Sam Nabi Kirby Thu, 11 Apr 2019 15:04:45 -0400 Sam Nabi's latest blog posts Long live the blogroll Fri, 17 Aug 2018 00:00:00 -0400 Buy local, eat local, … read local?

In today’s digital media landscape, there are a few giant tech companies that control most of what we read.

Their algorithms are tailored to feed us the most sensational, cringeworthy, funny, viral stuff. They dredge up the popular posts from the slurry of so-called “content” out there, and track our attention down to the millisecond.

These platforms push us to interact with them on their terms, and they make it so damn easy. As I spend more and more time consuming this content, I’ve found a steady decline in my desire to create.

So! What can we do about this downward spiral?

As it turns out, there have been a bunch of folks happily blogging away at their own websites this whole time. People that still have an interest in writing, rather than “producing content” for their social media followers. I hope I can join their ranks again. I’d like to give my blog more love. I’d like to read more peoples’ blogs. I’d like to surround myself with writing that isn’t calculated to maximize clicks.

To that end, I put a call out on Twitter (ironic, I know) to see who’s still blogging in Waterloo Region. Where are the indie writers at?

The ensuing discussion brought 64 blogs and email newsletters to my attention. Sixty-four writers in Waterloo Region with topics spanning art, technology, urban homesteading… And we’re just scratching the surface.

I’ve created a simple website at which offers a combined RSS feed of all those blogs. You can also follow @WRBlogs on Twitter, which tweets out links from that same RSS feed.

I’m excited to try reading and writing more on my own terms. And I think I’ll build a deeper connection to my local community while I’m at it.

Take me to the beach: the long ride from Mexico to El Salvador Sat, 06 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 9 April 2016

La Libertad, El Salvador

We’re sitting with a couple bottles of cheap beer at “La Ola 10”, a restaurant in La Libertad, on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast. It’s been a trying three days, and we’ve decided to make for the beach, any beach, with waves and fish and sand and mariachi bands. Anything but the dry, dusty, mountainous trash heaps we’ve been traveling through for the past week.

As of now, we have everything but the sand. La Libertad’s shore is full of large black rocks, the kind you could easily turn your ankle on if you try to walk across them too quickly. There are children playing in water, keeping to the shallows, waiting with glee for the waves to bowl them over. A young family sits on a rocky outcropping, close enough to the water’s surface for the waves to give them a thorough soaking. But no one is properly swimming, whether because of the powerful sea current, or the rocky landscape, or all the detritus being thrown out from the fish market on the pier — I’m not sure.

The fish market is a thing of quaint beauty. It starts from the boardwalk, continuing along the pier that juts out over the rocky beach, over the shallows, out about 300 metres to where it’s deep enough to meet the fishing boats all coming in with their catch. The boats are hoisted, theatre-curtain style, laden with fish and shrimp and calamari. Some of the boats stay up on the pier, hawking their wares straight from the hull.

Yes, the oysters are fresh.

If you start from the tip of the pier and walk back to shore, the vessels are gradually replaced by market stalls. The open pier becomes covered. Raw whole seafood gives way to salted flanks of fish, fillets, de-tailed shrimp, and at the very end, abutting the boardwalk, a stall sells prepared mixed seafood, already cut up and ready to be used in the perfect salad. If you continue a few steps inland, you’ll be accosted by a man selling knockoff Ray-Ban sunglasses.

This is the first place where I’ve felt a truly different culture since Monterrey. Granted, we didn’t spend much time in the south of Mexico or Guatemala. Just enough time to have a healthy mixture of Pesos, Quetzales, and American Dollars (or rather, Salvadorean dolares) jingling around our pockets.

Also jingling around our heads for the past two or three days, like a handful of foreign currency, has been an incessant jarring headache. But let’s back up. Back to San Cristóbal de las Casas…

7 April 2016

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

Our original travel plan through Mexico had us spending a night in Tuxtla Gutierrez, but multiple recommendations had convinced us to continue the extra two hours east to San Cristóbal. A smaller town, more friendly, more touristy, home to lots of authentic crafts and textiles from the south of Mexico. It was on our route anyway, so we decided to book a hostel with a nice view of the city, nestled between forested hills.

The town takes about an hour to walk end-to-end. It’s big enough for a proper OCC intercity bus terminal, where we arrived after a twelve-hour ride from Mexico City. I spotted a yoga-aesthetic woman laden with a hiking backpack and two large duffel bags. Stepping out of the terminal and into the street, we brushed elbows with a straw-hat-wearing, guitar-toting hippie. Apparently, San Cristóbal has been a haven for backpackers and free spirits for at least 40 years. And they seem to be handling it well.

The downtown main street and labyrinthine artisan’s market is the town’s gringo trail, pulling in well-moneyed travelers like a vortex. People happily part with their cash to support the regional textile makers, coffee and chocolate producers, and all manner of handicrafts. This is the kind of shopping that doesn’t seem to stink of consumerism so much. On the main street, you can still get two beers for 35 pesos, which is about as cheap as anywhere else we saw in Mexico.

San Cristóbal’s central quarter has most anything us foreigners want — materially, culturally, and emotionally — and very few seem to venture further. This leaves the rest of the city open for laundromats, schools, dentist offices, vegetable stands, and restaurants for the locals.

As we walked around outside the downtown bubble, we came across almost exclusively local residents, apart from the group of European high school students touring the church, which has a magnificent view over the city.

The view from the church, obscured by yours truly.

We approached a group of women chatting along a tiny residential street, and discovered that it was a neighbourhood restaurant. They offered us breakfast, and made a delicious vegetarian meal for 30 pesos each — refried beans, cheese, eggs à la Mexicana, salad, tortillas, and coffee. These are not tourist prices. Not even semi-tourist prices. Excited, they asked to take our photo, and we posed awkwardly for four flashes of the smartphone camera.

San Cristóbal was the first city in Mexico we found with a culture of coffee-drinking. It was surprising how difficult it was to find a cup of coffee in Mexico City and Monterrey.

It was a beautiful little town, but we felt that one day of touring was enough and decided to leave the next morning. It would have been good to learn about the history of the Zapatistas – a revolutionary group that has roots in San Cristóbal, mounted a rebellion for indigenous rights, and has recently returned to speaking terms with the government. The local theatre regularly screens documentaries about the movement, but we didn’t luck out – only Japanese anime and The Hateful Eight (dubbed into Spanish) would be screened that night. Alas, it was time for us to move on.

Revolutionary street art. We would have liked to learn more about this.

After consulting with the hostel, we decided not to travel with the GCC coach line to the Guatemalan border, as was our original plan. Instead, we booked a couple seats on a tourist shuttle that could take us directly to Guatemala City. The idea of being chauffeured across the border seemed nice, and the price was right at 700 pesos each. We got an early start, bags packed and waiting at 6:30 AM. We were told it would take 10 hours to reach Guatemala City. By 7:15, we were still waiting. This was the first indication of things to come.

Cuahuatemoc, Guatemala – Guatemala City

The shuttle eventually came. After half an hour, they shuffled us into a minibus, which took us to the border. We were made to get out and carry our bags through the small border village of Cuahuatemoc to the Guatemalan immigration office. Border formalities were relatively quick and painless — two dollars for the entry visa to Guatemala — but it took another hour for the minibus to come round and pick us up again. The reason we were made to wait around in the hot sun, as the bus driver kindly informed us, was that Guatemala hadn’t switched over to daylight saving time yet. Clearly, we needed to wait for their clocks to catch up. Once an artificial hour (or rather, hour-and-a-half) had passed, we were ushered into yet another shuttle van.

It was becoming clear that we had been misled about the nature of this “tour company”. There was no guide, no sightseeing, just a series of jumpy drivers barking out instructions. “Switch buses here for Lake Atitlán!”, “Stay with me if you’re headed to Guatemala City!” It seemed more like a semi-formal network of guys with vans, all overlapping and swapping passengers. The hostels that refer them are definitely getting a cut, as are the overpriced restaurants and convenience stores where we stopped along the way.

The route is full of detours, traffic jams and nausea – I blame the drivers in part, but the queasy roller-coaster of a ride was also due to the hilly Guatemalan landscape and the tiny, potholed, twisting roads that snake up and down and around its undulating valleys. Our headaches started early and persisted throughout the day. Guatemala did not impress us, to say the least.

The only way to deal with an excruciatingly long bus ride is to sink into a catatonic state. Pick a spot on the horizon and tune out until the buzz between your ears fades to a dull prodding. Indulge in your fellow passenger’s word association game reluctantly, like a zombie. Meet the ripples of time as they come and let go quickly enough to prevent yourself from noticing how slowly the hours are crawling by. And by all means, don’t look at your watch.

It’s hard to stay Zen as the rough, hard-packed earth zips by you, front, back, and around. As the van swings about wildly, first swerving to pass a pick-up truck laden with labourers, now switching lanes to take the inside corner around a bend.

The constant jerking and jolting is all I really remember about our ride through Guatemala. When we finally reached Guatemala City, the van dropped us off inside the gated compound of a bus terminal, fronting onto a busy and unforgiving ring road.

Pedestrian crossovers would take us to the other side of the fast-moving expressway, where our options for dinner were gas-station packaged fare or Pizza Hut takeout. We got a large pineapple and cheese.

The gated compound is home to the bus terminal for TicaBus which would whisk us away in the morning, further south. We hadn’t heard great things about safety in Guatemala City, we had no real desire to stay, and our goal had been to put as much distance behind us as possible. We figured we’d get a cheap hostel downtown, then wake up early to catch the bus. But we made two fatal miscalculations. One, that the TicaBus terminal would be remotely close to downtown, and two, that our “tour bus” from San Cristóbal would be remotely on time.

The only option at that point, at that hour of the night, was to take a room in the hotel adjacent to the bus terminal. That is, the hotel owned by the bus terminal, in the same compound as the bus terminal. It happened to be the same price as a taxi ride to downtown and back, and a reasonably priced hostel room. So, there we stayed with our cheese and pineapple pizza.

It was at this point, after a fourteen-hour rumble across mountainous terrain, after a twelve-hour coach ride the day before, that that creeping venom, doubt, burst to the fore.

Julia, always one to confront conflict head-on, broached the subject of our travel experiment. She mentioned the elephant in the room: flying back home from Colombia, or at best to Mexico. This would leave our experiment half-fulfilled, our convictions half-baked, our ambitions half-deflated, our environmentalist credibility half of what it was worth before we set out.

Because that’s the whole point, right? To travel without the high greenhouse gas emissions of flying. To see far-off lands without killing the planet. And if we can’t do that — actually do it as if planes didn’t exist, then there’s no hope. No hope for planes ever disappearing from the roster of passenger travel options. No hope of convenience ever being sacrificed for the greater good. No hope of a reversal of our car-centric cities, no hope of us ever electing a second Green MP.

All my effort, all my moral fibre rests on this trip remaining whole, indivisible, pure. Or so I thought, as I slipped into a teary funk, the kind caused by stress and not enough sleep and that takes just a pinch of existential doubt to set off.

So we slept. Next morning, we ate the rest of our cold pizza for breakfast and got on the bus to San Salvador, determined to take a break for a day or two. Above all, we wanted a beach.

9 April 2016

La Libertad, El Salvador

La Libertad is a place where you need to have your wits about you. Half a dozen cajoling men try to attract our business, like fishermen, as we search for a hotel along the beachfront promenade. Lonely Planet recommends Rick’s, but Rick’s is terrible. No ocean view, no outside facing window, bare-bones from floor to ceiling. No private bathroom. $25 per night.

We did better, scoring a $15 room in a concrete block of a building, painted the colours of an 80s high school gymnasium. It has a convenience store on the ground floor, a private toilet and shower in the room, a second-storey balcony lounge, ocean views, and wifi. It’s only when we’ve already paid that we realize there’s no running water at all, the wifi doesn’t work, and we’ll have to check out by 8:15 the next morning. Swindled!

It looks less threatening from afar. Photo by Carlos Lowry

As we saw upon arrival, the beach was rocky. A little further east of the town centre, however, the rocks dissipate somewhat and we see people properly swimming, surfing even. Just a few locals. No foreign tourists to be seen, other than a woman wearing a Secours Populaire Français t-shirt that I spotted around the fish market.

The sea is rough. Really rough. But we are excited for the ocean. We strip to our swimsuits and run out to meet the salty waves, only to be forced under backwards by Poseidon’s chokehold. Barely able to stand before the next swell, we feel our feet pulled deeper as if by magnets, into the undertow.

The swirling water pulls along small and medium-sized rocks, which batter our toes and ankles. I lose my footing, falling forward as my knee makes contact with one of these rogue rocks strewn about the sand. The next waves come crashing in, toppling me head over heels. I somehow manage to protect my face.

Limbs full of scratches and bruises, mouths full of salt, we walk up to a beachside restaurant and order two Coca-Colas, Just like in the advertisements.

Beside us on the dark, rocky beach, two locals are fighting their dogs for fun. They snarl and snap, charge and growl. The two young men stand back and laugh.

Frida's ghost and the anarcho-feminist café: Exploring Mexico City Fri, 05 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 6 April 2016

Mexico City

Deciding to spend an extra day in Mexico City was a good idea. Our hostel room is equipped with quite a nice bed and a large private bathroom, which we used to hand-wash all our clothes.

The hostel is fun, social, and full of people our age. We made a few new friends over drinks at the neighbourhood bar, trading stories of travel experiences. We met a man from Lund, of Colombian ancestry, who had recently travelled to Medellín and gave us a glowing review. Julia practiced her Spanish with a man from Argentina who was wrapping up a month-long tour of Mexico.

Mexico City’s historic district, and more to the point its pedestrian-only Avenida Madero, is the most corporate/American/bourgeois part of the city that we visited. Full of European watches, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and fast fashion chains. It’s a pleasant enough street otherwise, terminating at a plaza with a humongous Mexican flag.

Mexico City's Palacio National.
Mexico’s Palacio Nacional. Photo by Ivan Hernández

We ventured to the ritzy Condesa district with our fellow hostel-goer Elizabeth. Actually, Condesa has a reputation for being ritzy, but we found ourselves walking for quite a while along shuttered building faces before stumbling upon a wine bar here, a taco stand there, another bar over here, all at least a block apart. Condesa has nice venues, but it doesn’t feel quite like a cohesive bar district.

Of course, we had to visit Frida Kahlo’s house. By far the most touristy party of our stay, we traded stories with an older couple from Michigan to pass the time as we waited in the long entrance line. Frida’s house is tucked in a residential area of Cuayocàn, a beautiful neighbourhood bursting with flowering trees and birds. Each house is unique in its own way – it’s clearly a well-to-do area, but very much part of Mexico City’s urban fabric. A small convenience store on the corner sells us a bottle of water for 8 pesos. We hear children’s excitable voices float out of the windows of a school for children with disabilities. The garbage truck rolls down the street as we approach Frida’s house, bells clanging to alert the residents to bring out their waste.

The house itself is gorgeous. All thick cement walls and flat expanses, like a canvas. In some rooms, the walls themselves have been decorated with quotes and inscriptions. In Frida’s bedroom, foot-high red letters are painted around the top border of the wall, name-dropping Frida, Diego, their friends, and claiming Cuayocàn as their own. It was painted in 1956.

Frida kahlo house

There’s a gallery in the first few rooms of the house – Self Portrait with Stalin, Viva la Vida, Watermelons, Still Life (Round) (this one was my favourite), various portraits of other people, self-portraits depicting the agony of failed births…. Frida’s art is gripping and personal, but as we move from room to room, the gallery becomes less formal, more domestic, more raw and full and unfiltered. We see the wheelchair Frida sat in, the very mirror above the bed that her mother gave to her after her paralyzing accident. This mirror allowed her to paint those self-portraits.

The most fascinating room for me was the studio where, aside from the old art supplies on display, Julia and I stood observing the cracked spines of all the well-worn books in Frida and Diego’s library. A History of the American Man, Russian revolutionary literature, Volumes upon volumes of Marxist thought. Some in English, some in Spanish. On the wall hung a large scientific illustration of the fetal development cycle.

By this point we had left the public exhibition behind, and were entering the shadows of daily life, the beds in which Frida slept, the books she read, the courtyard where her animals frolicked. This was her world, and we felt honoured to be a part of it. Julia spent a few meditative minutes beside the urn containing Frida’s ashes, sitting, present with her ghost.

The Frida Kahlo house lets in a maximum of 135 people at a time. Large enough to keep the line moving, and small enough to prevent overcrowding. Moving among the paintings and household trinkets, we floated along with a swirling current of 133 other bodies. We admired Diego Rivera’s kitschy pre-hispanic conversation pieces (I like to imaging everything in that house is a conversation piece), taking in the calm beauty of the walled-in courtyard, and finally stepping into the gift shop for some mementos (I wonder what Frida and Diego used that room for?).

Julia strikes her best Frida Kahlo look
Julia strikes her best Frida Kahlo pose, with the iconic blue walls as a backdrop

And as it happens, as I was waiting outside the ladies’ room for Julia, I spotted a familiar face – a Torontonian, a Kitchener associate, even. It was Božena, Kosa Kolektiv extraordinaire! She spotted me, or just my shirt (the Kitchener crossword one) and stopped in her tracks. “Kitchener?”

A serendipitous encounter turned to lunch at a nearby seafood restaurant. We swapped stories throughout the afternoon, the distance between Mexico City and our respective hometowns bringing us closer than we ever were at home. She had been travelling in Oaxaca, participating in a textiles workshop and learning about natural dyes. Absorbing traditional knowledge to relay back home to her folk arts community.

It was a refreshing day, as if we were not weary travellers but a group of Mexico City natives, catching up with friends on the weekend. Our growing familiarity with the metro system gave us an outsized dose of confidence, and Julia and I flitted between interesting neighbourhoods, soaking it all in. We didn’t have any specific monuments or museums to see; we just wanted to experience the city. We indulged in delicious street food and gave money to panhandlers (2 pesos is expected, 5 pesos is considered generous).

That evening, we met up with Božena again at Punto Gozadera. It’s part cafe, part bar, part music/poetry venue, part bicycle repair shop, part workout gym. This gem just south of Bellas Artes, on plaza San Juan, is a radical, countercultural, anti-oppressive space for all things feminist. Block-printed posters hang on the wall – “Mi cuerpas es mio”, “Lesbo-feministas contra la sistema heterosexual”. It’s the kind of place that pulls people together, that fosters a critical mass of activists, that builds solidarity. We’ve only scratched the surface of Mexico City, and I’m impressed by how multifaceted, how rich, how current the culture is here.

Enjoying a drink with Božena at Punto Gozadera

At the same time, I’m glad to be leaving tonight. Like the centre of any large metropolis, we’ve had to dodge taxis, swim against the current of unmanageable crowds, contend with shouting vendors, hurry past austere police and military guards, and keep our guard up against the general hyper-disorienting hubbub that is giving me a headache. Add to this the constant blaring boomboxes, TVs, and loudspeaker announcements — I’m ecstatic to be en route to the idyllic town of San Cristóbal.

Julia and I ended our short stay in Mexico City with a wonderful little dinner at a cat café called La Gateria. Even after a long day of walking in the hot sun, we couldn’t help but break into smiles as we cuddled with the cats – all up for adoption – while eating our meal.

Now, exhausted, we’re waiting in Mexico City’s Tapo bus station. They’re playing Paranormal Activity on the TVs in the departure lounge. Paranormal Activity! This city is stressing me out. Estoy cansado.

Let's unpack this Mon, 12 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500 One thing I love about Kitchener-Waterloo is the supportive community that has developed around open mics, house shows, and small-scale concerts. It takes a strong culture of togetherness for hosts to prepare a safe and welcoming venue. It takes dedication and a genuine interest in the art for people to show up to these events. And of course, it takes confidence and trust for performers to take to the stage.

The closeness of this community overlaps with other spheres of my life — studying, politics, activism, art, entrepreneurship, and community events. Some of the same people tend to pop up in my life, and it’s wonderful to be living in a place where these chance encounters combine to give texture and depth to my relationships.

So I had to stop and reflect when I caught myself descending into a cynical spiral of contempt a few weeks ago. This was at an open mic, and an older woman was singing a boomer-hippie anthem about wanting to “turn on the TV and see peace on Earth”.

Having been primed with a steady diet of anti-Trump thinkpieces, critiques of Indigenous reconciliation, and social justice commentators, I scoffed inwardly. I want to turn on the TV and see peace on Earth? What kind of lazy storybook optimism is this? Do people really think that if they wish hard enough and send enough good vibes to Syria that their civil war will end? Are people really so naïve?

Not to mention, the premise that you could “turn on your TV” as a precursor to world peace plays right into the hands of global capitalism. Can’t they see the corporate influence responsible for widening the wealth gap is the same force that brings us these very TVs?

This performer probably lives in a big old house in Westmount, that they bought back when jobs were good and home ownership was easy to come by. Who are they to sing a happy-go-lucky tune about peace on Earth?

This line of thinking wasn’t helpful. I found myself launching into a righteous attack against someone who should really be a fellow ally. Perhaps, given enough time and other chance encounters around town, they could become a friend. But there’s no way that will happen if I can’t set aside my hostility.

It’s important for allies to hold space for other would-be allies. To empathise and edify at the same time, in a spirit of building a stronger common front against injustice. This doesn’t mean giving dominant and oppressive voices the benefit of the doubt. It means realising that we’re all learning, and passing on the insight I’ve received from others.

So next time I find myself silently fuming about a supposed ally doing things the “wrong” way, I’ll try to follow my own advice.

America by train, New Orleans by night, and a rest in Mexico Tue, 15 Nov 2016 00:00:00 -0500 29 March 2016

Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

There are four and a half hours until our train leaves. Julia is rushing to complete some paperwork for her financial return to Elections Canada. She’s in the living room, papers strewn across the work table. It seems inevitable to be rushing around at the last minute, whether we’re about to take the bus uptown or head off on this adventure thousands of kilometres away. We won’t sleep in this bed for another two and a half months.

The preparation for this trip has been mentally exhausting. I’ve been forced to extract myself from freelance contracts. I’ve put my projects on ice and prepared for no communication until June. One invoice has been overdue for months, and a few days ago I put that client’s website in hibernation mode. As it happens, he sent me payment and requested the final deliverables today. As in, right now. Four and a half hours before our train departs. Part of me wants to pull out my laptop and code away for an hour just to get this project completed. But no — I’ve set my email auto-responder. I’ve put all my websites on standby. I’m on vacation.

Of course I’m too plugged in. Of course I’m always on. I reply to emails while sitting on the toilet, because shitting in peace is too unproductive. My mind is in overdrive, and it’s high time for some rehab.

Despite our best-laid plans, we’re starting out with a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty about timing, uncertainty about cost, uncertainty about safety…

Julia’s paperwork takes longer and longer to finish, and my response is to passively-aggressively keep packing our stuff into the storage locker. I do not want to be caught an hour before the train leaves with a bedroom full of random things to pack. I do not want to spend the next three months flying by the seat of our pants. I’m restless and eager to get going.

Julia’s parents arrive at our place for one final cup of tea. We walk nine blocks together to the Kitchener train station, arriving a comfortable fifteen minutes early. Now all there is to do is wait, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the Sarnia-bound train arriving. Julia’s parents send us off with an icon of Saint Panteleimon, the Russian Orthodox patron saint of good health. Julia’s father tells us, “Once you have your health, you have everything else.”

The train whisks us across Southwestern Ontario. These early hours of our adventure are fun and full of new energy, even though we’re cooped up in a tin car looking at the same landscape we’ve grown up with our entire life. The sun sets as we roll past Waterloo Region’s farm country, with its neat little patches of brown, scrubby field yet to be seeded. The coffee is good, the atmosphere is friendly, and the newly-renovated VIA Rail car makes us feel comfortable. Everything is working to affirm our slow-travel idealism.

30 March 2016

Port Huron, Michigan — Chicago, Illinois

We’re resigned to the fact that there is only one way to cross the border at Sarnia without a car — an expensive taxi ride. Aside from the cost (a cool $91), the trip across the border is as pleasant as we could have expected. In the wee hours of the morning, we fix ourselves a hearty home-cooked breakfast in Gordon and Judy’s kitchen. I’m glad we were able to catch a few hours of sleep here last night.

A flash of light through the living room window tells us it’s time to leave. The chatty driver is in his sixties, and he keeps up a rolling stream of commentary over the 5 AM stillness.

We’re miffed to hear that it used to be possible to cross the border by train — but now (since 9/11, he says), the Amtrak and VIA Rail cars stay parked in their respective country’s rail yard, achingly close, as freight continues to roll through the border tunnel. I wonder how much of North America’s lacklustre progress on intercity transportation can be traced to fears over terrorism.

A pre-dawn selfie in the parking lot of the Port Huron Amtrak station

By 6 AM, the tiny Port Huron station is filling up with sleepy-eyed passengers. It seems we’re somewhere on the edge of town, in an industrial park not far from the highway off-ramp. The station is all cinder block, Helvetica, and geometric forms. Behind the counter and in the sign out front, they still proudly display the old Amtrak logo, which was formally retired in the year 2000.

This is nostalgic pride — not the rosy memories of better days, but the forthright ambition of an earlier era, reaching forward to lift our chin and tell us to stand straight. It’s the pride of a generation that’s out of touch with the present. A generation that doesn’t realise we’ve failed to keep up with that ambitious spirit. The station smells like gasoline.

We lost one of our own.

A passenger stepped off the train in Battle Creek to have a smoke, and didn’t get back on in time. We left without her. She appears to have been travelling with a group of people, and thankfully they’ll make sure to take care of her stuff. They’re all very chill about the ordeal — phone calls have been made. Someone will pick her up and they’ll all reunite in Chicago. I would like to travel with these people.

The rural Michigan landscape is very much like home. It’s more swampy, with more ranch houses and trailer homes. More roadside pancake houses. But there’s the same late-winter/early-spring farm fields, the same sparse thickets of trees. The American landscape is a slow gradation.

We are greeted this morning with a fiery, shimmering sunrise like a ball of molten glass. It seems the most magical sunrises and sunsets happen while on vacation. Perhaps that’s because you’re generally more mindful of your environment. When travelling, your heightened senses of observation help you appreciate new surroundings, not to mention keeping an eye on your bags, counting change, mentally translating and converting foreign measurements. All these minutiae that make travel different and special.

I still have the twitch. That reflexive urge to flip out my phone and check for notifications, reply to email, keep up with Twitter, and feel connected to the world. But we’re stepping back from all that. All there is to do here is daydream, look out the window, read, write, and of course eat. My need for distraction could entice me to drop $5 at hourly intervals in the food car, but our trip demands more patience than that. I can handle it. We’re sipping the rest of our water, judiciously portioning out our stock of rosehip candies, saving ourselves. Chicago is waiting for us in the morning, and it has deep-dish pizza.

The other thing to do, of course, is to eavesdrop. The group that lost one of their members in Battle Creek has been casually chatting this whole time. It’s coming to light that they are a group of chefs. I’m fascinated by their talk of ego in the industry, or the intricacies of hot sauce. They have strong and differing opinions about Sriracha.

31 March 2016

Chicago, Illinois — New Orleans, Louisiana

We’re somewhere south of Memphis, and the sun has just risen. Well, almost — let’s say the low, heavy cloud cover is brightening from inky black to a dull purple-grey. It’ll stay that way for the rest of the morning.

We trundle past endless swaths of newly-seeded fields, their green shoots bright and uniform in the flat earth. An odd one out flashes by, the brown soil just raked in perfect rows one foot apart. Perhaps the seeds have just been planted. Is this rice? The ground is awfully wet. Some stretches look like a vast, broad river. This landscape is deceiving.

Enjoying views and brews from the observation car

We’re on the second-storey observation deck of the City of New Orleans. That’s the name of our train. The curved glass roof and big picture windows make me feel like a real old-timey traveller. Julia and I snack on pistachios and contemplate our surroundings. “Is rice a grain? Is it like wheat? Or is it a grass?” There is no wifi here, so we remain blissfully ignorant.

The double-decker train bobs left and right like an inverted pendulum. It’s hard to find our footing as we walk down the aisle to get food or go to the bathroom. I feel like I’m getting accustomed to life on the train, even contorting myself in the tiny lavatory to wash my hair and shave. But the side-to-side lurching still throws me off guard.

The sun has finally broken through the clouds, and we are enjoying a wonderful golden light here in the observation car. We’re now approaching Greenwood, Mississippi, and the land is still very wet and flooded. Fields morph into swampy forests, which blend into a flowing river and it’s hard to tell if there’s any dry land at all. The earth is red, like Prince Edward Island. The small country roads running parallel to the train track look as if they’re made of pottery. Terra-cotta hues tinge everything.

Photo by Nick Normal

Greenwood, from the view of the train, seems ramshackle. All old wood siding and corrugated aluminum. Like other towns we’ve passed through, trailer homes abound. I can see why, in this context of middle America, the car is held up as an icon of personal freedom. It’s the freedom to move beyond these towns of rusted-out water towers and Main Streets that are but a shell of their former glory.

We pull out of the station, headed further south, and there’s an entire neighbourhood submerged in water. The flooding around here, the drenched fields, the red-tinged roads… this must not be normal. It must have been unexpected. Peoples’ cars, backyard furniture, all under water. Whole blocks are covered with several feet of water… but the houses look so normal, so lived-in… except for the fact that they have water lapping at their porches. I wonder if they build basements in Mississippi.

Hours pass. Are we somehow in the Mississippi Delta? Is this train, with its hundreds of passengers and crew and freight and luggage, carving a path through the final surge of North America’s longest river? The Mississippi, having collected all the volume of rivers and creeks and farm runoff as far north as the Canadian border, is now bursting forth in a final exhale to meet the sea. In much the same way that a sprinter lunges forward and splays her arms as she approaches the finish line, the river’s arms, tightly coiled until now, are spreading out, reaching, stretching, giving way to a frenzy of outward energy.

And are we, humble travellers, able to sit atop a berm or across a bridge, neatly cleaving two straight rails through the vast, wet muck of the delta?

1 April 2016

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

I’ve never seen a den of vice as unabashed and boisterous as Bourbon Street, New Orleans.

We arrived in New Orleans, and walked twenty blocks north of Loyola Street to our hostel. After sitting on the train for so long, we welcomed the opportunity to stretch our legs. We’re staying in Mid-City. A passer-by informs us that she recently moved to Mid-City and the thing she most dislikes isn’t the “crackheads” or “homeless people” (her words), but the giant caterpillars that leave welts the size of dinner plates.

But back to the den of vice. I can see why the French Quarter is such an attractive tourist destination — the legacy of Spanish and French colonisation has imbued this neighbourhood with a distinct European feel. All wrought-iron balconies, narrow streets, and intricately-carved stone.

But this is America. So all that history is, of course, overlaid with neon signs and a celebration of binge drinking. Nestled between the Hand Grenade (“Bourbon’s strongest drink!”), Hustler’s “barely legal” nightclub, and kitschy voodoo souvenir shops, there’s just enough New Orleans culture to lend legitimacy to this street, to differentiate it from a casino or a giant frat party.

Photo by Marc Flores

The neon signs compete in an arms race for attention and money — “64 oz fish bowl”, “huge ass beers”, “3 for 1”, et cetera. But there’s another dimension to the entertainment, one that needs a bit of cognitive dissonance — or a few more beers — to gloss over. There are lots of street performers, jazz musicians plying their trade for tips. This is normal. We peel off a couple dollar bills for a ten-piece brass band that is improvising and entertaining and generally having a good time. Half a block along Bourbon, we come across one of the many young black boys tap-dancing on the sidewalk, an empty liquor box placed in front for tips. He’s performing, working same as the brass band, but there’s a twist of history that makes me cringe. The scene of a negro boy dancing for entertainment is a little too close to the line between past and present. His box is much more empty than the brass band’s.

As the night goes on, I understand that homelessness and panhandling are also part of the entertainment. Two women sit on a street corner with a rainbow-coloured sign declaring, “LESBIANS need CASH 4 STRAP-ON!” There’s a crust punk couple slouched against a lamppost with their dog, furtively counting change. The cardboard-scrawled message at their feet says, “Give a fuck, spare a buck.”

In the face of this oversaturation of visible homelessness, my typical coping mechanism is to slowly ignore it, or to reflect upon the misfortune from a distance. But the carnival atmosphere of Bourbon Street makes it seem that the performers, pandhandlers, and drag queens on display outside sex clubs are all part of the same sordid show.

2 April 2016

Jefferson Davis Parkway, New Orleans

There are neighbourhoods in some American cities where you just don’t go. Where danger lurks around every corner. Where one wrong move, one misstep, could easily be the difference between life and death.

Everyone needs to watch their back in these neighbourhoods. The streets here are unfriendly at best, and at their worst, they actively try to kill you. But you won’t hear about these places in a travel guide warning or a list of crime hotspots. These pockets of death and hostility fly under the radar, under our noses, even.

If you pay attention, you can identify their characteristics: wide, fast-moving lanes of traffic. Overgrown, narrow, or non-existent sidewalks. Unmarked pedestrian crossings. Blind corners. Wide, sweeping curb radii. On-ramps. Industrial loading docks. Sky-high billboards advertising personal injury lawyers.

Avoid these areas at all costs — especially if you are new to town. Make one false move, and you could easily be a deer in the headlights.

This has been a reflection on our morning run around New Orleans’ Jefferson Davis Parkway and its adjoining industrial area.

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

We visit the lower ninth ward in the afternoon. The internet told us there are good po-boys to be had here, and it was right. Creamy, crispy, fattening and fresh all at the same time, we scarf down shrimp (me) and fish (Julia) po-boy sandwiches under the awning of Cajun Joe’s. It’s a busy corner restaurant — takeout only — beside an overgrown, vacant, fenced-in lot. Across the street, a taco truck competes for business.

The lower ninth has hollowed out since Katrina, for sure, but it’s pleasant enough to walk around. No worse off than the tracts of foreclosed homes we saw in South Chicago or the outskirts of Detroit, or our view along the train route through Mississippi — which, granted, is pretty damn miserable. But we certainly don’t feel unsafe. We walk along carefree — even when caught in an unexpected downpour.

Around the corner from Cajun Joe’s is a museum that we had read about online. “Museum” is a generous label — in reality, it’s a converted garden suite in the back of the owner’s property. The House of Dance and Feathers is a celebration of Black, Native American, and Creole culture. It’s a treasure trove of artifacts, history embodied in real objects. There are precious few plaques or information panels.

Ronald Lewis, the owner and curator of the museum, sits near the entrance on a white plastic lawn chair. He invites us to simply inquire about anything we’re interested in. And we do. We have a great time in the cramped little room, re-discovering history from a new angle.

We had wanted to do some volunteering in New Orleans, and Ronald gives us the perfect task: helping prepare the newly-built shed that will become the museum’s second room. We spend a couple hours painting and chatting, and by the time we leave, Ronald has gifted us with a signed copy of his book — a definitive cultural education of the lower ninth ward. We also leave with a jester doll, a token of appreciation for our time.

Painting walls for the addition to the House of Dance and Feathers

We suffer another miserable torrential downpour on the way back to the hostel, but I have a feeling we’ll soon forget that part of the day. The House of Dance and Feathers, that little nugget of cultural preservation, will live on.

Frenchmen Street, New Orleans

At night, we venture to Frenchmen Street, home of the famous blues bars and jazz lounges. It’s no less touristy than Bourbon Street, but the inebriated masses here are less boisterous, less crazed. It’s a faithful replica of any good European party street, like Rue Mouffetard in Paris or Prague’s old city.

We soak in the atmosphere, and dance badly to a tired blues band at a quaint bar called the Apple Barrel. I’m glad to have experienced it. Two drinks and $11 later, we wander back through the shuttered French Quarter, being sure to avoid Bourbon.

Aware of our early train departure in the morning, we start packing as we prepare for bed. Many of our clothes are still wet and it doesn’t look like they will dry in time for morning. More distressing is the fact that my phone appears to have suffered from the water damage — the very phone that should be our alarm in the morning. The screen flickers, stubbornly showing a cryptic lightning bolt-and-cog symbol… this is bad news.

With all the enthusiasm of a teenager going to write an exam on a Saturday morning, we pull ourselves up from the bed where we had hoped to rest our heads. Six hours’ sleep has turned to five, and we take an emergency trip to Walgreens at 2 AM to buy an alarm clock.

The staff at Walgreens outnumber us two-to-one, and our frantic search for a timepiece provides some welcome entertainment during the graveyard shift. Some of them are adamant that they no longer sell alarm clocks: “Everything is on their phones nowadays,” (which, of course, is precisely the problem.)

The magic of global capitalism turns to our favour and the security guard finds a row of clocks for sale on the bottom shelf underneath the batteries. We pay $20 for the assurance of a couple hours’ sleep before we have to wake up for the San Antonio-bound train. Looking back, I think it was worth it.

4 April 2016

New Orleans, Louisiana — San Antonio, Texas

The last two days have been a sleep-deprived wonderful whirlwind of a time. New Orleans seems like a distant memory. The Walgreens alarm clock woke us faithfully on time. We made our way to the train station through New Orleans’ crazy streets as if stepping through passed-out bodies and bottles after a house party.

We’re happy to be moving on. The westbound Sunset Limited, true to its name, rewards us with a shimmering molten gold-orange sunset over Texas cattle farms. As it dips into the horizon, we settle into as good a sleep as you can get on a moving train. There are a few rowdy drunks on board, but by evening they’ve settled into playing cards or laying passed out in their seats. There’s quite a lot more drinking on this train than there was on the City of New Orleans.

In Houston, we stop to stretch our legs. The conductor informs us that we’ll be stationed here for a little over an hour, so Julia and I make a split-second decision to venture into town for a decent vegetarian dinner. Houston is not the most welcoming city — at least, not the part we covered in our 15-minute walk from the train station. Between a high-stress game of real-life frogger across inhospitable roads, a statue of George Bush (Senior, but still), and the ticking deadline of our train’s departure, it makes for a nerve-wracking hour.

Miraculously, we make it back to the train in time. Our arms are laden with tacos and salad and chips with guacamole, each dish packed in its own spacious styrofoam container. We feel a little guilty with our take-out picnic in the dining car. A little mutinous, even, against the charming Elwood, our dining car attendant with the Mr. Moviephone voice. But it was delicious.

Before long, San Antonio rolls up and we exit the last train of our southbound trip. It’s late evening and our plan is to pull an all-nighter before boarding a Greyhound to the Mexican border at 4 AM. We’re ready, if not rested. And San Antonio delivers — we spend 20 minutes and seven dollars in a lively boxing-themed bar where an excellent cover band plays funky eighties hits. The music is better than anything we had heard in New Orleans, and the bar is full of middle-aged married couples dancing together and having a good time. Even though we’re smelly and sleepy from travel, San Antonio gives us a warm embrace.

This welcome sets the tone for the next few hours, as we make our way slowly along the Riverwalk. Everyone we see seems to be fat, happy, and calm. Everyone is eager to have fun on this Saturday night, but there’s none of the frantic, hedonistic energy of a typical party district. We take in the scene with pleasure, and feel as if just walking through the city is a restful practice in itself.

Photo by redteam

At the San Antonio Greyhound station, we decide to modify our trip to avoid crossing the Mexican border on foot. We had originally planned on disembarking stateside in Laredo, then trekking with our luggage across the pedestrian bridge to Nuevo Laredo. We had Googled it, people do this all the time. No problem. But now, travel-weary and without our best wits about us, we take the prudent route. We’ll stay on the bus all the way to Monterrey, Mexico. This proves to be a wise decision: Laredo before sunrise looks like an mean, unforgiving border town straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie. Better to be whisked along to a more cosmopolitan city in the air-conditioned bus.

Monterrey, Mexico — Mexico City, Mexico

We emerge from our second straight night of stiff-backed, restless sleep at Greyhound’s North Monterrey terminal. We’re now in America Latina proper, meaning two things — it’s now time to start speaking Spanish in earnest, and everything is cheap as chips.

I start getting flashbacks to former trips abroad — El Salvador, Morocco, Karachi — litter-strewn streets, dusty footpaths, an abundance of taxis, cracked sidewalk tiles, corrugated steel shopfront coverings. It’s a delicious feeling of anticipation.

Our first stop at a refresquería features a freshly blended papaya smoothie for twenty pesos. At our second stop, we indulge in hot-as-hell cheese and pepper tacos (thirty pesos). Third stop: a self-serve scale outside of a church, plastered with the image of the saints. I’m curious to see if I’ve gained any weight during the trip so far. The scale wasn’t functional and ate our money. Two pesos.

Authentic Mexican tacos for lunch in Monterrey

The balls of my feet are starting to hurt from so much walking, although it is pleasant to be moving under our own steam for a change. Here in Monterrey, there’s a calm, approachable quality to the streets. Even the dozens of strip clubs and massage parlours seem like quaint family-run businesses. (And they very well might be.)

We finish our Monterrey day trip at a seafood restaurant next to the bus terminal. Julia orders an entire fish: bones, eyes, and all. I indulge in a tostada, empanada, and bottle of Coke. We watch American Top 40 music videos from the blaring CRT television in the corner. The friendly restaurant owner asks if we are married. Outside, street vendors sell candy, illicit DVDs, socks, handbags, sunglasses.

One more marathon bus ride. One more smelly, showerless, bedless night. One more day of wearing the same socks and T-shirt, the T-shirt which a bird had seen fit to shit on this afternoon in a Monterrey park. There’s no doubt about our bohemian credentials. All our clothes need a wash. The sun has risen once again over our dirty, sweaty heads. Our hostel room will be ready in two hours and we can’t wait to get clean. Julia is hangry.

Welcome to Mexico City.

Adventure at the Panama-Colombia border Fri, 23 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Our destination is Colombia, but we got a big dose of adventure before even setting foot there. We wanted to arrive without flying, which meant getting up close and personal with the Guna Yala, a proud and independent Indigenous group that controls access to the only safe passage through the notorious Darien Gap.

We rode in a tiny boat down the Panamanian coastline, hopping the waves with the wind in our face. In an area known for FARC rebels and a dangerous jungle, we came face-to-face with a different, more pressing problem: Panama’s underreported refugee crisis.

16 April 2016

Panama City, Panama

Contrary to cultural expectation, our driver arrives at the hotel three minutes early. He eyes us up as we descend into the lobby, and tilts his head to motion us out the door. We throw our bags into the back of the Jeep and make a few more stops at hostels in the empty pre-dawn blackness. We’ve packed light — two bicycle panniers and a small day bag for the both of us. The ideal eco-adventure power couple; we sneer inwardly at the other tourists with their massive hiking backpacks and painstakingly curated iPhone playlists. Like them, we’re about to spend a vacation in Colombia. But we won’t be hitting up the gringo trail — we plan to buy some used bikes and cycle through the Andes for a month. But first, we need to cross the border.

Soon, the Jeep’s seven seats are filled to capacity. Like us, the other travellers are headed to the Caribbean coast to catch a boat en route to Colombia. It’s become a fashionable form of arrival as Colombia opens itself to international tourism: dozens of companies offer five-day sailboat cruises through the San Blas islands, an idyllic archipelago of white-sand beaches and palm trees.

Gardi Barkosun, Guna Yala, Panama

As the sun rises, the terrain becomes more mountainous and the road more rugged. We’re headed for Gardi (also known as Cartí), a collection of coastal settlements and islands in Panama’s Guna Yala province. Here, the local Indigenous people have tight control over their hard-fought territory, which spans most of Panama’s northern coastline and the picturesque San Blas islands. They control the only road that leads to the Caribbean coast, and we each pay $20 USD for the privilege of passing through. Our driver has a Guna flag dangling from his rearview mirror and seems to know everyone at the checkpoints. He speaks quickly and passes a handful of cash to the checkpoint guard, a young woman in full military dress and a gun slung across her back. Not everyone gets a receipt for the fare.

The steep terrain starts to drop, then levels out, and we arrive at Gardi Barsokun. It’s a sandy inlet fringed with mangroves. A half-dozen SUVs are parked in the dusty clearing, doors and trunks splayed open, as fellow travellers gather up their backpacks and water and sunscreen.

We walk past cardboard signs scrawled with the names of tour companies: LAM Tours, Iguana, Koala Adventures… but we’re not looking for a company name. We’re looking for a person called Negrito.

“Negrito” — this is our connection to onward travel. No reservation number, no pre-booked ticket, no clue of a schedule. Just a racial slur passed by word of mouth. Negrito. He’ll get us a ship to Puerto Obaldía, a tiny village on the border between Panama and Colombia.

You see, we don’t have the money or time to take one of these sailboat cruises, and we’re morally opposed to air travel. (I know, the self-righteousness is too much to handle.) Our digging around in the corners of the internet revealed the existence of lanchas, small passenger boats that zip from town to town along the coast. They don’t have websites.

Sure enough, someone perks up when they hear the name Negrito, and they usher us onto a water taxi. It’s a long, narrow aluminum hull with a shade canopy and an outboard motor. Julia and I are the only passengers. One man starts up the engine and begins steering, while the other hands us two lifejackets.

A water-taxi docked at Gardi Barkosun

We cruise slowly through the mangroves, weaving our way out to the open water. The sea’s surface is punctuated by branches and logs — driftwood has gotten stuck in the mud. These must be very shallow waters. Some hazards barely peek above the waterline — they’re marked by ragged strips of white fabric, tied to sticks like a flag of surrender. It’s only a five-minute ride to Gardi Sugdub, an island just off the coast. Locals in dugout canoes paddle past us in the opposite direction, heading toward the mainland. They’re laden with jerry-cans of gasoline.

Gardi Sugdub, Guna Yala, Panama

We dock at Gardi Sugdub. This is Negrito’s place — the elevated dock leads to an enclosed patio of sorts, where three people are already waiting with their luggage. I can’t tell if the room we’re in is on solid ground, or if it’s sitting on top of stilts built out into the water. This island’s shore is a tight cluster of tin roofs, and it’s hard to see where the land ends and the water begins.

The shore of Gardi Sugdub

We’re in some kind of bar-restaurant-dancehall that apparently also acts as a waiting room for the lancha. On one wall, the words “Bar Matusalen” arc over a mural of a sunset and palm tree. The opposite wall loudly proclaims “Refresquería” above a closed serving window. The window is fringed with hand-painted illustrations of dancers, beer and soda cans. Down the hall, a small kitchen bears the inscription “Pizzería Don Thomas”. The name “Negrito” is spray-painted in bright orange, graffiti-style, on a closed door. Three times. So at least we know we’re in the right place.

Our fellow young backpackers have been swapped out for new, more experienced travel companions: Fabian is in his fifties, hair buzzed short to hide his balding. He sits at a table reading the newspaper and intermittently checks his phone. Theresa is a forty-something woman from Bolivia with wild-patterned leggings and a zebra scrunchie. She exercises pleasant patience and stands on the dock, looking out over the water. The third person waiting is José from Mexico. He cuts a clownish figure with his curly hair brushed back, long face, and bulbous nose. We go through introductions and pleasantries.

Fabian is Colombian, and he’s curious to see where we plan to travel in his native land. We pull out our National Geographic map, and all five of us pore over it. It’s amazing how a map — a real map, with folds and a legend and two sides that you have to flip between — encourages a kind of social interaction that GPS on your phone can’t match. Huddling together. Competing finger-pointing. Writing notes and highlights in the spaces between roads.

We expect Negrito will send his boat within the hour. It’s important to depart before 11 o’clock if we want to get to Puerto Obaldia before dark. Still, we figure we’ve got some time to explore Gardi Sugdub, so Julia and I set off down the tiny passageway connecting Negrito’s restaurant-bar-dock to the rest of the island.

We wind our way between walls made of lashed-together reeds. A wrinkled old Guna woman washes some clothes in a tub by hand, and we nod politely as we walk past. She doesn’t care about us. Children run about and scream as they do in every culture. We exit onto a street made of compacted dirt. We pass restaurants, shops, homes, most with tin or thatched roofs. There are no cars or bikes. Here on Gardi Sugdub, everyone walks.

Guna identity is strong here, with flags hanging from every other window. Their fierce textile patterns, so sought-after in Panama City’s art markets, are woven into everyday life.

We come upon a small window, beside which hangs a handwritten sign advertising drinks and snacks. We are greeted by Albert, who rises from his seat in the corner of the dark room with an over-the-top greeting: “Of course, it would be my great pleasure to serve you this morning!” He’s the talkative type. Big ears. Camo baseball cap. Shirtless, his ribs are visible through his skinny torso. His dark nipples point outward as if they are standing guard.

We buy a couple bottles of water and I drop two dollars’ worth of small change into his hand. Albert miscounts the change, asks for another 25 cents, and I comply. At this point he’s already in the swing of conversation with Julia. They discuss where we’re from — “It’s very cold in Canada, yes?” — where he’s from — “There are two, three thousand people here on Gardi Sugdub.”

We learn that the revenues from the Panama Canal help fund a stipend for indigenous people, and Albert says he gets about 120 Balboas (equal to $120 USD) per month from the government. It helps, but it’s not enough to live on. He points to the handmade textile bags for sale, the two bottles of water we just bought, to assure us that he does brisk enough business to make up the difference.

Albert is fiercely proud of his Guna heritage. He laments that the culture is being lost, bit by bit, but with so little urgency it’s as if he realises this is just a thing older people of every generation say. He explains the meaning of the Guna flag that we see all around the island — a red stripe to represent blood, a green stripe at the bottom for the land — the long, mountainous coastal strip called Guna Yala. In the flag’s centre, a pair of crossed muscular arms hold a bow and arrow. This represents the struggle of the people. Stars surrounding the arms represent the cosmos. And perhaps the islands, I’m not sure. I can’t remember what the yellow background in the middle represents.

A little worried about missing Negrito’s boat, we gratefully say farewell to Albert. He points us to a house a few doors down there we could spend the night if our boat doesn’t come today. Negrito’s “hotel” does not have the best reputation around here. With more thanks, we turn back toward the dock.

The situation hasn’t changed much. The clock is ticking toward 10:30 am, and our lancha hasn’t arrived yet. The five of us bide our time a little further, each minute bringing increased uncertainty. Would the boat come? Would we leave the island today? Our new friends — Theresa, Fabien, and José — were promised a boat yesterday. It didn’t come, and they were obliged to spend the night at Negrito’s “hotel”, which costs $5 USD a night. From what we hear, the scare quotes are well-justified.

Julia and I hadn’t had any breakfast, and were quite hungry. On our trip to see Albert we had passed a large open restaurant, and we decide to get something to eat. Fabien says he’ll make sure the boat doesn’t leave without us. As we step back out toward the street, we are stopped by a man in a teal golf shirt headed the opposite way. He asks is if we are travelling with Negrito, and ushers us back to the bar. Something is amiss.

Theresa and José come in from the dock. Fabien looks up from his phone. Julia and I stand in the middle of the room, arms crossed (as is our North American duty — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Latin American person stand with their arms crossed).

“Negrito says the motor is broken. He’s trying to fix it, but it should be ready by tomorrow.”

Immediately, the Spanish starts flying. Dismay, disappointment, soft shaking of heads. No anger or insults, as this is a civil group of folks. Finally, Fabien cuts to the heart of the matter: “Your boat isn’t broken, you’re just waiting for more passengers — isn’t that right?” Negrito’s messenger slips, nodding his assent with a pained face. He leaves the room, noncommittal, sticking weakly to the broken-engine story.

This throws our whole room into a heightened state of uncertainty. Maybe we should go back to the coast, find another boat to take us. Nobody wants to stay another night and pay five dollars for Negrito’s sorry excuse for a hotel. He’s just playing us. Maybe now that we’ve called his bluff, he’ll leave today after all. Maybe if we start looking for someone else to take us, we can force Negrito’s hand. A group of five willing travellers is a useful bargaining chip. We weigh our options. Consider, ponder. The day seems lost at any rate, we should have left by now, otherwise we risk getting caught out at sea after dark. It’s an 8-hour trip to Puerto Obaldía.

Amid the consternation, one of my favourite early-2000s hip-hop songs floats in from the dock. It’s Eve’s Let Me Blow Ya Mind. A fresh-faced young black man is blasting it from his phone. He’s sitting in a lancha. Two young Panamanians — couldn’t be older than eighteen — hop out of the boat.

“Let’s go, boat’s leaving.” Just like that.

We hand over the requisite $125 USD each. So does Fabien. Theresa hands over $100 — “Cien, es OK?” José has a hushed, animated conversation with the boys. “Did Negrito tell you about my situation? I’m not a tourist, you see…” He pays $60 and the boys carefully consider the sum of money. They’ve got commissions and fees to think of. A cut to Negrito, a cut to the port authority… After a quick phone call, they seem satisfied. We’re off, bags thrown in the front of the lancha, covered by a tarp. They hand us lifejackets and the twin outboard motors roar to life.

San Blas islands, Guna Yala, Panama

There are six of us, plus two crew members. We fit comfortably in the five rows of bench seating. It’s a fibreglass hull with a fabric canopy, identical to the water-taxi except for extra cushions on the previously-bare wooden benches, worn blue-painted slats for backrests, and swapping out the water taxi’s 15hp engine for two 75hp workhorses.

