Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

‘Making an Exit’ around the world

October 12, 2011

Just back from New Mexico, where we found the cemeteries there to be strikingly similar to those in indigenous northern Argentina — colorful and lively. They draw reverent yet celebratory crowds on certain days, especially the Day of the Dead. (In Taos, we hunted for and found the grave of Dennis Hopper.)

Those visits got me in the mood to read Sarah Murray’s new book, “Making An Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre — How we Dignify the Dead.” I’m ready to sign up for a worldwide death tour. (I’ve already done the Chapel of Bones swing through southern Europe.)

I first learned of Sarah’s work through her book “Moveable Feasts: The Incredible Journeys of the Things We Eat.” Sarah, a Brit and a longtime Financial Times writer now based in New York City, is a quintessential journalist — curious about everything and a terrific researcher and story teller.

In Ghana, you can have the fantasy coffin of your choosing (photo Sarah Murray)

In her introduction, she writes of her father’s death and wonders how she would like her own handled. “Writers often tell us about places we must see before we die. I want to explore some of the ones we end up in when we’re dead.” Her research took her to Hong Kong, Mexico , Ghana, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, Iran, Sicily, and Bali. So this is as much of a travel book as a survey of funerary practices, all the way down to its souvenirs — Sarah ordered a coffin from Ghana, famed for its wild vessels of death. Hers is in the shape of the Empire State Building and rests in her living room.

Check out her book and her blog (with death-themed photos that are full of life) and if you’re in New York, she has events on Oct. 20 and Oct. 30. Wish I could be there, dead or alive.

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Borobudur Temple blends history, religion, art

September 12, 2010

Inside each bell-shaped stupa on top of the Borubudur temple is a Buddha statue

Continuing our “Eat Pray Love“-inspired trilogy from Indonesia, here’s the final installment. I wrote this short piece on the Borobudur Temple for the Boston Globe in 2005.

By Diane Daniel

One of the largest Buddhist structures in the world is in the largest Muslim country — Indonesia. Borobudur Temple on the island of Java is a colossal world wonder.

The temple was built between AD 750-850 with more than 2 million blocks of stone carried by hand from the Progo River to the building site on a small hill. Seen from the air, it looks like one giant stupa, the dome-shaped Buddhist structures used to house relics and commemorate significant facts and events.

The Buddhist Borobudur Temple is a colossal world wonder

Borobudur houses an amazing 1,460 individual narrative reliefs and 1,212 decorative ones, all ornately and intricately carved. They tell a series of 11 stories, or Buddhist doctrines. To follow a story from beginning to end, one must walk a complete circle around the three levels, or spiritual worlds, of the temples. At the top, which signifies nirvana, are 72 bell-shaped stupas, each covering a statue of a seated Buddha. Most are now missing their heads and limbs after centuries of wear and pillage.

Visitors reach their arms through the diamond-shaped openings in the stupa for the one Buddha statue that is supposed to bring good luck when touched.

Diane and Wessel with students who pleaded to speak English and snap a photo

The temple is Indonesia’s most popular tourist attraction, but because it’s a bit out of the way, it attracts more natives than foreigners. We were among a handful of Westerners on a day when dozens of Indonesian students were there on a class outing that included an assignment to get information from a foreigner. We obliged many by answering basic questions (Where are you from? Where are you going next?) and having our photos taken, usually with giggling students joining in.

If, like many visitors to this country, you are going only to Bali, one island over to the east, there are day trips by air to the famed temple. You can do the same from the capital of Jakarta, in west Java. My husband and I decided to take the train from Jakarta in order to see the countryside and mingle with the locals. Though the seven-hour ride on the “eksekutif” train (a phonetic version of “executive”) turned to nine, it was worth it for the sights and interactions.

The temple is Indonesia's most-visited tourist attraction, as it should be

The train station and airport are in Yogyakarta, a crowded city full of vendors and all sorts of human and motor-powered transportation. We found a “taksi” to take us on the hourlong ride to Borobudur village for $10.

We had booked a room at Manohara Hotel, the only lodging inside the archeological park. The rooms ($40) were scruffy, but the grounds were lovely, and the proximity to the temple unbeatable. The room rate includes an audiovisual show about the temple (highly recommended) and admission ($10). You can also hire an English-speaking guide for $5.

One of the temple's 504 Buddha statues

From the film, we learned that the reliefs tell parables of good and evil, but more amazing were the stories of the temple’s renovation. The temple was abandoned almost as soon as it was built, as Buddhism declined in Indonesia. Only in 1815 was it rediscovered under layers of volcanic ash. The Dutch, during their rule in the 20th century, did some restoration, but the temple became waterlogged and unstable.

Finally, between 1973 and 1983, a global restoration project financed the addition of supports, securing of the stones with cement, installing a much-needed lightning conductor, and cleaning much of the stone. Before-and-after photographs in the temple museum show the transformation from decay to splendor. 

A host of hellos from Lombok, Indonesia

September 6, 2010

Farmer carries bamboo sticks (perhaps for irrigation?) through rice field

For all you folks fascinated with Bali after seeing “Eat Pray Love,” do consider visiting its next-door neighbor, the island of Lombok, a short and relatively inexpensive plane ride away. It’s quite different and equally fascinating. Here’s a piece I wrote on Lombok for the Boston Globe in 2005.

By Diane Daniel

“Whatever you do, keep the bathroom door open and don’t look behind it,” my husband warned. “And don’t ask me to explain.”

“Why not?” I said.

“I’ll tell you after we check out. Just trust me,” he said.

He knows my “ick” threshold is low for insects and creatures dead or alive, so I dutifully obliged by steering clear of the mystery behind the door.

Blue-green crater lake on Mount Rinjani as seen from the crater's rim at 8,658 feet

We were staying at Pondok Senaru, in the village of Senaru on Lombok, one of Indonesia’s 13,000 islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited. Senaru is one of two main gateways (Sembulan Lawang being the other) to Mount Rinjani, at 12,224 feet, the second highest mountain in the country. We would climb much of it the next day, and what our lodging lacked inside it made up for outside with stunning views of rice fields, waterfalls, and mountains.

Our large bathroom had other “ick” factors: no sink or warm water, a dirty floor, and large, unidentifiable insects flying around the ceiling.

“I miss the Oberoi,” I whined.

Ah, The Oberoi, Lombok.

Infinity pool at the 5-star Oberoi hotel

Two nights earlier, we had arrived at the island’s most luxurious and remote resort hotel, in Mataram, on the west coast. We had come from Bali, only 20 minutes by air. Lombok, about 50 miles end to end and side to side, with 2.4 million residents, was a welcome change from its more touristy neighbor. The local people, called Sasaks, say the island resembles the Bali of 25 years ago: a relatively quiet land of beaches, mountains, rain forests, and rice fields.

Typically, we are the mid-range-hotel type, three stars out of five, only partly because we’re budget-minded. We don’t appreciate an excess of riches, especially in a developing country still reeling from an economic crisis in 1997, tourism-directed bombings in 2002 and 2005, and devastation left by the December tsunami, which occurred nearly 2,000 miles west of Lombok.

On the other hand, pumping money into the local economy is a good thing.

(more…)

Eat, stay, love: Flavorful Bali

August 23, 2010

Flower offering on shopping street in Ubud

Glowing green rice patties. Petite piles of flowers gathered in front of nearly every business and home. Incense burning at every street corner. Temples large and small at every turn. And hawkers and tourists and tourists and hawkers. Bali really is all that. I haven’t seen “Eat Pray Love,” but I‘m assuming those visuals and more are in the movie.

We were there in the spring of 2005, for just a few days before flying off to the neighboring island of Lombok, which has many fewer tourists.

Woman carries baskets on her head

But unlike most of Muslim Indonesia, the majority of Bali residents are Hindu, hence the ornate Buddha statues, colorful clothing, flower and incense offerings.

