Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Following a dream - from Siberia to the Mongolian capital
I'd like to introduce you to minus-35 degree weather. Yes, minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Here in the Mongolian north, up near the Siberian border, a festival takes place, during the dead of one of the world's coldest winters. But I'm not here to tell you about the weather, or even about festivals. I'm here to tell you the story of a most unusual dream, concocted by a very determined little girl and her equally determined parents.
But before I do, I'd like to show you how the Mongolians celebrate winter. Correction: it's actually how the Mongolians celebrate spring! The annual Khatgal Ice Festival, held on top of Central Asia's deepest and mostly frozen lake, is actually a party celebrating the coming of warmer weather. At minus 35, it certainly couldn't get much colder, could it?
So, sit back, relax in the warmth of your plus-35 degree winter, and watch me as I race with nomads on jingle bell sleds on top of the iced Lake Khovsgol! And stay tuned for a story that you won't want to miss about a little girl from this Siberian region of Mongolia, her family's herd of reindeer, and the circus!
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Following a dream - from Azerbaijan to New York
A crowd of onlookers had gathered around Mischa, and they were gasping. For a street artist, this is, of course, a really good thing. More patrons, more sales. More gasping patrons, many more sales.
Four years earlier, Mischa had moved from Azerbaijan to New York by way of Moscow. He had a scholarship to study here, but it wasn't just education he was seeking. Mischa already had a Master's degree. He'd even been a well-regarded graffiti artist.
At first, Mischa wanted to learn English. His scholarship paid for school, but when it ended, he needed to find another way to make ends meet. Graffiti doesn't exactly pay the bills, so Mischa considered other ways to create art. One thing led to another, and he discovered an unusual painting technique on Youtube. So, he taught himself the method, and began working the streets.
Donning a gas mask, Mischa uses an assortment of spray paint, blades, old newspaper, and heavy metal discs to carve skylines into canvas. Deft curves for the Brooklyn bridge, sharp edges for skyscrapers, and a speckled night sky. And if that hadn't been enough to wow those of us gathered around him, Mischa completed each painting in just ten minutes and charged only ten dollars for a freshly minted piece. All this while he took requests from customers, and questions from me.
"Do you love it?" I asked him, expecting an obvious answer.
"No," he said. "This is not my dream."
"Then what is?" I said, dumbfounded by this surprisingly unhappy marriage of talent and passion.
"I love to paint," Mischa said. "I love it. I love doing this. But not on the streets. I want to paint somewhere, art, for someone."
Watch the video above to see Mischa paint the Manhattan skyline. A customer in the crowd had asked him to include the twin towers, and he did just that. For now, before Mischa makes the leap from street artist to artist's loft, find him on 48th and 7th Avenue in Times Square, where he works daily.
Monday, October 17, 2011
Following a dream - from Detroit to Mexico
"Get your fresh donuts here! Pineapple, strawberry, and caramel! Better than Krispy Kreme!"
Until he claimed his donuts were better than Krispy Kreme's, I'd been ignoring him. After all, I was reclining on the secluded Mexican beach town of Sayulita, a half hour or so from Puerto Vallarta. Sayulita is famous for its waves and its assortment of fresh fruit juice drinks, certainly not its donuts. Not quite anyway.
"Best donuts in the world!" the donut seller called out, and I was curious enough to be sold.
"Why are you here?" I asked Santiago the Donut Seller, as he offered me a homemade pastry filled with Mexican caramel and dusted with cane sugar. He had an American accent. Specifically, he had a Midwestern accent, and I was intrigued. Why on earth was a young Midwestern man selling cheap beach donuts in an off-the-beaten path Mexican surf town?
Three years ago, at 23, Santiago moved from Detroit to Mexico City. "I looked around me in Detroit," he explained. "And I realized that all my friends were dead." So, he decided to move to Mexico. At first, he worked in construction in the capital. But things weren't going well, and one day someone suggested to him to try out the small town of Sayulita. He packed up, and headed for surfer's paradise, met a woman, got married, and cooked up their own plan to make ends meet, trying to figure out how they could both work together to fulfill their dreams. One brainstorm led to another, and finally they decided on...donuts.
Skeptically, I sampled his wares. My skepticism didn't last for long. The caramel donut was hot to the touch, fresh from his missus' oven, and the cateja, the Mexican caramel, was buttery and rich. Santiago was right. His donuts were better than Krispy Kreme's, and I pointed this out right away to him.
"Look around you!" he cried gleefully as I munched. "This," he said, pointing incredulously at the beach around us, as if he were seeing it all for the first time, every single day."This is my office!"
Maybe the best part about Santiago's story is that he is so completely in love with his new life that he doesn't even bother to reconnect to the rest of the world. I'd offered to tweet about him, and he shook his head, "I'm not on Twitter." What about email, I asked. "Nope," he said. "But I really gotta get me one of those accounts one day." So, if you or someone you love likes a good donut as much as I do, you'll have to travel to a secluded Mexican surfing town to get it. Look for the donut seller, and listen for his big, bold claim that his donuts are the world's best. He isn't wrong.
Thursday, October 06, 2011
Do the Bankers Secretly Agree with the Protesters?
"They have a point." the banker said to me, under his breath, when I asked him what he thought of the protests.
Yesterday, I went back to Wall Street. I wanted to see what the Occupy Wall Street movement was all about. Does it have any teeth, any cohesion? Do the masses have a message? So far, what I'd gleaned from every media report I'd read and watched was that the protesters were dogged in their determination, but that they didn't seem to have a clue what it was they were determined about. So, I set out to see for myself.
I worked as a Wall Street banker for about ten years. I loved it, I hated it, but mostly I took my paychecks and ignored for a long time what I really wanted to do with my life. And so I can tell you one thing about this Occupy Wall Street movement - the government would be doing Wall Street bankers a massive favor by enacting regulation.
Yes, I said regulation would be a favor to the bankers. In fact, I said 'massive favor'. Why? Because in all my years on Wall Street and off Wall Street, I have not met one single banker, not one, who did not harbor a dream to do something else with his or her life. Sure, they get a kick out of what they do. How could they not? They're getting paid a lot of money to play mental sport in an adrenaline-induced environment. Every single day is a challenge; every single day is a battle to be 'winning', to outsmart the opponent.
But that's just the point - these minds, these Wall Street minds, they are brilliant. Just look at the creation of complex derivatives and options pricing models, the debut of black box strategies and macro hedge funds. Every day, all day, bankers are putting to use the very best of this country's mental gunpowder to increase alpha. Which is to say, some of the very best intellect is being wasted on devising ways to make more money.
There's the salesman who wants to work in non-profit, the analyst who wants to teach, the trader who has an uncanny gift for golf, the middle office manager who wants to study fashion design, the director who wants to open his own restaurant, the global sales manager with a stunningly beautiful operatic voice and a gift for dissecting Japanese politics. And what are they doing? They're working in Wall Street banks, making money. Simply having a dream doesn't mean actually living it.
But what is it that the protesters and the government have to do with all this?
Well, Wall Street is actually on their side. Only secretly, and certainly not entirely. The demands to "Eat bankers", "Forgive all debt", and "Sack Goldman" are not constructive, and are rightly viewed with dismissive scorn. But what about calls for accountability, for performance-based pay packages, and for an end to tax loopholes that hedge fund managers agree are excessive even as they take advantage of them? Tap into that, protesters, and you're onto something. You're onto something that your opponent wants too.
A few years ago, I made the difficult decision to leave Wall Street. I didn't do so without doubting myself. But I had a dream, and I wanted to follow it to Mongolia. So that's what I did. But I'd be lying to you if I told you I never looked back. Of course I looked back. After all, it was a pile of money I was leaving behind. And that is precisely the point.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
"If the only way you can follow your dream to paint is to paint your trashcan and put it on display outside your house, then paint your trashcan and put it on display," Gary Russo said after he finished belting out a dream of his own. A construction worker assigned to the 2nd Avenue subway project in New York City, Gary went to school for acting, but left "to get a real job."
Decades later, in his fifties, he's finally getting a chance to follow that old dream to be onstage. And better still, this time the world is watching. Nearly a million people have viewed the original Youtube video posted last week by blogger "fish31171". Today, camera crews from Germany and Tokyo have come to hear Gary croon Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
But that's not why Gary sings. Gary sings for New York and New Yorkers. "I'm here for you," he says after finishing 'Mack the Knife', tears welling in his eyes. "I'm here for this. For this city. I'm local. Thank you, all of you." And then, because we're all getting emotional over this humble, talented man and what he's all about, Gary quickly jokes, "You know, I'm the Justin Bieber of fifty-year-olds."
And then he surprised all of us. Asked by veteran news reporter Magee Hickey, who'd accompanied me to hear Gary sing, if Gary had an agent, he explained that he's "not here for that. I have a construction job to do, and I'm doing it. I just love to give back to New York."
Press play on the video above - and make sure you listen to Gary's advice for all of us - advice that he took, long ago, from his own father. Gary will leave you wondering - what is it you can do to follow your own dream?
Saturday, April 16, 2011
"Bak Kut Teh": Photos of Singapore's Cinnamon Pork Tea
Considering how good that meal in Singapore was, I've posted a few more photos. From the top, a top-down view of the best that Heng Heng has to offer. Followed by a close-up of the pork "tea". Remember that's the pork dish that's made with cloves, garlic, cinnamon, and a herbal treatment for gynecological ailments (yes, you did read that right). The third snapshot is the hot sauce. Let me tell you - it was hot. Fiery red chilies in a sticky sweet soy. Finally, the last photo is of the boss, stirring the pot of the rich cinnamon-pork sauce.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
So Much Sauce, So Little Time: Singapore Cinnamon Pork "Tea"
In Singapore, cinnamon slapped me in the face. That's right, cinnamon. Not usually an aggressive spice, at least not one that tends to slap anyone in the face like, say, the loathsome dill, cinnamon is usually just so...pedestrian. But not in Singapore.
"Heng Heng," the man with the Ferrari said. Either he was wishing me good luck in Hokkien, or, or, this man whose name I can't disclose was giving me what was about to be one of the best locals-only restaurant recommendations I've ever gotten. As it would turn out, he was giving me one of the best locals-only restaurant recommendations I've ever gotten.
"Bak Kut Teh" is translated as a "pork rib tea". Now, I'm guessing that makes about as much sense to you as it did to me before I'd actually sampled it. Probably called a "tea" due to the myriad of herbs in the broth, Bak Kut Teh has everything from cloves and garlic to something called Chinese angelica, which is apparently a medicine for gynecological problems (don't ask; I didn't). And, of course, cinnamon. Judging by the smell of the restaurant, a lot of cinnamon.
Now about this restaurant, "Heng Heng". It's, frankly speaking, a dive. You know, plastic chairs, formica tables, no air-conditioning, and cook staff that also work as waitstaff. But, and here's what's intriguing, its parking lot is full of Ferraris. And Lamborghinis. And Porsches. Why the dichotomy, you ask? Well, watch the video to find out.
Monday, April 04, 2011
The Famed Singapore "Fish Pedicure"
I hate getting pedicures. I hate the snipping, the digging, and most of all, I hate the scraping performed by some underpaid and overworked immigrant aesthetician. Nothing at all about it seems right to me, save for the luster of chip-free toenail color that lasts for weeks on end. So imagine my sheer delight when I got a chance to have a pedicure performed by not just one underpaid aesthetician, but hundreds of un-paid aestheticians!
They're called "doctor fish" and they come to the party hungry. Starved, in fact, so that they're more productive when you arrive. Doctor fish live on dead skin - I'll pause here while you get sick - and when put in an aquarium with you and your feet, they make a meal of it, nibbling on anything from burst blisters to psoriasis. At Kenko Spa in Singapore, where I, um, "enjoyed" my first and last fish pedicure, I dipped my feet into three different aquariums: the first for little fish, the second for medium-sized fish, and the last for killer whales. If I thought I hated the feeling of scraping that comes with a normal pedicure, I could've hardly imagined the feeling of, literally, dozens and dozens of tiny sharp fish teeth gnawing and chewing on my toes, ankles, and legs. Unfortunately, they didn't bother to paint afterward, and I was left with the same chipped polish (Nars's Tango) as I had when I'd arrived.
Enjoy the video, and do pardon my swearing.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
"Jackie" Kerouac's Unplanned Plan
"Where your husband?"
