Sunday, May 23, 2010

Where in the world are my pants!?!

Now that I have your attention I must confess that I did not misplace my pants in a hazy moment of debauchery in Bangkok, or anything like that. So sorry to disappoint. I left Thailand not long ago for a brief stop in Hong Kong where I ate plenty of roast goose, and even bet on some horse racing in the rain. Now I`m in Tokyo where I have for the last four days been stuffing my face with strange and fantastic foods. And looking for my pants, of course.

Two months in the grittiness of South East Asia will do a number on the clothing you bring along. Not to mention that I did a horrible job packing. First I had too much and sent some home. Then I had to buy stuff I didn`t have. Now I`m trying to make do with clothing that isn`t quite right for where I`m at. So, everywhere I go I`m constantly searching for a great pair of pants. They have to be durable, versatile, stylish and cheap. Not only is my current attire grubby, but the people of Tokyo are so gosh darned cool that I`m beginning to feel a little self conscious about my wardrobe. Rush to visit here if you haven`t already. It`s enchanting.

There`s always talk of Japan being a strange and quirky place for Americans. Let me clarify, at least from my perspective. Culturally, I find Japan to be more like American than the other parts of Asia I`ve visited. Day to day life in a city like Tokyo is the same as New York or any other similar metropolis. I think the curiosity comes into play because there are fewer people who will converse in English and similarly much less English signage than, say in Thailand. That makes travel here mysterious, exciting and sometimes strange. Baring pictures or plastic models of the food I`m ordering, I just point to the menu and anticipate what wonderful thing will be put in front of me. Earlier today I stood on line for fifteen minutes, not knowing what was at the end. I only knew it was going to be great because people were lining up for it. I`ve been eating mainly what would be considered fast food in Tokyo. Cheap and quick, but unlike the burgers and fried offerings we associate with the genre in America, convenience eating choices in Japan are vast and often light. In a country that is thought of as expensive, I`ve managed not to spend too much of my Yen on food. The only real issue is searching for that perfect meal, because restaurants are literally everywhere in Tokyo.

Searching has become a theme for me lately. Searching for food, searching for an organic farm or two in Japan to spend some time working with, and searching for my pants of course. I`m also searching for some direction to take when I decide that my time traveling needs to end. The food is easy. I`m not sure I`ll ever find my pants! Searching for direction in such a fantastic and unfamiliar place will prove to be interesting, though. I`m looking forward to the next two months and what insights I may find.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Finally Oriented (pun still inteded)

I've been wandering South East Asia for two months now and find myself full circle, back in Bangkok where I started. You may recall from the blog post I wrote upon arriving here that this utterly chaotic behemoth of a city irked me a bit, as did the idea of wandering with no real schedule or purpose. I'm not going to claim having any epiphanies or finding any new religion (orgnized or othewise), but I can say with confidence that I've settled in nicely. Bangkok doesn't seem half as intimidating as the last time I was here, even with violent political discourse taking place on the other side of town. It's a noticeable shift in my demeanor and without drifting into cliched reflections of what I hoped to accomplish by traveling the world, let me just say simply that I find it a positive shift. South East Asia is a unique place, and there is no excuse for not allowing it to make a profound cultural impression on you. While excentric quirks and heartwarming moments are too numerous to list or even remember entirely, I thought I would reflect on a few things that stood out to me while spendign the last two months here.

The driving situation, especially in cities is unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. Forget lacadazical sunday drivers in Portland or the oblivious speedsters in Boston. In Asia rules are no more than a suggestion, and apparently one that most people never recieved. I consider myself adept at crossing city streets, but this was something alltogether different. Usually, one can rely on a break in traffic, however brief, to dart accross. No suck luck. Traffic lights and crossing signals are rare, and drivers paying attention to them when present even more so. Eventually, it all comes down to a leap of faith. You just need to walk and hope that the motorbikes will dodge YOU. Speaking of which, motorbikes is a phenomenon I'm still trying to grasp. Sure there are a lot, but that spectacle gets old quickly. I'm still amazed at how many people and objects can balance on one. I saw the standard two person ride all the time. Three was not a stretch either. Four and five people at a time got me to turn my head. Not just adults of legal(?) driving age though. I saw babies (yes, more than one) balanced on laps and handle bars. I also saw dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, a monkey once, and various food sales operations. Often, it was a combination of two or more of these things. My conclusion is that people in South East Asia are not only fearless, but also have impeccable balance. Oh yeah...and everyone is always honking. It's not so much an agitated response to someone else's driving, but a warning that the honking party is coming, and probably can't see anything because he or she has two passengers, market purchases between the legs, a knapsack under the chin and a baby sitting on the shoulders.

