Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Post 19: In hopes of making up for 18, I send this and 20 and holiday wishes



note: this too is a double post, though they move chronologically. post 20 is a little more than halfway down...

Dearies,

My life has been significantly affected by chickens. Many of you know the Fred Jameson’s house chicken story (either in my telling or Linz’s highly apocryphal and ever-metastasizing version); some of you know my travails this summer with the so-called Maui rooster (with all the windows closed -- despite having no AC -- and with earplugs in, I was still regularly awakened by crowing at 3:30 a.m – and not for the first time. It turns out the fucker was literally on the other side of my bedroom window. So I got up and went outside and, I kid you not, he gave me a sheepish, yeah I know I shouldn’t be squawking 3 hours before sunrise look before sulking away). Well, things that look a hell of a lot like the Maui rooster abound in Laos as well, and seem in similar lack of possession of a Farmer’s Almanac. Add to this an apparent community alarm clock of dogs fighting (normally around 6 or before) and the fact that when a door closes in the most of these guest houses, it sounds like the slamming of the portal of Ugolino’s tower of hunger, and you will understand why I haven’t exactly been sleeping in. As a result, my bedtimes have been getting earlier and earlier. When 9 rolls around now, I’m pretty much down for the count.

Some Westerners just came in and asked my landlady if there was hot water. She just giggled. Love that. A few minutes later I offered her a lao lao and she laughed again, only this time a bit more trepidatously.

An incredibly long, unbelievably slender dragonfly (my favorite of all animal groups) just landed on the rim of my whiskey glass. Clearly not everyone in Laos is afraid of lao lao. You’d think that since the name for it is just the country name said twice that it would be a little more popular. Addendum: my new friend (more on her in a second) tells me that in many of the villages, the men drink it morning to night, and don’t allow themselves – or anyone – to stop on an odd-number of glasses full, so you’d better be prepared to roll…

Day 20: So I came up here to rent a bike and see some hill villages; well, instead I buy a beer and meet a Dutch woman. Unlike the village women, she is not wearing her wealth in silver coins and buttons stitched onto elaborate headscarves and vests, she does not have a near-toothless mouth slicked from the inside with crimson (if that’s betel they’re chewing, they must have a quarter pound of it in there); she is not wearing shinguards of denim (very fashion forward) or long necklaces of beads or shells; her head is not wrapped nor under a triangled straw hat or colored headdress, and she would state her height American style by starting with a 6, not a 4. She biked herself up here from Namtha; she is exceptionally fit, might outweigh, and could almost certainly outlift me. Her name is Paola; she proves to be delightful company.

Day 21: But when day comes, the sun is pretty brutal; I see dozens of women of various villages at the market (including a line of 20 or so of them each selling her hooch from truck oil jugs or old Wesson bottles); and I conclude that that’s probably enough, and what I really want to do is get back to Namtha, go online, connect, relax, and get my bearings again. Paola is biking back down today as well, and wants me to then accompany her to the northwest corner of Laos (we are currently in northernmost central). Where she’s going is all but Yunnan China (which I will save for another trip), plus it will take two days to arrive and I would have to just turn around again to make it all the way back to Vientiane to catch my fancy flight to Burma. Oh well. I’m also beginning to feel ready to move on – I recognize the signs now: feeling like I’ve eaten all the different foods at the market, that I’ve gone as far as I can power myself from wherever my base is, that I’ve learned as many phrases as I’m going to learn and will never make the jump to anything substantial, and that I’ve seen a few too many of the white faces more than once, and it’s time to skedaddle. So I’m seeing Paula this evening; tomorrow I’ll bike one final direction to a few more villages, do the postponed homestay overnight and guided daytrek; then I’ll come back Wednesday evening for the new years festivities, whatever they’ll consist of, and Thursday I’ll take the 19-hr bus to Vientiane. Friday I fly. A northern Laos tripped boxed nicely and tied with a bow.

Day 22: You might think I’d have had a bad day: Paola left early this morning; my homestay excursion proved to be a 50-km mountainous trip just to have lunch (I got to the village and there was no government tourism office as I had been told there’d be, nor anyone who spoke even a word of English as I was told there’d be, so I had a bowl of noodles with a local woman and her mother – who told me she’s had 8 children – bought a little of her lao lao and then rode back.); I drank the village water by mistake (it looked very much like tea – eeks); and the water buffalo I took a photo of (for its simply prodigious hornrack) gave me a highly convincing I-might-charge look. This is not the first time I’ve been stared down by an animal that clearly saw I was yellow. I backed away like a good pansy.

But instead today’s been great. On my bike trip back from the homestay debacle, I pulled over when I saw an old village woman toting tons of stuff on her head and back while walking on the main road. I sign-asked her if she wanted a lift, and she gave me the most hysterical shy, no-no-no, red-cavern smile. God knows how many decades she’s been toting that burden up and down the mountain, but I suspect I was the only falang on a bike to try to pick her up. So hysterical. I love it when really old ladies get super girlish.

I also raced some schoolboys on their bikes and let them win, saw some stunning scenery (with many of the stilted hunter’s shacks along the mountainsides, so lovely), had earlier been invited into the home by the old lady with 8 kids (and she gave me some of her what I think is shredded palm and chili salad – smoking!); and I prior to that I had breakfasted on the only dish yet to challenge the gorgeous laab lady’s gorgeous laab (more on her soon): it was a banana-leaf wrapped thing with chicken in it, but mostly it was just an incredibly layered almost soupy sauce for sticky rice balls, detailed in the extreme and completely mystifying. It did have these inedible wood bits that I believe come from these very hairy sticks I’ve seen the village women selling; I’ll have to get those at the IGA when I get back and make the dish for you. (Hairy sticks? Aisle eleven)

I’ve been asking the names of all the foods, and one I need to look up (if I can get the transliteration at all correct) is de mon (day’ mon) PIC. I had a bite this morning; are these fried maggots? Can I get a ruling on this from someone? (Postscript: turns out they are grubs, which I’ve eaten before). They were not very good, and not identifiable as vegetable or meat. I really don’t know. The women at the market now all know that I buy lots of stuff, so they let me taste everything. Very nice, even when you end up with a mouthful of grubs.

Some random notes: the top speed of those crazy trucks seems to be 15mph, but it doesn’t seem to matter how loaded they are or how steep the climb is, they make it.

Meanwhile the vans shaped to look a bit dragonish with Thai temple kinds of lines to them (and with spoilers on the back) are a very bad idea.

At the market, I see two beasts for sale, still furred, that seem equal part rat, hare, and baby deer. God knows. Perhaps they gave up the ghost for the mystery jerky I had a 2 days ago. Yum.

Many of the village women have big wicker baskets that they turn into backpacks; that would go over well at UArts. But I still prefer the ones who tote their bags by draping the strap over their foreheads and going hands-free. I’d try that with my messenger bag but my brother sees evidence that my hairline has already seen its high tide.

There’s a Pekingese dog in town that only barks at village people, not Lao or whites.

Judging from the evidence I’ve seen live of here dogs and on television of recorded rhinoceri, female mammalia do not seem to want to copulate, nor to enjoy it when it’s “thrust upon them.”

The math and commerce senses here are even worse than I imagined. I had a bus fare of 22,000 kip so I have the girl a 2,000 note and a 50,000 note, which I wanted to get rid of. She looked at it like I had given her a flounder. I finally just took it back and gave her two tens. Then later I bought 1,000 kip worth of mia and the girl had no change for a 2,000. These are as small of notes as they use, but for the 500 (6 cents). And everything she sells is 1,000! Turns out that Paola taught at a school in Thailand for a month and said that there is literally no learning whatsoever, that the teachers go on vacation all the time, there are no tests, they never try to give the students more than 5 minutes of focused teaching at a time, no one does their homework and it doesn’t matter, etc. When she asked the headmaster if maybe they should do something differently, he said, “Talk to the government.”

Old ladies here are very good burpers. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever gotten more out of a belch at the poker table than I’ve heard a number of these belles dames manage. I haven’t heard any other people burp – just them.

I don’t know if there’s some genetic continuum that passes from grouse to wild turkey, but if there is, every shade of that spectrum is present here. I can no longer tell what’s what: the borders of the species blur so, there are innumerable size and color variations (I finally gave up trying to photograph them). The chickens do seem to be the croakers; the turkeys do their warbling thing (but in tones unfamiliar to me); the grouse or whatever they are (tasty looking) scuttle and squeak, and they all seem to breed and breed. Then line the roadsides, fill the villages, and occasionally are tied in bundles with broken necks either at the market or to the back of someone’s scooter. Oh, and you can buy them all live (sitting under weighted baskets) at the market.

In the village today there was also an incredibly massive black sow with an enormous teat sack and ten or so tiny piglets running after. I didn’t take a picture because I didn’t want to show up camera-happy for my homestay, but the piglets were really adorable and the mam something of a sublime of the gigantic and the ridiculous all at once.

The local bottled whiskey here is called Red Lion, and it assures you on the label that it was distilled under the supervision of an expert from Australia. Australian whiskey? That guy must have done a selling job like the 18yr-old Orson Welles convincing the Irish he was as a young “famous American actor” and landing a lead. And why, while we’re at it, do Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and America each have a whiskey of their own, but England no (nor Australia or NZ to my knowledge)? Did the brits think they’d done well enough with gin? Odd.

