26 November 2009

Must be the Weather....

The forecast for the week in Vancouver as I was leaving San Francisco. Rain rain rain rain rain rain.

I know, I know. I've done the typical thing - arrived home, sat on my ass and haven't posted in a week. I am so overwhelmingly tired (not to mention busy seeing friends and getting, let's face it, tipsy) that the idea of re-sizing photos and writing something witty seems like an insurmountable chore. I'm drained.

The weather probably does not help - Vancouver's patented dark grey skies and mix of rain and waiting-for-rain has been known to sap the creativity and energy out of many a soul. It has been sunny for a total of one hour in the last week - literally.

But this weekend I am going to hunker down and spend a few hours getting re-aquainted with cropping and captioning and witty one liner-ing. It's coming. I promise. Hell, you'd have SAD too....

See you soon -
Violet Dear

13 November 2009

A Polynesian Spree

Colourful village life.

The South Pacific has always held a huge amount of fascination for me, ever since hearing the haunting minor key of “Bali Hai” in grade nine band class (I love musicals – ALL musicals. My close friends call me a gay man in a woman's body and I tend to agree, sister.) Growing up, something about the idea of the sand, coconusts and grass skirts (on women and men – hello again sister!) mixed together in my brain with the scent of Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion and frangipani and I figured that that must be what Polynesia was like. Turns out I am not too far off the mark.

Eighteen months ago, right before departing on this trip, I attended a big Global Ball/Conference for my company in Honolulu, and even though I was excited I was a little bummed at what I viewed as a slightly more pedestrian destination than, say Dublin where the event was held the year before, or Capetown where it is next year. Nonetheless, when I packed my bags (oh the luxury of being able to pack a full suitcase of clothes, make-up and shoes for six days!) and I landed my old fascination popped back into my brain. It did smell like Hawaiian Tropic, people were eating macadamia nuts and poi and hell, I even learned the hula.

The whole time, though, I knew that I was in a pre-fab, Americanized Hawaii – a faux Polynesia meant for tourists and Americans who want desperately to pretend that Hawaii is actually part of their nation and not just a particularly pretty spoil of nineteenth-century conquest (colonizers? The US? Never!).I managaed to mostly escape the feeling when I ventured to Haliewa on the North Shore of Oahu and ate lunch from the iconic shrimp trucks, followed by a huge cup of Hawaiian shave ice (hours after braving the depths to swim with Reef Sharks...) but the cloying feeling that I wasn't really experiencing Polynesia still remained.

Shake it like a polaroid picture.

After a week in Fiji I can put that feeling to bed for good. Though it was been overcast (the planet knew a Vancouverite was approaching) for half the time, the softly swaying palms, the crooning local music accompanied by a plinking ukelele and the fresh flower smell in the air fulfilled my expectations completely. While Viti Levu (the main island) remains split between ethnically Fijian people and Indo-Fijians, the islands are more traditional with villages existing as they have for centuries.

I ventured to the village on Waya Island a few times last week, the first for Sunday morning church service. Though an atheist myself I wanted to see the local customs in action - people here are overwhelmingly Methodist and at their services mix local tradition with fire-and-brimstone preaching. It was all in Fijian of course, but I think I got the gist (screamy man with bulging eyes pointing and probably telling us how hot hellfire is.) The choir was really the highlight – somewhere between gospel, Boney M and ceremonial Polynesian. I was moved to happy tears listening to the beautiful singing.

Such amazing singing.

A few days later I walked down to the village to attend a local craft market prepared by the women for the resort's tourists. The sand lined lanes and corrugated metal buildings reminded me of small villages in the Maldives – here the main industries are also fishing and resort work. The small clutch of buildings was teeming with small children, the older ones having been sent away to a larger island during the week for school, and these little ones love to ham it up for the camera.
ahh, mild narcotics.

