A Page from the Jetlag Diary: Bangkok

Bangkok. I haven’t slept properly in ten days and thing are getting weird. So many hours lying awake in the dark, hoping against hope that unconsciousness will overtake me; always just slightly too hot or too cold. I feel myself drifting towards the blackness, but I never get beyond limbo.  Every day I eventually give up and stumble out of the hotel and try to make something of the day, but today even the gentlest of exertions seems beyond me. At noon I drift out into violence, the merciless South East Asian sunshine piercing my corneas like a hot needle. The chaos of central Bangkok leaves me disoriented and bewildered- roaring motos, gasoline fumes, sputtering tuk-tuks, their drivers’ garbled voices as they race by. The familiar but overwhelming smells: wok smoke from the food carts, sickly sweet durian, fish sauce? Dog shit? Normally fairly adventurous, all I can think of now is comfort, reassurance, familiarity; the pleasant thrill of communicating through the language barrier to procure a plate of green curry almost unimaginable now. I weave, dazed, down the street, perception skewed, the road rippling, sudden shimmering troughs appearing underfoot; every car horn, engine rev, child’s scream grates my nerve endings. I’m going to eat a hamburger, I just know it. It goes against all my principles of international travel; I’m going to despise myself, and worse, I know it’s way more likely to make me sick than anything from a rusty food cart down the end of a cat infested back alley. I perch on a stool in the horrendous western-style bar- the type specializing in “international cuisine”: pasta, Thai classics, fish & chips. I slog through the greasy overcooked overpriced burger, trying to keep my eyes averted from the horribly brutal Muay Thai accosting me from multiple big-screens. It’s precisely the bad decision I knew it would be, but deep down, I’m ashamed to admit, it’s meeting a deep need. I trudge the two blocks back to the hotel, where I look down and realise I’m clutching the sodden, crumpled napkin from the bar, like some kind of security blanket. I can’t see an end to this.

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 I’ve experienced an unwelcome feeling of lethargy or indecisiveness this trip. Beijing and Bangkok are two resoundingly exotic locations I’ve visited several times before, and while still undeniably strange and mysterious, still largely unfathomable, I’ve now done a lot of the things I wanted to do here- eaten the must-try foods, seen a few of the standout sites- and I find myself feeling constrained by a kind of apathy, maybe because the gob-smacking awe is gone. I’m far from comfortable, but it’s starting to feel a little familiar. 

 With no plan in mind, I took a packed commuter boat across the Chao Phraya, the muddy, polluted river that snakes through Bangkok. It dropped me at Wang Lang market- a maze of alleyways crammed with stalls selling a bewildering assortment of goods mostly aimed at the locals. I waded in, but before long the tight spaces and constant bodily contact drove me to a deserted riverside bar where I nursed a Singha beer and contemplated my surroundings. Brazenly predictable Thai pop music floated blandly from nearby speakers and mixed with the sounds of the river: shouts of passing riverboat drivers as they leaned almost into the water to pull off hairpin turns; the rumble and fart of their smoke-spewing and apparently homemade engines; their wake splashing against the stone wall below me. I watched the river carrying the detritus of an overcrowded, rapidly sinking capital: plastic bottles, discarded children’s toys, a single flip flop. Some kind of small heron-like bird watched me as it floated by on a clump of weeds. I tried to climb inside this little universe but I still felt like I was watching the action through a screen. I was in it but not of it.

 

In the end I found an answer to my listlessness where I should have known to look all along: at the bottom of a bowl of extraordinary Tom Yum soup from the excellent Mit Ko Yuan. Chewy lemongrass stalks, roughly torn-up lime leaves, ferocious chillies, clumps of cilantro, and whole giant prawn heads just begging to have the restorative goo sucked out of them. Weird, this travel thing- it’s different every time. But with a stomach full of local good stuff, tongue on fire and veins pumping with chilli-induced endorphins, I don’t worry about it quite as much.

(Thanks for reading! If you want the next one sent straight to your inbox, enter your email address top right of this page… Cheers, Nick)

Ducking and Weaving: A Night On the Town, Beijing

 I’ve eaten some pretty interesting stuff in Beijing, often involving the insides and outsides; the heads, shoulders, knees, and toes of a wide range of God’s creatures. But here, on my fourth trip to the capital, I was determined to try some transcendental Peking duck. I’d attempted it before: a few years ago a well-meaning Beijing musician, hearing me talk about it, made a big fuss of presenting me with some sweaty shopping bags full of greasy takeout duck, which I dutifully cooed over while surreptitiously depositing in my shirt pocket. This time I was taking no chances. Hours of mouth-watering internet research led me to Siji Minfu Roast Duck Shop, an hour’s walk from my hotel, past some of Beijing’s most famous attractions, which I must go and look at sometime. I presented myself to the young woman at the hostess station who thrust a ticket in my hand and snapped “two hours!” I was prepared for this. I trundled off and explored the surrounding Wangfujing shopping district, browsed in the English language bookstore (where I bought a translation of a Chinese novel which claims to recount “the exuberant misadventures of the hapless hero Fang Hung-chien.” I’ll let you know…); got desperately lost in a massive, blindingly-lit, but eerily quiet shopping mall; and heard a choir at St Joseph’s Wangfujing Church impart the Catholic Hymnal with all the soothing, warm vocal timbre of Chinese Opera. By this point I’d lost track of time, so went back to the restaurant where the woman gave me a look that clearly said, “I told you two hours so you’d go away and not come back!” I waited another half hour while a robot voice shrieked (presumably) ticket numbers in Mandarin, until I was given a nod, and led into the dining room.

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Hanging out at Siji Minfu

A whole roasted duck was brought to my table and presented for my approval- I figured it was like tasting a wine before it’s poured, so I played it cool, grabbed the thing and held it up to the light. I then took a small bite, swirled it around in my mouth, spat it on the floor, and gave the waiter an indifferent nod. His look of astonishment was undoubtedly due to my unexpected expertise. Someone got a little respect that night.

 In the end, it was ok. Crispy skin, tender meat, refined and correct- they clearly know what they’re doing. This probably marks me as a barbarian, but I’ll take fatty, salty, loud, uncouth Hong Kong-style duck any day. And because this was a classy, high-end joint, they couldn’t be seen to serve the local water-beer… my meal was paired with a flirty, slightly rambunctious Budweiser. 

 Dinner was over in no time, so with most of the evening still ahead of me, I decided to knock something else off my list. Every culture has their fire-water, and I consider it my duty as a conscientious traveler to try it wherever I go. The Chinese go for a drink called Baijiu: a clear spirit usually made from rice or sorghum, with an astronomical alcohol content. It’s the world’s most popular spirit, outselling whisky, vodka, gin, rum and tequila combined, but you’d be hard pressed to find it outside of China. The Chinese don’t really go for bars- they do their drinking at restaurants or at home, Baijiu being a central part of any banquet- but I found one decidedly hipster joint specializing in the stuff, so my duck and I waddled over. According to the Jakarta Post, “kinder critics say it evokes truffles or burning plastic, while less generous descriptions have included “industrial cleaning solvent” and “liquid razor blades.”” I don’t remember having this kind of negative reaction, but having tried six different kinds, I don’t remember much at all. 

In the end, a successful outing; if nothing else, I felt I had a bellyful of China that night. And if you ever want to tell me your deepest, most shameful secrets, load me up with half a dozen shots of Baiju, and I guarantee I’ll forget everything. Also, thanks to whoever it was whose doorstep I slept on.

Coarse Language, Adult Themes, and some Boning

There’s something very satisfying abut Italian swearing. It’s all so percussive and hissing; all those “k” and “ts” sounds. Fluency in obscenities is a skill I respect greatly, and the Italians have it down to an art: the drawn-out vowel sounds, the spitting consonants, combined with flaming eyes and wildly disproportionate gesticulations. It was a display like this, admittedly with a fairly strong Australian accent, that burst from the front seat of our car, lodged in traffic somewhere between Milan and Bologna. 

 My mate Adam is generally a calm, even-tempered sort of chap. We’ve known each other for 20-something years, from back in our Sydney days. He settled in Italy about ten years ago and seems to be well and truly ensconced. Not only a world class drummer, he’s exactly the guy you need on the ground when you’re a hungry, thirsty traveler. Need a late-morning beer? Adam knows an Irish bloke who runs a liquor store- grab something from their bafflingly large beer selection and neck it on the street outside! No lunch plans? He knows just the spot for that weird local delicacy you’ve been dying to try (this trip it was Pajata and Coratella- google it if you must); a cheeky glass of wine before the gig? Absolutely! A night off in Milan? There’s an Osso Buco joint he’s been meaning to try. We might get lost, ripped off, stranded beside a freeway, but it’ll aways be a good hang. But this was a test.

 The Italian Job so far had been a whirlwind. I’d flown into Milan, napped in the world’s smallest Air BnB, played a gig where I was essentially accompanying a table of snacks, napped again, caught the three-hour train to Rome where I played two nights at Gregory’s with the great Joe Magnarelli, caught the train back to Milan, played a couple of gigs, napped again, went to France for a few days, back to Milan for a quick nap, and now we were headed to a gig in Bologna. The fruity language was because the ride that was supposed to take us from Bologna, right after the gig, to a jazz festival some two hours away, had suddenly vanished, and Adam wasn’t happy. It would be 2am, there’d be no public transport, and nobody driving that way. Frantic phone calls were made to festival directors, local musicians, relatives, massage parlours (unrelated), bike rentals, mob drivers, and all for nought. 

 We arrived at Cantina Bentivoglio, a cavernous restaurant/jazz club in Bologna, where the pre-show meal of mountains of carpaccio and the famous pasta al ragu acted as somewhat of a salve to our gnawing trepidation of the night ahead. We had a ball playing a set of swingers to a large and appreciative audience, from a stage that had previously been graced by jazz legends like Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, and Mal Waldron; and at the end of the show, Adam had received a message: a solution had been found. 

 Our ever-patient organist, Niccolo, was to drive us 40 minutes out of his way, and deposit us on a freeway off-ramp, where we were to wait for a man with a trombone (a trombonist, in other words), whom we would trust to drive us to the next gig. Adam and I waited shivering by the roadside, traffic whizzing by, gazing morosely at the terrifying Facebook profile photo of our Apollo- the wild hair, the insane eyes, the trombone- and questioned our life choices. Was this the end of the line? Were we about to be boned? I don’t know how a trombonist would choose to kill his victim, but you can be sure it would be messy, torturous, and boring. 

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One last selfie. Nicko, Niccolo, Adam

 A brown, 90s-model station wagon of indistinct brand screeched to a halt beside us, and Marco* sprang out. Whether his lack of communication was due to his not speaking English, or because the homicidal voices in his head were making it hard to concentrate, we’ll never know, but not a word was spoken. We loaded our gear, vowed to call our mothers more often if we survived, and strapped in for the ride. With a squeal of rubber we were off- speed limits were blithely ignored, other motorists run off the road, corners were taken on two wheels (the front ones!), and a curious whining noise we all assumed came from the clapped out engine, turned out to emanate from me. 

