Category Archives: Asia

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ON THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

ON THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

 

Myanmar– I’m sitting in the bar of the Strand Hotel, feeling the silken smoothness of the oil soaked teak, luxuriating in the overwhelming smells of ginger flowers, lulled with the sounds of the patala, the 100-year-old native xylophone being played in the lobby. I have returned with two fellow travelers–a British medical sociologist and a hydrologist from Sacramento. The last time I stood here, five years ago, the hotel was like having tea with my 90-year-old dotty aunt, who had crumbs all over her knitted sweater but was too senile to notice. Now the strand is transformed like Raffles in Singapore, from frog to princess, into a resort that would make Leona Helmsley and Donald Trump proud. Purchased by Aman resorts and restored well beyond a casual face-lift, this makeover is an apt metaphor for the explosion of energy that is reflected in the entire country. Nowhere is Asia can a goal of increasing tourism by a factor of 40 times be dreamed of, much less realized. myanmar015 I sit sipping a Scotch in their cocoon of a bar, reliving the past weeks. For the moment, a road trip of 14 days has washed away. Nearly forgotten are the endless hours of riding in a Mazda van listening to the mind-numbing cassette tape–playing tracks of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” at a speed that raises it half an octave too high and plays it 17 percent too fast. The drive and the driver–horn honking, spitting, drooling out the window, smoking 555s–is now behind me. I’m in a hotel that filters the chaos of the world outside and hermetically seals me in an environment that allows in only the most relaxing aspects of a classical culture. Noise and frenzy are checked at the door. Time is compressed. The weeks spent in Myanmar, the former Burma, run together as a travel adventure film meets “Mad Max”– on the road to the future from a hazy, romantic past. The film runs backward as we sip our drinks and recount landing in Yangon (the former Rangoon). A new international airport is being built in Pyay, 50 miles east of Yangon. The airport taxi drives on the right. The orientation of traffic has been reversed from left to right. The same date saw the currency change from dependence on the decimal system of 100 to denominations of 90 and 45. (You cannot imagine what it is like to count change based on a system of 90s 45s and 15s). The road is a visceral experience. It is not a neutral body of cement and asphalt. It is far from the romance of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. It is the basic conduit that funnels all levels of society and commerce. The road is being built with rocks broken from larger rocks by jackhammers and convicts. The rocks are piled in neat squares and shipped by truck to form the base of the bridge that span the Irrawaddy River form the roadbed of the airport. Old women smoking cheroots, young children, their sarong like long-ghis wrapped around their legs, spread the baseball-sized rocks which will form the new road bed from Pyay to Yangon, covering the 50 miles of the new airport road. The money is good–any money is good where the average income is $234 a year. Their faces are visible only when headlights pierce the night and reflect the workers in the darkness. Hotels are flourishing all over Yangon and Mandalay (still called Mandalay). “Joint venture” is the mantra sung with China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. The United States is conspicuously absent. The present government of 90+-year-old General Ne Win is portrayed in the U.S. as closed and brutal; the opposition embodied in recently released Nobel Prize winning Aung San Suu Kyi, as open and peaceful. The Myanmar government’s response is to paint a picture of sane, stable environment for investment and tourism. myanmar062When I stand atop the pinnacle of the Anglican Church, overlooking the hotels that are flowering all over the Yangon, on view is a country seeking to retain an identity and embrace involvement with the rest of the world. The largest country in Southeast Asia, it is on the brink of dramatic change. In the past five years, Myanmar has gone from strict isolationism to development’s embrace. Right around the corner is a transformation from the passivity and acceptance of Buddhism to the materialism of television. Looking out on the rooftops, satellite dishes bristle in the shimmering heat and brilliant sun. The mind boggles, trying to visualize the results when elephant handlers in remote jungles receive generator dishes–introducing a culture that has been essentially unchanged for generations to “Melrose Place.” We drive by a pagoda in the distance at 40 mph. The drivers turn, in synchronized motion, place their hands in a praying position and face the shrine. Sheer terror of uncontrolled forward motion screams into my mind as a I realize I am the passenger of two people who believe strongly in reincarnation. We travel on. The road continues, sporadic and spasmodic. Bagan. the jewel of civilization, awaits further north on the east side of the Irawaddy River. For the moment, travel to the western shore is limited to a ferry. We ride packed against a family with live ducks standing next to a truck with diesel continually running. The only honking is from the ducks. This part of Myanmar will unfold so quickly when the bridge unlocks the key to easy transport east/west. There is another checkpoint on the waiting bank, with more questions about who you