these here are the tales of...

Belarus (2) Canada (7) China (2) creative (4) Czech (5) dance (4) design (1) Egypt (3) Estonia (3) family (10) festivals (2) health (6) Indonesia (1) inspiration (14) Japan (2) Korea (1) language (11) Lithuania (1) London (2) nature (24) philosophy (6) photos (8) politics (5) roadtrip (4) studies (8) sustainability (8) Taiwan (38) teaching (5) Thailand (9) Turkey (2) video (3) wisdom (3) workie (2) yummm (6)

HOME - an amazingly beautiful wake up wall to what our planet is facing

HOME - an amazingly beautiful wake up wall to what our planet is facing

Monday, December 1, 2008

Home Sweet Home

Today was beautifully sunny, so I took the opportunity to snap some shots of our cozy apartment. The only thing missing is plants, and that's soon to be remedied.
Here we have a floor plan. I love drawing those! Maybe I was a cartographer in a past life...

Walking in you see the living room and if you're lucky, a handsome guy to say hello to! Kitchenette on the left.

From the couch, the flat-screen TV (came with the place), bathroom door and me in the foyer.

Front half of the bedroom - windows face busy Roosevelt St.

Back half of the bedroom - bed, closet. All the furniture was included in the rent.

From the bedroom looking into living room/kitchen - I'm reflected in the mirrored sliding door. Note carpet in bedroom the and tiles for the rest of the floor. Stylish and we get to have it all!

View onto the street below... yep, that's a concrete mixer going by... sometimes it's a bit noisy, but the main culprits are the scooters!

Could you keep that vroooom-vroooom to yourself? ; ) I guess not.

Downstairs in the alley: Rich and Winnie-the-Pooh coffee mug enjoying the sunshine.

** I hope all the explanations are lined up with all the pictures... I spent awhile getting it to look right on our screen and then realized... it may not be universal due to monitor settings, etc... Let me know if it doesn't work too well, I'll figure something out. **

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Taiwan - first impressions

My general feeling is that we've happily stumbled on a wee gem of a country that's taking us under its wing. People are lovely, you can get by with mere English and having a friend here from Toronto has been an immense help dialing into the action and getting various tips for orienting ourselves. Under Bob's kind watch we've joined a tai chi school under a bonafide master, met all kinds of good people and have been to several parties and an outdoor camping music festival!

In our first week here I was able to craft a dictionary definition through first-hand experience:
typhoon [tai - ' fün]: Asian weather phenomenon characterized by
horizontally-travelling rain alternating with sweeping sheets of water,
wind gusts destroying umbrellas and knocking down their owners,
businesses and schools closed.

It was more fun for us than anything, but that's because we are protected by the big city and are well away from the coast. On a later visit to a beach in Macau, we saw the stone boardwalk demolished by previous lashing winds and waves. Very humbling, Mother Nature! It's now early November and I think the winter rains have arrived. Honestly, it's a bit of a welcome change from absurdly humid heat that means I'm sweating buckets going about my day.

The friendliness factor here is set on high. We've been stopped by people eager to practise their English conversation, people offering us directions when we're simply studying a map, and it's common for someone to go out of their way simply to offer a hand. This friendliness lulled us into getting "kidnapped" by an unmarked-cab-driving big-grin-sporting enthusiastically-gesturing lady with zero English skills who we mistook for a driver a school sent for us and soon enough found ourselves at the top of a mountain at a huge temple complex with an unsolicited cab fare and some tricky explaining for why were late for the interview.

Speaking of interviews, I went through four teaching demos at various schools before being offered a job at my favourite of the bunch. I am now a proud employee of Eagle American School with great hours (2-7pm Monday-Friday), good pay and three rowdy classes of 7 to 13 years-old Taiwanese kids who aren't entirely convinced they want to learn English but it's still my job to keep them on track. Here is a picture of us on Halloween. My costume earned me the name of "Teacher Grape" for the entire day, even from kids I haven't met. : )

Teaching English means loads of preparation time to keep the kids occupied with activites that make the curriculum fun. I'm also brushing up on my Grammar for the higher level and generally feeling a bit like I'm on stage. Four weeks in, I'm mostly enjoying it! ; )

We've settled in Taiwan's busy modern capital city, Taipei. There is a wide system of public transport consisting of buses and the MRT - Mass Rapid Transit, whose trains run both above and underground and it's been voted the most reliable metro system for four years running. Street traffic is also heavy with cars and an outrageous amount of scooters. All of this leads to considerable pollution and many people wear a doctor-like mask over their mouth and nose when travelling through the city, to filter the air. Our cozy apartment is above a busy thoroughfare and we notice grime settling on the windowsills... Good thing we are keeping healthy by cultivating our chi, hiking in mountains and soaking in hot springs!

It took a bit of research and learning a few Chinese phrases, and I can now reliably find good vegetarian food. Besides restaurants and cafés, there are countless food stalls as well as infamous night markets which are places to eat, shop and see and be seen. Also on nearly every corner are bakeries, and one of the convenience store chains: 7-11, OK Mart, Hi-Life and Family Mart. 7-11 is the one-stop-shop king and not only sells drinks, snacks, beer, newspapers and phone cards, but there you can also pay your bills, fax documents and probably get a diversified mutual funds investment portfolio...

So we are happily settling into our Taiwanese life and wishing a more peaceful resolution to the current China-Taiwan trading negotiations which have sparked flurries of rioting.

PS. Hurray Obama and Canadian Opposition Leaders!!!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Hey! Canadians! Vote: for our Air, Water, Earth, Wildlife

Overshadowed by the upcoming US Presidential elections scheduled for November, no less importantly (in my opinion?) the Canadian Federal Elections are taking place October 14th, 2008.

There are so many issues when choosing a candidate, all the while knowing the platform is a malleable projection of what the voted-in representative may or may not adhere to, once gaining support. What's the point? At least this is the tactic many voters use to avoid participating in the election.

