At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
After Nacho’s inspirational climb of the Alpe d’Huez we descended the switchbacks and were deposited in the quaint village of Bourg d’Oisans. We would spend the next few days making our way northwest to Paris, but before doing so we needed to grab a few odds and ends at the grocery store. We popped into town and found the nearest market, parked, and proceeded to drop essentials into the shopping cart. A medley of vegetables, a package of sausage and one of cheese, a fresh baguette—come on, we’re in France—a twelve pack of Leffe, and then we arrived at the discount bin containing marked down items nearing their expiration dates.
“Sweet baby Jesus, what’s that!” I could barely contain my excitement. “Why Sheena, I do say, it’s a package of nearly-expired, ground up dead horses!”
“Yes please!,” she squealed, and I happily placed it in the cart next to the beer. (more…)
Over the course of a few days we crossed the subcontinent from the Indian Ocean west to the Arabian Sea. We left Pondicherry, first stopping in Madurai to celebrate the birthday of the elephant god Ganesh, and then to the hill station of Munnar to escape South India’s heat. The ground rose from the desert plains like a strange goose bump until we were in the middle of a Van Gogh painting with fluffy clouds and Assam tea fields manicured in rows of stripes and swirls. The air smelled of freshly cut tea leaves and at 5,000 feet it was actually cold. I strutted around smitten with happiness in my sweater while Brad removed Nacho’s starter and reshaped its mounting surface with a file to fix some starting issues we’d been having. (more…)
We gathered around the table covered by a cloth imprinted with cappuccino cups and fluffy croissants. I would have imagined that we were somewhere in Italy, yet the dishes in the center of the table were all of Thai origin, cooked with basil, ginger, galanga, chili paste, lemongrass, and plenty of fish sauce. I had survived my introductory course in Thai home cooking under the watchful and experienced eyes of Karn’s mother, Nid.
Had I pulled all of the legs off the prawns? Did I rip the kaffir lime leaves correctly? Did I crush the chilies well enough with the pestle? These questions nagged at me as we prepped together in her kitchen.
We had met Karn just a few days prior, another member of the Volkswagen community in Asia. He was now the fourth degree of separation between TengTsen—also known as “Ten Cents “—our first VW contact in Asia. We had been instructed by Karn to wait alongside the moat that wrapped around the old city; from there we’d follow him back to his house and park Nacho for the next few days.
The moat, supported by a massive brick wall, was just a version of its prior self. Over the centuries the ground had let go underneath it and its once clean lines of stacked brick had morphed into a spine of drooping and wavelike rows. While it was no longer used as a defense line it still served a purpose, albeit less grandiose, adding a unique beauty to the city and providing meeting points for travelers and locals alike.
That evening we made our way to the neighborhood market to pick up items for an impromptu picnic. We followed Karn’s blue and white VW kombi as it bounced down a dirt road ahead of us, eventually pulling off and parking on the banks of a quaint pond within the University’s vast acreage. We lined up a bamboo mat and a faux grass mat between our two vans—the perfect spot for an evening of food discovery: homemade sausage and sticky rice, fish coconut soufflé in banana leaf bowls, roe filled crab heads, fried pork skin, eggplant curry, purple mangosteen and red rambutans.
“I’m always watching television,” Karn said between bites of curry. As it turns out, Karn is a television show translator, bringing American TV to the Thai audience. “Not too long ago I finished translating The Bachelor but now I’m doing the Martha Stewart Show.” Despite being the man behind the curtain of some of the top American TV shows in Thailand, he spoke with nonchalance. “I know everything about Martha. Did you know that every dish on her show is her favorite?” In a Martha voice he cried out “Oh my! This apple pie is just my faaavorite! This blueberry tart is just my faaavorite! This chocolate chip recipe is my all time faaavorite!”
One evening we found ourselves at a bar in Chiang Mai’s hip downtown district. Inside, the bartender concocted our drinks inside of a rusty blue and white Volkswagen bus that had been converted into a bar. Besides the bar’s special blue cocktail, we snacked on standard Thai bar food. You know, the usual sampling of raw peanuts, kebabs, fried crickets, and bamboo worms.
