Tag Archives: #food

A Near Perfect Day

I woke under canvas to the sound of waves, waves lapping the golden sands of Pantai Gantra, on the coast of Java, South of Malang. I woke to the sound of waves… and chickens, scratching, clucking and cock a doodling the new day in.

Having washed in a bucket, done some yoga stretches on the beach as the sun warmed up and breakfasted on fruit in my tent with my book, I was ready to start the day – exploring the bays and beaches while assessing some adventurous teens doing their Silver International Award expedition.

Each beach visited was a delight; golden sands, blue waves, distant emerald islands greeting my view. Shores were explored and shells collected, creative projects imagined and discussed, and the moment enjoyed. I learnt how to ‘pop’ a leaf, providing myself with plenty of amusement as I watched the group realise where the sound came from, and then learn the trick for themselves.

When we reached Tigga Warna Beach we went snorkelling. The group’s delight at being able to explore the reef and witness the colourful fish that live there was memorably illustrated by the squeaks emitted through their snorkels and the excited chattering that happened when they surfaced.

Later, we waded across an estuary to a mangrove conservation area and sought a beach on the other side of the bay. Uncertainty nearly forced the group back but the spirit of adventure prevailed and they found their way to Turtle Beach. Although there were no turtles there at that time of day the flush of success caused them to go further afield and find another beach on the other side of the promontory we were on. It was entirely deserted with not a footprint in sight; we were the first there for some time. Much fun was had wave jumping on this pristine secret before time and tide forced us all back to the campsite.

That evening I joined the other assessors for a B-B-Q on the beach. A huge tuna had been purchased at the fish market that day and was grilled in foil with butter and lemon as the sun went down. Having feasted on mouth-watering chunks of tuna and a shandy, I lay back to the sound of waves again and studied the star-studded dome above, seeking a shooting star while reflecting on the near perfection of my day.

Friends, Fire, Food etc.

Last Christmas my best friend (The Wife) and I decided to embark upon an Aussie Road Trip; a classic journey across the South of Australia from Melbourne to Adelaide to Sydney. It was in keeping with our seasonal tradition of leaving the festivities far behind us and embarking on an adventure instead, and this one certainly embraced some of Australia’s epic quirkiness.

Friends

We met up from our distant bases in Melbourne, a city I never quite manage to explore. We drank wine, caught up on all our news, consumed glorious Mexican food and giant cocktails and met up with a mutual friend neither of us had seen for years at the Stables Café at Como House:http://www.thestablesofcomo.com.au/#!home/mainPage It is always nice to see old friends and it’s even nicer to know that when you see them you can pick up where you left off as though it were only days rather than years since you saw them last. While there was near enough a decade of catching up to do with our Melbourne friend it was a very pleasant afternoon where conversation and laughter flowed easily. Time passed all too quickly and before we knew it was time to go our separate ways and start our road trip.

Melbourne to Adelaide is a 750 km drive, which we completed in a day, in order to visit one of the wife’s friends from her time in the US. We managed the trip in about eight hours, with plenty of stops and little difficulty. Our biggest problem was the sat nav, promptly nicknamed The Bitch, who would insist on taking us the long way round when we wanted an alternative route. As neither of us are strangers to maps we sometimes navigated from the road atlas I’d bought and she really couldn’t cope. Long stretches of entertainment arose from watching her recalculate the route, time and again, only for us to ignore her.

We stayed in Moanah, a beach suburb to the east of Adelaide, and spent a chilled out day visiting the beach in the morning then hitting the near-by Maclaren Vale in the afternoon, visiting a few of the cellar doors along the way. Our favourite by far was Chapel Hill Winery: http://www.chapelhillwine.com.au/ It provided us with a couple of very nice Rose (and we don’t like Rose) and a beautiful red that we managed to save until the last night of our trip. We even managed fish and chips on the beach that evening although the Wife and I privately agreed that British fish and chips are better! It was a very sociable and relaxing time, gaining a little glimpse of a happy Aussie family lifestyle, a far cry from our usual routines and very much needed by us both.

Fire

I’d watched fire reports on the TV while waiting for The Wife to arrive in Melbourne so I was aware of the situation South Australia was facing. Months of hot weather (we’d just missed a heat wave in Melbourne), tinder dry forests and lightening storms are typical fire hazards at that time of year. But on checking our route I was relived to see that the fires were north of us, so we were going to be able to follow our plan.

Having enjoyed the hospitality of friends The Wife and I set off on our adventure proper. We were heading East again, back towards Melbourne but via The Great Ocean Road: http://www.visitvictoria.com/Regions/great-ocean-road This was a second visit for both of us – on separate occasions – but as we’d seen different things we took great pleasure in stopping off and showing one another the features we remembered: the Giant Koala and Crab roadside attractions, Umberston Sinkhole at Mt. Gambier, and discover sights neither of us had seen before, like the Blue Lake and the Land Rover on a pole in the middle of nowhere! Christmas Eve was spent sight seeing the iconic views along the Great Ocean Road and stopping at every viewpoint for cheeky selfies, wearing hers and hers Christmas T-Shirts, simply because it was funny. It was a very hot and exhausting day and we pushed on to Lorne little realising that the road was closing behind us due to massive bush fires caused by lighting strikes in the Great Ottoway National Park above us. We innocently enjoyed a lovely Greek meal at a restaurant just across the road from our hotel: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ipsos-Restaurant/772249959543934 and turned in, sun exhausted, ready for a relaxed, beachy Christmas Day.

