10 September 2013

A Post Modern "Moving to London" Peptalk

Conflicted about this pho, conflicted about life.

Here we are again, dear constant readers. Ms Violet Dear about to embark on yet another adventure - moving to London for grad school. To say I am conflicted is an understatement.

This time, it feels different. This time I'm not just packing a bag and leaving the kitties with my mum and zipping off for a set amount of time to work and play in the far, only to return to Vancouver with a bag full of weird souvenirs and a belly full of tall tales. No, this time I am really leaving. For a good long while. I sold all of my belongings and have only a few boxes in storage. Leaving and, to coin a phrase, "I don't know when I'll be back again" (but my bags are NOT packed). I will probably use Vancouver as a home base for many years, but I can't see myself living here again, so this feels final. And scary. Can we rewind?

I may have imbibed a bit of wine this summer....

Not too far, mind you, just to the start of the summer. When I arrived to Vancouver everything seemed so far away and idyllic and filled with time. Time to earn money, time to do yoga, time to wear adorable dresses and visit with friends, time to drink good beer and great wine. And I did do those things, in spades. But now it is time to leave the safe cocoon of my mother's suburban chateau and head off back into the wilds of the real world where I have to engage in the daunting tasks of paying for things, and taking care of myself and.... reading.

 Oh yeah. I have to do this thing.  
I have started my required pre-term booklist and oh fuck. Oh fuck fuckity fuck fuck. Vast swaths of teensy text about semiology and hermeneutics and phenomenology and epistemology and I can NEVER remember how to actually apply the concept of ontology and who was Baudrillard again and what does Marx have to do with architecture and oh my god I am dumb. I feel like Carrie White's mother is whispering in my ear and I am in way over my head - let's just hope there's a shortage of pig's blood at UCL.

Anxiety-causing facts also include:
  • the fact that I don't yet have a flat and I land in a few days
  • my interpersonal relationships are in limbo
  •  I now own just a few boxes of random childhood mementos and eighth grade notes. I sold all of the things that made me a functioning adult (like, with a couch and pots!)
  • I am really kind of poor 
So what to do, right? Ke garne? The only thing that there is to do, sister. And that is reel in the storytelling, stop psyching myself up and be compassionate, not just to others but to myself. Easy, right?

The three things I need to work on (as always):

1) First of all, I need to chill out and practice letting things be what they will be - you can't control everything, little Dear, nor should you try. That goes for flatmates and boys and pals and BIG SCARY future after school plans. Sometimes I have to take a breath and allow things to happen without stepping in, without meddling and trying to force the conclusion that I want in order to ease my anxiety. That shit doesn't work.

Oh, how I can relate.  (also, I made this meme, which made me really proud)

2) Second, I have to trust that all those things, those things that will "be what they will be?" They will be exactly what they need to be. A guest on one of my walking tours asked me about my career plans post-Masters (I'll be a magistar!) last week:
"So, what will you actually do? Like as a job? Like.... what would your tasks be?" I hesitated.
"erm. Like.... policy? and liasing? and consultancy?"
"Sure, but what does that look like?"
"ehm. Like, I would work for an INGO that deals with heritage and development? Like, I will, erm, work there? At a desk? Doing tasks?"

So I have to trust that I will learn so much about my chosen field - and myself - over the next year at UCL that the big scary career stuff will become more obvious and I will come away with a modicum of understanding of what my day to day skillset will look like. And of course, I'll have, like, a plan to one day pay back this lovely student debt I am accruing *nervous laughter/adjusts collar*.

3) Third, I have to have confidence in my abilities and my intellect and my passion and remember that I can fucking do this, and do it well, because I fought for it - hard - and the fight's not over. I love the subject matter.  I love buildings. I love history. I love learning. And damnit, I love loving things!

So let's see - to sum it up, Dear: chill out, trust that you chose the right Masters program and have confidence in yourself. AND be compassionate to one and all. Piece of cake, right? RIGHT?

See you in Brixton, pals and gals.

08 June 2013

The Macabre and the Delicious - Lunch in Bangkok

The Thai Colonel - Colonel San Ha.

Bangkok is a city that vibrates with energy, and you all know that I just lurve the "City of Angels." Whenever I get the chance, I extend my inevitable layovers to and from South Asia in order to make what would be a 3 hour pain in the ass a lovely short vacation.

This time around I was leaving Nepal, and my heart and mind were filled with conflicting, bittersweet emotions. I was planning to connect in Bangkok without leaving the airport, but news that one of my BFFs, Ben Newcombe, and my good pal Loren were going to be in the city made me rethink my flight plan and schedule my tenth - TENTH - visit to Krung Thep.
What better to remedy this confusing sludge of anxiety, nostalgia, financial panic and heartsickness than, you guessed it - one night in Bangkok?

Turns out - nothing. Nothing could be better than Thai street food, that is! I made a pact to the boys and to myself that I would only consume cheap local food for the 24 hours - and it was a promise I made good on.


We spent my one night in town drinking buckets, dancing and attending a ladyboy show, finishing up at 2am with some delicious streetside chicken rice. For my one full day, I wanted to visit some of the more bizarre attractions in the city, things I had always put off for "next time" on every other visit. 

After a breakfast of pork noodle soup, we paid a visit to the Jim Thompson House, a meticulously preserved Thai teak house once owned by the American architect and designer. He is said to have saved the dying Thai silk industry in the '50s - until he vanished without a trace in Malaysia and was never heard from again. The house is stylish, creatively designed and slightly subversive - I loved it. 

 A long line up at the chicken and som tam stall - the busiest in the food court.

