Friday, November 22, 2013

My Dinner With Excellent

Excellent Zhan invited me to dinner at his favorite restaurant in Shenzen. It was my second day in China, I was there on pearl business and keen to try some authentic cuisine, so of course I agreed to go. I also got a kick out of dining with a guy who had a name like a Klingon warrior.
Although I’d heard lots of horror stories about Chinese dishes involving strange animals and internal organs, I thought I could probably handle anything they served me. I’d eaten grasshoppers, bat and snake so it was unlikely the Chinese could challenge me much more.  I hadn’t actually liked eating bugs but if the situation calls for being polite, I’ll chew up almost anything. And if it happens to taste good, I don’t really care if it’s something I’m not used to eating (I do however draw the line with rare or endangered animals). I would soon find out that I just wasn’t thinking creatively enough.
Excellent was a stocky pit-bull of a man with a greying, tall flat-top haircut that stiffly gave the finger to gravity. He didn’t speak a word of English, nor I Mandarin, so our conversations were parlayed through Candy, his young, delicate translator. Also along for the ride – or actually giving us the ride – was Excellent’s chatty driver Amy who admitted to me (in better English than Candy’s) that she had had her driver’s license exactly one week. Excellent’s nervous-looking wife squeezed in the back seat with us, turned her head to look out the window, and didn’t say a word to me the whole evening.
We reached the restaurant safely and got out  in front of a large red door with a giant bronze gong-shaped knocker. The man guarding the entrance knew Excellent and they fretted their hellos.  Once inside we were led past a busy dining area to a private room with red walls and a rectangular dark wooden table. Here we sat. Once he had ordered, Excellent looked at me and began delivering a short welcome speech in my honor.
“Excellent say this he favorite restaurant,” said Candy. “He say happy he share with you food from he home in northern country. He happy you here and hope we can do many good business. You like spicy?”
I assured her I liked spicy food, which I do.
Soon the first dishes arrived with the wait staff that brought the platters around to each of us. Every time something new came, our small crowd chattered and whooped in admiration. Apparently we were getting all the best stuff. And it really was fantastic. I don’t remember most of it specifically except it was predominantly in red-orange sauce and had 1000 times the flavor of any other Chinese food I’d ever eaten. There was a huge variety and everything was exceptionally good.
Then it arrived. From afar, the knuckle-sized bits of what I assumed was some kind of meat didn’t look very interesting, but when everyone else in the room realized what it was there was a surprised silence then near applause. What ever this was it was the piece de resistance.
The server offered me some of the mystery dish and I cautiously took two for my plate. They looked like small rubbery tubes, tightened through the middle and filled with some sort of soft, mustard brown goo. Unlike everything else we’d eaten this night, it did not look appetizing.
“What is this,” I asked Candy who was sitting next to me.
Candy thought for a moment.
“No know how to say English,” she said.
By this time everyone was looking at me, waiting for me to try this special dish and so I had to. I lifted the first one into my mouth with my chopsticks.
It tasted just like it looked. The outside was a chewy, rubbery sleeve which squirted out the slightly gritty, rotten banana-textured insides. The overall flavor was bitter with a tinge of old-garbage odor. I chewed and chewed and swallowed until I had cleared my mouth out enough to politely smile.
“Very delicious,” I said. Everyone around me was elated.
I looked at the remaining morsel on my plate.
“Candy, can you give me at least an idea of what this is?” I asked.
“Hmmm,” she said pensively. “It’s. . . inside of pig. Like leeva but not leeva.”
She added a slow “no” shake of the head to emphasize that this was definitely not liver.
So, I thought, thinking logically with what I new about mammalian anatomy, I am eating buttholes. Perhaps they weren’t buttholes, maybe they were gall bladders or bile ducts, but whatever they were they were still full of gall, bile or poo and tasted accordingly. I took the second one with my chopsticks and tried to look enthusiastic as I popped it in my mouth while my hosts watched me, proud of how they spoiled their foreign guests.
As I chewed, trying not to get too hung up on the texture of the pig-generated substance inside the calamari-like part, the serving plate came my way again. There were still a few pieces left.
“Take them all,” said Candy, generously.
I took one more.
“I don’t want to be too greedy,” I said. Candy translated this and it met with nods of approval. The plate was brought to Excellent and his wife who hungrily ate the last of the precious sphincters.
I didn’t feel sick per se but I really didn’t want to eat a third putrid, mysterious pig part.
Looking around I wondered if I could possibly slip the last anus into my purse. There wasn’t much sauce so it wouldn’t make too much of mess. I slid it to the edge of my plate and vigilantly watched my dinner companions. It would have been pretty easy except for Candy sitting next to me in my blind spot. When I saw her turn her head away from me, I went to shove the meat over the side of my plate with a chopstick but it was too late, Excellent looked over at me with a well fed but business-like expression. I picked up the last organ and, trying not to dwell too much on the now all familiar taste and texture, chewed it, chewed some more then swallowed it.
At this point I almost expected my host to stand up while a Chinese reality TV host to popped out from behind a curtain to tell me that the buttholes had been a really hysterical practical joke, but no. I think we may have had a digestive beverage, I don’t remember what. And then I was taken back to my hotel. I never got sick from eating pig butts but I brushed my teeth really well that night.
Fast forward several years to when I write this blog post. While looking for images I have discovered that pig anuses are actually quite popular in Asian cuisine.  From the few photographs I could find however, I now think I may have been served pig fallopian tubes. No matter. In early 2013 there was a scandal, soon discovered to be a hoax, that a product called imitation calamari was made of pig anuses. From the descriptions of the rubbery nature of pig rectums, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.  I came across all sorts of fun facts -- such as that a deboned inverted pig’s rectum, sold at Asian markets averages two feet long and two inches wide. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this now but for me at least this puts a sort of closure on my story.
In conclusion I’m afraid the tale is not much more than this: I ate something really gross with a guy with a funny name and I still don’t know what it was.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How I learned to never take rides from strangers

