Archive for Travel

India Underfoot

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It’s too easy to twist your ankle while walking through India. Streets and sidewalks have irregular surfaces, and there are many distractions, ranging from speeding cars and motorcyclists creating their own laws to horses and goats.

So I only feel like my footing is truly firm indoors, and I am always glad about the safety of a smooth tile floor.

In Fort Cochin, I stayed in the historic Brunton Boatyard, a hotel built on the grounds of a Victorian shipyard. The narrow red clay tiles on the first floor appear to be strictly business. These tiles have an industrial look and are still holding up after centuries of heavy rolling carts—and now, suitcases.

Nineteenth century Indian royals, on the other hand, used tiles in a grand manner that they’d seen themselves on European tours. Palace tile that I’ve seen is typically giant blocks of pure black and white marble. Not especially original—but very silky underfoot. When I checked into a guest room in Shiv Nivas, a hotel housed in the old guest wing of Udaipur’s City Palace Hotel, the floors felt cleaner than anything I’d ever stepped on, and probably a lot of it had to do with the contrast in air temperature and marble’s natural chill. Before the days of air conditioning, floors were an important cooling element.

In Calcutta, zamindars (landowners) had magnificent homes in North Calcutta built throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When I visited a friend who lived in such an aging treasure, I marveled at the veining in the fine marble tiles in the bedrooms.

The most joyful tiles that I’ve seen to date are the encaustic (hand-made cement) tiles from the late 19th and early 20th century in Western India. The first encaustic tiles used in India were Minton Company tiles exported from England.  The British government wanted Indians to buy their tile (as well as most other products) from England. Wanting to suit freedom-minded Indians who still wanted modern tile floors, a Parsi businessman, Pherozeshah Sidhwa, started Bharat Flooring Tile Company in Maharashtra in the early 1920s. These tiles had tremendous patterns crafted to exacting standards, and the backs of the tiles had a map of undivided India stamped on them.

Bharat Tiles are firmly cemented in some of the favorite places I’ve stayed in India, like the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, above.

Wilson College in South Bombay, pictured above, is full of original detail. The school was founded by a missionary, and I don’t know if the tiles are Indian or English.

I’ll make an educated guess that these encaustic tiles in Mahatma Gandhi’s Bombay residence are Bharat Tiles. After all, Gandhiji was the founder of the Swadeshi movement encouraging Indians to buy Indian-made products.

When I recently traveled to Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, I stayed at the House of MG, a boutique hotel carved out of a grand old residence of the textile merchant, Mangaldas Girdhardas. Mr. Girdhardas expanded his original 1924 residence to have two large wings for his sons and their families. The original wing has black and white marble tile floors; the sons’ sides have brilliant, geometric-patterned encaustic tiles.

When I toured Ahmedabad, I visited more historic havelis, such as the one above, and saw plenty of vibrant cement tile. By now I’d noticed that the prominent colors for all these tiles were golds, reds, and blacks. Yet that color scheme did not determine decorating. Indians decorate in many color schemes atop the harvest-colored floors.

It’s heartening that Bharat Flooring Tile Company managed to create such an industry disruption in 1920s Bombay that the British themselves paid to have many public buildings fitted out with Bharat tiles. And the company lives on today under the same name. They have reissued old patterns and seen them go into old buildings undergoing restoration and new restaurants.

From the British colonial days through independence, Indian tile floors are too tough to show evidence of all who’ve stepped on them. Yet I feel that history surround me every time I go through a door into a hotel or school with a patterned tile floor.

Of Dogs and Other Furry Friends in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

what is it?

On my recent sojourn in India, I kept a lookout for animals.

This is because I’m striving to write a lot more about animals in my books. They may not solve a crime or talk (thank God!) but they will be characters.

In my book-in-progress, Perveen Mistry 2, I’ve included an Indian breed dog called Rajapalayams that were especially appreciated in royal households of Tamil Nadu. Rajapalayams are handsome white hounds that look similar to many of the aboriginal pariah dogs seen throughout India. The reason there are different colorations and body types of strays in Indian cities goes back to these dogs mixing with breeds brought in by Europeans. Most of the dogs I see in India are gingers. But I’ve  learned that it’s mostly dust I’m looking at, not the real color of the fur underneath.

I also have different kinds of monkeys swinging through my story. One is the rare Lion-Tailed Macaque indigenous to the Sahyadri Mountain range of Western India. He is elusive and beautiful. The other monkey I’m featuring is the Bonnet Macaque, a pink-faced monkey with a very long tail that is common in rural and urban areas. That monkey is super social and inadvertently becomes involved in a crime.

I have not heard about anyone bringing stray monkeys home from India. But I do know a few people who fell in love with stray dogs in India and brought them home.

A well-built white hound who came from the streets of India used to visit Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis. When I was there, the dog was extremely interested in the scent of my pocket. He was also interested in the free tiny candy bars by the cash register. His owner told me he is always looking for food.

India is estimated to have 30 million stray dogs. In some cities, dogs are rounded up and exterminated as a public health control. There is an estimated 20,000 rabies deaths to humans from animal bites in India per year. However, some animal rights activists in India point out that 75% of dog bites in India are from pets, not strays. So where’s the greatest risk?

I knew that I should not pet a dog while in India, but it was hard to resist. My trip took me from Delhi and Udaipur to Mumbai and Ahmedabad, going from north to west.  I noticed two styles of behavior with the stray dogs. Many of them roamed in family groups, and of course these dog families sometimes got in fights with others at night. I am a dog lover, but the sounds of these ferocious dog wars were pretty frightening. These dogs didn’t come near people, and people never touched them.

The other style of dog behavior was “individual beggar.” In Udaipur, I visited a college where a student club was formed to help with stray dogs. The students in the club feed the animals. When I visited outdoor areas in the college, very friendly dogs wanted to play. I could see they’d come to rely on the students for much more than a bit of supper. They were relishing love.

 In natural areas where tourists go, like the Matheran Hill Station—where I visited in 2016—and Elephanta Island near Mumbai, dogs wag their tails, cock their heads, and beg for a petting. They are also the frequent recipients of leftover snacks and lunches—just like the monkeys who hang nearby.

