Hot : The Sun :: Spicy : _____

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a helpful note differentiating “hot” from “spicy.” Fire is hot, as are bunsen burners, the surfaces of stars and the gates of hell. Spicy on the other hand, says Noah Webster, more aptly refers to “Thai food.” He’s not wrong. The Thais take their spice seriously: no dish is complete without a few peppers chopped, mashed, or minced, and no table is properly set without a dish of pepper flakes for added heat. When Thais go out for Japanese food, wasabi is not stirred into the soy sauce; rather, a dash of soy sauce is stirred into the wasabi.

As painfully conscientious and accommodating hosts, the Thais are acutely aware that the Western palate can’t typically keep up; more than once I’ve been regretfully informed that there’s nothing on the menu weak enough for me. I of course insist, and sometimes have to do battle– all but sign a waiver– just to get my dishes normally spiced. Because, damn, it’s delicious.

Now, I’m not particularly passionate about spicy food.  Hot sauces give me more pain than pleasure, and I was never the kid munching on Hot Fries just to prove he could. Ordering wings? Great, I’ll have the mild, double blue cheese, double ranch. Call it cowardice, call it what you will, it just ain’t my jam.

Thai spice is different. It still hurts– it definitely still hurts, and makes your nose run and your eyes water– but it’s used so artfully, and the spice is so much more flavorful than vinegary Tabasco… it’s kind of worth it. Every bite of a cashew chicken stir fry scorched my face off recently, but I couldn’t stop eating it, and when I came out the other side, I emerged not just stronger but fat and happy, too. Over the past six months, I’ve adjusted to it somewhat, and it was with a degree of satisfaction that I recently watched a visiting American colleague cry into his papaya salad while I munched happily away.

Now and then, though, things get a little intense for even the Thais themselves. At lunch, I watched my friendly coworker Sai frantically wave her hands, trying to get a breeze going in her mouth after a too-aggressive bite of a five-alarm green bean and shrimp paste salad. Another time at dinner, a more stalwart friend swallowed a bite of spiced crab, shot a wide-eyed look of betrayal at the waiter, and then conversation fell silent for a few minutes as he gazed off somewhere in the middle distance, a look on his face as though recalling a cruel memory, tears streaming down his face.

Of course, it’s not all flame and fireworks. If, sometime after next week, you ask me, “So, Sam, gosh, I’m sure a million people have already asked you this, but, shoot, how was Thailand?” I will almost certainly blurt out something weirdly desperate-sounding about craving the 90 cent bowls of chicken soup, or the duck noodles, or the minced pork, fried pork, grilled pork, delicious pork. The Thais take their food seriously, and for that, I am thankful:


Jeepney Ride

I begin my morning in Cebu City by clambering into the back of a jeepney, the Philippines’ ubiquitous vehicle for public transit. First, as ever, I smash my head on the low roof as I crouch-walk between the benches on either side of the bed. Then I take a seat, and hug my backpack to my chest. When the back of his truck is full to the driver’s satisfaction, he releases the parking break and accelerates into a high-speed slalom down the narrow road winding out of Peace Valley. Chickens, children and dogs dodge the jeepney, and the jeepney itself dodges potholes, low-slung branches and chickens. The passengers are like popcorn kernels.

The original jeepneys were built from the Jeeps left behind by the US military after World War II. The back of the Jeep was sliced off and replaced with an extended bed, and, voila, public transit. There are many jeepneys still on the road today in the same style and construction: they look like junkyard frankensteins, all bulging curves and polished chrome embellishments, soldered together out of obviously mismatched parts, and slathered in whatever colors of paint happened to be available at the time.

The newer jeeps have a boxier, more clean-cut look, but with equally outrageous paint jobs: I’ve seen firebreathing dragons, abstract cubism, and a life-sized Yoda wielding a light saber. Also painted on is the jeepney’s route (e.g. “APAS LAHUG CARBON JONES & vice versa”), and often the name of the driver, or perhaps his boss, or maybe his wife (e.g. “Jose Vincent” or “Ramos Brothers” or “Severina”), and occasionally a total non-sequitur (e.g. “Duran Duran” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “Powered by Linux 2.8!”). Continue reading “Jeepney Ride”

Cloudburst Refugees

It’s the rainy season here in Southeast Asia. In practical terms, that means it starts raining every time I walk out of a building. After a vain attempt to leave work on Friday, I spent half an hour stranded under a bus shelter not 40 paces from the front door of the clinic. This was the scene: