Quarantine Dreams pt 2

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m standing in front of my open fridge, staring mindlessly at the same sad selection of wilting food I stared at yesterday and the day before. But you’d be wrong. I’m actually edging my way through the crowds at the Old Airport Road Hawker Centre in Geylang, Singapore. It’s a squat, two level concrete pile, open to the elements on all sides; it feels a little like a converted parking garage. Round metal tables are bolted to the floor, surrounded by similarly affixed stools, all of them occupied. I’m never going to find a seat. 

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 Hawker Centres are where everyone goes to eat in Singapore. The streets of this tiny island used to be crowded with food vendors until authorities started cracking down in the 60s, eventually corralling them all inside easily controlled and inspected buildings. So now it’s row upon row of individual stalls selling a brain melting array of delicious things, each vendor usually specialising in one thing; and despite the apparent chaos, like everything in Singapore, the joint is spotless and organised. 

 I’m starving, but I’m not ordering anything until I’ve made a complete lap of the place. The din is overwhelming– hawkers shouting their specials, customers calling to friends to hold a table or bring more spoons– a cheerful, musical hubbub bouncing around the brutal concrete walls. Traffic pouring along the Old Airport Road makes itself known, the steady rumble of workday traffic providing a static bass line to the cacophony. The humidity is extraordinary; giant industrial fans do their best, but it makes little difference. It’s a baking wet heat but no one really notices– it’s like this every day.

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 I wander the aisles, trying not to run into people, tables, carts loaded with dirty dishes. I feel conspicuous– the tall white guy stands out around here– but nobody seems to care. As long as I don’t get in the way, I’m as welcome as anyone. The food here is mostly Chinese and Malay: Satay, Laksa, barbecued chicken, noodles, curry puffs, the famous Hainan Chicken Rice, Sambal Stingray, frog porridge, fish curry… My strategy here is to find the longest queue and get on it. I try not to come here with a meal in mind, I want to try what’s good, what’s got the locals lining up. Honestly though, I’m hoping it’s the sticky, fatty, char-siew from those princes of barbecued pork at Roast Paradise… 

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  Appearances can be deceiving. It looks like I’m sitting on the couch, watching travel documentaries, nursing my 18th cup of tea for the day– but I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a plastic stool in an open air bar in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Technically I’m inside, but there’s no front wall, so I’m effectively on the street. At 5 o’clock every evening, all around the city, the shutters go up on corner bars and folks start piling in. It’s called Bia Hoi- either the type of bar or the daily routine, I’ve never been sure which, but either way, it translates to a sort of Happy Hour. The joint is already loud and raucous, working men (it’s mostly men) getting loose and boisterous.

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 All the surfaces are shiny white tile, the floor already stained with spilled beer and fish sauce, cigarette butts, clumps of cilantro. I gaze out at the heaving street just metres away, the roiling waves of roaring motorbikes and brave cyclists flanked by rows of stained crumbling colonial houses. Banyan trees lean precariously over the melee, the hanging vines waiting for the right moment to grab a distracted rider. The thunder of gunning engines choking on cheap gasoline is pushed to every corner of my bar by a single overworked ceiling fan. Cooking smells are everywhere in the Old Quarter, and here the unmistakable waft from a deep fryer melds with the beer, petrol fumes, end-of-work-day humanity. The place is getting busy, office workers are getting rowdier, waitresses are sliding between tables, dropping off beers and small plates of drinking food. And over in the corner, quietly watching, a young bloke sits alone beside a keg of beer, his thumb over the attached length of garden hose, ready for the next order.

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 Here’s how it works. Find an empty stool and sit on it. Within seconds a small glass of beer will appear on the plastic table in front of you. Drink it. It doesn’t have a lot of flavour, maybe because it was brewed this morning, but it’s ice cold and refreshing. Put down your empty glass and it will be replaced with a full one. Drink this too. Repeat. They’ll bring you beer until you tell them to stop. I’ve had three or four, and I’m getting peckish. I see the old guys at the next table eating something, but there are no menus, so I get the waitress’ attention and make the img_7997-1universal mime for eating, then point to what they’ve got. She disappears, and minutes later I’ve got fish cakes! Intensely flavoured, deep fried discs of deliciousness, accompanied by the ubiquitous Nuoc Cham- salty, limey, sweet, spicy dipping sauce. I polish them off, down another beer and stop. The chili, the lime, the oily crunchy fish, the icy beer, the blistering heat, the roaring traffic, the happy drunken voices shouting in a language I can’t begin to decipher; they all wage some epic battle in my brain, while I sit there, blissed out, on top of the world.

 

Lately these fantasies have been hijacking my scattered mind more and more. With no chance to realise them in the near future, I’ve taken refuge in the kitchen, trying desperately and  inexpertly to recreate the flavours and aromas I remember from the tours I made in a previous life. I’ve cooked up a mean Pho from scratch, causing raised eyebrows from the assistants at the butcher’s with my orders of pig’s feet and cow knees; simmering them for hours to make a broth so gelatinous I had to fight it to get my wooden spoon back. I fill my entire apartment with thick smoke as I stirfy prawns that have been marinating in fish sauce, lime juice and sugar- the holy trinity of South East Asian flavours. Fiery green curries, a disastrous laksa, grilled pork belly and meatballs for Bun Cha, washing it all down with Thai beer– I’m giving it my best shot. But so much of any experience comes down to context. Even if I could somehow recreate exactly that plate of grilled prawns my brother and I shared on our first night in Bangkok years ago, it wouldn’t taste anything the same. The utilitarian metal-topped table, the box of tissues in its cheap pink plastic holder, the crinkled plastic-covered menu, the droning fans, the smell from the fish tanks, the gasping humidity, the rumble and shriek of drunken humanity, the jaw dropping, brain melting weirdness of it all – all these things went into making those prawns taste the way they did, at that moment, on those rickety stools, in that crowded restaurant. My efforts at recreation are doomed to be pale washed-out facsimiles. But after a few more of these Thai beers, they might be close enough.