"Where your children?"
"You want taxi ride, pretty lady?" Although I was flattered by the offers, I didn't want a ride. Of any kind.
Traveling alone as a woman can be a real pain in the ass. If opportunistic men aren't pestering you, the mosquitoes are. And those mosquitoes don't take no for an answer. Neither do infected unmentionables, which usually show up after a few days of peeing while squatting roadside or worse, peeing while squatting roadside after you've run out of toilet paper.
Of course, this wasn't at all the case with my accommodations in Bali, where I faced a different kind of problem, one of my own making. Before embarking upon my trip, I'd decided that, for the first time since my twenties, I'd be a "real" backpacker, the kind that just shows up to a place with a dog-eared copy of something Kerouac, and walks into the nearest hostel to rest for the night. Of course, that's best done when you've snuck a glance at hostels.com to find that there is actually some availability for the dates you're traveling.
Late one evening, after a long drive, I arrived in the Kuta region of Bali, which should have been completely fine for my unplanned plan, considering Kuta is about the most developed, backpacker-friendly beach town on the entire island. I had one goal in mind: to stay somewhere a little bit terrible, the kind of place that offered no hedonistic distractions of any kind. As it would turn out, I shouldn't have been so choosy. Absolutely everything was booked. I had two options: stay in an empty old mansion which was going for $45 a night, or soldier on. If you're a woman traveler, you know you don't dare stay anywhere empty, even if it's a mansion, and especially if it's suspiciously cheap.
So I soldiered on, slightly ashamed of my idealistic and entirely self-inflicted temporary homelessness. After all, it was late, dark, and I was alone (save for the friendly offers of company from men I passed on the streets). A chance encounter at an inn offering the unique chance for "home stay" was exactly what I thought I was looking for. After all, how often do you get a glimpse into the life of true local by staying in his house? But my intrigue was quickly tempered with the sudden realization that I was surrounded by men, quite a few of them. There were no women - anywhere. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but I didn't stick around to find out.
Finally, I found the little-bit-terrible I'd been looking for. For $32 a night, I shared an otherwise perfectly decent, albeit somewhat moldy, room with a dozen or so mosquitoes. Noting their presence as I unpacked, I made sure to liberally cover myself in bug repellent. Which leads me to the explanation for the above photo. Although I'd liberally covered my body in bug repellent, I hadn't thought to cover my face. The next morning, I could only squint in the mirror to peer at the swollen welts around my eyes. It was no wonder that the mosquitoes had gone by then; they were full and happy, enjoying something of a post-coital nap on my dime. And as luck would have it, it wasn't just the mosquitoes that left me alone...
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Indonesia's very complicated "basic" sauce
"Do they have rice fields in New York City?" Wayan asked me, apparently serious.
"Yup," I said, apparently serious.
Wayan and his wife Puspa had invited me and a few other paying guests to their home for a lesson in Balinese cooking. But before we began, we'd have to start with where it all came from. Which was pretty much right outside their front door. Wayan and Puspa live in Laplapan, a quaint little village near Ubud, Bali. Each village family owns a plot of rice, and they're allotted plot sizes based on nothing more complicated than their ability to keep up with supply. Much of the rice is farmed using organic fertilizer, which Wayan made a point of proudly mentioning. But neither one of us wants to waste our time talking shop about rice, now do we?
"We'll start with Indonesian basic sauce," Puspa announced (pictured above), after Wayan had shown us around town and then to his outdoor kitchen. More than understanding where the rice came from, understanding the preparation for "basic sauce" is crucial to learning how to cook like a true Indonesian, because this sauce is the backbone for some of the most delicious delicious in our galaxy, and the starting point for a lot of local Balinese cuisine.
What's interesting about basic sauce is that there is absolutely nothing basic about basic sauce. Anything that involves pounding nineteen very specific ingredients with mortar and pestle is exactly the opposite of basic. For example, the recipe calls for four candle nuts and two salam leaves, which can be, but probably shouldn't be, substituted with macadamia nuts and bay leaves. And then there's the distinction between "galangal" and "lesser galangal", both of which needed to be added to the mix in thumb-sized proportions and eventually sauteed for precisely seven minutes on very low heat.