are and where you are going. I continue to visit a herd of 80 elephants working the teak forests. Myanmar Timber Enterprises, as well as logging the world’s largest reserves of teak and the major source of hard currency for the country, are interested in developing the path to ecotourism. A 14-mile stretch from the nearest village of Myanmar, consumes three hours of bone-jarring travel in Hino logging trucks. I lose track of the number of times my head hits the roof. A week with the elephants and the noise of the van replaced with the gentle wooden bells of the elephants make the journey more than worthwhile. Rather than build permanent roads to accommodate logging trucks, the elephants pull logs that weigh tons as they daintily step over rocks and through streams. Their impact on the environment is less damaging than the roads. After being limited to experiencing elephants in the zoo and at the circus–seeing them work–pulling logs of over a ton, smelling their sweat and their gases, is a visceral experience. As they walk by, there is an overpowering smell-a mixture of sweat, breath, farts and dust-a smell of pure labor. The noises issued range from bellowing, grunting, trumpeting to a prehistoric earthshaking rumble–a deep, ominous, threatening thunder that surrounds you in nature’s pure mega bass. It’s an experience like none on Earth– frightening and exciting. The privilege of the elephants has to be reconciled with bathrooms that are a hole in the ground. A bucket of water and half a coconut shell exist in lieu of toilet paper. WPN122_copy This is the jungle– amenities are limited. But, on the up side, dinners consist of barbecued deer testicles, fried sparrows and Heinekens. Two days from Yangon, we fall out of the van on frozen legs to face each stop–each new adventure. From a distant hilltop, we watch the sun rise and strike Mount Popa. This is 
a city of pagoda set like a golden jewel on a volcanic mountain attainable only by an accent of 500 steps. If you are too tired, two men sit with a basket chair suspended on poles to carry you up the steps for a few khats. Monkeys, who populate the mountaintop city, wreak havoc on any object left on the ground. Monks and children picnic at pagodas, sleep between prayers and resume worship having consumed a pleasant meal and nap among a family that is devoted to each other and Buddha. We travel three days from Yangon, a short day from Pegu, before arriving at the dirt goat paths of Bagan (formerly Pagan)–now being paved with broad concrete boulevards. This city of 2,000 pagodas, stupas and temples, abandoned by the ruling monarchy in 1267 in the face of the approaching Genghis Khan remained much as it did in the 700 years intervening. . . until recently. The village has been moved out of the archaeological zone to a few miles down the road. Animals no longer roam the temples; visitors are no longer allowed access to the tops of pagodas to view the sunsets across the Irawaddy, as was permissible only five years prior. The old man fortuneteller who reads palms under a 15-watt bulb–literally at the end of the power line, at the end of time, is gone. The land changes; not only physically but in a temporal sense. The pressures of tourism will eliminate the naiveté, beauty, isolation and silence. They are traded for accessibility and a shower with hot water. To drive through the country is to see a world that is inaccessible by plane. Considering the risks described by most major airline safety organizations and the sheer thrill involved when you are confronting the use of parts of an airplane never recognized when landing at Bagan. . elevators, rudders, ailerons are all brought into very active focus when landing among the cross winds of the desert of Bagan. . . You might want to drive. The road describes not just direction but economics and history. When you are on the 
road after dark, walking home or to the fields, you are a peasant with few possessions in your pocket. You are part of the small migration from palette to labor that goes in pulses all over the world. Spiritually and historically, this is the same road that meanders through the Incan Empire, crosses Pompeii and intersects in modern Myanmar as it reaches out to open into the 21st century. The road, bearing its burden of poverty and backbreaking work, is punctuated by opulence and wealth of golden and white pagodas. Look beyond the roadside stands, the width of a garage entrance and incandescent lights of yellow, red, and blue hovering over a dinner, low wooden stool, small wooden table, rice and curry. . . and you see a procession of steps leading to a towering onion dome of gold leaf dwarfing the landscape. The pagodas are innumerable, endless, heart stopping– the Buddhist soul of the society. This is a road that, in spite of efforts at repair, is constantly hammered by heavy trucks and monsoon rains. Unimaginable torrents are regular events. Rivers and streams swallow sections of the asphalt with caprice. Men and boys shovel dirt scabs onto the wounds of the road. Theirs is the task of Sisyphus. They hold out hands, palms up to receive of offerings from the driver going by. These efforts keep the road to the level of impossible rather than impassible. The road circumscribes the central mountains of Myanmar. You go north to get south, west to go east. I chew gum to act as a buffer, a primitive mouth-guard to protect my teeth from the asynchronous jolts and jars. Hell is being reincarnated as a vehicle suspension system in Myanmar. Night falls and the stream turns more dramatic. Heads are coiffured with balanced, loaded baskets, defying gravity. There is the