Month: November 2015

Hoi An – On Expectations…

On the boat to cooking class

On the boat to cooking class

Honestly – I thought I was being punked. I awoke this morning – thrilled that I was about to join a group of people for my first cooking class in Asia. Thrilled because I have been craving human contact … emailing friends recently about the loneliness that has been setting in after countless solo meals and solitary sojourns in beautiful, albeit highly foreign, towns. So the thought of communing with others around a table laden with food sounded like just the ticket. And then …

“Lady. LADY!!! You follow me…” This from an energetic Vietnamese man wearing a Red Bridge Cooking School baseball cap who was quickly walking out of the peaceful patio I had just been lounging around. It was 8:30am and I was finishing an iced Vietnamese coffee (laden with condensed milk, of course) with my guide Phi. Other class participants gathered around dark iron tables gabbing away – all in small groups. At one point one of the cooking school staff led a distinguished elderly gentleman over to my table and seated him next to me. We exchanged introductions, me enthusiastically shaking his hand and welcoming him to my quiet part of the patio. And then the staff apologized, asked him to follow them and whisked him away. And I was left alone. Again. I quickly asked Phi, “We are cooking in groups, right? I won’t be doing this on my own?” And he assured me yet again that yes, I  would be with others. And I decided to trust him, despite the fact that groups of people were being led out of the patio into the bustling streets of Hoi An.

So when the spirited man (who I would soon learn was named Thanh) yelled “LADY!” and pointed at only me to follow, I thought to myself, “you have got to be kidding.” But I grabbed my umbrella and zipped up my rain jacket and hurried after him. He quickly explained that he had been up since 4am, shopping at the market he was leading me to, and he didn’t feel like leading a big group. Seriously.

The marvelous market

The marvelous market

As we arrived at the loud, pulsing market we came upon another couple waiting with a guide who Thanh greeted briefly. They were a lovely, elderly couple from Holland and – as you can imagine – I eagerly shook their hands with a huge smile on my face. The four of us marched off with Thanh leading the way – showing us all manner of fruits and vegetables and herbs – tearing off pieces of fresh Asian basil and placing it under our noses so we could inhale the pungent anise scent. Introducing us to fish and chicken and pork vendors and explaining the Vietnamese way of using only the freshest ingredients – pointing out that not a fly could be found amidst the countless tables of meat. The care he displayed for every vendor we encountered, every piece of fruit he held up was heartwarming. Despite our abrupt beginning, I was coming to very much like this man.

One of Thanh's favorite ladies (87 years old and still slinging meat!)

One of Thanh’s favorite ladies (87 years old and still slinging meat!)

I would learn later that he is a very highly regarded chef in Vietnam. That he helped host a fancy Bon Appetit editor during his trip through Hoi An. This man of contradictions … frenzied yet calm – renowned yet humble … this man became my best friend today. He was the head chef – a man obviously used to being in charge as he commanded our group in the art of Vietnamese cooking for several hours. But he took the time to seat me directly in front of him during his instruction. Every time he finished preparing a dish – as he sent us to our individual cooking stations – he would say to me quietly, “Lady – you try,” and would proffer whatever he had just prepared. At one point he grabbed my iPhone from my chair and walked across the room to snap my picture.  He personally showed me how to prepare a rice pancake, reminding me to swirl the delicate rice and water mixture over the cotton cloth stretched across the simmering pot of water. At the end of the day, he even brought me my bag and umbrella, delicately looping my purse’s long strap over my head as I balanced my belongings.

My BFF's snap of me

My BFF’s snap of me

This man never knew my name. I never called him by his (only referring to him as “Chef”). But I soon forgot about my loneliness  … and even the chatter of my fellow cooking students – the ones I had so wanted to commune with – melted into the background as this man – this kind, crazy, lovely man – took me under his wing and into his care.

Chef Thanh

Chef Thanh


PS – I had intended for this post to be about food – one of my favorite subjects. But somehow it morphed into this. Just as today morphed into something completely different than what I expected. Ah … expectations – silly, dangerous things they are.

PPS – I WILL write about food soon. It’s impossible to even know where to begin 🙂

Struggling in Sapa

Beautiuful Sapa Scenery

Beautiful Sapa Scenery

“Madam … Um, are you afraid of snakes, madam?” asked Cuong, my young, Adidas jacket-clad, skinny-yet-very-able-bodied Sapa trekking guide. “Ah, well … er… I don’t particularly like snakes,” I responded, looking trepidatiously around the heavy bushes clogging the steep, narrow path we were following. The two tiny Red Dzao ladies who had been trailing us for about a mile giggled gleefully behind me. “I hate snakes,” continued Cuong – breaking off a sturdy stick from a nearby bush and starting to whack his way through the thick bush. The two ladies grabbed my arms and we carried on as I emitted a shallow sigh.

Happy Red Dzao Ladies

Happy Red Dzao Ladies

The four of us had been “hard trekking” for over an hour – the two women, clad in traditional, vivid red scarves and head pieces and various colorful skirts and wraps, had glommed onto us as soon as our jeep dropped Cuong and I off at the top of the mountain. As is their custom, these local tribal women follow tourists like me around asking ad nauseum, with huge toothy grins, “where you from!?”, “what your name!?” and the most oft repeated word, “shopping?!!?” I had become used to them during the previous day’s seven-hour trek and thought I had figured out how to kindly wave them off … but on this day, my polite attempts of repeatedly saying, “no shopping” and “no money” did nothing to prevent these women from following us down the mountain. And once the snake situation started and the wet, red clay hill became increasingly steep and precarious – I was happy for their company.

These two women – neither of whom topped five feet, if that, their feet clad only in common, beige, plastic shower shoes – became my sherpas. They manhandled me down that mountain as I listened to the severe “thwack, thwack” of Cuong’s snake stick beating a path. Being a proud, what I’d like to think of as strong woman – I tried, at the beginning, to make it on my own. That lasted a hot minute. Soon I found myself reaching out my hand to grab one of theirs (which was half the size of mine) while the other woman scooped up my other wrist as we navigated impossibly narrow paths clinging to the side of the mountain. One would skip across a small ravine, reach back, take my hand and pull me across – my feet leaving the ground – as the other scrambled to make sure I made it across. And they smiled and giggled the entire time.

A quick stop for a snap

A quick stop for a snap

This dance became interminable … my legs, already cramped and weakened from the previous day’s seven hours of trekking, began to shudder.  My toe – the one I smashed on a rock in peaceful Zanzibar – felt increasingly like it was fractured. At one point I remember thinking, I will give these women everything off my back if they help me make it down alive. I realize now how overly dramatic that sounds … but I was exhausted and scared and there was no end in sight and I felt like I was losing my grip – not just on the all-too-infrequent bamboo rods sticking up along the way but on any sense of control.

After what seemed like hours, I spotted a narrow cement road. A flat, narrow cement road. My two new besties deposited me at the bottom of the trail. I exhaled. I asked Cuong to take our picture. I gave them half my money, purchasing several indigo-blue-died hemp purses and scarves I didn’t want.  I hugged them fiercely. And they headed unceremoniously back up the mountain to tend to their sweet potato fields. And Cuong and I kept walking.

My Girls

My Girls

We stopped for lunch (a picnic of soft rolls and fried ham slices and locally grown tomatoes and cucumbers and warm, tin-foil wrapped wedges of Laughing Cow cheese). I tried to catch my breath. I tried to reclaim my long-ago evaporated, positive, can-do attitude. But I knew I was done for. I knew we had another four hours of trekking ahead of us and, as I stood up from my low plastic seat after lunch, my legs throbbing – I thought to myself for the first time since I started this journey over two months ago – I don’t think I can do it.

After handing me three fresh bottles of water and looking at me happily, though with a bit of concern in his eyes, Cuong headed out with me trailing behind. And we headed up. And up and up and up. He did a good job of distracting me – talking of music and food and asking me questions about America. But my pace slowed and my doubt increased. And most sadly, my sense of humor evaporated. And then I stopped. “Cuong … I don’t think I can make it,” I said resignedly. “OK madam – I can call a taxi car scooter,” is what I thought I heard him say. His English was broken and I was hoping that I had heard him correctly. And he made a call on his old iPhone 4 and I heard the phone ring. And ring and ring and ring. And he laughed, “Haha! Voicemail!” But he left a long message and I thought he assured me that help was on the way. So we continued on. Up and up. Not the slow, sloping trail he had talked about over lunch. But a steep, never-ending cement road. Without shade.

So I kept plodding along, my head down, my arms pumping. Only rarely looking around at the glorious scenery – the emerald green rice paddies and steep mountains dotted with bamboo huts. From time to time an errant, mud-covered water buffalo would come into view and I would smile. A pig and her piglet family squealed in front of us, making me stop for minute at one point. After asking several times, “Madam – you want to sit down?” to which I responded, “if I sit down I won’t get up” … Cuong gave up and just trudged up the mountain by my side. I was not proud of my petulant behavior. I SO wanted to stop and sip my water and reset. But, I’m ashamed to say, I just couldn’t stop. I was waiting for that damn car to come screaming around one of the tight corners. And it never came.

