Little India


We walked the temple lined streets and then rounded out our afternoon with visits to Kampong Glam (the neighborhood once designated for the Sultan and then later where the British funneled all the Muslim immigrants regardless of nationality), Joo Chiat, and Katong (two additional significant neighborhoods within the city that offer up unique cuisine and multi-cultural flavor). Mostly what I remember about our first day, beyond the curry puffs, is the incredibly oppressive heat that lays on the city like a heavy blanket. Singapore rivals Guyana for heat and humidity. Just absolutely suffocating. Still, we pressed on with a full day of sightseeing, capping off our evening with a fantastic and creative light show over the water in which two animated cranes danced with one another and fell in love. Sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? While I've included a still photo, if you want to get a complete understanding of the quirky yet adorable show, take a look at this video another visitor uploaded: Singapore Crane Dance @ Santosa Resort.



Our second day in the city, we meandered through Chinatown in the morning, taking in the food and the tenement house museum. It was eye opening to see just how many people used to be crowded into a single row house in Chinatown at the peak of Chinese immigration. We spent the early afternoon touring the European influenced neighborhoods (this was where the British lived and worked as evidenced by the many western churches and buildings left behind post independence). Today, these areas have a look and feel of London, but with Asians swapped in for the Brits. And of course, since we were in the neighborhood, we *had* to stop off at the famous Raffles hotel for their signature cocktail - the Singapore Sling. Never have I been to a place that offered up such a contradiction between its pricing ($27 for one cocktail) and its ambiance (peanuts strewn about the floor; birds of all sizes and states of cleanliness swarming the floors and tables). The cocktail was pretty good though (but not $27 good).


Some buildings were very inviting...

        




Other buildings welcomed visitors, but stipulated a few (interesting) guidelines...





And this building made it clear we better stay far, far away....











City Bridge




 Marina Bay Sands Resort 
                                                                                              (there is an infinity pool in the park on top)



                                    Bob and Rob enjoy their Singapore Slings @Raffles Hotel



The late afternoon was a somber affair, as we toured the Changi Museum. It's on the site of the former WWII POW camp that was run by the Japanese and documents the treatment of the prisoners held there. I arrived very ignorant, completely unaware of the levels of brutality the prisoners were exposed to in the prison. I haven't heard of violence so severe against prisoners outside of the Nazi concentration camps I previously toured in Poland. And while all prisoners were treated with grave negligence and malice, the worst of the worst treatment was reserved for the Chinese POWs. It was heartbreaking to learn about as we walked through the exhibits. Should you head to Singapore, take the time to visit Changi and have a look with your own eyes at what was done there. It so horrific it's almost unbelievable.

While we ran short of time and had to cut a few items out of our itinerary (the orchid gardens and the Marina Bay Sands resort), I have made my peace with what I missed and don't feel I ever need to return to Singapore. I just can't take the heat. Rob on the other hand, fell in love with the city that first trip, and has been back for many weekend visits since. So, your mileage may vary, and I recommend that perhaps you give it at least one weekend to get a feel for the place.