The Rabbit Hole and Salt Fish

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As the days left in my trip abroad drop from double digits into the singles, I am slipping into a new phase of my travel, and embodying a decidedly different mindset than the one I've carried for months now. I'm no longer reading travel blogs and researching cities online, tracing my fingers along maps, inventing over-land or airborne routes and wondering what the coming weeks will bring. I'm not as interested in chatting up other travelers about what their plans are, grilling them on what they've done and seen that they could recommend, gleaning information for my own adventure. On the contrary, I'm now one of the more weathered nomads at the hostel doling out stories and advice for others just beginning their journeys. It's really a fun position to be in when I've been on the receiving end for much of my trip! When I tell people that my trip is coming to a close I get a lot of 'oh, that's so sad!' – people feeling bummed for me that I have to go home, unpack my bag for good and rejoin the working people of the world. No more dorm beds, no more flip flops, no more nights of cheap beer and whiskey with total strangers from around the world (ok that one might be an exception – there's always more to be had!), no more hitching public buses to mystery destinations, vagabonding across continents. For most travelers I come across, these things are marks of freedom, and to leave them behind is to admit surrender to the mundanity of real, scheduled life at home, wherever that may be. In a certain way they're right.

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On this adventure, as with most traveling I’ve done on my own, there is a sense of true freedom in having zero responsibility to any person, place or schedule. No commitments, no expectations. I can be (or not be) any place at any time. I feel it, it is real and it is freeing. But I also realize that I’m a person who really loves schedule. I love commitments and responsibility and without these things I feel somewhat lacking. So my little secret is that I’m thrilled to come home to ‘real life’. To go back to school, to have a schedule, to have my own place to live, to have a job, to be in the rain (I say that now…), to be close to those I love…everything that comes with ‘home’ is exactly what I am looking forward to. This trip has been fantastic, and as with every travel adventure I leave this one with a bucket list and future travel plans that could easily fill the rest of my waking life, but having nine days left feels right. I feel ready.

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But! I’m getting so ahead of myself, as always! The last two weeks have been enormous, delicious, unbelievably challenging, and I still have nine days left in Thailand! And there is truly nowhere else I would rather be for the next week and a half than in the fantastic cities of Chiang Mai and Bangkok. These places have treated me well, and I know I will miss them dearly.

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Chicken curry…I wanted to keep the pot almost more than the curry! So cute.

Leaving Kuala Lumpur was hard as well – I grew so fond of that place, and the cooking course I did on my last day was just one more reason to love it. Two women, Sue and Saadiyah, led the course and were completely hysterical and fun to be with. We started by perusing a local market and learning a ton about the unique ingredients used in Malaysian cooking, and then proceeded to the school where we made curry fish cakes steamed in banana leaves, Indian style chicken curry, roti jala or ‘lace’ roti, and onde onde – glutinous rice balls rolled in fresh shredded coconut and filled with melted palm sugar.

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My roti jala was rated the prettiest in the class. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased.

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I might have eaten 12 of them. Maybe. And then some plain chunks of palm sugar. Before you judge me as a bonafide sugar addict wait ’til I return with a brick of the Malaysian palm sugar – then you too will want to self-inflict diabetes, I promise.
Needless to say it was a fantastic experience and I’m thrilled to be bringing the recipes back home. Though there are a few things that will be hard to find (um, pandan leaves anyone?) invention is a pantry staple of mine so I’m not worried! Definitely be on the look out for a recipe for the coconut-palm-sugar-rice-balls…things are uh-mazing.

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From KL I flew into Bangkok the day before Songkran, the new year festival and epic water battle, began. I have to be honest, food actually took the back-seat for the weekend of Songkran. Granted, I still had plenty of grilled salt fish, meat skewers, beer (and more beer), sweet rice flour cakes and shabu-shabu (Japanese hot-pot buffet…SO up my alley!)…I was pretty consumed in loading my super soaker with the coldest water I could find and defending my honor against the thousands of Thais and foreigners armed, soaking wet, and looking to drench whoever passed by. It was, in one word, fun. In six words, the most fun I’ve ever had. There are few other experiences I can imagine ever coming close to the craziness, the joy and celebration and the sheer volume of people involved in Songkran. Oh, and the wetness. You know it’s a party when the fire department shows up to soak the screaming crowds with fire hoses on full blast. Shit is unbelievably fun. If you ever have an opportunity to be in Bangkok for that celebration, I very highly recommend it.

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Pardon the quality – this was taken with an iPhone through a sealed plastic bag, and I was soaked of course!

