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August 2008

Afghan Kabob--My Fave New Spot in Chi {From The Raving Dish}

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It was a tragic day in the city of Chicago when I whirled past my local Afghan restaurant recently and noticed that it was full-on shut down. What a disaster. The super low-key Afghan Restaurant was such a shining jewel in the midst of the Indian bazaar that is Devon Avenue, that for it to just disappear was brutal for my psyche. All I could really do was let the hunt for a new Afghani addiction begin.

First up was a massive google search. Page one had nothing but the Afghan Restaurant. Yikes. It was a few clicks later when I noticed a small tidbit on Afghan Kabob. I wasn't too keen on the name, but what's a name really? Though it was located far west on scrappy Montrose Avenue, I was up for the haul this past week. In fact, I was obsessing about it for days beforehand. Fluffy rice; pureed spinach; tender lamb. Bring it.
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Continue reading "Afghan Kabob--My Fave New Spot in Chi {From The Raving Dish}" »


SCUBA Diving in Indonesia? Try Gangga Divers on Bali.

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One of the toughest things I have ever done is get Open Water Certified.  Not Discover SCUBA Diving.  Not SNUBA.  Full on PADI Open Water Certified.  I chose to go through the 5-day process in Indonesia this past trip whilst residing at my favorite hotel on Bali, Lotus Bungalow.  They happen to have a brand new dive center there called Gangga Divers that was calling my name and I was determined to strike it off my ever-growing to do list no matter what it took.

I went with them because I knew it wouldn't be some kind of chop-shop, it'd more of a one-on-one.  Which was exactly what I got.  I gotta tell you, it wasn't most def. not easy.  The focus required to retain the almost 300 page manual is wildly intense and covers all sorts of terminology you've never even dreamed of uttering:  ata's, bars, BCD, etc...  Huh??  Well, of course, I came to know it all after 5 grueling days of studying, tests, videos, pool dives and open water dives.

Now, imagine being on the bottom of the ocean floor and having to take off your mask, then put it back on AND THEN EMPTY IT OF WATER.  When I first heard this one, I was like w-t-f?  Are you kidding me?  But, dontcha know it, on my 4th Open Water dive, I whipped that mofo off, put it back on and emptied it in about :30 seconds. 

I also fell in love with navigating underwater with a compass, learned all the equipment inside and out, straight up mastered neutral buoyancy and a learned a zillion other things that make me feel like more of a badass than I ever thought possible... 

I also happened to being frolicking about gazing at fishies and coral only to get a rap on the tank from my dive buddy/instructor...I thought he was alerting me that maybe a pretty starfish was floating nearby or a shark was somewhere in the distance.  Oh but no...when I flipped around, a full friggin' SUBMARINE was gurgling by.  Holy moly.  Now, things look 33% bigger underwater, so you can imagine my horror/delight. 

Oh, and imagine the time when a thunderstorm came out of nowhere while we were underwater and it was a bloody hurricane down there.  If I wasn't sandwiched between my 2 buds, I would have been halfway to China in no time.  Weirdly, though, it is so much more peaceful underwater...and I felt totally secure at all times.  It's when you're bobbing around on top that you start to panic a bit. 

As for Gangga, there could not have been a more ideal place to learn to dive.  It's the perfect atmosphere to absorb exactly what the hell the makings of a SCUBA diver are.  I cannot imagine doing this sort of thing with 20 other people. I just dig the personal attention and with a view like the one from Lotus (and some of that caramel flavored rum the kitchen doles out to help the book go down), well it was money well spent. 

I'm already plotting the next levels of PADI.  But, this time...maybe Honduras?  Maybe Belize?  And, I hate to say it, but snorkeling never seemed so unsavory.   
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It's the Street Food that Continues to Amaze Me~

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Here's the deal with Indonesian food.  It is the most delicious thing you will ever put in your mouth. Period.

You cross these scrappy little stands, or a bright, crowded restaurant and the smells pulsing out through the street scene are just phenomenal.  It could be fish, goat, beef, chicken, or just plain old rice.  Maybe some sticky jackfruit or a bit of sauteed water spinach.  Honestly, sometimes there's a family of flies buzzing about whatever is being concocted.  But, what do you do?  You dig in.  Just like you would at a picnic.

Most things are less than a dollar and if you're rockin' satay, then it's usually slung up on a grill that looks to be from the late 1800's.  Food is fresh, though.  Mad fresh. 

For me, the best thing is the peeps.  They are so tickled that I would partake in their local food, that when I whip out my camera to snap some photos...they get all bashful and ask me if I can snap a photo with them and me.  Not that they will ever get a copy, but at least they can see it on the LCD. 