The day dawned normally enough. We wandered down to the beach and breakfasted in the shade watching families laugh and play and swim in typical Aussie Christmas Day fashion. When we got too hot we returned to the hotel and chilled out. Our plan was to lunch on some good cheese, bread and olives we’d purchased on the road, drink some Mclaren Vale fizz we’d purchased for the occasion, and when it was cooler, head back to the beach to watch the full moon rise. We were not completely oblivious to the plight of the people back along the coast from us. When getting coffee that morning we had overheard locals discussing fires in the vicinity but had not appreciated just how close they were. At lunch we’d commented on a huge smoke cloud towering above us. Then, as we lounged in the shade that afternoon, recovering from our delicious, boozy lunch a helicopter landed in the grounds of the hotel. A man, who looked like a journalist, was met by staff, and ran inside. The helicopter waited, and so did we. By and by the hotel manager approached us and other guests and announced that Lorne was now under recommended evacuation as the fires were very close. The Wife and I were both far too under the influence to drive so, as the hotel was actually the local evacuation point anyway, we elected to stay. If the worst came to the worst we were to cross 500m to the beach and sit in the ocean to keep safe, which was kinda our plan in the first place.

All joking aside, this was a serious situation and a great many people lost their homes as a result of the fires. We were well cared for by the remaining hotel staff, with a free dinner thrown in for all those who had stayed, or who had evacuated from the further reaches of the town. We joined an Australian couple who seemed to attract this kind of drama on a regular basis, judging by the stories they told us of other holidays that had involved natural disasters. We drank, we laughed, we tried not to imagine the worst. The staff briefed us on what would happen if the direction of the wind changed and we had to evacuate over night. We retired to bed, wet towels and air con at the ready.

Much to The Wife’s annoyance I slept like a log that night. She slept fitfully and put the air con on when the room started to smell smoky. The worst did not happen but when we checked out we saw people asleep on sofas and a very worn out looking staff. The weather was grey and damp and the road was open so we set off again, relived that the fires had not reached us and sorry for all those affected by the disaster. As we departed we were told we’d experienced a typical Aussie Christmas – not the BBQ on the beach and the outdoor lifestyle but the on going threats of drought, fire and loss.

Fairy Penguins

Phillip Island, to the East of Melbourne, was our next destination. Specifically, the Penguin Parade, having booked a guided safari to see cute little fairy penguins return to their burrows in the evening. http://www.visitphillipisland.com/ Having arrived early afternoon we whiled away the time with a leisurely lunch on Churchill Island, visiting the koala sanctuary and Cowes beach before heading off to join the safari at dusk. We had front row seats on the beach to watch nervous groups of penguins run the gauntlet of gulls and kangaroos on the beach to find their well-worn paths home. We then followed the boardwalks, watching them scuttle along, almost blindly, as their homing instincts are remarkably faulty; listening to the youngsters squawk and twitter as they waited for their parents. It was adorable, and far too brief an experience.

Food

One of the main focuses of this trip was food. Frankly, no get together with The Wife is complete unless food and drink is involved. My larder is rather restricted in Indonesia and I was looking forward to enjoying wine and cheese and more familiar, western dishes that I can’t get in Surabaya. From Mexican in Melbourne to massive Thai inhalation in Mt. Gambier, http://www.wildginger.com.au/ cellar door visits and stop offs at cheese emporiums and random towns for lunch, we managed a great variety of epicurean delights.

Our next significant destination was Beechworth, an historic little village in the heart of the Victorian wine and cheese region. We stayed at the Foxgloves Bed and Breakfast, http://www.foxgloves.com.au/ hosted by the formidable Sheila, a South African émigré with a sharp wit and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. Her husband John also made the most amazing cakes, to be consumed with afternoon tea on the quiet, bee filled terrace. The house was artfully adorned with curios from the abundant shops in the area and breakfast brought all the guests together to enjoy a huge feast around a round table, liberally oiled with excellent conversation.

Beechworth is a little like the picture perfect village of Sandford in Hot Fuzz; superficially a lovely little community concealing a hotbed of gossip and scandal (if Sheila was to be believed) but it does have some excellent boutiques and foodie havens. We enjoyed craft beer and pizza at https://bridgeroadbrewers.com.au/pizzeria-bar/ wine, cheese, olives, honey and loads more during our stay, loading up on supplies for New Year while we were at it. [In homage to our Aussie friends and love of Aussie movies we even bought cherries in Bonny Doon along the way.] We ate, drank and chilled to our hearts content.

The final meal worthy of note was in Katoomba, where we spent New Year’s Eve. http://www.bluemts.com.au/info/towns/katoomba/ Having visited the Three Sisters and gazed across the Blue Mountains we were, of course, in search of our next meal. It came in the form of delicious Malaysian cuisine at the Unique Patisserie: https://www.facebook.com/UniquePatisserie It was so good we ate there two nights in a row, and I also indulged in huge, hedgehog shaped meringues, the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed in years.

New Year came in with a whimper (I believe I was actually asleep), we acknowledged it with more fizz and cheese and that was it, our journey was done. The Wife had to return to Hong Kong and I was off to discover the delights of Perth.

It was an adventure filled with friends, fire, fairy penguins, food and, most importantly, fun!

 

 

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Ten weeks of travelling. Three countries, 15 cities, and four islands visited. More photos (and selfies) than I can be bothered to count. And now it is all coming to an end. Soon, I will be repacking my rucksack for the last time, stripped of ancient, travel wrecked clothing and rammed with more keepsakes than I meant to buy. Heading to yet another new destination, but this time with the intention to live there, not just to travel.