 

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Quarantine Dreams

I know what it looks like. It looks like I’m sitting at the kitchen table, eating cold spaghetti out of a Tupperware container, flecks of red sauce decorating the front of my dressing gown. But I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a low plastic stool in an alley off Yaowarat road in Bangkok’s Chinatown, eating a huge bowl of spicy aromatic noodle soup. A trickle of filthy drain water runs by my table, and there’s a watchful cat in every shadow. The combination of the hot soup and the near 100% humidity has the sweat pouring off my head and running in rivers down my back. It’s a cacophony, the clatter of plastic bowls being stacked as the chef shouts to his sister washing dishes in a tub in the gutter. In fact everyone is shouting, but it’s laughter-filled and joyful, and although I don’t understand a word, I feel as though I understand everything. From the main road, the roar of ancient motorbike engines gunning and the incessant honking of tuk-tuks, and the general rumbling of a massive, heaving, overcrowded city. This soup is the only dish this family makes, and they serve it up all day every day, ladling stock that’s been bubbling and concentrating since this morning when it was made with the leftovers from yesterday. This stock is the secret to their success, the quietest member of the family, its recipe a cherished secret. The bowl in front of me sends up waves of rich complex smells, chilli, fish sauce, lime, cilantro are the only ones I can pick out. They mingle with the ambient smells of exhaust and sickly sweet durian and something leafy I can never put my finger on. I kind of wish I could ask, but I also like the mystery. The beer is so cold it’s making everything hotter by comparison. It’s Singha, or Chang- whichever one they have- they’re pretty much the same, and perfect for this weather and food. I can buy it in New York, but it doesn’t taste nearly as good there. Until I motion for another one, I’ll be completely ignored, which is just how I like it. I could watch this family as they work, with their ease and affectionate humour, all night.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m sitting at my desk, papers strewn chaotically on all sides, staring blankly at another news website, while perched on a rickety old desk chair with dodgy hydraulics that slides queasily up and down without warning. But you’d be wrong. I’m really sitting on a narrow polished wooden bench, making my way across Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong’s Star Ferry. It’s an old tub built in the 50s, apparently held together with paint and lacquer, and I’ve managed to nab a window spot although not without a fight– those old Hong Kong ladies are stronger than they look. We’re motoring from Central district over to Tsim Sha Tsui which is a part of town I’d just as soon avoid. It’s the part of town favoured by people who go to Hong Kong for the shopping (to me, these are the true foreigners- I genuinely can’t wrap my head around visiting an exotic and wondrous city to spend money on stuff.) No this is all about the ferry ride- 25 cents for 10 slow peaceful minutes; a half mile of breathing space between the frenetic clamour on both banks. I often think that New Yorkers would go insane without Central Park, and the same might be true for Hongkongers without their harbour. The water here is a mysterious deep emerald green, and the swell is always just enough to keep the dumplings in my belly bobbing pleasantly. Looking back, the grand Victoria Peak looms possessively over Hong Kong Island; a warm salty breeze sweeps the dust from my mind. I can’t quite believe this place exists, and that I’m in the middle of it.

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I realise this has all the hallmarks of me washing my hands for the twentieth time today, gazing glumly into the mirror as I lather up and dutifully follow procedure. But appearances can be deceptive. You see I’m really floating on my back in a hotel pool high above Jakarta- Indonesia’s packed and rapidly sinking capital. The sky is threateningly overcast, like it is every day, almost guaranteeing a biblical downpour in late afternoon; the pool only slightly wetter than the air above it, thick and still and heavy with humidity. The heat is jaw dropping. I’m so far up, only the occasional car horn pierces the dense atmosphere; the only other sounds a few birds chattering in the surrounding gardens, and the gentle lapping of the milk-warm water. There’s very little in my mind aside from the salty, spicy Nasi Goreng I had for lunch, and the fried duck I’m planning to have for dinner. I drift over to the side where a towel and a cold beer are waiting patiently. I’d better get out and get dressed- I’ve got a gig tonight!

Wait. Now I know I’m dreaming…

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Stadium Rock, Topless Women, and Some Potty Talk: 3 Days in Jakarta

It’s about 30 minutes before showtime at An Unnamed Jazz Club in Jakarta, Indonesia. I’m sitting in the green room, but I can hear the pleasant buzz of a jazz club rolling into action. Customers chatter as they’re led to their tables, waiters deliver drinks, bartenders mix cocktails and ignore thirsty musicians, the PA plays something that’s probably jazz but isn’t quite loud enough to hear. Then a mechanical whirring sound coming from the stage prompts me to poke my head out for a closer look. A giant screen is being lowered behind the stage. I can’t really envision a situation in which this is a good thing. 

