Tuesday, January 29, 2013


The waning moon, still bright, fat, and full-looking, has made its way up past my line of sight as I look out my east-facing windows. The sky is clear now: gone the haze and high cloud of this morning and afternoon, swept away by a short torrential rainfall just after sunset this evening. I’ve never seen rain here in January before. It’s almost unheard of. And no complaints, for it has freshened and brightened the air and washed away the dust. I expect tomorrow will be crisp and clear.

What a wonderful prospect, especially since I’m heading north to the countryside not far from Fang, about three hours’ drive from here in Chiang Mai. I’ll be with the people who have joined me for this year’s immersethrough session. It’s a congenial and collegial group of people, so conversations are wide-ranging and interesting. Yes there are food questions and questions relating to what we come across in the markets (the huge wildly lively and crammed-full wholesale market – Muang Mai – this morning for example), but we also end up talking history and politics and travel, finding cross-connections between our interests.

And so the journey north past rice fields (where there’s irrigation) and plots of garlic and shallots (where there’s not), and towering green limestone hills, will have layers of idea and conversation and story too, the landscape of the group travelling through the landscape of northern Thailand. It’s a pleasing idea.

Tonight we walked back from a restaurant on the west side of the old city, after a supper of issaan food that included grilled fish, grilled chicken, greens, som tam, and a brilliant tom yum soup aromatic with fresh herbs. The air was humid and there was the smell of wet pavement. The old city was very quiet, with only a few people walking apart from the seven of us, very little traffic, and a mere scattering of people at various restaurants and cafes. Chiang Mai is so liveable…

I haven’t written here for a disgracefully long time. I’m not sure why that is. I mean, yes, I have been busy with various deadlines and with preparing for the immersethrough session. But that can’t be the whole answer. Somehow my head has been full of details in a way that hasn’t allowed for the thinkng, mostly unconscious, that seems to be what lies behind the posts I usually write, and that I enjoy writing.

This isn’t the first time this subject has come up here. But it is a reminder that we seem to need to catch up to ourselves. What I mean by that is that if we draw too heavily on our resources – not getting enough sleep or downtime or whatever – then eventually the debt, the arrears, will have to be made good. We’ll be forced, by illness or incompetence or whatever, to let our bodies or minds heal or rest or catch up, whatever the appropriate term might be in the circumstances.

And so it is that I think the busy-ness of last fall’s BURMA book tour, plus the lovely intensities of the holiday season, are still reverberating in my head and memory, taking up space if you will, and not allowing fresh and new thoughts to form and create themselves.

I hope this phase is over and that I can return to the easy assumption that there will be time in the coming days for reflection and for generating new thoughts. I sure hope so.

None of this should be read as a complaint, more as an acknowledgemnt of incapacity. It is strange to think that even with the airings-out and exercise that have come with several long energetic bicycle rides with friends recently, I still haven’t managed to find a clear productive head, at least until now.

One of the immersethrough people said to me tonight, “By the end of the day you must have a lot of narratives going round in your head.” Yes, he hit the nail on the head, though I had never thought of it in exactly that way. It’s other peoples stories which I find fascinating. They go on reverberating for me. And I guess when I’m in changing and peopled situations, as I was on book tour, I end up with a lot of stories that reverberate and take up space.

This is why people meditate, or isolate themselves, to get clarity. But I do love the society of others, their stories and ideas and emotional reactions.  And that’s why the idea of sitting and meditating for ten days at a Vipassana retreat, something that a number of friends have done and have urged me to do, just doesn’t appeal.

Does it mean that I am in flight from myself? Are other people’s stories just a way to hide from my own realities and weaknesses? Perhaps. But they’re also an endlessly interesting and warming reminder of the textures of human existence. Nothing beats that! 

Monday, January 21, 2013


I’m sitting on a comfy version of a sofa, but it’s an exec class seat on Air Canada, a result of having the good luck to be upgraded at the lat minute. I’ve been fed and watered and I’ve had a long nap. It’s a strange thing to be out of time and place like this. Far below in the dark lies Siberia, with its great rivers, its harshness and beauty, but up here in this compartment of cocooned people, there is no sense of the real world, just the sound of fans and a sprinkling of dim lights where people sit reading or watching their individual screens.

This gated community in the sky is a zone of privilege. I feel lucky to have been able to upgrade, using my accumulated points. But what about everyone else? I am much more often in economy, trying to sleep sitting up and feeling cramped, wondering when I dare disturb the people next to me so I can get up and have a pee. The difference between the two is a matter of small degree though.

For everyone travelling by air, in whatever “class” is still immensely privileged. We’re all in the  of people with enough access to resources (our own or others’) to buy a plane ticket. It’s humbling to think that a huge proportion of the global population will never be on an airplane.

The above was written on my flight to HongKong a few days ago. I’m now in Chiang Mai, getting shed of my jetlag. My head is clear enough, I think, to at last finish this much delayed post; apologies for the long gap since my last one:

Those earlier paragraphs reflect the fact that I’ve been thinking about the things we take for granted, and how that affects our view of the world and our expectations.

I’m now trying to imagine my way into my next book project, The Persian World, as I am calling it for now. I’m travelling in my mind’s eye to Georgia and Armenia and Turkmenistan and more, as well as to various places in Iran… There are political impediments and technical problems with some of my travel ambitions, but basically I can and do imagine going to these countries and spending time there trying to understand the warp and weft of the food traditions there.

