Thursday, March 26, 2009


Soft grey sky and chirping birds this morning, promises of milder weather.  But meanwhile I know that up north of here in Grey County where the farm is, the sap is still running and not all the snow has quite melted yet.

I talked to our neighbour Chris just now.  He lives across the road from the farm, a lovely guy and very skilled wood turner who does precision work in fine woods and ships orders all over North America.  I called him this morning because of course I had a favour to ask: could he please go over and see if there is any leaking water in the house?  We failed to get back up to the farm in late fall to turn off the water, because the snow was deep from mid- November on.  There's a pump in the basement, with an insulated room built around it, and in there is a small electric heater.  If the electricity went off, then the pump may be broken.  If it stayed on, then the pump is probably fine, but if it's fine and there's a frost-induced crack in one of the pipes, then there's water leaking in the house.  hmm  

Chris said, "Sure.  I'll go over this afternoon and have a look.  I'll call back and let you know. But you should have called in November.  I could have gone over then and drained the pipes. " True, I know, but we didn't want to impose on his kindness.  At the time it seemed like way too much to ask, given the terrible weather, and we also assumed that maybe there'd be a melt in late December when we were back from Asia for a few weeks.  There often is.  There wasn't.  So we just closed our eyes, metaphorically, and hoped we'd be lucky.
(The house is very small, with simple plumbing; the basement has a dirt floor so leaking water will drain; and we may also get lucky.  These are the things I have been saying  to myself when I slip into worrying about it.) 

That call to Chris just now was a reminder of how we rely on neighbours, even people we don't know really well, and how we must expect them to rely on us.  In the moment, someone relying on you or on me may feel like an impostition, in fact it IS an imposition.  But it is also a lovely thing, for it is  a reminder of our interrelatedness.  The term "self-reliant" is an attractive one, and most of us want to be and to feel self-reliant.  But when the time comes that we can't cope, or when the difficulty we face is out of our reach in some way, then isn't it wonderful when we have friends and neighbours to whom we can say "help!".

I said just that, plus "I need rescuing" two days ago at a photo store here in Toronto called Vistek, a great place.  One day when I was in Myitkyina photographing in the food market, my camera suddenly read "error".  There was a problem with the little memory card.  I had another so was able to keep shooting.  But later when I tried to read or download from the card it wouldn't read.  Had I lost all those shots?  Scary.

I took the card in to Vistek.  A nice guy there in Service put the card in his magic machine, after a bit of a wait told me he was able to read it, then downloaded the images to a CD - a fifteen minute process - and gave it to me along with the card.  The bill?  "Forget about it"  Now I've looked closely and can report that the photos are all fine. I'm walking on air, yes because I didn't lose them, but also because of how just perfectly nice the guy at Vistek was.

As people batten down the hatches in this time of anxiety about the economic meltdown and its consequences for us all, it's great to remember that acts of personal generosity, small acts of kindness, enrich us all.  So when the opportunity comes to move into a situation and be useful, we're better off to do so wholeheartedly, and with gratitude that we're part of a network of give-and-take, rather than feeling resentful about being leaned on.  

Perhaps this makes me Polyanna-ish? but that's how I feel about it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


The sun was still high-ish in the sky as Dawn drove me out of the airport parking lot and into the city 36 hours ago, amazing because it was already 7 o'clock.   Toronto glowed a little in the late afternoon light, the snow all melted, and people out in the streets with smiles on their faces, welcoming the warmer weather at last.

Spring is such a time of hope.  I feel grateful to be back here safely and easily (courtesy a great Air Canada direct flight from HongKong).  As Tashi wrote in the comment below my last post, the guys had cleaned the house in the days before I got back, and it was welcoming and airy, with Ian's great version of beef stew simmering and a fresh pot of rice made.  What a lovely welcome!  

The other part of getting back is walking into the office to the greetings (silent but nonetheless demanding!) of piles of mail, mostly bank statements and bills.  Dom did a great job of sorting mail and taking care of immediate bills, but I had a hard time making myself even go into the office, let alone open it all, look at it, and deal with it.  The weather was so great yesterday, my first day back, that I could only make myself take on the mail in the evening, when outdoor temptations were over.  Now it's done.  No catastrophes to report.

And good news: Ann Bramson, our beloved editor at Artisan, has sent us a  contract for a food-focussed book about Burma.  Still have to give it a close read, but I'm so happy to have it here waiting.  It's for very little money, and that's hard, but realistically it's also part of this meltdown era we are living in.  And somehow the smaller money takes a kind of pressure off, so that hopefuly we can feel lighter on our feet as we work on it.

Still waiting to hear if Anne Collins at Random House will also give us a contract for it. 

Meantime, of course, apart from the sleeveless T-shirt weather yesterday, the other lovely thing was to see early spring flowers out here and there, and garlic chives poking up in our small back garden.  I confess to having pinched off a few to sprinkle on my morning rice yesterday, a way of celebrating green and spring and the renewal of life generally.  I topped it of course with a fried egg, more new life!

That reminds me, anyone who lives near a Persian/Iranian grocery should make a point of going right away to see if they have any special Nou-Roz (new year festival, celebrated around the spring equinox) treats for sale, fresh wheat grass or its juice, for example, as well as sweets and fresh herbs.  Check the Flatbreads book, or Seductions of Rice, for recipe ideas...

Now I'll stop rambling to you and try to get back to the rest of my return-home chores (figuring out how to organise and tidy up my digital photos, for example - yikes! - it's intimidating, all the new skills and organizational decisions that lie ahead).  And yes, I'll go on spending as much time as possible in the good spring air and lovely sharp light of March in Toronto.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Another Friday the thirteenth to enjoy!

This will probably be my last blogpost from southeast Asia this season. I am due to fly home on March 17th, in good time to enjoy the equinox in a nothern latitude. I know, I know, it doesn't mean the weather will get warm anytime soon, but that deep thrill of the sun returning, of the light being longer than the dark for six months, is a precious touchstone each year, don't you think?

This morning I went off to the weekly Haw market here in Chiang Mai. It sets up in a parking lot across from the mosque, just a block from Thapae Road. It's been there for years, but I only discovered it a few years ago, so tucked away is its location.

The word 'Haw" is used generally here to refer to a variety of people who are from Yunnan, many of them muslim. The market is most like the market in Mae Sai, the town at the northernmost tip of Thailand, in the so-called Golden Triangle at the Burma boder. There are Shan people, and hilltribe people, and Yunnanese of various kinds, and Burmese too. The food on offer feels like jungle food, wild roots and tubers, greens that are more common in Yunnan than here, and also lots of pickles, Beyond The Great Wall-people-style pickles. There's more than a hint of sour in the air, in fact!

To offset that there are unusual sweets, like black sticky rice disks that are then grilled over charcoal and brushed with a blend of melted palm sugar and sesame (what could be bad?), and "doughnuts" made of cooked black sticky rice shaped into rings and then deep-fried... Yum! I bought some grilled banana and sticky rice, wrapped in little banana leaf packets slightly blackened from the grill, then ended up giving several to a woman who was begging in front of the mosque, her injured foot out before her. (Food feels more constructive than money to me, so when I have the choice that's what I give.)

There are at the market several places where you can sit and eat breakfast. One place has Shan noodle combos, and that's where I ate with some of the people who came to our immersethrough session, last time I was at the market, more than a month ago. This time I went to the other corner, for a different kind of noodle dish.

Fresh back from Burma, I had one of those "duh!!" moments, for the soup over fine rice noodles was a version of mohinga, the Burmese rice noodle soup breakfast. This one was different, for there was no banana stem in it, just tender cooked whole shallots, very like one version I tasted a week ago in Myitkyina. The soup came with a crispy deep-fried chickpea-studded sort of round cracker about four inches in diameter, like but not the same as, the equivalent in Rangoon or Myitkyina. It was delicious, the soup, especially with extra lime squeezed into it, and the crispy disk crumbled on top to give extra texture.

As I walked out of the market with my small purchases (a bag of roasted chestnuts and some cheroots to give to a friend for his birthday this evening; and some black rice doughnuts, why not?), past some hilltribe people selling organic brown rice from huge beautiful baskets, I was reminded that I'm leaving town for awhile, and felt a little downcast. But then I bounced back with the thought that this amazing market, this coming-together of so many people whose origins lie across often-difficult borders, will keep on happening every Friday, in all its wonderful and puzzling variety.

And I have to confess that part of me is already impatient to be back for another breakfast at the Haw market, another immersion in the endless intriguing cultural mysteries of this region.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Once again the tech-whizzes at the local email place in Rangoon have patched me up so I can try to post. Why bother? you might think, since tomorrow I am due to fly to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where email etc is very accessible. But it seems so wonderful to be able to blog from here that I want to take advantage.

Just heard that Beyond the Great Wall has been nominated in the International category for an IACP cookbook award. Great news! But at the same time of course it feels a little remote right now...

I got back late yesterday from the extraordinary town of Myitkyina, in northern Burma. It's amazingness doesn't lie in its architecture, for it was mostly flattened by US bombs aimed at dislodging the Japanese, who had successfully invaded Burma all the way to the north by 1943. Instead, of course it lies in the human landscape, a mix of Kachin (itself a broad category that covers different cultures), Shan (ditto), Chinese, Burmese, people from many parts of the Indian subcontinent including Gurkhas from Nepal, and I am sure others...

The town sits on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River, low with large sandbanks in this season. There are hills in all directions. People arrive by boat and motorcycle and bicycle and trishaw, and on foot to come to the busy market on and near the high river bank in central Myitkyina. I can't write about the food right now: I don't know enough, for one thing, and for another, my head is still too freshly dazzled by it all still. Later, later!

On my last day there I met a Kachin man who is one of the seven remaining Kachin veterans of the BFF, Burmese Frontier Forces, who fought a guerilla war against the Japanese with the help of a few British and also some gurkha troops. He is now eighty-four years old, lean and straight as he rode up on his motorcycle, with swift sure movements and a very clear brain. He said he'd just been recruited when the British retreat from Burma began, and so his war was entirely fought in the hills, while the towns were occupied by the Japanese. It's impossible to imagine what all that was like. I could just admire his liveliness and sense of self-respect, and his tenacity.

Later that day I got a ride to the airport with a man named Mohammed Khan, whose father had travelled from Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, to Dibrugarh, in Assam. He'd begun with the British Army, but then was passed along to the US 10st Battalion to be a driver of supplies as the Burma Road was being built. The jeep we were driving in had been his father's jeep, still in lovingly good repair all these years later. Mr Khan's father died only two years ago, aged ninety.

When I think of these stories, brief glimpses of another, very difficult time, it makes me realize that the most precious thing we have are the stories, the shared web of experience. Time passes, people and place grow and pass away, but we keep them alive, and keep alive our sense of connection to them, by telling each other stories, weaving narratives for ourselves, whole cloth in which to clothe ourselves and our children.