We were treated to a long kava (a slightly narcotic powdered root mixed with water) ceremony with the chief and the mayor. The procedure is simple but must be followed – and if you are offered kava it is unthinkably rude to turn it down. Your host will pass you the small coconut bowl containing a few healthy slurps of the murky water and you clap once and shout “BULA!” (the all purpose greeting of Hello in Fijian.) Everyone else also shouts “Bula” and then claps three times. As you finish your cupful you hand it back and clap three times, and it is on to the next person. This is repeated until the kava is gone, with subsequent rounds following almost the same procedure – the saying of “Bula” is omitted. After each cup your mouth feels filled with novocaine and numbness envelops your lips, tongue and throat. Apparently the locals drink enough that this numb feeling spreads all over their bodies. While it tastes...interesting, to say the least, I found it more and more pleasant with each round. I am brought S a packet home.

Local kids mesmerized by the pale folks.

Music, dancing, tightly knit village groups and staunch Christianity mixed with local beliefs – Fiji is at once similar to Hawaii and completely unique. Every person that I met was genuinely kind and friendly, from the gardeners eager to have a chat about the island plants to the local women who greeted me by name every time I walked by. This is a place that is easy to love, and I can see myself coming back time and time again...

…...and that's not just the kava talking.

Chillaxin, Fiji style.

The Exotic and the Mundane.

Religious candles? Mundane. Tiny Tim, Lucille Ball, Little Richard and Dali? Exotic.

In one week I have to get a job. And find an apartment. And register for classes. And basically be expected to behave in a way more suited to a grown woman.

Oh my god.

I have lived the last year of my life like a vagabond – no responsibilities, no permanent address, no job – and it has been awesome. In less than one week I will return to Vancouver and head straight back into boring old routine.

In a way I am secretly thrilled at this prospect.

While it may seem boring and mundane, I think that at least for the first three months I will be intoxicated by the blasé, aroused by the most basic household tasks and perfectly content to go to classes, write in my free time and eat, drink and be merry (literally, it will be the Christmas season) with my friends.

Given long enough away, the exotic and the mundane switch places.

Until the itch comes back, that is. Months after returning home I will inevitably start planning my next long trip, as well as a myriad of mini breaks and small get aways. I am addicted to travel.

But for now I am just keen to go home and wash some dishes, pet the cats and cook for S.

Who wants supper?

(Don't worry, dear readers.... though I am going home I have about a billion experiences and a ton of photos I have yet to post, plus all of the experiences I will have in Vancouver (Sushi! Winter Olympics! My Favourite Neighbourhoods! Seedy Nightlife & Dive Bars! Stuff I Cook! Stuff I Eat! S Looking Cute!) See - don't be sad. In the immortal words of Karen Carpenter, "We've....

This is one of two apartment buildings in LA owned by the Carpenter siblings in the seventies and named after their hits. "Close to You" is next door. I bet you wish I was kidding....

10 November 2009

The "Eh" in Medicare

An Aussie and a Canuck react in horror to some pretty rightwing ideas on US Heath care.

The caricature of 'socialized medicine' is used by corporate interests to confuse Americans and maintain their bottom lines instead of patients' health.
Michael M Rachlis in
The LA Times

Courage, my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world.
- Tommy Douglas

So I'm Canadian. Despite the minor ambiguities of cultural and social identity that arise from my nationality it's a pretty damn good thing to be. Like if I had to choose again - no problem, Canadian all the way, thanks, gimme my unicorn festooned passport and away I'll go.

Being a Canadian around Americans has always been a mix of fun and good humoured irritation. The irritation comes from constantly having to explain that no, we don't like in igloos (although sometimes to fuck with them I will play along and talk about Flossie, my sleddog) and yes, we have large cosmopolitan cities with millions of people and no, I don't say 'eh' (except when around other Canucks who have thick accents - it rubs off) and wow, it is amazing that I sound like I am from the West Coast (because I AM, bozo.)

One point that Americans I've met have always been educated to some degree about is Canada's healthcare - at least enough to know that we have it and they want it. Even if they didn't have any idea that a good chunk of their famous people are, in fact, Canucks (here is a nifty list) they absolutely knew about our free medicine. Yep - we pay more taxes in Canada, yes we are all a bunch of liberal, swingin' sixties pinko commie bleeding hearts and yes it is minus forty Celsius in Winnipeg in the winter (I've been there, crying icy tears on Portage Ave) but we have free universal healthcare that everyone has equal access to. Hallelujah and Amen, brothers and sisters.

But lately something has changed. And I know what it is.

