Food, inside and out
March 12, 2013, 11:29 am
Filed under: travel

People dining outside the temple

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

My market food experience described in my last post isn’t typical of my Thai food experiences. Mostly when I try something that I don’t know what it is I’m rewarded with a culinary revelation. For example, banana flower salad! I love stuffed zucchini flowers in Italian food – I didn’t know that banana flowers could be equally as scrumptious.

I’m also enjoying a coconut curry soup with noodles like pretzels in it. They taste like pretzels but are shaped like lightning. They are crispy joy. Speaking of crispy joy – fried wild pepper leaves! Or betel leaves (there is controversy on the interwebs which is used) – either way, nom nom!

Food is everywhere in Chiang Mai’s old city. You can hardly go ten metres without having options of street food or restaurants. During the Sunday walking market, the grounds of a Buddhist temple (pictured) is converted into a massive food court with hundreds of food stalls – as well as, I’m pleased to say, two different types of bins for recycling (shame on any so-called ‘developed’ countries where that’s not yet typical practice).

With such a diversity of options available, it’s silly to try and eat Western food. That said, there’s plenty around for three reasons. The first being lame, unadventurous tourists. The second being locals wanting to try Western food. The third being expats with cravings.

I am not yet the latter, but in preparation for the eventuality I was escorted to the big fancy shopping centre supermarket where I was encouraged to buy things I couldn’t get other places. I felt indignant that I should need such a trip. I’m a traveller, not a tourist! I don’t need anything the locals don’t need! But it’s standard practice with orientation. A fellow expat who’s been here 11 months, but with a family in tow, described her experience of being taken to the big Tesco in her first week and wheeling her trolley around in a daze, torn between feeling the trip was unnecessary, but also mild panic about choosing the right things, with dazed-until-crazed kids running around making the situation worse.

I came away from my supermarket experience with dark rye bread and an avocado. There were no knives at the supermarket, despite a bewildering array of kitchen devices. There was no knives or forks or spoons, despite large barbecuing forks and ladles. This is one of those baffling things it’s better not to question (unless someone from Tesco is reading this – sell cutlery in your Chiang Mai Central Airport Plaza store!).

So in my little bar fridge I’ve had rye bread and an avocado waiting. This morning I decided I should use the avocado before it goes off. The bread is beyond fresh eating – it’s toast or bust.

So I took my rye bread and avocado to breakfast with me, since they have cutlery there. Like most guests here I’ve been eating the fresher and tastier-looking Thai breakfast options and fresh salad, rather than the less appetising UHT milk or sweet breads and marmalades.

I feel it’s important to emphasise here that I was put in the position of wanting to use this avocado and rye bread because I felt compelled to buy things at the supermarket because I was shuttled there for that purpose. I didn’t mean to make a fuss at breakfast this morning.

I entered the breakfast room with my own bread and fruit in hand. The staff looked a little disconcerted. I told them my room number, making it clear I still intended to pay for breakfast. There were a pile of butter knives along with the usual array of cutlery and crockery at the entrance. I picked up a butter knife and gestured a cutting motion into my rye bread with it. They understood, then three staff proceeded to discuss the matter. Eventually a lady who spoke English was called out from the kitchen, who said “you need a sharper knife?” to which I replied “that would be fantastic, thank you”.

In such cross-cultural situations I should probably just say “yes” so make life simpler for everyone. I can’t seem to help but make things more complicated, misguidedly gushing thanks and praise when in awkward situations like being the lady who brings her own breakfast to the breakfast buffet.

Four people were chattering in Thai about the bread-cutting situation, before the lady disappeared into the kitchen again. I stood around awkwardly for a minute until the staff dissipated. So I went to get some salad and breakfast from the buffet as normal. I’ve been advised that in Thailand if something awkward happens often the appropriate response is to pretend nothing happened. One of the first phrases I learnt was ‘mai bpen rai’ – ‘no worries’ – which is useful for this.

