Monday, October 29, 2012


The geometries of fields in browns and golds, taupes and the occasional dark green, unspool below the plane and extend to the hazy southern horizon, farther than the eye can see. I ‘m on a flight from Austin Texas to Denver, sitting on the left side of the plane. Sometime soon I guess there will be mountains down below or on the horizon, but for now it’s the wide flatlands of Texas. The only break in the pattern is the occasional scar-like large cleft, a wrinkled river’s path etched down into the earth, and then it recedes behind.  Now an hour into the trip, the land below is getting more consistently brown. We must be nearly out of Texas.

I’ve been at the Texas Book Fair in Austin, a well-run and busy event, with live music, a Cooking Tent (where I did a Burma demo, the brilliant Shan Soup and related “tofu” simply made of chickpea flour and water), and lots of book displays, all in large white canopies set up on the streets around the Capitol. The setting gives the whole event shape and a certain grandeur too, by association. Some of the reading sessions and panels take place in the legislative rooms, high ceilinged and grand; the only disadvantage of those is that there are long lines to get through security before people can get into the building.

The people who took care of me at the Book festival, and also at Central Market, where I taught a cooking class (and in Houston Central Market where I gave a BURMA talk at a cooking class), were all generous, tuned in, and very very nice to work with. Thank-you all. I’ll be happy to come back any time...

I met a writer at the authors’ party Saturday night in Austin who said he was performing in the morning, then hoping to get back to DC ahead of the storm. I’d been so removed from larger news, because of wandering around in Austin and trying to get hold of the where and what of the place (yes, barbecue was part of my explorations, and basic Mexican too) that I hadn’t taken in the timing, nor the scale and terrifyingness of Hurricane Sandy. Perhaps also the name, unthreatening and mild, had somewhat blinded me to the extent of the emergency on the east coast?

Now thirty-six hours later, with all the flights to NYC on the board marked “cancelled” I feel very fortunate to be headed west, via Denver to San Francisco. 

One of the things about being out on book tour is the issue of basic logistics: how to pack lightly, yet have the clothes I need, and enough books to read. So far so good on the clothing, but I’m running out of book. I lay the blame partly at the door of two authors, whose books are so good that I couldn’t pace myself but instead read them far into the night, unwilling to put them down. 

The first is a novel by Rachel Joyce, published in the US and in Canada by Random House, and long-listed for the Booker. I don’t have it to hand, so I won’t get the title exactly right, but it’s something like this: The Unusual Pigrimage of Ronald Fry. Her ear for language is wonderful, and the story unsentimental, but full of feeling and discovery. The second is by Gary Nabhan, non-fiction, and is an exploration of the cultural and culinary landscape of the desert regions along the US-Mexico border. Again the title escapes me, but it is recently published by the Univerity of Texas press and has a pomegranate on the cover. Nabhan writes thoughtfully and elegantly about the plants and humans who have eked out a living in the difficult, yet enticing and beautiful deserts along the border. And he opens with the story of an early shipwrecked group of foreigners, three Spaniards and a man from Morocco, that is intriguing and also sets many preconceptions about history and food knowledge on their ear. 

As I’ve been writing this the ground below has turned to desert brown, the fields still geometrical, but tired and resting for winter. Far to the south there are no fields, just patterns of rock and below me the tentacles of etched eroded gulleys, and then dry blackish rock bumping up out of the sand. It doesn’t look inviting, not at all, but I imagine there’s a beauty to it.

The reminder is everywhere that point of view changes our understanding and judgement. And this airplane, floating in an unreal time and space above the realities on the ground, is a luxurious place to contemplate this and other questions. My head has been full of the novelties of each day, from the clear air and fat moon above Austin, and the pleasures of a generous evening of conversation with a thoughtful friend named Rachel and a late morning of the same with another remarkable food-history-interested friend named Ammini, to the young crowd on Sixth Street on Saturday night, dressed as superheroes, strippers, aliens, and many unidentifiable-by-me characters, the young women often wearing a little headpiece of fuzzy ears (like a parody of the little royalty-watchers’ hats), while bands rocked and rolled and bluesed and cowboyed in a series of cheap-drinks-and-lots-of-action bars. 

Here in the sky I can let my mind drift and shape and hope and plan, and then drift some more, until the realities of life on the ground once more take hold of me.  And it’s on the ground, in Denver I hope, that I’ll be able to post this.

Aha, as we start approaching the ground, the western horizon is framed with a wall of blue-ish mountains, topped with the odd dab of snow-white. Arrival! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Even the airport runways look beautiful right now, here in Montreal, as the late afternoon sun gilds them against a backdrop of dark clouds, and a fat solid-looking vibrant rainbow stands anchored in the richly green grass on the far side of the tarmac.  Mother Nature sure can surprise us, especially in places where she feels quite absent. Suddenly there it is - remarkable light, or startling thunder or ethereal mist - and we’re reminded that we are not in an entirely manufactured landscape and that beauty is always possible.

