Thursday, October 20, 2011

Darkness


I am a city guy. I realized this when in my second visit to Beijing, I went off on my own without even a worry or a care. I could hardly pronounce my hotel correctly, but I felt sure that I will get by, because it is a city. Cash is the oxygen line that feeds you in any pool of humanity. So, back to the present, when I was offered to stay another night at Cape Tribulation one of the most remote places on earth--because of another mishap with the tour booking (for another story)--I hesitated. I am not comfortable out of my environment, out of the city.

Cape Tribulation is a headland 68 miles north of Cairns. It has a funny, foreboding name. It was ofcourse, named by an Englishman, Captain Cook. In his land grab of 1770 his ship Endeavour was shipwrecked on a reef 12 miles off the coast of the cape. He was in such a good mood that he also named the mountain at the tip as Sorrow Mountain. Cape Tribulation and Sorrow Mountain. Located within the Daintree National Park and at the edge of the Great barrier reef, both the reef and the forest are now World Heritage areas. Cape Tribulation survives on this fame through mainly backpacking tourist. With a population of 101 in the 2006 Census, it really is a small backcountry resort.

My resort was at one end of the village. A well maintained resort but with a limited restaurant. So when I went kayaking and the tour started from another hotel with a fully exposed kitchen and two chefs working, I knew this is the place to visit for dinner. Walking there later on in the afternoon was easy. As I got out of my resort, two young brothers from Sydney stopped and gave me a lift. I should have checked on the mileage, but I had not spoken with many people lately and I was in a talkative mood. I did not see the distance nor the terrain traveled in their rented car. But I was not worried. After a few beers the Sydney brothers headed off to prowl the local scene while I stayed at the resort to wait for 6pm when (all) restaurants open up for service. And what a service. The meal was excellent...chicken breast with sun dried tomato and feta cheese wrapped in proscuito on a bed of spinach, asparagus and caramelized onions, potatoes with a hollandaise sauce. I savored the dish, not noticing the sunset. It was 7pm.

Satiated and well pleased with myself for making a good selection (both the dish and the restaurant) I headed out of the resort. It was pitch black. With the lingering refraction of light behind me I headed onto the unpaved dirt road to start walking back to my resort. It was a surprise how quickly it got dark. That kind of darkness that compels you to put your hand in front of your face to make sure that you cannot see it.

The sky was overcast and the moon was not visible. I stopped. I was still happy from my meal. I looked around and I saw nothing. I looked back and I had only traveled some 30 meters but the glow of the resort was only faint enough to outline the canopy of the forest encircling it. I stood still for a few seconds trying to will my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I looked forward. Nothing. I scuffed my boots against the dirt track to reassure myself that I was on the track. Looked back again and then headed forward away from the glimmer. No noise but my breathing.

To be engulfed by darkness is the best way of describing the total lack of visual clues of where I was. By scuffing the road I knew I was still on the path. I knew that on both sides there were ditches, in some cases leading vertically down maybe 10-15 feet into a river or a swamp.

Imagine being in space, with heavy gravity. The canopy of the trees closing upon me, yet unseen. I continued to walk on the dirt track. The road seems to undulate. Looking back I saw nothing. I was walking fairly slowly now. My initial spring in my step gave way to a more cautious stomp. My ears sensitive to the rustling noises of the forest. Rain drizzling but hardly touching me. The trees and shrubs get to it first. They are predators for water.

Then I hear a noise coming closer fast. I turn towards the noise ahead of me, but it must have bounced off the trees, I turn back and I see a light coming from behind me. Then a noise, an engine. It is loud and revving. I look at the expanding light, and then it comes around the corner. There is one light source, bright as a sun staring at me and coming straight at me. VROOOMM. What looked like a Triumph Bonneville, a cafĂ© racing bike, doing 60 miles an hour with the driver hugging the chassis of the bike and skirting the edge of the track.  Five feet from where I was. VROOOM. I am temporarily blinded by the light and then I hear another sound following. Another engine, revving, but this time the sound is more deep and sonorous. Two lights heading towards me, at the same speed as the bike. They must be racing. A bike and a diesel land cruiser. I feel like a witness to a non-event.