I traveled by boat in the Mumbai Harbor to Elephanta Island, a site where tourists come to look at a labyrinth of cave temples carved between 450 and 700 AD. While there, I noticed a lot of scavenger dogs and monkeys. I was warned that the monkeys could be more than I bargained for. I was used to the idea of monkeys grabbing food of tables and from people, but here the bonnet macaque population is known to grab cell phones and cameras. I asked why and was told some people who train the monkeys, who are rewarded for bringing them these goods. However, Elephanta Island had no panhandlers, just a lot of successful vendors, so I am skeptical about this idea, at least on Elephanta. My theory is that monkeys are smart and become annoyed at being gawked at without getting a payment of food.

It was funny to see monkeys drinking from half-filled soda bottles (especially sweet drinks like Pepsi). Monkey see, monkey do. Yet I wondered about the impact on their teeth and health.  Just across the path from the soda-drinking monkeys, dogs were tucking into the remains of food still in foil wrappers. I hoped they knew when to stop.

Most Indians don’t keep dogs in their homes, but it’s common for one stray to be fed regularly outdoors by a person. A popular news story during my trip was the behavior of a stray dog that always showed up by the ladies’ only car of a Mumbai commuter train in the evenings. When the passenger the dog waited for didn’t arrive, she would run sadly after the train, and then return to her puppies. Who was the one who fed the dog? Did she just change to a different train… or did something else happen, the mystery writer in me wonders?

Films of this black and white dog have thousands of YouTube views. The story of a loyal dog coming to the train reminds me of the tale of Hachiko, a dog who regularly looked for someone to arrive on a certain train in the evening at Shibuya Station. This dog tale, which took place in the 1930s, is so beloved that it resulted in a statue of the dog at Shibuya Station and a Richard Gere movie, Hachi, retelling the legend in an American setting.

My dogs Daisy and Charlie, who nap by a cozy, odorless gas fireplace live better than many people in my city. I will never feel comfortable about that. However, I am glad that our two dogs that had tough lives to begin—especially our beagle, Charlie, who lived caged up for years in a puppy mill—can enjoy serenity in their later years.

For animals living the free range lifestyle in India, I wish good weather, plenty of water, and a safe bite to eat.

#MeToo: When Women Travel

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

When women began posting accounts of sexual assault a few months ago, I listened. I counted myself fortunate to make it through a little more than a half century without rape. Also, I haven’t experienced workplace harassment. But as the #MeToo stories have continued, some uncomfortable memories are surfacing.

The first time, I was fifteen. It was a summer that I traveled with my mother and younger sister, exploring Germany and Austria. A summer of great times: going bowling and disco dancing with my cousins, eating lots of curry wurst, taking long rides on trains and watching little villages flash by the window. We had arrived the Nymphenburg Palace, a famous site in Munich. My mother was in the ticket line and I was standing around with my younger sister. A middle-aged white German man approached me and spoke in broken English. He was a professional photographer. I was so pretty. Could he take my photograph?

That was exactly the kind of language to flatter an awkward teenager and make her acquiescent.

The photographer told me to stand a little bit away from the crowd; he was getting the angle right. I smiled as he took a few pictures. And then he suddenly rushed forward and began unsnapping the front shoulder fastenings of my overalls. I felt his fingers fumble at my breasts. I began weeping as I twisted away, realizing that I’d been tricked. My little sister rushed toward me, also crying loudly, and the stranger vanished into the crowd. I cannot remember if my sister and told my mother. I know that I considered myself to blame in allowing the man near me and my precious little sister.

Decades passed, and I became a young woman who dated a lot of nice guys and a few jerks. I was comfortable saying no and setting limits on behavior that made me uncomfortable. At 27, I married and began a career as a self-employed writer. I wrote novels that took me on solitary research trips to Japan. I marveled at being able to walk around at eleven or twelve at night in Japan without fear, at being able to eat alone in restaurants without interruption, at disembarking at lonely train stations without hassle. It was a pretty charmed travel experience.

Yet my second bad experience happened while I was traveling again in Europe. I was sent on a short book tour to Finland, a country where the Rei Shimura novels are very popular. Meeting readers was a very cheering experience. I chatted, signed books, and thoroughly enjoyed the company and assistance of my Finnish editor as I traveled through the capital city, Helsinki.

During the tour, I had two days free, so I traveled by myself, taking an efficient train west to a small town with a spa where I booked a night’s stay. I looked forward to some long walks outside, and perhaps some spa treatments.  I requested an hour-long massage at the spa. The receptionist was sorry to say that all the regular massage therapists were booked. Then she had an idea. She would phone in an alternative massage therapist, not a regular spa employee, someone in the area who had offered to work part time if the need arose.

When I checked in for my massage the next morning, I wasn’t worried to discover the masseur was a male. I’d had excellent, professional massages from therapists of both genders. I walked into the massage room, and when the door closed, the man told me to undress and get under a sheet. But here’s the strange thing. It is standard operating procedure for a massage therapist to leave a client alone to undress and get underneath the sheet. This man stayed put, his eyes glued on me.

I would like to say that I walked out of the room then and there, but I didn’t. I was a traveler, and I thought maybe they did things differently in Finland.  I felt very uncomfortable as I turned my back to him and began undressing, trying to wrap the sheet around myself for privacy while doing that (an impossible task).

Once on the table, he began the massage. I was lying on my stomach, and I noticed right away that his touch was very light and did not seem to be following a pattern. He was unskilled at therapeutic touch, I thought with annoyance. And then he told me to turn over.

Suddenly, I decided to believe what my instinct was telling me. This man wasn’t a professional massage therapist at all. I told him sternly that the massage was finished and I ordered him to leave the room. It took a little more yelling, but he did go. I dressed in a flash, my body shaking, and I went to the reception desk.

The person there didn’t realize the extent of my complaint about the nonprofessional, ogling therapist. I was likely too upset to be able to communicate the seriousness of the situation. I had prepaid for the massage; there was no refund. And honestly, money wouldn’t have helped. He saw what he saw of me. Nothing could erase the sense of violation.

With my Asian appearance and American accent, I stand out as a visitor in Europe. And the sad reality is that women who travel are an easy mark. Molesters can make quick hits, guessing that victims have nobody nearby to call to for help, and that victims will chalk it up to bad luck during travel. Such perpetrators also know that foreign women are less able to communicate effectively with local police and give the kind of details that would lead to apprehension.

Women who travel cannot anticipate these sudden intrusions. Also, we don’t have enough time to mentally store the details of attacks, the way you would about a coworker you know or someone you’re dating. Think about all the groping incidents on subways and buses throughout the world. Even planes are territory for molestation. A first-class airplane seat was where a woman reported relentless physical harassment from Donald Trump in the early 1980s. The New York Times video of her account is embedded below.

An effort to shield women from sexual abuse in public is one of the arguments behind purdah, the conservative custom of women staying behind veils or confined to their homes. Purdah began hundreds of years ago among mostly Muslim families in the Middle East and South Asia, but included wealthy Hindus as well. (I write about purdah in The Widows of Malabar Hill, my latest novel). The custom largely died out in the early twentieth century, but it helped build an international misbelief that good women stay home and disreputable ones roam. And now that the Taliban, ISIS and other radical conservative groups have taken over villages and towns in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, enforced purdah is back and crueler than ever.

I suspect the men who went after me were locals in their communities who acted alone. But there are increasing situations where groups of men set out to simultaneously molest a lot of women and girls. Consider the multiple attacks by an alleged 2,000 men against approximately 1,200 women celebrating New Year’s Eve 2015-16 in public in Cologne, Germany—and copycat incidents in other countries.

Men who prey on women travelers usually get away without being named.  But our voices do carry, and my hope is that molesters will someday find their sordid occupation is no longer a safe adventure.

Announcing The Widows of Malabar Hill

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

January has been a big month for Murder Is Everywhere writers. After cheering for the long anticipated launch of Jeff Siger’s An Aegean April, Anna Maria Alfieri and I had the crazy good luck to share the same pub date, Jan. 9, for our new historical mysteries. On Pub Day, the two of us found ourselves not in a pub but with elbows on the same table at Mysterious Bookshop in New York. It turns out that we have both written mysteries set in the World War I era about dangerous and degrading customs women living in the British Empire. No, it’s not the same book. I have a signed copy of Anna Maria’s fine book, The Blasphemers, that I mailed home.

I’ve got no room to carry books because I’m on a book tour. And what a tour it is: starting off in the golden warmth of Scottsdale Arizona, zipping up and down the Atlantic Seaboard with its rain and snow, steering south to Virginia and North Carolina, and treading on thin ice in snowy Minnesota and Wisconsin.

January is a tricky month to tour in the U.S., but it’s high season in India, the setting of my book.

Here’s my spiel: The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first novel in a new legal mystery series. In 1921 Bombay, a young solicitor named Perveen Mistry works under the supervision of her father, Jamshedji Mistry, at his small but reputable law firm. Perveen is the first woman lawyer in Bombay, and many clients are wary of her abilities. She’s eager to prove herself and get beyond the numbing routine of handling contracts and wills.

Looks like Mumbai but it’s Scottsdale, AZ, near Poisoned Pen Bookstore

First book signed on the tour at Poisoned Pen

An opportunity presents itself when a man sends a letter to Mistry Law asking for assistance in helping three widows donate all their inheritances to a family trust. The widows live in purdah in a communal household that was once headed by their husband, Omar Farid, who has passed away. This leaves the widows unable to go out into the world to talk with bankers or anyone else. When Perveen goes to call on the Farid widows, trouble ensues, and she becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. Should she protect the widows—or is doing so leaving a dangerous criminal unfettered?

Signing in Chicago with Soho author Samira Ahmed, left

Fun sign at Subtext Books in St. Paul

This novel is inspired by India’s first two women lawyers, Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam. In the 1890s through the 1920s, respectively, these pioneers specialized in serving women and children whose voices had gone unheard. Cornelia Sorabji is well known enough to finally have a bronze bust statue in London’s legal power place, Lincoln’s Inn. Its fitting as this is where she was admitted to the London Bar after her years working as a solicitor in British and princely India. Mithan Tata Lam is not as famous as Cornelia, but she was the first woman admitted to an Indian bar association  (the Bombay Bar) and was instrumental in revising the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act in the 1930s.

Winter lake scape in Milwaukee. I signed at Lynden Sculpture Garden

The laws that kept women down are a major force in my novel—a force that Perveen Mistry has to reckon with when seeking to protect the women’s interests. This part of the book is only too real. Indian family law was established by the British government and senior men in the Muslim, Hindu and Parsi communities. Each faith group had a separate legal code that outlined rules such as the allowable age for marriage, what percentage various family members were allowed to inherit from an estate, and whether divorce was allowed.

Winter wonderland in Minneapolis

We were all dressed for a snowstorm at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis

The other big element in Perveen’s story is the city of Bombay (now renamed Mumbai). It’s a setting I’ve visited several times and truly adore.  The book has scenes all over the city, in places ranging from the title’s Malabar Hill (a lovely hillside neighborhood for the rich) to Fort, the original British settlement in the center of town, which includes Elphinstone College, the Sassoon Library, and Bruce Street, which houses the family law firm and Yazdani’s, a delightful Irani café that actually does exist. There’s even a jaunt to Bandra Beach, a popular spot for lovers now… and back in Perveen’s day.

Today I may be in Connecticut, where the sky is gray and snow is supposed to fall. So what else is new on this tour? I’ll find a way to get to the Wilton Library.

But Bombay’s on my mind.

Phil Schwartzberg, who drew the beautiful maps of Bombay in my book, shows the antique inspiration of an old map he used.

Original Brooklyn

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Summer driving trips are on an upswing. Why not? Gas is cheap, and it’s often faster to drive to nearby state than to fly or take the train. Feeling all these things, plus a desire for a short summer road trip, I packed up the Highlander Hybrid and took off for Brooklyn.

