Feeding our kids the old way

When we travel the city pulls us in and it’s often where we navigate for food fixes. It’s usually for eating, there’s often an abundance of new tastes, and somewhere there’s a tourist treat to try.  Street vendors of countries in South America and Asia, restaurants, the fish markets, sidewalk cafe culture, the pastry shops, the bread bakers, food trucks, curry houses, cooking courses… But traveling out of town brings me new and authentic food experiences, the kind I look for. Sometimes it’s simply being back on the land, seeing the vegetable gardens, talking to the farmers about what’s growing, what’s in season, the rice paddies, or the onion fields.

Croatia never disappoints me and this time its food treats came to me in a different form, wholesome school lunches and meals for children in a country village.

Summer market produce, Croatia May 2017

A quiet word with a farming couple over their modest market stall. A few carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and greens with grey soil splashes scattered in front of them. Cardboard signs with hand written prices. People of the land, part vegetable, part earth-human, fingernails with the requisite amount of soil lining them. Hands of hardened Springs, themselves ridges and furrows of skin. Threadbare overalls and grey hair, now a sign it is, at last, getting harder.

Yes, later in the week they would deliver the produce for next week’s lunches, the order scratched on the back of a piece of card in pencil.  The vegetables would be local fresh seasonal and organic by default, but none of this needs stating or questioning, it is the way it is. We move on through the market and I wondered what other stories the stall holders kept, aside from secret deliveries.

Town market, Koprivnica, Croatia, May 2017

Dolac City market, Zagreb


Most town squares in Croatia have daily vegetable markets and for a lot of the folks, it is a social occasion, a chance to get out of the house and have an interaction with people, while getting fresh tasty food.

Vegetables growing in the garden for children’s meals


I spent the morning in a kitchen that was prepping and setting for the impeding arrival of 60 visiting school kids, who would be well fed before their afternoon activities. I take no credit at all for any of the cooking and I did little more than watch, stack plates and do my share of the dishes. But what I loved about this was the wooden stove cooker, set in to the wall surrounded by green tiles, the big old industrial pots and most importantly the ingredients, that were going in to a simple lunch that was unquestioned.

Menu starter: Soup broth

Menu mains x 60


Of course we give the children lunch. The lunch is a part of them. What is school without a school lunch? A school will have toilets and lockers and a lunchroom and a library. It’s where school happens. I can’t even imagine going to school without the lunch, the old cooks, the locals who help… My friend explained. We don’t have lunches at school, I replied, hoping it might in part explain why this event was so unique for me. She frowned, like I was from another planet and dismissed me as if it wasn’t true. New Zealand is always heralded as this far away magical place where everything works well. For many things that may be true but we missed a few key ideas landing and taking hold, and making our kids lunches at school is one bus we should’ve jumped on, but didn’t.


On the back burner sat a large red pot. When I later cleaned it I found “Made in Yugoslavia” stamped on the bottom. Carrots, potatoes, capsicum, a couple of chicken carcasses and a few herbs made the broth for the soup, with noodles added. Then for mains they had some rice with carrots, peas and other vegetables cooked through it, some crumbed meat, and some salad. Bread was an option on the side and a home made jam pastry.

Wheat fields, rural Croatia


It’s quite simple. And of course not the first time I’ve heard of school meals, but the way the village worked together to pull it off stems from the underlying concept: that good hearty food cooked by people who know how to make things the right way can get into the stomachs and minds of our children. That not questioning this as a right- the right to full bellies and afternoons of play- but instead going ahead and providing a hot meal for children is one of the simplest and best things you can do. I found a place somewhere in the north of Croatia near the Hungarian border, where things are still done properly. Good food is grown, growers are supported, children are fed, and cooks are employed, because that is just the way it is.

Biking Japan in a dress: Tips for the ladies

Japan is a great place for bike touring. Hokkaido has big wide roads, with footpaths alongside even in the mountains.  Cars cruise along at 50km on the main back roads and are very courteous. The roads outside of Hokkaido are a different story, heavily trafficked, old steep roads, and busier. But in some ways more exciting! The main centres, like in and around Tokyo, are bike friendly. There is a big bike culture in Japan that goes back a long time and many people commute by bike, with bike paths a plenty (although as of 2016 not yet on Google Maps for bikes). Some main roads can be busy, often there is a footpath/side walk you can find. Despite all that, some tips before you head off might help save you some hassles. After 3 weeks of biking and the ups and downs of typhoons, changing plans and locations, here’s a few reflections on touring around this beautiful and whacky country and some tips for fellow bike tourists in this fine land.

Food and water

The food in Japan is incredible. It’s all of good quality and like everything in that marvelous country, it’s safety first, meaning triple washed and quadruple packaged. Roadside veges boxes are all over the country in summer with local gardens often having honesty boxes for produce. Fruit is more of a gift, so prices are higher than veges. Basically give up on eating fruit and get your nutrients from the delicious veges but marvel at the plush peaches packaged in polystyrene. For cheaper snacks find the 100yen stores for big bags of nuts. Always drink the tap water. No need to buy plastic water in Japan (or anywhere if you can help it).

Seven Eleven/Lawsons/FamilyMart are frighteningly everywhere. They are great because they have wifi and hot coffee and everything from tampons to ponchos to rice balls and ice cream. They also have ATMs that take international cards and a toilet with a warm seat and all the trimmings of bidet and butt flush that you need. The food in a 7/11 is pretty good in price and selection and great for snacks.Vending machines also sell coffee and drinks and are everywhere.

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Hokkaido Ramen vegetarian option

Comms and maps and apps

  • Wifi is everywhere, not much point getting a local number for 5000 yen a month but if it makes you feel safer and helps you navigate then it’s a good investment.
  • Use apps like Ridewithgps.com to help track your rides and borrow good routes from people who have been there before. Especially a life saver in cities.
  • Get a good paper map, the rider map guide books are the best. Look for the motorbike helmet symbol for the rider’s huts. These are huts for riders of motor bikes or push bikes around the country. You can stay in them for free or a donation and it’s a great way to meet other bikers. Motorcyclists always wave out to bike tourists here, there’s some kind of roadside comradery.
  • Look for the Roadhouses, these are epic roadside stops, with wifi, maps, tourist information, snacks, sometimes onsen, and often car campers parked up. Distinctive logo of a park hut with trees on the map and the road as you bike along. Good place to reset the batteries.

Onsen

The bike tourist’s heaven. Women are separate always to men so it is a safe and comfortable environment to be completely naked, bathing and scrubbing yourself. A great way to meet lovely Japanese ladies and kids. There is an etiquette but it’s not rocket science so just copy what the ladies are doing and relax and bathe. They will be impressed you biked there, believe me. And sleeping in a tent after 100km on the road is bliss after an onsen. Basically bike tourist pampering, fully equipped with shampoo, conditioner, body wash and a hair dryer. Enjoy! And if you are really stuck most will let you stay the night in one of the Lazy-Boy couch style chairs they have. Almost every hotel has its own onsen but most towns have the public ones too. My tip is save money by free camping and free travel by biking, and spend it on onsens and snacks.

Free camping

Usually has an outdoor kitchen and flush toilets (refine your squat), often a flood light so you can see. They feel incredibly safe. String up food bags to prevent rodents/foxes munching your snacks. Free camping is generally just as good if not better than the paid campsites in my experience. Japanese paid campsites are dated and often you have to pay extra yen for showers and that really sux when you’ve biked 100km and paid 2000 yen. And if you’re stuck, camping is fine in most places. If you can, try and stay with someone to get an authentic Japanese family/home experience.

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Lovely campsite 70km from Haneda airport at the start of the Doshi Valley climb up to Mt Fuji – overpriced and dated facilities but lovely river to swim in

Pick your season

Go for October and the leaves of autumn, not Typhoon season. We got caught out by three typhoons in a week in Hokkaido and it was awful. Pretty fine for biking but trains stop at the smell of a typhoon in Japan.

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Flooded free camping after 3 typhoons in a week, near Abashiri, Hokkaido

Bike shops

Plenty of these around, welcome to the home of Shimano! And some of the gear is pretty awesome so if you have forgotten something, easy enough to find in a main city like Sapporo or of course, Tokyo. The home of Tokyo Bike!

Language

In Japan it is very uncommon to have signs or people speaking in any other language than Japanese. Make an effort, you’ll need to and the basics will get you further than you expect. Tips:

  • Do a language course before traveling.
  • Download the translator apps.
  • Buy a phrase book.

Bike bags for trains and buses (for beginners)

  • In Japan all public transport systems make you bag your bike. You can buy the Japan style bike bags which are easier to fit your bike into. If you have a folding bike, even better.
  • If not, do a couple of practice runs taking your bike apart and putting it in the bag then refitting it without the stress of the train coming. Maybe even time yourself so you know how long to allow before train arrival.
  • If you’re not used to bike dismantling or reassembling, be near wifi when putting it back together so you can check you have done it right.
  • Keep all the little screws in the right places. Take photos of how it was before you took it apart then refer back to them after.
  • Make sure you have your Allen keys on you and also your bike pump!
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    Bike bagged ready for a train to no where

     

General bike lady tips:

  • Bring a spare dress or skirt for non touring days
  • Remember your leg razor and some wet wipes
  • Put a rag in your bike bag for the assembling and disassembling days
  • Always pack a sarong and a scarf, these two items will save you on many occasions
  • I ride in a cotton dress over bike pants and always keep the lycra to a minimum your skin will thank you
  • Wear a merino long sleeve on wet days to keep warm when you stop
  • To save your butt, invest in good bike pants and wear them in a bit on a few rides before you leave home. Any irritations, replace them and show no mercy. Any rubs or niggles after 50km will turn into hell after 500.
  • Bring some paw paw/papaya cream or other salve. Have dry days, even if it means not biking a day to heal or rest your butt.
  • If you can afford it, budget for a rest day at a guest house/hostel/hotel for yourself once in a while. Once that rain has saturated your tent you’ll be glad you have an emergency night’s budget on you.

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Japan Reflections 2: タマネギ Tamanegi, The humble onion

I biked field side for the onion harvest in Hokkaido, Japan. Farms adorned the road, a classical cloak of agrarian life: golden hues of straw harvests, deep greens of potato tops, the well watered and engineered paddies of rice just slightly turning on the tops into a grainy lime, ready to turn brown, ready to start the next stage of life, ready for the bowl. And rows and rows of onions.

Clusters of colourful sheds and large farmhouses sat roadside, offering a curious bike tourist a passing glimpse into rural life. Each farmer had three or four ubiquitous Nissen sheds (sheets of metal bent into a cylinder) with rooves arched over to the ground usually a striking blue or red. The great domes were filled with small white Suzuki trucks and every gadget imaginable to harvest every part of the food bowl.

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Japanese Nissen style farm sheds in Hokkaido

Any patch of dirt between the shed and farmhouse was a bright spray of marigolds, sunflowers and enviable vegetable gardens of every vegetable imaginable and unimaginable. This set up played on repeat for miles across the island, passing between five and ten farms like this every kilometre.

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Flowers blooming everywhere

Hurried and alive, the farmers worked that summer. And all 600km that I rode, I wondered what it was like inside the staple food bowl that surrounded me. While the rice still grew, onions were turning over and flattening themselves out ready for the next stage of drying and growing. Each field it seemed was in a different process, a different stage of onion life. I’d not really contemplated the life of the onion for long periods of time before this. Had anyone? But bike touring does that, it gives you time to contemplate, inhale smells, digest thoughts, and observe. Japan plans to launch a tear-free onion this Autumn called the ‘Smile Ball’ without the tear jerking properties, but I’m pretty sure I biked next to the old school crying kind.

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This farm was just in time getting the onions ready before the typhoons, others not so lucky

A Hokkaido farmer typically grows a variety of crops like corn, potatoes, sugar beets, carrots, rice and onions over the April-November season. And they do it well, the best in Japan for those products. Here each crop had a different machine for sowing seeds, fertilising, harvesting, and perhaps doing a few things in between. Unlike other countries where contractors may come in to harvest, in Hokkaido each farm has every machine required for all stages of each crop. And these are not big farms, the average is 20ha (49 acres). So, say six crops with three machines on average per crop, plus a couple of tractors, means at least 25 different implements in the sheds. In the harsh winter that follows, the tools and machines are tucked away, not all staying in good shape while the snow kicks in and the farmers head on holiday, or to the local gambling houses.