I guess they just want to be near happiness.  Me too.

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Follow Up to the Surgeries in Sembalun, Lombok**

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Many of you guys know that after my trip to Bali last December--when I volunteered--I ended up meeting all these little babies that had intense cases of cleft palate.  Their families were extremely poor and couldn't afford to have a surgery done, so when I came back to the USA, I reached out to some amazing pals about donating money.  In no time, I'd wired the funds to Indonesia for a handful of surgeries. 

Sooooo, this trip back--a mere 6 months later--I was able to go see all the babies that had the surgeries.  I am telling you, I was totally blown away.  Their lines were perfect, the kids were so smiling and happy and their families were so humble and gracious...and totally shy.  It was so sweet and such an incredible thing to witness.  All it takes is one person to care just enough and their child's entire life has been altered.  Sadly, most people just don't care.  All they are about is what new game their gonna buy for the gameboy.  Tragic stuff, for real.  These little footprints in the 4th World--well, it's the kind of stuff that makes your heart/mind/spirit reach new peaks. 

In this post, I just wanted to share a few photos of some of the families and help spread a little Indo love.  My friend Royal told me that one of the families was very, very poor and I asked him what makes one more poor than the next?  He told me that when they went to pick up the family to take them to the hospital, they brought all the money they had, which was 1000 rupiah.  That is the equivalent of 10 cents

You heard me--A DIME

How in the world would you not be able help these people if you could?  And, you know what, you can.  Every little tiny dime helps out and when I get my NGO in place here in the coming months, I'll share more ways for you to lend a hand.  I hope that everyone gets to feel that flutter in your soul like I did in that moment.

So, the 3 babes you are looking at right now are Nando, Hirman and Milna.  That is Nando's house with the clothes draped across the porch, and then there is me with Hirman's entire family...and the last photo is of me and sweet baby Rako--he's the chirpiest little bird you've ever come across. 

He's going to be getting his surgery soon, so I will keep you posted on the details**
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Meet My Tiny Friend Mona~~

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Before I left Bali for the island of Lombok, I was in a cute little joint in Candidasa called The Temple Cafe.  I was simply having a beer and waiting on the regular Friday night Expat party to get started across the street at another beautiful place called The Watergarden.  That's when I met Mona. 

Mona was a lovely local, a waitress at the cafe.  I was drinking and she was chopping garlic, and somehow we got to chatting and before I knew it, I was invited to her villages annual party.  It was shakin' down when I came back to Bali from Lombok and I thought I was vague about saying a full-blown "yes." 

See here's the thing, if you even remotely utter a 'maybe', a 'sure', a 'hmmmm', a 'I dunno we'll see',  or any variation of...consider yourself committed.  I just wasn't sure my schedule, so I didn't want her to plan on it.  Well, dont ya know it, the morning I arrived back to Bali after a few weeks in Lombok, there was Miss Mona.  Sweet Miss Mona dressed to the nines and patiently waiting for me on her scooter, ready to swish me away to her village (about 20 min. from Candidasa). 

But first...Mona swung by her house (and her entire families compound) so I could change into some of her traditional duds.  I had no idea this was what we were doing or that I was required to dress in the traditional garb.  Ahhhhh, the terror.  Now, Mona is about the size of a 10-year-old, and I'm not.  Not by a longshot.  But, she just tore through her drawers 'til she found things that stretched and I tenderly groped my way into them.  So bloody uncomfortable.  Before I knew it I was on the back of her bike roaring off to meet her entire family at the village party. 

It was about 120 degrees in the shade, people were dancing wildly about conjuring up demons from their bodies and drenching themselves in water, some folks were straight passing out and I...well, I was the only white face there.  I was literally knee-deep in a crowd of thousands it seemed.  It was great, though.  Not a soul looked my way or even noticed my Size negative 4 ensemble...they were too busy cleaning their souls out and praying to the Gods of the Future. 

After it was all over, Mona gave me a beautiful sarong that is now proudly displayed back in Chicago, and I know when I go back to Indo she'll be right there waiting on me.  Friends over there last forever, they really do. 

I miss Mona.
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$1 Fish Ball Soup and Back to the Land of Choices*

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My entry back into the USA has been a little rough.  And, I don't think I've been super aware of it until almost this moment.  Travel just simply digs way, way deep into your soul and changes you; it literally alters your course in life--if you let it. 

I've been bombarded with so many choices and options since the second I arrived back in Chi that I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. I'm not sure I need so much vastness anymore.  I'm happiest in far away lands--trolling about on a scooter buying volleyballs for a dirt poor school.  I'm happy slurping up a $1 bowl of fish ball soup with grilled fish satay from a brilliantly rough hewn street vendor.  I'm happy scratching away in my journal at the first light of dawn while the ocean pummels the shore.  I'm happy telling a new foreign buddy that I'm more than honored to give her some quickie English lessons. I'm happy eating with no silverware...just my hands.  I'm happy going to sleep at 7pm some nights, just because I can.  I'm happy scheming up new ways to help out plucky grassroots NGO's that I trip upon in my journeys.  I'm happy just quietly doing the things I said I was going to do.

It seems I'm just plain old happy by extreme simplicity.  Even more extreme than usual.  Even turning on the TV is a giant hassle.  Again, too much choice.  Too loud.  Too obnoxious.  So I don't.  Instead I pick up the phone to call United Airlines.  I've got a ticket to procure (again, praise those frequent flyer miles).
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Taste Quest {From Time Out Chicago}

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Here's a new article that I wrote--it was just in this weeks Time Out Chicago.  Lot's of yummy food to discover in this neck of the woods.  Enjoy~

Taste Quest
Budlong Woods

Dubbed Sin Strip after a deluge of seedy dive motels sprang up, the area where Ravenswood and Budlong Woods meet was once just a place for Highway 41 travelers to grab some shut-eye on the way to anywhere but here. These days, you’ll find quaint coffee shops, condo conversions and, most important, a bastion of global eats.

Start your walking expedition at 1 Kiko’s Market and Restaurant (5077 N Lincoln Ave, 773-271-7006), a carnivore’s dream. The butcher shop is the source for the restaurant’s divine sausages, which are tucked into housemade bread along with chubby ground-beef patties oozing with fresh, mild cheese. Grab extra for home before hitting the very discreet bar dubbed 2 The Café (5115 N Lincoln Ave, no phone). Behind the uninviting pitch-black window hides a fairly friendly café (by day) and bar (by night) staffed by shapely Bulgarian cuties who expertly turn out cappuccinos alongside classic martinis. Come weekends, the place turns into a hookah hideout with a live band banging out Eastern European folk music.

Just north lies a strip mall that sports a sign reading simply KOREAN RESTAURANT. The actual name is 3 Da Rae Jung (5220 N Lincoln Ave, 773-907-9155), and it’s a no-frills type of place, but the friendly fellow who hosts and waits tables provides excellent suggestions. Housemade kimchi is among the multitude of banchan dishes that arrive with most meals, and if you really dig it, you can grab some to go from the take-out cooler.

Continue reading "Taste Quest {From Time Out Chicago}" »


Mt. Rinjani Trek Complete~

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I rumbled out of a ferocious nightmare at the crack of dawn.  It was the last day of my journey and I was ready to tackle the trip back up the mountain on the far side of the lake.  But first, a little something called lumpiah.  This breakfast is basically a couple of homemade eggroll type pancakes stuffed with veggies and this koo-koo, yet delish, pineapple tomato soup.  Oggy and Titi can rock some grub that's for sure (see last photo of me with my two porters).

I was so damn cheery that the excursion was coming to a close I was just bouncing around, doing a little fishing, taking some photos with the locals, and just generally euphoric.  Yah, the final trip up to the highest point so we could start the path down was pure hell (baby breaks galore) and then once we started down, it was a straight run. You'd think that that would be a good thing. But, oh no...people were almost crying due to leg pains.  The trail is so vertical that if you don't run it, you are in for a world of hurt.

Our little team made it down first--after about 10 hours--and I straight peeled off my socks and shoes and hurled them as far away from me as I could...while slamming that icy cold Bintang.  As various groups rolled into the Senaru basecamp, I was happy to see that they all did the same thing--rip off socks and shoes and hold them by their shoestring--disgusted, like they never, ever wanted to see them again.  Most peeps gave theirs away to the guides and porters.  Me too.

It was over.  The deed was done.  I was so happy, so blissfully chill, so content.  All I could think about was a real bed, some more beer and a nice private toilet. 

I recommend this trip to all of you out there really aching to see what you are made of--mentally and physically.  It's a once-in-a-lifetime expedition on a small Muslim island in the middle of the ocean.  Something you'd never forget or regret.  And, that beer...that large beer...at the end of the trail will be emblazoned in my memory for the rest of my days. 

Would I ever do it again?  Sweet bloody Jesus no!  Not in a trillion years.  But, you should.  Stat*

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