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From the Mayan Underworld of Xibalba to an Indonesian Salad called Gado Gado

     With the final quarter of 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar before us, I find my thoughts wandering to Xibalba – the Mayan door to the underworld, and with those musings comes a desire to share one of my favorite salad recipes:  Gado Gado.
     In most people’s reality, Gado Gado is about as far from the Mayan Underworld as you can get.  It is a thoroughly Indonesian dish that I have read means “mix mix”.  But for me, this summer, Gado Gado became inextricably linked with my oldest daughter Jaime and thoughts about Xibalba — a “mix mix” of memories, I guess.
     It all started about 6 years ago when our family took one of our favorite vacations ever to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.  We visited the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tikal, and stayed in a little cottage right on the Mexican Riviera and also at the Maya Mountain Lodge, deep in the rainforests of Belize not too far from the Guatemalan border.  But the highlight of our trip – we all agreed—was our trip to Xibalba. This was a caving adventure extraordinaire.  The kind of adventure that lawyers in America rub their hands over – fraught with danger and fool hardiness– the kind of authentic adventure that does not avail itself too often.   
     Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre), known locally as “Xibalba,” is essentially a Mayan archeological site, complete with skeletons, ceramics and stoneware.  It is located deep in the jungle and you have to have a guide to go see it, but trust me that’s a good thing!  Just to get to the cave you have to drive 45 minutes from San Ignacio – which in our case included having to forge a river in our rental car.  Then you continue on foot for a 45-minute jungle hike, steaming with lush flora and wild fauna — and yes the fauna includes extremely poisonous snakes, namely the Fer de Lance, known to be the most aggressive, venomous and feared snake in the tropics!   In fact, the part that scared our seasoned guide the most was the hike back when he spotted a Fer De Lance crossing our paths.  After that he was on a hurried mission to get back to the car – oh and it had started to rain and that river we forged wasn’t getting any lower. . .  
     But back to Xibalba . . . in Mayan lore, a soul’s journey to Xibalba, which mean “place of fear,” is where the soul goes to be reborn and inherit eternal life.  The journey involves entering a cave, crossing or traversing the length of a river and passing into the spirit world; there is said to be a crossroads where travelers have to choose from between four roads that spoke in an attempt to confuse and beguile; ultimately the journey winds up at or near the “underworld” counterpart located at the bifurcation or dark rift of the Milky Way – the very one that is supposed to be involved in a cosmic alignment this December. 
Photo taken from deep within Xibalba
     True to the legend, we found the entrance to the Actun Tunichil Muknal filled with water.  After a moment’s pause and few wild vine swings into the river, we continued on our journey by swimming bravely into the dark looming cave entrance and then followed the stream deep into the cave.  As we were holding hands together in rushing water up to our neck, while squeezing through a narrow passageway mindful of mini waterfalls up ahead . . . it struck me . . . this was no ordinary adventure.  And it went on.  We clambered over rocks and through tunnels and climbed handmade ladders to rock shelves twenty feet above the water, and ultimately found ourselves face to face with skeletons.  It was amazing . . . and decently scary . . . kind of life itself
     You see, I see the road to Xibalba as a metaphor for our own journey in life.  I believe that, as humans, we all want to experience more peace, more love, more equanimity.  We want to feel a connection with our Beloved, or the universe, or whatever it is we feel separate from when we are suffering . . . I have come to appreciate that along the way, our life’s journey will likely include some dark caves fraught with dangers and confusing options—some places or times in our lives when fear rules. 
     I also appreciate that on my own life journey adventure, I forget sometimes to see the travails as exciting and stimulating.  I forget to be brave as I swim into the next cave’s dark entrance and to feel curious and alive in the scary “water up to my neck passageway” phase, instead of paralyzed with fear or indecision.  Maybe that’s why I like adventure so much. It reminds me that I can be full of life and engaged amidst all kinds of terror.  So a journey to Xibalba is a good thing – adventure is a good thing – physical challenges afford us the opportunity to believe in ourselves.
     Which brings me back to the connection with Gado Gado, which as I mentioned is linked to my daughter Jaime. 
     Jaime and her boyfriend Jason went on a series of their own adventures this summer, which included sea kayaking in the wilds off British Columbia (without a guide) and bumming around Belize and Guatemala for a month, including visiting Xibalba, before visiting us back in San Diego.  Let me just say, it’s one thing to be off on my own adventure or a family adventure, but quite another to have my kids off on a crazy adventure on their own with only limited contact . . . Hello Fear!
     With limited contact, my part in their summer adventure was minimal—namely, receive sporadic texts from them and feed them when they got back to San Diego.  
     Since the texts tended to be brief and terrifying such as this one:
·                 Explored caves that make Actun Tunichil look like Disneyland
     (Yikes!   How much more intense could it get?  Later, I learned they went under water holding their breath and clutching a rope in the pitch black for about ten feet to a hidden cave – creepy!)
     I distracted myself from worrying by focusing on what to feed them upon their homecoming.  Being as they are vegetarians, and it was still hot summer in SoCal,  I decided on Gado Gado–an Indonesian salad that features all kinds of vegetables, tofu and egg and is smothered in a delicious spicy peanut sauce.  It is fantastic and pretty easy to make.  Thus, did Gado Gado become inextricably entwined in my memories with journeys to Xibalba.
     So, whether you have just been to Xibalba and back, or just feel like you’ve been to Xibalba and back, or perhaps, like me, you feel rather like you are still on the road to  Xibalba—stuck at the crossroads where all choices seem to confuse and beguile—it could be time for a some Indonesian Gado Gado.
     Below is my preferred recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Whole Chili Pepper Cookbook. 
     Time to let the “mix mix” of memories go and to indulge in a simpler sensory “mix mix” for the palette:
Gado Gado:
Whole Chili Pepper Cookbook:                                    My variations:
The Dressing:
2 Tbl dried crushed red chili such as Piquin seeds included
1 Tbl Red pepper flakes
¼ cup finely chopped onion
I use sweet onions
1 Tbl finely chopped fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbl peanut oil
I use coconut oil or olive oil
1 ¼ cup unsweetened coconut milk
I use 1 can
½ cup crunchy peanut butter
I use peanut butter with no sugar
2 Tbl soy sauce
I use tamari
2 Tbl brown sugar
I use coconut crystals or sucanat
1 Tbl lemon juice
I sometimes use lime juice
The Salad:
2 fresh bean-curd cakes
I use the tofu that come in plastic containers – firm or extra firm
2 cups shredded cabbage
2 large new (red) potatoes, boiled and cut into ¼” slices
I often use many small red potatoes
¼ pound cooked green beans, cut into 3” pieces
2 cups bean sprouts
1 medium carrot, cut into 2 by ¼” julienne strips, cooked
1 large cucumber, sliced
2 hard cooked eggs
Or more
2 scallions, thinly sliced including the greens
I use regular green onions
1 cup roasted peanuts
To Make the Dressing:
·      Sauté the onions, ginger, and garlic in the oil until softened. 
·      Stir in the remainder of the ingredients. 
·      Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. 
·      Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.
To Make the Salad:
·      Poach the bean curd in simmering water for 10 minutes.  (I don’t do this part with the tofu that comes in the plastic containers.) 
·      Cut bean curd (tofu) into 1” cubes.  
·      Arrange the vegetables in layers, starting with the cabbage, then cucumbers, potatoes, green beans, bean sprouts, carrots, and tofu.
·      Place egg slices around the side. 
·      Top with the scallion onions and chopped peanuts.
·      Warm the dressing and either pour over the salad or serve in a bowl on the side.

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