“You’re going to get sick in India”

We’re leaving for India in a week, and since I have been sharing with friends, colleagues, and family that our trip is coming up, it’s inevitable that a handful of people will insist that I will get sick during this trip. And the people who are the most insistent are the Indian people, no less, whether it’s colleagues who have either traveled to or were born in India to even my own in-laws, who last night were warning me about eating and drinking in their motherland. India is one of those places that doesn’t seem to inspire much of a “wow” reaction when I tell people I am traveling there; rather, they ask if we are visiting relatives (yes), or they ask what my purpose is there.

I’ve only gotten bad food poisoning once, and that was during my trip to Vietnam over ten years ago. I was bed-ridden for about three to four days. Without getting into too much gory detail, I just needed to be near a toilet at all times. It was especially excruciating because everyone else around me got to eat delicious food, and all I was left with was plain watery rice porridge and ginger water. The water there was not clean to drink, nor will the water in India be, but I’m still excited to go to this seemingly exotic place and be on sensory overload. To even drink a cup of chai in India right now makes me feel excited and eager to start the trip this second, to be away from my everyday reality and all the annoyances that come with working in a politics-filled start-up.

Derailed sunrise

I set my alarm for 6:30am in hopes of watching the sun rise over the East Coast in Miami this morning, but was disappointed when instead, I was awoken by the sound of thunder and rain on my hotel windows about half an hour before. I looked outside and saw dark grey clouds and realized that my desires for a gorgeous early morning sun and sky would not be satiated this trip. It was the first time I’d been to Miami and seen this type of miserable weather.

The last two weeks in Miami, according to my customers in the area, have been dreary, grey, muggy, and needless to say, unpleasant. Miami residents are so used to clear blue skies and the sun that when periods like this descend over their palm tree-lined city, they start getting depressed. And hurricane season is nearing us in a couple months in August, where they’ve all advised me to stay far, far away and to postpone any work visits until after the last month of summer has ended.

It’s funny to think that no matter where you go in this country, there’s some natural phenomenon that everyone loves to hate on who is not local: in Florida, there are hurricanes; in New York and the northeast in general, there are snow storms; in California, we have earthquakes. But the locals just think it’s another part of their lives and are unphased by them. It’s their reality. It’s like accepting that you will wake up every morning and sleep each night. Earthquakes don’t scare me as someone native to California, and snow storms are just another day in the life in New York City, especially since I don’t have to shovel or salt anything.

Potent dried chilies in transit

Unfortunately, we had to depart Mexico City midday yesterday, and on our route back, we stopped over in Dallas. After going through Global Entry and clearing U.S. Customs, we re-entered domestic airport security to board our flight back to LaGuardia. For whatever reason, my big bag of chilies and other edibles I’d purchased in Mexico set off the security machine, and my backpack had to get inspected.

Of the edible delights I’d purchased in Oaxaca and Mexico City, I got dried chilies of the ancho rojo variety, which are dried poblanos known to be sweet and meaty, with a medium spice profile; morita, which are short, fat, smoked and dried jalapenos that are spicy, toasty, and roasty in flavor; pasilla, which are chocolate-colored, slender, and add richness without heat; and guajillo, which are a vibrant red hue with moderate heat, and slightly acidic in flavor. Of these, I’d used ancho and guajillo before, but the other two were new to me. They’re popularly used in moles, sauces, and various types of Mexican salsas. I also purchased three types of Mexican chocolate and some extremely fragrant and fresh dried oregano. The dried chilies’ fragrance was rich and unmistakable; they scented up all the clothes in my backpack, for better or for worse. As soon as the security agent unzipped my backpack, her eyes widened immediately, and she smiled and asked if these were dried chilies. I told her they were, and she asked where I was coming from. I told her, and she laughed. “Of course, these are from Mexico. This is potent stuff! The smell is so, so strong!”

I was so proud of my purchases. If I’d carried more than just my backpack and work carry-on, I definitely would have purchased more dried chilies, but alas, I had to exercise self-control in an effort to be a light packer. Chris made fun of me and likened me to an old grandma carrying a raw chicken across state lines. I’m just being an avid, international cook.