Wait, I know what you're thinking, and you're thinking you'd much rather see some pictures of the feast Puspa helped us create, rather than write us both into a hungry stupor. In all, we made eight different dishes - from clear mushroom soup (something like a tom yam) to coconut curried chicken, steamed fish in banana leaves, vegetables in homemade peanut sauce, coconut and snake bean salad, deep fried tempeh, and a dessert of boiled banana and jackfruit in palm sugar syrup. That meal was three days ago, and I'm still not hungry. So, without further adieu, the photos are as follows (and excuse the formatting; Blogger is not your friend when posting multiple photos).
Top left: making "basic sauce", or bumbu kuning
Top right: kuah wong, or clear mushroom and vegetable soup
Middle left: sauteed bananas and jackfruit, something like bananas foster
Middle right: Wayan in front of his outdoor cooking stove
Bottom: Puspa and just a few of her many ingredients
As for how to get in touch with Wayan and Puspa, which I very highly recommend if you're traveling to the paradise that is Bali and think that you might be hungry at some point while you're there - you can reach them on their website at www.paon-bali.com.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Here comes the bride!
Out on the prowl for things to do in and around Ubud, we stopped by a wedding. As you do, right? And as it happens (of course it doesn't), the wedding party invited us right in, and offered us cake. Well, sort of.
The "sort-of" part of the story is where truth meets wishful thinking, and the truth was that we were invited in, but not for long. We did have cake, but were escorted right out once the mother of the bride noticed her daughter arriving (pictured top). For the life of me, I can't figure out why were invited in in the first place, but I'm thrilled to have had the chance to see a local wedding, and to encourage absolutely everyone on the planet to adopt the Balinese tradition of eating cake first (pictured bottom). I mean, seriously, Let us eat cake already; why wait?
Now about that cake, which is really a form of glutinous rice: It's made from rice flower mixed with pandan leaf until it turns an olive green color, rolled into bite-sized balls covered in shredded coconut. And, there's a secret ingredient (in good food, there always is). The secret? A center of liquid palm sugar. If you remember "Chewels" liquid-center gum from back when Boy George was cool, you'll know what I'm talking about. If not, get yourself on a flight to Bali and drop by a local wedding.
Photos by Lori Davidson
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Sampling poop coffee or "Kopi Luwak" in Bali
About 200 years ago, the Dutch were being dicks. In a nutshell, that pretty much sums up any colonialist period, don't you think? But in particular, these colonists really seemed to be bent on making the lives miserable of their local charges. For instance, at the coffee plantations, for which Indonesia was already becoming famous globally, the Dutch wouldn't allow the natives to use any of the berries to roast their own coffee. Now, in modern-day speak, I suspect we might refer to that as an own goal. Disallowing an unpaid employee from ingesting caffeine and thereby becoming more productive? Not exactly forward-thinking, guys...
Well anyway, one day, one of the locals noticed that the weasels who roamed the area were eating the coffee berries (without a word from the Dutch colonists, mind you) and then pooping them out, whole. What better use for defecated whole coffee berries than a latte, right? So, that's precisely what these enterprising baristas did: collected the poo berries, washed them, and gave them a light roast. Personally, considering the source, I'd have given them a very long, very dark roast indeed.
Now, before I get to the business of how this coffee tastes, I should note here that this pooping weasel is not technically a weasel, but an Asian Palm Civet. "Civet?" you ask, aghast. Yes, "Civet," I say, just as aghast. Because we all remember who nearly brought down the nascent Southeast Asian economic recovery back in 2000-ish with SARS, don't we? That's right, the civet cat. But back to the coffee and the Dutch, because this post-colonialist story has a nice ending, which is a little unusual when it comes to stories about post-colonialist eras.
Of course, it didn't go without notice that the local natives were drinking their own home brew, and naturally the Dutch wanted a piece of that pie. Discovering that the poop coffee was actually far more rich and complex in flavor than what they'd been producing for themselves, everyone knew the locals were onto something. Only problem was that poop comes in short supply, and it can't exactly be forced. So clearly production for this coffee was going to be small. Which made it very expensive. Eventually (and I'm really going to fast forward here, because we all know you're only reading to find out what poop coffee tastes like, not hear me try to parse the finer points of Dutch post-colonialism), the local natives kicked the Dutch out, and forced them, and the rest of us, to pay upwards of $600 a pound for their pooped-out coffee beans.
