Tag Archives: Travel

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.

 

Fools Love: 40 Week Journal off to the Wairoa Maori Film Festival in NZ.

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After its premiere screening at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival in March, Fools Love: 40 Week Journal by Kerry Barber (with poetry by me) will feature at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival in New Zealand. Congrats, Kerry! She and her baby girl Daphne and in town today, and catching a plane to Auckland tonight. Never did I imagine when I sat writing that piece in the rainy Comox valley last winter that it might find its way to the Southern hemisphere! Nice work, Barber. Wish I was going with you.

See also: Update on Fools Love: 40 Week Journal at Dawson City International Film Fest and What Collaboration Looks Like

Home Again Home Again, Jiggidy Jig.

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I’d expected plenty of culture shock on my first trip to Asia, and I got it. In the four months I was there, my foreigner discomfort probably lasted three-and-a-half. A lot of my unease centered around spending money. I had no problem handing it out, but I wanted to do so on MY terms. When sales people followed me around relentlessly in stores, delivering what many would consider to be attentive customer service, I assumed they thought I was going to steal something. When servers loomed over us as we ate, I’d glare until they left us alone. I bemoaned the lack of shiny, efficient grocery chains, where everything we needed and more was all available in one place, and none of it was rotting. In short, I was a bit of a jerk, lashing out at a different culture because it didn’t  function in the custom of my glorious home country, sweet Canadialand, where every buyer experience is a gilded one. Because of this, I was not expecting any reverse-culture shock when I got home. I was just expecting to be comfortable again. I was so happy to be back.

Then I went grocery shopping.

To be fair, I was grumpy. It had been a day of disappointments and waiting in long lineups for minimal gain. But I was not prepared for the genuinely surreal experience that awaited me at Safeway, my first trip to a large grocery chain since my return.

After selecting five or six items, pretty much only the things we needed for our next meal, we went to the check out. Four months of travel and the general Thai approach to consumption we’d been exposed to (buy what you need right now, and don’t waste it) had its effect on us, and I consider it a positive one.

We both prefer self-checkout, but for some reason the self-checkout line went around the corner and half way down the frozen food aisle. The feeling of aggression emanating from the lineup was even more intimidating than the manic self-checkout persona that lets you know-in no uncertain terms- that if you don’t place your items in the bagging area after scanning them, there’s going to be hell to pay. Oh yes.

Next stop, the express lines, which were also long, and inexplicably made up of people with shopping carts full of food. Again, these folks had a dangerous air about them that suggested anyone who might question them on their right to be in the express line might regret it. The fact that only four out of sixteen checkout lines was staffed may have had something to do with their feeling of entitlement. I would have been more angry if I hadn’t been utterly stunned but the sheer volume of food that was being purchased: five different varieties of VH marinade like maybe they were going to cook five different roasts that night. 60 rolls of toilet paper. 60! Expecting guests, maybe. Very regular guests. Flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, milk, butter and… pancake mix. Newsflash. Combine all those other ingredients and guess what? Pancakes.

If this had been a Costco, or an Extra Foods or Superstore or any one of those chains where the deals are usually pretty good and can leave even the most discerning shopper travelling homeward with thirty bags of 2 for 1 chocolate-dipped szechuan potato chips and a 3 litre tub of sour cream that will expire in 6 hours, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But this was Safeway, notorious for its high prices. The kind of place you go only out of necessity. Or so I thought.

We finally settled on a line, behind a man with a full cart but only one person ahead of him. I began my calming self-talk, reminding myself that anger only leeches precious energy, and we really weren’t in that much of a hurry anyway. But then things got weirder.

At the till, progress was stalled. An exhausted-looking (but congenial) woman was calling for a price check, just as a young guy (not a Safeway employee) brushed past us with two boxes of salt. He showed them to the woman, and then she, the young guy and his mother all compared the boxes of salt to the one sitting at the till, as if a detailed study of its packaging might yield its price. The woman called for a price check again, her amplified drawl echoing out into an abyss of boil-in-a-bag meals and aspartame-sweetened fruit juice. No one answered.

Another woman appeared-I’m not sure what her connection was to the trio. She was looking up something on her cell phone and delivering the information to the woman on the till, who punched it in. Success! Success? Not so fast. The salt mystery had been solved, but then each successive item appeared to require the go ahead from the Holder Of The iPhone, who incidentally, was not a Safeway employee. This techno-wizard could have been browsing Hentai while just making prices up at random, since no one was questioning her or even asking to look at the phone. So is the power of the SmartPhone. All hail.

Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. We changed lines once, twice, to no avail. It really did feel like time had actually slowed down, like we had entered a dimension where understaffed stores of over-worked employees attempted to serve a colossal glut of aggressive zombies buying an unreal amount of stuff.

Wait a second.

Come to think of it… this did feel a little bit familiar.

When we finally, finally did get to a checkout (in the end, self-checkout was the fastest way to go) I was livid. I had indeed exhausted all my precious stores of energy, and just wanted my goddamn eggs and soda water, thank you very much. I was glad that the only representative of the Safeway chain that I had to face was that manic and vaguely threatening computer voice, because I wanted to tell someone to go to hell. And I did. Nevertheless, the voice told me to have a nice day. I smirked at the guy who had been in front of the first line-still waiting- as we passed.

I keep telling people that the trip was more of a crash course than a fabulous getaway, and I’m okay with that. Among the things I can now say I’ve learned is to expect grass-is-always-greener-itis when visiting a foreign land. I’ll be ready for it next time.

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Copyright: Lead Paint Comics. leadpaintcomics.com

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.

Thai Travelogue. Q: When is a Yoga Retreat not a Yoga Retreat?

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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 my three day “internet cleanse” is over.

Teaching English in Chiang Mai was not difficult, but it was exhausting. Maintaining the socially prescribed “keep it light or everybody’s gonna lose some face” countenance while wrangling a bunch of unruly kids who only really listen to things people say to them in Thai. Getting them to sit through lessons and bake things your grandmother would call tricky: “Okay, Plim, knead the pastry dough, but only a little, just until the moment the butter kind of crumbles, or else the dough will… Oh, okay then, you just go ahead and knead the shit out of it, because you’re eight, and that’s what eight-year-olds do.”

Seriously, pastry dough? That’s what Pillsbury is for. And don’t get me started on deep fry day. Hello, lawsuit! Sorry Mrs. Boonliang, we deep-fried little Pun’s hand. He’s over here, soaking it in a sweet chili sauce, and I’ve got some sesame seeds here if you need them.My respect for teachers, already sky-high, increased exponentially. Next jerk to begrudge teachers their right to job action gets a kick in the junk.

So when we were done with teaching, we decided to treat ourselves to a few days at a nice resort out of town. Tharnthong Lodges is on a huge property with gardens, a river, nice-looking cabins, and most importantly: bunnies.

They appeared to be everywhere, running free on the grounds. SOLD. The reviews on TripAdvisor were mostly positive, and the price was right. Reportedly, the internet reception was terrible, which would give me the chance for a bit of an internet detox. Prim—the proprietress—told us they were hosting a Yoga retreat for the days we had requested, but she had one room available for us. “How lovely!” I thought. An entire resort full of happy, bendy people cruising around a magical, bunny-filled garden. And us, riding the coattails of their Zen. “Maybe we’ll even get to do some Yoga!”

Well.

Prim is there to greet us the moment we step out of the cab. She’s one of these super-swanky older ladies who has had everything nipped and tucked and micro-dermabraised, but still manages to look down-to-earth. She probably drinks spirulina and virgin blood smoothies while working out in the sauna. All smiles, and really very lovely, but she makes me uncomfortable. I decide to try and give her a wide berth, which shouldn’t be a problem, since the grounds are expansive and our cabin is pretty secluded. She hustles us in with promises of mushroom and bacon omelettes, but not before introducing us to Christopher, a handsome and very friendly (Everyone’s so friendly!) American man who exclaims “OOO! The most beautiful city in the world!” When we tell him we’re from Vancouver. Well, it is. So, Okay. But we’re still not sure who Christopher is, and why we’ve been introduced. I assume he’s one of the Yogi’s or something. Then he mentions a Yoga class at 2 that afternoon.

“You should come!” he gushes, giving Zander the eye, but maintaining a slightly flirty bearing toward me as well. “It’s going to be great!”

“Okay. Maybe,” I reply, in a way that I hope sounds as non-committal as I feel. No offence, Christopher, but we’re a little bit hung over and maybe not ready to get bendy with your swishy, charismatic self just yet. He reminds us once more before we’re finished breakfast.

At 2pm, there’s a knock on the door. We’ve been dozing; Zander rushes around to find pants and opens the door to a young Thai guy with a nervous smile. “Hello! You go Yoka?” This takes us a moment to decode. “Oh! No, thanks” Zander replies, unable to keep the edge out of his voice. What is this, camp?

I’m not sure, but I think I hear Christopher’s voice right outside our cabin seconds later. “Oh no? Okay.” Maybe it wasn’t him. I imagine the class standing outside the door, waiting for us. No no no. Right? What do they care if we go?

At dinner, Sgt. Prim asks us why we didn’t attend class. “We fell asleep?” I offer, wondering why I’m feeling so guilty. It’s not like we signed up. She smiles and nods, a vein pulsing lightly in her forehead. Christopher and his entourage are gathered around a table eating tofu steaks and steamed greens, locked in venomous conversation about how terrible it is when people don’t show up for Yoga class. I am not shitting you. Zander and I–the only other people in the dining hall–sit as far away from them as possible and tell ourselves that this is all a hilarious misunderstanding. They couldn’t possibly be talking about us! When the topic switches to a venomous discussion on how disgusting super-size McDonald’s meals are, I relax a little. We have no choice but to pass them on the way out. Christopher, all nonchalant, tells us there will be a class tomorrow at eleven. Prim reminds us of the class as we leave and the next morning at breakfast.

The only other person in the dining hall at 7am is a big, affable-looking guy, who greets me enthusiastically as I come around the corner with my muesli. “How did you sleep?” he bellows, and I almost look behind me to see who he’s addressing. I assume he’s mistaken me for one of the retreat’s official participants, but I answer him back with as much gusto as I can muster. He and several other members of the group don’t really look like Yoga retreat people. These are not hippies, or even the flowy-but-urban Namaste types that Vancouver is full of. They don’t really seem to be relaxing. Everyone is brandishing an Iphone, Ipad, Iwhatever, and bitching about the reception.

“Just wait until I get back on Facebook,” I tell Zander. “This is getting a full-on blog post for sure.” The choice to write about it makes the situation suddenly seem more fun. I decide to gather some material.

“So, uh, you’re here for the Yoga thing then?” I say, articulately. “Yes!” he roars. “My wife and I are actually the representatives for the entire Saskatoon area!” Not: We’re really enjoying the peace of mind and increased flexibility Yoga provides.

“The Yoga representatives?” I stutter. Carleigh Baker, ace reporter.

“For Anti-Gravity Yoga,” he replies proudly.

Then I remember the pamphlet in our cabin. People in these Cirque De Soleil stretchy hammocks, doing yoga moves, upside down. Terrifying. And there, on the back of the pamphlet, looking like a handsome gay swan wrapped in a microfiber sausage casing, was a man named Christopher. THE Christopher, who apparently works with Broadway stars and Madonna and probably the Pope, too. Who wants everyone to try out this revolutionary new path to flexibility, enlightenment, and FUN!

So. This is the king of Anti-Gravity Yoga, and these are his sales minions. Not that this necessarily makes the gathering some kind of evil, Jonestown DRINK THE KOOL-AID hostage situation, but let’s be honest. Sales people—good ones at least—don’t usually know when to turn off the sell. So even if Zander and I are being given the opportunity for some free Yoga, we’re also going to get a free cup of coffee and the opportunity to purchase an amazing, newly-renovated timeshare condo on the pristine banks of the Anti-Gravity River. But we still have two nights left at the resort, a resort populated entirely by anti-gravity sales people, and owned by an obvious disciple. “See you in class!” Prim waves as we leave the dining hall. “Eleven o’clock!” The Muesli is already cramping in my stomach.

Back in the safety of our front porch, I broach the subject with Zander. “How much could they really be trying to sell us, really? A fancy hammock? I’ll just say I don’t have anywhere to set it up.”

“That’s the thing with these people though, they’ve got an answer for everything.” Zander shudders. He’d been sucked into a multi-level marketing seminar once, and spent an inordinate amount of time extracting himself. “I just don’t think hanging upside down for an hour and then being given a sales pitch is very relaxing.” He’s right of course, but my curiosity gets the better of me. Tell myself (stupidly) that going once will satisfy everyone. I suit up in my most yoga-friendly attire and head for the pagoda. I’m shaking a little. Maybe it’s the cappuccino.

Well, I’d love to tell you that there is some kind of baby eating ceremony or that I break my neck while swinging upside-down and am getting a massive settlement or something equally exciting, but the class is…okay! The acrobatic style certainly doesn’t provide much relaxation. And as I learn, this is also a teacher training seminar, so the girl who is leading the class has NEVER TAUGHT BEFORE. “How is your body?” She asks me, deer-in-the-headlights.

“Not good, very tight hips, and I have menstrual cramps,” I answer. I see the panic register, and she mumbles something about periods not being the best time to do Yoga. Great! Now let’s get in that harness! But there is an unsmiling older man there who seems to know what is going on, and he keeps an eye on me. The loud guy and his wife are there too, and they spot me through some of the more challenging poses. While getting into the positions is a bit of a bitch, some of the hanging and flying poses are actually fun. Really! The adrenaline kind of fun though. And doing the post-class guided meditation wrapped in a sausage casing is not as relaxing as lying on the floor with a folded blanket under your head, arms spread wide. Traditional Yoga’s got you beat there, Christopher.

After the class is over, the older man  is suddenly all smiles and asks us to sit in a circle “for just a minute.” Here it comes, the pitch. But there are at least fifteen other eager-looking Thai women in the class who look like they have baht, so I tell myself I might get off without too much hassle. But all he talks about is hormone levels and stress and the benefits of relaxation. Total soft-sell. It appears that getting people to attend the class is paramount, but the follow-up is mellow. It was pretty fun. They probably don’t have much trouble selling those bendy hammocks. People love to buy things.

I do get a bit of a follow-up high-five from Christopher later on. He wasn’t in the class, but says he heard I was a “superstar.” If only these people understood how creepy it is to hear they’ve been talking about me at all. He throws “Alexander” some shade for not going, which Z shrugs off easily. We are now resigned to the never-ending pitch that is going to be our vacation.  It’s annoyingly earnest, but that’s all. “See you in class tomorrow?” Christopher asks. A resort bunny in his lap, luxuriating in the attention.

“We’ll give you a definite maybe.”