Summer adventure, Life adventure

I have found that fear is a powerful motivator for me; in my running days I had a fear based training program. Set an impossible goal, then use fear of failing to motivate the necessary training.  A few sleepless nights drives serious training and it usually works. The pain is always worth the joy of crossing the finish line.

My latest application of the principle is crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass; I spend several months walking every day around Vancouver, motivated by a self-generated fear that the famous Saint Bernard dogs would have to rescue me because I couldn’t make it up the Pass under my own steam.

There’s another powerful motivator – the prize; if I complete a task, I get a prize. I dangle it like a carrot in front of me.

This summer I created fear and manufactured a prize. I turned the Great Saint Bernard pass into Mount Everest in my mind – fear.

I created a bright and shiny prize; when Blair and I finished our walk, we would reward ourselves with a visit to Kristen and Chris in their new home in Dresden, Germany – the prize.

Five years ago, Kristen and Christopher embarked on a grand adventure in life; this was not a holiday, not a temporary adventure for a few weeks or a few months but a full life commitment. They moved to Basel, Switzerland where Kristen started as a counsellor at the international school.

It has been a rollercoaster ride for both of them. In her first years, Kristen faced an evolving set of assignments; in her last two she found her ideal role as a full-time counsellor. She made an enormous contribution to the people who mattered most to her – students who needed her wisdom, advice and support.

Chris faced daily life in Basel, managing a host of tasks in a different language, a different culture; untold numbers of ways to make things complicated and add multiple twists and turns to even the simplest task.

He also managed in his time there to make big strides in learning German, became an accomplished cyclist and weekend adventure planner. He became an aficionado of stylish European ways; at times he seemed more European than the locals.

 

They also took advantage of every long weekend, school holiday and vacation to explore all of western Europe. I know because I got to tag along occasionally – Lisbon, Rome, Paris, dozens of postcard picture-perfect spots in Switzerland carefully researched and curated by them for our enjoyment. We even managed to spend some time with Bruce Springsteen on his final European tour stop in Zurich.

To call it life affirming is obvious; from my vantage point, it has been a profoundly enriching experience for both, not without challenges but worthy of celebration on so many levels.

And now they have moved to Dresden, where she is school counsellor for the  international school.

Our prize starts when we meet them in Prague.

The prize for the next days and weeks is worth all our sweat and toil. Prague is delightful.

I have never visited central Europe; Prague is a delightful place to start. The architecture is fascinating; the city is steeped in a history unfamiliar to me, there’s an enervating exoticism to everything.

We share an eight course tasting menu that is as inspired as any I have tasted in Paris; the wine pairings, all local, have both Kristen and Chris asking where they can find more of the sampled wines.

I walk the Charles Bridge in early morning, the only time free of pesky tourists, and am convinced of the merits of returning to Prague soon. We board the train and, in less than two hours, we are in Dresden.

 

 

Kristen and Chris have found a charming two bedroom apartment near a trolley line just a short commute from her work and city centre.

Dresden is universally known as the German city that was firebombed by the Allies in the last months of the war, despite it’s marginal strategic value. Kurt Vonnegut, an American prisoner of war, witnessed the destruction and wrote of its effects in his acclaimed fiction, Slaughterhouse Five.

Unlike most European cities that rebuilt their torn infrastructure with new modern buildings Dresden, once called the Florence of the Elbe, laboured for decades to recreate the astounding 17th, 18th and 19th century architecture for which it was rightly renowned.

With the support of governments and private donors from around the world, such building as the Frauenkirche, a Lutheran cupola Cathedral and the Zwinger, an 18th century Baroque palace now hosting three separate museums.

The bombed out centre of the city is restored using whatever materials were able to be salvaged from the absolute destruction of the war, augment with modern building materials, leaving an ever-present reminder of the devastation of war. It has become again the Jewel Box of Europe.

Situated on the Elbe River, it is now a modern, bustling city with one of the largest technical universities, a diverse economy and a vibrant nightlife – we managed to survive our first biergarten under the landmark bridge, the Blaues Wunder – the Blue Wonder.

Having moved just three weeks before our arrival, they have been busily starting a new job, exploring the city, setting up their new apartment and unpacking boxes. 

Like all adventures it’s not always easy; getting everything set up takes time, negotiations are in German and it all requires a secret sauce of patience and persistence. 

Blair and I want to be welcomed back so we set ourselves to being useful and lighten the load. 

There is a list….

Job 1 is making the apartment Matisse safe. A new bamboo skirt for the balcony successfully installed by Chris and Blair takes one item off the list. 

Blair and Chris make a productive team. My challenge is to stay out of the way. Its tough work but I try. 

Of course, we get a chance to see K’s workplace – even after school, it sparkles with youthful energy. Her office is warm, comfortable and easy to relax in – her students are lucky to have her as a resource. 

I find it comforting, even now, to see where my children live and work. It adds immeasurably to my future conversations to have a mental image of their kitchen, their office, their favourite patio, their quiet spot to decompress, their best biergarten. 

This is a completely new adventure, Dresden, so long inside the Iron Curtain, is different from the western Europe they have seen from their old base in Basel. The opportunity to explore central Europe, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic, Denmark, northern Scandinavia, Hungary, the Czech Republic are all waiting their arrival.

I am overjoyed. They are true intrepid explorers. I have high hopes of tagging along occasionally, using Dresden as a base for my own explorations and living vicariously through their adventures.

We ended my summer adventure with a celebration, of their tenth anniversary, of their courage in drinking avidly from the firehose of life and for the future of their adventure in Dresden. An end to my summer adventure and a start to their new adventure in Dresden.

  

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Walking with Purpose III – Switzerland and Italy

The Via Francigena is not for the easily distracted or for those who desire instant gratification; it’s a 2000 kilometre path that starts in Canterbury, England, traverses northern France then wends its way through Switzerland and crosses into Italy over the Great Saint Bernard Pass. That’s the halfway point; it ends in Rome after another 1000 kilometres of walking.

The Great Saint Bernard Pass demands attention. Well known, the Romans used it as a gateway to Europe before the birth of Christ. Napoleon took his invading army over the pass to attack the Italian city states in 1800. At 2473 metres (8114 feet), it is formidable; snow has been known to fall in any month, travel by foot is recommended only in July and August, the only road is closed some 8 months of the year.

John and I had been walking for two weeks across France when we parted in Besancon, less than 70 kilometres from the border. After a few days of R&R, I start walking alone towards Switzerland.

The Jura range near the border of France and Switzerland requires crossing; 1300 metres of elevation that I have not exactly planned for, a preview of things to come.

It’s beautiful walking and I’m on my own; the weather has cracked a bit and I’ve lots of time to walk and look with abandon. I come across some farm art, the French farmers’ baleful-looking equivalent to our Vancouver west-end Inukshuk.

The border to Switzerland is a small building, I walk across; no checks, just a wave from the guards. The Swiss trail signpost system is clear and comprehensive; it is almost impossible to get lost and their route TP 70, charts the Via Francigena from the French border to the Italian border. All I have to do is walk; I arrive in Lausanne a few days later.

Along the way, I pause to visit a Roman ruin; some of the most incredible mosaics I have ever seen, preserved and now exhibited in this remote location; again proving that walking offers enrichment unavailable to those in cars whizzing past on the autoroute.

I have some R&R in Lausanne, an emotional visit to the Olympic museum, complete with artifacts from both Calgary 1988 and Vancouver 2010. I must admit wiping a bit of something that got caught in my eyes there, occasioned by fond memories of both. Again, taking my time pays off.

Blair joins me in Lausanne and we are off. We haven’t done any walking together since his teenage years; it’s good to have him with me.

We face five days of walking to the top of the pass, it doesn’t seem right to call it a summit when it is the lowest point around.

The last two days are each 13 kilometres long with an elevation gain of about 800 metres – yes friends that is almost one kilometre of up.

He manages my slower pace by stopping to take photos while I trudge on; more importantly, vitally, he offers to carry all our water for the last two days, several extra kilograms of weight all day, all the way to the top.

I’m struggling and grateful for his presence, his support and his encouragement.

There’s little use dwelling on my suffering, we all pay for french fries in our own way; as compensation, the views we are blessed with are magnificent.

The elevation brings cool weather and a few challenging hours of rain; my enthusiasm drips off me with the rain.

The last day is a struggle of will over wish; I wish I was somewhere else or at least done this uphill trudge.

Finally, in late afternoon, within sight of the summit, Blair announces that he has a surprise for me; we can stop anywhere. The sun comes out, we find a flat rock and he pulls two Astronaut-ready freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches from his pack.

He found them at MEC in Ottawa before he left; knowing of my legendary and boundless enthusiasm for ice cream (I have always held the belief that ice cream is definitive proof that there is a god), he couldn’t resist buying them.

So. we sit on our rock, basking in the sun and our success at climbing to the summit of the pass and eat our ice cream bars.

Priceless.

The extra joy of his unexpected thoughtfulness is another tender mercy for which I will always be grateful.

We finish our treat and are off to the summit when, straight from central casting, a young woman appears with three Great Saint Bernard dogs to welcome us. She says she always takes them for a walk about this time of day; I’m convinced that it’s all planned – the gods have sent those wonderful beast to personally welcome us to the Great Saint Bernard Pass.

Tender mercies indeed!

It doesn’t get better than this you say?

Well, it does. It’s called Italy.

To be honest, we are expecting little; the Pass was the prize.

To further be honest, we hitchhike down the other side, I’m not interested in further punishment to prove a point. Our driver drops us at the front door to La Cluzas, a hotel restaurant built on the site of a 13th century hospital. We celebrate, belatedly, Blair’s birthday with one of the best meals we have ever experienced. We celebrate his birthday, our success, our camaraderie, our gratitude for this moment.

Walking in the north of Italy is a perfect end to my Via Francigena summer. Fruit trees are loaded, the villages are picturesque, the people are kind and helpful, the food is glorious. We slow down and walk with a keen eye for photos and a reluctance to see our shared adventure end.

I have expressed doubt about my willingness to commit to the long trek to Rome; Blair voices an interest in returning; his new idea is enough to keep the door open. Walking in this part of Italy offers a compelling logic of its own.

The future cannot be predicted. For now, we enjoy each and every day.

We board the train in Ivrea, to fly to Prague for our next adventure. Life is good.

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Walking with Purpose II

Last summer, I started a major walk; the Via Francegina, from Canterbury to Rome. It follows the path of Sigeric the Serious, the Archbishop of Canterbury who made the trek to be appointed Cardinal.

His return trip was documented; he finished the return trip of some 2000 kilometres in 79 days. He was obviously a hardy soul, the journey crosses the Swiss Alps and a few other minor inconveniences.

There have been a few changes to the landscape but there are signposts showing a path across France, Switzerland and Italy for those of us willing to follow in his footsteps.

It’s not the actual walk that requires a strong sense of purpose, it’s the tedium, boredom and hard work of the six months of getting ready that requires motivation and commitment a sense of purpose provides. 

Most of my pilgrim walks have been solo affairs. I have liked the solitude. Last year I made an exception. Kristen joined me for a week; it was such a positive experience that I decided to try it again.

This year’s walk began where I finished last year, in Reims. I have a new travel companion, John will walk with me for two weeks.  We meet in Paris, catch a train to Reims and find our hotel.  While we suffer from jet lag and a slight disorientation we recognize today is an important day – France is playing the final of the World Cup in Moscow so we scurry down to a pub to catch a meal and the action. We win! The city celebrates under our window till dawn – loudly!

Our first day starts late; we need photos, SIM cards and other essentials before we leave the city. The day is long, hard and hot. Whether it be jet lag or the late start, dehydration and fatigue set in.

The walk is beautiful, through Champagne wine country, down a long arrow-straight Roman road that is still functional as a farm track, through a major forest and finally out into open country. We manage to replenish our water, hitch a bit of a ride and arrive at our first lodging.

As we recover, we decide to tweak our plans; in the heat we may not be able to safely cover the 25 or so kilometres between each night’s stop. We form a rules committee which will meet nightly to decide how much walking we will undertake the next day. We seek out alternate means of travel, asking politely of our hotelier for a ride, hiring a taxi, whatever is necessary to shuttle us to an appropriate start point.

We are mindful that the test is not whether we can make our destination today but whether we are able to make a whole series of destinations. Blisters, chafing, dehydration, fatigue and just plain-old enjoyability weigh on the minds of the rules committee.

It works.

We have hosts who bless us with a ride down the road. We learn to pace ourselves, finding the occasional tree to rest under. And we consume rivers of water, before, during and after every walk.

The rules committee also decides that we should allow a certain amount of cultural enlightenment to occur, under appropriate circumstances. We happen upon a museum in a town where Napoleon attended Military School, surely a cultural event cannot be missed even if it requires a cab later in the day to achieve our destination.

A few days later, at a scheduled rest day John, who has a bit of a magpie memory – he gathers up bright and shiny factoids for later use – recalls that we are near a museum honouring Charles deGaulle in nearby Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises.

It is delightful; if I was in a car or in a hurry, I would have gone right past it without blinking. We are invigorated and enlightened and I have seen a new dimension added to all my future walks.

The two weeks remain obstinately hot; we are averaging 15-18 kms a day, respectable given the circumstances. we develop and set our routine; we rise as early as socially acceptable, we caffeinnate and eat whatever is set in front of us, we load up on water and our packs and set off. Since every kilometre is new, we enjoy the walk, stopping occasionally if we find some shade. We arrive at our destination, gratefully accept our lodgings (some require more acceptance than others), forage for food, wash up, nap and find a decent meal for supper. The rules committee meets to sort out the next day’s schedule and we retire. It is a full day.

Everything every day is, by definition, a surprise, most are pleasant. We stay one night with the Mongy family; they offer free dinner/lodging/breakfast to pilgrims in an area where no other alternatives exist. they are famous along the VIA for their hospitality. the next day they drive us out to our start point. They even send us off with a sandwich for lunch.

John is an ideal companion; he is flexible and gets the everything-is-a-surprise concept quickly. He is happy with a simple hotel; neither of us complain much, we settle for what we receive and move on. We concentrate on the small kindnesses extended to us. The kindness comes, the tender mercies abound and accumulate.

We have removed ourselves from the toxicity of the 24 hour news cycle; it helps our detox and our disposition.

Our last night is spent in the village of Gy; our hosts out-do themselves – lodging, dinner prepared for us, breakfast and the all important ride to John’s train station. We are dropped at the TGV station; say our goodbyes and I head into town while John heads for the bright lights of Paris and then home.

I am sorry to see him go; I’m coming to see that a walking partner offers some serious benefits. It’s like working with a net. If any number of events happen while solo – say losing a wallet or having a credit card cancelled – it is a catastrophe; when traveling with someone else it is a minor inconvenience. 

We’ve covered some 350 kilometres; my best guess is we’ve walked 250 of that. We have walked in temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, usually on tarmac with little shade with no access to water along the route. We’ve had fun, we’ve seen some sights, we’ve met some truly kind people and have benefited from their simple acts of kindness.  We’ve regained our faith in humanity and our optimism about the human condition.

Not bad for a walkabout.

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A Cautionary Canada Day tale

Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize winning economist, a past chair of the US Council of Economic Advisors and a past chief economist of the World Bank. I may be going with my gut here but I’m thinking he has the credentials to be a credible commentator on how economic policy affects our life.

I first became aware of Stiglitz when he predicted that George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2002 would cost Americans a trillion dollars. At the time, the neo-cons around Bush scoffed – a few hundred million max, and Iraqi oil would pay for it. Guess who was right – the tally has passed a trillion dollars and is still mounting. The real cost in deaths, shattered lives and permanently disabled veterans is even more horrific.

So, when I saw an anthology of his columns called The Great Divide, I had to buy it.

It is a chilling read. Stiglitz provides a litany of cautionary advice about the growing concentration of wealth in America. He is the intellectual godfather of the 99% movement in the US.

He is a clear, concise and engaging writer. Most of the pieces in this book are short, forcing him to communicate clearly, to use startling examples, to make his points easily understandable to those of use whose grasp of economics is tenuous. He succeeds.

Stiglitz believes that the growing concentration of wealth and income in the top 1% of Americans, the greed that propels this continuing aggregation of wealth and the complicity of policy makers and elected officials to make the rich richer is the biggest challenge Americans face.

He’s amassed some pretty powerful evidence.

  • The top 1% now owns some 40% of America’s wealth and about 25% of America’s income.
  • The incomes of the top 1% have doubled over the past 25 years; over the last decade, their incomes have risen almost 20%. The rest of us are not so blessed. Incomes remain stubbornly flat; in fact, median incomes have been flat for 40 years.
  • The six members of the Walton family, the owners of Walmart, now own more American wealth – some $130 billion – than the bottom 30% of the US population. That’s more than 100 million people!
  • Almost all – 95% actually – of the increases in income after the recovery from that cataclysmic events of 2007-08 went to the top 1% of Americans.
  • More than a trillion dollars was spent bailing out US banks in the aftermath of the economic meltdown that almost destroyed the world’s economy; little was spent helping millions (yes millions) of ordinary Americans keep their homes or fight illegal foreclosures.
  • The bankers kept their bonuses, investors kept their dividends, bondholders got their interest; the 99% lost their homes, their cars, their jobs, their future. No one went to jail; no one was punished.

It is my personal view that the current turmoil sweeping across America is directly related to the economic disparities that are cleaving American society. People are coming to understand that the American dream is available only to the 1%.

Stiglitz shows that this concentration of wealth is the result of policies that were designed to deliver benefits to the wealthy. Tax cuts and public policy were designed to benefit the rich.

The American tax system feeds the concentration of wealth. Tax deductions for capital gains are generous compared to those for wage earner’s income; other tax deductions reward the rich and burden the 99%. Higher education has been made too expensive for any but the wealthy, health care is beyond the reach of many and the relentless dismantling of the Affordable Care Act is destroying health care plans for millions.

America is falling in rankings of many indices which measure quality of life, mobility and well-being. Child poverty, poverty, food insecurity, growing unemployment in specific demographics, lower social and economic mobility – all indications of the dramatic impacts of the inequities – are growing.

Stiglitz quotes Warren Buffett; “there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.”

Buffett does not say that proudly; he has been quick to point out that he pays less tax on a percentage basis than his secretary and he has pledged to give his accumulated wealth to charity. His enlightenment is not emulated by the rest of the American 1%.

Leonard Cohen saw the game, way back in 1988.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes

Everybody knows

An engaging melody and Cohen’s incredible voice could not hide the cynicism of the lyrics.

Stiglitz is clear; inequality is a choice that American policy makers have made and continue to make. In the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United, they have ensured that money rules the US political process. It almost guarantees that policy will ensure the rich get richer; everybody – even Leonard Cohen – knows.

Stiglitz knows that the dry world of economics cannot capture the importance of trust and fairness as bedrocks of society, of myriads of financial transaction, of the hope that one can advance through hard work and playing by the rules, of the belief that there is justice for all. Without these beliefs and a strong set of rules and regulations that govern the excesses of capitalism, society itself fails.

As Canadians, we should not be too smug; our levels of inequality are almost as drastic as those in America. Many of our public policies help the rich stay rich and force the poor to remain poor.

We cannot be too sanctimonious, nor can we rest. Our unique Canadian successes are more fragile than we might expect. The disparity of income and wealth is not inexorable or inevitable, but pressure from powerful interests is relentless.

And, here is the point dear friends. As we celebrate Canada Day, we cannot take anything for granted.

Our challenge as Canadians as we celebrate our 151st year as a nation is to constantly make the right choices.

When we pay our taxes, we make the choice to sustain our unique Canadian way of life.

We live in one of the safest countries in the world, we are supporting one of the best health care systems in the world, we have access to a whole range of public services that are the envy of the rest of world.

We live in an open society where social mobility is possible, where equality and egalitarianism exist, where the fight is not fixed.

We have a remarkably good public education system and a post-secondary education that is still accessible to all.

These social norms do not come cheaply; they require vigilance, an engaged thoughtful electorate, a fair tax system and a smart well educated public service.

We must consciously choose to support an equality of opportunity for all Canadians, an equality of access to basic public services, an openness in our society, a willingness to include everyone in the public discourse and a shared responsibility for each other’s wellness.

When we participate in the public discourse we need to be ever mindful of the importance of trust in others, of reasonableness and civility, of the necessity to respect others, of the need to not fall prey to a sense of grievance or of the easy path to demonize the other.

We cannot inoculate ourselves from the current malaise working its way through America, but with vigilance, conviction, faith and trust in each other, we can avoid the inevitability of their choices.

That is my hope for Canada Day.

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History is messy.

What’s history? In my schoolchild days it was a long, complicated series of dates and names to be memorized; kings and queens of western European countries, battles and maps and heroes and villains. It was dead white men of privilege exploring and conquering the world. While it could be exciting stuff for a child with an overactive imagination, it was pretty dull and boring.

Later it became more serious. In my pipe-smoking undergraduate and graduate school days, the study of history was important because it gave us insight. I was in love with politics and policy, constantly admonished by my professors quoting George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”   

I repeated that saying like a mantra as I read history, mostly the biographies of famous/infamous men, looking for insight – my own crystal ball into the future.

Not so today, somehow while I was off doing other things, history has become more complicated, more subject to more debate.

Nothing so clearly points out the complexity of interpreting history than a book that formed the basis of my latest adventure.

I was fortunate enough to join a travel study course offered by Simon Fraser University focusing on a book by historian Maria Rosa Menocal: Ornament of the World; How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

It has caused a bit of a stir amongst scholars and historians.

Three weeks on my study tour that would take us to Cordoba, Seville and Granada in southern Spain and offered an opportunity to explore this somewhat controversial assertion further.   

I was only tangentially aware of the Moorish domination of southern Spain. I encountered it on my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella.

The Camino pilgrimage honors Santiago de Matamoros – Saint James the Moor Slayer.

The myth of Saint James defies credulity.  Saint James’ remains were said to have been found by a Spanish shepherd following a star in the 9th century. Pilgrimages were promoted to honour Saint James and support the Catholic attempts to drive the Moors from Spain.

Saint James became the moor slayer in a revised Catholic myth created in the 12th century when he is attributed to have miraculously appeared on the side of Christian forces to defeat the Moors in the legendary battle of Clavijo.

While historians have proven the so-called decisive battle never actually happened, one historian noted; “While this event is based on legend, the supposed battle has provided one of the strongest ideological icons in the Spanish national identity.”

Saint James is celebrated with in art and sculpture, with a prominent position of honour in the Santiago Cathedral. I came across another Santiago de Matamoros statue in Granada while on my study course, trying to assess the impact of 700 years of Moorish domination of large swaths of what we now call Spain.

Such is the power of building a narrative that attempts to create, write and use “history” for other purposes.

I, like some millions of others, have walked 800 kilometres on a pilgrimage based on fantasy, myth and centuries old propaganda!

My study tour was a delightful re-entry into the world of Santayana and his bold assertion. Along with some 20 others, I was confronted with the reality that history is messy.

Menocal asserts that Muslims, Jews and Christians were able to live in relative harmony in southern Spain for centuries. She celebrates the achievements of that golden period in Spain’s history – the introduction of new plants and fruit to Spain, the widespread development of agriculture and irrigation, the explosion of trade throughout the Mediterranean of Spanish goods, improvements in manufacturing, mining and industry – all creating a robust economy while the rest of Europe stumbled.

She describes a culture of architectural innovation, poetry, an explosion of learning, a multiplication of libraries and a reverence for intellectual discovery in science and medicine. She credits the Moors with the vital transfer of the ideas and philosophical debates of the Greeks to Europe. In the 10th century, Cordoba was one of the five largest cities in the world – London and Paris were riverside towns.

It is a positive and optimistic portrayal of a time when history was being made. To Menocal, the Muslim willingness to tolerate, engage and integrate Jews and Christians into their governance and society was the cause of this Golden Age, a renaissance that preceded and set the stage for Europe’s emergence from the dark ages.

I wish it were so.

Many historians have pushed back, questioning her bold assertions.

There’s not enough data, knowledge or information they say.

And that is the problem with writing history. It’s like buying a picture puzzle that promises 1000 pieces. When I open the box there are only 200 pieces. With 800 pieces missing, I am left to imagine, intuit and interpret with what little I have.

It’s not for lack of trying, Archeologists, anthropologists and historians have worked prodigiously to help us learn from history, for we do intuitively believe in Santayana’s maxim.

Now we add the second challenge – trying to sort various interpretations of the scanty evidence, trying to sort myth from reality, trying to conclude with only the evidence we have without taking it too far into conjecture.

There is plenty of room for conjecture. Santiago de Matamoros is but one example of propaganda widely accepted as history. Millions of pilgrims believe in the alternative narrative.

Past historical writing is under some attack these days from other quarters. We all know that history is written by the victors; losers don’t control the pen that writes history, hagiographers are in charge.

We all know that history has been written by and about men, that it is focused on conquest and war, ego and the glorification of aggression, that the post colonial world is awakening to a new narrative for their history, that women have made history without being acknowledged, that too little has been written about slow moving events that don’t follow a story-like narrative.

I’m pleased to say that my study tour raised many questions and answered few of them. We debated the interpretations of fine and grand points of Moorish influence in Spain amongst many other issues – such as what to have for lunch that day. I came away confused but pleasantly so: life is confusing, why shouldn’t history reflect that.

Santayana may be right, we should study our past, our many histories, our various perspectives on what happened, how and why it occurred. I am coming to believe that history is plural; it is a conflicting set of stories we tell ourselves. Stories will change over time, with new information, new insights, new voices claiming a share of the narrative.

We need to be critical in our reading of history; it is messy.

If we don’t we are likely condemned to repeat our mistakes.

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Jewels in an Uneasy Crown

I’m not an historian, I’m an opinionated blogger, an undisciplined student of whatever is on my mind and an itinerant traveller with a superficial grasp of the facts.

I have a thin patina of knowledge, enough to make me dangerous in my self delusion. I like to say that deep down, I’m quite shallow – so  reader beware.

To me, Spain seems to have a problem reconciling itself with its history.

Franco ruled Spain as a dictator for more than 35 years yet It is difficult to find public evidence of his regime. The last Franco statue to be removed from public display was at Santander in 2008; continued attempts at reconciliation are ongoing and painful.

Similarly, the unbending repressive strain of Catholicism exhibited in Spain since Ferdinand and Isabella united the country in the late 15th century seems to be an uncomfortably sidelined part of Spanish history. The only reference to the infamous excesses of the Inquisition that I could find were in side-show ‘museums’ that duped unwitting tourists into parting with their Euros to see depictions of blood, gore and torture.

This summer, I came across another example of how Spain’s collective psyche seems to find it difficult to reconcile itself with its history.

In a thoughtfully curated and reputable museum in Malaga, I came across the attached. Here’s part of the quote;

…“effectively dismissing the long centuries of Islamic occupation as a mere hiccup in the otherwise smooth course of Spain’s Christian history.”

It’s tough to stuff 700 years of history under the rug but Spain has tried.

This spring, I was part of a travel study group focused on the seven centuries of Islamic rule of southern Spain, generally agreed to have started in 711 with the invasion of Spain by Muslim Berbers. The conquest was swift and pervasive.

It lasted for some 700 years until the final capitulation of of the Muslim city-state Granada in 1492 to Ferdinand and Isabella. 

These seven centuries of rule profoundly influenced the evolution of renaissance Europe – of that there is general agreement amongst scholars of all persuasions.

In those seven centuries, the Islamic influence permeated medieval Spain, influenced intellectual thought in the rest of Europe and advanced knowledge and civilization in architecture, art, agriculture, irrigation and water usage, science in all its emerging forms. Libraries were created book-by-book that brought the greatest intellectual thoughts of Greece and Rome to Europeans for the first time. Through Cordoba. By Muslims. 

Maria Rosa Menocal described the vast positive influence of Islam on Spain and the emerging societies of Europe  in her book The Ornament of the World.

On our tour we visited three major sites of Moorish Spain; Cordoba, Seville, and Granada. I also enjoyed a pre-tour visit to Malaga, an ancient port on the Mediterranean  coast.

It is hard to describe the impact of visits to the remnants of Moorish influence in these cities of Andalusia. Most of what we saw was architecture, much of it replicated. 

Malaga has two major monuments, the Castillo de Gibralfaro – the fortress – and the Alcazaba – the adjacent fortified palace. The Castillo, a fortification since Phoenician times, was turned into a major Muslim fortress in the 11th century, conquered by the Christians in the late 15th century and used as a military fortification for most of the last centuries. The illustrations and explanations of the Castillo’s history at the on-site museum begins with the conquest of the site by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1487; one has to search for references to Muslim rule prior to that date.

 

The Alcazaba is treated more honestly. Built mostly in the 11th century, it was home to Muslim Kings and Governors starting in the Taifa period; some 500 years of continuous Moorish governance of the region. The Alcazaba, even what little is left, is a beautiful place. Distinctive Moorish arches and decorative features are balanced, delicate and enticing. Water features, plants, green spaces and shaded areas cool the air and calm the mind. It is a pleasant respite from the streets below, an excellent first encounter with Moorish architecture.

It is estimated that, in the 11th century, Cordoba was one the five largest cities in the world; dynamic, cultured, economically robust and relatively calm. Calm enough for Muslims, Christians and Jews to work in close proximity to each other somewhat peacefully (for the time) and important enough for the Moorish ruler, Abd ar-Rahman III, to declare himself Caliph (leader of the Muslim world) with Cordoba as the capital of his Caliphate.

Cordoba’s Mezquita is unique jewel and a stirring example of Moorish architecture; it is unlike anything I have seen. Built over a period from late 8th century and expanded continuously through 200 years of Cordoba’s Moorish Caliphate, this was the largest mosque used for Muslim worship in Cordoba. At its zenith, the Mezquita measured 140 metres by 85 metres, the roof supported by more than 1000 pillars.

The good news is that the Catholic conquerers did not destroy the Mezquita when they captured Cordoba in 1236. Like all other conquerers, they choose to assert their dominance and redecorate. They consecrated the mosque as a Christian site and in the 1500’s chose to build a cathedral in the middle of Mezquita. 

When Emperor Charles V viewed the almost completed Church in the middle of the Mosque he is said to have commented: “You have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.” 

Seville provided another perspective on Moorish Spain. We arrived on a very hot sunny day; our first visit, the Seville Cathedral. Built on the site of the mosque, it is the third largest cathedral in the world; overwhelming does not cover my reaction to this is a need to sit for a few minutes – it is an assault on the senses.

 

 

 

The Gothic structure has been built upon and altered so many times that it is now an unreconcilable mish-mash of a host of evolving architectural styles; add-ons offer a dizzying array of chapels, stalls, aisles, walls, altars, side attractions, all further confused by dazzling golden altars, bas-relief art, figurines, monuments, columns and pillars. It is dazzling – living up to a quote found in a guide book – “When they see it, future generations will think we are mad.” 

They certainly succeeded in convincing me they were mad; in fact, they nailed it.

I had also finally discovered where all that confiscated Incan and Mayan gold had been spent.

An hour later, we entered the Alcazar; the contrast to the Cathedral was profound. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I immediately felt calmed, almost serene.

The gardens, the shade, the respite from the heat, the lightness of the architecture, the simplicity and integrity of all features of the buildings design, the use of water and plants, the placement of doors, windows and the size of rooms – all contributed to a sense of harmony and peacefulness.

It was one of the most enriching hours of my visit to Seville.

The contrast between the two religious sites could not have been more stark.

Granada was, fittingly, our final visit; it is known as the jewel of Andalucia. It was also the city where the Moorish rule of Spain ended for it was in Granada in 1492, that Isabel and Ferdinand formally received the keys to the gates of Granada from Boabdil, the last Moorish ruler in Spain.

The Alhambra jewel is spectacular. The complex, almost 700 metres long from the Alcazaba the fortress to the Generalife, the private residences and extensive gardens of the ruler.It is surrounded by almost 2000 metres of imposing walls. It sits above Granada, framed by the snow-capped Sierra Madre mountains in the distance, a city within itself built over generations starting in the 9th century.

Isabel, the Spanish monarch who led the final stage of the Reconquesta, was so taken with the beauty of the Alhambra that she was buried there for a short time until her remains were removed to the Royal Chapel in the Granada Cathedral. Such was her judgement of the beauty of the Alhambra.

The grounds are extensive, the palace buildings the most necessary of many attractions in the 13 hectare site. Here a succession of small rooms, pleasingly sized and each in its own right a marvel, open to more rooms, larger and more ornate. The effect is to induce a greater sense of awe as one moves through each passage. It works.

The rooms are captivating, walls covered with stuccoed designs including Arabic calligraphy in praise of Allah. Brilliant mosaic tile patterns adorn walls, pillars are carved with delicate lattice capitals imparting a sense of fragility.

The use of light and shadow, the constant presence of water and the specific placement of windows for views and to catch the breezes ensures that the temperature is moderate. Even in the mid-day heat, we were cooled. Even in the cacophony of the never ending stream of tourists, we were calmed; the rooms were more peaceful, quieter than they should be.

I have never understood the effect of architecture on the human spirit, mostly I’ve considered it the hype of architects. The Mezquita, the Alcazar and the palaces at the Alhambra changed that impression. The Moorish command of architecture and building adornment, the use of light, water and views, the decoration of walls, halls and rooms proved that there is a difference. My mood is uplifted, my demeanour is altered, my perspective shifts. 

I cannot claim to have more than a superficial impression of the centuries of Moorish dominion over Spain. I know that the jewels in the crown of Spanish history that may be the least favorite are also the most dazzling – the architecture of three sites in Cordoba, Seville and Granada are all must-see wonders of the world. If, even in a small way, they represent the impact of the Moorish ruling period, the Spanish people should be grateful for such enrichment. Menocal’s book, Ornament of the World is subtitled How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. 

It would have been a rich and interesting time to be alive.

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Base Camp Basel

Over the last five years, I have enjoyed the warm hospitality and my very own bedroom in Basel, Switzerland courtesy of Kristen and Christopher. A few weeks ago, I made what is likely my last visit to Basel. They are moving this summer to Dresden to start a new adventure.

When they were deciding to throw all the cards up in the air and play 52 pick with their lives, I was privileged to be included in their discussions.

They were changing the course of their lives.

It was a brave and bold decision and they thought about it a lot. They were moving a long way away – nine time zones to be exact.

At about this time five years ago, we gathered to send them off; reminding them constantly that home would stay where it always was – in our hearts and in the hearts of our family and friends. Home is a feeling not a place. We could and would visit back and forth; Vancouver would patiently await their return.

I’m grateful that they decided to embark on that adventure five years ago. It made a huge difference in my life.

Their courage gave me courage; courage to expand my own capacity for adventure.

It happened quickly; I used Christopher’s world triathlon competition in London that year as a jumping-off point for my first pilgrimage, an 800 km walk on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. He finished his triathlon and went on to Basel and I left to start the Camino.

Somehow it seemed more doable knowing Kristen and Chris were close by; I had a safety net, our quick text messages at the end of every day gave me comfort. 

The prize I dangled in front of myself was a visit in Basel, complete with my first fondue and a few days of R&R in my new home after a month of vagabonding. It worked so well, I did it again a few years later in Portugal.  

Over the years there have been so many visits with so many wonderful adventures – the one constant was knowing that I had a home in Basel,  a greeting at the train station, a welcome mat at the door, a bed to sleep in, two friends to share the joy of life, a cat who tolerated me.

It was base camp Basel, a place to drop my pack, to relax and feel safe and secure and so much more.

Base camp Basel was the jumping off point for our African safari and the place we returned to when we had finished our glorious adventure.

 

 

 

It was base camp for Blair and me; we could land in Basel and nip over to Zermatt. He skied and I snowshoed under the shadow of the Matterhorn.  The Matterhorn!

 

 

Base camp that allowed us to experience the total insanity of Swiss Fasnacht, the only time the Swiss drop their massive stuffiness and go crazy, worshipping fire, parading through the streets at odd hours; a long stream of weird fife and drum bands, the oddest parade floats, even odder costumes fuelled by the consumption of vast quantities of alcohol. Carnival in Rio is choir-like by comparison.

 

Chris taught me about European football. I’m now a fan; I’ve dropped the NFL completely, it’s crude, dangerous and thoughtless.

 

 

Kristen walked me all over Switzerland, winter and summer. We rode sledges down steep ski slopes, we wanderwegged through the Jungfrau in the shadow of the Eiger. We hiked up to Heidi’s village. We  did everything but yodel.

 

 

 

 

We ate magnificently at the end of every hike ; sausages and cheese and mountain macaroni – guiltless extravagance. In fact we ate well every time I visited. 

 

 

 

 

We celebrated Christmas there – twice. The uniquely joyful European Christmas markets will forever define the holiday now ; north American consumerism is shallow and uninspired by comparison.

 

 

We stood in the stands cheering a pickup team of Canadians playing in various European leagues who come together every year at the Spengler cup in Davos, more pure joy in one game than in any I’ve seen in the NHL lately – Gary Bettman are you listening? 

 

 

Base camp Basel became the meeting point for adventures all over Europe. Italian Espresso and a foodie tour in Rome, the final Bruce Springsteen European concert in Zurich, Lisbon for the best Pasteis de Nata ever!, Paris and more Paris, Varengeville for dinner, and Krakow in winter.

 

 

There was always a constant; a chance to fly into Basel and get settled then head off in any one of a multitude of directions to find an adventure. Base camp Basel was my geographic center for five years, a landing pad and a launch pad that made all of Europe more accessible, more friendly, more enticing. 

 

I also saw my daughter grow into a woman who had met a complex professional challenge, who had mastered each successive iteration of a constantly evolving position and who had contributed to a school environment where she will be sorely missed.

 

 

I remember being somewhat sad when they announced their decision to move to Basel; rightfully so, I don’t see them as often. Facetime, WhatsAp and phone calls help but frequent visits are the best; each visit is an adventure. I am almost embarrassed by the rich rewards that have come my way from the unintended consequences of their decision. 

Basel is one of those places that could be described as a town that fun forgot. Not for me. To me it will always be Base Camp Basel, a place where I‘ve shared lots of laughs, lots of talk, lots of shared adventure, big and small.

A place to jump off from and to return home to. Base Camp.

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My Digital Dependency

I signed up for Twitter about a month ago; Trump tweets were the catnip for joining. I NEEDED to see Trump’s tweets directly; news casts blaring BREAKING NEWS and showing me the feeds were not enough.

I wanted to go to the source – Twitter itself.

I finally folded like a cheap lawn chair and signed up.

Last week, I closed my account and unloaded it from my smartphone.

What a let-down! Twitter was a monumental waste of time.

A perfect example of the oft-quoted Shakespeare nugget;

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

I doubt that every person who uses Twitter is an idiot but there are enough idiots tweeting and retweeting – shouting their nothing with sound and fury – to poison it for me.

I walked away from Twitter. I don’t need the company of those idiots.

Deleting Twitter opened the door to a more serious internal dilemma.

I’m a news junkie, I like to think positively: I have an active curiosity about the world. Information is important; the source of my information and the veracity of it profoundly affects my view of the world.

Over the years, I developed a reliable pattern for accessing news. In the mornings, with my coffee, I scan emails, read items that interest me from a few news aggregators:  NationalNewswatch.com, https://qz.com/.

I check theglobeandmail.com and CBC.ca to see what’s happened overnight and then read through the US and International news on the NYtimes.com. I have slowly given up on print and magazines; I now find digital sources of information more convenient.

I glance at the CBC and CTV morning news, finish my coffee, check Facebook and go about my day. All this consumed about an hour of my time.

In the evenings, I catch BBC, PBS and sometimes the National on CBC.

I am well aware that I live in an information silo of my own making; to compensate, I deliberately try to read opinions that do not conform with my own.

I’m trying to forestall the inevitable hardening of the attitudes that come irrevocably with age.

I am also well aware of the polarization of society into factions – discourse and dialogue are smothered in the shout-out of inflamed opinions. The fools are winning.

Bertrand Russel predicted our dilemma;

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”

Lately, my prurient need for more, stimulated by watching the freak show called the Trump presidency has subverted and perverted this pattern. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

For the moment I have deleted Twitter from my life. I have suspended Instagram but am reconsidering; it seems benign if I control it.

I was digging myself out, then Facebook hit the fan. With Blair’s help, I have immediately tightened my privacy settings and blocked all the apps from accessing my information. I have never knowingly allowed Facebook or any of my digital tools to access my address book or my contacts. Knowingly is the key word in that sentence. I’m convinced now that, like millions of others, I am not very KNOWING.

The privacy thing is long gone; everyone tells me that the digital universe has enough data on each of us that we are an open book. Data doesn’t disappear apparently.

I doubt that deleting Facebook is going to retrieve my privacy but I am debating how I can best take back control of my digital life while still being an active, responsible and informed citizen.

I also recognize that I am my own worst enemy. I write a blog for goodness sake. I’ve written two books. I post all these musings on Facebook so more people will benefit from my wisdom ( a dubious rationale but it’s all I can cling to at the moment).

Much of my privacy is truly gone, never to be retrieved. Yet, I can be more conscientious about what I say, write, record and distribute and where I choose to do those things.

I can also put on my big boy pants and recognize a few realities.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and every other site out there are NOT free. We pay a price to use these facilities.

Facebook and the like are not benign, they are businesses trading in our data.

They are not worried about us or our privacy, they are resolute in their pursuit of profit. Forget their high-minded statements of purpose – follow the money.

I am the one who punches in the info; they are happy to seduce me with free shipping and instant access to much that I desire – with instant gratification delivered to my door.

I could go on but this much is clear. There will be much more self awareness and self censure in the future. And I may yet delete Facebook.   

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Smart Shopping.

I’m going to change my bank this week.

I have decided, despite knowing that this will be a pain in the butt, I’m moving my bank accounts to Vancity, a British Columbia credit union with more than 500,000 members. Vancity is everywhere in my community; sponsoring local community events, offering innovative business partnership opportunities, supporting environmental initiatives and stimulating the development of affordable housing. Vancity also returns part of its profits to members. They WORK at being a positive member of my community.

So what? Is that worth spending the next few months rearranging every account I have to transfer my banking to Vancity?

My answer is yes, an emphatic and hopeful yes. I’m a little late to the party, thoughtful people have been doing this for years – rewarding positive behavior with their consumer dollars. 

Again, I’m late but I have come to the conclusion that the largest threat to civil society is the enormous gap between the rich and the poor – the obscene aggregation of wealth by a small percentage of people and the growing impoverishment of the rest of us. This aggregation of wealth is fuelled by the growth in large corporations, the power of these interests to dominate markets and dictate prices, wages and government policies to benefit the richest few – owners, senior executives and shareholders – whilst impoverishing other stakeholders.

Permit me one example; Walmart. The Walton family’s net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine to be in excess of $140 billion – yes, that’s right BILLION. Bernie Sanders describes it this way, the Waltons own more than the bottom 40% of Americans – about 130 million people. In exchange for convenience and cheap goods, consumers have created a behemoth that rolls over competitors, overpowers suppliers, kills local business wherever it goes, impoverishes it’s own employees, and hollows out communities while making its owners fabulously wealthy.

Every time I shop at Walmart, I contribute to this economic carnage, to the hollowing out of my community, to the impoverishment of workers and the enrichment of the Walton billionaires.

Add any number of famous brands to the list; Amazon, Google, Apple, Costco, the warehouse food-stores, the big banks, big oil, the Hollywood film industry… the list is endless. Monopolies are in, competition is out. Unrestrained capitalism is turning ugly.

Such a concentration of corporate power fuels the concentration of wealth and income for the top 1%. The impact on others is obvious; 40% of workers are now “independent”; piece work, gig work, projects, part-time hours – no job security, no bargaining power, no health care, no benefits, no security.

The middle class is shrinking, poverty is growing, the stresses on civil society are becoming more and more evident. Governments around the world are less willing to legislate, regulate and control these monsters; the 2008/2009 world financial crash showed starkly that banks and other large institutions were too big to fail and, even in the face of obvious legal culpability, were immune to prosecution. Even Obama blinked when he faced Wall Street and the banks.

Amidst all the evidence and the resulting dystopian predictions, I struggle to find my own strategy to respond. There’s not much I can do but that doesn’t mean I am powerless. 

Here’s what I am doing. I am going to try to use every dollar I spend to fight this growing inequality. I’m a bit late to the party but, it is a battle worth fighting.

As Confucius was reported to have said; “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

I have vowed to never shop at Walmart. Instead, I’m going to buy locally – there’s a little hardware store where I can find all I need; and I am welcomed with helpful advice and service by a member of my community.

I’ve just cut up my Costco card. I don’t like their excessive packaging, their foreign ownership and the effect my shopping at Costco is having on my little community – all for convenience and some small saving. Besides, every time I go into Costco I come out with more than I need. I cannot resist buying a year’s supply of some sugary, chocolatey forbidden “treat” and consuming it all in about a week. They give back nothing that I can see to my community.

I’m adding Safeway to my no-go list. Whole Foods was never on my list – that is misleading marketing and empty promises over common sense and always has been.

Instead, I am going to shop locally. There’s a local green grocer in my hood, Aria; a good selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, run by a family – real people who say hello and know who I am. They stock their small store to the top with fascinating stuff; real sardines from Portugal, more interesting breads than I have ever seen, foodstuffs from all over the middle east.

I’m going to the local butcher, Tango’s – sure it’s a bit more expensive and there’s a smaller selection but It is more than adequate for my needs. I can special-order lamb shanks, incredible tenderloins and much more. They pay attention; they are joyful to see me and to serve me.

I’m trying to wean myself from Amazon, my local library branch is helpful and Indigo is a Canadian company. I use Canada Post whenever I can; it’s part of the connective tissue of this country – Amazon never was and never will be.

I don’t buy coffee at Starbucks, my local hangout is Delaneys. Locally owned by nicer people who treat their staff well. The coffee is better too!

I’m going to fewer big Hollywood movies, I’ve found the Vancouver International Film Centre instead; more indies, more international films, more diversity, more windows to the world.

I’m also going to talk to my Liberal Government friends about why they are not taxing Netflix, Amazon, Google and a host of other monopolists that suck money out of our consumer pockets without paying any taxes.

This isn’t going to amount to much; but I work with the tools I have at hand; my wallet and my feet. It gives me some sense that I have control over my actions, that they align with my values and my growing anxiety about the direction we are headed, the future we face.

I’m sure Vancity won’t increase their stakeholder payout based on my enrolment but I will feel a bit like I’m rewarding them for their hard work. At least I’m not helping the Waltons. I am also sure that Vancity plays a more positive role in my community than my current big bank. That means something and they deserve to be recognized for their work.

So, it’s a few small stones that I’m moving but I feel better about it – it is worth the effort.

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Jungfraujoch, Top of Europe.

There is a restaurant called Bollywood at Jungfraujoch, an amazing Swiss tourist site in the middle of the Jungfrau range. It serves authentic Indian food to some 1000 happy customers a day.

An Indian restaurant in the center of an iconic Swiss destination becomes understandable when Kristen and Chris explain that the Jungfrau has featured in several famously successful Bollywood movies, as far back as 1964. Yash Chopra, the famous Indian film director, has shot so many sequences for so many films over the years that the region has become one of the top destinations for Indian tourists – hence the Bollywood restaurant. He’s so famous, a Jungfrau railway train has been named after him.

It isn’t just India, many of the Bond films over the years have featured the mountains of Switzerland. A not-so-good Clint Eastwood film, The Eiger Sanction – based on the best-selling novel – was centred on the Jungfrau. There have even been a few clips from Star Wars with the Jungfrau as backdrop.

We are in Grindelwald for a Swiss Christmas. Nestled below the Jungfrau range, it is a gateway for hiking, mountain-biking and marvelling in the summer and a whole range of outdoor pursuits in the winter. We are attracted for the same reason as Bollywood directors, it is an oasis of Swiss beauty.

Kristen and I first visited the region a few summers ago as hikers. She managed to cajole and bribe me into hiking from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg with the promise of the best Swiss macaroni EVER!!!

 

The Best Swiss Macaroni EVER!!! got my full attention. It was enough to get me started up the steep slope, pride made me continue. After three hours of the most strenuous yet beautiful walking through idyllic grassy fields appropriately adorned with Swiss cows and their Swiss bells across a valley where ice from hanging glaciers crashed noisily down mountain faces, I managed to make it to the magical place that served the best Swiss macaroni EVER!!!.

After our al fresco lunch of the best Swiss macaroni EVER!!!, we settled into a local hotel and stared at the Jungfrau for hours. Like a poor man’s fireplace, the clouds, the sun, the light and shadows created a panoramic reel of ever-changing perfection, enhancing the endorphins released by the walk and the sublime somnolence that comes from a full tummy.

 

Now we are back to experience winter in the Jungfrau. If anything it is more entrancing! More beauty, more activity, more liveliness, more energy; the Swiss and those who choose Grindelwald are here to enjoy winter. Ski lifts abound all over the valley opening up the whole area to thrills, chills and spills. Sledding slopes are filled with young and old speed-demons, snow-shoe and walking paths abound, there are even hang gliders dotting the clear sky.

Everyone is busy enjoying winter. As we come to expect, It’s all Swiss watch efficient; we have trains direct to Grindelwald, local bus service every half hour from the village to our rental, a full service supermarket and many excellent restaurants. This is the way to spend Christmas holiday!

I’m encouraged to visit Jungfraujoch. At 3454 metres, it calls itself the Top of Europe. The Jungfrau (4158 meters) is the namesake; aligned with it in a massive wall of mountain that leaps from the lower valley of Interlaken are the Eiger (3970 metres) and the Monsch (4107 metres).

Unfortunately, none of the three qualify as “Top of Europe” mountains – that prize goes to Mont Blanc (4808 meters) in France.

Rare Swiss hyperbole aside, the Jungfrau is justifiably famous around the world, iconic and remarkable in its beauty, so famous it is an international movie set – transcending all boundaries.

This time we take the trains, I’ve walked part of this once, no bragging points in doing it again. The Bernese Oberland Railway is a marvel of Swiss design and efficiency; constructed at the turned of the 20th century, it connects Grindelwald with the funicular Jungfrau railway that takes up to the Jungfraujoch. Most of the passage is tunneled through the granite of the Jungfrau – there’s a stop allowing us to view the valley through a window cut in the mountain face.

Jungfraujoch is a complex built into the mountains in the shadow of Jungfrau itself. At the top is an observation viewpoint allowing a full 360 degree view of the valleys and the Aletsch Glacier. Deep inside the mountain is the funicular station, a state-of-the-art film tunnel, a glacier walkway, an interior ice palace, a chocolate shop and a watch shop and among others, our favorite Bollywood restaurant. Everything the modern tourist needs and a chance to buy Swiss watches, Swiss chocolate and Indian curries.

We are blessed with a clear day, we can see forever in all directions; It is the Switzerland of postcards and tourist posters.

Serendipity has opened the door to Swiss delights; I’m at a place of sublime beauty – following Chris and Kristen on their adventure has opened a new window – a new adventure – for me.

The Swiss Alps in winter are so beautiful they deserve to be background to Bollywood movie stars, James Bond, Clint Eastwood and Princess Leia. To see them on the screen is surpassed only by being there – really being there.

It truly is that magical a place. 

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Man’s Search for Meaning.

Victor Frankl is regarded as one of the world’s foremost psychologists. His most popular book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was published in 1946. The book has been translated into 24 languages; more than 12 million copies have been sold.

It has been described as one of the 10 most influential books in a survey of American readers.

In 1942 Frankl, his wife, his brother and his parents were arrested and sent to the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp. It was the last he saw of all of them.

Frankl survived the concentration camps for three years until he was liberated in 1945.

The first part of Frankl’s book recounts those years in the camps. It is hard to believe anyone could survive, yet he produced a book of such optimism and insight based on his original thesis and informed by his near death experience. 

Auschwitz/Birkenau in the middle of winter, days before the Christmas celebration, is at its worst – the physical embodiment of evil, tangible, comprehensible proof of an incomprehensible period in human history. The atmosphere is cold, heavy, leadened with doom and sadness; taking pictures seems a desecration, an invasion of the sanctity of this memorial. I am only able to take a photo of the entrance.

Even the most warmly dressed of us are chilled within minutes.  It is virtually impossible to survive days on end in freezing temperatures, walking kilometers in snow and ice without adequate footwear, laboring outdoors for hours in threadbare prison garb, existing on a few hundred calories, whipped and beaten by sadists, huddling together for warmth for a few hours of sleep in drafty horse barns – only to do it all over again, for days, months, years.

More than 1 million people were exterminated in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex in less than three years. Every day, thousands were stripped naked, marched into the ‘showers’, gassed, and incinerated.

The most heart wrenching displays are the heaps of left behind possessions – gathered by the Nazis for recycling into cash – the amoral, relentless efficiency of it all is staggering. The barns that held this booty were called Canada (some notion connecting our limitless bounteousness to that of the sheds) – our small bitter place in this hellhole of Nazi hate.

These are dark, brooding places, sadness hangs over it all like a shroud – the buildings, the razor wire fences, the gas chambers, the ovens, the mass graves.

We attend; our collective desire to understand, to memorialize, to grasp the magnitude of evil, to seek meaning in the events of the past. Our presence is not prurient; we bear witness to the suffering, we honor the dead. We renew our vow that this shall never happen again.

Frankl found inspiration in these camps. The first half of Man’s Search for Meaning is the recounting of his time in the camps. This time in the camps exemplified the power of his psychological theory developed before the war, it gave him the strength to survive and with it he tried to help others find meaning in their daily suffering.

Frankl lost almost everything in the camps, enduring the most hurtful physical, emotional and spiritual degradation – yet he survived because, he believed that he retained something sacred; ”the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“It is this spiritual freedom which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” 

Throughout his book, Frankl quotes another philosopher, Neitzsche; “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

I came across Man’s Search for Meaning decades ago. It carried a powerful message for me. It is on my shelf of must have books; I have given away dozens of copies, highly recommending it to friends and those whose need seems clear. It has been a powerful book in my life.

Frankl’s philosophy is simple; I need meaning in my life and, while I may not be in control of events that occur in my life, I am in control of how I respond to them and how I seek to manage that part of my life that is under my control. I have the power to choose.

Simple but not easy; I sometimes lose my way and forget these ideas. Some combination of restlessness, boredom and bored/restlessness can blind me to these simple guides to living.

There is never one shining beacon that offers total meaning to me, my search usually turns up a patchwork of Whys that make my life meaningful.  Life evolves, changes; when times shift, I need to add a patch to the worn part of my quilt of purposes. The meaning of life is not always clear, nor does it stay stable over time.

Frankl is on my shelf with his story of survival, his simple advice – intellectually rigorous, spiritually uplifting, emotionally rewarding and experientially tested. Like millions of others, he has uplifted us all by telling the story of the camps, by offering hope to those who search for meaning and by offering simple advice to help us find purpose and meaning even in times of struggle.  I recommend you read this book.

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Walking as Inspiration

If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk. – Raymond Inmon

My first response to anyone who asks, ‘what do you think about when you walk?’ is always ‘nothing.’

That is true, I think about nothing; walking is meditative for me. It clears my head, it calms me. I am less anxious, my worries fade, my mind slows.

The obvious ‘nothing’ does not explain it all. There seems to be something else going on behind the consciousness curtain. Unnoticed, my subconscious seems to be active; cleaning things up, connecting random ideas and sorting them in new ways.

I have returned from long walks sprinkled with creative pixie-dust, inspired with a turn-of-phrase that tickles me, illuminated by a previously hidden idea, directed to rethink some issue, guided to some new insight that I can only now see.

Obviously, I am not the first to notice the inspirational effects of going for long walks. Many more famous people with a greater capacity to articulate the beneficial effects of walking and inspiration have described the phenomenon.

I have never thought so much, existed so much, lived so much, been so much myself; if I may venture to use the phrase, as in the journeys which I have made alone and on foot. – Jean Jacques Rousseau.

A real writer gets paid for his/her efforts, I have never managed that measure of success. I feel more comfortable being called a starving writer, I’ve never been paid much for my work. 

But, having been told that writers write, I write. I have tried to find my own voice. It was tougher than I imagined.

What did I want to say and how did I want to say it? It became a heavy burden. I wrote journals of my travels and adventures, big and mostly small.

I wrote stuff and kept it private; mostly I wrote about issues that I cared about – my sanctimonious pontificals. Polemics are easy, crank up the sense of moral outrage and erupt in ink on a page (or with digital bits and bytes into the ether). They satisfied for a while.

I needed a bigger platform. I began writing the occasional column for the Calgary Herald. I received no money but felt that rush of ego and adrenaline coursing through my veins when I opened the Herald to the op-ed page and saw MY column – WOW! My words in ink!

I was often stymied as I evolved in this voyage of ink and ideas. I was in many cases inarticulate, agitated and unproductive. There was an idea out there in the fog but it only had a vague shape. It wasn’t clear, I couldn’t find the words to express what I had hoped to communicate. The words did not emerge that allowed me to describe this idea. I could not break through.

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking. – Friedrich Neitzche

I found that when I went for runs, sometimes something clicked. An idea took shape, the fog rolled back, the words came. It was an unintended consequence of my new found life of exercise; it didn’t always happen and I never pushed my luck. Yet, it was more than serendipity. Cause and effect.

Running helped break through my inarticulate efforts to write, when I became a walker, the occasional inspiration became regular. There is something about the pace of walking, the slowness, the repetitiveness, the almost boring simplicity of the walk that seems to energize the subconscious – the Muse.

I have read that Wordsworth, Thoreau, Darwin, Hemingway and Dickens were walkers, seeking inspiration whenever they felt unable to achieve the clarity and brilliance of choosing just the right words to create just the right sentence to carry the thought forward with conviction. The walk cleared whatever was blocking their creativity.

Walking allows for the clearing of the brain; the period after, rest and contemplation, opens the floodgates of creativity and inspiration. Newton may have conceived and clarified his thoughts on gravity while sitting under a tree. Could I be so bold as to suggest that he had a bit of a walk to get to the tree?

There seems to be some science to buttress the notion that walking stimulates creativity; more blood flowing to the brain, more oxygen, fewer distractions, the monotonous almost hypnotic regularity of the movements. Common sense tells me that is likely.

Walking should be the tenth of the Greek muses; it truly is magical to my creative process. Whenever I feel confused, inarticulate, uncreative and uninspired I tighten my boots, shoulder my pack, don my cap and head out the door for a long walk. 

Perhaps it is this simple; perambulation leads to perspiration, which leads to inspiration.

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Walking as meditation.

Over the past few years, I have become a walker, a hiker, a trekker, a wanderer, a rambler and, later in the day, a trudger and a plodder.

I have come to enjoy going off on long walks in various parts of the world, becoming a pilgrim, a peregrino, a pèlerin, a pellegrino and henro. The long training walks and the pilgrimage itself mean that I spend many day walking, not quite Forrest Gump but the miles do accumulate.

I’m not really sure why but I find it deeply satisfying. It is what I do.

My penchant for walking is relatively recent; age and circumstance play their part. I’ve retired from a decade of running, cycling has become inordinately dangerous here in Vancouver, swimming is too much trouble, triathlons are too complicated.

Walking has become the default exercise; minimal skill required, low cost gear, ample possibilities. I can head out my door and go in any direction to some of the best paths and parks in the world. At the end of every walk, there is cake – so I’m provided with ample inducements.

That seems to be an adequate rationale yet, whenever I try to explain to friends why I walk, it’s not enough.

They dig deeper; one of the most common questions is: “What do you think about over those long hours of walking?”

My answer is simple: “Nothing.”

That causes more befuddled looks, yet it is the essence of why I walk. I walk because it is calming; it is almost counterintuitive that vigorous movement is  calming, yet it is the prize, the core of why I get up off the couch and go out the door.

I have been dabbling in yoga for a while now. My favorite part of every yoga class has always been the last moments – relaxation.

The actual yoga class was a struggle, I first approached it as a stretching exercise. I am not very flexible and my sense of balance and my capacity to precisely manage body movement is limited; It’s why I am a reluctant dancer.

“Do the best you can,” Sandra, my yoga instructor would say, “there is no judgement, no competition in yoga.” – which seemed to make it all the more important that I do well; just so as to not be not-judged. I know that no one judging me is the worst of all judgements.

But I digress, where was I….?

….the joys of relaxation. At the end of every session, we would lie quietly on our mats, sometimes warmed by our little blankets. We would close our eyes and Sandra would guide us through steps that led to total surrender, the bliss of an empty mind and a relaxed body.

I liked relaxation – the empty mind part was especially appealing.

Lately, in an effort to capture more of this empty-minded relaxation, this nothingness, I decided to try full-on meditation – imagine a whole hour of ‘end of yoga class relaxation bliss’! How much more satisfying!

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. My meditation attempts have not led to that ‘blissful nothing’ experience even after several sitting meditation classes.

The more I sat quietly trying to think of nothing, the more my mind resisted – leaping about like the much analyzed monkey brain.

It was quite frustrating. It’s hard to describe fighting with my own mind – especially to friends. They tend to slowly move sharp objects out of my reach while nodding agreeably.

Twice now, I have gone on meditation retreats; Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday at the Asian Studies Center at UBC. I work at this sitting meditation during these sessions, not thinking seems to be tougher for some of us.

Thankfully, it wasn’t all sitting; alternating sessions of walking meditation offered the chance to go outside and walk mindfully.

Walking mindfully, walking meditation is apparently not simple – any spiritual quasi-religious canon will be made complicated, especially if it has been around for a few thousand years.

There is even a highly recommended book, How to Walk by the renowned buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s small, with short statements that are either deeply profound or borderline banal.

“When you walk, arrive with every step. That is walking meditation. There’s nothing else to it.” is a typical enigmatic entry.

It was sunny, the weather was cool, the path meandered through a small grove of trees on the edge of the campus, I had a little piece of path to myself and it was quiet. I just walked slowly and enjoyed the experience.

At the end, it was clear to me that I struggled through the sitting meditation sessions and enjoyed the walking outside on my own.

Sometimes I miss insights; this one finally revealed itself as I castigated myself for somehow not learning how to sit and meditate. It wasn’t working but I had read so much about how we have to work to achieve this mindfulness, the nothingness.

Stories abound in Buddhist literature of others persisting for thousands of hours of sitting quietly seeking the fruits of meditation, they hung over me. I come by my guilt-driven personality honestly and I polish it up regularly. It must be me! I am deficient! I am not as smart, driven, committed, insightful, as thousands who achieve a measure of nirvana through meditation.

Self-flagellation in the pursuit of inner peace seemed a bit counterintuitive and, actually silly.

At this point, I went back to analyzing my walking experience and the calm and serenity that resulted. I thought about the exercise that preceded my brief bliss of post yoga relaxation. I recalled actually enjoying running for the same reasons – the glow of endorphin bliss that flushed through my system after the exercise.

It seems clear too that sitting meditation is not working for me. Maybe I’m not a sit still sort of person. Maybe I should just relax and keep it simple.

To quote Thich Nhat Hanh;

“When the Buddha walked, he didn’t seem to be practising meditation…

he just had two feet like the rest of us, and he enjoyed walking…

You don’t make any effort; you don’t struggle, you just enjoy walking.”

 

So, for now, I think I’ll stop chasing the elusive sitting meditation ‘Nothing’ and stick with the walking ‘Nothing’. 

Sometimes more isn’t better, sometimes better isn’t more.

I think I’ll go for a walk and not think about all this for a while.

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Sandra gives us more than yoga.

The secret to thriving in big cities is to become a part of the small neighbourhoods within them. The secret of these small neighbourhoods is people who animate them. Our secret in my hood is Sandra.

When I moved to Vancouver in early January of 1999, I moved into the West End, a small enclave near downtown Vancouver. My backyard, literally, is Stanley Park. The West End became my community, MY hood.

I joined the Running Room in the hood. It became my second home, the gathering place for my running buddies; a decade of running cemented friendships, a decade later, I still call some of those runners my friends.

In the heart of my hood is the West End community center. The community center vibrates with activity; most importantly for us was  the offer of yoga classes. We needed a bit of help to stay loose, especially after long Sunday runs.

I signed up for my first yoga class at the West End community center.  It was all a big leap for a prairie boy from Calgary; Vancouver, the West End, running, Yoga.

My friends held my hand and nurtured me through the door. There we met Sandra, petite, bubbly, as full of fresh-faced energy as the energizer bunny and as enthusiastic as Pippy Longstocking. She was the ideal yoga instructor; central casting couldn’t have done a better job. 

Every Monday evening we joined Sandra in her beginner level yoga class.

She introduced us to yoga, slowly moving us through the Sun salutation, interspersing her examples and instructions with a few exotic Sanskrit phrases and many spoons-full of encouragement. I managed to learn how to stand on one leg, not quite mastering the intricacies of the downward-facing dog but not falling down at crucial moments either. I relaxed a bit, becoming quite content to practice my moves in the dark back corner of the class.

It worked. We recovered more quickly from our punishing Sunday long runs; aches and pains disappeared, tight muscles loosened, recovery was quicker.

Sandra’s classes became an oasis, a valuable and necessary component in our weekly training routine.

I never aspired to move to more complicated classes, being satisfied to just enjoy Sandra’s healing classes. She didn’t exactly encourage me to take the advance classes.

I saw it more as stretching than yoga, it sustained my running career well into my late fifties. I never got any faster but I managed to finish my marathons, half-marathons, and long Sunday runs – upright and usually smiling.

I have been a peripatetic but loyal participant in her classes ever since, now stretching over the past two decades. I keep coming back, usually when I am stiff and sore and need some remediation for my various attempts to remain permanently young. My reach always exceeds my grasp.

Sandra has become an icon for me and a glowing example of what it is to be a member of a vibrant community

I am at the periphery of her life but have had the good fortune to observe as she has grown and developed her personal practice, adapting and expanding the ways she serves this community. She is a staple at the West-End community center.

Over twenty years at the West End community center she has provided Yoga classes to thousands; even now, she continues to offer classes in yoga; Hatha yoga, Dru yoga, restorative yoga by candlelight, guided meditation, kids yoga and yoga for men. She now also offers classes at the nearby Coal Harbour Community Center. She has started a class called Chair yoga – she is determined to keep us moving!

She has mastered the Harmonium, now offering music and songs as part of her Yoga practise, Her yoga practice is now more holistic – not just for body, now also for mind and soul.

My current favorite is yoga over 50. She flatters us, we are not being checked for ID at the door. It is a morning drop in; the room is always full. More than 40 devoted followers find a space for a gentle 90 minute workout she has developed to keep us moving, happy and healthy. The cost is a paltry $2.50, the best yoga value ever.

Her carefully chosen program offers movement, stories, jokes, guidance on everything from nutrition to the circadian rhythms, to the impact of sun, moon and seasons on our physical, emotional and spiritual lives. Her warmth, her inclusiveness, her genuine enthusiasm for life are all contagious.

I particularly like the relaxation stage at the end; as we lay flat on our mats, eyes closed, she sings to us in her sweet melodious voice. We are all refreshed, optimistic, freer, more energized.

Sandra keeps growing; she has come a long way since those first days in 1999.

She has produced two CD’s and has developed a class on the local Shaw cable channel, Yoga Moves for Every Body.

I have watched her expand her talents to teach, to involve and to bring joy to our West End community – she is now a neighbourhood institution.

She is our Fred Rogers, the host of Mr Roger’s Neighborhood. Like Fred, she is a helper.

Fred Rogers said that in times of difficulty we should look to the helpers.

Sandra is one of those helpers. Every community is filled with helpers, we just need to look for them, recognize them, and celebrate them.

She has enriched the lives of West-Enders for more than twenty years. We are all better for her contribution to our community, our hood.  We are healthier, we are more engaged ourselves, her involvement is contagious. She has offered her own brand of positive living therapy to us.

In every community there are people like Sandra;  they are the glue that hold our hood together. I hope we all pause occasionally and reflect on their contribution to our lives and to our community. I hope we all stop them and say thanks.

PS – Sandra has produced two CDs of music that are quite remarkable. A third has just been released.

For more info and information on purchasing her music go to;

http://givepeaceachant.com

 

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China – Shattered Images – #3

I find a visit to any country ignites an interest and a curiosity to know more.

I’ve read more about modern China since returning home than I have in the months prior to departing. My interest piqued, I’m trying to make sense of what I’ve experienced; it is counterintuitive, I should have done my homework before my visit not after.

Observations by tourists ought to be viewed skeptically; deep down, our insights are pretty shallow. This is especially true for China, since even superlatives do not seem to adequately describe this country and it’s complexity cannot be explained in a blogpost. Having said that…

China must be taken seriously, much more seriously.

China is the second largest economy in the world. The introduction of the “Socialist market economy” in the late 70‘s initiated annual economic growth of some 8-9%.  Chinese GNP rose from US$150 billion to US$1.6 trillion. 

China’s 1.4 billion people have experienced this economic miracle first hand; more than 500 million people, ten times the population of Canada, have been lifted out of poverty. Growth continues at about 6% annually, twice what it is in the West.

The evidence of this economic revolution is everywhere.

The Chinese have developed a love affair with cement. Apartment buildings sprout like mushrooms after a rain – ten towers each of 20 some stories sprout everywhere.  The accusation that some of these instant cities are ghost towns misses the point – they are huge, modern and a step up from the sprawling slums that exist outside most international urban areas. We know that the biggest mass exodus in modern times is the movement of people from rural to urban centers; the Chinese can mostly be accused of anticipating the inevitable and preparing for it.

Modern trains take us places at 300 KM/hr, more high-speed rail tracks are being laid than in the rest of the world combined. Recently built roads are modern and efficient; a bus-ride in India is an endurance test of the vehicle and my spinal system; in China, it’s smooth and quiet.

Bike sharing in China has amazing technology, a robust app for payments, location tracking and usage; far superior to our system in Vancouver.

Infrastructure construction has transformed commerce, exports and the efficient movement of goods, and people. Trains, subways, freeways, apartment towers, futuristic skyscrapers; all this infrastructure is new and technologically up-to-date. 

 

The most profound change unleashed is at the individual level. I see entrepreneurs and business operators everywhere; energy and enthusiasm for making money, for taking charge of one’s destiny, for growth, for MONEY is palpable. Overnight, millions of Chinese have successfully embraced the market economy and the freedom it engenders. They have cash in their jeans and they are spending it; internal tourism, a new phenomenon, is evidence of disposable income.

On our arrival in Mt. Emei for our stay at the buddhist temple at Baoguo, we were met by Patrick (his ‘western’ name). Six years ago, Kristen and Chris had also met Patrick; back then, he was the local agent for the monastery, helped them get settled, rented them a towel, sold some sandwiches and snacks, gave some advice on how to spend their day near this religious site and puttered about trying to be useful.

Now, he is major domo. He’s our local guide, organizes tours, has a fleet of part-time drivers, and ferries us out for our special hot-pot dinner. He’s a human dynamo, his tiny empire has grown; he’s a small business entrepreneur!

He now owns a restaurant where his wife and mother serve up great food and, more importantly, fast wifi! It becomes our semi-official HQ.

His two children are away in private schools, already being prepared to move up the social and economic ladder, a driving aspiration of all parents everywhere. I expect he’s successful beyond his wildest imagination.

We see such examples wherever we go;

my cooking school instructor,

 

 

 

 

 

an elderly lady who grinds Sichuan pepper from her front door,

 

 

 

 

the Chinese ‘wine‘ maker (it is awful hootch that knocks your head off) who hosts an impromptu ‘wine-tasting‘ for us in the street in front of his store,

 

 

 

the elderly tea plantation owner whose son now runs the place, with modern equipment and expanded acreage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hustling entrepreneurs are everywhere; they look remarkably like hustling American small business capitalists. 

China’s exponential growth has come at a cost; the unintended consequences.

Air pollution is palpable. The sky is brown in every major city, mainly the result of coal-fired electricity generation.  Water supply and pollution problems loom, land use and desertification issues are faced daily, inadequate disposal of poisonous wastes turn rivers into sewers, the list goes on. A whole generation of Chinese urban dwellers is likely to suffer the health consequences.

Another poison leaching into the system is corruption on a massive scale; millions have already been punished. Xi Jinping has promised further crackdowns.

Finally, the most serious affliction, the more and more obvious inequitable distribution of wealth; a recent study suggest that the top 1% of Chinese controlled 25% of China’s assets, a concentration that mirrors the problem in the West.

Overarching all this is the challenge of redefining what it is to be a Chinese communist in 2017 and what the Party needs to do to determine the destiny of 1.4 billion people. There seems to be a concern that the freedom genie has been let out of the bottle; the future is not clear.

Xi Jinping, at the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress, set future policy; “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” now officially enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. How this evolves will be interesting, to them and to us.

This may be particularly western of me, but I cannot imagine taking away the freedom of the newly developed entrepreneurs. Once we have tasted market capitalism and have some money as a result, we like it. Tighter controls on the market economy and small entrepreneurs may not be well received.

The mood is buoyant, people have jobs, small businesses, money and hope; we saw an outpouring of pride on National Day, 500 million people have escaped grinding poverty and tasted the good life, they will inevitably want more.

The challenge is as daunting as the challenge of western governments who face low growth, poisonous inequities of income and wealth distribution and volatile polarization of subgroups in an increasingly restive civil society. We all face the impact of the self-inflicted degradation of the global environment. 

What is clear to me is that China has joined the world, their problems are our problems, the messiness of life is now theirs to manage as we seek to manage our messiness. As one of the largest, if not THE largest economy in the world, what happens in China matters to us all.

The joy of travel, of adventures, is simple. I see things, I am forced to revise my view of the world. My images, however previously assembled, are shattered. I am forced to reconcile what I see in front of me, try to make sense of it and open myself to a more complicated view of this messy world.

My children promised this trip would change the way I view the world. It did.

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China – shattered images – #2

My primary purpose in visiting China was as a tourist; to see the sights, taste the food, hear the sounds, experience the reality. It is after all a foreign place.

Is Canadian Chinese food really Chinese? Is the Great Wall really that great? What does Tiananmen Square really look like? Is the Forbidden City really that forbidden or is it just foreboding?  Does the bullet train look like a bullet? Is Shanghai as futuristic as it looked in the James Bond movie Skyfall?

So many questions and only one way to find out. The essence of travel is to see and experience directly – time to check image against reality!

Beijing, with 26 million people, has six ring roads, we stayed just inside ring road #3. It is formidable; thick smog,  jammed traffic, jumbles of rental bicycles at street corners, masses of people on the subway; more than a bit intimidating.  

Tiananmen Square can accommodate a million people for the much-favored mass rallies held on special dates like October 1, the Chinese national Day. Hundreds of thousands are said to attend the morning ritual of flag raising. It is filled every day with thousands in an orderly queue to visit Mao’s tomb.  No courageous boys standing up to tanks on the Square this day, only happy ‘ethnic’ Chinese dressed in their finest to pay homage to Mao. Shattered Image.

The Forbidden City, adjacent and two kilometers long in its own magnificent sprawl, dwarfs Tiannamen Square. While the Forbidden City is a must-see, I have to bring my imagination with me; we are allowed only to see the external buildings and read carefully edited signs, we are not allowed access to the interior. There are a few exceptions where doors are open and we may jostle our way to the front of deep crowds of selfie-seekers, an exercise in cultural politeness. Without a vivid imagination, I’m incapable of fully appreciating this icon. There doesn’t seem to be much there there. Shattered image.

The Great Wall fulfills its promise. It is GREAT. It doesn’t make sense; even in its visual grandeur, it seems to aimlessly meander off into both distant horizons. I try to imagine the sacrifice of those serfs, slaves and citizens in building it; I also try to imagine it being manned by an alert army of watchmen and defended from alien hordes who regularly breached its walls.

This section, Mutianyu, has been specifically rebuilt and maintained for tourists. Off in the distance, I see only rubble where wall used to be. It seems more a monument to some Emperor’s fear, hubris and folly than anything. Like other such exercises in hubris, the pyramids for example, it makes for a good tourist attraction. The Great Wall has finally achieved meaningful utility – as a tourist attraction! I guess that qualifies as a shattered image.

The bullet train does shatter my image for another reason; it is better than anything I expected – by a speedy margin. New, clean, comfortable, quiet, easy to board and exit, staffed (yes, and with enough attendants to notice) and fast. It makes the TGV and the Swiss train system look a decade or two out of date. No backward third world nation here – shattered image indeed.

Shanghai’s architecture exemplifies an interesting historical juxtaposition. On one side of the river is the Bund, a long boulevard of 1900’s buildings created by the European colonial powers to celebrate their superiority and their dominance of China for a period; across the river, the new Shanghai – postmodern architecture bursting with the vitality and exuberance of the 21st century.  The only image shattered here is that New York, Tokyo and London are NOT the most interesting city skyscapes on earth.

Xi’an is the jumping off point for the most iconic Chinese image of all – the Terra Cota warriors. The display is truly magnificent; now four separate displays, the central one is breath-taking. Words will not do it justice – pictures help but being present and seeing, witnessing is necessary.

After all this, connected by the unexpected but memorable (I can’t think of a more polite descriptor) trip on a Chinese overnight train, we needed a break. Overnight trains are democratic; six bunks per partition, a few seats in the aisle, room to store a bag overhead, a pillow and a ‘comforter’, ample hot water for tea and noodles, one communal sink and Asian style toilet per car. The upper bunk is the most private, it takes a contortionist/gymnast to climb there, and even more dexterity to climb down. An adventure in its own right – shattered image – tourist friendly travel hasn’t arrived everywhere in China. 

The Buddhist monastery at Baoguo Temple, Mount Emei provided our oasis of calm serenity. We were permitted to stay inside the monastery overnight – afforded access to the same luxuries as monks, (communal showers open 5:30-9:30 pm every night, ample hot water, comfortable beds, private rooms, shared toilets) and the opportunity to witness morning prayers – announced by gongs and chimes at 5am, prayers at 5:30.

It was a privilege, to some of us at least, and a refreshing change from the cacophony of the past week. Peace. calm, serenity; I now understand the attraction of Buddhism!

Godless communism never succeeded in inflicting itself on China or in wiping out Buddhism. I suspect the Chinese communists conceded defeat before trying, if they had tried it would have been a miserable failure. Everywhere we went, we saw Buddhist monuments, Buddhist temples, Buddhas in museums and practising Buddhists. Shattered image indeed!

The Pandas were, well, pandas. They eat, they sleep, they change positions occasionally to affirm they are alive. Pandas are only found in China; the Chinese have found gold in their exclusivity. I was cautioned that they were hard selling their exclusivity; Kristen specifically told me to NOT join the long lineups that allow visitors to cuddle a panda – for a fee. Shattered image, they have created an enviable parklike setting for their pandas, they seem to have developed a responsible program working with zoos around the world to display and support Pandas, the World Wildlife Fund uses the Panda as their international symbol and they discontinued their ‘cuddle’ program – the poor panda died from too much human contact and kindness. The Chinese have taken responsibility for Pandas, now cherished and protected. Shattered Image. 

We cruise down the Yangtze River from Chongqing, a city engorged with the displaced peasants from the flooding of the Three Gorges Dam – now with a population greater than all of Canada. Yes, 30 million people in one “city”.

The cruise is all lemons into lemonade; flood a vast area to create the largest hydro-electric dam in the world and then charge people to see the vast engineering feat! Three days later at midnight we were lowered some 200 meters to the lower dam-site level and sent on our way. Such Chutzpa – image shattered!

