Posts Tagged ‘food’

A new series! Check it out, I’m like Anthony Bourdain, but much less qualified, respected and successful…

the basics: ten fingers, toes and chilies for each plate

Spicy, strong flavors, lots of carbs, and clearly inspired from Tamil (Southern Indian) food, I love the food in Sri Lanka. Curries, masalas, ground coconut, chilies and saffron make up for rich, intense tastes, and when it’s good, it’s really good. Though not nearly as diverse as the options in India, the following are the basic and most easily found dishes. Everything is eaten with your right hand, and even soups are generally served in cups. Most restaurants have spoons on request, but going local is preferable, and not just for the experience: some foods simply have to be eaten by hand anyway, and I’ll never forget the first time I was told (this mantra was repeated to me by many), of rice and curry, that “There is no point in eating this food with a spoon. You will not get the flavors.” I know that sounds ludicrous, but I found it to be true. Part of it is that you cannot mix the food in the same way. It’s common to have several curries and veggies served separately, and the mixing of them not only makes every bite just a bit different, but getting the proper consistency requires you to thoroughly mix the rice with the curry, completely covering and spicing every single grain. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you eat one plate with a spoon and another with five fingers, the difference becomes obvious.

The other part of it is even harder to really explain. Obviously, there are tons of foods eaten exclusively by hand in all cultures and countries (except by Donald Trump, but he’s more of a robot anyway), but in many countries, everything is eaten by hand, and eating a food (particularly one as seemingly unweildy as rice and curry) with your hands connects you to it in a way, makes you focus, makes you more mindful of what’s going into your mouth. It’s true: I found the food simply tasted better, and that line, “There is no point eating this food with a spoon” echoed with each meal… I think Bourdain was really on to something when he wrote that food tastes better with bare feet. I’ve preached this mantra plenty over the years, and maybe this is just the natural extension of that. By my second week here, I was eating every meal with bare hands and bare feet. I highly recommend trying this, no matter where you are and what you’re chewing…

Rice and Curry

Truly the national dish, though obviously no nation can truly lay claim to it. It sounds like a simple meal, but generally “Rice and Curry” can be construed as “Rice and four to six different curries”, sometimes served as sides, sometimes served in a neatly striped pile, and often self-serve. Out of perhaps 50 or so meals of Rice and Curry, I can confidently say that no two are ever alike, and that is the broadness of the whole meal: obviously there are veg and non-veg curries, stewed options, steamed veggies, fried bits and more, and there are really endless possibilities… here are some visuals to chew on…

YUM

clockwise from left: a big ol' red chili, red rice (on the whole plate.. duh), stewed green beans with chili, fried roti (sort of like tortilla chips), lentil dhal, steamed spinach, and pan-fried jackfruit. all veg, all delicious

left to right: beef curry, a sort of broiled chicken, rice, stewed root veggies, dhal. the little dish on the bottom was this lovely yogurt/onion/chili chutney

this stuff was INSANE. see all them little seeds? yup, they totally work...

this is what Al looks like after eating it. seriously, this stuff was HOT

clockwise: lentil Dhal, potato curry, curried chicken

I totally ate the cheeks out of this little guy. the fish, that is, not the nice Belgian fellow holding it...

Dhosa/Paper Dhosa/Masala Dhosa

These are… just awesome. Basically the dhosa itself is a crepe-like bread, always made fresh (if it’s worth a damn). You can purchase the batter by the bag/bucket in stores, but again, if it’s worth a notion, it will be home-made. Here again is a food you can eat hundreds of times and always have a different meal: the batters are sometimes a bit sour, sometimes just a little sweet, but always different. My favorites have a strongly fermented, sourdough taste to them, and in Kandy, after trying three or four shops, I stuck to the one guy. Plain dhosa is just like it sounds: a huge freakin’ dollop of fresh batter, with nothing on it. Paper dhosa is also pretty self-explanatory: like a dhosa, but thinner and more crumbly (think pan pizza vs thin crust). These are generally more expensive than their bigger kin, as it’s simply harder to make it thin without burning it, making itmore labor intensive. Masala dhosa is a plain dhosa with spiced chunks of potato (and sometimes other veggies) mixed inside. All of these are eaten with Dhal, Chutneys and Curries, none of which you technically pay for (in shops, guys just walk around with cute little 4-leaf-clover buckets full of them). A good plain dhosa will generally set you back about 60 rupees (about $.60), and I don’t think I ever paid more than 130 rupees for a Masala dhosa, which makes them nice, cheap, fast and tasty. I have eaten four in one sitting (well, standing – that was a street vendor, where they’re typically about 16 rupees each instead of 60) to the great pleasure and amusement of the vendor: one is usually filling.

plain ol' dhosa

This is the standard option. The little bucket-looking thing is loaded with dhal, potato curry and a spicy chutney...

this man is my homeboy

I called him J, because I couldn't pronounce his name -- you can find him here seven days a week

heavy!

curries and such are made off-site, delivered by tuk-tuk, piping hot. here J and company load in fresh dhal

String Hoppers

Imagine the same basic principle of the Dhosa or Rice and Curry (carbs+curries=awesome) but replace the carbs with patties of rice noodles, then serve it next to only mild curries (like Dhal), and Sambal, which is ground coconut with chili and other spices. If you like noodles, your mouth should be watering at this point. Generally treated as breakfast food, this is something I’d never seen before (although I’ve now had the same thing in India, as a form of idly), and it was really, really hard to not gorge myself on this every day. The great thing about hoppers is that you pretty much have to eat them with your hands; you simply can’t do it otherwise. First, take a paddy, some dhal, and some sambal, and then just mince it together with your fingers, mixing in the curry to make it the right consistency. Then work it into a ball with your thumb and all your fingers (it’s easier to do this with hoppers than it is with rice, as the noodles sort of congeal with the curry), pinch it, slide your thumb across to shove the ball into your mouth, and savor that awesome flavor. Crazy whackos like me can add more chili paste, but be prepared: even the locals will look at you funny for doing this, as it is breakfast, after all, and is considered more “temperate” food. I made the diagram of eating food with five fingers with hoppers instead of rice because the pictures are prettier:

left to right: dhal, hoppers, sambal

fig A: the cleanest your hand and plate will ever be

fig B: mince it all up

fig C: smash it all together. use all four fingers for this part.

fig D: the thumb is used like a spoon (really, more like a shovel) to sweep the food into your awaiting gullet. your fingers should not enter your mouth while eating...

fig E: repeat until this is what you see

perhaps the most crucial step: remove shoes beforehand

Along the path, I met a lot of other travelers who never once tried these. If you go, do not follow their example, particularly if you are a noodle geek like me…

Roti: a versitle bit of dough

Roti is perhaps the most common, and diverse, eats on the go. Plain roti is very similar to a tortilla, much thicker than dhosa but generally smaller. It’s made from a dough rather than batter, less like a crepe and more like leavened bread, just a bit thicker than nan . Sometimes it’s served with dahl, or some other curry, sometimes just chili paste, sometimes dry, in a stack (it’s rarely made fresh in front of you). Fancy-pants roti is generally a much bigger piece, folded over with fillings such as veggies, cheese, meat and curry — except for the fact that it’s square instead of rolled, it’s very similar to a burrito, really. Generally, a veggie option will set you back 70-100 rupees, with meat varieties being about twice as much. New Muslim Hotel in Kandy is particularly renowned for their rotis, and here is their steak option:

mmmmm

cut with spoons, eat with hands, repeat

which is perhaps not the prettiest picture (at this restaurant, the roti was cut up in front of me with two spoons, which was so amusing that I chose not to argue for the sake of cleanly framed photographs) but should get the point across. That particular one is steak, onions, spinach, tomato, and a light sauce. I wasn’t very hungry when I came in, but ate two of these. The spoons seemed a tad dull by the second… I considered saying something but held my tongue.

British Food

It has to be said: relatively British fare is widely available in the cities, mostly ending up as bar food in pubs and such. Fried is the key word here, and it is generally over-salted, like most bar food, to make you drink more. Still, at some places, it’s really quite delicious: at the Royal Pub in Kandy, the batter is very light, with just a bit of chilli, and some citrus highlights. They do local mushrooms there that are, in a word, amazing. I ate them nearly every day. Their other mildly addictive dish isn’t even on the menu; David called them “saltfish” (as a Brit, I figured he’d know) but these are not salt-preserved fish, but rather small fish that are battered and fried whole (apparently very common in pubs in Britain). These plates were relatively expensive (the mushrooms were about 380 rupees a plate, enough for four or five dhosas) but the beer at this fine establishment is drought, fresh, and only 120 rupees a pint (oddly, not an imperial pint) so it sort of balances out.

left to right: salty mushrooms, beer, salty fish, empty beer, salty mushrooms

Honorable Mention: king coconuts

Obviously not a particularly “national” food, I have to mention them anyway. For starters, they’re quite delicious, and the coconut water within is as fresh as you’ll get, nearly bursting from the thing as the knife strikes the surface. Secondly, this is a very good thing to drink on 36c days that are spent in the sun, as coconut water is loaded with electrolytes and sugary goodness, rehydrating you quickly. I drink and eat at least one of these a day, sometimes three or four. I think even more than that, though, I like that they are almost exclusively sold by bicycle, often by people who have almost nothing, as all you need to get into business is a bike, a blade, and access to king coconuts, which are no rare thing in Sri Lanka.

poker face

You also get a built-in chance to talk to each vendor for a few minutes, because if you stick around, when the water is gone, they’ll chop the thing into halves, chip of a piece of coconut for you to use as a spoon (a sanitary, biodegradable spoon) and you get to gorge out the fruit. These conversations are fun, when you can have them (many vendors speak very little english) and a pretty transparent window to the lower class here. I met one man (his name sounded like ‘At-heed-a’) who lived in a one room shack with his wife and two children. His wife washed clothes for money on the riverbank across from their home, about a kilometer from his regular coconut spot, across from a temple in a quiet neighborhood with little foot traffic. Both children were in school. His cache of goods were mostly stored at home, and when he ran out of coconuts, he simply went into the jungle to get more (which sometimes involves serious climbing) or he could buy them from another man who sold them out of his tuk-tuk for perhaps 1/3 of retail. He seemed pretty happy, and certainly well fed. Sometimes, though, the vendors’ stories were different…

ego trippin’: a tale of two coconuts

A few weeks ago, while in Puducherry (very much not in Sri Lanka), I met one pair of ladies who worked on the same corner, but not together. My buddy Henry had designated one as his coconut mama and frequented only her, as I had done to Atheeda and many other food vendors. After the second time I went there, I wondered about them a bit more.

“It’s weird that they’re on the same corner… you think those two get along?”, I asked while we were walking away.
“Hmm? Oh, I don’t think so… they don’t speak to each other.”
“Wait… like, you haven’t seen them talk to each other, or you asked and she told you that?”
“No, I asked. I thought it was interesting that they worked the same corner but clearly weren’t working together, so I asked… anyway, she told me they used to speak – I think they even worked together, as partners – but yeah, they don’t anymore. I asked her how long ago that was and she just said ‘years’.”

I considered the implications of this. They were both probably in their late forties or early fifties… Wow! This was… very interesting. They work next to each other for 12+ hours a day and won’t speak.

“Actually,” he went on, “one day I didn’t have enough change to pay here, and she said ‘tomorrow’, and when I went back the next day, she wasn’t there. I asked the other lady if she would give her the 15 rupees for me, but she just shook her head and said ‘later’. So I went back later and paid her.”
“So… let’s get this straight… they won’t talk to each other, even enough to exchange 15 rupees… but she didn’t just take your money and keep it. That would mean that not only is she honest, she may be spite-less as well, maybe even traces of some honor or good intention mixed in there…”
“Yeah, I thought about that too.”
“And why doesn’t one just move? Even, like, across the street? Is it like a turf thing? Or just pride? I wonder what happened to male them stop speaking…”
“Yeah, it’s weird, I think they generally only work one the same days, too; I walked by the other day and neither of them were there…”

We never found out. I think about them sometimes. I’ve decided it’s all pretty hip-hop, actually, refusing to leave your corner after splitting shop with your partner. A corner beef. With coconuts.

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It starts with the toilet paper.

