My Two-Winged Visitor

I was drying off after my morning shower when I spotted something fluttering by in my peripheral vision. I glanced around and nearly missed it, so erratically it was flying about. A small white moth, I might not have noticed it had it not been for a couple of black dots marking its delicate wings. The tiny creature otherwise blended in seamlessly with the white-painted walls of the bathroom.

094It’s both a risk and blessing to be living in a place with a partly-outdoor bathroom. It’s not completely plein air or open to the sky – as many bathrooms are in Bali – in the sense that it has four walls, a roof and a couple of panes of glass inserted here and there. However, there are openings large enough for all matter of creatures to fly, crawl or slither in.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been visited by mosquitoes, flies, ants, geckos, spiders, dragonflies and one daring cockroach which, given the utter absence of malodorous garbage and leftovers in my quarters, took me by completely surprise. How audacious and unnerving!

I’ve also recently learned that the droppings I find every morning in the corner of the bathroom counter (as do all other residents of this complex) are a nocturnal gift of a flock of birds. I tried employing preventive strategies a few times before I went to sleep, but they outsmarted me – evidently not put off by my amateurish efforts, or simply balked at my soapy mixture so in need were they of a nightly nesting (and pooping) ground.

But I’ve yet to be visited by a butterfly or moth. And this morning I was. I stood there, still dripping wet, watching its aerial acrobatics. It bumped against the walls many times, then fluttered away, as if confused by the hardness of this foreign and unnatural material. It blocked its way out.

The moth continued to fly about, up to the light – where it was again blocked by a pane of glass. It stayed there a few moments, perhaps hoping that the glass would give way to sky. Then it sailed downwards, on a diagonal path, and I imagined it surveying the bathroom as it did so, thoroughly puzzled. Surely it had found its way in, so now where was the exit?099

Tip-toeing quickly into the bedroom, I picked up my camera. When I returned to the bathroom, I stood still. The moth fluttered, in slightly uncertain swerves, towards me. Then, when it nearly touched my arm, sensing perhaps the warmth of my skin, it quickly dove out of sight.

Moments later, inching its way up again towards the light, it circled around at a higher height, and un-sticking itself from the long string of a cobweb, it flew out.

It was a marvelous sight to behold, one that I was grateful to have witnessed. But bittersweet as well, because there’s no denying that we’ve uprooted them and moved into their quarters. It’s no wonder these creatures are paying me a visit; they’re merely returning home.

Grade School Drop-In

Don’t be surprised if one day, when you are living far, oh so far, very far indeed from your birthplace and hometown, you digress briefly into  detour, almost unexpectedly drawn back to your roots.

It could happen, for example, when a slightly older friend with whom you happen to share the same hometown, cultural background and favored foods, ruminates about his (female) cousin. He mentions her maiden name, then married.

Neither rings a bell.

Then, because we’ve also established that this cousin and I were neighbors (she grew up around the corner); and, by the way, that she was a teacher at my elementary school, across the street, he will gently ask if you might not anyway remember her, despite our differences in age.

Still no sound of bells ringing. Nothing clicks.

But then you return home and that familiar niggling feeling pokes you in the psyche. You’ll suddenly recall scanning a pile of photos from your childhood album this past summer. So naturally you do what a person with a sharply spiked curiosity does; flip open your lapIMG_5127top and skim through the bunch of them.

Something about a quirky image from grade school will stop you in your skimming-tracks. Not because of the spunky girl in bangs looking up at you; dolled up in a home-made Raggedy Ann costume, with make-up caked on and a smile spread across her face. Nope. It’ll happen because your immediate recall will extend only to the teacher on the left… ah, that was Mrs Z.

But you draw a complete blank when it comes to identifying the young and trendily-dressed hipster on the right.

It’s a long shot, sure. But you just need to know. So you send it by attachment to your friend. Could that woman be your cousin?


And then, later that very same day, the teacher who once decked herself out in shiny faux-leather leather duds will send her cousin this. And the sight of it, the buoyancy of smiling happy faces, childhood friends unseen for decades, will bring you (perhaps altogether expectantly) to the very cusp of tears.

Susan and class2

The Continuing Saga of the Great Bali Bagel Experiment

Ok, so let me start right off with a full disclosure: Not-So-Great is more like it. At least that was the general consensus of this last round; said consensus consisting of two friends, both of whom gave my latest trial a quick & painful two-thumbs down.

I was disheartened and disappointed. But not dissuaded. I just know that I’m onto something…

The way I see it that it’s the third phase in my ongoing experimentation. For some, the world is their oyster; for me, the world is currently my BageLaboratorIMG_3279y.

