Writing Lesson: Is This Tucson…? Or Is This…?

This week’s post is the first in a series of reflections on writing lessons. Based in part on my experience working with writing students as well as my own experience as a traveler and writer, I hope these pieces inspire you to take a journal or laptop outside and write your heart out! – Kristin

Whenever I talk with my students about writing about place, two questions inevitably come up. The first is this: How am I supposed to write about a place I grew up in my whole life? The answer to this question, I think, is easier than the second, as I usually tell them they need to ask themselves the questions travelers ask: What does Tucson smell like, for instance? Taste like? Sound like? What does the heat really feel like (none of this cliche “it’s a dry heat” cop-out)? What is the place’s history, and how do the people living there now connect to or escape from that history? Where do people gather? Eat? Drink? Play? What are the stereotypes about Tucson? Are they real? Exaggerated? Based on false pretenses? Completely off-the-wall? You can write about your own backyard as if you’ve never been there before, provided you step outside of your daily routine and embrace the weirdness and contradictions that every place inevitably has.

The second question I’m often asked is this: How can I write about a place that’s so schizoid? Yes, schizoid. If you’re not privy to the lingo of 18-year-olds, this means, quite frankly, that they believe this city to be schizophrenic. As in, one street looks like it’s come out of a magazine advertising the swanky and pristine desert lifestyle of the rich and famous–full of three-story adobe mansions landscaped with the most gorgeous succulents and Mexican tile on the market–and the next street is full of dilapidated street signs, houses with paint literally peeling off of them, trash in the gutters, as if the world forgot about it a long time ago. That’s the strange thing about Tucson–we don’t bulldoze old things here. We let them rot, fall to pieces, become part of the past without regard to how they look to the present. I haven’t seen many places like this in the United States, a country that seems to fear the past and anything that has even the slightest trace of rust, dirt, age, or peeling.

(By the way, if you’re not convinced, next time you’re in Tucson, let me know, and I’ll give you directions to the airplane grave yard, which is, I confess, actually a tourist attraction here).

Anyway, here’s an example I used with my students last week about why writing about place is a complicated process. I would like to preface this by saying that I love both of these photos for different reasons.

Photo #1. Tucson: The Southwest for Real. This photograph, taken by the Arizona Board of Tourism, presents an image of Tucson that is iconic, steeped in legend and Hollywood myth, and downright colonial. For one, in the five years I have lived here, I have never, ever seen a cowboy in a wide-brimmed hat romping around on his steed in the middle of the desert. The only place I’ve seen horses and cowboys is in the official annual rodeo, an event that, yes, is a state-wide holiday and that, yes, has the public schools closing for two days every year so that everyone can attend. Even still, though, I have never put Tucson and cowboy together in my mind as something contemporary or even remotely realistic.

And yet, when I see this photo, what do I immediately think of? Well, that’s easy: Tucson. But not a Tucson I know–a Tucson imagined.

From Uniglobe’s Travel Times – Photographer Arizona Office of Tourism

Photo #2: Flickr photo from a Flickr member who does not describe herself as a professional photographer.
What I love most about this photo is its apparent lack of concern for composition, and yet, it actually tells a really interesting story. For one, this photo reminds me of the Tucson I first saw when I flew in for the first time with only two suitcases in hand, when I immediately realized that this place was a lot more complicated than the images I’d seen on the internet. Secondly, this photo is steeped in unusual contradictions–the motel sign falling apart, the trailers, the truck wash sign, the lack of any kind of mountain range or nature landscape, the multiple “for sale” signs peppering the perimeters in different ways, the fact that this picture is taken from a zooming car going, I imagine, 75 miles per hour down the highway. This photo is so full of fodder for looking, for thinking about “ruins” and what gets left behind, for considering what happens with development and highway culture, for considering what doesn’t happen. This is also the Wild West–this is also the same city as the one above. But there’s no cowboy traipsing through this one…only cars.

From Flickr – Photographer DanaEMc

Are both of these places Tucson? Can they both be Tucson? If you’re a writer, how can you ever sift through the massive amounts of information a place affords you? Can you write about a trailer park and a rusting sign amidst no sign of nature at all (except for a scrub or two in the back behind the crooked power lines) and a magnificent horse galloping through the dusty mountain range with a cowboy on his back? If you write about one but leave out the other, what does that omitting say?

Talking with an editor of a travel magazine after submitting some photographs from a place I have recently visited, I realized how visually constructed our contemporary notion of place is. The first image up there? That’s Tucson–for real, apparently. The second? That’s Tucson too.

What I’ve taken from thinking about and giving this lesson to students is that as writers of travel we must be considerate of places, of their grooves, their nuances, their histories, and their people. We must remember that place is often as complex, really, as the people who live there–or who are just passing through.

