The Conquistador’s Lament

I’ve put off writing the concluding post to the Latin America leg of the Conquest for long enough. It is time to try to put into words what the constantly smiling gringo felt so vividly for two weeks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We went to Iguazu Falls for Ben and the girls’ last leg of the trip. After 36 hours, Ben would fly off to Ibiza and the girls would continue onto Brazil for the next leg of their trip. I was heading back to Buenos Aires, excited about the prospect of exploring on my own terms, but missing the companionship of more travel partners I might never see again.

I checked into a hostel called “The Pink House.” That is a play on the name of the presidential mansion in Buenos Aires, known as Casa Rosada. It was spartan but clean in the Recoleta neighborhood, which I wanted to explore from instead of our further west initial place in trendy Palermo.

Recoleta is not really setup for tourists outside of the few blocks around the famed cemetery that holds Evita’s remains along with the dearly departed phenomenal mausoleum builders, some of which are seen below. Past that, it is very much a nice but ungentrified neighborhood in Central BA, serving as a portal to the governmental and financial districts. It is also a Jewish district, bringing me back to my first international travels where the herd of the very Catholic Stall family stuck out like sore thumbs among the Abraham Lincoln-esque costumes in the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood of Westminster.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I found some fine restaurants around the area, as well as a very overrated hamburguesa. There were plenty of cafes to hole up in on a rainy day, reading Seneca and then the mindblowing Kierkegaard. My appreciation for comprehensible philosophy grew in an unbelievable way. It is one thing to try to tackle Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is something vastly different to read Seneca’s common language letter to his best friend.

My days were filled with walking through antique shops on the way to the next cafe, late nights at jazz clubs, and treating myself to phenomenal steaks and Malbecs. Vicky continued to show me around in BA in a way that I never could’ve seen as a tourist, and the experiences continued to be incredible.

On Sunday morning, I trudged through a persistent drizzle towards San Telmo, about 4 miles from my hostel. About ⅔ of the way there, I got tired of being rained on and decided to get a coffee and a sandwich in the next cafe I came across. Bar de Cao was a relic from another age. 115 years old, it had wine bottles all over the walls, important documents from the history of Buenos Aires that had been signed there, and a spiked coffee named after Hemingway to boot.

There were 4 waitresses, one older and the other three about my age. They took turns swooping in on the gringo, with the short one (though still wearing 3 inch multicolored foam platforms on the bottom of her black sneakers) taking the first turn.

As my coffee turned into a ham sandwich, which turned into a glass of Malbec, the girls all took their turn seeing what they could get the blue eyed gringo to say. I sat there writing about one of them, as I often do while people watching.

Describing a living breathing person in minute detail who is interacting with the world and only very rarely you, that is a powerful writing exercise. The way she buttered the toast that she kept munching on, and the rhythm of her fingernails clicking the bar. The things that her body language said as she interacted with other patrons and staff. The way her mole wiggled as she laughed at my broken Spanish, and the muted one heeled turn she employed when walking away. All of these things are what makes real characters in fiction, a keen look at behaviors without becoming a direct (and therefore contaminating) influence. I’d be willing to wager great money that more than a few famous characters were the result of people watching in a bar with a notebook.

I sat there, writing away, both a character description and the outline of a novel, as I continued to soak up all the sensory perceptions that I could in a place that I might never come to again. Suddenly the older waitress comes bombing over to my table and says “Bag! You bag!”

Pretty startled from my dreamlike character study, I patted my wallet and said “No bag. All good.” She quickly grabbed a bartender who then grabbed the man sitting with his back to me at the table behind me, tossing him into the street. Apparently the man was feeling my coat, which was full of $400 worth of pesos, as I had just exchanged money that morning. The waitresses, now clucking around hen-like, never gave me more than 5 minutes without a visit again.

This was great service.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As I paid my bill, a comical $13 for 2 glasses of wine, a sandwich and a spiked coffee, I used my newly acquired Spanish to ask my muse for directions to the San Telmo market. Her body language immediately changed into one I hadn’t yet recognized, one leaning slightly forward in a vulnerable position, made incredibly disconcerting to an American boy with a huge weakness for Latin American women. We stumbled through my request, plenty of looking down and laughing as we both butchered the other’s language. Finally I got my directions and put on my green rain shell, and as I walked away from her, she lightly brushed my shoulder with her outstretched hand, raising the hair down my spinal column like contact with light electricity.

Vowing in blood to teach myself Spanish upon return to the US. I set off to a bookstore to find a Spanish fairy tale book to read to the ever growing legion of kids that my friends continue to hand off to “dear Uncle Moorman.” I figure start small and work up. No way I’m going to get anything out of trying to read Borges in Spanish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day, as I boarded the plane, I said goodbye to a country that found its way into my heart in the first 3 hours of my arrival, I wondered if I would get back. I tell myself I will, but then again there are a lot of places in that category at this point. International flights are the expensive part of travel, and that budget is shrinking rapidly as the business requires capital to grow.

Someday, when we get the business humming like it should, maybe I’ll go back. But it’ll be different, it always is. A few of the restaurants I grew to love will be out of business for one reason or another, the currency will have appreciated so that my beloved $12 steak is now $25. Vicky will be on assignment in Paraguay, or whatever far flung reaches of Latin America offer Deloitte the most billable hours, and the red wine won’t ever taste as sweet as that first Carmenere on the veranda of our AirBnB in Palermo.

Maybe that’s a pessimistic way to look at it, and I should adopt Ben’s travel thesis of, “every time in a place is different. It is the traveller’s job to separate them and don’t let the bad bleed into the magic of a first impression.”

Well that’s not quite how he says it, but it is the gist.

My time in Buenos Aires was incredibly magical. To kiss a gorgeous, intelligent and (really freaking tall) Argentinian girl in the midnight rain down a sidestreet lit up only by the neon of restaurants and bars, as you’ve just walked out of seeing a 17 piece jazz band that resolutely reconfirmed your love of live music. To walk back soaked to the bone, with a smile on your face because you stole a scene in life that is only real in the movies.

That’s magic.

That is undeniable, in your face, think about it on your deathbed with a smile on your face stuff.

Most of the time we let all of our moments bleed together, letting the bad stain the good with marks that won’t come off, but why? What do we gain by trying to compress our experience into a format where the greatest are marred by the average and the mundane?

So many moments of my life are compressed into a slurry that reminds me of the stuff inside of chicken nuggets. Sure, I think back on years of my life and I have some memory that will make me smile, but these are momentary placeholders in years of forgettable (and forgotten) experiences. A stolen chicken nugget tastes great, but eating the box of 20 at McDonald’s is a shit way to spend the 3 hours after a meal.

I am so glad that I’ve realized this early, and made it my goal in life to appreciate moments in real time. How few times do we realize how truly content we are in the moment itself? Most of the time it is the bitter memory of a time that was better than now, picked from the slurry of forgettable years.

Moments like that don’t just happen on travel. They happen every day. It is the “Eureka!” moment that comes in the business when you realize where the funding is coming from, or it is the moment when you take your highly technical designs to a Purdue professor, and have him stand up impressed.

These are moments that have to be savored in the moment to be properly remembered in the future. It is not a quantity race. It isn’t an Instagram picture from Greece with 200 likes in a moment that you don’t really remember because you were hammered. It can be the sunrise coming over a cornfield, or a moment of achievement after work well done. It can be the first time that baby grabs your hand, or the moment when your 6 year old finally starts turning his shoulders and hitting everything in sight in Coach’s Pitch.

It is about recognizing it, not has a hazy also ran picked from the lot, but as a vivid experience that gives you strength to think about.

As Seneca said in that letter to his friend, “Everyone hurries his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and a weariness for the present.”

Don’t be that person. Don’t be caught in a trap of “tomorrow will be different.” Live a life as a collection of moments that you will think back on in the past and say, “Well if I made it out of a 14 mile mapless bicycle odyssey around Buenos Aires in the dark, surely I can make it through this.”

That navigation fiasco could’ve been a real game changer in my time in Argentina. I could’ve had a real go at Ben and ruined our dynamic for the rest of the trip. Instead, it ends up being one of the truly treasured experiences of my trip, one where I learned to just keep pedaling and figure it out.

