Tourists detained in Malaysia for causing an earthquake? Not exactly.

A worker cleans an Islamic plaque of calligraphy saying ''Mohammad'' on the morning of Eid al-Fitr in a mosque in Kota Bharu, in Malaysia's northeastern state of Kelantan in this January 8, 2000 file photo. REUTERS/Staff/Files photo details

Out today at my neighbourhood diner for breakfast and my weekly exposure to a television. Reading the CBC news-feed, I learned that 2 Canadian tourists have been detained for causing an earthquake in Malaysia that killed 13 people. The CBC offered this reason: superstition. In Malaysia, it is believed that the tourists (clearly too dumb to be travellers, well, unless they’re drunken 20-year-old travellers) “disrespected the mountain by removing their clothes and taking photos”.

I smile ruefully and dig into fruit salad reflecting on the workplace discussions to take place tomorrow: judging Malaysians to be backward superstitious people, and the tourists to be unfairly detained.

In fact, the tourists flagrantly broke the laws of this Islamic country. The Canadian government warns us when we pick up our passports- you are subject to the laws of the country you travel to.

If you go to an Islamic country, be well-versed in Islamic law. It is unlawful to strip nude in a public place, and depending on the country, it may be unlawful to wear shorts or short sleeves. These tourists disrespected the country, the law and the culture. I wonder if they did some research before they went- as recently as a month ago, Malaysia’s movement toward harsher Islamic laws (stonings, amputations) was news-worthy.

The charge against the Canadians (and friends) is not disrespecting the mountain. They have been “barred from leaving the country on the offence of gross indecency”. (CTV News)

Sure, it’s hard for a Canadian to think and behave as if they have no rights- we almost can’t think without our rights. I had this problem in Turkey. The following excerpt from The Word Not Spoken illustrates:

(Leigh has just returned to Goreme, Turkey to see Ahmet, her new love.)

Ahmet and Leigh lugged her bags up the great hill that was Goreme. Then they climbed many icy stone steps to a patio. They dropped the bags at the door of Kaya Pension and sagged against it, catching their breath. Ahmet chipped away at the ice on the door with his keys, trying to open it.

“Why are we here?”

“We will stay here until my pension is open,” he said. “I am working every day to open it.”

“Your pension is closed?” This was news to Leigh.

“The gendarme locked the door. Even my clothes are locked in there.”

“But why?”

“The mayor of this village will not give me a license because I am Kurdish. He doesn’t want Kurdish business in his village. But I will not go.” He stabbed at the ice and chips flew all over them.

“But that’s no reason to not give you a license.” She crossed her arms.

“I tried to buy one, but he will not give it to me.”

“But what is his reason? He must give a reason, like there aren’t enough windows or enough toilets, or some rule like that?”

“What are you talking about? Did you listen? He told me the reason. It is because we are Kurdish.” He yanked on the door but it didn’t open.

“But that’s discrimination!”

Ahmet gave up on the door for the moment and turned to her. “Come here, Leigh.” He held her cold dry hands in his cold wet hands. “You are in Turkey now. We are not protected by any laws. The government is prejudiced. The court is prejudiced. The mayor can do whatever he wants.”

“Oh.” Leigh felt ridiculous. Her human rights were so basic; it was hard to think without them.

“A German journalist was here, and I told her my story. She took a picture of the pension and the sign I put on the door. It said, ‘This Kurdish business closed by Turkish government without reason.’ She put it in a German newspaper.”


rue Mont Royal

Easter Sunday.

Mont Royal metro station

Mont Royal metro station

Spring sun opens my eyes-

white curtains, lime walls

church bells chime.

Spring sun hits sidewalk.

Many feet hit rue Mont Royal-

some of them furry.

Some stop at the Metro-

$2.00 maple taffy

from a tray of sweet snow.

Spring sun sings with me,

a fiddle, a guitar and an accordion.

I don’t know how long I will dance here,

who will speak to me,

where the flow of feet will lead me


Toilets ‘Round the World.

The fanciest toilet I ever found was in Hiroshima, Japan: a sit-down with 2 arm-rests full of controls. It was Japanese to me, but I pushed the buttons anyway and found I could warm the seat, deodorize the area, start a fountain similar to a bidet, blow dry air and play music. A faucet over the tank seemed awkward to me, so I used the regular sink instead.

Japanese Toilet

Japanese Toilet

No, my hosts never knew I was taking pictures of their bathroom.

Some toilets, especially those equipped with a bidet, come with a remote control.

Kohler C3 Series Toilet Seats Offer Hands-Free Butt-Washing, American Style

(Courtesy of Gizmodo)

Japanese toilet, Tokyo Hotel

Japanese toilet, Tokyo Hotel

I found this Japanese squat toilet in a Tokyo hotel.

It played music automatically while I used it, and then as I stood up, it flushed.

It was a swanky hotel so I was surprised- I had always associated squat toilets with poverty.

Turkish squat toilet

Turkish squat toilet


This is the squat toilet in my Nevsehir, Turkey apartment. As described in The Word Not Spoken the toilets in an apartment building are attached to the same drain pipe. There is no need for a flush. The smells coming out of the small cement room are noted by Leigh more than once.


The toilet paper on a nail was my Cdn. touch, but the pitcher was there for family and friends who filled it with water and washed instead of wiped.



The simplest rest stop I found was near Alleppey, Kerala (India) on a backwater boat journey. When our boat stopped for a small thali on a banana leaf for lunch, I was directed to a nearby bamboo screen in answer to “Toilet please?”.

I walked down the beach and looked behind the bamboo screen but saw nothing there. I returned to the outdoor table where my banana leaf waited and asked again.

The tiny waiter pointed impatiently. “There!”

“I don’t think so,” I murmured to a travel companion. “There’s nothing behind it.”

“That’s it!” The more experienced traveller insisted. “Go in the sand and cover it up.”

So I did. I imagined they moved the screen periodically.


 photo credit                                                                                     More backwater pics
The grossest bathroom ever:  On a mountain for the pilgrims who journeyed to a remote temple in Northern India. I smelled it long before I reached the door of a small concrete building. Two stalls without doors or toilets. Simply a floor tilted slightly toward the front and a small trough where refuse was intended to gather and be removed by someone who had apparently quit this, the worst job in the world, long ago.
The floor within and without the stalls were slippery with waste. Some places quite deep. In fact, it seemed dangerous to wade into it and squat. The “sink” was a stone trough at waist height near the door filled with green stagnant slimy water. There were no faucets or water source nearby.

The place was quite desolate and I was alone there, so I chose an out of the way spot in Mother Nature rather than step into that concrete-boxed cesspool.

I first ran into floors used as toilets in a train station in Northwest India. The women’s bathroom was 3 stalls without doors. By habit, I chose to face forward when I squatted on the clean tiled floor that sloped toward a trough that ran in front of all 3 stalls. To my absolute dismay, a women with a broom rushed in to clean it as I was leaving. No matter how enormous, the tip I gave her couldn’t erase the shame I felt.

Still, as that train carried me to Jaipur, I saw men and women from nearby slums squatting on tracks parallel to mine, using the area as a long latrine. I turned my head to give them privacy.

I had to replace an old water-guzzling toilet recently. I chose a middle-of-the-line model that economizes water ($225). I am grateful when I flush it – always – but I wish it used river water instead of treated water…you know, when so few of us in the world have access to clean water and sanitation.

Swartz’s Deli just a walk from Old Montreal.

Notre Dame Basilica

Notre Dame Basilica

I dawdled through the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal. I knew better than to enter the pricey tourist shops or restaurants, but I spent an hour in Notre Dame Basilica where I was stilled by beauty and peace.




scavenging coins from the fountain outside Notre Dame.

scavenging coins from the fountain outside Notre Dame.

