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The smell is what draws one to the sprawling epicenter of people and things we call markets. The sounds, the noise, and sometimes a combination of the two, and yes, they too are separate things. The sites, or more accurately, the colors, and of course, the shades. Hues, contrasts, whatever happens to be coming through the fence, the blinds, and at the right moment, shadows. Bright here, mellow there, ambiguous here, starkly sharp there.

As gathering places go, what draws locals to markets also draws passersby. The people. And what spins around the people.

And how funny it is, that locals and passersby alike, how we all glance up the aisles, down the lines, pull up chairs, slurp, chat, negotiate, laugh. Mesmerize. And be mesmerized. Perhaps this is the sole place where you and I are not so different, not so distant. Proximity by physics, but also in mind, is so often taken for granted.

Flies the size of thumbnails, on or around potentially lukewarm poultry, the nagging reminders of pocket thieves, and even the gentleman pissed off at photography-with-no-purchase, it all becomes a welcome banner. In a town flooded with trekkers catching wind before heading off to grander ruins, the mercado perhaps is one place to truly live Cusco.

While travel is generally to experience something out of the norm, as far away from the everyday as possible, the irony is that the best travel often lures you towards the norm and everyday of someone else. Away from one and towards another, and yet, from the contrasts, the sense of familiarity is what strangely lasts in the passerby’s psyche.

The author and passerby Nikos Kazantzakis once said, “I surrender myself to everything. I love, I feel pain, I struggle. The world seems to me wider than the mind, my heart a dark and almighty mystery.”

The fray of the market calls fur such surrendering, almost forcefully widening one’s mind, and the smell, the sounds, the noise, the sites, the colors, and the shades, all sink into one’s heart to form an almighty mystery. For a brief moment, one travels to and from the label of passerby to just another being – loving, feeling, struggling. As a place for trading, the most significant trade turns out to be that of the mind and sentiment, where full immersion allows one to be something completely different and yet the same. The vaguely familiar.

Salad bowls are like vanishing unicorns. Mixing bowls do not exist. To argue or to search for one would be dumping everything from the mercado (goat testicles and all) into a blender and forcing the consequence down one’s throat. Instead, what really happens is more like a dream, or that stage between sleep and consciousness. Passersby become locals, but are still passing by, but are still there, fully there.

It makes no sense, but in the end, travel makes no sense. It does not have to. What remains is one’s self, no longer of the past, a completely new being, back from the dream, now fully awake.

Back from the mercado.

“Let me, though, when again I have all around me the chaos of cities, the tangled skein of commotion, the blare of the traffic, alone, let me, above the most dense confusion, remember this sky and the darkening rim of the valley where the flock appeared, echoing, on its way home.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Cusco begins and ends with its streets.

Meticulous stonework of the Incas is meshed with Spanish details. Each street and alley winds up and down smooth cobblestones, that which withstood centuries of mules and rubber.

The seemingly natural co-existance of the old and the new is, at the same time, unnatural. Miniature cars race through streets barely wide enough for them, tumbling here and there over flattened stones adjacent to stone walls hand-built by the Incas of centuries past. Women in traditional garb hurry down the street bashfully, while travelers from everywhere wander up the street to maybe nowhere.

Space is tight. Sidewalks are often layered terraces, resembling those that embrace the ancient city of Machu Picchu. Barely wide enough for two pedestrians, one must dart to and from the sidewalk to the cobblestone street, avoiding people and cars, and stray dogs. In some spots, the cobblestones are as unpredictable as the trails that encircle the great Salkantay Mountain, treacherous grounds lurking for weak ankles.

Space is tight and that is beautiful. It forces encounters. The new and the old, the local and the foreign, the there and here – we all meet in the street.

Above the buzzing streets, the deep blue of the clear Andean sky is a blank canvass for the clouds to dance upon. The mood, and the shadows, changes quickly. Clouds form, come, and go, often without much notice. Droplets of rain drizzle sporadically, only to vanish with the clouds, as if they are afraid of the scorching sun.

The color pallet of Cusco is as diverse as the landscape of the Andes. Upon the base of gray cobblestones and reddish brown roof tiles, splashes of red, yellow, blue, green quietly market their existence. Nothing overpowers. This is not unlike the famed Incan tapestry. Colors are celebrated, but not to the detriment of the balance of the whole, always in harmony with the base colors.