There are a lot of photos I don’t take, obviously. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I don’t tend to photograph people at all. I just don’t feel comfortable; it feels too anthropologically gawky or something. And I don’t photograph the food either unless I’ve bought some of it; then I ask. The one time I broke my rule was today when I asked if I could photograph a rat in the market (since I only did video of mine – idiot), and she said no and made the thumb-and-forefinger-cricketing money sign (which I had not known was universal). She clearly felt gawked at, and I felt awful (nor did I know how to say, But I’m not just a poser! I just ate one of those last week!).

On a brighter note, I finally told the laab lady that she’s beautiful. I had just bought another one and she clearly remembered me, for I heard her saying “laab, laab” as I got closer. She’s probably close to 30, tall with a long regal face and moviestar mouth so that when she smiles it spreads to expose one more tooth on either side than the non-Julia Robertses among us can show. And her teeth are perfect and very white, which is a little uncommon here (though the Laos are nowhere near as bad as the Chinese I’ve seen. My hotel room had some Chinese “toothpaste” and it was actually wood-pulp colored). She could easily be an abducted asian Bond princess or the lead one of those empty Chinese artsy films for export only (like that stupid Lantern one).

So anyway, as I’m leaving, having told her that her laab is delicious, I lean in just a touch and say “nam” – which means beautiful – and point to her. I thought I did it pretty subtly, and she didn’t seem to catch it, but the woman next to her then laughs and says, “Nam” a bit more loudly. Now the laab lady understands; out flash the teeth – so many – even as she’s raising a hand to her face mid-blush, but I can see her radiate more than a little. I of course hurry away, feeling very good.

Post 20: In which our hero’s GI lining proves mortal

Day 22, evening: I gave in and walked to the honkie restaurant to have a beer and type as a sort of prelude to tomorrow night (everyone seems to have picked this one joint, as we tend to do. By bike today I noticed a few mansions being built on the edge of town. Now I know whose making enough to build them). My thinking is that if I’m seen here now, maybe I will have an easier time talking to or being talked to by other people when the party starts manana. It’s a little grim: they’re all eating; I heard the guy next to me pay for he and his girlfriend’s 2 beers, French fries, and spaghetti -- literally. Across the street is the night market, the Calypso of laab, and all its other treats, and here they are, en masse. And here I am. Is there a little gravity to our own kind that I’m feeling? I remember in the 45 days spent on the greyhound that the seat next to me was always the last one taken, and I suspected it was because each new entrant could imagine a kinship more easily in someone else they saw sitting instead of with me (I would always choose to sit next to old people, so that tells you about my kinship radar). And now I feel the pocking of my haughty armor, the pinging sound of unexpected rains, but even so, I still have a strong suspicion that I’ll be going to be tomorrow before the chiming even of 11.

In any case, my social fort-da game will soon be ending (a major question, of course, is whether Paola made me feel less lonely or more). I’ll be in India in a week, traveling with Jeremy (one of the two official members of my parish) and perhaps meeting up with my friend Jyl (a kind of outreach), and there’s even been talk of crossing vectors with Mick and Martin, who continue to send plaintive emails about the abjection of their meals without me. (sidenote: just saw some girls posing for a trip photo and have to give a shout-out to Rufus, who spotted his son Declan’s first face-making for the camera and did a little video ode about the slippery slope from there. Too true, too true.).

I’m glad they serve Malibu spiced rum here. That’s vital.

Just saw ice for the first time in Laos. In Vietnam and Cambodia, ice was almost an obsession (you could barely have a beer without them slipping in cubes). But here, no. One can only imagine a local village kid having the Aureliano Buendia experience were he to hoof his way into town and trade his brace of grouse for a glass of grog.

I believe many of you, my mom especially, will be pleased to know my eating or drinking finally caught up to me (hey, even Sandy Koufax gave up a run every once in a while, right? And Jeremy, the fact that the greatest pitcher in baseball history was Jewish must give you some hope for your tennis game). I ended up spending the latter part of yesterday evening in bed feeling on the verge of some civil unrest, either north or south of the Mason Dixon. It was as if a golfball was doing the Neptune thing of being swirled with poisonous gasses and had lodged itself just below my belly button (I tend to call this “pickling” myself, which my Mother loves – though she claims not to – because it’s somehow the world’s bacterial backlash to my hubris).

So, yes, I’m pickled, and the likely culprit is the village “tea,” though I also had eaten a bit of some Cambodian dried sausage that had been riding around in my bag for a week, and had wolfed down all the nicely spiced “giblets” in the village soup. God knows (could it have just been the bar company?). I end up not being able to eat the laab I bought and ultimately liberate myself Vesuvially of the ill-fated social beer and all other remnants. Post which, I felt rather decent.

Day 23: New Years Eve. Perhaps not the best time to wake still feeling kind of dodgy, but oh well. The question for me is whether to concede that I won’t make it to midnight nor make any headway with the 3 swedish girls who took the room next to mine and just get on the bus to Vientiane now. I’m very tempted – in part to see what the Lao celebration of the new year amid a 19-hr bus trip would be -- but the thought of the tremors the mountain roads will put the bus through make me a little anxious.

Turns out there’s no bus till tomorrow, which is no surprise I guess because the banks were closed yesterday and will be till the 2nd. (and, to keep with this gripe, a girl today couldn’t add 35 and 40, nor could she subtract 75 from 80. and even when I tell them the results, it doesn’t click, and they have to take out the calculator. Incredible)

So I’ve laid low most of the day. I did some shopping (presents!), ate some sticky rice and a few oranges, drank water and a little iced coffee and rested up. I did brick the groundwork for company for this evening by going outside and offering my Laos guide to some people who just arrived (the Swedish girls checked out this morning, tragically). That got us talking, then I brought out the mia, and now I have friends for the evening. (The whole smoking thing is really a life-saver, ironically, because it puts people outside in ready circulation and you can nab them). Since I’ve been in bed three quarters of today, I might even make midnight.

By the way, I should mention that I’ll be thinking very much of all of you tomorrow on my bus trip. At noon my time new york will be lowering the ball and most of you will be hugging and kissing people that I wish were me. I’ll still be aboard for the subsequent time zones too, so my friends in California and Alaska, I’ll try to raise a glass of lao lao to you as well. Maybe if I can get the people on board celebrating the various new years with me, it will be quite a party.

Ok, it’s a short second half to a double post, but I think I’ll go ahead and get it up. Enjoy yourselves, all, and when you can see again through the haze and pain, I will probably have written and posted a little something from the biz lounge in Vientiane or Bangkok. If not, hopefully within a few days, as I think Myanmar is allowing internet, as long as I don’t mention the putsch.

Much love, undiminished despite wide-spreading

xxx

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Post 18: I fear somewhat lame after the last

Day 18: So after the disappointing river trip and the scheissig border town, I took the public bus back to Luang Namtha, an 8-hour journey through the mountain tops, occasionally looking down on the river from which I had earlier looked up at the road. The scenery was nicer from this altitude: incredibly lush, very jungle-y, green peaks insinuating themselves into clouds, deep drop-offs from the road’s edge, and some climbs that the bus could only do at about half my normal walking pace (and the sound of the driver changing gears was like an elephant stepping down onto pasta pots covered with quahog shells. Various tribeswomen came onboard with their moppets; nor did they worry about seating or personal space, so at one point I had a boy on my lap while the mother pushed against me holding one daughter as the other daughter puked into a sack while sitting on 100lb rice bags in the aisle while the elder son watched from the next bag. Most of the trip I felt like the teacher at a one-room gradeschool. Later we picked up a teenaged girl in make up (rare) and the guys lifted her motoscooter and tied onto the top of the bus. Suffice it to say that I was thrilled. Much better than the soporific river.

Day 19: Today I had planned on biking out to a village and doing a homestay, but I realized this morning I needed a little stasis to chill out and perhaps even get some writing done. I’ve been eating very well, including a majestic bacony-jerky that came with a pure chili dipping sauce, a papaya salad with eggplant and a kind of tongue-numbingly-sour guava, and some kind of conical thing with a spike at the end that looked and tasted like a cross between a bamboo shoot, a palm heart, and an artichoke. (the village food, by the way, was not exceptional, though I love the fact that everything was served with sticky rice that you roll into little balls then use to dip and grab everything else, plus they serve guo, a kind of roasted chili compote, with every meal – yum). Of course I’ve been eating laab/laap with nearly every day (and various versions of the greens every other), and went ahead and got an uncooked one for old time’s sake. I’m holding to my opinion that cooked is better, but glad I reconfirmed. Saw a woman selling a string of tiny baby frogs. Also found a woman selling from a ton of different unmarked bottles of moonshine -- and filling them from plastic gallon oil jugs (new principle, bro?). I asked about the prices of each and settled on the clear one (which cost double what the cheapest did). If you don’t bring your own bottle, they pour it into a plastic bag and rubber band off the top. Love that.

I fear I failed to mention where I’m staying and the rather compromising story behind it. Remember the local guys singing karaoke in the background in the internet café from a post or two ago? Well, I had been spending so much time trying to upload the latest video that I befriended the young proprietor and he asked me back for a beer with them. I happened to be toting the bottle of Chinese hooch, so I went back and did my best to pass it around. They were all terrified of it; I meanwhile was terrified to sing (the only time I ever tried karaoke, I think I was either too nervous or the song was out of my range or both, as no sound came out of my mouth – a flailing my brother still mocks me for). So I said that if they would each drink the whiskey, I’d sing a song in English. Well, they eventually did, so I had to (I didn’t even know the song), and my karaoke cherry got broken, of all places, in what my brother would call a backroom Lao swordfest. How odd.

Anyway, one of the guys’ fathers owns a cheap (but nice) hotel here, so he offered to put me up for free if I’d fix the English on their brochure. Done and done. (it would be nice except there was no cold water this morning, so I had to on/off on/off with the scalding – not pleasant -- and today the electric went out. Oh well).

Just had a 2nd go at "mia" -- the narcotic leaf (I bought some more, as I left the first bag of it with my elder lady friend). I didn’t have the add-ins, so I used the chili dipping sauce that came with the jerky and rolled a smoke with some Lao tobacco I got at the market for a dime. Yum! Honestly, the leaf/chili thing is utterly over the moon. I kept saying wow wow wow while sucking on it. So, so good (and actually I think it goes even better with the pipe tobacco – will try that later).

I’ve decided to stay here for new years eve. There are only a few restaurants on the strip that cater to falang, so it might be a nice focused party. We’ll see. Also it seems like I really did need this day of immobility; I don’t think I was quite aware of how uprooted I can feel. (In retrospect, I arrived in Saigon and never left, went straight to Siem Reap and stayed there 5 days not one, came directly here and will end up spending 6 days not 3 – clearly I like to root. I should keep this in mind with future itineraries.)

So it turns out that the power is out all over town, and with the blackout comes surprisingly limited action, which bodes poorly for new years eve in Namtha. There are a few foreigners milling, but somehow the town stays sleepy; I’m not sure what everybody can be doing; I’m in about the only bar that has its own generator running, but clearly it’s not going to be like the New York brown-out (very good times). I end up talking to a 22yr-old lesbian UGa grad. Sadly, she never had the Andrew Experience.

Day 20: I took a ride today up to a tiny town near the Chinese border. It was rather interesting, as I was the one cracker of the 17 – yes 17 – people in the Toyota van (thus no pictures; I couldn’t reach to my pocket). Saw a few interesting things in addition to some gorgeous scenery: a man sleeping on the road (dogs do that here all the time, equally unaccountably -- is it really that much warmer?); a man flag down the bus by waving at us with a squirrel (upon closer inspection, it was exceptionally furry, with a red belly, and had been snared. One of my river mates explained to me that the reason there are so few birds and wildlife in Asian forests is that they’ve eaten everything); some downed power lines that a large group of men were moving off the road; and lots of hill tribe people in their funky hats/headdresses and polychrome garb (why is it that many of the world’s poorest people wear the most intricately colored and patterned clothes? I realize that having no TV or books leaves a lot of time for weaving, but still…); some hogs with stocks around their heads walking down the side of the road – not sure what the stocks were for. Anyone?

Upon arriving, I get a little frustrated because it’s Sunday, nothing is open, I can’t rent a bike, and, worst of all, no one seems to be eating and there are no stands or stores with covered bowls out front (nice for me because I ask for one then discover what it is after). I don’t want to have to negotiate a menu in Lao, and if they have an English version then I don’t want to eat there (any club that would have me…), so I simply don’t eat. I chew more mia, smoke my pipe, nibble on the leftover papaya salad I brought with me, and wait. Hours of this later, I finally set off on foot, hoping to find something somewhere on the outskirts of town or in the nearby countryside.

Leaving town, within minutes I find another 12-cent noodle (quite odd: a pho with a pink liquid poured over; then you add chili paste and salt; and finally you have the option to add a green liquid too. No idea what any of it was, nor was I so impressed – and why do they overcook the noodles?). Soon thereafter though, the gods grace me and I find a big market where I make quite a scene by sampling and then buying some home-made whiskey with red wood-looking chips sitting at the bottom. Another of the vendors signs “drink that you’ll soon be asleep” to me, and I do a fake stagger walk and everybody’s happy. Then I buy some beautifully bound tea, what I think is a sticky rice that turns out to be grilled pork, another sticky rice that turns out to be some paste with wild mushrooms in it, and a skewer of tiny, grilled, decapitated but otherwise whole birds, wonderfully seasoned, that the woman assures me are chicken hatchlings . I also bend down to sniff some kind of dried grayish vermiginous looking thing that was sitting next to a few bottles homemade whiskey. Everyone started laughing and I now know why: whatever it was, it is not something I will soon be able to un-smell. Eeks.

The pork is super yummy; the mushroom paste less winning; and the birdling poppers not especially crunchy – though with a nice resistance – and positively scrumptious. I return to this market the next day too and get a laab with the black, hairy -on-one-side tripe that I’ve only seen in one other place (anyone?), some outstanding pork jerkey, and then a mystery jerky from a woman who was also selling a grilled rat and one of the super furry squirrels. It cost three times what the other jerkies have cost, so I suspect it must be of something netted or trapped. It’s yummy, but not quite as gamey as I was hoping for. Any guesses?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Post 17 and 16: Pushing the pushed envelope

quick note: somehow the one i posted yesterday seems not to have gone up, so this is now a double post. you'll see part way down where post 16 starts. sorry.

Cormac McCarthy loves to say that when it can’t get any worse, it does. Well, with the business-card-sized roach I thought I had reached the furthest limit of the edible, but Asia always keeps a few tricks up her sleeve.

So I made another video, and this one I won’t pre-announce (and the lighting is much better – one learns).

video

I have to say, this took another serious gut-check, and I almost failed. It took me two passes to go back to the old lady and negotiate, and then, putting it in my messenger bag, I had a bit of genuine nausea (speaking of which, the young proprietor of this internet café and his friends are singing karaoke right now – not a good thing). How funny to be flying straight into the teeth of my revulsion. I always assumed aversions to be mental, but I had no idea just how mental until I had to overcome a few (in pretty convenient circumstances, I should add). The roach was a serious struggle, as was this, but in both cases once I made up my mind, I got a little pumped up (that’s why I ate them at such strange times of day – I just had to run with the energy before I wimped out).

With the spider, the roach and this, every time I finished eating the damned things, I felt a kind of euphoria, like I had willed myself over something that I ordinarily would cower in front of. I’m not a bold person; I still can’t talk to strangers in bars or assert myself in certain situations, but I have found that I can decide to do something and then do it (like skydiving or breaking in to the sports complex in Florence – long story). With the food, there were many stages: I really had no desire whatsoever to eat the things; I kept thinking, Do I really need to do this? Yes, precisely because you don’t want to, you have to (like therapy). Then I had to get over the fear of even touching the things, much less putting them in my mouth and chewing. The spider wasn’t so bad (even when the little girl put the live one on me), but the roach, with the sticky juices it had released into the bag and its ungodly proportions, was a struggle. But then, it was like everything dominoed a little – and that’s what I think is interesting and liberating about all this – I was able to pick it up; I was able to conceive of doing it; I could double dare myself; I could imagine the shame I would feel if I backed away; I thought again how I’d be able to tell stories about it later; and suddenly I got a little bit excited to try. It became clear to me that I could choose, that there was no real barrier but association (as opposed to cute girls in bars who I’m positive would really prefer to be ignored all night), and I could just do it. Once I could latch onto that sense, then it wasn’t that hard to bite the head off the roach. I had overcome. Will I be able to apply this in non-entymo-zoological domains? I’m not sure. But it was a rush, and I think part of the thrill was the suspicion in the back of my mind that in the future I just might be able to.

One further note of clarification: people really do eat these things. The place I bought the thing in was sufficiently out of the way that I don’t think it was intended for tourists (plus, the old lady was in permanent squat over a lot of other kind of hopeless shit at the far end of the market – one should always seek out the margins, n’est pas Jacques?). She was the only one who had them, and I haven’t seen one since (nor has she been back – perhaps too busy sewer-hunting). I actually think this might be a delicacy – and she was wise enough to charge me 5 times the probable price.

Another conclusion that I’m coming to is that when it comes to eating dicey food is that there’s a very useful rule of thumb: if it’s fried or grilled, you’re pretty safe. The things to worry about are if it’s raw (like the laab that one time, though still tasty) or, worse, if it’s fermented. I can speak now with authority and say the funkiest, most gnarly, inedible thing I’ve ever come across was a simple fermented tofu out of an earthenware crock bought in Chinatown (on sale) for a dollar. As I removed the chunks, they looked like they had blood clots attached to them, they stunk to cloud 30, and they were truly unspeakably heinous. And somehow the Norwegian buried fermented fish that Krista tells me about – or Chinese versions of same -- strike me as similarly dubious, though at this point I guess I’d have to try them, as long as someone was filming.
So regarding that maggot-shaped toolio Andrew Zimmer, when he eats some Rotsfisk – I think that’s close to the name; will check with Krista -- then I’ll be impressed. Until then, I hope he enjoys his rocky mountain oysters or scorpions. Whatevah…

Oh, by the way, I followed my principle and got a soup just as I was leaving Cambodia that had blood cakes in it (and have had another since I’ve been here), and this time I ate them and thought they were quite good. The only occasion in which I had had them before was on a date with a native Taiwanese woman who discussed in Chinese with our waiter in Chinatown (as they weren’t on the menu), then had them brought, and by them, I mean about 20, each the size of a half-depth Klondike bar, and they were very florid and odd, and daunting in their middle-of-the-table hillock. I concluded I didn’t like them, but as long as they are warm and in manageable quantities and don’t taste like they were infused with a Glade air freshener, then they seem to be okay.

