The Secrets of the Stones

There are 64 Graves –some of them inscribed in Hebrew. They are the only evidence of a small community of Jewish people who lived in South Armenia in the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, Armenia is 98% homogenous.

Apart from the ethnic Armenians, there are small communities of Yazidis–often working as shepherds and herders– and of Malakhans –often red-haired, and unfailingly peaceable and modest– who are ethnically Russian, and who are usually found in the North of Armenia. Since the 1400s there have been no Jews.

All that remains of the Vayots Dzor Jewish community is this small graveyard. There is no history of where these people came from, or what happened to them. It probably wasn’t good.

The graveyard was excavated only a few years ago. Then, some of the stones were are used to form the base of a bridge. Luckily, someone quickly recognized the rarity of what they had found. The graves were not looted or further tampered with. Jewish communities from other parts of the world were told of the discovery. Some clubbed together to build steps from the river up to the graveyard, near the village of Yeghegis. There is now a wall and a gate with a blue Star of David.

The anniversary of the discovery of the graveyard is in a couple of days. Then, there will probably be many people visiting from all over the world to honor the long dead. Today there was no one. We walked among the graves– full length and piteously short –and listened to the water, and the birds, and smelled the wild garlic.

Previous visitors, almost certainly Jewish, had placed stones in neat lines on top of many of the graves. I am not sure why. Perhaps you know?

The Jewish cemetery of Yeghegis is only one of the mysteries of Armenia. Around every corner there are more rocks and stones and carvings with secrets they will not tell. On the way to Vayots Dzor we stopped to visit Armenia’s Stonehenge. I love it there and try to visit every season. The situation is glorious, and I am hooked on the ancient intrigue. The settlement is believed to be at least 7000 years old, meaning it predates the standing stones in the south of England by a millennium or two. Many of the stones have perfect circles somehow cut in an age before Precision tools. No one knows how or why. Clearly, there are graves and the remains of ancient dwellings. Locals and international experts bicker about whether the surrounding stones are evidence of an observatory, or were placed to make a wall for defense. It’s impossible to say.

As more and more tourists come to visit Armenia, the mysteries and ongoing discoveries only add to the fun.

Posted in Archaeology, Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, History, identity, Jewish, Jews in Armenia, Judaism, Karahunj, Syunik Marz, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Vayots Dzor, Yeghegis | 3 Comments

I get by…

Ara came the whole way to Yerevan to pick me up and drive me smoothly back to Goris. I was so glad to see him, I nearly wept. He opened the passenger door and once he got in his own seat, helped me with my seatbelt. I couldn’t manage it with my broken right wrist in a sling. His concern as he maneuvered around the potholes on the five-hour drive south was very touching. When we arrived in the city, he stopped off at his mother-in-law’s in order to pick up some fresh cooked beans and other bits and pieces, so I wouldn’t have to try to cook.

He needn’t have worried on that score. When I arrived back at my spotlessly clean apartment, there was a bunch of fresh-picked daffodils on the table and Aleta and Haykush were waiting to welcome home the invalid.

“Come upstairs” said Aleta, taking me firmly by my one good arm “Haykush will make you zhingalov hats”

They know the homemade flatbread stuffed with fresh herbs is one of my favorite snacks. Later I got into my own bed made up with clean sheets and felt very glad to be home.

My sister had offered to fly from England to help me manage. “I’ll be fine” I’d said, without really realizing how difficult life without my dominant hand would be.

I slept in my clothes, as I had done for the previous couple of days. The next morning I managed to wriggle off my leggings and underwear and to find replacements. It turns out though,that my girth is such that my left hand will not reach to my right hip. Try as I might, I couldn’t pull up my nether garments to what passes for my waist. Aleta to the rescue when she brought me the first of many cups of coffee, always served with a piece of chocolate or two.

Peace Corps volunteers rallied too. Ashlin and Bianca brought wine and wielded the corkscrew. They made huge batches of soup and salads I could eat for days. They provided cheering company.

Work was piling up. This is our busiest time of year, preparing for the finals of the National Poetry Recitation Contest. Kristine and Davit, who are overworked at the best of times, very graciously said they would manage my workload. They both sounded unfailingly upbeat and adult about it, but I knew it had to be a pain. Besides, I am not very good at letting things go. I found myself getting twitchy and anxious. If my mental health was not to go the way of my physical prowess, I would have to get back to work. I discovered the little microphone symbol beside the space bar on my phone keyboard and began to use voice dictation. It is how I am writing this post. I love artificial intelligence. I just wish it was more intelligent. It’s good – but it can’t understand either Northern Irish vowel sounds, or Armenian names. Let’s just say it works better for other people than it ever will for me. Slowly, I made corrections with the thumb of my left hand. Often I had to delete cursewords yelled in frustration and faithfully reproduced. After fewer than a dozen emails composed in about half a day I was exhausted. I thought apologetically of my friend Richard who suffered a stroke in his 20s and lost the use of his right hand. I realized I had never been quite sympathetic enough about the trials and frustrations he faced. Sorry Richard. I get it now.

I had a school to visit. A bra seemed a necessity for the first time in just under three weeks. Perhaps I should also attempt a shower? Aleta was on hand with a towel and did Yeoman’s work manhandling my damp mammaries into sturdy foundation wear. Our Armenian hosts baby their American volunteers all the time, but washing, drying and dressing us is surely outside the scope of work. Aleta bore it bravely.

Worse was to follow. If there is anything more incapacitated than an unfit adult with a broken arm, then it is an unfit adult with a broken arm and a serious gastrointestinal complaint. Among the things Aleta has been forced to clean in the past few days include clothes, bedding, the bathroom and me. I have decided that the only thing to do is consider this humiliation as practice for being old. I also doubt if I will ever be troubled with shame again. Thank God for Aleta and her no-nonsense good cheer.

Fully dressed and upright for the first time in weeks

Zhingalov Hats and flowers from the garden

Easter lunch with Aleta and Ashlin

Posted in accident, Armenia, Blessings, bras, broken wrist, clothes, Cross-cultural understanding, Easter, Embarrassment, family, Food, friendship, Goris, havjng a bad day, health and safety, injury, Jingalov hats, kindness, life lessons, personal failings, resilience, shame, Sickness, Social niceties, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Underwear, You Tube | 9 Comments

The Two-Soup Day

Yesterday was a two-soup sort of day. Snow on the ground, frost in the trees, and a bone-chilling fog which hung around damply.

The first bowl of soup was offered upstairs–part of my family’s desperate mission to expose me to every  Armenian culinary delight before I go back to the land of burgers and Twinkies.

Tan soup is a bowl of hot buttermilk to which is added a mix of chopped herbs, and finely chopped shallots fried in butter. Raw garlic, not so finely chopped, is sprinkled on top, together with square inches of dried lavash. It is eaten at breakfast time and is homey and satisfying without having the heaviness of khashil. I heartily recommend it for days when you plan to stay home breathing only under a blanket.

After the soup, I spent some time with 14 year old Natali who will perform in the National Poetry Recitation Contest in a couple of weeks’ time. Natali is reciting the lyrics of a modern Irish folk classic which has some resonance here–young men in Armenia must join the army after school and dying for their country is presented as a noble sacrifice.

Please help me through the door

Though instinct tells you no.


We were practicing the English th sound , which is difficult for most Armenians. Unfortunately for Nata, saying th requires the speaker to blow out softly while relaxing the tip of the tongue just below the front teeth. Nata recoiled in horror from the garlic stench as I ran thoroughly through the thoughs and thous, and shared my thoughts throughout.

I spent the rest of the morning brushing my teeth. Then I picked up an odd number of flowers (even numbers are unlucky) from our local florist (the poor woman was exhausted after a week featuring the days of both St Valentine and St Sarkis, the international and homegrown patrons of passion) a gift for the second soup-maker of the day.

Rita is my work friend Anna’s mum. Rita and I could be sisters and despite our language differences we recognize each other as kindred spirits. I was thrilled to get an invitation to spend the afternoon with her at home.

Anna was raised in a village about 20 minutes from Goris. Samson, another work colleague, drove us there, with Anna’s ten-year old daughter Mariam in tow. I noticed that despite the freezing fog Samson rolled his window down a little. I wished I had some chewing gum.

Rita lives with her husband, her mother in law, her son, his wife and their two kids, both under ten. The age span in the house runs from 7 to 79 and she is in the middle.

Roma, Rita’s son has actually only just moved back in. For most of his children’s lives he was working in Russia as a mechanic, sending home money every week to feed his family. Now, daring to hope that fortunes may change in Armenia, he and his dad have bought a plot of land, built a garage,and dug a mechanic’s pit. They did all this work themselves, so they have reason to be proud of it. We drove through the frozen mud to visit the garage ,and see Roma at work on a car for one of his first local customers. He didn’t have time to join us for lunch.

Lunch at Rita’s reminded me of similar meals at my Gran’s when I was a child. Giant amounts of comfort food, proper china and everyone around the table talking at once. Rita always make Anna her favorite soup when she visits. This was a tomato-based broth made with wild sorrel (aveluk) and dried plums. Lentils and potato gave it body, and the taste was both bitter and sweet. I liked it, but not as much as Anna did. There were two chickens, roast potatoes, green beans with egg, a beet and red bean salad, a pepper salad Anna had brought, cheese, bread, lavash and probably some other items I missed. We drank juice made from homegrown raspberries and toasted each other with cognac.