Sometimes we need reminding, so that we have eyes to see it. Other times we’re hit over the head with it, as I was a few minutes ago with that incredible rainbow pillar.

I’ve been in Montreal for two days now, courtesy Random Hosue Canada, on book tour. I’ve spoked to radio hosts, mostly in studio, and most of them were well prepared and interesting to talk to. I’ve done a TV interview too, with an impeccably prepared interviewer. And I’ve made some recipes from the Burma book and had lovely animated long conversations with print media people of various kinds. Today I was at Appetite for Books, a cookbook store in Westmount, talking about BURMA, answering questions, and signing books.  

Now as I get on the plane, I am trying to look forward, and get my head clear, for tomorrow I am scheduled to speak at the International Festival of Authors, a great honour.  I am on with two writers, all of us writing about travel but in very different ways. A clear head is needed between now and then, for I still haven’t decied what I will read tomorrow. My friend Robin wrote to tell me which story she thought I should include. And others have come up as candidates. But it’s still an open questions... and perhaps only when I get there tomorrow will I finally decide.

It feels like a rather more serious version of that restaurant situation, when I’m eating with a friend or more and can’t bring myself to decide what to order. When that happens I ask to go last ordering. Then I grab a decision out of the air at the last minute. What is this kind of indecisiveness? And what makes a decision crystallise? I’m not talking about life decisions here, so much as relatively simple either-or decisions.

I find the food-order-decision-in-a-restaurant situation the easiest to explore, probably because of it’s familiarity, but also I suppose because it is so essentially trivial or at least without deep or difficult consequences. So why not pick arbitrarily? Why wait for inspiration or decisiveness to strike when it surely would be just as easy to opt for one of the menu choices arbitrarily?

I think it’s because a decision is a chance to exercise power, in a small way. We hate to waste those moments, for we don’t always have that pleasureable sense that it’s up to us, that we are in charge; when we have that decision-point feeling there’s a surge of energy, a sense that we have an opportunity to get it right, and that if and when we do we’ll feel extra satisfaction.  

Once I’ve opted for my food order, I settle calmly, and then when it comes I look again, at the options, the dishes my companions ordered, and I can’t stop myself assessing whether I optimised, whether I am delighted by the result of my choice.

Is this all about intuition? Is it really about trying to match our inner needs? 

Perhaps each decision point is a place for small anxiety, as we have the chance to make the perfect choice but also the possibility that our choice will be merely OK and not ideal. 

I’ve had several times of high stress when I’ve been indecisive about what to wear, I mean seriously indecisive, so that I found the process of getting dressed very stressful. I guess it was anxiety. And that small decision, that one-day commitment, was the closest easiest thing for the anxiety to attach to.

But now, when I think about a food order in a restaurant, am I talking about the same kind of thing? Or is it that anticipation of unformed or inchoate or multi-possibility pleasure is more satisfying than anticipation of a defined or limited one? Is it just that I want to prolong the sense of possibility, the richness of choice? 

All right, so I don’t have an answer. But does this discussion help at all with understanding why I haven’t yet been able to decide what story or text I will read at the International festival of Authors tomorrow?

Well I did decide in the end which stories to read, but only a few minutes before it was time to go out and speak and read. Suddenly I felt clear and was able to eliminate a number of my “possibles”. I didn;t ask Rachel Joyce or Arno Kopecki, the two wonderful authors who read in the travel section with me, if they had experienced the same difficulty deciding. That’s a question you can ask, the next time you go to a reading...

Sunday, October 14, 2012


After the whirl and distraction of three weeks of book tour (if it’s Tuesday it must be Boston, is my version), I’ve come home to find a lovely groundedness with friends. This week will be busy, yes, as I do publicity things in Toronto and Montreal, but somehow I’m feeling less scattered.

Some of that may be just simply because I have literally done some gathering-up of pieces of paper. I’m talking of course about receipts. On tour, while hotels might be prepaid, everything else pretty much is paid for by me as I go. Then the challenge is to keep track of all the recipets and submit them to the publisher for reimbursement. I’m happy to be able to tell you that I’ve got them all sorted and stapled onto sheets, will photocopy them on Tuesday, so I can have a copy, and then off they go to New York for processing. Hurrah.

But the other reason I’m feeling great is a note that came in this morning as a comment on my facebook fan page:  A very nice man named Simon Khin commented under a photo of the BURMA book as follows:  “I got this book as a gift from Kyi Kyi (Aung San Suu Kyi) during her brief family visit to Pacific Northwest a couple of weeks ago. I’m still reading it and thoroughly enjoying it. A big thumbs up from Kyi Kyi, Alex and me.”

