Vimy Ridge

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Canada mourns the loss of her fallen sons from Vimy Ridge, France.

124 years ago today, July 18th 1892, my great grandfather, George Andrew McDonald, came screaming into the world. In his 24th year he enlisted with the Canadian military and entered the Great War. He volunteered likely believing the war would be over by December and thus set sail for England, I imagine, excited for adventure. I know very little of the man though he was one of my father’s principal early care givers.

When I graduated from high school my father gifted me George’s WWI service medal. That gift seemed to somehow connect me to this man. From the regiment number stamped on that medal I obtained his attestation paper from his military enlistment. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has made these available online. I then went on to pay the photocopy fees to obtain his service record from the LAC. Practically everything I know about the man comes from these documents. It isn’t much.

George Andrew MacDonald

George was five feet six inches tall and likely weighed around 140lbs. He had light brown hair and grey eyes and I imagine that if he and I were standing side by side we might just be mistaken as brothers. He was 23 years old when he enlisted in late November 1915 in Sarnia Ontario. He was assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps and the 70th batallion. His initial medical report indicates that he had no distinguishing physical marks. Within a year there’d be scars: physical and mental. He was discharged August 23rd, 2018 “being medically unfit for further general service” the record states. He had taken a bullet just above his left knee, “external to the joint,” though I wonder if he walked with a limp from then on? He took that bullet somewhere along the Somme, France on the 12th of October 1916 nearly 100 years ago.

The Somme was a muddy, bloody cess pool. Men literally rotted in trenches as we struggled to learn this new “modern” warfare. His record tells a grim story of the aftermath of that experience though in the most clinical and perfunctory way. One doctor reports that he “claimed” to be shell-shocked 4 or 5 times. I know he was at the front but how long exactly I can’t say. He was in France for 5 months. He developed a slight tremor in his hands that could be seen also in his tongue. He couldn’t keep his food down and lost about 20 pounds. He was nervous all the time and easily excited. If he was anything like me his resting pulse rate should have been in the mid to low 50s. After his time at the front it was 108.

When I learned I would be going to France I hoped that my travels would take me close enough to the Vimy Ridge memorial. George didn’t fight at Vimy (that was a few months after he was wounded). Vimy is the Canadian war memorial to see in France. It is widely regarded that our victory there was the birth place of the nation. France gifted the ridge in perpetuity to the people of Canada and on its hallowed ground stands an inspiring monument to the sacrifice made there.

TO THE VALOUR OF THEIR COUNTRYMEN IN THE GREAT WAR AND IN MEMORY OF THEIR SIXTY THOUSAND DEAD THIS MONUMENT IS RAISED BY THE PEOPLE OF CANADA.

It was raining as we drove through the French countryside, avoiding the toll road, toward Vimy Ridge. The country is flat here and well cultivated. We passed through many small French villages where row homes of weathered brick pressed close against the narrow road. The steeples of Catholic Churches rose majestically above each community against the back drop of storm darkening skies. Then suddenly between villages appeared the familiar white font on black background of Canadian government signs, a small red maple leaf in the corner. This could not be a sign for Vimy Ridge as it was too soon but I was intrigued. I made a left as directed and followed the signs to an unknown, to me, Canadian memorial. The narrow road narrowed more and more until it was essentially a single paved lane winding through French fields. Then just off the road was a small plot, maybe 30 meters square, of fenced coniferous trees with close cropped grass. In its centre lay a rock monument with the statue of a caribou dominating its top. Gueudecourt. I would learn that a regiment from Newfoundland fought bravely and won here at extraordinary cost. Newfoundland was not a part of Canada at that time. It wouldn’t become Canada’s tenth province until after the 2nd World War. Yet, a Canadian monument all the same.

