Aruban beer was the one thing I didn’t know I needed…

…so naturally I’m going to talk all about Thailand.

Sometimes as a recipe or life unfolds, I can feel my next post write itself in real time. Not this month. Lately I haven’t spent a lot of time in the kitchen so that space has been back-filled with a collage of oddly-matched ideas, exchanges and memories. This is not a complaint – life has been anything but boring and I’m definitely not wrestling with cosmic dissonance. It was more of a localized bleh brought on by real life demands, a few minor hiccups and a couple of crossed wires. And even though Atlanta is lush and beautiful in the spring, my horizon is confined to about 50 yards in any direction. Typically it’s the Colorado mountains that come to the rescue, but this time I needed a vast expanse of water, a wholly unfamiliar culture and a healthy amount of distance. Hello, Aruba. Nearly three weeks later I’m finally ready to download; I simply required a little extra time and effort to weave the connections together.

Per usual I turn to the idea that familiar tastes and smells can trigger very strong sensory memories. They can also remind us of sights, sounds, climate, emotions and even attitudes. I’ve experienced this phenomenon often, and when it kicks in the world around me doubles in size because even small details are granted context and history. For some reason I had to actually leave the country this time, but there are triggers everywhere, should we choose to notice. It could be as simple as haphazardly biting into a wayward sesame seed or dragging a finger through brownie batter – one sends me back to a summer in Japan, the other to an afternoon in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Last month in Aruba I had a major taste memory episode and my head was flooded with memories of a fantastic and slightly reckless trip to Thailand in my twenties. Only it wasn’t gentle, dreamy, beach-induced nostalgia. It was more like a lightning bolt which started a chain reaction, all because of what I call the underrated thrill of walking the earth under a foreign sky. The trigger was not one of the obvious candidates like fresh seafood or fragrant herbs or spicy peppers. Instead it was a perfectly chilled Aruban Balashi beer, which in my mind morphed into a lukewarm Singha from exactly 30 years ago.

the original plan

My Aruban getaway was ostensibly designed around a long-ignored-often-harped-upon umbrella-drink beach fantasy I devised during the toddler years with Food Taster and Sous Chef. I’d been uncharacteristically patient while waiting for this type of trip – no worries, no responsibilities and no thinking required. But mid-sunburn my dream morphed into much more of an adventure, despite my grand proclamation that

“I only want to sit on a tropical beach think tropical thoughts under a tropical hut with a tropical drink delivered by a tropical cabana boy.”

Husband just loved the last part, but being a good sport he played along. Maybe after all these years he knew it was only ever a fleeting indulgence and that I would never be able to sit still for a week, even under the most tropical of circumstances. But for two glorious days I actually did check out: napping on a breezy warm beach, lolling away the morning on a catamaran cruise, snorkeling with sea turtles, sipping fruity frozen cocktails under a thatched palapa and gazing at the pristine teal ocean.

On day three I went rogue and ordered a late afternoon Balashi at the pool. First I simply giggled at myself and the absurdity of my swimming up solo to the tiki bar for a beer. It was trite and silly and exactly what I needed. After only a few sips the Thai connection hit hard and everything from that moment on was measured against 30-year-old memories that had become canonized legend. Before this gets too dramatic, I also remembered the reason I was even in the pool – to soothe all the aches and pains from merely strolling on the beach and snorkeling in the non-existent current. Fine, I’m much, much older now and can no longer live life with such youthful abandon. Maybe I’ve become a pool bar lady, only with wanderlust, hunger and the need to be away from all those tacky people. I categorically regret NONE of those touristy activities, but frankly I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did.

the Thai connection

While Aruba was a perfectly planned grown-up vacation, Thailand was the trip that wasn’t even supposed to happen. In 1992 I was specifically forbidden by my supervisor to leave Japan during my tenure as an English teacher for the Ministry of Education. That’s right forbidden, my favorite thing. There are people, some of whom I’m still speaking to, who have mistakenly uttered that word only to be met by immediate defiance and ironic, customized revenge. So while sneaking out of Japan was no easy feat, I left under the pretense that I was visiting friends up north and returned with one of those golden Tokyo suntans. They had it coming.

We landed in Bangkok and were greeted by the most friendly, engaging people we’d encountered in a year. For a lover of Thai food, the streets were a symphony of lush tropical fruits, exotic veggies of every shape and size, long stalks of aromatic lemon grass, piles of coconuts, clusters of basil and steaming platters of spicy red, green and yellow curries. I remember thinking that surely this must be the path to heaven.

But this was not a middle-aged mom trip and I had all but forgotten some of our more questionable decisions. This was the adventure of a fearless 24-year old:

  • I remember there were limited beverage choices – Singha beer, questionable (if not dangerous) water, Mekong (a rum-like distilled spirit, also dangerous) and occasionally a sugary soda. So beer.
  • I’m reasonably certain that I ate the best pad Thai I have ever had for 15¢ and it was prepared in a Bangkok gutter in a hubcap wok.
  • Husband is reasonably certain we ate cat that same day.
  • We both agree that we are probably in framed photos on the mantles of a dozen 1992 Chulalongkorn University graduates whose celebration we accidentally crashed. See photo above.
  • We acknowledge that we never should have taken a tuk-tuk 30 minutes to the airport – imagine a 3-seat lawnmower roaring down a 6-lane highway against traffic. We actually said our goodbyes.
  • We foolishly surrendered our passports to a nice lady for safe keeping during our trek and were dumped 3 hours up in the mountains near the Burmese-Laotian border with a dude named Ra. At night he shared the rumors he’d heard about a man walking on the moon. It was 1992.
  • Ra got us back to civilization via foot, homemade raft and of course, elephant. He cooked our meals from vegetables and “meats” gathered/caught along the way and negotiated overnight shelters in the more friendly remote villages. How am I alive?
  • And that zip of orangey-yellow threads I bought for $2 in Chiang Mai was definitely NOT saffron and it’s a good thing I ditched it before the Japanese customs officer ransacked my backpack. But you have to play to win.

another dodgy adventure

Fast forward 30 years and I’m in a taxi on the way to a pristine, luxury beach when our friendly Aruban driver asked me what activities we had planned for the week. I joked about just lying on the beach and then mentioned that I was unable to secure a UTV (utility terrain vehicle) tour of the island, apparently something worth doing. Oh, no no no no no no no! We didn’t want one of those companies. He knew a guy who could hook us up. He called his pal “Solo” who then called “E-Z” who, yes indeedy, just happened to have a pair of UTVs ready to go in the morning and could take us on a private tour of the island. It even had a name: The E-Z Special. And yes, I know what you are thinking and the thought did cross my mind.

How could I even consider this? But really…how could I not? My inner twenty-something was already unleashed and there was a glorious, rugged coastline to explore. So the next morning we hopped into an unmarked white van, signed no waivers and told nobody where we were going or who we were with. But we did manage to lock the passports in the hotel safe. Yeah…that really doesn’t sound much better than the Thai trek now that I’ve written it out.

Husband rode shotgun as I roared off behind E-Z through the community of Santa Cruz into the Arikok National Park. After a quick climb through the caves at the Ayo Rock Formations we headed out on the coastal trails and didn’t see another soul for 4 hours. I wouldn’t say the route was particularly treacherous, but it was challenging and we often needed to engage the 4WD to keep from careening back down the twisted mountain paths. The views were beyond breathtaking and these photos don’t begin to provide proper scale. The coastline was expansive and powerful, but not in the quiet, meditative way of the mountains – Thai, Rocky or otherwise. It was loud, haphazard and beautifully violent. I couldn’t help but note the contrasts; but also the familiarity. There are many ways to be humbled, jolted, inspired and soothed, you just have to get up and go find them. If the mountain will not come to Muhammad…

the food

This adrenaline rush led to some significant amendments to my earlier tropical beach declaration. While I had no further desire to be reckless, we more needed to be far more proactive and adventurous, particularly with our dining. From then on we sampled dishes from the many cultural influencers who visited (occupied) the island: French, Dutch, Venezuelan and all varieties of Caribbean. We ordered long scripted meals course by course, walked through iffy neighborhoods to find the most celebrated restaurants, dined by the beach, under the stars, and overlooking a lagoon. And while our nightly joke became “what’s for grouper?” we still managed to be deliciously surprised every time.

grouper and shrimp 3 nights in a row with zero regrets: French, Caribbean and Aruban

I waited until our last night to order the signature Aruban dish, Keshi Yena, a baked ball of Gouda stuffed with a savory ragù of meat, raisins and olives. It is perhaps the most un-tropical meal I could imagine, but very much a part Aruban history, supposedly passed down from slaves of the Dutch West Indies who utilized discarded cheese rinds and leftovers. It was difficult to turn down grouper at Papiamento, an exquisite outdoor restaurant built around an old cunucu (small plantation) house and a stunning turquoise pool. Luckily Husband folded easily so I sampled both. The Keshi Yena was delicious, although not my favorite meal of the trip by far. But given the importance of traditional cuisine and its historical context I believe I chose wisely.

I’d forgotten the importance of dining with the rest of the world and that pleasing combination of tastes, atmosphere, service and community. Yes, I even tolerated the other tourists that night. It was a fitting bookend to a short vacation that felt like weeks, in a delightful and refreshing way.

traditional Aruban Keshi Yena

back to reality

Finding myself officially off-duty for a week, I nearly shut down the functional part of my brain that sorts through the friction and noise to make nifty connections every day. Luckily I kept the valve open, it just took me a while to realize how it all fell together. Sometimes it might sound like I’m trying to reshape each day into a picture-perfect keepsake. Not even close. Rather, I have learned that every day I get to choose what is written into my narrative, and these are not necessarily seminal life moments. They can be small things, maybe a little ugly or misshapen or inconvenient or uncomfortable or simply untidy. But I’ll make it work.

I came home from Aruba to deal with all the same silly crap I left behind, but now armed with renewed perspective and a secret weapon: I will always, always, always embrace the untidy, ‘cause Mama, that’s where the fun is.

And Atlanta really is quite lovely in May.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: