Falling in Love with Fruit: A Thai Love Story

At home, I am generally not a fruit person. If you know me, you would know the following to be true: put a strawberry, watermelon, grape, cantaloupe, or banana  in front of me, and I’m likely to bat it away with my fork and refuse to eat it. For some reason, melons, strawberries, bananas, and I just don’t get along as much as I’d like.

In Thailand, though, I am absolutely a fruit person. Put a rambutan, mangosteen, longon, guava, green papaya, mango, pomelo, pineapple, rose apple, custard apple, lychee, sapodilla, or coconut in front of me, and I’m inclined to melt (keep in mind I have left one particular fruit off of this list—and you’ll see why in #6 below). Before last week, I’d only known of guavas, mangos, pineapples, and coconuts in this group; a week later, not only have I tried them all and fallen in love with a few of them, I’ve already started researching Asian markets within a 50-mile radius of where I live. Now that I’ve tried these Thai delights, I’m a fruit-lover for life.

Of all these decadent delights, though, which truly turned me fruit-fanatic? Well, that’s the fun part. I’m sorry, fruits of Thailand, but I have five new lovers, and I adore you all equally. My apologies in advance.

mangosteen1. Mangosteen. Completely, totally, and 100% not like a mango at all. Flowering on tropical evergreen trees, the mangosteen is a tiny, round, red fruit with a sweet, coconut-like pulp inside. To open it, you need to peel off the thick, dark rind with a sharp knife (though don’t let the red stuff get on your clothes, as you’ll never get it out again).

2. Rambutan. An adorable hairy Rambutanfruit I first saw at the Damnoen Saduak floating market. Among the rest of the smooth, round fruits, this one is covered in spiky green or yellow hair. Inside, it’s full of white flesh that is firm, sweet, and juicy. You’ll also need a sharp knife for this one, as the hairs can be prickly and the skin tough to pry open.

Longon3. Longon. Translated as “dragon eye” because it looks and feels like an eyeball when peeled, this little fruit was brought to Thailand in sacks by Chinese immigrants hundreds of years ago. It’s a small round fruit that grows in bunches. Sweet, thick, and juicy, the best way to eat it is to crack open the shell by pressing on it and then scooping out the fleshy parts with your fingers. Beware, though, that your fingers will be sufficiently sticky afterwards.

4. Pomelo. The pomelo tastes, Pomelofeels, and looks a lot like a combination of two fruits I love best here at home: the grapefruit and the pomegranate. It’s similarity to a grapefruit comes in its flavor—light, a bit sour, citrusy. To a pomegranante—the seeds. The entire pomelo is made up of little flavor-filled pods that break easily in the mouth. Considered a crisp citrus fruit, here’s something fun about the pomelo: it also holds the record of being the biggest citrus fruit in the world, weighing in at a hefty 2-4 pounds.

Rose Apple5. Rose apple. While the name might lead you to believe otherwise, the rose apple tastes very little like a Red Delicious. The fruit, a fleshy yellow or red berry which is bell shaped, waxy and crisp, tastes far less like an apple and far more like an unripened pear (to my unseasoned palette, of course). It has a crisp, watery texture that almost dissolves once you crunch down on it, but it’s refreshing, light, and pretty.

And the honorary #6: the Duriandurian. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this smelly, mushy, odiferous fruit, is not a fruit for everyone. Though it’s considered the “king of fruits” in Southeast Asia, it stinks. Really. Kind of like a combination of cow manure, old gym socks, and rotten eggs. In fact, the odor has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia (see photo below of me at the Rarin Jinda Wellness Resort–see how they have placed the “no durian” sign even BEFORE the “no pet” and “no smoking”–this is serious business).

kristinanddurianIf you can get past the smell, though, you will have the culinary experience of a lifetime: the inside of the spiny green-ish yellow fruit is like no fruit I’ve ever tried: it’s thick, creamy, and almost custard-like.

Whatever your fruit fancy, I’m pretty sure there’s a street vendor out there in Thailand waiting for you. And if you have no idea what you’re eating, try it anyway–your tastebuds might surprise you.

A special thanks to Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand for graciously sponsoring this trip and introducing me to all of these delicious foods.

Life Lessons at Wat Po Monastery

I did something forbidden today simply because I’m clumsy. Ask anyone who knows me (Ryan, my fiancé, could certainly attest to this): come near me and I’m bound to bump into you. It’s like I have some sort of people-radar (or wall-radar, or door-radar, or anything-else-radar). If I’m walking next to, toward, behind, or in front of something, I will inevitably meander over—unconsciously, mind you—and bang right into it.

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Unfortunately, this happened at the sacred Wat Po monastery in Bangkok. And what did I do?

Well, I walked right into a monk.

Now, banging into anyone in a huge monastery complex seems like a very real possibility, as there are throngs of Thai Buddhists and curious travelers meandering through the temples all at the same time. Accidentally bumping into a civilian is certainly a normal event, and one that, if you’re at all like me, happens far too often to be barely noticeable. But bumping shoulders with a monk, especially if you’re a woman, is something you should never, ever, ever, ever (did I say never?) do. The reason is because monks are generally prohibited from touching what most Thais (among most other people) feel are two of the most tempting pleasures in life: money, and women. They do everything they can to avoid these material temptations.

When it happened, I was rushing through the crowds of people at Wat Po monastery in Bangkok. Moments before, I’d been intent on photographing a magnificent pink lotus flower growing on a lilypad in a large pot, and because I’m still learning how to operate the camera that nearly broke both Ryan’s and my savings accounts’ backs, the endeavor took me longer than I’d imagined. By the time I finished operating the camera, I knew I needed to speed up so I wouldn’t get the reputation of the dreaded “media group person everybody’s always waiting for.

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So I went off running, camera slinging from my neck, and before I knew it, I bumped right into a monk. He was walking past our tour guide, Tippy, a lovely young woman from the north of Thailand. Tippy gasped when she saw me bumbling toward the group, called out “no!”, and attempted to save me from the embarrassment, but unfortunately, it was too late—the damage had been done. I fumbled an apology as best as could with the few Thai words I’ve learned in my two days here, but everything came out jumbled and awkward. The monk didn’t look up, and his bald hed and saffron-colored robe eventually disappeared from our view.

As might be expected, I was mortified. My second day in a country I have only dreamed about visiting one day, and there I was committing a cardinal sin of the Buddhist culture. “I am so sorry, Tippy,” I said, my head down, cheeks flushed. I wanted to cower into a ball and hide underneath one of the gold-plated statues surrounding us.

Tippy turned to me, lowered her pink “TAT-LA MEDIA” sign (TAT is for “Tourism Authority of Thailand” and LA is for “Los Angeles”), smiled at me, and gave me some of the best words I could have ever hoped to hear in such an embarrassing moment: “Kris,” she said, gesturing toward the direction the monk had walked, “an unintentional touch is still the right intention. You are o.k.”

monk3

As I would read in my research later that afternoon, having the right intention is more significant to following the Buddha’s path than being a perfect practitioner of his teachings. According to his teachings, having the right intention (which is the second tenet of his eightfold path) refers to the mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental well-being and existing, and he distinguishes three types of right intentions: 1. the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, 2. the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and 3. the intention of harmlessness.

I learned a valuable lesson today: unintentional mistakes are bound to happen, but if we do our best to go through life with the intention of harmlessness, even touching a sacred man in Thailand is something you can overcome with grace.

So far, I like this path. Very much, indeed.

The Seeing-Eye Girl Sees Bangkok for the First Time

I am doing something I know I should feel shameful about, but I’m not sure how to remedy it. This has been happening a lot, actually, since I started reading critically about the practice of travel writing.

So what am I doing that seems so shameful?

Well, I’m merely looking outside the window of my hotel at the beautiful, haunting Chao Phraya River. I am looking at the boats as they meander across the canal, and I am watching the world come to life at this early morning hour. How could anyone see this as something negative, or, at best, imperial?