Organ music and sleeveless tops in a Catholic church

Yesterday, we wandered through Mexico City and spent some time in Centro Historico, the central historical district of the capital city. There is a large open plaza there that includes the famous Metropolitan Cathedral, a historic Baroque-style Catholic church that was built in the 1600s. We arrived right at the time of the main Sunday church service, and the cathedral was packed with hundreds of worshippers, all reciting, singing, and following along with the sermon. The songs portion was just beginning, and thus the organ music was being played.

For someone who is not particularly religious at all, I have always loved exploring churches during our travels, and I get the most excited when I visit and I hear organ music. The organ is one of those musical instruments that we never seem to get to enjoy unless we’re in a church and in the very fortunate music hall. It’s got this chilling, thrilling, haunting, reverberating sound that for me, no other instrument is quite able to replicate. I used to joke that the only benefit of getting married in a church is to be able to listen to organ music while walking down the aisle. I wandered through the throngs of worshippers and reveled in the organ music against the singing voices of the crowds. They were all pretty in tune from what I could hear, which was even more impressive.

And then I realized that in the middle of my audio enjoyment, I was probably offending almost every single person in the church given that I was wearing a sleeveless top and short shorts, thus exposing parts of my body that in Catholic churches, they look down on. I was getting some double takes from a few of the fully covered women singing.

That was just great. Well, it was hot outside, and I’m an unknowing tourist, right?

Chasing “authenticity”

We arrived in Mexico City early enough this morning to not only have a quick breakfast at the hotel lounge of refried black beans, corn and rice, ham and eggs, and salsa verde with a side of watermelon, papaya, and pineapple, and green juice, but also to have a quick taco at Super Tacos – A La Parrilla, which we randomly stopped by during our walk around the Reforma area to begin our full day of exploration through Distrito Federal. Super Tacos is exactly what it sounds like – the tacos are not small by any definition; they are made with face-sized, thick, grilled yellow corn tortillas and stuffed with your choice of meat, topped with thick gooey cheese, thinly sliced potatoes, pickled green peppers and onions, huge grilled scallions. We chose chorizo to fill one and thinly sliced skirt steak to fill the second, and our guy cooked everything to order. All the fillings with the exception of the meats were being stewed in meat juices and fats – definitely not vegetarian friendly, but hey, we didn’t come to Mexico to eat vegetarian food. We topped our massive tacos with a brightly hued orange salsa – smokey, a little sweet, and a bit spicy. We made a bit of a mess eating these, but as I was watching other people eat their super tacos while sitting on the unstable plastic stools at our street side stall, I noticed we weren’t alone: there was no clean way to eat these things, which I’m all for since I love getting into my food when the mood is right.

We then wandered through a market and paid about $3 USD for 500 grams of the sweetest and most flavorful jackfruit I’ve had since we were in Thailand for New Year’s Eve 2016. Each bite made me want more and more. It made me wish I had easier and cheaper access to this in New York, where usually for just about six to eight pieces, I’d have to pay about $4 in Chinatown, and only during the summer time. We got lured to a table in the market, seeing everyone drinking big glugs of what they called “sangria,” but it ended up being watermelon agua fresca, much to Chris’s disgust. He holds the opinion that watermelon, among all melons, is the most useless fruit ever known to humankind. I know no one else who thinks this.

So we had this seemingly “authentic” experience, which transitioned into an early evening when we ended up in La Condesa, which is known as the “international” area of town where Mexicans come to eat non-Mexican food. In other words, the area is full of English speakers, really expensive and Westernized spaces and real estate, and expensive prices for everything. After my original seemingly authentic taco joint was found to be closed, we chose to go to another I had bookmarked, which was a spot called El Tizoncito, which was purported to be the “original al pastor taco.” As soon as we arrived, though, we were both immediately let down and annoyed when we saw that pretty much every single patron was white and speaking English, mostly American English and a few in perhaps British English. Damnit – this is when Yelp has led me wrong. We didn’t come to Mexico to surround ourselves with a bunch of Americans and English. But I guess I should have known given that none of the reviews were in Spanish at all. Our moods were immediately ruined, and we decided that since we were already there to settle on just one al pastor taco each; priced at 17 pesos each (just shy of $1USD), they were the most expensive tacos we’d paid for on this trip, which was saying something.

