Energy advocacy – what to believe?

It’s been a busy week for energy advocacy.

On Tuesday, billionaire Murray Edwards and Brian Ferguson, Cenovus CEO, penned an oped for the Globe entitled Our country – and our companies – are ready for a new pipeline dialogue. Here’s the link in case you missed it.

Jim Prentice, former Harper Cabinet Minister and briefly Alberta Premier offered his views yesterday in a piece in the Globe titled; Our energy economy should be celebrated, not shunned. Again, here’s the link;

Today, Premier Brad Wall waded in to the discussion suggesting that the Government of Canada should spend more than $150 million cleaning up so-called orphan wells in Saskatchewan that the energy industry had abandoned, left derelict and possibly dangerous in contravention of provincial and federal regulations. Again, here is the news story;

My goodness, this is a veritable assault on my senses. Since the issues raised are so crucial, I want to contribute; most of us in the 99% do not get admitted to the hallowed halls of the oped page of the Globe, so my blog will have to do.

Let’s start with the Edwards/Ferguson so-called new pipeline dialogue. Mr Edwards and Mr. Ferguson have transformed themselves from $110/barrel Libertarians to $30/barrel Communist central planners. Their former employees are now being shamelessly used as pawns in a PR assault to fast track the Transmountain pipeline. If they had cut dividends, executive salaries, bonuses and their private jets as quickly as they had cut staff, one might give them the benefit of the doubt.

If they had touted the benefits of Alberta’s commitment to climate change ten years ago, as they do now without actually acknowledging Premier Notley’s initiative; well, again, they might be given the benefit of the doubt.

If they really believed that building a pipeline would create jobs for today’s unemployed, they wouldn’t feed us a 20 year job creation projection as their rationale for government abrogating due process – even for the unfortunates these seven companies put out of work over the last six months.

If they really believe that the $47 billion estimate in additional government revenue to be gained from this pipeline were reason enough to exempt hearings and regulatory oversight, they would disclose the windfall accruing to Transmountain and to the energy shippers as a way to see who really wins. Canadians might get beyond the “trust us, we know what we are doing” assertions of the industry, if they engaged in real dialogue.

In his piece, Mr Prentice observes that Canada has been playing checkers while the US has been playing chess over energy, a vivid but simplistic metaphor. In the category of ‘We have seen the enemy and he is us.”, Mr Prentice is criticizing himself, and his Harper government colleagues for ten years of playing checkers. He may be too hard on himself but that is for others to judge.

Clearly, he would like the Trudeau government and the Notley government to make up for a decade of checker playing and approve some pipelines – now! The drop in energy prices seems to have turned Mr. Prentice into a radical government interventionist; he virtually demands government get into the energy business, mostly by shutting up opposition and pushing due process out of the way. The presumption of course is that we cannot afford the niceties of wide discussion in the public square because we need to move – now!

Prentice makes much of the value of the oil sands – he neglects to mention that bitumen from the oil sands has very high production costs – we will never compete with much of the world’s oil, every time there is a price drop, Canada suffers the quickest and the most.

While Mr. Prentice would have Canadians believe that energy production is a sacred trust, to be sanctioned and supported by government – so much so that when necessary, Canada should sweep away a carefully constructed legal, regulatory and administrative framework that has served us well.

Which brings us to Mr. Wall. In suggesting that the federal government, the people of Canada, should step in and spend $150 million to cleanup orphan wells that have been abandoned by the energy industry in contravention of federal and provincial regulation is stunning. To pitch it as an employment program for workers who have been thrown out of work by the same industry defies logic; the arithmetic doesn’t work very well either, $150 million for 1200 jobs to clean up 1000 wells abandoned by the industry isn’t very efficient. I know it works for the industry; a new wrinkle on the “too big to fail” has become the “make your money and leave your mess for someone else to clean up”.

Clearly Mr. Wall has decided that energy industry activity in Saskatchewan must be encouraged at all costs; damn the law, damn the regulations, damn the people of Saskatchewan; damn his responsiblity as Premier and head of government for all the people of Saskatchewan. By the way, those are my tax dollars he’s suggesting be used to clean up the industry mess! They are your tax dollars!

It also speaks volumes of the commitment to environmental stewardship of the energy industry. If all these rules and regulations can be blithely abandoned without penalty, why would we put any faith in the rule of law and the regulatory process?

So, friends, what do we learn from all this.

My only observation is get informed! Ask questions! What is really at stake in this aggressive advocacy for these pipelines? Who wins? Who loses? What is at risk?

If we are committed to evidence based decisions, and willing to engage in a new pipeline dialogue, the energy industry should open the door to real meaningful dialogue on safety, risk, environmental issues, Canada benefits, immediate job creation, climate change impacts, remediation, taxation and royalties.

If these projects are in the national interest, all the people in the public square deserve to be heard.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Pipeline hubris

Spoiler alert- This is not a travel adventure blog post. Somehow this one slipped through.