Thank God for the Water Buffalo

Thank God for the Water Buffalo

And then … it happened. A small village came into view. And Cuong said simply, “We are here.” And my sweat-soaked shoulders relaxed and a smile erupted on my sour face and I exhaled. And then the most wonderful thing. A school came into view. Painted in traditional Vietnamese pale gold, the building was a beacon … I could hear the joyful chatter of young kids and saw some start to spill out of tidy rooms. I asked Cuong if we could stop so we entered the school’s yard and I was immediately drawn to a small room to my left… the kindergarten room. And I looked at Cuong hesitantly, silently indicating my interest in looking in. His gentle nod encouraged me on and as I ducked my head in, the room erupted into yells of “HELLO!” “HELLO”! “HELLO!” and a few “BYE BYEs!!” mixed in. These kids could hardly contain themselves. They elevated off their tiny chairs with glee. Tourists (aka white people) are rarely seen in this small village – apparently we usually stay closer to the security and ease of Sapa. So I was, apparently, a rare treat. And I could hardly pull myself away from the clamour. I no longer felt the pain in my legs. My breathing returned to normal. My scowl evaporated.

And while this buoyancy didn’t last long … pesky mosquitos and another day of uphill trekking the following day brought back remnants of my black mood … I learned a lesson that I apparently need to learn again and again. Nothing lasts forever. Not pain. Not impossibly steep paths. Sweat-drenched clothes even dry, given the chance. Not always, perhaps, according to our personal schedule.  But change comes. It is my hope that, during my next challenge, I handle whatever may come with a bit more patience… and a bit more grace. That my sense of humor doesn’t disappear so rapidly. That I will look up and forward instead of down. A girl can hope…

A view at the end of the day

A most welcome view at the end of a long day

PS – Sapa is an indescribably beautiful part of Vietnam that I cannot hesitate to recommend to anyone. This brief part of my journey certainly does not reflect my love for this part of the world. I was lucky to have visited – and I hope to return…

Hanoi … Hold On!!!

Hectic Hanoi - steps outside my hotel

Hectic Hanoi – steps outside my hotel

It is nearly impossible to believe that just 24 (or is it 48?) hours ago I was  strolling languidly along an endless beach in Zanzibar, gazing down at the pure white sand to make sure I didn’t bang my already black & blue toe on another hidden rock. And now I’ve just arrived back to the sanctuary that is my hotel room after navigating Hanoi’s Old Quarter for four hours on foot, carefully looking every which way to make sure I didn’t get run down by a horn-blaring motor scooter.  Before my arrival here, I was trepidatious about the dramatic shift in pace from the serenity of the island to the chaos of Vietnam. But I gotta say – I LOVE IT HERE!

Frenetic. That is the word that first comes to mind when I try to figure out how to describe this city.  So I feel compelled to write about my experience thus far in just such a way – wildly, uncontrollably, perhaps even a bit madly…

Here are a few things I came across during my initial wanderings (and this is only one morning spent in Old Town Hanoi):

A somewhat disheveled old man perched on his motorbike, tweezers in hand as he gazed into this rearview mirror, searching the top of his head for gray hairs to pluck.

A tiny chihuahua dancing frantically around the doorway of a jewelry store, collared in a fake crystal bracelet. (And yes, of course I stopped to play with her. Adorable.)

Not the chihuahua ... just another tiny pooch perched on one of my beloved, highly popular tiny blue chairs

Not the chihuahua mentioned above … just another tiny pooch perched on one of my beloved, highly popular tiny blue stools

A motorbike whizzing by with a passenger (thankfully not the driver)  desperately holding onto a full-size glass sliding door. Another old woman racing past with a small garden clinging to her motorbike – plants, tree and all…glaring at me as I tried to snap her picture.

Woman and moveable garden

Woman and moveable garden

Hello Kitty helmets, army green mesh-covered pith helmets, floral-covered helmets worn by young men, sporting matching face masks (which are quite popular here … lots of pollution).

An old, stooped man who glanced at my distressed face as I tried to navigate my way across an impossibly busy street and decided to take pity on me, marching me across as if hundreds of speeding motor scooters were mere flies to be swatted. Then he took the time to point to my gaping, open purse (that I had failed to close after searching for my map) and motioned for me to close it up. Kind GENTLEman.