endless flow of people straining to earn a livelihood flowing through the darkness. These are people defying time and energy. From predawn to post dusk, the traffic continues with oxen and cart, bicycle and pedestrian. The road threads the land, the peasants blanket the spaces in the road left by the trucks, lorries and carts. Movement becomes an instinct. Lose that instinct and the violence in the meeting of vehicle and person becomes disastrous. The lane crumbles slightly, the road ceases abruptly. There is no definition between road and non-road. Passing is an adventure- a cacophony of vehicles, honking, trucks responding, car waving, monks watching, villages smiling as we pass–off the road, in the dirt, around a truck, in the middle of a curve, with the driver ahead, signaling lazily with a casual arm that the road ahead may be clear. Our driver coaxes the diesel engine and slowly accelerates around another blind corner as he leans and spits out the window a stream of crimson betel-nut juice every three minutes. The road is darkness, stillness, quiet. A strip of asphalt parenthetically bracketed by oxen cart tracks, two meters apart, on either side, enclosing not just the road but time itself. These are the same dimensions that thread through Incan, Egyptian, Greek, Syrian civilizations. these parallel lines define time and describe economies. They echo the faces on the people who sit at dawn, on the back of oxen, on the seat of the carts. The wheel creaks as the wooden axel turns. The peasant and beast of burden share the road. myanmar009 They have traveled the same paths through time from the invention of the wheel, the 
domestication of the ox to present day. These wheel ruts are the same dimensions in all civilizations. These ruts describe how far we have come and how far we have to go. The asphalt pierces these tracks sporadically. They intersect on bridges too small and roads too fragile to segregate the traffic. Frequently the cultures meet. This is vehicular Darwinism. Occasionally, the road is dotted with trucks overturned, and a chorus of a thousand will surround the scene. Half of them had to have been on the truck. Every 
horizontal surface that moves is filled by a living being. A truck cab is shared by four 
people and there is a reflection of three or four others that ride above the cab. Seat belts don’t exist in a land where the road cannot be taken for granted. Where are the people who were sitting atop the truck when it overturned? Nowhere to be seen. The first paved road of the world, recently discovered, led from quarry to the pyramids of Giza. These roads are close relatives and must have been developed simultaneously. Turning south after seeing Mandalay, central Myanmar, the repetitiveness is brought to a sudden halt as a bicycle rider turns into the path and freezes himself on our windshield. 
He slides off as we skid off the road to a halt, with only “Wake Up Little Susie” continuing in its maddening ignorance of the tragedy it has accompanied. The rider lies momentarily still but is quickly poured into a three-wheeled trike-shaw and pedaled off to a hospital holding his head and chest. “Not to worry,” everyone is told. “He was careless,” as his mangled bicycle lies among his scattered vegetables. Rude as it is not to give full attention to the disaster at hand, I find a bathroom to use, as one must always take advantage of the moments when the car is not hurtling forward. A half-hour later, with necessary officials conferring and assigning proper blame, the incident passes with little consequence, except for the villager, who probably had a great deal of the family resources tied up in his bicycle, now totally unusable, and who will answer for the days of work lost, the food on the road 
rather than the table. Speed limits? They exist only from a pragmatic view. The road is full of chasms, anachronisms and surprises. It is completely intolerant of inattention and mistakes. The tape continues during the 14-day journey; it winds, unwinds, rewinds and plays again. It is occasionally drowned out by children or monks with aluminum urns and 
dancing coins, soliciting money for monastery and school. Don and Phil continue their off-key chant as we are stuck behind traffic and follow the 30-meter lazy-eight line of cow urine– a dark calligraphic line scribed on the brown dirt. The tape persists as we drive across roads, bouncing over washboards– endless perpendicular cornrow intersections. A distance of 350 miles takes three days of 12 hours of real work. After each stop, it is squeezing back into the van and the seemingly endless encounters with the road, the tin buckets jangling for alms and the monotony of Don and Phil and their quest to get Susie home on time. Night, black night; riders ride on night-black road in silence-the-stillness of the landscape, the groaning of the wooden wheel, the rich/dull ring of the wooden oxen bell accompany each other’s rhythms. The riders, the carts, the bicycles come out of the darkness as we stop and fill the van with diesel from 10 gallon tanks we carry. They pass as mute ghosts, night shadows. When I return from Asia, my suitcase opens and a flume of diesel fumes wafts out with such force it is amazing the sensory stimulation has escaped customs. The odor is so pervasive it should have set off the metal detectors. The trip home mirrors the journey there, with a 14-hour flight from LAX to Taipei, four more hours to Singapore, an additional three hours to Bangkok, and the final hour to Yangon. Yet I count the days until I can return again to watch the sun set over the Irawaddy, I would even get back on the road.



50.51Laos

A Christmas To Remember- GP Check

A Christmas To Remember

Xmas Luang Phabang

Dear Journal:

Woke up early around 6:30 – It’s finally Xmas Yeah! We gather all of our presents together then head off to eat breakfast. Open gifts – I get a Mark & Brian tape, a little wooden elephant from Bagan, boxes, earrings, purses and a necklace Yeah! I love everything that I got. Then we walk around town till about lunch time. Stop for lunch at Luang Phabang restaurant – it is very good. After we have achieved food in our stomachs we get a tut-tut to the textile village – a rip off tourist shop, but we buy a tablecloth that Mom will like.

Go to speed boat pier and hover our way over to the sacred caves 25 minutes up to the Mekong. Get there, it’s absolutely amazing! An army of Buddhas! There are so many and they are so old and beautiful. I have never seen anything so breathtaking.Silhouette of tree at dawn

Come back to the hotel after caves and get ready for dinner. On our way to a restaurant, we stop by the oldest pagoda in Luang Phabang. There are 6 monks sitting on the floor chanting. I watch and listen to the monks relentless booming, beauteous noise and think this: Hear the sound of “Jingle Bells” and hear the monks chanting. Both songs have to do with god. Who do you think gets in touch with the “All Mighty One?!”Statues of Buddha under tree by river

Go to dinner and come back to the hotel weary little bunnies…

All anyone has said to me on this trip is. “You are so beautiful.” And I’m not anything spectacular in the looks department. So it’s the fact that I’m a Westerner, and American girl who has braces; that is what makes me so special. I didn’t want to put this part of our trip in my journal because if someone else reads it they might get the idea that I have an ego problem. Which I don’t.

I have learned what I was meant to learn on this trip:

We are all, somehow, deeply connected by one big web, joined in our hearts. It is an important lesson that now I know the meaning of it.

I like Laos more than Myanmar. Burma is very difficult; there is a certain desperation/tension/uncertainty about it that makes it hard. There are children that play on the streets here and they have smiles on their faces. In Myanmar there are fewer happy children playing in the streets – sad.Monks praying in temple, rear view

I had a most memorable Xmas. I miss home though!

Signing out-

LeelaCyd

Leelacyd.gmail.com


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dh

Goa-ing Goa-ing Gone

Panjim, capital of Goa and Unfolding Beauty

Leela Cyd

www.LeelaCyd.com

Ross.leela@gmail.com

Panaji, Goa, locally called by its old name “Panjim,” is a city of pastels, picturesque decaying mansions, delicious Indian sweets, old men speaking Portuguese, and whizzing “scooties” (mopeds and scooters).  The last vestiges of Iberian colonialism can be felt strongly here – as the city’s customs, daily schedule, infrastructure and food reflect the 500 years or so of Portuguese occupation (1961 is the year Goa was annexed by India).  With that said, Panjim is still India – with loud streets, betel-nut chewing, bustling markets, wild Hindu Festivals such as Divali, extravagant colors, intense smells (burning trash and fish galore) and that sustained kinetic chaos that seems to be under-current of anywhere India.  

While the beaches of Goa are bumping 90s American rock and crowded shoulder to shoulder with tourists from Russia, Israel, UK and the US, Panjim is inland, located on the Mandovi River and is most often skipped by the charter groups and beach-bums.  This is a good thing!  The romance of the city is very much in the fact that it’s not oversaturated with tourists and is a working city with folks just doing their thing.  I recommend it over the beach shack, “visit my shop, promise!?” aggressive vendors in a heartbeat.panjim-girls-school

While living in Panjim, we’ve adjusted to the heat, rhythm of the day – everything closes here from 1 or 2 until about 4—and found simple activities to be the most fun.  Taking the bus into town, for example, one can pay 5 rupees (10 cents US) and hear every sound possible made by a human being.  The bus driver and conductor work in tandem.  They whistle, tss tss (sounds like shooing away a dirty stray dog), hoot, clicking noise, yelp, giggle and whisper in a cacophony of sounds to direct the flow of traffic and payment within the bus – these are sounds I did not know existed outside of a tropical rainforest and would be taken as pretty offensive if aimed at a passenger in the US, let alone be used in an everyday vocabulary of transport.  It doesn’t matter where the bus is going, just get on and take note at the miracles of human behavior! 

Another Panjim experience that cannot be missed is a trip to the local produce/flower market.  In a covered building in the center of town, beautiful tropical fruits and vegetables await you, with many other delights for all of your senses.  A few scenes to be had here on any given day: teenage village girls selling sweet potatoes on their cell phones, various squatting/seated positions that would break my back in a matter of minutes, flowers adorning buns, perfuming air that already has a million and one smells, Santosh, the sweetest spice vendor on earth, explaining each item in his stand with the reverie and enthusiasm of someone selling rare paintings or antique diamonds, floors with bananas and papayas spilled out in one even layer – forcing the buyer to wade through the high tide of fruits to pick her prize—a gloriously orange papaya. . . the list goes on and on.  It’s the best market ever; I’m just flat out saying it.Panjim_market_4

After shopping, and strolling, you’ll be doing yourself a favor to pop into Kamat Hotel (they use ‘restaurant’ and ‘hotel’ interchangeably in India), catty-corner to the central Panjim Church, and dig into a masala dosa and mango lassi.  For about 1.50 US, I can sit down to one of the simplest and tastiest meals of my life.  Picture a thin, savory, fermented semolina pancake (crispier and larger than a crepe, but in the same family) stuffed with turmeric-laced mild potato filling.  Rip off a piece of the dosa, stack a little potato on top and dunk in the traditional coconut chutney (milky and mellow), dry coconut chutney (ask for this, they never just bring it to you) and tomoatoey sambar (a thin and spicy soup)….  Washed down with the luxurious mango drink, the meal makes perfect flavor profile: sweet, salty, simple, soulful and satisfying – I never tire of it.

Eating, shopping and no-doubt a hard-earned siesta will bring us right to around 4 pm, the perfect time for a swim.  Steer clear of the fancy hotels and their $10.00 pool use fee and head to the Panjim Gymkhana.  You’ll need to come prepared for this dip with the following: a swim cap (if you have hair longer than an inch), Speedo-style trunks for men, a conservative one piece for the ladies, copies of photo ids, passport photos, towels, 30 rupees per person and, if you get a strict ticket man, a doctor’s note stating you’re healthy enough for the pool.  It’s a lesson in Indian beaurocracy but believe me, it’s WORTH IT!  The Panjim Gymkhana Pool is Olympic in size, has several smaller pools for splashing and 5 diving boards.  At sunset, as we plunge through the humidity into the depths from the high-dive, we catch the view of the pink Mondovi river.  It’s a surreal and downright divine experience.  My American identity transforms into a mermaid every time we go to swim– that is, until a teenage boy asks me about my favorite action films.  Undoubtedly, my husband and I converse the most with this population (the teenage boys love us and are unabashed and delightful).  One cute guy with a nose plug told us he enjoyed science as his favorite subject, stating, “the universe is beautifully unfolding.”  Between the conversation, views, turquoise dives, transcendent nature of water, triumph of getting in (having all our forms, finally!) and refreshing coolness – it’s an afternoon hard to top.panjim-treat-shop

The swaying coconut trees, tropical breezes, Unesco Heritage Site preserved neighborhoods, temples, markets, tailors, surrounding villages and towns, churches and restaurants – there’s much more to savor about Panjim – I’ve given a few ideas, but perhaps it’s best to just come here, enjoy a cashew feni (local STRONG liquor) and lime soda cocktail and do as the young man in the pool mused – let Panjim and its universe beautifully unfold.

If you go:

October- January are coolest, mildest times of year (still 80-85 degrees with 85% humidity everyday though!  Remember, this is a tropical place.)

Stay: Hotel Fontainhas, heart of Fontianhas heritage district, affordable rooms and lovely owners

(across from Panjim Inn, Panaji)

Eat: Hotel Kamat, near Panaji Church and Municipal Gardens, 0832-2426116 open everyday 9am-10pm

Swim: Panjim Gymkhana Pool, Campal Panaji, open 6:30 am – 10:30 am and 3 pm – 7pm, everyday except Mondays – and closed several local holidays, call or ask about holidays before going 0832 – 2225818

Shop: Municipal Market, Althino, Panaji – open everyday, 8 am- 9pm

vietnamtraffic

Crossing Streets in Saigon

Asian Fear Factor—Saigon, Vietnam

I am a photographer. My experience is through the viewfinder, a world mediated by a glass rectangle. The images that result close out the honking noises, the smell of charcoal brassieres, diesel fumes, rotting vegetations. The lens wanders and selects what should be discussed; it eliminates distractions. Optics eliminate, enhance, direct and edit, all at once. Without false modesty, I can make the ordinary into something extra-ordinary. This is my vocation, craft and gift. I have good eyes. Given these facts, I now close my eyes, my window to the world. My optic safety net is withdrawn.

I make my partner escort me across the street with my eyes closed. She directs me off the curb. With my first step I am awash in sounds and smells. My radar engages. The first crossing is tense. My third more relaxed. I judge the density of traffic by the sweat and grip of my guide. Nothing hits me. The fragile whisper of fabric breezes my cheek punctuated by abrupt engine sputter, amplified by the choking exhaust. I begin to judge distances by every non- visual sense. I can feel the traffic through the soles of my feet. I am in the river of Vietnam traffic. I crosscut the grain. If my eyes were open, I would see a family of four on a bike, two saffron clad monks, a man driving while a woman sits behind him holding three sheets of plate glass 3 feet wide; 4 feet tall. A man sits with a refrigerator tied on across the rear seat. The motos are the workhorses of Vietnam.

By the seventh crossing my guide is tired of my antics. She has been visually locked into this game I have foisted upon her. Spending the day crossing herds of motorbikes and cyclos is not what she signed up for. Her tastes run more to culture and exotic dinners—go figure. I make another crossing, solo this time.

Eyes closed I step off the curb as my partner shouts at me 100 feet away on the shore of the distant curb. Nothing drastic happens, an uneventful passage, but my wheel of fortune is running down. I am trying the patience of Buddha. He is pleased I am exploring his realm but he is also saying “enough is enough.” Vietnam is the land of the “Future,” Honda’s 100cc motorbike, also the “Jupiter, Dream, Dream2, SuperDream, Angel, Sirrus, and Spacey.” Everything that can allude to an ethereal, above the planet experience, drives through the mortal streets brought to earth with two-wheeled reality. The motorbikes have a regular sputter; the boats have a constant but irregular pulse; cyclos, bicycle driven rickshaws have a wheezy hamster wheel squeak as they ride in twos and threes through the charcoal smoke filled evenings. The future of this part of the world is not bright. Traffic does not snake toward you, rather it braids, from right and left forward and back, it is the “surround-sound” of transportation. Bikes are now replaced by “motos” but they still retain the same sense of exposed social responsibility and harmony. They flow, moving objects in a stream working together. Development brings cars, diesel cars. The encapsulation and isolation of automobiles will destroy the social necessities of the road and disharmony will follow, pollution will be ten-fold and more.

Buddha coughs.

VietnamHue_copy

Traveling the River

Lying on the deck of the 16-passenger multicolored 30-foot boat where the anchor and rope chain are stored I find a small clear spot on the wooden deck one-meter square. I put my sweatshirt under my head and close my eyes searing red from the mid day Vietnamese sun. I listen to the rhythmic slapping of the Perfume River on the hull mingling with the tin loudspeaker of distant temple and honk of horns on the shore. I drift off into what I think is light sleep, closer to a narcoleptic comma. This is the romance of traveling in Asia on a mid winter day. The reality is a different story. VietnamTemple2Boat trips and train trips share the same charm of looking forward to and back on them. In truth it is chilly but the diesel fumes in the enclosed cabin is overwhelming and driven me to the deck. It is cold and the deck hard, but I am so exhausted from travel and sleeping on unfamiliar hard beds with nonexistent pillows I fall quickly into a deep sleep. I awake stiffly an hour later. Memories of six temples and tombs roll through my head topsy-turvy like a continuous Marx Brothers movie. Half my body is asleep, the portion that isn’t is sore, stiff and cold. This is the reality of a river trip. This is the lesson of the Buddha.VietnamTemple_copy

Buddha9

The Buddha Sleeps

 

Buddha arises from his Rotund Chinese incarnation. Speed bumps of fat disappear as he heads west into Laos. Here he becomes lithe and feminine, raises his hand from a perpendicular forearm and salutes the worshipper with a jeweled palm and a knobbed watch cap. She travels farther south into Chang Ri Chang Mi and finally the pollution of the 21st century and Bangkok. She takes a tuk tuk and finds a space to rest her weary lungs, quietly she fades into sleep and reclines while her minions drape her in gossamer leaf of gold. She sleeps and the traffic honks and circles her. Does ever Buddha go on vacation? And if so does she have to visit her sister? Buddha’s minions are everywhere, clad in saffron, oranges, reds, light browns, complimenting the beedi-nut colored boys who wear them. Acne, spare facial hairs, stubby crowns. They walk the dirt roads of the islands, climb steps of the emerald temple, and stand around me chatty in their tentative English, amused at my query into modern religious practice. They are sandaled, barefoot, silent and laughing. They are the youth of Buddha, the boys he hangs with, Buddha’s posse. Buddha4We fight the traffic all day in Bangkok, flow freely on the ferry crossing the Mekong, walk at leisure through the paths in rural Cambodia. We sit on sit on slotted bamboo platforms under trees, hiding from the heat of the white sun, baking the color of the robes. Back in the Thai cities the sun remains hidden by the smoke, saffron cloth is obscured by traffic. Two monks encircle me at the cyber café and search for enlightenment, Buddha on line. The connection is painfully slow, infinite lifetimes in fact. Monks Google Buddha’s website and images of wonderment and eternity appear. Nicely designed the absalas dance across the screen. They step from the 2-dimensional and whisper secrets in the ears of the searchers. Where is Buddha among all this magic? He is driving a tuk-tuk, stuck in traffic, using his cell phone to say he will be late to his 10 o’clock—apologies. buddha&BoaTree

 

stepsMamallapuram

Stair Story

There is a lesson getting from one floor to another here, I am just not sure what that lesson is.The treads are more or less equal in dimension but the risers are not variable, they are random. On the same run of twenty, they can vary from 12 to 2 inches. When going up, the changes in altitude are visible and can be anticipated. On the way down, the disparity is hidden from view, unexpected and lead to vertebrate fusing hits. Landings are complex. Buddha takes wing on flight of stairs.

Thailand101

The Real Bankok Business

The Business of Bangkok.

Unresolved the world of spirituality—Golden Buddha effigies awash in a piercing halogen cone of brilliance, reclining figure of the Wat Pho Buddha, Emerald Buddha at the Golden Palace, The Golden Mount. They stand, sit, lie–eternal, placid overlooking the weekend market, 30 acres of shops 3 x 4 meters with the wares of Asia competing with Western knock-offs. Lightly fried rice cakes arm wrestle diet cokes for shelf space. And then there is Pat Pong. Flanked by a 2-block strip of Japanese restaurants that in turn, host their Thai, “hostesses.”–The distilled sexuality of the red-light district. Reed-thin bikini-clad girls bored to stupor share the stage with two dozen gleaming poles, metallic objects of surrogate affection. If they were not already dehumanized by their roles, the circular number discs that are placed on their miniscule suits deliver the finishing touches.Menus are touted by men on the street, selections wrapped in plastic to survive the thousands of anxious sweaty hands who that have held them. The hymnals of sexual extremity. “Pussy” graces every line. “Ping-pong Ball” and “banana” don’t even make the top ten. Upstairs, without variety at the end of a short flight into a blue lit room stands a flock of six women lazily dancing on a step raised platform, wearing only the thinnest of tops, fully exposed aforementioned “pussy” awaits the proper currency exchange to courtesy and perform with the previously cited nouns of choice. Buddha wonders if the magic of humanity is in the emerald jade images, or the versatile “pussy” smoking a filtered cigarette.

Thailand101

Leelacooking

Cooking Through India

Indian cuisine and tradition Notes from a chef

An aspiring food artist savors her travels learning to celebrate the freshest foods of the sub-continent

LeelaCyd

Leela.cyd@gmail.com

Emeril Lagasse says that food is love. Yes, this statement is true, but there is so much more to be said. Food is an art form, another arena in which to reveal my ideas. For me, food is my creative expression, an extension of my complicated personality. My spatula is my paintbrush, a Miles Davis CD and a beach walk. I take my cooking seriously, but in a very uninhibited fashion – letting my hands do the thinking for me, releasing ingredients into their truest free play of fusion.

Not everything works, but I accept my mistakes in stride, with an acute understanding that they are just another piece of the pie – no problem. In order to be really successful, and able to recognize and celebrate accomplishment, one must deal and learn from failure.

Harmonious flavors are meant to be savored on a daily basis- I’m just not willing to put anything but the best down on my plate…oh it s so tough being a princess. I have now taken matters into my own hands: assumed the role of grocery shopper (Farmers Market, Trader Joes and Tri-County Produce), head chef and party planner of my household. It is a labor of love though – I feel joyous and full of pride, even when rinsing a delicate martini glass or clearing the table-cleaning is a part of the full circle experience.

So when you laugh and scoff at some crazy 17-year-old girl for watching the Food Network during her spare time, stop and understand that the Naked Chef, Martha, Emeril, Bobby (hate those eyebrows), Mario and Morimoto (Japanese Iron Chef) are all my teachers and comrades. They have something to offer me, and I to them.

