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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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. 

Posted in Walking Adventures | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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….

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.

unspecified

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.

unspecified-1

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…:-)

img_6464

 

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.

14191964_10154513179993384_1467043762687694971_n

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?

img_6453

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…

img_5596

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.

img_5638

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

IMG_6425

 

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

IMG_5576

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?

IMG_6405

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.

IMG_6408

 

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.

 

IMG_6434

 

 

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

IMG_2649

 

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:


images-3

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

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.

IMG_2695

 

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.

 

 

IMG_2716

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…

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

IMG_2356

 

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.

Posted in Walking Adventures | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

IMG_2196

 

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.

 

IMG_2481

 

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.

Posted in Walking Adventures | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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.

 

IMG_2365

 

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.”

Posted in Walking Adventures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

IMG_3528

 

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.

IMG_1518

 

 

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.’

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.

IMG_1839

 

I’m so Swiss I could yodel!

IMG_1885

 

 

 

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.

IMG_1867

 

 

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

IMG_6182

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

IMG_1805Surrounded by ancient ice, brilliant shades and hues of blue, we are pulled 500 meters into the glacier. Our translucent canopy, 10-15 meters thick, allows the fading light of the dying sun to permeate our cave. It is surreal, unique, calm and now, forever, iconically Icelandic.IMG_1792

I have a new definition of cool – Iceland cool! With this much winter beauty, I expect Iceland in summer to be glorious. In my mind, Iceland will stay as it is now – frozen, cool as ice.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Plus ça Change…

Everything changes…

The October 19th election of the Trudeau Liberals was historic. For many reasons.

IMG_0543If last night is any measure it will soon become historic by another measure – the number of people who claim they, and only they, know what actually happened. The Canadian Journalism Foundation hosted a public event; five of Canada’s pre-eminent journalists discussed the election. It was a love-in of epic proportions. All five offered bon mots that had themselves at the center of this historic change; some claimed a small measure of responsibility for the outcome, some claimed a larger wedge of the victory pie – success has many parents.

It was strangely un-nerving; the election they each described, while oddly familiar, did not mirror the election I experienced. Above the usual smug inside-baseball, I-know-more-than-you comments that justify their exalted position as arbiters of taste and political mores they were, I realized, delivering the first revision of a history I had seen with my own eyes.

Not to be outdone, I am taking a page from Winston Churchill;

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

I’m joining in this Canadian mud-wrestle before winter sets and the mud hardens (get the metaphor..?…of course you do). I’m going to write history in my image.

There is one hallmark to good history writing –  remember Paul Simon;

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”

This election marks the beginning of generation change in Canada!

IMG_1690Look out, baby-boomers, Justin Trudeau is casting us aside. Its not just about legalizing marijuana. Hah, that it would stop there. Angry white guy saw it first and it terrified him; he said some naughty things, it’s the end and he didn’t like it. Old people lost their power in this election.

The Tories were hoping that old folks would win the election for them. We vote. This time young people showed up; instead of 61% of Canadians voting, the young rascals, whipper-snappers, turned out in droves, raising participation to 68%. It was Justin’s secret weapon; guess what, the kids didn’t vote for Steve or Tom. I’m guessing there was a lot of underage voting sneaking in under the wire.

getimage.aspxNeed more proof? Justin did the Grouse Grind, we grousers were left grinding our teeth at that one. Imagine Steve, Jason and Joe in their lululemons doing the Grind – nope, I can’t either. Not without the North Shore Rescue folks and their portable defibrilators tracking them just out of camera angle.

You want more? Paul Godfrey, quintessential rich old man, cracked the whip and forced all the PostMedia newspapers to write editorials to support Steve, as did David Walmsley at the Globe and Mail. In a fit of Houdini-like contortionism, Walmsley escaped the bounds of rational argument to do so; he deserves a medal for debasing himself vainly trying to save us, it must have hurt.

They shouldn’t have bothered, it mattered to no one. All it proved is their impotence, nobody reads editorials except old white men and families of the editorial board forced to do so. Not many young-uns read newspapers at all so they didn’t have to even reject the doom and gloom, they just went on telling each other on Facebook and Instagram to vote the old men out. Irrelevance is doing a death dance on those editorial boards.

IMG_1683 20151009_175455In my little corner of the world we were swamped with kids. It was an egalitarian, gender- balanced, United Nations of volunteers – unlike anything seen in the good old days. They ran around yelling ‘forward not backward, upward not forward’. citing some obscure television program called the Simpsons.

Our candidate, described by an elderly journalist friend as 34 but looking ten years younger – swept the riding, winning handily by a 3000+ vote margin. He knocked off a retired Judge and a municipal councillor who couldn’t bother to show up for all candidate meetings. He’s now a Member of Parliament on a mission. Change! Change! …and more Change!

20151013_071842Our whole election team was young…. well, with a few exceptions. I was old but searched for usefulness, Becky, retired, was our best canvasser by a thousand doors. Jill, another retiree, did the whole sign program; we elderly all got up at 6AM to wave signs so the kids could sleep in, but really, other than that, it was all young people. Art Lee, a retired MP created events to showcase Terry. Bob, the other more handsome Bob, wrote reams of useful propaganda.

So, friends, you heard it here first. This election was a watershed. The young are finally pushing the old out of the way and taking control of power.

This has consequences!

Federal power, four years of majority rule power, muscular, relentlessly energetic power to solve the problems of the world, a whole restless surge of thanks-don’t-need-your-advice power.

unnamedThey’re going to solve climate change, They’re going to save us from despoiling what’s left of mother Earth. They’re going to give money to families with small children, they’re going to get your kids out of your basements and give them jobs. They’re going to find ways to provide affordable housing. They’re going to restore Canada’s place in the world as a responsive and responsible middle power. They’re going to rebuild our aging infrastructure.

I tell you the world is going to hell in a hand cart. And who is going to pay – bingo to the grey haired man in the front row – we are!

They’re going to tax our gasoline and take away our SUV’s. They’re going to take away tax breaks for the rich, they’re stopping income splitting for rich people (but not pensioners, thank goodness). They’re going to make us recycle and use public transportation. All manner of indignities await.

The future is bleak my grey haired friends. It’s no wonder angry old man was angry – he has seen the future and it is bleak.

As for the Supreme Court demanding new legislation on assisted suicide; let’s slow down and think this through a bit folks. Let’s not be hasty…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

They have dared greatly.

On the day before an election, particularly one this long, it is hard to lift my head, look out over the horizon and take the long view. My perspective is shot. One observation has survived and is crystal clear – we should celebrate our candidates.

It started in November 2013. I hosted a dinner for my friend Terry Beech to help him assess his future prospects as a candidate for public office. At that point his desire to run was a wispy, ill defined wish; he simply had no idea what the future would bring.

He invited close friends, colleagues and advisors to my apartment. I cooked dinner. We talked as objectively as we could about the pros and cons of his possible candidacy; the costs in money, time, energy, career options and challenged relationships over the grueling campaign period. We talked about what it would be like to win, what it would be like to lose and whether the prize was worth the risks and the cost. We acknowledged that the task was so life altering that it was difficult to assess objectively. We all knew it would be an uphill struggle.

Implicit in our chat that night with Terry and his wife Ravi was our own calculus, our own assessment of how far we were willing to go to support him if he chose to run.

A few weeks later, Terry made his decision to seek the Liberal nomination. He charged through a nomination process, and then the many tasks aimed at winning; energy sapping, detailed, repetitive but vital to his candidacy. He has shown energy, unbounded enthusiasm, grit, and a natural affinity for people. Aspiring to be elected a Member of Parliament is easy; getting the job is like running a gauntlet. His wife Ravi has been with him all the way, showing a resolve and a discipline that is truly laudatory.IMG_1661

Tomorrow, almost two years later, he is to be judged by the electorate.

Politics is terribly public – he wins or loses and he does so in a most public way. Here’s my point. He put his name forward. With 1791 other candidates across Canada, he has sought public office and asked for the support of the public.

Theodore Roosevelt summed it up best in a speech way back in 1910 in Paris.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

There is no way to say it better. We should remember this tomorrow when we go to vote. Seeking public office is the greatest challenge and the greatest risk one can undertake.

Working alongside these candidates is a unique opportunity to celebrate this whole glorious, messy, tumultuous – vital – process. It has been an honour and a privilege for Blair and I to have been on this wild ride with Terry and Ravi.IMG_1617-2

Tomorrow night there will be 338 successful candidates and 1454 candidates who lose.

We should celebrate them all.

We should thank them all.

They have all dared greatly.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Power of Engagement.

The Power of Engagement

Over the past two months I have been fully immersed in the upcoming election; at 78 days, the longest is current Canadian history.

These are wild rides. They take me out of my comfort zone; way, way out.

IMG_1651I am thrown together with men and women half my age, most of whom have never been involved in a Federal election. They are bright, smart, energetic and engaged. They bring a new set of social media tools which are mysterious and intimidating.

We are all thrown together for a range of reasons. Some want to rid Canada of Harper, some care passionately about an issue, some have a personal connection to the candidate, some think Trudeau IS ready. Building a team of such diversity demands time and energy.

IMG_20150814_171003 (1)My orderly and predictable life is turned upside down. I spend most of my time in an empty retail store space, bare walls, cement floors, no frills. It’s filled with cast off furniture, campaign literature, phones and computers; people coming and going, lots of energy and hustle. Halfway between a start-up and a pop-up, it is a one-off project put together for 90 days; here today, gone tomorrow.

Less sleep and more fast food, lots of driving, my exercise regime is non-existent; all to facilitate the completion of a bottomless list of tasks intended to push my candidate across the finish line with more votes than the others.

I am stretched to do things I have not done much of and decided long ago I do not like. A part of this is age, a hardening of the attitudes and a fixation on comfortable routines. A part is laziness; it is easier to communicate via Face-Book than face-to-face, send email rather than pick up a phone.

Not now. My desire to be alone, my need for quiet, my urge to isolate myself from foolish encounters with foolish people – all are set aside until election day.

20150929_083350Over the past two months, I have stood on a street corner waving a sign and occasionally dancing to the vibe of success.

Woohoo! – someone honked at us!  Woohoo! – a trucker gave us his big horn blast!

I have made 80 – 100 cold calls trying to get total strangers to come to just one meeting with my candidate. I have sent out emails to people asking for MONEY, and then I have called them to follow up. I have gone door knocking – asking complete strangers, face to face at their doors who they are thinking of voting for; then trying to convince them to vote for my candidate.

IMG_1683I have spent time at Sunday dim sum, Korean festivals, Portuguese bakeries; I’ve tasted incredible Indian food at a backyard event with Margaret Trudeau. I met a man who won an $800 million lawsuit for veterans against a cold-hearted government that fought them every inch of the way. I’ve met passionate, engaged Canadians I would have never encountered except in the great messy inclusive melting pot of politics.

20440556455_f547966690_oI have had the privilege of working with Terry and Ravi, a remarkable couple. He will be an ideal Member of Parliament for Burnaby North – Seymour, trust me.

All this was unthinkable – until I did it. Then it was, well, thinkable.

The remarkable part is that people were kind, open, convivial and willing to talk to me. They took my calls, they gave us money, they came out to our events. They allowed us to put a sign on their lawn, they opened their doors and engaged in a conversation. Not always, but enough to keep me coming back.

 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau takes a selfie with a supporter after climbing the famous Grouse Grind during an election campaign stop in North Vancouver, B.C., Friday, September 11, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau takes a selfie with a supporter after climbing the famous Grouse Grind during an election campaign stop in North Vancouver, B.C., Friday, September 11, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

All this was made infinitely more enjoyable because Blair was with me on most of these trips outside my comfort zone. He had my back, he was enthusiastic, engaged and diligent. We door knocked, we burma-shaved, we pounded signs – he even let me pound some signs in on my own. Come to think of it, I was his wingman; he was doing and I was supporting – and learning. His high point was doing the Grouse Grind, his first ever, with Justin Trudeau – priceless.

 

There were successes – the wonderful sweet spots that validate what we are doing. Here’s one:

Blair and I were canvassing one Sunday. I rang the bell, a man my age answered and we started to chat. He was hesitant to talk but became more open and engaging as we went along. Blair joined us from across the street. Our voter was informed and opinionated. Blair was determined and persuasive. In the end, we shook hands, parted.  We had tried but marked him down on our list as NDP.

That day, he sent a long email to our candidate:

Terry; I have done something that I have never done before and that is to change my vote. Normally I stick to my guns but something happened today that made me realize that throwing my vote to the NDP (not something I normally do) but Mr. Harper has made me desperate for a change.

Today, I was visited by two of your ‘followers’ and by followers I mean two down to earth fellows. A father and a son both very good at getting out the vote. I had a great talk with them and since I do most of the talking, (bad habit) I felt that I was doing a good job of standing my ground except when the father brought up a very important point and one I had not really thought about. Now that Burnaby North is part of the north shore the voting base has changed. I was aware of this but what I was not aware of was that the north shore has voted twice for Cons and twice for Libs!

