Category Archives: asia

Sweet Thais

In more ways than one.

As a generalization, the Thai people are more outwardly sweet than most cultures.  It’s evident in the way they greet others, including their own, by folding their hands while slightly bowing their heads.  They are typically smiling, pleasant, and respectful.  Compared to other societies, the sweetness of the Thai people stands out.  The Land of Smiles, while it may be an outward appearance, is one of the many charms of Thailand.

One of the other attractions is the distinctiveness of their food.  But, and it’s a big but, over the past couple of generations, Thai’s have embraced the use of sugar in most of their meals.  Almost every prepared dish has sugar as an added ingredient.  Even sautéed vegetables are sugared.  Most savory dishes have added sugar.  It’s a phenomenon.

These buckets of sugars (and msg) are at the ready for all Thai street food.

When I see young school-age Thai folk, it’s evident that a large chunk does not appear in ideal physical condition.  A bulk of them look out of shape, with more extra weight in the wrong places than young people should have, especially youthful Asians.  If I didn’t know better, I’d predict that Thailand is headed for a health crisis in the next few generations.

Out of interest, I took several Thai cooking courses at different Bangkok schools.  In each, the students prepare and eat their individual dishes.  In each, I declared that I  wanted to cook without sugar.  I was the oddball out in every workshop.  In one class, six students were grouped together to prepare a dish, but I was castigated on my own due to my sugarless request.  The chef in that school tasted the sugar-free chili paste, peanut sauce, and Tom Yam soup I had prepared and liked them all.  Of course, she could have been fibbing to be polite.  But then again she admitted she had eliminated sugar from her diet the prior year to slim down.  An instructor in another school disclosed that her sister, a doctor, recommended that she stop cooking with sugar because it was unhealthy.  (Hmm,…yet she continues to instruct cooking with sugar).

Pad Thai Noodles, may be prepared with a double dose of sweetness.

When I ask Thai chefs/cooks why they add sugar to most dishes, the answer almost uniformly is “it makes the food tastes better.”  Really?  Adding sweetness to already flavorful food so it tastes even better?  Couldn’t that be considered a form of crafty trickery?

As a fan of Thai food, it’s more than a little disconcerting to know that sugar is being added to most dishes.   To be clear, I’m not referring to desserts and sweet treats, of which, as in most cultures these days, there are plenty.  In Thai dishes, sugar is added to main meal dishes, those that typically don’t have, or need, added sugar.  Popular dishes such as Pad Thai and green papaya salad, (Som Tum) — both have added sugar.  Peanut sauce used for sauteés — added sugar.   Stir-fried vegetables — added sugar.  Savory soups — added sugar.

Stir-fried vegetables with sugar. Really?

The Thai food on the street is damn tasty.  But to order a dish with no sugar is a challenge.  When I do, the smile is replaced by forehead wrinkles.  If sugar is left out, the tendency is to add more msg, Maggie seasoning, and/or honey.  It’s become reflexive to add processed flavoring to the food.  There are so many natural spices available that adding a tablespoon or two of sugar and msg seems like overkill.  And indeed it might be.

Smart people who study cognitive neuroscience know that sugar is a deceptive drug and acts on the brain the same way that cocaine, opioids, and for that matter, any other pleasure substance does.  The more we have, the more we want, and the more it takes to satisfy us.  Credible researchers have shown that the world’s consumption of sugar has grown almost exponentially over the last few hundred years.  Concerning evolution, that means we’ve just started gorging (overdosing?) on sweetness.  During that same time, we’ve seen a parallel increase in lifestyle diseases, as well as epigenetic disorders (which we now know are hereditary).

In a savory dish, it can be hard to detect the addition of a teaspoon of white sugar.  Sure the dish tastes good.  Everyone in the world loves a subtle touch of sweetness.  We gobble down good tasting food without a second thought.  But if we are to believe an extensive body of recent evidence showing that processed sugar in our diet promotes toxicity and has detrimental long-term health effects, then it may be prudent to pay attention.  All foods have natural trace amounts of sugars.  So if food can’t stand on its own without the added sweetness, then the results may eventually turn slightly sour.

In the ideal world, we’d see a revolution in Thailand with the elimination of sugar as a key ingredient.  But given that won’t happen anytime soon, the Thai’s will stay double sweet.

Not to pick on Thais, this sign on 23rd Street in Manhattan last week says it all.

Travel while you can

But don’t fret, you’ll still be able to travel later.  It will just be more crowded.

In the year 1500, the world population is estimated to have been less than 500 million.  It took 300 years for that figure to double to one billion.  In 1960, the world pop was three billion.  By the year 2000, 40 years later, it had doubled to six billion.  You could call that explosive humping.  Today we are at 7.5 billion.  The rate of growth has eased a fraction, but still, given current trajectory, simple math puts us around 10 billion by 2050, a short 30 plus years from now.

When I first visited Cancun, Mexico, and Phuket, Thailand decades ago, they were beach outposts, minus the proliferation of high-rise hotels and the antiseptic feeling of an overrun tourist destination.  Similar outposts are fast being built to attract newer avid travelers.  And they will come.  Most major airports around the world are bursting at capacity, thick with worm-hole lines to check-in, security, customs, and immigration, while short of gates for arriving planes.  Many flights are delayed for takeoff because of congestion at the destination airport.  When I flew out of LAX in April, as we were sitting on the runway approach going nowhere, the pilot announced that we were number 12 in line and it would be another 20 minutes or so before takeoff.  As we turned the corner to liftoff, there were another 12 behind us.  

Chang Mai, Thailand

There are may places in the world, like the Inca trail between Aguas Calientes and Manchu Picchu, in the Andes of Peru, a typically four-day hike, that was independently treck-able not long ago. Because of its mushroomed popularity, the only way now to hike the old stone path built by the Incas a millennium ago is with a guided group tour. (It is still a spectacular hike)  

Not only will we be adding another 30% to the world’s population over the next generation, but consider also that two most populated countries, China and India, together more than 1/3 of the world’s pop, have been experiencing highly dynamic economic growth during the last decade resulting in hundreds of millions rising out of poverty and joining the middle class.  Tens of millions in these two countries are now financially wealthy.  These millions with new money will eventually be looking for destination feathers to stick in their travel hats.

A couple of generations ago, those who traveled wrote letters, books, or passed their travel exploits by word of mouth.  Today we have instant information streaming at our fingertips for virtually every spot on earth, complete with photos and detailed instructions how to get there.

Instant gratification for all

By adding up the following:

  • the earth’s ballooning population of homo sapiens resulting from our relatively recent insatiable urge for planting human seeds 
  • instant access to information about anywhere
  • significantly improved infrastructures coupled with more developed trade relations among most countries
  • the swelling class boom in China and India and their eventual yearn to spend,

and a solid long-term business may be owning a hostel or hotel in a lazy, soon to be overrun, tourist ghetto.

The day the new Dubai airport opened it was already too small.

It’s just an observation

When I was younger, one of the jokes my then 80-year old grandmother delightedly told me was:  A woman was just waking up from an operation in the hospital recovery room, still drowsy from the anesthesia.  She lifted her head slightly and looked around the room.  There were two men dressed in white standing against the wall talking to each other.  After a few minutes, one of them walked over to her bed, lifted the covers, looked her up and down, then returned and continued talking to the other man.  A minute or so later, the second guy approached her bed and did the same thing.  As he lifted the covers, she said, “hey, what am I here for, an operation or observation?”  The guy said, “I don’t know lady, we’re just the painters.”

Call me simple-minded, but the joke still gives me a mild kick.  (As an aside, in high school, two of the many jobs I had were 1) as a porter in a hospital, where I swabbed the deck of the main parts of the hospital, including the recovery room, and 2) as a painter.  I never had such an observation.)

There are different reasons for being observant.  When my brother and I rode bicycles across part of the country, he would observe things that passed me by.  Our attentions drifted on different aspects of the trip.  Various observations, different perspectives, and neither right or wrong.  They just are.  No conclusions were drawn.

How Sweet? Way too sweet.

Not to overdo posts about the country where I’m living, but I’ve observed something that does not require lifting any blankets.  Observation: a significant portion of young Chinese children, especially girls, need to wear eye glasses.