These bugs seemed tame compared to my last encounter. As we waited at a roadside restaurant for our lunch of lahp koo-a just a week prior, we were served a very special “appetizer ” by a very excited local. It was a bowl of hideously huge insects accompanied by a bowl of red dipping sauce. They reminded me of some mutated version of a roach and cicada, having eyes the size of beads, legs like strands of thick wire, and their lower bodies hollow and crisp. The locals encouraged us to try. We must try! Try! Try!
For some unknown reason, on this day I was feeling more adventurous than I had in months. And truth be told, I just didn’t know how to refuse this man’s kind offerings. He would be so disappointed, so sad, so confused. The locals popped them in their mouths like Skittles, shrugging their shoulders, asking us, why don’t you try? Try! Try! So I picked one up and held it at eye level. I examined its shiny back and glazed eyes, its tentacles, its mandible and I wondered where it was found. Was it scurrying about in the grass? Was it found under an upturned log? Was it local or was it in the midst of a seasonal migration to another land? It was all so bizarre. As I closed my eyes, I envisioned Kit Kat bars and peanut brittle and then I ate it. Brad told me he’d never kiss me again.
So back at the Volkswagen bar, locals chomped bugs like Skittles, shrugging their shoulders and asking us why don’t you try? Try! Try! And so it went, I held the bugs up at eye level and questioned how they came to be nestled atop this fine layer of faux grass on my foam tray. I thought of more candy and then ate them too. I did it this time, though, for the sheer comedy in knowing that Brad would be forced to do the deed as well. The crickets were palatable, like little citrus infused burnt bits left in the bottom of a pan. The worms however, they were gag inducing: like collapsing sponges that leaked their foul juices with each chew. Was it worth it just to watch Brad’s face? Yes, yes it was.
Besides the bugs, we also tried some other local dishes in Chiang Mai such as Kow Soy; a dish made of egg noodles in a spicy coconut broth, topped with crispy noodles, and served with a dish of lime, pickled cabbage, and red onion. I’m not like Martha Stewart and I don’t claim to love every dish, but this was simply out of this world amazing. In all of Asia so far, it was truly one of my favorites.
When I think back on Chiang Mai, my most memorable experience will be cooking with Karn’s Mom, Nid. I had mentioned to Karn that I had wanted to take a cooking class and he had responded in saying “It is no problem. My Mom will show you how to make Thai food .”
We followed Yui, Karn’s wife as she scoured through the neighborhood market, grabbing bags of minced pork, basil, lemongrass, and chilies. She picked out the prettiest blue prawns in the seafood section while the rest of us stood around watching the dozens of homemade propeller devices swing in the air like fans; a fancy trick for keeping the bugs away from the food.
Back at the house we started to set up. Karn stood by as we began to cook. Being the translator for Martha Stewart had prepared him well for this occasion as translator for our very own cross-cultural cooking experience.
“Today we’re making three things: steamed eggs, tom yam soup, and a basil stir fry. These are all quick and easy dishes, but the first thing we do is make rice. It’s the base for every meal, every day. After that, we will make my Mom’s steamed eggs. This is a very popular recipe but every household has their own version.”
After we loaded the massive rice cooker and hit go, we began on the eggs. Nid walked me through the steps as we mixed egg and water, rehydrated dried shrimp and mushrooms, added pork, onions, shallots and seasonings, and then gave it all a good beating. We placed the mixture in a bowl on the steaming rack above a covered pot of boiling water.
It was quick and easy to move around the kitchen, reminding me of our dollhouse back in Flagstaff. One wall comprised a long countertop and the other was set up with a tabletop stove shielded on three sides by aluminum. Underneath the stove sat an exposed propane tank, and back on the other counter a bin of cooking ingredients, a sink, and the rice cooker sat in the corner.
As the eggs steamed, Nid wandered outside and came back with a dozen or so freshly picked kaffir lime leaves for the tom yam soup. We made a broth of lemongrass, kaffir leaves, chilies, galanga and lime juice and let it simmer as we prepared our prawns, pulling off their crustacean layers, snapping their heads, breaking their legs, and slicing their backs to devein. We added the prawns and a few handfuls of strangely shaped straw mushrooms for just a few minutes before turning off the heat.
