On Writing and Food in Penang

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WHEN I WAS perhaps 4 or 5, I entered a competition on Saturday morning television to win a Lego pirate ship. It was the sort of competition where you had to put your address on a postcard and send it in, and then the next week they would, live on TV, draw the winning postcard out of a huge, stuffed postal sack. Gordon the Gopher may have been involved. Despite the evidence from the postal sack that the odds were stacked against me, I was convinced that I was going to win. When I was younger, I’d entered another competition and won a video about dolphins, so it stood to reason that I’d win this one too.

I got up early, as I did every Saturday, to watch the draw. I didn’t win. So I went upstairs to climb onto my parents’ bed, wake them up, and tell them that I hadn’t won. What I remember most about that event is my own sense of bewilderment at my parent’s lack of surprise (“oh dear, maybe next time”). In that bewilderment was the germ of an idea that the world might not be set up for me to win at everything.

Whenever I enter a competition now, I still think about that Lego pirate ship and my parents’ lack of surprise. Yes, I know, this is in danger of getting a little twee – so I’ll get to the point.

I recently entered the Daily Telegraph’s Just Back From… weekly travel writing competition. I did not win. They have a very large postal sack, and a very high quality of entrants. But it didn’t stop me checking my emails incessantly – the 21st century equivalent of getting up to watch the draw. As with the Lego pirate ship, though, there are still lessons to be learned, plans about how it could be better written – I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out for you. This isn’t Oprah. Anyway, this was my entry.

“Murdered at Panghore by a gang of Chinese Robbers,” reads the headstone of Christopher Henry Lloyd, who met his unfortunate demise in 1876. Strewn about me are the tumbledown graves of two centuries of sailors, merchants, and civil servants, all buried in George Town’s protestant graveyard. Here the usual tragedy of cemeteries is made up by a global crowd of those who were just passing through (“James Winlock, Midshipman, US Navy, Died At Sea, 1876 Aged 21”) and those who tied their livelihoods to the tropical island of Penang (“To the memory of Anne, widow of George Herne, late of Trelawny, Jamaica, who departed this life at Caledonia Estate”).

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Long term readers of this blog will remember my delight in visiting old graveyards. Everybody needs a hobby.

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“Do you have a flag? No? Well then you can’t have this island. It’s mine. I claimed it. With my flag.”

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Life in holey death.

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I didn’t see the gravestones of any elderly sailors.

The indelible pen of British colonialism marks George Town, but leaving the graveyard and heading for the Chinese Clan Jetties, it is the multiculturalism of the town that seems empire’s most enduring legacy. At the entrance to the Lee Jetty, I watch a woman in improbably high heels set light to a paper money pile, sending the offering to her ancestors. Walking on, I peer curiously into the neatly arrayed houses, incense burning outside some, barnacles clinging to the silted stilts of all. Water laps, the sun shines and it is calm here; the only thing troubling me being the sweet, strangely tantalising rotting chicken smell of durian fruit coming from one of the houses. My stomach growls, and I realise that I’m the best thing to be in Penang: hungry.

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The problem with adding pictures to something solely intended for print is that it exposes your artistic embellishments. Those highheels aren’t “improbably” high at all. And, now I come to think about it, “improbably high heels” is a terrible cliche. Damn.

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I’ve seen Speed 2. I know how this ends.

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I really miss crab sandwiches.

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 A short walk from the jetties and I’m in Little India, my lunchtime destination. I feel out of place eating with a fork and spoon, so I join other diners in getting messy with my hands by dipping rice balls into ten different curries, arrayed in tiny bowls on a banana leaf, meat free and deliciously spiced. Iced tea sweetened with condensed milk provides a mercifully cooling counterpoint to the whole meal, and afterwards I sit back, watching tri-shaws cycle past, listening to the frantic sitar music of the sarong shop opposite, and wandering how on earth I will ever move again.

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There’s no such thing as a small portion of rice in Malaysia.

Eventually I do, and spend the afternoon bouncing between Churches, Mosques and Confucian Temples. Not nearly soon enough, it’s dinner-time and I’m seated at a hawker stall. I dine on Assam Laksa and grilled stingray, the Laksa a sour, tangy and fishy noodle soup famous in Malayan cuisine, the stingray doused in a spicy, sweet rub and popular, judging by the queue, with most of George Town.

Trav18-12“One. More. Drink.” orders the old Chinese lady serving me, wrapping me on my knuckles with a set of chopsticks to emphasise her point, and baring her single tooth in what I hope is a grin. I give it some thought. “Well, I suppose I could have another carrot juice, and perhaps some of those satay skewers…” Things have moved on in George Town since the days of Chinese robbers – today the only person lightening my wallet is myself, as I stand up to see what else I can possibly eat.

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(The winning entry, in case you’re interested, can be found here).

This post was written in Solo, Java, Indonesia, and uploaded in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. The competition entry was written in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, in the downstairs cafe of our wonderful hotel – Lang Hoose.

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Burma: First Impressions

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IN A DEPARTURE from the norm, arriving in Burma has moved me to blog about it immediately – no two month wait for me to get round to writing up my notes this time. If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ll most recently have been reading about my time in China. Since then I’ve been to Taiwan and Japan, but don’t worry about that – save to note that the particular, efficient, tech-loving and rule abiding nature of Japan is a world away from Myanmar (yes, that’s right, I am using the country’s old and new names interchangeably – deal with it).

ON THE FLIGHT from Kuala Lumpur, where we’d just been for a 12 hour layover, there were many different faces – Indian sub-continent, East Asian, Thai, Burmese (the largest ethnic group in Burma), European. A reflection of the ethnic diversity of both Burma, and (no doubt) Malaysia, along with the increasing popularity of Burma as a tourist destination (I read that in 2013 300,000 tourists visited the country; this year it is estimated that 1 million will visit). There was also a group of Muslims returning to Yangon after having been on Hajj. One older lady sat staring out of the window, fondling a set of prayer beads, her lips soundlessly mouthing suras. Her prayers were interrupted every so often by epic belches that caused the few Europeans (all French except us) to turn round in their seats. She would go from silent prayer to holy burp back to silent prayer as if nothing had happened. Later, she swapped seats and ended up next to BK-C, who she showed pictures of her grand daughter. I passed in and out of sleep, glad that it was BK-C attempting to explain that we had no faith when the lady asked if we were Christians.

Arriving in Yangon airport was a lesson in how quickly Myanmar is changing. At the time of writing, the most current Lonely Planet guide was published in November 2011, and so much crucial information is out of date (another guide is due to be published in July 2014). The guide is very clear that getting a visa on arrival is impossible, though the first thing that we saw when we landed was a booth with a big sign above it saying VISA ON ARRIVAL, with a big queue in front. We’d got our visa in Bangkok, probably the best and quickest place to get it (if you’re planning on doing the same, then I recommend twotravelaholics comprehensive explanation of the process). I don’t know how the visa on arrival works, but solely on the strength of an advert on the front of the tourist map we were given, I think that you can arrange it through the website myanmarvisa.com. It looks to be about three times as expensive as getting one in Bangkok.

Similarly, the LP is adamant that it’s impossible to withdraw money from ATMs in the country, noting that you should bring enough US dollars to last your trip and that you should change them on the black market, where the rate is ten times better than the official one. At the airport there were huge billboards advertising that one particular bank now allows you to withdraw money at its ATMs using Mastercard; we’ve also heard that it’s possible to withdraw money on other cards (though have done neither ourselves yet). This morning, we asked at our hostel about changing US dollars into the local Kyat, and were pointed to an exchange booth on the opposite side of the street: it had a big digital sign saying that it exchanged US Dollars and Euros, and it gave a decent rate (i.e. nearly the rate that XE.com shows). I understand from the hostel that the rate is the same everywhere – so I presume that they’ve brought the official rate up to cut out the black market. Finally, there’s a decent internet connection, and wifi, in our (admittedly very new) hostel, when everything that we’d read said that what internet we’d find would be slow. So from just spending 24 hours in the country it’s obvious that the place is changing rapidly, in concrete everyday ways that should impact on people’s lives.

