Tag Archives: Travel

Part 1: getting there

I have a longer post or possible essay brewing about why it was such a big old deal for me to go overseas this winter. The short version is that in October I’d taken on the job of general manager for a restaurant in Los Angeles; a position which–like all restaurant management positions–demanded 98% of my energy and attention 100% of the time, whether I was at the restaurant or not. Transitioning from hourly to salaried in restaurant work is sort of like going from nannying to being a parent of a toddler. Only because the flights had been booked months earlier was I able to justify leaving for 7 days in the middle of January and I’d pulled serious strings to do so. By the time I boarded my flight to Tokyo on January 12, I’d not had a day away from the restaurant since Christmas Day.

I took off from LAX on Sunday morning, flew for 12 or 13 hours, and landed at Haneda on Monday afternoon. Knowing that this was a work trip, I decided my actual “vacation” would be the flight over and was determined to enjoy it. Twelve glorious hours to turn off my wifi, nap, listen to books and practice my Hiragana. I had gone to Daiso to get comfy slipper socks and a neck pillow, and stocked up on bourgie snack foods the night before.

A "Welcome to Tokyo 2020" poster
Simpler times, like when we did things like plan Olympic games

To my surprise and delight, this coach LA-Tokyo flight included 3 very respectable meals and an individual seat-welcoming package of slippers, blanket, pillow, and extra headphones. After eighteen days of straight stress-nightmare-inducing restaurant labor, this was the goddam height of luxury in a 17-inch-wide airplane seat. I felt like a baller in my un-reclined middle seat, if only because I wasn’t standing at the pass in the kitchen yelling for the next order.

My feelings about Japan and Japanese culture have conflicted and changed over the years. My brother and I used to stay up late at our parents’ house cheering along to samurai movies on cable, and of course in recent months I’d become enmeshed in a society of Japanese sake lovers in Los Angeles. It’s a culinary culture I admire for its precision, depth, and commitment to quality. However, there is something creepy about Americans who are, like, really into Japanese pop culture, for what feels like the wrong reasons. Japanophilia exists in an uncomfortable borderland of fandom, admiration, appropriation, and fetishization and I wanted to be on the right side of it.

Aside from all that, as a large, ungraceful westerner with less-than-great attention to detail, the stereotype of a culture defined by precision and perfectionism made me itchy.

Holding my insecurities and my travel anxiety inside like an air bubble in my belly, I disembarked. I’d come with what I thought was a really cool but not particularly practical carry on bag. I’d packed outfits with sensible cold-weather staples that I thought would be casual yet professional, and sleepwear I didn’t mind throwing away to make room for all the sake I was going to bring back.

Photo of a stiff leather carry on bag.
Cool but impractical handmade bucket bag I got at a sample sale. Compliments welcome to offset back pain.

Let’s go: I landed in Tokyo. I had the evening to get my bearings. I’d been practicing phrases on my Japanese! app and the audiobook I’d borrowed from the LAPL and gotten about halfway through. I was medium confident I could order a drink, ask where the restrooms were. I attempted to take out my entire trip budget from the 7-11 airport ATM as I’d read these were more likely to connect with international bank accounts, and also that it was important to have cash on hand.

After three failed withdrawal attempts and a google search, I realized I’d misplaced the decimal point in my exchange rate calculations and was asking the 7-11 for roughly three times my net worth. A quick online conversation with the bank cleared things up and I was soon in the black again.

I pride myself on my public transit skills. Having lived in New York for ten years and ridden every single line on that spaghetti-looking map, I’ve confidently navigated Paris, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Boston with panache. I won’t say I could’ve made it from the airport to my hotel without a smart phone, but that I could do this without having to talk to a human being was a huge relief.

From my travel journal:

I’m grinning with the very excitement I was too young and numb to allow myself to feel in Paris ten years ago, when I was obsessed as appearing like a savvy local instead of a wide-eyed tourist. What a waste. We should all strive to have more wide eyed days.

According to Google I’d arrived on “coming of age day,” a bank holiday. The streets were pretty deserted, as were many of the restaurants. The hotel room was close and tidy and utterly comfortable. I considered just going to sleep, but rallied, put on some lipstick, and set out to walk the neighborhood. This lasted all of 10 minutes. Passing well-dressed couples with small children walking, students, trying to remember what I’d read about escalator etiquette and stay focused in search of food, I caved and turned around.

