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Peanut Butter, This What?

9 minute read

postcard from Banten

I never learn.

If there are two items you must not forget when travelling, they are your universal travel adapter and your watch.

I keep forgetting either one but that is seldom a problem. Forgetting just a travel adapter means you can tell time with the other essential item, the watch; forgetting the watch but having the adapter means you can tell the time with your mobile phone, iPod, or computer.

I had neither this time.

And so it was that I woke up on Thursday morning with a jolt. I had a flight and it was one I could not miss: I had a dinner appointment in another country. Not having a travel adapter meant my phone was dead for days and I therefore couldn’t inform my dinner date of any changes in the plan; the only alternative then was to make it for dinner. Not knowing what time it was I leaped out of a sofa in downtown Jakarta and sped into the bathroom, having stripped fully and redressed entirely in the 5 steps it took to get there, swept all my toiletries off the bathroom counter, administering the contents of these toiletries on my face and mouth before they got into the bag, relieved myself concurrently, and was out of the house (also having checked three times that I didn’t leave any thing behind, which would be disastrous: I don’t have the key into this apartment) exactly four minutes since I woke up with a jolt.

Downstairs at the foyer I cut the line and jumped into a taxi still worried I might miss my flight. It was 11 am.

On checking my flight ticket I realized I was, for the first time, grossly early for a 2.55 pm flight. At least that gave me enough time to get through the predictably unpredictable Jakarta traffic.

By 11.45 am I was at Soekarno-Hatta airport. If you’ve ever been there you know how that airport does not in any way resemble the airport of the capital city of the fourth most populous country in the world. The way it’s built it looks like someone took a bunch of the dullest looking Lego bricks and lined it up in a row. At each break between a set of bricks someone else started labelling them: International, terminal A, B. Domestic, terminal C, D. You can only enter the airport if you have a boarding pass and a passport, everyone else had to clamber up some steps to the Waving Gallery. The only thing you can do at the terminal is check in. The international terminal is too crowded; it makes you sprint from place to place looking for where you’re supposed to be, before going through another hurdle (to pay fiskal, 1 million rupiah for Indonesians, 100 000 rupiah for everyone else), then getting into the grotesquely long passport control lines. The domestic terminal is far more sedate and cuts to the chase. You enter the terminal; look at the screen; the check in rows are 5 feet in front of you. You check in your bags, then walk 100m to pay fiskal (30 000 rupiah, domestic). Then you get on the plane. I have seen airports in small tribal town India that work and look better. Guwahati airport in Assam, for example, is light years more advanced.

But never mind all that because Soekarno-Hatta airport has a Krispy Kreme outlet — outside, as all the shops are.

While attempting to check in early I notice my flight had been delayed to 4.15 pm. I take to delays with a certain degree of nonchalance that only experience with budget airlines and Indian trains can afford. I sit at a restaurant eating overpriced soto babat, and only because A&W Indonesia doesn’t have curly fries, and talk to strangers. One man sitting next to me with an Eee PC tells me he is Vietnamese American and is travelling the world; he’d quit his job, but as a world class backgammon player… plays backgammon online and makes more money from that than some investment bankers I know. We both have not showered in many hours and as solo travellers, need each other: to watch our things when we go to the toilet to wash our faces.

When it was time to check in for my flight at the new timing, I roll my trolley all the way back to the domestic terminal. The screen has been saying “retimed: 4.15 pm” all this while. Announcements are impossible to hear in this airport, if they exist at all. While trying to check in I find out my flight… berangkat! Departed. At the old time. It wasn’t delayed after all. Although the screen still said my flight is leaving at 4.15 pm.

So I’d missed it and was put on the next flight to my destination… at 6.40 am the next morning. I was running out of Indonesian currency, and money changers don’t really exist in this airport (or they do, but in the most inconvenient place possible — at a location which necessitated me taking a shuttle bus there); I was getting cranky. I decided to stay in the village nearest to the airport rather than brave traffic back into Jakarta, preferring village life to hanging out at Soekarno-Hatta even though I knew my new friend the backgammon champion was going to be playing backgammon online at the airport until 10 am the next day. Every minute there was depressing.

