An American Abroad

The Santurce Culinary & Art Festival

Some writers call Santurce “the Brooklyn of San Juan.” And there is a hip, entrepreneurial, artistic spirit to this barrio. As the New York Times cooed recently, you can walk down the man drag and find new restaurants “led by inventive chefs who prize local ingredients.” There are dance clubs, boutiques and vintage clothing shops, a gay bar, bakeries, an upscale tattoo and body piercing shop, and colorful graffiti everywhere.

It seems like the perfect setting for a culinary and art festival.

Unfortunately, the actual event didn’t quite live up to its potential. There weren’t very many exhibitors — and there was a certain sameness about those who did show up. Attendance was probably in the high hundreds, but not much more. Still, the vibe was festive and relaxed.

I heard a strong cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” as I approached Calle Loíza. Though Kingston is two islands and 700 miles west of San Juan, no one was complaining about the Caribbean cultural mash-up. The song set my mood for the day. And it was coming from this boutique/cafe, where the bartender mixes a mean mojito.

The first festival-goer I met was jauntily dressed and seemed to be enjoying all the people who came up and talked with him.

He wasn’t the only one who was literally at street-level. Two of the artists from the hipster tattoo parlor were making chalk art on the sidewalk.

Older folks lugged lawn chairs out in front of the pumps at the local filling station and sat there talking, drinking, and people watching. Hanging out like that is pretty common here and, to my mind, nicely obliterates the ordinary commercial grimness of gas stations.

Alcohol, rather than food, seemed to be the vice of choice at the festival. Bar tents outnumbered food tents by about three to one.

The spirit of the festival seemed to be to be captured by this bumpersticker. I think Bob Marley would approve.

It wasn’t only people on the street who were enjoying the relaxed mood of the day. You can just see the bare feet of a man sacked out in a hammock on his Calle Loíza balcony.

While he took a siesta, other people took advantage of the festival being closed to cars and promenaded down the street, seeing and hoping to be seen.

Others used the occasion to walk the dog.

After a couple hours of walking around, I craved someplace peaceful to sit and relax. I walked over to a Dominican chinchorro (i.e., a hole-in-the-wall bar) just off Calle Loíza and bought a Medalla beer from Mercedes, the beautiful old woman who runs the place. I took a seat out on the sidewalk in a plastic lawn chair, watched the world go by, and did my best to chat up one of the Dominican guys who’s a regular at the place.

Santurce’s not Brooklyn, but it’s not trying to be. It’s more like a laboratory where many mostly-younger Puerto Ricans are trying to build something new in a barrio that used to be known for drugs, crime, and blight. Not everyone approves of the changes that are happening here.

My take, though, is that even if the festival wasn’t a roaring success, the people of Santurce are succeeding at building something more enduring and important.

Sheep Everywhere

As Eid al-Adha approaches, sheep are everywhere in and around Sousse. Sacrificing a sheep or other animal is a symbolic acknowledgement of the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Ishmael because god commanded it, and god’s last minute provision of a lamb to slaughter instead.

As I walked to work the other day, I passed through a herd of about six dozen sheep, a dozen goats, some dogs, and three shepherds who were on their way into town. (I now have to mind the sheep dung as I walk through my neighborhood.) As I was driven south to Mahdia, I saw many enterprising shepherds selling their animals by the roadside. I also saw individual sheep in the back of trucks taking their last rides.

Sheep are expensive. A decent-sized one goes for between 500 and 700 TND ($275 to $390), an enormous sum in this developing country.

Even electronics stores try to cash in on the upcoming festivities. Check out this ad circular for televisions and laptops:


As both an animal lover and a meat lover, I’m of two minds about slaughtering sheep. I feel sorry for the sheep patiently waiting by the side of the road to be purchased, brought home, and ritually slaughtered. It seems barbaric. But how hypocritical of me, a guy who likes his lamb chops as well as well as the next man. I’m used to buying them shrink-wrapped in a grocery store. At least Tunisians know what’s on the end of their forks.

