January 23, 2007

Food Stall Hopping (11/21/07)

After 2 weeks in Vietnam, we finally worked up the courage to eat at the street side food stalls.

We set out with determination, along with a nice guy we met on a trip, David Kim. We figured we would have acclimatized to the local bacteria by now, and fervently hoped that we would not get food poisioning.

Initially, it was a little intimidating. When we sat down, we got a few bemused looks from the locals. The stands are very simple affairs, with short with squat plastic stools and low plastic tables strewn with squeezed lime peels, smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Locals plunk down and slurp bowls of mysterious looking food. A single bubbling pot, with colanders full of noodles, vegetables and puzzling looking meat products would surround the single cook. There is no menu, and no English spoken.

But this was, by far, the most delicious food in Vietnam! For some reason, restaurant food is bland, overcooked, or both. We speculated this was because only tourists can afford to eat in the restaurants, so not only do you have unknowledgable customers, you only have to get them in the door once.

And oh wow is it cheap. The first stall we tried Cau Lau, a local Hoi An specialty, consisting of thick rice noodles, spicy soup, fried pork and bean sprouts. 3 huge bowls garnished with fresh lime and 3 huge beers -$2.50.

We were still a little hungry, and drunk with our newfound power of eating at a stand, we moved on to a second stall and sampled the fresh steamed buns, containing sausage and whole quail egg. – 3 buns, $1.

While walking and stuffing ourselves with the buns, we came upon the third stall, and tried some Chao Vit, a rice porridge containing roast duck, and had 2 more beers – $2

By this time, we were rolling around holding our stomachs. It would be worth it even if I did get food poisioning. (We were fine).

I was only kicking myself that we didn’t start eating like this this earlier!

December 7, 2006

Welcome back to Hong Kong

Ten years ago, I visited Hong Kong with my parents, a place I had not been since my family moved when I was 3 years old.

I found it crowded, noisy, inhabited by rude people busily rushing to and fro in a skyscraper jungle. My overwhelming impression was that it was New York City on steroids, sort of like being stuck in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but without end.

And now? I couldn’t be happier to be here. Did I change? Did Hong Kong change? How has my travel changed my views, especially just coming from Kathmandu? I can’t say. I suppose that’s part of the problem of trying to use myself both as the control and the experiment…

Hong Kong itself was much more orderly and clean than I remember 10 years ago. There are signs and directions and rules for everything, and the city runs very smoothly. I was impressed by the new Airport (I flew into the one runway airport right before it closed down in 97), and the transit system was something out of a dream compared to the T in Boston. Subways run every 3 minutes, with signs in the station telling you exactly how long before the next train arrived. Melodious pre-recorded voices told you which station was coming up in three languages. The immaculate subways eased into the station and lined up precisely with the sliding glass doors. Arrows on the floor indicated where one should enter the subway car (on the sides) and where people should exit (through the middle) for maximum efficiency. Transfers between different lines was as easy as walking across the platform.

One thing I noticed that was definetely new were the public service announcements, ranging from helping the blind and volunteering, to disease prevention. Last time, I remember giving up my seat to an elderly person on a bus, who quickly took the seat but then looked at me like I was a chump. Now there are bulletin boards inside the train promoting this behavior.

I was most enthralled with the Octopus card, a smart card with stored value, which can be used on all forms of transit (bus, subway, ferry) and at 7-11s and pharmacies. It was scary how easy it was to forget that it was real money…just whip out the card, put it on the little reader and presto!

It was strange to be in Hong Kong without my parents, and to see my parents’ friends without them. Last time, I was still a kid in their eyes, but now, married with husband in tow, it must have been as strange for them to see me as an adult. Being here without my parents has also given me a much better sense of Hong Kong geography — last time I never knew where I was, as all we seemed to do was visit relatives and friends. And eat.

I forget how much English my mom speaks, compared with her friends – “Hello” was about it. Jonathan graciously sat there and ate everything pushed in his direction while conversation swirled about him in Cantonese, with occasional bits of English translation by me. Even my contemporaries, the children of my parents’ friends, who had all taken English in school for years, could speak very little. I can hardly fault them – my 5 years of French from school is pretty abysmal.

It was fun to see Man Sook (Uncle Man), my Dad’s best friend for almost 50 years. Though pushing 70, he looked in good shape. Last time I was there, I mostly listened as my parents talked. This time, being alone, I got great stories of my Dad in his youth, pre Mom. As quiet and introverted as my father was, his friend was talkative, especially about the past. Lots of random things I knew about my Dad became clearer as I was regaled with stories of their meeting, how they used to go to my Dad’s hometown in Fushan for Chinese New Year, how they signed up for mechanic lessons instead of English lessons in Hong Kong, so they could go and be of better service to the glorious revolution in China. They had made it through the training and were waiting to cross the border, when escapees who had just made it back brought stories of the real horror and nightmare going on. They quickly got the heck out of there! Man Sook not only knew my grandmother, but my Dad’s older brother, two people I had never really heard about, never mind seen a picture of.

And of course, how could I be in Hong Kong and not go on about the food? We had some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had at a restaurant named Dong (East) on Nathan Road. Everything was excellent, but especially interesting was the different take on the shu mai – ground pork stuffed in their little yellow skins, but covered with a thin slice of scallop and topped with bright red shrimp roe. Seafood abounds, with tanks and displays of huge and succulent shrimp, fresh fish, scallops, and Hairy crab. We had a great meal at a seafood street stand by one of the night markets.

And the fresh, fragrant, fluffy jasmine rice was just as I like it. I was home.

November 30, 2006

Gross Anatomy Amidst Rice Fields

The world sometimes feels like a small place. What are the chances I would know someone who knew someone who lives in Dhulikhel, Nepal? And that I would get a thourough tour of the almost completed Basic Sciences building of the Kathmandu University medical campus?

My friend Aimee, who taught for 6 weeks at Kathmandu University as part of a joint Harvard Med School program, put me in touch with a friend of hers, DG and his wife Laxmi. We are always interested in meeting locals or expats in the places we travel to. It gives an entire extra dimension to visit – observing first hand small customs (instead of just reading about it), and being served a home cooked meal is always fun and enlightening.

Our dubious travel karma continued as we took a cab to the city bus station. DG told me that it was 30 rupees to take the bus, easily recognizable because there would be a guy standing in the door of the bus shouting “Dhulikel Dhulikel Dhulikel” over and over as fast as an auctioneer. When the taxi driver heard where we wanted to go, he was sad, shaking his head, and kindly let us know that there was Maoist strike, and that buses were not traveling to Dhulikhel that day. But he, as a taxi, would be allowed to pass, and he would take us for a mere 9000 rupees. We refused to heed him, and said we would check at the bus station anyway. We were dropped off at a bus station, and asked for Dhulikhel, and all we got were people shaking their heads at us, understanding we wanted to go to Dhulikhel, but not speaking English. We looked at each other and thought for a moment that the taxi driver was actually right, when we decided to ask a random guy on the street who looked like he might speak English.

In fact, he directed us around the corner, to the Intercity bus terminal, and not the long distance terminal! The cab driver deliberately tried to trick us by dumping us at the wrong bus station, which of course would not have buses to Dhulikhel. Gotta be on our toes…

DG met us on the side of the road, and took us to his home on the campus and to meet his wife. Kathmandu University (KU) was located among lush rolling green hills covered with terraced rice paddies. His home, temporary housing provided by KU for staff, consisted of a one room hut with a tin roof, covering no more than 300 square feet, with a patch of land for gardening. It was cozy, and homey, and we were warmly welcomed. Laxmi had a meal waiting for us as we settled in, and were served a delicious Nepali meal of several preparations of potatoes, dal bhat (lentils, much more soup like than I had imagined) and rice. I am always thrilled when I get to taste home cooked meals, and see what kind of semblance there is to what is served in the restaurants!

We were treated to the story of how DG and his wife met. In short, acting on his sister’s pre-screening of the girl and her family, he choose Laxmi within THREE HOURS of meeting her, and they were married by the end of the weekend. That takes the cake for shortest dating AND engagement time yet. :)

DG was very gracious, and took pains to set up a thourough tour of KU despite his clearly busy schedule. KU is a small private university, only 10 years old, but we could see from the bustle of activity and construction it had big plans for expansion. I was also shown their new Basic research building, with all the seriousness of hosting a visiting NIH delegation on their part. I am sure they did not know exactly what to make of me -they knew that I was a molecular biologist somehow associated with Harvard Medical School, though I was clearly there on non-official capacity, dressed in a polo shirt, jeans and Tevas. We were shown the gross anatomy lab, and they even offered to show me the cadavers they had in the giant freezers…uh, no thanks. Lots of jars of pickled and preserved human organs dotted the room.

We were spared the city buses and put on the staff and student buses headed back to Kathmandu. Riding in a school bus with 50 rowdy college students in Nepal was another one of those unexpected experiences. Loud music blared over the bus speakers, scenes of country life whizzed by outside the window, and we had our first smooth transportation experience in Nepal.

We had a great time – so many thanks to DG and Aimee :)

November 25, 2006

Warmth and friendliness

Despite the stressful trip into Kathmandu, there were some highlights during the day that would never have happened if we had a simple, straightforward, easy taxi ride into the city.

I spent a lot of time sitting by the side of the road guarding luggage, as Jonathan went off to find the next ride towards Kathmandu. Despite being anxious about the situation, it felt luxurious to be sitting in the grass, warm and feeling the sun on my face. It was a welcome change after the cold and skin cracking dryness of high altitude. I gazed at the mango and banana trees dotting the valley and marvelled at the precise terracing of the rice fields, while chickens pecked and goats chewed on grass besides me.

Groups of women walked by in beautiful flowing saris, kids in school uniforms, and men in traditional round cloth hats frequented the small roadside shops across the road. I discovered that Nepali men commonly walk holding each others’ hands – as natural for them as it would be stange in the US.

I found that the Nepali are curious but polite people. Passerbys would stare at me, but once I caught them looking they would quickly look away. I would call out “Namaste!”, and instantly a slightly sheepish smile would break out, and “Namaste” would be warmly returned. I imagine they don’t see foreign women stuck alone on the side of the road with a pile of 8 bags in front of them very often. (Or maybe they do, given the number of transportation strikes!)

A teenage boy who was selling bolts of cloth saw me, and started to pester me for money and candy, etc. He was harmless, but a little annoying when he wouldn’t go away. A circle of old women sitting on their balcony, with whom I had made friends with earlier by waving and shouting “Namaste!”, started in concert to lecture him from above. Ah, the village elders. Some things don’t need any translation – the effect on the boy was immediate. He rolled his eyes (but when only faced towards me), and slunk away.

Our first meal in Nepal was delicious – doubly so since we hadn’t eaten for 8 hours since leaving the Chinese border in the morning. We sat at a roadside restaurant and ordered the Nepali Set Meal to share, which came with curry vegetables, rice, a green stewed vegetable, lentil soup (dal) and some sort of salad, each in its own little copper dish. Jonathan and I shared food as our usual custom, eating off of one plate, sampling this and that. We devoured the meal, since we weren’t sure whether at any point we’d have to be ready to get on the next mode of transportation to Kathmandu.

We had a few minutes to kill after the meal, and flipped through the Lonely Planet Nepal, reading the highlighted “Dos and Don’ts” concerning Nepali etiquette. Number 1, the Number 1 item listed went something like ” Do not share food or utensils. This is considered to ritually contaminate the food”. We looked at each other and thought back to our unintended complete and utter trampling on this cultural norm.

Oops. Hope the restaurant guys are used to crazy foreigners…

October 10, 2006

Beijing New East Culinary School

Uniting two of my passions, cooking and learning, into a single activity (namely a cooking class) is one of the most wonderful ways I can think of to spend my time.

I’ve been really interested in finding out about what foods were typical of the northern region of China. Being the imperial capital of China for the last 500 years, I thought that there must be a very distinct style and dishes that were typical of the city. This was the home of the dowager empress Cixi, who was infamous for having over 100 dishes prepared every night that were never eaten, simply to satisfy her eyes.

I found a culinary tour of Beijing online, which included a translator and driver. I thought it would be much like the other cooking classes I had taken, where 8-10 people show up, you cook at individual stations while a teacher in the front does the demonstrations.

Upon being picked up by our guide, I discovered that Jonathan and I were the only 2 people in the “class”. We pulled up to the Beijing New East Culinary School, and was met by the manager of the school. We were led on a brief tour of the school, passing through an open courtyard where 40 students were practicing their chopping skills.

I will never forget the unsynchronized thwacking of 40 cleavers on wood blocks.

We took a peek inside one of the teaching classrooms, where at least 50 students each stood by a wok and prep station, cooking up a storm. By this time, we had gathered a crowd of students, mostly young men, openly staring at us and wondering who we were. I began to understand why, as we were ushered into a room where 4 chefs in full European chefs uniform complete with white toques were standing there waiting to receive us. They had set up a table with 2 plates and chopsticks in the middle of the room, and behind us were a few rows of chairs. As we entered the room, the entire back of the room, which is glass, was gathered with curious students. Who were these two?

The master chef Xu Yongli was personally doing the demonstration, with 3 of his sous chefs. Along with that was the manager who accompanied us in, the translator and driver, and another administrator who was videotaping us. All for my cooking class!

A sous chef turned and wrote the names of the dishes that they would be preparing on the blackboard. It was worst Chinese handwriting I’ve ever tried to read, really resembling chicken scratch. I was a little disappointed when I found out it would be Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour pork, and Steamed Fish. I was assured that these were typical Chinese dishes. Oh well…while I was hoping for more regional food, I was sure I would learn things nonetheless. (I’ve since found out that Beijing really lives and dies by its street snacks).

I got a blow by blow tutorial from the master chef, with (barely adequate) translation from our tour guide, who was clearly not a cook. When I said that to her, she enthusiastically said “No, but I like to eat!”.

While I am familiar with the basics of Chinese cooking, I learned a lot on how to prepare and present fish, to increase surface area of meat for frying, and how to use some new condiments. One distinct difference between Cantonse cooking is the use of vinegar. I watched as he stir fried the chicken, double flash fried the pork and steamed the fish. They do have incredible fire, as the stoves are powered by propane tanks in the corner. The wok gets HOT! Not one of those sissy Viking stoves…

As I was intently watching the chef, Jonathan was intently taking pictures. When the chef was finished preparing the meal, he asked if we would like to try to prepare the sweet and sour pork. Jonathan had no interest, so I stepped behind the counter.

This was quite a bit more intimidating than I was expecting. The master chef is watching me, along with his three sous chefs, the guide, the driver, the two managers and Jonathan with his giant lens. There is a row of curious students crowded in the doorway. He hands me his cleaver and I get to work.

It was alot of fun as I learned how to properly hold a cleaver, tenderized and sliced pork, dredged it in a mixture of cornstarch and “custard powder”, got criticized on my prep of the pepper (too big!) and double fried the meat. I watched his technique for putting ketchup into the wok directly, and made a passable sweet and sour sauce.

The chef was very polite, as we sat down to a huge meal containing both his and my sweet and sour pork. He sampled mine and said “Good!” Nice try, but not even close – my pork cubes lacked the crispy exterior of his, due to my cutting them too big, and the sauce was a bit ketchupy, but overall not too bad.

There was definetly a moment there which reminded me of my father. I asked the chef how he knew the oil was ready for frying – expecting him to say something like “I intently watched for the size of the bubbles”, or whatever.

He just chuckled at the translator, and replied “you just know”.

October 5, 2006

Good times, Foot Massage and Big Plate Chicken

Michael and CaraI’ve found in our travels that talking to people offers unparrallel insight into a place. So thanks to Seth Golub, who hooked us up with his friends Michael and Cara, two ex-pat diplomats living in Beijing.

They were warm and friendly, and really went out of their way to make us feel welcome and give us a glimpse into working and navigating Beijing. What was funnier is that they both speak better Mandarin than I do, which should not be surprising since then have taken months of formal language training. Yet when the four of us went out, all of the vendors kept trying to speak to me — and I kept pointing to Michael.

Certainly, I would unlikely have even thought to have, or indulged in, a Chinese foot massage had Cara not invited us along with her. A foot massage, I found out, included a shoulder, back and leg massage, while having unlimited drinks brought to you for an hour and a half – total pampering. The massage itself was both pleasant and a little painful, yet soothing afterwards. They really massaged out foot muscles I never knew I had. And wow, are they strong! There was lots deep specific kneeding followed by foot slapping.

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that the entire body is mapped on the soles of the feet, and anything tight or out of place in the foot relates to the specific part on the body. Jonathan’s masseuse kept telling him about specific ailments he had – did he have phlem in his throat? Jonathan, being a smart ass, answered with a coughed out “No”.

Another truly wonderful experience was being taken out for Muslim food in Beijing, where they ordered a dish typical of the far western Xinjiang region (borders Kazakhstan). “Big Plate Chicken” is a sumptous, spicy(!!) chicken dish with mounds of red dried chilies, green chilies and potatoes in a rich thick sauce. Michael and Cara had a great vacation in the region, and had been telling us about this dish, with piles of chicken enormous enough to feed 6 people. Which made it all the funnier when the dish appeared on the table, well proportioned to feed, say, 2 people. They looked at each other, and Michael began discussing the size of the dish with the waiter. The exchange went something like this:

Michael: I thought we ordered Big Plate Chicken.
Waiter: You did. This is Big Plate Chicken.
M: But this plate isn’t very big.
W: Sorry?
M: This is supposed to be “BIG” plate chicken (motioning with his hands)
W: Well, I could put it on a bigger plate.
M: No, when we ordered this in Xinjiang, it was a very big plate of chicken (now some arm waving).
W: Yes, but this isn’t Xinjiang. We are in Beijing.

Eventually, Michael convinced the waiter to add some more chicken to the dish, and we did indeed get our Big Plate chicken, thrown in with some noodles on the bottom to soak up the sauce. Delicious, and spicy to the point of painful, it was fabulous.

So thanks to Cara and Michael, who really showed us a wonderful time in Beijing. They have their own entertaining blogsite detailing their experiences in Beijing too.

October 4, 2006

Mooncake Frenzy

Haagen Dazs Moon Cakes It is very festive being in Beijing with the upcoming Mid Autumn Holiday – the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, aka August Moon Festival. I have never seen more mooncakes on sale in my life. They are everywhere, and people are bustling to and fro carry multiple bags of them as they head off to visit relatives and lavish these mooncakes onto their bosses and friends. The China Daily newspaper reports that the Chinese ate 200,000 tons of mooncakes last year.

The mooncakes I’m familiar with have lotus bean paste, and if you spring for the “good” ones, have several preserved egg yolks inside. I like them, but they are really rich, and really sweet – once a year is enough. Since it is obligatory to have and to give mooncakes during the holiday (think Christmas fruitcake), everyone and their brother is in on the cash cow.

There are mooncakes with extensive packaging, and new styles for every taste. One store is offerering moon cakes packaged in boxes shaped like the return cabin of the Chinese spaceship, with two mooncakes inside. They range in size from as small as a beer cap to a meter in diameter, with an amazing variety of fillings – among the crazier ones are cheese, rose, black plum, dried scallop, cranberry, and Peking duck. Asparagus mooncake, anyone?

Of course, the western chains in Beijing are also in for some action. Starbucks offers coffee flavored mooncakes, while Haagen Dazs offers several varieties of chocolate covered ice cream filled ones. Since Haagen Dazs was out, and I was determined to try some, we found some at a TCBY. Very cleverly presented, the box of 4 had several flavors of yogurt wrapped in a thin chewy dough. They even simulated the traditional preserved egg yolk in the middle with a little ball of orange sherbert.

So, sadly, I am not in Boston with my family on the holiday of family reunions, but I am taking in and filling in my knowledge of Chinese holidays and customs. I am looking forward to the 80-90% reduction in price after the holiday to try more of these goodies – sort of like my hanging around the Lindt store the day after Easter. Now, off to find some chocolate moon cakes…

January 25, 2006

Spice tour on Zanzibar

For me, spices ususally come in little red plastic bottles with perferated plastic tops. Or if I decided to splurge, spices would come in glass bottles instead.

We took a tour of a spice plantation on Zanzibar, one of the spice islands. It was fun to see what spices and other natural products really look like in the wild, before processing. On the surface, the plants don’t look like much, and it is amazing how only a very small part of the plant is used. Ginger and tumeric are roots, citronella is isolated from leaves, cloves are dried flowers, nutmeg is a seed, and so on. (See picture. The red covering over the seed is another spice, mace.)

It was really interesting to see fresh vanilla beans, as I would only recognize the black dried up shriveled pods (see picture).

Some of the best food yet was the lunch on the Spice tour. We were served Rice Pilau, spiced with cardomom, cloves, and cinnamon bark, and topped with a coconut curry. I must try to duplicate this when I get back home. It was absolutely delicious. We had a great time, sitting on straw mats in a concrete thatched hut in the countryside of Zanzibar, eating in the 95 degree humid heat.

It killed me that I couldn’t buy some of the spices there at the end of the tour. 50 cents for 12 whole nutmeg seeds, pouches of cardomom seeds, tumeric, cinnamon. Besides being very pricey in the US, I’ve been wanting to experiment with the cardomom ice cream/ cardomom cake recipe in Ming Tsai’s first cookbook, but had been too cheap to bring myself to buy the spice in its seed form.

Sadly, I knew it would be pointless to ship them back to the US to sit around for a year losing their aroma while I continued traveling. Oh well…a small price to pay to be able to travel :)

Great Chinese and Indian food…in Africa?

Chinese food at China Plate, Zanzibar

Despite my previous grumblings about finding good Chinese food on the road, I was pleasantly surprised in Tanzania.

The decent Chinese food is due, we were told, from a population of professionals that came to live in Tanzania as teachers and doctors in the 50’s and 60’s (perhaps fleeing the Cultural Revolution). Although there are few Chinese people left, it seems that good Chinese food is there to stay. Lucky for me.

I got some dumplings (good, though with a weird tasting filling), and squid stir fried with celery and cloud ear mushrooms. Yum. Now if I could only find some dim sum…

In fact, it was almost harder to figure out what more “traditional” Tanzanian food was. One night on the safari we were treated to a traditional African meal, featuring an entire goat roasted over hot coals. This was served with ugali, a sticky bland paste made from maize flower (which is rolled in the hand and used to pick up pieces of food), and accompanied by red beans in a savory/sweet sauce. Delicious. Other than that, curry sauces are abundant, which are more subtle and not as spicy as Indian and Thai curries.

I was also surprised by the excellent Indian food. Large populations of Indians were brought into East Africa by the British to work on the railways, leading to an established Indian community living in Tanzania (See Jonathan’s post on the Hindu temple we stumbled on in Moshi).

One of our favorite spots was the “IndoItaliano”, serving Indian, and well, you guessed it, Italian food. Who would have thought that would be a great combination?

December 20, 2005

City Girl at heart -loving Buenos Aires

After 2 months of hard travel, being in Buenos Aires was heavenly. While I love being in touch with nature, and I can stay in a small town for a day or two, I like my streetlights, wide paved avenues, and the anonymous bustle of people.

We rented an apartment for two weeks – a one bedroom (separate room for sleeping!), a kitchen (I got to cook!), a washing machine, cable TV and an internet connection, and I was in heaven. After worrying about whether we would have enough hot water for showers, and having to leave our room door open to get heat in Ushuaia, this was blissful. No having to find an internet cafe, eat out every meal, find laundromats, or share a communal TV.

Buenos Aires (BA) is a huge, cosmopolitan city of 18 million. It has the bustle and rhythm of NY (along with the fleets of taxis) but is less menacing, somehow. The guide book describes Portenos (residents of BA) as “Italians who speak Spanish and think they’re European”. And, they are very fashion conscious. I watched thousands of women in my two weeks there, and not a single one was badly dressed. Everyone had coordinated shoes, purses, and jewelery.

Having nothing but my backpacker clothes and Tevas, I felt like I really stuck out (add to it that I’m Chinese, and it’s very noticeable). Shopping was spectacular.

Some of you who know me might be scratching their heads at this moment about that last sentiment. But every single clothing and shoe store (and there are many) has virtually all their merchandise in the window, with their prices clearly displayed. This means minimal interaction with sales staff unless I see something I like. (Yes, my introvertedness kicks in.) And, Argentine women are naturally small, so no having to find petite sections for boring clothes.

Having bought some more stylish clothing, we took in a tango show. The Tango is the famous dance of Argentina, and the dancers are sensual and skilled, executing amazing twists and intricate movements in tandem. What was a great surprise was that singing was a large part of the show. In fact, the tango shows were advertised by who was singing, rather than who was dancing. Also, the accordian is of central importance. We in the US seem to laugh off the accordian as not a ‘real’ instrument, but in the hands of a skilled player, it was truly expressive and took on a life of its own.

The food was also great, though a bit monotonous. There are wonderful cafes on virtually every street corner, serving excellent coffee and a bewildering and tempting selection of pastries. With the large Italian immigration in the 18th century, there are an enormous number of pizza and pasta places, topped only by the number of places serving empanadas and beef.

I had been looking forward to Buenos Aires as a place to savor ethnic foods before heading off to Africa. What we found sadly were only a handful of Thai, Indian, middle eastern places. Surprisingly, these meals were relatively expensive, costing about what they would in the US (thus extremely pricey by Argentine standards). Ethnic food is considered ‘exotic’, and not the cheap, plentiful, good standbys that I take for granted in the US.

I found the tiny (one street) Chinatown on the outskirts of town. We had a pretty decent meal there, though no one spoke cantonese. The most recent and most prosperous wave of Chinese immigration seems to have come from Shanghai and Taiwan.

With city life and an apartment came some semblance of our life from home. We were pretty bad tourists in BA, even though we saw a lot. We relished in being able to rent movies, cook at home, and not having to pack every few days. Jonathan got to play poker online, and I got to go to class (Spanish lessons). Although we had saved a lot of annoying errands for BA, it was nice to know that we could find those things easily.

We found out from our realtor that our modern one bedroom apartment in one of the ritziest neighborhoods in town, with parking and doorman, would cost about $75,000. Wow…we were almost ready to move in…

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