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Gueudecourt Memorial

The small grounds of this memorial are meticulously kept. Even the shallow trench at the foot of the caribou statue was filled with well groomed grass. The rain fell lightly as I reflected on the beauty now found here. I wondered if George felt the sting of that bullet somewhere close by. Perhaps it was a rainy day much like this one and he was in this trench at my feet. His feet rotting in his boots as he anticipated the command to climb out of the mud and charge the enemy. I learned that this line, this trench at my feet, became the front line of the Somme. Indeed along this line some where George had fought. Along this line now stretching off into well cultivated fields George had sat in the mud as explosions shook the ground around him and men died in squalor. Yet, when he arrived the trench had already been dug and the ground watered with the blood of Newfoundland’s boys and when he was done others would come to make their sacrifice. It was sombering to stand there in the rain.

We drove on to Vimy Ridge. Every Canadian has seen this monument. It is on our 20 dollar bill. Two granite spires reach out of the earth toward heaven and at its base a single tomb to represent the thousands lost here and elsewhere in the war. Above the tomb the lone figure of a woman, Canada, shrouded in her granite cloak mourns the loss of her sons. Her eyes are downcast staring at the silent tomb unable to see the view presented by the ridge she stands upon. It was for that view of the plains her sons had fought and died. Fought and died. Sixty thousand Canadian soldiers;  1 in 10 from a force of 600,000. 1 in 10 from a country of a mere 7 million.

I wandered around the monument lost in my thoughts, grateful for the sacrifices made and saddened that it was ever necessary. I placed my hand upon the names of the fallen carved in that granite and felt a small touch of survivor’s guilt. George was only a boy who likely had little concept of the fate that awaited him when he signed that attestation. Sure there was some courage there, some patriotism, some sense of duty but it was probably the uniform, the call of adventure, the smiles of the girls that compelled him to the theatre of war. The dark clouds roiled above us but did not obstruct our view of the valley which seemed to stretch out a hundred years and into our prosperous lives.

Just a few days later Lisa and I joined hundreds of thousands of Parisians at the foot of the Eiffel Tower to celebrate Bastille Day. A day of freedom. Later that night when the fireworks had ended we learned that a man had used a truck as a weapon at a similar fireworks show in Nice, France. He indiscriminately smashed through the crowds killing and maiming men, women and children. In a great act of evil he took the lives of nearly 100 people and injured twice as many. Tens of thousands more mourn their loss. Their eyes are fixed on the tombs at their feet. It is a new “modern” warfare. There is no trench to climb into and if there were those firing from the other side are surrounded with innocents. Is there a weapon made with hands that could find our enemies without giving rise to more? I won’t claim to have the answers but it seems clear to me that the soil at our feet has an infinite capacity to drink the blood of man.

 

Home Sweet Home

In January 2007 I completed my graduate work at the University of Alberta in Library and Information Studies. I was a newly minted librarian looking for work and desperate to take whatever I could find. It turned out that I really didn’t need to worry. As I entered my final semester in the fall of 2006 I was very nervous about my prospects for work and a career. Are there really jobs out there for librarians? Turns out there are and I had several offers of work. I had choices and I chose Northern Lights Library System in Northeast Alberta. It is a regional public library system headquartered in Elk Point. Elk Point, it turns out, is a town of just 1500 people and a couple hours outside of Edmonton. It’s oil and farm country. 

I arrived in Elk Point in late December looking for a home for my family. Oil was doing well at that time and there was hardly a rental available. What was available was less than desirable. I stopped in at Elk Point Realty hoping they might have a lead on something half way decent. On the window was several advertisements of properties for sale. I was just a starving student; there was no way I could afford anything… But wait… There was an old (1974) mobile home practically across the street from my new employer. The advert said “lot for sale, owner willing to negotiate removal of old trailer” or something to that effect. Clearly the trailer wasn’t meant to be inhabited but how bad could it possibly be?


There wasn’t a proper step up to the trailer. At first I had to turn over a 5 gallon pail as a step held in place by the ice and snow. The power had been off for sometime in the trailer so stepping inside wasn’t much of a relief from the bitter prairie cold outside. It was filthy. Boxes of junk, old clothing and long abandoned personal affects were strewn throughout the house. Entering I found myself in the kitchen. I kicked aside a box to reveal a 2 x 2 foot hole cut in the floor. I could see straight through to the ground. Sometime this or a previous winter the water pipes had frozen and burst. The owner cut into the floor to get at those pipes. “I can fix that,” I thought. 

Venturing deeper into the trailer I stepped into the utility room. The floor here was completely gone. There was no clean cut through the floor boards. It appeared that an axe or some other destructive implement was used. I learned later that the pipes, having frozen and burst, were gushing water out of the trailer and down the street. The owner had hacked away mercilessly to get to those pipes. He never did fix the problem. The trailer, to be liveable, would need all of its plumbing replaced.

The bathroom looked in slightly better shape. It was an ugly 1970s green but it might work out. The outside wall the bathtub was set against was clearly rotten. It would need to be replaced. Walking in, just past the sink and approaching the toilet the floor changed. It was spongy, clearly also water damaged and rotting. This would be a big job. A vision was forming nonetheless and I new the place was for us. Fortunately I took a little walk through video after I bought the place. I sent it to Lisa to show her our new home, have a look:

Lisa is the right girl for me. I’m not completely certain she knew what she was getting into when she married me but she takes it all pretty well. When I called her about the trailer she had one condition: there must be running water before she or the kids would come out to join me. How hard could it be? I had no idea what I was doing. It took me a few days of research to figure out how to begin. There is this great plumbing material called Pex. It is incredibly easy to install. My dad was good enough to come out and help me rebuild floors and walls too. So it was, that I was working as a librarian during the day and then retreating to my broken down trailer every night to work into the wee hours of the morning. I think it took about 3 weeks to get the job done or at least sufficiently to convince Lisa to join me.

I took this video shortly after the family moved in: 

We survived in this place for about 2 and a half years. Lisa very graciously lived through a stream of renovations until finally she convinced me it was time for a real home. So our little trailer turned rental property and we moved across town to a lovely little place. That lasted about 6 weeks but that’s an entirely different story. Before moving we did what we could to get the trailer worthy to rent. Our first tenant turned out to be a colleague from work. Here is yet another video in the transformation of the trailer:

That video would be the last I’d see of the trailer for about 5 years. In the past 5 years we’ve travelled the world leaving little Elk Point to become nearly a distant memory. Lisa’s sister has been living in Elk Point this whole time (yet another story) and taking care of the place for us. She has done an excellent job. These last renters though were not exactly desirable. Leah is moving away from Elk Point and there are not property management companies in the area. Suddenly Elk Point and the trailer have become a thing in our lives again. So last weekend Lisa and I loaded up the van with tools and drove the 1000 kilometers out to Elk Point to inspect the damage from these last not so great renters.

When we walked in I thought it might be easier to just light a match and walk away. The place was a disaster. Filthy really. It took us 2 and a half days of some serious elbow grease, along with several cans of paint, to clean it all up. We had help of course. Huge thanks to the Coleman family, president West, brother Bullock and sister Hatch. They all turned out to give us a hand getting the place put back together. These are friends made 6 years and more ago who didn’t really know we were even coming to town. We showed up in town on a Sunday and they were out helping within hours. The Colemans even spared us sleeping on thin air mattresses in the trailer by opening their home to us. I like to think sometimes that the success I’ve had in life comes generally from a willingness to take risks and to work hard. I might be tempted to say that I am responsible for any success I have in life but it’s really not the case at all. That risk taking and work ethic comes from a lifetime of support from good family and good friends. The longer I live the larger that network of support becomes. I’ve done pretty well thus far, I’m happy, and it’s not really because of me but inspite of me. I’m surrounded by good people that refuse to let my follies let me fall too far. 

The trailer is now up for sale. With the economy the way it is I’m not certain we’ll find a buyer. So a sale may not be possible. Failing that I hope we can rent it out. I took one last walk through video after we got it cleaned up. It is a long way from what it was 9 years ago. If you know someone looking to buy in Elk Point, Alberta we’ve got the place for them. If they just need a place to rent we may be able to arrange that too. One last walk through:

Check out the property listing on Realtor.ca

Ultra Bowron

Uno Lake - 2014

Una Lake taken August 2014

Thirty hours and eight minutes. That is how long it took Brenton and me to circumnavigate the Bowron Lake circuit last weekend. We should have finished in about 22 and a half hours but when we reached the mouth of the Bowron River (more of a snaking lake) it was nearing 1am and we talked ourselves out of the final 11k to the finish and into a tent. It was dark and I was nervous about the possibility of upsetting in the river (however remote that possibility was). It would be one thing to swim into shore from the lake but the Bowron River is a tangle of brush and swamp that could prove a great hazard in the dark and in our fatigued condition than I think we could handle. We’d been paddling for more than 19 hours at that point and a chunk of that directly into a strong head wind that churned up waves just high enough to cap white as they crested and fell.