This is my predicament. Ever since I read Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation this summer, I have been second-guessing absolutely everything I write, think, and do while I am, as it’s often put in the academy, “engaging with the Other.” This is exceptionally difficult to do, especially since travel writing is so hated and disdained within the walls of the academy for its masculine-centered, imperialist, colonialist roots. Even looking outside of a window of a hotel and “beholding” the view, Pratt claims in her book, is reenacting the “seeing-man” assertive, exoticizing self. As she says, people who behold views from balconies are simply “still up there, commanding the view, assigning it value, oblivious to limitations on their perceptual capacities, their relations of privilege perfectly naturalized” (Pratt 200).

Wow, really? I wonder how much experience Pratt really has feeling in awe that first morning a traveler arrives somewhere new, the possibilities fresh and endless, the excitement dancing around like butterflies in the stomach (an often very hungry stomach from a very long journey!). While I don’t want this to sound critical, and while I certainly want to engage in critical reflection and praxis in everything I do, I have to wonder if Pratt is stretching the limits here. Of course, someone who stands atop a balcony and limits a view to something despicable, gross, or “third-world” can, certainly, be lumped into the category of the “seeing-man,” but what about someone who simply wakes up, pulls open the blinds, thrusts open the door to the balcony, and sees, for the first time, a magical new place to him/her? It’s not a magical new place to the inhabitants who live there (whose home IS a magical new place to them anyway?), but it’s magical to the person lucky enough to see that view for the first time–and feel blessed, excited, and flushed in the cheeks.

I read Pratt’s book so carefully this summer, ear-marking every page and highlighting furiously, trying to understand why travel writing as a complete genre is so disliked in the academy. Her analysis, while extremely detailed, smart, and historically-grounded, still smacks of the disdainful tone I’ve read of so many other accounts of this genre, a genre I believe has the capacity to truly create real change. Engaging in reflection and considering the way we write and think about other people and other ways of life are crucial acts toward gaining a more critical understanding of the complex and diverse world within which we inhabit. Naturally, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accept and be mindful of real differences and discrepancies between peoples of the world, but instead, it means that we need to do real work within this genre.

So I will start here: Yes, I am looking out onto the river, and I am smitten with what I see. It’s foggy, sweaty, humid, and sticky, and I’m giddy thinking about all the things I will learn and write about on this trip. And frankly, I don’t see anything–anything at all–wrong with that. I’m going to reclaim Pratt’s term, then, and move forth understanding that I am functioning here as a “seeing-woman,” all rights and responsibilities herein.

Off to see Bangkok!

Champagne, A Massage Chair, and Fuzzy Slippers

I am actually kind of uncomfortable because I am entirely too comfortable. I am sitting in a big purple seat with plush pink pillows that reclines all the way down into a bed, and because I realized about twenty minutes ago that my seat has a massage option, I have been getting a nice, firm backrub for about nineteen minutes. I am sipping a glass of bubbly champagne and I have a hot towel wrapped around my neck. My legs are propped up on the cushioned foot rest in front of me, and I have just been given a white linen tablecloth upon which will be placed my hot Korean lunch in a few minutes.

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For those of you who know me (or know anything about the way I travel, have traveled, did travel, dream of traveling, etc.), this is not the normal me. The normal me is crunched into a ball in coach with the rest of the travelers, stomaching something like a granola bar or a bag of peanuts, my head cocked to one side in an often-futile attempt to get some sleep. While this certainly doesn’t sound like an enticing traveling experience, I’ve traveled this way for so long that I never even considered upgrading to business or first class. So how did this happen? As a wonderful surprise from Thai Airways, we were presented with upgraded tickets to the Royal Silk business class when we arrived at the terminal because we are traveling to write and promote their airline and country. The Royal Silk business class, provided on the brand new 777-300ER aircraft, is a fantastic combination of comfort and service. And this, of course, seems to be just the very essence of the Thai way 🙂

Sitting here sipping a glass of champagne in Thai Airway’s Royal Silk class has been an absolute joy. For one, the service has been absolutely amazing—the attendants have brought warm towels every few minutes, are wonderfully attentive, and are always smiling. Our first meal of the flight came with an appetizer of two boiled shrimp atop leafy greens, warm bread, and ended with coffee and a little chocolate pastry. My Korean lunch—chicken and rice in a red sauce—smells delicious wafting out of the kitchen behind me. This entire flight feels like an experience itself, rather than simply a means to an end. I know all of this must sound nuts to those of you who travel business- or first-class on a regular basis, but for me, being waited on like this is simultaneously awkward, unusual, and wonderful.

airplane2
One part awkward, one part unusual, and one part wonderful….this is the way travel is supposed to be at its best, I think. Never too luxurious, never too painful, and definitely never too ordinary. I guess this is a fitting beginning, then, to my first journey to Thailand.

