Thursday, April 30, 2009

Applying for Out of Province Health Care (OHIP) In Ontario

Things have changed in the process of applying for out of province / out of country health care through OHIP.

Even though their official webpage still claims that each individual can receive upwards of two years of out of country health care per lifetime (which begs the question: does this time reboot when you are legally dead, and then revived?) those terms no longer stand.

You see, Canada is quite slow at updating their official government webpages. You would think that when they were alerted that their link to the Embassy of Egypt in Canada directed all those who clicked upon it to a porn site, that they would act fast. But no – it took them two months before they decided to reply to my somewhat important observation that they were “going to look into it.” I’ve not since re-checked the link, nor do I intend to now, but you may just find yourself delivered to a very strange website when looking to apply for visas. Honestly, I wonder how many other links the site has that don’t do what they should. Many are actually dead links to Canadian government pages that no longer exist.

Now, I was told, the rule is – if you apply for out of province health care, you can take upwards of two years. When you return, you need to have lived in country for a five year period, before you can apply for this privilege again.

I was alerted to this when I claimed I needed an eleven month extension. The man working the counter asked why I didn’t just take a full year. Then, upon explaining, I asked if it wouldn’t make sense to take two years, and then just make the change later if need be.

So now I am covered by OHIP for two years outside of Canada, starting September 1 2009. What does this mean? It means I can get additional travelers insurance to keep me on the road for two years, instead of just one. Will I do this? Who can say – but now the option is open to me. And, thinking about it, as I need to live in country for five years once I return – I’ll be in my mid thirties the next chance I get.

Something to think about.

The only downside? I was tricked into getting a new health card when I was there. I knew, when they took my picture, that my old red and white – never expiring – card was doomed. They punched a hole through it only a moment later. The times we’d shared together! The way I wrote one of the letters in my name backwards when I “signed it” (printed – as I received it in early elementary school.) Why – it was run over by a car, the plastic cover ripped off, removing the black colour on the numbers. It had a history – that card.

Sigh. Now, every four years I’ll need a new one. There will be no love there.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Now Serving: B147

Lines beget lines beget lines. It seems to be the way of things.

Long before the invention of telephone menu trees, that leave you listening to scripted conversations instructing you to press one for this, or two for that which ultimately lead to "all our agents are busy, please call back later," there were government processing lines.

I was at 777 Bay Street in Toronto Ontario, walking into Services Canada, through a delightful underground route directly from College Subway station. If you have any health care, or drivers license issues, this is where you want to situate yourself.

Just be sure to bring a book.

And some games.

And maybe a pillow.

Yes, Services Canada is where you need to go to get everything done, but that doesn't mean it's efficient.

When I first walked in, I found myself in a line with only four other people. What fun, I thought. Reaching the front of the line, I told the man behind the counter that I needed to extend my out of country health care. He gave me a form, and told me to fill it out. No problems there. Then I was given a number. B147. I wrote it on my hand, as I knew I'd lose the slip of paper. After that, I found myself a chair, and I sat down.

I waited. And waited. And waited. The signs all around read G123 window 12, M102 window 9. What these letter number combination meant, and why we weren't all in one giant que was beyond me. But more importantly, where were the B's? After another ten minutes, I saw B109 window 2: This was going to be a long day.

I texted friends. I read my books. I tried to nap (but became terrified that I would miss my calling, and thus lose out on everything I'd waited so long for.) There would be no sleep for me.

For the next, who knows how long, I was kept alert by screaming children running in circles, and the dance party created by hundreds of peoples cell phones all ringing apart, and yet somehow together. B120. B131. B139. B145. B146. Nothing.

This wasn't funny. After watching, over the hours, every number from B109 to B146, without ever skipping a beat, pass by there was now nothing. Only a gathering of M's and G's, and D's, and - and not B's!

Tick - tick - tick. Like the barely moving red second hand on all classroom clocks, I felt time slowly passing by. One moment lasting forever. I was like a race horse ready to burst from the starting gate, and yet I had nowhere to go... This would last forev- B147 window 16! I was off!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Around the World: Back to Planning

The first day of...
Any day off of work can be a good day, right? You don't wake up to the sound of the alarm annoying pulsating as you hit sleep once, twice, three times. You can shower for as long as you want without fear of missing the train, the bus, the start of your work day. You can have a relaxing big breakfast, or skip it at all to watch the morning television. Heck, you could just read a book if you'd like, while you wait for your cereal to become suitably mushy in your milk (or for the lactose-challenged, mango soy smoothie beverage. Trust me, it goes well with Peach Honey Bunches of Oats.)

But then you remember why you're not at work. It's because you have an appointment. One that can not be missed. One that you've been putting off for weeks, almost months now.

Planning the World Trip once more
It has been a long time since I wrote about the world trip plans. Yes I've seen New York City, and I've done a few other things, I've even written about Toronto - but the world trip? That hasn't been discussed since my trip to M.E.C. back in February.

For the last six weeks, I've simply breezed through life, trying to balance my work, with my friends, and everything else that exists. But one thing remained - the knowledge that at some point, I would have to ready myself to drop terrible amounts of money.

Still, I could not start buying rail passes, or plane tickets, or anything else of that nature until I picked up my travel insurance. And I could not buy travel insurance until I had the good people at OHIP extend my out of country provincial insurance.

It took some research, and sifting through disinformation, but at last I knew what I had to do. Cereal eaten, I was off to begin planning my trip once more. Next stop: 777 Bay St. Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where do we go from here?

What is life after travel like? How long does it take for someone to reacclimatize with their surroundings? Is it possible to avoid that acclimatization?

As I look towards a year of travel, I can’t help but think about what that year plus a day, or that year plus a week, a month. When the bags have all been unpacked, and foreign lands with constantly changing scenery, people, and experiences are nothing more than memories –

What becomes of the traveler that lived, breathed, and experienced only days previous? Will he still exist? Can he still exist?

I’ve been there before. I remember the happy-shiny feeling of returning, knowing that you will never be the same again. Knowing that the experiences you have gained over your past travels will help thrust you into the future as the person you’d always want to be.

I’ve been there before. I remember those moments turning into nothing but memory as well, ever fading as life regains its caustic grip.

When I returned from my cross-Canada trip, I remember feel a sense of life, and of accomplishment unlike any I had had before. I realized that my life was mine and mine alone. No one could hold me back from anything; nothing was impossible. And this feeling stayed, touching my life, and the lives of those around me for months to come. Some people, in fact, said they didn’t even know who I was anymore. Others, who had known me years before, stated they’d wondered where that person had disappeared to for so long.

And then, months after that, things had started to normalize. To return. But not fully; never fully.

Every subsequent trip would bring forth the same feelings, the same wonders, the same thoughts, the same changes. And in time too, they would all even out, making a little dent here, or a small dent there – almost unnoticeable.

Still, the two months I took to travel Canada made the largest impact. But that was only two months. Who will I be after a year has past?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Departures: The Ends of the Earth

On Sunday April 19, 2009 OLN aired the season finale of departures.. This episode saw Justin Lukach, Scott Wilson, and Andre Dupuis head to the very bottom of the world: Antarctica.

There, they wandered around a variety of scientific research stations, and collected passport stamps from every country that had set up shop there. Each country brought its own culture to this destination that all may claim, but none may own.

There, the trio played ping-pong with the Chinese, drank vodka with the Russians, and experienced the household belonging to the one Chilean family that actually calls the continent home. At this moment the trio were, very much, at the end of their road. A second year of travel had now come to a close.

Will they continue onward for a third season, once more leaving their friends and family behind them – or will this be the final episode of the show? Unlike so many travel shows where the hosts take weekend jaunts to one location or another, Scott Wilson, Justin Lukach, and Andre Dupuis live the departures. lifestyle. Their family, and in some cases girlfriends, are separated from them every day they are on the road. At what point does the weight of all those sacrifices become too much?

Watching from home – detached from the reality of their lives – it’s so easy to just say, “keep going, there are so many places you can still see!” and yet…

So they have a choice, continue on, or return home. But even if they choose to return home, they are not the same three who left two years ago. Where do they go from there?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sometimes, Things Just Seem to Come Together;

Chance meetings and random conversations;
It's that kind of night where the world seems so far away; it's that kind of night when destinations are the only place to stay. Spring has come to the city of Toronto. No longer will the temperature tempt us with double digit highs, only to dip down into snow a week later. The days look to reach seventeen, which leaves the nights.

The nights are open, accessable, and free. In the city, a simple stroll down the street can lead to convorsations with people not seen for months, or new relationships born out of similiar destinations, or - nothing.

This night led me to the best nachos in Toronto. There, with a friend, I devoured the King's Crown to the best of my ability. Near the final moments, I was unexpectedly met by an old friend. Joining us, he brought two others into the mix. As life would have it, these two were travellers much like myself.

Were they better travelled than me? Were they less travelled than me? None of that mattered - they were travellers, with experiences, and stories to share.

For the next few hours, I listened to tales of the Japanese music festivals, the Korean music scene, the pedistrian haven that is Hong Kong, and stories of hiking through Tibet.

The travel cult;
It is these chance meetings, these sharing of stories, that I find myself craving - now more than ever before. Once endoctrinated into the travel cult, it is hard to escape. There are few things better than having stories you want to tell, be listened to by those who want to hear them.

Travel stories can often come across as photo albums, ominously sitting on someone's living room table. There are those that will, due to common curteosy, sit through brief explainations of the shots - others will fear the books presence, hoping that it remains the elephant in the room, forever unspoken of - then there are those who will see each picture, and ask for the details behind them all.

These are those wrapped in throws of travel.

Eastern Canada in a week and a half;
As the night drew to an end, as all eventually do, talk turned to Canada. Could a trip from Toronto Ontario to St. John's Newfoundland be completed in one and a half weeks?

Three thousand Kilometers. Six thousand round trip. Nine days. Eight hours of driving every day.

At first, I said it was impossible. Not even something worth trying. But the more I thought about it - the more I really considered the concept - the more practicle it became.

What does it mean to drive across Canada? I took more than twice as long to complete the same journey, but I was headed blind. I was out to see everything. I had the time off to do it my own way.

A rushed trip is better than no trip at all. Over the next little while, I plan to put together a custom google map (as I quite like this new resource) featuring a "to the east and back" road trip route, complete with places to see, things to do, and ways to make the brief trip somewhat more complete.

When convorsation turns, it pays to listen; when you have a question - feel free to ask it. You never know, there may be someone there to calm your fears, help you out, or make the impracticle practicle.

Then again, much like a Toronto night, there could simply be nothing.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Free Walking Tour of Toronto: Focus on Anime

It's a beautiful day in this wonderful city called Toronto. The sun is shining, but due to your love of all things manga / anime, you're staying inside to catch up on the latest series, or read the most recent issues. That is, after all, what anime lovers do, yes? Well, that’s one way to look at things. I have a better suggestion: get yourself out there and actually take part in the scene. Toronto is a great big city with a bustling anime scene.

Now, I’m not going to tell you how you should live your life – or what you should do, but my goodness if this isn’t going to be a day plan full of some fantastic suggestions. One might say this is a Top 10 Toronto Anime sites guide. But it's not really. Perhaps in the future I'll make a top 10 anime / manga list, but for now this is simply a Toronto Walking Tour. Take responsibility for yourself, should you go to any of these locations, but as one interested in Anime, you might just find them delightful.

Start your experience by jumping on the subway and riding to Bathurst Station. When you exit the station, head south down Markham Street, just west of Honest Ed’s. On your left, you will see The Beguiling. This is the comic store of comic stores in Toronto. Is it the best? Debatable. But it has a lot to offer. So head in, and browse the first floor if you’re into indy titles, and locally created comics. But if Anime and Manga is all you’re here for then you need to head right up stairs. There you will find hundreds of titles, as well as intelligent staff ready to give you all number of tips and suggestions.

Now, after you’ve seen all that that has to offer, and you’re thinking, “man, I wish I had more money,” you can swing on over to BMV (books, movies, and videos) just west of Spadina, on Bloor Street. This time, instead of heading up, head down – into the basement – to the back left corner. There you will find discounted Manga books, selling as cheaply as $1.99. That, indeed, is a bargain! If you want to head upstairs, you can discounted Anime DVDs too, used though they may be.

From there, you must take full advantage of this beautiful day and then head south on Spadina – it’s only a 1km walk to 315 Spadina Ave, where Animextreme is located. It’s on the east side of the street, in amongst all the delightful little restaurants (did someone say have lunch at the Dumpling House located at 328 Spadina, for the best dumplings in the city? To mix the perfect sauce use 1 part chilli sauce, 1 part vinegar, and 1 part soy. You may want to add more chilli to taste.)

After you’ve bought all the toys, statues, and other such things you can think of you should continue to walk south down to Queen Street. Turn east, and you’ll be soon come across the Silver Snail. This is a brilliant place to go. It has so many comic books, and anime toys. It even has capsule toys imported from Japan. This is where you’ll want to find yourself.

After Silver Snail you can stop off at Tea Shop 168 for some fabulous bubble tea, and condensed milk on toast. There’s also a Nintendo Wii that you can play, if you feel up to it. Mind you, the relaxing couches there will make getting up seem like far too much effort.

Keep heading east to Yonge Street and then turn north. See if there’s anything going on at Yonge and Dundas Square, then head north one more street north, and turn east towards the World’s Biggest Bookstore. But don’t go in. Why there’s another BMV just beside it, full of new discounted Anime and Manga books in the back right.

After that, feel free to spend some time in the Eaton’s Centre – then grab the subway home, or break out on another adventure!

If another adventure is what you’re seeking, I recommend heading down to St. Laurence Market at Front Street and Lower Jarvis. From there, head back west, and walk north on Church Street. When you get to Richmond, head one alley north and then look right; down said alley you’ll see a spectacular graffiti piece of Sonic the Hedgehog and Dr. Robotnik.

There’s also a Henry’s here. The best camera store in Canada. When you’re done, just walk west on Queen back to Yonge, and you can grab the subway out of here.

Enjoy your beautiful outside world! Enjoy your time, and experience the city!

View Toronto Anime Guide in a larger map

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Top 10 Sites to Help You Save Your Vacation Money

We all love to travel - but we don't always have the money to do so. In bygone days, we would talk to knowledge uncles, or listen to stories three times removed from "a friend of a friend." We would hear of elusive tips to save money, find deals, or earn some sort of secret travel club card that would allow us extra savings.

But these days, it so much easier than that. A simple web search will hook you up. But do we have time to search through internets? Clearly not - and that is why I, here at previously.bitten, have decided to create a list of the top 10 money saving sites for you.

1. Readers Digest: 6 Sececrt Ways to Save on Your Next Vacation
Readers Digest does it again, bringing tips such as "The best time to book an airline ticket is 12:01am on Wednesday," and "the best time to book a Hotel is any time during a Sunday Afternoon."

Now, sure those might be the only two great tips - but check out their explainations.

2. 12 Frugal Vacation Tips
Their final tip, Follow the Workers, is a great one. When you're looking for food in a foreign city - find the construction workers, find the labourers. They're the ones who want to eat a lot, and they'll want to do it cheap.

3. Delicious Baby: Money Saving Trips the Travel Industry Doesn't Want You to Know
Hey, if you have access to credit card companion fees, then by all means use them. Some real-world, tried tested and true tips can be found here.

4. The Frugal Traveler Blog
The Frugal Traveler Blog knows what it's doing, and it does it well. Follow the journey of those, like yourself, looking to pinch a penny there, and save a pound somewhere else. It's good reading, and full useful tips.

5. Step by Step Budget Tips
This is an site, and as such it may come across very basic, but that doesn't mean there aren't great tips to be embraced here. See Beijing and the Great Wall of China in One Day, as well as How to get Bumped for a Free Ticket are great tips that you might find yourself using in the future.

