Being local
September 29, 2013, 7:01 pm
Filed under: asia, cambodia, culture, food, thailand, travel | Tags: , , , ,

Angkor Wat

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

Recently I had a mental shift . The shift corresponded roughly with the six-month point of my living in Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure if the shift was caused by time or actions. The actions were several people I know coming to visit, as well as strangers asking for advice about the city. With seeming suddenness, I became a local rather than a traveller.

This was in reality a more gradual shift, from my asking people for advice about locations or activities to being asked. Actually that’s not quite true – I still ask people for advice, and people were asking me within my first weeks, to which I’d reply I didn’t know. Now it’s different. Now I know things.

Now I know without looking at a map where I am in relation to the four gates of the walled city. Now I know not to park my motorcycle in a certain quiet lane on Sunday afternoon, as it will be overwhelmed by a market when I return. Now I have a degree of confidence in predicting rain, as opposed to the total bewilderment I felt when monsoon season began.

I still know only scraps of what there is to know about Chiang Mai, about Thailand, about life – but it’s noticeably more than I did before the mental shift. This shift creates a sense of mental space and relaxation that I didn’t have before. It’s letting go of the moment-to-moment switched-on buzz that comes from travelling somewhere new. Relaxing instead into the expectations and assumptions that create a sense of security and homeliness.

The contrast was evident when I visited Cambodia recently. I had an unexpectedly wonderful time there. The picture with this post comes from Angkor Wat, a place worthy of its world heritage status. I was fortunate to have time for a three-day pass to Angkor, giving me the opportunity to visit other sites in the temple complex.

I visited Ta Prohm, made famous by Tomb Raider, which I found to be in fact a friendly and fruit-laden temple, complex enough to be like playing a real video game in the manner of Myst. There was a young Cambodian girl entertaining herself by swinging from a thick vine, who I imaged to be a real young Lara Croft.

Most memorable was the day I awoke before dawn to begin the day meditating alone among sounds of bats and birds inside the heart of Bayon temple. Some people have asked how I organized it. It wasn’t a group – Angkor is vast enough that getting a tuktuk there before dawn ensures it’s simple to find a quiet space to start the day by yourself within the ancient buildings. I was initially on guard with fears about what I would find in the darkness. Once I’d settled in meditation, the sense of oneness and peace I felt with daybreak and birdsong was profound.

I also had an unexpectedly wonderful time in Phnom Penh, thanks to locals who shared their lives and knowledge. Sharing knowledge as a local can make the difference between a newcomer having fantastic experiences, versus mediocre or downright unpleasant ones. I am so grateful to those who shared with me their favourite dishes to eat or places to go out.

Now I’m back in Chiang Mai, happy to give back. Happy to share my knowledge of places and foods with newcomers. Happy to give that which I’ve received. Happy to give knowing that my knowledge is little, but sharing it brings me access to new knowledge and experiences tenfold. Sometimes being open to sharing comes back to me in ways I don’t predict, but the unexpectedness is what makes it so delightful.

For example, some newly-arrived neighbours I’ve become friends with shared news that a fish and chip truck now frequents one of my favourite local bars on weekends around dinnertime. When I arrived in Chiang Mai, that bar served no food, so I would rarely go there until later. Last Friday, I experienced what’s reportedly Thailand’s first mobile fish and chip truck (run by a Thai returned from England) while enjoying a drink at my favourite local bar. This was a delightful change to an established expectation about what happens in my neighbourhood. I know to expect such innovation and cultural fusion in Chiang Mai, but how that manifests I can’t anticipate.

I’m delighting in becoming a local, with different surprises and rewards to being a traveller. Same same, but different.


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.

Right under my nose
May 3, 2010, 3:16 pm
Filed under: chile, culture, food, santiago, south america, travel

Parque Balmaceda

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

We’ve spent the week exploring our local neighbourhoods, Providencia and Bellavista. It’s a ten minute walk half through park and half along highway (what a contrast) to the hubs of both neighbourhoods, in either direction.

