Viking Country 3: Road Trip Treasures

One of the more endearing things about the road trip in Sweden was the sheer volume of cool stuff to see that is really close to the main highway. I feel a deep cultural attraction to “the road trip” which I’ve always sort of assumed was part of my American heritage. After all, as a child, my father took me on summer road trips in the RV to all the beautiful national parks of the West. My mom took us on weekend road trips up and down the coast or the town next door. When I got a car, I took repeated road trips with my friends. Loading up on road snacks, blasting your road music and pulling over when some random sign says “world’s largest ketchup bottle” is a basic part of Americana that thrives in my soul no matter how long I’m away.


Sweden is the only other country I’ve been to that I feel really gets it as far as road trip culture goes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved driving across Germany. Those people have amazing gas stations. The New Zealand drive was great and I loved having my own wheels in Bohol. The main difference is that, however beautiful the roadside scenery was in all those places, the road was just a way to get to places that public transit didn’t go. In Sweden, they not only have great gas stations, but also STUNNING rest stops that are basically parks and attractions on their own, AND they have the most wonderful series of roadside attractions.

On the day I fled the not-a-murder-house-we-promise, I found a cool viking church, another old-timey village replica, the most beautiful rest stop I’ve ever seen, and a giant statue by Pablo Picasso.

Viking Church

The Swedish people were late to the Christianity conversion party. After all, the religion’s spread originated in Rome, and the Roman Empire never quite managed to get a foothold in the land of the ice and snow. Vikings were worshiping Odin and co. right up to the 12th century, and even when they finally did “convert” it was… very halfhearted. A lot of the viking cultural and artistic trappings stayed almost entirely the same but with a little “for Jesus” footnote.

20180815_121721

I stopped in at Glanshammar Church in Örebro to see a little bit of how the Viking and the Christian met in the middle. I have to say, I wasn’t much impressed by the exterior of the building. There was an interesting watchtower construction, but the church was remarkably plain for something supposedly Catholic. I mean, think of all those Romanesque arches and Gothic cathedrals in Europe. What was this little white nub of a building?

Fortunately, I stuck it out and found the door. The interior of the very plain white building is filled end to end and top to bottom with highly intricate artwork that uniquely combines the traditional Christian art and architecture from the continent with the Swedish styles seen in earlier Viking tradition.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Outdoor Museum of Provincial Life

Next, still in Örebro, I stopped by the 18th century village reproduction called Wadköping. According to the sign, many of the buildings were actually transplanted from their original home to create the open air museum. I began to wander the town, noticing once more the extreme prevalence of red buildings. I saw some ladies doing needlework with laundry drying, and I went into buildings for kids that had plaster animals and pretend food.

I found the home of Hjalmar Bergman (Ingred Bergman’s father), a famous if often misunderstood writer who wrote about a mythical town of  Wadköping as a kind of Anytown, Sweden representing a middle class provincial life. The recreational is named after his literary invention as there was no such village in reality.

There was a replica school house which showed a typical education plan for students including Christianity, native language, arithmetic, “knowledge of nature” (the natural sciences), gymnastics, gender segregated crafts, and drawing.

There were a startling number of little artisan shops inside the buildings. Some were simply souvenir and ice cream shops, but others included traditional arts like woodcarving and a silversmith. The Historiska Butiken was particularly filled with the kind of beautiful Norse styled witchcrafty goodies that I know at least 30 people in my immediate friend group would have loved to fill their homes with. Even I had a hard time resisting. Tiny luggage space saves me money again!

A Fully Functioning Castle?

My last stop in Örebro was the Örebro Castle. This was the only place I ever really had trouble finding parking since the castle is quite central and Örebro is not a tiny village. After a few drives around the block, I found some street parking and headed over. It was mainly an exterior photo-op because the castle is not decorated in antique royal furniture the way so many of the castles on the continent were. A small part of the castle was set up as a kind of tiny museum, and much larger parts of the castle are actually used as government and business offices. The governor even lives there. Functional castle!

While exploring, I also found a hiking trail sign that indicated a “walking with death” level of trail difficulty, and a dramatically oversized park bench, just for fun.

Roadside Picasso

Waving good by to Örebro, I hit the highway for another longer stretch in search of the Picasso. That’s right, there’s an original Picasso standing out in the Swedish countryside… or… lakeside anyway. I’m not actually a big Picasso fan, for complicated reasons involving art history and feminism, but this seemed like the Swedish equivalent of “the world’s largest bottle of ketchup” and I could not drive so near it without stopping by. It was a long slow drive down a thin, low speed limit road, but it was such a beautiful day, and the road ran along the waterfront. A worthy side-trip.

On my way, I paused at one of Sweden’s many beautiful and amazing roadside rest stops. This one was a small lake surrounded by beautiful evergreen trees. The water was so still that the perfect blue and fluffy white of the sky were reflected like a mirror. I ate my sandwich and watched the beauty, just feeling overwhelmed by Sweden.20180815_160148.jpg

When I finally arrived at the Picasso, I was not disappointed. It’s clearly his work, and it’s GIANT. I wandered all around taking photos from various angles before I realized that the absolute best angle for the late afternoon sun also contained a couple having a nice fika (cup of coffee & snack) on a bench below the statue. I tried my best to shoot around them, hoping they might finish and move, but in the end I had to go in for politely asking if they would mind stepping away from the bench for just a moment so I could get the best picture. I do hate asking people to move their picnic, but it’s not like I’m going to be back again any time soon. They were quite gracious about the request, and I got my “shot”.20180815_172959.jpg

Fine Dining

I had reserved a cabin in a campground for the night, but was slowly learning to plan dinner before checking into the more remote accommodations. With no desire for another grocery store dinner, I decided to stop in Karlstad for a nice restaurant meal. Thanks to Google, I found a place called Elektriska. It’s built in the remains of an old electro-technical plant and focuses on high quality, sustainable, local, ethically sourced food cooked with an eye for haute cuisine. It is not cheap, but it was just inside my price range, and sounded right up my alley. Not to mention, it was in an adorable neighborhood.

20180815_191332.jpg

Their cocktail menu alone could have kept me happy. In the end I chose a lingonberry Gin and Tonic made with Stockholms Branneri Pink Gin, lingonberry, grapefruit, and Mediterranean Tonic. ($15)

The appetizer menu also looked like something I could just happily graze my way through, but the waitress advised that even the larger sampler was unlikely to be quite enough for a dinner. I settled on the “16 Ampere” appetizer platter which included rainbow trout with dill and vinegar, truffle salami with ricotta and sunflower, and wild boar with plum and tellicherry. ($17) The menu is seasonal and based on what’s available, so don’t go expecting to get exactly the same.

The wild boar sausage and the wild trout sashimi were entirely delicious, but the star of this dish was absolutely the salami. I would never in 10 million years have thought to combine salami, ricotta cheese, AND sunflower butter. I love all three of these, and I have probably had salami and ricotta together, and might have tried ricotta with sunflower seeds in a salad or something, but… wow. I can’t even explain how amazing this flavor combo is. Get u sum.

My main course was more rainbow trout, and if you like fish you know you just can’t go wrong with fresh caught local rainbow trout in season. This was skin fried rainbow trout with root vegetables, sundried tomatoes, and crayfish tails in a buttered crayfish broth. (28$)20180815_202844.jpg

I included the prices because this was the MOST expensive meal I ate on holiday, and I kind of wanted to put in perspective what that means for me. A high quality meal and cocktail at a fancy restaurant is not something I do often, but I’d been saving by eating in grocery stores and local delis, and this was a splurge that was 100% worth it. Amazing food isn’t cheap, but it sure does make the pleasure centers in my brain light up like Christmas and New Year’s all at once.

Cabin In the Woods

I got to my “campsite” in Värmland after dark and had a little trouble finding the bathrooms, but fortunately I was the only one there, and I’m not afraid to pretend to be a bear. The cabin itself was very plush with wall to wall carpet and a sort of beach house all white linen decor, as well as excellent WiFi. Despite being an actual cabin in the woods, the whole vibe of the campsite was homey and friendly which was a nice change after the farmhouse fright night.20180815_220708.jpg

The next morning I was able to easily find the bathroom and kitchen, make myself a cup of coffee and prepare a bit of breakfast from my grocery supplies. Traveling in a car means I can stock up on food for most meals and snacks more easily than when I’m traveling by bus and train. I was in no particular hurry to hit the road, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the little table and chairs out front of my cabin while watching the sheep across the road.

Once I felt full and rested, and put all my bedding in the laundry room, I hit the road once more. The cabin rules had included a rather extensive list of guests cleaning responsibilities and it wasn’t the first time I encountered such. The Langholm hostel had similar rules instructing guests not only to strip the sheets for the laundry staff, but also to take out the trash and sweep the floor before checking out! I try to be a good guest and never leave a big mess behind, but for me that usually means putting all my waste IN the garbage and cleaning up any big spills. I know pretty much all US hotels/hostels have housekeeping that have to clean the rooms between guests, but I’ve never seen the need to make extra work for them. Still it was a stretch even for me to be told that I had to go to the main building and get the vacuum cleaner, haul it over to the cabin and vacuum, then take it back, and also fold all the bedding after removing the duvet covers. I guess I’m just saying if you go to Sweden, expect to be your own housekeeping.

Winging It and Winning

I was getting used to following the roadsigns to roadside attractions by this point in my road trip and I happily turned off to explore Borgvik and Hyttruin without really knowing what I’d find. Hytta means “foundry”. Hyttruin is therefore the ruins of a foundry. I’m not a person who is typically interested in ironwork, and I think if the sign had said “iron foundry” I might have kept driving, but then I would have missed these wonderful ruins, and you know how much I love ruins.

Looking at the size of the defunct forge, I could imagine mythical dwarves making Thor’s hammer there. It was enormous, but it’s not from the days of antiquity, it’s just from the 1800s. Alongside the ruins ran the waterfall that was created to supply the foundry with hyrdropower. There were signs around the place explaining the history of pig iron, and the ins and outs of manufacture, but it turns out I’m still not interested in iron production. Very cool ruins, though.

Art & Lunch

Next I popped into a little art gallery nearby (still in Borgvik) called Sliperiet. It turned out to be a restaurant/art gallery and I opted to do both. Being hungry, I started with the restaurant and once again indulged my salmon habit. It was another highly artisan place with only a few chef chosen dishes on the menu each day. The salmon and veg were perfectly lovely, but what made the dish sing was the lemon cream. I don’t know how he made this stuff, but it was absolutely lemon and cream in the best possible way. Both are great with salmon but together it was heaven. I could eat that lemon cream every day on everything.20180816_130950.jpg

While I was eating, the staff brought me a booklet with little biographies of all the artists on display in the gallery which gave me a chance to think about what I was going to see. I decided to do the museum as a break between lunch and dessert, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of art on display in what was really the “middle of nowhere”. I took photos of absolutely everything, but I’m only going to share some of my favorites here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In case you want to follow up on any of these fine creators, I’ve tried to include relevant links: Albin Liljestrand, Kjell Engman, Stephan Westling, Ann Lillqvist, Rodney Smith, Christian Coigny, Nino Ramsby, Ylva CederTim Flach, Sara Nilsson, Jonas Rooth, Eka Acosta

After a lovely dessert of crème brûlée, I asked the very kind and helpful staff people where to go next. I had planned a day “in Varmland” but had no idea what was there, and had been going off of roadside stands and Google Maps markers with some success so far, but it never hurts to ask a local. They told me about an artist commune called NotQuite and I resolved to include it as my last stop in Varmland for the day.

An Artist Commune

20180816_161751NotQuite is an artist community built in an old paper factory in the middle of nothing. The art on display is far more experimental and boundary pushing than anything else I’d seen that summer, and not all of it was good, but all of it was sure trying to BE something. I wandered into the abandoned factory floor where art installations were scattered around almost as though they had been abandoned along with the paper. Small bright displays stood alone in large concrete rooms, and almost all of the signage was only in Swedish.

I found a mattress with some cobbled together VR goggles and a vague sort of “play me” note. It was an odd distorted and block color reality with a voice over in English of a person of indeterminate gender exploring the concept of sexuality. Very much everything you might stereo-typically think of when you think of experimental art commune.

It was mostly empty, but I’m not sure if that was because of the time of day or time of year. After spending a while wandering through the factory buildings and trying out the art, I headed back to the main gates. I stopped in at the gift shop on the way out where some of the more polished and “ready for home consumption” kind of art was on sale. I had a chance to ask a few questions about the place to the lady behind the counter. She explained that while a few people did choose to live on site, that most simply came there to work, and that they were funded by a grant from the government to support the arts. You can learn more on their website.


Sweden still makes me sigh with longing when I think of these days. Staring now down the barrel of planning another summer holiday, I’m deeply tempted to return and explore a new part of the country. While I’ve enjoyed my time in Korea these past few years, it lacks the freedom, the nature, and the stunning variety of culture and food that I yearn for. Still, until I have a stable landing pad for my next “home base” I guess I’ll take what I can get in the holidays. 

Advertisements

Viking Country 2: Strange Sleeps

I try to save money when traveling by booking affordable accommodation, but I’ve also been burned more than once looking for the best price. These days, I’m a bit more discriminating about things like online reviews and photos, but it still happens that sometimes I get more than I bargained for. Sweden had one of the best and worst surprises for me with my accommodation back to back. And because I’m telling leg of the trip in more or less chronological order within Sweden, you also get to see the roadside attractions I visited between them.


Bed Behind Bars?

20180813_124643.jpg

I drove the rest of the way to Stockholm and found my hostel a bit after dark. I chose my Stockholm accommodations based almost exclusively on the fact they had free parking. Taking a car is absolutely necessary if you want to see the small towns and wilderness of Sweden, but inside the big cities, cars are not so welcome. Parking in Stockholm can be upwards of 20$ a day! I found so many cool hostels at good prices that were either “street parking only” or charged an arm and a leg more for a parking spot. When I found a place that had a good rating and free parking, I didn’t look too much harder. That’s how I ended up in Långholmen Prison.

It was dark when I arrived, and I was tired from a full day of being a tourist, so I didn’t quite absorb what I’d gotten myself into. My 2 person dorm room was inside an old prison cell and although the beds were comfy, it was a very unexpected experience. While I was checking in at the front desk, I met a little old lady who’s father had been a prisoner at the Lanholmen back when it was operational and she and her cousins had come to stay at the now-hotel to celebrate his memory. She spoke unashamedly about his crimes, and of her own escape from a girls reform school in Soderskopping where I had just loaded up on ice cream. I stood at the check in counter agape listening to the wonderful and terrible adventures of this lady’s life and looking at photos of her art. She had been through so much and was still thirsty for life and adventures. I want to be like her when I grow up.

A Lazy Day & An Accidental Tour in my Pajamas 

20180813_191529

I woke up much earlier than I would have liked because of some nearby construction, but I headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and was bowled over by the abundance and variety of food laid out. I had thought that I was staying in a hostel, but it turned out that the dormitory style rooms were only one small part, and that it was actually quite a luxurious hotel, museum, and beach resort. Surprise!