I can’t recall how it came to be, but someone put me in contact with Caroline Miksch, who grew up in Lancaster County, Penn., and now designs and makes batik children’s wear in Ubud, Bali, under the name Pelangi Design. I wanted to write about her for someone — anyone. I ended up interviewing her and could not sell that dang story for the life of me. She graciously connected us with her driver, Nyoman, who we made arrangements with ahead of time. He was a doll and a great chauffeur.

We spent our first night at the hotel Kumula Pantai, in the beach resort town of Kuta, where the awful tourist bombings of 2002 took place, killing 202 people. The hotel was fairly fabulous; our room was around $40. Ridiculous. It was filled with beautiful people, mostly Aussies. The beach was not so attractive. Bland, boring, brownish.

Babi guling (spit-roasted suckling pig) at roadside restaurant Iba Oka in Ubud

Nyoman met us there the next day to drive us to Ubud, the “cultural capital.” Alas, it’s also the tourist capital, and the shopping district is lined with not only high-end galleries, but dozens of junkie souvenir shops. Nyoman took us on a fascinating drive around the island, where we passed tiny villages and witnessed rice harvesting. And we visited Caroline’s amazing home.

For three nights we stayed in the enchanting Ananda Ubud, in our own little thatched cottage, for $30 a night. We looked out over gardens and rice patties, and each day a freshly cut hibiscus blossom would be left in our room. In the morning, I’d eat dark brown rice cereal and fresh fruit.

Up the tall tree and back, coconut in hand

I recall one steaming hot walk we took through rice paddies and villages, where we saw the ubiquitous women carrying  baskets on their heads. At one point a man jumped on the path in front of us wielding a large scythe. He motioned to us to watch as he shimmied up a palm tree, grabbed a coconut and brought it to us, slicing out an opening for the milk with a flourish. Of course he does this for all the tourists, and we were delighted to pay him for our fresh snack.

In Ubud we also had some amazing meals, spicier than I’m usually comfortable with. But the flavors, oh the flavors, were so sharp and sweet and made you pay attention. My tongue screamed in pain and pleasure.

Nyoman plays host at his home

Near the end of our stay, Nyoman invited us to his home. Earlier, we’d visited his wife, whose family has a job making carved figurines to sell to tourists. We watched her as she painted long-necked cats with large eyes. We bought several. The couple and their daughter, then six, lived in a few rooms of a family compound. The floors and walls were concrete and we sat on a threadbare carpet in one of the rooms while Nyoman served us fruit on a small dish. He was so proud to have us there. We knew our vacation budget alone was probably more than he would make in several years.

And, then, we were off to Lombok. But that’s another story.

Friendly Turkey won her over

February 12, 2010

This was first published Sept. 27, 2009, in my Boston Globe column “Where they Went.”

Rob and Cindy Walsh at a restaurant on the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul

WHO:  Cindy, 57, and Rob Walsh, 63, of Wales, Mass.

WHERE: Turkey.

WHEN: Six days in March.

WHY: “We started traveling together out of the country about 12 years ago,’’ Cindy Walsh said. “We first went to London, then France, and Rob thought Istanbul sounded really interesting.’’

CHANGE OF HEART: “I kind of put him off; it sounded a little too exotic for me. Then after Bush attacked Iraq, I thought people wouldn’t be too fond of Americans anywhere where there was a Muslim population. Then I saw a great airfare, and someone on the fodors.com forum had come back and written a glowing report, and I thought, what am I waiting for? I felt really stupid when I saw how friendly everyone was. The Turkish people are the friendliest people I’ve met.’’

Galata Bridge fishermen, with the famed New Mosque in the background

TERRACE WITH A VIEW: Following the online advice of travelers, Walsh booked a room at Hotel Empress Zoe. “We loved it. It was very old-Turkish style but boutiquey. We decided to get the penthouse suite. It wasn’t luxurious, but it had a terrace with beautiful views.’’ They looked onto the Bosphorus, the strait that separates Europe and Asia, as well as Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque, the national mosque of Turkey.