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The fields we wed and next to we slept

In some tempura onion striped magic that is Japan, a few days later we were staying on a farm in the north of Hokkaido on the coast. Camping in our tent alongside tamanegi field and helping a farmer weed and prep the fields for harvest, at last my onion oriented questions were answered.

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Weeding time

Once you’ve weeded (and wondered if wed should be the past tense of weeded) that many onion rows, your appreciation for those beautiful hand grown balls heightens. Weeding rows like that was incredibly satisfying, albeit hot, 30 degrees in the sun at the 7am start. Until the farmer’s brother came along with a tractor and started to spray the onions with what seemed to be a fungicide. I’d noticed some mould on parts while weeding and knew that fungicides would be used. What didn’t make sense was to spray the very field we were still weeding. It wasn’t cool. We finished our rows and left the field. The sun shone, the typhoons passed, and perfect biking condition arose so we decided to head off, the spray incident a good catalyst for change.

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Crates of onions good to go: $1000 USD a crate usually, this year a farmer will get up to $2000 due to the typhoons destroying a lot of crops. Once sorted the excess stems are burnt off.

I saw how much work goes into making a crop and then how much spraying went on, even with hand weeding. It gave me an appreciation of the value of well cared for and grown produce, but even more so for farmers that don’t use pesticides and fungicides.

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The onion sorting machine, a few people up top sorting and onions then go straight into the crate

A few days and three typhoons later we headed south on a train, trying to get to the southern coast in an attempt to have better biking weather. The typhoons had caused havoc across the land. Days before we’d biked through Katami, the Onion capital of the north, now passing back through on the train, we saw the flood waters and on land not buffered by the levies, farmers desperately reaping the storm ridden onions, gleaning those they could from the fields. Rows and rows of the brown balls laid washed over with mud from the flood. Sodden and not salvageable, it was heartbreaking to watch.

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Onion tops fall over when they are getting ready for harvest. These ones are lucky, not spoilt by the typhoons.

Hokkaido is normally not affected by Tsuyu (East Asian rainy season) and typhoons are rare, hence why we biked there. Unusual incidents like three typhoons in a week was a sobering taster of how vulnerable our global crops are to the impact of increased frequencies of extreme weather events and gave me a first hand taste of growing crops on a mass scale.

Japan reflections 1: The bust

It felt like a cross between a Haruki Murakami novel and a Wes Anderson movie. Kafka on the Shore met the Grand Budapest Hotel. We rode along surrounded by dense pine forests and high mountains with funiculars to their upper reaches, next to derelict hotels and eateries lying roadside, some closed for good, and others in a state of disrepair. Repair? Maintenance long gone.

After 550km into our bike trip in Hokkaido, Japan, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness of a by gone era and the realities of the bust that follows a boom. The route tracked equal parts sub arctic forest and agriculture, as we left Sapporo, up through the hills to Yubari, passed the fields of Furano, to Asahikawa, up into the Daisetsuzan National Park and then through into Akan National Park, the home of sulfur hot pool lined lakes, and Ainu culture. Now covered by onion farming. Stunning scenery no doubt but what lacked was the human element.

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One of many abandoned hotels, this one in Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido.

Solid rain after the typhoon meant we rode past fallen logs, trees completely uprooted, and in multiple places the road blocked and cleared. We timed it just right sleeping a night in a guest house in Asahikawa while the typhoon passed. Well, sort of. A few days later as the rain continued to fall (and we missed out on the vistas of Lake Kussharo and surrounds in Kawayu) we took shelter in a seventies hotel, called Kinkyu Hotel, at last able to marvel at the kitsch decor inside instead of just biking past trying to work out which ones were dead or alive. Not just a little bit dated inside, nothing had changed since the seventies. In a time warp, a dial up telephone sat next to a modern TV screen above tatami mats that had seen more than 40 years of non-slippered feet scuff across them. Remnants of a forgotten hey-day were everywhere, the street outside falling down in places, the view from our room across other dead hotels.