In such an overtly commercial society, you might expect a competitive nature among the various people all selling the same thing up and down each street. Not the case. There is essentially one standard sales pitch with a few minor variations. The basic idea is that all foriegn visitors have a burning desire to be purchasing something at every moment, but that they need to be reminded of this over and over again and steered towards the product. The assumption must be that these ravenous bric-a-brac consuming tourists need to be jarred out of their shopping induced stupor and called back home to feed on products that are identical everywhere you look. The same theory applies to taxi, motorbike and tuk tuk drivers. In Thailand, these folks are cool and calm. They've started to recognize the benefits of laying back and letting people browse a bit. In Vietnam, there's no time for niceties. I'm still haunted by the shrill voices of a thousand Vietnamese women yelling, "YOU! SIR! YOU COME HERE! BUY FROM ME! NOW!" I cringe and say no thank you. And then, "SIR, SIR, SIR, YOU......" as I walk away. It continues like this until you are safely back in your hotel room. The Cambodian twist to this sales pitch wins out, though. Everywhere I went in Cambodia, women hawking food and clothing at bus stops or tourist attractions would sidle up and make me feel like the most important person in the world. It always starts with, "Hello, I remeber you," which is utterly outrageous since I've never been to Cambodia, yet I found myslef believing it for a split second a few times. They always ask where you are from, which is a pretty standard question to get in Asia, but these little temptresses would often throw in a little, "United States! Capital Washington D.C.!" Yes very nice, and obvious. Do you know the capital of Connecticut, though. I thought not. One gal hanging on me at Angkor Wat knew the capital of Oregon. I think I bought an iced tea from her. It was way overpriced. I even heard more than once, "You buy from me, or I cry." All the attention had me thinking about sticking around a bit longer. The extreme heat and dustiness was enough to get me back on track, though.

Most people have really cheesey pop music as their ringtone, even grown men. Since the ringers are always on loud, apparently there is no shame in liking Usher, and letting everyone know it.

I love soup, and must admit that it was huge motivation for traveling in Asia. I can't figure out for the life of me how people here eat soup in such oppressive heat. One would think there would be a little more salad, or anything chilled for that matter. Nope! I had to give up on soup after a while, as I found myself feeling like one of the noodles I was trying to eat, cooking in my own persperation.

Fruit is fast food here. No jokes about this one. It's awesome and I'll miss it dreadfully. Tropical fruits are some of the best in the world, and you can't swing a tailless cat in Sout East Asia without hitting a fruit stand!

Black coffee is sweet. What's up with that. I'm a daily coffee drinker, and while I can go without if need be, it's a small creature comfort that soothes the longings for home every now and again. It misses the mark when the coffee, while still black, is sweet. It was me throwing the sideways glance when they passed me the sugar bowl. You mean this is not sweet enough for some people?

Asia has the best sunsets. Maybe it's because I'm closer to the equator or maybe it's just the air pollution. All I know is that I've got enough sunset photos for a coffee table flip through while drinking really really sweet coffee.

There's always something shadowy going on. Don't take this to mean I am being judgemental. People in South East Asia are exceptionally genuine and kind. There always seemed to be something going on that I couldn't quite figure out, like busdrivers picking up passengers and cargo along the route and collecting cash. I guess it adds to the mystery.

Finally...and my favorite...A restaurant can be anywhere. Any cook's dream is to have your own platform to create. You spend years slaving away so others can take the credit, and no matter how prestigious the job or knowledgeable the chef you work for is, most cooks I know would trade it all in for an opportunity to be judged on their own product. In America, you need the planets to align properly before the finances, permits and luck all fall into place. This can take a lifetime or never happen at all. In South East Asia, it doesn't take much more effort than wheeling your cart onto the street and setting up some small plastic tables and chairs. A small budget with healthy ambition can take you far. I've spent more than ten years working in various restaurants in various cities, following one job and opportunity to the next. Traveling is no different, with each location and experience segueing into another. What resonates for me the most being here now is that opportunity is everywhere. One need only to be aware when it presents itself. That is why I'm seeing the world and definitely why I cook for a living.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Economy Rice

Dripping with sweat is a theme explored from many different points of view in Malaysia. There's taking a short walk outside around noon time sweating which engulfs the forehead and neck mainly. If you have a backpack on your shirt is ruined for the day. There's also sitting by the pool sweating, where the intensity of the sun beating down on a perfectly still body will leave a fine layer of perspiration on your arms and legs. Jumping in the pool only helps momentarily before the cycle begins a new. One of the worst is sweating while you eat. Hot, spicy food renders the entire body damp instantly. At this very moment, even after a torrential downpour of epic proportions one would expect to cool things down a bit, I'm dripping with sweat while punching out this blog post.

It was something all together different when I found myself in the Kuala Lumpur airport a few days ago clutching my left cargo pocket repeatedly feeling for something not there. There was a split second where the world around me went quiet and the coolness I had been experiencing up to that moment abruptly turned to nervous tension and swollen rivulets of perspiration running down my face in every direction. In the place were I always keep a pouch containing traveler's cheques, cash, credit cards and my passport, was nothing. Sounds awful, I know. But let's back track for a moment and talk about what all happened before I found myself in this precarious situation and why spending a few extra days in Malaysia turned out not to be an out and out loss.

I hopped over to Malaysia from Vietnam and headed straight for the beach resort town of Batu Ferrenghi on the island of Penang. Penang is the birthplace of Hawker Stalls - a staple of street-eating on the Malaysian peninsula - and is generally recognized as having the best food around. On top of that the eats are cheap in a way you might not be able to imagine, and I had secured a complimentary place to stay. I was invited by my friends Jack & Meghan Yoss to join them in their rented condo, and for the first time since I began traveling I did not much of anything for an entire week. Only after sleeping late and lounging by the pool for a while would we make an effort to get up and search out dinner. Let me try and sum up what eating in Malaysia is like for the adventurous: If there is one place on earth that can truly please everyone, then it must be Malaysia. A veritable crossroads of gustatory culture, Malaysia had my head spinning seven ways from Sunday. Normally indecisive when it comes to dinner choices, I effectively gave up and just tried everything I could fit into a sitting. I'm still trying to process it all, but here's an idea of what sorts of food were laid out before me. Malaysia boasts many different influences to it's cuisine, so naturally each will be represented individually here and there. Indian and Chinese foods are dominant, but the trade route history of the area weaves in many other ethnic variations such as Thai and Portuguese. Where they all meet is at the economy rice tables. At first I skipped over these buffets while I was basking in the glory of fresh fish grilled in banana leaves, kway teow noodles, and of course, fried chicken - a highlight of Penang - only on Saturdays. When choosing became too difficult though, I made a plate of rice with a few selections of uniquely Malay preparations a part of my daily routine. This continued in Kuala Lumpur where the missing passport incident extended my stay. There are always an endless array of curries to choose from with beef, chicken and lamb varieties. Lamb stomach curry was a high point for me. Always a number vegetable dishes to balance out the plate as well. Whole hard boiled eggs also feature prominently in a way I had not seen before. Whether it was chicken, quail or both - the eggs were served in a masala sauce and cooked perfectly throughout. It was like egg salas, without chopping up the eggs. Another feature of the economy stalls, especially in Kuala Lumpur, is roti. The dough is stretched incredibly thin in a reverse pizza toss of sorts. It's more like they are slapping it against the table. Then it's brushed with ghee, folded over on itself a few times and cooked on a blazing hot griddle. Served with a little bowl of sauce from one of the many curries, a roti became my morning meal in KL, along with a cup of sweet coffee. A heaping plate of local food at a local price, while immersed in local chatter epitomizes what travel is all about for me.

So that is how it's been each and every day for me here, trying to decide what to try next and seeing how many different salads and curries I can fit on top of a pile of rice. I was initially disappointed that I would have to stay a whole weekend before having a chance to get into the embassy and replace my passport, but in the end it provided me an opportunity to relax in a magnificent and impressive city. I settled into a little routine and it felt nice to have a moment of life not devoted to sight seeing or moving on to the next location. The State Department came through for me and hooked up a new passport. I secured a new plane ticket and tomorrow I'll press on. It's interesting to note however, that the last thee days in Malaysia that were imposed on my by a pickpocket while riding the mono-rail, were in some ways the best I spent here. I even found myself thinking that Kuala Lumpur would be a really nice city to live and work in. It's modern and exciting with captivating architecture and efficient mass transit. Culture is everywhere and the food, of course, is great. If only it weren't so unbearably hot all of the time. I can only drip with sweat for so long before I begin to miss the cooler seasons.