In my last post, I mentioned I would be talking about culture and cultural identity sometime in the next to near future. Well now’s the time – the wee hours of a Wednesday night, sleepless tossing-and-turning resulting from evening run endorphins, a screaming baby in the basement apartment, and a sale on Lindt coconut chocolate eaten before bed. This is a very personal post. After all, what is the Internet if not a place to toss ideas out into the empty ether, and have them come back ripe with similar thoughts, the occasional sympathy, and ever-reassuring cat gif?

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I’ve struggled with the concept of cultural identity my entire life. I don’t mean this in a “well we’re Canadian and isn’t this whoooole country really, like, just trying to figure out what it means to be truly Canadian? Doesn’t our national identity have something to do with Kraft Dinner?!” I mean it to be that I don’t always feel fully Canadian, if that makes sense. But I don’t know what culture is supposed to fill those gaps, either.

Some background information on my background. I’m half Chinese, half Irish, a mix spawned after my parents met playing squash in Timmins, Ontario. As a kid, I would holler about the schoolyard that I was “Chirishadian” – a unique moniker combining my three nationalities, a way to surmise the confusion I didn’t realize I felt until later.

My Gramps and I at Sandbanks Provincial Park in southern Ontario (l), Nana, Pop, and I at their home in Ireland.

My Gramps and I at Sandbanks Provincial Park in southern Ontario (l), Nana, Pop, and I at their home in Ireland.

If we’re talking about physical appearances alone, I stump many.

There’s going to be the acknowledgement of stereotypes here, so bear with me for these sweeping statements: I’m not completely slight as all of my Chinese relatives are. I have almond-shaped eyes, ones my brother say shrink to slits when I smile in photos. But they’re green. The colour my dad’s were when he was my age. I’m tall, strong, and have been called ethnicities ranging from Mongolian to Nepalese to Portuguese (who knows how that last one happened). I’ve been interviewing First Nations leaders when they’ve asked me what reserve I’m from. In grade 12, my high school guidance counsellor asked if I wanted to be nominated for a scholarship for outstanding First Nations students. Cab drivers assume I’m Inuit as they glance my way in the rearview mirror. Perhaps these last few assumptions are really the boldest expression of “Canada” I can claim. People have been placing me in specific “ethnic boxes” my entire life. It doesn’t really bother me (just like the “Hilary Duff” name thing, I’m kind of used to it, frankly). But in all honesty, it’s gotten me a little messed up.

So how does this link to recent travels, you might ask? Good question.

My cultural identity thoughts really came to light when I was in Hong Kong last winter.

An aside: Though I understand the multi-racial make-up of Canada today (and even as a kid growing up in the 90’s), you have to understand where I was raised. At my elementary and high schools in Timmins and Sudbury, I was one of a few Asian students. In grade 11, a girl came up to my locker and asked why I spoke English so well, assuming I was a recent immigrant to Canada. Multiculturalism in big cities is all fine and dandy, but it wasn’t even close to being a given where and when I grew up.

So keep that context in mind. Suddenly I’m in Hong Kong – a place where I’m not the minority. Everyone looks generally like the ethnicity from whence I come. My mom’s family was from the southern part of China, from a region next door to what is now Hong Kong. For the first time in my life, I fit in – appearance-wise, anyways. But it ended there. It was an interesting phenomena being in Hong Kong. I walked into restaurants and up to street vendors and they spoke to me in Cantonese. Because I looked like I would know the language because I looked like them. I spent a day in Macau with my friend who does speak Cantonese, and he had to explain to several exasperated salespeople that no, I wasn’t ignoring what they were saying to me, I simply couldn’t understand.

I was struck with this huge sense of unbelonging. I didn’t look like people at home, and in the place where I do “fit in,” I was ‘othered’ because of my lack of cultural knowledge and language. Boom. The unique, racial ambiguity of the future – where the assumption of ethnicity – even if correct – can’t and shouldn’t be affiliated to an inherent knowledge of that ethnicity’s culture.

My Chinese heritage was neither taught nor hidden from me. Rather, it appeared in wisps – a toonie in a red envelope on Chinese New Year, a trip to my Gramps’ house where, on a plastic-wrapped couch, I would look at the odd relic of our shared heritage. Meanwhile, every other summer we would visit my dad’s family in Ireland, where my cousins, brother, and I would march around town pretending to be the von Trapp children, boggling the minds of strangers as we told them we were blood relatives.

Cousins in Ireland, circa about 1998.

Cousins in Ireland, circa about 1998.

I’m not bitter about my parents’ choice to not instil a deeper sense of cultural values in me. As kids (or at least as a university student..my dad immigrated to Canada in his early 20’s), my parents looked to Canada as a place to create a new life. It’s not my place to talk about my mom’s life growing up as a Chinese girl in Loyalist southern Ontario, but it’s safe to say that neither of us were exactly raised in places that embraced the value of being different. So they, we, I…were folded into the mix of Canada, an attempt to create a homogenous mixture out of many diverse ingredients.

I mention that I’m not bitter…but I’m sad. I’m sad my grandparents passed away before I had the chance to ask them their stories, their histories. I’m also scared my surviving family has forgotten theirs, or has filed them so deep in their mind archives that they’ll never again see the light of day.

My struggle for cultural identity continues, for now. But I’m trying.

At the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.

At the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.

Hi all,

Part of me wishes (and will always wish) I was still in one of the two places mentioned in the title of this blog post. International travel is an intoxicating mix of new encounters and humbling experiences. I feel fortunate for the adventures I had and the lessons I learned last fall and winter, and can’t help but yearn for when I will be lucky enough to have them again. At this time when I feel myself struggling with a couple of complex feelings around place and direction, I’ve been thinking a lot about the journey I took earlier this year. Because of computer logistics and less notebook scribbles, I never posted anything about my final trip days. I’m hoping to do a bit of that over the coming weeks, as I reflect back and start a new chapter in my life. More on that later.

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Leaving Nepal on January 28 was bittersweet. It was dusk in Kathmandu as I took the taxi from Boudhanath, where I’d had dinner with a new friend, to the airport. One last ride on the pockmarked streets, horns blaring around corners and into the night sky.

Saying 'bye bye' to Boudhanath and Kathmandu - so bittersweet, but I'll be back!

Saying ‘bye bye’ to Boudhanath and Kathmandu

During nighttime take offs, one of my favourite things is to look out the window at the lights of the city below, snaking their way around waterways and geometrically into grids. Not so in Kathmandu. Our plane soared off the runway and up into the sky. I turned my head to the window, and found we left behind almost complete darkness. I shouldn’t have been surprised. January and February are two of the worst months for power load shedding in KTM, and at this point in the evening, the sprawl of the city was blanketed in black. Still, I said my final farewells to that temporary home, and imagined leaving behind all those now-invisible behind-a-curtain restaurants, street vendors, and mountains.

This in mind, Hong Kong hit like a bag of bricks. Kathmandu is a sensory experience because of the honking and monkeys and traffic and dust. In Hong Kong, it’s the never-ending light. Electricity everywhere, screaming at you with the equivalent of a thousand caps-locked novels. I felt as though there were more lights in one square block of HK than in all of Kathmandu. It was jaw-dropping. I felt like I had just been caught escaping jail, every floodlight of the institution suddenly shining down on me.

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A constant theme throughout my travel-related blog posts were experiences that provided dramatic foils – concepts of day and nightmadness and calmness in Janakpur and Ilamplaytime in the Western world versus in Nepal. The contrast between Nepal and Hong Kong was one of those so-called opposites. I went from a country that is in the midst of such development, to one of the most high tech and densely populated cities in the world.

Kathmandu (left) to Hong Kong (right)

Kathmandu (left) to Hong Kong (right)

The culture shock hit the moment I got to the airport. I realized I had “forgotten” how to use an automatic soap dispenser and was surprised when the toilet flushed itself. I got nauseous and motion sick on all forms of public transportation because my body was no longer used to travelling faster than 40 kilometres an hour, not to mention on smooth roads. There were street lights, street signs, garbage cans, and skyscrapers. I stared at my sweaty, backpacked reflection in the window of Dolce and Gabanna and Gucci stores. Starbucks and McDonalds waved with Western World hello’s. Everything was efficient and clean and everyone was in a rush.

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It was easy to feel overwhelmed by the change. I think Hong Kong would have been intense coming from Canada, but it was even more so coming straight from three months in Nepal. Still, I was grateful for the order of travel, and the perspective Nepal gave me for this new city at hand.

Suddenly, “Western” ideas of consumerism and capitalism in Hong Kong seemed absurd when compared to the poverty I had witnessed in Nepal. In Gatlang, one of the only opportunities for women to “shop” was when two young men walked the five hours from a local village, peddling Hello Kitty polar fleeces and fake leather jackets. In Hong Kong, material items seemed much more important. Shopping malls marked every corner like a neighbourhood coffee shop.

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Market scenes

Market scenes

It’s here that we should note that Hong Kong is not China (no, really, it’s considered a “Special Administrative Region” and is so much more British/Western because of that controversial little thing they call colonialism). When I talked to some people at home about going to China, or even going to Hong Kong, the reaction was: do you know that China is a communist state? A: sure, in theory.

But despite the cultural revolution, Maoist hate-on for capitalism and the bourgeois, China, to me, is really the ultimate expression of Capitalism (in what I thought as a sweet bit of irony, I was even able to buy my very own little red copy of “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” and a lovely wristwatch where Mao’s raised arm is used to indicate the changing minute). And, since we’ve already established that not only is HK not really China, but was also very much Western-inspired, the city’s culture reflects this. HK has one of the highest per-capita incomes, but also one of the highest rates in income inequality among developed countries.

I felt the sudden urge to get rid of most of what I own.