Certainly we humans (some argue politicians especially) are flawed creatures: emotional, attached to personal promotion, swayed by all manner of opinions and strong wills. Yet there is so much we all commonly share, shape and steward, wittingly or unwittingly, consciously or when giving away our power.

Of the myriad issues enfolded into the political platforms, I happen to really care about the environment. One needn't be the most news-savvy individual to know our entire planet is facing a crisis of over-population, over-pollution, over-use of resources, over-looking our responsibility to the natural balance of Earthly inhabitants. With just one week before Canadian Elections, our current PM's Stephen Harper's reputation as the country's sole leader with an irresponsible and disinterested stand on environment issues is just one reason to keep the Conservatives out of the ruling seats.

But how to do that with a crowded and divided political left? Enter Vote For the Environment, a site with "up-to-date riding by riding information on how to defeat Harper and his anti-environment policies." Thank you! To me this is rising above pettiness of control and power and humanity's history of divisive factions, and making a better choice for not only all of Canada, but the entire world.

So please! If you care - and I hope you do, enough to get out to a polling station next Tuesday... Vote for a cleaner future of fresh air, huge stands of forests, biodiversity, renewable energy, water we can drink and swim in, and more worthwhile jobs to be proud of in all these sectors.

My two cents...

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Whenever I've paused to examine them, I've always found life's building blocks -- relationships, habits, my image, lifestyle choices, even reactions and perceptions -- to be determined early on in their existence. After a few trial runs, which are played out largely unconsciously as they join the flow of time, hereafter and forevermore there is a lot of solidified, predetermined aspects to what will transpire, or rather how I will behave in any given situation.

I meet a new person, we talk about this or that, or perhaps have very little to say to each other, and already the course of our interaction is set for... well... maybe the remainder of our lives. I get a haircut, style it a certain way and it's a likely gamble it'll look very similar until a radically creative moment or an inspiration for a new 'do.

Some people who know me well enough are likely to observe that this sounds bogus and very little of my life stays the same. I change locales and so jobs, homes, phone numbers and social circles more often than the US government declares a new terrorist-harboring enemy. Well, these observers would be right. But isn't that just another habit of mine that's ingrained and likely to persist until I (or some higher powers via a mediating event in my life) will decide to take root in something more lasting?

The truth is, I'm great at beginnings. I ooze with good ideas and awesome visions and can rally myself into wild and new experiences when others are too comfortable in their familiar setting to toss it all away on a whim. I start projects, learn the basics of a musical instrument, find my "dream job"... But then the excitement peters out and like a New Year's resolution, the new thing becomes the old thing that falls by the wayside as another opportunity glistens on the horizon. I'm the same with writing a first draft and then feeling a mix of boredom and fear about settling down to the refinement of my prose towards a higher destiny. Often, I just can't be bothered.

So with this in mind I dedicated a full 7 days to a juice cleanse. About 10 brave fabulous souls (Rich included) bonded in this experience. We began our mornings with yoga, drank juices and whole food supplements 5 times a day and convened in the evenings to meditate and discuss the process, with frequent trips to the loo flushing toxins out of our spring-cleaning bodies.

I am a huge believer in the philosophy that our body, mind and spirit are very closely interwoven. As I took a break from the comfort and distraction of food and worked harder than ever in my asana practice, I held on closely to a hopeful vision that some of my solid ways of thinking and being are becoming more flexible and shifting towards a spontaneous happy freedom of embracing each moment as it unfolds.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A word about Politics...

It seems our visit to Thailand has coincided with a flurry of political unrest and restructuring of government.

On our first evening here, I read an email from my Dad who checked into advisories for travelling Canadians and found out there had been demonstrations and several airports closed by protesters entirely unhappy with their Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Amazingly, we had seen a complete lack of any out-of-the-norm events or behaviour while extensively touring Bangkok that day. That same week, a state of emergency was declared in the capital after one man was killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Government protesters. Also members of the latter group had barricaded themselves inside Government House. At this point we had already travelled north, but I think it would've hardly mattered - except for newscasts and parental warnings, everywhere we went it was business as usual.

Making a point of following the events, we found out that General Anupong Paojinda appointed by the PM to oversee the country during the state of emergency politely refused to follow his orders as he was certain that the army's involvement would only escalate the situation. Newspapers hinted that the General also sided with the anti-government group's (People's Alliance for Democracy) position that the Prime Minister "bought his election by duping poor, ill-educated, often rural voters and that he should therefore resign." Mr. Samak continued to experience high government officials refusing to follow his instructions, although a few promised to support him unfalteringly.

Last week his downfall climaxed when Mr. Samak hosted a cooking show, which was reason enough for the constitutional court to force his resignation, as it is forbidden for a Thai PM to be involved in business. Mr. Samak was re-nominated for the position, but three days later even his party withdrew its support. His newly voted-in successor Somchai Wongsawat is from the same (People's Power) political party and is a 61-year-old judge who is considered to be a conciliator by some. However, protesters continue to express their disapproval as Mr. Somchai is married to the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 coup amid corruption allegations and is believed to have a puppet-master influence over his followers.

Whew... enough excitement on that scene... Our recent stay near villages in Northern Thailand also turned up some pretty disturbing bits of history. There are dozens of hilltribes in Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam and to the unassuming traveller they seem like peoples who have maintained their traditional ways, sell wonderful handicrafts and are sometimes used as a tourist gimmick. But shady details float up about refugee camps whose inhabitants cannot leave, tribes without land ownership or other rights, suppression of indigenous culture with tactics ranging from intimidation to outright genocide and Christian missionaries who inundate the young with their dogma and agenda, stripping local customs, language and healing practices for all the usual excuses of it equating to devil-worship while they bring higher learning. That certainly made me think twice about ever donating to World Vision Youth. I won't even go into the opium and heroin trade history fueled by aggressive power struggles of Shan and KMT army factions, as frankly I don't know enough about it.

The world seems such a troubled place and even in this wonderful country underneath the surface not all is calm and well.

On a lighter note, the Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej is currently the world's longest-reigning head-of-state and a highly revered figure to the Thai people. Some interesting Wikipedia facts about the Thai king: he is one of the richest men today, has funded over 3,000 development projects, born in US and mainly educated in Switzerland, he is an accomplished musician, artist, and sailor and I've been told up to 20% of the country's population wear yellow on Mondays symbolizing their devotion and this figure quadruples during his birthday celebrations. Although he is a constitutional monarch with no formal political role, he is "regarded as a key to Thailand's stability and in his six decades on the throne has stilled bloody uprisings, weathered military coups and has reigned through scores of governments, democratic and dictatorial." Long live the wise king and may his people prosper!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tea, fish and water, water, water...

Another action-packed day for the AnafunaRichsta intrepid duo! Despite a night of tossing and turning, no thanks to funny-shaped pillows, we were up just past 6am to catch the Morning Market of Mae Hong Son. Our guidebook said it’s a good place to spot hilltribe peoples and although everyone looked fairly ordinary to me, we poked through friendly stands of produce and crafts and had a fabulous local breakfast of noodles, savoury custard and about a dozen spoonfuls of various spices and sauces all mixed together and eaten in Thai style: using a fork, or in this case chopsticks, to place the food on a spoon – which is the only cutlery sanctioned to enter the mouth.

Next we rented a motorbike for the unbeatable price of $5 for 24 hours and set off for the hills. Our first destination was in fact the end of the line of a mountain highway that snakes up and north from Mae Hong Son. Its final reach is to the village of Ban Rak Thai, settled by refugees from the Yunnan province of China. Nowadays they peacefully grow 40 kinds of tea around a small lake and that’s just where we passed a breezy rest stop, sipping on oolong, dew and ginseng teas from tiny china cups decorated with cartoon elephants and cats.

Winding our way back down the mountain, Rich impulsively turned into the Maehongson Bamboo Complex, which was a green sanctuary of lush plants, bridges of bamboo lashed with rope and meandering paths leading nowhere fast. A flock of colourful chickens and roosters led us to a tiny museum visually praising the many uses of bamboo such as furniture, hats, baskets and the like.

Lunch stop at Pha Seau falls. We've been looking for waterfalls for days and this one was gorgeous! Three chutes of water toppling over an 8-storey precipice of black rock. As if to emphasize the power of the water element, the skies opened up in a short mid-day burst. Back on our motor steed, glimpses of mist rising from rain-kissed mountains dazzled us through the trees.

Just as we were packing away our ponchos, the rain snuck up again. We donned the cheap plastic covers and in minutes were whizzing through a true “shower”, raindrops stinging our faces as we sped on in search of the Fish Cave. Taking a wrong turn, we played charades through sheets of water with a Thai family safely dry in their house, trying to act out “fish cave” for directions. They finally lit up at my Winona Ryder’s impression of aquarium dwellers from “Reality Bites.” We sped and parked just as the last drops faded away.

The Fish Cave is another tranquil spot where a few sub-species of carp grow to impressively large size thanks to tourists feeding them bags of stale veggies sold by smart local entrepreneurs and the fact that these fish are considered incarnations of gods and so entirely off-limit to being caught or [gasp] eaten.

Home past emerald green rice paddies, stopping for photos. With all the rain to feed them, no wonder they’re such a brilliant green!

Our plan for a sunset view from a hilltop temple was washed down the drains with the wildest torrential downpour we’ve seen yet! Luckily we were indoors gobbling down a spicy Thai soup specialty when the rains returned. It was kinda exhilarating watching all that wetness descend from the sky! The best part is even when we get wet here, it’s still quite warm and hardly uncomfortable, giving us all the more reason to play with Miss Nature herself.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Caving and Scaling

On a whim we decided to leave the highway well travelled and after a 9km motorbike taxi ride from Soppong have landed at Cave Lodge, lured by its rustic bamboo lodgings, proximity to a dozen caves and opportunities for traditional weaving and cooking classes.

Day 1
We arrive in the afternoon, check into a wee little room most of which is a bed with a mosquito net and set out, map in hand, to see the twilight “bird show” outside of the area’s main cave. By the riverside we find sheets of drying mud peeling from the sandy soil below and a pretty grasshopper with blue wings.

The river flows through Tham Lod (meaning “through cave”) and must be navigated on a bamboo raft. We opt for the DIY overland option, traversing the hill, which is in essence the cave’s curved back. Climbing the red clay path, leaves the size of dinner plates litter our way and in the steeper parts steps are hewn into the earth.

A sign announces a temple and beside our path a stone stairway leads to a wooden door in the rock wall above – meditation caves for the monks. We continue past emerald rice fields and suddenly meet the river flowing out of the yawning mouth of the cave. Above us hundreds of black fork-tailed swifts are weaving a complicated dance in the air, their calls and flap of wings rivalling the river’s constant gurgle.

Inside thousands more birds are wheeling to and from their small nests. Apparently they navigate by bouncing sound off the inside surfaces, but if any should collide and fall into the river, its carp inhabitants will gobble up a bird in minutes! The walls and ceiling are sculpted by water’s erosion and subsequent deposit of limestone particles. As we walk further in, the darkness and stench of bird droppings grow and by the time we’re climbing the ladder to the viewing platform I’m slightly dizzy and imagining unsavoury creatures slithering at us from the shadows, but my determination for pictures bravely perseveres.

Back out in the clean air the storm that’s been calling from nearby finally breaks over us and thunder rolls for long seconds as if a heavy iron vase was dropped down some stairs. We retrace our steps, grateful for our 80-cent plastic rain ponchos, through the forest and past the Shan village houses, many of whose shingles are layers and layers of large leaves sewn together with long grass.