It’s only when I’m out and about (for example on tour with the Burma book last fall) meeting people who hold down responsible jobs, etc, that I get reminded that for most people there are many obstacles in the way of imagining travel. I’m not talking about money, strictly speaking, for many, especially in the developed world, could if they put their minds to it make travel a priority and save for that rather than for a car or other tangible purchase. What I’m talking about is the settledness that comes with meeting day to day responsibilities to family and friends. We tend to fall into patterns. It’s the obvious way to cope with responsibility, and patterns can also be familiar and comfortable.

And one thing about travel, especially budget travel, is that it reduces predictability and works against pattern. It demands a certain preparedness to go with the flow that is very difficult for most people, especially once we get past our first youth. And I know this because it happens that sometimes I am reluctant to leave. If ever I am tired or feeling low, especially when I am in Toronto and comfily settled in with family and friends, I sometimes feel that I’d like to just stay put.

I think that the pleasure I take in NOT knowing what tomorrow will bring is a sign of perpetual adolescence. Somehow I want to find out each day rather than knowing ahead of time what it will bring. And when I am tired I don’t have the energy for adolescence!

There’s a bit of a disconnect between having responsibilties, for example the need to meet deadlines, and my perhaps immature liking of unstructured days. Luckily I hate being late – whether for appointments or meet-ups or with writing assignment deadlines – so my sense of obligation will always trump my wish to shape my days and months freeform. That sense of obligation keeps me adult enough to function responsibly, is how some might put it!

Where does that leave me right now? Well I have a small article to finish in the next couple of days, and there’s the work of preparing for the next immersethrough session, which starts here in Chiang Mai on Sunday. But otherwise this week I’ve got time to catch up on this blog, at last, and to do some reading too.

Then on February 2 I fly to Rangoon and the next day the fifteen people arrive who are coming with me on the first Burma Food Tour. We have an itinerary: Rangoon – Bagan – Inle Lake area – Rangoon. It’s eight days in three places, joined by short airplane hops.

But the exact way we’ll be spending our days, though planned, is also a little unpredictable. The reason is partly of course that tourism in Burma can still be a little bumpy. But it’s more that we are trying to engage with Burma through food. The local guides are used to rather set itineraries, and to people wanting restaurant food, a certain predictablity in other words. But we want to improvise, eat street food, explore markets… and to be open to possibilities that present themselves.

All this means that I’ll be reporting back here on how things go, and that I’m hoping the people who come on this tour get the same pleasure I do from the unexpected. Burma is coming out of a long isolation. It’s a difficult time of transition and we have the privilege of being there to see the country as it evolves. But a work in progress is not a finished sleek production; it’s a work in progress, fascinating and frustrating too, and richly interesting.

A slice of life, in other words…

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Freshly landed in the new year, I want to talk about losing and finding. I'm thinking about this because of something that happened today.

It's an important subject to explore, always relevant I think, because of the difficulty I usually have letting go when I lose something that I treasure (a scarf, an earring); the difficulty I have accepting the death of a friend or the loss of a friendship; the difficulty - and this will perhaps seem extremely trivial to you - of changing plans or ideas in midstream when things go awry or other people change their minds.

All these situations, some trivially small and others huge and very painful, demand a suppleness and some equilibrium. It takes work to navigate them or digest them. And it's an ongoing life-pursuit for many of us, I think. For it often feels as if just as I get reconciled to one loss, another comes and crashes in.

But I've come to realise that there are equally surprising and unexpected "finds" or positive gifts or bonuses that turn up in our lives. Don't you think so? It's just that we don't often look at them in the same way. We're happy to have the good luck to meet someone special who becomes a close friend. Or we catch a break somehow, an unexpected break and then say briefly, oh that was lucky, or thank heavens ..x..  happened when we didn't deserve that good luck. Then we move on.

With losses, on the other hand, we linger, the pain goes on, we carry the resentment or unquiet spirit of loss with us for hours and days and sometimes years.

In the superficial loss situation, where I struggle to accept that I truly did leave that precious shawl behind in the car lot and that it's gone forever, there's a nausea. It takes a real effort to push it back down and to really just let go. I've found though that if I remember to mark, or remark on, the occasions where a "find" or a good luck thing happens, then I am forced to acknowledge that things often do balance out, that sometimes the unexpected works in my favour. And this acknowledgement helps me accept the harshness of loss.

This is all a rather clunky introduction to a simple story: Today I hustled up to Yorkville to meet a friend for coffee (I had left the house a little late and so had to walk-run for much of the way). The paths across Queen's Park and across the university playing fields were snowy, hard packed, and uneven, which made the rushing along a little precarious. It was a beautiful cold clear day, with sharp shadows of bare tree skeletons cast on the white white snowy expanses I was hurrying across.  

Some time later as we sat chatting and drinking our coffee, my friend and I, I realised that somewhere in my rushing I had lost an earring. Ah...the perils of winter, and of long hair that catches earrings, and of chilly air that seems to encourage them to slide out.  Too bad. And so I managed to shrug off the loss, more or less, with a slight lingering nagging feeling of nausea.

On my way back home nearly two hours later, walking at a more thoughtful pace along a well-shovelled university pathway I saw a small gleam. It was my lost earring. A miracle? Not really. But a lucky find...the fates smiling and giving me a chance to remember to feel grateful for finds and good fortune, instead of clinging only to the remembrance of losses.

I guess in life we end up with more loss than gain, if we're being literal, for death awaits us all. But just as it does no good to dwell on that fact, it is useless and often harmful to focus on what's broken and can't be fixed or what's lost and can't be retrieved. (I know, easy to say and hard to do...for sure.)

But that's life: an ongoing changing and evolving tapestry, with gains and losses, unexpected treats and shocking and disturbing catastrophes. It's up to us to navigate all this, like a skiier on a steep mogul-filled hill, with grace and, with practice and luck, some elan too.

Happy new year to all...