Thai Street Food: Kalamae

The first few times I walked down this row of shops on the lakefront in Chanthaburi, I was distracted by the smell, pervasive by nature, of durian around me. Like a woman obsessed, I only had eyes for the large, muddy brown, hedgehog-like fruit. It wasn’t until my third time walking down the street that I noticed a purely sweet smell which cut through the complex durian aroma. I looked to my right and saw a long banquet-like table displaying an array of sticky Thai sweets. Behind the table, a young man stood on a chair and stirred a wok filled with a gooey caramelized mass known as kalamae.

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Kalamae is a naturally vegan Thai version of the traditional French caramel. It is made (as with most Thai sweets) of a combination of sticky rice , sugar, and coconut. It is amazing how these three basic ingredients can combine to create a multitude of desserts all of varying tastes and textures. In the case of kalamae, sticky rice flour, palm sugar, and coconut milk are cooked and stirred constantly until the perfect gooey and luscious texture is obtained.

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You can find plain kalamae (colored with burnt coconut husks) or a green kalamae (colored with pandan leaves), topped with either peanuts or white sesame seeds. Especially for vegans who miss eating caramel, kalamae is a wonderful, indulgent sweet. I find it tastier than its cream- and butter-laden counterpart.

20 baht or $0.70 for a palm-size packet.


Shelter and Sisterhood in Vietnam

This is the first in a series of posts dedicated to the amazing people I meet while traveling, people who provide me with much more than assistance. These are people who open their hearts to me and whom I will always think of as family. These are my angels of the road.

The following flashback is from my time cycling through Vietnam.

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I was hungry after having only fruit for breakfast, so I stopped at the first place I saw. It was on the opposite side of the highway, though, which is something I try to avoid as this is no country road but the busiest highway in Vietnam. From my perch atop Bowie (the name of my bicycle), I could see the place served banh mi. Perfect. Since I had a jar of chunky, Vietnam-made peanut butter in my pack, all I needed was a little baguette (ridiculously cheap too—usually costing about $0.08) for the perfect, tasty lunch.

A young, slight girl who spoke some English approached me as I tried (awkwardly) to balance my bike and unload my small pack from atop the larger one. I walked with her and explained what I wanted, adding, “An chay” to make my bizarre choice of plain bread more understandable. Her father waved me over to sit at the table with him and his wife and daughters. I happily did, but, as he spoke no English, wondered what we would find to “talk” about for the duration of my lunch. We pantomimed about basic things, I showed them my map, and the daughter provided translations for the slightly more complex ideas.

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Soon they were bringing out food and treats for me to partake in—candied ginger (a traditional Tet, or Vietnamese New Year treat), fresh papaya, watermelon seeds (damned difficult to open), a sugary puffed rice treat which was crispy and filled with ginger and crystallized sugar.

Then they started outright giving me things! The father packed up the container of candied ginger for me to take and added to it banh in—some kind of special Tet treat that was all white and sugary and rectangular. Then the daughter, An, brought out a heart-shaped gift box. I shyly opened it. Inside was a soft pink wide wristband. She indicated it was a scrunchy for my hair. How perfect! My pink sparkly hairband was in truly awful shape—dirty and stretched out and always catching and ripping on my tangled hair.

I was delighted, but also ashamed. What could I give to them? What did I have? Not for the first time I wished I was carrying a supply of gifts. Then I thought of my books. The Little Prince! It was filled with delightful pictures and the story was simple and maybe someday she would be able to read and understand it. So I fished through my backpack and gave it to her, trying to indicate through hand gestures just how treasured it was to me. “My favorite book,” I repeated.

I don't know exactly how it happened, but when we went back to the table to sit and I began rifling through my smaller pack in preparation to leave, An mentioned she wished I were part of her family. Then she said something to her father in Vietnamese, smiled and turned to me, saying that they would like it if I would be part of their family for that afternoon and night, that I should stay with them. I'm sorry to say that I hesitated. I really shouldn't have; it was an extraordinary offer. But in my defense, I was simply a bit concerned about time. So I got out my map again to see how far I had to go until Mui Ne, the next big town. Could I do the remaining distance in one day? Yes, it seemed completely plausible. So I smilingly agreed.

An was immediately jubilant. She jumped up from the table, lightly grabbed my arm and steered me toward a room in the back which had an altar and old photographs of the family's deceased relatives. She lit a long stick of incense then handed it to me, indicating that I should place the incense above the altar. I wondered, is this a ritual just for family members?

