Most of my travels are for business purposes, hence I’ve always considered myself as an ‘incidental tourist’, i.e. I get to do incidental sightseeing en route to a meeting or on the way back to my hotel.
Sometimes I get lucky and I get a few hours free in between my last meeting and my return flight. I use up these precious hours to wander around the city or, at least, the immediate neighbourhood where I’m in.
Once in a while I hit the jackpot and get to spend an extra day when it so happens that my airline of choice only flies certain days in a week. [Note: ‘Airline of choice’ translates to: ‘the airline that offers the cheapest fare for the schedule that I need’.]
Sometimes, my itinerary gets so hectic that I don’t get to do any incidental sightseeing at all. But I always, always, always try to sneak in a few minutes to visit the local market or, at the very least, the local corner shop or supermarket. These places always have a lot of fascinating things to see. Many of the items sold are reflective of the local culture and the prices of goods give a good indication of what items are produced in that country.
In Indonesia, for instance, I was shocked to find a box of tea bags (30 bags per box) retailing at a mere USD0.30 (Rp 3,460). In Geneva, I was delighted to find a bottle of dried oregano that only cost €1, which is only about a fifth of what I pay for in Malaysia. In New Zealand, sheep’s skin rugs are a great bargain (but a pain to maintain, I found out many, many months later). In Thailand, I found that footwear and plasticware are incredibly cheap but of good quality and design.
In a night market in Phuket in 2007, DH and I stumbled upon this unexpected treat whose name escapes me already:-
This is belimbing asam (or kamias, as we say in the Philippines), toasted coconut and peanuts, pickled ginger, fresh onions, and tamarind paste all rolled up in a piece of daun kaduk (wild pepper leaf) and eaten as is. I’m not exactly a fan of raw leafy stuff but this combination just totally blew me away. You should try this if you happen to find this in Thailand. (P.S. Sorry about the awful photo quality. This was back in the days when I used a point-and-shoot with the flash on! *Wince*)
In Geneva in 2008, Lola and I chanced upon a fresh produce market very early one morning in a square within walking distance from our hotel, where we saw the biggest artichokes (the green things in the far right) that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
Okay, okay, they were the only artichokes I’ve ever seen in my entire life heh ;) And those large things that Lola is holding? They’re leeks. (I mistook them for large spring onions a.k.a. scallions.)
Last year, I was amused to find this supermarket in Amsterdam which was actually selling a Dutch line of kroepoek (keropok, i.e. fish crackers) and instant mixes for bahmi goreng (bakmi goreng, i.e. fried noodles) and nasi goreng (fried rice):-
In a supermarket in Capetown also last year, I found something that delighted my children — speckled eggs!
They’re an ingenious confectionery made up of a jelly centre, a chocolate middle, and a candy shell. Scrumptious! (I miss them so! *sniff*)
In a small supermarket in the outskirts of Jakarta, I caught sight of Indonesian-style mortars and pestles.
Note that the mortars are flat, almost plate-like, very different from the bowl-shaped mortars that I’m more familiar with in Malaysia and the Philippines. [NB: These implements are used for grinding herbs and spices instead of whizzing them in a blender or food processor. The taste’s just not the same, folks in Asia would swear.]
And to my delight, I discovered that I need not go all the way to the Netherlands to indulge in some hagelslag — they’re available in Indonesian supermarkets afterall!
I’ve seen bread sold by weight in Switzerland, antiperspirant/deodorant sold in single-use sachets in the Philippines, eggs sold by weight in Indonesia. I’ve chanced upon homemade pickled onions in a small roadside shop along the Great Ocean Road in Melbourne, fresh almonds heaped on bins in a supermarket in Oman, chestnuts peddled after sundown from human-pulled carts in the streets of Shanghai. Given very limited time in a foreign country, I’d gladly pick the local market over a huge, ultramodern shopping mall anytime!