As of today, I have been on the road for exactly six months. I can hardly believe it. Seems like just a few weeks to me, and yet, when I consider how much ground I’ve covered since leaving San Francisco, how far away my life as an office denizen feels, and how many truly lovely people I’ve been privileged to meet along the way, it seems like an awful lot for such a short period of time.
In this edition of Some Stuff, I bid adieu to the islands I’ve visited since New Year’s Day 2014, in Micronesia and the Philippines (I know the Philippines is officially categorized as part of Southeast Asia, but it’s also one of the Pacific island nations, so I’ll cover it here). There are so many wonderful people and amazing things I will remember fondly from my travels around the Pacific. Without repeating things I’ve already written in other posts, here are just a few.
Everything’s Pretty in Saipan
Saipan is pretty. It’s quiet and lush and the water is so blue it looks fake, like it was dyed with Tidy Bowl toilet cleaner. But, when I say everything is pretty in Saipan, I mean everything is “Pretty” in Saipan.
Kokoda, Kelaguen & Corndogs
I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings by saying that I don’t think the food is the best reason to travel to Micronesia. The Philippines, yes. But, Micronesia’s culinary offerings are, to me, a bit less of a draw, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining fresh ingredients, other than fish and taro root. That’s just my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone in it. In fact, the Foodspotting app—which uses GPS to direct foodies to delicious dishes in their immediate proximity—recommended popcorn at K-Mart as one of the top lunch options in Guam. This, I don’t understand, when there are corndogs on that island.
Yes, corndogs! There is a Wienerschnitzel inside the airport, and a Hot Dog on a Stick in the Micronesia Mall, where, on weekdays, it’s buy one get one free. I was so happy! By the time I left, the girls at the Hot Dog on a Stick and I were on a first name basis.
As much as I would like to try, one cannot live on corndogs alone, and there are a couple of stand out Micronesian foods that I still crave.
Kokoda is the Marshall Island’s coconutty take on ceviche. It’s a soupy concoction of lime-marinated seafood—squid, fish, clams, whatever is fresh—with chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro and coconut milk. You scoop it up with salty tortilla chips and wash it down with beer. So delicious, so rich, so messy.
Kelaguen is Guam’s culinary crowning glory (if you don’t count barbecued fruit bat, which is illegal now). Saipan’s, too. A Chamorro specialty, it is actually pretty healthy, and would be a huge hit with anyone watching carbs, or looking for a unique dish to bring to a barbecue or potluck. Every local family has its own recipe, and most of it is inexact kitchen science; a little of this, a little of that, spicy or not, as you like. Originally, kelaguen was made of minced raw fish or shrimp, cooked only in the acid of lemon juice. Today, the one I saw most prevalently was made with barbecued chicken, but you see it at the night markets made with any and all types of lean protein, including beef, shrimp, fish or even octopus. Some add shredded fresh coconut, usually to chicken or fish versions, but I prefer it without. It’s served by itself with “titiya” flatbread, as a salad topping, or as a side dish with barbecue, or grilled fish. Here’s the recipe and instructions I got from Randy, the ATV driver on my jungle safari, after we bonded over a mutual love for kelaguen. It’s his family’s recipe.
Randy’s Chicken Kelaguen
Barbecue a whole chicken, cut into parts, making sure to get it black in places, so the flavor of the smoke and char gets into the chicken meat, without drying it out. (You could use a rotisserie chicken, but Randy says it’s best to barbecue the chicken yourself, so you can make sure it’s good and charred and smoky.) Let cool, and remove skin and bones.
Chop the meat very finely. The chopped bits should be about the size of grains of rice. You can use a food processor, or if you have some aggression to get out, a Chinese cleaver works well, too. Transfer chopped chicken to a mixing bowl.
Finely chop about six or so scallions, and add to the chicken. You could use a red or a Spanish onion, if you prefer, or a combination, but the classic has scallions.
If you like a little spice—and Randy and I both do—finely chop a Serrano, jalapeno, or bird chili—any hot pepper of your choice—and add as much or as little of that as you like. You can take the heat level down and keep the flavor by removing the seeds and ribs before you chop the chili. Add to the chicken and onions.
Add the juice of one large lemon, and toss to coat well.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
If you want to add some coconut (I don’t care for it in this), mix in a handful of FRESHLY grated, unsweetened coconut. Don’t even think about using dried coconut. If you do, the police will spontaneously show up at your door and…pull your hair. I don’t know, just don’t.
You can serve it right away, but Randy says it’s better if you let it sit in the fridge, and allow the flavors to marry really well, for a few hours at least.
Dear divemasters of Palau:
If there is even a slight possibility that there will be a school of huge sharks circling under the boat, please do your divers a favor and tell them about it before they jump in the water. It’s just good manners.
Coconut-Eating Chickens & Snorkels the Pig
Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: Chickens love coconut. I learned this in Yap. I know chickens aren’t typically discriminating diners. I had chickens when I was a kid, and I saw one eat a piece of string so long once, that it started pooping out one end of the string before it had finished swallowing the other end of it. But, they go really bonkers over coconut. It’s like…chicken nip.
Also learned in Yap, vis-à-vis barnyard animals and coconuts: you shouldn’t park your pig under a coconut tree. This is Snorkels. Snorkels was my friend. Snorkels lived under a coconut tree.
(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)
Gentle friends, may you never hear the sound of a coconut falling on a pig. (Don’t worry, Snorkels was okay.)
The Tuba Man has to climb up the tree and hack at the base of the fronds every day to make sure the sap continues to run, so he can gather enough to make Tuba. Tuba comes in sweet, for beginners, or the regular, high-octane variety for the hardened Tubaholic.
I only had the sweet version, which is not as lethal, but will still give you a hell of a hangover. The morning after I hung out with the Yapese Tuba guys, I felt like Snorkels after the coconut.
On an island in Palawan, in the Philippines, there’s a deep system of limestone caves, through which one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world flows directly to the sea.
UNESCO put it on the World Heritage list in 1999, and in 2012, it was named one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” by that group in Switzerland that has appointed itself arbiter of such things. I can see why, too, it’s a pristine and eerie Underworld.
The mouth of the river is guarded by a band of extremely larcenous monkeys. Its vast caverns are full of bats, stalagmites and stalactites. They said there were tarantulas, too, but thankfully, I didn’t see any, or I would have jumped out of the boat.
If you’ve been watching the news about the vanished Malaysia Airlines jet, you may have noticed reports that the USS Pinckney—a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer—was dispatched to assist in the search. It was close by, according to the Pentagon’s official explanation, conducting “training and maritime security operations” in international waters. Well, apparently, by “training and maritime security operations in international waters,” they mean refereeing midget boxing matches over drinks at the Ringside Bar in Manila. Busted!
I want to join that Navy.