While traveling in India, I found similar teachers in a number of South Indian chefs. I feel truly blessed to have been exposed and educated by these culinary wizards. Each cook knew exactly what effect each ingredient would create. Food really defines a culture, and they were as happy as I was to be sharing in the exchange of cooking techniques and tradition.leelawithspicesindia

In Madurai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, I had a lesson with a grandmother in the Chettiar caste and her male cook (secretly, a lower caste) We were taken there by Vidya Vidya Rajasekaran, a college professor, who also hosted us for dinner at there home. And I received lessons from Raghu, the captain of a converted rice boat on the backwaters in Kerala, a tropical state that produces the majority of the world’s cashew crop.

There is a level of diversity in Indian cuisine, just like one experiences in America, from state to state. North Indian food tends to be a little milder and chapatti, a flat bread, is served with every meal. In the south, where I was, the food is a little spicier because of the warmer, tropical environment.

The recipes, I learned, varied from caste to caste and state to state, but there was an inherent valued tradition and a sense of family importance each specific blend of ingredients. Recipes were passed on from generation to generation and only varied to accommodate the seasonal fruits and vegetables available.canteenmadoriindia

Many castes use similar flavors and ingredients. There are however, some distinct differences. I was told the elite caste, the Brahmans, do not use onions or garlic in their dishes.

The typical large meal is served midday around 2 p.m. and consists of rice, a chapatti, nan or papa (large fried potato chip), a few vegetable options, dhal (lentils, a source of protein), rasam, tea/coffee and some sort of fruit.

Meals are served on banana leaves or tiffin stainless steel cookware, and without silverware. At first, I found this alarmed my western standard of etiquette, but when I recognized this was just a custom and started to eat with my hands, I felt much more in touch with my food. Everything was so organic, and Western utensils seemed foreign and wrong. This was a purely natal way to eat the oh-so-delicious meal.

All of my teachers made different dishes according to their backgrounds, but they were united in one love, one theme – only the freshest ingredients were to be used. That meant growing the curry leaves in their windowsills, grinding the cardamom with the mortar and pestle, and buying seasonal fruit at the marketplace that very morning.leelaandcookinglessonmadori

These tactics need not frighten consumer-based, prepackaged Americans. I m not trying to change a country here, just instigate a little passion for what is real. Things like peaches in the summertime and turnips and beets in the winter, to name a few. I knew the values of these tasty, delicious morsels before my adventure, but I had never experienced the slow song they would groove to on my lucky taste buds. This was a dining experience to be immensely appreciated and analyzed – I had to know how these clouds from heaven were seasoned!

So I stepped inside their kitchens with my father, documenting the lessons, at my side. They embraced my Nancy Drew tape recorder and me. I learned to make chapatti bread, Indian chai tea, rice dishes, an array of vegetable dishes, lassi (a delicious yogurt drink) and a few chutneys. Each night, I would transcribe the love – the unity of spices what we all know as recipes, into my journal…

Falling asleep with a smile on my face, an expanded belly and visions of coconut scraper, cumin seeds and banana leaves floating through my head – not sugar plum fairies.

RASAM FIRE SOUP

Rasam is always very spicy and served as an hors doeuvres. Every family has its own recipe.

1-tablespoon coconut oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon crushed black pepper

4 red chilies

3 julienne green chilies

2 cloves garlic (minced)

1/2-teaspoon turmeric powder

1/2-teaspoon asafetida (available at Indo-China Market)

1 large diced tomato

1-teaspoon salt

2 cups dhal water (water in which lentils have been soaked for an hour)

1-cup water

1 tablespoon soaked tamarind, strained (seasonal)

Simmer the mustard seeds on medium heat in the coconut oil in a medium sized pot. Let the seeds pop, then add pepper, chilies, garlic, turmeric and asafetida, simmer fro about 1 minute. Then add tomato, salt, dhal water, water and tamarind. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1/2 hour. Serve as a starter in a teacup or over rice.

VEGETABLE TORRIN

1-tablespoon coconut oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 chopped dried red chili

8 curry leaves

1 diced small onion

1 minced clove garlic

3 tablespoons freshly ground coconut

1/2-teaspoon turmeric powder

1/2-teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cup chopped and slightly boiled vegetables (carrots, beets, cabbage, green beans, gourds)

Simmer mustard seeds in oil until they pop. Add the rest of the ingredients in order, stir continuously over medium heat until vegetables are tender. Optional: Serve with roasted cashews.

MANGO CHUTNEY

1 mango (cut into cubes)

1/2 cocoanut (grated)

1 green chili

splash of water

pinch of salt

Put ingredients in blender-combine until smooth yet chunky

RAITA

1/2-cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup diced cucumber

1/4 cup diced red onion

1/4 cup diced tomatoes

1 small hot green chile, finely chopped

Mix all ingredients, refrigerate for an hour, serve cold.