Notre Dame is burning

Dear world,

Notre Dame went up in flames today.

I watched the blaze grow in still frames, sneaking glances at photos on my phone during breaks from my comms job at an environmental non-profit.

I forced myself to write a set of key messages that (I hoped) captured the urgency of climate change, then let my mouse drift to the open New York Times tab on my browser. I scrolled through Twitter photos of the destruction before returning to the strategy spreadsheet open on my twin monitor. Before I knew it, however, my chin was swivelling back to the play-by-plays from Paris.

The destruction was almost cinematic.

By the time I finished my shift on the Pacific Coast of Canada, it was already nighttime in Paris. Orange flames lapped at the blue-black black sky and the remains of the building created intricate silhouettes.

The loss felt pointed and permanent. Like when I first saw photos of ISIS militants smashing statues in a museum in Mosul. Shattered history on the ground.

But there was something else about Notre Dame going up in flames, a looming type of dread that I couldn’t quite name until later in the day. I was standing at a bus stop when it occurred to me: The loss felt almost predictable.

Even a few years ago, seeing the famous cathedral’s spire topple may have felt inconceivable. But more and more it feels like everything is headed that way.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its landmark report last fall, I dreamt about rising oceans. In my dream, I ran from the waves, scrambling up walls and hills in an attempt to escape. But despite my efforts, the water nipped at my heels.

Today we lost pieces of human history dating back 800 years, maybe more. But every minute we are losing species and ecosystems that thrived for millennia. How do I even begin to quantify and absorb this loss?

That destruction, too, is cinematic.

Edward Burtynsky takes photos of landscapes so ravaged that they become patterns, repeated destruction on a mass scale. In the new Netflix series Our Planet, David Attenborough’s sonorous, disembodied voice explains how perfectly-synched the rhythms of life are, only to tell us that everything is falling out of time and it’s our fault.

A fire destroyed Notre Dame and we are destroying ourselves and everything around us.

I was lucky enough to spend a couple days alone in Paris this past summer. On my final evening, I crossed onto the Île de la Cité. I sat at the tip of the island, less than a kilometre from Notre Dame, my legs tossed over the stone edge as the sun set. I eavesdropped on a couple students, Americans, talking in that free, uninhibited language of new acquaintances who know they probably won’t see each other again after the summer ends.

There must have been a hundred people sitting along there, soaking in the dying light. It was so beautiful and so impermanent.


I thought of that moment lots today. I know, the cathedral will be rebuilt. Heroic firefighters saved its iconic towers. This is a comfort to me, and I hope that the reconstruction happens swiftly and safely. But I also can’t help but feel that it won’t quite be the same. How could it be? It won’t have had 800 years to gather its magic.

Maybe we, too, will find a way to rescue the foundations of the planet, of humanity. Maybe we will find a way to rebuild. But we’ve already caused irreversible loss. It will never quite be the same.

The older I get the more loss feels like a certainty, a fixture in my life. Lost loved ones. Lost years. Lost memories. Lost hope.

Things are changing so fast, and there is no escaping it. All day, every day, I think about this loss. It’s my job, after all. I think about glaciers melting and oceans rising. And I fight to at least slow it down. I know it’s too late for a complete halt.

Sometimes, not always, it feels like all I’m doing is grasping at air. Tonight is one of those times. I feel like I cannot hold on to any of these things. Like maybe trying to save the planet is as futile as wishing I could save Notre Dame from behind a desk, half a world away.

Maybe all we can do is watch it all crumble. A sweeping, horrific movie sequence with a tragic ending.



A welcome aloneness

Dear world,

I’m lying alone in a hotel in Banff and my toes are numb.

I am 25 years old and this evening I watched as light from the retreating sun spilled through the cracks between mountains. We drove into the Rockies, five of us in a big van, and I felt that quiet wonder that makes you feel alone even when you’re surrounded by other people. That feeling of, maybe I’m the only person in the history of the world who could possibly have ever felt this particular magic.

Having a hotel room all to myself makes me feel like I’m playing dress up.

I have my work laptop and slacks to wear tomorrow when I have to emerge and be a professional. But behind the closed door, dead-bolted for safety, I pull on an old t-shirt and pyjama pants and feel suddenly smaller.

The last time I was alone in a hotel room it was summer in Paris and I peeled off my travel clothing and sighed into a shower. I bought bread, cheese, prosciutto and figs and a bottle of wine for a feast that felt infinitely more decadent because it was only for one. When I had to borrow a corkscrew from a family staying the next floor up, I pretended that I was travelling with somebody else so that they wouldn’t know it was just me, and then revelled in my secret.

I like this away-aloneness because it makes it easier to talk myself into things like writing and reading and drawing. I wrap myself in a brave creativity that it’s easy to shy away from when I’m sitting on my own couch. I can wander Paris with a journal and write in a cemetery.

It makes me feel like I’m creating myself anew.

But then, the light on the mountains felt like solitude as well. In some ways, an alienation more real than the one that comes with closing a hotel door shut behind you and lying alone in the dark. A more ancient kind of quiet.

Maybe it’s just the mountains.

Still, I think, When you see something beautiful, do you also wonder how it’s possible that anybody else could feel and appreciate it quite as deeply as you do in that moment? Am I the only one who feels this kind of welcome loneliness? 



Nov. 3, 2018

Dear world,

Sometimes, I feel as though I’m trying to wring my stories from all the wrong places.

When I was 17, I wrote thinly-veiled love letters. I wrote about places and lives I wanted to inhabit and ranted about the great injustices I saw around me. I had a fierce, unearned confidence that made me verbose.

Eight years on, I feel older than I am. And death and sickness are easy wells in which to dip a pen.

Maybe the problem is that, at some point, somebody told me what makes a story (beginning, middle, end. Timeliness, conflict, impact, proximity. Lead, nut graf, kicker).

It’s easy to learn how to write and then forget that maybe not all your stories fit into complete sentences. Some fall short. Some have caveats that need to be crammed into brackets. Or have leftover fragments.

I’ve learned that, when you’re born into mid-December at 23-years-old, thin and over-medicated, you can heal yourself by learning to write again.

But when your cheeks fill in and the your brain repairs itself and somebody pays you for your words again, suddenly the roughness of your own stories can feel too misshapen for others to read.

And in my desire to keep churning out content, it’s often tempting to keep prodding at the knots of pain in my past as if one day I’ll be able to lay them flat enough for the pages of the New York Times or Atlantic.

But I don’t want to just mine my own tragedies for material.

When I was 17 I had a different blog, under a different name.

That’s where I put my love letters and dreams and rants. And it’s where I wrote about the questions, fears and hopes that hid in the everyday. I wrote about how I felt, then and there. I want to re-learn how to do this.

Some of my favourite pieces of writing to look back on are the ones I wrote back then. They take me back to such exact times and places, late-nights and hundred-year-old houses. They remind me of someone I no longer am and who I’ve always been.

(Also, I’m a writer. And sometimes the most important part of that is the act of it, even in all the instances of unpublishable mess.)

So today, I won’t try to force a story out of myself. I will reach for what is within my grasp, and try to let that be enough.

It is grey today. A Saturday afternoon after a particularly draining week.

It’s the first week of November but we’ve been resisting turning on the heat, so I’m wrapped in a scarf and my fingers and nose are a bit too cold.

I drove out to Coquitlam earlier for tea with a friend from high school. We talked about the world and about life. After a challenging week, it felt good to sink into a good conversation.

Tonight Dario and I are off to dinner at the home of another couple of friends’ apartment. We’ll bring a bottle of red and dessert from Purebread.

It’s daylight savings this weekend so we’ll gain an extra hour to sleep in tomorrow, contorted around the cat at our feet.

Life is both small and big. At work, I’m faced with huge, existential questions and challenges like, “How do we convince people and governments to change their behaviours in the next 12 years so that we can prevent catastrophic climate change?”

But right now I am suspended in a small pocket of time — almost removed, rain on the roof, writing.

Right now, I am this word in this sentence on this page of this story.


Photo by Dario Balca






Amsterdam days one and two: Pride, Albert Cuyp Markt, Jordaan, rijsttafel and Zaanse Schanns

Dear world,

Tuesday afternoon in Amsterdam.

