31 December 2012

A Cooking Class in Galle Fort

Local soft drinks at a roti shop

I get a lot of joy out of cooking (to coin a phrase). On this blog I spend a lot of time eating, sure, but you rarely get to see me roll up my sleeves, tie my hair up into a kerchief and throw down in the kitchen. I love to cook.

After a slightly disappointing afternoon in Galle Fort (during which we got a bit scammed) I was ready to dive into the secrets of the bold flavours of Sri Lankan cuisine. We booked a cooking and street food course with local legend Juliet Coombe, with whom we had already taken two fantastic historical walking tours.

 Culture jamming at Serendipity Cafe
Juliet is only the second Westerner to marry into of the 240 original Muslim Fort families since 1948, and her reputation precedes her. Everyone in town knows this former foreign correspondent – and most of them have been featured in her numerous books, self-published by Sri Serendipity Press. Her knowledge of the Fort’s history and its living culture is evident in every word she speaks, and she has a personal investment in the area – her two little “bubbas” are both half Sri Lankan and will grow up in the UNESCO protected Fort.

While Juliet runs a walking tour and publishing empire, her husband has his own business – he runs Serendipity Arts Café, the location of our cooking class. Every day between 5:30 and 7:30pm they close down the restaurant so that they can host the classes (for the utterly reasonable price of 20 dollars!), a combination of hands-on experience, street food walk and a fresh meal prepared with achingly fresh ingredients.

 Our fearless leader and chef
Our group was quite large, so Mum and Tim were paired with a couple closer to their age and I was grouped with a wonderful couple from London. We started off as a large group making pol sambol – a dish that combines shredded coconut, chilis, lime and onions and is normally eaten with hoppers (more on those later) for breakfast or as an accompaniment to fish.

Juliet had us sample the pol sambol three ways: with our fingers, with bread and with a fork. She asked us to compare the experience and to decide how we liked it best, and we were overwhelmingly in favour of eating with our hands – a fact that made the kitchen staff beam with joy. See, Sri Lankans believe that eating with your hands is in fact more civilized than using the Western utensils that were foisted upon them during colonization. There are three reasons for this:
  1.    You don’t know where knives and forks have been, but you do know where your hands have been.
  2. Your fingers provide the first level of digestion and you are less likely to overeat than if you’re shoveling food into your face with a fork.
  3.  Bits of metal flake off of utensils over time, and could be one of the reasons for Alzheimer’s disease in the West.
Plus it’s super fun to eat with your hands, duh.

Mango seller in the Fort
At this point we split into two and my group went on a food walk of the Fort while my Mum and Tim stayed behind to cook in the small kitchen. On our stroll we visited three of the local food vendors and sampled ripe mango covered in salt, black pepper and chilis, hot roti and freshly roasted peanuts. Sri Lankans refer to pre-dinner snacks as “short eats” (this is pretty much the best description of anything I have ever heard). Short eats are necessary when an average meal takes hours to prepare (note to Violet Dear – when you are eating your ‘dinner’ of cheese and triscuits while standing over the sink you can think of Sri Lankan women slaving over open fires and feel relieved. Or guilty.)

Ayurvedic, healthy and tasty!
 Juliet explained that the average Fort home has fish delivered three times a day! Fruit, veggies and snacks are also delivered daily by bicycle-riding vendors - this is the land of Ayurveda, after all, and food is viewed as medicine for your body and mind, so it’s gotta be fresh. An average of 30 spices and herbs are used in each dish, many added not just for their flavor but also for their health benefits.
Violet Dear gets her hands dirty
Back in the kitchen we began to prepare hoppers, the most beloved of all Sri Lankan breakfast dishes. These thin little crepe bowls are the not-too-distant cousins of Dutch pannekoekens (a very tasty relic of colonization) and can also be served in a weird patty form (string hoppers) or have an egg cracked right inside of them as they cook (and then they become – you guessed it – egg hoppers). We helped the chef create some delicious egg hoppers smothered with a ragout of of tomatoes, onions and chili. They tasted like decadent little McMuffins (I mean that as a compliment, promise) and once I spooned some pol sambol on top I was in heaven. BREAKFAST HEAVEN. 

I can't tell you how wonderful this smelled

We took more of a backseat role as the chef prepared a beautiful pumpkin curry and a fish curry as he walked us through the steps. No Sri Lankan meal is complete without “rice’n’curry,” an assortment of small tapas style dishes served with a heap of rice, and though the main ingredient of each dish varies, they all feature liberal amounts of chili, curry leaves, fenugreek and coconut milk. The resulting cuisine tastes like a cross between South Indian and Thai food, with its own twist.