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BUT THESE CHANGES don’t make Burma any the less striking upon arrival. The taxi ride from the airport made me feel like I’d stepped into a Hunter S. Thompson book. It was dark, about 8pm, and the heat was still oppressive. Sweat beaded around my hairline, and the air felt hot in my lungs. “Hey brother,” said the taxi driver, as he lazily began tailgating the car in front at approximately 100mph, “you want the air conditioning on? It’s one dollar extra.” Looking at the circa 1985 standard issue fans that he had in the dashboard, we declined. No seatbelt, erratic driving, weaving in and out of traffic, plenty of horn honking – we weren’t in Japan anymore. The world whooshed by in series of typical SE Asian vignettes – people eating outside on plastic furniture, flashing neon lights above shabby shops, vehicles parked on the pavement. We passed the scene of an accident, where a woman lay on her side on the tarmac, unmoving. Two men in helmets stood above her, waving their arms. I told myself that she was just in the recovery position, and then she was out of sight.

Stopped in traffic, I saw the driver of the taxi next to us open his door and spit out a long red line of spittle. This was from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant, which is apparently done in all of SE Asia but I’ve never actually seen myself. A young girl, carrying her baby brother in her arms, walked amongst the cars stopped at the lights. She stood next to my window, and looked in. I gently shook my head at her, heart wrenching inside, and she turned and walked off.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

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As we got further into the centre of Yangon, the usual SE Asia scenes took on a different, older cast, as they were all conducted in front of run down buildings that looked like they hadn’t seen any maintenance since the British left in 1948. I’ve seen plenty in Central America that fits the term “faded colonial splendour”, but this was the first time in Asia.

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Unlike the rest of SE Asia, western clothing hasn’t taken over, and so most people – men and women – still wear longyis, sarong-type wraparound skirts. They probably make it easier to get back up again when you trip over the holes in the pavement.

Breakfast the next morning was mohinga (a kind of curry noodle soup), served by a laughing Burmese lady, eaten sitting on plastic chairs on the side of the street, and washed down with endless refills of green tea. We walked around, looking at the old buildings, avoiding the holes in the pavement, speaking to the locals – feeling happy to be in Burma.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

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The Dangers of Peach Blossom (And Other Tales of Vietnam)

DEAR INTERNET, I’M sorry that I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been busy, you see, in Bangkok and Hong Kong. Also, the Chinese Government has been trying to suppress my writing. Yes, WordPress is blocked in China, along with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a number of other dangerous sites. I’m joining you now only through internet sorcery, via a server based somewhere in Japan.

The Great Firewall of China is not that sophisticated, however, as it only blocks wordpress.com, not all wordpress sites. The upshot of this is that when I recently changed over to be elsewhereunderwritten.com rather than elsewhereunderwritten.wordpress.com I exposed myself to an extra ONE BILLION potential readers. Welcome, new Chinese readers! I’m still awaiting the spike in blog stats. I expect it’ll come soon, though. WordPress hosted sites can’t handle over a million hits in a day, so please remember to form an orderly queue… (yes I know, there’s no such thing in China, but please do try). I’d offer a few words of welcome, but I think that I’d struggle to put it better than the tourism board of Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, in this sign that we saw earlier in the week:

Trav7-1 IF THIS WERE an Indiana Jones movie (and frankly I’m sad it’s not), you’d be seeing a red line snaking over a map right now. Over the past seven weeks we’ve travelled from Bangkok, Thailand, through Cambodia, into southern Vietnam, up through Vietnam to Hanoi in the north, from Hanoi to Vientiane in Laos, through Laos, travelling up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang back into northern Thailand. Once there we hung out for a week in Chiang Mai, then went to a couple of other places in northern Thailand before getting a 16 hour overnight bus down to Bangkok, where we buzzed around a lot to try and fit in as much as possible before flying to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we pretty much did the same thing, except with more clothes on (because it was cold, get your mind out of the gutter). From HK we crossed the border into mainland China and got an overnight train from Shenzhen to Guilin, where we are as I write this post (postscript – from Guilin we flew to Kunming, Yunnan Province and after a couple of days in Kunming we travelled by bus to Dali, also in Yunnan Province. We’ve had unreliable internet so it’s taken me a while to upload this post). All caught up? Good.

Last time I promised a round up of Vietnam, after having covered only the south. I’ve had to buy an external portable hard disk because I didn’t have enough room for all the photos I’ve been taking (with 1TB of extra storage, I should be ok now – thank you Pantip Plaza, Bangkok). Today I went through those photos and picked some of the highlights from Vietnam.

WE WERE IN Vietnam for close to three weeks, and very much on a well trodden tourist trail. From Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and the Mekong Delta in the south we headed north to the beach resort of Nha Trang, arriving at 5.30am off the overnight train to be greeted by a rainy city and wild waves at the seafront. Later, we explored the city, the rain having stopped but the sky still overcast. Nha Trang did little to endear itself to us – the long beach was pretty, certainly, but just a few streets away from the seafront the town turned into an ugly scrawl of dirty streets, snarling mopeds and touristed-out locals. When we’re somewhere new we like to walk around to get a sense of the place, usually straying far away from the haunts recommended in the guidebook. In Nha Trang we were happy to return to the seafront.

There’s one direct flight from Nha Trang International airport, and that’s to Russia. It is the beach destination in Vietnam if you’re from Russia. Consequently the town is an odd mix of western backpackers and high spending Russian vacationers, glued together by Vietnamese touts, pimps and tuc tuc drivers (who are often the same person). But if the sun’s out, you’re drinking, and you ignore the touts and pimps, then Nha Trang is a fun place to be. Yes, I did have an awful sunburn and a Hollywood star hangover when we left.

An overnight bus to Hoi An sorted me right out. Rather than simply a reclining chair, each passenger had a sort of plastic sarcophagus which you inserted your legs in up to the waist, and then leaned back into what felt like one half of a sun lounger. The sarcophagus combined with the stacking of passengers bunkbed style created a cosy, I’ll-never-get-out-of-here-if-we-crash kind of a feeling, and (once I’d gotten over the series of RTA scenarios that paraded through my mind) I quickly fell into a deep sleep.

In Hoi An it was raining, but just off the bus and walking through the old town, it was already lovelier than Nha Trang, even in the wet. From the 16th through to the 18th centuries the city was the most important trading port in south east Asia, with merchants from China, Japan and Europe. Towards the end of the 18th century, the river leading from the port to the sea silted up and trade moved elsewhere. When commerce ebbed away from the city it remained largely unchanged in architecture, and mostly untouched by the modernisation that was sweeping the rest of Vietnam. The town remains a wonderful jumble of old Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese building styles, pretty even in the rain.

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Tourism and tailoring are the two chief enterprises of Hoi An. So after a shower and some breakfast we headed over to get some clothes made. For what else does one do in Hoi An? The city is awash with tailors, so many that without the advice of tour guide I would have struggled to have known which to use (if you’re going there yourself, we used Yaly – slightly more expensive than some others but they were extremely professional, knowledgeable, and produced clothes of excellent quality). You can get a tailored suit made in 24 hours, thanks – I was assured – not to a sweat shop but to an army of 300 tailors all paid a fair wage. I was measured for a suit on the morning of the first day, alterations were made in the afternoon of the second day and it was ready by that evening. It cost me £100. As I took my top off to try on the shirt that I’d also purchased, my tailor stared at my burnt red-raw chest. “Ah,” she said, “you go to Nha Trang.”

