Month: July 2015

Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon

I was walking down a desolate street in the middle of a hot afternoon and. Closed signs and shuttered doors of bars and theatres stared back blankly at me as if to say, “Don’t you know what time it is? Come back later.”

Then I reached the intersection I was looking for at northwest Everett street in central Portland, Oregon. Kitty corner across from me there was a big pair of stone gates with Chinese characters. Beyond them, an oasis and a tea house.

Lán Sū Chinese Gardens in Portland, Oregon is the result of a collaboration between Portland and their sister city, Suzhou, in Jiangsu province in China. Suzhou is known for its beautiful Ming Dynasty gardens. Although I’m no expert, Lan Su staff say the Lan Su garden in Portland is one of the most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China. A wealthy 16th century family home is recreated inside the garden.

Lan Su Chinese Gardens in the sun.
Lan Su Chinese Gardens in the sun. It really was a crazy hot day. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

The tea house inside at the back of the garden is run by The Tao of Tea and set inside a building known as The Tower of Cosmic Reflection. It’s the coolest place name I’ve ever heard.

I recommend doing the garden and house tour first and then stopping for tea and snacks at the end.

This was my first time having someone present “gong fu cha” to me and the Lán Sū Chinese Gardens were the perfect backdrop.

Sitting by the open window of the second floor of the tea house, I felt more like I was in Suzhou than Portland.

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My server was extremely knowledgeable and quick to recommend the Frozen Summit Oolong when I asked him to suggest a favourite. Healso had a great flare for showmanship, pouring my tea with grace and flourishing the wet leaves under my nose to sniff. As he performed the gong fu ceremony he explained every step.

This was the start of my west coast oolong kick.

Frozen Summit is a single origin tea from Lugu in Central Taiwan. I should mention that The Tao of Tea is a local Portland company. They provide all the tea in the Lán Sū Tea house and are a 100% pure leaf tea company, meaning they use no artificial flavours, colours, or preservatives.

Gongu fu cha

Gong fu cha is what you call the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and it literally means, “making tea with effort/skill“.

While not as rigorous or formal as Japanese tea ceremony, gong fu still has specific rituals surrounding it. The idea is for you to be conscious/present when you pour the tea. Basically, put some effort into it.

Gong Fu paraphernalia includes an unglazed clay tea pot, a serving pitcher, several small clay tea cups, a set of bamboo tongs for moving tea leaves, a ceramic bowl for holding the tea leaves, and a slotted tray to capture overflowing water.

All the gongu fu cha paraphernalia.
All the gongu fu cha paraphernalia. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

I asked my host to treat me like an absolute novice when it comes to Chinese tea.

We begin the ceremony by having me smell the dry tea leaves in the white porcelain bowl.

THen he takes the tea from the bowl using his bamboo tongs and drops them into the clay  tea pot. He adds hot water (around 85˚C), and swirls it around in the teapot, before dumping it into the serving vessel (as seen in the photo above).

This first infusion is just to ‘awaken’ the leaves. It gets poured out and the hot water is added again for the first drinking infusion.

A trademark of gong fu cha is the multiple steeps. The first steep is quite short – about 15 seconds for this oolong.

Subsequent steeps become longer and longer – adding about 10 seconds each time.

Once the tea is sufficiently steeped, it’s poured into the serving pitcher (the thing that looks like a gravy boat). This is so that all the tea you drink from this steep has a consistent flavour. My host tells me this oolong will be good for about seven steeps, and has me smell the wet, steeped tea leaves to appreciate their aroma.

From there, it’s poured into the tall “aroma” cup. Then, the shorter drinking cup gets placed over it and flipped upside down to empty the aroma cup contents into the drinking cup.

I’m then given the aroma cup to smell – once again, appreciating the tea. After that, I continue to sip from the small drinking cup.

You repeat the process over and over for each steep until the serving pitcher is empty.

My host said I didn’t have to flip the aroma cup over every time – that I could just pour the tea straight into the drinking cup from the serving pitcher if I liked, but it was too much fun flipping over the cup. Did you hear the ‘bloop’ noise in the video above?

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Lan Su Chinese Gardens also had amazing snacks. Dumplings, veggies, and larger meals were available too. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Marbled tea egg at Lan Su Chinese Gardens. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Marbled tea egg at Lan Su Chinese Gardens. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

There are a few different types of light snack on offer. I tried steamed dumplings, bao-zi (steamed buns), and a marbled tea egg.

All were good, although I wish there had been meat-filled steamed buns available. I recommend the marbled tea egg for the more adventurous. It has a unique taste; a combination of soy sauce, star anise, and pine-smoked tea. The smokey flavour really comes through. You’re served the egg at room temperature or slightly warm.

There is a lot on offer for tea drinkers here. If I were a Portlander, you would probably find me sleeping under the tables.

In terms of atmosphere, clay pots line every spare inch of the shelving. Chatty patrons are sitting in bamboo chairs and at wood tables. The smell of dumplings snakes through the air from the kitchen entrance. Students from the local Wisdom Arts Academy play soft, traditional Chinese music on their liuyeqin and yangqin instruments.

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Altogether a wonderful experience. Even if you’re not a hardcore tea drinker, I think anyone would enjoy this combination of delicious snacks, tea and heritage under one roof.

Entering the the Lán Sū Gardens costs $9.50 for adults, $7 for students.

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My First World Domination Summit (a.k.a. The Time I Helped Break a Guinness World Record)

I never thought I’d go down in history for eating waffles in Portland, Oregon.

I should have known better.

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To back up, a couple weeks ago I attended World Domination Summit (“WDS”), a yearly gathering which aims to host attendees who care about community, service and adventure.

This was the Summit’s fifth year, and over 3,000 people were involved between attendees, volunteers, and Portland locals who joined in for some of the events.

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WDS was started by Chris Guillebeau (gill-a-bow, I had to constantly remember not to use the french pronunciation), a young internet entrepreneur who you may know from his blog, The Art of Non-Conformity, or one of his manifestos: 279 Days to Overnight Success, or A Brief Guide to World Domination.

To sum it up, WDS is a weekend conference for people trying to live an unconventional life in a conventional world, as the tagline goes. I have to say, it was pretty unconventional. The speakers ran the gamut, from holistic OB/GYN M.D. Lissa Rankin, to CD Baby Founder Derek Sivers.

A common thread (other than their inspirational and entrepreneurial talks) was that they were all prolific, self-made entrepreneurs with very strong internet presences.

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One thing I took away from this is that WDS and Portland in general is a very tight community. I was a first-time attendee, and a lot of the people present at the conference had been before, and a decent amount had even been all five years.

Previous attendees I met were quick to tell me how much I was going to love WDS. I love that people are so passionate about it, but at times could tend more towards waxing nostalgic about previous WDS years than living in the moment.

Speaking of meeting people, my biggest recommendation for future attendees is to:

Attend the Academies and Meetups

While the mainstage and keynote speakers and the people you meet in line at “The Schnitz” are great, I found more people who shared common goals at the Academies, and it was easier to get to know people.

There are just so many people who come to WDS. There are fortune tellers who make their income online, guys who bike around the world for a living, social activist graffiti artists, corporate types, non-corporate types, people from all over the world, people from Portland, etc.  A lot of them are kind of tech-savvy hippies, but not exclusively. It’s a super interesting, very large crowd to try and parse through. It can be overwhelming.

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Academies are smaller (40-300ish people). I went to the Location Rebel (Hosted by Sean Ogle) and Language Lab (Hosted by Benny Lewis and Scott Young). I particularly liked the practical part of the language lab where we broke off into groups of the languages we were trying to learn, and I got to practice my bad mandarin for a few minutes.

太好了!

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Meetups are even smaller, with some of them having less than twenty people each. Even better for getting to know people. One of my favourite meetups was Women in Travel-themed at the Swine Moonshine and Whiskey Bar.

All meetups were listed and could be R.S.V.P.’d to using WDS’ proprietary scheduling app for iOS and Android. It made it very easy to find out what was going on, and where.

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Academies Started on Thursday; I arrived on Wednesday and spent a lot of time walking to and from locations in the city, and it was hot, hot, hot!  By the time the after-party rolled around on Sunday evening I was feeling mentally, physically and socially burnt out.

I started looking forward to some nice focused time on the road, driving from Portland, OR to San Francisco, CA, for the next leg of my journey. This didn’t stop me from going out to the after-party, or making a last-minute stop at Voodoo Doughnut though.

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Breaking the Guinness World Record

What an unforgettable way to start the week; breaking the Guinness World Record for the Largest Breakfast in Bed. We couldn’t just eat breakfast as we arrived in Pioneer Square; we had to wait until 600 of us were in bed together and then eat in sync for five minutes in order to qualify, beating the record previously set by Shanghai in 2014 (388 people).

During our wait in the line for breakfast, we were treated to Rose City Coffee, Kind Bars, and endless donuts from Voodoo Doughnut. The main ‘course’ was a veggie breakfast burrito from Elephants Deli and a yogurt and granola parfait from KIND snacks. There were no complaints here. All were in good spirits for the event.

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The event was dubbed ‘Worldwide Waffles’, but in lieu of Belgian-style waffles, to meet the needs of 600+ breakfasters, stroopwafels were used.

They’re a Dutch brown sugar cookie with caramel-like syrup on the insides, and the Dutch girl in me jumped for joy. I love stroopwafels.

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Tying in with their theme of service, all the blankets and beds that were bought for the event were donated to local organizations that support families in need.

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Overall, WDS gave me a great intro to Portland’s culture, and a great weekend full of advice and new relationships and ideas for my own career that I’ll be ruminating on in weeks to come.  There were a lot of really amazing people both on stage and in the audience, and I think they’ve got something really special happening there.

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In fact, I would love to see something similar start in my hometown of Halifax. Just an idea for the cookie jar.

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Would I go again?

Because of my location (I’m in Halifax on Canada’s East Coast) I doubt I’ll be going again next year simply because of the cost. However, my experience was very positive and I could definitely see myself going again in future years, likely worked into another road trip or leg of a larger journey. It’s an entrepreneur Disneyland.

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Next year instead of 3,000 tickets, they’re limiting it to 1,000. Shrinking the size of the conference sounds like a great idea to me, as I think it would mean running into the same people more often, and allowing for more intimate discussions and relationships.

Tickets aren’t for sale yet, but check out their website to catch the first wave. They always go fast, so I recommend subscribing to their newsletter to keep on top of it.

 

 

10 Things to Do at the Cottage in Nova Scotia

One of the favourite summer activities of the homo sapiens nova scotians is to pack up the vehicle with food, family, and as many friends as you can gather to make a break for the cottage.

Taking part in this time-honoured tradition (often preceded by a mad dash to pack everything into the car) will galvanize your Nova Scotian-ness, and usually makes for an entertaining weekend.

The North and South shores of Nova Scotia are dotted with cottages, and cottage rentals.  I recommend the North Shore.  The body of water there is called the Northumberland Strait, a little horseshoe of water between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. It’s much warmer than the unbridled Atlantic Ocean you’ll find on the south coast.

1: Enjoy the Journey There

Most cottages are at least an hour’s drive away from the city (and by ‘the city’, I mean Halifax). There are lots of spots of interest along the highways of Nova Scotia. You can play mini golf at Mastodon Ridge, that funny little place that pops up on the highway when you reach Stewiacke and inevitably draws your attention. Don’t forget to get a picture with the mastodon.

Rural Nova Scotia is a weird and wonderful place. You may come across antique dealers, microbreweries, old barns that need exploring, and any other manner of interesting things along the way.

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There are tons of abandoned properties in rural Nova Scotia, and they’re always fun to explore. Use your own legal discretion when exploring other properties. Remember to be cautious when going into places with unstable roofs and floorboards.

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You never know, you might find a 100-year-old taxidermied bald eagle.

2: Set Up the Cottage

Be prepared when you arrive to spend about 20-30 minutes preparing the cottage for habitation, especially if this is your first visit of the season. Some cottages need to have their electricity or water turn on manually after the winter (or every visit).

Chances are you’ll probably want to open the windows and air the place out a bit. A lot of cottages can get musty pretty quickly.

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You’ll also use this time to call dibs on whatever beds are available. Do not be lazy about dibs. Get the best surface you can. Give me liberty or give me…. the couch is fine, really. I’ll take the couch.

3: Get Your Beers Cold and Stock The Fridge

 

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I recommend doing all groceries before you leave, or on your way to the cottage. When you get to the cottage you can just throw it all into the fridge and start enjoying yourselves right away.

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A cooler of beer (or your beverage of choice) must never be more than five feet away. Be sure to designate your favourite cooler for this important job.

4: Play with the Ocean!

There’s all kinds of weird stuff here. Swim! Pick stuff up! Gather hermit crabs! Pet the jellyfish! Go fishing! Dip your toes in the seaweed! Go collect some beach glass! Make sand castles and fill them with jellyfish royalty!

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5: Play Games!

Cottages are prime game-creating spots. Such as the noble pursuit of soccerisbee, seen below:

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Bring some balls to knock around, try creating your own game, or enjoy one of the classics like soccer, football, badminton, etc.

In case of inclement weather, there are always cards (crib is a personal favourite), Scrabble, Monopoly, or other relationship-testing board games.

You don’t really know someone until you’re four hours into a particularly long round of Monopoly.

6: Lay Around in the Sun

Going for a swim and then lounging on the beach while you dry is a great feeling. So is reading at the beach. Please don’t forget your sunscreen though!

A cheap beach umbrella can also save you a lot of sunburn hassle.

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7:  Be Lazy

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You know, it’s okay if you don’t read those seven novels you brought with you. Stop judging yourself and just fall asleep on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. It is goddamn luxurious.

Cottage_Nova_Scotia_Mel_Hattie-33If you fall asleep, you are at risk for having photos taken of you while you sleep.

But for laziness, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

8: Thou Shalt Barbecue

Cottages are basically made for barbecues. Some of my favourite things to put on the barbecue are:

  • Meat: Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Steak, Pork
  • Not-Meat: Tofu, Portobello Mushrooms, Apples, Red Peppers, Corn, Onions

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All these things work great directly on the grill, or placed in packs of tinfoil with butter for extra-tender, caramelized deliciousness.

9: Build a Campfire

But wait! First, decide who is going to be firemaster.

The firemaster is the person amongst your group of friends who is in charge of building the fire and deciding what to do with it.

Appointing the firemaster is to prevent backseat firebuilders from nagging whoever is working on the fire. Much like the backseat driver, they say “Do it like this!”, and “No, do it like this!”, and “You’re out of control!”

If you can agree on one firemaster to begin with, everyone can agree to surrender control of the fire to them, and it creates a much more harmonious campfire building atmosphere (especially if you have a lot of friends who are used to being the boss).

So yeah, build that campfire.

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This might also be an opportune moment for someone in your party to grab a guitar/ukulele and start a sing-along, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Once you’ve had one campfire, your next goal is to build a bigger campfire.

On the beach.

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While you could for sure haul your own wood out to the beach, what’s more fun to do is to have all your friends trawl the beach for driftwood and then build a campfire out of that. If there are any felled trees on the beach, you can also chop those up to use for wood.