Someone booked me a decent hotel in that village, and they also came to pick me up. When I arrived in Banten I felt nothing. No panic, no horror, just one question: what am I going to do until 4.30 am tomorrow? (Remember, not having travel adapter = no laptop and mobile phone.)

The hotel was decent enough. I’m used to hotels of all stripes. My accommodation preferences sway two ways: either extreme luxury of the private retreat sort, or bottom of the barrel. I mostly dislike everything in-between and would rather stay at a place scraping the bottom of a barrel than yet another soulless hotel. The bottom of the Banten barrel, this Sri Permata place, wasn’t too bad. I mean, I have stayed in leprosy mission guesthouses in Bangladesh, longhouses hours away from cellular coverage in Borneo, and box-sized rooms in Calcutta. And enjoyed them all.

It’s the sort of place where everything on TV is in a language you don’t understand.

In my case, everything on TV was in a language I understood in fits and starts. My grasp of Malay/Indonesian is shaky, not having done it in school, and with the sentence structures of a two year old and the vocabulary of a three year old, it’s frustrating to understand bits and nothing else. Though my dedicated efforts in reading signboards in Malaysia mean my abilities in this language are slowly improving (Me: “What’s_faedah_?!”, on an insurance signboard. Her: “Say it again! Hahaha!” Me: “Frown!”) it still counts for nothing. If anything at all I feel like an idiot. Watching TV affirmed this. I understood one in ten words.

So an Indonesian comedy program, which I’m sure was very funny to the native audience, sounded to me like this:






(Audience: “Hahahaha!”)

Me: “There are many mosquitoes in this room alright.” (in my head, and in English /switches off TV) Though to my credit, I did understand that they’d written in a product placement for Hak Hak Bento prawn tempura: they’d erected an entire shopfront on the set and were discussing how delicious prawn tempura was. Not entirely useful linguistic skills, then.

By which time it was 5.50pm and every channel on TV was a call to prayer for buka puasa(break fast). I wandered out into the village in search of food.

Since I had 11 hours to kill in this place I picked a warung at the brightest spot in town — Cafe Rindu, right outside Indomaret, Indonesia’s answer to 7-Eleven. In a town like this, 24h convenience stores did not exist. They closed at 10pm. I had 4 hours to go in the bright lights of this warung.

Reading Indonesian menus are never too harrowing. Being from where I am I understand 98% of menus in Indonesia and have probably eaten most of it. It seemed like a day for_roti panggang_ (toast), but so many options! Coklat! Keju! Strawberry! Selai kacang! It didn’t seem like a night for chocolate, cheese or strawberry. But just what was the last option?

I puff up my chest slightly and furrow my brow.

“Kak. Errrr… selai kacang. Ini apa?”

If anyone ever asked me that in English I would react the same way 18 year old Yati did. Stumble, laugh, giggle, and not know what to say.

“Peanut butter. This what?” What is the world? Why is the sky blue? Why does my Indonesian suck? Why am I so hungry? What is life? Why are we here? How does one answer that?

Yati pondered the deepest existential question posed to anyone since The Answer is 42. What is peanut butter, indeed?

She made me some, and I understood. I understood the secrets of the world, and why we are here. To eat peanut butter toast at a warung in a random, faceless small town in Java. To do all that while attempting to talk to people in a language I don’t entirely understand or speak.

When it was all over she asked me to be her friend. In Indonesian, of course. (“What? Huh? What did you say? Speak slowly? I is from Singapur. me speak Bahasa Indonesia a little bit a little bit.”)

I wanted to ask her to leave me her address so I could send her a postcard.

“Please give me your maklumat.”

Blank stare.

(Maklumat = information)

“Sorry, please give me your alumat.”

Another blank stare and a giggle. I vow to stop trying to speak Indonesian if I get it wrong again.

(Alumat = doesn’t mean anything)


Yati clapped her hands, giggled, actually shrieked and did a little jiggle. And wrote excitedly on my writing pad. In English. Name = Yati. Age = 18. Address = xxxxx, Banten, Indonesia.