That got me to thinking that a vote for the Libs was a better move than a vote for the socialist hordes.   I have never been a big fan of the NDP more for provincial reasons and the total screw-ups they were when in office. But I had hopes for the Federal NDP so I leaned to them to turf the evil dark lord.

But then the lady running in our area is a ‘lawyer’ and there’s only one thing I loathe more than a lawyer and that’s a lawyer in politics! Probably the worst single group of people to elect.   Anyhow, since we are moving soon we will cast our votes at the polling office in the Brentwood mall this week.

So you can count on at least two votes where before you had only one.

That one note from a voter has sustained me and reinforced my faith in Canadian democracy. Canadian democracy works because of the engagement of its citizens. They think, they decide, they vote.

It is called participatory democracy for a reason. A conversation with a citizen on his/her doorstep is still the most powerful campaign tool in a democracy.

So, with two weeks left in this campaign, if you have a candidate you support, I urge you all to get involved. It is not too late. Go volunteer, pitch in, take a sign for your lawn, donate money, honk at the crazies who are out burma-shaving at dawn, make a few calls, attend a meeting.

And then – VOTE.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Off the Couch and Out on the Hustings.

Hustings is one of those arcane words that only comes up at election time. The word goes back to 12th century England, it means a place or meeting where politicians make election speeches.

I first got involved in politics in 1968. Trudeau-mania was sweeping Canada, powerful enough and pervasive enough to reach a small prairie town and resonate with a 19 year old on summer break. Trudeau was out on the hustings and came to Medicine Hat; a group of us drove 60 miles or so to see him.1237074_509639042455525_321579522_n

Pierre Trudeau epitomized a rebellious break with my known world where Social Credit thrived, more conservative than the Conservatives. I felt enervated, a rebel with a cause. That summer encounter changed the trajectory of my life.

In the fall, the Dean of Engineering and I agreed that the world would be a safer place if I chose NOT to be an engineer. I followed my newfound passion with Canadian politics into grad school in Ottawa, a few early jobs on the front lines of politics and a lifelong fascination with this infinitely interesting, vital game of life.

Politics is a huge puzzle, with millions of moving parts – people – and an endless array of possibilities; messy and boisterous and challenging. Politics brings out the best, and worst, in people. Its mesmerizing pull is the grand debates of pivotal issues and the constant tension of whether the means justifies the ends; infinite shades of gray, nuance so subtle as to be distinguishable only to the practitioner, all the subject of great literature from philosophical treatises to popular TV scripts.

Forty seven years later, forgetting far too many elections of late nights, mind-numbing menial tasks, intense conflicts, compromises and conundrums over issues I cannot now recall and against my better judgement, I have jumped back into the deep end of the politics pool.

Why?

Because to me politics matters.

I was once asked why I was a Liberal. It is challenging to adequately answer such a simple question but it boils down to these three rationales. Liberals are the champions of  Unemployment Insurance, a practical social program that matters, Liberals have sustained universal health care offering an alternative to struggling alone with the cruel nature of fate. Finally, Liberals offered me a network of friends, a family I chose for myself, one that adopted me and allowed me to adopt it.

UnknownI grew up in the lower middle class in rural southern Alberta. I’ll spare the details because social class or gradations of poverty did not frame our lives, as a family or as individuals. My father had seasonal work, the winter months could be difficult. It was not for lack of trying, it was almost shameful to be out of work, but it was a reality to be endured. Unemployment Insurance payments made a difference. I’ll never know how much of a difference but I have decided, upon reflection, that UI was a profitable investment by society in my father and in my family. Tough times happen, but UI got us through and we emerged intact as a family and as productive, tax paying individuals. The Ayn Rand libertarians advocating total self-reliance and limited government cannot convince me, my experience proves otherwise.

medicareyesUniversal health care helped pay hospital bills for a family member that we simply could not have handled. Without health care we would have sunk into debt, mortgaging our family’s future in a struggle against insurmountable costs. Universal health care was not a Liberal idea but it has been a core bedrock Liberal principle, a part of the Liberal DNA. It worked for my family at a time of profound need; my personal experience trumps the esoteric arguments of private health advocates. I remain befuddled by the American system; we are a better society for our collective approach to care for individuals in need. It is what makes us Canadian.

Finally, when I went to my first Liberal event back in 1968, I didn’t expect to join a family; I didn’t set out to meet people who would be my closest friends some 50 years later. I was only going to a rally.

The deep river of friends running across the country, business associates, mentors, best-buds, brothers/sisters-in-arms, the web of most of the deep relationships in my life can be traced back to the source waters of my first Liberal meetings. They’re my family; how could I ignore them in their hour of need after all I have gained.

The social nature of my relationship has tempered any dark tribalism; a simple act of serendipity led me to my team – it is easy to understand that friends are on another team, determined by their own chance encounters, ensuing relationships and shared experiences. There is room for us all.

19787888729_9e30b5be3a_oSo, I am back on the hustings after a long time away. I’m chairing the campaign of Terry Beech, Liberal candidate in Burnaby North – Seymour. I’m stuffing envelopes when needed, a task unlikely to be eliminated by technology. I am out door-knocking. I am asking people for money for our campaign. I’m writing, I’m talking, I’m debating, I’m arguing, all to convince about 15,000 people I have not met to vote Liberal on October 19. It’s exhilarating – when it isn’t tedious and mind-numbingly boring.

I’m also supporting Justin Trudeau; father and son may not be the bookends of my career but it has a certain symmetry.IMG_1601

It is infinitely preferable to the alternative – sitting on my sofa, muttering and shaking my fist at the TV news in impotent rage over some high crime of one politician or another.

It feels good; to be doing some small thing, to be on the hustings not on the sofa.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Adventure of Friendship

Over the years, I have often reminded myself that I have been blessed with good friends. I continue to enjoy those blessings.

taber-18aBlair and Jean have been a profound force in my life since they arrived in Taber on a hot sunny Alberta afternoon in 1968. Tumbleweeds weren’t rolling down this desolate prairie ghost town’s main street but it was pretty close.

main street c 1955_75x75_thumbBack home for the summer from first year university, I was working the rigs to scrape up enough money to pay for second year. They rolled into town in a canary yellow VW beetle with Quebec license plates, electrifying the place. They were exotic, creatures from another galaxy would have been less noticeable.

They had returned to work for Bud Olson, the local MP who changed parties to become a LIberal under it’s new leader, PierreTrudeau. Liberals were rare in Alberta, still are; Trudeau was even rarer. It did not look good for Bud even with Trudeaumania sweeping the country. Both Blair and Jean grew up in Taber, knew the risks and took on the challenge anyway, driving home from Ottawa with two small children to work for Bud.

Within days I was campaigning for Bud. We all motored down to Medicine Hat to see Pierre Trudeau speak. It was electrifying.

I worked with Blair and Jean over that summer and, in late June 1968, against all odds, Bud Olson won – by just over 200 votes. He joined Mr Trudeau’s cabinet and Blair and Jean went back to Ottawa. Blair became the Executive Assistant to the new Minister of Agriculture, Bud Olson.

My university career as an engineer was not going well at the time so, infected by the bug, I became a political junkie. I changed courses at university, saving myself and the engineering profession much embarrassment. I went to Carleton University for Grad school, I had to experience Ottawa.

Four years later, I worked on another campaign with Blair and Jean – this time in Edmonton. I met Michael Robinson that fall; he had been equally charmed, enticed and transformed by the magic elixir of politics and Blair and Jean. His life changed forever, he too was drawn to Ottawa, where he met his wife ML.

IMG_1518This summer, some 45 years later, we all gathered in France to enjoy each others company for a bit longer than the usual dinner squeezed into busy schedules.

 

We spent a week together in Normandy with Michael and ML, blessed with warm memories, good food, great weather and much laughter. We watched the Tour de France, drove around Normandy, picnicked on the beach, visited village markets and walked the country lanes. We stayed up late and slept in late; we ate well and talked endlessly.

IMG_1538

A few days in Paris allowed us to revisit that city and, joined by my daughter and her husband, share more stories and reminiscences.

Forty years or so has brought a few changes in our lives. We have grown children now, and there are more than a few grandchildren. We have had ups and downs in work but have all been blessed with enough good fortune to be comfortable as we approach retirement.

We’ve been through heartbreaking events in our lives – losses that would seem unendurable without the compassion and support of these friendships. In those dark times friends give us whatever we need to go on. We are not without our wounds, our scars and our losses but somehow we emerge on the other side with a depth and a strength that surprises us.

IMG_1507-2Throughout it all, the enduring constant has been these bedrock friendships, individually and as couples. We celebrate each others milestones; this time it was a 54th anniversary marked with Champagne and a full-bodied San Pellegrino.

Our children join in the extended family; they have lived their lives in the embracing halo of our friendships, enjoying richer experiences as a result.

IMG_1457

 

We reminisce, dusting off old tales of derring-do, retelling them, exaggerating them a bit here and there as they age. We sit by campfires as we have in the past. We sit silently sometimes, conversation is often unnecessary.

We plan for the future; these meetings are not an end but a way station in our richly evolving lives. There will be more adventures, more shared experiences, more pain and loss, more of life happening while we are planning something else.

I am blessed with friends. They are role models; I have considered my life by the exemplary way they have lived theirs. They support, coach, offer advice, judge and withhold judgement.

They show me possibilities, challenge me to strive, offer me exemplars on how I might face my challenges. Their spirit travels me even when I haven’t seen them for months. They offer a compass bearing, a perspective and a point of view that informs every fibre of my life.

Just by knowing them so well, I am guided by their wisdom; I know what they would do in a situation and try to govern myself accordingly. They have caught me when I’ve fallen, picked me up, dusted me off and sent me back into the game. They’ve endured my idiosyncrasies and my faults and they love me anyway.

It is a blinding flash of the obvious, a cliche, a truism bordering on maudlin sentimentality, my friends have been the family I have chosen for myself.

Sometimes the best adventures are the adventures of friendship.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Wherever we go…

Advance warning; the word ‘journey’ will not be used in this blogpost. Having been hijacked and over exploited by the self help industry, it has been retired indefinitely from my vocabulary; suitable alternatives to describe life’s adventures and meanderings have been chosen.

There is an old idea – if things are closing in on you, you can always move, find a new place to start over and leave your problems behind – some might call it running away, I prefer to call it the ‘geographic cure’.

IMG_1342I just finished what may be my final trip to my hometown, Taber. Taber is a small town south of Calgary about equidistance between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. It is a farming community, we used to claim to be the Corn Capital of Canada. We have, for some incomprehensible reason, stepped back from that bold assertion probably because some whiner in a southern Ontario farm community threatened to sue us.

Geez, can’t we exaggerate a bit for the sake of a little tourism? Just what do we do with this bit of iconic road art.

When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s; Taber had a surprisingly international demographic. Many Japanese Canadians, some forcibly relocated here in one of the cruel decisions made by the King Government during World War II, chose to stay after the war, took up farming, excelled at it and are amongst the most prosperous of our citizens. We benefitted as well from Chinese immigrants, descendants of the builders of the CP rail line that runs through town. Most of the crops were labor intensive (we are also the Sugar Beet Capital of Canada – and damn proud of it!), hundreds of immigrant families moved to southern Alberta, cheap labour for local farmers, a quick job requiring minimal language skills to Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and other eastern Europeans fleeing oppression for a new life.

My grandfather emigrated from Wales, made his way to a coal mine here, now long forgotten, then became a hard scrabble dry land farmer – surviving mostly because he had a good team of horses and six sons, cheap labour pulled out of school the moment it was allowed by law. Our Taber mosaic was further enhanced by a Mormon contingent drifting across the border from Utah looking for decent farmland and tolerance for their religion.

I grew up with many, now fond, snippets of memories; I left town in 1967, never looked back and made my way in the big outside world. I returned occasionally to visit my parents; reuniting with siblings, introducing my children to their grandparents and the many tediously oft-repeated stories of my childhood and this odd relic of my hometown. Over the years, the visits got shorter and less frequent.

IMG_1323My father died in 1991, on my 42nd birthday. We returned a bit more often as my mother aged and we moved her into a succession of local retirement and nursing homes. Last fall, she too passed away and, with my siblings and our children, we spent a long, emotional week making all the arrangements for her funeral and burial in the local cemetery.

This week’s visit feels like the end, a last trip to see the new headstone that replaces the solitary one erected for my father decades ago.

I am an orphan and, while not quite homeless, I’ve become detached from the place of my upbringing; there’s 50 years of life separating me from this spot on the map.

IMG_1337Serendipitously, I am here with my long time mentor and best friend, another Taber boy and an actual relative. Blair and I are on almost parallel paths; he’s here to memorialize the lives of his parents with plaques he has anchored to a boulder in a coulee west of town, a spot rich with memories of his parents’ youth.

We are honoring our parents, celebrating their lives, commemorating this town as the cradle of our early development and coming to terms with the passage of time and the changes that are inevitable. We visited his family farm, passed through the farmyard of my grandfather, wandered around town sharing memories.

IMG_1344My elementary school is long gone, my high school is now a parking lot, only my junior high is there – but almost unrecognizable except for the juice squeezer that used to be the music room.

The row of elevators which proudly announced Taber from miles away are all now gone, as is the old train station, the movie theater where we went to Saturday matinees for 15 cents and the tiny grocery store near the highway where we bought necessities on credit. The ubiquitous canning factory of summer jobs, water fights and the early dawn sunlight at the end of the night shift is dead; no one eats canned peas anymore. I could go on…taber-5

We try to measure the impact of those first fifteen years; it is the people, our parents, our siblings, the friends, the scout leader, church, hockey coaches, first loves and best buddies

….and, the teachers, the real values shapers – I still remember their names. I drive past the library, where I was encouraged to take six books at a time by a librarian who seemed surprised at my interest in reading. It is long gone; the good news is that it has been replaced by a huge, shiny, open, welcoming building.

IMG_1326We reminisce with Blair’s friends, older than me by a decade, I can sit on the sidelines as they describe their tom-foolery, their escapades and their shared stories. It is a warm bath of nostalgia, worth the trip alone. There’s nothing like a dish of warmed over, fuzzy memories served with the Chinese dinner for six at the Paradise Gardens; even the messages in the fortune cookies seem apt.

This is well plowed ground, at least for those of us lucky enough to have grown up in stable families, with parents who loved us and nurtured us and kept us fed and warm and dry. Parents who provided stability, predictability and safety; who taught us, and then enforced, their values and beliefs.

We had teachers who cared, coaches who showed up, adult role models worthy of emulation and a bedrock of institutions that served us well. We had friends who accepted us, played with us and shared our growth and discovery. We had first loves, dances and broken hearts. For that I am always grateful.

I have long ago come to understand how rare and valuable that environment was for me. And, for that I am grateful.

I have also found that the geographic cure is only partially successful, the corollary is that wherever you go, you take yourself with you – wherever I go I will always have a whole lot of Taber with me.

Please note, as promised, the word ‘Journey’ was not used in the telling of this story.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The one less traveled by

Two roads diverged in a wood

and I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference. 

– Robert Frost

IMG_1224The Camino Portuguese is a 600 kilometer pilgrimage from Lisbon to Santiago. Unlike the more famous Camino Frances from Saint Jean Pied du Port in France, the Portuguese is sparsely used; about 1000 a year make the trek, more than 250,000 travel the Frances.

It is, as Frost says, the one less traveled by.

It demands more from the pilgrim and has the potential to give more.

My first challenge is managing expectations, a belief that my experience walking the Frances a few years back would somehow elevate me to a superior status, make it all easier; the Portuguese would, if not be exactly the same, at least rhyme.

IMG_1263Experience does help, to a point. It wasn’t until I lightened my load, dropped my preconceptions, stopped comparing and accepted the Portuguese in all its uniqueness, that I became the wide-eyed rookie on this ‘less traveled’ path.

I came equipped. I had my up-to-date 2014 edition of the guidebook by John Brierley, my credentials ready to be stamped and my ever-present notebook.

IMG_1213

IMG_1067The path is well marked. The signposts are clear from Lisbon where we share a path with pilgrims for Fatima and later as we surge north past Fatima where we head north and their signs point south. Our pathfinders were also kind enough to point out where NOT to go, saving louts like me from wandering off deep in thought (or vacant of same).

The Portuguese is a more solitary pilgrimage. I met only one other pilgrim in the first week, Ray from England. He was welcome company at the end of the day. The crowd thickened as we neared Santiago but at no time could we have fielded a football team.

The good news is that there is much more time for quiet contemplation as I walk the camino, there are fewer pilgrims to meet, less pressure to be sociable if i cared not to. Conversely, aloneness can sometimes not be comforting. There is nothing more eerie than settling into a 40 person Albergue as the only pilgrim for the night.

IMG_1194There are wonderful Albergues, just fewer of them, leaving fewer options in route planning. The first eight days from Lisbon were all 30+ kilometers apart with no possibilities for stopping or finding a place – any place – to stay if I fatigued before day’s end. Water and food had to be planned more carefully, adding a few kilometers for foraging. I hate carrying water, it is heavy; the alternative, dehydration, makes it imperative.

IMG_1091IMG_1092

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will forever picture the Camino Portuguese as sunny and cool, perfect spring weather. I was blessed with 23 straight sunny days. It was spring; farmers were in the fields, trees were blossoming, flowers were blooming. I said ‘bom dia’ to hundreds of back-yard farmers along the way, usually well into the afternoon until someone reminded by replying ‘boa tarde’.

IMG_1069Country boy that I am, I forgot that spring also meant it was manure spreading time. Ah, the pungent smell of fresh pig manure…I forgot that part. Ah, and the sound of roosters – I love the sound of roosters crowing.

This walk was alive with folks going about their normal lives. Paradoxically, I’m on an EPIC adventure, something I’ve been planning and training for over months; everything is exotic and strange to me. Yet I am walking through peoples’ day-to-days. They are planting gardens, hanging laundry, delivering bread, plowing fields; it takes the edge off my terminal uniqueness – different, yes; EPIC…maybe, maybe not.

IMG_1226IMG_1244

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am walking on roads created by the Romans in the first Century AD. I walk paths eroded by the passage of feet and time to the point that they are now several feet below the surface of the forest. I walk over bridges first built centuries ago, refurbished, rebuilt but partly original. I called it walking with the Centurions. I try to be Indiana Jones, to let my imagination roam free, to let history come alive at the Knights Templar Castle in Tomar, my stop for a day.

IMG_1102The joy of these pilgrimages is a route that passes historic sites; directly through village squares, old towns and past every city’s oldest cathedrals. I continue to be amazed at the depth and complexity of Europe’s history; it accumulates, leaves footprints, ruins, remnants and echoes. Bits and pieces form the foundation of the next era.

So, what does this all mean? If I shake a kaleidoscope, I get a whole new picture; new colours, new shapes, new composition. Likewise, if I shake my head, I retrieve a completely new Camino experience.

I will forget the two days spent with a slightly inflamed tendon in my shin (I thought it might be the end of me – oh, the drama of the self diagnosis, alone in a strange land). I recovered.

I’ll forget the tedium of walking at four kilometers and hour, the fatigue and the discomfort. It does slow me down and puts in the present.

I’ll forget the boredom of evenings alone with three channels of Portuguese TV; so that’s where all our 8 inch Tube TV sets were shipped, one star hotels in Portugal – mystery solved! I did have my iPhone – ubiquitous, but I’ll reconcile my reliance on it with its power to connect me to loved ones.

I’ll forget the occasional bouts of loneliness, ennui and self pity at the end of tiring days. They come like a prairie thunderstorm and then they’re gone.

Here’s what I’ll remember:

IMG_1249The kindness of people along the way; so many that when I rolled them over in my brain, they brought smiles. Those tender mercies from strangers to a stranger in a strange land blossomed radiantly for me – the embodiment of simple human kindness, worldwide.

The generosity of hoteliers and cafe owners. In a small town, Golega, I found the O Te restaurant/hotel. I had my pick of the second floors rooms, an incredible suckling pig dinner, a goodbye espresso in the morning and a few smiles and kind words from an elderly French Moroccan who somehow ended up being a hotelier in rural Portugal (Oh the stories he could have told) – all for 30 euros. At that price, I was sure he hadn’t overcharged me.

The folks who marked the trails for us, who maintain them; we will never see each other but we are deeply grateful.

Miguel and Jennifer, who embody Portugal’s global sophistication and confidence; their  passion for Porto gave me a chance to see a truly beautiful city through the eyes of its most loving citizens, including the most beautiful bookstore I have ever visited.

IMG_1222I will remember the beauty of Ponte de Vila; a town which captures sublime beauty, a deep respect for its history and a surprising  modernity.

I will most certainly remember Portuguese bread.

I will remember the fresh fish – every piece of fresh fish I had for three weeks was cooked to perfection. Bacalhau, Portuguese dried salted cod, not so much…

IMG_1098 2I will remember the Portuguese use of tiles that decorated houses, churches and buildings, turning them into works of art.

I’ll remember all the churches along the way, loving maintained.

I will remember that adventures such as walking this camino are a privilege for which I am grateful. I get my self into these situations for a reason.

IMG_1260

 

I will remember arriving in Santiago, marking the end at the noon mass at the Sanitiago Cathedral, savouring the sense of completeness, of accomplishment.

I will remember bits and pieces of everything I saw, heard, smelt, touched and tasted.

I will remember stopping regularly, looking around and asking myself the question, ‘where would I rather be right now than right here?’ The answer was always the same.

“I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference”.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tender Mercies

Robert Duvall won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best actor in a sweet, oft-overlooked 1983 film called Tender Mercies. It’s the transformation of an end-of-the-line alcoholic country singer into a decent man, not by some instant Hollywood epiphany but through a series of small kindnesses given to him by people who truly care for him – tender mercies.

I thought about it a lot while on my latest walkabout.

IMG_1116When I go off on adventures, I feel exposed. I am, like everyone else, a creature of habit. I find comfort in habits; habits bathe us in predictability and the perception of safety. There is no need to take risks, evaluate possibilities and make choices. I feel safe and secure in my habits.

My brain is lazy, although I prefer to call it efficient. It doesn’t like to work overtime evaluating risks, weighing possibilities, making choices, planning for eventualities and acting at a higher level of awareness required by new places, new people, new languages, new dangers. These force my brain to work harder than it wants to, over longer periods of time. My flight or fight mechanisms are on high alert.

On a person-to-person level, I have to figure out new languages, new cultural triggers and social cues. We’re human beings and, humans being what we are, we prefer predictability and safety.

Traveling alone exacerbates the challenge; I am on my own, forced to make all the choices. My sense of vulnerability is heightened; I am my only backup plan.

Sometimes there are just too many choices so I make life easy by turning some into habits. I find a cafe and, without looking for a daily menu, I order, in my mixture of English/Portuguese, a ham and cheese sandwich. Why? Because my brain doesn’t have the energy to go through the process of sorting out what to eat, I default to what works – a ham and cheese sandwich. Anyone who has traveled knows this. That’s why the Burger King in Paris can be so appealing after a long day at the Louvre (it’s okay; we’ve all been there!).

Yet, I choose to put myself into strange situations. They force me to stretch my tolerance for change and ambiguity, to test the limits of that tolerance, to push it a bit and see if I can raise my tolerance level. A tour guide once said that it is impossible to go from Disney World to the streets of Delhi. He was right; it is too big a leap, the body and the brain resist such a tectonic shift to the exotic. Sensory overload kicks in and we retreat, huddling in our hotel room watching CNN or gathering like sheep around the local McDonalds. At the end of a long strange day, a Big Mac offers comfort, curried lentils do not.

We assume, rightly so, that different is dangerous and habit offers safety.

At one of the Albergues this trip, I arrived early. It was a good one; clean, modern, good facilities. As I was unpacking in the room I would share with a dozen others, another guy arrived. He was young, mid thirties, a cyclist; he had wild unkempt Rastafarian hair and looked a bit ragged around the edges; his vast array of tattoos added to the wild man persona. He was English and sounded much like a Football hooligan – I secretly named him Hooligan Harry. “Oh great,” I thought, “another night at the Bates Hotel, hugging my little bag of everything I own close to me so it won’t be pilfered by the crazy guy in the bunk two rows over”.

IMG_1221More people arrived, we all went about our tasks of cleaning off today’s grime and getting ready for tomorrow’s climb. Later, we all went across the way for dinner. Over dinner with Harry, an American and three Germans, we had a wonderful discussion. Other travels, recent adventures, the philosophy of life, religion, football, it was a free range discourse at its best. Harry participated and as I listened to him, my fear of him fell away like ice off a tree branch when the rising sun hits it. He was a fascinating man, a carpenter who sold all his stuff to go on a two year bike trek; he quoted Eckhart Tolle, chatted amiably and radiated gentleness. In just a few hours he went from Hooligan Harry to Renaissance Harold.

He didn’t change that quickly; I did. I had rushed to judgement. Another example of F.E.A.R – False Evidence Appearing Real.

In my travels, I find my most valuable insights in these events where my instincts, and my judgement, are proven wrong – vividly, incontrovertibly wrong.

In strange circumstance, where everything is a potential threat, people pose the most interesting challenge. My hardening of the attitudes, reinforced by CNN and thousands of other sources of pessimism, fear and negativity encourages me to believe that the outside world is dangerous, that my comfortable habits protect me from danger and that strange people with strange habits are threatening. It just isn’t so.

I had no ah-ha moments on my journey across Portugal. I did receive surprise after surprise at the abundance of small human kindnesses offered to me. People were generous; their kindnesses more valuable because they were freely given, and they were given freely to such an obvious stranger – I called them tender mercies.