The mission was for my husband and me to deliver our teenage son to three-week-long performing arts camp, a significant expense—but one that we sensed would give him a great deal of pleasure, and perhaps help him think about ways to share his stellar guitar performances beyond the confines of his bedroom. And the SUV had enough room to carry an amp and guitar and all the extras needed for a camper—plus room for my  husband and me to bring overnight bags for our own adventure.

We were all going to be happy campers.

Tony and I hadn’t been in Brooklyn since visiting friends 22 years ago who were renting in the once borderline North Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. Our friends had long since departed a neighborhood that became very chic. We stayed in a small hotel at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street, which had turned into a kind of gourmet row full of Danish, French and Asian restaurants. Brooklyn seemed a paradise of good food and sophisticated little shops selling everything from tea to the premium British Farrow and Ball paint.

Still, you knew it wasn’t a fake city. The Brooklyn Detention Center faced directly across the street from the Nu Hotel. However, the jail also looked rebuilt.

Fortunately, the Middle Eastern grocery shops I remembered from the 1990s were still thriving on Atlantic Avenue. Sahadi’s had a James Beard Award sign in its window when we walked in to buy Aleppo pepper flakes and ras-el-hanout Moroccan spice mix. I got my pita across the way at Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop, which was filled with jovial customers perhaps shopping for Eid.

After we’d stashed the food in the hotel, we wandered into the residential area known as Boerum Hill. Did you ever read Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Set 100 years ago, that novel showed the poverty and lack of opportunity for the poor and working class in Brooklyn. Today, a lot of tall trees line Brooklyn streets filled with well-kept brownstones. The attached-house architecture reminded me of typical areas in Baltimore, although ours are brick, stucco or wood—and we call them rowhouses. Deja vu continued when we went to dinner at a jazz supper club in Williamsburg, the neighborhood of the book. It was delightful to pass a bar that didn’t have hipsters drinking aperitifs, but older local people who were joyfully slapping dominos.

On a Sunday morning, we walked from our hotel to the Brooklyn Promenade, a walk that takes one along the piers of the waterfront known as Brooklyn Bridge Park. Lots of native plants had built a lush landscape, and tucked behind tall shrubs were a series of inviting family playgrounds, some of which had playground sets and others, pools and sprinklers.

At the Park’s Pier 1, we came upon “Descension,” an art installation by an Indian artist, Ashish Kapoor, who had created a large, round whirlpool filled by the nearby sea water. I found it mesmerizing to stare into the churning water. My thoughts whirled about how Brooklyn once was the kind of poor and working class town that Baltimore still (mostly) is. The two cities were linked by similar architecture, a past history of industry jobs, and attractive, developed urban waterfronts. But why was Brooklyn so much more successful?

The answer was staring at me across the water: Manhattan and its prime jobs. That’s what my own city needed to become more than a bleak setting for crime shows on television.

On our last morning in Brooklyn, Tony and I strolled Smith Street, looking for the teashop we’d recalled seeing during the hubbub of the previous evening’s street festival. The French cafe, Tabac, where I’d had a salad of greens, beets and goat cheese for the previous day’s lunch, was bustling with breakfast diners at its outdoor tables, but the area was largely quiet. We talked about how much we’d enjoyed Brooklyn, which was so surprisingly tranquil… but we couldn’t imagine upgrading to such a place. The cost!

We were startled by a tall man in his twenties walking fast toward us on the largely empty sidewalk. His mouth twisted into a grimace as he drew close. He barked: “You’re running it.” Seeing the confusion on our faces, because he clarified it. “You rich people are running it here.”

The stranger strode off before I could explain that we were actually “bridge and tunnel crowd” who couldn’t afford to buy a Boerum Hill brownstone and paint its door in Farrow & Ball aubergine. I tried to remember the last time someone had verbally accosted me in New York.

And then, I did.

Back in the 1980s, I was a young woman who occasionally came into New York to visit college friends and report news for the Baltimore Evening Sun. I remember arriving in Manhattan on a rainy afternoon and trying to hail a cab. One stopped, and its driver, a white man, gave me a second look after I told him to take me to the Upper East Side. He asked, “Do you tend to have trouble catching cabs?”

“When it rains, it’s difficult,” I’d answered uncertainly. What was he getting at?

He gave me a hard look. “I mean, isn’t it hard to get a cab because you looked Hispanic? Who wants to stop? I don’t want to drive to Spanish Harlem.”

The cabbie was trying to put me in my place—just as the guy on Smith Street was doing.

Back to 2017. I was shocked that a stranger would mistakenly infer from the sight of me that I was a wealthy interloper. Yet I couldn’t deny that we’d booked two nights in a hotel intending to enjoy the restaurants, shops and parks of Brooklyn.

However, in his mission to make a tourist couple feel uncomfortable, the angry young man communicated something quite valuable.

There are people living in Brooklyn who don’t have handsome houses with aubergine-painted doors. They are the Brooklyn originals who worry that, in a few years, there might not be any room left.

Takeaways from Paradise

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

This classic cookbook details the heritage of Hawaiian cooking

I’m the last member of Murder is Everywhere to write about the Left Coast Crime convention on the Island of Oahu. Jeffrey shared the people part of the convention and the contrasts between busy Oahu and quiet Kauai. Susan got up insanely early to photograph a sunrise view from Diamond Head crater. Here’s my takeaway from a week in Paradise.

I’ve been coming regularly to Oahu since the early 1990s—five visits so far, and each time I feel more at home. In the early years I  was a military spouse spending time with my husband, who was on TDY (that’s temporary active duty, not tidying). We stayed on the Leeward side  and began developing a long-lasting group of coworkers and friends.

Later on, I came to Hawaii to teach as an artist in residence at the Iolani School, so I stayed at a hotel on the Waikiki tourist strip. And most recently, I was with the mystery convention at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on the edge of downtown. I’ve been to the North Shore, to Kailua and Kanaoehe, to Waimanalo Beach, Hanama Bay, and just about every museum the island has. While it’s easy to deplore the concrete invasion of Honolulu, I enjoy everything else, and I appreciate the fact that Honolulu is a real city with a diversity of jobs that go beyond tourism.