 I’d like to tell you how the night ended, but some kind of stress response has caused me to block the memory entirely. It seems somehow I survived, although I’ve developed a debilitating stutter. But if anybody knows of Adam’s whereabouts, you should probably contact the authorities. And ask him for the address of that Osso Buco place.

*his real name

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Bars: Italians do it Better

One of my idle fantasies, when I’m not plotting world domination (any day now), or fuming about technology and young people (every day now), is opening a bar. Not because I have any great desire to be a small business owner, but because the kind of place in which I like to hang out just doesn’t exist where I live. You know, a good place. Where people from the neighborhood drop in for a coffee or a beer, to have a chat or read the newspaper, to take a few minutes or a few hours out of their day and it doesn’t cost them a fortune. Where you can escape the chaos outside without being assaulted by musical and televisual chaos inside. Where there are a few good things to eat and drink, and everyone’s welcome. Like they do it in Italy.img_1527

 

Italian art’s great, they sing a cracking opera, their historical monuments are top shelf, but the Italian bar is a thing of unrivaled beauty. Stand at the bar of an afternoon and order a coffee and maybe a cheeky grappa, take your time stirring in the sugar, smile at the girl working the cigarette counter, and soak it in. The muted chatter of the locals, the soccer playing silently on a tiny screen in the corner, the smell of coffee grounds; unfamiliar multicolored spirits being freely poured into shot glasses; the crunch of your shoes on the slightly gritty tiled floor and maybe an errant cigarette butt to remind you of the days when the joint would’ve been thick with smoke. The thimbleful of thick, bittersweet coffee, a perfect layer of light brown crema on the surface; you’ll down it in two sips, and want another one straightaway, but be prepared for an uncertain look from your barista- the Italians do it one at a time. Slip a coin or two on the bar, call “ciao, grazie” to your barman, and you’re out.

d6e2117e-911c-486a-bd48-a39b6e15a8e9Come back late in the evening and the atmosphere will have changed. Work’s done for the day, and the locals are getting stuck into the aperitivos. In theory it’s an evening drink, usually something slightly bitter, slightly sweet, maybe bubbly, designed to get your taste buds ready for dinner. But in bars, especially in Milan, the drinks are often accompanied by appetizers, sometimes so substantial that the evening aperitivo can replace dinner. Buy a negroni, help yourself to the free grub: bruschetta, roasted eggplant, fried zucchini, caponata (sort of a sweet and sour Sicilian eggplant stew), focaccia- maybe switch to wine at this point- pasta, anchovies, olives… Round it off with another espresso and my current favorite after-dinner drink, Fernet, and you’ll feel like a million lira. Language boundaries have melted away, and you realize you’re suddenly fluent in nods and smiles and previously impenetrable hand gestures. Come back tomorrow, and chances are your new friends will be there again.

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Let’s face it, “Nick’s Bar” is best kept a fantasy. My reasonable prices would keep the influencers away, and within a week we’d be out of stock, staff would have quit, and I’d be trying to sell box wine in paper cups because I never got around to doing the dishes. I guess I’ll leave it to the specialisti. See you at il bar.

Good Shucking Times on Shelter Island

If you ever get the opportunity to shuck your own oysters, and you don’t take it, your poor beleaguered soul may never forgive you (if you don’t have a poor beleaguered soul, you can skip to the next paragraph). Especially if those oysters have just been hauled from the very bay beside which you’re sitting, in glorious late-summer sunshine, the sea breeze in your hair, and a cold beer at your side. To hold that gnarly, mud-encrusted shell in hand, and coax the hinge apart with your stubby little knife blade; the muscular resistance as the little guy fights with all his strength to keep you out, until he finallyIMG_0675 gives it up. The two halves creak apart and the battle is over. If you’re like me, by this point you’ve got half a dozen stab wounds in your hand, but the pain is forgotten as the juicy little beauty and his attendant liquor slide down your gullet. Messy and primal, with that minerally brine running down your chin, spattering your clothes, it’s almost obscene. After a three hour ride from Manhattan, the Hampton Jitney has disgorged you, blinking and disoriented; the bay in front of you, the fishing boats, the seagulls; you can walk straight onto the ferry, but to me a couple of dozen mixed, unshucked from Little Creek Oysters in Greenport is the start of any trip to Shelter Island.

The ferry across the Peconic Bay is possibly the only public transport experience I wish would last longer (I once took a train through the Swiss Alps that I hoped would never end, but then we were halted by track work and rudely dumped onto a bus that piped yodeling music all the way to Zurich. That was freaking interminable). It’s about seven minutes of rolling calm; the salty breeze blowing the jazz club right off me; the only sounds the rumble of the ferry engine, the gentle swell lapping again the sides, and the swearing as another seagull shits on my shoulder. If you’re lucky you might run into Dennis- the island’s jazz bass playing ferry captain. If progress seems a little erratic, it’s because Dennis sees nautical charts as a framework over which to improvise. You’ll know it’s him driving because he’ll get lost at the bridge and end up in the wrong quay.

