Thursday, April 22, 2010

Know Your Gestures

Our van twisted up the mountain through tea plantations on the road to Tanah Rata. It was gray and drizzly, and in the dry warmth of the van I felt sorry for the two soggy backpackers we passed trying to hitch a ride in the opposite direction. They were obviously Westerners: ginormous backpacks, shorts, bandanas, thumbs up in the air trying to flag down a ride as cars hurtled by.

Tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands

Warm and dry in the van, I didn't envy their situation, but I couldn't help laughing a little at their predicament when I thought back to the passage I had read in the guidebook on the long flight to Kuala Lumpur. The thumbs-up, unlike in the US where it means "good" or "way to go," in many parts of the world including Malaysia, can look like you're telling someone to go stick a thumb up their ass.

Needless to say, telling someone to stick a thumb up their ass is not the best way to get a ride from a stranger.

The following day, I was on my own in Tanah Rata taking a day to rest and do some laundry. I had passed a laundry service the previous day, and I walked there in the morning with a big bag of jungle-dirtied and leech-wound-stained clothes. The door was closed and locked when I got there, and I hunted around unable to find any posted hours.

A local man was passing by and noticed my confusion. "They're closed now," he said, guessing that I spoke English.

"Do you know what time they open?" I asked him.

"They open at 10," he said.

And then it happened. In a completely involuntary motion, I gave him a beaming smile, thanked him, and laid a big fat thumbs-up on him.

He froze and his face fell as I walked away. I spun around and was half a block away happily staring at a cart piled high with durian before I realized what I had done.

"Oh no," I thought, looking back to see if he was still there. He had disappeared. "Did he think what I think he thinks? I hope he just took me for an idiot tourist and wasn't offended. Aw hell, he looked pretty offended. Do I actually use the thumbs-up? If so, what a choice time to use it. I really don't think of myself as a thumbs-upper."

It's as if conversation had gone like this:

Helpful man: "They're closed now."

Me: "Do you know what time they open?"

Helpful man: "They open at 10."

Me: "Great, thanks. Oh, by the way... up yours old man!"

That was it — no more. That was absolutely the last time I would use a thumbs-up on this trip. I would not offend another person with my reckless digit. That was the plan, but to my horror, the involuntary thumbs-upping continued over the next few weeks, making it all too apparent that I use the gesture far more frequently than I ever would have guessed.

To the woman serving me noodles at a floating restaurant in Kuala Tahan, "These noodles are delicious! Screw you, you old bag!"

Floating restaurants at Kuala Tahan

At the Muzium Perhutanan, a museum at the remote hill station of Gunung Jerai in northern Malaysia most famous for a large fossilized elephant turd, "Thanks for letting us in to look even though you were closed! Stick a thumb where that turd came from!"


It got so bad that I was fighting my own hand like a parody of Dr. Strangelove by the end of the trip and watching it out of the corner of my eye for any suspicious activity. It's one thing to know about gestures and their meanings in other cultures, but breaking an unconscious habit is another matter entirely.

Now that I'm safely ensconced in a thumbs-up-friendly society, I couldn't even tell you if I've kicked the habit. So if I ever unconsciously give you a thumbs up, feel free to flip me the bird — even if I don't understand, I'll deserve it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Santa Fe Winter Light

It was cold and stormy here in the Bay Area this past weekend, so I did what I could do to counteract the lingering winter weather at least on a small scale: cook posole. Posole, whether you spell it with an 's' or a 'z', or even if you call it hominy stew, is a warming hearty meal, and for me the ultimate comfort food in cold weather.

I decided to make my favorite variation, posole rojo made with red New Mexico chiles, hominy, and pork shoulder. Not to overly pat myself on the back, but I really nailed it this time and eating it made my mind drift back to winter in Santa Fe, crackling fires, icy clear air, the smell of corn, chiles and desert piƱon. Like I said, it was good posole.

Chile ristras: decorative and delicious

We hit Santa Fe in early December, which turned out to be an excellent time to go. It's cold enough that visitors drop off steeply from the warmer months and lodging rates are low, it's too early for ski season, and it was before the popular Christmas and New Year holidays, so even the ever-bustling area around the plaza was calm. If you can stand a little cold, this is a great time to see Santa Fe.

The spicy New Mexican food suits the cold weather (I would also argue that it suits hot weather and everything in between), and a big bowl of posole rojo or green chile stew sets you up perfectly for walks in the cold, and believe me, if you're one of those crazy people that enjoys stunning gorgeous things, you'll want to take walks in the cold as the winter light in Santa Fe is something to behold. The crystalline clarity of the air, the long shadows of winter light cast from the soft-edged adobe buildings, the deep blue sky and hanging chile ristras set against bright patches snow create an effect that you won't find elsewhere. Every morning I would get up at sunrise to take a walk crunching along the icy streets and I would have the town entirely to myself.

Palace Ave. in the early morning

First Presbyterian Church

Cathedral in the morning light

Shadows on the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Alone in the Plaza

A warm glow from the porch light

The New Mexico Museum of Art is a work of art itself

Georgia O'Keeffe has plaque

Morning on Canyon Road

Magpie on Canyon Road