29 April 2013

Holy Mary - Getting Tattooed at the Nepal Tattoo Convention

That is not a skirt, it is a modesty shawl to prevent the creepers from photo-ing my bare legs.

When I heard that the Third Annual Nepal Tattoo Convention was scheduled to be held in Kathmandu this month, I was excited to attend - but I did not expect to get tattooed.

There are plenty of good tattooists in Thamel (including the famous Mohan) but a lot of their work is just not to my taste.
Tattoos are very affordable in Nepal compared to the West, with artists such as Mohan charging a little over 20 USD per hour. I incorrectly assumed that the conference would attract mostly these local artists, with a few international guests attracted to Nepali art and specializing in Tibetan or tribal designs.

This kind of bummed me out, because there is one tattoo that I have been hankering to get for over a year - a Matryoshka, or Ukrainian stacking doll. Sometimes when you have been working on huge pieces (like my left arm) bit by bit for years, it is nice to go into the studio and get a tattoo, start to finish, and leave. A babushka doll seemed like the perfect one-sitting tattoo for a few reasons: 

1.  Despite my many tattoos, I did not have a single "old school" design. This was important to me because not only do I think they look badass, I wanted to pay homage to the origins of tattoo - the sailors, sideshow tattooed ladies, carnies and jailhouse madmen who inked simple yet highly stylized women, skulls, ships and sparrows onto their skin.

My granny and a Ukrainian Easter bread. Right after the photo was taken she said, "It looks like a big prick!" 

My beloved grandmother who passed away 4 years ago was Ukrainian, and I identify strongly with the traditions and customs of the Canadian prairie Ukes. My grandma, who helped to raise me, meant a lot to me and I think about her  every day. I helped my mother (barely - my mum was the rockstar and should get ALL of the credit) nurse my Grandma through her final days of leukemia and it was both an honour and one of the most painful experiences of my life. It fundamentally changed me as a person. 

I did not expect to get this tattoo in Nepal.

As I walked into the opulent ballroom at the Hotel Yak and Yeti, I saw booths set up with artists from around the US, Europe, Japan and India as well as the local Nepali contingent, but none of the designs moved me. I thought about getting a Dharma wheel, but I decided that that tattoo could be done in Thamel without a crowd of gawkers. I was content to stroll the convention floor and call it an afternoon.

Y'all know I love branding and fonts. This is the way to attract me to your tattoo shop.

But then, as it so often does, some particularly attractive branding caught my eye - Steel Workshop from Switzerland. I glanced at the tattooist, Johann Morel, and saw that I liked his tattoos (not always important, but a good indicator of style) and so I picked up his portfolio book. It was laden with inventive, clean old school designs. My interest was piqued - and then I saw it: a page of old school matryoshka dolls done in the exact style I had envisioned in my head. My pulse quickened. I gasped. I booked an appointment.
                                                       Stencils Johann created for clients during the convention.

After a Pizza Hut pitstop, my lovely friend Kalina and I arrived at the convention on Sunday and I viewed the stencil. I loved it. Johann got started right away, making minor adjustments to the font and discussing the colours he had in mind.

Hard at work. 

Johann was a fantastic tattooist. He was calm, steady and despite creating thick, old school lines he wasn't at all heavy handed. I had never been tattooed at a convention, and it was a little strange to have people (ok, real talk: MEN) wandering by, snapping photos. By Nepali standards, I was practically nekkid - wearing a pair of short shorts - and I was a tattooed woman getting more tattoos - escandalo!

Kalina was my vicious guarddog - she allowed men with press passes, tattooists and dudes with tattoos themselves to take pictures, but the conservatively dressed Nepali men with cel phone cameras insistently angling to try to take pictures of my bare legs? SHOO! 

Some pretty ink bottles; a smiley Johann; a grimacing  Jess nearing the end of the session.

The entire tattoo took two hours, and remarkably, it wasn't very painful (it is today, though - holy hell). By the end of the session I was sore and flinching a little bit, but I just kept smiling and breathing deeply. My tattooist in Vancouver, the phenomenal Jeremy Riley, says he is going to get a sign for his shop, Tattoo Union, that reads, "Be a Man, Sit Like a Girl" in reference to the fact that women tend to be less wimpy while they get tattooed. I wouldn't want to make him a liar. ;)

The finished product! (Check out dem gams. A lot of men sure did. *shudder*)

I hadn't planned on including my Grandma's name in the design, but at the time it just felt right. Oddly enough, even though she was in her 80s, she loved my tattoos and liked to show them off to strangers and admire their pretty colours. She was truly a unique rebel and a batty old broad and I miss her very, very much.

I also know that my mum misses her dearly, and so I suppose that part of my decision to get this tattoo was to honour her relationship with her mother (and plus, "Lorraine" is a lot of letters). I recently read this article and I realize that I do not tell my mum often enough how much she means to me and that I love her. I hope that every single time my mum sees my Matryoshka tattoo she is reminded of these words.


Johann Morel is a great tattooist and if you get a chance to get work done by him at his shop, Steel Workshop, or at an international convention, I highly recommend you grab the chance. As for me, for the next few days I will be hobbling around, admiring my pretty little Matryoshka - and thinking about two very special broads.
Mad love for my bitchez.

26 April 2013

Down In A Hole - An Inevitable Accident

 Not even Courtney Love could save me.

This is a little tale about how I fell down into a hole.

Now, I don't mean a metaphorical hole of despair and depression, although there certainly were a few weeks in the harsh chill of February that I was a despondent mess. No, I mean I literally fell down into a sewage ditch on the side of Lazimpath Road. 

The city of Kathmandu undergoes constant roadwork, and is littered with pits in the road and sidewalk that are dug and then filled at an alarming rate. Uncovered manholes, open sewers, trenches and big random pits are commonplace, and they appear and disappear daily. No caution tape or pylons - just a bigass open hole. Combine these unpredictable chasms with loadshedding - the scheduled power cuts that leave this city pitch black for most of the night - and you have a recipe for disaster. 

Two weeks ago I was walking through Sanepa with my friend Gemma and we passed a series of deep, narrow holes in the road. I clung to her arm and hissed, "I have always been afraid to fall into one of those." She recounted a story of nearly tumbling into one herself, and I had to get her to stop. "No," I said, "my knees are weak just thinking about it." 


Last Friday I was heading home at midnight (which in Kathmandu might as well be 4am) after a few vodka sodas (always has been my drank), and my taxi overshot my lane, pulling to a stop about 50 metres too far up Lazimpath Road. I crossed the street toward my flat and then, whoooooosh. 

I disappeared down a sewage-filled rabbit hole. 

The first thing I remember thinking was, "thank god I do not appear to have broken my pelvis" because I had been mid-stride when I dropped into the trench, my legs were splayed akimbo and I was now down in it to my ribcage (thank god for yoga, man). My knee instantly throbbed and my right foot was strangely warm. And slimey. And oh my god what was that smell?

There was a flurry of panicked voices and a fleet of Nepali soldiers ran over to me. This was the most surreal part of an already surreal experience - the Army conducts drills at night along Lazimpath Road, and they just happened to be marching past. Within seconds, two men had my arms and had hoisted me out of the muck.

"Ma'am! Are you ok?"

"THIS HOLE IS NEW! WHY IS THIS HOLE HERE?" I shrieked in surprise. I stood on the edge of the pit and tried to parse what had just happened, and began to thank the soldiers for their well-timed assistance. At this point they noticed that I was shoe-less, and one brave man went down into the hole to retrieve my Steve Madden flats, a very kind action considering most Hindu castes will not ever touch others' shoes.

The soldiers insisted on walking me up the lane as I sloshed my way to my apartment, asking my name and what country I was from and trying to introduce themselves. The absurdity of what had just happened started to sink in - I kept groaning, "ewwwwww" and then laughing in a sort of resigned way, like a person who realizes they have been beaten and has.just.given.up.  It is hard to have any ego at all when you are covered from your knees down in shit.

For the next few days, whenever I would run into my Kathmandu expat pals they were absolutely horrified when I told them I had fallen into one of "the holes."

"Oh God! I've always been afraid of that!" They would exclaim in horror.

"Yeah. I know the feeling."

22 April 2013

In Hot Water - An Ill-Fated Boat Trip on Lake Fewa

Relentless grey skies. I felt right at home.
It was a lovely day for a boat ride. 

At first.

I spent Nepali New Year's Eve in Pokhara, a lakeside resort town at the base of the Annapurnas, visiting some friends and decompressing away from the mayhem of the big city. Saturday, April 13 marked the changing of the calendar from 2069 to 2070, and Rahul, Ben, Jo and I celebrated the occasion by pouring liberal amounts of rotgut local spirits down our throats.

The amount of fun we'd had at the Old Blues Bar the night before was therefore directly correlated to the shuddering, jittery messes that sat around the brunch table at Perky Beans. We were a veritable UN of foul language, R. Kelly quotes and bad jokes; Rahul (Australia) was wearing Jo's (Netherlands) hot pink sunglasses, Ben (UK) was mercilessly teasing me for my Canadian-ness and I was my usual hangover hot mess of inappropriate humour and equally inappropriate cleavage.

My milkshake brings a good 40 - 45% of the boys to the yard.

It was sickly hot and muggy - the thickness of the air clung to my skin and got caught in my throat. We debated what to do - lay indoors and watch a movie? Sit in a pub and drink beer all afternoon? Climb up to the Peace Pagoda? Jo piped up and suggested that we rent a boat and take it for a spin around Lake Fewa. It was decided.

Fonts! I love fonts!

The boat cost 350 rupees (4 bucks) for an hour, and it seemed like the perfect antidote for the clammy weather. It was overcast, and the idea of being out on open water seemed dreamy.

We had one lifejacket for the four of us.

We began to lazily navigate the murky waters of the lake, regularly remarking about how nice it was to be out in nature. How calm it was. How a boat trip was the perfect antidote for the hangovers we were all nursing. How this was probably the best idea ever.

Jo is a babe. And a little bit crazy. 
I like that.

Rahul photobombs my lovely boat memory. Well done, buddy.

But see, Lake Fewa is actually pretty big (although teensy by behemoth Canadian standards) and we were paddling further and further from shore with little mind to the time or even to the slightly shifting wind.

It was around this time that I started to notice the weather changing. The gentle waves turned a fierce shade of olive green (like m'eyes) and the temperature dropped. A fine mist of lake water began to spray across our faces as the wind picked up and the boat began to feel unsteady.

"Hey, guys. Are we paddling into the wind?" I asked casually. Everyone got strangely quiet. We were now quite far away from shore. Jo checked the time and saw that we had twenty minutes left on our rental, and the boys began the arduous task of paddling us back to the dock. Or at least, attempting to paddle us back. The boat was not moving toward shore and began to rock and pitch. With every stroke of the oar, the wind seemed to push us right back to where we started. I began to fear, in earnest, that we would be struck by lightning.

I am normally a brazen, loudmouthed, smut-talkin' firecracker when I am hungover, but for the next fifteen minutes I was (nearly) silent, frozen with dread and the conviction that my passport, camera, iphone and I were all going to take a bath in the putrid waters of Lake Fewa. 

The boys finally muscled the boat closer to shore just as the thunder and lightning started. A Nepali paddler came zooming past us, shouting warnings about the storm, and as we got near the docking area a cadre of young men rushed to pull us into safety. While we were never really in much actual danger, I was overcome with relief when my little ballet flat-clad foot hit the muddy banks of the lake. 

Violet Dear needs to take a Nepali chill pill. No, seriously. They are called Tramidol.

It was quickly decided that afternoon beers were indeed in order, and as we walked back to the main drag of Pokhara, Jo piped up. "Hey, guys, did we even check the weather as we got into the boat?"

Thunder cracked overhead. No one answered her question.

11 April 2013

Kathmandu's Tooth Fairy Shrine

Offering money for healthy teeth! Like the Tooth Fairy on opposite day!

One of my favourite things to do in Kathmandu is stroll through the labyrinthine streets between Thamel and Durbar Square. The sheer number of weird treasures - shrines, stupas, relics and architectural marvels - contained in this area never ceases to amaze me, and I find myself shaking my head with a mix of wonder and confusion at nearly every turn.

Nothing is stranger than Kathmandu's toothache shrine, known in Nepali as Vaisha Dev. This gnarled hunk of wood sits at an unassuming chowk (intersection) just past Thahiti Tole, and it is where locals come to make an offering to the god of sore chompers.

No shit, Sherlock. 
The shrine is smack dab in the middle of the dentist district, as oral surgeons and orthodontists - and this is Nepal, so it is mostly just guys with pliers - know an opportunity when they see one (they usually see them in the mouths of twelve year olds, but I digress). The logic is sound - people with tooth problems come to visit the shrine and on their way perhaps they are lured in by one of the brightly coloured signs advertising the dentists in the area.

Lovely signs, less lovely dental conditions.
And who wouldn't be? As a signage historian, Nepal's myriad handpainted signs compel me, and the dental offices are always home to my favourite examples. Human labour is still cheaper than printing costs in most of Asia, and so signs and adverts often have a charming retro feel. Sadly, this is a dying art - mass produced signs are slowly taking over. In Cambodia, artisans have recognized their appeal to tourists and have started offering one-of-a-kind signs for sale in shops and cafes, but I like mine used and dirty (like mother, like sign). My goal before I leave Nepal is to acquire one of its many dentist signs - hopefully it will be the one below. *Swoon* 

This is probably the best thing I have ever seen. 
The shrine is absolutely covered in coins - apparently there is a teeny tiny little idol inside of the main hole of the tooth god's shrine, and so devotees hammer a coin onto the outside of the wood in the hopes that they will have problem free pearly whites. I practically stuck my head inside the thing and couldn't see the bitsy god, but I trust that it is in there somewhere. (Hey! That is how all religion works! "...and Violet Dear learned a very important lesson that day....")

The Tooth Fairy shrine is legitimately the strangest thing I have seen in Kathmandu, and despite its confusing location I think it's something every visitor to the city should try to find. Even if you get lost, you are guaranteed to stumble onto many other bizarre treasures - and read some pretty cool signs along the way. 

It kind of looks like the Elephant Man. "You're so kind..." 
(And longtime readers will recognize this shirt.)

09 April 2013

Holi Hell!

Requisite Holi selfie.

Last week Kathmandu went mad (more than usual) for one soggy afternoon - Holi!

Holi is the Hindu Festival of Colours that is celebrated in India and Nepal to venerate Vishnu on the eve of Spring. The cold, dry Winter is ending and the lush tropical heat of Spring and Summer is about to begin and a bit of madness and, yes, (groan) beauty is in the air. Children and adults alike douse each other with water and throw handfuls of technicolour tikka powder into the air with wild abandon.

I haven't partied with so many baggies of powder since I was 22.

My neighbourhood was redolent with the blossoms of blooming jasmine as I stepped out of my apartment on the morning of Holi. I was armed with a backpack super soaker and dressed in my cleanest whites (as is the custom - all the better to see the powder!) as I dodged water balloons and made my way toward a huge party at 1905, a renovated (ish) manor home built at the turn of the last century. 1905 is legendary amongst expats and Nepalis alike for its fantastic late night parties (3am seems like a godsend in a country where bars are forced to close at 11pm) and its Saturday Farmers Market, and I had heard that they throw one hell of a Holi party. 

I heard correctly. 

I could hear the pounding boom of dubstep from blocks away, and when I entered the courtyard I was blown away - at least five hundred Nepalis and expats were packed onto the dancefloor, shaking their asses  under the spray of dozens of sprinklers. A rainbow of coloured powder seemed to hang suspended in the misty air and everyone had a beer in their hand despite the fact it was just past noon.

I pretty sure I saw the Venga Bus pull up outside.

The party was the hottest event in town, so much so that not all of my friends could get inside. I cracked my knuckles, batted my lash extensions and used the doorman-wooing skills I acquired as a hot electroclash mess in my early twenties. Miraculously, it worked and before long my nearest and dearest Kathmandu buddies were inside the gates and ready for an adult waterfight that eventually included water from the nearby ponds (*shudder*).

 Holi Moly.
The whole day was a debauched, hallucinatory blur - equal parts Holy Mountain, All Summer in a Day and Lollapalooza 94 when everyone's Punky Colours hairdye would drip down their face after getting soaked in the moshpit. Despite looking like the victim of a Carebear bukkake attack, I was pleasantly buzzed on a weekday afternoon and dancing in the sunshine with my similarly hued friends. The best part about it? I was home, showered and (mostly) sober by 7pm.

Til next year, Happy Holi!

My colleague Romeo and I enjoy a hard day at the office.