Quin's Progress


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Sorry, Starman

starmanThe Internet is full of reminders today that David Bowie died exactly one year ago. As if I could forget. Gentle friends, it’s time I came clean and confessed. You see, it’s my fault. I may have killed David Bowie.  Kind of.  Probably.  In a way.

I didn’t mean to! It was an accident, I swear. Let me explain.

img_0554One year ago today, I took the train from Zürich to Montreux, Switzerland, a charming, small town that spills down the side of a mountain into Lake Geneva. Montreux is a mecca for music lovers and historians, for many reasons. It is the home of the eponymous Montreux Jazz Festival, as well as the Montreux Casino (see box note, below), which sits right on the Lake’s edge, and used to house the world famous Mountain Studios where the likes of the Rolling Stones, Queen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Phil Collins, Yes, Duran Duran, Sting, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye, and, of course, David Bowie came to record music history in relative peace.

img_0597The band Queen bought Mountain Studios in 1978 for tax reasons, and owned it until 1995. Queen had recorded many albums there, even before they bought the studios. Indeed, their album Jazz was named as a hat tip to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Queen and David Bowie—who lived nearby in Blonay at the time—wrote and recorded Under Pressure in a spontaneous, one-night jam session at Mountain Studios.

img_0860Freddie Mercury recorded his final tracks there in 1991, just before he died. They are some of his most emotional, transcendent vocal achievements; astounding, especially, given his weakened state. The cover of Queen’s subsequent album, Made in Heaven, features the breathtakingly powerful statue of Freddie that now stands on the shore of Lake Geneva at Montreux, “the place at which Freddie had written and recorded his last songs, and which had so inspired and influenced him.”

statue1statue2made-in-heaven

Now, Mountain Studios has moved, and in its former place inside the Montreux Casino is the Queen Studio Experience, an exhibition of a dizzying array of Queen artifacts, including the recording deck where Under Pressure and all of Freddie’s last songs were recorded. img_0795Proceeds from the Queen Studio Experience go to The Mercury Phoenix Trust, funding education, research and outreach projects fighting HIV/AIDS in honor of Freddie Mercury.

Okay, so…back to me killing Bowie.

img_0845A big fan of Queen, Freddie Mercury, music in general—and, of course, David Bowie!—I had to stop in Montreux for a few days on my way to the Matterhorn. As you can imagine, many of the lodging options in Montreux are music themed, for the entertainment of the thousands of visitors that come for the Jazz Festival, as well those, like me, who come to see the glittering shrine to Freddie Mercury that is the Queen Studio Experience. I stayed in one such place, the TraLaLa Hotel.

12552646_10207037227880867_4702047785080605022_nEvery inch of the TraLaLa is covered in music memorabilia and photos of music luminaries who have graced the shores of Lake Geneva at Montreux for the Jazz Festival. Each room at the hotel has a theme inspired by a particular musician. 12507253_10207037227520858_6530174264735288645_nGiven the fob on my room key, I thought I was going to sleep in the Prince Room (who, I swear, I did not kill).

But, lo! When I opened the door, I realized I was in the David Bowie suite. It was a special room, too, because Bowie is a very popular local figure around Montreux. Not only did he, as I mentioned above, live very close by in Blonay for many years, but, he married Iman in nearby Lausanne, and had a home there as well. mjf-poster-95He was good friends with Claude Nobs, founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, and even designed the 1995 Festival’s promotional poster. He only performed at the Festival once, in 2002, but it was a very memorable show, locally, as he jokingly invited the whole audience back to Nobs’ house afterwards. So, it was an honor to stay in the David Bowie room, let me tell you.

12439140_10207037226880842_7070700296455231411_n 1234_10207037227400855_7926709277622535523_nDavid Bowie’s face was everywhere in this room, on the wall, the coasters, the Do Not Disturb sign. Most striking was the huge photo of Bowie that hung on the wall opposite the bed.

There he was, Mr. Z. Stardust and his spooky, different-colored eyes…staring intensely, right at me as I lay in bed, trying to sleep. (Yes, I know his eyes weren’t really different colors, but just looked that way because one pupil was dilated from an injury during a boyhood fistfight over a love triangle. But, still, it’s creepy when those eyes are boring holes into you while you are trying to sleep.) how-can-i-sleepI even posted on Facebook to my friends about it. They had a good laugh at me.

Sometime after midnight, unable to sleep with David Bowie staring at me, I finally got up and hung a blanket over the photo. And in the morning, it was all over the news: he was dead.bbcrolling-stone-bowie

Clearly, it was me! It’s my fault! I inadvertently voodoo’d David Bowie by suffocating his image with a blanket. How careless of me to not recognize the mystical musical and Bowie-specific vortex that is Montreux, and to do such a reckless thing there. To be fair, though, I didn’t know he was sick. No one did, he kept it quiet. But, still…I feel responsible. Go ahead and blame me, I deserve it.  I feel terrible.

So, I am sorry, Starman. I’d take it back, if I could, if it would bring you back to us. We miss you so much.  For what it’s worth, wherever you are, I don’t mind if you want to watch me sleep. I’ll keep the blankets on the bed this time, I promise.

you-can-watch-me-sleep

The Montreux Casino


purple The Montreux Casino has the added distinction of inspiring Deep Purple’s iconic hit Smoke on the Water. In late 1971, Deep Purple was recording at the Montreux Casino, where the Rolling Stones had a mobile studio at the time. On December 4, 1971 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention performed in the Casino’s concert space. During the performance, someone fired a flare gun and set the place ablaze. A spectacular conflagration quickly consumed the casino, as well as the concert space, studio and equipment inside (except, hilariously, a cowbell). Thanks to Zappa’s composure and instructions to the audience, everyone at the concert got out fairly unscathed.

montreux-fireThe sight of the terrifying inferno destroying the building and sending smoke and ash into and across Lake Geneva profoundly impacted Deep Purple’s lead singer Ian Gillan: “The wind was coming down off the mountains and blowing the flames and the smoke over the lake. And the smoke was just like a stage show and it was hanging on the water.” When Deep Purple resumed recording after the fire, in a makeshift studio in a room at Montreux’s Grand Hotel, Gillan penned the following fairly literal lyrics about the experience:

Smoke On The Water

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground
When it all was over
We had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty, cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights, a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we’ll never forget

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

journal-de-montreaxThe reference to “Funky Claude” in the lyrics is to Claude Nobs, the founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who was at the scene of the fire, reportedly running in and out of the burning building, helping concert goers escape.

Deep Purple returned to Montreux in 2006 to perform their most recognized hit at the rebuilt scene of its inspiration.

(For my email followers, click here for a video of that incandescent performance.)

zappaIn a final eerie coincidence, Frank Zappa—who was so instrumental in preventing many senseless deaths in the blaze that destroyed the Montreux Casino—died on December 4, 1993—the 22nd anniversary of the fire.


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Taking the High Road

img_1806Seasons Greetings and Salutations from South America, gentle friends!

Do you recall how I said, way back at the beginning of this sojourn of mine, that I was going to get myself admitted to the Travelers’ Century Club, if it is the last thing I do? No? Well, click here for a reminder. Anyhoo, I know I haven’t updated you in a while, but since we last chatted, I racked up some serious Century Club points. I need 100 points, based on their approved list of countries/territories, to be eligible to join the Centurions. According to my calculations, when I landed in Montevideo, Uruguay last month, that made Point No. 100. Woo-Hoo!

To mark this momentous occasion, I went on my old favorite, Fiverr.com, and paid a Ukrainian exotic dancer to write a celebratory message on her legs, and dance to tango music (which, according to the Uruguashos I met, is as much theirs as it is Argentinian).

(For my email followers, click here for video.)

She did such a nice job, I didn’t have the heart to ask her to re-do my Uruguay commemoration video with a song that wasn’t expressly about Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is just across the river, anyway. And, I do love the Gotan Project, especially, that song. So, we’ll just let that slide. Don’t want another Crazzy Man situation on our hands.

img_1963I was super happy to have an admirable place like Uruguay be my Century Club Point No. 100.  How do I love Uruguay? Let me count the ways. Named Country of the Year in 2013 by The Economist, this diminutive sovereignty, tucked into a lovely coastal nook south of Brazil and east of Argentina, has had its political troubles in the past, just like its neighbors. But, today, Uruguay is one of the most forward thinking, pragmatic, laid back, and downright grooviest places I’ve had the pleasure to visit. How so, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

img_1894Uruguay is just flat out beautiful. Beaches that rival California’s, wine regions and countryside that rival Tuscany. Who, aside from an alpine skier, could ask for more? You need a city? Montevideo is a mix of modern and classical, charming and cosmopolitan. There’s a renowned ballet, a vibrant theater scene, chic restaurants, and open-air tango in the park in the evenings. If it isn’t big enough for your shopping needs, Buenos Aires is just a short hop away by plane or ferry. And don’t forget about the chic, party central resort town that is Punta del Este, if you feel the need to see and be seen while you sun.

Nice racks out front, no?

Nice racks.

When you think of rural, agrarian South America, you are probably picturing Catholic and conservative, right? But, Uruguay is the least religious, most LGBT-friendly country in South America, and gay marriage, gambling, prostitution (but, not pimping or brothel ownership), abortion, and recreational marijuana use—ALL legal. Some call Uruguay the Amsterdam of South America.

mujica1

Jose Mujica

José Mujica, president of Uruguay from 2010-2015, when many of the laws were passed, explained that he and a lot of other Uruguayans didn’t necessarily personally approve of these things, but it was just stupid to deny reality and human nature. In an interview with the Brazilian news agency O Globo, he said:

We applied a very simple principle: Recognize the facts. Abortion is old as the world. Gay marriage, please—it’s older than the world. We had Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, please. To say it’s modern, come on, it’s older than we are. It’s an objective reality that exists. For us, not legalizing it would be to torture people needlessly.

img_1467As for legalizing marijuana, he said it was not to encourage marijuana usage as much as it was to pull the rug out from under the drug traffickers who were profiting from illegal sales of substandard weed imported mainly from Paraguay and Brazil.

Worse than drugs is drug trafficking. Much worse. Drugs are a disease, and I don’t think that there are good drugs or that marijuana is good. Nor cigarettes. No addiction is good. I should include alcohol. The only good addiction is love. Forget everything else.

Libertad o Muerte!

Libertad o Muerte!

Now, that’s a president I can get on board with. (See, here and here for some more pearls of wisdom from, and facts about, this wonderful, most groovy statesman.)  Under Mujica’s leadership, according to the New York Times, “Uruguay scores perfect 10s on the indexes of civil liberties and electoral process, a feat equaled only by Norway and New Zealand.”

img_2006Let’s see, what else? Uruguay’s entire coastline and territorial waters are designated by law as a sanctuary zone for whales and dolphins. Very cool. You can watch whales right from the beach on the east coast during calving season.

img_2024Uruguay is also at the vanguard of fighting climate change. In less than 10 years, they drastically reduced their carbon footprint, and shifted from predominantly fossil fuel energy sources to 95 percent clean, renewable energy, such as wind, solar and hydropower. Just for perspective, the world average for clean energy reliance is between 12 and 22 percent. Uruguay did all this without government subsidies or higher consumer costs. Go Uruguay!

img_1532Uruguay has great, affordable education and healthcare, and a comparatively well educated population. Primary education is compulsory and free, and public universities are free. It is the first country in the world to provide laptop computers to all school children in the state-run primary and secondary schools, through its 2006 One Laptop Per Child initiative. As to healthcare, the modern mammogram was invented in Uruguay, and Uruguay also produced Alejandro Zaffaroni, the man The Scientist called a “biotech superstar,” who contributed to the invention of the birth control pill, the nicotine patch, the DNA chip, and corticosteroids. Health care is good, and affordable. If you want, you can join a private hospital like you would a gym, pay a low monthly fee, and get all your care from that hospital.

On the practical side, the water is safe to drink (although, I think it tastes terrible), and there is good, fast, free wifi almost everywhere–even on city and long distance buses.

img_6421Finally, and perhaps I save the best for last, there’s the wine. Uruguay, pragmatic as always, knows it can’t compete by volume with the bigger wine producing countries, so it goes straight for the quality market. Uruguayan wines may not be the least expensive—though they are darned cheap compared to California wines—but, they are so reliably good, you could throw a dart at the wine list, blindfolded, and be sure of hitting a winner.

It stands to reason, then, that when deciding how to celebrate finally reaching Century Club eligibility, I thought about maybe taking a nice wine tour. You know, go out and wander the vineyards, tour some wineries, and toast to reaching this long sought after goal with a glass of good, Uruguayan Tannat. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

img_6551Who are we kidding, pot is legal there! This party called for some herbage!

Alas, while it is perfectly legal, as long as you’re over 18, to blaze up a doob in public, anywhere that it would be legal to smoke a regular cigarette, Uruguay’s marijuana law does not allow for sales to non-residents. There are no “brown cafes” like in Amsterdam, and only Uruguayans and legal residents can register to purchase pot at a pharmacy, or to grow their own. However, if a Uruguayan offers to share theirs with you, or gives you some as a gift, no problem. But, where’s a solo traveler with no friends or relations in the country to find someone willing to share? There are some “Bud & Breakfasts” out there, but what if you stay in a regular hotel or apartment? Enter MvD High.

img_1714MvD High is a tour company that works with one of Montevideo’s grower cooperatives to offer “Cannabis Culture” tours. Each tour includes “tastings” of the coop’s products as a gift from the hosts for learning more about Uruguay’s pot history and industry.

img_1424My guide, Marco, a literature professor and one of the managers of the coop, was incredibly well informed about marijuana laws all around the world. He was also one of the advocates who worked directly with Mujica’s government to draft Uruguay’s current legislation. He shepherded me and a very excited Brazilian accountant around the grow house, showed us the plants in various stages of development, and explained how the coop system worked.

img_1454Honestly, I would love to be able to tell you all about that, but, right afterwards, he took us to a lounge and let us try three different varieties of product, and after that, I just can’t remember much of the preceding details anymore. Incidentally, may I just say, to all those naysayers out there on the Internet saying, “yeah, Uruguay may have legalized pot, but their weed isn’t any good,” I say, poppycock! Sour grapes. That stuff knocked me on my ass. There’s a testimonial on MvD High’s website from a satisfied customer saying, “I will never forget this experience!” I wish I could say the same. I can’t remember half of what Marco told me about the different, cleverly named strains of marijuana plants, the new regulations, and the growth of the industry.

img_1503I do remember vividly, though, that this was about two weeks after the U.S. presidential election, and the first time since that night that the musculoskeletal knots, kinks and clenches that had become the seemingly permanent manifestation of my shock and horror over the election result had turned loose. Ooh, it feels so good when it stops!

img_1519After touring the grow house, Marco took us to have a symbolic toke on the steps of the Legislative Assembly building, where the law allowing marijuana usage was argued and eventually signed. “Taste the freedom,” Marco said as he passed the joint.

img_1520

Jiggers, it’s the Fuzz!

A pair of police officers on the beat walked past us as we sat on the steps puffing pungent pot smoke into the atmosphere, and my instinct was to tense up, hide the joint, and avoid their gaze. But, Marco just waved at them, and said, “don’t worry, we aren’t doing anything wrong.” It was an odd, but, nice sensation.

img_1535We then made one final stop, at Plaza Independencia, to sit in the park in front of the president’s office and have one last bit of ganja. Marco saved the best for last:  a variety he called “Dark Star,” because, he said, after that, everything would go dark. He. Was. Not. Kidding. It’s good that MvD High provides transportation back to your lodgings after the tour.

img_1598Left to my own devices, I probably would have just curled up under a tree in the park and succumbed to that sweet, beckoning, purple-tinged slumber that consumed the remainder of my afternoon. Thanks to Marco and crew—who also, very thoughtfully, provide an endless supply of bottled water and cookies to their herbally impaired tour charges—I made it safely back to my bed at the hotel before Dark Star took me deep into outer space.

img_1555img_1557 It was dark when I woke up, still high as a kite, and famished. And maybe paranoid, too, because, I went to brush my teeth, and became convinced that the cleaning lady had stolen all of my dental floss picks. Because, you know, that’s something people do. The street value of an open bag of dental flossers is through the roof, I hear. Of course, I felt like a proper idiot when I realized I had just upended the open sack of flossers in the larger bag that I carry my toiletries in, and they were all loose there in the bottom.

img_6470 img_6474I made a mental apology to the cleaning lady, and went out to forage for some food. Maybe it was just my state of mind at the time, but, I could swear, even the graffiti characters in the old city looked baked.

img_6476I was still hungry after dinner—or, more precisely, munchy—so I stopped and bought some potato chips and, for reasons that shall remain a mystery, FOUR boxes of Twinings Lemon & Ginger teabags.  I don’t know why, they weren’t even on sale.  When I opened my purse to pay, I found a plastic bag with two big buds of fragrant weed in there—a present from Marco. img_6657I didn’t have anything to roll it with, though, so, on the way home, I bought the tiniest, adorable water pipe from a kid in a Bob Marley t-shirt, who was selling incense and pipes on a blanket in the pedestrian street. Look, it’s barely bigger than a cherry! I don’t know why I bought that, either. It’s not like I was going to be able to take any of this stuff with me when I left the country.  Apparently, I buy stuff when I’m under the influence.

img_6435

Back in my hotel room, due to that delicious Dark Star nap I had taken in the afternoon, I was wide awake most of the night, munching on Serrano Ham flavored chips, and watching a marathon of “Acumuladores Compulsivos” (“Hoarders”) on cable. img_6479I have never watched, and would never watch, that show back home.  But, something about it being dubbed, badly, in Spanish, and the fact that I was still stoned off my caboose, made it strangely entertaining in a tawdry, escapist way that truly suited the day.

img_1549The next day, I awoke horrified to realize my whole room was powerfully skunky from that small bag of weed in my purse. Mindful of the hotel’s warning of a $200 fine for smoking in the rooms, I was frantic to get rid of the smell. I hadn’t smoked any in the room, but, I wasn’t sure that would matter to them. I stashed my stash in the minifridge, opened all the windows, turned on the exhaust fan in the bathroom, and hoped for the best. As long as the door to the minifridge remained closed, it was okay. But, open the door even a crack, and a great nimbus of pot odor immediately billowed out. This would keep me paranoid for the remainder of my time there, even though I rationally knew it was not contraband. That’s conditioning for you.

Mer-mom is not happy either about East Germany and Berlin being retired from the Century Club list.

Mer-mom is not happy about East Germany and Berlin being retired from the Century Club list, either.

I went down to breakfast, and pulled up the Travelers’ Century Club membership application on my laptop, so I could fill it out over coffee and post it right away. Much to my dismay, when I got to the part where you are supposed to check off your 100 places on their list of approved countries/territories, I discovered that they had decommissioned two of my points! The former East Germany (DDR) and Berlin used to count as a point each, but, with the reunification of Germany in 1990, those two places were merged with the former West Germany (BRD) into one big Germany entry, and retired from the list.

Not willing to go down without a fight, I emailed the organization and asked if I could still count them, as they were validly on the list when I was there in the mid-1980s. Seems only fair, right? They didn’t respond, though, and I’ve learned that in life, love, and the law, the lack of a “yes,” is a “no.” So, dang it, there I was, partying my buns off for finally reaching Century Club eligibility status, and it turns out I only had 98 points!

My disappointment is best expressed by these Christmas elves:

(For my email followers, click here for video.)

I don’t know why they are singing Happy Birthday. Maybe they thought, from my directions as to what to write on the sign, that this was to commemorate what would have been the birthday of someone who died at age 98? Who knows. Gotta love Fiverr.com.

img_1575

Lemon & Ginger tea, anyone? (Note the additional snacks in the background. Yeah.)

In any event, there you have it. Two more countries to go before the Century Club will have me. Still, I’ll always be grateful to Uruguay for showing me a heck of a good time in honor of what turned out to be the dress rehearsal. I’m not sure I’ll be able to top it when I finally hit 100 points for real. Either way, at least, we know I’ll have plenty of Twinings Lemon & Ginger tea for the celebration!


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High Tea with Bruce Lee

SoloEverybody has different levels of tolerance for solitude. Me, I’ve always had well-developed solitude management skills. I would do just fine on house arrest.  It actually sounds kinda relaxing to me.  Even when I was a little kid, when my mom would send me to my room for the early 70s version of a time out, she would come look in on me a while later and find me giggling and having a grand time, all by myself, no toys in sight. Sequestration wasn’t punishment to me at all. Rather, it was a welcome break, and an opportunity to check in to the vivid, interior amusement park of my head. It drove my poor mom bonkers.

Plus, when I'm alone, I can do things like this.

Plus, when I’m alone, I can do things like this.

I’ve never had any trouble going to movies or restaurants alone, and I rather prefer to go to museums alone. Well…at least, objectively alone. I often have very agreeable company right there in my mind. Don’t worry, I don’ t mean the kind they give you antipsychotic medication for. Let me back up.

BLSomething most people don’t know about me is that I’m secretly fascinated with Bruce Lee. If anyone ever asked me that old chestnut of an interview question about who I’d most like to have dinner with, “Bruce Lee!” would fly out of my mouth before they even finished the question. Not because of his movies (although those are pretty cool), or the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death (although that is intriguing), or the supposed curse that felled his son (sad, but that movie was dreadful), but because everything I’ve ever read that he wrote, or that is attributed to him, strikes me as the kind of profound that is so simple, it should be common, but unfortunately isn’t. Bruce-LeeHe had an understanding of human nature that was chillingly deep. If you read his philosophical writings, and remove them from the context of fighting, they apply in almost any situation. Dude was wise. Plus, he was not only a peerless philosopher and fighter, but also a wicked dancer—he was the 1958 Hong Kong Cha Cha Champion. I bet he could properly caramelize onions, too. Alas, we’ll never know.

Pie with BruceAnyway, some time ago, I started having imaginary hangouts with Bruce Lee, in my head, whenever I found myself alone and bored. In these sessions, Bruce is never defending attacks from villains or breaking boards with his forehead. KittiesNo, mostly, we bake pies, crochet sweaters for my cats, or put seasonal decorations around the house together, while I tell him about my current thoughts, problems or conflicts, as he listens quietly and nods, and, at appropriate intervals, says thought-provoking things like “if you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done,” or “a goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at”—pearls of wisdom that he actually did say, and that I find exceedingly helpful and insightful. I love my play dates with Bruce. I always feel better and more sorted out after we’ve spent time together. And, since I don’t actually talk to him out loud, no one is the wiser, and I haven’t been packed off for involuntary analysis over it. Yet. So, if you ever see me alone on the ferry or at a restaurant, or even in the car, and I seem a bit lost in thought, don’t mind me, chances are good that I’m hanging out with Bruce Lee in my head, and we’re canning peaches or something.

poo singlesThis quirk comes in tremendously handy for a solo traveler like me, as I seldom feel awkward sitting in a restaurant, going on an excursion, or just hanging out alone. However, it does nothing to comfort the multitudes of people who feel awkward around others who perambulate about all by themselves. When I said, above, that everyone has different levels of tolerance for solitude, I didn’t mean tolerance of just their own isolation.  I also meant their tolerance of other people who are alone. As I wander, I am finding that the global comfort level with parties of one is generally low. People just don’t like to see someone alone.

Lady Hermit Crab makes everyone uncomfortable.

Lady Hermit Crab makes everyone uncomfortable.

There’s a host of reasons for this. Some are cultural. In Asia, as in other places where family is of paramount importance, people tend to see a person alone—particularly a woman—as someone who must have no family, no friends, no…minions. Their default thought is not that you are independent, or brave, and enjoying your freedom, voluntarily on your own. They might think that after talking to you, but at first blush, it just seems sad to them. They project onto you how they think they would feel if they were adrift alone, and feel sorry for you. It makes them uncomfortable.

ThemostinterestingsolodinerSometimes, it is economic. Restaurants are much happier to see couples or groups than a solo diner who is going to occupy a whole table and only order one person’s worth of food. Entertainment venues aren’t thrilled to have that vestigial seat empty next to you that they can’t sell unless another lone weirdo comes along. These are, of course, generalizations, but you get the idea. Put these factors together, and you have a recipe for resistance.

Esplanade.jpb

Singapore.

I’ve had restaurants refuse to seat me because I was alone, and others where they dispatched kitchen workers to sit with me so I wouldn’t be. Many tours, transportation shuttles, and cultural classes or events won’t allow a singleton to book, even if there are other parties already going. And don’t get me started on the dreaded “single supplement.” I ran into this problem so often, in so many contexts—from restaurants to snorkel excursions to candy-making classes to the cushy seats at the fancy VIP movie theaters in Bangkok—that by the time I got to Singapore, my patience on this issue was fraying just a tad. And then this happened.

FlyerThere’s a massive Ferris wheel in Singapore called the Singapore Flyer. It was the biggest Ferris wheel in the world until earlier this year, when a bigger one opened in Las Vegas. It’s very cool; it has big, enclosed glass cabins that comfortably fit about eight or so people each, and moves almost imperceptibly in a 30-minute revolution that gives you breathtaking, eagle-eye vistas over the whole city, from the Marina Bay Supergrove to the Esplanade to Serangoon Road to the National Stadium.

Dining CarThey do this groovy thing, too, where they turn some of the cabins into lovely VIP dining cars, with linen tablecloths and candles and butlers, and take guests on a couple rotations while they serve a four-course repast. They do it for dinner, but also for high tea, which is one of my favorite things.

Dining Car2I went to the ticket office and tried to buy a ticket for the high tea service, but the cashier said there was a two-person minimum. I asked if other parties had already reserved, if the dining cars were shared, and if the table was communal. Yes, yes, and yes. So, I pointed out that their two-person minimum had been met, and that I would just join the group. The following exchange ensued:

In the clouds“Ma’am, it’s the policy. They only take parties of two.”

“Would they take a party of three?”

“Yes.”

“Then they don’t just take parties of two.”

“It has to be at least two.”

“But, you said there are other people already booked. Is it a private party?”

“No.”

“Then, there will be more than two, and I should be able to go.”

“I can’t do that, each group has it’s own bill, and the minimum for each bill is for two people.”

“Ah, I see. Well, what if I just pay the minimum?”

“No, because they would prepare food for two people.”

“Lady, do I seriously look like someone who can’t put away two people’s worth of cucumber sandwiches and petit fours to you?”

The Flyer and Marina Bay hotel and casino, by night.

The Flyer and Marina Bay hotel and casino, by night.

She glared at me, said to wait while she got the manager, and snapped the box office window shut.

Flyer CarAs I waited, I hatched a plan that, if the manager wouldn’t budge, I’d just buy two tickets and, when I showed up for it later, gesture to invisible Bruce Lee at my side, and say to the person at the entrance “yes, we are both here, can’t you see?” Just let them try to deny me admittance. But then, I pictured some guys in white coats waiting for me at the exit with butterfly nets, and thought better of it.

On Top

View from the top of the Flyer.

So, when no one had come back after almost a half hour, I surrendered and skulked away in defeat. Not that I couldn’t wait out the standoff, it’s just that, after a while, I’d had a chance to think about what they might do to my food if I persisted over their objections. I waited tables all through college, you see, and although I never sabotaged anyone’s victuals myself, I was witness to a few hidden kitchen vengeances that I’ve never forgotten. Don’t piss off people who serve you food or cut your hair, gentle friends. It’s just not worth the risk.

RafflesStill, the idea of high tea in Singapore had germinated, and I was determined to get my pinky in the air if it killed me. It just wasn’t going to happen above the skyline. Lucky for me, one of the best places for high tea in the world is right there in Singapore, in the Tiffin Room at the historic Raffles Hotel.

Raffles.jpbWhen I called for the reservation, and was asked how many of us there would be, I almost panicked and made a reservation for “Lee, Party of Two,” but I caught myself in time, and before committing, asked if there was a minimum party size. Thankfully, there wasn’t. At last!

IMG_7954On the appointed day, I arrived in the closest thing to Sunday Best that I carry with me when I travel, and was shown to a dainty little table in the corner, the surface of which was obscured almost entirely by a thick volume of the latest Vogue magazine. I asked the hostess if the table was already occupied, indicating to the magazine. No, she said, the magazine was for me. Because, I was alone. They wanted me to have something to distract me from the stares of pity, I guess. Still, it was pretty thoughtful, considering how most people feel about dining alone.

Tea with BruceNevertheless, I picked up the magazine and handed it back to her, thanking her for her thoughtfulness, and saying that I needed the space for scones and tarts and crustless curried chicken salad sandwich triangles. She didn’t need to know the truth: who needs Vogue when you’ve got Bruce Lee?


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Beauty Night In Mandalay

P1140812There’s an old saying in Asia that the most beautiful women have Indian eyes, a Thai smile, and Burmese skin.   I wouldn’t dream of disputing that, but it’s not as easy as you’d think to verify the last component of that combination. Why? For the same reason that the adage is true. Thanaka. Burmese women cover their faces with it.

P1140469When it comes to unique norms of beauty coming out of Myanmar, most of us who grew up with National Geographic automatically think of the Padaung or Kayan women of the Karenni ethnic group, who wear brass coils around their necks, making them look long and stretched. But the Long Neck Ladies of the Kayan are an oddity even within Myanmar. A far more widespread cosmetic custom—and just as much a cultural identifier to all the people of Myanmar as the brass neck rings are to the women of the Kayan—is the use of thanaka.

IMG_8751Thanaka (pronounced “tah-nah-KAH”) is a cosmetic made of the ground bark of the thanaka tree that grows in the drier areas of Myanmar. Combined with a few drops of water, the ground thanaka bark makes a thin, creamy paste of a color my mother would have ever so daintily referred to as “baby shit yellow,” but that I’ll call more of a Dijon mustard color. Thinly applied to the skin while wet, the thanaka dries to a soft, powdery, buttercup yellow.

P1140400The people of Myanmar have used Thanaka for centuries. You can see ancient thanaka grinding stones in museums, so it’s been a part of their cultural identity for a long, long time. Today, all over Myanmar, even in the big city, people use thanaka as a daily cosmetic, sunscreen, fragrance, and overall skin protection/improvement treatment. It’s supposed to perform all manner of complexion magic, from preventing acne, lightening sun damage, shrinking pores, even killing fungal infections on the skin. But, mostly, folks just think it’s pretty to paint it on their faces. Or their arms. Or hands, especially if the person works outside. But mostly faces.