And just to see how far in the opposite direction I could swing my life in a 24-hour period, I went from the insanity and sheer volume of Songkran straight into a ten day silent meditation retreat. Perhaps it could be said that this dramatic shift made the retreat more difficult than it might have been, but whatever the reasons, it was (for the second time) the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. People mainly remark on the doubtful proposition of me actually shutting my mouth for ten days, but what most don’t understand is that the silent component, the fact that you are not aloud to speak, read, write or even make eye contact with other meditators for ten days is the easiest and most comforting piece of the experience. What’s truly a challenge is to sit on your ass on a cushion in a silent hall for 11 hours a day with nothing but your own thoughts and instructions to ‘observe physical sensations’ (the instruction really goes far deeper than this, but that’s where you start and it remains the basic technique throughout the practice). So without going too far into detailing the rabbit hole that appears to be my mind, lets just say a lot of nasty stuff comes up. By day three I realize (for the second time) what I’ve gotten myself into (‘how could I have agreed to do this again? How did I forget how painful this is? Who even invented this shit? Who even knows if Buddha was real, and if he did, why should I care if he sat under a tree and liberated himself from suffering? That’s bullshit. I don’t suffer. I don’t need this.’ Yep. How’s that working out for ya?). By day six I have convinced myself that I’m certifiably insane and that there must be a neurological disorder characterized by spontaneous internal outbursts (sound like an oxymoron? Start meditating. You’ll see what I mean.) of Lion King songs, and that I’ll surely be institutionalized. And day six feels no closer to the end than day three. It seemingly would never end.

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But I, as with many vipassana students before me, found that by day eight something had shifted. I calmed down. I pulled my head out of the water. I found my center, and was granted a few serious realizations about my person – I could see many of my faults and weaknesses but also some of my merits and strengths. I got some shit done, but not without honest work and very real discomfort. And I mostly had to remind myself every day that this whole thing, this ‘knowing the Self’ and ‘purifying the mind’ is a life-long process and not I nor anyone else gets there in ten days. And in a month I’ll head from Portland up to the mediation center in Onalaska, Washington to volunteer as a server for another ten day course. As challenging as the process is, I know I need more of it. The benefits are undeniable, but you have to go through the fire to get to the other side. Baby steps.

And I have to say, I spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking about food during those excruciating ten days. Planning dishes for this summer, envisioning entire menus influenced by all the great flavors I’ve encountered here, inventing cocktails and new cooking methods, dreaming about Oregon berries topping raw cashew-vanilla cheesecake, grilled veggies and vermicelli noodle salads with fresh mint, stacks of grilled eggplant and sweet potatoes with basil drenched in olive oil and flakey sea salt, kaffir lime pie with a toasted coconut crust…oh my imagination was an epicurean carnival! The food we were served during the course was amazing as well, so that did little to focus my craving mind out of foodie fantasy land and into meditative Buddhist nun-hood (no craving, no aversion). Every meal was vegetarian (which was admittedly a nice break from my borderline meat-obsessed diet of late), full of fresh vegetables, spicy Thai broths, rice noodles, fish sauce, and fantastic coconut-based desserts, my favorites being steamed pumpkin covered in sweet coconut cream and tapioca with sweet corn kernels in coconut milk. Have I mentioned how much of a sugar junkie everyone in Thailand is? Everything has added sugar syrup or sweetened condensed milk, even the fruit smoothies get a hearty scoop of simple syrup unless you make it very clear that you’d like it left out. I’m going to have to ween myself from the sugar before I get home…but with only nine days left I feel more inclined to enjoy it all rather than deprive myself – I can’t get sweetened condensed milk and palm sugar and coconut ice cream and tapioca pudding and fried banana at home! I must eat it all now! Hm. Logic…

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From the retreat I headed back to Chiang Mai, which I apparently love seeing as I keep going back. It’s just a great city. And the FOOD. Well, I’ve written a lot about the street food in Chiang Mai, I know, but given that I have a week left to enjoy it I will surely be writing about it all again. Already I’ve had some highlights – great Burmese salads, warm vermicelli noodles with shrimp, mint and fish sauce, fantastic pumpkin curry and pad see ew, a favorite Thai noodle dish of thick stir fried rice noodles, dark soy sauce, garlic, egg and Chinese broccoli. And this week I’m making two rules – since I have a very limited amount of time left here I’m not allowing any western food (I’ve been guiltily seeking out western breakfast for the most part – I can’t get away from some habits!) and I have to try something new every day. Other than that my rule is ‘eat as much Thai food as the body will allow’. Which in my experience is quite a lot…
So with that, I’m setting off my next nine days with a beautiful feeling of being exactly where I am, overwhelmingly grateful to be here and be doing what I’m doing, but also more than ever feeling so fortunate to be heading home in a week and a half to the people I love, the places of my heart, and to all the kitchens I’ve been missing so much! Oh, what a feeling to be in so many numerous and fantastic ways, full.
Keep reading, keep eating, and assuming customs doesn’t nab me for bringing kilos of spices into the US, I’ll see you all back in the states soon with lots of things to share!

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