Bringing the Sampran Riverside Cooking Class Home

Every time I travel somewhere, I make a promise to myself that I nearly always break: that I am going to attempt and prepare the delicious cuisine from the country I traveled to for my friends and family so that they, too, can share in all the delicious tastes of our world. After all, I’ve always believed that there is nothing more intimate and touching than having the chance to feel the smells, tastes, textures, and delights of a place than through its cooking. When I returned home from Colombia, for instance, I brought maracuya juice concentrate in a plastic bag (hidden between my underwear and socks in my suitcase, of course), all the ingredients I’d need for coconut rice, recipes for patacones (fried green plantains), and a whole lot of chewy, sugary candies I’d bought at a market. Other than the candies–which were always prepared and already edible–I confess that I never made the time to try and recreate the sweet, decadent flavors of the Caribbean for my family. Instead, I took my fiancee to a Caribbean restaurant and we ate a fried fish with its head still on and felt adventurous.

This is almost always the routine.

But when I came home from Thailand recently, my tastebuds already yearning for papaya salad and Thai chilis from the moment I had my last bite, I declared that this time would be different. With an Asian supermarket just steps away from my home, I would continue the journey I had started that week at the Sampran Riverside Resort, a gorgeous eco-cultural resort just a day’s drive from Bangkok. I would make everything out of the little paperback cookbook we were given that day, the day our small press group took a cooking class under a veranda in the pouring rain during a Thai monsoon. The smells–tangy lemongrass and kaffir lime, sweet palm sugar, spicy Thai chili, the I-can’t-quite-place-it (sort of like ginger?) galanga root–all part of the same week I spent falling in love with fruit. Like most places, neither words nor photography can fully capture the smell of a boiling soup or a sour fruit, and nothing can truly take you back to a place like the taste and texture of a food that defines a place. And because I haven’t been able to take my fiancee on my travels to Asia with me, this time, I swore I’d bring it to him.

I decided to start with the items we made during our cooking class: the infamous papaya salad and the spicy and sweet lemongrass soup with shrimp. I fished out the paperback cookbook from Sampran and we drove down the street to the Asian market near our house. Now, this shopping experience was a little more difficult than I’d anticipated, particularly because we were trying to buy products I’ve only ever seen once (and in a completely different cultural setting), and we couldn’t read the majority of the labels (because, of course, everything was in Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin, or Thai….). But, with a little shameless asking and a lot of gracious smiling, we were able to locate such items as the green papaya, dried shrimp, black chili paste, kaffir lime leaves, chunk of palm sugar, and straw mushrooms.  I was also giddy to find rambutan, longon, and mangosteen, and I made Ryan listen to a brief history and explanation of every one of them. I am sure he has heard more than his fair share of information about fruit.

At home, I laid out everything on the counter. This is what we bought:

Ingredients from the Grant/Stone Supermarket

Payaya salad, our first project, is a spicy salad prepared cold and made with unripe green papaya, garlic, chili peppers, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, long beans, small tomatoes, and crushed peanuts. It’s taste comes from a combination of sour, spicy, salty, and fishy–four staple flavors of Thai cuisine. Papaya salad–or som tam in Thailand–is served everywhere, as an appetizer, a side to soup, or just as a snack. Similarly, the shrimp and lemongrass soup (which is called tom yum goong in Thailand), is also something you’ll see almost everywhere. How hard could these two ubiquitous dishes be?

First, as we went through the recipe and realized that after mixing the chili peppers and garlic we had absolutely no idea how to chop up that enormous green papaya teetering on its edge behind the peeled garlic cloves, we realized this wasn’t going to be as easy without a chef behind us. After some Google searching, it was clear to me that I did not have the equipment needed to peel the thing into strips, so we improvised: we used a potato peeler. This was the messiest, sloppiest, most inefficient way I’ve ever seen anybody try to peel a vegetable, but, well, hunger prevailed over waiting until we could buy the proper peeler (apparently a kiwi peeler is the way to go?), so we went ahead with it. We didn’t have a mortar and pestle either, so we used a bowl and a rock from outside. Our cat, who is obsessed with food, actually ate the shavings that fell on the floor. (Embarrassingly, you can see him lapping up something in the bottom right-hand corner of this picture, which I didn’t notice until I downloaded it!).

Using a potato peeler to shed the papaya of its rubbery green skin

After peeling and stripping the papaya as best we could, I next realized that I had literally no idea whatsoever what to do with the palm sugar. I’d remembered that our chef told us that we must, must, must have palm sugar or papaya salad wouldn’t be payaya salad, so I made sure to get a lump of it. After peeling it out of the packaging, though, I stared back at this hard, solid lump and didn’t remember exactly how to make it into a paste (I think our chef gave it to us already in paste form…?), so we chopped it into littler pieces and crushed it with wax paper and the sideways blade of a knife. It was, like the activity above, sloppy, messy, and kind of inefficient. I wished, desperately, that our chef from Sampran was with us–she was extraordinary with her mixing and so efficient with the swirls she made with the pestle. Why wasn’t there some sort of hotline for first-timers?

Palm sugar and lemongrass

At this point, with all the unpredictably difficult parts out of the way, we added a mix of palm sugar paste, lime juice, fish sauce, dried shrimp, long beans, and tomatoes to the bowl of papaya shavings, garlic, and chili pepper. We rolled everything around until it looked just about right, sprinkled in some chopped-up peanuts, and let it sit so that the flavors could mingle and get soaked up by the moist papapa shavings.

The soup, I admit, was a bit easier. To make tom yum goong, all you need to do is dump some chicken stock, peeled shrimp, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and galanga strips into a big pot. We let it boil and then threw in the shrimp and straw mushrooms. At the very end, after the shrimp are pink, we mixed up a small bowl of black chili paste, fish sauce, soy sauce, and lime juice and added it to the soup. The soup became cloudy (which I remembered is a good thing!) and brown (also a good thing), so we let it cook for a few minutes and then scooped the soup into our bowls.

Mixing up the black chili paste

The end result?

Well…let’s put it this way. We loved the soup. It was, as it should be, a potent mixture of both fishy and lemony. The broth was cloudy and clear, and the black chili paste flavored the chicken stock beautifully. The shrimp were plump, pink, and chewy and had the faintest aftertaste of ginger (which I assume is due to the addition of the galanga root). And the level of spice was just right. Watching Ryan scoop up the soup spoonful after spoonful, I think our chef at the Sampran Riverside would have been proud of me.

Sizzling tom yum goong!

Now, the papaya salad?

In a word? Disgusting. (Trust me–looks can be deceiving here).

The finished product – papaya salad

Frankly, it was completely inedible. Totally gross. For one, it smelled like rotting fish. The papaya was soggy from sitting too long and the whole bottom of the bowl in which the salad sat was watery. The fish sauce and dried shrimp (which are more potent than I realized) completely overpowered the spice and the saltiness, and the peanuts did absolutely nothing to cut the fishiness. I tried adding some extra lime juice in last ditch effort, but, alas, my efforts were futile. Our papaya salad was a mushy pile of fish. Together, Ryan and I looked at each other, said a tiny goodbye, opened the lid to the trashcan, and dumped everything into it.

Lesson learned? Well, since I’ve got half a green papaya still sitting in the refrigerator and leftovers of all the other ingredients all over my kitchen, I might muster up the courage to try again, but for now, my palette for papaya salad needs a bit of a breather. My lesson learned, then, comes from the famous Van Gogh about a painting of his that turned out looking like a big blob on the canvas: “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”

At least, for the time being, I’ve got an amazing new soup recipe!

One flop, one masterpiece – the lessons we learn in the kitchen 🙂

If you’re interested in either of these recipes from the Sampran Riverside cooking class, send me an email and I’ll be happy to send them over to you.

A special thanks to Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand for graciously sponsoring my trip to the Sampran Riverside.

The World’s Top 5 Most Unromantic Places

In the mood for something a little different from the usual holiday fare of “most romantic places in the world” this Valentine’s Day? To honor the places I’ve been that I find weird and, at first glance, oddly unsettling, here is an honorary round-up of my top five picks for most unromantic places I can remember visiting. Of course, any place can be perfectly dreamy, given the right people and the right circumstances, and I have some of the fondest memories I’ve ever made tied to some of these spots, but since the national day of love is coming up this week, enjoy these five weird and wonderful places. And on this Valentine’s Day, don’t forget to go somewhere you love–and do something you enjoy 🙂


5. Museum of Medieval Torture, Prague, Czech Republic


Stakes used to burn women labeled as heretics, witches, and criminals? Electric chairs, painful chastity belts, and saws that served to cut people in half? These are just some of the 60+ delightful torture instruments you’ll see at the Museum of Medieval Torture in Prague. While this isn’t a museum for the faint of heart, it’s also most certainly not a museum for the independent woman or the person even remotely invested in human rights. In all honesty, now that I’m writing this post, I haven’t the slightest idea why I went in here in the first place. Strange curiosity? Gratefulness that I was not a European woman born in the 1600s? Mechanic interest in old gadgetry?

Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a romantic hot spot, but, well, if you’re into unusual sex toys, there might be just the place for you here (they’re off to the left when you enter).

Prague Torture Museum
Køižovnické nám. 1/194, Prague 1
Tel.: +420 723 360 479
E-mail: torture@post.cz
Hours of Operation: Daily from 10 am to 10 pm.

4. Mannekin Pis Peeing Statue, Brussels, Belgium


Literally “the little man peeing,” Mannekin Pis is one of the most unusual and amazing fountains I’ve ever seen. For one, the title says it all: it’s a small bronze fountain sculpture depicting a naked boy with an uncomfortable face urinating into the pool below him. On holidays and throughout the week, he gets dressed up in little costumes (there are rumors he becomes a mini Santa Claus around Christmas) and sometimes people play practical jokes and dress him up in, say, a judo outfit or a rice paddy hat. According to recent numbers, he has literally hundreds of tiny outfits.

But why the little man peeing? There are three prevailing legends that pinpoint his origin: 1), that in the 14th century when Brussels was under siege by a foreign enemy, a little boy ran by and peed on one of the explosive’s burning fuse, thus saving the city from ruin. (Actually, I guess that could be romantic, depending on how you look at it). 2), that a wealthy man once lost his son and, with the entire town, searched and searched until they found him peeing happily on some plants in a garden. And 3), that many centuries ago (we’re not sure when, exactly), a young boy near the king’s castle awoke to find the castle on fire, and he successfully put out the fire with his pee. (That kid must have had some peeing prowess!)

Whatever your fancy, a little boy urinating certainly doesn’t exactly make me think of wine and chocolates. For that reason, he comes in for most unromantic hot-spot at a solid #4.

Mannekin Pis is located at the junction of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat in downtown Brussels.

3. Pat Pong Night Bazaar, Bangkok, Thailand


Though this place oozes “romancing,” it’s not exactly somewhere I’d call “romantic.” Let’s put it this way: it’s not the first place I’d go for quiet conversation, a nice dinner, or a romantic stroll through the streets. Pat Pong is Thailand’s infamous red-light district, and true to its name, you will be asked by several people to peruse their “menu” of ladies and prices and you will be asked to come into one of the hundreds of strip clubs and pleasure rooms to “try out the products.” Honestly, I have absolutely nothing against women making a living, and Pat Pong is a fascinating and worthwhile adventure into Thai sexualities and customs, but frankly, I’d go down the street to one of the night bazaars for a glass of wine if I was headed out on a romantic soiree.

Patpong is within walking distance from the BTS Skytrain Silom Line’s Sala Daeng Station, and MRT’s Blue Line’s Si Lom Station.

2. St. Paul’s Catacombs, Rabat, Malta

Entrance Hall in St. Pauls Catacombs, Rabat

Underground graveyard, anyone?

Now, let me preface this one by saying that my heart literally belongs to Malta, and this choice is in no way an affront to the cultural diversity and beauty of this tiny little island. It’s just that, well, I’m not sure if traipsing through a dank, dusty, Phoenician-Punic graveyard site would be many people’s first choice for a first date (or, actually, maybe it would…). Whatever your fancy, these tunnels and tombs are the homes to thousands of Christian, Pagan, and Jewish burials side-by-side, emphasizing Malta’s incredible tolerance for different faiths and backgrounds and illustrating the nation’s history quite literally through its dead. While the catacombs are absolutely mind-numbing, hanging out with a bunch of dead religious figures might not exactly spark romance.

St. Paul’s Catacombs are located on St. Agatha Street, Rabat, Malta.

1. The Mall of America, Minneapolis, Minnesota


Like many of you, I have absolutely nothing against shopping and I’ll do retail therapy with a girlfriend any day of the week, but let’s face it: Is the biggest consumer conglomerate really the most romantic spot on earth? I mean, The Mall of America serves 40 million (yes, that’s 40 million) tourists a year (which is probably more than most small countries combined) who come to marvel at the 97-acre shopping mall. Even with the SpongeBob Square Pants roller coasters and playgrounds, I’m not sure I’d bring a first date to a place that has simultaneously created over 12,000 jobs but also caused hundreds of local businesses and shops to close their doors. As an advocate for local shopping whenever possible, I just can’t get jazzed up about the Mall of America (even though, admittedly, I did have a blast riding the SpongeBob roller coaster and trying on expensive dresses with two of my girlfriends). Plus, call me an essentialist here, but how many guys or gals have you dated who’ve wanted to hit the mall for that big date?

Mall of America
Address: 60 E Broadway, Bloomington, MN 55425
Phone:(952) 883-8800
Hours:  10:00 am–9:30 pm
Of course, whatever you decide to do this Valentine’s Day, remember that love and romance can be found almost anywhere. Happy holidays!