Oct 20, 2012

Life, and death, and life on the farm

Baryshnikov is one confused water buffalo. On Tuesday he watched his "brother" SnowStar be taken down by a single shot, then hung up from the strong arm of a big blue tractor to bleed and be skinned and cut apart. He snuggled up to 5 kids and me, pushing his hard head and horns affectionately and powerfully into our small bodies as we dug a big hole to bury SnowStar's inedibles. And he moaned and bleated louder than any time since he was weaned when we all left and he found himself alone in the big pasture for the first time in his entire life.

Two days later those bleats were curious and excited as he smelled then saw his new baby brother entering the pasture. Baryshnikov has quickly become used to affectionate full-tongue kissing, constant following and leaning against, and attempts to suckle by this two-week-old buffalo newcomer.

We've all been as excited, or more, by this new flow of life on our farm. SnowStar will become months worth of meals for 7 families. 25 chicks were 2-weeks into their journey to the freezer of another couple-dozen families, and the 25 big chickens were supplying 4 families with all the eggnog we can conjure. WildSide Farm felt alive, even with the death of a cow we'd raised from 4-days-old.

Then this morning, one blood-thirsty mink reminded us that death is as much a part of the farm as life. One mink, one night, 49 dead chickens. We spent the day in shock, in mourning, in anger at a creature doing what - for some unknown reason - comes as naturally for him as killing a big cow does for us.

So it was that I entered our land partner's birthday party with a wheelbarrow full of beheaded carcasses (minks are as vicious as they are deadly efficient). His urban friends from Victoria all helped build a 10-foot funeral pyre with the last of my year's burn pile, reverently placing dead chickens and chicks on higher and higher levels. A bit of gas, straw and a blow-torch later, the huge hot blaze was a beautiful cremation and a Burning-Man-style purging of our sorrow.

A big reason we moved to the country was so that our children, as well as us, could understand where food comes from, where life comes from. And where death comes from, how it follows and precedes life. In this week our 8-year-old came home from school to witness the cow slaughter ("His soul will just go back into the herd, so it's OK"), and 5 boys helped with the burial. Eleven children so far have helped bottle-feed a new born buffalo, and console Baryshnikov in his grieving. Seven boys and five little ones helped with the chickens' funeral pyre, watching "their souls going up into the sky and heaven." And in the single most redeeming, beautiful moment of this hard day, we came home from morning soccer to find a note from our 9-year-old neighbour taped to our door (in reference to the one chicken who miraculously survived the carnage):

I brang your last chicken to my house becose I thot it was lonly. I hope you donte mind. :)

The children get it, and teach it, and just live it naturally. Life, and death, and life again - it's all one. You can't embrace one without embracing the other.

Sep 25, 2012

Demolition

The longer you’ve been in a tree fort, the harder it is to take down.

You put your whole self into building that castle in the sky. Straightened out dad’s bent nails, salvaged planks from the neighbour’s fence, stolen supplies at night from the construction site across the street. You chose just the right tree(s), agonized over triangle vs. rectangle designs, and negotiated with the parents for how high up the rope ladder could go. You pounded and bruised and bent and re-nailed till it all miraculously hung together.

Then you stood back and looked at what you’d created. A little off-centre, a few headless nails smashed in sideways, a gap here or there to let some light in. It wasn’t what you dreamed, but it was your creation and it was Real.

The first day after finishing a tree fort is the best. You throw the tools in a bucket and convince mom to let you haul up some popcorn and lemonade. You sit inside with your buddies and just glow in the achievement. “This is the BEST fort ever!” You believe is was IT.

Then a few more days pass and it’s not so new anymore. The one thing you forgot when designing and building it was what you’d do once you moved in. Turns out that reading magazines by a stolen flashing-orange traffic light isn’t so awesome. You start to notice those cracks, realize it’s a bit too small, wish you’d put in a bigger window. And before you know it, the talk is about the next fort, or the addition.

When we’re ten, the new fort planning begins about day 3. When we’re ten, we’re fearless in our unattachment, and it frees us to break-down and re-create ourselves and our world endlessly. Taking down that fort, careful to not splinter wood or lose nails, is every bit as creative and energizing as putting it up, because even during the destruction we are seeing the raw materials of the re-creation.

When we Grow Up, we stay in that fort longer. We get used to its creaks and smells, and very good at DIY patch jobs over its faults. If that support beam is cracking, we can just attach a second one alongside to shore it up. We build extra rooms and skylights on our soul and believe it will all hold together.

But now and then we need a Re-Do. We need to take that fort down all the way and start over. And if we don’t, life may just do it for us. More often than not we keep trying to patch up that fort until some out-of-our-hands “Act of God” not-covered-by-insurance earthquake shakes us right down to ground zero. Or the foundation wasn't built strong enough for all these additions and it finally just gives way. Either way, we wake up in a pile of rubble knowing it’s time to pick up the hammer again.

We need to honour the raw materials as they come down, knowing that they’re the starting place for the new structure. And we need the courage and vision of our ten-year-old selves to believe that this growing pile of rubble is still the foundation for a new castle in the sky. And believe that while much of the good character of the old fort can be preserved, this will be an even better one, this time with a deck on the roof and a secret entrance and maybe, just maybe, a bigger window that lets in a bit more sun.

Jul 12, 2012

Best U-Pick Strawberries

I'm a better man when I pick my own strawberries.

A favourite childhood memory is the annual trip way out to the country (Langley, when it was country) to the U-Pick strawberry fields. We'd put on our special old clothes, search around to find some old buckets, and starve ourselves to make room for the feast to come. Once there we'd have eating contests, and one notorious strawberry fight that included squashing juicy berries in each other's blond hair. We'd jump into the off-limits rows to get the larger commercial berries, and mercilessly pick just the biggest berries, leaving the smaller stuff and under/over-ripe berries on the bush or strewn on the ground. Only slightly embarrassed at their "boys-will-be-boys" boys, our parents would pay for the few buckets we managed to actually collect, and we'd be off home for an afternoon of jam-making and freezing.

This morning I wake up at 5:30 and wander a full 20 yards back to our three rows of strawberries. I'm wearing the same clothes I'd taken off last night (my closet has three sections: Farmer Ricky, Consultant Ricky, and - the most colourful - Ricky Ricky). I hose down one of the many buckets we use for almost everything and start in on row one. No hopping rows, I work methodically and slowly and peacefully along each plant, knowing I'll be out here until every plant was cared for.

I pick every berry that's ready, regardless of size (the small ones are often better anyways). Some look so tantalizingly close to perfect, but I observe a bit of lightness at the tip and leave them, knowing that when I come back in a day or two they'll be even better. The ones that the slugs have taken a chunk out of get picked too - when I go back in to sort, they'll go into the jam pot, while the "perfect" ones will be flash frozen on pizza trays. Not a berry is wasted.

I also care for the plants as I go. Rogue weeds are removed. I observe the health of the soil, and rearrange the drip-irrigation tubes. A few full strawberry plants are removed where they've become too dense to allow enough sun in. And an entire planting pot is filled with slugs (it's a bad year for those little friends) to dump into a big garbage can of water at the end. Slugs are much more agile than you'd expect - every minute I have to push back down the ones that have ambitiously crawled up to the lip of the planter looking for freedom.


As we'd drive away from our childhood U-Pick adventure, in our haste to gather a year's worth of berries in one morning we'd leave behind a path of destruction that some poor Langley farmer would have to remedy. Here on my own farm I've improved the health of my plants, making space for more berries to grow and ripen.

The slow ritual, repeated every few days throughout the season, gives room for contemplation. I remember the woman in Saanich who sold us the starter plants, and how patiently Sarah has been dividing the runners and growing our plot each year. I reminisce about the hundreds of hours we spent with Joe and Nathalie creating these garden beds, and the dreams we had of Someday having enough strawberries and blueberries and other perennials to get us through a full year. Three years later, I'm living that Someday every day.

As the sun rises above the treeline, I reverently drown the slugs and carry a full bucket of organic, zero-mile berries back to the kitchen. I realize that I've picked over 500 berries and eaten exactly two. There was no need to gorge on someone else's free berries. These are ours, and eating will happen all year - frozen, jam, syrup - and later today in a fresh pie or shortcake or homemade icecream for my Farmer Wife's birthday.

I was blessed to grow up knowing where strawberries come from, but never really appreciating or respecting where they come from. Now that I'm even more blessed to know who they come from and how they grow, I don't pillage anymore. I'm part of a symbiotic, give-and-take relationship with my strawberry plants, and the berries taste that much sweeter from the exchange.

Jul 1, 2012

Oh (sigh) Canada

We tried to be patriotic at dinnertime, listing things we like about Canada. A kids kazoo band buzzing out "Oh Canada" at The Hub should inspire optimism in our big little country, right? So why do I feel like the core things I'm proud of about Canada are slowly (or not so slowly) being eroded away?

Canada cares for the environment.
Canada is a Peace-loving, Peace-promoting nation.
Canada believes in reformation, not just incarceration.
Canada is deeply committed to free universal health care.
Canada has a great public education system.
Canada contributes significantly and effectively to international development.
Canada doesn't have the huge disparity between rich and poor.
Canada promotes and honours its cultural identity.
Canadians are willing to sacrifice personal wealth and comfort to help others.
Canada is a model of democracy.

Regardless of whether Harper is the architect or just the symbol, every one of those statements is becoming less true. We are a nation going backwards, reneging on our commitments and our beliefs and our values, losing what has truly made us special and unique and respected and valued in the world. We are increasingly ruled by fear instead of hope, self-interest instead of love, growth instead of prosperity.

I'm still proud to be Canadian. Proud of our history, proud of our identity, awed by our potential. I just wish I could feel hopeful and proud of the direction we're going.

Jun 23, 2012

Co-operatives - Cradle-to-Grave Sustainable Development

My international world has always been divided into two streams: aid and development. Aid looks like emergency shelters and bags of rice and bottled water, the stuff of helping people immediately after a disaster. Development is what follows, the longer-term hand-back-up to livelihood and stability. I first fell in love with Oxfam because of their ability to do both – to be there before the disaster, mobilize those networks immediately after, then stick around for the long haul.

Now suddenly I’m facing a delightful third way, that of multi-sector co-operatives. Here in Sri Lanka I’m working with SANASA, the biggest co-operative organization in the country. They are engaged in micro-credit and savings, insurance, housing, training… they even have a travel agency for short get-aways, and a funeral co-op for that final destination. If they have a birthing co-op, which wouldn’t surprise me, they’re literally a cradle-to-grave organization.

The goal of international development, I’d always understood, is to work yourself out of a job. To extend that hand-up of solidarity only until the partner is back on their feet again and able to do it for themselves. Every good development project should have a built-in exit strategy that represents success.

With SANASA, I’m with a member-owned, member-operated co-op that has no intention of going away. Their goal is to provide a lifetime of services for/with their members. I’m now faced with the challenge of building in strategies to increase involvement, not end it.

For example, the program I’m with is helping post-tsunami victims start up new businesses. In traditional development, our goal would be to provide training, credit and support until the family has a stable and sufficient income to carry on by themselves. With the co-op, the goal is to continue to support the new entrepreneur to grow their business, start employing other members, and have a bigger impact on the local and national economy. That member will also hopefully be a repeat user of the co-op’s loan program, take out co-op insurance, grow their savings in the co-op’s credit union, build a house with the co-op’s construction company, and eventually be embalmed on the co-op’s cold hard slab table with a drainage hole leading down to a trench in the cement floor leading to a hole going somewhere I don’t want to know (but that’s a different story). All of this increased business strengthens not only the individual, but also the co-op. Everyone wins.

SANASA may have received some valuable Canadian funding and technical assistance (including me, hopefully valuable), but it is 100% owned and operated by its members –the very people benefitting from all the projects and work. That, my friends, is sustainable development.

Jun 21, 2012

Apologies to Cricket

Inspired by Jason (George from Seignfeld) Alexander’s eloquent and deep apology to the world about his gay cricket jokes, I would also like to offer my heartfelt apologies to the world of Cricket. It not only is a real sport, it’s a rather manly one, and surprisingly interesting.

Like the Salvation Army in Major Barbara or trying bbq turkey tails in Ghana, it started out as a lark. I’m here in this former British colony where one of the best legacies has been one of the best cricket teams in the world. So one night at the hotel I sit with Somasiri and let him enthusiastically explain the game, pretending to care more than in a cultural-museum kind of way. But by the end of 4 wickets I’m not only getting it, but am genuinely cheering for the boys in blue (and yellow, looking much more Swedish than British).

Just like the mighty last-second alley-oop in an NCAA championship that taught me to appreciate basketball, it took just one amazing fielding play to win me over. The 130km ball was smashed even faster from the canoe-paddle of the Pakistani batsman, far out into left field. Our outfielder read it perfectly, sprinted halfway across the world and dove full out to catch it inches from the ground. The nation rose as one and roared in unison.

Can I add that he caught it bare-handed? How padded are baseball gloves? How much padding does our macho North American hockey or football player hide behind?

Throughout the month we’ve caught more of this two-month visit by Pakistan, watching multiple-matches by carefully choosing restaurants and roadside snack bars with the game on TV. I’ve seen way more diving, close plays, quick reactions and drama than in any baseball game. And action happens at every pitch (“bowl”). The bowler is changed out every 6 or 12 bowls, so there’s plenty of variety. And the bewildering (at first) talk about the number of wickets and overs and strike rates would make any TV announcer deliriously happy (isn’t that the main reason soccer isn’t popular on American TV – the lack of stats?)

The culmination was going to the big stadium for one of the international matches. We bought the cheap zone tickets from a scalper, putting us in festival seating on cement benches packed with men (mostly) singing, dancing, raising flags, fighting, cheering – nothing unusual there except the dancing. After the first two hours we were treated to 70 minutes of watching the tarps quickly pulled out to protect the turf from the rains, then pulled off again while a cricket zamboni (a steam roller with giant sponges) did its rounds. I was ready to leave, but over the next 2 hours watched as the rhythm changed, two batters got into a groove, different tactics employed by each team at various phases of the match. By watching all of Sri Lanka’s 3,000 pitches (60 overs) I came to a much deeper understanding of the nature of the sport. Then back on the hotel I watched much of Pakistan’s turn and their historic collapse. True drama.

Of the many lessons and wonders I’ve experienced in Sri Lanka, perhaps the most surprising is an appreciation of cricket as a real sport – and a really interesting one at that.

Jun 15, 2012

Sri Lanka's Slow and Rich Roads

Why did a 115 km trip from Kandy to Colombo take 8 hours?

First stop was the Temple of the Tooth Relic - a sacred place where Buddha's tooth is kept safe. The tooth miraculously survived the burning of his body, escaped destruction by one King's hammer by turning into light and becoming a star for a while, and was smuggled into Sri Lanka hidden in the hair of a young woman. In not-too-long-ago times it was a symbol of power - whoever held the tooth was ruler of the country. The tooth has been moved to various new temples built in its honour and to protect it from invaders who recognize its power.

For lunch we randomly chose one of the hundreds of buffets lining the entire route. In addition to the usual rice (red and white), curry dahl, chicken curry, "ladyfinger" veggies and papadum, this place also sported pumpkin, chinese fried rice, and chinese veggies. All you can eat with your fingers for $2.

Next stop was a co-op store that our country director Somasiri helped start during his last job with Oxfam. Various small-scale producers have come together to open this roadside store to collectively market their goods - one of many ideas we are considering with my current project. I was able to support them and hopefully please my wife by purchasing $8 worth of: caraway seed, black pepper, cumin seed, mustard seed, heritage red rice, dried jackfruit, palm syrup (for the boys' pancakes.)

By now we'd run out of money, due to having to pay cash for our fancy hotel last night. Instead of the $156/night, we were given the local $50 rate as long as Somasiri officially paid as our "travel agent." Which meant cash. So we stopped in a bigger town for the first of several unsuccessful attempts to use my international debit card. Somasiri also couldn't access his account, so our super-driver Nishantha managed to withdraw enough to bankroll us the final 80 km, which included:

The Cashew Capital of Sri Lanka - a place where about 50 small stands and shops line both sides of the road selling roasted cashews - plain, salted and spicy. Ironicaly, this isn't even a cashew-growing region - they're brought in from the north - but since Somasiri was a boy they've even learned in school that this is the place to buy cashews. Yes Sarah, at $15/kg, there are some coming home.

Another 10 km brought us to the pineapple-growing and selling region, with prices ranging from 10 cents for a fist-sized pineapple to $1.20 for a feed-the-family variety. Across the street we bought three humungous avocado for 75 cents. I'll take these stands over a McDonald's drive-through for any road trip.