We were eventually saved for our last meal when we decided to go to Casa de Tono, which two different Uber drivers recommended for being very local and authentic to Mexican tastes, and being especially famous for pozole, a traditional Mexican soup-stew that is made from hominy (nixtamalized corn). We ordered a small bowl with a mix of pork parts and head cheese, shredded cabbage, onions, radishes, and squeezed lime, as well as a chicarron (fried pork skin) quesadilla, and two intensely creamy horchatas topped with canela. The pozole, like the chicken soup we had at the Oaxacan market days before, was one of the highlights of what we’ve eaten on this trip, one of those dishes I’d wished I’d had more of in Mexican cuisine that I hadn’t been exposed to much, but had only heard of. Since my first trip to Mexico in 2010, I have had a love of Mexican soups, and the way that the end squeeze of lime complements all the other flavors of the soup has always surprised me and brought a smile to my face.

It felt like a quick and somewhat rushed trip, especially since we easily could have spent four days just in Mexico City, but it’s given Chris more motivation to find (or possibly make up..) work reasons to come back here. Mexico City is like one of those cities that you could always keep coming back to and never get bored of.

The vastness of Mexican cuisine

Chris had a last-minute desire to take a cooking class while in Oaxaca, so we got lucky last night and got confirmed for a cooking class today at Casa Crespo just a couple blocks away from our hotel. Lo and behold, when we arrived, we discovered that it would actually be a private cooking class since no one else had signed up that day. We started the day having a quiet chat over Mexican hot chocolate and fresh breads with the owner and cooking instructor Oscar, who runs the restaurant, which does only private tasting menus and special events, plus cooking classes. We chatted about things we’d like to make, things I had made previously in the cooking class I’d done eight years ago here, and what we’d accomplish today. We made two different moles, a chocolate-based one that is considered a special occasion/wedding mole, a red mole without chocolate, steamed in wrapped parchment paper with rabbit, calabaza (squash blossom) and Oaxacan cheese-stuffed tortillas, yellow tortillas from fresh masa, squash blossom and squash stuffed tamales, salsa verde (Chris’s baby), salsa rojo of three types: worm, cumin, and avocado leaf, guacamole with fresh mango, shrimp and vegetable soup, and avocado ice cream.

It was so fascinating to learn about all the different Mexican herbs that we never bother or even consider using in the U.S., like yerba santa leaves, squash blossoms or calabaza, avocado leaves (which have an incredibly fragrant and very distinct flavor). But at the same time, it made me a little sad that these things aren’t readily available back home. Even in the Mexican markets that I’ve visited on occasion in Spanish Harlem or in Corona, Queens, when you see things like dried ancho or pasilla chilies, while they are still tasty and delicious once fried, heated, or steeped in boiling water, they completely lack the in-your-face bold fragrance that the ones in the markets here do, and the reason for that is obvious: they’re just fresher here and closer to the source. Then, there are all the ways to prepare the endless varieties of dried chilies: fried in oil, dry charred, steeped in hot water (which I’ve done a few times back home to make sauces like harissa). It was also eye-opening to learn about all the different types of tortillas and tamales: the massive, main-meal-sized Oaxacan-style tamales that are filled with mole and chicken or another protein, thick masa, shaped into a large block, then steamed in banana leaves. Then there are the ones we know better back home, which are more appetizer-sized, just a few bites, with some fresh salsa verde, pork, and masa, steamed in corn husks. Then, there are the tortillas for tacos: yellow, red, blue corn; stuffed with minced herbs or vegetables or blossoms, pure with just soft, supple masa. The varieties just keep going on.

“There are many, many types of tortillas,” Oscar said, smiling, when I asked him how many exist. “Too many to count.”

The vastness of Mexican cuisine, or Oaxacan cuisine in this specific class’s case, never seems to end, and to me, it’s like we’ve just touched the surface. I wish we could be more exposed to this back home and see Mexican cuisine for more than just tacos and carnitas.

