I wasn’t planning to spend my Saturday morning baking this olive oil cake. But I had some leftover coconut milk sitting in the fridge, and I hate to see that go to waste. And that bag of tangelos, practically begging to be zested and juiced. What else was I going to do with all these strawberries? I mean, I could eat them by themselves. Or…they can be embellished with a little cake. See, my hands were tied.

So it wasn’t long before I found myself carefully separating bits of tangelo from pith and connective membrane. The counter top was splattered with juice and I had managed to get bits of egg white on my pajamas. So much for a relaxing weekend morning away from the kitchen where I spend most of my weeknights making home-cooked dinners. But baked goods have a tendency to settle, stubbornly, on my mind. This cake in particular occupied most of my thoughts during my 40 lap swim on Friday night. That’s a lot of laps to be thinking about moist yellow crumbs.

And as long as I’m here, I might as well throw in that bottle of lemon scented olive oil that I had been saving for something special.

Dan and I each had two slices of warm cake studded with bits of tangy tangelos, topped with a generous heap of coconut whipped cream and served with honey-sweetened strawberries. Perfect breakfast.

orange olive oil cake
orange olive oil cake
Tangelo Olive Oil Cake from Smitten Kitchen

  1. I used tangelos instead of oranges. They’re easier to peel but more sour than your average navel orange.
  2. I halved the amount of sugar in the cake, because I knew the whipped cream and strawberries will be sweetened. And it was perfect.
  3. The whipped cream was made with heavy cream, coconut milk, a few spoonfuls of powdered sugar, and flavored with a bit of vanilla.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve tried to make pull-apart bread. There was always something wrong with mine. The slices were too uneven, the edges too charred, the insides too dry. Luckily, I’m no stranger to sequential failures, thanks to graduate school. I’ve spent years cultivating a resilient sense of optimism and a high tolerance for repetition. I’m pretty sure that If I can bounce back from months of demoralizing experimental disasters, then making a decent loaf of bread is no biggie.

And the rewards were deliciously satisfying. As soon as I pulled this out of the oven, I did a little dance of joy. Perfectly crispy edges with generous amounts of buttery mustard and cheese filling slathered on each slice. Somehow we managed to restrain ourselves enough to make the loaf last for a few days. It makes an unbeatable combination with baked BBQ chicken wings and sautéed veggies. Pop open a beer and enjoy a toasted slice of this bad boy.

Now, if only my experiments could be as gratifying as this loaf of bread.

mustard cheese pull apart bread

mustard cheese pull apart bread

mustard cheese pull apart bread

Cheddar Beer and Mustard Pull-Apart Bread from Smitten Kitchen

Tips from Flourish

Every year, I have a phone interview with a sociologist from Northwestern University to discuss my experience in graduate school. And since I’m not usually quite prepared for an intense introspective session on the joys and tribulations of academic limbo at 8 AM in the morning, my answers tend to be awkward and disjointed. What does it mean to be a scientist? Cue internal groaning. Have you completed your PhD? Panic ensues.

Since the beginning of graduate school, I’ve been enrolled in a study that tracks the progress and outcomes of PhD candidates across the States. A group of us were randomly chosen to receive formal mentorship from a career coaching program. I wouldn’t know anything about this program, since I’ve only been recruited to the control group. This means the sociologists are primarily interested to see how well (or not well) I am coping with graduate school without the benefit of their coaching program. Occasionally, I wonder whether my “luckier” cohorts are reaping the fruits of supplement support, while the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves. That is, until one day I discovered that my partner, who is also a graduate student, had been recruited in the intervention group of the same study. He is faring no better or worse than I am. What a relief.

One of the questions that the interviewers always ask each year is how my gender identity has impacted my experience in science. When I first heard this question five years ago, I was bewildered. I had received a great education at Berkeley where half of my fellow students in the molecular biology department were women. I had met plenty of women scientists in research labs, albeit fewer women faculty. But it had never occurred to me that gender was of any consequence in the scientific work place. Certainly, I have never witnessed nor experienced any overt sexism.

But I’ve come to appreciate that gender plays a larger role than I had believed. And part of that is understanding that sexism doesn’t need to be overt or external. I spent more than two years fighting the fear that my faults and ineptitude would be exposed every time I had to give a presentation. I worried that expressing any opinion during meetings would demonstrate my low-level thinking. I agonized over the thought that I was not as astute or committed to science as my male counterparts. I acquiesced to others when it came to sharing resources even at the expense of my own experiments, because I feared that I wouldn’t be liked. And I kept my head down when I needed help because I believed I had to solve my own problems in order to prove my place in science.

No one had to make any sexist remarks to shut me down. I shut myself down because I internalized perceptions—that I was not even aware I had—of women’s academic and professional potential. And I would have continued in this way if another women scientist had not invited me for a much-needed, honest discussion about the ways I was doing a disservice to myself and the achievements that say I am qualified to be here. While this story is not new for feminism, it is new for me. And it is still difficult to not capitulate to the cloud of self-doubt that constantly hangs over me even as I am aware of its fallacy. Even more difficult to convince myself that my work and opinions are entitled for consideration. But I have found that simply realizing and being able to speak honestly about my struggles has changed the way I approach science and my career.

This is my fifth year in graduate school. If you listen to my past interviews, I’m pretty sure you can hear the bubble of naivete pop somewhere around year three. To be clear, I am not resentful about anything. I would not have chosen differently if given the chance. But I have come a long way from the bright-eyed first year who was 80% certain of staying in academia after graduate school. I am not disillusioned with science, nor am I desperate to graduate. The work I do is frustrating, gratifying, engaging and illuminating. And in a lot of ways, I have to thank the rougher portions of this process for the deeper understanding I’ve gained about myself.

