An Ode to Jo

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“It’s a dead mouse,” Jo shrieked and leapt behind me, shielding herself from the horror. To be fair, she had inadvertently touched the corpse of the small rodent (hidden just out of sight under the edge of the couch) with her bare foot, (compliments, I assume, of Sabrina’s cat Earl whom I had recently babysat). “This just wouldn’t happen at my house”, she moaned hugging herself and rocking.
 

You have to know Jo to understand the full extent of her trauma at the incident and at her generosity in being here to begin with. Aside from the fact that we are the female version of ‘The Odd Couple’ incarnate, time away from her home and husband is usually acutely uncomfortable for her. But like the trouper she is, a week after I broke my ankle, she arrived at my house, suitcase and mop in hand, to help me until I was on the mend. A gift well beyond the call of duty, even for our 43 year-old friendship. 

Like an avenging matriarch she cleaned, disinfected, and ran my washing machine to within an inch of its life on a daily basis. In Jo’s world, sheets, towels, clothes, skin, everything, must be 100% clean all of the time and never touch the floor (if I put my feet on the bed wearing my indoor footwear the verbal lashing was fierce). By her own admission, the absolute craziest thing she did while here was to wear a pair of socks three days in a row and was aghast that she could sink to such depths. At the end of each day, two days at the most, regardless of how tired or sore I was, she declared it mandatory that I drag myself upstairs on hands and knees, drop backwards into the tub for a full bath or she threatened a work lockdown. Being the Oscar part of the couple, I usually only wash field clothes when they are in danger of becoming one with the earth and at the end of a long day in the field I may have a shower before bed but am more likely to leave the embedded dirt where it lays if I’m returning to the field when I wake up. Laundry can build up and my house suffers enormously when outside projects call (who am I kidding – my house lives with suffering).


At one time or another, my freezer has been fully stocked with venison meat labeled RK 1, RK 2, and RK 3– roadkills 1,2 and 3. For Jo, any new food is treated with slitty-eyed suspicion and eating my garden greens (as opposed to standard iceburg or romaine) was a walk on the wild side. If I was cooking, utensils were whisked away and washed before I finished using them and supper dishes were on the drying rack before swallowing my last bite.

We got a lot done over the 3 ½ weeks Jo was here, outside and in. Most jobs took the two of us six hours when it should have taken one. (Once, we drilled all the way across a wall looking for the stud and the bit kept falling out because we couldn’t get it locked in.) I’m pretty sure that any competent farmer or carpenter would feel less pain stabbing themselves in the brain than watching us do just about anything. But that’s ok, we usually ended up laughing and it was always an adventure shared. Just like when we were teenagers – we got ourselves into some crazy scrapes but always came out safe(ish) and laughing.

Jo was one of the first people I met when my family moved back from the North West Territories. We were 14 years old and in the same church youth group. We clicked immediately and have been fast friend ever since.

She is incredibly generous. Mindful of my lack of income she would trick me into letting her pay. One time she ran off laughing into the grocery store with my crutches tucked under her arm, leaving me stranded at the car. With infantile determination, I crawled across the parking lot on bare knees muttering expletives. When I finally reached the curb (after weathering startled looks and shredded skin), I sent her a strongly worded text. When she arrived back to the car, she said in a small, contrite voice, “Don’t be mad, I was just trying to help”. “I’m sorry” I said, and started to cry. It’s hard being helpless and dependant.

Jo is not an outdoor girl. She is allergic to weeds, dust, grass, pollen, animal hair, generally everything outside of a sanitized bubble. Her nose itches and her eyes water. She doesn’t like bugs or anything that crawls. Mosquitoes swarm to her, eager to tear out hunks out of her tender skin leaving bruising and welting in their wake. Yet she trudged through the blueberry fields weeding, spreading nutrients, sulphur and laying irrigation lines with only the occasional whimper (or curse, depending on her mood). I on the other hand happily sleep rough wherever the mood strikes me, cohabiting with nature and all it’s inhabitants. Yep – Felix and Oscar.

Our whole lives we have each lived on the extreme – but opposite – side of what is considered normal. The Odd Couple, Laurel and Hardy, take your pick. Like two misshapen puzzle pieces, together we just fit.

 Curve Balls

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The wonderfully productive past two months have come to a crashing halt!

Since returning from my winter wandering I have been busy digging out broken 100 year old fences, clearing away 30 year old junk piles, taking out dead trees and building new gardens. Sabrina and Ben’s small wedding celebration is being held here in September and I want things to look lovely. It’s a great opportunity to get my neglected grounds cleaned up as I hope to be open for business in 2019, and next summer I will be well occupied getting another 1000 blueberry plants in the ground. There is much to do and my focus can sometimes get a little manic, so I am often outside chipping away at the task at hand by dawn. Last Monday was just such a morning. 

 I was working on repairing the yawning hole in my back deck left by the retired hot tub. I don’t really know what happened. One second I was walking toward the hole with a tape measure in my hand and the next second my legs had buckled, somehow twisted together, and I found myself sprawled face down in the hole on the concrete blocks. I heard two cracks and couldn’t move either leg. Not good! Eventually, one leg recovered somewhat, but not the other. With my phone safely stowed upstairs on my bed, I managed to drag myself out of the hole backwards on my bum, across the deck, and into the kitchen where I weakly hollered for my youngest son Max (who could conceivably snooze through armageddon). Fortunately, some primordial instinct woke him up and in short order, I was in an ambulance headed for the Perth hospital, where it was confirmed that I broke my left ankle in three places. Fortunately, my right ankle is only sprained.

It’s never fun to be knocked off your game but it really makes you appreciate things that are often taken for granted. Things like being reasonably pain-free, having mobility, being able to go to the bathroom without help, being able to do anything without help. Needing help is not easy but one thing is certain – everybody needs assistance sometimes and learning  to accept it with grace is a good skill to acquire. Like my good friends Kathy and Dave say – just say thank you. So, Thank you! 

I’m grateful for many things. It’s only one broken ankle and I’m grateful for that. I don’t think we can ever truly understand what others go through until we go through it ourselves so this gives me a tiny glimmer of understanding  for those who have suffered far worse. And I’m am especially grateful and blessed for the dear friends, family and neighbours in my life who are there for me when I need them. Again, thank you!

So I am grounded for the time being. My long to-do list lays untouched, I have zero income until I’m back on my feet, my blueberries need attention, and I’m dealing with a couple of unrelated but coinciding emotional adjustments. But I know that everything will work out one way or another. It always does. Who knows why stuff happens but I like to think there is a reason for it. I believe in the old saying; when a door closes, a window opens. I’ll just try not to fall through it.

Eyebrow update

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So often, when I return home from a trip, time molds itself around me and it almost feels like I’ve never been gone. When I returned home from this trip, every time I looked in the mirror my eyebrows reminded me that I had been away. I hadn’t warned my son Colin, and when he saw me, his eyes bulged and he immediately cried (with appalled shock), “sweet Jesus mother, what happened to you”. Any illusions that my brows would go unnoticed evaporated like wisps of smoke. Who was I kidding – they looked like two caterpillars trying to mate, and weren’t turning into butterflies anytime soon.

While reading about the importance of not peeling off tattoo scabs due to the risk of scarring and loss of colour, a little lightbulb went off in my mind. I raced upstairs and into the bathroom. I stared hard into the mirror asking for the answer: should I do it? (All I heard back was that I was the silliest of them all.) My heart pounded with uncertainty. My scabs were thick and hard.

I slowly started to peel off the outer tip of the left one trying to see a few minutes into the future. Instead visions of the past when I  burst into tears when the Thai lady put the mirror to my face loomed in my mind. Was I was making a good decision or adding to the problem? If I ended up with a crater where my eyebrow should live, not even God could help me. In for a penny, in for a pound, or something like that. Carefully and painfully, I peeled off the thick brown scab.

I couldn’t believe it. The edges were raw and red but didn’t look like they would scar and much of the colour had been removed. Not going to lie – I shed a few tears of relief and joy. My caterpillars had become weird, crooked-winged butterflies but to me they were the most beautiful butterflies in the world. They still eventually need some repair; one is higher and completely off my brow but unnoticeable unless pointed out. And I need to pluck out my natural eyebrow hair on that side, but as you can imagine, that’s nothing compared to mating catapillars. So there you have it – the eyebrow update. I have lucky stars and I thank them every day.

On a conclusive note, I am having a girls get together for anyone wanting to see some pics, hear some funny tales and learn to make Thai spring rolls (which naturally we will then devour), followed by a rousing game of catch phrase. It should be fun. You can bring something to drink and a finger food contribution.

It’s at my place in Balderson, Sunday May 7th at 2 pm. Please RSVP to me by phone, text or email. I’d love to see you!

Homeward bound 

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I spent the final leg of my journey on the beach in Hua Hin. As weird as it sounds, it took some getting used to, but eventually I settled into the relaxation and savoured the sun and the sea without calamity – that is, until my last day. 

The misfortune I’m about to tell you about is, admittedly, completely due to my own bad judgement. I can only assume that my brain was fried from too much sun and memories of last year’s return trip from Israel, when sand fleas covered my face in bites the night before my flight home. This time would be different, I told myself. This time I wanted to arrive back to the farm looking glam and pretty. What a spectacular backfire!

