Supermarket Specials

Globalization brings with it many benefits, including the wide availability of specialized food products from around the world.  This is especially true in the United States, with its countless immigrant communities, but even in Kasane, Botswana, we learned, while grocery shopping for two days in a remote cottage.  Trying to figure out what we should cook, we joked that we could make Thai green curry, if only they had Thai green curry paste—and sure enough they did, Mae Ploy brand in little packets of red, yellow, and green (though we didn’t end up buying it).

But as universally popular as Thai curry paste may be, some food products remain local specialties, or at least local favorites.  As ubiquitous as Nestle and Maggi and Kellogg and Procter & Gamble may be around the world, below are some local specialties we’ve encountered on our recent trip, as well as one from prior travels.

Supermarket meat in most parts of the world is limited to chicken, beef, pork, and lamb.  Not so in Africa.

Creole culture makes use of many more parts of animals than a typical American household.  Not only did we see chicken necks for sale, but the bucket of pig tales pictured above.

We saw sugar cane growing all over Mauritius, and knew that they exported sugar, but didn’t realize that locals would be such sugar connoisseurs, able to differentiate and make use of so many varieties.

Without land to graze animals, the Pacific islands are big consumers of processed meat, including of course the global favorite Spam.  This supermarket in Guam, from our previous travels, had an astonishing selection.

Panhandles and Quadripoints

I’ve mentioned in other posts that I grew up staring at a lot of maps.  Looking through a red-bound Hammond World Atlas (gifted to me by a pilot friend of my father’s from the Korean Air Force, if I recall correctly) was a favorite pastime for me and my father.  I can and still spend hours looking at maps of all kinds.

Maps, of course, tell stories.  Some borders are more obvious than others (say, Sri Lanka or New Zealand), but most others are more or less arbitrary.  The lines on which national identity and nationalism are built are often just historical quirks based on some temporary exigency long forgotten.

Some of the most peculiar borders include enclaves/exclaves (which I have never blogged about, but an excellent blog post can be found at, panhandles, and quadripoints (four corners).

Enclaves and exclaves are often created when ethnic or religious groups that used to live intermixed in relative harmony need to be sorted for whatever reason into separate nation-states.  Towns, neighborhoods, or even homes are deemed to fall into one state rather than the other, creating a bizarre patchwork of borders.  Central Asia, a region of tremendous ethnic diversity that has been separated into pseudo-ethnic states (see post of July 8, 2008), contains a tremendous number; India and Bangladesh sorted out some of theirs in land swaps (see–Bangladesh_enclaves).  Oman and the UAE, and Belgium and the Netherlands, even have enclaves within enclaves (see and

Panhandles also often have curious historical origins.  The Wakhan Corridor (see post of June 23, 2008), a tiny strip of Afghanistan that separates the former Soviet states of Central Asia from Pakistan, was delineated as a buffer between Russia and Great Britain during the territorial competition known as the Great Game.  Oklahoma’s panhandle resulted from the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slave-holding Texas from extending beyond 36.5 degrees latitude.  The tiny strip, before incorporation into Oklahoma, was an area of complete lawlessness.

This post is sparked by our brief crossing (on a fishing trip) into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, a small piece of Namibia that extends hundreds of miles eastward into the middle of southern Africa.  The Caprivi Strip resulted from negotiations at the famous Berlin Conference of 1884-85, where the European colonial powers divided up Africa among themselves.  Germany, which controlled Namibia, wanted access to the Zambezi River, and so swapped Zanzibar for the Caprivi Strip, not knowing that that stretch of the Zambezi had no access to the sea, due to as-yet-undiscovered Victoria Falls.


The Caprivi Strip also causes an example of the third topic of this post—a quadripoint.  Around the point where the Caprivi Strip ends, four countries (Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe) meet at a “four corners” in the river.  (To be precise, it is not a true four corners, as the border between Botswana and Zambia is actually a line rather than a point, such that Namibia and Zimbabwe don’t actually share a border.  This deviation from a true quadripoint is allowing a bridge to be built between Botswana and Zambia without crossing the other countries’ boundaries.)


The most famous “four corners” is, of course, in America, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet at a true quadripoint located in the Navajo reservation (and marked by a monument which is supposedly at slightly the wrong location).

In the way that enclaves and exclaves demonstrate borders yielding to the human reality that no clear lines can truly represent boundaries among people and cultures, quadripoints (and straight line/rectilinear borders generally) represent a complete disregard for on-the-ground realities.  The drawers of straight line boundaries are generally treating the subject land as a blank slate, an emptiness where national identity can be created by fiat rather than historical reality.  Genocide and relocation made consideration of Native American claims in the American West largely unimportant, faciliating the drawing of straight lines.  Actual desert emptiness “justifies” some straight-line borders in the Sahara and Middle East.  But other arbitrary lines, from the 38th parallel in Korea to many African borders, have been causes of much bloodshed.

And thus borders are:  As much as they tell a historical tale, they also create a reality.  The nearly arbitrary acts of people standing around a map come to affect identity and culture, with tremendous consequences for future residents.



We don’t stay often at resorts.

In part this is because we are (sort of) budget travelers, and decent resorts are expensive (and a lower-end resort would probably be more depressing than anything).  Not only are room rates at good resorts high, but the seclusion of resort layouts makes it difficult or unappealing to travel outside for drinks or meals, leaving one stuck with international hotel pricing for any food or beverage (unless, as Chinese tourists apparently do in the Maldives, you bring instant noodles to cook in your room electric kettle (but that doesn’t seem like a great way to spend your vacation)).  Menus and overall atmosphere will also likely be similar to any other resort around the world, if you substitute a few local spices and fruits—possibly great but also sort of bland as any hotel that caters to a wide range of nationalities, ages, and styles must be.  Even at a resort with a few different restaurants, dining options can feel boring or limited after a day or two, and the boredom may extend to more than just dining.  After you’ve done the two or three activities that you were most interested in doing, there may not be much left to do other than hanging out in your room or by the beach.

But that, of course, is precisely the point.

International travel is hard work.  As much as people enjoy it as a vacation option, for the variety and adventure it provides, having to figure out every logistic in an unfamiliar place isn’t trivial.  The way we travel, every day or two or three brings us to a new city where we have to figure out the lay of the land.  We have to know where we are and where we want to go, how to get there, what to see and do, where and what to eat, how to order, where to sleep, etc., etc.  Every interaction might have a language challenge and room for miscommunication, or there might be tiresome frustrations, like a thirty-minute walk carrying all your luggage, only to find out that Google maps misplaced your hotel.  Negotiating with taxi drivers is exhausting; safety can be a concern.  When the weather is hot, as it has been on this trip, each day can feel like a sweaty slog, counting the hours until the next opportunity to shower and let your clothes dry out.

A resort is a vacation choice without any of these challenges.  Temptation to sightsee or to search for outside restaurants is kept at a minimum, by isolating you in a self-contained world.  Activities are prearranged (you just sign up), and often child care is even provided, to give adults some real relaxation time.  Costs and payments are frictionless, with things simply billed to your room.  Air conditioning is always within a few minutes’ walk.

A resort is a vacation choice to minimize choices.  Our resort in Mauritius had us park at a parking lot and take a golf cart to our room—it wasn’t even clear that walking back to our car was an option, making the choice not to go sightseeing during the day an easy and lazy one.  Buffet dinners were included in the room rate, obviating the need to make ordering choices.  The biggest choices during our stay were how much appetite to save for which desserts, what to do for lunch, and whether to go for a glass bottom boat ride even though it looked like it might rain.  We spent a great deal of time enjoying our (rather impressive) room and sitting by the beach, reading or doing photo work.  To us, it wasn’t really travel, but a break from our travels.


For us, travel isn’t really about relaxation—it’s about exploring the world.  Our curiosity and energy levels, not to mention relative lack of cares (e.g., stress of child rearing), are such that we’d rather spend our free, non-work time out in the wild discovering and learning new things.  But knowing that such travel is tiring, something from which we ourselves appreciate a little break every now and then, we can easily understand why others choose resorts—true, simple relaxation—for the duration of a vacation.  Yes, the opportunity cost is great, but sometimes one just needs a break.

PS:  Please excuse the privilege/“first world problems” reflected in this article.  What can I say—guilty as charged.

Language in Mauritius


We first encountered French-speaking people of South Asian descent in Madagascar, in the coastal town of Tulear in 2005.  It felt like quite an oddity—similar to when one hears an East Asian person with an southern American accent.  I subsequently learned that there’s a country basically full of French-speaking Indians:  Mauritius.

Since then, I’ve been curious to visit Mauritius, largely because of its mixed colonial and ethnic history.  Mauritius was controlled by the Dutch, French, and English, before it became an independent country.  Uninhabited until colonial times, its population is entirely composed of people who came to settle or work:  largely Indians (68%), but also Africans, Chinese, and Europeans.  It was hard for me to imagine what a country with such a composition would look or feel like.  (I was also intrigued by its beaches and its status as a sort of tax haven for corporations.)  Mauritius has proved as interesting as I had hoped.

The most obvious remnant of its mixed French and English history (the Dutch period was early and brief) is language.  When the British took over Mauritius from France during Napoleonic times, they assured the local population that it could maintain its language, customs and laws.  To this day, almost all Mauritians speak a Creole French as their primary language.  With outsiders, however, Mauritians seem quite comfortable in both standard French and English—more than, I would say, the typical Quebecois, who probably feels significantly more comfortable in one language than the other.  Signs are often bilingual, but many are written in just English or just French, assuming bilingual literacy of consumers and drivers.

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The occasional advertisement is in Creole.

A quadrilingual memorial to the nation’s founder, located in the botanical garden in Pamplemousses.  The Chinese population is small, but concentrated in the capital and economically powerful.  Perhaps also due to the economic power of China, there is more signage in Chinese than I would have guessed.

Parts of France

161212_1681.jpgthe tricolore over a government building in St. Pierre, Reunion

Most people are from the “main” parts of a country.  If you’re born in mainland United States, it is easy to forget that the “United States of America” actually encompasses not only the forty-nine states in North America, Hawaii and the District of Columbia, but also a large number of small territories and possessions scattered around the world, each of which has a somewhat different legal status with respect to the U.S. government.  For example, people born in Guam are American citizens, but people living in Guam do not have the right to vote in the U.S. Presidential election (although they do participate in the party primaries).  People born in American Samoa are not automatically U.S. citizens, though they have the right to live anywhere in the United States.  The story of colonization is far from over, with many places in the world maintaining stronger or weaker legal relationships with the larger nations that once colonized them or won them as spoils of war.

Today we flew to Reunion, an island in the southern Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius, that is today still a part of its colonial “owner,” France.  One interesting thing about Reunion, though, is that despite its small size and tremendous distance from France, and the fact that the vast majority of the population is not of white French ancestry but are mostly black or Indian, Reunion is fully a part of France—using the U.S. analogy, it is legally more similar to Hawaii than to Puerto Rico or Guam.  People born and living in Reunion are full French citizens, elect representatives to go to Paris, and are also citizens of the European Union.  Cars on Reunion have French license plates, the money is the Euro, and both traffic infrastructure (roundabouts included) and bakeries are similar to those you’d expect in European France.  Technically, Reunion, Mayotte, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana are referred to as the “overseas departments,” but they have the same legal status as the regions and departments within European France.


Mayotte, pictured in Air Austral’s route map above, is even more of a demographic outlier, with almost its entire population black and Muslim.  It is also the overseas department to attain its status most recently, through a 2011 referendum which yielded a 95% “yes” vote.  From Mayotte’s perspective, it isn’t hard to see the advantages of becoming a full part of the motherland.  Mayotte is very substantially poorer than “metropolitan France,” and becoming a full part of France will over time result in substantial inflows in infrastructure expenditure and social safety programs.  The Reunionnaise apparently enjoy nearly a European standard of living, likely largely subsidized by taxpayers in Europe.  Whatever loss in autonomy Mayotte will suffer, voters decided, is well worth the financial benefit.

I do not know the politics of all this, but am tempted to admire France for its inclusion of these territories as full and equal parts of the nation.  Puerto Rico, which has a population greater than twenty of the U.S. states, favored statehood in a non-binding election in 2012, but the U.S. Congress did not even acknowledge the request with an up-or-down vote.  Even the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, doesn’t have equal representation in government—something recognized by the local license plates which include the revolutionary refrain, “Taxation Without Representation.”  What keeps the U.S. from providing equal rights to all under U.S. jurisdiction?  Largely partisan politics.  Statehood for the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico would have immediate consequences on federal elections—namely, a benefit for the Democratic Party.  As long as voters in D.C. or Puerto Rico remain likely Democrats, the Republicans have a strong incentive keep them from gaining equal representation in government.  It is a markedly unjust outcome.

Might there be other, less overtly political, factors?  It is tempting to say that racism and xenophobia play a part.  Even Hawaii, America’s most recent and least white state, is majority non-hispanic white and asian (the latter being, arguably, the non-white “race” least threatening to white American identity, if only because of numbers).  D.C. is largely black, and Puerto Rico of course almost entirely hispanic.  But I think it also has to do with our country’s relationship to colonialism.  Americans tend to think of colonialism as “European colonialism,” the period of time when Europeans such as British, Spanish, and French gathered territories around the world.  But America, despite having started as a colony itself, was also an active participant.  The thirteen original states may have been colonies of Britain, but basically every other state is a result of further colonization of the North American continent by the United States.  By purchase or invasion, the United States acquired these additional territories, colonized them, and made them states.  The land acquisition extended overseas—with some properties that were eventually spun off, such as Cuba, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal Zone, but others retained, such as Puerto Rico and Guam.  I think that countries that are more self-aware about their colonial/imperial history, such as France, may be more likely to recognize the genuine historical connection and responsibility they maintain with their overseas possessions.  In American’s minds, even Puerto Rico, with its large population and proximity to the mainland, is an afterthought, a strange historical quirk we’d almost like to forget.

For a somewhat similar though more detailed post on India, see my post of 20080316 Parts of India.  Also, this post has also been inspired by C.G.P. Grey’s excellent videos on the American Empire and the European Union.