Today, after a long labor and an unexpected C-section (everyone is doing fine), Emily gave birth to little Henry. So everyone - please meet Henry Thomas Utz. He's 9.03 lb., 19 inches long and pretty damn cute. The joy is difficult to put into words and there have been a lot of happy tears today. I can't wait to hold this little man. Thank you Kris and Emily for this amazing gift. I love you all so very much.
The sea is one of my havens. It always has been. Nothing can bring me to the trembling edge of joy more quickly than the crashing of ocean waves. Nothing signals home as clearly as the salty air. I love the sea in every form. Turquoise blue and tranquil. Angry gray and ferocious. I believe that the sea holds all of the lessons we need to learn. It mirrors every human emotion. Through it's very existence it teaches us eternity, renewal, destruction and the temporary nature of all things. It will whisper these secrets or roar them full force into our knowing depending on it's mood. It is a relentless and unforgiving teacher in one moment and in the next it will hold us gently rocking us in it's timeless embrace. One of the greatest gifts of my life was to be raised next to the ocean.
I met a deep and knowing soul the other day who answers to the name of Blake. The years have tugged the edges of his skin into a soft array of crisscrossing lines. His blue eyes shine with an eternal acceptance - equal parts grace and energy. He's been around this earth - you can see it in the way he takes in a room - in the way he dances his story in every step. Blake crossed the ocean once, he told me, in a 36 foot sail boat. He traveled with his sister and a stranger who acted as captain. Somewhere in the wide open sea they met a furious storm - a force nine - just one step below a hurricane. The waves, Blake told me, were higher than the mast. I asked, as you do, if he was afraid. His answer: No. He felt held in the hands of God. The energy, the power, the joy - the sheer mass of the storm delivered him into the beauty of the divine. Surrender. Acceptance. Wonder.
The storm broke nearly everything on that boat except the humans. The crossing took them 10 days instead of three. At some point they ran out of food so they fasted. The whole time - through every new challenge, Blake says he was simply held and he just took in whatever came next. It made me pause. If only we could all remember that we are always being held in the hands of God (or whatever you choose to call it) - through every wave, through every up and down, every joy and every sorrow. Then we could meet each experience wide eyed and innocent and free from fear - because as Blake told me: Fear makes a mess of everything.
The bay in front of the Sanctuary is silky smooth and deep turquoise on this peaceful morning. It looks like a giant hand has sprinkled pebbles along one edge of the long curve of white beach. Rocky hillsides rise up on either side and the jungle reaches out over the sand towards the water. I'm the only passenger in my longboat as it fully rounds the corner into the bay. My captain stands, hand on tiller, belly protruding over his blue torn shorts. He has a jolly look about him that makes me think he's happy and I wonder what life would be like if I chucked it all and ran water taxi's to and from this tiny piece of paradise. It's tempting.
Our boat bumps up against the beach near a few naked hippies floating on their backs in the golden sunlight. I'm here hoping to regain my equilibrium - to reconnect with the peace and centeredness I seem to have lost somewhere between India and this magical place. I'm also here without a reservation - this is a show up and see if any beds are available kind of place. I drop my name onto the waiting list and inhale the earthy blend of jungle and salt in the air. I'm meant to be here - I can feel it - a bed will open up.
A few hours later I make my way to the reception counter. Backpacks are piled waist deep and it's chaos behind the desk. The wait list doesn't seem to bear any weight as I've witnessed them assigning bungalows to whoever happens to be standing in front of them at any given moment. I have, I quickly learned, come to the counter at the exact right moment (serendipity at work). The guy behind me in line happens to be vacating his dorm bed and I get it. YES.
Yoga, meditation, a huge vegetarian menu, hippies, beautiful setting. I feel like I'm on the right track... During my first dip in the ocean I look down to see a perfectly heart shaped piece of coral - a sign? My first meditation session leaves me equally energized and calm. My first yoga session opens a well of peace. My first dinner is filled with good conversation and laughs with other long term travelers. I realize that I feel at home and then I realize it has nothing to do with the place or the people or the setting. It's because I've reconnected with my heart. After several weeks of closure I'm opening up again. And that openness - that connection is home.
I've been working on this post for two weeks now - sometimes the words just won't come...