The smell of “fresh”

It was another early start for us, boarding a 6am domestic flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca to maximize time in this culinary capital of Mexico. It’s my second time in both cities and Chris’s first, but I loved this time perhaps even more than last time because I can reflect on what I experienced in the past and see what still resonates… which is pretty much everything here. Oaxaca is colorful, friendly, rich with history, culture, and gastronomy. It is said that the national dish of mole was created here, that the seven original moles were made in this city, and that the 20+ other varieties around the country can all trace their roots back to this colorful place. The best part of Oaxaca to me is the markets; I generally do not like to compare places I’ve traveled to because to me (and Chris), that’s like saying you have a favorite child; each city and town has its uniqueness, its quirks, its own beauty, something that makes it special that draws you to it. But Oaxaca I can say with certainty is one of my favorite places for markets, next to Sao Paulo, Valencia, and Kyoto. There is something about the way the food is displayed, the way the vendors interact with their customers, the crispness and the scents of the impeccably fresh ingredients, that is so mesmerizing that sucks me in. I could probably just sit in these markets for hours, just inhaling all the scents and watching the interactions of the locals (and eating… yum) and be completely content.

Chris immediately pointed out when we’d walk into the markets how the scents of everything from the greens to the tomatoes and tomatillos to the peppers and mangoes just hit us full force. “There’s no market in the U.S. that is like that,” he said. “There’s no fresh smell like this at all.”

He was definitely right. It seemed as though these fruits and vegetables were, within hours, just plucked or dug out of the ground, brushed off, and put on display for us to witness in all their fresh, crisp glory. The perfume of mangoes, guavas, and pineapples was unmistakably wafting towards us, beckoning us to have a bite or two. We picked up some fresh yellow-fleshed guavas, each no larger than a golf ball, and enjoyed a “round” of pineapple that was, by far, the sweetest, lushest pineapple we had ever eaten. The flesh was translucent and extremely soft, and it just dripped in sugary goodness. We also shared a large cup of freshly made coconut milk, lightly spiced with a hint of canela (Mexican cinnamon). Everything just screamed of freshness, of just readiness, of “I’m ripe and ready: eat me now!” We’ve traveled to markets around the world, and all of them make the U.S.’s markets seem stale and old.

I’ve always understood, because of this, why I’ve read so many accounts of travelers who originally planned to stay in Oaxaca for only one to three days, but ended up extending their time to a full week, if not multiple weeks or months, just to enjoy the gastronomical glories that this place has to offer and the richness of the culture… that oftentimes gets lost when in the U.S.’s eyes, Mexico is marred with “rapists” and “illegals” who are trying to get into the U.S. without the proper process. But we can let ignorant people continue to be ignorant and enjoy this gorgeous culture for what it is while we are so privileged to be here.

 

Spoiled little white rich girl

We didn’t have the best of luck today with our flight departing for Miami to then connect and bring us to Mexico City. We got on the plane, then almost immediately had to deplane because something was wrong with the engine, and AA ultimately had to cancel a flight to Chicago to use that plane to take us to Miami late. Regardless, we still made it to Mexico City, just about three hours late, but I witnessed one of the biggest displays of white privilege that made me so angry.

Chris and I were seated in business class, which was actually quite empty today. Because I get upgraded a lot, I know that unless a flight is extremely short, such as Boston to New York or San Francisco to Los Angeles, you usually have to “request” an upgrade in order to get upgraded from economy to business class assuming there is availability. I pretty much always do this, and occasionally because I have the highest level of status, I automatically get bumped without requesting an upgrade. That’s a bit rare, though. This woman, tall, blonde, disheveled, maybe in her 30s, clearly overly privileged who just expects to get whatever she wants and loves to have her mind read, got on the plane and stopped in the business class section where we were seated and immediately started whining. “I just don’t understand why I didn’t get upgraded,” she said, in a whiny, high pitched tone, dragging out every syllable slowly and painfully. “I alwaysget upgraded, and it didn’t happen this time. I don’t get it. It just doesn’t make sense because look at all these empty seats up here in business!”

The flight attendant was apologetic, but using some level of rationale, asked her if she actually requested to get upgraded and if she was on the upgrade list.

The woman, so very polite and well mannered, rolled her eyes at the flight attendant and shot her a dirty look. “No,I didn’t. I never have to do that, and I’ve always been upgraded in the past!” She stormed off to her sad little economy seat in the middle of the plane. I was turning to watch her and the flight attendant and made eye contact with the guy sitting in the row behind me in business, shocked by what we just witnessed, who mouthed to me, “What the fuck is her problem?”

I got so much satisfaction watching that exchange.

I love spoiled entitled brats not getting what they want.

Faith in humanity via travel

I took a walk with a colleague to Madison Square Park today, and we were talking about the desire to escape and have a mental reset. Chris and I are leaving for Mexico City and Oaxaca tomorrow through Monday for an extended long weekend, and I’d been looking forward to this for the last several weeks. “What are you trying to escape – New York, work, your bubble, or what?” he asked.

“Everything?” I responded, questioning. “All of the above?”

We’re so tied up and absorbed into our day to day lives – everyone is guilty of this no matter what your background, where you live, what you do for a living. It’s hard to step outside of that and think about the world around us and what’s bigger and greater than what we are and what we do. For me, the best mental reset is one in which I can get away from my day-to-day routine, away from what I consider “normality,” and experience a culture, language, lifestyle… life, that is so far removed from my own. That’s what travel is. Immerse yourself in the unknown, the new, the exciting, and completely fall into it and forget what we considered important or essential back at home. Think about how other people live, what passions and priorities others have in worlds away from you, what keeps them up at night, and what drives them. And then, after all of that, think about our differences… but then realize that we’re all doing such different things when at the end of the day, we really want the same things: a roof over our heads, warm food on the table; to be loved and appreciated and respected; to help and provide for others; to feel like we all have some sense of purpose in life.

When we were in South Africa last December, in Cape Town specifically, the water shortage made me think (and feel guilty) about my showers back home, where I’d luxuriate occasionally and not keep track of how long I was exfoliating or conditioning my hair. When outside of Kruger National Park, I got excited at the idea of being far away from any urban place and wondered what life would be like as the rangers and workers of the safari lodge, waking up every morning to the calm of buffalo drinking water in the nearby watering hole, or even a lion sleeping right outside my bedroom window. In Japan, I thought about the salarymen in their plain, uniform-like suits, waking up early, walking their everyday walk/train commute to work, having a long day in front of their computers, drinking late night in bars after a quick rice bowl or ramen, and hitting repeat for the next day and the next day. I also thought about the average Japanese man’s refusal to have sex (or want to get married… and thus the low marriage and birth rate in a country we consider so advanced), and wondered what that would be like if that were the case back in the U.S. The list goes on for every place I’ve visited.

Some people freak out and are alarmed when they are lost in translation, trying to communicate something to someone in another country that does not speak their native language. I actually thrive in that and get excited by it; it’s like a mini adventure to me: get this person to understand what I am saying, and try to figure out what he is telling me. I also tend to smile and laugh more because I find that it lightens the mood of the other person in the event any frustration arises from not being able to understand each other. Warm, open body language disarms them and gets them to trust you, and I suppose it helps a lot that I’m a woman… because how threatening could a petite Asian woman like me be? These situations also force you to be more creative in how you express yourself, whether that’s via facial expressions, gestures, sign language, acting out something. If what is often said by researchers is true that seventy percent of communication is non-verbal, then for all the basic human emotions, desires, and messages, we should be able to suffice without knowing every exact word that comes out of a person’s mouth.

The world is so big and so great – there’s no better way to remind yourself how insignificant you are in the universe than to travel to parts unknown to you and witness humanity outside of your own bubble. I’m not an ignorant ass, though; I’m aware that not everyone can afford to travel, whether it’s due to living paycheck to paycheck like so many people around the world do, or due to commitments with sick family, etc. But for those who can afford to do it, there’s nothing else that is quite like it. There’s so much humility and perspective to be had from it, especially if you choose to fully immerse yourself into your surroundings.

sun rise

One of the nicest things about coming down to Miami for work is that I get to stay at a beach front property where I usually have a room that overlooks the beach. It also means that since I’m on the east coast, and Miami is on the east side of Florida, that I get to see the sun rise if I wake up early enough. I woke up just in time to see the sun rise this morning, and also had my morning workout, which ended with a long walk on the beach. I sat outside on the sand for a while and really just soaked the sun, the air, and the sounds in, and kind of reveled in how lucky I was. Yes, work can get really stressful, as it has been in the last few weeks. Yes, work travel can be extremely tiring and lonely. But the fact that I can have moments like this when I can travel for work is amazing, and I’m so grateful for it.  Seeing the sun rise fully, and knowing I have one more morning of it waiting for me tomorrow have made this trip really worth it. And today is also my one-year work anniversary, so I feel like this trip was even more special because of it.