Thursday, February 28, 2008

Koh Pan Ngan Lexicon II

SWAG: Super Wanky Aggressive Guy -- a local adaptation of the SNAG. This is the guy who comes to yoga, breathes hard and loud and asks if you're going to the party later. He has a difficult time hearing anything but Yes

Au Revoir Paradise

It's official: I've taken off my watch. There is no need for either exact time or an itinerary and the presence of a clock has served little purpose other than to remind me of what I'm not accomplishing. Still, I find myself looking down at my wrist a hundred times a day, wanting to guide myself by it what tells me rather than what I feel -- whether I'm hungry, or tired, or needing some alone time. The watch is only a distraction, and so it has been relegated to the bottom of my bag to be dug out when I need to catch a plane, a train or a boat.

K left a few days ago (or is it months? I'm not sure) and J and I have rented a little white scooter which has become our main mode of transport. Though we have not named it, we should as this scooter has a definite personality and sense of humour: on the front it says BOOM -- the owner's name -- in big, bright letters; the back says CLICK; and it refuses to turn on in the rain.

Some roads are paved, others are covered in slushy orange clay, a precursor to cement, that sticks to the bottom of my flip flops. Both kinds are dotted with deep pot-holes that spring up like weeds and I have been perfecting the art of swerving as we traverse the island.

As we zip around, the jungle stretches out around us in superlative shades of green. Sometimes at the top of one of the big mountains, the ocean becomes visible for a moment in all of its photogenic vastness, bleeding turquoise into dark, deep blue, and back again.

I imagine Hemingway's Cuba or Gauguin's Polynesia -- places where they went to seek refuge from the bustle of life, to create, to gain perspective, to ponder. Here I feel constantly inspired. Still, it's not easy to find the time to write. I had imagined the hours leisurely stretching ahead of me, that time would be as readily available as the coconuts, but I find that even here, I have to actively seek it out. Like everywhere else, days can so easily fill up with other things, pushing my writing to the bottom of the list. The added complication on this trip is that unlike my life back home, where I take so many things for granted, I am aware of the potential for every detail to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

This journey is, by its very nature, a cliche at times, and it is very easy to fall back into the overanalysis, esotheric questioning and existential musings I am guilty of indulging in anyway. But the freshness of my surroundings help to take me out of my self and focused on what's going on around me rather lock myself than inside my head.

Little huts sit by the side of the road. They are sparse and look anything but secure, their wooden walls and metal roofs cobbled together shoddily. Many rest on stilts above chicken coops. Older women sweep the porches slowly, or light little fires at the back while babies toddle around looked after by whichever family member is closest. School only goes until age eleven on the island, so many teenagers work in the family business, tending bar or serving food at the resorts and restaurants.

The animals all look lean and strong. Dogs take their siestas at any time of the day or night, usually by throwing themselves down in the middle of the road. There is an abundance of land for the cows to graze on under the palm trees, and the chickens cluck happily as they wander around the houses. I have discovered that roosters are a great alarm clock when you want to make it to yoga by nine and get some writing time in before class.

The little gasoline shacks simply say "Gasoline" in painted red letters. In order to get the petrol to come out, the attendants manually wind a lever and pull a little stick that looks more like a toothpick out of a hose. The pump is straight out of a Hollywood Western.

Song tangs, the local taxis, which are little more than pickup trucks with benches and sometimes roofs on the back, barrel past with little regard for which side of the road they are meant to be on. It took J and I a few days to remember to stay on the left, but now we're old pros, swerving, breaking, honking, at ease with the road and enjoying the feeling of the wind in our coconut-oil soaked hair.

Building is going on all over the island and the power tools are almost always audible alongside the mopeds and the old cars. Still, riding around on one of the two roads that traverse the island, I am barely aware of the sounds that I know all too well from home. Instead, it is the wind in the trees, the waves, the crunching of the clay under the wheels of the bike, the barking of the dogs that I mostly hear.

Now that the Full Mooners have wound down and departed until next month, the partyers have been replaced with an older, more mellow crowd that seems to want to relax and enjoy the sun rather than getting trashed and blacking out.