A quick stop in at the hotel bar met with a few blank stares from some bored looking bartenders. None of us were up for this. The jet lag tugged on me. Not even the promise of affordable superior quality whisky could keep me out. I wanted to eat, but I didn’t want to talk. Malaise, hard. I remembered part of my aversion to travel was how much energy it takes to engage socially in any language. Fatigue brought a need to dive for cover like a prey animal.

Thank the gods for totally adequate in-flight meals. Not all that hungry, I stopped at one of those famous vending machine stations on my hotel floor. With my newly withdrawn Yen I took out two lagers and a can of tomato juice to go with my stash of bison and venison jerky, Cliff bars, Lara bars. I got into my pajamas and ate on the bed. I’m not sure how this is, etiquette wise; pause was given. I was supposed to be making the most of a rare opportunity and all. But whatever, there I was in my “western style” hotel room acting like a western girl and in bed by 8:30. Authenticity could happen tomorrow.

A vending machine full of beer cans
Dinner is served.
Suntory brand tomato juice. Ready to increase some lycopene, snitches.

Intro: about that Japan trip

Back in January, the inimitable Sake Samurais Nakamura Etsuko and Eoka Mika took myself and a small gang of international writers, wine experts, and yes, influencers around to sake breweries in Aomori and and Iwate prefectures over four days in the middle of brewing season. This region is known mostly for farms, fish, and forests, though it’s not as glamorously outdoorsy as its northern neighbor Hokkaido–think Maine as opposed to Colorado or Alaska. The cities are small and entrenched in local traditions. There is a lot of sake and sake making history. It was a life-changer, but that definitely has a lot to do with the life I’ve been living this year.

My blogside take on this has a lot to do with sake, but also a lot to do with travel, work, the hospitality industry, and what it might mean to be a media person. It’s taken some time to parse. There has been no blogging this year because it’s hard to report on a sea-change when you’re in the middle of it. The shift isn’t over for me, but at least I have something fun and interesting to talk about in the meantime.

Going to start this off with a photo of sandwiches I purchased in Haneda airport. Because the number-1 lesson I took from this trip is that all of the food in Japan is good. Even convenience food, even the food that elsewhere is made with the least amount of investment and attention because, as Stringer Bell would say, it is an inelastic product and the consumers have no other choice. Somehow, still, even in the airport, food is a delight and a comfort.

Kastu and omelet sandwich from Haneda. Comfort and delight.

No One Really Loves Traveling

If you’ve ever online dated or read the interests section on a resume, it might seem like we are a nation of wanderers. You know: I love movies, sports, traveling.

I always felt alienated by this because I hate traveling. I love being new places, seeing cool stuff and learning how other people live, but the process of getting there–the actual TRAVEL part–fills me with dread. Planes are claustrophobia-inducing. I have severe packing anxiety. Hotels make me feel like I’m in the beginning of a slasher film, and I can never sleep thinking about how many other bodies have shed their skin cells on those mattresses (you’re welcome).

Which leads me to think everyone else is a liar.

No one likes flying, except maybe prop plane pilots. They seem like they’re having fun.

No one likes waiting in line for tickets, for bathrooms, for transport.

Sure, it’s nice when you get there. But I really think people ought to be more specific.

No one actually likes to travel. What we like is arriving.

Just sayin.

 

Randomized List of This Year and Last

I would start with how much I dislike end-of-year roundups of things, but that belies how much time I spend reading them. I like to be reminded of things periodically, like slightly out-of-date fashions and mildly memorable pop songs, just to reassure me that time is passing at the same rate as usual and not in a Van Winkle-esque jump/cut.

But I really hate ranking things. Having to assign a better/worse value to a group of items gives me anxiety, as I’ll never know if I’ll feel differently about it later. So here’s an incomplete list of things from life in 2015, micro and macro, good and bad, in no particular order, without explanation.