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 The first Europeans “bought” Shelter Island from the local Manhanset tribe in 1630-something, only about 10 years after NYC was settled, so it’s been on the maps for a while. It was bought and sold and married into and out of by English and Dutch blokes- mostly sugar merchants and plantation owners. In 1651, the Sylvester Family, whose descendants still run an organic farm on the family plot, bought the island for 1600 lb of sugar– an event you’ll be forced to remember should you order one of the specialty cocktails at the awful Sunset Beach Hotel.

 Jump forward a few hundred years and some legend opens up the Pridwin Hotel. It’s a beautiful all-wood affair, from the days of Gatsby-style high society, with rolling lawns and tennis courts; and is clearly designed for nothing more strenuous than lolling on the verandah with a G & T, and watching the Osprey fishing in the bay (Here’s an amazing video of an Osprey in Scotland. They’re so cool.) C and I come here3BE2DF23-1351-4924-A096-5C3D220EB533 every year to play a few sets of dinner music; and to eat, drink, dive off jetties, swan about with cocktails, and generally live in the extravagant, grandiose manner to which we’d dearly love to become accustomed.

 Most of the Pridwin’s menu- tuna, bass, flounder, swordfish- is dragged struggling from the surrounding waters by the hotel’s own fishing boat. I fantasize about joining them on an expedition but I know my complete lack of knowledge and ability would be somewhat of a hindrance, and I’d make a massive fool of myself. I’d get a lure stuck up my nose, or panic and throw all the rods in the water, or be discovered crouched in the back of the boat, blood-smeared and sheepish, having eaten all the bait. I’d be a floating liability. I’ll never be a fisherman but that doesn’t stop me sitting on the jetty in an old sweater, smoking a pipe, telling the youngsters about the whale who took my leg. I’m quite a character.

Entertainment on Shelter Island is weighted towards outdoorsy, watery pursuits; and while you can find the occasional play or concert (violinist Itzak Perlman has a music camp next to the Pridwin; nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out…), you don’t visit for the high culture. You can, however, choose to spend a bright sunny day in the crepuscular hush of one of the loveliest bookstores anywhere. An heroically independent oasis, Black Cat Books seems to specialize in art and design books, but there are shelf-loads of used novels, poetry, and music to keep you occupied and out of the murderous sunshine for hours. Walk through their doors and experience a sense of relief known only to the nerd who finds a bookshop at the beach. During summer it’s open every day; the rest of the year, “by chance”.

One afternoon C and I embarked on a ludicrously over-ambitious bike ride to Ram Island (actually a peninsula, and not especially ovine). 5½ miles of hills. Steep, exhausting, enthusiasm-sapping hills. Somehow we started at sea level, rode continuously uphill for an hour or two, and ended up at sea level. I don’t understand it, and I don’t know what we were thinking. I’m just thankful I followed the lead of professional cyclists, and took a load of drugs before we set off. The only thing keeping us pedaling was the thought of a cold beverage at the Ram’s Head Inn- another lovely 100-year old pile, sort of bookends with our own Pridwin. We collapsed in puddles in their cool, empty bar, and as we greedily poured drinks into ourselves, C noticed a plaque on the wall. It memorialized the “Shelter Island Conference”, a 1947 meeting of Nobel Prize winning physicists (Oppenheimer being the only one I’d heard of), who spent three days discussing quantum mechanics and atomic weaponry in what is now known as “a landmark event in the history of postwar American physics.” Our own bar chat -How about those hills? and -Golly my legs are tired! suddenly didn’t seem quite as profound or insightful as we thought, so we toasted the Atomic Bomb, finished our drinks, and pushed off.

 I should warn you of the downside to a trip to Shelter Island: the reentry. Stepping off the return bus at rush hour in midtown Manhattan, the sea of hard faces, the gritty, stifling air, the chaos of horns and sirens, it’s a rough landing. I close my eyes and imagine I can still hear the gulls and the ferry engine, smell the sunscreen and salt, feel the jolting stab of the oyster knife in my hand, until I can get to the nearest fish market and take home a dozen Peconic Golds, unshucked. 

Fish Heads, Goose Butts, and Making Women Cry: Hempton Back in Honkers

One of my favourite moments as a slightly-taller-than-average human is walking down a supermarket aisle and seeing a little old lady reaching for a high shelf. I pull myself up to my full height, slap a reassuring smile on my dial, and make my way nonchalantly towards her. I know what’s coming. “Dear will you reach that tin of jellied tongue for me?” she’ll ask. “Certainly madam,” I’ll reply, “no trouble at all.” I’ll effortlessly retrieve her revolting selection and hand it to her, perhaps with a small bow. “My, aren’t you tall?” she’ll say, admiringly. “Why, yes I am. Good day, madam.” I’ll smile benevolently and stride off, as she says to herself, “and so polite!” I’m a good samaritan. A saviour. In many ways a hero. I’ve recently discovered this same experience can be replicated by hopping a flight to China. While the country has produced some extremely tall folks (that one guy whose name I can’t remember was a whopper wasn’t he!), I think we can agree that by and large, the Chinese are a relatively compact people. And those overhead bins are a long way up. I just stand there tall-ly, and wait for a tug on the sleeve, and play the part of magnanimous tall-guy. My pompous manner comes at no extra charge. 

For my two nights in Honkers, I’d picked a strategically located hotel called the Mini. Size
seems to matter today… A 10 minute walk from the gig, it was also, Google assured me, a mere 15 minutes walk from the Airport Express train. Google failed to mention that the walk was vertical. Horn on shoulder, pouring with sweat, and muttering obscenities, I dragged my enormous suitcase, packed with a ludicrously optimistic number of CDs, up the sheer face of Ice House street, passing a surprising number of attractive young women, who managed to look at me pityingly while clearly stifling laughter. Aching, drenched, and humiliated, I reached the summit and checked into room 813 of the Mini Hotel. 

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This was taken at the front door

I can only assume “Hilariously Microscopic” wouldn’t fit on the business cards. This room was not built for swinging cats. I put my room card in the front door and knocked the soap out the window. If I wanted to consider multiple points of view simultaneously I had to put my bag in the hall. The cockroaches had hunch backs. It was small I tell you! It was late when I arrived, so I put aside thoughts of a relaxing post-flight crouch, and headed out to find food. I soon recognised my surroundings from previous visits- the late night, expat part of town- a mess of aggressively loud beer bars full of drunk shouty Aussies and Brits pawing at tired prostitutes and puking on each other. Plenty of restaurants open, but of the sad, neon-lit variety, mostly Indian and Thai, with pushy spruikers out front grabbing desperately at passers-by. Things were looking grim, when just outside the danger zone, I glanced down a narrow alley and saw one of my favourite sights: groups of locals sitting on low stools slurping stuff out of bowls. I was down there like a shot, sharing a table with a toothless, grinning old bloke who seemed to know everyone. I couldn’t decide between the fish head and the pork intestines, so at about 3 bucks each, went with both. And a big bottle of the local water-beer. It had been a long flight. The waiter motioned at his head and stomach to be sure I knew what I was ordering, and we were away. Old mate and I cheers’d each other as the food arrived and I scarfed the lot, to the apparent amusement of the staff closing up around me. Another beer and i was feeling floaty and fine. It’s the only way I know of dealing with the soul-shock of reentry- immediate immersion. Local food, drink, people, as quickly as possible. 

 Jet lag jolted me awake early next day, and it being my only free day (till the night’s gig), I went wandering. I had no grand plans, aside from losing myself in the city and eating good things. I started with a joint I’d meant to try on previous trips- Mak’s Noodle. I sat at a tiny table across from a young couple, playing a game of inadvertent kneesies with the poor fellow, and had a bowl of noodle soup with brisket and wontons which would have been delicious if I wasn’t expecting it to be transcendental. One day I’ll learn.IMG_9032 I then sloshed down to the lovely Victoria harbour to take a ride on the Star Ferry. I do this every time- I don’t know why, nobody I take on it seems overly impressed, but I think it’s brilliant. It costs 35 cents for a ten minute ride on a grand old tub from the fifties, across unusually green water from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. All manner of craft drift by, from ostentatious millionaire yachts to ancient barely-afloat fishing junks, the glittering modern skyscrapers crowding around the shorelines, and the towering Tao Mo Shan mountain in the background. It’s very cool. Kowloon itself is the shopping mecca- Prada and Gucci and what-have-you- and doesn’t do much for me. The idea of traveling somewhere to go shopping baffles me; so I had a stroll, drank some kind of tapioca tea concoction and ferried back.

 I’ve drooled before on this blog about the offerings at Kam’s Roast Goose- the cheap, IMG_9036Michelin-starred meat paradise in WanChai. Last trip I tried to take the folks there for dinner, but they were sold out, so this time I got in early. I waited about 45 minutes for seat, checking my place on the list only occasionally with the truly intimidating woman who runs the place (deep down I arrogantly assume she likes me, but I’m definitely wrong). As usual I was seated with others, this time a party of charming older ladies clearly celebrating, but demurely. I ordered a quarter of a goose, from the animal’s lower half- fattier and more expensive than the upper quadrants- and inhaled the whole dripping meaty mess. I was simultaneously proud of, and appalled at, myself. Ideally this would have been the time for a nap. But I had a gig to get to.

 Wiping the goose juice from my chin, I hustled back to my matchbox and suited up. The night’s venue was Peel Fresco- ostensibly a jazz club, and the only one in town, but really anything goes, the jazz posters on the walls thoroughly outnumbered by those of posturing rock gods. There’s no piano, so it’s electric keyboard all the way, and the house drum kit is a clapped out old rock setup desperately pleading for retirement. As a bar it’s great, with lovely people on staff, but a town of this size, with this much money deserves more than half a jazz venue. The gig was hooked up by my old mate Blaine- a killer alto player a year or two ahead of me on the Sydney scene in the old days; the band was all Aussie aside from our New York-born pianist, and we had a ball ripping through some classics. The crowd was friendly and engaged aside from one old bag who was loudly and drunkenly abusing a poor young lass at the next table. Eventually I entered bar-manager mode and charged over to give her an earful, in the process knocking a drink into the lap of the poor innocent woman who’d been receiving all the abuse, who then ran out in tears. I really must learn not to get involved.

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I had a nice late hang with the cats, my delirious jet lagged brain unable to grasp concepts like time, and impending flights, eventually stumbling back to the Mini for a refreshing four hour nap, then back to the airport. Next up, breathless in Beijing! 

Buffalo, Bia, and a Smelly Punch in the Face: Hanoi pt 1

At some point during my short flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi (ok it was immediately after take-off), I decided a cooling beverage was in order, so I cleared my throat pointedly in the direction of a passing attendant and inquired about the possibility of procuring a cold beer. Seconds later I was presented with a can of warm lager and a cup of ice. “Pardon me”, I ventured politely, “but what the fuck is this?” Fortunately by this time she was well down the plane, attending to another poor sucker- possibly providing him with a bag of wine and a spoon- and missed my impertinence. I closed my eyes, downed my beer on the rocks, and accepted that things were different here.

