Monday, December 31, 2012


It’s been more than two weeks since I flew back from Southeast Asia to Toronto, and that same amount of time since I posted a blogpost. Disgraceful, you might well say. I enjoy writing here, thinking on the page, so to speak. So what is it that’s caused this lacuna? I ask myself.

There are the obvious reasons: jetlag and disorientation after the flights from Rangoon via Bangkok etc, and the busy-ness of seeing friends after a travel gap, with the added intensity and expectations that come during the Christmas season.

But it felt like there was more to it. I think I was more wrecked by the whirlwind of book tour than I was prepared to acknowledge. I’m not complaining, especially not after having had the chance to recharge in Chiang Mai, but somehow the deep tiredness, more emotional than physical, continued long after and left me empty of initiative for ideas. I displaced my energies into baking and cooking and seeing friends, but could never quite feel the deep juiciness that I love to feel when I sit down to write here.

And now at last that richer energy is back, as of two or three days ago. I rejoice.

On this last day of the year that marks a dozen years since 2000, that’s been a leap-year/election year and a year that for me was all about the BURMA book, I’m feeling mighty grateful to be alive and in good health, with projects to look forward to and friends to rejoice with.

The holidays have been multi-layered. In our house we don’t have any particular holiday ritual. The only rule is that no-one gets imposed upon, in fact basically the only rule is that there are no rules. It makes things very relaxed, somewhat shapeless, and very pleasurable. 

This year we ate a huge meal with friends, family-style, on Chrstmas evening, beginning with PEI oysters and some extraordinary shrimp, moving on to a Berkshire pork rib roast with brilliant crackling, as well as several Burmese salads (the grapefruit salad was especially delish with the pork), and then following up with a choice of sweets that included mince tarts and pumpkin pie, as well as home-made chestnut ice cream. Are you having indigestion reading this list? I am.  

And all week we’ve been snacking on various biscotti, made from my recipes in HomeBaking. Cooking was part of my way of dealing with patchy tiredness from jetlag. I made jars of mincemeat a week ago, using homemade candied peel, suet, currants, sultanas, chopped apple, lemon and orange zest and juice, and a good splash of brandy. Some went into the mince tarts, some has gone as presents, but I have to confess that there’s one open jar in the fridge that I dip into every once in a while - with a clean spoon, I swear - to take a lovely rich and intense mouthful. It’s like an over-the-top version of the classic scoop-a-finger-into-the-peanut butter jar, and to me way more tempting and delicious.

So it is that most of us emerge into 2013 having to loosen our belts and opt for those less-fitted garments that allow us to breath easily. The wonderful sereendipitous ski that I had in the city a few days ago, up ravines etc, after our huge snowfall last Wednesday-Thursday, was not enough to work off all this indulgence, nor was the fabulous dancing we all did last night. 

But so what? It’s not worth worrying about weight and tight clothing. Life is too short to focus on such trivial “first world problems”. I prefer to turn my imagination to wider less me-centred horizons, those which beckon endlessly, and remind me that the world is an infinitely fascinating place, where people of all kinds face intractable problems and conflicts and try to do so with courage and dignity. 

So I’ll close with a wish. Sorry if it seems preachy or pretentious, for it’s heartfelt: May this coming year bring more justice and more peace: more negotiation and less conflict, more respect and less arrogance, to us all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


I was up just before dawn in Yaungshwe this morning, dressed quickly in the chilly damp air, breakfasted wrapped in my shawl, looking out at foggy streets dotted with the occasional monk on his morning round, then climbed into a car to go to Heho airport, an hour’s drive to the north.

After about half an hour, as we started climbing up the curves of the steep road that leads to the upland where the airport sits, we emerged from mist. Looking back I could see, framed by the long lines of morning-light-etched hills to the east and west, a soft billowing white cloud, lit by early sun, that hid the lowlands. Underneath it, I knew, lay fields of rice stubble and dried stalks of harvested corn; children heading to school in their white shirts and green lungyis; men and women on small motorcycles heading to market or to work, others walking out into their fields, carrying a machete or knife or mattock; the occasional oxcart with high wooden frame, pulled with slow deliberation by a pair of white oxen; villages of wooden houses set on stilts, and a few houses made of cement and built on the ground; small teashops already busy with morning customers, the steam rising from their handle-less cups of tea. And a little farther away, the river leading to the lake was already alive with long powerful boats, headed out to pick up loads of tomatoes from the Intha villages on the lake, or loads of tourists from the hotels out there. On the lake itself, early fishermen would be out in their small narrow wooden boats, paddling them out to their nets, or already out there and paddling standing up, one leg wrapped around the paddle, leaving their hands free to work with the nets.  Farther out still, people would be streaming in boats and on foot or oxcart toward whichever lake-side village has its market today. 

The markets operate on a five-day cycle, moving from village to village in sequence. Pa-O people, who mostly live up in the hills, travel down to buy meat and fish; and to bring vegetables to sell. The Intha are there with strings of small eels, as well as larger fish and dried  fish. men gamble in one corner, and at the edge of the market a blacksmith hammers at a red-hot implement, dipping it back into water to cool it, perhaps, then checking the trueness of the edge and hammering some more. Standing nearby, his helper (often a grown son or daughter) will be working the bellows. It’s an ingenious design, those bellows:. Two fat lengths (four feet or so) of bamboo are set on end. From the bottom small hoses lead to under the coals of the fire. The helper has a pole with a wad of cloth at the end, and slides them alternately up and down the bamboo shafts, driving air down under the fire. The alternation means the fire gets a regular even supply of air and stays steady. And the bellows work is relatively effortless, as well as being nicely far from the heat of the fire. 

I’ve now got a sample of the rice liquor made by a Shan guy south of Inle Lake; it comes as 20, forty, and sixty proof. I have a bottle each of the twenty and forty, smooth-tasting and delicious. His still arrangement is another ingenious design, made of cermaic and bamboo, simple and effective.  I’d like to take the Burma food tour people to visit him, as well as to a village market or two.

All this is such a lesson in ingenuity and creativity, as well as in the food basics that our manufactured world can hide from our sight.

I’m sorry to be leaving, and happy to think that I’m due to be back here in February. Then, too, I’m sure I’ll come on more local technologies that are new to me. There is so much to learn here in Burma.

Next step, after Rangoon, is the trip home, via a night with good friends in Bangkok. Toronto with its chilly air and festive lights feels far away still, but it’s approaching fast in my mind’s eye... I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Dom and Tashi and with friends, all of whom I’ve seen little of in this busy fall of book tour travel plus Southeast Asia time.  

The warmth and conversation of my extended family of friends is so precious. And it’s while heading home that I most often take the time to reflect on its wonderfulness. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


The western sky is an extraordinary pale green shading lower to warm yellow and further down into almost orange, with dark purple trailings of cloud here and there to give it contour. Here in Chiang Mai it’s just past six oclock and time for night to fall.

Many people here have already closed the shutters or sliding metal doors on their shops and businesses and headed home for a well-deserved rest. Others, especially bars and restaurants, are just opening for business. 

It’s “well-deserved rest” that I want to talk about here, “down time”, to use another term. Several days ago I read a posting by a meditation guy about our brain’s need for down time or repose. His argument is that our brains are designed for long pauses where nothing much happens, a time to reflect and be centred, rather than engaged in active “seeking”. He’s starting from the premise that the way humans lived in the time before cities developed involved long periods when nothing much happened, and where there was no stimulus for the brain. He says if we time-machined back to that time, we’d be bored silly.

And he argues that meditation techniques were developed by the great religions precisely when humans developed cities and started living in  stimulating environments. He says we are born with the urge to seek stimulus. And in the modern era we can go on doing that 24/7. Just as the modern easy availability of sugar (another thing we are genetically programmed to want and seek out) leads many to over-indulge, so the easy availability of distraction, of things to want and seek for and obtain, leads to over-indulgence and is damaging to our health.  The article is here:

I’m not sure of his science or his reasoning from the Paleolithic, but I do agree that taking a pause from the hamster wheel of running in endless circles checking Facebook and links and then Twitter then circling back around to Facebook with perhaps a stop in to check personal mail, and so on, can dull the mind and lead to a kind of self-loathing. And of course it also cuts deeply into the capacity to get any original thinking or work done. At least that’s the case for me.

A long while ago I wrote about the need to allow ourselves “buffer days”, days when we don’t work and don’t put pressure on ourselves to produce. I’d argue now that there’s an urgent need to give ourselves a holiday from the button-pushing stimulus seeking that our laptops or smart phones entice us into. There are days when I have lots to get done, and so I am not tempted into the round-robin described above. But on days when I’m at a loose end, or procrastinating about getting started on a project, I’m vulnerable to getting sucked into the whirlpool. And then an hour or two later I realise how much time has passed, and I feel a little nauseated. 

I wrote all the above two evenings ago.

Since then I have taken several breaks from the hamster wheel, and it has felt so good. The most outstanding brain rest was the long bicycle ride I went on yesterday with three guys who pedal a lot here in Chiang Mai and know good countryside routes. We ended up covering about 110 km (over 65 miles), on what was a beautiful but very hot-in-the-early-afternoon day. Whew!

I was immersed in conversations occasionally, but was mostly in a nice undemanding zone of pedalling and looking at the places I was passing by: fields of rice stubble with lean lop-eared white cattle grazing, often with an egret perched on their shoulders; hamlets and villages with shady trees and wooden houses and small village markets; clumps of tall graceful bamboo; and in the distance beautiful hills/mountains, cleanly etched on the near horizon. A perfect day, except when the heat bouncing back up off the tarmac at around 1 pm started to make me feel a little queasy.

(Perhaps I wasn’t coping as well with the heat because of our lunch. We stopped at “the pig place” as they called it, on a small road off the road to Pai. There the poeple roast/grill whole pig, one at a time, then cut it in portions and charcoal grill it a little more. Unbelievably delicious, as was the nam jiim sauce they served in it (a touch of coriander seed in it) and the som tam. Meat at midday is not recommended when there are over 50 kilometres to cover in the hot afternoon! But it was so special that it was worth the discomfort of a little queasiness an hour later.)

I cannot imagine sitting still for long periods and meditating. But moving meditation, being out in my body and centred there rather than in restless thoughts, sure seems like a good way of having brain “down time”. 

Other options, pleasurable ones, are a little less kinetic, and also wonderful: singing, drawing or making some other creation, walking, swimming... Even getting lost in a good book can still your brain’s searching.

While I was on book tour this fall I failed to take the pauses I needed, I got swept up in the buzzing to-and-fro of schedules and other people’s expectations. The one exception was when I was in St Helena for the CIA’s Worlds of Flavor conference. The conference itself was intense and charged, but each morning while I was there I was able to swim lengths in a lap pool, getting up at 5.30 to swim in the calm California-scented darkness. It was healing in ways I didn’t realise at the time.

Now as I pack up for a short trip into Burma and then a flight back to Toronto for a month there (I’ll be back in Chiang Mai in mid-January), I’m imagining forward as I try to decide what to pack and what to leave, and at the same time in a small way mourning the fact that I am leaving just as I’ve found ease and restedness. 

AFTERTHOUGHT: It’s the King of Thailand’s 85th birthday today. When I went out for coffee near Chiang Mai Gate this morning, almost everyone was wearing yellow in his honour. I read on Twitter and elsewhere that many people are lined up in Bangkok to see him, or planning to watch the ceremonies on TV this morning. And on the King’s birthday the rule is that no alcohol is served, so though restaurants are open, straight bars will not be.