Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Culinary Journeys: Bucaramanga (Colombia), Kisii (Kenya)

Althea Romeo-Mark in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Our host holding my carry-on.
Bucaramanga, Colombia: Part 1

A culinary journey becomes an adventure when it takes place in a country not your own. Faced with food you are unaccustomed to, it can be like bungee jumping. You can put on a brave face and take the plunge, or be boring and safe and return home with a stomach free of ailments.

As a visitor, you worry about eating unwashed fruit or experimenting with fresh, pressed tropical juices or an exotic dish you have never heard about.

In Medellin, Colombia, fresh, sliced fruit wrapped in plastic bags can be bought on the street and you can easily be tempted to indulge in healthy eating.

At the hotel where I and fellow poets stayed, I gulped down fresh sour-sap juices.  Sour-saps are rarely sold in Switzerland. When one is seen, you whip out your Smartphone and take a photo. It is a fruit I love and I can only indulge in its sappy sweetness when I am in the Caribbean. 

So in Medellin I was in sour-sap juice Heaven. I knew very well that it was a natural laxative but drank many glasses of it anyway. My stomach later gave me notice.

In Colombia to attend the 20th International Poetry Festival of Medellin, I read along with one hundred invited poets at designated venues around Medellin. It is a city where poets are rock stars; a city where the masses hunger for the words of poets, a city where people sit in the rain and listen to poets; a city where fans line up to get autographs and take photos with poet-stars. 
Italian poet signing autograph

The poetry festival has become a tradition and is part of the social and cultural fabric of sprawling Medellin.
Poets were also flown out to different parts of Colombia to bring poetry to the people. 

Bob Holman, poet

American Poet, Bob Holman and I, were flown to Bucaramanga on the 14th of July 2010 to do readings along with a local poet and artist, Negro Navas.

  Public sources tell us that Bucaramanga is the capital city of the department of Santander, Colombia. It has the fifth largest economy by GDP in Colombia, has the lowest unemployment rate, the highest GINI index, and has the eighth largest population in the country, with 530,900 people. 

Girón was the first and most significant town founded by Spanish colonizers in the region, and Bucaramanga (founded on December 22, 1622) did not overtake Girón in population or economic significance until the early 19th century.

One of the most interesting experiences about our visit to Bucaramanga, in addition to reading and some sight-seeing, was our introduction to local dishes. One of the foods we were tempted to try was “changua,” a soup made of potatoes, egg and bread. It is a traditional breakfast meal.

Potato eggs and bread soup
Our host in Bucaramanga.
Our generous host wanted to make sure we had this local dish before returning to Medellin. We also had tamales cooked in banana leaf cups.
Typical dishes from Bucaramanga include: the Santander-mute (a soup made from various grains and accompanied by various types of meat), the fricassee, a preparation of viscera and goat blood mixed with white rice, oreada meat, arepa de pelao', and the tamales. We did not get around to trying all of them.

We were informed that the hormiga culona (roughly large-bottomed ant) is perhaps the most striking and unique of the dishes in Santander, these ants are abundant in the months of March and April. 

To make this dish, they remove the head and wings of local giant ants and roast them. They are then generally sold on platters on the streets or in jars of hundreds.

We learned that other seasonal foods found in abundance are: traditional sweet celery, lemon, citron, rice, caramel, and pineapple. Most are produced in neighboring Floridablanca. The Oblea wafer and veleño bocadillo (candy) are two other dishes found in great quantity in Bucaramanga.
 I bought a hormiga culona (fat ass ant)  from a man on the street as a souvenir. It was kept in a match box size container and was used for show and tell in my classroom. In the end I threw it away some months after returning to Switzerland. It was not something I found appealing.

I would love to see the beautiful Spanish, colonial architecture  Bucaramango again. I found  the structures fascinating because of the history.  I would try “changua,” tamale cooked in banana leaf cups once more but will give “fat ass” ants  a pass.

© Althea Romeo-Mark, 2016

Next: Having snacks in Kisii, Kenya.

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Friday, August 5, 2016

A Chocolate Encounter

                         A Chocolate Encounter

This micro-fiction piece( short-short story) is dedicated to all exotic-looking women who have been mistaken for prostitutes while simple standing on a corner or waiting at a bus stop and minding their own business.

A Chocolate Encounter

     The wind swished leaves, swirled dust into the air and lifted skirts.  Hans stared at a pair of long brown legs as he staggered out of the bar opposite the tram stop.  His eyes crept upwards, halted at the face that could belong to any exotic place.  Its beauty, a fusion races, urged him closer.

     Seen her at that stop before, thought Hans.  Makes me think of chocolate. Is she’s as sweet as she looks? Face flushed with wine, the bony man stumbled across the street.

     “Hello, Miss” He said tentatively.  He rocked unsteadily on the sidewalk’s edge.


     “Waiting for someone?”

     “Sort of.”  Small eyes, full strawberry-painted lips seemed to fill her brown, oval face.  Dark hair flowed to her waist.

     “How much?”

    “How much what?”  She glared at him.

    “What’s your price?”