Banh bao vac, or White Rose, is a local speciality. Essentially, it’s a version of Chinese dumplings, brought to the city by Chinese traders. Delicious, but far from filling. In Vietnam, as in the rest of SE Asia, the price of a dish in a restaurant usually bears little or no connection with its size or complexity. You can order something for £4 – a lot in SE Asia – and end up with the tiniest amount, whilst your neighbour spends the same amount and gets a feast. These are menus priced by people who eat not at restaurant but on the street, where dishes are much, much cheaper. Wherever possible, eat on the street in SE Asia – the food is better, cheaper and more authentic.

Banh bao vac, or White Rose, is a local speciality in Hoi An. Essentially, it’s a version of Chinese dumplings, brought to the city by Chinese traders. Delicious, but far from filling. In Vietnam, as in the rest of SE Asia, the price of a dish in a restaurant usually bears little or no connection with its size or complexity. You can order something for £4 – a lot in SE Asia – and end up with the tiniest amount, whilst your neighbour spends the same amount and gets a feast. These are menus priced by people who eat not at restaurant but on the street, where dishes are much, much cheaper. Wherever possible, eat on the street in SE Asia – the food is better, cheaper and more authentic.

The riverside is beautiful by night, but – as with so much else in Vietnam – it is ruined by noise. On one side of the river bars compete for business with loud music, making a walk along the riverside an ear-splitting cacophonic experience where it’s better not to linger.

The riverside is beautiful by night, but – as with so much else in Vietnam – it is ruined by noise. On one side of the river bars compete for business with loud music, making a walk along the riverside an ear-splitting cacophonic experience where it’s better not to linger.

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After Hoi An, it was an 8 hour bus journey to Hue (pronounced “Hway”), former imperial capital of Vietnam. Along the way we stopped off at a place called Marble Mountain – a complex of pagodas, shrines and caves on top of a (very small, more cliff-like) mountain. Perhaps it was because the sun was out, perhaps it was because at the top of the mountain we were away from the sound of horns, but it felt like the prettiest place in Vietnam. We were there for an all-too short hour – and only at the end did we discover the vast cave with stairs carved down to its floor, a giant stone Buddha set against one wall, illuminated only by a single beam of sun from a hole in the roof. It was a serene interlude from the madness that is Vietnam.

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WE WERE IN Hue for less than 24 hours. We arrived in the evening and wandered down neon-lighted streets lined by budget clothes stores pulsing with young Vietnamese, getting bemused looks from most we passed. We tried some clothes on and didn’t buy them. We drank some Vietnamese wine, which was slightly less than awful. We ate some Western food and regretted it. We looked at some statues and tried to work out what they were commemorating. We looked at some art, intended to come back the next day and buy it, and then didn’t. Instead we went to a ruined tomb and got lost. In short, we had wonderful time doing all of the things that one does in a foreign city.

We visited the tomb of a former Emperor, an hour and a half cruise down the Perfume River on a little boat that was also a family’s home. When we eventually moored up, the driver of the boat pointed us up a muddy track and offered a few words in Vietnamese that none of us understood. At some point, we took a wrong turn. We reached the Tomb an hour later, after tramping through muddy fields whilst bare footed farmers standing knee deep in rice paddies laughed at us.

We visited the tomb of a former Emperor, an hour and a half cruise down the Perfume River on a little boat that was also a family’s home. When we eventually moored up, the driver of the boat pointed us up a muddy track and offered a few words in Vietnamese that none of us understood. At some point, we took a wrong turn. We reached the Tomb an hour later, after tramping through muddy fields whilst bare footed farmers standing knee deep in rice paddies laughed at us.

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 During the Vietnam-American War, Hue was captured briefly by the North during the infamous Tet Offensive. During the three and half weeks that the Vietcong held the city they massacred over 2,500 civilians as a ‘blood debt’ for fighting against the VC. The USA and the South Vietnamese responded by battering the city with bombs and artillery and dropping napalm on the Imperial Palace. Today, there is little left of it – just the outlines of where buildings used to be. By the end of the offensive, about 10,000 people had died in Hue, most of them civilians.

During the Vietnam-American War, Hue was captured briefly by the North during the infamous Tet Offensive. During the three and half weeks that the Vietcong held the city they massacred over 2,500 civilians as a ‘blood debt’ for fighting against the VC. The USA and the South Vietnamese responded by battering the city with bombs and artillery and dropping napalm on the Imperial Palace. Today, there is little left of it – just the outlines of where buildings used to be. By the end of the offensive, about 10,000 people had died in Hue, most of them civilians.

HALONG BAY IS a place that everyone raves about. Read any travel article about Vietnam, and it’s likely to get a glossy double page photo. I felt that I’d read the legend of how it was formed about a million times before I even went there. So I was thoroughly prepared for it to be overhyped. It wasn’t.

We sailed out in clear blue skies, the sun gently warming our bare feet even as we wore fleeces on top against the wind. Within half an hour we (and, it has to be said, about thirty other boats) were sailing inbetween looming limestone Karsts – giant fragments of islands, their sides sheer cliffs, their tops verdant green. They seemed to be endless, disappearing off into the horizon forever. If you are in Vietnam, then I urge you to go there, and to stay overnight on a boat in the bay. You won’t want to leave.

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AND THEN IT was Hanoi, capital of Vietnam and our last destination in the country. The old town is a mass of small streets and seething mopeds. It’s a fascinating place to walk around, each street dedicated to a particular trade so that there are streets of carpenters, streets of toy shops, even streets dedicated to packaging, cardboard boxes spilling out into the road.

What no one tells you about Hanoi, though, is that you haven’t got time to look into the shops or soak up the atmosphere because you’re TOO BUSY TRYING NOT TO DIE under the wheels of a moped. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, in SE Asia pavements are for parking, not walking, so you find yourself stumbling down the narrow roads spending all your time watching where the mopeds are and then – WHOOSH one speeds past you from behind and you are inches from death. It’s like when you’re on the London Underground at rush hour at the edge of the platform with the crowd five people deep behind you and then the train slams past you and you think, if someone just nudged me forward right now… In Hanoi, it’s like that all the time.

Rush hour is out of control: nowhere is safe, as mopeds mount the pavement (what little of it there is left to walk on) to get past. It was worse when we were there because it was just before Tet, Vietnamese New Year, when everyone gets a peach blossom tree for their home or business. Inevitably, these are transported strapped to the back of a moped. So if the vehicle itself doesn’t get you, you’re just as likely to get whipped by the branches of a tree as it whizzes by.

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A peach blossom tree outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

A peach blossom tree, for Tet, outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

An official looking man stands amidst the chaos, presumably after having given up trying to direct it.

An official looking man stands amidst the chaos, presumably after having given up trying to direct it.

But survive the gauntlet of motorised death then Hanoi is a wonderful city, best enjoyed from a tiny plastic chair on the side of the street (NOT at rush hour) drinking a Bia Hoi, or fresh beer – beer that is brewed freshly everyday and retails at about 12p (20c) a glass. At that price, what could possibly go wrong? Just don’t try walking home after a beer too many.

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And that, dear internet, was Vietnam for me.

Join me, next time, when I’ll write more words about some different things. There will also be pictures for those bored of the words.

This post was written in Guilin, Guangxi Province, and Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. It was finally uploaded in Dali, Yunnan Province, China, after a great deal of patience and numerous rounds of green tea.

