Living an examined life

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With Thailand on my right, and Laos on my left, I type these words while seated on-board a slow boat drifting gently down the Mekong River.

We are nearly an hour into our approximately 14 hour journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Despite my usual fears, our vessel is actually very comfortable. All nine of us on board have our own table as well as a double seat which looks to have been removed from a van or small bus. The gentle breeze, the rumbling engine, the subtle side-to-side  rocking of the boat, and the spectacular views of riverside villages have completely silenced all passengers. Some (including Marina seated in front of me) are absorbed in their book, others listen to music, while some write in their journals.

No one dares to break the silence.

There’s something quite amazing about traveling slowly, knowing that you have no hurry to get to your destination. There are few distractions. You quickly forget the urgency of life back home and settle into a more meditative state. Your mind – usually flexed with tension of looming deadlines, responsibilities, expectations, incoming emails, etc. – finally stretches out.

Thoughts of weekend plans, that erroneous cell-phone bill you need to call about, or the repairs needed on your car fizzle away to obscurity as you ponder your path in life, reassess your values, carefully recount the errors you’ve made, and focus on what you really require to be happy and content in your life.

An unexamined life is not worth living.

– Socrates

This is the gift of prolonged travel – whether by bus, boat, train, or plane. Many people embark on longer journeys with the purpose of “finding themselves”; the notion being that somewhere on the treadmill of modern life they’ve managed to become lost.

But all most of us require is some time and solitude, and the opportunity to examine our life from an aerial rather than the usual street view.

I can’t pretend that travel is the panacea for all of one’s problems; the problems you leave behind when you strap on your backpack are waiting to greet you upon return. However, if you’re feeling lost, lacking purpose, or uninspired, a sabbatical of some sort might be just the cure. You needn’t go far – maybe a staycation is all that is necessary. Just some time to break away from the monotony of everyday life.

Beware the bareness of a busy life.

– Socrates

Peter

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From crickets to tarantulas: sampling Southeast Asia’s culinary oddities

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NOTE: An edited version of this story was previously published in the Globe and Mail (read it here).

As I swiftly pick a cricket from a paper bag and deliver it to my mouth, my brain, hard-wired to protect me from mistakenly poisoning myself, revolts. But it’s too late. Sensing the cricket’s prickly legs on my tongue, I quickly transfer the crispy insect to the back of my mouth and begin to gnash it to bits with my molars. The only perceptible flavour is soy sauce, while the texture vaguely reminds me of a deep fried shrimp tail. Before I can reflect any further on the qualities of the bolus of mashed cricket in my mouth, I swallow.

“You’re right – it’s not that bad!” I exclaim, forcing a smile.

My partner, Marina doesn’t seem convinced. With a look of disgust she retorts, “You have a leg stuck in your teeth.”

As is typical of decisions you later regret, it all started with a healthy dose of peer pressure as we perused a night market in Chiang Mai’s walled city, in northern Thailand.

“You’ve got to try one”, encouraged Tim, a British friend of ours with a peculiar appetite for weird foods. As nonchalantly as if it were freshly popped kettle corn, he had been happily munching away on barbecued crickets he had purchased from a street vendor.

As we continued down the dimly-lit street flanked by vendors on either side, squeezing past the flow of sweaty, sunburnt tourists, the satisfaction of having overcome such a gross feat began to sink in. Sadly, that first momentary lapse in judgement – the result of which I was picking out of my teeth for some time after – was only the beginning of my reluctant adventures through Asia’s culinary oddities.

I dined on frog which had the consistency of tough lobster, but disappointingly, tasted like chicken.

I avoided gagging on bone-riddled water snake by imagining I was consuming an overcooked haddock.

I slurped up raw clams that had been left to roast in the sun, which, unsurprisingly, tasted like raw clams that had been roasting in the sun.

I actually enjoyed a nice beef stir fry that happened to include a healthy dose of red ants, which despite being visually unnerving, were largely imperceptible in both texture and flavour.

The most psychologically challenging dining experience of the trip, and frankly, of my entire life, involved a deep-fried tarantula – hairy legs and all.

As a group of us sat checking the drink menu at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our Cambodian friend, Long, emptied the contents of a brown paper bag onto a large plate.

“They’re just spiders”, Long reassured us, as he broke a leg off of one palm-sized arachnid and popped it into his mouth.

According to Long, the consumption of tarantulas in Cambodia began as a means to survive the dramatic food scarcity throughout the country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, many years after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, tarantulas remain a delicacy among locals and a curiosity for tourists.

Shortly following the historical explanation, the plate of tarantulas appeared under my nose. My heart immediately started racing as everyone at the table chimed in with the usual coaxing. Using my fork, I removed one of the spider’s eight legs and fighting my gag reflex, I began chewing what might be described as a crunchy straw.

But this was the easy part.

Despite my prior triumphs over crickets and snakes, I was frankly petrified of biting into the tarantula’s meaty body. I imagined the crisp outer layer cracking, and the tarantula’s inner contents exploding in my mouth like an over-ripened cherry tomato.

Dining on tarantula in Cambodia.

Instead, as I bit into the spider’s body I encountered white meat that had a softer texture than chicken and tasted only like the garlic, MSG, and salt in which it was cooked.

To be perfectly honest, despite the visual appearance of these bizarre local delicacies, none actually tasted that foul.

The most violent assault on my gustatory sense was committed by neither insect nor arachnid, but a fruit offered by a vendor in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. Referred to by the locals as the “king of fruit”, durian fruit grows in trees and looks like bowling-ball sized lychee. The most obvious characteristic of durian fruit is its highly pungent odour, which has led to the prohibition of its consumption and possession in numerous public places throughout Southeast Asia. If you can get past the smell, you’ll be rewarded by a flavour somewhere between week-old chopped onions and freshly soiled hockey equipment, and the texture of lumpy mashed potatoes.

In truth, I’d choose tarantula over durian any day.

Peter

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