I see their lights become fainter and then the darkness engulfs me once more. Although temporary blinded again, my night vision eroded by the bright lights, I was more elated because I realize that at least there is traffic on the road. I continue walking into the darkness. It is drizzling still. Sometimes when I pass a section of the track where the canopy does not reach over, where there is a creek or a river, I feel the coldness of the rain, otherwise I hear the rain on the layers of vegetation from more than a hundred feet up.

I continue scuffing my shoes to ensure that I am on the dirt track. I hear rustling on the side. I tell myself that it is just the wind. And then I start thinking of the story of Rip Van Winkle, and the animated version of the story, where the tree comes alive and attempts to catch him. I laugh it off. My internal narration does not laugh. It continues to go through the story. I start burping, anything just to make a sound. I pretend that I am in charge. I start shouting. Nothing. Not even an echo. I stop dead. I listen and the only sound I hear is the rustling of the leaves and the creaking of branches. my breathing is deeper. I still cannot see anything. I check my watch which has a back light. I have been walking for ten minutes. Hmm, I start wondering how far have I walked.

(A picture of the track in the morning driving there to pick up the rest of the group )

Another ten minutes pass and no more traffic and I still have no clue where I am. I am alone in the middle of one of the oldest forests in the world.Some 260 million years. I start walking briskly. The back light from my watch gives me some company. I start looking at the time every minute. I start walking faster. I glance back and up and to the side. Nothing. Then light ahead of me. Initially I thought that it was the village, but t was moving towards me. Two lights, a car coming up ahead. This four wheel truck being driven more slowly then the last one, they pass me and then I see the brake light come on, then the white reverse light.  The truck reverses up to me, wind down their window. I can see two dark aboriginal men. “You OK?” The driver asked. I really wanted to say no please help me, but what came out of my mouth amazed me “Just heading back to my hotel, thanks for checking. Is it far?” “About ten minutes walk” the passenger softly responds. “Cheers” and the truck slowly truck moves away from me.

Why is it indigenous people are not afraid when you are in trouble. When I arrived in America and persuaded my wife at the time to go for a walk to the Hoover damn from the village of Boulder, I misread the distance. Having just came from Malta, where an inch on the map is ten paces, in Las Vegas an inch was more than 5 miles. Tired, hot and thirsty, having drank our giant slurpie, we tried to hitch our way back. My wife who was four months pregnant with our first child at the time was suffering from the heat. I tried hitching for more than 20 minutes. Nothing. Cars were zooming past us. I was getting worried. By this time the sun started to go down and although we have only been in Las Vegas for a few days, we knew that once the sun sets the temperature drops. Then an old beaten up dark green chevy impala stops. I look inside the cavernous space of these big American cars, and there in the corner was an old American Indian man. Long hair, waist coat, dark and craggy complexion. “Y’all need a lift?” “Yes please”  Yes please I should have gone AHLLELUJA, god be praised…”Yes Please” is what came out. “I was robbed last week giving a lift “ As we both settled into the front seat.  “I am Maltese, from Malta” as a way of assuring him that we are safe. He drove us to the bus station and then disappeared. Indigenous people have always come into my life and made it better.

So here I was, alone and in darkness again, transported back to when I first moved to the United States. The contact with the aboriginal men started me to reminiscence. My life started to flash in front me. As I walked deeper into the darkness, I reminisced about the past. I thought of all the changes, all the lost energies, all the trials and tribulations. And then I become aware of how utterly alone I am in the world. I stopped walking. I looked up. I could not even see the stars to define my smallness in the universe. I was simply a dark speck in a dark universe.

I was alone. If I was attacked by an over zealous dingo there would be no one to inform. No one knew who I was. In the middle of the night, at 8pm, in a dirt track in one of the oldest forests on earth, thousand of miles from anyone who knows me and could identify me,  I become aware that being able to give up everything is how you can truly release from worry and to  live. Being out of your environment, knowing that you have nothing to hold onto, you are necessarily lonely, and this is how the journey forward needs to proceed. Most of the time in darkness, most of the time alone, and most of the time slightly on edge. All the time to know that you have already given up your life in order to live it.  This is how I felt that evening. It took me another 45 minutes to get back to my resort. I missed my junction but I made it back. Sometimes running, sometimes walking, never knowing what was around me. Wet and very tired, but I had not felt so alive in a long time.











