“First you dig,” Noa motioned driving a shovel into the dirt. “Then you wipe your sweat.” His little hand reached up to mock wiping sweat from his brow. My dance instructor was a five year old. He knew every step to the dance that symbolized working the harvest (or mining coal-I’m not sure which) but he refused to join the circle. He preferred watching the Bon Dance from the sidelines.
This Japanese festival was my first. The Bon Festival, or Bon Odori, is a Buddhist festival that honors the deceased ancestors of one’s family. The event takes place in the summer and varies by different regions, but one thing that remains the same is the dancing. I got to experience my first Obon season in O’ahu where Hawaiians take the event very seriously.
Celebrants wear summer kimonos, yukatas, and move in a type of line dance formation, shuffling in one large circle around the yagura, or tower, in the center of the circle.
Some dances use sticks, fans or clappers, and everyone seems to have their favorite, jumping from their seats and joining the ladies who demonstrate each dance in their beautiful kimonos.
The event is like a summer fair replete with fried food, more sweets than you can shake a tenugui at and plenty of kids and old folks mingling together. Rather than games (though some Bon Dances have them) the main event is the dancing itself. The dances are slow, long and repeat twice, but it doesn’t stop anyone from participating. In fact, the simplicity of them is what keeps everyone on the dance floor, young and old. A newbie like myself could pick up the movements by the second time the song started up and feel like a rockstar when the electric slide comes on.
The whole evening is kicked off by a monk making offerings to the deceased.
Our Bon Dance was capped off by a performance of Japanese drum players, or a taiko group, which seems to be more a mixture of dance and music than pure instrument recital.
As the three day festival comes to an end, the spirits are guided back home with a fire ceremony, putting them to rest until we welcome them back with a dance the next year. As summer comes to it’s own end and autumn falls around us, Halloween nipping at it’s heels and Dia de los Muertos not far behind, ponder the Bon Dance and its festive celebration of the living honoring the dead through song, dance and food. Think about how you honor your ancestors and consider participating in another cultural event to bring mirth and merry into your ancestral remembrances. Try something new or light a candle. Visit a church or pray with a monk. Join a parade or decorate with marigolds. Find a way to enjoy life while you are part of the living.
It was 5:35 pm. We were standing on the corner in front of our hotel. A wall of cars in front of us, not moving.
I tapped the Uber icon again, the car spun in circles, not moving from the same spot, just spinning in space like an icon that tells you your computer is slow.
He was so close we could walk to him. But then what, sit in the car for an hour, not moving, waiting for everyone in Bangkok to leave?
Our reservation was for 6 p.m. at Gaggan. The number 1 restaurant in Asia. The 23rd best restaurant in the world. The one that I had emailed for weeks and called at 1 in the morning multiple nights in a row from America, trying to get a reservation after seeing it featured on the second season of Chef’s Table and learned that I would be traveling to Bangkok.
I made sure I booked our hotel within a safe distance of the restaurant. Without traffic it would have only been five minutes away, but nothing was moving. All my punctuality nightmares were coming true.
My boyfriend used his American phone to call long distance and let them know we would be running late. This is a restaurant that times dishes for a three hour seating. There is no late.
A man answered the phone, “How long are you going to be?”
James was answered with silence.
“Realistically 30 minutes,” he repeats.
“Try to get here sooner,” the man hung up.
I canceled our Uber. I would try for another. 8 minutes and spinning. I watched the minutes creep by and we were still on the same corner. All the cars were moving in one direction but the road on the other side was completely empty as well as the direction we needed to go.
We crossed the street and I hailed the first empty tuktuk that passed by. I had my map at the ready. “Here. Can you take us to here?” I point to the restaurant on my Google Maps app, “Gaggan.” All the taxis drivers in Thailand always want to call the place that you are going and have someone explain to them in Thai where they have to go. We didn’t have time for that. We needed this tuktuk driver to know Google Maps.
He looked at the map. He nodded his head.
Way too much, but I didn’t care. We hopped in and started down the road, my hope that while not as fast, a tuktuk could maneuver between the cars like a motorcycle.
A minute later we were stopped again. A new wall of cars. Another blockade of traffic. There was a wide gap between two cars, motorcycles flooded all around us with girls in miniskirts hanging off that back.
“Can’t you go between them I asked?’
The driver just laughed then turned his motor off and waited like he had all the time in the world.
“Why go so far?” he asked in the rearview mirror. “Good places to eat here. I can bring you.”
“No, no we have to go to Gaggan. We have reservations.”
He just shrugged and calmly turned back to stare at the rear lights in front of him.
I watched our non-movement on Google Maps. Our driving trajectory was still thirty minutes away and it was already past 6. I switched it to walking. We could literally walk to the restaurant in twenty-five minutes. I looked down at my nice dress, my heels, thought about the hour I wasted getting ready, doing my makeup. Could I do it? Could I really run to the restaurant in this Bangkok humidity. What other choice did we have?
We came up with a plan. We would walk until we got to the next clear road, the blue one only five minutes away, then hop in another tuktuk until the end of the park and walk the last five minutes. Easy.
“We’re going to get out.” I told the driver. We had only made one turn and had maybe been in the tuktuk for five minutes, at most ten, not even half way, not even a quarter to where he was suppose to take us. “How much?”
I have never been a haggler. I hate haggling. I understand the concept but I have never in my life been able to confidently do it.
“What? You said 400 for the whole way. We haven’t even made it half way. I will not pay 300 baht.”
Every minute that I spent arguing was a minute wasted.
“Fine.” I pulled out the bills and we hopped from the cab into the stream of, essentially, parked cars and began our run down the road. James took my hand to pull me out of the way of another onslaught of motorcycles. (I can never get that driving on the opposite side of the road thing down–always looking the wrong way.)
As fast as a pair of Tom’s heels could take us, we ran down the tourist-crowded streets. Me muttering under my breath at old white men to get out of my way and him checking to make sure I don’t get myself ran over. At a six lane intersection we turned back to take the pedestrian overpass and I clipped my ankle on a pillar. I couldn’t concentrate on the pain but as we made it to the clear street without a taxi or tuktuk in sight, I could feel the ankle start to swell.
We kept moving, turning to look back every few feet. Is there a taxi yet? My dress was soaked with sweat and clung to my chest. We just had to keep moving. It was already 6:30.
Would they give the reservation away? Did people wait for cancellations like buzzards circling a fresh kill?
The park ended. The final street was in our sights. We could do this. We could run through the streets of Bangkok from our hotel all the way to the number one restaurant in all of Asia. We had to. What other choice did we have?
We were so close. I watched our blue dot move closer and closer, two minutes, one minute…we passed it. We turned back, in an unassuming alley was the large sign reading “Gaggan.” We were there.
At 6:45 p.m. those doors pulled back and air conditioning never felt so good. Not one but four people greeted us, laughing at our spent breath, our soaked clothing. They happily took us to our table and brought us chilled, wet towels and the first starter, a pickled plum soda with cherries. It was the best thing I ever tasted, not because it was Gaggan, not because it would cost us 200 dollars a head, but because we had worked so hard to get there, because we wanted to be there more than anything, more than the pain in our feet, more than the price to our clothes or our dignity. We wanted to eat at Gaggan enough to run through a city to get there.
I propped my swollen ankle up against my other leg, sat back, had a chug of water and a sip of wine, and I enjoyed every single one of the 18 dishes we were served over the course of the next three hours. Because I could.
Side note: We later surmised that we could have rented a ride on the back of one of those motorcycles as if it were a cab and probably should have done it. We also saw another group of girls come running into the restaurant late and equally soaked so we weren’t the only ones and it must be a common occurrence with the regular traffic of Bangkok.
The waiter looked down at us with our feet up on the metal chairs gazing out over the clear, calm water of Ala Moana Beach park. “You visiting?” It’s not so much a question but an assumption. Sondra shared that she lived on island and we had decided to come in for a drink to cool off for a bit from our time at the beach.
“You should have brought a cooler of drinks with you. Would have cost you half as much as two drinks here.” He walked away to place our order and I laughed. Only in Hawaii would a local literally dissuade you from his own livelihood to find a way to relax more conviently by the ocean. To his benefit we didn’t take his advice as I was trying to tick off boxes of things that I had yet to try in Hawaii that had been noted as the best and we were only visiting Ryan’s Bar and Grill in Ward Center for the recommended Li Hing Margarita. The margarita arrived with a lip brimming over with red li hing powder, a taste I had only just discovered a few years back the last time I was on O’ahu. Li hing mui is salty dried plum that is popular in Asian cultures and therefore highly prevelent in Hawaii. The li hing infused tequila flamed like sunset in a glass and sang on my tongue but not necessarily my favorite song. In the summer heat of the island it needed to be colder, like a frozen plum rolled in salt but instead it was just a tepid bath.
