Video: Slab City And Living Without Laws

I recently discovered the VICE video series on YouTube. I like this series, which features off-the-beaten-path travel and other strange, yet fascinating topics. I watched a few videos from the VICE channel consecutively the other night before realizing how much time had passed. This video features Slab City. Residents call it the “last free place in America”. The land does actually belong to someone – well, an organization for teachers – but these folks have moved in and called the land home. Filled with hippies, veterans, drug addicts and more, Slab City isn’t your everyday California destination.

A Day in Slab City

Indian YouTube star Wilbur Sargunaraj makes a “first-class” Canada video


Wilbur Sargunaraj first became a viral hit with the YouTube video Love Marriage and has been called “India‘s first YouTube star,” making songs and videos combining the “funny foreigner” schtick of Borat with a Bollywood beat. Sargunaraj’s further projects have served to increase our “CQ” (cultural quotient) with “first class” videos like the informative how-to on using an Indian toilet.

For this new “Canada cool” video, Sargunaraj went up north to Ottawa, where it’s -40 degrees (fun fact taught to me by a Canadian: -40 is where celsius and fahrenheit meet!). He does a lot of Canada fun activities, like ice skating at the Rideau Canal and eating BeaverTails on Ottowa Street. Check out the video and leave us your comments: internet phenom or flash in the pan?

Thanks to Legal Nomads‘ Jodi Ettenberg for the video.

Drink at Barcelona’s “secret” bars

Barcelona is a nightlife-lover’s paradise. Between the city’s thriving music scene, liberal drinking laws and the generally hedonistic social attitudes of many Spaniards, you’re almost assured a good time when you go out. I have spent many a night wandering the narrow streets of the Barrio Gotico neighborhood, hopping from one tiny bar to the next while enjoying a few mojitos with friends.

If that’s not convincing enough, an article in today’s Guardian points out that nightlife-lovers have yet another reason to visit Barcelona – a growing trend of “hidden” bars. In recent years an estimated 40-some-odd illegal drinking establishments have sprung up, thanks largely to the okupas, Spanish squatters who occupy the city’s many empty buildings.

Spiraling housing costs have put buying or renting apartments out of reach for many Spaniards, who have taken to occupying empty buildings as a last resort. Some of the more enterprising squatters have created bars with their space, earning themselves some extra cash. A few spots to check out include:

  • El Mariachi – a favorite hangout for the city’s musicians, this quirky spot is nothing more than a few mismatched pieces of furniture. The real highlight is the cocktails, which include the Hydro-Miel, the house specialty mixed with honey. (Corner of Carrer dels Codols and Carrer d’en Rull, Barrio Gotico)
  • El Armario – another tiny spot in the El Raval neighborhood. The name in Spanish means “wardrobe,” which is accurate: you literally walk past the owner’s clothing collection to get inside. (Carrer de la Riereta, El Raval)
  • The Front Room – this bar, which does not seem to have an “official” name, occupies a small front room behind a tiny metal door on the Carrer d’en Carabassa. (Metal door opposite 5 Carrer d’en Carabassa, Barrio Gotico)

If you want to visit these places, be prepared and be patient. Most don’t have signs or set hours of operation, usually opening after 2am when Barcelona’s other bars are shutting down. Furthermore, their illegal status makes them targets for closure by police. In other words, have some back-up drinking options. But if you’re headed out with an open mind and little bit of persistence, Barcelona’s hidden bars look ready to offer a uniquely Spanish “night on the town.”

A bathroom problem of “Olympic” proportions

When I first saw the venue designs for this summer’s Olympic games in Beijing, I was quite impressed. The Chinese have pulled out all the stops to create several cutting-edge stadiums for the games, including the Beijing National Stadium designed by award-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron and the Beijing National Aquatics Center, which looks like a huge floating cube of water.

However, as the BBC reports, China may have spent a little too much money on those architecture fees. Prompted by frequent visitor complaints at test events, the Chinese are scrambling to replace traditional squat toilets at the venues with western-style “loos” for an expected 500,000 visitors. According to the BBC, who quotes Yao Hui, Deputy Head of Venue Management, “Most of the Chinese people are used to the squat toilet, but nowadays more and more people demand sit-down toilets.”

Gee, Yao, do you think? I have no problem adapting to a traditional squat toilet if I’m coming to visit China on my own, but perhaps when you have visitors coming from as many as 200 different nationalities you might want to standardize? I guess if you’re headed to this summer’s games in Beijing, make sure you bring your own toilet paper and maybe take a look at this for advice. Also take a look at this for more “traditional” background info on Beijing before your visit.

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The top 10 World’s Dirtiest Cities:


You’ll never guess what made the list!

A Canadian in Beijing: Being Light

Here I am in my eighth week here in Beijing and I realize that I have been a bit slack this week in keeping you up-to-date about my experiences. In just four days, I will be exactly two-thirds of the way through my trip. There is so much to write about and so little time. Life has wrapped me up here in the summer sunshine and I am lolling in a hammock of activity. It’s perfect: a contradiction of being both busy and blissfully relaxed.

There’s really two reasons for not writing as much this week: first of all, as just mentioned, I’ve had a hard time finding the time to write about one event before another has swept me up into its pace. The second reason is that I have been intermittently traumatized by the absurd response to one my posts that was linked to through AOL. As of today, it has had more than 100,000 hits which has resulted in so many hideous, xenophobic comments and accusations towards this amazing culture and towards me as a writer here. (I used the word “intermittent” above because I have had moments when I have been more amused, and thus reassured, rather than traumatized. I suppose there is a balance in everything.)

How does a writer recover? Well, this writer has stepped back this week to truly take in this experience of living in Beijing. I really wanted to spend the week feeling this city and culture fully so that this next post could be a true reflection on my time so far, as a whole, rather than just on one experience or interesting fragment of such a vast spectrum of light. I know that fragments make good stories, but receiving such surprising feedback to that one post has made me suddenly feel as though perhaps these posts are incomplete. After all, it’s impossible to show you the panorama of my China experience with just one story. I could suggest reading each and every post (and some of you do, so thank you!) but with this post today, I’m hoping that I can give some sort of summary of what it’s been like so far.

I’ll start with a handful of the practical things:

Since arriving, I have learned some great lessons. For one, I’ve located plenty of vegan food and I am eating extremely well now that I have enough language skills to order correctly in restaurants and to read labels in the supermarket. When I don’t, I know enough to be able to ask clarity or grab the arm of one of my Chinese friends and hope they’ll accompany me to the grocery store! Also, I no longer have to be in a vegetarian restaurant to eat. I know what I can eat and what I can’t and I know what is “safe” vegan food and what isn’t. All in all, my health is steady (and I’m over my cold!) and I feel strong.

I have also learned to always put my toilet tissue in my front pocket of my jeans and not my back pocket. When squatting, your pants are pulled down and so the back pocket of your jeans finds itself sandwiched tightly between the backs of your thighs and your calf muscles, thus making it impossible to fetch the paper without standing up again. Simple thing, you think? Well it has taken me weeks to remember that “the front pocket is the place for toilet tissue,” aka: my mantra. I’ve even had to repeat it quietly to myself before putting the tissue in my pocket. I was slow in the uptake on that one!

Finally, and probably most importantly, I have friends here and a flourishing community. I feel part of a crew in several different scenes and it’s a great feeling. There’s no end of social opportunities and I feel connected to several thriving urban worlds and aware of what’s going on. With all the travelling I do back home and now living the country, I sometimes feel detached from “scenes.” Returning to this reality is like living in Toronto ten years ago for me. It’s been great fun. I haven’t had any problems fitting in or making contacts and I love the clarity that I’m finding in the exchanges I’m having. So much openness and care and love. These will be lasting connections, I have no doubt.

And, on a more philosophical note:

Being in China has been incredibly liberating. There is a heaviness that has lifted from my chest that I didn’t even realize I was carrying. It lifts a little more every day and, despite the air quality here, I’m breathing better than I have in years and I feel more alive than I ever imagined. Lighter. In my life back home, I am planned and organized. My schedule is laid before me in a neat pile of itineraries and scheduling. I love my life, don’t get me wrong! I love the travel and the performances and the gift of making music every day. I am incredibly lucky! But I had forgotten what a joy it could be to have *no plans* except living.

Some of my friends at home have told me that I’m too serious. I think too much at the best of times. I often have to push my mind aside to make room for my heart. I over-analyze and apply a certain degree of importance to every decision, so much so that I find meaning in everything and/or assign meaning to everything. This hyper consciousness has served me well and has meant that I am alert and aware and present in my life. The downside, however, is that I rarely allow myself to just bounce off life like light on a city, never knowing where my beams will refract and reflect and, furthermore, not presupposing its path to ready myself for any consequences or results. I rarely just wait and see… how it all feels.

Because after all, light is just light. I am just another human being here. Light will travel as I have done and it need not be assigned great importance, though nor should its affect be unappreciated. I’m paying attention to its beams, hitching a ride and taking notes. Somewhere in the middle is an equilibrium that has shocked me with its simplicity. Beijing makes me feel both small and enormous in my potential.

China has lit me up.

Which brings me to my role here as a writer, too. I’m here to tell you about my experiences. Sometimes, I find some cultural practices hard to understand, but I am overwhelmed by humility here – hyper aware that I am a foreigner coming with a foreign perspective and there will be much that I don’t understand. I am learning so much every single day and this learning is incredibly nourishing. My respect for Chinese culture and the Chinese people whom I have met here grows exponentially with every new character learned, every new personality I’m introduced to, every new cultural practice that I am taught and invited to take part in. It is all a great privilege and I am typing this with a gratitude that I had no idea my heart could feel. It’s immense.

This past week, I have also had the wonderful opportunity to include my art in this experience. I know I already had a gig in April, but this really felt like my first gig this week. It was a great success and really was the experience that showed me that I have built a real community here of both friends and supporters and contacts. Since then, I have performed yet again (last night) and I’ve yet to tell you in great detail about either show. I have much to report and I ask you to just be patient for my slightly anachronistic posts this coming week. I’m busy gathering some additional photos as well, which always makes a post more interesting, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

All in all, I will hold the next four weeks close to my chest. The word Beijing is just one letter away from the word “being.” I have often made this typo since arriving and I realize now how appropriate this missing “j” is to my experience.

Being here is truly being.

Alive.

In love.

China.