Friday, December 31, 2010


Got a call around noon today from a friend in southern Thailand. She was in a bar and it was already past midnight and the year 2011 where she was, whereas I was wandering around a spare and nearly empty post-dance-party house, looking out at a mild last day of 2010.

It was another reminder, that call, that we can talk to each other across time and space, but each of us can be in only one place at a time. Sometimes as I read a description in a book. or as I daydream, I am transported to another place or situation or long to be elsewhere. But fact is, I am where I am (sort of a Popeye-ish expression!!) and not elsewhere.

We can yearn to "have it all", but in fact that's not possibile. We must accept that at any time we are who we are, where we are. If we want something different, then we have to make hard choices and exert ourselves to change things. There's no point whining and yearning! We just need to get out there and commit, take risks, do what's necessary to try to change those things we want changed.

This sounds preachy, and I guess it is. Sorry if I'm bugging you! But I've got more to say on this..

Whether it's political action and social justice, or personal transformation that we want, none of it happens without effort and commitment, and for most of it also we also need the help and support of friends and family and colleagues.

So let's make 2011 a year of building networks of mutual respect, affection, and effectiveness, so we can move forward with strength to work for whatever changes and transformations we feel are important.

And let's remember to have compassion for each other and to help each other as we are able to. In the end we're all in the same boat: Each of us is finding our way, making mistakes sometimes, of course, and needing help and mentoring and understanding as we muddle along.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Just back in the city after a wonderfully renewing thirty-six hours up north in Grey County. Friends were having a post-Christmas drop-in party yesterday, the weather looked clear (an unusual bonus at this time of year in Grey County), and I had people I wanted to see, so I headed out yesterday morning in the little red Honda Fit. I had cross country skis with me, a jacket and vest, wind pants, a fur coat, ski gloves and a hat, and other oddments of clothing, and well as presents for various people, and a bottle of wine.

There were some patches of wind-swept snow white-out as I drove up, but the roads were dry and I got to my first stop in Markdale easily by noon. My wonderful aunt, youngest of my father's four sisters, is now 82, a young, light on her feet 82. One of her older sisters died two weeks ago, the first of the four to go, and it's a hard thing to loose a sister, whatever your age, whatever hers. Still, there's a resilience that comes with age, and my aunt is plenty strong, good-humoured, and resilent. She's sharp as a tack and a treat to talk to. We gossiped and sipped soup, and then it was time for me to move on.

Next stop was friends north of Markdale who have a second home in a log house on a farm with beautiful woods, pine plantations and hardwood forests, and several ponds and swamps. It's especially spectacular in winter. We went out for a cross country ski, the snow perfect and fluffy with firm snow underneath. Part of the time we were following an already-broken trail, part of the time cutting across an open swamp or breaking trail through the woods. it was as if we were moving through a succession of marvelous rooms in a spectacular outdoor castle or mansion. Each vista was more lovely than the last. There was a plantation of straight-trunked pines, each patched with blobs of white snow, white on reddish brown trunks, lined up in hallucinatorily regular rows. One row was more widely spaced, and down it went a single line of ski tracks, an invitation to disappear into a linear fantasy, is how it felt.

The sun was sinking early, low on the southern horizon, as speckled clouds made sky patterns and the snow became gilded with a soft pink-yellow. It was only 4.30, but at this time of year, that's late in the day. Three of us slid stride by stride abreast across an untracked pond, into the fading warm light. What a magic time. Today my thighs remind me that it wasn't magic but muscle power that carried me through that snowy landscape!

And finally from there I headed west toward the party. The sky was a conflagration of pink-orange threaded with horizontal bands of deep blue-grey. Mesmerizing. But in less than fifteen minutes it had faded to pearl-grey, like a dowsed bonfire, not a spark left. I parked out on the road, then walked up a snowy lane to the party, where friends and a hot wood stove and food and drink and music blended into a sense of welcome and ease.

Later I drove back towards the city through the dark night. I stopped in at friends' whose house is always open and always generous. Lucky traveller, to be sheltered for the night with friendship.

Now I'm back home in Toronto, people from out of town have come by unexpectedly, and tomorrow I'll meet them at Ideal coffee and walk with them through Kensington Market, probably ending with a north Chinese meal at Asian Legend. After that it will be time to clear the rugs and make some food so that we can dance our way through the evening on the 30th with friends of all ages.

