Tag Archives: food

Things as They Ought to Be

It’s noticeable as soon as you disembark the train from Tokyo. Things just look a little different. Everyone’s shirt is not fully tucked in. People are a little rounder and some are a few weeks past due for a haircut. There is litter on the street. Not a lot, but after the scrubbed streets of Kyoto and Tokyo, it is visible. A couple of older guys stand under the “No Smoking” signs, sharing a story and puffing away. Both have on baseball hats and looked like they didn’t spend a lot of time choosing their wardrobe today. The smell of fried food drifts from somewhere nearby. People tend to wander, or maybe just walk with a little less purpose here. Voices are a little louder and everyone doesn’t stay in line. It’s immediately clear you have arrived in a different part of Japan. Welcome to Osaka.

 

 

 

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Osaka Castle

 

 

We struggled to choose a 3rd city for our visit to Japan. Kyoto had been an obvious choice. History, culture and sophistication. Tokyo was an easy decision. Modern, stylish and fast paced. We thought about something to the north or in the green countryside. Maybe something in the southern islands. Our budget is pretty tight and we were feeling pinched after rent, food and transportation. We really needed to find a place that had a lot to do, good transportation and wouldn’t require too many moves.

 

 

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Dotonbori

We had begun our travels in Japan at Osaka’s huge Kansai Airport a couple of months earlier. Normally we are one way travelers, but this time had chosen a round trip from San Francisco. So eventually we were going back to Osaka. Perhaps we could locate ourselves in Osaka and save some time and money on connections later in the month. Could we find enough to keep us occupied for a whole month?

 
Osaka is known for two things in Japan. Business and food. A common greeting in Osaka is “Have you made any money today”?. Even in a country as obsessed with food as Japan, Osaka stands out as being a mecca for foodies. It is said that while a person from Tokyo will spend his last dollar on fashion, a person from Osaka will always opt for food. One restaurants motto is “Eat until you are bankrupt!”. Maybe this explained the slightly expanded beltlines that we noticed upon arrival.

 

 

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Osaka Castle

Our apartment was once again very small, but well located in the Namba area. Close to transportation and with a nice view from the 11th floor balcony, the apartment offered everything we needed, although without many luxuries. It was bright and clean and the simple furnishings had been recently upgraded. It was perfect and proved to be everything we needed for a comfortable stay.

 
Best of all, we were just a few minutes walk from the famous tourist area of Dotonbori and visited it often during our stay. Dotonbori is a neighborhood that stretches for about 8 blocks along the Dotonbori Canal in the Minami area of town. People have come here for hundreds of years and the area is so famous throughout Japan that it has produced some iconic images. During the day it is packed by shoppers and tourists buying souvenirs and eating any variety of foods, many cooked right on the street. At night the area really comes alive after the sun goes down and the lights come up.

 

 

 

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Shinsekai

Filled with huge neon billboards, music, smells of fried food and blinking lights the area is reminiscent of a beachside boardwalk tourist area that provides anything to amuse a visitor. Wall dragons, giant moving crabs, huge illuminated puffer fish and a famous mechanical drumming clown called Kuidaore Taro have become iconic symbols of the city. Kuidaore was a mascot for a popular restaurant and generations of Japanese built family memories posing for photos in front of the clown. The restaurant is no longer open but Kuidaore has a special place in the center of the strip where all visitors must continue traditions and pause for a group photo.

 

 

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Kuidaore Taro

Probably the most favorite street food here is called Takoyaki. Basically a golf ball sized pancake made from batter formed in a special rounded pan, this theatrically cooked street food is enjoyed by nearly everyone and is hard to pass by without sampling more than once. Tako (octopus) and tempura bits are added to the ball as it is being cooked. Once golden and rounded, a special sauce and mayonnaise are drizzled over the top and dried bonito is sprinkled on top to give a nice crunch. By description they may not appeal,, but they are actually delicious, cheap and very addictive.
The entire area was completely destroyed during World War II but has returned bigger and brighter than ever. Perhaps our favorite area to stroll were among the tiny alleys just south of the main street of Dotonbori. The alleys are lined with tiny restaurants and bars that provide a glimpse of the area when it was a theatre district long ago. The tiniest alley of all has a street museum which uniquely gives a feeling of what life was like here before the bright lights of modern times. A small shrine is hidden amongst the alleys and provides a moment of solitude amongst the commotion not far away. Visitors throw water over a statue at the shrine so often that it is now covered with moss and is quite beautiful.