I came away, as I always do with a more positive and optimistic view of the human condition. I shed much of my accumulated fear and suspicion, I slow down my rush to negative judgments, I am more hopeful about my day.

I was about 65 kilometers out of Santiago, this, my second last day was a long one, more than 35 kilometres, to make my last day, my walk into Santiago, manageable.

I started early, a quick coffee at dawn. By about 9:30, I had covered a fair bit of ground but still had a full day ahead of me. Near a small village, San Amaro, a young woman was standing on the trail, waiting. I stopped, we chatted and she urged me to visit her cafe – Meson Pulpo – a few meters down the way. I was in a hurry and I could have interpreted her mission, cynically, as a hustle to drive what little business there was to her cafe.

For some reason, impulsively, I stopped.

Her sister welcomed me. I ordered a coffee. The cafe had a little corner devoted to the Camino. I browsed and decided to order a bacon bocadillo (aren’t those nice words? say them slowly – bacon bocadillo). I ate my bacon bocadillo (see how nice they sound?), drank my coffee and dawdled for a long time.IMG_1249

She visited with me, her husband joined in, she wrote a long note telling me where I might stop ahead for meals or lodging. I finished my coffee, stored the rest of my bocadillo in a baggy, took her picture and headed out. They stood out front and waved me goodbye.

That brief event in their, and my, life sustained me through a very long day and into the last day of my Camino Portuguese. It is with me still.

Tender Mercies.

Posted in Walking Adventures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Obrigado Portugal

IMG_1188 I have spent the last three weeks on the Camino Portuguese, a 600 kilometre Pilgrimage from Lisbon in Portugal to Santiago in Spain. I walked across Portugal, village to town to city, along ancient cobblestone paths, following the Via Romana XIX laid out by Romans in the first and second century AD, through woods of pine and Eucalyptus and on many paved roads busy with traffic – my big adventure through the daily lives of people.

IMG_1103I wandered forest paths that had been cut several feet deep into the earth by the passage of feet, small vehicles and time. I wandered through villages too small to be called such and modern bustling cities with public transportation systems that Vancouver could only envy; we will never achieve public transportation that is so efficiently woven into the human highways of daily life. It was spring, farmers were in their fields, the first signs of life were ready to burst out everywhere, vineyards were carefully clipped for this year’s buds and flowers were blooming everywhere. Oranges and lemons were abundant on every tree.

But I digress, sort of; fueling my wanderings in all its splendiferousness was bread – Portuguese bread.

I love bread. Like ice cream, it is definitive proof of the existence of God. That is how much I cherish bread, I’m willing to rank it in the same category as ice cream. How fitting that, on a pilgrimage, my mind turns to the sanctity of bread. The Portuguese have set the standard by which I will forever judge the bread of other countries and other cultures.

images-1The Portuguese bun is a precious work of edible art. A week into my walk, on a Sunday, at about 2 PM, I trudged into Mala, a speck of a village about four hours walk north of Coimbra. I was tired and hungry and had another two hours of walking ahead of me. In a village this small, I did not expect to find a cafe, much less one open on a Sunday in the time of siesta. Wonder of wonders, a little chapel of bread appeared – a bakery, open and thriving. Fresh from the oven, still warm, the baker created the perfect sandwich, a slice of ham, a slice of cheese on a Portuguese bun. I had a second, this time with an espresso. I thanked her profusely with the only Portuguese word I can confidently command – Obrigado – left her a tip and wandered into the sunshine, grateful beyond words. The Portuguese bun had just been elevated to an object of veneration, worship even.

IMG_1125A few days later, in Porto, I stood in line to sample another simple but sublime work of art – the pork sandwich. At Casa Guedes, a nondescript cafe a few minutes walk from my hotel, I dined, yes dined, on two of the best sandwiches I have ever consumed. I sat at the counter, inches from the chef, as he carved through a roast leg of pork that was all crunchy on the outside, juicy, soft and tender inside.IMG_1126

The menu was simple – pork sandwiches. Businessmen jostled with students, office workers, tradesmen and locals, sharing a few outside tables and patiently waiting their turn. It was sunny, I was the only tourist in sight, a sure sign Bourdain hadn’t discovered this place yet, ruining it for the locals. Another bar, Conga, bastes thinly sliced pork in a spicy sauce and dollops it generously on Portuguese buns; eating is messy but who cares, the taste, the flavour is everything.

Is this heaven; no it’s Porto.

Bread sustained me through my walks. Morning started with a pastry and coffee, rivaling any I have partaken on Boulevard Sainte Germaine in Paris. I’m a slow but steady walker, so lunch for me was a quick drink and a sandwich – a Portuguese bun, ham and cheese – simple, delicious and impossible to duplicate.

IMG_1251In another unexceptional looking cafe/bar along the local N road, I stopped for a late lunch. There was no menu, but through hand signals and a few words for which we shared a common understanding, the senora and I finally settled on a tortilla, a potato-based omelette, more like a fritatta, usually precooked and sold as a tapa for the harried and hurried traveller.

Not me! We slowly talked our way through the possible ingredients for MY tortilla; she served up my Coke Zero, stamped my credential, and bustled off to the kitchen. In a few moments she delivered the perfect Portuguese tortilla – light, fluffy, spicy with her chorizo stuffing, a five star roadhouse meal. I loosened my boots and relaxed into a European lunch, must have been there an hour…

IMG_1167I fell in love with Porto, and not just for the food. Miguel, my personal guide to Porto, (www.oportoshoretours.com) expanded my view of Portugal beyond the bread and pork sandwich. He also opened my eyes to the history of Portugal, especially the Portuguese sailors and explorers and their impact on the world. Did you know tempura batter in Japan was actually Portuguese, introduced in the 15th and 16th century by Portuguese traders long before other western contacts with Japan? I had one of the best samosas I have ever tasted – another culinary invention transferred to Goa and India by the Portuguese after they learned to circumnavigate Africa to establish an oceanic spice trade breaking the monopoly of the Middle East spice road. It’s now back in Portugal, reclaimed.

IMG_1064I have decided that Tapas are Portuguese and they are good. A few bites of a number of specially prepared dishes is better than a whole meal of only one. Variety and quality are winning the battle over quantity. And, they arrive slowly, extending the sharing of food and the opportunity for pleasant conversation.

In case you haven’t got the point yet, here it is. Portugal is a hidden gem. I went off to Portugal to do a pilgrimage, a fast flat walk to Santiago; I had done this once and fond memories moved me to try it again. I did not set out because I wanted to see Portugal.

IMG_1167Yet from the start, Portugal captured, captivated and beguiled me. It is a country steeped in history; the Portuguese were fishing regularly off Newfoundland and trading actively with Brazilian indigents long before Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America. They have a bold, inquisitive, global, complicated, robust history; it makes for an interesting country.

 

IMG_1185After a few hours with Miguel in Porto, I knew I would need to return; when scratching the surface reveals gold beneath, one is compelled to return. Miguel and Jennifer, a Canadian expat, and her parents introduced me to FC Porto, a Champions league-caliber football team, community owned at a time when Saudi sheiks have trouble funding that level of play in larger cities.

The country is not without its challenges; I was most aware of the emptying out of the rural areas; there seems little left in the villages but old people and noisy roosters.

IMG_1036Yet, in these villages, gardens are lovingly tended, house are covered in clean well-kept tiles, (don’t get me started on the Portuguese use of tiles, many Portuguese tiled buildings would be national treasures in any other country) and every place seems to have an outdoor patio complete with a barbecue.

IMG_1222

 

Many small towns have retained a special nature – they are jewels. Ponte de Lima rivals San Sebastian in Spain as amongst the most beautiful small towns I have ever visited. The town is joined by a 300 meter bridge over the Rio Lima that dates back to the 13th century. It is a beautiful town, historical yet modern; so much so, I was tempted to check apartment prices.

Back to bread for a moment, even in the smallest village, fresh bread is delivered every morning, one loaf at a time, door to door. A community that can deliver daily bread to your door is a healthy one.

IMG_1217I went to walk through Portugal; I fell down the Portuguese rabbit hole and fell in love with Portugal. I was beguiled by the people, the history, the culture and… the bread. I went off on this journey, as I always do, in search of an epiphany. Portugal and its bread weren’t quite the epiphany I expected to find, but epiphanies are where you find them.

Obrigado, Portugal.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Die drey scheenschte Dääg – the three most beautiful days

IMG_1030My travel books are filled with fascinating stories of spellbinding, often bizarre rituals, rites and celebrations – inexplicable to outsiders but filled and layered with meaning to the locals. Most times, the more isolated the culture, the more fascinating the event.

Then there’s Basel Fasnacht. Listed as one of the biggest carnivals in Switzerland and noted as among the 50 top carnivals in Europe, it is truly fascinating, as spellbinding as it is inexplicable.

Fasnacht traditions can be traced back to the 13th century. The particular timing of Basel Fasnacht celebration, one week after Ash Wednesday, seems to date back to the 1500‘s.

IMG_0890We begin our celebrations by marking the fire celebration in the town of Liestal, a ten minute train ride from Basel. On Sunday night at precisely 7:15 PM, the lights of the town are darkened and a parade of fire commences. It seems scarier than it is, but is a wonder to behold – a long fiery procession of heat, light, sparks and smoke.

IMG_0862

 

 

 

Huge carriages of wood, carefully stacked to burn fiercely and efficiently mark the parade; interspersed, hundreds of individuals carry fully lit wooden torches on their shoulders.

No fire department in North America would allow it, yet here, we cheer and clap, hoot and holler to show our delight.IMG_0952

Don’t we all love a bonfire? Shouldn’t we absolutely adore massive moveable bonfires preceded and followed by individual bonfires?

IMG_0956With fire, we drive back the night, we drive winter away and we get to dance before the flames.

It is primal. I am compelled by some inner brain cortex to celebrate with the consumption of burned meat from beasties – a bratwurst will do. We leave smelling like boy scouts after too many campfires.

IMG_0966Three hours later, we’re up and heading for Basel’s old town. At precisely 4 AM, the city lights are turned off, plunging us into darkness. This is when Basel Fasnacht begins.

IMG_0983Begin it does! Cliques, social organizations at the heart of the celebrations, begin their parade. Dressed in inventive, wildly creative and often bizarre costumes, cliques roam the old town, each member adorned with a lantern on their head, each clique carrying or pulling large luminous floats adorned with pictures, graphics and satirical messages on issues of the day, heralded by their own piccolo and drum band.

IMG_1025It is a visual and aural cacophony – we are here to witness this culmination of months of design, construction, practice and coordination.

Cliques march through the streets for an hour, crossing paths, circling about, pushing through crowds, making music, all in a glorious celebration – one that has been a tradition since before Canada was discovered.

The next 72 hours, precisely – no more, no less – are filled with parades, floats, costumes, masks, music, and confetti.

IMG_1024Ahh, yes – the confetti. Basel Fasnacht is synonymous with confetti; the reputation is deserved. Confetti is thrown at the unsuspecting with abandon for 72 hours. The streets are awash; we manage to carry a healthy supply home to shake loose throughout the day.

The various cliques on parade also throw out flowers and candy and, to us at least, other unusual gifts. We came home with oranges, lemons, carrots, onions, even a cigarette lighter – unfortunately we missed getting any leeks.

IMG_1032Tuesday is a bit quieter, a family and child oriented day where children are dressed in whimsical, colourful costumes and allowed to throw confetti with abandon. One, a charming cherub on a float, offered me a candy; as I reached out to grab it he showered me with confetti – they learn early and he was delighted to have tricked me.

IMG_1031Between parades, performers take a break; a beer and an impromptu fondue in the old town square by men dressed in dresses seems normal during Fasnacht. It is charming, fascinating, ironic and uniquely Swiss.

The creativity of the designs, artwork, costumes and especially the masks are so different from America, more Cirque du Soleil that Ringling Brothers.

The music of the fife and drums will roil around my head for months to come and I will forever remember the eery beauty of that pitch-black moment heralding the 4 AM parade.

IMG_0884This is Christopher’s and Kristen’s second Fasnacht and they are ardent promoters. Kristen summed it up best by declaring that she had seen a warm, playful, celebratory side of the people of Basel that was hidden the rest of the year.

She admired them for their celebration of Fasnacht. They allow themselves to be rascals for die drey scheenschte Dääg (“the three most beautiful days”)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slow, Simple, Solitary.


OTC&OTD_back cover artI am getting ready to go out the door for my next adventure. This one will be the Camino Portugues, a 600+ kilometer pilgrimage walk from Lisbon to Santiago starting on March 1.

Last year, I completed the Camino Frances, and, before you ask, no – I am not becoming a full time Pilgrim of the Catholic or any other religious persuasion. I have not shaved my head, chosen a wardrobe of itchy brown wool or started speaking in tongues. This still leaves ample room for cultivating my various eccentricities, one of which seems to be a growing inclination for long solitary walks.

You may ask, as many of my friends already have, the simple question – Why? I give an obvious, but trite answer. I like to walk.