Thursday, October 6, 2011

Downunder Food and Anchovies


Why have I not written about food yet? Back in San Diego I go around dissecting the menu and then the individual dishes. Here I am, 7900 miles away, in a different continent, different culture, and I do not talk about food.  And there is a reason for this.

So far I have been feeding my craving for Chinese food. Both Melbourne and Sydney have significant Chinese presence and therefore great and varied Chinese food. When there is good Chinese food, there are no other options.

But now, the anchor has been released and I am floating up the north eastern seaboard of Australia, away from the urban environment that I feel so comfortable in. And perchance I am exposed to the local cuisine. 

When I travel I make it a rule to eat one salad every day, and to try something weird every day.  The weird dishes have amounted to a tahini coconut rice ball from the marihuana capital of Australia; Nimbin. To today’s pie—Australians eat a lot of flaky pastry pies—this one was chicken and asparagus. I go in a shop, I ask the attendant, wow you have a lot of pies/items/choices what is the most unique and strangest item you have. This is likely to get me in trouble one of these days, but so far, so good. Hence the tahini ball, which I initially tired to break in half, but it resisted. I had to bite into the hard ball, like a dense rice crispy ball. A concoction of rice, desiccated coconut, tahini and something brown that I could not work out. I think it is Milo (like Ovaltine) Australians put it on ice cream here. Well that is what I hope was in it.

Which brings me to my salad. So a quick lesson on caesar salad. It was not developed by any of the Italian Caesar gods in between their acts of debauchery meddling with some lettuce and cream (oh the imagination wanders aimlessly.) Or by one of the many Caesars' grateful chefs preparing the dish of lettuce to compete against braised bull testicles and sheep brains. No.

It was developed by a restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant, who was living in San Diego but also working in Tijuana where he avoided the restrictions of Prohibition in the 1920’s.  The dressing involved (involves to this day in some continents) raw eggs, and why it must be prepared fresh. The basic recipe is romaine lettuce and croutons dressed with parmesan cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, and black pepper.

So I ordered a chicken caesar salad in Byron Bay and the dressing is good, lettuce, crotons, and then there is a poached egg sitting atop of the bed of chicken. There is a great distrust for having lettuce overwhelm a dish. It seems like perhaps there is so much fluff on the dish and we must have more substance, more of everything but lettuce. In San Diego when I go to DZAikins I can order a salad that is 12 inches by 6 inches and that is not a family meal. So, in this salad at Byron Bay, there is maybe four roman lettuce leaves, an ample proportion of chicken breast meat, and a poached egg (perfectly done) sitting like a diamond atop of pedestal of protein.

So you would think that I would know what to expect next time. Forward two days and I am in a local pub in Harvey Bay. “Would you like anchovies?” With my salad? Only to recover quickly and say “Sure.” What have I ordered now. Again the dressing is good, a few lettuce leaves at the bottom, but two very prominent lettuce leaves sticking out of the bowl like rabbit ears waiting to be shot down. Tenderloin chicken in ample proportions, crotons, and quartered boiled egg, slivers of ham, and, true to the order, a few lines of anchovies. 

Before I go on  about the adherence to the true recipe, the addition of anchovies tasted really really good. Again I would prefer more lettuce. Vegetarians must get a bum deal here since to be a vegetarian you have to eat twice as much in volume to make up for the less dense matter. To survive and make up for all the protein and nutrient you need to consume twice the volume of a carnivore. Back to the anchovies. They tasted really good on the salad but why? This is where the bible of all bibles in cooking comes in…On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. Worchester sauce, one of the main ingredients of the caesar sauce,  is made from anchovies. So the idea of combining the dressing with its main ingredient is not that alien.
Every Caesar salad so far has been different, with something new added. The last one involved a cold fried egg, which we will not dwell on. But who would have thought of combining anchovies with salad.