Yesterday, my last full day on the island, J and I decided to go hiking. We made our way to the Phaeng waterfall and hiked into the depths of the jungle. It's been raining a lot these past few days -- someone told me it always happens the few days after the full moon -- and the leaves were wet and slippery. The ground was invisible under all the foliage: greens, browns, golds, yellows; mushrooms that looked like they should have hookah-smoking caterpillars perched on top of their perfectly flat tops. Around and above us, the white sky was hidden behind thick treetops. We hiked far below some of the tallest trees I've ever seen. There was barely anyone else on the trail and it was at points difficult to follow as there were no real demarcations. The hums and calls of the birds and the insects was, at times, deafening with high-pitched shrieks that went on and on until I had to put my fingers in my ears; the alarm was obviously being sounded about the strange creatures invading their space below.

The jungle was dense, the air was musty and heavy but pure, clean. For the first hour or so, I felt fantastic, the days of consistent yoga fueling my sense of strength. The beginning of the hike involved stairs, both manmade as well as organically formed by the jutting out, twisted roots of the trees. I got quite nostalgic for a moment remembering the last hike I'd been on that involved climbing stairs on a beautiful island. That one ended with a proposal and a diamond ring on my finger. But this hike turned wild and unexpected in a very different way, as nature became more overpowering and unforgiving the deeper we trekked. At a certain point, the path we thought we were following disappeared. Suddenly we were surrounded by nothing but foliage, fallen trees, white moss and the deafening sounds of the animals. At the same time as realizing that we had no idea of where we were, or how we would get back, I felt a deep sense of calm. It was as if we had arrived into the core, the uterus of the island. Though we were lost, I felt protected, I was not afraid. After a few interesting turns that forced us to double back and a couple of minor battle wounds, the extent of my irrelevance become potently evident. In nature, it doesn't matter who you are, it's nothing personal, but you can go from conqueror to victim without having the time to grasp what is actually happening.

J, with her park ranger expertise, led us back to our bike with little hesitation and only one curse-worthy bug bite. Though she is constantly running late in the outside world, in nature, she has a keen sense of time and navigation. As she says: "it's tricky being an American icon."

Tonight, I leave for the main land. The boat to Thong Sala leaves at ten and arrives at six in the morning. From there, I will take a mini bus to Wat Suan Mokh, where I will embark on my ten-day silent meditation retreat. While I am nervous about it, I am also very much looking forward to the challenge and curious about how I will react to the rigorous lifestyle that supposedly includes a vow of silence for the duration of the retreat, sleeping on a cement block for a bed, no food after noon, and a wake-up gong at four in the morning.

Wish me luck.

In Thailand, lemongrass is used in everything from soups to meat dishes. Though the herb itself is too tough to eat, when chopped up lemongrass adds a lot of frangrance and flavour. Healthwise, lemongrass is said to aid with digestion, relieve colds and flu and they say it has anti-fungal properties. Here it is often used in conjunction with chillies, garlic and coriander to make Tom Yam soup, for example. Besides enjoying it in my food, I have also steeped fresh lemongrass like a tea. It tastes citrussy and refreshing and has just a hint of sweetness.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bare Feet and Other Surprises

Back home in London, my wedding dress has arrived. I picture it sitting on top of the closet, wrapped up until the time comes to try it on again, envelope me in its luxury, start the last part of the run-up to the wedding. I imagine what I will look like wearing it, David's face when he sees me in it for the first time, what it will feel like as we dance under the stars.

And then I stop to make sure that the armpit smell is not coming from me. Because this is the tropics and Thailand is unforgiving even on cloudy days.

Koh Pan Ngan is a tourist-filled island that attracts every age, shape and size: there are the middle-aged men too undesirable in their home countries who come to visit their "Thai girlfriend", the tattooed, drunken Brits, the frat-boy Aussies, the yogis, the retirees, the young families, the anorexic college girls, the dread-locked travelers looking for a cheap place to breathe and play their flute. And amidst all of this there are us women traveling alone sprinkled in here and there; each one in search of something slightly different -- or, as they say Thailand: same same but different.

Day three on the island was when we started hitting our stride, my two serendipitous new companions and I. K is an Aussie who's taken six months off to travel through China, Vietnam, Laos and London. J is an American park ranger exploring Korea, Thailand and Laos for a couple of months. We met unexpectedly, and, even more surprisingly, have spent much of our time together since. Every noontime and evening, we've been enjoying long, philosophical meals at Big Mountain, where they see me coming and laughingly greet me with "no sugar, no honey" in their angular Thai accents. We've spent our afternoons in the ocean, going for massages, or investigating the various yoga classes and teachers this place has to offer -- one more amazing than the next.

And we talk. We talk like old friends, like women who have known each other for a long long time. We talk about why we have come on this journey, what we hope to find, who we want to be; about who we are "back home", in civilian life, as I call it, and what we hope to become. Our conversations are punctuated by a lot of vigorous nodding and many intense "Yeah!"s as we discover that though we didn't know of the others' existence a few days ago, our experiences have been similar in so many ways -- we have much more in common than I would have expected from total strangers, which is another reminder of how insular my life is and why it has been so important for me to come out here.

J, K and I laugh, cry, dance on the beach, share fresh coconuts, taste each others' curries, recommend books and movies, compare parents and boyfriend stories ... There is something unique about meeting new and wonderful people when all parties are so far out of their comfort zones. It levels the playing field, maybe because we have nothing to lose, maybe because out here, we have quickly become each others' connection to anything familiar. Instead of worrying in silence, we voice our concerns; instead of assuming, we effort to discover one another, we ask, we dig. Every physical occurrence is a metaphor for our mental and emotional states; every new idea is cause for hours of discussion. We push each other, encourage each other, comfort each other. We remind one another to lock up the bungalow we are sharing, and lend each other money until we get to an ATM. And we are all very grateful to have found one another in a way that would be embarrassing back home. There's a lot of hugging going on.

Even in this short space of time, we've created some semblance of a routine.

Every morning is comprised of stretching and an update on the state of our tummies. Then yoga -- J inspires me to hike up the mountain and get myself to another class. Luckily she says I'm doing the same for her in terms of writing, which we are endeavoring to do often as everything feels like it needs to be pondered. K is our anchor, definitely the responsible one. We moved into our third bungalow today -- and feel we have truly fallen into the lap of luxury. Not only does this one have hot water and mosquito nets on the windows, it also came with loo roll and soap! At 500 Baht (roughly 8 quid, $16 or 64 shekels) a night, it can't be beat!

Though J, K and I have created our own little microcosm, we are all still very much aware that there is also a whole new part of the world to take in, and a journey to be had by each one of us separately. The learning curve is so vast that regardless of whether I turn left or right, something powerful is going to happen.

Every single yoga class has been a revelation. Today, was a tantric yoga workshop. Yesterday was yin yoga. We keep looking at each other at the end of class, amazed by what our bodies are capable of and where are minds take us.

As always, in addition to the whole spiritual journey, there are the mundane details that make being here exotic. Like the obligation to remove all footwear before one enters a building; the squatting loos that don't flush, the buckets by the loos where one throws used toilet paper, the fishermen's pants that are the traveler's uniform (mine are a burnt orange color). Unlike in the Middle East where everyone caters to tourists, where walking in the old city of Jerusalem is a constant battle to not get dragged into stall after stall by "welcome" and "come to my store, very nice", the feeling I get here is that the locals get on with their lives independently of us foreigners. They rarely seem to give a damn, which can lead to situations that are in turn hilarious or irritating. Like when J took a taxi and he announced to her a few minutes into the journey that he needed to stop over at a friend's house in the opposite direction of where she was going before he could take her to her destination. If we don't disturb their routine, they are friendly; but there doesn't seem to be much heed paid to us. We are an income, nothing more, and often very little effort is made. For example, people don't speak much of any language other than Thai -- imagine trying to find out whether the noodles are made out of rice or wheat or whether vegetables have been cooked in butter or oil.

Don't get me wrong, though: I'm loving it. Every second.

One thing that I especially love is walking barefoot. Like everything else, it is a great metaphor for an aspect of life I have previously not given much thought to. Being barefoot alongside everything else is much more than simply the removal of shoes. When your feet are touching the ground, when there is no sole to serve as a barrier, something changes. I feel more connected to others as I have to trust that the floor is clean, that everyone around me has taken responsibility for their cleanliness and sanitation while I too am forced to really examine how I leave my surroundings much closer than I do back home. It sounds small, unimportant, but it actually provides a comforting sense of equality: regardless of how much you paid for your shoes, once you're barefoot, it really doesn't matter.