The kids had left the table by the time the cake, popcorn, chocolate, dates and fresh fruit were served. We had coffee at the table and then tea by the fire. Rita picked a lemon from the tree in the corner of the living room and sliced it to add to the black brew

Anna and one of her 2 sisters lay against each other on the sofa and bickered with their dad. It could have been my own family, except Anna and Meline are thin with enviably long legs.

A neighbor– everyone said she was crazy– pottered by to sit by the stove with Anna’s gran. The cousins– four of them by now–showed off their English to me, and practiced karate moves before disappearing into another corner of the house. Ruzan, Roma’s wife washed the dishes.

“Do you want nuts?” said Rita after we took some photos “biscuits?”

When I said I might never eat again Rita tasked and went off to prepare a to-go bag for me and Anna.

“Come back” said Rita. But that was before the garlicky good-bye kissing. I hope I see her again soon.

Posted in Armenia, Armenian food, aveluk, breakfast, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, family, Food, friendship, Garlic, Goris, gratitude, Great weekends, Local delicacies, National Poetry Recitation Contest, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Village life, Winter | Leave a comment

On the way out

I would hate to believe that my friends in Armenia are marking the days until my departure, but with 3 and a 1/2 months to go, the countdown does seem to be underway. I am constantly being invited to try something, do something, eat something before my unique opportunity disappears forever when I leave the country in June.

On Saturday it was a cocktail of homemade vodka, Armenian Champagne and pomegranate seeds at Tava restaurant in Dilijan, tasted after an enjoyable day painting on silk at Buduart.

The day before it was Crossroads wine from Trinity Canyon Vineyards sampled at In Vino. The winery is experimenting with combination of Areni Noir– an Armenian varietal –and either Syrah or Cabernet, which they also grow. I particularly liked the Syrah, but of course nothing compares to my beloved 6100.

Today my family invited me upstairs for a bowl of Khashil, a winter porridge made by boiling rough wheat grains. To this mix was added shallots fried in butter– lots of butter. These should still be bubbling hot when they are poured into a well in the middle of the bowl of brown mush. Then cool things down a little by ladling tan ( half water, half yogurt) on top.

It didn’t look instgrammable, but I promise you it was absolutely delicious. Winter comfort food. The stodge of the porridge. The sweetness of the purple shallots in their golden grease, and the refreshing cool of the buttermilk. We ate slices of Granny Smith apple afterwards. I highly recommend the mix.

My family are working up to kchuch– a lamb stew cooked in a clay pot. I had never heard of kchuch until the weekend. The cocktail people use the clay pots too.

I am cramming now. I have only a few weeks left in my immersion course in all things Armenian.

Posted in Armenia, art, cocktails, Cooking, craft activities, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, eating out, Education, Food, gratitude, Great weekends, Khashil, Local delicacies, Moonshine, textiles, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Village life, Vodka, welcome, Yogurt | 2 Comments

Looming Large

You’ll see it as soon as you walk down the stairs in Yerevan’s Silk Road Hotel. I fell for it straight away, for this antique carpet features the blue and rust colors I love to see together.

The carpet is only one of a collection displayed at the hotel. Tatev gave me a tour and explained the history of some of the designs and symbols. Tatev loves textiles and is a very knowledgeable guide. Pride in Armenian wool and silk craft shines from her.

The hotel is home to the Folk Arts Hub Foundation. This Foundation invites members of the diaspora to “Adopt A Loom” — paying for the apparatus and supplies that can be used to teach today’s Armenians the skills of their ancestors. Adopting a loom costs just $500 and includes a fee for a teacher to instruct would-be weavers. The Foundation now has women weaving in 17 villages all over Armenia. Soon someone somewhere will be working on a carpet for me.

Tatev’s team draw patterns based on the antique carpets in their collection. They arrange for wool from Armenian sheep to be dyed to the old color specifications. This makes it possible for someone like me to have an exact copy of a favorite carpet, and customize it to include a name, date, icon or something important to the buyer.

I will know who made my carpet and where. Once the order is underway I can go to watch it being made.

Is it expensive? Well I have paid at least as much to Macy’s for a mass-produced carpet the same size but provenance unknown.

The weavers also produce their own contemporary designs. Some were on sale at the hotel. I fell in love with a modern hall runner and bought it on the spot. Tatev is keeping it for me until I know where I want both carpets shipped. The carpets are magical but they don’t appear to fly.

Buying these souvenirs of my two years in Armenia feels good. The weavers earn money for their work. I will know the long and short term history of my design and carpet, and I will have no anxiety about its age or authenticity.

More in this thread (ha) as the rug begins to take shape.

Tatev treated me to compote, tea and the hotel’s take on baklava as we talked about textiles. The baklava involved dates and walnuts wrapped in crisped lavash and shaken with powdered sugar. I began to wish I could stay for dinner, or book in for the night.

