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.

1 comment:

  1. LOVE IT! Your descriptions are awesome David! I love the motorcycle bit and when you talked about the fruit I wanted to cry at just the thought of when I go home not being able to pick up a mango or dragonfruit at any random street stall right outside my front door. I also loved the conversations starters they use to reel you in. I haven't got the US capital one so much, but in indonesia, man, every time. "OH America! OBAMA! You like Obama? He lived in Indonesia!" I had that same exact conversation about a thousand times!
    So I take it you are headed home based on the summarizing tone in your writing? Sounds like you had an awesome trip! Sorry we couldn't meet up, I could have used a fellow food lover a few times. Its hard to try everything when you're by yourself! If your still in Bangkok you should check out La Table de Tee restaurant before you go. I found it online and want to check it out before I go. Its very expensive by Thai standards but still really cheap by US. They do prix fixe menus for I think like 700 baht for 5 courses or something. The food looks really good though and where you gonna get 5 courses at a nice restaurant for 25 bucks at home? Anyway have fun and I'll see you back in Portland this summer!