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The amusement park at one of our free camp sites, near Katami. The government pumped money into entertainment and public works in an attempt to stimulate growth in the rural areas of Hokkaido.

Sure, the hotel was a treat. Every other night we’d free camped with our bikes in our tent. And for bike tourists, free camp sites with flush toilets, a covered cooking area, tap water just up the road from an Onsen are a dream result, but here we were the only ones making the most of the facilities. It made for quiet bike touring, that’s for sure. The absence of people added to the eerie feel. Surely mid August was mid-summer and peak holiday time? Yet no one was around.

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Rainy quiet free camping – plenty of room!

We entered a town high up in the Daisetsuzan National Park, flanked by stunning waterfalls and tall peaks rising above. We made camp at the most picturesque camp site, nestled up a winding moss lined lime pathway in the bush as wild deer nibbled on grass. We slept beneath bright green maple trees, sucking up the sunlight and photosynthesising their little leaves off in this short summer season before the Siberian winter. Yes, Russia is just across the water. But where the heck were the people? Typhoon or no typhoon, there was simply no one around. We met one guy from Tokyo who finished his studies, and was spending summer traveling his homeland. In the Onsen I had four large hot pools and a sauna to myself for an hour. Then we saw the guy, catching his bus out of town; the only person on the bus. Two deer were on the hill behind him and a dozen hotels, more than half closed, rose like disused toys on a giant Lego play set, gathering rust and broken windows. And we biked on through the twenty year old recession of this island, feeling it first hand.

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Abandoned stores and eateries line the rural roads of Hokkaido.

Uncoated reflections on a nearly-plastic-free July

Plastic PictureFree July is nearly over and here’s my nearly “plastic free” update. My colleagues and I at the Sustainable Business Network decided to try and walk the talk this month, by participating in Plastic Free July.  On the work front that is quite easy. It’s really at home where the plastic heart is for me. Rules of the game in this house were simple – avoid all plastic purchases for the month but keep any wrappers from previous purchasing decisions.  It’s a little cheesy in a “hug a seal” kind of way, but my motivation for taking part is purely ocean focused.  I cringe at the thought of turtles trapped in plastic in the ocean and the knowledge that fish cannot swim backwards, so once inside our plastic pollution, they’re stuck.

How are we tracking?

So far we have bought a block of cheese (which is wrapped in plastic), had a few beer bottle lids (cheeky things, they have a plastic lining!) and my disposable contact lens cases.  The rest of the items that feature in our “Dilemma Box”* are hangovers from former, less thought-through purchases, or gifts from people that we inherited, including our house mate’s loot. In our household we decided to include all plastic, not just the recommended single use, in order to better understand our consumer impact.

*A dilemma box is a nice way of collating those little plasticy items and reflecting on them.

Top dilemma items

  1. Plastic wrapping for a pack of EarthCare toilet paper, that’s a tricky one!
  2. Plastic around cheese – we love cheese!
  3. A plastic sleeve that arrived around a card someone sent us.
  4. A restaurant served us miso soup in takeaway cups, even though we were dining in. Damn, we wish it was in bowls…  So the lids made it into the dilemma box
  5. Beer bottle lids have plastic inside. After discovering this we switched to wine (not to mix up Dry July with Plastic Free July and complicate life further).
  6. I’m allergic to hard contact lenses, so I use disposables and those nasty little things add to my plastic impact

Key learnings

There is always a trade-off:

A dilemma item for us was milk bottles. We avoid Tetra Pak because this isn’t recycled in New Zealand, so plastic bottles from milk are a common item in our fridge. This month we joined a friend on her milk run. She is part of a milk collective that orders weekly and gets farm gate raw organic milk from Drury, South Auckland, in their reuseable jars. Trade off: For us this meant driving a good 15 minutes from our house to collect milk once a week.  We usually don’t drive during the week so it seemed a little silly that we were suddenly driving for milk! Regardless, Plastic Free July gave us the chance to try raw, local, organic milk and avoid added permeate (watery by-product of milk processing. Some dairy companies add it into milk to dilute or substitute the protein levels throughout the year).