We built up quite an appetite and needed to have a hearty lunch before heading to the macabre Siriraj Medical Museum (so. many. dead. babies. in. jars.) and the sinisterly stuck-in-time Nightingale Olympic Department Store (although, in retrospect, an empty stomach at the medical museum would not have been such a bad thing). Loren led the charge to a side street Thai food court he had visited earlier in the week, promising cheap, delicious local street eats.

The food court is located in a covered alley in Siam Square, and despite the hoards of farang tourists in the nearby vicinity, we were the only non-Thais in the place. Ben and Loren opted for some choices from the smorgasbord of curries, meats and stir fries, but something a little different caught my eye - fried chicken and som tam.

Who can take a rainbow, spinkle it with glee - the Som Tam Man can!

Just the previous evening, a new pal had been telling me about a famous joint near Lumpini Park that only sells delicious, crispy fried chicken and som tam, a papaya salad that is said to be one of the spiciest Thai dishes. I was intrigued by the combination, and here it was, fortuitously right in front of me. 

An older gentleman was mixing what I recognized as the fiery salad with a big mortar and pestle, and I gestured that I would like one of the same.  I also pointed to a skewer jabbed through two fried chicken breasts and watched as he prepared my plates in a flurry of chillies, peanuts, dried shrimp and fish sauce.

I don't understand the point of life without Thai street food. WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT?

Less than a minute later I was taking my seat with two delicious, complementary plates in front of me - all for 60 baht (2 dollars).

The fried chicken was crispy, salty and juicy, each piece dipped in a sweet soy sauce mixed with a hint of cilantro. The rich, salty umami flavour of the chicken and sauce was perfectly matched with the sour and spicy som tam, the fishiness of the tiny shrimps and fish sauce helping to cut through the oiliness of the chicken. 

Initially I exclaimed that I had "enough food for two people!", but I licked my fingers, dug in and plowed through both plates. I finished my lunch with the perfect feeling - rather than stuffed silly and filled with remorse, I was glowing and happy, having eaten the perfect amount.

It was a wonderful night - and day - in Bangkok, aided by a wonderful lunch. I had a happy feeling in my tummy and a spring in my step... 
 ....that is, until all of the deformed babies in formaldehyde and mummified criminals.

Some things, like chicken and som tam, are simply just a better combination than others. 

Being a "good eater" is a lovely compliment, Violet - for a baby.

06 June 2013

Sit and Spin - Kathmandu's Ferris Wheel

 No. It's not safe. And that's what makes it fun!

I had seen it from afar too many times to count, each sighting sending a chill up my spine.

I could see it poking up over some trees and buildings each time my taxi crossed the overpass between Ratna Park and the back way through Tapathali to the Bagmati Bridge, and I would mutter to myself, or to anyone else nearby: "I will ride that Ferris Wheel before I leave Kathmandu."

The problem was, I could never actually find it. The wheel in the distance looked positively monolithic from that one road, but no Nepali I asked seemed to know what I was talking about. As my days began to count down other priorities took over, and to be honest, I sort of forgot about my carnival goal. 

Until a few weeks ago. Kalina and I were drinking soda pop and attending a fair trade event at Exhibition Park when all of the sudden I could hear the delightful sound of children screaming in equal parts terror and glee. "I know that sound." I said, and as we turned a corner, there it was, looming up ahead - the ricketiest, tallest, positively scariest Ferris Wheel I had ever seen.

However, it soon became clear that this was a case of "so close, yet so far." The heat was unbearable, and Kalina and I already felt nauseous. We were rapidly losing our ability to withstand the muggy, woozy sun of midday, and we sadly turned back toward Lazimpath. "We'll come back!" We both exclaimed, but there was a part of me that knew that it wasn't going to happen.

That, my friends, is the look of glee. Glee!

A few weeks later I was gearing up to leave Kathmandu during my final week. The boy was back in town, and I was determined to show him some of the reasons that I find the city magical. We wandered through the back lanes between Thamel, Indra Chowk and Durbar Square and saw the Kumari Devi's house, the Tooth Fairy shrine and a 2000 year old Buddha. As we began to meander down New Road and we randomly happened to bump into Kalina and her roommate Katie.

It was still early, about 3pm, and we were all in good spirits, happy to be together hanging out with the lion's share of the afternoon stretched out in front of us. "Should we get a coffee?" I asked. Kalina's face lit up.

"Let's go. To. The Ferris Wheel!" It was settled. We started off on the sweaty walk to Exhibition Park.

Step right up, step right up. But mind the giant holes in the ground....

From just outside the gate, we realized that this was not simply a standalone Ferris Wheel - no, it was a small amusement park! There was a scrambler, a small dragon coaster, bumper cars and a merry go round...

....and there was the wheel itself. 

Up close, we could see that this was not just a normal Ferris Wheel - it was operating at roughly double the speed and the carts were wildly swinging back and forth. This was actually like, a ride, not just some county fair, Fern and Avery, easy-does-it, old timey snooze. My knees began to grow weak and a mix of excitement and dread - the amusement park feeling - began to build at the base of my neck.

I look like I am saying, "Ole!"

Once inside I was greeted by another wonderful surprise - an abandoned ride, its parts scattered on the ground. Now, I love beautiful old abandoned buildings, everyone knows that - but an abandoned carnival ride has got to be one of the most gloriously unsettling things I can imagine. I scampered over and immediately began exclaiming "Wow!" loudly, over and over again as I clambered on top and inside of the cars.  Ben, Katie and Kalina waited patiently as I examined them and fawned over the cogs and wheels like they were precious works of art. When I had finally had my fill, we walked over the the star of the show, the behemoth Ferris Wheel.

The child in the red harness was screaming and crying like she was being tortured, and it made me laugh like some sort of horrible sadist. But man, it was funny. I'm laughing just thinking about it.