By 8:30pm our lodge grows still and we both dream incredibly bizarre stories as frogs and insects call to each other in the raindrop-filled night.

Day 2
The morning is gorgeous and hot. We strike out for Big Knob, a huge rocky outcrop dominating the landscape. At the last moment we’re informed there is no particular path up to the top, rather we must find our own way. We start off following a well-trampled line, but soon it’s only narrow animal trails until we lose even those in the lush vegetation and basically clamber up as best we can. I state my astonishment at repeatedly finding myself on hikes I would probably entirely avoid if I knew what I was getting into. Rich totally loves the adventure.

The clear path-animal trails-guesswork scrambling cycle is repeated many times until we rest near the top. Off to one side a steady cowbell announces just how it’s all another day’s work for the locals. On the incline above us I hear crashes through the brush. Big Foot? We did see some undefined footprints in the mud earlier on. As I’m looking up towards the sound, the ridge’s trees are swaying and suddenly a brown shape swings through the foliage. Monkeys!!! Suddenly we are like kids, elated at this gift of an encounter. We watch for a few minutes, my sucky attitude forgotten. Once they are beyond our sight, I’m perfectly happy to soldier on up for the chance to see something more.

No matter how quietly we attempt to ascend, I’m sure we are announcing our presence to them like a steady broadcast. At the top the only life are hidden chirping birds and insects, but we find ourselves amidst a scattering of black boulders, worn away to whimsical shapes and seeming like a perfect setting for an ape tribe to hold their secret meetings, à la Jungle Book Mowgli stories.

The sky rumbles again and starts to pour. Time to descend. We scamper past snails with spiky shells, an unsettlingly long curled-up millipede, spiders and webs of various designs, a few stick insects and beetles and butterflies and ants, a tree well and a rock flashing us the biggest lopsided grin from the hollows on its face. Walking back through the village with its laundry flying like prayer flags from house railings, our mud-caked legs and shoes coax a smile from each local we pass on the way.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand is cooler and much rainier than the South. Aaah, Vancouver prepared me for this. In fact, it’s a nice change from the unrelenting heat of Bangkok and I’m getting to use my layers for the first time since Czech Land.

Chiang Mai was the first stop on our tour. Our main reason for coming here was to research its Thai massage schools, as it’s pretty much the country’s headquarters on the subject and we will commit ourselves to a comprehensive program that will prepare us to practise and even teach professionally. It’s really between two schools – the fun and lively Institute of Massage Training or the more formal and serious Thai Massage College. Either way, we have some months to decide as we are planning to come back in April after a stint of teaching English to plump up the ol’ bank accounts.

In Chiang Mai’s old quarter (ringed by a moat with spouting fountains), you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a guesthouse, Internet café, restaurant, food stall, Thai massage spa, laundry service or motorbike rental shop. It’s a backpacker’s haven and a high proportion of the city’s population are travellers and ex-pats. One wonderful side effect of this has been a flourishing vegetarian trend on restaurant menus. There’s suddenly an abundance of dishes besides Phad Thai that I can order and thoroughly enjoy! Mmm… The ex-pat culture also brought a number of used book stores, yoga studios and there’s even a welcome group for anyone looking to make Chiang Mai their home. I think we’re going to enjoy our extended stay here.

In the meantime, we’ve pushed further north. Hearing much (from encouraging to lamenting) about the town of Pai we came to see for ourselves. Here the backpackers seem to number at least a third of the population. I can barely imagine what it’ll be like once the season picks up. However, guesthouses and food are cheap, people are friendly and we’ve taken the opportunity to meet our first elephant.

This is Pa Nuat who’s reached a ripe wise age of 35, loves fruit, peanuts and sugarcane stalks and is well taken care of by her conscientious owner Chitty.

Thailand seems to be a dog country. Sure, people also keep cats, chickens, cows and even elephants. (Surprisingly, I’ve only seen one pig and heard another couple from behind a fence… Somehow suspicious for a culture that consumes pork at nearly every meal… Perhaps they are going extinct…) But back to the pooches. They are everywhere, usually in packs of 2-4, inevitably lounging smack in the middle of the road where vehicles have to swerve or lay on the horn to get a right of way. Rich figures it’s the local form of canine machismo, a sort of lazy courtship display, the dogs’ version of leather-jacket-wearin’ cigarette-danglin’ casually-leanin’ rebel without a cause. It says to any female in sight: “Hey Baby, did you see that truck get out of my way? That’s right, you know what I’m talkin’ about.” And so forth.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Temples, temples everywhere...

The ornate gates and many-tiered roofs with leaping flames, the demon guardians, the sumptuously gleaming decor, the Buddha images and the subtle donation boxes: all these comprise a temple and are incredulously frequent, which I suppose is a sure sign that we've arrived in South East Asia. Would you believe that in the old walled city section of Chiang Mai a humble 1800m by 2000m in area there are no less than twenty two individual temples?? But I am getting ahead of myself...

90-95% of Thai people subscribe to Theravada Buddhism beliefs and philosophy. The remaining are Mahayana Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc. Needless to say, images of the Lord Buddha are numerous if not all that varied, but there are certainly all kinds of other deities worshipped throughout the land. Several Hindu gods boast shrines, Brahma the Creator's Erawan shrine in Bangkok, for example, is said to be the fastest of all to grant a wish. Erawan in fact means elephant, and these are permanently married to Thai culture, art and symbolism and so it's no surprise that Lord Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, is also ubiquitous on altars and in relic shops.

Miniature shrines or temples called spirit houses are placed beside every home and building. This is a hold-over from the times of belief in animistic spirits, which are much more unpredictable and moody than their major-religion counterparts, and must be supplicated in order to assure their benevolent mood. The spirit houses are abodes for those spirits who were displaced by the construction of a man-made structure. Apparently to properly honour the spirits, any improvement or renovation of the human dwelling must be matched accordingly in the spirit house.

Our first real tour of the temples began at the Grand Palace in Bangkok - once the royal residence and now the recipient of an endless stream of foreigners and Thais. All spend their visit gazing in wonder at the lavish wealth and detail on every surface of the many structures such as stupas, halls, sculptures, carvings, even a replica of Angkor Wat. The main attraction within this multitude of masterpieces is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, not so grand in itself but housing the country's most revered statue of the Buddha -- 45cm tall and clothed in garments changed for each of the rainy, hot and cool seasons.

Next was Wat Pho, one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok, the site of Thailand's first university and the birthplace of instruction in Thai massage. The complex is home to over a thousand Buddha images collected mainly from ruined temples of the former capitals Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. The most famous of the images is the Reclining Buddha, illustrating the sage's passing into nirvana. The gold-plated statue is 46m long and 15m high. The feet alone are 3m each in height and inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the design of 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha.

After five days in the Thai capital, we boarded a 12-hour train to Chiang Mai, the second biggest city and mecca for studying the ancient healing form of Thai massage. We chose to travel in the daytime to catch the countryside rolling by. Our departure from Bangkok was alongside slummy dwellings and scary, dirty water... then masses of uniformed schoolchildren milling about on a break. Right out of the city, the emerald green of rice paddies dominated the landscape, often with scores of storks and occasionally relatives of the water buffalo in the flooded low plains. Palms of various shapes and sizes and trees so overgrown with leaves and vines they looked like green creatures ambling beside the train. Now and then a farmer trod along with his small herd of cows, lean and of the type whose hyde hangs down from their bodies. Mountainous hills sprang up from the earth and guided us north, their dark grey shapes sometimes to the west and sometimes to the east of our rambling carriage, and when they moved in I was amazed at the lush cover of plants and foliage all along their sides.

Every settlement boasted at least one temple and then suddenly I looked up and yelped in surprise at an enormous golden Buddha statue seated on a temple roof several kilometres away. We saw his twin sheltered in a temple courtyard further along the track, and then a third gleaming giant figure, this one high up on a mountain side, adding his mysterious Mona Lisa expression to the Land of Smiles.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sleepy in Bangkok

Recipe for a Knock-Out Cocktail:

* Jetlag and previous destination's sleep sacrificed for celebration
* A touch of sore throat and sinus congestion
* Hot humid big Asian city over-stimulation

Shake or stir. Use sparingly.

We're still sight-seeing and errand-running like troopers, but dazed like autumn flies whenever the alarm goes off. Half the time we're sleeping through it. Glad to be here though! : ) More soon.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Egypt, in the nutshell of 4 hours...

Our time is up in Egypt:
two weeks of Sudanese, Egyptian and Czech families congregating for one mighty celebration of a wedding, salty azure sea on the North Coast, the wild insomniac capital Cairo with its echoes of the ancients and modern cries from hawkers, the poor and the wealthy, rubble and rubbish everywhere, passionate haggling, dirt cheap cabs and exotically spiced food...

Our flight for Bangkok scheduled to leave at 11:15pm, we had spent the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum, vast and crammed with relics sometimes looking only slightly worse for wear than the building that houses them.

Our last 5 hours on the ground was like a review of the major motifs of our short and localized African experience. Around 6pm we confirmed that we had an airport shuttle van coming for us at 8pm - air conditioned, flat rate, safe vehicle, plenty of time to navigate Cairo traffic and arrive at the airport again with plenty of time to check in, get our bearings and board. Happily we departed for our first real meal of the day, our bodies' metabolism probably in starvation mode, and found a teeny little neighbourhood spot serving up kosharee by the pound - a vegetarian dish of short spaghetti, macaroni, rice, chickpeas, lentils, onions and tomato sauce. It was so fantastic we even took one with us to munch on at the airport.

Back at the family apartment where we'd been hosted, we gathered our belongings, did the long round of goodbyes and nice-to-meet-yous and shuttled our stuff downstairs. Down at street level no bus and no driver in sight... Hmmm... Maysoon, the organizing legend, phoned to find out they are on their way and will call us when they arrive at 8:30. Back upstairs with our stuff for a bit of muffled "Men In Black" on the telly while kids squealed and dining room conversation spilled through the apartment. At 8:45 Maysoon called again, to be told the driver is stuck in an accident on the bridge, at which point she told them to forget it and took charge herself. (Why the company didn't call to mention they were late, twice, is beyond me. One theory to explain is that they never sent a van.)

Back down to the street, Maysoon (bless her heart) hunted down a cab that was reliable to her professional-Cairo-dweller eye, settled a good price and told him to step on it. So our packs went into the grimy trunk and we zoomed off into the madness of nighttime Cairo traffic. Riding in a cab in Cairo is a harrowing and exhilarating experience guaranteed to give meditation a run for its money for keeping you glued to the present moment, what with your life seeming a fragile and delicate thing one might part with at any second. Our driver did his best negotiating the crazy video game of speeding cars and buses constantly changing lanes with inches to spare. About a quarter of the way in we were nearly parked in bumper to bumper Tetris, but again our stoic driver came through and soon enough we were flying through the night, horns blaring, exhaust fumes in our faces, dodging brake lights suddenly appearing ahead.

An hour later than we planned (what have we learned out planning in Egypt?) we ferried our bags inside Terminal 1, through the first of many lock-down security X-ray and metal detector stations and over to 10 check-in lines for Egypt Air... all of them at a chaotically loud standstill, discussion, arguments and questions floating over mounds of luggage and frazzled groups of travellers. It took another half an hour for an express "Bangkok" line to open up, about the time we figured boarding was starting. Over to our gate, another long queue, a guy ahead of us with shopping bags stuffed with groceries going throug the fourth X-ray machine. (Cairo's level of security is something to behold.) Beyond the gate a shuttle bus (huh?) to our plane, bewildered passengers unloading warily, but finally... There we were in our seats, in the air and climbing, just under 9 hours to go until we hit 78% humidity at noon on Thursday for our first breath of Bangkok's daily life.

Relieved beyond measure that our butts actually made it to those seats on time, we giggled over the surreal feel of our evening: the kind help of our host family, complete lack of reliability from a business, renegade cabbies and the heat, fumes and adrenaline rush of Cairo streets, unexplained waiting, reigning chaos, great food - its spices opening up our senses to the wild ride of Egypt's capital and its alternately frantic and idle, laughing and swearing, passionate inhabitants.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Holee-Molee, this is really happening!!! : D

It's a Czech-Sudanese 3-day wedding in Cairo!

Vienna - Cairo - Bangkok

Stay tuned ;)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Dancing Days

Here is a wee-little-camera video (be forewarned of low quality) of my final performance after a week of Contact Improv Dance classes in Prague, as part of the Pro-ART Festival of dance, photography and acting. (I'm wearing dark red pants and a blue long-sleeve shirt with yellow stripes.)

Video: Contact Performance in Prague July 27, 2oo8

So what is contact improvisation dance? Two or more dance partners starting off with touch, playing with gravity, creating an unchoreographed physical dialogue, getting into athletic technicalities, having a whole tonne of fun. If you'd like to see more, there are videos of various skill and excitement on YouTube and maybe there's a workshop happening near you! ;)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where's Waldo?

Ana and Rich's version. Really, there is at least one of us in every picture! Happy hunting!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Laugh if you understand "russki"

So I'm trying to learn Czech. Considering that my native tongue is Russian and I speak better English, I expected that between the Slavic and Latin similarities I'd more or less be able to communicate and understand in no time. Alas, the road is longer than I expected.

Czechs use the Latin alphabet and it's a phonetically spelt language (whoohoo!), so after familiarizing myself with all the nuances of pronunciation (accents modify default letters), I can more or less read off the page. But as far as glimpsing the meanings behind these words...

Here are some examples of how Russian compares to Czech vocabulary. I've added English phonetic pronuncation and translation for each pair. (Czech on the left, Russian on the right).

jazyk [jazyk] = tongue, language - -язык [jazyk] = tongue, language
večer [vecher] = evening - - - - - - вечер [vecher] = evening
hluboký [hluboki] = deep - - - - - - глубокий [gluboki] = deep

Ok, so far so good. Here's where it gets a little tricker.

neděle [nedjele] = Sunday - - - - - -неделя [njedjelya] = week
stúl [stool] = table - - - - - - - - - - -стул [stool] = chair
život [zhivot] = life - - - - - - - - - - -живот [zhivot] = stomach
nebo [nebo] = or - - - - - - - - - - - -небо [nebo] = sky
opakovat [opakovat] = to repeat - -упаковать [upakovat'] = to wrap
sval [sval] = muscle - - - - - - - - - -свалка [svalka] = garbage dump

So... we've got words that range from being in the same family of meaning to something completely random. But my favourites, to completely confuse me, are below.

pozor [pozor] = attention - - - - - - позор [pozor] = scandalous shame
zákaz [zakaz] = prohibition,ban - - заказ [zakaz] = order
čerstvý [cherstvi] = fresh - - - - - -чёрствый [chyorstvyi] = stale
úžasný [uzhasni] = fabulous - - - - ужасный [uzhasnyi] = terrible

Hahaha.... Wish me luck!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Summer's Bounty

The heartbeat of my inner pioneer quickens at prospects of living in close quarters with Mother Nature, the source of all our nourishment and resources. In a densely populated city, it's too easy to forget the origin of everything we touch, consume and utilize for warmth and comfort.

Living beside a forest, admiring a garden full of plants and flowers, feeling each day's weather on my own skin, scratching itchy bites... It all makes for a sensory reminder that I am an intrinsic part of this larger whole.

The mushroom season has just started in Czech Land, but even the yellow patches of "little foxes" often smaller than my thumb make for a tasty harvest. Wild blueberries have been ripening with the sun's loving attention. Roaring thunderstorms have brought rain and hail in horizontal sheets, flashing lightning wrath and giving the thirsty ground much-needed drink. I'm even excited about the first tick I found on me, head buried underneath the skin. That novelty wore off quick, but insects are a small price to pay forthe fresh air, sun's heat colouring our limbs and sending us jumping in the lake, to come out looking for those perfectly ready strawberries and their tiny forest cousins waiting to be savoured in childlike blissful contentment.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My Native Land, Belarus

Since we left Turkish borders, it’s been a slow steady journey into the heart of the former Communist block, where Russia’s bear grip has loosened but is not yet forgotten. For example, asking Romanians if they spoke Russian as our respective Romanian and English were severely lacking, only elicited indignant anger in a land where customer service already ranges from non-existent to insulting.

Much of this Soviet fallout is also lodged deeply in the fabric of Belarusian day-to-day proceedings. Russian language made such a stronghold here that in the first twelve years of my life spent in the capital Minsk I knew and heard Russian almost exclusively. The school curriculum included Belarusian language and that granted me a vague understanding of its relation to the dominant “russki”— which is still the vast majority of spoken and written words. A notable exception is state-issued communication such as street signs and city transit info, now using the official Belarusian tongue.

Other holdovers from Soviet times abound. There is the afore-mentioned customer “service” from grocery store cashiers, bank tellers and post office clerks who are absurdly rude, acting as if you are the one committing a terrible social faux pas by asking them for assistance purely as outlined in their job description. There is the outrageously thriving bureaucracy through which my sister and I lost 3 hours going through the motions of registering our brief stay with the local militia, paying several charges and filling out various forms which endeavour to track every single move a foreigner makes within the country’s borders. The government still reserves the right to assign a university or college graduate to their new post anywhere they will best serve the nation (spousal ties seem to be the only protection from this fate) and young men are required to serve in the army, though I’ve heard tales of some evading the system by moving frequently, with a flurry of conscription mailings pursuing them at their fugitive addresses. Even commonplace grocery items are diligently monitored and sport a pretty hologram sticker, which certifies them approved for sale in the Republic.

This cozy involvement of the state in its people’s lives has a definite echo of a middling parent, if not quite to the height of Orwell’s “Big Brother”. Although it’s a democracy in name only, that can be said of nearly every country claiming that political structure today, and there is a certain freedom of speech and press that allows criticisms where people see them. I enjoyed an actor in a TV newscast relate the following joke: “The president answers the telephone, listens for a moment and replies: ‘That’s a good one… good… I said good… that one’s bad… okay, good… bad… Okay.’ He hangs up and sighs: ‘They can’t even sort potatoes without me.’”

In the seven years since I last saw Belarus, it has taken a decided step towards the bright future of modernity. The government has adopted initiatives in building restoration, squeaky-clean streets and public spaces, and a burly determination to be seen as a force to be reckoned with on the European and world stages of politics. For the common folk the evolution means more access to fashion, cyber technology, foreign holidays and consumer goods, not least of which are edibles: food stores are now plentiful and filled aplenty and besides McDonald’s the average Minsk dweller can also find a restaurant for Chinese fare or pretty plates of sushi.

Of course, my main reason for visiting is always to see my relatives, who let me glimpse the strong thoughtful character of Belarusian people. Two traits that always stay with me are their ready, honest humour and their amazing array of practical skills, developed in answer to lives of uncertain providence and slim budgets. Besides full-time work and raising children they all found time to sew clothes and blankets, grow vegetables and make preserves, build summer homes (with fabulous wooden steam rooms) and engage in a few creative pursuits besides. Our visits are punctuated with gatherings, feasting, gifts and most valuably their readiness to show us their lives, their traditions and their country.

Belarus is a land of serene beauty, despite its grim history of battles, occupation, oppression, war crimes and screaming bomb raids. Amazingly, both the terrain and its inhabitants have carried on living and breathing. Polesyje is a swampy area in the south of the country that recycles so much air it is known as “the lungs of Europe”. Belavezhskaya Puscha on the western border shared with Poland is Europe’s largest surviving primeval mixed forest. This small country boasts 20,000 streams and 10,000 lakes and the river Pripet is Europe’s largest migratory circuit of waterfowl.

Perhaps my favourite notable about Belarus is that the brilliantly original painter Marc Chagall was born in its northern town of Vitebsk. Like me, Chagall moved abroad, but I wonder if I might share his whimsical imagination as an inheritance from the land where we first glimpsed this world.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Straddling two continents and infused with centuries of opposing cultures, Istanbul proudly stands on the shores of Bosphorus Strait and noisily lives through its ten million inhabitants.

Arriving into Sabiha Gökçen airport we found ourselves in Asia, but the jaunt from Europe was short-lived as we threaded our way back to the Old Quarter on the European side. The evening sun warmed dusty suburban communist-style block residences and skeletons of half-finished building projects, giving me the impression that I actually alit back in the USSR were it not for the unmistakable arrows of mosques' minarets shooting into the blue heart of God above their curved domes.

On the wings of fresh salty breeze our ferry pulled up to Europe once again, where the bulk of Istanbul lies under a veil of darkish-yellow smog. The Old Quarter, called Sultanahmet for housing its namesake the Blue Mosque, is home to all the ancient landmarks and prowled by street cats of all marks and colourations, their long lean lithe bodies haunting the history-soaked stone surfaces marked by erosion, grasses and moss.

The most incredible image of our first day in Turkey was the nightly spectacle of seagulls careening in the black sky like stars wheeling between the lit minarets of Blue Mosque's silent vastness.

The Blue Mosque is the most sacred Islamic place of worship on Turkish soil. Five times each day it is closed to tourists as the holy words praising Allah are uttered from hundreds of lips - men filling the carpeted expanse under the dome, women behind screens in rows of balconies at the back. The interior of Sultanahmet is so vast it seems to nearly swallow time, slowing its pulse to a drowsy beat, however many visitors crowd in and chatter.

Just outside its grounds lies the small cozy Arasta Bazaar with colourful jewellery, fabrics and ceramics from all parts of the country. It is a fraction of the size and noisy commercialism of the Grand Bazaar, the latter being a huge smoke-filled disappointment. The Spice Bazaar is worth a visit for its heaps of teas, nuts, dried fruit, confections, spices and special concoctions like Turkish Viagra tempting the senses in never-ending rows of shops.

Like an older rose-hued sibling, the Ayasofya faces the Blue Mosque across a few city blocks. The soaring coolness of its stone grandeur has withstood many earthquakes and alterations - it was originally a Christian church claimed for Islam and now a museum showing the religious evolution of its interior as frescoes of Christ mingle with inscriptions of Allah's greatness.

A short walk away lies Topkapi Palace, today another museum of the glories of the Ottoman Empire. Its kitchens alone are impressive in the breadth of space and bathtub-sized cookware that provided regular feasts for the Sultans' tables. The jewel of Topkapi is its Harem, a whole wing of the palace where intrigue and seduction prevailed under lavisciously decorated dome ceilings, painted chamber walls and Ottoman-style patterns carved, inlaid and brushed onto every surface. We took gazillions of pictures. Add the Islamic artifacts, treasury, costume collections and a stroll through the grounds for a whole day in the majestic world of by-gone splendor.