Sometimes plastic is useful: In healthcare products in particular, it keeps things nice and sealed.

We need to be more organised: Glass jars for storing bulk items, buying ingredients to make your own food, like muesli, bread and tortillas, requires a bit of planning ahead.

Non-plastic items are often more expensive: Glass is heavier and more expensive. Even items like soap can be more expensive when wrapped in paper. This is a generalisation but the best example is cheese – we tried to alter our cheese eating habits by purchasing cheese from our local farmers market. But that ends up being $5 per 100 grams for local, organic cheese that I was hoping to be wrapped in paper. It was sold to us in aluminium foil! Oh dear…

You find fun new alternatives to plasticy items, it just might take longer: We made our own tasty granola, discovered cardboard wrapped ice blocks for a treat, and we have also been making our own tortillas from masa flour to avoid buying packaged ones. Fresh is best, super tasty and healthy.

Some things you can easily do without: In our case, yoghurt was an easy thing to forgo this month and we haven’t really missed it.  We haven’t had corn chips either and that is probably better for us!

 

It’s a wrap!

In summary, plastic is everywhere and is damn hard to completely avoid.
It’s in all my electronic devices and items around me. Even if I can’t see it, the plastic poltergeist floats in behind my food and health items from the production, manufacturing, distribution through to the shop. Even if I’m not wearing or using plastic directly it would have been involved in some part of my item’s lifetime.

But among all this, as a consumer, you do have the power to cut out the final layer by making conscious decisions.

The boxes that the crates of my bulk binned food arrived in New Zealand in would have been wrapped in plastic, but at least I’m not having plastic at point of sale or risking the wrapper blowing away.  This makes me feel a little better, especially as it’s those items that end up in our rivers and oceans.
The biggest thing Plastic Free July has given us is a discussion point and a way to alter some of our behaviours and check in on our habits, because everyone can improve, no matter how plastic-free their lives are.

This blog first appeared on the Everyday Sustainability blogsite: http://everydaysustainability.info/plasticfree/

 

The lost Cooks

It’s my first time in the Pacific on an island. As a kiwi who has traveled the world, I feel slightly negligent for saving some of the best til now. Here are some of my reflections on the beauty of the land and the food and health of the people.

Life was simple on the island.

Palm trees lined the white sand beaches, scattered with hibiscus with flowers of yellow, red, orange, pink, and coconuts. There were two roads: the beach road and the inland road. The tourists and traffic stuck to the beach road, the locals to the inland road, the most interesting road. Simple patches of property were green fields with one, two or three goats, the occasional beef or horse to mix up the animal gene pool, with the staple items: chickens and a rooster. Roosters and dogs were by far the most prolific of the island, both territorial, both loud at certain but different times. The former with two legs, the latter with three mostly.Rarotongan home and land

Roosters screamed at dawn and dusk, some sounding like a party popper that should have been recalled or a child being strangled to death, others with strong vocal chords, dulcet tones for the hens not tourists.  Day was marked though, by the sounds of these animals. It was soon time to get up once they began in the morning, it was soon time to have dinner when they screeched the end to the day at dusk.

Dusk was the best part of the day, roosters aside. The golden light catching the trees and turning everything into dreamy orange and yellowy golden hues. Green looking more lime in its tones, brushed now with yellow. The shadows of tropical hedge rows seemingly darker, the leaves a richer green or striped red, here the leaves of plants were different colourful combinations of reds, yellows and greens. Sometimes purple. The brown fertile soil painting the land with rows of hoed soil up: taro and other crops growing up strong and healthy, loving that last breath of evening light. A light breeze, warm, moving the leaves, the dark banana fronds, the broken paper like leaves from windier times floating in the breeze. The palm fronds fluttering, each end a finger on a key quivering. The glossy leaves of the bigger trees shining now in light. Yes, dusk. Dusk was the best time of the day.

Everything was cool, but still light. It was like a positive reflection upon the day, a chance to look back on everything with a glowing appraisal, it was a good day, you see. Yes, a good day. And why? Because life was simple on the island.