American cable news is pretty effin predictable - and it is the best indicator of the next shifty move of the government. The news is slanted in a way that appeals to the uneducated lowest common denominator by scaring the shit out of them.
"Ma, someone on the teevee says Iran is bad."
"Ma, someone on the teevee done say that Iran hates America and personally hates m'freedoms!"
"Ma, someone on the teevee says that Iran's gonna 9/11 us!"
"Ma, we gots ta go killify Iran!"
And so on.

Network news is simply another arm of the government spin-machine. It serves as a warning bell of the next controversial action the US is gonna take. Therefore, if you hear rumblings on CNN about how 'bad' X is when X used to be 'good' that means that sometime soon X is going to be enemy number one. The subtle process of discrediting what the public should now view as bad starts early, and the rest of the world watches in horror as we see people actually fall for it.

Which brings me to how healthcare is viewed by Americans now. I had the pleasure of meeting dozens of awesome yanks in Fiji and universal medicare was the hot topic. Wasn't it true that I had to wait days for emergency care? Didn't I have access to only the most substandard doctors? Why were so many Canadians coming up to the US for care when in Canada it is free? All evidence that the CNN/Fox News/MSNBC news machine is already hard at work discrediting the Canadian system to prevent Americans from really thinking about universal healthcare as an amazing thing that would benefit everyone. They are being force fed pap about Soviet era bread queues for doctors appointments and poor quality services. As the manager at Sephora on Hollywood Blvd informed me and Lou yesterday "when I wanna go see a doctor I wanna go to mine right away - not like in Canada." We couldn't even correct his misinformation (I go to whatever doctor I want, whenever I want to- and it is free)- it was too frustrating.

I am a Canadian. What the news is telling you about our system? IT'S NOT TRUE.

An infuriating but enlightening conversation took place with two young twenty-somethings from New York. The topics ranged from immigration (they hate those illegals) to schooling (you simply must go to a private school) and of course, the giant pink elephant in the room - healthcare.
"Why should I have to pay for people who smoke and eat KFC?" Said Mr. NY.
"Well, if you think KFC is so bad why doesn't your country make it really expensive, or even illegal?"
"You can't do that! People have a right to eat what they want!"
"What about the right to not die of a heart condition? Or the right to not go millions of dollars in debt because you drew the unlucky straw and got a sick baby?" I countered.
"It doesn't work that way - healthcare is not a right!" He shouted.
"Well, in Canada it is. And I couldn't be happier."
"What prevents your doctors from rushing people through their offices, if they make less money?" I looked at him, baffled.
"It's not about money. It's about helping sick people. Somewhere along the way, the American system has forgotten that."

Listen, you won't be able to get two Canadians who agree on healthcare. Our system has flaws - some bigger than others - and it does need some measure of reform. There are even some people trying to change it into a two tiered plan (which is very un-Canadian and jerky, I say) but the basic point is that ever since Tommy Douglas (the 'the father of medicare' - a few years ago we voted him as our 'Greatest Canadian') empowered us with the notion that our lives are worth more than medical bills and exorbitant fees it has changed the social consciousness. We are worth it. We deserve it. It is a right.

On the other side of the border, those with insurance in America seem to view visits with umpteen specialists, a multitude of scans, unnecessary procedures and immediate action as a right - yet studies still show that we as Canadians are significantly healthier and more satisfied with our care. We also do not have the right to sue our doctor (the idea would never even cross my mind) so that keeps costs lower for the taxpayer - (s)he aren't weighing out potential lawsuits in their head as they treat their patient.

If you don't believe me, this article from the LA Times is what I was reading this morning in sunny Los Feliz, Hollywood that spawned this train of thought. I really love the statistic that we in Canada spend 10% of our economy on healthcare, compared to the US's spend of 16% - the huge increase in spending still leaving 50 million citizens without insurance. Human rights aside, from an economic standpoint universal healthcare makes more sense!

A brief message to the Yanks out there: Listen, guys - your 'system'? It's broke. It needs to be fixed. You are the only First World country without free healthcare. And your news is lying to you. Talk to a Canadian or Brit about what we have before you let Glenn Beck tell you how to feel and shock you with half truths and horror stories about the Healthcare bill passing in the House.

Taking care of people lesser off than you does not make you a socialist - it makes you a good person. There's a difference.