I think of how I'll look in my wedding dress and bare feet, how beautiful I'll feel, how different from the ratty, unwashed traveler I resemble right now. The contrast makes me smile. I can't wait.

Most of my food here is coconut based. In addition to it being the milk in my tea, and the cream in my soups, I have a green coconut every day. They cut open the top so I can slurp the water with a straw and scoop out the flesh with a metal spoon. You haven't lived until you've had a fresh green coconut.

There are also a lot of root vegetables to explore. So far, I've enjoyed my encounters with taro, which I have had blended with garlic as a soup but also as a flavor of vegan, coconut-based ice cream - amazing. My favorite, however, has to be the galanga root soup. Galanga root is often used in Thai cooking. Though it is a cousin of ginger and bears a family resemblance, it differs from it in taste. One of my favorite dishes here has been a galanga root soup made with coconut milk, tamarind and lemongrass. I'm still working on getting the chef, Jin at Big Mountain, to divulge her incredible recipe. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

An introduction to the Koh Pan Ngan Lexicon

In Thailand, one is bound to learn new words.

I'm still struggling with hello and thank you in Thai, but have picked up some fantastic new words in English --

DAG: Australian slang.
The word literally means the piece of poo hanging off a sheep's backside, but is used as an affectionate term in everyday language to describe someone who is gauche, whose clothing is inappropriate for the situation they're in.
For example, one could say that I felt like quite the dag in Hong Kong where everyone was dressed to the nines and I only had my hiking boots and travel gear with me.
The hostess at the Penninsula hotel didn't allow me into the new Felix bar, a bar designed by Philippe Starck, as I was wearing a "trashy suit" (after some questioning, I realized she meant a track suit)

S.N.A.G: American slang, acronym for
Sensitive or Super New Age Guy.
Used for what I have termed the Namaste Capitalists. These are men who use new age, and the journey for "truth" to justify an egotism and self-involvement that would otherwise be embarrassing. It is important to note that the SNAG uses his New Ageyness as a way to pursue women, and a ticket into the more lightheaded female yoginis' pants.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hong Kong

OK, so between the Valentine's crap, the Chinese New Year celebrations and the final blowout sales announcements, the already crowded signage landscape in this city is out of control. It looks like Hallmark took over Disney, Hijacked Picadilly Circus, married Wall street for its money and has Mulan working for sweatshop wages translating the lot.

Seriously, I'm still looking for that "wonderful, unique mixture of ancient history and modern Western culture" I was promised. If by "Western culture", people mean bad haircuts with glistening globs of gel holding pimply boys' long side-parted bangs in place and shopping malls comparing penis sizes on overy corner, then yes, we've definitely made it over here.

I found a hint of the said ancient culture really only in one place: a tiny temple around the corner from the hotel that the guide books don't mention that was absolutely stunning -- a true oasis of peace and quiet with huge red and orange coils of incense burning and statues of all sorts and size scattered around. Because of the holiday, there were worshippers lighting incense and praying during their lunch hour. It was a peaceful moment all too quickly forgotten as I made my way back into the chaos and mayhem that is Hong Kong.

Luckily, I staying in Kowloon on the mainland and so was able to see a little more than malls and moneymakers. When exiting my hotel, I turned inland instead of towards the water and ended up in a galaxy far far away... in the immigrant neighborhoods brimming with Chinese workers -- "the poor people" I was later told by a disgusted hotel concierge. I took in the shops, each blasting their own mix of Chinese pop songs, filled with clothing, herbs, tiger penises or local snacks -- dried seafood of every kind, from shrimp, to mussels, to squid and octopus -- on display in open crates much like nuts and dried fruit are in the Middle East. I saw residential areas from the top of a public double decker bus (3A) that reminded me of how I first saw London as a child with my mother who had figured out that the cheapest way to see a city is to buy a day-pass and ride the public transport. I watched television in the subway and tasted the best Dim Sum of my life in a tiny vegetarian place. In Hong Kong, they sell Dim Sum from little booths at the front of restaurants as takeaway. Mostly, I froze as Hong Kong was experiencing the coldest spell in years.