The streets of Cusco are works of art. They seem planned yet unplanned, designed yet organic. Then again, history is a designer. Time adds layers and angles not easily perceived my narrow human perception, trapped in the past and in the present. Time is an overlooked creative force. A stone or two in a day or two, a new structure or two in a year or two, a new neighborhood or two in a decade or two. History’s tragedies – the bloodbath of the Spanish invasion of the Incas – never truly heal. And yet its progeny still stands, and ironically exhumes beauty.

Everything changes, and nothing changes.

Colors and stones will add to Cusco. Cars change, streetlights change, people change. But as long as the cobblestones blanket the winding streets and the clouds hover to and fro, Cusco remains.

I was never a great drummer. Snare, I could tap the snare just fine, but not in conjunction with the bass, or with the symbol or the toms. I was never a great classical pianist. I could play the right-hand treble lines just fine, but not while reading the left-hand bass lines. Dammit, I wanted to focus on one thing at a time.

Multitasking is not a great virtue of mine. And despite many critical voices telling me otherwise, I am not too keen on developing it as a skill. The ability to do and complete multiple tasks simultaneously is a valuable asset when your goal is to complete many tasks in a short amount of time. Wait, that is the goal for almost any modern office environment – more, faster, now.

In this centrifuge of everyday “productivity,” no one bothers to ask, “at what cost.” Day is night, night is day; weekday, weekend, it’s all the same. Life becomes a round of pinball, violently bouncing from wall to wall, not at one’s one volition or will, but by sheer opposite forces.

This traps us in “fast-think.” It’s fast food for thought.

We lose the ability to think strenuously. After one-too-many years of fast-think, we lose interest in simmering our thoughts, and our taste buds have become too immature to appreciate or too senile to care the slow-think process.

Running, writing and reading, and cooking combats the epidemic urge to feed all our thoughts into the processor.

Trails and the mountains present us with both the macro and the micro. The sheer size of nature’s peaks and falls dwarf us, putting us in our place as mere specks in a much larger sphere. Meanwhile, every tree root and rock on the trail must be taken into account – your mind and body is on full alert as you nimbly and efficiently make your way through weaving paths. Your body may be moving swiftly, but your mind is at a calm standstill. Your thoughts dwindle down to the bare essentials; it’s you and your next step, nothing else. Scrambling demands your utmost attention and nothing less, as your fingertips and toes are often the only things keeping one from a devastating or fatal fall. Sounds crazy, but in that void, I get most of my heavy “thinking” done. Thinking less ends up being more. Doing more with less. Things come together at the end of the trail.

Writing, done right, is a painstakingly slow process. The distance from one end of a computer screen to the other is a matter of inches, but sometimes, jotting down that next word feels like a power-hike up a vertical mile. Few other exercises devised by mankind requires you to focus as much as writing. In that moment, you are battling with your self, both past and present, on every word. Then you delete-all and start from scratch again. Reading is similar. Textbooks, Supreme Court opinions, news articles, you can get away with skimming through. You can’t bullshit through a novel. I find novels are hard to read during rush hour subway commutes because they require an extra gear of attentive devotion. The sheer depth and breadth of characters and intertwining of plots are only fully appreciated with your ass on a couch for a good three or four hours at a time.

What more can I say about food. Slow-food is now a popular term, countering fast-food. But apart from that, cooking at its core represents the most raw human behavior. Gathering (or shopping for) ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, and eating around a table is the ultimate symbol of slowing down. Along with brewing freshly ground coffee in the morning, cooking and eating a meal with other human beings is what bonds us to life and why we work to sustain ourselves. You stop, you breathe, you look around. The dinner table is a powerful glue that has steadily lost its adhesive power.

Fast-think, it’s no different from fast food.

billygoat2 thanksgiving

Dinner was cordial as usual. The menu doesn’t seem to vary much at these things, thought Ivan, as he finished off his grilled beef ribs. Immediately above his plate, on the white tablecloth, he had arranged eight or so business cards, as if he had been dealt a hand in a game of Texas Holdem. Matching names to faces was always difficult. Lisa, John, Peter, Sarah, Jacob. Jacob? Ivan glanced back and forth from his hand of cards to the laughing, chewing faces at the table. A merry round of poker. Cards were laid out in front of each player – manager, senior manager, associate, partner. These cards were dealt out only after ceremonious hand shakes, but that was more than an hour ago, before the beef, the fish, and the soup.

In between reaching, chewing, swallowing, and smiling, Ivan was busy jotting things down on the legal pad in his lap. He had considered placing the legal pad on the table – to ease the discomfort of having to keep his legs closed to support the legal pad – but the thought of bright yellow on white restrained him from doing so. That would upset Dmitri, his boss. Eat, write, smile, eat, write, smile. Dmitri’s orders. The meal, that’s right, remembered Ivan, there was a meal. Everything tasted the same.

To be honest, he didn’t quite remember what was ordered by whom, or what tasted like what. He did remember Dmitri briefly closing his eyes in prayer before the meal. But the food was a blur. Surly not a problem with the chef or the kitchen, thought Ivan, as the restaurant and staff were impeccable. Rather, Ivan’s mind and right hand were racing to catch every phrase uttered at the table. Lisa from blah said blah blah regarding blah blah blah. Peter responded to Lisa’s blah with his blah blah regarding blah blah blah. Like a mad court room reporter with no computer and only a pen, Ivan scribbled incomprehensible blahs left to right, up and down. The bright yellow of the legal pad was quickly invaded by blue ink, like mutant worms crawling for their lives across a vast yellow desert. Not to worry, thought Ivan, deciphering this mess would come later in the hotel room, when he drafts his nightly report for Dmitri.

The check for the dinner was about to come. Did the waitress bring it over already? No, wait, that was Ivan’s job, to prearrange the tab on the Department’s corporate account. He had forgotten all about it. Buried in checklists, rental car agreements, itineraries, hotel receipts, Ivan had forgotten to call the restaurant in advance to arrange the payment. The Department did not give Ivan and his team a corporate card. Rather, the Department’s account information was to be given at each destination as pre-approved payment. Consent and authorization forms had to be faxed back and forth with the Department, and although Ivan thought the system was convoluted and dysfunctional, there was no way around it. Dmitri’s orders. Now, he had completely forgotten this backwards payment ritual. Dmitri’s wrath was already palpable as he reached in his wallet for his personal card.

Card swiped. Tab signed. Receipt received. Glare.

Late autumn nights in Los Angeles were wrapped in a cool breeze. Smog had relentlessly covered any hopes of stars in the sky, but the coolness and absence of humidity were certainly inviting. Ivan, Dmitri and the dinner party slowly stepped outside, exchanging farewells and ceremonious handshakes. Ivan was about to turn the ignition in the rented Jeep Liberty when Dmitri’s cellphone rang. It was Tzesar, one of Dmitri’s seniors at the Department. Tzesar was in town on unrelated visit, had heard Dmitri was here, and wanted to meet up for rounds at a nearby karaoke joint. Dmitri was visibly tired but could not refuse. After all, pleasing his seniors was the only surefire way to secure his next promotion at the Department. Bailing out was out of the question. The digital clock next to the dashboard read 10:17 pm when Ivan’s team arrived at the karaoke bar.

Tzesar and his minions were already half drunk. With rosy cheeks and less than stellar balance, less ceremonial handshakes were exchanged, as everyone plunked down on the sofas in a good-sized room. An ugly strobe light twirled slowly, flashing bits of colored light on the bottles and empty glasses on the table. Jack Daniels and Heinekens were ordered, along with bland fruit platters. Tzesar had been in Los Angeles for a few days on official business, and was scheduled to head back to his office in San Francisco the next day. Shots of whiskey were exchanged. Tzesar was obviously glad to see Dmitri, especially during a business trip. Don’t worry about a thing, he said, everything tonight is on the Department, so drink up. More shots were exchanged.

The ties came off, the jackets came off. Shirt sleeves were rolled up. Terrible singing ensued, but who cared. As Tzesar’s associates were dancing to the music, clapping, and keeping the beat with tambourines, Ivan preferred to sit back and enjoy the nonsensical combination of booze and shitty music. But to ruin this odd sense of peace, Dmitri nudged him, whispering in his ear, get up there and dance or something, you’re making me look bad. The last thing Ivan wanted to do was imitate these baboons and dance to Tzesar’s unforgivable singing. But a few more nudges to the ribcage sent Ivan to the front of the room, with tambourine in hand. Baboon.

The whiskey and the dancing were not enough. The room was full of testosterone, said Tzesar, we need women to really lift our spirits. One of Tzesar’s associates, with his tie around his head like a headband, ran out. Minutes later, he returned with two young women. Neither looked much more than twenty years old. Marina cuddled up next to the alpha male, Tzesar, her black skirt barely reaching her thighs. Pouring him another shot of JD, Marina asked him if he wanted to sing a duet. Tzesar was all smiles. Tatyana swept across the sofa towards Dmitri, with the other JD bottle in hand. The sage Tzesar was right, the testosterone level was reduced by two plaster-faced twenty-somethings, and their spirits were lifted, both literally and figuratively. In no time, Marina had Tsezar in the front of the room, slow dancing with her like a middle school dance. Tatyana was serenading the couple with her favorite ballade, while Dmitri rattled his tambourine in approval.

Hips swayed. Mouths whispered. Glasses clanked.

As if the clock had struck midnight in the Cinderella fairytale, Marina and Tatyana said their heartfelt farewells and left, exactly one hour after they were led to the room. An unhappy Tzesar was told that he would have to rent them out for another hour if he wanted to prolong their presence. Glancing at his wrist watch, Tzesar muttered something under his breath and reached for his jacket. The night, sadly, was over.

Dmitri rushed to the cashier, in an attempt to further appease his alpha male by grabbing the tab. But giddily drunk Tzesar waived his hand in disapproval and handed a card to the cashier. I told you not to worry, said Tzesar, the Department will take care of this, it’s all part of the trip. The alpha male always wins these battles, and the night belonged to him and the Department. No handshakes this time. Drunken hugs were exchanged as the party exited the smoke-filled building into the even cooler Southern California night. Next time, declared Tzesar, he would treat them well in San Francisco. Better women, he snickered.

Ivan the designated driver lowered his window as he steered the Jeep towards the hotel. The wind pounded his face, oncoming headlights rushed passed him in surprising consistency, and the darkened silhouettes of mile-high palm trees painted the skyline. In the hotel elevator, Dmitri uttered something about a report on the dinner meeting, how he shouldn’t have to pull out his personal card ever again, how Ivan should learn how to dance with the ladies. Ivan nodded silently, his mind still attached to palm tree silhouettes. The elevator door opened on the tenth floor.

Ivan sank deeper into the hotel bed. His head was spinning.

The mind is composed of frames. Like reels of film, the mind churns at the tempo of frames per day, per hour, per minute, and per second. In a churning world where turbo speed is required, milliseconds per each frame, observance is the practice of pausing. By dissecting each frozen frame, one’s conception of time – and of life – is no longer a straight, one way arrow. Time curves. Einstein was right when he argued his “frame dragging” theory. The same sixty minutes allotted in each hour become an eternity for some, and a blinking stoplight for others.

Choice cuts of pork shoulder, thinly sliced fatty brisket, top blade of beef, whole mackerel, white shrimp (with their heads in tact), bratwurst, and spicy Andouille sausage. As a matter of human nature, these aforementioned items sizzling on the grill makes it almost impossible for one to think twice about the flames amidst the glowing charcoal. In retrospect, yes, one does think about the flames and the charcoal, and does so precisely and carefully, for the level of activity of the flames and the state of the charcoal is what determines the end quality of the protein suspended above. But, as a matter of human grilling nature, all attention is poured exquisitely on precisely that, the art of grilling.

Campfires are different. Smoring activities aside, building and enjoying a campfire is about the flames – the conception, the juvenile flickerings, the sweeping, roaring peak, the gradual decline, and the ultimate, flameless glow. After a marathon grill session featuring meat as varietal as the animals boarding Noah’s Ark, I stacked a few logs, allowing plenty of space and air between them. Starting the fire with only a few dry twigs proved a challenged, so I cheated and lit a kick-starter; and kick-start it did. As the crescent moon started to ascend above the rolling peaks of the Shenandoah Valley, I plunked down in a lawn chair, fresh coffee in hand, and observed the fire. Sip of coffee. Feed the fire with dry twigs. Throw my head back and look up into the sky, and become mesmerized by a sea of stars, the sheer vastness surprisingly suffocating. Sip of coffee. Repeat.

Flames are part of a collective entity – fire. Flames slowly subsume their surrounding, inch by inch. At its conception, and during its immediate gasps for air, it seems like the fire burns uncontrollably, leaping beyond its reach, frantically twisting and twirling in and through the stacked wood. This initial chaos is the fire gasping for oxygen, as a newborn lets out its first cries after taking in its first gasps of air. But after the flames settle, the fire becomes grounded, and its energy is harnessed, controlled in its center. At times, individual flames attempt to jump out alone, in search of uncharted wood, only to fizzle out in no time. Individualism has not place in the world of fire. It breathes as a unit. The flames slowly advance, retreating sometimes, yet returning again, crawling, creeping.