I’m not used to girls behaving like that towards me at all, certainly not used to tudung-wearing girls in Java (or anywhere else) being so excited about me.

I wish I could tell her peanut butter is the world, but knowing my shit Indonesian it would probably come out as “in the world, peanut butter is”. Or “peanut butter, in the world”.

It was time to leave. And I had her alamat, and all the maklumat I needed. Now to tidur, and balik ke SingapurLangsung!

A few Malay/Indonesian language elves died in the process of writing this entry.

(Incidentally, for years my mother thought I was dating a Javanese girl named Yati. And chose to call her Yeti. How that’s anywhere close to Z’s real name is a mystery to all of us. My mother was also fond of boasting to her friends that Yeti was the colour of kopi susu_and like _hitam manis — milk coffee, and black and sweet, which I guess ties into the whole abominable snowman idea — so I guess irrelevant Indonesian skills are something I inherited.)

My City

4 minute read

My city is often made out to be a boring business city, sterile and lifeless. Not entirely. No amount of protestation at how we’re really unique, though, is effective in driving home the truth about (some parts of) my city — how there are bits you can really love, if you look hard enough.

My city, tonight, started off innocuously enough, with a solo train ride back to the city from the airport. Wondering around the east, feeling like I’m exploring a new country altogether, one I only go to in order to leave and return to the country, before running back towards the familiarity of the places I know and the places I love.

Little India was my first love. It was here where I wandered about, as a kid visiting relations, demanding ice cream and discovering kulfi, my first taste of something new, different, bold — pistachio, spices, cream, all the better to quench the heat. Then as a teenager, discovering the back roads of Little India, talking to everybody, wandering into every shop; how I can always count on being fed for free by Indian hawker families who now treat me as their own niece, how after twenty years, I am still in awe, still finding new places, new tastes, and new people. Then going to places like Triplicane, Chennai, and feeling entirely in my element, knowing where to find things and occasionally, what to say.

Then Arab Street, adjacent, separated only by that canal. It is a walk I make often, in either direction, past the thieves’ market at Sungei Road where I followed my father to as a child, complaining, sweating under the heat looking at old, dirty things and deciphering rude Hokkien shouts they call Hokkien conversation, which I now love. Past Kelantan Road, which I know for the laksa my mother loves. Jalan Besar: that Chinese fringe of Little India. Kitchener Road, Maude Road, Tyrwhitt Road. The parts in which I find myself, often, thinking of as Scissor Cut Curry Rice, Pu Tien (Henghwa restaurant), Min Chung (Henghwa coffeeshop, amazing clams), and Northern Thai (what was once my favourite tomyam soup haunt, with fried fish).

My city, tonight. First off the train into the city, then Haji Lane, Bussorah Street, Arab Street, Kandahar Street. These are the streets where my memories, both happy and tragic ones, were made. Then that walk across that canal and into Little India; years before I was born my grandfather worked at that huge market in the area, now I know it almost instinctively. Desker Road — you know it for the transvestite brothels — I know it for Usman, the Pakistani coffeeshop at the end of the street, in bright blue. Shahi paneer, fried dhal, kadai chicken, and the first palak paneer that even remotely agreed with my by now demanding tastes for food from this region. They knew us, we regulars; after all this is where I once ran up a tab for the copious amounts of tea I used to drink here. Tonight I was here with someone more regular than I, someone who could actually speak their language (someone so regular they deliver to his doorstep when he asks!). My rudimentary Hindi won me plenty of points.

If you don’t know a thing about South Asian cultures, you might find Little India one big, scary, monolith (I still find it appalling that Chinese people here think there is a language called “Indian” and one uniform “Indian identity”). But you get the South Indian, Tamilian influence everywhere along Little India, them forming the primary Indian population after all; but the further north you get, the more diverse. Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants and shops, sporadic and not entirely large enough to form Little Pakistan or Little Bangladesh, but thousands of miles out of the subcontinent, co-existing in harmony. Tonight, I wolfed down my lovely Pakistani meal, had a never-ending discussion about travel in Pakistan and Mughal-e-Azam, then popped over to a Bangladeshi restaurant on “Bangla Square” to get us a misti doi each.

Cultures clash so often in this part of the world, I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore — but as I made vain attempts to show off what little Bengali I knew (this doesn’t take very much effort for a yellow girl), the owner of the place spun around from the hilsa he was scooping and said: ni zai wo de guo jia… zou lai zou qu ma? (were you walking around in my country, Bangladesh?), and was happy I’d been to his “native” (Rongpur). He apparently worked in Taipei for a while, and his Mandarin was probably as bad good as my Bengali. But still. The misti doi was great. The misti doi made me ache a little for the subcontinent. As a parting shot, I took a stab in the dark and asked if he would know where I could buy Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s Bangla music. This being Little India, after all, he shouted out of his shop — someone came running by waving a TV controller about shouting “what is it?” — and promptly led me away to a little cornershop in an alley. The name? Dhaka Corner. They had my Mukhopadhyay, as well as the Ornob album I wanted, and recommended a new Bangladeshi popstar called Habib, who really is excellent. All this, just a stone’s throw away from where I spend so much of my time, Mustafa Centre. So in one evening alone, I had dinner at a Pakistani restaurant with a Nepali boy and some Chinese friends (and generally felt like we were showing them around a new country), bought misti doi from a Chinese-speaking Bangladeshi, found the Bengali music I’ve wanted for ages, then long conversations about Lahore with random intriguing Pakistanis.

Some nights, I really love my city. Tonight was one of them.

Chasing the Monsoon

5 minute read

Where I dig through my archives and repost the stuff I like. This is from 2007.

Ask me again a year, three, or five from now and all I will remember is driving up, around, up, around, up, around, in the swirling clouds as the rain lashed at my windows and I feared for my life, balanced so daintily in this tin can navigating itself on the hairpin road. This being Meghalaya, where everyone loves their rock ‘n’ roll, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” blasted from this tin can while I said a little prayer.

The purpose for this journey? To spend the tail end of my summer living out the monsoon in the world’s wettest (inhabited) place. If London gets close to 600mm of annual rainfall, where I was hitting up racked up 12000mm consistently, also the holder of two world records: highest monthly rainfall, highest yearly rainfall.

Ask me again a year, three, or five from now and I will still tell you the same thing: I’m not sure why I do the things that I do. Except that I was chasing the monsoon, that year and it just so happened I was paid for it.

We’d gone from my beloved Calcutta hurriedly, up to Darjeeling. I was eager to revisit that hill station with such a huge chunk of my heart before the rains shroud my beloved Kanchenjunga in the monsoon mist. I remember walking, walking for no particular purpose, just as it’d been the last time. Even in leaving, I remember driving, driving for no particular purpose. We drove down the winding mountain roads, stopping in Garidhura for a chai. In Garidhura a toothless man grinned at us, saying he’d been an English teacher for decades but hasn’t had much practice in a while. We only had time for a chai and a chai’s worth of conversation; then we continued driving, driving very fast, driving around bends, past tea plantations, past army barracks. Rapidly descending in circles but what the air took in altitude, it gave back in the freshness of tea plantations and the lingering scent of Darjeeling, my sweet, strong, Darjeeling without sugar.

But to chase the monsoon across to the west coast and down south — there was a quick intermission of the scorching Indian summer in the plains, by the Ganges and in the desert. Before long the three weeks of enforced vegetarianism had passed, and so had the worst of scorching Indian summer nights, there we were in Bombay. Expecting the monsoon to lash at Bombay as it had the past year, we quickly took off to catch a bit of the beach before the sea devoured it. Palolem, Goa. The monsoon had caught up with us. It didn’t rain but it poured for more than 15 hours a day — a few died in a neighbouring state, while they began to dismantle everything on the beach slowly. We were one of the last huts standing, still reluctant to leave, even though the monsoon had taken our electricity and internet and phone lines, and the sea crashed at our doorstep every night. A man stood in a raincoat knocking at my door at 10pm, saying he loved me and can you please come to Palolem in December. I broke poor Jailesh’s heart without him being ever able to understand why. We packed up the next morning, waited for the rain to subside before braving the journey out of Palolem and into Canacona. Even within the comforts of my air-conditioned sleeper bus to Bangalore, water went drip drip drip on my face, and unlike more natural elements, a broken air-conditioner right above me is more predictable than I’d like.

Ask me again in a year, or three, or five, and I don’t think I’d be able to explain how I got myself to Bangladesh just one month after suffering from a faulty air-conditioning unit somewhere between Goa and Karnataka. Dhaka, Sirajganj, Syedpur, Rangpur, Bogra. What I really want to know is why in the year of 2006, every restaurant costing more than a hundred Taka had simultaneously decided to call themselves “Armani Restaurant”. No matter what anybody tells you, remember that Armani Restaurant in Dhaka, and Armani Restaurant in the Hotel Anik (Residential) Sirajganj, and the Armani Restaurant on the national highway to Syedpur, and the Armani Restaurant in Rangpur, are all uniformly bad. Even if an organization hands you an open tab for food and drink and rest, steer clear of the Armani restaurants that every man and his brother-in-law’s-cousin-in-law-owns.

I missed the monsoon in Bangladesh that year, but certainly had plenty of flood victims to interview. One week I was sitting in an upazilla health complex between a man and his last toe (severe, untreated multi bacillary leprosy), the next week I found my monsoon in a mad taxi ride from Shillong to Cherrapunjee. Pulling closer and closer into where I was going to stay the night, strange romantic signs painted on the rocks before me began to appear. I will hold your hand in the rain, one went. I remember thinking: great, if only I had a hand to hold out here, and could do so without being blown away to Sylhet by this rain. Sohra, Cherra, Churra, Cherrapunjee. Sohra charmed me out of my raincoat, amusing itself with my feeble attempts at their language. I think it rained in Cherrapunjee every time the worst Khasi speaker in the world said ai sha dut laitilli, called someone khong, asked her for doh terkhong, and said kyublei.

But it didn’t rain quite as much as I needed it to. The morning I left Sohra, as I sped from Shillong to Guwahati to Calcutta and Bangkok, I think it began to pour, and I’m never going to be able to eloquently describe what it’s like living in a Victorian governor’s house suspended between one thunderstorm and another, the precise moment before the rain begins, how the clash of light dances across my front door and across my fireplace. How your conception of the basics: as basic as love, and what you feel about rain, can be changed by experiencing the wondrous rain in the monsoon in the world’s rainiest place.

Sudder Street

6 minute read

Reposting stuff I like from the archives. This is from 2007.

At the stroke of eight each morning, I awoke. All my days in India have always had purpose, and it was especially purposeful in Calcutta, my crazy, lovely, chaotic, I hate you I love you Calcutta. This was a luxurious hole in the wall, 400 rupee a night room — a fortune. One could live on 400 rupees (S$13, US$9) for two days, but we blew it on a room with two beds, 24 hour hot water and electricity, items of much greater fortune. My purpose that morning was to get my eyebrows threaded in the neighbourhood beauty salon (oddly enough run by fourth generation Chinese immigrants who look like they could be my aunts, but speak only Bengali and Hindi now), queue up at the Bangladeshi High Commission for my visa, and zip over to Apple and Canon’s little hole in the wall offices to have our equipment returned.

I opened my door and closed it immediately, an act which had come to become a signal to The Boy. All over the subcontinent, establishments of all shapes and sizes from the 400 rupee “luxury” of Sudder Street (like the one we were in), to 15000 rupees a night Park/ Taj/ Oberoi hotel rooms, The Boy, one of the several members of the entourage which you will deal with each day (The Boy, the bearer, the sweeper, the caretaker) is one of those inevitable legacies which outlasted the British Empire. The memsahib this time was not a colonial wife or daughter, but a scruffy yellow woman always dressed in tie-dye pants and a shirt which said “Om”. The moment the signal came, the boy would come to my door, and bring me a tray of coffee and tea, on the house. The boy in question here was about 25 (much younger than the Boy in Planter’s Club, Darjeeling, who was about 90).

As a veteran, one occupies your own space in the ecosystem of Sudder Street. Or perhaps an ecosystem forms around you. I had been to Sudder Street four times in two years, and was slowly settling. Before long I graduated from the fearful Oriental who scuttled away when approached by drug pushers, semi-giggling and blushing, to the old India hand who had the entourage of neighbours to meet and greet. There was the Spanish group, who huddled together eating omelettes. They all looked bronzed and supremely attractive. The French-speaking always occupied the same table at the Blue Sky. The Americans and the Britons were buried in their Lonely Planet India, a tome thicker than the Mormon Bible and in a sickening shade of blue, perhaps as homage to the pop-art kitsch Krishna on its cover. Everyone, regardless of where we came from originally, said “namaste” when greeting each other, “dhanyabad” in gratitude, subconsciously complementing these with that Indian head wiggle and punctuating our sentences with “accha” and “baba”. Everyone was either a volunteer at the Mother Teresa home, or was travelling for a year, or both.

A man walked up and down Sudder Street every afternoon and night, with a bag full of wooden flutes, looking so comical that you could make a Bengali arthouse movie (pop trivia: Bombay’s Hindi-language Bollywood is crass, commercial and popular; Calcutta’s Bengali movies are arthouse, obscure, and difficult but beautiful) starring him, the Piped Piper of Sudder Street. He would be leading a pack of backpackers and volunteers, playing his own wooden flute to classical Bengali songs. He was friends with the fruit seller, the man who stood outside the phone booth with a push cart hawking the best of Bengal. The fruit seller’s sister was a homeless 21 year old woman-child with a beautiful baby, and when we met we couldn’t stop talking. Each time I planned to meet friends at the Lindsay Hotel’s rooftop restaurant for dinner, I had to leave my room 2 hours earlier, because I inevitably ended up in her living room — on the sidewalk where she lived with her baby, just opposite the Blue Sky cafe. Tomorrow, she will sneak into a train on unreserved class with her baby, to go home to her parents for the festivities. If a train conductor catches her, she might give him half of her money — 10 rupees (S$0.35, US$0.22), but either way standing all the way to the station at her village.

After speaking to her, I might nip across into Blue Sky for a quick apple juice. The boys from Sikkim, Assam and Darjeeling who had to travel to Calcutta to sit for examinations or go through job interviews would hurry up to greet me in Sikkimese, Assamese, Nepali, Khasi, just because I was the only person in the room with the same skin colour. Embarrassed “Oh I thought you were from Sikkim/ Assam/ Darjeeling/ Meghalaya/ Mizoram/ Manipur” comments would be exchanged, then I might sit down with my apple juice to read all the Indian English newspapers available. The Occasional Orientals might drop by, sit at the next table, and gossip enthusiastically in that loud voice we love to speak in when we think nobody understands our language. I just keep very quiet, eavesdropping, wanting to hear what they might say of a place I hold dear to my heart, in a language only three people in the whole street understood. They’re usually terrified of Calcutta, terrified of India, and for a good reason — most people are. The world would be better off without hacks like us contributing further to its literature of chaos and its teeming humanity, so I won’t go into that; but if you love this place, you can be sure you’re very, very much in love.

I’m not sure why I keep returning to Calcutta — in writing, and in person. Is it because it’s my first Indian city, and that I had spent a month living there in Narendrapur, a little hamlet in its suburbs, showering with hot water the cook had heated over a cooking cauldron, eating rice cooked in mustard oil with my fingers and drinking tea in alleys with no street lights for miles? That wherever I may be, College Street still cheers me up, and the Indian Coffee House still amazes me every time? That their beautiful, poetic language is what I’d heard someone I loved once speak daily for two years, and its food was what I discovered and fell for, the same time I fell for and discovered a great love? That many nights were spent here in cheap hotel rooms, with Bob Dylan and the Arcade Fire for company, writing, and writing, writing some more and editing our photographs for print? I may never know.

I opened my door and closed it — but no Boy came to my room with a tray of coffee or tea. I walked a distance to get to my neighbourhood Bengali restaurant, but its cardamom tea, its katti kebab, its Kolkata briyani, was a sham. I’d come so far to see you, and you welcome me with acid rain, endless electricity shut downs, and drug pushers on my beloved Sudder Street. Like the great love I can’t explain — so I can’t explain you away. All I know is how here, more than any place else in the world, more than even my home in Singapore, is where I have loved, and loved, and fallen out of love, but like a reliable lover Calcutta never fails to cheer me up, even long after I’ve gone.