Stuffed full of amazing smoked meats, breads, fishes, jams, and cheeses, nothing on my list of things to do seemed half so enticing as the comfortable sofas on the patio. I wrapped up in one of the blankets provided and used the hotel WiFi to watch Netflix while basking in the sunshine and cool morning air. Although I’d had plenty of down days during July, I felt like most of those were forced on me for health reasons. It was so nice to choose to relax in total wellness.

I had not even gotten dressed to go to breakfast. Not realizing it was a fancy restaurant, I’d gone in my PJs, and was still in my PJs when I intercepted a tour group. My bedroom was in the museum wing of the hotel and now that it was operating hours, there was a guide and a group gathered in the hallway examining the items on display and listening to the history of the prison. I thought to myself “free tour” and tagged along. The museum part is not big, but it’s so full of stuff so it actually took a while to get through all of it. When we got to the end of the hall where my room was, some of the tourists had started to realize that the people walking around in pajamas and slippers going to and from the bathrooms were guests. I heard one wonder aloud what the rooms were like, so I opened up my room to show them.

20180813_220702

The Museum included a nice history of crime and punishment in Sweden, focusing mainly of course on the role of Langholmen. Some pretty vivid descriptions of historic punishments were presented in order to provide a context and contrast to the more modern styles of criminal justice. In most of human history, criminal punishments were basically torture such as cutting off body parts, breaking bones, permanent mutilation and disabling, or burning at the stake. The last part of the history reads:

The death penalty was eventually replaced by incarceration as a punishment for many different types of crimes. The justice system began to be based on fines or prison sentences and it was no longer regarded as the state’s job to realize the wrath of God. Fifteen prisoners were executed from 1865 to 1921… The death penalty was officially abolished in 1973.

Now, the goal of the criminal justice system in Sweden is considered to be reform and reintegration into society. The prison population in Sweden is only 66 per 100,000 (compared to 737 in the US, 615 in Russia, 118 in China, and 148 in the UK). Clearly they’re doing something right.

The prison on Langholmen started out in 1724 as a work house known as “the Spin House” where “degenerate men and fallen women” were sentenced to work. The Spin House produced and dyed yarn and cloth for use in the clothing factories. As the industry grew, the demand for more cloth grew and the demand for more free labor grew with it. Guards were paid 6 copper coins for each new prisoner they brought in. There was no such thing as due process, so either you were rich enough to stay out of trouble or you were nabbed. It may have started by sentencing thieves and prostitutes, but it soon expanded to anyone poor and in the wrong place.

20180813_123831.jpg

Workers worked from 5am until 9pm in harsh conditions doing back breaking labor with minimal nutrition and no concern for their health or comfort. Only Sundays did they get a slight break from labor when it was time to attend services.

In the early 1800s, the Spin House was closed, and the structure became The Southern Correctional Institution, officially a prison. In 1840, Crown Prince Oscar got very interested in criminal justice reform, particularly by studying the systems used in the United States known as the Philadelphia System and the Auburn System. The Philadelphia system advocated for prisoners to stay inside their cells at all times (or at least as much as possible) while the Auburn System advocated that prisoners only sleep in the cells and spend the rest of the time in groups performing useful work… work which was of course to be carried out in strictest discipline and silence. No one had heard of basic human rights yet.

By 1880, the prison now called Central Prison was a mixture of the two with 208 Philadelphia and 300 Auburn cells in different buildings around the island. One of the rooms in the museum hallway was a recreated cell rather than a modern dorm room. Inside, visitors could see the entire set up including some very early folding / multi purpose furniture like the desk that turned into a bed, a washstand, a small stool, and a cupboard.

In 1945, a new law was passed to change Sweden’s prison system forever.

“Punishment would no longer be carried out as a warning to society in general. Rather than being ‘made an example of’, the prisoner should be treated firmly and seriously and with concern for his dignity as a human being.”

The material upshot of this was a relaxing of the draconian treatments and the addition of cupboards in the cells where prisoners could store a few personal items.

Prisoners still had to be productive, but it became a part of the reform process. In the 1960s the prison had a machine shop, a print shop, and areas for book binding, carpentry, tailoring, mattress fabrication, and envelope production. When prisons finally did away with mandatory work requirements, prisoners were able to spend their time studying or receiving therapy. The prison closed in 1975 and lay in a state of deterioration for many years before the hotel opened in 1989. (photos: then and now)

When the tour group and I parted ways at last, I donned my bathing suit and headed to the nearby beach for some sun and sand. The weather was still a bit cool, but pleasantly so. There were plenty of locals enjoying a swim, so I decided to try it too. The water was brisk, but fun. I also noticed that people didn’t seem in any way fussed about body shape or modesty the way I’m used to in America or Asia (outside a gender segregated spa, anyway). No one was sunbathing nude, but people changed out of wet swimming gear with only a draping towel for minimum modesty and small children often didn’t bother with swimwear at all. It’s really nice to be in a place where people are comfortable with non-sexualized bodies.

20180813_162645.jpg

When the sun got low enough to be just a little too chilly for swimming, I headed back up to the hotel and changed for dinner. Despite my attempts to keep to a budget on this trip, I decided to spoil myself with a meal in the fancy restaurant. After all, I hadn’t spent any money all day on my museum tour and beach visit, so why not? I’m so glad I did. I ordered a simple (hah!) seafood chowder that was such a rich creamy blend of so many delicious ocean treats with wonderfully cooked tender potatoes, and for dessert a dense chocolate torte with … well, I can say “cream and cherries” and it simply cannot conjure the flavor of these dark red cherries soaked in liquor and partially candied, and the rich buttery drizzles of cream that tied it all together. Heaven!

20180813_210619.jpg

I never expected to be staying at a fancy resort OR a former prison, and I got both! I can’t recommend this place enough.

Stockholm & Gripsholm

On my way out of town the next day I got to find my friends one last time. We’d spent about a week together in Paris and Copenhagen, but I thought I’d seen the last of them when they headed off to their cruise ship in Denmark. It turned out, their cruise stopped off in Stockholm for my last day there. Originally, I’d planned to leave the hostel fairly early and get on the road, but instead, I took advantage of the free parking and took a bus into the city to meet them at a local street festival we thought would be good fun for the kids.

20180814_120154

I tried to go see the Vasa Museum because everyplace online was like “so cool! must go!”, but it turned out that every other tourist had the same idea and the line wrapped around the whole park. Instead, I took the chance to check out some of the metro stations which are quite rightly described as being another must see for the city of Stockholm. I also wandered through some random gardens and the very beginning of what looked like an interesting festival before finally finding the festival I was actually looking for. Summer fun!

I had a good conversation with a man I bought a latte from because he was friendly. He was an immigrant to Sweden and we talked about what that was like and why he’d chosen to come, comparing our home country economic situations and the shared desire to live in a place with less corruption and more opportunity. I wished him luck and joined my friends when they arrived. We had a food truck picnic on the bridge and then set off to play with the festivals various creative stands. The young boy became instantly entranced by an interactive art piece made of kids playing with yarn, and I joined a 10 minute painting workshop where we all made a fast and furious painting of a Swedish fjord.

20180814_152127

When it was time for them to catch the tour bus back to the cruise ship, I headed back to my rental car and hit the road. I have to say that I left Stockholm rather later than my original itinerary called for, so most of the things on my “to do” for that stretch of road were all closed up by the time I arrived and I got an interesting, somewhat confusing, exterior only experience.

20180814_182738

My first stop was Gripsholm Castle where I found an actual runestone. This one was from the 11th century, and the poem was translated on a sign nearby.

20180814_183216

They fared like men, far after gold
and in the East, gave the eagle food
They died soutward [sic], in Serkland

I also stopped at a place called Rademachersmedjorna in Eskilstuna (yeah, Swedish words are fun). It was billed as an interactive historical village? When I was a kid living in Maryland, we sometimes went to these kinds of places that imitated life in colonial America, and I visited some in California as well meant to re-create the Wild West. I was interested to see what a Swedish one might be, however all the people were gone and the buildings closed up when I arrived.

Nonetheless, I wandered around for a little bit looking in windows and reading signs. The town was filled with signs showing people in period dress and very vivid descriptions of the people and their lives. At first I thought it was just “flavor” but I began to realize the stories were connected and finally that there was some kind of crime to be solved by connecting all the clues from the various characters. I wondered if there are actors who play them during regular operating hours, but there was no time for me to back track the next day.

20180814_192754

According to yet more signs, the town was founded as a place to make cutlery by a Latvian businessman and a bunch of German blacksmiths.

Not A Murder House At All

Around 8:30pm that night,  I pulled up to where my GPS said my “bed and breakfast” was only to find myself driving around a farm. Although it was before sunset, it was still darkish because of the rain clouds. The pictures were taken the next day on my way out. After a couple times circling the farm, I finally found a little house that looked like the picture on Booking.com and pulled up next to a blue parking sign under an apple tree, running over dozens of fallen apples. Some friendly Swedes said Hej  (pronounced “hey”, it means “hello”) as they got in their car and drove away.

20180815_114937

I tried my code on the door but it wasn’t working. I was tried and hungry and not feeling especially comfortable about this building being in the middle of nowhere with no staff persons or anything around. Then a random middle aged, very large man opened the door. He turned out to be another guest, and didn’t know why my code didn’t work or where my room was. I messaged the property through Booking.com and tried to fight down my panic when another man arrived at the front door.

There’s me, alone, at a farm house, close to dark, in the middle of nowhere, with two strange men… freaking out. I went outside, thinking of just getting back in the car and driving away when the owner (a woman) showed up. I had to remind myself that this place was on Booking.com, with lots of previous customers who were definitely still alive and not murdered at all and had even given it high reviews. It had to be safe. My amygdala was not having it, and even though I followed her back inside to find my room, the bathroom and the WiFi password, I was barely under control.

When the owner left, I had to drive 8 miles back up the highway to find the nearest grocery store in order to get food for dinner and breakfast. I had a good solid breakdown in the car. I managed to calm down enough to convince myself to sleep there, but was not reassured when I got up to use the bathroom and saw padlocks on the outside of every bedroom door. Not locked at that time but there.

20180815_114134.jpg

If you are reading this and think I’m over-reacting, I envy your safe safe life. Please believe me when I say that women raised in American cities are taught NEVER to be in this kind of situation because we’re most likely going to be murdered, raped, and maybe eaten… in no certain order.

Nothing happened. It was not a murder house. But it really made me think about my life and culture that a situation like this made me freak out on a lizard brain level and yet was so normal to other people that no one even thought to mention these details in the reviews online.


Stockholm is about the halfway point of my driving tour of Sweden. I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful and friendly country as much as I did. Thanks for reading!

 

Food of Nagoya: Tebasaki, Hitsumabushi & Kishimen oh my!

I don’t think that I ever truly appreciated food tourism for most of my life. Of course I like to eat locally, to try new foods, to sample the regional cuisine, but I’ve never made it a goal. It was always more of a side quest, a “since I’m here anyway, I might as well”. I thought I was doing quite well given the (not inaccurate) stereotype about American (and British) tourists who like to go to exotic places and then eat familiar foods. I thought my willingness to try was good enough. What did I know?


I have noticed since living in Korea that there is a strong feeling bordering on obsession with the famous foods of any given tourist destination. Not only outside of Korea, but regionally within the country as well. If you go to a certain place, it was taken as given that you MUST get some of the locally famous food. To do otherwise was simply unthinkable.

As my friend and I sat waiting for our food, I shared this observation with her and she made a politely stiffled “wtf whypipo” sound and tried not to look completely aghast. Her family is from Mexico (yes, she’s American) and she explained to me that as a Latina, for her and her family (and her culture as far as she is aware) it’s always about the food. I have to admit, I did feel a little abashed, but I have no reason to cling to my old ideas. I usually enjoy the hell out of eating locally, so why NOT make it part of my to-do list rather than merely adjacent to it?

Tebasaki

20180505_175507Our first famous food sight was Yamachan, a chicken joint that is usually so popular that wait times can be over an hour. Yamachan is famous for chicken wings. Initially, I was very skeptical since I get plenty of chicken in Korea, but when we arrived we were sufficiently early as to be able to get a table. We had to take the smoking section, but it was still clear air when we were seated.

Smoking sections? Yeah, Japan has relegated smoking to a few small designated areas. You can’t just smoke anywhere, even outdoors. There are designated smoking spots with ashtrays. Some are open air, while others are actually a glass booth to protect passersby from the second hand fumes. Since people can’t just step onto the sidewalk for a smoke, restaurants have smoking sections. These are also cordoned off with floor to ceiling walls and sometimes even a double door airlock system to keep the smell from entering the non-smoking section.

2663935758_e6c3d2bf2f_b

photo credit: Yusuke Kawasaki

Back to the chicken wings. Nagoya is famous for tebasaki, a crispy fried pepper spiced chicken wing. There’s no batter, so the wings are just fried nice and crispy on the outside, but moist on the inside. They are coated with a lightly spicy salt and pepper flavor that was zingy and enjoyable. Plus, each order comes with instructions on how to eat the wings Nagoya style (and get all the meat off in one swipe!). I found later that a lot of people consider these wings to be “quite spicy” so Korean cuisine might have impacted my spice meter, as I only found it pleasantly zingy.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

As we finished our plate of wings, the restaurant was filling up and the smoke was getting thicker so it was time to move on. After the tebasaki appetizer, our main course was to be conveyor belt sushi.

We arrived at Sushiro, the famous 100yen restaurant, only to discover that going to a popular restaurant on a Saturday night that is also a holiday means a long wait. Quelle suprise! The good news was that we’d already had some chicken wings, and it was our first time to catch up since parting ways in February, so the waiting area was just a place to sit down and chat by then.

photo credit: アジロウ

This was a true dollar menu style conveyor belt place. Any dish that came by on a plain yellow plate was up for grabs and only 100 yen. If you wanted something specific, you could use the little computer at each table to place an order. I got some of my favorites (unagi, fatty tuna, salmon roe and more) and proceeded to stuff my face with sushi. It’s amazing to me that even though Korea and Japan are separated by only a narrow strip of ocean and both are heavy seafood consumers, the difference in ingredients and flavors is mind-blowing. Even in Japanese sushi restaurants in Korea, I have trouble finding things like tuna and eel. Salmon roe? Forget about it. I was in sushi heaven until I thought my tummy would explode and then the waitress came by to calculate our bill. She did this by measuring our stack of plates! They don’t even have to count, since each plate is the same height, they just hold up a special ruler and then type up the bill.

Two of us stuffing ourselves was still less than 12$. Japan doesn’t have to be expensive.

Morning Service

20180507_100913Amid the many things that I found to try while in Nagoya is the “morning service”. Many of the cafes around town have begun to offer a light breakfast (egg and toast or ogura toast) for free (“service” in Japanese) with any order of coffee. Sunday morning my friend and I headed over to Komeda Coffee. This cute little coffee shop is a chain restaurant famous for it’s special morning service of thick, fluffy, buttery toast and red bean paste, also known locally as “ogura toast”. While lots of places in east Asia love sweet red bean paste in pastry (I eat it in Korea all the time), Nagoya got famous for ogura toast by adding… wait for it… margarine! The sweet thick red bean spread with creamy salty margarine creates a unique Nagoya flavor that should definitely be on your “to eat” list. Plus, their coffee is pretty good.