It’s my second full day here and I’m sitting in the kitchen of our little home exchange, leaning in to try to catch the hint of a cross breeze running through the apartment.

I left Vancouver on Saturday morning and flew in to Paris. I have two weeks on the road and a mixed itinerary: four nights in Amsterdam with my parents, three solo in Paris, and then a week in Toronto to celebrate my dear friend Karly’s wedding and spend time with Kirsty and other loved ones.

The original plan had been to stay in Paris with my parents for the full first week, but after their accommodations there fell through, I happily agreed to meet them in Amsterdam instead. Unfortunately I’d already bought my flights in and out of Paris so I had what felt like a long weekend of travel.

I left Vancouver on Saturday morning and flew to Paris via Calgary and Halifax, arriving at 10:00 a.m. local time. I took a train into the city, determinedly looking out the window as a woman dragged a speaker into the train car and sang Spanish ballads to the passengers from about half a metre away from me.

I headed to Gare du Nord, took out some Euros, and then wandered the streets in search of a reasonably priced café to park my bags, grab a bite, and read my book. It was a Sunday so lots of places seemed closed, and the streets were crowded with single and small groups of men, just lounging in doorways and on street corners and, in one case, urinating against a wall.

I stopped into a pharmacy thinking I’d pick up some sunscreen, but left empty-handed when a man repeatedly called out, “Tourist? Tourist? Tourist?” to me.

I’m not entirely used to travelling solo and am probably overly cautious as a female alone.

I ended up at a café near Gare de l’Est called East Bunker. I ordered a slightly-burnt croque madame, salad and deliciously cold Heinneken (no wine on the menu, surprisingly, but I reasoned that I was preparing for Amsterdam). I sat on the breezy patio and started a new book (Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue) and the server was very nice about letting me take my time.

I left at 10 to 2:00 p.m. and wandered into a park, which also seemed to be filled with young men lying on the grass and walking around in pairs and trios. I sat on a bench for a few minutes, but bolted when a man sat down on the other end (rather than on one of the many empty benches around) and then suddenly lunged towards me.

As it turns out, the scare was well timed because I’d gotten the wrong time for my train to Amsterdam. I arrived to the station at 2:17, looked at the departures board and saw that my train number was schedule to leave at 2:25, not 2:45 as I’d thought.

I ran down the platform and boarded just in time.

It was a three-hour trip to Amsterdam, and I dozed on and off the whole time, my jet lag starting to catch up to me after more than 24 hours of travel. As we pulled into a pit stop in Brussels, I noted that by the time I hit Amsterdam I would have been on the ground in four separate countries this weekend.

Lucky me, though. When I did reach my final destination there was a wonderful welcome party to greet me!

My parents have been living the life this summer, spending six weeks in sunny Europe. They’d already done three in Paris and stops in Bruges and Brussels before I met them, and they were sun burnt and relaxed when I arrived on the platform, having just spent a day on the beach.

We transited back to this apartment, which actually belongs to a father and son who are currently staying in my parents’ North Van apartment. I’m staying in the son’s room, which is very teenage-boy: an Assassin’s Creed poster, a paper target riddled with (hopefully pellet?) bullet holes, and a bunk bed that’s mine for the next few nights.

I was tempted to climb up into the bed and give in to my exhaustion, but instead I joined Mum and Dad for a simple dinner of salad and bread and cheese and then we headed out to explore a little.

It was the final night of Pride so we paused to watch a washed-up Spice Girl sing and dance. The Dutch are very tall so between that and the haze of marijuana smoke (not ours), the view wasn’t great, but it was still a fun atmosphere.

We walked around the city centre, down restaurant row and past a small line of houses that my Mum said used to house devout Catholic women, but not nuns. My parents took an audio walking tour when they first arrived in the city so they were brimming with little facts like that.

I slept through the night, happy to finally have the chance to lie down and close my eyes somewhere other than a moving vehicle — though I’m also infinitely grateful for the chance to fly and take trains across countries and continents.

I woke up ready to take on the day on Monday, and decided that early-morning-jetlagged-after-a-long-flight was a good state to take on a run. Hint: it was not.

I suffered through 5 km, taking a couple photo breaks along the canal before heading back to the apartment and taking a well-deserved shower.

We headed out around 9 a.m. to check out the Albert Cuyp Markt, the biggest street market in Europe. I picked up a couple cute tote bags just a couple stalls in, one for Kirsty and one for me, and then we wandered through the rest of the blocks of the market, stopping one other time for a breakfast of stroopwafels: thin wafers stuck together with syrup in the middle.

There were lots of stalls with cheap souvenirs and clothing displays spilling out of nearby shops. One had an impressive array of produce, another had a sign hanging that said “best chicken in the market,” and there was a potent-smelling fish stall with fresh catch from the North Sea.

After the market we walked around the very trendy De Pijp neighbourhood, which is filled with charming looking restaurants like a robin’s-egg-blue dim sum spot with the neon tagline “steaming baskets of goodness,” and a brunch place called Bakers and Roasters with a line extending out the door.

From there we walked towards Museum Square. We paused on a bench by a lush lawn, and then walked up to a fountain with a suspended white sculpture of an astronaut, titled “Self portrait of a dreamer.”

Just beyond the fountain, crowds teemed around the iconic red and white “I amsterdam” sign. We jostled for a few photos and then retreated to search for a lunch spot.

We ended up in a little bakery and I had a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese while Mum and Dad split a “tosti,” basically a thin toast sandwich with pineapple and cheese.

By the time we finished lunch the temperature had climbed above 30 degrees. We went in search of the “Nine Streets,” or De 9 Straatjes, a shopping district that I wanted to check out. We walked along a couple streets of little restaurants and small designer shops, all housed in the skinny townhouses that are so common in Amsterdam’s town centre.

Many of these buildings are charmingly (and sometimes alarmingly) crooked, and it’s fun to take photos of them across the canals, trying to catch cyclists riding by in the foreground.

We walked to the Jordaan neighbourhood and grabbed a couple beers and a water and then Dad and I sat and dangled our legs over a narrow canal while Mum staked out a bench further back. Jordaan is much quieter than around Dam square or restaurant row. It’s not entirely closed off to traffic but the lanes are narrower and it was mostly pedestrian and bike traffic while we were there.

We took a tram back to the apartment for a rest, then were out again in the evening in search of a restaurant to try rijsttafel, or “rice table,” a Dutch specialty that is really an Indonesian specialty, since it originated during colonial occupation of the Southeast Asian country.

Rijsttafel is a complex array of small shared dishes, served with rice. In total we sampled fifteen dishes: coconut and chicken soup, sate skewers, vegetables in peanut sauce, tofu in green curry, fried bananas, and more. It was a belated birthday celebration and also an ode to Anthony Bourdain, who shaped so many of our travel experiences and aspirations.

I actually almost ended up living in Amsterdam, a fact that keeps popping into my mind this trip. I accepted an offer to a Master’s program in genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam back in 2015, and spent part of my summer preparing to spend a year in a city and country that I’d never set foot in before, a task that involved watching Anthony Bourdain’s Amsterdam special multiple times.

Ultimately, I opted to stay in Toronto and spend the year working at CTV, a decision that I don’t regret. But it is funny to think about what it might have been like to live here.

I think I could have gotten on board with the countless bikes and canals, and definitely would have been down for the occasional rijsttafel feast.

We took the train this morning to Zaanse Schanns, an open-air museum/village about 20 minutes outside of the city known for its windmills.

As it turns out, the towering windmills and old buildings aren’t originally from that spot. Rather, they were transported and reassembled there starting in the 1960s. There was a small fee to go into many of the buildings, but we toured a clog workshop, which featured displays of work clogs, painted clogs and intricately-carved wedding clogs, a former mustard mill, and a cheese shop.

My favourite mill was a paint mill, Verfmolen de Kat, which, according to the sign out front, used to power the grinding process necessary for creating paints back in the days of Rembrandt, but we didn’t go in.

We also took a long, hot walk up to a lookout point, around fields and canals, and then by the bases of the windmills. It is a very picturesque location: a glassy river and calm canals, cows loudly mooing, and tall grasses waving in the slight wind, but also full of tourists, trailing each other like long lines of ants.

By early afternoon I was hot and feeling a little unwell, so we packed up and headed back to the apartment for a rest.

Tonight we are going to try to book a boat tour along the canals, and tomorrow we are going to the Anne Frank museum in the morning and then perhaps Dad and I will borrow the apartment owners’ bikes and take them for a spin.

Cyclists here are fearless and the undisputed rulers of the streets. I picked up an electric bike bell for Dario. Hopefully it’ll inspire some Amsterdam-style confidence on his daily commutes.

À demain,


Hong Kong Day Seven – Lin Heung Tea House, Man Mo Temple, PMQ and Yat Lok round two

Dear World,

We got a bit of a late start to the day on our final day in Hong Kong, trickling out of the apartment at about 10 a.m. and making our way to Sheung Wan in search of Lin Heung Tea House.

By our final full day in the city we’d started to feel like pros at navigating the place. Hong Kong’s MTR is fast and pristine and though we ended up on a couple busy trains I never felt as packed in as rush hour in Toronto or even Vancouver. We’d also learned to pay attention to which lettered exit we needed, as many of the stations are so huge that different exits could be blocks away from each other.

We were also feeling confident enough to venture to the famous Lin Heung Tea House, an old-school dim sum spot renowned not only for its food but for the lengths that people will go to to get their favourite dishes.


We entered and found a spot to sit across from a man who appeared to have already finished eating and was flipping through a newspaper. We sat at the table for a few minutes, watching the pandemonium and trying to figure out the system.

There was a crowd of people, mostly young women, waiting by the entrance of the kitchen to pounce on the next food cart and its towers of bamboo steamers. Whatever didn’t get snatched up right off the bat made its way around the rest of the restaurant. Of course, we were almost at the end of the circuit.

Still, we decided to start with ordering off the cart, and picked up a dish of fish heads on bean curd. It wasn’t a dish I was familiar with but it was very tasty. I popped the eyeball in my mouth, gave Dario the fish cheek (what my grandfather used to say was the best part) and we picked over what were mostly bones seeped in rich sauce.


While we worked on that I tried to motion to the older women pushing carts past us that I wanted to take a look inside, but for the most part they had no time for my nonsense. Luckily one of them tapped me on the shoulder so that we could order some shrimp in rice noodles with peanut sauce, and then we managed to get some pork meatballs with Chinese parsley.

Three dishes in we saw a frenzy by the kitchen so I gathered my courage and entered the fray. Dario was concerned that he wouldn’t know his own strength in a face of the feisty but petite competition so we agreed that I should be the one to get up and get dishes. Luckily this first attempt was pretty orderly and though I just-missed a steamer full of har gow (shrimp dumplings), I did return triumphantly with some siu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings.)

We’d been eyeing the table next to us as they expertly amassed a number of dishes and so when the next trolley came out I rushed over, perhaps a little over confident. The little lady behind the cart reminded me a bit of my grandmother, but while my Ngin-Ngin always ensured I was more-than-well-fed, this Chinese grandmother was literally swatting away peoples hands as they shoved their ordering cards in her face and called out the names of the dishes they wanted.

I wasn’t confident in the name of the lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice that I was eyeing so I did my best to be assertive and point but ended up having to wait until she’d helped about six or seven others before she grabbed my card without looking me in the eye. I went to grab the hot basket as soon as she stamped by card and she exclaimed loudly and shook her head at the ignorant foreigner while she slipped a plate underneath so I could comfortably carry the hot dish back to our table.

When I returned a new couple of men had joined us at the table and one of them was feeling chatty. When he suggested I get up to grab another dish, however, I shook my head. “Too tired!” I said, giving him a good chuckle.


Maybe it was the atmosphere or maybe it was actual the food itself, but we found the dishes at Lin Heung possibly more delicious than at Tim Ho Wan, where we’d eaten on Sunday. As we paid up beneath a cage with a motionless bird (either fake or stuffed) we agreed that we were happy we’d braved it: it was an experience we won’t soon forget.

After dim sum we had a few more places in the area that we wanted to see before I was scheduled to meet up with my friend Kathryn, who I first met on a trip to India in 2011 and who was in Hong Kong for a work trip. After a couple day trips it felt oddly familiar to be walking around Central and we followed the well-marked street signs to Man Mo Temple, a central temple dedicated to the gods of literature and justice.

Today the temple is run by a hospital foundation. We toured a smaller room first, with beautiful lanterns hanging from the ceiling, statues of what I guessed were various deities (I confess my ignorance here so if anybody has more details I’d love to hear) and oranges and apples arranged as offerings.

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The larger room had a sunken area with rows of more lanterns and, above, what looked like spiralling incense holders to funnel the smoke around. Towards the back was a sort of shrine, but by the time I made my way in that direction the smoke was so thick that my eyes and throat were beginning to burn, so I exited back into the sun light.

We walked a little down Upper Lascar Row, where vendors on either side of the street sell zodiac charms and jade figures and folding fans, then up Hollywood Road, also known as Antique Street, though we didn’t enter any stores there.

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Many of the street corners and alleys in that area have colourful murals and the vibe is decidedly artsy. The pinnacle of that is the former Police Married Quarters, now called the PMQ. The multi-story building used to house police officers and their spouses but it’s now been converted into trendy shops and a cat-themed café on the first floor and artists’ studios on the upper floors, all surrounding a courtyard with art installations.


We spent a couple hours wandering the stores and a couple floors of studios and then settled into the café for a guava smoothie and some sweet Taiwanese milk tea.

The studios and stores had a great selection of both aesthetically-pleasing jewellery, clothing, ceramics and fine tea, and also streamlined and functional products that had earned awards for their design. Dario and I lusted over some sleek watches and cufflinks in the shape of Chinese characters and necklaces shaped like the outlines of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

The term “made in China” is often used in a way that suggests a product is cheap or utilitarian but it was important and interesting to see such a flourishing art scene.


At 2:00 p.m. we headed out and Dario called an Uber to get me to the Shangri-La where Kathryn’s Bay Street company was putting her up. I felt a little under-dressed sitting in the lobby but was soon distracted when Kathryn suddenly appeared beside me and pulled me into a hug.

We headed to the eighth-floor pool and lounged in the water and chatted for a couple hours. The last time I saw Kathryn was back when I lived in Toronto, but in the years since we first met in Udaipur, India, we’ve managed to reconnect in Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa as well. It was nice to relax with an old friend in yet another city, and to speculate about where and when we’ll be reunited again.

After some down time with Kathryn I found my way to Admiralty MTR station and took the metro back to Sai Ying Pun where Dario was enjoying some peace and quiet of his own. We rested for a bit and then headed out to Central for our final evening in the city.

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I wanted to return to the Chinese barbecue restaurant on Stanley Street, Yat Lok, for dinner. We arrived at about 8:40 p.m., and the server was almost-immediately in our face, asking for our order. We’d wanted to change it up a little from last time and order twice the char siu but half the goose, since Dario isn’t the biggest goose fan (a flaw I’ve chosen to overlook/take as a positive because it means more for me).

I was feeling a little flustered and asked her two or three times for more time as I scanned the menu but then she pointed to the clock and said “closing!” before huffing away. Dario looked it up and they did indeed close at 9:00 p.m., earlier than we’d thought, so then we ordered in a hurry and ended up with a bowl of noodles, goose, char siu and lettuce in oyster sauce and one of noodles, goose, roast pork and lettuce in oyster sauce. I didn’t complain about the extra goose.

We ate as quickly as possible, even though they were still reluctantly seating tables when we finished up at about 9:03 p.m. For fifteen minutes, however, we did get to enjoy some of the best Chinese barbecue out there.

After dinner we went for a bit of a walk. Dario wanted to finish off his roll of film and I wanted one last bubble tea. We wandered up into Lan Kwai Fong, the famous night life area, but were turned off by the loud, drunken tourists spilling out of the various bars. Instead we headed back to Sai Ying Pun to what had become our own little neighbourhood, climbed the hill up to Third Street and took the elevator up to our 16th-floor apartment.

We were packed and ready to go by 7:30 a.m. the next morning, with only a brief stop at a bakery en route to the airport express metro line. Even though it counted as an international flight, it turned out that we couldn’t check in until two hours before boarding, so we ate a second breakfast at an airport MacDonald’s and enjoyed the free wifi.

Our flight to Xiamen was delayed by an hour, but that was no problem since we had an eight-hour layover planned in the city already. When we finally did arrive and go through Chinese customs we spent a few hours in a little coffee shop right outside the airport (you can enter the city for a short amount of time without a Visa, but we didn’t have the time or stamina to really explore). We had a disappointing dinner in the airport and I caught up on some writing. Then at 9:40 p.m. we departed.

We touched down in Vancouver at 6:15 p.m. local time — three hours earlier than we left Xiamen on paper, but nearly 12 hours later in reality.

Now I’m lying on our couch, feeling suddenly struck by jet lag for the second time today. I woke up at 5:30 a.m., unable to sleep, and went to T&T for groceries. I wanted to stay up through the afternoon in preparation for work tomorrow but I ended up falling into a deep sleep in the early afternoon, before forcing myself out for some coffee and a walk so that I wouldn’t sleep through to the evening.

We drove downtown and bought a sandwich and salad to share while sitting on a bench by Coal Harbour. It was 24 degrees and breezy and the oceans and mountains looked deeper and more muted than their Hong Kong counterparts. There were still patches of snow on Grouse.

I felt like we’d never left and also like we weren’t really back, and Dario said, “We really do live in the best place on earth.”

I may already be planning my next big trip (Paris and Toronto, August 2018!) but he’s got an excellent point.


Man Mo Temple
Upper Lascar Row
Hollywood Road (Antiques Street)
Lan Kwai Fong

Lin Heung Tea House
Yat Lok Roast Goose

Hong Kong Day six – Lamma Island, the Ladies Market and wonton at Mak’s Noodle

Dear World,

Starting this entry from a table in Xiamen airport, a couple metres from where we had beers on our layover heading to Hong Kong.

We left our apartment in Sai Ying Pun at about 7:30 a.m. this morning and have been travelling for nearly 12 hours. By the time we reach our front door we figure it will have been a 25 or 26-hour journey.

I’m tired and my stomach is feeling a little unsettled after a meal of almost-inedible airport chicken, and so I’m happy to pick up where I started journalling two days ago, with our excursion to Lamma Island.

We’d originally planned to spend Thursday morning hiking the Dragon’s back trail, but after our packed day on Lantau, the idea of retreating to Lamma Island,  car-free locale famous for its laid-back vibes and beaches, was more enticing than trekking a few hours in the feels-like-36-degrees-with humidity heat.

We vowed to save the hike for when we return at a later, cooler date one day, and headed to the Central Piers to catch a ferry to Lamma.

The boat pitched so dramatically when we boarded that we lost our balance, but we found a spot by the window and it was fun to watch as we sped past little fishing boats manned by just one or two people in peaked straw hats. Not-as-fun was watching the plastic bottles and other trash bobbing in the waves and catching in banners of sea foam.

We arrived on Lamma and walked past a large bike lot on our way into town.

Lamma Island ferry dock

Lamma Island ferry dock, flanked by bikes.

I’ve noticed that lots of people have bikes with small wheels and tall handle bars and Dario told me that the design makes it possible to actually fold the bikes up, which I guess makes sense in one of the most densely packed places on earth. Of course, the main Lamma Island village of Yung Sheu Wan did not have the same bustle as Hong Kong Island’s business centre or the Apliu Market in Sham Shui Po.

We walked past a few seafood restaurants with huge outdoor seating areas (Lamma is famous for its fresh seafood) and a harbour with a scattering of boats and stacks from a large power plant looming in the distance.

It was still early in the day so many of the shops were closed, but that was fine because we wanted to walk to the beach as early as possible to avoid too much walking midday, a mistake we’d made the day before.

It seems as though many stores, restaurants and even bakeries in Hong Kong don’t open until later in the morning than we’re used to at home, something that held us up even when we started our day in Central on Monday.

Dario had the inspired idea to buy a couple bottles of beer to drink on the beach (Hong Kong has open-carry laws, unlike back home) so we stopped in one of the little shops that was open. We grabbed a couple Heinekens from the fridge but there was no employee in sight.

Instead, there was a sign instructing us to deposit our money into a machine on the counter. We scanned our bottles first, the machine flashed a total and then we fumbled around, trying to figure out where to leave the cash. Just then, a voice from somewhere in the back of the store, out of sight, called out “push the green button!”

I jumped a little, pushed the button, and a cover lifted to reveal a spot to insert our bills.

The machine spat out our change in a clattering parade of coins and we were on our way, but not without me nodding my head towards the direction of the disembodied voice and muttering “I don’t know why he couldn’t have just done that.” Dario, on the other hand, declared it the best shopping experience of the trip.

It was about a half-hour walk to the beach from the ferry dock, first through the village and then along a path with thick vegetation on either side and the occasional large, mystery bug for us to examine from a respectful distance.

Walk to Hung Shing Beach

Views along the path from Yung Shue Wan to Hung Shing Beach on Lamma Island

The beach itself was quite beautiful, sandy with a few trees set back from the shore and a cluster of rocks jutting into the water where a couple of girls were conducting their own mini photoshoot with a digital camera and tripod.

We set up camp on a bench in the shade and Dario used a carabiner to pop open the beers. I pulled out my notebook to do a bit of writing, took a swig of the warm beer and said, “Ahh, Rwandan-style,” referring to the fact that when I had to specially request cold beers when I was in Kigali a few years ago. The default was to serve them warm.

For some reason Dario found this highly amusing (he felt it necessary to specify that it was my delivery, not my wit). But the moment of levity was short-lived when he realized he’d forgotten his bathing suit.

I said I’d just run in for a quick dip and then we could sit for a bit while I dried off, and then head back to the village. I ran down to the water, the sand hot under my feet, but stopped short in my tracks.

As beautiful and cool as the water looked from afar, there was a literal barrier of trash that I would have had to wade through before getting deeper in the water, where only an occasional piece of plastic would be in my way.

I ran back to our table, feeling a little disappointed about not being able to swim and also sad to think of all that garbage amassing in such a uniquely beautiful place. Working at an environmental law non-profit has made me acutely aware of the value and fragility of natural places, and marine plastic pollution has been a hot-button issue this year, thanks to some shocking footage in BBC’s Living Oceans series.

This is the year we learned that the Great Pacific garbage patch is now significantly larger than the area of France, and just a couple weeks before our trip I’d seen a photo of a plastic bag floating in Marianas Trench, so the sight of all that plastic gloating in the gorgeous waters of the South China Sea was not only off-putting but a little upsetting.

Still, we stayed on the beach a while to enjoy a delicious breeze and the view (minus the power plant pillars), then packed up and headed back into town for lunch.

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Dario was mildly suffering from the head at this point so we went on a hunt for air conditioning. But unlike on Hong Kong Island, most places appeared to be open-air.

We ended up at one of the big restaurants we’d passed when we first walked off the dock, and requested a table inside. There were a few groups sitting in the outdoor area, but we were alone inside, save for the chattering servers.

We asked about the daily specials but the server paused just long enough when citing the prices for us to wonder if he was giving us “special” tourist rates. Instead, we ordered seafood fried rice, sweet and sour pork (not my usual favourite but I had a weird hankering after watching a Youtube video of a guy eating the dish at a Dai Pai Dong), and a platter of prawns topped with mounds of crispy garlic and chilis.

The prawns were huge and sweet and meaty, possibly the best I’ve ever had, but the rest of the meal was sub-par.

The real kicker though was the price, which came out to about $60 Canadian and included a surprise charge for the miniscule bowl of peanuts that they’d served us without us having ordered it. It was more than we would have normally paid at home for similar but better fare, and stung even more because we had budgeted to make it to the end of our trip with our remaining cash.

Oh well though.

We brushed it off as the type of small misstep that is bound to happen to even the savviest travellers and went to browse in some shops (but not buy anything, given our depleting funds).


A man selling dim sum baskets outside a restaurant on Lamma Island.

Lamma has a reputation for attracting creative types and some of the store fronts that had been closed when we first arrived were now open, showcasing colourful imports from India and Thailand. We looked around a little store with lovely postcards and crafts by local artists, and one specializing in cat paraphernalia. Then it was on the ferry and back to our apartment for a rest.

In addition to many other things, we will remember this trip as the week we became enthralled with the Netflix special “Wild, Wild Country,” which is about a group of religious fanatics that set up a commune in Oregon. In other words, a story very far removed from our sightseeing and culinary escapades in Hong Kong, and a nice was to occupy our minds as we cool off with a cold drink.

We set out for Mong Kok in the evening to return to Showa, the camera store, to pick up my negatives. We strolled around the Ladies Market after and I proved myself to be the most ineffective bargainer ever, but I did come away with a few colourful totes for loved ones back home.


Evening in busy Mong Kok.

We transited to Tsim Sha Tsui for dinner and ended up at a Mak’s Noodle, a famous noodle and wonton restaurant with a couple locations, not to be confused with Mak Ming Noodles, where we had our first meal in the city.

Mak’s was clean and actually quite chilly, with emerald green walls. We’d been told that portions there are small but delicious, so we ordered a bowl of wonton and noodles each and some beef brisket and noodles to share.

Everything was fresh and hot and savoury. For me, wonton is the ultimate comfort food. Forget Campbell’s chicken noodle, I want Hon’s (or, perhaps now, Mak’s) wonton soup.

After dinner we walked down to the water and sat on a bit of a curb beside a perfectly manicured lawn by the space museum and enjoyed the evening air — probably the coolest few moments outside of the trip at a comfortable 29 or 30 degrees.

We were a little too later for another Symphony of Lights but there were still plenty of people around, taking photos by the water or lying on their backs on the grass.

I took a few photos with Dario’s DSLR (I didn’t even bring mine on this trip and have been relying on my film camera and iPhone) and I felt deeply content: a little tired, recently-fed, a comfortable temperature, an amazing view, surrounded by other people also spending an evening just taking in the atmosphere and, of course, with Dario beside me.


Night views across the harbour.

It wasn’t until the train ride back to the apartment that a small sadness crept in: tomorrow would be out last day, the final 24-hours of a bucket-list trip.

But that bittersweet feeling is familiar and a good thing, really. It’s a sign of an experience (or group of experiences, really) well-earned and well-anticipated, well-enjoyed and temporary in a way that makes it all the more remarkable and altering.

It’s a sadness shaped by knowing how lucky I’ve been to see this place and stay a short while, and lightened by the anticipation of returning home, to beautiful Vancouver, my own bed and my cat.



Hong Kong day five – Tian Tan Buddha and Tai O

Dear World,

We started the day on Wednesday with a quick stop for some pastries a couple blocks away, in the same bakery that we had coffee in just after arriving in the city. All the bakeries here have little metal trays and tongs and you select your own buns and bring them up to the front to pay.

I also added a matcha milles crêpe to our order because if you can’t have cake for breakfast when you’re on vacation then what’s really the point?

We took the metro all the way to Tung Chun Station and then followed the signs to get to the Ngong Ping 360°  cable car. We had a bit of a wait to board the gondola — probably the longest line we’ve waited in our entire time in this busy city, but then we were swinging up and over a little bay and towards the mountains.

Our frame of reference for cable cars is the Peak to Peak in Whistler. This ride was much longer and the car a little smaller, seating eight of us.  It took us up and over a couple of ridges, each falling away to reveal another valley and rise. Directly below us was a narrow little path, completely empty in the morning heat.

Maybe 20 minutes in, we crested over the final hill and there was the Big Buddha, towering over Ngong Ping village. It was breathtaking.


We de-boarded and walked straight through the “village,” which was really more of an Epcot-style stretch of souvenir shops and restaurants catering to tourists.

Even though it looks as if it could be an ancient marvel, the Big Buddha, or Tian Tan, was actually constructed in the 1990s. It is made entirely of bronze and towers at 34-metres high.

To get to the statue, we walked under a big white arch, along a path flanked by “generals” representing each of the 12 zodiac signs (Dario and I are roosters) and past some scruffy dogs panting in the shade and one large brown cow.

It is a 260-step climb to reach the Buddha, so we arrived at the base of the statue a little out of breath. Once there, however, the view was enough to steal our remaining oxygen away.

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The Buddha loomed over us, totally serene in the harsh sun. Beautiful Bodhvistas flanked the seated Buddha on either side, holding out offerings. And beyond were the lush hills, cradling the red, green, blue and yellow Po Lin Monastery.

We slowly circled the Buddha, which sits on a large lotus symbolizing purity, taking countless photos trying to capture how truly stirring the setting is. I couldn’t help but feel that there was indeed something sacred about the site.

We walked down the steps and I went to buy some meal tickets so we could have a vegetarian lunch in the monastery, while Dario said he was going to search for a washroom. When we sat down for lunch in the sparse monastery cafeteria, however, he pulled out a little beaded jade bracelet that he’d snuck off to buy while I was paying for our meal. The pale green beads were from Burma, he explained, and the proceeds went to charities that the monastery supports.

Lunch was simple and mass produced but good. A woman in a short yellow jacket served us a pot of rice, soft tofu with chillies and corn, assorted veggies with soy, spring rolls and greens with shiitake mushrooms. The only dish I couldn’t get behind was a murky wintermelon soup.

After lunch we walked over to the monastery’s “room of 10,000 Buddhas,” a large hall with four big statues in the centre-back and thousands of smaller figures set into the walls. The ceiling was also very intricate.

Outside we walked through a haze of incense and headed towards the “Wisdom Path,” a loop lined with towering wooden planked etched with the Buddhist Heart Sutra.


The path was only about a fifteen minute walk from the monastery, but by the time we reached it we were dangerously overheating and the 15 or 20 steps up around the circuit seemed insurmountable. We snapped some photos from part way down the path, the rested a while in the shade before heading back to Ngong Ping for a Frappucino.

As we hid from the midday sun, we considered heading back to the cable car and going back to our apartment instead of going on to Tai O, a fishing village on Lantau Island, just a short ways from the Big Buddha.

We’d only bought a one-way ticket for the gondola, however, and were running dangerously low on cash. After searching for and ATM without any success, Dario saw that the once-an-hour bus to Tai O would be arriving in just a couple minutes so we rallied and boarded.

It was a shaky, 25-minute drive around hairpin turns to get to Tai O, with tree branches scratching at the window every time we had to make way for oncoming traffic. But the seats were comfortable and the air conditioning strong and when we de-boarded in Tai O, we were happy we’d pushed through.

Tai O is a small village known for its stilt homes. Home to the Tanka people, the main source of income for residents has traditionally been fishing, but today the tourism sector is growing.


When we entered the town from the bus lot, a man advertising 20-minute boat rides to see the houses from the water and maybe even catch a glimpse of the elusive oink dolphins instantly greeted us.

We forged past him and down a main street. It was mostly quiet, perhaps due to our mid-afternoon timing or perhaps just because the town itself is always hushed.

There were a couple other tourists wandering behind us, store keepers half-watching as we inspected the pungent dried seafood on offer, and then there were couples and trios of school children barrelling along on their bikes, ringing their bells to signal that we should move aside. We figured that the school day must have just ended.


Dario and I wandered along the same road as the shops and people thinned out. Many doors had little shrines with burned-down incense sticks and oranges out front, the same set up as the neighbour across the hall from our AirBnb in the city. At one point we passed an open living room ringing with the sound of clattering mah jong tiles and chatter from a group of shirtless, middle-aged men inside. Other homes and lots appeared empty or abandoned.

Eventually we turned a corner just beyond a walled-in temple and found ourselves on a bit of a dock, looking out over some small boats and elevated homes. Small silver fish, about the length of my palm, glinted in the sun.

We walked a bit further, taking a few photos, before Dario suggested we turn back. By that point we were the only people around outside and we felt a little like we were trespassing in a private space.

We walked back to the entrance to the village and decided to use some of our remaining cash to hop into a boat. We were the last ones of board so we got to sit on a bench at the very back, right beside the helmsman.

First, he took us down a couple canals to see the houses from the water. The view was indeed better from that angle, where we could see porches crammed with plants and ladders leading down to small boats overflowing with netting and other gear, and a green mountain backdrop.

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Then the boat turned out into more open water, picking up speed over the choppu waves. We didn’t see any dolphins, but the breeze did feel nice.

There were a couple moments when the engine stalled, including when we pulled up to a dock to drop off a family and their bags at what I imagine was a small waterfront resort. When the engine did rev back to life, it propelled us head-on into the stone jetty.

We made it safely back to land, though I felt bad for the driver. If he depended on tourists paying him 30 HKD (about $5 CAD) per person for tours of the village, I wasn’t sure what would happen if his boat broke down once and for all.

Our good luck with bus schedules continued and we only had a couple minutes to wait before boarding one back to Tung Chung, where we could connect with the metro. It was a long ride — almost an hour — and I was feeling beat from a packed day (not to mention that I’m naturally prone to conking out in moving vehicles), so I had a short nap.

Dario was feeling a little car sick by the time we pulled into Tung Chung, however, after a ride that was just as bumpy and winding as the trip from Ngong Ping to Tai O, but nearly three times in length.

We returned to the apartment to shower and drop off our bags and cameras, and then headed across the street, feeling rested and ravenous. We feasted on fried chicken cutlet and squid, garlicky noodles, pork on rice and sausage with sticky rice and sweet milk tea with tapioca pearls for me and an iced lemon black tea for Dario.

Then it was back to our apartment to watch some Netflix and call it an early night.



Summer baby/Oak Tree, Snowstorm

Dear World,

It’s been a hot July day and I’m officially 25 years’ old.

I’m lying in bed with my legs up against the wall, a habit I’ve always had but that I feel more justified doing now that I know it’s also a bona fide yoga pose. It’s 30 degrees out and my feet are crisscrossed with a sandal-strap tan. The fan is whirring.

My memories of birthdays growing up all seem framed like this: languid summer heat, corn on the cob, angel food cakes with cool whip. Or, in other special years, steaming canals in Venice, eating ice cream in Vienna and getting serenaded in an airport on the way home from Udaipur.

I’m sure it rained some years, but other than the time we held an early birthday-camping-party in June and it poured the entire time, I can’t recall a specific washed-out birthday.

Of course, there was also my 23rd, another scorching day. It was a month after my first seizure and I spent the occasion river rafting with a group of friends, quietly struggling to make the distinction between what was real and what wasn’t.

This year, Aneesha and Eli stole me away for a night out and follow-up brunch over the weekend, and Dario and I are planning an escape to Tofino this upcoming Friday and Saturday night, so I’ve been spoiled in that extended way that seems to happen when you combine generous loved ones and the need to arrange birthdays around work schedules and people coming in and out of town.

Today, specifically, there’s been little fanfare.

In fact, it’s been a very quiet Monday, July 23, 2018. And to be honest, it is a small blessing to have the space to reflect on this milestone.

I worked from home in the morning, essentially filling the hours with a series of video and conference calls. Then in the afternoon I drove to North Vancouver and took a bus up to Lionsgate Hospital.

I’d had to reschedule an MRI that was originally slated for earlier in the month, and didn’t want to be fussy when the receptionist asked if the afternoon of the 23rd would work. I joked to my Dad that, for my 25th birthday, I was getting the gift of the Canadian healthcare system. Definitely not something to take for granted.

Things were running a behind schedule at the hospital so I sat under the artificial waiting room lights and watched Jake Tapper try to moderate a panel on Trump’s latest harebrained proposal and daydreamed about what I’d eat as soon as I was allowed to break my pre-test fast.

Then I changed into a ballooning set of hospital pants and top that made me look like the newest cast member of Orange is the New Black and went to lie on a hospital bed, facing a black and white Ansel Adams print of trees in snow. I looked up the title when I got home: Oak Tree, Snowstorm.

From the hospital basement, summer birthday things seemed far away.

Hospitals are strange places for me now. Of course, I don’t think I know anybody who actually enjoys being in the hospital, but for me they trigger strong memories of feeling imprisoned, both in my own head and, literally, in a bed or ward.

I actually spent some time in Lionsgate when I first began displaying symptoms of Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis, more than two years ago. That’s where I went when I had my first seizure in June, 2016. And I landed there again for a five-day stretch soon after getting my diagnosis the following October, before being transferred to VGH for the bulk of my treatment and beginning of my recovery.

I don’t remember much of either stay at Lionsgate, but the first time I returned to the emergency room as a healthy individual (for a minor cut that, to my slight disappointment, didn’t end up even warranting a stitch) I immediately felt short of breath.

I don’t have comprehensive memories of the time I spent there, but even writing about it, I can picture moments: sitting in the emergency waiting room, knowing something was deeply wrong but being terrified I’d be told that there wasn’t.

Feeling cornered as a resident with horrible bedside manners tried to force me to speak and threatened to send me home without seeing a psychiatrist if I didn’t cooperate. The constricted feeling in my throat when the psychiatrist did arrive and I couldn’t make myself respond to him. How he told my parents I was being willfully, “selectively mute.”

I still feel the slow burn of anger when I picture him.

It’s hard to put those memories aside, even in the real world, above ground, when it’s sunny and people you love are around to remind you how okay you are.

But it’s even harder when you’re back in a bed, lying on the same style of blue and white hospital sheets under which you spent nearly two-months of — painfully sleepless, for the most part — nights.

But today, the MRI technician is nice. She asks me to recite my date of birth and congratulates me when she recognizes the coincidence.

The nurse who gives me my IV says I look familiar and I end up telling her about why I’m there and she says she’s never heard of Anti-NMDA. I recommend the book Brain on Fire and her eyes light up and she says she’s seen the Netflix movie and now she’s full of questions.

Did I also see things? Yes. Was I also misdiagnosed? Yes, as a matter of fact. In this very hospital.

She looks at me with the strange respect that people give you when they learn that you’ve lived through something that could have easily led to a less-happy ending. I know I have modern medicine and some brilliant doctors and nurses to thank, but I feel proud of myself too.

I am led to the room with the machine and lie down on a tray and the technician presses a button to raise me up and feed me in to the belly of the machine, like somebody sliding a pizza into an oven. They put headphones over my ears and I try to ignore the fact that they’ve set the music to a classic rock station, which is easy to do once the machine starts beeping and whirring.

I practice some yoga breaths and really it’s not that bad. When I finish, the technician tells me I did a good job, and it’s funny how nice it makes me feel to be praised for just lying there and holding my breath every once and a while.

When I emerge into the sun again the heat is radiating off the pavement and I’m famished. I find a half-empty poké spot and sit in the air conditioning.

I remember that I turned 20 on a Tuesday. It was my first summer in Ottawa and I was spending most days working at a local pub. On Tuesdays, however, I volunteered at a local women’s shelter in the morning and then had an evening creative writing class. In between my volunteering stint and class, I decided to treat myself to a birthday-sushi lunch for one.

I remember Dario calling me after his shift at his summer job, and sounding aghast to hear I was ringing in a new decade by myself.

In hindsight, maybe the picture of 20-year-old me, sitting alone in a Japanese restaurant in Ottawa is a little sad. But I didn’t feel sad at the time, and I didn’t feel sad as I sat by the window today and watched cars drive past me down Lonsdale Avenue.

Birthdays are funny, nebulous things. They can be exciting or dreaded, a reality check or something to ignore.

I lay on the beach with a friend yesterday and she told me that her fifteen-year-old brother recently looked at her and said, “You’re so old now. Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

We laughed but the pressure to have things all figured out by certain ages (often in multiples of five) is real.

And yet I feel as if, after all the shit that’s happened, I’ve been gifted with incredible perspective when it comes to these things.

I might not have made it to 25. I might not have been able to get up from that bed and away from the Ansel Adams photo and back into the sunlight.

This has been one of the most understated and beautiful birthdays I’ve ever had. I heard from so many people I love, and I finished the day with some coconut ice cream and Dario, in a city that is home.

My mum used to call me a summer baby, a lover of sunshine and salt water. This weekend I embraced the label and spent back to back days lounging in the sand and wading into the ocean.

It’s nighttime now and I’m lying in bed at the end of the day, but I still feel the sunlight pouring down on my eyelids.


Hong Kong Day Four – Sham Shui Po, camera-shopping in Mong Kok and Yardbird

Dear World,

I’m sitting on a sandy beach on Lamma Island, a half-hour ferry ride from Central on Hong Kong Island, gulping down a warm beer and enjoying the breeze. We have had such packed and exciting (and exhausting) days that I’ve fallen behind on my writing, so I’ll get right to it.