I finally found single razor blades at a little shop, but caused confusion by trying to buy a whole package. They only sell them individually - most people buy just enough razors, soap, salt, etc to get them through the next shave or meal or wash. Buying in bulk is either a luxury they can't afford or just a consumption pattern they haven't adopted. So we had to open the little box and count them out (5, if you're curious), then multiply the unit price. Nearby, Nishantha also found a place for me to buy a "Rice-Hopper" press so I can make my own little rice-pasta pucks like I've been enjoying each breakfast time.

The final - or perhaps first - reason for the long trip is the road. Not the condition - Sri Lankan roads are incredibly well-maintained, smooth, painted. But this second-busiest highway in the country is still 2-lane with a 2-foot shoulder on each side. Shared by (in reverse pecking order) sleeping dogs, pedestrians, 3-wheeled rickshaws, local busses, trucks, express busses, cars, and fancy SUV's like ours. A good average speed for a skilled SUV driver is 40 km/hour. There's never an open road to hit the 70/km speed limit; instead, an endless parade of slower vehicles to successively pass. Passing is accomplished when the traffic coming the other way is single-or double-file only, and not any big fat busses. Then we pull out into right over the centre-line, the vehicle we're passing pulls over a bit, the oncoming traffic all squeezes over, and we go straight down the middle, usually cutting back in just before an oncoming vehicle also pulls in from his own passing. Just like I observed in Chennai, everybody does their part, acknowledges their place in the pecking order and exactly what they have to do to allow this system of continual near-accidents to flow smoothly.

Not to be outdone by the rural highway's adventures and attractions, Colombo showed its true big-city colours by throwing Rush Hour in our path. The first afternoon rush hour starts at 1:00, when every child in the city (it seems) is picked up by his/her parent who wait in their cars 3-abreast, blocking as much of the streets as possible. Just as this eases up, the usual end-of-work rush hour kicks in. So our pain-staking 40 km/hour now seems like a luxury as we sit and crawl our way to a few more unyielding bank machines then finally back to the welcome arms of our beautiful guest house.

So, that's the report on traffic, shopping, history, religion and much more that one can learn about Sri Lanka on a simple 115 km drive from the Buddhist capital in the hills to the modern capital metropolis by the sea.

Jun 7, 2012

Working Weekend

A weekend in the coastal town of Galle, Sri Lanka, is a tourist paradise. Throughout the backpackers circuit in Africa and Europe, this place is legendary for beautiful topless Swedes enjoying low-priced alcohol and beautiful beaches. Endless variety of guest houses and restaurants catering to the evidently huge international crowd who come to enjoy this gem of coastline and culture. How to enjoy a weekend with no official work duties?

Work, of course. First of all, it's Bloody Hot season, meaning that Swedes are few and far between. If I really need to see topless Swedes I've got internet; work offers the chance to see more of the real Sri Lanka that could never be captured online. Last weekend, "real" took several forms.

First, a 40-minute drive down the coast with our amazing (and SAFE) driver Nishanka, national director Somasiri and local trainer Radeeka pointing out sites and history - free guided tour in an air-conditioned SUV. Every bit as stunning and varied as the California coast. Buildings new and restored after the tsunami, other ominous vacant lots and ruins a reminder of the devastation.

Stopped for breakfast at a beachside set of grass-thatched huts, but they were out of food. Next door was a very fancy hotel-type place completely empty except for a Sri Lankan breakfast buffet that looked suspiciously like the dinner buffet - white rice, red rice, dahl, curried chicken, potatoes in a white curry sauce. Luckily I'm loving the food here and, with one exception where I could only finish 1/4 of a plate, not finding it too spicy. I sometimes break a sweat or turn red and get tingly lips like everyone else, but that's just part of the dining experience.

Arrived at the home of Nelka, a 36-year-old mother of 5 (youngest daughter pictured here) who started a sewing business through the program I'm here to evaluate. We had the honour of sitting for 3 hours with this woman and her whole family learning intimate details about their finances, local business environment, the fishing industry (her husband drives a fishing boat and is gone for a month at a time - luckily was home today), upcoming wedding of her daughter, power balance between husband and wife, how much of her jewelry is currently in hawk at the pawn shop, and many more details of her life that usually take years of relationship-building to learn of our Canadian friends, if ever. Think about it - even though I'm pretty darn open about most things verbally and through my blog, how many of you know how much I earn, what my debt load is, how Sarah and I resolve conflict, or how my father died?

On the way back we detoured to a lighthouse that turned out to be the tallest in the country. The lighthouse keeper came out of his residence and talked for 20 minutes about his history as a lighthouse keeper (since 1981), what his retirement would be like, his previous postings (including one lighthouse at sea where he'd be there for 45 days at a time), how often he sees his family a few hours up the coast. Yet another deep glimpse into the real life of a real person, courtesy of the Canadian journalist travelling with us.

David is one of those special souls who is so genuinely interested in and respectful of people's stories that they naturally want to share. He gets away with deeply personal questions that most of us shy away from asking, not wanting to intrude. But with this journalist, everyone has a story worth sharing, and every detail is worth knowing. "How many lightbulbs, and what wattage?" "How many stairs to the top (243) and how often do you go up?" What a true gift, and sadly a rare one. I have many friends with truly open souls who make you feel safe to share - I'm married to one - but this unabashed forwardness that turns every random encounter into a connection is rare. He takes 10 minutes longer to leave any place than the rest of us - leaving the lighthouse he ended up befriending two of the very muscular workers renovating the outside of the lighthouse, then a woman selling boiled chickpeas, then...

Next stop - Sweat Shops. A tax-free Free Trade Zone - a high-security fenced compound that houses many different buildings where all our cheap clothing and products are made. Somasiri managed to talk them into letting us drive through, with one of their trucks "escorting" us. They even let me stop and take a few photos, then their guard got into our car so he could give us an animated guided tour, explaining what was made in each building, from airplane parts to undergarments. He showed us the bus stop where dozens of busses waited for the shift to end, the daycare for working parents, the cafeteria, the beautiful tropical tree-lined streets, the music blasting out of the garment factory. Every building had numerous fans and ventilation systems, looked very clean, no more crowded than a cubicle-filled Canadian office, lots of emergency doors. From the outside, it verified what my Sri Lankan friends and the guide had told me, that working conditions have improved greatly.

We stopped at a makeshift shelter outside one factory, where workers were handing out free juice and cookies for Poson Poya. This gave us a chance to talk to some factory workers, who all looked genuinely happy, obviously healthy (and no, I don't believe they were hand-picked to be good PR faces, especially since tours are not part of what happens here) and adults. They laughed when I told them that I'd understood sweat shops to be dangerous, miserable, human-rights-abusing pits of despair (not sure how that got translated). They're still not paid a living wage (7am-5pm plus a mandatory Saturday "overtime day" for 18,000 Rupees - $150 - a month) and I still think it's immoral for these international companies to not pay taxes to help support the country they're in, but overall it seems to be much better than the Mexican maquilladores where activists are (or atleast were) beaten and child labourers are virtual slaves making our Levis jeans.

Quick drive through the backpackers/surfers paradise of Unawatuna Beach, then on to the historic Dutch Galle-Fort, an entire fortified city declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site. We walked the cobblestone streets lined tight with old houses, churches, shops and offices, and strolled the ramparts of walls built to repel British and Portugese colonialists from the sea and Sri Lankans from the land. What a microcosmic world they chose to live in, surrounded by fear and hate on all sides, just for the privilege of pillaging this rich beautiful land and people.

Back to the sprawling elegant and hauntingly empty (we are the only guests, outnumbered by the staff) beachfront hotel for a quick swim, then out to the opening night of a new Indian restaurant. Just-cool-enough breeze off the water, powerful music blasted by the DJ in the hut outside, kids enjoying the indoor playground of this family-friendly restaurant, and the best dahl and mango lassi of the trip. Nishanka drove us back to the hotel tired, well-fed, and one full day fuller of beautiful, real Sri Lanka.

Jun 5, 2012

Poson Poya

You gotta love a country where every full moon is a national holiday. On this "Poya Day", no meat or alcohol can be sold, everyone (every Buddhist, that is, which is about 70% of the population) goes to the temples to worship, the streets are empty and all shops are closed (except the gem store by my hotel which stayed open for the tourists.)

Better yet, June is "Poson Poya", a special day commemorating the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka a couple thousand years ago. All over the country, people set up temporary lean-to's ("Dansala" - literally "a place to give alms") and give away free food and drink to anyone passing by. As we drove under the bright moon toward the temple, we slowed down at every dansala and people reached into to give us pineapple juice, cookies, ice cream cones, tea and iced coffee. We could have stood in longer lines to get a full rice and curry dinner. There was a genuine Joy of giving at each dansala, people just excited by the chance for unadulterated Sharing and connecting. We often had 2 cones thrust upon us, and big cheers from all around as we accepted them. Like Halloween back when we all trusted each other and just played silly together, except this is for adults and with a spiritual strength behind it.

We felt free and welcomed at the huge temple our friend brought us to. Like all temples it had three main areas of worship: the round white pagoda (in some of which are ashes or remains of the Buddha or others), the Bodhi tree (under which Buddha was enlightened), and the inside temple. Incense and oil lamps burned everywhere, flowers were laid on any altar or statue people could reach, and people meditated, prayed, bowed, wandered, talked, sat, whatever moved them to worship or experience in a way meaningful to them. There is much more worshipful devotion to symbols and the Buddha than I'm used to as a Quaker, but I also witnessed and had explained to me that each person finds their own way to experience and express their faith - bowing to the statue and lighting incense are just some of the more visible (and beautiful to watch) ways. Buddhism is a philosophy, my friend explained, not a religion (a point much debated when you google that question).

To complete the sacred carnival melange, we crossed the street to join a long line-up in a field, paying 40 cents to enter a large round barn structure not knowing what mystery it held. Turns out it was a huge carousel-like moving diarama of merchants moving around a circle with their oxcarts, while a man told the historical tale over the microphone. It was tacky and huge and beautiful and mesmorizing, made me feel like Almanzo or Obidiah at the old-fashioned country fair. The picture below doesn't even begin to capture how absurdly perfect an ending it was to a perfect holy day. Happy Poya, friends.

Jun 3, 2012

Business Class

Spoiled white boy, i'm becomin'. After a week of real backpacking in India - local trains, street food, $10 rooms - it's businessman Sri Lanka all the way. $100 AC rooms with a pool and very stiff white sheets and very polite staff holding doors open. Per diem higher than the highest restaurant. Dress shoes and black socks. "The driver will pick you up at 8."

I almost couldn't sleep my first night in the Global Towers hotel. I told myself it was just so Not Me. I can carry my own bag, thank you, and probably even figure out how to open the curtains. I don't need a 14-dollar 28-dish Indian buffet in a huge plush dining room. This place is for rich travelling businessmen and spoiled tourists and Sri Lankans sneaking out on their families for a forbidden weekend. Not me. I want the "Real Sri Lanka."

But then I look in the mirror and see a middle-aged businessman. Worse - a Consultant. He's sporting a greying beard and slightly wrinkled dress slacks, and he's lamenting repeatedly about the wi-fi not working in his room overlooking the Indian Ocean. It'll take him some laps around the pool and maybe a 90-minute Ayurvedic massage to shake off that indignation, by which time that buffet sounds alot better than wandering the streets for an hour looking for authentic street food. And he's just tired enough from a day that started at 5am on an Indian train that a queen-sized bed in an air-conditioned room might be justified after all.

So I relax and enjoy this privileged and lovely luxury. But after wiping the corners of my mouth with white linen, I still hit the streets in my Keen sandals. 4 hours of finding myself in this new place, snacking, browzing, learning how to cross traffic and how much eye contact to make in the streets. Dipping into a cool cinema for a bad movie (Avengers) with a hot dog and Fanta is a welcome break, but the day is still me and Sri Lanka full on. The cinema's full of Sri Lankans, the hotel is primarily Sri Lankans, just because they're wearing polished shoes doesn't make them inauthentic. And just because I'm wearing shoes doesn't mean my feet aren't on the street.

Hippy backpacker Rick would say I'm rationalizing and selling out. 45-year-old development consultant Rick is cutting himself some slack, enjoying the best of, well, not of both worlds, just of this slice of this world. This fabulous, exotic, welcoming Sri Lanka that offers comfort and adventure, hot clammy afternoons and cool evening dips, unnameable street lunch and unbeatable dinner buffets. It's all part of the experience, all part of this nation, and it's all part of me.

Going back to that list of typical tourist things I've done, I was going to open today's post by listing a few more that I did expect to be called on:

5. Talking about India like it's one place. I used to alternately be annoyed or laugh when people talk about "Africa", like Mandela's the president of the whole continent and they all speak one language. The I arrive in a huge and hugely populated subcontinent with hundreds of languages, cultures, climates, etc, and I'm so ignorant that I just assumed it was Hindi I was hearing spoken around me - turns out it was mostly Tamil. So even if anything I've observed is anywhere close to a truth, it's likely limited to the 300km slice of the South Tamil-Nadu province I chanced to visit, or just to Chennai, or just to the street I happened to stroll down after breakfast.

6. Confusing rural and urban. A reader wisely pointed out that, when lauding the relaxed reaction I experienced from Indians, I was comparing urban India with rural Zaire. "The urban experience (though with differences as you've observed) is a common one now, around the world, and those of us who live (or have lived) in cities can connect fairly easily - as I guess people with similar lifestyles have always been able to do."

7. Making sweeping generalizations. I'm glad y'all understand that I'm sharing first impressions, trying to make some sense of the foreignness of this all, not pretending to have anything more than a superficial snapshot of the true depth of a nation. I spent 7 years in Africa, and each year thought "Now I get it!" Then the next year would pass and I'd look back and think, "What was I thinking?!" I really shouldn't say anything after one week, but if we waited until we knew everything we'd never say anything - the best we can share is what we have at any moment, and a willingness to embrace a different understanding later (reason number 824 that I'd make an unsuccessful politician).

May 26, 2012

Typical Tourist in India

For all my blog bragging (blagging?) about being a seasoned traveller, I still made lotsa of the same silly mistakes as anyone, took the same photos, went on the same tours. There's just some mandatory activities and reactions and feelings that trump any world traveller ego.

1. I got conned at a temple. A holy-looking man in a delicious orange robe silently but insistently motioned me to follow him, as if this was the official protocol. He took me down some passageway, pointed to a big sign saying foreigners have to pay 1,000 rupees, then to a little interior shrine where his fellow con artist did some prayer for me and my family and put the smudge on my forehead. Then demanded an offering. When I coughed up 200, thinking that was better than 1,000, they smiled and put it at Krisna's feet. Then asked for an offering for the next God beside him (there were 3). I said they could share. Then as the tout continued to guide me around the temple and force me to take photos, he asked for a personal gift, so I gave him 100. The whole rest of the time he asked for another 100 to match my earlier donation. It was just so annoying, but he kept being just confusing enough and sacred enough that I was off balance. Then back at the beginning he told me my bus has already started to load and shooed me off, then disappeared. I never did give him more, so the whole thing only cost me $5, but also robbed me of the Peace of mind exploring the ancient temple, and of course wounded my traveller's ego.

2. I stepped in shit. Only once, not every minute like I'd been led to believe. A nice man on the bus pointed it out in time for me to go wipe it off on some rocks and water it down before the bus left. Yuck.


3. I got hit while walking. Swerved just a little to avoid something, and a bicycle hit me from behind. He bounced off me and into an oncoming motorcycle. No-one was hurt, and he re-aligned his handlebars quickly while I apologized then moved along (instinct and training to not hang around an accident scene for fear of blame, extortion, jail - in Africa, we were trained that even if we killed someone with our car, to keep driving to the nearest police station and ask to be locked up for our own protection.) Yes he was cycling the wrong way on a one-way street, but it was still my fault for stepping out of line.

Walking here is a bit of skill but a lot of faith. There are so many people and obstacles and directions and modes of transport (foot, bike, motorbike, car, bus) on the narrow roads that everyone has to rely on the predictability of everyone else. If I want to cross the road I have to do it confidently so that everyone knows what I'm doing, then they can adjust accordingly. If I start to hesitate and dodge, no-one knows how to react, and accidents happen. It's almost the opposite of Canada, where the guiding safety standards are clear rules, external signals, and a cultural expectation of consideration and ceding to others. In India, safety is maintained by each person doing what he needs to do deliberately and clearly, and letting the rest of humanity absorb around him.

It's like a swarm of ants. An ant with a piece of grass pulls it into a busy highway of ants and they all just swarm around and continue together. Or like a small stream joining a river, it all just merges. This whole big society feels somewhat like that. It's just too big and crowded and busy for everyone to be over-concerned with everyone else - consideration here is being smooth and seamless in the flow of the society.

Sometimes that theory works better than others, in my Western perspective. On the train yesterday several people had to sit cross-legged on the floor. Several times people walking through the isle, carefully stepping between them all, got their back foot caught between two particular men sitting a bit closer together than others. Each time, the men just sat there, not moving their legs at all for the person to get unstuck. It happened more than once and each time they continued to sit oblivious and unmoving felt more like the usual negative connotation of "inconsiderate" as opposed to the positive "natural flow" interpretation I've been positing here.

4. People cut in front of me in line-ups. Waiting for the bus, in the Ashram food line-up, at the airport security, pretty much anywhere. I continue to give a bit too much space between me and the person in front of me, trusting in the sanctity of an established queue to preserve my position, but there seems to be no shame among some Indians to just quietly and smoothing slipping in front. Even if I can catch their eye afterward with an indignant Western "shame on you" look, they just smile innocently back with an "I'm an Indian ant being absorbed into the flow of society" smile.

I had more examples in my head, but that's enough to be human again. We travellers learn as much from our own mistakes as from our observations. Testing what annoys us leads to more insight than the signs on the museum walls. I don't have to like or agree with everything that's different here, but I do need to accept the rules (or lack thereof) and prevailing culture and do my best to honour and enjoy and operate within them. Keeping my head up in line-ups and down on the street will get me there faster, safer and, um, cleaner.

May 24, 2012

Temple Tour

To comfort the children before leaving, I told them a bedtime story about how my dad went away one summer to study in France. While he was away, everything was different. Mom gave us a bigger allowance, took us to a motel with a colour tv, and just ran the household fully her way. It was also the summer our dog Spiffy died, and that's when I remember missing him most of all, needing is strength, writing him about it on a big postcard with a picture of a mountie.

Now I'm that professional away dad (albeit with much more internet contact), and living it all over again from the other side. Just as I had hoped, Sarah's enjoying the chance to be The Parent, without the compromise and sharing that any partnership requires. I understand that I'm a particularly strong and involved dad, putting my stamp and energy on much of our family's patterns, from our breakfast routine to afterschool play/chore balance. Not that she's an absentee mother by any stretch of the imagination - she's always beautifully, integrally involved in our family - it's just good for the boys (and her) to hear just her voice clearly without any echoes of Papa bouncing around.

Maybe when I get back I'll even try to listen to it all for a while, see how to slip myself into whatever new form they've created before imposing my PowerPapa energy. Maybe I should do that once in a while anyways, take a step back from parenting to see what each of us brings to the parenting team... what all four of us bring to the family team.

And now I'm the one missing my boys (I assume dad missed me), and even more acutely feeling them miss me. In the middle of a stunted but lovely facebook chat with the boys, describing elephants and temples and food, Zekiah slowly, carefully poked out "I mis u papa." Crying in an Indian internet cafe, suppose I'm not the first.

When dad came back from France, we eagerly gathered the neighbours for the big slide show. Remember those big round carousels that you'd hold your breath hoping the next one would pop in? Dad had about 15 of them ready for us. And almost every picture was a statue. 10-20 of the same statue from different angles. He was so fascinated, and never really understood our laughter. Well, I look through my own photos and see a whole lot of temples, brighly-coloured Krishnas and Shivas, ancient stone carvings, all equally amazing. Many more photos than I'll share here, but here's a taste of the temple tour from yesterday.



This is a 3,500 year old mango tree in the courtyard of a 4,000 year old shrine. In Canada I live in a house that's over 70 years old and think that's cool. Thousands of years, just don't compute.



Why is Western religion so boring? Here's a carving in another extremely old "Temple of 100 Pillars", with great scenes like this, people dancing, gods on each others' shoulders, musicians, whole families in goofy polaroid poses. Paul in Corinthians would NOT approve. Yes Jesus turned water into wine and hung around with concubines, but we tend to gloss over that, not glorify it or even enjoy it. Song of Solomon is turned from a hot piece of poetry into a metaphor. Where are our Greek gods duking it out and wooing young maidens? Just like my posting yesterday about how people are so openly human, the Hindu religion is fun, playful, real (not to take away any of the sacredness).



This temple, over 2 football fields long, was carved out of a single stone. By hand. It's still not done - "no new Kings have come along to take on the project" explained my guide. When my boys become aggressive and artistic teenagers, I think I'll send them down here with a chisel to hammer out their pubescent angst.



This is inside one part of that huge hand-carved temple. Just mind-blowing to think of the work and care that went into this. Not exactly sure if there was an intended real use, or just an over-the-top art installation, but worthy of its World Heritage status.



Just as cool as the ancient monuments are the everyday, every block (it seems) shrines. This one was just along some road close to my hotel. People stop by for a quickie on their way to work or wherever they're going. I've been in also - it's a quick moment of Peace and orientation (for me, won't speak to what it means for them). The care and devotion to these shrines, as well as to their houses, decorations, sidewalk paintings little touches everywhere, just keep this place alive and beautiful.



One last photo from one other temple, just to prove that I'm not simply downloading internet images (thanks mom, for the hot pink camera, lets me be so discreet with my photo work...)
One fun part of the all-day AC bus tour was that it was all Indian tourists and me. When we got to the beach resort for lunch, they went crazy in the water, probably the first time in the ocean for many of them. Splashing each other, shrieking and running back from the waves, getting more and more brave and wet over time. That's a universal language, the first time in the ocean.

May 22, 2012

Surprise Temple

Played my favourite game this morning - chose a destination on the other side of a strange town (Chennai), took one look at the map to get oriented then folded it into my pocket and started meandering that direction. Chose small streets, back alleys, another small doorstep to perch on with a 25 cent breakfast plate. Then on some random street, idly wondering with no attachment if i was still on track, there suddenly was the temple looming up above the world just down the street. I'd walked straight into it. Made it feel like a secret treasure, like i was the only explorer who had ever found it. Made me want to claim it for the queen. If I do the half-day guided bus tour on Friday we'll actually come back, but with a driver on an air-conditioned coach it will lose all of its Indiana Jones charm (though it will still be magnificent.)

Along the way I saw so many people just going about their daily lives - the stuff of life that we hide behind long driveways and curtained windows in Canada. Men in their diaper-like traditional thong-cloths, big bellies and droopy chests unnoticed as they squat on rock piles to brush their teeth or inhale cleansing water up their noses. The usual naked kids being bathed. A women brushing her long beautiful tangled hair on a second-story balcony. One balcony over another half-naked man with 5 ritual strips of white chalk-paint/smudge on his forehead, both nipples, belly-button, and elbow creases. A mother pumping water into bright coloured plastic jugs while her daughter holds down the top pump mechanism, which she had carried from home. Women heating up morning tea and foods in big metal cauldrons in the front entry hallways of their buildings. One older woman calling me over to watch as she bottle-feeds a baby monkey.


There's just no shame in being human here, no running away from any sign of mortality like in our Western culture.

Another thing I'm appreciating is the lack of overwhelming attention I receive. There are curious looks, amused looks, "there's something you don't see everyday" looks. But the world doesn't end when I walk by - even conversations don't end. When I hear people laughing it's usually because they've said something funny to each other, not because a white alien just walked by. Rather than being offered to go to the front of the line, I had to jostle for position like everyone else at the museum. Unlike Africa, where no matter how long I live there I'm still a curio, an amusing animal at the zoo who's even more amusing after learning clever tricks like speaking Swahili or eating local food with my right hand. Here I'm another human being - a foreigner sometimes meriting extra attention, but still a fellow human being. After 4 days I still don't know the Tamil word for White Man - it took me about 4 minutes in Zaire to learn "Mundelli Mundelli Mundelli."

Which brings me to my third and final anthropological observation of the day. In yesterday's post the word "condescending" jumped off my fingertips as I typed, and I wondered about it later. There can be times when my over-friendly, over-inquisitive greetings are just as dehumanizing as the African experience I just described above. "Hello funny little brown man, wearing a funny diaper on your little motorcycle..." I don't greet people in my own community with an amused curiosity, so why should I do it here? I should and hopefully do greet people at home with a genuine warmth and openness to hearing and sharing their journey (or atleast a 2-second snapshot of it), and I should bring that to my interactions with people here too. They're not museum pieces set in place for me to photograph and blog about; they're humans living remarkably similar lives in a remarkably different place, and it's in recognizing both those similarities and those differences that we truly acknowledge our kinship and find a connection.

