Experiments in Smoothies

Didn't quite figure out the blender attachment situation...

Didn’t quite figure out the blender attachment situation…

Back home, my mom is the smoothie queen. When I’m visiting, the sound of the blender whirring in the late afternoon tips me off that I’ll soon get to sample her latest creation. Smoothies are such a delicious way to beat the heat in Southeast Asia, and they’re obligingly on pretty much every menu. I’m guilty of ordering one with essentially every meal… In Can Tho, Vietnam, I had a favorite spot for mango smoothies. Here, my hands-down favorite is the mango-passion fruit combo – although many places serve it with the passion fruit seeds included, which I’m more ambivalent about.

Dragonfruit dicin'Jacque and I recently decided to test out the small blender in our kitchen to grind up the selection of tropical fruits we bought at the market. I was surprised when she sliced open a dragonfruit to reveal dripping flesh in garish pink — I’d only ever seen the Dalmatian-esque white- with-black-seeds variety. In any case, the smoothie was an instant winner in the color department! Taste wise, it wasn’t much — the rather bland apple I threw in overpowered the more subtle taste of the tropical fruits, like mangosteen and rambutan. We didn’t quite have the blender screwed on all the way, so the end result was a fun color explosion, reminiscent of a high school chemistry lab.

Going for the gold

The second time around, I was going for the gold. I had been on a mission to buy a pineapple at the market, and I got one so ripe that in a matter of days it was turning to juice, whether I liked it or not. So into the blender it went, with some mango and banana for good measure. I’d say it was a winner!

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The (bi-)Weekly Dish – Weeks 2 and 3

Pad thai

Well, it’s proven a little harder to get blogging in than I anticipated. Work has kept me pretty busy (see a post I wrote about the fish passage conference I attended on the FISHBIO blog). but that’s the whole reason I’m here, after all, so I can’t complain too much. I will try to get a little better about more frequent updates, or at least sharing some photos occasionally.

The biggest development of the last two weeks is that I now I have a roommate! My boss’s niece Jacque is fresh out of the Peace Corps and is staying here until December while she, among other things, diligently studies for the GRE (I’m really impressed by her focus!). She’s also been a lifesaver in helping with data checking for a big FISHBIO project that is one of my many time consuming activities here. It’s been really fun to have someone to explore Vientiane with, eat with, and of course, do dance aerobics with! Jacque even has a blog of her own.

Jackie at a smoothie stand as we take a break from bike riding.

Jackie at a smoothie stand as we take a break from bike riding.

Here is a sampling of some of the food I’ve experienced or tried to make in the last few weeks. I am quite proud of my Thai basil bruschetta, but probably one of the best dishes I’ve had recently is the pad thai above. Lots of vegetables! I’ve also given in to fried food cravings in the form of fried rice and crispy spring rolls – although I’ve tried to compensate by making a few fresh spring rolls of my own. I know many people back home who are all about making these rolls, but this is my first attempt. When the raw ingredients, especially the herbs, are so abundant, it’s hard not to give it a try!

My co-worker Sinsamout’s mom was so kind and even gave us some Vietnamese-style dumplings wrapped in banana leaves that she made herself! It’s delicious and reminds me of home – called bánh giò (thanks, Cô Khanh!) I can’t remember the name for it (banh something – someone help me out!). It has meat and mushroom filling inside. Very tasty, and I was able to decently wing the fish sauce dip that Sinsamout advised me in making! I was also thrilled to rediscover the canned drink called coconut freeze that I fell in love with during my brief visit here last year (when I won a can as a prize in a carnival game!). The drink is coconut juice with sweet chunks of coconut meat mixed in – it’s so delicious, I need to figure out where to buy it in bulk!

The Weekly Dish – Week 1

Homemade omlet with some Asian herbsIf you’ve ever eaten a meal out with me, you’ll probably know that I’m one of those people who likes to take pictures of my food. When people make fun of me I either a) blame my brother for getting me started or b) say it’s because I’m Asian (true statement?). In any case, since eating is one of the best parts of cultural exploration, I figured I would do something of a weekly roundup to share some of the highlights.

Although probably not as exciting tastewise, the top photo is an omelet I made to celebrate stocking my fridge. It does have Asian herbs on it (cilantro, lemon grass) so that makes it cultural right? The toast was also a small victory (and attempt #2) in figuring out the settings of our toaster. The rest of the photos are a bit more reflective of the region…

Finally, a bit of cultural trivia I learned today: After Sinsamout (my Lao co-worker) sneezed, he explained that the Lao saying about sneezing is that it means somebody’s complaining about him somewhere. He gave me a ride to buy some fruit today – so it definitely wasn’t me!

The Floating Market

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Although I’ve now made it safely back home to California, I wanted to keep documenting some of the highlights of my trip.  Although the main point of my visit to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta was to learn about fish research, I did have plenty of time to play tourist. The ultimate touristy excursion—a trip to see the floating market.

At first, my cousin and I weren’t so sure about the 5:30 am departure from the hotel — at least, I wasn’t. But I still hadn’t fully adjusted to the local time during the first week of my trip, and luckily the jet lag worked in my favor. Apparently all the action at the market happens early, so no sleeping in.

Quan took this photo of me before sunrise (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

Quan took this photo of me before sunrise (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

The sun wasn’t quite up by the time we headed out on the water. Condensation clouded my camera lens after sitting in our over-air-conditioned hotel room all night. We had a boat to ourselves, and our driver was a skilled multi-tasker. She made us a variety of gifts throughout the day by folding and wrapping the leaves of a water coconut—while driving.  Sometimes it did seem like our boat was veering off on a questionable course…I guess it’s better than texting?IMG_0930

Lots for sale here...

Lots for sale here…

A lot of the activity had already quieted down by the time we reached the market around 7 am, but the piles of produce made a pretty sight in the early morning sun. A few boats sidled up alongside others, fruits and vegetables exchanged hands. For me, the most interesting part was learning about the advertising.

Each boat had a long pole attached to it, and our boat driver pointed out the produce hanging from each one —announcing what was for sale on the boat below.  That way you can make your way toward the correct floating stall from a distance. We happened to take this tour on Halloween, and I was surprised by the large number of pumpkins dangling from the poles. I didn’t even know they grew pumpkins in Vietnam.

Part of the tour included a visit to a rice paper and noodle-making factory.  We watched while the workers mixed rice flour, heated it into thin round sheets, and set those sheets out to dry or fed them through a noodle cutter. Maybe 10 people made up the whole operation. I’ve eaten so many noodles without ever wondering where they came from. IMG_0898

We then headed to a second, smaller market, where the biggest attraction wasn’t even staged for our benefit. A Vietnamese cell phone company called Mobifone had parked a huge powerboat at the edge of the market. The young employees in bright polo shirts and baseball caps made their way among the vendors in a smaller boat. They handed out to prizes like motorbike helmets, tried to get everyone ramped up to the blaring music, and (I’m assuming) extolled the virtues of their company’s products and services.  The vendors wearing their conical hats and patterned fabric shirts and pants mostly looked on. Just when you think you’ve found a tranquil backwater, here comes “the future” banging on your door…

By 10 am the sun was high and it was already hot. Our driver steered us to restaurant for lunch, where Quan and I had fun chatting with a German couple also from our hotel.  After eating, we walked around the back garden, crossing over a number of bamboo “monkey bridges,” each one looking narrower than the last. We also took a walk among some of the houses and rice fields.  Seeing the raised graves like stone houses, the burning incense offerings and papaya trees reminded me of the one kid’s book I had about Vietnam, called Ba-Nam.

Monkeying around...photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Monkeying around…photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

After lunch, our driver had thankfully put up a canopy on the boat for shade. We took a meandering ride back through the canals, past houses at the waters edge with laundry out to dry, trees with straw-like roots sticking out of the water, and little palm frond huts on stilts – covered “parking spaces” for boats. We got caught in a shower not far from the dock, sudden and intense, the way the rain just bursts from the clouds in Southeast Asia.  I would say thank goodness for putting up the canopy, but it somehow let loose a great splash of water all over my head. But in the Vietnam heat, it’s hard to stay wet for long.

A Meditative Thanksgiving

IMG_0184I spent this Thanksgiving at a Buddhist temple in Vietnam. I had wanted to work a little meditation retreat into my trip, and Thanksgiving seemed like an appropriate time for contemplation and reflection. I felt I needed to do something to mark the holiday, to justify spending it away from home.

This was my second Thanksgiving apart from family. The first, six years ago after studying abroad in Australia, included a camper van and three friends as we travelled around Tasmania. We found a pay phone and took turns calling our families, then made stir-fry. Something about spending holidays away from the people you love makes the ones you spend with them that much more meaningful.

Arranging this trip to the temple had taken a bit of effort. Unlike other countries (say, India) where I imagine there is a meditation center on every corner, things aren’t really set up in Vietnam for foreigners to stay and meditate for multiple days, especially if you don’t speak the language. A family friend had suggested I try to stay at a temple with all women. They do take visitors, but it requires a bit of formality and prearranging. I called one Vietnamese temple in California and visited another to meet with the abbess. She recommended I stay at Vien Chieu, the temple she was originally from. The temple is in Dong Nai province, a two-and-a-half hour drive east of Ho Chi Minh City.

IMG_0253The all-female temple is home to 150 nuns and nuns-in-training. My experiences during two nights there can easily fill another blog post, so for this one, I’ll just focus on meditating and eating (in the spirit of Thanksgiving).

To get a sense of the place, it’s worth sharing the daily schedule:

3:00 am: Wake up to the sound of the big bell
3:30-5:00 am: Sitting meditation
5:30-6:00 am: Chanting prayers
6:30 am: Breakfast.
7:30-11 am: Do chores, work around the temple.
11:00 am: Lunch
Noon-1:00 pm: Sleep
1:00-400 pm: Dharma lessons and/or meditation
4:00-6:00 pm: Free time
6:00 pm: Dinner
6:30-7:00 pm: Chanting prayers
7:30-8:30 pm: Sitting meditation
9:00 pm: Sleep.

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The only time I’ve ever meditated consistently was five years ago, during a three-month stay at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington. Those three months were also some of the best of my life, an experience I can’t help but describe as “magical.” Although it was wonderful for all kinds of reasons, I sometimes wonder how much the meditation helped with my mental outlook. What kept me consistent was having a buddy, another girl who sat with me for 20 or 30 minutes every day before breakfast. Being accountable to someone else gave me the motivation to get out of bed a little earlier — which back then was only 7 am or so.

So now consider 3 am. At that hour, it helps not only to have a buddy, but also a giant bell that sounds a like a cross between a gong and an enormous clock chiming. It rings in a low, rhythmic but insistent tone, prying me from sleep. I grab my two cushions, a large, flat square one and a taller round one, and head downstairs from the guesthouse where I’m sleeping.

IMG_0234In the kitchen, a young novice nun hands me a pack of instant sweet coffee and a small glass. She pours in about a quarter of the hot water I normally use. I almost ask for more, then watch her gulp down her own strong glass in a few sips, almost like a shot. It’s time to get moving.

In the pre-dawn darkness, under glittering stars, we head to the meditation hall, a beautiful building shiny with dark, polished wood. We climb the curved wooden stairs. The novices carry cushions for some of the older nuns. The nuns sit in two long rows on either side of the long hall; the novices and I sit on the balcony, facing outwards.

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Before sitting, we line up in two long rows, facing each other, and they chant some prayers. The big bell sounds, someone else beats a drum. The rising and falling tones of Vietnamese lend themselves well to singing. It sounds almost Native American. It’s enough to get your heart going.

We prostrate to a statue of the Buddha three times, then disperse to our cushions. The big bell sounds a few more times. Then, silence. Except, not really. Crickets chirp, a few early morning birds twitter. During the evening sessions, frogs croak in the pond and dogs bark in the distance. Bats flit around the white flowers of the large tree in front of me. There are plenty of stimuli to distract me from the task at hand if I want them too.

The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it as always completely dark.

The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it was always completely dark.

The nuns practice zen meditation, which, in theory, appears deceptively simple. Observe your mind. Notice when a thought arises. Realize it is just an illusion. Let it go. Return to observing your mind. Simple, until you realize just how incessantly and thoroughly your mind fills with thoughts. Thinking about people, places, events that have happened or have yet to happen. These thoughts that bring about our happiness and sadness—they don’t really exist. They’re just projections that prevent us from truly experiencing the present moment.

The first evening I sat with the nuns felt like the longest hour ever. My thoughts jumped all over the place. I felt almost afraid of quieting my mind, afraid of the emptiness I would find if I let go of my world of thoughts. I felt myself tensing up, thinking that all of this was hard work, how exhausting it was to watch my mind at every moment. And sometimes, in fleeting moments, I felt myself relax. I’ve read that sitting on the cushion should just be an extension of your real life. Your mind should be in a similar, watchful state at all times. Except on the cushion, there are fewer distractions. It’s the training ground—and it can be challenging enough.

There are distractions aplenty for an untrained mind. In addition to the sounds of nature, I found myself puzzling over a periodic, wooden sound, thwack, thwack, THWACK, like two blocks hitting each other. Was it some kind of ritual happening behind me? Then one of the walking nuns knelt next to the woman sitting next to me, who rubbed her shoulder slightly. The kneeling nun proceeded to whack the sitter on the back with what looked like a wooden flyswatter. Thwack, thwack, THWACK. Clearly this was welcome relief for a cramping muscle, because the sitter acknowledged the thwacking with a little bow. But for me it brought to mind the image of Catholic nuns wielding rulers in the schoolroom. I couldn’t help but tense up when the walking shadows passed by. Don’t hit me, don’t hit me, don’t hit me… Kind of funny to think about it now.

IMG_0227Sitting for long periods can definitely cramp up your body. After thirty minutes, the cushion felt as hard as a stone. Trying to shift my crossed legs discretely was a challenge —like the nuns, I was dressed in a long shirt and pants, with an outer tunic-like dress over that. And I was sweating. My legs and fabric and everything felt stuck together. The sun wasn’t even up. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to sit here at the height of summer in its muggy, humid glory.

On the second morning, it dawned on me as the bell sounded and we settled down to sit, that for everyone except for me, this was the real deal. This wasn’t some special event, and certainly nothing staged for my benefit as a tourist. Every single morning and evening, these women sit and confront the true, stripped-down nature of their minds. And though I admired them for it, I found myself relieved, almost desperate, to return to my familiar world of distractions. It’s one thing to acknowledge that the sensory pleasures of the world actually bring you suffering in their impermanence. It’s another thing to walk the talk, to renounce them entirely.

IMG_0393A little wind chime over my head faked me out once or twice during the sessions into thinking the meditation was over. Another time, I stole a glance at my watch and it was 4:59. The session ended at 5 am—couldn’t I have held out for just one minute longer? The bell sounded to mark the end of the meditation, and the nuns spent a good five or seven minutes stretching and massaging their faces, necks, backs and limbs. I always felt relieved.

Altogether, I sat five times over the course of three days, for an hour or an hour and a half each time. Each time was a challenge, though it got easier. And in the best moments, it became clear how many of the things that cause me stress and distress don’t really exist. That I can have more control over what runs through my head. That I’m mentally stronger than I think I am.

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And now, a few words on eating. The vegetarian meals I ate with everyone in their common area—breakfast and lunch—were marked with ceremony. Once everyone has piled up their food, buffet style, and filed into the cafeteria, the nuns recite some prayers and bless the meal.

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The Buddha instructed five basic points for monks and nuns to contemplate while eating in silence. Huan, my translator, broke it down for me like this:

1. Think about all the people and effort necessary to bring this food in front of you.
2. Contemplate your virtues: have you worked hard enough to earn this food others have given to you?
3. Guard against being greedy in your eating.
4. See the food as medicine to nourish your body (more than a source of pleasure)
5. The purpose for eating this food and nourishing your body is to study the Buddhist path and help yourself and others reach enlightenment.

To me, these seemed like fitting reflections for Thanksgiving. The nuns recite the contemplations, then bless their bowls of rice. You balance the bowl on three fingers of your left hand and hold it to your forehead.

On Friday morning, around the time many people back in the US gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, I sat down to a breakfast of rice, greens, eggplant—and, to my great delight, butternut squash. Golden and delicious, and one of my holiday favorites, it felt comforting to eat thousands of miles from home. We also had a bright pink broth, the color of beets (or cranberries) that looked festive, but was rather sour, and I think flavored with some kind of fruit. Bananas for desert.

All in all, it was a holiday unlike any other, and one I’ll remember for a long time. And I even made it back to my cousin’s house on Friday after an eventful bus ride (25 people crammed into a 12-seater van, the woman next to me throwing up into a plastic bag…) to Skype my family at the end of their Thanksgiving. After being “away from it all” for a few days, there’s nothing like technology to bridge the distance of an ocean.

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The Pineapple and the Coconut

Plenty of pineapple at the floating market.

My saga to learn Vietnamese continues…

I took one Vietnamese class during my junior year of college, the only time such a class was available at any of the schools I’ve attended. I remember feeling frustrated at all the time and emphasis spent on the six Vietnamese tones or accents. I wanted words! I wanted to understand things! The tones just seemed like semantics. Plus, they are really difficult for a self-conscious speaker with a thick tongue.

But in a tonal language like Vietnamese, the tones are the key to understanding and (correctly) saying anything. It’s not enough to learn the general shape of a word, the pattern of consonants and vowels strung together that make one word distinct from another.  This approach, which helped me learn English and Spanish, doesn’t apply here, where the same word can have six different meanings depending on its tone. So it’s back to the basics of inflection for me.

Many of the Vietnamese words I’ve accumulated until now revolve around food. I’m pretty solid on fruits (at least, common fruits in the US), but for the life of me could not remember coconut or pineapple. Now I’ve realized it’s because the words are spelled exactly the same, with only the accent mark and the inflection of your voice to tell the difference. Pineapple = dứa, and coconut = dừa. Oh, and to make it more fun, the “d” is actually pronounced like a “z” if you’re from the North of Vietnam, and like a “y” if you’re from the South. Keeping all that straight?

During a floating market tour in Can Tho, we walked through a garden with a pineapple tree (plant?) growing near a coconut palm. Our fellow tourists from Germany expressed surprise that pineapples grow out of the ground. That’s it, I thought. Pineapples (dứa) grow up from the ground and have an up inflection, while coconuts (dừa) fall down from the tree and have a down inflection.

Never mind that I could just use another word for pineapple (thơm) that sounds nothing like coconut. I was pretty proud of myself for that one. But creating mnemonics for every Vietnamese vocabulary word? Fat chance. So it’s back to my little book, hoping that writing things down will help me recognize and remember new words. I need to sort and catalog them into different mental bins for the different tones. Learning to read, write and speak a word all at the same time seems like a tall order, but I’m realizing I can’t really do one without the others. The only way I’ll be able to navigate this language is knowing which way the tones go.

Writing it down….Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Learning Vietnamese by Matchbox

An unlikely teaching aid. “Get the lottery results live by mobile phone.” Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Teaching aids come in some varied and unlikely forms on my quest to learn Vietnamese. Two of my favorites are signs and advertisements. Big, bold words and short phrases have a better chance of sticking in my brain—manageable chunks I can decipher and digest. And for someone as slow to learning Vietnamese as I am, the repetition of common signs is a blessing, like roadside flashcards.

Thus, I’ve learned that the ubiquitous signs for “ra xe” mean “car wash.” This is often paired with the conveniently rhyming “sa xe” or “car repair.” Except, in this country “car” refers to a motorbike more often than not.

My trusty vocab book.

My other big language aid is my cousin Quan, who traveled with me to Can Tho.  I tend to pepper him with questions over meals. What does this sign mean? How do you say this? What did you just say to that person? It takes a lot of effort from both parties, but when we’re both feeling up for it, the language exchange is quite fun. When I’m really on top of it, I whip out a little book to write the words down, hoping this will cement the connection in my head.

The spoken language just washes over me in waves of rising and falling tones, which I can’t yet decipher with any consistency. So I cling to the written word, the printed word, as something tangible I can wrap my head around at my own pace. During a visit to a café, I pounced on a matchbox sitting on a nearby table. What luck! What a trove of new words at my disposal! Thanks to Quan, I now know that the matches are high quality, and I can get the lottery results directly on my mobile phone.

Fun language connections sometimes ensue from learning new words. For instance, the bowls of water and flowers made me ask about the word for “float,” which is nổi. That reminded me I had already heard the word in the term “floating market”(ch ni), which we had visited earlier.

And that lead my cousin to tell me about the expression “Ba chìm, by ni,” which literally means “Three (tenths) sinking, seven (tenths) floating.” It’s something you say when someone asks, “How are you?” Kind of like saying “so-so,” but with the relative ratio of bad to good. (You can also switch it around and have “Seven parts sinking and three parts floating,” if things aren’t really going your way.) I’m so tickled by the mathematical preciseness of it. Ratios! In pleasantries!

Artichoke tea!

It wouldn’t be a true Vietnamese coffee shop experience without Vietnamese coffee, so we ordered some. The coffee, which is often served with condensed milk, is incredibly strong and sweet. It’s really delicious, but for someone like me who usually goes easy on caffeine, it can bring on palpitations. So I switched to tea. Quan recommended I try a flavor called “atiso,” which I had never heard of. To my surprise, the tea bag set in front of me read, “artichoke.” The tea had so much sugar that my sweet tooth was singing, and made it hard to tease out the true taste. Something that sugary couldn’t help but be delicious, although I think the flavor would be pretty pleasant on its own. I’d give it a hearty endorsement for the next artichoke festival in Castroville. Why has this not already caught on in a big way?