A Memory of Taste part 3

Most of us can name our favorite restaurant or even our favorite food/dish. When I think about this I have to classify mine by region or cuisine as I have so many favorites, half my reason for wanting to travel is to eat different foods from exotic places. But often times my favorite foods from places comes down to street food.

Now, while my home state’s biggest city, Portland, Oregon, has a great street food industry and tradition. The absolute best street food I ever had was in Bahrain in Shwarma Ally. And I know many of you are thinking “Really? Bahrain?…Wait, where is that?” So this will not only be a trip down memory lane, but it will have a short geography lesson too, Yay!

So as I have said before, in 2002-03 I was in Bahrain which is a small island off the coast of Saudi Arabia just north of Qatar. The island is nicer than it has any right to be, there is a lot of sun and hot, but it makes up for that with some pretty nice beaches and a thriving, cosmopolitan population (at the time). The food there was wonderful as I could experience Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian, and many other styles of food. But the crown jewel in my opinion was a local street food vendor area known by many as Shwarma Ally.

Now those of you who have had gyro’s are saying “I know what shwarma is, and its not all that special.” To those people I say you are more wrong than you could ever know. The street itself was among shops which hawk all kinds of different wares, the most fun were the rug shops, which as soon as you walked in you had tea and a best friend trying to sell you a rug at what they would assure you was a price which would impoverish their family. But on the street there were food vendors, some were in carts while others had more permanent facilities.

This particular shop, if I recall correctly, was a large cart which had four upright spits turning different meats slowly next to a heating element. We approached the shop and I asked the man what the different meats were, and he replied; “I have lamb, beef, pork, and meat.” The statement was said so matter of factually that I did not react right away. After I had processed what he said I started a little bit and asked, “What is meat?” He looked at me with an expression which bridged incredulity at the question, offence due to me not knowing the answer, and pity because I had obviously never eaten true meat before. With this look he answered my question, “Meat, is meat my friend.” I chose that one and ate it. It was one of the most wonderful things I have ever eaten, and it has not been topped in the fourteen years since.

Now I could close there, leaving you to believe that all street food is excellent. But that is simply not true. Sometimes you run into something from a food cart that leaves you crouched over or on a toilet bowl for longer than you care to admit or remember. There are trips to the hospital, embarrassing catching of fluids for the doctor to run tests on, and lying half out of your mind on a couch clearly meant for you to only sit on it while other patients pass by whispering and staring at you. So when it comes to street food, eat at your own risk. But often enough you will be surprised by something that titillates your taste buds enough that you find yourself writing about it a decade and a half later.

A Memory of Taste Part 2

In my first post I wrote about the succulence of Napolie pizza. And while that was excellent, my next post is one of my favorite dining experiences. From November 2002 to June of 2003 I was stationed in Bahrain. While there I lived in the town surrounding the base. My friends and I would often venture out into previously unexplored (by us) portions of the town to find restaurants and bars.

On one of these occasions a buddy and I happened upon a building adorned in Arabic and Chinese writing. There were cars parked out front and a valet was taking keys and ushering people inside. Now, upon seeing this we could have decided to high tail it elsewhere, but our curiosity got the better of us. Not knowing if we would be turned away, we parked the car a short ways up the street and walked to the front door. As we approached the doorman opened the door and ushered us inside the building.

Once inside we realized this was a restaurant. It was set up like a Sheri’s or Ihop, a waiting room in the foyer with padded benches and the dining room was filled with booths and tables. As we looked into the dining area we saw families, Bahraini and foreign alike, but no American or European looking faces looked back at us.

The host sat us at a table in the center of the room, our water was brought, and a menu was set in front of us. As I opened the menu I was greeted with nothing but Arabic and what looked to me like Mandarin writing…no English was seen. I looked at my companion, he looked at me, “What the fuck?” We both shrugged and continued to look at the menue until our waiter approached us.

