Eat here: Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C., USA

Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U St NW, Washington, DC
http://benschilibowl.com

I know I said I was gonna suspend regular posting until I got home, but some of this stuff is too good to wait, and I was missing regularly posting and yeah.. So here’s another one!

We’re big fans of shows like Man V Food and all things Bourdain, so we’d seen and heard a bit about Ben’s Chili Bowl in the lead up to this trip, and we were keen on trying it.

Our second day in D.C. proved to be just as wet as the first, but we still managed to have walked around 12km around the city before lunch time, so we decided to visit Ben’s to load those burnt calories back on again. Great choice.

We turned up to the U street location around 12.30 today (Sunday) to find a line out the door, which kept up for the duration of our visit. We ordered the original chili half-smoke and tucked ourselves into a booth to get stuck into it – we turned around and noticed the table beside us was the one that President Obama infamously sat at when he visited.

The dogs were fantastic, more of a sausage than a frank, absolutely delicious. The chili was great too, a little bit of a kick, heaps of flavour, and plenty of it; surprisingly it actually didn’t make the bun soggy which was good news. We also found we had a side of chips thrown in!

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So yeah, great food. What was even better was the gentleman pictured above in the bottom left corner; he came over to our table to say hi, welcome to Ben’s, and asked how the meal was. Amazing, we said, worth the trip from Australia. Well, that did it; we became celebrities! He insisted on taking our photo for us, obliged most happily when I asked if we could get a photo with him – he asked another diner to please take our picture, informing him that we were Australian and he was so happy to have us with him. He also insisted on introducing us to the lovely lady in the photo top right, one of the owners and family members of Ben.

The hot dog was fantastic, but my goodness the people just made it! It was the best experience, we felt super important being taken around the restaurant with other diners staring at us, shaking hands and chatting happily.. If you’re visiting, go for the hot dog and stay for the gorgeous people 🙂 it’s a DC institution for a reason!!

Ben's Chili Bowl on Urbanspoon

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It takes a long time to grow an old friend..

You know those friends who you feel like you’ve known forever? The ones that you don’t always notice, but you also can’t really ever remember them not being around? The ones who’ve stood by your stupid decisions as well as your good ones, who may have given you shit about the silly stuff you’ve done, but never judged you. They’re the ones who’ve let you cry on their shoulders when you’ve been really sad, and gotten drunk with you when you’ve run out of tears. They’re the friends who were right there beside you, growing up alongside you in the tough, formative teenage years. The rare friends you could be yourself with when you felt like everyone else was watching and scrutinising your every move. The ones you’d go to first with both the good news and the bad news. They are the ones who have always been your biggest supporter, and you theirs. You’ve tried together, succeeded together, failed together, and tried again together.

And then, you both grew up. You got to be “adults,” whatever that means. Life took you down different paths, but you stayed friends. Because deep friendships like these, real friendships, can’t be broken by distance or time. And even though we may now be leading different lives in different cities, catching up always feels like home 🙂

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Read this: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou

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Like probably a lot of other young women of my generation, I was familiar with the name Maya Angelou. I knew she was a revolutionary lady, I knew she wrote beautifully, spoke eloquently, and inspired a race, a generation, a gender. But, admittedly, I didn’t know much about her story until she sadly passed away earlier this year. A quote I remember being attributed to her that has stuck in my mind ever since that day is “if you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

I finally read her book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings;” I wasn’t sure how or even if I’d relate to the story of a sweet young Negro girl growing up under the strict hand of her grandmother in Arkansas after having been abandoned, along with her brother, by their parents back in the 1930s. Her story starts when she and her brother are sent off by train to stay with their paternal grandmother when she was only three years old, and ends when she unexpectedly becomes a mother at the age of only 16; right from the very first page, she had me hooked. She had me, utterly and completely under her spell.

I was surprised to draw some unexpected parallels to my life from Maya’s story, mostly in the fact that she was a quiet and withdrawn child, who found her solace and spirit in reading book after book after book; I did, too. I also related to her tender-heartedness, not understanding why it was so that some people had and others had not, not understanding why people had so much hatred and contempt, not understanding the reasoning behind racism, or why one “race” should be “better” than any other. Are we not all people?

