Saturday, August 25, 2018

Serengeti Sunrise

Serengeti Sunrise
You’ve heard the expression “the trip of a lifetime?” It’s used by countless travel magazines, tour companies, and the like to describe a trip so amazing that nothing else could ever top it, or so extravagant you’d need to save up your entire life to be able to afford it. 

I’m not given to hyperbole, but I must tell you about our recent trip to Tanzania that was, in fact, “the trip of a lifetime.”

We’ve done a bit of traveling, especially in the last few years, and all of our trips have been fabulous (Alaska, Sicily, Croatia, the Panama Canal, to name a few) but nothing compares to this Africa trip. What makes a trip so special that it qualifies for entry into that “trip of a lifetime” category? When each day is better than the last; when your interactions with the local population are more than just a quick itinerary “check the box;” when being within 10 feet of a family of elephants and seeing their beauty up close brings you to tears, that makes it a trip of a lifetime.

We spent two weeks in June visiting Tanzania as part of the Overseas Adventure Travel “Safari Serengeti: Tanzania Lodge and Tented Safari” trip, and there is no way I could possibly tell you about ALL of the wonderful experiences in a single blog post but here are the some of the highlights.

After an overnight flight to Amsterdam, and then another eight hour flight to Tanzania, we landed in Arusha, the bustling capital city of 1.5 million people. We landed about 8pm and were met at the airport by our outstanding trip leader, Domi. After going through immigration, and getting our luggage, we had about an hour’s ride to the hotel. Needless to say, we were dead tired!
SWCEA water filter

Our first stop the next day was Safe Water Ceramics of East Africa (SWCEA) to learn about their efforts to provide people with access to clean water. Forty-six percent of Africans suffer from drinking unsafe water. SWCEA produces ceramic water filters to distribute throughout Tanzania (you can read more about the production of the filters here). Through donations (each filter costs only $40) from visitors such as our group, these filters can supply a family of six with clean drinking water for five years. Our little group of 14 travelers purchased five filters that we would distribute during our journey through Tanzania. The next day, enroute to Tarangire National Park, our guide spotted a group of Maasai women and children with their herd of cattle, donkeys, and goats, gathering water from a pond. Our trip leader and drivers slowly and patiently educated Wife #1 and the other Maasai women of a nearby village about how these filters could help them. After a bit of time, they were very happy to accept the filter. One of the many moments of this encounter that was inspiring was the request from Wife #1 for a filter for Wife #2, who was not present. She wasn’t thinking only about herself, but the entire tribe.
Maasai women learning about water filters

We did this a few more times during the trip until all of our filters had been distributed and it was incredibly moving to think that our little donation of $40 could literally change and improve lives. I encourage you to visit the SWCEA site and perhaps make a donation if you are able. In 2018, it is shocking that so many people are without access to clean drinking water.

We spent four days in a tented camp in Serengeti National Park. I was a little apprehensive about the whole “camping” thing (I am not a camping sort of girl), but although rustic, these are definitely not your typical tents. With almost all of the comforts of home (flush toilet, gravity-bucket shower) and wonderful food and service from the camp staff, this is camping I could get used to! The one thing I don’t think I could get used to are the sounds of various wild animals padding around outside our tents during the night. The staff assured us that the animals weren’t interested in us, but it’s hard to fall asleep when you hear wildebeest and hyenas right outside your door!

Every day in the Serengeti, we were up and out early to see the incredible wildlife that was all around us. One day, we left camp in the dark, (very) early hours to catch the sunrise over a gorgeous lake populated with pink flamingos. It was breathtaking. Then our guides drove the group to a mountaintop where they laid out a lovely picnic breakfast. Not exactly roughing it…

We were lucky to catch part of the Great Migration with sightings of thousands of zebras and wildebeest making the annual journey.  In total, there can be two million animals crossing the plains between Tanzania and Kenya. Of course, no one can predict exactly when the animals will traverse this route, but generally your best chances are between June and August.

Most people plan a trip like this to see the animals and we certainly were not disappointed in the efforts of our guides to fulfill this wish. During our two weeks, we saw every “big five” animal (elephant, black rhino, cape buffalo, lion, leopard) that Africa is known for. Along the way, we came across immensely beautiful birds, hippos lazing about watering holes, hyenas stalking flamingos, pelicans, jackals, two (TWO!) pairs of mating lions, baboons, a dik dik (a small dog-size type of deer), vultures, and of course, the ever graceful giraffes.

But this trip was not just about the animals. Midway through the trip, we had the opportunity to visit Oldupai Gorge, where the famed anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, discovered fossil fragments which led them to a new understanding of human evolution. It was incredible to visit the museum and learn about the theory that Oldupai Gorge was home to Homo habilis, a race of early humans that would become the ancestors to all present-day humankind.

One of our last stops was the Ngorongoro Crater, where after driving through the fog-laden roads, we descended to the floor of the crater. This “caldera,” which was formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of a volcano, is more than 12 miles across, with walls that rise 2,000 feet. The crater’s rim is 7,500 feet above sea level, and according to our guide, the permanent supply of water and a precise balance of predator and prey, enables most of the wildlife to remain in the crater year-round. This is where we spotted our only glimpse of a black mama rhino and her baby.