In the spirit of being on vacation, and fondly remembering my childhood year in Japan I ordered a “cream coffee”, the picture of which looked like iced coffee with a generous twist of whipped cream on top. Vacation calories don’t count right? When I received my mega sized coffee drink, it turned out not to be whipped cream, but ice cream! Smooth, rich, vanilla soft serve floating on a small iceberg inside the cup. I am especially fond of red bean and cream, so I dolloped some ice cream on my toast for extra decadence. So good. And all for less than a Starbucks’s latte!

I went back to Komeda every morning of my holiday because it was a) close to my friend’s house and the subway, b) very reasonably priced breakfast, and c) SO DELICIOUS! Free WiFi and friendly, patient staff helped a lot, too.

Hitsumabushi

The evening highlight of Sunday was a visit to one of Nagoya’s most famous restaurants, Atsuta Horaiken, to enjoy this local specialty. I know eel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been in love with Japanese grilled eel since the first time I tried it. It’s flaky, smokey, sweet and savory. It’s everything a grilled fish should be plus some undefinable extra flavor that comes from the eel and it’s special sauce. Unagi sauce is actually sold in stores because it’s such a unique blend. I bought some once to make eel at home and had so much leftover sauce I started eating it with eggs, which turns out to also be good. Anyway, when I found out that one of my favorite Japanese foods was ALSO one of the most famous local dishes of Nagoya, I immediately put it on my to do list.

Bear in mind that Japan was just finishing a holiday weekend on Sunday, so for many folks it was the last fling before going back to work on Monday. To make matters worse, this famous and delicious restaurant doesn’t take reservations on holidays or weekends, it’s first come first serve. We tried to make a reservation for one of the weekdays I was in town, but they were booked solid. Instead we planned to head over about 30 minutes before opening and get a good place in line. When we showed up, the restaurant had workers stationed all the way down to the elevator to show visitors where to go, and very polite hostesses were arranging guests on a looooooong line of chairs in the open space in front of the restaurant.

We were only about 20 people down the line and were honestly quite excited about it, since we were originally prepared to wait an hour or more for a table. Even better, the restaurant started seating people well before the posted opening hours. I’m not sure if it was because of the holiday or because it was the last weekend this particular location would be open before prolonged remodeling. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves playing musical chairs for a remarkably short time. I love the fact that the restaurant had seating in the waiting area. While I think pagers might have been a better way of alerting guests that a table was ready, it was a little exciting to be in line and to shuffle seats every time someone ahead of us went inside.

Image result for atsuta horaiken nagoya

photo credit Ray C via TripAdvisor

They also brought us an English language menu while we were waiting so that we could peruse the options, and the hostess did her best to make recommendations and give explanations in English for us as well. I really appreciate this because although my Japanese isn’t half bad, I am terrible at the super polite version of Japanese. Especially fancy shops and restaurants will often use a version of Japanese that is so formal I can’t understand it anymore, and then I just end up feeling embarrassed.

Hitsumabushi is NOT cheap. A single order is almost 40$. Both of us wanted to have some, but we were also eyeing an appetizer on the menu that was tamago (egg) with eel filling. In the end we decided to order the 1 ½ size hitsumabushi and one of the egg eel omelettes to share. The omelette arrived first and was quite delicious. The egg was light and fluffy and the eel inside was rich and savory. I think if it had been my dinner choice I would have been a little sad, but it was a perfect appetizer experience.

Finally, the star of the show arrived. Hitsumabushi is served in a huge wooden bowl with a tray full of fixings. We were issued careful instructions on the proper way to eat this delightful dish. On the surface, it looks like unagi-don, a bowl of rice with eel on top. However, the Nagoya style eel is thinner sliced and has a crispier exterior than regular unagi. Also, it’s not drenched in eel sauce.

20180506_160143

We ate according to the instructions, spooning ¼ of the large bowl’s contents into our smaller personal bowls and eating it plain at first. I was impressed straight away.

20180506_155253Even in normal restaurants, eel is one of the more expensive dishes. I tend to avoid buying it here in Korea because it’s often not prepared well. Nonetheless, it is one of my all time favorite Japanese foods. The “plain” hitsumabushi still had plenty of flavor. Of course the smokey, fishy unique flavor of the eel itself, but also a lighter version of the sauce it’s cooked with, as well as the vinegar in the rice. It had so much of what I look for in a good meal, I instantly knew the price was well worth it.

20180506_160202The second ¼ of the dish is meant to be served with the dry fixings provided in the little side box. In our case, we were given small slices of spring onions, thinly shredded nori (seaweed), and what very well may have been fresh wasabi. Most wasabi in the world is fake, sadly, it’s just green horseradish. Now, I love horseradish too, so that doesn’t usually bother me. I’ve learned a little about fresh wasabi from watching cooking shows and documentaries, but I’ve never had any. When I looked at this wasabi, I noticed the texture was very different from what I’m used to. Instead of a smooth paste, it had little shredded bits of plant matter.

Real wasabi is a root that is grated to get wasabi paste. I thought that the texture could be an indication of fresh grated wasabi. I tasted it on it’s own as well before adding it to my bowl and found that it was lighter, fresher and less “bitey” than what I’m used to in wasabi paste. It didn’t even try to get up my nose. Again, it lines up with everything I’ve read about the flavor of real/fresh wasabi. Excited by this prospect, I added some of each ingredient to my bowl and lightly mixed them together.

20180506_1601431

Whatever I thought of the wonderful flavor and texture qualities of the first unaltered bowl were blown straight out of my mind. Everything wonderful about the plain hitsumabushi was suddenly illuminated by fireworks-like bursts of green umami jumping out of the simple yet high quality spices I had added in round two. Sometimes, I go too long between truly spectacular life changing meals. I lose sight of the artistic heights of food that were so poetically expressed by a cartoon rat. Worse, I may even come to look at food as a burden, simply fuel for my body with no other reward, if I am kept in sub-par food land for too long. But then a restaurant like this comes up and gives my taste receptors and limbic system something to scream about and I remember what is possible. This isn’t just food tourism, it’s heaven in a bowl.

20180506_161416Round 3 we were instructed to replicate round 2 and then add broth. I don’t really know how to describe the flavor of the broth. It was also a little smoky, a little umami. I suspected there were some dried shitake involved in the flavor as well as some konbu dashi. It was nice, but for my taste it didn’t really add to the flavors the way that the spices alone had. Additionally, it drastically changed the texture of the dish, turning crispy eel and rice into a wetter soup. It was still delicious, and I’m glad that I was able to try all the different styles of eating hitsumabushi, but I was grateful for that final ¼ serving where we were instructed to return to whichever of the first three we had liked best and do it again!

By the time we finished, I was on an insane food flavor high and I thought my stomach might explode. If this experience sounds like something you want to try, don’t worry, although the Sakae location is closing, there are other branches of Atsuta Horaiken around Nagoya you can visit.

What flavor is that?

Our last stop before going back to the apartment was a kind of bargain grocery store. Advantage of shopping with someone who lives there is that they’ve found and vetted all the cheap places before you got there. My friend was actually just stopping in for some toilet paper, but I decided to wander the candy section to see if I could find some unique chocolates to bring back to friends in Korea. This is more challenging than it sounds since most Japanese brands of candy are sold here in regular shops. What I found was a wall of every flavor of kit-kat imaginable.

I don’t even really like KitKat as a candy bar. It’s always tasted a little like sweet cardboard to me. But the Japanese are obsessed with it. I love finding new flavors of standard “American” candy in other countries. I found the all-caramel milky way in Saudi, I found an infinity of Dove flavors in China, I found the hazelnut Snickers here in Korea (omg like nutella and snickers had a baby, whaaaat?), but Japan has outdone everyone on variations of KitKat.

I have seen several in the past, most notably green tea, and white chocolate raspberry. This wall… had…. everything…. I took photos only of the most bizarre flavors, but there were local apple flavors, Hokkaido creme flavors, 2-3 different versions of redbean including regular and ogura toast at least, but the winners of the unique flavor awards go to: sweet potato, rum raisin, sake (yes the rice wine), and (drumroll please)…. Wasabi.

I have no idea what any of them taste like because they were only sold in huge boxes and I could not really justify spending 8-10$ on a giant box of candy just to know what it tasted like. I promise if I ever see them on sale individually packaged, I’ll report back on the flavor.

What I did buy that evening was no less a flavor twist than green tea flavored Khalua liquor. I found a tiny bottle for 6$ and decided that was a very reasonable price to sample this experimental flavor and get an evening cocktail, too! My first time to have green tea and coffee together was a green tea ice cream affogato at the Boseong tea fields last year. Basically green tea ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. It was insanely delicious so I had high hopes for the Khalua. We grabbed some milk at the convenience store and settled in to experiment.

Related image

The actual liquor is not a color/texture that you really think of for drinking. It’s thick and a mixture of dark green and dark brown… yeah… appetizing. I tasted a little straight for science and it was, unsurprisingly, very sweet and very strong. Once we added ice and milk, the liquid became the appealing green color of a green tea latte and the flavors had more room to play. I think a little vodka would have rounded the whole thing off nicely, as it was still very sweet for my tastes even with the milk, but I liked the play of green tea and coffee together.

Kishimen

One of Nagoya’s other famous foods is kishimen. I had heard there was some near Atsuta Jingu but I didn’t realize that it was inside. Following the signs and my nose I discovered a small kitchen and covered picnic table area where the famous soup could be ordered in several styles.

20180507_132226

Side note: It is so important to carry cash in Japan. I don’t even understand how one of the most high tech countries in the world that invented paying for things by tapping your mobile phone on them still has so many places that are cash only, but it does. Temples especially and tourist facilities in general, just about any smaller shop or restaurant (not convenience stores of course, they take cards), and all the machines you use to charge the transit cards also only take cash. It is one of the great mysteries of our age.

I was running low on cash because I’d spend some to make donations earlier in the day, so I was just able to get the basic Miya Kishimen, also the name of the shop, for 650Yen.

Kishimen is similar to udon, but the noodles are wider and flatter than a typical udon noodle. I also found the flavor of the broth to be quite distinct with a very smokey aspect as well as undertones of salty and sour for a very piquant profile. Maybe it was the experience of eating in the picnic pavilion in the middle of the beautiful forest, but I thought the noodles were definitely worth it, far above the average udon eatery. There was a self service tea station with lovely tea, and several signs warning patrons to beware the crows. I assume the greedy little scavengers… I mean clever sacred corvids… will hop over and steal any unattended food. The sign and the crows did little to dispel the vague aura of haunting I was experiencing that day, but I think that just added to the fun.

Miso Katsu

Dinner Monday night was one more Nagoya specialty, Miso Katsu. Katsu is a panko fried pork cutlet that is pervasive throughout Japan. It is also one of 3 Japanese foods that can reliably found at “Japanese” restaurants in Korea, so while I like it fine, I was not initially excited about going out for katsu. But, all of my local food finds so far had been better than expected so I agreed to give it a whirl. My friend got off work and met me down at one of the famous chains, Yabaton.

photo credit: Yabaton via Tabelog

Regular katsu is delicious when cooked well. It’s essentially fried pork, so it is hard to go wrong, but the best versions are very tender cuts of meat and crisp flaky fried exteriors. Bad versions are tough and greasy, obviously. What makes Nagoya’s miso katsu so special is that they pour a red miso sauce over the katsu just before you eat it (so as not to make things soggy). Miso is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking, and most foreigners are at least familiar with Miso soup, which is typically made from white miso. White miso is soy beans fermented with mainly rice. The flavor is fairly light and mild. It’s pleasantly tart and goes well with seaweed and green onions. Red miso on the other hand is made of soy beans fermented with barley or other dark grains. The flavor is quite pungent and may be an acquired taste. It’s not like “stinky cheese” pungent or anything, so don’t be scared to try it, but it is a good deal stronger and darker than what you may have experienced in the past with miso soup.

20180507_183938

The pork at Yabaton is excellent all by itself. Tender and juicy cuts of pork, fried in fluffy panko breadcrumbs with little to no extra grease. When the waiter brought our bowls to the table, he also brought a container of thick, dark red miso sauce which he poured over the katsu with a flourish. I was impressed at how well the flavors went together and how much I enjoyed the red miso. It may be the most unique katsu experience I’ve ever had and I’m so glad I didn’t skip it just because katsu is “common”.

Conbini Food!

Japanese convenience stores are called colloquially by the Japanglish word “conbini” short for “convenience” in a language without “v”s. By my friend’s request I popped into the local convenience store on my last night as her guest to get dinner. When I lived in Yokohama for a summer, I often made meals from the conbini. There’s bento (lunch boxes), onigiri (amazing rice triangles stuffed with yum and wrapped in seaweed), and a plethora of random foods to pick and choose from.

Related image

photo credit: via kamonavi

Conbini food is almost always fresh. It’s a stark contrast to gas station foods in America that are filled with preservatives and have a shelf life sometime past the nuclear apocalypse. You can actually eat healthy from a Japanese convenience store. After days of dining out, my friend was craving a simple salad, a bag of greens costing about a dollar. I had been grabbing onigiri (one of my fav snacks) for lunches and afternoon pick me ups all through the vacation so far, so I looked to see what else was available for eats and I found a conbini food I had entirely forgotten the existence of!

Japanese convenience store food

photo credit: intrepidtravel.com

During my summer stay, I ate these cold noodle bowls ALL THE TIME. It’s in the refrigerated section, and has a plastic bowl with fresh udon noodles and packets of sauces and toppings. Back in 2015 the ones I got had a fresh egg, but the one I found this time had what I think was dehydrated egg? Maybe a new health law? Anyway, I found the flavor that was my favorite and was very excited to get to have it again after almost 3 years. I also got myself a “long day” reward: juice box sake! That’s right, you can buy sake in a cardboard box with a straw. Your inner kindergartner and your outer adult can both be happy as you sip booze from a tiny box.


Travel and food are such a huge part of my life. Although I had previously taken my responsibilities as a food tourist lightly, I’m vowing not to do so in future and thus my summer plans involve ever growing lists of “famous foods” I have to seek out in each place. I’m not turning this into a food blog full time, but I think I’m going to take a cue from Mr. Bourdain and let my belly lead the way in a few more adventures.

In fond memory of Anthony Bourdain, who’s shows about exploration and food contributed to the desire I have to travel and share what I find. Thank you.
Related image

The Foods of Cherry Blossom Season

20160401_141325The last two years of living in Korea has been cherry blossom heaven. I had amazing experiences at the nation’s biggest cherry blossom festival in Jinhae both years (2016, 2017) and didn’t see the same thing twice. When I announced my move to Gyeongju, the museum without walls, everyone said “oh what a beautiful place! you’re going to love the spring”. And I was. I was excited to love spring until it turned out to be the bipolar spring from hell. It’s late April still vacillating back and forth from  10C with rain 30C with sun. Neither the flowers nor I know what to do.

I was so ready for a couple weeks of stunning cherry blossoms and sunny afternoons by the lake and river, but instead I got about two days (both of which I was working during) and then the rain drove all the blossoms away.

Since I couldn’t attend a cherry blossom festival this spring, I’ve decided to focus on the other bounty of cherry blossom season: the themed food and drink. Bearing in mind I’m not in Seoul where the trendy boutique cafes all live, I decided to try and find as many cherry blossom themed consumables as possible in my small town of Gyeongju.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Every town has a few local variants, and who knows how many tiny cafes and bakeries were selling their own seasonal specials that I never even encountered. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that cherry blossom season isn’t only a feast for the eyes.

Coffee:

2016-04-15 15.45.30Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frappuccino: This one is available in several countries. It’s a seasonal milkshake style beverage. I like that it wasn’t too sweet. I don’t feel like it tastes especially floral, but it’s pink and festive and fun, so why not?
3 stars

Ediya Cherry Blossom Latte: As a result of the Starbucks trend, every other cafe here offers some variation on the cherry blossom latte/frappe. Ediya is probably the most famous, but I found it to taste like strawberry milk. The iced latte version was thicker than flavored milk, but not all the way to frappe/milkshake status.
1 star

Bliss Blooming Latte: The one coffee shop I really wanted to visit this year and didn’t get to try was the cafe Bliss out by Bomun Lake. They have a latte with a “blooming” blossom. A confectionery of some sort that expands in the coffee. No other branch offers this cherry blossom special. I saw the video online and was instantly captivated. However the lake is rather far away and I never made it out there a second time after learning about it. I’ll put it on the list for next year.
(not rated)

Kanu Spring Blend: This is my go to instant coffee brand, a phrase I never would have believed I could have uttered 5 years ago. I admit, I did try it at first because of the ads, but it’s so much better than most of the other packet coffees in Korea that it soon became a staple at my office desk for emergency pick me ups. I was so excited to see it show up in the seasonal line up, but I haven’t seen it in any of Gyeongju’s shops.
(not rated)

Drinks:

20180325_135358Cherry Blossom Soda: GS25 is a major convenience store brand here in Korea and they also have their own line of drinks and snacks. In the spring, they offer a couple of cans decked out in cherry blossom art. The pink can is a bright pink bubbly soda pop that wins hands down for the most floral flavor. It reminded me of drinking sweetened rose or orange blossom drinks in the middle east. I don’t know if it’s made from real cherry blossoms or if they use a more common flower to get the flavor, but it’s legit. My only complaint was that it was so insanely sweet I had to dilute it. I wanted to mix it with gin, but I haven’t found a local supply since moving here. I tried it with water, but that didn’t work well. Finally, I mixed it with milk, Italian soda style, and that was delicious.
4 stars

20180423_200958.jpgCherry Blossom Grape Juice: The green can was actually my favorite drink of the season. Instead of a soda, it’s green grape juice with the same intensely floral flavor as the soda. It doesn’t have the crazy pink dye, or the bubbles. It’s a bit less sweet, and it has some tasty fruit jelly bits in the bottom. It was still strong, but I diluted it with just water and it was perfect. I’m thinking of buying a bunch to stash for the summer.
5 stars

Cherry Blossom Milk: Koreans love flavored milk. Banana is the most popular flavor here, but I’ve seen several others including green grape and apple. While perusing at a local 7-11 I noticed a single serving milk container with pink blossoms on it. Upon closer inspection, it was indeed cherry blossom milk. It wasn’t bad, only mildly too sweet and somewhere between floral and fruity. Worth drinking once, more than once if you love sweet milk.
2 stars

Alcohol:

Hoegaarden Cherry Beer: It’s technically cherry flavored and cherry blossom scented, but it was released seasonally and decorated with pink blossoms. I was expecting it to be similar to a lambic, but it ended up tasting more like a shandy made with cherry-ade. Not too sweet, and certainly not bad.
3 stars

Kirin Sakura Viewing Can: This beer is decorated with the signature unicorn dancing amid the sakura. Kirin is a Japanese beer company and sakura viewing is an important part of spring. The seasonal can is decorated to put you in the mood for spring, but the inside is the same classic Kirin taste. I happen to like Kirin beer, so this wasn’t a big disappointment.
3 stars

Soju: I saw posters around town for soju (the Korean distilled rice wine) that had cherry blossoms on the label, and usually when there’s something on the soju label other than bamboo it signifies flavor, so I was very hopeful when I finally found some. Sadly, it turned out to be regular soju, which I don’t care for as much as the cheongju (like soju, but smoother with less of that nail-polish-remover aftertaste).
1 star

Foods:

20180311_163719.jpgCherry blossom popcorn: GS25 is a chain of local 24 hour convenience stores. The same brand that created my favorite floral soda and juice, as a matter of fact, and they didn’t stop at drinks. Amid the food offerings was a light pink bag of cherry blossom popcorn. This was my first find of the season this year and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I opened the bag, I was hit by a powerful and pleasant perfume making it clear that this was not merely pink popcorn, but genuinely floral. It was sweet and tart, with a base coat of kettle corn and a top note of something like Smarties. I didn’t realize at the time, but I suspect it was made with actual cherry blossoms. More later.
4 stars

20180403_145327.jpg

Cherry blossom Pepero sticks: By now the world knows Japan’s famous Pocky sticks: crisp shortbread sticks dipped in chocolate and other flavors. When my family lived in Japan in the 80s (yeah… old) the iconic treats weren’t available in the US and I spent years pining for them after we moved back to America. Although Korea has gotten past it’s hatred of all things Japanese enough to import Pocky, they also have their own national brand of the delicious snacks called “Pepero”. There’s even a national holiday for Pepero where all the stores sell huge boxes and decorated gift sets and we all buy and exchange boxes of Pepero. Not Pocky. The Lotte brand of short, double dipped pepero are delicious anyway, but then I spotted this special pink package and had to try it. The first dip was white chocolate and the top coat had the same sweet/tart taste that I’m coming to realize is the ‘authentic’ cherry powder flavor. It was more creamy than sweet, which was refreshing. It’s not going to replace chocolate as my favorite Pepero flavor, but still enjoyable.
3 stars

20180315_201647.jpg

Cherry blossom frozen yogurt: Since many coffee shops here are also dessert cafes, it wasn’t only coffee drinks that came in exciting cherry blossom themes. Yogurpresso is a dessert cafe that specializes in, as you can imagine by the name, frozen yogurt and espresso drinks! Unlike American fro-yo, this is quite tart, like actual yogurt instead of ice cream with an identity crisis. The large “blossoms” are crisp meringue and the sprinkles are some kind of candy. It might be one of the preserved cherry blossom additives. I’ve seen them mostly advertised out of Japan. More likely they are random berry flavored sugar bits. However, the little carafe of pink milk down there is the cherry blossom flavor. A tiny pour over to add floral goodness to the sundae. It was tart and refreshing with a variety of flavors and textures to keep it interesting.
4 stars

Cherry blossom pastries & snack cakes:

Once again in a convenience store (they are truly ubiquitous) I found a rack of blossom themed snack cakes. I’m not a huge fan of the packaged pastries here in Korea. Although they are super cheap, they are far inferior to the fresh pastries offered on every other street at the cafe/bakery combos like Tous le Jous and Paris Baguette. I got one bun to try, but it turned out to be strawberry creme. The darker red is red bean (a common bun filling and one I actually quite like), but I prefer my red bean filling with fresh cream. The strawberry was too sweet and there wasn’t anything cherry blossom about it other than the pinkness. The other snack you see here is a variant on the ever present snack cakes. I read this one before grabbing it and it’s also just strawberry and cream cheese. I didn’t bother to buy it after all.
1 star

Festival food:

I didn’t go to any festivals this year, but I decided to throw in my festival food observations from previous years. Every festival in Korea has shaped and colored cotton candy. I’ve seen cartoon charaters, animals, and abstract art created in spun sugar. Cherry blossom festivals of course bring out cherry blossom shaped cotton candy. I didn’t eat any because I figure it’s all cotton candy flavored when we’re talking about festival street carts.
(not rated)

I did eat the cherry blossom fried ice cream at last year’s festival, however. It’s not very pretty, and it’s hard to tell in the paper cup that it is blossom shaped, but you can sort of make out the petals at the top? The best part of this treat is watching them make it. The vendor removes a super frozen blossom of ice cream and dips it in batter before dropping it in boiling oil right before your eyes! When it’s done, the outside is warm and crispy and the inside is cold and creamy. It was vanilla, and I loved it anyway.
4 stars

Honey Butter Cherry Blossom Potato Chips: I was not going to eat this. I saw it early in the season and turned away. This is because when I first arrived in Korea I tried the Honey Butter Chip. I do not know what the obsession with honey butter flavor here is, but you can get WAY too much stuff in honey butter. The problem was it was awful. It was cloyingly sweet and the butter was really potent (maybe because they use French fermented butter?) I was glad to have the experience once, but had no desire to repeat it.

Then I read another blog about Korean snacks and discovered that the limited edition seasonal flavor is actually made with domestic cherry blossoms, harvested from Chilgok County in north Gyeongsang. That’s really close to where I live!Untitled.png

Only 1.4 million bags were released, by the way. That sounds like a lot, but there are more than 51 million people in Korea, soooo I guess we’re sharing. As you can see, the chips are not pink. I’m fine with that since it means no dyes. The smell of cherry blossoms is the first thing that hits you when you open the bag, which is saying something, since potato chips have a fairly strong smell of their own. I tasted a crisp and was pleased to find that the cloying sweetness I’d disliked in my first honey butter experience was dampened significantly by a gentle floral tartness. I became extremely curious at this point. So many of the things I’d tasted had been more tart than floral, and I’d just been assuming it was a matter of artificial flavors, but this was made with real flowers!
4.5 stars

20180423_201341 (1).jpg

The Last Word on Cherry Blossom Flavor:

I looked it up, because that’s me. I found that in Japan, there’s an ages old culinary tradition of salt pickling cherry blossoms in plum vinegar. But, Haitai Corp. was very clear about the Korean origin of the flowers they used (equally proud of the French origin of the butter they use, by the way). I broke down and worked on translating the package and ingredients list to try and get more information, but all I could gather was that it’s domestic Korean flowers and not artificial flavors.

My only conclusion is that cherry blossoms are actually tart in taste. This explains why every cherry blossom treat I tried was either a little sour or way too sweet. The flavor has to be treated more like lemon or green plum in contrast to sweeter flowers like jasmine or lavender. Considering how many times I was surprised by sourness, maybe I ate a lot more real cherry blossoms this year than I realized.

Happy spring and happy snacking!

Winter Wonderland 2018

This winter was full of cold and confusion. My hunt for a new job has been incredibly time consuming, and the uncertainty about my future led me to forgo an out of country winter holiday. Instead I decided to head north (not across the border or anything) to visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival and other snow filled winter activities in case it was my last chance to play in the snow in Korea. It looks like things are working out, and I will be staying in Korea next year after all, but I’ll tell that story after all the details are wrapped up. For now, walk with me into a winter wonderland weekend.


I like going on tour trips with the group Enjoy Korea. They’re by far my favorite organized tour group in Korea: polite, well-organized, helpful, responsive, and fun (without being a total party bus). I highly recommend traveling with them if you’re looking for more things to see in Korea while you’re here. No, they aren’t paying me to say that, or even giving me a discount, I just think they’re cool and deserve more business.

When I realized I wasn’t leaving Korea for the winter holidays, I turned to the upcoming events page of their website and looked for something fun that didn’t involve skiing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to learn how to ski, but stress and health concerns over the fall just made it seem like this winter was not going to be the one. Instead, I found the Winter Wonderland Weekender.

Image may contain: text

Naminara Republic

While we were on the multi-hour drive up from Busan, our guide handed out pamphlets about our 3 weekend destinations, and being me, I actually read them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the tiny river island of Nami was it’s own country! Nami is a small island within the North Han River. Not that long ago, it was only an island for part of the year when the waters ran high. However, when the Cheongpyeong Dam was built in the 1940s, the river level became higher permanently, and Nami was cut off from the mainland year round.

20180113_132120.jpg

It was said to be the grave-site of General Nami, and the grave was gradually built up and around, turning the island into a nature reserve and kind of amusement park/garden. In 2006 they declared their independence from Korea to become a “fairy-tale nation”. I’m not making that up, it’s in their declaration of independence. They have an immigration office. I didn’t bring my passport because I didn’t know this ahead of time, but apparently they will stamp your passport if you like. Because of their friendly relations with Korea, it’s not required for visitors to do so.

I cannot help but look at this and think of Nami as a precocious 5 year old who really wants to be a grown up. Nami: “We’re independent and we’re gonna have our own country made of fairy tales!” Korea: “Ok, honey, you have fun and make sure to be home in time for dinner.”

It’s cute.

There are 2 ways onto the island of Nami: the ferry and the zipline. I wanted to try the zipline since our guide said it was actually rather slow and more of a scenic experience than an adrenaline rush, but the wait time was over an hour and we only had a few hours to explore that afternoon.

20180113_133832.jpg

The ferry is not disappointing. It’s small, and mostly standing room, but it’s only about 6 minutes from shore to shore and gives beautiful views of the river on the way over. The water wasn’t frozen solid, but there were floating chunks of ice like green glass floating along the shore where the water was shallower. As we approached the island, we were first greeted with a giant ice formation overshadowing the maid of Nami.

20180113_134512.jpg

The maid of Nami is a famous statue of a woman standing in the water, but she was nearly obscured and entirely overshadowed by the mountain of ice that had formed from the freezing spray of the nearby fountain. Instead of turning the fountains off for the winter, the Naminarians decided to let their fountains run and turn into fairy-tale castles of long white and blue ice stalactites. Although at first the beautiful structure was overrun with ferry passengers queuing up to take photos, it didn’t take long before they all moved on and I had a chance to get a few of my own.

20180113_135420.jpg

The island has a multitude of walking trails as well as a “train” (think kiddie ride). I spotted the post office on my way in where a telephone allowed visitors to make international calls or send post cards from the micronation.

At first, I was feeling a little disappointed by the lack of snow. After all, it had snowed in Busan just a few days before, a place that sees snow every 2-3 years, surely Nami which is famous for it’s snow clad beauty would be white from edge to edge. The main entrance and pathways were simply brown, perhaps from lack of snowfall but more likely from an excess of foot traffic. I determined to seek out more frozen fountains and whatever patches of snow I could nonetheless, and soon found a frozen pond which remained snowcovered and I began to feel more in the mood.20180113_140124.jpg

My spirits were lifted completely when I encountered the sledding hill. Snow from all over had been piled together in a large hill that was decorated with ice-men (like snowmen, but made of ice). There was a line to borrow a sled but it wasn’t long and within a few moments I was lugging my luge up the snowy slope. I think it hadn’t snowed in a few days at least because the snow was quite packed and hard. Many sledders fell over sideways the first time their sled hit a bump. I watched as the line grew shorter, determining my best strategy for not suffering a wipe out and when it was my turn, I tried to center myself as much as possible and took a firm hold of the rope that formed the handle at the front of the sled.

When the countdown ended and the whistle blew, 3 of us took off at once. The slope wasn’t too high, but I soon picked up speed and when I hit the first bump my sled and I were launched into the air. I managed to land without falling over and kept my seat all the way down, whooping in a very American way at the thrill of speed and snow and winter wind whipping my skin.

