I think and talk often of synchronicity, and I experience it frequently while traveling. The latest example:

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‘A’ for Ankara

My first morning in Ankara, while walking down the street with my new friend and couchsurfing host, Yağmur, I mentioned that I wanted to give a call to the Transcendental Meditation center in the city. My mom knows the teacher who runs the center, Burcu, and I thought it would be lovely to meditate again in a group. We continued walking, and after a minute or two, Yağmur asked me to explain more about this person I wanted to call and the type of meditation I practice. I began to talk vividly, waving my hands in the air (“like a cartoon character,” Yağmur had commented earlier) when I glanced across the street. There, in glowing golden (what else?) letters, I saw the sign “Transandantal Meditasyon”.

In a sprawling city of about 5 million people, at the exact moment I was speaking to a friend of Burcu and TM, we passed the one TM center in Ankara. Yağmur had his questions answered by a TM teacher and I got a chance to meditate in a group. Synchronicity.


Languages, Perverts, Priests. Why I Hitchhike.

I didn't meet a single pervert while hitchhiking through Greece. I hitched about fifteen different cars in my time there and every single ride was a good one. Maybe this is a normal experience in other parts of the world, but in my time hitching in eastern Europe and Turkey, I have never experienced a good streak like this. At one point, the average percentage of perverts was as high as 25%. But what qualifies a driver as a pervert? Good question. There's quite a range, but any time the driver touches me suggestively, talks excessively of sex, asks me excessive questions about sex, or tries to solicit sex from me, I consider him a bad ride. Some of these drivers are pretty harmless though. They tend to throw the suggestion out there, when I (politely) refuse, they drop it or drop me off by the side of the road. It's the ones who are persistent and often the ones who deny any wrongdoing who are the real trouble. Ironically, it's often the drivers who tell me how dangerous hitchhiking is, who tell me I should take the bus or train instead who then end up proving their own points by making a move on me.

So with that background established, you can begin to imagine how truly delightful it was to autostop in Greece. I found that I had to wait a bit longer by the side of the roads; cars seemed less enthusiastic to pick me up, but those that did were always kind and respectful. And keep in mind that when I say I had to wait a bit longer to get picked up, I'm talking about 20 minutes instead of 10. Yes, being a solo female hitchhiker has certain advantages, but I'd trade them in an instant if it meant I didn't have to deal with perverts.

I had two favorite rides in Greece. The first taught me some Greek and the second was with a Greek Orthodox priest.

One thing I love about hitchiking is that it often really forces me to learn more of the local language, and learn it quickly. This is because I often don't get picked up by English speakers, especially in eastern Europe. So the morning I left for Greece, I did a bit of research and learned the six most useful words in any language, the words I need to get by and be polite: hello (yassas), thank you (efhari sto), yes (ne), no (ohi), goodbye (andio), and I'm sorry (signomi). But these would just be words on a piece of paper if I never got a chance to use them. Fortunately, my first driver spoke both Greek and Bulgarian, so I could still use my few words of Bulgarian while I was getting accustomed to using Greek. After a few rides, the Greek words started to come more naturally and I flatter myself that my accent improved as well.

While catching a ride from Kavala to Drama, my driver spoke a few words of English, but not enough to string together a long sentence. I was feeling comfortable with my new Greek words, so wanted to expand my vocabulary. He was more than happy to help and we soon established a pattern. I would say a word or phrase in English (nice to meet you) and he would provide the Greek (harika poli) which I practiced with his guidance and scribbled down in my little traveling notebook. I can't tell you how valuable it is to hear the accent as the words are spoken, but most valuable of all is the smile (positive reinforcement) I get from speaking even a little bit of the language.


While hitching to Komotini, I stood and waited by a major highway. It was cold and windy, this being February, and I had been waiting for about fifteen minutes when an older, slightly beat up car pulled over and when I caught a glimpse of the driver, a bearded Greek Orthodox priest, I honestly didn't know what to expect. Getting hit on by a priest would be a little too much to handle, and frankly, just a little too cliché. I needn't have worried. He was the nicest man, if shocked by everything I said. I'm traveling alone. “Really? Strange...” I've been traveling for two years. “Really!? Bravo.” I'm unmarried. “Strange.” I believe in people, in kindness and hospitality. “Bravo!” But he, as with many of the people I meet, was concerned for my safety. He kept asking what would I do if a bad person tried to pick me up? What if no one pulled over to pick me up and it became dark? The only answers I could give him, that I trusted my instinct and that I didn't know and would deal with it if it happened, didn't seem to satisfy him much. So when he pulled off the highway at Xanthi and I still had a little ways to go until Komotini, he wanted to take me to the bus station and offered to pay for my ticket. I politely refused the offer, not the first of its kind and likely not the last. “I prefer autostop,” I told him. “I love to meet and talk with people. Imagine, if I didn't autostop I never would have met you.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why I continue to hitchhike, despite the perverts, despite the inconvenience, despite the cold, rain, wind. I live for the experience, for the stories, for the laughs and the exchange of language, culture, smiles.


Durian. In January. In Bulgaria.

My love for and obsession with durian is no secret. Let me share with you my excitement after one of the friends I was traveling with returned from a short trip to China with an extra special present for me.

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Krushevo, Bulgaria

Well, well, well journal. You'll never believe what happened yesterday. I think only caps lock can truly express my feelings on this matter. DANIEL CAME BACK FROM CHINA AND GUESS WHAT HE BROUGHT ME?! HE BROUGHT ME DURIAN! DURIAN ALL THE WAY FROM CHINA! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT! I'M GOING TO EAT DURIAN IN BULGARIA IN JANUARY! LIFE! AM I RIGHT?!

He brought it back for me in a vacuum seal and had spent hours over the span of a few days searching and searching for my durian. Amazing. This may push him over the top into the best gift giver I have ever met. First the headphones, which I really did need, and now DURIAN! DURIAN IN BULGARIA IN JANUARY!


This morning I ate the aforementioned durian for breakfast. Oh, it was a glorious morning—a morning that started with durian can only be glorious, no? Though I had hoped to help Lily, Yan, and Tracy [Lily and Yan were my workaway hosts and Tracy, along with Daniel was one of my traveling companions] all try their first taste of my favorite fruit, the timing hadn't worked out, so only Tracy was around to try durian for her first time that morning. Daniel seemed convinced she would throw up even after smelling the fruit, but I thought that was preposterous. Tracy didn't like jackfruit, though, so I didn't expect that she would be a durianphile. But we were both wrong.

Tracy took her first bite and as she ate it, she looked thoughtful. “It’s better than jackfruit,” she declared as soon as she had processed the experience. “I think I like it,” she remarked after having a bit more time to mull everything over. And soon she was saying, “This is delicious!” as I clapped my hands in joy. With every bite, her devotion became more intense, her understanding of my obsession became more profound. It was such a delight for me to have someone to share my durian love with. And Tracy really did begin to share that love.

We spoke of its taste—a bright, almost bubbly, fermented hit of acid first, followed by a burst of sweetness, then a rich, creamy finish and potent, garlicky aftertaste. And Tracy spoke the idea I had often expressed of comparing durian, in its complexity and variety, to wine. I told her of the World Durian Festival I would likely be attending in Chanthaburi, Thailand in May, of all-you-can-eat durian buffets in Malaysia where you get a chance to try several distinct varieties of durian side-by-side, of the vegan coconut milk and durian ice cream I had found in Bangkok, and of my favorite of all Thai desserts—sticky rice (not with mango!) with durian. Perfection! Sweet coconut sticky rice topped with ripe durian and a salted thick coconut cream and sprinkled with crunchy fried yellow mung beans for a wonderful textural touch. Perfection!

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Though there were only two pods of durian, I was more than happy, nay, I was thrilled to share it with someone who could appreciate the fruit (the king of fruit) like I could. What a pleasure to watch Tracy become increasingly addicted, fall increasingly in love with durian. How wonderful now to have someone to obsess over it with! Even minutes after taking her first bite, she began talking of going to southeast Asia next, almost purely for durian.

It was a beautiful morning. I could smell the durian on my fingers and could taste it each time I burped. But more precious than all was the experience of sharing something I love with someone and watching her begin to love it as well.


Greek Words.

(Let me start by saying that I very strongly resisted the urge to title this “It’s All Greek to Me”.)

“Logic. It’s a Greek word.” Christos interrupted himself to continue a running joke, a joke that had been running ever since I entered Greece through the tunnel of love (the actual name of the border crossing with Bulgaria. It’s a long story that involves families of bears and millions of additional dollars to construct a tunnel). The joke started on my first night in Greece with the obvious words: democracy, chaos, analogy. Soon friends of my couchsurfing hosts were interjecting our conversations with cries of “Anarchy is a Greek word, of course!”

Christos, my host in the town of Drama (the name had nothing to do with theatre, by the way, but is instead named after hydrama, the Greek for water) extended the joke and with him it really blossomed and came into its own. When asked if I wanted to learn Greek, he would reply for me, “She already does. Thirty percent of English words come from the Greek.” This of course is hyperbole (Greek word!) and we both knew it. We began a kind of verbal tug-of-war in which he would point out many of the Greek words I used (logical, practical, critical) and I would in turn try to find non-Greek synonyms instead (reasonable).

Besides a tenuous attempts to trace the name of Spain back to Greek word origin, the most interesting Greek words I learned were elephant (comes from the Greek elephas, meaning ivory), Egypt (from Aigaiou huptiōs, meaning below the Aegean) and Istanbul (which comes from the Greek is tin polin, meaning to the city). Add to the list just about every word with a ph, words that end in –is, in –logy, the prefixes auto–, bio–, pan–, and anti–, and suddenly the expression it’s all Greek to me takes on a whole new meaning.

(Forgive the corniness, as it turns out, I couldn’t escape the compulsion to use that cliché.)


Waxing Poetical About Durian

How can I even begin to give durian its propers? Let me just say this: If I were to die tomorrow I would want nothing but the sweet, custardy flesh of a durian as my last meal in this body. No equivocation. No ifs, ands, or buts. Durian would be my death-row meal.

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With a baby durian at a fruit orchard in southern Vietnam.

Okay, boring stuff first. Yes, it has a pungent odor. Yes, it is banned from many hotels and public transport. I, however, love the smell. The stronger the better.

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I always tell people who are trying durian for the first time to not think of it as a fruit. It is too rich, too intensely flavored. Think of it as a sweet, almond- and garlic-flavored custard. But every durian is different, has a different flavor profile, so just as one can be a connoisseur of wine, so is it possible to be a durian connoisseur. But I have heard that durian doesn't ship well (though the Thai are developing a variety of durian which can stand up to long-distance transport, but naturally this results in a less delicate, less flavorful fruit), so it is only really possible to be a connoisseur in the appropriate climate.

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I remember very clearly a moment in Battambang, Cambodia during the hottest months of the year when I suddenly realized, when it really struck me, I hadn't been dry in weeks. Weeks. Every time I showered, I began to sweat before the fresh water even had a chance to dry. For weeks. Only two things made the heat (and no chance of an air-conditioned refuge) somewhat bearable: the mango tree in the backyard and the fact that it was durian season. Ah, durian season! Durians were plentiful, extra-special delicious, and cheap! During the off season, durians ran about 8000 riel ($2.00) per kilo, but in season, I was finding them regularly for 3000 riel ($0.75) per kilo, sometimes less. Because we had a few durian haters living the in house, I never brought my spoils inside, instead splitting them open (an easy task once you know the trick) and eating them on the table outside. There were many days when all I ate for dinner was the creamy flesh of a ripe durian.

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I've heard from Thai and Malaysian friends that the preference for durian varies in each country. The Thai tend to prefer their durian firmer, less ripe, and less pungent, while Malaysians like a very soft and ripe durian. I fall into the latter camp, which, counter intuitively, makes Thailand the perfect place to buy durian as the riper, stinkier fruits sell for less because they are less popular.

Durian is known in southeast Asia as the king of fruit, and mangosteen as the queen. Both fruits come into season at the same time, during the hottest months of April and May, and both are prized for their tastiness (understatement!). Another reason they are considered the king and queen is because durian is known to be a heating food, one that you should not eat too much of lest you aggravate your pitta (I'm taking some liberties here of course, because pitta is a dosha from the ayurvedic tradition and durian is considered heating according to Chinese medicinal tradition), while mangosteen is considered cooling and has the opposite effect. Therefore, you will suffer no negative consequences if you eat durian and mangosteen together.


The VVR (Vietnamese Vegetarian Restaurant)

Besides asking “Why on earth?”, the first thing people ask me about my veganism is “But isn’t that difficult?” The answer is, in some places more than others. Eastern Europe for instance, especially outside the major cities, is difficult to be vegan and healthy in without access to a kitchen.  But Vietnam, ah Vietnam! For ease, health, and deliciousness, Vietnam has been one of my favorite countries to eat in. This is due mainly to what I term as the VVR—Vietnamese Vegetarian Restaurant.

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Mock pork, mock fish, stir fried green beans, and a sweet and sour pineapple, tofu, and veggie dish.

The Vietnamese practice Mahayana, a different type of Buddhism than their neighbors in Thailand and Cambodia. Mahayana Buddhism recommends eating a vegetarian diet for all followers, and requires it of monks. For four days each month, including the new and full moon, a vegetarian diet is practiced by many pious followers of Mahayana Buddhism. Consequently, the concept of eating no animal products is well known and often even respected as a sign of great piety. Another consequence of these four days is that every major and some minor towns tend to have at least one VVR which caters to the religious all month and is naturally more popular on one of the recommended vegetarian days.

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Silken tofu soup, stir fried green beans, spring rolls, and a dipping sauce.

Vietnamese is written in a modified Latin script, which makes reading signs faster and easier, so even while I was cycling down the road, I could scan the signs for those magic words:  Com Chay (Vegetarian Food).

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Because the VVRs cater to the general population, their prices are low, very low. All meals I ate across the country cost less than 20,000 VND, with most costing just 10,000 VND. Most have no English menus at all, no English spoken, no tourists. In fact, I can only remember one time when I went into a VVR and saw another Westerner eating there.

So how did I know what to order? In general, you have two options at a VVR. The first option is to choose from a short list of made-to-order noodle soups. Each VVR tends to offer different soups based on the region and the restaurant’s specialty, but some common choices are pho, bun, and mien. (See my previous post to learn more about these noodle soups.)


Noodle soups with a glass of fresh soy milk. Photo courtesy of Nathan Edgerton.

The second option is to order a plate of rice which comes with a selection from the “buffet”. The buffet is a daily range of dishes which you can peek at and sometimes select yourself, but which the proprietor will arrange and serve atop your pile of rice. The daily dishes usually cover quite a range—from a brothy vegetable soup to saucy mock meats to rainbows of stir fried veggies to fresh spring rolls. Some restaurants even serve further specialties like hot pot, banh xeo (filled savory crepes), banh mi (baguette sandwich), freshly made soy milk, and banh bao (steam buns).

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Sauteed greens, steamed pumpkin, lemongrass “chicken” (which used a stalk of lemongrass to replicate the bone), and a brothy green-filled soup.