Over the course of the next week, this was my least enjoyable “best of Hawaii” purchase and it was in no way bad…just not as good as a poi doughnut and porchetta sandwich.
Ed Kenney is probably one of the most popular and influential chefs in Hawaii right now. His first restaurant, Town, opened in 2005 and since then he’s opened two new hot spots in Kaimuki, a district half way between the overcrowded streets of Waikiki and my snowbird suburb of Hawaii Kai. I had to try them both after my fond memories of eating at Town for a birthday a few years back. Kaimuki Superette’s tag line is SEAsonal SANDwiches and SUNdries so I needed a sandwich for my sun and sea. I drove my warm porchetta sandwich like it was a newborn baby, tenderly and making sure it was safe buckled into its passenger seat. Only this baby made my mouth water and my stomach grumble as I halted and lurched through Honolulu traffic.
Finally at Kapiolani Beach Park, my mouth sunk into the crunchy outer layer of fried pig and landed into the soft underbelly of pork fat that, literally, seemed to melt when it hit my tongue. I was in Paradise and not just because I was in Hawaii staring down the line of famous Waikiki hotels lining the glimmering beach. The sandwich was large enough that I probably only needed half but I tore through that whole thing without a second thought and then waddled to the bathroom to squeeze myself into a full piece swimsuit that now felt more like a corset holding all my organs into place after the porchetta displaced them.
The next day I met friends at Mud Hen Water, the sister restaurant to Kenney’s Superette. We sat at the white marble topped bar and watched our platinum haired, tattoo-covered Aussie bartender whip us up some drinks. I had the Vishnu’s Vice which was made with Opihr Gin, juiced turmeric, honey, orange blossom water and topped with peppercorn. If it didn’t have alcohol in it I would swear I was detoxing in the most delicious way. It was spicy, hardly sweet in a good way and not too much kick on the alcohol side either which I can appreciate when I’d actually like to remember my meal. We ordered a couple starters to share and landed on the fried chicken and the I’a Lawalu for our mains. The latter was a white fish buried in coals to cook in a banana leaf with vegetables and coconut milk. The fish was buttery soft, the peppers were smoky and we devoured it like starved shipwreck survivors. For dessert we couldn’t narrow down the choices so with both bartenders prompting us to go for it, we ordered three, a pineapple polenta upside down cake with coconut gelato, doughnuts with espresso ice cream “like breakfast for dessert,” as one bartender put it, and finally, because I insisted we have it, two scoops of black sesame ice cream. The pineapple and black sesame won out as favorites and Sondra and Patrick told me all about their favorite doughnuts from Kam bakery, purple poi doughnuts. Seeing that our doughnut dessert could not match up, they promised to pick some up before our hike in the morning.
Kamehameha Bakery, better known as Kam Bakery, has been serving up baked goods since 1978 and the poi-glazed doughnuts are worth all the word of mouth. Even as I write this I wish I had another one in front of me to eat and can’t believe I may have another year to wait until I get one. As you bite into the purple confection, the doughnut smushes together like resting your head on a feather pillow and then expands again in your hand as you pull your mouth away, the dough rising again in long sugary strings, puffy and light from pockets of yeast. We had just spent the morning exploring ruins in the jungle on the one downpour of the week and decided that the only way to warm up was with hot tea and baked goods. I thought I could stop with one but had to try both original and the strawberry flavor which was an electric pink color.
“Pau Hana” is the Hawaiian equivalent to “happy hour” but means literally “after work.” Most people think of enjoying a tropical drink by crashing waves in Hawaii. I like to think of Hawaii for its food and for my end of the school year holiday, I couldn’t think of doing anything after work other than eat my way through the island and this was just a sampling of some of the treats I found there. To see more of my food porn and get suggestions for your own Hawaiian travels check out my Instagram @goodetravels.
Warning: Not to be read by those under 18. Do not do as I do! I mean it, I’m looking at you. Don’t even think about it!
I made it 30 years without ever smoking a cigarette. I was very proud of this. In high school I would thumb my nose at all the smokers and feel very holier than thou when I announced that I would not smoke, did not smoke, that not one cigarette had touched my lips. In college, I was a loner. I didn’t smoke cigarettes and the only reason to go out into the snow at 7 pm at night in Boulder, CO was to smoke a ciggy and I would not do that, so I was alone.
And then there was Portugal.
Oh Portugal. Europe on the cheap. Who needs the French Riviera when you can have the Algarve Coast?
I was traveling with my work friend Caroline and we needed a well-deserved break from the school year. And what was the best way to relax, by drinking rosé and smoking cigarettes on beaches in Lagos, in parks overlooking orange rooftops in Lisbon, in al fresco restaurants in Cascais.
Cigarettes were everywhere and I needed them. They went perfectly with sardines and potatoes. They complimented our chilled wine while we were warmed by sun on our shoulders. They circulated why we played card games with Germans and Italians in hostel backyards. I couldn’t say no and I didn’t want to. I was a chain-smoking queen.
I would love to say that this piece has a moral to the tale. That I learned that my lungs were heavy with tar and I couldn’t stop coughing for a week. That I felt my skin getting loose and my breath tarnished with cigarette taste for days. I would be amiss not to think about the death of my grandfather from lung cancer and hang my head in disgust. While all of this is true, that is not this piece.
Instead, cigarettes became a lesson in mindfulness on my Portugal adventure. They slowed me down. They made me appreciate the moment. I could just be. Just sit and experience everything in a heightened sense of awareness of this one particular instance of time. It was now and would always be now and I damn well appreciated it. I was doing nothing other than tasting the Tremoços, peeling their skin off with my teeth.
I was sucking miniature snails from their tiny little spiral shells, letting condensation run through my fingers as I held a glass of wine in the heat, feeling my legs grow warm as my feet sunk into the sand of yet another beach. Each cigarette kept me locked in that moment, slightly high on the heat, the wine, the heady hit of the tobacco. I was here, in Portugal, enjoying the small pleasures. And what pleasures they were.
In Porto, we wandered into a charcuterie restaurant for dinner then meandered down a cobblestone side street to have one last drink for the night. By the time the drink was over, a band had started playing fadó and suddenly the small room was packed with dancers.
On a wine tour of the Douro River Valley, we were taken to a small boutique port vineyard and were handed apricots straight from the trees. They were the sweetest things I had every tasted until we were ushered into a small house from the 1800s and escorted into the parlor where skinless plums shaped into balls were waiting for us. I thought I would never stop eating those plums. But then I had the bread, with the cheese or the olive oil, it didn’t matter, both were delicious especially paired with the ports that varied from white to a deep blushing red.
In Albufeira, we sat by the ocean and ate large chunks of fish from a stew called caldeirada. The briny broth trickled down our chins and we laughed as the waiter tried to translate all the different seafood we would be eating in our stew.
I had my first taste of pastéis de nata with a coffee by the seaside port of Lagos. I had avoided it for days but the yellow egg custard pastry was surprisingly refreshing after a night of drinking and for the rest of the trip I would make sure I got one every day.
After a long afternoon of walking the Alfama, we stopped at a nondescript restaurant and had grilled octopus in a butter and lemon sauce before making our way back up the hill to the Bairro Alto for drinks at Pharmacia while the sun set and waiters brought blankets over to warm our bare legs.
Outside at night in the beach town of Cascais, I accompanied a Brazilian guitarist at our hostel with Sublime covers. My favorite phrase to say was “Caracois in Cascais” after a local Portuguese man boiled up some snails and had us eat them for the first time. And through all of this, we were accompanied by cigarettes and a summer rosé.
Would I do it again, just as I did then? Yes. Do I allow myself to smoke cigarettes now? No. They are not the same. I don’t know if it was the Portuguese tobacco or just that summer, but I never get quite the same feeling anymore. It’s not worth it. Could I have enjoyed the small pleasures without them? Probably. But at least for now, I can say I truly had the European experience.
Rather than a book suggestion this week, I offer up a movie for your perusal, Coffee and Cigarettes by Jim Jarmusch.