I emerged thirsty and walked a few blocks into Chinatown for a coconut bubble tea (which contained no tea or bubbles and was not hot). I turned onto St. Laurent and picked up my pace. After weeks of anticipation I was on my way to Swartz’s. It was a bit of a trek on a hot day, but I stuck to the shady of the street.

I love the streets of Montreal for their character and characters both. Pretty houses with outside staircases and fancy stonework, small businesses without the guidance of head offices. The people: fashionistas, hipsters, druggies, families with dogs, men with that French swagger… I could walk all day just people- watching.

St. Laurent shopping

St. Laurent

counter stool at Swartz's

counter stool at Swartz’s

I joined the line-up outside Swartz’s Deli; we were mostly tourists. The locals go across the street, where the smoked meat sandwiches are reportedly even better, but a visit to the historical delicatessen is about more than a great sandwich. Opened by a Jewish immigrant form Romania, Reuban Shwartz, the iconic eatery is listed in every Montreal guidebook. It has been visited by celebrities such as Celine Dion,

smoked meat on rye with a pickle at Swartz's deli

smoked meat on rye with a pickle at Swartz’s deli

Jerry Lewis, Tim Allen, The Rolling Stones and Angelina Jolie. I’ve heard of Shwartz’s sandwiches picked up by private jet. (Finally, a good reason to own a private jet.) Looking for more information about the tiny crowded money-maker? Read the book- Shwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story by Bill Brownstein.

It’s a smooth-running operation (guess they got it down after 80 years of practice). When the host called down the line for a “single”, I skipped to the front and was escorted to a stool at the long counter. I couldn’t get a knish- the menu is very streamlined- but I was satisfied with a sandwich and pickle.

It’s a dry crumbly smoked meat- tasty and tender, quite different from the slippery chewy smoked meat in Ottawa delis. I ate slowly, savouring the happy hectic atmosphere around me, the black and whites on the wall, the laughter in the air.

Outside, a kitchen worker smoked in a doorway out of the sun, and I stopped to chat. He goes to Ottawa for the green parks and space. “It is more clean,” he motioned to rubbish at his feet. I laughed. “I come to Montreal for the grit.” I motioned to a guitar player and his open case. “I come for the crowds, the action on the street.”

Indeed, as I walked a few blocks south, I came upon a protest against Monsanto, and a little further on, a street closed to cars but full of open patios cheering a World Cup game.

Monsanto protest, Montreal

Monsanto protest, Montreal

Solo in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

pedal rickshaw, Ahmedabad

pedal rickshaw, Ahmedabad

It was in Ahmedabad, after many months of travel through the giant country called India, that I gave up being a backpacker and became a tourist. I was worn out and wounded: my digestive system would never fully recover, I’d lost 20 lbs. & I was limping. My train had hit a cow, my motor rickshaw had hit a car, my bus had hit an ox, and finally, a pedal rickshaw had hit me.

I’d seen sites of grandeur- Agra’s Taj Mahal, Jaipur’s Palace of Winds; I’d seen sites of squalor- the Calcutta slums, piles of refuse lining roads like snow-banks, thin women making gravel by breaking rocks with picks under a murderous sun.

The physical extremes of India had caused emotional extremes in me: despair in unending heat, joy in monsoon rains, awe at the bowl of stars over me on a desert bed, terror navigating the long jungle path between the restaurant and the beach in the South.

There comes a time, when you are exploring a new place for a lengthy period, that withdrawal becomes absolutely necessary. In India, the only way for me to withdraw was to pay for “luxuries”. For an insane amount ($60/night- what I usually spent in a week), I moved into a hotel that was perfectly cool, into a room that was perfectly sealed (no monkeys coming in through the window here). There was a swimming pool on the roof! There was a bathtub in my room! (It was all about the water after the Thar Desert; if I wasn’t in the tub, I was in the pool.)

The food was edible. More than edible- it was delicious. The hotel knew tourists and the chili was greatly reduced. I’d been living on rice and bananas for some time. (I remember looking forward to “scrambled eggs” on the train. It was included with my berth. Served in little tin tiffins with no accompaniments, the eggs had been scrambled with chopped green chilies and my first bite, my only bite, burned my mouth and brought tears to my eyes.)

Ganesha headed for the river

Ganesha headed for the river

I stayed at the luxury hotel, with some guilt, for a couple of weeks. Outside beggars clawed me for money, rickshaws carried ceramic Ganeshas to the sea to be thrown in, noise and vehicles assaulted me, women with wide bare feet pulled carts down hot asphalt…and just when my hackles rose for them, I saw men with the same feet carrying huge bundles on their heads.

woman pulling cart on Ahmedabad street

woman pulling cart on Ahmedabad street

working on the streets of Ahmedabad

working on the streets of Ahmedabad

Man transporting goods in Gujarat, India

Man transporting goods in Gujarat, India

Look, India is worth the visit, it’s worth a long visit…the most amazing things I ever saw were in India- cows at bus stops, waterfalls in jungles, rafts in crocodile-infested waters, parrots in trees, camels in deserts, elephants in traffic jams.(read my poem)

I’m just saying: Do it when you’re healthy.

One day I was in some temple complex somewhere, sitting in a shadow, when I saw a white woman. I hadn’t seen a fellow traveller in days. Solo backpackers are always quick to share, friendships are cemented after one conversation- that’s true wherever I travelled, but in India it’s even stronger. We have a concern for each other there.

I got up and walked toward her. We came close to each other, appraising each other’s level of grime. “Are you okay?” I asked seriously.
“I’m coping.” She didn’t smile. She had purple bags under her eyes and a red tika on her forehead that had dripped over the bridge of her nose. “And you?”
“Ditto.” My smile was rueful.
She looked into my eyes and we connected in a very solid way. “It takes its toll,” she said.
I nodded.
It was unbearably hot standing there in the sun. She stepped into a nearby temple door without saying good-bye. I didn’t mind. It was too hot to talk. I headed back to the shade, my dizziness tempered by her gaze.

Chiang Mai Luck

Each bamboo cage holds a bird

Each bamboo cage holds a bird

Outside Chiang Mai Wat in Thailand, an old woman sells birds in tiny bamboo cages. For a pittance you are granted the power to free a creature into the sky. I bought them all.

The largest bird cage I’ve seen rests on the summer patio of my favourite restaurant (Fall River, outside Perth, Ontario). It’s easily 8 feet across and 6 feet tall, several feet deep and full of twittering colours making quick jumps from side to side to side, from top to bottom to top.

I stood in front of it one afternoon wondering at their lives- the crowding, the sweet breeze sweeping in, the untouchable sky. I felt that it was like sitting in a classroom in the spring when the only thing you want is Out, when your body yearns to run, and the clock will not tick.

After 10 minutes or so, a man at a nearby table said, “Can you imagine how it feels to be able to fly but unable to fly?” I answered immediately. “I know how that feels. I am stuck in this body.”

It’s supposed to bring luck to open a tiny bamboo cage in Thailand and free a tortured soul, but really it’s like ringing the dismissal bell at 3:10. It’s like being God and allowing death.

Indian Railways

view from Indian train

view from Indian train

Indian Railways tickets are dirt cheap. The trains are crowded, uncomfortable, slow and unbearably hot. They are often hours, sometimes days, late. More than once, I sat in a train station for more than 24 hours, amazed at the chaos and incredulous that no one seemed bothered by it. The absolute best thing about the train is that you can run- if you’re late, or if you jumped off at a station to buy bananas- you can run even though the train has started moving, and you can catch it- grab a handle and jump on like some kind of hero.

This photo is taken from a train I was on, through the window. The windows don’t have panes of glass, just two metal bars across a large opening. At this station, the professional beggars took some time to dawdle, as all children are wont to do, and watched the workers work. The boy is a spray-painted silver Ghandi. (Click photo for close up.)

Many homeless people sleep in the stations. For the rest of my life I will remember a thin man and a thinner woman lying on a grey rag, spread neatly on the cement floor by a track, with the tiniest baby nestled between them, too tiny to be alive, I thought. They were defenseless and had to be exhausted to sleep in such a place. But they had nothing to steal, it seemed.
Ah, but still, they had the rag! You might think it was nothing…you might mistake it for garbage.

One day, a train stopped right beside mine, and I surreptitiously watched a young woman eat newspaper-wrapped curry and rice with her fingers. When she finished, she dropped the wrapping out the window onto the tracks between our trains. As I was judging this “littering”, a boy swooped down the track, grabbed the newspaper, opened it and licked it, sucked it and then tossed it on the ground. “Oh,” I thought, “Now it’s garbage.” Before my train moved, a goat came along and ate the newspaper. And I learned that nothing is really garbage.

Train robbers were a real threat- I was told they were bandits who would stop a train, come aboard and rob each passenger and then disembark. Once my train stopped in the middle of the night with a lurch. I rolled right out of my short bunk with a thud, scared the bandits had come. In fact, we had hit a cow and didn’t move the rest of the night.

I met families who brought stoves and cooked whole meals on the trains where we slept, talked, played games and music, and for some time, lived together. (It took four days to get to Delhi from Bangalore.) They told wonderful stories too. My favourite was about a woman who had terrible stomach pains. She went to the bathroom, which is simply a hole over the rushing tracks (please hold it ’til we get out of the station). To her surprise, when she squatted, a baby popped out of her, slid down the hole and disappeared. The train stopped, and they went back to pick up the baby who was perfectly fine, waiting on the tracks.

Japanese-English questionable quotes


On a menu: “Rare cheese cake.”

On a menu: “Cheese washed potatoes.”

On a white t-shirt with a pink kitten worn by a preteen on the subway: “Beat me.” (She wouldn’t have known what it meant.)

On a peach t-shirt with flowers: “I love him truly. He is handsome and rich. He makes jokes at my expense.”

On a t-shirt: “Individuality. I’d like to be familiar with fashions, but I won’t be carried by them. Those who are sticky about their way of life are nonethe-less wonderful.”

On a water glass in a restaurant: “A glassful of drops. Each drop is tomorrow’s dream. Sip your dreams by drops.”

Sports announcer on TV: “When I watched the first game I felt the world cup games had begun.” No further comment.

News announcer wrapping up a news report on land mines in Egypt: “You can feel the terror as the people walk through the fields-but they have to live here. That is their fate and that is all we have to say.” That’s what my bilingual TV translated.

A group of male Japanese teachers inviting a visiting American teacher out: “We’re going to get prostitutes tonight. Want to come?”

High school class answers the question: What is a disadvanatage of being good-looking?

– The good-looking seem to be tired.

– Good-looking is threatened by storker (stalker).

Very advanced student: “I turned and toasted all night.”

And my favourite: “Big scream TV.”

Couchsurfing: a great option for solo travellers

Anne has travelled throughout Europe and northern Africa without paying for accommodation. She couch surfs! What a great way to travel!

To learn more about couchsurfing watch this short interview where Anne claims “Couches are everywhere,” in a house that has no couch. We are sitting on Turkish floor cushions.

(We can’t watch this without laughing our heads off- our first taped interview- so please forgive our mistakes. She’d given me the ring to wear as a joke, but no, the ring didn’t cause the bruise, and no, I didn’t just wake up- I was ready to go and sing at a Shout Sister performance!)

Travelling by Rickshaw in India

The elephant stands at a crossroads
in this town at the edge of the desert.
The people and their vehicles sputter hotly.
My driver is resigned.
His accent sings
“This is the only road.
When the elephant allows us
we will move again.”
In the choking wind he lights a cigarette.
Possibly delirious,
I walk into the crowd
to admire the working elephant
who remembered at a crossroads
he is the biggest.

Laurie Fraser
Udaipur, India