I at down and proceeded to eat my normal breakfast and pretended to ignore my loaf of rye bread and avocado sitting on the table next to my bag.

Eventually – voila! The lady reappeared with a sharp knife! I thanked her in Thai and gave her a big smile. I’d advanced to the next level of my ‘being the strange lady who brings her own breakfast’ game. I cut two slices of bread. I do love good dark rye, so this was satisfying. Then I approached the toasting machine, which was turned off, because no-one else was silly enough to want to use it when there were lovely, healthier Thai breakfast options available.

Two staff buzzed over and examined the machine, discussing it in Thai. I waited (trying to be polite now) before pointing to the knob that said ‘off’, ‘toast’, ‘buns’. They nodded so I set it to toast. The light went on and the conveyer started whirring along, so the staff retreated and I put in my bread slices. It was one of those slow conveyer belt things often found at breakfast buffets, so I went to get a plate while I waited for my toast.

When I returned a minute later my bread had vanished. I looked around the breakfast buffet room. Had someone else found my toast irresistible? I considered it unlikely someone else would want to implicate themselves in my spectacle of weirdness.

On closer inspection I discovered that the tray that slides the toast back to the front of the machine upon toasting wasn’t installed properly, so the toast fell off the back of the conveyor belt, behind the table onto the carpet floor.

I picked my toast off the floor. It was beyond the three second rule, but it was clean carpet. Also the machine was so slow it would need at least two goes through to be toasted. I adjusted the catching tray and wedged my plate on top of the gap to the floor for safe measure.

After another two runs through the machine my two sliced of rye bread were toasted. I put avocado on them. It was tasty.

So is banana blossom salad and fresh coconuts though – and they’re less of an ordeal. Now I have two-thirds of a chunk of rye-bread back in my bar fridge that I feel compelled to use up. It was probably more expensive than the entire breakfast buffet.

I blame Tesco for selling dark rye bread and nothing to cut it with.

But whatever. I am strange – there’s no scapegoat for that. YOLO. Mai bpen rai.


Sunday morning
March 10, 2013, 12:48 pm
Filed under: asia, food, language, thailand, travel | Tags: ,

Market by the old wall

I spent my first Sunday morning getting a pedicure and perusing a market alongside Chiang Mai’s old city wall.

That might sound like a typical tourist thing to do, but like with most things, I tried to imbue it with more cultural and moral significance.

I was the first customer of the day in a nail salon where several people were working, or at least sitting around in work clothes. I prefer to do this at the start of the day so there are less chemicals from nail polish and remover in the air. Arguably, I should avoid them altogether since I don’t think it’s great that women spend all day in such environments, but it’s a guilty pleasure. Once I was sitting in the window getting my toes done other foreigners started to enquire about their services – appearing busy with a customer is a good way to kickstart more business.

I like going to cheap nail salons when I’m in a foreign city, whether it’s New York or Beijing. Like travelling on buses (but more luxurious), nail salons gives an experience of how local people interact. This is a perk of cheap nail salons over spas, where quiet privacy is the norm. I deliberately chose somewhere with several people sitting around, so that I could immerse myself in Thai conversation.

I don’t expect to understand anything yet (though I did pick up ‘farang’ – ‘foreigner’ – a few times). But it’s good for me to be able to absorb Thai people talking to each other in a laid-back joking way, as opposed to the slower, indulgent way people would speak to me. Because Thai is a tonal language, I’m going to need to listen a lot before I have any chance of getting how the language works – it’s so different to English (or French, Spanish or Italian for that matter. They’re all useless to me here).

I was lucky in that the woman doing my toes spoke enough English that I could ask her to teach me some Thai. I had a free Thai lesson with my pedicure. I maxed out my learning capacity for Sunday morning as she taught me with laughter and gestures (when the pedicure process permitted). She taught me how to say ‘dai’ and ‘mai-dai’ (‘yes, you can’ and ‘no, you can’t) as well as ‘dee’ and ‘mai-dee’ (good and bad). I learnt some phrases such as ‘my name is…’ and ‘what do you call…’, but they’ve not yet cemented themselves in my memory. I know it will take two or three times before I remember them – though I might just recognise if someone is asking me my name now.

