Monday, June 14, 2010
I should have prayed for lucky before going to get rice cakes on my last morning, because she wasn't there. I usually only get cakes on the weekends so I can take my time enjoying them. I went to T's house a little distraught, so after the incense lighting, Thanh said we would at least go to her house to say goodbye. But...she wasn't home. Maybe it's for the best. Maybe I would have choked on those cakes while crying over them.
I got banh cuon from the vendor who never acknowledges me instead, then had two last amazing spring rolls. Because everyone knew it was my last day, many mutual wishes for lucky and happy were exchanged. Tomorrow is the half year Tet day, so Thanh made sure I tried both of the traditional treats present in the market: sticky rice and mung bean wrapped in bamboo leaves (good) and rice soaked in wine (not so good).
I stopped by Nam's house to see if Minh could rustle him up - we'll see if he comes by later. I also sat with Nam's mother for a while - she is sitting up now, but still quite gaunt and twisted from her stroke. She gave me a very gracious farewell.
Last night T and T came over and swung in the hammocks with me for a while. After Thuy went home to cook "salad and cow" for her new husband ('s family?), Thanh and I went to get a double shot of pomelo/pineapple juice and also took a trip to the neighborhood temple. There we lit three sticks of incense to Phuoc Ba- one for the world, one for our families and one for us. We wished the world, etc, "lucky, strong, and busy."
On the way home...I still cannot believe this... right across from wonton soup man we saw a BRAND NEW SUSHI RESTAURANT. It's indoor, bright, polished and cheery - completely unlike all of the other plastic stool restaurants on the street. I eat wonton soup all the time and never saw this going in. Sushi on our street. Wow. I wish I still had a camera so that Katherine would believe me, but it was swiped the other night at the restaurant (don't want to talk about it).
The new road that went in behind our house connects our street with the city in a major way. New sidewalks went in a few months ago, and now buildings are going up all along the new road where the Crispy Vietnamese Ravioli stand is. Thanh says that things will continue to change very quickly on our road. This frightens me.
The T's and I have plans to go to dinner tomorrow night, after we turn in my motorbike and get our hair washed at the Bum Bum (and after I get a last massage and swim and work out at the nicest gym I will ever belong to). I told Thanh I wanted Nguyen Canh Chan Sushi on my last night- nothing raw though! I'm not quite sure why that appeals to me, since it represents the change I dread, but it does.
And after that, we will all go to the airport. T's told me last night that their father wants to come, too. I am very honored - he is really cool. He always says "Maggie! America good!" every time he sees me.
America - it will be nice to see you again~
Sunday, June 13, 2010
This morning I woke up really early and decided to take the chair over. I probably should have taken it over at night, because every vendor (now they all know we are leaving and have been giving stuff away) jumped up and motioned that he/she would love the chair. But I made my way to my friends' house and placed it down in their living area. It looked so huge and yellow and modern in that small house!
Their mother beamed and sat down in it like a queen on a throne. Her signature greeting to me is to squeeze my hand very tightly, and this time she squeezed it and held on extra, extra tightly (even though I told her it was from Katherine; in this case it was better to be the messenger than the giver). She told me through Thanh that it felt really good on her back. They are so used to sitting on little plastic stools, I bet it does feel good!
My other favorite gift recipient is Ut with Katherine's bike. As we walked by their shop on our way to the taxi yesterday (after K stated the following to the castle ceiling: "Castle, you will never be topped!"), K mentioned how nice her bike looked - Ut had cleaned it and shined it up quite a bit. "That makes me think I should have cleaned it more," she said. We looked in and waved and Ut was still smiling proudly over that bike. I think he will be smiling for a very long time.
After my morning run, I came back to set a few last things outside the castle. I'm not quite sure how this happened, but Henry and Candle Lady's sister popped their heads in and I motioned over to where all of our dishes were, like "do you want them?" They still needed to be washed, and I was going to do it (I swear) but all of a sudden, both Henry's and Candle Lady's families were in the castle, doing the dishes, wiping down the counters, sweeping the floors, their kids jumping on the couch and chairs and flying airplanes up into the extremely high castle ceiling - I think there were about twelve people in the house altogether (Franco was still sleeping). They took the carpet, the coat rack, and worn-out shoes.
It was such a party that I kept running upstairs to get more things, like the hangers in my closet and a porcelain Vietnamese doll a student had given to me but I didn't think I would take home. When I brought the doll down, all of the women in the room let out a gasp at the doll's beauty - she wears a green ao dai and a conical hat. Henry's six-month old daughter grabbed it immediately and all of the women laughed and laughed and said something to the effect of, "Well, I guess it's her doll, then!" That baby just smiled and smiled at that doll. A six-month old!
When everyone was done cleaning and taking every last thing, I thought of the Grinch and that last Christmas ornament he grabs before he heads up the chimney - but in a good way. The only thing left was a lone cut out paper snowflake hanging from the balcony; my niece had made it to cool down a very hot Christmas.
Then my neighbors brought me out into the alley to take every combination of people pictures possible - me with the baby and the doll, me with Candle Lady and her sister, me with Henry's wife and baby, etc. Henry asked me to keep my ears open for any job openings in seafood quality control - like so many here, he wants to bring his family to America to make some money. I told him I would, really wishing I had that kind of power. And all of them wanted to know...how did I like Viet Nam? I told them again and again how much I loved Viet Nam - this made them so happy to hear and they wished me lots of happy and lucky back in America.
Yes, Castle (and neighborhood), you will never be topped!
Saturday, June 12, 2010
In fact, she is so avid
And then she will return to her beloved city of Montreal to try to find a PE job in a very tough job market. But - Montreal is where she wants to be, ultimately, and she knows that sooner or later she must put in the time to get into the system - so why postpone it any longer?
So on her last morning, we got rice cakes. A double order. Then we climbed up on T and T's stand to do a little business.
What to say now?
My experience in Saigon would have been nothing without this partner in crime I found on my very first day here two years ago. And I mean nothing.
Katherine is... well, she is just comfortable in her own skin. She is solid, funny, 100% loyal, fun, supportive, loves a challenge, is always ready to laugh at herself or at any story she is told, and is, as Rita wrote in her post,"the best listener in the world." This might not sound like a compliment, but to me it is of the highest order: she is an easy friend.
For two years we have figured it all out together - finding the castle and discovering the market, learning to cross the Saigon streets from a blind man, seeking the best food, spas and tailors in the city, Sunday night cooking with the T's, throwing up together on New Year's Eve in Thailand, theorizing what happened to the pomelo man this past month (no sight of him at all), organizing massages in the balcony, getting a palm tree up five flights of stairs, teaching these great kids, and getting mugged by a motorbike thief. We have figured it out and then debriefed all of it, most significantly while swinging in the hammocks on the roof. We agree that one word that could best summarize our friendship would be the word "debrief."
I appreciate so many things about how people look at life here, but one of my favorite sayings is "I wish you very lucky." That's what it's all about in this harsh life, what luck might come your way. Katherine came my way in a definite form of lucky, and I wish Katherine nothing but lucky returning to her life in Canada (the country I am so much more familiar with after being in Vietnam even though I have lived two hours from it for most of my life). I will quote Dorothy here in her honor:
"I am going to miss you most of all Scarecrow."
Friday, June 11, 2010
Sweet Seamstress' brother, Ut (whom we thought was her son until just a few days ago) very sweetly asked for Katherine's bike, and he broke out into the biggest grin when she told him it was his. SS got the coat and shoe racks, iron and shelves. T and T's brother's wife - the mother of Monkey Boy - came and took all of our dishes and food. Henry - our endlessly gracious neighbor across the alley (laughing grandpa is his father) got some of Franco's shirts, a table, a lamp and some things for his kids. It was really fun - and such an example of a community deciding who should get what. No one here owns many items outside of the "need" column.
K had given Thanh a gift certificate for a facial for her birthday, so yesterday the four of us took an hour and a half at the spa. It was a first for those two - Thanh, especially, would never allow herself such a treat. Afterward she told me, "I forgot all of my worries." (I cannot say it was a first for K and me - we are two people who have become experts on the spas in Saigon, just ask us.)
K and I "did" the market together this morning and I gave out more of my notes. Banana lady gave us some complimentary bananas, Make-Up Lady gave me a free bonus lip gloss with my purchase (better than Macy's) and Sweet Seamstress gave us our last clothes orders "from her heart to ours."
I took donuts to the seamstress I love across town (where Tarn has accused me of running my own sweat shop) and she hugged me for a long time, gave me her email address and told me she would continue to make me clothes and send them to America - all I must do is to send her a picture of what I want. (K thinks this was bad for my addiction.)
Back to the topic of the neighborhood: I've mentioned it before, but many of our colleagues were not so fortunate with their neighbors. I feel so much gratitude to these people who have not only welcomed us into their alley, but who have kept their eyes on our house, paid our electricity bills to keep us in power when we were negligent on occasion, and who have held candles out windows when we came home to darkness late at night. Those kind of people are fun to give to, you know?
Thursday, June 10, 2010
I will be returning to my home in Seattle, Washington, USA on the 15th of June. I want to thank you for all of the kindness you have shown to me over these past two years - and for all of the good food. Living in the Nguyen Canh Chan neighborhood has been a highlight for me.
I wish you lots of luck and happiness in your life!
This is the note I had Lisa (remember the student from last year who helped me with my Nam problems?) translate for me to hand out to the vendors I have grown to love over these past two years. I personalized a few of them - one to the rice cake ladies, telling them their cakes were my favorite meal in Saigon - and one to the spring roll lady, telling her how much I love her rolls. Katherine gets a kick out of Spring Roll Lady because whenever she runs into me in the market, she talks to me as if I can understand every word she says.
The others, I just photocopied them and handed them out this morning. I didn't want to leave it to the last minute, and I definitely did not want to leave with no word of goodbye.
A thought I had right before doing my rounds this morning (there are twenty two vendors on my list - I did about twelve this morning), I considered that some of them may not be able to read. I was right. Rice With Mung Bean Lady had her neighbor read it to her, and Banh Cuon Lady set the note aside without reading it. She did say "Thank you" though, so I think she understands. Spring Roll lady grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly, towel lady made the motion of tears streaming down her face (while laughing) and Garlic Lady kept asking when I would return. Banana Lady knows English quite well - she is so gracious and kind...she said she knew she would see me in the market again.
Rice Cake Lady will get her note on Sunday, when Katherine and I have our last cakes together. K leaves Sunday afternoon, and T, T and I will go to the airport with her. Tarn leaves today and I said goodbye to Alice last weekend because she left for Bangkok to begin year two on her master's, and Steven and Sharon fly out midnight on Tuesday, just like me. Last night, after the graduation ceremony, ten of us went to a nice, quiet restaurant and dined mightily. It was as if I hand-picked all of my favorite people to be there at this goodbye dinner, but really it just happened. It was really nice. I will include this picture even though it includes only half of me...
As for T and T... Thuy cries easily. She is openly emotional and has scrunched up her face with tears a few times in the past few weeks, especially the night that Tarn took us all out for seafood. Thanh, however, stays pretty stoic. This morning, however, I brought them flowers from the ceremony and Thanh did not greet me with her usual lightness of being. She looked at the flowers and went inside the house for a long time. When I went to check on her, she was coming down from the loft wearing sunglasses. You don't have to guess what my response to that was...
I still have the feeling that I have been living in a surreal Disney neighborhood, a kind of Old Saigon Street of Dreams designed especially for me.
These past two years seem as if they were designed especially for me.
Sunday, June 06, 2010
1. The heat. I really can't take being sticky all the time any more.
2. The rats I run over on my motorbike every day. They are flat rats that have already been run over by many other motorbikes so if you were to pick one up it would float in the wind, like a paper rat.
3. Horns honking incessantly. Even though I know objectively that horn honking is not rude here, it will always seem rude. I have been staring each honker down, like "did you REALLY need to do that?" I have not honked my motorbike horn once this entire year.
4. Vendors telling me to "sit down" in a very commanding voice. I don't know why I react so strongly against this, but I refuse to sit down when even my sweetest vendors tell me to.
5. The vendors pointing to all of the food they sell every time I pass. Yes, I know you are selling pineapple today. You have been selling it for two years and I will buy some if I want it...again, why does this irritate me so much? A few vendors I truly love never, ever point to what they are selling. I adore them.
6. Parking my motorbike in very small spaces next to other motorbikes that have the potential to sear my legs in new places.
7. Hearing about motorbike thieves at least once per week now. Friday night, my neighboring teacher friend, Sarah, had her bag around her neck and a motorbike thief grabbed it and dragged her until she lost consciousness and broke her arm and injured her head. These attacks are getting more and more frequent, it seems.
8. Teenagers speaking in a language I don't understand. Yes, they are endlessly sweet - but what are they saying? They are teenagers, after all.
9. Parking my motorbike in my house. It's just not great decoration.
10. My countertop and sink that is made for a very small person. I am tired of leaning over to cook or do dishes, so therefore I hardly ever cook or do dishes. The other day I forgot how to make one of my favorite signature recipes...
11. Being an Amazon. At home I feel so normal-sized!
12. The air pollution. I don't even want to think about what my lungs look like now.
13. The dengue fever potential flying around in the mosquitoes here. I got the flu last week and had the same symptoms I did with dengue - I was terrified!
14. The obstacle course on my daily ride to school. Sometimes it's kinda fun, but lately it has really bugged me.
15. Asian cable TV.
16. Ants attacking any sugar I leave out for even five seconds.
17. The cockroaches that apparently still inhabit a box above my bathroom. Don't you just hate the way they run/scurry across the floor?
18. My weak shower that gets my toilet wet. I hate this shower. My Phinney condo has the best shower I have ever showered under, and it will shower me again beginning on the 20th.
19. The stand-off with the deaf/something-else-wrong-with-her- pineapple lady. She's the one who sells onions and garlic, but she got very irate with me when I bought pineapple from a vendor sitting right next to a vendor I had (unknowingly) bought from the previous week. I have not bought from either one since. And the second one - well, she has the best looking avocados lately. I am afraid to buy them because vendor #1 also has avocados - but not at all as attractive as #2's. What a pity.
20. The frogs that are skinned alive - heads snipped off and still jumping - that sit in a bucket next to the banana lady each morning.
OK, 20 is a good place to stop.
Of course, for each of these complaints there are five positives. Katherine and I - while debriefing in the hammocks one recent night - talked about how we had changed over these past two years. We came up with the same word to wrap it up: resiliency. Vietnam has made us both much more resilient.
AmyT, who comments regularly here, taught in Hungary for two years. Years ago we were out to eat and I found a hair in my food. When I mentioned it, she asked me a simple question: "Human or animal?" and when I answered "human," that told me what my reaction should be - absolutely nothing. I wanted that same thing she had. Maybe another word for that quality is "perspective."
Resiliency and perspective. I hope these qualities stick for a while~
Thanh took me here a few weeks ago - one of her customers just opened this stand on the sidewalk of the "new road" right behind our house. She had never tried this dish before, and had promised her customer she would come by. Fortunately, she brought me along. Now I am hooked, and I got Katherine hooked as well as a few friends from school. For a while, I was calling it "Packets of Deliciousness," but was told that "packets" did not sound very appetizing, so it was therefore renamed "Crispy Vietnamese Ravioli."
After two years, we are still finding the best food in the city right outside our door.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
"Ms. Marjorie, all we really want to do is eat," they said. A tear appeared in the corner of my eye; twelve twelve-year-olds who liked to eat as much as I do were sitting wide-eyed in front of me, wanting me to lead them, simply, to eat.
So our second semester "Eating Club" was born. We spent the rest of our time learning about food and finding restaurants to order from for our after school Thursday club. We tried Lebanese, Thai, Mediterranean and Italian (no pizza or spaghetti allowed) and even went on a field trip to a Mexican restaurant for a five-course meal (of guacamole and chips, quesadillas, tostadas, tacos, carnitas and rice).
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Happy to report that she came back from the hospital on Thanh's birthday, after ten days of fever. The most I can understand about what was wrong was that she had a problem with her lung but that it is being treated with medicine. She now lies in a stretched out hammock most of the day. Thanh stayed by her side for the majority of the ten days, just monitoring her fever. On the day of her birthday, she was close to exhaustion and slept all day. She had mentioned to me a few weeks ago that she was interested in trying sushi, so Tarn, Katherine and I were able to whisk her away for dinner that night.
As with most other foods we have introduced her to, she didn't really care for it. She had no idea that sushi meant "raw" in most cases. She picked at the rolls and ate a little of the deep fried shrimp and avocado and kind of liked the miso soup, but overall I'm sure she is just fine with Vietnamese food. I find the quest and the disappointment amusing with her, but with anyone else I would probably be really annoyed. The fact that she hasn't tried many foods and shows interest is great - the fact that she doesn't like it when it's in front of her confuses me, because she is such a great cook and knows flavors so well.
As for Thuy, no honeymoon for her. At the stand at 4 every morning, setting up by herself, then to the hospital to be with her mother at night. Not one word of "why me" complaining, either. It would have been her third time out of Ho Chi Minh City in her entire life.
In other news: Our friends Steven and Sharon had their baby, Hazel, last weekend. Sharon had really battled to have her baby naturally in a country where having babies is not really something that involves personal choice of experience. Everyone gets drugged up, period. So that was a battle. And the day she was born - already a week late - Sharon experienced contractions in the morning so Steven took her to the hospital - on the motorbike. When she arrived, they told her she wasn't suppsed to come until Monday for her C-section...oh, wait, the appointment is Friday...when she told them, "I am having my baby now!" But they sent her home, saying it would still be hours. So they went home - on their motorbike. When they got home, the contractions started to come very quickly, so they turned around and went straight back to the hospital - on the motorbike, where Hazel arrived within just three hours. Sharon hopes for a better all-around experience next time.
As for me, I am finishing up saying goodbye to my 6th grade angels and starting to pack up my stuff. Every day, Katherine and I both lament and welcome the fact that we are going home. Like my dad said a few times - what a place of contrasts!
Sunday, May 23, 2010
She did not make it to the evening ceremony on the day of the wedding - Thanh said she was "too tired." She has a hard time getting around and I'm not sure what her diagnosis is, but that was a very long day for her. Like I said, it was hot, and she had just a little bit of celebratory wine - something she never does - and her fever has been up and down ever since.
Thanh was supposed to run the fabric stand alone so that Thuy could go on her honeymoon to Hue; now, Thanh has been at the hospital since Friday night and Thuy - looking quite exhausted - is at the stand, getting up at 4:30 because she must set it up by herself.
I know we are constantly reminded how unfair life is, but this seems a little bit to the extreme of unfair to me. Please keep them all in your prayers.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
One minute she was wearing a beautiful white gown and the next she was in a pink princess dress. We're not sure how she slipped in and out of a dressing room so quickly, but I think she might just be a really good onstage performer.
Wedding receptions here seem to consist of coming, eating and leaving, which Katherine says is what the ants chant about the grasshoppers in the movie "Antz." "They come, they eat, they leave..."
That's basically what we did. The food was delicious - five courses - and the only one of us who was disturbed by the food at all was Katherine. After getting the baby pig's ear placed in her rice bowl, she began to comment upon a "'theme" in her life: getting undesirable animal parts at weddings (from a Western perspective, that is). Her fear stems from the only other wedding she went to in Vietnam, when a fish head was placed in her bowl. Tarn - only three months from turning from vegetarianism - took the hit, or took the baby pig's ear in this case - a favor he reminded her many times through the night that she "owed him for." (In the picture below, Tarn is perfecting his "blue steel" look).
Yeah, so after the five courses, we looked around and the two-hundred- or-so-guests began to disappear. There was no dancing, no lingering...after the female performer sang three songs up front and Thuy and Dung made their way around the tables toasting, we realized that the tables were empty. Maybe because it's such a long day for everyone.
Well, it's official, Thuy is married. For the first time her life, Thanh will go home without her sister - something that I can't think about too much. Thuy will still be at the fabric stand every day, but she no longer lives down the alley. I saw Thanh sort of linger saying goodbye to Thuy at the reception (right after this picture was taken of the six of us), but Thuy waved her on and just said, "go." I don't think they can think about it too much, either.
Tarn, Katherine and I agreed that this is a nice way to "go out." We all started this thing together, and we are all going our separate ways in less than a month. We are having a goodbye party at the castle on Saturday night. Time keeps on slipping into the future...
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The ceremony began with Thuy waiting behind the deer curtain for Dung's family to come down the alley. When they arrived, Thuy's father - who looked so proud and handsome in his suit (I have only seen him in a tank top and shorts) greeted Dung's uncle who got permission for Dung' family to enter. Candles were lit and Thuy's father honored the ancestors, then the bridesmaids (is that what they're called?) came in with the traditional trays of fruits and beetlenuts.
This ceremony moved me - I am not a crier but I did cry when Thuy looked over at me and waved with such happiness before she reached up and wiped the streams of sweat from her new husband's face. This was about the same time I realized that the guest sitting next to me was their family rooster, kept in a cage underneath the fabric stand (I noticed him because he crowed right then), so it was a laugh/cry situation.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Thursday night we were coming home from a party at about 11 pm - Katherine on the back of my bike, holding her bag around her shoulder but close to her chest with both hands (like we have been taught). We had already manouevered around a construction zone with a fifteen foot pit, a bulldozer and a crumbled sidewalk. "Classic Saigon," I said to Katherine.
So we were riding pretty slowly down a busy street when suddenly I heard Katherine gasp and felt her weight shift dramatically. I had no idea what was happening but was trying to keep the bike balanced when I felt a final huge shift which sent the bike out of control. We were heading toward a parked taxi on the side of the road and in that cliche "slow motion moment," I knew I had the choice of crashing into the taxi or dumping the bike. I chose to dump the bike.
My first thought when we went down was that we were going to get hit by a motorbike coming from behind us, so both of us scrambled to the curb. A crowd of people surrounded us and this was the first time I understood what had happened. A pair of motorbike purse thieves - called "cowboys" - had ridden up beside us and had gone for Katherine's bag - even though she had been securely holding it against her chest. She had put up quite a battle and when they finally gave up and let go (they didn't get it from my strong Canadian friend) - that was the force that sent us flying.
The three men who stopped to help us were angels. They pulled my bike to the side (at first I thought one of them was going to steal it since this is another popular crime here and the keys were still in the ignition), gave me a wet tissue for my bleeding elbow, and after sitting with us for fifteen minutes as we calmed down, one of them took us to a nearby hospital to get checked. K had only a scraped knee, but I had hit the ground much harder on my left side and my arm was hanging kind of funny and I thought that maybe my ribs were broken. Short story - nothing broken, but I was in a lot of pain.
My mom's purse was stolen by a cowboy thief at Christmas as she crossed the street during a busy Christmas cruising night, and Alice's purse was stolen a month ago while she was on the back of a bike. A friend of ours saw a man get his camera bag slashed off of him, and his ribs were also slashed in the process. These guys are very hard to catch because of the nature of their crime. Every once in a while you will hear of someone going after one of them in a vigilante way and they will be cornered and taken in. This is definitely the dark side of Saigon, and it sure is sobering to realize that these people have absolutely no concern about injuring or even killing someone just to get a hold of a bag.
Thuy and Thanh, of course, were very concerned and told Katherine that she should have kicked them off their bike. Thanh sent me a text message that said, "You are my human hero, man!" which made me laugh in a way that really hurt my sore ribs. They also told me that these "cowboys" "smell heroin" - which - I'm guessing - translates to "sniff coke." Drug addiction explains a lot.
The good in Saigon definitely outweighs the bad by far, and we were very, very lucky the other night. But, I'm telling you, my legs are getting more and more ugly the longer I stay here. Now I have scrapes all down the left side of my body and three more bleeding knee scrapes to add to my two motorbike burns.
My legs are begging me to get the heck out of Saigon!
Sunday, May 02, 2010
This pretty breakfast is called banh cuon; the white noodles below the fried bread, cucumbers, basil, crunchy onions and red pepper are made from steamed rice flour sheets. I had a double breakfast today, heading straight for this after a rice cake starter.
In the picture below, you can see the round pot that is topped with linen... the sheets are steamed and then lifted off the linen with a little bamboo stick. Some banh cuon - like this one - is then filled with a mixture of ground pork and wood ear mushrooms, rolled up and cut into chunks. Of course, the whole thing is covered with nuoc cham, the fish sauce, lime and red pepper sauce that makes everything even better.