Requiring glasses to see well early in life sure seems like a genetic defect.  It’s not natural.  Some have drawn the conclusion that the unusually high percent of myopia is due to the social environment of studying too much and being indoors.  That theory doesn’t float my logic boat.

already needing glasses?

The author of Deep Nutrition, mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, makes a convincing case that the two most widely used toxic food ingredients — sugar and vegetable oil, are having damaging effects on not only us but also our offsprings.

Most of us have heard that processed sugars are not good, but we still eat sweet stuff in humungous amounts.  The Chinese have kicked Western habits into high gear and have started to sweeten everything, to a sickening degree.  And, they use massive amounts of vegetable oil as a staple kitchen item.  These oils have been used now for decades.  Vegetable and seed oils are sold in every mini-market in 3-liter containers.  They cook everything in this oil, including sugar.

I try to steer clear of these oils but it’s damn difficult. It’s used to cook everything.

The production of vegetable and seed oils requires about 20 different processes including the use of high heat and deodorization, which alters the molecular makeup.  Consistent consumption of these toxic oils, the author argues, negatively affects our chromosomal makeup.  (Oils from olive, coconut, and peanut are extracted without heat.)

I’m not making a connection here.  It’s just an observation, with a dash of logic.  But then again, I’m just the painter lady.

This “original” buttermilk “let the taste return to nature” is hardly natural.  The store clerk told me it had no sugar but it was so sweet I had to throw away.

Hello!

I’m talking to you foreigner.

What is it about the spontaneous urge to blurt out a greeting to a stranger in their language?  It happens to me without fail at least once a day as I’m passing someone, either on foot or bicycle.  

Yesterday I was the recipient of the impromptu “hello” three times. First while walking to the park, one in a group of school age boys across the street yelled “hello.”  Then inside the park, an old man, a park worker, gave me a “hello” as I passed by.  Then again on a backroad, as I was biking to the factory where I work, a young man belted out “hello.”  Yes, the urge seems to strike all ages, except that it’s exclusively the male gender who displays the extroverted verbal gesture.   Depending on the distance, I either wave, smile, nod, or return them with a hi or howdy, or sometimes a combo.

The yen here to shout out hello is usually done by someone who’s english vocabulary does not extend beyond that word.  Perhaps the compulsive expression just feels good —  connecting with a foreigner in their tongue.  The locals here do not use that greeting among themselves.

I can’t help but wonder if I lived in a small town and an oddball Chinese person walked by if I’d impulsively yell out ni hao even if I knew no more of their language.  Or if I passed a Mexican would I blurt out hola,  or marhabaan to an Arabic looking dude.  Anyway, the Chinese have got to presume I’m english speaking.  I could be French. They are not saluting me with a “salut.”  Then again, we all look alike and english is the universal language.

Truthfully, I’m glad for the daily salutation from an always unknown and varied source.  It’s certainly better than many alternatives, like a version of catcalling.  I take the extemporaneous acknowledgment as a form of welcoming a foreigner into alien turf.  I’m chalking it as a net positive for humanity.

Conclusion:  If you’ve read this far, consider giving the next foreigner you see in your town a big hello in their language.  Hello!  There’s really no downside.

The Mask

Spend any time in Asia and you become accustomed to the mask as part of the (dress) culture. In my younger years, we only saw them worn only in hospitals, by doctors and nurses, to protect those they were working on from germs they might be carrying.

It may have been something like this. With a visor on the hat, I was well protected from a day in the sun.

Riding motorcycle trips throughout the Southwest USA, I frequently wore a bandana which hung from my upper nose and covered my face.  It was a mask for sun protection and doubled as a wet cloth when I need it.  In the Middle East, some tribes of Arab women wear masks for religious reasons.

With filters, they are becoming more innovatively stylish.

Now though, it’s become a trend to wear them as prevention from sucking in undesirable particles.  Airborne epidemics, pollen, and pollution have spread their popularity.