When pushed for a more substantive explanation, I push back – with my own question. If you can explain golf junkets, traveling for months in a motorhome, ocean cruises to nowhere or all inclusive resorts, I will try to explain pilgrimage walks.

The question has, however, caused me to reflect a bit more deeply, if only to answer the question to myself. Why do I like these long walks?

My good friend, Dana, recently gave me a book by Paul Theroux called The Tao of Travel. In my view, Theroux is the Shakespeare of travel writing; he thinks and writes deeply and honestly about travel; I skim the surface.

The Camino Portugues violates my first principle of adventures; as Theroux noted; “in travel, as in many other experiences in life, once is usually enough.” I am willing to violate that rule because that first experience has grown on me. I recall it wistfully, with affection and warmth. I want to recreate that aura if I can.

Setting off on a long walk down an unfamiliar path with the barest of essentials seems to involve three principles.

Walking is SLOW. I can manage about 25-30 kilometers a day, about a half hour drive if I travel by car. As one writer put it; “I came to realize that I traveled best when I traveled no faster than a dog could trot”.

When I walk, my senses have time to absorb my surroundings; the promise that dawn brings, the joy of roosters crowing, cow bells near mingle with church bells afar.

I witness the countryside waking up, I stop for lunch when and where the locals stop, I eat their food at their pace. I slow down as they retreat for siesta and revive myself as the shadows grow in the afternoon.

Even now, I recall the smell of morning dew, the farmyard manure, the fresh hay and the anise smell of wild fennel seeds rubbed between my palms. I capture the scent of the baker’s fresh bread before I reach the edge of the village, sniff it out like a hunting dog to its back street.

IMG_4516Slow travel enriches my trip – my senses load up. Slow travel introduces me to the ancient village lady selling crepes from her front door – my loose change is likely her pension supplement. Slow allows me the adrenaline rush of encounters with the snarling mongrel protecting his farmyard – my heart rate quadruples with the surprise and leaves me vibrating. It’s cheap entertainment.

IMG_4515Slow allows me to see the happy face on the sunflower in the nearby field; slow allows me a vision of morning dew on a spider web that accentuates its delicacy; slow gives me permission to stop and take a picture of them. Slow allows me to marvel at the whimsy of a Coke machine in the middle of a field and wonder at it’s portentous incongruity. Slow.

Outward BoundThese walks are SIMPLE. I carry all I need and nothing more. I have my boots, my pack, my poles and my cap. Technology is heavy and poisons the purity of the experience. I carry a cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone and a local charger for emergencies. I carry a change of walking clothes, some dollar store plastic clogs, and one decent set of civvies for meals in restaurants and public spaces. I have a down blanket for chilly nights, a tooth brush/paste, and the essentials for healthy feet – vaseline is my friend on the camino. A jacket for rain, a hat and my meds – vitamin I (ibuprofen), a muscle relaxant and immodium. I fill up on water constantly and carry some between sites.

I have the conceit of a diarist, I carry a journal and a camera; I am doing something important and memorable that must be recorded. everything else is redundant.

My job every day is simple – walk to the next destination, secure food and water along the way. At day’s end, I find a place to sleep. wash myself and my clothes and recuperate/rehydrate for the next day. I try to be a tourist for a while, I hope for company at dinner and, if I do this conscientiously, after 25 days I reach my destination. Walk, eat, wash, write, sleep and drink. Simple.

IMG_4533My life during the day is deliberately SOLITARY. The solitude may be THE compelling reason for this reprise. On my first, I walked alone. In the evenings, I was able to share meals with other travelers, at night I was surrounded by humanity – packed in hostels where minimalism is a luxury.

The days were mine and I reveled in them. How else to avoid the distractions of life, the intrusions of others and the imposition of ‘world affairs’. Is it possible to stop and stare at the early morning sky trying to find the big dipper or the North Star in the company of others? Not for me, I feel ludicrous or ingenuous.

When I’m on my own I can be totally selfish. If I want to eat frittata at cheap local places five days in a row, I can. If I want to walk all day without stopping, I can. If I decide to rent a real hotel room to avoid the snoring, snorting, farting and grunting of others in the albergue, I can.

There is a ‘lucidity of aloneness’ as Theroux calls it. Solitude allows walking meditations. Without distractions, with abundant time to meander, my mind wanders further afield, seeks out darker recesses, rediscovers oft-forgotten memories. Left to its own devices, my mind does find more to amuse itself, to contemplate and dream. I can even talk to myself out loud if I want. I don’t, at least not very often, but I can.

I have deeper, more meaningful conversations with strangers (we know we’ll never see each other again so we can be more honest, more revealing and more thoughtfully opinionated). When I’m in a strange country, stripped bare of distractions, and walking monotonously, I can have deeper, more meaningful conversations with myself.

I learned long ago the difference between alone and lonely; it’s huge. Pilgrimage walks seem to offer a rare opportunity to be alone without being lonely. I have miles of open road to amble along at a pace that facilitates introspection, abundant physical and spiritual emptiness to fill as I see fit and, at the end of the day, I usually have a complete stranger to share my meal and some musings.

I hope it works for a second time.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Geographic Cure

Sometimes travel isn’t about going to a new place, it’s about getting away from the place I’m at, even if only temporarily. Going away is getting away, escaping, retreating, running, changing. It’s called the geographic cure.

Examples?

png1209Nrain-03All Canadians want to get away from the annoyances of winter, even those of us who live in Vancouver, the garden spot of Canada. In November especially, I find the heavy rain, the perpetual clouds, the chilly wind, the creeping darkness too much to bear. Getting away from approaching winter, even for a few weeks, seems to take the edge off the grey, shortening it from insufferable to tolerable.

While I like the 12 days of Christmas, I don’t particularly like the crass commercialism of the over-extended run-up to Christmas. If I can be so bold, I would prefer the season be shortened to less than a week. I tire easily of the forced bonhommie of the month long exercise in Pavlovian consumerism. When I hear my first ‘jolly Saint Nick’ sound track in Starbucks in early November, I cringe.

imagesBah Humbug! I turn into Scrooge.

Truth be told, I also have a few bad memories, ghosts of Christmas’ past, that would be best left dormant – too much Xmas offers too many opportunities to awaken them, setting them to rattling their chains in my mind.

Finally, while I’m not sure it has provoked this bout of ennui, I am now an orphan. My mother was 95, she lived a good life. Her slide into dementia had taken her some time ago. Her death, the funeral and the aftermath have not been totally neutralized, even with all the kindness shown by those close to me, especially, Blair, my son.

My spiritual, emotional and physical lethargy was not amusing. Getting off the couch and out the door had become a challenge. Comfort food had become impossible to resist. Hibernation is for bears, not for me.

rain_1798856cI could have endured this patch; I could have slogged through it with as much stoicism as I could muster. I could have suffered the rain, wet shoes, cold feet, snuffly nose, oncoming rhumey cough. I could have huddled around the warm campfire of my TV screen; going out too much of a nuisance. I could have cocooned; when I’m not good company I refuse to inflict myself on my friends.

These days, I can change my situation. Life is too short. The solution is clear, the geographic cure. I reshuffle the cards and deal myself a new hand. This year, the geographic cure is Palm Desert, the quintessential American artificial oasis for escapism and rejuvenation.

Don’t scoff, it’s working for me. In fact, like all adventures, it is full of surprises, sweet spots that are unexpected and therefore doubly delightful.

First, I shed my sweater upon arrival, I’ve put it somewhere but I know not where and I care less. The weather is sublime; in terms meaningful to me, I can sit outside, take coffee outside, eat meals outside and exercise outside.

imagesSecond, I nurture my Christmas spirit back to life – Scrooge begone – long enough to think about gifts for those close to me. I’ve managed to shop for them without losing that Christmas spirit in the crazed cacaphony of the Cabazon Mall. It’s ironic that, in this grand bazaar of forced consumerism, I’ve managed to rekindle some joy in gift finding and gift giving.

IMG_1153Third, Bohdan and Dee have taken me under their wing. They are enthusiastic hikers; every morning they gather me up, take me to a trailhead and march me up and down the austere desert hills just outside Palm Desert. There is no choice in the matter, no equivocation, no debate, no lollygagging. After, there’s coffee. I bask in their hospitality; they’ve delivered a carefully curated social life, including appies every evening in a convivial place and at a convivial pace.

IMG_0791We even search out the local cultural traditions of Indio. The international Tamale festival is one of those events which, if I came upon it in Mexico or any of a number of central American countries, I would consider it travel heaven. The warmth, friendliness and hospitality of everyone in Indio stands out, even over the blocks and blocks of street food. It is joyful and for a bonus, I now know how to consume a Tamale.

I have time to look up, Peter, an old client; we share several hours of graceful conversation without every touching on business; it didn’t seen that important compared to sharing our emerging passions of photography, music, writing, traveling; no talk of ROI or EBITDA but instead we share our joy over friends, family, children, experiences.

I read. The stack of books I have brought with me are offering up delights and insights. I ignore the carnival barkers on TV Shout Shows, opting instead for the restful lull of NPR. A few movies add spice.

Is this a selfish indulgence? Absolutely. Am I even a bit remorseful for my wanton hedonism? Maybe a bit. Do I feel any guilt? Not really. Do I care what others might think? Obviously not or I wouldn’t be writing this.

I am at the phase of my life that I call polishing my eccentricities. If you don’t like it, stop reading.

Sometimes it’s better to run than fight. The geographic cure works for me, as far as it goes. I do need to remember that where-ever I go, I take myself along so I did need a bit of attitude adjustment.

Somewhere in the desert, I found more of the spirit of Christmas than I have had in a while; I dropped Scrooge, he’s not much fun to be, or be around.

And now, renewed and refreshed, I’ll be home for Christmas – the second leg of my geographic cure.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Edna Foulkes 1919-2014

My mother, Edna Foulkes, passed away on October 30th. She was 95.

Born at the end of the great war, she grew up on a farm near Taber; everyone worked hard to force a living out of their family farm, especially through the worst of the depression.

She and my father married in 1941. They endured the challenges of the war; raised a family, bought a house, engaged in their community, enjoyed their friends, and lived a full active life. They loved their small town and never felt the need to stray far.

She was the queen of her domain, her house was her kingdom and her garden was her glory. She made a dollar go a long, long way; she made sure we never wanted, even through some tough times.

She always wanted to play the fiddle, loved Don Messer’s Jubilee and community dances.

I shall always be grateful for her energy, her fierce tenacity, her drive, her character, her gregarious nature and her many sacrifices, large and small, for her family.

She was a resourceful cook, specializing in comfort food long before it was identified as such. She cooked everything from scratch, I learned much of what I know about cooking from her even if I could never get her to put a bit more sugar in the stewed rhubarb.

I will always remember coming home from school on a Thursday afternoon to a house filled with the smell of fresh baked bread and a slice of still warm crust.

We are formed and shaped, for better or worse, by our parents, our siblings, our early friendships and our neighbours. My mother had an enduring impact on who I am and how I approach the world. I shall always be grateful for her part in stimulating my interest in exploring this world of adventure and opportunity where my curiosity is piqued but never satisfied. 037 - Version 2

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Older than Dirt

IMG_5912Rome is indescribable and almost incomprehensible; the layers of history are too deep and the bits that have survived are difficult to make order and sense of.

Rome also isn’t well served by photographs. Pictures really can’t capture the grandeur of it’s monuments or the sublime beauty of its objets d’art.

Robert Hughes in his definitive brilliant book on Rome describes in loving detail thousands of years of Roman history, yet in his final chapter he is almost depressingly pessimistic about the current state and the future of his beloved city.

It’s a place littered with so much antiquity that little of it can be properly preserved and little can be appreciated amidst the noisy, selfish, picture-snapping tourist hordes (including me – a shocking self-revelation); we’re so busy taking pictures we don’t actually SEE anything.

imagesMass tourism means every car and bus erodes finely crafted marble statuary, hawkers cheapen the dignity of everything we have come to see (someone must be buying this crap) and contemplation of the finest works of the great masters is made impossible by the crush of mass tourism. It’s a place where the most sacred sites of the Roman Catholic Church sit beside knock-down tents marketing gawkish junk. A hot seller is the twelve handsome priests calendar – I’m not even going to try to ponder the complicated Freudian aspects of that one.

Ancient Roman buildings are repurposed into medieval Roman Catholic churches, upgraded to and remodeled to cathedrals, most of the buildings constructed of materials stolen from an unlucky monument of another age that scavengers stripped bare.

IMG_5906Every square seems to have, at it’s centre, an ancient Egyptian obelisk created by pagan worshippers, stolen by Romans and hauled to Rome as the spoils of conquest only to be discarded in some weed invested back corner. After Bernini relocated one such obelisk from behind the old St. Peter’s Cathedral to command the centre of St. Peter’s Square, more were dug up, glued back together, mounted with a cross or a statue of some saint or other and erected in all their new-found new-profound symbolic meaning in the center of every other square. I get to figure out its historic value, its provenance and its religious and spiritual meaning in the 60 seconds I have before another tour group jostles me out of the way. This is a job beyond the capacity of Rick Steeves.