Daniel’s Welcome Dinner

A Shane English Yuxi tradition: every new teacher gets a welcome dinner. On Sunday night it was the turn of our newest colleague, an American from Denver named Daniel.

Outside the restaurant, JJ and I tried our hands as laundry detergent pitchmen. Note the bride in the background.
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Inside, the arrangement was as usual: a large round table with a floral arrangement in the middle and a revolving lazy Susan for the food.
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And here is the Man of the Hour himself:
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At the Green Bar

This restaurant is neither green nor a bar, but that’s what everyone calls it. It’s my favorite eatery in Yuxi. This was taken last night as I was awaiting my usual jiaozi and chaofan.
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Xishuangbanna Redux–Part III

On Thursday morning, Wang and Rachel once again picked me up and drove me two and a half hours southeast to a rural village about 50 kilometers from the Laotian border. The highway was jammed; the National Day vacation really lasts all week. After about an hour and a half we exited the superslab for a secondary paved road which took us through several medium-sized towns and a national preserve. The preserve is marked by high cliffs, dense rainforest vegetation, and caves that were used by the People’s Liberation Army during the war with Japan.
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Then we turned up a dirt road and got out at Meng Xing village #9, part of the town of Mengla, where the relatives of one of Rachel’s cousins live. Other relatives arrived around the same time. We were less than 50 kilometers from the Laotian border and about 150 kilometers from Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, where the French got their asses handed to them in 1954 by the Viet Minh. I was here:

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Li Jian Wei and his family live in what I can best describe as a rural row house, a long rectangular structure built of rough grey brick that is divided into housing for about a dozen families. I believe it dates to the early days of the People’s Republic. Jo En Lai took a special interest in Xishuangbanna and did much to develop its economy. He saw the Mengla area as a good source of rubber, and so collective farms were established. There weren’t enough local people there at the time to work the land, so the government “encouraged” (in Rachel’s words, the accuracy of which I cannot assess) people from other Chinese provinces to move there. Rachel’s relatives were one such family. More recently, the government has allowed individual farmers to run their own businesses and control their own houses and farms.
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Li Jian Wei’s house is pretty basic in its construction and amenities: conrete floors, corrugated metal roof/ceilings. There are three medium sized rooms, two of which are open partially to the sky, and a couple of small bedrooms. The kitchen sink is a pipe mounted low to the ground on a sloping concrete slab that drains into a trough.
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The stove is a wood-fired box with two enormous built-in woks.
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There are no kitchen counters or cabinets or closets.
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The toilet is a shed out back with a hole in the floor.
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Beds are blankets spread out on the concrete. There is trash and junk strewn about, some of which is occasionally taken out to a dumpsite and burned.
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Though his house is a very modest affair, Li Jian Wei’s farm is a source of obvious pride and delight to him. Shortly after we arrived, he took us out to see his rubber trees.
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He explained how he makes spiral cuts into their bark and peels it away. Then he drives a small metal trough into the tree at the lowest point of the spiral and hangs a cup below it. The rubber sap oozes out of the tree where the bark has been removed and spirals down the cut, goes into the trough and then into the bowl. It takes about six hours for the bowl to fill. A tree managed in this way will produce rubber for a good 35 years.
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The rubber sap is then poured into a large round bowl. Acid is added to get it to firm up a little. Then the resulting wheel of rubber (which looks and feels for all the world like a cheese wheel) is removed from the bowl, driven to a factory in town, and sold for ¥80 (about $12.90). Here is one of Li Jian Wei’s neighbors with his trike truck loaded up with rubber and ready to head for the factory.
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Beyond the forested area where the rubber trees grow is more of Li Jian Wei’s farm. Though the tropical soil is very fertile, the land is so hilly and steep that all his crops are jammed together. What to my suburban eyes at first seemed like nothing more than a riot of undifferentiated weeds was actually a very productive garden. Almost everything growing there is edible: peppers, melons, bananas, plantains, chives, ginger, bamboo, coconuts, and a number of fruits and vegetables I couldn’t begin to identify.
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He also has a pond stocked and teeming with small fish.
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He has chickens. He and his family subsist pretty comfortably on the food he grows.