FERRY TO FREE TIME: Their favorite outing was a ferry trip up the Bosphorus. “It’s a regular state ferry run, and they stop at different ports on both sides. The river traffic is crazy, ferries crisscrossing each other and honking, freighters going through, pleasure boats, fishing boats, even sailing boats.’’ Their ride ended at the mouth of the Black Sea (which the Bosphorus connects to the Mediterranean), in Anadolu Kavagi, where they had a few hours free. “It was beautiful, forested with steep hills going down to the water and towns built into the sides of the hills. At the top of the hill there’s the ruins of a castle you can walk around.’’ Back in town, where stray dogs and cats wandered by the dozens, waiters worked to reel in tourists for lunch.

Rob on a Kadikoy ferry, with the New Mosque in the background

THE SHOPPING SPIRIT: Initially the couple was reluctant to bargain in the Istanbul bazaar. “The first time we even went out of the hotel a carpet salesperson followed us all around, even waiting for us to come out of the Blue Mosque. I kept yelling at my husband, ‘Put your head down, don’t look at anyone.’ But finally we started to get into the whole aspect of shopping and how to have fun with it,’’ Walsh said.

ONLINE FIND: Again following online advice, the Walshes sought out the restaurant Ziya Sark Sofrasi. “We were really impressed. It was small and good and very Mediterranean.’’

Back in Japan, with husband in tow

January 14, 2010

From my column “Where they Went,” first published in the Boston Globe on Sept. 6, 2009

Newlyweds Rick Walter and Kerri O'Neill Walter in Yokohama, Japan

WHO: Kerri, 36, and Rick Walter, 51, of Derry, N.H.

WHERE: Japan

WHEN: One week in March

WHY: “I taught English in Japan from 1998-2002 and wanted to go back and visit some friends and have Rick see where I lived,” said Kerri Walter. “We picked March because we wanted to try and see cherry blossoms.”

In front of the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo

HONEYMOON VOYAGE: In what was also a belated honeymoon (they were married last summer), Walter was eager to show her husband around on his first trip out of the United States and introduce him to friends there she has stayed in touch with.

TEEN ATTRACTIONS: The first few days, they toured Tokyo, especially the teen fashion sites. “I took him to Shibuya, which is a famous, huge intersection with neon signs where Japanese teenagers shop.” On Sunday they watched the famed scene at Yoyogi Park in Harajuku. “Young people come on Sundays and wear costumes; like there’s a famous group of them that dress up like 1950s greasers.” What amazed them both was that the scene has stayed constant for years, as had most of the places she lived and worked. “It didn’t seem like I’d been gone long at all.”

In Kyoto near the Kiyomizudera Temple

FRUGAL FUELING: Staying on a tight budget, the Walters often ate at an izakaya, a bar that serves food. “We had things like fried noodles, rice balls, little fried shrimp, curry rice.” Another destination was yakiniku, where diners cook their own meat on a tableside grill. “Rick’s favorite drink was plum wine. You can get it straight up or in a drink called an ume sour.” To save on transportation, they preordered Japan Rail passes, which cover most trains and buses in the country. “It’s an incredible deal.”

The Genbaku Dome was one of the few buildings left standing after the atomic blast in Hiroshima

FROM HIGHLIGHT TO HARD FLOOR: A bullet train took them to Hiroshima, where “my husband really wanted to see the peace park. That was the highlight of his trip.” There they stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. “They have bath areas with really hot water and you sleep on a thick, thick blanket, like a futon. Rick liked the bath but not sleeping on the mat.” They stopped by nearby Miyajima to see the iconic pi-shaped orange shrine.