When I got back and did tersely tell Ben that he left me without a map and I didn’t appreciate it, he incredulously looked at me and said, “Listen mate, you’re an independent guy and you figured it out, I don’t see the problem.” He didn’t, and after 2 glasses of red wine, I didn’t either.

Nothing was irreparably broken, so why not enjoy the next sip of wine and let it go?

That’s a life worth living, where our triumphs are learned from and remembered, and our failures are learned from and left to the slurry of unfocused memories.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m glad I figured that out now, I’ve still got quite a few years before the scales fell from my eyes to catch up on.

There is truly wisdom to be learned from men who wrote down how to not take life too seriously. I’m glad that I stumbled upon Seneca and his brand of no nonsense Stoicism. To read it, take it in and digest it was truly a gift to have been done in Buenos Aires. To look around and say that I am in this moment and there is no where else I’d rather be, because tomorrow this won’t be the same. That’s a truly magical experience, no matter where it is.
Look for a few more of those. You’ll thank me when you find them.

Unlikeliest of Friends

In the last 6 weeks on the road, I’ve made more than my fair share of friends. One friendship that I will truly treasure as highly as any will be with Man from Hoi An.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A university student, studying of all things, Banking and Finance, Man was our tour guide with Hoi An Kids, a group which puts Western tourists with local university students to develop student’s English and foster a positive tourism experience within Vietnam.

DSC03031

Man took us to a local island where we got to see and participate in a variety of traditional local activities, from rice noodle making, boat making, mat weaving and an understanding of a local family temple.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

After spending 5 hours sweating and smiling along with us, Man suggested hitting up a bahn mi spot in Hoi An, which to my delighted surprise was once visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The sandwich really was a symphony on a baguette, with beef, chili, fresh cucumber, fried egg, chili sauce and a host of other lightly pickled vegetables that almost made me cry knowing I’d probably never have another again. He dropped us into another local coffee shop where we talked about the economics of his family’s farm and his ambitions after finishing university.

I asked him if he had any suggestions on how best to get up to Hill 55, a place where my Uncle Denis had fought during the Vietnam War.

Normally, I would’ve been a touch nervous about bringing the war up, but Vietnam is a place that is largely at peace with its past. One of the youngest populations in the world, Vietnam doesn’t bother with the problem of trying to explain away its history. The Vietnamese ethos is firmly in the present, with a solid lean forward.

There is something to be learned from that, both as a nation and as an individual.

**************

Man said that he’d be more than happy to take me up to Hill 55, and that he’d see me bright and early in the morning. 8 AM rolled around and he was at the gate, smiling as I choked through a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee.

We took off on his moped, to go grab one for me. We pulled into an alley off the main drag, (ironically only a few doors down from Cafe 43, where we’ve been taking our cooking classes) and he smiled and said, ‘There’s yours.” I jumped on my bike and away we went, about 20 miles outside of Hoi An to the site.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Vietnamese traffic, let me tell you, this was an adventure. I’m pretty well fearless where motor vehicles are concerned (thank you again Uncle Andrew) but this was just insane.

Imagine an Indianapolis 500 with 200 cars in the field, except with mopeds, cars, touring buses, and bikes. All vehicles go approximately the same speed, no two horns sound alike (though all are constantly being used) and no one has a rear view mirror.

The only rule is to not kill another driver.

I still have yet to see a stop sign since we left Hanoi, and I’ve only seen a handful of stop lights, all of which were treated as flippant suggestions more than the law. There is no such thing as a Vietnamese traffic cop, other than the guy with a scoop shovel who cleans up the inevitable accidents.

I was excited, but my ass still hurts from the constant clenching as I weaved in and out of mopeds carrying families, 16 foot long PVC pipes, 5 100 lb bags of rice, and a massive pile of rice sheaves reminiscent of a certain Monet series.

Then there were the middle of the road cattle drives.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But we got there, and that’s what’s important.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once we got there, Man showed me the still flattened remnants of the old American Marine Bases, while showing me the panoramic geography of the area. Even to a total military novice like myself, it was very obvious to see the military value of such a hill, which is why it has been fought over between the Vietnamese and their various foreign invaders for the past 1100 years.

Once we got to the top of the hill, Man and I talked about his thoughts on the wars. We talked about the long history of Vietnamese occupation. His reverence for “Uncle Ho” was obvious, but so too was his understanding that the past does not dictate the present.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Only in the past 39 years has Vietnam been a country allowed to operate on its own.

I want to be clear that I’m not about to embark on an American apology tour, a la President Obama 2008. Nor am I about to engage in re-fighting a war which cost both sides entirely too many fathers, brothers and sons.

There is a lesson to be learned from all things if one is willing to stop trying to justify the actions taken, and look at a situation holistically. Too often, we constantly try to paint history to put ourselves in a better light, at the cost of real growth.

The Vietnam War was an absolute tragedy. Americans have for 40 years tried their hardest to ignore it, and in doing so we have failed to learn the lessons it offered.

In 12 years of school, I never once was taught anything about the Vietnam War aside from the fact that it happened. A war that cost nearly 60,000 American lives wasn’t considered important enough to teach to our students from 1993-2005.

That is absolutely criminal. Having lived half of my life in a world shaped by the post 9/11 wars, I find it absolutely asinine that we aren’t teaching our students about a war that so brutally divided a country we still haven’t completely healed.

How can we ask the next generation of leaders to be better than the last if they aren’t expected to consider the historical situations that got us to where we are today?

The lessons offered by the Vietnam War were paid for with the blood of 58,220 men. It is a callous offense to their memories if we don’t learn from it.

Since landing in this country, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of Vietnamese history. Desire for self governance remains the prevailing theme regardless of what I read.

A day many thought would never come

A day many thought would never come

An excerpt of this unanswered letter, from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman in 1946 was particularly powerful to me.

“These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates (sic) as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”

As Man and I stood on that hillside, opposing heirs to a legacy of bloodshed, he looked at me and said.

“I do not hate America, I don’t understand why they fought my people, but that is in the past. The duplicitous Chinese are the enemy of the future, and Vietnam must stand with America against them.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we spoke, there has been diplomatic saber rattling about China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s maritime rights. I hope that America lives up to its once sterling reputation as “guardians and champions of world justice.”

For all of our diplomatic blunders, we are still the preeminent guarantors of freedom against those nations which would look to subjugate their neighbors.

I hope that we realize the responsibility of that preeminence. The world depends on it.

Lessons Learned

So when I started on this journey, I threw up the obligatory WordPress site and decided to be a diligent blogger of the trip. So far I’ve had 19 posts in 40 days, and while that isn’t amazing, I’m not totally ashamed at my laziness either.

However, I’d never really been a blogger before this, so it has been interesting to see what works and what doesn’t.

Lesson 1: People go goddamned bananas for any post involving food.

I started to notice this early, when I was posting pictures of the seafood feasts from Hamilton Island. Quite frankly yes, it was one of the more unbelievable meals I’d ever had both in terms of Nick’s cooking ability and the preposterous freshness of the food.

Mudcrab in Shanghai Sauce

The scenery didn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth either.

cropped-p4100228.jpg

People went bonkers over the food. I got more comments and emails about that that just about anything else I’d posted about from Australia. People wanting recipes, more pictures, the whole 9 yards, so I decided to be a little more accommodating here in Hoi An, by taking several cooking classes at local restaurants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was pretty excited to expand my cooking horizon, but Lord, people love reading blog posts about food they aren’t eating. Crazy to me but there’s something about food porn that reminds me of crack fiends. Guess I need to sprinkle a little more around.

Lesson 2: If there is water in a picture, everyone likes it better.

The whole time we were in Australia, I think that we were a maximum of 5km from a beach of some sort. Good country Australia, but they don’t get off the coasts much.

The Lookout

The Lookout

People seem to love the pictures of water, wherever it is. Murky river in a rice paddy outside of Hanoi? Yep, I’ll like that. I don’t get it, but give the people what they want. The Conquest hasn’t been properly dry since I landed here in Vietnam anyway.

2014-04-01-23-58-38.jpg

Lesson 3: If it ain’t on the front page, people aren’t fooling with it.

The blog posts on a daily basis are half me getting things down so that I remember them, and half so that other people can take 10 minutes at their computer to zone out and imagine being somewhere else. I’m glad that it is a symbiotic relationship from that perspective.

However, the whole point of the life transition was to work into more serious writing. The short stories on the site are really what I’m trying to develop more of (my current effort on one about the Alligator Man is coming…someday…I think.) People don’t tend to wander around on the ancillary pages though.

I guess that is my shameless plug to get people to read some of the short stories. There’s the link. Click it. I dare you.

Hopefully more will be coming soon.

Until then, food porn and water shots. The bread and circuses of the blogosphere.

Hoi An Cooking Classes

In an effort to both take in the local culture as well as learn how to replicate some of the phenomenal cuisine that we’ve been eating since arriving in Vietnam, Ben and I took a cooking class at our favorite Hoi An eatery, Cafe 43.

We were taught by the lovely Hien, who was as patient a teacher as we could as for. After 3 hours, (and some very stained hands from dicing Indian saffron) we produced 4 dishes with a pretty high level of success.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I know great picture of me right?

I know great picture of me right?

The cost for this gourmet lesson. $5.

It is good to be in Vietnam.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Below are the recipes for the things we made.

Grilled Seafish in Banana Leaf

Ingredients:
6 Banana Leaves
Whole Seafish- preboiled for 5 minutes
20 Grams Fresh Ginger
50 Grams Indian Saffron
4 Lemon Leaves
5 Stalks Lemongrass
8 Shallots
2 tsp smashed garlic
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Directions:
Finely chop lemongrass
Dice ginger
Dice saffron
Thinly slice shallots
Roll lemon leaves and slice
-Mash above ingredients in mortar until paste

Add garlic, pepper, salt and vegetable oil. Mix with paste

Place 3 banana leaves on each side of aluminum foil for a pouch
Place ⅓ of paste as a base on banana leaves
Place ⅓ of paste inside fish
Place remaining paste over top of fish
Fold uptight and clamp aluminum foil pouch over low heat for 30 minutes, turning once

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dipping Sauce for Seafish
½ tsp peper
1 tsp salt
4 tsp lime juice with seeds

Chicken Spring Rolls
100 grams minced chicken
Soft rice paper
200 grams of boiled chickpeas diced
½ tsp 5 Spice
30 grams carrot
30 gram sweet potato (boiled until soft)
1 taro (50 Grams) (boiled until soft)
Bunch of spring onions
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp 5 spice

Grate carrot
Mash chickpeas, carrot, sweet potato, and taro

Heat 10 inch skillet over low heat with 1.5 Tbsp of vegetable oil
Add 1 tsp garlic wait 1 minute and add spring onion, cook one more minute
Add skillet contents to mash
Add salt, pepper, sugar and 5 spice
Hand mix throroughly with paste

Spoon about a tbsp onto rice paper
Roll tightly, folding in ends once wrapped around once

Cook in ½ pan of vegetable oil to deep fry over low heat
5-7 minutes until golden brown
Roll spring rolls 1x to get both sides
Do not overcook

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sauteed Spinach and Garlic
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp pepper
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp vegetarian seasoning
1 tbsp dried garlic

Cooking:
Saute all ingredients covered over low heat for 5 minutes

Squid and Sour Fish Sauce
1 small red chile chopped diagonally with scissors
½ tsp garlic
½ tsp sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp fish sauce
Mix together until sugar dissolves

Stuffed Squid
1 8 inch squid tube of medium diameter
100 grams minced pork
1 tsp mashed garlic
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
½ white onion
25 grams carrot
Bunch of spring onion

Mix all ingredients besides squid, and leave for 3 minutes.

Dice onion, carrot.
Chop spring onion and leave separate

Place 2 tbsp vegetable oil in 10 in skilled, throw in pork mix.
After 1 minute add carrot
After 1 minute add onion
Saute until carrot is soft

Remove mix from heat, stuff inside squid tube, packing hard.
Affix toothpick across top of squid

Place 2 more tbsp vegetable oil into pan over low heat
turn squid on all 4 sides until golden brown
Use scissors to cut ⅔ down the squid tube after removing from heat
Remove toothpick
Eat with tomato and pepper sauce

Dipping Sauce for Seafish
½ tsp peper
1 tsp salt
4 tsp lime juice with seeds