Back at his farmhouse, some of the other relatives were cooking us a sumptuous lunch.
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All of this food is home grown. That Li Jian Wei’s wife and relatives could cook so many different and delicious dishes in such rustic conditions seemed almost magic. And it was delicious, especially the dumplings (made from fresh eggs and fresh ground chicken), the fish stew, the spiced bamboo, and a green leafy vegetable resembling spinach but sweeter. At lunch, Li Jian Wei’s wife brought out some hooch to toast my arrival. She makes it by fermenting and distilling rice mash, adding honey, putting it in a large glass jar and burying it for over ten years. The result was something smooth, sweet and potent that tasted very much like Southern Comfort.

After lunch, Li Jian Wei cut down a large bunch of bananas to give to the relatives who had come to visit. We packed them into the cars and after warm goodbyes were back on the road to Jinghong.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part I.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part II.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part IV.

Xishuangbanna Redux–Part II

After morning toast and a couple cups of coffee Wednesday morning at the Mei Mei Cafe, I rented a bicycle and crossed the Mekong River heading east. My route took me through parts of Jinghong that have been developed as tourist destinations. There were rows of handsome shops and restaurants fronted by elephant statues/streetlights/flowerpots. At the end of the street was a large Buddhist temple.
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New apartments are being built as vacation homes for wealthier Chinese people. And though I don’t usually post examples of Chinglish, the signs for this development had a certain crackpot poetry that was just too good to pass up.
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It didn’t take too long, though, before I left the rich resort atmosphere behind and was in the midst of some of the most severe poverty I’ve seen in China.
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Down one of those streets, though, was an amazing sight.

There were two kids, about eight years old.

Lying on a piece of cardboard.

Under a parked truck.

Doing their homework.

On a school holiday.

I had to admire their dedication and resourcefulness. It was doubtless cooler under the truck than it was in the nearby shacks. I recall that at that age, there was a sweetly neurasthenic quality to lying down in a confined space. And if I ever hear American students complaining that they couldn’t do their homework because they had no place to study, I’m going to think of those kids.

I didn’t get as deep into the countryside as I’d hoped; I wilted a little in the tropical heat. I headed back toward Jinghong, stopping along the banks of the Mekong to see motorcycles being washed and elaborate riverboats pulled up at a dock.
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I arrived back at my hotel soaked with sweat, but definitely happy.
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After a nap, I was picked up again by Rachel and her husband, who took me out to dinner with her high school English teacher, his wife, and a former schoolmate of hers who is now a cardiologist. Once again, the food was delicious (a beef stock hotpot, broiled potatoes with hot spices, and chive soup) and the company was warm and welcoming.
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Just when I thought the evening was over, we decided to head back to the Mei Mei Cafe for tiramisu and ice cream. Rachel’s extended family showed up and a good time was had by all. However, I’ve probably gained five pounds in two days from the constant eating.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part I.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part III.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part IV.

Xishuangbanna Redux–Part I

We crossed into the Tropic of Cancer on Tuesday at 11:15 am traveling southwest in a comfortable Nissan Tiida. Sophie’s husband Wang was driving and her father, Mr. Li, was riding shotgun. Sophie and I were in back. It was a much more comfortable and interesting ride than my last trip to Xishuangbanna.

It was National Day, the second or third biggest holiday on the Chinese calendar, a celebration the founding of the People’s Republic 64 years ago. Traffic was heavy but never stopped moving. In honor of the holiday (and probably to make traffic flow more smoothly) collection of tolls was suspended.