Third thought: my language book doesn’t say how to say “delicious” or “good,” nor does Lonely Planet. And the latter doesn’t tell you how to say “sorry.” And under food, it leaves out all the markets and lists places with pancakes. They can suck a fucking toss rag.

One thing here that breaks my heart is that hill village women come into town and then stand outside the internet café for a while the way I do at mixers, unwilling or able to come up and ask anyone anything. They’re trying to sell some ware, but if no one acknowledges them, they ultimately just slink off. Ugh. I want to give them each money, but then you encourage begging and that creates problems. It just sucks all around.

Post 16: In which nostalgia rears its ugly, and curious leaves are chewed in curious company

all,

sorry this is coming in a day later than announced; the power went out for a day, and i went to a village up by the chinese border that didn't have connectivity. and sorry too about there being so few photos; i'll try to put up a few more from the gazillion that i took, if there's bandwidth.

and back tomorrow with the next video, which i hope is what you've all been waiting for.

much love, and missing you all (i'm starting to feel very sentimental writing these because i can feel you all very close. oh my...)

Day 14: Arrive in Laos.

Laos, like Illinois, has a silent “s”; you would think that would help me get it right.

First meal and it utterly blows me away, not unlike the first time I ate Lao food, which was in Providence, at an extremely dingy spot I stumbled upon called Asia Place. -- RECYCLED STORY ALERT – 4 PARAGRAPHS -- Asia Place was funny; it was up the street (on Federal hill) from a bar I’d occasionally schlep to because they had a 3 burgers and beans special that came with a stack of white bread and cocktails were $1. At the time I was working at Louie’s, a notorious greasiest-of-spoons by campus, and my boss happened to own the building Asia Place was in. “You eat there?” he asked incredulously. “That place is way too filthy for me.” This from the owner of a place where one of my patrons found a 5-inch rusty nail under her omelette (no exaggeration), and Louie wouldn’t give her her breakfast for free, he was just going to make another one (that’s when I quit). It was sad to go; they took me in as one of theirs (even though I was over 5’6”). I had endeared myself to the family by jumping into the trash barrel on my first day, holding it by both sides and pogoing up and down to mash everything to the bottom – a trick I had learned at my last job.

Anyway, Asia Place never had any patrons, or at least never anyone eating; every once in a while, a small group of young Southeast Asian mobsters would come in and drink Heinekens (see!) or egg creams (for real). The place was run by a mother and her two daughters, each of whom had butt length hair with curlicue wavelets curled in. They wore a lot of makeup and were very pretty, and one time the mother asked if I had ever been to South East Asia. I said I had been to Thailand on route to India. She said, “No, you went for the girls.” I said, no, it was a stopover for 2 days because I was flying the wrong way around the world (this when I was 18). She said, no, you went for the girls, and I couldn’t convince her otherwise, snow-white lamb though I was at the time.

The other amusing thing about Asia Place is that the menu had names and explanations for most things, but then it just said Laab, $5. I didn’t even bother asking, I just ordered it, and that’s when I was first asked cooked or uncooked. Trying to be cool, I said cooked, like I had any idea what I was getting. It came; I couldn’t identify it; it was some kind of meat salad with lettuce and a few chilis. I proceeded to go back and eat it the next eight nights in a row, getting it raw on the last. This was before the internet, so it wasn’t easy to find out what the very thin slices of seemingly filter-y meat were; I thought maybe fish maw (something I had read about but never seen, and the stuff on my plate looked like it could strain plankton). Finally, after eating it raw (and being both compelled and alarmed), I asked what it was: beef stomach sliced so thin you couldn’t tell. Utterly incredible. But better get it cooked, every time but once.

The woman there enjoyed toying with me, not just with the Thai girl joke. The first time I ate the laab, I left the plate spotless and the stem of the lone fresh Thai chili in the center to show that I had eaten it. The next night, I left the two stems. The night after, four. I like to do the powers of two in my head to calm myself; I knew how quickly this could get out of hand. The fourth night I gave up. _She_ knew I was white – and how to break me.

BACK TO LAOS: So sauntering to the night market, I honestly had no idea what I’d find. There are quite a few honkies here, all preparing for boat trips or treks, and I feared seeing waffles and spaghetti. But no, there was laab! (though I think most books spell it laap.) On my first night! And just as good as I remembered! (I haven’t been to providence in 10 years). Plus an astonishingly good mound of mixed greens, then a less dazzling noodle (called elau, iilau, not sure how to spell it -- pronounced ee-lao) made by pouring a liquid on a screen over boiling water, steaming it, then rolling it on a stick (a little like the shrimp noodle that ron, lindz, my brother and I all love in chinatown where they pour it on a hot metal surface then scrape it into a steamed roll). That was more cool than tasty. The laab and greens though annihilated anything I’ve had yet in Asia. (Sorry, ron, maybe I didn’t give Cambodian food a chance, but if you’re competing with laab, the cards are stacked against you…)

The town I’m in is called Luang Namtha (I dropped $100 and flew straight here in an hour upon arriving at the capital instead of taking the when-all-goes-well 19-hour bus for $20). The 2007 guidebooks all said there was only generator-driven power, and only from 6-9:30 p.m. Well, I think they had a good 2008, because there are power lines everywhere, my room has a plug, plus a flush toilet and shower (it seems it can’t be escaped, at least not without going to the cheapest place listed in Lonely Planet and good luck getting a room).

Now that I’m up here, I’m reluctant to just take a boat all the way back down as planned; I think I’m going to rent a bike instead and go visit a bunch of hill villages of various Lao ethnic minorities (the Hmong among them – had to say it). They’ll all be ready for me when I get there, but maybe I can still eat some funky things and make some children laugh. And then I can come home to laab (and the laab lady – uh oh, I might be smitten again! –RECYCLED STORY ALERT – REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH -- I will confess to historically being captivated by any number of women whom I referred to as the insert food name here lady. My favorite was the produce lady in Florence – a young Sophia Loren meets La Cucinotta – good god it’s hard even to type the words!!! -- who called me “cipolla” because I’d go in every day and buy a single onion just to have the chance to see her. Oh, yes, then there was the rural cheese lady in Paris with the gap between her front teeth who would bring her masterpieces in sitting on maple leaves and threatening either to ooze over the edge or collapse in on themselves with mold. And so on…).

Clearly there is a disadvantage to flying, because all I can really talk about so far is that if you first saw the earth from above Laos you’d think we were all living on a giant head of broccoli rabe. I guess I can also say that so far it looks like Cambodia, but as busses they drive these pickupy things with two rows of seats bolted into the bed called sawngthaews, and there’s also a super crazy truck with a leafblower engine strapped out front powering the thing PIC. (Or I could tell you about clouds, but don’t get me started. I LOVE clouds viewed from a plane…). So, yes, if I fly, then you’re stuck hearing ossified food stories from the past. My bad. I’ll try to stick to the program and go ground from now on.

Day 15: My first day here I rent a bike and go out to see some villages. Quickly one of my suspicions was confirmed, namely, that if you don’t eat the local food, you really don’t interact with the populace. As I was biking by, saying hi to everyone, they were like “Fuck you, whatever.” But the minute I sat down to eat both a 12-cent noodle thing (PIC) and another noodle thing (PIC) – the latter at an end-of-the-road village where I couldn’t ford the river -- suddenly crowds formed, we all tried speaking to each other, and all kinds of stuff happened. One can waterbug the surface of a culture, but to pierce the meniscus, you have to eat.

Or drink. As it turns out, I bought two different local rice whiskeys, and a Chinese one (by mistake). The first because I rode by a stand at a somewhat remote village and there were small bags of liquid with rather high prices on them (close to a buck), one clearish, one reddish brown (slightly more expensive). The proprietor was asleep, and I’m not sure how I would have asked him anyway, so I concluded they must be booze, woke him up, and bought the latter (go high in low-end). It turned out to be half a liter of really smooth 40% eau de vie-like stuff, tasting a bit like the Chinese preserved-plum-infused vodka that I make at home, only smoother. Very nice.

The second I bought because I kept riding by stands that had unmarked bottles of clear or green liquid on them, stoppered with rag bits and rubber-banded. At first I thought they might be petrol, as in Cambodia, but I concluded that no, maybe not. So I pulled into one of the stands, made the universal I-can-imbibe-this-without-dying sign, got a nod back, and bought half a liter. (you had to bring your own bottle, so I took my water bottle out of its bike cage, drained it, and handed it to her – classy). I opted for the light green one, which proved also to be quite tasty. A bit less smooth, but good.

The third was a minor mistake. I had meant to try the clear one that I had seen elsewhere, but I had no empty bottle any more. Next to it, at one of the stands, they had little glass bottles of 250ml that they said were 40 cents, so I got one, only to look at it later and realize that it had Chinese written on it. Still tasty, but not local. I’m getting on the boat tomorrow, so it won’t be bad to have excess liquor – and also for the truck ride back. I’m sure the driver will appreciate it.

I did feel I got a little local cred today when hiking up to a supremely disappointing “waterfall” by turning my flipflops into Tevas with strung-together rubber bands, creating a little back resistance and stability. It worked great (I conceived of it last night in bed), and made hiking in those god-forsaken things actually doable. Plus, lots of people stared at them, at least with a little appreciation.

Day 16: So I came all the way up here because I had booked a trip with court along what was supposed to be the last unused river in Laos, deep into the remote North. Well, my supposed “jungle adventure” proved to be a near bust. The river was rarely narrower than 50 yards; there were villages alongside it every couple of miles (whose children waved at us but whose adults didn’t give a shit); the boat had an engine that wasn’t especially quiet or peaceful; and after about an hour, one got to know the scenery and it didn’t change much for the next 14 hours spent on the boat over two days. The boat, apart from the motor, was an authentic pieced-together wooden fantail, which meant it was highly uncomfortable to sit in the bottom of, as we did, and looked like a single termite could Titanic us at will. There were good parts: we stopped over in one village where everyone came out to see us . Plus, we spent the night in the young boat pilot’s village, and that proved to be the best part of the trip (and almost made it worth it).

Day 16, evening: First village overnight: So there were tons of interesting details about staying in the village, and when I can finally post pictures, you’ll see, among other things, the water buffalo, the green pumpkins they grow for pig feed, the bamboo shoot hanging in bags under the stilted huts, the stilted huts, the silk spinning apparatus and intricate looms, the kids, the cookfires, the cookpots, and the cooking (the cook wouldn’t let me take her picture).

Now of course we’re herded in there as falang (whities), so everyone starts coming around to sell us sarongs and scarves, which annoys me. But eventually things mellow out, and that’s when I pull out the lao lao whiskey I had bought in the village near Luang Namtha. It soon becomes clear that this makes me very popular among the men, especially the old men (though the one who I thought was probably 70 tells me he’s only 53 – eeks. Hard living, as in real work: it catches up fast.).

But I had also brought a bag of some leaves in liquid that I saw at another village. These my guide said were to be rolled with ginger, salt, and hot chilis, then sucked on while smoking, as a kind of stimulant. A stimulant to go with a stimulant, hell yeah! So with the whiskey, I pull out the (what at first I assume are coca leaves), and attract the super old lady’s attention (I think she’s pushing ninety but she says she’s 60-something, and has the teeth one seeks in a food vendor). She’s been chewing on a unlit cheroot or big beedie of some kind (like ones I’ve seen from Indonesia), and starts making drinking signs too, so I hand her a glass of whiskey, see her take a swig, then lean all the way to the ground and blow it all through a crack in the floorboards. She hated it! But then she takes a Carlton Fisk wad of the leaves and fires up her Clint Eastwood special, flashes me her crenellated grin, and now we’re fast friends.

It was kind of sad, as if the other 3 falang just faded from the room. We’re drinking and chewing and smoking (I pulled out my pipe and fired up some nice Dunhill 505), and the whole scene becomes _very_ convivial. (the leaves, by the way, taste almost olive-y, and the combo of leaf, salt, chili, ginger is delicious on its own, but does an Aufhebung into something utterly magical with the synergism of the tobacco). Soon enough the old lady asks if I’m married and I say no, and yes, indeed, she suggests her youngest, only 19, the sweet-faced cook who wouldn’t let me take her picture (but I did get one of her hair later in the boat).

So I end with an addendum to the summer-toothed-old-lady-soup principle: whenever one can drink, smoke, and chew narcotic leaves with said ancienne, one must.

Post 16: In which nostalgia rears its ugly, and curious leaves are chewed in curious company

Post 16: In which nostalgia rears its ugly, and curious leaves are chewed in curious company

all,

sorry this is coming in a day later than announced; the power went out for a day, and i went to a village up by the chinese border that didn't have connectivity. and sorry too about there being so few photos; i'll try to put up a few more from the gazillion that i took, if there's bandwidth.

and back tomorrow with the next video, which i hope is what you've all been waiting for.

much love, and missing you all (i'm starting to feel very sentimental writing these because i can feel you all very close. oh my...)

Day 14: Arrive in Laos.

Laos, like Illinois, has a silent “s”; you would think that would help me get it right.

First meal and it utterly blows me away, not unlike the first time I ate Lao food, which was in Providence, at an extremely dingy spot I stumbled upon called Asia Place. -- RECYCLED STORY ALERT – 4 PARAGRAPHS -- Asia Place was funny; it was up the street (on Federal hill) from a bar I’d occasionally schlep to because they had a 3 burgers and beans special that came with a stack of white bread and cocktails were $1. At the time I was working at Louie’s, a notorious greasiest-of-spoons by campus, and my boss happened to own the building Asia Place was in. “You eat there?” he asked incredulously. “That place is way too filthy for me.” This from the owner of a place where one of my patrons found a 5-inch rusty nail under her omelette (no exaggeration), and Louie wouldn’t give her her breakfast for free, he was just going to make another one (that’s when I quit). It was sad to go; they took me in as one of theirs (even though I was over 5’6”). I had endeared myself to the family by jumping into the trash barrel on my first day, holding it by both sides and pogoing up and down to mash everything to the bottom – a trick I had learned at my last job.

Anyway, Asia Place never had any patrons, or at least never anyone eating; every once in a while, a small group of young Southeast Asian mobsters would come in and drink Heinekens (see!) or egg creams (for real). The place was run by a mother and her two daughters, each of whom had butt length hair with curlicue wavelets curled in. They wore a lot of makeup and were very pretty, and one time the mother asked if I had ever been to South East Asia. I said I had been to Thailand on route to India. She said, “No, you went for the girls.” I said, no, it was a stopover for 2 days because I was flying the wrong way around the world (this when I was 18). She said, no, you went for the girls, and I couldn’t convince her otherwise, snow-white lamb though I was at the time.

The other amusing thing about Asia Place is that the menu had names and explanations for most things, but then it just said Laab, $5. I didn’t even bother asking, I just ordered it, and that’s when I was first asked cooked or uncooked. Trying to be cool, I said cooked, like I had any idea what I was getting. It came; I couldn’t identify it; it was some kind of meat salad with lettuce and a few chilis. I proceeded to go back and eat it the next eight nights in a row, getting it raw on the last. This was before the internet, so it wasn’t easy to find out what the very thin slices of seemingly filter-y meat were; I thought maybe fish maw (something I had read about but never seen, and the stuff on my plate looked like it could strain plankton). Finally, after eating it raw (and being both compelled and alarmed), I asked what it was: beef stomach sliced so thin you couldn’t tell. Utterly incredible. But better get it cooked, every time but once.

The woman there enjoyed toying with me, not just with the Thai girl joke. The first time I ate the laab, I left the plate spotless and the stem of the lone fresh Thai chili in the center to show that I had eaten it. The next night, I left the two stems. The night after, four. I like to do the powers of two in my head to calm myself; I knew how quickly this could get out of hand. The fourth night I gave up. _She_ knew I was white – and how to break me.

BACK TO LAOS: So sauntering to the night market, I honestly had no idea what I’d find. There are quite a few honkies here, all preparing for boat trips or treks, and I feared seeing waffles and spaghetti. But no, there was laab! (though I think most books spell it laap.) On my first night! And just as good as I remembered! (I haven’t been to providence in 10 years). Plus an astonishingly good mound of mixed greens, then a less dazzling noodle (called elau, iilau, not sure how to spell it -- pronounced ee-lao) made by pouring a liquid on a screen over boiling water, steaming it, then rolling it on a stick (a little like the shrimp noodle that ron, lindz, my brother and I all love in chinatown where they pour it on a hot metal surface then scrape it into a steamed roll). That was more cool than tasty. The laab and greens though annihilated anything I’ve had yet in Asia. (Sorry, ron, maybe I didn’t give Cambodian food a chance, but if you’re competing with laab, the cards are stacked against you…)

The town I’m in is called Luang Namtha (I dropped $100 and flew straight here in an hour upon arriving at the capital instead of taking the when-all-goes-well 19-hour bus for $20). The 2007 guidebooks all said there was only generator-driven power, and only from 6-9:30 p.m. Well, I think they had a good 2008, because there are power lines everywhere, my room has a plug, plus a flush toilet and shower (it seems it can’t be escaped, at least not without going to the cheapest place listed in Lonely Planet and good luck getting a room).

Now that I’m up here, I’m reluctant to just take a boat all the way back down as planned; I think I’m going to rent a bike instead and go visit a bunch of hill villages of various Lao ethnic minorities (the Hmong among them – had to say it). They’ll all be ready for me when I get there, but maybe I can still eat some funky things and make some children laugh. And then I can come home to laab (and the laab lady – uh oh, I might be smitten again! –RECYCLED STORY ALERT – REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH -- I will confess to historically being captivated by any number of women whom I referred to as the insert food name here lady. My favorite was the produce lady in Florence – a young Sophia Loren meets La Cucinotta – good god it’s hard even to type the words!!! -- who called me “cipolla” because I’d go in every day and buy a single onion just to have the chance to see her. Oh, yes, then there was the rural cheese lady in Paris with the gap between her front teeth who would bring her masterpieces in sitting on maple leaves and threatening either to ooze over the edge or collapse in on themselves with mold. And so on…).

Clearly there is a disadvantage to flying, because all I can really talk about so far is that if you first saw the earth from above Laos you’d think we were all living on a giant head of broccoli rabe. I guess I can also say that so far it looks like Cambodia, but as busses they drive these pickupy things with two rows of seats bolted into the bed called sawngthaews, and there’s also a super crazy truck with a leafblower engine strapped out front powering the thing PIC. (Or I could tell you about clouds, but don’t get me started. I LOVE clouds viewed from a plane…). So, yes, if I fly, then you’re stuck hearing ossified food stories from the past. My bad. I’ll try to stick to the program and go ground from now on.

Day 15: My first day here I rent a bike and go out to see some villages. Quickly one of my suspicions was confirmed, namely, that if you don’t eat the local food, you really don’t interact with the populace. As I was biking by, saying hi to everyone, they were like “Fuck you, whatever.” But the minute I sat down to eat both a 12-cent noodle thing (PIC) and another noodle thing (PIC) – the latter at an end-of-the-road village where I couldn’t ford the river -- suddenly crowds formed, we all tried speaking to each other, and all kinds of stuff happened. One can waterbug the surface of a culture, but to pierce the meniscus, you have to eat.

Or drink. As it turns out, I bought two different local rice whiskeys, and a Chinese one (by mistake). The first because I rode by a stand at a somewhat remote village and there were small bags of liquid with rather high prices on them (close to a buck), one clearish, one reddish brown (slightly more expensive). The proprietor was asleep, and I’m not sure how I would have asked him anyway, so I concluded they must be booze, woke him up, and bought the latter (go high in low-end). It turned out to be half a liter of really smooth 40% eau de vie-like stuff, tasting a bit like the Chinese preserved-plum-infused vodka that I make at home, only smoother. Very nice.

The second I bought because I kept riding by stands that had unmarked bottles of clear or green liquid on them, stoppered with rag bits and rubber-banded. At first I thought they might be petrol, as in Cambodia, but I concluded that no, maybe not. So I pulled into one of the stands, made the universal I-can-imbibe-this-without-dying sign, got a nod back, and bought half a liter. (you had to bring your own bottle, so I took my water bottle out of its bike cage, drained it, and handed it to her – classy). I opted for the light green one, which proved also to be quite tasty. A bit less smooth, but good.

The third was a minor mistake. I had meant to try the clear one that I had seen elsewhere, but I had no empty bottle any more. Next to it, at one of the stands, they had little glass bottles of 250ml that they said were 40 cents, so I got one, only to look at it later and realize that it had Chinese written on it. Still tasty, but not local. I’m getting on the boat tomorrow, so it won’t be bad to have excess liquor – and also for the truck ride back. I’m sure the driver will appreciate it.

I did feel I got a little local cred today when hiking up to a supremely disappointing “waterfall” by turning my flipflops into Tevas with strung-together rubber bands, creating a little back resistance and stability. It worked great (I conceived of it last night in bed), and made hiking in those god-forsaken things actually doable. Plus, lots of people stared at them, at least with a little appreciation.

Day 16: So I came all the way up here because I had booked a trip with court along what was supposed to be the last unused river in Laos, deep into the remote North. Well, my supposed “jungle adventure” proved to be a near bust. The river was rarely narrower than 50 yards; there were villages alongside it every couple of miles (whose children waved at us but whose adults didn’t give a shit); the boat had an engine that wasn’t especially quiet or peaceful; and after about an hour, one got to know the scenery and it didn’t change much for the next 14 hours spent on the boat over two days. The boat, apart from the motor, was an authentic pieced-together wooden fantail, which meant it was highly uncomfortable to sit in the bottom of, as we did, and looked like a single termite could Titanic us at will. There were good parts: we stopped over in one village where everyone came out to see us . Plus, we spent the night in the young boat pilot’s village, and that proved to be the best part of the trip (and almost made it worth it).

Day 16, evening: First village overnight: So there were tons of interesting details about staying in the village, and when I can finally post pictures, you’ll see, among other things, the water buffalo, the green pumpkins they grow for pig feed, the bamboo shoot hanging in bags under the stilted huts, the stilted huts, the silk spinning apparatus and intricate looms, the kids, the cookfires, the cookpots, and the cooking (the cook wouldn’t let me take her picture).

Now of course we’re herded in there as falang (whities), so everyone starts coming around to sell us sarongs and scarves, which annoys me. But eventually things mellow out, and that’s when I pull out the lao lao whiskey I had bought in the village near Luang Namtha. It soon becomes clear that this makes me very popular among the men, especially the old men (though the one who I thought was probably 70 tells me he’s only 53 – eeks. Hard living, as in real work: it catches up fast.).

But I had also brought a bag of some leaves in liquid that I saw at another village. These my guide said were to be rolled with ginger, salt, and hot chilis, then sucked on while smoking, as a kind of stimulant. A stimulant to go with a stimulant, hell yeah! So with the whiskey, I pull out the (what at first I assume are coca leaves), and attract the super old lady’s attention (I think she’s pushing ninety but she says she’s 60-something, and has the teeth one seeks in a food vendor). She’s been chewing on a unlit cheroot or big beedie of some kind (like ones I’ve seen from Indonesia), and starts making drinking signs too, so I hand her a glass of whiskey, see her take a swig, then lean all the way to the ground and blow it all through a crack in the floorboards. She hated it! But then she takes a Carlton Fisk wad of the leaves and fires up her Clint Eastwood special, flashes me her crenellated grin, and now we’re fast friends.

It was kind of sad, as if the other 3 falang just faded from the room. We’re drinking and chewing and smoking (I pulled out my pipe and fired up some nice Dunhill 505), and the whole scene becomes _very_ convivial. (the leaves, by the way, taste almost olive-y, and the combo of leaf, salt, chili, ginger is delicious on its own, but does an Aufhebung into something utterly magical with the synergism of the tobacco). Soon enough the old lady asks if I’m married and I say no, and yes, indeed, she suggests her youngest, only 19, the sweet-faced cook who wouldn’t let me take her picture (but I did get one of her hair later in the boat).

So I end with an addendum to the summer-toothed-old-lady-soup principle: whenever one can drink, smoke, and chew narcotic leaves with said ancienne, one must.

Post 15: Can’t change his spots – quite literally

Hello again my dears,

A short sweet return, as i have three posts ready for you now, the triptych culminating in another video at post 17. But for now, some last bits on cambodia:

Erratum: What I thought were water buffalo and then called oxen because they were domesticated (and the last image I saw of an asian man riding a water buffalo was depicting life from at least a hundred years ago) were in fact water buffalo . Fantastic. Also explains the tendency to mud bathe.

Day 13, Today the plan is to go a bit higher end, fancy-pants, in search of imbricated flavor combinations and a touch of the haute (perhaps in diametrical response to the fact that my friend yesterday told me I had had the chance to eat rice-paddy rat in Siem Reap and missed it. Fed ex?).

I walk around the whole morning, hitting various markets that of course are fascinating in the extreme (among the pics you’ll see later, prawns the size of small lobsters with hugely long intense cobalt-colored legs; a stand with all the various Cambodian seasoning leaves -- awesome; a tied-up bundle -- bro, a hank? -- of dried bird hatchlings – very strange; fresh pepper, still green, on the stem; and others. (and do click on this one of the hanging dried fish -- they're gorgeous).

One thing I’m looking for is this combination cleaver/ultrabadass peeler/shaver that I’ve seen women using for all kinds of things, including slicing the thinnest disks off an entire bunch of lemon grass at one time. That would save a lot of work (though it might be difficult to explain on the plane). They have little ones, but all the working women have these honking huge ones; I covet.
Unsuccessful in my search, I ultimately eat at the 20-stand “food court” inside the central market – massively a-bustle and sweltering – and have a delicious beef and noodle soup (she had big beef bones leaning against her pot – I always take that as a good sign – then she sliced the steak super thin and cooked it by swirling it in a ladle of hot soup before putting it all in my bowl. Delicious.). Almost immediately after, I pass by the first curry stand I’ve seen, so I have a second breakfast of red curry chicken. Not amazing, But I do end up talking at length in French with a Cambodian woman named Bonasy (close to my age) who wants to take me around tomorrow, but I have to leave in the morning, plus speaking French exhausts me. And I get even shyer than normal. The name of my shame, still after all these years: French.

An almost random thought, but something I noticed when I started speaking with Bonasy: Single men among you, have you entered the phase where when you notice a woman, you immediately check for a wedding ring? Do you know when you made that switch? It’s seems to me that it comes on rather subtly. For me it happened some time in the last two years, and it’s interesting how often one can predict that there will be one, even with considerably younger women

Phnom Penh has a lot of temples, and they’re very beautiful. Of course I like the older, deteriorating ones best, so I’ll put up the photos when I can. I also especially like the entranceways to the monasteries; they have intricately carved stone facades above the gates that are very nice. They’re almost my favorite part. (photos someday)

A side note: what are all the fucking backpackers carrying? Those front bags they tote around in addition to the rucksacks are an obscenity, and why are all their bags always jammed-full? Have they already bought everything that they will buy, or do they have to throw something away with each new purpose to keep zero sum? I’ve been here two weeks and not struggled at all having just 2/3 of a small pack of stuff (including a snazzy shirt and Fudgie). Yes, there is laundry service in the third world, and are the backpackers really changing into those goofy outfits. If you’re going to pack your armoire, why not bring a few outfits that look decent? At times I think that each of us is representing our entire color, and good god do white people tend to look bad.