Usually swiped lightly across the cheeks and forehead, or boldly painted into decorative patterns, thanaka is used by everyone.  It’s an equal opportunity beautifier. You don’t see it on grown men too often, but pretty much everyone else uses it every day.  Women:

Girls:

Boys:

Babies:

 

Thanaka Logs

Thanaka Logs

In the local markets, you can buy a chunk of a thanaka branch, and use the special round stone and some water to grind your own thanaka paste, like so (if video doesn’t show below, click here):

IMG_8946If that looks like too much of an upper arm workout for every day, you can buy a cake of pre-ground bark paste, and just rub that on a wet surface—even your palm—to create the thin lotion to put on your skin.

P1140901Alternatively, it comes as a prepared concentrate, in jars, sometimes mixed with other cosmetic additives or fragrances.  Everyone I talked to said to avoid the ones with added stuff and just get the plain, organic one. Don’t mess with a classic.

IMG_8815Everywhere I went, women were trying to smear me with thanaka. I had a thanaka massage—which was lovely and refreshing—and before she let me up, the massage therapist thanaka’d my face, to go. I visited a rural village, and the matriarch dragged me to the thanaka stone and fixed my face (that’s her in the video above). I just looked unfinished to them without it.

IMG_8842It smells nice, kind of soft and fresh, faintly woodsy, and herbal. But the most awesome thing is that it gently tingles and cools your skin, which is so welcome in the Myanmar heat. It also keeps your skin dry, when it would otherwise be glistening with schwitz.

IMG_8745I got some expert advice from some girls who work in a department store in Mandalay. They busted me, in what I thought was an empty aisle of the store, singing and doing the cha-cha to the Asianized instrumental version of Copacabana that was on the piped music system, and once we were all done laughing at what a dork I am, they started patting my cheeks and saying “you need thanaka!” So, I enlisted their help in choosing a prepared product to try at home, because I wasn’t investing in a stone to grind my own anytime soon.

IMG_8746I knew to get the plain, organic kind, but still, you have to be careful which brand you choose. Some factory-made thanaka products are banned all over Southeast Asia because of dangerous impurities that have caused nasty cases of lead poisoning. Apparently, some kids in Missouri died of lead poisoning after using tainted thanaka paste (it was news to me that there was a Burmese community in Missouri, but apparently, there is). So, beware, and make sure you get the pure, organic kind. P1140898The girls at the store told me this one—“Shwe Pyi Nann”—is good. Several other women later told me, yes, this one is their trusted brand, too. I think you can even get it on Amazon now. I just never would have known to look for it before, or what to do with it if I had discovered it by accident.

IMG_8749My department store girlfriends told me to dig out a small glob of the paste and mix it with a little water until the consistency is right—like paint—and then go to town. So, I went native and had myself a little thanaka party. I think I need some practice.  Okay, so maybe this was a lesson in how NOT to wear thanaka!

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt.  What?  KISS wore lots of makeup.

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt. What? KISS wore lots of makeup.

Although I don’t think I’ll be sporting thanaka-face in public outside of Myanmar, I didn’t toss that jar of thanaka when I left. It makes for a nice weekly facemask that really does shrink your pores, and leaves your skin feeling so clean and fresh. In fact, I’m using it now, as I write! So, thanaka you very much for the wonderful beauty tip, Myanmar! My pores and I are ever grateful.


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Unga Bunga Bunga!

Brace yourself, gentle friends, today’s episode of the QP is all about the Bunga.  Now, I know what you are thinking, and no, I am not referring to that naughty old chestnut of a joke about “Death by Unga Bunga,” nor to one of the best Bugs Bunny scenes of all time (although it did inspire the title of this post):

Get your mind out of the gutter!

Get your mind out of the gutter!

(Click here if the video does not show above.)

Nope, I’m talking about the exotic Bunga of Borneo. And what Bunga they have in Borneo. Believe me, the Bornean Bunga will blow your mind, Baby! Get your mind out of the gutter. “Bunga” is the Malay word for flowers.

Lobster ClawEven if, like me, you’re not usually one to get all giddy about plants, you will want to do some Bunga hunting in Borneo. You will not be disappointed.

Mt. Kinabalu

Mt. Kinabalu

A good place to start is in the forests of Kinabalu National Park, around the base of Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah, the northern state of Malaysian Borneo.

Bornean Forest.

Bornean Forest.

I hired a local guide in Kota Kinabalu, slathered myself with a thick frosting of DEET and sunscreen, and set off for what would prove to be a day of botanical superlatives. In one day, I saw the smallest, biggest, and definitely the weirdest flowers in the world.

Tiny OrchidWe found one of the smallest orchids in the world, or at least, in Kinabalu Park. I apologize for the fuzzy photo, but that little white speck at the end of my out-of-focus sausage finger is a teeny tiny orchid. Just trust me.

Pitcher2

The Rajah.

Borneo is also home to multiple species of carnivorous nepenthes, or pitcher plants. Locals call them “monkey cups.” There is a liquor in the bottom of the peculiar pots that grow on these vines, which attracts and then drowns insects, or even small lizards or animals. The movement of the prey’s struggle causes the release of a digestive acid, dissolving the poor victim, whose nutrients are then absorbed by the plant.  Although they mostly eat bugs, the biggest of the nepenthes—the Rajah—has been known to consume small squirrels. Talk about death by unga bunga.

Bunga Pakma, or Rafflesia.

Bunga Pakma, or Rafflesia.

My main quarry of the day, though, was the elusive Bunga Pakma, or Rafflesia flower. This is one weird blossom. The Rafflesia is the largest flower species in the world, growing up to three feet in diameter, and weighing up to 22 pounds. They are entirely parasitic, and have no roots, stems or leaves.

Rafflesia Bud.

Rafflesia Bud.

The buds look like, and are the size of, heads of radicchio, and just appear on the forest floor like space alien pods. Those pods percolate for 10 to 16 months before they mature and open. It takes up to two days for the thick, waxy petals to uncurl and open fully. Rafflesia CorpseOnce open, Rafflesia blossoms only live about a week before they turn black and collapse in on themselves in a pile of ashy goo resembling a cow patty.

Rafflesia CenterDuring its short lifespan, the Rafflesia emits a most malodorous perfume, often described as that of rotting flesh, designed to attract bluebottle flies to pollinate it. The closer the bloom is to dying, the stronger the stench.

And the flies go bonkers for it.

(Click here if the video does not show above.)

