Gifts From Abroad: What To Bring Your Family When You Come Home

My wife and I travel a lot, sometimes together, sometimes separately. We both have careers that require us to travel and while it can be tough to be apart, at least we have the regular ritual of seeing what gifts from abroad are popping out of each other’s suitcases!

My wife just came back from an astronomy meeting in Tokyo and brought back this haul of loot. The Japanese are masters of packaging, whether they’re being stylish and traditional or garish and modern. I wonder what a supermarket full of this stuff must look like. The panda head cookies are especially good. I’ve always wanted a bag of decapitated pandas. The T-shirt is for her, because she knows I’m fond of her “especially cuteness.”

What I forgot to include in this photo were the three bottles of sake she brought back. While I’ve always had my sake warm, she tells me it’s often served cold in Tokyo and that regulars have their own monogrammed bottle reserved for them behind the bar!

When I came back from writing my travel series about Greece, I brought her and my son lots of olives since they both love them. I also brought back some honey from Sparta. My wife adores honey and it’s a good gift to bring from abroad because it tastes different in every region. Of all the honey I’ve brought her from far-flung places, she’s liked the Spartan honey the most.

You’ll notice that we mostly bring back consumables. A great way to share the experience of your trip is to share some of the tastes. Also, we live in a European apartment (read: small) and we have too much stuff anyway.

What gifts from abroad do you like to give or receive? Tell us in the comments section!

Got Milk? This Swiss Soft Drink Does

It looks like soda. It tastes like soda. But the Swiss soft drink pictured above has a peculiar key ingredient: milk whey. First introduced in the 1950s, Rivella beat out both Coke and Pepsi in sales in its home country, and a spokeswoman once said the Swiss people are “almost as familiar with it as breast milk.” Still, the drink remains practically unknown throughout the rest of the world. Efforts in the early 2000s failed to introduce the drink as a “health food” product to Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, and today the Netherlands is the only country that seems to have embraced the product, drinking up 90 percent of Rivella’s foreign sales.

My assessment? The first sip was okay, mostly because I wasn’t told that it was made from milk. My boyfriend, equally unaware and severely lactose intolerant, was even more aghast when the key ingredient was announced to us. Needless to say, he steered clear of a second taste. I was a little reluctant to take another sip after hearing the news but had no complaints about the carbonated apple juice flavor. Besides milk, Rivella is made with lots of fruit and herbal extracts, and sources say that the filtration process used for the serum removes all the fats and proteins from the whey, making the soft drink rich in vitamins and minerals. Next time, I’ll probably try the version of Rivella with the yellow label, which is made with soy rather than dairy milk – it should be a little easier to stomach for both my boyfriend and me.

[Wikimedia photo by Parpan05]

Gallery: A guide to South American cocktails

Margaritas, Cuba libres, piña coladas and mojitos are drinks with Latin American origins that have become staples at bars across America. But what about the drinks being mixed up further south? Whether you want to know what to order up at the bar during your next trip to South America or you are looking for a way to raise the bar at home, these mixed drinks will leave you thirsty for more.


Money in Ecuador: How far can $1 get you?

Ecuador is one place where a little money really does go a long way. Not only does the country use United States currency, but it’s amazing how many things you can purchase for just one dollar. Whether you are looking to drink an oversized beer at a pub or feast on 20 fresh bananas (just try to scarf them all down before they turn brown!), it comes as no surprise that Ecuador repeatedly makes the list of budget-friendly places to visit–as well as our top picks for adventure destinations in 2012.

Start the day with a cup of coffee–or four. Most cafes will give you your caffeine fix for 25 to 35 cents a cup. Just don’t be prepared to get Starbucks-style java: in Ecuador, coffee is usually a cup of hot water with some instant coffee served on the side for you to stir in. If that’s not up your alley, you can get a large party-sized cup of made-to-order juice for just a dollar at a fruterias, or fruit shop. They let you choose any mix of fruit of vegetables your heart desires, and no sugar or water will be added. Don’t be afraid to try a fruit you’ve never seen or heard of before, either: I tried guanábana, maracuya, naranjilla and tomate de arbol while I was there, and still find myself craving them all. On the other hand, if you simply prefer soda or bottled water, it’s also sold at a reasonable price: 30 to 60 cents depending on the size. Most of it comes in glass bottles, too-a fun game to play is to see how long your bottle has been in circulation; my record was a bottle that dated back to 1994.Being introduced to new flavors and climates doesn’t always agree with out bodies, but in Ecuador it’s no bother. If you are having altitude sickness, a stomachache, or a mild allergic reaction, just drop by a pharmacy where there is no need to buy a whole box of medicine-pills are sold individually and they’re usually cheap. Buy what you need, and if you don’t feel better the next day just come back for more. You can also buy a lot of medicines you would need a prescription for in the U.S.-but that’s a whole different story.

Getting around in Ecuador is cheap, too. A taxi will take you up to a mile for just a dollar, while the city bus will take you anywhere around major cities like Quito and Guayaquil for just 25 cents. Buses run all over the country, and as a general rule the cost is $1 per hour-making the uncomfortable 10-hour bus ride from Quito to the coast totally worth it.

As for food, you might not be able to get a complete dinner for a dollar–but choclo con queso, or corn on the cob served with a chunk of cheese, will hold you over for awhile. Some more familiar menu options for just a buck include pizza, fruit cups, and foot-long hot dogs, which are sold in parks and on streets from vendors. Just keep in mind that hot dogs are served with some unfamiliar options like mayonnaise, tomatoes, and crushed potato chips.

Drinking in Ecuador might be one of the best deals to be had. A large bottle of beer is just a dollar at many pubs, and if you search hard enough you might be able to find mixed drinks like cuba libres and rum and coke for the same price. Don’t leave the country without trying a canelazo, a traditional drink made with fruit juice and sugar can alcohol, served hot. And if you smoke when you drink, you can get a cute half-pack of ten cigarettes for just a dollar.

When it comes to souvenirs, a dollar can get you a few things. At Quito’s Mercado Artesenal, handmade bracelets, earrings, coin purses, and finger puppets can be picked up for a dollar or less. Take a short bus ride to the famous Otovalo Market, the biggest bazaar in all of South America, and you can get even better deals.

Although the deals sound great, take my advice: if you plan on visiting bring a roll of quarters and the smallest bills you can imagine. Nobody in this country seems to have change, and very often convenience stores would rather refuse selling you anything than change a $10 bill. The horror stores of cab drivers chastising people for using “enormous bills” when trying to pay a $3 cab far with a $5 bill are true-and if you find yourself with a $20 bill, be prepared to have a panic attack.

[Photos by Libby Zay and Andres Felipe Mena]

January is California Restaurant Month

As a native Californian and longtime former Bay Area resident, I have to confess there’s no place like home when it comes to the American food/dining/wine scene (New Yorkers, feel free to sharpen your knives…).

California’s always been progressive when it comes to food and drink, from the early days of the vaqueros and Gold Rush-era San Francisco, right up to today’s never-ending parade of talented food artisans, chefs, farmers, and mixologists. It’s only fitting then, to feature a California Restaurant Month.

In January, the second annual statewide celebration is back and better than ever. Presented by Visit California, nearly 30 destinations across the Golden State are creating special restaurant week or month-long promotions and deals, including celebrity chef, prix fixe, and wine pairing dinners, and a series of “Dine and Drive Itineraries” that map out the culinary and scenic highlights of specific regions. Included are “Wine Country Fresh,” “Food Lover’s Classic Coast Drive: San Francisco to L.A.,” and “A Taste of San Diego.” Participating regions for events include cities and counties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast, and Northern and Southern California.

If you’re worried about the calories, California Restaurant Month also offers travel tips on where the best skiing, surfing, hiking, and other outdoor activities are to be found, regardless of your itinerary. And that’s the thing about California. As my dad always said, “What other state offers so much diversity?” Whether bagging peaks, scuba-diving, camping in the desert, or having a blow-out shopping spree is your thing, California’s got it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Stuck in Customs]