Hungry Asian Woman On The Road

8 minute read

Reposting stuff from the past. This one’s from 2007.

I’m a horrendously bad sightseer and tourist, that much is true. You have no idea how bad I am. I almost never manage to visit any of the attractions of the city — unless they’re glaringly obvious and utterly compelling, like, say, the Taj Mahal — other than that, I really should take a keener interest in museums and palaces and memorials. Somehow the idea of traipsing along with my nose in the Lonely Planet, paying a camera fee for each of my cameras and an inflated foreigner’s admission fee, visiting places where my pictures will inevitably turn out with the ubiquitous Korean or Japanese or American tourist with a sun hat and sunburnt skin in the corner, doesn’t cut it for me anymore. At home my idea of torture was to be taken to Sentosa or the bird park, so why should it be any different abroad?

Before I’m flayed alive, in my defence I have a convincing excuse: I know exactly why I travel. It’s not to have the best shopping deals in the developing world, neither is it to rough it out or live it up in the cheapest manner possible. All of those are byproducts of my greater task — to eat.

I love food with an extraordinary passion only an Asian can understand. You’d expect it to be so if my entire life revolves around it: have you eaten? is an acceptable, indeed the predominant method of greeting. It doesn’t matter if you’ve truly eaten. Just bloody say you have. After all, nobody ever says, “oh, terrible”, in response to “how’s it going?” As a family, in our personal capacities and in all of our social settings, the extent to which we’d go for a good meal is mind boggling to the uninitiated. Think of me — and my family — as an extreme version of Asians who love to eat; it’s not just the good meal we’re after these days, it’s the mind blowing meal that drives us further and further in search of it. All those stories you hear about crossing the Causeway to eat a specific dish for lunch, and flying around Asia to satisfy a craving for roast meats or herbal soups? They were probably talking about us! My English friends were shocked to hear about that. To their mind, it was as unfathomable for someone to be so obsessed with eating, as it was for that person to remain skinny, as it was for there to be more than one such person, or to even have a family full of such people. They couldn’t even fathom the idea of going to France for a good meal over a weekend. Now, if France was as close to me as it is to England — I’d be there to eat up a storm by now!

Backpacking brings out the best and worst of national stereotypes. We inevitably end up banding with the Australians or Dutch or British or Canadian backpackers we meet along the way, and fall into that “doing stuff together” routine. I’d participate intently, in all the most important initiations this temporary alliance brings — especially in that inescapable discussion always taking place five minutes after meeting each other, the one about our bowel activities (“So I got diarrhea in Benares! It was really bad, out flat you know, 7 days.” “You were lucky 7 days was all you got. When I was in Dharamsala..”). Yet when it comes to sightseeing, I’m out of the picture. Minor temple? Palace? Sorry man I’ll see you later — I’ll be at a restaurant. In fact I’ll be at five restaurants today for pre-lunch, lunch, post-lunch, and tea. And I’m not exaggerating. My itinerary is vastly different, yet you can’t call it inferior. It depends on what you’re after, I suppose. I’m after a good meal, or two, or three or four, as I am with every meal I eat back home.

Abroad, my sense of purpose becomes amplified; you could think of me as a younger, poorer, less famous, Asian version of Anthony Bourdain on a Cook’s Tour. My segment would be called A Hungry Asian Woman’s Tour (notice the clever and subtle turn away from “cook”). Aided by spectacular research and some insider information, nothing can faze me. I have had life-changing experiences eating at culinary institutions of each city, such as Bangalore’s Mavalli Tiffin Room. I have traversed the lengths and widths of Thailand and Laos in search of the somtam (papaya salad) fiery enough to put a fire on my tongue and to turn me purple. I’ve developed an unfortunate omnipotent immunity to spice, such that I barely feel a chilli buzz anymore, and that depresses me. Like an addict with eyes glazed over, I’m indignant to find my chilli high. All the food in India and Bangladesh was not spicy enough either. Time after time locals advised, challenged, and urged: what you are about to eat is deadly spicy. I eat. They watch for a reaction. There’s none, just disappointment on my part that if Indian food is not spicy these days, and that I’m blasé about a supposedly terrible tomyam or somtam which has driven my Thai and non-Thai companions to the point of almost pointing fire extinguishers into their mouths, maybe I’ll never find food spicy enough for me.