Next to the snow hill was an ice village. There were sculptures of animals and fish, but also houses and castles built from carved ice blocks where visitors could climb around and take silly photos. I was impressed by the size and scope of these ice constructions, but oh wait until tomorrow.

20180113_141722.jpg

While I was finishing up my photos of the ice sculptures at a particularly large ice shark, I looked up and noticed there were ostriches running around in a field across the road. Nami island is very proud of it’s animal population, but apparently the ostriches are the stars of the show. It was a bit surprising to me how curious of visitors the birds were, spending most of their time right up at the fences despite having plenty of roaming room. I bet there’s food involved somewhere. Still it was odd to see these African savanna birds in the snow.

After the arctic ostrich experience, I meandered to the far bank of the island where the river was completely frozen over and dusted white with snow. It was quiet and serene. The emptiness was a stark contrast to the crowds I had left behind only 5 minutes before. It is a function of Korea that will never cease to amaze me, but no matter how crowded it is at an event, all you have to do is walk away for 5-10 minutes to be totally alone.

20180113_144230.jpgNext I headed back towards the center of the island to the arts and crafts village where handmade goods can be viewed, created, and purchased. My favorite was a metal tree dripping glass globes that caught the winter afternoon sunlight. There were also plenty of places to grab a hot drink, a snack or a meal.

20180113_145649.jpg

I went on a search for the glass blowing studio because I’d read in the pamphlet that there was an activity where visitors could make a small ornament, but alas it was only for groups of 8 or more who had booked in advance. My foray into molten glass will have to wait for another time.

While I was meandering around the statues and shops, I found a pottery shop with two peacocks perched on the rooftop, and I found a lone snow bunny hopping around on one of the frozen ponds. Great place for him since humans were kept back by the fear of falling in the ice. Great spot for me since I got to take photos of him against the snow. He was pretty fearless though and didn’t seem to mind when even more visitors noticed him and rushed over to take photos.

The weather was so cold that my phone battery was struggling more than normal and my phone actually shut down right in the middle of this bunny photo shoot, but it was still special. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for bunnies after having one of my own as a furbaby.

I found that while many of the restaurants were quite expensive (surprise, we’re on an island) there was a place called the Asian Family Restaurant that had decent prices and a wide range of foods. I ended up with a giant bowl of hot and spicy soup in a Chinese style, and by the time I was full, I was warm enough to head back into the snow.

20180113_154425

I decided to walk around the other side of the island on my way back toward the ferries to see what I hadn’t seen, I found more frozen ponds, sculptures, trees covered in a light snow, and the further I went, the fewer people I had to share it with. Coming out of a small birch grove, I spotted the oddest piece of art adorning an unused picnic area. Alone with this, the sounds of distant tourists muffled to silence by the blanket of snow around me, it felt more than a little creepy.

20180113_163651

Heading back to the riverside path, I found some other members of the Enjoy Korea group who were skipping stones on the frozen water to hear the odd laser blaster sound that it makes. I tried it myself, there’s literally no technique involved, just toss a rock on a frozen body of water and pew pew pew! Lot’s of people saw that guy on YouTube be very dude-bro about it, but here’s another guy who actually explains it.

IMG_20180126_152910_010.jpg

Finally, the short winter day began to wind down and my last bit of trail gave the ice, river and sky some beautiful twilight colors. I got back to the bus just a few minutes early and discovered that someone had participated in the ice carving craft. She made a hefty stein from ice, and since it couldn’t possibly last in the heat of the bus, she was offering to let anyone who liked have a shot of Korean soju from the frozen chalice. I think it was probably the best soju I’ve ever had, even though it was the same stuff that’s in every convenience store. Bonus, I can safely say in retrospect that either I got in on it early enough or the combo of ice and alcohol did the trick, but I didn’t get anyone else’s cold!

20180113_172350.jpg

Go check out the rest of the photos on Facebook.

Garden of the Morning Calm

After dark, we headed over to view a special winter lights show at a nearby botanical garden. The Koreans are, as always, just spectacular at light displays. This large garden usually makes it’s living showing off plants and flowers, but in the dead of winter when everything is brown and brittle, it opens up at night for a whole other color spectacle.

My first few months in Korea, I saw the biggest and most amazing light show when I went to the Taean Tulip Festival, and while I enjoyed every other light show I’ve been to since then, none have been able to take the title from Tulips until now. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. The entry way had trees and bushes wrapped in lights and the almost obligatory tunnel of lights (still not tired of those). I expected it to be similar to the one at Boseong, and I was happy with that idea.

I especially liked the lights glowing on the snow and ice, creating fun reflections and pastel color splashes. I dawdled far more than I should have, but the maps in Korean parks are notoriously bad for scale, and I just did not understand how BIG this place really is. I got to the (also obligatory) suspension bridge and noticed it led back to the entrance, so I turned to head down another path, even though it appeared to lead into darkness. Just to check.

I found another tunnel of light. I found a frozen pond that had been covered entirely in blue lights with a glowing sailboat and dolphins frolicking in the blue. I found a path covered in umbrellas made of tiny lights. I found giant vines and leaves of light that made me feel like Alice when she shrank small and talked to the flowers.

Then I turned a corner and saw the stars.

20180113_200813.jpg

Not really the stars, but huge balls made from clusters of tiny lights high in the tall trees looking like the night stars in the blackness. Fiber-optic cables flowed down from the branches like willow trees and waterfalls. Giant leaves wrapped around the trunks of trees climbing to meet the falling fronds of light above. Silhouettes of animals were picked out in life size golden glowing sculptures: reindeer which made sense, and a giraffe I suppose because why not? At the far end of this wonderland was a neon pink church that the King would have been pleased to see in his Vegas days, fronted by two pure white glowing angels. I could have probably done without the extra religion, but as I headed down the hill toward the next display, the church shrank into the background and I was left with a final stunning view of the immersive forest of light.

The theme of over sized plants continued a bit with giant mushrooms and trees wrapped in lights to an almost fractal level of detail. Faced with another fork in the road to go on into darkness or return to the glow of lights at the entrance, I checked the time and decided to forge ahead. I pondered what could be left after that wonderful wood. I took some photos of creative path lanterns and more trees draped in shifting colors, casting a glow on the snow beneath them, content and not expecting very much more when…

A viewing platform is always a good sign. Korean tourism departments everywhere have thoughtfully created a viewing platform at the optimum viewing place. They are hardly ever wrong, and everyone knows the etiquette, so you might have to wait a few moments, but you will get your turn. And when I did…

Usually, I like to describe things I see and experience, but in this instance, it might just be better to shut up and show you. You can see the whole roll on the Facebook album.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Stay tuned for part 2 when I get to spend Sunday at the Hwacheon Seoncheoneo Ice Fishing Festival… I know, a festival for ice fishing? but it turns out the city of Hwacheon, and really Korea in general, knows how to turn anything into a great time. They can even do up an anchovy festival right, so something as exotic as ice fishing should be no problem! And if for some reason the prospect of catching trout through a hole in the ice isn’t your cup of soju, it’s also the home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture, so there’s more photos of beautiful lights to come as well. Thanks for reading!

Hello Bohol: Fancy Restaurants

Fancy might be a misnomer, since it’s perfectly acceptable to turn up in beachwear, but the quality of the food and range of the menus places these restaurants several stars over the average lunch stop. Panglao is full of amazing restaurants where most meals come to under 10$ US, but have the quality of a 40-50$ meal. I managed to visit the Pearl at Linaw, the Bohol Bee Farm, The Personal Che’f, and The Bougainvillea. At least two of them are places I’d happily go to again and again.


Pearl @ Linaw

I ended up here twice. The first time on my very first night in Panglao because it was the closest thing to the hotel. The second time to get a spectacular view of the beach at sunset, because this is one of the best places on the island to do it from.

If you’re looking for the Pearl restaurant, be sure to search for the Linaw Resort because the restaurant doesn’t have it’s own Google pin. We got lost, asked directions, parked in the wrong place and were generally silly tourists until we finally got settled down at a table near the water. I wanted to start my vacation off with some Filipino specialties, and ordered a kind of tomato and eggplant salad, a pork belly adobo, and finally halo halo for dessert, all while watching a stunning lightning show over the black ocean beyond our little pool of light.

20170930_203456.jpg

The second time I went, the very ocean most tables were all reserved for the top paying guests at the Linaw Resort, but we got a fairly good table on the west edge where we had a nearly unobstructed view of the impending sunset. We ordered early on, knowing it would take a while for the food to arrive. I tried again to order the kinilaw which had been unavailable the last time we came (and while I am eternally grateful they decided to tell me the fish was off rather than try to serve it, I was disappointed). The waiter asked me if I was ok with spicy, and because of my excessive spice exposure in Korea I promptly replied that I love spicy. I won’t say this was a terrible mistake, but it was the first tourist place I’ve been to where anyone took me seriously and didn’t give me “white girl spicy”.

20171006_171740.jpg

Kinilaw is a raw fish “salad” (just a mixture, not really any lettuce involved). It’s more like ceviche than poké, since the fish is soaked in vinegar to help tenderize the fish flesh. Even though it was an appetizer, it was all I could eat. The portion was so generous and the flavor so intense, I had no room for a main dish, and only took in a few bites of rice when the spice build up got too strong. The waiter came out to check on us (perhaps thinking that it would be too spicy), and I told the story of missing out on the kinalaw before and how happy I was to get to try it. They told me they were glad too, since it is one of their signature dishes. Even if you don’t like it as spicy as I do, I highly recommend this to any seafood lover.

20171006_174307.jpg

When all the beautiful colors of sunset were gone, we finally gave up on the sand, chased away by ants at our feet. It’s the only disappointment in this particular restaurant, choosing between a view and ant free feet. But once we were inside (and the staff were gracious about relocating us), we had a pleasant ant-free dessert of mango crepe supreme and blended ice coffee. And if you’re worried about being too full from dinner to order dessert, that could be the only time the long wait for food is a boon, since you’ll have plenty of time to digest your meal while you wait. In fact, after several such experiences, I’ve decided that should I return to Panglao another time, I’ll be sure to order *all* my food choices at the beginning of a meal, and simply ask for the desserts to come last.

Bohol Bee Farm

Bee farm? For dinner? Yeah, I know, I thought it was weird too, but I read so many reviews of this place and blogs that included it as a must do at least for the ice cream, if not for the restaurant and tour, so I figured it was at least worth checking into. The restaurant features dishes that are made with organic ingredients, and as many of them from the farm itself as possible. A variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are grown on the farm and used in the restaurant, plus of course the honey from their bees which is the only sweetener they use.

20171003_170246

There was no listing for tour times on their website, but knowing the sun set around 6, we hoped to get there in time to do the 30 minute tour before settling in for dinner. Sadly, we didn’t make it. The tours end at 4:30, but we did get a nice table overlooking the sea. The fresh juice menu is not to be missed. I got a ginger watermelon juice with no extra sugar (you have to ask or they’ll add it). The reviews I read indicated the top things to try here (other than the ice cream) are the floral salad and the pizza. I know, so very American, go to another country and order pizza, but 1) good pizza is an art no matter what country you’re in and 2) I don’t actually get pizza that often in Korea. Although the recommendations had been in favor of the plain cheese, I decided to brave the spicy honey pizza, made with honey from the local bees.20171003_170318.jpg

While waiting for the food, a bread plate with some fresh house made squash bread and cassava chips was brought out. The spreads were honey mango, basil pesto, and some kind of pico/chuntey thing. They were all divine, but my favorite was the honey mango on the squash bread. They sell it in the gift shop, and only my tiny backpack luggage kept me from bringing jars of that stuff back here.

20171003_172633

When the salad arrived it was clear that this was one of the most instagramable foods imaginable, a salad like a floral bouquet! But don’t be fooled, this was not simply lettuce and petals, there were plenty of generous chunks of cucumber, pineapple and other goodies buried beneath the presentation. And the dressing? Honey mustard, of course.

20171003_172910

The pizza was a much simpler presentation, but every bit as much of a taste explosion. The crust was thin and made from some mix of whole grains that gave it a rich flavor and appealing texture. The sauce and cheese were well made and generously spread without being overwhelming. The “spice” was reminicient of spicy italian sausage without actually being sausage. I think that the more Asian chili spice combined with the pizza herbs like basil and oregano created this gustatory illusion. And the honey was a little drizzle, a mere hint that served to counterpoint the spice and compliment the grains of the crust. I have never had anything like it before and I can honestly say that while I would never have thought to put honey on a pizza, it’s now one of my favorite flavor experiences.

Finally, for dessert I knew we had to have some of the ice cream that appears on every Google search for “things to do in Bohol” and find out what all the fuss was about. The Bee Farm keeps a wide array of flavors on hand, some are annual standbys and others are seasonal or even du jour.

The Bee Farm makes all their ice cream using coconut milk so it’s dairy free, and they serve it in casava cones which are gluten free. Organic, vegan, and GF trends aren’t yet a big thing in most of SE Asia, but the Farm’s success is very promising. In addition, coconut milk is a local product, coconut palms were everywhere, but dairy cows are still scarce. The Dairy Box project is a small dent in the issue, but most milk there is the processed and recombined variety we got at the store. The ice cream flavors are all based on the fruits, vegetables and herbs that they grow at the farm (except the chocolate), and it’s all only sweetened with the honey they harvest from their own bees.

The most famous flavor is the mulangguy, but I wasn’t up for a total mystery and decided to put that off for another day and instead ordered the salted honey, imagining (correctly) that it would be similar to a salted caramel. My dinner partner decided to try the flavor of the day: tomato.

The salted honey flavor was rich, creamy, and intensely flavored. I found it to be a good balance of salt and sweet, and also that my single scoop was quite satisfying. I had a small taste of the tomato ice cream out of pure curiosity. I have to say that I think it would have been an amazing soup, the coconut cream and tomato flavors were good together, but somehow the chilled temperature and ice cream texture were just too much dissonance for me to enjoy it as a dessert.

20171003_170111

Since we missed a chance at the tour the first time (and because any excuse to eat there again), I headed back to the Bohol Bee Farm on anther occasion. I switched up to a lemon ginger juice (I might have a ginger addiction) which was strong and delicious, then got the spicy honey pizza again (yes, it is that good). We tried the honey glazed chicken as well, which was also excellent, and came with a mini floral salad and a grain I always knew as “kasha” as a child. Kasha is buckwheat grains cooked kind of like rice, and it’s dominant in Eastern European or Russian culture, but not known well in SE Asia, so I was surprised to see it there.

20171005_123730

I also went on the tour, and I finally tried the mulungway ice cream. Mulungway, or malunggay, is a medicinal herb that is very popular in the Philippines, especially made into sweets. I found the flavor to be a fresh green experience and enjoyed the ice cream, but some people think it tastes too much like vegetables. Either way, it’s a quintessential Philippine flavor that’s worth the taste.

Personal Che’f

20171004_172231

No, that’s not a typo version of “Chéf”, that’s how it’s written, I looked several places. The Personal Che’f is run by a Russian couple and serves unbelievably good super fancy food. I had a little trouble finding it because there’s only a small sign on the side of the road in front of what looks like a patch of woods. I finally found the entrance to a path through the trees that led us on a lovely walk back to the restaurant.

