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  • Trying to Get a Cup of Coffee in San Francisco

    I had been warned that a cup of siphon coffee would set me back seven dollars or so. If the line into Blue Bottle Coffee weren't so long, I don't think having a cup of siphon would have intrigued me. It's true that most people in the line weren't getting siphon. Blue Bottle is also famous for all the other kinds of coffee they serve—lattes, espresso, cold brewed coffee, and more.


    What’s a siphon? A true siphon causes liquid to move from one location to another using gravitational force. Let’s say you have a 5,000 gallon tank of water and you want to move it to a tank that’s located downhill. You can place one end of a tube in the top tank and the other in the bottom tank. The water will first go upwards through the tube to get over the edge of the upper tank, then travel down to lower tank. All due to gravity

    Siphon coffee doesn’t work that way, so it is not really a siphon. The water for siphon coffee starts in a lower chamber of a two-chamber device. When heated, the water flows upwards through a tube to the upper chamber. It’s not gravity that’s responsible. It’s vapor pressure. When the water in the lower chamber (which is closed) is heated, the vapor pressure increases. The upper chamber is open, so it’s at normal atmospheric pressure. When the difference is big enough, the water gets sucked to the upper chamber. That’s when you add coffee grounds, wait precisely one minute and ten seconds, remove from the heat, and then watch the coffee drain to the lower chamber as the vapor pressure decreases.

    Siphon coffee operates on the same principle of the percolated coffee of the past. Percolated coffee recirculates over the grounds while siphon soaks the grounds.

    Now that you know the science, here’s the ordeal of getting a cup of siphon joe.

    Day 1. I decide I’ll walk over to Blue Bottle, grab a siphon to go, and get back to hear a talk at a conference that I’m attending. I allot a half hour. After 20 minutes of waiting I haven't quite reached the front door so I bail in time to get back to the conference.

    Day 2. I realize I need to allot more time to stand in line. I figure I'll pop in early in the morning on the way to the conference, grab a siphon to go, and get to the conference on time. I leave 45 minutes. Within 20 minutes I get to the cash register, but I notice that the menu mentions that customers are expected to drink the siphon on the premises. It’s part of the ritual. 

    I was prepared to break protocol and ask for a siphon to go. When I arrived at the counter and requested a siphon, I was told it would be at least 20 minutes before the Siphonista would be able to start making the siphon. It was too long so I ordered a latte. It was the most beautiful latte I've ever had, and tasty too. The latte was worth the 10 minute wait. The artful design on the frothed milk was so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to use a to-go lid. The design persisted even as I drank, a testament to the thick, foamy milk  Best ever! Now I really wanted to try the siphon.


    Day 3. I allocated 90 minutes in my schedule to wait in line, wait for the Siphonista to catch up with the orders, and to enjoy the complete ritual on the Blue Bottle premises. The line was not quite as long, so I was very hopeful. I reached the counter within 15 minutes. I had my siphon flavor picked out—the special Panama with hints of chocolate and berries. My mouth was watering. I ordered. The hostess said "I'm sorry but the Siphonista is not here now.” “Could anyone else make it?” I asked. Of course not. This method of boiling water is so special that it requires a barista with a specialization in siphon, hence the occupation of Siphonista. Disappointed, I settled for a latte to accompany a breakfast of eggs and cauliflower.

    Perhaps on my next trip to San Francisco.

    If you want to try making siphon coffee at home, Blue Bottle Coffee provides complete instructions.

  • Cao Dài Temple: The Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation

    I am in front of a magnificent building in the town of Tây Ninh in southern Vietnam. It is the Holy See of the Cao Dài religion—a relatively new religion that started in 1926 right where I am standing. Like all religions, it began with a hallucination. Its disciples received instructions directly from God to establish Cao Dài.

    I see a mixture of symbols on the outside of the temple—figures representative of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. I see dragons, a flying goose, and even Joan of Arc. There is a giant eye on the outer wall. It reminds me of the one on the US dollar, only colorful.

    The front door is reserved for entry by the religion’s followers. It’s not quite noon; many disciples have already arrived. I walk to the side of the temple, leave my shoes on the street, and enter through the visitor’s door.

    The disciples, all clothed in pure white robes, are seated in the back vestibule—the women on one side and the men on the other. They must wait there until the monks arrive. Then they can enter the main hall and sit in the area reserved for them.

    As a visitor I am allowed to roam the outer aisles of the temple until it’s time to start the service. I am not allowed to walk into the center, nor am I allowed to take photos that include non disciples. Oddly enough, it is perfectly okay to take photos of the disciples and monks both before and during the service.

    The place is colorful. Really colorful. The style of the carvings and the bright colors remind me of a carousel. I see eyes all over—they are the windows to the temple. I see dragons and stars and planets. The altar is so far back in the temple that it’s difficult to make out what it is when I first enter. When I walk closer, I see there a gigantic round planet with an eye painted on it. It is the eye that oversees the universe.

    My guide says it is time for me to go upstairs to view the ceremony. The white-clad disciples file in and sit on the sides. The monks, dressed in primary colors, walk in next. Only a few walk past the midpoint of the temple. No one gets close to the altar. Where you sit is determined by the your level of mastery of the principles. All disciples must adopt ethical principles that include nonviolence, vegetarianism, prayer, and veneration of ancestors. But there are also many scriptures for them to study and learn.

    In the back is a musicians’ loft. Five or six young women (all supposedly virgins) sing while a group of men sit and play traditional instruments. Then it’s silent and everyone sits, adopting a posture of meditation. It’s now very quiet in the temple. My guide says “They are going to stay that way for hours.” I still watch. Once in awhile a gong sounds, the musicians start up, then there is silence again. Sometimes the gong sounds once, sometimes several times in a row. Not knowing the religion, I don’t understand the ritual, but it is beautiful and restful.

    After awhile I leave the disciples to their meditation.

    The Cao Dài followers believe there are 72 planets that have intelligent life. Planet number 1 is closest to heaven and planet 72 is closest to Hell. Earth is number 68. I am thankful that Earth is considered one of the planets with intelligent life, because at times I wonder how intelligent we really are.

    For more information on the practice of Cao Dài, see http://www.caodai.org/. Its full name is Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do, the Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation.

  • Disrupting a School Day in Cambodia

    I just finished a picnic lunch in the countryside outside Siem Reap. I am sitting under a tree next to a Buddhist temple. Two sad, dirt covered dogs gaze at me while a puppy jumps playfully at the table hoping for some scraps. He gets them. My guide says, “There’s a school a short walk away. Let’s visit the classroom.”

    If I tried to pop into a classroom in the USA unannounced, I’d likely be arrested. So I am a little concerned. I say, “Are you sure we can just walk into a classroom?” He says, “Yes. They will love it.” So we walk on.

    As I approach the school yard, I notice that some children are outside, some inside. I hear excited murmurs. When we get to the classroom I don’t see a teacher anywhere. To my surprise, there are children seated at the desks.

     

    We enter and most of the children jump up and run towards us. They see cameras and want photos taken. Many keep flashing peace signs, so much so that it makes it difficult to get a good shot without having fingers in front of someone’s face. There is so much movement, it’s also difficult to focus. Clearly this is the highlight of their day.

    A few children sit at their place, looking shy and reserved. I take one of the shy girl’s photos. She smiles when I show her image to her. Other children surround me so they too can see her image. Now everyone wants to see their image in my camera.

    This goes on for at least ten minutes before the teacher arrives. We wish her a good day and leave, the children waving at us as we make a quiet getaway.

    There are schools all over the countryside. Most, but not all, children attend. It’s easy to see who attends by the fact the children wear uniforms. As I walk through other parts of this rural area, I see children who appear to be school age, but are helping tend livestock or work in the fields. The literacy rate in rural areas is about 74% compared to urban areas, which is about 90%.

  • The Killing Fields of Cambodia

    "In 1978, the Khmer Rouge killed my father and uncles. Five men in my family, all killed," my guide explains before we set off in his tuk tuk to the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. It is just one site of many all over Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge rounded up people in a truck, telling them they were taking them to a better place to live and work. On arrival, they imprisoned them, but not for long.

     

    At night, the Khmer Rouge would play revolutionary songs loudly, over speakers. The screeching songs, mixed with the sound of the diesel generator, drowned out the screams of the prisoners as they were bludgeoned to death. The bodies were then thrown into a mass grave and sprinkled with DDT. Those who weren't dead by the bludgeoning were finished off with the DDT, which also helped to control the stench of the decaying bodies.

    I arrive at the site. It looks peaceful, surrounded by rice paddies. Then I see the craters, each one indicative of a mass grave. Bones protrude from the ground, as do pieces of clothing. The rainy season uncovers these artifacts. Each month volunteers collect what gets unearthed. In the center of the site is a towering stupa. I must tip my head back to see to the top because it is so tall. It's filled with skulls and large bones. There are so many bones that the small ones could not be placed inside this memorial.

    I see the Killing Tree. When first discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there were bits of brain and skin embedded in the blood stained bark. This tree was where the Khmer Rouge smashed the heads of babies and small children.

    There are small plots of dirt cordoned off and shaded by a roof at which my audio tour tells stories of what happened. It's a somber place. Everyone wants to turn back time and bring these people back. The posts around these plots are filled with peace bracelets. People have also thrown bracelets and money on the dirt itself. I can tell these plots are treated with respect because the money I see is deteriorating in place. No one dares to remove it. I recognize some of the money. I am surprised to see Ben Franklin's face on a rotting $100 bill. That's a month's wage here, yet no one will remove that bill.

    The Khmer Rouge took advantage of a cruel and corrupt government to put in place an even crueler government. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, although educated, sought out and tortured or killed every person with an education. He killed all the doctors he could find, the teachers, anyone who wore glasses, anyone who read, who owned books. He broke families apart, taking the children and turning them into soldiers for the cause, soldiers who were then willing to kill their own family if necessary. He forced everyone living in Phnom Penh to leave the city and move into the countryside to farm the land. Those who didn't die of starvation and disease were tortured, many killed.

    One out of four Cambodians died at the hand of the Khmer Rouge. Bullets were precious, which is why bludgeoning was preferred. I saw the cracked skulls and the smashed jaws. Pregnant women were not immune. Fetuses were cut from their bellies and hung up on tree branches.

    It's gruesome. It's an unbelievably cruel story, one that the world watched from the outside. And a story that continues to this day. There are still Khmer Rouge awaiting trial for war crimes. The trials get delayed, which is no relief to the victims' families.

    Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, was a Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge. When he saw their fall coming, he fled to Vietnam and led the rebel army that was sponsored by the Vietnamese to take down the Khmer Rouge. Hun has been Primer Minister for decades, and refuses to give up the position. He appointed many Khmer Rouge to government posts.

    Hun Sen never had to answer for his actions as Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge. Would the world have turned Germany over to one of Hitler's commanders to rule? I think not. I understand why the Cambodians are dismayed at having this dictator in power.

    Many in the world support Hun Sen because they think he is a better alternative than anyone the opposition can put forward. The Hun Sen supporters are not the people who lost family under the Khmer Rouge.

  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat

    I am wearing a light jacket. I wish it was made of fleece. Chugging along at 30 mph in a tuk tuk makes 15 degrees C seem much colder, The "RealFeel", as perceived temperature is referred to around here, seems to be around 11 C. It's dark. I'm in one of a long line of tuk tuks and buses making a predawn trek to Angkor Wat.

    I follow my photography guide—Eric de Vries—through the main gate. We fall in with the crowd for only a short while when he steps off the main path onto one lit only by moonlight. I follow him closely to avoid making a misstep. We are in stealth mode. We don't have a light, so the masses aren't likely to follow us to this off-the-beaten-path location.

    We are the first to arrive at a small pond on the right side of the Angkor complex. The complex is far enough away that I should be able to fit it all into one frame along with its reflection in the pond. I look at my camera's LCD. It is still too dark for an image to form.

    A few small groups join us at our site, but from the glow of flashlights I can see that the left side of Angkor has the large masses. I hear murmurs as we await the sunrise.

    The first bit of light starts to show. Eric instructs me not to use my tripod and instead use an ASA of 2500. While the sun is rising in the sky, he tells me I should decrease the ASA each minute to compensate for the increasing light. I'm skeptical about the no-tripod instruction. I hauled this thing more than 7,800 miles and now I'm not going to use it. But he's correct. The first image forms and looks great. I keep decreasing the ASA, and the images get even better.

    In my photos Angkor Wat is silhouetted against the sky. The technique Eric shared with me hides the large section of scaffolding that covers part of the temple. I look around and see that people using point-and-shoots or who are not adjusting their fancy cameras are getting ever brighter photos that show ugly tarps and the metal of the scaffold.

    We move to the crowded side. The temple is also lovely from this view, with the orange ball of the sun just now visible over the temple wall. There are so many people that it is almost impossible to get a shot of Angkor without also including part of the crowd. I stand on my tiptoes, hold my camera high over my head, aim as best I can, and click. After five or six tries, I succeed.

    I walk to one of the many outdoor restaurants next to the crowd. I warm my hands on a cup of hot, sweet coffee. It's an amazing start to the day.

  • Eating My Way Through Vietnam and Cambodia

    My mouth waters when the waiter sets down a steaming bowl of noodle soup. Bits of fresh vegetables and chicken float in the broth, The wide rice noodles are the perfect texture. I squeeze fresh lime over the soup. The broth is one of the most flavorful I've ever tasted. Tiny red chiles add enough of a bite that my nose runs and eyes water. The chiles are spicy but they don't mask the other flavors.

    It's breakfast. I love that I can eat pho or dim sum or fried rice or some other Asian food early in the morning. Both here and in Vietnam, the breakfast buffets are amazing—cooked-to-order pancakes, waffles, eggs Benedict, omelets, and pho; homemade jams, jellies, nut butters, and pastries; tropical fruits; freshly pressed watermelon, guava, orange, carrot, and green monster juices; smoked mackerel and salmon. Vietnam had a bit more variety and included such things as stir-fried beef, sautéed frogs legs, and sushi.

    One of the best meals I've had so far was close to the Mekong River in Vietnam. I hopped off a boat and took a short walk through the vegetation that ended in a French colonial style house. After a tasty five-vegetable soup, a fried elephant-eared fish arrived at the table. It was propped upright, still smiling, as it if never left the ocean. The server then proceeded to pick off pieces which she added to lettuce and herbs, rolling the whole concoction into a fresh rice roll wrapper.

    When the fish was nothing but a skeleton, a clay pot of Vietnamese pork arrived with a side of rice. I managed to consume most of it before fresh, full cream yogurt and tropical fruits appeared.

    In the USA I eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a bowl of soup or a salad for lunch and, on most days, a modest dinner of vegetables and fish or meat. Here I eat only two meals a day, but I'll still probably come home with a few more pounds than I left with. There are so many things to try.

  • A Lesson in Meditation: Vipassana Dhurak Buddhist Centre of Cambodia

    My quadriceps protest the position I put them in. I am seated on the floor, legs crossed yogi style, attempting to sit up straight. I imagine a string that's attached at one end to the temple ceiling and the other end to the top of my head. I pretend it is straightening my spine, but I still feel as if I am going to fall over backwards. Breathe slowly, I tell myself. Relax the knees. Don't think about the tight muscles. Clear my mind. Listen to the wind through the temple doors, Think of the calm of the surrounding hills. After about ten minutes, I open my eyes. This isn't working.

    The monk smiles as I get up. I walk quietly around this new temple so I don't disturb my guide and Glen. Neither one of them is grimacing in pain. I am impressed they took to meditating so easily.


    The colorful panels that tell of Buddha's life cover the walls and ceiling. It's a tall building. I bend back as far as I can so I can see everything above me. The temple is so new that there are a few details left to finish it. Two empty niches in the back might be for lighting or speakers. i'm not sure. A pile of marble tiles wait to be installed on the terrace.

    The Buddha is made of many polished stones pieced together. It's unusual because all other Buddha's I've seen have been solid—gold or jade or concrete. These stones are from Cambodia, all cut and polished by Cambodian women. The wall behind the Buddha is painted with a gigantic bodhi tree whose crown reaches the ceiling. The leaves continue on the ceiling, over the Buddha.

    The temple is elevated. It's doors open to show many other buildings at the complex—some house the monks, some are used for study. There is a another temple for a reclining Buddha, another for a set of figures I'm unfamiliar with. There is a reservoir. In the center is a huge figure of a woman standing on a crocodile. The grounds are impeccably manicured with flowering trees and bushes. The two flag poles near the entrance are each easily 100 feet tall. It is an impressive complex.

    As large as this Buddhist center is, I see no one except the monk in the temple. He is pleased that we all sat and meditated (or attempted to). He now gives me pointers in breathing and sitting so that I can continue the practice of meditation on my own.

  • Standing Face to Face With Death

    The tank before me is rusted and punctured by bullet holes. Any part that could be removed is gone. About 40 years ago the tank rolled over a booby trap that destroyed its tread. Unable to move, it became a sitting target. After a battle of unknown length, the Americans inside were killed and their effects taken. Later, villagers stripped what they could of the metal. Then they refashioned the scraps into barbed stakes used for a wide variety of traps that maimed soldiers. I see replicas of traps designed to damage armpits, pierce the chest, tear apart legs, and puncture backs. These are gruesome.

    It's an easy walk on this path. But around me there are signs of past struggles. Bomb craters, trenches for fighting, fake termite mounds used to conceal air vents for underground tunnels, and the tunnels themselves. Up to 250 kilometers I'm told.

    I follow a solider through a tunnel. I duck walk and it's a tight fit. Forty meters later, I emerge, thankful that today's tunnel has lighting and a fan-powered ventilation system. The Vietnamese soldiers and villagers didn't have lighting. Their ventilation system was marginal. The tunnels were narrower, having been widened only recently to allow for tourists to fit through without panicking.

    This photo is a re-creation of a booby trap. After stepping on false ground, the soldier is impaled on underground spikes. (Photo by Glen Gould.)

     

    I step into an underground room used for surgeries. I visit another used by the blacksmiths who repaired guns, made bombs, and forged barbed stakes. I see the kitchen used to cook meals, the smoke piped 15 meters away to minimize detection.

    The history fascinates and disgusts me. I am fascinated by the cleverness of the villagers who built the underground network, by their resourcefulness of using American G.I. cigarettes and sweaty clothes to confuse the dogs who were sent to sniff out the tunnels, and the way soldier and villager worked together against an army whose help they never asked for.

    I am disgusted by the loss of life on both sides, by the fact that our men were sent into a foreign environment to do something none of us are raised to do, fighting for a cause that was born from a few paranoid politicians.

    I stand here in 2013 wishing that a time machine could be a reality, regretting that a time machine wasn't a reality here in Chu Chi during the Vietnam War.

  • Investing in Vietnam: An Unhappy Tale

    About 20 minutes outside Ho Chi Minh City I find myself on a highway in the midst of rice fields stretched to the horizon. I'm on my way to the Mekong Delta, another hour or so from here, where I will board a boat. The highway is built up several meters above the land out of necessity. The land is wet and soft, perfect for rice. Not so good for building. Anything concrete requires bringing in sand to compact the earth and build it up around the surrounding wet land.

    I notice a round, concrete structure in the distance—an odd view to see in a sea of rice fields. My guide John (Americanized version of Drang) tells me it is the remnants of Happy Land, whose most famous investor is Joe Jackson. That's right, Michael's Dad.

    I've been here for only two days, but I already know a Happy Land couldn't survive. The Vietnamese people don't have the money for what would have to be a high admission fee. The location, although 20 minutes from HCM City, is not ideal for the Vietnamese either. It's 20 minutes by fast car. I can't imagine putting my family of four on a motor bike and making the trek out here. I don't think the tourists would do it either.

    Joe Jackson pulled out shortly after he learned of the bribery structure in Vietnam. Bribes are roughly one-third the cost of the project, and Joe refused. The project went bankrupt. They managed to bring in the sand to build up the land for the park, forever making those hectares unusable for rice farming. And they managed to build the round concrete Epcot-center-wannabe. But that's it.

    And so goes the unhappy tale of Happy Land.

  • Surviving the Streets of Ho Chi Minh City

    My jet-lagged eyes recoil from the light when I step outdoors. My hotel, the Caravelle, is in the center of Ho Chi Minh City. It's hazy, but bright. I see a huge group of motorcycles, ten abreast and I don't know how many deep, waiting with engines running. It must be a race. They take off all at once, zig zagging around the few cars on the street and narrowly missing each other as some go straight and some veer to the left and right. Pedestrians attempt to dart through the buzzing bikes. To my amazement there are no collisions.

    The light bulb over my head illuminates. This isn't a race. It's normal traffic and I, the zombie tourist who can't think straight because I am in a different time zone, must negotiate my way through the sea of motorbikes if I want to get to the traditional market. In fact, I have to cross six or seven streets to get to the market. Will I survive?

    I try several strategies.

    Wait for a clear path across the street. This doesn't work. I wait and a path through the traffic never presents itself. Even when it seems promising, as soon as I step off the curb, the path disappears and I jump back.

    Tail a local. I wait for a person who looks Vietnamese and follow him. I look like a stalker. Then I realize the locals have more nerve than I do. I make it across the street, but I think I'm going to die from fright. This isn't sustainable.

    Don't look any drivers in the eye. Then maybe they'll avoid me. I get halfway across the street, look up, see how much traffic there is and realize this is a very bad idea. I run back to the curb and think of another strategy. Just when I get my wits together, there is a collision. No one is hurt, but the traffic pauses long enough for me to run across the street. The wait-for-a-collision strategy, while successful, isn't one I want to count on.

    I finally find the best strategy. Wait for a family with small children. Moms have an innate sense of what's safe. Drivers hold back a bit for babies and toddlers. I start shadowing families. I smile and say "cute baby" to remove the appearance of stalking.

    I'm back at the hotel sipping a drink from the rooftop bar. I look down on the mass of motorbikes and the haze of river mist and bike pollution. Some bikes have one rider. Many have two. Others carry families of three and four. It's cost effective. Bikes are so maneuverable that the traffic always moves.