On our first morning in Providencia we stumbled unexpectedly upon the local market, where they sold all the fruit and vegetables I could imagine, along with several I’ve never imagined before. We’ve become fond of a fruit that sits alongside the apples in supermarkets but is more like a small melon. It’s mottled white and green on the outside but on the inside is like a small, but sweeter, honeydew melon.

I love the way they handle pumpkins here. Rather than sell pre-wrapped portions, or opt for some dwarf variety, most market stalls and even supermarkets have one giant pumpkin. A customer asks for however much pumpkin’s desired and the grocer lops a chunk off with a giant knife there and then.

There’s also a bewildering array of grains and pulses. I was thrilled to get a bag of quinoa for about a dollar at the market, given that it’s typically several times that at health food stores in Australia. They also have puffed and honeyed amaranth as a breakfast option.

South America is lucky to have these excellent, whole-protein grains to call their own. So it could be a health food paradise – except fast food chains probably have more of a grip on the local population than traditional staples. As well as the typical Macdonalds and KFC there’s a fast-food chain called Schopdog, which sells hotdogs and revels in United States kitsch. Here in Chile guacamole comes with everything; hotdogs are no exception.

Guacamole or avocado salsa comes with everything because avocados are abundant. Tim was thrilled to discover you can buy them for a dollar fifty a kilo at the supermarket. Given we use avocado instead of butter (especially with vegemite on toast – try it!), having this staple so readily available is a one of those little things that make living in Chile worthwhile.

They eat late here, with breakfast nearly non-existant and lunch the main meal after 2pm. This took a few days to get used to, and one day we were hungry at 1:30pm after wandering since 11. We were in the heart of Providencia’s restaurant area but everywhere we asked said they didn’t start serving until 2. We resigned ourselves to eating at home, so walked back to our apartment with growling stomachs, imagining what we’d concoct with what remained in the fridge.

We reached the base of our apartment building and, still in the spirit of wandering, peered down the lane alongside. It was filled with upmarket cafes! Somehow we’d missed this every time we’d left and returned from the apartment thus far, as from the street the lane looks like it could be just a service entrance. I blame the jetlag on our lack of attention to detail.

Fortuitously it had just passed 2, so there was food and service galore. We sat down at a table where we could bask in the afternoon sun, where I had a vegetarian pizza (which was average, but I was hungry enough not to care) and Tim had a tofu and betroot salad, which was excellent. We also had fresh mint and pear juices served in beer glasses, which was a delightful combination I intend to repeat at home.

The best value vegetarian food we’ve found so far turned out to be right under our noses.

One morning in Viticura
April 29, 2010, 12:14 am
Filed under: chile, development, food, international relations, santiago, south america, travel

My first morning in Chile I awoke feeling dizzy and nauseous. At first I recalled my doctor had said I might suffer from altitude sickness in the Andes, then I came to my senses and realised I hadn’t eaten for more than 24 hours. After devouring a muesli bar and some macadamia nuts that weren’t confiscated at customs, we ventured into the street.

I was still alarmed by the fast traffic that zipped past. Evidently highway proximity doesn’t have the same negative real estate effect it does in Australia, as we were opposite the Hyatt and next to a five-star hotel, where men in top hats and red coats were escorting people out of their vehicles.

We crossed a pedestrian bridge and arrived where our landlord recommended we have breakfast, which turned out to be a giant shopping mall, similar to but plusher than those found in Adelaide or Calgary. It began with a large plaza where about a dozen restaurants were open for breakfast. These were no cheap Latino eateries, in fact it was hard to find a word of Spanish. There were half a dozen named in English, while the rest were a mix of French and Italian. I was flabbergasted; we may as well have been in North America. For our first breakfast in South America I had a crepe and Tim had a panini, both with espressos.

We discussed cultural imperialism over breakfast, but perhaps it would be fairer to say globalisation. As much as it seems easy to blame the United States, the restaurants were generally Italian, French or Japanese inspired. Australia has a similar lack of distinct cuisine; our culinary strengths come from multiculturalism. I wonder if foreigners visiting Australia are disappointed by the lack of a distinct local cuisine? I’ve always appreciated living somewhere with such variety, enjoying visiting places like Italy and Vietnam where reliably distinct dishes dominate, but inevitably tiring of the homogeneity. Yet finding such variety here after expecting cultural immersion was unsettling.

After breakfast we wandered the mall for a while, where my surprise continued. They have Zara and Topshop and United Colors of Benetton! I needn’t miss European fashion either. This is certainly not a developing country like most of its neighbours. Granted, thanks to a mixup by our landlord we were in one of Santiago’s ritziest neighbourhoods, so this is not typical of Chile. But it is Chile nonetheless. I’d reassured wary older relatives that Chile was a first-world country, in the OECD, safe enough. I’m not sure I really believed it, but I do now.

After wandering we returned outside only to stumble upon a Boost juice. If I was shocked before I was floored now. This business founded in Adelaide had extended to Santiago! How could we not support a local business gone global? So we sipped our juices while looking in the window of the Quiksilver shop next door.

I was rather relieved we were only in Viticura for one night, because as Tim observed, we hadn’t flown halfway around the world to do the same things we do at home.

Bicycle at the nude beach
September 3, 2008, 1:10 pm
Filed under: beach, culture, europe, food, travel

Bicycle at the nude beach

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

My friend thought it would be entertaining to take me to a Norwegian nude beach. This was a bit of a misleading plan, because it was not much of a beach, and there were not many nudes. There were more surf life savers and bicycles than bathers, but that was okay by me.

Here I made the mistake of buying liquorice, despite my friend’s warnings. Unlike our soft and sweet liquorice, liquorice sold at Norwegian nudist beaches (and elsewhere in the country I’m told) is hard and salty. An acquired taste. I think of it as Scandinavian vegemite.

It’s French for good skin
September 24, 2007, 2:43 pm
Filed under: food, france, travel

We arrived in Paris with nothing planned but our hotel in Montmartre. My last few times I’ve stayed in the same hostel, La Maison, in a dorm room, but with Ian in tow and their phone number not working we decided instead on Calaincourt Square, which was tres Parisien and in a great location.After an evening in Montmartre, wandering around the district of my favourite church (thus far) in Europe, the Sacre Coeur, we spent the next day strolling through Paris towards the Eiffel Tower, via the Louvre and Champs-Élysées. It was Ian’s first time in Paris after all.

We were feeling peckish, so luck smiled upon us when we passed some ladies in pink handing out promotional tubs of yoghurt. They offered one to me and I accepted. Ian looked eager. The lady asked if he wanted one as well. “Oui!” he said enthusiastically.

We sat in the garden of a nearby church to consume our yoghurts and read the accompanying promotional material (good French practice). It turned out this yoghurt was unique in that it was ‘bien pour la peau’, the first yoghurt to enhance women’s beauty from the inside, thanks to added nutrients. “Every woman wants to look more beautiful,” it said. We understood why the woman had been reluctant to give Ian some of the pink yoghurt.

I don’t see why men can’t want beautiful skin as well.

Over the sea, not far away
September 9, 2007, 5:55 pm
Filed under: europe, food, netherlands, travel

Last weekend I popped over the sea to Amsterdam. A friend recently moved there, and though we’re about to embark on a few months of intense traveling, the Netherlands is one of the few places that’s easily accessible from the East of England.

We only had a weekend, but as Fabio kept pointing out, the Netherlands is very small and it doesn’t take much time to get around.

It’s always more fun to visit friends. Fabi is a great example of why, because he runs a wine company. Hence our Saturday was oriented by the food and wine fair where he was based. We sampled lots of Dutch (and Italian, thanks Fabi) produce and roamed amongst Amsterdam’s charming canals and indulgent artists’ residences.

In the evening we went to a typical local pub, where we had satay – which is apparently quite Dutch – and of course some great beers. By the time we were planning to go clubbing though I had a splitting headache and felt like I was coming down with something.

The next morning after blowing my nose and feeling much better, I realized it was because I’m now used to smoke-free pubs. After just a month of no smoking in England’s bars, I reacted horribly to the passive smoke in Amsterdam. I found that pretty surprising. But I was relieved, because it meant I wasn’t actually getting sick at all, and could enjoy the Netherlands (smoke aside).