31 August 2009

Inspiring Travels - An Interview with Brook Silva Braga

About two months before embarking on this trip I was in the travel clinic, ativan-ed up (fear of needles, says the girl with all the tattoos...) and reading a travel magazine to pass the antsy minutes. I found an article that really caught my interest and learned about Brook Silva Braga, documentary film maker (A Map for Saturday and One Day in Africa) and an inspiration to all of us travelers who want to learn how to make a living from traversing the globe (and who don't fancy writing Lonely Planet guides.)  S and I sent away for his first documentary that week and when it arrived we tore into the package and watched the DVD right away. With tears running down our faces (well, mine) we knew that this year away was going to be amazing. A Map For Saturday is a must-see for anyone planning to (or even just dreaming about) travel for an extended period of time.

Brook took time out from promoting his newest film, One Day in Africa and was kind enough to answer the following questions for me.

1)Was there a moment or incident that served as a catalyst to travel seriously?
Hey, Violet, thanks for the questions. After college I worked for HBO and they sent me to the Philippines for a story.  I decided to spend a few days in Thailand on the way home but then I met this community of backpackers that I hadn't really been aware and a few days turned into two weeks. I joined up with Bill and Paul who had left Belfast for a yearlong trip and when I finally went home I kept thinking how they were still traveling. A few months later I booked my ticket.

2) If you could give a novice backpacker one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don't sweat the small stuff. There's an endless list of things that are useful--padlocks and mini-lights, guidebooks and hostel searches--but really your passport and bank card are the only essentials. And I've never met anyone who regretted going on a trip. 

3) What are 3 backpacking essentials you always carry with you?
Well I've just contradicted the idea of essentials but some things I've found surprisingly useful include: pajama pants, a wiremesh bag from PacSafe for storing valuables, and a mini-flashlight (which I never bring but always wish I had). 

4) Tell me a little bit about your new project, One Day in Africa.
'One Day in Africa' is my second documentary though it's not exactly a follow-up to 'A Map for Saturday' because its about locals rather than travelers. It profiles six people I met during a five month trip through Africa, following each of them for a single day. They all come from different countries and backgrounds and hopefully give a different picture of the continent than we usually see in the west. The DVD just went on pre-sale this week.  

5)Did you take a camera and equipment on your recent trip to China, and if so did you experience any hassle with the local authorities?
 I did bring my camera with me and for a while I was very careful about keeping a low profile. But I overestimated the practical restrictions on shooting there, I was never hassled anywhere but Tienanmen Square where they asked to see my passport but didn't stop me from shooting. China is a terribly complicated place when it comes to stuff like that and hopefully some of that will come through when I finally put something together about China.  

6)I suffer from a need to document and photograph all of my experiences for my writing. Do you have the same compulsion, and if so do you think it impedes the ability to just enjoy travel?
Yeah, that's a tricky one. I try not to let that take over my trip but it can be hard, especially because I genuinely enjoy documenting things. Probably because of that I've become a fan of beautiful things you can't really photograph--almost anything at night is a good example. I like the idea that you only get to see it, you don't get to capture it for later.  

7)Which, if any, travel blogs do you read?
I'm a blog-skimmer and usually just for a few weeks when someone I know is out on the road. I actually find it hard to read about other peoples travels because it just makes me jealous. I'm very lucky so many people have been willing to watch mine.  

8) Do you cave in and just eat pizza sometimes?
Very rarely. I don't get much of a kick from famous attractions anymore but one part of travel that never gets old for me is the food. I'm amazed that something as simple as bread can be so good in France and then so mediocre after a two-hour drive into Spain. So I'm happy to eat noodle soup everyday in China because I won't be eating it when I leave. Plus, "pizza" is never really on the menu when you're traveling; they may call it "pizza" but what they actually serve isn't the thing I'm craving. Real pizza is waiting back here in New York and I just had some of the world's best pizza last night at a place called Di Fara in Brooklyn.

9) Do you have some basic advice on how to turn a love of travel into a career?
That is a very hard one for me to answer because I've stumbled into that in a way that would be very hard to repeat. I think its important not to be thinking of money when you start your film or book or whatever because you probably won't make any. There should be another reason you're doing it. One way to make the lifestyle work is to live more cheaply and start with some savings so you don't have to turn your project into money right away. In the internet age there's a lot of stuff you can do from a laptop anywhere in the world so your job doesn't have to be "travel" to let you travel while you work.