In his fine book, Down Under, Bill Bryson reflects that after flying as far as Australia from the US, he expects to find at least people on camels and swarthy men puffing on hookahs, when in fact he lands to find Sydney comfortable, clean and familiar. Arriving in Vietnam is quite the opposite, and one of the reasons I love visiting SE Asia: it’s really different. Within five minutes of leaving the airport I was passing fields being ploughed by water buffalo, shirtless rickshaw drivers leering toothlessly around their cigarettes, old men riding even older scooters while balancing impossible piles of building materials on their shoulders; all accompanied by my cab driver’s taste in Vietnamese trance. This joint is nothing like home.

It was only the most cursory glance at some travel websites that made me settle on Hanoi, and even less research to choose my neighbourhood, but boy did I do good. Half an hour from the airport, things started to get crowded and noisy; streets narrowing to a single lane, the noise of gunning motorbikes and shouting shopkeepers penetrating the disco daze. We slowed to a crawl as we got deeper into the Old Quarter, the streets thick with scooters and stall owners wheeling trolleys. And right in the middle of this was the Oriental Suites hotel. Brilliant.

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I saw this, but I borrowed this excellent photo from https://restlessabandon.com

Once checked in, I showered and set off for a look around. Pushing the hotel doors open and passing from my hushed air-conditioned haven back out into the outrageous cacophony of the old quarter took some real adjustment. In fact this happened every time I left the hotel- the sudden onslaught of intense humanity was like a punch in the face. The noise, the colours, the smells (fish sauce, gasoline, dog shit), the stifling humidity– it’s quite intimidating. But the only way to do it is confidently, otherwise you’ll be crushed. Probably by a Honda.

I’d been told about a northern Viet tradition called Bia Hoi (the discovery that the word for beer is “bia” immediately doubled my vocabulary), and that I needed to check it out. On street corners throughout the Old Quarter, low plastic stools are set out on the street, and (almost exclusively) men sit around and get plastered on cheap local beer. This stuff is brewed in the morning, delivered in the afternoon, and whatever’s left at closing time is dumped. In the corner of every Bia Hoi joint, an old bloke sits with his thumb over the end of a length of garden hose attached to a keg, and fills glasses all night. As soon as you park yourself, a beer magically appears in front of you, and they keep coming until you say stop, or fall over.

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Old bloke in training. Via http://yolotrautz.blogspot.com

I realised that the spot I’d picked was really just a drinking room: the keg was in the bar across the street. And one young fellow’s job all night was to carry armfuls of beer from one place to the other, weaving and dodging his way through an endless phalanx of kamikaze motorcyclists. It was better than TV. And the price? 40 cents a beer. It’s not the best beer I’ve ever drunk, but it was cold, the weather was stinking hot, and at that moment it was ambrosia. They also serve food at these joints- snacks to help with the drinking, really- but often very good. I gave my usual performance of gesturing helplessly at plates on neighbouring tables, and ended up with some kind of fish cakes which were salty and spicy and bloody delicious. Bia Hoi is a great way to start your evening: a little appetiser and a dozen beers, and you’re all set for a good night.

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Fish cakes, bia, and the ubiquitous fish sauce/lime/chilli combo

 

In Part 2: Ghost turtles and the murder of Glenn Miller

Marinated Intestines and an Offering to the Gods of Smooth Jazz: Hong Kong

I was supposed to write this weeks ago. I was just back from an amazing time in Asia- 10 days of pop stardom in Hong Kong, followed by three days of gallivanting anonymously around Hanoi- and I thought you needed to read some more of my garbled disorganised travel stories. And then Bourdain went and died, and that really put me on the back foot. I’m not going to gush about him- people have been doing that ever since, and way better than I could. But I will say that the big guy was an important presence in my life- his attitudes to food and travel, the way he experienced other cultures, definitely informed my own approach. And he was never on my mind more than when traveling in Asia. So after two weeks of him peeking over my shoulder, silently judging my restaurant choices, the news of his death was a nasty jolt. I guess it would have been anyway. Fortunately his ideas are not going anywhere, and I’ll continue to heed his words when hitting the road. But enough of that- let’s get bonkers in Honkers.

The nice thing about this trip was that, after a half dozen visits to Hong Kong, I’ve seen a lot already. I didn’t feel that panic to get out and do, see, and eat, everything. I know where to go to get my roast goose fix; I’ve eaten my own weight in dumplings and noodles at the places the foodie websites told me about; I kinda feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the joint. And this time I had the parental unit in town for a few days, so I got to play the expert.

This was my fourth tour of duty with the Bianca Wu band (or the New York Jazz Cats as we’re officially titled- please don’t tell anyone). Bianca is a renowned pop singer in Hong Kong, and likes nothing better than to come to New York, record an album, then fly the whole 9-piece band down for a gig or two. Musically, it’s pretty far from what I usually do, and I can’t say I listen to much Cantonese pop in my downtime, but the band is ace, Bianca and her crew are lovely, and it’s fun to be a part of a big pop show playing to thousands of people.

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This was the biggest show to date, with dancers, light shows, giant video screens, a moving stage– lots of intricate parts to be connected, requiring an enormous amount of precision work done by a large group of very talented people. Fortunately none of this involved me. For real, sometimes it’s sweet being the sax guy. Honk my way through the half of the show with horn parts, rip out an occasional 8-bar smooth jazz solo, then take a seat and watch the dancers. My mates Art and Dan (piano and drums) carry most of the show while I sit back and try to look cool for the cameras. Life just ain’t fair.