After a certain amount of travelling in a certain area, you can’t help but feel fatigued by a certain sort of attraction a region has an abundance of. In Southeast Asia, it was wat-fatigue. In Europe, it was cathedral-fatigue. In Darjeeling and other Nepalese/Tibetan areas, I was ghompa-ed over. In Rajasthan, it was forts. Straight off the bus in Jodhpur, when the rickshaw-wallahs tripped over themselves thinking they could rip us off on a round trip to the fort, I turned it down flat. “No fort. You go Sardar Bazaar. Drop me East Gate. I go Shree Mishrilal. Drink best lassi in the world, accha baba!” I stayed in Jodhpur for 3 days, and made 6 stops at the lassi shop. We drank perhaps 5 servings of Mishrilal’s lassi each day, and brought 2 more back to the hotel. Then walked out of the bazaar to Shahi Samosas, best in Rajasthan, 4 rupees (S$0.14) for one, and before they were consumed we’d hail another rickshaw-wallah. “High Court Road, Paraswanath Khulfi”, for the most amazing khulfi (ice cream) you can have for 20 rupees. We never made it to the fort, but we certainly ate a lot.

It’s not all gluttony, but a firm belief that if you want to know Asia — know what Asia eats. Best if dietary restrictions can be put aside temporarily, because to be vegetarian in Southeast Asia is pure torture. Eat everything once, and forget about your developed world idea of hygiene. Sit out by the streets, and bloody eat. See if you don’t have an epiphany. If I get diarrhea, I first think: was it from a good meal, or from a crap one? If it was good, I would probably excuse the cook for the murder of my loved one, and diarrhea’s just the unfortunate side effect so will you give me one more plate, please. So at soi Texas, Yaowarat (Bangkok), we found Lek Seafood in 1 minute, consulted the menu and decided on items for 4 people within 10 minutes, the food came in 3 minutes and we fell silent, deliberating upon the most fantastic crabs, mussels and prawns that S$6 per person can buy. The food was gone in 10 minutes, in the most silent meal ever, as each person had a quiet revelation about why we were there. In Luang Prabang we eschewed the mediocre restaurants on the main strip (where each item in every restaurant was at least US$5), tired of the renditions of Western food and mediocre versions of local food costing an arm and a leg. Stumbling into an alleyway for US$0.50 per person you can have a vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet plate in a corner shack; forging on, since vegetarian does not cut it for me, we settled on excellent feu ga (pho ga, chicken noodle soup). We doused it in fish sauce, decorated it with lime and small cut chillis, bought a whole fish and chicken from the shop next door, a big bottle of Beer Lao, and what an inspiring meal it made — sweating in a little noodle soup stall in a local market in 16 degree Luang Prabang.

Food Street (Bangalore), Lindsay Street (Kolkata), Ari (Bangkok), Petaling Jaya (Malaysia); the places I ate the best are the places I was happiest in. In a tiny shop in dusty Syedpur, Bangladesh, nobody spoke a word of English and I didn’t know what I was eating. But boy, the “cow”, “chicken”, “fish” (fascinating, the choice of vocabulary I learn when learning a new language) they fed me turned me into an instant convert in the school of Eating With Only Your Right Hand. In a family’s dining room in Mawmluh village, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya (Northeast India), a family watched me engrossed in eating rice with fermented bean and beef and stewed pork, eating raw little chillis to go with my food (it’s a custom). Aoky’s mother thought I was so truly into Khasi culture and food that she believed I would have no problem chewing 2 betel nuts too. It was on that part that I faltered, though I’m sure if betel nuts tasted better, I’d be all over them too.

Now I’m hungry again.