25 February 2013

An Ode to Looking Up - The Petronas Towers

  My first glimpse.

"There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscrapers' battle with the heavens that cover them. Snow, rain, and mist highlight, drench, or conceal the vast towers, but those towers, hostile to mystery and blind to any sort of play, shear off the rain's tresses and shine their three thousand swords through the soft swan of the fog." - Federico Garcia Lorca, A Poet in New York

I love buildings. 

Buildings make me feel intense rushes of passion; I form weird attachments to them. In Vancouver I have special buildings that I go out of my way to 'visit' - a few 19th century houses in Strathcona, crumbling art nouveau facades in the Downtown Eastside, a forgotten art deco temple on West 10th, a mid-century modern car dealership along Kingsway. Simply being near these buildings satisfies some kind of childlike yearning that I have for fantasy and a fascination with the past.

I tend to form attachments to unlikely structures - I prefer them battered, beaten up and clinging to life. While I love to see a building revitalized and given a new purpose (and of course, as a heritage activist, that is always the goal) there is a part of me that prefers my architectural crushes to be ravaged old beauties; hulking Grey Gardenseque tragedies on the brink of madness and decay. (No comparison to yours truly needed, kthx.) 

 I'm committed to my hobbies. I'm getting a boarding pass tramp stamp next.

The 1930 Marine Building in Vancouver is a perfect example of this fuckery, a whimsical old art deco brute that I love so much I have its stained glass and facade tattooed on my forearm. I'm a bit of a fatalistic, impulsive creature, but I don't regret my choice one bit.

I remember the first time I saw a picture of the Battersea Power Station in a Lonely Planet guide to London. It was like seeing an old friend, or more accurately, like my old and slightly menacing landlady who lived in an apartment stuffed with taxidermy and broken mirrors. She was comforting, yet unsettling.

I took the tube far out of my way to go and see the power station in person. The neighbourhood was eerily empty for the middle of a weekday, and I had to walk through a series of housing projects to get to the river, across which was the huge brick structure. I knew that I was drawing closer, but row houses impeded my view and I remember my pulse quickening as I grew closer. I looked up, and there it was. It felt like my vision rippled a little bit, and I found myself kind of scared -  unnerved by this yawing, monolithic monster. A David Lynch soundtrack played in my head and I wanted to just look up and  stare and stare and stare.

I told you. I love buildings.

By now, with the way I just waxed rhapsodic about early twentieth century industrial structures, you probably think that, like many heritage nerds, I abhor modern architecture. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the brutalism of the the '70s, I love the idealistic pomposity of the '80s and I love post modern skyscrapers, the kind that dot the skies of the newly monied Asian capitals: Beijing, Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai. The beauty and twisted grace of a tall slab of concrete fills me with delight, and after growing up in a city with a near-universal 40 story limit when I have the opportunity to crane my neck upwards I eagerly take advantage.

Yet after many trips to the low cost airport in Kuala Lumpur, I had never managed to make it to the city itself and to see one of its most tantalizing attractions - the Petronas Twin Towers.

Now I will be honest - I don't particularly love the towers, the tallest buildings in the world from 1996 to 2004 (until they were usurped by Taipei 101) but there is something about their sheer scale that makes my knees a bit weak. As an dedicated 20th century architecture nerd, I wanted to just be near them and look up. Looking up when I am in a city is such a simple action, an action that makes my life so fucking rich and interesting, but it is one that so, so many people forget to do.

                                                The Marine Building in the '50s. It's now surrounded by tall towers.

I have up to 30 visitors with me when I guide tours through the bustling downtown core of Vancouver, and we all stop and stare up - and then something amazing happens. Locals - businessmen in their professional-guy drag, gaggles of office ladies sneaking clandestine cigarettes, food truck avowees waiting for their tacos - they all stop too and curiously point their gaze to match mine. And then I hear them recite my battlecry: "I never noticed that before!" I have had seasoned downtown office workers tell me that they had never actually seen the details on the Marine Building until they saw me nudging a group to love its form as much as I do.

