Travel

Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jog

I set out to find wild elephants. That was my big idea. I pitched the story that way. I left on the plane with only that in mind.

I got much more.

In a couple months, the article about my trip to the Yunnan Province in southern China will run in EnRoute Magazine. I don't want to give anything away. But let me quickly hit a few of the highlights.

We started in Lijiang, in the long cool shadow of Jade Dragon Snowy Mountain, holy peak of the Naxi people. Yulong, as it's locally known, has never been climbed to its summit, though legend has it that many star-crossed young lovers have lept together to their deaths from its cliffs, diving into the third kingdom to gain acceptance for the love forbidden them in this world.

In Lijiang there are roof cats, who draw wealth and fortune into their mouths.

There's gorgeous food:

And then there are these, which are marble and expensive, or I might have taken some home.

From Lijiang we moved on to Shangrila, where a Tibetan woman named Sanam showed us around. She brought us to the Songzanlin Lamastery.

To the market.

She took us to the house of friends of hers, who sat us down around the blackened stove and gave us fresh yak's milk cheese, yak butter tea and tsampa.

We sat in their living room under amazing carvings.

We said goodbye to Sanam and travelled down into Xishuangbanna. We went to the Mekong, where a woman with a pink umbrella sang by the shoreline.

We went up the river, past a large pagoda on the far shore.

We went into the jungle.

We saw gibbons and hiked past tea terraces.

Later, in town, we ate 1,000 year old eggs and roast chicken at a restaurant where they played MahJong for what appeared to be large amounts of money.

And the elephants. Did I see any?

The whole story runs in EnRoute early next year. Let's just say for now that it ended up being bigger than the animal, that story.

Bigger, and weirdly better, than I could have expected.

 

Posted: Monday, Dec. 10, 2012 2:18pm

Pilgrimage Redux

Gone for a few weeks to China on a gig for EnRoute Magazine. Spotty to nonexistent internet while I'm gone.

Taking: 2 blank notebooks, 5 pens, a knapsack, and zero preparation.

Returning with: 2 full notebooks, a crucially necessary new attitude, and photos of elephants.

Enlightenment is an outside possibility.

Posted: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 12:21pm

The Accidental Local

First published EnRoute Magazine

We’ve been motoring seaward for about an hour when Roberto finally cuts the diesel. Brazil is a bare pencil line on the horizon, Monte Pascoal a tiny bump, as it must have been when Portuguese explorers first came across these cobalt blue waters 500 years ago, and I’m feeling more here than I have since arriving. Roberto yells at his mate, Uruca, to drop the anchor. Then we wait as the hook sets in the rock far below. With a flash of a smile, Roberto indicates that it’s time to fish.

We use strictly traditional techniques as those are the rules in this part of Bahia, even for visitors: thrown nets, single lines or spears with no scuba. We choose lines, and down they go: high-test fishing wire unwound off Styrofoam spools, hooks baited with bits of white fish that Uruca produces from a cooler. And up come, in what seems like mere seconds, the struggling ariocó, big red-flanked fish with yellow stripes. No Portuguese required for this moment; fishing is its own common language. “Olá! Look at this!” I shout. Roberto ribs Uruca, pointing at me, and says something like “He’s catching more than you! Maybe I’ll hire him!”

The idea isn’t so far-fetched: Trancoso is famous for swallowing foreigners alive. Since the local population – Pataxó aboriginals, Portuguese settlers and African slaves – first mingled in this seaside town in northeastern Brazil, a steady stream of outsiders like me have come to visit, and many never left, becoming immersed in the landscape almost instantly.

Back on land, Roberto and Uruca sell their catch on the beach in minutes. I bring mine to the Uxua Casa Hotel, where chef Bernardo shows me how to cook the fish in two classic Bahian styles: first steamed in banana leaves with olives and black rice, simple and clean flavours; then in a fabulous moqueca, which Bernardo insists I help him make. He guides me through the various steps, sautéing the onions and garlic and peppers, then bringing the fish to a boil in coconut milk in a clay pot, to be served bubbling at the table. Bahian perfection as the sound of a weekend-long soccer match drifts in and the pink-tinged clouds float seaward overhead.