Someone wise once told me that most of our wounds are self-inflicted.

In the context of this weeks noisy debate about pipelines in Canada, we can probably identify a few self inflicted wounds and a few of the principals involved. To save their own embarrassment, energy executives and their surrogates tend to be shouting the loudest and pointing fingers with the most vehemence, a sure sign of the axiom.

Canadian energy industry executives completely missed the dizzy decline in the world price of oil. They weren’t alone, we all did; the difference is they get paid big bucks to figure this stuff out.

The Alberta economy has paid a big price, people are out of work, house prices are falling, companies will fail, investment is down. While it has happened before, everyone is spooked. The challenge this time is that the energy industry has dug itself into a fairly big hole – public trust is at all time lows.

For the past decade the Canadian energy industry has been the leading climate change denier. Their approach to opposition to tar sands development was to call it oil sands – or even better, bitumen. Major importing countries – aka customers – were so frustrated with the lack of any commitment to improving mining and processing practices that they organized boycotts of Alberta oil sands production. COP 21 didn’t help.

The energy industry, complacent after a long run of high world oil prices, decided that their good fortune was a product of their business acumen. Unfortunately, their success resulted from a commodity price set at OPEC headquarters. Now with commodity prices in the tank, rather than self examination they have chosen to blame the newly elected governments of Notley and Trudeau.

If I was out of work in Calgary my question would be to my former boss; “If you’re so smart, why am I out of a job?”

The pipeline business, heady from decades of guaranteed profitability, systematically screwed up every project put forward since the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline was approved in the late 90’s.

Keystone XL was a straight line that ignored every obvious warning sign; ranchers, aquifers, parks, sacred places, regulatory agencies, the US President – no matter, the straight line was king. Then it wasn’t, listening and flexibility came too late.

Northern Gateway was a case study in what happens when an Alberta oilman meets determined BC environmentalist/Aboriginal/lefties – they didn’t have a chance and still can’t seem to figure out why.

Kinder Morgan botched a suburban Burnaby oil leak, couldn’t get its GPS coordinates right in mapping the new line and failed to recognize that rebuilding a pipeline route through an urban neighborhood to deliver bitumen to tidewater in beautiful Burrard Inlet might not work just on the strength of their existing right-of-way.

The industry seemed determined to alienate just about everyone;

  • the people of Alberta as evidenced by the landslide provincial election,
  • most Canadians as shown by the results of the last Federal election,
  • most other key provincial governments where support was crucial,
  • the US Government and its many agencies in Washington,
  • stakeholders all along the Keystone XL line from State legislators to farmers and ranchers to environmentalists of all stripes,
  • Stakeholders all along Northern Gateway route, including the now restive and politically sophisticated aboriginal communities,
  • residents of Burnaby where the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion has awakened and aroused fierce opposition.

Now, having been roughed up badly and amidst failing prices, the energy and pipeline business still haven’t figured out how to get the respect they think they deserve. A few advertisements on television and in movie theaters will not burnish their image or regain public trust; haranguing government will not get them the licenses they need to proceed.

The Harper government, in its rush to become an energy super-power, pushed too hard. Cheerleaders-in-chief, they endorsed pipeline projects long before any fair analysis was conducted – public hearings and facts be damned, these projects were going ahead.

They upset the delicate balance of trust in the National Energy Board by passing new legislation to severely limit public hearings. The National Energy Board, created to take public debate out of the political arena and adjudicate them with some evidence-based objective process, was was sacrificed in Harper’s urgency to get things done. The unintended consequences: public demonstrations and a descent into politics of the most destructive kind – nimbyism, self-interest shouting matches and indiscriminate finger-pointing.

So, where are we?

First, this issue is not binary. The discussion isn’t just about a pipeline or no pipelines. It isn’t just about Energy East or no Energy East, Kinder Morgan or no Kinder Morgan. It is about climate change, public trust in our institutions and who determines our energy future.

Alberta has opened the door to a more reasoned public discussion, it is now environmentally responsible; potential international customers and their stakeholders are more willing to come to the table.

The Federal Government has helped breathe some life into Kinder Morgan and Energy East by ensuring more public consultation, real dialogue. Kinder Morgan has a chance to bring its best game – show what it will do to gain the public license to move greater quantities of bitumen to tidewater on the west coast.

Energy East faces its own obvious difficulties. Their proposal will require patience and a willingness to adjust that is uncharacteristic. They will have to find their better selves to succeed.

Both Alberta and Ottawa have created an opportunity for them to rescue these two project. The industry’s need to engage in the community is never more urgent, their dependence on a wide range of stakeholders has never been more obvious.The onus is now on the industry to reformulate their proposals, offer more assurances on public safety, increase the benefits to Canadians and engage in a thoughtful constructive dialogue with all Canadian stakeholders.

They might yet rescue themselves, their employees, Alberta and Canada from their self inflicted wounds.

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

Where’s home?

I travel a lot.

When I travel, one of the first questions I’m asked by fellow travelers is: “Where are you from?”

It is all about establishing your home. This idea of home has been on my mind lately. I do have a home; it is in Vancouver.

I love my home; leaving on an adventure is just slightly more satisfying than coming home after that adventure.IMG_3605

My apartment is my base, it is familiar and it gives me comfort to know it is there for me wherever I go. There is nothing more exquisitely comforting and homey than an afternoon nap on my man-cave sofa.



Vancouver is truly beautiful; I have never, in all my travels, found a place more comfortable. I am blessed with fascinating friends who care for me; I miss them when I’m gone and much of my delight in coming home springs from reconnecting with them.


I am finding new ways to define home that go beyond the physical definition of my Vancouver apartment – it is a place, a special place but still, a place.

As I travel further afield, as I extend my travels to months rather than weeks and as I experience alone travel more often, I am expanding my definition of home.

IMG_5113 - Version 2Much of my travel, as in my life, is in pursuit of something; usually ill-defined but the quest is necessary, the need to explore is palpable and irresistible for me.

Travel is adventure, new challenges, new experiences, new vistas, new ways of looking at the world.

I search for ‘sweet spots’; those brief magical moment when pixie dust is sprinkled – the right people, the right combination of sights, smells, sounds, all create an indelible moment that will live with me forever. It is deeper than a good, even a great, memory. The sweet spot is written on my memory in indelible ink.

IMG_4697‘Sweet spots’ don’t come easy. They do not land in my lap as I sit in my man cave drinking my morning coffee. They have to be pursued; usually at some physical discomfort and with some need for patience and mindfulness. When they arrive they are brilliant; doubly worth every mundane effort in the search for them.

I am also finding that I have a way of looking at travel, not through the examination of my Visa bill after the trip, or a run through my photo file, or a reread of my blogs to myself but in a simpler, purer test.

Rio toro 223At some point, usually daily when I travel, I ask myself; “Is there any place I would rather be than where I am right here, right now?” The answer is almost always NO. The experience matters and is meaningful to the point where I can think of nothing I would rather do. By this simple test, what I am doing makes sense. The question – and the answer – never fails to lift me up out of some minor inconvenience, some fleeting mood, some brief shadow to allow me to find perspective.

IMG_1507-2I am also finding a new definition of Home. It is not just a physical location to me; it has become more complex, more robust, more nuanced. Home is now more about who I am with, what I am sharing, what I am experiencing, how I am interacting with a whole host of physical, emotional and intellectual stimuli; I am home when it “feels like like home.”

There are times when travel doesn’t make sense; some combination of running away from loneliness and boredom, some ill defined need for excitement, some restlessness. The notion that these vague uncertainties can be resolved by going home is too confining.

IMG_1778Travel does not necessarily mean leaving home. I can carry home with me. Technology helps; my smartphone keeps me connected with friends wherever I am, I can plug into news and stay in touch with my city/province/country/interests, I carry my financial and health services with me neatly compacted into a few plastic cards. My passport and credit cards offer flexibility and a safety hatch.

It is not what I am leaving that is exciting; it is what I am looking forward to. I have found home whenever I am with my children, their supreme gift is sharing time and experiences with me. What better definition do I need of home?

IMG_1890A road trip in Iceland, Christmas dinner in Basel on December 1 and again in Bergun on December 28, all with my children – that’s home. I get the same sense of home when I travel with or visit close friends.




I have felt at home in Normandy with friends, in Paris because I am secretly a snobby Parisian, and in rural eastern Ontario because I have friends who adopted me into their family.

Searching for unicorns and ‘sweet spots’ is rewarding in itself, finding those moments and sharing them with those we love is priceless, knowing I have a home in Vancouver is comforting; all are facilitated by relaxing my idea of home.

Home is whenever and wherever I am with friends,

Home is wherever, whenever I can be with my children.

Home is experiencing one of those rare sweet spots.

Home is when I think ‘this is where I want to be, there is no place I would rather be’.

12439268_10156471065385694_2407396843174480338_nAll these now define home. But when a stranger asks me; ‘where’s home?’ I still say; ‘Vancouver.’

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Hockey and Heidi-land.

Yes, there is a place called Heidi-land. It is in Switzerland and it doesn’t just resemble the movie home of our beloved Heidi; it replicates it. Read the book, see the movie; your internalized, glorified, mythical image of Switzerland exists. It’s here – in Heidi-land.

Kristen and Chris live in Basel, at the corner of Switzerland, France and Germany. It’s Swiss but it’s flat, away from the mountains. So we are off to find the REAL Switzerland in Bergun, a small village half way between St. Moritz and Davos. Deep in the Swiss Alps, twisty roads through mountains, forests, steep sided canyons lead us to a small lush flat pastured area dotted with huge Swiss homes – barns, silage storage and human habitation all under one roof, most now converted to guest houses and ski chalets – Heidi-land.IMG_1838

Our village has it all. Our chalet is central, the village bakery is a shirt sleeve walk away, the bell tower, dating back to the 16th century, is the stage for an evening brass quartet concert; all creating a perfect frame for the women selling raclette in the corner of the square. Heidi will appear imminently, I know it.

It’s late December, snow has not arrived; it is mild, sunny and unseasonably warm. Lack of snow doesn’t stop the Swiss from going outside. A few slopes are open with man-made snow for kids to enjoy. Tots as young as 4-5 seem to be skiing unsupervised, riding the poma lifts like seasoned pros.

IMG_1883Real skiing has been replaced with sledging. We rent sledges and helmets, a dedicated train hauls us up through the valley spilling us out onto a wild 6 KM roller coaster back into town.

I’m not enamored with the idea of sledging but there are tots gleefully jumping up and down at the train station ready to haul us up the valley so I feel compelled to prove my manhood – again.

Does it ever end?

IMG_1881Every adventure worth its name demands an escapade involving protective headgear, so I go.

We rocket down the run, Chris rockets faster and Kristen screams louder but we rock-et.


Our train waits to take us for another run….after we’ve had a sausage at an outdoor stand and cooled our butts on the ice-sofa.



I’m so Swiss I could yodel!





We finish our Swiss-movie day with Xmas dinner. Ginelle, Jeff, seven month old Linden and Desi the dog have brought an illicit French turkey smuggled across the border. We’ve cooked it up in Champagne (befitting a free-range, grass-fed, respectfully-sacrificed Dindon) and served it with all the fixings. A large bar of Swiss chocolate is all we need for dessert. Such a celebration!

IMG_1864The other reason for our timely visit to Bergun is THE SPENGLER CUP. I have fond but vague memories of watching televised coverage of Team Canada off in some European ice hockey tournament – showing those boys how to really play the game. It seems these Europeans have been playing organized hockey for a while now – without Canadian supervision.

The Spengler Cup is one of the first, if not THE first organized tournaments, dating back to 1923. The six teams this year are all European club teams, two Swiss, a Finn, a Russian and a German.

Team Canada is put together by Canadians playing with other teams in the Swiss professional hockey league. Many are ex-NHLers, extending their careers, many are here for the love of the game and a desire to play professionally wherever they can. The tournament starts Boxing day and finishes on New Year’s eve. Davos shelves its World Economic Forum image – this is young male beer drinking with a side of hockey. The hospitality tent is as large as the arena – an obvious sign.

IMG_1870The Vaillant arena remains hallowed ground, a cathedral for ice hockey, it holds 6300, sold-out for every game – you’ll notice I didn’t say it seats 6300 – it doesn’t. Seats are expensive, even by NHL standards so we choose standing room. Each game about 1500 of the sweating, testosterone charged, beer drinking, chanting, singing masses (us included) are herded row by row onto risers to watch the game. Beer is efficently passed up the rows, money back down; they can do the wave with a beer in each hand.

This exceeds every expectation I have ever held for polite rowdiness. The combination could not be more stark if you crammed the Mormon Tabernacle and Southern Baptist choirs together into a space reserved for a quartet. It’s noisy; songs, chants roil around the arena, feeling more like European football than our sanctified game. We get used to it, we have to – once in, you can’t wiggle your way out.

IMG_1859Kristen, Chris and I have ample supplies of Team Canada gear, there seem to be bogus Canadians amongst us – I start checking for MEC stickers and whether they say EH as corroboration of Canadian DNA – most don’t pass the test. But they love Canadians and cheer rabidly.




Our boys do us proud. They have just met, two practices and a pre-game skate and they are ready to rumble. Rumble they do – winning all their games, they hoist the Cup on New Year’s eve. Then they go back to their regular jobs playing all over Europe.


Here’s the best part. They play for the privilege of wearing the Team Canada jersey. That’s it – no money, just pride; a worthy discovery at any time – Canadian pride, unadorned. In the heart of Heidi-land I learn again what it is to be a proud Canadian.

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

India and COP21 – not a Travelogue.

My travel goal is to deliberately take myself out of my comfort zone, to cause myself a bit of discomfort. Trips to strange places challenge my conventional wisdoms, confront my biases and cause me to think more deeply about all sorts of things.

India is a challenge; more than 1.3 billion people in the world’s largest democracy, functioning in 22 languages, wildly different ecosystems from the foothills of the Himalayas to the sweltering delta of Cochin, so many religions it befuddles. Yet, Indian democracy works and India has managed to lift its people up; most demographic markers  are improved and improving.

IMG_6226The poverty still grinds, needed changes across such a vast population are overwhelming, many cultural and religious practices are barbaric by western standards and the country struggles to provide basic services; clean water is a privilege, clean water that doesn’t have to be carried long distances is joy, attendance at public schools is high because of the free lunch program (the only meal most children are likely to get) and per capita income is shocking even if it is heading upwards.

Here’s how my India trip captivated and challenged me.

logo-COPAt the same time as I was traveling in India, in another universe COP21 leaders were deciding to alter the course of human destiny to achieve a more carbon free future. I read Velma’s notes from Paris and tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to connect her observations with what I saw out of the window of my bus.

I am not a climate change expert and I am not an expert on India’s economy; I am a tourist passing through, trying to connect the two. How can we engage 1.3 billion people in India in our struggle to achieve climate goals that, science tells us overwhelmingly, are necessary to our survival?

It is a yawning gap. From what I can understand, countries like India see the West as having created the problem; they see the rest of the world being asked to sacrifice their future economic prosperity (and that of their billions of constituents) by committing to join the West in a post-industrial world when they haven’t managed to reap any benefits from their own industrial revolution.

It is impossible to NOT get their point. Serendipitously, this trip has graphical exposed the gap between the West and the rest.

When access to water, healthcare, jobs, foreign exchange, economic growth and improving standards of living from grinding poverty are on the agenda, saving the planet is at best an afterthought and at worst, laughable. I can see most political leaders refusing to handcuff themselves. I can also see them accusing the West of continuing their energy spendthrift ways. The demands for monetary support from the West makes perfect sense. That COP21 got any agreement at all from participants is startling.

IMG_6189In some ways, grinding poverty has made Indians efficient consumers. Their per capita energy use is infinitesimal compared to mine. They walk, or use tuk-tuks; quaint and adorable to us tourists but far more efficient than my SUV.

IMG_6151The one million slum dwellers of Dharavi township are recyclers extraordinaire, reusing 60% of Mumbai’s plastics, recycling paper and cardboard, forging ingots of aluminum from cans and recovering all manner of containers for re-use. They make my feeble attempts at recycling farcical. It seems counterintuitive that Indians amy be more intelligent and efficient recyclers, out of necessity, than I am out of virtue but my eyes do not lie.

Maybe we ought to change the economics of recycling – really rewarding our binners and scavengers for their efforts and really charging Starbucks for littering our cities with plastic?

IMG_6185Vegetarians put less stress on our resources. I am not about to renounce beef altogether but, in India, it isn’t found on the menu, nor is pork in a land that is 20% Muslim. Chicken is the omnivore’s option – free range, grass fed chicken! Again my western lifestyle seems profligate. As a non-expert, food and food production in North America may be as bad for our planet as it is for our health.

I’m not sure what strategies policy makers can employ to ensure that India can continue the necessary advances in bringing a better life to its people. The old industrial revolution powered by coal, oil and gas is now denied India. A substitute bridge to a better life for Indians is not clear to me.

What is clear is that throwing money at government, in India or elsewhere, seems doomed. Corruption and bureaucracy were not invented here but they are rampant and embedded. The early successes at bridging to a new economy, in IT for example, have increased the gap between the haves and the have-nots; unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism may go only so far.

IMG_6273India, like China, is also seeing significant degradation to their environment as they pursue economic development. Deforestation, excessive water use, single-crop agriculture, air pollution, stressed urban environments, increased use of artificial pesticides. … the list goes on and on. Today’s immediate problems are in their face immediate and, while linked, the urgent is crowding out the important.

imagesI expect travel to make me uncomfortable; challenge and change do not come with Linus’s security blanket. My trip has forced me to see COP 21 in a different light; unexpectedly, India has added a complex personal dimension to my otherwise esoteric view of how this global issue plays out.

India has forced me to accept that it is personal; I have the responsibility. India has taught me to view resources as precious and finite. COP21 is about changing my behaviour.

While it is way too soon for New Year’s resolutions; I have a few that I’m considering;

I may park the car and walk more,P1060266

I might save beef consumption for very rare occasions,

IMG_6201I will eat more fruit/vegetables and place all the refuse in our apartment compost bin.

I must use less water and turn out the lights more often.

It is time to simplify my possessions and send everything I can to a better use and the recycle bin.



I think I will stop and consider every purchase I make – the lunacy of a storage locker to store stuff I don’t want while the rest of the world would see a storage locker as comfortable housing for a family is evident.


images-1I may even make my next auto purchase a North American version of the Tuk-Tuk.





An electric car…

Well, it’s a start.

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

Responsible Tourism

Inscrutable India; she is beyond comprehension to me.

I have difficulty understanding Mumbai, how it functions, how it reconciles the extremes evident everywhere. My first inscrutable is why more than 500,000 rural peasants migrate to Mumbai every year.  My second is how Mumbai absorbs them and keeps functioning.

We fly south from Mumbai to Mangalore, and, after a long bus ride, we reach the first of our two responsible tourism resorts in the interior.

IMG_6175Orange County Coorg  is set in the midst of a coffee, pepper and ginger plantation. The area is lush and green, coffee plants blanket the area. Pepper plants, creepers, crawl as high as ten meters on trees; ginger plants occupy plots in between the coffee plants. There is a canopy of palm trees, deciduous trees and other strange breeds.IMG_6179

The resort is pastoral, our individual cabins are set far apart along with several restaurants, an activity center and open spaces arranged within walking distance.

The resort has just won a prestigious INTERNATIONAL award for its mix of eco-friendly technologies and commitment to local employment and involvement. It ranks in the top 5, 10 or 25 of most Trip Advisor and National Geographic categories.

We tour the recycling, biomass and chemical free organic gardens – they are proud of what they are doing; delighted to be recognized for being at the forefront of eco-tourism and anxious to show it off. Our friends who sustain acres of green-grassed golf courses in Palm Springs with precious water could learn a thing or two.

Every night there is a cultural display, music and dance by indigenous groups – inscrutable.IMG_6197

Villages around the resort appear poor but neat and tidy. Tending and harvesting coffee and pepper is grueling but provides much needed employment for subsistence farmers.IMG_6177

Of the more than 500 employees who welcome us at the lodge, some 60% are local. Work in the lodge offers a way out of village poverty for bright and ambitious youth. Service is enthusiastic, friendly and gracious.

IMG_6225It is a welcome change from the cacophony of Mumbai and offers some hope for the future. Tourism, and its trendy offshoot ecotourism, offers jobs, minimum impact on the environment, transferable and internationally viable careers, valuable foreign exchange and tax revenue.

This company tries even harder by adding a category-leading responsibility code to its business operations, ensuring that benefits spread beyond the four corners of its balance sheet.

Our next resort, Orange County Kabini, is also built around sustainable tourism. Again, the staff is more than 60% local.

Here the draw is the abundant wildlife of the Nagarhole National Park.IMG_6216

Two decades ago, there were three tigers, now there are 80+, there are several healthy herds of Asian elephants, Guar, spotted deer, crocodiles, wild boar and myriad other species.IMG_6207.JPG The birdwatching alone is world class; we see some 25 different birds on an early morning walk. We see one particular species of geese that flies from Mongolia to winter in southern India – somehow navigating through and over the Himalayas, rivalling our Canada Geese for distance and navigation skills.

Our guides manage to help use discover these magnificent animals from both a jeep and a large boat, sunset forces us back to the lodge.IMG_6241

We visit a village, always a bit artificial and forced but worth the time, especially when it is concluded with a chance to meet the local public school children; they get a break from classes, we get to amuse them. Our resort funds extra teachers and provide some essential services for both the school and the villages. IMG_6228

I find it a personal challenge to deal with the extremes of India. How can I as a privileged Canadian visit India, enjoy the most privileged comforts of its best resorts, experience the best it has to offer in all its facets and not feel presumptuously rich for having taken advantage without paying back something for the experience?

I choose our tour operator Odysseys Unlimited  because they use local suppliers, hire local guides and carefully select local service providers. They choose resorts that have a commendable record and try, at least try, to ensure that we are responsible tourists.IMG_6224 It may be small, and it may only end up assuaging my guilt, but it is worthwhile and worth a try. If we practise responsible tourism, we may make a small contribution to the development of a country and its people’s future, rather than drawing from its scarce resources.

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

Poverty and Privilege.

Today, my third day in Mumbai was both disconcerting and troubling.

I travel for many reasons; adventure, to take myself out of my comfort zone, the thrill of new experiences, to widen my perspective, to learn, to see the world in all its awesome variety.

IMG_6171I know I lead a privileged life. I also know that 99% of that privileged life resulted from my accidental birth – in Canada, into a stable home life with parents who loved and cared for me, who instilled in me a set of values and beliefs, who ensured I was educated, fed, sheltered and given every opportunity they could afford.

I know all this intellectually; occasionally I need to feel it emotionally, viscerally – up close and personal. Today, I am assaulted with the alternative – to be born poor in India.

IMG_6170We are staying in the Taj Majal Hotel in Mumbai, one of the most expensive in the subcontinent. It is, by any measure, luxurious. I have flown here from North America for the sole purpose of experiencing a bit of India’s history, its culture, its mores, to experience vicariously its life as best I can. I am in the warm bubble of a totally organized tour, no fuss, no muss, no risk. It is a privilege I take lightly.

IMG_6141We start our tour with a visit to Mahatma Ghandi’s Mumbai home, understated for a man of such stature in India and indeed around the world. His room says it all; simple, humble, with few possessions. His picture is on all India’s paper money; to North Americans, he looks remarkably like Sir Ben Kingsley.

Here is where the disconcerting part begins. We next tour a slum, Dharavi, our student guide calls it a “township’. He grew up there, he’s finished an accounting degree and is trying to make enough money to take an MBA – a successful start by any country’s measure.IMG_6147

He describes his home as the most productive few square miles in Mumbai. About a million people are jammed into his ‘township’ making it one of the most densely populated pieces of land on earth. Water service is intermittent from outlets paced around public areas; as are the few public toilets. Sewage seems to work but it could at best be called rudimentary. Dharavi was used as a location for the Academy award winner Slum Dog Millionaire.

IMG_6150Dharavi has been around since the 1880‘s – beyond surviving, residents are living, working, eating, sleeping and, above all, seeking to push their children a rung or two higher up the opportunity ladder – as all parents around the world are.

It is a shocking place for a North American. One of us describes it as the Indian version of Charles Dicken’s London – except this is 2015 and the population of Vancouver is jammed in this one township alone. If it were just living space it would be overcrowded but it is also a workplace for most of the residents.IMG_6150

Work is recycling and it is ugly, dirty, cacophonous, dangerous, noxious and debasing. Scavengers bring anything worth recycling to this depot, selling a days hard work for pennies.


IMG_6151The vast bulk of plastic discarded by Mumbai’s 13 million privileged passes through these townships, to be busted up, sorted, pulverized, washed and sent on to manufacturers.

Aluminum scraps are sorted, heated by coal fires to liquification point and poured into ingots. Cardboard boxes are dismantled and refashioned into smaller useable bits. Leather is treated, shipped for tanning, returned and fashioned into finished goods.

IMG_6154Every job is piece work. Denizens work 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week. All this occurs in, around, under and over the places people live work, eat sleep and wash themselves. the street becomes a kitchen, dining area and living room. Electricity is abundant, everything else is scarce and expensive. The noise is deafening, the smells noxious, it’s a guided tour by a resident who is trying to climb out of Dante’s inferno.

The incentive is simple – send money home to loved ones and family, boost opportunities for children by sending them off in their uniforms to private schools hoping education will open the door to their way out and, of course, the slim chance for each worker to make it out themselves.

Our guide estimates a few billion dollars – yes billion – of value is created here every year. It is raw economics – Ayn Rand without the glossy promotional bits. There is little trickling down.

IMG_6168We are shocked. I am numbed. The juxtaposition of my temporary home at the Taj Mahal Mumbai and the township of Dharavi is too much to accept.

Yet I am stuck, what can one person, no what can I, do in the face of such a gap?

We are told not to be too quick to judge, we are advised that the hard work and willingness to persevere is to be lauded, we are told that conditions are improving. I am reminded that Dicken’s London is long gone – monumental change does happen.

Somehow it doesn’t seem to calm my sense of injustice, the gap between poverty and privilege is too wide. I’m not sure Ghandi would stand still for this in his beloved India. Neither should the rest of India, nor the rest of the world.

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

Cool Iceland

It is late November. We are in Iceland. Setting aside for a moment what some might consider the foolishness of choosing such an adventure, Iceland’s wild winter beauty is striking – glaciers and geysers!

IMG_6057Blair planned the trip. He loves to explore, he is a mindful driver and he is curious. We are doing something called the ring road, 1300 kilometers long, which takes us all the way around Iceland. We’ve rented an SUV and it comes with a GPS and studded tires, outlawed in Canada years ago. We’ve packed warm clothing and are ready to test ourselves against the Icelandic elements. Since Blair is driving and has a plan, I can ignore winter road conditions, watch the scenery, day dream, count sheep and chat about anything that comes into my head.

Our first day is a long 500 kilometer drive to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, anywhere else it’s a small town. Wild and beautiful country, mountains encircle idyllic valleys filled with surprisingly prosperous farms.

IMG_6090We pass hectares dotted with wooly sheep and Iceland ponies; no cows to be seen – the cows are a bit like me, when it turns cold they head for the shed. Icelandic agriculture! – apparently not an oxymoron!

We also drive straight into our first Icelandic weather; driving over a high pass, polite snow flurries become a serious storm quickly morphing into a whiteout. Blair calmly drafts in behind a large lorry; that and the roadside reflectors keep us out of the ditch. I, the perfect passenger, swallow my fear and sit on my hands, refusing to leave my palm print impression in the hard plastic of the dashboard. Minutes later, it clears; we arrive at a Nordic hotel, a three star meal, full wifi and a warm duvet – all at winter rates. The gift of traveling offseason is open roads, vacancies everywhere, bargains and warm, albeit slightly surprised, hospitality.

Next day, clear weather and a long drive over a high pass on a snow packed road open into a valley strewn with dead volcanoes, jumbled lava rock, upheaval and a frozen lake – except where rips in the earth’s skin allow steam to burst through the ice.

IMG_6070Myvard is the epicenter of volcanic activity; dead volcanos, bubbling hot pools and active geysers – no guards, no restrictive barriers, just bubbling mud, sulfur-laced steam – Yellowstone without the fanfare.

In a country riven by two shifting tectonic plates, Icelanders take such exhibitions of earth’s power in stride, harnessing them for geothermal energy, warmth and soothing hot pools.

Our drive to the largest waterfall in Europe is interrupted by a fierce windstorm that cuts visibility to a few hundred yards. We come upon a young Parisian couple who have driven off the road. We stop, try to push their auto out of the snowbank, fail, call emergency and summon a tow truck – all in an hour. The truck arrives, we say good-bye and head on our way. A day in the life…

…..made even better by our evening. We stay at a working dairy, 30 or so cows in a cow barn, half of which has been turned into a restaurant and gift shop – not an ordinary combo but it offered dinner with a view as we watched the evening milking through the plate glass window. The entertainment is not quite Cher at Vegas but, in Iceland, it’s entertaining in its own way.IMG_1742

Blair tried the beef for dinner which I thought was a bit insensitive.

We finish the night at the local hot springs for a soak in a vast open air hot pool of silky, mineral rich, slightly odiferous luxury – some might call it a spa – it was too rustic for that. The only missing element was the northern lights – too cloudy.

The far side of the moon is an apt description for Iceland’s far north in November. After Myvard, we drive to the top of another range with little to see but tufts of grass, volcanic detritus, dull gray accented by the snow covered hill/mountains. Highway one is two lanes, well maintained but subject to powerful winds and ice. All the locals drive a scaled down version of monster trucks – big wheels, big tires – unlike America, it’s not about having big toys, it’s utilitarian safety.

Vast and completely uninhabited in this pleasant moonscape, where the desolate scenes of Game of Thrones Beyond the Wall were filmed and where astronauts are trained for potential moon landings, Blair decides to explore off the main road. I do not react well. Visions of disaster seep into my mind – I convince myself we will be stuck in a cavernous ditch to be discovered the next spring by Icelandic Search and Rescue.IMG_6073

He navigates back onto the highway, squelching my fears; I recover my dignity and we both manage each others actions/reactions, but it’s close.

Be advised, there are places in November in Iceland that feel like the far side of the moon; isolated, inhospitable, frigid, forbidding and eerily foreboding.  Minutes later, we are down in the next valley where the grass is still green and the chicken burger tastes better than the A&W back home.

We save our BIG adventures for last – putting the Ice in Iceland – at the largest glacier outside the Arctic Circle. A finger of the huge Vatnajokull Glacier, Jokulsarlon, calves icebergs and pushes them into a lagoon close to Highway #1 allowing us to view – ICEBERGS – real live icebergs in all their stunning blues, azures and aquamarines.

IMG_6104It is a photographer’s dream, huge chunks of ancient compressed ice, laced occasionally with volcanic ash from cataclysmic convulsions of eons past, hypnotize anyone with a camera. Blair shoots photos till dark.

IMG_1778We return the next day for another view – we don crampons (for a moment I become Sir Edmund trudging to the foot of Everest) and noisily crash our way across 500 meters of dirty, gritty ice across the glacier tongue to a cave.

IMG_1790Water roars out – well, okay it doesn’t roar – but there is enough to require a motor-less zodiac. Carefully removing our crampons to ensure our inflatable remains inflated, we pile in and are pulled into the otherworld of our first ice cave.

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Plus ça Change…

Everything changes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This election marks the beginning of generation change in Canada!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This has consequences!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

They have dared greatly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should celebrate them all.

We should thank them all.

They have all dared greatly.

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

The Power of Engagement.

The Power of Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then – VOTE.

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

Off the Couch and Out on the Hustings.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Because to me politics matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adventure of Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes the best adventures are the adventures of friendship.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Wherever we go…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The one less traveled by

Two roads diverged in a wood

and I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference. 

– Robert Frost

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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









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

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

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









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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I’ll remember:

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

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

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

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

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

I will most certainly remember Portuguese bread.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Tender Mercies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some reason, impulsively, I stopped.

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

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

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

Tender Mercies.

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

Obrigado Portugal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this heaven; no it’s Porto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

Obrigado, Portugal.

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

Die drey scheenschte Dääg – the three most beautiful days

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

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

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

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





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.


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 –

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.



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.



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.





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.




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).




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.



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.




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.



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.




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.



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 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.



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 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.

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. 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; 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 – – 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;

Fame and fortune are sure to follow…


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.



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.



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!




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 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.



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.


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







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.



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:

Outward Bound has a full web  based newsletter called fresh tracks. Check it out:

Finally, check out Outward Bound Canada’s new website: 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:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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

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 to learn more about what Outward Bound has to offer.  Every dollar helps, and donations are accepted on the Outward Bound website.

Posted in Uncategorized | 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;



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

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.


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, 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