We started Tuesday morning by returning to the Star Ferry and hopping a bumpy ride over to Kowloon. This time we picked the right side of the ferry for a rewarding view of the Hong Kong skyline. Unfortunately, by the end of the crossing I was once again feeling quite seasick.

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We took the metro to Sham Shui Po, in search of the Apliu flea market, a street I’d read is a go-to for all things electronic including cameras.

One of our main points of reference this trip, beyond Google searches and personal suggestions from friends and family, has been a Youtube series called Digital Rev, which features camera reviews and photography tips from Hong-Kong-based photographers. I remembered an episode in which I was quite sure they’d hunted for vintage camera parts and eaten snake soup around Apliu Street and was eager to check it out.

I was still feeling a little uneasy from our Star Ferry trip, so first we struck out for a food stall called Hop Yik Tai, a rolled noodle place also recommended by our friends Nick and Iris and also a Michelin-Star recipient.

For the first time on this trip there was no laminated English version of the menu, just a handwritten list  of menu items on a large sheet of orange paper, so we quickly pulled up an image of the noodle rolls from the Michelin website and mimed our order with the visual aid.

It came out to 8 HKD, or about $1.30 CAD for a plate of rolled rice noodles, snipped with scissors right in front of us and doused in Hoisin and peanut sauce. We ate in the alleyway with toothpicks for utensils, and then dumped our reusable plastic plate into a bucket before heading on our way.

We walked through the stalls on Apliu Street but were disappointed to find only rusty old drills, radio parts and metallic karaoke mics. I was almost at the end of my roll of film so we ducked into a shop front on the edge of the market but the salesperson told me that nobody in the area sold film.

Dario looked up another camera store nearby but we soon became completely turned around searching for it. The city is so dense that Google Maps often has trouble pinpointing our location.

Feeling hot and frustrated, we ducked into a bubble tea spot and shared a cold milk tea with coconut jelly and tried to map out our next stop. We decided to forego our camera hunt and seek out a dai pai dong (outdoor restaurant) that I’d read about.

Sham Shui Po is a much more ramshackle neighbourhood than Central or even our digs in Sai Ying Pun. The pastel coloured apartment buildings are boxy and crowded, with air conditioning units and laundry lines hanging out of the windows. I spotted a puffy pink winter jacket out of one window and wondered if the rack was used more for storage than actual drying in these hot summer months.

Another interesting feature of Sham Shui Po is that the streets are almost all themed. If Apliu is for selling electronics then there’s another for selling toys and one for you buttons, ribbons, zippers and other DIY needs. Thanks to our faulty Google Maps, we managed to see these areas entirely by accident as we hunted for the dai pai dong.

When we did stumble upon the restaurant we were intrigued by the open kitchen right on the street, a blackened wok perched on a stove and a woman sifting through dishes in a bucket brimming with soapy water.

The food looked good too, but we ultimately decided that we didn’t want to risk the chance that our weak Western digestive systems couldn’t stomach the street food, so we left with only a few photos of the man out back expertly chopping the tips off of chicken feet with a massive cleaver.


Buildings in Sham Shui Po.


A man chops chicken feet at a dai pai dong in Sham Shui Po.

Instead, we decided to walk through a sort of industrial area to the flower market, really a bunch of mini-Art Knapps with some plants displayed outside. On the way we stopped in a bakery for some of the most delicious hot dog buns and egg tarts — childhood favourites — that I’ve ever had.

The heat was starting to wear on me by the time we finished walking through the flower market so we looked up the closest metro station, Mong Kok East, and made our way in that direction.

Succulents in the flower market.

Succulents in the flower market.

Unfortunately I’d failed to realize that Mong Kok East is a totally different station than Mong Kok, and that the line we needed did not in fact connect to where we were. We exited the station and re-entered the heat as we continued our search for the correct station.

In a bit of serendipity, our mistake ended up turning the morning around. Dario remembered that he’s also heard of camera shops in Mong Kok and a Google search of film cameras came up with a very cute looking vintage camera store scheduled to open at 2:00 p.m.

We killed some time in air-conditioned shoe stores boasting (non-counterfeit, we think) brand name shoes for a considerable discount compared to Canadian prices, and tax free! I found a few rolls of film in another camera store and was tempted by a pair of boots, but ended up happy that I’d saved my money when we finally arrived in the second-hand camera store, Showa, that Dario had seen online.

I was a little reluctant to climb the flights of steps to find the store, especially when the route took us past a questionable-looking foot massage parlour, but the pay off was great. We ended up in the coolest little camera shop, brightly lit and with a number of helpful hipster staff, complete with a little orange cat.

We amassed a number of rolls of film and I picked up a 28mm f/2.8 lens for my Pentax K1000 and Dario bought his own Nikon film camera, all for a bargain. To thank us for our shopping spree, the employee threw in developing one roll for free, so we left the 24-exposure roll that had been in my camera, already excited to return.

As we exited, Dario said, “Just that store is enough reason for a return trip…but maybe in the winter.”

We headed back to Sai Ying Pun with our new toys and the intention of returning to Winston’s, the café/bar where we’d had a couple drinks in the afternoon before. Unfortunately it was full, so instead we decided to check out a spot right across the street from our AirBnb called Yuan is Here.

We’d noticed lineups of people out the door on previous nights and were eager to see what the fuss was about. The server sat us at a shared table with another couple and the man instantly struck up a conversation, telling us about time he and his companion visited Vancouver and making recommendations off the menu.

We took their advice and ordered rice with pork, fried chicken, fried squid, gai lan with minced port and bubble tea. It wasn’t Michelin-starred but Dario declared it one of the best meals of the trip and made me promise we’d come back.

We returned to our apartment to write (me) and watch Suits (Dario) and rest (both of us) for a few hours. Then it was out again in search of Yardbird, a trendy and acclaimed izakaya-style restaurant that was recommended in a guidebook we bought of must-sees in Hong Kong, as recommended by “60 local creatives.”

We arrived to the chic, dimly lit eatery to see a sign on the door reading “BYOB.” Even though I’d heard good things about the cocktails it was a bit of a blessing for our wallets to duck out into the alley and stop in a 7/11 for a bottle of Oyster Bay.

There was only a short wait before the hostess sat us at the bar. Something we’ve noticed is that while places are busy, people seem to be in and out of restaurants quickly and there are so many amazing options that we haven’t faced the 45-minute to hour-long waits we’re often quoted at home.

A large Australian man with a man-bun took our order, poured us our self-supplied wine and tucked the bottle away in the fridge where it would keep cool between regular top-ups. Our 7/11 bottle seemed a funny accompaniment to the setting, but it was a refreshing touch of playfulness in an otherwise more upscale spot.

The food was also both a little playful and incredibly delicious. We started with a chilled eggplant and cucumber salad, followed by various yakitori skewers: chicken skin, heart, tail, liver, thigh, and a chicken meatball that came with raw egg yolk for dipping. We also ordered some fantastic KFC – Korean fried cauliflower, coated in a spicy-sweet sauce. It was perhaps the highlight of the meal.

We left a little buzzed off our bottle of wine and walked home to Sai Ying Pun, to our air conditioning and Ikea bed.

Another successful day in the city.


Star Ferry
Apliu Street Market

Hop Yik Tai
Yuan is Here


Hong Kong Day Three – Victoria Peak, Yat Lok Roast Goose and wandering Sai Ying Pun

Dear World,

Last night, we ventured across the water to Kowloon and to the Temple Street Night Market, Hong Kong’s oldest night market.

We accidentally wandered up to the wrong end of the market at first and I was a little dismayed at how small and seedy it appeared. Fortunately we heard a man say, “You know it goes on over on the other side of the park,” and so we made our way over, via a corridor of stalls selling garish sex toys, illuminated by flickering, blue-tinged lights.

Along the way, I turned to Dario and said, “I don’t think this is where we want to be.”


Temple Street Night Market vendors. Photo by Dario Balca.

The main section of the market, on the other hand, stretched for a number of blocks and consisted of brightly-lit white tents stocked with knock-off watches and bags, cheap cheongsams and kimono robes in vibrant colours, fidget spinners and much, much more. At the end of the street were a number of restaurants with expansive outdoor seating, advertising chilli crab beneath a neon sign reading “sex shop.”