  • pants
  • aged gouda
  • domestic and international terror
  • a bride
  • You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
  • vaccines
  • mood stabilizers
  • Nita Nita
  • climate crisis
  • Pendleton wool shirts
  • Teeling whiskey
  • dancing
  • Cascade Barrel House, Portland, OR
  • Blood, Bones, and Butter
  • gas leaks
  • farm distilling
  • The Painted Bunting
  • flapper-era haircuts
  • privilege
  • Girl at War
  • broccolini
  • grays
  • nonfiction workshops
  • a silver tabby kitten
  • a Hora like a mosh pit
  • Dansko clogs
  • trans-continental flights
  • Solvang, California
  • Sherry
  • Serial and Gimlet
  • moderation
  • hives
  • the Boston Globe
  • yeasts and molds
  • apple brandy
  • 12 parsecs
  • the restaurants of Lima, Peru
  • cilantro
  • My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
  • drought
  • a life size cardboard cutout of Bryan Cranston
  • the Grand Canyon
  • debt
  • Baijiu
  • liquid eyeliner
  • Infinite Jest
  • banana-free smoothies
  • leggings-as-pants acceptance
  • thousands of hand-carved ice balls
  • Sleater Kinney’s No Cities to Love
  • Pok Pok LA
  • a 12-hour farewell
  • used kitchen appliances
  • central AC
  • Punch
  • health insurance hikes
  • avoiding presidential campaign news, but still, the Bern
  • Malibu AVAs
  • gettin’ it together.

Happy New Year, y’all.

Lemme talk about pisco for a sec

We went to Lima last week. I’ll probably write something about it at some point, after I’ve had time to digest the last of the ceviche and the feelings and stuff. 

What I want to talk about now (for a change) is booze. [Obligatory food-and-drink-piece-meaningless-generalization]: Thanks to the cocktail resurgence of the past 15 years or so, people seem more than ever to be up to discovering new liquors. Gin is showing its boundless flavor possibilities, fruit and herb liquers are gaining traction, tequila and Irish whiskey have emerged from the ghetto of shooters with strong showings as delectable sipping and mixing spirits, mezcal has gone from scary-worm-booze to delightful artisanal tipple. It only makes sense that pisco, the unaged grape brandy that is the national spirit of TWO South American countries, would come on board. 

 

Some of the good stuff. Pisco puro quebrantas.

 

National Tresasure

Brazil has the caipirinha, Argentina has Fernet and coke, and Peru has the pisco sour.  Chile also has the pisco sour, although the spirit is different, and the drink recipe is different, and there is all this contention over who invented it, but you know what? I only went to Peru. And I prefer Peruvian pisco, it turns out. Peruvians are hard-asses about pisco production: it can only be made from eight types of grapes, it has to be made without adding any water, meaning it’s once distilled to proof. THIS MEANS that pisco from Peru is all grape juice; fermented into wine and then distilled ONE TIME into a clear eau-de-vie (or aguardientes) that lands…BOOM…into the bottle at around 80 proof. 

Think about it this way: vodka is generally distilled five times. This makes it the most neutral of neutral spirits, taking out all the “impurities” (aka things that impart flavor) through a shit-ton of boiling and condensing. Whiskey is distilled two or three times and aged in wood casks to add flavor and color (I like to think of brown spirits as wood-infused. In a good way.). Pisco gets one trip through the still, then rests in non-reactive containers. So all you’re tasting is the grapes and the yeast. Depending on the grapes used and the production style, it can be super clean and silky or it can be real fiery or flowery or funky. The best part about all these intense regulations is that by law, you can’t add a bunch of fillers or artificial crap into . Pisco is just pisco. 

So?

I mean, there is the uncontestable pisco sour. Persian limes (special limes), egg white for froth, a little sweetness, and the fiery aguardientes have been making this drink a bar staple since the 1800s. One of a few origin stories for the cocktail centers around the historic Hotel Bólivar in central Lima, which today makes a version with pisco macerated with coca leaves for a distinctly vodka-redbull-without-the sugar-headache tingly feeling. [NOTE: despite unrefined coca’s complete illegality in the US, I like to quote author Mark Adams from his  travel memoir Turn Right at Macchu Picchu on its potency: “coca leaves have about the same relationship to cocaine that Sudafed cold tablets have to crystal meth.” We were perked up, but nobody wanted to talk ecstatically to strangers and dance on tables all night. The leaves lent an herbal note to the sours that, combined with the silk of the eggwhites and the quebrantas burn, was exceedingly pleasant. 

 

Coca Sours at Bolivarcito in Lima – breakers of language barriers

 

 You can get a pisco sour just about anywhere that serves alcohol. We had one at the coffee shop. We had one at the cevichería. We had one at the sushi resto and the club-y bar. The sour is frequently accompanied on menus by the Chilcano–a long drink with lime and ginger ale/beer over ice (mule style); and the Capitán, a short, stirred drink with sweet vermouth and bitters (Manhattan style).  However, having the privilege of drinking at some of Lima’s most interesting bars and restaurants, all I wanted was to see what the mixologists were up to. 

  

Clockwise from top left: Shilico from ámaZ, Tobaco y Chanel and Capitán Cacao from La Barra, pisco puro (neat) from the very puzzled waiters at the sushi spot, Edo.

 

We went to Ámaz early on, which was good, because it was fantastic, but also bad, because I really had no idea how fantastic until I’d had some time to decompress. The Amazonian food menu has had people cooing for some time, but the bar has all the fixings to make a cocktail snob go all squishy with excitement. My selection: Shilico — Pisco, camu camu, bianco vermouth and Aperol. Translation, respectively: 1) the national spirit, 2) Amazonian berries, 3) the forgotten (and subtly tastiest) vermouth, 4) Campari’s more easy-going cousin. Boom. Pow. What. Up.  

At La Barra (the casual-ish arm of the sooo famous Astrid y Gastón) we had a twist on a capitán with punt-e-mes and creme de cacao (a liqueur that seems much more at home in South America), a gin and tonic with melting spun sugar and lavender ice cubes, and a rum drink with tropical fruit and honey served in a maté gourd with a metal straw and a side of burning pipe tobacco for el nariz. Fricken wonderland. 

Every other place we went, I kept trying to try new piscos, just for sipping–a habit that my Peruvian hosts found funny and a little worrisome. The neat pour does not seem as pervasive as it is stateside, but I’m thinking with the rise in popularity of satiny and aromatic mosto verdes, this might change. But what do I know. I was only there for a week. 

Yeah, but soooo?

Lima’s bartenders have shown that pisco is mixable in just about every way you can think. Long drinks, short drinks, infusions, flaming theatrical pieces.  They have the heritage and the raw materials. And with the investment-backed juggernaut of Pisco Portón pulling a Jameson on the marketing landscape, I have the feeling you’re going to see more and more pisco in US bars. Which is exciting. Because it’s an approachable white spirit that’s more interesting than vodka. Don’t argue with this. It is. 

So go drink some fricken pisco. Here are a couple I like that you can get in the US: 

Capurro – a legit Peruvian pisco available mostly (I believe, somebody correct me if this is wrong) as an acholado or blend. I like blends. It means somebody really took the time to think about how it should taste.

Campo de Encanto – Puro? check. Acholado? check. Multiple grape varietals? Indeed. This stuff is pretty sweet. 

Any other recs? LMK. 

On Hotels and Motels

[Attn: This is a post that I drafted while we were driving across the country to our new life here in LA. You know, like FIVE months ago. But like fine wine or Muppet movies, some things get better the longer you forget that you started them then discover them when you open your blog’s full desktop version for the first time since February. So, ahem…]

This looks legit.

In theory, I like to travel. I do love me a camping trip. However, when vacationing in civilization, the question of accommodation has always been sticky.  The whole hotel room thing gives me the heebie-jeebies, whether it’s the Motel 8 off Route 40 in Amarillo or the W in Manhattan.

No doubt the one end of this spectrum of fear stems back to one childhood vacation with my parents, who were partial to hauling the three of us kids (likely around six, eight, and ten years old, at the time) off on “educational” weekend trips to whatever low-budget colonial reenactment sites and sports halls of fame lay within driving distance. They way I remember it, we would drive until our parents got tired, then crash at the nearest hotel/motel with vacancy. No reservations, no booking websites, no screening reviews. This was the 80s and we were a young family on budget adventures.

One particular trip to Cooperstown or Amish country or whereever, all five of us stayed in one motel room that smelled like a cave and required us to share towels. My brother, already approaching six feet tall at ten years of age, stayed on a perilous wire cot contraption at the foot of the bed my sister and I shared. No one got much sleep and the halls of baseball history or whatever the next day were made claustrophobic with our crankiness. After we came home, it was discovered that we’d picked up scabies from the unwashed linens.

Most of the other family vacations I can remember involve renting cabins or sleeping in tents.

On the other end of the scale, there are the Radisons and Fancygams of the world that employ people just to stand around in case you need to flick a booger or something. Which, though I can see the theoretical appeal, make me very uncomfortable. Luxury hotels and fine dining restaurants feel like traditions founded to cater to folks who had servants at home, so they could enjoy the comforts to which they were accustomed, e.g., having people pick up after you, easy access to swimming pools and masseurs. To me, the modern luxury hotel feels like a trip to Downton Abbey, where you may rent a whole household staff by the night and push them around in a frenzy of fantasy power. You had valet parking as your chauffeurs, bellboys as your footmen, concierges as your  Carsons. Which, in theory, sounds kind of cool, I suppose, but honestly, I’ve always been more comfortable as staff than boss. Having other people in my personal space makes me squeamish, and having people offer to do things I could very easily do myself gives me a vague post-Catholic shame that ruins everything.  I can never, ever stop thinking about all the strangers who came to this VERY ROOM to have “exotic” sex with their spouses or mister/esses, and it grosses me out so much I want to sleep on top of the covers.

Continue reading

Wilder-ness!

Oh where have you been?? You may, possibly, or probably not been asking. Well I’ll tell you.

There's me head

 

I went to the Grand Canyon. For the second time. With my family. Because we go backpacking every year and my Dad is a bit obsessed with the ol’ Hole in the Ground.

In the spirit of helpfulness, here are my reflections for anyone looking to embark on similar endeavor for the first time.*

In telling a new person about your upcoming backpacking trip, be prepared for their raised eyebrows. I was well into my college years by the time I figured out this was not something normal people did, at least outside of the Boy/Girl Scouts. Regular people go on vacation to lie on a beach, ride roller coasters, take awkward photos in semi-foreign cities or boring historical sites. But my father put the bug into us all very young with the wilderness vacations; 4 days every year in the Adirondacks at 8-10 years old, a week in the White Mountains in Junior High and the grand poobah trips to Yosemite, the Olympics and the Grand Canyon after high school graduation, when we were old enough to know that whining is embarrassing.

Whether you are raised to it, trying it for a lark or to prove our hippie credentials, be prepared for the following questions:

1. You’re not going to shower for 5 days? Like, not at all? (No, but there’s a river…)
2. Aren’t there wild animals out there? (Only ravens. Oh, and rattlesnakes. And maybe grizzly bears…)
3. So are there, like, bathrooms along the trail? (Umm…)

This last question should be handled with utmost delicacy if you are talking to your coworkers or someone you are trying to date. Some camp sites have outhouses. So you might want to tell your acquaintances about the privies and keep the real truth to yourself, so that they don’t carry with them the image of you digging a hole to squat over for the rest of the week.

Herein lies the least glamorous part of the wilderness adventure. The part they leave out of the epic novels you read as a child. Gandalf never, ever turns to the rest of the Fellowship to say “Boromir, can I have the trowel and toilet paper? I knew you were using it last. You guys keep on, I’ll catch up.” Another reason why you might not want to take the trip with people you are trying to impress.

On the flip side, one of the best things about being in nature is it does not matter if you fart, since so many things in nature already smell like fart. Additionally it is nice that you do not need to pay for anything since there are no stores in the wilderness. This is especially true if, like me, you are chronically unable to plan your own vacations and always wind up tagging along with your Dad. Then you may not have to pay for anything from the moment you get off the plane. (Yay for Dads!)

Dehydrated dinners are practical for keeping the weight of your pack downe. When shopping for your food provisions, please remember that while some dishes, like, say “Kathmandu Curry” or “Santa Fe Chicken and Rice” might sound appetizing on the labels, they are likely to rehydrate into “brown mush” or “orange mush (with lentils).” I suggest keeping it simple and staying away from geographically-specific dishes.

On the flip side, oatmeal never tasted so good as when you are ravenous and drinking iodinized river water.

Finally, be aware that without your phone, texting, emails, makeup, mirrors, headphones, tv, annoying strangers or anyone outside of your party to distract you, the truth of your smelly humanity and the real contents of your brain can get right up in your freaking face. And that can be difficult. But ultimately, between the silence and the vastness and the stink, I’m delighted to be there. Very weird.

But then again, nobody said we were normal people.

*Seasoned travelers, feel free to poke holes in my above statements all you want**. This schpiel specifically applies to short-term hiking jaunts in national parks; not sustained backpacking around, say, continents. I’ve actually never ventured to do that, because while I have no problem digging a hole to poo in in the middle of nowhere, I have a chronic fear of public showers, and other people in general.

**…On your own blogs.