Finally, Hong Kong. Glitz and glitter, hustle and bustle. Yet its impressive skyline is rivalled by Shanghai, it’s entrepreneurial activity dwarfed by dozens of mainland China cities, it’s faint hope for special status diminished regularly. Is the rest of China catching up or is Hong Kong being pulled back into the pot with the others?

Whatever the answer, the changes roiling through China are evident everywhere. Last shattered image – over 500 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty in the last decade. Joseph Stiglitz called China a socialist market economy with Chinese Characteristics. Whatever it is, it shatters images everywhere I go. This is definitely not the third world Toto!

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China – shattered images – #1

Six years ago, Kristen and Chris returned from their adventure in China astounded. “It changes the way you see the world!” they said.

They were obviously right; I am still wide-eyed and speechless after a three week whirlwind trip through China.

We all carry cliche images in our heads and our psyches about places, things and people. China was the China of movies, Charlie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, the Great wall, KungFu and Tai Chi, Mao and the Red Guard, the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the cheap Made-in-China goods that flooded our consumer markets, the recent growing muscularity of China as an international economic powerhouse, the takeover of Hong Kong, the modernization of Chinese Communism; all these hundreds of images filtered through the lens of western, caucasian media jammed into my ill-informed brain.

There is a large, predominantly Cantonese, community in Vancouver profoundly impacting my city’s culture, economy and politics – conditioning my image of China through an immigrant community in my home town.

What was real? Isn’t that why we travel, to find out what is real with our own eyes?

In three weeks, most of my cliche images were demolished. Aldous Huxley nailed it when he said, ” To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” I am among the wrong yet I don’t feel comfortable; I am replacing my wrong images with nothing more than the superficial observations of a three week tourist. Caveat emptor…

China is huge!  In a whirlwind journey of three weeks organized by GAdventures, a Canadian travel success story,  we barely skimmed the surface of the must-see sites. Fourth in the world in land mass – enough to shock even a Canadian, used to vast distances. But more to the point, the current population of China is estimated at 1.4 billion – four times the size of the United States, 40 times the size of Canada’s meagre 35 million.

Beijing alone has a population of 23 million people – more than all of Australia! Chongqing has 35 million people – more people in one city than the whole of Canada!  I could go on but to see is to begin to believe. I am forced to recalibrate my current concept of huge, multiply it manyfold; I am still short of grasping China’s magnitude. Image shattered.

Everything scales up.

Clusters of office and residential towers sprout up like mushrooms after a spring rain – not one 20 storey building but ten to a cluster – in multiple clusters. These clusters sprout where-ever we go. Construction cranes are as prolific as telephone poles. Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing burst with new skylines, energy pulses through their streets; they vibrate! New York and London may be iconic but they are aging vintage villages compared to the cities of China. Image shattered.

Airports are huge, shiny new and efficient. Train stations and subways require confidence, a guide and a map to navigate. Each major transportation hub is a city in its own right. Most transportation is new, efficient, remarkably cheap and bustling. It’s $20 from the Beijing airport, not the $40 it is in Vancouver.

City driving is slow and congested, more funds seem invested in public transportation in cities. The subways are new, huge, efficient, cheap and well used. A subway ride is less than a dollar. Bike sharing is prolific, a generation ahead of anything I have ever seen – efficient, cheap, accessible, convenient – all facilitated by smart phone and location tracking technology that we can only hope to adopt.  

Clearly China has had a recent love affair with transportation and mobility. There are many old trains that traverse the country but China has surpassed the world in high speed rail travel. Our trip from Beijing to Shanghai zipped along at 300 km/hour; smooth, quiet, comfortable, affordable. There is more kilometers of high speed rail in China than the rest of the world combined. There is already a 350 km/hour bullet train operating between the cities, the innovation never stops. 

Evidence of the Chinese love affair with cement is everywhere. The skylines of cities eclipse all others with new modern buildings of astounding shapes and dimensions. Residential towers commit to density and housing infrastructure efficiency. We see huge highways built to serve the bursting economic growth, designed to efficiently move goods, connecting the huge pods of residential towers to places of work. Roads connect everything everywhere, most outside the cities look overbuilt and underutilized. Bridges span rivers and valleys and rise above cities. It is a transportation surge reminiscent of the interstate highway building program in the US during the 50’s – infrastructure investment that can now only be imagined in the western world. As the west’s infrastructure deteriorates from lack of investment, China’s is all brand spanking new! Image shattered.

China is not, definitely not, a third world country. Since the 1980’s China has promoted a freer market-based economy. Over the past decades average annual growth rates of GDP and PPP have surpassed every other economy in the world. Most years, GDP growth has exceeded 10%, lately the average has exceeded 6-7%. Astounding numbers when we consider Canada’s GDP growth rate is less than 3%. Image shattered. 

The move to a market economy has profoundly affected the Chinese citizen. More than 500 million Chinese have been lifted above the poverty line as a result. People have jobs, money, disposable income. There are more billionaires in China than the rest of the world combined. Image shattered.

There is a vibrant feeling of optimism everywhere, entrepreneurship abounds, hard work is evident – as close as the door to my Beijing hotel. On my first morning, I walked out the door of my hotel and found a small hole-in-the-wall place selling baozi – steamed buns. I bought three, for the nominal sum of about $2.50 and sat down on some steps to enjoy them. There was a constant lineup, from 6 am till late in the evening.

The three staff worked hard but they seemed energetic and dedicated entrepreneurs.

Multiplied by millions, these baozi entrepreneurs exemplify the power of the market forces that have been unleashed in China. Whatever preconceptions I had about capitalism, communism and the impermeable screen between the two has been shattered. 

more….

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What are you thinking?

A few years ago, I was talking with Tiara, my Buddhist friend, about an upcoming walking trip. I told her I was good on the flat ground but climbing hills was tough.

Tiara offered a suggestion, she called it walking meditation. I should chose a point of focus a few meters ahead, concentrate ONLY on my steps and chant quietly to myself one, two, one, two in time with my steps and the movement of my poles. I should try to think of nothing else while I was walking up my personal Everest. She promised I would find it much easier to climb those hills if I practiced walking meditation.

I tried it and it worked. By concentrating on the repetitive chant, I walked more slowly, more resolutely and more powerfully. I forgot my sore feet, my tired legs, my thirst. I focused my thoughts on the mantra of walking and climbed steadily to the top of several hills, feeling strong and confident.

If this was walking meditation, I liked it. I should look into it more.

Over the subsequent years, I have engaged in a desultory flirtation with meditation and Buddhism. I read a bit, it didn’t help. Buddhism seemed complicated, ethereal and will-o’wispy. Talking to other friends who were Buddhists sometimes made it better for a brief moment, then it slipped back into the mists.

Meditation offered an opportunity that seemed helpful on other fronts – not just walking.

I think too much. I call it my mild case of ADHD. Meditation offered a respite from thinking too much.

I’m somewhat compulsive about planning. Meditation seemed to offer a solution; live in the present, be mindful of now. The past is gone, the future hasn’t arrived.

And, contrary to the logic and orderliness of most modern demands on me, my thinking seemed undisciplined. I have a short span of attention; I am constantly distracted by random unpredictable thoughts and ideas that sometimes make it hard to focus on normal activities – life is much more complicated than it needs to be.

Finally, if that is not enough, I seem to have grown more impulsive over the years; I act too quickly and then have to live with the consequences of my impulsive acts.

Meditation seemed to offer to slow things down, simplify them, keep me grounded. I was encouraged to try it.

In a series of random chats with Buddhist friends, I was given several metaphors to help me understand the purpose and challenge of meditation – the mind as a monkey, the mind as a puppy and the mind as a tiger.

The monkey mind is a powerful metaphor, deeply embedded in Buddhist teachings. The monkey mind – chattering, noisy, never sitting still, jumping everywhere – must be tamed. The metaphor is so clear, I get it.

Another metaphor to consider is the puppy – full of energy, curiosity, always exploring, constantly moving, sniffing, climbing, searching, easily distracted – calming the puppy is a happier, warmer definition of the challenge.

The third is slightly different, the tiger. The tiger of our mind is wild, untamed, constantly prowling, aggressively searching for food and protecting itself from other predators; all its senses alive, constantly on the prowl.

Last week I chose to act. I attended my first Buddhist sponsored weekend meditation retreat – Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday. Silence was to be observed while we were meeting. The time would be spent in a combination of meditative sitting, talks by our leaders, and meditative walking outside the building.

On Friday night, I drove out to the Asian Center at UBC, wearing comfortable clothing as instructed. I had indicated that I was going to do chair meditation, I think my days of kneeling for hours have passed me by; to my surprise I wasn’t the only one, the room was filled with chairs.

We were a mixed lot, all age groups; no one seemed to fit my stereotype of the earnest Buddhist meditator.

The room was cool, dimly lit, with lots of space. There were two leaders to help us with our meditation practice and deliver a series of talks about their insights after years of practice.

Their vocabulary was profoundly different from that which had framed my life. There were no sports/competition metaphors, no winners/losers, no talk of challenges/victory/defeat, struggle/achievement, no targets or measures of progress. The empiricism, the rationality, the standard cartesian western lexicon were noticeably absent.

Their vocabulary was profoundly different; mild suggestions, gentle observations and helpful hints replaced plans and instructions. There were no goals, no achievements. The concepts were vague, ethereal generalities, tough to quantify and nail down. The logic lacked logic, I could nail down nothing. It all seemed so wispy, smoky – illusive and elusive; calm, serene, simple.

In the west there is no try, there is only do or don’t do. Here it is try, do your best.

We were encouraged to close our eyes and meditate – slow down our thinking, try to NOT think; tame the monkey mind, calm the puppy, control the tiger.

Over the weekend we had many sitting meditation sessions, most lasting less than an hour. We were also given opportunities to try walking meditations. Amongst these were several conversations, of the softest gentlest variety I have ever experienced. To say we had to intuit our instructions would be too bold and forthright – too strongly suggestive.

I won’t try to explain further, the paint is still drying on the words I’ve just written. Let’s say it is a work in progress. Clearly this is more complex and challenging than I thought. It requires discipline and rigour.

But…

…there was something there, I’m not sure what, but it is worth pursuing. I found the monkey, the puppy and the tiger almost impossible to tame, calm and control. The more I tried, the more insistent they became. Not thinking is tough.

Yet…

…with my eyes closed, there was no way to calibrate time and without calibration, time seemed to slip past. There were a few oases of calm even as I wrestled with the monkey, the puppy and the tiger.

So…

…I’ve signed up for another weekend in November.

Here’s a postscript.

On many occasions in the past, I have been caught staring off into the middle distance. “What are you thinking?” she would ask.

“Nothing.” I would reply.

This answer seemed to provoke a skeptical response.

“You can’t be thinking about nothing,” she would say. “that’s impossible.”

I may have stumbled upon a community that not only believes that it is possible to think about nothing, they actually encourage it.

Maybe, when asked in the future, “what are you thinking?” and I say “nothing”, I will be able to say it with a sense of accomplishment.

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Remembrance and Sadness.

There is no joy to be derived from visiting any war memorial. There is no celebration in visiting the grave sites of the hundreds of thousands lost in any conflict or war. For me, there is only sadness, an unbelievable sadness, a sadness that lays like a heavy blanket over everything.

No matter how beautiful, how moving or how eloquent our memorials are, no matter how well maintained, how lovingly cared for, how graceful our attempt at honouring our dead, there is only sadness, heavy, profound and palpable.


Despite that sadness, I feel driven and obligated to visit these sites. I attend to honour the dead not the war. I am there to bear witness and acknowledge the soldiers who gave their lives not the generals or the politicians who sent them on their mission. I do not celebrate the war but I do honour and respect the combatants.

While it may be counter-intuitive, it makes sense to me. More than 66,000 Canadians gave their lives in the Great War.When I visit the various memorials and grave sites around Arras – Vimy and Beaumont Hamel – I am paying my respects to the bravery, discipline, courage and commitment of Canada’s soldiers.

Vimy is the iconic site commemorating our Canadian soldiers’ epic contributions to the Commonwealth effort to break the stalemate of trench warfare in the Great War. It was the first place that all four Canadian divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary force fought together, under the command of a Canadian, General Arthur Currie. Some 3600 Canadians were killed during the battle of Vimy Ridge between April 9-12, 1917; another 7000 were wounded.

The Vimy Memorial site itself is part of a much larger complex with guided access to the jaw-dropping complex of tunnels and trenches that were used to ensure victory and minimize the loss of soldiers in the attack on Vimy Ridge.

The massive memorial dominates.The two large columns and the cloaked figure representing the nation mourning its dead are visible for miles. In addition, sixteen granite figures symbolize aspects of our collective remembrance of the war.

It is a solemn and sober work of art and a striking one, perched on the ridge that so many soldiers on both sides fought over. The view from the monument is striking, a reminder of why soldiers since time immemorial have fought for the high ground.

Opened in 1936, it was restored and rededicated in 2007; the 100th anniversary of the battle was remembered in April of 2017. Canadian flags still fly throughout the area, a reminder of the enduring recognition by the French of Canada’s role in the defense of France.

Beaumont Hamel is entirely different; it is a flat piece of ground sloping down into a ravine. The Newfoundland Regiment, Newfoundland still a colony of Great Britain, lost 700 men killed or injured in less than 30 minutes in the battle for Beaumont Hamel on July 1st, 1916. Only 68 men showed for roll call the next morning.

For such a small population of about 240,000, the impact on Newfoundland was devastating. July 1, Canada’s national day of celebration, is still a day of mourning in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

It is an even sadder and more mournful place of remembrance than Vimy Ridge.

We were fortunate to be escorted from Arras to Vimy and Beaumnot Hamel by our guide Faye, from Living Memory Tours www.livingmemorytours.com

Faye is Canadian, a native of Flin Flon; she worked as a Canadian guide at the Vimy Memorial and has expanded her knowledge base to include the whole region.

We were fortunate to visit, bear witness to the sacrifice the French made to their own defense at Notre Dame de Lorette, the French Memorial and military cemetery.

More than 40,000 French soldiers are buried or memorialized there alone; reminding us that while Canada’s contribution to success in the Great War was significant, the French sacrifice was unimaginable.

Faye guided us to other major sites; Cabaret Rouge, a major British cemetery, Thiepval, a joint French-British memorial and cemetery, the Adanac Canadian cemetery.

All these are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to mark, maintain, and preserve the graves and memorials of fallen soldiers. The sites are clearly, lovingly maintained on behalf of grateful citizens from every country.

Neuville Saint-Vaast is a large German cemetery near Arras, final resting place for some 44,000 German soldiers who died in the Great War. It is solemn, austere; equally submerged in sadness, a sadness made more graphic by the rows of thin iron crosses and complete lack of adornment – no plants, no flowers, no uplifting icons. It is a reminder to us that Germans suffered along with everyone else, losing their fathers, sons, brothers, and friends.

We are vested with a responsibility, to never forget. We are given a high honour, to show our respect to those who sacrificed their lives in the Great War. We are given a challenge, to ensure that such carnage never happens again.

Our sadness, our sense of loss pays tribute to the loss, to the sacrifice these citizen soldiers have made for the common good. Our sadness should be as boundless as their sacrifice.

The only way I know of to honour these reluctant warriors is visit the sites, the monuments, the cemeteries and embrace that sadness.

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Shared Experiences

Summers are short in Canada. School’s out; carefully husbanded vacation days are spent. We pack them full of activity.

We fill our days with friends and family. We break bread; feasting in the age-old tradition of communion. We barbeque, we dine, we picnic, we drive hundreds of miles to reunions with extended family; summer’s bounty graces our table, sharing food binds us together.

We go outdoors. Hiking, walking, sailing, cottage living, running, cycling, swimming, canoeing. We explore, test our limits and reconnect with our physical selves.

We play; games, sports, live arts, theater, music, concerts, festivals. Our senses are filled with delights.

All these shared experiences build a bank of memories that nurtures and sustains us through our long winter nights.

I have been blessed this summer; my summer is full of shared experiences.

Two weeks in Ontario with Blair were filled with all the best of summer, made better by sharing them with my son.

I finally managed to visit Niagara Falls; we shared lunch and enjoyed the spectacular view from the Skylon Tower, one of Canada’s most iconic tourist sites.  The Canadian side of the Falls is spectacular.

The reason for our visit is a family wedding celebration at the Laura Secord Homestead followed by dinner at Queenston Heights, surrounded by our icons of the War of 1812 victories. The wedding was a reunion, provided us both an opportunity to reconnect with three generations of my sister’s family.

The Shaw Festival is summer arts entertainment at its best, The Madness of King George, Saint Joan, al fresco meals and a leisurely pace, Timmy’s coffee in a small town; what could be more laid back? It is an idyllic summer festival in a deliberately quaint small town.

We avoid Toronto and head for Algonquin Park for a few days of hiking in the jewel of Ontario’s park system. This is perfect; long walks through forests, climbs to vistas of the northern shield, Austin (Blair’s dog) and I seem well-matched; we start strong and finish slow. It is a perfect top-up of walking training for my long summer’s walk in France, it certainly beats tramping the streets of Vancouver as preparation, although donating a pint of blood to the mosquitoes of Ontario seems an unnecessarily high price to pay.

We manage to arrive in Ottawa in time for the summer bluesfest, my first outdoor summer concert since…well….forever. What have I been missing? Why would I avoid these celebrations?

The bands we watch are quintessential New York bands – major contributors to the soundtrack of Blair’s years as a student and lawyer in the Big Apple. I forage for food, watch the crowd, take in the music while he is carried to another place, the power of music to remind us instantly of who we are and where we’ve been. It is a gift to step into his world; I’m reminded of how music lays down the unique soundtrack to the movies of our lives. His LCD Soundsystem is every bit as powerful as my Bruce Springsteen.

We finish off our road trip with a few visits with my old friends and a drive to Montreal. I’m dropped at the airport; stuffed to full with two weeks of shared experiences. Niagara Falls, Shaw, Algonquin Park, Bluesfest; interspersed with small and big conversations, road miles, dog walks and movies, breakfasts in diners and an essential visit to Wild Wings. I am blessed.

My latest walk beckons; I usually walk alone. This time Kristen is joining me halfway through my two week pilgrimage in France.

We meet in Arras; I’ve been walking for a week and need a day of R&R. Arras offers an opportunity for us to visit several memorable Great War sites that are meaningful to Canada. Our day-long trip leaves us drained; it is impossible to ignore the pain, the suffering, the loss, the inconsolable grief that exudes from Vimy, Beaumont Hamel, the Commonwealth War Graves, the French monuments at Thiepval and Notre Dame de Lorettte and the German Cemetery – all are a continuing reminder of the folly of war.

The next day we walk. These walks can be challenging; we are walking through beautiful country but we walk some 25-30 kilometers a day, with little access to water, food or other comforts. Hotels are rare, finding lodging that is within reasonable walking distance is the primary consideration in all our plans. We are carrying everything we need, little more, on our backs. One of the joys of walking is the reminder of such simple but profound impacts as weather – we survive a blustery downpour.

There are joys and surprises; we arrive in Bapaume, in the middle of a country fair, complete with carny rides, a parade and French version of Carny food – the local version of mini donuts is infinitely more decadent. Fatigue fades, we find a curbside seat, eat our treats and celebrate our good fortune.

Kristen loves a puzzle, particularly a travel puzzle. We have signposts for the route that seem to be randomly placed, an inadequate guidebook that is 7 years out of date and too many choices – a web of small roads, big roads, tracks and trails that offer too many options.

I want the shortest route to my nightly lodgings; Kristen would prefer a more esthetic path, smaller roads, less auto traffic, pleasant villages, a damp place on a quiet trail where snails meander across the path.

Each day, she finds new resources, the internet offers ideas that I had not discovered in six months of research. She has data and uses it; who knew our I-Phones were such guides. I may be onto something for future walks – no more paper, more robust data plans. It’s lighter and takes up less room in my pack.

We sort it out, actually…she sorts it out. We manage to find accommodation, although a few short strategic taxi rides are needed to make some lengthy walks more acceptable.

We finally arrive in Reims, our destination, a place whose name I still cannot pronounce – don’t get lost near Reims, you’ll never be understood when you try to tell the locals where you want to go.

Reims is on the edge of Champagne country; it seems celebrations are in order.

Our reward for our walk is a train trip to Paris to pick up our resupply of civilian clothing and a further train ride to Dieppe to see ML and the oasis of her home in Varengeville-sur-mer.

Long lunches, long walks, longer talks; much laughter and a few tears, a chance to meet her friends and make some new acquaintances. The days pass too quickly, full and fast paced – well, except for the afternoon naps. A chance to try oysters for the first time.

An oasis indeed.

We welcome new guests and depart the next day. Two days in Paris with Christopher await. Again, Kristen and Chris take over – my holiday curators. We find our AirBnB in the 19th, a part of Paris that is unfamiliar.

Our Sunday brunch overlooks the city, with the Eiffel tower and Montmartre in the distance. We find the Picasso Museum and explore his multi-media brilliance.

The coup-de-grace is a charming tiny bistro off a back street near our home. With less than 20 seats, it is small, intimate and surprisingly good. We manage to chat with the chef; there is an air of celebration – the restaurant is closing this evening for the annual August vacation.

The next day I am on my way home – five weeks of adventure is over.

I am reminded that adventures are only one way of adding purpose and meaning to my life. The adrenaline rush, the activity and the novelty of the unknown can mesmerize. The true and lasting value of my adventures is found in shred experiences with family and friends – particularly Blair and Kristen.

It isn’t complicated; we find something to do, we carve out time to spend together, we make things happen and then we relax into the experience. There is no magic in “quality time” – time together is what matters. Shared experience is what matters. It’s watching my son, lost in the music of his life; it’s watching my daughter joyfully unravelling of the daily puzzle of our walk, it’s enjoying a two hour brunch with Kristen and Chris as we dissect his latest cycling escapade.

It’s small victories, shared jokes, tiny nudges, knowing glances, long comfortable silences and profound insights.

It is the joy of shared experiences. 

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Walking with Purpose

In 990 AD, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric, walked to Rome; invited by Pope John XV to be elevated to the position of Cardinal. We know this because his return trip was chronicled by a member of his party – 79 daily stages in all.

He wasn’t the first, the path had been used for years but for some unfathomable reason known only to the deeply devout, Sigeric’s journey inspired others to walk to Rome. It became a pilgrimage. There is now a stone at Canterbury Cathedral that marks the official start point of the Via Francigena, this pilgrimage to Rome.

Inestimable numbers of pilgrims have made the journey across Europe, they ebb and flow; yet through invasions, wars, the plague, predation from two and four-legged animals, scorching summer weather, freezing Alpine passes and other threats, pilgrims have endured.

With only 2500 or so pilgrims annually, it’s a lonely walk; the Camino de Santiago sees one hundred times that each year. Lack of consistent and reliable signage, a paucity of services, poor accommodation and the shear magnitude of the challenge; it’s not for the faint of heart.

Pilgrims walk the 1900 kilometers to seek enlightenment, the forgiveness of past sins, healing – the variety and breadth of motivations is as varied as the human condition. For a thousand years, we have sought some mystical prize that is delivered only with our arrival of the pilgrim in Rome.

I am here only for a test drive. The challenge is too daunting to contemplate as a single three month walk; but maybe if I take it in chunks, I can overcome the overwhelming magnitude of the challenge. One-day-at-a-time is an axiom that applies to many facets of my life. A two week walk from Canterbury to Reims is all I choose to achieve.

Canterbury is a fitting start. Immortalized by Chaucer for a smaller pilgrimage, the Cathedral has occupied center stage for people of faith since St. Augustine established the first church on the site in the 500’s.  A Sunday prayer celebration seems a fitting way to start such an audacious journey.

After the Canterbury service, I am off; my first meeting with the signs that will show me the way and my future guide (I haven’t named him yet) is a good omen, at least I can find the path out of town.

England requires two days of walking; in hot weather, I am challenged by jet lag, dehydration and the British ramblers desire to avoid a road at all costs even if it means adding miles of brambly, obscure paths that RAMBLE. Geez get over it already.

After I’ve climbed a stile or two I’m not amused – in retrospect that may have been the jet lag talking. Yet, when my guidebook tells me to walk diagonally across a farmer’s field – unless the BULL is out to pasture – in which case I should walk around the field, I do lose some of my composure. I cross at Dover on a ferry filled with tourists and school groups.

France is saner; my guidebook seems to favor small, farm roads through villages that are hundreds of meters long and one house deep. I’ve been warned; villages do not have services. There are no places for water, food, snacks, no pleasant villagers in berets with anecdotes and easily comprehensible directions (I would not have understood them anyway). Finding accommodation is tough; the logistics of it all present a complicated daily puzzle to be solved – my day depends on making a series of choices. Fortunately, I like puzzles.

I’ve found my walking legs, the pack is light, I have a guidebook, the sun is shining and the land is pastoral, reminiscent of 19th century paintings from the Louvre. Fields of golden wheat, endless rows of corn and sugar beets (I’m from Taber, the sugar beet capital of Canada and the home of the last remaining Canadian sugar beet factory – I know sugar beets, I’m strangely comforted by their familiarity).

The routine is comforting in its own indescribable way. I rise, eat a bit, top up my caffeine level, and walk. The challenge of staying on path, the scenery, a few random thoughts interspersed with hours of mindful vacancy are a tonic for daily life. I forage for lunch, manage my water supply, self examine for sore spots and walk – anywhere between six and eight hours – I just walk. It feels good.

At arrival I’ve achieved my simple goal. I dump my pack, wash myself and my clothes, sort out dinner and lie flat for a while. I eat simple French rural food at it’s best. Who knew French butter could taste so rich and creamy. I sleep well. 

After six days, I arrive in Arras, the halfway point. Kristen joins me here for the walk to Reims. This adds a new dimension to my usual solo journeys, a companion!

After a day of R&R in Arras, we set out. Auspiciously, the signage is clear, consistent and ample. We make good time; we walk, we talk, the kilometers seem to drift past us quickly.

We’re rewarded with a serendipitous surprise – the circus has come to town in Bapaume, our destination for the day. We arrive in time for the parade! We drop our packs at the hotel, find some gooey French carny pastry and pull up a piece of curb to watch – doubly entertaining because its unexpected. We saw camels!

Kristen is in her element; she loves puzzles. Our guidebook is outdated, sometimes incomprehensible and untrustworthy. The inconsistency and inadequacy of the guidepost signage is problematic – every wrong turn lengthens our day, tires us and leaves us frustrated – the guidebook becomes the F*#^ing book. She rises to the challenge, finding web-based resources I never knew existed – my six months of research is surpassed in a post dinner web-search.

