Category Archives: life

Fourteen Years Later

I’ve been sidelined by the flu this week and am still recovering, and then WordPress ate my original post, so here’s just a quick (and late) note to direct you elsewhere.

Here’s what I wrote about my father (died March 14, 2003) over at Turtleduck Press:

I don’t think about him often anymore, except right around this time of year. He died in March, late in a bitterly cold prairie winter. The day he was buried, there was a thaw and, finally, everything began to melt. Ever since then, I’ve found late winter difficult to bear. Some years are harder than others; this one has been easier so far, probably because it’s been so unseasonably warm here. Bittersweet for sure.

He feels now like part of another life, one I don’t remember as well as I would wish to.

Go and read the rest.

And I’ll see you back here on March 27 with a proper post.

 

 

The Top 5 Most Romantic Places in India

The travel blog returns! In honour of Valentine’s Day, I’m doing a round-up of the most romantic places I encountered during my six weeks in India. If I missed your favourite, please chime in!

5. Taking a houseboat tour in Kumarakom

The state of Kerala, on India’s southwest coast, is known as “God’s Own Country”, and it’s easy to see why. It’s lush and jungly, with a higher quality of life than in the north (as Indians themselves will tell you). If you haven’t travelled in India before, it’s also less intense and overwhelming than the north. It’s not as well known to Western tourists as, say, the state of Rajasthan, but it’s popular among Middle Eastern and domestic travellers, meaning that there’s still decent tourist infrastructure. One of the must-do activities is to rent a houseboat (with crew, which is not prohibitively expensive for a day or a few nights) and putter around what’s known as the “backwaters”, an extensive network of canals lined with palm trees. Especially during the off-season, it’s both serene and luxurious.

Kerala backwaters

4. Exploring Old Kochi

Before the British arrived, the city of Kochi was colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch. Today it’s home to a picturesque fusion of architectures and cultures. If you’re up for a splurge, check in to the Old Harbour Hotel–it’s not cheap, but it’s gorgeous, and the food is delicious. There’s even a small swimming pool in the tranquil garden. And it’s located in the heart of Old Kochi, where you can wander down to the harbour to watch the unique fishing nets in operation, or stroll up the narrow streets to admire the beautiful old buildings.

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The Old Harbour Hotel

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3. Camel Trekking in Jaisalmer

Moving up to the northwest part of India, we hit Rajasthan, which I mentioned above. The cities are fascinating, each with its fort towering over the centre of town, but if you’re the adventurous or outdoorsy type, you’ll want to head for Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert (click through for more photos!). It’s much cheaper than the options mentioned above–we stayed in a perfectly respectable hotel for 1500 Rs. (less than $25 USD) per night–and the old fort is fascinating to explore. Except we didn’t stay there long, because we took a camel trek into the desert and slept under the stars. So. many. stars.

Camels, Thar Desert, near Jaisalmer

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How sexy are these curves?

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Sunrise over the desert

2. Exploring Udaipur

Still in Rajasthan, the city of Udaipur is known as the Venice of the East (to be fair, it has plenty of rivals for the name) or the White City. The old part of the city is built of white stone on the shores of a lake, with architecture that tends towards arches and cupolas.

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How much more romantic can you get? Well, actually…

1. Visiting the Taj Mahal

I’ll leave you with this. Okay, it’s a cliche, I’ll admit. But some of the world’s most famous sites are definitely worth visiting, and this is one. The city of Agra is voracious for tourists and skilled at parting you from your money. But I swear the Taj Mahal is worth the visit (click through for more photos!) for the beauty alone, let alone the story behind it. If you want to be ultra-romantic, book a moonlight visit, when it will look even more ethereal than it does below.

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The Taj Mahal at dawn

If you liked this post, you might be interested in my short story “The Raja and the Madman”, set in a fantasy version of Rajasthan. You can read about it here and buy the anthology it appears in, Under Her Protection, from Turtleduck Press.

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Fourteen Years Later

Just a quick post this week, as I’ve been sidelined with the flu. Yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of my father’s passing. Here’s what I wrote about it over at the Turtleduck Press blog:

I don’t think about him often anymore, except right around this time of year. He died in March, late in a bitterly cold prairie winter. The day he was buried, there was a thaw and, finally, everything began to melt. Ever since then, I’ve found late winter difficult to bear. Some years are harder than others; this one has been easier so far, probably because it’s been so unseasonably warm here. Bittersweet for sure.

He feels now like part of another life, one I don’t remember as well as I would wish to. …

Click through to read the rest.

And here are other pieces I’ve written about him in years past, from oldest to newest…

Lessons From My Father

Memories Less Travelled

Watching Movies With My Dad

Winter Elegy

Twelve Years

Back to your regularly scheduled programming next time. For the curious, my current blogging schedule is every two weeks on Mondays (er, or very early Tuesdays). Hope to see you then!

Twelve Years

I am walking through a city park, amid melting snow and the first hints of green, when the memory hits me.

Twelve years ago, give or take a few days, I am standing in a cemetery. Melting snow and mud, the first warm day after a long and brutal winter, and my father is being buried. Fragments from the funeral: a whole pew full of Lutheran pastors in their robes, come to pay tribute to one of their own; how my stepsister cried but I could not; standing at the front of the airy, wood-beamed church and saying a few words with my siblings, words I do not remember now.

He never hated winter. Much as he loved growing vegetables and going on long bike rides in the summer, he still took winter in stride. After my parents divorced, he would take me and my siblings cross-country skiing on the small-town golf course right behind his house – long flat stretches, gentle slopes, stands of leafless prairie trees, crisp white snow and blue shadows and the sky that deep, deep blue that I still think of as Alberta blue.

That winter, he was ill for only a few months before he died. We visited him in hospital, driving back and forth in the bitter cold. Winter has never been the same for me in all the years since. I hunker down, hibernate (as much as anyone with a full-time job outside the house can), and wait for spring. He would not have shared the sentiment, but he would have understood.

(I thought of him when Terry Pratchett passed away recently. My father never read Pratchett, but I think he would have appreciated the humour – incisive but warm, with an essential core of humanism. (He was, after all, a big Robin Williams fan…and boy, was it hard when Robin Williams lost his battle.) I just reread Small Gods, particularly appropriate because my father was a pastor. What is belief? What is the relationship between the structure of the church and its god? He would have loved these questions that Pratchett explores so thoughtfully, cloaked in the guise of humour.)

When he died, I was an adult and working, but still living at home with my mother, just a few years into the relationship with the person I would later marry. I think of him sometimes now that I live in a different city and province, married, homeowner, small press editor, dancer. So many things have happened in my life since he was buried, it’s strange to contemplate.

But there are similarities. I have a vegetable garden now; the taste of real carrots takes me back to childhood. My father and his second wife, my stepmother, had a weekend ritual of going to the coffee shop at the edge of their neighbourhood. My husband and I do the same. Then we walk through a cemetery, just as I used to do with my father as a toddler.

It’s not the same cemetery, nor the one where he is buried. But I’m not sure that matters.

Spring will come to all of them.

Exploring Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, Part 1

Today on the blog, we’re exploring the Thar Desert.

Isn’t that an amazing name? It’s a place in the far northwestern corner of India, in the state of Rajasthan, not far from the international border with Pakistan. The major centre is Jaisalmer, a small city that boasts a spectacular fort. Jaisalmer also the jumping-off point for camel treks into the desert — the main reason to come here as a tourist, and the focus of my visit.

The fort at sunset

The fort at sunset

Getting There

First, a note about the weather. As I said, this is a desert. We visited in late February, when the average high is 29 degrees C (84 F) but it gets down close to freezing at night. November is comparable; December and January are a bit cooler. I would not advise visiting in any other month, because that sun is fierce!

Getting to Jaisalmer can be a little tricky, as we found. There’s only one train, a long overnight trek from the nearest city (Jodhpur), and it often books up early. All the dates we wanted were full. Besides, my travelling companion and I had taken trains in India already, but the longest ride was 8 hours (for a supposed 6-hour trip) and that was long enough for us. You can also take a bus to Jaisalmer, but we decided that was definitely too much roughing it. On the other end of the spectrum, you can splurge on a very fancy train tour — the Palace on Wheels — which was out of our price range.

So we ended up hiring a car, which in India comes with a driver. (You do not want to drive yourself on Indian roads, trust me.) It’s not prohibitively expensive for Westerners — we paid about 2500 rupees a day, which sounds like a lot until you realize it’s only $40 USD!

The road to Jaisalmer

Tumbleweeds, anyone?

The road from Jodhpur is a quiet two-lane highway full of potholes, rolling through a dry, dusty landscape. It is not quite desert, more what’s known as “semi-arid”, and reminded me of nothing so much as the Wild West: sparse trees, little ground cover, muted greens and tans, ramshackle roadside shops. The villages we saw were a mix of boxy desert architecture and tiny round thatch-roofed huts — this is a poor area of India, and it shows. But we also spotted “desert haveli resorts” advertising stays in “huts”…and, somewhat less obscene, wind turbines. Animal sightings included a lot of cows with humps on their backs — no, not camels, although we saw those too — plus wild antelope and peacocks (this is their natural habitat…who knew?).

As the cows indicate, Rajasthan is heavily Hindu, with a minority of tribal peoples who live nomadic lifestyles — easily recognizable by their turbans and long robes. The political power was held by city-states ruled by maharajas…until the British came.

Side Note: Women in Rajasthan

If you’re a woman traveller, especially one with light hair, be wary. I’m female and strawberry blonde. My travelling companion was male and we went everywhere together, but I still got many stares and the occasional comment. If travelling without a man, I’d advise being very careful.

Wearing an approximation of local clothing may help somewhat. I often wore loose Indian-style pants and a tunic with a scarf thrown over the shoulders from front to back, an ensemble known as salwar kameez or informally as a “Punjabi suit”. Bonus: the fabrics are very thin and the cut is loose, both ideal for the climate. If you wear Western-style clothing, choose styles that are loose and offer good coverage.

Loose pants and long-sleeved shirt in quick-dry materials. The scarf is local style (normally thrown over the shoulders front to back). You can't see my practical trail-running shoes.

Loose pants and long-sleeved shirt in quick-dry materials. The scarf is local style (normally thrown over the shoulders front to back); the hat is not but is essential for pale skin with sun like this! You can’t see my practical trail-running shoes.

As for the life of a local woman…Rajasthan is not the best place to be female. It’s known as a backwards state even within India, with a high number of child brides and the lowest level of female literacy in the country.

If you start your travels in Delhi, you’ll see women wearing Western clothing, working (but not in customer service jobs that involve interacting with the public), studying, driving their own motor scooters, and walking around freely.

But as you travel farther west in Rajasthan, all of this shifts. Driving through small towns on the highway, we saw very few women out in public, and those few wore sheer veils over their faces (they’re not Muslim, but I guess it’s a similar idea). Even in the Rajasthani cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur, women in Western clothing are rare, and as soon as evening falls there are no women on the streets.

I’m far from an expert, but from what I’ve read and seen, and from conversations I’ve had in India, women’s rights and equality are progressing slowly, unevenly, and with many setbacks…but they are progressing. For example, there’s a new program to recruit women to be firefighters.

But back to the topic at hand.

Jaisalmer, The Golden City

Narrow street in Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City, for the sandstone that the spectacular central fort and most of the buildings are made of. It’s a small city of 80,000, engaged mostly in the tourism industry. As a Westerner, wandering around the city on foot is quite safe…it has a small-town feel with a medieval flavour. You’ll be dodging mopeds and cows, but the traffic isn’t heavy or fast. Besides, by the time you reach Jaisalmer you’ll already have worked your way through New Delhi and several other cities in Rajasthan, so you’ll be well prepared.

Rajasthani textiles, Jaisalmer

Rajasthan is famous for its rich food and textiles. Another thing you can get in Jaisalmer only: bhang lassis. A lassi is a cold drink akin to a milkshake; in most of northern India it’s based on yogurt (often flavoured with  mango), but here it’s based on buttermilk with chopped pistachios on top (recipe here). Bhang is marijuana, prepared in a drink. In Jaisalmer it’s legal to sell to foreigners from a government-authorized shop…and you’ll see a certain brand of traveller come here precisely for that experience.

A few words of warning, though. First, it’s not easy to tell which shop is the government-authorized one (there are several competitors). Second, not long after this lassi experience I got diarrhea that wouldn’t go away and eventually, days later, landed me in hospital for dehydration. I can’t point to the lassi as the culprit — there are too many factors — but I would not be surprised.

The Fort

Jaisalmer Fort 1

The fort itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is geared towards tourism, full of restaurants, guesthouses, and textiles stalls catering to Westerners. But unlike the other famous Rajasthani forts, it’s also home to several thousand locals — it’s been more or less continuously occupied since its construction over 800 years ago, though it has changed hands several times and the rajas who built it rule no more.

However, the fort is in danger. Its sewage system is leaking into the foundations, a problem made worse by the increasing number of guesthouses and other establishments within the fort’s walls. Increased rainfall in the region and seismic activity may also be weakening the fort’s already shaky foundations. (For more information, see this article at Smithsonian.com.) So if you want to visit, consider staying at a guesthouse outside the fort, as we did…and consider going sooner rather than later!

The fort includes a museum, which we did not visit because our time in Jaisalmer was so limited — we were there mostly for the camel tour — and because we’d already visited several similar museums in other cities. Instead we poked around the main square and streets nearby, admired the incredibly intricate stonework, and had dinner on a veranda to watch the failing light turn the fort’s walls to gold. I mean, just look at this:

Jaisalmer fort at sunset

Jaisalmer fort detail

The ubiquitous auto-rickshaws (taxis) in front, and textiles for sale behind

This is getting long, so I’ll close here. Tune in next time for the Thar Desert camel trek and sleeping out among the sand dunes!

Autumn in Montreal

If you’re looking for a fall vacation, Montreal is a great place to go, and here’s why…

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Trees on Mount Royal

It’s close to everywhere — a short plane hop from NYC and the northeastern states, and a totally doable — and picturesque — train ride from Ottawa (1 hour) and even Toronto (4 and a half hours, if you play your cards right). The province of Quebec borders New York State, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, so you can even drive there if you’re lucky. It makes a great weekend getaway.

On the train between Toronto and Montreal

On the train between Montreal and Toronto

But it makes you feel like you’ve been somewhere else. There’s the prevalence of French, of course (though you can certainly get by without it), but not only that — Montreal has its own distinctive architecture, fashion, and cultural scene. And good public transit, too.

(Hit the jump to see more fall foliage photos and more reasons to go…)

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A Fantasy Short Story Inspired by Rajasthan, India

Last month, Turtleduck Press released this anthology:

Under Her Protection edited by Siri Paulson

My contribution (besides editing the anthology) was a story about a maidservant and an inventor, set in a fantasy/clockpunk version of Mughal-era India. I spent six weeks in India last year and fell in love with…well, many things, but especially the historical architecture. So writing about it was a no-brainer. And as a bonus, that means I can put up related photos…

The story opens at Amber Fort (also called Amer Fort), a fortified palace in Rajasthan, which looks like this. Click to enlarge any of the photos (all copyright 2013 Siri Paulson).

Amber or Amer Fort

Amber or Amer Fort

Gateway in Amer Fort

Gateway in Amber Fort

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