I asked to have the letters NPRC in Armenian stitched into my carpet, and the years 2017-2019. Tatev asked me why. When I explained about the National Poetry Recitation Contest she immediately offered me some small coasters and mats as prizes. There is no letter C in Armenian so I have to decide if this should be a K or an S before my loomswoman gets that far. I have a couple of months yet…

Posted in Armenia, Armenian art, armenian carpet, art, artsakh carpet, buting handmade carpets, craft activities, Cross-cultural understanding, shopping, textiles, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, Women, work | Leave a comment

Interred of Tegh

It was snowing but not hard. Tegh’s dirt roads had become mud baths because of the melting slush, but still we decided to drive to the village church on one side of the gorge.

Ara had never been to the church, even though Tegh is only a few miles from the village where he grew up.

“There was just no reason to come here” he said. “Tegh is not on the tourist trail, and the roads are not good. My wife’s father grew up here but I don’t know the village well”.

We stopped to ask a woman if the church was accessible by car.

“Be careful” she said “last week a car began to slide and ended up in the gorge”.

Like Khndzoresk, Ara’s village and one of Armenia’s most popular tourist sites, Tegh is surrounded by a lot of natural caves. Many of these are still used as stables or barns. They’re probably easier to hike to than the caves of Khndzoresk, but the countryside was completely deserted on this cold, bright day.

On the way to the church, we passed the men of the village enjoying a little warmth from the sun. We stopped at a graveyard quite unlike any I have seen in Armenia. Usually gravestones here are polished stone, etched with the likeness of the interred, or are Armenian tufa, brick-red and ornately carved with crosses. These tombstones, centuries old, were mostly the height of coffee tables and the size of travel trunks. They might have been granite. Many were carved with soldiers on horses, vases of flowers, and men carrying guns and swords. One more modern tomb featured an engraving of a pair of scissors. A seamstress’ resting place maybe?

We inched along the mud track. It was easy to see how someone had lost control and slithered over the edge. The car’s tires were caked in several inches of mud by the time we made it to the church.

There was someone else there, although he must have come on foot. Artak told us he had fought in the 1994 Nagorno Karabakh war and shared some horror stories about massacres and captures that took place on the slopes close to where we stood. He had been taken prisoner by the Azeris he said, and brought to Baku where he thought he’d be beheaded. Somehow he was spared. His friend had not been so lucky. Artak pointed to a memorial headstone he’d erected in memory of his friend. He’d had it made with money he’d earned living in Russia. He was thinking of going back to Russia. Nothing in this village for him now.

Artak wanted his picture taken with the American. They don’t see many outsiders in Tegh. It’s a pity. It’s worth seeing. You should go.

Posted in Apostolic church, Archaeology, Armenia, Armenian art, Church, Cross-cultural understanding, Great weekends, History, Nagorno-Karabakh, Tegh, travel, Village life, Villages of Syunik, war | 2 Comments

Just call for Superman

We’d been eyeing a table piled with box lunches, fresh fruit, and bunches of orchids and hoped this abundance was for us.

A mini-bus pulled up at the turning circle and disgorged a bundle of Buddhist monks who immediately began a prayer meeting for a group of young women who’d been waiting alongside us, just outside the hotel.

Once the chanting stopped, the women left bits and pieces of their own newly blessed, and rather meager looking, lunches at the hotel shrine, and then went on their way to work at roadside massage parlors, souvenir shops , and bars.

The monks had brought a two-handled plastic bucket with the capacity of a supermarket trolley. They loaded all the treats on the table into this, and then hopped back into the minibus and left.

We were waiting for our own transportation to the harbor. This turned out to be a much less commodious songthaew. Thank goodness many of the other passengers were Japanese and petite.

I was lucky to snag a seat– one of five people who did– in the front cabin, behind the driver. The girls were part of a crew of twenty-two in the back, in space intended to seat about 10.

“Don’t worry safe safe” said the driver to all of us squashed in the front as he negotiated sharp bends on impossible hills, while overtaking bare-chested old-man Brits on rented motorbikes, and being overtaken by polo-shirt and jeans-clad Thai boys on their own machines. These boys all had collar length, soft,black hair that fluffed behind them as they rode, making me long to stroke their necks. I had no desire for any contact with the wizened Brits at all.

“Welcome, Welcome I am Superman” said the blithe,lithe boy-man checking our tickets at the boat. ” Don’t worry ’bout a thing.. Every little thing gonna be all right. Superman got this”

All of this turned out to be true.

When it was time to snorkel, Superman and a very nice Thai Tourist (whose back will probably never be the same again) manhandled me over the edge of the boat and down the narrow-runged, deep-stepped ladder. They did the work of both my knees.

“Superman is strong. Superman will save you.”

I can swim, an enormous advantage of being nine-tenths hot air. Stephanie had no problem getting into the water, but she doesn’t swim. She wasn’t in any danger as, like the rest of us, she was wearing a life jacket. But she didn’t seem likely to be going very far.

“You look, I guide” said Superman. He gave each of us the end of a float to hold, and towed us for 45 minutes. Star and the other 50 passengers were left to their own deep-water devices.

Underwater was other- worldly. Huge sea cabbages. Black Sea urchins. Great grapey things like softening footballs that opened and shut their lipless mouths when Superman teased them with his fin. Coral, of course.

The fish were blue with black stripes, and yellow with black stripes, or lit in neon colors. Shoals of small fish flurries around us like willow leaves, but in Autumn colors. The water was warm as a bath, and beautifully clear.

With a boost from Superman, I got back on the boat without incident.

At our next stop, the boat unfurled a huge inflatable slide. Superman went down first, splashing a bucket of sudsy water to make the slide super-slippery. Steph and I declined to follow him, but Star did it, along with some fearless Japanese and Russian kids under ten, and the kind of young men who had been cannon-balling off the side of the boat all day.

At the third stop , a long floating jetty made of intersecting 4D jigsaw pieces, about three foot wide.

“Hold my hand and go in front of me” I said to Star because I can’t walk straight and maintain my balance even on non-swaying surfaces.

She obliged but Superman also took my other hand, dancing along beside me like a Sea Sprite, still singing Bob Marley songs.

“When you ready come back shout Superman three times. I come”

Star and I taught Steph how to float in the blue water of the secluded, sandy bay. There were hermit crabs on the beach. And, strangely, a baby deer which stretched under the shade of a picnic table and allowed itself to be licked by a kitten.

There was no need to call Clark Kent– Superman was there right as we got out of the water.

We ended our day stiff with sunburn, salt water , and unexpected amounts of exercise. It was a great feeling.

Thank-you Superman for saving a day that could have been disappointing, frustrating and humiliating. Practical empathy: that’s your real superpower

Our island-hopping tour left Bang Bao in the south of Koh Chang at 9am. Just go to the pier at the end of Bang Bao market and ask for Superman.

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Posted in bad knees, Beauty, Cross-cultural understanding, Embarrassment, gratitude, Koh Chang, personal failings, snorkeling, Superheroes, Thailand, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Vacation spots | 1 Comment

Spice Girls

img_9327Steph went off with Kang, a hoe, and some secateurs to find galangal root and kaffir lime leaves in the jungle. Star and I were wearing sandals unsuitable for scavenging in the rainforest, so we watched butterflies fluttering above the canopy, and listened to the birds around the banana trees.

Lemongrass, chilies and garlic came from the garden where Durian trees also grow. We were making green papaya salad.

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img_9338We began by taking a meat cleaver to papayas, inflicting a thousand cuts and then scraping off the shards into a bowl. We found it hard work, but our Thai hosts did it in seconds. The carrot was grated in a more ordinary way.

We made the dressing by first by adding dry peppercorns and cilantro seeds to the mortar and pounding them.Kang had suggested we peel about 15 cloves of garlic to do all three portions. The girls misunderstood and added 17 cloves to the mix for just one bowl. Oh well. Then fresh chili, plus coconut sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. Papaya, carrot, snapped green beans and some tomato quarters—all the salad ingredients were mixed in the mortar. On the plate we added some roasted peanuts and tiny dried shrimp and fish for crunch.

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The salad– my favorite– was zingy and spicy and refreshing but had been surprisingly labor intensive to make.

“But they must make great bowls of this in restaurants and just dole it out?” I said when Kang said the salad should always we eaten moments after it is made.

img_9350“Most Thai cooks can do it in 30 seconds” she laughed “they make each order fresh. You’ll be quicker the next time you do it”.

Then we made Prawn Penang. Into the mortar went pepper and cilantro seed, then cilantro root and lemongrass, followed by garlic and dried chilies. They took a lot of pestle pounding. A few shallots,some cumin, shrimp paste and a few dried shrimp mixed with the hard-to-gather fruit of the kaffir lime tree.

A kilo of shredded coconut meat was mixed with about a liter of warm water. We mixed and squeezed the cottony mess, and then strained the milk into a pan. Our own fresh-made coconut milk. We pounded some already roasted peanuts to a gritty powder in a separate mortar.

The curry paste was added to hot pans and mixed with a little of the coconut milk to make a terra-cotta colored goo. Then the shrimp and more coconut milk and some stirring. Then fish sauce and a little raw sugar. The peanuts. More boiling and stirring until the sauce thickened. Thin shards of lime leaf and whole cilantro leaves to garnish. We ate it with sticky rice steamed in a double boiler that involved a palm leaf basket set into the lip of a boiling pan. The lid of the pot went on top of the rice in the basket.

