Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Completely Avoidable Disaster- My Thoughts on the Annapurna Tragedy

I lived in Nepal for over four years and have been on over a dozen treks in the Himalaya, including two around the Annapurna circuit, so when nearly fifty people died and it was all over the news I had a lot of people asking me about it. I've had fairly lengthy discussions about the region, about what trekking is like in Nepal and I've had a lot to say about how there was no reason this should have happened.

Project Himalaya has written something rather close to my general thoughts on the whole episode that can be read HERE. I really encourage people who are curious about things to take a quick look, because I also won't duplicate many of their points, but will expand upon a few of them.

One of the biggest contributors to the tragedy in my opinion was complacency and a lack of awareness by foreigners as to what they were getting into and very possibly how qualified their guides were. While the above article makes some very well thought out suggestions on things Nepal's government could do to avoid these kind of tragedies, the simple unfortunate truth is that they won't and traveling in a place like Nepal you have to assume that any preemptive safety measures you might assume to be in place either aren't or do not work. This isn't bashing Nepal, it's simply the reality of traveling there. The implication of this is that you need to be responsible for your own safety. This means checking the weather, checking trail conditions, having some basic knowledge about where you are going, and the dangers you might face.

The above list of things you should know are things that many people expect from a guide. Nepal has some of the best and most experienced mountaineering guides in the world, but they are not walking around the Annapurna circuit for $20 a day. The average "guide" most foreigners will work with are not professionals in the common use of the word. They are great people who have learned some English (or appropriate foreign language), can tell you about cultural things you observe, can translate for you, book a room at a lodge up ahead and answer basic questions. They may have even been over the trail a few times. They are however not necessarily trained in any kind of survival techniques, can't read the weather, are not any more experienced with high altitudes than your average experienced climber, and probably aren't very computer or gadget savvy. This means that the instinct to just trust people that you assume to be professional experts would be misplaced, and from a number of stories I've read, it got people killed. I'm no more placing blame on the guides as I am on the people that chose to follow them. I simply stating the conditions that lead to a very bad situation.

There are a lot of questions for me about how things ever got so bad on the Thorung La pass. The pass when approached from the East (the vast majority of climbers come over this route) is ascended from either Phedi (at the passes base) or from high camp (which is about a third of the way up). Some people even stay the night at Phedi and High camp for additional acclimatization. More than a few articles I've read have made a big deal out of the ascent being too fast and people not properly acclimatizing, and the only thing I have to say to that is- if that contributed at all it was because people were too afraid of altitude sickness and made poor decisions over valuing the actual danger it posed. The fact of the matter is that the Thorung La is high, but at 17,500 ft it isn't terribly high. If you've done a rest day in Manang, and then a few more nights before going over the pass most people are going to be absolutely fine. Certainly staying up at the tea shack on top of the pass even if you had gone slightly higher than normally recommended would be safer than braving blizzard conditions in feet of snow. That people were scared enough of altitude sickness speaks well to the campaign to make people aware of it, but also speaks to the possible danger of exaggerating it.

More to the point, as the storm hit hard apparently around noon, I'm unsure why people were up at the pass at this time at all.Internet and phone service is available at Phedi, and I believe at high camp as well. While Nepali weather forecasts are barely existent and lack accuracy often due to what seem like micro-environments where weather varies greatly over short distances, this was a case of a major weather feature that covered a huge area. Anyone paying attention should have noticed this. Even if it was missed, the snow would have hit the southern Annapurnas first and been clearly visible to anyone who recognizes distant falling snow. By the time anyone who had decided to head up from Phedi that morning, by the time they reached high camp I can't understand why they would move on given what should have been clear weather signals. You simply don't attempt high passes in impending inclement weather. I say this as someone who has twice been turned back from passes I wanted to cross due to weather conditions. If you had left from high camp in the morning, I have to wonder why you were still near or at the top of the pass come noon if you had decided to set off. If the trail conditions were so bad that you had barely gotten over the pass in five hours from there, I have to wonder why you would have kept going even an hour in, especially with an approaching storm to the south.

