Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Time For Breakfast!

Breakfast in China:
Rice Porridge or Steamed dumplings
or Sticky Rice Wrapped in Banana Leaves

Breakfast in Vietnam:
Fried Noodles with Vegetables and Tofu
Fresh Papaya
Vietnamese Drip Coffee with Sweetened Condensed Milk

Breakfast in Bali:
Banana Pancakes with Honey
Fresh Pineapple
Drip Coffee

Breakfast in Thailand:
Sticky Rice with Coconut Milk
Fresh Mango

Breakfast in India:
Idli (small cakes made of fermented rice flour)
Curried Vegetables
Coconut Chutney
Lassi (a drink made with yogurt)
Masala Chai (spiced tea)

Breakfast in New York:
Cheese Blintzes
Applesauce and Sour Cream
Bagel with Lox and a Schmear
Orange Juice

Thursday, February 12, 2009


After spending an entire day cooped up in the airport in Mumbai, I was excited to finally be on a plane to Kerala, India. Kerala state is on the Southwest or Malabar coast of India bordering the Arabian Sea. Kerala has a very long history, and was a very important place for European sailors in the 15th and 16th centuries because of the fragrant spices that grow here. Explorers from all over Europe sailed to India to buy spices and sell them back in the old world at a tremendous profit. Although we take these spices for granted today, cinnamon, cardamom and pepper were once rare, exotic, expensive, and reserved for Europe's very rich. In fact, the Malabar Coast is what Christopher Columbus was looking for when he accidentally "discovered" America, incorrectly referring to the Native American population as "Indians."
When I got off the plane in Kerala's airport, I was immediately struck by how beautiful the women looked in their traditional Indian saris, long, flowing dresses made from incandescent Indian cloth. I felt like a dull gray pigeon caught among a flock of rainbow-hued tropical birds. The language spoken here is called Malayalam, a gentle language that sounds like water bubbling up from a spring. Malayali script is beautiful too, with dips, loops and whorls that remind one of a roller-coaster. On arrival I took a taxi to Fort Cochin, whose busy port hosts everything from India's huge navy battleships to traditional fishing boats that bring in the day's catch to be auctioned on the wharf. It's a great town to walk in, with an interesting waterfront, colonial buildings, spice markets, and plenty of churches, temples and mosques. As I strolled around Fort Cochin the following day, I marveled at what a diverse place Kerala was. Hindu girls with sandalwood paste on their forehead walked home from school giggling with Muslim girls wearing head scarves. In contrast to other parts of India, which is mostly Hindu, Kerala has large communities of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and everyone seems to get along very well. The Indians that I have met here are very tolerant of others and proud of their pluralistic country. Where else would I see a red-flagged rally for the Indian Communist Party and a religious procession to honor Mary, Blessed Mother of Jesus on the same street on the same day?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bali for Beginners