It was dark but not nearly as dark as it could have been. In February I found myself with two friends (including Brenton) circumnavigating this same lake circuit but on skis. That trip took about 6 days and several of those consisted of travel that took us into the dark of night. A vivid memory of stars glittering in profusion across an inky black sky is still emblazoned on my mind. This night, though nearly as clear, was framed in the soft light of a full moon. It rose resplendent directly behind us as we raced toward the sinking sun. In the last rays of twilight bats hunted insects around our gliding double kayak. We were crossing the well named Spectacle lake at that point and I couldn’t help but recall the scene a few months back on that same lake. There was about an inch of water covering the ice that looked nearly like a mirror. The red purple sky and the ashen winter greens of the surrounding hills reflected from it as we slipped across its surface. The words are inadequate but perhaps they convey a sense of why I keep going back to this place?

Brenton and I left for the chain at about 2pm Friday evening. The chain is about a 3 hour drive from Prince George. We rented a cabin at Bear River Mercantile just a kilometre from the trail head. We stayed there the night before our winter ski adventure too. It isn’t the Ritz but it is clean, warm and comfortable and the hosts are lovely. I slept soundly. That sound sleep is a reflection of some gained maturity, I hope. In the last couple years I’ve found that I can sleep soundly before races or adventures of all sorts. I used to toss and turn brimming with anticipation and excitement. The anticipation and the excitement remain but they are tempered somehow, by experience perhaps?

Having checked in with the park Friday evening we were up at 3:30am on Saturday to be on the trail before 4:30am if possible. We learned during checkin that there were two other vessels attempting an under 24 hour circuit that day. One of them, a husband and wife team, we understood would be on the trail by 3:00am. The other, a soloist, left Friday evening at 9pm and we later learned had finished before noon on Saturday. Apparently, the fastest tandem time is 11 hrs, 47 mins and 27 seconds (if I’ve remembered correctly). The soloist had the right idea. By leaving at 9pm the sun was setting at his back as he travelled east. By the time the sun was cresting the eastern horizon in the morning he was heading west and racing it to the finish. We on the other were travelling with the sun in our eyes on the way in and out.

The bulk of the circuit’s portage trails are completed in the first 30 kilometres as you walk into Kibee Lake, then on to Indian Point and finally into the western arm of Isaac Lake. The morning cloud and fog on Indian Point Lake was incredible. A thin cloud, a deep blue colour I’ve never seen, snaked through the spruce trees to our left but directly ahead was the scene of some sort of theophany. The fog lifted from the lake in wispy tendrils reaching up to embrace the low dark clouds and blended together as if the lake were pouring itself into the sky. Through it all the sun burst every crack and thin veil to drive beams of light onto the rippling waters which reflected them like frosted glass. We paddled into the light.

At the marshy end of Indian Point we spotted our first moose, a bull. We’d see 8 moose this trip. Though there have been plenty of bear sightings on the circuit this year (both black and grizzly) to our disappointment we saw none. We did get a good look at a young buck and a fat beaver along with a myriad of birds including, of course, several beautiful birds of prey.

The thirty two kilometre eastern arm of Isaac lake is without a doubt one of the more mentally challenging parts of this circuit. Its not as if there is nothing to look at. The water is an aqua marine colour that along the shore is clear all the way to the bottom. Every now and then a gushing white water spills from the steep shoreline into the lake and you are heading directly toward 4 snow capped craggy peaks. You are quite literally paddling across a Bob Ross painting. The problem is you feel trapped in that painting. The lake just goes on and on. We covered the distance in about 5 hours with only two brief stops. The first of which was a Brenton emergency to straighten his poor back. Thankfully a quick stretch seemed to fix him up for the rest of the trip. I know this circuit pretty well now but Isaac lake always tricks me. “The end is just around this point,” I’ll say only to follow it up with “oh I mean this next point or maybe this next point.” Stepping out at the end of the lake and the head of the Isaac River is always accompanied with a sense of gratitude.