My three weeks in Malaysia flew by. Traveling there made me realize that I really do like smaller towns the best. Melaka was by far my favorite spot. I stayed in Chinatown in an refurbished shop house. I enjoyed wandering around the streets and stumbling upon old craftsmen and women working in their shops. I liked passing all of the Chinese temples with their burning incense and fierce dragons (Malaysia's oldest Chinese temple is tucked into these streets). I especially liked the night market and the seafood selection there - hello tiny fried crabs with chilli sauce. Most amusing however were the decorated Tuk Tuks - all hello kitty, fake flowers, flashing lights and pumping out either terrible hip hop or '80's love songs depending on the time of day. This is serious business and I never tired of watching these guys go by.
Melaka was followed up by Kuala Lumpur which held some interesting sights but I didn't really love it. The bigger Asian cities (the few that I've seen so far) seem to be really focused on consumption - I've never seen so many shopping malls in my life. They do have amazing public transport in KL - for folks that like that kind of thing - and I took advantage of the public buses, the light rail and the mono rail (my favorite).
I was missing India, of course, so I ventured out to the Batu Caves near KL and I just happened to be there during Thaipusam - a Hindu festival associated with the Lord Murugan. There are all sorts of preparations for the festival which I saw at the Caves - but the real excitement happens around the full moon. On the actual day of the full moon devotees shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying or pulling some type of burden. This I saw while in Georgetown on the Island of Penang. I walked the route with the pilgrims and in pure Indian style it was a huge street party while these folks bled, danced and pulled their cargo to the temple. From a "burden" perspective I saw everything ranging from a pot of milk to guys pulling giant floats complete with Gods, lights and blaring Bollywood music (meaning they are also dragging generators). They pull these floats with giant hooks that have been put into their bodies by their family. I watched this for awhile at the start of the pilgrimage route and it was pretty intense. I can't really imagine having to pierce someone in my family hundreds of times in the middle of a parking lot while a bunch of folks stand around watching and fireworks explode around my feet. I even saw three guys carrying giant unicorns - cool but it definitely raised some questions.
The food was pretty damn delicious. The blend of cultures that make up the place create a very interesting and happy food scene. I ate my share of street food and learned to slurp my noodles (with chopsticks!!) like a pro - it was a little awkward but it all worked itself out. The crispy duck noodles were a delight - amazing sauce! The beef noodles were ok - lots of tendon and other random nuggets but my favorite was the Curry Mee or Laksa - egg noodles in a spicy curry coconut soup broth with all sorts of different goodies thrown in - yeah, I ate that a lot.
My best meal, hands down, was on my last day in GeorgeTown at a place called TekSen. They started as a rice stall back in 1965 and now run out of a Heritage building on Carnavon St. I ate there a few times but on my last visit I simply looked around and pointed at what looked the most delicious. Turned out to be a good strategy. I ended up with Lala Tau Cheow - soft shell clams in a ginger, garlic chilli sauce. Oh damn - it was so good I even ate the Chilli's. Simple with really well balanced flavors, tender - effing delicious. I will try to recreate that one at home.
All in all Malaysia was a good time but I was definitely looking forward to some beach time in Thailand!
Nearly three months of vegetarianism in India and one bout of brutal food poisoning can leave a girl a little hungry for... well everything. I skipped out of India on New Year's day, running away from or towards, I'm still not really sure - but that is a story for another time. This is a story of culture shock, gluttony and the love of dirty good food. I'll warn you in advance that grammar does not matter here - oh and I swear a lot - why - because I'm talking about food which makes everything else irrelevant.
I spent three days chasing down memories, flavors and the pleasure that only good food can bring - Here's how it went:
Day 1: Survive culture shock and slowly enter the waters
Singapore was a shock after my time in India. It's a city of the night - a bit like Vegas and all about consuming. I found myself a little out of step with just about everything - fellow travelers, the ex-pats (of which there are many) and just the general speed of the place. Day one was hard - but a girl has to eat. I decided to search for comfort by taking advantage of the international cuisine and enjoying some things I haven't had in awhile.
Breakfast: Singapore Style: Old-school fluffy white bread toasted over a traditional charcoal grill and dipped (with a toothpick) into soft-boiled eggs - I mean REALLY soft boiled eggs. I'm not going to lie - it made me gag a little but the locals seem to love it. Glad I can check that off the list - don't need to do it again.