The airport in Dempasar, Bali, is like any other small airport (and I've been to many on this trip). Airplanes land here, unloading their cargo of brightly-clad vacationers and the occasional business traveller onto this small Indonesian island. Like any airport, taxicab drivers compete for your business, with smiling offers of "Taxicab, Madame?" A driver like like any other loaded my bags into his taxi and said, in heavily accented English, "Welcome to Bali". As I slid into the cab and got a look at his face close up, I noticed something very unusual: plastered on his forehead were several grains of rice. As I mumbled a thank you, I felt like Dorothy when she landed in Oz and said "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." And clearly we weren't. As the taxi driver moved through the city I looked out the window to see gigantic statues of figures from the Hindu religion at crossroads and traffic circles, festooned with ribbons and flowers where in the United States there might be a billboard or a statue of George Washington. It was...larger than life. After chit-chatting with the driver for a few minutes, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked him about the rice grains. "Ceremony at the temple," he answered with a smile. Obviously I had a lot to learn about Bali. I found that the spiritual practices of Bali are quite elaborate, and as a beginner, I can only describe to you the basics; I suspect I could spend an entire lifetime (or two) learning about religion in Bali. Most Balinese people are Hindu, and they believe that it is important to lead a balanced life. Much of daily life is devoted to praying and showing respect to the spirits and deities by making daily offerings of fruit, flowers and incense. Every community has a temple, and the faithful go there to pray and perform special rituals on festival days. One festival I attended was an overwhelming mix of chanting, offering making, gamelan music playing on large xylophone-like instruments hit with wooden hammers, incense burning, holy-water sprinkling...all happening at once! Hindu stories and myths are an important part of Balinese culture too, and everywhere there are statues, paintings and carvings depicting the story of the Ramayana, a classic tale of the struggle of the forces of good against those of evil. Price Rama, Princess Sita, Hanuman the Monkey General and Lanka and his army of bad-guy demons are the stars of the show, along with the fierce looking Barongs and Garudas, mythical creatures with magical powers of protection.
Art is Everywhere
In addition to the beautiful statues and stone carvings that are visible in every location, Bali sings with music, dance, and puppetry. It's no exaggeration to say that everyone here is some kind of an artist creating beauty to please the spirits, either through music, art or dance. I certainly was pleased. While in Bali, I was able to see shadow puppet shows, traditional Indonesian gamelan music, fire dances, and artists at work creating carvings, jewelry, and paintings. These art forms depict the Hindu pantheon with the elephant-headed god of good luck, Ganesha, being especially popular. Another common subject of Balinese art is the island's incredible natural beauty. I saw many beautiful paintings of emerald-green rice paddies, bright tropical birds and pretty flowers, and I wanted to take them all home with me! Finally, I settled on a beautifully carved wooden mask.
Wonderful Wildlife
Bali's tropical climate supports a wide variety of animals and plants. Sweet smelling flowers grow everywhere and are often picked to put in the daily offering basket. Enormous banyan trees, astonishingly green rice fields, lush palm trees and ponds with pretty lotus flowers are all over the island too. Huge Geckos climb on the thatched ceilings saying their names GECK-o! GECK-o! and lying in wait for bugs (although I saw a man lure one to him with a piece of chicken satay!). Birdwatching by day gives way to batwatching by night; I always love to watch those cute flying mammals swooping around at sunset. And of course, there are the monkeys. Living in the temple at the end of Monkey Forest Road in the city of Ubud, there is a large community of short-tailed macaques who love to steal food from unsuspecting tourists (I even heard a story about a monkey stealing a cellphone, but I'm not sure I believe that.) I know that I am still a beginner, and there is so much to see and do here in Bali, that I'm certain I will be returning someday to learn more.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Magical Kingdom

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom that was full of beauty and magic. It was a land of ancient stone temples shaded by enormous trees, where monkeys played and cicadas made sounds like a million tiny tinkling bells. It was a country of farmers spending their days growing rice in tranquil paddies, sunlit and green, patrolled by swarms of scarlet dragonflies. A place of shimmering blue lakes dotted with gigantic water lilies of vermilion and fuchsia. When night fell on the kingdom, mysterious flowers bloomed, sending their perfume out into the night to attract equally mysterious pollinators. Bats swooped through the starry sky, and geckos climbed up walls and ceilings making little squeaking sounds as they dined on mosquitoes. Scribes wrote in beautiful flowing script. Artists danced, sang, and wove beautiful bolts of cloth.

But not too long ago, everything changed. Sadness and misery came to the kingdom in the form of a terrible army. When the soldiers took control of the land, many people died in battle or because they had no rice to eat. Some were forced to work so hard that they lay down in the rice fields and never got up again. Families were fearful, and many tears were shed. But the people of the kingdom were strong, and after many struggles, they finally were able to send the evil army away. The war ended, and the people were once again able to grow their rice in peace. The children could smile, too because the soldiers were gone and they did not need to be afraid any more. Although the kingdom is still rather poor, the people who live there are generous and enduring. They laugh a lot now and have hope for the future.

Although this kingdom sounds like it comes from a fairy tale, it is a very real country that I was lucky enough to be able to visit. It is called Cambodia.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bike Ride to the Beach

I was so excited when I woke up this morning. Today was the day that I was going for a trip through the highlands and down to the coast--on the back of a motorbike! Many families have bicycles, but motorbikes are the number one method of transport in most of Vietnam. Families like them because they don't use much gasoline, are easy to fix, and are a quick way to get to wherever you want to go. And because private cars are almost nonexistent in Vietnam, motor bikes rule the road. My guide, known to everyone as Titi, handed me my helmet, and we were on our way! We started out in Dalat, in the central highlands of Vietnam, where it is cool and foggy. As we traveled down the mountain we were treated to some beautiful scenery, groves of pine trees, serene lakes, and spectacular waterfalls. It felt wonderful to be riding out in the open air! Titi also took me to visit several small factories, which were very interesting to me, because although there are some large plants in Vietnam, almost everything is made by hand in mom-and-pop operations, and for the most part, people buy what is made locally. We saw carpenters carving elaborate chairs by hand, silk being unraveled from cocoons and spun into thread, tofu being pressed into molds, and even a nun in a Buddhist temple rolling sweet smelling incense onto sticks, with a young novice of about 11 years old looking on and smiling. As we got farther down the mountain we saw a family in traditional black robes and conical hats harvesting rice. As they moved through the fields cutting the rice, tying it in neat bundles, putting the rice in bags and carrying it on their heads so gracefully, it looked like a beautifully choreographed dance whose origins reached back thousands of years. Farther down the road we saw other families transporting rice on ox carts. On this part of the road there were cows, goats and ducks, but very few people. We went over one last hill, and from far away, I could see the South China Sea and Mui Ne beach, our destination. As we rounded a curve in the road, my jaw dropped open at the sight of the sand. It was red! I felt like I had landed on Mars, and expected at any moment to be greeted by little green men, like in those old science fiction movies. Instead, I was greeted by the local children who encouraged me to rent a toboggan and slide down the dunes, however, after seven hours on a motorbike I had a serious case of "numb bum" and declined.

Mui Ne Beach
We got back on the motorbike, rounded another curve, and drove into a funky little town. The road, which Titi explained to me was only three years old, was lined with piles of coconut shells, fruit and snack stands, seafood restaurants, and a few hotels in between. And what was that smell? Fish sauce! Mui Ne is famous for making that condiment that Vietnamese cooks love, and all along the road I saw ceramic crocks chock full of the fishy stuff. Early the next morning, I sat by the ocean and watched the families set out their nets, paddling out in their perfectly round wooden basket boats. I kept expecting the boats to capsize, but they never did. In the evenings, the families would form a perfectly straight line and work together to pull the nets in, looking like they were playing tug-of-war with the ocean. The tiny silvery fish they caught would then be loaded into baskets and made into fish sauce in the local factories. The South China Sea holds many other treasures, too. Squid, snails, sea urchins, clams, mussels, shrimp, oysters and octopi are all caught by the local fisher families in pretty boats painted a light blue. Needless to say, barbecued, stir-fried, stewed or grilled, the fish here is absolutely yummy. I found pretty shells of many colors sizes and patterns washed up on shore as well, and if I sat perfectly still, shy little crabs would come scurrying out of their holes in the sand. I really enjoyed swimming here because the water is warm and calm. When it was time to leave the beach and head for Ho Chi Minh City, it was very hard to tear myself out of the water, and I could here my mother's voice very clearly, saying, "Catherine Mary, you come out of the water right now!" Some things never change.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hello from Hanoi!

Beep, Beep! Ding, Ding! Vroom, Vroom! "Buy Bananas, Madame?"
These are the sounds of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia, bordered by China, Laos and Cambodia. Hanoi is the largest city in the northern part of the country, a fascinating city with narrow, winding streets, tall, ornate houses in every color of the rainbow, and lots and lots of zooming, honking motorbikes. Street vendors wander the streets with their bamboo poles and baskets selling fruit, brooms, baskets, name it! There are also cyclos, three wheeled bicycles with seats that you can hire for short trips around the city. There is a a lot to do in Hanoi: two beautiful lakes to walk around, several museums, and a unique puppet theater featuring floating marionettes. There is also an enormous city market that sells everything from designer purses to motorcycle parts.
The food here is excellent too. A favorite dish here is pho, a noodle soup made with beef, chicken, or veggies that is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vietnam has a long coastline and several rivers so there is plenty of fresh seafood, too. Step out of Hanoi and you will be treated to incredible sights of natural beauty. Vietnam is amazingly green, with lush rice fields and gardens everywhere. Many Northern Vietnamese people are farmers, and the warm climate and abundant rainfall make a perfect climate for growing rice.

A Voyage on Halong Bay
One of the most beautiful places in Vietnam and arguably the world, is the stunning Halong Bay. The Lonely Planet Guide states that "words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is Halong Bay," and I wholeheartedly agree. The towering islands, glassy blue water and isolated sandy beaches took my breath away. Halong means "descending dragon" and the gray limestone rocks that jut out of the bay do indeed look like a dragon's scales. I also really enjoyed watching all the boat traffic on this busy bay. Fishing boats, both large and small, medium sized boats delivering water and goods, and tourist boats like ours all sailed by. Halong Bay also has many fascinating "floating villages" of brightly painted houses sitting right on top of the water. The residents make their living from the sea, either by fishing for themselves, catching fish to sell at market, or fish farming. One home we visited raised cuttlefish, catfish, crabs and shrimp right in their (watery) front yard! I especially liked the "floating convenience stores," boats filled to the brim with everything from sodas and snacks to playing cards and pens. These strong women rowed their boats to the villages and alongside other boats selling their wares.

A visit to Sapa
Another memorable trip I took from Hanoi was a three-day hike through the villages of the H'mong, Tay and Dzay people near Sapa. Our journey began on the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, where I slept (sort of) on the top berth of a sleeping car shaking, twisting and turning its way up a steep mountain (I could almost hear the train saying "I think I can, I think I can...") When I awoke, we were in the mountain town of Sapa, where I ate a nice breakfast and met our guide, a woman from one of the local villages named Zoa, who greeted me wearing her traditional clothing of indigo embroidered cloth and elaborate silver earrings. We started our trek right away and were greeted by the local children who were very outgoing and friendly. The terrain was rough going at times, very rocky and steep with a couple of rickety bamboo bridge crossings, but the scenery was beautiful: terraced rice paddies full of frolicking ducks, spectacular waterfalls, and tidy farms with pigs, chickens, and water buffalo. Many families also had gardens growing cassava, sweet potatoes and indigo. At about 4 Pm we arrived in a the pretty village of Tavan and were greeted warmly by our host, Mrs. Sun. Since my pants were covered in mud from the trek, I bought a pair of traditional Hmong pants from a local woman whose hands seemed permanently stained blue from the indigo dye. Mrs. Sun prepared us a delicious dinner of fish, chicken, tofu and vegetables cooked over a wood fire. Tired from the trek, I went upstairs to Mrs. Sun's sleeping loft and fell asleep right away. The next morning we got off to an early start and saw more incredible scenery, most of it pretty, but some of it sad, such as the new graves of an elderly couple whose house was washed away in a recent flood. Farming rice is very hard work and people who live in these hills are culturally rich but economically poor; however, families like Mrs. Sun's make a little bit of extra money by opening their homes to ecotourists. As we walked along the trail past more villages, I got several thumbs up signs and giggles from villagers who thought it was funny to see a foreigner wearing "their" pants. When we arrived in Ban Ho Village, we took a dip in a local hot spring and met Mrs. Tho, who lived in a beautiful bamboo house on stilts, and sat by her fire and enjoyed another fine meal. Our hosts did not speak English, but fortunately Zoa was able to translate. The next day the trek was shorter. After eating breakfast on Mrs. Tho's porch, which had a spectacular view of the valley below, we crossed over a river where we saw a man taking bamboo to market by lashing the poles together and riding the bamboo down the rapids! We also saw the lovely "La Vie" Waterfall. We hiked back to Ban Ho, said goodbye to Mrs. Tho, and took a jeep back up to Sapa where we caught the train back to Hanoi. If I had to describe Vietnam in one word, it would be this: Wow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Boat Ride Down the Yangzi River

As a little girl, I was enchanted by the story of Ping, a mischievous little duck who lived on "a wise-eyed boat on the Yangzi River in China", so I was very excited as I got ready to travel down that very river myself. The Yangzi, at over 6000 km in length, is the third largest river in the world. Our journey begins in Chongqing, a steep, hilly city that reminds me of San Francisco (only much, much larger). The bus ride to the dock goes through narrow, winding streets, surrounded on all sides by brand new tall buildings. Chongqing is growing very fast because many of the families displaced by the Three Gorges Dam Project have been relocated here (more about that later). Around sunset, we take a funicular railway car down a steep slope to the dock to board the ship. As soon as I get settled in my cozy cabin, I go upstairs to the top deck to look at the view. The bright and colorful lights of Chongqing reflected in the river at night make for a beautiful scene. Later that night we set sail, and I fall asleep quickly, rocked to sleep by one of the world's great rivers. The next day after breakfast I go up on deck to look at the scenery, which is beautiful. Red earth, terraced green farmland and mysterious caves. There is a lot of boat traffic on the river. We pass large container ships that look like the ones we see passing through the Golden Gate, barges carrying gravel and coal, and small traditional fishing boats trailing their nets. Many pleasure boats go by too, full of tourists from China and all over the world. The boat is rocking me to sleep again, it's time to go to bed...
The next day, after breakfast, we get ready to pass through the famous Three Gorges of the Yangzi River. I scurry up to the top deck to look at the view and it really is lovely. Arching gray limestone cliffs, tall evergreen trees, and the river water is a mossy green. Here there are no other boats, and we seem to have the river all to ourselves. It is peaceful, quite and still, and I pass the day just watching the land go by.
The following day, we get off the boat for a sampan ride down Shennong Stream. We are helped onto the boat by three boatmen who paddle and pole the boats with long wooden sticks. When the water gets shallow, they go ashore and tow us with ropes. It is very hard work! But later I found out that these men bought their boats together and formed a cooperative business, so they get to keep all the money they make. I like that idea. The stream is clean and fresh, and runs through the beautiful limestone cliffs that are all around the river. While they paddle, the men sing us traditional boating songs and point out sights on the way, like the ancient burial sites of the Ba people, who laid their dead to rest in wooden caskets in the limestone caves high up in the mountains. If I look carefully, I can see some of them. How did they get those coffins way up there? Nobody knows. We also see the ruins of an ancient temple to one of the local gods. Out of the corner of my eye I see something moving on the rocks...monkeys! Troops of Rhesus monkeys live in these hills too. We say goodbye to the boatmen and get back on our larger boat. Tonight we pass the Three Gorges Dam.

Three Gorges Dam
This dam is one of the largest engineering projects in the history of the world, and also one of the most controversial. The Chinese government built the dam for two reasons: to control flooding and to provide electricity for China's growing population. With 1.3 billion people, China is the most populous country in the world. That means one billion TV's, hair dryers, and computers, and they all need electricity to run. The force of the water running down the dam runs turbines to produce the electricity that the Chinese people need. Additionally, the Yangzi is known for severe floods that can ruin crops and wash houses away, and building the dam will help alleviate this problem. However, damming a large river like the Yangzi has a downside, too. About 1 million people have had to leave their homes because after the dam is completed next year their homes will be underwater. Although the Chinese government will provide new housing for them, many are unhappy to have to leave their homes, especially farmers whose families have lived on the same land for generations. Most people are being located to cities like Chongqing, and it can be hard to adjust to city living if you have lived on a farm all your life. The ecosystem is a concern too. Some environmentalists say that stopping the flow of the river will cause sewage and garbage to accumulate behind the dam, and fish will die because they cannot cross over the dam to spawn and lay eggs. The government has relocated the fish, but like humans, fish sometimes have trouble adjusting to a new environment. Many people in China say this dam is necessary, but others say it will do more harm than good. What do you think?