Next question: What food shall we make for the party? inari sushi perhaps, and sticky rice too (carbs give good energy for dancing), some cheese to go with Evelyn's Crackers made by Dawn and Ed, and nam prik num, and maybe a chicken salad Viet- or Thai-style...

AND A NOTE ABOUT A NEW BOOK: A few weeks ago I finished reading the latest book by Ma Thanegi, a remarkable woman, a witty and engaged writer who lives in Rangoon/Yangon. It's now available on and it's called: Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy: One Woman's Mid-Life Travel Adventures on Myanmar's Great River by Ma Thanegi, published by Things Asian Press.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Still clear and cold here, with slanting sun that warms in the middle hours of the day, but only a little!

I've had a cold for the last week or so, a completely predictable consequence of flying to Toronto from Thailand at this cold- and flu-season time of year. Finally yesterday, Christmas morning, I felt light enough in myself to head out for a small jog. What a treat.

I headed out late, at about 9.30, for it took me awhile to assemble a cold-weather outfit. In the end I unearthed odd bits of ancient clothing: I had on green wind pants with cotton tights under, and a ratty silk long sleeved undershirt topped by a windbreaker; over that I layered a funky bright red vest I bought ages ago in France, and on my head a purple wool hat. A neighbour who saw me at the end of my run, sweaty and messy, said "the Christmas jogger!" so like an overdecorated Christmas tree did I look, in my red and green and every other colour combo.

The run felt easy (the first one after a break often does feel (deceptively) easy). Sidewalks were dry with only a few little patches of ice. There was dry cold snow on the grassy areas in the university, but only a little, so the grass showed through in patches.

There was no-one around, hardly a car on the road, and all shops were closed. The only people I met were the occasional person walking a dog, two other joggers, and a couple of people riding bicycles (brr!!). I called out "happy Christmas" to everyone. Some had headphones on, or were otherwise tuned out, but most greeted me back. I felt as if we had a special task to assert warmth of feeling in the cold air and bare streets.

When I got to Kensington Market, all deserted, I came across four or five different solitary guys. Each was hunched into himmself, alone-looking. I was reminded that when you are alone on a holiday day, when you have no family or friends around, and perhaps nowhere safe to stay, the big holidays are bleak indeed. And that's even more true on a cold day when everything is closed.

But on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market I finally came on a place that was open, a small independent coffee shop. "Espresso Bar: All Day Breakfast" it said on the outside. I went in, not because I wanted a coffee (I needed to keep moving to get home; I thought if I stopped I wouldn't be able to pick up and keep running afterward), but just to say hello and thank-you to the young women who'd opened for business, giving people a place they could go for company and warmth. We chatted briefly, and then as I headed back out, in through the door came one of the lonely street guys. "Coffee?" "Yes please" he said with feeling.

The rest of my day, once I reached home, was lived in warmth and comfort, starting with a hot bath, then cleaning and cooking, then welcoming friends and feasting on all that they and we had prepared. I was grateful to have had my morning out, a chance to move my body and take in lungfuls of fresh air, a chance to see the city stripped of its busy-ness for once, and a reminder not to take anything for granted...

I hope your week, the lovely blank of time between Chritmas and new Years, is rich with friends and new horizons.

And in case you are still in the mood for cooking something sweet for yourself or for friends, here's another easy recipe for a biscotti-like treat, adapted from a recipe in HomeBaking, a book I worked hard on and now find especially useful in wintertime! This recipe is for paximadia, Greek twice-cooked breads, but these are sweet, a Cretan version of paximadia, made with olive oil and flavoured with wine and spices. Very simple to make, very easy to eat, so though in theory they keep well, you won't have a storage issue!!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit and place a rack in the centre. Put out a large baking sheet. In a bowl stir together 1 cup of olive oil (preferably Greek) with 3/4 cup sugar (I like using demerara, for fun). Add the remaining ingredients and stir them in: 1/4 cup wine (white or red) and 2 tablespoons orange juice; 1 teaspoon each cinnamon and ground cloves; 1/2 teaspoon each baking powder and baking soda; and 3 cups all-purpose flour.