Our last dish of the evening was a pork basil leaf stir fry. It was simple: a quick stir fry of onion, garlic, pork, and a heaping mound of basil. The flavor was delightful—the meat provided a rich depth of flavor while the holy basil added a sharp, mentholated aroma and taste.
So here we were, gathered around the round table covered by a vinyl cloth imprinted with cappuccino cups and fluffy croissants. Grandma was holding baby Phuphing while the family’s French bulldog spread its body against the cool tiled floor.
While scooping rice onto each of our plates, Karn said “In a Thai home, all dishes are communal. This is what we do.” Demonstrating the Thai way of eating, he held his fork with his left hand and his big spoon in his right. “You just push a little rice onto your spoon with your fork. The fork is only a tool for moving food. We don’t eat with it. Get some rice on your spoon, and then, from the dishes in the center, just scoop a little soup or curry onto your spoon. One scoop at a time.”
One scoop at a time?! One scoop at a time?! Now I understood how Thai people stay so thin!
With my fork, I nuzzled a little rice onto my spoon and then lowered it down into the communal bowl of tom yam soup. The food was just wonderful, and especially those eggs! Dare I say that recipe is one of my favorites?
2 TBSP of dried shrimp (soaked in hot water until rehydrated)
1 dried shitake mushroom (soaked in cold water for 3 hours, then cut in slices)
4 shallots (minced)
2 green onions (green part only, minced)
¼ cup of pork (minced)
2 cups of water
4 TBSP soybean sauce
½ TBSP soy sauce
Pinch of pepper
3-4 cloves (sliced)
In a serving bowl add egg, shrimp, shallots, mushroom, green onions, and pork. Whisk vigorously for 3 -5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk.
In a large pot with a steaming tray, add a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Place the bowl on the steaming tray, reduce the heat to medium and cover. Steam the mixture for 15 minutes or until the eggs are cooked through. Note that water will remain visible in the bowl even after the eggs have finished cooking.
In a sauce pan fry the cloves.
Garnish with cloves before serving.
Tom Yam Soup
6 kaffir lime leaves (ripped down the center)
2 stalks of lemongrass (chopped into 1 ” pieces)
2 1” slabs of galanga root (julienned)
Tom yam paste (optional)
2 limes (cut into ¼ pieces)
5 small green bird chilies (pounded in a bag)
1 cup of straw mushrooms (broken into pieces)
1 dozen large prawn (peeled and deveined)
½ tsp of fish sauce
Chili paste (optional)
1 TBSP of cilantro
10 strands of green onion (cut in 1” pieces)
Package of tom yam paste (optional)
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add lemongrass, galangal root, and kaffir leaves. Add tom yam paste and cook for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add shrimp, mushrooms, and 3-5 chilies and cook until the shrimp is done (just a few minutes). Add the lime juice, fish sauce, and chili paste (to preference).Garnish with cilantro and green onion before serving.
Stir Fry Basil Leaf
3 garlic cloves (minced)
2 small white onions (sliced)
¾ cup of minced pork
3 cups of packed holy basil leaves (this is not the same as Thai basil)
3 TBSP oyster sauce
1 tsp of sweet soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
3 TBSP of water
In a large sauce pan add a dash of vegetable oil, onions, and garlic and cook for 3 – 5 minutes on medium heat. Add the pork and cook for another 3 – 4 minutes or until the meat is cooked through. While stirring constantly, add the basil leaves and chilies, cooking until the basil leaves have wilted. Add the oyster sauce, sweet soy sauce, sugar and water and cook for another minute.
“Don’t you ever get tired of going to markets? It’s soooo boring. It’s like going to a grocery store. You know they are all the same, right?” I have heard this from Brad on a weekly basis.