 The morning I left, I planned a massage, a haircut and a manicure, all of which were great. Things went sideways when I decided to add tattooing my eyebrows to the beauty treatment agenda. Yes, you read that right. I had been thinking about doing something with my moth-eaten brows for awhile but hadn’t really looked into it. In retrospect, to take that leap in Thailand, where I could barely communicate with the aesthetician, defied logic and reason. So many lessons learned! (Or maybe just one lesson: don’t invest in cosmetic tattoos on a whim in a foreign country.) Hence, I will return home with lovely, clean hair, beautiful nails, and strong, exceedingly prominent, slightly lopsided eyebrows. 

I am very embarrassed, and will admit that I am loath to include a picture. I’m not big on pictures of myself at the best of times, but for you dear reader, you who has followed my adventures and made me feel less alone at times when melancholy had found me, for you I will share this sorry (but hopefully someday hilarious) testament to the vagaries of spontaneity. You can find it at the bottom of this post, along with what’s left of my pride. My daughter Sabrina says I’m still beautiful, bless her heart, and that eyebrow tattoos fade and can be repaired. She adds that if all else fails, we can find a nice spot under a bridge for me where I can make a new home.

On a less traumatic note, the trip was great. I have seen spectacular sights and learned new things. I’m healthy but very excited to plant my feet on Canadian soil. I’m excited to reunite with family and friends and Colin’s dog, Diesel. I also am eager to see how my blueberries fared the winter.

As always, sincere heartfelt thanks for reading. Your unfailing support, emails and comments have sustained me through heaven, hell and high water. See you on the flip side! (I’ll be the one with the large dark glasses and a floppy hat.)

Stormy Daze 

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I stuffed my wet belongings into my wet pack. It had been a rough few days. The latest episode involved me being woken up at 3am in my hostel ‘roof hammock’ by a freak tropical storm that soaked me, body and spirit. The sudden night drenching was funny later, but at the time, I was too disgruntled to be amused. 

My misadventures began with a confrontation between myself and a swindling hostel owner in the Cambodian/Vietnamese border town of Kep which didn’t end well for me. The next morning I hopped a boat bound for the almost unpopulated Koh Tonsai (Rabbit Island) to pitch my tent and regain my happy head space. That night at 2am, I woke up in a perfect cartoon caricature of ‘terrified freeze mode’ to the snapping and snarling of two dogs fighting against my tent wall. Dogs again! I love our canine friends but they have been my nemesis on this trip. My heart pounded and my thoughts raced but a statue couldn’t have been more still. They settled down once dominance was established but not before a few teeth had punctured my flyless tent. Not laying far enough away for my comfort, I maintained a nervous vigil until morning. 

The boatman manning the craft back to the mainland wouldn’t honour my return ticket (because the ticket seller forgot to write my boat number on the back) but I was tired and in no mood to be messed with. Gritting my not so white ivories, I braced my feet in the sand, clamped my hands onto the boat gunnel and wouldn’t let go until the captain accepted my valid ticket and allowed me aboard. He ultimately relented, but only because his only other option was to physically pry my fingers off. Unintimidated, I wobbled past him with all the dignity I could muster and matched his grimace, scowl for scowl. The five Chinese tourists onboard, however, found the whole incident hilarious and cackled uproarously. 

That night, back in Kep, the tropical storm delivered another sleepless night. The dispiriting events, combined with meeting a few solo-travelling young women who had been robbed of money and passports by motorbike snatchings (one of whom had been dragged and held at gun point) settled in my mind – all signs pointed to a change of plan –  I decided to ditch Vietnam and set a course for the Thai Islands to soak up some sun. 

Passing through Bangkok on my way south I met a lovely Taiwanese lady with delicate sensibilities who knew the city well. We feasted on scrumptious red curry seafood, visited art galleries, magnificent temples, and climbed windy towers. And at some point, the cloud that had latched itself onto me was finally blown away. For the most part it has been an incredible trip, full of beautiful experiences and nice people, but I came to the conclusion that wherever you go, there is no escaping  occasional sad and stormy days and the odd bad egg. In the words of Lao Tzu – “life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes, don’t resist them, that only leads to sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like”. And in the words of yours truly, –  it’s a welcome relief when the sun burns through the cloud and the spring is back in your step. 

The Killing Fields

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S-21 and the killing fields of Cambodia were marked in my travel guide as a ‘must see’ but until I was there, I had no understanding of what happened. With reverence, I write this post in memory of the lost.

On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rogue, ruled by Pol Pot, defeated the U.S.-backed Cambodian leadership. The already war-torn country had been bombed by the U.S. for the past 8 years in what was called the secret war, and people celebrated the new leadership. But it was short-lived. Within days of taking power the cities were all but deserted as people were forced to leave their homes and possessions to work 16 hours a day in field labour camps. The Khmer Rouge wanted Cambodia returned to a peasant state. Phones were silent and borders were closed. Teachers, doctors, Buddhist monks, anyone displaying any signs of intelligence were captured, tortured into signing false confessions of espionage, and executed. Soft hands and wearing glasses would get you killed. Pol Pot ruled with secrecy, hatred, fear, and violence for a fanatical utopian vision of a pure, classless society.