You'll have a pasty moist dough, a little crumbly. Turn it onto a work surface; cut it into four equal pieces. Shape each into a long flat loaf about 3/4 inch high, three inches across and eight or so inches long. Transfer to the baking sheet, lining them up side by side but not touching. With a knife or dough scraper make parallel cuts crosswise on each loaf, about 1/3 to 1/2 inch apart, and cutting down almost right through the loaf.

Place in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes, until firm. Take out and let cool for fifteen minutes, lower heat to 250, and cut through each slice mark to make individual cookies. Lay them on their sides (on one cut side in other words) and place back in the oven to bake for about 20 minutes, until very firm and dried out.

Let cool completely on a rack before storing in a cookie tin or jar.

I like dunking these in red wine, or eating them with a strong cheddar. They make a good house present too.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


How can it be a week since I last posted here? The answer's simple. After any long trip, there's the whirling messiness of landing: jetlag, of course, and then a sore throat-cold-cough combo that lingers, and bills and mail and banking to sort through, and trip notes and photos to start sorting through... And at Christmas time there are more than the usual number of post-trip drop-ins and phone calls and lunch and supper bookings with friends and extended family. Everyone seems to have a party or get-together in this season. It's kind of dizzying.

Last night I was out at a friendly relaxed pleasurable tenth anniversary party at Lula Lounge, a world-music venue and comfortable bar on Dundas West here in Toronto. I walked home from there, about three miles, in the clear cold night, wearing running shoes for comfort, and walking on sidewalks occasionally dusted with a little snow but mostly bare and easy. It was a good decision, to walk. It grounded me and brought me securely into the "now" for the first time since I landed here nearly a week ago.

This morning I woke with a pretty clear head and contemplated my to-do list. it's fairly elastic, but includes decision-making about which of the things I brought back from Burma and Thailand will go to which people as presents, calling several friends and my aunts who live far away to touch base, and getting some work done. We all know what won't get reached. Right. The work! And that's as it should be.

It is so important, after all, to take time out and focus on the "soft" things which are in the end the essentials. For me that means unhurried time for conversation and connection with people near and dear, and with new people too; and meditative time, when I can let my mind drift.

Some of that mind-drifting was happening yesterday as I was baking. Yes, of course, that can work fine, especially when I'm kneading a bread dough for example, but is a little risky when there are cookies in the oven! No catastrophes to report this time, I'm happy to tell you.

I wanted to set out here in short form the easiest recipe, and always a success, for "Mandel Melbas", thin twice-baked cookies in the biscotto tradition, a recipe I was given by my dear friend Dina, whose mother's it was.

You will need 1 cup of toasted whole almonds, so if yours are raw, just toast them in a hot skillet until they are aromatic, and don't let them burn, then set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 and grease and dust with flour a large (9 by 5 or so) bread pan. You'll also need two baking sheets later on.

Beat four large or extra-large eggs together with three-quarters cup of sugar and then stir in one and a half cups all-purpose flopur to make a smooth batter. You can add a half teaspoon almond extract if you want; I never do. Stir in the almonds, then pour or spoon the batter into the bread pan. Bake in the centre of the oven until lightly browned, about 40 minutes (and do the skewer test to make sure the "cake" is cooked through). Let stand ten minutes, then take from the pan and let cool. Wrap in foil or plastic and freeze for an hour or so.

Set your oven to 300, slice the "loaf" very thinly (6 to 8 slices per inch) and lay the slices on the two baking sheets. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until firm and lightly touched with brown.

This is where you must not let your mind drift too much, or they will burn!

A lot of my batch this week got eaten the first day, but really they are even better after they've had a day to crisp up, delicate and beautiful.

Happy holiday times to you all...

I'm off to meet a friend for lunch. Such a treat.

PS: And speaking of distractions this week, how about that lovely big solstice full moon. Amazing, and even more that she was eclipsed and then re-emerged to light the western sky as dawn was breaking here...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


After the sometimes-grind of riding on rough sandy tracks in Pagan, on a rackety bicycle with an uncomfortable seat, I am finding my bicycling here in Chiang Mai an easy glide. (Don’t get me wrong: I loved riding around in that pastoral landscape dotted with enormous stone chedis and ruins from another time, but the cycling itself was sometimes onerous and uncomfortable.) Here I’m again on a rented one-speed, true, and the seat can’t be raised quite high enough, but still, paved roads and a relatively healthy bicycle make riding the streets feel effortless.