Heat and exhaustion seemed to have taken away my appetite, however, so instead we followed our noses to a stall selling Hong Kong-style bubble waffles with scoops of ice cream. The Michelin Star logo on their menu board convinced us and we split a large plain waffle wrapped around two scoops of vanilla ice cream, complete with sprinkles, all while listening to a couple from Russia cover The Cranberries on a traditional two-stringed instrument.

It was perfect.

This morning we were out the door and on our way to Central at about 8 a.m. We walked around for maybe 20 minutes in search of a bakery for breakfast but most spots were closed so instead we picked up a sandwich and salad and freshly squeezed orange juice to go from Marks and Spencer and ate it on the sidewalk while smartly-dressed locals hurried past us to work.

We walked to the base of the Peak Tram and were delighted to find there was no wait to board the trolley up the mountain. It was a short, steep ride up through thick green foliage, past side streets and huffing hikers and then, as we neared the top, interludes of skyline views.

I was a little surprised to arrive to a sort of mall at the top, complete with a floor for souvenir shops, a Madame Tussaud’s, multiple restaurants including a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and an area where you could pose in front of various painted backdrops of the city and then purchase a photo to take home.

We walked to the Lions lookout and snapped a series of panoramas, and I turned to Dario and said, “this is what they call a world-class, one-in-a-lifetime view.”

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We headed inside to take the series of escalators up to the Sky Terrace viewing platform, only to realize it didn’t open for another fifteen minutes. It was okay, though, as we ended up first in line to go up, facing a squat employee who guarded the roped-off entrance to the escalator with great commitment.

At 10 a.m. on the dot he turned his key and the escalator hummed to life (have I mentioned that, as if to match the pace of the city, escalators seem to move extremely fast here?). We were the first ones up onto the platform and had a few precious moments to take a video of the space free from the crowds.

The view truly was incredible. Directly in front of us stood the densely packed skyscrapers of Central, hemmed in by mountain slopes. The ocean beyond was a vibrant turquoise, slightly muted by a thin layer of haze, and Kowloon beyond seemed packed with an impossible number of additional high rises.

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As Vancouverites we are blessed with an abundance of city, mountain and ocean views, but Dario and I agreed that there was no comparing to the scene from the highest viewpoint in Hong Kong and those back home — not in a better or worse way, but in the sense that, despite having the same basic components, the scale of the city, the vibrancy of the tropical greens and teal of the sun on the South China Sea, are completely different from the Pacific Northwest vistas at home.

Dario shared a photo on Instagram with the caption, “I used to call Toronto the big city.”

From the Sky Terrace, we walked a little down Lugard Road, a shaded trail with wide-leafed trees on either side and butterflies with wingspans the width of my open palm flitting back and forth. It was nice to walk in the shelter of the trees, high above the city, but soon we were hot and sticky and so we turned around to seek out air conditioning and wifi.

We bought a couple of pricey smoothies from a cafe inside and sat by the large windows, looking out at the view and plotting our next moves. We created a lengthy itinerary spreadsheet before leaving Vancouver and have been regularly referring to it for guidance (and then getting so sidetracked that we don’t follow the plan anyway).

We took the tram down to ground level and then walked towards the escalators before turning up onto Pottinger Street. I’d seen photos of the steep side street online and was charmed by the uneven steps and stones and intrigued by the descriptor “lined with shops selling costumes.”

What I didn’t realize was that the stalls were literally selling Halloween-style masks, animal onesies and dismembered rubber limbs.

That said, the first stretch of the street was strung with red paper lanterns and the addition of stylish women hurrying by in their loose-fitting summer wear made for lovely people-watching and photo-taking conditions.

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From Pottinger we walked up Hollywood Road, pausing to admire street art and duck into a shop or two. Then we boarded the Central Mid-Level Escalator and rode up four or five blocks before a lovely little lane lured us off the mechanized path.

There was something almost Parisian about the dead-end street with a small cafe to the left and I raised my camera to my eye to snap the final shot on my roll: laundry flapping in the breeze, framed by tree leaves.

I brought the camera down and fished another roll of film out from my bag and that’s when tragedy hit. Dario cranked the knob for winding up the used film, made a funny face, popped open the back of the camera and…it was empty. No film.

By this time we were both hot and hungry and I was feeling particularly irate, but Dario was very sympathetic and helped me retrace our steps to Pottinger Street so that I could re-shoot a few photos I remembered attempting to take earlier.

Then we walked back down Queen’s Road and up to Stanley Street in search of Yat Lok restaurant, famous for its Michelin-Star-earning roast goose.

We split a plate of char siu and goose over noodles, and one of roast pork and soy sauce chicken over noodles. Everything was amazing.

The char siu — Dario’s favourite — was the most tender and flavourful I’ve ever had, totally unlike the almost-candied variety from our local T&T at home. The chicken was moist, the skin of the roast pork perfectly crisp, and my favourite, the roast goose, was fatty and crisp and gamey in all the best ways. A meal to remember for less than $25 CAD total.

After lunch we headed back to Sai Ying Pun, intending to rest. I was still feeling eager to use up my film, however, so we took a detour to go see a street of dried seafood vendors that Dario had passed on our first day.

On the way we stopped at a very trendy cafe/bar and Dario ordered a cold brew and .I had a cocktail that smelled heavily of anise. The setting was so hip that we felt compelled to order a second drink and eavesdrop on the effortlessly cool baristas who all looked Chinese and spoke Cantonese but were also fluent in Australian-accented and British-accented English.

We ordered to “Gwei-lo” beers — slang for “white person” or “westerner” — and lingered on bar stools by the window.

Feeling rejuvenated, we finished our walk among the dried seafood stall, photographing the translucent balloons of former sea creatures in the pungent air.

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Then it was back to the apartment to cool off with cold showers and cold drinks.

We were out the door again in the early evening and took the metro to Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Kowloon side.

We walked from the station to the waterfront next to the space museum and staked out a spot to watch the Symphony of Lights. Even before the show began, the skyline and harbour were lit with the glow of city lights and massive advertisements for banks and tech companies.

At 8:00 p.m., music began playing through nearby speakers and laser beams shot into the sky. The lit-up billboards and stripes of lights along the skyscrapers opposite of us began pulsing in concert with one another, flashing text in English and Chinese and images of people walking and paint dripping down the buildings. It was fun to watch but really the view on its own was just as mesmerizing.

After the show, we walked up to a mall. Dario keeps asking why everything here is in malls and I really don’t have a better guess than “because they’re air conditioned and because consumerism.”

This particular air-conditioned consumer magnet also housed the famous Din Tai Fung, however. And even though we knew we could find another location in Seattle, we were almost out of cash and opted for a meal that we knew would be good and that we’d be able to pay for with a card.

As it turned out this particular Din Tai Fung (which has also earned a Michelin star! We are becoming total snobs!) far, far exceeded our expectations. The menu was a little different than when we went in Seattle, save for their famous xiao long bao, and so we ordered two baskets of soup dumplings, some cold green beans with pork and dried shrimp, pork and spinach wonton in chilli sauce and peppery pork cutlet over egg friend rice.

On a trip during which every meal seems to top the last, it certainly fit the trend.

After dinner, we walked a bit along the water near the clock tower and Star Ferry terminal, and then boarded a ferry back to Central. Unfortunately I led us to the side of the boat without a view of the city and the rollicking motion, combined with the heat, left me feeling quite seasick. But the ride was brief and we soon disembarked and headed home to our Airbnb.

We are having such an amazing time here.

We booked this trip in dreary Vancouver January and now that we are here I already feel like I’m fighting my own memory as I race to put impressions down on paper: the pace, the sounds, the flavours, the colours, the smell of raw pig hooves and sight of leafy Chinese banyan trees hanging in the humid air.

Right now home — wonderful as it is — is far away. My couch, my kitchen counters, my desk, are all out of reach. But soon enough that set up will reverse.

Before it does, I’m doing my best to strike that balance between soaking it all in, capturing it all by camera and pen, and stopping long enough to catch my breath.

À demain,



Temple Street Night Market
Victoria Peak and Sky Terrace
Pottinger Street
Hollywood Road
Mid-Levels Escalator
Symphony Of Lights

Mammy Pancake
Yat Lok
Din Tai Fung