Monday, July 24, 2017

India



When I first started writing about my travels, I always pictured it getting easier to pen down my ideas about these different places across the globe. As I go along, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. No amount of adjective riddled word splatter on paper can ever replace or mimic the experience or excitement or fear of stepping onto the tarmac of a new place for the first time. The world is full of never-ending surprise. India has been one of the hardest and most rewarding yet.

Travel is, rest assured, an addiction of mammoth and confusing proportion. Enough to justify the morbid hangover of a 43-hour travel day and a harsh come down at the end. Enough so to justify hardly ever sleeping in your own bed or cooking in your own kitchen or enjoying the comforts of your own bathroom (this can be a big one, depending on where you are). Even now, sitting at the beginning of this headache of a transit day, I find myself browsing flight prices to Cairo and Barcelona and Seattle, and on and on.

 Visiting with new friends in Goa.

India is an exuberant contradiction of emotions, sounds, smells, flavors, and identity. It’s shockingly beautiful, pungently effervescent, scary as all hell (mostly due to the truly terrifying power lines, massive holes in the sidewalks, and gasp inducing driving habits) peaceful, and delicious. I have never in my life shoved so much food into my stupid American face. I’ve eaten very little meat since I’ve been here. As I’ve heard so many times before, the cliché stands true and proud, the dishes here stand strongly on their own without meat. As far as flavor goes, I have hardly noticed its absence.

New York still holds my heart strongly in its grasp. It’s the best and most diverse food city I’ve ever been to. I don’t expect these thoughts to change, but India has without a doubt become my number one food destination in the world. I knew it would be good, but I had no concept of just how much surprise and delight its secrets and flavors would deliver.  It is no surprise that after 89 years of British rule, the most coveted cuisine in the UK comes straight from Indian roots. 

I would eat until I was full, continue until my food was gone, and then I would go eat somewhere else. Every dish stands in sharp contradiction. It can seem all the same to a fresh, uneducated palate. Yet it is all very different, every time, without fail. Every bite brings a daze, you kind of float away, worries and cares all gone, your right hand stuffed deep in the slightly too hot mound of rice, you take the tea spicier and spicier every morning, the initially off-putting smells become a comfort, a way of life. I wonder how entrenched I am in it, if people will tell me that I smell strange and unfamiliar when I arrive home. I can’t decipher anymore, my olfactory is either crushed or, finally, truly alive. I know which way I’m leaning.

New Delhi is an absolute madhouse. I arrive late at night and take a pre-arranged taxi to my hotel. Taxi scams from foreign airports are plentiful across the world. I book ahead whenever I can. The city seems to go on forever and ever. Sleeping families line the streets at every twist and turn. It’s sweltering. The heat is a shock as I first step out of the airport. I’m only here for one night. Right away, I’m just fine with that plan. It’s astonishing that a city like this functions on any kind of successful level. I’m typically not claustrophobic, but the sheer quantity of people becomes quickly overwhelming. I’ve heard before that Delhi is a culture shock even for the most seasoned travelers. That is no joke. I’m off to the beach.

Goa is a relief from the madness of one of the most populace and over crowded cities on the planet. I stay a few nights at the Panjim Inn in Panjim in Central Goa. It’s a sprawling old 19th century home. Beautiful colonial charm dons the bedrooms and common areas. The included breakfast is a wonderful surprise of fresh fruit, dals, fresh eggs to order, juices, teas, coffee, and just about anything else you could ask for.

I head North to the small beach town of Mandrem and find a wonderful bungalow resort called Jamboree Creek. I end up staying a bit longer than I had intended. This tranquil spot is the total opposite of everything I’ve seen so far. Simple wooden bungalows line a pretty garden and swimming pool. Monsoon season is hitting and I’m the last person at the resort for the season. The hospitality here is open and loving. The resort sits a few minutes walk from the beach and is surrounded by beautiful jungle roads and a small and wonderful community. It’s just what I needed. It feels incredible to stand on a beach all alone in a country of over 1.3 billion people.

And then the real magic of my trip began. A 14-hour train journey (in addition to a 4 hour delay) takes me to the South Indian state of Kerala on the Malabar Coast. I will spend a week at the garden, homestay, and cooking school; The Pimenta Kerala.

 Fabric Maker

I’m weary, exhausted even. I have some kind of base expectation, it’s impossible not to. And then I pull up to the entrance of the garden home stay, and all is well in life. I will spend the next week here diving into the cuisine of India. The food that I love so much.

 Beet Root Soup

The estates proprietor, Jacob, has poured every ounce of his passion into this magnificent property and program. This is not a multi-day cooking class. It is a fully immersive Keralan culinary adventure; it’s a dive head first into understanding the cuisine of the region, it is, without doubt, the exact experience I was searching for. This week isn’t solely about preparing and eating food, but really understanding it in an intimate way. Jacob is highly in touch with his community and where his food comes from. He makes you understand the process of food and how it gets from creation all the way to your plate and fingers. I see the gardens, the markets, and the food preparation factories. I begin to understand the importance of knowing and respecting the ingredients to a level of great care and grace. I surprise myself with progress and compassion for what I am doing. Failure does not exist on these grounds, only advancement and enlightenment.