When do we want a revolution? Right Mao!

When do we want a revolution? Right Mao!

All this in mind, HK was exciting, too. It felt like being in a non-stop amusement park. I ate oily, deep-fried fish balls and squid sold at corner street vendors, chunks of eggplant oozing with cheese. I wandered market after market, taking great thrill in haggling for fun; I ate noodles and drank beer in outdoor night markets. The Hong Kong subway and mini buses hurtled me around the city, to take in the sights and scents at Taoist temples, and awe over manicured city gardens contrasted with the highest of skyscrapers.

Hong Kong Island (Kowloon in the distance) from Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city.

Hong Kong Island (Kowloon in the distance) from Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city.

Food stall

Food stall (the woman is telling me off in Cantonese)

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Incense burns at Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong - Chinese New Year offerings.

Incense burns at Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong – Chinese New Year offerings.

To be fair, I was also in the city during Chinese New Year celebrations (as I had eagerly intended), so things were perhaps even more frantic than usual. Stay with me over the next little bit as I explore the fun follies of cultural identity, colonial remnants, celebrating three New Years in one year, and the impressive hilarity of choreographed water fountains!

It was arguably the most perfect day to visit a brewery.

The brewery in question!

The brewery in question!

The sun was beating hot and heavy, my car windows were rolled all the way down, and I was hollering along to some catchy new Arkells song on my car stereo. I was excited. And thirsty.

It was the August long weekend, which meant I had driven back to Ottawa to visit some old friends and my younger brother. One of my favourite things about visiting the Capital after a long time away (since September!!) is scoping out all the interesting new businesses that have thrown open their doors. In fact, I almost fell off my bike looking at all of them.

But the one I was most anxious to visit was Dominion City Brewing Co., the brain and beer-child of friends Josh McJannett, Alex Monk, and Andrew Kent.

You see, back in March I got an inconspicuous email. It was from my friend Jessey, and it was about a new brewery her friends were involved with opening. Skip forward a few months, and you have me, driving probably a little too fast in search of an afternoon chat about craft beer.

Josh McJannett, one of the three founders of Dominion City Brewing Co.

Josh McJannett, one of the three founders of Dominion City Brewing Co.

I pull up to Dominion City Brewing soon after. It’s less than a week to opening date, and half a dozen-or-so friends are helping clean growlers, bottle beer, and keep spirits high. Josh steps out of the walk-in freezer in shorts down to his knees and black rubber boots that go just as high. Casual Sunday wear when you’re hanging out in the brewery.

Beer has been an important part of the three men’s lives. Josh smiles as he tells the story of how he and Andrew found their passion for pints. Around 2003, they, like many other university students, were spending a fair amount of time drinking beer. But for the two friends it was different – they spent their time and money at Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro in the ByWard Market. Sure they were drinking a lot of different types of beer, but they noticed one thing: the local options were limited. It was import-city. The brainstorming and daydreaming began, and two years ago, the friends (with Alex on board) started aggressively planning to open a brewery. After home brewing for years, they’re finally at a point where they have a commercial space to call their own.

Of course the beer scene has changed a bit since 2003.

For those who don’t know Ottawa, or for those who live under a rock in Ottawa, it’s no secret that the craft beer market is exploding in the city. Beau’s, Kichesippi, Beyond the Pale…all are relatively new ventures in the sipping scene. And they’re all awesome. I can say that because I drank at least one of each of their brews during my short time in Ottawa.

So I wanted to ask Josh what he thought was different about Dominion City. Perhaps that’s a null question, because maybe it’s enough that you’re making delicious beer. But still, I thought I’d toss out the question.

Fun fact! The inspiration for the three-leaf brewery emblem was inspired by former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson's choice design for the Canadian flag.

Fun fact! The inspiration for the three-leaf brewery emblem was inspired by former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s choice design for the Canadian flag.

Turns out it’s the link between country and city, urban and rural that Dominion City is hoping to evoke. That idea of place. And check it out – the brewery is in the middle of an industrial park in east Ottawa, about as “city” as it gets. But step inside, and your perspective shifts. You see a bar made of 100-year-old pine logs dredged and dragged from the bottom of the Ottawa River. There’s a wall constructed of dark, up-cycled wood planks salvaged from a barn in Almonte. A black-and-white street-scape of old Gatineau graces the edge of the bottle room.

The bottle room still in progress, but see those planks. They're (at least) a century old! How cool is that?

The bottle room still in progress, but see those planks. They’re (at least) a century old! How cool is that?

Appearance alone does not a brewery make. The beer itself carries the same city-country dichotomy. The local mentality is strong, with spent grains going to hungry piggies at nearby Castor River Farms, and most of their organic Red Fife wheat grown and milled in the Ottawa Valley. It’s local, from design to draft to drink.

And while I’m ogling over the prettiness of the bottle house area, Josh is the first to emphasize that this is a working brewery, the real deal. People can see back to the 15-gallon system, the tall metal vats where beer chemistry magic happens. It’s a warehouse. There’s no pretending here, but it’s honest and open and clean.

And, oh right, you probably want to know about the beers themselves, huh? Dominion City is launching with three main brews (descriptions condensed from the brewery’s website):

  • Two Flags IPA: An assertively hoppy by well-balanced and highly drinkable India Pale Ale. Flavours include burnt sugar, grapefruit, and a lingering hop bitterness. 7%
  • Town & Country Blonde Ale: An easy-drinking beer with a kick. Soft, malty sweetness and biscuit notes are combined with a mildly spicy and citrusy hop crispness. 5.5%
  • Earl Grey Marmalade Saison: Brewed with freshly-zested oranges and Bridgehead organic Earl Grey tea, this brew has contrasting fruity, spicy, and tart notes, with a dry and moderately bitter finish.
The branding for Dominion City Brewing Co. was designed by Chris Mantil, an Ottawa-based graphic designer. Click on the photo to go to his website.

The branding for Dominion City Brewing Co. was designed by Chris Mantil, an Ottawa-based graphic designer. Click on the photo to go to his website.

Josh says the brewery hopes to bring in seasonal brews, but is keeping its focus on these three for the time being. The beer can be bought in 1.89L growlers or 750ml grumblers.

Community-built beer
You might have first heard of Dominion City Brewing Co. through Kickstarter.

The crowd-funding website was alight with support for the new brewery, with money being raised to fund the aforementioned bottling room and tasting bar. They surpassed their goal of $15,000, and, in the end, 273 backers contributed just over $19,600. Josh and I agreed – humbling was the word to describe the whole process.

Still, the support has gone far beyond the crowd-funding campaign. Dozens of friends have stepped up to help Josh & Co. do everything from washing to bottling to social media work. It’s been a team effort from start until doors open.

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Speaking of that, it’s happening awfully soon. Tomorrow, in fact. The inaugural public drafts were poured at a party this past Tuesday, with the bottle shop opening its doors this Saturday, August 9. There’s going to be a food truck on hand, and lots of beer to sample. I won’t be in town, but it sounds like a hell of a way to spend a weekend afternoon, right? In the meantime, I’ll enjoy sipping my Town & Country here at home in Sudbury. Cheers to you, Ottawa!

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Kegs and beer chemistry do-dads (technical name...)

Kegs and beer chemistry do-dads (technical name…)

Directions on how to get to Dominion City Brewing Co.

Directions on how to get to Dominion City Brewing Co.

For more before and after photos of the brewery space, and shots of the awesome people involved, visit the Dominion City Brewing Co. Facebook page

The last time I wrote to you, I was in a different world. Nepal – an intoxicating and exotic blend of new experiences and adventure.

One of several lessons learned during my travels is the importance of taking calculated risks. Decisions that are far enough outside my comfort zone that they’d make me scared and somewhat nauseous, but not so far that they are in the realm of dangerous or stupid. The line of calculated risk is a fine one to walk. While this was a mid-trip revelation, I have now come to realize that one of the biggest calculated risks I’ve ever taken happened not on my trip, but on the very night I left for Nepal.

Here’s what happened. On the afternoon of November 5 (departure day), my boyfriend Geoff and I went to buy him a kitchen table. He had seen an ad on Kijiji, and at 4:30 p.m. we found ourselves driving to this person’s house to pick up the new furniture addition. It turns out this couple, Pam and Carlos, were not only selling this table, but dozens of identical tables. And that’s not all. As it happens, Pam and Carlos had, for a year, owned and operated a Mexican restaurant in another northern Ontario community. The business went bust, and they decided to move back to Guatemala. That meant the garage, which did, indeed, hold that single table and chairs Geoff was looking for, also held a significantly large amount of barely-used kitchen equipment.

To make a long story of debate, concern, and spontaneity short, Geoff and I bought the kitchen equipment – more than $15,000 worth of griddles, cold prep tables, deep fryers, and ovens at a fraction of their original cost.

And that’s how an innocent trip to get a kitchen table slightly derailed my current life trajectory. Funny how that happens, huh? With my countdown to Nepal now sitting at around six hours, Geoff and I hustled to move the new kitchen equipment to his friend Honas’ garage. Somewhere between then and my departure, I casually pitched to Geoff the idea of opening an incubator kitchen.

Tangent time! What is an incubator kitchen, you ask? An incubator kitchen is a space for small food businesses to grow. It’s place where basement bakers and closet canners can expand and produce their food, in a kitchen that’s both well-equipped and commercially-certified. That means they don’t have to flesh out the thousands of dollars required for industrial kitchen equipment (especially the hood!), and can sell their goods in shops (something you can’t do in Ontario unless you are producing in a commercial kitchen). I was first exposed to the concept of incubator kitchens when I lived in Ottawa, and had three good food friends who were successfully expanding their businesses in the Capital’s first food incubator. I became obsessed, did tonnes of research, and eventually wrote this feature for the Ottawa Citizen about the city’s incubator scene. I think incubators in general are brilliant – spaces to foster creativity and build community. Places where ideas can go from paper to product. I have met so many people in Sudbury with so many incredible food ideas, and thought, “hey, why not?” this city is a place in need of something like this.

Back to the story. I left for Nepal. As you know.

Meanwhile, in the other dimension of Sudbury life that was existing parallel to my overseas adventures, Geoff was being a go-getter. This is something I like most about Geoff – he is a “do something” guy. Positive, energetic, and incredibly convincing, he took my talk of wanting to open an incubator kitchen and set the gears in action.

I’d get weekly updates during FaceTime dates with Geoff, and had the wonderful dilemma of having amazing opportunities happening both in Nepal as well as at home. The problem was that I didn’t want to miss out on any of them. I have learned that great amounts of opportunity/choice can sometimes cause the greatest amount of unhappiness – it’s the “fear of missing out” syndrome, I think. So, at the beginning of December I booked my plane ticket home, ready to jump into the exciting things happening in Sudbury. I arrived on February 10, and we’ve all hit the ground running ever since.

The Motley Kitchen logo, created by Over the Atlantic, a talented and generous local graphic design team.

The Motley Kitchen logo, created by Over the Atlantic, a talented and generous local graphic design team.

Our new space is called The Motley Kitchen, and we’re opening in an old restaurant space in the heart of downtown Sudbury. Myself and the four other partners, as well as countless wonderful friends, have been working tirelessly in the past months to renovate the space in preparation for an early spring opening date.

The thing is, this whole opening a business thing isn’t cheap. Our team has incredible ideas and a surprisingly large roster of varied skills, but all the money to-date has been coming out of our own pockets. So, here’s what I am very humbly coming to ask you, readers (if you’re still there…Bueller? Bueller?).

We have launched a crowd-funding campaign in order to cover some of the capital costs associated with opening The Motley Kitchen. We’re aiming to raise just a shade shy of $22,000, and have just passed the $10,000 mark, with a dozen days left.

The future site of The Motley Kitchen (this was post taking down ugly green awnings and a painted "restaurant" sign on the window...

The future site of The Motley Kitchen (this was post taking down ugly green awnings and a painted “restaurant” sign on the window…

Bye, bye, old sign! Steve and Chris approve of the change.

Bye, bye, old sign! Steve and Chris approve of the change.

If you support small food businesses, great ideas, and neighbourhood revitalization, I’m asking you to please click through and take a look at our crowd-funding campaign page, “An incubator kitchen for downtown Sudbury.” On this page you can find much more information about The Motley Kitchen, where the $22,000 will go, and more about me and my fellow talented partners.

Natalie and I with the freshly-printed posters advertising our crowd-funding campaign

Natalie and I with the freshly-printed posters advertising our crowd-funding campaign

This blog has seen me through a lot – university cooking adventures, travel journeys, DIY projects, and personal challenges. And now it has brought me here – to the doorstep of small business ownership, to the chance to make a real difference to people who are passionate about food. If you’ve been reading for a week or for four years, please consider helping us out. I promise to take you along on the ride through blog posts, but first I need your help to get us started.

One of The Motley Kitchen bistro menu items: fish tacos.

One of The Motley Kitchen bistro menu items: fish tacos.

Curried Joe sandwich

Curried Joe sandwich

Sweet PK soup

Sweet PK soup

 

I have hardly written anything about Kathmandu.

Outside of a slightly-overwhelmed entry at the beginning of November, the capital of Nepal remains almost completely unmentioned, both on this site and in my notebook.

There’s a reason for the exclusion: I don’t like the city that much. I’m already not much of a city person back in Canada. Sometimes it seems as though Kathmandu has stared into the depths of my soul, made note of all the factors that lead to my big city frustrations, and has subsequently made the decision to embody them all. The pollution that causes me to create a modernist art piece every time I blow my nose, the overcrowding, the daily “I almost got hit by a motorbike” encounter…

Still, I think my lack of Kathmandu-related posts is a bit of a slight. The city has been my home for about three weeks of my trip, and is my home base between the days and weeks I’ve spent travelling to other parts of the country. If I know anything about home cities, it’s that they have flaws. But they also have wonderful, redeeming qualities that force pen to paper, in a way just as magnetic as those more exotic destinations.

So here’s to Kathmandu! Thanks for being my home these past months.

What has me captured is the mornings.

Every time I’m back in Kathmandu, I stay in a neighbourhood called Swayambhu, at a wonderful, cheap little hostel called The Sparkling Turtle. The area is named after the giant Buddhist temple, Swayambhunath, that sits high on the hill overlooking its streets and alleys.

Yesterday was my last Saturday morning in Kathmandu. Saturdays are relaxation and cleaning days in Nepal, the single day off every week. The city streets come alive with bazaars, and people run the streets with wet hair, from a day of showering and laundry. I decided to wake up early to experience one last day off in my adopted ‘hood.

Swayambhu Saturday morning

Swayambhu Saturday morning

Just as we all have our weekend routines at home, so too do the residents of Swayambhu. Walking to one of the two roads that wrap its dusty arms around the grounds of Swayambhunath, I’m swept up in foot traffic. It travels clockwise, the designated direction to travel around all Buddhist and Hindu temples. Most of the people carry a garland of mala beads, reciting mantras and spinning prayer wheel after prayer wheel. Click, click. Click, click. For them, this is Saturday routine: wake up early, walk around Swayambhu, make your offerings. I’ve been implanted to observe this tiny part of their life.

One of the many smaller temples along the route

One of the many smaller temples along the route

Morning circuit, prayer beads in hand.

Morning circuit, prayer beads in hand.

The air is thick with juniper smoke, garbage burning smoke. The dust being kicked up from feet and micro buses creates a perpetual haze, one that basks the streets in that lovely golden hour lighting.

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Monkeys appear as small silhouettes in the bare tree branches. One uses the hydro lines to tight-rope over the road, while others leap from tree to tree. Hairy limbs flail and grab. I hardly even flinch at the monkeys anymore, except when I go to take a photo of one, and he stares at my iPhone as if thinking “yeah, my creepy hand-feet could probably steal that.” I walk away quickly. Thuggish dogs bark and bear teeth, uncastrated anger, which I’m certain has been organized into canine street gangs.

Can you spot the monkeys?

Can you spot the monkeys?

Tightrope monkey! Click the photo to expand.

Tightrope monkey! Click the photo to expand.

There are more clothing vendors out on Saturday mornings. The bright colours of fleece leggings call out to the oranges, greens, purples of next door vegetable vendors. Behind me, a non-thug dog lies passed out in the sun.

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Where I buy my oranges and bananas every time I'm in the neighbourhood.

Where I buy my oranges and bananas every time I’m in the neighbourhood.

Towering over the mini bazaar is the Buddhapark. Despite living so close by, I hadn’t been there until this morning. This is where I sit now, on cool white marble, almost in the shade. A metre away from me, a monk sits chanting, his voice punctuated by a shrill bell in his left hand. He’s reading from a Lama book, and there’s a small plastic prayer wheel sitting next to it, spinning from the light of the sun. Inside a painted brown brick building (it looks like it’s made of chocolate!), hundreds of butter lamps flicker and dance.

Buddha Park visitors

Buddha Park visitors

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I’m watched attentively by three giant gold Buddhas, the statues after which the park is named. They stare unmoving at me, and at all the others who stand, eyes closed, worshiping their presence. A monkey climbs onto the donation box in front of the centre Buddha. I picture it coming to life, unfolding its legs with the cracking of stiff bones, and giving the monkey a good scare.

The three buddhas

The three buddhas

Old ladies offer yellow and purple marigolds into a gold urn at the base of the stairs. People take a lot of pictures, but don’t smile. This isn’t so much about capturing vanity as it is documenting a sense of place. Off in the distance, the smog has turned distant neighbourhoods the colour of the sky. Sequined saris glitter distractingly. The singing monk is eating an orange and counting his money.

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I move on into the morning. I pull back a curtain, a door-less, nameless room filled with locals. It’s not a restaurant in the way that we know them, but rather an assembly of a half dozen tables and benches where you sit and eat whatever is put down in front of you. Tender pieces of buff stabbed with toothpicks; other parts of buff that will remain a mystery; a spicy potato broth, its red surface dipped with roti. Everyone stares when I sit down, but nods in either approval or hilarity when I ask for tea in Nepali.

An after breakfast walk: paved roads meet dirt roads. Running facets meet water pumps. Poverty meets wealth and people talk on smart phones amidst the rubble. Children play in empty lots: garbage on top of garbage on top of dirt. The monks chant on, the day moves forward. A storefront has been transformed into an informal animal market, birds and bunnies. My face twists into a grimace as I wonder if their fate is in our arms or on our plates.

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Bird and bunny market

Bird and bunny market

I’m having my second Saturday morning tea, and I’ve let it sit too long. It’s milk tea, and a slimy film has formed over the surface. But I don’t mind. Saturdays aren’t about rushing, or about drinking tea quickly. Saturdays are about sitting and thinking and appreciating that this is the last Saturday like this that I’ll have.

(PS: Don’t mind the film-esque photos…I didn’t bring my SLR camera and have just discovered the wonders of VSCO cam filters on my iPhone…)

The Internet has created something called Throwback Thursdays. You’ve probably heard of them. They are usually headed up by a #hashtag. Every week on said day, my Instagram and Facebook feeds are chalked full of posts and photos from memories past. I’ve never contributed anything to the bank of nostalgia that is Throwback Thursday, but I always enjoy seeing what friends decide to share, and thought it’s never too late to start myself. So I’m basically going to use Thursdays as a day to share entries from my Nepal trip that have been written/half written, but haven’t been posted yet. I feel guilty about that. They need to be liberated from the ever-expanding “Trip Journal” folder on my mini laptop, and set free from the pages of my notebook.

PS: Fittingly, the event described in this first post actually happened on a Thursday! Bonus!

It was a happy coincidence that the last day of my Everest Base Camp trek was a Thursday.

Thursdays are market days in Lukla, the most popular jumping in spot to the EBC trails. I was anxious to experience bustling market life in a new country. No matter where I go, they’re always home to an eclectic group of people, and I love watching the vibrancy of the gathering spot.

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The Lukla market is right next to the airport runway. On my way down the air is sucked away by the rotor of a helicopter. I walk a little faster. When a plane comes in to land or take off, the sound of the aircraft reverberates around the stone courtyard, making it sound as though the aircraft could at any minute come bursting through the wall.

Vendors sit on blankets spread out over the dirt. Piles of oranges, ginger root and tiny sugar bananas are being sold everywhere, and form a maze for walkers to navigate. The smell of citrus fills the air, as peels are tossed to the ground, squirts of juice spraying into the surrounding air.

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Yummy, beautiful chillies!

Yummy, beautiful chillies!

Up top, I watch in a trance as butter is unwrapped from a block the size of a small stool. The block is carved away at with a metal spatula, scraped into pink plastic bags, and handed over to its purchaser. There’s dry butter, too, in the form of cubes that look like tiny ginger candies, or Narnia’s Turkish delights.

The better butter bureau

The better butter bureau

Bamboo baskets line the walls, awaiting the loading of the day’s purchases, anticipating the walk home. Women and men carry roosters and chickens with their feet tied together, yelling over poultry squawks into mobile phones.

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I am hypnotized by the butcher section of the market. Large wood tables are lined in a row, with hunks of buff sitting on top. Men chop at the red meat with crude knives, particles of bone and ligament flying through the air. It’s weighed on a tiny metal scale, like the ones we used in elementary school to learn about measurements. A woman counts paper rupees on top of one of the carcasses, which are now vaguely smelling in the humid mountain air. A dog with swollen nipples sits under the table, in a prime position to snatch up any and all parcels of meat that fell below.

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Next to the buff table, goat carcasses sit at ground level. There is a live goat overseeing the scene, an irony which is both amusing and sadly foreboding.

I’ve been to many markets in Nepal since this Thursday in Lukla, but none can compare to the buzz of a local village market. You get a sense that it’s a special event each week, one that invites camaraderie, as women and men walk hours from outlying villages to stock up for the week ahead. The smells, the sights, the people – it was the best “welcome back from spending 20 days in the mountains” party I could have asked for.

Eep. Spotted.

Eep. Spotted.

Hello all! I have just returned to Kathmandu after spending the last week-and-a-bit in a rural village called Gatlang. I first travelled through Gatlang right before Christmas when trekking the Tamang Heritage Trail, and have since harboured a bit of a crush on its isolation, natural splendour, and kind people. When in Gatlang the first time, I stayed at the Parpati Kunda Home Stay, with Tashi Lama, Reyjalmo, and their five daughters: Phurpo Mendo (14), Sita (11), Dawa Mendo (eight), Phurpo Dolmo (four) and Nima (eight-months-old). They were one of the most lovely families I have ever been fortunate enough to meet.

The Lama family, in front of their Gatlang home

The Lama family, in front of their Gatlang home

While staying with Tashi, his two brothers, Anil and Santosh, said they were interested in creating a website for the home stay and the village, but had no idea how to do it. Long story short, that’s why I was in Gatlang again. Many posts will be written over the coming days about my time spent there – expanded versions of essays and ramblings scribbled in my Moleskine, pages curled by the heat of the fire. In the meantime, though, here’s the first on a concept we all know and love: playtime.

Back at home, I think we’re doing playtime all wrong.

I’m coming at this not as a mother or a teacher or an older sister of a small sibling, but as someone who used to have a hell of a time playing. Inside, outside, in the bush, on the rocks – when I was a kid, playtime was dirty and creative. Knees looked like battle zones; scars from running (and subsequently tripping) with Popsicles, legs bruised and bumped from too many sessions of hide-and-go-seek tag. We were The Generation of kids right before the Internet became a household name. As such, we experienced recess, after school neighbourhood play dates, and long summer evenings in a way that did not involve Farmville or an early onset of carpal tunnel from smart phones. It helped that my parents were adamantly opposed to anything that resembled a game console (“but mooooom, how am I ever going to get better at Donkey Kong?!”) and that I remember them having to make a suspicious number of phone calls just as I got connected to my dial-up internet-enabled Neopets account.

Ok, not the best example of be engaging in childhood play, but the best one I had access to from Nepal...