Siem Reap & Phnom Penh: Or, Why I Love Morning Glory

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SOME FACTS ABOUT Cambodia:

– 53% of the population are aged 24 or under; 32% 14 or under;

– Average life expectancy is 63 years;

– Average daily income is $6.50/day, placing Cambodia at 129th in the world;

– Cambodians are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Children wave excitedly from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Children wave from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh. We didn’t meet a kid who wasn’t excited to see us.

FIVE DAYS: THAT’S all. It didn’t seem enough time to spend in Cambodia, but we’re on a tour with Toucan Travel for our first month of travelling, whizzing through SE Asia. Despite only being there for five days, Cambodia has stayed with us. We entered overland from Thailand, spending three hours in a weird no-man’s land between the countries filled with run-down casinos and fake Christmas snowmen, incongruous in the baking heat. Our first stop was Siem Reap, from where we launched our trip to Angkor Wat. The centre is backpacker-fantastic, with the neon lights and booming music of the bar-lined Pub Street. But wander beyond and you’re quickly lost in dark streets with glowing shop fronts, mopeds galore and not a western face in sight.

“Is it right, right, left from the hotel?” asked BK-C.
“Definitely,” I replied. “Or right, left, right.”
“We’ll work it out.”

45 minutes later we were hopelessly lost. It was nighttime, and there are no street lights in Siem Reap. As with everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia so far, the pavement is a place for parking, not for walking. The only people who walk are the poor or foreigners. Curious faces peered out of shopfronts us as we stepped around mopeds and cars, avoiding potholes at the side of the road. Whole families buzzed by on mopeds, babies balanced on the handle bars. There was the occasional smell of drains, the frequent smell of street food. I refused to pay a dollar to get a tuc tuc back to somewhere that we knew. We pressed on. “If we go left here I think that should rejoin the main street.” We didn’t. Words were said. We walked some more. More words were said. We got a tuc tuc.

Thank goodness we did, because it turned out that some idiot had been leading us in completely the wrong direction.

Not once in this unplanned sojourn did we feel threatened. As with everywhere else in SE Asia, tuc tuc drivers are ubiquitous, all offering their services. A polite “no, thank you” and a smile, though, and they’ll smile back and leave you alone. No one’s pushy, everyone has a ready smile.

Later, riding on quad bikes at dusk through dusty tracks, we saw some of the smaller villages around Siem Reap. People worked the fields, children played outside stilted shacks, cows wallowed in mud. Clinging on to the back of the quad bike, BK-C waved at kids as we passed and they waved back. We watched the sun set over the rice paddies, and felt immensely lucky to be there.

The sun sets over a rice paddy  outside Siem Reap.

The sun sets over a rice paddy outside Siem Reap.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they're riding their mopeds - or in Vietnam, where there's a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they’re riding their mopeds – or in Vietnam, where there’s a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

WHERE WE CAN, we try to avoid restaurants and instead eat where the locals eat. A line of mopeds outside a street food stall is always a good sign. It was at such a roadside stall, sitting in a tiny plastic chair, that my love affair with morning glory began. Morning Glory with Beef turned out to be a tasty dish of spicy, tamarind-tangy beef with a delicious shredded, green bean-esque vegetable – Morning Glory – chewy and crunchy at the same time. Yes, I ordered it purely on the strength of the name, but I never looked back.

Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it,. If I had 3G I'd be uploading it to instagram. I just don't know what's happened to me.

Sour Beef Soup With Morning Glory. Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it. If I had 3G I’d be uploading it to instagram. I just don’t know what’s happened to me.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they'd zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they'd get it to go as well. If not, they'd wander on. We soaked it all up.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they’d zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they’d get it to go as well. If not, they’d wander on. Through all of this, the staff of the restaurant stared entranced at the tv, occasionally with hands over their mouths, all caught up in the drama of a Cambodian soap. The food may change the world over, but the people don’t.

I didn't have the guts to try these.

There were large dishes of fried insects in quite a few places in Cambodia, especially in rest stops at the side of the road. I never saw anyone eating them. I wasn’t about to be the first.

CAMBODIA’S YOUNG POPULATION, the youngest in SE Asia, is largely a result of the Khmer Regime. Half of the population are post-regime baby boomers and remember nothing of the genocide between 1975 and 1979 when 1.7 – 2.5 million Cambodians were killed out of a population of approximately 8 million. Pol Pot is what people outside of SE Asia are most likely to remember Cambodia for, and it seemed wrong to go to the country without engaging in some atrocity tourism ourselves. It’s that awkward-morbid thing where you want to visit and feel that you should do, but almost feel bad for wanting to go. So we went, and it was horrific, and sobering, and utterly terrifying. The killing fields were very peaceful, with silent white bones placed in piles. I thought if that happened to me, I’d like there to be such a place for people to visit.

Trav4-9 Trav4-8

Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists.

Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists. I’m not sure that I could do that if I were him.

WE DROVE BACK to Phnom Penh, leaving the Killing Fields behind. The cool air conditioning of the van was a relief after the sticky heat of outdoors. I’d like to say that we travelled in silence, each wrapped in some deep thoughts about the inhumanity of killing – but that would be a lie. As soon as we were in the van, the serenity of the place behind us, we were raucous and joking.  What’s both chilling and hopeful is that those things happened – all those Cambodians were killed (with an 800,000 people error margin in the death toll. Think about that: 800,000 may or may not have died, and we’ll never know) and yet life just goes on, eventually mass graves becoming a tourist attraction with an organised shuttle bus from the city, and vendors selling Coca-Cola.

We were bound for the market in Phnom Penh, a place bustling with people and life. There we jostled and haggled, browsed and bought – and over a big bowl of Morning Glory, I met a man called Sovann, who worked for an NGO, and who told me that the future of Cambodia was in its communities, which his organisation was helping to build.

He lamented the recent protests in Phnom Penh, over wages, where – a couple of days before we arrived – three protestors had been shot and killed when police fired into the crowd. We’d seen camps of police, their riot geared racked up in neat piles on the floor, outside of the Palace in the centre of the city. It had all seemed quiet, the most significant action being when we saw an officer helping an old lady to cross the road. Two days after we left, however, there were more protests, and more deaths.

In the market, though, like after the Killing Fields, people were living life. We joked with stall holders and haggled good naturedly over snacks. Five days hadn’t been enough to even scrape the surface of Cambodia, but it was enough to convince me of the essential good naturedness of Cambodian culture, to convince me that whatever problems the country had in the past or faced now, it’s people were on the up – and, of course, enough time for me to enjoy plenty of Morning Glory.

We vowed to return to see more of Cambodia, and departed for Vietnam.

Trav4-12 Trav4-13

NEXT TIME: You suffer too many ‘ironic’ references to Vietnam War movies, whilst I eat some delicious Southern Vietnamese food.

North of San Francisco: The Kindness of Strangers

The Pacific

In a continuation of my series on our recent trip to California, we head north from San Francisco and discover a slice of real America.

WE ARE STANDING in line at the hire car company, waiting our turn to escape San Francisco. It’s hot and the line is long. We’ve carried our two massive backpacks, two suitcases and multiple bags of shopping across half of the city to get here (in our defence we needed all that stuff because we were going backpacking in Yosemite and, well, I HAD to buy all those books because I NEEDED them, ok?).

Fortunately, being from Britain, we are uniquely adapted to queueing: standing in line actually calms us down. In the unlikely event that we do lose our cool in a queue, we’re likely to express our dissatisfaction by tutting, under our breath. Scientific FACT.