Saturday market

Saturday market- get your bananas!

The tiny island with a 32km circumference can easily be biked in a few hours. Still some subsistence agriculture survives here, bananas, paw paw, fresh coconuts, even some umu (hangi like ovens in the ground) being cooked up along with some goat stew, apparently popular at Christmas. But for the most part, the local food here (outside of the $30 mains for food in resorts), is takeaways. I always like to see where locals eat and here it’s popular little chicken and chips shops, a grill shack, the occasional pizza place, with fish and chips and burger bars the most popular. The counter to these high saturated fats are diluted public health messages on the TV and signs around the country calling for a more active and healthier lifestyle. And for some it is working, there were lots of people out on the sea training in their waka, local gyms have dance classes zumba island style incorporating local dance moves. But like many places globally (New Zealand included) Coke is cheaper than water in the supermarket and tins of imported green beans from New Zealand 40% cheaper than the $6 a bunch of freshly picked local green beans.

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Coconuts and bananas, popular market produce

There are many little road side vege stalls and a popular and well stocked markets throughout the week and on the weekend selling taro, fruits, coconuts, bananas and homemade treats like taro leaves soaked in coconut milk. But the first time I went into a supermarket I was surprised (and strangely I think I was a little proud) to see it was all brands from New Zealand, rows of Griffins biscuits, Bluebird chips, the Coke range, Yoplait yogurt… Watties beans and tins of everything. My pride didn’t last long when I realised what we were exporting. Usually my favourite thing to do in a new place is spend hours in the aisles of supermarkets finding different types of foods, but here it was like the canned section of a store from home, all the time and frankly depressing. The difference being there ain’t no fresh fruit and vege aisles as you come in to calm you and make you think of nature and buy more. I figured this was for two reasons: they have the beach in sight all day so no false calms are really needed and there aren’t really any fruits and veges to sell.

Despite fruit and vege sales much of the food sold is takeaways

Despite fruit and vegetables for sale at markets like this, much of the food sold is high in fats and heavily processed

On the shelves I saw the infamous corned beef in a can and noticed people buying it. Michael Tuffery’s “Pisupo lua afe” Corned Beef 2000 sculpture of a bullock made of these cans came to mind in the store and I started to think that all these brands of canned food are just a modern extension of that concept, namely the dependence of the islands on imported foods. I started to see giant beetroots made of beetroot cans, corn, beans, tuna…

It must be so heartbreaking to have to leave this paradise to go and work on the sister-land of Aotearoa. While having its benefits for education and work, the withdrawal of white sand beaches and beautiful weather and flowers, replaced with crammed houses in rainy Auckland with little thanks, must surely take its toll. Those family and friends returning to the island in the earlier days must have craved foods, like KFC, or fish and chip shops. Over time on the island, shacks to quell the craving of takeaways have popped up to feed people in a cheap way.

I started to see how food connected our two lands. I thought of the irony, as traditionally ancient waka/vaka of Cook Island Maori connected the tupuna/ancestors of both lands and voyagers made the journey over weeks across the Pacific ocean to Aotearoa with kai/food like tubers such as kumara on board. Centuries later the food swap returned, except it’s not kumara, but deep fried chips, a reverse food staple that we see transplanted across the island. It’s cheap and it has the taste of south Auckland, perhaps a good compromise for those returning to the island on their plane voyage of recent times.

My first concern for a little island like this in the middle of the ocean far from any where, is about climate change and the loss of these beautiful lands. Although some of those 500m high stunning mountain ranges will be here for a while, everyone lives within 2km of the beach in the circle around the island. Smart that the tourists are sacrificed first, perhaps. Now though after seeing the size and unhealthy eating that goes on, I think the non communicable diseases and obesity is a greater threat to the people of the Pacific. The 350 Pacific message is the powerful motto “We are not drowning; we are fighting!” While their quest and message is inspirational, I can’t help but feel the food war is one that needs a bigger and healthier army to tackle the issue and enable them to be around to adapt to those threats.

