Despair Is An Exotic Ingredient

Dragon fruit
Dragon fruit, Laos

In a post titled Punctured, we met Jeremy: he works in a food co-op and is bitten by a gigantic Thai centipede. Earlier Jeremy worked in a coolants factory that moved operations; repaired stereo turntables until CDs took over; and serviced video stores where the only genre patrons regularly rented was pornography. Then, with the advent of on-line downloads, those shops closed as well.

He’s tried to involve his wife in some aspect of each new venture. Now Jeremy’s at the co-op, and Abigail’s nervous…

Pomolo, Mekong Delta Vietnam
Pomolo, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Jeremy got a job at the market and the offerings for her continued education went from disks to baskets full of items Abigail couldn’t begin to identify. “Whole foods?” Abigail asked bewildered. “What, have I been cooking halves all this time?” Her culinary repertoire consisted of items like tuna surprise, or flank steak with teriyaki sauce.

Jackfruit, southern Goa, India
Jackfruit, Organic farm, Goa, India
Water buffalo, market Luang Prabang, Laos
Water buffalo, Luang Prabang, Laos
Mekong seaweed, Laos
Mekong seaweed, Laos

As Jeremy introduced new ingredients for her to cook, Abigail despaired. The experiment with pornography had wearied her in more than just her body. The effort to familiarize herself with her husband’s latest employment arena was too much. Abigail couldn’t even begin to cook with broccoli rape, celeriac, rose apples, or salsify

just looking up the latter food and realizing that it was a vegetable also known as oyster plant rendered it too foreign. If she didn’t know where to start with a real oyster, how in the world would she find her way around a dastardly, cleverly named root vegetable you had to wear rubber gloves to prepare?

Abby stood in her kitchen, lost. She resented feeling inadequate, but she felt guilty, too. Nothing says loving like something in the oven. Which part was true, she wondered. Love, for whom? Something in the oven, but what?

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Preserved eggs, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Chin lau, Bagan, Burma

Her husband had assaulted her senses one by one. First it was her sense of touch with the air conditioners. Sound had proved inadequate with the stereo shops. Her senses of sight, sound and touch were simultaneously overwhelmed by pornography. Currently the food store derided her sense of taste. Abigail wondered depressed what would be next for her sense of smell.

Abby leafed through the cookbook he bought her and sighed, looking without success for familiar ingredients. Miracle whip. Devils food cake. Cowboy beans and chili. A slice of American cheese on a burger. Jell-O with fruit cocktail. When she confessed this to Jeremy, he said, “I married a Betty Crocker cliché.”

He had been dismayed when she first cooked for him. After all those great meals in exotic countries of curries, tom yum gum soups, and completely fresh ingredients, Abby’s cooking was like going from Technicolor to a 50’s black and white film clip. She served fish sticks bearing little resemblance to the fish dishes of his recent memory.25200_V_10_18_34

Vietnam

Vietnam
All dishes prepared on boats in Halong Bay, Vietnam

“I made homemade tartar sauce!” she announced proudly.

Jeremy spooned out mayonnaise with pickles cut into it and smiled weakly.

The first time she tried to cook him Indian food Abigail choked almost to death because she had no idea that the whole spices all get taken out or pushed to one side, and are not eaten. Ditto with the hot chilies used for flavor.

Chillies, Hue, Vietnam
Chilies and mini limes, Hue, Vietnam

New ingredients were dangerous. For her, bourbon vanilla meant cheap cooking sherry. Cans of condensed soup were her friends.

Abby loved tuna surprise, and the most exotic dish she could cook was a quiche. “If life is a banquet,” she thought, “I must be cheese Doritos chips. I am flat cherry soda.”

– from my short story “Punctured” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to the post titled Punctured to read more about Jeremy.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

  • Salsify: also called scorzifora and ‘the poor man’s oyster’ (photo from Wikipedia)
  • Pomolo: gigantic relative of grapefruit, can grow to the size of a basketball
  • Dragon fruit: thick red rind is peeled away to reveal citrus fruit with pale flesh flecked with black seeds
  • Mekong seaweed: river weed harvested from Mekong River. Often fried in thin sheets with garlic or sesame seeds. In Luang Prabang, Laos, a specialty eaten with dipping sauce that includes pounded water buffalo skin as an ingredient
  • Chin lau: grows on bushes and tastes like lime

The World’s Largest Pile of Bricks

We love travel. I refer to traveling to new cultures and places as connecting the dots. With each trip I feel a little more connected to the world at large and to the various dots that make up my picture of this planet and we who inhabit it.

While in Burma, we took a boat up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Mingun for the day. Yet another fallen kingdom, Mingun is reknowned for the largest functioning bell in the world. It weighs in at 55,555 viss (90,718 kilograms or 199,999 pounds). The sound is a deep claaangg, rung by thumping the bell hard on the lip with a mallet. Mingun is also famous for the king who bankrupted his people with an attempt to outdo every shrine-builder who’d ever lived: King Bodawpaya wanted to build the huge stupa known as Mingun Pahtodawgyi.

It would be the highest in the world, a magnificent 150 meters tall, dwarfing everything built

How the stupa would have appeared finished
How the stupa would have appeared finished

prior to it.

Work began in 1790.

King Bodawpaya never finished his religious edifice. He ran out of funds; or, halted construction due to a prophesy that his realm would end when the building was completed; or, that completing the stupa would signal his death. An earthquake on March 23, 1839 dislodged the huge bell and damaged the structure beyond saving. The Mingun Pahtodawgyi became the world’s largest pile of bricks…

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Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Can you spot the teeny tiny humans in the photograph? (Click on the photograph)

The structure stands, all semi-finished 50 meters (150 feet) of it, roughly a third of the original planned height.

It’s a holy place and the faithful still come to worship. And the curious come to climb it [enter Jadi and Uwe, stage right]. Now, at any sacred Buddhist site, you remove your shoes at the base of the structure.

Going up, sir?
Going up, sir?

And you climb the stairs, barefoot, and then clambor on the ruins, barefoot, for one truly awe-inspiring view of the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding countryside.

View of the Irrawaddy River
View of the Irrawaddy River and several of Mingun’s gorgeous temples

Shan pilgrims in traditional outfits had also climbed the stupa and gave us the gift of their smiles and waves.

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Shan pilgrims
Shan pilgrims

It was a magnificent afternoon and yet another highlight of our 4 weeks in Burma.

Picnicking on the Edge
Picnicking on the Edge

It wasn’t until we were safely home again that I got a good look at Uwe’s photographs.

Go on, I dare you
Go on, I dare you
Just a few small jumps and you’re there

There was a photo I had taken, too.

Hope those bricks are stable!
Hope those bricks are stable!

All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. And click on the final image to enlarge it for an even better idea of how damaged the site is.

More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Warning: Waran!!

On another hot sunny day in southern Thailand we decided to walk on up the road to Khao Lak National Park. It’s a small park (parklet?), on the coast.

Khao Lak, Thailand
Khao Lak, Thailand

It’s the typical jungly sort of place, with hanging vines and strange flowers. DS1_2058

Khao Lak National Park

Khao Lak National Park

We had the park to ourselves as everyone else was sensibly back in air conditioned rooms or by the pool or beach. I found a spot on the rocks to take in the scenery.DS1_2040

Uwe was happy trying to capture a shot of the crabs scuttling along; I gazed off across the Andaman Sea.DS1_2043

A form out in the water came into focus. Something about it was off. The proportions were all wrong. And the size. And the shape; everything about it was odd.DS1_2012

“Uwe, what’s that? Do you see it?” I asked. By now I was standing with one hand shading my eyes, trying to identify what was in the water and heading our way. And then I did.

Look! It's a fish! No, it's an alligator! No, it's a... swimming giant lizard?!?!
Look! It’s a fish! No, it’s an alligator! No, it’s a… swimming giant lizard?!?!

My next comment was a loud “Holy s=&%!!!” and I backed up as the largest lizard I’ve ever seen emerged from the ocean and climbed up onto the same set of rocks, not three feet away.

DS1_2024The thing was bigger than I am. And defnitely more threatening – long curved claws, wicked powerful legs, and jaws that just went on stretching, showing way too many teeth.

Monitor Lizard, a.k.a. Waran, a.k.a. Stepchild of Godzilla...
Monitor Lizard, a.k.a. Waran, a.k.a. Stepchild of Godzilla…

I started moving away as I wondered with some part of my brain (the reptilian stem, no doubt!) if we could outrun the waran (probably not) or survive an attack (unlikely). But the… thing…. lumbered off in the opposite direction across the rocks. Thank goodness! I thought.DS1_2026

Where I saw a painful death from crushing jaws, Uwe looked through his lens at the photographer’s opportunity of a lifetime. My husband chased it. “Uh, honey, don’t you think maybe it’ll get aggressive if you get too close?” I nervously suggested. Not only I was going to have to bag his messy remains in about 5 minutes, but I’d need to fight the critter for the camera, just to have proof that I hadn’t lured Uwe into the park to murder him.