Anyway, we don’t care. We’re on honeymoon and we’re hiring a car to drive up the Californian coast. The couple in front of us is fighting with each other over the length of the queue (“why didn’t you make us leave earlier?”). I am hopeful that their relationship will implode under the pressure as at least then we’ll get to the front quicker, but sadly they hang on in there.

IT’S FORTY FIVE minutes later and we’re at the counter. The woman dealing with us, Marge, is positively ecstatic that we are on honeymoon, and offers us an upgrade to a convertible. Unfortunately it turns out that we have too much luggage because someone bought too many books, so we just stick with our mid-size SUV and enough luggage capacity to open a bookstore.

Prince Harry happens to be over in the US, and conversation turns to the Royal Family. Marge commiserates with us over the death of Diana; we agree that she was probably desperately unhappy and she should never have married Charles. Marge is excited about Kate, though. She thinks that she’ll do the Royal Family proud, although she’s heard that the Duke of Edinburgh is controlling and is actually the power behind the throne, so she worries for the new Princess. She also has strong views on Camilla being Queen one day (“if she was queen, we’d probably go to war with you guys again”). We agree that Will has made a better match than his father, and leave with a discount on our SatNav.

We are destined to repeat this conversation with about three other people over the course of our trip. Frankly, I find this enthusiasm for our Royals baffling. The people that we speak to about them are similarly baffled by our lack of enthusiasm. It’s probably how Americans experience Obama when they go abroad. 

A hair raising drive through San Francisco later (“you’re close to the kerb, Dave, close… close close close CLOSE!”), and we’re on the open road heading north on Highway One.

Something witty

BK-C was standing next to that highway for hours waiting for a catalogue talent spotter to pass.

HIGHWAY ONE IS a spectacular journey along wild coasts. Waves crash onto long beaches, the scent of redwoods fills the car and scenery displaces conversation. Hands down my favourite road, anywhere. We ate up the miles, excited to see places we’d only known on google maps. Our progress was impeded only by oysters, and the near death experience of me doing a u-turn in the road to consume the delicious bivalves.

Crazy Man

This man really loves his job.

Oyster

He does it all for the mollusc.

Oyster

The mollusc.

Oyster

The mollusc, yeah.

Bon Appetit!

Best oysters ever. We had ours raw, but could also have had them Rockefeller (with spinach and cheese) or barbecued. I like mine with tongue-tingling amounts of tabasco. If you’re ever in the area, the place is the Marshall Store and Oyster Bar. Go there. Eat oysters. Be happy.

WE HOPSCOTCHED UP the coast, stopping off wherever took our fancy. We watched people and even talked to a few too. Suddenly San Francisco seemed like a different country. This was America we were in now, and SF was just some cosmopolitan pseudo-European outpost. Outside of the city were mom & pop stores selling everything under the sun, couples in convertibles up from the ‘burbs for a day in the country, College kids in beaten up old bangers out for a day at the beach, and big family cars filled with postcard picture kids, harassed parents, empty coke bottles and crinkled Mcdonalds wrappers. It felt like the real USA.

As we drove further away from SF the day trippers fell away and we started to see more pickup trucks, fewer estate cars. We stopped at one road towns, antique barns and beautiful beaches. And there were many beaches, most with hardly a soul along their vast expanse, a few crowded by those harnessing the fearsome Pacific wind to fly kites.

The kite flying that I remember doing as a child consisted mostly of running with the kite held aloft in a desperate effort to get it airborne, then a montage of stunning nosedives once the thing was in the air. In California, the kites just fly.

The kite flying that I remember doing as a child consisted mostly of running with the kite held aloft in a desperate effort to get it airborne, then a montage of stunning nosedives once the thing was in the air. In California, the kites just fly.

AS THE SUN began to dip into the Pacific, we arrived in the pretty little town of Jenner where we stopped at the gas station to stretch our legs. I picked up a big bottle of water to keep us going whilst driving. “That’s our wallet-busting water,” advised the man behind the counter. “You can actually get a gallon and still save yourself thirty cents.” He nodded sagely, pointing out the cheaper option, priced at a whopping $1.70. “Aquafina is Coca-cola and I guess that they charge a lot for their water.” His cheerful, open attitude opened the miles between Jenner and San Francisco. Although (mostly) friendly, the people of SF had the distance of city-dwellers – those used to the churn of transients.

We instantly wanted to spend the night in Jenner and asked the gas man where was best to stay. “Hey, I know,” he said, his face lighting up, “you could stay in this place up the road. It’s a house with two bedrooms. It’s real nice. The couple that own it are next door and rent it out.” After a brief, unsuccessful search for their phone number, he drew us a map and despatched us on our way.

Five minutes later I was attempting a million point turn to get our Jeep out of the dead end that I’d driven down, and we were approached by an amiable looking man (everyone looks amiable in Jenner) who waved at me to wind down the window. “Hey,” he said to us, “Karl found our number and gave us a call to say he’d sent you up here from the gas station. I’m real sorry, but our place is booked up tonight.” He gave us his card, “just in case you folks come back here,” and then watched as I manfully manoeuvred our Jeep back onto Highway One in just sixteen turns.

The state animal of California is the grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they've now  all been hunted to extinction in the state, so they don't use real bear fur on the flags anymore.

The state animal of California is the grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they’ve now all been hunted to extinction in the state, so they don’t use real bear fur on the flags anymore.

This is a creepy church in the one road town of Tomales. The Hitchcock film The Birds was filmed nearby, and I can understand why. The place had an end of the world feel to it.

This is a creepy church in the one road town of Tomales. The Hitchcock film The Birds was filmed nearby, and I can understand why. The place had an end of the world feel to it.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

REACTIONS TO THE concept of holiday spreadsheets fall, in my experience, into two camps: “of course, why wouldn’t you?” and “you are dead inside, a roadblock to adventure and all that is good about life.” There is no middle ground. I fall into the former: I know where I’m staying and when, and I have a piece of paper with the address written down. But in comparison to BK-C, I am positively chaotic. Yes, we are both dead inside.

Everywhere in Jenner was either full or more than we were prepared to pay (a difficult internal tug-of-war here between our anxiety to plan and our innate stinginess – in the end the penny pinching won out). Anxiety was rising. But once again we were saved by the good natured people of Jenner. At the Riverside Inn, despite us neither staying or eating there, the lady behind the desk googled places for us to stay up Highway One, and then spent about fifteen minutes on the phone finding a place the wasn’t booked up.

A short utterance of our credit card details down the line later, we were on the road again, buoyed by the friendly generosity that we’d experienced in Jenner. Guala was our destination, an hour further north, where we’d booked a room in a hotel boasting beautiful views of the ocean. We had very specific directions, dictated to us by the owner in decreasingly small fractions of miles (“….a quarter mile after that you’ll go over a bridge, and a tenth of a mile later, you turn right….” How far is a tenth of a mile? I have no idea. Do people not use smaller units of measurement in the US? This was a common way of explaining directions that we encountered all up the Californian coast).

We arrived, many fractions of miles later. The sun was setting and we had had a wonderful day. We bounced into the lobby and were met by the man we had spoken to on the phone, an elderly, particular gentleman, who was determined not to let anything get in the way of the information he had to impart or the crazy stories he had to tell about his time in College. Nevertheless, filled with bounty of kindness we had encountered from people along Highway One, we tried for the upgrade anyway. “We’re on honeymoon!” we gushed. “That’s great,” he replied, “ice is down the corridor. Now that’ll be $175.”