The journey I took with Maya through the 1930s and 40s across America, in times where racism and segregation were incredibly real, was a confronting and heart breaking one. I got some strange looks while I read on the train to and from work each day, finding myself smiling, frowning, gasping and shaking my head throughout the book. It’s really hard not to; the way she writes can’t not draw out an emotional response from you.

It was crystal clear to me that Maya was a special lady right from her first day. Despite the numerous, soul shaking and horrific hardships she faced, she really never wavered. She remained strong, proud, determined, curious, good, kind. She worked hard for everything, she educated herself when she didn’t know, and didn’t show off what she did. I thought class, humility, genuine honesty and dignity shone through on every single page, and that’s what kept me turning the pages so quickly – I expected to take a while to read it, but I was done within 5 short days of commute and lunch time reading.

I’m going to stop here, because, honestly, nothing I write about this book could possibly do it justice. It’s one of those stories that you notice your soul shifting whilst reading, and you should start reading it soon if you haven’t already. Get a copy right here or at your closest bookshop.

 

Through my eyes: Patong Beach bars, Thailand

I love Thailand; the colours, the noise, the people. I came across this place on Patong Beach in Phuket during my last trip (January 2014), and the bright colours completely stopped me in my tracks 🙂

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This guy noticed me taking the first photo and stopped to pose for a second one! What a perfect place to stop for an afternoon drink!

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The Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre for victims of Agent Orange

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So, it’s a bloody long drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. Around 3 – 4 hours, traffic dependent. With both my sister and I having a history of car sickness, we weren’t particularly looking forward to spending upwards of 6 hours in a mini-van, but kept telling ourselves it’d be worth it to see Ha Long Bay. Clearly, it was worth it. BUT the drive honest to God was NOT THAT BAD! It helped that we had an absolute star of a guide who kept us informed and entertained for the most part, but taking a break half way was a fantastic too. As we were pulling in, he explained that the place we were visiting was an a centre that specialised in some beautiful art work; paintings and photographs were recreated by the resident artists, copying them from an original print onto a canvas by way of embroidery. The results were stunning, we were told. He then told us that the resident artists were also survivors/victims (I guess it depended on how you wanted to look at it) of the Agent Orange chemical used in the Vietnam War.

Basically, in an attempt to deny food, water and cover to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the United States used a herbicide called Agent Orange to defoliate large chunks of jungle. An unfathomable approximate of 3 – 5 million people were affected by the herbicide (it’s hard to find legitimate numbers on this with claims from the US that the Vietnamese purposely made the numbers higher than they were..); countless deaths, cases of cancer, still births, mental and physical disabilities, nervous system disorders and babies born with horrible deformities was the result. As a result, that leaves a lot of now adults without the ability to work and earn a living, often classed as “burdens” on their families. This centre is a place for them to go to, where they are taught this art. They can also live there, and earn a modest wage; ironically enough, that sees these “burdens” becoming the main bread-winners for their families.

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We walked through the centre, silently, reverently I guess. I didn’t want them to feel like circus animals with my camera pointed at them, but a few seemed quite happy to have their pictures taken. I didn’t take many; it didn’t feel right. We watched them work away, some silently, others chatting and laughing amongst themselves. It seemed like a good environment; safe, productive, uniting. The work was beautiful, and I purchased a small picture of my own to take home. There were other items for sale as well – carved wooden goods, statues, scarves, knick knacks.

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Suddenly our huffing and puffing over a long car ride seemed not only insignificant, but incredibly selfish and bratty. This stop was not only to recharge our batteries for the next hour and a half in the car, but it recharged my heart as well. It gave some phenomenal perspective, which is absolutely necessary, particularly when you are travelling.

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Cycling the islets of Hoi An, Vietnam with Heaven & Earth Tours

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Sib and I have always been pretty healthy and active – she grew up a head taller than the rest of the kids and excelled in everything she did, particularly basketball. I’m no where near as naturally athletically gifted, but still somehow wound up with a degree in Exercise Science, a great 8 year career as a personal trainer and a black belt martial artist. After having been repeatedly told that the best way to see Vietnam was by bicycle, we decided to actually do a proper day-long tour, rather than just hiring bikes for an hour. Sib’s a good rider and really enjoys is. I can ride, but am prone to freaking out if I have to ride in traffic. We figured this lovely tour around the quiet, secluded islets of Hoi An was a good way to do it.

After an afternoon of online research, we found Heaven and Earth Bicycle Tours (http://www.vietnam-bicycle.com/). We read glowing review after glowing review from very happy customers, and decided on the 23km “Real Vietnam” tour. Our itinerary read as follows:
After a boat transfer, of approximately one hour on the Thu Bon river, you will arrive at a small village in the middle of the delta where you will begin your cycling tour. The morning will be spent cycling 14km across the countryside and rice fields. You will cross from island to island taking the unusual bridges made from wood or bamboo. A short boat crossing will bring you to a small island where you will enjoy lunch in the home at a local family. In the afternoon you will continue the same route as the “Countryside Bicycle Tour” and discovering local crafts. This tour includes crossing the river on a local ferry, visiting the crafts workshops, crossing a floating bridge, and a bamboo bridge, and several other stops along the way.

Our tour cost only AUD$47.00 per person, and included our lunch, bike and helmet hire, our guide and assistant (I’ll get to them, they were AMAZING!), and a few visits along the path. We were pretty happy with it all and booked on the spot, paying via PayPal, which made things very easy.

The morning of the tour, we caught a taxi to Heaven and Earth’s head office and walked up the front stairs with anxious excitement. After a quick confirmation that we were indeed paid and on the tour, we grabbed a helmet each and went outside to meet the girls who helped us pick out and adjust our bikes. Once the whole group was saddled up and ready to go, they handed us each a 1 litre bottle of water to clip to the back of our bikes, and led the way for a short peddle from the office to the water where our boat was waiting for us.

We spent an hour on the brilliant blue, calm water, weaving in and out of the fishing nets, getting to know our family for the day.
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There were just 8 of us, plus the two amazing women who led us, educated us, looked after us, and quickly became our friends. Trinh and Nahm – you ladies are absolutely amazing! When you book your bike tour around Hoi An (and you’re crazy if you don’t), make sure you ask for these girls.
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Once we hit dry land, we rode on and off for the rest of the day. The girls were really fantastic – Trinh leading the way and Nham holding the fort at the back of the pack, making sure everyone was accounted for, comfortable and managing the ride in the blistering heat. They stopped us regularly for water and photo breaks, always letting us know how far we’d come, how far our next riding stint would be, what our next stop would entail, and what kind of terrain we’d be encountering.

Instead of writing about everything we saw and did, I’m going to let the photos do the talking – no words could possibly do the truly breath taking natural beauty of this place justice 🙂

After riding a few kilometres through the most perfectly green rice fields you’ve ever seen…
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.. we made our first stop in a gorgeous, colourful neighbourhood to learn how to make rice paper.
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We rode a little more through some surprisingly diverse landscapes…
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We also got stuck at a few of these very old bamboo bridges. We were told we could try cycling across if we felt brave. I did not. I walked.
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Next stop was another beautiful neighbourhood, where we met two women who wove the traditional Vietnamese mats. You could feel the mood change, you could almost touch the sadness we were all overcome with, when we were told that these beautiful, large, intricate mats that took 4 hours each to make sold for only USD$5.00, and the women earned only USD$1.00 per mat. To see these kind, smiling women, bent over in manual labour was hard enough. To imagine them doing this for 8 hours a day and earning only $2.00, was beyond the scope of anything we could imagine. It was a really humbling moment for all of us.
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We rode only a little further before stopping for lunch – home cooked and unbelievably good! We were then invited into the home for an explanation about some of the traditions that still hold in Vietnamese homes.
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Next up was a stop on the water to learn how to and try to paddle the little round basket boats.
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We also had stops to see how incense sticks were made, and also met a man who carved out the tiny detailed mother-of-pearl patterns that are inlaid into wooden products.
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It was a long day in very hot, humid weather (we left our hotel at 7.30am and didn’t get back until around 2.30pm), but it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had. If you’re in Hoi An, even if you’re not particularly athletic, please do yourself a favour and jump on a bike with Heaven and Earth!

A day in London: West Ham United & a real Green Street Hooligan

I can honestly say this was one of the coolest, most utterly and completely unexpected, totally awesome things I’ve ever experienced! I don’t follow the EPL, I’m not even a soccer fan, and I know of the Green Street Hooligans only as much as Hollywood has told us, so when husband said he wanted to visit the West Ham United ground and shop, I shrugged my shoulders and said “yeah, alright… but I want to go to the theatre later!” figuring I’d be pretty bored and would need something else to look forward to. Man, was I wrong..

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

After a few obligatory photos out the front, we wandered around a little, with husband trying to determine whether or not the ground was open to the public. It was not. Disappointed but not completely deterred, we entered the gift shop. Up to 70% off everything sale. Oh dear.

Fast forward 30 minutes, and husband is still running around like a kid in a candy store, with me trailing behind, the pile of West Ham paraphernalia in my arms multiplying to the point that I could barely see over the top of it. It was like a movie scene… in total reverse!

We finally made our way to the checkout, and the guy laughed at us (understandably so – he’d been watching the whole spectacle unfold). As he was scanning and packing everything into plastic bags, I thought I may as well try my luck – husband would have done it for me! “I don’t suppose there’s any way we might be able to take a super quick peak at the ground is there?? We came all the way from Australia!” Husband’s eyes widened as he looked from me (in shock) to the sales guy (with hope), and almost fell over when he said “Yeah, sure, why not?!”

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

He unlatched the counter door and let us through, past the cash registers, to a back room that led onto the field. Holy hat, we were making our way onto West Ham’s pitch! We ascended up and surfaced right near the coach’s beautiful, leather, pitch-side seats. He let us walk around and take some photos, which was really cool, and told us a bit more about the club. After 15 minutes, he said he had to get back to work, but would call up the security guard who’d be happy to give us a tour of the locker rooms and what not (husband’s face = !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!).

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

This is when shit actually got really cool. The security guard, an older, but still burly and tough looking gentleman in slacks and a jacket introduced himself and proceeded to show us through the locker rooms, showers, rehab room, coach’s office, the works. All of the clichéd photos were taken, with the security guard’s assistance; husband “yelling” at him in the office, holding the team scarf up in front of the plaque on the wall, a shower scene in the bathroom.. We were feeling pretty privileged at this point!

Then husband asked him if there was still any animosity between football clubs, and if there was still a lot of the hatred that caused the violence and fighting that the movie Green Street Hooligans was based on; was the movie true to the real life events, to his knowledge, or was it typical over-the-top Hollywood exaggeration? He explained a bit about how and why the fighting all started, and then told us about his involvement in it all. He was part of that gang, the InterCity Firm. No, the movie wasn’t exaggerated; if anything, it was considerably toned down from the real thing. And how he was still alive and standing there talking to us is utterly and completely beyond me.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

The stories he told us were horrifying, but despite his hesitation, we kept asking him to tell us more; we were totally captivated. He started each story with “Sorry sweetheart, this ain’t real nice!” or “Pardon my foul mouth darlin’!” He regaled us with tales of the fighting in the 1970s that he was involved with. He told us of “the lads” sharpening coins by throwing them in the floor and scuffing them under their shoes against the concrete floors to sharpen them into throwing weapons. They’d fill syringes with dirty, muddy water and stab “them” in passing. He vividly recalled running “head first” into a brawl with nothing to defend himself but his own two fists; he was stabbed in the torso. That wasn’t his first or last stab wound either. His words, “I have absolutely not idea how I’m still alive – I certainly have no right to be!” He said, “we were all idiots, us and them, fighting last generation’s war for no other reason than our fathers hated each other.” They may not have understood why, but it was a matter of family honour. So they fought.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

We were both familiar with the story, the movie, the myths, but neither of us thought it could be so real, that there was an actual living, breathing face to it all.

It wasn’t at all what I was expecting from out visit to the ground, a detour meant to appease my husband’s love of any and all sports, and their memorabilia and paraphernalia. Walking out of the grounds, we absolutely couldn’t believe the surreal experience that had just transpired. And it was surreal. It also taught me two important things:

1. Without understanding, tolerance, forgiveness, and respect for each other, violence on large and small scales will continue, and each generation will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the generations before.

2. You’ll never know if you don’t ask. The worst than can happen is “no.” The best? An opportunity of a lifetime : )