A natural meeting

Last night in Auckland I finally had the chance to meet Vandana Shiva. It was short and sweet, I sat next to her and said quietly, and hopefully not too creepily, “Dr Shiva, I stayed on your farm at Navdanya, it was an amazing experience and it changed the direction of my life. Thank you for that.” She smiled and nodded, “Oh did you? Oh, thanks”. Smiling again, nodding again, probably adding me to the pile of eco-fans that huddle up to her saying such things. I noticed how beautiful her skin was up close (thankfully I didn’t say that aloud) and then I left as she was called up on the stage to receive a gift.

She’d spoken to the audience, as she does, at length on the Green Revolution, agricultural change, seeds in India, seed sovereignty, stories of triumph of the little farmers over the big companies. But her most astute observations that resonated with me came from her short time in New Zealand. She warned the audience of the “amalgamation” that’s happening in our country, the loss of local voices and notably power being centralised. She’d sharply observed our landscape as she drove up our island: large scale industrial agriculture, the felling of plantation forestry, and monocultures of corn making deserts of biodiversity, that line the road sides of the North Island. Not the standard week long reflections of a guest in our country, usually hiding in Fjordland and thinking the world is just fine. What if every tourist held an audience of 200 people and shared that observation, that observation that is overlooked but so true in our own back yard: hey kiwis! what on earth are you doing to the soil and biodiversity here?!  And she picked up on the TPPA: just waiting for one minister to come in and pass over to the big seed guys, the rights to our landscapes, whenua, crops, food, sovereignty.

Having spent some time in India I couldn’t help but feel they are so much more organised and on to it with these things. It’s that intrinsic link between what we eat and where it comes from (seed) that we seem to have missed in the past 50 years in Westernised culture. For centuries the Indian diet has reflected a diverse seed stock, local culinary dishes directly connecting people to the seed and keeping that diversity. I was struggling to see how the average kiwi farmer’s diet reflects their seed stock and struggling further to picture them marching to the Prime Minister if there were such changes afoot. Instead of a rural and grass roots, la via Campensina style campaign, our rural agribusiness scene is quite different, and perhaps that’s what troubles me the most. Most of the GM and seed watch dogs are middle aged well intentioned women from towns and lifestyle blocks – and thank goodness they are around – but how much of this do our farmers really know? Campaigns a decade ago held us back from some stark changes to food laws, but of course, these things can easily swing the other way.

The evening’s talks took us on a journey from science to cooking, with French scientist and a chef teaming up to explain the need for GE free food. We canvassed a genetic modification lesson, raw truths of rat blood cell tests, understanding that the core ingredients in pesticides are not the ones that are disclosed, that we’re altering the cells of our ancestors and our future generations simultaneously by bringing these nasties into our lives.  French chef, Jerome Douzelet, author of Culinary pleasures or hidden poisons? pointed out that “eating is an intimate act, because what you eat becomes your flesh.” He’s dedicated his culinary practice to local, seasonal and tasty produce, much of which comes from his garden in Mars de Rivet, himself a strong proponent of biodiversity from the perspective of the cooking world: if we have more crops, more taste, and more diverse aromatics and tastes. Some of his messages were similar to those of Dan Barber in the book The Third Plate.

As we drove home, a truck was delivering large yellow bins to the street near ours. A sign by Western Springs and a 10pm news reader on the radio told us we were entering a Biosecurity control area. Interestingly, noone has come and told us that we’re living in a bio-hazardous zone, no notes in the letter box, no door knocking… It was only because we left the area that we realised. And as I sit in my little garden with the plums ripening on the tree, I’m hoping they don’t come and biobliltz the yard with nasty sprays, before I can harvest my plum crop. The message that major pesticides are more toxic to human cells than their declared active principles is fresh in my mind following the talk…

Dr Shiva had noted the absurdity of the New Zealand response to two fruit flies, she seemed to find it entertaining that we’d go to such extent. Given it could destroy livelihoods and entire horticulture industries, I don’t think it is quite so funny. In fact I’m quite proud of how serious kiwis take their biosecurity. On reflection, no doubt Dr Shiva was chuckling at the irony, wondering why we go to so much trouble over two flies when we allow pesticides into our waterways and food chain through intensive horticulture and agricultural practices and noone bats an eyelid.