Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Nine days ago, on a Saturday night, I wandered around Shwedagon in more of a daze than usual because the intensities up there - golden statues, people praying, sounding gongs, chatting, walking, making offerings, pouring water on their day-of-the-week animal, and more - were multiplied tenfold, it seemed. As the sky slowly darkened after sunset, the temple festival lights came on. Usually at night the dome is floodlit, but these are different. They’ve been put up for the huge temple festival at Shwedagon at the end of the month. Imagine little fairy lights, the kind of Christmas outside lights that some people in the northern countries use to outline the edges of their windows at Christmas time, and then in your mind’s eye drape them around the outlines of temple roofs and chapel openings each strand a brilliant green or an intense blue or purple or yellow or red or... You get the idea. It was gaudy, kitschy, fantastical.

(On my second walk around the circle of the dome an older monk stopped to talk with me After I’d answered his question about where I was from I said, “And isn’t all this amazing?” and he answered, “I don’t like all these lights; too much!” )

Two days later I was in Myitkyina, in Burma’ s farthest north state, Kachin State. The crowds and the celebrations of Rangoon felt far away, for the army has been attacking villages up there for the last six months or so, and fighting with the KIA (the Kachin Independence Army) after a ceasefire of seventeen years, despite a call from Burma’s president Thain Sein to stop fighting. As several people put it: “The army is out of control”.

There are small camps for the IDP’s (Internally Displaced People) who have fled their villages; they now number over 65,000. It’s an ugly situation, with no resolution in sight. The churches in Myitkyina and area are working to get supplies of blankets and food to the IDP’s who are out in the countryside; other camps in and around town are being supported, with shelters, basic food supplies, and blankets, by UNHCR and the World Food Program, as well as local churches and temples.

I stayed at the YMCA where I’d stayed three years earlier on my first trip to Myitkyina. The same fabulous staff still work there, and it’s a good place to meet other foreigners who have a special interest in Burma, and to learn the latest news. This time there was immediate good news amidst all the bad details about the fighting and the IDP’s: Aung San Suu Kyi was coming to Myitkyina. Unbelievable.

The day she arrived the town was buzzing, and whenever she was driven somewhere the small cavalcade was led by guys on a motorcycle shouting out and waving a red NLD flag atop a long bamboo pole. She spent most of the day visiting other towns, then in the evening dined with the heads of the churches to discuss the IDP situation and the fighting. I waited outside her small hotel just behind the Y to see her when she returned after ten that night. After a long gruelling day, she still looked full of life, saying a few words and touching hands with each of the young people who crowded around as she walked up the hotel’s front steps.

The next day she gave a big speech at the Manau grounds, where the Kachin new year festivitites take place each January (except this year, when they were cancelled because of the fighting). I went out early on my rented bicycle to find myself a good spot. There was a decorated platform, some flags and bunting, and no visible security. People started to stream in before eight in the morning until suddenly there was a crowd. And it roared as she got out of a van and walked up onto the podium, dressed in traditional Kachin clothing, and began to talk.

At the time I could just pick out key words: democracy, Panglong, Bogyoke Aung San (her father)... Later I learned that she’d talked about national reconciliation, the need to negotiate a settlement with the army, the need for a “Panglong for the twenty-first century”, a reference to an accord with the major non-Bamar groups (except the Karen) that was reached before independence; her father Aung San was the man who achieved that. Every once in awhile there’d be a call out or comment from the crowd. And each time she’d respond to it, sometimes making people laugh with a quick retort, other times with a longer reply.

One call-out was a “it’s been so long since you were last here!” She answered with a “well I was under house arrest for a lot of that time” and then went on to say that they, the people of Myitkyina, know what house arrest feels like because their situation is similar, with the army and police checking on them, and no freedom to go where they want freely. ‘We are all citizens of this country and we should all have the same rights, the same respect,’ was her message, along with a reminder that democracy involves responsibility and hard work.

Afterward the van carrying her, standing up through the roof and easy to see, drove at a snail’s pace across the field toward the road, the crowd thick all around and reaching up to her. She reached back, bending to each side to touch people’s hands, and again and again..more and more...

And so there was celebration in Myitkyina.

AND ABOUT THE DAM: I went one day up to Myit Sone, the place where the two upper branches of the Irrawaddy meet to form the great river. It's the site of the proposed Chinese dam, or series of dams. Those have been suspended for now by President Thein Sein. The Chinese, not just the companies involved, but also the government, are incensed. Perhaps this is part of the explanation for the continued fighting in Kachin State? Maybe they want to destabilise this reasonable liberalising president? Hard to know.

In the meantime the confluence area is beautiful. I feel so lucky to have seen it, been out on the river there, seen the gold panning along the river banks, etc. There are signs of the dam prep: dormitory buildings all in a row on the far bank, and walls of concrete high up on the cliffs and banks to stabilise the future walls of the future reservoirs. This is set to be a huge project, with a giant lake, that could alter and destroy the water balance and the agriculture of central Burma. Let's hope Thein Sein survives as president and the dam project stays on the drawing boards only.

Monday, February 20, 2012


It’s hard to admit how much the shape of my days is affected by technology, but here goes: I am in Rangoon, a fascinating, rapidly changing, seedy place that has been shaped, both built and battered, by war and politics and colonialism and commerce. But now there’s decent internet access, wi-fi in my hotel, and I have my laptop, so that means...

It means that I get up early to get internet stuff done before the connection slows to bogged-down around 9 am, and then stay up late to catch the other end of the day’s good access. And that set of bookend timings of being indoors means that I miss the best light in the morning for photos. I am not getting rested and sleeping in (the usual only-possible-excuse-for-missing-morning-light). I am online.

How wasteful and stupid, I think to myself. But does that mean I shift gears and break pattern? It seems not, from my first three days here.

What is the urge then, to go on reading online from the links that come in on Facebook and Twitter? For that’s what keeps me here. It’s not a wild cruise through the blogosphere or the net, but a quite limited set of excursions, most of them initiated by some posted link. Part of it is that I hate to miss out on anything. If I don’t click now on the link I see on Twitter (and I follow well under 100 people, so they’re quite carefully selected and generally put up fruitful interesting links) I will lose it, never find it again, as the next tweets come in by the dozens and more. That’s one urgency. Another is the pure pleasure of having all this access to the diverse mysteries and curiosities out there in the world. I feel greedy. I want to see and know them all - yes an impossibility I know, but that’s the impulse.

And so in Rangoon for three days I have closed myself away from life in the street and in the teashops for hours at a time, and instead been awake to the e-world, or at least a sampling of it. (I admit that I've also been out every late morning to late afternoon eating huge meals at various places around town, with a good friend. Maybe my computer time is just necessary to digestion??)

The olden-days equivalent of screen-time I suppose is having my head in a book. I did that for years as a kid, was chastised for it by my mother and frowned at for it by her father my granddad, an extremely judgemental guy. Even that didn’t dissuade me, it just made me hide, find a corner to tuck myself into where I could read and hopefully not be discovered.

Another explanation then, that covers both the book and the electronic situations, might be that all this is an escape. It’s a way of not being stuck in the present with all its demands to pay attention and cope. But wait, I find myself thinking, when I am traveling I am choosing exactly that: the demands of the daily unknowns of travel, and the thrills too. If I close myself off, I miss out on the serendipity of travel, and the wonder of it.

Perhaps I’m just tired and needing a break?

I wrote all that earlier, and it seems to have acted like a purge. I spent almost the whole day out and about, with no thought of the internet, I started with an early morning excursion to Bothathaung Temple, by the river, and the action down there. Every morning commuters arrive in long narrow boats from across the river: school kids in uniform; labourers; young women working in service industries, selling clothes or washing and cutting hair, for example; young men working labour jobs; and a collection of others that are hard to place. They come striding up the wooden planking that links the dock to the river’s edge, shirts white and crisp, ready for a new day. It’s a great sight, with the golden dome of the chedi at Bothathaung gleaming behind them in the morning sky.

And as for the rest of my time here, I now have a plan: I fly to Myitkyina in the far north of Burma tomorrow, leaving at noon. I have four days there. I went three years ago, and I want to see how things are there now. In the centre of the country people are now so much more at ease and optimisitic about the future. They feel free to talk and have discussions, and to talk openly with foreigners because of the huge changes in government policy since last summer. But in Kachin State there’s been fighting between the army and the Kachin Independence Army. Many people have been displaced, and villages burned and fields destroyed, and many deaths. The army was ordered to stop, and did not. All that is down the road from Myitkyina, towards the Chinese border mostly. How will town feel?

Markets and teashops are the best place to judge the feel of a town. Food does link us all, daily. And on the food end, I have a very practical interest too: I want to cross-check my memories of Kachin dishes and make sure of some details, for the book.

It will be a lot colder there than steamy Rangoon. I’m glad to have a wool cardigan as well as a shawl to snuggle into...and some books to read on the cold dark evenings.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Up before dawn to have a chat with an editor in New York, where it was the end of the working day. It was great to touch base about the Burma book galleys and timings etc. just before I get on a plane to fly to Rangoon (this afternoon).

It’s early here, the sun just creaking up in the hazy sky, and casting its glow over the white galley pages I have out on the floor. A spider, a daddy long-legs of some kind, came strolling across the gilded whiteness, and he cast a fabulous elongated moving-spider shadow as he strolled, like some sci-fi creature. It reminded me of that wonderful taken-from-a balloon shot of camels in the desert. You see the dark images of camels on sand dunes, and then you realise that those are the camels’ shadows; the camels are tiny pale imges, casting long shadows at dawn.

I’ve been thinking about details and repetition, about how repetition is what we are often called upon to engage in. Yesterday morning I stopped by Wat Chedi Luang, the ancient wat with its huge damaged chedi that towers like a grizzled valiant warrior. Together with the tall tall old trees that stand sentinal in the wat grounds, the chedi is an essential element in the skyline of Chiang Mai’s old city. I had a small sketch book with me and a charcoal pencil. That’s all you need to settle into mindless-mindful concentration when there’s something you want to focus on. I tried a couple and then the sketch I ended with, and felt most satisfied with, was of the grand chedi itself. As often happens when I am trying to draw the details of Buddhist structures, I got caught up in and kind of enslaved by the repetitive elements: the ripples in the line of brick, the small symmettrical openings, the horizontals of the steep staircase up.

It begins by being tedious, the repetition, because each one is identical, so there’s a need to repeat fairly exactly. But after a few, a rhythm takes over, and the repetition becomes relaxing.

Similarly, during the massage I had recently (Thai massage, fully clothed and wonderfully vigorous), the woman working on me repeated and repeated her gestures; whether it was the pressures up and down each side of my spine in a deliberately spaced sequence, or the succession of pinch- squeezes along the lines of mucles on my legs, a lot of the massage consisted of repetition.

I tend to think of that kind of thing as mindless and tedious, as in, “so many repetitions to get through before it’s done!” But what about the repetition that I enjoy? There’s kneading bread; detailed elements in many drawings; making coffee in the morning in Toronto, to name just a few.

Perhaps it’s all in the attitude I bring to it, but it’s also about settling into a task, accepting its demands, and engaging fully, rather than being impatient to have it over with. Ah, acceptance, that’s such a difficult thing to put into practice, often. And so rewarding when it happens.

Now, as I finish writing this, the day has rolled around to mid-afternoon. I’m at the Chiang Mai airport waiting for the flight to Rangoon. It’s just a short hop, less than an hour, but such a huge transition, a change of worlds, though these days, with life in central Burma relaxing into ease and more freedom of expression, the transition doesn’t feel quite so marked.

And this time I’m going knowing that the Burma cookbook, now called simply BURMA: the cookbook, is far along in design and soon to head into second galleys. How thrilling. Also of course, it has its scary side. Like all cookbook authors I dread errors, but in this case it’s not just typos in the recipes that are a concern, but almost more, a feeling that I owe it to the cooks of Burma to get it right, to do an impeccable job of transmitting their wisdom and rich culinary culture.

On this visit I plan to check a few more things by asking friends, and also by eating and eating. I have ten days in Burma before me, a wonderful prospect!

Sunday, February 12, 2012


The other day, up on a hill overlooking Thaton and the Burma border, in northern Thailand, I watched the moon rise, the full moon in all its huge brilliance, coming up to light the valley and the hills. The sun was setting in the west at the same time, leaving a warm glow in the sky. How magical, heart-stopping even, to catch these moments. But then there was another: the next night, just after sunset, and with the sky still bright, there was the moon rising, still huge, but this time a deep red. Unbelievable.

It's the dust and haze from burming off rice stubble, I guess, that gives that kind of colour. But at the time rational thoughts flee, and all I could do was be amazed and thrilled. Eventually the red shifted into a deep orange, so that the fat moon felt more moonlike, though still exceptionally beautiful and "look-at-me". How lucky to be sitting out at Fern's farm, on her platform, newly built, which gives a view of the hills and overlooks her lychee trees. On hot days there's always a breeze up there, and at night the stars feel closer. Of course on a full moon night the brazen moon eclipses all the stars...

The next day we were up at a Lahu village west of Fang checking out a home-stay and other options offered by the Phumanee Hotel. It was so interesting to climb up and up (in a truck, not on foot, I confess) through bamboo jungle and a forest of tall trees to the Lahu villages on Thailand's second-highest mountain. They offer trekking and food and home-stay. Google Phumanee Hotel and you'll find them.

But after all that height and air, back we drove to Chiang Mai, with me at the wheel, and the exhilaration and edge of driving on the left rather than the right hand side of the road. No accidents not even any near misses though. I am always happy to hand back a rental car, damage-free, after a trip like that.

After two and a half days with no internet, I felt lighter and freer. It was a bit of a come-down to check mail and see all that faced, me; it felt like a high wall of obligations. But among the incoming mail this week is a note on FB that links to a place namimg the top twenty travel blogs. It's here. On the list isthe lively and out there Jodi Ettenberg of legalnomads, and also there is the remarkable team of Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman, with the blog EatingAsia. They write about travel entertainingly and with intelligence; they also write with depth and passion about food and traditions. Bravo all of you.

On the list was a blog I hadn't come across (I don't cruise around much and don't look for blog-type reading usually). But this one has a special tone and focus, so I want to flag it for you. It's called stories of conflict and love and here's the link. Have a look.

Today rather than getting out early on my rented one-speed bike, as I had planned on this quiet Sunday, I ended up taking an early (before 7 am) look at the Burma book galleys and getting sucked into them headlong...so that not only did I not get a bike ride in, I didn't even leave the apartment until after 6 pm. In between I was immersed in editing and reading and retyping and so on... And now I'm done, for this round at least. Tomorrow I photocopy all of it, as back-up, and then figure out how to get it to Fed-Ex (the office is way out on the edge of town).

I feel so freed up. Now there's time to chat with friends, to pack, to think about Burma (where I head on Thursday), to just loosen up. I got an early start on all that earlier this evening. I met friends for a massage at the Sunday Market. It's a treat to sit in the open air watching the very varied and idiosyncratic crowds, while having a massage (I had a feet and leg massage, so it was really easy to watch the goings-on. I had one hour of massage and I feel all the better for it.

One of the additions and amendments to the galleys was to do with Shan tea-leaf salad. Now I understand how it can work with both pickled tea-leaves and dried tea-leaves. I've even tried it with fresh-picked leaves. I know this is obsessive behaviour, playig around with fresh tea-leaves, but how great to have the chance to check things out fully.

An early Happy Valentines day to you all... I feel we should just start thinking of it as "heart day"

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


“The hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai” is a strange concept, since the town, while busy with traffic and people marketing and eating and enjoying themselves, is not exactly an intense place. But it feels that way to me right now because I have so much on my plate. perhaps also I’m aware that I won’t be here for much longer, and so I am regretting the time I spend in my apartment working away rather than out appreciating the hereness of here.

No complaints, just sayin’!!

The close-work that pins me, with both pain and pleasure, is editing the first galleys of the Burma book. Pinch of Turmeric, Squeeze of Lime is feeling so good as a title, and so in synch with the contents of the book at many levels, that i continue to be delighted with it. ANd the look of the book is feeling good, and will be even better as more photos get placed etc. But in the meantime the pain part is that it’s running long and so I know that in the conversation I’m going to have with my editor Ann Bramson later this week, there will be some hard news. I know there are short pieces of writing that will need to go, and perhaps also a few recipes. Yikes! And I instead of course have a few I’d love to add, things I learned when I was again in Burma last November-December.

It’s always this way. The long geeky explanations that I am fond of, and the rambling stories full of detail, are not always a good fit with the demands of publishing. They’re better suited to conversation or internet blogposts like this one.

Today is full moon day, and an especially holy day for Buddhists here. Last night as we walked back through the old city the moon hung huge over us, waxing still, about to be full. The night was clear, and the stars bright. This morning’s dawn was glowing pink-orange on the horizon, a sign that the haze of late winter has started. No longer are shadows sharp-edged. Instead everything has a rounded softness to it.

I’ve talked about this before, but it seems to me that digital photography, with its ability to hsarpen and over-sharpen images, has affected how we see the every day. And now I find myself in revolt against sharpness, enjoying and seeking out the softer light and rounded contours it gives everything. I feel like I’m swimming against the current though.

And now it’s time to get in a small rented car and drive up to Fang for a couple of days. The light always seems lovelier up in the mountains...