The Isaac river is squeezed out of the lake between a rocky shore line to make a 90 degree right turn. They call it “The Chute.” You have the option of portaging around it but, really! Brenton and I debated whether we’d run the kayak through the chute or make the portage. I didn’t press too hard because I knew something he didn’t. From the shore the chute looks rather gentle. Certainly, the right turn is wide and the water though rolling and breaking gives the impression of gentle power. We pulled into shore and I headed over to inspect the chute. When I came back I said “before we unload maybe just stretch your legs and have a look at the river.” Brenton knew what I was doing but he went anyway. It took him moments to be seduced by the river. “Okay, let’s do it!”

The first time I paddled the chute I was with Lisa. We portaged our gear around it to walk back and take our empty canoe down the water. A practical precaution. If you roll over its nice not to send all your gear over the Isaac falls. That first run down the river was a success but not before spinning us around in a complete 360 and graciously spitting us out the other side a little wet but still floating. My skills have improved remarkably since then but my experience in a kayak is next to nothing. As you approach the chute from the lake and feel the immense power of the water push you along you realize the deception of the shoreline view too late to turn back. You sit much lower in a kayak than you do in a canoe. My adrenaline rose rapidly as the chute pulled us in and I waited for the right moment to burry the rudder and my paddle. “Here we go!” My paddle dug in at the bottom of a rolling wave and its crest swamped the back of the kayak. The skirt kept the majority of the water out but the weight of the water gave me a moment of terror that we would roll as we came to what felt like a dead stop. “Pull hard Brenton, pull!” With increased strength and determination he drove us free of the gripping force of the water and down stream. A few hundred meters down the river you run through what they call the “roller coaster.” Its a narrowing of the river that creates a series of rolling waves. Having successfully navigated the chute I had a flash of anger when I thought we were about to be driven against a rock at the edge of the roller coaster. It was a fleeting feeling as the river swept us safely beyond. The nose of the kayak took a bit of a dive and it was Brenton’s turn to have the river attempt to pull him down. he had forgotten to fully zip up his kayak skirt and ended up with a few gallons of water in his lap. In the end we made it safely down the river full of adrenaline and recovered from the gross monotony of Isaac’s 32 kilometres.

A couple portages and a small stretch of river later we passed the deafening roar of the Isaac falls into McCleary Lake. This is my favourite place on the entire chain. It’s a small lake in a small valley. The Isaac falls crashes down just out of view from the lake but the dull roar of it can be heard echoing off the mountains that enclose it. A small trappers’ cabin lies lopsided like a beached boat on its eastern bank. Spruce, cedar and fir trees rise powerfully from the steep hillsides surrounding it. The shore line is reedy and swampy drawing moose to the feed. Those snowcapped peaks seen from Issac lake tower above it all and at their base gently rolls the Cariboo River. There is something restorative about the place that I can’t describe. Its about the half way point on the circuit and thus about the most remote, hemmed in as it is by the Isaac and Cariboo rivers. Should the zombie apocalypse bring modern society to a crashing halt you can find me on McCleary Lake fishing.

In no time we were leaving this little paradise and entering the Cariboo River. The contrast of this trip’s 30 minute ride down the 5 kilometres of the Cariboo and the slog we made in February was palpable. This last winter was a warm one and the river was open when we reached it in February. In snowshoes and drawing our 80 pound sleds we were forced to traverse the rough shoreline down to Lanezi Lake. It took us ten hours to make those 5 kilometres. The river is powerful but not much of a danger if you pay attention. The remnants of the occasional wrecked canoe along the shore are a good reminder to stay vigilant.