And so it is with many things, right? Hot and cold running water we take for granted until we return from a trip where we were without, and then they feel like a luxury. And in the emotional realm too, we can easily forget and take for granted the love and kindness, and the pleasurable familiarity and acceptance of our friends. The return after a trip out among strangers is the time when we are reminded how much we rely on and appreciate long friendships and family.

But I digress. I wanted to talk about the pleasures of these last days. They include a bicycle ride out the still-beautiful Chiang Mai-Lamphun road. It’s busy with traffic, and very narrow. It can’t be widened, for on either side, like a guard of honour, stand tall tall teak trees. They’re spectacular survivors of an era when most of northern Thailand was covered with forest. Now they mark an old route to the small charming town of Lamphun. People in a hurry take the new big highway farther east, so that eventually, once I’d crossed or passed under three ring roads, the traffic was much lighter: I could raise my eyes from the road to look around, and I could have the luxury of taking off my uncomfortable helmet and feeling the breeze in my hair.

Pedalling a one speed along a flat road, round and round, is kind of mindless, like any repetitive motion (plain knitting and crochet come to mind). But when there’s a pleasant little breeze, and fields of rice stubble, and small houses with cascading pink bougainvillea, and banana trees and papaya trees with green fruit hanging, and gardens with rows of tender greens against the dark soil, and children playing and puppies ambling and small streams and little shops selling simple rice and curry or fried noodles or grilled pork on a stick, then the repetitive motion happens without my thinking about it, for my eyes and imagination are engaged elsewhere.

I reached an intersection about twenty kilometers from Chiang Mai. I was more than halfway to Lamphun, at the edge of a town famous for its basketware called Saraphi. It was time to start looping back towards home, so I turned right to head west toward the river. Another ten K or so, after several small sleepy villages, brought me to a bridge across the Ping River, and from there I headed back north. Now the huge blue bulk of Doi Sutep, the mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai, loomed before me. The day was misty and overcast, so it looked like a mirage, a dream-mountain.

The small road I was on followed the river, bending and winding with it, pausing occasionally for a small cross road and bridge to the other side. The river was green and calm, glowing with reflected light from the bright-overcast sky, sometimes rippling quietly. There was little traffic, little noise of any kind apart from birdsong. I lost all sense of time...

But all good things come to an end, and so eventually I reached the busy-ness of the city. It was time to put my helmet back on and focus on navigating the traffic.

There WAS a bonus to getting back to Chiang Mai. I had begun to dream of lunch somewhere along the way. As the morning wore on my dreams became focussed on the Issaan food at a small place called Toy off Loi Kroh Road. What a great end to a long ride, that meal of perfectly balanced som tam (shredded green papaya pounded with dried shrimp, chiles, garlic, etc and dressed with fish sauce, lime juice, a hit of sugar...), spectacular grilled chicken (guy yang), and sticky rice.

And it was just noon. I still had the rest of the day to look forward to...

POSTSCRIPT: I’m just about to post this, as I sit in the Chiang Mai airport early in the morning, checked in and waiting to fly away to Toronto via Bangkok and Hong Kong. I have a sweater and my wool shawl (they go with me to Burma to keep me wrapped and warm in the chill of the air con busses); there are socks in my handcarry that I can put on in Hong Kong. All of which is to say that the climate change from Chiang Mai to Toronto at this time of year is always a shocker and a little tricky to navigate. Good-bye tee-shirts and casual bicycling around in sandals, and good-bye bowls of broth and rice noodles for breakfast at open-air stalls, at least for the next month. There are lovely compensations though! I am SO looking forward to time with Dom and Tashi, those wonderful guys, and with good friends, in the coming days and weeks. I hope you’re anticipating some holiday time with those you love.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Because blogspot has been unavailable to me, I’ve had a couple of extra days to reflect on my time in Burma these last weeks. My days there felt so full at the time, and in hindsight the whole trip now appears even richer to me. The richness was of the best kind, a generosity of good luck and wonderful encounters.

A few months ago an old friend who lives on the other side of the country sent me an email asking if she could join me for some of my travels in Burma. I enjoy her company and know that she’s wonderfully open and resilient too: I don’t have to take care of her or worry about her. But still, I ended up writing her a letter that said, I’m very sorry, but I think I need to travel by myself. I’m sure she felt hurt and rebuffed; I would have in her shoes.

But it was and is true, that travel is very different when I am travelling with another rather than on my own. With another there is company and conversation, a chance to talk over the day’s events and have ambitions and fresh ideas about plans for the following days. On my own there is loneliness and there are times of self doubt, or self-criticism, and of anxiety. But still the plusses outweight those minuses.

And the plusses of solo travel? The biggest one is my opennness to new people and chance encounters. There’s more room for the unexpected connection with a stranger when I travel alone. And it’s those encounters that enrich travel. The casual conversation with my Burmese seatmate on the overnight bus (a woman from northern Shan State), the monk and his cousin-brother who took me temple-hopping in Rangoon on an earlier trip, none of this would have happened if I’d been travelling with a friend, enclosed in the cocoon of familiar company.

Another, related plus of solo travel is that it leaves open more possibilities for serendipity, for unexpected events. Yes, they are often connected to the chance encounters, but not always. And I love the unplanned and unexpected. I don’t want to know what tomorrow will bring; I want to discover it as I go. For if I did only what I planned to do, or what I could imagine before the trip began, then my trip would be defined and shaped by my limited knowledge and imagination. But if I am open to the unexpected, then the sky’s the limit.

I was sitting in a large teashop in Rangoon the other day, drinking black coffee (in Burma it is served like black tea, sweetened with sugar and with a wedge of lime alongside) and eating “nan-piar” a tandoor-baked unleavened flatbread, when an older man came over and said hello. Japanese from Osaka, a retired busniessman, he has been teaching Japanese in Mandalay, at the YMCA, for three years. He wants to help broaden the minds and imagination of young Burmese, and he’s doing it, student by student. He’s an interesting guy whom I hope to meet up with again, open and optimistic, and also generous-minded.

A woman I stayed with in Pakokku ten days ago, a small town up the Irrawaddy River from Pagan, taught me some delish Kachin dishes, a real piece of luck. I also learned a lot of central Burmese food technique from her daughter and from her daughter-in-law, a brilliant natural cook. They made fish curry, frying the fish first, then putting it into the long-simmered sauce just before serving. The chicken curry was a new version to me, and so was the way they fried chicken (simmering it first in a little water, until the water evaporated, before frying it in oil). The salads they made, one of green mango and another of peanut paste, were spectacular.

But best of all was the chance, as a solo traveller, to become, if only for a few days, a part of an extended family. I watched in the morning as the daughter put thanaka powder on her ten-year old son’s face, and on another morning as he did his own before school, carefully smoothing it into his skin, then using a toothbrush to make sure his eyebrows were smooth and perfect. A granddaughter, a beautiful tall twenty-year old engineering student, was going to a wedding next day. What to wear? We sat around one evening as she tried on a couple of outfits (both were traditional: short-sleeved fitted top over a longyi, a full-length straight-wrapped sarong). We all agreed which one was best, though she didn’t seem convinced. Next day she got dressed in the less cheerful combo(greys and blacks, elegance but no warmth), but then suddenly at the last minute changed her mind and opted for the pink top etc that we had all preferred. I took a photo of her in the pink, looking shyly beautiful as she headed off to the wedding on a motorcycle.

Pakokku sees only a trickle of foreigners, so I was a curiosity. Several times I was taken by the arm, by an older woman, and led to a monastery or temple and shown around. Each time we’d be followed by a circus of kids, mostly boys, who gambolled and laughed and cartwheeled and showed off in the freshest and noisiest and happiest way. The monks we’d meet smiled at the kids or tuned them out. There was no scolding, no false reverance, instead a wonderful exuberance.

There are urgencies in Burma and pain and suffering, especially along the borders, but elsewhere too. And at the same time there is this potential in the young, an energy and imagination. Totalitarian states clamp down on that energy, but from the things I heard from NGO workers and from others living in Burma, there is action, movement forward, even so. The internet is a huge boon, a help in networking of all kinds. And now there are growing self-help networks, some focussing on education (English language, civil society, conflict resolution) or health care (improving both access and quality), others on environmental change and sustainable agriculture.

And with the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi there’s a perceptible feeling of relief in people, almost a lightness in the air as you walk along the street, especially in Rangoon...

PS I discovered that my problem with making a new posting lies with Safari. I tried opening "new post" with Firefox, and here I am. Apologies for the delay and my techno ignorance!