Mount Fuji as seen from the Hakone region

FUJI TIME: In Kyoto, they luxuriated at the Weston Miyako. “I got an insanely cheap rate on Expedia.” A view of Mount Fuji opened up to them on the final day. They took a well-known route by car, boat, and “ropeway” (cable car) in Hakone to bring them closer to Japan’s tallest mountain, at 12,388 feet. “I’ve been there a million times, but I really wanted Rick to see it.” The one thing Walter couldn’t show her husband were the cherry blossoms. “My friend said they were beautiful about 10 days after we left.”

‘Going home’ to Thailand

November 19, 2009

(“Where they Went,” published July 19, 2009, Boston Globe.)

Amanda Johnson with parents Jo Lynne and David at Ta Prohm in Cambodia

WHO: David and Jo Lynne Johnson, 59, of Stratham, N.H., and their daughter, Amanda, 26, of New York.  To see traveler Amanda’s photos from the trip, go here.)

WHERE: Cambodia and Thailand.

WHEN: December to March.

WHY: “We fell in love with Asia, and Thailand specifically, and we wanted to go back to teach,” said Jo Lynne. This was the couple’s third trip in four years, which included two archeological tours with Earthwatch Institute and two teaching programs through Volunthai.

FAMILY OUTING: The first three weeks in Asia were spent with their daughter, who had just received her master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. “We offered to show her some of our favorite places,” David said.

HAPPY NEW YEAR: They started in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit the famed 12th-century temple complex of Angkor Wat. “We planned to be there for sunrise on New Year’s Day,” Jo Lynne said, “but there was no sun. Still, it was beautiful.” During a previous trip, the couple had befriended a tour guide, who took them around again. The Johnsons are helping his children attend English classes.

The family hitches a ride at Mae Taeng Elephant Camp in Thailand

PACHYDREAMS: “The one thing Mandy wanted to see were the elephants,” David said. Her wish was fulfilled at Mae Taeng Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, where visitors can view elephants bathing, feed them, and ride them through the jungle.

Amanda shows students their photo on her digital camera at Beungkumku School in NonJaDee, Thailand.

A HOST OF IDEAS: “Before Mandy left, we took her to meet the family,” David said, referring to the Volunthai host family they stayed with a year earlier in the small northeastern village of NonJaDee. “When we came before, we were the first white people the villagers had seen. Our purpose is to expose them to pronunciation. They never hear English spoken by native speakers. We taught school with Mandy for a few days. She went home with her head reeling with ideas.”

NEXT ASSIGNMENT: After their daughter left, the Johnsons went on to a larger school in Pakdee Chumphon, where they taught for a month through Volunthai. Not only is learning pronunciation challenging for the students, Jo Lynne said, the culture does not encourage independent thinking, so students are often reluctant to speak. “They’re so afraid of making a mistake. They’re not used to being individually responsible.”

The Johnsons with teacher Khru Tiu

TRULY CONNECTED: Their last three weeks were spent teaching back in NonJaDee. “It was like going home,” Jo Lynne said. The couple they’ve become close to, their host family through Volunthai last year, also are teachers. Communication is halting but doable, she said. “We keep the dictionary at the dinner table.” When the Johnsons are back in New Hampshire, they keep in touch through e-mail. “The people are just the nicest, warmest, most wonderful people. They’re really what drew us back to Thailand,” David said. Though another trip isn’t scheduled, “they know we want to come back, and we will.”

The roads traveled are two-way streets

April 27, 2009

I wrote the essay below for a special travel section in the April issue of Ode MagazineIt’s on their website as well.  If you don’t know Ode, I suggest you check it out. It’s at a magazine stand near you. (Borders, Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, etc. Or better yet, buy a subscription and keep Ode alive.  Its tagline is: For Intelligent Optimists. Hey, that’s me! And I’m guessing you, too.

This farmer in Lombok, Indonesia plows with an ox-plow

Farmer on Lombok Island, Indonesia, plows his fields the traditional way

The Eiffel Tower. Big Ben. The Taj Mahal. Only 20 years ago, these were the notches on the traveler’s money belt, which, incidentally, was stuffed with travelers’ cheques. Today we’ve been there, done that. Affordable airfare and Western wealth (yes, we’re still comparatively wealthy even now, in the midst of the credit crunch) have brought travelers to every corner of the globe. We hop on transcontinental flights armed with our debit cards, functional in cash-dispensing machines from Dubai to Denali.

But simply seeing the sights is no longer enough. We want to stray from those beaten paths, dig deeper, get a read on how the locals live, work and play. This can include eating at a restaurant favored by residents instead of Westerners, participating in an outdoor adventure or visiting sites not found in most guidebooks. In industry jargon, it’s called “experiential travel”-travel we live through instead of look at-and it’s never been more popular. It’s popular because it’s typically cheaper than traditional travel; money is tight but we still want to go on vacation, some of us to faraway places. And it’s popular because we want to tread more lightly during our trips, in terms of our impact on the environment and on the people we visit. We want to give something back.

The desire to experience a different culture through activities and people goes deeper than adding another notch to the money belt, though that plays a role, too. It’s as basic as life. It’s our fellow human beings who transcend us. At the end of the day, we recall the burka-clad woman on the train reciting prayers as much as we do the centuries-old treasures in the museum.

A polar-bear-shaped license plate from Northwest Territories

Diane's much-coveted gift from locals in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada

When I think back to one of my life’s highlights-seeing the northern lights in the Northwest Territories, Canada, during 2002-I also relive the hospitality of the citizens of tiny Fort Smith, who cooked for me, took me dog sledding and gave me a polar-bear-shaped license plate that hangs in my house today. The most lasting impression of my 11-week backpacking trip to Europe in 1982 is my still-enduring friendship with Federico, who lives in Vicenza, Italy. In my home state of North Carolina, as I travel to research a farm-travel guidebook, the farmers stand out as much as their bounties or the sweeping rural landscapes.

Diane (left) met Federico Lauro in the mid 1980s

Diane and Federico Lauro in Vicenza, Italy, in 1986. And, yes, they're still in touch.

My reaction is hardly unique. While I’ve done a fair amount of traveling of my own, I’ve also interviewed hundreds of people over the past eight years for a column I write for The Boston Globe called “Where They Went,”  about other people’s trips. Without fail, these travelers will recount adventures, sights, tastes, but almost always add: “The people were the best part. They were so nice, so warm, so welcoming.” Those people’s stories are the ones they recount to me again and again, especially if they were allowed a look inside a community or a family.

These days, even the most mainstream tour operators include experiential travel on an otherwise-standard tour. For example, in the 2009 Grand Circle Travel land and cruise tour “China and the Yangtze River,” participants will not only visit the Great Wall, Beijing and Hong Kong; they’ll tour a kindergarten or senior center and have a home-hosted lunch. “You’ll see local customs enacted first-hand as your gracious hosts prepare and serve a typical Chinese meal,” the itinerary reads. For the traveler wanting a less-staged version of hospitality and sightseeing, many cities have forms of community-based or locally led tourism, which originates with citizens instead of national or international tour operators.

A local guide prepares a meal for a 2-day hiking trek on Lombok

One of our local guides prepares an Indonesian meal during a hiking trek up Mount Rinjani (12,224 ft.) on Lombok.

Digging deeper also requires that we set aside our demands for a money-back-guaranteed quality and “safe” experience. That can be instructive in itself. I recall a community-based “ecotourism” hiking trek my husband and I chose on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. The guides lit our campfires with the help of splashes of gasoline from the jugs they carried and they littered along the way. I later reported these issues to the organizer, who lived in the capital of Mataram, miles and worlds away. He was extremely apologetic, as he’d been trying to get the villagers to understand tourism basics. On the other hand, I saw the real way of life there. It was worth the trade-off. And I was much happier to donate money to people in the village than to an international travel outfitter.