And while I don’t think, at this point, that I will stay in science after graduation, I am confident that my choice has nothing to do with the fear that I wouldn’t be qualified to be an academic professor. Rather, I am choosing to take all the ways my graduate training has empowered me, personally and professional, to pursue a career in a different field. Even though I have only a faint idea of what that career might look like, I am comfortable with where I am now and where I will be heading.

orange cranberry bread

orange cranberry bread chocolate orange bread

Orange Cranberry Bread from Allrecipes

I have never been a fan of oranges. Mostly because they require more effort than an apple to pry open and extract the meat from the gross, chewy connective fibers. But even I have to admit that the oranges this winter have been phenomenal. So much so that I’ve spent the past few weeks baking all things orange, including this Orange Cranberry Bread. The delicious citrusy scent that perfumes your kitchen is reason enough to make this.

I’ve substituted butter for margarine, omitted the nuts, and halved the amount of sugar. I highly encourage making an orange glaze to pour over the top while the loaf is still warm. It makes a sweet, fragrant crust that is balanced by the tartness of the fresh cranberries. Delicious for breakfast.

 

I was looking for a sweet potato pie recipe when I found this purple yam pie with its beautiful hue beckoning me to make it. It’s definitely a fun and tasty departure from pumpkin or sweet potato if you can manage to find these tubers at your Asian grocery store. I just ate the last slice of this pie last night and felt truly sorry that pie dishes don’t come in larger sizes.

The coconut milk and yam flavor blend really well together. The filling is super creamy and thick and well suited for licking-off-the-spoon. I almost think I could’ve served the filling itself in a bowl as a mashed purple yam dessert. Most of all, I love the fact that I can still see the pattern of swirls left behind when it was spread into the pie crust.

purple yam pie

Purple yam pie

Use the recipe for the filling from The Endless Meal but pair it with the tried and true buttery, flaky crust from Allrecipes. Be conservative with the cayenne pepper if you prefer a less spicy pie. I used half a teaspoon and it really gives it a strong kick. I might consider using cardamom instead.

My dad came home early this year, and stayed. In January, he stopped sending money from Hong Kong. My mother quickly realized that what little savings she had in the bank wouldn’t last more than a few months. There was a sinking sense of familiarity not felt since the last time my father filed for bankruptcy more than a decade ago. A few weeks later, my father called to say he was coming home immediately. He left behind his apartment and the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of credit card loans, and came home.

My mother was hopeful at first. She thought they will come up with a plan together, work hard, and get back on their feet. But it soon became clear that he had other intentions. Or rather, he had no intentions at all. He had spent the past few years hiding the deterioration of his business and abysmal management of money. There was a point, long passed, when he should’ve given up. But dogged by delusions of grandeur, he took out loan after loan to finance his flailing company and his own income. Until his debt bloomed into a colossal mess that he could no longer evade.

He came home, he declared, because of a “temporary setback.” You’re all looking down at me, he accused, but just watch, I’m going to build my own company again someday. He then proceeded to station himself in front of the computer for the next few months, aimlessly searching the internet and pretending to busy himself whenever my mother came around to suggest more realistic and practical solutions.

He spoke to me once about his plan, which involved writing a business proposal he planned to cold-pitch to VCs. The idea was a disjointed, baffling mess about theoretical computer science that neither me nor my boyfriend (who has a masters in computer engineering) can make sense of. It sounded as if he had took an idea from a dubious, pop-science website and believed it was real.

I might have been more forgiving if he had shown any hints of remorse. Apologized for the hell that he put my mother through, acknowledged his mistakes, shown some sign of humility. I would have saved the last shred of respect I still held for him. But I was floored to hear him claim moral high ground. Over the phone, I listened to him justify his actions, dismiss the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt. Debt, that he never had intended to pay. And who are you–he sneered–to judge, who are you to act so righteous? I screamed, what about your wife and family? Don’t you care about us? I just want you to say you’re SORRY.

I’m like Steve Jobs, he said, I’m going to make a come back. I wept.

In February, my mother asked me to accompany her to the jeweler, so that she can sell her wedding jewelry. There wasn’t much, but she tenderly touched each piece before they were weighed and appraised. Nostalgia written all over her face. When we left, she turned to me and said, “Now I don’t have anything to give you for your wedding day.”

“Don’t worry mom, gold never looked good on me anyways.”

My father never bothered to save for retirement. He never had a plan for himself or my mother. She has no college degree, no work experience and limited English proficiency. But in the past half year, she managed to make some modest money by chauffeuring students to after-school programs. She transformed her living room into a studio and began to teach Tai Chi, Chinese Yoga, and knitting. She rented out our childhood rooms. It’s not quite enough, but she’s hopeful. And hope has changed her. She holds herself differently and dreams of a brighter future.

But sometimes, she’ll ask me if she’s a failure for marrying my father. And I’ll meet that question with a barrage of no’s and how-could-you-think-that before reciting a laundry list of things she’s achieved and should be proud of. Other times, she’ll embark on a tired and familiar diatribe against my father, recounting every wrong he has inflicted on her and reliving years worth of anger and resentment. It makes me sick. Because every word only reminds me how much she is still shackled and bound by his selfishness. And that is not fair, it isn’t fair at all.

After weeks of badgering, my mother finally convinced him to take up driving for Uber using her car. But her hopefulness was short-lived when she discovered that he had secretly withdrawn the money he thinks he’s entitled to from her bank account, insisting that he needs to control his own money. Never did he offer to pay for groceries or household necessities. Nor did he feel obliged to help with the credit card debt my mother had racked up since he returned; debt that he had a hand in making and that she’s struggling to pay. Only when my mother brought it up at Thanksgiving dinner did he agree to help pay for the debt.

A few months ago, I sat down at the county clerk’s booth and handed the clerk a packet of papers from the blue folder that I had brought with me. I am helping my mother file for divorce, I said. The words sounded strange.

We don’t hire a lawyer, because we can’t afford it. But there aren’t really any assets or property to divide, anyways. So the happy job of filling out the paperwork lands on me. And it’s not too complicated, or it shouldn’t be so complicated is what I tell myself. But I am surprised how difficult it has been to motivate myself even to read through the forms. Not because I can’t understand the wording or because the process is too obscure. But I suspect that at some level, the dissolution of my parents’ marriage (as much as I agree with it) weighs heavier on me than I realized.

My mother is buoyant. Maybe I’ll find new love at the tender age of 58, she teases, someone who would take care of me. Good luck with that, I retort before reminding her that she doesn’t need a man to take care of her; she can take care of herself.

I couldn’t write this post for the longest time without getting lost in cold fury. The anger has lessened, even though there are still days when I feel palpable hatred toward this stranger who is my father. Yet I caught myself the other day, riding quietly in his car and hoping to glimpse some redeeming quality I had overlooked. Some hint of the father I remember who brought plates of peeled fruit to my desk while I was doing my high school homework. The father who gushed over pictures of me on his computer–the ones from our family trip to Thailand many years ago. The father who felt genuine remorse when he missed parent-teacher night, and promised he wouldn’t disappoint me again. Maybe, I still want to believe he’s there.

Last month I went on a two week trip to Turkey. Half of me didn’t really want to go because I needed to save money for my parent’s financial crisis. But I was reminded that I needed to live my life too, especially if I’m expecting to be broke in the near future. Fortunately, Turkey must be one of the best bang-for-your-buck countries to visit. Fine dining for three cost about the same as a single entree in San Francisco for much smaller portions. And the food was phenomenal. I fully expected—before the trip—to consume large quantities of falafel, baklava, and kebabs from my limited experience with Mediterranean food in the States. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Turkish cuisine is so much more diverse. Domestic airfare and long distance buses proved to be well-used, convenient, and dirt cheap. We found clean, private suites in hostels within $30/person every place we went (at some point in your life, you realize that “dorm-style” housing is not worth saving that few extra bucks). This last point is important, because when we tried to find accommodations for our overnight layover in Amsterdam, we were outraged by the prices—in fact, the only thing we might’ve afforded was an airB&B listing for a boat docked on the river…until we discovered that it was an hourly rate. Overall, this trip probably cost me a grand total of $1700 for two weeks, which is incredible considering how much I was able to see, do, and eat.

Highlights

1) Minarets are one of the most conspicuous features of any city. Five times a day, the muslim call to prayer is sung live and broadcasted from the megaphones hoisted on top of these towers, including a bright and early wake up alarm at 4:30 AM that I miraculously learned to sleep through. And when prayer calls from neighboring minarets join together, the resulting cacophony of melancholic warbling is actually quite beautiful. I will miss it.

2) Breakfasts are serious deals. I’ve devoured plates heaped with olives, cheese, boiled eggs, bread with sesame paste, cucumbers, tomatoes, yogurt with honey. Always accompanied by freshly squeezed fruit juice. In fact, you never have to walk far to find someone manning a storefront or street cart with a juicer and piles of bright oranges or halved pomegranates with their plump, red seeds exposed. Juice is an any-time-of-day affair.

Fruit stands

3) Turkish hospitality is a real and wonderful thing. I remember the shop owner who ran after us down the street to invite us back for tea—on the house. The local who saw our tired, lost faces and insisted that we accompany him for lunch and an afternoon walk through Antalya’s old city.

4) Cay (“Chai”) is Turkish black tea that is drunk all day, every day. It’s served in small, handle-less glasses. Often, people dart around the market with trays of steamy cups of cay. We found out that tea shops brew large quantities of cay to serve store owners who would order cay to be delivered to each other. Always there would be locals sharing a hot glass with each other, especially in the mornings when the city stirs at 9 AM (nothing is open before then).

Cay

Istanbul

5) The Aya Sofia is easily the most beautiful and inspiring building I’ve ever seen. It’s hard not to be impressed by the vaulted ceilings, detailed mosaics, grand arches, and extravagant chandeliers. And like most historical relics, there’s a heavy sense of time passing—the remains of Christian icons juxtaposed next to Islamic fixtures.

Istanbul, Aya Sofya
Istanbul, Aya Sofya
Istanbul, Aya Sofya
Istanbul, Aya Sofya

6) We were provided with head scarfs before entering the Blue Mosque. Inside stood large granite pillars next to wide, circular chandeliers. Underneath those lantern-like bulbs, prayers were made. The domed ceiling was adorned with intricate finishes that were highlighted by light streaming from behind stained windows.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque

7) The Basilica Cistern was a dark, damp underground chamber that was beautifully lit with soft, golden lights. Pillars rose from gently rippling waters that surrounded the walkways while fat koi fish swam beneath the surface.

Basilica Cistern

8) The Spice Bazaar was a covered marketplace that held countless stalls selling Turkish delights, baklava, tea leaves, spices, and dried fruits. To walk through the bazaar is a feat in itself, since you would be bombarded by store owners hawking their goods and offering free samples of their sweets. It doesn’t take many Turkish delights before your tastebuds become overwhelmed. The surrounding stalls outside the main market featured more local items. Cartons of different varieties of olives, large wheels of cheese, long strings of dried eggplant and peppers hanging from the storefronts. Nearby, we found a smaller market section selling only pets: bunnies, pigeons with fancy tail feathers, parakeets, and—my favorite—medicinal leeches crawling up the sides of glass jars.

Turkish Delights in Spice Bazaar
Tea in Spice Bazaar
Spice Bazaar

Istanbul market

9) Rice pudding was delicious. Many stores had fancy bowls of pudding topped with pistachio, coconut, or flavored with mango and chocolate. But my favorite was just the plain rice pudding with a lightly, caramelized top.

10) Ficcin was an Anatolian restaurant in the Beyoglu district that we went to thrice. It sits in one of the alleyways off the main thoroughfare where all the modern, fancy shops were located. I especially enjoyed the red pepper, walnut paste, eggplant in olive oil, and ravioli filled with meat and topped with yogurt and tomato sauce.

11) On one of our last days in Istanbul, we rode the ferry across the Bosphorous and spent the afternoon perusing hipster-esque stores in the Moda district. Where else can you find custom made mugs with snarky comments and towel hooks in the shape of giant paper clips (except San Francisco)? With a bit of luck, we finally stumbled into a fish market that we had been trying to find for two hours. There, we enjoyed cups of yogurt with generous scoops of honey taken straight from stacks of honey comb dripping with sweet, sticky golden syrup. But even better was our trek to Kanlica, another town on the Asian side of Turkey where we found yogurt topped with heaps of powdered sugar. Sounds odd at first, but the combination of powdery sweetness with creamy tartness was a refreshing snack in the late afternoon heat, especially when enjoyed next to the shimmery waters of the Bosphorous.

12) Dondurma is a special Turkish ice cream with a unique, elastic-y texture. I wondered if they used gelatin or starch to achieve such a chewy consistency.

13) This city is overrun by cats. Never seen so many fat, healthy looking stray cats in my life. Rodents must not be a problem in Turkey.

Cats of Istanbul
Cats of Istanbul
Istanbul
Istanbul

Mosque exterior

People selling bird seeds from booths outside of a Mosque

Galata tower

Galata Tower in Beyoglu, near our hostel.

IstanbulFerry boats selling grilled fish sandwiches. They were delicious.

Istanbul

Lycian Way (Likya Yolu)

We began our hike on the Lycian Way in Oludeniz. Bright wildflowers lined the trail, and in the distance, we could see the colorful chutes of paragliders drifting over the resorts on Oludeniz beach. Later in the morning, we escaped a sudden downpour by hiding out in one of the abandoned buildings on the trail, which might have been the remnants of Greek communities that were deported in the 20’s. The goats also had the same idea. So we stood for awhile amid piles of goat droppings and damp, moody goats. We donned our ponchos and continued on until we found a Cay cafe and decided to wait out the weather with some fellow trail hikers. For the next hour or so, we sipped hot tea and coffee beneath a verandah, listening to rain and hail ping against the tin roof and the rooster crowing in his coop. We finally made it to Faralya, the next small, quaint town on the Lycian Way where we found lodging in a beautiful bungalow at the family-run Montenegro Motel. The rest of the afternoon was spent sipping wine, enjoying the beautiful backdrop of forested mountains overlooking the coastal shore, and sharing wonderful conversations with my two good friends. And although I can’t quite remember what we had for dinner that evening, I do know it was the most delicious meal I had on the trip. Perhaps, even the best day I spent in Turkey.

Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way

On the second day, we took an alternative route to Kabak along the coast. This was the most strenuous and painful day I had in Turkey, even though it wasn’t terrible in retrospect; we were mostly tired of the heat and being lost towards the end. But the scenery was unbeatable—clear, turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and granite bluffs that were reminiscent of Yosemite. The moment we trudged into Kabak, we ordered delicious Turkish pancakes (gozleme) stuffed with dill and cheese at Mama’s Restaurant and sat in the veranda which had a gorgeous view of Kabak beach below.

Lycian Way

On the third day, we took a bus back to Oludeniz where we transferred and rode to Demre. There, we climbed some rocks at the Myra ruins to peer into Lycian tombs that were cut into the cliff face. The ample supply of stone near Demre made it an important city in Roman (or Lycian?) times for the production of sarcophagi. In fact, sarcophagi are strewn across the valley floor and even some parts of town where modern buildings and streets have built around them.

Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Lycian Way

On the fourth day, we rode to Antalya where we spent the day touring the Old City with a local who insisted on showing us around. We strolled through narrow alleyways lined with boutiques and hotels with red tiled roofs. At the docks, signs advertised half hour rides on ridiculously decorated boats (think “Pirates of the Caribbean”). We were only slightly tempted. Come evening, we boarded our overnight bus to our next destination, Goreme in Cappadocia.

Lycian Way
Lycian Way
Antalya

Cappadocia Highlights

1) Rolling into Goreme around 6 AM with the silhouettes of hundreds of balloons hovering in the skies. Even in my sleep-deprived, cotton-mouth state, I was struck by the surreal beauty of the land.

Cappadocia

View from our hostel rooftop in the morning

2) Pigeon Valley was one of the first sights we saw on the Green Tour. The valley walls were gentle slopes of smooth, dune-like formations. Rocky spires rose from the valley floor. Almost each one had several rectangular windows carved in its side, presumably to house the carrier pigeons that were used in antiquity.

Cappadocia

3) We visited Derinkuyu, an underground city that used to be inhabited by Christians who sought safety in these caverns from persecution. The chambers were dark and cool, and surprisingly airy. The walls of the caves were soft and moist to the touch. We wound our way through the narrow corridors, crouching in several places to avoid smacking our heads into the low ceilings. To think that whole communities, including heir livestock, were all housed underground!

4) Selime was a beautiful, rock-hewn monastery. The chambers were simply carved; shallow indentations in the walls might have served as shelves. From the windows, we caught a beautiful view of the neighboring towns. My hands ran across the rough surface of the window sill, shifting some of the small stony grains that had collected there. Selime, a centuries-old relic quietly crumbling with the times.

Cappadocia
Cappadocia
Cappadocia
Cappadocia

5) We went for a stroll just outside of Goreme to enjoy the beautiful morning on the second day. A cheerful, stray dog joined us on our little venture, playing among the tall grassy stalks that lined the path. Once again, I was struck by the rocky dunes—like the creases and folds of a fine cloth.

Cappadocia
Cappadocia

Vicky and our doggy companion standing at that peak.

6) There were two very memorable meals. One at the Anatolian Kitchen in Goreme. We ordered kebabs that were slow cooked in hand made clay pots that were broken open when served. The second dinner was at a Urgup, a remote town in the region where we found a cozy, secluded hotel/restaurant, Aravan Evi. The family owned business serves fresh vegetables grown in their garden. We dined inside a charming enclosed terrace, enjoying the taste of fresh dill and mint in yogurt served with stuffed grape leaves.

7) Much to our frustration, we didn’t find the way markers for the Red/Rose valley trail. But we did have a beautiful hike through Sword Valley. Once I managed to get down to the valley floor, we were surprised by the abundance of vegetation. We followed a small, trickling stream that ran through some cave tunnels. Tadpoles were spawning in puddles on the side. Once the trail took us out of the valley, we found ourselves surrounded by fields of tall grass with brilliant, red poppies standing among them.

Cappadocia
Cappadocia

8) We rose at 4 AM to ride a hot air balloon. I didn’t really wake up until we were up in the air and met the breath-taking shapes of the Cappadocian land. We spotted the light pink hues of the rocks marking Rose Valley, which we didn’t get a chance to hike. Some of the other balloons were delightfully patterned with bright colors that stood out among the patches of green fields below. We drifted over the canyons and rose higher to catch the rays of the rising run peeking over the edge of the mountain. I couldn’t imagine any place else more beautiful than Cappadocia.

Cappadocia
Cappdocia

9) We rented a car on our last day in Cappadocia. We drove to see the phallic shaped rocks at the aptly named Love Valley. We saw the “fairy chimneys,” which were more pointy shaped rocks. But the best part was visiting Avanos, a small town in the region that is known for pottery. At Sultans Ceramics, we found shelves stocked with some of the most carefully molded and intricately decorated ceramics. There were tall, slender wine flutes; short, stout tea pots; round bottomed jars; hour-glassed vases. Each one was covered with fantastic illustrations and designs—ornate flowers and leaves, silhouettes of antelopes. We learned that each painter specialized in painting just one thing. One person paints only carnations; another would specialize in fish. It resonated with some of the art culture that was beautifully described in Orhan Pamuk’s, “My Name is Red.”

Cappadocia
Cappadocia

10) On a side note, I was really glad to read some of Pamuk’s works before coming to Turkey. “My Name is Red,” especially, because it managed to vividly describe art as if I could see it—no, more like feel it. Pamuk writes, it is one thing to paint a tree in all its glorious details—leaves, branches and twigs, carefully captured on paper. But it is another thing to paint a tree that is its meaning. I would say it is the same with this novel.

Both in this book, and in his other one, “Snow,” Pamuk draws on the theme of conflict between Eastern and Western culture, modernity and tradition. I don’t think I know any more of Turkey’s long and storied past from reading Pamuk, and I’m not meant to; but I feel like the novels offer an essence of this country’s meaning in a way that is perhaps more valuable than historical facts. This is all to say—please read Pamuk.

Kitten and wine

Kitten and wine at a winery
Kitten

Pictures on my flickr

My heart feels heavy today.

I woke up to heart-breaking news. I looked out and saw heavy clouds, weeping in the distance–and I felt like weeping with them.

Today, I am reminded of how much I want You to be real. I don’t care about logic and reasoning. I only care that You see these tears and feel our sorrows. I am not asking why suffering happens. I simply want to believe that You suffer with us.

How many more grievous moments are happening in this very moment, even as we grieve for this one moment at hand. And it seems so supremely unfair that each loss–of hope, of peace, of life–only becomes diluted in the flood of time. I don’t want to believe in a world in which even the smallest injustice is lost to some meaningless void, because every story and every tragedy deserves its own infinity.

Today, I want to believe in Your promise of redemption. Not of reversal, but of redemption. That You would restore to us more than what was physically lost–the parts of ourselves we’ve forgotten had existed. I want to believe that there is a place for our voices to be heard. To know that the collective force of humanity’s pain and sorrow is felt.

Why should it matter that You share in our trials and tribulations? What do I get from You that I cannot find in the comfort of family and friends?

Because no matter how much I try, I cannot adequately pen my every thought and feeling. I cannot make anyone perfectly understand my story just as I cannot even begin to graze the surface of another person’s narrative. So if You exist–if You see and feel the very depths of our souls–then it matters, oh how it matters, that you perfectly understand the feelings I cannot articulate, the anguish I cannot release, the despair I cannot express, the sadness I cannot describe, the heaviness I cannot carry, the brokenness I cannot repair, and every facet of our humanity I cannot even begin to grasp.

Today, I want to believe that You will do for us what no one else can do. That we can share the burdens that we’re too afraid to release. And You won’t be overwhelmed, nor will You turn away. But You will wipe every tear from our eyes, even as You weep with us. Waiting, until the old order of things has passed away.

“I’m afraid that everything I’ve done in the past two years will go unacknowledged.”

Today, my friend turned to say these words to me. I recognized the tired sadness in his voice, because I heard it not too long ago, from myself. And the funny thing is, on that particular day as I was moping outside the door to my lab, my friend was there to share my sorrows as well. Today, I get to return the favor.

red velvet cheesecake

D-, it’s sobering to hear your disillusionment. Because you’ve always cheered me on when I’ve expressed my doubts with science. Your optimism was refreshing, especially when so many of our peers, including myself, have long since lost that optimism. But I guess, nobody is immune to fears.

This is the problem with doing something that you love. You start to be afraid. Afraid of falling short. Afraid to be disappointed, in others and in yourself. Afraid that after pouring out heart and soul, you wake to find that none of it mattered.

And some of these fears, you know they’re irrational. But fears don’t have to be rational to be real. Fears don’t need to make sense to be felt. They exist not because we don’t have the fortitude to beat them down. Sometimes fears are borne precisely because we care so much about this thing that we love. And maybe that’s good, because if we were indifferent, we wouldn’t have these fears at all.

red velvet cheesecake

Why should it be so damn hard to do the thing you love to do? There are always unexpected complications, technical challenges, interpersonal conflicts, experimental setbacks–and as if that weren’t enough–our own insecurities. It’s so easy to lose ourselves in the frustrations and complaints we have against everything and everyone.

I’ve realized though, the things we hate about our work–the imperfections and road blocks that we like to blame for our misery–these are also the things that drew us here in the first place. I chose my lab because the people there are passionate about what they do; even if it means that strong opinions lead to conflict. You chose your project because it’s never been done before; even if it means there’s a good chance you might fail. We chose science because it is challenging; even if it brings out everything we fear about ourselves.

Everyone. Including those who seem to stand obnoxiously in our way of doing the thing we love to do, are simply trying to do the thing that they love to do. Affirmation, we all seek it. But there’s a difference between finding affirmation by what you do, and finding affirmation in what you do.

If I defined myself by what I have done, what impact I will leave in this field, what lasting contribution will I make in this career, how paralyzing would that be? You decide whether you love something because it elevates you, or whether you love something because it’s above you.


I’m going to switch gears right now and speak about God. Because everything I have just written, I learned from my faith.

I may not call myself Christian anymore, but this quote still speaks to me:

“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
– 1 Corinthians 15:19

If I believe in You, then the greatest fear I have is to find out–after running madly and desperately after You–that You don’t exist.

I can let that fear stop me from running. Maybe I can prevent all this wasted energy and fruitless effort. But I choose to believe that if You are real, then You are larger than my fears.

So I’m still running. Madly, desperately, running with You.

Red Velvet Cheesecake from 17 and Baking

Four months ago, I booked tickets for a guided trek to Machu Picchu. I figured this is what you do when you become newly single: you chop off your hair and get out of the country. I wish I could say that I chose Peru for a special reason, but truth is, I chose Peru because: 1) my best friend went two years ago 2) I speak some Spanish 3) it was more affordable than Europe. In hindsight, I couldn’t have picked a better place to go for my first trip abroad by myself.

There were many reasons why I made this trip alone. Partly, because I was tired of waiting for friends to find time. But mostly, because I wanted to do something that surprised myself–and my mother, who is a great believer of not doing anything “unsafe,” including but not limited to things, such as, getting home after midnight, biking in San Francisco (this concern might be justified), and traveling to foreign countries alone. I didn’t make this trip because I needed to escape from my insecurities, although that may have been the original intention. I did it because I no longer wanted to hear what I can or can’t do. So this one is for my mom; because sometimes, you need to break out of the bubble you’ve built in order to know that you’re alive.

Cusco

1. I’ve been told to only hail cabs carrying a visible license, but the two best rides I’ve had during my trip were both in unmarked vehicles. The first was with Felipe who drove me from the airport to my hostel. Why was it memorable? A) I wasn’t robbed/killed. B) I was charged a relatively reasonable price of 20 soles (compared to the 60 soles that one of my trekking friends had to pay) and C) I carried a whole freakin’ conversation in Spanish for 15 minutes. Thank you, Spanish AP. In my excitement, I enthusiastically informed Felipe of how I was traveling alone for the very first time and that I plan on visiting the Sacred Valley and that I’ve booked a guided trek to Machu Picchu and, by the way Mr. Stranger, did I mention I was traveling alone? If only my high school Spanish teachers can see me now!

La Catedral, Cusco

View of La Catedral from the balcony of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus.

La Catedral, Cusco

La Catedral

La Catedral, Statue of Pachacutec

Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus and the Statue of Pachacutec (the name of which I only found out on wikipedia after I got back. You can tell I was totally up to speed on Incan history).

2. If you’ve visited one church, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Domed arches, elaborate altars, golden facades, paintings of the Crucifixion, figurines of Virgin Mary, statues of saints. I wasn’t too keen on lingering, because, frankly, all the frills and ruffles of the Roman Catholic church made me sad. It has to do with the fact that everything about the dazzling decadence of these religious and historical relics has to do with great suffering–the death of Jesus and the conquest of the Incan people.

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Statue of Pachacutec in the Plaza

cusco street
cusco

3. Walking through the narrow streets in Cusco is an exercise in caution. Drivers are ruthless, there are no traffic lights, and sidewalks are only a foot wide in some places. Too many times I had to duck into a doorway to avoid being smacked in the face by a rearview mirror. The city is so packed with tourists anyway, who cares if they run over one of them, right?

4. For a better experience of Cusco, walk towards the streets south of San Pedro Market where you can find fewer tourists and more stores selling local wares. I vividly remember standing in the doorway of a pet store, watching a cage full of colorful parakeets(?) squabbling at each other. I remember a woman passing by with a tray of plastic cups, each filled with a sky-high pile of whipped cream. I remember walking past food carts carrying mounds of fried dough. The streets are colorful and loud, a welcome contrast from the stuffy and somber air of the churches.

Qorikancha

View from the back of Qorikancha

Qorikancha

One of the rooms in Qorikancha

Qorikancha

Qorikancha

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5. Peruvians must love their dogs, because they are everywhere. In Cusco and in the villages I’ve passed through on my Machu Picchu trek. This one’s lethargic pose caught my attention. Much less cute are the Peruvian Hairless Dogs. Nobody should breed those things.

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San Blas, one of the neighborhoods in Cusco.

san blas, cusco

san blas, cusco

So many doors in Cusco, and even the ones out in the villages, were painted blue.

pisac

I bet baby alpacas make for good pets

6. On my second day, I hopped into a combi (local vans) bound for Pisac, one of the villages in the Sacred Valley. The trip took a little over an hour and cost me only 4-5 soles, or slightly over a dollar. Compare that to the$14 Uber ride from my apartment in San Francisco to the UCSF campus on the other side of the city, a 3 mile trip that takes about 20 minutes.

After browsing through the Pisac Market where every stall is basically sold the same merchandise (alpaca sweaters, Andean flutes, and other souvenirs), I took a taxi to to the Incan ruins where I made the mistake of hiring a guide at my driver’s insistence (saying “no” is not a strong suit of mine). I spent the next hour and half being rushed through the sites by an overly enthusiastic guide, who kept remarking at my breathlessness as we climbed up the stone paths, “This is just a warm-up for Machu Picchu!”

pisac

pisac

pisac

Nothing is ever drab in Peru.

pisac

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Women often wore pleated knee-length skirts, braids underneath rimmed hats, and a large shawl tied around their shoulders which often doubled as a sack to hold a child or merchandise.

pisac

Looking over the valley from Pisac

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Incan ruins at Pisac

terraces in pisac

Terraces in Pisac

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Pisac ruins

7. I wandered into a food stall at the local produce market in Pisac and ordered Ceviche for lunch. I’ve had ceviche before, so I knew generally what to expect. So I was thrown when the lady served me a bowl of weird looking nuts with a side of creamy sauce. Did I not just order ceviche? The mother and son sitting at the other end of the table threw me some odd glances as I inspected these alien nuts, which were beige and patterned with black zigzag lines. I pointed to the bowl, made a dipping gesture with the sauce and asked if that was how I was supposed to eat this. They frowned and shook their heads. As I was trying to decide what to do, the lady finally came back with the rest of my order and mercifully ended my very visible confusion. Ah, I thought, as I looked at my plate of trout and sweet potato slices tossed with onions, the nuts are a topping for the ceviche! It was delicious. Before I left, I motioned to the bowl of nuts and asked the lady who served me the ceviche, “Qué es esto? (what is this?)” She gave me an amused smile and said “Maiz.”

8. For my last night in Cusco, I had roasted cuy (guinea pig) for dinner. Served whole, head and limbs intact. In my case, since I made a half order, my cuy was sliced down the middle. It came with a side of stuffed peppers and corn on the cob with the plumpest and largest kernels I’ve ever seen. Since I was given no utensils (“hands only” is the proper way to eat cuy), I grabbed the paws and chomped right in. Not too tender. Definitely a one time experience. Pisco Sours, on the other hand, I could use more of.

 9. Two months ago I sprained my ankle while walking up Haight. At least I still have a good two months to let my ankle heal, I said. Because wouldn’t it suck to sprain your ankle right before your trek to Machu Picchu?

It did.

I gave myself good sprain on my second night in Cusco. The irony was not lost on me even as I laid writhing on the ground in pain being ignored by all the English-speaking tourists. I was finally helped by a Chilean woman and the Tourist Police, who I managed to convince–once I could speak again–that I did not need to go to the hospital. Back at the hostel, I watched with panic as my ankle swelled and darkened. Some folks who had just returned from the Salkantay Trek, the same one I had booked, urged me to forget about going. Maybe I could take the train to Machu Picchu and fill the rest of my time with a non-intensive trip to the rainforest or Nazca. Conflicted, I texted Vicky, who is my source of wisdom for everything in life (except for the time she convinced me that it would be okay to strap a queen sized mattress to her Prius and drive it across the bay bridge. It was not okay). Her response:

“As a doctor, I’d say don’t do it.

As a friend, I’d say do it.”

That pretty much settles it. I wasn’t going to cancel a trip I had waited for four months. If Fred, my 60 year old roommate at the hostel, could hike Kilimanjaro with a busted knee, then I can certainly hike five days to Machu Picchu, right?

10. This brings me to the best cab ride ever. The morning after my sprain, Fred suggested I go to my travel agency and ask whether they would still let me do the trek with an injury. We flagged down a sketchy looking cab. After we dropped Fred of at San Pedro, I gave the names of the cross streets for the office of the agency to my driver who didn’t seem to recognize them. I was right, because we proceeded to spend the next hour and half circling the city on a quest to find the elusive travel agency. At some point in this whole ordeal, it no longer mattered whether we reached the destination or not (we did not); because I had surprisingly a lot of fun chatting with Noe, my driver. Few things are more conductive to friendship than puzzling over google maps together on an iphone screen. In between my trying to give directions in broken Spanish and him asking several locals for help, we talked about Cusco and San Francisco. It’s funny how the threshold for making connections with people is so much lower in foreign countries than it is with people back home.

I am so grateful for and touched by Noe’s kindness and patience. Thank you for not abandoning me in the middle of nowhere even though I tried to convince you that it was okay. Thank you for insisting that we keep trying even though I was ready to give up half an hour in. And thank you for showing me that you enjoyed our little adventure as well when you flat out refused the 40 soles ($13) I sheepishly offered you at the end (rides only cost 4 soles in the city). “Lo siento por la inconveniencia (I’m sorry for the inconvenience)!”

Salkantay Trek

Day 1: Mollepata to Soraypampa

Woke up at 4 AM on the day of my trek, and with Fred’s help, wrapped my heel and ankle with surgical tape for compression and stability. The tape probably saved my life on Day 2. But the hike on the first day was gentle. We passed through a valley where we can see Salkantay, the snow capped mountain, in the distance. The clouds cast beautiful shadows on the pale yellow slopes and the afternoon sun accentuated every groove and rocky crevice.

Salkantay

Salkantay, the snow capped mountain in the distance

salkantay trek

Day 2: Salkantay Pass to Colcapampa

On the second day, we left the sunny Andean mountains behind and made our way towards Salkantay. I was pretty optimistic about the hike until we reached the seven switchbacks, and suddenly, I found myself wheezing and gasping for air. I spent the next three hours trailing behind the group, moving at a glacial pace up the steep, rocky path. Occasionally, lines of mules would pass by carrying trekkers from other groups who couldn’t handle the altitude. Hah! At least I’m not on a mule, I thought. 10 minutes later: Oh God, I wish I were on a mule.

salkantay trek

salkantay trek

salkantay trek

salkantay

My smiling face hides the actual agony I’m in.

Vicky had urged me not to pack too warmly, because the days are warm and the sleeping bag that the trekking company provides is more than enough to keep you toasty at night. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to her. On the first night, I wore my triclimate jacket, fleece sweater, thermal undershirt, sweat pants, and beanie in my sleeping bag and was still cold. I really should’ve read the trek description a little more closely.

When we reached the top of the pass, Carlos made us take swigs of “glacier water” from his water bottle, which turned out to be filled with vodka. After what I had just went through, I really could have used more.

salkantay trek

It didn’t seem like it would be possible, but actually hiking down from the mountain was infinitely worse than the uphill battle. I’m so glad I had spent 10 soles to buy a walking stick, because there was absolutely no way I wouldn’t have slipped and sprained my ankle again on those wet and loose stones. Best $3 purchase I’ve ever made in my life.

Incredibly, just an hour or two after passing through heavy snow fall, I found myself descending into a warm, moist cloud forest. Suddenly, the rocky and barren landscape turned into valleys of lush green with hummingbirds flitting among the trees. We made it to our campsite just as a light drizzle began to set in. I wish I had taken more photos of the rest of the trek, but like I mentioned, I was too busy trying not to die.

Day 3: Colcapampa to La Playa

1) We continued to hike through the forest, passing several villages and farmhouses on the way. At one point, Carlos and I were making our way through a landslide on a very narrow path that someone had cut through the damp earth. Two girls in front of us decided that this was the perfect time to stop and take a selfie. Obviously, they were not aware of the thousand foot drop to their right. To my friends, Becky and Dan, who made me promise to take selfies on my trip, this is another reason why I hate them.

2) I learned to peel and eat passion fruit.

3) Every time I lost my footing, Carlos would say, “Please don’t die here!” Guess who would have had to give me a piggy back ride down the mountain if I sprained my ankle again? I’m sure he was pleased that we didn’t have to go there.

4) After three days of vigorous sweating and no showers, it feels amazing to jump into the hot springs at Santa Teresa. It doesn’t even matter that hundreds of other sweaty, unwashed tourists like myself had been soaking in the very same water.

Day 4: Ziplining, Hidroelectrica and Aguas Calientes

ziplining

Zip-lining with Cola de Mano over the Andean Valley

This might be my favorite part of the trek. For $30, I went zip-lining across the beautiful Andean mountains and cloud forest. It was so beautiful that I couldn’t afford to be scared. For the last cable run, I strapped the harness on backwards so that I could hang face down as I flew over the tree tops.

When I got back with my trekking group, Carlos pulled me aside and told me that he was glad to see me; because, apparently, the other zip-lining company in the area was known for some grisly accidents. Thanks, Carlos, for telling me after the fact.

We spent the rest of the day hiking along train tracks towards Aguas Calientes. Along the way, the tracks crossed several tens of feet above river rapids. But with no railing or side path, you had to walk very carefully on the wooden planks of the tracks to avoid slipping through the gaps. Because I was so focused on not falling to my death, I failed to notice the train coming from the opposite direction until I heard my group frantically shouting my name. That’s when I bounded the rest of the way and made it to the other side just in time to avoid a horrible death by train. I’m really glad I didn’t become “the-stupid-tourist-that-got-run-over-by-a-train-and-that’s-why-they’ve-installed-hand-rails-on-these-tracks-now.”

Day 5: Machu Picchu

My ankles and knees are done at this point even though I’ve been popping ibuprofen religiously. I walked into Machu Picchu determined not to hike anymore, ever again. Since we were one of the first groups to walk into the ruins, I was able to catch a glimpse of the place before it was swarming with tourists. Mist drifted up the side of the mountain and everything was cast in cold grey blue under the early morning light. It seemed surreal that we had finally reached this point.

As we stood on the terraces, listening to Carlos give his spiel about the discovery of Machu Picchu, warm light began to inundate the rocks as the sun finally rose from behind the surrounding mountain peaks.

machu picchu

Can you see the giant mountain face in the background?

machu picchu

View of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

machu picchu

llama

Llamas

machu picchu

machu picchu

machu picchu

machu picchu

Other thoughts from the trek:

1) The food I was served during my trek was the best food I had in Peru. I was so impressed every night by the quantity and quality of food our chef was able to whip up with his tiny stove. My favorites were the lomo saltado and avocado salad.

2) Couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Carlos, who not only made sure I didn’t die, but went out of his way to take care of my swollen ankle. Thank you for bringing me coca tea every morning at 5 AM even when it was pouring rain.

3) All I’ll ever ask for from a rest room is that the ground is not wet. That’s all I’ll ever want ever again.

4) Having no internet access was incredibly freeing. I did not have earphones blasting music into my ears. I did not have gmail constantly open in the background. For the first time in months, I felt fully present in the present.

5) A diet of 80% carbs and 20% meat = constipation.

6) I enjoyed the trek much more than I enjoyed actually being at Machu Picchu. If I had just taken the train in, I would have been so overwhelmingly annoyed by the crowds of tourists. I still was, but I was also incredibly grateful to have experienced the humbling beauty of the Andean mountains that has made the setting of Machu Picchu especially mesmerizing.

Lake Titicaca

After my trek to Machu Picchu, a seven hour bus ride on a comfy tour coach sounded like the best thing in the world. Although, if I had more time, I would definitely have ridden the local bus or some other direct service without the tour portion; it’s really not worth it. The best thing about the bus ride was simply looking out the window and watching the scenery roll by. Every farm house, village, and river was framed by the mountains and clouds in the background. I watched women, in their telltale rimmed hats and pleated skirts, traipse across fields. My eyes were always drawn to their colorful dresses that often stood out against the dry, yellow soil of the land.

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People get sad without knowing it. Sometimes there isn’t a good reason, and sometimes it’s a multitude of reasons that’s hard to define. I think I had been sad for awhile before I left for Peru, but it was hard for me to see that until I left and saw something new. These mountains, they made me feel acutely alive. They reminded me, not only how big the world is, but how much there is to feel. What a shame it would be to waste so much time getting lost in one feeling.

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Raqchi, Temple of Wiracocha

I spent two days and one night on Lake Titicaca, visiting Uros, Amantani, and Taquile. The lake and the islands were beautiful, but it’s hard to get a good sense of how the locals lived. Mostly because all three communities were so heavily dependent on tourism for their livelihood. Next time I travel to South America, I definitely want to live in a small town somewhere and just get to know people more.

Uros

The first thing I noticed was the colorful clothing of the Uros people against the dried, pale yellow reeds used to construct their island home.

uros reed boat

Reed boats

uros reed boat

amantani, lake titicaca

View from Amantani at the Temple of Pachapapa

amantani, lake titicaca

taquile, lake titicaca

amantani host

My host on Amantani

I’m so grateful for all the places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. One of the best parts of the trip was just chatting with other backpackers and being inspired by their experiences. In writing this post, I realized that there’s already so much I’ve forgotten, but hopefully the important memories and feelings will stay with me.

My friend, Evelyn, wrote a hilarious blog post on her Salkantay trek experience. Definitely a worthy read!

tomato scallion shortcakes

These are amazing.

From Smitten Kitchen’s Cookbook