We found this Rafflesia blossom in the bamboo forest behind the home of a lady running a small catfish farm near the road, who offered to lead us to it for 30 ringgit. She said it had opened two days before, so it wasn’t too terribly stinky yet. In three more days, it will reek something awful. It was 35 inches across, just a couple inches under the documented record.

It's HUGE!

It’s HUGE!

Rafflesia BodiesYou could see the corpses of other recently deceased Rafflesia blossoms nearby, decomposing quietly in the sylvan shade, having completed their flash of weirdness, and yielding the stage and the attention of the bluebottles to the newcomer. Truly, the stuff of B movies.

35 inches in diameter.

35 inches in diameter.

I half expected Ann Francis to walk out of the trees in a silver lamé space suit and tell me to get my mitts off her garden before she called Dr. Morbius.

I so wanted to touch it. Its petals—actually, “petal” is too delicate a word, this thing had flaps like a dressage saddle—looked like they should be warm and soft to the touch, and have a pulse. But they are cool and turgid, like a succulent.

I hope I didn’t get any spores on me. I’ll let you know in 10 to 16 months.  In the meantime, remember, don’t forget to stop and smell the Bunga!

P1090590


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Get Down In Jellytown!

Turn up your speakers and make sure you’re in a place where you can get a little funky without anyone calling security, my friends, because now is ze time on ze QP ven ve dance!

(For my email followers, if the video doesn’t show above, view the post on the main site, or click here: http://youtu.be/yhyf60Spz9o)

Whoo!  All right, ladies and jellyfish, here’s one for all you groovy foxes born before 1975, and yes, it’s an ALL SKATE!  Watch out for the big, fat Disco Jelly who’ll crash into you at 0:06 if you’re not careful!

(Or, click here: http://youtu.be/n0U1rPscYd8)

Ooh yeah, and who can resist a little baby boogie–work it, baby jelly!  Shake that thing!

(Or, click here: http://youtu.be/WZnmJ1uWjd8)

Pibb Right on!  Okay, that was fun.  You know I had to start with the Jellylicious song, for obvious reasons (and if they’re not obvious to you, listen again), but then it all just took a decidedly roller disco turn, because who are we kidding, those jellies were totally doin’ the Hustle and zooming around like roller disco gods.  519672_2All that was missing was the satin jackets.  Anyhoo, let’s get a Mr. Pibb and a box of Ludens Wild Cherry throat lozenges (my standard snack choice at the old Ups ‘N Downs Roller Rink in Escondido, California circa 1974), and I’ll tell you how I came to be shakin’ my groove thang with these far out funkadellyfish.

Rock Islands of Palau

Rock Islands of Palau

Jellyfish Lake is in the southern rock islands of the Republic of Palau.  There are actually three or four jellyfish lakes, but to protect the environment and the jellies from too much stress, they restrict access to one at a time.  The lake is in the center of one of the larger limestone, mangrove-covered islands, and it is completely separated from the surrounding ocean.  Over the centuries, without any ocean predators bothering them, the jellyfish have evolved their stingers off.  So, they’re totally harmless blobs of disco goo.

That hole lets in the bad guys, so the jellies in the lake in this shot are armed with stingers.

That hole in the limestone lets in the bad guys from the ocean, so the jellies in the lake in this shot are armed with nasty stingers…which that snorkel dude on the left is about to find out the hard way.

There are similar lakes on other islands where the limestone separating the lake from the ocean has eroded away enough to let other sea life in, and the jellyfish populations in those lakes have stingers, so you really need to make sure you go to the right one, or you’ll be one unhappy critter (albeit, with some very interesting scars to showcase at cocktail parties).

IMGP1281It’s not easy to get to the Jellyfish Lake.  You have to get a permit, then take a boat about an hour south of Koror, and then, after washing your feet so no tiny sea creatures can come in with you and disrupt the ecosystem, you have to haul your ass up, and then back down, a super steep ridge.  It’s so steep up near the top, they carved steps into the rock, and put a rope next to the path to pull yourself along.

The camera was half in, half out of the water.  Look at those jellies just under the surface!

The camera was half in, half out of the water. Look at those jellies just under the surface! Click to enlarge so you can see!

When you climb back down the other side, there’s a placid, aquamarine lake sunken into the limestone bed.  You can’t see a thing in the water at first, it just looks bottle-glass green.  So, on goes the snorkel gear, and in you go, with instructions to swim toward the middle, and not to touch or grab the jellyfish.

IMGP1389Suddenly…they’re everywhere.  Jellyfish!  Kajillions of them!  Swarming in slow motion like corpulent, flaccid bumble bees.  Big ones, little ones, middle-sized ones, all glorping along, swimming in all directions–up, down, diagonally, sideways–bumping into each other and into you.  Clearly, the jellies don’t get instructions not to touch you.  It’s like jellyfish bumper cars in there.

IMGP1286Having been conditioned my whole life to avoid contact with jellyfish, I did a lot of involuntary flinching and shuddering at first when they bumped into me, slithered along my neck, plowed into my face, and even got caught under my arm or between my legs as I swam (!!!).  It’s impossible to avoid when diving in jellyfish soup.  But, after about five minutes or so, when I hadn’t been stung, I relaxed, and just started laughing and giggling in wonder at it.  Because, it is wonderful in the most literal sense of the word.

IMGP1377I have several hundred pictures, even after I culled out the bad ones.  They all look sort of the same, but not.  (Please click them to enlarge, so you can really see!)  There’s something special and/or hilarious about each one.  I actually felt a sense of relief when the battery on my camera died, because then I was released, free to just gambol about with them, without worrying about missing a good shot.  All I had to worry about was accidentally sucking one up into my snorkel when I dove down deep into the jelly party.

Bonk!  Right in my face!

Bonk! Right in my face!

There were a few other people there at the same time as I was, and they all had on full-body wetsuits.  I saw them suiting up on the edge of the lake before I jumped in, and I asked my guide if a suit was necessary, as I knew the water wouldn’t be cold.  He said no, but a lot of people don’t feel comfortable without it.

The photo is right side up, it's the jelly who's upside down.

Jellyfish Upside-Down Cake.

I understand that, I do, but I also feel sorry for those people now that I’ve had the dizzying experience of being licked all over on my bare skin by scads of jellyfish puppies.  Those suited-up folks missed out on that, and I think it’s one of the most viscerally memorable parts of the experience.

IMGP1342IMGP1358Once you adjust, and realize the jellies are not going to hurt you, swimming amongst them really has a similar kind of playful, silly, childlike energy as rolling around on the ground with puppies jumping all over you.  Well, puppies with freaky, glowing electric coils visible through their transparent skulls.


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Strange Fruit

custard apple1My first day in Taiwan, I was wandering around in the Ximending neighborhood, and saw this lady on the street corner selling what looked to me like green plush toys shaped like dinosaur eggs. She saw me looking, and I was toast—she grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me over to take a closer look. I didn’t understand a thing she was saying, but that didn’t stop her from launching into her sales pitch, putting a couple of the weird, bumpy aliens in my hands. I could see and feel that they were some kind of biological material, but they had no particular smell, so I was completely clueless as to what they were. I didn’t know whether to try to eat it, or sit on it to hatch it, or kill it with fire.

I made the international shrugging gesture for “WTF?” and she responded with the international gesture for eating – the rapidly repeated spoon-to-mouth wrist flip. Okay, it’s food. Gotcustard apple2 it. I followed up with the palms-up “how?” gesture, and she performed a winning charades move, demonstrating that you pick off the green bumps with your fingers, one by one, to open the top, and then plunge in with a spoon. So, I got one and took it home with me. She even threw in a spoon for me.

custard apple3Back in my apartment, I followed her directions exactly, pinching off a big, green bump at what I thought was probably the top, and hoping I didn’t make the thing mad. Once I pierced the rugged skin, a sweet, tropical fragrance released into the room. Much better than Febreeze. The inside was a fluffy, creamy white. I looked closely to make sure it wasn’t breathing before I went in with the spoon. It wasn’t. Boy, did it smell good.

custard apple 4I scooped out a spoonful of the soft, segmented, sticky flesh and tentatively put it in my mouth, unsure if it would sting or what. Oh my goodness. So strange. Sweet as honey, and delicately floral. The flavor is not strong; the texture and sweetness are most prominent. But if I had to name it, I would say the flavor suggested the second generation after the love child of an apple and a banana. You know, kind of a diluted version of what I imagine that flavor combination would be.

custard apple cross sectionBut the texture? Flan. Flan with occasional seeds. Big, shiny seeds that look like those from a watermelon, but are the size of pumpkin seeds. (You spit those out.  I checked later.) I ate the whole thing, scraping out the inside of the hull with the spoon.

Seeds

Seeds

I don’t know what it’s called in Chinese, but I later learned that it’s called a custard apple in English. Atemoya, if you want to get horticultural. It’s apparently a hybrid of a soursop, or sugar apple, and a cherimoya.

popsiclesOnce I knew what it was, I started seeing them all over the place, made into popsicles (yum), in fruit salads, or just cut into cubes in cups, to eat with toothpicks. But, I still like to eat it with a spoon, right out of its weird, preternatural shell, like the auntie selling them in the market taught me.

Wax Apples

Wax Apples

The custard apple isn’t the only fruit revelation I discovered for the first time in Taiwan. There were wax apples, or “lambu” in Taiwanese, that look like apples pretending to be bell peppers, and taste like apples pretending to be cucumbers.

Wax Apple

Wax Apple

They are crisp and watery and not especially sweet. Very refreshing on a hot day.

Then, there was roselle. Peculiar, dainty little roselle. I think it’s a succulent, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Not unlike a prickly pear.

Roselle

Roselle

Coquettishly pink, with a flavor like hibiscus flower tea. Makes fantastic popsicles. I suspect it would also make killer margaritas. Or, in this case, rosaritas!

"U.F.O.s"

“U.F.O.s”

In the southern part of Taiwan, I saw a lot of these bright green, fringe-bottomed weirdoes, and never did figure out what they were. I took to calling them U.F.O.s—unidentified fruity objects. If you know what they are, let me know in the comments. zoidbergThe fresh ones look like Zoidberg from Futurama. The chopped, dried ones taste, honest to god, like lemon-lime soda. They’re crunchy and zingy, like Bottle Caps candy. They sell them in another form, too; dried like prunes and pitch black from being treated with some kind of charcoal dust.

Charcoal U.F.O.s

Charcoal U.F.O.s

Those have a medicinal taste. The woman selling them kept pointing to her throat and making an “ouchy face” as I was sampling them. So, I assume she meant they were good for sore throats. Made sense, from the taste. Nature’s throat lozenge.

Dragon Fruit

Dragon Fruit

Dragon fruit is very popular, served everywhere cut fresh, or in neon purple smoothies. I was already familiar with dragon fruit, but I had only seen the ones with the white, black-flecked flesh before. These were blazing magenta inside. You don’t want to get the juice on your shirt, if you can help it, unless you want it that color.

Cran-Mato Juice

Cran-Mato Juice

Like the Koreans, the Taiwanese also acknowledge the tomato’s true status as a fruit.  Even Ocean Spray tips its hat to the tomato’s fruity qualities, and includes it among the many fruits and berries with which it blends cranberry juice.  I’ve heard of Clamato, but Cran-Mato?  Ish.  Blech!  But, you can buy this juice blend in every convenience store in Taipei.  Twenty-three million Taiwanese can’t be wrong.  Or, can they….?

Ling Jiao, aka, Devil Pods

Ling Jiao, aka, Devil Pods

Not a fruit, but definitely strange, are the “ling jiao,” which seem to have many English names: the Jesuit nut, the bull’s horn, the bat nut, the winged water chestnut, and the devil pod. Or, just a ling nut.

Don't they look like little moustaches?

Don’t they look like little moustaches?

I dubbed them moustache nuts, because if you flip them over, they look just like those black plastic, old timey barbershop quartet moustaches that pop up in stores around “Movember.” Indeed, these pods are in season in November, thus supporting my thesis. Vendors sell them on the streets, steamed or roasted, like you see chestnuts in New York. If you pinch them in the middle, one of the sides will pop off, and you can bite the soft, savory nut out of the remaining side of the pod. Quite tasty. Also said to have anti-cancer properties. But, if you buy a big bag of them and take them home, you have to eat them fairly soon. They grow mold really fast. Take it from me.