These school children on Lombok are excited to see two cycling tourists

Schoolchildren in a tiny village on Lombok are excited to see two cycling tourists

After hearing me speak about the virtues of getting off the tour bus, one African safari tour operator told me proudly how at the end of his luxury lodge-hopping trip in Tanzania, he takes his clients into the city of Arusha to visit poor neighborhoods and give trinkets to the local children. “Everyone came away deeply moved,” he said. “The crazy thing was, after seeing all that big game, what I heard from them was it was the most memorable part of the trip.” I suggested he consider moving the outing to the beginning of the tour, so it would be on their minds as they met Tanzanian workers along the way. “Oh no, that would be too much for them,” he said.

Perhaps our challenge as citizens of the world is to decide how much is enough-and then go soak it in. Even if the recession has wiped out a quarter or more of our wealth, we’re still rich by global standards. Experiencing how other people live, whether in Appalachia or Addis Ababa, will make us even richer. And likely them, too.

India: love, hate, and avoidance

October 1, 2008
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was built by Shah Jahan as memorial to wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was built by Shah Jahan as memorial to wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Have you been to India?” asked an acquaintance who was soon to visit her husband, who’s teaching in southern India for a few months. I told her that I hadn’t. I also confessed that I have mixed feelings about traveling there, or to any country that is chaotic and has unsafe tap water.

It’s not that I don’t travel outside my comfort zone. I do. Such as to Morocco, Ecuador, Argentina, Indonesia. OK, yes, those places are pretty tame. See what I mean? I absolutely celebrate the rich diversity in all countries. But the older I get, the lower my “ick” threshold falls. My overly sanitized American standards interfere with my sense of adventure. I say this with shame, not pride. Of course the easy way to get around this is to stay in luxury hotels, eat in westernized restaurants, and stay off the ground and away from the common folk. But what fun would that be? What reality would that offer? I’m either going to travel sort of like a local, or stay home. So I remain torn.

Wanderlust and lipstick by Beth Whitman

Wanderlust and Lipstick: for Women Traveling to India by Beth Whitman

Someone who doesn’t shy away from India is Seattle writer Beth Whitman, whose book “Wanderlust and Lipstick” addresses women traveling solo. Beth recently published “Wanderlust and Lipstick: for Women Traveling to India,” a country she’s visited several times since 1989. Beth has seen many changes there over the years and says travel is now easier and more reliable. But still challenging. The challenges are what make it memorable, of course. Beth reports that the number of travelers to India rose from 3.5 million in 2004 to 5 million in 2007 (wow!), and that the government has launched a campaign to train hospitality industry folks about such things as hygiene, manners, integrity and safety. Of course if things get too hygienic, polite, and safe, there go the bragging rights. You can buy the book at Beth’s website, www.wanderlustandlipstick.com.

One of my favorite travel stories offers a different take on the country. In “Trying Really Hard to Like India,” writer Seth Stevenson starts his award-winning 2004 story in Slate.com with this: “It’s OK to hate a place. … Because my girlfriend wants to come back – I’m back. I’m giving this dreadful place a second chance. And this time I vow I will try really hard to like India.” And here’s the ending: “As they say in really lame travel writing: India is a land of contradictions. A lot of things to like and a lot of things (perhaps two to three times as many things) to hate. It’s the spinach of travel destinations-you may not always (or ever) enjoy it, but it’s probably good for you. In the final reckoning, am I glad that I came here? Oh, absolutely. It’s been humbling. It’s been edifying. It’s been, on several occasions, quite wondrous. It’s even been fun, when it hasn’t been miserable. That said, am I ready to leave? Sweet mercy, yes.”

Wessel wins with lekker Indonesian dish

September 8, 2008

My spouse, Wessel, has many wonderful qualities, but I would not count his culinary skills among them. Well, not until two weeks ago. Wessel is now the proud champion of the 2008 “best dish” or “het beste garecht” at the annual Rijsttafel (pronounced riced-tahfel) event sponsored by our regional Dutch club. The group, which covers central North Carolina, is called De Wieken, which means “wings of the windmill.”

Wessel’s dish? Hot eggs, or “hete eieren.” (Recipe below.) You go, hon!