On the grassy central Quadrado in front of Uxua, a cluster of old-timers sits with instruments in circled chairs under the shifting leaves of the amendoeira tree. Red and blue lights wink, and people clap and sing along while the stars swirl overhead. To hear samba in its birthplace is so perfect, I wonder briefly if the Uxua concierges, who seem to know everyone in the region as personal friends, arranged for it. (They didn’t.) The scene is just Trancoso doing what Trancoso does, in this case celebrating the life of a beloved local, a midwife they called Dona da Glória, who passed away a month before. And so we stand, swaying with the sweetly wistful music, sipping glasses of potent batida handed to us by a smiling woman in colourful beads and flowing skirt. And the distance between this moment and regular city life spools out into the night with song and drink and laughter.

The next morning, Romualdo, a baiano who runs canoe trips down the Rio Trancoso, shows us Bahia from the water. He drives us up craggy clay roads into the singing jungle so we can float downstream. It’s a voyage from the town’s private to its public face as we make our way past residences toward the beach. The dark green waters swirl under hanging vines; low-flying birds race overhead through clouds of mutuca mosquitos as big as your thumb. No dengue or yellow fever, Romualdo assures us. But the mutuca can bite through the hide of a donkey, so we slap on bug spray all the same.

Down the snaking, close passage of water, we glimpse into Trancoso’s backyard. Kids paddle in the elbows of the river next to leaning docks and brightly painted fishing boats. A man snorkels with a spear in search of the robalo fish among the mangrove roots. This is Bahian life in its natural rhythms. As we near the ocean, Romualdo describes how in decades past, it wasn’t unheard of for a lingering foreigner to receive land from locals through trade, although usually it was along the beach, which wasn’t as highly prized as land on the riverfront, with its access to fish and transportation. He says this as we glide past a magnificent gameleira tree, soaring to the forest canopy, braided around by seedling offspring that will eventually consume and replace the original trunk.

Then we’re out of the bush and into the final stretch of river before the beach, separated from the ocean by only a single orange sand dune. The river water is turquoise here, where the locals swim. Two boys do cartwheels across the grass, vaulting into the water in a tangle, a foaming eight-limbed river monster with two mouths laughing.

Someone across the Quadrado is holding a communal Saturday meal, and we’re invited. That’s how we learn about feijoada: a 24-hour stew of black beans, pork shin and salt beef, served over rice with farofa and couve and yet more batida to sip. We sit on the concrete floor of the casa festiva with families savouring a delicious moment. And when a pregnant dog wanders in and finds herself a half-finished plate on a low table and digs in, nobody looks twice. We were welcomed; so is she.

Chatting with locals comes naturally in Bahia, whether it be with men burning leaves in the square, a schoolteacher or an 86-year-old woman named Gida, who leans out her front window to offer us cajú fruit. We find shade at a café and sip foamy white cacao juice, watching a huddle of people drinking beer under a sign that reads “Ponto dos Mentirosos” (liars’ place). Gilberto Gil trickles from overhead speakers – his famous song “Toda Menina Baiana” about how all baiana girls have charm and spirit. There’s a certain way he sings, with a smile you can hear. Meanwhile, the men throw their nets in the river, and the wind applauds.

Samba closes our visit, as it surely should, this being its home. I’ll always remember the dark knot of people under the tree, the sway of bodies and the mingling of conversation and song. One song about taking the last train from São Paulo. And another where the haunting refrain is “Não Deixe O Samba Morrer.” Don’t let the samba die. The people were made of samba, the famous song says. Don’t let it die. And listening in the Trancoso Quadrado, that moon still very much on its rise, I’m embraced by the scents and rhythms of the essential Bahia, feeling glad to have been shown it so intimately, and quite confident that it will survive.

 

Posted: Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 9:07am

Portlandia Update: Canada Days

I had the occasion to attend Canada Days in Portland, Oregon, not long ago. It's a week-long celebration of Canadian industry, arts and culture, but it also added up to being the strangest trip south of 49 I've ever had. Until I received the email invitation, I had no idea there was such a festival, despite the fact that it started in Anchorage and is now happening in various other American cities including Boise. In any case, it’s apparently the brain child of the Canadian consulate in Seattle – and as unlikely as such an event might seem, I was happy to be asked. Let's be honest, it was a chance for me, a Canadian novelist, to talk about the literary life in my country. I had a book to promote. And besides, the email promised a room at the Westin. I think I probably accepted in less than five minutes.
 
I was picked up at the Portland airport by Rudy, a public affairs officer in the Seattle consulate. He’s an American citizen, and on the way into town, all he wanted to talk about were the mid-term elections. These had gone pretty heavily the Republican way, and Rudy was aghast. Many people he knew were aghast. I'd just taken a 6:30 AM flight from Vancouver and frankly, I wasn’t fully awake, much less offended by American electoral developments. Sensing this, Rudy changed the topic. Be it resolved that Portland is a pretty city although, admittedly, Canadians has pretty high standards in this regard. No sparky debate ensued.
 
As it turned out, the Westin was too expensive, so we were put up at the Mark Spencer instead, which a Portland resident would later estimate to be the city's cheapest hostelry that does not rent rooms by the hour. This didn't bother me. Having a health care system to protect, I'm on side with cost-cutting measures. Besides, I told myself while walking up the six flights to my room (the elevator was broken) Rudy had me booked solid with readings. I’d hardly be in the hotel. Indeed, my first engagement was an hour later, at Portland Community College. Kevin, another cultural affairs operative at the consulate, and also American, called to suggest we meet at the Westin.
 
"But we're not staying at the Westin -- " I started, then the nickel dropped. That's where consulate staff are staying. Of course.
 
Kevin warmed up the 30-odd students at PCC with a quiz. How many of you know the capital of Canada? How many of you know the name of the President of Canada? Sullen silence. And then: how many of you have seen one of these before?
 
He reached into his briefcase, but for what? A maple leaf? A can of Blue? No. What Kevin pulled out was a Coffee Crisp chocolate bar. "It's from Toronto!" Kevin said, smiling indulgently and begging to distribute more of them to the class.
 
I'm not normally in favour of giving out candy before a reading. It smacks of bribery. Plus, I can't stand crinkling paper when I'm trying to emote. But I needn't have worried. So convincing was Kevin's portrayal of the Coffee Crisp as alien object that most of the students were reluctant to taste them. A girl in the back row gingerly peeled away the wrapper and sniffed the contents, frowning. After a minuscule bite, she grimaced and shuddered. First taste of whale blubber, you might think.
 
Happily, the reading went over well. The students asked many intelligent questions and I left feeling upbeat. But in the car Kevin, the quarterback of Canadian cultural imperialism in Portland, revealed that he’d been given one thousand Coffee Crisps by Nestle and was committed to the task of distributing them. Since all of my scheduled readings combined were unlikely to accumulate an audience big enough to eat 1000 chocolate bars, he was staging a Coffee Crisp Give Away in Pioneer Courthouse Square the next day at noon.
 
We read that night at the Portland Public Library. It's a beautiful building and my writer colleague and I enjoyed the literary ambience, the suggestion of a large crowd made by all the chairs (a Coffee Crisp set neatly on each one) though in fact, attendance just squeaked into two digits. And the Q&A afterwards got off to a predictably sleepy start when my reading partner announced that she was boycotting all future American readings in support of Rohinton Mistry.
 
At this point some background is necessary. There are two types of political Oregonians: "Dry-siders" (who live inland and are extremely conservative) and "Wet-siders" (Portland-based, typically liberal). Since Dry-siders are not well known for attending celebrations of Canadian culture, tonight’s crowd was a Wet-side crowd. And if you tell a Portland Wet-side crowd you're boycotting them because of their own federal policies – after these particular mid-term election results, anyway – you will be met with FAR greater enthusiasm than if you try to give them free chocolate bars. The small audience was practically on its feet with excitement at the opportunity to talk trash about US immigration and homeland security policy with the undisputed champs of self-trash-talking, Real Canadians. Literary discussion was derailed.
 
"What do writers in Canada think we should do?" one woman asked, poignantly highlighting a deep leadership crisis in Oregon.
 
Another man, misty with regret just hours into my colleague's first visit to his city, said, "All I know is that I'm sad you're not coming back. We're going to miss you."
 
I was tempted to announce my own boycott just to even things up. But all the egregious policy screw-ups I could think of were Canadian. And clearly these folks would not respond well were I to boycott Canada. I considered announcing a boycott of American accounting firms, but the audience would have sensed there was no personal sacrifice in it. And personal sacrifice, surely, is what gives moral rigour to my colleague's announcement.
 
The next day, I felt my zeal waning. I met Kevin at the Westin again and realised he still had a van-full of Coffee Crisps. I sensed the assignment was starting to weigh on him too. Maybe he’d just found out that Nestle was actually a Swiss company whose motto is: "The World's Food Company". In any case, yesterday's chocolate bar give-away didn't liquidate the inventory as expected due to a steady, torrential rain. And there are only so many Coffee Crisps the squeegee kids can eat.
 
We were scheduled to address another group of students, smaller but more political. I started to wonder if they thought this would make me feel at home, but I was hardly seated before the electoral lament began. Not even my benign presence – I was trying to silently communicate the forgiveness of all Canadians – nor even the Coffee Crisps, which I finally decided would be the focus of my own life-long boycott, could console them.
 
"We're so depressed," said an 18-year-old man, conscious no doubt that a life of statistically normal duration would grant him only 27 more opportunities to right these recent electoral wrongs.
 
We pressed on through our grief to questions about writing, losing ourselves briefly in discussion of character development and the creative process. No one even raised the issue of Canada as a feature of my writing until the instructor asked about the Canada Council. And I had to skirt this question, since I have not (as yet) enjoyed the benefits of that august and generous body.
 
On the drive back, Kevin showed an interest in the writerly side of things. He had recently, he said, read a freelance piece in the Wall Street Journal comparing hotel room service across America. "Just going from hotel to hotel, ordering room service," he sighed as we pulled up in front of the Westin. "That's pretty much the perfect job, isn't it?"
 
The climax of my visit was an evening reading at the Borders bookstore in central Portland. Not a soul showed up. Nada y puis nada. I'm not blaming anyone. It was my book they were ignoring. What was notable, however, was the guy browsing shelves who stopped me on the way out. He may not have wanted to hear us read, but he at least wanted to apologize for his lack of interest.
 
"I think it's a sign that an empire has grown too big when we forget our neighbours," he said, making earnest eye contact. "You'd think after 2000 years, this country would be a little more sophisticated."
 
I turned to leave. He put a hand on my arm. He wasn’t one of those Americans, he reassured me. He cared about Canada. He was a Vancouver Canucks fan. And a Chretien fan too. I stopped, fascinated by this quirky set of enthusiasms. He was especially impressed, he went on to say, when Chretien cautioned America about projecting her power in ways that might humiliate other nations. "That was insightful, that was wise," he said. "And simply extraordinary coming from a man who used to be a professional wrestler."
 
I thanked him, sincerely, for his comments. I had no chance to thank Rudy and Kevin, however. They didn't show up for the reading either. Rid at last of their Coffee Crisps, I concluded, our cultural officers had vanished into the Oregonian night.
Posted: Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 11:17am

Igloolik Dubai

My third novel The Blue Light Project was published in March/April and book business, touring etc, consumed most of those two months.

In May I had to get back to work. That means magazine work. And that means travel. I still very much enjoy this aspect of my freelance life. This time around in particular, I had an unusual schedule that took me to Igloolik, in Nunuvut, which is in Canada's arctic...

...and then to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, 9000 kilometers away in one of the hottest desert areas known to man.

The experience generated plenty of stark contrasts, as you might imagine. -40 C versus +40 C is perhaps the most obvious. Ditto the landscapes of frozen snow and hot sand. But there's also the area of wealth and development, where Dubai's skyline seems to grow while you watch it and Igloolik is a clutch of low buildings along a remote stretch of beach in the Canadian high arctic. An international hub in the middle east versus an isolated hamlet in the frozen north. What two places could be more different?

And yet a couple of things struck me powerfully as being shared by these places. Both the Emiratis and the Inuit are ancient people, whose entrance into post-modernity has been relatively sudden. And in both places I was there to interview people whose lives are crucially connected to the project of staying in touch with ancient ways.

In the north, that person was Zacharius Kunuk, the legendary Inuit filmmaker who brought us the films The Fast Runner and The Journals of Knud Rassmussen.

Kunuk is a fascinating individual, whose committment to Inuit tradition comes paired with a fully post-modern engagement with technology and global thinking. I look forward to writing a profile of him and his work for an upcoming issue of Canadian Art.

In the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, I was there to write several pieces that will run in Spafax Canada publications. But one of those assignments allowed me to meet Peter Bergh, one of the best known falconers in the world.

Falconry is a 2500 year old tradition in the middle east, and in a culture that isn't easy to penetrate for western outsiders, it offers a fascinating window into the history of the region. I'll be writing about Peter and the experience of working with his birds in an upcoming issue of Fairmont Magazine.

 

Posted: Tuesday, May. 24, 2011 11:10am

Rabbit Receiving his own Information

On a gig for Western Living Magazine, I toured the Willamette Valley recently. Lots of gems to discover there, like Whole Hog Wednesdays at the Dundee Bistro. And of course several hundred small, high-craft wineries that produce the amazing fruity, farmy pinot noirs of the region.

But I particularly enjoyed "meeting" the mascot of the Scott Paul Winery. He's a rabbit. And the painting of him, which Scott Paul used to inspire the rabbit on their label, is by Oregon artist Cody Bustamante. The painting is called "Rabbit Receiving his own Information", and it shows the animal with his head cocked to the sky, as if listening to a timely bit of advice.

The story behind the painting is a good one.

Posted: Monday, May. 31, 2010 11:58am

The Original Tourist Destination

Would You Walk 500 Miles?

This month in EnRoute Magazine.

 

The place has a gravitational pull all its own. Just passing Amenal, 10 kilometers east, walking through a light rain, before I even glimpse the tips of its famous cathedral spires, I feel Santiago de Compostella like a spinning vortex just over the green rim of the Galician horizon. It moves people.

The Spanish town has had this effect for a long time. Consider that it was way back in the ninth century when the Apostle James’ tomb was reportedly found on a hill nearby. Word spread; people began to arrive. On foot, on horseback. Alone and in caravans. So many people that by the 12th century, an ambassador for Emir Ali ben Yusuf wrote back to his master, “So great is the multitude that comes and goes, that there is barely enough space on the pavement.”

Posted: Monday, May. 17, 2010 7:25am

Going to Mecca, or its near equivalent

When I was writing my architecture novel, Story House, I had a small library of images that I used to shape my sense of Packer Gordon, the senior architect in the story. It's no secret that Arthur Erikson was one inspiration, particularly his wooden houses. And especially the beautiful Filberg House.

But Vladimir Ossipoff, the Hawaii based modernist, was another inspiration.

And now, after all these years, I'm finally going to see his work in real life. I'll be in Hawaii for 10 days, mid March, working on a number of stories. But a piece for Western Living (guided so creatively by Charlene Rooke over the past few years) will be about Ossipoff. I'll be touring various buildings of his, including the famous Liljestrand House and the Goodsill House.

Amazing. Thanks Western Living. This is going to seriously rock.

Posted: Wednesday, Mar. 3, 2010 2:09pm

Tokyo: Eastern Promises

In travel, while you don’t want to rush, moments of real speed can be exhilarating. I mean those times during a trip when you can feel the globe rotating under your feet, the landscape transforming before your eyes. Liftoff out of Vancouver, on a trans-Pacific flight, is particularly evocative of this sen­sation for me. The ground melts away behind, the scenery blurring and morphing. The sea opens up under the wheels, and there is a sudden sense of transference, of life moving from the known to the possible. And when the landing gear folds home, with that light but comforting thud, a point is sealed: We’re all in transit, in physical suspension, mid-teleportation. When the flight is over – I feel this every time, with a sudden and intense certainty – a new world of unpredictable possibilities will begin to make itself known.

Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 11:00pm

Walking the Way

For Walrus Magazine
1.
I can’t explain the feeling I’m having here, standing on the beach in Comillas, a little seaside resort on the Cantabrian coast of Spain. I’m actually wading in the water, because my feet are aching, and as I stare out to sea, my mind drifting, it suddenly occurs to me—ten days and 250 kilometers into a planned twenty-two-day walk across Spain, west from Irun along the centuries old Catholic pilgrimage route to the famous cathedral town of Santiago de Compostela—that my journey has really, finally begun.
Posted: Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009 10:00pm
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