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Then she led me into her room which she shared with two younger sisters, one fifteen and one twelve. She herself, despite looking much younger to my eyes, was only nineteen years old. She said I should feel at home and asked if she could call me Sister Sarah. I agreed, tickled by the ecclesiastical undertones, calling her Sister An in return. She invited me to bathe, which was a welcome invitation after a few hours cycling in the hot sun. I bathed quickly in the outhouse, splashing myself with water and washing my hair as best I could. Around An and her sisters, all of whom dressed neatly and meticulously, I had been acutely aware of my sweat-stained outer shirt and tangled, messy hair.

After a light lunch, the girls showed me a video of An singing beautifully at some kind of celebration. She had a lovely voice and did some very sweet dance moves, all while wearing a cowgirl-inspired outfit which might have been ridiculous on someone else, but she was such a cute little thing, I think she could have worn anything. Then we did some karaoke, and after a little persuasion I too decided to sing. I started with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” because it was the only English song, then I passed the microphone to the sisters. The eldest two had simply stunning singing voices and moved with such grace and ease. 


The sisters told me I was beautiful, even before I had bathed my fatigued, sweaty body. And they loved my hair. But I didn't see how they could truly think I was beautiful. Oh, that's not self-deprecation. It's just that I violate so many Asian standards of beauty, especially now. I have dark, tanned skin. Really. My legs are the color of a roasted turkey at Thanksgiving. I have freckles and I am too tall and too big and too clumsy. In many ways, I am the antithesis of the standard of beauty here, in which being graceful and pale, with as white skin as possible, is seen as beautiful. I think the only way to reconcile this paradox is to agree that the sisters were holding me to entirely different standards of beauty. So while they may find me beautiful, they would never want my dark tan or my freckled skin.

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That afternoon, though it was clear that the normal activity would have been to sleep a bit, we all piled onto the family's motorbike. The girls took great care in preparing for the trip. They wore face masks and long gloves, as well as hoodies with long sleeves and the hoods pulled over their heads and tied tightly under their chins. In contrast, I wore my cut-off jean shorts and a short sleeve shirt. I was already as dark as I'd ever been and, while cycling ten hours a day, I simply found it useless to fight the tan. So the four of us squeezed on and rode into the nearby town of Vinh Hao, famous for its mineral water, to take the type of photobooth kitschy photos that are so popular in Japan. You know the ones—you can edit them afterwards, adding bows and hearts and writing to the foreground and a snowy background or a background populated by Hello Kitties. We drank sugar cane juice with ice and a bit of orange juice mixed in, which Sister An insisted on treating me to.

The sisters took a little nap and bathed before dinner, and as she was changing her clothes, An asked me a question I never expected to hear. “Do you think I'm thin?” she asked, her face tight and worried. My goodness! “Of course you are thin!” I answered immediately, knowing the crushing effect of hesitance. This girl was tiny, tiny, tiny. She was pocket-sized—as slim and slight as a child. Why on earth would she worry about a thing like that? But I understand. Girl, do I ever understand. Beauty standards infiltrate and insecurity abounds in everyone; the skinny and the symmetrical are no exception.

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I felt like an oaf in comparison to her and in the past few months I had gained weight and no longer recognized my own body. But I was beginning again to feel comfortable in my skin. Especially once I started cycling—on that first day, with no preparation or past experience, I cycled 75 km—I really began to see what my body was capable of and it made me grateful. Grateful for strong legs and strong lungs. Grateful for a constitution which, after cycling for ten hours can still be vibrant and full of energy, propelling me out of my hotel room and exploring whatever town I'm passing through.

I met some of the extended family at dinner—aunts and uncles. We conversed through smiles and laughter and soon An translated her uncle's complimentary comment on how tall I was. They were all impressed with my stately height. Well! At 5’4” or 153 cm, this was certainly a new experience! But he was right. I was a bit taller than him and a few good inches taller than everyone else in the family.

After dinner we lay and watched TV on a woven mat on the floor. An's middle sister brought out pillows and blankets, and so, instead of using the girl's bedroom, we fell asleep there on the floor. All the women in the family—An's mother and her sisters and now me—slept in the open air of the front balcony of their house/roadside restaurant. Though An's mother joined us on the floor, I was aware that she got up several times during the night to serve hungry customers. Their restaurant was located on the busiest highway in Vietnam, after all.

I awoke with the light, as did the entire family. I efficiently gathered my things; weeks of experience had made packing up a well-worn routine, and I was soon saying goodbye to the lovely family that had taken me in and embraced me.  I hugged and kissed them all in turn, saving the biggest hug for Sister An. I saw myself in her—someone endlessly curious about people and the world. I saw in her what I wanted to be—someone open, caring, courageously sharing herself with strangers.