After my pedicure/Thai lesson, I went to the market. I avoided the stalls selling hill tribe-inspired handicrafts (like in this picture), because I want to buy such things in places where I can be confident my money is supporting hill tribe communities. Perhaps that market was an okay place to buy such things, but I don’t have enough knowledge yet to know either way.

There was a stall selling food that had a banner saying ‘local’ and ‘organic’ in English. The products had Thai labels only. I couldn’t communicate with the people at the stall besides pointing at things. I bought something that looked like some papadums as a pre-lunch snack. I attempted to communicate that I didn’t need a plastic bag, which not surprisingly they didn’t understand, so I took my snack in two layers of plastic, feeling eco-guilt.

Walking from the market to where I’m staying I pierced the plastic and started eating a papadum-like object. It tasted like what fish food smells like. It had a similar texture. I ate half of one, and then wondered if in fact it was fish food. What if I had bought and was eating pet food?

My pedicure/Thai lesson was an excellent start to the day. My market experience didn’t go quite to plan. I’ve left the papadum-like objects in their packet to ask someone who speaks Thai what the label says. I returned to my room and to get the fishfood taste out of my mouth I drank what was labelled as 100% pomegranate juice, which I bought from a minimart yesterday. It tasted like lollies. While that label included English, I’m skeptical of its veracity.

Pedicure/Thai lesson: dee.

Using labels to make good purchasing decisions: mai-dai.

it’s time for a name change
March 8, 2013, 1:35 pm
Filed under: travel

Yarnbombed sculpture in honour of Adelaide Fringe 2013

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

This blog was called “twenties are for travelling”. But I turned thirty last weekend. As it so happens, I’m also moving overseas again today. In honour of my third decade, I’ve changed the name of the blog to a domain name I’ve been hoarding.

I think it’s fair to say I’m only ever bilingual, not really a polyglot (as my Twitter bio implies), given I can only ever seem to keep two languages in my head at a time. If I start using my Spanish, it seems my French overflows from my working memory into some deep reserve of mind, accessible only with a return to French immersion, or red wine.

Anyhow, I’ve been living in Melbourne lately – but I’ve been back in Adelaide to perform in a bunch of comedy shows at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. That’s right – this year I started doing comedy. Perhaps I’ve always done comedy – it would be better to say I’ve started performing comedy. On stages. Where people pay to come and see me be silly for fun. I’m still somewhat baffled and in awe that I could get paid to do this. Though given the expenses of putting on shows, people paying to watch and performers getting paid to perform do not equate in all cases.

Regardless, I’m leaving that behind to be a human rights activist in Southeast Asia for a while. More about that in future posts.

I spent my 18th birthday in Italy; my 21st in Canada. My 30th has been the first big adult celebration I’ve had in my hometown. It was lovely to celebrate with dear old friends and family for a change. Though my Italian and Canadian housemates were excellent at organising parties for their newfound friend, there’s nothing like people who’ve known you for a long time to put things in perspective.

The sculpture pictured puts things in perspective for me. I remember playing on this sculpture, when it was just metal, as a child. I remember sitting on it watching new years’ eve fireworks as a tween, before my first year abroad. It seems fitting, given my recent hipster and comic endeavours, that this sculpture was yarnbombed in honour of the Fringe festival.

I was sitting on this sculpture with one of my friends from ANU, visiting Adelaide for my birthday. We were enjoying its texture and colour. One of the things I’ve (re)learnt in recent years is how to play, as an adult.

I’ve moved beyond that awkward teenage angst about childish things, and come to delight in the world again, like I did as a child. Maybe this is something that’s finally emerged from nearly 15 years of being Buddhist, or travelling, or simply being wiser and more confident about what’s important in life.

Whatever the reason, simple things like hugging a sculpture I played on as a child brings me joy.