Friday, May 11, 2012

Rediscovering Spring

I'd forgotten how infuriating and delightful spring is in the Northwest; the last time I went through this was in 2008. Like the pains of childbirth, its peculiar form of manic-depression, gloom and brightness, chill and warmth, blossoms and hay fever had dissolved from my memory..

March came, April, then we were into May, and I was colder than I'd been in December. Springtime here has its own peculiar weather, with gusts coming off the Sound and rapid squalls that drench straight through to the gall bladder. Days fade into each other wrapped in heavy cloud blankets. Lights go on in the morning and often stay illuminated until bedtime. A trip to the grocery store is an exercise in sturdy pioneer fortitude. Trees form tentative leaves that are a sullen shade of green and any flowers that bloom look extremely out of place.

And then comes the morning when shadows form on the floor and a strange light teases at my closed eyelids. My cat finds patches of sun-warmed carpet and claims them. When I walk outside, the air feels like an invitation; I can't stay indoors. The past six months have taught me not to take sunlight for granted, as I did when I lived in Bangkok.

I take long, exploratory walks, finding places I didn't know existed in my neighborhood--a Buddhist temple for the Vietnamese who have taken over this district, a church where mass is said in Spanish, a taco truck only blocks from my apartment, a grocery store that sells injera next to an Ethiopian restaurant. A hillside full of carefully kept houses is alive with lilac bushes, peonies, azaleas, and rhododendrons; gluttonously I go there almost every day, hungry for color that isn't grey-green..

Yesterday I walked along the waterfront, which has become a tawdry mess of fast food and ugly souvenirs. I spent most of the winter avoiding it but now the stupidity of the place has vanished, consumed by blue water,  a breeze that carries the sting of salt and the scent of creosote left over from the days when this part of the city was more than a tourist trap. And I understand that spring is the drug that will keep me here, at least one more year.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Living to Eat

I do--I live to eat, I travel to eat, I eat to remember where I've been. Like most travelers, I've found that the easiest way to make connections and to join communities is to eat the local food, whether you like it or not.

In Penang, I grew to heartily dislike the food that place is famous for--except for one dish. When I first arrived and needed to buy a pillow to replace the block of granite that I was trying to sleep on, I interrupted the lunch of the young women who were working in the mattress shop. One of them was extracting pieces of fruit from a plate that was covered in something that looked like molasses. "It's rojak," she told me and I went off to find it for myself.

It wasn't a difficult quest, since rojak is one of Penang's signature dishes. It's weird--one of my friends admitted after the fact that he didn't care for it very much. Essentially it's pineapple, mango, bananas, cucumber, and jicama covered with a dressing made of dark sweet soy sauce, ground chile, maybe some tamarind and of course shrimp paste. The soy sauce looks and tastes like molasses, with a kick to it. The fruit and vegetables offer a combination of crunchy and soft, fresh and sweet. It was one of the few things about Penang that I loved.

Yesterday the sun was bright and warm, I went for a walk, and suddenly I wanted rojak. With a fair amount of trepidation, I walked through the door of Malay Satay Hut. Was this going to make me unendurably sad on a beautiful day?

It didn't. The mango and pineapple were sweet, the cucumber and jicama were fresh, and the sauce tasted like Penang. "It's made in Penang and sent to us," the waitress told me. I scraped up every drop and had to force myself not to lick my plate. And the memories that came to mind were the parts of Penang that I enjoyed, fresh and sweet and strong, just like the food I was eating.

We have to search hard for ways to be connected to each other--not to our family and friends but to the world around us, to the bodies that move past us on the street.

I go to a restaurant in my neighborhood owned by two people who have made their small space a community for those who go there. On Saturday afternoon, Mark and Pichaya at Thai Curry Simple in Seattle's ID make special dishes that usually I only eat in Thailand. A couple of weeks ago, a Thai expat and I bonded heavily over our plates of kanom jeen nam ngiow, with the dried herb that Pichaya brought back in a huge bag from Chiang Mai. Last week I gave a stranger a sip of my navy-blue nam dork an jahn (butterfly pea juice) and got in such a passionate conversation with the couple on my other side that I had to take part of my chicken larb home with me. Meals at this place are extraordinary because they breed connections.