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While it is legal to use driftwood and already fallen trees, it is not legal to chop down living trees from the area near the beach to use for firewood (unless it’s on your own private property). This is to prevent desertification of the coastlines. Actually, while we’re here,  Nova Scotia’s Beaches Regulations is not a long read and I recommend taking a quick look over it just as an FYI before you head down to the cottage.

Also, yes. If anyone from the tropics is reading this, Nova Scotia’s beaches are often hedged with forest, often (but not exclusively) these tend to be softwood (spruce, cedar, douglas fir, pine).

Any time you build a fire, please follow with the obligatory s’mores and weiners on sticks.

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The number one mistake I see people make is that they don’t wait for a good bed of embers to form before they try to roast their treats. Wait until the fire has burned for a good little while and you’ve got a good, glowing base of coals.

10: Let Your Phone Battery Die

How often do you get to just be with friends nowadays? If anyone asks, reception tends to be iffy around cottage country anyway.

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Charity With 20s Elegance: Lawn Summer Nights in Halifax

For the last two years I’ve been involved in shooting the Cystic Fibrosis charity event known as Lawn Summer Nights.

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Lawn Summer Nights (“LSN”) is an intense summer fundraiser in cities across Canada that takes the form of a month-long lawn-bowling tournament in the host city (awesome, right?). Teams of four or more people enter, with the minimum fundraising bid being $100 per person.

They meet on four Thursday nights in July to have a huge bowl-off, complete with sponsored food, swag, and of course, prizes for the biggest fundraisers.

In Halifax, LSN is hosted at the St. Mary’s Lawn Bowling club, which has spectacular views of the Northwest Arm.

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But not only are the views at this event spectacular, so are the people.

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I’ve met some of the coolest people in Halifax here. Most participants are young professionals between 20 and 35. It’s so awesome to see such a large charity event attended with such vigour by young adults who are excited about making a positive impact on the world.

There’s also a fair bit of fun to be had, with teams dressing up in themed clothes, prohibition-era jazz music playing, and lots of Gatsby-esque dressing encouraged. This is actually quite an easy event to shoot, because everyone looks so goddamn good. There’s even a prize for best-dressed, so please feel free to unleash your flare.

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Tickets for next year’s Lawn Summer Nights aren’t yet available, but when they do become available, expect them to sell out quick.

A lot of the faces I saw at this year’s event were repeats from last year. Obviously they realized what a good thing this was. I’ve been told tickets for this year’s event sold out in less than thirty minutes.

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Keep an eye on the website and the Facebook Group for updates throughout the year, and for tips on when next year’s event will be.

For a complete gallery of all the awesome people, food, spectacles and sparklers from the Lawn Summer Nights Halifax finale on July 23rd, 2015, check out my Flickr album, here.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah. Wow. I knew Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was up there in my personal list of top twenty writers, but I was not prepared for how much I was going to like this book.

I knew absolutely nothing about it beyond the back cover summary, and I became overly excited when I read, a few pages in it’s revealed that the narrator is a female Nigerian writer living in America who runs the anonymous blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negros) by a Non-American Black.”and who makes observations on the train such as, “the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing the disappointment of a public service”.

SOLD.

This novel takes the form of a bildungsroman, wherein Ifemelu (our protagonist narrator) is pushed from an adolescence in Nigeria, to adulthood in America, and then back to Nigeria again as an established woman.

I identified strongly with Ifemelu as a writer, a blogger, and an at-times-insecure but stubborn and intelligent young woman who takes risks and states what she sees plainly around her, who is able to sit up out of the trench of cultural norms and take a look around.

Prize observations in the novel include our narrator’s remarks about race, class and privilege; not just from her own standpoint, but others including her own traditional family, other Nigerians, black North Americans, other immigrants, non-African blacks living in America, white academia, black academia, and WASPs.

The ability to speak so candidly about real-life conviction and experience should be applauded, and if she makes you mad, all the more success to her.