We pull out of the dock and start hitting the waves. By hitting, I mean a spectacular bellyflop that sends a jolt through each of my vertebrae every time we crest over a wave. Immediate headache. I hastily stow my glasses in their case to prevent them from being knocked into the Caribbean Sea. Maybe it was a good thing that we didn’t go eat lunch.

It’s a cloudy day, and the sea is steely grey crashing all around us. The coast of Guna Yala to our right, jungle mountains shrouded in mist. Every couple kilometres, smoke rises above the trees. Fabien says they’re burning away forest to make room for crops. I’m not sure I believe him. To our left, the San Blas islands. Tiny clumps of palm trees, ringed with white sand, the platonic ideal of a desert island. These islands are dotted along the vista, awkwardly breaking up the surface of the sea. They somehow seem like they don’t belong. On the smaller islands, the palm trees look sad. Wind-stripped, hunched over. Bamboo and thatched-roof Guna houses dot the shorelines of the larger islands. From afar, San Blas looks like a set of petri dishes all plunked on top of the churning, swirling, unforgiving sea. Jolt. Thunk. The lancha rides on. It feels like falling down an endless flight of stairs. The sea swells around us.

From up close, the islands appear much like Gardi Sugdub — our boat stops at some of them and they seem quite populated, ringed with docks. Gasoline cans in haphazard stacks. People in small fishing canoes a hundred metres off the coast, casting lines and diving. We dock at an island called Carganá to drop off a box of bananas and some motor oil. Fabien hops out and returns with chips and Coca-Cola for us all. Our little troupe of sea-faring travellers are starting to build a bit of camaraderie.

Juan Carlos is the hip-hop-loving young man who was first aboard the lancha. He owns two seafood restaurants in Colombia. He smiles a lot, talks rapidly and is eager to make conversation.

Fabien owns a Koala Tours, a tour company that arranges sailboat crossings from Panama to Colombia. Two of the people we met in the morning Jeep ride are on one of his boats by now. Fabien is on this rickety lancha ride because he wants to check up on a houseboat he owns in Sapzurro, a small coastal village just past the Colombian border.

Theresa, originally from Bolivia, built up a restaurant business and owned two houses in Medellín before leaving for Panama a year ago with her savings, trying to make a better life for herself. It proved more difficult than expected. She ended up selling bottled water in the street to make ends meet. Now she’s heading back to Colombia, trying to start anew once more.

José was an upholsterer in Mexico — at the peak of his career, he worked near the U.S. border making seats for airplanes. The work dried up, and now he’s sixty and exhausted, lugging along an enormous sewing machine which represents his greatest store of value and the means by which he can ply his trade. He too is looking for work in Colombia.

Our rag-tag posse on a lancha

Continuing along the coast, we don’t drop off any more packages, although we make two more stops. At a place nicknamed “the Island of Dogs”, we dock briefly to use the bathroom, as the sun nears its apex behind a cloudy sky. The cloud cover belies the sun’s heat — Julia, sitting on the right side of the boat, hasn’t noticed her whole right arm, face, and thigh turn red.

After a couple hours, we veer toward a small port on the mainland. There is a large black mass ahead of the boat just below the water’s surface — a coral reef. As we approach, the driver expertly manoeuvres in and out, zig-zagging through the shallows all while maintaining speed. The bay is full of coral. If our lancha were any larger, I doubt we could enter that bay at all. The captain docks, barely, one foot straddling the pier. He hands a wad of cash to another man who was waiting there. They exchange a jovial greeting, then we’re off again.

Wave-jumping is hard work. But sooner than I had expected, the motor slows to a comfortable cruising speed, matching the waves’ rhythm instead of overtaking them. We pull into another bay, where a large military banner is draped over the fence beside a small hut. This is Puerto Obaldía, our last stop in Panama before crossing the border to Colombia.

Puerto Obaldía, Panama

The internet warned us that Puerto Obaldía’s immigration office closes early, and that we’d be stuck in this “shabby little town of nothing” for a night, while we wait until morning to get our exit stamp. But Juan Carlos, full of restless energy and unwilling to take no for an answer, tries to turn the tables in our favour.

After getting through the military checkpoint, we find ourselves on the main street of Puerto Obaldía, our luggage in a pile around us. Juan Carlos spies a young kid hanging out on the street corner and whistles him over. “Go find me the man who runs the immigration office.” He slips the kid some money.

Juan Carlos bribes a government official and gets him to open up the office and stamp our passports for exiting Panama. We’re all moving in a herd now, loosely following Juan Carlos, united by a desire to cross into Colombia today rather than tomorrow. The lancha is supposed to be waiting for us — Juan Carlos talked with them. They’ll take us on to Capurganá tonight for another $10 USD per person.

Naturally, José and Theresa won’t have to pay. The four of us wealthier travellers — Juan Carlos, Fabien, Julia and myself — have created a de facto welfare state within our group of rag-tag travellers. Fabien, the mature, successful businessman, willingly takes on the lion’s share. He got to know José and Theresa before the rest of us, and spent a night with them in Negrito’s godforsaken accommodations. Noblesse oblige is alive and well here in Latin America.

Despite our best efforts, all this running around turns out to be for naught. The lancha is gone. It’s past 5 o’clock, and getting dark — nobody in town is willing to take us across the border. The guards at the military checkpoint have fun taking their time re-checking our bags, bringing out the drug dogs, all so we can walk out to the pier and realise we don’t have a boat. One guard jokes, “Why would you want to leave this paradise town? We have five-star hotels. Stay the night!” So we do.

Far from a “shabby little town of nothing”, Puerto Obaldia is full of activity. As it turns out, this seaside village is the flashpoint for the latest immigration crisis in the Western hemisphere. Apparently, Panama recently loosened its entrance requirements which prompted a flood of Cubans, Haitians, Ghanians and Nigerians toward the Panamanian border. Once here, they can apply for refugee status or continue North to Mexico and, eventually, the USA. On the ground, this means hundreds of makeshift tents behind the soccer pitch in Puerto Obaldia. Apparently there are Cuban aid groups sending them food, which is a good thing because this town’s pantries seem to be bone dry.

Resigned to spending the night here, we search high and low for a restaurant. Club music booms from a billiards hall facing the soccer pitch. All we can find in the immediate downtown is beer and Coca-Cola. We follow a trail of recommendations to the end of the street — no, to the end of that street — no, around the corner — to a well-lit patio on the edge of town. A TV is on, showing a feature interview with Bernie Sanders’ Hispanic Press Secretary. It’s the only place in town where people are sitting down to eat.

We take a seat at a long table where two Ghanians are finishing up their meals of meat, rice, and soup. We strike up a conversation with Isaac, who ran an import-export business selling car tires; he says Ghana would be a good place to live if it weren’t for the corrupt government. He moved to Brazil two years ago and worked for a year as an airport security guard. However, his visa was revoked when the Brazilian government decided that airports should only be staffed by Brazilian nationals. Now he’s trying to make his way to the USA where he has some family. He’s aware of the immigration crisis. He’s aware that there are still 9 borders to cross. But he says, “God will find a way.”

Miracles. Everybody’s waiting on them, including our group of six. The restaurant owner has just informed us there is only enough meat and rice for two more portions. We ask her to just make whatever she has on one large platter; we’ll share. Not quite Jesus’ loaves and fishes, but we make do. Julia and I pay for the meal ($14 USD), a token of thanks to the group for getting us through this day.

Isaac puts down his fork, says his goodbyes and pushes away his chair. As he leaves, I realise he didn’t finish the rice on his plate.

17 April 2016

Capurganá, Colombia

We get up at the crack of dawn and pay a premium for the early-morning lancha to Capurganá. Juan Carlos is calling the shots again; he is very eager to make it to Turbo, Colombia (where one of his restaurants is located). In his mind, we’ve already lost a day. We all tag along, since I guess we’re a posse at this point. Ten minutes of motoring later, and here we are. The little port of Capurganá — not militarised like Puerto Obaldia. Beachfront restaurants. Diving tours advertised on the side of boats. It being a Sunday, the Colombian immigration office doesn’t open until 10 o’clock, so we can’t get our Colombian entrance stamps yet. Strike one against Juan Carlos’ breakneck pace.

We’re all famished from the day before, so breakfast is in order. We set our bags down, relieved at a spot of respite — we hadn’t slept well last night at the local pension, between the night-long thump of music and the hard straw-filled mattresses. We order watery café tintos all around, and gorgeous, piping hot arepas con huevos — an egg smothered in oily deep-fried cornmeal. Hot sauce brings it to the next level.

Finally, some rest in Capurganá

We’re only in Capurganá for a couple short hours before we hop on another boat to Sapzurro, the neighbouring town. It’s back the way we came — Capurganá is actually the second town south of the border. But Sapzurro doesn’t have an immigration office, hence the back-and-forth. Fabien has his houseboat moored in Sapzurro, and offers to host Julia and I for as long as we want. A day or two of rest in a houseboat sounds fantastic. Fabien is getting a little overbearing, but he’s so generous that it’s impossible to stay annoyed. Still, everything is a whirlwind with him. We make for the dock, saying hasty farewells to Theresa and José (Juan Carlos has already left for Turbo).

This boat is not a simple lancha. It’s longer, wider, and filled to over-capacity with fifty West Africans in lifejackets — migrants headed north to the Panamanian border. I wonder if Isaac is somewhere in the crowd. Sapzurro is the last town on the Colombian side, after which they will be on their own, trekking through the jungle for three days to reach Puerto Obaldia. Unlike us, they can’t take a boat across the border — the military checkpoint won’t let them through. So they have to go in through the back door.

I wasn’t expecting for us to be brought along in the swell of migration — even here, where we saw the tent city, where we knew the migrants had been coming for months, somehow I deluded myself into thinking this was still a problem happening elsewhere. That, as a tourist, I’d be exempt from witnessing the troubling human desperation of a refugee crisis.

Sapzurro, Colombia

It’s only a five-minute boat ride to Sapzurro — we all get off, each of the migrants clutching their possessions bundled in a black garbage bag. Julia and I collect our packs and head off down the beach to where Fabien’s houseboat is docked. A brief brush with the migration crisis, and now we are back to our vacation.

Sapzurro is tiny — less than half the size of Capurganá and nestled more tightly between the jungle-covered mountain and the sea. We’re to stay in Fabien’s houseboat (nicknamed Sofia) with Robbie and his mother, Maria, as our hosts. Robbie has been watching the boat while Fabien is gone. He used to be a sailor (still is, I suppose). He has an impressive arm tattoo and invites us to help empty his bottles of whisky and red wine as we sit on the upper deck that evening.

I’m quite nauseated being on the rocking boat all night, and don’t have as much fun as I thought I would — instead, I find myself tuning out the Spanish and zoning in to the top-40-from-ten-years-ago video playlist Robbie had put on. It seems Latin America just doesn’t do silence. Pop music must always be playing.

That night, I sleep in a rocking houseboat to the sound of crashing waves, as fifty West African migrants push on through the dark in a thick, tangled, foreign jungle that is not their friend, to the border of a country without the capacity to welcome them. I count myself very lucky.

Sapzurro is so isolated, but so hemmed in at the same time: by the ocean, by the mountains, by the jungle, by the border. This gives it a frantic energy, a dull anxiety that seeps through everything.

Like in Puerto Obaldia, it is hard to find food in Sapzurro. We seem to only have the option of one restaurant being open at a time, and fresh fruit is expensive. We buy a few apples for Robbie and his mother as a thank you gift for hosting us.

18 April 2016

Sapzurro, Colombia

In the morning, we discover a secret of the jungle — a wealth of tasty fresh fruit literally falling all around us. We’re taking a hike back to Capurganá, bags in tow, Robbie guiding us, his mother taking up the rear in her sun hat and floral Crocs. It’s a steep mountain trek, as Sapzurro and Capurganá are in neighbouring valleys. The whole thing takes about an hour and a half, and we are rewarded with a splendid vista — Sapzurro to our left, Capurganá to the right — when we reach the peak. We pick fresh ripe mangoes from the ground, and they are decadent. They have a certain acidity that the ones back home don’t have, and they are more stringy. We collect avocados too, a whole grocery bag full of them. We find a starfruit tree and Julia knocks one down, to save for later.

The trail between Sapzurro and Capurganá is a steep climb up and over a mountain. The upshot is this fantastic lookout point, and of course, wild mangoes.

Capurganá, Colombia

The morning mountain trek has stirred our appetite. Robbie shows us to a bakery in Capurganá, just off the soccer field, where we munch papas rellenas for breakfast — a hard-boiled egg wrapped in potato and deep-fried. Deep fried food seems to be a theme here in Colombia.

A bakery in Capurganá

Having parted ways with Robbie, we book a boat headed for Necoclí, where we will buy some used bikes and start our “real” Colombian adventure. We hadn’t counted on such a stimulating three days crossing the border.

The boat doesn’t leave until tomorrow, so we’ve booked a room in a cheap hostel, trying in vain to dry out our clothes in the damp seaside air. In the evening, we have a couple beers at the beachside Lonely Planet-recommended bar, Josefina’s.

It’s been an uncertain, sometimes stressful few days here on the doorstep of Colombia. But now I feel ready for anything. Tomorrow, we go inland.

The enemy of the good Sun, 17 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Julia and I returned from our Colombian cycling adventure over a month ago, and I haven’t shared any stories or photos of substance. The trip was an intentional break from our always-on culture. We took a film camera, and I didn’t check Twitter the whole time we were gone. I filled two notebooks of diary entries. Freed from the instant-gratification of social media, we gave ourselves permission to be more present in the moment.

Well, we still haven’t developed those two rolls of film and I haven’t gotten around to writing a blog post. I’m paralyzed by where to start. After happily writing for myself those two and half months, the idea of catering to an audience is daunting.

As much as I would like to publish a lovely little novella from my trip diary, and make a nice leather-bound photo album after we get our film developed, these lofty goals are keeping me from actually creating anything at all. And the longer I wait, the less significant our experiences seem.

So here goes. You’ve been wondering how our Colombia trip went? You want to see the pictures we never published in real-time on Facebook? Let’s call this an hors-d’oeuvre to whet both of our appetites. I’ve got a 5,000 word draft about crossing the Panama-Colombia border, but that will have to wait. And now that I’ve gone ahead and said that in public, maybe I’ll dedicate more time to actually finishing some of these longer reflections.

Here’s to not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Here’s to not having to explain every little thing. Here’s to starting small and writing often.

The requisite bags-are-packed pre-trip photo. We left home with two saddlebags and a small MEC backpack, ready to take on the world.
Panama City, a bastion of brutalism. We took trains, buses, and boats to reach Colombia.
Breakfast on the beach in Capurganá. This seaside town, hemmed in by the Caribbean sea on one side and mountains on the other, was our port of arrival in Colombia.
Juice vendor in Montería, purveyor of fine zapote, mora, and mango delights.
Figuring out our next move in Yarumal.
Winding our way through the Andean peaks and valleys.
At the lookout tower in Filandia, at the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.
A gritty welcome to Cali’s city limits.
I witnessed this mural as it was being painted in Cali. Such talented artists, in a city so full of expression.
Street art in Cali confronts and provokes.
Our 7-year-old tour guide takes us on a horseback ride around Silvia.
Bogota’s bus network is daunting to navigate for the first time. Juliana tells us, “Just use an app.”
Street art in Bogotá is eclectic, with more fantasy and whimsy than Cali.
Looking down on Bogotà from the top of Monseratte.
Banners at the Bogotà airport support workers’ labour action.
Finally back in Canada, peering across the Detroit River.
Biking through Colombia Sun, 12 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400 In Spring 2016, Julia and I decided to take a 1,200-km cycling trip across Colombia. I’m slowly publishing entries from my journal that document our experience with slow travel — our precarious journey there, our month-long cycling tour, and finally our return home.

Book review: The Half Has Never Been Told Sun, 28 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Growing up, I never learned much about American history. The event I can most easily recall is probably that we burned down their White House during the War of 1812. I know that a civil war happened. I know that it had something to do with slavery, and that Abraham Lincoln ended slavery.

I had a thin veneer of knowledge — just enough historical backdrop to not seem totally ignorant.

I have relatives in the US. I remember visiting Harpers Ferry (beautiful landscape, great for hiking) and Gettysburg (not as beautiful, but I guess people died here so I’ll be respectful). The whole mess of slavery and colonialism and battles just seemed so archaic and faded.

For the longest time, I thought of slavery in abstract, textbook terms. It happened. It was wrong. In university, I took an Introduction to Jazz course that taught me the earliest blues and jazz music came from songs on the cotton plantations.

That was my passive, disconnected view of slavery: black men in straw hats, out in the beating sun, picking cotton from dawn until dusk, slowly. Whistling, singing, calling-and-answering with each other. I viewed it as dull, agrarian work. It seemed logical that the twin arcs of social progress and industrial innovation would steadily erase this phenomenon. Slavery was clearly unethical, but it came from a simpler time.

I’m reflecting on this because I recently finished reading The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist, an academic at Cornell University. It’s a burning indictment of the assumptions a lot of Americans (and myself, clearly) have about slavery.

If you’ve read this book, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or frankly any account of slavery that describes what it was actually like, you probably know what I’m about to tell you: slavery was neither dull, nor agrarian, nor destined to fade away in the march of progress.

We were all complicit

Baptist uses an economic lens to show how ruthlessly enslavers used their power to turn people into commodities, leverage credit, and shape world markets. Slavery fed the world’s demand for cotton, so textile mills in Connecticut and Manchester were just as complicit in slavery as plantation owners in Georgia or Louisiana.

Low-wage factory work in the 1800s, which employed mainly women and children in sweatshop conditions, has its own history of labour struggle. But it’s important to acknowledge that even these workers made what little gains they could off the backs of enslaved people.

In 1832 in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, alone, 47 different palm-hat-making firms reported a total of 863,000 hats made, costing 28 cents each wholesale, employing 2,500 women year-round. Although they were paid 30 cents or less a day, these women all earned over a quarter of a million dollars — which, measured differently, was in turn paid by 50,000 person-days of cotton-picking.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 320

Baptist goes on to explain that the ongoing fight for higher wages and better conditions for white workers in the Northeastern United States was possible thanks to efficiencies on the cotton frontier. Southern enslavers found ever more cruel and effective ways to make enslaved people pick cotton faster, and translated those gains into lower cotton prices. Northern factories, then, had more room in their budgets to compensate workers.

Disruption, innovation, torture

The picture of slavery I had before reading this book was almost pastoral, a dusty scene of cotton fields and horse-drawn carts. However, enslavers were not farmers. They were the front-line enforcers of global industrial capitalism, and their main goal was to seek higher and higher production.

To achieve this, they innovated. Just like Europe’s industrial revolution, or Silicon Valley’s techbro-disruption economy, enslavers were just trying to optimise labour and maximise profit. As it happened, nineteenth-century enslavers’ innovation centred on manipulation, intimidation, and torture.

On the cotton frontier, each person was given a unique, individual quota, rather than a limit of work fixed by general custom. […] Learning how to meet one’s quota was difficult, and those who met it before sunset still had to keep picking. (p. 133)

Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term “torture” to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product. No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture. (p. 139)

Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world. (p. 140)

The Half Has Never Been Told

And when mechanical innovation did come along, enslavers were happy to make use of it, too.

Once enslavers had the cotton gin, how then did enslavers produce (or have produced, by other hands) as much as the gin could clean? For once the gin shattered the processing bottleneck, other limits on production and expansion were cast into new relief.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 116

Slavery allowed the United States to ramp up production and keep a firm grip on the world market for cotton, edging out competing industries in Brazil and Egypt. It invited investment from British and Northern US banks, who funded the continual westward expansion of slavery.

Cotton bales were the cheap oil of the nineteenth century. Here their outflow met the influx of credit to yield a new thing: ever-increasing production and thus ever-increasing economic growth.

As hands, Rachel and William were also credit: promissory notes on their sellers’ and buyers’ future possession and use of right-handed power.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 108

Commodified and dehumanised for profit

Not only were enslaved people the foundation for the whole industrial supply chain, they were used as financial assets, collateral for enslavers to borrow more and more money to expand faster and faster.

As debts and mortgages got repackaged and recirculated around the global economy, slave-backed securities played much the same role as the bad mortgages that led to the 2008 financial crisis. And just like the American bank bailouts of 2008, the 1830s saw collusion between enslavers, banks, and governments to prop up slavery’s shaky financial foundations.

What if, Moussier wondered, planters used slaves as collateral to raise capital overseas, from people who needed American cotton and sugar, and then used the capital to build a lending institution that enslavers themselves could control?


If loan repayments from planters failed and the bank could not pay off the bonds, the taxpayers of Louisiana were now obligated to do so. The state’s commitment convinced the European securities market.

The Half Has Never Been Told, pp. 245-246

Kudos & critique

I could go on about the rest of Baptist’s book, but suffice it to say that this is just the tip of the iceberg and I highly recommend reading it. He may be a white professor from Cornell, but he references a lot of original material from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — including first-hand accounts from enslaved people.

I also appreciate his decision to use the terms “enslavers” and “enslaved people” throughout the book. This choice of words brings power dynamics into sharp focus, and recognizes that enslaved people still had individual lives and experiences, and shouldn’t be treated by history as a homogenous group.

That said, there are a couple things that rubbed me the wrong way. The first is a short passage describing the plight of people who managed to escape the cotton plantations, often lost in the great American wilderness:

And in between stood thousands of armed white people who would not be their friends. As for the free states, they were even farther away. The number of enslaved migrants who made it from the depths of the cotton and sugar frontiers all the way to the free states probably numbered under a thousand during all the years of slavery. That amounts to one-tenth of 1 percent of all forced migrants. Most of those who did make it got away by hiding on steamboats, oceangoing ships, and later, on railways.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 168

Maybe Baptist is being very careful with his words here, but it’s misleading to ignore the 30,000 enslaved people that came to Canada through the underground railroad.

Baptist’s treatment of aboriginal communities, too, is almost non-existent. He acknowledges that the United States occupied indigenous land, and pushed its inhabitants further west through military conquest. All this was done to facilitate the expansion of slavery. Having acknowledged this fact, Baptist goes through most of the book with nothing more than a passing reference to native people. This seems odd for an account of history on America’s settler frontier.

I recently listened to a This American Life Podcast about the Dakota War of 1862, which explores the dirty, complex politics of native-settler relations on the frontier. It sheds light on a mass execution that has been whitewashed from history textbooks. (Go listen to it.)

So I’m disappointed that Baptist didn’t give more attention to stories like this and how they intersect with nineteenth-century America’s quest for more land, more slaves, more money. Even the anti-slavery northern states were guilty of running roughshod over native people’s rights. It would have been great to see this dimension explored more fully.

As a final note, I’ll mention that before reading Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, I read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A novel drawn from real-life experiences and written as slavery was still happening, this book does a good job of framing the context and culture around slavery. It ignited debate at the time, and seems to be a good representation of the debates people were having in different classes of society.

Getting an appreciation for the people, scenes, and attitudes of the time was a really great starting point. It helped me understand the examples in Baptist’s book on a more human level. If you’re like me, and never really got a good education about American history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great place to start. Then read The Half Has Never Been Told, and prepare to be blown away.

Fear, uncertainty, and death Thu, 08 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Monday morning, I hopped on my bike and rode to work. I like to take Moore Avenue via Duke Street and Waterloo Street — running more or less parallel to King, but without all the traffic. Narrow, leafy streets and cute homes with front porches welcome me as the hazy dawn breaks into full daylight. It’s a pleasant commute.

This route takes me close to Breithaupt Park, where I sometimes go swimming after work at the public pool. It’s the last place you’d expect a shooting to happen. But that’s exactly what occurred as I was preparing to leave home that morning. All this week, I’ve felt less safe going there.

Around 7:00 AM yesterday, a man was found shot and bleeding out on a front lawn on Margaret Avenue. He was taken to hospital, but it was too late to save him.

Police closed the street and put all the area schools on lockdown. Parents at my workplace were concerned for their kids. They were soon reassured: by early afternoon, the schools re-opened. The threat appeared to have passed.

Only, we still don’t know what’s going on. Police don’t know where the killer is, or if it was an intentional act.

By 6 p.m. Monday police had made no arrests and said “the risk to public safety is not yet known.” People are urged to be vigilant, aware of their surroundings, and report any suspicious activity to police.

“These types of incidents bring trepidation and uncertainty,” Chief Bryan Larkin said in a statement. “We live in a very safe community and the public can rest assured that our members are committed to a thorough investigation and to restoring a sense of calm.”

“Man dead after being shot by arrow”, The Record, 5 October 2015

Someone is dead and we don’t know why. Nobody saw the shooting happen. And the best advice our police can give us is to be vigilant. It’s now three days later and there are no suspects. Under the circumstances, the community is impressively calm.

Make no mistake: this was a shooting death, but it wasn’t gun violence. The victim was shot with an arrow. And that puts a bizzare angle on the whole ordeal.

I have to imagine things would be playing out differently if the killing involved a gun. There would be widespread fear about thugs running our streets. Police would be swarming the city. We’d hear loud calls for action in the news and on people’s Facebook walls. Instead, the atmosphere in Kitchener-Waterloo is more nervous and confused.

The fact that the weapon was some kind of crossbow or bow-and-arrow is difficult for us to respond to. On the surface, it seems wacky and absurd, and makes it easier to laugh and shrug off the news as a freak accident.

We’d sure like it to be a freak accident. As I bike through that neighbourhood on my way to and from work this week, I’ve felt an odd sense of fear wrapped up in confusion. It’s not the fear of street crime or the feeling of a “dangerous” neighbourhood. It’s not quite the fear of an unknown other, although that plays into it.

It’s the fear that this wasn’t a mistake. That someone could be out there, ready to target their second victim, and that I’m exposed. Riding through the quaint streets, swiftly, like a gazelle on the open plains. And I’m being hunted.

Losing the internet Fri, 29 Aug 2014 15:00:00 -0400 When I was fifteen years old, I came across a web design forum called Open Source Web Design (OSWD) and fell in love with the community there. Members would create XHTML/CSS templates that anyone could use for free. We gave feedback on each others’ designs, chatted about trends in the industry, and the more experienced folk were more than happy to show the ropes to a young grasshopper like me.

There were never that many people in the OSWD community — maybe 100 active users at the most. Logging into the forum felt like entering a cosy clubhouse, one that was small enough to get to know everyone. Not that it was an exclusive club; it’s just that not many people knew about it.

OSWD was headed up by a man named Frank Skettino. Beyond that, I didn’t know anything about him. But that was fine; he was the site’s benevolent dictator and nobody really gave it much thought — until he stopped approving new submissions. Shortly thereafter, the forums were removed. The site has been frozen in amber since.

Members of the community tried to find a new home, but it was never the same. This thread on shows a few of the “old guard” trying to make sense of just what’s been going on (I’m acousticsam). But by that time, the community had begun to dissipate.

They say the internet never forgets, but really it’s so easy for years of content to be erased in the blink of an eye. At the end of the day, a website’s users are at the mercy of whoever holds the keys.

The web loses chunks of its history every day. The masses of small- and medium-sized web services that are being snapped up by the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, & Co. follow a well-worn pattern: build up a loyal following, sell out to a major corporation, then delete all your users’ data. When Yahoo bought Geocities, then subsequently shut it down, millions of webpages died.

This past week, the phenomenon hit closer to home., a forum for urban issues and development news in Waterloo Region, has been “temporarily” shut down, after users started voicing their discomfort with the way the site was being managed. I feel like this is going to be OSWD all over again.

Once a site is down, there’s not a whole lot you can do to recover the content. I’ve set up a central repository with some last-ditch methods people can use to recover what they can from the ether. But it’s like setting a library on fire and then trying to rescue the books. We’ll never be able to get it all back.

Curiously, I received an email today from the owner of WonderfulWaterloo, who had evidently caught wind of my rescue attempt:

Please remove the images/files from your recovery page: You don’t have their licences.

I spent hundreds of hours taking photos such as this, they aren’t for you to post publicly on any other websites:…2b%20R.jpg

I believe that people have a right to the content they’ve created. That includes the right to delete it from public record, and if I can ascertain the veracity of the owner’s claims, I’ll happily erase his photos from the repository.

The irony here is that when site owners pull the rug out from under a community, it’s a huge betrayal of trust. OSWD could never get back on its feet after the first unannounced shutdown, and it will be difficult for the WonderfulWaterloo community. Years of photos documenting the region’s growth, discussions, and debates about important community issues have been wiped clean.

Even if the site comes back online, will users trust WonderfulWaterloo with their data anymore?

Peace is too meek for its own good Wed, 06 Aug 2014 01:00:00 -0400 This most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has echoed loudly through the streets of Paris these past few weeks. Among the French media and politicians, there is much hand-wringing over l’importation du conflit — the risk of “importing” the conflict into France. It’s a turn of phrase that intrigues me for a couple reasons:

  1. The notion that a conflict can be “imported” suggests that it exists in its entirety outside our borders; that the French foreign minister isn’t actively involved in diplomacy, and that it doesn’t affect a diverse city full of immigrants such as Paris.

  2. This language frames violent conflict in much the same way as, say, protecting against invasive species. The subtext is clear: we need to beef up security and surveillance to prevent these foreign elements from contaminating our society. The conflict becomes a spectre.

Of course, this frame of mind is like candy for journalists. Coverage (exhibits one, two, three) of the recent demonstrations in Barbès and Sarcelles included breathless commentary about rogue, religion-crazed bands of provocateurs, bent on derailing an otherwise peaceful protest.

Over the next few days, the spectre would get larger and more menacing. Reports of arrests and charges, complete with voyeuristic accounts of who “those people” are. Official statements from the President and Prime Minister, who condemn the violence and want to forbid further demonstrations. All this is happening in the margins, next to the daily front-page photos of absolute hell on earth. Nobody wants to import that conflict.

When tensions are high, peace becomes a footnote. Indeed, the Libération article linked above concludes with a dry, single-sentence paragraph that seems almost as if it was thrown in at the last second to meet the word count:

Samedi, en province, des manifestations propalestiniennes se sont tenues sans heurts, notamment à Lyon, Bordeaux et Montpellier.

Saturday, elsewhere in the country, pro-palestinian demonstrations were held without incident, notably in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Montpellier.

As a pacifist, it pains me to see people resort to violence to make a point. It’s important to call out that behaviour and condemn it. But we have gone past that; we’re fetishising it. The successful, peaceful demonstrations in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Montpellier deserved in-depth analysis and follow-up articles. They deserved to be more than a token silver lining on the cloud of fear that has settled over this country.

* * *

This past Sunday, I learned that a pro-peace rally was to be held that afternoon at the Place du Louvre. I went to lend my voice and see what it was all about. In response to the violence, hate speech, and polarizing climate of the previous weeks, the organisers sought to push a simple message of coexistence. They went to great lengths to cooperate with the authorities, including changing the location at the last minute.

To prevent any potential flare-ups, Palestinian and Israeli flags were banned from the gathering — only the French flag was permitted. Pre-authorised signs were distributed among the crowd, bearing one-word messages: “Peace”, “Fraternity”, “Equality”, “Coexistence”. We sang the Marseillaise to kick things off, patted each others’ backs for not being bigots, and finished the hour-long ceremony with All You Need is Love. It was perfectly peaceful, staid, and forgettable. It’s as if all the passion had been squeezed out by bureaucracy.

Near the end of the ceremony, one of the organisers challenged the crowd: “Extremists will always be vocal. We, the silent majority, must continue to give peace a voice.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. I was waiting to hear about next steps. Maybe these rallies would become a weekly thing? Should we attend the next tense political march as a contingent for peace? How can we build momentum?

No next steps materialised. The microphone cut out, the crowd dissipated, and I was left wanting. I asked an organiser when the next rally would be. “Oh, maybe in September when school’s back in session,” she replied.

* * *

If I’m painting a bleak picture of the movement for peace, know that this rally did get picked up by the media — AFP and France Inter were there with cameras and microphones. Libération published a story about it in Monday’s newspaper. So it wasn’t fruitless. But there certainly won’t be any follow-up articles.

Sadly, I think that we’ve been telling ghost stories for so long that we’ve forgotten how to imagine a happy ending. But if we can keep promoting peace, especially on the ground at future demonstrations, we just might be able to scare away the spectre.

I’d love to make a dent in this importation du conflit boogeyman. And who knows — in the process, we might end up with something worth exporting.

The fairytale museum Mon, 19 May 2014 08:30:00 -0400 Prague is called “The Fairytale City”, which is a pretty apt description of the atmosphere it exudes. Anyone who has been there tells me, “You’ve got to go! It’s so beautiful!”

Breathtaking architecture in a hidden corner of Prague’s old city

It is beautiful. Prague has retained an architectural heritage spanning several centuries, from Gothic, to Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau. There was no large-scale urban renewal like in Paris or Barcelona; in World War II, it didn’t see nearly the same scale of bombing as in Dresden or Warsaw. The buildings are maintained in good condition (at least in the tourist areas), and modernism has not been permitted to dominate. Yes, you’ll find Gehry’s dancing house if you look for it, but you won’t see a London Eye or CN Tower peeking up over the medieval rooftops.

Gilded embellishments on buildings near the astronomical clock
Beautiful buildings framed by throngs of fellow tourists… and this is on a rainy day!
The famous astronomical clock

Walking around the old city, I get the distinct feeling of being in a huge outdoor museum. Clusters of tourists, shepherded by their guides, make their way from attraction to attraction: the Astronomical Clock, the Powder Gate, the Charles Bridge with its parade of statues, the Tyn Church, the Municipal House… a visit to Prague is a long checklist of impressive things to gawk at.

The Tyn Church keeps a watchful eye on Starometske Namesti
The municipal building, an Art Nouveau marvel

On my day-long stroll through the old city, I saw virtually zero people who looked like locals. Every second storefront was a tacky souvenir shop. You know, the kinds of establishments that sell “I heart Prague” shot glasses and screenprinted t-shirts with “Czech me out” written in Comic Sans or some such atrocity. When it starts raining, boxes of ponchos and umbrellas appear at the entrance beside the postcard racks.

Yes, Prague is a museum — one where the gift shop is interspersed among the exhibits. Cafes and restaurants are plentiful. All bohemian decor and authentic Czech cuisine, with menus in perfect English, of course. They feel like a sort of museum exhibit as well.

Feeling a bit smothered by the hordes of cameras and fanny packs, and curious to see the other side of Prague, I turn against the flow of tourists and walk East, back past the train station, under an overpass, and emerge in a ghost town.

It’s noon on a Saturday and all the shops are closed on Siefertova, one of the main streets in the residential district of Vinohrady. Graffiti abounds; a small huddle of teenagers mill around a bus shelter. Every few minutes a tram rolls by, packed with people heading to the centre of town.

I take a meandering stroll through this desolate neighbourhood and notice that the 19th-century buildings are in varying states of repair. Some have a fresh coat of paint, some are chipped and peeling. They look like Haussman’s Paris, but more colourful and ornate. Again I think about museum exhibits. Vinohrady is undergoing restoration — that’s why there’s no one here. Soon, it will be suitable for the viewing public.

I make my way South and then West, looping back around to the old city, taking in the sights along the winding medieval streets. I join the throngs of people all funnelling toward Charles Bridge. It’s a grand, triumphant crossing over the Vltava River. Towering arched entrances mark both ends of the bridge, and a dozen or more statues line the sides, watching over the teeming masses with a benevolent air. Most of the statues are gilded. All of them are saints or religious figures. A life-size Jesus hangs from a cross at the midpoint of the bridge.

Some visitors are taking their next Facebook profile photo with one of the statues. Others approach in supplication, grasping the hem of a stone cloak as they offer a prayer.

Reaching the end of Charles Bridge, with Malá Strana in sight

I come to the end of the bridge and continue through the archway to Malá Strana, the Little Village. It’s similar to the rest of the old city; the abundance of decorative architectural features risks becoming stale. I wonder if I don’t already have enough photos of beautiful rooflines and streetscapes. I take a few more pictures anyway.

A typical souvenir shop. Best viewed from a distance.

As I continue past more souvenir shops and restaurants hawking goulash and pork knee, I’m beginning to think I’ve seen all of what Prague has to offer; but that attitude quickly vanishes after I climb the long set of stairs up to the Prague Castle. Perched on a hill, I get a breathtaking view of the whole city laid out before me. It strikes me how small it is, and how much history is packed in among those narrow streets. I see the train station where I arrived that morning, and try to retrace my steps. But the streets are too dense to see any one route clearly — it’s all just a jumble of rooftops.

I have a couple hours left before I need to take the train back to Dresden — I smile to myself at the prospect of getting lost again in this Fairytale museum.

A Paris cycling adventure Sun, 04 May 2014 13:00:00 -0400 Less than half of Parisian households own a car. It’s easy to understand why: you’re never far from a Metro station, and the city gets nice bike-friendly weather pretty much year-round. Not to mention that it’s an absolute pleasure to walk in Paris. A growing bikeshare network, dedicated bus lanes, and the annual transformation of the Georges Pompidou Expressway into Paris Plage reinforce the message: it’s time for cars to take a back seat.

With private automobiles being pushed more and more toward the bottom of the totem pole, it seems that the informal rules of the road have adapted accordingly. I can’t speak to the evolution of Parisians’ rush-hour behaviour over time, but I can tell you that coming from North America, it’s something of a culture shock.

In Paris, staying in your lane is a matter of artistic interpretation. Many of the white lines have long since faded from the cobblestones, and the flow of traffic can become a sort of dance. Of course, as a cyclist, I’m grateful for the comprehensive network of segregated bikeways, bike boxes, sharrows, and dedicated traffic signals. But let’s talk about what happens when this civilised hierarchy loosens its grip.

I’m riding down Avenue Kléber, about to enter the roundabout at the Place Charles de Gaulle. The Arc de Triomphe is looming ahead and the scene is particularly thrilling. Six or seven layers deep, all manner of cars, taxis, tour buses, city buses, scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles are circling, circling, like pilgrims at the Kaaba.

Shifting down to second gear, I prepare to enter the fray. Comparisons to Mecca aside, the atmosphere is anything but meditative. To my left, a taxi peels away, darting toward Kléber and leaving a gap in this chaotic carousel of traffic.

Now, dear reader, the next action is up to you. Oh, yes — this is a choose-your-own-adventure story. You’re now a confident urban cyclist in Paris. Good luck, and make your first choice:

Enter the roundabout or Wait for a bigger gap in traffic

A guide to getting settled in Paris Wed, 19 Feb 2014 02:00:00 -0500 There’s lots of advice around the internet for expats looking to settle in France (and Paris in particular). Before coming here, I read up on countless forums and blog posts about how to look for a place to live, set up a bank account, get a phone plan, and all that wonderful bureaucratic stuff. Still, when I arrived in Paris it was sometimes overwhelming and confusing to jump through all the hoops.

So here’s my modest contribution to the corpus of advice. I’m going to go through each task in detail, listing the documents you’ll need, fees you’ll have to pay, things to watch out for, and timelines for how long you’ll have to wait.

Before I begin, a disclaimer: this post is based on my personal experience in January 2014. By the time you read this, it might not be accurate any more. Post corrections in the comments and I’ll edit the post as necessary. Also, FYI, I arrived in France with an EU passport and a work contract. If you don’t have these documents, think about what other equivalent papers you could use (e.g. student visa and a school acceptance letter).

I’ve organised the following sections in more-or-less chronological order. For example, you can’t get a phone plan without a bank account, and you can’t get a bank account without proof of residence. So finding a place to live is going to be one of the first things you need to do.

If you have any questions or want to share details about your own experience, leave a comment! Now, let’s get started.

Get a prepaid phone plan

It doesn’t really matter with whom. But unlock your phone before you come, and once you get here buy a cheap prepaid SIM card with basic calling and texting. This shouldn’t require any ID or paperwork. But you’ll need a French phone number for all that other paperwork you’re going to fill out.

Done? Good. Now, let’s really get started.

Get a Vélib’ membership

Paris’ bike-share network, Vélib’, is a great way to get around the city. For me, it takes slightly longer than the Metro to get around, but I get to look at beautiful Haussmannian streetscapes instead of a dingy tunnel on my commute.

Vélib’ stations like this one are peppered throughout Paris and its suburbs.

You can get a year-long Vélib’ membership for €29, or €19 if you’re under 26 years old. that gets you unlimited trips of up to 30 minutes throughout the whole city (you can bump it up to 45 minutes for an extra €10). And yes, if you’re getting close to your half-hour mark, you can just dock it at any station and hop on another bike — the timer starts again at zero. Check out this map for all the Vélib’ station locations.

What I’m saying is, get the Vélib’ membership. It’s dirt-cheap and Paris is a nice city to bike around in. The first step is to grab a Vélib’ Express card from one of these locations — it’s faster than waiting for a card to be mailed to you.

Once you have the card, go to the Vélib’ website and sign up. You’ll need a French phone number, but a foreign credit card will work fine for the payment — you don’t need to set up a French bank account for this.

Find a place to live

There are a lot of shady landlords and rental scams in Paris. So the first tip here is to be vigilant, don’t give anybody money unless you have a signed contract in your hands, and never feel pressured into making a decision right away. I know that Paris is a tight rental market, and landlords can afford to be discerning because there’s just so much demand. But if someone is pressuring you give you cash right now, it means they’re the one who’s desperate. Don’t feel bad about taking 24 hours to decide if you really want the place or not.

Now, unless you already have a French bank account set up, you will likely have to deal in cash when looking for a place to live. Either that, or a wire transfer. Landlords don’t like cheques, especially not foreign ones. Just make sure that you get receipts for the money you hand over.

Many of the affordable studio apartments in Paris are on the top floors of buildings such as this. Don’t count on an elevator, a window facing the street, or a private toilet.

Where to look

There are a few useful websites for finding rentals:

These sites mostly feature ads by individual landlords, not real estate agencies. Agencies will typically charge a one-time fee called an honoraire, so watch out for that. Another word you’ll come across is garantie, which is the security deposit. It’s normal to pay a one-month security deposit, whether you rent from an individual or an agency. Furnished places might have a garantie higher than one month’s rent.

When looking at the listings, often you’ll also see the words charges comprises (CC) — utilities included, or hors charges (HC) — utilities extra.

If you’re looking for a studio, you’ll see listings that mention WC sur palier, douche sur palier, or both. This means the toilet and/or shower is shared among multiple tenants, and is usually located on the same floor as your unit.

Arranging a visit

When arranging a time to view a place, it’s better to call than to send an email. Most of the time, people won’t respond to an email.

When you decide on a place, you may be asked to provide your landlord with a copy of your ID and work contract. While the first payments will have to be done via cash or wire transfer, your landlord will also want your French bank account details once you set that up — which leads us to the next step.

Open a bank account

I got my chequing account (compte courant) from La Banque Postale. Most branches offer on-site consultations without an appointment, so just go into a nearby location and ask to open an account. (This is true for most banks — check out this comparison tool if you want to shop around for one that meets your needs.)

You’ll need to bring the following documentation:

  • ID (e.g. a passport)
  • Proof of residence (e.g. signed rent contract)
  • Proof of income (e.g. work contract)

The account setup took me about 2 hours. Most of the time was spent watching the bank representative type information from my documents into her computer.

Now, I don’t know about other banks, but La Banque Postale also offers cellphone plans, health insurance, renter’s insurance, overdraft protection, et cetera. Be aware that they will try to upsell you on all this stuff while they are opening your compte courant. I declined all of those upgrades, and at the end of the day, I’m paying about €10 every three months for this bank account.

Also, unless you’re a fan of snail mail, be sure to tell the representative that you want online statements — it wasn’t the default option when I opened my account.

After all my information was inputted into the computer, I made a nominal deposit of €20 (cash) to formally open the account.

Then I was given a provisional Relevé d’identité bancaire (RIB). The RIB is an important document in France. It is a standardised form with all your bank account details that allows for preauthorized deposits or withdrawals — say, for paying bills or getting your salary deposited automatically. Your employer needs a copy of your RIB. So does your landlord. So does your phone company, internet provider, and the electricity company. It’s a good document to have.

I should emphasise that I received a provisional RIB. I had to wait 10 days to receive the final RIB, along with my debit card, in the mail. Until you receive your final RIB, the bank account is not technically active. If you want to make a deposit, you have to ask the bank teller to “force” the transaction. And since you won’t have a debit card, you can’t withdraw money from an ATM. So plan for a good 10 days before you can begin using your French back account.

After your bank account is finalised, you can ask for a chequebook. Note that for La Banque Postale, I needed to have a minimum account balance of €160 before they would send me a chequebook. It arrived about two weeks after I ordered it.

Set up your electricity bill

If electricity isn’t included in your rent contract, you’ll have to set up your own account with Électricité de France (EDF). You can do this over the phone, and you’ll need the following before you start:

  • A RIB (provisional is fine)
  • A French phone number
  • If possible, the name of the previous tenant (ask your landlord)

To set up your account, call EDF client services at +33 09 69 32 15 15. Tell them you’re a new tenant and that you want to set up your account. They’ll ask you for the numbers on your RIB, and you’ll need to provide them with some basic contact details like your name, phone number, email address, and the address of the building that you are living in. If you can provide the name of the previous tenant, it’s easier for them to transition the account to your name.

They’ll also ask you some questions about the apartment, including the size in square metres, how many appliances you have, if the stove is gas or electric, if you have your own water heater, etc. Based on this information, they’ll estimate the apparent power of the apartment and group you in a fee category.

To give you an idea of the fee structure, my 12-square-metre studio puts me in the cheapest fee bracket. Taxes included, I pay €52.11 per year as a subscription fee, plus €13.72 per kWh that I use. In the higher fee brackets, the per-kWh rate is the same, but the annual subscription fee increases.

Since EDF estimates your power usage based on your answers to the questions, they’ll charge you a flat rate every month and then correct it at the end of the year to reflect your actual usage. So you may end up paying a little more or a little less than you thought.

Again, unless you’re a fan of snail mail, be sure to tell EDF on the phone that you want to receive your monthly bills by email.

Get a phone plan

If all you want is a prepaid SIM card, you can walk into any store and buy one with cash. No ID, no bank account required. But if you want a monthly phone plan (which generally gets you more bang for your buck if you need lots of data or overseas calling), you’ll need to have the following:

  • ID (i.e. a passport)
  • A RIB
  • A debit card
  • Proof of residence (Your RIB may already have your address on it, but if not, bring your rent contract.)

As you know from the section on banking above, it can take at least 10 days to get your RIB and debit card. So my advice is to grab a prepaid SIM as soon as you get to Paris, then switch to a monthly plan when all your ducks are in a row.

Note: you probably won’t be able to keep your phone number when you switch from a prepaid SIM card to a monthly phone plan. I was told that it would be no problem, but in the end the technicians at Virgin Mobile couldn’t make it work. So, a word of warning, but your mileage may vary.

Use this website to compare the different phone plans available in France. If you have all the documentation ready, you should be good to go with the operator of your choosing. I’ve dealt with three phone companies here, so I’ll elaborate a little bit on that.

First, I got a prepaid SIM card from SFR, and I don’t have much to report on that front other than to say it worked well, they had decent coverage, and they sent me text messages when my credit was almost used up. No complaints.

For my internet needs, I got a mobile broadband hotspot from Bouyguyes Telecom. They were actually pretty lenient on the documentation requirements. They signed me up for a 1-year contract even though at the time I only had my provisional RIB and no debit card/void cheques. They noted my RIB details, and told me to come back to the shop with my void cheque once it arrived so they could put it in the file. (Specifically, I went to the Forum des Halles location and the staff there are great.)

The third operator I’ve dealt with is Virgin Mobile (they had a decent plan with unlimited calling back home to Canada, which I found appealing). But they were more strict than Bouygues, requiring both a finalised RIB and a debit card in addition to my passport.

Enjoy Paris!

Now that you have a place to live, a way to get around, a bank account, internet, and a phone plan, get out there and live your life already.

Oh, and if you’re in Paris and reading this, drop me a line and let’s meet up for coffee (at least that doesn’t come with an application process).

Exploring permaculture in Portugal Sat, 25 Jan 2014 00:30:00 -0500 I first came across the word permaculture while looking for volunteer opportunities online. Melissa and I had our hearts set on visiting Portugal and we were finding lots of organic farms that were willing to host us in exchange for a few hours’ work each day. At first I glossed it over as another sustainability-related buzzword, but after six weeks of permaculture experience, I was actually pretty excited about the concept.

The easiest way for me to describe permaculture is in comparison with monoculture and polyculture. Whereas monoculture optimises the land for a single crop, and polyculture encourages crop rotation and biological diversity, permaculture goes a few steps further. People who practice permaculture seek to enhance ecosystems, achieve energy independence, and pursue cultural richness while working towards long-term food security. Permaculture recognises that growing crops is only one part of a complex social-ecological-economic system.

Like sustainability, permaculture has no concrete definition and is very much adaptable to the context in which it’s practiced. From my experience in Portugal, permaculture’s strongest evangelical tool is the proliferation of permaculture design courses, which provide tangible tools and knowledge for farmers and land owners to work within their ecological context.

When it comes to these practical methods of permaculture design, I was surprised to learn that permaculture doesn’t shy away from altering the landscape. In particular, it’s common to create microclimates using man-made lakes, terracing, and large rocks. Sepp Holzer, permaculture’s most famous celebrity, has diverted whole watercourses to create artificial lakes on his property.


Our hosts in the Algarve, with whom we stayed for two weeks, practiced permaculture at a household level. They had installed solar panels to meet their energy needs, used the natural topography of the land to irrigate their orchard with greywater, and created terraces and rock walls to make a warmer microclimate for growing food.

But it’s important to point out that our hosts plan to go beyond just stewardship of the land. They have built a small cabin overlooking a lake on their property, and want to rent it out as part of a retreat/meditation centre. This is in keeping with the golden rule of permaculture, which is to have different kinds of systems working together. Money coming in from cabin rentals would provide a measure of financial stability in the case of a bad harvest, for example.

Of course, this is just one family and their property, so it’s hard to be completely self-sufficient. Yes, the family goes into town to buy groceries and one of the parents still has to work outside the home. But this is a husband and wife with two young daughters who are already off the grid, and already growing many of their own fruits and vegetables. That’s a significant lifestyle and culture shift, and they’re only been at it for two years.

Vale da Lama

During our stay in the Algarve, we also visited a 42-hectare permaculture institute called Vale da Lama that espoused many of the same goals as our hosts, but operated on a much larger scale. They had many hectares of land devoted to food forests, different types of orchards, stable woodland, harvestable woodland, grazing pastures, an herb garden, and communal outdoor space.

A map of Vale da Lama, showing the agricultural areas and the venues for their many events.

Vale da Lama’s brochure explains their motives this way: “Our objectives are to regenerate soil life and re-establish the innate diversity of ecological, social, and economic systems, bringing back the natural health of the land and its people, and improving their capacity to locally respond to the challenges we are faced with nowadays.”

It’s an impressive agricultural operation, but that’s not all Vale da Lama does. It relies primarily on yoga retreats, conferences, getaways, and permaculture design classes to financially support the agricultural activities.

In fact, Vale da Lama got its start thanks to a multimillion dollar investment from an wealthy American business owner. It hasn’t yet found a way to become financially sustainable, and that seems to be the hardest part of the permaculture puzzle to crack. But more on that later.


Our second volunteer experience was in the centre of Portugal, near a town called Oleiros in the heart of the Estrela Mountains. Our hosts here had similar ambitions to those in the Algarve: they own a small olive farm (about 250 trees), and plan to offer permaculture design workshops in the future.

Quinta da Corga, an olive orchard oasis in the middle of the Estrela Mountains.

Our hosts were well-read on permaculture theory, and had a few books by Sepp Holzer. We actually implemented some of this theory during our time there, building a few raised beds following Sepp Holzer’s hugelkultur method (that’s hill culture in German). The idea is to make a pile of dead wood, cover it with compost, cover it all with dirt, and then plant some stuff on top. The core of rotting wood will provide a steady source of moisture and nutrients for the raised bed, cutting down on the need for irrigation and fertilizer. Here’s a youtube clip showing how it’s done.

Building a raised bed, Sepp Holzer-style.

System change is hard

The glaring hole in these approaches to permaculture is that their long-term plans rely on money coming in from one-off retreats or workshops — that is, people with a lot of disposable income who want to go on holiday and learn about permaculture. With permaculture courses ranging from €800 to €2000 in this part of Portugal, it’s not exactly accessible to a large part of the population, especially considering the employment crisis in Europe right now.

If the demand for classes and retreats is to keep ahead of supply, permaculture must always be an alternative, minority lifestyle. For permaculture to become a widespread phenomenon, its economic stability cannot rely on rich urbanites and expats to foot the bill.

Practicing permaculture should lead toward a circular economy — one where the value produced by the land and the people living on it is reinvested in the local community. That’s really difficult to achieve, but permaculture can’t continue to grow as a movement if it needs to be funded by the current economic system.

Why Portugal?

So why is Portugal such a hotbed for permaculture? Honestly, despite my criticisms, I think Portugal has a lot going for it. First, its population still has a cultural connection to rural life. Many young adults can remember their parents’ or grandparents’ farms and the country has only recently urbanised at a large scale.

Second, a desparate young workforce, plagued by unemployment, is returning to the land and seeking alternative lifestyles. The rural exodus of the past 30 years or so has left hundreds, maybe thousands, of abandoned villages in Portugal (mostly in the central region). There are whole villages, complete with fixer-upper stone houses and neglected farmland, that are just begging to be brought back to life.

While not quite abandoned, the nearby town of Frazumeira has lost a lot of its population. Many homes and streets have become overgrown with vegetation.
An abandoned but salvageable shed in Frazumeria.

Lastly, Portugal has a fantastic climate for growing a range of produce. In the Algarve, our hosts grew lots of citrus in the orchard, and could even make bananas work if the winter was mild.

Permaculture could be the blueprint that Portugal needs to get out of its economic slump and breathe new life into its countryside. But before a pastoral revolution sweeps the country, permaculture advocates need to do two things: 1) make permaculture education more accessible, and 2) transition away from relying on retreats, workshops, and the like for revenue.

Portugal has the natural climate, social capital, and rural infrastructure to make permaculture happen in a very real way — here’s hoping it succeeds on the economic front as well.

Jakriborg, the medieval suburb Fri, 17 Jan 2014 01:00:00 -0500 After turning off the highway, we travelled for a couple of minutes down a dirt sideroad and arrived at the entrance. A man in a neon green vest waved us through a set of gates. It sure didn’t look like a medieval town — all I could see were large sheet-metal storage sheds and, as we cleared the gates, a vast parking lot. However, past the sea of vehicles I could make out a jumble of pointed wooden roofs, typical of northern German architecture. So, I thought to myself, Welcome to Jakriborg.

The parking-lot entrance to Jakriborg, the medieval city guarded by a chain-link wall.

Entering the town was much like arriving at a theme park. Having left our car several hundred metres back, we walked across the pavement to a gap in the chain-link fence that separates Jakriborg from the parking lot. Guided by the smell of carnival food, we ventured forth into the bustling, festive atmosphere of an old-timey Christmas market — or at least a current-day incarnation of one.

Jakriborg is a small town in the south of Sweden, planned and built from scratch in the 1990s. Nestled next to the sleepy town of Hjärup, halfway between Lund and Malmö, it is the brainchild of Jan and Kristian Berggren. These brothers decided to develop a town with a small-scale medieval aesthetic as a response to the construction boom of soulless towers in the 1960s and 70s. It’s worth noting that Jakriborg is built entirely on private land. The Berggren brothers own everything, which allows them to have tight control over everything from the design of buildings to who is allowed to hold demonstrations in the “public” square.

Taking its cues from Hanseatic architecture, Jakriborg is a nice place to visit — a quaint, nostalgic, master-planned oasis. Of course, true medieval towns had no such planning to guide their development, but they also had bubonic plague and feudalism, so I’m glad Jakriborg isn’t attempting a completely accurate historical representation.

Jakriborg from the air. The rail line in the bottom-right corner separates it from neighbouring Hjärup.

The Jakriborg Christmas market runs on the second and third weekends of December, attracting visitors from the surrounding metropolitan areas of Lund and Malmö. Thousands of people visit every year to buy Christmas gifts, admire the faux-German architecture, and entertain the kids. It makes for a fun day trip, wandering the cobblestone streets and cute little boutiques with the spirit of Christmas in the air.

As a viable town, though, I can’t help but think that Jakriborg is failing. The first phase of construction covered an area of 11 hectares and brought in about 1,000 people. Although it has good train service to Lund and there are plans to open up better pedestrian connections to Hjärup, there just aren’t enough jobs within Jakriborg proper to sustain a community.

Since cars are relegated to beyond the city walls, Jakriborg is a completely pedestrian-oriented community. This means it needs a critical mass of people, shops, offices, and industry in high enough densities to be economically self-sufficient. Sadly, it’s not there yet. Without a solid core of people living and working in this town, it will forever rely on the boom-and-bust cycle of the Christmas market and summertime tourists.

Small business turnover is a large problem in Jakriborg. Although it wants to maintain a small-town, pre-industrial image, the town is too small and isolated for independent businesses to risk investing. A supermarket chain has taken over the role of butcher, baker, dairy, and greengrocer on the main commercial strip, Köpmannagatan. Although the architectural heritage of the building has been preserved to a degree, Jakriborg can’t avoid the same retail giants as every other suburb — only this time, there’s a different coat of paint.

A Tempo supermarket has taken over the ground floor of this building for nearly an entire block. There’s not much opportunity for independent retailers to compete.

I actually decided to get my hair cut on the day we went to Jakriborg. The salon was located just at the south end of Köpmannagatan, close to the train tracks that divide Jakriborg from Hjärup. My hairdresser turned out to be quite talkative, so I peppered her with questions about life and business in Jakriborg. As it turns out, she and a friend started this business together less than a year ago, though they wouldn’t be surprised if it went under in another six months. And her reason for starting a business here is the first place? She grew up in the area. Aside from childhood nostalgia, there’s nothing tying her to Jakriborg, nor does it seem there’s much incentive to invest in a business that isn’t geared towards tourists.

Köpmannsgatan, Jakriborg’s main commercial street, is lined with lovely little restaurants and arts & crafts shops.

So how does a town like Jakriborg survive financially? It is endowed (or rather, endebted) with beautiful cobblestone streets and immaculate plaster-and-timber buildings. Its reputation as a Christmas tourism hotspot depends on this cheery, clean atmosphere — nobody wants to walk into a Dickens novel.

So far, the Berggren brothers have succeeded in developing a tourist attraction. But for Jakriborg to be successful in the long term, their task will be to plan a town that’s big enough to sustain itself economically (without plunging into debt on the up-front infrastructure costs). Can they achieve this while maintaining private ownership of all the land? If a return to the medieval city is what they’re after, perhaps feudalism is on the horizon after all…

Operation polyglot Wed, 01 Jan 2014 14:33:00 -0500 Starting next week, I’m going to be teaching English to kids in Paris. So it only seems fitting that I should hone my language skills at the same time. I’ve made it my new years’ resolution to improve my skills in four languages. By the end of the year, I want to be able to:

  • Read a Henning Mankell novel in the original Swedish without having to reach for a dictionary
  • Build a web app from scratch in Ruby
  • Have an intelligent conversation with soemone in French about a book we’ve both read
  • Use a full-stack Javascript framework like Node, Ember, or Angular to rewrite my Real World Index website

Programming languages are still languages, right? Here’s my weekly schedule, in case any of these resources pique your interest:

Day Language Resources
Monday Basic Swedish SwedishPod101 Audio lessons
Tuesday Ruby Codecademy
Thursday Advanced French Duolingo
Friday Full-stack Javascript 7-Week javascript course on Reddit
Node.js for Beginners
Node and Angular series from Scotch

Ruby Tuesday, get it?

I’ll need to beef up my list of resources for Swedish, Ruby, and French, but this should be enough to get me started for the first month or so.

Happy new year!

Sunrises, side streets, and swindlers in Fes Fri, 01 Nov 2013 18:38:00 -0400 After deciding to slowly make our way up through Europe to arrive in Sweden for Christmas, we also decided that we would slowly make our way through Morocco before we arrived in Europe. We’d been living in Casablanca for a month, but hadn’t made time to visit Marrakech, Fes, Tangier, Essaouria, the Saraha desert… all the touristy parts of Morocco were still as foreign to us as the day we arrived.

Our first stop would be Fes, then on to Tangier before catching a ferry to Spain. The areas south of Casablanca would have to wait for another time.

We stayed at Funky Fes, a hip riad just inside the Bab Jdid gate of the medina. There were lots of young travellers from all over the world, and it felt good to meet new people after the relative isolation of life in Casablanca. Plus, the rooftop patio had an amazing view over the medina. Watching the sun rise over all those satellite-dish-covered buildings was a breathtaking moment.

The common room of our hostel retains the traditional tile floor of a typical Moroccan riad.
Sunrise over the medina.
And now, animated! Satellite dishes are an essential piece of the Moroccan landscape.

The Fes medina is a magical place. A veritable rabbit hole of alleyways that always seem to spit you out at the same four or five public squares, it was a joy to walk around and get lost for a few hours. Casablanca’s medina, the only reference point we have, pales in comparison. Eager to discover what would be around the next corner, we thoroughly enjoyed oursleves while sampling homemade nougat and fresh lemonade, eyeing beautifully crafted tin lamps, dodging the mules and horses that serve as taxis in these cloistered streets, and breathing in the damp musty smell of tanned leather.

In one of the squares, men hammered away at sheets of metal, forming pots and pans before our eyes.
A mule taking a rest. Soon, he’ll be laden with carpets, pots and pans, or whatever other merchandise needs to be transported through the medina’s winding streets.
Honestly, Fes makes me feel like I’m walking through an issue of National Geographic.

Of course, Fes is known for its tanneries — yes, I had seen the photos online of men practically dancing atop vats of dye containing all the colours of the rainbow. Animal skins are arranged like decor around the perimeter in various stages of cleaning, dyeing, and drying. It’s a perfect postcard scene, and of course we wanted to visit one. We failed in our first attempt to get there, getting lost and then harassed by a shop owner who eventually made it quite clear that he was personally aggrieved that we didn’t want to buy his wares. We fled back to the hostel to look at a map and get some proper directions from the staff.

All of the travel advice I had read warned that it’s not easy to just walk up to the tanneries and take a peek. You have to know someone who knows the tannery owner, and that usually means going on a guided tour. Of course, every other person you meet on the street will offer to take you to see the tanneries, but they often get you lost in the bowels of the medina and then demand an exorbitant fee to take you the rest of the way.

Despite this knowledge, we decided to make a go of it the next morning, armed with a map and our newfound sense of direction. Other people in our hostel had gone to the tanneries without a guide, so we figured it wouldn’t be too difficult. Deftly avoiding eye contact with yesterday’s haranguing shop owner (it turns out we were on the right path the previous day), we made it to an alleyway where the stench of leather was palpable. Through the cracks of windows and doors, we caught glimpses of the famous vats as we walked along — this was definitely the right place.

An unassuming man selling some kind of cheap trinkets or made-in-China scarves (there were so many of them, it’s hard to keep track) caught us as we passed by, asking if we wanted to see the tanneries. Having rebuffed dozens of similar approaches, we began to walk away — I was wary, and wanted to at least get the lay of the land before agreeing to let someone show us the tanneries. But he kept talking, and we kept listening, and eventually he assured us that he wasn’t looking for any payment, that he knew the owner of the nearest tannery, and that we could walk in and observe without paying a cent. “Of course,” he added, “the stench is quite strong from ground level so he also has an elevated observation deck which will only cost you five dirhams to access.”

Ah, there’s the catch — wait, five dirhams? That’s $0.63 Canadian. Okay, let’s do this. The man left his storefront and led us around a corner, into another shop where he introduced us to his friend, the tannery owner. With a hurried apology, the first man explained that he needed to get back to his shop. The tannery owner, a tall, suave, calm gentleman, gave us each a sprig of mint. “For the smell,” he explained. He led us up a winding staircase which opened onto the rooftop. From here, we had a brilliant view of the tanning process.

This tannery uses all-natural dyes: poppies for red, indigo flowers for blue, and saffron for yellow.

After taking in the scene (and taking a few photos as well), we headed back down the stairs and bought some handcrafted leather goods as Christmas gifts. Despite my terrible poker face, we managed to haggle down to two-thirds of the original asking price. Sure, we didn’t get the best deal in the world, but our experience was a far cry from the doom-and-gloom travel advice I had read.

Still, getting swindled in the local markets is a rite of passage for any tourist, and in our case it happened that afternoon.

In general, we had been surprisingly good at negotiating for souvenirs on our own. That said, we planned to do a lot of Christmas shopping in the medina and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t being played for fools. Our hostel runs a scheduled afternoon shopping trip, where a local guide will take you around to buy what you want and negotiate with the shopkeepers on your behalf. So we thought, sure, why not.

Unfortunately for us, the real swindler was our guide. Having meandered around the medina on our own, we had a fairly good idea of the prices we could negotiate by ouselves. Perhaps my strong French and possibly-maybe-Moroccan complexion made the shopkeepers go easy on us. But as soon as we were accompanied by a guide, we were definitely branded as foreign tourists. In some cases, the final price negotiated by the guide was more than what we had paid for the same item earlier that same day.

These pouffes were more expensive the second time around.

On top of that, the guide only took us around to shops run by his friends — you can be sure that they had an agreement worked out. After adding in the customary 10% tip to the guide at the end of our shopping trip, needless to say I was frustrated.

Well, let’s call that a lesson learned. Life goes on, and Fes is still beautiful. We unwound with some lemonade in one of the public squares, before venturing back into the medina for Moroccan pizza. We headed back to the hostel for a pot of mint tea and spent the evening atop the rooftop patio. All in all, it was a good day.

National Geographic, am I right?!
Casablanca: first impressions Fri, 27 Sep 2013 00:59:00 -0400 We’ve been in Morocco for three weeks now, and as I said in my last post, I’m trying to think of Casablanca as my new home. So why not start with a tour of our apartment?

Kitchen, dining area, and living room. Facing the kitchen, our front door is to the left, and the bathroom and bedroom are to the right.

We live in the Maârif neighbourhood, a dense grid of narrow streets packed tight with mid-century apartments (we’re on the fifth floor of a six-storey building). We’re steps from local fruit, fish, and bread vendors, a small grocery store, innumerable cafes, restaurants, and a lovely pedestrian mall.

The view from our balcony at dusk.

Looking down, you can see our friendly neighbourhood produce vendor and the bustle of everyday life. Good luck finding a parking spot!

Rue Oussama Ibnou Zaid is a pedestrian mall lined with cafes, bookshops, clothing stores, and offices. The Maârif cultural centre is just on the left edge of this photo.

What’s interesting is that I haven’t laid eyes on a single-detached house since arriving in Morocco three weeks ago. Other than spotting a few clusters of farmhouses during the descent toward Casablanca’s Mohamed V airport, it’s apartment buildings as far as the eye can see. From the historic medina, to the oceanfront entertainment district, to the outskirts of town, to blank-slate greenfield developments, Casablanca’s urban form is a consistent swath of 3-to-6 storey brick and concrete apartments. One exception I can think of, but haven’t seen yet, is the seaside villas.

In and around Maârif, there are quite a few construction projects going on. Most are small-scale, making use of manual labour more so than cranes and heavy machinery. Not to say that megablock developments don’t exist here, but most of the construction activity looks like this:

A 30-minute walk north of us is the Parc de la Ligue Arabe – a veritable oasis in the middle of the city. This is where young couples go to sit and hold hands, where middle-aged men gather for a game of boccee, where kids play a dusty game of soccer, and where lots of people simply walk through on their way from point A to point B.

The park is also home to l’Église du Sacré-Coeur de Casablanca. Really, it’s a focal point for people of all walks of life.

A short tram ride away is the Place des Nations Unies, a large public square like the one in Maârif but with more people and trendy street furniture:

In an innovative bit of station design, the tramway runs right through Place des Nations Unies at a level grade, allowing for the free flow of pedestrian movement when the trains aren’t there. When they do approach, the trains slow down and people get out of the way.

Speaking of transportation design, many of Casablanca’s major arterial roads have an underpass in the middle lanes, which is not something I’ve ever seen or heard of before. The underpasses let through traffic zip along for three or four major blocks at a time, avoiding the cross-traffic of intersections.

If you spend even a little bit of time walking around Casablanca, you’ll notice that sidewalks are often out of commission. Sometimes a shop has taken over the entire width of the sidewalk, or a garbage bin is blocking the way, but more often than not it’s because cars are parked there.

The concept of a legal parking space appears to be a bit fuzzy here… cars will take any space they can get, and double-parking is par for the course.

While I’m talking about transportation, I might as well show a photo of the main train station in Casablanca – Casa Voyageurs. We arrived here by train from the airport, and Casa Voyageurs was our point of departure for a trip to Rabat last week, to attend the 2nd Global Conference de Rabat (but more on conferences another time).

I’ll end this post on a note about food. In short, it’s delicious and inexpensive. There are 8 dirhams to a Canadian dollar, and a fresh baguette costs 1.20 DH. A smoothie with fresh-squeezed oranges and mangoes? Around 10 DH. Fresh orange juice is everywhere, and boy do they love their pulp. I mean, straw-standing-up-on-its-own kind of pulp:


Of course, Morocco was under French colonial rule for some time, but it appears their influence on the country’s cuisine is mainly focused on breakfast – which is completely fine by me. An assortment of pastries to get the day started? Yes please.

Melissa is blogging too! Check out her latest post for photos of street art that I didn’t include here.

No such thing as a free appetizer Sat, 14 Sep 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Melissa is blogging about our travels too! Check out her posts at

Melissa and I have been living out of our backpacks for the past week or so as we play hopscotch from continent to continent. Now, after a few days in Casablanca, my internal clock has adapted and my mind is transitioning away from vacation mode. But before I get to writing about Morocco, I want to talk about the places in between.

Booking the cheapest available plane tickets to Casablanca meant starting our trip with a two-day layover in Lisbon, Portugal. We stayed in the hip Barrio Alto district, where the view outside our hostel was absolutely stunning.

The view from the gardens at Rua Sao Pedro Alacantara. See more photos on my travel page.

Lisbon is a tourist’s dream. It had the impression of being well worn-in, like a favourite pair of old shoes. It’s a city that seems more concerned with maintaining its historic character than reinventing itself – and I mean that as a compliment. Whether for the sake of pride or tourism or nostalgia, Lisbon has gone to great lengths to preserve its old city centre.

When I say historic character, I’m not talking about grand and ancient monuments or cathedrals (though they are well-preserved). I’m talking about things like the white cobblestone sidewalks that are a distinctive part of Lisbon’s streetscape. Outside some of the older buildings, shop names are inlaid with black stones on the sidewalk in front of their respective establishments. This is a nice bit of flair that helps to give Lisbon a cosy, small-town feel.

But it’s not just centuries-old bookstores and cafes that get this special sidewalk treatment. I was amazed to see the same style of black stone inlay outside a seafood restaurant that was established in the 1970s. For a city as old as Lisbon, that’s not too long ago. When vinyl and formstone were the building materials du jour in North America, when inner-city freeways were destroying neighbourhoods and urban renewal was in full swing, a small seafood restaurant opened in Lisbon, and its cobblestone sidewalk was carefully reassembled to feature the restaurant’s name, as had been done for hundreds of years.

White cobblestone sidewalks, sometimes with designs or shop names inlaid in black stone, are a distinctive part of Lisbon’s streetscape.

One building near our hostel had been completely renovated, inside and out. However, other than the construction equipment visible through the open windows, it was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding buildings. Intricate tilework and small balconies with wrought-iron railings – the same architectural style that has defined the city’s streetscape for generations. It’s a new building, but its architecture respects history to the letter.

On our first day in Lisbon, after unloading our luggage at the hostel, we wandered over to a nearby cafe for lunch. We were pleasantly surprised when the waitress brought out a basket of bread and olives for us to sample while we waited for our meal. They were delicious, but little did we know that this pleasant surprise wasn’t free. At €1.50 per slice of bread, and a few Euros more for the olives, the cost added up quickly on our final bill. It just so happens that unlike the unlimited free bread at many North American chains, restaurants in Lisbon have a “don’t eat, don’t pay” policy (which the waitress declined to inform us of).

In the following days, we would be tempted many more times by what appeared to be compimentary appetizers. This ruse was not only limited to bread and olives; we were even presented with a plate of assorted local cheeses and fish cakes at one restaurant. We declined that one, as it was the third such appetizer that the waiter had brought to the table, setting it down with a suggestive smile.

However, these seemingly free appetizers were nothing compared to the tourist trap that is Fado music in Barrio Alto. Fado is a traditional genre of folk music in Portugal, characterised by romantic tales of woe and longing. Barrio Alto is home to a vibrant nightlife scene, but the Fado venues there have a cover charge upwards of €25, with €10 glasses of wine once you’re inside.

Thankfully, we consulted with one of the hostel staff, who steered us towards a different neighbourhood known for Fado, one where the venues wouldn’t charge cover and where local amateurs perform alongside career musicians. On his advice, we headed towards Rua dos Remédios, at the end of the metro line.

The street was deserted, strewn with litter, but we could hear the forlorn wailing sounds of Fado music leaking out from a few bars. Despite the vacant street, each venue was packed to the gills – we ended up on the doorstep of one of the bars, craning our necks along with the other people who couldn’t get a seat, to catch a glimpse of the musicians. It was beautiful.

We flew out of Lisbon on Saturday morning, stopping in the Madrid airport for an 15-hour layover before continuing on to Casablanca. Drinking vending-machine espresso, brushing my teeth at 2AM in the airport bathroom, and sleeping on departure-lounge benches… I felt like I was in a remake of The Terminal.

When we arrived in Casablanca, we took the train from the airport into the city, then a taxi to Hôtel Centrale, a hotel in the old medina that has apparently been in operation since the French arrived to colonise Morocco.

The public square outside our window was lively at all hours of the day and night – motorbikes rumble through the area, young children play with soccer balls, merchants hawk their wares, and people meet, sit, and chat at the cafes. Sometimes there’s even impromptu music:

Like in Lisbon, the restaurants here will bring out a plate of bread and olives. Like in Libson, it’s not free – but at least we know that now.

The cuisine here is delicious, though. On our first night, we enjoyed a tajine, mint tea, an assortment of moroccan salads, and of course, bread and olives, at a restaurant called Sqala, located inside an old fortress that looks out onto the sea.

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get over the sweetness of Moroccan mint tea – it’s delicious, but honestly, sometimes it tastes like I’m drinking warm Kool-Aid. Just in case the tea isn’t sweet enough, some cafes will give you a couple packets of sugar that you can add to your shot glass-sized cup of tea.

After my first few days here in Casablanca, I’ve noticed that the muezzin’s call to prayer is not nearly as loud as the constant din of motorbikes and car horns. Traffic is chaotic, and overwhelming at times. It’s hard to shake the low-level anxiety that walking around this congested city brings. But after all, I’m still a tourist. As I get to know Casablanca better, the overwhelming will become the familiar. And next time I write about life in Morocco, I’ll be writing about my new home.

Morocco bound Tue, 03 Sep 2013 00:00:00 -0400 If I were to make a word cloud of all my discussions with people over the last year regarding my and Melissa’s plans to live abroad, one question would be right in the middle in 100-point text: “Why Morocco?”

Depending on the tone of the question — concerned, baffled, enthralled — Melissa and I would answer the question with a slightly different twist on the same few talking points:

  • “Oh, it’s really stable politically and pretty welcoming to foreigners.”
  • “It’s a pretty central location for travelling around Europe and the Mediterranean.”
  • “Well, they speak French, so we’ll be able to get by in the local language.”
  • “There’s a lot of infrastructure investment and development going on, so job prospects look good.”
  • “Basically, we wanted to go somewhere exotic.”

In many of these conversations during the past few months, my mind was on autopilot. We had booked our flight months ago, and the idea of moving to Morocco seemed like old news already, almost routine. When someone new inevitably asked, “Why Morocco?” I would often play through a string of well-rehearsed lines.

Now, though, it’s really happening. We leave tomorrow. Here’s my luggage, all packed up:

As our departure inches closer, I have to remind myself that this is not routine, that reading travel guides and phrasebooks and blogs and expat forums won’t prepare me for everything. (If it did, what would be the point of travelling at all?)

More importantly, I have to remind myself that the quick list of reasons I gave above isn’t inspiring, and it’s not what got Melissa and I excited about Morocco in the first place. So I find myself asking in earnest, why Morocco? On this last day that I have in Canada, let me venture an answer that I don’t have filed away for quick retrieval. An answer that actually stirs my desire for wanderlust and fills me with excitement.

So let’s try this again. Morocco: because I have spent over 95% of my life inside this tiny red circle, and the world is so much broader than that.

In an age where we have the world in our pocket, it’s easy to discover new places and cultures, see the wonders of the world, or read a local newspaper from halfway around the globe. It’s all standardised, sanitized, coming at us through a 4-inch screen.

The internet has made our world smaller and more accessible, but the Earth is still here, as large and majestic and full of life as ever. And the daily rhythms of 7 billion people are hard to hear when you’re tucked away in one corner of the auditorium.

Flash, bam, alakazam Sat, 20 Jul 2013 00:00:00 -0400 “Orange Colored Sky”, originally recorded by Nat King Cole, is one of my favourite jazz classics. If you’ve never heard it, take a listen. Its lyrics provide an oddly fitting frame for the story I’m about to tell you…

I was walking along, minding my business…

I woke yesterday morning feeling refreshed and optimistic. A cool breeze greeted me, heralding the end of a week-long heatwave. A notification on my phone greeted me too: Tornado WATCH in effect for Waterloo Region. I gave it little thought; there had been extreme weather warnings on and off for the past week. At the moment, the prospect of a breezy bike ride to work was a much more commanding presence.

When out of an orange coloured sky…

At lunch, I enjoyed listening to a jazz quartet at Waterloo Town Square. It was the first day of the weekend-long festival, and everyone was in high spirits. Settling into a plastic patio chair, I ate my lunch and got blissfully lost in the dull rumble of the double bass, the vocalist’s smooth timbre, the unexpected path of a guitar solo…

Keeping time with the band, my morning breeze crescendoed into a gale-force wind. Toppling canvas shelters and sending sheet music into disarray, mother nature sought to add her own improvised percussion to the mix. And the band played on.

Flash, bam, alakazam!

Fast-forward to 5:00 PM, when the clouds burst above me on my commute home. Fat drops of rain cooled my back and hissed against the hot pavement. It was the definitive and welcome end to a week of unbearably hot weather.

Back at home now (and having changed into dry clothes), a storm quickly gathered. I watched the rain begin to fall in sheets, and the prospect of sauntering in a summer thunderstorm was too much to resist. In a split-second decision, Melissa and I fled out the front door and up the puddle-strewn street, laughing, running, splashing —


A beautiful, big old tree in the yard behind Suddaby School snapped in half before our eyes. Buffeted by the wind and heavy with rain, its limbs could not withstand the pressure of the storm. Its top half hung down, limp, hinged by a few remaining strands of bark.

This tree snapped like a twig before our eyes. Photo taken two days after the storm.

We stared in amazement – first at the tree, then at each other. Furtive steps across the schoolyard to take a closer look. Nervous jumps as lightning cracked above us. But we had to keep going. Circling around the south side of the 150-year-old school (avoiding the more heavily treed north flank), we came upon a scene of carnage.

Unlike the storm’s first victim – a clean execution, no mess – Suddaby School’s majestic front yard was littered with the mangled bodies of saplings, mixed among limbs and leaves of larger trees. The two tall, thin evergreens that frame the school’s entrance were bending dangerously in the wind.

Melissa and I scampered up the stone steps to seek shelter in the main entranceway. We surveyed the destruction with awe and paid our respects to the dead. The evergreens creaked – our cue to leave.

We crossed the road, welcoming the relative safety and open space along Otto Street, running past the Centre in the Square. The rain had intensified, and the drops felt like hail as they pelted through our wet t-shirts. The wind, too, had strengthened enough to knock me sideways like an unexpected bodycheck.

Approaching Queen Street, we saw that the traffic lights were down – both figuratively and literally. A grand old tree (albeit with a rotting trunk) had snapped at the base and took down the adjacent light pole when it collapsed. Like a paperclip in a fidgeter’s hands, the traffic light pole lay irreparably twisted across the sidewalk.

A stump of the pole remains standing, but the mangled metal tubing has been cut into neat pieces by City crews. Photo taken two days after the storm.

Temporary traffic lights stand in for the real thing until City crews remove the tree and install a new pole. Photo taken two days after the storm.

Wonderful you came by…

At this point, we met two teenage girls who had been walking along Queen Street. The four of us quickly multiplied to eight, with the introduction of a father and his son, another man and his golden retriever. We got the sense that there was more we could do than stand, gaping, at the destruction. Together, we got to work on removing a tree that had fallen across Queen Street, kiddie-corner to the mangled traffic light. The man and his dog directed confused drivers away from the blocked street, while the rest of us lifted branches and cleared debris. Front yards filled up with branches, the notion of private property having been lost to the common good.

At the next block, there was another fallen tree blocking the road. And one block further, yet another. As we made our way along Queen Street to repeat the anarchic ballet that we had started, our numbers grew. Eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two… By the time we had successfully cleared a lane for traffic, there were dozens of neighbours out on the street.

Eventually, someone brought a saw. Someone else had an axe. Branches that were too big to move by brawn alone were chopped and sliced in a flurry of machismo by men self-consciously approaching middle age.

Front lawns became the de facto holding areas for debris. Photo taken two days after the storm.

One look and I yelled, “Timber!”

Our work on Queen Street done, Melissa and I decided to venture back toward home, nervously anticipating the fate of our little house, not to mention the 100-year-old tree that towers above it.

The orderly street grid of Central Frederick had become a labyrinth. Downed trees and power lines hampered access for cars and pedestrians alike. Lancaster Street, Chapel Street, Brubacher Street, Samuel Street – they were all subject to the ravages of the storm.

A Police cruiser and fire truck tend to a smouldering tree on Samuel Street. A downed power line had set the wood on fire in the middle of the street. Photo taken the day of the storm.

A tree limb thicker than my waist landed with a thud on a Lancaster Street home, cracking the roof and ceiling. Photo taken two days after the storm.

Our house, thankfully, was safe and sound. Our regal backyard tree, however, had lost a large portion of its crown. One limb flattened our neighbour’s fence to the rear. Another large branch fell to the side, damaging the tin shed next door.

Fortunately, the limbs that broke off our tree all fell in the opposite direction of our house. Photo taken two days after the storm.

Over the next few hours, I heard reports of similar occurrences in Victoria Park, the Mary-Allen neighbourhood in Waterloo, Bloomingdale, and even as far away as Hamilton and Toronto. The storm lasted a mere half-hour, but we’ll be dealing with the aftermath for weeks.


I referred to the spontaneous community that came together on Queen Street as an “anarchic ballet”. Strangers coming together to help one another out is always a good thing, but I don’t want to confound our unity against the storm with a broader, more general unity. As beautiful as it was to work ad-hoc with so many people pushing, pulling, sawing and hacking away to clear the road, once the job was done we all disbanded. Our cooperation was largely utilitarian.

Without a regular stream of crises to force the community together, it will quickly revert to a collection of individuals, bound together only by geography. The storm also created tension among neighbours. Many trees fell on other peoples’ property, ruining gardens, damaging sheds, and tearing up lawns. Long after the streets are cleared and hydro lines are repaired, animosity will continue to bubble under the surface. Irritation that was originally directed at the storm will find a new target – first the tree itself, then the person on whose property the tree stands (or once stood, as may be the case). Filing insurance claims and coordinating fence repair are not the best foundations for a relationship.

All this to say that with the storm over and clean-up looming ahead, be gracious and humble with one another. And never forget that we hold collective responsibility for the increase in extreme weather.

For more photos of the aftermath, check out this Facebook photo album from Tina Shields, a resident in my neighbourhood.

Taming traffic mayhem in my backyard Fri, 05 Jul 2013 00:00:00 -0400 I love living in Central Frederick — it has a wealth of century homes on comfortable tree-lined streets, a beautiful school, neighbourhood parks, and a corner store. This is one of Kitchener’s oldest neighbourhoods and, like many areas of K-W, the street grid can get a little wonky.

In the above satellite view, you can see Lancaster coming down from the north and meeting up with Krug Street. Mere metres from that intersection, there is a set of traffic lights where Cedar Street crosses Weber. These two intersections are too far away from each other to function together, an unfortunate confluence of history and geometry that wreaks havoc at rush hour.

Lancaster is a pretty significant north-south route that connects Kitchener to Waterloo and the Conestoga Parkway. Though by the time it approaches Krug, Lancaster has become a narrow two-lane street, it still carries lots of rush-hour traffic. Add that to the volume of vehicles passing through the Cedar/Weber intersection, and this area gets real messy around 5:00 PM on a weekday. Take a look:

(Did you notice the blue van at 0:41? At 1:07, it gets fed up with waiting, and escapes up Lancaster instead.)

As a pedestrian, I get frustrated with the Lancaster/Krug intersection a lot. I live on the East side of Lancaster Street, a few blocks up from here, and it’s well nigh impossible to get to that side of the street without dodging the traffic coming off Weber. Besides my own comfort, this neighbourhood has a lot of young families — there really should be a better pedestrian crossing here. Suddaby School is close by. In the mornings, there is a veritable parade of children that have to traverse this treacherous intersection, one way or another.

I decided to sketch out a possible solution to this mess — a pedestrian island that doubles as a traffic calming device:

1. Looking south from Lancaster Street East. Vehicles must yield to pedestrians and Krug St. traffic. The island also prevents left turns onto Krug St.

2. Looking west from Krug Street. With the island in place, Krug gets the right of way and has a full range of turning movements.

3. Looking from Weber Street toward Krug/Lancaster. No left turn onto Lancaster; the only option is to continue along Krug St.

Drivers coming from the Weber/Cedar intersection will not be able to turn left onto Lancaster; but perhaps that’s a good thing. After all, this is a school zone, and most vehicles that use this section of Lancaster are looking for a shortcut to avoid Weber St.

As a general rule, I don’t like restricting turning movements, but this street grid is just too messed up to allow the current free-for-all at Krug/Lancaster to continue.

Portrait of a frozen city Sat, 13 Apr 2013 00:01:00 -0400 As Winter reluctantly hands control over to Spring, a city just about to bloom is frozen in time.

Branches yearning for the sun are wrapped in a cocoon of ice.

Even street signs get caught in the cold, glacial embrace.

Buds, about to burst from their shells, are trapped like flies in amber.

The evergreen trees, welcoming the cold, wear pearls of ice like jewelry.

And then, just as quickly as it came, the cold snap melts back into an April shower.

Tips for the unprepared night-time cyclist Sat, 08 Dec 2012 02:01:00 -0500 I love cycling, especially in the City. I can hold my own in heavy traffic and stick to the rules of the road as best I can - I sure don’t need to give cars more reasons to be annoyed with cyclists. But inevitably, I sometimes forget my lights. And at this time of year, when the days are getting shorter, nightfall can easily take me by surprise when I leave work.

So what to do when you’re stuck without a light but need to use your bike? Obviously the letter of the law says that you can’t be riding on the road without a light, and you also can’t be riding on the sidewalk. But waiting until sunrise is rarely an option, so if you must cycle in the dark, here are the rules I use to keep me alive.

Lower your expectations
You don’t have a legal right to be riding your bike right now, so you’re going to have to be extra cautious. Double the time you would expect to arrive at your destination under normal conditions. Forget any notion that you have the right of way, ever. Expect to creep along behind pedestrians until there’s a safe opening for you to pass them. The world doesn’t owe you anything - you’re the one breaking the law.

Constant vigilance!
This is the kind of think that goes without saying, but needs to be said anyway. When you’re biking at night, treat every driveway and intersection as if a Hummer will come thundering out of nowhere at any second. Every ten seconds, you should be thinking, I could die tonight. For the other nine seconds, you should be training your catlike senses on your surroundings.

Pretend you’re invisible
This is the most practical tip I can give. Nobody can see you, and nobody knows you’re coming. You’re invisible, so you’ll have to wait for the rhythm of traffic to sync up in your favour before you cross it. Think of it like Frogger, but where you only have one life.

Stick to the road less travelled
Trails, residential streets, alleyways and sidewalks are your friends. Unless there are absolutely no cars on the road (and this is why it’s good to take detours on quiet residential streets), use the sidewalk. But don’t treat the sidewalk like a bike lane, because it’s not.

Speaking of the road less travelled, here are some of my favourite nighttime routes in KW:

Alternative route through Downtown Kitchener: Halls Lane

Alternative route from Uptown Waterloo to Downtown Kitchener. Park Street sidewalks are usually empty.

Rail path through the Mary-Allen neighbourhood

First flush Mon, 23 Jul 2012 04:37:00 -0400 On a whim, I decided to go for a bike ride today. I left my wallet and phone behind and spent a couple hours on the Grand River Trail. It’s a great ride; I started at the Economical Insurance Trailway (point 13 on the above-linked map) and continued to Kolb Park, then turned around. It wasn’t too hilly, but I did have to work up a sweat at times. It was about equal difficulty on the way there and on the way back, which is nice - it stops me from coasting too much.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. As I passed Bingemans on the way down, it started to rain a little. By the time I reached the Victoria St. underpass, it was a veritable torrent of fat, hot raindrops soaking my clothes through to the skin. I didn’t mind, the air was still warm so I decided I would continue riding along the river until the rain stopped.

It stopped after 10 minutes or so. I found myself riding through Kolb Park - and there was a slightly overgrown fork off the main trail that looked interesting. I veered left and ducked under the sodden, low-hanging branches. After about a minute my path was blocked; a dead end. But there  was a footpath down to the river. So I propped my bike up onto a tree, and walked down to the water’s edge.

As the tree canopy opened up before me, I saw a little beach of sorts - strewn with rocks and weeds and springy mud. An insect buzzed incessantly around my ear. A flock of ducks were floating in the water; a seagull stood guard from a rock on the opposite side of the river. Through the overgrowth, in the distance, I could spot a new suburban development, creeping toward the river from Breslau.

I had found quite an idyllic spot. I set my rain-streaked glasses down on a rock; took off my shirt and wringed it out; skipped a few rocks; stretched my legs; and after a sort while, I figured it was time to head home.

But as I walked back up the footpath to my bike, I heard the sound of rushing water grow louder. It wasn’t the river. It was a surge of water coming down the riverbank. In the time it had taken me to stop and take a breather, the intense but brief rainfall had filtered through the sewer system to end up here. It wasn’t an idyllic beach at all. It was a drainage area.

I scampered back down to take a look at the runoff. This was the first flush phenomenon in action - one of those concepts that I had learned theoretically, but hadn’t experienced first-hand. I could see the runoff making its way through the rocks while I stood on one of the larger ones. It was a thick brown liquid, kind of like hot chocolate, no doubt tainted with oil and sediment from the nearby industrial area. It smelled of sewage. Cigarette butts floated in the inky mixture. And it was travelling fast. Rocks the size of my fist were being displaced by the powerful flow. A spider, who had been basking atop a rock, was swept under. I moved to higher ground as the toxic effluent began to touch my shoes.

When the runoff met the water’s edge, it formed a visible brown streak as the river carried it downstream, cigarette butts and all. The ducks stayed put, seemingly unfazed. This must have been an all-too-common occurrence for them.

To imagine that this was happening at innumerable points up and down the river, as a result of rainfall lasting less than half an hour, baffled me. Is our water even being treated properly? Is the wastewater treatment system so overwhelmed by an afternoon shower that it had to divert raw sewage into the river?

After about 10 minutes, the effluent started to clear up. It was still brown, but less oily-looking. Does anybody test this water? I wondered. And if they do, a 10-minute delay would give wildly different results. I pondered all this as I rode back home.

This isn’t necessarily a suburban problem; but we need to be smarter with how we develop urban areas. We can’t accept the status quo - hectares of new impermeable pavement and kilometre after kilometre of engineered concrete sewer lines. If we want to keep the natural beauty of the Grand while encouraging population growth in the region, we need to incorporate the natural environment into our water filtration system on a large scale - before it gets dumped into the river.

"Arctic Ready" Shell website is almost certainly a hoax Sun, 17 Jun 2012 20:00:00 -0400 A new website has popped up, purporting to be an attempt by Shell Oil to win over public support for drilling in the arctic. They’ve apparently set up a make-your-own-postcard tool to encourage people to share the message of “Let’s Go”.

I was duped by it. I joined in the schaedenfreude and hilarity, writing a scathing postcard of my own. But after a closer look, it appears that this is all a big elaborate hoax.

None of the links in the footer of the website go to an actual website. Everything redirects to A whois lookup on the domain name shows that the site is owned by an anonymous individual in Vancouver, Washington. Meanwhile, the whois lookup for clearly shows administrative and technical contacts at the company’s head office in London.

At the time of this post, the website had over 1700 shares on Facebook, 713 Tweets, and 59 Google Plus Ones. A jolly good effort, Mr. Vancouver man. Here’s hoping the actual Shell doesn’t shut down your site first thing on Monday morning.

Imprint: The Trials of International Development Thu, 17 May 2012 23:05:00 -0400 For those who haven’t read it yet, my piece on the University of Waterloo International Development program is finally up on the Imprint website. It’s been out in paper format for a couple weeks now, but for those who haven’t been around campus, here you go:

INDEV students are a tight-knit group. Most of them spent their first year together at St. Paul’s University College, and with a class size of 23, it’s not hard to get to know everyone. But some students have found that being guinea pigs in a new program has its downsides as well. […] “It felt like they were telling me, ‘If you can’t survive this, you shouldn’t work in the field,’” said Allison. After six weeks of further discussion, INDEV staff urged her to come home on account of her pressing health concerns. But, four months away from graduation, they would not provide her with an alternate way to complete the degree requirements. This question was left hanging, and only added to Allison’s burden. Read the full article

Word on the street is that the INDEV administration is looking to beef up their contingency plans in response to this article, so hopefully they go through with substantial changes and include students in the decision-making process.

Me, myself, and I Fri, 23 Mar 2012 02:25:00 -0400 I got a library card the other day. I’m part of something communal, something larger than myself. I borrowed a book. A fiction book. I haven’t read fiction in ages, haven’t lost myself in a good story since God knows when. Over the Christmas break, I brushed up on my Rousseau - enlightening, but not necessarily light reading. So it felt good to read for the simple pleasure of watching words come alive.

More than the joy of reading, I felt good walking into the library and choosing the book in the first place. I belong here. I have a library card, I’m part of the club.

Being part of the club is important when you’re lonely. We’re all lonely in a way, but the feeling intensifies when you live by yourself.

For all the downsides to having roommates - labeling your food, coordinating shower times, splitting the utility bills - there’s still that tenuous bond that comes with cohabitation.

I’ve tried to fill that lack of community in different ways. Playing at open mics and hanging about in a few of my favourite coffeeshops helps to quell the loneliness for a time. Sometimes I’ll get cabin fever and spring from my desk chair as if from live coals, and head over to Baltimore House for a pot of Earl Grey tea with that slice of lemon they put in it.

Other times I’ll go for a walk in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, just to stir my sense of adventure. There’s nothing like curiosity to stave off the dull insanity of being alone. I breathe the unfamiliar sent of someone’s cedar hedge and fantasize that I’ve lived here all my life, pretending that that whiff of fresh greenery holds childhood memories.

The greatest distraction from my solitude is food. There’s always a new cafe to check out, always a new corner store to get that same old late-night junk food. But the black licorice, bags of jujubes, and chocolate-covered almonds can only do so much for me.

I find I impulse-shop a lot more when I’m living on my own. A picture frame here, some exotic spices for an unusual recipe there, maybe a book or a dvd that I don’t really need. It’s certainly an appreciable difference from my spending habits when I’m living with friends.

Is it callous to attempt to quantify this? If I added up all my excess expenditures, would I be able to measure the value of companionship? I’ll leave that question hanging for now, because I can’t bear to find out how much I’m missing.

Aspiring asceticist Sat, 25 Feb 2012 05:00:00 -0500 I like minimalism.

There’s something liberating about paring life down to the essentials, shunning extraneous material goods, and taking pleasure in the simple life. Of course, the Waterloo co-op schedule makes it difficult to accumulate too much because I know I’m going to have to move all my stuff out of my place every four months.

Digital decluttering, though, is a whole different animal. There’s a similar satisfaction of accomplishment when I delete old random files on my computer, or purge my Facebook friends list. Tonight, I decided to go a bit further and deactivate my accounts on a bunch of websites that I’ve decided I can live without. Posterous, Bitly, Reddit Radio, Kobo, Stock.Xchng,, Songkick… it’s quite a tedious job to log in, seek out the account settings page, and possibly go through the help documentation to find out how to sever ties with the website in question.

It was through this process that I realised a hidden benefit to alternate login options like Facebook Connect. Logging in to third-party websites through Facebook or Twitter makes it a lot easier to close one’s account - it’s a simple matter of going into my preferences and revoking the third-party access.

I had always avoided using Facebook Connect because I felt that I had more control and freedom by signing up to each website individually. The flipside of that is an intensely tedious process when I want to delete my accounts. It’s a trade-off, but Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon so I think I’ll know how I’m going to approach Facebook Connect in the future.

Reflections on Advent Sun, 27 Nov 2011 16:58:00 -0500 Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the lead-up to Christmas that’s steeped in religious tradition. Growing up, my mum would bring out four candles and light them in sequence as each Sunday arrived, bringing us closer and closer to December 24th with each puddle of wax.

This was a cultural, rather than a spiritual practice for me; much like baking gingerbread or putting those kitschy Swedish wooden horses by the fireplace. But I saw Advent from a more spiritual perspective when today, at church, it was juxtaposed with Jesus’ warning of his second coming.

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the door.


But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.

— Mark 13:26-29

It’s an unconventional passage to be quoting during Advent, when we’re supposed to be thinking of sweet baby Jesus and wise men following the star to Bethlehem. But Advent is about anticipating the arrival of the messiah - so it’s not a huge leap from Jesus’ end-times speech.

It’s that image of actively waiting, being on guard, being alert, that got me thinking. This kind of eager anticipation means that everybody I meet, every sight I see, every rock and tree and bug, has the potential to be Jesus incarnate.

This goes beyond “treat others as yourself” and “we are all children of God”. If everyone and everything is a potential Jesus, I have to be prepared to love those things and people unconditionally. I must see the good in everyone. I must see the Jesus in everyone.

What if anticipating Christ’s return means living as if he has already manifested himself in everything I see and touch and feel? Do I have the ability to love the world in this way? To devote myself to the world and everything in it? Maybe I do, if Christ is also manifested in me.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt Mon, 31 Oct 2011 18:19:00 -0400 At the University of Waterloo, co-op interviews are some of the most stressful parts of student life. Despite the many benefits of the program, those in the throes of Jobmine can tell you a darker side of the story, fraught with danger and uncertainty. For some, the co-op process is like riding a unicycle on a dental floss tightrope over a wilderness of razor blades. Co-op can backfire.

One of the downsides of co-op is the constant packing up and moving to other cities. I do 4 months of school, then 4 months of work - back and forth until I graduate. It takes a toll. So I was really gunning for a job in the Waterloo area, so I wouldn’t have to move out of town again. But, not willing to put all my eggs in one basket, I applied to some jobs in other cities.

The interview process can be stressful enough, but the real mindgames happen during the ranking period. After each interview, employers rank the candidates from most to least favourable. But I’m not allowed to see my rankings until all of the interviews were over. This caused co-op to permeate my consciousness as I replayed each interview, fretting over the details of the conversation. Did I present myself professionally? Did my questions sound cheesy? I hope they didn’t notice me fidgeting with my cufflinks. Maybe the cufflinks were too much, should I have opted for a regular dress shirt? I hope my palms weren’t sweaty when I shook her hand.

After a month of waiting, the results are out. I’ve been offered a few jobs - good jobs - but none of them are in Waterloo. The rest of the job applications show a cryptic message: “Ranked”. One sterile word, and yet full of nuance. I wasn’t the top candidate, but I don’t know where in the ranking I place. It’s a vague message that says “You’re good, but not the best. You might be good enough, though, if the top-ranked person doesn’t want this job.”

From these tea leaves, it’s my turn to rank the jobs according to my preference. I can give a rank of 1 to one of my “Offers” and be guaranteed employment, or I can take a chance and go for a job that I was only “Ranked” for. One of my classmates was offered two jobs in Waterloo, one of which she would obviously have to decline. I was ranked for both of them.

With the top candidate out of the running, I strategized. I weighed my options. There were two jobs that I really wanted. I was offered Job A. It’s a good job, but out-of-town, so I’d have to move. Job B was the one recently declined by my classmate. Equally good, located in Waterloo, but I wasn’t completely sure that I’d be next in line.

If I ranked Job B above Job A, I might be able to stay in Waterloo. But then, I might not get any of the jobs and be unemployed for the winter term. It was a tricky situation. What would the other candidates be thinking? How would they rank their jobs? This was no longer a simple co-op application: it had become a study in psychology and game theory.

Desperate for more information, I emailed all the other candidates. This is a common tactic that has helped many co-op students navigate the shadowy ranking process in the past. I revealed my preference for Job B, and asked if anyone else had plans to rank it number 1. That way, we could get a better idea of what everyone else was doing.

I felt better. I also felt devious, like I was gaming the system. But then, it dawned on me that I was, unknowingly, manipulating my competitors. By announcing that I was going to rank Job B as my first choice, I influenced their decisions. I effectively said, “If you want this job, you’ll have to get through me first.”

This should have made me more confident, but it just made me all the more anxious. Now I was worrying about how the others would react to my email, on top of all my other calculations. No one responded to my email, so the risk of unemployment was still present if I went for Job B.

I chose certainty. And so the results came in, and I was matched with Job A.

Then came the unwelcome news: Job B was left unfilled. All the other applicants had come to the same conclusion as me: “I’d better not risk it if someone else ends up being ranked higher than me and I get left without a job.”

The secretive nature of the job-matching process makes it worse off for everybody. The applicants, in our fearful uncertainty, don’t know how we should do our rankings. Employers like Job B end up with positions unfilled. What a tragic irony, to be made pawns by an unfeeling computer algorithm.

The perils of Presto Sat, 08 Oct 2011 19:48:00 -0400 I had high hopes for the Presto card. In theory, it would be great for transit users across southern Ontario. A single transit pass that could take you from Hamilton to Bowmanville, on any GO bus, train, or local transit service. No more keeping exact change in your pocket. No need to hold onto paper transfers. Loyalty discounts depending on how often you take transit. Online payments from your smartphone.

The potential was huge. And I think it’s fair to say Presto hasn’t lived up to expectations. There are frustrating flaws at every level of the system, and if we’re going to save Presto before it completely collapses, a real overhaul is in order.

The experiences I’m about to describe are my own anecdotes; they may not be representative, but they represent problems that need to be fixed. The reason so few of my friends have signed up for a Presto card is partly due to the bad experiences recounted by me and others.

In the midst of last August’s heatwave, I tried to board the Lakeshore West train in Oshawa. When I arrived at the platform, the Presto machines are out of order. A few minutes of confusion later, I realized that there might be a working Presto station inside the station building. Thankfully there was, and I got on the train in the nick of time, after trundling back and forth with my luggage.

Upon reflection, this is what I think happened: it was 42 degrees outside that day, and the sun was shining directly onto the Presto machines. They overheated and stopped working. I’m not sure how thoroughly these machines were tested, but reliability is key in any computerized system, which is only as strong as its weakest link. If the card readers can’t stand a summer heatwave, I don’t look forward to their performance in a February blizzard.

Second anecdote: This has happened several times, but I often fail to tap my card when I get off trains. (For the uninitiated, you have to tap once when you get on and once when you get off so the system knows how far you’ve travelled. The catch is if you forget to tap off, the system charges you for the furthest possible destination you could have gone to.)

When I get off the train, I’m at my destination. The trip is over, and I’m moving on to where I need to be. The nondescript Presto card machines don’t grab my attention as I leave, because most of them are oriented towards people entering the station. This has happened to me at Rouge Hill, Stouffville, Oshawa, and Union Station.

The fix for this is simple. Put card reading machines directly on the platform so I see them when the train doors open. Or, better yet, have the machines inside the train doors so I can tap off before I leave.

Third anecdote: I boarded the bus in Mississauga, tapped on, and got off in Waterloo. As I leave the bus, I tap off and am about to walk off when the bus driver calls me back. He thinks I didn’t tap the card properly, but I definitely saw the green light go on. He was under the impression that he had to personally take my card, and tap it himself. Which he did, thereby charging me another $4.20 to initiate a new trip. I was frustrated, but the old guy obviously didn’t know how the payment system works. So, staff training appears to be a big issue. I phoned the help line later that night, but they couldn’t verify the transaction, because it takes 24 hours for transactions to appear on my account.

Which brings me to the fourth anecdote: A 24-hour wait time? Really? You know, this is 2011. I can buy something on eBay and send the funds to a vendor on Hong Kong in a matter of minutes. This applies to topping up my account online, too. After filling out my credit card information (there’s no PayPal option), I have to wait a full cycle of the sun to use my Presto card. That means I can’t top up my account if I realise that I won’t have enough to make the trip into Toronto to see that concert tonight.

On the topic of their online tools, a Presto account forces you to use a 4-digit numeric PIN as a password. That’s about the least secure password system ever, and it handles my credit card information. Does that make me feel safe? Of course not.

One last anecdote: I checked my Presto balance yesterday morning. $39.26. Good. On the trip home for Thanksgiving, I boarded a bus at Scarborough Town Centre and tapped my card. A red light flashed. “Insufficient funds.” Exasperated, I started to explain to the driver that I did have money on the card, that I checked it just this morning. It must have been be a machine malfunction.

The driver seemed equally exasperated. “Forget it. I don’t have time to deal with this. Get in, I have a schedule to stick to.” So I rode the bus for free because the Presto system was too glitchy and time-consuming to bother with.