While I have tried to blog, Instagram, Facebook, Tweet and review my adventures to create some sort of lasting record for myself and others, there’s just been so much to take in I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. With time, I’m sure more memories will emerge but for now, I just want to share some of my highlights, for the sake of posterity:

  1. Flying over downtown Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda for the first time as I left Myanmar for the last time.
  2. Spending a day learning how to care for elephants in Chiang Mai http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com
  3. Cycling around Sukhothai and Si Sanchanalai in Thailand.
  4. Taking the train in Thailand from north to south.
  5. Discovering Phuket Old Town is similar to Georgetown, and they’re both a bit like Hoi An. But that I actually like Hoi An the most.
  6. The utter decadence of the Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa and their amazing buffet breakfasts. http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/hktbr-renaissance-phuket-resort-and-spa/
  7. Enjoying a variety of performances. From Phuket Simon Cabaret http://www.phuket-simoncabaret.com/ to Phare, The Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap http://pharecambodiancircus.rezgo.com/ and the AO Show in Ho Chi Min City http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/. All brilliant in their own way although my heart belongs to AO.
  8. Whizzing around Angkor, temple running, in a tuk-tuk.
  9. Rattling along on the Bamboo Train, Battambang, in the rain with my arms outstretched yelling ‘Wooo-hoooo’ as we picked up speed.
  10. Watching bats flock like starlings in the sunset skies near Battambang at the end of a great day sight-seeing.
  11. Trekking in the jungle around Dalat. http://www.ptv-vietnam.com/product.php?rid=7
  12. Conquering my fear of motorbikes and getting on the back of a motorbike taxi to visit a lovely tropical beach near Hoi An, Vietnam.
  13. Doing a posh cruise on the Dragon Legend II around the less busy area of Bai Tu Long Bay in Halong Bay and spending the night on the boat eating, drinking and laughing. http://www.indochina-junk.com/dragon-legend-cruise/
  14. Visiting some pretty amazing UNESCO sites in Vietnam including My Son, Hue, Hoi An and Halong Bay.
  15. Enjoying all the food porn – from street food and amazing seafood in Thailand, new tropical fruits such as rambutan, national dishes from all around Cambodia and Vietnam, trying weasel coffee and egg coffee, and tasting my first fried crickets.
  16. Doing lots of accidental tourism and taking a few chances along the way, all of which turned out really well.
  17. Taking indulgent selfies anywhere I fancied. I’ve made a slideshow of them so I can cheer myself up when I need to!
  18. Treating myself to a posh hotel and spa stay in Hanoi to rejuvenate at the end of it all. http://www.hanoilasiestahotel.com/
  19. All the amazing people I met along the way – locals, friends and fellow travellers who’ve chatted, laughed, shared stories and tips and made my journey all the more interesting.
  20. Most of all, I have enjoyed the challenge of finding my way around SE Asia on my own; living in the present; being self reliant and doing exactly as I pleased.

Of course, there were disappointments too, but I have to say, that once again, I have been extremely fortunate in my travels and look forward to my further adventures with great anticipation.

Thankyou for your cooperation Japan

“Everything will go smoothly. You are a lucky lady.” I was told, not for the last time, by my fortune telling friend. The Japanese are very interested in fate and fortune so it was no surprise that I had my fortune told at the Tokyo National Museum on my first afternoon in Japan.

I used to be very into that sort of thing: palm reading on Blackpool Pier, horoscopes and the like, but of late I have come to understand that I make my own luck. My fate is still my fate, but I can influence it in one way or another. Still, the sentiment could do me no harm on the eve of my very big adventure around Japan.

My good fortune had begun the minute I stepped off the plane. I was collected from the airport by an English-speaking driver who took me the ‘long way’ to the hotel, giving me a quick guided tour (for free) that helped me orientate myself in that vast city. The following day I met a guide who became a friend, who showed me around the city in all its glory. I got into the cat café just before they got full and started turning people away. I saw two traditional wedding parties at the Meiji-Jingu shrine, which is rare. I managed to get a ticket to watch an act of Kabuki that evening, which was very lucky considering it was Golden Week, a very busy holiday in Japan. I even successfully navigated the chaotic looking transport system with surprising ease; I tended to arrive just in time for the next train and I didn’t get lost!

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My greatest difficulty was finding somewhere to eat in the evenings but after a few attempts, I’d just walk into a place and eat whatever was on offer. In this way, I got to meet some very interesting characters, like the waiter who credited Sarah Jessica Parker as his English teacher, and ate some very delicious food, even if I did have very little idea what it was I was eating. Lucky really!

My use of the Shinkansen also went well. Advanced bookings were made with ease; all the stations were clearly signposted and the trains were on time, clean and comfortable. My only problem was motion sickness from the smoothness of the ride and my tendency to gaze out of the window at the passing landscapes. Luckily, I found my old sea bands in one of the pockets of my rucksack, forgotten since Peru I think, and used them for the other journeys with great success.

My exploration of Kyoto sometimes revolved around my tendency towards accidental tourism. I hadn’t really researched it properly so I would just pick a name from the guides I had with me and go. That way I got to see the 1001 kannons at Sanjusangendo, an amazing building containing 1001 (obviously) carved statues of kannon; 11 headed, 1000 armed, thousand eyed bodhisattva, that I hadn’t even known existed 30 minutes before. I tended to arrive at temples or gardens just in time to view them before they shut and even if I got to places early, before the hordes, I often discovered amazing treasures I hadn’t anticipated, like the cloud dragon on the ceiling of part of the Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, which watches you wherever you are in the room.

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Places rarely disappointed me. In fact, the things I knew nothing about were often better than the sights I wanted to see. A case in point was the iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I got there early, just before the hordes, and was able to experience some of its otherworldliness; something that was quickly lost with the mass arrival of coach tours. Instead, I felt the true magic of the place at Gio-ji Shrine, a moss-strewn haven of Buddhist/Shintoist tranquility that made me believe Rivendell could be a real place. It’s not an easy place to find, but sharp eyes, a good sense of direction and competent map reading skills ensured I found it. Or maybe I just got lucky!

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I certainly felt like I had something on my side in Hakone. Glorious weather and a happy afternoon playing in the Hakone Open Air Museum (I tend to become very childish when surrounded by art in nature) had made me count my blessings the day before. Free cheesecake for visiting Woody’s, the café next door to it, a gloriously kitsch café decorated with Toy Story memorabilia and playing the Frozen soundtrack in Japanese in the back ground, twice in one day, was certainly a lucky moment. I wasn’t sure my luck was holding though.

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The following day my unplanned wanderings met some roadblocks. All I wanted to do was see Mt. Fuji. The ropeway (what we could consider a cable car) route to a classic scenic view of Mt. Fuji was closed due to level 2 (out of 5) volcanic activity so I had to retrace my steps and battle with the rather confusing transport system until I reached Moto-Hakone. Convinced I had missed the only possible view of Fuji I walked along the Old Tokaido road and discovered a lovely tea house that served a tasty amazake rice drink instead. Then I caught the bus back to Moto-Hakone to try and find the second scenic viewpoint on the map. Having wasted my morning going in the wrong direction and sitting in traffic jams, I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d see the iconic mountain. So, I stopped for a street snack of corn on the cob and wandered moodily beside Lake Ashi. Then, low and behold, I rounded a corner and there was Mt. Fuji, peeking out at me from behind a fluffy wrap of clouds. As I watched, she emerged more fully and from then on, wherever I looked from, there she was, getting clearer and clearer as the afternoon progressed. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at the view, marveling at the famous shape and snowy streaks I had previously seen in paintings and drawings. Now, I was seeing them for myself. Truly a fortunate moment.

Ironically, my best view of Fuji-san came on my final train journey back to Tokyo. I managed to look up from my book at the perfect moment to see her, in almost cloudless glory, right there next to me. I glanced around the cabin to realise that no one else had noticed, I had her all to myself, and I truly considered myself blessed at that moment.

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In Hiroshima I discovered my hotel was right next to the Peace Park. I simply walked a short way along the river to visit the museum and visit the A-Bomb Dome. That evening I found a great little place to eat okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima specialty that is essentially a noodle pancake with layers of cabbage and seafood, and even better, got a seat at the bar where they were cooked right before me, so I could watch the chefs at work. Brilliant!

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My visit to Mimojima also went well. My journey to the Island was simplified by a brilliant visual breakdown provided by my hotel (lucky I asked), I walked a lovely mountain trail and saw great views of the Inland Sea before the rain came, and as I got to the bottom of the mountain the tide started to come in so I could get a clearer sense of the floating Torii Gate it is so famous for. When I’d arrived that morning the tide was out, so it, and my luck, turned while I was on the mountain. Or it may have had something to do with the lucky white cat offering I purchased at the shrine at the top of Mt. Misen!

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Even when my luck seemed to run out with the heavy rain in Osaka, I did manage to see the more Bladerunner style aspects of the town that I’d actually been disappointed not to find in Tokyo. Blazing neon, narrow streets and oily reflections on the stones evoked the futuristic feel I’d imagined before I visited, and thought I wouldn’t see as I got to know the real Japan.

By the time I returned to Tokyo I think I had exhausted my run of good fortune, and while nothing went wrong I had stopped finding surprises around every corner, or maybe I’d just become more used to them. But before you roll your eyes, I will say I don’t believe I actually got around Japan simply on luck. I had the support of a very good tour company whose arrangements for a self-guided tour suited me down to the ground. I also believe that the Japanese culture has evolved to enable anyone with a bit of common sense to take advantage of its fluent, organized and logical society and participate in its efficient way of life. Signs may be small and rarely translated but most of them rely on symbols that anyone can interpret. Measurements are given in time and distance so you can estimate how far you have to go. Things are logical and consistent if you think about them. I also know that travelling solo allows me to do things my way but allows me to stop, watch and learn and then go with the flow when things occur unexpectedly, so I never feel like I’ve missed out but that, actually, my adventures are bonuses instead.

So, thank you for your co-operation Japan, I came to love your quiet, well-mannered ways and found everything I wanted and more during my trip. I might not believe in luck but I do consider myself a very lucky lady.

Ryokans and Onsen – traditional Japanese spas

I sat, crossed legged, on a thin cotton cushion in shades of green that echoed the trees on the mountain outside; on a tatami rush floor; writing my blog at a low wooden table, with a Japanese tea set to my left. My walls were wood and paper; all my doors and windows were sliding, and my bed, when I made it, was a futon on the floor. I was wrapped in an enormous cotton yukata (an informal kimono) which reminded me of beech bark and blossom. All I could hear was the rush of the stream directly outside my window.

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Staying in one of the oldest spa ryokans in Hakone was a relaxing experience. Ichinoyu Honkan was founded in 1630 in the Edo period when Tokugawa Shoguns ruled Japan. The Hakone area was a popular resting post for warriors, where they could relax in natural spring waters to recuperate after battle. This particular ryokan has its own onsen hot springs to relax in, which were great after a day exploring the Hakone National Park.

The Japanese onsen experience is very relaxing when you know what you’re doing but for a first timer it is fraught with potential dangers. The etiquette of communal bathing is a minefield of offence for the uninitiated, although I find it’s ritualistic nature quite soothing.