Thali

Part of me says that Jacob would be right at home in New York City contending for James Beard Awards and Michelin Stars. The rest of me knows that he’s just too good to ever care about such silly accolades. The reward is in the process. The Pimenta Kerala understands that to an enlightened and beautiful level. The week is, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding of my life.


India ends up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The culture is maddeningly complicated and beautiful, almost as if the entire country were worthy of being declared a museum. I’m freshly charmed around every corner. I’m lost in deep thought; I question my motives and my life deeply. As with everywhere, I walk away with more questions than answers. It’s a perpetual cycle that I’m perfectly fine with. The reward of visiting a place like this will stay with me until my dying days. I can only hope that some of you reading this will get on a plane to somewhere and do the same.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil


    As I could say for many places, Brazil is a massive, confusing, and complicated place. And as is so common, I feel like I almost know less about it now than before I had visited. Seeing a tiny slice of the country felt like a reward for the sacrifice of rarely ever sleeping in my own bed or working in my own town. And as with so many places that I visit, it holds true that the most surprising and rewarding part of the trip comes with meeting the beautiful and kind people that seem to exist nearly everywhere I visit.

    Brazil has a rough reputation. Rio especially has deeply rooted gang related sociopolitical issues that are crippling to the very foundation of its already fragile society. The drug wars in Brazil’s second most populated city have become so intense and the financial issues so bad that during the 2016 Olympics, the police and fire fighters held up signs at the airport stating; “Welcome to Hell, Police and Firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio De Janeiro will not be safe.” This picket was not a group of concerned citizens, but the very people that are in place to protect the general population. I can hardly imagine the profound level of discomfort that such a stark statement would have on an arriving traveler. Without a doubt, this is the exact opposite effect of the perceived intentions of the tradition of the Olympic games.

    The immense wealth divide provides little to no opportunity to the millions that are born and raised into the often dark and hopeless lifestyle of Rio’s less fortunate. It affects me deep down inside as we ride in our nice air-con Mercedes past sprawling Favelas. The structures are equally beautiful, horrible, and architecturally unbelievable. They pay homage to both the peoples intense drive towards the concept of a better life, and the debilitating and far-reaching corruption of its political leadership. On the coastal side of the road, right across the highway, exotic mansions surrounded by security gates sit atop beautiful cliff faces and overlook the South Atlantic Ocean. The contrast is drastic. Crippling poverty and immense wealth stand off like two ill-tempered boxers in a never-ending stare down. The scenery is striking and telling without even knowing the cities specific internal conflicts. It speaks for itself. It looks like the two sides of war, the proverbial house of cards that awaits its imminent tumble.

    Travel very quickly becomes an internal journey of self-speculation and evaluation. A series of different shades of gray is about as clear as the idea of “responsible travel” ever gets. During my time here, I will play a small part in employing a driver, a hotel worker, a restaurateur, a security guard, it goes on and on. My tourism will help feed someone’s child and someone’s mother. I will share my financial advantage with the people of Brazil. I will walk away with a better and more nurtured world-view, a greater understanding of the inner workings and psychological complications of human interaction. I will, as with everywhere I go, get both a little bit harder and a little bit softer. And at the same time, I will put money into the hands of a government that cares little for the well being of its citizens. I could choose not to go. I could stay at home. Finding and accepting a balance is the only viable option that I can see. I have already upset people with the places that I’ve gone. And I’m totally fine with that.


    What can I say about Brazil? The gentlemen that I had the pleasure of working with were, without a doubt, the hardest working individuals that I have ever had the pleasure of sharing a gig with. These men did things that would cause union strikes and job walk off’s in the States. And they did it happily, efficiently and with invasive smiles on their faces. The necessity to get the job done with sub par gear and not quite enough of it is the only option. The show must go on. There were no complaints, no whining, and no refusal. Just hard hard work. The humble that floats through the air in the room is contagious. The language barrier is hard, but the loving and caring attitude makes the issue negligible.

    And, as you do in South America, they took us out for steak. Lot’s and lots and lots of steak. This place makes “Brazilian Steakhouses” in the States look like a joke. There is no red/green card to turn off the meat flow. It’s like an IV of smoky charred wonder. The beer flows and the laughs get so intense that I’m surprised we aren’t asked to leave until I realize that every other table is laughing with the same vigorous intensity. Passion overflows in this country. I’ve never seen such strong love for life, for food, for brotherhood. We were welcomed in immediately and without question. We laughed so hard that I begged for breath. Too much. Make it stop. When you can laugh to the point of considering a hospital visit with a group of people that don’t even share your common language, you start to understand what the meaning of life is. It reminds me of why I do what I do.


Where are all of these drug wars? I see charm around every corner. I’m having the time of my life here! This city is truly awe inspiring in its beauty. I have never in my life seen a prettier city. The contrast of the mountains and the water is overwhelming. The scenery is numbing. It’s too much. The 360-degree overlook from Christ The Redeemer owns the single best view of my life. It’s surreal; exquisite. Why does such a beautiful place with so much potential and brotherly love have such drastic social problems? Is there truly any other option for humanity? Or are we meant to trudge on through dark voids of our own creation? Is greed so inherent in our nature that starting over would simply end us back right here with the same exact problems? Is it even possible to truly measure if things are getting better or worse? Why hadn’t I been to Rio before? Will I be back? Will I ever see my new friends again? Do I even want to go back? Or is the memory so strong and unspoiled that it’s better off staying a memory?