Lunch: Japanese Style: Sushi - it was all about consuming as much salmon as humanly possible. It was also about my Hello Kitty plate. I'm still trying to work that one out.
Dinner: Mexican Style: We grabbed a table on one of the many canals and I ordered my first $16 beer - a Corona - wtf people. Whatever, this place had guacamole and salsa and REAL FUCKING CHEESE. Plus they had NBA on, on the big screen - definitely not taking in much local culture here but it I could have been at home and sometimes, on the road, there's a comfort in that.
After Dinner: My grandpa taught me how to make and drink the perfect dirty martini. I really only like them from his kitchen or mine (oh and Sheryl's) but that doesn't stop me from trying them elsewhere. Prayers were answered 57 floors up at Skybar (thanks for the recommendation, Lucy). It's a bar that looks like a surfboard perched atop three skyscrapers and the view is magical - so are the martini's. One dirty martini with three olives makes everything alright - cheers grandpa - love you, miss you!
Day 2: Realize I took it too easy on Day 1 - make up for it
Day two dawns a little late - I've slept in but I feel a little more at ease, I might actually like this place. I realize I've missed breakfast but I'm not worried - they have hawker centers here and I'm headed for the nearest one. Hawker centers sprang up in Singapore in the 1950's and '60s partly to address the problem of unhygienic food preparation by unlicensed street hawkers. My favorite part, I quickly learned, is that there are literally hundreds of stalls to choose from. Portland friends - these are like food cart pods on steroids - be jealous - very, very jealous.
Breakfast: Skipped - catching up on sleep
Lunch #1: Hong Lim Food Center - Fried Kway Teow Mee - This dish is considered a national favorite in Singapore - definitely the place to start. It is made from flat rice noodles stir-fried in pork fat with light and dark soy sauce, chili, shrimp paste, egg, de-shelled cockles, bean sprouts, chopped Chinese chives, and crisp croutons of pork lard (fuck and yeah). UM that's good - real good and dirty. I'm one lunch down and seem to be the only westerner in the place. I'm sure I'm full but there's this other really long line right in front of me - and it's full of old timers. Their plates are full of pork - I can't resist.
Lunch #2: Hong Lim Food Center - Sio Bak & Char Siew - While I'm standing in line preparing myself to indulge in an unhealthy amount of pork I start talking to the folks around me. Apparently the guy running this food stand is famous for his barbecue - duck, pork two ways, and chicken. The lady in front of me specifically drove down here today to try it - the guy behind me eats here everyday. God - this is going to be worth it. I get what everyone is getting - pork two ways, grab some chopsticks, chili sauce (a must) and find a seat. I'm getting ready to dig in when an old timer sitting across from me interrupts accusingly - "You just eat noodles!". "Yes" I say. "Now you eat pork!" - he's shaking his head at this point and other people are starting to watch our conversation. "Yes", I say again - I'm not sure where this is headed. He breaks into a big smile and says: "Very strong!" chuckles break out around us. That seems to be all the encouragement I need. Pork bonanza 2014 begins. Char Siew is long strips of seasoned boneless pork - honey, five-spice powder, red fermented bean curd, dark soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and rice wine. It's skewered with long forks and placed in a covered oven or over a fire. Sio Bak is roasted pork belly flavored with similar ingredients as Char Siew but the skin gets all crispy and the meat all tender - oh Jesus. Let's just say I enjoyed myself - even while trying to eat my rice with chopsticks. Luckily one of the food vendors was watching and showed up beside me with a spoon - "Is a disaster!" was all he said after pointing at my chopsticks. He got a belly laugh for that one and again I found myself surrounded by chuckles. I'm happy.
Snack: Rich and Good Cake Shop - Mango Cake - I'm not sure about you guys but after two lunches I can't think of anything better to do than find a cake shop and indulge. OK - in all honesty I wasn't looking for anything else to eat but I passed this place and there was a line of locals out the door. I can't help it - I have an unnatural affinity for cake these days. No slices here - you have to buy a whole role - enough to feed about four people or one Denis. I take it out front, sit down on the sidewalk and open the box - just as a German couple passes by. I offer them each a slice - an argument ensues about New Year's resolutions. I'm giggling but this is serious - she goes for it - he does not. I'm sure that was not the end of that conversation. Anyway enough bullshit - let's talk about the cake. Fresh mangos, whip cream, soft fluffy yellow cake. Man, I wish I hadn't eaten two lunches. It's soft, it's silky, it's sweet - I'm definitely winning.