Traditional onsen are communal. Years of playing hockey and going to the gym have made me immune to any embarrassment about nakedness in communal facilities. In fact, as a child I was nicknamed ‘the nutty nudist’ because I’d take my swimming costume off to go paddling at the beach! While I was aware of sideways glances, I like to think the locals were evaluating my mismatched tan lines rather than judging my muffin roll!

The correct way to then use these facilities is to rinse yourself off with warm water away from the main spa, as it is only polite, and hygienic, to rinse yourself off before entering the pure waters. Then, you can soak in the spring-fed tub for as long as you like (the water is hot and only bearable for a relatively short time) soothing way the day’s stresses and strains. Don’t ‘wash’ in the spring though. Save that for your return to the washing area, where you can avail yourself of the soaps and shampoos provided and scrub yourself down while sitting on a low wooden stool, being careful not to splash others in the process. Then, you can return to the spa tub for a further soak. (In the second ryokan I stayed in they had an outdoor tub that I made very good use of!) When you have had enough relaxation, gazing at the mountain scenery or listening to the hypnotic flow of the spring water, remove yourself from the spa area, wipe yourself down so you do not reenter the changing area sopping wet, and you’re done!

I think I got it right! The best way to learn is to do what the locals do but in an onsen I can’t sit and watch without considerable discomfort to all! Side glances in windows and carefull listening whilst averting ones eyes allowed me a sense of what to do, and often, I’d have the place to myself so I could just relax and enjoy it without causing offence.

The almost ritualistic nature of the experience means that, if you do it properly, it is quite time consuming and hypnotic. I find the same can be said when tackling traditional Japanese meals. Some of the best food I ate was made at the ryokan I stayed in. And I can safely say that I have never been so full on what appears (at first) to be such small servings of food. Often I would spend a full 30 minutes steadily grazing from the ever increasing range of tiny dishes placed before me, forcing myself to think about what I was eating and therefore enjoy it all the more. It almost became a meditation that brought me great satisfaction.

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A traditional Japanese meal is a bit like tapas, in that there are lots of tasty morsels on lots of different plates, spread out across the meal. The difference is that a lot of it is raw, steamed or lightly fried, it can all be eaten with rice and at least one dish is cooked in a small pot on the table, simmering away until the tea light beneath it goes out and steam is rising from the lid.

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I enjoyed Hida beef cooked in this manner; fish head soup (with the head and eye of a large fish staring at me while I ate it); a kind of Japanese bacon omelette; fish tempura; sashimi; bean salads; Kyoto pickles (I love pickles!) and homemade tofu. I’ve never really understood the point of tofu, and it’s incredibly difficult to eat with chopsticks as it disintegrates so easily, but the homemade variety made using local spring water was some of the creamiest and tastiest I tried. I was even given dessert, although I rarely managed the green tea mousse or sorbet that I was offered. Of course, all of this is washed down with lashings of tea. (You thought I was going to say ginger beer didn’t you? Oddly enough the Japanese love ginger beer, it’s on practically every menu, but it’s not a traditional beverage!)

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As a methodical eater with no sense of smell and a limited palette I normally eat one thing at a time without adding anything so that I can appreciate the texture and what little taste I can identify. But I couldn’t do that in Japan, as morsels that should be enjoyed hot would be cold by the time I got to them, if I tried to eat all the raw delicacies first (as I would normally do). So I found myself switching between pickles, exquisitely fresh, tiny squid, tofu and miso covered rice, using soy and wasabi (but not much, it’s too strong for me!) and mixing it all up together with some surprisingly tasty results. Again, I watched the other customers carefully and took cues from them, learning, along the way, that I prefer light soy and miso to dark, that bamboo and pickles and seaweed comes in many delicious forms and that raw is definitely the way to go!

By the end of each meal I was ready to sleep and would fall onto my soft, warm futon in a happy food haze. Listening to the nearby river rushing past, it didn’t take me long to pass out into a deep, dreamless sleep.

My ryokan and onsen experiences were two of my greatest pleasures in Japan; pleasures I would love to repeat.

OK KL!

I’ve been trying to get to Kuala Lumpur for almost two years. Initially, it was just an exotic sounding city in South East Asia and not on my must see list. Then, when I started looking for international teaching posts, it kept coming up so I researched it a bit more. Suddenly, it sounded right up my street! So, I applied for and even interviewed for, teaching positions, but I was persistently unsuccessful. The closest I could get was Myanmar, a 2.5-hour flight away. So, close, but no cigar!

When I got to Myanmar I didn’t book KL straight away either. Singapore came first, a place I’d wanted to visit for about twelve years. Instead, I chose to book a long weekend at the end of February. But that went awry when I had to renew my passport in February in preparation for my travels later in the year. So I rearranged, and finally got there in April, escaping Myanmar’s Thingyan Festival.

And I’m so glad I did. My instincts were correct. KL is great; modern, clean, logical, friendly, everything I’d want in city living. It’s not perfect. I’d been warned by friendly Malaysians I’d met on the circular train in Yangon, months before, that it was a dangerous place for a woman alone. ‘Hold on to your bag, don’t walk about late at night.’ I took all the usual precautions and felt no more at risk than I do in London. Less, in fact, as KL is not as crowded, at least, not in April. There are still dodgy taxi drivers (mine tried to take me round the entire city to my hotel when actually it was right up the street from where we’d dropped my friend off. Luckily I have sharp eyes!); old, dirty busses, broken pavements and heavy traffic but they fade into insignificance when I consider the positives.

First and foremost, the people are lovely. Malaysia is a cultural melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian and, of course, expats, which creates a diverse but thriving cultural identity that lacks the pride of Singapore and the reserve of the Burmese. I had lots of chats with people, on the train, in the street, in restaurants. They engaged with me, not to practice their English but because they were interested in why I was in KL and were keen to talk about their country. Malaysia’s economic growth has been impressive over the past few years and the country’s plans for the future are huge, and they are understandably proud of that.