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San Francisco Grape & Grain, Part 2: Or, Thinking Drinking Through Time & Space

Vintage Barrel Man

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

A SURPRISING OBSERVATION: beer geeks are snobbier than wine connoisseurs. Compare, for instance, my experience in the beer shop Healthy Spirits in the Castro district of San Francisco, and my experience at the Larson Family Winery, in Sonoma (which sits beside the more famous Napa Valley in the Bay Area). In the former I asked the extremely knowledgeable and, it has to be said, very friendly, man behind the counter for advice in buying a wheat beer. He took me through some of their stock, pausing over the Hell or High Watermelon beer from 21st Amendment brewery – which I had drunk and enjoyed the previous night at Starbelly – to tell me to avoid it because “it’s shit out of a can.” Several days later at the Larson Family Winery the manager of the tasting room, Marvin, was expounding the delights of trying everything and judging nobody. “There’s wine educators and there’s wine snobs,” he told me. “Wine snobs want you to think how they do, educators will admit that there’s so much stuff out there that you’re always still learning. Every wine you drink, every bit of wine lore you gather, it’s another brick in the wall of knowledge.” This may sound like a line that Marvin repeats to all who visit his tasting room, but it reflects an accepting attitude that I have found to be common amongst wine lovers, but less so amongst beer fans.

Marvin does his customary duck impression before pouring the wine.

Marvin does his customary duck impression before pouring the wine.

Slosh slosh.

Slosh slosh…

Sip sip.

Sip sip….. Repeat. It’s easy to get the hang of wine tasting.

We were in Sonoma with Green Dream Tours (highly recommended: you can read my wife’s review of them here). Eli, the owner of the company, was our tour guide for what was the first day of the wine tour season. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing in that customary Pacific Coast way, where it whips the breath out of your mouth and makes you regret wearing only a T-shirt. Stepping off our air conditioned bus at Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma County, outside of San Francisco, it felt about ten degrees hotter then in windy SF. But within 15 minutes of arriving at the winery we had ceased to care about the heat, because we were all pissed. Drinking alcohol in the morning is like all the best bits of being 16 again: you either have no responsibilities or you don’t care about them, and it feels like literally anything could happen, all of the time. Being drunk and partly hungover in the early evening, after a wine tour, whilst wandering around an REI store in search for kit for going backpacking in Yosemite is like all the worst bits of being 16 again: responsibility for sensible decisions is something you’re ill equipped for and EVERYTHING IS SO FAR AWAY. But that was future David’s problem: at 11am I was supping my wine and loving every moment of it.

I think that you'll agree, I am ROCKING the socks and shorts look. Have I always been this tragic, or is it something that happened when I got older? On the plus side, after 3 glasses of wine this is exactly the kind of thing that you don't care about.

I think that you’ll agree, I am ROCKING the socks and shorts look. Have I always been this tragic, or is it something that happened when I got older? Please don’t answer that. On the plus side, after 3 glasses of wine this is exactly the kind of thing that you don’t care about.

The Vexillologists (ok I admit it: I just learnt that word through google) amongst you may recognise one of the flags in the photo above as being Mexican. Papa Robledo came to the US as a teenager in 1968 to pick grapes for the season, and never went back. Thirty years later he bought his own vineyard. Seven years after that, Reynaldo Robledo became the first former Mexican migrant worker to open a winery and start making his own wine commercially. On the walls of the tasting room there are pictures of him meeting with the former Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, and Barak Obama. In the tasting room we met one of Reynaldo’s six sons, Lazaro Robledo, who proudly took us through the history of his family and the winery. It’s one of those immigrant success stories that to my mind are so defining of America. It wasn’t grape picking season when we were in Sonoma, so there weren’t workers out amongst the vines; but later on in our trip as we drove through the Californian heartland we passed through acres and acres of fruit farms, with lines and lines of immigrant workers picking fruit. We drove for miles and miles along dusty, flat highways where every other car was a pickup truck and the sun baked the road until it cracked at the edges. The scenery changed only with the crop – from apricot trees to cherry trees, from peaches to plums; and in every field, at every junction were immigrant workers. If they weren’t toiling in the fields then they were sheltering from the sun at the side of the road, under makeshift tarpaulin sunshades, and selling fruit to passing motorists. We stopped at a few of these places, and the people were uniformly grim and downtrodden, dusty from the road and hot from the sun. No typical cheery American welcome here of “how ya doin’?” This experience of passing through the fruit farms later put Reynaldo’s journey much more into perspective for me. The tale of an immigrant coming to American and building success from nothing may be a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any the less real.

Not appropriate to use for bobbing for apples. This photograph would be better if it was straight but I was a little unsteady on my feed when I took it.

Not appropriate to use for bobbing for apples. This photograph would be better if it was straight but I was a little unsteady on my feed when I took it.

I'm guessing they're not seedless.

I’m guessing they’re not seedless.

By 1pm we had visited two wineries, lunched and were now stumbling around the pretty little town of Sonoma, presumably so that our tourguides could have some respite from a tourbus full of loud drunkards.

As we wandered, I pondered on both the Robledo family’s journey and Marvin’s words about learning. There’s something that visiting a winery has over visiting brewery: community. Yes it’s true that they were small, family owned wineries that we visited in Sonoma and so it’s inevitable that there would be a sense of community, but there’s also something about the link between the land and the wine. I imagine that very few breweries grow their own grains on site; the best wineries will always have their own vineyards, probably in the same place where they also crush, ferment and ultimately bottle the grapes. There’s community around breweries, but these are the communities created amongst their drinkers, their fans, rather than the people who make the beer. This fact struck home with me when, later on in our trip we visited the newly opened ol’ Republic Brewery in the small, close community of Nevada City. A lady I spoke to in the brewery bar told me how happy everyone was at last to have a brewery of their own in town. “there’s a few microbreweries close by, like 20 miles or something,” she told me, “but they’re not ours. This one is for Nevada City.”

Beer and wine are different drinks, often drunk at different times and in different social settings. We might order a bottle of wine when out for a romantic meal, but it’s less likely that we’d order a bottle of beer. Whilst wine is a more intimate drink, beer is a drink which is social in a different way – it’s easier to imagine it being drunk at a BBQ, or amongst a group of friends at the pub. And I think that the different ways in which we consume these beverages are also reflected in the way that they’re produced, and the history – and geography – behind that production. Clearly I’m generalising here, but having visited both breweries and wineries in such quick succession, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something in the different way that we as a culture consume (in every sense of the word) the two drinks, and that this difference starts even before the first drop of alcohol is fermented.

ANYWAY, WITH ALL these thoughts kicking around my mind in Sonoma, I knew that I had entered the contemplative, thoughtful stage of drunkenness and it was time to push on through. So, we headed on to our final vineyard, where I was looking forward to rounding off my thoughts about immigration, geography, family and community by hearing about another American success story. And who did it turn out that the brewery was owned by? A bloody Brit.

Note the humorous play on a famous British actor's name.

Note the humorous play on a famous British actor’s name.

Something witty

It may have been the last glass of the day, but that didn’t make it any the less tastier. Cheers!

San Francisco Grape & Grain: Or, How You Can Never Be Late For Beer In SF

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

THIS IS A picture from the day of my wedding*:

Obviously, it's from when I was getting ready

Clearly, this is pre-ceremony. But it’s true that I’d been perusing the Northern California Craft Beer Guide on the morning of my wedding. Anticipation of the honeymoon? Of course not! I was focused solely on getting married. This was an attempt to relieve some pre-wedding nerves. But, yes, now you mention it, I was excited about the beer in NorCal. Obviously this was COMPLETELY UNRELATED to me reading it on my wedding day (that’s not actually me reading it in the picture by the way – I’m the one crouching down into the background and, yes, thank you those are fabulous socks, I KNOW).

*courtesy of our wonderful wedding photographers Christian & Erica, of Christian Ward Photography.  Getting married? Go with these guys. Their photos are art.

CA3-1I think that I probably owe a public thanks and apology to Kyle, our server at Starbelly, the first stop on our Beer-Tasting-Trip-That-My-Wife-Mistakenly-Believed-Was-Our-Honeymoon. I won’t lie, I had a bit of a man-crush on Kyle: he was funny and he knew about beer. And he kept bringing me different ones to try. I may also have used the phrase “please could you bring me something more challenging?” Yes, I am that pretentious. And, yes, I do hate myself. Anyway, Kyle gave us free beer because it was our honeymoon (it’s sad that my wife doesn’t like beer, but sacrifices have to be made in marriage, I understand). “If I could do your road trip, I would,” Kyle said to us as we left Starbelly. “You can,” I joked, “we’ll just fit you in our suitcase, it’ll be fine!” The beaming smile that he shot me in return as he ushered us out was definitely one of mutual appreciation, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to verify this fact as he locked the door behind us. Weird. What A Nice Man, I thought, as we walked away, me stumbling slightly.

Anyway, the highlight of any trip to SF for the beer enthusiast, both my guide book and my far geekier beer friends told me, was a visit to the Anchor Brewery. You can only pre-book and the tours get filled up months in advance. So naturally I was excited that we’d managed to secure a space on the tour for when we were there. That morning we were vintiqueing (yeah, I used that word) on Haight Street, which is the hippy, vintage, grimey-but-proud-of-it part of SF. Frankly it’s hard to tell the difference between the hippy (crusty?) folks who live there and the homeless people who, well, probably also live there, but not in a studio apartment.

Haight Street is less about the drinking. I was queueing up in a record store to buy some vinyl and the guy in front of me, who had purchased two Star Wars VHS, was chatting to the cashier. "Yeah," he told him, "I'm just gonna go home, get high and watch these." Frankly, I pitied him. Can you remember what VHS was like? In his stoned state how would he select the cast commentary? Some things should just stay superseded and not go retro.

Haight Street is less about the drinking. I was queueing up in a record store to buy some vinyl and the guy in front of me, who had purchased two Star Wars VHS, was chatting to the cashier. “Yeah,” he told him, “I’m just gonna go home, get high and watch these.” Frankly, I pitied him. Can you remember what VHS was like? How would he select the cast commentary? Some things just shouldn’t go retro.

We lost track of time. Or, rather, one of us lost track of time in a dress shop whilst the other fretted over the time. We finished on Haight Street, we rushed to get the 24 bus to Anchor Brewery, passed the rolling fog at the tops of houses (because that’s what happens in SF), passed the congregation of homeless outside the park (because that’s what happens in SF), passed the cars parked at right angles to the kerb (you get the picture), onto the bus, onto another bus…. and we arrived on time! Celebration! Checked in at the desk. Discovered that I got the time wrong! We were an hour late. Devastation! Deep inside me I felt something break. Only thing that held back the tears was It Would Not Be Cool To Cry At Anchor Brewery. “Don’t worry, though,” the guy on the front desk told us, “the tour hasn’t got to the bar, yet, so you can join them for the tasting.” I regained my composure. Manned up. “I think I can do it,” I announced. “To the bar!”

I took what solace I could.

I took what solace I could.

But then magic happened. My wife spoke to one of the brewers, explained the situation and convinced him to take us on a tour of the brewery when he finished his shift. And that is why I married this woman. Or, alternatively, our impromptu brewery tour has something to do with the fact that Anchor Brewing workers can drink on shift, for free, and hang out in their own bar afterwards. They’re just perpetually happy people. Or perhaps it’s just because SF people are some of  the friendliest city people I’ve met. Either way, thank you Ramon, for showing us around the place and sharing some delicious drinks with us in the bar. The lesson? Whether it’s about the people or the drinks, you can never be late for beer in SF.

Ramon dips his hand in the... wort? pre-beer? Who knows. Beer Science.

Ramon dips his hand in the… wort? pre-beer? Who knows. Beer Science.

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Hops. Cascade hops, in fact. They give beer American beers that distinctive bitter-fruity-hoppy taste.

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Me rubbing hops through my hands, as encouraged by Ramon. “The only thing is that they’re really oily and you can’t get the smell off with soap,” he told me as he watched me rub them all over my palms. My hands smelt of beer for the rest of the day, as did everything that I touched. It was like a more rubbish version of the Greek King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold. My touch turned everything slightly beery, except that you couldn’t drink it. This curse probably figures somewhere in Dante’s Inferno.

CA3-9

If you ever go to the Anchor Brewery, remember this: there is a cabinet at the back of the tasting room where you can buy Anchor memorabilia. I know this, because I was told about it after I had visited by a sympathetic Canadian who had been there the day before. There’s probably a silver lining to this story, but somehow I can’t really bring myself to write it.

NEXT TIME: I go drinking in the morning.

San Francisco by Plate, Fork & Chopstick: Or, How Stuffing My Face Showed Me San Francisco – Part 2

Welcome to San Francisco - Proceed With Caution

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

I’LL JUST come right out with it: in San Francisco we spent $558.22 on one meal for the two of us. It is the most expensive meal that I have ever eaten. And it goes without saying – but shouldn’t be left unsaid – that being able to enjoy such a meal is a privilege; if it weren’t a wedding gift we would never have enjoyed it. But it was and we did. So: with the expensive-eater guilt statement out of the way, let me tell you what that kind of nosh $558 buys you.

Eleven courses. I mean, that’s pretty good don’t you think? If you’re spending a lot on food then you want to be able to measure how exceptional it is in some way, and number of courses is a great metric. I lost count of which one we were on. It’s a cliché, but actually how many times in your life can you actually use that phrase and mean it? Excepting the times when you’re so drunk you can’t count your own fingers, obviously.

It was our second night and we were at the restaurant Coi (pronounced not like the fish but like the French “quoi” because, apparently, San Franciscans cannot spell). There’s plenty that you can read on the internet about the place and the chef behind it (Daniel Patterson), so I won’t repeat any of that here (but here’s a great summary from a food writer that I really rate). To give you a picture, though, Coi is a small, exclusive restaurant of perhaps twenty tables. There is no menu outside for you to browse if you happen to be passing. Your napkin is replaced with a new one if you get up to use the restroom half-way through the meal. There are decorative pebbles in the bathroom sink, so washing your hands is like participating in some kind of Japanese rock garden ritual. It’s that kind of a place.

And here's the menu from the night we were there. Our server presented it to us right at the end of the meal, after watching me desperately try to scribble down all the ingredients after each course.

And here’s the menu from the night we were there. We had the tasting menu, so we also got a glug of each wine paired with the appropriate dish. Unfortunately we got a bit excited on the first serving, so I have no idea how the sake tastes with the Geoduck (whatever that is). I can also testify that the herbs served with the strawberries at the end were, indeed, tiny.

But Coi’s not sniffy. No question was too dumb for our Jude Law-lookalike waiter. Which is good, because I asked him some dumb questions. Like, is this tiny piece of bread you’re serving me now another course? “No, sir,” said Jude Law, “the bread is not a course.” Or, what’s in this little jar? “That’s butter, sir.” Thanks Jude.

The food, he told us, would be “aroma and flavour forward,” with “no heavy and cloying French-like sauces.” When I didn’t recognise one of the ingredients, he would painstakingly describe what  it was and where it came from. He had the patience of a man serving people prepared to pay for one meal what many earn in a week.

Never before have I been so excited by turnips as at a farmers market in San Francisco.

