Friday, August 15, 2008

je t'aime le creme glacee!

when my sister was in grade nine she was one of several students in her french immersion class who took part in an exchange program with students in paris. you know the deal: two weeks in paris over march break, see the eiffel tower and the louvre, eat croissant, then swap it up, show off the cn tower and get nail polish at ardene, then go your separate ways. so kate went to paris and several months later a girl named fanny came to bunk at 8 doonaree. i had already left home but i trust that my family made her feel welcome and took every effort to make her time away from france enjoyable and rewarding. my mom went so far as to attempt to converse with young fanny in french, something one might assume would be par for the course for a person living in a supposedly bilingual country, but then you never heard my mom speak french. it was not so much french as it was very polite english spoken through pursed lips and with a trace of pepe le peu. but it was an effort and i will not take that away from my mom. she tried, and valiantly at that, to speak a foreign tongue, but past the bonjours and sil vous plaits, her vocabulary was a mite limited. which might explain why when fanny, my mom, and kate were having some ice cream on a warm fall evening, my mom, with the purest intentions at heart, bravely exclaimed, "je t'aime le creme glacee!" what she was trying to say was that she loved ice cream, but what she actually said was "i love you the ice cream." her heart may have been in the right place, but the t' was not.

speaking english in southeast asia is not unlike speaking french with my mom. the intention, the determination, the thought: it's all there, just not all in the right place. of course, why would it be? the native language in these countries is thai, khmer, malay- not english. so why should they speak it? logic would dictate that they shouldn't have to and all travelers should instead take a stab at butchering the local language. but english is a bit of a schoolyard bully and has stomped its way across milk cartons, newspapers, and hair dye bottles the globe round. and so it has come to pass that for the past eight weeks chris and i have been highly entertained by the broken, well-meaning english printed along our trail.

it all began in beijing, where out hotel fire exit sign informed us that "if of the fire, the not old people before or children, but selfish to first, then other." funny, but you get the gist, right? plus, it's sometimes nice to get permission to be unabashedly selfish to first. and the permutations of this pidgin english have followed us, from promises of "computer internet stuffing!" to the aforementioned
hair dye box advertising an alluring head of milkteabeige coloured tresses. glamorous, i'm sure. though the most entertaining so far has certainly been an email i received about a reservation request that i have copied verbatim below:

Sawasdee Brian Rieper,

I just want to say thanks a million for interested in Haad Khuad Resort. So that's I reply to answer your question about the bungalow is available on 12th of August 2008, it isn't?. I can not to tell you and too reconfirmation anything. Please you will be checking again when you will be arrive at here.

I am wishing to have a chance to service you and I hope to seeing you soon.

Thanks a million again.

Kind regards,
Haad Khuad Resort

what on earth does that mean you ask? i'm sorry, but i can not to tell you. and to reconfirmation anything? good luck. but i am wishing to have a chance to service you.

maybe chris and i are bad people for laughing, but it's so innocent, so well-meaning that you can't help but giggle. i do, however, wish my mom was still around so that i could call her and tell her that here in southeast asia, they love you the ice cream, too.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

the river wild.

generally, we all like to think that we are good people. right? we like to think that if we saw a wee old woman trip in the street, we would rush to her aid and help her right her cane and we certainly wouldn't laugh. of course we aren't mildly envious of the blessed gene pool inherited by shiloh jolie-pitt and those newborn twins. we like to think that we are non-judgmental and gracious, smiling in the face of other people's good fortune, never jealous. screw schadenfreude, we are good people. and when you've been reading the blogging exploits of a canadian or two, climbing great walls and riding elephants and seeing unspeakable beauty unfold before them each day, you've never had a moment of ill-will or green-eyed envy, right? right?

envy this.

we're in vang vieng in norther laos. we arrived on tuesday and scampered across the scenic footbridge to the western banks of the nam song river and checked into rustic maylyn guesthouse. unloaded our bags in the adorable bungalow (that cost $6 a night!) and retired in the garden for a fruit shake while hundreds of butterflies nestled in the flowering shrubs and a box of newborn puppies chirped behind the barn door. behind us, the sun set behind the misty landscape of dramatic limestone karst. anne geddes? was she here? were we to be wrapped in cheesecloth and photographed as pumpkins? because it certainly felt like it. too perfect, right? right.

last night, as we made our way home from swinging in hammocks and sipping beer laos at the island bar, it started to drizzle. as we bunkered down for the night, the rain picked up a bit; we could hear the determined patter on our banana leaf roof. then, sometime in the middle of the night, noah and his twin sets of animals must have set sail on the ark, because by morning the flood had come.

we lay in bed this morning, planning for a fun day of tubing down the river, stopping at riverside bars to swing off flying foxes, maybe having a mulberry mojito or two. ah, how foolish we were. we stepped out of the door of our bungalow and chris said, "uh, brian..." in a worrying tone, "we're missing our bottom step." and it was quite true: the nearby river had swollen up with the unrelenting rain and decided to take it on the road. all the way to us, swallowing the bottom of our stairs in the process. we waded through murky waters to breakfast, water lapping around our shins, rain still coming down. after brekky we arrived back at the room to discover that we had been negligent enough to lose not one, but now two stairs to the raging river. the water was knee-high and angrier than alec baldwin on the phone to his daughter. it was, perhaps, time to seek drier pastures.

it is still raining here in vang vieng. the city has put up its umbrella and gone inside to watch endless episodes of friends. chris and i have moved across the river to a considerably drier hotel room, though the front drive is still under a good two feet of water. we have not, needless to say, been able to go tubing today. that, and i lost my damn flashlight.

now remember: you are a good person. this does not provide you with the mildest of pleasure, nor do you think that we deserve it after raving about the fantastic beauty that is southeast asia. you are not smug, nor are you self-satisfied. right? right?
chris, obviously thrilled.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

in the jungle.

chris and i have done a lot of things together in the three years since we met. we have been for high tea at the woolsley in london, england and for three dollar tacos on bloor street. we have watched seanna mckenna break hearts at stratford and tyra banks "put it in the eyes" on america's next top model. we have laughed and cried and played boggle. chris has taught me that a schedule doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing and conversely, chris has discovered that things can work out, even without said schedule. chris taught me how to tell if a barbeque tank still has propane in it. i taught him how to fold his underwear properly. in short, we've done a lot together.

but we had never been to the jungle together. we had never sat atop elephants and strode through the bush to a cascading waterfall. we had not, in the past three years, tip-toed into ancient thai caves filled with thousands of screeching bats. we had never quite had the opportunity to balance on bamboo rafts and try to stay dry as we tumbled downriver through frothing rapids. these are things we had not done. until now.

earlier this week we spent three fantastic days in the northern hills of thailand, the home of the karen hilltribe people. we hiked past lush rice paddies, the earth pregnant with the rain of the wet season. we scrambled up muddy ascents, griping our bamboo walking sticks with all of our might. we unrolled our sleeping bags on the bare floors of the huts where we spent the night, sleeping on the floor, looking up at the ceiling made of banana leaves, wondering why we, the collective we, ever decided that this wasn't enough. we met tribespeople clad in clothes woven with vibrant colour, people who spoke no words we could understand, our communication reduced to smiles, gestures, and the overwhelming realization that we want to get to know each other. why? because aside from the headwrap, we're not really all that different.

our time in the jungle was amazing. we would look up and have to stop to fully take in the beauty of where we were. we sat huddled out of the rain one night and learned thai folk songs and sang into the inky black night. it was an experience unlike anything else.

chris and i only hope that we will continue to do things together for many years to come. and when we look back on the things we have already done, we can now count the jungles of thailand among the ranks of clotted cream and tyra banks.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

hitting a wall.

when i was in grade three my class did a unit on china. this was with my very favourite elementry school teacher, ms. marie tait, and she led us through a fascinating discovery of this far away land. we made chinese passports out of red construction paper and had to get them stamped in the hallway before coming into class each morning. we made noodles with peanut sauce in the staff room kitchen. we gasped when we heard about an emporer who had his soldiers entombed- still breathing!- along with him. and we learned about the great wall.

the great wall of china is one of those places, one of those things, that everyone knows about. maybe you saw it in 'mulan'. maybe you dream of going there. maybe you know that it is the only man-made structure visible from space (though that, in fact, is false. guess you learn something new every day). whatever you know, you know something. chris and i both knew dribs and drabs about this giant fence, but like most phenomenons and wonders of the world, you simply can't prepare yourself for what is coming. we thought we knew, but really, how could we?

after a bleary-eyed 5:00am wake up, a three hour, knuckle-whitening minibus ride, two police checkpoints (replete with machine guns and shifty eyes), and one driver who spoke perhaps less english than we spoke mandarin, we arrived at the drop-off point for our trek along the simatai great wall. chris, ever the optimist, was certain that it was all a scam and that we wouldn't actually get to set foot on the wall. fortunately, we did. and fortunately isn't a strong enough word.

there have been moments in my travels when i have been brought close to tears by the sheer wonderment of what i am experiencing. the stars on fraser island. standing under jim jim falls. and standing on the great wall of china, turning to the west and seeing the crumbling stone of a centuries-old wall snaking its way over lush green hills, the low-hanging mist laying like a blanket over the horizon. the wall is old- it smells old, it feels old, it is dilapidated in places and terrifyingly exposed in others. we thought we would be going for a leisurly stroll along a raised footpath. instead we were scrambling up incredibly steep ascents, wobbling on whisper-thin ledges, slipping on the well-worn steps. sweating. exhausted. scared, perhaps, in some moments at least. but exhilarated. joyful. overwhlemed by the scope, the magnitude of what we were, if only for a moment, a part of. we were on the great wall of china for pete's sake. and we loved it.

our time in beijing was an experience to say the least. there were parts of it that threatened to sometimes tip the see-saw towards unpleasant- the unrelenting smog, the eternal noise of the snarling traffic, getting lost on the way to tian'anmen square, bean curd - but then we went to the great wall. and then everything was, well, great.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

a world away from the world away

it is 5:02 pm here in sydney. in a few short hours i will be in the air en route to china. somehow this day has arrived both incredibly suddenly and after painfully slow build-up. i am feeling the same feelings i felt in toronto right before i left in february: "what on earth am i doing? i know nothing about where i'm going or what i'm getting myself into!" but instead of a slightly gripping terror, these thoughts now inspire a gleeful excitement. i have no clue what the next ten weeks hold. and i can't wait to find out.

the only thing is that the beginning of my trip to asia also marks, more or less, the end of my time here in australia. i haven't quite managed to fit my head around that yet. my life in australia has become just that- my life. i walk right, stand left. i surf. i sometimes think about eating vegemite. i don't, but at least i think about it. much as henry higgins grew accustomed to eliza doolittle's face, i've grown accustomed to this place. and i've grown accustomed to my place in this world, this upside-down world where people go barefoot on city streets and places have silly names like nuriootla and banka banka. i've had a truly wonderful time here so far. it really is a beautiful country. and the sky- you must come see the sky here.

that's what i'll miss the most. not tim tams, not flip flops in winter, not 'home and away' the aussie soap that sheila's got me wrapped up in. i'll miss the sky more than anything.

sunset over the beach at byron bay.

Monday, June 16, 2008

i'm byron my time.

there are some places in the world where you arrive and want to leave immediately. buffalo, for one. an outlet mall. a pauly shore revue. and then there are places where you arrive, take one long, sweeping look around and immediately start trying to figure out how you can stay here longer. byron bay is one of those kind of places.

byron is a little contry town near the queensland-new south wales border, about an hour south of surfer's paradise. it is the eastern-most point in mainland australia and is bordered to the north by the ancient peaks of a centuries-old volcano. the beach ambles along for ages and the surf rolls in with a steady purpose, breaking off the just-visible mast of a rusted shipwreck just offshore. the sun rises in the east and sets brilliantly in the west, just like everywhere else. for all intents and purposes it sounds just like any other australian coastal town. but there is something different here.

there are no highrise buildings. there are no mcdonald's or hungry jacks. people have surfboard carriers on the side of their bikes and walk a bit slower here. the community is adamant about avoiding the creeping commercialism that seeks to turn all of the east coast into one giant highrise daytona beach party town. but it is more than the architecture of the city, even more than the free range-eating, earthtone-clad, djembe-playing citizens of this hippie mecca. the air is different, the time seems to wander forward, almost accidentally towards the next day, not fussed about what happens along the way. and people smile at each other on the street, cars let you cross with a nod of the head. you get the sense that the city has taken a collective deep breath. it's easy to be here.

you get the distinctive sense that byron is a place that people get stuck, not in a bad way at all, but stuck by their own choosing. my friend hannah described it as such:

"it's like regular, everyday people like you and me, people with jobs and lives and responsibilities somewhere else in the world arrived here and decided that they just needed to stay. and they thought, 'hmm, what can i do to make a living here? what am i good at? well, i'm really good at making windchimes. i think i'll open a windchime store!' or 'i've always wanted to be a lacto-ovo vegetarian contortionist- i think i'll stay here and do animal-friendly street theatre!' and they've just stayed and stayed."

it's true in many ways. the streets are full of second-hand book shops, crystal sellers offering to draw a portrait of you as a mythical fairy, beadworks shops and countless hemp clothing retailers. it is a city of dreadlocks and bare feet, campervans and herbal teas. it is everything kensington market wants so desperately to be and isn't quite. it is authentic and virtually free of any trace of pretentious, holier-than-thou self-righteousness. vegans dot the footpaths but don't sneer at you when you emerge from the kebab stand, your pita dripping with lamb. it's a community in the strongest sense of the word, a community of people who love this place and want to keep it as special as it is. and they are nice enough to share it with others.

i know it sounds a bit kumbaya-ish. i always thought of myself as a city boy through and through, the kind of person who would cast a cynical eye at a place like this. but after a day of surfing the brilliant blue waves, drink freshly sqeezed orange juice in the park, and watching the sunset paint the clouds in brilliant technicolour, you start to think about things a bit differently. you start to think, "hell, i've always thought that papier mache is a lost art. i wonder what i could do with that..."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


when you are young there are many things that you are taught that you do not do. my mom was particularly adamant about three things: never eat lying down, never run with a lollypop in your mouth, and stay the hell out of the way when hot water is coming though. i'm sure your family had its own set of things you certainly musn't do- lick an icy pole in winter perhaps. run with scissors. try to drown your neighbour caitlin under the kitchen sink. you know, things like that. and i'm sure if it had come up, there would have been a rule that went something like this: if someone asks you to willingly climb into a tiny plane, strap yourself to a complete stranger, fly to 14, 000 feet and then jump out of said plane, you do not do it.

and you certainly do not pay to do.

well, call me a renegade, call me a rule-breaker, but i simply couldn't come to cairns in northern queensland and keep both feet on the ground for the entirety of my visit. so i shelled out the cash and crossed my fingers. i boarded a bus with a crew of, and i use this term very loosely, professionals and we drove the hour out of the city to the drop zone. i pulled on the red and yellow jumpsuit pants that i can assure you are not going to be gracing the pages of men's vogue anytime soon. and i stepped into a plane about the size of a mini-fridge. and i checked to see if my fingers were still crossed. they were.

up we climbed, like charlie in his great glass elevator, up, up, and away until the farmland below was nothing but verdant patchwork with red dirt stitching. up higher until we were north of the clouds, looking down at a bona fide rainbow painted across the white popcorn floor of the heavens. up higher and higher until we couldn't go any higher and the first jump instructor pried open the plexiglass door. the cold air of 14, 000 feet above earth hit me like a wall. a very cold wall. a very cold, very high up wall. fingers? still crossed.

no time to think though, and before i could pause to feel nervous i was out the door and into the air. into the sky, freefalling for sixty seconds of fully realized elation. i screamed because i couldn't not scream. i laughed because i was flying. i was flying! i tend not to use exclamation marks, but this was an exclamation mark sixty seconds. i could feel the wind tugging at the skin of my face, the pressure of my descent unfolding my arms into a wide open embrace, hugging madly at the air as it rushed past me. and then the startling calm of the air under the open parachute, calm and cavernous. calm, but in mid-air. unreal.

i steered my red parachute towards the ground, turning in corkscrews and wide wheels, laughing with my whole body, wanting to stay up in the air for just one more minute. but feet belong on the ground and i made my way back to the planet. i landed on my feet. i landed smiling.

and somewhere along the line, i had uncrossed my fingers.