 

 

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Shinsekai

A few blocks from our house was perhaps the best street market in Osaka. Kuromon Market is a seafood lovers paradise. If it is found in the ocean and can be eaten, you can find it here. Scallops, shrimp, sea urchins, eel and every type of fish imaginable can be had. Many shops will grill your selections to order over charcoal fires or in a sizzling wok. While the seafood markets are king, beautiful cuts of Kobe (Wagyu) beef can be had along with some of the most spectacular fruits and vegetables imaginable. While visitors can be found, patrons are mostly local and give the market an authentic feel that was fun to share during our nearly daily visits. The market runs many blocks and with a more robust budget we probably would never had eaten anywhere else in town.

 
Osaka’s malls are not to be outdone on the food front either. Unless someone was starving, I don’t think I would ever recommend eating in a mall food court. Not so in Osaka. Every major department store has a basement food areas that are must see attractions for any visitor. Prepared foods are wonderfully displayed in glass cases. Both savory and sweet flavors are equally catered to,, but deserts perhaps draw the most attention. Beautifully prepared and packaged, the sweets are designed to appeal as much visually as they are to a persons sweet tooth. Every shiny color in the rainbow is found in the assortments of gorgeous preparations. A massive gourmet food market will usually be found on the lowest basement floor of each store. Here is where you will find the best of Japan’s bountiful ingredients. We always made time to gawk at the perfect melons, peaches and grapes that have to be the finest examples of agricultural goodness anywhere. The perfectly formed produce has incredible prices that precluded us from sampling with anything but our eyes. I don’t know who would pay 50 dollars US for a cantaloupe or 25 dollars for a bunch of grapes or a set of 3 peaches but just the thought of sampling some of these always left our mouth watering.

 

 

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Namba Parks Mall

The convenient transportation connections near our house made it very easy to make our way around town. We visited the waterfront area of Osaka’s massive harbor. We found giant Ferris wheels, more malls and a world renowned aquarium. The area was especially gorgeous at sunset.

 

 

 

 

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Todai-ji Temple- Nara

 

 

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Nara Deer

 

 

We also had easy access by train to enjoy areas outside of town. We made an easy day trip to Japan’s first capital of Nara less than an hour away. Known for its World Heritage site temples and free ranging deer, Nara could have easily filled more than the one day we had to visit. We even had an opportunity to see a unique dragon boat festival on a lantern decorated lake that entertained thousands of attendees with costumes, music, food and intricately designed boats floating slowly on a mist covered lake.

 

 

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Dotonbori

Back in Osaka, a last area that we enjoyed was called Shinsekai. Shinsekai means New World in Japanese and was an area that was designed in the early 1900’s to represent the new modern world that Japan and Osaka were to become. Designed to be resemble parts of New York combined with parts of Paris, the neighborhood spreads around the massive central Tsutenkaku Tower and is adjacent to the city zoo and the large Tennoji park.

 
The area presents a slightly run down carnival like atmosphere of glitzy and gaudy signage. Rickshaw runners provide visitors with tours of the streets that are filled with restaurants, gaming parlors and brightly lit amusements. While here we learned the story of Billiken, the golden colored mascot of the area. Billiken was originally found outside an amusement park that was located in the area. While the park only lasted for 11 years, Billiken has remained as a symbol of the area and perhaps has been adopted by the whole city.

 

 

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Shinsekai

Billiken is large, golden and has a impish smile on his baby like face. His likeness is found throughout town and quite noticeable everywhere. Around the base of his statue is the motto “The God of Life as it Ought to Be”. He has a look of someone who enjoys life and knows that life is meant to be lived with enthusiasm, enjoyment and perhaps a little less conformity.

 

 

 

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Osaka Streets

We thought that Billiken was the perfect symbol to represent our visit to Osaka. We found a city where hard work has built a modern economic powerhouse where everything once was a ruin. However, it appears that while Osakans believe in focused labor and aggressively chase a rich industrial future, they have not forgotten that life is meant to be enjoyed. Fun, food and a little less formality are obvious everywhere and made this unique city a perfect place to conclude our travels throughout Japan.

 

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Osaka Mechanical Crab

 

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Choosing Sides in Jerusalem

Throughout my travel life I have always felt that it was important to maintain, as best as possible, an observational attitude towards the places I have visited. I don’t feel it is my place to interject my personal feelings towards the customs, culture or political and religious climate of the places I have chosen to visit. After all, I think one of the wonders of travel is seeing things that are different from your own world. It is what makes travel such a rewarding thing for me. Most travelers would agree that the world is becoming too generic. Inserting your own beliefs or customs can only alter the local culture and contribute to global sameness.

I say observational and not objective because it is not always possible to be objective. I know that some things are wrong. I have seen poverty, racism, class division and a host of other things that were uncomfortable to observe and at times outright offensive personally. I think that most people have an ingrained desire to help others that they perceive as less fortunate or treated unfairly. I understand the desire to help children or animals or anyone that is a natural underdog. However it is my belief that at some point you are practicing activism, not tourism. I often have to remind myself that I am an outsider and because I do not have to live with results of the actions that are taken in a place I am visiting, perhaps I should not interject my opinions.

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Damascus Gate

 

At the same time I have always had trouble with tourism that alters the reality of a place so that we don’t have to see what is really happening. It seems to take away the general purpose of travelling. I’m not sure that living in a gated community or staying in some fenced off all-inclusive resort that does its best to hide the reality of an area serves a visitor well. Frolicking in some white sand Margaritaville that was created solely based on some Disneyesque version of reality is not for me either. It is true there is an Eiffel tower in Las Vegas. It is attractive and fun to see, but you can’t be confused that it is the true item. I do understand that suspending reality for a few days could be seen as just taking a break from your normal routine. I enjoy a few nights disguised as a high roller in Vegas or a couple of nights of room service in an enchanted palace-like hotel pretending to be a Raj era sultan as much as anyone.

I find that by attempting to remain observational you often begin to see an issue from both sides. It has served me well and has created learning experiences from some unpleasant situations. It helped us get through and not feel overwhelmingly frightened in our last few days in Istanbul. We were involved in a tear gas incident near Taksim Square during a protest. A major suicide bomb attack that killed several German tourists happened literally 20 feet from a bench we had lunch on just a week before. I understood a good number of the reasons these things occurred which made them easier to comprehend. I still found them unpleasant and regrettable but because I understood the situation, these experiences gave me a unique opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Because I stayed observational, I was better able to control the fear and panic that might have overwhelmed me otherwise.

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Mount of Olives

 

We arrived in our new city of Jerusalem after an adventurous, but short journey from Istanbul. Security was strong in Istanbul but even more so at the Tel Aviv airport. Guns are displayed everywhere in the airport. The wall that separates the Palestinian Territories from Israel is clearly visible along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Much of the conversation between the tourists in the shared taxi (called a Sherut) was about the recent increase in terrorist attacks throughout Israel. I was well aware of ongoing troubles in Israel but, to be honest, I was not familiar with the recent stabbings of Israelis that have taken place almost daily in the last few months.

We found our new apartment just after dark after quite a search. The neighborhood is old and not well marked and locating our address in the fading light was not easy. We had not put too much thought into where we were going to stay in Jerusalem. We basically selected an apartment based on price and location within walking distance to the Old City. We live in the Musrara neighborhood about one block from the original division line between Palestine and Israel. The neighborhood was originally founded in the late 1800’s by wealthy Arabs who wanted to live outside the confines of the Old City’s walls. When Israel was founded in 1948 battle lines were drawn between East and West Jerusalem in this neighborhood and most of the original occupants moved out. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war both East and West Jerusalem are one area under Israeli control. Many of the once grand houses have been transformed into apartments and the neighborhood has a bit of an art colony feel.

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Jerusalem Alleys

 

Walking through the neighborhood the next morning, bullet holes were clearly visible in some of the cement block houses near ours. Scars from the past no doubt. The ultra-modern tram line marks a clear line between predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and predominately Israeli West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is much nicer developed with modern stores and apartment buildings. Sidewalks are wide and cafes are busy with well-dressed people enjoying their day. East Jerusalem is much poorer in appearance. Stores are smaller and cafes are less trendy. The streets are dirtier and the streets and sidewalks are not well kept. There seems to be a clear economic division between the communities.

We spent our days wandering the Old City. The relatively small walled area is holy ground to 3 major religious groups. We enjoyed visiting the highlights from each over our days. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered by many Christians to be where Jesus ascended to heaven was amazing. Seeing the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located gave us a unique look into the lives of Islamic residents of the area. It was awe inspiring seeing the Jewish people worshipping at the Western Wall, which is as close to the location of the Solomon’s First Temple as they can be, and considered their most holy spot on earth. All of these areas are within a 5 minute walk of each other.

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Old City Walls

 

The Old City is divided between four quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. There are no signs to distinguish the different areas but they are easily identifiable. The Jewish area is nicely constructed with recently renovated buildings surrounding nicely excavated sites of Roman Era ruins. The Armenian area is smaller and mostly walled from tourists. The Christian area is filled with businesses and religious organizations. The Muslim area seems rougher and not as nicely restored with tiny alleys and tiny houses stacked in every formation on top of each other. The ancient markets are located here as well as most of the tourist souvenir shops.

The city is filled with soldiers at many corners. They are heavily armed and number in groups of 2 to 10. We saw our first uncomfortable incident when the soldiers grabbed a young looking Palestinian teenager and proceeded in roughly searching him. It was difficult to watch as it did not seem provoked and went on for some time. An older Palestinian man commented to us while shaking his head that “they treat us like animals”. The boy was sent on his way.

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Muslim Quarter

 

A couple of days later we were sitting outside the Damascus Gate enjoying the late evening sunshine with families and shoppers in the area. We went up the steps when suddenly many soldiers went running past us toward the gate. Sirens went off and it was apparent something had happened. We continued on our short walk home as more sirens blared as police rushed to the area. We looked at the news and saw that an Israeli teen had been stabbed by two Palestinians right in front of where we had been sitting just moments before. It was difficult to imagine such a peaceful scene getting so bad in only seconds after we had left. Luckily the young man was only slightly injured.

We were having our lunch next to the Western Wall on a sunny Friday afternoon. A local Jewish man was explaining to his visiting family that the reason so many soldiers were present was that the Muslim prayers were taking place on the Temple Mount and when they were through the worshippers needed to be “controlled” so they wouldn’t start a riot. It was disturbing because of the contempt that he said it with, especially since children were in his group.

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Old City

 

We have had many discussions in the evenings about the situations that we witnessed in the short time we have been here. It seemed like each day we witnessed something that left us feeling uneasy. The tension in the city seems palpable. People appear and act uncomfortably. Smiles and laughter are not common. We asked an un-busy cab driver we were talking to on the Mount of Olives when tourist season picks up. He told us sadly that it never gets busy anymore. The tourists don’t come now.

Yesterday was our worst day yet. At Jaffa Gate we decided to go on the Rampart Walk along the Old City walls. The route leads from Jaffa gate around to Herod Gate on the northern side of the walls. It was a pretty day and we were enjoying the excellent view from the top of the wall. As we neared New Gate we began to hear lots of sirens. We could hear gun shots followed by explosions from the direction we were going. Within second more sirens could be heard coming from nearly every direction. We continued on toward Damascus Gate. The roads outside the walls were being blocked and police and soldiers were everywhere. As we continued, it was apparent that that everyone’s attention was focused outside the gate. Guns were drawn everywhere and people were blocked from the area.

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Old City Graves

 

As we continued to approach we could see from our birds eye view the tragic scene below. 3 Palestinian youths were lying on the ground in pools of blood. A young female soldier was being rushed to an ambulance. Hundreds of police were everywhere and photographers were hurrying past us on the walls to get the best views. Hundreds of bystanders were gathering in the street below and curious residents were peaking from nearby apartment windows. To be honest, we didn’t know what to do. We stood and watched the scene from above. I can’t really say we were scared. It just seemed unbelievably sad. The three dead boys looked so young. They didn’t look evil. Later we learned that the soldier girl had also been killed. She didn’t seem old enough to be in uniform, much less to have lost her life.

I have read the story of what happened. I suppose the conclusions are different based on who is telling the story. I understand the issue from both sides. I feel compelled to pick a side. I am having a hard time being observant. What I saw was tragic and someone must be to blame. Someone must be right and someone must be wrong. What I do know is correct is that 4 very young people are not going to live full lives and that is very sad.

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Dormition Abbey

 

Much of the current troubles in the world seem to radiate out from this area of the world. I am trying my best to be a good traveler and stick to my goal of being observant. It is hard to be objective. I see wrong on both sides. It is difficult for me to see any good in any of this.

I do know that Jerusalem has a unique opportunity to set an example of how the rest of the world could live. If they could figure out how to get along within the tiny confines of the walled Old City then surely the rest of the world could use them as an example and find a way themselves. I know that the situation is difficult and we all feel as though we must pick a side. I hope for the young people here that the people in charge at least make an effort.

As I write this, many sirens are passing outside our house and are headed toward the old city again. It doesn’t seem as though they have figured it out yet.

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Jerusalem Old City

The Heat of Penang

The heat is oppressive, unrelenting, surreal. It takes your strength, appetite and will. You can’t fight it, there’s no reason, you can’t win. It’s a thick heat, the humidity is so high.The moisture peels the paint from the walls and then peels the stucco until the red brick shows. You tie a ribbon on your fan so you’re sure it’s still moving. You try to sleep, but the heat gives you strange dreams. Dreams of jungles and strange voices you can’t understand. Your clothes stick and you dread walking. You learn to survive in the morning before the sun comes or in the evening as it subsides. You learn to find relief in anything cool, a breeze, an umbrella, a cool drink. Anything to survive for a few more minutes. You curse the people who block the covered sidewalk and make you walk from the shade into the sun, even for a brief moment of time. You avoid streets that are exposed to the sun and don’t have breezes. It seems it will never end. This is Penang.

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The sun is setting as you leave your hostel on Muntri Street. The sun is finally easing, casting an orange and purple glow on the ancient houses that line the alley. The clouds are coming and you hope for rain. Thunder is heard in the distance mixed with the eerie sounds of the Muslim call to prayer. Several sticks of incense burn nearby. The neon signs of restaurants and hotels are lit already, some flickering in the thick air. Swallows fly in and out of the top floor of a nearby abandoned building where they have made their home. You think it is abandoned until you see the blue light of the lonely television casting shadows on the old watching in their chairs. A dog watches you from behind the gated door, too lazy and hot to bark or even stand.

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A small breeze catches you as you round the corner onto Love Lane. Love Lane, where the rich kept their mistresses in days gone by. Love Lane that has warnings of potential evil deeds late at night. The sky is now completely dark, and you are glad for it. You walk closer to the middle of the street, leery of the shadowy covered sidewalks, trying to keep the breeze in your face, a couple of street lamps in the distance casting the dim glow as your pace picks up trying to avoid the broken covers of the half open sewers.

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You hear Chulia Street before you get to it. Busy with cars and scooters and trishaws and smelling of food simmering or grilling on the street. Music from backpacker bars and flop houses, now frequented by the young and adventurous or the old and staid. Before the backpackers, there were sailors. Sailors from the navies of the world. Sailors from merchant fleets of the world plying the Malacca Straits on the lucrative shortcut trade routes from China to India. Shortcuts like Chulia Street itself, which takes you to the docks and jetties farther down. The street is lined with things the sailors needed, bars, laundries, cheap rooms, food. The same thing the backpackers need. Sailors made the way for the backpackers. Chulia is not the street of the wealthy Straits Chinese, the Baba-Nonyas, or the British merchants. It never was.It’s a utilitarian street that provided services for the working classes and those passing through.

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You pass the Hong Kong Bar, which served the sailors before they quit coming, before the fire that ruined the memories. The backpacker bars nearby do more business now. They have reggae names and posters of Bob Marley and Che. The backpackers don’t have sea stories to tell and share. They tell stories of where they are going, not where they have been. They huddle together, their smart phones and computers dimly lighting their tired faces. The light makes them look thinner and paler than they are. The bars sell expensive beer, a cruel trick of a government that charges high taxes on the one thing that might make the heat tolerable.

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You’re appetite returns with the cooler air. You start to look for something to eat as you make your way down the last block of Chulia before you get to the junction of Penang Road. You pass the hookers hiding in the shadows and the used bookstores selling last year’s bestsellers. Travel agencies selling cheap tickets for onward travel to places you haven’t even heard of before. You haven’t eaten since the heat started and that was just the toast and jelly (with free coffee!) at the hostel earlier in the day.

You reach the Penang Road junction. It’s where the tourists from the cruise ships and the Eastern and Oriental turn around. The road is lit differently on the other side, the hotels taller and newer. Tall enough to steal the breeze from Chinatown where it is most needed. You see the Line Clear sign. It’s a restaurant in an alley open since the 1930’s, making one product. When you do it right, you don’t need two. NasiKandar, basically a dish of rice covered with a mixture of curries and your choice of meat spread on top. It’s been open 24 hours a day, every day in the same alley. It’s raw and gritty. The pace increases when you enter. Everybody eats here. People in suits and people with no shoes.Celebrities that everyone knows and people who don’t want their name known. The famous get their picture on the wall, everyone else gets good food.

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They ask you if you want it spicy. You say yes. You know the spice makes you to feel cooler. After the curries go on the rice they put the magical ingredients over that. You want that. Get the chicken from the pot, it’s been cooking for a while and the flavor has soaked in just right. The lights are glaring near the counter; it’s where you want to sit. Watching the experts order, a little more of this, none of that, each plate different than the last. Infinite combinations possible.Watch the hands that dish the food rapidly and with the confidence of having done it thousands of times. The chop of the knife making the meat into perfect bite size pieces. It’s magic and they do the same trick over and over and you don’t get bored of it.

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Leaving towards home, turning right onto Leith towards the Blue Mansion and the Red Garden, you feel cooler, as if hope has returned. Maybe it will be different tomorrow, even though you secretly know every day is the same here on the equator. Only two seasons, hot and really hot. Maybe tomorrow you’ll get rain, maybe not. You have to have hope. This is Penang.

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