Finding myself on a side street and stopping suddenly as I realized it was devoid of honking, honking, honking. What?! A sudden quiet. Impossible. And delightful. Then my other senses kicked into gear and I inhaled the strongest smell of dried fish imaginable. Was that dried seahorse next to the diminutive pink shrimp? Possibly.

I decided not to stop to photograph the stinky fish ... choosing instead to capture this veritable garden of fruit and vegetables.

I decided not to stop to photograph the stinky fish … choosing instead to capture this veritable garden of fruit and vegetables.

Plucking my glasses out of my purse to once again stare at an impossible-to-read map then having the lightbulb moment of remembering … Google Maps! My savior. As long as I took the time to step well away from the streets teaming with whizzing transport to stare at the screen.

Searching for “Silk Road” – which my hotel concierge had kindly recommended I visit – an area purportedly full of fabrics of every possible design and color. And realizing every time I looked at my iPhone that I was, somehow, getting farther and farther from my destination. And then saying, “Sod it” (a favorite phrase I picked up from my British friends) – and looking instead for Bahn Mi 25 which is said to have the best Vietnamese sandwiches in town. And arriving at my destination to find a tiny cart filled with fresh rolls and pate and thinly shaved pork and cilantro and delicately shredded carrots… with a smiling young woman pointing to an impossibly small royal blue plastic stool upon which I perched to eat the BEST Bahn Mi I’ve ever had.  Despite the fact that a loud Australian guy took residence next to me and proceeded to tell me his sad tale of unrequited love with a local Vietnamese girl (“She looks like a model!”). After 10 minutes of listening to his heart wrenching tale in which he fretted about trying to find a teaching job here so he could live in Hanoi to be with his princess (who he had just met days ago), I then learned of his past Balinese girlfriend and others scattered around Asia. Ah … love.

Bahn Mi 25!!

Bahn Mi 25!!

Once I handed over the 20,000 VND ($0.89!!) for my Bahn Mi I realized I only had an hour and half before my afternoon walking tour with Hanoi Kids*. Recognizing my inability to get anywhere without taking at least 10 wrong turns, I headed off in what I believed was the direction of my next destination – Cafe Giang – home of what was supposed to be the best Egg Coffee in town. Google Maps told me it was only a 10-minute walk.  I arrived 25 minutes later. Regardless – up the rickety stairs I headed (after asking directions of course), and after perching myself on yet another doll-sized stool, I ordered my Egg Coffee (“Hot or cold, miss?” … “Um … I don’t know? What’s your favorite?!” Blank stare…  “Hot or cold, miss?”  “Hot please!”). Not two minutes later a small cup of dreamy hot goodness was placed in front of me. A thick layer of sweet, sticky, eggy cream floated on top of spicy, strong, hot coffee. Mana from heaven. And necessary for the rest of my day.

Finally ... Egg Coffee

Finally … Egg Coffee

I then pulled out my iPhone to type in the last leg of my journey, only to find that my battery was dying… a sinister half-red battery icon staring at me. Frantic that I would be forever lost in the depths of Hanoi – I typed in my hotel’s address. And found that it was a mere five-minute walk away. I made it in 13.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

*If ever you find yourself in Hanoi – I urge you to check out Hanoi Kids. A volunteer organization comprised of young Vietnamese eager to practice their English – this group of students provides free-of-charge tours throughout the city.

My tour guide Sang was an utter delight. After whisking me through the Temple of Literature for a private tour, he found a random little joint that served the most delicious sticky rice … a few stories above the teaming streets of the Old Quarter. We sat and talked about everything from family to government to films to travel. He talked about flower-shaped snow (snow flakes!) and his dreams of traveling to Europe, then of his love of Manchester United and the summers he still spends harvesting rice with his family. He was fascinated with everything about my life – from my solo (what!??) global trip to the picture of redwoods I showed him on my iPhone to the similarities in internet coverage between his home town and the villages I visited in Africa.

Girls getting their picture taken at the Temple of Literature ... Sang will have his taken next week (a local tradition)

Girls getting their picture taken at the Temple of Literature … Sang will have his taken next week (a local tradition)

After our sticky rice we headed across the street to Cong Caphe for coconut coffee… yet another heavenly coffee drink laced with coconut ice cream and rivulets of strong java. He explained that the shop used to be a prison which, as I looked around at the barred windows started to make sense. We continued to chat for I-don’t-know-how-long … among other thing he asked if I had any pets and then proceeded to tell me that his parents used to raise dogs to sell as food as I tried, unsuccessfully, not to bury my head in my hands.