I think all these problems can be traced to the organizational structure of Metrolinx and GO Transit. Presto actually runs as a separate division under Metrolinx, the arms-length agency mandated by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to plan the transit system for the Greater Golden horseshoe. GO Transit is also, technically, an independent division under Metrolinx. One of the fundamental problems with this setup is that GO and Metrolinx have different mandates. GO Transit’s service area includes cities like Barrie and Kitchener, which are outside of Metrolinx’s focus on the Greater Toronto/Hamilton Area.

I haven’t the faintest clue why Presto is its own division, separate from GO Transit, underneath an arm’s-length organization that has only sporadic contact with the government. The bureaucracy is unfathomable.

Presto was supposed to be about making transit more convenient and seamless for people. Needless to say, it hasn’t delivered. We need to get rid of the silos. We need interregional transit planning to be integrated with the realities on the ground. And that means bringing everything back under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation. Public transit is a public service, and new departments shouldn’t be made for each little project.

For the ideas of Presto to succeed, we must kill the organizational structure that threatens to strangle it.

How green is your city? Sat, 06 Aug 2011 23:48:00 -0400 I’ve grown to love Hamilton’s parks, trails, hills, valleys, streams, trees and waterfalls. Last night, I went to a concert at the Ancaster Fairgrounds - basically a farmer’s field at the edge of town. It was the opening night of the Festival of Friends, a weekend-long festival with music, pony rides, and deep-fried Mars bars.

When Dallas Green took to the stage, he puzzled over the Tourism Hamilton advertisement next to him. “Is this true? Hamilton’s the waterfall capital of the world?”. Raucous cheering answered his question. “Well, nobody ever told me about this. What, you just keep it to yourselves?” Apparently so.

Consider this my small contribution to casting off the old, grungy, industrial image of this great city. I live a short walk from King and James, the heart of downtown Hamilton. Unlike, say, Yonge-Dundas square or Union Station, the concrete here is tempered by mature trees, grass, flowerbeds and benches in Gore Park.

The Niagara escarpment, which contains the Bruce Trail, cuts right through the middle of the city. The impracticalities of developing buildings on a sheer rock face means that this strip of natural beauty has been more or less preserved, even in close proximity to a built-up urban area.

In the north end, Bayfront Park is filled with the sounds and sights of children playing, boats being launched, fishing rods, boom-boxes, joggers, and folks chatting. Biking through it the other day at sunset, I was struck by how similar the atmosphere was to my childhood vacations at Presqu’ile Provincial Park. No wonder Bayfront Park was named one of Canada’s best public spaces by Spacing Magazine.

I’ve always found it funny how new suburban subdivisions aggressively market their forest-lined lots and proximity to a rural paradise where everything is green. Little do those prospective homeowners know that their precious vista to the hinterland will be razed and replaced by more tract houses in a matter of months.

If you want to live somewhere that actually protects its green spaces and makes them accessible, Hamilton’s your city. I’ll let the photos I’ve taken in the past few months speak for themselves. These were all taken within a 20-minute bike ride of my house.

The Whiteness of the Whale Wed, 06 Jul 2011 02:28:00 -0400 Over the past month or so, I’ve been getting through the audiobook of Moby-Dick. I knew nothing of the book prior to starting other than its status as a classic and the fact that it was about an albino whale. Though long and meandering, the story has become a meditative sanctuary of sorts for me, because it is the kind of story that doesn’t beg to be finished quickly, nor does it move so slowly as to bore the reader (or, in my case, the listener).

To be honest, Moby-Dick has to have the slowest-moving plot of any book I’ve read (including philosophical works like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). But what it lacks in action, it makes up for in enchantingly beautiful prose. Herman Melville delights me with his turns of phrase and rich vocabulary. To be sure, it is this quality that makes the novel’s epic length not just bearable, but pleasurable and even invigorating.

Nowhere is this quality more nakedly apparent than in chapter 42, The Whiteness of the Whale. Yes, this entire chapter is devoted to exploring the meaning of the colour white, and how that meaning is perverted when juxtaposed with a great and terrible creature such as a shark, or a polar bear, or in this case, a sperm whale. It’s superfluous, for sure, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

It would seem Herman Melville has a subtle sense of humour (or obliviousness), because he introduces chapter 45 like this:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, … requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood …

Some might go mad trying to read a story as pretentious and lethargic as Moby-Dick. But when I’m listening to the audiobook, I just pretend I’m listening to a wise old man, perhaps with a bit of Alzheimer’s because he keeps repeating things (though that doesn’t explain the absurd amount of detail).

If you have the time and patience, read Moby-Dick or listen to the audiobook. When you emerge from the 136 interminable chapters, you won’t regret it.

Avant-Garde Wed, 08 Jun 2011 01:05:00 -0400 Those that know me know that I’m an avid cyclist. I love to maneuver through city traffic at rush hour, and, paradoxically, I feel much safer riding 20 pounds of aluminum than in a cocoon of steel and glass. But I wasn’t always this way.

My dad can attest to my early teen car obsession - religiously reading the Wheels section of the newspaper, fawning over taillight design (of all things!), going to the Auto Show in Toronto every year… I was set on getting my own car the day I turned 16.

As it turns out, my 16th birthday fell around exam time so I put off getting my licence for a month. The allure of driving started to fade. I got my first road bike the following autumn. And I never looked back.

Two years later, I had made the decision never to own a car. What prompted my abrupt turnaround? Part of it was environmentalism. I was becoming aware of climate change, deforestation, and the pitfalls of the industrial development model. Around this time, I also decided to be a vegetarian for environmental reasons. Automobile ownership wasn’t something I could square with my new worldview.

Part of it was my first-year Urban Planning courses, which had basically conditioned me to hiss under my breath at the mention of expressways, drive-thru restaurants, and surface parking.

The single biggest influence on my conversion to bicyclism (it’s a word) was probably one of my co-workers, Kevin, who was a fellow lifeguard ay Cedar Park resort in the summer of 2007. Now, if you’ve ever been to Cedar Park, you’ll know that it’s in the middle of nowhere. The rural roads that lead there take you up hills and down little valleys as you make your way past farmers’ fields. But Kevin biked to work. Up those calf-splitting hills, both ways, every day. Alongside pick-up trucks doing 90 km/h. And he liked it. What was even more fascinating was the fact that he used to be a big car enthusiast. Had a souped-up Civic. But he gave it an engine that was too powerful, and it exploded. So now he has a $2000 bike with all the bells and whistles (literally). To be honest, it’s a lot less maintenance and Kevin was fit. That was the first time I saw cycling as a really viable option for my primary mode of transportation.

I still have that road bike I bought in 2006. I’ve upgraded the wheels, got some better brake shoes, and replaced the handlebar tape. I feel like I’ve bonded with it over the years, like one would with a horse. And recently I took another step towards sustainable transportation and bought a cargo trailer for my bike.

After a few weeks of use, I can confirm that it was money well spent. I took it to the grocery store, and loaded it up with two week’s worth of food plus a big cake. It was delicious. It’s a liberating feeling to carry big, heavy loads without requiring a car. Yesterday, I biked an hour across town with my cargo trailer in rush hour traffic to get a computer desk that someone was getting rid of. The trailer handled the task beautifully. It was an added bonus to see the amused looks of bewilderment from people as I headed home on Barton Street with a big desk bungee-corded to a bike trailer.

I think part of what makes me enjoy this kind of cycling so much is the interactions with motorists on the road. For the most part, drivers are either nervous or extremely courteous around me. For all the rhetoric out there about angry drivers, I find that if I’m confident and well-aware of my surroundings, I have zero problems. And I hope that my presence on the road will make motorists stop and take a second look at the status quo. I hope that more will see cycling not as an alterative form of transportation, but as a viable first choice.

Admittedly, we need more pioneer cyclists out on the road to make that happen. So dust off that bike in your garage, strap on a helmet, and leave the car keys at home. Let me assure you that busy roads are not scary places, and that you can carry a computer desk through downtown Hamilton on a bike.

Here’s some inspiration:

Hoop Jumping 101 Wed, 18 May 2011 02:21:00 -0400 I’m in the University of Waterloo’s co-op program, which means my schooling is interspersed with chunks of work experience to let me get some practical knowledge of the field. It’s a great system on the whole, but talk to any co-op student at UW and they’ll tell you the same thing: PD is terrible.

PD: Professional Development. Also known as How to Pontificate About Nothing, or perhaps Hoop Jumping 101. These online courses, which we take in tandem with each work term, are like a welcome mat for our transition into the working world that reads: “Follow the crowd. Do as I say. Don’t ask questions.”

The courses are structured in the worst kind of linear, there-is-only-one-right-answer format that squashes creative thought and stifles discussion. They ensure that we graduate with a standardized set of essential workplace skills, because God forbid we forget to use the S.M.A.R.T. checklist when we communicate in “the real world”.

I’m doing PD3: Communication right now, which contains such absolutist nonsense as “All employers will be pleased to be addressed by their last name!”. In a half-baked attempt to be relevant, one module had a story about Star Trek, which illustrated that it’s always better to be “civilized” than “barbaric”. I didn’t realise we were still in colonial-era England.

One exercise asked me to pick the “best” ending to a dialogue between co-workers, then write a paragraph about it. This was my paragraph.

This exercise took the classic “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” approach to presenting three alternate endings. It’s a formula that is predictable and guides the reader towards the last option - synthesis - requiring very little critical thinking on my part. Because of this, I can confidently say that Jim’s third response was his best. It combined the attempt to foster community (“I’m sorry you’ve had some issues”) with the attempt to keep company operations moving smoothly (“It might be worthwhile to ask her for a meeting”), all tied together with a requisite qualifier to absolve the speaker of responsibility (“I don’t understand all the circumstances”). The lesson here is to always speak as if you’re reading an HR Best Practices guide word-for-word.

PD encourages us to avoid risks, water down our ideas, and conform to become productive employees. All things, might I point out, that run counter to Waterloo’s marketing pitch as an innovative institution that embraces the “spirit of why not”.

Putting the Mother back in Nature Wed, 27 Apr 2011 17:30:00 -0400 It’s raining. Melissa and I are biking down highway 6 from Tobermory, letting the fat drops of water hit our faces as we cycle towards Singing Sands Provincial Park. We know the forecast called for scattered showers today, but we’d been cooped inside for the last two days and cabin fever got the best of us. A warm front preceded the deluge, raising the humidity and leaving us with fogged-up glasses as the first raindrops touched our heads. It feels good to be surrounded by the elements. It feels good to welcome nature, to remind myself that the world is not synthetic. The Earth is alive. It breathes, cries, shudders, and screams. It shelters, it provides, it performs.

Last night, we watched a lighting storm dance in the sky over the Georgian Bay. We laid on soft white pillows looking through double-paned balcony windows at the sudden flashes and cracks across the sky. The majesty of creation, framed by the window. Picturesque. Manageable. I opened the window just enough to hear the crash of thunder, but not enough to let the falling water invade our room. Just enough so the raging storm didn’t become a threat to our comfort.

We are at a point in human history where nature is a luxury. Parks and open spaces have become a social amenity, a quality-of-life indicator. More and more people are leaving rural areas to populate the world’s cities. Fewer people live off the land, and those that do are treating nature in an ever more formulaic fashion. This living, breathing, mega-organism we call Earth has been reduced to simple inputs and outputs.

Scientific evidence and cold, hard, peer-reviewed facts have helped make the case for environmentalism. But they have also changed the nature of our dialogue. The “Lungs of the Earth” have become “Carbon Sinks”. “Save the Whales” has become “A Biodiversity Crisis”. The Earth that we are trying to save is becoming faceless and far removed from our everyday lives.

So here I am, riding down highway 6 as rain beats down on my face, soaking my hair, blurring my vision, and I feel whole. An inexplicable happiness bubbles up inside me, and I’m reminded of these lyrics:

Rain, another rainy day Comes up from the ocean Gives herself away She comes down easy On rich and debt the same And she gives herself away (Daisy by Switchfoot)
Water water water loo loo loo Tue, 01 Feb 2011 15:44:00 -0500 I’ve been away from the UW campus for almost 10 months now, and though I’ve had lots of new experiences working and studying in other cities, I’m really glad to be going back home soon.

Yes, home. I think of K-W as my home more so than my parents’ houses. My dad moved to a new apartment while I was working in Toronto, so I now have no family left in Whitby. And I never had much connection to Port Perry, where my mum lives.

I’ve been reminiscing about all the things that have happened while I was away from Waterloo, like:

  • The Campus Plaza fire
  • The Groupvestor/Mel’s Diner fundraising debacle (man, that one really backfired)
  • The Queen’s visit
  • Governor General David Johnston
  • Municipal elections and the fluoride referendum
  • FedS disbanding CASA
  • Nikki Best getting misquoted in Maclean’s
  • Mark Seasons shaving off his facial hair
  • The EV3 Starbucks debate
  • The LRT rally
  • That incognito guy (what was he doing, anyway?)
  • FedS election campaigning

Of course, I was kept up to date via Facebook and Twitter, but it’s just not the same as being there. To be honest, the Université de Lausanne has less community spirit than UW, almost zero student clubs, and after spending five months with its 1970s techno-paradise architecture, I’m ready for a change. Maybe if the University was still in its beautiful original downtown building, I’d have warmer feelings about the institution.

I love my school, I love my city, and I can’t wait to be back where I belong.

Straight Outta Saxony Thu, 20 Jan 2011 22:57:00 -0500 So I spent a week in and around Dresden with my uncle’s family over the Christmas/New Year holiday, during which I wrote a long poem-turned-rap about everything that we had gone to see and do. I just had time to record it today. I think I hit all the major points!


It’s your boy S-Nabs
Straight outta saxony

Hangin’ in the Neustadt, phasebook in hand
Hot chocolate on the menu is the only thing I understand
I’ve got this far with “danke” and “gutentag”
Finding some creative ways of avoiding dialogue
German radio is playing hits from seven years ago
I flip through Der Spiegel like I understand the articles
Sitting in a cafe trying not to give away
The fact that I’m a tourist so I smile and nod and look away
Two euros seventy, lay it on the counter
Then I walk around the block and see what I encounter
Four-storey buildings, ground floor retail
Cobblestone pedestrian streets right up near the light rail
You can take a Saturday, walk around randomly
Find yourself a music shop, pool hall, or bakery
There’s so much do to here, it’s already sunset
I haven’t even crossed the river to the other side yet

In Dresden, saxon city where dreams are made, oh
There’s nothing you can’t do
Now you’re in Dresden, after all that it’s been through
This city will thrill you
Only in Dresden, Dresden, Dresden…

Now we’re rockin’ Bautzen, upstream on the Elbe
Lookin’ at medieval buildings that survived the decay
Back in GDR times, yeah those were the hard times
Sorbian families were displaced to dig a coal mine
Day trippin’ to Leipzig home of revolutionary
Students in the eighties, lookin’ back it’s kinda crazy
Stasi informers, brick wall borders
Two-stroke cars with cardboard doors
Killing off the memory of the former bourgeoisie
Tough luck if you got West German family
But now we’re rockin’ Beemers, Porches from Stuttgart
Cruisin’ down the autobahn until we reach the ausfahrt
Now we’re on the country road headed to the Bastei
Sandstone mountains are a climber’s favourite pastime
And we got that old bridge overlooking everything
Hidden in the forest like it’s something from Lord of the Rings


Now we’re at the Frauenkirche, landmark of the city
Blackened bricks recall the darkest time of modern history
And we got the Opera House, known internationally
Even if Americans think that it’s a distillery
Now we’re down in Pragerstrasse, rebuilt and remodeled
People walkin’, shoppin’, talkin’, poppin’ champagne bottles
This is what it looks like, risen from the wreckage
Dresdeners, get that dirt off your shoulder
For you romantics, go and take a long walk
Down the River Elbe you’ll see churches with their big clocks
Top of the hour listen to the bells ring
Over the whole city like a disembodied choir singing
Take a look around, son, all this baroque architecture
Didn’t come by chance son, this is Europe’s cultural center
Small pubs and museums, treasures in the green room
Tributes to Augustus the Strong I know that you’ll see ‘em


So if you’re touring Europe, don’t bother with Rome
Or the south coast of France ‘cause you might as well stay home
Come on up to Dresden, it’s more interestin’
Better than a weekend in Munich Oktoberfestin’


All's Well That Ends Well Fri, 14 Jan 2011 02:07:00 -0500 I’m now typing from the comfort of my bedroom in Lausanne, following a series of unfortunate events last Monday that left my travel plans tattered and useless. I am happy to report that I did arrive in Brussels on the scheduled train from Cologne without a hitch, but that’s not to say the rest of my journey home was uneventful!

The Bruxelles-Midi train station, where I found myself late on Monday evening, is not the image of Brussels that one expects. There were no diplomats speedwalking through the station with their little black travel briefcases, flanked by co-workers or bodyguards. There were no black limousines at the station entrances ready to welcome high-ranking politicians to the city of the EU headquarters.

The station was pretty grungy, and as the shops in the station started to lock up their chain-link gates and turn out the lights, I realised this was probably not a place I would want to spend the night. Through a convoluted series of attempts to place a phone call including the purchase of a defective SIM card, a rejected credit card at the phone booth, and wireless internet that wouldn’t let me use my VoIP, I finally got a hold of the people I was supposed to meet in London that night to tell them that I would have to take the first train the following morning instead.

Then I called my dad, who is an obsessive collector of points programs. I had got in touch with him in Cologne, and he had told me that if I needed a place to stay in Brussels, he had enough points to put me up in a hotel near the train station for the night. I usually give him a hard time about being shackled to corporate loyalty programs, but in this case I must concede that it proved to be useful.

The following morning I was back at the station bright and early to catch the 6:50 AM Eurostar. We zipped through Lille and Calais before crossing the channel to London. Upon stepping off the train, I noticed a gaggle of security guards milling about the exit, cherry-picking “random” passengers to question before leaving the station. As I approached the archway, a burly man in a white and black security uniform called me over. I noticed that a young man from Tunisia had just been called over by another guard. Yes, those being questioned were mainly young men, travelling alone, with an above-average melanin content. I think it was the first time I’ve been consciously profiled.

The security guard had an uncanny resemblance in both appearance and demeanor to Vernon Scripps, which lightened the mood considerably (for me at least). He asked if I was travelling alone. I said yes and handed over my Swedish passport.

“Samuel Nabi, eh? Doesn’t sound very Swedish to me,” the guard mused.

I explained that my mother is Swedish, and probably went into more detail than I needed to. “You see, The name is from my dad’s side, but I’m a Swedish citizen too. My Dad was born here, actually. Well, not here here. In Liverpool. But I’ve never lived in England. I’m actually living in Switzerland right now, for a term studying abroad. But that’s not where I live full-time. Originally I’m from Canada.” I paused to catch my breath, trying to decide if what I had just said made me look like I was running an international drug cartel.

“Very well, what are you studying?” He asked. When I told him urban planning, he looked confused. “Urban planning? Do they allow that?”


“The Swiss. Do they allow urban planning? I’ve heard they’re very strict with that sort of thing.” I was just as puzzled as he seemed to be, so I answered cautiously that yes, urban planning is allowed in Switzerland.

He moved on to questions about the purpose of my trip. I told him I would just be in London for a couple days to visit some friends.

“Oh yeah, goin’ to hit the pubs with yer mates, are yeh? Goin’ to have a laugh?”

“Well, they’re family friends - I don’t think we’ll be hitting many pubs. I haven’t seen them in a while though, and it’ll be good to catch up.”

“Right, right then. Comin’ to London to have a laugh with your friends, then?” He seemed really adamant about me having a laugh with my friends. So I gave a vague, non-committal answer and he handed me my ID back. “Right then, off you go.”

What a strange welcome to the city.

Lost in Translation Mon, 10 Jan 2011 17:03:00 -0500 Well, this is interesting. When I booked my train trip from Dresden to London - with connections in Hanover, Cologne, and Brussels - I knew it was complicated but I didn’t think I would run into any major problems. After all, I had left three hours of buffer time for my transfer in Brussels.

But alas, nothing went as planned.

My uncle dropped me off at the Central station in Dresden - my train was due to leave from the first track, right next to the parking lot. Perfect. We said our goodbyes and I sauntered up the stairs to the track, where I was greeted by one of the staff who kindly told be that the route had been rescheduled for today. I’d have to go to the Neustadt station instead. But no worry, I just had to go to Track 19, catch the next train, and get off two stops later. Then I should still have time to catch the train to Hanover.

Fine enough. I jumped through the required hoops and got going on the (re)scheduled train due west. We left about a half-hour later than I had originally expected. But at least I was headed in the right direction.

The train stopped in Leipzig, and everyone got off. I was the only one left on the train, naively thinking it would carry me on to Hanover, when I realized the destination had been changed to Dresden. It was going back the same way it came.

Uh oh. I hastily gathered by things and ran to the information counter. The lady there looked over my itinerary, printed a new one, and told me to get on Track 18. That train would take me to Hanover. I would now arrive in Brussels with two hours wiggle room. Still not bad.

The train was an intercity route, not the express that I was supposed to take, which means we stopped in every little rinky-dink city from Leipzig to Hanover. There was also a 25 minute delay along the way, and I knew I wouldn’t make my connection in Hanover. So I asked one of the train crew members what I should do. They said not to worry, the train would continue on to Cologne anyway so I could just stay on it.

I slept most of the rest of the way to Cologne, and arrived at the station at 4:45. The train for Brussels had left at 4:42. Drat. And I was so excited to get to a place where I actually understand the language, too. Oh well. Up to the information counter once again I went, expecting that the next train would be in an hour. Just my luck, the next train was two hours away and wouldn’t arrive in Brussels until 8:32 - a full three minutes after the Eurostar would have already left for London.

Up until this point, I was fairly sure that I would still make all my connections. But I now realized my trip was going to have to be drastically reorganized. The train I was supposed to take to London was the last one of the day.

I spent 10 minutes on hold with Eurostar, praying that my phone credit wouldn’t run out. I finally got a hold of a sales rep, who said he could get me on the first train tomorrow morning. Well, at least it’s the next best option. I told him that would be great, and then - click - the line went dead. My phone buzzed cheerily. “Crédit épuisé!”, it declared.

OK. So now where does that leave me? I’ve got 45 minutes until my train leaves from Cologne. Once I’m in Brussels, I’ll actually be able to communicate and get a hostel for the night or something, after securing my spot on tomorrow morning’s train. That’s my plan, anyway.

I’ve got 90 euros to my name. Let’s see how well I do.

To be continued …

We have a new winner. Wed, 22 Dec 2010 22:23:00 -0500 This is it. The Best Tea Ever In The Whole World. Which is saying a lot, if you’ve heard me recount what was formerly my best tea experience. The now-second-place tea was a wonderfully strong, throat-scorchingly spicy chai that was homemade from scratch by my youth pastor’s Indian parents at a house party after his wedding reception a few years ago. A tough act to follow, certainly, but I can now say I’ve found a more elating infusion of spices.

Galanka root. Star anise. Cardamom pods. Whole peppercorns. Cloves. These and other ingredients, brewed for at least 20-30 minutes, emerge, fully-formed, as the perfect cup of Marrakech tea, as served by l’Échoppe à Thés at the Lausanne Christmas market. Yes, the gypsy-junk aesthetic of the caravan you see above conceals a delightfully sophisticated spectrum of scents and flavours. The Marrakech tea is spicy enough to clear out a head cold, with a pleasantly unexpected hit of anise and cloves to round out the taste. Simply amazing.

What’s more, they had the loose-leaf concoction for sale - enough to make ten litres. It was marked up at an embarrassingly steep price, but I quickly forked over multiple paper bills of Swiss currency, receiving in return a couple coins and a glorious bag of loose leaf Marrakech tea spices, which is now sitting on my shelf like an idol.

Merry Christmas, everyone. No need to get me any gifts; my material needs for the next couple lifetimes have been fulfilled. Of course, if you think you know of another tea that could top my list, be sure to let me know so that I can prove you wrong.

(On a slightly related note, my Best Plate of Pasta Ever In The Whole World has gone undefeated since the summer of 2008, when a little italian restaurant in San Francisco put me on cloud nine with their simple spaghetti and pesto.)

Everyone loves GIF animations. Mon, 20 Dec 2010 20:44:00 -0500 I had a nice stroll down by the lake today, and ended up taking a ridiculous number of pictures. So many pictures, in fact, that I managed to snap at least one decent photo of a wave crashing into the rocks, the spray just about to hit my camera. That’s the money shot right there.

Never content to be just ordinary, I have decided to showcase some of my photos in the most fun image format known to mankind! Get ready to party like it’s 1999 everybody, ‘cause here come the GIFs!

Yeah, I took some videos too, but this is much more entertaining.

This lovely swan was very keen to have her picture taken. She kept waddling up to the lens with her beak all up in my grill.

Man, staring at the water in that last picture reminds me of this scene in Minority Report. Great movie.

(By the way, if you want to see some actual serious photographs, I uploaded them to my Panoramio page. That’s where I keep all my travel photos.)

The S.T.A.R. program taught me well. Wed, 15 Dec 2010 22:43:00 -0500 Through a contact here in Lausanne, I managed to get some freelance work designing a fundraising booklet for one of the student organisations on campus (I’m keeping it real general so as not to identify anyone here).

The booklet was commissioned by the finance committee - once complete, it would be sent out to potential corporate sponsors to provide funding for the following year’s activities. They gave me a bunch of great photos from past events to work with, and I got going on a first draft.

A couple revisions later (mostly layout and colour changes - they had supplied the content), all parties seemed satisfied and I packaged up the project files to be sent off to the printer. That’s when I got this message from my contact:

This all looks really great Sam, but there’s just one thing. One of the pictures is showing two women in hijabs, and that’s probably going to make some of our potential sponsors uncomfortable. One person on the committee pointed out that it might hurt our fundraising efforts. I think you should swap it out for another picture.

Now, this contact of mine was just relaying a message, and I know this wasn’t his opinion. But I was baffled. Paralyzed, even. I weighed the moral dilemma in my head. On one hand, I was hired to design a booklet according to the specifications of the committee. On the other, this was blatant racism. What made it all the more bewildering was the fact that the organisation’s mission statement celebrates its “international diversity”.

I took a deep breath and wrote a reply, pointing out that the organisation’s core values would be compromised by removing the photo. It would be a concession to the xenophobic sentiment sweeping Switzerland and a step backward for the organisation. I said I was disappointed. Nevertheless, I drafted up an alternate layout where the photo in question figured less prominently. But I refused to eliminate it - that would be like ethnic cleansing via Photoshop.

There was a deeper problem here than simple racism. A structural problem. The finance committee (or, at least, one person on the finance committee) was acting in direct opposition to the values of the organisation as a whole. This is what happens when bureaucracy creates silos. It prevents cross-communication and accountability. The finance committee, tasked with fundraising, had such tunnel vision that it ignored the central goals of the organisation.