Rachel is a new friend of mine who works at Yuxi People’s Hospital. We chatted about our respective national holidays as the kilometers rolled by. I told her about Thanksgiving, but she already knew all about it from having seen an episode of her favorite TV show, Friends.

We passed by houses of the Yi people, neat white structures with circular symbols resembling hex signs.
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We stopped at the village of Mohei for lunch: rice, spicy beef with noodles, fresh bamboo with green onions, a tofu hotpot, fried pork belly strips, and grilled eggplant. The restaurant was little more than a corrugated roof mounted over a concrete slab and the kitchen was about the size of an American bathroom, but the food was good and plentiful.
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Once we were on the road again, the scenery became more dramatic. We drove by impossibly steep mountainsides that were meticulously terraced and planted with tea and coffee. I tried counting the terrace levels on the highest mountainsides and lost count around seventy. Foliage became more colorful, with purple phoenix flowers blooming by the roadside and banana trees growing in the forest beyond.
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We entered a rainforest preserve where elephants still live in the wild. In fact, the G85 is the only highway I’ve seen that has an elephant channel under the road so that elephants can safely cross–which raises the question, why did the elephant cross the road, anyway?

Mr. Li is 57 and works for the Chinese Department of Human Resources and Social Security. I remarked that he had seen a lot of changes in China in his lifetime and asked him what he thought the best and worst changes were. The best change, he replied, was that when he was young, people didn’t have enough food or enough money to buy food, if it was even available. Now people have enough food and money. But the worst change, he went on, was that people have lost faith. I asked what he meant, whether he was referring to religious faith, faith in government, or faith in society. All of those things, he said. “You used to be able to count on people to know right from wrong, for the most part. But then twenty years ago, China opened itself up to a lot of outside influences and now there are some people who don’t believe in anything having to do with right and wrong at all.”

In Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna, I checked into the same fleabag hotel I’d stayed in last time. The desk clerk tried to charge me ¥260 a night. I was livid. I’d been quoted ¥200 on the phone last week when I made the reservation, and even that rate was more than three times as much as I’d paid a month ago. Canny Chinese businesses jack up prices ridiculously around National Day to take advantage of the surge in demand, but this was absurd. The desk clerk spoke no English, so I let loose with a tirade of pure gibberish with a few profanities mixed in. The clerk looked alarmed, glanced over at her manager, who nodded. Presto: it was all a big misunderstanding and we were back at a mere ¥200. The clerk collected my passport to run it over to the police station; foreigners have to register with the local authorities wherever they stay the night. I was stashed in room 407, the same putrid pink and purple room I had last time, which I shared during my stay with a small tan lizard.
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After a quick nap, I was picked up once again by Rachel and her family. We headed out of the city to the town of Gasa, where there is a Dai village devoted to the restaurant trade. According to Rachel, there had long been a Dai community at that site, but it was quite poor. About ten years ago, the government redeveloped the area and built new houses, a Buddhist temple, and other buildings. The houses double as restaurants–or maybe the restaurants double as houses–and the area is now quite prosperous, with 80% of the people in the community working in the booming village restaurant trade.
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Rachel’s family was warm, funny, and welcoming. Her grandmother, 88 years old, kissed my hand when she met me and seemed to generally glow with welcome and acceptance.
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Her two aunties bickered like a pair of old comediennes over the few words of English they shared between them. Her husband is a big NBA fan, and we made plans to watch some games together once the season starts. Her father asked if I wanted to have a drink with him. I accepted and soon some of the proprietor’s homemade rice wine hooch (presented in a repurposed plastic water bottle) was lifting our spirits. It being National Day, I toasted China, Xi Jinping, and Mr. Li’s family. The food was delicious and included rice noodles in a tomato-based stew, pork, chick and fish barbeque, some kind of vegetable that tasted like spicy peas, fried pickle skins, and lots of other dishes all served family style on a large lazy Susan table.
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It was wonderful to be among family. It was my 103rd day in China and was probably my best.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part II.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part III.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part IV.