You’ll find it has Mandarin on it once you go north of Luang Prabang. Then it spreads to the other random bits in your bathroom: the water heater. The soap. Then the food, and shortly thereafter, the vehicles — strange, olive-drab tractor-like jalopies running on single-cylinder motors that resemble generators, with belt-driven, primitive drivetrains. No seat, just a bench. Top speed is about ten miles per hour. The karaoke turns Chinese around Luang Namtha, and that’s sort of the point of no return: the border is another 2 hours North, but you’re pretty much in China… the faces and names and equipment and food and locals turn almost instantly. It’s dramatic and subtle at the same time…

Still, there’s a lot more to this than what meets my ignorant eyes… China has huge contracts with the Lao PDR to do forestry and other less-than-savory activities within their borders in exchange for ‘aid’, tons of road building equipment, and even labor. Even outside of Udomxai, you realize that basically every restaurant and guesthouse is catering to (or run by) the Chinese, and everything is written in both Lao and Mandarin, on every sign, in every restaurant, everywhere. Laos is not a particularly industrialized nation, and at 6.8 million people, it is a speck on the map in terms of labor compared to China. The hooks of the PRC reach far and wide, wider every day still — recently I read that Venezuela is shipping 460,000 barrels of crude oil to China every day, 180,000 of which are in exchange for $28 billion in loans in order to build infrastructure. If you’ve ever read ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ (which I would highly recommend) you know that they learned this type of economic strategy from us, notably the World Bank and companies like Halliburton and KBR… Colonialism has evolved, and China is at the front of it.

The decision was made rather suddenly to head for the border. Backtracking was afoot in any direction — it was either go back to LPB for Water Festival (expensive), try to book a flight from Chiang Mai or Vientiane (been there), or go north till I hit China, back-tracking through NW Laos. I picked North, almost arbitrarily — there are tons of areas I’ve yet to see among Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines… the list goes on, but I was getting tired of certain aspects of the tourism circuit, French Canadians notwithstanding. Plus, I already had my ill-deserved, horrendously overpriced Chinese visa in my passport. And the man who acted so nicely as my mediator in Huy Xai explained my loss to his travel agent buddies who offered to take me to the border for a mere 140,000 Kip. We stopped for lunch and the driver and his sidekick insisted on feeding me, even though I had literally no Kip left in my pocket — the generosity of Laos is almost old hat to me now but continually enlightening.

beer and communism: a short tangent

At some point while we were sitting, the sidekick asked

“Do you like Beerlao?”
Do I! The words flew out of my mouth:
“Dude, you shoulda seen me last night — I’m pretty sure LBC’s stock has doubled since I got to Laos, and that Bokeo will be a dry province until the proper supply chains can be restored and maintained..”

This was a bit of a misnomer, as the Lao Brewing Company was nationalized for a long time, and is currently still 50% owned by the PDR — they liberated it from the foreign investors back in 1975 (after what the PDR affectionately calls the – ahem – “National Liberation” of Laos) and independently operated it until 1993 or so. Eventually, foreign investors were let back in, and apparently Carlsberg owns the other half of it now (I’ve met a few Danish people who’ve told me they taste amazingly similar…)

The mission statement on BeerLao’s website is amazing:

“To move into the future with our consumers by ensuring that our brands are their preferred brands, providing them full bodies taste, total product satisfaction and identification with our products as an integral part of their success in life.”

That is just… absolutely wonderful. Maybe I should send them the story of my last night in Huy Xai, eh?

