A fisherman on the far eastern edge of East Timor. Read about his community in This Way More Better.
Dates are very important. Every writer knows this. Every writer I know waits and worries, frets and fusses in a mixed-bag roller-coaster of celebrated anticipation of THE DATE on which her book is published. We want it—but what will the critics say? We can’t wait—but what will it look like? Will it have all of its parts in order? Will it live a long and healthy life? We mark our calendar and make room in our house (and life) for the new arrival. We count the days. I have never given birth, but I imagine the pre-publication period is a bit—just a little bit, maybe—like pregnancy, complete with cravings.
Well, consider this my formal announcement of twins. I have two book babies due in the next nine+ months, albeit on separate dates. (They’re both overdue, through my own fault and that of fate—but in the end, I think it’s better this way.)
You might recall my previous references to This Way More Better, a collection of travel essays spanning 10 countries and a dozen years. That one’s set to pop out on March 13. The other, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, is scheduled for June 13. Lucky 13s. You can read more about both here.
And with that, I’ll give you a little teaser to This Way More Better, and its journeys from…
to Sri Lanka…
to Thailand and beyond.
Are you hungry? Here’s a little snippet from a seaside place in southern Thailand called Krabi, where those waters pictured above have fed 40,000 years of humanity. I spent many delicious days on two separate trips eating my way around the province. Here’s a taste.
I feel the silence even before I taste the salt-thick air. It’s the absence of noise, in a land flush with ruckus, that hits me first.
“So, what do you expect?” Mr. Bee asks. “Maybe quiet?”
He fetches the key to my private seaside bungalow and describes the local tempo. “Around here, there is nothing.”
Here is Had Yao beach, a lone stretch of shell-cluttered sand along the Andaman Coast used sparingly by Muslim fishermen, who were the area’s lone residents until a few upscale resorts opened their doors. It’s still quiet, still full of nothing. Limestone karsts flank the horizon. They tell a phenomenal geological story of the collision between the Indian Subcontinent and Eurasia some 50 million years ago. That massive tectonic upheaval wrought crags and caves that form southern Thailand’s landscape today. Harness-clad travelers flock to Krabi with ropes and carabiners and a yen to climb. I come instead for sea and sand, and food that has fed up to forty thousand years of people.
Most visitors never see beyond the area’s few popular beaches, but this province spreads across ancient rainforests and unruffled shores. I take a walk. The clouds, the sea, the sand all shimmer in the same slate gray. A family loads a Styrofoam cooler with little fish and crabs. Villagers graze the water, chest-deep in waves. Dinner is nigh.
I love the hour when sunlight turns to butter cream. Employees prepare the evening tables, light glinting off pink-shirted backs. Sometimes the setting surpasses the menu—eight modest tables in the sand, a mild breeze, flickering candles, and flapping palms. It’s one of those tropical nights when the temperature of skin and air harmonize as though two notes to a consonant song. I order a whole red snapper with a bed of crispy fried garlic and a sprinkle of black pepper. My seafood salad comes with a tangy lime sauce atop perfectly squeaky squid rings, celery leaves, onion, and red bell pepper. Nothing extraordinary, but everything lovely.
Extraordinary lies up the road several miles, past rubber trees and oil palms, in a smattering of village cafés with stainless steel bins and recipes made to feed lunch crowds. No signs, just a shack with plastic chairs and collapsible tables. No menu, just a finger point and a nod to the vendors. The women behind these tables wear simple knit hats denoting their religion, Islam, which is an attribute that distinguishes this region’s food and customs. Wander a beach at sunset, and you’ll hear the Muslim call to prayer. Walk the streets, and you’ll meet more goats than dogs. Cultural roots tend toward Malaysia, and kitchen habits hail from India.
I stop at a stall beside a neighborhood market, where I order gaeng som, a classic southern fish curry, hot and sour, as vivid as pumpkin; and a dollop of sweet-savory roasted coconut with lemongrass and curry. It’s a spice combination that places me somewhere in the hills of Sri Lanka. Fresh cucumber slices, raw cabbage, and a bitter, pungent leaf accompany my lunch. “Pah ohm,” a couple of fellow diners say in unison. They roll the supple leaf between their fingers, sniff it, then wrap it around a bite of coconut for an even keel of salty, bitter, sweet.
Farther up the road, in the heart of Krabi Town, I find sidewalk food beside the entrance to a dermatology clinic. A waiting patient sees me eyeing the offerings, and she insists on helping me choose. “Papaya,” she says, then wrinkles her nose. “Oooh, but spicy.” Locals almost always assume the heat will offend a foreigner.
“Mai pen rai,” I say. No problem.
“Then give her the sauce!” she instructs the vendor. Spicy lemongrass and kaffir lime permeate tender, thick slices of papaya and tiny shrimp in a butternut squash-colored curry….
…. To be continued, March 13, 2013