DS1_2031He ignored me and kept pace with the lizard across the rocks. DS1_2035DS1_2037Later he explained, “I wanted just one good shot of it flicking its tongue out! I didn’t get that close, really.” Silly me. So what if a prehistoric stepchild of Godzilla might be dangerous?

We’re still marveling at the close encounter, and weren’t surprised to learn that only the Komodo dragon is larger than the monitor lizard, or waran. The water monitor we saw was an easy 6 feet long.

These clever reptiles not only are strong swimmers: they climb trees to raid birds’ nests, too. Hey, you know what? The next time we go to Khao Lak, I think I might just hang out at the pool.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Thailand, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

A Massage at Wat Pho

Pieter was right: the temple massages at Wat Pho really were awesome. Lisa wasn’t surprised by how crowded the site was, because it was dazzlingly, exotically beautiful. All of the palace buildings had golden roofs that gracefully swooped down and curled back up towards the heavens. Guardian demons held up columns or stood with watchful eyes. Thai06_2584_018All of the surfaces were covered with encrusted diamond shapes of colored glass, or tiny mirrors. Throngs of tourists wandered with cameras and guidebooks, admiring the buildings that glittered in the bright Thai sun. WatPho3“It’s almost as if this entire site is winking at us!” Lisa exclaimed.

Lisa and Babs wandered with their own cameras until they found the traditional massage school. An attendant asked them what kind of session they wanted (how long? what style massage? rather from a male or female therapist, or no preference?) and assigned them numbers. Babs’s number was called first and she looked nervous as she vanished out of sight with a therapist. A few minutes later Lisa heard 32 announced. She stood up and a young Thai woman led her to a different building.

The slats of the rattan walls in the low open structure let in both light and air. Lisa was led to the back of the long room, filled with low mats to the left and right. All around her fully clothed people lay on backs or stomachs as Thai therapists pulled at their limbs. Her therapist pointed for Lisa to lie down, and Lisa watched intently as the Thai girl put her palms together in front of her chest and whispered a prayer. She took one of Lisa’s legs in her hands, and Lisa forgot everything around her as the therapist smoothed away the knots of travel.

###

In the tropical climate Babs’s own long blond hair had gone completely limp. Babs was miserable. She was pretending she wasn’t shocked and frightened of the foreign megalopolis. Thailand’s capitol city might be a short plane ride away from Singapore. In reality, Bangkok was light years distant from any sanitized, orderly place. Babs knew Lisa admired her for what she perceived to be Babs’s sophistication and worldliness, her previous international travel experience. But just a few days in Bangkok quickly forced Babs to admit how terribly narrow the contours of her worldly knowledge were.

She was terrified of the jostling throngs and afraid of the foreign faces hurrying down the streets. The Bay Area consisted of lots of ethnic groups, of Americans. The jumble of nationalities here was far too authentic. If one more sticky brown body brushed against hers, she would have to scream.

At the temple Babs had been unable to relax despite the massage therapist’s coaxing, dexterous fingers. She had lain fearful and stiff, horribly awkward as a stranger touched her. Babs left the temple with an uncomfortable awareness of how uptight she was and no idea of how to release it.

Her sinuses were clogged with humidity and the aromas of overripe fruits and other odors she couldn’t identify. The stench from open food grills just made her want to gag, while the sly, half closed eyes of the Buddhas in their strange rich temples frightened her. WatPho6They watched Babs, and on all accounts they found her wanting. The glittering Thai world was simultaneously far too blinding, and contained far too much clarity.Thai06greenBuddha

Lisa noticed nothing of how scared Babs was. Instead, Lisa charged head first into the contradictory experience of the crowded streets Thai06nighttrafficand serene, glittering temples. Thai06MonkBabs was dismayed first by her friend Lisa’s surprising lack of fear, and next by her startling physical transformation. For the first time in their friendship she was discerning a little stab of jealousy against plain Lisa.

– from my short story “Banged Cock” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Thailand, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Chugging Slowly Upriver in NW Burma, Part 3

We made a long trek to reach the Chin State. We had a day pass (tourists are not allowed to remain overnight in the Chin territory) and a guide to translate for us. Our hope was to reach the villages where the local tribes still have elders with tattoos, by tradition only the women. The government represses the tradition, and it was feared that it had died out.

We had no guarantees that the women would come out to meet us once we reached the villages. At some point in the journey I stopped caring, because every minute in Burma was filled with wonders. The long slow passage upriver had become a journey to a some where, a some thing else. We chugged slowly upriver in NW Burma on the Lemro, from the Rakhine to the Chin state.

Arriving
Arriving

After walking around for some time in the first village, the elders stood before us! It was literally as if we looked up, and there they suddenly were.

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We asked through our guide if Uwe might take photos. The elder women calmly answered in the affirmative. They were, after all, the reason we’d come so far to visit. The tribes are self-sufficient and produce nothing for the tourist market. To meet the female elders is the reason why foreigners come to the villages.

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We were meeting Laytu Chin women (also called Lemro or Laito). The Chin are of Tibetan-Burman ethnicity, and tattooing is practiced only among the southern Chin.

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To a woman they were calm, poised, and radiated confidence. When did the Chin begin tattooing? One claim is that the tattooing was done to make the women ugly so the Burmese kings would stop stealing them to use as slaves, but this claim has been discounted as myth. It’s our modern world that sees tattooing as unattractive and labels it ‘ugly’. It’s far more likely that the Chin women were tattooed in a rite of passage, and that the facial tattoos are a mark of social status and coming of age. The tattoos make the women beautiful.

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No one in the outside world knows just what these patterns signify. The tattoos may be stippling, dots, circles. The Laytu women we met have the most elaborate Chin tattoo, a spider web or rising sun pattern. Our guide told us the men had gathered the materials used in the tattooing process. Jens Uwe Parkitny reports being told that the actual tatooing is done by female tatoo artists.

The women walked us through the village, up to the school. It was originally funded by a foreigner and we were invited to make a donation. It was all very formal: the guide wrote out a receipt along with the amount, our names, and our nationalities.

D30_4957_0800One of the women was in charge of taking the money and handling the donation, but the task is rotated. He translated our questions, explaining that on each day a different woman takes on this task. The responsibility of supporting the village is shared communally.

On that day we were invited up into a home on stilts. In another Chin village we watched one of the old women work at a handloom. We visited a burial ground on the river banks, where the dead are cremated and offerings are set out for the deceased. When we finally set back down the Lemro River on that December 31st, the last day of the year 2009, Uwe and I knew we had journeyed a very far way indeed.

Once we were home in Europe I found myself haunted by the old women’s faces. We got online and began to search for anything we could find on the Chin.

We discovered that the tradition of tattooing hasn’t died out altogether after all. In his exquisite brochure “Im Porträt: Gesichtstatuierungen der Chin-Frauen in Birma” (“Chin Women of Burma and their Facial Tattoos: A Portrait”), photographer Jens Uwe Parkitny documents the Chin tribes and different tattoo patterns of each group. He has made it his on-going mission to document and bear witness to this extraordinary group of people and their traditions. The text is in German and English. This stunning booklet of photographs can be ordered from either of the following sites:

Munich Museum of Ethnology: http://www.voelkerkundemuseum-muenchen.de and

Hirmer Publishers http://www.hirmerverlag.de/

When Uwe and I discovered Parkitny’s brochure on the Munich museum website, we ordered it immediately. Parkitny has also published a new book entitled “Blood Faces” http://www.bloodfaces.com/ . All proceeds from his book go to a children’s charity in Yangon, Burma.

 (All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

The Year the World Came to Party

I’ve lived in Germany for over 20 years. Stuttgart has become my second home (third? fourth? It’s hard to say when you moved every few years as a child). Stuttgart is the ideal city, with all you could want:

  • great restaurants
  • parks & public spaces
  • shopping
  • museums
  • outdoor cafés
  • public transportation
  • proximity to Nature

What a great place to live! I used to think, If only Germans would relax and have more funand then the World Cup came to Germany.

It was 2006. May was cold and damp, and June was no different. Everyone waited anxiously for the start of the soccer tournament and prayed for good weather.

The weather gods decided to smile. Our prayers were heard and a few days before the tournament opened, the skies cleared and the temperature rose. We suddenly had perfect, sunny summer weather. The country let out collectively held breaths and said, Let the Games Begin!

Watching the World Cup at the Schlossplatz
Watching the World Cup at the Schlossplatz

Stuttgart set up 3 gigantic outdoor viewing screens in the heart of downtown.

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Every restaurant and café had flat screen t.v.s. For once, patrons all wanted the set on and the sound turned UP!

Croatian fans
Croatian fans

I arranged my work schedule around the games and each afternoon my friends and I headed in to town to watch the afternoon matches.  DSC_4771DSC_4655AustraliaWe never knew what we’d see on the UBahn trains or on the streets. An Aussie might be carrying a life-sized blow up kangaroo, or we’d spot French fans with their hair and faces dyed in the tricolors of the French flag.

Downtown Stuttgart swam in soccer fans.

The entire city turned orange on the days the Dutch team played.

Got beer?
Got beer?

One early afternoon several hundred British fans partied hard, getting more sunburned – and more inebriated – by the minute as they cheered on England.

He brought along his date
He brought along his date
Needs no caption
Needs no caption

Another day the Brazilians draped themselves in flags and samba-ed their way up our main pedestrian street, the Königstrasse, accompanied by musicians.

Go Brazil!
Go Brazil!

My husband joined us each night after he finished work. We’d grab a bite to eat and then head back to the main plaza for the evening match. The sides of the area that erupted with cheers when a team scored let you know: that was where the Italians were sitting. Or Portuguese. Or Americans. Or…

What Team Italy had planned for Team France in the final game...
What Team Italy had planned for Team France in the final game…

The German team was coached by Jürgen Klinsmann, a Schwab whose family still runs a bakery in a Stuttgart neighborhood. The team kept advancing! The mood in Germany grew more animated! EVERYONE stayed in a good mood.

Bella Italia!
Bella Italia!
France
France
Home team!
Home team!

It didn’t matter who won. (Okay, it did, it did!) Let me rephrase that: Fans cheered and groaned and stayed civil and good-natured no matter how the matches ended. The crowds swelled to over 100,000 people as it got closer to the finals.

Fan Sea
Fan Sea

The Königstrasse literally became a sea of happily excited fans.

DSC_4839It was a social happening: people from all over the world came to Germany to share these games together. You wanted to be in a beer garden or plaza or outdoor café, anyplace with a crowd of people. The 2006 World Cup Games is the greatest international event I’ve ever attended.

Merci Allemangne!
Merci Allemangne!

My adopted country is one hell of a host. Forget dour and uptight: these people know how to throw a party! Now if they could just hold the World Cup annually instead of every four years. And let Germany host it again, soon.  I’ll be wearing a team shirt and face paint. And I will be hollering, Let the Games Begin!

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Chugging Slowly Upriver in Northwest Burma, Part 2

We had arranged in Sittwe for a guide, a boat and a special day visa in order to travel on to the semiautonomous Chin State. The ethnic Chin struck a deal with the Myanmar government at the Panglong Conference. The Chin won’t fight for their own independent state. In return the government basically leaves them alone to manage their affairs.

As we headed up the river the small boat traveled slowly. It was the last day of the year, a calm morning with no winds.

Sky and water reflected one another like twin mirrors.

In a mirror
In a mirror

We sailed on for several hours, and I was overtaken by a sense of displacement that was complete. It was preternaturally still, so quiet and without movement that it seemed we had sailed to a place located somewhere between firmament and earth. It wasn’t quite attached to either.

Finally the boat came to a stop and we debarked and began our walk up into the first Chin village. The villages are extremely remote and what makes them extraordinary (for us anyway) is the fact that the Chin practice the art of tattooing. The tradition had been strongly discouraged by the government since the 60’s, and was believed to have almost died out.

In the villages we sailed to by boat, only the old women were reputed to still have the facial tattoos. The men had gone out into the jungle and gathered the materials necessary for the tattooing process. Several days of painstaking tattoo work ensued; only faces of  young teenaged girls were transformed.

We walked through the village with our guide talking to the locals.

Chin village path
Chin village path

Pigs and puppies tumbled on the path as people worked. The tamped dirt was cleared and clean.

After perhaps 20 minutes of walking through the village and watching and being watched, the female elders suddenly appeared to meet us.

Part 3 to be posted soon.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)