Kuala Lumpur radiates a cosmopolitan and laidback atmosphere that beat’s Singapore’s haughty detachment hands down. Like Myanmar, people do smile at you although, as I’ve found with all Asian countries, they’re not so great on spatial awareness! Also, they are not too bothered about rule following, which was refreshingly normal compared to the restrictions I’ve felt in both Singapore and Myanmar. The only time I was disturbed by this was on the train home from Batu Caves. I’d noticed that there were ladies only carriages so I entered one for the journey home. You couldn’t miss the pink signage and images indicating ladies only (small children excepted) yet males persistently entered the carriage and remained there. Some, on looking around, realised and moved on, others resolutely remained despite tannoy reminders and a ticket inspector (who did little about them except check their ticket). As I’ve got older I’ve come to accept that you don’t have to follow all of the rules all of the time. I’m even getting better at breaking some of the sillier ones myself (don’t laugh, those who know me well know how far I’ve come!) But for something like this, where religious and cultural sensibilities are at stake, to disregard another’s wishes seems disrespectful, and an unnecessary breaking of the rules. How hard is it to move to the next carriage and allow people to travel comfortably as they choose?

In my conversations with fellow train travellers the usual questions were used to open communications (‘Where are you from? Are you on holiday?’) but while in Myanmar they often stop there, in KL they are maintained and developed. One man, after enquiring if I came from Liverpool (like Gerrard), then told me he wished to holiday in Bournemouth, because it was cheaper than London. (I hadn’t the heart to ruin his ambition!). Another, Sam, adopted me on the train to Batu Caves, had a long conversation with me about the instability of some ASEAN countries and gave me an impromptu tour of the caves, simply because he was a good man, proud of his country and his heritage. He was on his way for his weekly blessing and I was conscious that I was delaying him well beyond his usual visit as I prevailed on his kindness.

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Another instance of this amazing kindness happened, again, at Batu Caves. Having visited the temple and climbed and descended the 272 steps, avoided the monkeys and taken the requisite photos, I felt quite peckish and entered one of the nearby cafes in search of lunch. I chose a place that offered north and south Indian cuisine and I chose a 10RM platter of curries and rice. The waiters brought me my choice, on a banana leaf, and served me steaming dhal from a stainless steel bucket. I’ve no idea what I was eating with my poppadums’ (replenished regularly until I had to say no more) but it was delicious and I suspect my face said as much. Part of the way through my meal there was a bit of a commotion as a Malaysian gentleman finished his meal and requested his bill. He pointed at me and the waiters waved a piece of paper in my direction then handed it to him. I paused, looking quizzical, and was told, first by a waiter and then by the gentleman himself that he had bought me my lunch and there was no need to pay. I was flabbergasted, and touched, made my profuse thanks and shook hands with my benefactor before he made his benign way out of the cafe. I didn’t know what else to say and I didn’t like to ask why and seem like a suspicious Westerner, as I could find no agenda to his actions. I think I was the lucky recipient of a selfless gesture, but never having experienced such genuine kindness before I was unsure how to respond except to make me feel even more affectionate in my regard for Malaysian people.

It also made me realise, once again, how lucky I am to be able to travel and interact with others on such a level. To be honest, it was the people who made the place for me. KL was a very welcome change of scene after three solid months in Myanmar. There isn’t actually a lot to see there, after the Petronas Twin Towers, KL Bird Park, Batu Caves and the Hop-on Hop-off bus tour I’d done pretty much all I needed to do for a first visit. More importantly it provided me with Westernised food and shopping and a reassurance that actually I can navigate my way around a strange city (something I’ll never master in Yangon). But my abiding pleasure came from the smiles of the people, the conversations and the generosity of spirit I encountered everywhere I went. And that wasn’t reserved just for when I was in KL. Penang made me feel the same, and my greatest regret was not thinking ahead enough to extend my stay and visit Langkawi before heading back to Yangon.

When I think about the future and the notion of settling somewhere, Malaysia seems like a very good possibility. But until that happens I’ll simply have to keep going back to visit.

Malaysian Heritage on a Plate

Disclaimer: I am not a foodie, not in the truest sense of the word. I don’t really enjoy the process of creating meals. No sense of smell and a limited palate make it difficult for me to really reveal in all the sensory delights cuisines have to offer. I can cook, and I definitely enjoy eating, but what I enjoy even more is being fed. In Penang, I was fed.

Having sated my desire for Western foods in Kuala Lumpur I moved on to Penang because of its foodie culture. Situated 365 km from KL and listed as one of THE Islands to visit, explore and eat on before you die, I wanted to discover new and exciting dishes and taste new things. Malaysian food is a fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian tastes and textures that are all new to me. I couldn’t find anything even remotely similar to my British experiences of these foods, and I really didn’t want to either. This was the real deal.

My first new discovery was breakfast. I set out on my first morning in search of a way to break my fast that didn’t involve airport food like the day before. Just up the jalan (street) from my hostel was a row of heritage shophouses, all kitted out as cafes. After a brief reccy and a moment’s hesitation, I chose the busiest one, which had some females eating in it. Cafés in Asia seem to be male dominated, a place to meet and set the world to rights (at least in Myanmar) and I didn’t want to blunder into an awkward situation. Of course, I was welcomed with open arms and invited to take a seat at a melamine-coated wooden table in the center of the long, thin room. The place had a faded air about it with old newspaper clippings on the wall, and scratched plastic seats, but it also felt homely. When I asked about breakfast I was told I could have toast, a boiled egg and tea or coffee. I marveled at how simple it sounded and plumped for tea. While my order was taken through to the kitchen out-back I was entertained by a gentleman on a nearby table who told me the ‘history’ of the ‘antique’ table I was seated at. Apparently a tycoon had wanted it and had bartered a price for it, only to die before he could own it. His young companion was laughing while the man told his story but I played along and we chatted for a while. It was only after he had left that I noticed one of the newspaper cuttings on the wall mentioned a tycoon in its headlines…

Another gentleman, possibly the owner, came and placed a plastic plate before me with four brown paper parcels on it. These parcels seemed to be on every table. ‘Try it’. He grunted. On further investigation I discovered that the package held a banana leaf containing a curried rice mixture and a small piece of fish. I was halfway through it when my original breakfast order arrived. Of course, it wasn’t as straightforward as I had imagined. My tea was made using condensed milk but I had gotten used to that in Myanmar. My toast was sweet, filled with butter and coconut jam, and my boiled egg was so runny it came in a cup! And it was all really nice. I added pepper and soy to the egg, dipped in my toast and managed to devour the whole lot very quickly. I didn’t quite manage to finish the nasi lemak, as I learnt to name it, and I was asked if it was too spicy. It wasn’t, but curry for breakfast, accompanied by more sweetness than I’d eaten in a month had become a bit much. I was given a quick lesson in Nasi Lemak varieties (there’s also prawn, chicken and lamb on each plate) and then I paid a whole 4RM for it (approx.. 70p or $1). Amazing!

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Breakfast.

My next experience was the Heritage on a Plate walking tour. I’d found this on TripAdvisor and booked to join a group to do a tour around the old-quarter, Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I wish I could regale you with all the names of the different things we tried but I’m going to have to confess I couldn’t retain half of them, and my ability to grasp any ASEAN language is pretty poor. I find things really hard to pronounce, and therefore remember. But I know I enjoyed it! I certainly tried everything: mango lassi, ambarella (which is a sour and salty plum juice), Chinese fried foods including tofu, prawn, crab cakes and sausage, an Indian omelet thing (see what I mean about remembering names!) in both beef and chicken, a wonton noodle soup, pancakes and puthu. I even tried a century egg! (Eggs that are preserved in a clay/ash/quicklime coating for months until the yolk turns grey and the white becomes a sort of brown jelly. Yum!) The only thing I didn’t like was puthu. It is a dry rice pudding served with grated coconut and a special brown sugar that reminded me of molasses. Now, while I drink coconut water and eat coconut curries, since a child I have always hated it on its own. It may be a texture thing, but the whole combination was wrong! The rest of the experience however, was lovely, and gave me greater confidence to try street food and enter local eateries.

I haven’t done that so well in Myanmar. Mostly because many of the places don’t look clean and also because the food, which either seems fried or watery, looks unappetizing and beige. Additionally, on the few occasions when I have tried the traditional food, I have been very sick afterwards, while others that shared the meal with me remained perfectly well. It makes me think that there is an ingredient, maybe a spice or possibly the oil, that is habitually used, that doesn’t agree with me.

I had no such reservations in Penang though. The following day, I revisited the Tang Bistro, the starting point for the food tour and a heritage café/ hotel, to indulge my need for chocolate brownies (with ice-cream). Before that I had also had a curried lamb wrap that was simply superb and a calamansi freeze. Not so street or heritage, but very nice and an indication that anything goes regarding food here, as long as you enjoy it.

In the evening, I wandered until I found the hub of Chinatown’s street food. There, a nice vendor introduced me to the concept of choosing and cooking my own skewers of clams, tofu, chicken and mushrooms (and lots more besides) by dipping them in boiling water, then, when cooked, smothering them with satay and sweet or hot chili sauce. As a rule, I don’t generally mix sauces, if I have them at all (my limited palate means sauces make everything taste the same!) but I went with it and actually, I started to enjoy it! As an appetiser, it was good, and I devoured it on the street with relish. To pay, he counted the colour-coded sticks I handed to him and I handed over a ridiculously tiny sum for a plate full of seafood!

Moving on to another part of the street, I chose seafood fried noodles and sat at a table to wait for my meal. These are hawker stalls, meaning the table is owned by one person, who will supply you with a drink that you pay for on delivery. Then, your food will be delivered by a young hawker from whichever food stalls you’ve visited, and you’ll pay them on delivery too. The noodles were good, which I duly told the owner when he enquired! I looked for a pancake stall to finish, but was sadly unable to find one, so I walked home in the rain, full up, on about £2 worth of good food.

On another evening, I visited Little India and indulged in a chicken biryani claypot and lots of mango lassi. Delicious!

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My view while eating a tasty biryani.

On Penang Hill (really not worth a visit) I tried Char Koay Teow, which is an iconic dish of garlic, prawns, noodles, egg and cockles. It was whipped up before my eyes in a little food court at the top of the hill and was consumed just as quickly. The beauty of street food is, of course, watching the creation of your meal. Chefs have choreographed a rhythmic ballet of chopping, stirring, swirling and serving that creates art on many different levels before your eyes. It is beautiful, and mouth watering!

At Miami Beach, around Batu Ferringhi, at a tiny roadside stall, on a sliver of land between the road and the sea (there was no beach, the tide was in!), I was offered Laksa, a spicy soup with thick noodles that warmed me right up after getting drenched in an unexpected downpour in the nearby National Park.

In fact, wherever I went, a vast array of foods was available to me, and I really didn’t hold back. In fact, my only difficulty was in deciding what I wanted to eat each day. And, before you call me a pig, I should point out that portions are not large in Malaysia. Nothing is supersized here. There is enough to satisfy but not so much that you can’t walk on a little further and try something else if the fancy takes you.