* * * * *

Allright, well it turns out that was only 5 links, and not 10 at all. But to make it up to you, I will forward you to a site that - if you don't already know about - you really should. It's the Ultimate Resource for the Independant Traveller: Boots and All. That should count for five. It really, really, should.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Interview @ The Flying Pinto

Well, it's one thing to read my stories here - but reading them somewhere else can be twice as fun! I gave an interview over at FlyingPinto. Please go over and give it a read. Who doesn't love hearing backstories from a flight attendant? So click on that link, head on over, and enjoy.

If anyone out there wants to guest post, or interview / be interviewed drop me a line. I'm always open to fantastic suggestions.

Coming up over the next week will be Tales from the American Roadtrip. From Toronto, to Columbus - through the American Fast Food Wasteland, Outlet Shopping Malls, Steak Houses, Cheap One Night Motels, and Soccer Games. (Perhaps with less unnecessary capitals, than I left here.)

All the best.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Toronto Graffiti: Graffiti Alley: 10 Amazing Desktop Wallpaper Backgrounds [3of3]

With the failing city behind, this is my favourite piece.

When chickens have fighter jets, what hope do we have?

Reminiscent of the Machine War

Modern art merges with traditional.

Honesty is the Best Poetry.

Stretching the length of the garage, the soft tones prove contrast.

Well created tags can prove art all their own.

Toons, the sequel. The original is probably long since covered.

Winter's Gone..

Supplication for all Saints

note: Graffiti Alley is a Graffiti Mecca in Toronto. Toronto's Graffiti alley is a lane that runs just south of Queen Street West, entering east off of Spadina. Some people will convince you that this alley ends at Portland, where you are forced onto Richmond. However, if you explore both east and west of Graffiti Alley, what is labeled Rush Lane on Google Maps, you will find much more street art lurking around. The alleys that run north and south from these lane ways also make for excellent galleries.

All of these images were shot on Rush Lane. Feel free to download these Graffiti Alley images and use them for your computer's desktop. They're all 1280x960. A perfect size. Enjoy.]

Gallery [1. 2. 3]

Friday, April 10, 2009

Toronto Graffiti: Graffiti Alley: 10 Amazing Desktop Wallpaper Backgrounds [2of3]

One of the view "dark" images in Graffiti Alley

Of course the distressingly upbeat image is the one covered in tags.

The wall is gone.

The Eager Beaver seems to desire your friendship.

A poignant statement... but of what?

The art is not simply limited to the walls - everything becomes a canvas.

The modern style combines the artistic with the technological.

There is truth buried in the eyes, unseen.

I been here! I been lotsa places!

The ninja chicken is a well known Toronto staple. There are many.

[note: Graffiti Alley is a Graffiti Mecca in Toronto. Toronto's Graffiti alley is a lane that runs just south of Queen Street West, entering east off of Spadina. Some people will convince you that this alley ends at Portland, where you are forced onto Richmond. However, if you explore both east and west of Graffiti Alley, what is labeled Rush Lane on Google Maps, you will find much more street art lurking around. The alleys that run north and south from these lane ways also make for excellent galleries.

All of these images were shot on Rush Lane. Feel free to download these Graffiti Alley images and use them for your computer's desktop. They're all 1280x960. A perfect size. Enjoy.]

Gallery [1. 2. 3]

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Toronto Graffiti: Graffiti Alley: 10 Amazing Desktop Wallpaper Backgrounds [1of3]

[introductory note: Graffiti Alley is a Graffiti Mecca in Toronto. Toronto's Graffiti alley is a lane that runs just south of Queen Street West, entering east off of Spadina. Some people will convince you that this alley ends at Portland, where you are forced onto Richmond. However, if you explore both east and west of Graffiti Alley, what is labeled Rush Lane on Google Maps, you will find much more street art lurking around. The alleys that run north and south from these lane ways also make for excellent galleries.

With the exception of the people jumping from the C.N. Tower (grabbed from College Street, just East of Spadina) all of these images were shot on Rush Lane. Feel free to download these Graffiti Alley images and use them for your computer's desktop. They're all 1280x960. A perfect size. Enjoy.]

Local art that showcases one of the prominent city landmarks.

And now? Now you are on a photo blog, so all is well.
(I wonder how many other photo blogs are displaying this image.)

To be honest, there's really no such thing as an ugly cartoon penguin.

Timmie's cup? Snow? Toilet outside. Yes - you're in Toronto.

I like to think of this as a statement on our city.

It's 1994 again, and I need to defeat the cyber-demon?

Without a doubt, this is one of my favourite pieces currently showing.

Macabre door-coverings part their way.

Chickens, and bunnies, and pirates. Oh my.

The group dynamics - spontaneous murals - is showcased here.

Gallery [1. 2. 3]

Monday, April 6, 2009

Graffiti: The Pure Artform

It is the most pure art form: Graffiti.

The night has fallen, and nothing can be herd save for the light steps of brand new sneakers clacking as only rubber soles of cracked asphalt can. An empty wall rises up in front, newly constructed by one the generic urban restructuring companies that seem to now flood the city limits.

With nothing but a dozen cans, securing held in a pack used – only hours before – to carry math textbooks and Shakespearian plays, and a pocket full of caps this wall is about to be transformed.

A light hiss, the scraping of wooden blocks, and the metallic creek of ladders left behind from the newly constructed gray-scaled architectural project are all that can be heard.

When the sun rises no one is left to be found. Ladders are toppled. Wooden skids are tossed away. And left behind is a finely crafted image on the most temporary of canvases.

Graffiti, and other street art, is created for the pure purpose of art. It is not an attempt to be known five hundred years later. Artists do not hone their craft for public appreciation and acceptance. Never will pieces find themselves hung in a respected gallery.

When an artist places his mark upon a wall she/he does so knowing it will not last the tests of time. Unlike the rock paintings thousands of years past, these pieces will not be marked as UNESCO sites, nor will they be protected by federal laws. The effort, time, and creativity that enters into the free flowing experience may not even last the week.

Graffiti artists understand that their art may be power washed away, or even painted over by another artist. And it is because of this that there is so much power, and passion, in the work.

Artists do not have the luxury of creating something universal. There is no attempt to have emerge an image that will transcend time, speaking to every generation – past, present, and future. So few will ever look upon what was theirs.

The artist can only speak to the present. What is now. This leads towards art that is painfully relevant, and comments directly upon the world surrounding its audience. Political aggression can be seen; people railing out against the government, but in an instant a government can change. And just like that, so too can the paint on the wall. Another layer added, and the space becomes representative of life in the digital age. Or a deeply macabre scene out of nightmares, or dreams.

Though they do not speak to the mass, Graffiti artists do speak to their compatriots. By reading the names and tags, one begins to see a pattern emerge. Certain artists have their locations and that – for the most part – is respected. Though one piece may, eventually, be covered by another artist it will only happen if the second piece far surpasses the first.

Save for a few stray vandals (irony, not being lost as I use the word here) who place tags and throw-ups over the most striking works, the art only improves. Becoming more and more relevant with each pass. Certain tags can be seen throughout the city, and there is a familiarity there. One of Toronto’s most visible is someone named “Tokyo!” Tokyo, with an exclamation point. I know nothing of this person, and fruitless searches has revealed little. Yet, there is some sort of comfort in seeing this in all number of locations.

When the galleries are the streets, the audience is the everyman. Not only those who would enter into the Art Gallery of Ontario, or the Royal Museum. Those walking the beat, applying for jobs, or grabbing a midday cup of coffee; teenagers on their way home from work, or businessmen done free from the office. These are who the art speaks to. These are the people to whom it should matter.

No longer is street art something to be feared, created by the lost and damned of society who have no regard for common decency. Rarely is it an indication of gang activity, and locations to best be avoided. It is art. Pure and simple. Here for the moment, relevant while it lasts; gone in an instant, its time past.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

What's Your Reason?

Time and Time Again
Wake up; walk to the station; jump on the forty-one. I join the ranks of students, professionals, and that woman who keeps yelling at the driver - day after day - slightly smelling of burned notebooks, and Christmas trees. Get off; work eight hours; re-board the forty-one. I open my folder and mark essays, creative projects, and creative writing the whole way home. Keep marking; sleep; repeat.

For the past three years, this has been my life. And never once have I regretted it. I love my work; I've made peace with the inconceivable amount of marking it brings – after all, each piece is one more chance for my students to show me what they can do, rather than me trying to show them what I can do. Still, like so many of us, I felt that something was missing.

Teaching in Toronto has placed me in the heart and soul of multi-cultural Canada. Over fifty countries have been represented by my students. Each life unique, and forged by personal experiences. Experiences crafted in places I had never been. Their lives, before walking into my classroom, are a complete mystery. And in some cases, beyond my comprehension.

Yes, something was definitely missing.

Why we Travel
We all have our reasons – the things that cause us to pause instead of buying that beautiful new car, or that fabulous new ring, video game system, guitar, outfit – whatever works for you. When friends might be out enjoying the hundred dollar breakfast at Norma's, we instead choose to forgo the ten dollar Orange Juice. Yes, we all have our reasons.

Mine? I want to learn. What can I say? I'm a teacher. When I walk into an interview and drop the buzz-phrase “life long learner” I'm not just saying what the administration wants to hear. I actually mean it. And there is no better teacher than life experience.

When I found myself teaching a number of Japanese students, and others who were simply interested in Japanese culture, pop-culture, and the overpowering Tokyo mystique, I too found myself re-energized. Growing up, I was interested in this country, and especially the city of Tokyo. But travelling was so difficult, and so expensive. How could anyone ever justify taking such trips? At last I had my excuse.

I am a teacher who tells stories. I always have been, and I probably always will be. You may remember some like this. Perhaps they, like myself, were trying to fill time – while hoping to impart some bit of wisdom not quite listed in the curriculum. If I could, next time a student talked about manga, tell them that I had been to the epicentre of that scene, and then expand on the simple black and white pages, illustrating the sense of being shoulder to shoulder with business men riffling through discount bins full of the product... Well I hoped that I might be able to inspire them to something more, perhaps even discovering such things for themselves.

Of course, this would mean that I would have to jump in headfirst. So that's what I did. When March Break came around, I booked a flight, found a hostel, and flew overseas. And the experience was everything I had hoped it would be. There were pitfalls, and high-highs; mistakes were made, and accidents led to serendipitous success.

From then on, travel was part of my life.

When I talk about Canada, I can do so with authority. When I teach stories with characters lost in the mountains, I too have -albeit briefly - been there.

Cuban life, and the type of people who can live happily, without expecting money or financial gain, are understandable to me. The districts of Tokyo have more meaning and depth than just words in the latest Murikami novel. The place where Peter visits in Kensington Gardens, well I can explain what it's like to stand there, in that very place. I have seen what he saw.

But still, something was missing. There was a whole world out there, and I'd experienced but a fraction of it. And I recognize that I'll only ever experience but a fraction of it, still – I'd like it to be as big a piece as possible.

There was only one choice for me: take time off of work, and spend a year travelling the world. Hopefully by the end of it all, I'll know a little bit more, and be able to bring that one extra bit of inspiration to a student, either helping them push forward where they are - or lending them the strength to get out there and see it for themselves.

So – that's why I travel. That's my reason.

What's yours?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Food: Cultures Experienced

They’re the best part! Just for you – because of this occasion!

Lobster brains, laid out before me; a smattering of grey matter on succulent flesh. A delicacy, I’m assured. As I run my fork in awkward circles around the meat all I can think is, is this a game of load the ignorant foreigner with alcohol, and trick him into all manner of foolish things.

All eyes were upon me. And, after all, I did just eat the meat of a fish, as it lay skewered in front of me still twitching in its final moments. So really, what was the difference here?

Polite smiles encourage; polite smiles also indicate that it would be a disservice to my hosts, were I not to eat this small bite, this most cherished part of the once captive crustacean. Very well then, no sense in delaying the inevitable: slug back the Chu-Hi and swallow the brains.

Thank you Zauo Sushi (3-2-9 Nishi Shinjuku, Tokyo) for this fabulous opportunity. If only that was to be the strangest thing I would eat that night.

Now, I am no stranger to Asian food. Growing up in Toronto’s Northern suburb I had access to some of the best Chinese food on the planet. I know how to tell what internal organ in floating in my soup, because of the texture and patterning. I understand that animal’s feet can be quite tasty. I am no stranger to that which comes from the ocean’s depths. However – the next thing offered my way, once more, gave me reason to pause.

The lobster brains were good, there’s no denying it. It tasted like a rich creamy butter, nothing distressing at all. Those around me all smiled as I enjoyed it. However, that time had passed. It was now it was time for fish eyes.

Look, don’t get me wrong – I understand that sometimes eyes can be tasty. But I also remember being told by many people, “sure, I used to eat eyes when I was a baby, but not anymore.” If these ocular devouring professionals choose to pass up the gelatinous treat what was I doing about to eat into it?

Oh, another Chu-Hi? We’re throwing it back together? Well in that case – let’s have some eyes!

With a little pop, I broke through the hardened shell, and released the gushing innards. As those around me started laughing I realized that while lobster brains are for the best of the best, eyeballs were just a way to laugh at the tourist.

Once more, if only the night were to have ended there. But no, being Japan, and being a guest, the night needed to press on. From the restaurant to karaoke bar. From karaoke bar to another karaoke bar. From that karaoke bar to an all night karaoke bar. Each step of the way introduced me to more culinary and fermented treats, oddities, and wonders. Some of which I even remember.

It was through blurred vision that I stared down at a menu, trying to discern what food would help settle my stomach, and what food would – well, there’s no need to think about that.

There – before me – was something familiar in this sea of the exotic: squid.

I’d had squid before. It comes cut up, deep friend, and served with lemon and tarter sauce. Squid. I understand it, and I enjoy it. And there’s something else – deep friend… deep fried what? Well it doesn’t matter. All friend food tastes the same. For the final item? Shrimp. Sweet, delicious shrimp.

At the best of times I don’t like shrimp. This newly invented desire should have set off alarms. It should have foreshadowed my eventual despair. Sadly, at that moment, I felt quite good about my provisionary choices.

Sake, sake, everywhere – and not a drop to drink; well not by the time the food came. And what food it was. It turned out my deep friend food was octopus. This I could tell by the fact that it was, very literally, a deep friend octopus!

Yes, there was its head, and there were its tentacles. One bite, one chew, and down they go, you say? Hmm. Well perhaps I’ll just fill up on the squid. The squid, which were just lying on a plate all neat and orderly staring at me with their full eyes coated in some sort of pickling, slimy, brine. Well, there was one saving grace – the shrimp. Sure I don’t like them, but I’ve had them severa--- Oh what is that?!

My reason for not liking shrimp is that they look, when eaten, like what they did when alive. This is a pet-peeve of mine, eating things that look dead – as they once did living. But I had thought this about shrimp? How wrong I was. Those little pink cocktail curls are as far removed from shrimp as a steak is from its living counterpart. This shrimp, the one I had so agreeably chosen, had eyes, and antenna, and – what? Just one bite and you swallow it all back?

Shrimp. Just like the octopus. Just like the squid. All of them looking just like they did before they were destined to end up in my belly. Just staring up at me. But they were ordered. I had to eat them.

One by one, creature of the deep slid down my gullet... And to be honest, by the time I got to the shrimp, I figured – hey… I’ve come this far, there’s really nothing all that strange about this one either.

Eating around the world – it’s a cultural experience. One best done, under the steady procurement, provision, and progression of alcohol. Sweet sweet cultural lubricant: so long as you can keep it all down in the end.

[Note: This post was inspired by the March 8th episode of Departures, Mongolia: Meals and Wheels. Justin Lukach, Scott Wilson, and Andre Dupuis were subjected to some delicious boiled blood, after being sufficiently … loosened … by fermented yak’s milk.

Watching the episode of the trio, I was thoroughly reminded of my own trip through the Orient – and thought this would be an excellent time to share it with you. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I did. Perhaps even a little more.]
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