The Cariboo River spreads its silt across the entirety of the 14 kilometre Lanezi Lake. It’s a murky green. It is here that you shift from the cooler rougher ecosystem of the east side of the chain to a gentler warmer less mighty western side. By the time we’d traversed the majority of Lanezi we were going on our longest stretch in the kayak without a reprieve (even n the Issac we pulled off twice). We were therefore sore and tired when the wind began to push the lake back up the Cariboo River. We ducked in and out of every bend in the shoreline to escape the wind but it was a tremendous battle. There is a campsite at the end of Lanezi and we pulled in for a bio break and to boil water for dinner. The plan was to boil the water, fill up our freeze dried meals and get back in the kayak. One of us would paddle while the other ate and then we’d switch. The wind made this impossible. It taunted us rushing in in great powerful gusts to then go still for a minute or two before whipping back up. So we sat and ate and lingered spending nearly an hour in hopeful anticipation of a calming of the winds. The winds continued as we climbed back into the kayak and set its nose defiantly into it.

We paddled what remained of Lanezi into the wind and on into Sandy lake where we knew we’d find no protective inlets. We’d have to battle for every inch of that lake. In 2011 Brenton and I as youth leader drug a group of boys around the circuit. When we reached Sandy Lake on that trip we were met with similar winds but also with such torrential rain that it was difficult to tell where the lake ended and the sky began. The rain came with such ferocity that the large drops exploded into the lake sending water shrapnel back into the air. There were storm clouds in the sky on this day too but they were scattered and lacking the power they could have if they joined forces. The sun streamed into our faces with the wind and a fine mist of rain carried from a billowing storm cloud some distance to our right brought a little laughter to my heart. We pulled past the beach where in my minds eye I could see the half dozen canoes, carrying those boys of five years ago, into the sandy shore. The rain brought the boys over their bows like men storming the beaches in some 20th century battle. They fled for whatever cover they could find, (out houses, bear caches, trees) while their leaders pitched an impressive tarp fortress and miraculously built fires beneath them. How on earth did we ever get anything to burn there…? We must have carried the dry wood under tarps in the canoes from a distant wood lot.

One of my favourite pictures is from that youth trip. Its of me sitting in the back of a canoe wearing my favourite leather hat as the rain drips around me. I have the biggest grin on my face. Two of my young men are also sitting in the canoe but looking forlorn and cold. I haven’t seen those two in sometime and I wonder if they’ve yet learned to smile in-spite of the rain. It is true that I said a few silent prayers standing on the beach at the end of Lanezi Lake that the wind might abate and that we could carry on in calm waters. The winds kept on perhaps because that prayer would be answered in the form of strength to endure. You may argue that that hour rest and a good meal were the source of our strength to meet the wind after those first 80k and you’d likely be right but knowing how the miracle is accomplished does not make it any less miraculous to me. I know from whence my strength springs.

So through the wind we travelled down Sandy Lake and the next stretch of the Cariboo River before finding shelter in Babcock creek. We passed that couple that left at 3am on the shores of Spectacle Lake. They’d reached that point when the winds came up and opted to pitch their tent rather than fight that battle. We would meet them the next day at the mouth of the Bowron River and the final sprint to the finish. They passed us there like we were standing still. When we met them at the dock the secret of their speed was revealed in 12 ounce bent shaft paddles and a 25lb white water canoe. I could literally lift their canoe over my head easily with my left hand. I may still be a little green with envy. Brenton and I had to weigh the kayak after that… 98 pounds. The revelation that such equipment existed kept us talking all the way back to Prince George. I’m fairly certain we could complete the circuit in less than 16 hours given the right equipment. Any one out there want to sponsor us? Maybe some company marketing to rad dad weekend warriors…🙂 we could be the spokesmen for some cool product middle-aged dads everywhere need.

If you’ve managed to read this far your endurance skills could likely take you around the Bowron too. It is perfectly acceptable to take 6-7 days though and completely and utterly worth the time.