Coconut Coffee... in an old prison

Coconut Coffee… in an old prison

After hours together, I felt like Sang was my long-lost little brother.  He laughed at his pronunciation of various English words (apparently “R’s” are especially tricky) as I punched him lightly in the shoulder when he told me of his adoration of Taylor Swift. When we arrived (too soon!) at my hotel, I reached out my hand to shake his – but he happily insisted on a hug. I asked for and received his Facebook name and now hope we will be BFFs forever.


Out of Africa

Collection of bracelets from Zambia & Zanzibar ... planning on three per country so it'll be quite a collection after all 7+!

My bracelets from Zambia & Zanzibar … planning on three per country so it’ll be quite a collection after all 7+!

I’ve been dreading this time since the moment I landed two months ago.  This time when I need to say goodye to Africa. As soon as I smelled the faintly familiar smells of this magical place – the warm earth, the charcoal fires cooking various delicacies in open air stalls, the impossible-to-describe scent of the windy air – I felt like I was home gain. Though it had been ten years since I left (in the late summer of 2005), when I arrived in Livingstone, Zambia I felt like I was where I was meant to be in this world. And now I’m sitting in Zanzibar – gazing at the aquamarine sea from our volunteer huts, staring at the calendar that is telling me I’ve been on this beautiful continent for two months and it’s time to move on to Asia. And when I think of the word “Onward” around which I’ve built this trip, my toes curl under a bit, my chest tightens, and I become a petulant little girl. I don’t wanna go.

It’s not that I’m not excited about Asia. I am. It’s just that I KNOW Africa. I have been embraced by its people. I have been moved to tears on several occasions by its wildlife. My soul has been touched deeply and I have been forever changed…

The lion handlers in Livingstone took me in as one of their own – encouraging me to join them side-by-side, hauling heavy wheelbarrows and chopping donkey meat and heaving heavy jugs of water for the lions. I felt like I belonged to a special society. And they applauded my strength. And they told me I was beautiful – even when I was standing in the hot, still afternoon sun, sweat dripping out from beneath my work gloves, my clothes and shoes spattered with blood and lion poo, my entire body powdered with red earth.

The locals in Zanzibar also welcomed me with open arms and warm smiles. Early on I befriended young Rama, our boat driver, and tried out my Swahili on him at every chance I got. After he spent three weeks navigating the choppy seas, hauling us to and from the fish market out to see the dolphins, he quietly pulled me aside on my last day, a heavy paper bag hidden behind his back. He then pulled out a beautifully carved wooden dolphin and another delicate boat resembling the Dhow fishing canoes used by so many locals – carefully painted with bright Rasta colors of red, green and yellow. He shyly looked down as he handed them to me, explaining that his friend had carved both from local Baobab trees (my favorite tree on earth, of course). You’ll likley not be surprised to learn that I teared up … but I held it together long enough to thank him in a trembling voice (Asanta Sana Rama!!!). He just kind of bowed his head and said “I will miss you madam.”

My beloved Baobob tree

My beloved Baobob tree

In addition to these amazing human interactions – Africa has, of course, provided me with countless gifts of communing with nature. The times spent with lions – whether just gazing at them lazing about as a wild giraffe nibbled at a tall tree behind me, or having my friend Lovewell teach me how to give them a belly rub… I sit here today shaking my head in wonder.

To the left... to the left

To the left… to the left

And the almost indescribable swim outing with the dolphins … I will never forget settling into the water, fixing my mask, placing my face into the sea and seeing four of them silently glide directly beneath me. And minutes later, viewing a lone dolphin surface near me and slowly swim by. I kicked my fins madly (though silently!), trying to keep up and he appeared to meander for a bit, at one point looking at me as if to say, “are you keeping up ok?” (And yes, I recognize I am taking huge liberties here … he wasn’t likely thinking much more than … “hmmm – is she a fish and can I eat her?”). Regardless, when my dolphin friend finally swam so deep that his body merged with the black of the sea, I came to rest and turned my face to the sunny sky. And a sob escaped as I turned away from the waiting boat … my tears mixing with the salty sea. I have never known such joy. Such gratitude.


Sailing out of the sea

So these are the memories that will hold strongest in my mind as my travels continue. Sure, I’ll look longingly at my photos of the brilliantly colored sea and many beautiful sights I’ve seen here in Africa. But it will be the interactions with the people, the lions, the dolphins that will burn brightest. It is my hope that I’ll commune with the people of Asia, with the elephants I’ll be with in Cambodia next month, and the monkeys I’ll get to hang out with in the trees of Laos. But my stars, will I miss Africa…

© 2019 Onward Voyage