In the past two years I have traveled in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and - of course - extensively through Vietnam. All of this Southeast Asia traveling has confirmed one thing for me: I chose the right place to live for this adventure. Vietnam wins in so many categories.
I love Vietnam. I love the way it moves, the way it smells, and - of course - I love the way it tastes. I love its people, its coziness and its craziness. Mostly, though - love for a place equals a whole lot of intagible qualities all tangled up together.
The food here isn't as diverse as in Malaysia, but I love the sweet aspect that is absent in so many cuisines, and I also appreciate the freshness. Everything is made right in front of you, even though oftentimes you wish they had done some of it ahead of time because of the wait required.
Anyway, it's good to be back~I think it will always feel good to be back.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
So while I wait for the rain to pass, I will tell you about two characters I met this week. They were my "favorite" in retrospect - in that while I interacted with them, I was thinking about writing about them, and that's the only way I kept my patience in each situation:
My favorite character of the week was Dr. Cheong Fung, the wine-medicine maker and masseuse that I escaped to during part of one (of four) days of rain this week while walking through Chinatown in Penang. He led me through a shopfront "owned by Pakistanis who do business without money" into his tiny little house where his wife was making dinner for their son.
He spoke a very broken-English stream of consciousness, but he added "I know that you don't believe me" very clearly at the end of each sentence. Such as:
"My son," he said (within hearing distance of his son), "He eighteen. He no interested in my medicine. He think he know everything. Very stupid boy. I know that you don't believe me."
"I healed a woman who couldn't walk. I know that you don't believe me."
"You should take up tai chi. A big, tall woman like you (I was twice his size), it would make you strong. From here (he pointed to his core). I know that you don't believe me."
"I healed a man that was struck by lightning. I know that you don't believe me."
"I have had diabetes for twenty years. I married and had my son when I was 55. I know that you don't believe me."
"The government no believe my medicine. They try stop me. They jealous. They send people after me. I know that you don't believe me."
"I am 75 years old. I know that you don't believe me." And then he had me squeeze his shoulder blade and punch him in the gut to show me just how strong a 75 year-old man could be. I said, "Wow," but actually, I have no idea how strong a 75 year-old man can be.
And my favorite:
"Most Americans don't like Obama because (then he broke into a whisper) he is black." He looked at me for my response to this shocking news. "I know that you don't believe me."
"Um," I finally interrupted, "Americans elected Obama by voting."
At this he stopped and looked at me as if surprised he had a speaking client, and then continued on. "I loved president Kennedy. Do you know him? They killed him. It was conspiracy. I know that you don't believe me..."
As I left, I said to the doctor, "I believe everything you told me" - just to see how he would react. He didn't. He just stared at me blankly.
"Tell people you meet about me," he called after me. And he didn't add anything to the end of that sentence.
In second (last) place: Azhar, my replacement rent-a-friend on Penang Island. I had chatted with a roly-poly, friendly guy named Lee at a travel agency the night before and liked him instantly. I liked him so much that I asked him if it would be possible to pay him to take me around the island on his motorbike (I had tried to rent on my own, but didn't bring my license with me and Malay policy, unlike Indonesian policy, is seemingly very strict on this matter). He lit up when I said I wanted to "see the island and taste some local food." I could just tell that Lee would be my food guy. He said he would really like to, but that he had to check with his boss. "No one has ever asked to see the island by motorbike," he told me.
When I showed up the next morning, Lee introduced me to Azhar, presumably the owner. "He's going to take you around," he said, and he looked and sounded disappointed. I was, too, because the first thing Azhar said to me was "I know exactly where I will take you" in a very dominant way. For every easy going Muslim man like Lee, there seemed to be three hard core, in-charge know-it-alls like Azhar. The contrast in Malaysia seems pretty severe.
"Um, well, I already know exactly where I want to go, so I will tell you," I said, and showed him on the map the area with the national park and the local village in the middle of the island. "I don't want to do anything touristy." But I could tell he wasn't listening.
The first place we stopped was a touristy "Spice Farm." Of course, it sounded a little bit interesting, being about spices, so I went ahead and bought a ticket, even though I knew I shouldn't have.
At the beginning of our "garden tour," Azhar stopped at an English description of a fern tree, read it silently, then translated it for me in his heavily accented English. I just looked at him incredulously and wanted to tell him that, actually, I could read and understand English. But I didn't say anything.
"This tree is from the fern family," he said. Which is what it said on the placard.
"Hmmmm..." I answered. Suddenly I felt very, very tired.
We crossed a bridge that went over a little stream and Azar pointed down to the stream. "That water comes from up there," he said, then pointed up to a little waterfall. I was having flashbacks of Nam at the castle doorstep grabbing corn on the cobb and showing me that it needed to be peeled before being eaten. Streams come from waterfalls? Imagine!
We passed a few plants that had no placards and when asked, Azhar had no idea what kind of flora any of it was. Then we came upon a platform with a swing that had ropes reaching high into the treetops. "Look," said Azhar, "it swings from way up there. It's a fun swing! It's a tree swing!"