There will be loads of photographs to share, once I figure out how to upload them, but they don't capture the sensory experience: the pollution, the smog in your lungs, the triangular sounding words, seemingly yelled at the top of one's lungs to break through the relentless noise.

Imagine thousands upon thousands of people. Add hundreds of cars, all with breaks that need oiling, interactive billboards, stores and stalls blasting every kind of music on earth (all in Chinese), and rock and roll cell phone. One might argue that Times' Square fits this description. And at rush hour this is probably true. However, multiply that one city square by block after block of this, turn the volume up by abuot 400 decibels, add pedestrian crossing where each stoplight is metalically pinging at a different rhythm (with red being the slowest, green being the fastest, and flashing green being somewhere in between) and you've got Hong Kong.
Everything is written both in English as well as Chinese. On my first day, this gave me confidence that everyone would not only understand what I was saying but would also be able to respond accordingly. How wrong I was! And how spoiled I've been. Traveling in Spain, France, even Italy, I could make myself understood in the worst of times, blend right in in the best of times. No chance in Hong Kong. Where I wandered, English was an outdated hangover from colonial times, long-since forgottenor purposely ignored. There I was, feeling exceptionally large, tall and white, trying to make myself understood ... Lunch was a far cry from my usual "no wheat, no dairy, no mushrooms, no vinegar, bla bla bla" I settled for a simple "NO MSG?" and failed even at that!

This place is a conspiracy theorist's dream. Everything says "Buy! Buy! Buy!" There's a mall at every corner, next to every tourist destination. The signs flash, sing, vibrate -- although hilariously, many of them are still held up by bamboo scaffolding (it just occurred to me that that may be where the ancient culture bit comes in).

I have never seen so many people in one place, never heard so much noise at all times, never eaten so many unabashed additives in food. The streets are littered with people who charge into each other without acknowledging anyone else's presence. There is not a smile to be seen for miles and the only hint that this is an Asian city is the writing and the people's facial structure. Oh and the fact that there is not a hamburger in site. There was, however, still a head attached to the duck I shared with some lovely friends from home who happened to be here at the same time.

Hong Kong, to me, feels like a city disappointed, a city trying too hard to be something other than what it is. I have looked for emotion, for sympathy, for connection, even a tiny hint of it would have convinced me to give this place more of a chance.

Instead, I have found myself looking at the people wearing their hospital face masks in the street and wondering whether they are trying to keep things from getting out of getting in...?

I think my few days here can best be summed up with what happened last night: I decided to spend my last night, Valentine's day, watching a movie so I called downstairs to the Japanese restaurant and asked whether they did takeaway.
"Why you want takeaway and no sit here?" the woman demanded.
"It's Valentine's Day, and I'm alone" I told her, hoping the excuse would garner some sympathy or at least get her to agree to let me take it up to my room.
She burst out laughing; I'm not talking polite, slightly nervous chuckle either -- this was a full on belly laugh.
When I showed up to pick up my meal, she took one look at me, burst out laughing and said, "take-away, right?"
Had her English been any better, I probably would have reminded her that she was working on Valentine's Day. But I held my tongue and she didn't spit in my miso soup and salmon belly sashimi so I guess we're even... Although on second thought, I spent the rest of my evening blow-drying the only notebook I brought with me which had myseriously fallen into an invisible puddle -- so maybe she got the advantage after all...

Congee is a typical Chinese breakfast. Though I have seen it on a couple of menus as a dessert, for the most part , it is a savoury dish that is made by cooking rice in water until it achieves the consistency of thick, watery porridge (it turns out that the two are not mutually exclusive). You can then add meat, fish, poultry, vegetables -- just about anything.
At Nathan's Noodle and Congee, they had about fifteen different kinds, mostly made with parts of pig -- everything from the hoof to the guts. I ordered mine with fish. It also contained some fresh slivers of ginger and spring onion. On a cold, underdressed morning, this proved surprisingly delicious; I'll take it over a fry-up any day (provided I'm not hungover, of course)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A quick note before I board my flight to Hong Kong

A few days ago, D and I went to see Speed the Plow at the Old Vic. It is a play written by David Mamet. This production stars Keving Spacey and Jeff Goldblum. For most of the performance, I reeled at the razor-sharp dialogue, anxious to get as far away from it as possible. At the same time, I couldn't move. No even to blow my nose or take a sip of water. It was like a million paper cuts applied by Spacey and Goldblum, and the girl whose characer should have been called 'Eve' as the role was clearly limited to holding the poisoned apple that would mean the men's downfall.

