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…

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