The human respect I feel from Indians in the street is reinforcing this lesson, but it's not new. Back in high school I joined the "Special Kiwanis Youth" club at school, working with developmentally disabled adults. At first I did it mostly to increase my chances at scholarships and with Dawn Rydeen, but grew to genuinely love the experience and the people, and went on to coach them in the BC Special Olympics long after the scholarships had passed by. One day my girlfriend Dawn (yes, the ploy worked) thanked me for having moved past my initial child-like treatment and learning to meet them as adults in a different place.


A dozen years later, I returned at night to my Tanzanian fishing village after some time away and woke up Barney Mpombo to get my mail from the church office. He shook himself awake and fetched the mail, then as he handed it to me, the always-smiling and accommodating face turned dark and he said, "Don't ever ask me this again." I suddenly, shamefully realized that I had treated this man, 10 years my senior and the #2 most powerful, respected man in the church diocese, like some expendable junior third director who had nothing else going in his life except to indulge my needs (not that I should treat an employee or anyone that way either). This isn't a first-greeting example, but speaks to the same issue of seeing other people in relation to our needs and interests.

Well, I'd love to tell you about the temples, fresh mangos, public bus ride, market shopping, dosas, Bollywood film, dead puppy on the roadside altar, string of 200 fireworks lit on the road to stop traffic and celebrate a young man's arrival after some important life event, historic fort tour, hand-made 25-foot long bamboo ladder strapped to the side of a bicycle, and other amazements that have filled these first 2 days here in Chennai, but you can read all that in the Lonely Planet guides, and hopefully I'll be able to upload photos that will fill those thousand words. Besides, this internet cafe is costing me a whopping 20 rupees (40 cents) per hour, and has become rather cramped and hot, and horns are constantly tooting outside reminding me to get back out and experience some more.

So instead I'll leave you with this sign from the washroom door of the department store so modern and fancy that they had sit-down toilets instead of the usual squat kind.

GUIDELINES TO USE WESTERN TOILET
1. Sit on seat cover and don't climb on seat.
2. Don't wash your feet in the toilet. Don't wet the floor.
3. Flush before and after using the toilet.

May 21, 2012

Indian deja-vu

Oh ya, i remember this! I remember how to find an alternate guest house when the one I booked online has moved, changed names, and won't answer the door at 2am. I remember how to come out of a cold bucket shower at 2:30am and stand under the paddle fan to let evaporative cooling do its thing. I remember how to use bottled water for tooth brushing, and how to use the bucket of water instead of toilet paper for the squat Indian toilet

I remember how to connect naturally and respectfully with people. Friendly but not over-engaged or condescending greetings. Choosing the roadside food stand with the friendliest bunch of men all standing with plates in hand, happily using their fingers to scoop up maandazi and white-paste patties with mystery sauce, and happily teaching me the names of the mystery foods they're indoctrinating me with. Sitting on the roadside near but not too near others, letting them smile and approach me as i drink in the passing scene. Bargaining with the three-wheel-motorized-taxi driver just enough to earn respect but still comfortably overpay.

I remember the universal kid English greetings - How are you, I'm fine thank you, What is your name? And how to say it with the wide open-mouth accent that's more universally understood. And how to communicate without assuming that everyone speaks my language (I'm actually surprised that more people don't speak English, atleast beyond a very basic greeting and directions level - one of many pre-conceived notions I'm quickly shedding.)

I remember how to cut down a quiet side-street, passing women sweeping the dirt in front of their charcoal cookers, kids running barefoot or naked, families quietly emerging from their makeshift shelters to greet the day.

I remember not to be overwhelmed. Mostly I'm surprised that it's not wall-to-wall people, that i can walk fairly safely along the roadside, that the noises and smells are just a gentle chaos of character. I don't have to be afraid of the police, wary of people walking behind, annoyed at constant attention. It aint the Cowichan Valley, but it also aint Kiburu slums in Kenya or crazy Egyptian taxi drivers or packed Kinshasa streets at midnight. It's just a full, alive, but oddly gentle India welcoming me this first morning.

May 19, 2012

Free and Flat

My first ever solo trip - 6 weeks in Europe at age 21 - I was so scared that I couldn't let myself feel any emotion about it. Only on the road to the airport, when an airplane buzzed overhead and my dear friend Mary gave me a huge washroom key ("the key to opportunity", she said) did I suddenly get an excited adrenaline rush.

14 years and over 20 countries later I find myself oddly non-aroused at this latest jaunt. Probably several reasons:

1. I'm so prepared and looking forward to my real destination - a one-month work assignment in Sri Lanka - that this India indulgence feels like a detour. I've treated myself to this, devoted mom's precious birthday money to this, and know it will be a treat - a full week in a new place with nothing to do but drink it in. But I think I just need to arrive and Be in it and let it take me over.

2. Related to #1, I've in general gone past a time when I could really enjoy quick visits to places. I became spoiled with the Joy of living long times in places, making friends, learning language, contributing. It's made normal tourism feel somewhat shallow. Sounds snobbish, I know, and truth is that I did deeply enjoy our 2-week jaunt through Oregon and California and felt no need to settle down and volunteer at every gold-mining ghost town or perfect beach we discovered. As with most things in life, I need to remember to not compare - a week in India is what I've got, and I'll experience a huge mouthful of the long longed-for continent in that short time.

3. I'm still not far enough away from my family and home. I'm dearly missing my children, planting season on the farm, my beautiful wife who so beautifully gifted me with this time away, our community, the end-of-year school stuff, etc. Much more than in past trips - perhaps because I'm that much more involved in my children and community life than in the past, perhaps because I'm that much older and more mortal. I just know that opening myself too much to where I'm going is impossible without opening myself to the gushy tears I feel watching my sad, multiple-tantrum little boy on Skype this morning, acting out so beautifully and purely what all four of us are feeling at some level.

4. Admittedly, and surprisingly, I'm a bit nervous about arriving in India for the first time ever, at midnight, with no direction, itinerary, hotel, transport... Everyone says that no matter how much you've travelled elsewhere, India's still going to be overwhelming. Well, despite all the incredibly difficult travel I've experienced, I guess a little piece of me still buys that story. Not enough to overplan - I still feel confident enough to not even have a Lonely Planet, just trusting that I'll amble through it just fine - but enough to jitter a bit.
A man walks down a street, it's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the third world, and maybe it's his first time around
Doesn't speak the language, he holds no currency
He is a foreign man, he is surrounded by the sound, sound of
Cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages..'.


I've spent the last week consciously noticing and appreciating Canada, to heighten the contrast to the India I'm about to discover. Here's just a bit of the Canadiana I've tried to drink in:
- Space. We have so much open, quiet, green, throw-your-arms-out-and-dance-in-circles space
- Pizza, poutine, croissant, organic peanut-butter-chocolate squares...
- Sunshine that (right now) is just perfect to talk in without protection, sweat or exhaustion
- Clean, smooth sidewalks that let me keep my head up

On the other hand, I've also noticed
- Absolute lack of children in downtown Ottawa. 3 days, 2 kids in strollers spotted.
- Lack of people - the same wide space and silence I enjoy is also a lack of music and smiles and people-life that makes other countries so alive
- Canada's 8th-largest carbon footprint per capita - this plane ride sits heavy on my eco-conscience
- Prices - having trouble dropping $10 on felafel for lunch knowing that tomorrow I can eat amazing "real" Indian food for under a dollar
- An overall level of comfort and ease that is lovely (and against which I don't fight nearly so much as when I was a young backpacker - this photo's from 1990 in Zaire) but also isolating and artificial, living in a bubble

So here's to a 20-hour plane ride to a chaotic midnight entry into a new sub-continent. 20 hours to let go of Canada, let go of heaviness and fear and flatness, and open myself wholly to this new mistress who waits patiently to unfold.

May 11, 2012

Two-Sided Simpleton

Smaller aint always simpler. Cheaper aint always simpler. Even less aint always simpler.

I wrote recently about how we've opened ourselves to the idea of moving into our 600 square foot cottage and having another family rent this 1,200 square-foot farmhouse. The perfect opportunity to downsize, cull through the accumulation of Stuff, live with a smaller footprint, focus on what's really important - all standard definitions of simplicity.

After showing many good people both abodes, we've decided to stay in the farmhouse. But not for the reasons many might assume. The idea of living in a smaller space - particularly that beautiful, natural smaller space that we built ourselves - is still mighty appealing. It's the actual move that's in the way. The idea of rooting through all our stuff, uprooting our family and starting over just doesn't feel Simple at all. After 4 years we've established a healthy, happy family dynamic in this space, put our personal touch and family energy into it, made it Home. With a heat pump, fireplace, insulation and (soon) new double-pane windows, the energy costs are probably about the same as the baseboard-heated cottage. And as North American families go, it's still pretty darn uncluttered.

This house works for us. We've invested a lot of life energy and financial resources to make it work, make it an expression of what we believe and how we want to live. Shifting to a new space would require a huge packing/sorting/moving/unpacking process while I'm away, then the months of finding our patterns and ways in that new space. That's a lot of energy and upheaval without any real gain in our goal of lower-impact living or intentional lifestyle. So, in the name is Simple Living, we are staying in the bigger house.

This reminds me of an announcement we made back our Vancouver Quaker meeting (our faith group, in which Simplicity is one of the five or so main cornerstones) - "In the name of simplicity, we have bought a hot tub." Yes it cost $4,000, and yes it uses energy (though its particular design means it only uses about $5/month to keep heated). But at the time Sarah and I were both working such insane hours that were feeling like our only Together Time was side-by-side on the laptops till midnight every night. That hot tub bubbling away on the back porch called us away, out under the stars for 15 minutes every night to just relax, talk, be together, connect, dream. It was out there under those 5 stars, listening to the noises of the shipyards and sirens, watching the spotlight from the gambling casino, that we found our new path out here to WildSide Farm. For $4,000 we bought a daily window of simplicity that has led to a lifestyle in much better alignment with our values.

I'm not saying everyone should rush out an buy a bigger house and a hot tub. I'm just celebrating the rare (for us) realization we've had that we don't always have to take the hardest way. Simple is as much about quality as quantity. It isn't measured so much in dollars and footprints (though those are important components), but ultimately in how we live consciously and intentionally.

May 6, 2012

Sri Lanka or bust

The last time Sarah and I declared a year of No Change, we ended up retiring, selling our house and moving to this farm on Vancouver Island. This time, and just this month, we're considering moving into a 600-square-foot cottage, and I'm doing a solo one-month trip to Asia. As I asked last week, is it a true openness and embracing of change and opportunity, or is it a change-addiction?

It's not easy, leaving the family for a month. Missing both boys' class plays, end of school celebrations, Class 4 camping trip that I could have chaperoned, first exciting week of summer vacation transition, farewell to dear Crystal & Tristan and welcome to new (still-to-be-determined) renters, major garden planting, class 2 visit to the reclusive monastery up the mountainside, parking-lot see-you-next-year hugs and vainly hopeful pledges to get together over the summer. It's truly amazing, and affirming, to realize how many high-value life events and daily Joys can get packed into a month, particularly May 15 to June 23.

That's when I'll be in Sri Lanka, on a contract with the Canadian Cooperative Association to do micro-enterprise development . Working in 3 different coastal areas of the country with local small-business co-operatives that were formed to re-establish livelihoods after the 1994 tsunami. It's an exciting re-entry into international development, building on micro-credit work I've done in Tanzania and Kenya as well as my new investment into the co-operative movement. Beyond just being a fantastic one-month experience and contribution, I'm hopeful that it puts me right back in the flow that will lead to some longer-term (6-month?) position that our whole family could go on - the dream we opened ourselves to back in October. Our boys are 8 and 10 and just a perfect age to drink in a new culture and language and way of being.

To celebrate this first overseas trip since leaving ACCES 4 years ago, I'm gifting myself with a week of backpacking life in India. I booked a layover in Chennai (Madras), before I'd read the Lonely Planet description of it:
Chennai has neither the cosmopolitan, prosperous air of Mumbai (Bombay), the optimistic buzz of Bengaluru (Bangladore) or the historical drama of Delhi. It's muggy, polluted, hot as hell, and difficult to get around. Traditional tourist attractions are few. Even the movie stars are, as one Chennaiker put it, 'not that hot.'
So it sounds like the perfect place to go with no expectations, just walk around and drink in a continent I've never set foot in, enjoy foods and sounds and crowds and trains, maybe a trip down to Auroville - "the first and only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness, also concerned with - and practically researching into - sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind."

And just in case you weren't jealous, here's a snippet of the Sri Lanka guidebook:
Available throughout the year are pineapple, papaya (excellent with lime) and banana, of which there are dozens of varieties. The extraordinarily rich jack fruit is also available all year. Seasona fruit include the lusciously sweet mango, the purplish mangosteen, wood-apple, avocado, the spiky foul-smelling durian and hairy red rambutan. In addition to ordinary green coconuts, Sri Lanka has its own variety - the golden king coconut; the milk is particularly sweet and nutritious.
So my dear friends and family, as I sincerely miss the beautiful community season, I will console myself with Bollywood and the sacred Buddhist capital of Kandy and warm water surfing. As you dig into our rich soil to plant our year's food supply, I'll dig into a foul-smelling durian and try to smuggle back a hairy red rambutan for you in my backpack.

Apr 26, 2012

Moving, not Up

We're moving again. When it comes to homes, we're serial monogamists.

It's been 3.5 years since I posted a jubilant We're Home! posting, so I reckon we're about due. I haven't lived in the same house for more than 4 years since, um, high school. Is it a need for change, a fear of getting too settled, or a seizing of new opportunities and growth?

In this case, it's the lure of going yet simpler, yet smaller, yet more focussed. And the move aint so far - just across the basketball court. Our beloved Crystal and Tristan are leaving the cottage, and after putting so much heart and energy into creating that beautiful natural space, it's just too tempting to give it a try. Voluntarily reduce from 1200 to under 600 square feet of living space. Winnow our Stuff once again. Live in even closer proximity, interwoven, connected. Experience a truly breathtaking bedroom worthy of the term Master. And open this larger space to a family who may feel the need for a larger space.

It's not decided, and in fact we're letting the universe decide. We've posted both places for rent, and will see who and what arrangement ends up being the best fit. When I sit in the cottage I can feel a beautiful healthy life together and get excited by the Fun and beauty of it. Then when I'm in this house that we've finally put some energy into making ours - photos on the wall, shelves built where we want them and kitchen cupboards removed where we don't, enough hooks in the mud room... - I think we're crazy to leave a space that is working so beautifully for us.

So here's to being open to possibility, open to the new learning of experience of either Going Small or of Staying Put for more than 4 years. The continuous thread of our lives is this life, love, land and community - just the walls containing and nourishing it that are in question.

PS - if you know a family looking for a rural farm community living scene in the Hub of the Universe, 15 minute walk to Sunrise Waldorf, organic farm, hot tub, etc etc, tell them to contact us, and that they get to help determine our footprint for the coming years - ramble@wildsidefarm.ca

Apr 18, 2012

Suicide bomber photos - why it's OK

The world was appalled recently by American soldiers posing for pictures with body parts of an Afghan suicide bomber. My military friends on Facebook have a very different view:

FACEBOOK FRIEND: Well, it seems our soldiers have posed with dead suicide bombers....now we have done it! Gone and offended more appeasers! What were we thinking? Maybe if we promise to go into battle without weapons they will forgive us....There is one good thing about those pictures. All the folks watching reality shows will now know what dead people look like close up. I wonder if the ass clowns in the media noticed that there were Afghani police posing as well. As with the Belambai shooter, unless it's us burning the Koran, nobody cares.

The suicide bombers were less valued than a dog or a cow. LIFE HAS NO VALUE TO THESE PEOPLE. Last year, a 12 year old girl was brutally raped near my firebase. The rapists then sliced her femoral artery so she would die. We tried to save her, but she died. If she would have lived, SOMEONE in her family would have killed her anyway for being raped. This culture is sick, we are fighting savages, and for some of us, we can switch it on and off. When we happen to do something that some folks would consider savage, the whole world blows up. The media prints ANYTHING that undermines America. Posing with a leg or two is very lame compared to what they do to our dead. Even after seeing the news media shit on our country for my whole adult life, I still can't figure out why they hate us so much.

RICK: I'm sure you're right that there are abuses on the Afghani side that go unmentioned in the press. But that doesn't diminish what the pictures demonstrate. It's the dehumanization that's so shocking. Those pictures, and even some of your words, make it sound like these human beings are being treated as less than human (both by soldiers and, based on what you've written, by some of their own people). SOME of them may be acting like "savages", some of them may have been brought to the point where they feel like "life has no value", but that does not take away our moral imperative to treat all humans as people.