I had had enough. "Azhar, I don't want to be here. I told you I didn't want to do anything touristy and this is very touristy. I could do this on my own if I wanted to."
"I see," he said. So we got back on the bike and who did we see enjoying a huge plate of food at a little hawker stand on our way out? Lee. He waved to me and I waved longingly back as Azhar whisked me away to our next tourist destination: a pier with boats that rowed out to a fishing village. "Do you want to go to the fishing village?" he asked.
"Azhar, listen to me. I don't want to do anything touristy. I just want to see the island and eat local food. I don't want to do anything touristy."
I guess it took Azhar three times to hear things because he finally nodded and said, "Oh! OK, why didn't you say that back at the agency?"
"I want to give the customer what they want, so you should have just told me what you wanted."
Well, he did drive me around, and as long as he wasn't talking, he was an OK motorbike driver. We did stop in town and eat at a local Malay restaurant, which was good, but that required me to have a fifteen-minute conversation with him. Which wasn't good, and which I really don't even care to record here.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
The food in Penang is legendary.
Laksa broth is made from mackerel, which is poached, deboned and then joined by lemongrass, chilies and tamarind. The noodles are thick vermicelli, and after those are placed in the bowl, they are topped with lettuces, cucumber, onions, pineapple and fresh mint. On top of all of this, a spoonful of shrimp paste is placed on top for you to mix in yourself.
When I say that everything is represented here, it's in a Sweet, Sour, Spicy, Crunchy kind-o-way. Unforgettable. I would eat this every day for the rest of the week, at least. Cost = $1.
Next came Hokkien Mee, or "prawn noodle." This soup has a thick pork and prawn base and is garnished with water spinach, hard boiled eggs, shrimp, slices of pork and crispy shallots. The same spoonful of paste is placed across the bowl as mentioned above, but this one is filled with chili paste for a little more spice.
I adored this soup. Please, oh please, Malaysian restaurant in Seattle, please carry these two soups!
I am nuts about the won ton soup in my neighborhood - just ask my family about it, because they got hooked on it, too.
So when I read about Wan Tan Mee, I had to carry my won ton competition to another country. I chose to have mine dry, like in the picture - but you can also have it as soup.
The dry form is served over thick soy sauce and you can toss it up as you like. Mine - which I waited for for at least 45 minutes at a hopping roadside stand - was topped with one fried won ton and two dumpling won tons and a row of delicious barbecued pork.
For dessert, I had cendool. The beans are thick and sweetened red beans, and the green worms are made from starch and the coloring comes from the pandan leaf. The syrup is made from coconut milk and is sweetened with palm sugar to give it an almost-coffee taste. All of this is served over shaved ice.
And what did I do during my three hours intervals in between meals? I saw the town - museums, old colonial mansions and state buildings and forts. I hid from the rain in my hotel where I watched a really stupid movie, and then hid from the rain some more with a 75 year-old Chinese healer who massaged his secret wine sauce into my wrists after he told me he had cured a man with it who was struck by lightning. I'll let you know if my wrist pain goes away.
Oh, and a confession: I also had chicken curry in Little India. It was delicious, but I knew that I wanted to try the wan tan mee, so I ate only half of it and only one piece of naan (I can exercise self-control in these situations). So I left with the deliberate thought, "No one will ever know about this..."
Well, I was wrong. I was sitting there eating my wan tan mee beside the road when a man I did not recognize approached my table. "You didn't like the chicken curry at the restaurant?" he asked, a little confused.
I had been caught, red-handed, slurping an egg noddle. "Um, no, I mean, yes, I liked it a lot," I answered as I wiped soy sauce from my chin. How could I explain my odd behavior to this man, who, probably like everyone else in that restaurant, had seen the light-haired foreigner leave half of her chicken?
"Why did you leave it?" There it was.
"I wanted this, too?" I said, smiling sheepishly.
The man belly laughed and said, "Good, good!" and went away.Can't wait for another day in Penang~
(I got all of these pictures on the internet - they are better than mine!)
Monday, April 26, 2010
It took a while to find a taxi driver willing to take me to the bus station. "It's far from here," the owner of my guesthouse told me, "so you might have to ask quite a few drivers before someone takes you."
He was right. Just when I thought I might not make it to Melaka - a colonial/cultural food destination two hours south of Kuala Lumpur - without paying a very high price to merely get to the bus station, Mano stuck his friendly hand out after seven turn-downs and said, "I will take you there."
Friendly and chatty, Mano wanted to know my plans while in Malaysia. "Ah," he said in response to "Melaka," and then in a sing-songy, bored voice he said, "Ev-er-y bo-dy goes to Me-la-ka."
"I shoudn't go to Melaka?" I guessed.
"You will be bored after three hours. What will you do after that?"
I had no answer, so I asked where he would go, if he only had a week on peninsular Malaysia. Mano became quite animated with this question. "I would go to Penang. Many things to do on the island. The beach, the national park, the town" and then he added three magic words, "and the food."
"The food?" I was awake now. "What about the food?"
"Ah, best food in Malaysia," Mano sighed, and went on to describe the Chinese, Indian, Malay, Thai and Nonya influences.
I quickly looked up "Penang" in my Lonely Planet and read the words, "...affectionately known as 'The Pearl of the Orient'...the only of the country's 13 states to have a Chinese majority, giving the island a distinct character all its own. The quality and variety of the food in Penang is legendary..."
Just as I read the word "legendary," we pulled up at the bus station and a man was yelling into my window, "Going to Penang? The bus is leaving NOW!"
I looked at Mano and shrugged. He said, "Go to Melaka next time." He nodded at the man and said "yes." The man opened the taxi door, pulled me out, grabbed my backpack and pushed me toward a window to buy a ticket. Within minutes, I was on a bus traveling north for five hours instead of south for two.
I am in Malaysia by myself. After two years of traveling with friends from school and home, spring break seemed to be announcing itself as a "Do it yourself" kind of vacation. Everyone had something else going, or was going somewhere I didn't really want to go. So - what destination did I choose? The one known for legendary food. And you know what? I had spent zero time planning for this trip. After reading up on Indonesia for hours, and after planning trips for eighteen castle guests, I decided to just allow this trip to happen, with my only real goal being to eat well. Extremely well. Legendarily well.
Already I had spent two days in Kuala Lumpur's "Golden Triangle" and had explored Chinatown and Little India. I had decided - after trying roti canai the first hour, that I would eat roti canai every day for the rest of the week. I had tasted it in Seattle before (at our one Malaysian restaurant), this unleavened bread that is fried and then served with a little bowl of curry/lentil/potato dipping sauce, but seeing it being flipped and grilled on every corner was just too much to resist. So difficult to resist, in fact, that in two days, six stalls of roti canai had drawn me in. And then I tried beef rendang at the Old China Cafe near Chinatown, and I decided that I would have to eat beef rendang (beef slow cooked to absorb lemon grass, chili, ginger, galangal, turmeric leaf and then topped with kaffir lime leaves) every day for the rest of the week.
But now I am in Penang, a very interesting place where you kind of see it all: covered women, uncovered women, fake flowers laced into the pedicabs, Indian gods, steamed buns, Chinese medicine, and signs that tell you to "Come in and have your bad luck changed." I just walked down to Little India (I love those two words placed side by side) and had the best tandoori chicken and mushroom and pea dosai (rice flour pancake) I have ever tasted at a simple little roadside stand. As I am eating, wondering what I can possibly find to do for the next three hours until I am hungry again, I am thinking that I will have to have tandoori chicken and dosai every day for the rest of the week...
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Sitting on an Asiana flight or at the Seoul airport for 28 hours provides plenty of time to contemplate what it'll be like to see Marjie in her element! It was a visit so worthwhile. I am still living it, although it's been a week. Marjie is indeed in the heart of the old city, District 1...where every darn time a taxi driver stared with disbelief at the Vietnamese hotel card, doubting that the little unknown hotel was, indeed, the destination of this westerner.
Once arrived, I found the room large and clean with views of District 1's morning hustle and bustle of the local - what more does one need when one has authenticity?
To find her, however, you must wind your way down narrow, sunless alleys, very conscious of where you step, very aware of a constant stream of motorcycles and scooters winding their way, uhh....both directions, in the most narrow of spots. They somehow slow for a mother and child holding hands, slowly walking in the middle. I, like a typical foreigner, dancestep nervously to the edge of the path the first few days.
Women, men, and children did look, sometimes staring up at my tall redheadness; but if I smile, so do they. Days later, the little children dart out and try to speak a little English and the women wave first. Their homes are their family business. Content with only a few rooms, there they reside with a little t.v., a game board on the floor, and often the men seek a cool peace by lying directly on the floor.
Motorcycles command this city. Sometimes 10 abreast, sometimes up on the sidewalks. Many going the other direction on "your side" of the street. And it all flows like the Saigon River. Men riding motorcyles with 5 family members squeezed in tight. Pairs of school girls giggling and texting while cycling; man holding his hand on an untethered, bright pink birdcage in back while driving; another deftly carrying Gulliveresque cages of chickens...anything comes and goes!
It's so fascinating, especially on the back of Marjie's motorcycle. A nightmare and an amusement ride that rivals anything from Disney's creations. She's amazing, you guys!
With this noisy backdrop, Talented Travel Planner Ms. Marjorie, helped me plan for some escape: bus rides to the lush Mekong Delta for a country wedding of her friend. It was held in the family's largest room, a steep-peaked temple room with Buddhist shrines, tables laden with food and drink, air conditioning that stopped when all electricity was cut off in the common "rolling black-outs", and a bevy of little children and women staring at us Westerner women/teachers through the open windows.
lucious market meal prepared by her two Vietnamese friends, the tour to Cu Chi tunnels - an underground maze of Vietnamese families and Viet Cong living under the U.S. army base in the late 60's, and of course, the amazing food we had every breakfast, lunch or dinner!