And even if you don't choose to cover all of your citizens and residents equally - well, whatever. That's your choice. But for the love of God - quit dragging Canada's system through the mud by using false information! This is not about Canada - like usual - it's about you.

See, in Canada we even have dedicated Leprosy Sections! Modern and free heath care!
(Just fucking with you - this is in India....)

PS - I just want to clarify that I do not think Americans are any more stupid than other folks - trust me, I have been all over the world and can attest to the fact that people are stupid equally everywhere.

08 November 2009

Goodbye to the Strange (Unless You Count West Hollywood)

You can't get more LA than this - a trip 3 years ago.

So here it is. My last night in somewhere-not-North-America spent lounging on an idyllic beach in the Yasawa Islands, Fiji. The last 10 days have been the complete opposite of the past 14 months of my life – I lazed around and did next to nothing, a sharp contrast to my usual constant ethnographical explorations and arduous bus journeys. Surveying the beautiful beach spread before me, I remarked to an American pal "There's so much not to do!"

Tomorrow I head to LA, and while not home it is certainly a lot closer than anywhere else I have been. The next two weeks (which I will spend in Hell A, Palm Springs and San Francisco) are the last puny vestige of this nearly year and a half journey around, well, Asia and beyond – a Pacific Rim odyssey that has led me to places I had never even dreamt about. I must admit, this last hoorah has been a highlight – I recommend Fiji wholeheartedly.

Will I miss the strange? The unknown? The exotic, whether it is the whiff of dog meat in Vietnam, a gonging prayer bell in India or the bogan twang of a rural Aussie accent? Absolutely. But am I happy to be heading somewhere that I can get a decent taco, a kiss from S and all of the products I saw advertised on Saturday morning cartoons that weren't available in Canada? Well, yeah. That'll be good too. For a while....

So now, on to my second home of California, and you can dream, on such a Winter's Day, that you are there too....

...minus all the awkward Papa John stuff, of course.

Viva Los Angeles!

07 November 2009

Fiji - Pretty Much the Best Place Ever (9 out of 10 nights, at least)

Tomasi and I right after the conga line broke up....

They say that you're supposed to drink your best wine first – that way, when you are still stone cold sober and at your most observant and critical you can enjoy the good bottle completely. All substandard bottles should come later, finally saving the 9 dollar bottle of swill for the end of the party when the Trivial Pursuit questions seem to be getting a lot harder and no one cares what the wine tastes like as long as their glass is full.

The opposite logic holds true for travel planning.

I am predicatable in a few ways: I will always order another round if you do too, I will never turn down cheese, I will stuff my bra on Hallowe'en and I always – ALWAYS research the hell out of my travel destinations. I'm that girl who pipes up with the random useless facts about the gross national product of Laos or the medieval history of Budapest while you would rather sip your pint and talk about ball sports or boobs. So of course, dutifully as always, while in Melbourne I picked up the newest edition of the Fiji Lonely Planet and started highlighting.

Fiji is pretty much the best place ever.

My mind was made up pretty quickly that for this trip I would eschew the typical ethnology and history that interests me so much and head to some islands to relax and unwind before heading back to North America. Fiji is not a typical backpacker destination – the only accomodation option on the islands are resorts, but most have dorms. I chose the Yasawa group, a rough and rugged chain of volcanic islands a few hours by boat from the main island of Viti Levu known for their beautiful beaches. Unlike the Mamanuca chain, the Yasawas have resorts and lodges for all budgets and are thought to be less touristy than these islands. And if Lonely Planet had anything to say about it, Octopus Resort is the place to stay.

The gushing half-page review was not enough for me – LP has tricked me many a time and I needed more proof. I popped onto tripadvisor to see that out of over 157 reviews, 140 give Octopus top marks. The most common compliment? The food. Well, you all know me – that was the decisive factor. Not to mention the extremely ethical nature of the place – they supply jobs, scholarships and a generator to the small village located behind the resort and make every effort to be eco-friendly. I booked four nights in their dorm (they have a wide array of accomodation choices all the way up to posh luxury bures) and figured I decide the rest later.

After a night in Nadi at a perfectly nice hostel I set out for Waya Island and Octopus. My first few hours were a bit tentative, but after the first evening I was sold. Like an adult summer camp (reminding me - in a good way - of Dirty Dancing – I mean, is there any other way to be reminded of it?) the resort is chalk full of activities. I made an ever rotating cast of pals and proceeded to relax on the beautiful beach, snorkel the reefs, sip cocktails, conga-line around, engage in boardgames and discussion, swim in the pool and get lomi-lomi massages. More importantly, I feasted on the three inlcuded meals a day – the food was simple but excellent.

Simple and amazing - Hallelujah omelette bar.

I booked myself an extra night and pondered my next move. Should I head back to Viti Levu? Further North in the Yasawas? Pop over to the Mamanucas? Stay put at Octopus? I finally decided to catch the ferry 30 minutes North and stay at Boteira Beach for a few nights, after which I would spend one night on the 'party island' of Beachcomber and then onto to Nadi for one final day.I bid goodbye to Octopus and all of the amazing staff there and landed, this afternoon, at Boteira.

It is the same price as Octopus, which is the thought that keeps running around my head as I take in the surroundings, so very different than what I am now used to. Where Octopus had about 60-80 guests of all demographics, here I am one of 9. The esthetically pleasing walkways, sand floored restaurant and relaxing common areas have been replaced by a haphazard, ramshackle collection of eerily empty barn-like buildings. My spotless dorm has been replaced by a cavernous space of which I am the only inhabitant and the bathrooms more resemble an outhouse than the modern, clean amenities offered by Octopus.

Do I sound bitter? Only slightly.....more homesick for my last resort – which is silly, but true.

Kini and Kidi - they had eachother in a headlock and were play fighting only moments beforehand.

I want my fresh fish with pineapple salsa and roasted vegetables and gourmet pumpkin salad and traditional Fijian Kokoda (lime cured walu – like a coconut ceviche.) I want my nightly kava ceremony – a muddy tasting slightly narcotic drink served with much pomp and tradition in most South Pacific countries. I want dorm bed – freshly made every morning, supplied with a showering towel and a beach towel and decorated with fresh flowers (never have I seen such a thing!) I want to talk to the staff of all ages who are encouraged to mix and mingle with the guests (unlike hotel employees in so many other countries) and who all knew my name.

To add insult to injury the price for the meals and dorm bed are exactly the same here at Boteira Bay as it was at Octopus. To give you a comparison that would be like paying the same rate for a Fairmont or Hilton and getting a Best Western instead. I think that the feeling of poor value is what is really getting me as I sit here eating my breakfast of cold cereal and dreaming about the omelette bar at Octopus.....

So I guess the moral of my story is that unlike wine, you should save your best accomodation for last while traveling so that you can really appreciate it – build up to the nicest (rather than the cheap goon) otherwise you inevitably will be disappointed.

It is with some guilt and more than a slight bit of traveler's shame that I, Violet Dear, am heading back to Octopus for my final two island nights rather than pay more money for ferries and resorts that may end up as disappointing as this one. I may even kybosh my last night in Nadi for one more in paradise – a slightly busy, fun loving one, a but a paradise nonetheless.

I may even carry a watermelon.

After a glass of really good wine, of course....

Traditional bures hidden in the palms. See you in 2 years, Fiji.

02 November 2009

A Review of "Shantaram"

V is currently in Fiji and is having difficulty getting a stable internet connection, so she hasn't been able to update her blog and won't be able to for a bit. She's been writing a lot, so as soon as she's got a stable internet connection again there will be a lot of content coming.

For now, here's a review of Shantaram she wrote while we were still in India that's been published by the fine folks at Blunt Force Beating. Here's a snippet:
"Leopold’s Bar is an institution in Mumbai. It opened its doors in 1871 and is still a popular expat and backpacker hangout today, featured in every guide book and travel show made about crazy Bombay – The Maximum City. It hosts a mix of douchebag hippies on their way to party in Goa, young urban professionals here to celebrate merger completions and red nosed Western ex-patriots escaping their demons.
It’s one of those books that are always found in backpacker neighbourhoods in Asia – Shantaram is by far the book of choice for India. Every second traveler has a finger wedged in this 900 page monster, in whose pages Leopold’s is mentioned so often that it is practically a main character."
Have a great week everyone.