Anyway, an odd parallel to this ‘fermentation nationalization’ in China is Tsingtao, which holds about 15% of the domestic market share. It was founded privately in 1903 after Qingdao (which has an amazing history) was ceded to the Germans after they seized and occupied it. The British attacked the city in 1914 and afterwards the Japanese actually occupied it, as they were fighting alongside the Brits against ze Germans in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. It was restored to Chinese control in 1923 or so, although the Japanese occupied it once more in 1938 in their failed conquests into China. Ironically, the KMT allowed the US to use it as a naval base for the Pacific Fleet in WWII, and a base remained there until the CCP-led Red Army marched in around 1949 and again restored control to the PRC, which it has held ever since. Tsingdao had survived through all of these failed occupations and conquests, and in a similar vein to the LBC, was ‘liberated’ from its previous (at that time, Chinese) owners as such to become the sole property of the PRC — until about 1993, when, in a similar twist to LBC, private investors were let back in to purchase shares, and Anheuser-Busch (now InBev) owned 27% of it until last year, when they sold off 19% to Asahi and the rest to some random Chinese tycoon, at a profit of around $900 million. The appropriation of stock and wealth over a mere 100 years in this company is laughably convoluted and quintessentially ‘Communist’ in nature. The beer does remain very similar to the original product: a light-bodied pilsner that does taste a bit hoppy and German in character… although after nationalization, it is no longer Reinheitsgebot, as they use rice to cheapen the cost of the mash, and one of the varieties even has Spirulina as an additive, which the Germans would certainly not approve of. I’m a bit of a German beer guy myself (as the good Poobah Stan once said: “Löwenbräu changed my life!”) and I shed a tear in my beer for this wanton disregard of the Purity Law of 1516… hey, Spaten Double-Shovel it certainly is not, but we take what we can get…

north

Lunch, my last meal in Laos and fittingly benevolent in its bounty, was great: sticky rice, a river weed based muck (surprisingly delicious) with local sausage and a fish based soup… it was more than enough food for the three of us, and we climbed back into the van with full bellies, my eyes eager to make for new ground…

Land borders are always fun. I like the idea of walking from one country into another, and the van driver must have sensed this in me, as when I grabbed my bag and said “khop chai!” to him, he pointed ahead, North, and simply said “China!” with a big grin. Yes! Over there! China! Let’s do this…

At the Departure window, I got my first taste of China once more. A Laotian would never cut his place in line, let alone ignore the damn line completely and push ahead as if all others were simply subservient. In China, though, there is no such thing as a line; there are no queues, no waiting, no “after you” gestures of seniority or chivalry or politeness… no, there are just people, lots of people, and if they can reach the front of the line, pushing and shoving and squirming through, well then, they are the front of the line. This departure window was no exception, and it took me a minute to remember my Chinese manners once more, in such a contrast to my Laotian manners: push, you bastard. Just push. Reach that lanky ‘ol arm out, past all the others, force your passport in to the guy’s hand.   Me First… the cornerstone of behavior in any Chinese ‘line’.

Making it over was fun, and suddenly the contrast of SE Asia to China was in full effect. A very polite border officer in the Chinese office scrutinized my passport and entry form for quite some time, and the fake-looking pages that had been added (somewhat stitched, but literally cello tape holding the outside page borders) were very, very foreign to him, and he was quite displeased that the inner border of this cello tape ran over the top edge of my last Chinese visa. After a lot of silly questions, I threw him a curve-ball to see what would happen:

“I see your passport was issued in New Orleans, although this says you live in Wisconsin – why is that?”
“Well, New Orleans is in Wisconsin…”
“Oh. Okay. Thank you sir; enjoy your stay in China.”

I was going to fess up, but I figured perhaps we were inadvertently speaking the same language (The International Language of Semantics?), so I just let it roll… I’m sure some are shaking their heads at this joke that may have possibly threatened my entry in to China, but hey, sometimes you’ve gotta push the boundaries just to see where they really lie…

Customs was fun too: forms, but no one there to take them, just empty lanes. As I crumpled up the form and tossed it in the garbage on the way out, I thought back to the CN Embassy in BKK, with its arbitrary, capricious use of the metal detector in the lobby. Ahh, China…

Eventually I make it to the bus station in Boten, just across the border. Obviously, no one there spoke English, and when I tried to get a ticket to Mengla, it was simply not getting through… eventually I submitted to her offer for a ticket all the way to Kunming, which is quite a bit further North than I wanted to go initially but for the destination of which will quickly end this awkward exchange — she’s yelling the same sentence over and over, louder and louder, as if the volume itself will show me the light and I’ll suddenly speak Mandarin, which is what a lot of Westerners do over here with English, whom I never miss a chance to chide a bit; “Oh yeah, if you say it LOUDER, then they’ll totally be able to interpret a language that they don’t speak! Good idea, professor!”