IMG_7889Before the first show, the entire outfit converged on the parking lot for a good luck ceremony. This involved our star Bianca and various associated bigwigs performing a complicated series of manoeuvres around some large smouldering incense sticks and sheets of burning paper. Nobody seemed able, or inclined, to explain to me what was going on, but I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention anyway, being occupied as I was in staring lasciviously at the ceremonial centrepiece: a glistening whole suckling pig. I dutifully did my bit- held some burning sticks, said some words I didn’t understand, all the while elbowing my way artfully through a group of people all considerably smaller than me, to be first in line for the blessed pork. A master carver hacked his way deftly through the porcine offering and handed me my dripping pile of ears, skin, and tongue. I scurried over to a corner and scoffed the lot, calm in the knowledge that least I didn’t have to worry about playing well: the fate of my performance was no longer in my own greasy hands, but in those of some Chinese deity. That night’s insipid smooth-jazz licks were positively divine.

At midnight one night after a particularly long, late rehearsal (Mum: haven’t you got it right yet??), Dan and I got back to the hotel starving. The helpful hotel staff suggested that the only things open would be around the train station. I’m not sure about you, but experience tells me food gets worse the closer it gets to public transport. But with little choice, we set off. And sure enough, once we crossed the tracks, we entered a magical make-believe world of kickass 24-hour restaurants. We walked along a winding, bustling street with noodle joints, dumpling spots, roast meat emporia, each more tempting that the last, and all open and overflowing with happy, partying locals. Of course we decided food could wait and headed for a bar.

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The Hong Kongers don’t really go in for bars the way I know them. They like to drink beer in restaurants, or cocktails in uber-fancy dens hidden inside office buildings. So when you find a good old fashioned dive, you make the most of it. This joint was packed with smiley locals, getting hammered and playing indecipherable bar games. Shortly after we took our seats at the bar, an unconscious patron was dragged past us. My kind of place. We chatted with some friendly folk and downed a few aperitifs, before stumbling back out to find the restaurant on which we’d settled. A big bowl of steaming spicy broth, with some noodles, meat, and veggies, slurped down in an over-lit, crowded, humid, family-run joint, with nothing but open doors and giant fans to combat the intense heat, may be one of my favourite experiences ever; and throughout Asia you can replicate it over and over. This place had marinated pig intestines in at least half their menu items, so I figured that was the way to go. Bloody good it was too.

After Cantopopping our way through the last show, most of the band headed back to NY, but Dan and I decided to hang out for a couple of days. I really needed to unwind after the several notes I’d played that week. We stayed in a part of town which I believe is called Dried Seafood Street, or if it’s not, should be. I spent the days gaping at displays of desiccated denizens of the deep, and nights drowning in noodles and beer. It was a brilliant way to tie off another visit to one of my favourite towns, before hopping it over to Vietnam. About which I’ll tell you next time. Righto.

Opium, noodles, and a near execution: Bangkok

As we waited at the baggage carousel, I could feel the panic rising. My pulse was racing, and no amount of delicate dabbing could prevent the beads of sweat forming on my brow. I burped quietly: cabbage. I looked around furtively, but no one was paying me any attention. Even more furtively: still nothing. Maybe we’d be ok. Maybe the rumours were exaggerated. Maybe Thai customs wouldn’t find the illicit drugs I definitely wasn’t carrying and sentence me to an horrific death. I tried to keep my hands steady as I gripped my bags, but they were coated in sweat, presumably the baggage handlers’. Keeping my eyes down, I headed for the green “nothing to declare” line. My breathing was shallow and ragged; my mind was racing out of control; my hair was simply a disaster. If they noticed the panic radiating out of every pore, I knew I was a goner. But wait- there was nobody there. Not one customs officer. Not one sniffer dog. Maybe they were waiting beyond the exit doors. Not there either. Was it possible? Had I made it? Had I just passed through the most famously strict, death-penalising, border crossing in the world, carrying absolutely nothing illegal, nothing even remotely frowned-upon, without being stopped? I exhaled deeply (cabbage again). I’d made it to Bangkok.

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Brotherly love

For the last two legs of the tour, I was traveling with my younger brother- let’s call him Tim. After all, our parents did. Our last sibling adventure had been seven years previous, when we’d whole-heartedly tolerated each other through Spain and Morocco, and this felt like a much-anticipated sequel. Like Garfield 2. Tim’s a top-shelf travel buddy, with a keen eye for food, and an ear for adventure. And he’d found us a cracking hotel.

Not a hotel at all, it was a two-storey apartment above a Spanish bar in Chinatown; a traditional “shop house”, where the original shopkeeper would have lived. Our hostess Pupe and her Spanish husband Victor had discovered the place derelict for twenty years, and restored it in original style, and it was just amazing. Bare plank walls and floors, winding, almost vertical flights of stairs, sliding wooden doors, glassless windows for airflow- when we walked in it felt like stepping back in time. The only thing missing was a local girl to prepare my opium pipe. And she showed up later (apparently she’d been caught in traffic- whatever, that’s points off on Trip Advisor). And a bar downstairs which was almost never open, and which we were asked to “keep an eye on”. What more could you want.

The neighbourhood too, was just what the doctor ordered- no modern hotel chains, no western restaurants, very few tourists. We investigated other parts of town, but the best times were spent wandering Chinatown’s chaotic noisy dirty streets, smoke-belching scooters missing us by inches, two rats for every half-tailed cat, the intense heat and humidity sticking the shirts to our backs. And the incredible food absolutely everywhere. Day and night, on every corner, down every alley, a family with a rusted metal cart whipping up curry or noodles with every animal part imaginable, all served with bunches of fresh herbs and chilies to burn your face off. We’d sit on low plastic stools on the sidewalk and inhale this stuff, alternating it with slugs from giant bottles of dirt-cheap local beer, gasping and sweating from the heat and sheer intensity of flavour. It was a stimulus overload, the only respite coming when we’d retreat to our dark and mercifully air-conditioned rooms for a nap.

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Curry in a hurry

Nights were a gas too, particularly the one coinciding with young Tim’s birthday. We started with cocktails by a canal, progressed to delicious laneway food (pork maw anyone?), several hazy hours in a blues club, (where, as I remember it, the band was terrific), then a second dinner of unidentifiable roadside deliciousness. I forgot to buy Tim a birthday present, but let’s not bring that up- I don’t think either of us remembers…

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Poisoning young minds

As I was technically in town to work, next day I hied out to the university for a clinic with some eager and talented youngsters and then a gig at the very cool Black Amber Social Club. The occasion was the 5th anniversary of Sweets- a record label that also presents occasional shows by visiting musicians. The rhythm section I was assigned performed manfully, and the crowd were polite yet responsive. I don’t get the feeling Thais have heard too much jazz, but they do like a good time, and they got right into it.

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At Black Amber Social Club

Next day we said ta ta to Pupe and left for the airport before the noodle shops opened, much to Tim’s chagrin. Bangkok is a hell of a town and I reckon both of us will be back for another dip in the near distant future. Next stop: Singapore!

Farm animals, a sex romp, and some un-Australian behaviour: Brisbane & Melbourne

I used to be Australian. Like, I was pretty good at it. I played cricket, I ate vegemite every morning, I made fun of Americans- I was an Aussie bloke. And above all, I knew how to act in a pub. I was more comfortable in a pub than in my own home. And the fact that my home is surprisingly uncomfortable doesn’t reduce the importance of that. But things have changed. Now I go into an Aussie pub and just stand there, mouth agape, like a child who’s accidentally wandered into a sex shop. The beers are all different, and suddenly American-style is a selling point. And they come in confusing sizes called pots and pints and schooners. And a schooner in one state is called a pot in another. And a pint can be fairly large or freaking enormous, depending on which end of the bar you order it from. And none of them is the size of beer I want. So you know what? Sometimes I put on an American accent. Because it’s less embarrassing to be an American than to be an Australian who doesn’t know how to order a beer.

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I tried this ploy in Brisbane, but my performance was interrupted by the explosive guffaws of Penny, one of my oldest friends, who I’d forgotten was standing right next to me. She wasn’t going to let me get away with that, and fair enough, I guess. I slunk away and let her do the ordering.

Beers in, we did a short sight-seeing drive through the streets of this famously sunny and friendly town, Penny helpfully pointing out various important landmarks, none of which penetrated the exhausted, befuddled, jet lagged fog that has inhabited my brain for the last few weeks. She dropped me at my hotel, where I checked in to the biggest room I’ve ever seen. The front-desk staff were extraordinarily friendly, and had cheerfully given me an upgrade without my asking. Maybe that’s just how people in Brisbane are, and I’ve been a cynical New Yorker for too long, but I found that deeply suspicious. If I find out I was drugged and made to perform in some kind of low-rent hotel room sex romp, I won’t be surprised. Neither should you when the video surfaces online. I mean if. Remember: drugged.

The gig was at a club that’s part of the Jazz Music Institute, and is essentially a bar with classrooms attached to it. The green room had a whiteboard in it. The institute had provided me with a couple of senior students for the gig, and even though I admit to being mildly concerned at their wide eyes and relentless bloody optimism, my fears were allayed by the end of the first tune. They dealt with whatever I threw at them, and put on a fine show. We topped the night off at a jam session at the other jazz club in town, which is brand new and feels a bit like an airport food court, but was populated with talented young musicians and drunk patrons, and what more can you ask for in a night out.

Early next morning it was off to Melbourne. Consistently voted the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne has a long-standing, and largely imaginary, rivalry with my home town, Sydney. Melbourne is known for its healthy arts scene, and they’ve always had an active and widely-supported jazz community. That’s all well and good, but my cousin is a top notch chef, and runs one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, and between you and me, that’s why I was there. A gang of family took over a corner of the restaurant and wolfed down a succession of minutely planned, expertly executed, perfectly plated delights, while being charmed by the knowledgeable and professional, yet friendly staff. There was a guy who just did cheese. CHEESE! I had the pigeon followed by the pig- a bucolic scenario if ever I’ve eaten one. The restaurant is called Cutler & Co., in Fitzroy. Eat there!!

Sunday night, and the ostensible reason for my visit- a gig at the relatively new JazzLab. Opened by the owner of famed Melbourne jazz club, Bennett’s Lane, it’s a very handsomely appointed club with a great feel. Andrew Dickeson flew down from Sydney to play drums with me, along with ace trumpeter Mat Jodrell (whom I know from his frequent NY visits), and new friend Ben Robertson on bass. A very healthy crowd, dotted with some very welcome faces from my distant past, and various wonderful, and dutifully enthusiastic, family members, made for a smooth first landing in Melbourne. Next morning, off to Bangkok, where shit is probably going to be…different…

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