It has been an education. I have been very well fed and had my enthusiasm for food renourished thanks to my Penang trip. My only regrets are not staying longer, and eating more!

‘We Need More Snacks’ – A Peruvian Food Blog

Snacks. A word I never really want to hear ever again. It is a word regularly used in Peru, they have snack restaurants that open at midday until their siesta at 3, that serve a 2 course meal for 7sol (£3.50). These meals consisted of some kind of meat based soup served tepid with a hunk of chicken on the bone and noodles floating like dirty dishwater in the bowl. This was followed by either a rice and chicken based concoction or, if you went veggie (a bemusing concept for the average Peruvian) pasta and liquid pesto.

Peruvian food mostly seems to consist of chicken and rice. Sometimes this may also include some lumps of boiled potato and (yes AND not OR) noodles/pasta. The carb overload is huge and may explain the rotund nature of most of Peruvians in the places that we visited.

Fried is also definitely a thing in Peru. In an attempt to add some variety to my diet I tried a vegetable tortilla. It came with rice (naturally) but it also came nicely fried, which is not generally how I cook omelettes!

Lomo saltado is not fried and is also a Peruvian favourite.  Strips of beef or chicken cooked with tomatoes and onions and served with rice. You can even get it extra spicy if you so wish. My first taste was in a rather unsavoury joint that was the only place open during Trajillo’s siesta time. All I really got was gristle and rice. Not to be deterred, my second attempt was a much greater success when I tasted a delicious version of the dish in Iquitos. I’m lucky I was able to enjoy it though as it barely touched the sides after waiting a very long time for it due to erratic service and sly ordering from some members of the group.

In Nauta I tried Salchepepa which is basically chopped up, processed sausage and chips with sauce, tomato ketchup and mustard. Unfortunately by the time we were served this time they had run out of sauce so I had sausage and chips, ketchup and mustard, which I could have had back home!

Of course I also tried guinea pig! In a restaurant in Central Downtown Lima, after a lovely pot-luck lunch (I couldn’t read the menu so I closed my eyes, pointed and got lucky!) the World Challenge team ordered two guinea pigs; one plain and one spicy. The dishes came whole, simply flattened and roasted, with heads and feet intact.

We proceeded to try and divvy up the dishes between those who wanted it, much to the horror of our waiter who vigorously mimed picking it up whole in our fingers and chomping on it off the bone. I was presented with a wizened paw and shoulder, which did make me think twice. But ever open to trying anything once I proceeded cautiously.

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First of all, there isn’t much meat on a guinea pig. It is mostly bone (hence the knowing mimes of the waiter). It’s quite a struggle to even find a taste of the meat but when you do: it tastes like fatty, slightly overcooked chicken. Quite a disappointment, but that lunch was a welcome change after 4 weeks of snacks.

The Peruvians are also big on biscuits. After years of consuming large quantities of sweet biscuits in the English Office I never believed I could have too many. But in Peru, when every lunch we had on the trek consisted of at least two packets of biscuits with at least three biscuits in each packet, in a multitude of lurid colours and flavours, I discovered I could have too much of a good thing. They are even sold by child hawkers on the streets. When a small girl tried to sell us biscuits to us at the beginning of our trek and we refused to buy Marcus translated her surprised response as ‘but it’s cold.’ As though it was ridiculous for us to contemplate a long walk in the Andes without such sustenance.

On the plus side, I did enjoy the fruit. Sweet bananas, some of them slightly pink on the inside; juicy oranges and, for the first time; passion fruit, were things I really enjoyed. Peeling a passion fruit to reveal the pulp covered seeds held in a tentacled embrace was almost as much fun as slurping them up while gazing at our mountainous view.

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One of my favourite meals was provided by the community of Yarina during our project phase. A daily lunch of rice and fish might sound bland but on this occasion the fish was marinated in a delicious mixture of spices and oil and was meaty with very little bone. It was Steph’s first attempt at eating fish after years of hating it and even she managed to eat some. A second dish was produced: raw fish ‘cooked’ in citrus and mixed with onion and spices to produce a mouthwatering flavour that I couldn’t get enough of. After consecutive meals of egg and pasta it was a blessed relief! I even tried pirana (tastes like chicken) and turtle egg, as fishing and luck determined on the day.

Snacks however, took on a completely different meaning in the hands of the challengers. Our itinerary required a lot of travel and the team was advised to purchase ‘snacks’ that would serve as breakfast or at least sustenance, for longer journeys. At first fruit was purchased, until we fell foul of the customs regulations and we were forced to consume our breakfast oranges as a late supper rather than travel with them on the bus. Soon, snacks simply became biscuits, sweets and crisps, things that were familiar and easily found in shops and supermarkets.

I did try to shake things up a bit by purchasing sweet donut balls from a man in the market in Yarina and we tried coconut water from coconuts in Iquitos, but the group did not take the hint.

One time Steph, Tim and I also chose to buy our own breakfasts for two mornings in Trajillo simply to avoid another morning of bread, jam and cereal bars. Some canny shopping gave us pizza-like rolls, fruit juice and bananas at a very reasonable price and helped lift morale when it was much needed.

I did hit an all time low when one breakfast consisted of dry cereal and tinned fruit. Even when I added stolen chocolate bits into the mix I couldn’t quite bring myself to enjoy it.

While I can’t complain about being catered for during the majority of the trip I did miss cooking for myself and being able to chose from a greater variety of food.

World Challenge offers a number of challenges to our students but my greatest challenge was definitely the food!