I just read an article that made me wince, not because it was bad, but because it so eloquently explained ideas I've wanted to write about for years. The article was "Dangers oftraveling while female" by Tara Isabella Burton on and yes, the title is terrible. Burton doesn't talk about the dangers women encounter in foreign countries; instead she expertly shows how female travel writers and adventurers have to give up many possibly amazing opportunities in order to avoid becoming sexual targets. But the kicker is the last half where the article winds into what I wish I could shout at the entire travel world: women's travel experiences might not be the same as men's but we see another angle of the world, the female angle, that makes up about 50% of the complexity of the human experience.

So what does this have to do with taking rides from strangers? My first solo travel adventure was to French Polynesia when I was 19 years old. Like Burton I imagined myself as the classic Indian Jones-type character, chugging off into the sunset on supply ships, swimming with sharks and living off of raw fish. Actually I did all these things but along the way I made one terrible mistake: I forgot that I was a woman. Because of this, the scariest experience I've ever had when traveling happened on this first trip. I still often forget that I'm a woman and then, before I do anything too stupid, I remember this story.

Here's what happened:

On a cloudless, perfectly tropical day I was waiting for Le Truck (the local bus) from my Tahitian hostel into the capital of Papeete. I'd been waiting maybe 10 minutes, enjoying the cackle of voices from a nearby fruit market and the smell of burning leaf piles in the air, when beat up Pugeot with a bunch of windsurf boards tied to the roof puttered up next to me. A smiling, slim but strong Polynesian face asked me if I wanted a ride. I recognized the guy as the sun-weathered windsurfing instructor of my hostel.

"Je t'ai vu sur la plage," he said [he'd seen me on the beach], after his offer for a lift.

My 19 year old self didn't see this statement beyond that I had in fact been on the beach and it was normal that he would have seen me there and thus recognized me at the bus stop. In my head I was a swashbuckling voyager, not a bikini babe so instead of seeing this guy as a person who may have been hitting on me, I imagined it as a possibility for an authentic connection with a local.

I hopped in.

I can't remember what his name was so let's call him Teva. Teva spoke no English and at the time I spoke minimal French. We clacked along in his low-to-the-ground car past giant mango trees, small waves crashing against the black lava shoreline and plump women in colorful pareu herding children along the slim shoulder of the road. Teva chatted with me the whole time, even though I only understood about 20 percent of what he was saying, and often took his gaze away from the road to try and look me deeply in the eyes. By the time we reached the traffic-filled market area of Papeete I wasn't sure, but it seemed like he had invited me to go to Moorea with him and I had agreed. I had no intention of going to Moorea with Teva however since, after all the leers and what seemed to be flattering comments about my appearance, my instincts told me that Teva was not going to provide the type of authentic local experience I was hoping for.

Still, when Teva suggested that we both run our errands then he'd drive us both back to the hostel, I agreed.