    “You… mean…. to do you?” Her laughter rode the night wind.   Plucking a mobile phone from her purse, she spoke a strange language in a tone bordering on hysterical, then flipped the phone shut and folded her arms.  “I’ll give you an unforgettable time.”

     They waited at the bus shelter. Hans drew a cigarette out of a pack and lit it, then stared at her stern face and pouty lips, watched her fight the wind to hold her skirt down.


     He jumped, startled by a car’s honk when it pulled up.  The woman rushed to the car, leaned into the window and spoke, hands waving in the air, voice rising and falling like a roller coaster.

     “Come,” she said, sweetly.  “Get into the back. Meet my girlfriends.”

     “God damned.  So many chocolate faces.” Hans’ face lit up; every nerve lit up, too.

     But then they began to pummel his head, stomach and crotch and slowly the faces melted.

(c) 2007 Althea Romeo-Mark

Interesting. Are we so easily pacified?

Micro-fiction is a subset of flash fiction—those super short stories typically told in 1,000 words or less. Definitions vary, but for the most part, micro-fiction is any story told in 300 words or less, and could even be as short as a few words.

I was encouraged by my friend and fellow writer, Irene Kaesermann, to participate in a fifty-word (50) short story contest that was sponsored by The Daily Telegraph in the UK in 1999. To my surprise, my fifty word story, "The Claim" was published in the anthology, MINI SAGAS.

Not only was I published in MINI SAGAS, but my short story was featured alongside other short-shorts written by Salman Rushdie,Doris Lessing, Ralph Fiennes and other internationally respected writers and artists of specific trades. Their pieces were commissioned, of course.

Interested in writing short-shorts. Have a look at these websites:


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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Kind of Refugee/Living in Limbo

A Kind of Refugee/Living in Limbo

Front row: Cassandra Mark, Malaika Mark, Francine Morris, Michael Mark. Standing: Althea Mark, kneeling, Emmanueal Mark

Our children, Malaika, Cassandra, Michael and I arrived in London, May 1990, having flown out of Robertsfield Airport on one of the last flights leaving Liberia.

I could still hear the warning issued at the last social event held at the American Embassy: All American citizens should evacuate the country immediately. The neatly folded map, which pinpointed safe houses if the rebel army rolled into the city sooner than expected, was now a crumpled piece of paper.  

We disembarked holding one suitcase each.  I was in charge of passports, birth and marriage certificates and diplomas, now more valuable than gold.

Aldin Mark, my husband (Emmanuel)’s sister and resident of London since 1960, met us at Heathrow airport. She took us to her home on Ifley Road, Hammersmith, within walking distance from Shepherd’s Bush in London.  It would be the first in a series of temporary homes.  I shared a room in the crammed, narrow, two-story apartment with my three children.  When my husband arrived six weeks later via Sierra Leone, Guinea and Belgium, he joined us in the bedroom where two single beds joined together was our private space.

 Soon after Emmanuel’s arrival, we went to the Citizens Bureau where our status was established and legal aid provided. My husband was born in Grenada, a former British colony, and still held a British passport which allowed him to obtain British passports in Liberia for our children.

Dr. Emmanuel Mark, king of his castle in Liberia
We were placed in a B&B in the Bayswater area. It was home until we could be resettled elsewhere. My family was assigned two rooms. My husband, I and our six year old son shared one room.  Our daughters, aged, nine and eleven, shared another.  We were ashamed to be in this position but the civil war had determined our fate. We drew solace knowing that the situation would be temporary.

Like the other families, we were seeking to begin a new life having lost all we had. We were happy to be alive. Starting again from scratch, although daunting, was a second chance. We had sacrificed everything. My husband had abandoned his medical practice which he had run with his cousin Dr. James Thomas and his wife, Gloria Thomas, a nurse; he had also vacated his teaching position at the A.M. Daglioti Medical College in Monrovia and the eight roomed home he had built.

I had given up my teaching position at the University of Liberia. I barely had time to say goodbye.  We had withdrawn our children from school and had left family and friends behind. We wanted to survive the atrocities, the shameless ethnic killings, the burning of villages and sometimes, it occupants, the gleeful killing of intellectuals and anyone for whom a grudge was enough to be sentenced to death.

Our B+B, once assigned in Bayswater, the children travelled by train to attend school.  I had  enrolled them as soon as we arrived. The younger two, Cassandra and Michael were at Brackenberry Elementary School and the older, Malaika, at St. Mark’s Anglican Secondary school in Parson’s Green.  

I worried about them. Until now I had driven them everywhere. Now, I accompanied the younger ones to school; the older child, Malaika, had adapted to travelling alone. 

The cook who dished out breakfast in the B+B on Queensborough Road, was a Jamaican immigrant. 

I remember finding this odd. Officials of Countries, where people ranted against immigrants stealing jobs, still hired immigrants to carry out delicate duties. Just as I found it odd that a Haitian once guarded our hotel room in New York when my husband was detained for not having a transit visa.  We were flying from the Caribbean via New York back to Liberia and he didn’t think he needed one.

Our fellow refugees included a Somalian family who had fled an uprising in their home; my family--my husband, Grenadian, carrying a Liberian passport, our Liberian born children and me, a US, Virgin Islander, and an Irish family. Why the Irish were placed in the B&B I never found out. Perhaps they were fleeing the Protestant/Catholic clashes in Northern Ireland.
We ate our dished out breakfast, read about the horrors that were taking place in Liberia, searched for work, shopped for clothes and books in second-hand stores, to sustain our family of five.

After three months in the B &B, we were assigned a two bedroom apartment in St. Clair’s Mansion near Shepherd’s Bush. We needed several trips by train from Queensborough Road to Hammersmith to transport our belongings. Financial assistance was expected to last until my husband and I found employment. 

 I was eager to stand on my own feet. Staying at home was not an option. I had been working since I was fourteen and very independent.  I could not conceive being dependent on my husband or a government. 

While searching for teaching job, I sought temporary work and found one at H. Samuel’s Jewellers that hired extra staff for the Christmas season.

Here I was, a trained university teacher, working at a jewellery shop, with people, for whom every second word was “fuck.” I was appalled at the language. In Liberia, people cursed when they had been provoked or angered. Here curse-words naturally attached themselves to nouns. Everyone hung out at a pub after work. I couldn’t join.  I was a mother of three with limited funds and an unemployed husband.

My husband was told that because he had a Swiss Medical degree, he was required to sit exams and to familiarize himself with British medical culture.  While contemplating his next step, he also sought temporary work and was often told he was over qualified. I remember he had applied for a vacancy at the post office and was turned down.  

I imagined the people at the head office thought he was a mad-man who fancied himself to be a medical doctor. Why would a doctor apply for a position at the post office?

Fullham Cross Girls' School

During my free time, I volunteered at my son’s primary school and was privileged to chaperone classes on field trips to Kew Gardens, the Natural History Museum and other places. We allowed ourselves simple pleasures and took our children to the Planetarium, Madame Tussauds, parks, zoos and fairs.  

We made small sacrifices, took advantage of the rich surroundings so that we could have a normal life, and educate our children

The New Year, 1991, brought a brighter outlook as I had been offered work as a substitute teacher at Fulham Cross Secondary School, an all girls’ school.  I was unimpressed by their lacklustre attitude towards education. Attending classes was a chore and a bore for these girls. Their goal was to finish school at the voluntary leaving age, have children or work in a shop. Students lacked motivation and teachers showed little interest. They felt these students were a lost cause.  A bright spot was the students from India and Pakistan who studied seriously. Second generation West Indian immigrants were already falling into the trap.

The urge not to fall into complacency coincided with an embarrassing encounter with a student one Saturday afternoon when I was on my way home.  She asked me if I lived in the neighbourhood. In answer, I pointed to the building in which I lived. “You live there?” I heard the emphasis on THERE. My new home was marked, a place where homeless people were housed. 

 A big scarlet H had been plastered on my forehead. I vowed to get out as soon as possible. I learned that it was an unmentionable place.  If I had known, I would have lied.

The temporary apartment at Sinclair’s Mansion had given us more room and privacy.  My job as a substitute teacher allowed me to give up the government stipend.  I felt better about myself.  I was no longer accepting handouts. It was a step away from dependence, a step away from “homeless.”

After six months we obtained British residency.  My children were settled in school—my oldest studying German.

Attending a family wedding in London
Despite my husband’s large, supportive family, whom I got to know well, and despite being surrounded by a West Indian community, I felt unsettled.  Our social rug had been snatched from under us. However, birthdays, parties and weddings helped to make us feel at home. 

London market (Hammersmith)

I wondered how these “West Indians,” who had left the Caribbean thirty years ago, still sounded like they had never left the islands. Markets and shops, run by East Indians, sold tropical food, and other familiar products. A visit to them was taking a little trip to the Caribbean or Africa.

Our children had attended a private school in Liberia and received the best education available.  In the London schools I taught, learning eagerly was discouraged by other students.  Working as a substitute teacher, I witnessed the students’ lack of will to learn and I worried about how this attitude would affect my children.  

My own previous experience with adolescents and teenage students had been discouraging. I had taught teenagers in inner city Connecticut, watched them stare out of windows despite the innovative teaching methods that had been introduced.

 One lasting impression was a student lifting a chair and threatening the classroom teacher with it.  And I had taught at Addelita Cancryn Jr. High School, a middle school in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, nicknamed “Vietnam.” The administration building at that school had been set on fire twice. Adolescent hormones were raging war. 

I had vowed not to teach that age group again.  And here I was teaching in London in an environment where students also shouted abuse at teachers. Once a student arrived drunk and had to be held up by her classmates. I later learned that her parents were alcoholics.  The last straw was a class that displayed their dislike for the presence of another substitute teacher, me, by screeching until the head master arrived. Teaching had become a nightmare which I hoped to escape.

My prayers were answered when my husband was offered a position at the University Children’s Hospital in Basel, Switzerland.  But new problems would surface in a country whose language and culture was foreign to us.

© Althea Romeo-Mark

“A Kind of Refugee: Living in Limbo,” WomanSpeak: A Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women. Ed. Lynn Sweeting. Bahamas. 2013.
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