Category Archives: Travel

More soundscape sneak previews

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Tony and I,  Aberdeen Canyon, Sept 2014. Calder Cheverie Photo.

Here’s another preview clip from Confluence at Aberdeen Canyon.

This soundscape project is part of the worldwide premiere of The Peel Project, a documentary about activism, identity, and art, which will take place at the Arts Commons in Calgary, Alberta in February 2016.

 

Paddling together on the Peel River.

I wrote this for a CBC contest about belonging. It didn’t win. Still pretty good though.

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Photo: Aurora Darwin

This evening, I am an explorer on another planet. A planet where I paddle a canoe on mercury, and the thick, heavy atmosphere burns liquid nitrogen. Where the wings of startled birds make a hovercraft whoopwhoopwhoop as they pass, and that’s the only sound until they land again. Gaetan and I are way out ahead of the group, but the bow position and his gift of amicable silence lets me pretend I’m alone here, and I’m not afraid. Dip my paddle in and pull.

We are so close to the end. The end of the day—as the sun touches down on Northwest Territory hills—and the end of our trip. Twelve of us have paddled the Peel River Watershed from the Ogilvie River in the Yukon, and soon we’ll be in Fort McPherson. A twenty day trip, for a documentary about Canadian identity. So for the last eighteen days, we’ve been looking for ourselves. Our faces in the canyon walls. I am a Métis woman, French and Cree First Nation. Gaetan is from Quebec, that’s all I know about his identity. That, and today he is at the bottom of our social hierarchy. The outcast. These things always happen in groups, somebody pisses somebody else off, and everybody gets in on it.

Yesterday Gaetan had had enough of group dynamics: waking when we’re told, eating when we’re told, keeping within earshot in case there’s a Grizzly. So he separated himself. We didn’t see him all day. He missed the pancake breakfast, though we kept them warm for him as long as we could. He missed the evening fire, when we all talk about one thing we’re thankful for. He was probably thankful for some time to himself. But people don’t like it when you deviate from the pattern, disturb the groupthink.

Yesterday, I ran laps up and down the beach by myself, but I stayed within earshot. When the pancakes were ready, I ran a few more laps. I don’t like being told what to do, either. But I’ve come to count on the group, since it’s comfortable. At the evening fire, I said I was thankful for a day to myself. I’d spent it writing in my journal, a hundred paces down the beach. Sang a little to the canyon walls, but I didn’t see my face in the rock.

This morning, when Gaetan asked me to paddle with him, I gladly agreed. Although we’re paddling the biggest canoe today, the one with all the heavy gear, we’re both strong. It wasn’t long before we were way out in front. He talked about feeling like he didn’t fit in, and I told him I understood.

Early in the trip the Peel was narrow and frothy, now it’s wide and sluggish. Soon we’ll slow down, rejoin the group to find camp for the night. But in the meantime, Gaetan and I dip and pull through mercury. We’re not afraid of anything.

Anti-social media

Island puppies!

My dad says that when he used to put me to bed at night I’d say “don’t forget me!” A phrase that basically sums up my current social media strategy. Short, glib, sometimes moody Tweets and status updates strung together like daisies to crown the heads of friends, family and followers. Whether they want a damn daisy crown or not. But in September I’ll be paddling through the Peel River Watershed from Whitehorse to the Arctic Circle, a long way from Wi-Fi. Awesome things will be happening every day, and I won’t be able to tell anyone about it. Not in real-time. Thoughts, images and emotions will have to be recorded and banked for later use. This process isn’t new to me, but I usually have the readily available social media steam valve when I need to shoot off little personal comedies and/or tragedies into the ether. Whenever I want to remind people I exist.

Two winters ago, I travelled to Thailand for four months. I was leaving Vancouver on a high note, having finished my year at the Writer’s Studio at SFU. I also won subTerrain Magazine’s Lush Triumphant award for a story I’d honed at the studio that year. My writing mentor, Timothy Taylor, had asked me to come back to the Writer’s Studio as his teaching assistant when I returned from my travels. This position, and my cheque from subTerrain would be waiting for me. Pretty sweet deal. But then I started to wonder if I really should leave the country. Surely not when things were taking off on the home front! What if, after four months away, people forgot how awesome I was?

I went to Thailand, because I’m not that insecure. Also, the tickets were non-refundable. But while I was there, I spent a lot of time on the internet. A lot of time. The Lonely Planet my friend Ben had lent me was a few years old, and claimed that Wi-Fi wouldn’t be readily available everywhere. It was readily available, for free, from Koh Lipe on the southernmost tip of the country, to Chiang Mai in the north. Sometimes the signal was crappy on Koh Lipe, but it was always there. And every day, before the sun came up and I went on my run around the island, past the plentiful island puppies and the young monks with their begging bowls who walked in single file and awkwardly avoided my gaze, past the kilometres of early risers with their eyes glued to their cameras, and their cameras trained on the sunrise, I updated my Facebook status. Blogged. Scheduled some Tweets. Posted about events going on in Vancouver that I would miss, because I was in paradise. People sent me emails, and I responded promptly. Bitched about the heat. Bragged about the heat. Updates: I’ll be home in three months, two months, two weeks. Here’s a photo of my omelette, my sunburn, my handsome, tanned boyfriend reading a book. We’re on the bus. In the airport. Bangkok, Shanghai, Vancouver. We’re home now. Going to sleep. Here’s the bottle of wine we drank to counteract the jetlag. Sorry about that 17 hour blackout. We were sleeping.

It’s not all bad. I did tons of great writing while I was there, and that’s what I was there for. But the internet was such a big part of my trip, I really can’t sit in smug judgement of the people who go on vacay and take ten million photos, who never stop looking through their camera lens. At least a camera lens is an extension of your eye. A windshield between you and your vacay, but you’re still driving the tuk-tuk. To look at the world through the social media lens is to gouge your eyes out, hand them to your online followers, and let them drive. You never stop thinking about how you should regurgitate your experiences for their amusement.  If I had a dollar for every time I thought “Ooo, that would make a great Facebook status!” I wouldn’t still be in debt for that damn trip.

There will be no internet on the Peel River trip. Not for twenty-three days. No first gorgeous hour of the day spent elsewhere. No instant communication gratification, or rather, that gratification will come from good old fashioned verbal communication with my fellow intrepid travellers. Talk about real-time. But then there’s no control, no editing or deleting, no time to carefully consider what I want to say before I say it. I write because I’m not fond of the way I express myself verbally. It’s chaotic, unstructured, full of tangents. I tell people more than I intend to, or leave out important context. I forget names, places, dates. I’m my own worst critic, often pulling out of my body mid-sentence to watch myself from a distance and mentally roll my eyes. So it’s not as simple as a social media addiction, or whatever modern term we’re giving it. It’s also a stubborn unwillingness to just be myself. Be with my self.

“This will be good for you!” You say. Yes, I know that. That’s why I’m doing it. I kind of suspect that I’m actually pretty awesome, even without editing. And I’m way hotter in person. There’s that.

 

Greatest Hits?

I’m stitching together a bunch of my Thai Travelogue odds and ends into a collection of postcard non-fiction. So you’ve read this all before. But I am polishing it up, and I invite your feedback on how you think it’s working.

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Step on a plane and get off two days later.
Shanghai stopover won the day, like flying into a garage filled with exhaust. Freighters, even-spaced, into brown forever. After, the plane just stopped on the tarmac, as if it had also reached its limit of screaming infants, and passengers with no prior knowledge of Gravol.

Zero degrees. We were loaded on a bus, then driven aimlessly around the airport for 20 min. Aysia, my friend, I wished you were there so we could have sung transit show tunes, the situation demanded them. Maybe some Queen.

Teens with expensive haircuts in pseudo-paramilitary dress at Shanghai airport security, whose answer to everything is “no problem.”
“Take my shoes off too?”
“No problem.”
“Computer out of the bag?”
“No problem.”
“Just put the Nuke in the plastic bin then?…”

Deserted, dungeon like hallways, and an escalator that spookily ground to a halt as as I arrived at its base, then resumed its grumpy ascent seconds later. STOP WASTING ENERGY signs. Caps Lock. Sterilized water machines that play little tunes as they dispense your 25ml portion into a paper cup.
China, what’s up wit u?

***

If you’ve come here to drink, you may drink Hong Thong. Specified only as “local Thai spirit.” Sold in 40 oz bottles for about 400 bhat ($14). At first we think the Hong Thong is stored in a milk crate in the sun, away from the other booze, like maybe it’s contagious. Then Zander tries to buy one, and is asked whether he actually wants to buy gasoline. Thai woman says they fill the empty Hong Thong bottles with gasoline to sell to motorcycles for only slightly less than the Hong Thong itself.

“Any difference in taste?” He deadpans.

“No,” she deadpans back. She’s heard all the Farang jokes.

This booze needs representation. A slogan. I’m thinking a booty-licious girl in a thong, leaning into a car window, shot from the back (of course) with some kind of slogan like “Hong Thong: Deliciously Cheap.” I’m open to suggestions though. One liners aren’t my forte.

***

We decided to save a few bucks. Checked into the Serene resort, very Buddhist, in that staying there constantly reminds you that life is suffering. I could go on about the bed, the mould, the ants, the bar that is open 24 hours a day and only plays the same 6 songs, including an inane big beat remix of “Signs” by The Who…but really, all I need to say are those three little words: broken sewage line. Keep in mind, it’s 35 degrees, and I’ve had food poisoning for the last two days. Keep it in mind, but try not to picture it.
Being in the Buddhist heartland, we practiced grim acceptance until about ten minutes ago, when I fucking blew my top, pulled myself together, because getting angry at people causes them to lose face, and politely asked the owner what could be done. Over and over again. With a smile.
Now we are in a loft above his massage parlour with no view, no bamboo ambiance, no mosquito net, and ABSOLUTELY NO FESTERING SHIT. And we are DELIRIOUSLY HAPPY.
Asia, I’ve got your number.
Watch out, motherfucker.

***

Very good day. We’re out of the Serenity Now and back at the lovely Lipe Beach resort, where we were greeted like old friends by the staff. Thais love to welcome you back. We’ve been on Lipe nearly a month, and people at the resorts we’ve stayed at and the restaurants we frequent wave and greet us when we walk down the street. “You’re like a local now!” people say, which of course is utterly untrue, but is the highest compliment an islander in any country can bestow on you.

There’s God, the gay bartender. Loves classic Trip Hop.

Some guy with a hatchet who is endured because he hasn’t chopped anyone yet.

The kebab guy is a Greek with a mohawk that’s usually un-gelled, so it looks like a hipster side-shave. He calls me princess and teases Zander because he always pays for the food-says if women want equal rights, they should pay up. Zander told him he has the money because he has the pockets. We didn’t tell him that all of the money is ours, because that wouldn’t be as much fun, but the last time we bought some kebabs, I pulled the money out of my bikini. You can imagine the reception that got.

***

Frank learned bar stool
Trip for collective signs
wind renders ears deaf

Crevices sulk grey
Icicle axe slides sideways
tarred with hungry hand

O, tinder box blue
To fold souvlaki sharp, I
suspend space like flame

***

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A Hua Hin night out, music in the center of town. Ex-pat Jazz band is shoved off the stage early to make room for a long ceremony with a 50 000 baht novelty cheque. Before he leaves the mic, the singer says they’ve never played to an audience who wasn’t dancing. Silence. 200 white people sitting in chairs with white seat covers. Behind them, a statue of Pone Kingpetch, flyweight champion of the world in 1960.

The cheque is presented to a Farang so tall he could be standing on the shoulders of a Thai. The leader of Biggles Big Band, all the way from Amsterdam. Last year they were rained out after playing only one song. He speaks Thai to polite applause. Asks if anyone is from the Netherlands, and most hands are raised. So he switches to Dutch.

Then it’s time to play: Henry Mancini and Glenn Miller, and compositions by the King himself, ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช. Two pieces: Blue day and Hungry Man Blues. Christmas lights over the heads of the Biggles Big Band, 200 Farangs, and the flyweight champion of the world. Kingpetch has one gloved hand raised in victory. Thais selling Heineken. Children and crippled Thai women selling roses, we shake our heads “no.” Thai lanterns in the canal that carries waste to the sea.

***

So, pesticides are generally a way of life here, and I’m trying not to judge, since I’m only a visitor. But the bees. An open air house that gets sprayed for termites, and the bees fly through and are almost instantly incapacitated, but not killed. At night they are on the floor, sometimes one or two, sometimes a dozen. Sweep them up and whisper an apology.

I’m getting to the part of my novel where the bee hives were coming into the honey house faster than our little team could keep up with. Stacks on pallets every day, and yeah, the bees were supposed to have been blown out of them, but many weren’t. And by many I mean hundreds. Bees everywhere, now exhausted or injured, crawling on the floor, the walls, the ceiling. Pieces of bee from the honey comb-filled frames gone through the de-capper, mixed with splintered wood and wax. At the end of the day, I swept them into piles, and down the drain. Our tiny co-workers. Expended. When I left that place, I didn’t ever want another bee to die by my hand.

Last night, in the open air house, I stepped on one of them. It surprised me how that indignant why me?  feeling, a sense of having been bullied by nature, stung far more than the stinger itself.

***

Of course, every moment here is a “Thai” moment by default, as authentic as it gets. But there were the promises I unwittingly turned into expectations: the serene Buddha-moments, marigolds strung into the stories of earnest young Canadian travelers, awarded prizes by Canadian journals for their gritty but delicate portrayal of Thai life.
Well, there’s no shortage of grit. But where the hell are the marigolds?
Then it’s four in the morning and I’m banging away at the laptop and slapping at the noseeums and I hear the monks. Chanting? That’s what it sounds like.

Pad over teak floors to the window. There’s the call of cicadas and rooster zealots, and yes, definitely chanting but no- this is wrong, I need a gauzy dress and a “steaming mug” of ginger tea in my hands, I need to be on a breezy porch, or on the beach. But the air is thick and tepid-I can’t hear the chanting from the porch, and there’s no beach, so I’m catching my Buddha-moment through grimy glass slats, cement and overgrowth in my view, noseeums watching from the other side of the net, and still it’s okay, it’s only me here. And it’s right now.

***

Three hundred and nine steps up Doi Suthep, Theravada monks are wondering what we’re up to in the city. Terracotta under their feet. Don’t be bamboozled  by the robes, or statue likenesses outside the chedi of the monks as cartoony infants. If they could see Chiang Mai through the summer haze-farmers burning fields-they’d be peeking. Sure, there are bells to ring in Wat Phrathat. There’s Farangs to ask the Buddha’s view on Cancer, and whether he’ll be there for the Rapture. A white elephant transport, for the Buddha’s shoulder bone. Climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and died. This was a sign. Leave your elephants at the bottom of the mountain. The first chedi was built.

***

Teaching English in Chiang Mai in exchange for room and board. The kids probably think I’m weird, but it’s because I love them, like, I’m really crazy about them. I can’t stop smiling at them. It’s got nothing to do with biological clocks. I still don’t want a kid of my own.

But these kids.

These kids with their polite gooood mahhning teachuuh Ka-Lee and the way they let their little hand rest on your leg when they show you their drawings. Their Angry Birds themed, over-dressed, long-sleeved bathing attire, and matching bathing caps. And their smiles: shy, semi-toothless, genuine. I don’t know how to talk about smiles without getting all cliché on you, but I’d heard there was something special about the Thai brand of smile, and I heard right. It’s not just a routine tightening of facial musculature, it’s an event. A little bit of good passes into you. And you can give some back, if you remember to be present while it’s happening. This isn’t easy for me. I often forget to be present during hugs, too. I had a friend who used to get me into hug position, and then remind me to pay attention to what was happening. Hugging. He was a good friend.

***

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Q: When is a Yoga retreat not a Yoga retreat?

A: When it’s a gathering of business professionals in a yoga-based industry, who have come together from both fitness and entertainment fields to offer you, the quiet couple from Canada who just wanted a weekend getaway in the mountains, this amazing one-time offer complete with free yoga classes, the pained general camaraderie that comes with being a sales professional and surely guarantees a slow and painful death due to diabetes or heart failure, AND a chance to test our products AT NO COST TO YOU and OH MY GOD- this is going on Facebook the moment this three day “internet cleanse” is over.

***

One more backpack trudge back to a cheaper hotel in a better part of town. Greener grass. Songkran water-festival scrubbed the alleys clean. Back to My Mum guesthouse, where three generations of women will greet us. Polyester tight-perm grandmothers will give up their chairs for us, and there will be nothing to do but sit. Green smoothies on the corner at the end of the alley, girl picks the basil from a pot at her feet. Avocado omelettes for breakfast. The sun’s going to be too hot, but we’re not going to sweat it any more. The street’s going to smell like shit, but we’re not going to notice. The mountains still won’t be there, not visible.  Next time we pack up, it will be to catch the overnight bus to Bangkok. Overnight flight to Shanghai. Morning flight to Vancouver. We’ll arrive nearly before we’ve left.

Thai Travelogue. Songkran: A Report From the Frontlines.

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It was just a trickle at first. A few drops from a Super Soaker, an understated splish against my leg by a man who looked more apprehensive than festive when I turned to face him. His expression relaxed a little when he took in my grin. A young girl actually ASKED Zander if he’d like to be splashed. He declined. “Well if they’re going to ask…” he huffed. He prefers his soakings to be more… spontaneous. A group of guys that reminded me of when the media was trying to make Asian Youth Gangs a Thing, watched us pass in silence. One of them tossed a few drips my way and his friends smacked him. Bowed a little when I turned around. Awkward.

Only slightly moistened in a cafe filled with chattering, soaking wet Thais, we discussed possible reasons for this. Do white tourists have a bad reputation? (about this in particular i mean. I know we’re dicks about most things.) Is it an age thing? Am I too old? Thais are way respectful to elders, please god, tell me I’m not in THAT category yet. Are we unapproachable? Yep that’s right, only a couple of Canadian tourists would worry about whether they’re likable enough for the locals to toss dirty water at. We resolved to look more soakable on the walk home. After some fried rice and a cappuccino, we set out again, affable smiles firmly in place.

The number of Songkranners had increased significantly in the two hours we’d been at the cafe. Hello Kitty motorcycles scooted out from alleys and roamed the streets in tight packs, with passengers working rear squirtgunner, black hair plastered against knockoff Ray-Bans. Tinted window pickup trucks cruised at parade speed, lean shirtless dudes with beach pails taunting the poor saps with nothing more than a garden hose. The real high-rollers of Songkran. Kings of the alley.

We’d only gone a few steps when a girl put down her Super Soaker and approached us with a small bucket. A mug, really. “Excuuu meee!” she called out, polite to the end. And…splash! Delicately Songkranned.

We laughed. She laughed. That was all the neighbourhood needed to see.

The high-rollers, the rear gunners, dudes sitting in the street bars, 7-11 employees, little kids, big kids-we got soaked. Knowing smiles at the hotel front desk as we squished past. Sweet, wet acceptance. Thanks, Thailand.

Ten minutes after we got back to the hotel, showered and clothes hung to dry, the sky opened up to give us a Songkran display of its own. Wind shrieked, rattled the windows and monsoon-size raindrops flew sideways. “What do you think?” Zander said.

“I guess we’re going back out there.”

It was on. It was SO on, now the water sloshed up to our ankles- a back alley flash flood-and motorcycle gunners had no choice but to become foot soldiers. They concentrated their efforts on the guys in the back of the trucks, also forced off the road, but still in a tactically superior position above the fray. Instantly soaked in warm rain, I got big laughs for mugging about how cold the hose attacks were. Another guy with a Super Soaker pretended he wasn’t going to shoot us as we walked by, and then pow! Right in the ass. He was probably about nineteen or twenty years old, but not in that moment.  Pure nine-year-old warfare.

We lasted as long as the rain did, and then trudged home. Again. “Hey you, stop!” A chubby guy holding a tiny squirt gun in one hand and an umbrella in the other barked at me.  I had to move closer so that the gun could reach me.

A German woman was smoking cigs on the hotel front steps. “You’re brave to go out there” she said in a thick accent.

“Thank you, ma’am. All in a day’s work” I said, tipping my helmet at her.

Okay that last part didn’t happen.