Like almost every restaurant here, it had no walls except for the kitchen. It was empty when we arrived but nearly every table had a “reserved” sign. Lucky for us, there was one unclaimed and we were able to be seated. I say lucky, because quite a few people showed up after us only to be turned away. My feelings on this restaurant are both strong and mixed.

I liked the set up, it was simple and elegant, and the contrast of the stunning food, artistic plating and upscale prices with the rustic bamboo thatch and the occasional lizard on the furniture was fun. The huge volume of mosquitos brought on by the fact that we were embedded in the jungle was not. They seemed to be aware of the issue because our waitress brought us mosquito spray to use, but it would have been nice to have more effort. Maybe citronella would conflict with the flavors of the food, but there has to be something, bug repelling tiki torches, candles, electric zappers? Almost anything would have been better than being dined on while dining.

20171004_172555

The chef was an amazing, kind and extremely talented person. He came out to talk to us, checked on my travel buddy’s allergies, told us a story about how he’d made something off menu just the other day for a woman with serious dietary restrictions. The chef was great. The rest of the staff was… less so? There was only one waitress and she became quickly overwhelmed, especially when a huge group showed up without a reservation and insisted on talking to her for 15 minutes about it. There were only maybe 7 tables seated, but it was more than this poor server could manage. Her only real help was the barback/busser, a guy who repeatedly took food to the wrong table, or made other mistakes she had to correct when she asked him for help, and otherwise just stood behind the bar looking lost. Any time we asked about anything (like, hey does this dish have any xyz in it) she had to go get the chef, who was gracious about it and wanted to help, but he was clearly doing too much trying to both cook and do things in the front.

20171004_180144.jpg

The food is the only part I have no mixed feelings on. It was hands down amazing. We ordered a gazpacho soup with strawberry for a starter and the chef kindly put it in two bowls, even though that meant extra time in plating. We received wide white dishes with beautiful curls of cucumber and a little spattering of diced herbs and vegetables. The gazpacho was pureed and served in a carafe that we would then pour over the display. I have to say I would never have thought of adding strawberries to a tomato based soup, but it was truly a flavor revelation. I historically prefer my gazpacho a little on the chunky side, but I don’t think that would have worked with the berries. The puree mixed the flavors so thoroughly they became something new. It also did make me wonder about making a strawberry salsa someday.

For the main dish, I gravitated to the mushroom risotto and was not disappointed. The flavors of the cheese, the shrimp, the broth and the mushrooms were each distinct and outstanding and yet blended so well. It made me think of the instruments in a string quartet, it is easy to hear each one as they play, but together they are a concert. And it made me feel a little like Ratatouille (the cartoon rat, yes) which was also fun. Sadly, the main dish was not a success for my companion, who had an allergic reaction despite the chef’s precautions and decided head back to the hotel to take some medicine.

I had thought to stay behind and have a dessert, but the waitress brought out our check at once. It took me ages to get her attention, and in the meantime, I managed to get the bar back to come deal with the fly that was swimming in the wine… one more reason to get those bug zappers. He took the glass away but didn’t bring a replacement or it seems tell anyone. So when I finally got the waitress to stop at my table again, I told her that I wanted to order dessert and about the wine issue. Over the course of the next hour, I kid you not, I managed to get a dessert menu and to find out that they would take the wine off the bill. When I did order a dessert, I was told it would be another HOUR to prepare… and no it was not a souffle. I declined.

It was such a difficult experience to evaluate. It was some of the most amazing food I’ve ever eaten, and the chef himself was so kind and gracious about everything. But the service was terrible, the bugs were a major enjoyment killer, and while I value the quality time that goes into creating the kind of amazing food we were enjoying, it seems like if it’s going to take an hour or more to make a simple dessert, you should warn people to order ahead, or accept fewer customers. I really hope they manage to find a solution, because that kind of talent with food deserves success, but I chose not to return a second time.

Bougainvillea

I still can’t get over how much astonishing food is available on Panglao. Of course traditional Filipino food is delicious and worth perusing, but the quality of restaurants on the island makes many nationalities dishes a must dine experience. For my final dinner, the restaurant of choice was a relatively new (and hopefully long lived) tapas restaurant that Bob had enthused about called Bougainvillea, next to but not to be confused with the resort of the same name.

I was negligent in every instance of making reservations, and it’s pure luck that I was ever able to get a table, so if you’re going to any of these places I suggest calling ahead because I regularly saw people get turned away. The fancy restaurants are stunning but very small and intimate with limited seating. The Bougainvillea was no exception. We arrived a little after dark and we’re lucky to find that some diners were just about to leave and that their table had not yet been claimed, so we only had to wait perhaps 10 minutes for a table and a kind young man from the resort kept us company while we waited. I suspect that the garden we waited in was beautiful and even at night I could tell it was filled with the flower that both the resort and restaurant took their name from.

The restaurant was elevated, which at first seemed odd to me, but once we were on the second floor I began to understand the choice. One was the view, which we had also missed out on by showing up after dark, because one wall opened out toward the sea. I say wall, but like most of the places we’d been, it was a roof and open sides (except around the kitchen). The other main reason for the elevation was the avoidance of insects. By lifting the restaurant out of the jungle flora, we were blissfully free of ants, mosquitoes, and flies that had plagued nearly all of our previous dining experiences.

20171007_193953.jpg

I ordered some of the house made sangria, for which they use their own mix of spices in syrup, red wine, and fresh apples and oranges. It was amazing, refreshing and light while not being too sweet and carrying a wonderful tendril of cinnamon. The bread arrived as well, served with whole garlic cloves and olive oil so rich you wouldn’t miss the butter. We noticed that extra bread portions were 30p and were hardly surprised they felt the need to charge for this delectable dish after the first serving.

While I was perusing the descriptions, I noticed they had a few dishes with manchego. I cannot express my joy. Manchego is a Spanish cheese that holds a special place in my cheese loving heart. I had not had any for several years because I’m pretty sure that the Koreans have never heard of it, and even when I can find it in the US, it’s expensive. I asked our server how in the world they managed to get it on the tiny island of Panglao and he seemed quite pleased that I recognized the difficulty involved and the dedication it represented.

20171007_195639.jpg

Although I was tempted by the paella, the minimum order was 2 people and my companion was unable to eat seafood, so instead I tried a smaller appetizer of “Calamares a la andaluza” described as flour coated baby squids, deep fried and served with honey mustard sauce. My dining companion ordered the Patatas Bravas (deep fried potato cubes with spicy “bravas” sauce). We were both well pleased with these choices. I had a bite of her potatoes and was pleased as punch to find that they had perfected the crispy outside, squishy inside of a truly excellent home fry. The sauce was creamy and spicy. My squids were stellar, maybe even interstellar. I have never imagined in my life that I would have a tender squid. They’re just always chewy. Maybe it’s the “baby” squid or maybe it’s just the chef, but the squid was actually tender. The flour fried coating was light and not oily, and the honey mustard sauce rivaled that at the Bee Farm. Plus, both appetizers were served with tiny crispy bread sticks that we could use to clear our palettes between dishes or just to scoop up extra sauce with.

20171007_200107

Next we had some Mondaditos, described on the menu as an Andelusian style bun. Starting to guess where the chef is from? I ordered the “Catalan” because it was manchego, fresh tomato and olive oil. She got the Don Quijote [sic] which was chorizo, sweet red pepper sauce, and manchego. Of course we traded tastes, and although I preferred the simple fresh flavors in the Catalan (I was out for the manchego), I was blown away by the sweet pepper sauce. The saucier at this place is clearly blessed by some kind of culinary deity, or maybe Dionysus. In addition to their own simple yet elegant awesomeness, the mondaditos were served with “veggie crisps” which turned out to be thin sliced and fried vegetables, rather like potato crisps (or chips), but with an array of other vegetables.

20171007_210815

For dessert I settled on the crema Catalana, which looked to me like a Spanish version of a creme brulee (a dessert I have loved since I met it). Looking later, I find it is quite similar, but is traditionally flavored with cinnamon and orange peel. I haven’t had the chance to try this dish more than once, but I would happily try it many more times. While in my experience creme brulee is always a rather thick custard, the crema Catalana at Bougainvillea was much softer, almost as if it were the sweet love child of a creme brulee and a zabaglione. It was a wonderful finish to an excellent meal, and my only regret was that I only found it on the last day and I didn’t get to taste more of the menu!

Unexpected Joy

I planned to enjoy great food on this trip, learn more about Filipino food and do some proper local dining. I did do those things, but it was a surprise and delight to find such a plethora of fine dining options with considerations for organic, dietary restrictions, allergies, and of course quality food. I never thought Panglao would be a foodie haven, but it’s full of local delicacies and so much more. Bon Appetit!


I’m writing this a week or more before the publish date because I finally have some free time between the end of school and the beginning of winter camp, and I don’t want to dump all my polished posts on the internet at once. Who knows what news will come by the time this is online, but for now I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m leaving Korea and still wondering if I’m going to find that next job before May. I’m hoping to get the rest of these stories out before my moving day (Feb 25), and I’ll have some new adventures to write then. Whether it’s  a new job, a new country, or something wholly unknown, there’s no doubt it will be a good story. Thanks for sticking with me! Happy New Year!

 

Hello Bohol: Food

My food post has expanded into two more bite-sized posts. In this one, I take a look at the everyday eats, markets, convenience stores, roadside chicken stands, unique food experiences, and lower cost restaurants. Just because it’s not gourmet doesn’t mean it’s not delicious! Interesting foods discovered include: not-milk but still dairy “fresh”, the lakatan banana, mulungway, water buffalo ice-cream, and maja blanca. Hope you’re hungry!


Don’t Drink the Milk

After discovering our limited food options upon arrival, I asked my trip buddy to stop at a store on the way from the airport. The taxi had to take her to a store on Bohol, because there is not a single “grocery store” on the island of Panglao. There are a plethora of tiny marts and open air markets, however. The next morning at breakfast, I noticed that the milk tasted a little odd. Not off, just strange, and I looked at the carton to find out what was going on. It turned out that the “Fresh Milk” for sale in the store was actually a reconstituted combination of milk products. I know that in some island countries, dairy is hard to come by in liquid form, because shipping it over is expensive, so they ship in powder and reconstitute it in local factories for distribution, but this was the first time I’d actually had any. It wasn’t … bad? It just didn’t really taste like milk.

The yogurt also had a slightly terrifying list of ingredients. I’ve tried to get less picky about my food since leaving Seattle, I know lots of places aren’t going to be up to the Bo-bo standards of organic/local/minimal processing, but yogurt has been one of the foods that has more often than not been wonderful, fresh, and local when I travel. It seems despite the huge number of cows I saw on the island, the dairy industry is still a few decades behind. So, no real coffee, and no real milk products… but the seafood, the pork, and the fresh fruit are outta sight.

Markets

20171001_112654.jpgI went to the Alona Market on the first day. It was a permanent structure where things like clothes and gadgets seemed to be on sale, but there were a riot of colored tents and awnings set up outdoors as well where vendors sold everything you could need on the island. Eggs, fish, meat… the smells assured me they were fresh. Fruits and vegetables. An infinity of flip flops and heaps of clothes. Electronics, swimming gear, DVDs, decorations, and although this was clearly a market for locals, there were a few souvenir type things as well. If I were staying long term on the island and needed to cook more than breakfasts or needed to replace a t-shirt or pair of sandals, it would be a great place to know about (especially in the absence of grocery stores), but for time it was mostly a curiosity, a fun thing to see as I explored my holiday surroundings.

On the way over to Chocolate Hills, I took a rest stop at another market in Baclayon, very similar to the Alona market, and got some pastries at a little bake shop. The Bohol pastries aren’t a patch on the Korean ones, but they were fresh and good, and extremely cheap. I never bought only one, but it seemed like one could fill a bag for less than a dollar. And it was nice to have something to munch on when felt hungry. Days later I realized that the market was next to one of the many churches on my to-see list, so I ended up going there more than once.

Sari Sari

This is the basic economic unit of Bohol. They are everywhere. Tiny shacks that sell snacks, drinks, and other things a household might need. It’s almost impossible to tell if they’re open because they have bars and grates on the windows. I had been avoiding them for that reason alone. I didn’t want to stop, get off the bike, walk over, then find out they were closed and try again at the next one. I’d been stopping at larger more obvious shops for snacks and drinks but way out here, I didn’t have the option. I’m also not sure how many of these are simply a shack in someone’s front yard where they sell random stuff to their neighbors.

Post holiday research reveals that these tiny ubiquitous shacks are known as sari sari (Tagalog for “sundry”), that the bars and grating look is normal, that they are generally family owned and operated from the family property, and that they make up 70% of the sale of manufactured consumer food products and account for about 13% of the GDP. They don’t all look like the little roadside shacks, some are larger or in conjunction with other vendors in the market areas. I’m not sure how many sari-sari I shopped at while I was there, but it’s nice to know I was contributing to the local economy when I did.

La Familia

One day of island exploring we found this little gem. It was getting on in the day and the weather in Panglao is hot and humid year round, so we decided it was time to find a place for lunch. After a little bit of being lost looking for a restaurant by sight, we finally consulted Google. It turns out there are a plethora of eateries along the roadside, but it’s hard to tell which ones are convenience stores, or take-aways, or sit down eateries, or even open just by looking while you’re driving by. I love trying local shops and restaurants, but I definitely wanted a sit down place to rest after our morning adventures.

We settled on a place called La Familia on the south end, quite near the church and watchtower. It’s not gourmet, but I ate there more than once because it was good food at a reasonable price, and while not air conditioned, it was comfortable. On my first visit, I got some watermelon juice and had to ask for no sugar. I learned that in the Philippines, all fruit juice will be mixed generously with sugar unless you ask for it not to be. This drink seemed to be fresh watermelon blended with ice into a kind of slushy, and I thought it was wonderful and refreshing without the extra sweetness. I also tried a satay burger, which was a regular hamburger served with satay sauce, and instead of ketchup, the fries came with a kind of sweet chili sauce that I was skeptical of at first, but soon devoured.

The second time I went we were too exhausted and hungry to research restaurant options so we went back to La Familia, knowing it was close to the hotel, good and well priced. I was still in my “try all the Filipino food” phase and after Googling a few new words on the menu, I settled on a chicken Tinola, which is a fairly famous Filipino ginger soup and could readily give pho a run for it’s money as my go to sick soup of preference if it existed where I live. A rich bone broth infused with ginger. My only complaint was that the soup was served so hot I couldn’t just guzzle the broth. I also ordered a club sandwiches for lunch the next day out on the boat.

The third time I popped over to La Familia for a refresher and decided to give the house milkshake a try. I don’t normally go in for banana flavored things. Artificial banana flavor terrifies me and I’m picky enough about real bananas to not risk it if there are options. However, after my run in with the Latakan (explanation further down), I was feeling very optimistic about a banana based drink here in Panglao. Not just a regular banana shake, it was made with graham crumbs and a touch of cinnamon. It was delightful, light, fluffy and a great blend of that creamy banana and other flavors that made me feel like I was drinking a pie.

While I was waiting for my shake, another expat struck up a conversation. I’d almost forgotten how that worked, since this was one of the few occasions on this trip I was on my own. It seems that people in pairs or groups just don’t get approached as much, but I love meeting new people, so I joined him for a chat and learned that he was called Bob, he was from the UK, and that he ran a local bar (the Ging Ging), which I never did get to try out. We talked about how we each came to be living abroad, and then we talked about the best food around. He also shared with me the best places from which to watch the sunset which led me to my second dinner at the Pearl.

Tres Ninas

After getting more accustomed to the bike, I decided to have another stab finding a roadside food stand to take something back to the room. In this endeavor, the night was my friend since only open places were lit up. I pulled into one of the larger lit up areas at what seemed to be a cluster of shops. One was selling meat on a stick, another seemed to be a place to sit and eat with drinks, and a third was selling beautiful rotisserie chickens. In less than two days on the island, I had seen dozens of chickens wandering around. Some totally free, some bound to a tree or hutch by a length of string. Either way, I felt confident the chicken I was looking at was local and free range, with no added hormones or chemicals… it went a long way in making up for the milk.

Tres Ninas is a chain of chicken stands. The one I went to is on the circumferential road on the east side just south of South Palms, but I spotted several others by the same name around the island.

Chocolate Hills

Initially we didn’t think that lunch at a major tourist stop was a good idea. These kinds of restaurants are often over priced and not even very good. Boy howdy I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong.

Although the service and the food were slow (this is a fact of Bohol that we eventually came to accept, it’s a good idea to get to the restaurant, any restaurant, a good while before you’re too hungry) both turned out to be of excellent quality. Our server happily recommended dishes which turned out to be wonderful. We had bam-i (a kind of noodle dish) and lechon kawali (a crispy fried pork belly), with corn soup, and I had a calamansi iced tea which was strong, sweet and tart. We ate every bite, and it was the perfect amount. The whole lunch was less than 15$ (most of our meals were between 10-15$ for two, a couple splurges were in the 20-25 range. That’s not per person, that’s the whole thing and we ate good food).

The main advantage of the slow lunch service this day was that by the time we were finishing off the last bites, the rain had passed by and the sun had returned. The restaurant has large picture windows, so we watched the progress of the dark clouds the entire time we were eating. It was interesting to see them moving by so quickly.

The Dairy Box

On the way out of the adventure park, where the bumpy dirt road hit the highway, I spotted some signs for ice cream that led us just a few meters down the road to the Dairy Box.

20171002_154539.jpg

After my experience with the “fresh” milk the other morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of any place called the Dairy Box, but I stopped to look and discovered to my delight a local sustainable livelihood program participant. The little shop was part of a movement by the government to help local businesses flourish, and so they partnered with nearby farmers to use the milk from the water buffalo nearby. There were signs showcasing the local small farmers and inside there was a plethora of dairy based treats. The ice cream was the main focus, but there were biscuits, milk candy, and snacks as well as flavored milk, yogurt and cheeses. Ok, yes, water buffalo milk, but I assure you it was delicious.

Dumaluan Beach Resort & the Lakatan Banana

There is a little grill and cocktail bar at Dumaluan which makes it especially appealing as a lazy hangout beach. I had made jokes with my sister before going that I would be on a beach with coconut drinks, but somehow I hadn’t had a single coconut based concoction up to this point. When I ordered my simple breakfast at the grill, I also got a coconut smoothie. The breakfast was simple: egg, sausage and rice, but cheap and filling. The smoothie was very clearly made from fresh coconut.

As the day wore on and we continued to nibble on snacks, I tried the fresh fruit plate. Normally I wouldn’t dedicate pages to a fruit place, but it was my first exposure to the unique Philippine banana: the lakatan.

20171004_132855.jpg

What I did not know about bananas… and to be honest, I probably still barely know anything. I’m used to the standard grocery store banana: the Cavendish. This type makes up something like 95% of the world’s bananas. I have always preferred to eat bananas when they’re a bright yellow with hints of green at the edges, and no brown at all. Everyone has a preference, but in my house, when the bananas got brown spots it’s time to make banana bread. I have a decades long aversion to golden yellow and brown bananas. I do not enjoy the mushy texture or the sickly sweet flavor at that stage in a Cavendish’s life. But, I do like banana bread, so there’s that. Based on my lifetime of banana monoculture, when I saw this little yellow and brown buddy on the fruit plate I was not at all interested… until it was peeled.

My expectation of a banana, even a very ripe one, is kind of off white inside, not unlike vanilla ice cream. This banana was a much deeper shade of cream, like “french vanilla” ice cream, or even custard. The only other time I’d seen that shade in a banana-like shape was in plantains, but it was clear from the easy peel and the total lack of cooking that this was no plantain. In addition to it’s beautiful color, the flesh of the fruit was bruise free. A Cavendish banana in that stage of ripening could be expected to have a light bruise or two and be very soft, but this banana was in perfect shape and still pleasantly firm. I decided to try a taste and was rewarded with the most and best in all that is banana. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and had little hints of tartness that I crave in my slightly green Cavendishes, but with a bonus creamy texture that I feel unable to describe without referencing dairy products. Why are these amazing fruits not the market standard? Probably something about shipping or they aren’t pretty enough. *sigh. If you’re ever in the Philippines, eat them.

River Cruise Lunch & Maja Blanca

20171006_111213 - CopyIt was not the best meal I had on the trip, but everything was good and it’s a buffet so you can eat as much as you like, as long as you don’t leave food on your plate (they charge 50p for leftovers to discourage food waste).

20171006_111229 - Copy

I had more delicious pork adobo and an assortment of veggies and side dishes, but the star of the whole show was a little square of heaven called maja blanca. I had never seen or heard of this before, but I put one on my plate anyway, guessing it was a dessert, and so saving it for the end of my meal. It was easily the most amazing coconut cream anything I’ve ever had. So plain and unassuming, it was a white square that jiggled a little, which almost made me leave it behind as I’m not a huge gelatin fan. Instead I got three more squares! It’s just a coconut pudding, it’s thickened with cornstarch instead of gelatin, and maybe that made all the difference? It may also be made with condensed milk in addition to the coconut cream, and has a little sprinkling of toasted coconut on top. 10/10 would eat again.

Nikita’s Coffee Shop and Cafe

It is listed as being Western (esp British) breakfast food, well priced, and close to Alona without being on the main drag. Perfect for an early morning breakfast on my last day.

There’s not really “breakfast food” in Korea. The Koreans eat things like kimbap, or soup and rice, and that’s fine, but sometimes you just miss the heck outta bacon and eggs. I am very nearly ashamed to admit that I get breakfast at McDonald’s here, but it’s that or bus an hour to the expat bars on the beach. Anywho, there I was, enjoying my bacon and eggs and toast and coffee. It was already the fastest restaurant service I’d experienced in Bohol, and I was well satisfied with the price and portions of the morning’s special, when a middle aged British gentleman came out to apologize to me for how long the order had taken. This was David, the owner, and I hurried to reassure him that the wait had hardly been anything at all (especially in comparison to every other restaurant in Bohol). He was only slightly mollified and it was obvious that he felt his short-staffed cafe wasn’t living up to his own personal standards.

We chatted a bit more and he asked me if I’d made it out to the “virgin island” (the name of one of the island tour stops). I hadn’t, nor had I any real plans to because my research on the island hopping tours had turned me off of that option. He then told me that a nearby church runs free shuttle boats out to the island, since it’s a religious monument, and that it was a very lovely half day trip. I was both excited to hear the news, but also a bit sad, since my day plans were already spoken for, and it was my last day. Of course I could have changed, but … well, waterfalls. Plus, I hadn’t really gotten dressed or sun screened for another boat ride that might finish cooking me. The choices we make. Nonetheless, since I also wish I’d found Nikita’s Cafe earlier in my meal options, I can heartily recommend anyone to stop by for a meal and get the details on the free church boat trip.

Be Patient, Be Kind

Every time I said please or thank you with a smile, the people serving me seemed both surprised and happy. It made me think about the way that tourists I’d seen were treating the locals in the service industry. I know in many places I’ve lived that Filipinos are 3rd class workers, given the worst jobs and little to no protections. I thought of the woman I met in the Madina airport, of the nurses in Saudi hospitals who were getting yelled at for doing their jobs. Of the men who do back breaking labor and live in curfew controlled dorms and the women who clean rich people’s homes while trying not to get raped by their teenage sons (or grown fathers). Even expat restaurant owners were being treated with a level of ingratitude by the tourists here, and the locals had it worse, but no one could complain or stop serving because their livelihood depends on visitors.

I try my best to be gracious and polite wherever I can, but it struck me that here in the Philippines, my pleases and thank yous were really truly appreciated by people who were so often being at best tersely given orders and at worst being yelled at or demeaned. I did not find anyone here to be lazy, rude, or anything less than gracious and helpful. There’s no excuse for the way they are treated. Follow the golden rule, be patient, be kind, and enjoy some of the warmest people and best food you can find.


Panglao has an amazing array of food, including gourmet quality restaurants with very low price tags. In part two of Bohol: Food, I’ve compiled all the fancier restaurants I visited, but don’t worry, the dress code is still beach casual. 

Letters From China (Fall 2007)

Looking at these entries from my time in China, I’m struck by the extremes of emotion that living abroad can engender. “I hate this!”, “I love this!”, “I’m dying!”, “I feel awesome!” It seems some things don’t change even after 10 years. I’m no longer surprised by these swings, but they certainly still happen. Despite this, I wouldn’t trade my life for another, and even on the downfalls I am grateful I got back up and kept on trying. Sadly, there are no beautiful photos accompanying these letters, but I hope the stories of the Best Pizza Ever and the Amazing Coat Bargain will nonetheless amuse.


Oct 29, 2007 at 6:35pm

Today my class read a chapter called “East Meets West” and it dealt in part with culture shock, and described 4 phases, honeymoon, hostility, humor and home. I’m not really sure I had a honeymoon phase this trip, mainly cause I think my entire 2 months in China in 2005 was that phase, I was just so excited to be there, nothing else mattered. I was still happy to be here when I arrived, but nothing so over the top giddy as my first trip.

I think I was mostly in a humor phase, just finding my feet and being more amused than angry at the differences. Plus I was meeting the new teachers and in many ways helping them to adjust to China for the first time, I was getting instruction about my job and how to get about town, so I was occupied and involved.

Recently I’ve been pretty depressed, and trying to figure out why. I know that at least part of it is a frustration with the culture. The fact that it took me WEEKS to get the bank stuff sorted out even though I had the help of one of the school administrators, the fact that I feel like i’m on display half the time I’m in public and the fact that people keep bugging me to teach their kids or practice with them in the guise of friendship have all been really aggravating. There are things I know are just cultural differences, but knowing is not keeping me from being upset.

I tried looking up different ways to deal with this kind of thing, and a lot of it hinges on stuff like arts and crafts, exploring the area or reading about the culture, stuff you do alone… and I don’t think that’s really going to help me much. I need more interaction.

I love my classes, often they’re the best part of my day, well the part I feel best during, anyway, but because of the student teacher relationship, the age difference and more importantly because of the cultural differences, I don’t feel like I can have more than casual conversations and interactions with them outside of class, and hardly anyone who’s not a student speaks any English and my Chinese is just about enough to get around and buy stuff, but not to have deep conversations in.

Even the other Chinese people closer to my age who work here don’t really fit in the peer group category, I often feel like I have to avoid them or they will ask me to do more work, tutor someone else’s kid or something…

There’s other foriegn teachers, but I don’t see them all that often because our schedules are at such odds.

Its getting really cold, so going out wandering is getting unpleasant for more reasons than just being stared at, talked over or pawed at.

I was trying to watch some Buffy while grading papers and the disc stopped working and it was just too much. It’s so stupid, and I hate that its affecting me like this. This is why I wanted someone to come with me. I think I could deal with the culture shock OR the isolation, but I don’t know what to do with both. I haven’t had a hug since I left Seattle and I think all the one’s you gave me at the party wore off finally.

I’m sorry, I guess, for unloading here, but I’m lost. I’m supposed to be tougher than this, but so much of my strength comes from the support of others and I feel so cut off from that now.

I’ve tried to talk to a few people individually about it, but I don’t feel like I’m really getting it across well enough, or fast enough or whatever enough.

We don’t have to have anything specific to talk about, but there’s this whole free talking thing with gtalk, and just being able to hear your voices, even if we’re just on while surfing the web or whatever to be able to talk like we’re in the same room…. I told you all before that you would be my life line here, and while I believe what you’ve told me, that I’ve not been forgotten, thinking about me doesn’t help if you don’t say something too.

I have 10 more weeks till the break, and then another 25 after it. (hopefully there’s still a may trip to China in the offing for some of you at least).

I don’t even know how many people read this anymore, only a handful respond. I can’t do this alone.

*2017 update* Culture shock and homesickness are the bane of the expat life. Over the years I’ve found more ways of dealing with culture shock, but the things I identified here stayed true. Social interaction is a big deal for me, even though I’ve gotten good at going out and exploring alone, I still do best when I can share my life with other people. On the other hand, I’m not sure I have anything like “homesickness” left after so long. I miss some feelings, or the ability to just head over to a friend’s house, but when I think of “going home” it just means my cozy little apartment here in Busan, and I think when I move, my sense of home will move with me.

Of course, as you keep reading you’ll see why I call culture shock an emotional roller coaster… that still hasn’t changed.

Nov 4, 2007 at 9:24pm

I’ve been posting a lot about feeling bad, and I want to let you all know, that there are good times too. Today, in fact, was a really nice day.

First I slept in, which is always a good way to start a day. Plus since my lil bedroom space heater had done its thing it was nice and toasty.

I needed to get food for the bunny, so I got dressed and set out for the pet store. The weather was wonderful, sunny and not too smoggy and actually not too cold. The walking street was packed, and there were so many kinds of foods. I had to pass thru the whole street to get to the pet shop, so I took note of all the foodses and picked up several tasties on the way back home.

I got a cool breakfasty thing, there’s a thin crepe with an egg cracked onto it and also spread thin, with sauce and green onions and some kind of crackly pork rind thing all folded up together. I got a kind of fried sweet potato pankakey thing. And I got what looked alot like rice crispy treats, but turn out to have less flavor.

I came back and watched some tv and surfed the web for good ecards for my mom’s bday (which is today by the way, so wish mom a happy bday).

Around 3pm 4 of us got together to go to Beijing to check out a Pizza restaurant, and oh my god, I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy pizza and beer so much. I may pay for it tomorrow with the wheat thing, but OOOOHHHHH it was SOOOOOO good.

Just walking into the restaurant was amazing, it was like we’d left China. The decor was all dark hardwoods and stone, it had a pizzaria atmosphere without being faux Italian. There was American rock music playing in the background and the SMELL was wonderful.

We ordered 3 pizzas, since I really only intended to have a small taste. Everyone ordered mediums, which turned out to be 15 inches across! They got a veggie, a meat, and a supreme (called Garbage Pail) and they were seriously the best pizzas I think I’ve ever had.

I’ve always known food was linked to the limbic system, but I don’t think there have been very many occasions when food has caused that much enjoyment.

We told the waitress to compliment the cook for us, and he turned out to be the owner. He came up to see us. The owner is an American, looked very west coast, bleach blonde, lots of tattoos (kinda cute too), and very nice.

There was, of course, much good conversation over dinner, and a general happiness that infused the whole group. Pizza, beer and rock music… it was a little piece of American heaven… and I hope I’ll never take these wonderful things for granted again.

We headed home somewhat reluctantly, but the bus was warm and we all found seats (not as common as you might think), and I got to have a nice birthday morning convo with mom, and now I’m off to a warm shower and a soft bed.

It was a good day.

*2017 update* Although I no longer rely on pizza to alleviate my need for Western food (which still happens, but I think I just like variety), that little crepe thing I found in the street market remains my all time favorite street food to this day. I can’t find it anywhere but China and so haven’t had it in 5 years, but if you ever get the chance, eat one.

Nov 9, 2007 at 10:12pm

So, I went shopping today at the Silk Market. I tell you three hours of shopping should not be so tiring but wow I’m pooped.

I got some nice things, gifts for some of you and a new winter jacket for myself. But I want to share the joy of shopping in China.

So for hair clips, the starting price was usually about 120, followed by me laughing and saying no way. Then they ask for a price, and I say 15 (followed by common humorous 50/15 confusion), followed by them laughing and saying ‘no way’. Then they offer 80, I say no and begin to wander away slowly. They say 60, and I just shake my head and wander a little further (the trick is not to get out of range too fast), they say give me a better offer, and I say 20, they try in vain for 40, and I leave the stall (still moving slow) then they call me back and say ‘ok ok your price’.

This varies some, but seemed to be the standard.

The COAT was hilarious. I went looking for a coat last for just this reason. By the time I found a nice coat, I only had 300 left in my purse. And here’s the fun. She says, normally I charge this (showing me a calculator reading 4800) but since you live in China of course I give you special price (shows calculator with 2200). Now the coat is nice, but there’s no way I’d pay that even if I had it, and she knows that, there is the art of lying in that we know we’re lying to each other, but since we both know, its like a little ritual act.

So I say, no I can’t do that price, and she says give me your best price, and I type in 200. She whines a while, oh my factory doesn’t even sell it to me for this! I can’t sell it for 200. She counters with 1800. I counter with 400 (I honestly thought I still had 400 on me). And the ‘oh its too low’ begins again, whereupon I tell her that’s all I’ve got. She says I can use a Visa card, I tell her I don’t have one, which took some convincing, but was true at the time, no way I’d bring a credit card in that place. Then to prove I only have 400, I open my purse to show her, and it turns out I only have 300. Now, she really doesn’t want to believe me, so I end up basically emptying out my purse to show her its all the money I have on me. I’m sorry, I say, but i just don’t have any more. And as I collect my things to leave the stall, she breaks down and says, ok since you only have 300, I will sell it to you for that, protesting all the way that she shouldn’t and what a deal I’m getting and I have to tell my friends to come back, but tell them I paid more so they won’t expect such a low price, etc. which of course I promise to do (remember the lying ritual), and we go away happy.

Of course all prices are RMB, so for USD divide by 7.5…. I love this place!

Dec 3, 2007 at 3:37pm

Some of you know by now that I’ve been sick for a while. Last Wed. I woke up and felt like crap, and I’ve kinda been icky ever since.

Its a lovely nausea, which is mostly gone if I hold still with an empty stomach, it rises with a vengeance if I move too much or eat.

I missed class Wed and Thurs morning. Thursday evening I told one of the people in the dept that I might need to go to a doctor, and she went with me to a pharmacy and picked out some Chinese medicine for me, which not only didn’t really help the nausea, but made me horribly gassy.

Friday I went to the hospital, there is no other way to see a doctor here. Wow.

We got there by taxi, I had to check in and pay a 3 kuai registration fee. Then I went to the doctor who asked some questions, mostly about diarrhea, and decided it was probably food poisoning (translated as “dirty food”), but that he wanted me to have a blood test anyway.

I take the doctors paper to the cashier to pay for the blood test (20 kuai) then go to have my blood taken in a whole other part of the building, by nurses who use iodine as a sterilizer, and the tubes for blood collection weren’t vacuum sealed, so they drew my blood with a syringe then squirted it into an open plastic test tube (did i mention they weren’t wearing gloves?)… GAH!

Anyway the test turns out to be a general blood analysis and the results sheet shows my levels and the acceptable range for each level, thus ensuring that the doctor doesn’t actually have to know how to interpret the results, only to see if they’re in the right range.

They are, and I take the results BACK to the doctor who says that my illness is not serious, and offers me amoxicillin. Well, first he says an IV transfusion of “medicine”, and it was only after lots of asking on my part that they finally admitted what the medicine was.

Amoxicillin is an antibiotic, a pretty strong one, the main side effects of which are nausea and diarrhea… so not to good for an upset tummy. They also tried to tell me the “medicine” would kill a virus, which is not possible.

After lots of arguing in which I tried to explain that I was not going to take amoxicillin unless I was MUCH sicker, they finally offered to give me “something to protect the stomach lining”, my best guess is an antacid of some kind. And they all thought I was crazy for refusing the antibiotics.

Now, just to be clear, an IV of amoxicillin is standard for any illness here. My students told me that an IV transfusion of medicine is what’s done regardless of what you have, so I not only don’t have any great feeling that I’m missing something the doctor knows about mysterious Chinese stomach ailments, I left the hospital feeling like I knew more than the doctor.

Oh, the mystery alternate medicine turned out to be 75 kuai and I didn’t end up buying it, so we’ll see if I can kick this on my own.

I’m slowly able to eat more, now, and I got a cheap blender to be able to make tofu banana smoothies. I’ll be doing ginger infusions and generally taking it easy, and avoiding Chinese medicine.

I haven’t found a place to buy western medicine yet, Wal-Mart proved a bust.

*2017 update* That mystery stomach ailment lasted a while.  I survived on tofu smoothies, orange juice and snickers bars… I think it might have been a reaction to the oil in the Chinese food (sooooo much oil) and even when the nausea passed I still had to take regular breaks from Chinese food or it would come back.


It’s fall here in Korea these days too, and it seems that health issues are the theme. It’s nothing serious (I think), but I’m going to a doctor or dentist 1-3 times a week and it’s taking all my time, energy, and spare income. Looking at my photo journals, I feel like I am doing so little adventuring in comparison to last year or years before, but sometimes we just have to buckle down and take care of the necessities. Currently that’s teeth, body, and a new job hunt (which will likely mean a new country, or at least a new city after February).

There’s still plenty I love about Korea, but right now I’m loving the affordable and efficient health care system more than the festivals. Less fun, but whenever I see one of my US friends post a gofundme for medical bills or complain about fighting an insurance company for coverage they paid for, I get seriously grateful that if I have to spend the better part of a year getting poked and prodded by medical/dental professionals, at least I can afford it and never have to argue over my national health coverage. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy more stories from my very first year abroad in China! Thanks for reading ❤

Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

15momshouse1.jpg

The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

100_0468.jpg

The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

100_0496.jpg

The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

01jishuitan gate1.jpg

We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

05wall pit stop3.jpg

After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

09yanqiao2.jpg

Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

10village gate.jpg

Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

17brickbed2.jpg

There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

100_0467.jpg

Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

100_0478.jpg

Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

35chickens2.jpg

Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

39school2

The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

100_0486.jpg

We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

100_0489.jpg

This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

100_0492.jpg

We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

09village4.jpg

Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

100_0498.jpg

Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

100_0508.jpg

Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

100_0524.jpg

They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

100_0530.jpg

¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.

Food Fight

Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders. This post is not fun. It’s not about travel or adventure. It is relevant to these because by living in other cultures, and experiencing culture shock, we uncover things about our own culture and about ourselves that may have otherwise never come to light. This is about how food culture in Korea made me face a tiny portion of my own food wars and the treatment of food in American culture. I thought about making it private, but aside from the fact that I just don’t have that many readers, I think that there are others who have their own food fights who need to know they aren’t alone.


I don’t want to say I have an eating disorder, but I think that it’s reasonable to say I have a very good view of eating disorders from where I stand. As a child, my father made it clear to me that my grandmother (his mother) was morbidly obese, diabetic and wheelchair bound because she ate her feelings. I saw this trope in movies and TV shows, as well as in PSA style warnings in health class, so it sunk in pretty deep. So deep that when faced with feelings of sadness, grief, anger, shame, guilt, etc. my throat closes down making swallowing nigh impossible and my stomach rejects everything with a vicious roiling nausea. There are some negative emotions like insecurity, stress and anxiety which do not trigger this response, so I still stress eat from time to time, but far more common for me to fail to eat while emotional and then eat too much when I recover and realize how hungry I am.

When I lost a close friend to suicide, I was so sad for so long that I couldn’t eat anything other than plain crackers and chicken broth with white rice for about a month. Most of the time, this isn’t actually a problem, since I’ve gotten decent at being able to take some time out and bring the emotions back around and postpone the healthy meal until I finish crying myself clear. (oh, yeah, I also believe we have to experience our sadness rather than suppress it). I haven’t actually gagged or thrown up over food from emotion since I was a kid. Which is probably the source of this whole mess.

Korea has been a battle ground over this usually innocuous problem. In the US and a lot of other places, if a fat girl turns down food in public, no one really pushes. Heck, even skinny girls are nervous to be seen eating too much or the wrong thing. A lot fat shaming is placed on overweight people eating anything in public, like they’re supposed to just hide from the world and never visit restaurants. America is like one giant overbearing parent criticizing all your food choices while also being the worst frat boy bro and offering deep fried everything and sandwiches made of fried chicken “buns” with bacon in the middle. Do you want fries with that?

Korea is not the only country I’ve lived in or traveled to where eating is a social activity, but it is the only one I’ve lived in where I felt so pressured to eat more. I sit at lunch with my skinny Korean coworkers and watch them shovel mounds of food in record time. I cannot eat that fast. I think maybe when I was in high school we had to eat that fast because there was no time, but I’ve become a slow eater since then. It’s better for you. It gives you time to enjoy the food, and gives your body the time it needs for the messages to get from the stomach to the brain that you’re satisfied. Not only can I not eat as fast as these women, I can’t eat as much as they do.

Last summer, I found myself in the very awkward situation of sharing an office with a group of administrative staffers that I otherwise never see. They brought treats basically every day to share and would insist that I come away from my desk to the table to join them. Even if I wasn’t hungry. Even if I was right in the middle of working on something and didn’t want to break my train of thought. I felt like I had no choice. And that made me feel a stinging combination of anger and shame that caused my throat to close against the swallowing of the snack.

I know, it sounds silly, why have such a strong emotional response to someone offering you food? It’s not about the food. It’s about the agency. It’s about food as weapon of control. If I can’t politely decline, it’s not my choice anymore, and there is nothing that flips all my trigger switches like having my agency over my own body removed.

I made it through the awkward summer often by simply holding onto a single piece of something to make it look like I was eating more. When school started and I was once again back in the company of my regulars who were all on diets all the time. One ate a huge lunch because she planned to eat nothing else that day, while another did so because she’d skipped breakfast. I survived lunch awkwardness by simply taking less food on to my tray, but this year with the new cafeteria, the very kind lunch staff love giving me big portions. And this year there are new teachers around me who are not on diets and love bringing and sharing snacks morning and afternoon.

When the substitute had her last day with us, the music teacher ordered a whole bunch of “Mom’s Touch”, a fast food fried chicken and burgers kind of place I ate at once and only once because there was nothing else around where I was at the time I was hungover and starving. But she ordered this smorgasbord after lunch, and everyone just kept eating! Even though I’d just had lunch, even though I really don’t like Mom’s Touch, and even though fried fast food is so unhealthy, I felt solidly pressured to eat some of it.

A few weeks ago, one brought me an ice cream right after lunch. Usually when people bring me snacks, I can politely accept and just say, oh I’m still full from lunch but I’ll enjoy this later. But ice cream melts… so I ate that. And that just runs counter to everything I ever learned about food. Eating ice cream just to be polite and not because I wanted it? What!?

After a whole puberty of diets and exercise plans, calorie counting and measuring ( and an early 20s rebellion of eating all the worst things, and part of the 30s doing fad diets and more measuring), I finally came to terms with listening to my body. Eat when hungry, stop -not when full, but when no longer hungry. When craving food, think about why. Go in craving steps where you try the healthy option and wait 10-15 minutes: water, protein, fiber, fruits/veggies, lastly chocolate. This has done basically zero for my scale, but I think it makes me feel better, and it’s certainly not unhealthy.

This chronic battle with food and emotion is unlikely to ever stop entirely in my life, but I felt like it was more of a cold war in the last few years. And then today, at lunch, one of my coworkers explained that the school was doing a “food waste awareness” program and that everyone was supposed to clean their plates.

Food waste is terrible. People in wealthy countries throw away so much food, it’s insane. I am sure Korea’s waste is less than it is in America. I remember learning the weight-loss mantra “Better to waste than to waist.”, meaning better to throw it away than get fat. But of course, really it’s better to not buy it, not cook it, not put it on your plate.

The point is, I am all for food waste awareness. But here we all are in a setting with very little control over how much of what food is put on the tray (I suppose kids can ask for less of something, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen) and this “clean your plate” suggestion (not even a mandate, since of course I am an adult and they aren’t actually forcing me to finish, only asking me to set a good example for the kids) this suggestion reaches all the way back into my psyche and flips every last food autonomy switch I’ve got.

I’m sitting at the table in my dad’s kitchen in California. I don’t remember exactly when, but I’m not more than 10 years old. His wife has made some kind of Hawaiian stir fry for dinner, and I’ve been told I have to clear my plate to earn a slice of the delectable chocolate layer cake resting under glass atop the fridge. I try, I eat everything but the onions, which I hated back then. But it’s not good enough. No onions, no cake. I struggle to choke down the onions I hate so much, the cake taunting me from across the kitchen. My father is going to have his piece in front of me. I force onions in sweet and sour sauce into my mouth, trying to chew and swallow, trying to hold back tears. But my throat closes and my stomach rebels and the onions, peppers, beef, and pineapple comeback up and onto my plate.

Now there is no dinner in my stomach, and I am scolded and shamed for vomiting, for wasting, for making a mess. Dinner, cake and dignity all revoked.

This is far from the only time that food was used as a weapon or a reward, but it is the one that came back to me today when my co-teacher innocently asked me to set a good example to the students during this food waste awareness campaign. And suddenly, my stomach turns upside-down. Food is repellent and I can feel the beginnings of the clenching throat that will make swallowing impossible.

I was hungry when I sat down and we were having curry rice for lunch which I particularly enjoy.  And yet, after that I picked listlessly at my food, waiting for the others to finish first, which they always do, and to leave me alone at the table where I could nibble until nearly everyone was gone and I could dispose of the rest of my lunch as unobserved as possible. Now I am ashamed to waste food and to let the children see me do so.

I love food. I don’t understand how it is that we create in ourselves this kind of conflict, guilt and shame over food. Shame over eating, shame over not eating. I can’t help but think back to my brief time in France, a country that takes pride in food preparation and spends time to eat and enjoy it. Maybe I’m being wishful in believing that somewhere there is a culture that does not have the complex love-hate relationship with food that I grew up into. Until I find it, though, I just have to keep digging the shrapnel out of the scars of my past, hoping they’ll heal more completely each time.