10) What is your favourite travel story/anecdote?
Man you are full of hard questions, Ms. Violet! Well one thing I like is when I get to go somewhere bascially because I have the camera, like it gives me an excuse to speak with someone that otherwise I wouldn't have a reason to spend time with. So when I was in Malawi for 'One Day in Africa' I was trying to follow a woman on the day she gave birth. But its really hard to know when that day will be so I started hanging out with Bridgete and waiting for the day to come, which meant I got to live with this Malawian family for a while. Just hanging out in their living room or playing with their daughter was as cool a travel experience as any "sight" I've been to.  

11) I am almost at the end of this trip. Do you have any advice for people returning to "the real world?"
Yeah, first off accept the fact that it will be the worst part of your trip. I know lots and lots of people who came home from their travels and just sat around bored and sad for years! So come up with something you'll do next and really make it happen, don't just sit on your parents couch and wait to hear back about one of the resumes you sent out.  

12) Finally, who throws the best traveling parties? Frat/bodhi guys or hippies? :)
Oh, no, no the best parties don't come from some travel click--that's the whole point of a good travel party. They're everyone's party and no ones party all at once. But they sure seem to take place on the beach a lot.

Brook Silva-Braga was born in Portsmouth, RI. He earned a journalism degree at New York University in 2001 and an Emmy the next year as a sports producer for HBO. He quit network television to travel the world and make A MAP FOR SATURDAY (2007), which was acquired by MTV and National Geographic Channel. After further adventures in journalism he hit the road for a second documentary, ONE DAY IN AFRICA (2009).

27 August 2009

Violet Dear's To Do List

 I want to do everything.

Sometimes when I think of how much time I have left and how many things I want to do/see it all becomes very overwhelming. I can literally think of hundreds of places I still want to see - but here are my top 10.

1) Hug That Panda - Chengdu, China
When I saw this photo of my friend Marj, I nearly jumped out of my skin. "That," I said to Sean, "is what I was put on planet earth to do. Nothing more." I looked into it, and this rehabilitation centre is extremely ethical - you can only hug this guy because he was raised around humans and actually likes it. Hell, even if he's just pretending, I am gonna hug the shit out of that panda one day.

2) Wear That Hat - Tulle, France
Yeah, I know it seems a bit boring to be on this list, but I saw this lace festival in Northern France on a television episode of Lonely Planet (or Globe Trekker, or Pilot Guides or whatever the hell they were calling it that week) when I was living in Mumbai, and I called S at work. "Hug that panda, wear that hat." I said to him. I am always fascinated by festivals and traditions that connect us in a very real way to medieval traditions - this is definitely one. The elderly women of this small town wear towering lace hats that make them look like the pope, and the strangest thing about it is that I cannot find it online anywhere. In the world today that basically means that it doesn't exist, so I better get there soon.

3) Ride That Train - Trans-Siberian Express, Mongolia/Russia/China
Let's be honest. This 8 day or so journey from Beijing to St Petersberg (I will stop for a week or two in Mongolia) is probably the most boring shit of all time. From all accounts, you sit with a numb keister eating cup-o-noodles and drinking Nescafe jawing with other backpackers and willing the time to pass quickly. But I don't care. It is so romantic, so epic in my mind that one day I will just have to bite the bullet and get ready to bathe in a samovar.

 Flat. Salty.

4) Walk That Flat - Salt Flats, Bolivia
Salt. Flat. Those are actually two very boring words. But put them together? Sold.

5) Climb That Mountain - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
It wasn't until I embarked on this trip that I actually began to enjoy physical exercise. Even now, I like the idea of trekking up a mountain, and after I am finished I am happy and proud, but while I am in the midst of it I am hating every moment, whining to myself in my head (or out loud to S) and wishing I was reading instead. It is kind of an "eff you" to myself to climb Kili, but I am going to do it in 5 years, come hell or high water. I don't care if I am pregnant by then, or with a wee babe - up the fucking mountain I go. And then I will relax for a week on the beach in Zanzibar. And read.

I will not chicken out, I will not chicken out....
6) Sit in That Pool - Victoria Falls, Zambia
Have you seen this? The Devil's Pool is a natural stone pool at the top of the crazily high Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and during the dry season there isn't enough push to send you flailing over the top, screaming like a banshee before being crushed to a bloody death on the rocks below. So you can just sit there, freaking out in your head and secretly wanting to get up out of the pool (which you would not do because then people would think you are a sissy (there is a "P" word that would have been so much better there, but I already used the "F" word once....) Anyway, Zambia borders Tanzania, and the dry season is also the best time to climb that mountain, so Africa Deathwish adventure 2014!!! Who's in?