I’m not in especially good spirits. The computer difficulties are driving me crazy; my landlord at this place is cheesy and patronizing (I know, it’s his job, kind of); I asked him for names of good Khmer restaurants and he directed me to one that had an all-English menu outside and prices for dishes starting at $5. Fuck that. My mood did just perk up because in our lobby they have a television that they keep on all day showing the National Geographic channel, and on their most terrifying list (or some such) were featuring things I’ve eaten this week. I feel a new, stronger sense of being king of the foodchain.
King of the bleeping foodchain can’t find a restaurant, however, at least not one that looks right, and then realizes he forgot his phrasebook and won’t be able to order anything, plus he will only be able to eat one dish, so a random point and shoot could be a problem (I have yet to send back a morsel on any plate and feel, ethically, that I must continue this policy). In my sad prandial peregrinations, I find myself back at last night’s outdoor market, though this time at the other end, and it’s clearly less Chinese. I buy everything in the row: a bowl of lemongrass beef and rice (I think it might be the “dry” type of curry, “amok”) -- simply outstanding; a skewer of grilled chicken hearts, a childhood fave and very nicely spiced; another nuom salad (quite bitter) and a kind of beef/pickle salad from the same woman (eh); a grilled sausage that comes with banh mi veggies but no bread (I could use some); and a Black Panther premium stout (8%). Nothing haute, I’ll admit, but pretty damn good. Not the worst way to leave Cambodia; I actually think the amok was my favorite thing in Cambodia.

So I decided to wear my fancy shirt to the airport so I could strut around and be supercilious to the backpackers (again, the hypocrisy runs as deep as the vanity). I also got there very early so I could try to change some flights, etc (I realized I didn’t want to spend new years eve in burma). So there’s virtually no one at security, I blow right through, and then the Cambodian passport controller, while giving me the stamp, asks how my visit was. I say wonderful, that the Cambodian people were very friendly, and he says, “You like me? … I like you.” I’m completely caught off guard, mumble something unintelligible, and he says, still holding my passport and exit card: “Travelling alone. No wife or girlfriend. Very good. Born 1969 but still have very young face.” I smile and make nice till he gives me my ID, then make some comment about having a girlfriend waiting for me back home and run to the business lounge. Jesus, the shirt!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

the final frontier -- and last post for a while



Hello, all

So I have a fair bit written (which i'll include below), but the computers here chug along so slowly that it was a miracle that i could upload the video(it took two tries of over an hour each) and i don't have the patience to try with all the photos (pho-tos?). But I thought you should be left with a grand finale, and i clearly wanted to exit (temporarily) with a crunch. With that said, here's the vid -- note, it's not for the squeamish... (and sorry about the lighting -- it gets a little better) video

Tomorrow i head to laos, so i might be able to post from the capital, vientiane. but i arrive late and leave early in the morning for a 24-hr bus ride north, then jump on a boat for a 2-day trip through the jungle, and then perhaps another 2-day trip south. soon thereafter i fly to myanmar (burma) where the government is the only ISP and often shuts it down. not sure how much posting i'll be doing. so happy holidays to all; i should be back around jan 5 and hopefully can put up a great big update of adventures both culinary and amorous.

here's the last post, with a few photos

Post 13: A word of explanation: the current title of this blog is actually something I came up with for a column I’m doing for a new magazine that’s launching in the January (details when it’s official). So when I decided at the last minute to try to keep you all with me as I ambled down dusty lanes, pointing paying and eating, I was a little lazy and behind, so I just threw that title up there and continued.
In retrospect, there are many titles I could or should have used, among them

*Courting Cestoda (pic below) or Man vs. Microbe

*He Doesn’t Know He’s White

*I Lead with My Stomach

Or it could have been another installment from a series of books I began in my twenties:

*How to Live Like You’re Homeless in the Great Cities of the World…

Any one of those probably would have done the trick, but the one I finally decided on is:

*At the End, I’ll Eat Myself

Hope you like it, and that there’s no more confusion.
One other bit of business, my brother is now maraschino-ing my blog with his responses as comments at the bottom of the posts. You will quickly see that he and I are two parallel lines that meet at the roast pork stand. I encourage you to enjoy the smarter, more charming, taller, blonder, stronger, better cooking, more procreative and more worldwise of the two brothers. I got the bigger feet.

Well my time in Siem Reap is coming to an end. I was going to leave this morning, but last night ran into Anthony, an excellent older Irishman (65) former hippie and socialist, as acerbic as I on all topics (just mention politicians, hope, television, tourism, India, or smokeable drugs and you will get a curse-festooned jeremiad), who also has a soft side and gets almost teary talking about the “impressive” and “atmospheric” elements of the temples (though he completely agrees about the ruin, and admits to imagining them in their heyday and how the world has seen nothing like it since). He’s staying at the same guest house, and we spoke yesterday morning at coffee, then ran into each other in town in the evening. I stood him for a few beers 857 while he taught me world history, then confessed to having come to Cambodia to smoke “special cigarettes” – not those kind -- _very _ special cigarettes. So I agreed to follow him to the various bars where such things were rumored to be available. Like many such quests, it all felt foolish and more pathetic than edgy, and eventually I left him to check in with you lovelies.

Apparently, though, unburdened of his collegiate imperial-boy load, he did get offered a few bags of what might have been “China white – the best” or what might have been talcum powder. Not being allowed to test drive it, he passed.


Day 11 The real reason I stayed on, though, is because our landlord told us he’d show us his crocodile farm this morning. I had no idea it would be in the back yard, a giant tank filled with 12 or 15 full-grown monsters. It was stunning. I hope you can tell from the photos that we were pressed against the wall just above the killers, and they were mighty mighty. Incredibly impressive and studly, and I’ve never felt more like a petite fours, sitting on a tray for someone/thing to pop in its mouth as a treat. They stared at me like I stare at the chickens on the rotisserie at Cosco – still too expensive! -- (or like dirty-footed boys would at the lurid goats heads I’d see spinning in the Arab quarters of Paris). It was an interesting and in some ways liberating sensation; my identity had traveled the full distance from man to meal.

So it’s my last day here now, and I have a fair amount of work to do for Agatha, nerve’s photo editor and my own personal Patton. She sends me files -- too sexy to open in public – so large they make the local cables start smoking and send Fudgie into anxiety comas, and to these I’m supposed to write dashing and witty accompanying text. Just what I need, to be revved up even more, so far from ms. harrison and her inimitables, in this fableland peopled only by girls in their teens. (the ceiling fan ticks; the air thickens; the room closes in; droplets form and connect and become rivulets that run down my arms; I feel an invisible jungle that could hotly assimilate me, mulch rising up and to pool me under; so many strands of kudzu twining round my eyes and limbs and throat…)

I could never have edited nerve in the tropics.

A few other things I’ve noticed here in Cambodia: the garbage trucks, such as they are, never seem to have a hood or any protection whatsoever around the engine: it’s just exposed and the driver sits right behind it on his cushioned bench. Odd.
Also, one forgets in America what pregnant and nursing dogs look like. Virtually every dog here is dragging its pendulous teats around, looking pretty miserable. My landlord, Wab, told us a story about a male dog coming in to mate with one of his females and he scared it into the crocodile pit, and the dog actually tried to fight. I asked if it escaped and he made some comment about them whacking it and “dog barbecue.”

A sidenote on eating pets. If you are troubled by the idea, and you’re not a vegetarian, then you, my friend, are much hypocrite as I (though mine exhibits itself in other realms). How can you feel okay eating pork (especially if I tell you about the guy driving down the road with a whole live hog tied squealing to the back of his moto) and then worry for or think it unjust that some eats Lassie? I know it’s a clichéd argument, I just had to get it off my chest as I finish the last of these Golden Retriever ribs…

The Cambodians, especially here in Siem Reap since this is the spot of the country’s biggest tourist attraction, really speak a lot of English. I was able to change a watch battery, talk to a young man about bartending as a career (while eating the delicious Nuom salad ), hear all about the crocodile trade from Wab, etc etc. Much as I’ve struggled to learn to say Please, thanks, delicious, yes, no, hi, bye and 1-100,000, I can only imagine how hard it must be for them to become travel agents for Westerners (all speaking differently accented English) and all the rest. I know you know all this already, but it really is marked . (that said, here, as in Vietnam, the phrase I can’t seem to explain to anyone or get them to translate for me, is “What is this called?” Nor do my fucking books list it. And the ironic thing is that every time I try to ask someone, they think I’m asking about some thing and tell me its name, but I can’t get them to understand I want to know how to say the question. Is it a conspiracy?

A few other (among hundreds) of things that have intrigued me: One, that people here can’t do math. All the locals take out calculators to do simple calculations like 4 times 5 or 3% of 20 dollars. Perhaps they are taking 11 hours a day of English classes and that doesn’t leave room for the maths, but it is perplexing.
Then there are these ubiquitous large flat wooden carts – almost like a barn door on wheels – covered with tiny clams seasoned heavily on the outside of the shell. These I don’t understand. I also don’t understand why this exact place that I choose to have fruit shakes and type these words seems, within minutes of my arrival, to be the Port Authority station of flies. They don’t seem to be after my drink, so am I to conclude that I’m honey sweet without knowing it? Or more like a giant piece of dogshit?

Forgot to mention the rapport I developed with a very old man who was always squatting on the sidewalk on the route to the old market, watching traffic. I’d see him every time I passed, always said hi, and he would flash me a hysterically bad-toothed grin. I think there might have been some betel nut in there, but wow, what a mouth (apart from which he was actually quite handsome). Just past him, the tuk tuk drivers would see me coming and imitate my stormtrooping gate, then howl. Clearly I was a neighborhood favorite

I’ve been on the lookout for a good pair of sandals, only problem is that my feet look like Sasquatch prints next to any of the local products. In Saigon, I had barely started to glance at a woman’s offerings and she shouted “No fit!” I had no choice but to slink away sheepishly. Then today some girls were laughing as I pulled out a sandal and then looked at my paw. Alas.

Day 12: I was really looking forward to the bus ride, considering how magical the trip up was (and since I had just had my best breakfast yet, though it seemed rather Vietnamese), until the bus driver started literally blaring Cambodian pop schmalz and playing the videos on a TV. Putting in my ear plugs, it lowered from 108 to 103 decibels, and within minutes I knew there’d be no appreciation this trip, but at least I could buy a bag of spiders and crickets and take them to the bar.

No dice. We fucking stop at two bus-friendly restaurants (ugh), and I end up just getting a sliced-up mango and an iced coffee. The good news is that the young Cambodian guy next to me on the trip is a tour guide at Angkor, speaks good English, and tells me where to go to get a cheap guest house (if any of you want to go to Siem Reap, I have his card; he’d be willing to pick you up in Phnom and facilitate as much or as little as you’d want. Good guy), and ultimately tells a moto driver for me -- very sweet (and notice how with no plans, things do keep working out. This I’ve always called the Rufus principle, and it’s always made me furious because I never used it, overpreparing instead to little or no benefit). It’s as if the universe in collusion to loosen me up. You’ve got a long way to go…

Well, call it a homing device. I found Phnom Penh’s so-called “bug market” within an hour of my arrival (the fact that it’s outside of the walls of the Silver Pagoda helped, as did it being right by the river, always my first destination, but I really had no idea where it was). It’s a good thing I promised you I’d eat one of the giant winged roaches because I’m still scared shitless and dying to back out. They’re huge! I had just bought two, trying to look cool, when an asian man, seeing me get them, made a kind of “oooh” noise that was not at all encouraging. I think the way I’m going to have to do it is make a little video for you all and try to post it. The comical thing is that I feel like I should eat them tonight so I don’t leave them in my room overnight and attract more……of them! (Bro has a great story of having a few bananas in his “hotel” room in New Orleans and waking up to a menagerie).

Apart from the abject terror of my bar snacks tabbed for later, somehow Phnom Penh doesn’t feel quite right. The traffic, though not as bad as Saigon, is annoying; none of the street food seems appealing (and all of it very familiar by now, until I get a little crepe-like thing with sweetened condensed milk drizzled inside, grilled as I watch in a golfball of butter – now that was incredible, if potentially instant infarction-inducing). I finally find a market back near my guest house (after circling for half an hour toting the bugs), and hunger forced me to get some completely lackluster Chinese fried beef and noodles (he had a wok full of excellent looking seasoned beef, then my plate came and the strips were naked. That ain’t the way to treat a future autophage!). I think tomorrow I’ll take Ron’s advice (and Bernie Bernbaum’s threat) and start eating in restaurants. But I think if I return to Cambodia, I’ll do the bike trip between here and Siem Reap and avoid both cities. By the time Jeremy meets me in Bangalore, I’m probably going to have rented a mule to carry our bags as we foot our way, village to village, on the road to Mumbai.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Post 12: The ledger of time’s accounts

Forgive me, my dearies, for that somewhat melancholic ending (and also these sideways photos, which it would take me about an hour to fix); occasionally the Weltschmerz gets to me, no matter how idyllic the real manages to be. And for the record, not only am I exceptionally happy here, I’m literally bubbling over with the life I get to return to when I come home. It is true that there seems to be a little bit of membrane between me and the most important elements of life (I’m in a blissful open relationship, but Sarah lives with her long-time boyfriend; my two magical sons are being raised 100 miles away; my job is there too and seems to be dissolving; bro has moved to the burbs; I’m subletting both my apartments and living among the progenitors and pooches of Park Slope, etc etc). And yet from those shards of seemingly broken matzoh, an integral whole does add up, strange as it may be. I almost cancelled this trip again to not leave any of it, so when I slurp my last noodle, burp my last pani puri, and fly my honkie-ass, exploiting self home, I will be gleeful.
Today I go to the temples. Last night’s meals were tasty but not amazing (Ron actually wrote and said that to get the finest of the subtle Cambodian flavor combinations, I might have to eat in restaurants – and he also said that the boggy countryside I went through is actually flooded up to the road much of the year, and the children play on the tarmac like it’s their yard. Wow.). I rent a dilapidated bike from my guest house (it’s too short, squeaky, with bad brakes and a semiflat tire – I quickly realize that on this front I might have gone first class, had I the opportunity) and knee-chest, knee-chest my way the 10k out to Angkor.
For those of you male readers who haven’t figured it out yet (and lord knows I need a refresher course every other day), believing in oneself is the source of all error. I thought I knew the route; of course I got lost, ending up at the far exit of Angkor (where you can’t buy the $20 entrance pass to get in) and had to circle all the way back around to do it the right way. By this point I’m about 20km in, livid, and my left knee keeps making a soft pop noise if I deviate even slightly from a perfect circle in my pedaling. So when the local girls start screaming if I want water, a guide book, a hat, to park my bike, etc, I get more surly than I’d like to have been. One girl actually says she’s going to steal my bike because I said no to her offer of a parking spot for a water and then went and made the same deal at another stall. I really just need T-shirts in all the languages of Asia that say, I don’t like to be screamed at. They’d keep me from having to walk to the Chinatown bus holding my ticket up like an anti-salesgirl talisman and being punched on the arm by the vendors from the other company.
Angkor Wat, the big doozie, comes first, another reason one should be able to enter where I biked to so it can be one’s grand finale. I’m embarrassed to say that I walked through and back out again and thought I had gone to the wrong temple. It was impressive, but not like the photos. When you get close you see just how ravaged the 800-yr-old marvel is. (it made me think that the similarly vintaged Chanson de Roland is still going strong – though my copy is help together with a rubberband – and if you want real immortality, better to be a writer than an architect -- not that I have any such grandiose ambitions…) It also made me remember what I had read of a Burmese temple: that the suzerain or whatever he was called back then had all his laborers killed when they completed it, so no one else could ever have such fine work. Tell the wind, my friend; tell the rain and the ages. It’s true we don’t have such fine work anymore, but the one maiden example you left behind can’t defend herself from all time’s suitors.
I was somewhat depressed. To recycle a metaphor I first stole (it was applied by its original speaker to trying to reading Garcia Marquez in English, though I used it in latest book to speak of Goethe in the Queen’s), I felt like I was looking at the underside of a Persian rug; I could see what might have been there, but I couldn’t see it there. Or not much of it, not enough. Enough to marvel, to think of the slaves, the power, the odd way human history has always played out (what’s Horkheimer’s -- Benjamin's andrew says, and he's the rigorous one -- line? “All great works of civilization are monuments to barbarism”). The photo here
is of one trace of the level of filigree; googleimage Angkor Wat and you’ll see the whole structure and imagine how it must have been.
The next temple, the famous Bayon with its carved faces (the pic at the top of this post) in the “town” of Angkor Thom 3 kilometers deeper in, was better preserved (as you can see ). Eventually I would spend some quiet solitude (which makes all the difference – these are temples, after all) near this crumbling one863, then, at the temple Ta Prohm, was in literal awe of the spung tree (aka octopus tree) 864 865and the prodigious abilities of its roots. Plus there was one growing right on top part of the temple 866 – thus causing it to crumble – and again I thought, “Nature always wins.”
By the time I was done biking the circuit, I thought I might have to spend the rest of my days being carried around in a milk crate, so on the road home I stopped and got a sugarcane juice (in a plastic bag, as they sell iced drinks to go), sucked it down (yum!) and pressed the remaining ice to one knee, then the other. Passing through the outlying, riverfront shanties 2868 of Siem Reap, I knew I had to eat, so I surprised an old lady by wanting to look under all her pot lids. I followed her recommendation and had the cold fish soup – very delicate and nice, though the fish itself was a little funky (and my bone trick needs work). 867
Utterly scored though after home and a shower and a nap, walking into town I bought a banana-leafed roll being grilled by an old lady. Turned out to be sticky rice filled with now-slightly-liquifying banana, 869 and the grilled side was brown and crisped and caramelly. SO good. Then of course I had to sample the local beef jerky, lest my brother disown me, and here’s how it came. 871 Meat unknown, even after eating.
Now I’m having a 50-cent mango shake outside, in lieu of the two-dollar coffee, and Fudgie is getting a lot of attention (a tuk tuk driver, whom I “spoke” to yesterday while eating my papaya salad, comes over and watches me type. I’m thinking of Levi-Strauss’ “Writing Lesson” among the Nambikwara, just updated for 21st century technology). Fudgie, by the way, gets his name by being a tiny Fujitsu lifebook, which I couldn’t believe they didn’t call the Fudge, considering how cute he is, and so now he’s Fudgie or occasionally the Fudginator. I’m sorry I just wasted a minute of your life telling you that. You can’t get that minute back. But yes, you can order my straight jacket now.
There are many more flies when you don’t spend two dollars.