And so, let me rewind to a couple of months ago when I dove into phase two. I was on the other side of the world, in Montreal, uncontested global headquarters of the best bagels in the world (if you’re a New Yorker, I apologize for raising your wrath, but c’mon!)

Off to the bagel bakery I went, carrying little baggies into which I’d stored my secret ingredients. Only when I arrived at the undisclosed location did I realize that I’d imprecisely labeled the bags, leaving me slightly miffed and puzzled about the now-unrecognizable contents therein. But never mind that, I carried on.

Max the Manager and Kanga the Baker invited me into their bagel-making lair with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism.IMG_3280-001 Perhaps my arrival before dawn helped quash their outright nixing of the idea, and imbued them with a sense of sympathy and readiness to assist.

As if we were about to embark on an adventurous caper – all while Max continued to serve bleary-eyed coffee-hungry customers – Kanga and I huddled, schemed and planned. Using an oversized butcher’s knife (or one that looked just as intimidating), he sliced off a long chunk of dough.. and I went to work while Kanga rolled dough and supervised my sophomoric attempts.

Once my clothes were thoroughly covered with doughy dust and my hands reeking of smells foreign to that bakery (but not , I suppose to the bakers themselves), I was done. Kanga loaded the bagels – looking oddly more like hot cross buns – onto the long paddle and slid them into the fire-burning brick oven. (They remind me of my dragon-boating days, those paddles, aw shucks, how I miss them…)

In the end, the supposed bagels lookIMG_3282ed nothing like bagels (except, perhaps, for the microscopic holes that were barely distinguishable in the center of two rolls). And, except for one tropical species that turned out surprisingly well, on the whole I confess they were duds. But boy was I grateful to the baker-men…

The family duly and supportively bit into little morsels, then offered wan smiles and the metaphorical pat on my back. Better luck next time was the underlying message. And so, the experiment went dormant in Montreal (I’ll do better for/with Kanga next time!) while I regrouped, debriefed and assessed the damage.

It was time to head for other shores, other flavors, other heating elements. I thought I might fare better with bagels in Bali. Ha. Famous last thoughts.

And so it was that I found myself in a kitchen from where two chefs are known to churn out one gastronomic feast after another. Even breakfasts are finger-licking delicious. Imagine my timidity in requesting that they conspire to assist me and my hobbling experiment in bagel-making. But agree they did. And off went Made to buy the ingredients.226-001

So once where I had Max and Kanga… here I was beholden to Made (pron. Mah-day) and Widi (pron. Wee-Dee, who isn’t kitchen staff but loves to get his hands dirty when given the chance), who rolled up their sleeves and did their utmost to humor me. Especially when I pulled out two recipes that slightly differed; Made anticipated problems from the outset, but I persevered.

Never mind that their unilingual exchanges (in Basa Bali no less, the one language that I don’t understand) served only to render me even more self-conscious about my clearly pathetic bagel-baking skills. But my exuberance and willingness to mess up over and over again, seemed to win them over. Ok, maybe not win them over, but at least keep them from running to th227-001e rice fields.

Made made many corrections. Widi gently tried urging me to use less egg, modify here and there. Still, I persevered. (Read: stood my ground).

But of course they were right. And of course I ought to have yielded to Made’s professional wisdom. But the recipes had worked for the authors/paperback cooks, so why not for me? Then again, how was I possibly deserving of their continued patience and help? Makasih Made, Matur Susksma Widi.

Turns out that there are a whole host of reasons why not for me: For one there’s the wok instead of the pot, and the spatula instead of a slotted spoon. Then, of course, no brick oven in sight. But the biggy, no doubt, is this: Ingredients.

Differences abound; flour is different here, water is different here, sugar, ovens, eggs and everything is different here. Then go ahead and introduce even more new elements into a recipe – most of which have not been tried in such combinations, hence will naturally require adjustments; a recipe that you’re so utterly remote from replicating to a “T” and you inevitably start asking yourself.. What Was I Thinking??228-001

You’d think I was Desperately Seeking Disaster.

I assure you that my days of bagel-experimenting are nowhere near over. Even though I’m light years away from clinching the recipe, I have that quietly niggling feeling that I mustn’t give up, that I need to tweak, study and adjust some more – and, yes, fail with enthusiasm yet again – because I seem to be onto something. Others seem to think so too.

And so, as I count my doughy blessings, and continue to express thanks for all the crazy hands-on help, the BageLaboratory paddles (or spatulas) still lie in wait… ;)

A Rest from the Fest(s)

DSC00378Barely touched down in Bali, I was greeted (surprise!) by a couple of Ubudian friends at the airport (not there just for me), driven to a friend’s sparkling new home, had my bags carried down a few flights of steps to the equally new and sparkling new guesthouse, and splayed my sorry, aching and jet-lagged butt ‘n body across the ironed white sheets (and Dutch bolster), when it was time to pick myself up and get into gear.DSC00108

I had been (unintentionally) delinquent, having missed the volunteers’ orientation session for this year’s rendition of the annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (by a mere 5 hours). With no time to waste – and a body groaning for more rest – I high-tailed it to ‘base-camp’ which was, mercifully, a stone’s throw away, across the street. Yippee.

There I loaded up on badges, program book, t-shirt, more swag and info. And then the first day rolled right into the second, then the third and finally, the last day. By the end, I told a friend they’d woven themselves into a mush of vaguely held memories, permeated by writers of every ilk; poets, novelists, travel writers, social commentators, comic book writers and artists, childrens’ book authors and even a slightly overexcited Canadian-born-turned-Indonesian-speaking-DSC00149sensation and You-Tuber.

The Festival had barely wrapped up when a months-long temple festival, at Pura Gunung Lebah, at the confluence of Ubud’s two rivers (Campuhan), reached its peak. After months of renovationDSC00161s and reconstruction, the temple was ready for public viewing and many a high priests’ blessing.

It was a day of ceremony where Balinese Hindus flocked into town from all over the island, arriving through the gates in their finest, to gasp and gawk – as I did – at the magnificence; breathtaking and completely over-the-top ornamentation, floral arrangements and offerings; a total of 70 opulently decorated Barong creations (king of the protector spirits, and lion-like in appearance) each one decked out in dozens of freshly-plucked frangipani buds; mythological figures chiseled out of lava stone; towering structures comprised of brilliantly colored rice and grains; umbrellas created out of various materials – cloth, yarn or pigs’ entrails.

It was a sight to behold. As I’d ventured to the temple in the early-morning hours, long before the crowds, high priests, musicians, dancers, Royal family and VIPs arrived, I unwittingly managed to be one of the few ‘tamu’ (foreigners) taking photos before we were all forcibly exiled to the outer perimeter of the temple.. from where very little could be seen.DSC00202










By mid-day, I was festivaled out. Removing my sarong and sash, heading further into traffic-choked town, I passed many celebrants crossing my path, on their way down to the temple. I reached a point where I stopped and looked around, then realized that I couldn’t wait to get away from the madding crowds. I just needed a BIG break from it all.

DSC00128I returned to a sanctuary that was even more remote from town. It was up among the hills, jungles and rice fields. Despite the occasional bits of business that I had to grapple with; and despite the sounds of construction from the opposite ridge, on the whole I basked in quiet, many a sunrise, an eclipse and the warmth and company of two friends and their dogs.DSC00129

I swam in the shadow of Buddha, walked the ridge, descended into the valley to spot the bodhi tree, and snapped photos of green stalks against the sunrise. I sunk into a massage by a pony-tailed Balinese biker while hearing porcine neighbors oink with gusto, and spent the better part of a day watching home movies and avant-garde films.

I feasted on daily salads, risotto, pancakes, tarragon chicken, pizza and wine; then was lulled to sleep by the sounds of tinkling and muffled drums – thanks to the gamelan troupe practicing in the nearby temple well into the night.

Hard to know what tomorrow will bring. But after being thoroughly fested out… a rest like this was custom-made, a la Balinaise.


A Whole Lot o’ Hallelujahs

The 21st night of September.

International Peace Day. Chant. Pray. Love. Meditate mindfully, for good measure.

The Climate March. Another global event.

Officially, the last day of summer. Boohoo. But the change of seasons is also a reason to celebrate, isn’t it? Even if it heralds the arrival of chillier temperatures. It’s a mixed-bag, mirroring real life in many ways. I’ll drink to that. Hallelujah!IMG_3309

Speaking of Hallelujah, on a much more micro-scale, today marked the 100th anniversary festivities of the town where I grew up. Despite the heavy clouds and scattered showers, neighbors and various other attendees whooped it up while taking cover under umbrellas in the large field out back.

Soldiers in uniform, a marching band, celebrity singers and a legendary hockey player held sway over the crowd, while a mini police put-put tooted around, giving rides toIMG_3314 smitten kids (and their equally smitten parents). The sun elbowed its way out from behind the clouds, as balloon-wielding masses lined up at food trucks for a piece of pizza ‘n fries.

Into the night, as if staving off the wind + rain, the thump-thump of music continued to blare from loudspeakers and fireworks being prepped. (For a moment, I wondered if a Balinese “rain-stopper” – something of a shaman – had descended upon the grounds, mostly managing to ward off the morning’s ominous warnings of rain, lightning and thunderstorms).IMG_3303

A personal highlight of my late afternoon walkabout involved dance-walking to the sounds of Pharell Williams’ Happy.

The only tune that could have made me happier was Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” – which invariably has me up ‘n dancing every time. Hallelujah to you too, if… you remember the 21st day of September

IMG_3302But it’s impossible to utter the word Hallelujah without mentioning a most momentous celebration – at least for Montrealers, The Main- and music-lovers amongst us. A local boy done good. The hometown crooner who will forever be associated with a one-word song title. Leonard Cohen today celebrated his 80th birthday. Amen, amen & Hallelujah!

If this city had a Walk of Fame, LC’s star would be embedded in front of a bar or deli. Today it would have been piled up with fedoras, cigars and a dog-eared copy of “Beautiful Losers,” and surrounded by a bevy of women on pilgrimage, quite possibly a handful of them named Suzanne and Marianne.


The St. Petersburg Phenomenon

Six years ago, right about this time of year, buffeted by wind and approaching rain, I shivered in the cold while waiting in a queue outside St. Petersburg’s renowned State Hermitage Museum. Unlike most visitors, who checked their coats and bags in the cloakroom, I piled my gear into my backpack, then bypassed the people milling about in the large entrance foyer and made a beeline for the galleries.

Like a kid entering a gigantesque candy store, I was bowled over by the visual feast that greeted me; the sheer immensity, grandeur and lush colors were cotton candy to my eyes. The exquisite silence that echoed in each room, hanging in the folds of heavy window drapes, gave me a taste of what it might have been like to live inside these quarters centuries ago. Even the elderly docent, her purple-tinted hair coiffed just so, tip-toed beside me, as if wary of making a sound.

Then the shuffling of rubber soles and click-clack of approaching high heels brought me back to reality, reminding me that tourists were on the loose nearby. Like a herd of horses, they came barreling into the gallery. I stood back from the hordes, anticipating mayhem – and blocked views of the paintings.

But I needn’t have worried. These ‘check-list’ tourists, digital camera ready in hand, were short on time – and long on lenses. Literally. Lenses of all kinds dangling from their bags, shoulders and backpacks.

One by one, they would stop – more like skid – in front of a painting, long enough only to read the title and determine whether the artwork was created by a ‘famous artist.’ If so, they would call out to their co-tourist friends, snap a shot of the painting in question and in seconds, scurry off to the next piece. The painting had barely registered a blip on their eyeball – and already they were off.. to the races. Renoir! Matisse! Oh look here! They dashed between one painting to the next, from one gallery to the other, capturing in the space of a nano-second viewing, nothing more than a photographic record of the paintings that hung on the wall.

It was an astonishing sight. What was the point?

I was reminded of that bizarre experience in wind-swept Russia just the other day when I went to see the World Press Photo exhibit in Old Montreal. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the exquisite moments of life, war, death, birth and the human experience that photographers around the world have captured over the past year. The images never fail to enlighten, surprise, inform, sadden, and amaze me. I can stand in front of a single photograph for fifteen minutes (if it were possible to do so), or circle back to it later; observing, imagining, trying to recreate the bigger story of what happened just before – or possibly right after, the image was taken.

The photos drip with joy, agony, ecstasy, terror and love. How can one not be frozen in place, at the very least for a few moments, captivated by the single slice of human emotion or landscape?

When I entered the large hall in the Marché Bonsecours, the place was abuzz. A quick glance around confirmed that a school field trip was underway; a large gaggle of uniformed private-school teenage girls were huddling, chatting, squealing and generally acting like teenagers do.

But then I noticed the St Petersburg Phenomenon – with a twist. Instead of digital cameras at the ready, each one of these girls had their smartphones in hand. And, as if they were on a school photography assignment (which, perhaps, they were), they snapped away.. one photograph or detail or label after the other. They didn’t look up – or at – the IMG_3201photograph itself, but only at the image they were trying to capture through their phone.

I stood back and watched the girls for awhile, both amused and stumped.

And then I remembered how, when I was a little girl and my sisters and I would visit a museum, it was a quiet affair. No sounds of digital doodads, no photographs being taken of photographs, no selfies, no Instagrams. We just walked around, stopped and looked at the art. What remained was that which was etched into our brains and visual memories… not onto our memory cards.

Waltzing With a Caterpillar

It was not yet the middle of the week when I felt the first pangs of a meltdown or serious burnout in the works. I planned to take a break in the middle of the week, head out for the day, a few errands, a day in the sun, away from emails and phone calls, and all the flotsam and jetsam bobbing in the murky waters surrounding me.

It was early Wednesday when my intuition coaxed my fingers into dialing a friend’s number and postponing our appointment that morning. I had no good reason at the moment, but I simply sensed that I had to clear the deck that day. My bag was packed, I’d nearly left when my intuition again urged me to open my email, just to scan what had landed in my inbox during my absence.

Among the two dozen or so unread messages, I spotted an email from one of my oldest friends. My friendship with RT goes back to our first year of high school. Though RT’s lived (and raised kids) in the US for eons and we’re infrequently in touch, we nevertheless make a point of touching base for each others’ birthdays. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to see an email from her. I opened it only to check if she might be in town visiting her partner.

It took me a few moments to register the meaning of RT’s message. She was indeed in town, but writing from a hospital bed, after suffering a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage two days earlier… that nearly killed her. My mind went bIMG_3198lank. Then it went into a tailspin. I called the hospital, confirmed that she was in ICU, grabbed a precious stone (recently gifted to me by a healer) and asked for a lift to the hospital.

The next couple of hours are still somewhat of a blur; she was upright, walking the corridor, being asked to balance herself with eyes closed. We hadn’t seen each other in years. Now we were reuniting in a hospital room. Comparing notes. I was wrapping her up in a blanket, helped her into bed, then gave her an old black & white high school photo I’d stumbled upon a few days earlier.

By the time I hugged her gently and left the ward, I knew exactly what was in order: a big dose of fresh air, trees and grass… I was craving nature.

It was a sunny day. I headed straight to one of my favorite parks, in a neighborhood that boasts some of the quaintest cafes, boutiques and vibes in the city (at least in my humble opinion). A group of teenagers were kicking a soccer ball around nearby, while mothers strolled with infants and an elderly couple sat on a bench, each one covered with a large sunhat, their eyes trained on their respective e-readers.

I unfolded a blanket, spread magazines, papers, markers and scissors around and lay down on my back squinting upwards, shifting my gaze to avoid the sun’s direct glare. Squirrels leaped between branches, creating bushy wisps of silhouettes brushing against the sky.

Lucky to be alive. RT had heard the same words from the mouths of doctors as I once had. I wondered if it would sink into every cell of her body as it had mine; if it would continue to echo in her ears for years after this incident, perhaps for the rest of the her life. Would RT ever come to believe in her guardian angels – as I had in mine?

Before slipping into a tearful state, I flipped onto my stomach, intending to write and cut and draw and squeeze out as much creative juice from my addled brain as I possibly could. But as I was flipping through the National Geographic magazine, something bright caught my attention out of the corner of my eye.

IMG_3233It was a fuzzy yellow caterpillar, a few black stripes and spikes protruding from its spine – the likes of which I’d never laid eyes on before. It was maneuvering itself from the grass onto the blanket, then proceeded to slink towards me. I waited and watched. Watched and waited.

Sensing that it likely would prefer to be back on home ground (i.e. grass), I nudged it onto a thin branch and (ok, uninIMG_3232tentionally but perhaps a little too quickly) unleashed it a few feet away. It curled up immediately, and I observed in angst until it began to unfurl itself again.

I returned once again to the magazine. But there he (she?) was again, clambering up onto the blanket,IMG_3215 heading towards me. I moved aside slowly, imagining that it simply wanted to cross the blanket to get to the other side. But it grounded to a halt as soon as I inched over. I stood up and the little creature swerved in my direction, as if it were intentionally seeking me out.

I scooped the caterpillar onto a leaf and placed it a few feet away in another direction. Still it came back, shuffling up the sidIMG_3226es of my sandals, weaving through the straps and over the buckles, then sliding back down into the grass.

Thus it continued for the rest of the afternoon.He wiggled his way over magazines, paper, scissors – all unfamiliar territory. But he kept coming back for more.

IMG_3217I danced with that caterpillar, or should I say that he tried desperately to dance with me. I’d invited him into my space, or should I say that he invited me into his world, of grass, sticks and stones… and there I was brushing him off. What a very reticent dance partner I was.. when he merely wanted to sniff around, enjoy the new textures and waltz!IMG_3225

The yellow caterpillar eventually gave up on me and found a dried leaf nearby where he found refuge – or tasty bugs.

There was a subtle meaning to this whole waltzing episode and it wasn’t lost on me. Like dogs and other creatures of the animal world are known to do (and I’ve been at the receiving end countless times), this fuzzy yellow caterpillar was there to keep watch over me. He wasn’t going to let me out of his sight.

IMG_3220Even if I did blow him off a few times…