7) Eat That Fish - Masa Restaurant, New York
It is no secret that I am a devotee of Bourdain. I want a tattoo in fancy script with his motto "Sometimes you just have to eat a bad oyster" - basically, to enjoy life sometimes you must take a risk. His favourite food is sushi. So is mine. And if that means that I have to head to this 3 Michelin starred 26 seat restaurant and spend a thousand dollars (for 2, for 2.... I hope....) once in my life time to eat this sushi, I will. You bet your sashimi ass I will. (I will also do that at El Bulli and The French Laundry...)

Oh. My. Freakin'. God.

8) Lay on That Beach - Aitutaki, Cook Islands
 This looms large in my brain as most beautiful beach ever. I believe that there are only a few five star resorts here, so I often look at S and say "10 year anniversary? Eh?" Aitutaki is a beautiful ring shaped coral atoll  near Rarotonga that beckons to me like a siren. Unless you are from NZ or Aus, the Cook Islands are such a magical, amazingly obscure place - I need to go.

9) Visit that Colony - Reunion, France (!)
The exclamation mark is due to the fact that this island (I have an island thing, I think....) lies just of off the Eastern coast of Southern Africa, near the Seychelles and Mauritious - yet it's capital is formally gay Paree. I first saw Reunion in a Lonely Planet "Big Book of the World" photo and it looked like a sopping wet green sponge, randomly plunked in the ocean. The locals are a mix of Africans, Indians, French and Native Islanders - which means I can drink red, eat Port Salut and have a spicy dal - and still be staying true to the culture. Oui, s'il vous plait!

10)See Those Monasteries - Bucovina, Romania

Again, I love connecting history to the present, and my own family's ancestry is a pet project of mine. My Grandma Mary's (Marika) family was ethnically Ukrainian, but from a small town in, you guessed it, Romania (Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, USSR Empire - it all got messy.) The beautiful painted monasteries of Bucovina are in the same region (Nothern Moldavia - I feel so exotic!) and I am dying to go to there and eat the food, meet the people and smear my hands all throughout the history of my family - making the abstract thought of 'one hundred years ago' somehow tangible.

Rocket Launcher in Siem Reap, Cambodia? Check.
There you have it. Any I am missing that you think needs to be in the top ten?

26 August 2009

Lap-topless in Ubud

This is what happens when I try to use a pen and paper.

The charger to my laptop just emits this high pitched screaming sound now and no blinky light comes on when it is plugged in. I try again every few hours just to see if it has magically fixed itself. It has not. No swan.

I realize now, as I sit in an internet cafe to write this, that I have lost my ability to write with a pen and paper. I think I may still be able to take notes and write a grocery list by hand, but when it comes to prose (a better word than the dreaded poetry) essays, blogs and fiction (yes, I do that too...) I need to type. My brain is now connected eerily to a keyboard. I cannot write without one.

I am in Ubud, Bali - historic land of temples, art and culture.....and not a single electronics supply shop. The sweat that drips from my forehead on a regular basis is a mix of the heat and stress from the fact that I cannot get any of these random, strange and wonderful things out of my head. Some of them robustly stick around and morph and change and self-edit and end up more cohesive and interesting than when they started out as little thought-lets, but I just know that some of them are lost and gone forever.

I am a writer. I get squirrely when I do not write.

What I really need is a new laptop, as S and I have been hauling around his huge, heavy pimped out work one with all of its bells and whistles and VFX programs. He had it in India (when he worked there) and we just kept it from there, treating it like our precious entertaining baby. We watch dvds on it, download TV (alright, mostly It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Gossip Girl.... low culture can be just as important as high, people!) and upload all of our thousands of photos. It is like a third person in our relationship. It allows S to go out snorkeling for 4 hours and know that I will still be plunked down writing something with a furrowed brow. It allows me to go out shopping and yoga-ing all day while S works on his movie magic. I love it. I miss it.

So, for the next few days until we get this sorted and charged (or maybe buy a new cute one for me? Eh? S?) there will only be short entries with no/few/other people's photos. I do have some neat entries on the horizon - shopping in Ubud, surf lesson in Seminyak - hell, even a poem (shudder - I hate that word! The only other word I hate as much is 'cuddle.' Excuse me while I go and throw up in my mouth...) and an interview with travel diarist/filmmaker Brook Silva-Braga (A Map For Saturday.) Until then....well, wish me luck. And a good memory.

My dream laptop. At heart, I am a teenaged Japanese girl....

24 August 2009

One Fine Day - Lunch in Jimbaran

Balinese decoration, tinkling in the wind at our lunch restaurant.

It's actually kind of embarrassing how much I love food.