Time to make Tom Yam Gai. More chopping– chicken, galangal, lemongrass tomatoes. Lime leaves to tear. Cilantro too.

 

Into the pot went the galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves, and lots of coconut milk. Add the chicken to poach, and stir the mix a few times. Kang then put the soup in bowls and invited us to add our own fresh chilies, smashed with the side of a knife blade. The squeeze of two or three halves of lime. A tablespoon or two of fish sauce. A handful of chopped cilantro. The result was aromatic and comforting– the food of a healing God.

 

Steph and Star and I have different ideas on what makes a good holiday, but we all love Thai food. Today was a great day for all of us. We came home and slept. Kang’s Homebar Jungle Cooking experience costs 1500 baht per person. You will make and eat four dishes. Kang will pick you up from your hotel on Koh Chang. She is a former restaurant chef who now prefers jungle life with her two dogs Princess and Olive. 

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Posted in Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, Food, Happiness, Koh Chang, Local delicacies, Thai cooking, Thailand | 4 Comments

Too good to be true?

I had seen the sign for Dan Mai seafood from the main road when we passed in our songtheaw the other day. Today seemed a good time to check it out. The girls had abandoned me for a much ritzier beach, and were making their own dinner plans. The late afternoon was reasonably cool. I decided to walk.

After about 15 minutes on the main road, I turned right towards the sea, walking past a large school painted bright blue, pink, orange and green. Lurid, but much more alluring than the grey concrete walls of many Western schools. A couple of little girls playing in the street shouted Hello after me, keen to show off their English. The road found a small river going down to the Gulf. The banks were lined with fishing detritus and a few small boats lolled in the almost still water. There was no one around.

I began to worry that the sign had said only seafood, and not seafood restaurant. The village was obviously not any kind of tourist center, and most of the houses were boarded up and falling down. I was getting very sweaty.

A tip-tilted seafood sign with an arrow could have been suggesting either of two directions. I walked on towards the water– tumble-down buildings on a disused pier, the remains of what might have been an old fish market, and a shrine in the water I thought was made from shells.

I turned back towards the second route suggested by the sign and wondered how I would ever get back to my hotel from this place– I had been walking much longer than I intended, and it was clear there were no taxis within hailing distance.

I kept walking and by the water I saw long, low buildings lined with plants. One woman about my age was sitting at a table at a deck on the waterfront. It didn’t look like a restaurant but seemed so charming that I decided to investigate.

“Restaurant? ” I asked

“Seafood?” She replied in that Thai intonation that doesn’t let you know if they are asking you or telling you.

I decided to sit down anyhow. The woman, who I noticed was wearing what looked like expensive frames for her glasses, got up and disappeared into one of the shacks, emerging with a very comprehensive menu in Thai and English.

I ordered Tom Yum fish and crab in yellow curry, and a beer. There was no one else around, but it was only just getting dark, so perhaps I was too early for the rest of the throng?

From the shack, the sound of two voices and some determined action with a pestle and mortar.

The crab– a couple of hard shells chopped into quarters arrived first. Sweet, messy and delicious.

It was dark by the time the fish steamer was set down, together with a second plate for all the debris of lemon grass, galangal, tail and bones. I had another beer and decided to wait to see what would happen next.

Nothing did. It seemed likely I was the only customer for the evening, and my host in the classy specs seemed fine with that.

Now there was only the issue of how I would get home. It was pitch dark and the track was pitted with stones and potholes.

“Taxi?” I asked.

Much gesturing and excited talk that led me to understand a taxi might pass by on the main road, but there was nothing in the village.

Then out of the gloom a young woman appeared, keys in her hand. I don’t know where she came from, or who she was. The older woman didn’t seem surprised to see her, but neither did she greet her. What was she doing there?

I said the name of my resort in a tone of inquiry mixed with supplication.

The young woman gestured to follow her. She took me home, right to the door.

I looked up the place on Trip Advisor. It didn’t have enough reviews for a rating (until I posted mine– the 6th) but the tiny number of us who have eaten there have all raved about the food.

I’d go back, but I am tempted to believe the whole experience was a mirage– a Mary Celestial evening where a deserted restaurant was operated by angels, as a special miracle for me

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Even the monks have iphones now: a return visit to Bangkok

Soi 18. Sukhumvit 36. An unremarkable Bangkok alley that we came to believe was the magical creation of Thailand’s Lewis Carroll or CS Lewis. We’d booked a couple of nights in the Rembrandt Hotel to give our spines the chance to unroll after our long flights. The hotel helpfully put a third bed in one room, and went out of their way to make us comfortable.

Just a step or two from our hotel, our first good food find. P Kitchen’s cheerful staff served an astonishing range of fresh-cooked food with great depth of flavor. Stephanie ordered mussels with garlic, lime and cilantro. These were served cold with all the garnish piled high on each mussel shell. It hadn’t been quite what Steph had expected, so she approached the first half shell with caution.

