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Things That Make You Go Ewww

Lots of people want to know about the health benefits of Bikram Yoga or how it compares to other yoga paths, or why Bikram Choudhrey is so crazy. But mostly, people want to know about the gross stuff. You put some twenty yogis in a 105-degree room, tell them to wear virtually no clothing and have them finagle their bodies into compromising positions and, yeah, you’ve got a situation ripe with potential for gross stuff. Here’s my take on some of the questions I’ve been asked over the years. And, yes, this is going to be a serious overshare.

How Much Is Too Much Sweat?

No such thing as too much sweat to a Bikram yogi. On most days, I’ll sweat through all my yoga clothing and walk out with a totally soaked-through head of hair. We lay down towels on top of our mats to prevent slippage and keep it all a little more clean, and on a good day — when the temperature and humidity is just right and the teacher has been consistent but not overly leniant with letting in fresh air — those are usually about 75% soaked.

Yes, It Smells

The smell is one of the first things that turn people off of Bikram. As soon as you step in the studio, it hits you and some people, well, they can’t take it. Me, I think it really just smells like a musty, poorly ventilated room but I have heard it described as a cross between moldy carpet and B.O. I’ll admit that’s not entirely inaccurate, particularly in an older studio that hasn’t replaced its rug in forever. But you know, you just get used to it.

Kicking the Sh!@ Out of Your Body **

Part of what brings about so many of the health benefits associated with yoga in general is the “release of toxins.” The bad stuff that builds up in your body gets jostled out of its hiding places and sweated out… or released in some other way that does not happen in the room. Now I’m not a doctor so don’t get all medical on me. The exact physiology of this escapes me. But it does make sense that as you twist and contort your body, you are contorting and stretching your organs and damming and releasing the flow of blood. And this helps with better circulation and better digestion. And That, my friends, is what keeps the doctor away.

Getting Out the Way of Other People’s Sh!@

All of that releasing of toxins feels great. But what isn’t so great is that the other people around you are also releasing their toxins. In less-crowded classes, you can cop a whole swatch of rug to yourself and go an entire class undisturbed by other people’s smells and sweating. But come on this is New York not [fill in a middle of America city here, I don't want to offend any one constituency] and Bikram Yoga — despite all this gross stuff! — is really popular. Most classes are crowded and the thing is, there’s much better energy when we’re packed in like sardines:

Sardines

Anyway, crowded classes can mean that there’s only a few inches of space between your mat and the dude next to you. And the dude next to you might be A Smelly One.

To be honest, at this point nothing really bothers me anymore, but I have learned to spot A Smelly One from across the room. The usual suspects: old men in loose-fitting, bathing-suit material shorts (the shorts get bunchy and don’t flick off sweat the way more spandexy things do; nothing against old men doing yoga, they’re just the ones who typically sport those kinds of trunks); men or women with especially thick hair and/or dreadlocks; and women in makeup (if you’re wearing makeup to yoga, you’re generally wearing perfume, too, and pefume can be just as bad as other smells).

It’s Just Sweat

And this leads me to the Number One Ick Factor for a lot of people, which is that when you take Bikram Yoga, the likelihood is that you will get sweated on by someone else. Guy next to you does a particularly vigorous sit-up, and you get a sweat spray. Teacher walks by and adjusts your posture, with his or her sweaty hands. Class ends and people start filing out while you’re trying to chill in savasana, and drip, drip drip. The class is intended to be a 90-minute moving meditation, and the sweat — yours and not-yours — is simply a discomfort you learn to overcome.

So there’s my basic take on the gross stuff about Bikram. The amazing thing is that you come to love all of these things about the practice. When I was at Bikram headquarters in Los Angeles, I read this on a poster there: “You have to go through hell to get to heaven.” In Bikram-speak that just means: “Suck it up you wuss. This is worth it.”

30 Day Challenge

30-Day Challenge Status: 10 classes down, 20 to go.

** A note on my non-use of the s-word. I don’t know why. New York Magazine uses it. But the Journal doesn’t, of course, and I guess Paul Martin really has gotten that far into my head.

Thirty Days of Sweat

Everyone loves a good challenge. I’m nothing if not goal-oriented, and since I graduated from journalism school, found a job and, more recently, settled down from moving uptown and traveling half-way around the world, I’ve found myself searching for the next, well, goal. It’s finally come time for the 30-Day Challenge.

About two-and-a-half years ago I found my own personal version of faith, which is to say Yoga. Specifically, Bikram Yoga, a series of 26 postures done in a heated room. I started going once a week, then two to three times a week. Within six months I was going four times a week and these days I try to take five to six classes a week. At that level of practice, it sometimes feels that the yoga has taken over my life. I don’t have time for other hobbies. I have to carefully schedule lunches. And as annoyingly New Agey as it may sound, the yoga begins to seep into your consciousness. Your life outside of the room begins to reflect class inside the room. The room becomes like home. As a teacher once told me, you begin to realize that who you are on the mat is who you are off the mat. All that kinda crap starts to take on real meaning. Some of my friends say it’s like I joined a cult. I prefer to think of it as having joined a community.

And the first major rite of passage in this community is to complete the 30-Day Challenge — 30 classes in 30 days. You can skip a day, but must make up for it by doing a double (two classes in one day) and you can only do this twice. Given I’m already accustomed to a six-day practice, stepping it up a notch to seven days seems like a downright attainable goal.

I’m pretty darned excited about finally carving out the time to do this. No doubt many people out there are wondering: good god, why? Why spend 90 minutes a day sweating profusely in a 105-degree room with a teacher yelling at you to lock out your leg? First, because it feels amazing, and only those who have tried can understand that part. Second, it changes your body. The idea is that pretty soon I’ll look like this:

Standing Bow Pose

Oh, and also: When I finish the 30-Day Challenge, I get a t-shirt.

Today was my first class. Only 29 more to go. I was going to download a countdown plugin to my blog, but technical difficulties are preventing me from doing so. So while I work on that, this will have to do:

30 Day Challenge
29 classes remain.

The Highlight Reels

Back in New York. After traveling for some 26 hours, it feels good to be at rest and at home. Of course coming back from traveling is always sad, and it is so very very different here than there. I tend to remember most of my travels in superlatives, so here’s the highlights from my trip:

Favorite Place I Visited:
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This is a hard one to call, since we hit bad weather and suffered mishaps that were no one’s fault in various locations. And, of course, weather can totally taint my perception of a place. Despite that, I am going to say Hoi An was my favored destination. Two of our three days there it poured buckets, but it was I think the friendliest place we visited and I found it the most charming. I found things to enjoy about every place we stayed, though: Singapore’s food and diversity; Ha Noi’s colonial mystique; the beach at Nha Trang; the big-city-bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.

Best Meal in Singapore:
A tie between the fried oyster omelette and lobster laksa. The laksa wins based on taste alone, but the oyster omelette was like nothing I’ve ever eaten before, truly.

Best Meal in Vietnam:
On our last night in Ha Noi, we ventured to a divey place called Restaurant 1,2,3, where we were the only non-locals. We were served two heaping, steaming plates of yummy food and three beers for 80,000 dong — five dollars! Plus, we got to watch a Vietnamese variety show on television, which the waitresses couldn’t pull their eyes off of and which seemed to be a cross between a war-era USO show and American Idol.

Best I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-That-Annoying-Tourist Experience:
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Halong Bay. There were hundreds and hundreds of tourist boats docked in Halong Bay and when we first arrived, we wondered how they possibly filled them all. Fifteen minutes later, the entire place was swarming with tourists from every imaginable country and of every imaginable ilk. The process of getting aboard was nightmarish, but totally worth it once we were sailing the emerald water on our sienna yellow boat.

Weirdest Observed Cultural Difference:
Indian men holding hands in Singapore’s Little India. Apparently, it’s common for men from India and I believe Pakistan to hold hands with their colleagues while walking the streets and so on. It’s something that would certainly not be seen anywhere in New York and I would venture the United States. (Interestingly, I also read that these men are rarely seen showing such affection for their family and friends.)

Biggest Wow-I’m-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-World Moment:
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The traffic in Vietnam. It stunned us in Ha Noi and we continued to marvel at the sheer number and power of the motorbikes in the street. And everyone’s — pedestrians, drivers and passengers — total absence of fear or caution as they swarm the streets.

Scariest Moment:
This was, surprisingly, not the flight out of Da Nang mid-typhoon but our descent into Ho Chi Minh City. On the way down, a sudden storm came through the city and made visibility terrible. Because of that, our pilot misaligned the landing and had to abort, pull the aircraft back up into the air, circle around and give it another go. Thankfully, the weather had partially cleared by that time and he got it right on the second try. But, really, there’s nothing like watching the land approach, approach, approach and then — whoopsies, just kidding! — pull back up, up and away into the dark and cloudy sky.
HPIM5441.JPG It was less dramatic than that, really, but I was still pretty much convinced for a few minutes there that our pilot was drunk/incompetent and we were all goners. Taylor was, of course, nonplussed by the entire thing.

Moment When I Most Felt on Vacation:
Not crossing the street in Ha Noi or HCMC, let me tell you. It was certainly while blissing out on Jungle Beach. There’s really nothing like having an entire beach — and I mean miles and miles of sand, here — to yourself. I highly recommend it.

So Much More Than an Airport

Here I am in Changi Airport, which is pronounced “Ch-ahhhhn-geeee” for those who care about such things. And I now remember what I liked about Singapore.

I don’t know what part of Changi we were in the two previous times we came through, but we missed the heart and soul of this airport. Which, being Singapore, is all about food and shopping: the Transit Mall — a large, 24-hour collection of shops and food stalls. There are designer shops, pods where people can play videogames, bars, stores selling Singaporean food and — mother of all that is good — Free Internet. And everything is clean, and nice smelling and handsomely laid out.

I have a whole thing written about the highlights of my trip, but it’ll have to wait until I get to Frankfurt, or possibly New York. I have more important things to do right now. Like track down some kaya toast and kopi.┬áMy travels have come full circle.

To my New Yorkers: I’ll be back on the Upper West Side Sunday morning.

Out of the Rain, Into the Jungle

Remember that scene in “Independence Day” where Air Force One is taking off and all of Washington D.C. is blowing up just in its wake? Well, substitute in the dinky Vietnam Airlines plane for Air Force One and the city of Da Nang for D.C. and thunderous, ridiculous, pounding rain for alien-induced explosion and you pretty much have what our flight out of the central coast was like last Tuesday, the 2nd of October. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but as several concerned friends and family members have written to us, they did end up having to evacuate something like 400,000 people because of Typhoon Lekima and it also apparently killed 12 people. Yikes. We just missed the truly bad brunt of it (all the flights were canceled the day after we left Da Nang), but we did spend two rain-soaked days in Hoi An, which was otherwise a charming place to be. The streets flooded up to our knees. I was constantly donning the H.O.T. smurf-blue poncho. Really the rain was just amazing and we were unsure if it was really safe to be flying in all that. Even more amazing was that when we got to Nha Trang, just a forty-five minute flight down the coast, the weather was just fine.

In fact, it was quite beautiful. So beautiful we decided to book it out of the busy, tout-clogged, neon-lit streets of Nha Trang for a remote, hippie-dippie-type resort called Jungle Beach, run by a Canadian who, as far as I could tell, never wears anything but boxer shorts. We stayed in the “beach-front suite,” which was a true bungalow — three walls and a mattress on a platform, covered in mosquito netting. I totally roughed it. There was little electricity and barely running water. We could literally see the beach through the “window” (read: square-shaped hole) in our bamboo and straw hut. There was really nothing to do but sit around on the totally isolated beach and stare at the horizon. Which is why we were out of touch for some time, and not dutifully posting on the blogs.

We were also fed three meals a day by the super friendly madame of the house, who cooked up tasty, authentic, family-style Vietnamese food. This also meant we had to share a table with the various Germans, Israelis, Brits and others at Jungle Beach, but I was able to put my American xenophobia on hold, pull out the friendly face for a few days and make the typical travel small talk. So where have you been in Vietnam? Ah, all the typical places. And how long are you traveling? Oh, only two weeks… And where are you from? Oh, America…

You get the picture. And I’ll hopefully be posting pictures of Jungle Beach real soon. It was something else.

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Banh My, Oh My

One of the treats I was looking forward to seeking out in Vietnam was banh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches that are available in several tasty places in New York. Banh mi are something of a WSJ Fun Club tradition and also are one of my favorite foods of all time. So I was naturally psyched to be going to what I assumed would be the Banh Mi Mother Ship.

But my book didn’t include banh mi in its list of classic Vietnamese dishes. And there didn’t seem to be any banh mi for sale in Hanoi. I looked on restaurant menus — nothing. That was to be somewhat expected, as banh mi are supposedly sold street-side from carts, much like Pho. But I looked quite vigilantly, and nothing.

On our way out of Hanoi, I asked our guide Minh whether he had ever heard of banh mi. I described them and did my best with the pronunciation (“baaaan – meeee”?) but he had no clue what I was talking about.

This didn’t bode well. Were banh mi, in fact, an American creation that I would simply have to wait for until my return to the States? Would I in fact be unable to enjoy a Vietnamese sandwich in Vietnam?

Finally, on our sixth day in Vietnam, I found and had a banh mi cart in the local market. Here in the beautiful and charming riverside fishing village of Hoi An, where we’ll be for a few days, banh mi carts are plentiful. Only it’s spelled “banh my” and there don’t seem to be the same variations on the sandwich as I’ve seen in the U.S. My banh my cost 10,000 dong, which is roughly equivalent to 62 cents. That’s what I’m talking about.

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Halong Bay

We’re actually in Hue now (more to come on that in a bit), but we did make it to Halong Bay for a day trip on Thursday. It was beautiful and I was sad to have to leave so soon. Here’s our boat:

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And here’s a pretty good shot from Taylor, though none of our photos seem to really encapsulate the gorgeousness of the place:

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Hanoi: Traffic Gone Wild

It’s raining in Hanoi. Hence the need for me to wear this H.O.T. outfit:

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When we first arrived in Hanoi it was overcast and rained on and off throughout the day. As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we had a message waiting saying that our Halong Bay boat trip for the following day might be canceled. Indeed, it was. The weather gods have thus far not been on our side in Vietnam. We’re currently scheduled to go on a day tour of Halong Bay tomorrow, so everyone out there please pray for sunshine and calm waters.

Despite missing out on a night aboard a romantic Halong Bay cruise, this does mean we’ll get to spend an extra day in Hanoi. And Hanoi is really something.

It’s the polar opposite of Singapore. It’s illegal to j-walk in Singapore (though plenty of people did in certain neighborhoods). In Hanoi, j-walking is the only option as there are basically no traffic lights.

We were told that Hanoi’s street traffic is something to write home about, but nothing can really prepare you for this. Not even New York’s crazed intersections have anything on what’s going on outside this Internet cafe as I write. Motorbikes and bicycles fill the streets — and I mean droves and droves and droves of them. It’s unclear to me which streets are one-way and which are two-way. When you cross the street, you simply have to step slowly and allow the cars and bikes to make their way around you. It feels like navigating a busy American freeway. But there’s a weird logic to it, as well, and now that we’ve adjusted to it, I almost enjoy crossing the street. It’s like a living game of Frogger.

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Like Disney World, but Hotter

Our three days in Singapore were jam-packed with sightseeing and eating. The weather was oppressively hot and humid and I felt jet-lagged for much of it, but we managed to see most of what we wanted in the city. The streets were, as promised, squeaky clean. The metro was efficient. The people were a fascinating mix of Indian, Chinese, Malay and so on. The Night Safari was good, clean, family fun — like Disney World.

In fact, much of Singapore felt like Disney World. Organized and polished. Locals would probably say that the real Singapore lies beneath that clean and classy veneer, but the only glimpses we were afforded of that underbelly were in a few of the temples and mosques and at the hawker centres:

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This is a Buddhist temple in Chinatown, which we happened upon just in the middle of a big offering of gifts to Buddha.

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This is the smallish hawker centre by the Esplanade. It’s actually run by Singapore’s food guru guy, who I mentioned in my earlier post.

Speaking of which, though we managed to see most of the sights in Singapore, I only made it about half-way through my list of dishes to try. I successfully tasted and thoroughly enjoyed:

Fried oyster omelet
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Kaya toast, Malay-style teh
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Lobster laksa
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Char kway teoh
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Chicken rice
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Fish-head curry
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Plain prata with onion
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Stomach, Meet Singapore

Well, here we are, safe and sound in Singapore. The flight out here was long, but passed fairly quickly. I did a crossword puzzle, read a book, watched Pirates 3 and ate about five meals. On Singapore Air, they have purple seats and they feed you, oh, every hour or so. My kind of airline.

On the subject of food, I don’t know about you, but eating is pretty important to me. Now, I understand that getting the necessary nutrients to survive is important for, well, all humans. But for some of us, food is a serious priority. I don’t particularly like the term “foodie” — to me, it connotes being a snob about food and being obsessed with eating out, which is entirely different than what I am talking about, which is being obsessive about food no matter what it is and where it comes from — but I guess that’s what I am.

Good food makes me happy. Conversely, I get annoyed / frustrated / and in general pissy when not fully satisfied with a meal. Food makes or breaks my day. And it can definitely make or break a vacation.

Yet I don’t think I was fully conscious of the food element when I picked Singapore as our first destination on this adventure. It must have been lurking in the back of my mind. There was something about this place, which, as every travel article or guidebook will tell you, is a) sort of boring and b) known for caning gum-chewers. Something about this place made me want to go there. It wasn’t the caning. Of course it was the food.

So I set out to plan a three-day sampling of the best that Singapore eateries have to offer, both at restaurants and from the city’s famous hawkers — street vendors who tend to specialize in one particular dish and serve them up in government-run (and thus spotless and sanitary) centers. It seemed that, with proper planning and guidance, this would be a reasonable undertaking. My Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t seem to disagree with me. Then I read Calvin Trillin’s recent New Yorker article about his few days spent eating in Singapore and I realized I had no idea what I was getting myself — and my stomach — into.

What most intrigues me about Singapore’s food culture is its focus on individual dishes, versus styles or categories of food. Most vendors — or at least the truly good ones, it seems — devote their entire lives to a single dish. That just thrills me. It must thrill Trillin, too, for he wrote a whole article about it and based his Singapore itinerary around sampling nine chosen dishes. Apparently, Trillin’s guide — The Expert on Singapore street food — felt this list was insufficient and added so many dishes that, despite eating their way through much of it, the list at the end of the trip was about as long as when he first landed.

Now Trillin is around 72 years old today. So I think that despite weighing in at 98 pounds, I could almost go dish-for-dish with him at the hawker center table. But he had Singapore’s street-food guru jetting him around to all the best spots. I do not have that. Plus, Taylor is a non-foodie who doesn’t eat fish. While excited by some of Singapore’s culinary possibilities (NOT the fish-head curry or fish-ball noodles), he isn’t going to obsess about it and will want to do other things. So my lineup will not quite rival the Trillin list, though it does borrow heavily from it. Here is what I’ve ended up with; I hope to post updates as I go.

Chili crab
Fish-head curry
Char kway teow
Laksa
Roti prata
Rojak
Carrot cake