Egg hopper and fish curry

We sat down to eat the fruits of our labour (let’s be honest – it was mostly the chef’s labour) and I discovered that my new friends, a lovely couple from London, have very similar interests and pop culture tastes to me. It was a wonderful surprise to find myself talking about Sleater Kinney and It’s Always Sunny over a meal on the other side of the planet! And what a meal it was. Delicious, interesting, fresh and delivered to our mouths with our fingers – it’s the most refined way to eat, after all.

New friends eating our feast

30 December 2012

Galled in Galle

So beautiful. Makes me want to go crazy in my attic room, like a Jane Austen character.
I am lying in my fan-cooled room in an historic mansion near the Southeast wall of the Galle Fort, sticky and slightly pink like a Barbie left in the sun. It’s hot here. The kind of dizzying, sickly heat that makes you sway on your feet when you least expect it. The kind of weather that necessitates that you stay indoors between 1 and 4 in the afternoon – not that I ever complain about that. A typical Violet Dear travel day looks like this:

7/8am – wake up and read in bed
9am – breakfast, yo
10am – some kind of rewarding cultural activity
1pm – lunchies (cheap and local or streetfood)
2pm – FUCK ALL (which includes internetting and writing)
4pm – meditation…. (or nap) 
6pm – beer and sunset
7pm – dinner
9pm – writing or reading and music in bed
11pm – sleep

Right now it is my favourite part of the day. The “fuck all” part – a part that I NEVER seem to action when I am at home in Vancouver. I am a serial do-er of things, and I simply don’t relax often enough unless I am schlepping my way through a tropical country. Backpacking is actually pretty hard work, and so I cut myself a lot of slack when I want to lie on my bed under a whirling fan (or on a hammock, or on a beach etc), listen to Amy Winehouse and write.

But I’m angsty. See, I set out today to write a glowing piece about how much I love Galle Fort – how the history and living culture blend to create a place quite unlike any I have ever been, (my impression helped in part by the tours and books by Juliet Coombe) but then I got scammed. A shitty opportunistic scam that I should have known better about – that I should have seen coming a mile away.

Beautiful local rice and curry - but the fish wasn't the only catch...
Not too badly, but just enough that my ego was wounded and my identity as a “good traveler” was called into question. In my desperation to escape high priced, bland tourist food I dragged Mum and Tim to a locals-only rice’n’curry joint pointed out on one of our walking tours, excited for authentic spicy food at a fraction of the price found along Leyn Baan or Pedlar Street.

We sat down in the divey local joint, much to the curiousity of the local men, and were served huge portions of delicious food. The owner (or owner’s helper, or friend?) spoke good English, he was charming, and brought us fancy lime infused hot water with which to wash our hands (you eat with your hands and no utensils in Sri Lanka) and an entire pineapple cut into big juicy chunks. 
Mumsy eating with her hands for the first time
My mum looked at me and earnestly thanked me. “Dear, I would never walk into a dirty little hole in the wall like this if it weren’t for you. Thank you – you really broaden my horizons.” My chest puffed out and I felt so experienced and intrepid as I replied, “oh, yeah, well you just have to do this sort of thing, otherwise you’re just a tourist and not a traveler.” I never once suspected anything was awry, and that is probably why my ego took such a blow when the cost was announced.

Juliet had told us that the meal would cost about 150LKR a head (1.25 US). Factoring in the Pepsis and pineapple, I assumed that the total cost would be 700LKR. When we prepared to pay, the diminutive fellow who had been serving us announced that the bill was 3000 LKR (26 US)– four times what I had estimated and nearly the cost of a posh European meal at a nearby boutique hotel.

Now, I know exactly what happened. This gentleman knew we could afford the price, and he was sick and tired of seeing fancy establishments selling Lavazza espresso rake in all the dough. We walked in, sat down and ordered rice and curry of the day – without asking the price. We weren’t served the big sloppy, quick’n’dirty plates that the local men were given, instead we were given more of a presentation on platters and with shared bowls.

I tried – in vain – to argue politely and tell him that we had been told a much different price. He just used his strange looping English to run in circles and insist that the meal should be 3000LKR. I finally gave up and handed over the currency, the delicious taste in my mouth sullied by disappointment and the weird shame one feels when they have been cheated and they know it and the cheater knows you know it. Like a little bitch or a squealing little piggy or worse – a mark.

The happiness and pride that I had felt about being able to show my mum something unique and off the beaten track was dashed, and I felt hot anger rising in my already sticky hot cheeks. Thankfully, according to my scheduled relaxation time, the last few hours have been designated for “Fuck All” so I have had a chance to cool down.

I realized that I spent nearly half the cost of my fraudulent lunch on a fancy coffee today – so it wasn’t the actual cost that made me have such a vehement reaction, it was the feeling of being made a patsy. Somehow the crazy price we were charged took away from my blissful feeling of “traveler-dom” – the little dirty local joint doesn’t seem so authentic in my memory. #firstworldproblems

And therein lies one of the ethical problems of traveling in the developing world. As travelers we’re all scrambling to have these “authentic” experiences, but we get irked if the person giving them to us is entrepreneurial enough to want to earn enough money to one day travel the world himself – or at the very least, buy his family the necessities they need to like, live and shit. Sigh. Ethics. Bah.

LESSON 1 – No matter how experienced of a traveler you are, you need to remember that you can still get scammed, and it will be humbling and your ego will not like it.

That’s all I got today. I promise I will write much more lovely things about Galle tomorrow.

One Love, VD

28 December 2012

The Ministry of Crab (and one Crabby Broad)

This is about as happy as Violet Dear gets.

When I was flipping through the pages of the Sri Lanka Lonely Planet one entry in particular stood out for me: The Ministry of Crab.

You guys remember that I like crab, right? Ahem? Do ya? How 'bout now? Yeah. So it was pretty obvs that my visit to Colombo was certain to include a crab feast that would leave me bloated and crustacean-y. Sri Lanka is a crab wrangler's paradise, but the sad fact is that they export over 95% of their best guys - mostly to Singapore (to make the infamous chili crab).

Ministry of Crab wants to change that. This upmarket restaurant uses cheeky branding and high quality ingredients (including dem export-grade lagoon crabs) to draw people through its doors. It's just one of many establishments housed inside of the newly renovated Old Dutch Hospital, a colonial building that dates to 1662.  Three local foodies spearhead this crabcentric eatery, and they do a brisk business catering to Colombo's nouveau riche and the sudden onslaught of tourists eager to visit now that the civil war is over. And sister, it ain't cheap. 

But that is where the mumsy comes in. See, I am here in Sri Lanka with Mummy Dear(est) for a Christmas vacation. She jokes that her holiday destinations are dictated by the location to which she has to follow me that year - and she is actually kind of right. She and her longtime boyfriend Tim (who I have nicknamed "Classic Rock Tim" due to his predilection for blue collar rock n roll) were planning to visit me in Kathmandu, but I knew that I be ready for a break from the cold (and pretty much everything else in Nepal) by Christmas. Thank you, sweet sweet foresight!

Mum and Tim are still avid backpackers at the age of 50, the kind of working class boho/hippie/artsy folks who go to Burning Man. Last year they went to Egypt and Jordan, and this year Australia and Sri Lanka. They're here with me for a few weeks of wandering around a country my mum has been dreaming about for years, a paradise of tea plantations, pristine beaches and colonial architecture. And a few years ago, if we had come here on our way to the Maldives, we would have had it almost all to ourselves.

Now, not so much.

When the decades-long civil war came to a tense ceasefire in May of 2009 the rest of the world realized the stunning gem that they had been avoiding was now safe for traveling. Tourism has EXPLODED. Now, I know we are here at New Year's, but the scarcity of available accommodation is shocking - the supply has not expanded as quickly as the demand - and the prices have skyrocketed. This ain't no Southern India. Sri Lanka realizes that it is located just nextdoor to the Maldives, one of the most exclusive vacation destinations in the world, and they plan to rebrand themselves as the next big thing. Prices for guesthouses and hotels are more in line with the West than with the rest of South Asia, and backpackers' style rooms just don't seem to exist. So we have had to kind of say "fuck it" with the budget and are living a bit large.

Ministry of Crab is about as large as you can get in this part of the world.

 A beacon in the humid night.

We booked our reservations for a Boxing Day Feed and giddily pretended it was Christmas Dinner. We knew it was going to be a bit spendy, but this time of year is always rife with the admonition, "it's Christmas!" as a justification for all kinds of bad behaviour. We laced up a crab bib and got started.

Next time it's Jumbo all the way, baby
We ordered a portion of the claypot curry prawns, some curried garlic (yep. That is a thing here. Squee!) and 2 monster sized crabs (ok, they were just mediums. But they were big!) We settled on one crab served with melted butter and one stirfried in an unctuous blend of spices, oils and peppercorns, for which Sri Lanka is also famous.

After watching me suck out the brains of some pretty gigantic prawns with veiled disgust, Mum and Tim's jetlag and headcolds caught up with them. They had only finished two thirds of the butter crab and avoided the pepper crab completely, leaving me to psych myself up with a gourmand's peptalk and crack my knuckles - and a lot of crab claws.
Tell me - honestly - why I should give one single fuck about any other kind of food?