It is a challenging place, certainly not appropriately tagged and curated for my leisurely enjoyment. Maybe it was too much to expect – to see, understand and appreciate Rome in six days…. do ya think? Okay now, I feel better now that I’ve got that off my chest.

IMG_5917We did try. We three are all naturally curious so we take our first visit to Rome seriously. We hire Agnes for an afternoon to walk us through the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine hills. The colosseum is impressive in so many ways; its size, its antiquity, its engineering offer a stirring glimpse of the majesty of ancient Rome. The Colosseum sets the gold standard for the underpinnings of politics – bread and circuses. They’ve taken different forms over the centuries but today’s bread is still bread and the circuses perfected in the Roman Colosseum may be duplicated but never surpassed. Agnes helped make some sense of it all.

IMG_0665Luciana, our guide to all things Vatican, manages to do the impossible. Amongst the hordes of tourists flocking through the Vatican Museum on the their way to the Sistine Chapel with a final stop at St. Peter’s Basilica, she manages to both entertain and inform us – all in just over three hours. We hop from one artistic lily pad to another but she knows which lily pads are important, she manages to tell stories about each purposefully selected work of art in her carefully timed tour. Someone said, I think it was Robert Hughes, that the only way these days to adequately appreciate the Sistine Chapel is with a good picture book. Thousands of tourists – including me – jam ourselves into the chapel and in so doing, ensure that none of us can appreciate the beauty of it except by looking at the picture book later. Even then, it is overwhelming, more so now after it has been cleaned up and Michelangelo’s vibrant colors can actually be seen.

IMG_0656The Pantheon is jaw dropping; we manage to find a moment when it isn’t as crowded as a Japanese commuter train. It is huge, dramatic, surprisingly unadorned and therefore almost calming; it is instantly one of my favorites. Photos never convey the majesty of the building. Again, it has been saved from destruction by the scrap dealers by being repurposed as a church; the Catholics got this one right.

The Borghese tries to improve the lives of tourists by limiting the number of tourists who visit. it is pleasant and one can at least ponder the beauty of several Bernini sculptures.

IMG_0686For our last two days we just wander, Rome is so littered with history, every where we turn we bump into something. We walk past a hole in the ground that just happens to be the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. It is now more famous as the cat place – hundreds of feral cats have taken up residence. Caesar’s spot is forever safe, no one will ever have the political courage to bulldoze in a place with so many lovable kitties; it says something about the Emperor’s place in today’s scheme of things.

We manage to find the Piazza Navona, a stunning open air space with a massive Bernini fountain in the centre and, later, the equally magnificent the Piazza del Popolo. The Trevi Fountain was swathed in construction and renovation – we saw it at night and had to return in daylight just to try to see a bit of what we were missing. No photos worthy of sharing were taken at this site – sorry.photo-27

We discover the Campo de Fiori, just in time for our fix of freshly squeezed Pomegranate juice and pizza pie al fresco. We relax on the Spanish steps. We decide that Rome passes the walkability test; in a few blocks, one can stumble through thousands of years of antiquity.

IMG_0687

 

On our last day, we found the mother load; the best coffee house in Rome – the Caffe Sant’ Eustachio, reputed to have the best cappuccino in Rome. Unfortunately, it is past 11 AM and we have been told that no self respecting Italian has cappuccino after 10:30 AM. Good thing, we have the most delightful espresso imaginable. I might come back just for that cappuccino alone.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Food, Glorious Food.

IMG_0701Over the past six weeks in Italy, I have consumed at least my body weight in the following; tomatoes, cantaloupe, mozzarella cheese and prosciutto. My two main dishes have been prosciutto y melon and Caprese salad. They fed my body as well as my soul – as well as being incredibly tasty.

IMG_0697

 

In each region I have managed to supplement my list of favorites with endless variations of regional specialties and the most superb pastas, all done al dente to perfection, and all smothered in sauces like Mama used to make – that is if your mama was Italian.

I would hate to think of the actual weight of pasta I’ve consumed in relation to anything measurable – probably enough to outweigh Skippy – but he’s a small auto – so maybe more. But there I go being North American – in Italy it is NOT about quantity it is about quality; quality is what counts. In simple dishes, it is ALL about the ingredients.

IMG_0702Rome has introduced me to Roman thin crust pizza, and, in a discovery rivaling Columbus finding a few rocks where they shouldn’t be, I discovered little balls of deep fried coated abruzzo rice called suppli. They are street food like no other.

 

 

There are not two but three religious themes in the lives of most Italians; the holy Roman Catholic Church, the church of club football and the daily worship of food, glorious food.

We took a full day to worship food in a few blocks of a neighborhood called Testaccio, a short walk from our base in Trastevere. It is so small it does not register on our tourist maps as a neighborhood.

IMG_5931Dominico, our guide for the day, describes it as a working class, blue-collar kinda place. For thousands of years, food for Rome and environs was brought up the Tiber and unloaded here, a place of warehouses, slaughterhouses and other food distribution facilities, It is a place where food has been taken very seriously for centuries – one could say food is in their blood.

IMG_5924

 

 

 

We are led from one long-held family-owned enterprise to another, tasting our way through the specialties of the house, a pastry usually consumed at breakfast, a small intense chunk of parmagiano reggiano, a slice of salami al barolo and a thin slice of the best prosciutto I have tasted so far (prosciutto di san daniele), a piece of pizza Margherita fresh and warm from the oven.

Are we full yet? Nope, we’ve just started, hardly into the first hour of a four-hour tour.

IMG_5934We visit the Testaccio market, ancient in origins but recently refurbished with modern stalls for long established businesses. Dominico tells us this market is where people come DAILY to shop for the daily meal. After tasting the fresh mozarella, the juiciest tomatoes mixed with spicy arugula and garlic, we agree. there is something to be said for buying fresh. And as for what is the best use of tomatoes, mozarella and basil/arugula – Bruschetta or Caprese – I’m ambidextrous.

IMG_0697Monte Testaccio, the areas namesake, is literally a mountain of broken terra cotta roof tiles piled up over the years. This artificial mountain has been turned into a cave for storing wine, and now a delightful back wall for restaurants; we sample the local wines along with three different pastas; one, the cacio e pepe, has a delightful peppery taste.

IMG_5936Finally, just as I think I have reached my limit we discover my favorite, the deep fried rice balls, at a small hole-in-the-wall called Trapizzino, another example of passionate cooks who are re-inventing the sublime traditions of Italian cooking.

IMG_5937I’m in love.

 

 

We complete our tour at the aptly named Tutti Frutti with gelato topped with whipped cream from a mixmaster that looks like it was dug up near the Colosseum. Decadently delightful.

IMG_0694

 

 

We visit the famous Campo di Fiori open air market – fresh Pomegranate juice squeezed on a machine that was invented about the time the market started – the middle ages.

 

 

 

Tonight, our last night in Rome is saved for a return trip to Testaccio to a place that is so famous amongst locals it doesn’t need a name – Dominico says just ask for the Lasgana place. I cannot wait.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bottled Poetry

Florence is the place most people go when they visit Tuscany. It is a city like no other, with ornate cathedrals, museums crammed with Tuscan art and artifacts, piazzas that demand a stop for coffee and contemplation and enough shopping to entice us down side streets and alleyways.

IMG_5869We (actually John and Laura) have found a gem of a hotel – the Relais Uffizi – on the Piazza del Signoria in the heart of Florence. I awake this morning to watch dawn creep over the Piazza, slowly illuminating Michelangelo’s famous David (the replica outdoor version) from my third floor breakfast room. The Uffizi Gallery, the old Borgia Palace and an outdoor gallery of impressive statuary await outside my door, the Duomo mere minutes away.

IMG_5881Unfortunately thousands of others wish to see all this too, even the pigeons seem frustrated with the hustle and bustle of tourists clutching maps wanting to see it all – NOW! I am part of the problem not part of the solution.

We console ourselves with a kilo of Bistecca alla Fiorentina; when in Florence…

I much prefer the Tuscany outside of Florence, the Tuscany of small winding roads, isolated hilltop villas and rolling vineyards – so perfect it feels like a movie set. Our visit takes us to the Chianti region south of Florence, on the way to Sienna.

The small roads are designed for color-coordinated Italian cyclists out for long rides; road bikes and motorcycles compete for space with OMTT’s (old man tiny truck) – little pre-war putt-putts with only one front wheel (don’t ask which war, Italians haven’t been winning any lately so they’re not counting).

IMG_5851We avoid traffic jams with the OMTT’s with a picnic in the shadows of Pieve Santa Maria Novella, a church that traces its heritage back to the 11th century. Jane, with help from Russell and Katy, treats us to an unforgettable al fresco lunch of humble Tuscan fare – sumptuous!

We’ve arrived just days before harvest, the vines are resplendent with grapes.

IMG_5858Our home for two nights is the Villa Barone, near the village of Panzano, a complex that has been in the same family since the 15th century. The Conte and Contessa are not there to greet us; they arrive on the weekend in their Ferrari from somewhere equally elegant (we’ve decided they were at George Clooney’s wedding in Venice).

IMG_5861

 

 

Instead we are blessed to spend a delightful Tuscan evening with Fabrizio, a local wine merchant and restaurateur from the neighboring village of Radda. This is my Tuscan sweet spot – one of those special moments I know I will remember forever. It is late afternoon and the Tuscan sun is turning everything into luscious golden hues – soft, warm, mellow and gentle. We sit in a semi circle near a stone wall, a small trickle of water from a fountain offers melodious background sound as the shadow cools us into the evening. Fabrizio has provided us each with three glasses of wine, a few bottles of water and he is about to give us a wine tasting. Instead we are blessed; he tells us stories, a rich textured, deeply personal Chianti history lesson.

IMG_5848Fabrizio is from Chianti; he is a successful restaurateur and a wine merchant, buying the local wine and selling it into the cellars of discerning US oenophiles. He grew up here, emigrated to the US, worked in the restaurant trade. His heart and soul tugged him home; he came back to Radda, opened his own restaurant, traded a little wine to customers back in the States and raised his family in this little bit of heaven. He caught the crest of a growing wave of interest in Tuscany and Tuscan wines; his restaurant has grown from a few tables and a borrowed umbrella to a local tourist hot spot. He now owns a wine shop up the street (there is only one street in Radda) where he informs, educates and assists tourists and wine snobs alike.

IMG_5846He even manages to help us understand the intricacies of balsamic vinegar. He tells a delightful story of how parents start the long process of making Balsamic vinegar when their daughter’s are born; by the time they marry the Balsamic dowry is worth tens of thousands of Euros.

He has a mean motorcycle and a more utilitarian Vespa to help him make the rounds of vineyards and villages. Fabrizio describes each of the three wines as he would describe friends; his knowledge of the local Chiantis is encyclopedic. His passion and enthusiasm for the wine he loves is palpable; even my agua frizzante tastes better as the others sipped and enjoyed. He laces his wine tasting with stories of the region, stories of how Tuscans survived the hard times when their grapes provided simple sustenance – sugar and bread and a bit of wine was dessert – long before they were classified with a number on Robert Parker’s scale of success.

IMG_5839I haven’t had a drink of wine in decades; no matter, this evening is special and it isn’t about the wine. It’s about this place called Chianti, the Tuscan way of life, the history, the sense of family and friends and belonging.

It is about the land; nurturing it, teasing it and working it to produce something special – something so special that others will travel thousands of miles just to share it for a while. People ship wine to their homes, continents away, to recall and reminisce over their sweet spot moment in Tuscany.

 

At one stage, Fabrizio said that, to him, wine was bottled poetry. If so, Tuscany provides the paper, the pen and the ink to help wine write that poetry. And what poetry it is.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cinque Terre – terroir.

Cinque Terre is one of those special places in the world, a World Heritage site encompassing five villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) that have existed for centuries. That they are strikingly beautiful is a blinding flash of the obvious.IMG_5823

What is truly memorable is the monumental effort made by inhabitants over the centuries to carve a life out of an unforgiving landscape defined by virtually uninhabitable cliffs rising straight from the ocean. There is little room for anything and nothing is flat.

IMG_5787

 

Over centuries these villagers have made their living as fishers, over time they have reshaped the landscape, rock by rock, handful of soil by handful of soil to create a terraced landscape, a terroir, that now yields an abundance of vegetables, fruit, grapes and olives; all built into steep hillsides only a goat, or a determined Ligurian, could navigate. Every stone in every step in every path, every rock in every wall in every terraced square foot has been careful placed to wrestle a spot for a foot and a root. While

IMG_5790I enjoy my visit, I do so with some chagrin because I am an intruder. Cinque Terre is famous, a weekend hikers paradise; every few kilometers offers another picturesque village, complete with a cappucino, frita mista, delightful local wine, a pasta pesto, and olive oil to take home. In addition, there is the ocean for water bathing and enough flat rocks for sun bathing. As an aside, there should be strong consideration given to outlawing Speedos on 99% of the male population; lycra is a privilege not a right.