“Whoa” she said “Try this”

Star did, and then urged me to have one.

“I’m not sure about cold mussels for breakfast”, I said slightly stiffly. My spine still had some way to unroll.

“No honestly — do it. It’s intense. Refreshing. Really good”

It was— like the jolt of a shooter and the joy of the first chew of a citrus Starburst.

“What’s yours like Ma?” Star gestured to my plate of fried morning glory with a side of red onions in rice vinegar, fish sauce garlic and chili.

“It tastes like air”

“Like air? Let me have some”

The curls and squiggles of green were caressed by a water- washed sunset tempura batter. These were hard to transfer by fork or spoon. All the more for me.

There was so much we liked the look of on the menu that we came back two or three times. We still hadn’t ventured more than 100 yards from the hotel, and it was tempting to stay put.

Culture called however and so on New Year’s Eve we left Soi 18 to take a trip to the Grand Palace. Not one of the taxi drivers was using a meter because the traffic, even by Bangkok standards, was spectacularly bad. We dismissed two drivers who were just being silly, and came to an agreement with a third. We soon worked out why the traffic was so hideous– every Thai seemed to be on their way to temple. We shuffled our way through the turnstiles at the Palace entry and followed the directions of patrol cops with whistles as we moved around the grounds. It was still possible to get good pictures, but only by looking up.  Luckily much of the spectacular detail stretches towards the sky. Even the monks have iPhones now. I saw two taking each other’s photos, though they seemed to draw the line at selfies. Good luck with all the “no touching” business in that crowd.

We never saw the Emerald Buddha. There was just too much of a throng. The next taxi driver we negotiated with, managed to trap three of my fingers in his roll-up window, which he chose to close as we were getting into the car. I’ll have a black nail to remind me of this for quite some time.

My memory of Bangkok in the ’90s was that it was all scooters and Tuk-Tuks and buses, with the air a constant black-grey fug. Today there are more cars than any other form of transport and what felt like slightly cleaner air, although we all suffered some dry hacking from the back of our irritated throats. Street signs too have changed. They are in Latin and Thai script today, which makes the whole experience much less overwhelming. Thailand has definitely got the hang of the tourism thing.

No transportation issues at the long tailed boat tour, but I did manage to stumble off the narrow path through the orchid farm, and thus into ankle-depth black mud and green slime. That’s the end of those white sandals.

Reluctantly, we decided we really should venture beyond P Kitchen on New Year’s Eve, but we still found it impossible to make it past the end of the Alley. The Lean On Tree had soft shell crab curry and sea bass poaching in a hot and sour sauce. The restaurant served cocktails. We felt a little disloyal but perhaps we liked it even more than P Kitchen?

On the 31st, in order to maximize space in their rooftop bar, the staff at the Rembrandt had removed all the chairs and scattered spandexed and lurexed hi-top tables where the chairs used to be. When I explained I had trouble standing, the bar manager immediately arranged for the return of an armchair. I sat in state close to a DJ who had almost certainly checked X in answer to the gender question on the hotel’s application form. He or she had blue hair, an enviable waist, and great taste in techno music. The kids criticized me for my shoulder moves saying that all great dancing requires a lead from the hips. I ignored them and grooved in my granny chair. We were up until past 1am. Jet lag was working in our favor.

Star had arrived in Thailand with a bad cold– and a bottle of NyQuil spilled all over the clothes in her checked-in bag. The bottle, which she was sure she had closed with a childproof click, was missing its top completely when she opened her case, and everything she’d packed was stained and sticky. The woman above a small reflexology shop on the Alley offered a laundry service. Everything arrived back on New Year’s Day, immaculate, folded, ironed and wrapped in plastic.

We lunched at the Palm 18 Cafe in the Alley, decorated with cloth light shades in bright colors and walls appliqués with large paper cabbages. The flair expended on interior design sadly did not extend to the kitchen. The food was fine, but not interesting.

“It’s the kind of Thai food you can get at home” Star pronounced “Starts ok but goes nowhere. Bland. Ordinary. Made to make money, when it should be made for love”

On the plus side the cocktails were divine. I had a Na-Palm, a concoction of Thai whisky and fruit juices, described as a perfect afternoon drink. Stephanie had a drink in aquarium colors and Star had a Pina Colada. Her sophisticated taste in food is counterbalanced by a love of sweetie drinks.

The girls went to the hotel pool and I opted for a Tiger Balm massage at Dao in the Alley. Most of the other people being stretched and skewered and pummeled were Thai. It is to be hoped that they weren’t put off by my involuntary cries during much of the neck and shoulder and lower back work. I asked for a liberal application of Tiger Balm, advertised inevitably by Tiger Woods. Star hasn’t felt the lack of the spilt NyQuil because she has my deteriorating joints to sniff. My full-body embrocation could clear all the congestion in Bangkok itself. And of course a bowl of red curry is also helpful when it comes to sinus therapy.

