Tag Archives: Food

Travel Guide: Montreal

During the annual summer trip to see our grandparents, my siblings and I had the chance to do a little exploring. My sister and I were born in Montreal but we moved when we were very young. We’ve been there somewhere around a million times to visit family but have rarely seen or experienced Montreal as a living, breathing city. It was great to have a chance to do so this time!

We spent our first afternoon in Old Montreal, charming with old buildings and architecture that makes it feel more European than particularly Canadian. French and English heritage are obvious in the signage, statues, and bustling activity of restaurants and sidewalk cafés.

Old Montreal is especially busy during the summer when the weather is warm and festivals are in full swing. (We were really excited to accidentally find ourselves at the Jazz Festival a little ways away!) There were street vendors selling everything from ice cream to jewellery and it was fun to look around. The restaurants were crowded with people enjoying the sun, and everyone we met was friendly and helpful.

As with many old cities, Montreal is located on the water. The Port of Montreal was full of people riding bikes, eating snacks, shopping for souvenirs, and celebrating Canada Day.

The Port of Montreal even has its own flag, which unfortunately didn’t photograph as well as I would have liked.

From left to right are the flags of Canada, Quebec, Montreal, and the Port of Montreal

We had dinner as a family to celebrate my grandparents’ anniversary. It was so normal – grandparents, uncle, aunt, and grandchildren all in one place! – and spent the evening laughing as our grandparents reminisced about their 61 years together and the spaghetti dinners they used to buy for 69 cents. 69 cents!

After breakfast the next morning, we the children went off to Jean-Talon Market where none of us had ever been. As you know, I love markets anywhere and my travelling companions felt the same way. We loved the fresh and local produce . . .

. . . herbs and flowers . . .

. . . and speciality shops and prepared foods.

There was even a cookbook bookstore!

I would have loved to do some shopping and cooking but we had other plans for the day and they were not to be missed. Rather than eating at the market we headed for Schwartz’s, a Montreal institution located on the popular Saint-Laurent Boulevard not too far from McGill University. In my limited excursions around Montreal, I’ve been to Schwartz’s more than a few times, which should indicate its prestige in the eyes of my family. They serve smoked meat sandwiches on rye bread with mustard and various sides like fries, coleslaw, and pickles. And that’s about it. (The Wikipedia page has a bit more information.) After waiting in the ever-present line out of the door, this vegetarian even ate half a piece of smoked meat!

We spent the rest of the afternoon continuing our walk through the neighborhood between Schwartz’s and McGill. We visited campus and then followed the street art through the main shopping area of downtown. Like markets, I love street art anywhere in the world and it was fun to get a sense of the cultural life of Montreal.

I was also very excited to see signs of community engagement in the painted piano sitting out for anyone to play and a very cool ground mural marked with the best spot for a photo.

Considering how little time I’ve spent in the city of my birth, it was really lovely to do some exploring. I got a sense of the city’s geography and can now better understand the streets that my grandparents and parents mention in conversation. I was able to practice a little bit of French and enjoyed being somewhere simultaneously a little bit familiar and quite a bit new. And, of course, it was great to see my family. It always is.

Travel Guide: Kyoto and Around

April is cherry blossom season in Japan and it’s as beautiful as everyone says. April is also early spring, which means the weather is highly variable. Umbrellas and layers were key to feeling comfortable wandering around Kyoto, Japan’s Imperial capital beginning in the 8th century. It remained the seat of power in Japan for over a thousand years and historic monuments, shrines, and temples abound. Renting a kimono for the day is a common activity in Kyoto and it was fun to see people dressed up – almost like going back in time!

This was my first trip in Asia with both parents and it was a fully immersive experience. (Dad and I went to Thailand and Vietnam a few years ago when I first moved to Singapore.) We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto immediately after we landed and that made for a long day of travel; we were glad to finally be there!

We settled in and then went to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which was beautiful in the rain. The sound of the trees and smell of the earth was a lovely change from urban life in Singapore.

The next morning was sunny and we started early at Fushimi-Inari, a Shinto shrine known for its red torii gates. Fushimi-Inari is guarded by foxes and statues of them are located around the mountain. It was a beautiful walk and felt other worldly, as though passing through each set of gates was a doorway to somewhere else.

The view on the way up was stunning, too.

My dad wanted to visit Tofukuji Temple because he’d read that it has beautiful gardens, which I’m sure it does once spring actually blooms. But trees were budding and the ground was covered in moss and that was good enough for me.

From there, we went to Nishiki Market, a covered arcade of streets selling all sorts of food products, clothing, and souvenirs. I was mostly interested in the food stalls and we returned a couple days later to explore further. It was so enjoyable to smell new smells, taste new tastes, and just look around. Markets are always a travel highlight for me because they bring so much life there in so many different forms.

We ended the day wandering through some lovely streets with little shops and visiting Kodaiji Temple. The gardens around the temple included a bamboo forest and an exquisite cherry tree in full bloom, which was definitely the main attraction.

I really appreciate how Japanese gardens are sculpted and landscaped but not manicured. It makes them lovely in a very believable way.

Among the many nice elements of traveling in Japan is the convenience of trains. The Japan Rail pass allows foreign tourists access to most of Japan’s trains (like the Euro Rail Pass) and trains don’t require reservations. They are also very clean and extremely timely and comfortable!

Kyoto is an easy base for day trips and we took one out to Himeji Castle, Japan’s largest castle and one of very few that have remained intact. I was really glad that we opted for the guided tour. The tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly and more than made up for the lack of signage.

From there, despite the chilling rain that had begun to fall, we got back on the train to visit Osaka where we hoped to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. Mum and I walked around the moat of Osaka Castle (Dad got a little lost or left behind – long story), occasionally putting up our umbrellas for the rain that alternated with patches of bright sunshine.

When it began to hail, however, we realized we needed another plan. After battling the driving rain and wind to get to the train station we returned to Kyoto and sheltered indoors to dry off. Not all plans work out and travel is an adventure, right?

Our last day in Kyoto was the nicest we’d had and I’m especially glad it was sunny because we went to Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple, and it was utterly stunning.

We walked to a pretty shrine surrounded by a garden of cherry blossoms and food stalls on our way back to the center of town . . .

. . . and then spent the rest of the morning in Nishiki Market where I took most of the photos above. From there, we visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, which was informative as well as free! It was useful in explaining much of the handiwork we’d seen and some of Kyoto’s history, particularly in terms of the geisha culture that still exists in a much smaller form.

After dinner in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, it was time for one more sleep before boarding an early train to Hiroshima.

We had experienced all kinds of weather, tried new food, visited beautiful places, and were excited for something new. Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir