No Elephants and Other Oddities

I want to share a few odds and ends, things which, despite my unruffleable feathers, still strike me as unique.

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This is the sign at the local village market. No elephants allowed!

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I… have no words. The graphic and text are pretty equally disturbing.

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Why all the durian hate? Surely durian is not as offensive as smoking! This little sign was in a taxi, along with a graphic depiction of a couple having sex. So: no sex, no alcohol, no smoking, and no durians.


Chanthaburi World Durian Festival

I came back to Southeast Asia just in time for durian season and the timing was no coincidence. I arrived in Bangkok, jet-lagged and tired, at six in the morning. By two in the afternoon, I was wandering the streets of the Chanthaburi World Durian Festival.


I tried to temper my expectations, but they were absurdly high. World. Durian. Festival. I likely would have been disappointed by anything short of a free 24-hour tasting booth with my name on it.

street food and fruit 008So when I saw the festival was a modestly sized street fair with only a few booths devoted to durian, I was disappointed. That said, it is hard for someone as obsessed with durian as I am to be wholly disappointed when at least 20% of the vendors have stacks and piles of my favorite spiked fruit.

It would be a bit more accurate to call this a fruit festival. Chanthaburi is a famous fruit-producing province in Thailand, and the bounty is especially impressive in summer. We walked by many booths overflowing with mangosteens, durians, rambutans, snakefruit, pineapples, jackfruits, and more. In addition, there were stalls selling street food of a wider scope than usual (though there was no sticky rice with durian, which surprised and disappointed me anew). The festival seemed more of an excuse to bring the family, have a walk around the man-made lake with the kiddies, and sample the snacks from the street vendors.

There was a parade and a giant stage.

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The sign above the cosmic backdrop says Amazing Thailand World Durian Festival Chanthaburi 2011

And floats decorated elaborately with fruit.

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Trust me, you want a closer view of this.

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Check out those rabbits made from durians, cucumbers, mini eggplants, and chili peppers. Also, get a load of the chili pepper mustache on the turtle!

There were prizes awarded to the best durians in several categories and breeds.

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Everywhere you could see statues of durians, pictures of durians, and even two kids dressed up as durians.

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But I was hoping for more. I was hoping for a booth comparing and contrasting the different breeds of durian so I could begin to get an idea of which my favorite were. I thought it might have been nice to have durian in every conceivable permutation—ice cream, pastries, chips, preserved and dried, jams, candies. Maybe some hands-on booths which would allow you to create something—durian with sticky rice, for example. How about an informational booth in which you could learn about the process of growing and harvesting durian? I'd like to know more factoids about durian production in Chanthaburi, too. I know that a higher percentage of land in Chanthaburi is devoted to growing durian than anywhere else in the world, but I'd like to learn more. Maybe it could be possible to book a tour with a local orchard through the festival, then go visit that orchard later during the week, while there, sampling different varieties and seeing how durians are grown.

All the same, there was a lot of durian, and that is guaranteed to put a smile on my face. Here are a few highlights:

Watching durian chips being made. Turns out, it’s basically the same process as potato chips. They take underripe (and thus firm) durian, slice it on a mandoline, then fry it up in batches.

I sampled organically grown durian.

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Met a kind seller who gave us all the free durian we could eat, even opening and gifting us a whole three-kilo fruit to share.

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But perhaps the biggest success of the afternoon was that I finally got a chance to learn about and taste different varieties of durian: golden pillow, golden button, long stem, gibbon. I’ll write up a separate post comparing these varieties soon.

So of course it was a fun afternoon; it just wasn’t the durian gluttonfest I had anticipated.

The Chanthaburi World Durian Festival is held every year at the beginning of durian season, usually in May.

Grammar note: I apologize for the vacillation. I’m not sure whether durian is a countable or uncountable noun and therefore treated it incoherently as either and both depending on my whim in each sentence :)


Tallying the Numbers

“How many countries have you been to?”

I can’t tell you how many times I get asked this question. No really. I literally can’t tell you because I’m not in the habit of keeping track of things like that. Which means I don’t have an answer when posed the number of countries question. Oh sure, if I sat down and took a few minutes to recollect I could tabulate something. But what would that number mean?

At the risk of appearing to peddle in broad stereotypes, I want to add that it is usually only men who are fascinated by the “score”. They hear that I’ve been traveling for a few years now, tell me they’ve been to thirty-seven countries—but it’s actually more because that’s counting Yugoslavia back when it was only one country—then ask to hear my country count. And again I wonder, what does that number really mean?

I lived in Turkey for over six months, learning Turkish, meeting families, speaking with hundreds of people, being invited into countless homes, and making lifelong friends. These experiences certainly speak more to who I am and what I’ve seen than any number could do. It seems too reductive to wear Turkey as just another notch on my traveler’s belt.

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“How Happy I am to be a Turk!” and a lovely woman in Adana making ıspanklı gözleme (spinach crepes similar to these).

I spent a day in Ukraine on a botched layover. Am I supposed to include Ukraine in my list? Sure, I experienced Ukrainian customer service (dour), witnessed cultural activities (beer, lots of beer), and sampled the local cuisine (peanut halvah and great wheat bread), but have I really experienced enough of Ukraine to add it to my list?

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The extent of my Ukrainian sightseeing

This is the crux of my problem with tallying countries. What exactly does it represent when you add a country to your list? Does it simply mean you’ve been there or does it stand for something more? Does it mean that you’ve spent quality time there, learning as much language as you could, meeting as many people as you could? Can I ask you for advice on every single country on your list? Will you have anything meaningful to say? And once you’ve added a country to your total does that discourage you from going back—since to do so would not bump up your numbers?

Though it would only take a few minutes of reflection, I won’t be tallying up my travels into one neat little number, so please don’t ask me. Try asking an illuminating question instead. Try asking what I’ve seen, whom I’ve met, what I’ve learned, and what I’ve loved.

*Not to be crass, but I also had planned to write a whole analogy between tallying countries and tallying sex partners. In both cases, the only telling numbers are those on either extreme—very low or very high. Everything in between is a muddle which numbers cannot help illuminate.


Thai Fruit: Santol

Just yesterday I tried to explain this fruit to a Thai friend. The name Santol wasn’t ringing any bells, so I think there must be a different Thai name. I wanted to say that it looks like a softball covered in a paper bag and tastes like oregano, but I’m pretty sure that would have elicited an even blanker stare than the one my hesitant pronunciations of Santol was being met with.

A picture would have saved me from such verbal permutations.

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The skin is akin to the unlikely baby of a fuzzy peach and crinkled paper bag. It is thin and, I don’t know, possibly edible in the same sense that that paper bag is edible: it won’t kill you but it won’t taste good either.

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But open up the Santol and you’ll find some delightfully contrasting textures. The six or so seeds in the middle are surrounded by white spongy flesh, while the outer sphere of flesh is tawny with the firm, but yielding texture of an Asian persimmon.

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And the flavor? Well, the spongy flesh surrounding the seeds is juicy and tart. The Santol is sometimes compared to a lollipop because this flesh will never separate from the seed, so to extract flavor, you must resort to sucking on it in an undignified manner.

The outer flesh not only has the texture of Asian persimmons, but also has their mild astringency. This part of the fruit leans more toward savory flavors. The first time I ate a Santol, it took me five minutes of slow, contemplative chewing before I realized what that familiar taste was: oregano! As you journey outwards from the sweeter center of the fruit, the fresh, grassy taste of oregano becomes more pronounced and the fruit becomes more puckeringly astringent.

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Here is one last shot to show you the unique texture of the flesh-covered seeds. I’ve never experienced a texture like this before, so I don’t know what to compare it to. It’s springy and bouncy, like a button mushroom minus the squeak. But it’s also juicy and floods your mouth with flavor (like a marinated sponge?) and the more you bite down on it to extract the flavor, the more slippery and wily it becomes.

So to end this post in the style of a fourth-grade book review: I enjoyed eating the Santol!! It was yummy! I recommend everyone go out and try one!!!!!!


Thai Street Food: Bua Loy Nam King

Bua Loy Nam King is a refreshing break from coconut-heavy Thai sweets (though it’s doubtful such a break is ever required). This sweet originated in China, which might explain why it contains no form of coconut at all. Instead it features mochi-like balls of sticky rice filled with a lightly sweetened black sesame paste, swimming in a hot ginger tea soup.

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The broth (nam king) is intensely gingery and I always request that it be left unsweetened. As such, it is bold and just spicy enough to be mildly uncomfortable. The bua loy (sticky rice flour dumplings) are glossy and toothsome (I’m kicking myself a little for using that word, but if the shoes fits…), while the black sesame filling is grainy, intense, and rich.

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Bua Loy Nam King, despite being served piping hot, is always a light and refined snack, though to be honest, I’ve yet to refine my manner of eating it. With just a few bua loy swimming in the nam king I’m not sure what the proper ratio of rice balls to ginger soup should be. Should I break the bua loy in half or thirds and scoop up as much nam king as I can, being sure to mix both elements in each bite? I’ve tried this, but to be frank, there’s just too much nam king to compose balance bites. So I invariably slurp the spicy, warming ginger infusion to a manageable level, then savor each wonderfully chewy bua loy. The perfectly sweetened, slightly earthy bites of sticky rice dumplings and black sesame are worth savoring.

One bowl of Bua Loy Nam King usually costs around 20 baht ($0.67).


Angels of the Road: Pietre in Bucharest

The following is an excerpt from my journal. After about a month of hitchhiking around eastern Europe, I found myself in Romania. I was unsure where to go next and was beginning to feel tired of sleeping in a new bed each night and even more tired of not knowing where that bed would be or how exactly I would find it. After staying with a lovely couple on an organic fruit orchard in Transylvania, the early snow forced my hand. I had no appropriate shoes or clothing, so I began to hitch south.

It was a perfect day of hitching. I left Odorheiu without having heard from my next host in Bucuresti, but I figured I could always find a hostel if necessary.

In Vanatori, a few gypsies approached me, asking for money or proffering advice or possibly both. One old man, dressed in baggy black trousers and a light coat insufficient for the cold tried incessantly to talk to me and direct me somewhere. He wouldn’t leave me alone though I kept saying “Multumesc” and avoiding eye contact. I think it was because he appeared to be harassing me that I got my next ride quickly.

I got in the car with an older couple in the front seat and boxes of fruit and vegetables in the backseat. The man, portly and vibrant, spoke a little English and the woman, trim and put-together, spoke none at all. Due to bad traffic and construction, they took me a scenic route to Bucuresti and along the way I shared some of my pears from my last hosts’ orchard in Odorheiu. The couple tried to share their meat pizza with me and the man, Pietre, scoffed when I told him I was vegetarian. “I’m sorry!” he said.

Along the way, they stopped at a 400-year-old monastery so I could look around. When inside the church, the woman, Brendusa, kept talking to me, trying to explain things to me in Romanian. I smiled and laughed and nodded and she did the same. Once outside, we collected walnuts which Pietre cracked in his hands and continually gave to me. I ate them quickly, but could not keep up with his supply.

We drove towards Bucuresti, but it soon became clear that we would not arrive before dark. I explained my situation, saying I needed to find an internet cafe. I hoped by then my host had emailed me back with her phone number and address, but if not, I could use the internet to find a hostel that night. Pietre gave me his card and told me that if there were any problems I should call him and I could stay with him. I was so grateful for this because as it got later and later, I began to be a bit apprehensive about where I would sleep that night.

I loved the way they interacted with each other, affectionate and teasing, with Brendusa always laughing at Pietre. And the way they interacted with me was just as sweet, treating me gently, like a daughter. They tried to find me an internet cafe, but as we got closer to Pietre’s apartment we decided to scrap that plan—instead I would stay with Pietre. “Real couchsurfing” as my friend J would say.

They made up Pietre’s bed for me as Pietre was determined to sleep on his own couch while I slept in the bedroom.

The next morning I awoke to find the first snow that had fallen in Odorheiu had followed me to Bucuresti. Pietre scoffed at my black mesh sneakers which seemed to absorb the slushy snow rather than repel it and he was convinced I needed another pair of shoes. I tried to talk him out of it; I was heading south after all, surely I could keep ahead of the snow. But he was determined to buy me a pair of shoes, warmer ones for the Romanian cold that was settling in so early in October. He took me to a second-hand shop that sold shoes by the kilogram and charged a different amount per kilo depending on the day of the week. Unfortunately it was Friday and the shoes we agreed on were Gortex and heavy. Pietre really wouldn’t let me pay for them. He was completely insistent and I was touched and embarrassed by his kindness. My measly “thank you” was insufficient so I gave him a big hug to accompany it. He even tried to buy me a warm, waterproof coat, but I had to put my foot down and really refuse.

When we got back to the apartment, Pietre turned on the radio and it seemed that every station played the same mind-numbing electro dance music, so I popped in a Louis Armstrong CD and we listened repeatedly to “St. James Infirmary”. Pietre said in the name for this music in Romanian is “Black Heart” and said that the song reminded him of a funeral march—a sublime funeral march. He tucked me very sweetly into bed and I could hear him listen to “St. James Infirmary” a few more times before he retired for the night as well. I surfed the television, intrigued by the late-night offerings of Romanian TV. I was especially intrigued when I found a channel playing softcore porn with fuzzy lighting and 90s-style neon t-shirts and acid-wash jeans quickly removed to reveal skinny women with big fake breasts. The porn seemed like a cheap (and old) American production.

The next day, Saturday, Pietre and Brendusa took me to an open-air museum displaying traditional houses and buildings from all across Romania. It was fascinating and reminded me of a more interesting living-history museum than the one in Des Moines, Iowa where my school sometimes took field trips when I was a child.

At this museum in Bucuresti, there were windmills and watermills for grinding grains, extracting oil from nuts and seeds, and for felting wool. Felting wool is an important part of traditional Romanian clothing, a protection against the bitter winters. I poked my nose everywhere I could—going into all the open houses and peering in the windows of the closed houses, but the day was cold and overcast and gave me further appreciation for felted wool.

The next day, despite the protestations of Pietre and Brendusa, I was determined to leave, to hitch south and jump ahead of the cold. My cotton pants and two thin sweaters were proving no match for drizzling sleet and near-freezing temperatures.

As usual, I planned to use HitchWiki to find the best way out of the city, but Pietre had a different plan. They would drive me all the way to the Bulgarian border, from where it would be easy to find a truck going south, possibly all the way to Istanbul. He was determined to drive me all that distance and Brendusa was determined to come, and what could I do? At a certain point, protesting and saying no thanks simply becomes rude, so that morning I broke in my new (second hand) winter boots and we piled into Pietre’s car. Pietre drove and I sat in the backseat smiling the whole way.

An hour later, after passing by flat farmland remarkably reminiscent of the Iowan countryside I hadn’t seen in over a year, we arrived at the border with Bulgaria. I kissed them both, thanked them as much as I could, hoping they could feel how grateful I truly was, and hugged them both tightly. I saw Brendusa wipe away a few tears which of course made me choke up. I gave her another hug, then Pietre lifted my pack and helped me into it. I walked toward the Bulgarian border officials, but couldn’t resist one final look back.

Pietre stood watching me leave, his arm around Brendusa, comforting her. I remembered what Pietre had told me the day before. He only had one child, a son, but now he felt that I was something like a daughter. And I thought, for the umpteenth time, how well the road provides. When you surrender to the road, to the whims of the universe, you find you are taken care of. At a time in my travels when I was feeling tired and a little frazzled, these two wonderful people came into my life, loving me and taking care of me as if I were their own child.

Photos courtesy of Ainali and Andre Stroe at Wikipedia Commons.


Thai Fruits: Custard Apple

Here’s another of my favorite fruits, the custard apple. Just look at that lumpy, scaly outside, like the skin of a frog.

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I’ve seen people go at this one with a knife, but where’s the fun in that? Each scale easily lifts off the fruit, revealing soft white flesh underneath.

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The custard apple is sweet and juicy, with a slightly grainy texture like that of a soft ripe pear. It is almost purely sweet, but not cloyingly so. Each surface scale covers a small geometric section of flesh which separates easily from the rest of the fruit and surrounds a smooth and very hard black seed. I swear the seeds are so firm and heavy, they could easily be mistaken for pebbles.

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So while I don’t see why it’s called a custard apple (in fact it seems as dissimilar from custard as it does from apples), this is yet another favorite fruit.

I wonder how many times I can call a fruit my favorite before I lose all credibility?