In China, where I am today, there is a pollution alert.  It’s a breezy, hazy, sunny day.  Perhaps because cigarette smoking is so common, (in all eating establishments including the kitchens and elevators, precious few places are smoke-free), a surprisingly small percent of people wear masks.  But in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing, much larger portions of the population sport the surgical mask look.  Thing is, for pollution, unless the mask is airtight with a quality filter, the thin fabric typically worn doesn’t filter the dangerous, smaller particles.

The masseuse I frequent to help loosen up my neck has started wearing one inside, even when there are no patients.

A typical Tokyo street scene.

In Japan, an even higher percent wear masks, not for pollution, but rather to prevent sickness, either from a virus or allergic pollen.  Many in that culture are more comfortable wearing masks in public as a habit, no worries about facial appearance (no makeup needed), less  chance interaction with a stranger, and in the process, might even prevent something contageous.  A good portion of the younger generation are content with ear plugs and eyes glued to a smart phone and face conveniently covered by a mask.

You’ve gotta love running — but there is no way you can breath heavy with ease.

Sure there are times when it’s prudent to make sure we don’t accidentally breath or swallow something nasty.  It’s surely nice to see food prep folks wearing them so as to prevent the otherwise inevitable and unintentional shared spittle that would end up as part of what we consume.

They are gradually becoming a fashion statement.

On the other hand, it seems that prolific use of this mouth and nose shield is a little neurotic that it has become a common wardrobe accessory.

As a (human) race, the face is the principle method of non-verbal communication.  It’s kind of ashame that we are slowly covering up that connection.

Resistance

It comes in many forms, psychological, physical, emotional.  We all know what it is to resist.  There are times to resist and times to go with the flow.  It’s pretty much futile to resist a forceful water current when you are head deep in a raging river.  On the other hand, resistance is helpful when we are up against regretful temptations.

But one area where we always want to invite resistance, is exercise.

Most of us don’t have jobs that involve tons of resistance activity, like shoveling cement into wheelbarrows, or being a mover, sanitary “engineer,” or package delivery person.  We lead relatively physically resistance-free lives.  Yea, it’s great to walk, jog, run, do yoga, meditate, and stand on your head.  All of those activities, done with purpose, can be considered forms of localized resistance.  But as we age, our anatomy responds well to resistance using a kind of brute force, for an added dimension of strength.

Light resistance works just fine.

Light resistance works just fine.

Loosely defined, resistance is a forced skeletal musculature contraction.  This isn’t bodybuilding, although it is.  Resistance training, the pushing and pulling to reach a point of slight discomfort, tones muscles, making us more agile and responsive.  By exerting muscle contraction, resistance exercise, done right, causes microscopic damage, which the body quickly repairs, making the muscles stronger.  After we reach our physical peaks in our 20’s, the muscle growth process slowly reverses.  Resistance minimizes muscle loss.  A resistance exercise habit also has a side benefit of increasing resting metabolism.

Where I live the gyms don’t open until 9 a.m., besides I’m gymed out.  Fortunately, there are plenty of parks with bars for body-weight resistance exercise.  But the routine was getting stale, boredom had been seeping in.  By good fortune, nephew Triple S, a young, but nevertheless master resister, a trainer of trainers, visited and introduced me to resistance bands, which fortified and expanded my limited routine.

These bands are my new best friends, even traveling with me.

These bands are my new best friends, even traveling with me.

The challenge to resistance exercise routines is actually resisting the resistance — battling the sound logic of the little voice which inevitably finds its way into our thoughts convincing us why today (any day) is a justified break from the discomfort of resistance.  It’s not easy to thwart awesome rationalism as to why we’d be better off not being uncomfortable.

If you don’t believe that a resistance workout habit is important, then maybe it isn’t.  So I’ll end these grainy thoughts by saying, ‘smartly done resistance hath hurt no man.’

If only all bar areas had this view. Last trip to Southern CA in Manhattan Beach.

If only all bar areas had this view. Last trip to Southern CA in Manhattan Beach.

Viet Nam — highlights of a recent trip

Viet, the name of indigenous people, Nam meaning south (originally South China)— is a country close to the consciousness of most Americans from my generation.  Halfway around the globe, we stuck our noses into someone else’s civil war, creating untold havoc, killing boatloads of their people and ours, distributed a gift called Agent Orange, a deadly chemical defoliant which had enormous detrimental effects for decades, then we left accomplishing little but destruction.  The war made no sense.  But then again, war is a business.

Where my head was in college

Where my head was in college

The protests were well into the swing of things during my high school years, culminating in the shooting deaths of several (white) students at Kent State University by reserve forces.  The level of social stress during the late 60s and early 70s compared to what is happening currently is significant.  Social media was still a long way off.  Now, of course, even small political issues, ever so slightly affecting our so called ‘human rights,’ run amok on social streaming formats stirring ordinary folk into a frenzy.

During my first year of college, the military draft was in its third year.  The top third draft picks were compelled to serve (in Vietnam).  I remember holding my proverbial breath the day my year was in the hat, but fortunately, I drew a high number, so my anti-VN war dilemma was at least partially resolved by the luck of the draw.21vietnam215

Anyhow, it’s all history as they say.  Since opening to globalization, many Americans have eagerly returned to Vietnam, perhaps subconsciously, to make sense of what the commotion was about.  It also helps that it’s an overall beautifully diverse country and people, with a respectable infrastructure,  and one of the cheapest places on earth to visit while offering decent creature comforts.

My first trip to Vietnam was a dozen years ago, a week-long sourcing trip to Hanoi and Saigon.  The next trip a few years ago to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) taught me that taking videos in the street was like offering up a photo-taking device to motorbike riders who would zoom by at city cruising speed and deftly snatch it from the hand of the unsuspected.   My new iPhone was only one-month-old at the time.

South Vietnamese parents, with their five children, ride along Highway 13, fleeing southwards from An Loc toward Saigon on June 19, 1972. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

South Vietnamese parents, with their five children, ride along Highway 13, fleeing southwards from An Loc toward Saigon on June 19, 1972. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

This trip, the planets aligned and gave nephew triple S, otherwise known as Super Sonic Sam (a close relation to a once known Super Sonic Steve) and me the opportunity for a joint motorbike exploration through the southern part of the country. Trip S has been roaming Asia since our last beachside trip a year ago. Even though we’ve both been to Vietnam, we each had more wandering we wanted to do there.   Fortunate timing gave us the ability to do at least part of that together.

Triple S arrived a week before me and bought a motorbike the same day I arrived.  I had a rental arranged.  Our plan: spend two weeks meandering from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang where we would dump the bikes and continue on our own separate paths, which is exactly what we did.

Once the convoluted visa process at the airport was concluded, I took a taxi to the place where I rented the motorbike online — about 25 minutes from downtown.  After doing the deal, strapping down my bags, I made it to my hotel in the dusk of rush-hour only by listening to a barely audible “left” or “right” from the headset of my phone’s GPS while zigging and zagging among tens of thousands of other motorbikes.  Anyone who has been to HCM knows, without exaggeration, that there are more than a million motorcycles, crisscrossing non-stop every which way.  In most intersections, the right-of-way is left up to whoever will yield first.  At times, it’s like the merging of two schools of fish swimming opposite directions, with bikes swarming on all sides, instinctively making split-second adjustments to avoid colliding.  It helps to have plenty of two-wheel experience. Having ridden a motorbike through Vietnam last year, TS took on the role of our navigator.

As was the case last year when trip S and I spent a week in southern Thailand, these two weeks in VN was another rich experience helped, in part, by a mutual workout/lifestyle ethos and a shared notion of maintaining a malleable perspective.

Following is a loose sequential pictorial summary as we started in the vehicle-dense city of Saigon, followed the coast north, wormed our way inland, climbed to the chill of higher elevation, before we serpentined back to the coast, staying at a couple of beach towns on the way to our biking destination.

Our 1st rendezvous was actually the week prior to our trip in Bangkok. The morning after I arrived we met at my favorite exercise area in Lumpini Park, where TS lead us through a series of activation stretches before we hit the bars. The TS man left for Vietnam that afternoon.

Our 1st rendezvous for the trip was actually the week before in Bangkok. The morning after I arrived we met at my favorite exercise area in Lumpini Park, where TS lead us through a series of activation stretches before we hit the bars for a resistance workout. Trip S departed for Vietnam that afternoon.