Well, to answer that first question, no, not really. How I ever enjoy markets, and if the past tells anything, I will never tire from them. I usually go through the motions of writing a “grocery list” for Brad’s sake, but in reality I’m just using it as my admission ticket, showing the “need” to go. Lists are useless anyways. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a market that had everything I was looking for, or that didn’t have something that I’d never seen before. As frustrating as it may be sometimes, that is the beauty of them. They are regional and seasonal, with a continuously changing mix of produce, flavors, spices, textiles and faces. I always have the overwhelming desire to go to every stall, upturn every bag of unknown, unwrap every banana leaf to reveal its hidden contents, and sample every fruit and vegetable. My senses are overwhelmed and I can only image that this is what it’s like for a child going to Disneyland for the first time. Even if I have nothing to buy, I still want to go merely for the visual exploration. It is for many, the closest they will get to interacting with the locals while watching their daily routine and way of life.
It should come as no surprise then that given my absolute love for these places, I often plan a particular route to coincide with them. This is usually my little secret until we arrive within vicinity, leaving Brad little chance to devise some sort of “emergency” Nacho maintenance project that takes precedence.
It just so happened that we were to arrive in Bangkok on a Saturday, and it just so happened to be the same day in which a number of weekend floating markets were taking place. We stopped at Bang Noi, which for more than 100 years, was the gathering place for locals on the 3rd, 8th, and 13th day of the waxing and waning moons of the lunar calendar [Brad note: do you understand that my wife is insane?] With the building of roads, the market nearly died off but was recently revived by the government, keen on holding onto tradition.
Upon entering the shop houses, local women sat on the sidewalk with their blankets laid out, proudly displaying their produce for the day. This was the most authentic part of the market, with true commerce occurring from one local to another. As we walked to the water’s edge I braced myself, expecting to see something extraordinary, like a swarm of colorful boats, women with cone hats, and maybe a pig or two being transferred from one boat to another. I wanted to see that, yet all I saw was the murky brown water of the canal and bunches of hyacinth floating by. These hyacinths are actually a huge problem, growing so quickly that they clog the canals and impede the flow of water. It’s actually some people’s job to remove the hyacinth from the waters, cutting them at their roots and leaving them to float on elsewhere. Nowadays, much of it is collected, dried and made into the latest and greatest in new trendy woven furniture.
Instead of a true floating market, we had come upon a simple marketplace on the river, and lining the canal were old wooden shop houses filled with cute cafes and restaurants, souvenir shops, handicraft stores and vendor stands. It was really nice despite the inaccuracy of what the name implied. We entered and split up quickly. Brad was drawn to a small café where a man played his guitar and I continued on, strangely overwhelmed by the uncanny peacefulness in the air.
While he shared a table with a few locals and enjoyed a beer, I searched for unique foods.
One woman roasted tightly wrapped tubes of banana cakes on her charcoal grill and another sold pairs of neatly arranged fish in bamboo bowls. One Chinese woman pinched off silver dollar sized pieces of rice flour dough, placed them in a pan, patted them down, and gently flipped them until lightly brown. She layered the stretchy pancakes between sheets of plastic wrap until her sister, who worked the second half of the process, topped them generously with crushed peanuts, brown sugar, and sesame seeds. She then rolled them into bite sized burritos and neatly stacked them in pyramids in small origami like banana leaf trays. They were sweet and nutty, perfect alongside the complimentary shot glass of green tea.
I continued walking, eventually crossing over a bridge that led to the other side of the water. The silence in the air was broken up intermittently by young Thai men racing their longtail boats, oblivious to the disruption they were causing. For a moment’s time, the murky water would slosh back and forth between the buildings and the talking amongst people would come to a brief pause; waiting until they could hear their own voices again.
Once I had made the rounds, Brad and I reunited. On our way out we ventured to a stand where a sweet looking couple made ?????????????????, or pork steamed rice parcels. They looked like little wrinkly dumplings and were made using a cooking method I had never seen before. It began with a thin pastry mix poured onto a small round surface and quickly covered with a metal cone-shaped lid. In less than a minute, the dough had turned from transparent to opaque and a dollop of sweet pork filling was added to the center. Using two spatulas the stretchy dough was pulled and twisted over the meat topping. After showing me the technique, they handed me their spatulas. I added a few deformed looking ones to their collection.
Back in Nacho, we headed just a few miles south until we arrived at Amphawa Floating Market. This market was so insanely huge that I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was no way we’d make it through in a few hours as thousands of vendors ran alongside the elevated banks of the canal for half a mile. If that wasn’t overwhelming enough, they also spilled out onto the streets that surrounded the main thoroughfare. This was THE market that local Bangkokians went to for their floating market experience, and surprisingly, out of all the faces, I hardly recall seeing another Westerner. The whole place was quite atmospheric; the steps that led down to the canal were packed like bleachers with Thais eating seafood. All eyes were on the cooks who floated in the boats below, who split their time between prepping and cooking on their grills. We ordered our grilled squid and pad thai and sat there on the banks, just two individuals in a crazy maze of food and people.
Here’s some audio that Brad captured of a local musician while having a drink at the Bang Noi floating market:
She looked at me worriedly after each move, “you okay?”
I focused on my breathing, attempting to block out the pain, “oh yes, this is gooood. Really good”.
“You so strong! I push so hard and most, they say stop, you stop! But… you okay?”
I was told by a Thai that a good massage is the right of every Thai person. It is an essential part of daily life. We had decided we wanted to give it a try and as we walked down the street we were drawn to a sign that was advertising just that. It was a cartoon sketch of a woman on her stomach with her back arched painfully high. Her arms were being pulled backward by a women kneeling behind her with a long sleek pony tail. It looked painful yet both characters had serene smiles painted on their faces.
Shoot, for $5 an hour, we couldn’t pass it up. Brad and I both requested traditional Thai massages, less commonly known as Thai Yoga Therapy.
As we stood in the street, a lady in her fifties cheerfully welcomed us in. She made a quick phone call and by the time my feet had been soaked and scrubbed in water, another woman appeared on a scooter, beads of sweat on her face, eager to get to work. I followed the motorcycle lady around to the other side of a bookshelf which divided her massage room from the street. She flipped on two oscillating fans while I lowered myself onto a hard mattress on the floor. I quickly realized that the Western interpretation of a massage did not translate into the same thing in Thai. I repeatedly caught myself on the verge of laughing or crying, unable to believe Motorcycle Lady’s power. She not only used her hands, but the weight of her entire body, alternating between the use of her knees, elbows, feet and toes.
I was twisted into pretzel shapes, bounced on top of, and my fingers and toes were pulled until they snapped with the sound of popped bubble gum. Sometimes Motorcycle Lady would sit in front of me, and using one leg as an anchor, would press her toes into my upper hamstrings. She would then dig her heel deepinto the crevice of my inner thigh and crotch, each time pushing a little harder and a little longer. While a foot to the groin may sound pleasant, it mostly just hurt. Finally I was able to lay my head on a pillow which rested on her lap. I thought this sounded quite pleasant as well, yet what this position allowed her to do was dig deeper into her briefcase of pain. She sought out and found each knot in my back, twanging on them like guitar strings. It was intense.
Like every good massage however, it ended nicely. My temples and eyebrows were rubbed and my head was tenderly scratched. The whole experience was absolutely fantastic in the strangest sort of way.
This glorious massage went down in a town called Prachup Khiri Khan. It’s the town that sits at the county’s narrowest point, where there are only 8.1 miles from the Burmese border to Thailand’s coast. We arrived via a busy road filled with tiny trucks and their tremendous loads of produce.
In the back of one of these trucks a net covered an exploding pile of coconuts. Nestled atop were two workers and a gnarly looking monkey, trained in the fine art of pulling coconuts. He looked bored and tired, uninterested by the commanding view from atop. Farther up the road, we stopped to buy banana chips and a full tank of gas, only to realize that we were short on cash by nearly the entire sum of the bill. No problem – a cheerful gas attendant ported Brad down the street on his motorbike to a nearby ATM. I was held as collateral, anxiously awaiting Brad’s return.
Once in Prachuap, a leisurely walk down the beach made it evident that this village was far more focused on fishing than tourism. It was unpretentious and intriguing and historically interesting: it was location of the first invasion by Japanese troops along the Gulf Coast during World War II. The bay was picturesque with tropical blue water and bobbing wooden trawler boats.
Boats congregated and fisherman busily waded waist deep in the water, carrying seemingly endless bins of fat juicy fish. We watched a local man purchase a bin of fish, and then it was the job of a little boy to find and pull out the fish that were damaged and unsellable. The remaining bins were moved from the beach to the road by an assembly line of workers. The workers shielded their bodies from the sun fully covering their arms, legs, and faces. They wore long sleeves and pants and wide brimmed hats with a flap of extended fabric reaching down and around the neck and tied under the chin.
At midday, instead of people on the boardwalk, trays and trays of framed metal fencing rested against the cement wall. Atop were neat rows of squid and bits of fish left to dry in the sun. Across the street residents napped through the hottest hours of the day. They snoozed the hours away on raised platforms with thatched roofs, essentially the Asian equivalent to the Western patio, less the lawn chairs, table and umbrella. Napping in Thailand (and through much of the non-Western world) is a common sight. It is just what they do during the warmest hours of the day.
In the evening, we wandered into a busy restaurant. Being so close to Burma, there was plenty of Burmese influence within the town. In fact, the girls running the restaurant were Burmese, as evidenced by the thanakha cream smeared on their cheeks. After much hand signaling and giggling from our waitress, we ordered a few random dishes: spicy seafood salad and deep fried silver whiting fish with a green mango salsa. The spicy seafood salad, or yam ta-lair was exceptionally delicious- a perfect balance of sweet and spicy, made of a mix of shrimp, squid, octopus, and mussels, mixed with green onion, coriander, and celery leaves and soaked in a spicy lime sauce. As for the deep fried silver whiting, that came out as quite a surprise: a plate of a few dozen bite sized fish, butterflied and fried, with ribs and spine intact and irremovable. I quickly decided that this was going to be a throw away dish, way too much work for such little meat. The thought of sorting out needle sized fish bones in my mouth was also quite unappealing. I stared at the dish in frustration, but Brad went for it, dipping the little fish bodies in the mango salsa and popping them in his mouth whole. I eventually did the same, and then, like the Thai massage poster from earlier in the day, we melted into our chairs, serene smiles painted on our faces.
Like all of the businesses on the block, the lights were out. All of the shop owners had migrated out to the streets, conversing with others, watching the night continue on. We eventually left the moonlight and entered a restaurant that was five shades darker inside than the sky was outside. A wall of heat and humidity built up like a sauna. I wasn’t sure how this whole eating Indian food business in the dark would play out. To even say that I fare well with popcorn in a movie theater would be an overstatement. Yet, I would attempt the task if it meant I could eat this food once again. Even without electricity, the cooks were working over their portable gas stoves, mixing curries and flipping dough for chapati in the air like pizza boys.
Just a few days earlier we had entered this same restaurant. After sleeping off a few hours of jet leg, we wandered outside sleepy eyed, using our instincts to move us in the right direction. We passed by the sari shops, a man at a fold out table selling Indian snack foods, and a convenience store with its entire store contents on display through the glass window; everything from coconut oil for the hair to skin whitening lotion for the face. Inside the restaurant, every plastic seat was filled with Indian friends and families, talking while nonchalantly mixing their rice and curry on sheets of banana leaf with their fingertips. Their fingers, covered in curry and rice moved like worms through their food, until eventually they would pinch a pile of rice with their fingertips, and then, using their thumb, push the food off of their fingers and into their mouths.
Our young South Indian server leaned over our laminate table and lit a long flimsy candle, tipping it until the wax dripped off the end. His dark chocolate face glowed in the candlelight, unfazed by the beads of sweat which broke into streams down his face. Quickly he stuck the candle’s bottom in the melted wax until it dried upright in place. His second candle tested his patience, continuously falling over. His eventual success left him with a permanent smile; his head broke out into a solitude dance of side to side head bobs. Hypnotized by the head bob and infatuated with our present life, I felt butterflies rush through my body, disbelieving that we were actually in Asia.
As we sat in the candlelight, close to invisible, my confidence began to rise. I thought maybe tonight I would attempt to eat with my hands as my utensils. And then, bam! The lights were back on and the air conditioning was pumping. Our waiter rushed over, head bobbing in excitement at our fantastic luck. The candles were blown out. Until next time.
While we waited with anticipation for Nacho to arrive on the boat to Kuala Lumpur, we explored a city of sky scrapers, high rises and a highway system that cobwebbed through every nook and cranny. Mixed in with all of the modernity were enormous mosques where calls of prayer echoed through the air, Taoist temples rested, Buddhist temples stood vibrant with their red Chinese lanterns, and Hindu temples, such as Sri Mahamariamman, were surrounded by flower sellers displaying their chunky necklaces of marigolds and chains of jasmine to tie in the hair.
Just on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the Batu Caves housed yet another impressive Hindu shrine. An enormous statue of Lord Subramaniam towered over the steps leading up to the cave’s entrance in a towering limestone outcropping. Entertaining monkeys scurried about, jumping through the trees and racing up the walls of the steps. While they were wild, they were also very used to people and what exotic foods we carried. One monkey did a quick hand grab, stealing from a tourist a bottle of Gatorade. As she watched, the monkey punctured the plastic with its teeth, sucking the remains of the orange liquid into its mouth.
During small talk with our Indian taxi driver on the way to the Thai embassy, our conversation moved towards cuisine.
“Eating food with your hands tastes different!! The Indians and the Malays, we eat with our hands.” Mimicking the motion of eating food, he pinched all of his fingers together in the air, “It tastes so much better! The Chinese know how to do it too. They are very smart using the chopsticks and their hands. But a spoon,” he wiggled his pointing finger from side to side, “That is no good. You must try with hands!” And by this he meant with his right hand. Indians never use their left hand for eating. It is strictly reserved for more unsanitary purposes.
To our great fortune we met a wonderful group of Malaysians through two separate but intermingling Kuala Lumpur Volkswagon clubs. Die hard Volkswagon lovers. Die hard food lovers willing to show us their favorite restaurants and answer all of my dumb questions. One of the members, Vijay, offered to make briyani; a traditional Indian dish of heavily spiced rice, meat and vegetables; and a rich, creamy platter of butter chicken. Kannan, who just so happens to be the fourth ranked mixologist in the world, made up a couple of gallons of sangria, and the stage was set. At our host’s house, I dug my fingers into my food. I don’t know if the food tasted so good because I was eating with my hands or if the chef was just that unbelievably good, but it was beautifully delicious.
While downshifting a gear to a cruising pace, every three-wheeled rickshaw driver asked me the same question. While taking a tour of the coast in a spectacular dual toned rickshaw piqued my interest, what was more appealing was watching them go by. The plethora and odd arrangement of decals was mind boggling; dripping flames, cartoon characters, sports logos, marijuana leaves, Jesus heads, and batman-shaped windows, tinted in black plastic to hide the backseat passengers. A slight squint in the eyes and shake of the head was understood as a no thanks. It never hurts to ask I suppose.
No, today I couldn’t be distracted by water and beaches. I had my fun the day before, peering into the strange obsessive sex lives and ritualistic ways of blue footed boobies. These birds were more obsessed with mating than a class of high school boys. Where there was a female, a male was standing obnoxiously in front of her, flaunting his beautiful blue feet by raising one foot and then the other. The female didn’t seem to pay any attention; however she was beyond shallow, eventually choosing the male whose feet were the richest in azure hue. There were many duos between males involving lifting their sharp pointed bills toward the sky and blowing out a high pitched whistle, while outstretching their wings, frantically attempting to display their dominance.
I never saw a female pick a winner, but I did see many soon-to-be mothers incubating their eggs. This was interesting as well, as instead of laying her eggs in a nest, she would defecate in such extreme quantities, that essentially a nest was created of guano. This protected her eggs from bugs and made her nest visible from above.
Off in the ocean waters, you could see blue footed boobies dive bombing straight into the ocean, funneling through the water and devouring off-guard fish. As intense as they were, their lives were short lived. Dive bombing into the ocean blue slowly destroyed their eyesight, leading to an eventual heart-stopping suicide involving a cliff wall or tree.