IMG_8993Although there was now no imperative for clothes shopping, the girls decided that a trip to a night market was still warranted. We left the Alley soon after dark, and tussled with a couple more taxi drivers until we found one prepared to run his meter. The market was a bust– filled with faked designer brand watches, sneakers and belts at what still felt like ludicrous prices, and tat that now sells more cheaply at Walmart or Matalan or Claire’s accessories. That’s the trouble with the western world –anyone can get anything anywhere– it takes the fun out of holiday bargain hunting.

The vibe at the market had changed since I was last in Bangkok more than 20 years ago, although mounds of unwanted elephant-patterned drawstring pants still remained.  This is a garment that does no-one any favors. In the ’90s, there was a constant scrum of vendors swarming each tourist. Now they wait to see what a shopper touches because she cannot resist. Even then, today’s vendors will wait for an inquiry about the price, and then turn the question back on the prospective buyer:

“What will you pay?”

No suggestion of “for you I make evening price”. I found it disquieting.

Stephanie bought a pair of sunglasses. They’d better be Dior for that’s $12 she’ll never see again.

Leaving the market, we took a disappointing turn and found ourselves in what must be the only stretch of street in Bangkok without a restaurant. Whether it was the after effects of the massage, the many steps at the Grand Palace, or an ill-fated attempt to jump over Star’s suitcase when she left it blocking the bathroom door at the hotel, my back and knees ached. We all wanted to sit down and eat. Eventually we spotted a rainbow-bright sign for a rooftop restaurant accessible by a series of escalators, or by an elevator in a spa.

The early signs weren’t good. The young waiter, who seemed to be working almost alone,  was bent in near-constant apology. The extensive menu was printed in a jumbo font so it could be read in the dark. The first two dishes we asked for weren’t available. The Mai-Tais (when they came) were heavy on the orange juice and light on liquor. From there it only got worse.

Not once but three times, a waitress wordlessly dumped a dish we hadn’t ordered on our table, each time turning away before we could point out the mistake. The first was a bowl of fries. The second a chicken dish that Stephanie ate some of, so we could be sure it was something we didn’t want. The third was a large plate of chicken satay. By that stage the ever-so-humble waiter was forced to travel from table to table asking who’s order he’d misplaced, and trying to drum up interest.

Star, half-asleep, had lost all enthusiasm for her cocktail. I decided to move to beer, and Stephanie asked for a shot of rum to see if it could pep up what was left in her glass.

“A rum and coke?” asked the Asian Uriah.

“No, just a rum” said Stephanie, gesturing towards her glass.

We reminded the waiter a second time, about 10 minutes after this exchange. At no point did anyone ask “dark or light? or Thai or Jamaican?” This was not a problem. By then anything would have done.

By the third pass I had decided to be firm.

“Bring us the rum now and check on the food. We have been waiting an hour ”

The waiter scuttled off and came back with a colleague bearing—yes,  a rum and coke.

I’m afraid I bellowed at them both.

I finished with another exhortation to bring us our food– although anyone else’s order would have sufficed. The waiter backed away only to return a few minutes later to say another part of our order was unavailable. It seemed our ticket had still to reach the kitchen. Any kind of cooking had yet to commence.

We gathered our belongings

“You can give us the drinks for free” I said “we can’t wait any more”

“No ma’am you have to pay for the drinks, but you don’t have to pay for the food” said the waiter, suddenly showing the beginnings of a spine. Too late.

On the way out of the restaurant we passed the second waiter carrying a glass of rum.

“Too late” I said. He turned away. For a minute it looked like Stephanie might go after him.

As we got into the elevator, a policeman was getting out, presumably to apprehend another group of frustrated would-be diners who’d refused their drinks bill. We exchanged good evenings with him and descended, crossed the spa floor and left the restaurant. It took us a couple of goes to get a taxi driver prepared to use his meter.

By the time we got back to Soi 18, me still savage with hunger and the other two silent and tired, P Kitchen was closed.

“See you in the morning” said our favorite waiter, trying to sound upbeat. He could see our disappointment. Too late.

We walked to Lean On Tree as fast as we could. They had just closed, but because they knew us, they agreed to rustle up a soft shell crab in tamarind sauce, and a couple of red curries. It pays to have friends in the alley.

We had breakfast this morning at P Kitchen. A green curry with shrimp and roti. A shrimp yellow curry. Shrimp fried rice wrapped in an omelette and served with a chopped fresh chili relish.

As we left, a sous-chef in charge of cutting and squeezing a big bag of at least 150 limes turned to us and smiled.

“See you next time” he said. We are allied with the Alley.

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