After checking in to my hotel, I found TS where he can normally be found, at the city's highest point, enjoying a wine and the view.

After checking into my hotel in Ho Chi Minh, I found TS where he can normally be found, at the city’s highest point, enjoying a wine and the view.

A not-so-busy HCM side street. Credit to SSS

A not-so-busy HCM side street. (Credit to SSS)

contemplation pre-trip

Contemplation pre-mc trip while waiting for breakfast of Pho

behind our respective hotels in HCM City

Behind our respective hotels in HCM City

bikes packed and ready to roll

Bikes packed and ready to roll, triple S’s machine on the right

outskirts of HCM City

Outskirts of HCM City, where the bike density was starting to thin

our first coffee break out of HCM

Our first coffee break out of HCM, along with a couple of sugar-free yogurts

first day breakfast stop

Found this guy at our first breakfast stop

A morning view out of our hotel room in Bao Loc

A morning view out of our hotel room in Bao Loc (credit TS)

heading into elevation

Heading into elevation on our slow climb to Da Lat

Triple S in action

Triple S in action — doing what he loves doing, as we moved up in elevation

we each bought badly needed leather jackets in Da Lat

We each bought badly needed leather jackets in Da Lat.  Don’t know what we would have done without them as they stayed on us for the next couple of days.

winding our way back down the mountain (credit to S)

Winding our way back down the mountain (credit to TS)

decent break

Descent break, after a couple of hours in fog, mist, and wind.

down at sea level after the Da Lat mountains

Down at sea level after the Da Lat mountains.  We were happy to feel the warmth of rice paddy weather.

our daily breakfast of eggs and coffee

Our daily breakfast of eggs and coffee.  In southern Vietnam, tea is normally served with coffee.

our workout area on the beach in Nha Trang, where there are way too many Russians

Our workout area on the beach in Nha Trang, where there are way too many Russians. Still, we spent two days here.

no the way up the coast toward Qui Nhon

On the way up the coast toward Qui Nhon.

outside Qui Nhon

Outside Qui Nhon

Yours truly caught in the act

Yours truly caught in the act

our hotel view in Qui Nhon (credit to SSS)

Our hotel view in Qui Nhon (credit to SSS)

Deserving of making two consecutive posts, this image was our patio deck in Qui Nhon, where we stayed two days, and doubled as our workout area by day.

Deserving of making two consecutive posts, this image is of our patio deck in Qui Nhon, where we stayed two days, and doubled as our workout area by day.

sharing a quick lunch in Qui Nhon

Sharing a quick lunch in Qui Nhon

Qui Nhon behind out hotel facing delicious street food

Qui Nhon behind out hotel facing delicious street food

On the road

On the road

Another welcome hammock break.

A welcome hammock break.

outside Hoi An (credit to SSS)

Outside Hoi An (courtesy to SSS)

Outside Hoi An, after a long day, one final stretch break.

A stretch break before arriving in an overally crowded Hoi An

Hoi An riverside

Hoi An riverside

Whatever they were, the accompanying homemade chili paste made this Hoi An street-side dish scrumptious.

Whatever they were, the accompanying homemade chili paste made this Hoi An street-side dish scrumptious.

Coffee break on the Hoi An river

Coffee break on the Hoi An river

Hoi An strteet satays

Hoi An street satays, and yes, they were delicious.

We grew accustomed to making our own VN coffee.

We grew accustomed to making our own VN coffee.

my workout area in Da Nang, what was called China Beach during VN war days -- rest area for US troops

My workout area in Da Nang, called China Beach during VN war days — a rest and recoup area for US troops

Had a nice morning nap on the beach in Da Nang before leaving VN. S stayed back in Hoi An.

A morning nap under the palm shade before heading to the Da Nang airport. Triple S stayed back in Hoi An.

Till another time.

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Trip S as we took a coffee break from heavy rain and enjoyed lounging in one of the many hammock cafes.

img_1146

We encountered this cheeky dude who was eating stir-fried morning glory and steamed chicken in a local Bao Loc joint.