Again I think that many foreign tourists either didn't check the weather or know how to read the signs of what was coming, or relied on a guide that didn't have any clue about the dangers of these kind of storms. What many people don't realize is that many of these guides are not necessarily from the mountains- many are from the lowlands of the Terrai, or grew up in the cities of Kathmandu or Pokhara, and thus don't have any more understanding of mountain weather patterns than anyone else. Even the staff at many of the lodges share this background, because the owners are not always present adn have made enough money that they hire staff from outside to run the business. You simply don't attempt these kind of things in those conditions, and there is no reason someone at some point shouldn't have recognized them.

So what to take away from this. The first thing is that high altitude trekking is an inherently dangerous activity that needs to be approached seriously.  Second is that in any place or activity you are responsible for your own safety, but this is especially true in a place like Nepal where there are no functional safety nets. You have to do your own homework; check the weather, learn about the route, and if you're going up into places like this being familiar with a few survival techniques should you get caught out in the elements is probably a prudent thing to do. You also need to really understand that when you are in a foreign country that you can't assume too much, especially you can't assume that things work in anyway similar to where you are from.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Gin & Tea Cocktails- Tea Time with Earl & Dragon's Milk

When I think of England I think of tea. Tea is so important to the English that they have a standard appliance that the we don't even bother with- the kettle (here is a link for confused Americans, see Electric Kettle). When I think of liquor with the English I think of Gin, which isn't really my favorite type of spirit, but on some summer days I don't mind it with tonic. Gin however I find is much more tolerable when it is infused with tea. One of my favorite cocktails I had at my bar, and kept the English theme, was Tea Time with Earl- which was Earl Gray infused gin mixed with lemon a splash of simple syrup and a sugar rim. The drink itself is incredibly simple to make, and tea infusions take far less time than other flavors. Generally I would use four tea bags per liter of liquor and let it seep for just over two hours occasionally turning the jar upside down and then setting it back down.

Tea Time with Earl

Glass Type: Martini
Garnish: Lemon wedge
2oz Earl Gray Infused Gin
1oz Fresh Lemon Juice
1oz Simple Syrup

Chill the martini glass. Place the gin, lemon juice and syrup into a shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Drain the martini glass and wet the rim with a lemon wedge, and then coat the rim with sugar. Strain the mixed contents into the glass adn garnish with a lemon wedge.

When I got back to the US I went to a local Chinese restaurant and bar named Empire who did a really cool Asian twist on the tea and gin combo. The drink I'm about to describe here is my take on their cocktail, called Dragon's milk. It's a mix of green tea infused gin, pandan syrup, coconut milk, and Thai basil. I experimented with a few different ratios and found that I liked a version that had a bit of green tea also added to it. Before we get to the drink I may need to explain some of the ingredients. Green tea infused gin I made in the same manner as the Earl Gray gin mentioned above. Pandan syrup and Thai basil should hopefully be available at any local Asian market. For me unfortunately I could not find pandan syrup, but did find the leaves- which Google assured me I could make the syrup from.
Pandan Leaves & Mortar & Pestle
 To make the syrup you chop about 120g of leaves into small pieces and can either use the traditional method of pounding them into pulp with a mortar and pestle, or you can use a food processor. Once this is done let the pulp seep in about a cup of simple syrup mixture for a couple hours. For those who don't know, simple syrup is made by mixing equal parts water and sugar, then bringing it to a boil and removing it from heat as soon as the sugar has been fully absorbed into the water. This seemed to work fine for me.

Dragon's Milk

Dragon's Milk

Glass Type: High Ball
Garnish:  Thai Basil
6-8 Thai Basil Leaves, thinly chopped
2oz Green Tea Infused Gin
1 shot Coconut Milk
1/2 shot Pandan Syrup
Additional coconut milk or green tea as desired

Place the chopped leaves, gin, pandan syrup, and coconut milk in a shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Pour into highball glass and top off with any combination of additional ice, coconut milk or green tea. Too much coconut milk made the drink a bit too creamy for my liking, and a little extra green tea I found quite nice. Some may prefer more coconut however, and if I had made my own fresh coconut milk as opposed to canned, I probably would have added more. Either way the classic play of pandan and coconut is great in this drink. 

As a short bonus, I had a lot of extra green tea infused gin lying around after making these and decided to play with it a bit. I muddled a couple leaves of Thai basil with palm sugar, added the juice of half a lime and 2oz of gin. This was a good drink, and I'd recommend it if you happen to have the ingredients lying around.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fit is Sexy

I was lucky to be born with a certain natural talent for athletics, which as I got to be an adolescent was improved by countless hours of running and sport training. One of the upsides of this was that in my youth many of the girls I interacted with were also athletic. People who have always had it good, don't know how the other half live- and sex with people that are quite sedentary is just simply not as good. Although woman tend to think that men want "skinny" girls, this isn't necessarily the case, smart men (and most men anyways) find athletic fit woman most attractive. While not all woman want muscle bound hulks, a woman that says she dreams of flab probably isn't being honest with you.

Now before I go any further, there are a lot of factors that play into good sex and this certainly isn't the biggest.  You can be the fittest person in the world, but if you don't have any idea what you're doing or what's going on in the head of the other person or any chemistry with them, then it just doesn't really matter. If she's a trained gymnast who can preform a perfect triple full layout, but she's a starfish in bed none of that skill is doing anybody any good. The same goes for men, he might be able to run up and down the soccer field all day, but the ability to physically endure longer may just mean you're preforming poorly longer if you don't really know what you're doing. 

That said, assuming you've got a handle on the basics, the ability to actually preform as desired can take some physical strength. For men this can be as simple as having to hold yourself up and over her for the duration of fairly standard missionary, and many other positions require quite a bit more core or upper body strength.Flopping on top of her with some lame excuse about wanting to be closer isn't getting anyone in the mood. More importantly though people that are in better shape have better body awareness and control, and that counts for a lot. Increased agility, coordination, and flexibility can lead to much more satisfying encounters.

People in better shape also tend to have healthier sex drives in general. Studies have shown that people in their 60s who have regular exercise report sex lives with the same frequency and satisfaction as people in their 40s. Cardiovascular health has a large impact on the willingness and readiness of  both genders as well. The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that athletic woman showed better clitoral blood flow and over all better sexual function in terms of arousal, lubrication, and orgasm. Blood flow is obviously important for men, and if you want to stay away from the little blue pills making sure you stay active has shown to reduce the risk of ED by around 30%. All of this also means that getting all hot and sweaty together at the gym can also lead to a little rolling around in bed (or wherever you deem best) after the fact. It's been shown that woman are more sexually responsive after moderate exercise and show increased levels of arousal.

All the boring numbers aside, there are the intangibles and the stuff hat really impacts the act itself. While not as often a problem for men as woman, people who are in good shape more often have a positive body image of themselves giving them more confidence while in the buff and a confident partner is a partner you're going to have a lot more fun with. Fit people can make marathon events out of it, and actually follow through on the tantalizing whispers of going all night.

What about all that sex dampening your athletic prowess? I know I was always told to stay away from my girlfriend and wear boxing gloves to bed the night before a race, the idea being that sex before a big game or race would reduce performance. Science apparently doesn't back this idea up. I was a little surprised by this because anecdotal evidence would suggest that indeed sex does seem to drain that well you go to when you need to dig deep, but apparently studies so far have not indicated this to be true. Only sex within two hours of athletic training shows any adverse affect on performance. So even if you've got a half marathon in the morning, no need to forgo a little healthy tumble in bed apparently.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cranberry & Chèvre Stuffed Chicken with Butternut Squash and Poached Pear

While I really am not a fan of winters in New England it's possible that Fall is my favorite time of year. When the weather is crisp but warm in the sun and the trees have changed to brilliant reds and oranges this really is a great place to be. Another thing I love is the food. There are all the different types of squash, plenty of fresh apples and pears, pumpkin and then there are cranberries. Cranberries are great for spicing up stuffing, roasted with vegetables, or for making real cranberry sauce and I always look forward to cooking with them when I can get them fresh. I even had them shipped or brought in to Kathmandu the years I was there.

