Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Dysfunctional Christmas

There are only two shopping days left until Christmas and I haven’t bought a single present yet.

I haven’t left my shopping until the last minute because I’m lazy. No, the reason I haven’t bought anything is because I was under the mistaken impression that my family had agreed to a gift-free Christmas this year.

Turns out my family abandoned its goal to de-commercialize Christmas and forgot to mention it to me. So now we’re having a typical Christmas with presents under the tree and I have two days left to fall in line.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My sister Hilary sent out an email back in October suggesting that we take the money we would have spent on each other at Christmas and donate it to charity instead.

I thought it was a great idea and so did everyone else (I have four sisters, one brother and two parents and getting us to agree on anything is a pretty major accomplishment).

A gift-free Christmas was a no-brainer for me. I’d rather spend my time in Toronto bonding with friends and family than rushing through crowded stores buying crap that no one really wants or needs. Forgoing mindless consumerism in favour of giving to the less-fortunate seemed richer in meaning and closer to the true spirit of the season.

I should have known Buy Nothing Christmas was too good to be true. Things started to unravel in November. The first dissenter was my brother.

“I’m expecting gifts from you guys,” he wrote. “Forget this secular far-left nonsense.”

My sister Jane was the next one to crack.

“I like to give gifts at Christmas,” she wrote. “I am planning to give everyone gifts. There will be presents from me under the tree. Do as you like . . .”

I tried to get everyone back on board, sending out emails saying that this isolationist behaviour undermined the spirit of a gift-free Christmas. My mom and three of my sisters were with me. But my dad, my brother and my sister Jane were sticking to their guns and buying presents whether we wanted them or not.

The family was split. But at least four of us were still willing to forgo a traditional Christmas. Or so I thought.

I arrived in Toronto this weekend only to discover that everyone had caved and bought presents. My sister Hilary and I were the only ones who stuck to the original plan. Neither of us bought anything and now we don’t know what to do.

We don’t want to look like Scrooges but we don’t want to buy a lot of useless junk either. We’ve only got two days left to figure out how to make everyone happy on Christmas morning without resorting to store-bought gifts.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A small glimpse of paradise


The problem with traveling for work is that you have to work.

There’s not a lot of time to explore the exotic location you’ve logged dozens of hours to get to. You’re not there for a vacation. You’re there to work.

Anyone who thinks traveling for work is glamourous and exciting obviously hasn’t flown economy class across the ocean sitting beside a screaming baby the entire way.

The only advantage to being on the road is that someone else makes your bed, cooks your food and cleans your bathroom.

Having spent two and a half weeks in Bali for work, I can tell you absolutely nothing about this pretty Indonesian island. Well, almost nothing. I could write the Lonely Planet guide to the Bali International Convention Centre (now that would be a riveting read).

Still, it would have been impossible not to absorb a little bit of the local culture. Like the way Bali smells, for example.

There’s a delicious fragrance that hangs in the air thanks to the flowering trees that dominate the landscape.


I wish I could describe how amazing these flowers smell. They’re not overpowering or sickly sweet. They just smell tropical and lush and clean.

The smell of burning incense adds to the olfactory orgasm. There are tiny shrines and offerings to the gods in every nook and cranny. Almost every offering has fresh flowers, bits of food and a stick of incense. Each one is a work of art.


The people are, for the most part, absolutely lovely. I got lots of smiles and hellos everywhere I went. The cab drivers went out of their way to chat with me and were especially interested in my non-existent love life.


Coming back to the hotel late at night meant I got to see lots of cute little geckos and frogs running around outside. (Although, I wasn’t quite as enamored with the cat-sized lizard waiting for me on the wall outside my hotel room.)

I was lucky enough to have three days of vacation after the conference ended and I spent most of my time with a couple of Canadian journalists who were also sticking around for a few days.

The three of us rented a car and got out into the beautiful, green countryside for a day.


Of course, I also saw the not-so-beautiful side of Bali. The conference centre was close to Kuta Beach, which is one of the ugliest, most congested, crowded, noisy hellholes I’ve ever seen. (Kuta was the site of the 2002 terrorist bombings.)

The place caters to cheap, boozing hordes of tourists. The streets are lined with sleazy nightclubs, fast food chains and car traffic so heavy it barely moves. The beach is packed with wall-to-wall tourists and aggressive touts looking to make a quick buck.

I felt like a walking dollar sign in Kuta. It was impossible to move two feet without someone offering their services for a massage or personal transport. Or without someone calling you over to buy cheap, mass-produced crap.

The southern part of Bali is not pedestrian friendly. The roads are heavily congested and the driving conditions are harrowing. Going for a walk means taking your life in your hands. The sidewalks (if there are sidewalks at all) are rarely wider than two feet across. Walking also means you have to contend with packs of hungry, barking dogs.

And if the traffic isn’t enough to drive you crazy, the mosquitoes surely will. There are lots and lots of mosquitoes in Bali (I am actually typing this with one hand and scratching with the other).

Anyway, this isn’t meant to encompass the island as a whole. I only saw a small part of Bali and I was there for work, not fun.

I could have stayed in Bali for a few weeks after the conference ended. But I cut my holidays short so that I could spend Christmas in Toronto. Yes, snow and slush won out over surf and sand.

Anatomy of a sunset

Having spent most of my time in Bali working, the one thing I wanted to do before I left was take in a proper sunset.

So on my last night in Bali, I staked out a spot on the beach and waited for the show to begin.

It started off slowly. As the sun began to set, the sky got a little darker. Kind of like the way the house lights dim before the curtain goes up.


Suddenly, the sky brightened and the clouds turned a dreamy, cotton-candy shade of pink. Everything took on a soft edge.




The pink slowly faded into a yellowy shade of orange before becoming more intense.




I felt like I had just watched a carefully orchestrated fireworks show. It was amazing. My photos don't do it justice.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Breakthrough in Bali

After long delays and all-night negotiations, political leaders at the UN climate conference in Bali finally hammered out a deal that will launch negotiations to put the world on a path towards deeper emission cuts after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

It was a long, exhausting process that went 24 hours into overtime. But in the end, Canada and the U.S. bowed to pressure and agreed to stop blocking progress.

The final hours of the negotiations were extremely dramatic and often emotional. During one stalemate, a clearly frustrated and disappointed Yvo de Boer, the UN’s climate chief, broke down in tears and left the stage.

Talks were on the brink of falling apart after the U.S. stood firm in its position that a Bali road map must include a special exemption for weaker U.S. targets.

But a few hours later, after intense international pressure, the U.S. caved and agreed to move forward with the rest of the world. Everything was changing from one minute to the next.

Later in the afternoon, Canada stood alone with Russia in supporting an option for the Bali road map that ignored strong science. Country after country spoke out in favour of including the strong scientific language in the deal. Canada eventually backed down and changed its position so as not to block the overwhelming consensus.

Anyway, a deal was reached and the negotiations are over. That's really all that you need to know.

As for me, I've been up 40 hours straight and can barely think straight.

I think a celebratory drink at the beach-front bar in order. After that, I'm going to get a good night's sleep and enjoy three days of vacation in Bali. No email, no blogging and absolutely no climate change talk!

Deadlocked

Right now, at this very moment, I am sitting in the middle of stalled negotiations at the UN climate conference in Bali.

It’s noon on Saturday. The negotiations were supposed to have wrapped up yesterday. I should have been relaxing on the beach by now. Instead, I’m holed up inside a conference room watching countries bicker over the fine print of a draft agreement.

The talks have been extended indefinitely. No one knows for sure when they will end. It could be over in a couple of hours. It could be over tomorrow. Or talks could break down completely and we’ll leave Bali without an agreement altogether.

You can thank Canada and the U.S. for the stalemate. They worked hard to water down the agreement and countries will now have to vote on whether or not they will accept a weaker deal (I’ve written about the negotiations on my Bali Blog so I won’t repeat myself here).

Things have been going from bad to worse. The talks keep starting and stopping. Twice this morning, the negotiations started only to be suspended moments later. Right now, absolutely nothing is happening.

The glacial pace of these UN negotiations is unbearably frustrating.

Anyway, I just wanted to vent since there’s not much else I can do right now.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Embarrassed to be Canadian

Almost every country at the UN climate conference in Bali is working hard to tackle climate change. As for Canada? Well, Canada is working hard to weasel out of taking action.

It’s embarrassing.

Let me give you a small example of Canada’s belligerent behaviour at these negotiations.

Last night, the federal government hosted an event to explain its climate change plan.

I decided to go because I was genuinely interested in hearing Environment Minister John Baird speak about Canada’s position (also, there was free food).

I sat down at the back of the room where Baird was hanging out.

At the front of the room, there were three industry representatives up on stage promoting their “clean” technologies. I felt like I had wandered onto the set of an infomercial.

This is strange, I thought to myself. What does this have to do with Canada’s position on climate change?

But I gave Baird the benefit of the doubt and assumed he was waiting for the last minute to take his seat up on stage. But a few minutes after the event started, Baird disappeared and never returned.

An hour later, the moderator announced that Baird wouldn’t be speaking at the event because he “had to go back to the negotiating group.”

At this point, most of the people sitting in the room stood up and left. I was one of them. I was annoyed that the federal government had wasted my time. It was a classic “bait and switch” scheme and I had been duped.

Canada’s bad behaviour isn’t going unnoticed. I had lunch with an Australian journalist today who said the event was a “complete con” and “totally outrageous.”

A Nigerian delegate joined our table. Upon learning I was Canadian, he said, “Aren’t you ashamed to show your face here?”

He started berating me until I waved my pass in his face and told him I was here with an environmental organization, not the federal government.

His tone softened.

“You’re okay,” he said. “But Canada isn’t.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A typical day at the UN climate conference

You may be wondering what it’s like to be an observer at the UN climate conference in Bali. I’m here to tell you that it’s not all sunshine, beachside blogging and pina coladas at the swim-up bar.

Nope. It’s mostly just meetings, meetings and more meetings. It never fails to amaze me how something so critically important can also be so tediously boring.

But then there are moments when it’s so fast-paced and exciting that you find yourself thinking how amazing it is, and how privileged you are, to have a front-row seat to history.

Let me take you through a typical day.

An early wake-up call is in order as my hotel is a 40-minute drive away from the conference venue in Nusa Dua. For those of you unfamiliar with Bali, Nusa Dua is a gated compound filled with massive five-star resorts. It’s kind of like Las Vegas without the lights.

It’s also exorbitantly expensive so I’m staying outside the Nusa Dua enclave where rates are much more reasonable. It’s a hassle being so far away but at least the UN has provided a fleet of shuttle buses to get us from the hotel to the conference centre every morning.

My favourite part of the commute is watching the hordes of motorcycles weave in and out of traffic. I watch with a mixture of horror and awe as women zip along the congested streets with one hand cradling a baby and the other hand holding the motorcycle’s handle bar.

After fighting through heavy traffic, and gawking at the daredevil antics of the motorcyclists, we arrive in Nusa Dua 40 minutes later. All cars entering the conference area must pass through a security checkpoint. Cameras scan the underbody of each vehicle while police officers search the trunks.

The bus drops us off outside the conference centre, which is patrolled by hundreds of police officers armed with machine guns. The big guns are intimidating but I’ve never met a friendlier and more laidback bunch of police officers. They’re always smiling and waving hello. They also spend a lot of time napping on the beach.

At the next security checkpoint, our bags are searched by hand and then put through an X-ray machine. UN officials scan the ID passes around our necks and make sure the face that pops up on the computer screen matches the face of the person standing in front of them.

Having made it past security, my first order of business is a morning meeting with representatives from several Canadian environmental groups. But it’s a 20-minute walk from the conference centre to the hotel where the non-governmental meeting rooms are located.

You can’t walk two feet outside the conference centre without being honked at by an enterprising taxi driver calling out “Transport? Transport?”

It’s blazing hot in Bali and most delegates are happy to jump into an air-conditioned cab but I prefer to walk, even if it means arriving at a meeting drenched in sweat (15-hour workdays leave little time for exercise).

There are free bikes for delegates to use but I haven’t taken one for a spin yet. I haven’t quite mastered the art of riding a bike while wearing a skirt.

At our morning meeting, we discuss the previous day’s events, new developments, media coverage from Canada and what’s on the agenda for the day. We brainstorm about the best way to get our message out that day. Should we write a press release? Or just drop by the media tent to chat with the journalists?

Once the morning meeting is over, it’s time to hike back to the conference centre to take in a press conference or two. Today there were 21 different press conferences to choose from. I'm less interested in the content of the press conference and more interested in the questions the journalists are asking. It's a good way to find out what's generating a buzz in Bali.

Then it’s time to check email, scan the media stories and sit in on the negotiations. My cell phone rings incessantly. Journalists call to set up interviews or look for a scoop. My colleagues call to go over the draft of a news release or to discuss something contentious on (or off) the agenda.

My stomach growls, and I realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch. I quickly grab a bite to eat from one of the food stalls set up around the conference centre. The food isn’t very good but there aren’t many options. There’s no time to go into town and not enough money to eat at any of the nearby resorts (five-star hotels also have five-star prices).

So I settle for a sandwich inside the conference centre. There’s no local food on the menu but there are chocolate croissants and lattes.

After wolfing down lunch, it’s time to run out for a meeting with about 200 people from non-governmental organizations from around the world. We meet every afternoon to report back on the key issues and developments at the negotiations.

Two of my Suzuki Foundation coworkers, Mark Lutes and Dale Marshall, are also here in Bali. Mark and Dale are the brains of the operation and are able to follow the often confusing and extremely technical negotiations with a level of detail that goes right over my head.

They tell me what’s going on and I try to figure out what’s newsworthy and what’s not. I try to write about the negotiations in a way that’s clear, compelling and understandable (it’s not as easy as it sounds).

In the evening, there are a variety of side events to choose from. Today is the 10th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol so there are a few poolside parties planned. I’ll probably stop by the UN party for a glass of wine and some free food. But I can’t stay long.

At 8 p.m. tonight, the federal government will host an event to talk about its climate change plan. It should be interesting. Environment Minister John Baird is expected to be the star of the show (and I don’t mean that in a good way).

If I’m lucky, my workday will finish by 10 p.m. I’ll crash into bed completely exhausted only to wake up a few hours later and do it all over again.

And there you have it. Just a typical day at the UN climate conference.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Greetings from Bali


You may be wondering what it’s like to be an observer at the UN climate conference in Bali. I’m here to tell you that it’s not all sunshine, beachside blogging and pina coladas at the swim-up bar.

Nope. It’s mostly just meetings, meetings and more meetings. It never fails to amaze me how something so critically important can also be so tediously boring.

The thing about negotiators is that they like to negotiate. Which explains why the agenda is filled with items like “Implications of the establishment of new hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22 (HCFC-22) facilities seeking to obtain certified emission reductions for the destruction of hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFC-23).”

Huh?

Anyway, all of this leaves me without a lot of time to update this blog, let alone go for a quick dip in the ocean (I've been here for a week and I haven't been in the water once!).

But if you're interested in what's going on at the climate talks in Bali, feel free to check out the Bali Blog I'm writing for the David Suzuki Foundation.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

On my way to Bali

I’m flying to Bali tomorrow morning.

People keep asking me if I’m excited about Bali. My answer is yes and no. Yes, I’m excited about going to Bali but, no, I’m not excited about the massive effort it takes to get there.

There are few things I hate more than flying. The endless line-ups (check-in, security, boarding, disembarking, customs, baggage, taxi), the tasteless food (mushy vegetables, rubbery chicken, rock-hard bread), the annoying seatmates (crying babies, guys with bad BO, chatterboxes who won’t stop talking), the PG movies (their inoffensiveness offends me), the cramped, uncomfortable seats (especially the dreaded middle seat).

It’s going to be brutal.

But at least I’m getting out of the office for a few weeks. If there’s anything I hate more than flying, it’s sitting in front of a computer all day.

Speaking of sitting in front of a computer, I’ll be updating my Bali Blog on a regular basis. Feel free to check it out if you’re interested in international climate change negotiations. I’ll post the serious stuff there and the dirt and the drama here.

Okay. I’ve got to finish packing. More when I get to Bali.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

On the road again

Just when I finally started settling back into Canadian life, I’m picking up and leaving again. This time I’m going to Bali, Indonesia. I leave on Friday.

It may sound glamorous and exciting but I’m actually going for work. I’m heading to Bali as an “official observer” of the 2007 United Nations’ climate change conference.

No swimming, snorkeling or surfing for me. Just 12 sleepless days and nights stuck inside an airless conference centre watching international negotiations around the “post-2012 Kyoto Protocol commitment period” (I’m getting in touch with my inner policy nerd here).

My job in Bali will be to communicate the news in a way that ensures the fullest media coverage and reaches the widest possible audience. I’ll help organize and run the daily press conferences, set up media interviews and blog the whole thing for the David Suzuki Foundation.

My Bali Blog has been up and running for almost two weeks now (yes, I’m actually getting paid to blog!).

The UN climate conference runs from Dec. 3 to 14 and I’ll be sticking around Bali for a few days afterwards.

Whew. I’ve done a lot of traveling this year. Japan, Borneo, Korea, China, Mongolia, Russia, France. And now Indonesia. It’s a bit ridiculous, really. Not that I’m complaining. I just don’t know how I’m going to top the awesomeness of 2007 next year.

Monday, November 19, 2007

You should listen to this

My mom did a long interview on CBC radio this morning, speaking about how police should respond to "emotionally disturbed" people without using Tasers.

My mom is a mental health nurse and the head of the crisis intervention team at St. Mike's Hospital. She goes out on 911 calls with the police when they respond to situations where someone has gone berserk. Her role is to de-escalate these volatile situations -- something that didn't happen with Robert Dziekanski (the man who died at Vancouver International Airport after being Tasered by police).

Her interview with Andy Barrie runs almost seven minutes. I think she did a fantastic job.

You can listen to the interview here or on the CBC's website (the interview aired Nov. 19).

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The end of the affair

Here’s the thing about volleyball. People who play it are liars. Big, fat, stinking liars.

“Come join our team,” they say. “Don’t worry. It’s just for fun. Everyone’s really friendly and it’s totally not competitive.”

Bullshit, bullshit and bullshit.

That’s right. My love affair with volleyball is over. I have woken up in the cold light of day to see it for what it really is -- a ruthless, self-esteem-destroying blood sport.

I was fooled for a while when I was in Japan. My Japanese teammates brainwashed me into believing that my relationship with volleyball didn’t have to be the abusive one it was back in high school. I slowly learned to love volleyball. I left Japan feeling like I had healed my old wounds and was ready to play again in Canada.

From the moment I got back to Vancouver, I begged my co-worker Sheldon to let me join his volleyball team. He waffled for a while (the fact that I boycotted the annual staff volleyball tournament six years running might have had something to do with it).

I tried to tell him that I had changed. That I had seen the light. That I no longer hated volleyball.

Sheldon wasn’t convinced. But he met me halfway. He invited me out for drinks with his volleyball team.

The message couldn’t have been clearer. I was good enough to socialize with his volleyball team but not good enough to play with them.

I accepted Sheldon’s invitation anyway, thinking that I could convince his teammates to gang up on him and let me play.

It worked. By the end of the night I had broken into Vancouver’s impenetrable volleyball community and secured an offer to try out for the team the following Wednesday.

Sheldon said he’d pick me up on the way . . . at 9 p.m.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Nine p.m.? I’m in bed with Peter Mansbridge at 9 p.m. I can’t be focused and energetic at 9 p.m.”

“Well, technically the game doesn’t start until 9:30 so . . .” replied Sheldon.

I started hyperventilating. All of my Grade 9 volleyball-induced anxiety came flooding back.

“The game?” I said. “No one said anything about a game. I thought this was supposed to be a practice.”

“Practice?” Sheldon laughed. “We don’t practice. We just play games.”

I tried to tell him that in Japan all we did was practice. We practiced serving and spiking and attacking and receiving. I only played a real game once and I hated every minute of it. The pressure, the stress, the anxiety!

And then Sheldon uttered those ominous words in every lying volleyball player’s vocabulary.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s just for fun. Everyone’s really friendly and it’s totally not competitive.”

When we arrived at the UBC gym on Wednesday night, six rotating teams were scheduled to play two different games on three different courts.

I offered to sit out the first set so I could watch the dynamics and size up the players’ skill level. I started to panic when the game began.

Where was the friendly banter? Why were people getting visibly angry when they screwed up? Why were the guys driving the ball across the net with such speed and force? Why was everyone licking their palms and then rubbing them on the soles of their shoes? And then licking their palms again after they had touched the bottom of their shoes? Holy crap. These people were serious. They were willing risk disease for this sport.

My heart sank. I knew I was in way over my head. I reluctantly joined the rotation the next set. All those months spent honing my volleyball skills in Japan disappeared. It was like Grade 9 all over again. I spent the game alternating between praying for the ball not to come near me and trying to keep it in bounds when it did. It was stressful. It was intense. It was competitive. It wasn’t friendly. And it definitely wasn’t fun.

Sheldon was quiet on the drive back to my apartment. As I got out of the car, he delivered one final blow to my shattered self-esteem.

“We’ll call you if we need a sub.”

Ouch.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Three days in Tofino


One of the best things about having friends from out of town come visit is that it forces you to get out and explore your own backyard. You get to play tourist and discover all of the wonderful, amazing things right here at home.

Like Tofino, for example. My friend Steve announced that he would be spending a week in Vancouver after a long stint in Afghanistan. He wanted to go somewhere where he could just unwind and relax. After a few emails back and forth, we settled on a road trip to Tofino.

I've been up and down both sides of Vancouver Island more times than I can count but I've never been to Tofino. I'd heard it was a bit of a tourist trap and best avoided in the summer. But the beauty of going to Tofino at the beginning of November is that we had the whole place to ourselves. The town was deserted, the beaches abandoned, the trails empty.


Of course, we were never really alone. There were lots of signs warning us about cougars and bears in the area. We were walking along the beach when we looked down and noticed very fresh bear prints in the sand heading in the same direction. We quickly took a few pictures of the prints before turning around and walking in the opposite direction. This is about as close as I want to come to seeing a bear in the wild.


There were also a few surfers braving the cold, cold water.


The whole trip (the drive, the ferry ride, the time spent in Tofino) was a nice reminder that some of the most beautiful places in the world are right here at home.

Monday, November 05, 2007

From the mouths of movers

Death, divorce and moving are said to be the three most stressful things in life.

Whoever came up with that list has obviously never met Denis. Denis was one of the men who helped me move into my new apartment last weekend. Thanks to Denis, moving day was far from stressful. In fact, it was downright entertaining.

I didn’t have high hopes at first. I’ve never had good luck with movers. So I decided to hire a moving company based on a recommendation from the place where my stuff had been sitting in storage for the past 15 months. The moving company said they’d meet me there with a truck and two men at 8:30 on Saturday morning.

I showed up on time and waited. Ten minutes went by. Fifteen minutes went by. Twenty minutes went by. The movers were nowhere in sight. I phoned the company to complain. The guy who answered the phone said one of the movers simply didn’t show up for work that morning and he was frantically trying to find someone else to fill in.

He warned that we might have to reschedule the move. The chances of finding a mover at the last minute on a Saturday morning were pretty slim. Movers tend to party hard, he explained. Finding a guy who wasn’t half baked might be impossible.

“There’s only one guy I can think of who could do it,” he said. “Let me try him and I’ll call you right back.”

He called back immediately.

“Denis is in. We’ll have a truck there in half an hour.”

Exactly 30 minutes later, the truck pulled up to the storage facility and two men jumped out. One was short, stocky and built like a miniature Atlas. The other was tall and thin with a salt-and-pepper ponytail curling out from under his baseball cap. The former was John. The latter was Denis.

Denis strode over to where I was standing, shook my hand and introduced himself. Within five minutes of meeting him, I knew his life story. He was born and raised in a town across the river from Quebec City, moved to Vancouver five years ago, rents a bachelor pad in Gastown for $400 a month, thinks people here are cold and unfriendly, smokes like a chimney, plays the lottery every week.

I took Denis and John up to my storage locker.

“This is everything in your apartment?” Denis asked, eying the boxes stacked to the ceiling. “This is peanuts!”

And so began two hours of running commentary on my stuff. Every time Denis passed me on his way to the truck, he felt compelled to critique my possessions.

On my futon couch: “Are you a student?”

On my beat-up coffee table: “You need to find a rich man.”

On my racing bike: “At least you have one nice thing.”

On my cross country skis: “You’re from back East, aren’t you?”

On my lack of stuff: “You’re not a complicated girl, are you?”

I couldn’t believe this guy was telling me everything I owned was crap. Didn’t this violate the boundaries of the mover-movee relationship?

“I’m not a student,” I told him. “I’m just poor.”

I thought this might make him feel bad about critiquing my stuff but it had the opposite effect. Denis now saw me as an ally. A fellow traveler. A coconspirator.

“You and me,” he said with a sympathetic nod. “We’re the working poor, eh.”

This set him off on a 10-minute rant about how tough it was to make a buck, how people like us had to work hard, how we’re just good people trying to make an honest living. I felt like I was listening to a Nickleback song.

Now it was my turn to feel bad. Clearly this man was a member of the working poor. Me? Not so much. But it was too late to take it back so I just went with it. The fact that I lived in New Brunswick and prefer Tim Hortons over Starbucks gave me instant street cred.

When they had finally loaded the contents of my apartment into the truck, I asked Denis if I could ride in the truck with them.

“I don’t own a car and it would cost a lot of money to take a cab, so . . .”

Denis insisted that I join them in the truck. On the drive to my apartment, Denis kept telling me how much I was going to hate my new neighbourhood.

“The people are so snobby,” he said. “They’ll never talk to you. They all have their noses up in the air. They think they’re better than you.”

I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep the facade going. We were only a few blocks away from my new apartment, a lovely, oceanfront heritage building in Kitsilano. Wouldn’t Denis think it was strange for me to be moving in there? I liked that Denis thought of me as an equal. I didn’t want him to think I had lied about being a member of the working poor. So I made up another lie. I told him that my rent was $500 a month.

I’m not sure if he believed me. When he walked into my new place, he whistled under his breath.

“This is really nice,” he said. He explored the whole place, opening up the cabinets, looking into the closets, peeking into the bathroom.

And then he asked me if I wanted to go in on some lottery tickets with him.

It took Denis and John less than half an hour to cart all my stuff into my apartment. Just before they left, Denis gave me some final words of wisdom.

“You need to find a rich man.”

Who knew moving could be so much fun?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Who knew commuting to work could be so exciting?

I’ve been walking to work every day for the past two weeks. I always leave the house at the exact same time and follow the exact same route. Every morning, I see the exact same people doing the exact same thing.

There is one guy who cycles east while I walk west. Our paths always cross at the exact same intersection at the exact same time. You could set your watch by it.

He looks like he cycled right out of the pages of the MEC catalogue. He wears an aerodynamic helmet, clear sunglasses, spandex pants, padded gloves, a reflective rain jacket and cycling shoes that clip into the pedals. His rear bike rack is loaded down with panniers. He looks like a guy on his way across the country rather than a guy on his way to work.

The thing is, underneath all that ridiculous gear, he’s actually pretty cute. Or at least his face is cute (since that’s all I can see). I sneak a long look at him every morning as we cross paths. I’ve never seen him looking back at me. His eyes always remain focused on the road.

But this morning, as I was walking through the intersection, he looked right at me and smiled. Not just a polite little “good morning” smile, but a real smile. I was so flustered that by the time I regained my composure and smiled back, he was halfway down the block.

I was completely caught off guard. You have a better chance of being struck by lightening than being smiled at by a stranger in Vancouver (let alone being smiled at by a handsome stranger). It may sound cheesy but it totally made my day. I practically skipped the rest of the way to work.

I’m going to give him a wave and a smile of my own tomorrow morning. Who knows where it could lead?

The only hitch is that I’m moving out of the neighbourhood at the end of the month. So this titillating commute will soon come to an end. If I wasn’t such a chicken, I’d flag him down and ask him out.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Random thoughts on returning to Canada

It’s funny. When I was in Japan, I was homesick for Canada. Now that I’m back, I can’t stop thinking about Japan. If there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this, it’s that the grass is just as brown on the other side.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. It’s been great to see family and friends again. But readjusting to the daily routine after 15 months away has been tough.

Coming back to Canada has been a bit of a letdown. Nothing has really changed. I’m in over my head at work (two weeks back and it already feels like I never left). Hunting for an apartment in a city with record-high rents and record-low vacancies has been a nightmare (I finally found a place on the weekend but it’s not exactly what I was looking for).

I feel like I’m falling back into the same rut that caused me to escape Vancouver in the first place. As much as I want to jump on the next plane back to Japan, I’m not going to make any rash decisions right now. I’m going to give it a solid six months. If I’m still feeling the same way six months from now, then I’ll figure out where it is I want to be and what it is I want to be doing.

So that’s it. No more moaning about being back. No more whining about missing Japan. It’s time to suck it up and keep those feelings to myself.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Giant robotic dinosaurs?

I had been back in Vancouver less than an hour when my friend John asked me if I had heard about the giant robotic dinosaurs the city was planning on installing in Stanley Park.

“The what?” I asked, thinking I had misheard him.

“Dinosaurs! Giant animatronic dinosaurs! In Stanley Park!”

He explained that the city planned to install 30 life-size (life-size!) robotic dinosaurs in Stanley Park in order to attract more tourists.

I thought he was joking. Until I saw a story about it in the newspaper the next day.

Who in their right mind would think that installing giant robotic dinosaurs in one of Canada’s most beautiful parks is a good idea? Is Vancouver being run by a bunch of five-year-olds?

This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. People come to Stanley Park to see nature, not robots.

Please tell me Vancouver isn’t actually going ahead with this moronic idea.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Just call me Kato

I'm homeless right now and I have to tell you it's pretty awesome.

I'm not out on the streets or anything. That would suck. I just don't have a place of my own yet so my friends Annelle and John are putting me up in their guest room.

I feel like I'm staying in a four-star hotel. There's food in the fridge and fresh towels in the bathroom. There's free wireless Internet and all the MTV you can watch. There's a subscription to the Guardian and more books than a library. There's even a hot cup of tea waiting for me outside my bedroom door every morning.

I think I'd better find an apartment before I turn into Kato Kaelin.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done (I mean the "finding an apartment" bit is tough. Turning into Kato Kaelin is actually pretty easy).

Vancouver is ridiculously expensive. All it takes is a few minutes on craigslist to become completely despondent about renting in this city, especially when shithole basement apartments with dirty carpets, wood paneling and prison-cell windows are going for $1,200 a month.

Help! If anyone knows of a good apartment (i.e. no cockroaches) in a good neighbourhood (i.e. not Kerrisdale) for a good price (i.e. less than $1,000 a month), please drop me an email or leave a message in the comment box below. I will be eternally grateful (but probably not as grateful as Annelle and John).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Yo, Canada!

It's nice to be back in the motherland. It's a little weird, too. There have been a lot of changes in the last 14 months.

For example, phone calls from public pay phones in Toronto now cost 50 cents. Fifty cents! Talk about reverse culture shock!

Also, there is a Japanese exchange student living in my old bedroom. Her name is Noriko and she's the 22-year-old daughter of one of my Japanese coworkers. She's been living with my parents for about a month and she takes the subway to school every morning to study English. She also eats a lot of marshmallows (she won't eat corn-on-the-cob, though. She tried it once and said gnawing on the cob made her feel like a wild animal).

My parents love Noriko. She's always doing helpful things around the house like loading the dishwasher or wiping down the kitchen counters. She's quiet and respectful and has had a huge influence on my parents. They now drink sake instead of wine. They drink green tea instead of coffee. They shop for groceries at T&T instead of Loblaws. All I hear is "Noriko this" and "Noriko that." I've got to get rid of this kid. She's making me look bad.


What else is new? Oh, right. My friends Laura and Craig are moving to Abu Dhabi. I went to their going-away party, which turned into a surprise wedding. About halfway through the night some woman in a black robe showed up and everyone was ushered out onto the bowling green (the party was held at a lawn bowling club and, no, my Toronto friends are not in their '70s). And then, surprise! Laura and Craig got married right then and there. It was one of the best weddings I've ever been to.


There have been other big changes. My oldest friend in the world (and by old, I don't mean that she's old. I've just known her for a really, really long time. Which, now that I think about it, makes us old) had a baby while I was living in Japan. I got to see the baby for the first time this week, which was good and bad. Good because he's the cutest kid alive. And bad because now I want one too.


It's good to be back. I still haven't gotten over the novelty of walking into a store and being able to speak with the person behind the counter. They speak English and I speak English and we actually understand each other. It's amazing, really.

I am also getting reacquainted with Canadian culture. I drink coffee at Tim Hortons and watch the Trailer Park Boys. I read the Toronto Star every morning (okay, I skim through the Toronto Star to get to the page with the crossword puzzle and sudoku). And, uh, I guess that's about it for Canadian culture.


Still, it's tough to be back, too. I miss Japan terribly. I feel like I'm in mourning. I know that I'll be my old self in a year from now but I also know that my time in Japan will fade into a distant memory and that makes me sad too (let me paint a mental picture of how I am spending most of my time in Toronto: I am staring out the window, cupping my chin in my hand, thinking wistfully of Japan and sighing a lot).

It's not all bad. There have been moments of euphoria. My friends invited me to join their Sunday night poker group. By the time the last hand was dealt out, I was down to my last $3. I had lousy cards (a six and a four) but decided to gamble because that's what you do when you're gambling. I raised the stakes and went all in. Thanks to the luck of the draw, I ended up winning all my money back plus $2. Two dollars! That's enough money to make four pay phone calls in Toronto!

At that exact moment, Loverboy's Turn Me Loose came over the radio. I had just won $2 and Loverboy was on the radio. For that brief moment in time, I was so excited I forgot all about Japan.

So that's it. It's good to be back in the motherland. It also kind of sucks, too. I have a few more days of freedom in Toronto before I fly to Vancouver on Sunday and go back to work on Monday. That's when reality is really going to hit.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Paris


What I am about to say has probably been said 1,000 times before but I'll say it again anyway. Paris is quite possibly the most perfect city on the planet.

It's not just beautiful, it's ridiculously beautiful. The streets, the river, the bridges, the buildings, the markets, the parks. All of it is simply intoxicating.

Paris is my kind of city. A city where bread, wine and cheese form the holy trinity of a meal. A city where each neighbourhood has its own personality. A city where you can dance in the streets in the middle of the afternoon.

Yes, Paris has the Louvre, the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. But did you know it also has the Techno Parade? I discovered this fact by accident when I went for a walk on Saturday morning and found myself in the middle of a crowd of tens of thousands of ravers twirling their arms and dancing on top of bus shelters as the annual Techno Parade wound its way through the city.

The Techno Parade was a spectacle unlike anything I've ever seen before. It was a giant, writhing, moving dance floor. Each float had a DJ playing house, techno or trance with the volume cranked up so high and the bass set so deep your ribcage expanded and contracted with each beat.

Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets and danced behind, beside and in front of each float. The floats were spaced about 100 metres apart so that you could hear each DJ in turn. The whole thing was moving so slowly that the parade took eight hours to complete a small loop of the city. It was absolutely incredible. The music was amazing and the crowds were mind blowing.


Check out the kids jumping over the fence and dancing on top of the Colonne de Juillet in the middle of the Bastille.


Another highlight of the trip is the neighbourhood I'm staying in. I knew nothing about the Marais other than the fact that it's the gay area. I figured it would be the safest place to stay as a single, female traveller. Also, the gay area of any city usually has good food, good shops and good people.

Upon arrival, I discovered that the Marais is also home to the historic Jewish quarter. My apartment is next door to a synagogue and there are always men dressed in black suits with long beards and big hats milling around. I love the contrast of seeing these deeply religious men standing on the street as gay couples walking hand in hand pass by on the sidewalk. This kind of diversity is one of the things I missed most when I was living in Japan.

I was a little nervous about renting an apartment over the Internet but it's turned out to be amazing (the photo at the top of this post was taken out of the kitchen window). It's a tiny studio on the top floor of a six-story heritage building. It's owned by a sweet older woman named Monique who lives underneath the studio (she also runs a teddy bear shop nearby, which probably explains why she's so sweet).

Speaking of nice people, I don't understand why Parisians have a reputation for being rude and bitchy. I have been here for just over a week and I haven't met one rude person yet. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that people in Paris are friendly and welcoming. People in the shops seem happy to strike up a conversation and no one seems to mind my rusty French. I even had one waiter go out of his way to compliment me on my French (or maybe he was just after a big tip).

Unfortunately, the stereotypical French male who aggressively woos the ladies with proclamations of love and beauty has been very elusive. I admit that I came to Paris thinking I would be chased down the street by men who would decide they couldn't live without me five minutes after meeting me. Nope. I'm just as invisible here as I was in Japan.

So instead of meeting French men, I am hanging out with Japanese tourists. I hope I'm not going to turn into some creepy Japanese groupie when I get back home (note to Japanese people in Vancouver: Let's hang out!). I met my new friends, Yoichi and Takaaki on top of the Eiffel Tower. I noticed them flashing the peace sign when they were posing for pictures and I instinctively knew they were Japanese.

In a move that was uncharacteristically smooth, I walked over to where they were standing and asked them in Japanese if they would mind taking a picture for me.

It was the perfect icebreaker. They complimented me on my Japanese, we started talking and the floodgates opened. We ended up spending the entire day together. They insisted that we pose for pictures together, which is why I have a whole series of photographs of me at various Paris landmarks sandwiched between two Japanese guys flashing the peace sign.


Spending the day with Yoichi and Takaaki was fun but it made me realize how much I miss Japan. This has been an incredible trip but it has also been tinged with sadness. I still think about Japan and the people I've left behind every single day.

At least I've got bread, wine and cheese to ease the pain. And some of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Moscow


I made it! Exactly 27 days after leaving Sakawa, Japan, I finally arrived in Moscow, Russia. Of course, the trip was all about the journey not the destination.

The plan was to travel almost halfway around the globe by sea and land. From Japan to China by boat and from China to Russia by train.

Some of the highlights of the trip included hiking along an empty stretch of the Great Wall of China, cycling through the back alleys of Beijing, horseback riding through the spectacular Mongolian countryside and drinking vodka with the locals on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Some of the lowlights of the trip included sailing through a typhoon on the China Sea, getting stranded in Siberia after missing the train and dealing with the locked toilets during the epic border crossings.

Still, the Trans-Siberian Railway remains my favourite part of the whole adventure. Maybe because of the history of the places the train passed through, or maybe because of the friendliness of the Russians on board, or maybe because of the delicious meat pies and potato dumplings sold by smiling old ladies on the platforms along the way, or maybe just because there's something inherently romantic about travelling such a long distance through such a vast country by train.

Part of me wants to keep going. To take the train to London, sail across the Atlantic and ride the rails from Newfoundland to British Columbia. Unfortunately, I have to be back at work on October 1st so it will have to be another dream for another day.

In the meantime, I've been enjoying Moscow. There's so much to see and do here and I'm trying to cram it all in. I have one last train trip that will take me to St. Petersburg and then on to Paris for my final two weeks of freedom. A la prochain . . .

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Trans-Siberian Railway


Meet Andre, Vasily and Sergei. My new Russian boyfriends. I spent three nights and four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway with these guys. By the end of the trip, I had drank half my weight in vodka, fended off two marriage proposals and been stalked (yet again) by a man named Vladimir (what is it with me and men named Vladimir anyway?).

I knew I was in for a fun ride when dozens of loud Russian men boarded the train hauling beer, vodka, televisions, DVD players and trophies. They were all railway workers and were on their way home after competing in the "Railway Olympics" (a massive sporting event for railway workers from all across Russia). The guys in my car were the stars of the games, having swept five events -- soccer, arm wrestling, volleyball, darts and table tennis.

Most of them were big, burly men and they had a habit of walking around with their shirts off. A few of them could speak basic English and they introduced themselves as "sportsmen." They were extremely friendly and a lot of fun. I spent most of the four-day train ride in their cabins drinking vodka with them.

My anxiety over the whole toilet situation on the train (the general rule seemed to be that the toilets were always locked when you needed them most) evaporated when Vasily produced a key and told me I could go to the bathroom any time I liked. I asked him how he got a key and he just winked and said, "I am a railway worker."

The sportsmen also helped me fight off unwanted attention from a man named Vladimir. Barely two hours into the four-day train trip, I was taking pictures out the window when an older man decided to strike up a conversation with me. He said he was a computer programmer on his way back home to Moscow. He was 50 years old with thick gold chains around his neck, a massive beer belly, greasy hair and huge glasses that took up half his face.

His eyes kept drifting down to my chest when he spoke to me. There was something very sleazy about Vladimir. I made an excuse to go back to my cabin but he blocked me and tried to convince me to go to his room for some vodka. I told him that I didn't hang out with married men. He said his wife was nice "but when I look at you, I have different feelings."

I asked if his wife was on the train and he said she wasn't.

"I am freedom!" he said.

I kept shaking my head and saying, "Nyet! Nyet!"

He eventually got the hint and left me alone (for a few minutes anyway). I went back to my cabin and Vladimir suddenly appeared at the door and stood there staring at me. He asked if I wanted to join him for dinner in the dining car. I said no thank you. But instead of leaving, he just stood there staring at me until I closed the door.

But he kept reappearing at my door, sticking his head in and whispering, "Sarah. Sarah" and staring at me. I pretended I didn't hear him. When I wasn't in my room, he'd walk around to everyone else's rooms asking where I was. My cabin mates nicknamed him "Mr. Creepy."

An older Australian man in the cabin next door looked up the Russian word for "daughter" and Vladimir scuttled away. Vladimir eventually noticed that I was spending most of my time on the train with the sportsmen and decided to step up his game.

As I was walking down the hallway, I saw Vladimir heading towards me with a huge box of chocolates in his hand.

"Sarah, for you," he said.

I tried to refuse but he thrust them into my hands. I ran into Vasily, Andre, Sergei and Alexei's cabin and told them that Vladimir was annoying me and could they please say something to him in Russian because he wasn't listening to me.

"I will kill him," said Vasily in all seriousness.

"No, no. Don't kill him," I said.

"Okay. I will injure him a little," he relented.

I asked him to tell Vladimir he was my boyfriend and to maybe just threaten him with violence instead. I have no idea what Vasily said to Vladimir but he steered clear of me for the rest of the trip.

However, Vasily took his new role as my pretend boyfriend a little too seriously. He always slung his arm around me or held my hand. Not to be outdone by Vladimir, he bought me an ice cream at the next stop. He wrapped blankets around me when I was cold. He placed pillows behind my back when I was stiff from sitting. He told all of the other sportsmen on the train that he was moving to Canada to marry me.

After walking me back to my cabin and tucking me into bed on the second night on the train, Vasily motioned for me to lean forward and whispered, "Tomorrow I will kiss you."

Vasily had protected me from Vladimir but who was going to protect me from Vasily?

The next morning, I joined my Russian friends for tea and cookies in their cabin, which disintegrated into beer and vodka by noon. Vasily kept asking me how much flights to Canada cost and if I could help him get a job working on the railway in B.C. He was intent on keeping his promise from the night before and tried to charm me into kissing him.

"I have never kissed Canada girl," he said. "You could be first!"

The testosterone in my car was a little overpowering so I escaped to the next car to hang out with John Carlo, a Brazilian I had met the day before. He had a whole cabin to himself and I sought refuge there. I really enjoyed spending time with John Carlo, especially because I thought he was gay.

We were chatting away in his cabin when he told me he was planning on going to Whistler in February. He asked if I wanted to join him.

I told him it would be fun, especially since a lot of my friends would be up at Whistler at the same time for Gay Ski Week. I winked and said I could introduce him to some cute, single guys.

"I'm not gay," he said. "I'd like to spend time in Whistler with you."

Good lord. My brain was short circuiting from all of the male attention. How is it that I spent an entire year in Japan completely ignored by the opposite sex and then all of a sudden I'm trapped on a train with men throwing themselves at me everywhere I turn?

Not that I'm complaining. It was a great train ride. The four days I spent on the Trans Siberian Railway was a highlight of the trip so far. I got choked up when I got off the train in Vladimir and said goodbye to my new Russian friends who were continuing on to Moscow. They carried my bags off the train for me and stood on the platform to wave goodbye. I didn't want to leave. But more adventures await in the rest of Russia . . .

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Siberia


In the four days since I crossed the Russian border, I've peed in a cup, missed a train, hurtled across Siberia in a taxi to catch the aforementioned train, hung out with a bunch of drunk Russian teenagers, swam in the world's deepest lake and been stalked by a man named Vladimir.

It all started when the train left Mongolia and arrived at the Russian border for a two-hour stop. Once again, the toilets were locked while we waited for our passports to be stamped. Every time the train stops at a station, the attendants lock the toilets to avoid dumping waste all over the tracks. Unfortunately,I had a full bladder by the time we reached the border and it was close to bursting an hour later.

Some of the men on the train were peeing into a bucket between compartments but there wasn't much privacy because people were constantly walking in between the cars. It's one thing to be a guy and discretely pee into a bucket in a corner. It's quite another thing to be a girl. There's no such thing as discretely peeing into a bucket in a corner.

I was in so much pain from holding it in that I had tears in my eyes and I couldn't stand up. So I did the only thing I could do. I kicked my cabin mates out of our room, closed the blind and squatted over a cup of instant noodles. It was an inauspicious start to my time in Russia.

An hour later, the attendants finally let us off the train. They told us we had an hour and forty minutes before the train left the station. So Tanya, Graham, Rebecca (my Australian friends and cabin mates) and I decided to wander into town and buy some food. We returned 45 minutes later, with lots of time to catch the train. Or so we thought.

We were shocked to find the platform completely empty. Our train, which was sitting on the tracks when we left, had suddenly disappeared. The train had actually left without us! We were stranded in Siberia and not one of us could speak a word of Russian.

Luckily we found a girl at the station who spoke Russian and English and she ran inside to find out what happened to our train. It turned out the attendant had mixed up the train schedule and it had left an hour early. None of the other passengers had left the station so they were able to jump back on the train.

Our only option was to catch a taxi and try to beat the train to the next stop almost 200 kilometres away. So we ran outside and jumped into a cab. The Russian girl told him where we were going and we were off. Our driver didn't speak a word of English. We crossed our fingers and hoped he knew where he was going and that he would get us there ahead of the train.

Our driver drove like a madman. It was a white-knuckle ride the whole way. I was too scared to look at the dashboard because I didn't want to see how fast we were going. It felt like we were driving 150 km an hour. The road was narrow and in horrible disrepair. The cab driver would drive on the left side of the road to avoid the potholes on the right but he would do this on blind corners and up hills. I kept saying "nyet, nyet, nyet!" whenever he drove on the left or overtook another vehicle on a dangerous stretch of the road but it didn't seem to do much good. I'm not sure he heard me over the loud Russian dance music pumping out of the car's speakers.

Two hours later, we pulled up at a train station in the middle of nowhere. We paid $20 each and hoped that we had made it in time. The train pulled into the station half an hour later and the attendants wagged their fingers and shook their heads at us, which was ironic considering they were the ones who mixed up the schedule at the last stop. I didn't even mind being lectured at in Russian. I was just happy to be back on the train and reunited with my luggage. It was a wild welcome into Russia and not one I'd ever want to repeat.

The next day, we got off the train in Irkutsk and took a bus to Listvyanka, a village on the shore of Lake Baikal. I was hoping we could just relax and enjoy the lake, especially after the previous day's out-of-control cab ride through the wilds of Siberia. But that's when we met Vladimir.

Tanya, Graham, Rebecca and I had gone down to the lake for a swim. Because Lake Baikal is freezing cold, there was a lot of screaming after we jumped into the lake. This attracted the attention of a huge Russian guy who decided to plunge in after us. Eager to impress us with his English, he started chatting us up. Vladimir was in his early 40s, balding and had a beer gut so big, he looked like he had swallowed a yoga ball.

Vladimir kept talking to us while we were swimming, after we got out and when we were lying in the sun to dry off. After Tanya and Graham left, Vladimir asked Rebecca and I where we were staying and what we were doing later that night. We remained vague and eventually got dressed and started walking down the road to our B&B. A few minutes later, we noticed Vladimir slowly following us in a white car. Once he realized his cover was blown, he started honking and waving at us before speeding up and driving away.

Later that night, we decided to hike up a hill to watch the sunset over Lake Baikal. The only other people up there were a bunch of teenaged boys drinking beer and listening to dance music on a laptop. Eventually, one of the braver kids approached us and started speaking English with us. We learned that they were all university students and had come home for the summer. The youngest of the group was 17 and the oldest was 23. They seemed to warm up to us pretty quickly and the next thing we knew they were sharing their beer and impressing us with the English they had learned from watching Hollywood movies (mostly things like, "motherfucker" and "fuck you"). They were absolutely adorable and reminded me of my Japanese students.

Halfway through the night, Vladimir showed up. I have no idea how he knew where we were but he found us. It turned out he was friends with the kids. Or at least they all seemed to know him. Our impromptu party got a little rowdy because a security guard from a nearby hotel showed up. But when Vladimir handed him a beer, he joined in the fun. I love Russia.

Yesterday, we left Lake Baikal and returned to Irkutsk. Today, we're hopping back on the train for four days until we get off again in (ironically) Vladimir and catch a bus to Suzdal. Until then . . .

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mongolia


I'm happy to report that I survived the first leg of the epic train ride that will take me all the way from Beijing to Moscow. It took 34 hours to get to Mongolia from China but the time just flew by.

I spent most of the train ride staring out the window, listening to music, reading, sleeping, eating and playing cards with my Australian cabin mates. The great thing about being on the train is that there's nowhere to go and nothing to do. No television, no computers, no phones. No distractions aside from the gentle rocking of the train and the clack-clack-clack sound of the tracks.

On the downside, there was a lot of cigarette smoke (despite all of the non-smoking signs posted everywhere). People were chain-smoking in their rooms and the train attendants, who were supposed to be enforcing the rules, were smoking in the corridors. I would have said something but the people doing most of the smoking were big, burly Russians and Mongolians and I wasn't about to pick a fight with them. At least we could stick our heads out the windows for some (relatively) fresh air.


Crossing the China-Mongolia border was a bit of an epic production. It took five hours and it all happened in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, the train attendants locked the bathrooms during the border crossing. The train stopped for several hours while border officials checked everyone's passport and they didn't want all of the crap piling up on the train tracks and stinking up the station (the toilets flush right onto the tracks). I stopped drinking liquids at about 4 p.m. just so that I wouldn't have to pee during the border crossing.

Because we crossed into Mongolia in the middle of the night, it was too dark to see anything. Early the next morning we were greeted by dramatic scenery outside the window. There was nothing on the other side of the glass but wide-open space, rolling green fields and big skies. The air blowing in through the window was crisp, clean and cool. It felt like the train had rolled into another world.

I got off the train in Ulaan Baatar four days ago. It's not a particularly attractive city and it's filled with Soviet-style buildings. But it's a good jumping-off point to get out into the hills. So I left the city behind and headed out into Terelj National Park for a couple of days.


I went hiking in the hills. I slept in a ger. I drank fermented mare's milk (it sort of tastes like vodka mixed with sour milk). I ate dried curd and steamed dumplings.

I also went horseback riding, which unexpectedly turned into cattle herding. As we were riding along the road, some woman came running out of a ger and shouted something in Mongolian at the guide, which sounded like, "Hey, Bob. Since you're going down the road would you mind taking my cows out to pasture?" He shouted something back and the next thing I knew our horses were going up a steep hill towards a pen with a bunch of cows. The woman let her cows out and we herded them along ahead of us.


It was surreal to be riding on a horse in a national park, herding a bunch of cattle into a nearby field. It was amazing to watch the guide ride in and around the cows and make sure they followed an orderly path, yelling and whipping at the ones that veered off course and dropping back to herd in the cattle that were falling behind. It was the highlight of my short stay here.

I'm now back in Ulaan Baatar to do some laundry and catch up on my email before hopping back on the train later tonight. After about 60 straight hours on the train, I'll be jumping off again for a few days in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

To be continued in Russia . . .

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

China


Ni hao! That means "hello" according to my Mandarin phrasebook, which I had to buy because almost no one speaks English here. Also, "wo ai ni" means "I love you" (some Chinese dude taught me that on the ferry from Osaka to Shanghai. I think he was trying to seduce me).

Anyway, I arrived in China 10 days ago after 53 turbulent hours at sea. Now, I have been known to get seasick a lot. I usually feel like vomiting during the ferry ride between Vancouver and Victoria. So I'm not sure why I didn't consider this fact when deciding to travel to China by boat. And not just any boat, but a boat that takes two days. I think I'm a masochist at heart.

I boarded the ferry in Osaka and the first day was great. There were lots of Japanese and Chinese people on board. Everyone was talking and playing cards and drinking beer.The water was very calm and we all enjoyed watching the sunset over Japan. I was in a cabin with three other people. Two girls from China and one girl from New Zealand. So things were fun that first day. But it was the proverbial calm before the storm.