That's the magic of a weird building. A strange, unexpected design forces people to look up, drags their attention from their antfarm day to day paths and reminds them that there is something beautiful and special and bizarre in their lives. That someone had magic in their brain, they put it on drafting paper and then they conducted an orchestra of details to produce something so organic yet so very alien in the centre of a city.

The last time I was in Kuala Lumpur I made sure to go and see the Towers. As I wandered through the gridlock of traffic and tropical heat my pulse quickened, and when I saw the geometric skyscrapers a giddy smile spread across my face. While they do seem a little dated and I am not the biggest fan of their design, their power and their grace was undeniable.

Art. Skyscrapers are art. To quote my favourite poet, Lorca they are "poetic and terrible."

My favourite combination. 

Nerding out like a building groupie.

20 February 2013

Kandy Land: The Three Temple Loop

 A rolling Buddha gathers no moss. (So not this one.)
Kandy is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, and most visitors to the country choose to spend at least a few nights there, visiting the Temple of the Tooth (where it is alleged that one of the Buddha's teeth resides), taking in some Kandyan dance and making the day trip to Sigiria. As this was the final stop of my blissed out Christmas "escape from Kathmandu" we ended up booking four nights in order to be able to rest and relax, and so that I could have some quality time with my mum.

As a result, we had time to really soak in the ambiance and attractions that really make Kandy a special place - the
Ceylon Tea Museum, Helga's Folly Hotel (one of the strangest places I have ever been - more on that another time), the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Three Temple Loop.

One morning we set out to do the 'Loop' - relishing the chance to get out into the countryside surrounding Kandy and explore some of the ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples nestled in the hills. Though some folks choose to do this as one long-ass walk, we hired a driver for the trip, and it was well worth the extra cost.

We visited three temples: Gadaladeniya, Lankatilaka and Embekke. Though ostensibly Hindu temples, each had a strong Buddhist presence (Hindus believe that the Buddha was the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, so he wasn't
that out of place). Here are some of the most striking images of the day!

You go, girl.

A lotus flower pokes up out of a murky pond at Gadaladeniya, a temple built in 1344 on a rough shield of rock. Depending on who you ask, lotuses symbolize purity, overcoming challenges and/or enlightenment because they must fight their way through muck and yet they emerge a stunning flower. It was a lovely way to start the day.
Waterfight! Oh. No? That's offensive? Oh. 

After touring the interior of the shrine and circumambulating the stupa, I encountered these multi-coloured plastic vessels scattered about the backside of the temple. They are filled with the water that is used for Hindu puja (prayers), and they totally reminded me of a Fisher Price kitchen.

Best part m'day.

To be honest, this was probably my favourite part of the day. This little guy followed me around the temple grounds,  squeaking and tumbling and being the puppiest puppy ever. The old men at the temple tried to tell me to take him with me, and my mum was like "Do. Not. Tempt. Her."

Serious Business.

They kind of look like hipster ladies with stretched ears. Did I meet you guys in Portland?

A huge Buddha and sculpted apsaras at the Lankatilaka Temple. This was the largest of the three sites that we visited, a vast complex spread out on a hilltop overlooking the valley. Huge Sinhalese and Tamil inscriptions were painstakingly carved into the rock in the 14th century, and many stupas and buildings cover the grounds. There were also fantastic shops outside of the gates, and my mum bought some carvings from a local artisan.

Anyone have a bobbypin?
Dirty Dancing? Nobody puts Parvati in the corner! (sorry.)

The third temple on the loop is the most famous - Embekke Devalaya. This is the only site of the three that has no Buddhist presence, and is dedicated to Murugan, a Hindu god popular in the South - (I have always loved him because he rides a peacock. And he's green!) Murugan is Ganesha's brother and the son of Shiva and Parvati- that's a pretty kickass family tree

The temple is most famous for its Drumming Hall, a wooden structure that was painstakingly carved in the 14th century. Each ebony pillar is decorated with intricate carvings of animals, dancers and musicians - it was a whimsical place, and well worth the trip.