Now, this was a pretty swish place, so unlike most of Asia I didn't only have the help of my teeth and my little grippy fingers to get the crab meat outta its shell - they had crackers! Hell, they even cleaned the brains and goop and organs out of the body and pre-cracked some of the more tenacious legs for me - I felt like a princess in the crabbiest fairytale ever. Princess Crustacea from the undersea kingdom of Yum. (That's enough Lion beer, Dear.)

I have to be honest and say that the experience at MOC was not perfect - a lot of the dishes really needed a bit more kick and definitely more salt, and our waiter was determined to ONLY talk to Tim, even when it was clear that my mum and I wanted to do the ordering (Tim's not a huge crab guy). In fact, the waiter seemed to be refusing to make eye contact with us gals, and when my mum presented her credit card to pay, the waiter still handed it to Tim to sign. Guys, when I am in a chai shop or whatevs I expect this archaic gender shit, but in a restaurant designed for travelers and expats? C'mon. Serious balls. Stop it.

But despite these mild hiccups, Ministry of Crab is kind of like Disneyland if you like shellfish - prefabricated, yes, but designed to make even the grinchiest folks happy. Crab's Ahoy!

Oh, she so crabby!

26 December 2012

Hot Chilis, Entrails and Drinking in the Street: Merry Christmas, Bangkok!

Hello, pretty l'il chili bowl

Don't get me wrong - I love Nepal. I love Nepali people and food and culture - but (and baby, that's one big but) when the dirt, dust and dahl baht get a bit oppressive I need something shiny and nicey nice. Something clean and Western and shamelessly overindulgent but still wild and exciting and a wee bit dangerous. As I have mentioned before, Bangkok is my kind of town.

So, on my way to Sri Lanka for a Christmas holiday I booked myself a two day stop in the City of Angels - and my Kopan pal Jess decided to join me. It was an exercise in esthetics appointments, Starbucks peppermint mochas and, of course, eating ALL OF THE THINGS

Grills Gone Wild

Christmas Eve is a pretty big deal in my household, as part of my family is Ukrainian and it's the traditional time to have the big supper and open gifts. I had just spent an hour the previous day trying to explain to my Bangladesh-born Aussie friend Aritro just what the big deal about Christmas is in North America.

"Well," I said, "it's this weird time of year where everyone is crazy nostalgic, but also super sad and kind of feeling inadequate and frantic and there are lots of boxes of chocolates and people listen to music that both upsets them and reminds them of their childhood and you can't make normal life plans for a month, but you are allowed to respond to every hesitation about overspending and gluttony with 'but it's Christmas!' And it lasts 6 weeks." He didn't get it. I told him to listen to John Denver's Christmas album, consume too much butter, attend obligatory awkward parties and drink for 30 days in a row and he would.

But d
espite the hectic yet (mostly) pleasurable mindfuck of a proper Christmas Eve supper due to the timing of my retreat and limited flight availability my mum and I weren't able to meet until late at night on the 25th. This meant that my main Christmas supper was to be spent on the loose in Bangkok, which frankly, suited me just fine.
Jess and I donned our prettiest dresses (ones that we could most certainly NOT ever wear in Kathmandu without being mistaken for prostitutes or somesuch) and wandered around soi 11 gathering a streetfood feast fit for a couple of Canadian Ukes.

What a hot piece of meat - and them skewers don't look too bad, either
(See what I did there?)
 We ended up back at the guesthouse with a collection of steaming plastic bags and spread our Christmas bounty out on the table (on plates! Like fancy ladies!). We had som tam (spicy papaya salad), a selection of pork, chicken and beef skewers and some Singha beers from 7/11 - dinner and drinks was about 6 bucks and spicy enough to set my mouth on fire in an almost hallucinatory way.

If the van is a'rockin... knockin' is fine and you should probably help this wee Thai man mix drinks

After punishing our tastebuds and bellies with chilis, we decided that it was time to go and find some dranks: Bangkok-style. Every evening a series of V-dub vans that have been converted into bars line soi 11, slinging drinks to a mixed crowd of backpackers, high-end travelers, locals and expats. Jess and I pulled up a little plastic chair, lit a Marlborough Light (tastes like traveling!) and sucked back a few Long Islands. We were content to schlep around Sukhumvit, maybe check out Q Bar and then call it an early night when our friend Mischa, a crazy lawyer from Moscow, messaged us. Within minutes we were in a tuktuk racing across Bangkok for drinks on Khao San with a group of crazy Israelis and Russians. The night got a bit messy and a little late, but we were tucked into bed back on soi 11 by 2am. Merry Christmas hangover!

 I'll never go back to french toast and leftover turkey again.

The next morning we woke up by 9, craving watermelon and strong coffees. Wandering down the street we approached the cart pictured above, and I was lured in by the sight of skewers and palm leaf packages. Once we smelled the gorgeous charcoal-y aroma of cooking chicken innards our breakfast destination was decided. We ordered some skewers of livers and intestines and my personal favourite, a thing I think is chicken anus. I'm not kidding. I'm pretty sure it's the glands around the butt, and similar in texture to gizzards. Man, it is so good. I'm thinking about it now and salivating like some kind of avian zoophile, but it really was delicious. Perfect for Christmas morning breakfast.

 How? How are you so good?
A comfort food akin only to poutine and perogies.

The gal and I also shared a plate of one the world's most deceptively simple foods: chicken rice. Beloved by Singaporeans as their national dish, it is also a staple of Thai street food culture. Looks like no big thang, right? Wrong. Shredded boiled chicken, lightly flavoured rice, ginger and chili sauce - it's as basic as it gets, but man, it is the perfect food. Something about the way that these few ingredients blend together makes chicken rice the kind of toe-curlingly good comfort food that Thais and Singaporeans alike will wax poetic about in a "Canadians talking about poutine" kind of way. I'm hooked.

It was a very Merry Thai Christmas indeed, and I will be dreaming about late night street cocktails and delicious Bangkok food for many holiday seasons to come.

And chicken anus. I will be thinking about that, too - and drooling. 

Merry Christmas, Violet Dear. Enjoy your butt.

22 December 2012

Enjoy the Silence?

A fresco depicting an analogy about meditation - chasing monkeys and elephants.
I am cheating on my silence.

See, I told myself that I would keep silence for the whole week, and my strict definition includes reading, writing and eye contact. "Noble silence."

Noble silence can be a blessing, a welcome reprieve from the constant expectations of others. There is never any need to break out of one’s private little bubble and interact in any way, and the idea is that it allows all of the mind’s time and energy to go inward.

Let’s face it: I have been sucking at inward. First of all, when I arrived from my three days off in Thamel, I didn’t lock up my laptop or iPhone behind the front desk. Ani Karin, the nun in charge of the course, made it clear on day one that this retreat, while entirely silent, would be less strict than the November course on things like internet usage and portable electronics. I decided to keep my gadgets for the first night, at least until official silence started the next morning. That ‘first night’ has stretched into the whole week.

My laptop has taunted me. By day two my pudgy little fingers were aching for the keyboard, just inches away from me, and I decided that a little editing couldn’t hurt…. and maybe a little music? If it is quiet and folky, surely that is acceptable, right? A little Kate Bush? Maybe some Sufjan?

By the next afternoon I was listening to Xiu Xiu on my headphones as I did kora around the monastery. “Dear,” I frowned at myself, “this is getting a bit ridiculous.” At least I’m back to folk music and Dharma podcasts.

But that isn’t all. I have been having lengthy conversations with the dogs and cats, in which I usually ask them things like, “whose leg is this? Is this your leg? What a nice leg. Look at dis leg!” I have been reading Ayya Khema’s autobiography in 60 minute chunks, and earlier today I nearly ran out of a meditation on samsara in order to write an apology letter to some people I pissed off a long time ago. Ironic.

This silence is fraught with complications.

I guess I am in retreat doubt. It’s this weird complex in which I become convinced that I am retreat-ing wrong and that there is some magical key or wish fulfilling jewel that other people have access to that I somehow cannot find. I look at the beatific faces around me and decide that those people are a) better Buddhists than me b) getting the “right” answer out of all of this and c) kind of in need of me to hit them in their smug mouths.

Whoa, did I type that? K, promise I didn’t mean it. Ish… It’s just that I vacillate between contentment and angst on the cushion. Some sessions things are so calm and productive that I become convinced that I should become a nun, or at the very least a Dharma teacher. (I can picture it now – I’d be kind of a straight-talkin’ mix between Oprah, Wendy O Williams and Sylvia Plath.) Other times I am a jittery, twitching mess convinced that my spastic fidgeting and chronic candy-eating is annoying all within a ten foot radius. And then there are the times that I miraculously sleep, sitting upright, through an entire meditation and wake up just as the nun chimes the singing bowl, unsure of where I am and actually kind of proud of the fact I didn’t fall over. Worst. Meditator. Ever.

Knowing this about myself at the beginning, I told myself that even if the cushion was a battleground, at least I would keep my silence. Right?

Oh, no? Wrong? Ugh…

Part of my serious commitment to this retreat was that I WOULD NOT WRITE. I would not give license to the random and distracting bullshit that my mind produces at a breakneck speed and during all of the break times I would just sit in silence and stare out over the Kathmandu Valley and meditate on emptiness. To be fair, sometimes I do sit and stare out over the Kathmandu Valley, but I am usually thinking of RuPaul’s Drag Race, sex or poutine while I do – and sometimes all three (don’t ask) – can we call that emptiness? And while I threw out my pens so that I would not be tempted to write in my moleskine, I kept my laptop within arms reach. Convenient, Dear. You’re doing it wrong. 