In Northern California, ingredient is king. Everything is fresh and it all looks like it came out of some food-porn magazine. Never before have I been so excited by turnips as at a farmers’ market in San Francisco.

In Northern California, they love food so much that they spread it over their bodies. Don't try this with turnips at a farmers market.

In Northern California, they love food so much that they spread it over their bodies. Don’t try this with turnips at a farmers market.

I have to say, I found the laid back, unpretentious-but-discerning approach to food in Coi, and NorCal more widely, refreshing. If I were in Paris and I asked which item of cutlery I should use, then I’d certainly feel like the ignorant English tourist that I am. But here it was a fair question. “Daniel [the chef] thinks about the whole eating experience, down to how you’ll eat it,” our server explained. “I remember that we once had a chicken wing on the menu and it was in this broth, and Daniel didn’t want people just to pick the wing up and eat it with their fork, he wanted them to taste the broth as well. So we served it with just a spoon. That confused a few people.” It would confuse me too.

The whole meal, from start to finish, was like a culinary narrative of place, time and taste. It was the ultimate dining experience. It was, in my opinion, money well spent. I’ll even forgive Jude for forgetting to bring me the ketchup.

I WOULDN’T want you to think that San Francisco is all bank-breaking eateries. As with so many North American cities these days, there’s a big food truck movement. And, yes, to those unfamiliar with the concept – a food truck is just a glorified burger van. But what burgers…

It's street food, so it's ok to let the sauce dribble down your chin when you bite into the deliciousness. Note: this is not ok in Coi.

It’s street food, so it’s ok to let the sauce dribble down your chin when you bite into the deliciousness. Note: this is not ok in Coi.

And San Francisco, it turns out, is next to the sea, so there’s a lot of fish. Who knew? San Franciscans used to eat a lot of seafood, but then they realised that they could make a lot of money just selling it all to the tourists instead. All of the seafood restaurants being sensibly clustered around the piers, this development also had the happy effect of ensuring that all the tourists just went to the piers, where they were corralled into a single place called Pier 39, attracted by flashing lights, overpriced tat and, inexplicably, an Irish giftshop. Here idiotic Englishmen could have their photos taken with crabs (the crustacean, you understand), leaving the rest of the city happily free from blundering Brits, so prone to walking out into the road in front of a car whilst looking the wrong way. In fact this last phenomenon became so much of a problem that the city began issuing crash helmets to all those from countries where they drove on the left.

Life in the San Franciscan piers.

Life in the San Franciscan piers.

Those tourists just go crazy for the San Franciscan seafood at the piers. This one is dangerous because she hasn't been issued with her crash helmet yet.

Those tourists just go crazy for the San Franciscan seafood at the piers. This one is dangerous because she hasn’t been issued with her crash helmet yet.

Sometimes the tourists inadvisedly wander out of the Piers. But it’s ok, because the San Franciscans have developed a special tram just for the tourists called the F Line, which picks them up and dumps them back at Pier 39. Regardless of whether they want to go there or not. Then they eat some more crab and forget about what they saw in the rest of the city. It’s a bit like the Hunger Games, but in reverse. True story.

AND THAT’S how stuffing my face in San Francisco showed me the city. From high end to low end, from burgers to crabs – it was all delicious. And I even left the pier. Don’t tell anyone though.

NEXT TIME: I’m Drinkin’ in SF.

San Francisco by Plate, Fork & Chopstick: Or, How Stuffing My Face Showed Me San Francisco

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City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

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Yes we did have themed literary luggage tags, because we are that pretentious. And yes, that ring on my finger is made of meteorite and, yes, it is awesome because IT WAS ONCE FLYING THROUGH SPACE! No, this has nothing to do with California. Read on.

And God bless Virgin Atlantic, too, for giving us bubbly (read: cava) in a champagne saucer on the flight over because it was our honeymoon. No it wasn't the hoped for upgrade, but after four glasses of cava at 30,000ft you could be sitting in the baggage hold and you wouldn't notice.

And God bless Virgin Atlantic, too, for giving us bubbly (read: cava) in a champagne saucer on the flight over because it was our honeymoon. No it wasn’t the hoped for upgrade, but after four glasses of cava at 30,000ft you could be sitting in the baggage hold and you wouldn’t notice.

 
 
 

GETTING MARRIED is the most wonderful experience – it’s like being king for a day: you walk into the room and people burst into applause. That really should happen more often.

Then suddenly it’s all over, everyone departs and the next day you find yourself in a petrol station on the M6, wondering why people aren’t clapping. So thank goodness we went to California – all I needed to do was open my mouth, speak in a British accent and people automatically assumed that I was related to Prince William. God bless America.

 
 
 
 
 
 

You might have heard of the first place on our trip…

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In Infinite City, her atlas of San Francisco, Rebecca Solnit says that

“A city is a particular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place; it compounds many versions without quite reconciling them, though some cross over to multiple worlds – in Chinatown or queer space, in a drug underworld or a university community, in a church’s sphere or a hospital’s intersections. An atlas is a collection of versions of a place, a compendium of perspectives, a snatching out of the infinite ether of potential versions a few that will be made concrete and visible.”

This post and those that follow will examine some of the versions of San Francisco that I experienced, my snatches out of the infinite. And what better way to get to know a city, than through its food?

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Don’t tell me that this sight doesn’t get your heart racing a little faster.

THERE IS a strange sense of dislocation when you first arrive somewhere new, faraway, but somewhere you’ve read about before. It’s the sense that all of this is at the same time both new and familiar to you. It’s the realisation that despite this being a first for you, it’s going on everyday even without you being here to experience it and it’s desperately familiar to all the people who are already here. It’s the comprehension that, no, you’re not trapped in your own version of The Truman Show after all, and that you really are an insignificant part of the universe.

The familiarity of the famous - a dog walker takes a stroll.

The familiarity of the famous – a dog walker takes a stroll.

Stepping out of our rented apartment onto a San Franciscan street I felt this now. The hills and sideways-parked cars I had seen on films before; the plants seemed strange and exotic, yet expectedly so. My tired brain struggled to take in all these new-old sights and the accompanying feeling of existential weirdness.

So we did what any sane person does when faced with a profound feeling of their place in the world. We went for sushi.

It was the best sushi I have ever had.

The place was Amasia Hide’s Sushi Bar in the Castro district. As with all sushi places, the menu was overwhelmingly large. We stared at it blankly before choosing a couple of the set dishes. Our waiter quickly took our order – it was 5pm on a Monday and there was only one other person in the place – and then the sushi chef behind the counter started slicing and rolling, or whatever it is that sushi chefs do. Then deliciousness happened.

Within two hours of San Francisco I was eating food completely new to me. I couldn’t tell you what any of the appetisers were – mainly because I didn’t recognise them, but also, let us not forget, the Virgin Atlantic Cava was still somewhere in my bloodstream. In a moment of lucidity I asked our server what we were eating and even managed to write this down. It was hijiki seaweed. It looks a little like a black version of samphire, an edible plant found in UK coastal areas and beloved of the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall. It has a malty, sweet-savoury taste, like fruit cake, and I liked it very much. Even the pickled ginger in this place was outstanding – soft yet crunchy, sweet yet tangy. And all this before I even got to any fish! The sushi itself: super fresh octopus, tuna and eel, wonderfully salty-sweet roe that popped on the roof of my mouth and sensational spicing.

Sadly I had to share it all. Something about being married apparently.

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Actually this little plate of deliciousness is from the airport whilst we were waiting for our flight home. Despite the aviation setting, it was still frickin’ awesome. The message? Eat sushi in San Fran.

NEXT TIME…. I eat the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten, enjoy some meals on wheels and generally make myself bitter about not being in San Francisco anymore.