We have a google-map-app! No more wasted walking, no more staring at a motley, overgrown path wondering if this really is the way forward – really? That path? Well, that’s what Google says. We (well, okay, she) get better; we manage to triangulate information from the F*#^ing book, Google and the app to devise the most efficient way forward, avoiding busy roads and unnecessary detours. There is no one Via Francigena path; progress and freeways obscured much, but we do find a way forward.

There is much to appreciate on our long walks; The rolling hills, the wheat fields golden, heavy and ready for harvest, a donkey that freezes us with his ungodly bray, the occasional Commonwealth gravesite, an inevitable result of a field hospital situated there 100 years ago, villages hollowed out by farm consolidation, efficiency and the inevitable migration to cities, only the elderly and the stubborn left behind, a rich tapestry of rural French life if you walk and observe. There are even a few paths that feel ancient, like we are walking on the stones laid by Roman slaves.

We reach Laon, a middling town with a brilliantly beautiful cathedral, perfect Gothic architecture of creamy, ivory colored granite that seems to soften our mood with its warm glow, beautiful stained glass windows – all helped by a bit of mood music – my favorites – Gregorian chants.

Finally we find grapes, we reach the edge of Champagne – the region, the wine famous everywhere. Over the hill and off in the distance is the Cathedral of Reims, our destination. We arrive in time for a late lunch in the shadow of the cathedral and my checkin – I have pilgrim credential which is signed at spots along the way – validation of my walk and a valued keepsake all in one.

The stats say that we covered about 350 kilometers, one-sixth of the Via Francigena in about a half million steps; Kristen did more than half of that in her week.

What the stats don’t count is the sheer joy of walking, the blessing of companionship, the connection with weather, land, the ground beneath our feet. The simple joy of ravenously consuming a ham and cheese baguette, surviving a drenching summer rain with our sense of humour intact, the celebratory glass of champagne for my guide and companion, the pride of accomplishment in achieving something that can only be gained by one measure – footsteps.

Maybe the other 1700 or so kilometers won’t be so bad after all….

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Why I give to Outward Bound.

Recently, I was asked by Outward Bound to write a short note explaining why I supported Outward Bound. The original note can be found in Outward Bound’s Fresh Tracks newsletter.  http://hosted-p0.vresp.com/122508/4d2dc37fc9/ARCHIVE

 

I believe in adventures; stepping out of my comfort zone, challenging myself, learning and growing have now become a vital part of my life. Even now, in my late 60s, I am charging ahead, not recklessly but with purpose.

It wasn’t always so. In the course of documenting my adventures over the past decades, I have managed to trace my thirst for adventure back to the well-spring, the headwaters if you will allow me, of my river of joyful adventures.

It was my son, Blair, who started the transformation. Only 15, he completed a 17 day Outward Bound hike in the Coastal Mountains out of Outward Bound’s base at Pemberton, BC. He went away a boy and came back completely transformed into a confident young man.

I wanted what he gained; so the next year I took my first Outward Bound adventure. At the age of 46, without a taut muscle in my body and weighing in at over 230 pounds, I bumbled and stumbled my way into my first great adventure. It wasn’t elegant, it wasn’t fun, but it sure was transformative.

It started me on a life of adventures: running, marathons, triathlons, travel, cooking school, sea kayaking – all can be traced back to the well-spring of Outward Bound. It is a gift that keeps on giving.

I summited Kilimanjaro with my Outward Bound team; last year, I temporarily contained a deep irrational fear of water to join Outward Bound’s canoe trip down the Nahanni.

Neither was conceivable without Outward Bound. Trust in their leadership, faith in their skill and dependence on their experience allowed me to transform my fear into faith and opened the door to these unbelievable adventures.

I am giving back to this wonderful organization. My small contributions over the past decade have grown to include bigger contributions through their special expeditions and the attendant fundraising commitment.

Last year I made the big leap; I made a sizeable – for me – five-year commitment to Outward Bound. Outward Bound is now the primary focus of my donation dollars.

Why?

It is simple.

I want to share this remarkable capacity for personal transformation that Outward Bound programs offer with as many people as possible.

I want to support the valuable programs that support Veterans, Women of Courage, Youth at Risk and Aboriginal Youth. Sometimes those who need Outward Bound the most are the least able to pay the cost.

I want more people to find balance, serenity, purpose and self confidence through affirmative programs like Outward Bound.

I want to show my gratitude to the people of Outward Bound for transforming my life. I want to share the valuable life-changing and life-affirming experience that I was so generously given by Outward Bound.

My contribution to Outward Bound allows me to accomplish this. If you have any inclination, Outward Bound staff make it easy and understandable to contribute.

Go ahead, get off the couch, take a course, have an adventure and write a cheque.

If you are interested in learning more about Outward Bound in Canada go to: http://outwardbound.ca

If you would like to consider contributing to their many programs to help support Women of Courage, Veterans or At-Risk Youth go to:http://outwardbound.ca/getText.asp?type=Pages&ID=43

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My Aussie-land

Many years ago, I read the definitive history of Australia, The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. It was a long, difficult, compelling and, ultimately, rewarding read. Hughes chronicles the early days, the shipment of some 160,000 convicts, orphans and indigents to colonize Australia, a six month voyage in intolerable conditions to a land of formidable challenges halfway round the world. I learned.

On my flight over to Australia a few weeks back, I chose Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, a lighter, more humorous and much more popular read. Bryson is s charmingly banal; his off-beat stories create a whimsical but deeply misleading image of Australia.

I learned little from Bryson’s cliche-ridden, cartoonish Crocodile-Dundee trope. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, perhaps I’ve missed the essence of Aussie-land; but Bryson’s Australia is not what I experienced.

I chose not to travel to the center of the continent to see Uluru (Ayers Rock) or the other isolated outposts celebrated by Bryson.

Instead, I chose to visit Melbourne and Sydney supplemented by a few sides trips outside the urban areas and a train ride between the two. Australia is a cosmopolitan country by any measure.

The Aussie – Canuck parallels are somewhat uncanny.

Much like Canada, it is huge, almost beyond rational comprehension; the only country which occupies it’s own continent, it is larger than the continental United States. It is sparsely populated, fewer than 25 million people (10 million or so less than Canada). Like Canada, most of its population is concentrated in cities (Melbourne and Sydney account for 50% of the population) and near the coastal areas where cultivation is possible and climate allows for an easier life. Like Canada’s north, there are vast tracts of land in the outback that are uninhabited and uninhabitable.

We intruded upon our diverse indigenous cultures, treated them shamelessly and still struggle to find a way to compensate for our actions and create a space that offers respectful and generous equilibrium with them. The dark stain has never really been erased, atonement does not seem possible.

We are all immigrants. English convicts, orphans, indigents and underclasses mixed with Irish peasants pushed off their lands by religious, class and economic persecution were all conveniently shipped to the oblivion of far-off Australia. Many showed up in Sydney at the Hyde Park Barracks to serve their sentence with forced labor; they had no say in the matter.

In Canada, we were French peasants with no future and little or no hope in our own country, shipped to a new land with some – albeit dubious – hope. We were Scottish workingmen labouring for British syndicates seeking profit – back breaking servitude to claim timber, fur, fish and land for King and Country and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Colonies both – if not identical, at least we rhymed.

We all arrived on a one way ticket and all sought to make the best of it in a harsh unrelenting land – fighting weather, unfamiliar terrain, wild beasts and indigenous peoples who came to fear us and resisted our incursion.

The Aussies were a bit more irreverent, republican and feisty. We were a bit more presbyterian, rules-oriented and organized – our rallying cry was peace, order and good government – not much inspiration there.

We were all cast-offs who created a new life, carved from a harsh wilderness.

We both came of age in the first World War – Vimy Ridge and Galipoli catalyzed our staggering and stupefying loss of men and innocence at the hands of that quintessential oxymoron – British military leadership – we moved from colony to quasi-independence. One of the saddest songs ever is a protest version of Waltzing Mathilda https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZqN1glz4JY

Canadians and Aussies are like long lost cousins, they’re looser, funnier, more laid back but eerily similar. We make great traveling companions; whenever I join a travel tour with Aussies, I know I’m going to have a fun trip.

Today, Melbourne and Sydney are modern cities, on a par with Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, better than most south of the border. Melbourne has one of the largest tram systems in the world, an unrivalled coffee-culture that scorns inferior Starbucks and an arts, museum and theatrical community that is worthy of envy.

Australians play at sports with passion. Footy, represented by Stuart’s team the Melbourne Tigers, plays to crowds of 70,000. The Rod Laver stadium hosts the Australian open and there are huge venues for Rugby, Soccer and other sports. *Unchecked factoid alert* – I’m told Australia wins more Olympic medals per capita than any other country – summer games only of course; it is tough for Australia to field a winter team.

Canadians could gain considerably be emulating the Australian fixation on sports and it’s unintended consequence of robust health.

Sydney is more famous than Melbourne, if only because of its icons – The Sydney Opera House and the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. Deservedly so, the sight of them does take my breath away.

I’ve seen much of Shakespeare’s canon – not many can outdo an inspired Richard III starring Kate Mulvany – yes, a woman – who nailed her performance as Richard. It rivalled anything  I’ve seen staged at Stratford and was much more audacious.

Australia does have far off hinterlands of deserts filled with snakes and spiders, of swamps filled with snakes, spiders and alligators, of lagoons filled with sharks and poisonous jellyfish, of forests filled with snakes, spiders and vicious boxing  Kangaroos. There is this outback but, like Canada’s north, vastness is a illusory challenge – there is lots of there there but, with the exception of Uluru, not much to focus one’s attention. Some day, I may come back; I may buy a bush hat, try on my Crocodile Dundee imitation and explore this harsh outback. I doubt it. I think I’ll stick to catching sight of Koalas in parkland trees after a good Melbourne brunch and a strong long-black.

My Australia is not Bryson’s; it is wineries, fine cuisine, a vibrant economy, modern transportation and infrastructure, a lively arts community, magnificent urban parks, museums, galleries and libraries, a respectful knowledge of its past – warts and all, a remarkably diverse citizenry and a sophisticated cultural worldly awareness. It is a parliamentary democracy that still works, a grounded set of values that is worthy of emulation. Australia is European borne but Asian focused; a timely mix of perspectives and outlooks that seems poised for a bright future.

We have heard lately that the world needs more Canada; it is hard as a Canadian to disagree. I think the world also needs more Australia.

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Portuguese Adventurers

Jose Saramago, the Nobel prize-winning Portuguese writer, described the Portuguese as “people who possess little and feel much.”

It wasn’t always so.

The Portuguese were the world’s great adventurers; for a glorious century, the Portuguese expanded the known world beyond the imagination and created a Portuguese empire. Prince Henrique (Henry) the Navigator of Portugal sponsored an impressive succession of voyages by Portuguese caravels with a series of bold, courageous, even fool-hardy adventures.

The Portuguese debunked and discarded the self-limiting hysteria that “The world is flat and there be dragons out there”.

Portuguese sailors, in 1415, crossed the Mediterranean and conquered, Ceuta, a Moorish port in what is now Morocco. From there, encouraged and funded by Henry, Portuguese sailors explored further and further down the coast of Africa whilst discovering Madeira and the Azores. Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, proving a sea passage to the East was possible; Vasco da Gama in 1498 crossed to Goa on the coast of India, The Portuguese didn’t stop; they slipped south to Cochin and around India into the East Indies and finally made landings and established contact with Japan in 1542.

They went west and were fishing off the coast of Newfoundland before 1500; they were established in Brazil long before the Pope divided the new world into Portuguese and Spanish empires in 1494.

They were active traders for spices, slaves, fish and other valuables. They established trade routes, built long term trading relations with the indigenous peoples they happened upon and became indescribably wealthy in the process. They found spices, gold, precious metals and gems and created a trade system that reaped riches beyond imagination for this tiny nation perched on the edge of Europe.

The history of Portugal in those two centuries of the early Age of Discovery are fascinating. The Maritime Museum in Belem, a suburb of Lisbon, is enthralling and thrilling, creating a thirst to read more and know more of this truly adventurous people.

I stand in awe of the courage of the Portuguese explorers. Their curiosity seems boundless, their inestimable drive to risk all to seek out new lands is unfathomable. Their willingness to subject themselves to the privations of voyages into the unknown that lasted for months, often years, is unparalleled.

The Spanish were scared little schoolboys compared to the Portuguese. The French, English and Dutch came much later, were little more than followers and opportunists.

The Portuguese were a small nation; their discoveries manifold for their size as a nation. Yet, in the end, they were spread too thin and were unable to control their ‘possessions’. The larger nations usurped them and they lost most of their colonies and, with that, most of their wealth.

Their temporary wealth was strewn across the country; churches, castles – monuments to a bloated, entitled, indulgent and very expensive narcissistic nobility – none of which could be sustained. The nobility expelled the Knights Templar and the Jesuits to confiscate their wealth in a vain attempt to pay their bills; they fell into ruin anyway. All that is left is monuments to their excess that we, as tourists, come to use as background for our selfies.

Portuguese history is fascinating for the glory, the hubris and the slide into insignificance and penury. Saramago may be right, the Portuguese may now possess little and feel much. While they may lack contemporary wealth and political stature, they are rich in history; the Portuguese explorer’s footprint is everywhere, never to be erased. The Portuguese do deserve to feel much.

Sometimes an adventure is most memorable for unexpected reasons; we go to somewhere to see castles, instead we become infatuated with the local pottery; on our wine tour we discover tapas, the wine is forgettable, the food is forever implanted in our epicurious memory. Sometimes we stumble onto something that was there all the time, something that was hiding in plain sight. Something that was so obvious that it did not merit consideration simply because it was so obvious.

The Portuguese explored, they discovered a new world, brought it to the attention of the world and ultimately were pushed aside by greater powers who colonized that world. It is a story that seems more likely to be fiction not fact.

 

 

It is a story that has been told for centuries, but it is a discovery – new to me.

I have some catching up to do.

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Excessive Portugal

As long as I feel the fresh breeze in my hair                                                                              And see the sun shining strong on the leaves,                                                                               I will not ask for more.                                                                                                              What better thing could destiny grant me?                                                                           Other than the sensual passing of life in moments                                                                    Of ignorance such as this one?                                                                                                           – Ricardo Reis

 

IMG_1224Two years ago, I spent almost a month walking in Portugal. Starting in Lisbon, I walked some 600 kilometers on an ancient pilgrimage route north to Santiago. It was a delight.

The weather was forgiving; light sweaters were all I required. I had only one day of rain. My walking terrain was pastoral; I walked through picturesque villages where the countryside was waking and bursting with the energy of spring.IMG_1249

People were warm, open and engaging – even with my few words of Portuguese, I was welcomed.

I was smitten. As the poet said, “the fresh breeze in my hair, the sun shining on the leaves”. It was enthralling, more than enough for a walker like me: “the sensual passing of life in moments of ignorance” describes it perfectly.

img_2985Two years later I returned for a month. Curious, I wanted to see Portugal through a different lens; from my narrow focus on pilgrimage, I wanted to experience a more robust, complex, complete Portugal. It was a chance for a personal reappraisal, a chance to affirm or revise memories, a chance to see Portugal through the eyes of friends. Truthfully, it was also an opportunity to escape from a dreary month of clouds, rain and (shudder) snow to Lisbon, which has more sunlight hours and more sunny days than any other in Europe. I know – I was surprised too!

img_3133This trip was markedly different; I was amazed at the contrast. This time I returned with four friends, my aloneness had fled in alarm. Our group, sophisticated, worldly travelers of a certain age made sure I experienced a vastly different mode of travel. My basic needs are paleozoic; not now, with my group I am forced to be cosmopolitan – we chose a modern, well-appointed apartment in the Baixa-Chaido district of old Lisbon, luxurious by my  standard.

img_2985Whereas before I had explored little off my pilgrim trail, choosing to save my energy and my feet for tomorrow’s trek; this time we rode the trolleys, explored the castles, marveled at churches, walked the cobblestoned back streets, poked into alleyways and searched out oddities.img_3021

 

We cheered on Benfica, our newly adopted Football team.

It was a cacophonous forced march of the sights and sites of Portugal, challenging my inner hermit.

20170213_201356-1My last trip required fuel, amply supplied by ham/cheese on a tasty Portuguese buns (highly addictive, be careful) and tortillas (think potato and chorizo frittatas); this time, after extensive discussion that thankfully did not deteriorate into fistfights, we dined and dined and dined. We tested local foods, sought out carefully curated culinary experiences and sampled anything that looked off-beat and epicurious.

img_3071We mastered the Portuguese train system, chugged our way to Porto for walking tours of their churches, monuments and history. We journeyed to the beautiful enclave of the Duoro Valley for wine and Port tastings. We whizzed in and out of the famous university at Coimbra, summited the Moorish ruins, whimsical castles and national palaces at Sintra, shopped our way through the carefully manicured castle at Obidos, the mournful, soulful Fado.

img_3176Since I was a tourist now, I had no excuse, no choice but to keep up. With five independent minds churning to explore EVERYTHING and with five different opinions on what was vital, it was a busy time.

Every night, exhausted, I fell into bed, as worn out as if I had walked a full day on the Camino. It was an assault on the senses and a challenge of epic proportions.16819493_10209953414806228_8036661225596347787_o

Fernando Pessoa was a beloved turn of the century Portuguese poet and eccentric who died in 1935, leaving a wild untended garden of writings under other pseudonyms (heteronyms he called them – fully fleshed out personas that allowed him to take on distinct personalities). One of these was the above-noteed Ricardo Reis.

The best way to travel is to feel.                                                                                               To feel everything in every way.                                                                                                   To feel everything excessively.                                                                                              Because all things are, in truth, excessive.                                                                                And all reality is an excess, a violence.                                                                                         An extraordinarily vivid hallucination.                                                                                           – Fernando Pessoa

Reis and Pessoa offer cogent bookends for my two Portugals; that they are, in truth, the same person – Pessoa – is both instructive and serendipitous.

I’m grateful for my four intrepid guides/friends for introducing me to the abundant pleasures of this more complex, deeply textured Portugal.

I am, as always, deeply respectful of the generosity of spirit and kindness of strangers in a strange land. Their many tender mercies provide the most lasting memories. Jumbled and scrambled though they are, we’ve met and surpassed Pessoa’s admonition to “feel everything excessively”.

Portugal is abundantly excessive.

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The Power of Trust – II

trudeau-on-nahanni-river-1970Pierre Trudeau paddled the South Nahanni in 1970; his love of paddling was clear: “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other…. paddle 100 miles in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.” 

In 2003, Justin Trudeau retraced his father’s journey.

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photo courtesy of Alex Lau

Trust was the key that opened the South Nahanni door for me; six memorable days in this pristine isolated northern paradise. It’s what Outward Bound does best – open doors. I will be forever grateful Outward Bound opened this door for me.

Unexpectedly, my fear offered an opportunity. In my canyon-rigged double canoe, I didn’t have to concentrate fully on paddling this imposing river. I could focus on everything else; the power of the river, the cliffs, the colors, the shapes of the rock, the trees and forests, the sounds of this force of nature, the smells of wildness, the tastes of meals earned.

photo courtesy Maria Foo

photo courtesy Maria Foo

We paddled through 1000 meter deep canyons that dwarfed us, we were bugs on big water. If I needed proof that I was not the center of the universe, the rush of the river, the majestic dominance of the canyons, the roil and sweep of the clouds, the icy splash in my face, the bite of the cold as I staggered out of my toasty warm sleeping bagfor my midnight ‘break’; all affirmed my insignificance. I am a speck on the edge of this magnificent, timeless earth.

img_6436These waters ran eons before I was born and will run eons after I die, my six days here is but a blink. The Gate and Pulpit Rock stand as testimony of the relentless, overwhelmingly force of the Nahanni, cutting a channel through a crack in the rock to find its journey to the sea.

As further proof of my insignificance, Jamie and Mark wake us to a deep blue-black 3 AM sky, a background pierced by stars, an amped-up big dipper, dancing northern lights and my very own shooting star. I marvel at their luminescence. We are dwarfed by the cosmos.

Counter-intuitively, to be reminded of my insignificance, paddling down this river, on this earth, in this universe, is reassuring. The burden of my grandiosity is lifted – maybe reading some of those books on Buddhism is finally paying off.

img_6466Weather commands our attention, out here it is ubiquitous, more than what happens between my car and my front door. Our first day is warm, then it turns cooler, rain clouds ebb and flow; with no horizon, we can only guess at what happens next. The rain gods look kindly on us, showers magically abate when we hit shore to set up camp, sun breaks through for our shoreline lunches, we put up overnight camp in relative calm, we eat our meals around the impromptu kitchen, our special Outward Bound evening campfire chats unchallenged by untimely weather. But the rain comes and the cold seeps in; part of the patina of our adventure.

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photo courtesy of Alex Lau

We are not alone. A Dall sheep delicately prances across a precipice high above us, defying gravity. We find Grizzly prints and scat along a creek bed, then one of us spots a small black bear scurrying away through the bush. We see wolf tracks along the shore, revel in the majesty of two trumpeter swans restlessly readying for the long flight south. We canoe silently past a woodlands bison herd then slow as we pass a majestic, solitary bull.

img_6448Tender mercies are in abundance. Adversity tests us, challenges bring us together; I am blessed with an instant family of friends. The simple abundances of kindness, cooperation, pitching in; helping hands for everything from portaging gear, loading and unloading canoes, setting up tents, sous-cheffing the veggies while Ursula cooked, washing dishes, setting up the tarp, lugging water, gathering driftwood. All this is done amid laughter, banter, a few pauses for stories, insights, shared wisdom, trusted confidences. The fellowship is genuine, generous, spontaneous, with no strings attached.

We are all present, fully aware and mindful, sharing the adversity, the opportunity, the adventure of it all. We have a sense of purpose and have joyfully accepted the challenge – I can say this now from the comfort of my canyon-rigged canoe cockpit.

img_6443-version-2Meals are beyond expectation; every meal a feast – steaks for dinner, Eggs Benedict for breakfast, fresh fruit and vegetables every day. Ursula greets us with hot food, hot drinks and a smile every morning, creates special shoreline lunches to match the spectacular views and, after a long day, while we set up tents, she and Jason pop up their instant kitchen and fill our tummies with wonders from a Coleman stove, a small fire and their big cooler. SWEET!

In true Outward Bound fashion, every evening, we talk about our experiences as they happen. Jason asks us to write down our fears and hopes for the journey – he only gave out small bits of paper so I wrote everywhere, even in the margins. Sarah asks us to try to take a picture in our mind of something special that happens; to fix it like a polaroid in our minds, to fashion a visual talisman to remember forever – one that will take us back instantly to this singular experience.

img_6463Our first night camping, on a sand dune between the river and Marengo Creek, Rob, my tent buddy for the duration, finds a site, pitches our tent, anchors it, pumps our air mattresses and fluffs the down bags in Olympic time – befitting a true Olympian; he’s also a successful businessman, a proud OB supporter, a jokester and a perfectionist. I can’t figure out the tent so I help him get started then wander off to help others unload canoes and set up the kitchen. It seems we both snore and we are both a bit deaf. We are a perfect match. A true raconteur, he tells a few stories, we laugh a lot and we set the rule – when someone snores, two pokes of the other’s air mattress means “roll over!”

img_6461Anna and Alex have invited us to attend their anniversary celebration – they have no choice, there’s little privacy on a canoe trip. They are graceful, engaging and unflaggingly positive, always smiling, willing to try anything. They graduate quickly, bravely from the Canyon rig, to the sponson supported canoes to full canoeing; within days, they are at home on the water.img_6462

Mark is my renaissance man, he’s mastered every sport except Ballet, bagged two Ironman triathlons, is a pilot, a lawyer, a businessman, an unrepentant adventure junkie and a certified dog lover. He knows the wild, loves the Outdoors and has become a fervent OB supporter. He’s not a bad canoeist either; unfortunately he and Jamie cannot match Rob and me at setting up a tent quickly…:-)

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KC should be charged twice for the trip; she does twice as much and has twice as much fun. She is everywhere, all the time. She squeezes every drop of experience out of our adventure; first up, best sous chef, commander of her canoe. I try to carry a canoe and manage about 50 meters; she portages that same canoe all the way around Virginia Falls.

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photo courtesy of Maria Foo

I met Maria at our impromptu canoe training session in August, she had never held a paddle before that day. By end of our Nahanni trip she’s rejected the canyon rig – not enough fun – moved up to be a fierce front seat paddler. From her front seat, she runs the rapids at George’s Ripple – yelling like a crazy woman (obviously she is, crazy that is, what more proof do you need?).

img_6456Jamie has been an Outward Bound mainstay, fundraiser, donor, and supporter for decades. He’s done many OB adventures, this is his biggest Outward Bound river expedition since college – only a few decades ago. He is my poster boy for Outward Bound; gregarious, enthusiastic, helpful, fully contributing and fully engaged. On our last morning, rain settles in; Jamie, up early as ever, delivers coffee to our tents. He, Mark and KC walk breakfast around for the late starters. That, friends, is a Tender Mercy, no greater kindness can be imagined. A leader, a raconteur, a team member, successful in everything he does and a fine gentleman.

img_6452James signs up late, in July, yet he manages to fast-track three paddling camps in as few weeks; wetting his paddle, and himself, as he gains serious experience in preparation for this adventure. A sailor, he is one up on me where it counts, he has no fear of water. On our last day, a six hour paddle in cold, rainy weather, he entertains our canyon rig crew with story after story of his experience freeing unjustly imprisoned Canadians. I’m cold and wet, I don’t care. I am enthralled with his floating seminar. We become the dish pigs for the final dinner’s flotsam and jetsam – two erudite philosophers squatting on the ground, up to our elbows in plates, cutlery, pots and pans, battling to keep our self appointed jobs while the nattering naybobs of dish cleanliness hover about us. Geez folks, we can handle this, get a life already.

img_6457And Olivia, our fearless wonder woman. She carries her weight in gear, paddles with the best, stands up in her canoe to use her special paddleboard paddle (I gasped, literally, when she first did it), and amazes us with her gusto. She is also the star of a quintessential Canadian moment. We return to Fort Simpson after the trip and are doing our final dinner. Olivia marches over to the restaurant, the Pandaville, having been there once years ago and, conversing in Cantonese, orders a special meal with the two proprietors. Best Canadian-Chinese food ever! Where else, I ask you, could this happen?