I don’t want to get used to this simply because I know I might not be able to buy a Royal Silk Class ticket for a long time (at least until after graduate school), but for now, I’m slightly ok with feeling a little out of my element 🙂 Cheers!

Kristin, Meet Your New Passport. Passport, Meet Kristin.

passportThe picture you see here is  *almost* the reason that I couldn’t accept this incredibly awesome gig in Thailand this week. My passport, you ask? Yes, my passport. And no, I hadn’t let it expire, I hadn’t lost it in the move, and I hadn’t accidentally taken Ryan’s to the airport instead.

Instead, I’d been invited to come and see a country that requires all passports to expire no less than six months AFTER the return date on the ticket, and my passport was set to expire in January. Despite feeling like the absolute worst travel writer in the entire world (I mean, what self-respecting travel writer isn’t up-to-date on the newest passport regulations?!), I was mortified that I’d been invited by the Thailand Tourism Authority and then called three days before the departure date and told that I’d either need to get my butt to the nearest regional passport agency (which may or may not have been in Tucson) or give up my spot to another writer.

As you might suspect, this furious traveler would not accept option #2. So on Monday morning (thank God for a graduate student schedule, right?), I set to work getting a brand-spanking-new passport overnighted to me in Tucson. Of course, the process wasn’t easy, and resulted in me having to figure out where the nearest regional passport agency was, make about a million phone calls, fill out about a million forms, get signatures, verifications, and status updates on my travel arrangements with the bureau, stand in a number of ridiculously long lines (shades of the Department of Motor Vehicles, anyone?), go get a new picture taken, and have a clearance interview to decide if I was worthy of going through all the trouble to get an overnight passport. Oh, yes, and all this while preparing to submit my Stage One materials for my comprehensive PhD exams.

This process, though, isn’t what I’m thinking about this morning. Thankfully, after the chaos of Monday morning, I drove back over on Wednesday, picked up my passport less than 24 hours before my flight was supposed to depart, and spent all of yesterday throwing things into and out of a suitcase. (If I’d mentioned I was the worst travel writer ever because I didn’t know the most up-to-date travel regulations, I am even a worse travel writer when it comes to packing….). Now, I’m sitting in the Los Angeles international airport terminal on this rainy Thursday morning with everything arranged, and instead I’m thinking about the passport I left at home. The one with the hole punch right in the middle of the cover.

This passport is now ten years old. It’s warped, crinkled, and smells like an old suitcase, a sandy beach, and old paper. It’s been all over the place, and it’s got an imprint from every place I’ve ever been outside of the walls of my own country. And I remember the day my mom and I went to the CVS pharmacy to get my passport photo taken, over Christmas break during my second year of college. My parents were giving me the most beautiful gift I could have ever received in my twenty years of life: a summer of study-abroad in Spain. Going to apply for a passport with my mom was one of the most nerve-wracking, exhilarating moments of that year for me. Knowing that I would be traveling outside of the country for the first time in my life–and entirely on my own–was not something I was used to feeling. But we applied for the passport, went out to lunch, talked about what it might be like in Spain, and soon got me packed to leave. When I got to Spain, the passport went right under the mattress of the bed in my dorm room, where it sat for two months and got acclimated to the beauty, chaos, and unparalleled experience of travel.

That day with my mom has never left me, and it feels more real now than ever. ‘m sitting here with a brand-new, untouched passport in my bag, and we don’t know each other at all. My old passport is snuggled in to the sweater drawer in my dresser, nicely wedged between a sweatshirt and a cardigan.

So in the spirit of new beginnings, let’s have introductions all around. Hello, passport, I’m Kristin. Hello, Kristin, I’m your new passport. Let’s have some fun together but never forget where we came from: me from a printer, and you from Roswell, Georgia.

Thailand, here we come!