Kandy is one of those cities that people either love or hate, and I have a sneaking suspicion that those who dislike it are the ones who breeze through and don't give it a chance to charm them. So stay a few extra days - soak it all in, enjoy the art, and make sure you schedule some time for the three temple loop.

After all, you might meet this guy. Isn't that enough incentive?

Little Kandy dog. I'd name him Gum Drop. Or Sugarpie. Or Wayne.

17 February 2013

Idiot Compassion, Orgies and Self-Imposed Writer's Block (and a Little Perspective)

I need to write. But it's nights like tonight that I sit and struggle with exactly what I want to say and how to say it. I know I want - no, need - to write something, but it feels overwhelming and complicated, something I don't know how to do - like those days that you sit at work and wonder "hmmm, when will they all realize I have NO IDEA what I'm doing?"

Part of me wants to write poems, but I need to scrawl those messily by hand - my brain won't communicate poetry to a keyboard. But it's Nepal and the power is off and as romantic as writing by candlelight sounds it isn't really possible when your eyes are as terrible as mine. That leaves me with the laptop and either this journalish 'personal essay' stuff or fiction, and I will be honest: fiction scares me.

I have a few ideas for stories brewing but they involve themes that are still too raw and so I am avoiding them, thinking to myself "oh, that? Yep. I'll write that later." as I slink away and hide and read jezebel instead. I know that the best thing to do would be to plunge my hands in up to the elbows and get messy and haunted with my particular muse, but I have to work in the morning and I have no whiskey in the house (oh, look at me being all tortured and writerly). It's also just easier just to let myself slack and get away with avoiding the big, scary work.

So instead I will give you a piece about my week that will start wanky and Holden Caulfield-y (or Lena Dunham-y, see link above) but get progressively more self-aware, I promise.

It has been a bizarre week. Last weekend I found out that two of my ostensibly "straight" exes are...erm, 'romantically involved' in a 'group setting' on the regular. This news was obviously unsettling, and a bit upsetting - and also kind of hilarious. (I'm pretty sure neither of them read this, but if they do - hi guys!) Now, should I be relieved or offended if they don't ask me to join them? Just kidding. (Am I? Mostly...)

After a weekend filled with spontaneous laughing jags, on Monday I had to perform a "friends-off" and tell a particularly toxic pal in Kathmandu that I could no longer be in their life. It felt shitty to abandon someone who is obviously in need of mental health help, but allowing their abusive behaviour to go unchallenged was not doing them any favours. In this case, I really like the concept of idiot compassion that has been popularized by Pema Chodron. In her words it is defined as "the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of 'I can't bear to see them suffering.' In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them."

Had I stayed friends with my buddy after they repeatedly treated me badly (and swore it would never happen again each time) I wouldn't have been helping them, I would have just been enabling them - and that isn't compassion. It's actually cowardly and selfish on my end. Avoiding idiot compassion means that I can be a compassionate Buddhist (or Buddh-ish, depending on the day) without being a fucking doormat. But that doesn't mean it is easy, and I had to be careful that I was reacting in a calm and measured way and not out of spite or anger. I'm proud of how I handled the situation.

To top off the week, I found out that an old flame has moved on - a fact that came to light in a weird, roundabout way. I wasn't at all shocked, and I wasn't really upset. I was just caught off guard and a little bummed, as I think anyone would be. I'm actually more upset that there is no one in Kathmandu with whom to have an ill-advised 'moving-on/kind-of-bored/my-bed-is-freezing' fling. I live in the expat-lady capital of the world (development work is largely a vagina-having thing to do) and so I have pretty much zero options when it comes to dating. Nepali guys are incredibly handsome, yes, but I have weird ethical qualms about breezing into a developing nation for seven months, banging the men and then leaving.This leaves me expat men who are either a) older and married, b) younger and frat dude-ish or c) OH WAIT THERE IS NO C.

By mid-week I was sufficiently feeling like garbage. It was then that I found out that my pal had been attacked in rural Nepal. Mere hours after hearing this terrible news I learned that a Tibetan monk had just set himself on fire in Kathmandu. My heart sank and tears welled up in my eyes, a heavy weight in my chest. This marks the 100th self-immolation in the past year, and the first of its kind in Nepal (the other 99 have been within Tibet and China). The act took place at Boudhanath Stupa (which is located right near Kopan) and I go there quite often to circumambulate and recite mantras. My recent visit to Boudha made the monk's pain and desperation feel more tangible, more urgent. Yesterday I found out that he has passed away from his burns, and this news put my whole 'sorry' week into perspective.

Basically, while I have a few woes with friends and exes, millions of people in Tibet are being stripped of their human rights and their millennial-old traditions are being lost. They are so disenfranchised that they are resorting to a brutal self-inflicted death to try desperately to draw international attention to their plight. While I grumble about the cold and the rain and the lack of dating options my friend sits in hospital with a fractured skull, her career and travel plans dashed (temporarily). Through this ordeal and all of her suffering she has had the most inspirational attitude and positive outlook. I'm humbled.

So I can get down in the dumps and lonely and even stuck with a bit of writer's block, but I lead a charmed fucking life. I don't want to forget how lucky I am and feel sorry for myself when things get angsty - instead, I need to get busy spreading this fortune around. The only things that I know I can do to make this world a better place are meditate, be compassionate, work hard on meaningful projects and write. When I avoid writing fiction or poetry about painful subjects because it's easier to avoid them than confront them, well that's just idiot (self) compassion, and that doesn't help me or anyone. So I need to write.

It seems fitting to end on that note, because it is also where I started.
Good night, chickens.

14 February 2013

Some Thoughts on Violence this Valentine's Day

Today, all over the globe, millions of people will take to the streets to demand an end to violence against women. The One Billion Rising movement's website demands that we pay attention to the fact that "1 in 3 women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime," and rightfully calls this an atrocity.

I was supposed to attend the Kathmandu event, titled "RISE, PATAN!" with a friend who lives in rural Nepal, but last week she was violently assaulted and is in the hospital recovering from surgery to repair her fractured skull. I would like to make some kind of a witty joke about the ironic timing of the attack, but the sad fact is that with statistics like 1 in 3, it was inevitable that this would happen at least one of the hopeful women who clicked "attending" on the facebook page.

I don't know what to do with how this makes me feel. I am angry. I am so fucking angry.

The news in the past few months has been filled with horrific stories about violence against women, particularly rape (I do want to be clear that my friend was not sexually assaulted). The Delhi gang rape. A woman in South Africa who had her abdominal cavity filled with shards of glass during a gang rape. The Steubenville, USA "rape crew" of high school football players who assaulted a girl in public for hours - and who some still rush to defend.

I've heard some people wondering "why now? What is going on? Why are all of these women suddenly being attacked?" but the sad fact is that this isn't some new epidemic - we are just hearing more about these kinds of stories. Social media and internet access has connected the globe like never before, and news can go viral based on people's immediate interest in the topic. For most women, stories of gender-based violence hold a sick fascination and we tend to read them and share them amongst our networks as morbid cautionary tales.

Ever Mainard, a female comedian, went viral a few months ago with a stand-up routine entitled "Here's Your Rape!" She describes the strange feeling of inevitability that women feel about their "impending" attack. You know, like when you are out walking at night and something seems a bit hinky and you think, "well, this is when it happens. This is when I get raped." It's a brilliant piece of the darkest humour I can think of. And it is scary as shit that she is right.

In Kathmandu I am scared when I walk the short distance from the main road to my flat if it is past 8pm. I find myself mentally preparing for a potential assault, and I envision all kinds of scenarios that could occur. As was recently demonstrated in the Delhi gang rape case, in South Asia the onus is on the woman to not get attacked, rather than on the man to not attack. The Steubenville case has clearly demonstrated that this is obviously the case in the West as well, but it is accepted without challenge here. I have honestly wondered if the authorities in this city would take the crime seriously if I was assaulted late at night. I honestly don't think they would.

My lovely British friend was clubbed over the head with a piece of firewood as she walked between villages after a weaving class. It was 6pm - still light out. The man stole her bag and took off on his motorbike, leaving her for dead on the side of the path. She has been recovering from surgery for the past ten days and is awaiting her doctor's approval to fly back to the UK. While this was not a sexually motivated attack, she was targeted by a man and I am willing to bet that if she was a tall, burly Western male the mugging would have looked very different.

Listen, I don't want to minimize the violence that is perpetrated against men - I am anti-violence in all cases (and I don't want to risk the ire of these fucktards. Oh wait - yes I do). But guys. One in three. ONE IN THREE. And I am willing to bet that most men do not have what Mainard describes - a recurring, vivid visualization of being raped or attacked in the street when someone merely walks too closely to you. It's a kind of pre-traumatic stress reaction that women learn to acquire. And that is the worst thing that I can think of. My culture teaches me to be afraid for just existing - and it is right - I need to be.

I could go into all kinds of theories on why men do this to women. I could show you examples of violence against women in the media, and I could detail the history of patriarchy and present multiple theses as to when and where this behaviour emerged in human development, but I won't. Why? Because it is exhausting, and I am tired and I don't think it will help anything. You're reading this because you agree with me or because you like me. Either way, thanks - but I am preaching to the choir.

There's only a few things we can do, and one of them is DON'T STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS. Don't let the sudden uptick in reporting on gang rape become a passing media fad. Don't let any instances of normalized violence against women go unchecked. And please, please recognize the connection between the obsession with how women's bodies should look and the ownership and violence this perpetuates.

And hell - get out there and dance. It's bed time here in Kathmandu, pals, but there is still time for those of you in North America and Europe to get out and find the local "One Billion Rising" event and dance yer azzes off. If I am reaching you too late, well, get out there next year or organize another event in the meantime (I'll attend! Promise!) Show the world that you're pissed off and you are not willing to be a part of this any longer.

And for good measure, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  - Margaret Mead.
Preach, sister friend.

Happy VD

12 February 2013

Five Metres, One Pin: Sari Shopping in Kathmandu

 Before the sari-fication: In my 'uniform'.

Last week I truly became a grown-up: I bought my first sari.

A woman's first sari-buying excursion is a milestone in South Asia, and at my ripe old spinster age of 31, I will admit that I am lagging behind. I knew that I wanted to buy a gorgeous silk sari while living here in Kathmandu, and in typical Violet Dear fashion I assumed that it would happen in a mad rush two days before leaving the country. This would have undoubtedly been the case had my lovely friend Sarah not decided to host a Bollywood themed party for her birthday. As the date approached, all of the sudden I had a legitimate reason to rush out and buy one of the prettiest things a woman can own.

The word Sari literally means "strip of cloth" and people have been wearing them in India for about five thousand years (nbd, nbd). They range in length from five to seven metres, and it is with a series of expert tucks and folds and twists that the simple length of material becomes an exquisite gown.

Now, I know myself. I am a picky broad. Sure, 90% of the time you'll see me wearing black, grey and olive green in some kind of combination of leggings, ripped up band t-shirt and jean jacket (see above), but when I buy something beautiful and keepsake-y I like to make sure that it is really perfect. I spent a few days before my shopping excursion planning exactly what colour I wanted (with the help of a facebook poll): deep emerald green, not too blangin' with too many sequins or bric a brac hanging off of it.

It was with this ideal sari in mind I headed to Dili Bazaar with my pals Vilija and Anjali.
What do you have in a dashiki or a caftan?

K, have you ever been in a sari shop? Up to this point, I had not. It was like fabric shop absolutely packed with different materials and patterns all folded up tightly and stacked floor to ceiling. You can't "browse" - you tell a man (and it always seems to be a man) what you're looking for and he selects different options to drape in front of you. The process can be quite simple if you fall in love with a style right off the bat (like Vilija did with a gorgeous yellow number) or it can be baffling and complicated ordeal. Three guesses - and the first two don't count -  how the experience went for me?

Forest green and gold. I looked like a matronly Christmas tree.

The salesman showed me dozens of green saris, and nothing seemed right. As he ran out of options in my price range (I wanted to spend no more than 3500 rupees) he started to get a bit exasperated with me and was starting to flop mint green sequined monstrosities in front of me. "No, bhai," I said repeatedly, "this green. Dark green, not light." He wanly presented me with a lime green chiffon. "I don't like that." I said. He showed me some murky sage covered in crystals. "Bhai. I hate that. I actually hate that sari." We were engaged in a standoff.

I stood up next to the shelves and began to feel the fabrics up close. I was about to call the trip a bust, envisioning myself at the party wearing a frumpy salwar kameez or kurta, when it happened. I fell in love.

"How much?" I asked. When he answered my face fell - it was double what I wanted to spend. I tried it anyway - a rookie mistake that anyone who watches marathons of "Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta" when they are hungover (who, me?) could tell you. Never try the expensive dress you can't afford, because it makes all others that follow feel cheap and gaudy.

I tried to play it cool, but he could see that I loved it. It is a Banarasi sari, which means that the silk is from Benares and took between 15 and 30 days to craft. Banarasi are characterized by gold or silver embroidery and are considered the finest quality in India. While the price was not cheap, it was literally a quarter of what it would have cost me in Canada and so I relented and decided to splurge. 

 Wearing a ripped up Pixies shirt to my sari fitting. All class, this one. All class.

The next step was alteration. Once you choose your favourite 'strip of cloth,' the end is hacked off and turned into a wee little crop top and a matching muslin "petticoat" is crafted to wear under the sheer fabric. Sarees are worn with the side of the midriff exposed, which has always baffled me in a part of the world where even the slightest hint of cleavage is considered scandalous.  
Visible boobs or knees? Whorey Mcwhoreson from Whore Chowk.
Exposed stomach? Nice respectable lady.

I have to give the tailors and the salesmen at Selection Sari Shop mad props for not even batting an eye when I took off my sweater for measurements. They acted like my tattoos were no big thang and got on with the important task of making sure my garment would be completed in two days. Our tight timeline before the party meant that we had very little leverage in the eternal battle of wills that is hard bargaining. I managed to knock the price down about 2000 roops, but I probably could have doubled that had an air of desperation not been wafting off of us. And lord knows what the price for a Nepali would have been....

Hard bargaining. I lost.

 She trussed me like a turkey. I felt like I was at Sin City.

We returned on Friday, literally enroute to the party. The sarees were ready and the owner's wife agreed to help us in the Herculean task that is getting the thing on your body. Using only one strategically-placed safety pin (one pin! for the whole thing!), she pinched and pulled and tugged and squished, and finally got my flabby (I'm 'skinny fat') translucently pale self mummy-ed up into my gown. I added a ton of make-up (the most I have worn in Nepal, by far), a bindi and an armload of bangles to complete the look.

I was still a strange, goth-y tattooed white lady  - but by god, now I was a strange, goth-y tattooed white... beautiful lady in a gorgeous Banarasi sari! I plan to wear it every chance I get in Vancouver and London - Indian weddings, non-Indian weddings, New Years parties, bar mitzvahs, Eid feasts and funerals - so just get ready... and hope that my one loadbearing pin doesn't come unfastened.

The final product. Sari bout it!

09 February 2013

Tricking My Ass (onto the cushion): A Meditation Mistake

A spinning prayer wheel at Swayambunath Temple. 

I arrived at Pranamaya yoga studio this morning at 9:10. The class wasn't due to start until 9:30, so I was a little bit surprised to see a small clutch of people waiting outside the studio door. "Eager!" I thought.

This was my first yoga class in months, and I was eager to stretch and limber up. I have, admittedly, been a pretty epic slacker in my spiritual practice since leaving Kopan, only meditating once a week at the FPMT centre in Thamel. The cushion can be a scary place, and so I thought the yoga mat might be a more suitable place to ease back into mindfulness and battle some mental demons in a physical way.

The class was described online as a "dynamic" Vinyasa flow, which was good, because I kind of needed something to kick my ass. It has been a long, strange week filled with disturbing news about exes, and last night I broke my self-imposed Kathmandu sobriety in order to down a bottle of red at a Bollywood themed party. I woke up this morning still able to taste the menthol cigarettes I had greedily sucked down, and I was dangerously close to being hungover.

But not so close that I was willing to break my plans for some Saturday morning yoga. I stood amidst the crowd of people and waited for a few minutes, until an American guy came blustering into the studio. "Sorry guys!" He announced. "So sorry I am late!" I was really confused. What did he mean, late? It was still fifteen minutes before the class was scheduled to start!

We all headed into the room, and I set my handbag down and popped over to the loo to take a quick pre-yoga pee (always important). When I returned I noticed something strange. The others were sitting on blankets and bolsters. No yoga mats, and the teacher, Frank, was already instructing despite the fact that it was only 9:20. What in the holy hell was going on?!

The first word I registered Frank saying was "death." It slowly started to dawn on me. This was not a yoga class. This was a meditation class.

I glanced over at the schedule on the wall and it was confirmed: This was the 8:50am Saturday morning meditation. The "9:30" class that I had viewed online was indeed taking place.... all the way in Patan at one of Pranayama's other studios. I had misread the website, and ended up in a meditation.

Now, that was not the only fateful coincidence. On any other Saturday, had I made the same mistake I would have arrived at the studio and been faced with a locked door, the class half-completed. I would have checked the posted schedule, realized my mistake and left. However, this week, the one week that it mattered - Frank was late. He arrived 25 minutes late, seconds after I myself had arrived.

When I put all of this together in my head and realized that we were about to do one of the meditations I find most meaningful - death meditation - tears sprung into my eyes. "What a wonderful karmic surprise," I thought, "and how fucking terrifying."

See, karma or fate or God or pure chance - however you want to look at it - something got me on that cushion today. Some kind of wheel turned and set into motion the weird series of coincidences that led my sore post-trekking ass onto the floor of the yoga studio to sit and watch my breath and confront my own mortality.

The purpose of vivid death visualizations are to remind you that at any moment you could die, and so you should never put off the important things in life. You should apologize to people you've wronged. You should forgive everyone who has wronged you. You should do things you love. You should pray to whatever you believe in. And most importantly, death meditation reminds you that you should fucking meditate.

I tried to hide from the cushion, from the meditation - but it found me. Thank god. Thank Frank. And thank me.

06 February 2013

A Canadian Living in Kathmandu: Part Two

A wallah (one who sells things) dealing in plastic goods from atop his head. Magical, strange Nepal.

Last week I posted a list of some of the shocking, wacky and wonderful realities of being a Canadian living in Kathmandu, and since then my fellow expat friends have inundated me with suggestions for a second edition of that blog. Something tells me that this is going to be a regular feature here on M&B.... 

MORE things that I have learned as a Canadian living in Kathmandu:
  • I'm always at least kind of sick. If it's not a rumbly tum, it's a gas fume headache - and it's pretty constantly a low, gravelly hack. The air quality in Kathmandu is ranked at near the bottom of global rankings and it is brutal not only for pollution, but also for particulates. As a result, everyone has a deep, hacking cough that I call "Kathmandu Lung." Makes me think of a old time-y afflictions like Breakbone Fever or Milk Leg, and I like that. 

  • Bed time is pretty universally 10pm on weeknights and maybe 11pm on weekends. Oh - you don't have to go to sleep at that time, but everything in the city shuts down and the streets become eerily silent. This usually corresponds with loadshedding, and so the streets are not only silent - they are pitch black. As a single gal who lives alone, I am particularly sensitive to this - I'm usually home by 9 at the latest. In any other city this would make me lame, but in Kathmandu I am quite the night owl. Parties often start at 5pm and everyone is pleasantly tipsy and home in bed by 10.

  • TV is heavily censored here (which is technically an Indian thing, as the satellite is coming from south of the border) but I don't always realize when it's happening. For instance, I was stoked to watch Homeland every night at 11 on Star TV. "Yay!" I thought. "I don't have to download the whole series!" After eight episodes I was talking to my friends Matt and Kelly and I realized something was awry. "What do you mean, all the sex scenes?" Yep. The lack of sexual content wasn't a 'bold stylistic choice', it was censorship. But don't worry. Matt has downloaded seasons one and two for me, so soon enough I will get my fill of naked Brody. FINALLY.

  • You know when you read old children's stories or 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and the men and women are wearing sleeping caps? When I was a kid, I was all like, "why is that man wearing a clown hat to bed? Houses are warm as shit." Well. Now I know. When your house is not heated, your little head gets freezing cold and cold head = cold lady. I wear a knitted cap to bed every night, and if it falls off while I am sleeping I inevitably wake up shivering and grope around for it like a groggy child reaching for its blankie. It's a pretty tame nightcap, but it's the only one I indulge in here in the 'du. (Seriously. I would love a nightcap. Send me some good whiskey and some chocolate porter asap.)
  • Passport photos are practically currency here in Nepal. I am not sure what the reasoning behind it is, but a passport photo must be attached to pretty much any permit, application or paperwork issued in the country. Perhaps it is due to a lack of a centralized system of record-keeping, but anyone fearful of identity theft should stay the hell away from this country. When I applied for an internet dongle, I had to supply NCell with:
    • a copy of my passport and visa
    • two passport photos
    • thumb prints
    • my mother or father's name and my grandfather's name
    • a vial of blood drawn from a virgin on a clear solstice eve
    Ok, maybe I am exaggerating on that last item, but the rest are true, promise. Everyone carries a stack of passport photos with them at all times. The other day I looked at my pal Vilija and said, with no irony at all, "Oh shit! I only have three passport photos left! I better get some more." Where else on the planet is that even a thing?

  • I know that I mentioned the lack of addresses on the list last week, but I think it bears some more inspection. Sure, I can't get mail delivered, but there are other inconveniences involved. For instance: because there are no marked addresses on any buildings and only the largest streets have names, it is nearly impossible to find a new location on your own. Landmarks help, sure, but if the area looks unfamiliar on google maps, honey, you're gonna have to take a taxi. As for the addresses themselves, hell, I am not even sure if they exist on paper somewhere. But if they do, there is a passport photo attached.

  • It's hard for me to wrap my head around it, but buying lunch in a local restaurant or chai shop is cheaper than bringing lunch from home (lunch is usually under 50 rupees - around 65 cents). I am still stuck in the opposite mindset, but I really do need to stop trying to bring food from home. Feels weird. 

  • In North America, we have phone numbers pretty figured out. You have your area code, your first three digits and your last four digits. Phone numbers are therefore always spoken as "123 pause 456 pause 7890." Now, when I first got here, I was delighted to see that Nepali mobile numbers are also 10 digits. "Easy peasy!" I thought. I thought wrong. There are no designated  pauses when rattling off a phone number and this is more problematic than it sounds! I am constantly having to get Nepalis to repeat their numbers over and over again, a problem that is exacerbated when they throw in "triple six, double two, one, double five" - when this happens I am left reeling and confused. During a training exercise last week, a co-worker read the classic mock phone number "555 5555" as "Triple five, triple five, five." I couldn't contain my giggles.
That's it for this time, but I am sure that I will have a new list for you within a few weeks! In the meantime, lots of love (and lots of passport photos) - Violet Dear