I couldn’t linger; I had a long way until my next stop, Mui Ne. But as I cycled off, I wished I could shelter Sister An somehow, shelter her from the pain that comes with such openness, shelter her from the insecurity of caring what other people think. But who am I to lend her strength, I who know the pain of bending under the weight of my own insecurity? Maybe we can shelter each other, maybe we provide each other with support, with—what is the word? oh yes—sisterhood.


Humus for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Consider this the great humus wrap-up post, in which I look back with nostalgia on humus I ate in Jordan and Turkey. As I write this in Thailand, I try not to think of how long it will be until I taste this most perfect of foods again.


A full breakfast spread including halwa, fateh humus, shatta, and pickled cauliflower and turnips

Let’s start with humus for breakfast in Amman, Jordan. While there, I was introduced to a popular choice for Friday morning breakfast (Friday being the beginning of the weekend in the Arab world), fateh humus. Fateh is a lighter, silkier version of humus. It is the only humus which you are expected to eat with a spoon (of course, this never stopped me from digging right in. My appetite for bread is limited, while my appetite for humus is not.). One reason for this expectation is that fateh humus is prepared using bread and is not topped with oil. A dish topped with olive oil is made for dipping because the bread soaks up the excess oil.


Fateh is made by soaking chunks of day-old bread in the hot chickpea-cooking liquid. This softened bread is then mashed with a few large spoonfuls of humus then, depending on the chef, extra tahini and lemon juice might be added to the mixture. The smooth fateh is then topped with crushed green peppers, whole chickpeas, and roasted local almonds. Because of the chickpea-infused liquid, fateh is always made to order and served warm. Its texture is softer and lighter than traditional humus—silky might be the most fitting adjective—but, as I found out after being unable to stop eating, it will still fill you up for the entire day.

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A lunch of humus with a simple tomato cucumber salad, bread, some spicy pickled peppers, green onions, and mint

Now let’s jump to lunch and to another country—Turkey. Despite what you may have heard, Turkey is not known for its humus and many Turks have no idea what it is or how to make it. So I was excited when I took a trip with my lovely mother to Antakya (also know as Hatay or Antioch) near the border with Syria. Antakya is know for its delicious Arabic-inspired cuisine and we made sure to sample that cuisine at every turn.

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This was my favorite humus of the trip. It was topped with spicy red pepper flakes (which Antakya is famous for), fresh tomatoes, parsley, olive oil, cumin, sweet red peppers, and pickled eggplant.

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Cevizli Biber

The cuisine in Antakya, despite its obvious Arabic influence, still maintains strong Turkish flavors.  Case in point is the above dish, cevizli biber, which is a paste made from walnuts and spicy salça (red pepper paste). It is delightfully fiery, but also rich and sweet from the addition of the walnuts.

In Antakya, it is common to find signs advertising baklacı and humusçı. In Turkish, the –ci ending denotes a profession and thus can be added to any noun, for example çiçek means flower and çiçekçi is a florist. So a baklacı is someone who specializes in making bakla, a dip of fava beans,  and a humusçı is someone who specializes in making humus. So when my mother and I went looking for our last meal in Antakya, we simply followed the signs and they led us directly to humus.

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Humus topped with tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, parsley, olive oil, and spicy red pepper flakes

When I first started making humus myself (of course I know how to make humus as it pretty much has its own place in the vegan food pyramid), I became enthralled with the endless varieties and each time I went into the kitchen tried to push the envelope further. What started innocently as roasted red pepper humus soon morphed into chocolate dessert humus. But it wasn’t until recently, until Lebanon and Jordan and south-central Turkey that I came to appreciate the perfection of simple humus. It’s amazing how six ingredients can, at the hands of a master or usta, transform into something sublime.


In the Kitchen: Dolma and Sarma with Hatice, Fatoş, and Ayşe

This time when I returned to Adana, Turkey, Fatoş invited me to watch (and “help” in) the preparation of a few of my very favorite Turkish dishes: sarma and dolma.

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Hatice and Fatoş stuffing grape leaves

Sarma is made by filling either cabbage or grape leaves with a herbed rice, while dolma is made by stuffing eggplant, peppers, or zucchini with the same rice mixture. If you see this dish at a restaurant or in a home, ensure that it is etsiz (meatless) because it is also common to find dolma and sarma stuffed with ground meat.

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Three varieties of dolma—eggplant, peppers, and zucchini

When I arrived, Fatoş and Hatice had already stuffed the peppers and scooped out and stuffed the eggplant and zucchini. As you can see in the picture above, they used bits of grape leaves to seal the eggplant and zucchini in preparation for cooking.

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My lovely sister-in-law, Ayşe, had completed the first step in making sarma the night before, when she picked dozens of grape leaves from the vine in front of her parent’s house. Then the grape leaves were blanched briefly in plain, unsalted water until they were soft but still strong.

Next, the rice mixture was prepared using uncooked rice, onion, garlic, salça, parsley, mint, oil, salt, and black pepper.

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I watched as Ayşe, Hatice, and Fatoş expertly filled and wrapped each grape leaf tightly. Making sarma and dolma is a time-consuming process, requiring many steps and often taking the better part of a day, so these dishes are traditionally made by a group of women. The women swap recipes, gossip, watch each other’s children, and provide support to each other while preparing, stuffing, and cooking their sarma and dolma.

After watching how each grape leaf was stuffed, I gave it a try myself. At first I was tempted to put far too much filling in, but the ladies quickly helped me out, explaining that the rice would expand when it cooked and it was important that the leaf was tightly wrapped so it wouldn’t unravel during cooking.

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To cook the sarma and dolma, Fatoş added a few tablespoons of salt and filled the pot about halfway with water and about a half cup of oil. She then topped everything with a circular stone, specially made to weigh down the sarma so they don’t come unwrapped while cooking. (If you don’t have a special stone you can use a plate weighed down with a few cans.) Once the water boiled, though, she removed the stone and put the lid on the pot.

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Toward the end of cooking, Fatoş and Hatice made a sauce to pour over the sarma and dolma. They started by making a paste of garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle, then heated some oil and salça in a pan. Once the salça had colored the oil, they added the garlic paste then poured the sauce over the sarma and dolma.

Afiyet Olsun! May it bring you health!


No More Art Museums

I’ve been on the road now since the end of 2008 and I have no plans to stop moving. In this time, I’ve refined my perspective and culled some general pointers which have served me well. I’m elaborating on them in a new section of my blog entitled, creatively, travel tips.


Don't try to do it all. The notion that you can “do” a country or even a city is flawed from the get-go, so forget it. Just forget it. I used to visit all the famous sites and museums because, well, what's a trip to Paris without the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower? But if you ask me to remember a highlight from my time in Paris in a bitterly cold February, the first thing I'll tell you is how I stayed tucked under the blankets in a warm hotel room as my then-boyfriend bundled into the cold and around the block to buy fresh croissants for a breakfast in bed. Or maybe I'll tell you about my love affair with old Mini Coopers and how I took more photos of those absurdly adorable cars than I did of the traditional Parisian sites.

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These days I've admitted to myself that I'm just not interested in art museums, and you know what? I'm a much happier traveler because of it. I'll still go out of my way for a textile, ethnographic, or curio museum, but unless it's free, I've got an afternoon to kill, and it happens to be in my way, you won't find me in an art museum. And that's okay.


Travel is not a scavenger hunt. It's not an attempt to check everything off a must-see list. In fact, I posit that that type of travel will wipe you out and make you crazy. You can't do it all. So figure out what you love, what fuels you, what fills you with energy instead of depletes it—then do those things and do them unabashedly.

If you're like me this means scouring Beirut for the very best falafel sandwich; cycling to a town in Laos to watch women weave mat mii (ikat) fabric on the looms under their stilted houses; watching movies at a guesthouse in northeastern Thailand as a friend recuperates from a motorbike accident; dancing the night away to live folk music in Istanbul; attending a circus performance workshop at a Human Rights Day celebration in Cambodia (see picture, above); helping a middle-age couple, who had picked me up while hitchhiking, pickle vegetables and watermelon for the long Romanian winter in their apartment in Bucharest. These are the memories that shape me and linger with me. These are the experiences that remind me why I travel.

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Thai Street Food: Khanom Krok

I’m not going to be blowing any minds when I say that a specialty of Thai food is balancing many flavors in one dish. In fact, there’s a well-known amuse bouche of sorts called a one bite salad which combines sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter in one delicious leaf-encased bite.

My forays into Thai street food, though, are necessarily limited by my veganism. There are very few savory dishes, if any at all, which don’t have any animal-derived ingredients. Luckily for me and my giant sweet tooth, a majority of dishes in the Thai sweet pantheon are vegan by default. With Khanom Krok in particular, and its perfect balance of texture and flavors, I feel I’ve won some kind of delicious-food lottery. Where are my balloons and confetti?

Khanom Krok is made in two layers with two slightly different batters. And as you can hear me annoyingly yammer on about, the first is rice-based and is used to give each little pancake a firm outer crust. The second layer is mainly coconut cream and sugar, and it never fully firms up, resulting in a marvelous contrast of textures. The outer crust is firm and even a bit crispy, while the creamy inside is hot and custard-like. Ha. There’s a reason it’s called food porn.

I enjoy the contrast of textures, but what makes Khanom Krok one of my favorite Thai sweets is the balance of sweet and salty flavors (I guess the girl can leave the U.S. but can never annihilate those American taste buds). An essential part of the coconut cream is a distinct salted edge which really enhances the richness and sweetness of the pudding-like center. Add to each little pancake a few kernels of corn, a sprinkling of chives and you have the perfect mix of savory, creamy, and sweet.

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Stay tuned for more Thai street food. Though I think I should give up the pretense and call it what it is: Thai sweets. I’ve got a video of vegan caramel being made and am in the process of hunting down my favorite sweet of all: sticky rice with durian. Yum.


The Ruins of Baalbek, and Perks of Being a Solo Female Traveler

In a country like Lebanon, the paradoxes of being a solitary female traveler stand out in clear relief. It's not hard to imagine the inconveniences—the insatiable curiosity about my relationship status and sex life, the tendency of some men to see me as potential prey when I walk alone on a dark street, and the disregard for my ideas and opinions, no matter how well-formed. And though I have stories, and recent ones, about these inconveniences, today reminded me of a few of the joys and perks of being a solo female vagabonder. And as this is a topic that sometimes gets overlooked (and which I sometimes overlook), it's one I want to focus on now.

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I traveled to Baalbek today, to the ancient pre-Roman city of the sun in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon. I wasn't sure what to expect from Baalbek. Especially since seeing Ephesus in Turkey which truly are spectacular and breathtaking ruins. But I found Baalbek to be quite stunning, especially in the warm, orange-ish light of the fading afternoon.

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When I arrived and walked to the ticket counter, I saw the price was 12,000 LL so I pulled out two 10,000 LL bills but the man working at the ticket counter just smiled at me, took one bill and said, “You are a student.” I paused, processing the man's behavior before breaking into a laugh and thanking him, stating that though I wasn't student I was a teacher.

A man sitting near the ticket booth asked me, “A teacher of what?” “English,” I responded, and then we were off. The usual questions—where are you from, how long are you here, do you like it here, when will you go back?—but this time I didn't mind being asked. He was cultured and spoke perfectly and was charming and so the usual conversation was more interesting. He joked repeatedly about marrying me off to his son though said son was a few years younger than I, then about marrying me himself. “I'll divorce my wife,” he joked. Now don't take this the wrong way; I realize that without being there, without witnessing it, this conversation could seem obnoxious and all-too-typical. But he was kind and fatherly, gentlemanlike. His name was Mohammed and he had met Anthony Bourdain and showed me a picture they had taken together. He gave me his phone number and repeatedly offered me what would seem extravagant hospitality in most places, “but in Lebanon is normal. Our hospitality is famous.” He offered to come pick me up from the airport, should I ever return to Lebanon, “Just call me when you return and I'll be waiting for you at the airport.” He offered his brother's phone number in Chicago. “If you ever go to Chicago, just call me and I'll make sure my brother will take care of you.” So when he joked about me marrying his son, I laughed heartily—we both did—and when it was time to start exploring the Baalbek ruins, I thanked him wholeheartedly, we kissed on the cheeks three times, in Lebanese fashion, then he kissed my hand as I turned to climb the ancient grand staircase leading into the ruined complex.

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How is this experience related my gender? A decent question. I don't think a young man would have so easily gotten such a warm reception. I think there is something about me, as a polite and soft-spoken young woman, that inspires parental affection in many of the people I meet. They long to protect me, to help me, to give me advice. And I, in turn, enjoy their stories and their genuine smiles, and the special treatment that often comes with those stories and smiles. I never expect extra help, and that is never the motivation for my kindness; instead I only expect kindness and some interesting conversations. I keep myself open, open to meeting people, open to conversations and it's not because those people have something to offer me. No, it is simply because I love people and I genuinely love talking to all sorts of people. Especially as a solitary traveler, I often fairly jump at the chance to talk to someone, anyone, to exchange a bit of kindness and affection with someone.

Once inside Baalbek, I walked through the bright and looming ruins, the huge standing columns sending their shadows down on me. The site was near-empty except for a small group of Eastern European tourists and a large group of Lebanese students in their late teens or early twenties. It didn't take long for one of the braver guys to approach me and ask where I was from. What he actually asked was (in English, no less), “Are you from Lebanon?” For a split second, the old Sarah threatened to emerge, the Sarah who would have quickly written him off or been brusque with him, seeing such an interaction as a waste of time. Instead, I laughed and told him. “Of course I'm not Lebanese, you know that otherwise you wouldn't have asked. And where are you from?” I flashed him a big smile. “We are students from Lebanon. Can we take a picture with you?” I responded in the affirmative and as we parted ways, he told me, “You are so kind and you are beautiful...” he trailed off so that I could barely catch the end of his sentence as his friends dragged him away.

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Over the next hour or so, as we all wandered separately around the site, I would run into his friends and fellow schoolmates (one of whom told me proudly, “I'm from Canada. And Ukraine!”) and towards the end we met again, this time near the exit and it seemed that all the boys from the school were there and soon I was surrounded by about twenty or twenty-five young men, all looking at me, smiling with me, asking me questions, trying to make me laugh. It is impossible to describe just how much of an ego boost it is to be the center of so much attention, so much youthful male attention. As a traveler, it is often easy to tire of being the focus of curiosity—of receiving stares, countless 'hellos', all-too-personal questions—but the truth is that when that curiosity dries up, when you are in a foreign country surrounded by people going about their lives without a glance in your direction, after the initial elation of being left alone you really begin to feel lonely. You miss the conversations, the human interaction. You even begin to miss the impertinent questions and piercingly shrill 'hellos'.

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The boys asked me about myself and I asked them where they studied. When they found that I was staying in Beirut, where they all lived, they tried to convince me to meet up. “We can hang out!” one boy said, using idiomatic English with ease. But when I found that they were still in high school, not the college students I had originally mistaken them for, I put an end to that notion. Nonetheless, they offered me a ride back to Beirut with them, but I opted instead to remain at the site a little longer—to read, to bask. The setting sun was casting long shadows from the tall columns of the temple of Bacchus and I wanted to soak up the view a little longer.

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The perks I experienced today—kindness and laughter mainly—may have nothing to do with my gender and everything to do with my attitude. Catching flies with honey and all that. But I suspect that because of my gender and because I travel alone, I am more often afforded a glimpse into other worlds. I am invited into homes, into hearts. Though I don’t have an example from today, I know being female allows me access into the lives of women, which in this part of the world are restricted domains. So when an opportunity arises, I don’t hesitate to play up whatever qualities seem most advantageous.

I know some might disagree with my behavior, may think that I shouldn't act differently in different circumstances—that I shouldn't alter my behavior in such a superficial way just to gain help or benefits. But I think that view is overly simple. If the very qualities which sometimes cause me danger—my vulnerability, my solitariness, my open and trusting nature—can also be used to my advantage, can also help me connect with people I meet, then why I should I not play up those qualities? After all, they cause me trouble whether I like it or not. I feel fully justified in turning them on their ears and exploiting those qualities for my benefit.



I wrote this when I was traveling in Lebanon a few weeks back and I read it now with an ironic smile. After a few uncomfortable experiences in Jordan resulting directly from my openness, my trusting nature, and (to be brutally honest) my attraction to male energy, I’m not sure if I will continue to play up these qualities. What’s worse, I’m not sure if I can continue to approach people and situations with the same openness I once did.

I’m still mulling all this over. I certainly welcome comments and feedback.


In the Kitchen: Patata Tahineh and Mu’ajanat with Jamilah

In Amman, my host’s mother, despite trying to good-naturedly convince me to eat some chicken, often cooked entire meals of the most delicious vegan dishes. Jamilah’s favorite thing to say to me was “Kuli! Kuli!” (Eat!) and in response to her command, my favorite thing to say to her was “Zeki!” (Delicious!). And it’s true. Everything she made was so fresh and delicious that I didn’t want to stop eating.

I wish I had spent more time in her kitchen, simply watching her cook. She made a dish of stewed greens straight from her garden and a dip of tomatoes and zucchini which I still think about now. I was fortunate, however, to get a few pictures and a recipe during my brief time in Amman.


Patata Tahineh

This simple and sublime dish tastes remarkably like humus but comes together without a blender and, with no need to soak chickpeas, in considerably less time.

4 medium potatoes

2 cloves garlic

1 tsp salt

juice from 1.5 lemons

1/3 cup tahini

olive oil (for garnish)

parsley (for garnish)

Boil, bake, or microwave the potatoes until cooked. In the meantime, using a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic and salt together until they form a smooth paste (the addition of salt makes this process easy and fast). Mash the cooked potatoes by hand, then add the garlic, salt, and lemon juice. Mix in the tahini. Garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice, drizzle of olive oil, and chopped fresh parsley. Serve with fresh bread for dipping.

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Jamilah also served her patata tahineh with a pickle her mother had made called makdous. Makdous is made from little eggplants that have been stuffed with walnuts and shatta and preserved in olive oil.

Shatta is an important part of Jordanian cuisine, and Jamilah always had a bowl fermenting in her kitchen. Shatta is made from a mix of sweet and spicy red peppers which are mixed together and allowed to ferment for one month. You can see a little bowl of shatta in the first picture in the upper right-hand corner.


On my last night in Amman, before I hitchhiked south to Aqaba and Petra and Wadi Rum, Jamilah made a traditional and naturally vegan mu’ajanat. Mu’ajanat refers to a wide range of savory pastries and that evening she made two kinds—one stuffed with cheese and one stuffed with spinach.

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She made the dough with whole wheat flour, which is apparently a traditional recipe not a new-fangled, inspired-by-the-resurgence-of-whole-foods approach. She then filled the dough with a mix of spinach and onions and added shatta to a few as well.

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She then formed them into triangles and baked the mu’ajanat until they were just brown and crispy. Jamilah made a pot of Jordanian-style black tea, which is brewed with fresh mint, as it is traditional to drink tea while eating mu’ajanat.

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The next step was simple. “Kuli! Kuli!” Jamilah commanded and I was happy to comply.  As with everything she made, these mu’ajanat (especially the ones with added shatta) were truly zeki.


Laughter, Hot Wax, and a Little Pain: Mother-Daughter Epilation in Turkey

One bit of pampering I recommend unreservedly to all women visiting Turkey is not a trip to a hamam, but a trip to the kuaför (coiffure) for a wax. This recommendation may surprise anyone who has seen me in a pair of shorts, but my attitude toward body hair has everything to do with apathy and very little to do with politics or making a statement. I like to be (relatively) hair free; it is only my laziness which stands in the way. Waxing in Turkey is perfect for me—cheap and quick and with long-lasting results.

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, a country in which cleanliness is very important and body hair removal is a big part of personal hygiene. It is a country in which, as I discovered to my surprise, men shave their armpits and a woman with body hair gets stares and even gasps as she walks through a hamam. When epilation is the norm, said epilation tends to be widely available, democratically priced, and of high quality. Therefore, every time I pass through Turkey, I make sure to visit the kuaför.

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Antakya, Turkey

I recently took a trip with my beloved mama to the Turkish city of Hatay or Antakya (known in ancient times as Antioch) and I knew that in preparation for a move to the tropical climate of Thailand I wanted to get waxed one last time. We wandered away from the touristic strip (not hard to do in Antakya as, despite its wonderful museum and food, not many tourists visit here) and struck gold when the first kuaför we passed had a sign outside advertising “İndirim komple sir ağda 15 TL”. Full-body waxing for only 15 lira ($10)! Though I planned to only wax my legs, based on the price for the sir ağda (not strictly full-body, as it is limited to legs, pits, and pubes), I knew this was likely the cheapest option in town.

My mom, having never been waxed herself, was especially curious to see how waxing is done in Turkey so we both walked into a partitioned, dimly lit room in the back of the salon and I lay down on a padded table, similar to what you might find in a massage parlor. Without fanfare, the esthetician applied warm wax from a roll-on applicator to my lower legs and got to work.

Here's the truth about waxing: It will never be completely painless, but the Turkish esthetician knows how to minimize the pain. She is brutally efficient. She doesn't coddle you; she doesn't carefully or delicately spread the wax over your skin; she doesn't even pull your skin taut as she removes the strip. Instead, she applies the wax liberally, covering quarters of your legs in one go, then with remarkable deftness rips your hair out by its roots, never pausing to allow the pain or even the thought of pain to sink in. No, she forges on, and before you really know what has happened, she's put her wax applicator away and is rubbing your legs down with a strawberry-scented oil.

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Within eight minutes the esthetician had removed all my leg hair—from ankle to thigh—and when I indicated a some hairs on my stomach (the delightfully and aptly named “happy trail”), she switched to a different kind of wax and a hand applicator. This should have alerted me, but before I could think twice she began applying the wax to my stomach, making quick work of those hairs. Her next application of wax was a little lower. Rip. I thought she was done, but in a flash she was spreading the hot wax lower and lower, never pausing to give me time to stop her.