Wessel with dish with eggs soaking in hot sambal sauce

Wessel holding dish with hot sambal eggs shortly after preparation

He won 50 bucks (too bad they weren’t Euros) and an apron with a recipe on it in Dutch. Good thing he has his own apron now, because as you can see in the photo here, he had to borrow mine (which my mom made me eons ago) when he made his award-winning dish.

First, some background on rijsttafel, which means “rice table.” It’s an Indonesian spread, featuring rice with many different sauces and side dishes. Indonesian restaurants with rijsttafel dishes are very popular in Amsterdam. The Dutch connection is that from the early 1600s until 1945, Indonesia was a Dutch colony. Some Indonesians still speak Dutch, and when we were there in 2005, we spotted Dutch names all over the place, and even a Dutch cemetery in Jakarta (on the grounds of Museum Wayang).

Guests at the yearly rijsttafel event organized by Dutch club De Wieken

Guests at the yearly rijsttafel event organized by Dutch club De Wieken

The last De Wieken Rijsttafel we attended was two years ago, when, due to lack of planning, we lamely brought something from Whole Foods. This year Wessel took full ownership, studying Indonesian recipes online. Still, I was not hopeful. This is someone who has mixed pineapple and raisins into pasta, and once made me a meal of potatoes, cauliflower and onions. Maybe all-white worked for the Beatles, but not for me.

His choice was inspired by a friend from college at the University of Wageningen, Michel Flipphi, who used to make hot eggs for the study group he and Wessel were in. Basically it’s hard-boiled eggs that sit in a hot sauce with onions for several hours to soak up the flavors.

Me being the alpha cook and general know-it-all, I was convinced he’d never find the main ingredient, the hot sauce sambal oelek, a chile paste. Well, danged if it wasn’t at our local Kroger supermarket. He added another extra-hot sauce made from cayenne peppers on top of that, so then I was sure it would be way too hot. But in fact, it was perfect. He’d never used a wok, but mastered it immediately. He hard-boils eggs differently from me, but they were perfect.

This empty dish convincingly shows why the jury made its decision

As De Wieken was announcing the winner of the “lekkerste” (tastiest) meal, judged by Dutchies with Indonesian pasts, I thought, I hope Wessel isn’t getting his hopes up because he doesn’t have a chance, what with all the amazing and elaborate dishes here. When they called out “hete eieren” I expressed such surprise and excitement that everyone thought I had cooked it. “It was Wessel!” I sputtered. “He never cooks!”

Wessel with prize for best Indonesian dish

Wessel with prize for best Indonesian dish (Click to ENLARGE)

When he took his place on stage, I was bursting with pride, especially after having eaten two large platefuls of food from the Rijsttafel, not counting dessert. Here is the recipe, which Wessel found online at www.kookjij.nl (hete eieren). He has generously translated it to English. If you try it, let us know how it turned out.

Hete Eieren/Hot Eggs

Ingredients
– one large yellow onion
– wok oil
– 6 tablespoons (100 ml) ketchup
– 2-6 tablespoons (30-100 ml) hot sauce
– 1-2 tablespoons (15-30 g) sambal oelek
– 4 tablespoons (60 g) coconut flakes
– 1/2-1 tablespoon (7-15 ml) soy sauce
– 8-12 hard-boiled eggs
– salt to taste

Utensils
– wok or frying pan
– wooden spoon

Preparation
– Cut hard-boiled eggs in half
– Finely chop/dice the onion
– Heat the oil in wok or frying pan
– Sautee onions till they begin to brown
– Add add ketchup, hot sauce, soy sauce, and coconut flakes
– Add sambal to preferable level of spiciness
– Pour 3/4 of sauce in dish and put hard-boiled eggs in sauce
– Pour remaining sauce over eggs
– Incubate eggs+sauce for at least 30-60 minutes before serving

Tips from Wessel
– Add a bit of sugar if the taste is too sharp
– Add milk to turn down the heat if needed

Eet Smakelijk!!