Books are another way I was connected to the world, as a bookseller, and I've missed that conduit ever since I returned. At the end of April, World Book Night gave me an opportunity to approach total strangers with a book in my hand, as I gave away twenty copies of Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. I looked at people carefully as I walked past them, wondering if they would welcome the gift of a book and had brief conversations with people I would ordinarily pass by in silence. I came home feeling sad that this doesn't happen every day of my life.

Eating, reading, sharing, telling stories, forging connections--I've never loved a book without wanting to lend it to someone afterward; I've never tasted a meal without wanting to eat it again in the company of someone  to share it with me.

I eat. I live. I remember.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tony Doesn't Live Here Anymore: The Shrinking World of the No Longer Lonely Planet

This incredible shrunken view of the US from a New Yorker's perspective came to mind as I recently wandered through the 14th edition of Lonely Planet's Thailand. Sometimes I think I buy this only to see what's disappeared from the Kingdom. With each new edition, another destination has been extinguished--poof! Now you see it, now you don't.

I bought this solely because Austin Bush is one of the researchers-- he is a man who knows Thai food and writes about it very well. (I'm certain he's the reason why my favorite book about Bangkok is recommended in the Eating in Thailand section: Bangkok's Top 50 Street Food Stalls by Chawadee Nualkhair, aka And he didn't disappoint me--if there is one reason to buy this tome, it's for the food pointers and recommendations, which for Bangkok and Chiang Mai are outstanding. In the other provinces? Not so much, which is the big weakness of the 14th edition.

"Oh Thailand it appears we're growing old together," author China Williams mourns in her back of the book bio. When a guidebook writer finds that her territory is growing old, then it's time to find a new writer. With this current batch, what used to be an adventurous exploration has become, in the book's own term, "flashpackerised." If you're the kind of traveler who is seeking "serious self-indulgence" as in Chiang Mai's Tamarind Village with its rooms ranging from 200-600 US$ a night, this is the guide for you. Away from the city, you're largely on your own. "You're unlikely to stay overnight as Lamphun is so close to Chiang Mai" it informs readers cozily, but offers one suggestion "in a pinch, the very capable Lamphun Will"--just in case you can't make it to Tamarind Village before nightfall.

Or if you're in Bangkok, looking for a quick getaway, Lonely Planet has your back, offering Silver Sand, "adding a needed slice of sophistication to simple Ko Samet." Well golly gee whiz, thank heaven for that. On the other hand, since the last edition, Ko Si Chang has lost all of its guesthouses--Lonely Planet has decided this is a stop for daytrippers, as is Ko Lan, off the coast of Pattaya. (So much for supporting small local entrepreneurs.)

Chaiya has disappeared as well, with its reknowned meditation retreat of Suan Mokkh given a scanty sidebar in the page for Surat Thani, and Korat's Prasat Phanom Wan has apparently gone forever. Khao Phra Wihan has almost dissolved, with the temple site itself  given one sentence--if this gorgeous spot reopens to tourists before the 15th edition comes out, Lonely Planet devotees will have to make do with forty-one words. Nice...

But that's okay, because this guide points them in the direction the Tourism Authority of Thailand has always wanted travelers to take--the circuit: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket. The bulk of the book is given over to these destinations, and spots within them that conform to Lonely Planet's new obligatory description, "achingly hip." If that's what you want, you'll be delighted. If it isn't, then do what we all did before Tony and Maureen Wheeler constructed the empire they've given over to the BBC--ask your friends, do some research, explore. And take comfort in knowing that when you get to some obscure corner, Lonely Planet will not be there--unless of course, it happens to be a border crossing. .