He greeted us, and asked us if we wanted anything to drink, and then saw our puzzled expressions. “Can you read the menu?” Once we told him no, he chuckled. “I can bring you food…if you’d like, trust me.” We decided to take his word for it, gave him the menus, and sat back to wait.

Once our food came, at first I was slightly disappointed. It was a small plate of veggies, and by small plate it was the size of a small salad plate. A little dubiously we began to eat…and the food was good. The first plate was finished quickly, and as soon as we were done a new plate was put in front of us. I almost didn’t notice the plate was taken away, but when the new plate of food was put in front of us we tucked in and continued to eat.

Now, I’d like to say that after the second plate of food we were done, because we could have been. No, instead I have to tell you that we had another plate set in front of us. Now, not being one to complain about good food, I started on that plate albeit much slower. This continued through the fourth, fifth, and sixth plates of food. I normally didn’t fill like this except on Thanksgiving but I kept on, mostly because the food was delicious but also by some sort of sense of misguided honor that this was a challenge to the Americans in this decidedly local restaurant.

As we finished the sixth different dish we saw a seventh approach, it was set in front of it and I looked at it, a man defeated by food. By stomach was so full that I wanted to lean back, loosen the belt and ease the snap of my jeans open to allow my belly room to escape. Our waiter appeared, “How are we doing? Is the food satisfactory? Do you need more?” This was the last plate! We were on the home stretch! My  mind made itself up, I would finish this meal, my taste buds had overridden my capacity to stop as soon as I knew an end was near. We informed that waiter that all was good and asked for the check. “No dessert?” I wanted to strangle him, but we politely declined and he walked away.

As we finished the meal I knew that this had been something special. When he returned with the check we asked the waiter about the restaurant. He informed us that the king of Bahrain had invited a 5 star chef from Hong Kong to come and start this restaurant. We had just eaten small portions of all the popular dishes from the menu. I was impressed, and as I rolled out the door I wondered if I’d ever eat Chinese food this good again.

Now I have lived and worked in China on several different occasions. In the North, South and Central portions of the country, and I have never eaten like I did that day in Bahrain. It was amazing in my memory. And the surprising nature of it most likely remains lodged in my brain for all time, but the accidental finding of the restaurant is one of my favorite experiences while traveling.

Flying is never what it seems.

I’ve flown all over the place, in doing so I have encountered a few situations that at the time were a number of emotions ranging from infuriating to bemusing. For those of us who travel we are used to the occasional delay or smelly passenger sitting right next to us. For me the encounters below rank pretty high on the “Great stories to tell people who don’t travel” index.

One of my earliest stories comes from a flight from Chicago, Illinois to Portland, Oregon. I was a fresh sailor, recently out of Boot Camp and headed home for the holidays on leave. I had gotten on the plane and there was a seat between myself and the pleasant-looking older woman in my row. The young me had not grasped how amazing this was to have that seat empty to provide space between myself and my fellow passenger for books, refuse, or even just a blanket when someone got up for the bathroom.

I was settling in when a flight attendant entered the plane with a young girl in tow. She was what seemed to be around 5 or 6 years old with a yellow ribbon pinned on the backpack she wore. As they approached I noticed the flight attendant looking in my direction and I realized that the girl was going to be sitting in the empty seat next to me. I unbuckled my seat belt, got up, and waited for the flight attendant to get the child settled in.

Take off went well, as did the beverage service. I was entertaining a 6 year old girl because she seemed to have chosen me to focus her energy on. After a few hours of this she had settled down and I sat my seat back and attempted to nap the final few hours of the flight. My eyes had been closed for a few minutes and I was feeling myself slip into that wondrous area between waking and sleep where you hear everything going on around you but you can’t move. Almost instantly upon reaching this state of paralysis I felt the small fingers of a 6 year old begin to poke my arm.

I couldn’t move but I was aware of the little girl as she began to poke and prod me to try and get my attention. I was wavering between consciousness and sleep, and anyone who is recently out of Boot Camp knows, you crave any moment of sleep you can get. So I remained immobile and I heard the voice of the woman on the other side of the girl urge her to let me sleep and the fingers retreated from my arm, face, and neck.