Oahu’s balmy, non-humid, sunny weather with temps mostly in the 80s make it a great island for walkers. I did 10,000-20,000 steps daily on my recent week at Left Coast Crime. This was not part of an exercise plan. I simply woke up early, left the hotel, and walked along the water, whether it was Waikiki Beach or Ala Moana. Then I’d have some breakfast. Last year, I did the same amount of walking on my way to dinner.

Any time of day, the food is quite amazing. Honolulu has developed a regional cuisine with an evolving emphasis on healthy fruits and vegetables. Due to Hawaii’s distance from where most fruit and veg is farmed, food is never going to be dirt-cheap; not even at the Kapiolani College Farmer’s Market, which surely is one of the best farmers markets in the US. My friend Jackie from the Iolani School  brought me to this fabulous Saturday morning market, where we shared a mouthwatering banh mi sandwich prepared by the chef-artisans from Pig & The Lady in Honolulu’s Chinatown. I used to shop weekly at the farmer’s market in Kapolei, on the Leeward side, where I could get a bag of live shrimp to freak out my children and turn into dinner that night.

Jackie and the famous banh mi sandwich

Oahu was once all about sugar farming. On the leeward side of the island, sugar barons recklessly sucked natural moisture from the earth to support their plantations, which wound up all closing down. A lot of people are stuck in the Wainae coast where these plantations were. Jobs are scarce and the ground is too poor too farm. While the windward side of the island has wetter land, there isn’t much space left for it. Typically “local” fruits and vegetables come from other islands in the Hawaiian chain.

This is great, because most food in Oahu’s supermarkets is shipped or flown the 2500 miles from California and beyond. You can see the distance in the indifferent shine and taste of Red Delicious apples. They don’t even taste like apples. But why eat such things when there are local oranges with an interesting green skin? Apple-bananas? Papayas, passionfruit, pineapple and mangoes?

So sweet, so cold, so ripe! Papaya at Tango Contemporary Cafe

This sumptuous, perfectly ripe papaya at Tango Contemporary Cafe was one of the best I’d ever eaten. The other great papaya was a takeaway item from Good Earth, a small organic grocery chain  introduced to me by my friend. Karen helped me pick the perfect local papaya, apple-bananas and oranges to bring back to my fridge at LCC’s hotel, Hyatt Hawaiian Village.

I went bananas for the banana varieties at Good Earth

During the time I stayed in Waikiki, my evening walks made me discover the outdoor farmers’ and chefs’ markets that run Monday through Saturday evenings at either Kings Village Shopping Center or the Hyatt Regency Hotel. On site I devoured delicious pad thai and crisply fried Chinese dumplings, and I set myself up for the next day with luscious green salads and containers of fresh-sliced local fruit. I also bought colorful Hawaiian sea salt smoked with different flavorings that I use on a daily basis in Baltimore.

King’s Village evening farmers’ market in Waikiki

Hawaii’s chefs are working hard to bring local produce, meat and fish into their restaurants. In 1991, 12 chefs committed to developing a new Hawaii Regional Cuisine. The goal was to help local farmers and fishermen grow delicious, sustainable foods that would be the centerpiece of hotel and restaurant fare. These chefs have prospered, and their mission has been supported by so many other cooks. This year, I noticed almost every restaurant and hotel menu boasted about serving locavore or Hawaiian regional food.

The genuine HRC came onto my plate at the restaurants I’m about to describe.

One night I went to Honolulu’s artistic district known as SALT to eat a Peter Merriman restaurant called Moku Kitchen. Led by my intrepid gourmet friend Jackie, we enjoyed a pizza topped with wild Hamakua mushrooms and fresh herbs. I sampled a chopped poke appetizer of local ahi tuna mixed with shoyu and ginger, and tiny tacos filled with roasted bulgogi pork and crisp raw vegetables. A high point were the dumplings stuffed with pumpkin, spinach and chèvre. The small plates were so intensely tasteful that we finished them up, but had no room for dessert. It’s always hard to walk away from a great restaurant without tasting dessert, but it would have been too much!

Goofy’s is a casual cafe on top of a beach goods shop

Goofy’s is a tiny second story restaurant just outside the Hilton Hawaiian Village. A long line of people is usually waiting outside its doors. Many of them are Japanese tourists who have read about Goofy’s in guidebooks and have come for the “local first, organic whenever possible” casual gourmet cuisine. It’s a peaceable wait in line, because the weather’s so pleasant.

Susan Spann and I walked over to Goofy’s for a quick lunch on Sunday. I got a bibimbap bowl with an egg on top and she went for the loco moco, which is what I’d call a heritage Hawaiian dish: the kind of recipe you’ll find in the definitive food memoir/recipe book, The Food of Paradise by Rachel Laudan. Loco moco is a garlic-and-onion flavored beef patty atop a scoop of moist fried rice that floats in a sumptuous meat gravy. And why not put an egg on top?

Bibimbap bowl mixes Korea and Hawaii at Goofy’s

Fusion’s scrambled my brain. I think I’m going to try the loco moco concept at home, but do it vegetarian. I’ll keep the sunny-side up egg, but substitute leftover vegetable paella for the fried rice, and use sambar, a spicy Indian vegetable soup, for the meat gravy. Is that a travesty?

Goofy’s was so good I went back with my friend Vallery a few hours later for dinner. I wanted to try a dish that had sounded enticing: green spaghetti. The pasta was tossed with a pesto made from local green herbs and macadamia nuts. It was as good as it sounded.

One of my favorite restaurant discoveries this time was the Tango Contemporary Cafe at the Queen Street and Ala Moana Boulevard intersection. It’s owned by a Finnish chef who participates in the Hawaiian Island Chefs group supporting sustainable local agriculture, aquaculture and education. One cafe breakfast specialty, Pytt-i-panna, translates to “stuff in a pan” and offers variations with a lot of vegetables and meats, including loco moco beef and smoked salmon. I decided to go for the vegetarian version: a nicely browned hash of grilled vegetables with spinach, kale and tomatoes, topped with you-guessed-it.