On Saturday we woke up to an angry, roiling sea and torrential rain. Our path across the China Sea collided with a typhoon. The party boat suddenly turned into a ghost ship. Everyone stayed locked inside their cabins because it was too dangerous to go outside. It was horrible. I was taking a gravol every four hours to keep the nausea at bay. I couldn't keep any food down. I spent the entire day and night in bed just sleeping or listening to the Chinese girl in the bunk above mine vomiting. At least she was able to contain her vomit in her plastic bags and nothing landed on me.

It was awful. The waves were so high that I kept bumping my head. By Sunday morning we had weathered the worst of the typhoon and the water was nice and calm again. Everyone was trading war stories about the previous day's rough seas. Unfortunately, the typhoon meant we were five hours behind schedule so instead of arriving in Shanghai at noon, we were arriving at 4 p.m.

As we pulled into China, the scenery was remarkably different from Japan. The water was brown. The air was hazy. The land was overrun by industrial development. But it was exciting! Wow! China!



Shanghai

The Shanghai skyline is very futuristic with big skyscrapers and more neon than Tokyo. It is an exciting, bustling city. But three days in Shanghai was more than enough. It's just another big city and dealing with all of the "art students" was starting to wear me down. I would walk down the street and some random person would sidle up next to me saying, "Hello lady! I am an art student!" I didn't make eye contact and just kept walking. My friend Steve warned me about Shanghai's infamous art students. Most of them are scam artists who pretend they want to speak English and end up taking you to a teahouse and won't let you leave until you pay $1000 or something.

Still, I feel perfectly safe here. It's pretty easy being a single female traveller in China. Having said that, it has been hard adjusting to the culture in China. I think it's a bit of a shock coming to China after spending a year in Japan. I've gotten so spoiled living in Japan. I don't think there are more friendly and polite people on earth. You walk into a store in Japan and the salespeople bow and smile and welcome you and even when you leave without buying anything they still bow and smile and thank you profusely. Even at the post office, they will bow and say thank you at least five times just for buying a stamp.

Beijing


After three days in Shanghai, I took the overnight train to Beijing. The train took 12 hours. It left at 7 p.m. and arrived at 7 a.m. so all you had to do was sleep. Sounds great, right? Well, it would have been perfectly relaxing except for the cigarette smoke.

The cars were technically "non smoking" but everyone smoked in the corridor and all of the air got sucked into the room. The "air conditioning" system was basically blowing cigarette smoke into the rooms. The train was so thick with cigarette smoke I had trouble sleeping.

Anyway, my friend Steve met me at the Beijing train station. (For those of you who don't know him, Steve and I have been friends for 14 years going all the way back to our salad days at Carleton University. He now lives in Beijing.)

Steve met me at the train station with his driver (note: normally I am not the kind of person who hangs out with people who have "drivers" but I will make an exception for Steve). Steve's driver took me to my hostel to drop off my bags. It was a nice gesture but it ruined my street cred with the other hostel residents when they saw me pull up in a big SUV with two Chinese dudes...one who was driving me, the other who was hauling my luggage. This "princess" reputation seems to follow me everywhere I go).

After Steve's driver dropped me off at my hostel, I spent the rest of the day walking around taking in the sights. I went to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Very exciting and surreal to actually be standing in Tienanmen Square. Of course, it would have been more profound if it wasn't teeming with billions of tourists.

I also decided to check out some of the Olympic venues (Olympic fever is alive and well in Beijing! It's all over the news. There's a countdown clock in Tienanmen Square. It's all people seem to be talking about. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement).

Being the swimming nerd that I am, I wanted to check out the new Aquatic centre that is being built just for the Olympics. Steve's driver (who I will call by his name Shao since it feels kind of weird to keep calling him "Steve's driver" now that we're friends) drove me out to the Olympic Tower in the morning.

Rush hour traffic in Beijing is a nightmare. Shao told me there are 3 million cars in Beijing. But during the past four days, Beijing held an experiment to get 1.3 million cars off the road and test the air quality leading up to the Olympics. It actually worked and the air even seemed cleaner. It was pretty amazing to see that happen. Still, it took us over an hour to get out to where some of the Olympic venues are. Beijing is huge and it's sprawling.

After Shao dropped me off at the Olympic Tower, I found some Olympic volunteers. Not hard to spot them with their orange shirts and while ball caps. I tried asking them where the pool was but they didn't speak English. So I started pretending I was swimming and then pointed around. Some mysterious English speaker suddenly appeared out of nowhere and said I should take a cab there. He wrote down the word for pool in Chinese characters on a slip of paper and told me to give it to a cab driver.

I was originally planning on walking there but I had no idea where I was and one city block in Beijing is about the equivalent of 15 city blocks in Canada. Everything looks really close together on the map but in reality everything is miles and miles away.

So I hailed a cab. Handed him the slip of paper and 10 minutes later he dropped me off in front of a fenced-off construction site. I walked around until I saw an entrance to the pool. It was very blue and very square but plopped down in absolutely the middle of nowhere off a busy highway. I tried to walk into the pool but two security guards wouldn't let me in. I figured China wasn't the kind of place where you want to argue with authority figures so I had to stand on a dusty gravel road and take pictures of the pool from a distance.


Speaking of the Olympics, I was watching CNN at the hostel the other night and they had a special report on the Olympics. Sort of a "one year to go" type of report. The story got to one section where the journalist was talking about some great exciting things about the upcoming Olympics. Just as she uttered the words "but according to critics...." the screen suddenly went black. I thought something was wrong with the TV but the other channels were working. When I flipped back to CNN, the report was back on. But other sections were blacked out. And it hit me that the story was being censored. It was an amazing thing to see after reading about this type of stuff in books for so long. Seeing censorship in action was one of my most exciting moments in China!

Another highlight was hiking a 10 km section of the Great Wall of China with Steve. There were very few tourists on the wall and it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.


Tomorrow is my last day in Beijing. I'm taking the train to Mongolia on Wednesday morning and I'm due to arrive Thursday afternoon. This will be my first test to see how I do cooped up in a train for a long time! But I'll be in Mongolia for four days so it will be a nice break from sitting on a train.

Overall, China has been great. It was really interesting (and exciting) to see all of the Olympic preparations. I had a lot of fun with Steve and my friend Brian (another friend from Carleton University). There have been some minor annoyances and some of the worst traffic congestion I've ever seen but I suppose if it wasn't like that then it wouldn't make China what it is. Plus, China is one of the most fascinating and interesting places in the world right now and I feel pretty lucky to have seen a small glimpse of it.

For now, I'm looking forward to getting out of the city and into the wild areas of Mongolia. Until then . . .

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Leaving Japan

I've been in China for eight days now. It's been fun and exciting and I have lots of stories but it feels wrong to write about China without talking about Japan first.

I left Japan last Thursday. Word got around that I was taking the 12:32 train out of Sakawa and the whole town turned out to see me off.


Friends, teachers, students, the mayor, my tea ceremony teacher, the vice-principal. Almost everyone who meant anything to me during the past year was there.

My friends.


My tea ceremony teacher.


My supervisor and her daughters.


Everyone crowded out on to the platform as my train pulled up to the station.


I took this photo of my students waving goodbye on the other side of the glass.


When the train pulled out of the station, they started running after it. And then they were gone.

There were tears. Lots of tears. I cried at the train station. I cried on the train. I cried all the way to Osaka. It's still really hard for me to write about it or even look at pictures. I feel like I'm in mourning. Not a day has gone by when I don't think about Japan and the people I've left behind. And yet part of me feels like I'm on vacation and that I'll be going back to Japan after it's over. I'm not sure it's really going to hit me until I'm back in Canada . . .