Monday, July 30, 2012

Baxter Conservation Area: Kanoeing in Kars

This week, it was Heather's birthday, and to celebrate outliving Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and everyone else in the Club 27, as well as entering the age women feel the most attractive, she invited me to join her friends at Baxter Conservation Area, where her friend Andrea works as a manager. This is how I found myself spending my Sunday canoeing in Kars.

(I am so tempted to spell that either "kanoeing in Kars", or maybe less Kardashianly, "canoeing in cars" which evokes a completely different image and a great band.)

Baxter Conservation Area is located south of town along the Rideau River in Kars. I went to high school with kids who lived in Kars. We used to make fun of them for living in cars. I'd never been to Baxter before, even though it was only a half hour drive away. On my way there, I passed the most curious field of grass with skinny glider planes and tiny Cessnas scattered everywhere. Apparently there's a flying school next to the conservation area.

When I arrived at Baxter, Andrea introduced me to a shy turtle named Antonio. He was a stinkpot turtle, which I think is horrible name for a species, but apparently they are like the skunks of turtle kind. I also got to meet and hold a little garter snake named Alexander, who had managed to somehow poo on his own head. Sometimes I envy snakes. Not for this particular reason though.

We met up with the rest of Heather's friends and carried our canoes out to the Rideau River, which was wonderfully cool and peaceful, despite the motor boats racing past us with water-skiers trailing behind. The last time I had been canoeing, it had been at Lake Oanob in Namibia, which was somewhat of an artificial body of water placed in the middle of the desert, so it was nice to be surrounded by "real" water and not feel nervous about dipping your hand into the river.

the birthday girl getting ready

Overhead, Cessnas pulled glider planes out into the sky, and we got to watch the gliders soar through the air. There is no way I would ever get into a plane that didn't have an engine, but there's something majestic about watching a silent glider coast along the skyline.

"Oh no! We've arrived at the River Styx," I cried.
"It's just a marsh, Gloria," they assured me.

Good, because I'm not a fan of the band either.

it may not be the river Styx, but there was definitely this dead seagull

row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream

merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream

Speaking of dreams, I made one of the most important discoveries of my summer: the ice cream boat.

yes, I said ice cream boat.

Remember the ice cream truck that used to come into your neighbourhood playing the happiest songs of your childhood? Remember how you'd get so excited and as soon as you heard the cheerful sound, you would grab your sister's hand and go running into the streets to chase the ice cream truck, instantly forgetting every time your parents yelled at you about not running straight into traffic?

It seems as though I heard the song of the ice cream truck less and less as I grew older. Maybe it's not as profitable anymore to drive around an ice cream truck (THOUGH I HIGHLY DOUBT THIS. HOW CAN ICE CREAM NOT BE PROFITABLE). Maybe I'm at work during the hours that the ice cream truck goes by in the summer. Maybe the ice cream truck is like Santa Claus or rainbow connections - they only come for those who still believe. Which also doesn't make sense to me, because I do still believe:

Charles, my running partner: "Gloria, are you planning to jog carrying your wallet?"
Me: "Yes..."
Charles: "Why?"
Me: "Er, in case the ice cream truck comes by?"
Charles: "...Really?"

The worst is sometimes you'd think you hear the song of the ice cream truck, but it's the most horrible ding ding ding ringing, as though the truck's bells are depressed and only want to play one note instead of "Do Your Ears Hang Low". You run out into the streets anyway, your heart pounding with hope, only to realize that it's the knife sharpening truck coming by, inviting housewives to bring out their dull knives. What the heck. Why would anyone play with my heart like this.

Anyway, I've discovered that there exists an ice cream boat that floats on the Rideau River, selling all sorts of wonderful flavours in cones such as triple chocolate brownie, maple walnut, and black cherry. Police boats love stopping by the ice cream boat. Kids float up to the boat in their giant intertubes. Motorboats line up like it's a drive-through. Once, a man fell asleep while driving his boat and rammed right into the side of the boat. There was no way we were going to pass up this opportunity, and so for the first time in my life, I paddled my canoe up to the freaking ice cream boat.