This is a rather simple dish that uses plenty of seasonal vegetables and fruits that embody the season for me.

Cranberry & Chèvre Stuffed Chicken

1 Chicken Breast
An easy simple dish with many of my favorite Fall flavors
1/2 Cup Cranberries
2oz Chèvre
1/2 Tsp Fall Spice Mix
2 tsp Brown Sugar
Salt & Pepper

Roasted Butternut Squash

1/2 Butternut Squash, cut lengthwise & seeded
2 Tbsp Butter
1/2 tsp Fall Spice Mix
1/2 Stick of Cinnamon

Poached Pear with Feta Cheese & Spiced Balsamic Reduction

1 Bosc Pear
1 Cup water
2 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp Brown Sugar
1 tsp Fall Spice Mix
1 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
Some crumbled Feta 

Make the Fall Spice mix: Combine a cinnamon stick, 3 cloves, 1 raw nutmeg, and 3 cardamom seeds in a grinder and turn them to dust. If larger pieces remain just run them through a fine sieve to separate them out.  

Start the Squash: Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a small pan place the squash skin side down. Place the butter over the section where the seeds had been and place the cinnamon stick there as well. Dust with the spice mix. Place this in the oven.

Cranberry & Chevre: Combine the water, cranberries, sugar and spice mix over a high heat. Cook until the water is essentially evaporated off and the mix doesn't run. Let it cool a little. Mix in the chèvre until it forms a nice even creamy semi-solid mix. 

Prepping the Chicken: Pound the chicken breast flat and trim any fat. lay it flat and place the cranberry & chèvre mixture on it, and then roll it shut. You can use toothpicks to help the chicken keep its shape and stay closed. Add a bit of oil to the outside of the chicken and add a dusting of salt and pepper. Remove the squash from the oven and place the chicken in the pan beside it (if the pan isn't big enough just put it in another one.) Bake for about 25 minutes.

Poach the Pears: Combine the water, lemon juice, brown sugar and spice mix over a high heat. Cut the pear into three equal sections down the center. I think leaving the stem looks good. Once the mixture comes to a boil place the pears in it for about 7 minutes or so, just long enough that they soften and absorb the flavor. The pears should be mostly submerged the entire time. Remove the pears and place on a plate to cool. Dump all but about 1/2 a cup of the mixture in the pot and then add the balsamic vinegar. Continue to heat this over a high heat until the mixture reduces by around half. Remove from heat and let it col for a minute.

Plate it: Place the feta over the pear slices and drizzle the reduction over it. Remove the chicken and squash from the pan and discard any cinnamon sticks and toothpicks you may have used. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Death in the Afternoon

Staying in theme with the last post I thought I could jump into one of my favorite cocktails invented by American author Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon. The original recipe penned by Hemingway was as follows;
"Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly."

First a word of warning; unless you are a professional drinker three to five of these even if you have them slowly will leave you at least more than a little buzzed. While the exact alcohol content of Absinthe varies by brand, it's universally rather strong, generally hitting around 140 proof or so. Combine this with the champagne and you are going to get hammered if you throw these down too quickly; and they can go down quickly as it's a rather smooth and refreshing drink. 

So it's a rather simple cocktail to make, and the big question is to what absinthe or champagne to use. In regards to the absinthe, I am in no way a connoisseur, but there are some rather big differences out there in what's available. In the US the brands I've been happy with have been Vieux Carré, Mephisto, and Pernod. I actually like Mephisto in this cocktail because it's a little lighter on the anise flavor and find it creates a little lighter drink, which I think is nice. 

As for champagne- I am certainly not a purist here. In fact I think a lot of people get caught up with labels and where things are made. As much as it benefits some to really play this up, the reality is that you can get some really drinkable stuff fairly cheaply. Since the effervescence will get eaten up shortly in the mixture, there's no need to waste really expensive champagne here. A good sparkling wine or Prosecco is just fine.  More important will be balancing the flavors of the chosen sparkling with the chosen absinthe. While I normally prefer brut or other dry champagnes, for this drink a little sweetness isn't a bad thing. If you only have dry champagnes, you can also shake a little sugar into the absinthe before adding it to the champagne flute. Following that frame of thought I have also on occasion added a bit of lemon zest for a slight citrusy flavor. Floral accents also do this drink justice, so a touch of lavender mixed in or a rose petal as a garnish really add to the cocktail in my opinion.

Below is the recipe I had used in a proposal for a club;

Death in the Afternoon 

Glass: Champagne Flute
Garnish: Rose Petal
30 ml Mephisto Absinthe
Sparkling Wine (Seco)
1/2 tsp fine Sugar

Place the sugar into a mixing glass and pour the absinthe in with it. Swirl the absinthe until the sugar is absorbed. Pour the sparkling wine into a champagne flute until about three quarters full. Pour the absinthe and sugar mixture into the sparkling wine. Float a single rose petal on the surface for the garnish.

One more drink for the Road

Another take on this is one of my favorite shooters, The Green Pixie. I had this at my restaurant in Kathmandu and it is my shot of choice on a night where you don't care if you get up before noon the next day. It's a smaller version of death in the afternoon done in a shot glass, instead of the sugar being in the drink, I would do it with a sugar rim. This gives it a nice contrast and it's in my opinion a very easy shot to put down. Almost too easy.

Green Pixie

Glass: Shot Glass
Garnish: Sugar Rim
22 ml Mephisto
Top off with Sparkling Wine (Seco)

Rim the shot glass with a freshly cut lemon wedge, then rim it with fine sugar. Pour absinthe into shot glass and then top it up with sparkling wine. Wait for the mixture to emulsify before shooting.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

YOLO- So the Kids Say These Days

Here is something that every single person should really spend a little bit of time thinking about every single day- some day you will die.

That's right.


Let that sink in for a moment.

This isn't something that's up for debate, and I'm not really concerned with anything that may or may not happen after that fact. As people on this planet we only get to play for a certain period of time, and then we've got to pack it up and cash in our chips. Thanks for playing, hope you had a good time.

Modern people in well organized countries (developed countries if you will- but I hate that term)get to push death into a bit of a corner through most of their lives. It's something that happens, but it comes when your old and anything less we consider being cheated. We tend to approach life in a manner that treats it as something that will go on forever, like we have all the time in the world and we will never die. By ignoring the fact that we will die, we mislive because we act as if we won't. We don't give things affected by this fact their true worth. Simply put, time and each opportunity to do the things you really love in life are the most precious commodities in the possession of any of us and they are very much limited. If you don't really understand that you're going to die then you don't truly appreciate this.

Some would think that dwelling on your own death (or expanding it a bit- the time and opportunity you have with other people you love as they are all mortal as well) a morbid act, and possibly it is but only if you dwell on it as a negative thought. We can turn this around and let the undeniable fact of mortality instruct us in how to live as well. It turns out that it has a lot of lessons for us.

First we are reminded not to take a single day for granted. You've got the opportunity to do something amazing any given day. Maybe you think amazing is too high a bar for your average day- but you can settle for at least interesting right? The point is that even if you make it to a ripe old age, there's a good chance a good chunk of your life has already been lived, and you aren't getting any younger. The prime years of your life are slipping out from underneath you, what are you going to do with them? What things have you done, what are you doing and what things do you want to do? Understanding that you've got a limited amount of time to work with lets you focus on using time as the precious resource that it is and gives more value to making sure that we fit in the things that we claim matter to us.

We aren't the only things that are going to die either. The one thing about every living thing in the world is that at some point it won't be alive. That means your interaction with any of it is limited. Stop taking that interaction for granted. Say the things that need to be said, and do the things that need to be done with people, because you may not get the opportunity if you keep putting it off. Or I suppose if you really dislike someone take comfort in knowing that they end up as dead as the rest of us and can only be the horrible person they are for so long.

It also reminds us that no matter how good or bad things go, we do all end up in the same spot. Play hard, take things in your life seriously, but at the end of the day you can only take it so seriously. After all none of us are getting out of here alive. Like a game of football (American or British!) the ball can be the most important thing in the world and all effort can be focused on it for purposes of the game at hand, but when the game is over, it's just a ball and nobody cares about it. Many of the stuff in our lives, be it work, money, competitions, or whatever you're in to should be seen like a ball in a game. When its time to play, feel free to play hard, but remember at the end of the day it is what it is, and you aren't taking it with you. Our mortality should help keep in perspective what is actually important. We often lose sight of the experience mistaking the objects themselves as what is really important.

I bring this all up because some people have asked me why I'm going to London, when I've got a rather decent life here and could live quite comfortably given some time. But being comfortable isn't high on my list of important things to accomplish in life. I'm already 37, I don't have forever. To me life is too short to spend it all in one place when there is an entire planet to see and experience. It's also about recognizing a good thing when you see it, and having been in plenty of relationships over the years I recognize how good the one I currently have really is. It would seem to me incredibly foolish to let it wither away because of something as simple as an ocean being in between us. When you lay dying you won't wonder what would have been if you played it safe. You know exactly what you probably would have got. You would have probably been comfortable, but at least in my case I'd be unsatisfied. You'd wonder "what if". Or at least I know I would. Lucky for me it doesn't look like I'll have to because I know that some day I'm going to die, and I'd rather take a few chances and go after the things I love than sit by and watch life pass me by.

This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.

Remember to act accordingly.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Introduction: An American in London.....Well That's the Plan Anyway

Before the invasion of Normandy, during World War Two, England was over run with well over one hundred thousand American service men. Not having suffered through the war in the same manner as the UK, the American soldiers were paid far more than their British counterparts of similar rank, they received better rations and it was observed that they were a little too eager with the ladies (to be fair it seems that this enthusiasm was reciprocated). This lead to a common quip during the friendly occupation of Britain that the problem with the Americans is that they are overpaid, overfed, over-sexed and over here.

Well it so happens that I am an American who, if things go according to plan, should be arriving in the UK sometime in December and some of my favorite things to discuss just happen to be food (and cocktails!), sex and travel. So it could be argued that I too am overfed, over-sexed and hopefully soon over there. Now overpaid I am not (at least for what appears on this blog), this blog is just my little gift to the world and thus that part of the saying was dropped from the title.

Now just about a year and a half ago I was living in Nepal, running my own restaurant, and generally enjoying a pretty decent life. My old blog, Mr. Smith Goes to Kathmandu, in fact ends with a headline Mr. Smith is Home in Kathmandu. Well clearly I'm not now, so what happened? Well a lot. In fact so much that I should probably write extensively about it some time, but the short version is that a marriage that had been spiraling the drain finally came to an end and this was followed by a possibly over exuberant lifestyle that included a goat named Mr. Gibbles, dancing midgets, pinup girls and models, more "secret" affairs than I care to count, North Korean Karaoke bars, and eventually a falling out with business partners who essentially hold to that old tried and true Asian business model of let the foreigner build the business and then steal it from them. Not that I'm bitter, (I'm not really) as thanks to me you can still get home made salsa in Kathmandu, and they import Patron tequila now too- and that kind of makes it all worth it. You're Welcome!

The upshot of all of this is that your humble narrator found himself back on the shores of his homeland, the grand ol' US of A. The problem with this is that although I was raised here, this is not the place for me. It's too regimented, too organized, and it gets up too damn early in the morning. So the obvious question that would come to a reader's mind, is that this is all good and well, but why then would you choose to go to the UK, or London in particular?  Surely it's a regimented, overly organized place that almost gets up as early as America. And you would be correct in this assertion.