Monday, September 23, 2013

Big Trouble in Little China(town)

Saturday we planned to go snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, a beautiful reef in the shallow waters just off the windward coast of Oahu. But because the bay is an hour's drive away and you have to arrive before 7 AM to secure a parking spot and get into the park, and we didn't get the kids into bed early enough the night before for a 5 AM Saturday wake-up (eek!), we decided to postpone the snorkeling and head to Chinatown for some low-key fun instead.

Before we embarked on our journey through Chinatown, though, we decided to grab a yummy brunch at Alan Wong's Pineapple Room.

The food was amazingly delicious, a fusion of Hawaiian, Asian and American cuisines. Since they have a signature Mai Tai on their menu, made with macadamia-nut syrup instead of the traditional orgeat, I had to have one. (I'm on a personal quest to find the best Mai Tai on the island while we are living here.) The Mai Tai was very unique, a little sweeter than I prefer and a deviation from the original, with its inclusion of pineapple juice and the mac-nut syrup, but it was delicious and refreshing.

After our lovely lunch, we headed over to Chinatown. Chinatown consists of about 10 blocks just off the pier in downtown Honolulu. There are tons of fish markets, butcher shops, produce stands, lei vendors, and knick-knacks from the Far East. We started off in Maunakea Market, grabbing a fresh fruit smoothie. While we waited for the smoothie to blend, a rack of cute Hawaiian dresses caught my eye, and as I began to thumb through the rack, a stooped Asian woman hurried to my side. And when I say "to my side," I mean literally "at my side." She stood, just inches from my face, completely oblivious to my WASPy bubble of personal space, and announced, "Nine dollar! Very nice! What size you need?" She elbowed her way in front of me, and began pulling out dresses. "Is dat your little girl? You lookin' for her? Here, I find you pretty one!" and she quickly rummaged through the racks, consulting Aubrey on color choices, and leaving me standing behind her, looking both bemused and bewildered as she and my four-year-old conspired to lift nine bucks from my wallet. Soon the two had narrowed the choices down to two, and in an attempt to reclaim some semblance of control over the situation, I piped up, "The black and red one! The purple is way too short!" I elbowed Brad for the cash, knowing in my head that it was expected I would haggle the woman over the price. But my WASPy guilt kicked in as I looked at this smiling, sweet woman who was missing more than half of her teeth, and I happily paid the nine dollars and went on my way.

Just a few hundred feet later, we stepped into a dimly lit doorway, and a foreign world unfolded before us. Rows upon rows of freshly-caught fish, their clear glassy eyes staring blankly at us, lay in bins half-covered with ice. There were fish of every color, some with teeth that made us all a bit nervous for our next ocean swim. We marveled at the blues, the pinks, the reds and greens. Tanks of crabs, piles of live snails and mussels, lobsters snapping their claws stretched out before us.

In the next stall, we were surrounded by a bounty of fruits and vegetables, many familiar, but a surprising number totally alien to us. A kind vendor allowed us to taste the sweet flesh of the rambutan, a rather funky-looking fruit with a springy flesh that reminds one of a gummy bear. We touched and tasted, oohed and aahed over the colors and scents of so many new food items.

 Rambutan. Believe it or not, there is a delicious fruit in there!

Breadfruit and taro

The following stall was a butcher, which brought a whole new experience. A whole pig's head stared blankly from the other side of the glass. The leg of a pig, a giant mound of chickens' feet, and piles of freshly washed entrails and organs sat on display. The kids were both grossed-out and exhilarated. Skewers of freshly roasted meats hung from hooks in the warm case, brightly colored from the variety of spices they had been rubbed in, their delicious smell a welcome distraction from some of the unsavory odors in the butcher's stall.

Block after block, we walked, bombarded by foreign sights and smells and tastes. The kids chattered excitedly, and we enjoyed the opportunity to rub elbows with our neighbors in the community, asking all sorts of questions from shopkeepers and vendors. By the end of the morning, we happily piled into the van to head home for a nap.

After a brief respite, we changed our clothes and headed back into town for the Honolulu Night Market. Once a month, they close down the streets in the Kaka'ako neighborhood, and food trucks and local artisans flock to the city to sell their wares. There's live music and fun activities for the kids, entertainment and mobile bars--and did I mention the food?? We parked and made a beeline for The Pig & the Lady, a pop-up restaurant that we've heard wonderful things about. We ordered a couple of the Pho French dip bahn mi sandwiches, a couple of bowls of their legendary pho* and a kombucha grilled cheese, snagging a prime seat on the curb, with Brad and I using the top of a newspaper vending machine as a makeshift table. The location wasn't the greatest, but the food...amazing! Fall-apart tender brisket, crispy-yet-soft french bread, pickled vietnamese veggies and cilantro, dipped into the most flavorful pho broth--HEAVEN!  The kids split the kombucha grilled cheese, with tender bits of squash smashed between layers of oozing cheese, and then finished the bowls of pho that Brad and I started. Aubrey, legendary for her pickiness, simply devoured her bowl of pho. I've never seen a kid that in love with a bowl of noodly soup, but she was in heaven. "I LIKE PHO!" she proudly announced (which made her daddy and I rejoice--pho is easy to find in these parts--chicken nuggets, not so much.)

[*Pho is a Vietnamese soup, pronounced "f-uh," like the cuss word without the '-ck' sound at the end. To demonstrate the lovely Hawaiian (and Vietnamese) sense of humor, there are "I love Pho King" bumper stickers all over this island--say it quick and properly pronounced, and you've just extended an awkward invitation to whoever heard you read it aloud.]

After our delicious dinner, it started raining, so we took shelter inside the "Pinch of Salt" marketplace--a giant open building crammed full of local artisans and their wares. We came across the most delightful Australian woman and her stall of colorful handmade bowties and caps for kids and came away with an awesome new hat for Aiden.

Afterwards, me moseyed past the DJ stand, where Aubrey sidled up to 200-pound black man spinning rap in the booth and THREW DOWN, dancing, shaking her booty, and generally trying to look like a bada$$ while still contained within her 4-year-old-skinny-white-girl body. It was hilarious. Brad, the DJ and I were all laughing at this little thing trying to look so mean and tough, full of swagger, in her little braid and her pretty dress. 

Then we sidled up to an area where local traceurs were giving a Parkour demonstration. [Not sure what Parkour is? Here is a preview] They showed off some stuff, then they set up an obstacle course for the kiddos to try. Of course, mine were some of the first in line, and they had a blast jumping, hopping and climbing the course.

After about a half-hour, we pried them away with promises of dessert and headed over to the crepe stand, operated by a couple of heavily accented French guys. The stand was quite popular, as evidenced by the giant line in front, so I waited while Brad and the kids watched some guys street dance on some carboard--popping, locking, b-boy style, a little of everything. Then Aubrey wandered over to a station where they had a Wii and the game Just Dance 4 set-up, and once again, she couldn't help but boogie to the music. The crepes were finally ready and worth every minute of the wait--warm, uniformly thin and spread with melting Nutella, strawberries and sliced bananas. Mmmmm. Brad and I felt, for just a moment, like we were back in Paris, eating crepes on the street. And then Aiden took too big of a bite of crepe, Aubrey screeched, and the trip down memory lane was OVER. Back to reality...these kiddos were tired and up way past their bedtime. We wiped them down, scraping Nutella from sticky cheeks and hands, threw Aubrey onto my shoulders and headed home.

The night market was such a fun time and reminded Brad and I why we love this Army life so much. In one day, we had encountered poeple of Vietnamese, Thai, Samoan, Chinese, French, Hawaiian, Australian, Puerto Rican and both East and West Coast urban cultures. We spoke to people from around the world, shared in their foods, observed their customs, or just experienced a moment of LIFE with them. And in that one day, I was gently reminded just how small a thread I represent in this fabric of human existence. It was humbling and exciting and gratitude-inspiring. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday, if you ask me.

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Want to hear more about the Pack?

Check out A Belly in Bloom, a page devoted to Angela's pregnancy with Aubrey. You can see belly pics, sonograms, and learn more about how Aubrey (formerly known as "The Bean") came to be the lovely little girl she is! You can also find Angela's favorite recipes and newest food experiments at Cooking with the Parker Pack.