 In my younger days in Australia, a big screen behind the stage meant there was a football game on and we were expected to stand and play in front of it, obstructing the patrons’ view, and cementing their already deeply held hatred of jazz and jazz musicians. But this was a fancy joint- surely we could expect something appropriate… maybe video of a classic live jazz performance to get folks in the mood? Perhaps images of jazz greats accompanied by something swinging and understated? How about a stadium rock show featuring wailing guitars, pounding drums, and a posturing frontman, with audio pumped up to 11? It’s going to be that last one, isn’t it. The club was suddenly transformed into Wembley Stadium as Freddie Mercury prowled the stage and promised to rock us. Now I dig Queen, but there’s a time and place- we’re trying to create an atmosphere here… I took my displeasure to the manager who explained that the owner’s son was on his way to the club. He’d called from the car to say he expected to arrive to Queen. He wanted “Hammer to Fall” on his entrance. Sometimes things look the same around the world, but the differences are lurking just below the surface. I threw my hands in the air and grumbled my way back to the greenroom. In the end the show went fine, the hyped-up Jakarta audience showing their appreciation for serious jazz by bouncing a beachball around the club and hoisting topless women on their shoulders.

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“Who’s ready for some JAZZ!!?”

 15 floors up from this debacle was the Hempton Suite. I’d negotiated a hotel room in this 5-star pile as part of my hilarious remuneration package; it was my first 5-star experience and I was making the most of it. Holding imaginary business meetings in my “office;” allowing the pool attendant to dry me with an actual living chamois; reclining theatrically, Pimms in hand, on my daybed; phoning my imaginary agent from the bathtub; and finally getting to know the intricacies of the Toto Washlet electronic commode. Let me tell you- once you’ve Toto’d, it’s hard to go back. A perfectly warmed seat, startlingly accurate water jets streaming from all directions, and a puff of warm air all leave you floating on a cloud of dazed satisfaction.  I can’t be sure, but as I left the room, I could’ve sworn it whispered “good boy.” Anyway, I’m starting a crowdfunding campaign so I can afford a Toto Washlet of my own. I think it’s a worthy cause, and no more a vanity project than most other crowdfunded endeavours.

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The secret to enjoying a fancy hotel in Jakarta is conveniently forgetting the appalling poverty right outside your window. I took a stroll to a nearby market, thinking I’d get the feel of the place, maybe take some photos, and eat something tasty. I soon realized t’s not like other places. When you hit the streets in China, the locals might glance at you curiously. In Thailand they smile at you. In Vietnam, they ignore you. In Jakarta, as soon as I left the hotel’s manicured grounds, I was on narrow dirt roads, hopping daintily over piles of trash and dead rats, thoughts of street food tripping over each other to get out of my brain. The markets were the expected industrious hubbub, but the people would stop what they were doing to stare vacantly at me as I passed. I took a few photos then stuffed my phone in my pocket when I realized that not a single person had a phone in their hand. How they maintain any sort of Social Media presence is beyond me.  

The problem was, I was pathetically under-prepared for a visit to Jakarta. It was only three nights so I hadn’t bothered researching where to go or how to get there. On my night off I managed to get a cab to take me to a nearby restaurant specializing in fried duck, which seems to be somewhat of a local delicacy. As I strolled in, the staff froze and gave me the stare, before huddling up for a heated discussion, seemingly deciding whether to serve me or not. I guess I passed inspection, and was presented with an indecipherable menu. My helpless jabbing was soon rewarded with a hunk of fried duck, white rice, a pile of fresh herbs, and a pot of fiery, salty, eyeball-melting sambal, all served on a banana leaf. I turned to point out that they’d forgotten to give me utensils, when I noticed my neighbours in up to their wrists. I jumped in with eager fingers and made a right mess of it- it’s harder than it looks. Now I love to have a stab at the local customs but I’m sorry- you’re aware of the invention of the spoon and you’re going to persist in eating rice with your fingers? I think you’re just being obstinate at this point. Anyway, it was delicious, and next time I’ll do my research and have more food stories for you.

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For now, until that kickstarter campaign comes through, I’ve constructed my own Toto Washlet out of a length of old garden hose and a portable fan heater, so I’m off to try it out! More soon…

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A Page from the Jetlag Diary: Bangkok

Bangkok. I haven’t slept properly in ten days and thing are getting weird. So many hours lying awake in the dark, hoping against hope that unconsciousness will overtake me; always just slightly too hot or too cold. I feel myself drifting towards the blackness, but I never get beyond limbo.  Every day I eventually give up and stumble out of the hotel and try to make something of the day, but today even the gentlest of exertions seems beyond me. At noon I drift out into violence, the merciless South East Asian sunshine piercing my corneas like a hot needle. The chaos of central Bangkok leaves me disoriented and bewildered- roaring motos, gasoline fumes, sputtering tuk-tuks, their drivers’ garbled voices as they race by. The familiar but overwhelming smells: wok smoke from the food carts, sickly sweet durian, fish sauce? Dog shit? Normally fairly adventurous, all I can think of now is comfort, reassurance, familiarity; the pleasant thrill of communicating through the language barrier to procure a plate of green curry almost unimaginable now. I weave, dazed, down the street, perception skewed, the road rippling, sudden shimmering troughs appearing underfoot; every car horn, engine rev, child’s scream grates my nerve endings. I’m going to eat a hamburger, I just know it. It goes against all my principles of international travel; I’m going to despise myself, and worse, I know it’s way more likely to make me sick than anything from a rusty food cart down the end of a cat infested back alley. I perch on a stool in the horrendous western-style bar- the type specializing in “international cuisine”: pasta, Thai classics, fish & chips. I slog through the greasy overcooked overpriced burger, trying to keep my eyes averted from the horribly brutal Muay Thai accosting me from multiple big-screens. It’s precisely the bad decision I knew it would be, but deep down, I’m ashamed to admit, it’s meeting a deep need. I trudge the two blocks back to the hotel, where I look down and realise I’m clutching the sodden, crumpled napkin from the bar, like some kind of security blanket. I can’t see an end to this.

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 I’ve experienced an unwelcome feeling of lethargy or indecisiveness this trip. Beijing and Bangkok are two resoundingly exotic locations I’ve visited several times before, and while still undeniably strange and mysterious, still largely unfathomable, I’ve now done a lot of the things I wanted to do here- eaten the must-try foods, seen a few of the standout sites- and I find myself feeling constrained by a kind of apathy, maybe because the gob-smacking awe is gone. I’m far from comfortable, but it’s starting to feel a little familiar. 

 With no plan in mind, I took a packed commuter boat across the Chao Phraya, the muddy, polluted river that snakes through Bangkok. It dropped me at Wang Lang market- a maze of alleyways crammed with stalls selling a bewildering assortment of goods mostly aimed at the locals. I waded in, but before long the tight spaces and constant bodily contact drove me to a deserted riverside bar where I nursed a Singha beer and contemplated my surroundings. Brazenly predictable Thai pop music floated blandly from nearby speakers and mixed with the sounds of the river: shouts of passing riverboat drivers as they leaned almost into the water to pull off hairpin turns; the rumble and fart of their smoke-spewing and apparently homemade engines; their wake splashing against the stone wall below me. I watched the river carrying the detritus of an overcrowded, rapidly sinking capital: plastic bottles, discarded children’s toys, a single flip flop. Some kind of small heron-like bird watched me as it floated by on a clump of weeds. I tried to climb inside this little universe but I still felt like I was watching the action through a screen. I was in it but not of it.

 

In the end I found an answer to my listlessness where I should have known to look all along: at the bottom of a bowl of extraordinary Tom Yum soup from the excellent Mit Ko Yuan. Chewy lemongrass stalks, roughly torn-up lime leaves, ferocious chillies, clumps of cilantro, and whole giant prawn heads just begging to have the restorative goo sucked out of them. Weird, this travel thing- it’s different every time. But with a stomach full of local good stuff, tongue on fire and veins pumping with chilli-induced endorphins, I don’t worry about it quite as much.

(Thanks for reading! If you want the next one sent straight to your inbox, enter your email address top right of this page… Cheers, Nick)

Fish Heads, Goose Butts, and Making Women Cry: Hempton Back in Honkers

One of my favourite moments as a slightly-taller-than-average human is walking down a supermarket aisle and seeing a little old lady reaching for a high shelf. I pull myself up to my full height, slap a reassuring smile on my dial, and make my way nonchalantly towards her. I know what’s coming. “Dear will you reach that tin of jellied tongue for me?” she’ll ask. “Certainly madam,” I’ll reply, “no trouble at all.” I’ll effortlessly retrieve her revolting selection and hand it to her, perhaps with a small bow. “My, aren’t you tall?” she’ll say, admiringly. “Why, yes I am. Good day, madam.” I’ll smile benevolently and stride off, as she says to herself, “and so polite!” I’m a good samaritan. A saviour. In many ways a hero. I’ve recently discovered this same experience can be replicated by hopping a flight to China. While the country has produced some extremely tall folks (that one guy whose name I can’t remember was a whopper wasn’t he!), I think we can agree that by and large, the Chinese are a relatively compact people. And those overhead bins are a long way up. I just stand there tall-ly, and wait for a tug on the sleeve, and play the part of magnanimous tall-guy. My pompous manner comes at no extra charge. 

For my two nights in Honkers, I’d picked a strategically located hotel called the Mini. Size
seems to matter today… A 10 minute walk from the gig, it was also, Google assured me, a mere 15 minutes walk from the Airport Express train. Google failed to mention that the walk was vertical. Horn on shoulder, pouring with sweat, and muttering obscenities, I dragged my enormous suitcase, packed with a ludicrously optimistic number of CDs, up the sheer face of Ice House street, passing a surprising number of attractive young women, who managed to look at me pityingly while clearly stifling laughter. Aching, drenched, and humiliated, I reached the summit and checked into room 813 of the Mini Hotel. 

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This was taken at the front door

I can only assume “Hilariously Microscopic” wouldn’t fit on the business cards. This room was not built for swinging cats. I put my room card in the front door and knocked the soap out the window. If I wanted to consider multiple points of view simultaneously I had to put my bag in the hall. The cockroaches had hunch backs. It was small I tell you! It was late when I arrived, so I put aside thoughts of a relaxing post-flight crouch, and headed out to find food. I soon recognised my surroundings from previous visits- the late night, expat part of town- a mess of aggressively loud beer bars full of drunk shouty Aussies and Brits pawing at tired prostitutes and puking on each other. Plenty of restaurants open, but of the sad, neon-lit variety, mostly Indian and Thai, with pushy spruikers out front grabbing desperately at passers-by. Things were looking grim, when just outside the danger zone, I glanced down a narrow alley and saw one of my favourite sights: groups of locals sitting on low stools slurping stuff out of bowls. I was down there like a shot, sharing a table with a toothless, grinning old bloke who seemed to know everyone. I couldn’t decide between the fish head and the pork intestines, so at about 3 bucks each, went with both. And a big bottle of the local water-beer. It had been a long flight. The waiter motioned at his head and stomach to be sure I knew what I was ordering, and we were away. Old mate and I cheers’d each other as the food arrived and I scarfed the lot, to the apparent amusement of the staff closing up around me. Another beer and i was feeling floaty and fine. It’s the only way I know of dealing with the soul-shock of reentry- immediate immersion. Local food, drink, people, as quickly as possible. 

 Jet lag jolted me awake early next day, and it being my only free day (till the night’s gig), I went wandering. I had no grand plans, aside from losing myself in the city and eating good things. I started with a joint I’d meant to try on previous trips- Mak’s Noodle. I sat at a tiny table across from a young couple, playing a game of inadvertent kneesies with the poor fellow, and had a bowl of noodle soup with brisket and wontons which would have been delicious if I wasn’t expecting it to be transcendental. One day I’ll learn.IMG_9032 I then sloshed down to the lovely Victoria harbour to take a ride on the Star Ferry. I do this every time- I don’t know why, nobody I take on it seems overly impressed, but I think it’s brilliant. It costs 35 cents for a ten minute ride on a grand old tub from the fifties, across unusually green water from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. All manner of craft drift by, from ostentatious millionaire yachts to ancient barely-afloat fishing junks, the glittering modern skyscrapers crowding around the shorelines, and the towering Tao Mo Shan mountain in the background. It’s very cool. Kowloon itself is the shopping mecca- Prada and Gucci and what-have-you- and doesn’t do much for me. The idea of traveling somewhere to go shopping baffles me; so I had a stroll, drank some kind of tapioca tea concoction and ferried back.

 I’ve drooled before on this blog about the offerings at Kam’s Roast Goose- the cheap, IMG_9036Michelin-starred meat paradise in WanChai. Last trip I tried to take the folks there for dinner, but they were sold out, so this time I got in early. I waited about 45 minutes for seat, checking my place on the list only occasionally with the truly intimidating woman who runs the place (deep down I arrogantly assume she likes me, but I’m definitely wrong). As usual I was seated with others, this time a party of charming older ladies clearly celebrating, but demurely. I ordered a quarter of a goose, from the animal’s lower half- fattier and more expensive than the upper quadrants- and inhaled the whole dripping meaty mess. I was simultaneously proud of, and appalled at, myself. Ideally this would have been the time for a nap. But I had a gig to get to.

 Wiping the goose juice from my chin, I hustled back to my matchbox and suited up. The night’s venue was Peel Fresco- ostensibly a jazz club, and the only one in town, but really anything goes, the jazz posters on the walls thoroughly outnumbered by those of posturing rock gods. There’s no piano, so it’s electric keyboard all the way, and the house drum kit is a clapped out old rock setup desperately pleading for retirement. As a bar it’s great, with lovely people on staff, but a town of this size, with this much money deserves more than half a jazz venue. The gig was hooked up by my old mate Blaine- a killer alto player a year or two ahead of me on the Sydney scene in the old days; the band was all Aussie aside from our New York-born pianist, and we had a ball ripping through some classics. The crowd was friendly and engaged aside from one old bag who was loudly and drunkenly abusing a poor young lass at the next table. Eventually I entered bar-manager mode and charged over to give her an earful, in the process knocking a drink into the lap of the poor innocent woman who’d been receiving all the abuse, who then ran out in tears. I really must learn not to get involved.

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I had a nice late hang with the cats, my delirious jet lagged brain unable to grasp concepts like time, and impending flights, eventually stumbling back to the Mini for a refreshing four hour nap, then back to the airport. Next up, breathless in Beijing! 

Buffalo, Bia, and a Smelly Punch in the Face: Hanoi pt 1

At some point during my short flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi (ok it was immediately after take-off), I decided a cooling beverage was in order, so I cleared my throat pointedly in the direction of a passing attendant and inquired about the possibility of procuring a cold beer. Seconds later I was presented with a can of warm lager and a cup of ice. “Pardon me”, I ventured politely, “but what the fuck is this?” Fortunately by this time she was well down the plane, attending to another poor sucker- possibly providing him with a bag of wine and a spoon- and missed my impertinence. I closed my eyes, downed my beer on the rocks, and accepted that things were different here.

In his fine book, Down Under, Bill Bryson reflects that after flying as far as Australia from the US, he expects to find at least people on camels and swarthy men puffing on hookahs, when in fact he lands to find Sydney comfortable, clean and familiar. Arriving in Vietnam is quite the opposite, and one of the reasons I love visiting SE Asia: it’s really different. Within five minutes of leaving the airport I was passing fields being ploughed by water buffalo, shirtless rickshaw drivers leering toothlessly around their cigarettes, old men riding even older scooters while balancing impossible piles of building materials on their shoulders; all accompanied by my cab driver’s taste in Vietnamese trance. This joint is nothing like home.

It was only the most cursory glance at some travel websites that made me settle on Hanoi, and even less research to choose my neighbourhood, but boy did I do good. Half an hour from the airport, things started to get crowded and noisy; streets narrowing to a single lane, the noise of gunning motorbikes and shouting shopkeepers penetrating the disco daze. We slowed to a crawl as we got deeper into the Old Quarter, the streets thick with scooters and stall owners wheeling trolleys. And right in the middle of this was the Oriental Suites hotel. Brilliant.

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I saw this, but I borrowed this excellent photo from https://restlessabandon.com

Once checked in, I showered and set off for a look around. Pushing the hotel doors open and passing from my hushed air-conditioned haven back out into the outrageous cacophony of the old quarter took some real adjustment. In fact this happened every time I left the hotel- the sudden onslaught of intense humanity was like a punch in the face. The noise, the colours, the smells (fish sauce, gasoline, dog shit), the stifling humidity– it’s quite intimidating. But the only way to do it is confidently, otherwise you’ll be crushed. Probably by a Honda.

I’d been told about a northern Viet tradition called Bia Hoi (the discovery that the word for beer is “bia” immediately doubled my vocabulary), and that I needed to check it out. On street corners throughout the Old Quarter, low plastic stools are set out on the street, and (almost exclusively) men sit around and get plastered on cheap local beer. This stuff is brewed in the morning, delivered in the afternoon, and whatever’s left at closing time is dumped. In the corner of every Bia Hoi joint, an old bloke sits with his thumb over the end of a length of garden hose attached to a keg, and fills glasses all night. As soon as you park yourself, a beer magically appears in front of you, and they keep coming until you say stop, or fall over.

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Old bloke in training. Via http://yolotrautz.blogspot.com

I realised that the spot I’d picked was really just a drinking room: the keg was in the bar across the street. And one young fellow’s job all night was to carry armfuls of beer from one place to the other, weaving and dodging his way through an endless phalanx of kamikaze motorcyclists. It was better than TV. And the price? 40 cents a beer. It’s not the best beer I’ve ever drunk, but it was cold, the weather was stinking hot, and at that moment it was ambrosia. They also serve food at these joints- snacks to help with the drinking, really- but often very good. I gave my usual performance of gesturing helplessly at plates on neighbouring tables, and ended up with some kind of fish cakes which were salty and spicy and bloody delicious. Bia Hoi is a great way to start your evening: a little appetiser and a dozen beers, and you’re all set for a good night.

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Fish cakes, bia, and the ubiquitous fish sauce/lime/chilli combo

 

In Part 2: Ghost turtles and the murder of Glenn Miller

Marinated Intestines and an Offering to the Gods of Smooth Jazz: Hong Kong

I was supposed to write this weeks ago. I was just back from an amazing time in Asia- 10 days of pop stardom in Hong Kong, followed by three days of gallivanting anonymously around Hanoi- and I thought you needed to read some more of my garbled disorganised travel stories. And then Bourdain went and died, and that really put me on the back foot. I’m not going to gush about him- people have been doing that ever since, and way better than I could. But I will say that the big guy was an important presence in my life- his attitudes to food and travel, the way he experienced other cultures, definitely informed my own approach. And he was never on my mind more than when traveling in Asia. So after two weeks of him peeking over my shoulder, silently judging my restaurant choices, the news of his death was a nasty jolt. I guess it would have been anyway. Fortunately his ideas are not going anywhere, and I’ll continue to heed his words when hitting the road. But enough of that- let’s get bonkers in Honkers.

The nice thing about this trip was that, after a half dozen visits to Hong Kong, I’ve seen a lot already. I didn’t feel that panic to get out and do, see, and eat, everything. I know where to go to get my roast goose fix; I’ve eaten my own weight in dumplings and noodles at the places the foodie websites told me about; I kinda feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the joint. And this time I had the parental unit in town for a few days, so I got to play the expert.

This was my fourth tour of duty with the Bianca Wu band (or the New York Jazz Cats as we’re officially titled- please don’t tell anyone). Bianca is a renowned pop singer in Hong Kong, and likes nothing better than to come to New York, record an album, then fly the whole 9-piece band down for a gig or two. Musically, it’s pretty far from what I usually do, and I can’t say I listen to much Cantonese pop in my downtime, but the band is ace, Bianca and her crew are lovely, and it’s fun to be a part of a big pop show playing to thousands of people.

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This was the biggest show to date, with dancers, light shows, giant video screens, a moving stage– lots of intricate parts to be connected, requiring an enormous amount of precision work done by a large group of very talented people. Fortunately none of this involved me. For real, sometimes it’s sweet being the sax guy. Honk my way through the half of the show with horn parts, rip out an occasional 8-bar smooth jazz solo, then take a seat and watch the dancers. My mates Art and Dan (piano and drums) carry most of the show while I sit back and try to look cool for the cameras. Life just ain’t fair.

IMG_7889Before the first show, the entire outfit converged on the parking lot for a good luck ceremony. This involved our star Bianca and various associated bigwigs performing a complicated series of manoeuvres around some large smouldering incense sticks and sheets of burning paper. Nobody seemed able, or inclined, to explain to me what was going on, but I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention anyway, being occupied as I was in staring lasciviously at the ceremonial centrepiece: a glistening whole suckling pig. I dutifully did my bit- held some burning sticks, said some words I didn’t understand, all the while elbowing my way artfully through a group of people all considerably smaller than me, to be first in line for the blessed pork. A master carver hacked his way deftly through the porcine offering and handed me my dripping pile of ears, skin, and tongue. I scurried over to a corner and scoffed the lot, calm in the knowledge that least I didn’t have to worry about playing well: the fate of my performance was no longer in my own greasy hands, but in those of some Chinese deity. That night’s insipid smooth-jazz licks were positively divine.

At midnight one night after a particularly long, late rehearsal (Mum: haven’t you got it right yet??), Dan and I got back to the hotel starving. The helpful hotel staff suggested that the only things open would be around the train station. I’m not sure about you, but experience tells me food gets worse the closer it gets to public transport. But with little choice, we set off. And sure enough, once we crossed the tracks, we entered a magical make-believe world of kickass 24-hour restaurants. We walked along a winding, bustling street with noodle joints, dumpling spots, roast meat emporia, each more tempting that the last, and all open and overflowing with happy, partying locals. Of course we decided food could wait and headed for a bar.

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The Hong Kongers don’t really go in for bars the way I know them. They like to drink beer in restaurants, or cocktails in uber-fancy dens hidden inside office buildings. So when you find a good old fashioned dive, you make the most of it. This joint was packed with smiley locals, getting hammered and playing indecipherable bar games. Shortly after we took our seats at the bar, an unconscious patron was dragged past us. My kind of place. We chatted with some friendly folk and downed a few aperitifs, before stumbling back out to find the restaurant on which we’d settled. A big bowl of steaming spicy broth, with some noodles, meat, and veggies, slurped down in an over-lit, crowded, humid, family-run joint, with nothing but open doors and giant fans to combat the intense heat, may be one of my favourite experiences ever; and throughout Asia you can replicate it over and over. This place had marinated pig intestines in at least half their menu items, so I figured that was the way to go. Bloody good it was too.

After Cantopopping our way through the last show, most of the band headed back to NY, but Dan and I decided to hang out for a couple of days. I really needed to unwind after the several notes I’d played that week. We stayed in a part of town which I believe is called Dried Seafood Street, or if it’s not, should be. I spent the days gaping at displays of desiccated denizens of the deep, and nights drowning in noodles and beer. It was a brilliant way to tie off another visit to one of my favourite towns, before hopping it over to Vietnam. About which I’ll tell you next time. Righto.

Opium, noodles, and a near execution: Bangkok

As we waited at the baggage carousel, I could feel the panic rising. My pulse was racing, and no amount of delicate dabbing could prevent the beads of sweat forming on my brow. I burped quietly: cabbage. I looked around furtively, but no one was paying me any attention. Even more furtively: still nothing. Maybe we’d be ok. Maybe the rumours were exaggerated. Maybe Thai customs wouldn’t find the illicit drugs I definitely wasn’t carrying and sentence me to an horrific death. I tried to keep my hands steady as I gripped my bags, but they were coated in sweat, presumably the baggage handlers’. Keeping my eyes down, I headed for the green “nothing to declare” line. My breathing was shallow and ragged; my mind was racing out of control; my hair was simply a disaster. If they noticed the panic radiating out of every pore, I knew I was a goner. But wait- there was nobody there. Not one customs officer. Not one sniffer dog. Maybe they were waiting beyond the exit doors. Not there either. Was it possible? Had I made it? Had I just passed through the most famously strict, death-penalising, border crossing in the world, carrying absolutely nothing illegal, nothing even remotely frowned-upon, without being stopped? I exhaled deeply (cabbage again). I’d made it to Bangkok.

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Brotherly love

For the last two legs of the tour, I was traveling with my younger brother- let’s call him Tim. After all, our parents did. Our last sibling adventure had been seven years previous, when we’d whole-heartedly tolerated each other through Spain and Morocco, and this felt like a much-anticipated sequel. Like Garfield 2. Tim’s a top-shelf travel buddy, with a keen eye for food, and an ear for adventure. And he’d found us a cracking hotel.

Not a hotel at all, it was a two-storey apartment above a Spanish bar in Chinatown; a traditional “shop house”, where the original shopkeeper would have lived. Our hostess Pupe and her Spanish husband Victor had discovered the place derelict for twenty years, and restored it in original style, and it was just amazing. Bare plank walls and floors, winding, almost vertical flights of stairs, sliding wooden doors, glassless windows for airflow- when we walked in it felt like stepping back in time. The only thing missing was a local girl to prepare my opium pipe. And she showed up later (apparently she’d been caught in traffic- whatever, that’s points off on Trip Advisor). And a bar downstairs which was almost never open, and which we were asked to “keep an eye on”. What more could you want.

The neighbourhood too, was just what the doctor ordered- no modern hotel chains, no western restaurants, very few tourists. We investigated other parts of town, but the best times were spent wandering Chinatown’s chaotic noisy dirty streets, smoke-belching scooters missing us by inches, two rats for every half-tailed cat, the intense heat and humidity sticking the shirts to our backs. And the incredible food absolutely everywhere. Day and night, on every corner, down every alley, a family with a rusted metal cart whipping up curry or noodles with every animal part imaginable, all served with bunches of fresh herbs and chilies to burn your face off. We’d sit on low plastic stools on the sidewalk and inhale this stuff, alternating it with slugs from giant bottles of dirt-cheap local beer, gasping and sweating from the heat and sheer intensity of flavour. It was a stimulus overload, the only respite coming when we’d retreat to our dark and mercifully air-conditioned rooms for a nap.

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Curry in a hurry

Nights were a gas too, particularly the one coinciding with young Tim’s birthday. We started with cocktails by a canal, progressed to delicious laneway food (pork maw anyone?), several hazy hours in a blues club, (where, as I remember it, the band was terrific), then a second dinner of unidentifiable roadside deliciousness. I forgot to buy Tim a birthday present, but let’s not bring that up- I don’t think either of us remembers…

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Poisoning young minds

As I was technically in town to work, next day I hied out to the university for a clinic with some eager and talented youngsters and then a gig at the very cool Black Amber Social Club. The occasion was the 5th anniversary of Sweets- a record label that also presents occasional shows by visiting musicians. The rhythm section I was assigned performed manfully, and the crowd were polite yet responsive. I don’t get the feeling Thais have heard too much jazz, but they do like a good time, and they got right into it.

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At Black Amber Social Club

Next day we said ta ta to Pupe and left for the airport before the noodle shops opened, much to Tim’s chagrin. Bangkok is a hell of a town and I reckon both of us will be back for another dip in the near distant future. Next stop: Singapore!

A bumpy Landing (or Man Has Challenging Taxi Ride; Eventually Finds Hotel)

It was humid and smoggy and I was collapsing beside a 6 lane freeway when it occurred to me I might be in over my head. The smart thing to do in a (very) strange country is to jump in a cab outside the airport and ride to the hotel in style, but that’s too easy for this genius. The Beijing airport express train dropped me at Dongzhimen, an area somewhere near the city centre, and presumably a good spot to start a much shorter cab ride. It was 5:30PM when I hit the street, and if you think rush hour is intense in your town, etc., etc. I jostled my way through throngs of commuters with my horn and suitcase leaving bruises in my wake. I played a game of real-life Frogger to get through the bike lane, and finding myself on some kind of median strip, I thrust out my arm. Ten minutes later a seriously battle-scarred cab honked at me from a middle lane. I dragged my gear through the traffic, dumped it in the trunk, and threw myself into the back seat. Like a good boy scout I had the name of the hotel and the address, in Chinese, on my phone. I showed it to the surly, sweating driver, who stared at it for some time and then proceeded to shout at me in Mandarin. We set off through the traffic, honking, and missing bike riders and pedestrians by millimetres, while my driver stared at my phone and fumed. Clearly the man had no idea where we were going. Eventually he too seemed resigned to that fact, and after ten minutes of hair-raising death-defiance, lurched the car over and motioned me out. I was now nowhere near the train station or my hotel, with not much cash and no wifi. Miraculously I hailed another cab fairly quickly, and showed this guy my phone. That’s about as far as we got- he furrowed his brow and stared for a few minutes before handing the thing back and speeding off. It seemed I was screwed.

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I had a vague idea of the direction of the hotel, thanks to an offline Google map, so I started walking. I figured it would take a couple of hours. After half a mile dragging horn and bags along bumpy, cracked pavements, I reached a big, international-looking hotel– one in which I sorely wished I was staying. I tried to explain my plight to several well-meaning but uncomprehending concierge types, before finding my saviour- a young, friendly, manager with basic English. I stood at her desk, sweating and gasping, while she kindly wrote out more detailed directions to my hotel; and when she presented me with that golden post-it, black with impenetrable script, I knew my troubles were over. With newfound confidence, I bounded back out to the street, found another cab, proudly proffered the driver my scrap of paper, and lay back, secure in the knowledge that my chariot would spirit me away to my luxurious accommodations. We didn’t seem to be moving. I opened my eyes to find the same look of utter befuddlement I’d been witnessing for hours. What the fuck, people. I wasn’t getting out of this cab. If he wanted to swear at me in Mandarin, I had a few choice New Jersey words I could send back. We drove off, driver shaking his head and cursing the entire Western Hemisphere. At this point the only thing left was to turn on my phone’s extremely expensive “roaming” service and call the hotel. They’d sort this out. No answer. What kind of hotel doesn’t answer the fucking phone! Answering the fucking phone is a central part of the hotel business! Then the driver had his phone out, and after stabbing at the screen, handed the thing over to me. I assumed he’d succeeded where I’d failed and reached the hotel, but this was just some friend of his who spoke some English. Next I had to read out to him my interpretation of Chinese place names- for your amusement, they were Huguosi, Xinjiekou, Qiangongyong, and Zhaodengyu- which, even though my pronunciation sounded like a stroke survivor with a mouth full of paper clips, seemed to help more than the actual, specific, detailed information in actual Chinese. We made a few pitstops to ask directions, and I know we passed the same street-corner domino game at least three times, but eventually we screeched to a halt on a corner and I handed over the pittance showing on the meter. Seriously it was like five bucks.

It took me another 20 minutes dragging my crap through back alleys, but eventually I found the Sofu hotel.  Airport to hotel: four hours. I scoured the streets, found the only restaurant open, inhaled some mystery meat on sticks and several litres of Chinese beer, then crashed.

If you go to Beijing and stay at the Sofu Hotel, just remember it’s on Huguosi between Deshengmen and Xinjiekou, near Qiangongyong. Got it?

Food & Whine: NYC-Hong Kong

I’m sitting on a plane between Hong Kong and Beijing, belly full of flaccid noodles and a white wine my peerless palate informs me is the July vintage. The tour’s just begun and I’m complaining already. There are so many insults flung at the modern air traveler, I don’t know why I always focus on the awful, awful food, but that’s really what hurts the most. The upside of this is that when you arrive at your destination, you’re READY. My last two days of meals have all been resignedly endured in airports, planes or hotels, and I’m ready for the real thing. Ducks are one of my favourite animals, whether waddling by the lake, or glistening on the plate, and Beijing is known for them, so stay tuned for roast duck tales.

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The flight from New York to Hong Kong was predictably tough. I get about 12 hours in, with 4 to go, and I tell myself I’m never doing it again. I have lofty goals of productivity, and start by editing videos and writing charts, but before long, survival becomes the only goal. The only way I can imagine it being worse is if I still smoked- the withdrawals made every hour double. I was helped by the knowledge that at the end of this leg was the Airport Novotel. It’s an undistinguished, modern, bland pile, but it’s quiet and comfortable, and the bar serves a fine martini. Two of those on top of jet lag and 24 hours awake, and I’m out like a light.

So I’m on my way to mainland China, tired and bleary, but energised by anticipation. Most of my regularly-patronised websites are blocked by what’s known as the Great Firewall- I have a sneaky little app that’s supposed to be able to dig a tunnel to the other side, but we’ll see if it works. A few days away from Facebook might turn out to be a blessing. And will the Beijingers turn out for an obscure Australian saxophonist? Tell you all about it in the next one.