I'm not talking about whether it's right or wrong to punish, or defend/protect, etc. I'm not excusing the destruction that the suicide bomber caused, nor diminishing that tragedy. But that bomber was still a human, still had a mother, still loved someone sometime in his life. You can do your duty and what you feel is necessary without denying that. As a Quaker I'm committed to trying to see and reach "that of God in everyone". I believe that most religions, including Islam and Christianity, teach a similar message. And that probably most people who don't subscribe to a particular religion would probably agree too. As a civilian I can only imagine how challenging that would be when faced with a suicide bomber or some of the other people you have to deal with. I've been just robbed or threatened and had a very tough (OK, unsuccessful) time trying to still feel any compassion, and that's nothing compared to what you experience over there. So I'm not trying to be holier than thou here, just trying to explain or explore why we the public are having such a reaction to this.

ANOTHER FRIEND: Anyone that believes that there is humanity in theses people obviously has not been in a life or death position fighting against them. These people are not godly, they are savages hands down and the only thing they understand is pure violence. We need to take the fight to them in as brutal way as we have taken it to the Germans and the Japanese. Burn em to the ground and piss on their ashes.

If these men were let loose in your neighborhood, a mugging is nbothing compared to the atrocities they would unleash on you and your loved ones. You would be placed on your knees in front of a camera trying to "touch their humanity" as they used a dull machette to remove your head.

RICK: Yes, I fully agree that I have not experienced what you guys have. And in the heat of a life-and-death battle you can't afford to feel compassion like I can in the luxury of my Canadian farmhouse. But D__, if they could see your posting - "Burn em to the ground and piss on their ashes." - they would likely say that you are "are savages hands down and the only thing they understand is pure violence." And yet I know M__'s goodness and believe in yours, so why can't I equally believe in theirs? If I can hear these violent, savage words from you and yet still believe in your innate goodness, your love for your family and country, your belief that what you are fighting for is Right, then why can't I believe the same that for the people on the other side of this war?

FRIEND: I do not kill little girls or wish for the death of the innocent. I am not saying you are wrong, I am saying your faith is grossly misplaced in these people.

ANOTHER FRIEND: I pose with a deer when I kill it what is the difference?Oh yeah I feel bad for the deer.How can you respect a chain of thought that says you can kill people that don't think like you.The same way I got respect from a bully in school.I beat them into my way of thinking.It is amazing who will become your friend if you hit him hard enough.

These people are schooled from the age of 5 to be killers of infidels. That means everyone who is not musllim. Even if they had loved ones, they have surrendered any decency and humanity they have. If you have a rabid dog, you have to kill it. These folks are rabid dogs. Rick, I respect your opinion and I am thankful there are people like you. Folks who want to see good in everything and so on. I just have to deal with reality. That reality is we have a religion in the world (Islam) that has been hijacked by radicals. They want us all either to submit or die. They cannot be reasoned with. We will have trouble visited upon us from them through the years. It is a tall order to kill them all, but I will try to facilitate that. I will either be on the trigger myself, or will find them so someone else can be on the trigger. Our government is useless due to political correctness, and I'm just tired of all the apologizing to Islam. I would just say, "Yeah, the Son of a Bitch blew himself up." He looks kind of stupid. And by the way, I think we will be coming after the rest of you. We will fast rope onto your house, and put a bullet in your brain. We could care less if your woman or your goat gets scared. We don't care what border you are behind. If country X doesn't want us there, by all means, hand the SOB over, you have 6 hours. Right now, we actually knock on the door and ask to come in. Not smart. We, the military, have been castrated by politically correct politicians.

ANOTHER FRIEND: They kill themselves to fight the war of propaganda, therefore taking pictures of their pieces/parts really should not be offensive as it helps their hellish agenda's.... Tired of pandering to the people that can't stomach the truth... Kill em all and let God sort 'em out.

Apr 17, 2012

Chasing an Angel from Montgomery


Late at night, under the stars on a river dock at Casa Guatemala orphanage, a beautiful American volunteer introduced me to Angel From Montgomery. Her voice rang out across the water, over the muted night sounds of the jungle, and I fell in love with her and Bonnie Rait and that brilliant John Prine song.

Then she left, and took her tangled beauty and her lyrical Spanish and her song with her. I was left with the feel of her long hair on my fingertips, a mysterious address in Grinnell Iowa where her mail could be forwarded, and a fragment of the song with with a vague idea of how to play it.

For years I tentatively wrote letters of earnest friendship addressed "c/o Weirs", envisioning them arriving at a squat white clapboard farmhouse, stout midWest woman tucking crumpled, reused envelopes into her apron and wondering who this vagrant young man was, clucking at stamps from Africa and Canada and Ohio then Africa again. Then sending them on to her dear young vagrant friend to India and Australia and Amsterdam, wondering as much as I did at this tenuous connection.
If dreams were thunder, and lightning was desire
This old house would have burned down a long time ago

And for years I chased the song, singing that one tender verse about buzzing flies in youth hostels, Zaire river cargo ships, Rocky Mountain rest stops and Ohio grad school bars. Many said the song sounded familiar, but none could bring it home for me.
There's flies in the kitchen - I can hear them buzzing
And I aint done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
Come home in the evening and have nothing to say

Finally, an old woman in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas not only knew it, but knew the singer and the words. With trembling hands she wrote the lyrics by firelight and handed them to my equally trembling hands, about to realize one part of my quest. But as often happens, the morning after didn't live up to the night's magic. She herself was an old woman so I couldn't read her writing, and I still couldn't really remember the tune or chords. But I had learned that Bonnie Rait was the singer, so a few months later I found the scratchy record album at the Akron Ohio library (yes, this was before CD's and google searches) and finally learned it, and sing it to this day.

And years later - after a masters degree and 3 years in a Tanzanian fishing village and a civil war in Zaire - I closed the loop with my American Beauty. My despairing "I'm lonely" newsletter from Ghana went to Grinnell Iowa - the self-proclaimed "Jewel of the Prarie" - and on to dear Laura and her hubby and baby in Australia, where my Call of the Wild was heard loud and clear. "He's ready", she realized, and sent a simple "You two should meet" email to her old college roommate who now lived in Texas and was now also ready, and with whom I had 3 things in common - we both baked bread, had lived in Africa, and loved to sing Bonnie Rait. In fact, during those years I was searching for the song (and, unknowingly, her), she was in her Chicago basement dubbing herself singing that same song in 5-part harmony.

Less than 2 years later that beautiful friend came to Tatoosh Washington, at the foot of Mt. Ranier, to watch her Michigan college roommate and her Guatemalan lice-picking friend say their vows that continue to grow strong 13 years later. That night on a Guatemalan fishing dock led to a wife, a lifelong friendship, a new song deep in my heart, and many many things to believe in. Our 10-year-old chose this as his first song to learn on guitar, and all 5 kids on our land love to enthusiastically belt out:
Just give me one thing that I can hold onto
To believe in this living, it's just a hard way to go.

Apr 15, 2012

Arrogant Canuck Fans


Canuck fans aren't arrogant. We're just so gosh-darn thrilled that we finally have a good team, and we can't quite believe it.

Is it arrogance if we really are the best? Note: 2 President's Cups and game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals can't all be luck.

Is it boasting if we're not trying to impress anyone, just share our excitement? I share the amazing things my boys do all the time, but I'm not boasting, just sharing my life and Joys. Where's that line - when we're trying to make ourselves look bigger/better instead of just being natural and human?

I remember a soccer practice at about age 13 when I finally figured out how to kick the larger size-5 ball up high. I was so over-the-moon, every successful kick I exclaimed to my buddy Ian "Wow, did you see that kick?!" He finally said I was boasting, but I wasn't, I was just sharing a pure, real Joy and amazement.

Truth is, even with the team's recent successes, we still at the core have an inferiority complex. The minute a Jonathan Quick or Tim Thomas gets hot, we think we'll never score. When the other team rushes down on a 2-on-1, we think they'll score. We think, "Here we go again, about to go back to the old Canuck losing ways." And when it doesn't, we're back to that jaw-dropping tell-the-world-about-it amazement.

We're not arrogant, we're just trying our best to finally believe in our perennial loser/choker team. It's not quite false bravado, it's more like trying to keep our eyes shut so the dream doesn't dissipate too quickly. If we yell just loud enough and long enough, maybe it really will be true.