It’s freezing in here. Is it freezing out there? Time to build a fire. Outside our window the trees twist and bend and blacken against the first clouds I’ve seen since we arrived. Yet somehow it’s still light and warm outside. In this filtered light the adobes across the street are a beautiful sienna. I remember loving the name, and by extension the color of burnt sienna in my fourth grade art class. If you squint your eyes here, it’s as far as the eye can see, this deep, ruddy, rich color. The earth, buildings, food, and sometimes the sky all bleed together. If you look closely, this land has gradations of all colors of the wheel, some more saturated and some just hints and flecks.
It’s no wonder this place is sought after by artists and writers alike. New York expats beam over yoga classes and the landscape. When we ask them where they’re from, they smile sheepishly at first, as though we’ve caught them in the act of a Great Escape. Then their eyes start to twinkle when they realize, for the first time this morning, this move was the greatest change of their life. It feels good to feel good against the sky and the earth. It feels good to be here cooking. But there is this inkling, in the back of my mind. I wonder what they were escaping from. I try to keep distance by not drinking too much of the Kool-Aid.
Everything about the land is painterly. Peering through my lens I realize how much a photograph fails to capture in its ability to only depict one scene at a time, one frame at a time. A landscape is so much more than a photograph or a canvas. Here it’s about the sense of space and the interaction between ground and sky. Santa Fe is studded with sparse evergreens clinging to the jagged mountains. A walk in the foothills exposes cactus and marbled rocks of every imaginable color.
The sun itself is warm, even in the winter, and feels as though it is streaming down instead of piercing all the surfaces and reflecting in my face. But the sky and the clouds are what catch me, every time I step outside. This is a place where the people are deeply rooted to the earth and its offerings.
My 2009 went out with a bang. Well, actually, I spent the wee hours of Jan 1 throwing up. Not from intoxication, but from the first really evil food poisoning I’ve had in ten years. I should have known better. Yet still, I started out all gringo on the chillis and fish tacos.
The cuisine of Santa Fe, a blend of those cultures who have come to call the high and dry city home for over 400 years, is part Spanish, Native American, and Mexican. The cuisines of these cultures combined with the sparse Southwestern land to develop a distinct New Mexican cuisine, and one whose roots are as complex as the people themselves.
Traditionally, little more than corn and chillis grew in the land surrounding the Sangre de Cristo mountains, where Santa Fe is perched. As far as the New Mexicans are concerned, you couldn’t pick two richer ingredients for the basis of such a flavorful cuisine. With the influx of tourists and also the affluent expats who have built summer adobes in the surrounding hills, the downtown restaurant cuisine of Santa Fe has become somewhat streamlined in its attempt to capture the richness here. So says a good cookbook I picked up at a local bookstore called The Feast of Santa Fe by Huntley Dent. This is why in Santa Fe, as well as in every new place I experience, I turn to home cooked meals and ancient traditions for some hints into the deliciousness found here.
These days, visiting a place and feeling alive and excited in it is, well, more difficult. With the web, countless tour guides and books, we have trouble “exploring” anymore. Instead, we come with our heads chock-full of movies and TV shows, great novels, paintings, and songs written about a new place. In fact, this content drives us there. Of course the oral tradition of stories and poems of different lands have been doing the same thing for centuries, tempting the human curiosity to explore. Yet in our time this curiosity can be more realistically satisfied with a few hours worth of surfing or a trip to the bookstore. Once we get there, however, we’re a complete mess. Thinking some things would be bigger, the people more foreign, the cities more vibrant, and the landscape more picturesque. It just feels so… familiar, before the plane even lands.
Matt and I have been honing our traveling methods for a couple of years now to prevent just this. It all started with a three day trip to Mexico City. We had booked the trip the night before, got on the plane with a few handy guide books, and attempted to orient ourselves on the street maps and brush up on our Spanish before we landed. Due to our fortunate lack of planning, we were able to explore, eyes wide and camera snapping, for three days straight.
We came back thinking Mexico City was one of the friendliest and most impressive cities we had been to, only to find most others who had visited felt it “Mexican,” dirty, and dangerous. Well, we have attempted to travel this way ever since. It’s our own immersion traveling.
Most of these tips are stating the obvious. But on an adventure, where anything can happen, many times the obvious is what’s forgotten. For us these reminders can be thought of as an insurance policy. I hope these simple tips can help you in your journeys in 2010…
Tactics for exploring new land
Find guides who are like you. Find walking guides that traverse the city by foot. When you’re researching, look for forums and specialty books, not standard guide books and travel agents. People travel for different reasons. When we all read the same guide book, nothing can ever be new. Shopkeepers already know you’re coming, waiters know what to serve you, and locals know exactly how to point you to the “right” sights. Every town, city, and country has a “face” for tourists. Don’t let them give it to you. Popular guide book are for everyone and no one. A single Lonely Planet or Rough Guide cannot please, it can only be used as reference for the basics.
Pack smart, reuse. We’ve selected quite a bit of gear in the past couple of years and have learned from both ultra-light hiking techniques and also our own mishaps. Rushed packing will travel with you for the remainder of your trip. Pack early, only bring items, especially clothing, that you can reuse. We would recommend: backpacks, backpacks, backpacks and layers, layers, layers. That is all.
When it comes to airplanes and commercial travel, think of the most heinous trip you could imagine and multiply it by 10. Hello 2010. Check baggage costs for your flights in advance. You could find yourself paying $50-100 for a domestic flight for two in addition to the cost of your ticket. Carry on whatever you can, and make sure to bring on a couple changes of clothes.
Travel off season. What is so special about traveling with other tourists anyways?! If you’ve already had your European backpacking right-of-passage trip, you probably don’t care much for seeing other American tourists. Off season means things are cheaper, people are more relaxed, and you can have your pick of places to stay and times to go visit the sites. Sometimes less is more. Just make sure the things you want to see are still open.
Forget what you’ve seen. Spend the first few days, weeks, or months forgetting everything you think you know. Forget what the guide book said people would be like, where the best food is, and what the sites are supposed to be like. Forget all the well-composed shots you saw in books or browsed on flickr, and forget whatever the travel rags or newspapers said about the place. Just explore. Experience as much as you can. Get lost as much as you can. If you’re not one for forgetting all the preconceived, single paragraph summaries about where you’re going, then next time maybe you shouldn’t have formed so many opinions up front. We have a rule of not browsing Flickr for shots until we return.
Learn a few words. It won’t kill you. Learning how to say “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “Can I have a beer, please?” in the language is not for you, it’s for everyone around you. Learning some semblance of pleasantries not only allows you to feel you’re communicating in some small way (culture shock is real!), but also lets people around you know that you respect their culture and want to make friends. Being a tourist means forcing your own customs on others. Try on new customs, learn the history, and ask as many questions as people will allow.
WALK! (if you’re not in imminent danger) Taking the local mode of transportation in a city goes without saying. You can get a feel for the pace and find out how good of a navigator you are in a foreign land, which is humbling on its own, but sometimes it’s good to walk. Your spirit and your sense of adventure will thank you. Walking slows everything down. It gets you up close to everyday life. It lets you discover things that, thankfully, guide books and personal recommendations can never cover: life. You never know what kind of weird sh*t you’ll see. Besides, when you’ve just arrived somewhere you’ve never been before, how can you really know where you want to go?
If you want to see things, take a drive. The quickest way to cover ground and get yourself off the beaten path is to rent a car. Taking responsibility for your own transportation can be frightening but also liberating. It can be exceptionally fun to get lost on crazy, windy back street with a local cabbie yelling and waving his first in a language you don’t understand. But it’s even more fun to get lost and find your way on your own.
Find a local spot. Find a good place with wifi and coffee, or tea and a cozy couch, and go there, often. Make it familiar as quickly as you can. Get to know the people. Tip them and they will tip you back. Our favorite place in Tokyo was a local izakaya called Tatemichiya. We were so excited when our waitress Anka, who we summoned by yelling sumimasen across the room, drew a perfect little pig with a squiggly tail to help bridge the language gap. We immediately nodded and smiled and were delivered succulent pork skewers. Amen.
Listen to how people speak of the land. If all things are lovely and new that’s a good indication that the city is filled with expats and tourists. Venture out to where people say that it’s “just so.”
Find out what the locals eat. And I don’t just mean what the local spots or watering holes are, but what the locals eat at home and what they eat every day. Get invited to someone’s house for dinner. Scrounge around in the local specialty stores. Head to the markets. Find the home-style restaurants. And never, ever, unless you’re dying of hunger, eat in a touristy downtown spot. In Japan last year we realized that, while New York had plenty of sushi, ramen, and yakitori, the real meat of the Japanese cuisine was found in the home cooking (osozai) restaurants, izakayas, soba joints, and on the street. Japanese eat sushi infrequently, and when they do, it’s nothing like the gorging we Americans do on California and spider rolls.
Look up. Go up. It’s always a good idea to get different vantage points wherever you go. Hills, rooftop restaurants, towers, back alleys, fire escapes, high rises. There’s always a free way up or in. Discover. The best seat in the house, the rooftop of an unfinished hotel, the veranda of someone’s house party, or a cozy booth all to yourself. Do not underestimate a change in perspective. Outside of Mexico city, the pyramidal ruins at Teotihuacan reflected the ancient civilization’s desire to reach the sky.
Don’t forget to stop and watch. Head to a museum’s steps. Watch the people. Watch how they move on the street. Watch how the traffic flows. Close your eyes and feel the sun’s rays on your face. Is it warmer? Colder? Smell the air outside. Is it fresh or stale? The light in Santa Fe is much warmer and the air much drier than back home. Because it lacks moisture, smells are generally more subdued than in the NE.
Look. Then shoot. While capturing the perfect photograph means always being ready, it’s even more valuable to capture things permanently with your mind’s eye. Memories stored only in the camera may make your wall more interesting or your wallet more full, but it’s not going to enrich your experience. If you don’t look closely and observe, you’ll never really see what you’re looking at. We visited the Malolotja Nature Reserve while in South Africa in May 2008. Because it was so off season, they gave us one of the cottages to stay in overnight on the property. We woke up to this expanse of sky and mist with blesbok galloping in the distance.
Research food before you go. When traveling to a new place, especially a place with vastly different food sources, it’s always good to have some information before you land. Get an idea of what grows in abundance and what doesn’t grow at all. Research about how animals are treated and vegetables are grown. If you don’t have the time, many things are easy to infer based on climate and location. Are you near water? What types of food are popular here? Are there rolling hills and local farms here? Are you in a tropical climate? In Mexico and India food is spicy to promote sweating to cool you down. In India specifically, all food is cooked to prevent sickness. Many colder, northern climates rely on more food that sticks-to-your-ribs and eat many tubers, fatty meats, and cabbages year round.
Eat small portions, often. Once you’re there, eating in small portions is the most unencumbering way of enjoying new food with minimal damage. In addition to taking on a culture’s customs, you’re also potentially taking on new ingredients unfamiliar to your system, including good and bad bacteria. Eating in small portions means relatively minimal damage if you do encounter a good but foreign cut of beef, or in my case, a seriously hot chili. Not to make new foods sound deadly, only that they can be without proper precaution. In Santa Fe it’s chilis and corn, and there is an abundance of grass fed beef and there’s an exceptional year-round farmers’ market. The culture here is very rooted in the earth, so there’s an abundance of Organic foods, but since we’re still in the mountains, it comes at a fair price. Gravitate towards the local cuisine, and skip out on foods that are truly remote or not fresh (e.g. New Mexico is landlocked, so fish is out).
Find fermented and nourishing foods. Many cultures, especially those where raw or spicy food is eaten frequently, incorporate fermented foods to help keep the body in balance. Japanese have miso and pickles, the Koreans have kimchi, Indians have spiced pickles and chutneys, and we have kefir! Restaurant food will not always give you the balance that a diet needs. I read an article not too long ago about a journalist traveling to Korea. She kept getting sick from the food and couldn’t figure out why her co-workers were doing just fine. When she asked they said, “Pssst. Eat some kimchi.” From then on she was fine.
Be careful how you quench your thirst. When it comes to water, I’d give the same advice as food, but with more advanced research, and over a longer period of time. If you’re going to be in a place for only a short time and you’re in an unfamiliar place with even remotely questionable water sources, it’s safest to drink your water bottled or more preferably, boiled. If you’re there for longer periods of time, research the water in advance and decide accordingly. For relatively clean systems which may still have things like chlorine, using a Brita or installing a carbon filter in the faucet where you’re staying can be helpful. We also have a SteriPEN which uses UV light to destroy waterborne microbes. Swishing it around for 90 seconds in a liter of water kills most of the dangerous bacteria and parasites, including giardia, but hopefully we won’t be putting that to the test anytime soon.
If you find yourself hugging the toilet one evening… Treat yourself with the following remedies. If after 24 hours you still feel sick or have sharp pain in your intestines or around around your appendix (thumb and pinky length to the left of your bellybutton), go see a doctor. If you’re prescribed antibiotics, make sure to take a probiotic supplement to boost immunity and restore the health of your gut.
We found that charcoal works really well to absorb some poisons in the stomach. You can find the edible capsules in most health food stores. Having a bottle of probiotics can also help you adjust and recover quickly. Look for bottles that have between 35 – 50 billion CFU and a brand that says “active” or “live” on the label and a variety of L. casei, L. acidophilus, and L. bifidum and one that indicates the particular strain as a “-#” at the end of the name (e.g. L. casei-108). This is a good indication that the product is well regulated. Nature’s Way probiotics are a good brand and have worked well in the past.
Lastly, I leave you with this tonic recipe which my mother discovered. Upon further search it turns out this recipe is known for curing indigestion by balancing the pH level in your stomach.
Apple cider honey tonic
1/4 cup Organic non-pasteurized apple cider vinegar (from a health food store or an orchard directly)
1 teaspoon local raw honey (local to wherever you are)
8oz distilled water, heated
Put vinegar and honey in a mug and add as much water as you need to make the tonic palatable. Drink right before you go to sleep!