Manic in Milano

I arrived in Milano from Kathmandu one week ago, and I’m still  slowly recovering from culture shock.

It’s odd, I certainly didn’t feel as overwhelmed when I arrived in Asia over 2 months ago. I was prepared for the traffic, the poverty, and a completely different way of life.

But arriving in Milano felt like a punch in the face. I never imagined I would feel so disoriented and confused for the first several days.

The traffic – it’s so civilized. There are stoplights and both pedestrians and drivers follow signals. There is no worry of getting killed crossing the street or being jostled by a cow.

Smiling and starting conversations with random people – it’s definitely not done here. No one smiles back and I’ve had a few people walk away from me in mid-sentence. I get the impression people aren’t happy here. Or maybe they are but they’re too busy to show it or even think about it.

Obsession with food – here, it’s everywhere. In Asia, the food was delicious but there wasn’t much of a selection. If a restaurant served good food, I’d eat because I wouldn’t know when the next meal would be. I remember looking forward to my favourite morning breakfast: one crepe with a banana and a tablespoon of honey. There were many excruciatingly hot days where the food highlight of my day was finding a Popsicle.

Since arriving in Milano, I have eaten more food in one week than I had in Asia for over 2 months. Seriously.

For the first few days, I had the following from the breakfast buffet: panino with scamorza and smoked ham, 2 cornetti (one with chocolate and the other with vanilla), scrambled eggs, a small piece of fruit crostata, full fat yogurt and fruits. Since then, I’ve dropped the panino but am still eating everything else. In Asia, I never ate this much food in one day.

Gelato. Every day. Sometimes twice a day. I have to make up for all the Popsicles I ate in India and Nepal. I’ve even gone so far as to keep a gelato diary with my own ratings: gianduia and dulce de leche (5*), mango and strawberry (3*), coffee and pistachio (5*), coconut and dark chocolate (5*), passion fruit and forest berries (4*), amarena cherries and penguino – vanilla ice cream with Nutella (5*), hazelnut and pistachio (4*), lemon and mango (4*), coffee and hazelnut (4*), salted caramel and milk chocolate (5*), nougat ins and hazelnut (5*), 70% dark and mascarpone with figs (4*).

There is so much wealth in Milano, too much, actually.  The high end shops are endless: Prada, Louis Vuitton and Dolce and Gabbana, the latter of which has various shops taking up several blocks, one for women’s shoes, men’s shoes, a children’s shop and even a “family” shop. Seriously.

Milano is expensive. Very expensive. I backpacked through Asia for over 2 months and spent $800.  I spent just over that amount in one week here. I’m still in shock.

But I’m getting used to my new reality: gelato, pasta and wine. I don’t think life can get better than this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life and death in Varanasi

Varanasi is India’s oldest city, located along the banks of the Ganges River in NE India.

It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. There is something spectacular about walking the same roads as other people have for nearly 4,000 years.

This is where Hindus go to pray, wash away their sins and cremate family members. Varanasi is considered an auspicious place to die because it offers moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Whatever is sacrificed and chanted here is one thousand times more powerful than if the same deeds were performed elsewhere.

For me, the ghats, large stone slabs of steps that lead down to the banks of the Ganges, are the most interesting parts of the city. Varanasi has at least 80 ghats that offer countless sights: people bathing, doing laundry, brushing their teeth, shaving, boys laughing and swimming and holy men smoking pipes. There are even men on boats selling souvenirs. And of course, workers regularly dump ashes from funeral pyres into this very same water.

Varanasi is raw and intense. It’s an open book into people’s personal lives. This is where life and death come full circle, where the most intimate rituals take place in public. On one ghat, people soak naked in the waters while offering prayers to Ganga; on another ghat, there are burning corpses in plain view.

I arrived in Varanasi after a 14 hour overnight train ride from Orchha. Due to construction on the tracks, I had to jump off the train and walk on the tracks with my backpack in 47 degree heat. I can only imagine how much hotter it felt near the furnace-like heat at the cremation sites.

Like all Indian cities, Varanasi is crowded, dirty and insane. Traffic moves all the time: no stoplights and no order, yet everyone seems to get from one place to another in one piece.

Nothing is hidden in Varanasi. Filthy four year olds carry tiny babies, still unable to sit up, begging for money. Dogs are limping, some with no fur, others staring blankly into space. I saw people with leprosy, elephantiasis and no limbs, all begging on the streets. There is death and decay all around, but oddly enough I didn’t smell death and decay, only smoky incense.

Varanasi is a city that never sleeps. Waking up at 5 AM to watch the blood red sun come up, the ghats are already full with pilgrims performing morning prayers, sun salutations and meditation in silence. The cremation ghats run 24/7 and some funeral pyres are still hissing, steaming and spitting flames.