I believe that it was at this point that Kalinka looked up and said simply, "Nope." No amount of cajoling or pleading could get her on that ride, but the boy and I were feeling more brave. We paid for our tickets on what was being hailed as the "Joint Wheel" and eagerly boarded the ride.

"This is either going to be much scarier or much less scary than we are expecting it to be." I announced.

The "Vaporizer" Wheel was closed due to neglect.

The Wheel began to spin, and within minutes Ben and I were calmly approaching the highest point of the axis. The view was stunning, as the ride reaches taller than most of the city's buildings, and we could see the entire expanse of the Kathmandu and into the valley.

"Um, I think it's getting faster." I said suspiciously, and he nodded.
"Yeah, the operator winked at me the last time we passed him."
"Oh god! Not a wink! You never want a carny to wink at you! It's like a gypsy kiss! BAD THINGS HAPPEN."

The ride did indeed pick up speed, and I was starting to examine the rusted joints, the extremely young, slackjawed staff and the flimsy pin holding our cart to the wheel. In a country that sits on a huge earthquake faultline and that has no safety inspections and no government, the last thing you want to start contemplating is the sturdiness of the 6 story Ferris Wheel that you are actually sitting on at the time.

My stomach began to drop each time we began the descent, and I was starting to feel nauseous, but at that point it finally began to slow down. As we neared the top for one final spin, I told Ben about the North American tradition of kissing your date at the top of the Ferris Wheel. He obliged, choosing a moment when none of the children or families on the ride were looking, as even a chaste peck is scandalous when in public in Nepal (totally fine to hold hands - or junk - with your buddies, though). 

When it was all said and done, I was happy to have gone on the Joint Wheel - but equally happy to get off of the Joint Wheel. While it may not be the largest, or the cleanest, or the safest - Kathmandu Fun Park offers thrills, one way or another. Now about those safety inspections.....

Public romance in Nepal? Verboten. Public bromance in Nepal? A-OK!

03 June 2013

A Vagabond Leaves Lazimpath

Bijay and Rajkumar, my Nepali brothers and staff members at Tings.

These are my last few minutes living in Lazimpath. I am packing my belongings and preparing to spend the night at Kalinka's house for two nights before heading first to Bangkok and then to Vancouver. These disorientingly nomadic days are probably a good preview of my summer, as I will be crashing with friends or heading to the deepest, darkest suburbs to stay with my Mum. Three months is simply not enough time to bother with renting a flat, and I am planning to sell all of my belongings anyway. It's time to let those go and prepare to be a vagabond expat 4EVA.

... but let's be honest, while it feels important to mark this occasion even I don't want to hear myself have another heartwrenching epiphany, so let's not be too melodramatic. Should be easy, as I feel a bit numb. 

Sure, there were tears in my eyes when I walked away from Gertie and The Keg, leaving them expectantly wagging their tails. And yes, last night I got a bit emotional at my al fresco leaving party at Tings, the sad happy that occurs when you are surrounded by people you care for and to whom you are saying goodbye. Of course I am sad to leave the apartment where I had some great times and suffered through a cold winter (ok, so I am not sad about that part at all). But overall, no matter how much I try to make this all seem real, it just hasn't sunk in yet. I'm oddly stoic about the whole thing, and I can't decide whether that is because it is simply time to leave or because I am in denial. Either way, it's going to happen. I am leaving the 'Du.

I will miss Lazimpath, and I will miss Kathmandu. The vibrancy of everything, the chaos, the splendour -  the manic highs and dark lows of this city are addictive, and I know that while I will be dazzled by Vancouver's pretty face for a few weeks, quite soon it will start to seem dull.

I will attempt walk in traffic and navigate the streets too closely to moving cars.

I will marvel at the high speed wifi and the existence of bathtubs.

I will carry napkins to the washroom with me, forgetting that they all have toilet paper.

I will gain five pounds eating ALL OF THE THINGS and drinking ALL OF THE BEER.

I will never cease to be amazed by drinkable tap water and the cleanliness of public space.

I will gawk at the amount of food thrown in the garbage.

Most importantly, I will be able to begin reflecting on this experience and truly start to understand what it all meant to me. Right now I am too in it, submerged in the swirling, complicated emotions of long distance romance, farewells to friends and what some Buddhists call "the suffering of change." But once I am back in Vancouver and have seen my pals and eaten some sushi, the excitement of being home will wear off and I will have time to pause and meditate on what Kathmandu changed inside my heart and mind. That process is at once scary and comforting but ultimately necessary.

So while right now I feel calm and ready to leave, in two days time when I cab to the airport who knows what I will be feeling (I do have a history of crying in taxis). I might be teary eyed and mournful or excited and optimistic, but I will have my head held high and my gaze pointed forward, because that's where I am going whether I want to or not. Time passes.

Boy, does it ever.

02 June 2013

Momos - Nepali Comfort Food

Please sir, can I have some 'mo?

Today is a big, emotional day. The boy just left (yes, again - and for real this time. After my last blog, he came back to Kathmandu for a week to solve some technical difficulties with the bike and paperwork) and I am having a small going away get together at my home away from home, Tings. The farewell to the boy is less fraught with complicated emotions than the last time, as we have decided to just say "fuck it" and make sure we see eachother again. But it's still sad.

So I am going to take what could potentially be a rich source for a yearning, wanky paean to time-passing, goodbyes and romance and instead write about something extremely uncomplicated: Momos.

Pork kothey momos - to die for.

I have a theory that every culture adores dumplings. Seriously - whether it's the Peruvian empanada, the Ukrainian perogy or the Chinese xiao long bao, people around the world love them some stuffed dough - and who can blame them? Dumplings in any form are one of life's simplest and most delicious comfort foods, and momos - the Tibetan/Nepali contribution - are no exception.

When I visited - and ate my way through - Beijing, I very nearly got a tattoo of the Chinese character for "dumpling" on the side of my ass, thinking of all of the delightful exchanges that would follow:
           Chinese speaker: "You know that means dumpling, right? Not 'peace.'
           Me: "I know. I just really like dumplings."

Nearly every restaurant in Kathmandu serves momos. From a streetside stall hawking 40 rupee bowls to a gourmet serving that costs 400 rupees at the Hyatt, you can always count on one thing - they will be delicious. That's the thing about momos - even when they aren't very good, they're still pretty good.

The most common fillings include buff (the Nepali colloquial term for water buffalo, a beef substitute in this Hindu country), chicken and veg, but more daring establishments will offer paneer, pork (when religiously appropriate), potato and even chocolate or fruit. A local chain called "Bakery Cafe" hosts an annual event called Momo Mania - and this year they had eighteen different flavours!

Momos are traditionally served steamed, but they are also popular pan-fried (one side, called 'kothey' or both sides) or deep fried, and are sometimes sauteed with chili sauce, onions and peppers and called "C-Momo."

After a walk around Patan's Durbar Square yesterday afternoon, we decided to grab some plates of 'mos as an afternoon snack (which is when Nepalis normally eat them). Royal Saino Momos is an institution on Durbar Marg, famous for their offbeat flavours (mushroom and peanut!) and their sauces. The sauce is an integral part of the experience, and it's usually spicy and sweet with a little bit of masala flavour.

Ta Da!

We ordered a plate of kothey pork and a steamed basket of veg momos and they were delicious - the kothey perfectly golden on one side and dripping with tasty oil and the steamed veg all gingery and chewy in exactly the right way.

Royal Saino is a little bit more expensive that the norm, with a plate of momos costing about 150 rupees (average is more like 80 - 100) but they are really, really good. Add an Everest Beer and you have the perfect 3pm combination.

Meet your meat.... or meat and greet?

So while I will miss Nepal - and I will definitely miss the boy - wherever I go in the world I will be able to find comfort food that will remind me of this place and the amazing times I had here.

Gyoza. Sui Mai. Vareniki. Ravioli. Wontons.

And of course, momos.

Just call me l'il dumpling. But don't actually.

25 May 2013

Blame it on the Rain - Monsoon in Kathmandu

Shut up, Jane Siberry.

Reading my blog lately and you’d be right to assume that I have been one morose motherfucker. However, the picture I paint here is not always the most complete, and there are other things on my mind that don’t involve death, goodbyes and lost loves.

It’s Monsoon Season. That means that every single day is a ferociously hot, baffling ordeal – the kind of muggy heat that makes you swagger and sway with dizzy until finally at around four pm the sky clouds over and it just snaps. The weather breaks and the angry blackness lets loose torrents of rain. Now, I am from Vancouver, and so I know a thing or two about the rain, but this is not your garden variety drizzle. It is as if each drop is a garden hose on full blast, and within minutes the streets of the capital are flooded and everyone is wading around in knee-deep water.

But we all know this ain’t just water, don’t we? It’s a fetid stew of sewage, dust and garbage and it means that the blisters I have on my feet from my flip flops never heal, just get angry and red and increasingly septic. Cars start to drift dangerously, sidewalks disappear and entire neighbourhoods deal with a daily onslaught of floodwater. Lightning kills more people each year in Nepal than it does anywhere else in the world!

When I said "Make it Rain" I did not mean this. No sir.  
Some days are worse than others. Two nights ago it poured so hard that even the locals were stunned and it made headlines the next morning. I was caught trying to get a taxi to Kalinka’s house so I could make her dinner, and the "water" rose to my knees in minutes. I paid double the normal rate for that taxi, but I was relieved to pay it. Others didn’t fare so well.

Like my friend Matilda, who experienced the power of the rains firsthand. This was her most recent facebook status: “Monsoon 1,000,000, Matilda 0. Scooter ride back from work lost both thongs so barefoot on roads, gave Nepali men from Thamel to Sanepa a good white wet t-shirt comp, then drove into a waist deep ditch of sewage, at which point the scooter stopped working. Well played, Nepal, well played.” 

The storm cleared the air and paved the way for a heatwave, and since this epic Noah’s Ark rainfall two days ago, it hasn’t rained – and the pressure in the atmosphere is building. I am now lying on my couch like a beached whale in a onezie, drinking water and trying to convince myself not to get naked and sit on my deck. It’s a kind of close mugginess that I have never experienced in my life, and the heavy air is like a balloon that needs the rain to come and pop it.

The weirdest thing about all of this is that monsoon is not supposed to officially start until June, and so locals were calling this “pre-monsoon” until the crazy storm occurred. The city has at least two more months of this sordid weather but I myself have less than two weeks left of the stuff (and of Nepal. Full stop). It’s kind of like a weird endurance test for your body and your brain to see how much “horrible” it can withstand - in a weird way I will miss it.

Plus, I look adorable with flushed cheeks and wet hair.

Til it rains –

23 May 2013

Taxi Cabs, Tears and Puppy Love - The Curse of the Farewell

We all get our comfort from somewhere.

Today I did something that expats just do.

I said goodbye to someone I have grown to care about. A boy with whom I have been spending time who I care for deeply. The situation, to coin a phrase, sucked.

It was a strange weekend in Pokhara, that mix of happy and sad that can make you feel like you have truly lost your mind - everything is swirling and confusing and foggy. Add a bout of the flu and some afternoons of drinking into the mix and I had a recipe for an emotional meltdown.

Looks like I am good at following recipes. I got messy.

I caught the last flight of the day from Pokhara back to Kathmandu - a flight for which I had no reservation as I just didn’t go to my scheduled flight at noon. (I didn’t call or cancel or anything - as a former travel agent, this is unthinkable) but things are relaxed here in Nepal and this didn’t seem to be a problem. I was handed a boarding pass.

I checked in with literally one minute to spare, arriving for the 4:10 flight at 3:55, having dragged my sick, shaky body from the boy's arms moments earlier. I knew I may never see him again and yet I still walked out that door and down that street, deciding to just try to feel what was happening. (Turns out that this "feeling stuff" thing is terrible. I do not recommend it.)

This is Gertie immediately sitting down on my foot as I ordered coffee. Dog always has to be touchin' me.

I arrived less than an hour later to the domestic terminal in Kathmandu, notoriously the most scam-ridden place to catch a taxi in the whole city. Normally 300 rupees to my house would be fair, but the driver wanted me to pay 350 and concede to sharing with a stranger to Thamel, a stranger who would pay the same 350/400 rupee price and therefore double the driver's earnings in a really dishonest way. "No, dai." I said, "no sharing. Straight. Straight to Lazimpath." He argued with me gently, cajoling me and telling me "no problem, you have another come with, no problem."

I was hot. I was tired and sick and so, so heartbroken and angsty that I just literally burst into tears. My face exploded and I began to wail. The taxi driver looked horrified and deeply concerned.

"Ohhhh, ma'am. Ohhhh, Didi, what is wrong?" I did my best to reassure him that it had nothing to do with his negotiations, and that if he really wanted to, he could pick up one more passenger (although I dreaded the idea of small talk). He shook his head gently. "No, we go. We go straight Lazimpath."

The entire ride home I was texting and mewling and he finally looked at me, at the tears running pitifully down my face and dripping off of my nose, his face screwed up into a look of deep concern. ""Madam! What is ok? Why are you tearing?" I tried to tell him, and he seemed to understand, nodding knowingly. "You will miss your friend." He said. I nodded as I gulped back tears.

"Yes. I will miss my friend."

"Ke Garne?" He said sadly. (Nepali for a rhetorical "what to do?")

Best keg party ever.
I decided to go for a coffee rather than wait for Kalinka at my house in the quiet dark of loadshedding. I schlumped out of the cab and noticed that one of the street dogs, a squat guy I call "The Keg," was plunked on the steps. I sat down beside him and began to pat his head, his tail wagging happily as he licked my fingers and put his head in my lap.

I slightly closed my eyes as I let him just be nice to me - I needed something calm and sweet and gentle. A group of Nepali guys (who are always sitting right near where the dog is always sitting) looked at me, and they seemed like they were about to make small talk or jokes but something in their faces softened and they looked away.

Dirts McGerts. Her real name is "Choira" which in Nepali for "Brown." Nope. Changed.

My calm with The Keg was soon shattered. My favourite of all the street dogs in Kathmandu, a gal I call "Dirty Gertie" (for the fact she is FILTHY) galloped down the street and practically launched herself at me. She normally sees me every day and my six-day absence seemed to have upset her. The Nepali men began to laugh as I lavished both Gert and The Keg with ear rubs. "Oooohhh, she like you!" They exclaimed. 

“I know. I like her too.” I said in broken Nepali, and they laughed some more.

Within seconds The Keg had gingerly placed his paw on my lap, making a passive aggressive yet territorial move. Gert reared her head and stamped her paw on top of his and they began to literally fight over me on and around me. I jumped up and the men roared with laughter. I couldn't help but follow suit.

Gert is kind of pseudo-owned by the coffee shop, which is open air and doubles as an art gallery that plays good jazz and has fantastic espresso. She followed behind me like a shadow, and when I sat down in my usual chair she climbed up onto my lap like a baby and nuzzled her head so far into my armpit I think I was leaning on her face. She licked my fingers and face and made a “woo woo woo” sound that made me feel both incredibly cherished and horribly, horribly lonely at the same time.

 Lose a boy, gain a dog. Nepali math.

I cried. I sat there with that dog (who is NOT a small dog) in my arms and waited for my iced mocha and cried like a little girl who has lost the thing that she wants most in the world, waves of want and regret and just plain sadness washing over me. And Gertie made it feel better (even though I’m pretty sure they were playing John Tesh).

I have chosen this life. I have chosen a life that means I will constantly meet amazing people to whom I have to say goodbye. I attend leaving parties on a weekly basis. But yesterday I said goodbye to someone and it really mattered. Because he wasn’t simply a friend.

With Matt, Kelly, Gemma, Kalinka, Cass, Jess, Attiq, Romeo or the countless pals I have met on this journey and others – I KNOW I will see these people again. We’re travelers. When I next go to Rome or Stockholm or Capetown or Hong Kong or Sydney, I know that facebook will alert me that someone I know is in the same city and we will meet for beers and snacks and laugh like old friends. Because we are old friends, bonded by our nomadic ways.

But this is less simple. When you say goodbye to a person with whom you are romantically involved, there is always the chance you will never see them again. They could meet their future husband or wife – or you could - and even though you would love to just go and grab a Sapporo and some gyoza in an izakaya the next time you are both in Tokyo, it just wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be appropriate. And it could be very dangerous. So you just might never see them again. Fact.

This was an exchange I had with my best friend about it yesterday:
Me: Anyway, I said if he meets a Siberian princess I will understand.
        And then I will bottle her.
Christina: Like a true lady.
Me: I would never bottle anyone in a manner that was not ladylike.
Christina: It’s true. You’re a good Canadian girl.

So I am a little raw. A little vulnerable. I leave Nepal towards uncertainty next week and I have no idea what that will bring. I am torn about what to do with my beloved cats when I move to London. My stalker has chosen RIGHT NOW (as in, like, this very minute) as an appropriate time to message me and tell me his opinion on my last blog. I hit my head on the tuk tuk roof hard enough to leave a huge goose egg. Life is a mess. 