Once again I settle further into oblivion, thoughts about the passenger next to me had disappeared and I was on the doorstep of sleep. Wetness, I felt wetness on my cheek. Then on my forehead, then on my cheek again. I was ripped back to awareness. I couldn’t open my eyes, I was still half asleep, but I was aware of breath on my eyelids. Then more wetness…WHAT IS GOING ON?????? After my initial shock I realized that the young lady was placing kisses all over my face in an attempt to wake me up, and they were very wet. I kept my eyes closed and refused to give in to the attempts to wake me. I heard laughing from the woman on the other side, and even a flight attendant who swooped in to rescue me by offering crayons and a coloring book to the child. Immediately I was forgotten and I slipped rapidly into the airplane sleep we all experience, light and barely restive. When I woke again we were descending into Portland for landing. I was able to distract the girl from the violence of an airplane landing and the long taxi to the gate.

Upon deboarding a flight attendant stopped me and thanked me for helping with the child as much as I did, and apologized for the kisses. I was gracious and asked “What kisses?” The attendant laughed and I headed out the gangplank to my waiting family.

This instance occurred when I was 18, 20 years later it is still one of the funniest things I have ever experienced while traveling. In the future I will share more of my traveling experiences, including my screaming contest with a monkey.

Tiananmen Square Fun

Tiananmen Square Fun

I had arrived in Beijing, met my ride, a woman Grace and a fellow teacher Mark, and moved into my small apartment in the village where we were to teach. On my third day I was to visit Tiananmen Square with Grace. While I was still tired from jet lag I did not want to miss this opportunity to visit the famous square and possibly enter the Forbidden City.

The day dawned sunny and fairly warm. Grace and I left the apartments around 10 am and traveled via subway to the famous palace area. The subways were so different from those in Wuhan, there was English translation on the loudspeakers and I was only a visual spectacle to half the passengers instead of all of them. This was new as my previous trips to China I felt like an ape let out of his cage and allowed to roam the streets. I digress, the trip to Tiananmen took around 45 minutes from our stop and we walked out into the sunshine.

I had not known what to expect, but there were throngs of people, all Chinese, pushing to get onto the square. While this was not unexpected, the lack of foreign tourist presence was immediately apparent as I became somewhat of a phenomenon at the site as we worked our way onto the square. Once on the square I was looking at the various government buildings surrounding us and taking in the imposing presence of the Forbidden City’s gates before us when I felt a tap on my arm. I turned around and saw a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old looking at me.

“Hallo” he greeted me, timidly but seemingly spurned on by his parents about 10 feet away. I greeted him and he began to ask me questions in halting English about where I was from and why I was in China, as he went along his tone became more confident and he seemed to blossom upward. As I answered his questions and conversed with him I noticed that many Chinese people were whispering around us and snapping pictures of the interaction. His mother eventually approached and said something to her son, he looked at me and asked if they could take a picture with me. I said yes and his father posed us in the acceptable way and began to snap photos. As he was doing this I noticed other  people inching closer, cameras at the ready.

As the boys family began to hustle other family members over to get their pictures other people began to approach me and ask in broken English and through gestures if they too could get their photographs taken. For approximately 20 minutes I assented and allowed all of the people to turn me into a minor celebrity there in Tiananmen Square. Grace looked on with a bemused look on her face. Once the pictures were taken and thanks were said we continued on toward the Forbidden City.

Once in the walls we approached and attempted to purchase a entrance ticket…the admissions office had closed and were no longer selling tickets. I will never know if my 20 minutes cost us a visit to a wonderful site that day, instead I look back with bemusement as I had been a carnival attraction for a short while to a teaming throng of Chinese looking to get proof that the elusive foreigner had been seen in the wild. My photo was to be the trophy held up to friends and family on various social media sites and possibly even in photo albums…I am the Great White Buffalo.