Vegetable pytt-i-panna at Tango Contemporary Cafe

I breakfasted at Tango one Sunday morning and found almost 20 people waiting for the 8 am opening. I was seated near a Japanese couple who ordered the regular pancakes with maple syrup. Twenty minutes later, my order for Swedish pancakes with fresh fruit, berry compote and whipped cream arrived at my table. The Japanese man called over the waitress and told her she had brought him the wrong dish. He preferred the pancakes that I had, which were ever so petite and enticing. Of course, he had not specified Swedish pancakes. Yet with utmost courtesy, the waitress brought him his request.

Swedish pancake platter at Tango Contemporary Cafe

Some restaurants aren’t being buzzed about, but continue to reward eaters. Quite a few of them are in Chinatown. Consider Duc’s Bistro, where classic Vietnamese ingredients combine with meat and fish and vegetables prepared with French techniques. Duc’s is a favored spot for locals out for a quiet, elegant, and delicious meal, and the fish I had there was delicious.

Duc’s window beckons in Chinatown

Duc’s takes Asian ingredients and molds them with French elegance

On the old favorites trail, I went with with my new friend Diana to Little Village Noodle House. This is an inexpensive Szechuan Chinese restaurant that played a stake-out role in my Hawaii mystery novel, Shimura Trouble. I always get the crispy green onion pancakes pictured below. This savory vegetarian dish always surprises me with its similarity to a fried Indian paratha bread. Of course, China and India aren’t that far apart. And as Hawaii teaches us, you may as well take influences from all around the world, mix them loco moco, and offer with a dash of aloha (peace).

Malia’s Gap Year

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Congratulations to Malia Obama.

She’s made it through the constant observation that began with her entrance to the White House in 5th grade. Both Malia and her 8th grade sister, Sasha, have gracefully stayed the course without acting out and remaining close to their parents. Malia, an excellent student and tennis player, applied to a number of top schools during her senior year at Sidwell Friends School. The end result is that the 17-year-old has accepted Harvard’s offer, but will delay entrance for a year.

Could this start a gap year trend in the U.S.?

While traveling, I’ve always been intrigued by the New Zealand and Australian teens with heavy backpacks on their “walkabouts.” The idea is to have some fun, work jobs around the world and widen horizons before settling down to studies and continued life in the home country. A lot of Europeans do this as well, some using the time to work as au pairs in different countries.

Malia and Sasha have seen more of the world than most of us during their years as daughters of the President. Exposure to other people and places was a value their parents insisted on sharing. The first family’s travels have included India and Argentina, Russia, China, Britain, Italy, South Africa and Botswana. Malia already had her walkabout.

Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

We don’t really know the reason for Malia’s gap decision, but I think it’s great. And since she’s already gone so far, my fervent wish for Malia is that she takes time in her gap year to dig in close with her family.

After all, Dad’s leaving his job, and Mom will not be pressed with leading campaigns for health and veteran families. President Obama has always valued family first and committed most of his evenings to his children, rather than adult socializing in D.C. But hanging out with your kids in a fishbowl won’t be nearly as relaxed as this forthcoming year.

Firstly, the Obamas must either rent or buy a new house in the DC area. Malia can be part of this search—and since she’ll be around, she can decorate her room the way she wants!

The former First Daughter will also has the chance to apply for a part-time job or an internship, perhaps in the world of film and television that she’s already explored through internships on “Girls” and “Extant.” But I treasure the idea of a teenager occasionally sleeping late, reading for pleasure rather than for tests, helping with groceries and gardening, and playing games.

The Secret Service taught Malia to drive—but now she can learn to trust her own instincts driving everywhere she needs to go. Malia and her family will likely have a lot of time to talk or listen to music when stuck in Beltway traffic on the way to Sasha’s school events. Best of all—Malia will be able to drive Sasha to school!

Malia and Sasha/CNN

Malia and Sasha/CNN

The President said in interviews that Sasha Obama would be the one to decide where the family stayed following his departure from the White House. He—a child who was uprooted and moved many times in life–understood how important feeling comfortable in school was. He didn’t want her to have start over again, as the girls had when they left their lifelong home on Chicago in 2009.

No upbringing is perfect, whether in the White House, or an ordinary suburban cottage. We can’t predict whether our kids will become happily paired or live solo, be financially successful, community-minded, or emotionally stable.But we can do a lot to make our own family systems work—and that’s exactly what the Obamas have managed.

Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Another Excuse for a New Year’s Party!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A welcoming Parsi gentleman I will always remember; India International Centre 1989

A welcoming Parsi gentleman I will always remember; India International Centre 1989

A few decades ago, when I was on a father-daughter trip to India, I came fact to face with my future.

Not my sweet husband (although plenty of people I met on that trip offered to find me one).

That fateful evening in March, 1989, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a party celebrating Navroze, or the Persian New Year, a major spiritual and social occurrence based on the spring equinox. Nowrooz, Navroz, Navroze, Naw-Ruz, Nowroz, and several other spellings all mean “New Day” in Persian. This is the date that changes slightly every year: when the length of sunlight equals night.

It is the start of the lunar calendar calculated by Persians about three thousand years ago. In those days, the state religion was Zoroastrianism. However, it seems that anyone whose ancestors spent time in Iran, whether Zoroastrian, Muslim, Baha’i or Kurdish, observes this new year. Some communities celebrate three days…others almost two weeks.

I knew none of this going in. That long ago evening at the India International Centre in New Delhi. I was strolling about, killing time until the dining hall opened and my father and I could get something to eat. I drew near a splendidly decorated pavilion.

Are they twins or just close sisters? Parsi girls at the 1989 Navroze celebration

Are they twins or just close sisters? Parsi girls at the 1989 Navroze celebration

I felt I were gazing into a magic world. Darling little girls wore white lace frocks, ladies were draped in luxurious saris and all the gentlemen were clad traditional white suits with unusual headgear (Later I learned these were lacquered turbans called fetahs). I admired the scene until a kindly elder  insisted I join them. I had my first rapturous taste of spicy, sophisticated Parsi food (Parsi transliterates to “Persian” and refers to the Zoroastrian immigrants who arrived in Gujarat starting in 600 AD).

My first taste of Parsi hospitality must have been auspicious, because many years later, I find myself revisiting the March New Year in fictional form. I’m currently writing a novel starring a Zoroastrian family in 1920s Bombay. Just last week I was writing about the rigorous house cleaning that before the New Year. There’s a lot to it!