Violet. I have something very meaningful to tell you.

And that dog, that sweet, sweet Dirty Gertie, is like some chicken soup for my very fucked up soul. She’s beside me right now, looking at me with a mix of love and dumb and just dog.

A reminder that this is all going to be ok. It always is.

Ke Garne. 

17 May 2013

The Thamel Fire, or "You're Good at Not Dying"

 A mainstay and place of refuge for over 40 years, gone. 

Last night I was less than 100 metres from a massive explosion in Thamel, the main tourist district in Kathmandu. It triggered a fire that raged all night, and I (barely) slept to the sounds of sirens singing in the streets.

Danger, like, real life actual danger, is a strange thing. It's a slow, confusing state during which your brain has to process all of the new information it is receiving, and then it has to figure out which of the appropriate steps it has to take to make you not die.

I had a conversation with my friend Loren yesterday. He is about to embark on a long traveling journey (and we are going to meet in Bangkok), and the advice I gave him was basically, "if you're not scared, you are doing something wrong. You need to be scared. It's how your lizard brain will make sure you won't die."

And when you boil it all down, that is all ANY of us are any good at: not dying. If you are here and reading this blog in your pajamas, eatin' cheetohs (or whatever snack you enjoy) thinking about rent and TV shows and the price of oil, well: good for you. You are EXCELLENT at the one thing you need to be good at doing: not dying. That can change at any minute, but right now you are doing a great job. Kudos.

Sometimes we pass our time not dying in a way that feels really calm and mundane. We live our lives and pay our bills and ride the bus and tuck our children into their beds and we think that we are safe. But really, we don't even realize that we are walking through a minefield of constant terror and chances for death.

Your heart can literally explode in your chest. Your  house can catch on fire and you can be burnt to death in the time that it takes for you to wake up and realize what is going on. A driver can have one too many Tom Collins and drive straight into you as you cross the street. You are never "safe," my friends. Never. Safe is not a thing.

I don't mean to sound all Fox News and make you worry about scary foreign men bursting into your apartment and raping your pets ("A New Terrier Terror Strikes the Nation!!!"), but come on. We lull ourselves into complacency that every single moment we are alive is not scary as shit. IT IS. And guess what - you are good at navigating the fear. You have to be.

People say, "Jess, aren't you scared to travel the world alone?" The answer is YES. Of course I fucking am. I'm not an idiot - bad stuff happens here in Nepal, but it can also happen to you while you are sitting on your couch in Edmonton or Topeka. Your ceiling could cave in or a swarm of bees could attack you or you have stroke - and we all know that but we just pretend otherwise. Like my mum always says, "You are going to die somewhere, so it might as well be somewhere fucking interesting."

On the left - messages from Ben, at the time (he thought I was at home). 
On the right, message from Matt today.

Last night I was sitting in a pub in Thamel with Matthew Rose and Dan Pritchard, participating in a quiz (like I do every week) when a huge explosion rocked the bar. At first we thought it was a bomb, and then someone said it was just a single tank of cooking propane bursting and so we nearly continued the quiz. It wasn't until the screams and shouts from the street alerted us that something a lot bigger had happened.

Twelve gas tanks (like these ones) exploded at Faces nightclub and the entire centre of Thamel was on fire, and the bar in which I was sitting was less than 100 metres away from where it started. But it was strange - it was like we didn't know exactly how to gauge the danger, like we didn't realize it was a huge problem. I continued texting the boy, even. Time slowed down, and it was only when we stepped outside to see a wall of flames approaching did we realize that it was indeed time to leave, and that is when our lizard brains kicked in and made us not die. We went the other direction.

That's all you have to do. Don't die. And when you do - because you will - and it is in an exotic locale, it's no more shocking than if you were in your bed, surrounded by fat grandchildren. It's death. It is always a possibility. Pretending that it isn't is unhealthy and dishonest. Pretending that it isn't means that you sleepwalk through life and never appreciate how wonderful and treacherous it really is. Pretending that it isn't means that when death does come - and it will - you'll be so unprepared that you'll try to ignore even the very experience of dying. It's one of the most important things that will ever happen to you, so what a spectacular waste.

Today Thamel is in ruins. There are only 7 firetrucks in the entire Kathmandu valley and they all responded, but the fire blazed through the night. One of the most iconic bookstores in Asia, Pilgrims, is gone. Countless people lost their livelihoods, thankfully it seems that no one lost their lives. But life is fleeting, and life is fragile. 

I'm going to finish this up with a direct quote from something I wrote to Loren yesterday:
"You made this choice to travel, this amazing choice that like, a eeeenth of the population makes and you know why they don't make it? BECAUSE IT IS TERRIFYING. And that is so, so fucking beautiful."

Take care. Don't die. You're already good at that.

xoxoVD/Jessica O'Neill

***Note - this blog was just republished at one of my FAVOURITE sites, The Order of the Good Death. Check it out there as well. :)

13 May 2013

An Expat's Ennui - The Real Reason I Won't Ever Live in Vancouver Again

I ain't making any apologies. 

Here is a maudlin little sentiment spawned by red wine, Fleet Foxes, heartache and impending departures:

It seems like the speed at which Kathmandu and I are ending our relationship is increasing at an alarming rate, and despite my whining and complaining about this city in the dead cold of winter, I don't think I am quite ready for my time here to be over. The boy on the bike may be long gone, but in the meantime I have made some new amazing friends, said goodbye to some old ones and realized that - unequivocally -  I. DO. NOT. WANT. TO. GO. HOME.