The rich and famous discovered this oasis of charm, the rest of us flocked to see what we were missing. It is now a top ranked tourist destination, served by ferries, an efficient train system, roads and hiking trails with stunning vistas. Charm is being replaced by a souvenir hut, villages are overrun with the arrival of another overstuffed train/boat/bus filled with me and my friends. My advice: see it now before the ever-elusive charm retreats even further into the hills.

IMG_5809Russell and Jane, our Backroads tour guides have deftly shepherded us through the best this corner of Italy has to offer with energy, enthusiasm and dexterity – they’ve managed to herd 15 Type-A adults forward on schedule without it seeming so, not an easy task. Cinque Terre adds a new dimension to my awareness of the depth, complexity and contradictions that are Italy.

IMG_5785

 

 

This is chapter 3 of my Italy adventure and, as I stared out my window one morning to an achingly beautiful sunrise, it occurred to me that every adventure has context. It can be enjoyed (more or less) or sullied (more or less) by the alchemy of time, place,  circumstance and people.

IMG_5819

 

I met up with John and Laura for the Cinque Terre trip; they are delightful traveling companions. They are curious, thoughtful, insightful travellers. Italy fascinates them; they admire Italian ways and respect Italian traditions, making them perfect guides for a neophyte. They add texture, context and empathy to my impressions of Italy.

Wandering through the Apennines alone with Skippy emphasized how out-of-the-way I was in the hills and villages of Umbria. My Backroads travel companions share my curiosity, openness to the ways other people live their lives, interest in the past, present and future of the culture we are privileged to observe and emulate for a few moments in time.

IMG_5781Over the past month, I have traveled with a team – my community brought together by a sport and months of training. I have traveled alone, all alone. I have anthropomorphized my traveling companion Skippy to give me daily company as I navigated a hastily prepared plan B. I have met people along the way and shared meals and stories and ideas. I have joined a tour group of strangers to share a few weeks of mutual discovery. Lastly, I have had the privilege of joining with close friends to experience a place dear to their hearts.

Each offers a new prism through which to explore and define my adventures. Shake the kaleidoscope and new colors and patterns emerge. Each offers unique opportunities and a few challenges; all are full of possibilities.

IMG_5775Like Ligurians, we use the place where we are, we build homes on the edges of what is available, we build paths to connect with others around us, and we scrape out bits of ground to create our terroir; our place to grow a few tomatoes, a few grapes, a bit of cheese,  an olive or two. A place where we break a bit of bread, tell a few stories and share our experiences.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Law of Unintended Consequences.

Long ago, I formulated the Law of Unintended Consequences. It goes something like this – whatever I expect to happen in the future, it will not; something else will happen, something I have not even considered.

The Law offers constant surprises, some good, some bad; the unpredictability of it all makes life infinitely interesting. I am constantly standing somewhere with a goofy smile on my face muttering; “I sure didn’t see that coming”.

Travel intensifies our experience with the Law of Unintended Consequences; how can we know what’s ahead if we haven’t been there?

Italy 2014 is my latest lesson in the Law, up close and personal. One minute, I’m walking upright, planning to trek across Italy’s back roads, see it’s sights and sites; the next, I trip, I fall. A few broken toes, a trip to the doctor, and – Voila – my plans are dust.

Instead, I rent Skippy, my Fiat 500, and we set off to drive where I had planned to walk.

I have discovered a new Italy; it’s not in any guidebook, it’s not dressed in superlatives, like the David in Florence or the Sistine Chapel, but it’s all mine.

A few examples.

First. I may never buy a Fiat 500 but I have, on high recommendation from a knowledgeable traveller, discovered Skippy can be fun and I have made him my friend – anthropomorphic transformation works. We are having fun.IMG_5711

Another. Last Sunday, I arrived early in Sansepolcro, a small town, usually bypassed by tourists. It is the last day of a festival traced back to Medieval times – an annual crossbow competition between Sansepulcro and Gubbio, a neighboring town.IMG_5687

 

 

I manage to get tickets – ringside seats – to what, I did not know. My new friends, Norm and Kim from Edmonton – another example of the Law, join me.

 

IMG_5690

 

The medieval crossbow event is priceless; an hour of procession and pageantry including marching musicians, grandiose noblemen, puffed up pillars of the church, damsels, flagbearers and archers – hundreds, all dressed in colorful renaissance costumes.

IMG_5718

 

Huge crossbows are carefully mounted on stands, aimed by the archers; a charged bow violently blasts an arrow into a small white target 500 meters away. Most arrows, surprisingly, pierce the target; other arrows pierce them as they pile in on top of each other.

The next day, bold headlines in the local papers announce Sansepulcro has won! Whew…!

IMG_5724Yet another. The next day, I am off to Citerna, a hill-top village. If I had been walking, I would have traversed it, too much up to climb. But Skippy and I climbed the steep slope in time to watch the village come alive.

What a village! It is a fortress dating back to the 1500’s, designed to withstand any assault. Now it is immaculate and welcoming to tourists. The view over the Tiber River Valley is endless. The Apennines frame the horizon, the sky is blue. Life is good.IMG_5729

At 9 AM the locals congregate at the only cafe to share the morning news, at noon, the place seems to be dead; magically at 1 PM the center square is teeming with tourists and locals. A nondescript grocery store has become a lively restaurant. I catch a small seat on the edge of the outdoor cafe and fall in love with Signora, her Caprese salad and her prosciutto e melon. I am addicted. If I didn’t look down my nose at picture-taking food-pornies, I would show you a photo of the best Italian lunch ever plated for 10 euros. Is this heaven; no, it is Citerna.

And another. Two days later, I cautiously wend my way to Carravechio (a place that doesn’t really exist on any map) to a small self-described eco-farm called Associazzione Che Passo!!IMG_5744 (1)

It is a pretty old house, that seems to have been grafted onto a small church ( in use though I can’t imagine how many parishioners it would have). Our hosts are a delightful couple of 60’s hippy, bibbed-overalls, Woodstockers; she’s pregnant with twins. I could make a sepia-toned movie with David Crosby writing the musical score. Real hikers arrive, we all settle in, laundry gets hung out and we slowly watch the sun set as we wallow in mellowness. I can almost hear Country Joe and the Fish playing in the background.photo-27 copy 2

We have a farmhouse dinner, I have no doubt everything was grown in their backyard and it is, of course, vegetarian. The table seats a veritable United Nations – a Dutch couple, a Canadian (me), an Aussie couple, a young German woman, two women from France and our hosts, from Sicily and Italy. The conversation jumps from English to Italian to French and back. The next morning we all share coffee and bread, I buy two jars of their best home-made, wild cherry jam and we head out – buen Camino, this time the St. Francis one.

IMG_5757Last example for now. The next evening, I’m eating plumbs and walnuts plucked from the ground under trees around us with Gabriele, my host and his family, in Pietralunga at a 15th century watch-tower that he has lovingly restored into an oasis-extraordinaire. Italian hospitality has a name – Grazie, Gabriele!

I could go on.

Some may fear unintended consequences; I’m making every effort to see joy in life’s unpredictability and embrace the Law’s messiness and infinite possibilities.

The Law of Unintended Consequences does present challenges. Traveling alone is not for everyone; alone is alone. No one has your back and there are periods of isolation, loneliness and ennui. As well, travel is drinking from the firehose of infinite consequences; everything is new and that can be both tiring and disorienting.

This is why I do it – off the couch, out the door, out of my comfort zone. The sweet Spots are worth the challenges.

For now, the Law is working for me. I’ll squeeze every last bit of juice I can from this lemon and make some lemonade.

…and the Italian coffee, have I told you about the coffee….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

John Lennon used the phrase in his song Beautiful Boy.

Last week, Mr International Athlete, I stumbled, tumbled and twisted my foot; I jumped up, rubbed some dirt on it and continued on like nothing happened. Luckily, it didn’t interfere with the day’s Dragon Boat paddling. I paddled twice; we finished well back, out of medal contention.IMG_5652

After some hobbling about, it became obvious it was more than a wrench. Quietly, I sneaked off to the hospital in Ravenna. The good news is the Italian health care system works like a charm. An x-ray confirmed two toes on my left foot were broken. They only had to be taped but the doctor affirmed what I had already figured out; my plans for two weeks of walking the St. Francis Way, a rugged 280 km two week walk from Florence to Assisi were broken like my toes.

There’s nothing heroic about tripping and nothing dramatic about a broken toe. No mythic stories, no yarns, no heroism; just a month or more with my pinkies taped together and walking in flip flops. And who wants a big fat foot for a month? Almost embarrassing, actually.

Life had intervened; I needed a new plan.

IMG_5636Two weeks of lodgings and meals were prepaid and I wasn’t likely to get a refund, I just needed to get there; I can’t walk, so I’ll drive – my ‘Plan B’. In Florence I rented Skippy, my Fiat 500. Enjoying the new plan would involve flexibility, optimism, a change in attitude and a little luck.

Why do we always rent a standard shift car with buttons and knobs in unfamiliar places in the middle of big cities full of aggressively insane drivers? A streak of Masochism, the male Y chromosome, or the gods laughing? Skippy and I made it out of Florence alive, white-knuckling along at half the speed limit, trying to remember the rules for entering and exiting traffic circles whilst translating Italian road signs and monitoring the Google map on my I-phone; yes I was using it for the first time. More fun is not imaginable.

Seven days later, I have had some remarkable experiences. First, no small feat (feat/feet, get it?), I am still alive and there are no marks on Skippy.IMG_5651

Second, I have been blessed with side roads not autoroutes, although I’ve been surprised by the number of huge trucks using side roads with speed and abandon as their drivers train for their next demolition derby. Italian drivers…

The hotels along the way have been generally good – two cheap-and-cheerfuls, five worth going back to. I met up with Norm and Kim, two hikers from Edmonton on exactly the same itinerary from Edmonton (I know, how small is that world!) who have become dinner companions. I drive, they walk. We part tomorrow, but the serendipity of that coincidence has been a bonus.

IMG_5667Because I have all day to drive about 25 kilometers, I have been stopping at spots along the way I would have breezed past; now they are DESTINATIONS!

What I am seeing is some wild forests, rugged country, lots of hills and dales, winding roads, rustic farmhouses, even a wild fox. All that is good.

IMG_5645The meals have been universally good, some excellent. Besides pasta, I’m slicing my way through a lot of cured meats these days and funghi seem to be the recommended vegetable of choice. The local, deli/coffee shop/restaurant/general store has enough cured ham on display to last a lifetime.  Very rustic.

IMG_5658

 

There are always sweet spots, even on ‘plan B’. I happened across a hermitage. Established in 1012, it just celebrated 1000, yes 1000, years of continuous worship on the site. There are about a dozen priors/monks or whatever they call themselves, living in glorious isolation in the middle of the Apennine forest. They have a huge complex and a simple austere church that captivates. It’s small, seats for 60, but the artifacts, paintings, frescoes, and stained glass go back as far as the 1500’s. The monks celebrated mass while I was there so I stayed, happy to discover a place so imbued with tranquility and spirituality.

I am constantly amazed at the human condition; men who voluntarily withdraw from society to live a life of sanctuary and silence. I am filled with wonder.

IMG_5661I visited the Franciscan sanctuary of La Verna where, in 1224, St Francis is reported to have received the stigmata of Jesus Christ. I am not a Catholic or a religious person although some twenty years ago a Franciscan retreat centre outside of Calgary played a powerful role in my life. An instant affinity mixed with deja vu rolled over me as I approached the iconic statue of St. Francis outside the Sanctuary complex. At mass again; I recalled the peace, tranquility, simplicity and calm that seems uniquely Franciscan.

IMG_5662This minor basilica has a famous ceramic dating back to 1431, decades before Columbus set sail for America.

Michelangelo was born on March 6, my birthday; we do not share the same talents even though our horoscopes align. His birthplace in the rolling hills, small villages, terra cotta roofs covering firm stone walls, defines pastoral tranquility. I’ve spent a whole day, mindlessly tracking clouds and shadows as they drift across the landscape laid out before me.IMG_5673

Maybe I’ll try painting while lying on my back, maybe that will work better for me than standing up…

Slowing down was not my choice; yet the challenge has become the opportunity. Plan B has affirmed the Law of Unintended Consequences. Nothing that I expected to happen over this past week has happened; vague expectations have been replaced by delightful surprises.

Maybe I’ll fall down more often…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Medals and Memories

The Senior C team was successful beyond all expectations in winning medals at the IDBF club crew world championships this past week. This is different for me; hoping to win and winning anything beyond a participation medal has been off my to-do list and way off the radar screen for a long long time.photo-27 2

This team has been different. They have a keen desire to win that has driven them for months if not years. They have paddled with their own team, they have shown up at special camps, they have endured and shone at tryout camps, they have made the cut at the final tryout in early May.