Our meeting place post-errands was a busy French bakery with outdoor cafe-style tables and chairs set up in the main walking area of a small indoor mall. When I got there Teva had already bought me a plate of fancy pastries and ordered me to eat them. I like pastries but his aggressive tone put me on edge. I ate one and pushed the rest aside. He knitted his eyebrows together, gave me a look like I had just broken his favorite toy and brusquely said we had to go. This was fine with me, I was ready to be back at the hostel and rid of Teva.

When we got in the car parked along a dirty curb, he had several wrapped gifts waiting for me and told me to open them. Especially after the weird bakery scene I had not expected presents so this caught me off-guard. I opened them - one contained two cheap tourist T-shirts and the second was a Tahitian pareu and a book on how to tie it. I thanked Teva for the gifts but he was obviously still angry about the pastries and would hardly look at me.

Off we went, taking a freeway that led over a small hill with a beyond-my-dreams view of the geometric silhouette of Moorea, which I had never seen before. It was then I realized we were going the wrong direction.

"Where are we going?" I asked, trying not to sound too alarmed.

"To the most beautiful place on the island," he said in French. Suddenly he was no longer angry, his voice was soft, nearly patronizing.

The most beautiful place on Tahiti for Teva was the Maeva Beach Resort just outside Papeete. It was a block-style waterfront resort on a small white sand beach with that same outrageous view of Moorea. Why at this point I didn't bolt out of the car as soon as we parked I have no idea. I think I needed things to get really bad to learn this lesson. And so, we went in to the hotel and out to the beachside bar on a patio a few feet from the fine white beach. Caucasian tourists, mostly aged 40 and up looked at me with that surprised look of disdain that's only given to a white woman who looks like she's bonking a non-white male. I would experience this a number of times later in life but this was my first experience with an icky racism that prevails in all cultures and skin colors around the world; it made me feel dirty.

Teva ordered himself and me a beer without asking what I wanted. Beads of condensation dribbled down the sides of the glass, reflecting the glare of the sun off the sand. I immediately told him I wasn't going to drink a beer. At first Teva really looked like he was about to hit me but he took a breath, then sat sulking, taking long sips of his beer.

"It's expensive here," he said. "You're wasting my money."

After maybe 20 very uncomfortable minutes Teva had finished his beer. Mine sat warm and flat, no longer attracting luscious tropical flashes of sunshine. We got up and walked towards the hotel. Teva's movements were fast and stiff and I had trouble trying to keep up with him.  There was an elderly American couple in the elevator that took us up to the lobby floor that accessed the parking lot. I looked at them and thought that maybe I should tell them about my predicament, that I was scared of Teva and didn't want to get back in the car with him. I also didn't know how I would get back to the hostel at this point without him. A very stupid blend of politeness, shyness and the inability to raise a scene stopped me from saying anything and I continued, with Teva back to the car.

This is where my memory gets blurry. I think we drove out of the parking lot and got on the freeway. Teva was proclaiming some sort of love for me before pulling over to the side of the road, grabbing me, cramming his face against mine and sticking his tongue down my throat. I wish at this point I had kneed him in the balls or gouged his eyes out but no. I did however manage to get loose, open the car door and escape, I don't remember how. Teva yelled some Tahitian explicatives at me and screeched away leaving me alone on the side of the freeway with two T-shrts, a pareu and a book about how to tie them (how I managed to end up with these I have no idea. Maybe Teva threw them out the window at me?).  How was I going to get back to my hostel? Again, my memory here is blank but somehow, I got back.

Later when I told the cranky, chain-smoking ex-pat American owner of the hostel what had happened she said in a loud cracking voice, "Oh Teva's OK, just don't sleep with him."

Not surprisingly the hostel closed down a few years later after several women complained about being harassed.

My biggest take away from this experience is that it could have been far worse. Teva was a scum but I was lucky that he was a soft scum who would warn me about the greater evils in the world. Now, not only do I never take rides from strangers but I would never agree to go to Moorea with someone to be polite or hang out with them a minute longer if they even suggested this. I wouldn't accept an inappropriate gift, I would insist on at least splitting the cost of pastries and I can firmly say "no" without feeling rude. The list goes on.

But far worse is that, when say a guide offers to take me out alone at night and for free to watch sea turtles nest on remote Malaysian beaches, I turn him down. When I'm about to pass out of heat exhaustion in Thailand and a big van with two men inside offer me a ride, I choose heat exhaustion instead. This is the bad deal we have as women.

The flip side is, as Burton writes, that I get to see into women's lives and experience a world that men will never see. Instead of seeking out authentic experiences with surf instructors, I try to befriend local women, hold their babies and maybe learn to cook a local specialty. The travel world has not caught on that these types of experiences offer adventures that can make for beautiful and exciting stories. Women's worlds are as interesting and rich as men's and yet we know so much less about them. In fact, this is a whole other story that's longer, greater and closer to my heart than I may ever be able to condense into a single blog post. This is what I want to write about, now and for the rest of my life.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Myth of Paradise


A few days ago I tweeted " I love you Tahiti but I gotta say that coming back to a sunny Portland is no bummer." I instantly lost around 15 followers. I'm not too concerned about losing that many Twitter fans but this made me think about something that I've encountered since I chose to move from Tahiti to Portland, Oregon about three years ago: people want me to live in (or at least revere) "Paradise" because it helps them believe in a better place. 

The chance of any of these people ever packing up their lives and living on an island or even visiting that island on vacation is small at best, but when I say that I currently prefer a US city to their image of vacation land, it's like telling a child there's no such thing as Santa Claus. That tropical island is like Dr Seuss's Solla Saloo "where there never are troubles, at least very few," but like the place in that story, one set of troubles is only replaced by another. This is life, this is planet Earth and I hate to be the one to burst people's bubble but after the glow of first love fades nowhere is perfect unless you have personally achieved some kind of Nirvana.

Here's the thing: wherever you go you will probably have to work to survive and if you grew up in the US, Europe or anywhere else brimming with action it will be hard for you to slow down to the point where gazing at the sea (or road or palm trees in the wind) for a few hours will fulfill your activity needs. Not to say I don't love doing this in theory. Right now as I sit on my deck writing to deadline to the sound of traffic, hanging out and watching hermit crabs make trails in the sand sounds awfully nice but years of this with little else going on? Not at this period of my life, thanks. 

It takes approximately 3.5 hours to drive around Tahiti. Think about that for a minute. Nearly every inch is surrounded by a gorgeous, tepid lagoon and the mountains hold lush plantations of bananas and papayas, as well as tall cascades gushing into crystal clear pools. I love all these places and really I don't tire of them, but over the 15 years I lived there I have been just about everywhere, dozens of times. As much as I enjoy swimming and hiking I am too complicated a person to be able to be happy doing only that, in the same places, over and over again in my free moments in between work (because wherever you go you still need money to survive). Life here in Portland means pubs, restaurant, skiing, beaches, berry picking, varied live music any night of the week and, most importantly, the ability to drive for hours to get to a multitude of other places. Right now this is what I want. Maybe as I get older I'll tire of this and want to settle back down to slow island life but I'm not done with the continent-based lifestyle yet.

Also, your shit is your shit and no matter how balmy the temperatures or blue the lagoon, it will be with you, always. Other people have their shit too and you will have to deal with it anywhere there are other humans. 

Example: Last week I returned to my village, Teahupoo for the first time in 2.5 years. A few years before I left, one of the area's biggest families put up a gate blocking the area's other biggest family from being able to access their homes, land and fishing grounds without paying the first, road-owning family around $375 a piece for gate access. The whole town is in turmoil about this and guess what? After all the time I've been gone nothing has changed other than a few fists have swung. 

On a more personal level, half the village comes into my yard and steals my lemons, a "friend" went in my house when we were gone and stole my kid's bunk bed and a local woman threatened to go in my house and "break everything" because we fired her as a house cleaner when she began working hours we never asked her to and then demanded money from us. None of these things are a big deal on a grand scale but to me they equal out the lonely anonymity of city life. Island problems are more personal and they'll get to you if you don't adopt a very Zen state of mind. Are you ready for your house and property to be communal areas? Do you mind having things you do meld into conversations that get warped into gossip via the "coconut radio?" If so, go try living in Polynesia.

At the end of the day for me, I'm taking a break from both the intensity and calm of island life. It's something I'm not sure anyone who has never lived on an island can understand. Tahiti is a wonderful place that I love with all my heart but for now I need more. If that works against your faith in a perfect world I'm sorry, but I suggest you try meditation.

Monday, January 7, 2013

My first travel adventure: Baja 1977

I'm guessing it was 1977. I was about six years old and my parents decided we'd caravan down to Baja in our 4WD for an off-road adventure with some good friends who had three kids around my age. We lived in the San Francisco Bay Area where we'd just moved to the year before from Brighton, England. Traveling half way across the world by plane had been long and boring - I was told that this car trip would be about as long but with lots of fun stops on the way.

Of course my memories are hazy.

We drove a big green Chevy Suburban. It was used when we bought it and already pretty beat up. The back lacked cushioning but had lots and lots of green-painted, cold metallic space. The truck's name was Emmylou II.

Emmylou II had a tape deck and this seemed really high tech to us. We had two tapes for the trip: Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits and the Star Wars Soundtrack (as in the whole movie on tape). The trip from San Francisco to Baja is around 10 hours so you do the math. To this day every time I hear Stevie Wonder I think about that trip to Baja.

I remember stopping at a rest stop somewhere in Southern California and climbing a tree that had brush-like red flowers and cylindrical nut clusters. I hid in the tree, most likely running away or to Marcus who was my age and who I adored in a bratty, teasing, six-year-old-girl sort of way, and picked off all the round, berry-sized seeds off one of the clusters. Then I probably threw them at Marcus. It was incredibly satisfying. I still love these types of trees. There are lots of them in Southern California.

Then we were in Mexico on the beach. I had a pair of swim fins that I was really excited to try out even though I couldn't swim. My mom helped me put them on and we waded out into the warm brown water. I can still remember how silky and bathtub-like it felt up to my knees. But the sand was more like mud and soon one of my fins was stuck. I had to pull my foot out but the mud just ate up the fin. My parents dug and searched for the fin but we never found it. I was sad about the fin but more than anything I was awed that mud could just swallow something like that. I gained respect for mud.

There were fishermen selling small sharks on the beach and I think we bought one then cooked it on a fire maybe. I doubt I liked it. I was an extremely fussy eater. I remember that urine-like shark flavor a little bit.

There was a small shop near where we were camping and a rotund Mexican woman shopper took a liking to me and fawned all over me. No one in the US did this much so I loved it and my parents did too. While my dad was chatting with her in Spanish I wandered through the aisles of the store and found an open package of . . . Skittles maybe? My parents didn't let me have candy that often so I grabbed the package and slipped them in a pocket. Later my dad asked me where I got the candy.

"Oh that Mexican lady must have given them to her," my mom said.

This worked fine for me so I silently let them believe it. Still I was a little scared eating the candy since in the US at that time there were all sorts of scares about kids getting poisoned by candy given to them by strangers. I hoped the Skittles weren't poisoned but felt they were worth the risk.

Everyone camped on the beach but little girl Jessie, who was two years younger than me, was afraid and wanted to sleep in our truck instead. I said I'd join her because she was the person I liked sleeping next to the most. The first night went well but the second night Jessie got bit all over her face by some sort of bug. The bites were small, red and they itched. Somehow they didn't bite me or maybe I just didn't react to them. Jessie was really little so she kept scratching and eventually she ended up with scabs all over her face. I felt bad for her and was really thankful those bugs didn't get me.

We drove inland over all kinds of crazy 4WD roads with cactuses all around and up and over dry, bristly hills. Near dusk we descended a hill and there it was: a motel. Maybe we all needed a shower or maybe we were lost but the parents decided to splurge to stay there the night. I had never stayed in a motel or hotel before so this was very exciting.

I don't remember the rooms beyond a sort of mildew smell, but there was a swimming pool that was full of frogs. They were so loud we couldn't sleep so my dad had all us kids go out and yell "Campbell Soup!" at them as loud as we could. I don't think it worked (it never has) but I still yell Campbell Soup at noisy frogs.

My last memory is crossing back over the US/Mexican border. We had to wait in a very long line of cars to get to the immigration checkpoints but there were vendors everywhere selling food and colorful souvenirs like piƱatas and ceramics. My parents never bought me much stuff, or at least I didn't think so, but here they bought me a big, cartoon-looking ceramic piggy bank. I can't remember anything more about it so it must have broken not long after we got it home. It was brightly colored and would have really stood out in my room.

Overall the way I remember the trip is the sense of freedom. The beach was huge and safe and the other kids and I were probably left on our own to roam around quite a bit. Mexico was warm, salty and had a light sour, flowery smell to it. I think my parents must have given me lots of Cracker Jacks because they too remind me of this trip to Baja. Back home things were still pretty free - this was the 1970s and we lived in the suburbs - but the feel of a different type of air against my skin, exotic smells and the warmth had me hooked. Aside from a few family trips to England my next trip wouldn't be till I was 13 years old and mature enough to enjoy that sense of freedom even more.


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