Listen, we all know that I cried like a baby in February, faced with the daunting number of months between me and the comforts of Vancouver - the food, the familiar faces and the friends who know what a fucking weirdo I am and who love me despite (because of?) it. I then said "fuck it" and booked a fantasy vacation in March,  spending money I should have saved for grad school to help pass the drudgery and ease the ennui of the Kathmandu cold. And then I spent April enveloped in the drama and romance of a new boy, one who was destined to leave and break my heart a little bit (let's just say "thank god!" that valium is over the counter in this country).

But now it is May. Now I am nearly finished my report on voluntourism and how it relates to the abuses perpetrated in orphanages in Nepal. I now know how to ride a motorcycle and I am itching - absolutely itching - to stay and ride across Asia. Tempted to apply for one of the myriad UN/Red Cross/VSO jobs dancing at my toes, enticed to stay here, in a country where I can make a difference. 

Itching. To stay. To stay and be in Asia and maybe work and maybe travel and just. fucking. live. Because living here feels bigger and scarier and more important than anywhere else. Fuck you, Edward Said - this may be Orientalism, but it sure feels intoxicating. It feels like sex and death and life. My own home country feels like rules and boredom and should. I hate should.

Vancouver, my hometown, seems like a cemetery in comparison to the weird thrill and excitement of every moment on this continent, the dirtycrazybiazarre landmass on which I am convinced I was supposed to be born. 

Don't get me wrong. I love my friends. I love my family and I am thrilled to be able to see them. I am aching to drink a Starbucks iced tea lemonade and to eat sushi and to wear teensy weensy short shorts and guide walking tours and guzzle triple hopped IPAs on Beer Island. BUT. buuuuuttttttttt......

The four months I will be home between Nepal and grad school in London feels like a step backward. Like a hiatus between this - my real life - and grad school, which is a mandatory precursor to the next phase of my real life. 

I can say with confidence that I will never permanently live in Vancouver again. I need to go there now to guide and serve and sell all of my belongings and make as much money as humanly possible so I can live in London (which is financially still up in the air - who wants to help pay for my Masters?! WHEE!) where I will gain the skills and the piece of fucking paper that makes me a legitimate candidate for UN jobs.

And c'mon - I love my city. I love the beaches and the food and the history, but the baggage and dysfunctional personal relationships that follow me around, attached to my neck like a pillory? No thank you.

I would rather be in Phnom Penh or Hanoi or Addis Ababa or Ankara or Guatemala City, trying to make a difference, protecting the built culture of world heritage and trying to stop the exploitation of locals in the name of tourism. And a pretty big part of me wants to stay right here in Kathmandu, eating at OR2K, working on human/childrens rights and spending my Friday nights romancing travelers and dancing at Purple Haze to hard rock cover bands, the taste of cheap local vodka lingering in my mouth. 

But that is enough complaining - which I always seem to do. I do miss Vancouver. I am excited to see the mountains and the ocean and my friends. I want to eat at Tacofino and drink Parallel 49 beer and ride motorbikes with Tara and cuddle with Christina and hug all of my pals. I love my city. I love my mum.

I have big beautiful tattoos of the Marine Building and a dogwood to remind me of where I am from. But really? My heart isn't there. It hasn't be for a while. I don't belong in Vancouver.

It's the real reason some of us are expats - it's the curse of a vagabond. I'm a wanderer. I won't be happy in one place - I need to go everywhere. I need the stamps in my passport and the wind in my hair and the roadrash on my knees.

Come meet me along the way.

11 May 2013

Soda in Kathmandu - Gamble Pop!

If you have a job, do the hell outta that job.
Street food is South Asia is a gamble. While a street food feast in Southeast Asia is a glorious and reliable meal, in India and Nepal it can leave you gripping the toilet bowl, crying and wondering why you hated yourself enough to try to eat like a local when you are so clearly a white lady who obviously has a vendetta against her stomach.

Whenever I eat Pani Puri, one of my favourite snacks of all time, I watch the clock like a hawk and hope with crossed fingers that the next twelve hours will pass without, erm, incident. Waking up the morning after a Nepali street food meal with a healthy stomach feels akin to dodging a bullet. "Yay!!!" I find myself thinking. "I survived another plate of buff sandheko/pani puri/bhel chat!"

This morning, as Kalina and I headed to a "Fair Trade Festival" at Bhikrutimandap, we passed a particularly enticing lemon soda cart that advertised his drinks were "with minrals!"

"Let's try one!" She exclaimed, eager to try the celebrated Nepali hangover cure. I nodded enthusiastically, and we both pretended to ignore the fetid tap water, the filthy cups and the near certain bacteria lingering around like a threat to our future happiness.
Can we have the mango soda with no cholera? Perf, thanks.
Fresh lemon soda is a popular Nepali drink, thought to be excellent for the health in the hot weather. Plain soda water, "lemon" (the name for limes here) and a salty masala and mixed together and slugged down in an attempt to stay hydrated. It is available year round in all restaurants, but these carts have only just started to appear on the streets as the temperature heats up and becomes unbearably steamy and humid.

Common sense be damned.
Lemon is normally the default choice, but this chap had all kinds of fruits he was willing to mix into his thick glass bottles of soda - strawberry, orange and even a homemade cola. We chose mango and bravely drank it down.

The salty masala mix is an acquired taste, but for me the salt is less offensive than the sulfur flavour that accompanies it - it kind of smells like a glass of flatulence. However, once I got over the smell I found that the juicy soda was really delicious and tasted exactly like fresh mangoes. 

Dudes. These are limes. C'mon. Let's admit it.

We finished up and handed him back the glass, grimacing as we noticed he didn't really wash our cups, more just swirled them in cloudy water and placed them back on the rack to be re-used. Despite our mild hypochondria, we did feel more hydrated, and headed off refreshed to do our shopping in good spirits.

And hey - it's been 7 hours, and I still feel fine. 