I know that it's pretty de rigeur right now to be a foodie, but trust me, not all of my loves are respectable. You can count poutine, Hawkins cheezies and Japadog in my list of guilty pleasures that I don't announce regularly when in fine restaurants. Thankfully, my love of fresh seafood, vegetables and spice redeems me, at least a bit (when I am not eating scrambled eggs and Cheez Whiz on toast.)

My love affair with crab is well documented on M&B (this is my first time calling it that. Is that lame? I think it's lame. This is the last time I am calling it that.) I don't know if it is my gutteral instincts coming through, but there is something about completely eviscerating the shell and pulling out all of the crabmeat, bits of guts splashing about and pointy things flying everywhere, that really makes crab eating half entertainment/half culinary experience. I love it.

Fingers covered in guts and shell - this is the life.

I landed back in Indonesia, to Bali, a few days ago after a quick visit home to Vancouver. S and Brandon met me at the airport and whisked me to our amazing Villa in Jimbaran, a beautiful beach close to the tourist hell of Kuta, but extremely laid back with 75% less hippie jank.

"D'ya, um...d'ya think we should, um, run.....?" Yes. 
We spent the morning and early afternoon on the beach - trying to get "cocoa" brown, smoking like guilty teenagers and playing in the ass kicking waves.
"Brandon - you know the signs of a tsunami, yeah?" He shook his head. "OK, if you see the water suck back and go out really really far - run. Run fast and climb something." He nodded.
"Yep - it's a post 9/11 world - you can never be too careful, man. Terrorists could be anywhere, brah." At that moment a wave picked us both up and slammed us into the sand.

They served - I ate.

Brandon headed back to the villa (I will never get tired of saying that) and S and I went for one of the most amazing meals I have had on this trip - all for eight dollars.

The view as we ate.

The meal started with fresh fish soup and cucumber salad. We sat and watched the waves mercilessly pound the beach, not knowing what to expect from our crab. Would they be tiny little guys halfed and stirfried like in Kep? A big bruiser boiled until bright red? Covered in some kinda icky sauce?

The table cloth looks like Brandon's wardrobe...

The waitress walked over and began unloading her tray -amazing, wonderful things were placed on our table - 4 sauces, rice, potatoes, vegetable and....the crab. Our fellow had been grilled on an open flame - he was perfectly cooked served with a nutcracker (rare in Asia.)

Jocrab and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamsauce

These sauces were the most amazing component of the meal other than the crab itself. Other than their actual prettiness, each one was magical. Clockwise:  Crushed raw garlic, Bali Sauce (vinegar, chilis) Tomato and Lemongrass and a sort of Teriyaki Sweet Soy.

No words. Except perfect.

When the perfect huge claws popped open the meat was tender and juicy and a bit salty. I could eat it every day and be happy - I am the Bubba Gump of crab.

Greasy fingers, clean heart. Well, besides all that cholesterol...

It was one of those meals, like this or like this, that inspires you creatively, fills your brain with clear energy and makes your step bounce a little (not that I need more bounce. Eep...) I dipped my dirty fingers in the ocean and we headed back to the Villa (see? It never gets old) for an afternoon of Bintang, sunbathing and cooking.

Life, if I ever need reminding, is good.

On a completely separate note, look at this salad I made using the bare minimum of ingredients and utensils. Fuck you, Jamie Oliver!

22 August 2009

Don't Be "That Guy".....

You know what most people hate more than anything? Hearing about your travel stories. It's true. Unless they themselves have been there, are planning on going there or are trying to sleep with you, people just don't wanna hear about how magical your trip to 'blank' was.

(Writing a blog, however, is completely different. Pictures help. And it's voluntary. You don't have to read it! Lie to me!)

This past week, while I was in Vancouver, I started wearing this amazing hand knitted throw thing of my Mum's. It's like a long thick scarf, with three huge buttons, one of which (depending on the tightness you want) you do up kind of on your shoulder/across your chest. It leaves one shoulder exposed and just kind of hangs there in a cool way. Xstina was with me when I trolled it out of my Mum's room (I can always sniff out the stuff she has that I like. She does not always get it back...).

“Hey, can I wear this? Does this look absurd?” I asked, tossing it on with a black tube top, skinny Diesel jeans and Chinatown slippers. She looked me up and down.

Chinatown slippers - 5 bucks. Since I was 22, no matter how many fancy shoes I buy, I end up wearing these almost exclusively in the temperate seasons....

“No – it's awesome!” She said. I studied myself in the mirror, liking how the throw had kind of a bohemian vibe that mixed well with the rocker-y look of my outfit. I sucked in my cheeks a little bit, affecting a new age drawl.

“It makes me think 'I've just been to Peru.... the sunset over Macchu Picchu is amazing.'” Xstina burst into laughter, and then mimicked the voice.