I should mention that I am currently in the MS stage of some pretty virulent PMS and so I need to cut myself some slack. I haven’t actually had a conversation with anyone for 4 days, and that surely has to mean something, right? It’s especially difficult when my brother from another mother, Aritro, is like, two tables over from me and we intentionally don’t make eye contact because I know I will explode into a neutron bomb of gossip and random pop culture facts if I catch his gaze. My steely resolve must say something about my commitment to inner growth, right?

There are three days left, Dear. And so maybe you should put the laptop away, stop narrating your experience, ignore the dogs (but who will compliment them?!) and get back on that cushion. Remember that even when everyone else looks positively Buddha-like, their monkey minds are as crazed as yours (well, maybe not as crazed as yours, just sayin’). Turn off your iPod and go and sit and stare out over the Kathmandu Valley and meditate on emptiness - if that’s what you’re calling it…

19 December 2012

Where Is My Mind? A Month at Kopan Monastery


Gonna get me some mantras on.

It is the night before the big silence starts, and I am tucked in safely into my bed. I decided to live large and spend 10 dollars per night (including 3 meals) for a luxe single room (instead of 5 dollars per night for a dorm bed the likes of which I slept in all of last month) and the privacy is lovely. I am using my MacBook one last time, indulging in Elliott Smith and a Twix bar.

Tomorrow the scary begins – endless hours spent with only myself for company (and man, I am one weird lady). A seven-day meditation on the Lam Rim, often referred to as the ‘Graduated Path to Enlightenment’ in the Tibetan tradition. I have spent the last month here at Kopan Monastery immersed in teachings on its 16 stages, and now for the real work  - the silent, weeklong meditation (taught by dis nun) that kind of seals the deal. It’s a chance to reflect and make sense of the thousands-year old teachings and to determine the best way to apply them to my life.

Therein lies the challenge. Last month’s teaching style was nothing like I predicted it would be. For a Western Buddhist who cut her teeth on Brad Warner, Noah Levine, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh, it was kind of a shock. I encountered a version of Buddhism I had never imagined existed – a fiery hell’n’brimstone, ultra-conservative rendition of the Dharma that I love with all of my heart. Or at least, I thought I loved…  

Despite this being an introductory course taught by Westerners for Westerners (for which Kopan is famous) this year the emphasis was drawn away from the Dharma that I find helpful on a day to day basis – lovingkindness, compassion for oneself and others, equanimity towards all beings– and focused towards avoiding a rebirth in the hell realms. Now, like it or not, this hell stuff is a part of the Dharma. The thing is, most Western teachers are quite gentle with it, and the courses I have taken in Vancouver either avoided these bizarre topics or were quick to point out that they should be viewed metaphorically. This was not the case this November at Kopan.

Some of the most seasoned students were shocked at the almost evangelical tone of the teachings, and I too was quick to reactionarily revolt in my own mind. Sure, the guided meditations were blissful, but the actual teachings often made me feel angry. They seemed to list endless rules and conditions in which you would create “bad karma” – sex, indulging in food too gluttonously, intoxication, self-cherishing thoughts – that all guarantee that you will be reborn in the hell realms. For a Buddhist like me who doesn’t even know if they believe in literal definitions of reincarnation and karma the litanies of things that will land me a shitty rebirth was trying, to say the least, and contradictory to other teachings I have received

A character I created named Not-oft Amused Raccoon shows his feelings toward the teachings.

These teachings challenged me. My ego took over and I rolled my eyes in a patronizing way and dismissed entire concepts outright. I rejected a great deal of what was taught (anytime things got too supernatural), and I began to have a pretty major crisis of faith. I battled with the concepts – but ultimately I determined that I could still be Buddhist. I recognize that most of the behaviours and actions that will propel you into a “hell rebirth” are all pretty negative here in this life, too, and avoiding them will make me a better person for my friends, family and all sentient beings in general while I sort out exactly what I believe on the reincarnation front. This was, I told myself, just one lineage out of thousands within Tibetan Buddhism, not to mention the countless Mahayana traditions and the whole world of Theravada I have yet to explore! My belief in the science, psychology and basic truth of Buddhism, though shaken, remained strong.

Well, strong-ish. I still couldn’t wait for 30 days to be up and to get off this hill and return to Thamel with money jangling in my pocket, ready to order two fingers of scotch, rocks please. I counted the days, wanting to smoke cigarettes and wear make-up and flirt with boys and talk pop culture with the friends I made during the course (Hi girls!). I was ready for some worldly pleasure, yo. 

Before: Monastery Gals.