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This is Susanne’s second long Outward Bound adventure, one more and she gets to wear her Supergirl outfit everywhere. We did Kili together – she and Liz taught me the secret to a happy productive life – find a strong determined woman who is going for the same goal as you are and just draft in behind her. Life becomes a whole lot simpler and success is guaranteed. She grew up in a small northern town, nothing about this trip or any of her many OB trips phases her. Suzi is a real chef, the rest of us are only apprentice grunts; Susanne and Ursula were THE camp chefs. BTW, stay tuned folks, a cook book is coming.

And now for something completely different – our leaders!!!

img_6465Ursula is all of 26, way less than half my age; smart, funny, happy, positive and in love with the river. She doesn’t seem to sleep, still cleaning up and rearranging as we toddle off to our tent; yet she’s up before anyone, making breakfast and lunch, planning dinner and sorting out our needs for the day. She portages the heaviest loads, lashes up the canyon-rigging, paddles with joy and elan, and cooks up a storm in conditions that would have Anthony Bourdain throwing in the towel. She’s earned and possesses the local knowledge instrumental to safe travel through this beautiful, hostile land.

img_6457-version-2Jason was my zen, my soothing presence. He masters his canoe without thinking, he’s done it so long it is instinctual. His first seminar on paddling is simple, clear, pitch-perfect and confidence building. It gives me skills and confidence. He wraps himself into Ursula’s routine with grace and efficiency. He leads quietly and offers space for those who want to choose a path for themselves. On the day we do George’s Ripple, we all park our canoes on a sandbar and scout the rapids. He and Ursula encourage a conversation about what line to take through the rapids. He calmly encourages each canoe team to plot its own line. I am in the canyon rig – silence is my contribution to the discussion. When most choose the “Sporty” water, he is supportive, calmly, subtly offering fine points of advice. I am stifling my desire to yell “you are all mad!”, instead I silently pray. We run the Ripple; we all emerge giddy with adrenaline and excitement. I silently thank the gods of the Nahanni…. and Jason.

img_6450Sarah is the jewel in our Outward Bound crown. Without her, I would have caved into fear and anxiety; without her, I may not have had the canyon rig option and my little sweet spot, a front row seat on the adventure of a lifetime. She has it all but never draws attention to her enormous storehouse of knowledge, skills and accomplishments. No talk from her of her long list of accomplishments, she is much too modest. A gifted athlete, she has a deep reserve of energy to call on, dotes on others, is present and aware of our needs, sometimes before we know what we need. Understanding, confident, optimistic, cheerful and thoughtful, I could go on, I should go on, but she might find it embarrassing…

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photo courtesy of Susanne Clark

A final note on trust. On the second last day of our adventure after we had exited First Canyon, I begin to feel a glimmer of confidence. It’s sunny, the river is smooth, we have but an hour to go to our camp for the night; things are groovy. We pull over to the bank for a break. I decide to try a single canoe, jump out and announce to the world that it is time to get in a canoe. I ask Jason if I can canoe the rest of the day with him. With a straight face he responds immediately, “Sure Bob, would you like the front seat or the back seat?”

I burst out laughing!

That he would even consider allowing me to steer was insane; I demurred, of course. That he would offer was a delightful statement of trust in reverse, that he might trust me! It is the most memorable line of the trip, a memory to carry with me forever – a polaroid moment.

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photo courtesy of Susanne Clark

As for me, I emerge enriched. Enriched by the physicality of it all; it is hard work. Enriched by this amazing piece of Canada; I think of this incredible land, this river – NAH?A DEHE, the Tragically Hip and all that makes me proud to be a Canadian. Enriched by the water, the rain, the clouds, the sky, the cliffs, the wildlife – my place in the world has been recalibrated…again. Enriched by sharing an adventure with 13 other unique, amazing, gracious individuals. Enriched in the restoration of my faith in life and the human condition.  Enriched because I managed to find trust to push back fear. Enriched and humbled. Enriched and grateful.

Next time, however, there may be less open water in my adventure.

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The Power of Trust – I

nahanniCirqueMapThe South Nahanni River is a true Canadian Icon, a World Heritage site. It is rugged, powerful, inaccessible, and indescribably beautiful. Paddling the 200 or so kilometers of the South Nahanni below Virginia Falls in a canoe is a legendary feat for enthusiasts and aficionados of the sport.

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Virginia Falls, the start point for most canoe adventures, is almost worth the trip alone; powerful and beautiful, it has more vertical drop than Niagara Falls.

 

My real start point happened months before. I fear the unknown. Lacking real knowledge of what lies ahead, I imagine the worst, my parade of uglies.

I am also afraid of water, more specifically, I am afraid of drowning. I’ve tipped sea kayaks on both coasts. Pool swims are fine but open water swimming paralyzes me. I managed a 2 km open water swim for a triathlon, it gave me nightmares for weeks before; when I came out of the water I did a happy dance; the rest of the tri was easy-peasy. I finally gave up on scuba diving; I could never completely calm my wild-eyed anxiety.

I have tried to manage this fear, irrational as it is; not because I think I can banish it, I just don’t want to close off opportunities for adventure because it controls me.

Why then, would I take on the challenge of canoeing, much less canoeing the South Nahanni when I am so fearful? This is a river and a land that demands respect.

Good question!ob-logo-2

The answer is Outward Bound.

My Outward Bound experience started in 1995 with an 8 day trek into the backcountry north of Pemberton, BC. Blair, my son, had done a similar 14 day trip the previous year; he had made a remarkable transition to a new high school as a result of his OB adventure. I wanted some of what he got from that transformative experience.

That first Outward Bound experience changed the course of my life; I embraced their philosophy of outdoor experience as a holistic mind/body/spirit transformation.  http://outwardbound.ca

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photo courtesy of Susanne Clark

I reconnected with Outward Bound a few years ago, met Sarah Wiley and was immediately invited to join an expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. “I can’t do that!” morphed into “When, where, how?”

In my 64th year, I summitted Kili with 12 other brave and intrepid explorers – bound together by trust, a growing faith in our abilities and our commitment to reach the top. We all made it; it was exhilarating, life affirming and joyful, reinforcing my belief in the power of Outward Bound to transform lives.

When offered the opportunity to join the South Nahanni expedition, I committed immediately. I trusted Outward Bound. I trusted Sarah and her staff. I trusted they would help me manage my irrational fear of drowning and the unknown. I trusted they would open the door to a magical experience beyond my expectation.

I trusted.

Regardless, my overactive imagination kicked in. What was I doing? How was I going to get out of this? I spoke to Sarah; describing my fears, phobias and anxieties. Calm, compassionate and caring, she offered up solutions.

Lindsay, OB’s western operations manager, spent a Sunday afternoon, a valuable day off for her, to teach two of us the basics of canoeing.

I fussed over gear, they gave me a comprehensive list and encouraged me to rent the best from our outfitter.

I fussed on other matters, they calmly answered my every question.

IMG_6406As departure day approached, fitful sleeps became nightmarish; feverishly graphic Wes Craven movies roiled in my mind testing my resolve and my trust in Outward Bound. I repacked my carefully chosen gear for the umpteenth time, flew to Yellowknife to meet the team. Next morning, I boarded the plane to Fort Simpson in spite of my anxieties, buoyed and comforted by my fellow adventurers.

IMG_2762We arrived in Fort Simpson, a small bustling burgh on the Mackenzie River. We met Ursula, our NRA local guide. http://nahanni.com She had already completed 5 trips down the river this year, was bursting with enthusiasm for her sixth and last with us – she was just what I needed, local knowledge personified.

To make things even better, I met Jason, our Outward Bound guide. He had canoed the South Nahanni and now worked out of Canmore for Outward Bound. He was perfect, an expert paddler steeped in the OB tradition of teaching and leading; he knew naturally how to calm those of us with the pre-trip yips. Finally there was Sarah, a seasoned paddler with miles of river experience and the most giving person I have met.IMG_2764

She came with powerful news. Neil Hartling, the owner of NRA, had an option for us, canyon rigging. Canyon rigging is simple, bind two canoes together with poles across the canoes, creating a stable catamaran that will sail through whitewater with ease. It was a brilliant solution, a practical workaround, setting most of my fears to rest. We also had sponsons, inflatable stabilizers attachable to the canoe sides for greater stability in rough water. My spirits soared.

We each got a Farmer John, a wet suit, to keep us warmer in the cold waters when we were splashed or had to unload the canoe; a PFD and a helmet were mandatory. We were given safety instructions and the less experienced of us received an extra training session with Jason. All showed Outward Bound’s relentless commitment to safety.

More bonus! I was amazed at the experience, enthusiasm and energy of the other 10 guests. Olivia had paddled almost every river I could name, many several times. Mark, Rob, Jamie and KC were experienced paddlers, confident and asssured. A few of us were anxious but we trusted in Sarah, Jason and Ursula.

I slept well that night, better than I had in the past week. The gods rewarded me with a sign; I saw my first northern lights that night, their dancing luminescence brought a smile, how can I not smile with such an overt thumbs-up from the gods of the north?

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Thursday, August 25, dawned hot and sunny. Somehow, Jacques, our pilot – the Indiana Jones of the north – managed to load three canoes, some 500 pounds of gear and six of our team inside – yes inside – his Twin Otter for the hour long flight to Virginia Falls.

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When Jacques returned, we loaded out, flew west, landed, taxied over to a small dock above the Falls and quickly unloaded the plane. Jacques departed.

 

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We started the 1.5 km portage down below the falls.

We were here; we had made the leap of faith – the final irrevocable statement of trust. Plain physical activity alleviates my anxiety and the hard work of portage was rewarded with a perfect view of the Falls.

 

 

Outward Bound’s commitment to our safety was comprehensive and calming.

Sarah, Jason and Ursula were outstanding paddlers and leaders.

They knew the River.

IMG_6435We had canoes geared for all our levels of expertise and confidence.

We had safety gear for every possibility.

We were fourteen fellow adventurers full of anticipation and wonder.

We were ready.

Trust trumped fear.

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Look for the Helpers.

Some adventures in life are not fun, they are just life in all it’s messiness and unpredictability. I have to search within my self to find meaning; sometimes the introspection process is the only important result of the search for meaning.

mikerobinson-9I lost a dear friend this past month. Michael Robinson died of a heart attack on July 1, 2016 in France. He was my best friend for most of my adult life; He knew me better than anyone alive; he shared my ups and downs, my successes and failures. He was present through most of my major life events as I evolved from a twenty-something to a retiree.

He had a profound effect on my life and I shall miss him dearly.

mikerobinson-7Through this past month, I have witnessed much grief, many people who have wept and mourned his passing, many friends who have a hole in their lives and their hearts that will never be filled.

It took me some time to climb out of my isolation and recognize that I am one of those people; I too am grieving, I too am mourning and I too have a hole in my heart and my life that will never be filled.

I was not ready for this; I’m 67 going on 45. We are too young to die and we are too young to start mourning the death of our friends, much less our best friends.

I am trying to find a positive way to accept his death, honor his memory, offer comfort to his wife, children and friends and move forward.

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus

It isn’t a new idea, but it is one I go back to when I am unsettled. I cannot bring back my friend Michael but I can choose how I deal with that fact. I can also try to choose to deal with his death in a way that honors his values and the way he lived his life; in that way, I am keeping him alive within me.

I’m not deeply spiritual, nor am I philosophical; it is just me coming to grips with another of life’s surprises, the ones that makes life so rich and magical.

I am a big believer in “tender mercies” – small kindnesses that we offer to each other. Behind each tender mercy is thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, acceptance and support. When I am traveling in a foreign land and feeling particularly vulnerable and attuned to every nuance of the attitudes of the people around me, I am especially aware of the value of tender mercies. When a complete stranger stops and offers directions, I am grateful beyond measure; that is a tender mercy. They come without strings.

They are small, easily missed but if we are vigilant, we see them everywhere. When we receive them we are grateful, when we give them we are gracious. It takes mindfulness, sensitivity, awareness and an ability to look outside ourselves to the needs of others.

Michael was a master at gifting tender mercies; a small chat, a coffee with someone who needed help, a kind word, a smile, a laugh; the stories at the celebration of his life were encyclopedic.

I have also become acquainted with another forceful demonstration of the incredible power of kindness and the deep well of goodness in people. Mister Rogers called it “Look for the Helpers”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LGHtc_D328

There are helpers everywhere. The helpers we notice most often are obvious; police, fire, medical services but, with a little generosity of spirit, we can expand the definition to anyone who make our lives better.

Helpers are there in times of crisis, their acts of kindness come at a telling time.

Michael was a helper; in several trying times in my life he was there when I needed him. They were turning points and he was a critical factor in turning me in the right direction.

Michael’s passing brought out an abundance of helpers. The list is long, the kindnesses abundant and the generosity of spirit pervasive. Mary Louise somehow found the strength and grace to be a helper to many who were hurting even as she went through her own grief.

IMG_4478I was in Ottawa when I heard the news of Michael’s death, I was with Blair, my son. Blair became the most important helper in my life for the next two weeks. He was the best wingman ever; he was attentive, kind, thoughtful, mindful of my distractedness, generous in helping me navigate through some difficult foggy moments and always supportive. He helped me deal with the initial shock, supported me through my first conversations with Mary Louise and Michael’s children and positively participate in the celebration of Michael’s life. He helped me – by his example – be a helper to those who were in need. I will be forever grateful for his help and all the tender mercies he bestowed on me and those around me.

IMG_2696Days after the celebration of Michael’s life, Blair put me on a plane for Europe, where Kristen took over. For the next two weeks, she hiked me around Switzerland; hard physical work that left me hungry and exhausted. I ate well, slept well and enjoyed the warm embrace of Kristen and Chris – my helpers. I was busy, the distractions helped me come to grips with Michael’s passing.

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I was able to talk about him with an intimacy that I could have only conducted with those I totally trust. I will be forever grateful for that month of mindful caring in the hands of my helpers – Blair, Kristen and Chris.

Life doesn’t fit into neat stories but, a month after Michael’s death, I have a few thoughts on how I can honor his memory, how I can respond to this event in ways that matter.

Michael lived a set of values that were simple but not necessarily easy to emulate. He didn’t believe in win-lose (except in Scrabble), he was generous of spirit and accepting of all our foibles. Michael was loved by friends, well liked by a large circle of acquaintances, ever gregarious, ever looking outside himself.

He understood the value of, and was a master at the quiet gift of, tender mercies. I can honor his memory by accentuating and acknowledging the tender mercies in my life – both the generosity inherent in the giving of them and the gracious acknowledgement of their value in receiving them.

I’m going to take Mister Rogers advice, follow Michael’s examples and look for the helpers, even aspire to be a helper. I expect I will find them everywhere, in places and situations that will surprise me. In this troubled world where any small kindness that holds us together as a civil society should be celebrated, I will be more supportive of the helpers.

Finally, because this evolving process of filling the hole in my life and my heart is ongoing, I will try to embrace the thoughtful words of doctor Seuss:


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I will be forever grateful for the privilege of knowing Michael for those many years and having him as my friend. He left me many reasons to smile. He was a true helper and a generous giver of tender mercies.

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Wanderwegging in Switzerland

wanderwegWanderweg is German for footpath. Switzerland is wanderweg heaven; a maze of thousands of kilometres of footpaths and hiking trails of various degrees of difficulty, every path carefully marked, given a number and assiduously signposted. The Swiss, home of impeccable timepieces, even provide the estimated time to hike from one destination to the next, carefully allowing for changes in elevation and difficulty.

Every path is now also available with GPS coordinates for download. Swiss perfectionists have created a hiker’s dream. For two weeks this summer, Kristen and I hiked a pittance of these paths in her carefully curated itinerary showcasing the best of Switzerland.

IMG_2573We start in Heidiland, gentle walks through rural foothills and vineyards to the home of Heidi, Switzerland’s most famous citizen. Like Anne Shirley, our Anne of Green Gables, Heidi is fictional but very, very real to millions of her fans. She is the Swiss girl we hold in our hearts and our imagination. Her home is real; I know, I was there.

IMG_2577The next day, we hike up the Tamina Gorge from Bad Ragaz, a famous Swiss spa town, home of one of the first thermal baths fed by a hot spring since 1840. The hot spring still exists, reached through a narrow opening in the rock face. The combination of history, mountain beauty, storybook fiction, and geology makes our first sojourn memorable.

IMG_2678After a small urban sojourn to Berne to watch the Tour de France, we head for the Swiss-Italian region of Ticino. I immediately fall in love with Italian Ticino, our plans for home cooked dinner in our airBnB are ditched in favour of the local hotel’s pizza – we went twice; after the first night we had to go back. We walk to eat, shameless but guilt free.

IMG_2624Chris pounds out his long, gruelling bike rides, epic climbs on empty roads; we hike up through high mountain meadows to a beautiful lake and an incomparable lunch with a million dollar view. We dine like Swiss royalty.

 

The next day, a long gentle wander through pine forests along the valley floor is equally satisfying.

IMG_2692In the Interlaken, Swiss mountain paths start in Lauterbrunnen, heading for Kleine Scheidegg. We could take the cog train but we want to be serious alpinists. Five hours later we are finished, rewarding ourselves with Swiss mac and cheese. I’d do it all over again just for that lunch with that view.

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This little piece of Swiss heaven has been the set for a James Bond movie and a really, really bad Clint Eastwood movie – the scenery more than makes up for the lame script, misogyny, and Eastwood’s trademark non-acting.

We stay overnight at a small hotel with our balcony looking directly at the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Monk for hours as the clouds swirl, the light dims, the sun sets and the cow bells echoed; we are even rewarded with a rainbow. Eastwood be damned, this is heaven.

IMG_2706Our final hike is in another valley in Berne Canton, the Oeschinensee. There is a cable car to the top; it hurts to bust my ass hiking up a mountain only to be met at the “top” by scampering toddlers, a mother with a stroller and an amateur artist.

We choose to hike it; my reward for a mere two hour hike up to Lake Oeshinen is lunch beside an alpine lake warm enough for swimming amid a landscape recognized as a UNESCO world Heritage site – I should have bought her water-colour.IMG_2714

My bonus on this last alpine hike is a wild summer bobsled ride on a plastic luge down a steep swerving set of hairpin turns. The slalom ride, sold as the scariest ride of a lifetime, is less intimidating than portrayed; the two ten year olds ahead of me were already on their second ride of the day.

We take regular hill and dale hikes, 25 kilometers from one town to the next. The trail greeting went from “Greuzi” to “Bonjour” – a change of cantons in multilingual Switzerland is usually marked by a change in dialect or language where at least four languages are in use.

The Swiss are blessed; they are a train ride from hiker heaven. Swiss trains are stuffed with hikers, trekkers and cyclists of all ages and descriptions heading outdoors to revel in the beauty of the mountains. We are never more than a few hours from our destination; we can hike all day in the mountains and be home for dinner.

IMG_2630Hiking options are endless; Kristen has offered a sampler of her favourites, all I have to do is keep up. After two weeks, I accumulate about five years worth of ideas for future walks, enough for me to contemplate many more seasons walking Swiss style.

What is hiking Swiss style; wanderwegging?

Incredible restaurants abound, the food is as spectacular as the scenery. Everywhere we go, we find wonderful Swiss huts with magnificent views; places for a coffee break or a full meal. I require incentives and progress markers when I hike. The signposts tells me what I have to do to reach my destination in minutes and hours and I know I have food at the end of my ordeal. It’s simple, brilliantly simple.

IMG_2669Words don’t describe the vistas, the glaciers tucked into high mountain valleys, ringed with snowy peaks, fluffy clouds and endless blue skies. The clear air, pine scented forests, giving way to alpine meadows speckled with flowers. The orchestra of cow bells provides musical accompaniment, background sounds drifting across the valleys.

IMG_2686Swiss hiking has it all; choice, atmosphere, convenient accessibility, an abundance of trail options, history, excellent signage, and food, glorious food. The vistas are stunning, mountains and valleys, glorious greens, brilliant alpine flowers; cows and a their symphony of bells.

 

 

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It is no wonder the Swiss are so healthy – even with fondues, chocolate, sausages and cheese. Maybe this is why they put all these restaurants at the top of high mountain passes…

 

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My Japan Pilgrimage III

The joy and the challenge of adventure is simple. I am whisked away from the comfortable and familiar. Life becomes intense, exciting, remarkable, constantly surprising. My senses are overloaded; tastes, sights, smell, sounds do not register in familiar ways. Every activity is abnormal; a test, an unforeseen event. That’s the attraction – the heightened sensitivity, the riskiness, the unpredictability of strangeness.

IMG_2008These are intense learning opportunities for me. In unfamiliar experiences, I am challenged to see things differently, test my presumptions, closely examine my assumptions, think more deeply. Even if I only admire cherry blossoms for the first time…

Japan certainly provides a fertile testing ground to try out new ways of thinking. Shikoku is rural Japan; I know little of the rest of the country; a brief foray through Osaka suggests life elsewhere is fast-paced, crowded and much more complex.

IMG_2130My Island has mist-shrouded forest, rugged paths, challenging climbs. My quest for 88 Temples takes me out of the way; temples seem to alternate between sites just around the corner from a shopping center to remote, mountainous locations that involve a lot of climbing. Kobo Daishi’s followers seem to enjoy walking trodden paths that have connected villages for centuries.

IMG_2160Try as I might, the seeds of Buddhism seemed to fall on barren ground with me. Right place, ample time for contemplation, a conscious attempt to open my mind, insightful guidance from dear friends; all perfect circumstances yet it is another failed experiment at finding deeper meaning. Transformational epiphanies seem to elude me as well, my favorite statue is of a youthful Buddha eating noodles – I rest my case.

IMG_2373My Island has gondolas called ropeways to whisk me to the tops of mountains – I wander amid ancient Temples at the top, wondering how and why Buddhists seek to build their places of worship in the most inaccessible spots – then I am swept away by the view, the vista offers my answer.

My Island is filled with small rice paddies, infill between house, shops, main streets. The landscape is bursting with Spring’s energy; verdant, lovingly manicured gardens abound.

IMG_2269My Island is also littered with religious and spiritual reminders. Beyond my 88 Temples, I walk past graveyards with headstones that are ancient and otherworldly, Shinto shrines that speak for another, more animist, Japanese religion. Monuments, sculpture abound; Walking slowly allows me to see this tapestry in detail; in a car, on a train, I would miss the subtlety, nuance and fine details of this Island. I find bits of whimsy everywhere, my favorite is the turtle at one temple – I rub his head for good luck.

IMG_2078 (1)My Island is filled with new experiences. I spend nights in Japanese hotels, although I’m sure I never got the right slippers on at the right time. I survive a few dips in the Japanese communal baths, the Onsens, and warily manage the high tech toilet apparatus. I am convinced I will unknowingly violate an untold number of Japanese social conventions when I first emerge from my room for dinner dressed in my Yakuta. Dinner tastes better when I’m costumed. I survive, I’m not shamed; it is so right to do this.

IMG_2228The food is spectacular for the adventurous. The Japanese seem mystified that I can use chopsticks and like what I am eating; an empty plate is proof of my enjoyment. The set menu offers enough variety that, even if something is unpalatable to my western tongue, I have more choices, all of them healthy. Again, taken out of my narrow comfort zone, I am delighted with my food. Freshly seared bonito can never be duplicated outside Shikoku.

The physical, spiritual Japan offered a feast for the senses; satisfaction guaranteed and ensuring I would return I am astounded, delighted, edified.

The added bonus, as always, is the people I meet along the way. When I travel, I feel more vulnerable. When I travel alone; my sense of vulnerability is exponentially expanded. Solo travel is walking the wire without a net. Self reliance is fundamental; every plan has to have a plan B and eternal vigilance and awareness are essential. In that state, my heightened awareness of every social interaction is vivid.IMG_2339

Japan, and upon reflection, most every country I have visited, reinforces my joy in the human condition. A few examples suffice. On every bus and train, I buy my ticket, walk up to the driver, introduce myself (he knows I am a pilgrim by my gear), show him where I want to go. He immediately accepts responsibility for my welfare; his sacred responsibility is to ensure I WILL get off at the right stop.

On trail, I follow a fellow Japanese pilgrim and am politely guided to the next Temple; words did not, and were not, necessary. We were pilgrims. Many communities set up rest stations, tea and cookies, sympathy/empathy, a place to sit and a smile fueled several of my days. I was offered rides by farmers and passers-by. People stopped cars and came to help me – all I had to do was open my guidebook and look befuddled (it is one of my strengths – lots of practise). A diminutive, elderly woman pushing her seat/shopping cart on wheels stopped me one day, insisting that I take her umbrella – clouds looked to drop a bit of rain. I demurred; how could I do that and retain any sense of dignity?IMG_2225

Madoka, a friend of a friend took a few precious hours from her family to show me around Kochi, and insisted on buying me lunch. For a few hours, I had a pleasant conversation, in English, with a new friend – on the road that is priceless.

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It was suggested to me that a few days of R&R during Golden week (like August in France when virtually everyone goes on holidays). My oasis was Sen Guesthouse http://senguesthouse-matsuyama.com. Matt and Nori were the perfect hosts; hospitable, helpful, full of advice and generous with their time, knowledge and experience. Think of the best B&B you’ve ever been to and double it. I arrived in overload and left renewed, excited to finish the last phase of my pilgrimage. Enough said.

IMG_2427David Turkington is local knowledge personified, even if he isn’t Japanese. He has walked the pilgrimage four times. He is amiable, sociable and delights in conversing with everyone along the trail in Japanese. He knows stuff, practical stuff; he taught me how to ride a bus by making the driver my guide and guardian angel, that kind of practical stuff.

He was our guide with Mountain Hiking Holidays https://www.mountainhikingholidays.com and is the author of the definitive website on the Pilgrimage http://www.shikokuhenrotrail.com. It was my encyclopedia and reference guide as I readied myself for this adventure. He epitomizes the generosity of spirit that is core to the magic that is Shikoku.

IMG_2193When I travel alone on these adventures, my vulnerability makes me aware of my choice – will I rely on others, ask for help, seek advice, listen and learn? Or, will I travel my path alone, self-reliant, silent. When I do open up, the world brightens, the inherent kindness of others shines through; the generosity, the politeness, the spirit of comradeship were never more visible than during my adventure in Japan. To be constantly vulnerable is not my nature; but every trip is a healthy reminder of the goodness within everyone should I wish to call on it.

IMG_2509These adventures remind me that I have little control over my day but lots of control over the way I choose to handle it. Every day in a new land requires giving up control. It rains, I get lost, the walk is different from what I expected, I meet someone on the trail, I get lost, I see something that touches me, I stop someplace new for a rest and a bite: nothing is as planned, no expectation is realized. It takes time to accept this; my day is better if I am flexible, open to change and willing to see the possibilities instead of the challenges that such surprises offer.

IMG_2485I do hit overload. I find a Starbucks, an International New York Times and a white bread egg salad sandwich. I sit and imagine I am on Denman Street. Then, my illusion is shattered by three ladies out for a stroll in their Sunday best.

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My Japan Pilgrimage II

IMG_2041 This is my first trip to Japan. For two months, I deliberately choose to immerse myself in a completely foreign culture – the food, the language, the customs, the sights, the sounds – all will be beyond my ken.

My Shikoku pilgrimage offers a goal, a guidebook and an itinerary to structure my step off into the unknown. It isn’t quite Stanley’s search for the headwaters of the Nile but it is exotic enough; my search for Kobo Daishi, my quest to comprehend Japan gain a glimmer of Buddhist enlightenment are quixotic to me. I obsessed for months with a bucket of worries for this bucket list adventure.

IMG_2369For two months, I manage to survive on about five words of Japanese. It is my misfortune to be unable (and, let’s face it, unwilling) to learn more; it severely limits the adventure. I skim the surface, I can’t claim understanding when I can’t communicate beyond pantomime and a simple hello/please/thank you.

Most of my worries are needless. I am blessed, whether it was Kobo Daishi walking at my side, a guardian angel or a run of good fortune, I spend two life-affirming months wandering about rural Japan without incident. This strange, exotic and pleasant assault on the senses delivers infinite rewards.

Japan is safe, friendly and welcoming to tourists. There is little crime, no graffiti, hardly any litter. The trains and buses run on time, their drivers all wear white gloves. People wear small masks to ensure they don’t give their cold/sniffle to others. The water is safe to drink from the taps. Everyone is polite, I suspect there are as many ways to bow as there are snowflakes – newsreaders on TV bow to the audience at the end of their show!

IMG_2192Japanese hotels are exotic. They offer a simple room covered with Tatami mats, futons on the floor for sleeping and a toilet/sink. It is easy to go to bed, I just flop; getting up is a bit tougher, I’m stiff, it is all up so I do it by stages, rolling over onto all-fours, kneeling, lifting – it’s noisy and ungainly but there are no other options.

Toilets have been designed by a techno-madman. There is an array of buttons offering options to do things to my bottom that are unimaginable. I touch none of them, barely trusting the normal flush lever.

Each hotel provides a Yakuta, a robe which may be worn everywhere in the hotel, even to dinner. Several pairs of slippers are provided, I learn to remove my street shoes at the door.Unknown

Onsen, Japanese baths, require a book to explain. They are segregated but public, very public. There is a washing then bathing regime, as rigid and scratchy as a wash brush. I get the desire for cleanliness, the communality baffled me; like the water, it is all too hot. I retreat to my room, red-faced but cleansed; I will not compromise on a certain level of personal hygeine.

IMG_2075Meals are definitely for the open minded, the epicurious, the omnivore and the hungry. Salad, fish bits both describable and indescribable, and enough vegetables to ensure I reach my daily fiber requirements, usually constitute breakfast.

IMG_2068Foraging for lunch is more familiar but still surprising. Convenience stores offer much more; full nutritious meals, fresh daily. Lawson is my favorite, fighting for turf with 7-Eleven. All offer food, most add a small place to sit down and eat, an ATM that took my bank card and wifi – an oasis of sustenance, amusement and contact with home over lunch.

IMG_2217Dinner offers a kaleidescope of delights for my western palate; yet if I find something I like, I can’t order it again because I don’t know what it is – thankfully pictures and plastic replicas of the menu are available for folks like me, I don’t starve. Sushi becomes my mainstay; the sushi-chef in his shirt and tie is given respectful license to feed me his choice of whatever is freshest. If a meal of any sort is served, display is carefully considered. I am advised to pause a few minutes and look at, observe, my food before plowing in; never has presentation been so artful.

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The countryside is beautiful; in early April, the blossoms splash vivid pinks and whites across the landscape. Rice planting is happening everywhere, small plots now mechanically planted, immersing tender shoots in water without maiming them; infinitely better than doing it by hand one-at-a-time.

IMG_2205A walk in the countryside is idyllic; Japanese are meticulous farmers, manicuring rather than cultivating their plot.

Where else would one see umbrellas protecting flowers from the rain so they may blossom fully?

 

Mountain paths are misty and otherworldly – enhanced by aged Buddhist and Shinto monuments standing silent by our path; reminders I am walking centuries old paths. IMG_2132The landscape seems littered with Temples, monuments and statues, although I suspect I have tunnel vision; it’s like spotting yellow VW’s – once you start looking, you see them everywhere.

 

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I wonder aloud about the caps, bibs and capes that adorn the statues until someone explains that the knitware is lovingly offered up to the gods to keep them warm and save them from chills. I wouldn’t have made the connection on my own. IMG_2111

I do enjoy the whimsy of some of our stone deities; methinks the Buddhists might harbor a sense of humour unextinguished my lengthy meditation.

Even trees along the way seem Zen-like.

 

IMG_2528In the process of climbing small mountains, walking in forest, trudging endless asphalt shoulders to busy and not-so-busy highways, I managed to trudge my way around the Island of Shikoku. I left in pursuit of an epiphany and a book of carefully accumulated calligraphy – testimony to my pilgrimage – and I arrived at the endpoint without the epiphany but with a storehouse of vivid memories and a better understanding of Japan. It proves again that the destination is not the prize, it is all the experiences accumulated along the way.

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My Japan Pilgrimage – I

IMG_2036I first heard of the 88 Temples pilgrimage several years ago; shrouded in exotic mystery, it was too much to even consider. It was Japanese, Buddhist, long, culturally and linguistically unfathomable; it was too complicated, therefore unachievable and insurmountable. I put off taking it seriously for years but, funny how things work, constant reminders seemed to pop up. Daunting as it was, whatever the barriers; sometimes we just commit.

As Yoda said: ‘We do or we do not, there is no try.” I decided to do…. the Shikoku 88 Temples pilgrimage.

shikoku-pilgrimage-mapShikoku, one of the small Islands that form Japan, is home to the 1200 year old pilgrimage to honour Kobo Diashi, one of Japan’s most revered Buddhist monks and teachers. The pilgrimage circles the Island, 1100 kilometers to visit all 88 Temples; most pilgrims do it by car or bus, many fewer walk the full route, a journey of up to two months.

The pilgrimage is deeply embedded in the Island’s culture, the first known guide to the pilgrimage was produced in the 1600’s and, over the years, millions of pilgrims – Henro – have made the trek. All are treated with extraordinary support and respect by Shikoku residents.

IMG_1952I became a pilgrim, a stranger in a strange land. No language skills, no cultural or historical grounding, no sense of the spiritual dimension called Buddhism or the Japanese sect called Shingon Buddhism, no ability to negotiate a hotel room, a meal or public transportation; and no safety net. I would do it on my own.

I spent several months obsessing, walking everywhere to get my legs in shape, annoying all my friends about Japan, engaging my Buddhist friends to try to learn a bit about the spiritual dimension of this journey. I packed all the information into my trunk of worries, lost sleep and secretly wallowed in every delicious moment of ‘needless worry’.

I got lucky and found a guided tour by Mountain Hiking Holidays http://www.mountainhikingholidays.com – a week of hiking temple to temple in various spots on the pilgrimage; delighting in the notion that my guides were Shikoku gurus – authoritative experts on my adventure. I signed up, the best decision I have made in a long time.

My first week was my saving grace, I was alone for weeks after but, as well as having the ghost of Kobo Daishi walking with me, I had a kitfull of helpful hints from John, Tom and David – my leaders. They whispered in my ear and saved me from unimaginable folly.

IMG_2452First there is gear to be purchased. We bought our Henro uniform, the white vest, the staff and the sedge hat all become a passport to special treatment on the island; doors open that were never even evident. We learn to be mindful and respectful of the Pilgrim tradition; there is a code of the road and a specific process to visiting a Temple. Temples seem to be deliberately placed at the tops of things, mountains, steep trails leading up to even steeper stairs that climb through the mist to the sacred temple.

IMG_2161In that first week we bounced around, temples 1-5 one day, 11 and 12 the next, and so on until, at week’s end, we celebrated our arrival at Temple 88. In between, I peppered them all with inane questions, opening my trunk of worries and unloading it for all to see. Each day the trunk lightened – each answer filled with insight, experience and that rarest and most precious of all commodities – local knowledge. With the mystery and worry removed, the pilgrimage became less intimidating.

IMG_2268There is a respectful way to visit a temple. I bow when I enter the temple grounds, wash my hands at a special well, usually guarded by dragons. I sound the gong to alert the gods that I’ve arrived, light a candle and three sticks of incense, place a special prayer slip into a box for the gods to read at their convenience, drop a few coins in the box and say my prayers.

IMG_2401There are long, wonderfully rhythmic sutras chanted by many pilgrims that I never master. I say my silent prayers – ones meaningful to me that have served me well for decades, special invocations and requests for those close to my heart. Before I leave, the monk signs my precious stamp book, each page waiting for his calligraphy to certify my visit – a keepsake so precious many Japanese Henro are buried with it.

Then I walk on to the next temple; in my attempt to sanctify these moments I try not to charge along, measuring success by the number of filled pages of my stamp book. Simon and Garfunkel help -” slow down, you move too fast” is what I hum while I am trying to find a more mindful rhythm to my journey. All of this is remarkably spiritual and uplifting.

IMG_2304Other aspects of my journey offer rich and more fulfilling rewards. The early spring walks in the countryside feast the eyes; the blossoms burst into view, a single cherry tree blazes pink amidst a forest painted that special green of newly unfolding leaves. Farmers, artisans of the earth in Japan, work the soil; rice planted here, winter wheat ripening there, Japanese radishes, a splash, a slash of brilliant purple from irises in between.

 

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I find I am not alone, other Henro walk the path. I fall in behind them, unsure of the direction, lacking the confidence of KNOWING where I am going and lacking the language skills to check with passers-by. We become comrades for a kilometer or two, they lead me to the next Temple; conversation is redundant.

 

 

 

Temples have their personality; special statues, a rich deep history of folklore and myth stewed in an almost incomprehensible Buddhist belief system. IMG_2363Contemplating the mysteries of Buddhism is timely, I have time and I’m in the mood – everything else is mysterious, I might as well open myself up to all sorts of mystery. I don’t get any wiser but it is useful to ask cosmic questions of oneself occasionally.

IMG_2128My life develops a pattern. I awake, dress for the weather, walk, rest find food, look about and finally reach my planned destination. I find my home for the night, wash me and my meagre wardrobe, forage for food, settle in. I get off my feet by watching incomprehensible Japanese TV or baseball if I’m lucky, tally up my progress, consume inconceivable volumes of water to appease the gods of hydration, plan out in detail my next day’s walk, prepare my candles/prayer slips, read and sleep. The next day is about the same. I walk when I can, I master the trains and buses – the key is to throw myself at the mercy of the bus driver – the key is to look lost but not crazy. In the end, I walk about half the distance, my body tells me that’s about right, my ego is not so sure.

IMG_2267And, over the days, then weeks, I inch my way around the Island fighting my natural obsession to measure progress by kilometres and temples. My hyped-up natural rhythm slows.

I see more; Irises, Koi nobori – delightful round, hollow, multi-coloured streamers that are part kite, part flag, onions harvested, market gardens carefully nurtured, a few frogs, two snakes. I walk through bamboo forests, gently waving in the wind, next to pine trees that barely waver. I walk past empty derelict houses; the rush of young people to the city happens everywhere, the rural areas show the exodus and the neglect.

IMG_2447Eventually, I arrive at my final temple, an earnest Monk permits a photo of the event of his calligraphy filling the last blank page. I close the loop by returning to Temple 1. There is no grand epiphany to mark my journey, but there is a growing affection for this little corner of the world and an already growing wistfulness at the end that has surprised me by coming so soon – when for weeks it seemed so far off.

“Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last.”

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In the Land of Needless Worry.

There is a difference between vacations and adventures. A vacation is about rest, relaxation and enjoyment. It is, by definition and choice, intended to lower the blood pressure, facilitate mindless hedonism and indulge the senses.

An adventure is completely different. It is best described in a recent blog post called “go to the fun countries” https://crossingenres.com/go-to-the-fun-countries-ae4b64002e28#.o9m2lp5v4

Unknown-1A fun country is a challenge, a puzzle. It takes me out of my comfort zone. A fun country is full of adventure; things work but not in ways I understand or are familiar to me. It is a place where the language, culture and prevailing mores don’t resonate, where basic institutions are not reliable and dependable, where life’s daily pace and rhythm are out of sync with mine. It’s full of perceived risk and danger; “fun” may not be the descriptor that comes immediately to mind.

Fun countries require needless worry. Planning is required, patience is necessary, tolerance for differences many and varied is mandatory and a sense of humour is helpful. Simple acts like a taxi ride become complex, confusing and compromised.

imagesA meal is a random walk through tastes, textures and combinations we’ve never imagined and are ill prepared to digest (literally). Smells assault us; our other senses shout; “warning, this does not make sense!”

In fun countries I must be constantly vigilant, not necessarily for safety reasons but simply to comprehend what is happening about me.

japan-city-54839761I must carefully navigate to get from point A to point B, to not get lost or stay lost. I must think my way through my day to experience the delightful differences of this fun country. I make myself aware of cultural nuances, observant of small mannerisms and sensitive to subtle ambiguities; I try to respectfully mimic the behavior of others, celebrating these differences.

Why? Because when I worry, needlessly or otherwise, my senses come alive. The food is risky but it beats hiding out at some westernized local version of McDonalds.

UnknownI’m off on another adventure next week. It’s another pilgrimage so I’m trying to get physically prepared; I worry that I will fail. My daily preparatory walks over the past two months are getting longer. They cover tougher terrain with more elevation; but my inner critics is shouting “Not enough, prepare to die by the side of the trail – wet and alone.”

I don’t even want to talk about the complete failure – again – of my preparatory weight loss program; those pounds I was going to lose before leaving home – don’t dare ask!

Unknown-2On walking trips I carry all my gear on my back. I’m lazy so I worry obsessively about everything I’m going to carry – and leave behind. My gear selection is crucial; when I carry it, it had better be necessary to my survival. I am focused, a lazy beast of burden who can choose what he is to carry is beautifully efficient. Shave – fuggedaboudit, a razor weighs ounces, I’ll grow a beard. I must brush my teeth but I cut the handle off the toothbrush – dropping another ounce of unnecessary weight.

imagesI’m a failure at learning Japanese. I have the basic five words and a long tradition of pantomime hand signals and facial expressions developed in past failed-foreign-language survival training. There is a lifetime of worrying in being unilingual.

Technology always presents a challenge, Geez, it’s a challenge at home in the comfort of my man-cave; imagine my panic at trying anything in a new country. After weeks of head scratching incomprehension, pestering friends and reading advice to the technically challenged – seemingly translated into english from ancient sanskrit texts – I have given up. The solution is simple. I bought an international plan from my supplier. I have been reassured that 7/11 stores (which proliferate in Japan like weeds) have free wifi, That is my solution. I am flying light with just my I-phone.

This decision saves a world of needless worry and it contributes to my pack-weight reduction program. Who needs access to all-Trump-all-the-time on CNN? But I miss home so, dear friends, send emails; it is lonely out there in fun country. I promise to cherish your every word.

The rest of my needless worries list is like a random walk through my personal KALEIDESCOPE OF NIGHTMARES.

I fear small robes that will leave me exposed in the ryokans, small hotels where the robes are expected to be worn everywhere – even at dinner. I may take duct tape with me to save face, the only part of me likely to not be over-exposed.

I fear the Japanese bathing ritual, highly routinized and fraught with nightmarish scenarios – believe me I have imagined a few.

I fear sitting with my legs crossed under a small table for more than three minutes and having to be carried back to my room unable to unwrap myself and stand up on my own.

images-1I fear being disrespectful of this 1000 year old pilgrimage and its Buddhist beliefs and traditions; I fear being another ugly tourist inadvertently stomping on cherished traditions.

I fear stepping on tatami mats with my shoes on.

I fear bowing too low or not low enough.

I haven’t even started on Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Monsoons!

Well, you get my drift. I don’t want to lose all your respect by describing more…you might think I’m obsessive.

So, you keep asking, why do I do this at all?

The answer is simple. I do it because of all of the above; not in spite of it – because of it.

It keeps me alive, it forces me out of my ruts. It stops the hardening of my attitudes. It leads to a sense of accomplishment in a time when any individual achievement is tough to measure and illusory.

I engage in needless worry because it sharpens my senses. I do it because triumph over my needless worries is a never-ending struggle.

At some point on my pilgrimage I wake up and recognize that this dangerous land I am wandering through is someone’s back yard. Needless worry indeed.

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Energy advocacy – what to believe?

It’s been a busy week for energy advocacy.

On Tuesday, billionaire Murray Edwards and Brian Ferguson, Cenovus CEO, penned an oped for the Globe entitled Our country – and our companies – are ready for a new pipeline dialogue. Here’s the link in case you missed it. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/our-country-and-our-companies-are-ready-for-a-new-pipeline-dialogue/article28653224/

Jim Prentice, former Harper Cabinet Minister and briefly Alberta Premier offered his views yesterday in a piece in the Globe titled; Our energy economy should be celebrated, not shunned. Again, here’s the link; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/our-energy-economy-should-be-celebrated-not-shunned/article28659059/

Today, Premier Brad Wall waded in to the discussion suggesting that the Government of Canada should spend more than $150 million cleaning up so-called orphan wells in Saskatchewan that the energy industry had abandoned, left derelict and possibly dangerous in contravention of provincial and federal regulations. Again, here is the news story; http://leaderpost.com/news/saskatchewan/wall-asks-feds-for-money-to-get-saskatchewan-oil-workers-back-on-the-job-cleaning-abandoned-wells

My goodness, this is a veritable assault on my senses. Since the issues raised are so crucial, I want to contribute; most of us in the 99% do not get admitted to the hallowed halls of the oped page of the Globe, so my blog will have to do.

Let’s start with the Edwards/Ferguson so-called new pipeline dialogue. Mr Edwards and Mr. Ferguson have transformed themselves from $110/barrel Libertarians to $30/barrel Communist central planners. Their former employees are now being shamelessly used as pawns in a PR assault to fast track the Transmountain pipeline. If they had cut dividends, executive salaries, bonuses and their private jets as quickly as they had cut staff, one might give them the benefit of the doubt.

If they had touted the benefits of Alberta’s commitment to climate change ten years ago, as they do now without actually acknowledging Premier Notley’s initiative; well, again, they might be given the benefit of the doubt.

If they really believed that building a pipeline would create jobs for today’s unemployed, they wouldn’t feed us a 20 year job creation projection as their rationale for government abrogating due process – even for the unfortunates these seven companies put out of work over the last six months.

If they really believe that the $47 billion estimate in additional government revenue to be gained from this pipeline were reason enough to exempt hearings and regulatory oversight, they would disclose the windfall accruing to Transmountain and to the energy shippers as a way to see who really wins. Canadians might get beyond the “trust us, we know what we are doing” assertions of the industry, if they engaged in real dialogue.

In his piece, Mr Prentice observes that Canada has been playing checkers while the US has been playing chess over energy, a vivid but simplistic metaphor. In the category of ‘We have seen the enemy and he is us.”, Mr Prentice is criticizing himself, and his Harper government colleagues for ten years of playing checkers. He may be too hard on himself but that is for others to judge.

Clearly, he would like the Trudeau government and the Notley government to make up for a decade of checker playing and approve some pipelines – now! The drop in energy prices seems to have turned Mr. Prentice into a radical government interventionist; he virtually demands government get into the energy business, mostly by shutting up opposition and pushing due process out of the way. The presumption of course is that we cannot afford the niceties of wide discussion in the public square because we need to move – now!

Prentice makes much of the value of the oil sands – he neglects to mention that bitumen from the oil sands has very high production costs – we will never compete with much of the world’s oil, every time there is a price drop, Canada suffers the quickest and the most.

While Mr. Prentice would have Canadians believe that energy production is a sacred trust, to be sanctioned and supported by government – so much so that when necessary, Canada should sweep away a carefully constructed legal, regulatory and administrative framework that has served us well.

Which brings us to Mr. Wall. In suggesting that the federal government, the people of Canada, should step in and spend $150 million to cleanup orphan wells that have been abandoned by the energy industry in contravention of federal and provincial regulation is stunning. To pitch it as an employment program for workers who have been thrown out of work by the same industry defies logic; the arithmetic doesn’t work very well either, $150 million for 1200 jobs to clean up 1000 wells abandoned by the industry isn’t very efficient. I know it works for the industry; a new wrinkle on the “too big to fail” has become the “make your money and leave your mess for someone else to clean up”.

Clearly Mr. Wall has decided that energy industry activity in Saskatchewan must be encouraged at all costs; damn the law, damn the regulations, damn the people of Saskatchewan; damn his responsiblity as Premier and head of government for all the people of Saskatchewan. By the way, those are my tax dollars he’s suggesting be used to clean up the industry mess! They are your tax dollars!

It also speaks volumes of the commitment to environmental stewardship of the energy industry. If all these rules and regulations can be blithely abandoned without penalty, why would we put any faith in the rule of law and the regulatory process?

So, friends, what do we learn from all this.

My only observation is get informed! Ask questions! What is really at stake in this aggressive advocacy for these pipelines? Who wins? Who loses? What is at risk?

If we are committed to evidence based decisions, and willing to engage in a new pipeline dialogue, the energy industry should open the door to real meaningful dialogue on safety, risk, environmental issues, Canada benefits, immediate job creation, climate change impacts, remediation, taxation and royalties.

If these projects are in the national interest, all the people in the public square deserve to be heard.

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Pipeline hubris

Spoiler alert- This is not a travel adventure blog post. Somehow this one slipped through.

Someone wise once told me that most of our wounds are self-inflicted.

In the context of this weeks noisy debate about pipelines in Canada, we can probably identify a few self inflicted wounds and a few of the principals involved. To save their own embarrassment, energy executives and their surrogates tend to be shouting the loudest and pointing fingers with the most vehemence, a sure sign of the axiom.

Canadian energy industry executives completely missed the dizzy decline in the world price of oil. They weren’t alone, we all did; the difference is they get paid big bucks to figure this stuff out.

The Alberta economy has paid a big price, people are out of work, house prices are falling, companies will fail, investment is down. While it has happened before, everyone is spooked. The challenge this time is that the energy industry has dug itself into a fairly big hole – public trust is at all time lows.

For the past decade the Canadian energy industry has been the leading climate change denier. Their approach to opposition to tar sands development was to call it oil sands – or even better, bitumen. Major importing countries – aka customers – were so frustrated with the lack of any commitment to improving mining and processing practices that they organized boycotts of Alberta oil sands production. COP 21 didn’t help.

The energy industry, complacent after a long run of high world oil prices, decided that their good fortune was a product of their business acumen. Unfortunately, their success resulted from a commodity price set at OPEC headquarters. Now with commodity prices in the tank, rather than self examination they have chosen to blame the newly elected governments of Notley and Trudeau.

If I was out of work in Calgary my question would be to my former boss; “If you’re so smart, why am I out of a job?”

The pipeline business, heady from decades of guaranteed profitability, systematically screwed up every project put forward since the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline was approved in the late 90’s.

Keystone XL was a straight line that ignored every obvious warning sign; ranchers, aquifers, parks, sacred places, regulatory agencies, the US President – no matter, the straight line was king. Then it wasn’t, listening and flexibility came too late.

Northern Gateway was a case study in what happens when an Alberta oilman meets determined BC environmentalist/Aboriginal/lefties – they didn’t have a chance and still can’t seem to figure out why.

Kinder Morgan botched a suburban Burnaby oil leak, couldn’t get its GPS coordinates right in mapping the new line and failed to recognize that rebuilding a pipeline route through an urban neighborhood to deliver bitumen to tidewater in beautiful Burrard Inlet might not work just on the strength of their existing right-of-way.

The industry seemed determined to alienate just about everyone;

  • the people of Alberta as evidenced by the landslide provincial election,
  • most Canadians as shown by the results of the last Federal election,
  • most other key provincial governments where support was crucial,
  • the US Government and its many agencies in Washington,
  • stakeholders all along the Keystone XL line from State legislators to farmers and ranchers to environmentalists of all stripes,
  • Stakeholders all along Northern Gateway route, including the now restive and politically sophisticated aboriginal communities,
  • residents of Burnaby where the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion has awakened and aroused fierce opposition.

Now, having been roughed up badly and amidst failing prices, the energy and pipeline business still haven’t figured out how to get the respect they think they deserve. A few advertisements on television and in movie theaters will not burnish their image or regain public trust; haranguing government will not get them the licenses they need to proceed.

The Harper government, in its rush to become an energy super-power, pushed too hard. Cheerleaders-in-chief, they endorsed pipeline projects long before any fair analysis was conducted – public hearings and facts be damned, these projects were going ahead.

They upset the delicate balance of trust in the National Energy Board by passing new legislation to severely limit public hearings. The National Energy Board, created to take public debate out of the political arena and adjudicate them with some evidence-based objective process, was was sacrificed in Harper’s urgency to get things done. The unintended consequences: public demonstrations and a descent into politics of the most destructive kind – nimbyism, self-interest shouting matches and indiscriminate finger-pointing.

So, where are we?

First, this issue is not binary. The discussion isn’t just about a pipeline or no pipelines. It isn’t just about Energy East or no Energy East, Kinder Morgan or no Kinder Morgan. It is about climate change, public trust in our institutions and who determines our energy future.

Alberta has opened the door to a more reasoned public discussion, it is now environmentally responsible; potential international customers and their stakeholders are more willing to come to the table.

The Federal Government has helped breathe some life into Kinder Morgan and Energy East by ensuring more public consultation, real dialogue. Kinder Morgan has a chance to bring its best game – show what it will do to gain the public license to move greater quantities of bitumen to tidewater on the west coast.

Energy East faces its own obvious difficulties. Their proposal will require patience and a willingness to adjust that is uncharacteristic. They will have to find their better selves to succeed.

Both Alberta and Ottawa have created an opportunity for them to rescue these two project. The industry’s need to engage in the community is never more urgent, their dependence on a wide range of stakeholders has never been more obvious.The onus is now on the industry to reformulate their proposals, offer more assurances on public safety, increase the benefits to Canadians and engage in a thoughtful constructive dialogue with all Canadian stakeholders.

They might yet rescue themselves, their employees, Alberta and Canada from their self inflicted wounds.

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Where’s home?

I travel a lot.

When I travel, one of the first questions I’m asked by fellow travelers is: “Where are you from?”

It is all about establishing your home. This idea of home has been on my mind lately. I do have a home; it is in Vancouver.

I love my home; leaving on an adventure is just slightly more satisfying than coming home after that adventure.IMG_3605

My apartment is my base, it is familiar and it gives me comfort to know it is there for me wherever I go. There is nothing more exquisitely comforting and homey than an afternoon nap on my man-cave sofa.

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Vancouver is truly beautiful; I have never, in all my travels, found a place more comfortable. I am blessed with fascinating friends who care for me; I miss them when I’m gone and much of my delight in coming home springs from reconnecting with them.

But…

I am finding new ways to define home that go beyond the physical definition of my Vancouver apartment – it is a place, a special place but still, a place.

As I travel further afield, as I extend my travels to months rather than weeks and as I experience alone travel more often, I am expanding my definition of home.

IMG_5113 - Version 2Much of my travel, as in my life, is in pursuit of something; usually ill-defined but the quest is necessary, the need to explore is palpable and irresistible for me.

Travel is adventure, new challenges, new experiences, new vistas, new ways of looking at the world.

I search for ‘sweet spots’; those brief magical moment when pixie dust is sprinkled – the right people, the right combination of sights, smells, sounds, all create an indelible moment that will live with me forever. It is deeper than a good, even a great, memory. The sweet spot is written on my memory in indelible ink.

IMG_4697‘Sweet spots’ don’t come easy. They do not land in my lap as I sit in my man cave drinking my morning coffee. They have to be pursued; usually at some physical discomfort and with some need for patience and mindfulness. When they arrive they are brilliant; doubly worth every mundane effort in the search for them.

I am also finding that I have a way of looking at travel, not through the examination of my Visa bill after the trip, or a run through my photo file, or a reread of my blogs to myself but in a simpler, purer test.

Rio toro 223At some point, usually daily when I travel, I ask myself; “Is there any place I would rather be than where I am right here, right now?” The answer is almost always NO. The experience matters and is meaningful to the point where I can think of nothing I would rather do. By this simple test, what I am doing makes sense. The question – and the answer – never fails to lift me up out of some minor inconvenience, some fleeting mood, some brief shadow to allow me to find perspective.

IMG_1507-2I am also finding a new definition of Home. It is not just a physical location to me; it has become more complex, more robust, more nuanced. Home is now more about who I am with, what I am sharing, what I am experiencing, how I am interacting with a whole host of physical, emotional and intellectual stimuli; I am home when it “feels like like home.”

There are times when travel doesn’t make sense; some combination of running away from loneliness and boredom, some ill defined need for excitement, some restlessness. The notion that these vague uncertainties can be resolved by going home is too confining.

IMG_1778Travel does not necessarily mean leaving home. I can carry home with me. Technology helps; my smartphone keeps me connected with friends wherever I am, I can plug into news and stay in touch with my city/province/country/interests, I carry my financial and health services with me neatly compacted into a few plastic cards. My passport and credit cards offer flexibility and a safety hatch.

It is not what I am leaving that is exciting; it is what I am looking forward to. I have found home whenever I am with my children, their supreme gift is sharing time and experiences with me. What better definition do I need of home?

IMG_1890A road trip in Iceland, Christmas dinner in Basel on December 1 and again in Bergun on December 28, all with my children – that’s home. I get the same sense of home when I travel with or visit close friends.

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I have felt at home in Normandy with friends, in Paris because I am secretly a snobby Parisian, and in rural eastern Ontario because I have friends who adopted me into their family.

Searching for unicorns and ‘sweet spots’ is rewarding in itself, finding those moments and sharing them with those we love is priceless, knowing I have a home in Vancouver is comforting; all are facilitated by relaxing my idea of home.

Home is whenever and wherever I am with friends,

Home is wherever, whenever I can be with my children.

Home is experiencing one of those rare sweet spots.

Home is when I think ‘this is where I want to be, there is no place I would rather be’.

12439268_10156471065385694_2407396843174480338_nAll these now define home. But when a stranger asks me; ‘where’s home?’ I still say; ‘Vancouver.’

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Hockey and Heidi-land.

Yes, there is a place called Heidi-land. It is in Switzerland and it doesn’t just resemble the movie home of our beloved Heidi; it replicates it. Read the book, see the movie; your internalized, glorified, mythical image of Switzerland exists. It’s here – in Heidi-land.

Kristen and Chris live in Basel, at the corner of Switzerland, France and Germany. It’s Swiss but it’s flat, away from the mountains. So we are off to find the REAL Switzerland in Bergun, a small village half way between St. Moritz and Davos. Deep in the Swiss Alps, twisty roads through mountains, forests, steep sided canyons lead us to a small lush flat pastured area dotted with huge Swiss homes – barns, silage storage and human habitation all under one roof, most now converted to guest houses and ski chalets – Heidi-land.IMG_1838

Our village has it all. Our chalet is central, the village bakery is a shirt sleeve walk away, the bell tower, dating back to the 16th century, is the stage for an evening brass quartet concert; all creating a perfect frame for the women selling raclette in the corner of the square. Heidi will appear imminently, I know it.

It’s late December, snow has not arrived; it is mild, sunny and unseasonably warm. Lack of snow doesn’t stop the Swiss from going outside. A few slopes are open with man-made snow for kids to enjoy. Tots as young as 4-5 seem to be skiing unsupervised, riding the poma lifts like seasoned pros.

IMG_1883Real skiing has been replaced with sledging. We rent sledges and helmets, a dedicated train hauls us up through the valley spilling us out onto a wild 6 KM roller coaster back into town.

I’m not enamored with the idea of sledging but there are tots gleefully jumping up and down at the train station ready to haul us up the valley so I feel compelled to prove my manhood – again.

Does it ever end?

IMG_1881Every adventure worth its name demands an escapade involving protective headgear, so I go.

We rocket down the run, Chris rockets faster and Kristen screams louder but we rock-et.

 

Our train waits to take us for another run….after we’ve had a sausage at an outdoor stand and cooled our butts on the ice-sofa.

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I’m so Swiss I could yodel!

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We finish our Swiss-movie day with Xmas dinner. Ginelle, Jeff, seven month old Linden and Desi the dog have brought an illicit French turkey smuggled across the border. We’ve cooked it up in Champagne (befitting a free-range, grass-fed, respectfully-sacrificed Dindon) and served it with all the fixings. A large bar of Swiss chocolate is all we need for dessert. Such a celebration!

IMG_1864The other reason for our timely visit to Bergun is THE SPENGLER CUP. I have fond but vague memories of watching televised coverage of Team Canada off in some European ice hockey tournament – showing those boys how to really play the game. It seems these Europeans have been playing organized hockey for a while now – without Canadian supervision.

The Spengler Cup is one of the first, if not THE first organized tournaments, dating back to 1923. The six teams this year are all European club teams, two Swiss, a Finn, a Russian and a German.

Team Canada is put together by Canadians playing with other teams in the Swiss professional hockey league. Many are ex-NHLers, extending their careers, many are here for the love of the game and a desire to play professionally wherever they can. The tournament starts Boxing day and finishes on New Year’s eve. Davos shelves its World Economic Forum image – this is young male beer drinking with a side of hockey. The hospitality tent is as large as the arena – an obvious sign.

IMG_1870The Vaillant arena remains hallowed ground, a cathedral for ice hockey, it holds 6300, sold-out for every game – you’ll notice I didn’t say it seats 6300 – it doesn’t. Seats are expensive, even by NHL standards so we choose standing room. Each game about 1500 of the sweating, testosterone charged, beer drinking, chanting, singing masses (us included) are herded row by row onto risers to watch the game. Beer is efficently passed up the rows, money back down; they can do the wave with a beer in each hand.

This exceeds every expectation I have ever held for polite rowdiness. The combination could not be more stark if you crammed the Mormon Tabernacle and Southern Baptist choirs together into a space reserved for a quartet. It’s noisy; songs, chants roil around the arena, feeling more like European football than our sanctified game. We get used to it, we have to – once in, you can’t wiggle your way out.

IMG_1859Kristen, Chris and I have ample supplies of Team Canada gear, there seem to be bogus Canadians amongst us – I start checking for MEC stickers and whether they say EH as corroboration of Canadian DNA – most don’t pass the test. But they love Canadians and cheer rabidly.

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Our boys do us proud. They have just met, two practices and a pre-game skate and they are ready to rumble. Rumble they do – winning all their games, they hoist the Cup on New Year’s eve. Then they go back to their regular jobs playing all over Europe.

 

Here’s the best part. They play for the privilege of wearing the Team Canada jersey. That’s it – no money, just pride; a worthy discovery at any time – Canadian pride, unadorned. In the heart of Heidi-land I learn again what it is to be a proud Canadian.

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India and COP21 – not a Travelogue.

My travel goal is to deliberately take myself out of my comfort zone, to cause myself a bit of discomfort. Trips to strange places challenge my conventional wisdoms, confront my biases and cause me to think more deeply about all sorts of things.

India is a challenge; more than 1.3 billion people in the world’s largest democracy, functioning in 22 languages, wildly different ecosystems from the foothills of the Himalayas to the sweltering delta of Cochin, so many religions it befuddles. Yet, Indian democracy works and India has managed to lift its people up; most demographic markers  are improved and improving.

IMG_6226The poverty still grinds, needed changes across such a vast population are overwhelming, many cultural and religious practices are barbaric by western standards and the country struggles to provide basic services; clean water is a privilege, clean water that doesn’t have to be carried long distances is joy, attendance at public schools is high because of the free lunch program (the only meal most children are likely to get) and per capita income is shocking even if it is heading upwards.

Here’s how my India trip captivated and challenged me.

logo-COPAt the same time as I was traveling in India, in another universe COP21 leaders were deciding to alter the course of human destiny to achieve a more carbon free future. I read Velma’s notes from Paris and tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to connect her observations with what I saw out of the window of my bus.

I am not a climate change expert and I am not an expert on India’s economy; I am a tourist passing through, trying to connect the two. How can we engage 1.3 billion people in India in our struggle to achieve climate goals that, science tells us overwhelmingly, are necessary to our survival?

It is a yawning gap. From what I can understand, countries like India see the West as having created the problem; they see the rest of the world being asked to sacrifice their future economic prosperity (and that of their billions of constituents) by committing to join the West in a post-industrial world when they haven’t managed to reap any benefits from their own industrial revolution.

It is impossible to NOT get their point. Serendipitously, this trip has graphical exposed the gap between the West and the rest.

When access to water, healthcare, jobs, foreign exchange, economic growth and improving standards of living from grinding poverty are on the agenda, saving the planet is at best an afterthought and at worst, laughable. I can see most political leaders refusing to handcuff themselves. I can also see them accusing the West of continuing their energy spendthrift ways. The demands for monetary support from the West makes perfect sense. That COP21 got any agreement at all from participants is startling.

IMG_6189In some ways, grinding poverty has made Indians efficient consumers. Their per capita energy use is infinitesimal compared to mine. They walk, or use tuk-tuks; quaint and adorable to us tourists but far more efficient than my SUV.

IMG_6151The one million slum dwellers of Dharavi township are recyclers extraordinaire, reusing 60% of Mumbai’s plastics, recycling paper and cardboard, forging ingots of aluminum from cans and recovering all manner of containers for re-use. They make my feeble attempts at recycling farcical. It seems counterintuitive that Indians amy be more intelligent and efficient recyclers, out of necessity, than I am out of virtue but my eyes do not lie.

Maybe we ought to change the economics of recycling – really rewarding our binners and scavengers for their efforts and really charging Starbucks for littering our cities with plastic?

IMG_6185Vegetarians put less stress on our resources. I am not about to renounce beef altogether but, in India, it isn’t found on the menu, nor is pork in a land that is 20% Muslim. Chicken is the omnivore’s option – free range, grass fed chicken! Again my western lifestyle seems profligate. As a non-expert, food and food production in North America may be as bad for our planet as it is for our health.

I’m not sure what strategies policy makers can employ to ensure that India can continue the necessary advances in bringing a better life to its people. The old industrial revolution powered by coal, oil and gas is now denied India. A substitute bridge to a better life for Indians is not clear to me.

What is clear is that throwing money at government, in India or elsewhere, seems doomed. Corruption and bureaucracy were not invented here but they are rampant and embedded. The early successes at bridging to a new economy, in IT for example, have increased the gap between the haves and the have-nots; unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism may go only so far.

IMG_6273India, like China, is also seeing significant degradation to their environment as they pursue economic development. Deforestation, excessive water use, single-crop agriculture, air pollution, stressed urban environments, increased use of artificial pesticides. … the list goes on and on. Today’s immediate problems are in their face immediate and, while linked, the urgent is crowding out the important.

imagesI expect travel to make me uncomfortable; challenge and change do not come with Linus’s security blanket. My trip has forced me to see COP 21 in a different light; unexpectedly, India has added a complex personal dimension to my otherwise esoteric view of how this global issue plays out.

India has forced me to accept that it is personal; I have the responsibility. India has taught me to view resources as precious and finite. COP21 is about changing my behaviour.

While it is way too soon for New Year’s resolutions; I have a few that I’m considering;

I may park the car and walk more,P1060266

I might save beef consumption for very rare occasions,

IMG_6201I will eat more fruit/vegetables and place all the refuse in our apartment compost bin.

I must use less water and turn out the lights more often.

It is time to simplify my possessions and send everything I can to a better use and the recycle bin.

 

 

I think I will stop and consider every purchase I make – the lunacy of a storage locker to store stuff I don’t want while the rest of the world would see a storage locker as comfortable housing for a family is evident.

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images-1I may even make my next auto purchase a North American version of the Tuk-Tuk.

 

 

 

 

An electric car…

Well, it’s a start.

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Responsible Tourism

Inscrutable India; she is beyond comprehension to me.

I have difficulty understanding Mumbai, how it functions, how it reconciles the extremes evident everywhere. My first inscrutable is why more than 500,000 rural peasants migrate to Mumbai every year.  My second is how Mumbai absorbs them and keeps functioning.

We fly south from Mumbai to Mangalore, and, after a long bus ride, we reach the first of our two responsible tourism resorts in the interior.

IMG_6175Orange County Coorg  is set in the midst of a coffee, pepper and ginger plantation. The area is lush and green, coffee plants blanket the area. Pepper plants, creepers, crawl as high as ten meters on trees; ginger plants occupy plots in between the coffee plants. There is a canopy of palm trees, deciduous trees and other strange breeds.IMG_6179

The resort is pastoral, our individual cabins are set far apart along with several restaurants, an activity center and open spaces arranged within walking distance.

The resort has just won a prestigious INTERNATIONAL award for its mix of eco-friendly technologies and commitment to local employment and involvement. It ranks in the top 5, 10 or 25 of most Trip Advisor and National Geographic categories.

We tour the recycling, biomass and chemical free organic gardens – they are proud of what they are doing; delighted to be recognized for being at the forefront of eco-tourism and anxious to show it off. Our friends who sustain acres of green-grassed golf courses in Palm Springs with precious water could learn a thing or two.

Every night there is a cultural display, music and dance by indigenous groups – inscrutable.IMG_6197

Villages around the resort appear poor but neat and tidy. Tending and harvesting coffee and pepper is grueling but provides much needed employment for subsistence farmers.IMG_6177

Of the more than 500 employees who welcome us at the lodge, some 60% are local. Work in the lodge offers a way out of village poverty for bright and ambitious youth. Service is enthusiastic, friendly and gracious.

IMG_6225It is a welcome change from the cacophony of Mumbai and offers some hope for the future. Tourism, and its trendy offshoot ecotourism, offers jobs, minimum impact on the environment, transferable and internationally viable careers, valuable foreign exchange and tax revenue.

This company tries even harder by adding a category-leading responsibility code to its business operations, ensuring that benefits spread beyond the four corners of its balance sheet.

Our next resort, Orange County Kabini, is also built around sustainable tourism. Again, the staff is more than 60% local.

Here the draw is the abundant wildlife of the Nagarhole National Park.IMG_6216

Two decades ago, there were three tigers, now there are 80+, there are several healthy herds of Asian elephants, Guar, spotted deer, crocodiles, wild boar and myriad other species.IMG_6207.JPG The birdwatching alone is world class; we see some 25 different birds on an early morning walk. We see one particular species of geese that flies from Mongolia to winter in southern India – somehow navigating through and over the Himalayas, rivalling our Canada Geese for distance and navigation skills.

Our guides manage to help use discover these magnificent animals from both a jeep and a large boat, sunset forces us back to the lodge.IMG_6241

We visit a village, always a bit artificial and forced but worth the time, especially when it is concluded with a chance to meet the local public school children; they get a break from classes, we get to amuse them. Our resort funds extra teachers and provide some essential services for both the school and the villages. IMG_6228

I find it a personal challenge to deal with the extremes of India. How can I as a privileged Canadian visit India, enjoy the most privileged comforts of its best resorts, experience the best it has to offer in all its facets and not feel presumptuously rich for having taken advantage without paying back something for the experience?

I choose our tour operator Odysseys Unlimited  because they use local suppliers, hire local guides and carefully select local service providers. They choose resorts that have a commendable record and try, at least try, to ensure that we are responsible tourists.IMG_6224 It may be small, and it may only end up assuaging my guilt, but it is worthwhile and worth a try. If we practise responsible tourism, we may make a small contribution to the development of a country and its people’s future, rather than drawing from its scarce resources.

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Poverty and Privilege.

Today, my third day in Mumbai was both disconcerting and troubling.

I travel for many reasons; adventure, to take myself out of my comfort zone, the thrill of new experiences, to widen my perspective, to learn, to see the world in all its awesome variety.

IMG_6171I know I lead a privileged life. I also know that 99% of that privileged life resulted from my accidental birth – in Canada, into a stable home life with parents who loved and cared for me, who instilled in me a set of values and beliefs, who ensured I was educated, fed, sheltered and given every opportunity they could afford.

I know all this intellectually; occasionally I need to feel it emotionally, viscerally – up close and personal. Today, I am assaulted with the alternative – to be born poor in India.

IMG_6170We are staying in the Taj Majal Hotel in Mumbai, one of the most expensive in the subcontinent. It is, by any measure, luxurious. I have flown here from North America for the sole purpose of experiencing a bit of India’s history, its culture, its mores, to experience vicariously its life as best I can. I am in the warm bubble of a totally organized tour, no fuss, no muss, no risk. It is a privilege I take lightly.

IMG_6141We start our tour with a visit to Mahatma Ghandi’s Mumbai home, understated for a man of such stature in India and indeed around the world. His room says it all; simple, humble, with few possessions. His picture is on all India’s paper money; to North Americans, he looks remarkably like Sir Ben Kingsley.

Here is where the disconcerting part begins. We next tour a slum, Dharavi, our student guide calls it a “township’. He grew up there, he’s finished an accounting degree and is trying to make enough money to take an MBA – a successful start by any country’s measure.IMG_6147

He describes his home as the most productive few square miles in Mumbai. About a million people are jammed into his ‘township’ making it one of the most densely populated pieces of land on earth. Water service is intermittent from outlets paced around public areas; as are the few public toilets. Sewage seems to work but it could at best be called rudimentary. Dharavi was used as a location for the Academy award winner Slum Dog Millionaire.

IMG_6150Dharavi has been around since the 1880‘s – beyond surviving, residents are living, working, eating, sleeping and, above all, seeking to push their children a rung or two higher up the opportunity ladder – as all parents around the world are.

It is a shocking place for a North American. One of us describes it as the Indian version of Charles Dicken’s London – except this is 2015 and the population of Vancouver is jammed in this one township alone. If it were just living space it would be overcrowded but it is also a workplace for most of the residents.IMG_6150

Work is recycling and it is ugly, dirty, cacophonous, dangerous, noxious and debasing. Scavengers bring anything worth recycling to this depot, selling a days hard work for pennies.

 

IMG_6151The vast bulk of plastic discarded by Mumbai’s 13 million privileged passes through these townships, to be busted up, sorted, pulverized, washed and sent on to manufacturers.

Aluminum scraps are sorted, heated by coal fires to liquification point and poured into ingots. Cardboard boxes are dismantled and refashioned into smaller useable bits. Leather is treated, shipped for tanning, returned and fashioned into finished goods.

IMG_6154Every job is piece work. Denizens work 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week. All this occurs in, around, under and over the places people live work, eat sleep and wash themselves. the street becomes a kitchen, dining area and living room. Electricity is abundant, everything else is scarce and expensive. The noise is deafening, the smells noxious, it’s a guided tour by a resident who is trying to climb out of Dante’s inferno.

The incentive is simple – send money home to loved ones and family, boost opportunities for children by sending them off in their uniforms to private schools hoping education will open the door to their way out and, of course, the slim chance for each worker to make it out themselves.

Our guide estimates a few billion dollars – yes billion – of value is created here every year. It is raw economics – Ayn Rand without the glossy promotional bits. There is little trickling down.

IMG_6168We are shocked. I am numbed. The juxtaposition of my temporary home at the Taj Mahal Mumbai and the township of Dharavi is too much to accept.

Yet I am stuck, what can one person, no what can I, do in the face of such a gap?

We are told not to be too quick to judge, we are advised that the hard work and willingness to persevere is to be lauded, we are told that conditions are improving. I am reminded that Dicken’s London is long gone – monumental change does happen.

Somehow it doesn’t seem to calm my sense of injustice, the gap between poverty and privilege is too wide. I’m not sure Ghandi would stand still for this in his beloved India. Neither should the rest of India, nor the rest of the world.

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Cool Iceland

It is late November. We are in Iceland. Setting aside for a moment what some might consider the foolishness of choosing such an adventure, Iceland’s wild winter beauty is striking – glaciers and geysers!

IMG_6057Blair planned the trip. He loves to explore, he is a mindful driver and he is curious. We are doing something called the ring road, 1300 kilometers long, which takes us all the way around Iceland. We’ve rented an SUV and it comes with a GPS and studded tires, outlawed in Canada years ago. We’ve packed warm clothing and are ready to test ourselves against the Icelandic elements. Since Blair is driving and has a plan, I can ignore winter road conditions, watch the scenery, day dream, count sheep and chat about anything that comes into my head.

Our first day is a long 500 kilometer drive to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, anywhere else it’s a small town. Wild and beautiful country, mountains encircle idyllic valleys filled with surprisingly prosperous farms.

IMG_6090We pass hectares dotted with wooly sheep and Iceland ponies; no cows to be seen – the cows are a bit like me, when it turns cold they head for the shed. Icelandic agriculture! – apparently not an oxymoron!

We also drive straight into our first Icelandic weather; driving over a high pass, polite snow flurries become a serious storm quickly morphing into a whiteout. Blair calmly drafts in behind a large lorry; that and the roadside reflectors keep us out of the ditch. I, the perfect passenger, swallow my fear and sit on my hands, refusing to leave my palm print impression in the hard plastic of the dashboard. Minutes later, it clears; we arrive at a Nordic hotel, a three star meal, full wifi and a warm duvet – all at winter rates. The gift of traveling offseason is open roads, vacancies everywhere, bargains and warm, albeit slightly surprised, hospitality.

Next day, clear weather and a long drive over a high pass on a snow packed road open into a valley strewn with dead volcanoes, jumbled lava rock, upheaval and a frozen lake – except where rips in the earth’s skin allow steam to burst through the ice.

IMG_6070Myvard is the epicenter of volcanic activity; dead volcanos, bubbling hot pools and active geysers – no guards, no restrictive barriers, just bubbling mud, sulfur-laced steam – Yellowstone without the fanfare.

In a country riven by two shifting tectonic plates, Icelanders take such exhibitions of earth’s power in stride, harnessing them for geothermal energy, warmth and soothing hot pools.

Our drive to the largest waterfall in Europe is interrupted by a fierce windstorm that cuts visibility to a few hundred yards. We come upon a young Parisian couple who have driven off the road. We stop, try to push their auto out of the snowbank, fail, call emergency and summon a tow truck – all in an hour. The truck arrives, we say good-bye and head on our way. A day in the life…

…..made even better by our evening. We stay at a working dairy, 30 or so cows in a cow barn, half of which has been turned into a restaurant and gift shop – not an ordinary combo but it offered dinner with a view as we watched the evening milking through the plate glass window. The entertainment is not quite Cher at Vegas but, in Iceland, it’s entertaining in its own way.IMG_1742

Blair tried the beef for dinner which I thought was a bit insensitive.

We finish the night at the local hot springs for a soak in a vast open air hot pool of silky, mineral rich, slightly odiferous luxury – some might call it a spa – it was too rustic for that. The only missing element was the northern lights – too cloudy.

The far side of the moon is an apt description for Iceland’s far north in November. After Myvard, we drive to the top of another range with little to see but tufts of grass, volcanic detritus, dull gray accented by the snow covered hill/mountains. Highway one is two lanes, well maintained but subject to powerful winds and ice. All the locals drive a scaled down version of monster trucks – big wheels, big tires – unlike America, it’s not about having big toys, it’s utilitarian safety.

Vast and completely uninhabited in this pleasant moonscape, where the desolate scenes of Game of Thrones Beyond the Wall were filmed and where astronauts are trained for potential moon landings, Blair decides to explore off the main road. I do not react well. Visions of disaster seep into my mind – I convince myself we will be stuck in a cavernous ditch to be discovered the next spring by Icelandic Search and Rescue.IMG_6073

He navigates back onto the highway, squelching my fears; I recover my dignity and we both manage each others actions/reactions, but it’s close.

Be advised, there are places in November in Iceland that feel like the far side of the moon; isolated, inhospitable, frigid, forbidding and eerily foreboding.  Minutes later, we are down in the next valley where the grass is still green and the chicken burger tastes better than the A&W back home.

We save our BIG adventures for last – putting the Ice in Iceland – at the largest glacier outside the Arctic Circle. A finger of the huge Vatnajokull Glacier, Jokulsarlon, calves icebergs and pushes them into a lagoon close to Highway #1 allowing us to view – ICEBERGS – real live icebergs in all their stunning blues, azures and aquamarines.

IMG_6104It is a photographer’s dream, huge chunks of ancient compressed ice, laced occasionally with volcanic ash from cataclysmic convulsions of eons past, hypnotize anyone with a camera. Blair shoots photos till dark.

IMG_1778We return the next day for another view – we don crampons (for a moment I become Sir Edmund trudging to the foot of Everest) and noisily crash our way across 500 meters of dirty, gritty ice across the glacier tongue to a cave.

IMG_1790Water roars out – well, okay it doesn’t roar – but there is enough to require a motor-less zodiac. Carefully removing our crampons to ensure our inflatable remains inflated, we pile in and are pulled into the otherworld of our first ice cave.