Today was an unusual day. In the wee hours of the morning, Brad rolled out of bed without me, and ventured off to catch the early bus to Guayaquil in search of a brake master cylinder. For the second time since our trip started, Brad and I were separating for more than the length of an average 9 to 5 work day. This used to be the norm five days a week, now one day apart seemed like infinity. I was left to fend for myself on the beaches of Puerto Lopez.
Nervously, I set out to the market with a simple task for the day, a photographic challenge if you will. The challenge was given to me by a friend; take photos of cooks preparing their food. Easy enough, if you remove from the equation the part where I am shy and horrendous at the Spanish language.
Like many markets, it was a few blocks from the restaurantes turisticos, tour agencies and typical souvenir shops selling woven baskets, sarongs, and keychains. This one was a fabulous open air market, with a few messy but organized comedores. Under a tarped area, dozens of plastic tables and chairs were sprawled out, no clear distinction between one joint to the next except for what kind of salsa sat as the centerpiece. No chalkboards or menus identified the meal of the day; you just had to sit down and wait for the news. It didn’t really matter anyway, they were all nearly identical. Women were surrounded by pots and pans, pushing out food in courses: a brothy soup, then a typical plate of meat, rice, lentils, and plantain chips or patacones, and lastly a cup of juice.
Around the corner, under corrugated metal roofs, produce was sprawled out. Chamomile flowers were in bundles and women sat on buckets shelling peas, surrounded in a pyramid of colors.
One young shop worker, blinged out in t-shirt imprinted with a faux diamond necklace, flexed his biceps at me as I bought a bundle of spinach reminiscent of a pile of wilted weeds. While flashing a grin, he reported, “Spinach is very good for you. I eat it every day because it makes me VERY strong”. Yes, he looked just like the Latin American version of Popeye.
One of the things I love most about Latin Americans is their incredible creativity. If you can’t afford a fence, make a wall of tumbleweeds and branches to keep the sheep in. If you don’t have a car, chop a rusted out 40-year old bike in half and replace the front with a huge cart and two wheels. No need for handlebars, just grab the front of your cart and start the thigh burning motion of moving the mass forward. These utilitarian bikes (and motorcycles if you had the cash) were second in popularity to the rickshaws. They were loved and used for every perceivable task: delivering propane tanks, glass bottles, moving garbage, carrying people, and selling food. Each one was customized a bit in layout, but the food stands were generally half tabletop and half grill, sometimes with a fancy striped patio umbrella; for ambiance I would imagine.
As evening approached, I left the market with a bag full of food: chorizo, coconut balls, mashed balls of cooked plantain, fry bread filled with cheese, and a few pinches more of confidence than when I started the day. Task accomplished.
The following day, with my honey back at my side, we cruised on out of Ecuador and into Peru. As we wound through the mountains, I spotted a pig dressed as superman. He surely would have tripped on his plaid, baby blue cape if he was skipping along to a mud puddle. However he sat propped up on the table with his eyes closed next to a black charred wok, filled with delightfully juicy chunks of pork.
“I’ll have some pig please”.
The woman lifted the cape of the pig and sliced off a chunk of its back, scooped a few chunks of pork from the wok, and layered the plate with corn, pork, and onion. It was heaven, I promise.
As we continued down the road, I fed Brad like a baby, placing chunks of meat into his open mouth as he drove. As we continued on, my mind drifted to how at home you’d never find the food so exposed. Our meat is cut behind swinging closed doors, packaged in rectangular foam plates, wrapped in saran wrap and marked with an expiration date. On more than one occasion in Latin-America I’ve watched a family take the life of one of its livestock. To them, it was an occasion and a moment to celebrate their fortune, no foam rectangles or saran wrap in sight.
As we crossed into Peru, things got hectic fast. Nacho was like the white sheep being funneled down the killing chute, engulfed in a mass of pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, and stands.
The following day we were heat exhausted and starving, driving through the vast desert and nothingness of Northern Peru.
We spotted a comedor in the distance. As we sat down on the wooden bench, a single slab of jerky-like meat wavered in the air, hanging from a bare rusted wire strung up between two beams. Carne seca: it’s what’s for lunch.