After: Thamel Babes.

And so as soon as the course ended I raced to “the real world,” and just as the teacher, Venerable Thubten Gyatso, had predicted – it was less than fulfilling, to say the least. I had (many) drinks and (many) cigarettes and danced the night away and it all seemed… kind of frantic and empty. The beer tasted like shit (this may be due to the fact that ALL NEPALI BEER TASTES LIKE BUDWEISER. Put an Oatmeal Stout or a Coffee Porter or a crazily bitter triple-hopped IPA in front of me and then see what I say) and the next day I felt terrible. I gave up on smoking. I stayed chaste. I abandoned my attachment to foo… (Ha! Almost got you there. I still love food. Gunna eat me so much random weird stuff in Bangkok so soon!)

Thamel, Kathmandu’s main backpacker ghetto, seemed more like a hellhole than ever, complete with glue-huffing 8 year olds and the thin ghosts of desperation and need lingering in doorways, trying to sell me opium. The internet, which I had been craving for weeks, seemed boring and flat and I didn’t much care about news or drama or even watching the final episodes of my beloved Gossip Girl. It all seemed so petty and external and pointless, so fucking dark and empty that I just wanted to go back to Kopan and meditate. (For real. WHO AM I? Gah.)

My few days in Thamel have proven to me that as I immerse myself deeper into Buddhist teachings something fundamental is subtly changing in my brain – so subtly that I didn’t even notice it happening while I was busy mocking and scoffing at the more esoteric teachings. Now I have to go digging around to find out what exactly it is that has changed.

Basically, I need a way to make sense of all of the conflicted and intense Buddhist psychology lessons of the previous month. Seven days of silent solitude filled with 9-10 hours of meditation, both guided and solo, seems like the perfect place to be right now.  I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the convoluted and “bizarre” teachings will seem less convoluted and insane when I sit with them.  No, no – that doesn’t believe I will ascribe to literal interpretations of spirit realms, but they’re sitting better with me as metaphors as time goes by. I think I can come to a place where I can still be comfortable and strong in my beliefs, even within this particularly strict tradition. 

This retreat shit ain’t easy, and while it may seem self-indulgent, it really isn’t - it is a step toward cultivating the stability, selflessness and mindfulness that I need in order to truly be able to help more people and to be a better friend, daughter and person in general. (<---- Do you see this? Man, it was way easier when I was resigned to just being a drunken dirtbag poet. Ugh. )

So here I am in bed, huddled under a yak wool blanket and listening to clandestine folk music. After a few days of space I realize that I don’t have to unquestioningly swallow all of the beliefs of one teacher. More importantly, I can now see that there was a fuck ton of extremely valuable information mixed within all the talk of Nagas and Hell Realms, information that my ego was tempted to dismiss outright because it didn’t fit into my preconceived notions of life. Silly ego.

Finally, no matter what understanding I come to, I have to remember that I am always free to use my own wisdom to interpret and follow the Dharma in the best way for me. Now I just hope that summa that wisdom comes to me while I have my bum on the cushion for the next seven days….

Your head will collapse
If there's nothing in it
And you'll ask yourself....

13 December 2012

Kitty Dharma

I had a lovely meditation with that guy on my lap.
I have just returned to the hectic and the crazy of Thamel in Kathmandu after month spent blissed out (and not so blissed out, but more on that later) at the Kopan monastery. I am about to go back beyond the gates tomorrow for a week long intensive Lam Rim meditation in pure silence, but before I do I wanted to write a little note to you guys to let you know I am alive and well (and a bit of a hippy. Even more than before. Sigh.)

You know, I have so much I could write and emote about. I could write about the massive realizations I had after meditating, the constant struggles to quiet my mind, my tug of war battle between attachment and aversion or the quest to forgive some people and let others go completely. Serious, heavy, life-altering blogging, people.

But instead I gunna write about kitties.

Listen, I promise that that other stuff is coming. I will write massive soliloquies about my experience, but I need some time to process it all and make sense of it, y'know? Find the right words. So in the meantime, here are some adorable cats at the monastery!

HHDL makes a cozy bed buddy.
Mahayana Buddhists believe that exposing animals to Dharma materials and teachings will help their chances at being reincarnated as a human, so cats and dogs are allowed to wander into the Gompa (a word that always reminds me of this) at will. This little grey cat never fails to curl up right here on the altar, at the righthand side of the Dalai Lama. Kitty friend knows what's up.

I named this cat Greg, and normally he is a hot tamale, what with all the biting and snarling and hissing. However, on the night that this photo was taken, Greg was a total dreamy mushball and let me carry him around - and even zip him into my vest a bit - for over an hour! I was convinced that he loved me and we had a special bond, and I wrote a song about him, sung to the tune of "Fame," which had the lyrics, "Greg! You and me are gonna make it together, Greg! You and me will be just fi-i-ine. Greg! I really think we'll do it togeth-uh-uh, Greg! I think we're gonna make it this ti-i-ime."