Ok, not the best example of be engaging in childhood play, but the best one I had access to from Nepal…

Point is: when I was a kid, playtime was more free. That sounds stupid, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s true. Yes we had some play equipment in our school yards, but for the most part, we were left to our own devices to create something to do. Hence the climbing of icy rocks to train for my future Everest summit attempt, the use of dead trees at an old Macleod Public School (Sudbury reference, folks) as teeter-totters, etc. etc. The most fun I remember having at recess was when in grade three, for a number of consecutive lunch hours, my friends and I pretended to be cats, and ran on all four through the bush area next to my elementary school.

Playtime was messier, but it sent our imaginations to other places, it created bonds between kids, and it taught us that if we fell over and scraped our elbows, we needed to get back up again.

Maybe I’m out-of-touch with the reality of playground politics today, but it seems to me as though kids in the Western world aren’t having so much fun anymore. Or maybe it’s that the idea of fun has been redefined, to include concepts like iPhone emojis and Facebook. Whatever it is, playtime seems less focused on the imagination/collective side of things, and more based on established-play-structure/individual ideals.

Now that we have that rant out of the way, please accompany me to Gatlang, where, as I mentioned, I have just spent a week surrounded by a household and village of young children.

Dawa Mendo, probably post-tickle-fest.

Dawa Mendo, probably post-tickle-fest.

I was looking forward to returning to Gatlang for many reasons, but one of the main ones was to see the Lama family again. I had all but adopted Phurpo Dolmo, the four-year-old, last time around. We had worked up such a playtime rapport that she insisted on calling me “ama,” which means “mom” in Nepali. In December, Phurpo Dolmo’s life revolved around a single yellow balloon.

When I returned this time, I wanted to bring something for Phurpo Dolmo and the rest of Tashi’s daughters. Hidden in the zippered depths of my backpack was a 50-pack of balloons (I didn’t even have to buy them…turns out Marlon was carrying an extra bag!), as well as a large pad of drawing paper, crayons and pencil crayons that I got at a convenience store in Kathmandu.

That first night in Gatlang was a party, in the most innocent and heartwarming of ways. Each of the girls chose a balloon (all different colours, of course), and the fun that ensued was electric.

Phurpu Dolmo + her new balloon

Phurpu Dolmo + her new balloon

It was one of the most uninhibited and pure joys I have ever witnessed. Four children (Nima sat in Reyjalmo’s arms chewing on her balloon) laughing breathlessly as they try desperately to not let their newly-filled balloons touch the ground of their home. (When we were kids, my brother and I would pretend the carpet in our living room was balloon-consuming lava. Turns out the stakes are raised when there is a legitimate risk of your balloon landing in the large fire hearth used to cook meals.) The happiness and energy in that room was contagious. We had to start tying the inflated balloons with a string because the kids wanted to inflate/deflate them so many times.

The next day, word had spread amongst the children of Gatlang. I woke up to a yard filled with kids, all yelling “one balloon!!” whenever they saw me. Soon, there were balloons everywhere. I felt like I could have done a census on the number of children in Gatlang based on the number of balloons doled out.

My balloons bring all the kids to the yard

My balloons bring all the kids to the yard

Walking around the village later in the afternoon, every kid I saw had a balloon dangling from their lips, huffing and puffing into it, and subsequently letting it go, the coloured piece of latex spiralling through the air and into the dirt. I was amazed by how something so simple could keep kids entertained for such a long period of time.

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Over the next few days, I witnessed many more examples of what I consider “real” playtime: Tashi’s daughters colouring on a pad of paper, rather than an iPad; Phurpo Dolmo’s afternoons spent successfully convincing me to pick her up and spin her around like a merry-go-round. A favourite game involved me sitting, either Phurpo Dolmo or Dawa Mendo on my lap, while we pretended they were on a roller coaster, me making creaky wooden roller coaster sounds as I slowly moved the kids “uphill” and sent them plummeting over the precipice of the imagined peak. On the last night, the girls fashioned toys out of single shoelaces and pieces of wood they had found out front.

It was playtime free of the liability worries that stifle playtime at home. It was playtime where children wave pieces of firewood like swords, and where mud and rocks may not be the same as a swing and slide, but kids make do. Parents aren’t always watching like hawks (not to mention hovering like helicopters), not because they don’t care, but because they trust their kids and know that a few minor bumps and bruises aren’t a cause for concern, but rather a valuable lesson. Fantastical games and stories flourish in a playtime that’s not constrained by fences and rules.

Sulhav, one of the three-year-old boys in Gatlang.

Sulhav, one of the three-year-old boys in Gatlang.

The Western playgrounds of today are literally designed to minimize liability – can we please stop trying to architect fun, and instead just let it happen organically? This is a plea to stop blanching school yards of trees, rocks, hiding spots; kids are meant to climb and jump and leap, and yes, sometimes even get hurt. Maybe I will feel differently when I’m a parent, but I believe the best play-thing you can give a kid is an imagination.

In Gatlang the kids are scrappier. The hands and clothes and faces are so dirty. But the laughs and smiles come generously. Creative and innovative. Simple.

It’s playtime, the way playtime is meant to be. Children, as children are meant to be.

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