Her description of Nigerian immigrants living in America, and what they represent to their families living back home speaks to a poignant immigrant archetype and misunderstandings that arise between those that leave and those that stay behind.

Everyone wants to come to America, but is America really better? What is it that makes you an Americanah?

I also think this novel should be required reading for all North American high schoolers. As is addressed in the novel, white North Americans (and especially Canadians, I think) are taught from a young age to be ‘colourblind’. That is, we ignore race because we are told that race, ‘is no longer an issue’, despite the extraordinary evidence to the contrary, and the fact that social groups among teenagers still tend to be insular in terms of both race and class.

Honestly, she made me wished I had talked to my non-white friends more about race and their experiences when I was younger, and has encouraged me to try and ask more often and keep a more open mind about the racial experiences of my non-white friends going forward.

The same idea also applies to class. Many of Americanah’s young Nigerian adolescents undergo class transitions. The secondary character (and Ifemelu’s longtime love interest) Obinze goes from a failed immigration to the U.K., to squatting in his cousin’s flat in Nigeria, to multi-millionaire within the span of a few years.

Economic differences are the second driver behind race in Adichie’s book. While Obinze stays a relatively similar character to his friends even after his rise to wealth (despite his constant wondering if he is a fraud), another of his childhood friends moves to the U.K. and marries a wealthy white lawyer, and then does all he can to hide his poor, Nigerian past, including dismissing his friends when they are not white or rich enough for his taste.

If you don’t know the difference between the African Students’ Association and the Black Students’ Association, you should read this book. If you want to read about an immigrant experience, you should read this book.

I’m going to stop setting parameters now; you should just read this book. If you are alive, you’ll benefit from it. Read it.

There’s also a bittersweet love story at the heart of the book, which will draw you in even if class and race arguments are not your usual cup of tea.

Chimamanda has also made Ifemelu’s senior blog, The Small Redemptions of Lagos ,a real thing.  Although it hasn’t been updated since November 2014, it contains a lot of ‘bonus’ material: posts on daily life in Lagos (the most populous city in Nigeria, located on the coast) and a few passages that serve as epilogues to the characters’ stories in the book.

I would recommend reading the book and then taking a look at the blogs, but don’t let that stop you from doing it the other way around if you’re so inclined.

You can pick up a copy of Americanah from Amazon, here.

p.s. You may know (but not know you know) Adichie from her sample on Beyoncé’s track “Flawless“, from her 2013 TEDx Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” which has also been adapted to book format, and is available for only $7 from Amazon.

 

How To Have a Great Weekend in Kejimkujik National Park

For Nova Scotians who are working year-round, a weekend trip up to Kejimkujik can deliver a large dose of summer in exchange for a rather short time commitment.

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The first thing you need to do is pack up your vehicle and drive from Halifax. It’s only a two hour trip, and you’ll be driving through the scenic heart of the province for most of it.

Next, pick a campsite.

If you’re able to go for more than one night, I HIGHLY recommend booking one of the campsites in the middle of Lake Kejimkujik. You can rent a canoe to paddle out to it, and what’s a better way to say ‘I did summer’ than partying it up on your own private island?

To reserve your spot, give Parks Canada a call. All the reservation info (including when the summer reservations begin – around April/May) can be found by going here and scrolling down to Kejimkujik.

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If hauling all your camping gear out to a secluded island isn’t your thing, there is also Jeremy’s Bay Campground which borders the lake and is easily accessible from the main road.

Once you arrive, set up camp!

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Last time we went, we borrowed a tent that ended up being big enough to sleep a whole boy scout troupe. We had waaaaay to much room.

We’ve since acquired a lightweight two-person tent that is much more portable. We’re bringing it with us on our North American Road Trip.

Next step: Start exploring.

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Keji is a whole network of trails and waterways. For hiking, there’s the more well-trodden path that’s pretty straightforward and circles the lake, but there’s also tons of back-country hiking that you can do, including lots of portage trails for canoe fanatics.

Conveniently, Parks Canada provides guides to all the marked trails in Keji. If you’re going back-country, or off the map, definitely bring a compass and a map with you. The whole Kejimkujik National Park is 404 km². Most of it is very well marked, but you never know when you’re tired or dehydrated how much harder it might be to get back to where you started.

Jacob’s Landing provides free kayak and canoe rentals for all. You will need some form of ID to secure your vessel of choice. Also, plan to get wet and bring a dry bag if you want to take any electronics/phone with you. Ideally, a dry bag with a floatie so that if you flip over in the water your goods won’t be lost to the bottom of the lake.

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There’s a parking lot right beside Jacob’s Landing. If you’re really pressed for time and can’t camp the night, you could very well drive down, spend the day canoeing and kayaking, and then return to the city at night.

Okay, now that you’ve returned tired from your day of adventure, you better build a campfire, cook some supper and make some s’mores.

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Also, the campfire is a great place to sit and read.

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Or play scrabble.

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Or pass out. Whatever fits your description of relaxation.

Be sure to stop at the Wilder either on your way in or out to grab some of their delicious food.

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I had their glorious portobello mushroom burger with goat cheese, sweet potato fries and a dripping, ice cold cider (that I really, really wanted after a day of kayaking) that left me in a satisfied haze.  Honestly, food just tastes better when you’ve been running around outdoors all day.

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The Wider also does outdoor movies once a week when it’s not raining. Their schedule is posted outside the restaurant. The venue is a field next to the restaurant; be sure to bring your own chair and blankets to cuddle up with.

Note their awesome taste in film:

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And that’s pretty much it. Keji is a great place that not enough Haligonians make it out to. It’s close and it’s awesome, so please take advantage of it. I hope to go back again soon! Last time we didn’t book early enough to secure an island campsite. Next time, it’s island all the way.

 

Five Memorable Experiences in Kyoto

There are many memories waiting to be made in Kyoto.

You would really have to work hard to have a bad time in the city. It is very walking friendly, and surprisingly most things are relatively close by.

You might want to hop on the subway a few times, to get to the red gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha, or the monkeys at Arashiyama, but overall you can expect to see many of the city’s iconic sights by simply walking around the main drag anywhere from Imadegawa Dori at the head of the Kamo River to Kyoto Station about six kilometres to the south.

Here are some suggestions for places to seek out in the city.

Take a Walk Along the Kamogawa

The shallow Kamo River (lit. “Duck River”) in Kyoto runs through the heart of the city’s cultural center. It’s a popular walking spot for both locals and tourists.

There are many storefronts and restaurants that run along the river, and during the warmer months many which sit on stilts above the river open their windows and doors, so that you can eat outside while sitting above the river. Doing this at night is really lovely, and you can see what it looks like from across the river in the top image for this post.

It’s incredibly beautiful, and a great way to spend the afternoon is just to roam around observing people’s habits, eating street food, buying local art, and talking to people. I spent a lot of time hanging out around here.

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Restaurants along the Kamogawa light up at night. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

 

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An artist does custom portraits along the Kamogawa in Kyoto. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
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A buddhist monk stands on the bridge as the modern world walks by. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

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This is also where the Pontocho, one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining districts is. You’ve got these tiny corridor stone streets with the thatched roofs overhead practically touching, and each restaurant is its own unique space.

This historic street is in the Hamamachi district where geisha used to dwell, and its not hard to imagine the feet of apprentice maiko running along the tiny streets, carrying packages for their sempai. In the modern day, its kept up its reputation as an area that maintains traditional art forms.

There is even the rare chance for a foreigner to see a performance by a real geisha – twice a year at the Kaburenjo Theatre. That being said – geisha apprentices (maiko) perform kyo-mai dance almost daily at Gion Corner, and it’s still a very special thing to see.

Visit Kyoto International Manga Museum

The Manga Museum is more like a manga library, and is such a great place.

There’s almost always a special event or going on. I came on the weekend when the front lawn is surrendered to cosplayers. Tons of people show up in homemade costumes and spend the afternoon posing and taking photos of each other.

If you want to catch this, make sure to show up earlier rather than later. I’d recommend coming around lunch time; there’s also a café.  The museum itself closes at 6pm, and all the cosplayers are usually gone by then as well.

Beyond that, the museum itself houses 300,000+ items of Japanese manga historical significance. It also hosts workshops, and separate from the actual museum displays there are also shelves and shelves of manga which the public can take down and read to their heart’s content. There are also lots of seating areas.

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Cosplayers take over the lawn in front of the Manga Museum on Sundays. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

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See the Golden Pavilion Temple

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Here is your goal: try and get a shot of the Golden Pavillion without a bajillion people in the frame.

That may not be as hard for you as it was for me. My friends and I must have been crazy because we went during Golden Week (THE public holiday in Japan. If you can avoid it, don’t travel during this time. Lineups for everything, including shrines, are crazy).

That being said, kinkakuji was still beautiful. The sight of the glinting bright gold zen Buddhist temple seated in its Muromachi period garden is not one you’ll easily forget.

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There’s also a lovely tea garden I’d recommend stopping at. You’ll come to it if you follow the path behind the temple.

Play With The Monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park and Walk Through The Bamboo Grove Forest in Arashiyama

Odds are high you’ve seen this bamboo grove before.

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Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-4There is no feeling quite like standing inside the tunnel of green bamboo: the smell of air filtered through fresh bamboo, the flute-like sound of the wind winding through the stalks and gently knocking them about.

When you exit the forest, be sure to continue along the path to check out Ōkōchi Sansō, an early 20th Century Japanese villa.

Once you’ve achieved serenity, you can plan on having it destroyed by the monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park.

To enter the monkey park, you will need to buy a ticket at the park entrance, and then hike about 30 minutes up the mountain to reach the monkeys. It’s not too steep a climb, but I wouldn’t recommend having anything too heavy with you. Save the souvenir shopping for after the monkey park.

Once inside, you can buy treats to feed the monkeys and enjoy the thrill of having bits of apple and banana snatched away from you.

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The monkeys are technically wild, but as you might imagine they are very used to human contact. They run around willy-nilly once you reach the top of the mountain. They are definitely safe to photograph and hand food to, but I would always approach them with caution. Let them come to you and don’t run towards them.

Arashiyama is a small area just to the west of Kyoto. The best way to get there from Kyoto is via Japan Railways (“JR”). From Kyoto Station on the JR Sanin Main Line.

Besides the monkeys and bamboo, there’s a whole lot to check out in and around Arashiyama. If you have time, I’d recommend planning to spend the day there. Maybe grab a jinrikisha (rickshaw) as well to your around the city. Flag one down and let them know where you want to go. Use cash. A simple phrase to remember is ‘___ ni ikitai, onegaishimasu!’ (‘I want to go to ___, please!’).

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Hike Through Fushimi Inari Taisha

The famous vermillion gates.

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I can’t wait to re-visit this city to make even more memories.

If you want to read more on it before your trip to enrich your experience, I recommend The Tea House Fire by Ellis Avery which I read as part of my One Book Per Week Challenge.

Also, if you’re in Kyoto you might want to think about doing a day trip to Nara, the famous deer-dwelling town south of Kyoto. If you’re limited by time (like I was) and want to fit as much in as you can (and you have the stamina), I would suggest leaving Kyoto in the early morning to hike up Fushimi Inari Taisha (it takes about 2 hours to get to the top), having an post-hike snack in the marketplace at the base of Fushimi Inari Taisha (you’ll see it as soon as you get off at the Inari subway stop), and then heading to Nara to spend the rest of the day.

From Inari to Nara is about one hour by car, or one and a half hours by train. Then you’ll be able to spend the day and evening in Nara, and then take the train back to Kyoto afterwards.