S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was one of 200 prisons where people suffered dehumanizing interrogations and torture by the Khmer Rouge. A former high school, it was converted from a place of laughter and learning to a place of unimaginable atrocities. Between 14,000 and 20,000 people were held there. There are 12 confirmed survivors.

Interrogation room

 Prisoners who didn’t die from torture were blindfolded, bound and taken to Cheoux Ek. Once a peaceful farmers meadow, it became a killing field. Peoples heads were smashed in with hatchets or other tools, and thier necks were slit with with palm fronds because bullets were not to be wasted. They were then thrown into a pit, sometimes still alive, with countless others. If a parent was executed, the whole family was executed so no-one was left to take revenge. Music was played to drown out the screams. Today, after a heavy rain, bones continue to be unearthed. The Stupa, at the centre of the memorial site, holds the skulls of thousands of the victims where people come to honour the dead and search for thier loved ones. There are over 300 killing fields in Cambodia.

In 1979 Vietnamese troops with a Cambodian contingent overthrew Pol Pot. In the four years that the Khmer Rouge were in power, roughly 2,000,000 people, in a population of just over 8,000,000 died under the brutal regime. Despite all the evidence, Pol Pot continued to represent Cambodia in the UN for 12 years after he was thrown from power. It was not until 2009 that the first Khmer Rouge high official was taken to trial. 2009!

The world has turned its eyes away through some of the twentieth centuries worst genocides; Armenia, the holocaust, Ruanda, the list goes on.  Blurred by tears but with eyes open, I touched the faces of the lost through the glass. I have to believe that we can learn from the past. I will remember.

A Little Nuts

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The streets of Cambodia on a bicycle is no place to be timid. The golden rule is stay alert! There is lots of ‘I’m here’ horn beeping, but no road rage. Everybody accepts the fact that everyone else has a right to be there, is just trying to get where they need to be, maneuvers to make space, and proceeds with no feathers ruffled (except of course for the live chickens). I got the hang of claiming my place in the controlled chaos and felt weirdly safer than riding a bike at home. I saw a young girl wobble her way through a busy intersection on a full-sized bike (standing because she couldn’t reach the pedals) with her baby brother in the basket. No one batted an eyelash.  


I now almost always ride to see the sights and only take the bus for long journeys. On one bus trip, I offered the lady sitting beside me some of my watermelon and mango. She politely refused, but returned the courtesy when she pulled out her bag of roasted cockroaches. Mindful of protocol, I thanked the good Buddha she had refused my watermelon. When we were both finished eating, we glanced at each other and burst out laughing. We were each picking our teeth with toothpicks. There is a saying here – “same same, but different”. We got it.   

I’ve never met a fruit I didn’t like and cashew fruit was no different (I didn’t even know cashews had fruit). It was stringy, but juicy, and tasted like a bitter mango with a hint of green pepper (I later found out that most people just make jam out of them or a liqueur called feni). It wasn’t until after I had already consumed several that I discovered what the fruit was, and specifically, that the creepy looking kidney-shaped blob on the end was a cashew nut! 

 I love raw cashews so I bit open the surprisingly tough outer shell with my teeth, and swallowed what I could of the nut. Such a bad move! Immediately my lips, tongue and mouth were coated with a thick, bitter, gluey feel that burned like hades. My stomach turned acidic, my head started to spin, and I thought I was going to pass out. I guzzled water – didn’t help. I dug out my toothbrush and brushed my teeth – didn’t help. I didn’t know what was happening! I took the bandana off my head and wiped out the inside of my mouth with it – helped a little, but the bitter stayed. For the rest of the day I felt sick. Later, I did some research. Turns out,  cashews and poison ivy/oak are siblings. Cashews contain an oily substance between the outer shell and the seed called urushiol, a strong irritant for most people and fatal for some (fortunately not for me). Also under the shell is another layer of highly toxic resin. ‘Raw cashews’ are not actually raw – they are steamed at extremely high temperatures so they can be safely removed from the shell and made edible. Who knew? – Or am I the only one who didn’t know this! After reading some horror stories, I feel pretty lucky that my only after effects were blisters inside my mouth, burnt lips, and a few spots of poison oak on my chin. The moral of the story is – sometimes it’s ok to be a little nuts, and sometimes it’s not!  

 (The other fruit in the picture is lotus fruit that I bought from a lotus farm. You peel off the outside green to reach the pod, which you crack open and squeeze the edible seed out. It was ok. Luckily I tried it before the cashew. The little girl is from my last guesthouse. She would hold her mothers phone, put on music and dance to it. She was adorable).