It felt like a nightmare: there I was, stuck, no way to get out, having to watch this dialogue of never-ending evil narcissism. There was nothing kind or forgiving about it. And yet I loved every second. As the story progressed, it was like being forced to look in the mirror and seeing only your flaws, but because you can not look away or leave the room, you keep staring until you see past them, to the vulnerability and the humanity that is every imperfection.

When the play ended, I jumped out of my seat applauding. Yes, partly because I could finally shake out the pins and needles but also because the sheer power of the two actors and their rat-tat-tat machine gun performances made me feel like I had stuck my fingers in an electrical socket. I was inspired and disgusted, taken aback and excited, and most of all, grateful for my wonderful life in London that offers me these kinds of opportunities -- to see these kinds of things, to experience, to take in, to live... and then to hop on the Jubilee Line home.

On the tube, D and I looked at each other as we have so often in the past few weeks, realizing that our time together was coming to an end; that I would not be seeing him for 72 crazy days, that although we both feel this trip is so right, we're also both very aware that we don't know whether we'll recognize each other at the end of it. He smiled and held my hand, because what else is there to do, really? I squeezed his.

I need to go, see, cope, to fear, and face those fears. Like I was stuck in that chair, forced to watch Spacey and Goldblum even when my instincts were willing me to run away, I feel a need to be far away from everything that is familiar, and I know with a certainty I rarely feel that, like the play, I will return home in awe.

OK, in the spirit of complete honesty, I need to admit this small, lovely, ridiculous detail: I am sitting in the Virgin lounge writing this. D, bless him, surprised me with an upgrade, so I'm starting my down-and-dirty trip munching on sushi and sipping champagne (or I would have if I wasn't so hungover).

I have brought my little 'packed lunch' with me so I don't go hungry on the plane. Because flying is so dehydrating, I'm constantly thirsty and though I'm rarely hungry, I do get terribly bored so I bring tons of food with me.


large lettuce leaves (or similar), washed, dried and spread out one by one. (I also sometimes use collard greens)
vegetables to taste -- I love the sweeter ones like beets, or the ones with tons of water like cucumbers, but anything that can be sliced finely works. It's also good to use more crunchy vegetables because they give the wrap structure
sprouts (optional - I like them as they add an extra little kick)
Good fat filler -- I have used almond butter, pumpkin seed butter, avocado, hummus, depending on my mood.
fresh herbs if desired

Basically this is a cross between a summer roll and a wrap. The lettuce is used to roll all the other ingredients in. I make a bunch and munch on them one by one throughout the flight.

Today's wraps:
lettuce, beets, alfalfa sprouts, avocado

Flight's been called. Time to go.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"Why" is not a verb.

I read somewhere that the food you enjoy is directly impacted by what your ancestors ate. Is it the same for decisions you make? I’m leaving in a week, 8 days to be exact, and my family keeps coming up with deeply supportive questions like “Why would you do such a thing?”

I don’t know why except that I want to get out of this box I’ve always lived in – the let’s help those less fortunate without ever seeing them box; the salon communist box, the bourgeois box. Not that there is anything wrong with any of those boxes, and not that what I’m doing is anything less than an easy to spot cliché. But I feel lucky to be able to do this, regardless of what stage in my life I am doing this at, and excited to tackle the fears, the "why?" inside me that wants to crawl under my plush duvet and talk about saving the world from my Northwest London living room.

Not that I'm planning to save the world in the next three months, but I'm looking forward to seeing a whole new bit of it. "Perspective" is a word that keeps bubbling up in my brain.

I can ask why for the rest of my life; right now it's more about how and what -- about doing instead of agonizing. I agonize enough as it is, and I'd like to wean myself off the paralyzing habit, thank you very much. I won't pretend I'm not scared. And right now, at times fear wins while at others, it's the excitement that takes hold. I prefer the latter.