A word about Turkish cuisine... We are in shish-kebab land - chunks of various meats marinated, skewered and grilled to juicy perfection. Rich has opted for one at nearly every restaurant we've visited. For a veggie like me there is plenty of choice although sometimes meat hides in unassuming platters of vegetables. Still, there is fat-grain couscous, wide green beans and chickpeas in tomato sauce, roasted eggplant, cheese pizzas, pilaf, yogurt and salads, all slightly exotic and delicious. I'm eating entirely way too much bread and dairy for my liking but to push digestion along there's always endless glasses of čaj (tea) and rocket-fuel Turkish coffee, although strangely enough we've encountered a lot more Nescafé than the real deal.

There is a street in Istanbul that never sleeps... Istiklal Caddesi in the Beyoglu neighbourhood of embassies, bars and boutiques is a two mile-long street that seems to be filled with human traffic at all times of day and night. A cute little tram rides 3 stops down its length, otherwise it's mainly pedestrian and scores of musicians perform inside cavernous bars and on the sidewalk, ice-cream and food-stall hawkers vie for customers, the rich duck in and out of big brand stores and all-night revelry consumes the place down its entire length and especially in the tucked-away passages lit with stained glass chandeliers.

One of the stunning shows of hospitality we blundered into was sitting beside a sweet parental couple at dinner one night. Apparently I looked a bit like their daughter, which was cause enough to induct us into the world of Turkish national liquor raki - a clear anise-flavoured spirit that turns cloudy when mixed with water, and after sharing with us their fruit plate they enlisted the waiter to translate that we were invited to the dinner club Zorba managed by the husband and as a show of Turkish hospitality we would be their honoured guests for the evening. Interestingly, notwithstanding a bitter cleft between the Greeks and Turks, this Greek establishment thrives and was filled to the brim on the Saturday night we chose. I've never felt more like royalty or a movie star - this incredibly kind man to whom we were complete strangers treated us to fantastic food, professional photos from the evening, constantly refilled our glasses, asked dancing patrons to move so we had a clear view of the stage, threw a shower of flower petals while we slow-danced at one point and even slipped me a 20-lira note to tuck into the bellydancer's scanty outfit which seemed to be the custom of the evening.

In our last few days of busking in Istanbul's glory we took a boat cruise up the Bosphorus Strait towards its meeting with the Black Sea. It's a cheap five hour excursion with numerous ports of call, the last being Andalu Kavagi village a seeming stone-throw's away from open sea where the boat rests for three hours giving cruisees the opportunity to spend their money and climb to the ruined towers of a hilltop fort.

Istanbul lies near the North Anatolian faultline with earthquakes above 7 points on the Richter scale inching their way westward towards the Turkish capital. This was one of the reasons prompting us to get there before it's too late, and I very much hope we'll get a chance to return and walk its old lanes, breathing history mixed with pure passion for life at every turn.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Grandly Gallant TURKEY

There are many things one can say about Turkey. The tourist literature I dug up before our trip went from proud factual to suspiciously boastful... but don't take my word for it. Turkey claims the following:

- a total area of 780,580 sq km (land+water) - slightly larger than Texas
- 67.8 million population (as of census in year 2000), living in its 81 provinces
- Istanbul is the world's only city located on 2 continents and is a former capital of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires
- the word "turquoise" comes from "Turk", revering the waters of Southern Turkey's Mediterranean coast
- 2 of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World stood in Turkey in Ephesus and Bodrum
- many scholars believe that Noah's Arc landed on Agri Dagi (Mt. Ararat) in Eastern Turkey
- Turks introduced coffee to Europe
- Turks introduced tulips to the Dutch, starting the craze called "tulipmania"
- St. Nicholas, known today as Santa Claus, was born and lived in Demre (today's Myra) on the southern coast
- the first coins ever minted were done so at Sardis, capital of ancient Lydia
- the first man ever to fly was a Turk, using two wings and leaping off the Galata tower
- the oldest known human settlement in the world is located at Catalhoyuk, dating back to 6500 BC
- Turkey is known as "the cradle of civilization" and was home to a succession of ancient cultures incluing: the Hittites, Assyrians, Phrygians, Urartians, Lycians, Lydians, Ionians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans.

Whew... and those are just the highlights. Exaggerated or not, the Turks have much to be proud of and I kinda like that bright red flag flying above every village, tunnel and corner store. (pictured at right with an equally ubiquitous evil eye to ward off malicious intent)

Our lasting impressions, after the striking old architecture and breathtaking scenery have formed a glittering backdrop of Turkey's sights and delights, are the people's kindnesses, outrageous hospitality and their willingness to help, always with a twinkling eye and a face creased into a big smile. I've lost count of the number of times we were offered tea, escorted to our destination when we simply asked which way to go, invited out and were treated like royalty simply because we accepted that offer of being a guest...

Artistry, colour, good humour and great food everywhere. I'm humbly grateful to have learned about hosting from the heart in such a thorough and completely enjoyable way!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

London to start

The huge and expensive seat of the British Empire, that once-ravenous and now somewhat subdued beast. A city of over 8 million people, now more than ever diverse in its faces and languages, which in this modern age provokes racial tension and violence -- but for all that conflict also supplies another world metropolis with restaurant kitchens churning out dishes infused with exotic tastes ripened under a distant mid-day sun.

Our uber-brief 2-day visit enjoyed peace and typical London weather that I dare anyone to find enjoyable - the chilling wind crawling under layers of damp clothing and hurling drizzle into our faces.

Rich's sister Catharine made it a fab trip anyway, playing a most gracious hostess by giving up her bed, taking us out to a vaulted-ceiling French cafe and entrusting us with her mobile phone. We briefly looked into the Tate Modern, the British Museum and the Nottinghill Market and cooked up a dinner for the three of us, her Spanish roomie and our Canadian friend Natalie who's been happily living in London for a few years with her Scottish hubbie Owen.