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.

logoMy late evolving chance at glory came as a huge surprise last Monday. In early May, I had passed up a try-out camp to gain a spot for the FCRCC Senior C team, the over 60’s. ‘Long-shot Bob”, I was under-qualified, ill-equipped and woefully under-experienced and I had to face a time trial in an Outrigger canoe, an unstable boat I had never paddled – not the way to make a debut.

VittorioI chose to work on my skills in the hope of a future opportunity. I went to the Senior C coach and asked if I could practice with the team on nights where there was an empty seat in their dragon boat. I showed up at every practice for three months, most nights there was room and I got a great workout – if ya wanna be a big dog, ya hafta run with the big dogs. Some nights, the boat was full and I went home.

I finally faced my Outrigger fear and learned how to paddle. https://bobfoulkesadventures.com/2014/07/10/drowning-fear/

On my second paddle, I managed to do a huli – capsize myself – in front of the team coach. I doubt she was impressed with my technical skills; maybe I got her with my unwarranted enthusiasm.

At last Monday’s practice, coach told me I was to paddle right handed from now on and that I was to fill out the paper work to be put on the team roster. I was now officially a spare on the men’s team.

photo-19That’s it? I am on the team?

I stopped listening, too busy concentrating on not breaking into an impromptu happy dance on the spot.

I practiced that night in a zen-like state of karmic calm, absorbing, planning, half listening while trying not to throw up, fall overboard, lose my paddle in the water or do a few hundred other things that would make coach rethink her offer.

Some strange mix of fear and euphoria took hold of me. Jeez – what now?

Wait, there’s more.

After practice, I checked in with the team manager to make sure I was on the team; yup, we sorted out the paperwork. I walked off the dock and up the ramp, my mind buzzing with wonderment at life’s little surprises. My happy dance was threatening to burst out at any moment; I had to keep it inside until at least the parking lot.

At the top of the ramp, Peter, my dragon boating mentor, caught me. “Are you interested in paddling with the Senior B team – the over 50’s, the youngsters?”

It seems the Senior B team was short a few good men for its mixed team. “Absolutely!” was my instantaneous answer. We met the coach and sealed the deal. I was now on a second team, courtesy of my Y chromosome, a pulse, a paddle and the lack of any competition. The gods do have a sense of humor; they smiled upon me twice that night.

It’s now sinking in. I’m running with the big dogs – six times a week. It hurts. The practices are tough and I need to concentrate every time my paddle hits the water. A 90 minute practice takes everything I have and asks for more. I have four women coaches…

logo_dragonboatI nap in the afternoons, not a luxury but a necessity. My modest weight loss, exercise, muscle-building workout regime is now amped up and serious; for six weeks, my life is not my own. We are representing our club at an international meet – Ravenna 2014 – with more than 20 countries and 4500 athletes. This is serious.

How serious?

I got a note from the team this week. The note outlined the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) list of banned substances; pointing out that this regatta was sanctioned by WADA and all athletes would be subject to random testing.

logoWOW! For the first time in my life, someone thinks my athletic performance is so crucial to competition that I’m subject to performance enhancing drug testing. Somehow, the test has gone from just finishing to finishing first.

WOW! I haven’t got a clue what all these banned substances are but I am giving up my morning baby aspirin just in case – that’s it, I’m going clean. There’s no room for Lance Armstrong on our team.

BunkyI also know that boy-athlete dreams come at a cost. I pay for the flight, I pay for the hotel, I pay for the team fees, I pay for the new paddle, I pay for the team jersey, I buy the ticket for the opening ceremonies.

I’m doing a little boy happy dance – I’m on the Team! No, I’m on two Teams!

I know this giddiness will have to sustain me through tough practises, daily fatigue and some serious pain. I know it is expensive. I know I am giving up the rest of my summer for two minutes of intense effort sometime in September.

It is a small price to pay for the chance to be a member of the Westcoast Dragons and the FCRCC Senior C’s at the 9th IDBF Club Crew World Championships in Ravenna this September. It is a late bloomer’s unexpected grab for sports glory of a sort, sweeter for the unexpected opportunity of it all. Fairy tales that come true are better at this age.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Drowning Fear

“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” – Franklin Roosevelt

I think I should have that quote tattooed on my arm or some other key part of my anatomy. I need to be constantly reminded of it. Fear is a powerful force; I fight it constantly and, as I advance in years, my struggle with fear intensifies.

The latest case in point is my struggle to try to master the Outrigger Canoes. An OC1 is a modern version of a Polynesian ocean going vessel. It is a thin bullet of a boat with an outrigger called an ‘ama’ connected to the main hull by two aluminum bars called ‘iako’ to provide balance. It is light as a feather, proven over millennia to carry big beefy Polynesians among Pacific Islands; It’s remarkably stable with an experienced paddler.

Here’s the challenge. To become experienced, I need, well, to get experience. I have to pay the price of learning. In this case, I have to master the inherent instability of the OC1. If I lean into the outrigger, or ama side, I have great stability. If I forget, become momentarily inattentive, or just plain screw up and lean a bit to the right, away from the ama, the ama lifts out of the water, my canoe flips and – surprise – I go into the ocean. It is called a huli – don’t ask me why – it should be called a gotcha.

ab57PXr_700b_v2When I was encouraged to try out the OC1, I politely but firmly declined. I have a long, sad and consistent history with tiny floaty things. I have flipped sea kayaks on both coasts; one second, I’m paddling along waving at people, a split second later I’m underwater, struggling to survive. Not fun. Sea-Doos can be particularly vicious – the motor adds power to my flip and they’re heavier, more likely to hit me on the head. I once flipped a rented Sea-doo before I left the dock;  with Blair on the back, mortified to be witness to my humiliation. He still teases me about my ineptitude. I can run but I can never hide from that story.

If the price of OC experience was a few huli’s, I walked way; this was not on. Unfortunately, I missed out on opportunities. I passed on chances to paddle with friends, I walked away from a fitness test – paddling an OC1 in a time trial – to join my local Dragon Boat team for a major regatta in Italy, I backed out of chances to paddle in the bigger Outrigger canoes.

Fear closes doors, cuts off opportunities and narrows my life. Whether I could have made the team or not, I will never know. I did not try.

Today, I changed all that. I put on my big boy swim trunks (and little else – the bottom of False Creek doesn’t need more litter) and gutted my way to experience, with Amanda Chan, the best coach/trainer I have ever known. http://www.arestraining.ca/personal-training/ She helped me get ready for my successful Kilimanjaro summit.

Conditions were perfect. The weather was sunny, 22 degrees Celsius, the water in False creek was cool and I manned-up to the inevitability of learning by huli. We found a place far away from my usual haunts – no one need witness this bit of folly.

I watched her youtube video; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5ZOComzihk and arrived prepared. Amanda helped me set up the OC1. We reviewed paddling techniques, the constant need to ensure my center of gravity rested on the ama side. We talked about hanging onto my paddle when I go in the water – no paddle and I’m hooped – and wet. We talked about how to flip the OC upright, how to get back into the OC and paddle off into the sunset. It sounded reasonable.

Amanda has a quiet confidence about her that is infectious. She knows. Therefore, by osmosis, I hope to know. She does, therefore I hope I can do. She tests herself, therefore I test myself; hopefully with some of her quiet assurance.

photo-23I carefully sit down on the OC1, as testily as if I would mount a bucking bronc in the chute before the gates open and all hell busts into the open. I know I’m going into the water, it is as certain as being bucked off my bronco. I paddle gingerly, leaning way in on the ama side to use the stability it provides. Then, I decide to take control. I lean right and, BINGO, I’m in the water. It works; lean left and I paddle, lean right, I swim.

photo-24It is bracing but not a shock. I grasp my paddle, manage to flip the OC back to upright.
photo-27I go around to the ama side, tie my paddle into the mesh and lift myself gracelessly into the boat, inelegant but effective.

Amanda says I’m fast, all done in less than a minute.
photo-28For the rest of the hour I paddle about, try paddling on both sides, test the stability of the boat AND deliberately take few more hulis. I think to myself – What? What’s the big deal?

I thank Amanda, she is my tipping point; instrumental in bolstering my confidence, giving me valuable information, walking me through various stages of paddling, normalizing the process, understanding my fear.

There is no big win here. I learned how to paddle an outrigger canoe on a bright, warm, sunny, day. No prizes are given out for an act that millions of people do as a matter of course – nor should prizes be given out.

photo-29But I got a prize. I conquered my fear and opened the door to another adventure. Fear will not limit me, constrict me or overwhelm me. I drowned my fear today so I could get off the couch and out the door.

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

The Road to Ravenna – Part 2

At the start of the new year, I set out to achieve something I had never hoped possible. I tried out for a team representing Canada in an International Dragon Boat championship in September in Ravenna, Italy. The False Creek Racing Canoe Club won the right to send a Senior C – over 60 – team of men and women to the event. At the age of 65, that would be the ultimate for a late blooming athlete. Six of us from our club – the EH team – tried out. A camp in early May would subject each participant to a series of tests. The best would be chosen, the rest would go home.

Our first tryout camp in February – https://bobfoulkesadventures.com/2014/03/02/the-road-to-ravenna-part-1/ – was an eyeopener. photo-15 copyIt was tough. Everyone was focused, committed and willing to work hard to make the team. I was long shot Bob, but it was worth the discomfort. I learned a lot about paddling technique – Kamini, our coach is unrelenting; an Olympian, she sets Olympic standards for us. The bar was set high.

Others went out in winter weather in OC-1’s ( a pencil-thin canoe with a small outrigger – a volatile, slippery and frightfully unstable bullet that makes a sea kayak look like a winnebago). In an instant of distraction, you end up in icy water; a complicated maneuver worthy of a Cirque de Soleil contortionist and you’re back in – or you go back in the water until you get it right. I kept meaning to master the OC-1 – memories of going in the water after overturning sea kayaks and a vivid imagination that stoked my fears – well, I just put it off.

photo-19Others cleared their schedule, focused on the goal and persevered through a monotonous regime of weight sessions, paddling sessions, special camps and other tortures. I had booked a vacation adventure to Turkey for three weeks in April, just before tryout camp. I chose Turkey over tryout.