I don't think I can adequately describe my excitement about the ice cream boat.

i guess you`re just what i needed
i needed someone to feed

Needless to say, it was a magical afternoon. After canoeing, we hung out in front of the cabin, climbing trees, playing frisbees, poking things with sticks. I went for a swim at the beach. I'm not sure what was more refreshing, the mid-canoeing ice cream or the post-canoeing cooldown swim in the river. Oh, who am I kidding? The ice cream boat was magical, like a lost childhood memory that I knew I would someday find.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My First Comic Book

My first comic book has finally been published!

When I was working for the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia, one of the most interesting projects I worked on was with the AIDS Law Unit to develop a comic book that would explain to health care providers assisting people living with AIDS what their rights were and what resource support networks were available to them. My contribution was mainly writing the script, since I have absolutely no artistic skill in comic drawing.

It's obviously no Marvel Comic, but I did find comic books to be an effective form of raising public awareness about an issue. People might not want to read lengthy reports, but they'll read comic books. When I volunteered at the Bernhard Noordkamp Centre after school program tutoring in English, I used the Legal Assistance Centre's comic books as English textbooks, getting the kids to read the comic books and quizzing them on their reading comprehension. The kids loved the comics and were pleased that they were able to take copies of the comic books home. At the same time, I was getting them to think about important issues like schoolyard bullying and domestic violence.

You can read the whole comic book here:

The LAC's Gender Research and Advocacy Project's comic books have been a big success and have even been shortlisted on the Women Deliver 50 awards, rewarding innovative projects that deliver for women and girls. You can check out GR&AP's impressive collection of comic books explaining Namibian laws on gender equality here.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Drought at Algonquin Provincial Park

We ran over a squirrel on our drive to Algonquin Park. It could have made it if it had only paused instead of darting across the road - we would have driven right over it with the squirrel safely between the two tires, but it made a run for it. I felt bad and wondered if it was bad luck or maybe even good luck to start the weekend off with death.

squashed into the little car

As it stood, parts of Algonquin Park were on fire, due to the drought that was still haunting most of the province. It's gotten to the point where the government is not telling us to try to conserve water at home, but rather they are encouraging us to water our lawn to prevent more fires.

When we drove into the park, a big sign displayed the fire rating. It was so hot and dry that they had tacked on an extra rating unit, to show that campfires were especially illegal with the fire ban now. A park warden came around to explain to us that illegal campfires would get you the hefty fine of $615. I did not have that money. I wanted to ask the park warden if his life was just like the TV show Parks and Recreation, but he didn't seem too chatty, probably because his park was on fire.

Facing this sober situation on my first trip to Algonquin Provincial Park reminded me somewhat of the trip I took to Etosha National Park in Namibia, only to find out that a massive brushfire had swept through the park, destroying a lot of the beautiful landscape and killing some of the wildlife. Luckily we were in another part of Algonquin Park, far away from the chaos.

The truth is, I had missed camping ever since moving back to Canada from Namibia. I missed sleeping outside, not caring about being dirty, watching the constellation Orion in the sky, taking long walks deep in the wilderness. After all my time camping in the desert, I was eager to go back to Canadian camping, in the thick of the woods surrounded by trees taller than my house, with no baboons to rob you at night but only bears, who lack opposable thumbs. Surrounded by grass and cool bodies of water.

bears, bears, everywhere

It was unexpected then, when we arrived at our campsite which presented us with the limited choice of settling down on the dead dry yellow grass or the dustbowl reddish dirt that the forest floor had become, resembling something out of a civil war movie based in the southern states, missing only tumbleweed rolling through. Everything we did and had soon became caked in the dusty dirt: all of our food, our feet, our clothes. It was fine with me; it was like being back in the desert.