.....I will let you know how I feel at midnight.

This also happened at the Fair. Do ya like clowns? On ostriches? Do ya?

08 May 2013

Learning to Ride at Hearts and Tears Motorcycle Club

 Don't worry mum, we put on helmets when we left the training ground.

Readers will know that I have wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle for quite some time, but I have always been slightly afraid. Ever since an ill fated scooter attempt in Goa during which I nearly crashed into a cow and was almost side swiped by a tour bus I have been reluctant to get back in the saddle. 

When I learned about Hearts and Tears Motorcycle Club in Pokhara, that all changed. The owner, Matthew Gardner, claims to be able to take people from "zero to hero" in just a few short days, and he didn't seem even slightly put off by the fact that I don't know how to drive a car or have a license (bad Vancouver girl. Bad!). He was confident that he and seasoned instructor Fern Hume would be able to get me on a bike and onto the road in just two days - and they were right.

I have a little experience with sidecars...(and empties)

I booked the "Expat Weekend" which included one full day of instruction on a Yamaha RX135 and a trip through the mountains the following day. I was nervous - other than skateboarding and cycling, I have never operated a wheeled vehicle without a driving instructor sitting next to me with his own emergency steering wheel and panic break pedal. (Which he had to use. A lot.)

Oh, you pretty girls.... learning how to ride an Enfield is my next goal.

We met on Saturday morning - my birthday - at the shop, and were briefed on the schedule for the day. I was joined by my Kathmandu pal Benjamin, a pilot and novice to motorbikes himself. He had managed to recruit a third attendee, a gal named Katie whom he had met while climbing to the Peace Pagoda the day earlier. 

I wasn't sure what to expect and had fears that I would be thrown into the deep end right away, but Fern walked us through the bike and the theory of how to ride in a logical, step by step manner. Within an hour we were seated on bikes and learning how kick start, operate the clutch and work the revs. As we wheeled around the training ground slowly my confidence grew and I began to think I was a natural. 

This feeling did not last long. 

For my next feat...

I was the only one of the three students who did not know how to drive a car, and so the clutch and the gears were genuinely confounding for me. I stalled once, twice and then three times - this was enough to undermine my newly gained confidence. Remembering to let the clutch out slowly, change gears and rev the engine smoothly all at once, and having my hands do two different things at the same time? This started to confuse my tired, hot brain and I fell behind the others. As they zipped around the training grounds I began to regress, get stressed and stall, stall and stall again.

My nerves were not helped by the myriad pointing children and picnicking adults gathered around, staring and treating us like a sideshow attraction. After lunch Matt arrived and decided that Benjamin and Katie were ready for a spin on the local roads. Fern stuck with me, gave me a new bike with a less sensitive clutch and walked me through all of the skills we had been working on. With her kind, patient one-on-one attention I was back on track, and within 30 minutes I too was ready to get out of the park and onto the road. We cruised around the lake and my spirits were high and my confidence boosted.

While on a thirty minute refresher on the busy Pokhara roads we learned how to navigate the Frogger-like traffic of Nepal (bus, child, goat, cow, cow, child, bus). Fern was impressed by our prowess - the hectic, chaotic nature of the streets didn't phase the three of us, as Ben and I are seasoned expats who know how to walk in the stuff, and Katie has been traveling in India for 5 months. We were all experienced with the strange, swaying nature of the traffic and the neccessary liberal use of the horn. Soon we were ready to set off into the mountain roads of Sarangkot to spend the day honing our skills on the bikes.

Matt led the way, followed by Katie (who, despite her complete lack of previous experience, was a complete natural and a babe to boot!), Benjamin and then me with Fern bringing up the rear. At first, Matt and Fern prompted us when to change gears, but before long it began to feel intuitive and I was zipping up into fourth on my own accord, overtaking buses and beeping my horn at children and dogs to shoo them out of the road. As we began to ascend into the hills, I practiced slowing down around hairpin corners revving like a madwoman to get up hills. I had a few stalls, but nothing too serious and though I was the slowest of the group, I managed to keep up quite nicely and maintain my speed.

You all know this was the best part of my day.

The only real complication of the day was a particularly brutal rocky off-road path that led up to our lunch stop, the idyllic Indreni Cottages. I stalled going up the treacherous terrain and couldn't pull off a hill start, but Fern was to the rescue and made sure my bike made it up the hill. After a visit with the dogs and (satanic) pet monkey and a delicious dal bhat, we were ready to get started on the descent back down into Pokhara.

This monkey actually wanted to see Matt's blood on its paws.

Downhill was definitely more of a challenge, as the dirt roads featured countless winding curves and gravelly scree that required concentration and lower speeds. Fern made sure that I was confident and safe at every stage along the way, and we made our way back down to Lakeside just as a huge thunder storm edged at the corners of the sky.

By the time the rain began to pelt down in earnest we were sitting back at the shop, safely under cover and downing Jack and cokes, discussing the day and beaming with pride at our newfound biker skills. To quote Fern, "when you are driving a car you are watching a  movie. When you are riding a bike you are in the movie." Amen.

Benjamin had no idea that his jacket announced that he was a "Pro Biker" and was mortified when I pointed it out to him.

Wearing a ridiculously huge jacket to protect my delicate skin (re: tattoos)

Learning to ride a motorcycle was one of the most fun decisions I have ever made, and I couldn't be happier that that I chose the folks at Hearts and Tears to teach me. In fact, I am so enamoured with the activity that Benjamin and I have planned a daytrip to Pharping this weekend - hopefully one of many to come. My ultimate goal? To get more confident riding bikes and set off on a loooooong solo journey. The 'stans? Russia? China? South America? On a bike, the sky is the limit.

Now to learn to drive a car. Sigh.