In the end, I withdrew from the tryout camp. It would be a waste of everyone’s time. I would be foolish to attempt the OC-1 time trial. I had lost much of my strength while enjoying the sites and sights (not to mention the fabulous food) of Turkey. I didn’t pay the price of admission and I didn’t deserve to make the team.

That is why I have come to like sports this late in my life. Sports represents a challenge that is pure and honest. Do the work, make the effort, suffer the pain, face the challenge and the results will affirm your commitment and your dedication.

photo-21What is most pleasing is that the other five made the team. Marvin, Peter, Ann, Helen and Wayne paid the price, did the work; they persevered. They honoured the challenge by suiting up, showing up and achieving the prize. They deserve the False Creek jersey they will wear in Ravenna; they deserve to proudly represent Canada on the world stage.

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

Off the couch hits the interview couch on Shaw TV

I was interviewed on Shaw TV in Vancouver; it aired today.

go to;   http://www.youtube.com/therushonshawtv

Fame and fortune are sure to follow…

photo-18

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

Turkish Delights

Turkish delight is a soft, chewable sweet made famous in a land that offers some of the world’s best – think honey sweetened concoctions like baclava. It is the sweet of all sweets; I bought a kilogram to take home but they’ll never reach Canada. Looking through my photos as I fly home there are a few other Turkish delights that seem worthy of sharing.

Attaturk, the father of modern Turkey, the new Turkey that he created out of the decrepit Ottoman regime, tried to build a secular society, banning various conservative religious practises and groups. IMG_5261Attaturk is revered, think Nelson Mandela; his Mausoleum/Shrine in Ankara is a must see, we were there when the President of Kenya rolled by to pay his respects. Attaturk was relatively successful pulling Turkey into the 20th century but died too soon to ensure the more European looking secular society he envisaged take root deeply enough to be considered permanent.

Turkey is a Muslim country. We in the West are conditioned – badly – to expect the worst; wild eyed terrorists, frightening mullahs, jihaddists behind every potted palm. We saw none of that; yet to call Turkey Muslim-lite is also misleading, it is a deeply Muslim country outside of Istanbul. The first and most persistent difference we notice is the early morning call to prayer; it awakens us every morning at about 5 AM. Already up, I hear it clearly.

Most women wear headscarves, few wear the full black chador that I saw so often in Kuwait. Our guide suggests that beyond the very important Friday afternoon prayer, attendance at other times and other days is light. Normal life does not come to a screeching halt when prayers are called throughout the day. South of Konya, we stayed overnight with a family, one of the joys of traveling with G-Adventures.

On our walk through the village, we stopped at the mosque, almost next to our host’s home.IMG_5365 The Imam came to greet us and spent some time talking to us about his life in this village. He was 29, married with two children who described himself as a spiritual resource, a guide, to the Muslins here. He was generous with his time, modest in his approach, open to sharing his beliefs with us and, when we saw him later with his son, an obvious loving father. We drank tea in the village square, surrounded by old men; I’m sure we gave them something new to discuss. In short, Turkey is worth visiting because it is Muslim, a whole new dimension of interest.

IMG_5367

 

We returned to a sumptuous Turkish feast, on the floor (I do need to get to yoga more often) and enough tea to keep me up all night. Our three hostesses could not have been more gracious. We swept through the food like locusts through a field; I’m sure they wonder whether we are fed enough back home.

IMG_5340

 

We also met a real life whirling dervish. They’re famous in Turkey, and can easily be marginalized as silly folks in long skirts and funny hats who spin round and round until they get dizzy. Looks are deceptive; the Muslim sect goes back to Melvana Rumi, a 13th century philosopher and poet who struggled to find a way to get closer to his god. After a highly ritualized and deeply considered ceremony that involved the requisite whirling, we met with one of the ‘dervishes’; an accountant (go figure) with a family. After a long discussion, we came away with a more considered and considerate understanding of the Mevlevi’s, the whirling dervishes.

IMG_5333The Grand Bazaar opened our eyes to a world of Turkish crafts and collectibles that are unsurpassed in quality; why am I not surprised, now that I have been there and understand a bit of the history of the region. Pottery is unsurpassed in beauty, coloration and design, It is especially enthralling when the demonstration is in a cave cut from a hillside a thousand years ago. I barely escaped with my bank account intact.

 

 

IMG_5255At the carpet weaving ‘demonstration’, I fell under the spell of an incredible variety of beautiful hand made rugs, I now have one that is all mine. It seems everyone in Turkey has taken on the challenge of ensuring each tourist is equally enriched; John almost fell under the spell of a very persuasive rug dealer, once in their shop it is hard to get away. The pashminas rank with the best I’ve seen; buying several reduces the price even more and they pack so easily!

IMG_5526

 

 

The last, and, in some ways, most moving visit on our tour was the site of the ill-planned, ill-fated, and horribly-generaled assault by an Imperial British army at Gallipoli. April 25th is a day of mourning and commemoration in Australia and New Zealand and, for once, the movie of the same name accurately represents the awful reality of that battle. Estimates put the Allied casualties at over 250,000 before the final evacuation in February of 1916; Turkish casualties were estimated at 400,000. As in most countries, I am saddened at the losses, and always gratified to see the reverence, grace, generosity of spirit as the hosts, Turkey, maintain and sanctify the grave sites of the soldiers of Australia, New Zealand, France and England buried on their lands.

IMG_5327Lastly it is the people.  This husband and wife team shared their home in Cappadocia with us one night, we ate a wonderful meal (again seated, again reminded that Yoga was a necessity not an option, again we ate everything served). Their daughter came back from the local college to help serve and interpret for us. Their warm generosity humbled us. A few days later, after a hike, we stopped at their cafe for drinks and ended up buying lunch. The pomegranate juice was incredible – hand squeezed.

This couple had raised four children with this cafe and with a lot of hard work. They were gracious, kind and generous. They worked hard and pushed their children through the education system and up the ladder. They are the Turkey I will remember, no third world country but a dignified, warm, hard working people who want nothing more than what we want; peace, economic progress, a job, a home and a decent opportunity for their children.

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

The flotsam, jetsam and myth of history.

Troy is an exemplar, it encapsulates Turkey’s vast many faceted history; fact and fiction, myth and mystery.

The mythical Troy of Homer’s Iliad, a story written in 800 BC of events that were supposed to have occurred in 1200 BC, has now been so inculcated in our collective memory as to become fact.

IMG_5512The Hollywood fantasy Troy of Brad Pitt et.al. has, for better or worse, etched faces to the names of the gods, immortals and mortals. The Hollywood producers were kind enough to leave behind one of the props used in the film, a Trojan horse, forever validating the ancient myth with a Hollywood myth prop – sort of a myth squared. Both these Troy’s are defined as ancient Greek.

 

 

IMG_5514Finally, there is the real Troy, the one we visited. It is an archeological dig, it is not exciting; no granite buildings to stir the imagination, no ancient columns standing in slight disrepair, a World Heritage site certainly but with few tourist buses to be found.

Yet for the past 150 years it has been, when money for digging was available, providing profound insights into the lives of those who lived in the region for thousands of years. Troy has been occupied continuously since 3000 BC. It is defined in layers, at least nine of them; each of which represents a long era of habitation by a unique culture. Each offers a rich motherlode of evidence to archeologists, informs them and allows them to reconstruct the lives of its residents.

Troy is in Turkey, its history links modern day Turkey to the history of the Aegean Sea, a history that we mostly, wrongly, define as Greek. Our erroneous conceit is that ancient history belongs to the Greeks, yet the Ionic region was a polyglot of city states that traded and fought each other over centuries; the region was neither dominated nor overwhelmingly influenced by any one of them. Turkey is as rich and as worthy of study as Greece.

IMG_5399We visited Semena, an Island off the Mediterranean coast near Kekova, where a Lycian community thrived in the fourth century BC. A mountain fortress with a 300 seat amphitheater are remarkably well preserved as are many Lycian sarcophogi.

 

IMG_5465We toured another World Heritage site at Hierapolis, above the white calcium carbonate travertine cliffs of Pamukkale, an ancient spa town with its own hot springs that dates back to the second century BC. Besides the spa, the 15,000 person amphitheater captivates with a view over the valley and a remarkable stage front.

 

IMG_5493The highlight of our Turkey tour was Ephesus, our group favorite with a wow factor that was off the scale. Founded in the tenth century BC, it was one of the ten cities of the Ionian League, a major center of commerce under the Romans with a population said to have been over 50,000 and was one of the seven churches of Asia listed in the Book of Revelations. The two story library is jaw-dropping beautiful.

IMG_5503

 

The 24,000 seat theater is one of the world’s largest and is remarkably well preserved.

 

 

220px-Ephesus_Terrace_HousesThe terraced apartment complex currently being restored reveals mosaics, wall paintings and thinly cut marble facings that draw us closer to the daily life of the rich Roman inhabitants than anything I have experienced. The whole complex is massive; several hours fly past as we explore the buildings, marvel at the complexity of this city and imagine ourselves living in these terraced houses; it is a must see.

IMG_5431Turkey offers many reasons to visit; its people are invariably friendly and gracious, the food is spectacular (I became addicted to fresh grilled sea bass), the interior is rugged and unspoiled, and the coastline is intriguing, beautiful and pristine (Not an all-inclusive beach resort in sight); all reasons for a long tour.

IMG_5412

The real treat, the surprise, the sweet spot, is the history. I have the movies, the myths, the ancient stories and poems in my head; I now have real visual and tactile awareness, knowledge, to form and reform my own opinions. Turkey’s rich history unfolds for me, beguilingly reveals itself, adds new dimensions to my understanding of the past, widens my perspective, informs my understanding and enriches me with a more complex understanding of the history of humankind.

How else would I like to learn, where else would I rather be?

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

Cappadocia – Unique Fixer-uppers.

To continue on the real estate theme, Cappadocia is filled with unique fixer-uppers ever. The region around Cappadocia was formed millions of years ago by extensive eruptions of at least three volcanos. Lava, ash and big chunks of other geological sounding stuff formed a landscape that was characterized by two phenomena (I will try not to get highly technical here – mostly because I get lost quickly).

The first is that each eruption left layers of stuff of various thicknesses, porosities and constituent components; some layers erode more than others and over the years a strange exotic landscape has been created that is a delight to photographers, hikers, bikers and jerks who drive ATVs.

Second, because the rock is porous and easily excavated with even crude implements, thousands of mud hut dwellers moved up to caves that had been carved out of hillsides by wind and water; then they fixed them up by making them bigger and carving their own caves, creating small villages and even towns, increasing the value of the real estate immeasurably.

Cappadocia is in the middle of a busy neighbourhood, conquerors come and go regularly, pillaging, looting and making mischief. The permanent residents have been victimized and otherwise badly handled by visiting invaders for more than 2000 years. They got a bit tired of it, so these persecuted homeowners took to digging big holes in the ground, creating hidden underground refuges in bad times when hiding below ground in carefully concealed underground caverns was the best option. In good times, they fixed them up for the storage of food, grain, wine, olive oil and other supplies. There was even room for a few animals, cows, sheep, goats and other bits of walking sustenance.

IMG_5266Our first exposure to these fixer-uppers was a UNESCO World heritage, Derinkuyu. First used by the Phrygians in eighth century BC, they were expanded down to a level of 40 meters in some eight levels with kitchens, animal pens, meeting rooms and food/water storage ares. This one even had a special sluiceway for receiving the juice from freshly pressed grapes – from grapes to wine without any handling! Air vents, entrances and exits were carefully concealed; tunnels allowed passage for only one person at a time making them easily defensible, escape tunnels were prepared for emergencies and stores were set aside for sieges. The Phrygians seemed to have disappeared but we can presume they lasted longer with their caverns than if they had lived up above ground in a mud brick bungalow. It was a tough neighbourhood.

IMG_5305Another fixer upper site is the Goreme open air museum, a full housing development of caves, caverns and holes in the wall, home to an emerging Christian religion. These secret worship sites still bear religious drawings on their walls that date to the 11th Century.IMG_5301

 

 

 

 

IMG_5326

 

The caves and caverns are everywhere. When they wore out, they were recycled into pigeon holes, efficient value retention. The old cave windows were turned into pigeon roosts. Over months, pigeon guano accumulated. Former residents would harvest the guano, use it for fertilizer in their fields. I suspect a few pigeons, the less productive ones, ended in a cooking pot. Very efficient.

The latest way to gain further value for these holes in the wall; Cappadocians have been brilliant at capitalizing on it. They’ve turned them into a tourist attraction. And, we’re glad they did, we flock by the thousands to see this unique exhibition of 1000 years of history. We don’t just look into the caves, erosion of this porous and semi-porous landscape over eons has created a landscape that resembles the Grand Canyon, the Moon or some sci-fi fictional place to be explored by Starship Enterprise.

IMG_5284Why not see it all from a hot air balloon? Why not indeed. Every morning, several hundred happy tourists plunk down their money and clamber aboard some 50 balloons just before dawn to explore Cappadocia from the air. If you have a fixer-upper, you can even exploit the air rights – it works here. No words can describe the thrill of riding in a balloon at dawn. The quietly serenity is interrupted occasionally by the blast of the gas jets. The chilly air is clear and crisp. IMG_5290

 

 

Our balloon drifts within meters of the ground, rises to 900 meters to catch the breeze and opens the horizon to a breath-taking vista. The deep cuts in the rock eroded over millennia, the resulting cliffs, deep valleys varied colors of the various rock strata and jagged rock add to the surreal view.

IMG_5330

 

Finally, Turks are practical business people. They have turned these caves into workshops for making items of value such as pottery and sales rooms to display the aforementioned pottery – guaranteeing a memorable shopping experience for wide-eyed tourists.

Istanbul is a busy intersection of a world of thoroughfares – all transporting goods, services, and people for trade – along with their divergent ideas, ideals, religions and values. One of those thoroughfares crosses Cappadocia, an eternal slowly eroding, constantly-evolving backwoods; it’s been trampled, conquered, settled and resettled for generations. Now, thanks to these unique fixer-uppers, preserved and adapted over the years, we can see, touch and experience the lives of those who have found refuge in caves and caverns over thousands of years.

Cappadocians survived the ebbs and flows of wars and warriors by utilizing their unique real estate, adapting to their surroundings and adapting their surroundings to their needs. They have emerged into the sunlight to till the fields and live their lives, interrupted but not extinguished. Today, they have transformed their travails into a story worth telling and worth hearing and seeing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Istanbul; location, location, location.

My awareness and appreciation of Turkey and, in particular, Istanbul starts with geography. As in real estate, geo-political location is everything.

map_of_turkeyTurkey is smack dab in the middle of a complex, complicated neighbourhood. Today, its neighbours consist of Greece and Bulgaria on the European side; Syria and Iraq are on the southeast, a volatile dangerous block made more so by the Kurdish complication. Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran, backed up by the bad boys of the ‘Stans’, form the eastern border. With such neighbours nothing is simple, neutrality is almost impossible.

The rest of Turkey’s geography is defined by two strategically significant bodies of water – to the north, the Black Sea, and, to the south, the Mediterranean. More interestingly, the tight spot in the funnel connecting east and west, the link between Asia and Europe, has Istanbul. It is the shortest water crossing point; the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean – a hot spot traffic intersection if there ever was one. Russia’s recent incursion into the Crimea which destroyed any potential for its Olympics to favourably shape international public opinion was driven by its political imperative for a port in the Black Sea and access to open water and the Mediterranean.

Life is complicated when you live at the busiest street corner in town, where everyone needs to protect and advance their interests, everyone and wants to set up shop, where those with ambition want to control the traffic, take a toll or two from passersby and expand their empire beyond the local neighbourhood. It is a place where, for millennia, everyone wants to walk across your lawn, covets your back yard and wants to stay in your house and use it as a fort or a staging area whenever convenient. Lots of folks are strutting their stuff and throwing their weight around.

The Turks have never had a quiet, predictable or life; which brings us to Istanbul. My immediate observation on arriving in Istanbul is how modern it is, how European normal it is, how well it functions and how clean things are. This is not the third world, it bustles and hums. The airport works, the taxis are clean and efficient, my hotel in the old district of Sultanahmet is small but could easily be called a boutique; it’s charming. The people are friendly, busily efficient and unfailingly helpful.

IMG_5249We have only a short time in Istanbul before starting our cross country Turkey exploration so my impressions are immediate, superficial and visceral. The Hagia Sophia, now a museum rather than the shrine/church/mosque it has been since it was consecrated as a church in 537 AD is illustrative. It is huge, eclipsing any place of worship I have seen. It changed ownership in 1437 and was converted to a mosque. The fact that it still exists is testimony to the good judgement of the Ottomans; Mehmet the Conquerer saw in its majesty something to preserve rather than destroy.

Think for a minute, the conflict between Islam and Christianity was vicious and prolonged, costing uncounted lives and untold pain and suffering – fighting over religion seldom brings out the best in us. Yet the Hagia Sophia, a monument to the values so viciously disputed, survives; brilliantly beautiful mosaics dating back to the ninth century have survived, plastered over rather than destroyed and now restored for our amazement. Precious Christian art and religious iconography exist side by side with equally precious Muslim tile, mosaics, stonework and a library. It seems, to me at least, that conquerors abandoned their destructive cruelty and, unusually, saw beauty and sought to preserve it. Istanbul is littered with examples of such common sense and human generosity.

IMG_5253A short walk from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque. I have not seen as many mosques as I have churches but this mosque is a rare beauty. It is light, spacious, airy and spiritual. It seems to calm its visitors; the thousands of tiles of predominantly blue hues add to the serenity. It is huge. It is a rare place managing to project tranquility and peace for thousands of visitors and worshippers alike.

These two buildings struck me as emblematic of the Istanbul that others have described to me, a city where cultures have clashed and commingled, where political/religious movements filled with energy, ambition and desire to dominate have clashed in massive battles yet managed to exhibit the civility to preserve some humanity in the process. It seems a place where conquerors adopted and adapted the best of their subjects’ cultures with an open-mindedness and a grace that allowed such icons as the Hagia Sophia to survive.

IMG_5254The Grand Bazaar exhibits another key aspect of everything I have heard of Istanbul. It is the home of traders. The spice route, the silk route, the famous trade routes between east and west all passed through Turkey. Turkey was the endpoint of each and the meeting point between the two. Turks became traders, Istanbul was action-central where one set of goods was traded for another, ideas were transferred, cultural values, art and architecture were exchanged. If it was worth a price, it has been for sale in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar since the fifteenth century.

The Grand Bazaar is living proof of Istanbul’s continued role as a commercial meeting place. It is a stunning place with blocks and blocks of shops under one roof. It is a huge emporium of rug merchants, spice salesmen, artisans, gold and jewelry hustlers, clothing hawkers and purveyors of all manner of goods. It is a shopper’s cornucopia, a Noah’s Ark, with two of everything; clean, relatively spacious, indoors and out of the elements.

What is different – almost alarmingly so – is the lack of aggressive selling. When John and I shop we seem to send a message to shopkeepers; like blood in the water, we attract sharks. In most places like Egypt and the souks of Morocco, we seem to attract the most aggressive vendors; to describe their sales approach as in-your-face would be too kind. In the Grand Bazaar we were NOT accosted; instead we were politely engaged in a conversation, offered tea in a most genial and polite manner. It was engaging, charming, and disarming, and of course it works. Developed, honed and adapted over centuries, it lulled us into a sense of calm and we succumbed. I now have enough gifts for folks back home to last well through birthdays, special events and the next few Christmases. I have been separated from my money and laden with bags; at least the Turks make it fun.

And the food! The food is extra-ordinarily good, much like our more familiar Greek but more complex and diverse, using a wider range of herbs and spice. Who knew eggplant could be so tasty? Who would put vegetables at the center of the plate, cooked in so many tasty and appealing ways? Fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs and and a world of spices abound; Istanbul even has a specialty spice market to astound us all. I know; I now have a year’s supply of saffron. Why have we not imported mezzes? These small dishes, like Spanish tapas, allow us to graze across a larger range of dishes without filling up on one dish alone.

IMG_5271We stop at stands for a glass of freshly pressed pomegranate juice; my new drink of choice.

I am enthralled. Istanbul was a delight. Two days, hah – I will need two years to discover even a bit of it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Outward Bound got me Off the Couch…

Who would have guessed that I would be a poster boy for Outward Bound? Certainly not me, except maybe as the ‘before’ in the ‘before and after’ contrast.

The attached has been shamelessly copied from Outward Bounds blog spot featuring excerpts from Off the Couch and Out the Door:  http://outwardboundcanada.blogspot.ca.

Outward Bound has a full web  based newsletter called fresh tracks. Check it out: http://www.outwardbound.ca/freshtracks/032414/index.html.

Finally, check out Outward Bound Canada’s new website: www.outwardbound.ca. Adventures for all ages, length of time and level of expertise are offered, in addition to special programs for veterans, women of courage and urban/at-risk youth.

Bob Foulkes may have been a little late signing up for Outward Bound, taking his first course at 46, but nevertheless the experience opened the door to a lifetime of adventures that have energized, enlivened, and enthused him for more than 20 years. This year, at the vibrant age of 65, Bob took on another Outward Bound Canada adventure, he summited Mount Kilimanjaro and helped to raise almost $100,000 in support of Outward Bound Canada’s charitable programs as part of our January 2014 Reach Beyond Expeditions team.

With a new book out titled, Off the Couch and Out the Door (currently available through Outward Bound Canada here, with part of the proceeds being donated back to us), Bob describes his Outward Bound Canada experience and all he gained from that first experience. The story is characteristic of what we often hear from alumni about their Outward Bound experience, we chose to profile Bob in our March Alumni Corner and share these excerpts from his book.

“In June 1995, at the age of 46, without a taut muscle in my body and weighing in at over 230 pounds, I bumbled and stumbled into my first grand adventure. It was one of those ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ stories that men recount to a licensed emergency responder or the attending physician – usually while sitting on the edge of an emergency room examination table.

My life changing experience, my epiphany, was an Outward Bound backpacking trip in the wilds of the Coast mountains north of Whistler, British Columbia’s world famous ski resort. For eight days, I was one of ten who, with two leaders, hiked in the wild, not a road, restaurant, hotel or traffic light in sight. No Holiday Inn, just a tent we packed on our back. No MacDonalds, just non-perishable nuts and grains. No showers, just icy streams to wash away our grime. Rugged yes, beautiful yes, haunting most certainly; relentlessly intimidating to an out-of-shape, overweight city boy – you bet.

I can pinpoint the exact date when I woke up to what I was missing. It happened the day my son came back from a seventeen day Outward Bound adventure. He was a changed man, he had left Calgary a boy and returned home a confident, self assured young man. He radiated energy. Whatever it was he found, it was so bright and shiny that I wanted it too. At 15 he was a bit young to be my muse but he could be my role model. I decided I wanted my own Outward Bound adventure.

I wanted to conquer an epic test. I did decide I needed a bit of insurance. I talked two friends, Ian and Stephen, into joining my adventure. Both were single and free of complications. They were older than me and hopefully in worse shape. Cynical, yes; but a man has to do what is in his own interests.

The day arrived. We joined each other in Vancouver and bussed up to Pemberton to meet our group. We were older than the others, six women and one man, by at least 20 years. Most were from BC, the furthest one from Scandinavia; most of us were doing this for the first time. Roy and Colin were experienced leaders who had done many Outward Bound trips. Their obvious competence calmed us all.

Our days were consumed by the basics. We ate food that was chosen because it was light, easy to carry or lasted a week without going bad. We ate couscous, rice, lentils, oatmeal, and every other dry good and grain known in the third world…

We lived in one set of clothes for eight days. A stream provided good news/bad news; a chance to wash off the sweat and grime balanced against the inevitable heart stopping moment when the ice cold water touches delicate skin; I found all my skin was delicate, especially below the waist line. In this simple, elemental trade-off, I came to believe that standards of personal hygiene should be flexible and situational.

Colin and Roy taught us to rappel down a steep cliff; I’m now ready if I ever need to rappel down from my tenth floor Vancouver apartment … We [also] hiked up a mountain to the summit; our mountain, our summit…. We hiked with a 50 pound pack on our back, the most fun is getting used to the change in my center of gravity. There’s nothing more thrilling than losing my balance and falling backwards in front of everyone…

[Then] we changed campsites, another hike through the bush. From this new site we are sent on a solo, a day of aloneness designed to facilitate self reflection… Roy came to get me 24 hours later. I had survived, passed the time, couldn’t wait for it to end and was packed and ready to go long before he came to get me. I was overjoyed to see him and couldn’t stop chattering. [However], deep reflection, revelations, insight, personal enlightenment and meaningful life lessons eluded me. I came to the realization that deep down, I am quite shallow.

With as little drama as when we started, we ended our epic adventure in a rainstorm on the edge of a logging road. We shared big hugs and a group picture, one I still cherish…. We went down to the main building, showered, ate real food for the first time, got on our bus and went back to our lives.
I walked away knowing my life would never be like it was before. My Outward Bound adventure was transformative, I felt profoundly, positively changed.

[After the trip and] back in Vancouver Kristen, my daughter, met me for a debrief. She gave me a photo, taken a few years back when I was at my worst; a smoker, a drinker, stressed out and hollowed out from work, incapable of even minimal sustained exercise.

I was Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by the ghost of Christmas past. That picture captured the old me; now there was a chance for a new me. It would take work to make it last but I had at least taken the first steps; now a non drinker, a non-smoker, a bit slimmer and more physically capable than I had ever imagined. Ironically, I was demolishing a big Mac while reflecting on all this; how quickly I revert to my old self.

I had found some of what Blair discovered, I would be forever grateful that he had broken trail on this adventure. He would occasionally remind me we were not quite equals; he had led the way, he had done it first and he had done it longer, 17 days to my eight. Even so, I could understand his adventure because I had done it; I knew the depth of his courage and his fortitude. We had a bond, better than father/son, we were fellow adventurers.

I felt a renewed sense of optimism, confidence and energy.

I was more calm, more self assured, more joyful, more aware and more together.

Somewhere in the mountains I had dumped my cynicism, ennui and moral fatigue.

It was a start, who knew where it would lead?”

 

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

Outward Bound changes lives – Ottawa Citizen, March 26 2014

IMG_5195In connection with the recent Outward Bound fundraising event, which also doubled as an east coast book launch for Off the Couch and Out the Door, the Ottawa Citizen ran the attached letter to the editor.20140324-IMG_5218

 

 

Please take a moment to read the short article in praise of the good work done by Outward Bound Canada, by following the link below:

http://www.ottawacitizen.com/Outward+Bound+changes+lives/9662160/story.html

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Outward Bound fundraiser showcases Veterans program – Ottawa Citizen, March 23 2014

While it’s too late to attend the fundraising event (which took place on March 24), it’s never too late to donate to Outward Bound Canada in support of the life-changing programs they run.  Follow the link above to read a short article in the Ottawa Citizen, and visit http://www.outwardbound.ca to learn more about what Outward Bound has to offer.  Every dollar helps, and donations are accepted on the Outward Bound website.

Link | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Outward Bound in Ottawa

One of the joys of going on a new adventure is that it sometimes…no, just about always…takes me somewhere unexpected.

another iconic shot from Liz Gal

Our Outward Bound Kilimanjaro team from Liz Gal

Off the Couch and Out the Door reconnected me to Outward Bound Canada. The book starts with an Outward Bound adventure in the wilds of the Coast Mountains north of Whistler; the direction of my life, the trajectory of it all, was altered significantly as a result of that adventure.

Sarah Wiley, Executive Director of Outward Bound, graciously endorsed my book and invited me to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with one of their expeditions. Thirteen of us summited; an adventure shared with such amazing, curious, passionate Canadians and so filled with sweet spot moments, I am still in awe.

approaching the summit - an incredible shot by Liz Gal

approaching the summit – an incredible shot by Liz Gal

BobFoulkesEvents-Flier-v6 copy JPEGAnother adventure arose on that trip; we hatched a plan, a chance for me to give back to Outward Bound.

In Ottawa next Monday March 24, courtesy of Shaw Communications, we’ve invited alumni, friends of Outward Bound, outdoor enthusiasts and like minded individuals to connect with Outward Bound. I and several other alumni will tell our stories of the transformative effects of Outward Bound, offering guests a chance to learn about this awesome organization.

Join us if you can. Sarah will describe the many programs of Outward Bound, including the Women of Courage program and the Veteran’s program.

Full group, small

Who Knows, it may be the start of your Outward Bound adventure…

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

The Road to Ravenna – Part 1

photo-13 copyThe temperature in Vancouver last weekend hovered around zero, windchill on False Creek took it below zero. It snowed all weekend; abnormal weather for the lower mainland. No one expects sympathy from the rest of Canada, locked in their deep freeze; it does present challenges, we plan outdoor activities not expecting weather to be a problem.

Some 60 men and women, all over 60, signed up for a ‘clinic’ on False Creek in Vancouver. We are there for the first of many clinics to try to gain a spot on a team going to an International Dragon Boat festival In Ravenna, Italy this September.

I marvel at the human spirit. This is a tough challenge we are taking on and the weather magnifies the challenge. We are in our sixties, the time for sitting by the fire and playing with grandchildren. Yet we are all here, competitive as young Olympians, planning to spend two wet and cold days out on the water competing to make an athletic team. Elderly athlete used to be an oxymoron, not now.

photo-15 copyMany of us are tuning up; seasoned paddlers with years of experience, a few tons of medals from previous national and international regattas. They are hard core veterans.

A few of us are newbies. I have paddled recreationally for two years, hardly earning the right to challenge for a position on such a prestigious team. I am  ‘long-shot Bob’ but game for an adventure.

First and most obvious I am here. I’m off the couch and out the door.  Second, in the process of trying out, I expect to learn much in a short time from the best coaches available.  What’s the downside of that? Third, as long as I’m a contender, I am motivated; I’ll go to the clinics, show up at extra paddling sessions, work harder at my skills and technique and hit the gym a few more times than usual. I’m still in the win column.

photo-12 copy

Finally, I am with winners. Many of us are from my club, the EH team (A team -get it – eh?) are here including three other men, Peter, Wayne and Marvin, men that I admire and respect. All of us are living life – trying something new, learning, striving, doing. Everyone is fit and committed to staying that way.

 

apseRavenna is quite the prize, full of history and architecture. Even as I approach my soixante-cinq (it sounds better in French), I am excited about being on a serious team competing for serious medals. The bragging rights alone are worth some pain. The location is doubly enticing – Ravenna, Italy is a gem. I have already booked my flight; I am going to Italy this fall regardless of whether I make the team. The possibility of making the team, all bright and shiny, energizes me. New possibilities pop up. I have already booked a week of hiking with some friends, I may entice others to join me in Rome, and – well you get the picture. Even if I don’t make the team, this is a win-win.

Last weekend was a challenge; notwithstanding the weather. We trained hard. We were out on the water learning new techniques. I find that the seemingly simple process of paddling is quite complex. Maximizing the power of my paddle stroke is a combination of proper technique, power and synchronization; in an excruciating race that lasts a few minutes, there is little room for error. It’s a puzzle that will challenge me.

7112946.binI am surrounded all weekend by fit, active people my age who take their health and their exercise seriously. We have a few aches and pains but we accommodate them, we develop workarounds. We are still listening and learning; respectful of coaches years younger, still trying to do things better.

The weekend taught me how much I don’t know. My videotaped image was markedly different from my self image and wildly different from the ideal. It is humbling; I know that humble pie is best while eaten hot, so I choke it down. I know what I have to do.

My respect for everyone is higher than ever. I end the weekend with a healthier view of my chances; I am still ‘long-shot Bob’, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I have nothing to lose, everything to gain and I am doing it all in the company of people I admire and respect.

What better way to spend a cold wet weekend in February, what better goal could I have, what better company to share an experience?

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

A writer’s schizophrenic life.

IMG_5170There is an interesting transformation required of all writers. Writing is solitary work; I am isolated, I focus internally, my story is in my head. I spend hours, days on my own in my writer’s cocoon.

Then I hit a turning point. The day my book is published I need to become an extrovert, a public promotor. I must focus externally. I chase media, I court book reviewers, book store owners and reps, all are now my new best friends.  After being so intensely self absorbed, it is a bit of a shock to the system.

Writers are schizophrenic. Yes, writing is solitary, but our mission to communicate ideas, tell stories and change people’s minds is very public. We want our readers to think differently, we seek to influence them, we want to tell people how to view the world.

Delaney's, my other writer's sanctuary.

Delaney’s, my other writer’s sanctuary.

We write…alone. Then we to go in front of the public and defend ourselves. We are stars for a day at our book launches, we show up for book readings and book signings. I give a copy to my Barista at Delany’s on Denman, my favorite writing coffee shop. We answer questions from people who haven’t yet read our book. We sell our book, our ideas and ourselves.

My second book was recently launched at a wonderful independent bookstore, Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks In Vancouver. While many independent bookstores are struggling, Books to Cooks is an exception, it seem to be thriving.

Carol and Rachelle, my editors at the launch party.

Carol and Rachelle, my editors at the launch party.

Last week, about 40 people showed up at 5:30 PM one evening for a book, a glass of wine, a chance to hear me read and a chance to socialize with friends, old and new. It is a warm, reinforcing ritual. Books come alive, reading is still a virtue; readers gather to affirm our support for the arts, ideas, the written word and, I hope, for writers.

For two hours I am an extrovert. I am surrounded by friends whose best wishes fill this moment and this room with such generosity of spirit. I joyfully sign each one with my special pen.

signing books, at last...

signing books, at last…

I make the switch to a public persona, mindful that the more publicity I can generate, the more I can sell books to pay for the next one I’m thinking of writing. My guests head off into the night, all feeling much better, I hope, about the state of the nation and the future of literature.

The economics of book publishing are brutal, writing is an optimistic statement of hope over reality for most of us, the writers who create books. We seldom make money.

It’s like the farmer who manages to eke out a living with each year’s crop.  That farmer, when he wins the lottery is asked what he’ll do with his winnings. “Well,” he says, “I think I’ll keep on farming till the lottery money is all used up; after that I don’t know what I’ll do.”

IMG_5185Here’s what you can do. Read more. Turn off the TV and read. Buy a book, if not mine than someone else’s. Give books as gifts; they are universally appreciated and reflect well on you, the gift giver. Encourage others to read and buy books.  In case you were wondering, you can buy my book at bookstores across Canada in soft cover (ask for it, it generates orders) and on the web in both softcover and as an e-book

Book reviewers and publishers used to be gate keepers, curators of our taste; they suggested worthwhile books to read and told us why we might like them. Their role has disappeared; there are more books and more books are independently published; we all want you to buy our bit of printed genius.  If you read a book and liked it, tell people about it. Write a review.

Here’s a few places to start;

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20880549-off-the-couch-and-out-the-door.

Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Off-Couch-Out-Door-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00IICJOWC/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1392705815&sr=8-4&keywords=off+the+couch+and+out+the+door

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/409864.

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

Zermatt and the Matterhorn – Swiss Wonderland

I have always thought that going skiing in Europe is like having a second home in Palm springs or a vintage ’56 T-Bird. It is proof positive that one had achieved the rare state of having more money than brains.

sun, snow and skiing demand a selfie.

sun, snow and skiing demand a selfie.

Why would anyone who grew up skiing at Sunshine, Lake Louise, Whistler Blackcomb or any of a number of equally incredible resorts in western Canada want to incur the expense and trouble of going to Europe to ski? Having been to Zermatt, I can now understand why.

Zermatt is, quite simply, a skier’s Wonderland.

Zermatt is the iconic Swiss ski resort, dominated by the Matterhorn.  The Matterhorn is hard to miss, arguably the most famous mountain the Alps; it is immediately recognizable. It commands our attention; the eye immediate searches for it; it becomes the fixed reference point for all further activities.

Zermatt, surrounded by the Swiss Alps

Zermatt, surrounded by the Swiss Alps

Zermatt sits at the top of a long valley, the last stage accessible only by rail.  The train from Basel is three hours of Swiss efficiency and post-card views. No cars are allowed in Zermatt, a few small electric taxis about the size of golf carts are used to move people, luggage and supplies around the town.

We stay in a small hotel near the town square, a fifteen minute walk from the train station. The walk up to our hotel is like a walk through a fantasy, it is the idealized Swiss village of my imagination; children playing in the snow, mothers and father pulling infants on sleighs, horse drawn carriages with sleigh bells, stylish skiers in the latest outfits, all wandering past a thousand exclusive watch shops, ski outfitters and boutiques. Main street is a shopper’s paradise; Zermatt is not a Walmart town. IMG_4997

We settle in, head for lunch; a simple bratwurst meal requires more Swiss Francs than my frugality would usually allow – but hey, this is Zermatt and it is authentic Swiss bratwurst. I don’t even try to figure out what lunch costs in real Canadian currency.

Next morning, we load up on Swiss Muesli, a gooey combination of fruit and granola soaked in yogurt till everything is soft as mush, it’s remarkably tasty and surprisingly filling.

fast, efficient lifts - the Swiss effect

fast, efficient lifts – the Swiss effect

Blair heads for the slopes and I pack my snow shoes and head for a trail that will take me to end of the first big lift, Schwarzee. Blair’s lift takes minutes to the top; all the lifts seem to be state of the art; I think when they become outdated here, they are shipped to North America, where, to us, they again become state of the art.

Blair skis so many different runs he cannot keep count. He skis into Italy, right next door, he takes some runs under the shadow of the Matterhorn, he crosses over to a separate mountain whose runs were more extensive than a whole resort in North America.

the Matterhorn commands the skyline

the Matterhorn commands the skyline

I gave up skiing may years ago; with snow shoes on my back, I hike a groomed trail to Schwarzee, the first big lift on the mountain. The Matterhorn dominates my view and captivates my imagination. I am as close as I will be in winter. After a strenuous three hour hike with over 1000 meters of elevation, I reach Schwarzee and catch the lift downhill to the village to enjoy a delightful late lunch (and a nap).

unparalleled views with gourmet lunches

unparalleled views with gourmet lunches

Like the runs, Blair has an incredible range of lunch choices; restaurants are everywhere on the slopes. When the lifts shut down for the day, Blair is forced off the slopes.

We pass on a Swiss dinner and choose a rather ordinary looking Italian place on main street. The food is way above ordinary, it is incredible. Blair, a certified lasagna expert, says this lasagna completely reverses the normal noodle to sauce ratio, he has trouble finding noodles in all the sauce and cheese. It is memorable and sets a new standard by which he judges such things.

The next day we are both useless. We sleep late, eat enough muesli to be embarrassed and wander the town.

Zermatt is unique but, also, I think representative of the European view of skiing. We are brash, intense, driven, competitive; skiing is serious. When I skied we started early, took it seriously, always pushed ourselves a bit, stopped only for quick lunch and collapsed at the end of the day. It seems to me the Europeans are far less intense about the skiing part of their ski vacation. The day involves some skiing, a pleasant lunch to enjoy the view and the food; apres-ski is equally important with shopping, people-watching, rubbernecking. The proliferation of watch shops, with prices that exceed some of my real estate transactions, alone require hours of ambling, contemplation and consideration. The Zermatt vibe, the ambience, was, well, so European.  IMG_5010

Every moment of our little adventure was special; it was pricey, but well worth the expense – if for no reason more obvious than the joy of watching the Swiss/Europeans at play. While I haven’t forsaken my love of the Rockies or recalibrated my fond memories of skiing across the west, I see merit in the European approach to life.

Every once in a while it’s nice to take a Ferrari for a test drive.

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

Climbing to the top of Africa – Part 2

The first draft of my remembrance of events in my life usually comes after a bit of time. I tend to be too emotional and too volatile after a special adventure to catalogue it appropriately in my head; a few weeks later, time and reflection grant me a richer, fuller retrospective and perspective. It’s as if my subconscious needs to wrestle with my conscious to negotiate some consensus on what really happened.

One way to facilitate the process is to talk about it with friends, to try out my stories and find out which ones resonate, with them and with me. It’s a storyteller’s privilege to adapt stories to make them more vivid, to select stories for audience appeal and to ensure that my tale is told heroically yet modestly and with some regard for accuracy.

Here’s my first draft of my Kilimanjaro adventure.

IMG_5074Honour the challenge, delay gratification. Training for Kilimanjaro involved the gloriously mundane; walking and climbing with progressively longer routes and with extra weight. For months, I walked alone day after day; my trainer showed me how to strengthen my legs.  No one applauds after such work-outs and no one tells us we have done enough and can relax. These are exercises in delayed gratification.  They also demand critical self evaluation and clear-eyed self-awareness. Each adventure is a delicious mixture of fear and excitement that lifts our life above the mundane ritual of the rat race. If I’m going to be the hero in the movie of my life, I should face a few heroic challenges. In all this, I honour the adventure by preparing for it, there is no avoiding the tough months of training. The prize has always been worth the hard work and delayed gratification.

The 2014 Kilimanjaro Outward Bound team

The 2014 Kilimanjaro Outward Bound team

Pick your team, frame the challenge; there’s no use being stupid about it. I knew in an instant that Outward Bound was my best chance of successfully summiting Kilimanjaro safely. Don’t go to sea in a leaky boat, don’t run a marathon in tennis shoes and don’t join a team of crazies who don’t know the rules, the risks or the playing field. Outward Bound offered a higher level of professionalism, more safety and a higher possibility of success. They chose the local team, Chagga Tours, because they were the best. Stick with the winners, it always pays off.

IMG_5089It’s not the summit stupid. I have a tendency to focus laser-like on the goal. Partly it’s a guy thing, get the puck in the net, cross the finish line; partly it is insecurity, unsure of achieving the goal, I’m unwilling to expend any psychic or physical energy on distractions. Knowing myself, I try to apply this self knowledge to real life. I spoke to myself, at least hourly, about fear of failure and self-doubt. I stopped dragging them around with me like a piano tied to my ass; I now enjoy the hike through tropical rainforest, I revel in six days of roughing it, I marvel at the food served me. I engage with my new friends and enjoy every aspect of this adventure. I enjoy the view, get out of my head and enjoy the moment, every moment. It doesn’t work all the time but my Kilimanjaro experience is richer, more meaningful and more memorable for trying.

Sarah and Martha from Outward Bound made the dream come alive.

Sarah and Martha from Outward Bound made the dream come alive.

It’s always about the people. In every adventure, my fellow adventurers are pivotal in it’s success, they populate the memories I hold dear. My adventure friends are curious, open, passionate, engaged and engaging, human and humane. I’m not sure why, I think we self select; being Kilimanjaro, ordinary mortals do not, need not, apply.

What are my vivid memories;

  • Sharing Starbucks instant coffee as the sunrise warms our dining tent and we chatter excitedly about our new day’s challenges.
  • Getting up in the middle of the night for the usual reason and being stunned, stunned speechless, by the view of Kilimanjaro in the night, lit by the stars and a full moon so bright that rendered my head lamp redundant.  Stunning, so much so that I started looking forward to my nightly sojourn.
  • Wandering into the mist, roiling up from thousands of meters below; eerie, mysterious, suitably moody for this chapter in the movie of my life.
  • Laughing, laughing and more laughing with my new friends. Cynicism, boredom and ennui have left the building; we are enveloped in the adrenaline rush of living on the edge and sharing our excitement with each other.
  • Accepting the struggle of summit day, embracing it rather than fearing it; I do what any sane man would do, I find a spot behind a strong, determined woman ( I had 10 to choose from) and follow her up, step by step.
  • Experiencing my surroundings, relearning how little control over my life; the weather,  the route, my own body. I don’t know what to expect of the day ahead; I learn to be comfortable with what little control I have over my life.
  • Respecting my guides and porters and learning to trust them; this is their world, I am the stranger. Without them, I cannot summit; trust them, I’ll touch the sky.
  • Finding a moment to reflect on Kilimanjaro, the mountain; to admire its beauty, cherish its singularity and find joy in watching, for one dawn and one dawn only, a sunrise on its summit.
Our guides were crucial to our summit success

Our guides were crucial to our summit success

There was a moment of absolute joyful, exuberant insanity that will remain with me forever. To the guides, I was Babu, close enough to Bob and, in Swahili, well it reflected my age and my greying beard. As we were closing on the rim of Kilimanjaro, a guide called out, to me I thought, “Bab Kubwa”, (roughly – this is great – in Swahili). I didn’t have much energy left but somehow his shout energized me. I turned and shouted back, “Bab Kubwa!”. He shouted “Bab Kubwa” back. I replied as loud as I could shout, “Bab Kubwa”.  We shouted back and forth for minutes with a joy so pure it defied sensibility.

IMG_5101Then we trudged to the top.

I was alive! Thanks to that guide, his 45 fellow guides and porters, my hiking companions and Sarah and Martha at Outward Bound, I could shout to the world that I was alive – I was alive at the top of Africa.

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

Climbing to the top of Africa – Part 1

Climbing to the top of Africa – Part 1

I don’t like bucket lists, it seems too simplistic a way to navigate through life. I prefer the messy, spontaneous, serendipitous view of the future, It’s more alive. Life presents opportunities we would never dream of and tosses them in our path; random act becomes coincidence which compels destiny. Destiny brought me to Mount Kilimanjaro.

In the pursuit of an endorsement for my new book, Off the couch and Out the Door, I contacted Sarah Wiley, Executive Director of Outward Bound (Check them out at www.outwardbound.ca).obc_logo_wdmk_287

I had started my life of adventure with Outward Bound back in the 90’s; I wanted her endorsement for stories of life after that first random act. Within a week, I was sucked back into the vortex of Outward Bound adventure; Sarah invited me to climb Kilimanjaro and raise funds for their programs.

1453290_481098885328975_1805268052_nSuch is destiny; seventeen years of adventure bookended by Outward Bound. I signed up, raised some money from incredulous friends, some of whom thought it cheaper to give than to have me committed, and started training. On January 13, 2014, in my 65th year, I joined the group in Amsterdam for the flight to Moshie to start the trek to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. We are 13, 10 women and 3 men, ages varying from mid twenties to mid sixties. We’ve raised almost $100,000 for Outward Bound and have paid our own way here.

Outward Bound 2014 Mount Kilimanjaro team

Outward Bound 2014 Mount Kilimanjaro team.

Summiting Kilimanjaro is simple but not easy. Known as ‘Everyman’s Everest’, it requires no serious climbing experience, no technical mountaineering skills and no special climbing gear. That’s the simple part.

It is not easy. At 5895 meters (19, 340 feet), it is Africa’s tallest peak. It demands a high level of fitness; six to eight hour days of high altitude trekking is demanding. Our well trodden trail, the longer Machame-Mweka route covers 55 kilometers that takes us up a flank of the summit and then traverses slowly across the width of the mountain to the final camp above 4800 meters; from which we strike out for the summit. The longer route allows more time for acclimatization, improving our chances of summiting.

The big unknown is the effect of elevation. At the summit, the air is about one half as dense as at sea level where I live. That means breathing is less efficient, oxygen absorption can fall significantly affecting every aspect of my body’s functions. Each individual reacts differently; a drug, Diamox, can mitigate the effects but my reaction to high altitude can only be answered on the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro.  I think that means I have to commit, then deal with the altitude effect on summit day.

our dining tent

our dining tent

Trekking conditions are basic. No showers for six days (wet-wipes are the best we have), sleeping on the ground in tents, rudimentary toilets, food chosen for calorie density and portability rather than taste, and strict limits on personal gear. It rains a lot and it gets cold at night, very cold.

one of forty porters hauling our stuff.

one of forty porters hauling our stuff.

On the positive side, we have 46 porters and guides whose sole responsibility is to get us to the summit. It sounds presumptuous, but it is the norm and makes a valuable contribution to the local economy. Our quixotic quest is their employment lifeline, an irreplaceable source of income. In addition, we drop the regular tourist coin into the local fountain, staying at a local lodge, purchasing gifts, renting buses and sampling the local tourist stops.

the port-a-pottie.

the port-a-pottie.

For creature comforts, we have a dining tent with tables and stools for our meals, two – yes two – portapotties, the ultimate camp luxury and I have my own tent; two hot meals, bag lunches every day and water, hot and cold, for our every need.

We have six guides; experts who have summited so many times they don’t count anymore. They lead us, ‘Pole, Pole’, slowly, slowly in Swahili; for six days we trust ourselves to their care. Gerard, our lead guide, sets the pace, tells us stories, manages the guides, consults Sarah and keeps the porters sharp.

We are 13; 10 women and 3 men; not uncommon these days. We’re from all over Canada ranging in age from mid sixties to early 20‘s.

my tent, my home.

my tent, my home.

We start in early afternoon at the Machame Gate. It isn’t exactly Grand Central Station but is much busier than I expected; we are not alone in our ambition to climb Kibo. By dusk we have arrived at our first camp, Machame at 3026 meters. Our porters, wearing castoff size 12 boots on their size 8 feet, look like Hobbits; their t-shirts and other gear are visually counterintuitive – a black, Swahili-speaking Tanzanian porter sports a Texas A&M t-shirt.

breakfast is served.

breakfast is served.

They are efficient; when we arrive, our tents are up, my bag is ready and both dining and pottie tents are ready for use. We have a hot meal, deliciously above expectations – soup, main course and fruit for dessert. Next morning we have an ample breakfast and many cheerful hellos. Our bag lunch awaits and we set off. Within an hour, the porters have dismantled our camp and passed us on the trail – carrying their gear and 20 kilograms of our stuff.

IMG_5086We leave the rainforest after Machame and head up into heath; by late afternoon we have arrived at Shira Camp – 3766 meters. On day three, we tramp through moorlands with surreal cacti, hiking above 4600 meters only to hike downward into a valley to camp at Baranco – 3983 meters, the tried and true acclimatization method of hike high/sleep low will help us achieve the summit.

On day four we continue a traverse, always in view of the glaciers of the summit, we acclimatize going up and down but end the day at Karanga – 4034 meters – without gaining much elevation.

Finally on Day five, we head for Barafu our final camp before summit; our leader, Gerard, convinces the camp Ranger to allow us to climb a bit higher to Kosovo camp at 4760 meters. Our summit attempt will be that much easier with an hour less hiking and only 1000 meters of elevation to climb to the summit.

On summit day, we rise at 11 PM, we eat a bit – my only serious adverse reaction to the elevation so far has been lethargy and, for the first time in my life, a serious loss of appetite. By midnight, we have donned our many layers of clothing, adjusted our headlamps, hidden our water bottles away from the freezing cold and formed a line. Gerard leads, we follow his headlamp into the dark – pole, pole – a little caterpillar of lights moving towards the summit. Add a few more groups and we have a conga line stretching the length of the trail. We stop every hour; a bit of chocolate, some water, supportive words for those who struggle. The guides are checking us, sometime subtly, sometimes in our face to see how we are holding up.

Sunrise at the top of Africa!

Sunrise at the top of Africa!

We are admonished to keep moving, the guides show their experience now and help the faltering while sending the rest of us to Stella Point at the lip of the crater. I follow whoever is in front of me, head down for a few minutes concentrating on matching the progress of the boots in front of me.

I force myself to look up. The stars and the moonlight are spectacular, we walk in the sky; the air is crisp, precious in its lightness. I am enthralled; it is magic. By 5 AM the sky is turning a rosy pink in the east; it warms us. The sunrise is spectacular; we are on the roof of Africa, the view is heart stopping. With wide eyed wonder, we survey the horizon; it’s infinite and I swear I can see the curve of the earth.

The Summit - Uhuru.

The Summit – Uhuru.

We must move on. By 6:30 AM we reach Stella Point on the lip of the crater, at 5685 meters we are deceptively close to the summit, but we’re not done.  Uhuru, the top most point is an hour away and 200 meters higher.

I am drained, I haven’t banked energy for the final push, even though I know what we would face. This is the toughest slog, deceptively close but doggedly challenging; I silence the debate team in my head – only Uhuru will do. We finally arrive, we celebrate, we take pictures, we stomp about. Then we go back down.

The descent is a challenge; I am running on empty, my legs are like Gumby and Pokey – plasticine – when I need oak, all I have is willow. I slip slide my way through 1000 meters of skree, it isn’t elegant but, by 11, I’m HOME, back at camp.

We eat, shed a few layers, pack up our gear and start the challenging trek to Millennium camp, 1000 meters below us. Walking downhill with aching knees and complaining muscles requires concentration – something I must dig deep to find; by 4 pm, after 16 hours on trail, I arrive. My tent is here, my gear is here. My sleeping bag is here; the dining tent is up; I say a silent prayer of thanks to the gods for luck, destiny and our porters.

We eat quickly, too fatigued to celebrate and fall into our sleeping bags. By morning, courtesy of the richer atmosphere, a long sleep, and hot coffee, I have stopped twitching and recovered my decorum. IMG_5120

This, our last day, we say goodbye to most of the porters, they will lug the gear to the Mweka gate and head for home. We participate in a goodbye ritual of songs, handshakes, gifts of money and gear and the most sincere expressions of gratitude. We know we are nothing without these porters and guides.

It's official, Babu has a certificate.

It’s official, Babu has a certificate.

We hike out; six hours later at Mweka gate, we receive our certificate of achievement. It will hang in my man cave, testimony to silliness, serendipity, coincidence, destiny and Outward Bound.

More next week on why I do this…

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

East Africa – A Wonderland of Sensual Overload

Our East Africa adventure marks the start of my soixante-cinq, a mellower way of saying and facing sixty-five. To start the year with a bang, I organize a trip of a lifetime – 15 days on safari in Kenya and Tanzania to see all those amazing animals that have attracted everyone from Stanley and Livingstone to Earnest Hemingway; royalty to remittance men, we’ve all been attracted at one time to the romance that is Africa.

Albert and his Toyota Land cruiser ready to take us on safari.

Albert and his Toyota Land Cruiser ready to take us on safari.

I would not have considered this trip a decade ago; emboldened with experience from a few other adventures and with Kristen, Blair and Christopher as co-explorers, it seems the right time to explore Africa. To have them share the experience raises this adventure to something approaching adventure-heaven.

We arrive in Nairobi on Sunday Dec 15th and, next morning, set off north with Albert, our guide, in a Toyota Land Cruiser for Samburu National Park, a desertlike area halfway to Ethiopia.  Five major animal varients are exclusive to the area; we saw them all, the reticulated giraffes were particularly photogenic.

reticulated giraffes, unique to Samburu, are our favourites.

Reticulated giraffes, unique to Samburu, are our favourites.

Within days we are old hands and have to restrain ourselves from Experting – a verb Kristen invented to describe tourists who try to show how smart they are by telling a veteran African guide all about Africa. Experters are usually seen in a safari game wagon wearing matching Tilley hats, some with the sale tag still attached. (If you ever see me in a brand spanking new Tilley hat, you have my permission to kill me).

A long drive takes us to Sweetwater, an exclusive resort of tent camps; tents like no other fully lit with showers, toilets, sinks, and with wonderful beds and linen.  If this is roughing it, count me in.

Baraka has become my favourite already.

Baraka has become my favourite already.

Sweetwater is, as Blair describes it, a game park not a game reserve; it is full of game and the animals seem cued by central casting to step out of the brush to greet us when we arrive at their designated spot. We meet my favourite beast, Baraka, an elderly blind black rhino who has been carefully nurtured by his human keepers for the past ten years. In the Darwinian world of kill or be killed, Baraka would not have lasted long. He is the centre point of an eloquent display of the destruction wreaked by poachers, who have slaughtered thousands of elephants and rhinos for their horns.  Shooting with Canons is infinitely better than shooting with cannons.

While there is a vastness and resilience to this land, there is also tremendous vulnerability to human predators and to the encroachment by humans on the space wild animals need to survive; it is a delicate balance, complicating the already delicate balance inflicted on animals by Mother Nature. I suspect the animals are losing.

IMG_4760Our tent is perfectly positioned for a view of the sunrise coming over the top of Mount Kenya, the second highest, but toughest climbing peak in Africa. Blair is the lead photographer and has been capturing our adventure with diligence – he’s up at five to capture sunrises – with his tripod and camera bag he has his own weight training program as well.

IMG_4801

Chris is capturing moments on his camera as well and is proving to be our best game spotter.

Another long bumpy ride ends near the shores of Lake Naivasha; a quick boat trip into the lake and we add several dozen of the most beautiful African birds to our list of sightings; cormorants, snipes, egrets, cranes, a few flamingos and a glorious African fish eagle.  What a joyful, colorful expansion from just game watching. John Bechtold has turned me into a birder and Africa has shown me how marvelous birdwatching can be.

Kristen and Chris are mesmerized by the sights form our balloon vantage point.

Kristen and Chris are mesmerized by the sights from our balloon vantage point.

We head to the Masai Mara, the Kenyan extension to the Serengeti at the far northern end of the great Rift Valley – a geological fault line of epic proportions. Our oasis is Mara West, a small exclusive camp of individual cottages with impressive views of the sunrise over the Mara and some of the best food ever, rivaling restaurants anywhere. Albert our guide/driver treats us to two days of game watching; warthogs, black rhinos, buffalo, elephants, topi, wildebeest, etc.

The balloon ride is pure Gatsby indulgence but what a view!

The balloon ride is pure Gatsby indulgence but what a view!

The magnificence and grandeur of the Mara is forever imprinted on my memory with a dawn balloon ride over the valley; we scraped the ground in spots and soared above it in others, spotting our first leopard, a lion pride gorging on a fresh kill by the Mara River, dozens of hippos and other game. The quiet balloon gives us the element of surprise; it is glorious.

Champagne breakfast in 'Out of Africa'.

Champagne breakfast in ‘Out of Africa’.

Champagne breakfast after, in a field under an Acacia tree, was pure ‘Out of Africa’. In fact, the ‘funeral’ of Robert Redford had been filmed here. Albert had worked for the film company, a minor role carrying Meryl Streep’s extensive wardrobe around. He said she was a true human being, kind, generous, approachable and hospitable; Redford, well, he helicoptered back to Nairobi every night. (I always thought he was too pretty…). I digress…

John, a Masai tribesman, takes us on a walk in his world.

John, a Masai tribesman, takes us on a walk in his world.

Mara West is all ours, we are here in the off season, staff and service abounds. John, a Masai, takes us safely to our cottages after dark and admonishes us to stay inside until morning; he now takes us on a nature walk.  He can read tracks like we read subway maps; he uses that knowledge to keep himself alive in a world where a spear and a bow seem to offer little protection. In the space of a morning he allows us into his life. I learn to discern elephant droppings from gazelle nuggets; they taste remarkably different. We also visit a ‘traditional’ Masai village where Kristen gets to participate in some welcome songs and we overpay for trinkets, a small ‘tax’ to support a dying way of life.

I love the Mara but we must move on; to Tanzania and the Serengeti. We stay in an isolated lodge on the remote western end where we celebrate Christmas. We drive miles amid clouds of dust and swarms of black flies; if we drive fast we keep ahead of the flies and dust but have to deal with the bone crunching Mara Massage; it’s a worthy trade-off.

Lion cubs guard their kill.

Lion cubs guard their kill.

The Serengeti lives up to its promise. We witness four separate groups of cats; first a leopard in a tree, sleeping off the nights kill, then a pride of lions, some in a tree and some on the ground lazing away the afternoon. A few miles further, we spot three leopards, almost hidden in tall grass but occasionally raising their heads to scan the horizon for tonight’s feast and finally, a second pride protecting a roadside kill. A mother and two cubs are moving so slowly they seem doped; their bellies are distended and they are obviously suffering from binge eating and the meat sweats, but they won’t leave what’s left of the poor zebra. Like a late night pizza order, there’s enough left over for breakfast.

Another long hot drive brings us to the Ngorongoro Crater Park. Our lodge is in the middle of a Tanzanian coffee plantation, again we feel indulged; there has not been a single hotel/lodge/tent camp that is less than five star – that’s North American five star. We all feel a bit guilty but it has been booked and paid for so we must stick to the program.

The serval stays intent on his hunt, ignoring us completely.

The serval stays intent on his hunt, ignoring us completely.

The Ngorongoro crater, over 20 kms wide, has reached a surprising ecological equilibrium; tight control of intrusions has not destroyed the delicately balanced ecosystem. We see a Noah’s ark of animals; despite the law of diminishing returns, a few that are new to us. A serval, a beautiful cat hunts for rodents a few meters from our Toyota, as word gets out there is a Toyota stampede rivaling the migration of wildebeests heading for our spot. The serval remains unfazed and hunts away; hunger is the alternative so it ignores our intrusion. I lift my head and see a 600 meter wall of the crater lip surrounding us like a fortress wall. We are in another world; as close to Jurassic Park as I can imagine.

A bay elephant is dwarfed by its mother.

A baby elephant is dwarfed by its mother.

At last, in our last stop at Amboseli National Park, we are in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Our morning game drive rewards us with elephants. A baby, weeks old, is still trying to figure out how to maneuver his trunk around and so small he can run under mother’s stomach; restless adolescents spar with each other, running around making elephant mischief as the herd heads for water.

Garzi, my adopted elephant.

Garzi, my adopted elephant.

I hold off deciding to devote my life to these fascinating mammals.  I do commit to adopting an orphan elephant baby, Garzi, just approaching two, at the David Sheldrick Foundation, http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org. Garzi, one of over 30 orphans, will be nurtured and reintroduced into an elephant family when he is able to survive and will be accepted. It seems a small way to support wildlife who had given us such joy.

My senses are overwhelmed with the novelty of it all; I struggle to process all we’ve experienced.  My dreams at night are vivid and sometimes scary, presumably my subconscious is also trying to make sense of this, or it could be the dinner…

Elephants in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Elephants in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

I have one piece of advice; already clear to me. If you can manage it, take a trip to Africa. It must be seen up close and personal; movies and documentaries will never capture the phantasmagoria that is Africa – a wonderland of sensual overload. If you want to make it extra-special, blow the budget and take your whole family; the shared experiences will fuel a thousand dinner conversations for decades to come.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Walk or pilgrimage; both are one step at a time

2013-09-25 00.30.17Two months ago, I walked the Camino Frances, a well tramped thousand year old Catholic pilgrimage, a stroll of about 800 kilometers, from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain.

Catholic pilgrims pay homage to Saint James whose bones are said to be buried in Santiago’s cathedral. The rest of us are usually in search of something, a spiritual moment, an insight, a chance to get off life’s treadmill, or, in my case, a simple hiking challenge.

2013-10-07 00.56.05My guidebook offers a 33 day walk averaging 20-25 kilometers a day and allows for a few days of rest along the way. The route is well marked with yellow arrows and a unique scallop shell symbol posted on walls, fences, power poles and anything else that will stand still, so well marked that one could easily walk the whole Camino without a map. It’s well maintained and well used; more than 250,000 pilgrims a year trek the Camino.

Hostels along the Way, called albergues, offer showers, toilets, laundry facilities and bunk beds with mattresses for about 10 Euros a night. They are rustic but usually clean, cheap and convenient. Food is predictable, calorie dense and fried. My day starts with a cafe con leche, there are 2013-09-20 01.12.36sandwiches along the route and a communal pilgrim dinner at the end. Numerous fountains provide safe drinking water and every shop sells water, fruit, snacks and local delicacies.

My knapsack is limited to essentials; a light sleeping bag, a few changes of clothes, toiletries and gear to last a month; I keep the bag under 10 kilos to limit stress on hips, legs and feet.

Every pilgrim carries a Camino passport, I gather stamps to verify my journey across northern Spain; Navarra, Rioja, Castlle et Leon and finally Galacia. The Pyrenees are wild and mountainous. Rioja is classic wine country terrain. Castille, the meseta, is a vast flat plain of wheat fields and grazing land for cattle and sheep that covers half our route. Galacia is hill and dale, stream and valley, mist shrouded and prone to rain. There were three tough climbing days, adding 800-1000 meters of vertical to an already long walking day.

Weather looms large in my life, a few rainy windy days at the start, a few in the middle and one on the last day; inconvenient at most, the challenge is wet clothing that won´t dry overnight and wet feet that are more prone to blisters.

2013-10-01 10.31.12My day is simple and repetitive. I awake about 6, gather up my gear, pack it, have a quick coffee and pastry and set out to walk. In early mornings, I use my headlamp. By 9 the sun is up and I stop for a short coffee. I prefer to walk straight through and by about 2, I usually make it to my chosen albergue. I check in, unpack, shower, wash my clothes from the days walk, rest, drink lots to rehydrate and then write some notes. Dinner is usually at 7, I am asleep by 9 or 10. I do the same for the next 28 days and manage to walk across Spain.

The obvious question is why? Often asked, I still don’t have a ready or easy answer. It was neither religious nor spiritual but I promised myself to be open to any spiritual feelings that might emerge. Few of my fellow pilgrims seemed to be on a spiritual quest. We are all here doing something ordinary, yet extra-ordinary, something as normal and mundane as walking, yet on a grander scale than any of us had ever attempted.  It invites self reflection.

For me, this is an adventure, a step into the unknown and a physical challenge on a grand scale but it is physical and emotional rather than spiritual.  Can I walk every day for a month? Do I have the persistence, patience, stamina and fortitude to achieve this goal?

The Camino is a daily reminder that I am control little in my life. The weather, the trail, the people I meet, the places I stop – all are new to me, all beyond my control.

Life on the trail is simple. I carry all my possessions, My daily challenge is to walk a certain distance. I have few distractions.IMG_4532

I am constantly reminded that I am but one of many pilgrims most of whom have stories rich with courage and nobility; my epic shrinks in comparison.

I am reminded that I am walking in someone else’s back yard, some farmer’s field, some cow  pasture; such ordinariness keeps me grounded.

I take great joy in small things. Wild fennel grows along our path; I rub some of its seeds in my hands and am rewarded with a delightful smell of dill and anise that will forever remind me of the Camino.

2013-10-11 02.08.09Early morning walking is a treat, the air is cool and fresh, the sky is filled with stars, sometimes the moon shines so brightly that I do not need my headlamp. I hear roosters crow and cowbells off in the distance, they automatically bring a smile to my face.

I delight in the sounds of church bells marking the hours; this was a religious pilgrimage, we travel from church to church. If I don’t know where I’m going, I look for a church steeple and am almost guaranteed to end up there. The churches also provide a place of quiet contemplation when I stop, a vesper service or a mass in the evening.

In the morning especially, I delight when I see the familiar yellow arrow on a wall, a curb or a rock; it tells me I am still going in the right direction and I smile in the comfort of that knowledge.

These are the small miracles of discovery that I will remember most vividly.

Above all I will remember the people;

  • Two dutchmen who rode their bikes all the way from their home in Holland to then ride the Camino.
  • Peter who started walking from his native Austria in 2004 to do bits of his 3000 Km Camino; he was going to finish this year – ten years after he started.
  • Mike, an 81 year old from Alaska who was doing as much as he could but was going to walk the last 100 KM to Santiago to get his certificate.
  • Daniel from central Massachusetts explained meditation to me and how it might make my Camino easier.
  • Three women from Denmark, California and Victoria (Sally was doing it to celebrate her 65th) who had become fast friends in half a day of hiking together.
  • A group of 7 from PEI who were delightfully Canadian, full of openness, kindness, and happiness; they were tough to miss with their repertoire of colourful matching t-shirts.
  • Steffi from Berlin; who gushed so much over maple syrup I promised to send her some when I got home.

We all shared our stories and politely wished each other a ‘Buen Camino’ as we passed along the trail.

I met Jeanette from Sweden along the Way. She was a small grandmotherly looking 2013-10-16 05.53.31woman in her 70’s who would have looked more at home in her kitchen. She had recently lost her husband and rather than sink into mourning, she decided to do the Camino. So, she learned about electric bikes, managed to get her bike shipped out to St Jean and rode it confidently. I met her on the way and again in Santiago; we hugged and I shed a tear of happiness for her courage and resolution. Her experience opened doors to life, she discovered a strength she never knew existed; there is nothing she cannot do and little for her to fear. It was both humbling and uplifting.

My Camino ended at about 10:30 am on the 29th day of my trip. I arrived in Santiago after a short walk in a driving rainstorm. I was bone tired, soaked to the core, chilled and done. Later, I toured the cathedral, attended Mass, bumped into many fellow travellers. I ended my Camino with a warm, wonderful pilgrim dinner, sharing the events with a group of my favorite Camino friends.

I had no grand epiphanies, I had no insights into my soul, I made no resolutions to change the course of my life. I did come away with a more optimistic view of the inherent goodness of ordinary people, We ought to ignore the disaster mongers of the media; people are essentially good. I enjoyed an infinite number of small daily kindnesses from complete strangers. I gained a resurgent joy in the purity and simplicity of nature.

For that and everything else that occurred, I am grateful.

Posted in Walking Adventures | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment