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.

03 May 2013

Better, Not Older - 31 Things I Did While I Was 31

 Better late than never, little Dear.

1. After many years and a few hiatuses, I completed my Honours BA in Communication - finally- with a 4.0 GPA and a minor in Dialogue.

2. I wrote a lot, and I was published in the Tyee, xoJane, the Under 35 Project, Huffington Post, The Vancouver Courier, Whistler Traveler and Vancouver is Awesome.

3. I was hired as a pro-bono Ethical Tourism Advisor by Next Generation Nepal after I read a book called Little Princes and it inspired me to do something about child trafficking in Nepal.

4. I told a story at Rain City Chronicles (the Vancouver version of the Moth) about accidentally moving into a crack house. (You can listen here - I'm the first storyteller of "Under the Influence.")

Oh, how I wish this was ironic. BUT IT REALLY ISN'T.

5. I saw Neil Diamond in concert with my mum and her pals - we're the "Oh, Neil!" girls. I am a Diamond Head - I love Neil, like, an unhealthy amount, and the concert nearly had me in tears.

6. I hosted couchsurfers - 6 in Vancouver and 5 in Kathmandu - and I feel more and more dialed into its international community of vagabonds, travelers and engaged citizens.

Interestingly, also what I do with men.

7. I marched in the Gay Pride Parade with the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association (VOKRA) for whom I have fostered kittens in the past. We won the People's Choice Award for best float, and only about half of the attendees thought we were furries

8. I spent one perfect day in Singapore visiting my friends Tanya and Peter. I took a Chinatown Walking Tour, ate some amazing chicken rice, visited a hawker centre for frogs legs, char kway teow and wontons, drank fresh beers and won a pub quiz at a huge brewery pub at Clarke Quay. Whew!

9. I spent the next (perfect) day in Kuala Lumpur, taking a food tour, going to see the Petronas Towers and spending an evening alone on a verandah in a thunder storm, listening to music, writing and drinking Tiger Beer.

10. I stored my belongings, said some difficult goodbyes, made some hard choices about my beloved cats and moved to Kathmandu for 7 months.

11. I took the one-month Introduction to Buddhism course at Kopan Monastery, followed by the one week silent Lam Rim retreat.

Me and Ani Drolma moments after my refuge ceremony. I became "Thubten Tsultrim."

12. I formally took refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and officially became a Buddhist.

13. I applied to University College of London and York, and was accepted to both! I accepted UCL's offer to do my MA in Cultural Heritage Studies.

14. I consumed entrails on the streets of Bangkok on Christmas morning with my girl Jess and spent Christmas Dinner in Columbo eating gluttonous amounts of crab with my Mum and Tim.

15. I took a cooking class and learned to make rice n' curry, pol sambol and egg hoppers in Galle, Sri Lanka.

16. I spent New Year's Eve 2013 on a stunning beach in Tangalla, Sri Lanka with my Mum, Tim, Jess and a bartender who looked like Bruno Mars.

17. I began volunteering at the Kopan Dog Rescue and fell deeply, madly in love with the dogs there. 

The next hill over is called  Pubic Mound.

18. I trekked through the Annapurnas in a snow storm with my pal Vilija. Our Poon Hill trek was stunningly beautiful - and incredibly treacherous due to a freak storm that meant we had to descend the steep mountain trails by sliding on our bums/crawling on our hands and knees. 

19. I began Nepali lessons and learned how to speak ali ali (a little bit) of Nepali. Ramro!

20. I purchased my first sari and wore it to a glamourous birthday event.

21. I booked a 9 day vacation to Thailand with my gal Jess (again - she's my soul mate) and learned how to dive on Koh Tao. I am now officially SSI certified to scuba dive anywhere in the world.

Two of the many good friends I made this year, Cass and Jess.

22. I added over 100 new friends on Facebook, which means I met over 100 awesome new people who have added richness, humour, art, compassion, wisdom and sass to my life.

23. I discovered (much) younger men and realized that age really doesn't matter when two people have a lot in common. I also heard, "you look so good for your age!" quite often this year, to which I replied, "hunty, this is what 31 looks like!"

24. I had a blast getting covered in coloured powder on Holiand then had less of a blast when a gang of teenaged boys surrounded me and a friend and groped us. This is common in Nepal, and made me feel vulnerable and ashamed. It was my first sexual assault, and it made me have even more compassion for victims of sexual violence.

25. I learned to love dal bhat, the Nepali national dish that consists of a mountain of rice, lentil soup, vegetable curry and spicy pickle. A bad dal bhat is bland, mushy and boring, but a good one is yummy comfort food. (But to be honest, I ate more pho than anything.)

26. I fell into a giant open sewer hole and was rescued by the Nepali army.

I'm saying, "have you ever tried to help, but accidentally made things a whole lot worse?"

27. I wrote and gave a Pecha Kucha presentation on my research into orphanage voluntourism in Nepal at the 9th Kathmandu Pecha Kucha Night, and I hope to give a similar presentation in London and Vancouver.

28. I co-wrote and presented a pub quiz (that benefits the Umbrella Foundation) at Pub Maya in Thamel. My rounds included questions on Lynch, Bowie, Joy Division, Rocky Horror, Voodoo, Wayne's World, Edith Piaf and Tom Waits.

29. I got a tattoo of a Matryoshka doll in honour of my grandmother. Thar's right: I got a tattoo of a Ukrainian stacking doll by a Swiss artist in Nepal. 

30. I learned to open a beer with any available implement. Physics confuses me, but I finally met a boy who taught me the basic principles of levers, so look out science! You're my bitch now.

31. Finally, on my last day of 31 I learned to ride a motorcycle at Hearts and Tears Motorcycle Club in Pokhara. I was surrounded by great teachers, fun friends and a boy who is riding his bike from here back to the UK. At long last, I'll actually be able to put the word "biker" before "babe"(or "bitch").

That's all, pals. Now to get started on a list of 32 equally amazing things for this coming year: bungy jumping, getting back on my skateboard, surf lessons, Greek island sailing, warehouse parties, finding a flat in Brixton and a lot of writing.


Hey. 32. Bring it. This goth bitch is going to OWN you.

01 May 2013

A South Indian Feast in Kathmandu

Nobody pani(c) - I have this pani puri under control.

When I feel like eating a meal that consists of that otherworldly combination of greasy, sweet, salty, spicy and tangy, I head to Anmol Sweets in Bhat Bhateni and stuff my face with delicious, cheap Southern Indian food.

Indian fast food restaurants are often referred to as "sweet shops" even when they have entire menus of savoury items alongside their dazzling display cases of barfi, gulab jamun and laddu. Anmol Sweets is no exception to this rule, with dosas, idlis, vadas and fantastic samosas all on hand for lunch and dinner.

Can I just have this liquified and put in an IV, please? K, thanks.

Last week I met some friends there for lunch, and my dear Cass and I decided to order a feast. We started with a plate of samosa. These are not your greasy Canadian gas station monstrosities - they were light and flaky pastries jammed with spicy potatoes and peas and dipped in a sweet, sugary tamarind honey water. After downing my portion, I gurgled "I think I'm full!" Cass raised her eyebrows.

"Vi, that.... well, that's just isn't an option. " I sighed. She was right - it was mind over matter and I would persevere.

 Pani Puri - salty, briny, crunchy, mushy goodness oh my god yum.

Pani Puri is a beloved Indian street food snack also popular in Nepal, but it is known for making foreigners very sick due to the usage of tap water in the brine - even some local Nepalis stay away from what is sold outdoors! Pani means water, and puri refers to the hollow crunchy cracker balls - the wallah (seller) jabs his oft-filthy thumb into the cylinder, stuffs the inside with a potato curry paste and dips the whole thing into spicy, salty brine. They present them to you as fast as you can stuff them in your mouth, and each delicious ball is less than 10 cents.

While I often take a BIG gamble and indulge in the streetside offering, ordering a DIY Pani Puri plate at a reputable sweet shop is a better bet and is way less likely to leave you clinging to the toilet and cursing your intrepid, food-loving ways (I don't know this from experience, or anything). These were delicious, but I must say, I missed the dirty thumbs of a street-seller.

 Dosa, one of the world's perfect foods. (If you are a drunk.) (Which I am.)

Within minutes my main course arrived - a "small" paneer masala dosa. This is a thin lentil pancake stuffed with a rich and creamy Indian cottage cheese curry. You tear small pieces of the dosa with your hands and dip them in the coconut chutney and the spicy tomato sambars. I am always amazed that dosas have never replaced the kebab or the poutine as the ideal late night drunk food, because they would be a lovely latenight guilty pleasure perfect for sopping up booze.

Last lunch with Cass and Nafisa :(
We took a breather at this point - I was positively stuffed with delicious food, but I knew that I couldn't come to a restaurant with "Sweets" in the name and not indulge, at least a little bit, in something sinfully sugary. We ordered some fresh plates of jalebis. 
Nothing is more wonderful than fresh, hot jalebi. Nothing.
Ignore the clock behind her - time has clearly stopped. Cass is in heaven.

Jalebis are hollow swirls of wheat dough deepfried and then soaked in sugar water. When they're fresh they are crunchy and sticky and they leave fluorescent orange syrup all over your face and a smile on your lips. I don't think there is a person alive that can resist the childlike pleasure of a jalebi - even the Disney gang loves them. I found myself making a quiet "mmmmmmmm" sound as I devoured the sweet little treat - the perfect end to our feast.

Though it was sad to realize that this was my final lunch with Cass, I am glad we chose to stuff our faces at a sweet shop. The best part (other than the jalebi)? The bill for 6 people was 1136 rupees - about 14 Canadian dollars.  I'll be back - solo - and let's be honest. I'mma order just as much food.

$2.33 each. Sold.