Perzen Patel, a Parsi cuisine expert in Mumbai, with her fabulous pantry

Perzen Patel, a Parsi cuisine expert in Mumbai, with her fabulous pantry

My friend Perzen Patel, aka the Bawi Bride, is a Parsi caterer and food blogger in Mumbai. For Perzen, the Persian New Year means a lot of family visiting and a tremendous amount of cooking for friends and customers. Several weeks before the holiday, she sent this enticing email to her friends and blog followers, and customers.

This year to bring in Navroze I thought we’d go the extra mile and really create a menu that is beyond the ordinary. So, I’ve put my thinking cap on and planned a lovely special that you can avail any day from Saturday 19 – Monday 21 March.

Our menu is as follows:

  • Kheema Pattice—savory mashed potato and lamb patties
  • Badam Malai Chicken Pulao—a savory rice pilaf studded with chicken cooked in cream with almonds
  • Masala ni Dar—spicy lentils
  • Kid Gosht—lamb curry
  • Patra ma Prawns—prawns steam-cooked in banana leaves
  • Lagan nu Custard—sweet baked pudding garnished with raisins and cashews

All of this yummy food for the special price of ₹1550 per plate including delivery with each plate as a whole enough for two people.

Translation: that’s about $25 for a New Year’s feast for two! If you’re curious, try Perzen’s custard recipe highlighted above or the many delicious home recipes on the Bawi Bride website.

All these elements appear on a Nawroz table

All these elements appear on a Nawroz table

Perzen says that if the celebratory Navroze meal is home-cooked (which is typical), at least one fish dish would be included for good luck. There might also be a nougat sweet, Gaz, imported from Iran. Perzen’s favorite non-culinary part of the holiday is the Haft Seen table laid out with seven lucky edibles that start with the “S” sound in Persian. These range from sumac to apple and garlic and herbs. A key item on the table is the mirror,  placed there so visiting relatives can look into it and reflect on their past year and any blessings.

The Baltimore Naw-Ruz buffet

The Baltimore Naw-Ruz buffet

A Baltimore friend, Sheila Mohajer Hofert, is a Baha’i who fled Iran with her family in the early 1980s. The Baha’i start their New Year at approximately the same time as Zoroastrians and Iranian-origin Muslims. One difference is the Baha’i fast from sunrise to sunset for the last 19 days before Naw-Ruz. Sheila says the fasting  makes one “more understanding of the people who are hungry in the world—and to become more aware of our bodies and our emotions. For example, working on treating others kindly when you personally don’t feel very well.”

This year, on March 19, more than 200 Baha’is and their friends gathered to enjoy food, song, and prayers.

I also asked Sheila her favorite aspect of Naw-Ruz. She wrote: “As winter gradually fades away and the paleness of the world is replaced with fresh colors and fragrance, it brings with the promise of the new day. It remind me of he cyclic nature of our universe and the cyclic nature of our lives, which are constantly filled with crises, followed by victory.”

Young Musicians at the Baha'i Naw-Ruz event

Young Musicians at the Baha’i Naw-Ruz event

Life will always get better. Naw-Ruz Mubarak!

Hawaii Journal Part Two

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Working on team stories with the 5th grade

Working on team stories with the 5th grade

In Hawaiian, the ‘Iolani bird is a heavenly hawk. Queen Emma chose it as the name for the Anglican school she founded for Hawaiian and mixed-race boys in Oahu between 1863 and 1870. Approximately 150 years later, the renaissance royal is gone but not forgotten. Many institutions and places hold her name, and the ambitious boys school now admits girls, and has become the largest co-educational Episcopal school in the United States.

I fell under the heavenly hawk’s gaze for the last two weeks as a writer-in-residence. I was brought in as the annual Harold Keables chair-holder, part of an endowment established about 30 years ago honoring a legendary English teacher.

The 'Iolani Bird, fierce and metallic

The ‘Iolani Bird, fierce and metallic

As a full-time writer who works by herself at home, it was a big shift to move from silent mode into talking about how to write. I arrived daily when it was still dark, and the metal ‘Iolani birds eyes glowed red. Gradually the sky lightened to reveal students and staff exercising or studying at the outdoor tables. It’s an intense school.

My first teaching appearances were in Japanese classes for 7th and 8th grade students, where I showed slides of my early years in Japan and talked (in English) about how I channeled those delightful experiences into my Rei Shimura mystery series. More than half the students in the class had been to Japan, so we chatted a lot about their most dramatic memories. Is it any surprise that Japanese toilets—both the antique variety, and the post-modern—brought gales of laughter?

In the journalism/newspaper classes, students were curious how I chose to weave details into both kinds of writing. I enjoyed their full-color newspaper, Imua ‘Iolani, which was packed with interesting stories, photos and art. With so much activity on campus, there was no shortage of stories.

'Iolani hulu dancers performed at a reception.

‘Iolani hulu dancers performed at a reception.

Most of my time was spent working with creative writing and creative non-fiction classes. I had just one goal: to make them feel writing could be fun, much more than an assignment done for a grade. Okay, there was a second goal, too: to help them tap into the stories that were inside them; great material that they might  never have considered. I spoke about how the places we visit—or the family history we hear about from our relatives—can be springboards for the imagination. I told them only to choose writing about things they were genuinely interested in.

Students work collaboratively in their multi-media study center

Students work collaboratively in their multi-media study center

In one class, I challenged them to brainstorm settings and plots based on situations out of their own or their family’s past. One young woman told us about her family’s historic home in France that had been overtaken by the Nazis during the war years. A high school boy thought of exploring the life of a Japanese picture-bride ancestor; and another male student wanted to write about the dilemma of being raised in a football-centered community, yet feeling the urge to put aside the sport for something cerebral. There were other story synopses set in North Korea, Viet Nam, and Japan: a whole world of creative possibilities.

Student-crafted books on Hawaiian history

Student-crafted books on Hawaiian history

And then there were stories I heard about how the teachers and staff came to Hawaii. Chatting with staff who became good friends, I heard hints of stories of their family histories on the island. Links between Japan and China and Polynesia sparkled like jewels.

Jo Okumoto, "Mrs. O," is a popular staffer many visit early each morning

Jo Okumoto, “Mrs. O,” is a popular staffer many visit early each morning

With my Keables organizer, Frank Briguglio of English, and Jackie Oda, the Special Programs assistant who nominated me.

With my Keables organizer, Frank Briguglio of English, and Jackie Oda, the Special Programs assistant who nominated me.

Stepping out into the sunshine after a day of classes, I could almost hear the great ‘Iolani bird rustling its feathers, readying itself to fly.

Hawaii Journal Part One

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I shouldn’t be in Hawaii right now, watching the waves roll in and basking in sunshine.

The only reason I’m here is because I’m a worrier.

In 2014, I began the application process for an artistic residency at the Iolani School in Honolulu. I worried I wasn’t going to be able to pull myself away from my household—even though the event was two years away. I applied because I thought I couldn’t possibly be chosen. But after several months I was surprised by the exciting news I had been chosen as the Keables chair holder and would travel to teach writing workshops to students for two weeks in the winter of 2016. With more than a year to go, it wasn’t hard to plan out the classes, think about what I’d do for the Community Night Public Lecture, assemblies and other events. The school bought my airline ticket five months in advance and booked a two-week stay at a nearby hotel.

Dwarfed by the palms at Foster Gardens

Dwarfed by the palms at Foster Gardens

About a week before my departure, my worrying spiked. Forecasters were predicting a massive snowstorm for Maryland and Washington, D.C. I had the sinking feeling the snow would ruin the carefully laid plans. And if my flight was cancelled, how long would it be till I found a seat on another one? How many classes and Waikiki sunsets would I miss?

Such worries led me to constantly keep checking with American Airlines the whole week. And then, on a Wednesday, I saw a “travel advisory” pop up button on the airline’s homepage that offered a chance to rebook flights for no charge. I recklessly nabbed a seat on the last flight with any space to Hawaii—which left two days before my scheduled flight on Saturday, Jan. 24. My school contact fixed the hotel reservation so I could check in as soon as I arrived. I started to feel better.

On my right is Jackie, a longtime reader and Iolani School staffer who nominated me for the artistic residency

On my right is Jackie, a longtime reader and Iolani School staffer who nominated me for the artistic residency

I arrived in Honolulu on Thursday evening and had a quick sushi dinner by myself on buzzy Kalakaua Boulevard before crashing. When I rang my husband the next day, he was quick to show pictures of the snowstorm. After we said goodbye, I stared at the waves from my hotel balcony and contemplated the power of nature, for better or worse.

That day I fought jet lag by exploring Waikiki in all directions. I went to dinner with Jackie and Ryan, who picked a great Cantonese restaurant. I ate beyond my usual capacity at a wonderful Cantonese restaurant in the Kaimuki neighborhood called Duk Kee, where I tasted a stir-fry of Chinese New Year’s vegetables.

Duk Kee's owner Cammy talking food with Jackie's son, Ryan Oda, a realtor and Iolani graduate

Duk Kee’s owner Cammy talking food with Jackie’s son, Ryan Oda, a realtor and Iolani graduate

The next day, my mystery convention buddies Marji and Hank who now live full-time in Honolulu brought me to Foster Gardens, a historic botanical garden, where I marveled at trees both huge and small. The palm below was barely ten feet tall after 150 years of growth. Sometimes, writing a novel feels about that slow!

tiny tree foster gardens

I was pleased to see that Honolulu residents were growing vegetables in personal plots set up on Foster Gardens grounds. I saw a lot of kale, ginger, and chilies and began imagining how to mix them.

community garden jpeg

Marji and Hank also brought me to see Honolulu from an excellent vantage point on Sand Island below. A high rise building surge is on. Unfortunately, the new condos are priced for overseas investors, not local people. Not that it was a surprise.

Honolulu skyline jpeg

Table views at La Mariana Sailing Club

Table views at La Mariana Sailing Club

We rounded out the night with mai-tais and dinner at La Mariana Sailing Club, a delightful open-air restaurant on a marina filled with sail boats. This hideaway is styled the way it’s always been since its founding by the famous Mariana in 1957. It’s built with with vintage carved tiki and rattan furniture and glowing colored lanterns in the shapes of pufferfish. The menu contains fish, pasta, and other classic indulgences cooked to perfection. It was too dark to get good photos of the interior, so you’ll have to be content with the above view of the marina.

The hilly garden at Spalding House

The hilly garden at Spalding House

On the mellow Sunday that followed, my friend Liz and I visited two locations of the Honolulu Museum of Art. First was the Spalding House in Makiki Heights. This small contemporary art museum has a glorious, rambling garden and an excellent café.

After losing ourselves in the garden, we continued along to Honolulu Museum’s main building. Because this is my fourth time visiting Honolulu, this museum is well-known to me. However, the Japanese decorative arts collection is so huge I’m always entranced by something new. This time, I was captivated by  beautiful painted Japanese screens from the Showa period (1920s and 30s) in immaculate condition. And I was impressed by a brilliantly curated exhibit of  21st century fashion worn by young people in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku neighborhood. For the last fifteen years or so, designers in Japan have catered to teenage style-setters with astounding dresses riffing on commercial stuffed animals, fairies, Alice in Wonderland, Gothic horror, steam punk, and Elizabethan England. Another museum-goer who was into Cos-Play told me the retail price for one of these modern masterpieces was $700-$800. Wow!

A very spooky rabbit mannequin in a romantic Harajuku fashion

A very spooky rabbit mannequin in a romantic Harajuku fashion

After viewing the fanciful outfits, I had a brief desire to be eighteen again. But then I remembered that Japanese and Hawaiian culture weren’t part of my mental landscape then. I wouldn’t know what Gothic Lolita meant and if you served me sushi, I would have run from the table.

Glorious Spalding House museum garden

Glorious Spalding House museum garden

Sometimes it takes years to arrive at the places you’re meant to go. And after such a highly relaxed weekend, I’m ready to start school.  More about that two weeks from now, in Hawaii Journal Part 2.