Turns out Greg was super sick, and the reason he was nuzzling into me was because he was probably trying to kind of bury himself into my midsection, carve out a little grave and then die. When I realized this I spent 45 minutes looking frantically for the vet (one of the other 250 course participants), and then the cat, and then the vet again. It was harrowing, but turns out he just ate something bad and just had to poop a lot, and now Greg is totally fine. But still, Violet? The vest thing was an asshole move.


This post may be called Kitty Dharma, but there are a lot of dogs at Kopan too! This guy is named Lucky, and he sneaks into the Gompa and sits amongst the students whenever he can. I mostly love him because when he crosses his legs, they look like a heart. Best.

That's all for now, but I will write again next week when my week of silent meditation (no classes - whee!) has had a chance to solidify this whirling mass of Dharma and doubt in my brain - and in my heart.
A cartoon that I drew about Lucky.

07 December 2012

I See Dead Things: A Walk Through Singapore's Chinatown

When I was in Singapore recently I took a walking tour through Chinatown and learned some wonderful - and morbid - history about the neighbourhood. See, as much as I loved being a walking tour guide, I love taking walking tours even more.

I am an easy sell. I have always credited my excellent sales skills to the fact that I myself am so easily excited by the prospect of being sold to. This is similar to the way I feel about tour guiding. As a seasoned tour guide myself, people expect me to hold fellow guides to an impossibly high standard and lampoon them when their storytelling skills are not up to par, but au contraire. As long as a guide has a reasonably good grasp on what they are talking about, I am a dream guest. I smile and nod and my eyes glitter with happy tears at the mere mention of architecture, events of historical significance and unique cultural quirks. I ask questions. I laugh on cue. I tip.  

Joo-Ling was a great guide, a retiree she was bursting with facts and quirks about the city state that she clearly loves. She led me on a two and a half hour tour of information about a neighbourhood that parallels the Chinatown in Vancouver in so many interesting ways.

Now, I spent a few hours last night explaining to you how I have come to terms with my morbid side (just call me Wednesday Adams, y’all) and I think that this deep introspection was inadvertently triggered by Joo-Ling. And she has no idea.

We were standing inside of Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist temple and she was explaining the Singaporean custom of combining these normally separate religions (“Never can have too much good luck!”) when she began talking about some of the darker emblems and talisman contained within the temple walls. “See, you know yin and yang symbol? You see how there is always hope, right? Inside the darkest times, there is always a little bit of light. But, and even in the best times, you have to remember that there are negative things too, otherwise you become a jerk!”

“You can’t have the good without the bad. They always go together, at list a little bit. And the little bit of black in the white side of the yin yang symbol makes the good things even sweeter.”

Now you see where my head was at when I wrote this.
We wound our way through streets lined with Chinese shop houses, up a tamarind shaded hill and then back down into hectic central Chinatown. After visiting a traditional apothecary, we headed right down a street referred to as the Street of the Dead. Immediately my inner goth girl perked up, and I giggled to myself. This was a perfect segue from the Taoist philosophy (lite) that Joo-Ling had been espousing inside the temple. I think it helped to click that I AM GENUINELY INTERESTED IN WEIRD THINGS, and that that is actually a positive part of who I am and not just a facet of arrested development. Consequently, a lane called the Street of the Dead was like tourism crack to me.

Until the 1960s, “death houses,” places where the poor literally came to die (like the ones pictured above), were big business on Sago Street. When Singapore went through a massive sanitization campaign the death houses were outlawed but a whole new death industry sprung to life and cashed in on the already morbid reputation of the area.

To illustrate this, one of our next stops was a store selling funerary supplies. Most Chinese Singaporeans are cremated, and so this store doesn’t do a swift trade in coffins and shrouds but rather joss sticks and paper effigies.

Back in ancient times, rich and powerful men would plan their burials in elaborate terms – which often included the burial of slaves, armies and material goods to keep them safe and happy in the afterlife.  Eventually, this practice was abandoned in favour of effigies (Terra Cotta Warriors, anyone?) These days no one is really in need of a battalion of soldiers as much as an iPad, ammiright?

This is a place where Singapore’s consumer culture comes crashing into ancient custom, and it all happens in a very matter of fact way.  Death is not something we should avoid and pretend doesn’t exist – it is an inevitable part of life. And if you have Blackberry in the afterlife, a pretty fun one at that.

Next time you are in Singapore, I highly recommend taking a walking tour. You just never know what you will discover about the city – and about yourself.