Come to think of it, isn't a picture worth a thousand words? Watch the video above of me drinking many, many cups of gender-specific poop coffee. Yes, this coffee comes in male and female.
Video by Lori Davidson
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Poop coffee, metaphysics, and clove fires
Bali is a sensory explosion - all five of them. If you were blind, gagged, deaf, and wheelchair-bound, you'd still know the moment you stepped out of the airport (or were wheeled out) that you were here. Because, right away, you inhale Bali. Mix clove cigarettes, teakwood timber, and the dense wet of tropical vegetation, and then light them all on fire. The result is a heavy, smoky musk, and it defines the place. I can't believe that Dolly Parton hasn't already been out here to bottle what is obviously meant to be her namesake's scent: "Bolly".
And then there's the taxi ride from the airport. While you're remarking to yourself on the fact that every single facade, doorway, lamppost, shutter, and rooftop is carved in the most intricate, delicate pattern, usually found elsewhere in the world only in museums, you're taxi companion is talking about the metaphysics of following one's dreams in life. Of course, that sort of thing was always going to happen, and this time his name was Michel. In his fifties and hailing from Pune, India, where he'd just completed a course on, really, what I just said - the metaphysics of following your dreams, Michel's next stop was motorcycling through the Himalayas via the Indian border. You know, it's people like him that make the rest of us who supposedly "backpack" look sad and small and so-not-adventurous-at-all.
The next morning, this morning, I woke at dawn to the shrill bleating of my iPhone. Grumbling with some annoyance that I'd not only left the ringer on, but turned it into a cloying duckish birdsong, I realized that I hadn't done anything of the kind. The cacophony was coming not from my phone, but outside my window, where a cloying, duckish bird was performing his morning ablutions, and a crew of roosters had begun to crow with a severity that suggested they were about to be executed for lunch purposes.
"Forget about the five senses!" I hear you saying, shivering in your frigid, snowing-in-March, non-tropical dwelling somewhere in the northern hemisphere. "Tell us what you're doing today!" Why, thank you, I will. Actually, I was getting to that, via the five senses. But I see you're getting impatient, so I'll cut to the chase.
Today, I will be tasting poop. It comes in a cup, after it comes out of a feral cat's bottom, and here they call it coffee. More precisely, "kopi lumak", or "coffee lumak". Named for the animal that defecates it, this particular brew is one of the most expensive in the world. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why, although I'm looking forward to finding out.
Photo by the esteemed Lori Davidson: Typical Balinese stone and wood carvings
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Back to Asia...with a vigorous uvula!
I need to divulge something that at first may seem like superfluous information, but in the context of this tale, is not at all. In fact, without telling you that I sat in the lap of luxury for my trip back to Asia, none of this makes any sense. So, there it is: I flew to Bali in Business Class.
It's been a long time since I flew Business Class. In fact, the last time that I did was right before I quite my banking job. Back then, as I sat in my armchair on a flight to wherever, a stack of unread FX research in front of me, and a long list of unanswered Blackberry emails, I thought: "This is what I'll be giving up if I give up my job." So I gave up my job.
Years on, it was with Christmas morning excitement that I boarded a Business Class flight. Not just any flight, but a twenty-six hour flight. Not just any twenty-six hour flight, but a twenty-six hour flight to Bali, Indonesia. In fact, I was so eager to board that plane that I was the first to do so, right in front of people leaning on canes and in wheelchairs. That, of course, was unintentional. I was simply giddy.
But I digress. The reason for telling you all this is that I had a lot of space in my seat. So much space that I could pick my nose and brush my teeth if I wanted to, without anyone noticing. I mean, I had actual walls around my flat-bed! In fact, I could've picked and brushed at the same time. But I'm not admitting to anything.
Anyway, and the reason for this long-winded little note: the guy two seats away from me (which was quite a distance!) provided an extended soundtrack to my flight. Click the link on the video to listen in. Excuse my sipping port in the middle of the shot - I kinda had to.