The sting of lower-leg hair removal is nothing—akin to the prick of a needle. The hair is sparse and has shallow roots. Pubic hair, on the other hand, is dense with roots that run deep, so when the esthetician removed this strip of hair, I flinched and, though I hate to admit it, cried out. My mom (still watching the process) held my hand in sympathy. I asked the esthetician to stop, but she rightly pointed out to me that the remaining hair was uneven, and indeed, it looked a bit like a crude drawing of a staircase, one side much higher than the other. I gave her permission to even things out and braced my whole body again as she ripped off the strip of wax.

My mom had been fascinated by the process and was impressed with how quickly it was done. She decided she wanted her legs waxed too (“But not my bikini area,” she made sure to add) so I explained to the esthetician in Turkish. My mom flinched and yelped just a bit when the first strip of leg hair was removed. We both laughed and the esthetician smiled, but never slackened her pace. As the hair on her upper thigh was ripped out by the roots, my mom let out an involuntary yell and we both burst again into laughter. Another strip of wax, another yell. This time I doubled over and even the esthetician began to laugh with us, but, ever the professional, she never paused in her work. She pushed on, tearing off strip after strip, and my mother admitted that the pain really wasn’t so bad, especially on the lower legs. All the same, she was happy when it was over and when the strawberry-scented oil was applied. The total price for our epilatory experience was only 15 TL ($10) and though our time in Antakya was packed with interesting sightseeing and delicious food, our trip to the kuaför truly was a highlight.

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My mother with our sweet and efficient  esthetician

Now things are as they were before. My mother and I are on opposite sides of the globe, over 9000 km apart, and Mother’s Day is approaching. This is the new normal, and one of the few drawbacks to my itinerant lifestyle, for I have a wonderful family but rarely get to see them. So it’s memories like this—three women laughing in a small back room in a Turkish kuaför, my mama holding my hand and then I holding hers, tears of pain and joy mixing together, the bonding that inevitably takes places when women strip down for a sticky grooming procedure—which stay with me and fuel me through moments of homesickness.


Humus, Fuul, Falafel. The Best in Jordan

I’m going to skip the intro and dive right in. My first meal at Hashem was the best restaurant meal I ate in Jordan. I went with my host in Amman, Moe, who told me he jumped at any excuse to eat at there, so on my first full day in Jordan, we headed downtown for a late breakfast.

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Much has been written about the humble appearance of Hashem. Yes, it is located in an alley, and yes, you will sit at a plastic table in plastic chairs. But honestly, I didn’t notice any of that. What I did notice was a constant stream of customers from all demographics. As any traveling eater can tell you, a busy restaurant frequented by locals is a sure sign of delicious food to come.

Like so many great eateries, Hashem only does a few things—humus, fuul, two kinds of falafel—but those few things they do perfectly. Not ones to balk at the idea of a humus-filled breakfast, Moe and I ordered a dish of humus, fuul, and a sampling of both kinds of falafel—the small plain and the large mahshy falafel which were stuffed with grilled onions.


The food arrived within two minutes, accompanied by fresh pillowy flatbread and a plate of ripe tomatoes, mint, and raw onions. The pita was hot, made specially for Hashem just across the street, and brought over every few minutes. Even the tomatoes were perfect—bursting with flavor.

It was too much food. Too much food! But I couldn’t stop eating. I dipped into the humus. “This is the best humus I’ve ever had!” I remarked to Moe, a silly grin plastered on my face. Then I tasted the mahshy falafel. “What! This is the best falafel I’ve ever had!” My grin widened. I dipped the pita again and again, trying to master the fine art of scooping bread into humus without letting the humus slide off. I ate every possible permutation I could think of—fuul and/or humus with tomatoes, with falafel, with shatta (a pickled spicy red pepper sauce)—trying to find the perfect combination. I never could decide which was most delicious, so I spent the entire meal experimenting and combining and sampling and comparing.

And then, stuffed beyond reason and happy as ccould be, I didn’t eat again for the rest of the day.

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Humus topped with olive oil and a mix of fresh lemon juice and crushed, pounded green peppers

More Info:

Hashem is no secret. The king Abdullah himself sometimes brings his family to dine at Hashem. Anyone downtown can point you in the right direction, but you can find directions here and read a great description of breaking fast at Hashem here. Expect to pay no more than 2 JD (less than $3) per person for a very, very filling meal.

As far as I could tell, everything here was vegetarian. Vegan, in fact. So order as much of the humus, fuul, falafel, and french fries as your heart desires!