How amazing to hear this. What a gift! After all, Aung San Suu Kyi, this icon of Burmese democracy, is one of the symbols of all that we hope goes well in Burma. She’s working for conciliation between the central government and various important groups in the border states such as the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin, the Chin. And she’s the symbol of the Burmese people’s tenacity in the face of years of political oppression and mismanagement by their rulers.  So for me to hear that she has given a copy of my Burma book to friends and family, and that she and her son Alex and others give it “a big thumbs up”... well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

I meant to write more here tonight, about various wonderful encounters in New York and Boston and Charlotte and Seattle, but suddenly it’s late and I have a whole day of media tomorrow, followed by a real treat, a book launch party at a bar in kensington Market. Being on home ground is always a pleasure. But it takes being away to make me realise how much I value life here in downtown Toronto.

Please wish me luck and clarity with all the interviews and conversations and presentations that lie ahead...

Saturday, October 6, 2012


There were spectacular tall cumulus clouds, pink-tinted, in the big sky outside my window at dawn this morning in Miami. My first time in Florida has been short and sweet: I arrived yesterday in the early afternoon and here I am in Miami airport less than twenty-four hours later waiting for my Toronto flight.

Those tall beautiful clouds in a blue blue sky were a reminder that I was near the ocean, but that’s one thing I didn’t get to do: swim in or even glimpse the sea. Everything else has been picture-postcard, from the aplm trees and warm humid Bangkok-like air, to the incredible avenues of banyan trees, each more eccentric and individual looking than its neighbour, sometimes at the centre of a boulevard, in other places arching from either side of the road to make a full enticing canopy.

I had a small tour around Coral Gables and Little Havana yesterday afternoon. A generous guy named Tom Swick, who is a travel writer and the former travel editor of the Fort Lauderdale paper, was due to have a public chat with me last night. And so he wrote last week  to ask if I’d like a look around, an introduction to the place.

He took me to the incredible Biltmore Hotel with its enormous pool, high painted ceilings, huge scale altogether. It’s like a Florida castle in its ambition. What a vision and confidence the guy had, a man named Merrick, who imagined the community in the nineteen-twenties and built the hotel, the church, the Venetian grotto pool, and the housing development. All quite fantastic. I love the look of the coral rock that was used in many of the old buildings. Some of it is plastered or stuccoed over, but a lot shows, textured and a reminder of the living creatures who formed it.

Tom drove to Little Havana, Eighth Street, and we walked past small cafe/diners, cigar shops, and more. There’s an eternal flame-topped monument to the Bay of Pigs invasion, and also an inviting canopy-roofed area where men (and the occasional woman) sit under whirring fans playing dominoes or chess. We stopped in at a fruit stand piled with avocadoes, papayas, tomatoes... They also do sandwiches and juice.  My fresh tall papaya-sugar cane-ginger juice ranks as one of the best juices I’ve ever come across. And hungry from not having eaten since before eight in the morning in New York, I devoured a generous assembled-in-front-of-me tuna sandwich with fat slices of tomato.  

To top off our excursion, just before getting back in the car to drive back to Coral Gables we stopped at a lunch counter for a Cuban coffee, a sweet strong hit of black energy in a small styrofoam cup. Yes!

The flat-roofs and low-rise look of things here, the sound of Spanish everywhere and huge signs in Spanish, the soft tropical air last night, splashes of bougainvillea and other bright colours in people’s clothing and shoes: all these thing proclaim the place a new country to me. It’s a treat. 

Perhaps the biggest treat of all was Books and Books, where I talked about BURMA with Tom Swick in front of a very appreciative group of people. Like other independent bookstores I’ve been to on this book tour, it has a large loyal following and is a pleasurable place to spend time. But not many stores of any kind, let alone bookstores, have a beautiful enclosed courtyard cafe-bar and also a series of tall airy bookshelf-lined rooms to hang out in! Still, I get the sense that it’s not the pleasing physical space alone so much as the energy and imagination with which the store is run, as it is with other independents, from Greenwich to San Francisco, that keep them alive and well.

And of course all we who write and love books and bookstores are grateful.

AFTER-THOUGHT: I did get to see the ocean after all, from the airplane, as we headed into the air over Miami, the line of white sand along the coast stretching as far as the eye could see. Amazing the housing too, stretching in all directions where once there was swamp and everglades. The remnants of that are visible from the air: waterways large and small are everywhere, gleaming in the morning sunshine. The whole landscape feels precariously close to sea level when viewed from the air, a place to enjoy now, before global warming brings invading waters...