I reflected on a few things when we returned home: a) I am lucky to live in a country where we take everyday things like clean water for granted; b) the sheer beauty and vast expanses of the Serengeti are something I will never forget; and c) the “it takes a village” attitude of every local person we met. Our guide explained that they are all one family and they help each other. 

So the travel pundits were right: definitely the trip of a lifetime.

Sunset in the Serengeti

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

New Jersey State BBQ Competition - A Judge's Perspective

Kids' Que "Jersey Burger" 
You may not think BBQ is a big thing here in the Garden State, but let me assure you it is and getting bigger all the time.

New Jersey has been crowning BBQ champs at this state event since 1999, and recently I had the pleasure of participating as a judge at this year’s competition, which took place July 14-15 in North Wildwood. The NJ State Barbecue Championship benefits the Anglesea Volunteer Fire Company, which has served the community since 1897.

Besides BBQ, the three-day event, spread out across several streets near the beach, also features cooking demos, vendors offering all sorts of goodies, and fabulous live music all weekend as part of the Anglesea Blues Festival.

The NJ State BBQ Competition is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), and BBQ teams compete not only for the glory but for $10,000 in cash and prizes. In addition, the NJ grand champion is automatically entered to compete in the World Food Championships, which takes place in November in Alabama, where the total prize purse is $300,000! So this is kind of a big deal.

Now you may be wondering “how hard could it be to judge BBQ?” And I’m here to tell you “it’s a tough job, but…” you know how the rest of that saying goes. To give you a peek into what it’s like to be a BBQ judge, follow along. 

For premiere events such as this one, certified KCBS judges apply six months in advance for a coveted spot. This year, all the slots were filled the first day registration opened! Most BBQ competitions are two day events. We start the day with a mandatory judge’s meeting where the rules are reviewed. Judges are then seated six to a table (this competition had approximately 60 total judges, but only 54 for the first day), and after some casual introductions and catching up with judges we’ve met at previous events, we get ready to eat! 

The first day’s entries at the NJ event included an “Iron Chef” competition where the teams had to cook (using only their grills and/or smokers) a dish using a mystery ingredient that would only be revealed the night before at the cook team meeting. This year, the secret ingredient was ground bison. My table had eight samples, which included everything from bison empanadas, bison meat loaf, bison meatball sandwiches, to bison wontons. 

Next, we judged BBQ sauces, and finally desserts. Desserts are where the BBQ teams can really get creative. Every judges table gets different entries, but a couple of the things our table enjoyed were key lime mousse, and a peanut butter cheesecake. The most unusual and creative dessert we received arrived in a mini-grill. Inside the grill, the team had made devil’s food chocolate cakes resembling charcoal briquettes and included eight slices of thick-slab candied bacon along with it. It was outstanding! Remember, the teams had to create these desserts using only a grill or smoker!

After we waddled away from the table, our next assignment was to judge the “Kids Que,” where kids from age 7-14 grilled burgers, pork, tacos, or dessert. One of the entries we sampled was a Jersey Burger - complete with Taylor ham and fried egg, sandwiched between a glazed donut. These kids were amazingly poised and accomplished and I’m sure we’ll see them competing in the adult competition someday.

And all that was just day one! Suffice it to say, I didn’t eat dinner that night.
Grand Champion
Day two brought the official KCBS entries (chicken, pork, ribs, brisket). Luckily, there were more judges this day so we only had six entries for each category (from 64 cook teams). KCBS judges evaluate the submissions for appearance, taste, and tenderness, on a range from 2 (inedible) to 9 (excellent). Judges take a few bites from each entry to gauge where the ribs, brisket, etc., fall on the KCBS criteria. In-between, we cleanse our palate with plain crackers and water. Rolls of paper towels and unscented wet wipes are strewn around the table. During the judging, the tent grows quiet as judges concentrate on which entries make the cut. Judges don’t evaluate one entry against another - each entry is judged on it’s own. After the judges’ score sheets are turned in, official KCBS reps tally up the numbers via a computer program and the winners are announced.
Reserve Champion
The grand champion of this year’s event was  New Jersey’s own “Uncle Pig’s BBQ Pit” from Gibbstown; the reserve champion was “Piggin’ Whiskey,” from Flourtown, PA.

Cook teams come from all over the country to compete and New Jersey was well represented:

Packanack BBQ Club (Packanack Lake)
Hot Rod’s BBQ (Wharton)
Minuteman Smokehouse (Morristown)
Ribbed Off BBQ (Pittsgrove)
Sir-Porks-Alot-BBQ (Paulsboro)
Boy-BQ (Hillsborough)
Local Smoke BBQ Team (Cookstown, Neptune City, Red Bank)
Uncle Pig’s BBQ Pit (Gibbstown)

The BBQ community is fun, warm, and welcoming. If you’re interested in becoming a KCBS certified judge, visit the KCBS page for more information. Or if you simply want to enjoy the sights, sounds, and flavors of New Jersey’s premiere BBQ and music event, put it on your calendar for next July.

It was a beautiful weekend in the Wildwoods - the sun was shining, ocean breezes cooled the crowd, blues music blared from the stage, and the scent of BBQ wafted through the streets. Sounds like a perfect Jersey shore summer weekend to me.