Dinner: Din Tai Fung - Xiao long bao, Shrimp and pork shu mai, and a steamed red bean paste bun.
It's 9pm and I find myself sitting in a shopping mall in Singapore's China Town. I'm at Din Tai Fung, a chain dumpling restaurant that originated in Taiwan. I'm not feeling like a hardcore foodie right now but their branch in Hong Kong has a michelin star and my eating hero Anthony Bourdain recommends this place. I'm not shy and order up their famous pork dumplings, shrimp and pork shu mai, a red bean paste bun and some greens. Pretty soon my table is covered in bamboo steamer baskets and I'm happily slurping down dumplings. It's pretty damn good but... I don't know - maybe it's because they had a picture of Tom Cruise making dumplings during his last visit but it just feels a little too commercialized for my taste.
Day 3: Hit my stride
Day three dawns with promise. I've done my research and I have a plan. Pampering (a much needed haircut - god I love it when someone else washes my hair) followed by brunch. Brunch is a thing in Singapore - much like my hometown. People plan for it - strategic planning. 1. Make sure you're not (too) hungover. 2. Pick the right place. 3. Arrive at the right time so that you don't have to wait two hours to eat. I can tell you I got it just right when I chose Artichoke Cafe. They refer to themselves as a "deviant middle eastern cafe" - I like a chef with an attitude and I'm intrigued.
Brunch: Mezze Plate at Artichoke Cafe + Bar - I like a well run restaurant - I like to watch the flow and the energy, I like it when the perfect soundtrack blends with laughter, the sounds of the espresso machine and the clinking of forks. I like it when the staff obviously like each other, take pride in their service and seem to almost dance around each other as they work. I like it all even more when I meet the chef, Bjorn Shen, and he's humble and seems embarrassed that I'm thanking him for a wonderful meal. I like it that he's honest and seems a little overwhelmed by the attention (this guy is getting a lot of press right now). Most importantly I like it that he obviously loves food in a no bullshit kindof way. It's even better when he asks that magic chef question "do you have plans for dinner?" and then tells me where to find the BEST STREET FOOD OF MY LIFE. I mean I really, really like this place. I sat at the bar for 3 hours and took it all in. I ate the Mezze plate paired with a perfect glass of Sauvignon Blanc - it had beets, sardines, hummus, cheese with pumpkin jam, smoked chicken terrine, za'atar toast and pickled veggies - it was perfect. Then I ate Turkish apple crumble with mint tea - I didn't stop smiling for several hours. I would eat there every Sunday if I lived in Singapore - just for the mood, the crowd and the f'ing good food.
Dinner: Maxwell Rd. Hawker Center - Raw fish salad & Hainanese chicken rice - At the recommendation of my new friend Bjorn I head to a hawker center in the middle of China Town for dinner. He was really worked up about the Hainanese chicken rice - it's another Singaporean tradition. He said to make sure I didn't fall for the fakes - poached only - "it doesn't look like much." he told me, "but it's amazing." When he started jumping up and down on one foot while recommending the raw fish salad I knew I was in for something good.
Zooming around the hawker center I finally find the right stall and order up the fish salad. The lady stops and raises her eyebrow - "you sure - raw fish salad?" she looks doubtful. "Yep." I reply, confidently - I mean Bjorn said it was good. She grins - "gooooood!" she tells me. This salad has it all - great textures, sesame, vinegar, lime juice, crispy fried onions, fresh chilies, cabbage, and white fish. I'm fucking winning again - it's awesome and I never would have ordered it without the recommendation. My final dish in Singapore is the chicken and rice. It's simple, comforting and subtle. Having tasted it I believe what Bjorn said - it's just like the momma's make it.
Holy shit Singapore - that was awesome. I did a little more than just eat while I was there. I can highly recommend the Singapore Art Museum - well curated, interactive and beautifully displayed. I also really enjoyed walks through the Arab St. area, China Town and around the many canals. I'll be back - if for nothing more than another raw fish salad and practice with chopsticks.