Even going for a dip in the lake was a futile effort in washing up. You'd get out, clean and refreshed, and as you walked you immediately became dirty again, as the dust would cling to you like staticky pants dried without fabric softener. But at least we had the lake, which was cool and refreshing.

We decided to go on a little hike to the Spruce Bog, which has been described as a kind of a desert itself. It had started off as a beaver pond, but because beavers are so hard-working and industrious, the beavers' continuous dragging of stuff into the pond (as well as other conditions) eventually converted the shallow pond into a bog. According to my guidebook, the chemical conditions of a bog impose severe restrictions on the plants growing there, and the lack of nutrients in the bog make it almost like a desert.

a lovely little boardwalk through the bog...a bogwalk, I'd even call it.

Dannik on the rocks, Curley in the corner. My two favourite drinks!

there's something about acidic swamps that really bring out the romance in a couple.

gloria the explorer of the world

This is what our guidebook also had to say:

"At the present time the mat is a relatively thin layer with many weak spots. We strongly advise against walking on it because of the danger both to the fragile mat and to yourself. If by chance you did go through, your only consolation would be that your body would be preserved for thousands of years in the acidic, oxygen-poor peat nine metres below."

death, death, everywhere, in such a beautiful place. The words of the guidebook made us particularly reluctant to cross this tired-looking bridge with a dilapidated foundation.

It was a hot walk and I was thirsty.

For dinner, we had the meal of kings: Rob's own hearty beef stew, a bottle of champagne, and cookies. With the campfire ban still on, we had luckily brought along a burner, the kind you`d cook Korean barbecue meat on. Otherwise we would have only had the bottle of champagne and cookies to eat.

i suppose we could have also taken a chance on these bright, beautiful and possibly poisonous berries

That evening, with no campfire to stare into, we walked over to the beach with blankets and watched the night sky. In this darkness, you could see so many stars than you can in the city, one of my favourite features about camping. I was trying to find the constellation Orion, to bookend my experience in the southern part of the world where I had first seen the hunter Orion in the desert, complete with his bow and his sword and his belt. But I felt myself going cross-eyed; big clouds kept moving through the night sky and obscuring our vision of the constellations. I wondered if any of the clouds would finally bring rain.

After we lingered there for a while, a man brought a big device down to the lake shore and shone a huge green beacon into the sky. The light was so strong it could point at the stars. I thought that the man was signaling Batman. My friends told me that he was probably just demonstrating star constellations, but after we headed back to camp, I definitely saw a bat fly over our tent.

When we woke up the next morning, there was a crow-like bird that was screaming like it was being murdered. The air was filled with the loud clicking sounds that squirrels make, possibly because they are angry and plotting your demise in revenge for running over their brethren on the road. A mouse had died beside our tent and was being consumed by flies. death, death, everywhere. I reflected on the fact that I can see dead mice or porcupine or deer or zebra and calmly acknowledge that it`s just a part of life - but if I pass a swamp, I'll freak out about how gross it is.

Most of the ice in our cooler had melted in the heat and was only serving to make all of our meat soggy. I drained the melted ice from the cooler and watched the water trickle down the slope of the ground, creating art with its finger-like streams. The ground was so dry that the water couldn't even penetrate through the dirt.

I decided that I wanted to hit up one more hiking trail before we left, so Rob and I headed for the Big Pines Trail, which featured dozens of giant white pines. Rob's old house was in a neighbourhood called White Pines - presumably the area used to have a whole forest of white pine trees. But, as we know, the suburbs are where we cut down the trees and name the streets after them, so it was nice to finally be lost in a huge forest of white pines. After all the hiking through desert mountains, I was getting used to being in forests again, which was just different. In the desert, there's nothing to shield you from the sun, and when you reach the top of the mountain, you can see everything in the desert for miles and miles around because there are no big trees. In the forest, you can feel lost in a different way, not in the sense of overwhelmingly open infinity that a desert does, but in the way that being surrounded by these giant living beings that we call trees makes you feel safe and hidden and anonymous.