I’m the only westerner on the bus, which doesn’t really surprise me. After about an hour, the bus stops in what I assume is Mengla, and everyone empties off. A nice Chinese woman with her husband, who had crossed the border about the same time as me, explained “one hour for dinner”. I asked if I could accompany them, though I wasn’t even hungry. She smiled wide, grabbed me by the arm, and said “Yes! Yes! Please!” and we wandered off into the city, in search of food…

I always forget to tell people I’m vegetarian over here, probably because I’m not, really. I’m just sort of picky about meat. I’m chatting with the lady, going over our recent lives: she’s been teaching in Thailand for six months and is going home to Kunming for a while. She asks where I’m heading. Usual response comes out: “I have no idea.”. She smiles. Her husband gets up to gaze at a wall full of bottles and returns to the table with two, 100ml each, filled with clear liquid. I recognize the stuff immediately: it’s baijou, basically moonshine made from rice, maybe even watered down so it reaches a ‘reasonable’ 56% alcohol. I hate this stuff; it’s technically distilled in the same manner as Lao whiskey but is inexplicably about 100 times more disgusting. He walks over smiling, and he can see the look in my eyes, the slight shake to my head, but he continues anyway: he pours the whole damn bottle into a glass, then repeats for himself, holds his up, and smiles wide. I can’t refuse — I clink glasses and we sip, and I remember the taste, that foul after-burn in my throat, the feel of the stuff. There is a reason it only costs 30 cents a bottle. Dinner comes. First round is short-ribs, breaded with a moist rice-flour. Not bad. Next plate comes out: odd, unrecognizable white blobs of fatty tissue floating in a brown broth with peanuts. “Pigs feet!” says the lady. Pretty hard to chew, and almost flavorless — why do people eat these again? I refuse nothing. It’s insulting, not just to my hosts, but to my own silly sense of immersion; if you wanna be here, than just be here: jump in, chew the damn pigs foot, drink the foul moonshine, try it just to try it.

One of the next dishes tested this mantra with full-on abandon: it was fish, but these were some sorry-looking fish, the size of which we wouldn’t use as bait to catch Northern Pike in Door County, and the thought of how far we are from a coast, combined with the memories of how ‘river’ is basically synonymous with ‘cesspool’ in China flood into my head. They are pan-fried, heads-on, and it’s a challenge to chew the little flesh clinging to their frame without taking in a mouth full of bones and fin. The lady demonstrates: first, rip the dorsal fin off with your teeth and chew. Chew the dorsal. Yep… I don’t have a lot of experience with that one. It’s pretty awful but the baijou is tempering my nerves and possibly my taste buds with the gentle stroke that a blowtorch might temper a piece of iron. I keep spitting out bones, and of course the stick-of-gum sized portion of flesh attached to them often follow, the taste of which is too foul to describe even for these crude transmissions. She tries to correct my ignorant chewing skills, and I apologize for wasting food, but hey: it’s just rather hard to eat these things. She seems impressed with my ability to use chopsticks and at one point asks if I’d like some rice, possibly enamored with the fact that I’ve eaten (well, chewed) a good portion of food that I’m clearly having trouble actually ‘eating’. Ahh, new things…

We get up and, predictably, they refuse to let me pay my share. “We host you”, she says. If only you knew, honey…

Kunming was… a place of rejuvenation for me. Some recent events, my own dark thoughts, and the typical fatigue from crossing almost a thousand kilometers in 26 hours were swept away by noodles, dumplings, brandy, new strangers-turned-friends, friendly locals and their benevolence and smiles and patience, and just the atmosphere of the place: Trees! Sunshine! 74 degrees every day! Fewer stuck-up French people roaming around! Birds in the sky! What a contrast to the grey, freezing Beijing I’d last seen two years ago… I could tell that this time, China was gonna be the witness. I’m going to love it here.

China simply doesn’t have the same tourist draw that the rest of SE Asia has… there is tons of history and countless landscapes and I consider it pretty easy to get around, but it’s not as ‘open’ or easy as one might want, and while I still felt some of that same culture-shock as I did two years ago, it’s exactly what I’m looking for after a month in a place where many visitors wind up ignoring the greater aspects of traveling and immersing in favor of sticking with each other and partying, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I recall something a nice British guy had mentioned at the posse bar back in LPB:

“The guidebook says you could easily spend a week here, but I can’t imagine how, or what you’d do..”
“Well, have you visited any of the Wats around? There’s over 30 of them; a lot of them are really amazing…”
“No…”
“Have you climbed up Phousi? It’s great to see the sunset or sunrise from there…”
“No.”
“Have you done any trekking or kayaking or biking?”
“No.”
“Have you gone over the river, or even gotten out of the Old Quarter?”
“No.”
“Well what the hell have you been doing, man?”
“Well, we went to see the waterfalls one day… and other than that I’ve just been drinking a lot with you guys.”

Obviously, I’ve done the exact same thing and am certainly no holier, but this illustrates my point, at least somewhat. It’s much harder to feel truly out of your own element in Thailand or Laos or Vietnam… there’s a small language barrier, sure, and there are troubles and trials and scams, but it’s just so easy to be there, there are so many of us there at any given time, taking the same ride, and to some degree they cater to the vices and the manufacturing of experiences that too often sum up the bulk of peoples’ trips to the region.

We have only ourselves to blame for this; we didn’t trample the place in a day, but in cycles, in generations of past tourists going home and raving about the beaches and the prices and the buckets and the oh-what-a-great-times… I don’t think it is a given to have a manufactured experience, but if there’s one place above all others where I’ve been that exemplifies it — and bear in mind that I haven’t been to many places — it’s the regions of SE Asia that breed the most sophomoric of wants in us, that cater to the Europeans who just graduated Uni, or the Israelis who just finished their IDF stint, or the Aussies who treat it as their backyard, their own little Cancun or Tijuana, or the North Americans who come because they’ve already been to Cancun and Tijuana… to all of us, all who’ve heard tale of full moon parties on the beach, and sixty-cent beers, and three-dollar hotel rooms, and tubing down rivers of beer, weed and spring rolls… We are the people who’ve manufactured this place into catering to ourselves, and the ramifications of that are transparent only to a point, and still opaque and fuzzy to me.

We are the reason that sleepy towns become party spots, that cops turn to bribes, that village boys turn into tuk tuk pushers, that girls from slums in Bangkok turn to selling their flesh on the street… and who could blame them? Is a life of taking the Euro or the Dollar not superior to poverty and toil? Is prostitution a better life than sweatshop labor? Is the cop who takes a $300 bribe from a punk 20-year old with a joint not feeding his family with it? Is the tuk tuk driver not pushing his wares so he can afford the most basic of luxuries, running water and electricity? What have we given to these places though our tourism, exactly? What is the cost of a 14% growth rate in GNP? What is the phantom nature of that 14% in the first place?

The interconnectedness of everything is impossible to see and at the same time impossible to ignore, and while I probably bring more negativity into the situation than is warranted, I feel I can’t ignore the writing on the wall…

We are the manufactured and the manufacturers. Just because you can see the cogs turn doesn’t mean you aren’t one, in that same machine…

…and there are a lot of machines out there.

China. Holy shit. I’m ready for you, China…

dip, dip, dive
so-so-cialize
clean out ya ears 
open ya eyes
~MC Quincy, as transcribed by the RZA