That was just the start; through May, June, July and August, most have devoted themselves to increased training. To be chosen is to be asked to do more not less. Constant trips to the gym, extra paddling sessions in outrigger canoes. A few, like my friend Helen, hired a personal trainer over and above all that. Several travelled from the Okanagan, Langley and Victoria to attend training sessions at a significant cost in time and money.

They were driven to achieve, and they put in the time and energy to do it. Sports performance has a certain equilibrium; it gives back exactly what you put in. It also rewards persistence over raw talent more often than we might think.

This was not confined to those of us over 60 at least most of in that age class are at least semi-retired or retired. We have the time. My senior B group had to do all this while working at a full time job. And they did. Summer is not the best time to schedule Saturday afternoon practices, yet everyone showed up. Many curtailed family vacations to fit around practice schedules. I don’t know how the younger paddlers are able to fit everything in. One of our elite women’s team members has two small children. The mind boggles at her schedule.IMG_5632

Yet, achieve they did. Our Senior B women’s team were out of the medals but finished strong and were sixth overall. They deserved more but were in a tough flight. Our senior B mixed team – well, we came together late, we dug hard, we had fun and we learned a lot.

The Senior C team shone brightly. The Open team won a silver in 2000 and a bronze in 500. The mixed team won a gold in the 2000 and a bronze in the 500.

IMG_5628The stars of the show were the senior C women – three gold medals in the three races categories. It doesn’t get better than that. Out of a total of 9 possible medals available to be won, the Senior C team managed to win seven.

There is little one can say that matches the looks on the faces of team members when they arrive back at the dock after a really good race.

“The boat just lifted!”,

“Did you feel how it surged!”,

“We were one with the boat!”

“Did you feel the glide!”

In most cases, what happens after that, the posted times, the medal ceremonies and the high-fives are icing on the cake. In one of the ceremonies, all three medals had been won by Canadian women’s teams.  While just minutes before, each had been desperate to win, at the end of the ceremony they all gathered to sing Oh Canada together. Memorable…. of course.

imageOf the 5000 paddlers representing 29 countries, I saw few sad faces; most were already visiting the Adelaide tourism tent and planning their trip for the next international event in spring 2016.

Me, I’m going to put my paddle away for a while and enjoy Italy. I need a break. It takes too much energy at my age to be a kid again for very long.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into…

We are half way through the regatta schedule; I continue to be amazed. It’s a roiling cascading kaleidescope of events and a tempest of emotions.

photo-27 copy 2Chris, my paddle caddy, advisor, sports mentor and coach/psychologist is monitoring my vital signs minute by minute. He in turn is buzzed up on espresso’s costing only a Euro – apparently a bargain compared to Switzerland.

I knew I was joining an elite team when I managed to secure a spot on the False Creek Senior C team. The majority of this group, men and women, are dedicated paddlers, they have been involved for years if not decades, for me, my paddling life is still measured in months.

photo-27 copy 3They are as passionate about their sport as they are about life; diligent, disciplined, driven towards excellence. I have marveled at their commitment, their spirit and focus. They are showing all these winning traits, yet they have managed to be graceful, humorous, thoughtful and generous of spirit. Someone once told me to stick with the winners and I have pulled the lucky lotto ticket for that prize, I have found two teams of winners.

Winner is a broader concept here, a more enduring one. Jackie, our Senior B coach, was asked one day, during another hurry-up-and-wait point, for one of her favorite inspirational quotes. I recognized it immediately but from another context, my earlier life in politics.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I got my first taste of being in the arena yesterday and, although my face was not marred by ‘dust,sweat and blood’.  It felt exhilarating, even if we did not win that heat.

photo-27 copyThe people I admire most in life are the winners, the ones willing to get into the ring. They may not always win, but they are in the ring. My friend Peter has been getting me involved in uncomfortable situations for many years now. In fact he has given me a great Laurel and Hardy quote (look them up, youngsters; comedy started with them). Every time I see Peter I get to say: “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” I say it with great respect and affection – this is about the best mess I’ve in for a long time.

IMG_5588And it isn’t just the age groupers who are winners. There is a Vancouver team called Eye of the Dragon, consisting of a number of vision challenged paddlers and their seat mates. They made the podium yesterday, it was pandemonium. Two of our Senior C team, Gary and Nod, have been with them for years. There must have been a bit of grit in the air, I caught some in my eye for a few minutes.

I am on a steep learning curve through all this, in truth, I know am not ready. But I am here and I am honored to be amongst those who are willing to step into the arena of life and face it with such courage, curiosity and collegiality.

IMG_5575Kamini reminded us today before we went out for a race of the importance of community, of the bonds we had forged and formed, of the sacrifices we had made and of the privilege bestowed on us from such an experience. We are willing to be judged in the harsh light of a competition where winning is by tenths of a second and must be confirmed by a photo finish because the essence of the experience is that we have climbed into the arena together.

It is indeed another fine mess…

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Polish and Glue

We arrive in Cervia Italy, near Ravenna, on Thursday evening after a full day of travel over 9 time zones. The Hotel Rouge, our home for ten days, is a gem – a ruby.

Friday morning marks our first practice; jet lag be damned, we are here for a reason and we’re getting down to it. At seven; we wolf down our breakfast and gather our gear. No one wants to miss the bus and be left behind.

IMG_5542We board our bus, excited as school children on the first day of school (except in BC of course…, but I digress). Everyone is full of energy and enthusiasm, dancing around like Tigger, chattering all the while.

The Standiana Rowing Center is one of the best training facilities in the world; the Canadian Olympic Team has used this site for its final preparations. It makes False Creek look small and shop-worn; the Vancouver Parks Board should stop worrying about whales at the Aquarium, visit this site and consider it as a template for False Creek’s future. To be outshone by Italy, I mean really!IMG_5549

We are the first team on the scene; 24 new dragons boats await, each one fresh from the factory. Our new boat is also new to us, a bit more responsive (a fancy word for unstable and tippy) than we are used to. To settle it down, coach advises us to tightly position ourselves against the gunnels and lean out over our paddles. It’s counterintuitive, personally when floaty things tilt more quickly or more drastically than I consider safe, my natural inclination is not to lean out but to huddle in the middle. I know such an idea will be frowned upon so I do as I am told – I stifle my pathetic whine and lean out.

photo-26We settle in, get used to the boat and have a quick but tough paddle, then it’s back on the bus and home to shower, lunch, rest and repeat.

IMG_5564Next day, Ron, our steersman has ensured a Canadian flag waves over us. We have staked a claim; we’re going to let the world know Canada is here.

This last intense push is about polish and glue.

We’ve polished our skills to a bright, determined, ambitious shine. Coaches Kamini and Jackie tell us we’re now ready. The advice here is “you know how to paddle, go do it” or as Kamini says, quoting the immortal sports psychologist and philosopher Yoda, “There is no try, there is only do”.

The glue is the team. It is our coaches who’ve pried the best from us and instilled a burning desire to win. It shocks me – who knew I wanted to win so badly? My teammates have spent years perfecting each stroke sequence; their feel for the boat, the team and the race is ingrained so deep, it is in their DNA.

photo-26 (1)The desire to win is not the only thing that bonds us. We have developed relationships, we’ve shared experiences; the blizzard (well we did see snow flakes) at February’s camp, the tryouts, previous shared regattas, innumerable training sessions, the untimely death of Marvin our teammate, the trip to Italy, the chats and the chatter, Mr. Toad’s wild ride with Rosario the bus driver on a sightseeing trip to Ravenna, the impromptu English pub singalong yesterday when gale force winds scuttled our training session forcing us into our tent, the shared anticipation of tomorrow’s test – well, you get the picture. We are a team; it is not the jerseys alone that testify to that fact. This glue will hold us together through the next 5 days.

Tomorrow we begin our race program. Men’s, Women’s and Mixed age groups in 200 meter, 500 meter and 2000 meter races. I’m the greenest rookie on the team. I warm-up when I’m told. I line up when I’m told. I get in the boat when I’m told. I have a drummer and a steerer to tell me what to do every second I am in the boat. I listen intently to what they ask of me. I am grateful for every moment. My job is simple, to dig deeper than ever before, to deliver everything, to leave nothing on the table at the end of the race.

I pinch myself, yup I’m awake. I can’t imagine being anywhere else but here…now!

There is no try, there is only do.

IMG_4925_v2_Marvin_MillerA short postscript. We will have a 21st paddler in our Senior C Men’s boat throughout the week. We lost fellow paddler and friend, Marvin Miller, to complications following an operation a few weeks before we left for Ravenna. Marvin was a member of the EH team and a member of the Men’s Senior C team. His presence will be felt, lifting our boat and energizing us with memories of his warmth, generosity, friendliness, quiet confidence and team spirit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Road to Ravenna – part 4.

The last month has been surreal.

Six days a week my day is focused on TODAY’S PRACTICE SESSION. The only thing that matters is an hour or more of intense physical activity that leaves me breathless; drained and intoxicated, depleted and energized, lifted up by adrenaline and slammed down by my ineptitude. I have endured more humbling moments than I imagined possible.web_IMG_6564_v2 copy

Last night, I finished my last training session, dropped my paddle into the travel bag, and am now trying to organize my own luggage for a new adventure – an international sporting event in which I am a participant.

I am a slow twitch human; most of my sports have demanded endurance over speed, doggedness over skill and determination over talent. A marathoner, my goal was to finish before they ran out of food. A cyclist, my goal was to finish before they took the banners down at the finish line. A trekker, my goal was to keep the group in sight, not get lost and make camp by dinner. A triathlete, my goal was to finish three times in a row, hopefully in the correct sequence and on the same day.

web_IMG_6811_v2Dragon boat paddling requires a short burst of controlled, technical intensity – a 200 meter sprint takes no more than a minute, a 500 meter course requires a spit over 2 minutes. Each paddle stroke must be precisely executed, synchronized, powerful and effective. Every race requires significant shifts in stroke power, stroke length and pace.

For the rest of the members of the team, many who have paddled seriously for years – five years, ten years – this is now second nature. Their task is to tweek their stroke style and execution to perfection. I’m still a few years away from tweeking.

I play ‘whack-a-mole’ with my shortcomings. Coach says ‘lengthen your stroke’; I adjust, then I get out of synch with my buddy in front of me. I forget to use my shoulder and back muscles (which are apparently bigger and stronger than my puny little biceps – who saw that coming – I’ve always thought the biceps muscles were the sign of a serious athlete). I reach further with my paddle and get out of synch; I whack one mole and four more appear. At the end of my daily training session, I am drained. I drag my ego out of the waters of False Creek (the coliform count leaves it open to infection and a smell known as l’eau de False Creek). I take it home, wash it off, hang it to dry and then put it back on the next day for another practice.

photo-25 copy 2My mentor, Peter, has told me from the beginning to hang in, persist, survive, keep plugging away. He had enough faith to order a team jersey in my size well before I was accepted into the team. Persistence, consistency and determination are all I have until skill and competence kick in.

My coaches are nothing if not patient. So are a supportive group of team mates. Jonathan sits behind me and offers advice, respectfully given and gratefully accepted. Regina gets me into the team hotel and manages my entourage. Pat sorts out all the paperwork to transform me into an international athlete. Peter, Ann, Wayne and Helen are my EH team core and encourage me throughout while I climb the wall of worry/learning/teaching/adjusting/whack-a-moling. The Westcoast Dragons have welcomed us into their team with generosity and spirit. Jaye and Sheryl could organize a Rolling Stones tour.

Throughout, I learn about team work, discipline, persistence, humility and patience. I also learn that finishing is not the goal. Winning is the goal. That’s new for me and it’s a big change; I like it.

The men took up a challenge, throw a man off the boat; we all lost enough weight to throw the equivalent of one man (a small 150 pound one) off the boat.

web_IMG_6862_v2Our coach is serious about every aspect of our training, as befitting a two time Olympian. She is dead serious on the water and demands the best we can deliver. Surprisingly, I am now ready to follow Kamini anywhere. It is intense.

One day, frustrated by having two Bob’s on the team she asks one of us to change our name. I volunteer; it’s what rookies do. I decide to try for humor. Thinking no one can look at a 65 year old man and call him Skippy without recognizing the absurdity of it all, I say, with a straight face – ‘call me Skippy’. For the rest of the practice she tried; she really did try but it just didn’t work. It wasn’t serious enough.

Finally, at the end of the practice she said, ‘I think we’ll change your name to Skip‘. Even that isn’t working, so now we are green Bob and blue Bob depending on the colour of our t-shirt at practise. Oh Well, it’s time to dump Skippy into the toxic waters of False Creek.

This has been a stellar experience, a summer made memorable. I count myself as fortunate and lucky. Wish us luck, we are off to Ravenna.

web_IMG_6566_v2 copy

All photos were taken by the other Bob, a gifted photographer, a great team-mate and a stand up guy. He has graciously given permission to use them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Road to Ravenna – Part 3

At the age of 65, well past my prime for every competitive sport except maybe bocce, I am heading for an international dragon boat competition in Ravenna Italy.