“Now he could hear the continuous rumbling of carts as they left the markets. Paris was chewing over the daily food of its two million inhabitants. The markets were like some huge central organ pumping blood into every vein of the city. The din was as if made by colossal jaws, a mighty sound to which each phase of the provisioning contributed, from the cracking of the big buyers’ whips as they started off for the district markets to the shuffling feet of the old women who hawked their lettuces in baskets from door to door.”

In his classic impressionist manner, Emile Zola, in “The Belly of Paris,” paints the Parisian marketplace Les Halles in the wee hours of the morning, comparing the bustling market to a heart pumping blood to the rest of the city. As the sun began to hide behind the slopes, the fire too resembled a central organ, pumping miniature flames left and right, incessantly burning brighter and brighter, not too fast as to fizzle before its time, but not too weak as to put a gap in the supply of red, orange and yellow. Its flickering veins stretch and contract, hissing at the wood, licking the air in unpredictable randomness. Chaos is no more, as the steady supply of energy from the grounded center reigns in the flames as if they were on chained leashes.

Fire is flexible. Its power comes from its flexibility. Flames do really dance, bending with the wind, riding the wind. They glide on the logs’ surface, morphing from one amorphous shape to another. Rigid flames would be short lived, broken. Survival calls for wind riders, adapting to the ebb and flow, using the oxygen from the wind to burn brighter than before. While one may think that the ferocity of a fire is a defiant act against the wind and the elements, it is quite the opposite. Fighting the wind makes no sense for the fire. No matter how ferocious the fire, it dare not pick a fight with the wind, for its flames cannot char the invisible. The fire’s dance is that of a skilled boxer, light on its feet, jabbing, shifting, ducking. Its dance outlines the contours of the wind; the invisible becomes visible through the dance of the visible. The wind actually feeds the fire. With every jab, left hook and uppercut, the flames kiss the wind and suck the oxygen, retreating shyly, only to return once more for another lick.

Smoring activities subsided, the coffee long gone. Served me well to bring along the Bialetti moka pot; dense, concentrated cup of coffee to match the dark of night and the billowing smoke from the fire, its rich Guatemalan flavors permeating my immediate vicinity. My longing for a wolf howl was not realized, and the stars shimmered brighter as the sky took on deeper shades of black.

The longer the fire burns, its flames become embedded into the glowing logs. The thicker of the dry twigs have not yet turned to ash, their vitality measured by the occasional hisses and crackles. The glow of the firewood is the beginning of the end for the fire. Older flames now vanish inside the logs, as if a persistent vacuum sucked them whole. The disappearing flames resemble the work of old women divers on the coasts of the Korean peninsula. Now an almost extinct profession, women would free dive into the depths of the freezing water, twenty, thirty, forty feet at a time, to pluck sea cucumbers, abalone, seaweed and other goods to be sold at the nearest market. The work is treacherous and painful, yet the remaining divers – most of them in their fifties, sixties and beyond – have kept up their livelihood. The manner in which they dive is reminiscent of the disappearing flames. Silent.

Like a small pebble dropping to the depths, no splashes are made, no fanfare. One moment the diver, in her black body suit and goggles, is there, and in a flash, she quietly disappears beneath the waves. Minutes later, she resurfaces, again silently, holding in her hand precious gems that would put food on her table later that night. Like the old divers, the flames, after traversing through the bright glow of the wood, burst out at the first opportunity, licking the surface once more, kissing the air and smoke. The process is repeated all around the logs, flames disappearing into glowing sinkholes, the wood, now almost an ashen gray, blinking brighter and brighter, and the flames poking their heads out once more, with the same vitality.

As the once vibrant campfire slowly subsides into a pile of glowing ash, I now wish I had just a few sips of Ethiopian Sidamo, just to get its dancing flavors to last a bit in my mouth. The clock has almost struck midnight, yet the hours spent observing the fire’s timeline culminated in a craving for coffee. Fire and meat earlier in the day, fire and coffee late at night.

Wrapping up the evening, I traced the fire to its origin. The kick-starter birthed this fire. The kick-starter speaks. Like an opportunity of a lifetime, it burst into flames the moment I clicked the lighter. The kick-starter was seemingly self-sustainable, as it continued to burn brightly on its own. The surrounding logs did not catch on instantly, while the kick-starter continued its self immolation, extorting energy. The logs eventually caught on, and the small, non-sustainable flames of the kick-starter rode the logs, spreading rapidly, crackling louder than ever.

Even with the world’s best kick-starter, the campfire would not have come into being if the firewood was wet. “Unprepared” logs would not have caught on, and the kick-starter would have burnt itself to the end, the flames fizzling out in the same vicinity as its birthplace. Readiness, then, is a must to start a fire. Kick-starters, in various forms, present themselves in one’s life. Like golden stars in a Super Mario game, they offer opportunities of a lifetime, something that will light that spark needed to get the fire going. But unless the wood is prepared just right, kick-starters are useless, and opportunities will pass by showing no signs of remorse. To catch the spark at the right moment, readiness may take time, patience and perseverance.

The “readiness” of the wood is also useless unless the logs are stacked as to leave some void space between them, creating enough space for oxygen to travel freely. The best wood, with the best kick-starter, will not produce a long-lasting fire if it is not fed with an abundance of air at its conception. In similar fashion, one must create and maintain a certain inner “void” to harness the fire, to ground it. One must not smother one’s inner self, and not fill it to maximum capacity. Ten logs stacked like bricks may never catch on fire, while three logs stacked carefully like a pyramid will burst into flames as soon as the kick-starter hits its peak of self-destruction.

No fire is sustainable with no void. This inner void is a mental room that allows creative thinking. Stuffing one’s mind with knowledge and experience only takes you so far. To sustain creative, meaningful output, a vacuum is needed to fuel the thought process with fresh oxygen. The void, in Zola’s terms, is the organ pumping fresh blood to the veins stretched throughout Paris. The void pushes the flames out, reigns them in, allows them to travel through the logs freely. It is not the amount of information one stores that determines success; it is the ability to harness that information, to channel it, and to sustain it in the most flexible manner.

Dance like the fire.

Just minutes ago, I was driving across Bay Bridge in what seemed like miles of concrete, the ferocious rain slapping against the barely visible windshield, all the temporary residents of the bridge enveloped in a thick fog. Even with the wipers toiling at maximum speed, visibility was near zero. Then, in spectacular fashion, the sky cleared and the clouds parted, collecting the rain and its remnants. As rays of sunshine pierced the withering layers of precipitation, the fog cleared as well, dissipating in a heartbeat, as if it were never there to begin with.

“I’ll have a shot of espresso, pulled long please.” Thanks to a faulty navigation system, a supposed two-hour drive up to St. Michaels had taken closer to four, and with a stiff back from the extended drive, I desperately grasped coffee’s medicinal healing powers. Espresso for the back. Worked before, so why not. Doctor’s orders. What came back was an overly bitter, acidic specimen of espresso, remarkably similar in taste to the ginseng extract my mom used to shove in my mouth as a child. Not something you would want to correlate with coffee, especially the first few sips in a new town. In open defiance to the predisposed list of “coffee cities” – the likes of Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – I was, in part, in search of a noteworthy coffee scene in this small tourist destination, a roaster and a cup or two of praiseable beans and coffee. Maryland has its share of excellent specialty roasters, Ceremony Coffee being one of them. But my first stop at Blue Crab Coffee quickly dwindled any hope of making a significant discovery (TripAdvisor and Yelp are not to be trusted blindly). Disappointment trickling down my esophagus along with the shot – I had expected much more from a relatively well-reviewed cafe, especially a more jovial atmosphere in lieu of sorry music – I stepped back outside and into the sun on my first afternoon in St. Michaels.

A trip to crab country when crab season is still months away. The only glimpse of Maryland blue crab was a glistening plastic replica hanging on a wall at Blue Crab Coffee. But St. Michaels was much more than just crab. It is a quiet coexistence of opposites, centered around shipbuilding and leisure. The town first flourished as a mecca of shipyards in the Chesapeake, fueled by people’s explosive appetite for oysters and later crab. A boom in ships, oysters and crab meant a boom for the town. Churches and schools were built, homes were settled, and fisherman, oystermen and businessmen alike flourished. Then the ships were no more. The oysters never died off, but harvest levels fell drastically. Crabbing became the main source of livelihood. Over time, the once thriving ship town evolved into a quaint retreat, with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld purchasing vacation homes on the Bay. Different types of vessels are built now, mostly luxury yachts. Tourism, especially during the summer crab season, sustains the town.

But ironically, the off-season is the ripe time to immerse oneself to the quintessential Eastern Seaboard. Away from the flocks of tourists, jam packed in the one-two-many crab shacks near the docks. Distanced from the temptation to settle for only the guided tours offered twice a day. In all honesty, escaping “touristy” St. Michaels is near impossible. You should pay admission and check out the maritime museum, a must to understand the backbone shipping industry that sustained this regions for decades. Guided tours or not, you should walk through the heart of the city on foot; the historic section is tiny, and you’d drive through it in minutes. In the midst of “touring,” however, be sure to chat up the locals to find out where they eat and where they drink their coffee. In doing so, you will find that crab country is possibly more charming when there are no crabs around.

From my short trip to the heart of the Chesapeake, here are three takeaways.

1. Fried Oysters and Pulled Pork, at Once

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Talbot Street is the main street piercing the belly downtown St. Michaels. The narrow street is clubbered with eateries left and right. One restaurant was particularly eye-catching, with an open patio resembling Cancun during spring break. A menu displayed the usual of what you’d expect on the coast – fried fish, burgers, sandwiches. Packed and bustling, very “family friendly.” Pass. Instead, I walked further down the road, a few blocks, towards the outer edge of downtown. Fewer people on the sidewalk. In the distance, I spotted a cloud of smoke slowly rising from a smoker on a trailer. The smell of smoky, caramelized meat was violently enticing. Gripping. The last thing I expected on this trip was to be standing next to a cozy smoker, inhaling the Divine Breath while contemplating whether to have grilled grouper or oysters. And pulled pork. The sign outside read ‘Big Al’s Market.” Smoked meat. Plus freshly fried Chesapeake oysters. Needless to say, I walked in.

On the hand-written menu, “barbeque” and “oysters” floated harmoniously, shyly as if the two acquaintances did not really know how to coexist within the limited square footage of the establishment. Surf and turf was no longer a plate of disdainfully well-done steak with dehydrated shrimp. Here, pork butt slowly roasted for hours in an actual smoker married just-shucked oysters the size of dried persimmons, breaded and perfectly deep fried. Smoke, pork, bun, oysters, cocktail sauce (with extra horseradish). All consumed at a “smoke-side” table outside, right next to that smoker. Did I mention the smoker? The oysters, still hot, had an audible crunch, and yet I could still taste the sea from the juices in side. The horseradish pleasantly shot up my nostrils, while the fuming smoke from the roasting pork bun and ribs cajoled the left side of my face. No complaints on being completely enveloped in that smoke.

A proper hello to a new city. Cars whizzing by behind my back, the warm midday sun easing the still brisk spring winds, a few local high school students taking the table next to ours with baskets of pulled pork sandwiches and fries. Even if I was sitting on the curb, without tables, I would not have had lunch any other way in St. Michaels. Expected and unexpected at the same time, on that main touristy road but not touristy at all. Southern charm from the ongoing smoker, Chesapeake charm from the oyster juice. A wonderful dichotomy reflective of the bygone glories of the shipyards, the mounds of shiny oyster shells, and the remaining gift shops selling disturbingly ugly t-shirts. Embracing this dichotomy presents a new prism in which to view St. Michaels as something more than a mere settlement of vacation homes. Embracing this dichotomy tastes like, well, smoke. That smoker!

2. White Tablecloth is Not the Devil

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I have a thing on fine dining. Not against, just “on.” The one-too-many shiny utensils, two-too-many glasses, the obviously American-born waiter (quite possibly a George Washington University student) painfully saying “voila” every other visit with an accent even I can detect, the pitifully frugal morsel of food on my overpriced plate with some sauce smeared across the top and mysterious foam slowly deflating on the side. Not against fine dining, not against it. I’d like to redefine it, somewhat. White tablecloth does not make food “fine,” nor does an over indulgence of fois gras or truffles on every dish. To be honest, I don’t know how I’d define fine dining. “Fine” is subjective on so many levels, although Michelin or the Beard Foundation would disagree. Defining subjective things is almost a pointless task, for the final definition of the term will be, by “definition”, different for any individual or group. Different definition across cultures, race, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this, I say the hell with it, here is what fine dining boils down to: enjoyment of well-prepared food in the company of likeable people within the confines of agreeable surroundings. Food, people, place.

Hence the heightened speculation when I was seated at Sherwood’s Landing, the exquisite restaurant at the Inn and Perry Cabin hotel. In any city I visit for the first time, my priority is to explore the hidden huts and shacks no one has heard of and not reviewed in Yelp or TripAdvisor. That cafe only the locals frequent, that burger joint students visit for their hangover cure. But this trip had a grander purpose than my priorities, our first wedding anniversary. For one meal, no shack will do, no hut will do, only the best dining experience in all of St. Michaels would be worthy of our occasion.

The dining area was beautiful, overlooking a small bay with wooden docks, the late afternoon sunshine illuminating the entire room. The tables were mostly empty, as we had opted for an earlier time slot. Like much of the resort itself, the restaurant was serene and calming, the famous spa having rubbed off its influence even in the gastronomic arena. Enchanting, but my interest, as always, was whether the food would match the ambiance. And indeed, the chef rose to the challenge. No foam. No fluff. No frills. Local, in-season ingredients, generous portions. The warm salad, with blanched asparagus and morel mushrooms, was more than pleasing even to this salad-despising carnivore; the butter and crème fraîche sauce, punched with chopped garlic, was perfect. The real highlight, however, is the stuffed duck breast I had for my entree. If you’ve had duck breast done blasphemously incorrectly on more than one occasion (read overcooked), you will empathize with the praise I am about to pour out. Most importantly, the breast was the perfect temperature, pinkish and very moist. The chef butterflied the breast, pan fried it, and stuffed it with a tantalizing concoction of apples and smoked walnuts, among other things. Three medallions, rolled like a futomaki, rested on three beds of pureed parsnips, a much wiser supplement than potatoes or other starches. To best enjoy this dish, every criterion must hit the tongue at once. Juicy duck, tart apples, smoky walnuts, sweet and buttery parsnip. Oh, and the medallions were wrapped in bacon. Not overpowering, just adding salt and smokiness. Do I need to say more? The sauce was something wine-based, sweet, savory, brilliant. No other single dish has left a lasting impression as this one. That says a lot.

Fine dining has reinvented itself in my psyche. The fancy frills, the foie, even the foam – they’re okay. As long as the food is profound and prominent throughout the dining experience, as long as the food is straightforward, as long as the food tastes “fine,” white tablecloth is not the devil.

3. Locals Know Their Brew

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Exploring a new city through its cafes is a brilliant approach. Coffee, the people who serve it and the cafes in which it is served, is a vein that connects cities and their inhabitants. Where there is coffee, there are stories, stories about stories, and the people behind the stories. Cafes are microcosms of the city itself, a miniature that captures its essential characteristics. You know a cafe, and you’re half way there in knowing the city.

I did not have high expectations of St. Michaels’ coffee scene. Most reviews I glanced over indicated two cafes, one of which was closed in 2011. The other is Blue Crab Coffee, a supposed local favorite located in a big yellow house known as the Freedom’s Friend Lodge. As my first stop in town, I walked in and ordered an espresso. The rest is as stated in my opening; nothing special, nothing noteworthy. Bad espresso. Maybe it was that particular barista. Maybe the specialty pour over coffees would have fared better. I judge sushi joints the same way. One bite of nigiri; if it’s off, you haven’t got the basics down. Coffee? Espresso, if it’s off, it’s off. Whatever the reason, my first impression of St. Michaels, and any hopes of discovering a hidden coffee culture within, was all but ruined.

This is why you talk to waiters, bartenders, baristas, and hotel concierge. These folks know their cities in and out, and usually are giddily happy to share nuggets of information with you. At the end of a mind boggling meal at Sherwood’s Landing, as I was stuffing my face with an equally delicious souffle, I asked our waiter about their coffee. Restaurant coffee service, especially in starred establishments, is a recent interest to me, as I have written about it in this post. A blend of Sumatran and Guatemalan beans, the coffee was smooth, full body, and very nutty. With obvious pride, the waiter informed me that they have been working with the local roaster Rise Up Coffee for some time, and this was a specially designed house blend for the restaurant. Rise Up Coffee, I had to get me some of that, pronto. Evidently, the nearest nexus to this new found wonder was a drive thru kiosk a mile or so away.

The kiosk was the last pit stop before driving back to DC. I usually enjoy the cafe experience, walking in, perusing the single origin menu, checking out the espresso machine, the whole bit. But if a ten-by-ten hut in a parking lot serves fresh, tasty coffee, I do not care. Nothing frivolous, just a standard cup of the daily house blend, and yet my last impression of St. Michaels is now etched with Rise Up’s rich brew. The coffee scene did not let me down, after all. A local roaster in existence since 2005 serving great coffee on par with bigger competition in cities like New York and Seattle. It was a shame I did not visit the newly opened roastery in Easton; you can be sure I will drop by during my next visit. New roaster (at least to me) doing things right, brewing excellent coffee – these things excite me. Who knew. The “locavore” concept now makes more sense to me. Local oysters, local duck, and locally roasted coffee. Besides the obvious benefits of freshness and taste, the discovery of locally owned and distributed foods and coffees adds pure bliss to travel. And such discoveries will be the focal point of future tales to come.

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