Hola de Bocas del Toros,

Things I see as I sit on this terrace, overlooking Carnivale on Isla Colon in Bocas:  smiles.   bikes of various styles, mostly with flashy rattle-can paint jobs and home-made racks or surfboard carriers hanging off the back or side. bald tires.  street food that is unconditionally delicious, sold by cart or bicycle: meat on a stick.  empanadas.  milensa pollo sandwiches.  2 year old kids who can dance better than most white people.  skateboards.  lots of beautiful, happy people.  braids, dreads, naps, fades.  speakers and PAs cranked so loud that the amps fade and crackle on the peaks (this is the normal volume setting here, no matter the crowd or music played).  a big-rig tanker, with ‘INFLAMABLE’ painted on every side of the tank, spraying a crowd of 70 or so dancing people with (what I hope is) water.  hips, ohgodlookatallthehips!  talking, laughing, dancing, drinking, eating.  the occasional cat-call, sometimes though the PA.  convenience stores with stacks, huge stacks as tall as me, of cases of beer, and Red Bull, and fifths of booze vac-sealed with quarts of juice, half-obstructing every single aisle.  whole families, little kids wrastlin’ on the grass, lots of kids overall.  smiles.
From what I’ve gathered from the locals (so friendly, and patient with communication), there’s a Carnivale in four or five cities in Panama (the biggest being Panama City, of course) but this one is a destination for alot of the Northern Panamanians  because… well, it’s on an island (a bit of a party island anyway), and it’s pretty cheap to get to.  I guess in East Madison we’re quite spoiled; we get a block party pretty much every two weeks for the whole summer… you can tell it’s pretty condensed into Carnivale; it lasts 5 days or so, and hoy es Sabado — the main event…. the music on the street went till 2am or so last night (try THAT shit in Madison) and started back up around 10am… but the clubs rocked till 6am.  I got up with the music (our hotel is about 110 yards from the main stage — guess which way the speakers are pointed?) and right now it’s 4:03pm, and the crowd is really getting going.  The stage mixes back and forth, from live Mambo, Caribbean and Roots bands, to these DJs who must have either ADD or good drugs, ’cause there’s a cut every minute or two, and nothing is under 120bpm.  It’s pretty fun.  It’s nowhere near Rio, or even other cities in Panama, but it’s got a good vibe….
Maybe the most foreign thing about being down in all this is that it’s not really foreign at all…

heads bumpin’ back, thinkin’ bout shit; yeah I like it…..
Every place on the water here (bars, clubs, hotels, everything) in literally ON the water — constructed on stilts, or maybe even just floating there.  You’ll look down while taking a shower in your hostel and realize that you can see the damn ocean though the drain… which is a hell of a lot more ocean than I’m used to seeing through my shower’s drain, so maybe the novelty just hasn’t worn off yet.  There’s a bar we were at last night till 3am or so called Barco Hundido (a bit of a play on words) where as you walk in, you cross a series of bridges and paths to the main bar area, which is built on a solid platform over the water.  That then opens up to a little ‘lagoon’ in the water where there’s a sunken ship.  More pier-like structures and raft-type platforms link around the ship and a ways past it to make a seating area.  I dunno if this is even legal in the US, but it is SO frickin’ cool…. by the end of the platforms, you’re a good 40 or so feet off the shore, and it’s lit thoughtfully enough that you can see alot of fish and such (a sweet sign in the lagoon part reads: “SWIM at your OWN RISK!  everything CUT you!”)
The zoning laws are probably pretty great here… we were chatting with a bar/restaurant owner yesterday who said he got the lot we were standing on “because no one wanted it; they thought it was too small.  I could only build to here,” and he slaps his hand on the bar in front of me (I’m sitting on the front porch, which is about as big as the bar itself) “but I figured I could build a porch to the street, and shit, most people sit on the porch anyway.”  I gave him a somewhat puzzled look; like, isn’t the porch technically “building”?  Or part of the building?  He smiled and nodded with a sort of half-shake to his head… George has a PhD and worked for years for the Smithsonian, doing archeological research around Central America (born in Calgary, did his post-doctorate at KU Lawrence).  He was wearing a dirty apron and a GnR bandanna, and during our chat he was re-summoned to the kitchen to cook hamburgers and falafel.  He seemed really happy.  A few minutes later he ran back to where I was sitting and reached under the bar in front of me.  “Forgot my beer!”  Then he ran back to the kitchen, cerveza en mano.  
I could write whole essays on how what I’ve seen in other countries makes me laugh and cry with the kind of regulation and bullshit small business owners go though in the states… although it probably belongs nowhere near this particular transmission.  You know what that meat-on-a-stick guy does with my $1.50?  He feeds his family.  Maybe puts some of it away.  Or to put it even less eloquently than I would, as Ray Smuckles once said, People want to eat some fuckin’ dinner and have some fuckin’ money! What the fuck do you THINK gettin’ up in the morning is all about?
Oh yeah, George made a really good plate of falafel.
hasta luego…