“Oh, yes – you simply must get down there. Mmmm, yes. Amazing.” For the next week we called it the Peru douchebag sweater.

Narcissistic self portrait - the only shot of the Peru douchebag sweater I have.

Because we all know that person – the bore who comes home from their cliched life-changing spiritual awakening in India/Morocco/Japan and then wants to tell us exactly why it made them a better person. The implication is that you, who have not been there, are a bad person. Or at least worse than they are.

You know what? This trip has probably made me more selfish, more oblivious to the real world and more irritating to talk to.

At least I know it.

The whole thing reminds me of this amazing silk scarf I bought in Varanasi....mmmm, yes – right on the banks of the Mother Ganga. You simply must make it down there.....

20 August 2009

Hong Kong in One Day (With Jetlag)

Hong Kong - now with 80% less racism!

I think that to truly see everything that Hong Kong has to offer you would need a whole week (and that would include a visit to the happiest place on yadda yadda.) But I had one day. A day. A jetlagged, tired-ass day. And it was do-able - even without a map!

Stop Number 1 - You Gotta Eat! Serenade Restaurant

Alright, I rolled out of bed at 6am raring to go.....but then dicked around online writing this and reading my stories. By 10am I was finally out the door and ravenous. I headed straight from Mongkok, the slightly dodgy neighbourhood I was staying in, to Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade (MTR station by the same name - 5 HKD.) Following the signs was monkeyballs simple, and I easily made my way to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Inside is a highly recommended restaurant called Serenade. It may not be the grittiest or Anthony Bourdain-iest, but the view was spectacular and the Dim Sum was great. My meal (3 Dim Sum orders, Chinese tea and a coke) set me back 100 HKD including tip (about 15 CAD) - high, but worth it.

3 little 3 little 3 little veggie BBQ buns.....

Shrimp and crab roe steamed dumpling. My toes curled on this one... like, in a good way.

Remote tea leaf reading, anyone? Cuz I think it looks like (clockwise) a hockey stick, a mermaid with a snorkel (worst mermaid ever) and a winged dragon sticking his tongue out.

Stop Number 2 - Go Take a Walk: Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade

This is a really lovely boardwalk that winds it way along Victoria Harbour from the Star Ferries Dock up past the Intercontinental Hotel. I must admit, not knowing what to expect from Hong Kong's iconic skyline, the amazing bulgy realness of it gave me a start. There is something about the way that all of the buildings on Hong Kong Island jump out and rise up into the hills that is dystopic and eerie.

Futuristic 'Children of Men' like skyline. Shudder.

Tsim Sha Tsui has also been made into HK's version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame - stars and statues representing famous local actors line the boardwalk. I saw Jet Li, Bruce Lee, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan and my personal favourite - Wong Kar-Wai, director of Chungking Express, In the Mood For Love and Happy Together. Yay!

Movie goddess - her dress is made from film. Me too?

Dear Bruce: please tell your son that I am pretty much over my embarrassing Crow-era crush on him. Almost. Thx.

Stop Number Three - Attempt to visit: Hong Kong Museum of Art

Which my little print out itinerary said was open every day except Tuesday. Wrong. It is closed on Thursdays, people. I have heard it is really good, and it looked cool. Even with an hour or so here, you would still have plenty of time on this day tour.

If you get started earlier that I did, head here first and switch it up with the Dim Sum - they are next door to one another.


Stop Number Four - Go Soak Your Head: Star Ferry To Hong Kong Island

Since 1898, Star Ferries have been making the 5 minute journey back and forth from Victoria Harbour to the Central Pier on HK Island. To get there, follow the multitude of signs on Salisbury.

The ferry smells like they all do - the Vancouverite's nostalgic pong of tar and salt and gas mixing in the water. It is a lovely trip - well worth the 1.80 HKD per direction.

How do you say "Ahoy Mateys, arrrrr" in Cantonese? Oh, you don't?

Old meets New, East meets West, Violet Dear meets Hong Kong. 3 way tie.

Stop Number Five - Get High: The Peak Tram and Peak Promenade

Completed in 1888, the Peak Tram is one of those HK must sees that you would feel like an asshole if you didn't see. The tram is easily accessible from the Central Dock - just hop on the 15C bus (which runs from the bus loop at the bottom of the stairs and costs 4.20 HKD) and you will be there within 10 minutes.

Once there, pay your 47 HKD (I know, I know) for the roundtrip tram and Peak Observation Deck. It really feels like a rollercoaster, lurching out of the station at a 45 degree angle and creepily faltering a few times up the impossibly steep hill.

At the top there is a gag-worthy mall complete with Madame Tussauds, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (I did not even know that this was a thing) and a Burger King - but the real draw is the view from the top. Pay the 12 HKD extra for the 360 degree deck and just do it.

On top of Hong Kong-y. Not covered in cheese.

The Peak Promenade building reminds me of an alien in War of the Worlds, and then I think of this.

Stop Number Six - Flashback: Hong Kong Museum of History

This modern museum is about a 30 minute walk from the Star Ferry Harbour - just walk straight down Salisbury, and then straight up Chatham South (there is only one way you can go on each - piece a' cake.) The entrance fee is 10 HKD, with an optional audio tour for another 10.

The museum is wonderfully designed and almost Disney-esque in its scale and aesthetic, featuring a lot of reproduction living environments and cultural scenes. Beginning 400,000,000 years ago and finishing up right about now, it's span alone makes it worth the walk and the money. Make sure to stop at some of the 53 interactive video kiosks to learn more - I watched a mini-doco about Chinese Royal Opera.

Chinese Opera Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. Ohmigod. Shoes.

Amazing Design. Japanese Navy-issue sake bottle from the occupation of Hong Kong during WW2. I want this tattooed on me.

Sweet little recreated Boat Dweller home.... History can be so cute.

Stop Number Seven - Til You Drop: Shopping on Nathan Road

From the museum, walk across the skybridge to Granville St (Ha!) Meander as slowly as you wish over to Nathan - you will not be able to stop yourself from shopping. Amazing shopping. Cheap, fun, exciting shopping. Shopping!!!!

Due to my backpacker budget (and unforeseen trip back to Vancouver) there were not too many purchases on my horizon. Other than the squishy hyper-lifelike BBQ Pork Bun keychain that I bought (no kidding) my purchases are detailed below.

The most famous street in HK. Get ready - this shopping will kick your ass.

This is actually in Mongkok, but illustrates the hectic mayhem of HK shopping. Addicted!

Are you as obsessed with this as I am? The reusable bag says "Mister Fat " and the shirt has a dude playing a lyre- I am gonna cut off the arms and neckband. Laid out on the shirt are tiny sparrow earrings and on the bag is an awkward long legged fawn necklace. Swoon.

Optional: Supper and/or Night Market

If you are not jetlagged as f&@% like I am, you would easily have time to head to the Temple Street Night Market. Afterward, stay in the Nathan Road area for supper at a sit down restie or for street food. Or, if you are like me, you can retire to your room at 6pm and eat Babybel cheese that you brought from Vancouver because you are too tired to put your pants back on. Your choice.


Despite my tired bones and my muddled thoughts, HK was amazing. From the delicious food, the modern architecture and the insane shopping - this is a city I can get behind. I will be back!

Enjoy Hong Kong!!! Bring me a souvenir! (I already have a pork bun keychain, remember....)

19 August 2009

My Life, Without Me

On the wall at Foundation, hipster/vegetarian/cliche restaurant on Main.

The strangest sensation - the most bizarre trip I have ever taken - was this past 10 days visiting my home in Vancouver.

A lot of people visit their hometowns - they move away and then come 'home' for Christmas or a birthday, say hello to everyone they love and eat at their favourite breakfast dive and then they are back to their lives in their current city, back to their duvet and their cats and social calendar.

This was not that.

See, as a long term traveler with no actual apartment or job, I don't have a home. Basically I was visiting my current lack of home. It felt weird.

My backpack is kind of my living space, as cliched as it sounds, and then probably you could say my Mum's house because my cats and big huge hobo handbag and some high heels are there (everything else is in a cube.)

Getting rid of my backpacker hair with Ben, one of my BFFs and also an amazing hairdresser/dancer/designer. He wins at Gay.

Because I do not have a new home, and this is the closest thing to it, it was here that I stayed most of the nights, interspersed with a few nights at each of the BFF's houses. There was tragedy to deal with and so so much grief to be felt, but the final week was more dedicated to just hanging out despite it all...(which is a lot more expensive in Vancouver than Indonesia.)

Also at Foundation - BFF 1/2 Heppy and her girlfriend Jesse. That, my friends, is the look of love.

I ate all of the things I meant to eat (except that Vera's veggie burger - next time, dear) I saw all of my friends, strolled Commercial Drive, Main St and Granville. I wore make-up, heels, dresses and sweaters. I attended birthday parties and hangouts and suppers and family BBQs. I felt - normal.

Family BBQ - 4 recipes with freshly caught salmon and mango/caper salsa , 3 salads and wine - a Zin. Swoon.

To a point. A lot of the time I was groggy, hungover (a death in the family means a wake. We had a few....) and confused - and wouldn't you know it that the jetlag ended two days before I left? A lot of tears were shed, a lot of frantic preparations finished in the nick of time, a lot of mess got cleaned.

And it all went so sickeningly fast - I kept trying to slow it down and make it wait for me to be sick of it again. Get tired of the grey skies and constant social obligation - but that didn't happen. It was too quick. I didn't even let my mum walk me to security at the airport, for fear that I wouldn't follow through, wouldn't get back on the plane and come back to this weird version of life that I live.

Now here I am, in Hong Kong just for the day. Tomorrow I head to Bali to meet S and Brandon. I am homesick. It is a palpable knob in the back of my throat, just below (above?) my soft palate.

Because not many travelers get to visit and then leave again. No one pops home in the middle of their year away - and now I know why. It is torturous.

I love backpacking. I love traveling. I love Asia. But I also love lipgloss and wine with Xstina and beers with Jason (even if he always drinks a strongbow...)
I love squat toilets. But I also love soaker tubs.
I love following local customs and being respectful. But I also love the nude beach....
And while I love guesthouses and long bus rides, man I also love a nice apartment.

BFF 2/2 - Non sexual life partner, Xstina on her birthday. (In the link, she is the first one!)

Other than the occasional new restaurant or gallery, so little had changed about East Van and my group of friends that I literally felt like I had been gone for only a week. Combined with the horror and sadness we all felt (feel)- it was almost too much to bear.

I had the rare opportunity to see my life happening without me there to live it.

I don't recommend it.

Oh, my strange city. I miss you.....

15 August 2009

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi: A Sacrifice....or Two.

(This week I am back in Vancouver for a family emergency - S is still touring Indonesia with the ever pleasant Bran. The following is a guest blog by S about his visit to Tana Toraja.)

Traditional Toraja grave site - behind are ribbon displays that look as though they're congratulating the class of 1987...

Sulawesi is a dream for many travelers. Without going as far as to say that it has something for everyone, it does have an exciting mix of established tourist trails and sparsely inhabited, difficult to reach regions (and consequently, regions free of the tourist parade) that have amazing beaches, dive sites, river rapids -- pretty much a bountiful variety of natural attractions. It's not all trees and water, though. The highlight of the island for culture vultures like us is undoubtedly Tana Toraja, the home of some of the most unique traditional arts and ceremonies still practiced in the world today.

Traditional Toraja Houses

Upon entering the region, the divergent cultural heritage from the rest of the island (and Indonesia proper) becomes immediately apparent in the architectural stylings. Torajan people live in houses that have roofs resembling boats, and these houses are everywhere. They are used in the construction of everything from rice barns and traditional family homes to municipal buildings and banks. The building style is extremely varied. The more traditional varieties are made of wood and sod, which creates the effect of a house that looks partially alive, and the modern ones use a variety of materials including concrete and aluminum siding. As a tourist it's easy to disparage the more modern incarnations, but considering that this area is drenched in rain most of the year, aluminum siding is likely the most functional building material, although it's good that the others are still around.

A closer look at one of the houses. The main beam is decorated with bull horns -- a sign of wealth.

It is thought that they've been built in this shape to pay homage to the Buffalo, and it's easy to see how this lazy animal attained its status. The buffalo is everywhere in Toraja - it tills the rice patties, it is used as a form of currency, and it is used for meat. The buffalo's image decorates everything and it is said that certain kinds of buffalos, specifically albino ones, can cost upwards of 8-10,000 USD. The reason for the hefty price is their symbolic importance in Torajan death ceremonies, which are probably the biggest reasons that tourists make the trek from Java out here.

I wonder if Torajan ladies gossip about buffaloes, like "Look at the albino buffalo - what do you think they're trying to prove next door?!"

Torajan death rituals are incredibly elaborate. After a family member dies, there will be a brief mourning ceremony held within the week. Sometime after that, anywhere from a few months to a few years, the family will hold a huge funeral with dancing, hundreds of guests, banquets will be held. During that span between funerals, the body will be kept in the house and treated as though they are a living member of the family (and given that they are likely elders, one is expected to act as one would towards one's elders at home - asking permission to sit, leave, etc.). When they are finally buried (or more appropriately laid to rest in a coffin -- either in a cave or hung from a beam above a cave and left to rot), an effigy of the living is placed somewhere in the family home or at the grave site on a balcony, or in the case below, built into the door.

I think this guy looks like Jerry Seinfeld.
(Editor Violet's Note - Agreed, S.....)

We were fortunate enough to get invited to one of the funerals, although this wasn't very hard. Provided it's the dry season (May - August) any tourist in the main town will invariably get approached by a tout at their hotel, walking down the street, or when reaching for the ketchup at a local restaurant and get invited to a funeral that's going on. Apart from bringing a gift (cigarettes, condensed milk) and wearing dark clothing, there aren't really too many rules about funeral etiquette, at least compared to the rituals at home. When we were there, the family came and chatted with us, some old ladies offered us food and coffee, and we were made to feel welcome. Fortunately we didn't get any 'honored guest' treatment, which can be awkward as an outsider. It bears very little in common with a Western-style funeral. There's food, drink (palm wine), music, dancing, animal sacrifices, which is more like a Winnipeg or Vancouver block party (okay, so there are no animal sacrifices... in Vancouver.....)

Funeral goers from the rear -- this was the only photo I really got of the guests without dead pigs in the frame.

While being an interesting experience, one thing that's slightly difficult for a couple of Canadian vegetarians was the constant parade of animal sacrifice. The Torajan people believe that one's possessions go with them into the next life and that includes livestock, so the final days of the funeral are a bloodbath. The number of animals killed while we were there was probably around 20 or 30, and the screeches of pigs became deafening at various points. I don't pretend that this is more inhumane than the way we treat livestock at home, but the reality of it is rarely a part of daily life in Canada, but after Brandon got pig's blood on him we decided it was time to go.

Far more pleasant was just simply trekking around the various sites close to, Rantepao. In a single day we managed to see two Tau Tau sites, coffin caves, hanging graves, and a natural spring, spread over a large area all without having to hire a car. For independent travelers, Tana Toraja is a dream come true. At any time of the day you can easily grab a local Kijang (station wagon with 4wd that's used as public transportation) for the equivalent of 40 Canadian cents to several of the major sites. Or you can grab a motorcycle with driver for slightly more. Most of the sites are close enough together that it's easy enough to walk between them. Although the
trails aren't always marked, there are enough people walking around that you can gesture down the road to ask if you're going the right way. We got lost once -- for five minutes. The look of shock on the faces of the people we passed at a mining site were enough to tell us we were going the wrong way. If we hadn't felt confident enough in finding our way around after the first day, there are a huge number of guides offering their services for bargain basement prices.

There are caves filled with human remains.

What's great about this kind of traveling is that you get a much better impression of how the locals actually live than if you were simply carted between destinations in tourist buses (which most people here opt for). Sometimes on this trip I've felt that some of the cultural experiences we partook in were mostly shams. The 'incense village' in Vietnam is really just a line of stores selling incense produced primarily in factories. The 'floating market' in the Mekong Delta is actually just a polluted canal with touts selling everything from postcards to tacky wooden frogs. In Thailand, a lot of the hilltribe treks that you can go on visit abandoned villages populated by people who are literally bussed in for the day and dressed up in costume. The truth is that most hill tribes in Thailand only dress up for ceremonies and dress in T-Shirts and jeans the rest of the time.

The sky here is incredible. It reminds me a bit of the Canadian prairies.

Here it's different. The rituals of death and life are the same as they've been for hundreds of years. The traditional house making and carving is persistent throughout the region, even in isolated spots where no more than a dozen tourists a week pass through -- in high season! Tourism has been integrated into the traditional way of life -- it has not defined the people, and tourist infrastructure has been built by local business people rather than by foreigners.

Closeup of the Tau Taus.

Babies who die very young are put in this tree. Our guide assures us that only if they don't have teeth are they put in here. I think he was trying to be reassuring.

What's maybe more amazing is that this has all survived imperialism and occupation from both Christian and Muslim groups. Christianity was adopted by the locals, but it never supplanted the traditional beliefs, so what exists today is a strange hybrid. Crosses decorate the grave sites next to effigies and bull horns and jaws (signs of wealth), meanwhile call to prayer is heard across the town every morning. The Boat houses are now made with aluminum siding (some are used to store grain after all) instead of sod, but they're now building them bigger than ever. The effigies are sold from roadside shops, but they also hang out in family run restaurants, pharmacies and, if you're lucky, you'll even see some hanging out on people's porches. The people are friendly but also immensely proud. It wasn't a rare sight to see young men with "Toraja" tattooed on their forearm (heavy metal and the associated lifesty seems to get adopted by Christian communities in Asia quite readily -- no clue).

A Chinese Confucianist style grave with Christian imagery next to a Torajan boat-house.

It's a breath of fresh air seeing locally run tourism provide genuinely novel experiences for people at every budget. It's easily one of the most interesting places I've been so far on this trip, and I'm glad I came. Even if we did get pig blood on us.

This guy has no idea what's coming.