The next day, my contact sent me an email:

Thanks for all your work. We’ve decided to stick with the first design after all. It’s not worth compromising our raison d’être for the prospect of more fundraising dollars.

So, a happy ending after all. I’m not sure if it was my email that turned the tables or if the other committee members talked some sense into the guy that was objecting. But I’m glad it turned out the way it did.

I honestly thought for a while that I would have to resign from the project. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that people tend to listen when you speak honestly and stay true to your values. So if you find yourself in a similar situation, at odds with your boss, or your professor, or your client, don’t back down for fear of getting fired/failing a class/losing business. You don’t have to conform, especially not when you find yourself at odds with what you believe in. You’ll be respected for it, and maybe even shift a paradigm along the way.

We interrupt this program for a very important smoke break Tue, 07 Dec 2010 13:24:00 -0500 I knew before coming to Switzerland that smoking was a much more significant part of the culture than it is back home. In Ontario, the provincial government has been on the offensive against smoking for years now. Banning it in schools, then all public establishments; preventing merchants from displaying cigarettes on store shelves; and a huge advertising campaign urging people to quit… I had been lulled into thinking that smoking was a fringe activity that sane people don’t take seriously.

Well, let me tell you, I was in for a shock. Smoking is so much a part of everyday routine that even class schedules are built to accomodate the activity.

At the Université de Lausanne, a full one quarter of the time allotted for lectures is devoted to smoke breaks. At the top of every hour, without exception, the professor will stop for fifteen minutes to give students the opportunity to feed their nicotine craving. This is problematic, because those of us who don’t smoke (which is still usually more than half) will inevitably find something distracting and unproductive to do to fill up those fifteen minutes.

I’m no good at multitasking. I would much rather focus on the subject at hand for the full 2 hours, using my free time more wisely afterwards. Besides, you can’t get anything fulfilling done in 15 minutes. That’s why those with laptops revert to checking Facebook and playing YouTube videos during the break.

And then the other half of the class comes back in for the next chunk of the lecture smelling like cigarette. “1970s bowling alley” is not the kind of vibe I’m looking for when I’m trying to learn about Comparative Politics in Maghreb.

Of course, it used to be worse. Smoking indoors was allowed up until September 2009. I was talking this weekend with a former student who said that one of his professors would smoke so many cigarettes during the course of the lecture that a cloud of smoke gradually obscured what he was writing on the blackboard.

I grew up learning to loathe smoking. They showed us black lungs in school and told us about the horrible ingredients that were in cigarettes: rat poison, battery acid, cyanide. When I was seven or eight years old, I was riding in the passenger’s seat of my Dad’s ‘92 Cavalier when a guy in a red pick-up truck pulled up beside us, a cigarette dangling from his fingers outside the window. I rolled down my window and yelled, red-faced, “Smoking kills, you know!

Somehow, I don’t think that tactic will fly over here.

The worst pies in Geneva Mon, 15 Nov 2010 17:53:00 -0500 I’ve never been in a city that reminded me so much of Sweeney Todd.

My dad has been over here in Lausanne, visiting me and touring around for the past couple weeks. It’s been a welcome change to have a bit of familiarity amid all the new experiences. Having my dad around helped quell the homesickness a little bit.

He had to fly out of Geneva to go back home this morning, so we spent the weekend there. Who’d have thought the city that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Calvin called home would be so… drab?

It was drab in a tough, nostalgic kind of way though. I felt like there should be orphan boys running around in the street and newspaper vendors strolling about. There was something so grey about the old downtown that made it look like it belonged in 19th-century London.

To be fair, it was a late Sunday afternoon when my dad and I went walking around the downtown and there were basically no shops open. The streets were pretty dead, which added to the subdued atmosphere.

A few smokestacks and horse-drawn carts would have made it the perfect place to open a questionable barber shop.

Ambition is in the eye of the beholder Wed, 10 Nov 2010 21:31:00 -0500 Tonight, I was working on an outline for the undergrad thesis I’m writing this term. It’s about waste management in the Lausanne region. Exciting stuff. Right?

Well, It was supposed to be a lot more exciting. At the beginning of the term I sat down with my advisor, starry-eyed, telling him of my plans to research the waste management system of Abuja, Nigeria, a city that’s been growing by 20-30% per year over the past couple decades. The growth was, and still is explosive, so much so that unruly slums started appearing despite the city’s best efforts at rigid urban design. Now, the people are flooding in and development can’t keep up. And all that waste has to go somewhere… it must be a nightmare trying to tame the garbage.

Cool, right?

Almost. My advisor took me down a few notches, pointing out that there’s not really any research on Abuja, and unless I was going to fly down there to do some myself, I’d have a hard time completing this undergrad thesis in five months.

So, plan B. I talked to my advisor about the garbage strike in Toronto a couple summers ago, and how it threw the whole system out of whack. He said a similar thing happened in Naples; maybe I could do a comparative study?

Well, that didn’t pan out either. I thought since I’m studying in Lausanne, I might as well use it as the European example, instead of Naples.

Then I dropped Toronto out of the picture.

So essentially my thesis is now comparing backyard composters to curbside waste collection. In Lausanne.

What’s this about a lack of ambition among young Canadian men?

If it's in black and white, is art colourblind? Sun, 07 Nov 2010 11:40:00 -0500 I went to a photography exhibit at the Musée d’Elysée in Lausanne yesterday with my dad. Called “Les Petits Métiers”, the exhibit showcased dozens of portraits taken in 1950-52 by Irving Penn. The photographs themselves are mildly interesting, but what is really fantastic is the sheer variety of job descriptions - “longshoreman”, “cucumber vendor”, “rag and bone man”, “parking attendant”, “charwoman”, “busboy”, and the list goes on.

Seeing all the different jobs - from “chief constable” to “coal man” - presented with a consistent artistic theme has an equalizing effect. All of Irving Penn’s subjects were photographed with the same backdrop, in the same style, no matter what their social status.

Also on display were some copies of magazines that featured Irving Penn’s work. The picture to the left, above, was accompanied by the following caption in the February 1951 edition of Vogue Britannica:

MAN WITH A PICK, the best-known figure in the industrial scene. The odd-job navvy - in cap, strong boots, oldest clothes for heavy work, scarf knotted at the throat, features and bearing often cast in much the same mould of dignity and patience as those of that other heavy manual worker, the coal-miner.

Imagine Vogue today, covering the fashion trends of, say, working-class Fort McMurray! How bizarre.

My bread dilemma Sat, 06 Nov 2010 01:24:00 -0400 I try to consume consciously. When it comes to grocery shopping, I rarely buy anything that isn’t fair trade, locally-produced, or organic. Being a conscious consumer has its pitfalls, though. Often I find myself in a hopeless spiral of uncertainty when choosing between two similar products. A whole array of factors come into play, complicating matters so much that I am reduced to eenie-meenie-miny-moe or abandoning the eneavour altogether, leaving empty-handed. I’d like to walk you through one such experience: buying a loaf of bread.

The Contenders

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve already narrowed down my choices to two loaves of bread. I can get a 500g loaf of whole wheat for about CHF 3.00 at an independent bakery in Renens. On the other hand, the neighbouring supermarket sells one-kilogram loaves of pain bis for CHF 1.90.

Taste isn’t a deciding factor. The two loaves do taste different, but I like a little variety and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They’re both baked on the premises, the day of.

It would seem that my thought process should pretty simple. On the one hand, I can get a large, cheap loaf of bread at a big chain store. On the other, I can pay a premium price for a smaller loaf at a local bakery. It’s a matter of price versus, well, everything else. Obviously, the bread at the local bakery is quite a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it to support small business.

But is it really that clear-cut? Let’s see.


While the loaves of bread are comparable, they don’t have the exact same ingredients. Sometimes when I can’t decide between two similar products, I take a look at the ingredient list and see which one passes the ingredients-I-can-pronounce test. Too much carnauba wax and soy lecithin is never a good thing.

The whole wheat loaf is probably healthier for me than the supermarket’s pain bis, which is a blend of white and whole wheat flour.

Unfortunately, in this scenario, I only have the ingredient list for one of the loaves of bread - the pain bis from the supermarket. It contains wheat, flour, water, yeast… the typical ingredients you’d expect in a loaf of bread. But it also lists E200, an artificial preservative.

Because the bread from the small bakery doesn’t come with an ingredient list, I’m led to believe that it has more “real” ingredients - or, at least, doesn’t contain preservatives. This can be a dangerous assumption to make, because there’s no reason the local baker couldn’t use a preserving agent as well. Nevertheless, my experience has generally been that the products with the fewest artificial ingredients are those that come in simple packaging with little or no labelling.

Business Structure

Another thing I get preoccupied with in my vortex of doom decision process is the type of vendor I’m buying from. (I would just buy a bag of Wonderbread from Wal-Mart if price was my only incentive, but I can’t justify supporting a corporation that forces unfair labour practices on its suppliers in the name of profits and low prices.)

In this case, the local bakery is a sole proprietorship, a profit-driven business. Sure, it’s not in the same league as Wal-Mart, but there’s still a profit motive.

What about the supermarket? Here’s the interesting thing. In Switzerland, the two largest grocery chains are cooperatives. So while they have a store in just about every city, town, and village in the country, it’s not the same picture of corporate pillaging as, say, McDonald’s. With the supermarkets, any Swiss resident can sign up to be a member and be involved in the organization’s decisionmaking.

This is an atypical scenario, and one that challenges my assumptions. I’m used to associating large stores with greedy captialism. But in this situation, it could be reversed. Perhaps the independent bakery is leveraging its “traditional” image to inflate prices and make an obscene profit for the owner!


The amount and type of packaging is a big factor in weighing the environmental impact of my purchases. Over half of the household waste generated in Switzerland comes from packaging. I try my best to minimize that figure.

When I go to the independent bakery, the cheerful lady behind the counter grabs the whole wheat loaf off the shelf and puts it in a white paper bag with the name of the bakery printed on it. It’s simple, sturdy, and 100% recyclable.

The pain bis at the supermarket sits on the shelf in its paper-and-plastic bag. The plastic, which has holes pricked into it to allow for airflow, makes up 50% of the packaging.

It may seem insignificant, but there is a real difference in the type of waste generated by the two loaves of bread. If I really wanted to, I could eliminate the waste entirely by asking the local bakery to just hand me the loaf as-is and put it directly in my shopping bag.


The supermarket bread, being twice as big as the one from the bakery, lasts me a good two weeks - and it doesn’t go stale before then (must be those E200 preservatives.) The 500g loaf from the bakery will last a week, and then I’ll have to go out and buy more.

It seems like this wouldn’t really matter one way or the other, as long as I’m not wasting food. But whenever I get the supermarket bread, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m buying into the Costco culture of “more, more, more” and “bigger is better”. When I walk home carrying a massive loaf of bread, I feel like I’m making a subconscious statement, and it’s not one I’m very comfortable with.

By the same token, going for the local bakery’s bread means that I spend twice as much time traveling to and from the bakery to do my groceries (thereby putting twice the load on Lausanne’s transportation network).

Also, economies of scale leads me to believe that the supermarket can make bread more efficiently than the local bakery.

The Verdict

Part of the problem with these questions that bounce around in my head is that they involve a lot of guesswork and comparing apples to oranges. Buying the supermarket bread means I’ll put less strain on the transportation network, but will the preservatives kill me? At the local bakery I can make a zero-waste purchase, but what if it means I’m funnelling money into a wealthy business owner’s casino fund? There are no real ways to quantitatively compare these different factors.

In the end, it mostly comes down to what is on my mind at the moment. If I’m particularly concerned about the environmental impact one day, I could just as easily get hung up on the injustices of the capitalist system the next time I go shopping.

One thing is certain: no matter which loaf of bread I buy, I will find a reason to feel guilty for it.

12 Feb Sun, 25 Apr 2010 02:04:06 -0400 12:40 PM

Waiting for Dad to come pick me up - I’ve got most of my stuff packed and ready to go!

8:50 PM

So this plane is the Airbus A380 – it has two levels and 800 passengers! We’re settled in nicely. The guy that took the shuttle with us is sitting in the same row. I was reading the documentation on this plane, and it’s pretty fuel-efficient: 3.1L/100km per person (providing all seats are filled, which they are). Not bad!

10:30 PM (Dubai Time)

Well, I’ve made at least one cultural faux-pas so far. Our friend hired someone to guide us through customs and take our bags through the airport. I made the mistake of reaching for my suitcase as it came off the carousel. The hired man turned and said, sternly, “That’s my job.” Oops.

Dad’s University friend, Shahram, met us there and we went over to his house for tea. As we drove through Dubai, he pointed out the landmarks and neighbourhoods. There are so many skyscrapers and flashing lights, one could be fooled into thinking it is just the same as any number of American metropolises. But, there is one major difference, as Shahram explained. “This might look like a carbon copy of Vegas, but no one knows what’s happening inside these buildings, or even if they’re empty. There’s no transparency here. Every single one of these structures is owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Of course, Dubai doesn’t have Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, so all this is built on borrowed money.”

We’re in the Sheraton Dubai Creek now, watching the olympics. We weren’t allowed to carry our own bags; the bellboy took them up the seven floors to our room. We tipped him 10 dirhams (about $3).

In the good old summertime… Thu, 16 Apr 2009 17:47:00 -0400 So, I wrote my last exam yesterday… and today, I’m moving out of my dorm room to head back home for the summer. They just finished cutting the grass and the smell of freshly cut grass is coming in through my window… mmmmm…

I really want to get going on a second album this summer, and hopefully have it all together before I go out west to Edmonton in July. This summer will be full of adventure for me, and I really don’t know what to expect.

What you can all expect, though, is some new tunes rolling your way pretty soon! It’s been over a year and a half since I released my first full-length album, so I think it’s about time for another one!

I want to do something fun with the release of this second album, I don’t know, maybe have a contest to design the cover art, or stream a different song each week leading up to the release, or … something completely random, I don’t know!

If you have a fun, quirky idea for the CD release, leave a comment… if I use your suggestion, of course, I’ll throw a free autographed copy your way!

The weather’s great, the sun is shining, and I’m lining up an album chock full of good new tunes! What could be better?

Day 2 Sun, 15 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 7:53 AM

Woke up. I fell asleep after one round of cards last night. it was a long day. There was a wedding reception going on in the plaza, but the music didn’t keep us up.

9:26 AM

On the way to an artisan market. I can’t believe how good the road conditions are here! We haven’t had a bumpy ride yet. We have passed so many houses that are just stacked bricks and tin roofs. The people are sitting outside, riding bikes, walking around, but they all stop to look at us as we pass by in our bus. Eduardo is driving crazy through all the little towns (barrios?). I don’t want to know what would happen if people didn’t heed his honking. Also, the painted telephone poles indicate we’re in republican territory. Eduardo has an FMLN sticker on his bus. I should find out more about the election.

9:36 AM

On the road winding up the mountain to Alegría. There are piles of garbage along the side of the road. Interesting insight from Sheila: the more garbage strewn about, the more disposable income the people have.

9:51 AM

New party territory: “C.D.”. Their colours are blue and yellow, painted on the rocks on the side of the road.

10:07 AM

Saw another painted rock. It’s the “Cambio Democratico”.

11:31 AM

Leaving the laguna: it was a lake fed by sulfur springs and we walked around for a while. There were mountains all around, and it felt like we were in a bowl. This was a stop on the way to Alegría. Now we’re heading down the mountain to find a restaurant in Alegría.

2:17 PM

The restaurant was so amazing! We were serenaded by two mariachi bands, who sang songs for us. I had tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers on my dish, but I don’t feel too bad yet. I don’t think I have hepatitis. Now we’re walking around in town, buying souvenirs in Alegría. There is quite a bit of advertising for both FMLN and ARENA (the republican party); I bought a ceramic FMLN cup, and might buy another for Mr. Edwards. I thought there would be more shops; we’ve only seen about 5. This’ll be our big spending day; tomorrow we start to build!

3:40 PM

We found a lot of other cool shops in Alegría. I’ve pretty much taken care of everyone on my list, except maybe a few friends from res. But the find of the day is definitely a FMLN cup and saucer for Mr. Edwards. I’m more comfortable in Spanish now; I was able to haggle for the price of a bamboo flute and ask the lady to wrap the ceramics I bought in newspaper so they wouldn’t break. We’re headed back to the hotel to eat dinner and get ready for the build tomorrow.

4:36 PM

Home sweet home. I’m back in my bed, fitting a new bracelet I bought in Alegría. I think we’re all just gonna chill until dinner and swimming.

Day 1 Sat, 14 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 4:05 AM

Rise and shine! It’s time to get up, wash my face, have a bite to eat and head out for the airport. We’re in the kitchen, cutting up the poppy seed loaf for everyone to eat.

5:39 AM

We’re at the airport now! Just finished putting tags on our luggage. Waiting for Christina now…

6:20 AM

Well, that was fast. We cleared customs, checked our bags and are now in the lounge waiting for our flight to leave. We’ll be waiting a couple hours. I’m sure we can find things to occupy our time. I wonder what I’ll do with my sweater and sweatpants when we get there…

8:05 AM

Getting ready for takeoff… who’s excited? I am! I’m going to try and learn some spanish from Dad’s old conversation guide so that I can find out where the telegram office and discotheque are.

9:18 AM

Well, I have the window seat but the window is closed because the sun is shining right into it. I’ve got my stylin’ 90s sunglasses though, it’ll be alright. I’ve gotta find somewhere to stash my sweatpants, it’s a good thing I wore swim shorts under them. They’re coming down with the food now. Zumo de manzana, por favor. Sin carne.

(Salvadoran Time) 11:07 AM

I think we may have just flown past the southern edge of the USA. We were flying over land, then we hit a vast expanse of bright blue water. All I can see now is the ocean, with a smattering of clouds.

12:59 PM

Just packed onto the bus that will take us away from the airport. Let the fun begin!

1:18 PM

They paint their trees here. I suppose it’s for repelling insects, but Rob says they do it for aesthetic purposes too. Phone poles and the like are painted red, white, and blue: the colours of the republican party. There will be elections in March, so there’s a lot of propaganda going on. I saw a sign for the FMLN – a sister of the Nicaraguan FSLN?

7:37 PM

What a fabulous place! El Salvador is such a vibrant and colourful place. At least, Usulutan is. OK, first things first. We drove through Usulutan City on our way to the hotel. The hotel is called Campo Real. The city is so colourful, with buildings that are turquoise, red, yellow, pink, absolutely awesome.

We got settled in at the hotel and had a snack – tortillas filled with beans and cheese called pupusas, and cabbage… simply amazing! The first family came in and introduced themselves. They were a father, mother, and toddler daughter who are struggling to make rent. Manuel, the dad, was really excited to help build his future house. I won’t be working on that house though; we’re split into 2 teams, building 2 different houses. We meet the other family on Monday.

After that, we took a trip into the town. It was about a 20-min walk. Certainly an eye-opening experience. The streets are littered with garbage. Stray dogs are commonplace. Vendors line the crowded streets with their grungy makeshift stalls. Children run around barefoot in traffic. And you’d better get out of the way, or a bus will hit you. But there was an undeniable sense of community trust and camaraderie in this setting. We were obviously outsiders, but aside from one cry of “Gringos go home!”, everyone smiled as we walked by. We got lots of horn toots and whistles (there are only 3 guys out of the team of 11 people). It’s so carefree here. Many people are poor, or seem so on the face of it, but a part of me already wants to have grown up here, despite the pollution and low health standards.

Now, we’re all playing cards to wind down after a good swim in the hotel pool. That’ll feel good after a long day of building!

El Salvador Trip Journal Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 On February 14, 2009, I set out on a trip to El Salvador with 10 friends. We went with Habitat for Humanity to help build two houses near Usulutan, a major city in the southwestern area of the country. This travel blog encompasses my thoughts and observations for the ten days we spent there.

Pre-trip preparation Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 Saturday 7 February 2009 – 8:54 PM

Well, I’ve decided to start a travel journal for this trip. I don’t know why I’m starting so early; we don’t leave for almost a week. I guess I’m just really excited!

Mum came over last weekend to drop off my camping backpack and a first aid kit – I’m slowly getting everything packed for the trip! Dad comes tomorrow.

I still have to sort out how I’m going to take my medicines so that I don’t get Hep A or Malaria.

Sunday 8 February 2009 – 10:44 AM

I wonder if I should buy some more oil of oregano. The bottle I have is really small.

Monday 9 February 2009 – 11:13 AM

Oooohkay. So I’m taking my first round of pills and herbal extracts. Grapeseed, oil of oregano, those two were fine. I gagged when it came to wormwood, like, literally almost threw up. I’m going to see if I can get that in capsules instead of liquid extract.

9:12 PM

Well, that was better. Bought some capsules today. They taste much nicer than the extract. But I don’t know what to do with the bottle of extract now… I also got some talcum powder, milk thistle capsules, and insoles for the boots. Only 4 more days!

Thursday 12 February 2009 – 1:54 PM

Only one more day! I packed my bags last night (this morning) except for some clothes that are still drying on the clothesline. I did laundry last minute too. I’m getting really pumped! I still have to buy bug spray – I’ll make a trip uptown.

11:59 PM

Just got a Facebook message from Elisabeth – she says Mr. Edwards is jealous of me. :) Which prompted me to make a list of people to buy gifts for.

Friday 13 February 2009 – 10:40 AM

I’m so excited! Divyesh’s dad is coming to pick us up in an hour and a half; I’m trying to calm down by listening to Remy Shand. I only have a few more things to pack, namely my passport, money, and this journal. In less than 24 hours we’ll be on the plane!

9:17 PM

Everyone who’s supposed to be here is over at Melissa’s house now – Julian, Constance, Joan, me, and Melissa! The rest of the team is spending the night at Lindsay’s house. We just had a colossal dinner and now are in the basement trying to find a movie to watch.

The Eye of the Storm Thu, 03 Aug 2006 01:02:00 -0400 The weather around here was forecasted to be pretty bad today, I heard they even got tornadoes near Guelph and Waterloo. The past few days have been blistering hot, so the winds and downpour tonight came as somewhat of a relief.

I was sitting in my living room, watching TV, when at about 8:30 the whole sky outside darkened instantly. I stepped outside to see what was up, and I could see, directly above me, the dividing line between a clear blue sky and thick, black thunderclouds. The storm was moving in quickly, and in about 15 minutes it passed. But in that quarter of an hour, I couldn’t believe how rapidly the weather changed.

The first thing I noticed was that the wind started to pick up. The trees in my backyard started rustling, and I put the lawn chairs that were out in the storage shed. I stood there, watching the clouds move closer as the wind kept getting faster. I thought I saw funnel clouds forming once or twice, only to be swept away by the moving mass of clouds before they got a chance to do any harm.

The first few drops of rain were a welcome change to the humid and sticky air that was around me, even with all the wind. As the trees continued to sway and bend, and small waves formed in my pool, tiny drops of rain fell sporadically on my face. Yet, this was only an indication of what was to come.

Suddenly, the rain stopped. The waves in my pool slowed to mere ripples. The trees stopped swaying, in direct contrast to the swirling, churning clouds overhead.

A flash of lightning, followed by a thunderous boom, summoned the the torrential downpour which was to ensue for the next few minutes. Rain fell in sheets, like a bucket of water dumped over an unsuspecting friend. The wind howled, and the air was filled with creaking and thunderclaps. I stood on my porch, sheltered from the downpour, being subject occasionally to a spray of mist from each gust of wind.

Amid the lightning and heavy rain, I saw a small patch of blue in the dark thunderclouds. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the storm ceased. It represented a metaphor for me; I realized just how volatile our lives can be, and that you should try and enjoy every moment, even if you’re in the middle of a storm.

Cliques & Faith Sat, 29 Jul 2006 16:32:00 -0400 We all have our own little cliques, groups from which we hope to find acceptance and try to forget our problems. To escape our lives at home, we do drugs, or commit petty crimes, or join a gang, or lose all respect for those around us, or just stop caring about the world.

Assigning labels to people further segregates us as youth, splitting us apart until our lives revolve around nothing more than our cliques and those peers that we consider to be friends. At the heart of this problem is an unstable foundation; we are unsure where to put our trust and our faith. Ususally, we put in in the hands of our peers, or ourselves, or an idol, or rock bands, or skateboarding, or music, or a video game, or sports, or in nothing at all.

But the only safe bet in to rely on Jesus to help us through the rough patches of life. He is the only one with enough power, love, and understanding to stand beside us when we’re at our worst, and say: “Go. You are forgiven.” Jesus’ awesome power is what unites Christians and promises that with him, you may be down, but you will never be out.

Why do I stay up so late? Thu, 27 Jul 2006 03:08:00 -0400 What value is there in spending countless hours in front of the computer monitor? What outcomes does it have in my subconscious mind? Are there psychological factors at play which tie me into the realm of the Internet? I think I am fascinated with the wealth of information and opportunities for self-expression that the Internet has to offer.

There is so much to explore, and it’s so vast that I will never be able to satisfy my desire to learn more. I think that the reason I started getting into web design is that it fulfilled a creative desire for me, but even more so, that I could reach out to a community with the click of a mouse.

I wanted to understand more about the inner workings of the Internet, and I think I chose web design because it lets me get down and dirty with the source, but it’s not such an overwhelmingly complicated task that I’d have to devote my entire life to it. I love the creative side of things, and the various forums that I can go to for help, and to help others, builds a sense of community.

I am obsessed with the web browsing experience and what I can do to make mine better and more fulfilling. I recently downloaded Opera and Flock, two browsers that stray off the beaten path that I walk with Firefox and Internet Explorer. I now find myself using IE a lot more, now that I have downloaded the IE7 beta. Its visual experience is superb and it’s very easy to use. My previous bias against the browser has softened a bit with the introduction of IE7. Flock, in my opinion, is the best browser out there for teens. The built-in blogging tools and photo uploading tools are amazing. This integration into the browser makes things so much more streamlined, in the goal of optimizing time.

But the more useful features I find, the more time I seem to be spending on my computer. It’s hypnotic, really. There is no end. there are no limitations. On the Internet, I can mask my identity, change who I am, play through countless roles, and experience so many different things. It’s a wealth of knowledge and interactivity, which at the same time stimulates my imagination and makes me zone out into a state of subconsciousness. Sometimes, I look around, and the moment I tear my gaze from the monitor, everything seems so much more real.

That’s the thing about the Internet. It seems interactive, but you’re only using 2 of your five senses. I should really spend less time surfing the net, and more time out doing stuff. Stuff that will stimulate both my mind and my body. The Internet is like a black hole, sucking the vast majority of teens into itself via myspace and youtube. It’s dangerous. As the saying goes, go out and smell the roses. (Is that really a saying? I thought it was, but now I’m not too sure.)