In Varanasi, death is raw, transparent and simple. I must admit, I was fascinated and shocked by the funeral rites, but as the days progressed, I felt honoured to witness these intensely personal moments. I grew to admire the simplicity of the ceremonies and appreciated the honesty and rawness of it. Death is simply a passing event and while different cultures have different practices, death is the same everywhere: it’s inevitable.

At the end of the day, I’m back on the boat, where I see men and women taking holy dips, meditating in solitude, heads bowed in prayer. As the sun goes down, the evening ritual of worship called the Ganga Aarti begins. The air is filled with prayers, chants, music and incense. Cymbals crash, bells ring, drums beat and tea lights are placed into the Ganges.

I placed three tea lit paper boats with flowers into the river and asked for blessings, as I watched the candles float away in the dark. They, and dozens of other candles, looked beautiful as they lit up the darkness.

Once the Ganga Aarti started, priests and pilgrims chanted and sang, ringing bells, waving lamps in a circular motion, accompanied by the chanting of mantras and hymns. More candles and incense are lit and flower petals and sweets are sprinkled into the river as offerings to Mother Ganga.

I watched this one hour ceremony on a boat with hundreds of others. All of the boats gather together, gently bumping off each other as children jump from boat to boat. It felt intimate, even though I was surrounded by strangers.

Another day in Varanasi.

Goodbye, India

Goodbye, India

Goodbye women clad in pink, orange and yellow saris

Goodbye gulab jamuns with slivers of pistachio soaked in rose water, masala dosas, tandoori chicken and buttery parathas

Goodbye giggling children with toothy smiles, chasing me down the road and hoping to have a conversation

Goodbye orange sunsets and jasmine breezes, frangipani trees, incense and sandalwood

Goodbye chai masala, Limca and Thums Up

Goodbye Taj Mahal – the most beautiful monument in the world

Goodbye Varanasi – the most magical place I’ve ever been to

Goodbye, India

No more hoarking and spitting

No more one star hotels with dirty towels and bugs

No more 47+ heat and power outages

No more slipping in cow patties, jumping off trains and falling out of boats

No more leering, crotch grabbing men

No more pushy cows, mangy dogs and hissing monkeys

No more crazy traffic, hanging out of tuktuks and incessant beeping of horns

Goodbye, India

And I’m never coming back

XOXO

 

 

 

Thank you, Cambodia

For over 12 years, I dreamed about visiting Cambodia; more specifically, the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom.

But after spending close to three weeks in Cambodia, I learned that the country is so much more than its temples.

My entry into the country was unusual. I arrived on foot from Vietnam, walking through No Man’s Land for 15 minutes in 40+ degree heat; and, once arriving in Cambodia, bribing a customs official to avoid getting a medical exam. The experience left me wary and slightly paranoid.

I’m not sure if it was the heat or dehydration, but I arrived in the country feeling exhausted, confused and hopeless. Despite the sun and blue skies, I felt a blanket of immense sadness, within myself and around me. These feelings lasted for almost 1 week.

If Cambodia could speak to me, it would scream poverty, rage, genocide, rape, torture, land mines and terror.

UNESCO has listed Cambodia as the third most land mined country in the world. More than 4 million are still strewn across the country. One does not take a walk in the countryside in Cambodia.

On my first day in Phnom Penh, I visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, both of which moved me to the core. The last time I felt such sadness was when I visited Auschwitz in 2000.

The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, took control of the country in the 1970s. In order to speed up communism throughout the country, he had anyone who he thought was a threat eliminated: the educated and wealthy, religious leaders, landowners, teachers, inventors and anyone who could help build the country. Schools were shut down. People were gathered in masses, tortured and executed.  Even children and babies were killed, for fear they would seek revenge when they became adults.

The Genocide occured 50 years ago, and all Cambodians today have been affected by it. I met people whose aunts, uncles, grandparents and siblings were taken away in the night, never to return.

And yet, every single Cambodian I met greeted me with a smile. They showed me kindness and generosity and reminded me that the light always comes out after darkness. After tragedy, there is hope. There is always hope.

I met a 12 year old girl who sold fridge magnets near one of the temples. She was a bright girl with a ready smile and superb negotiating skills. We laughed and talked for several minutes and yes, I bought 3 fridge magnets. This girl will continue her studies and I am confident she will be a success story in this broken country.

I feel truly blessed to have been able to participate in the celebrations of the Khmer New Year, one of the most important festivals in Cambodia. It’s a 3 day festival which started on Friday, April 14. Everyone, from the very young to the very old, was out on the streets with massive water guns, spraying everyone – including me – in sight. Cambodians working in the cities return to the villages to celebrate with their families. Many businesses are closed for two or three weeks.

One of the highlights of my time in Cambodia was attending Phare, the Cambodian Circus, where performers use theatre, music, dance and acrobatics to tell Cambodian stories, both past and present.

Phare artists are graduates of PPSA, an NGO school and professional training centre in Cambodia. It was founded in 1994 by 9 young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the camp, they took drawing classes, which helped them with the healing process. Once they returned home, they offered free art classes to street children. A school was eventually started, offering education and professional arts training: visual arts, theatre, music, dance and acrobatics. All programs are free.

If Cambodia could speak to me, it would say there is hope, look ahead, we will rebuild, we are fearless, we are brave.

Thank you, Cambodia.

 

 

 

Hoi An: land of fine fabrics and beautifully tailored clothing

Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Central Vietnam, was once a major port on the Silk Route and still continues to thrive as a place where tailors custom make excellent quality clothing at bargain prices.

I bought a navy silk dress with magenta flowers as well as a full length winter coat, even though I had explicitly told myself I wouldn’t spend any money. Once I posted my items to Canada, I left town for fear of buying more.

This pretty town, with its canals and bridges, multi-coloured paper lanterns and more than 800 preserved historical buildings, also has hundreds of fabric shops and stalls lining the streets and alleys. Thousands of tailors stitch, sew and cut fabrics to create replicas or custom pieces in as little as 24 hours.

I visited a shop that employs over 320 tailors in three different locations and has been crafting clothing for over 20 years. They had a large selection of high quality silks, cotton blends, wool and leather, as well as stacks of American fashion magazines for clothing ideas.

The atmosphere in the shop was electric and buzzing with energy, at least 15 sales ladies were busy with clients, either helping people pick fabric or taking measurements. I was told that the clothing was made precisely to suit my body because not only were my measurements taken, but I also had a 3D scan of my body.

My measurements were taken at 9 pm and my first and only fitting was the following day at noon. I was so impressed with the accuracy of the measurements. A few minor alterations were made and the dress was ready by 4 pm. As I was waiting for my dress, I noticed some lovely wool fabric for a nice coat, so I had a one made, also with only one fitting and less than 24 hours.

There was so much beautiful fabric. If I had room in my bag, I would have ordered 5 linen shirts in various colours, linen pants, the red silk dress I’ve always wanted, the perfect trench coat and some work dresses, I have visions of flying to Hoi An next year and getting tailor made clothing for all four seasons.

I asked for a tour of the facilities and I was brought up to the attic to meet the master tailors, all women, about 70 of them. The rooms were airy and many of the women smiled and we’re happy to show me what they were doing. When asked discreetly, a few told me they were well paid, despite the very long hours.

There really is something to be said for having your clothes made in front of you by an experienced artisan, as opposed to buying cheaply made clothing from a sweatshop somewhere.

This is a shopping experience like no other:  everything made with speed, precision and professionalism, truly the most memorable shopping experience of my life.

 

 

Wedding photography: Vietnamese style

I’ve been in Vietnam for almost four weeks and I’ve seen at least 40 couples being photographed in wedding clothes, either in traditional Vietnamese outfits, the popular white gown and tuxedo, and even brides in bright pink sequin dresses. They  can be seen in the city streets, in the countryside and even on rooftops.

The other day, in the countryside just outside Danang, I saw a bride and groom posing for photographs on top of a large boulder, which required a ladder to reach. It was an extremely cold and windy day and the bride’s dress and veil were billowing around her. The couple were striking crazy poses: pretending to shoot each other, maniacally waving hands in the air,  and making silly faces

But then – and sadly I didn’t get any photos – a gust of wind blew the bride’s dress over her head. She was a cyclone of white with bony legs and white panties. At that moment, I was so grateful she was wearing underwear. Before I could whip my camera out, the bride slipped and her head landed in the groom’s crotch. I could not stop laughing.

Soon enough, a crowd of about 20 people came to take a closer look and started taking their own photos. Several minutes went by where the bride and groom held on to each other, for fear of being blown away. The bride’s hair was ruined and at one point, the groom took off his jacket to cover his bride’s private bits.

I figured at that point the photographer would call it a day. He didn’t. Instead, he had the couple sit on the boulder and the bride’s dress was kept down with rocks to stay in place. He continued to take photos of the couple: making sappy faces at each other, arranging their fingers to create a heart and another pose where it looked like they were smelling each other. It was freezing the entire time.

But here’s the interesting part: a local told me that none of these couples pose for photos on their wedding day. The photos are taken up to four months prior to the wedding date. Various outfits are worn over the course of several days of photography and then a video is created to show guests at the wedding.

The actual wedding day consists of an engagement ceremony, an engagement party, the wedding ceremony and the wedding reception, so there really is no time for photographs.

The photography venue is dictated by how much the couple can afford. At the top end, couples fly to Europe to pose for photos. Others are photographed in the city or at a park near their homes. Those who do not have much money are photographed in a studio, with different options for a backdrop: on the moon, in a different galaxy or in the jungle.

Weddings are big business in Vietnam. There are so many wedding shops all over The country. In Old Hanoi, an entire street is devoted to wedding shops. The one-stop shop offers everything required for the wedding: the invitations (simple or gold-leafed), the gowns (rented or purchased), the cake, decor and flowers, the food, (prepared by a local or Michelin starred chef), the photographer (on his own or with an entourage of assistants), and everything in between.

 

 

 

No one told me I had to be a mountain goat to hike in Sapa

Whenever I visit a country, I love to take part in a local activity: riding a camel in India, sleeping in the desert in Morocco and visiting a hamam in Turkey. Each time, though, I find that the experience isn’t as thrilling as I thought it would be.

Hiking in Sapa was one of those experiences.

Sapa is a hill station in Northern Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. On a clear day, the views are spectacular, with vivid green rice terraces, plunging valleys and mountains towering above on all sides. The views are spectacular, even when thick mists roll across the peaks. Sapa, and the tiny villages surrounding it, are also filled with brightly dressed hill tribe locals.

One of my “must do” items in Vietnam was to hike through the valleys of Sapa to see these spectacular rice terraces, meet the local indigenous people, spend time in quiet nature, all while getting some exercise.

But no one told me I had to be a mountain goat to get from one village to the other.

Climbing up and down hills is one thing, but making your way through very steep, rocky and muddy terrain was extremely difficult, especially since it rained a few times and we had to avoid getting our feet too deep in mud. For the majority of the time, there were no marked paths. We even had to step along stones to get to the other side of a few rivers along the way. Sometimes, the terrain was so deep, we were told to move sideways.

This is not how I imagined it would be.

The group consisted of myself, two 20-something Swiss girls and our local guide.

The Swiss girls were always far ahead of me but I never worried about getting lost because I constantly had an entourage of local villagers who followed us: women selling souvenirs, young girls who should have been in school but were selling bracelets, and grandmothers who carried grandchildren on their backs.

On the first day, I fell at least 11 times: on my back, on my face, rolling down a hill, slipping into water buffalo poo and seriously banging my right knee. The locals were very keen on holding my hands so that I wouldn’t fall, but once I hit the ground, no one helped me up. Instead, they would all laugh and cackle. To their credit, I think it would have been impossible for 4 foot tall women to bend down and help the fat, white girl get up. I may very well have taken them down with me. If I was unable to get up, my guide or one of the Swiss girls would come to my rescue. It was all so embarrassing and I quickly became discouraged.

To make matters worse, the local women were constantly trying to get me to buy something along the way.

Every single time, I said, “No, thank you.”

What I really wanted to say was, “Are you f*ing for real? I can barely keep my ass off the ground and you want me to buy a f*ing wall hanging. Get out of my f*ing face NOW.”

My local guide also lied to me on many occasions. Whenever I asked her how much longer it would take, she would respond either with “five more minutes” (it was NEVER five more minutes) or “first we go up a little bit, then down a little bit, then straight, then up.” WTF!

All of this happened on the first day. And because of the rain, fog covered most of our views. Very few photos were taken.

By the end of the day, my knee was in intense pain. I didn’t have any Advil on me but my guide assured me she could get some “medicine” from a local villager.

“What kind of medicine?” I asked.

“Opium” she whispered.

When she saw the look of terror on my face, she said, “Don’t worry, you rub it, not smoke it.”

The cream worked nicely. My knee is back to normal.

On the second day, most of the hike was on marked paths, but I was exhausted from the day before and could barely walk in a straight line. When my guide asked me if I preferred being driven by a motorbike, I could have jumped for joy, if I was able to.

I was so happy to get on that bike, even though I could hardly get on due to my sore body.

Another unexpected turn: motorcycles go really, really fast. They take narrow turns and you can’t really see what’s in front of you because of the winding roads. Neither the driver nor I wear helmets. Thanks to baby Jesus, we arrived in one piece.

The third and final day was also difficult but because I knew the end was in sight, I was able to plow on. My guide would regularly stop to ask me if I was alright.

Each time, as I gasped for air, I would reply with a meek, “yes”.

What I really wanted to say was, “Are you f*ing for real? Seriously? I’ve got shit in my fingernails, my pants are soaked in mud through my underwear, I can barely breath and you’re asking me if I’m f*ing fine?”

One final complaint: I noticed the scenery was not as vivid green as shown in the postcards. I was told the colours are much more dramatic in the autumn. Seriously. Fortunately, I was able to play with the settings on my camera and most of the images were captured in vivid green. No one needs to know.

Now that it’s all over, it really does make for a great story. While it wasn’t the leisurely experience that I thought it would be, I’m happy I was able to push past the pain and doubts and I am reminded once again that anything is possible if you believe in yourself.