tree roots all along the forest floor

this was the largest white pine tree on the hiking trail

a very flattering shot of me and the tree

I was also struck by the dead trees, which, though dead for many years, were still huge, which gave them a sort of frightening quality like an eerie Tim Burton film scene

death, death, everywhere

I was also interested in (and less creepedout by) the trees that were not dead, but had survived previous forest fires like the ones attacking the park now.

the split at the bottom of this tree is a mark of a previous fire that killed the living tissue in this part of the tree. These things are called church doors, although personally I'd probably give them a more vivid name.

a tall tree with a long lightning scar. Like the Harry Potter of trees.

We soon came across the ruins of an old abandoned logging camp that had been operating in the 1880s. The forest was in the process of swallowing the whole site up back into nature.

the logging camp's stove

this used to be a lake

You wouldn't expect a hike through dead/damaged trees, ghost mining camps, and swamps to be a particularly appropriate Lovers' Lane, but it was a lovely hike for Rob and me, especially since exactly two months from that day we would be getting married.

So, to review my first camping trip back in Canada: there was a forest fire, but we did not see any of it. No bears, although a lot of chipmunks and one terrifying bird that will confuse a cop one day. A lake. A huge night sky and a bat signal. Bats. Bogs, romantic ones. A lot of thirst, but I have learned to accept thirst as a part of living. Dead things: a squirrel, a mouse, trees whose skeletons remain a century later. Cookies. It did, by the way, eventually rain: big drops of water hitting the tent and tables hard.

stopping off at Charlie D's in Barrie's Bay for poutine and ice cream, an essential part of Canadian camping.

Friday, July 20, 2012

a completely serious discussion of international development

Towards the end of my contract in Namibia, I wrote a piece discussing how to make meaningful individual contributions toward international development that would have a positive and sustainable effect on the developing country, rather than just letting donors/volunteers feel good about themselves.

The Onion, however, always manages to find a way to express my thoughts in a wittier and pithier manner:

"Point: My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids" vs "Counterpoint: Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?"

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

guu izakaya

Have I talked about Guu Izakaya before?

If you were to tell me that you were unimpressed by Toronto's culinary scene, that while it could definitely be trendy and quirky and classy, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the small piles of food stacked perilously high on square white plates, representing a fusion of whatever ethnic ingredient is popular for the day but mixed with a different ethnicity's twist on a bed of quinoa or whatever grain is trending now so as to justify fixing a $40 price on the plate rather than the $5 price you'd get for the original dish in its original country...

...I would pat you on the back and then I would take you to Guu Izakaya.

A restaurant called Izakaya recently opened up in Ottawa. After having visited Guu, I had incredibly high hopes for the Izakaya in Ottawa. Izakaya, however, is not a restaurant name or brand, but rather it's just the Japanese word for, like, "bar" or "pub" or whatever the Japanese equivalent. The Izakaya in Ottawa serves a creative menu of clever fusions of various Asian dishes to maybe justify its un-Asian prices, but it is not an izakaya. An izakaya is where the Japanese go to drink, and order small plates of bite-sized snacks that they share with everyone. An izakaya is more than a restaurant; it's an experience. Guu Izakaya is the only place in Canada that I've found so far that has gotten this right, and for that reason it is my favourite restaurant in Toronto (outside of Koreatown, that is of course).

To be fair, Guu originated in Vancouver, which really would not surprise anyone, given Vancouver's reputation of being a culinary paradise as well as being one of the few places in Canada where you'll find a signficant Japanese population. Guu in Toronto, however, does not lose any of its amazingness.

I took my partner there, because he was a skeptic. When we arrived there with my friend Soo, we were told there was an hour's wait. I'm from Ottawa, not New York City, so normally I do not have patience for such wait times. Restaurants with wait times like that generally come with a pretentiousness that I don't have a patience for - that's not our scene. But Guu was an exception. I would be willing to go to all sorts of lengths to eat at Guu, and in fact we already had, having driven five hours to get to the city. So we waited and tortured ourselves by looking at the menu posted outside.

finally after one gruelling hour of prolonged hunger, our name was called. Guu does not take reservations. Anybody living in the gay Village can probably actually make some good money, getting paid to go to the restaurant to put their names on the waiting list for other people.

But I digress! I was going to talk about the experience of dining at Guu. This is what happens when you go to Guu.

You walk in through the door. You step into Japan. The entire kitchen staff greets you loudly and cheerfully in Japanese, probably something along the lines of "Welcome to our restaurant, may you have a good meal" but they could actually be saying "You have no idea what we are saying to you, foreigner" for all I know. All I know is that I want to record this greeting and rig my front door at home to play that greeting every time I come home.

You are seated at a big table, probably where a bunch of other strangers are already seated and eating. This place is a bit like Schwartz`s in Montreal in that aspect. No chance whatsoever you are getting that long table for yourself and your party of three. Asian culture is not about private property or individualist ideals. It`s about sharing. It`s about having strangers intrude uncomfortably close to your personal space.

A server attends to you right away to give you your personal oshibori, warm wet cloth, to wash your hands. This is an important part of izakaya tradition. What people also tend to notice right away is that the whole izakaya is noisy. The kitchen is open so you hear all the cooking and pots and pans banging. The server is constantly calling out something in Japanese and the cooks reply in unison, as though your whole dining experience is actually a scripted part of a bizarre Broadway musical of some sort. You do not go to Guu to chat with a friend, to catch up on lost times. You go to Guu to eat. And to listen to people yelling in Japanese.

So you order some drinks.

drink menu

Man, even the drinks are unique and amazing. You can order sake, of course, but you can also order Japanese vodka. You can order aloe juice (a popular Asian drink) with vodka. You can order Japanese style hard lemonade, and you get your own lemon and juicer to squeeze into your vodka. You can order something called the three samurai; I have no idea what`s in them but they are bright happy colours and perfect for a party of three.

And then you order food. As mentioned, the plates are small and meant to be shared. They`re modestly priced, as authentic Asian food should be, in my opinion, but the truth is you end up falling in love with the whole menu and you try to order everything off the menu and those little plates add up.

pork cheeks

the most incredible piece of salmon you will ever taste

tuna in a soy sauce that makes it taste just like Korean jangjorim

beef tongue

My sadness in being a writer and not, like, I don`t know, some kind of tasting experience reproducer is that I can write and write and write about how good the food is, but I just cannot get across the wonderful feeling when that beef tongue hits your tongue. How can I explain it? I generally do not like seafood and try to avoid it whenever I can. When I eat scallops or tuna or salmon at Guu though, I forget that I hate seafood because they make it taste so good I want to lick the dish, if I could do it without offending.

You know, half the time I can't even remember the dishes we ordered, partly because we order so much, and partly because the food is so good, I fall into this blissful trance where my mouth believes it is in heaven and everything becomes a beautiful blur. Also, the drinks are good, so we tend to order more rounds of 3 samurai. But bits of it come back at random times, when I'm at the office, or in my car driving back to Ottawa. That wasabi mayo dip. That soya sauce base. That fried chicken, the tenderest fried chicken you will ever eat.

the bill, no joking matter.

And as you leave, the entire kitchen staff cheerfully sends you off at the top of their lungs, probably "We are glad you dined with us; please come again!" but maybe they're saying "You ate a lot, fatty! Go for a run." And as you leave, you're hit with that feeling of sadness when you realize that all the food you've ordered has been eaten, and you're going to have to wait till the next time you come to Guu before you can achieve such culinary ecstasy again.

portrait of a happy couple