Every person I've spoken to has their own way of traveling. Some read the guide books from cover to cover. Others ask everyone they know, visit every website they can find, post questions on discussion boards. A few adventurous souls have told me that they prefer to arrive in new places without background or history, preferring to rely on fate and see what happens. Having never done any of this before, I'm kind of doing a bit of everything in an attempt to discover what my favorite way of seeing new places is. I have the guide books, have perused the websites, am holding back from making any reservations other than the minimum required.

I find I am instinctively most worried about the big cities: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Vientiane, Phnom Penh. The cities feel less safe to me, easier to get lost in. There's more of a chance that I'll disappear forever in the chaotic streets. The prospect of not being able to communicate, the unfamiliar languages make me realize how lucky I am with the ones I do have. Somehow, the smaller places and the treks attract me the most. Pha To and a non-profit I’d like to visit there, Chiang Mai, Luang Prebang… I feel I'm going looking for quiet rather than chaos. But who knows?

In the mean time, as I prepare my departure, everyone around me has an opinion.
“You will definitely get sick in India,” one friend told me, “one hundred percent. Don’t eat any food outside of your hotel and only stay in the best places. Don’t eat any street or market food because you know it’s dirty and you’ll get all sorts of parasites.”
Another friend was just as outspoken: “The best food I had was in the street. I only ate street food. Why spend money on posh food – you’re not getting the full experience.” She never got sick. Not once.

I realize as my trip approaches, once again, how much of my everyday life is governed by fear. I see just as clearly where it comes from, however, and what kind of a role education and upbringing play in all of this. The women in my family are scared. They don’t like to speak about themselves; they pretend everything is wonderful even when it isn’t. This trip is definitely a mystery to them. I think that’s why I feel sick so much of the time: it’s the battle between what I feel, what I say and what I think I should be feeling and saying. Does that make sense? But here I go anyway...

Somehow I’m hoping that these three months will help me get over so many things. I'm hoping these three months will bring about a big, deep change inside me. As if three months can be a magic bullet and erase the past... I'm trying to be realistic at the same time and not put such weight on this trip -- see what happens, I tell myself. I'd like to remove all expectation, go with an empty head and heart to be filled up with the experiences themselves. I think this means I just need to go, stop thinking about it, get on the plane, get out there. Go.

Last week, a friend came over for dinner. I took her into my room to show her what I had already packed. She took one look at my hordes of pills and tinctures – to strengthen the liver, anti-parasitic, vitamin C, aloe vera, cat's claw, etc. etc. etc. -- and in a very wonderfully unBritish way simply said “that’s quite a heavy security blanket you’re taking with you.”


I haven’t removed any of it just yet. I’m mulling it all over for now. After all, I’ve got another week to figure out what I'll be taking along to strengthen, protect, hide behind … in the mean time, as always, I take comfort in cooking. I’m loving the soups in the blustery cold of Blighty. At the same time, I’m trying to ease myself into the curries in a small, ignorant but enthusiastic way. A combination of where I am and what is, hopefully, to come (there are those expectations again…):

Like this post, I'm kind of all over the shop...


3 large sweet potatoes
6 – 8 carrots
3 shallots
1 -2 small red onions
coriander seeds
caraway seeds
cumin seeds
chicken / veggie stock
coconut milk
coconut butter
fresh coriander as garnish

Sauté the shallots and onion in coconut butter until well-cooked.
While those are cooking, dry-roast the coriander, caraway and cumin seeds
Once the spices are dry-roasted (when the scents are amazing), either use a mortar and pestle or grind them. Add to the onion / shallots along with salt and pepper.

Once the onions/ shallots are well sautéed, starting to caramelize, add the chopped up carrots and sweet potato. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down and simmer until the veggies are soft.

Once the veggies are soft, add stock, coconut milk, salt, pepper, lemongrass and chilli to taste. Blend until soft and creamy.

Allow to cook together for another 10 -15 minutes.

Serve hot with some fresh coriander leaves as garnish

OH, and one more thing; here’s my general itinerary:
Hong Kong, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India… and then Israel in May for wedding planning.