The Taj Mahal and Home

Nothing runs on time in India. At least, this is the impression I am left with in my brief stay in a corner of the country. A bus was to take us into the Taj Mahal this morning at 5am. Actually, we were told 6am then 5:30am, then 5:45 and finally at the end of the evening it was an emphatic 5am. I asked several times to be sure. No sense getting up that early if we did not need to. We were assured 5am. There we were at 5am with the rest of the delegates staying in the guest house. I was not completely surprised when the bus pulled away at 7am. I am writing this from the plane on our 15 hour jump to Toronto. The flight was to leave at 12:45am. No shocker that they did not start boarding until after 12:30 and it was nearly 2am when the plane lifted off. And like the bus there wasn’t an explanation, an apology or even the acknowledgement of a problem.
We checked in to our flight online this morning so I was confident as we strolled past the Air Canada counter and into the immigration line. After a long wait in line we were told by the immigration officer that we could not use electronic boarding passes! Seriously! You would think that Air Canada would let you know this when checking in on the web. So back we went to the Air Canada desk to get our boarding passes. Once through immigration, this time it was a guard who stopped me and pointed out that my boarding pass read Toronto to Vancouver not Delhi to Toronto. So back I went through immigration and to the Air Canada desk. Not so much as an apology.

This post isn’t meant to be a rant. I promise. I’m at the beginning stages of a 15 hour flight that began at the end of a 20 hour day where I travelled 8 hours by bus. I’m not complaining. I just walked around one of the seven wonders of the world with my dad. Now how many people can say that? A colleague of mine on this trip would say “India is an inner journey.” She’d be right too. To live here you’d need to channel real calm to stay sane. Is it any wonder that from this part of the world springs yoga and many meditation practices?

India is, in so many ways, offensive to my western sensibilities. Yet, strangely I find myself liking its people. Perhaps it is their desire to serve, their keen sense of hospitality, their patience? In spite of the trash all around me, the thick smog that burns the lungs and restricts breathing and the insane driving I find myself day dreaming about touring the country some day on motorcycles. We travelled by bus to Agra, a distance of several hundred kilometres, and the country seems simply bursting with people. Grass huts dot farmers fields leaving me wondering at the life their owners must lead. A man piles hand cut hay on a flat deck trailer pulled by oxen. A team of camels strung out in procession move with their master to some unknown destination. The windows of the bus speeding down a 4-lane divided highway seem to look out on a strange fusion of the past and present.

Agra was much like Old Delhi only the number and variety of animals increased. The same shops line the road ways, the same thick layer of dust covers their wares. Pigs and cows root through piles of refuse. Chickens nest inches from the road ways and directly outside the doorways of people’s homes. A teaming vegetable market crawls with activity like an over turned ant hill. We crossed the Yamuna River where water buffalo and cattle kept cool in its polluted waters. Women worked tirelessly at their washing in the river. Along the muddy shore miles of carpet and sheets lay spread out to dry in the sun. It seemed counter productive to me. Surely the cloth laid out so was getting filthy on the shore line?

We caught glimpses of the Taj Mahal as we approached on the bus. Its spires and domed roof well known symbols of India’s glory. We collected our tickets from a ticket counter in a long brick building. Foreigners pay 3 times the price but their tickets are “priority” ones that would take us past the long queues wandering through the Taj. We walked the kilometre from the ticket counter to the gates. There were any number of rickshaws or horse drawn carriages that vied to carry us the distance but we opted to walk as a group. In retrospect taking a ride may have saved us the grief of turning down every merchant we passed along the way. The red sandstone fort that surrounds the Taj Mahal (crown palace) kept the tide of filth securely outside its walls. We passed through security guards and metal detectors to gain our admittance. Food was confiscated from several in our group. Thousands upon thousands of tourists filled the courtyards and gardens leading to this wonder of the world. 16 gardens and 53 fountains to be exact. Incidentally the year of it completion, 1653.

I have seen the Taj in pictures and video but to see it in person is something else. The scale of it cannot be expressed. To my initial distaste a guide found us. One that insisted his services were free but naturally would take a tip at the end. He was worth the tip, however. A sleight man dressed in a white katur pajama and wearing a white tight woven Muslim cap that reminds one of the doilies found on the tables of their grandmothers. He kept our group remarkably together and showed us many features of the palace that we would have otherwise surely missed: optical illusions, the translucent white marble that would change colour depending on the quality of the light shone upon it, the variety of stone expertly set into the carved marble.

In the main chamber of the palace the only light is the little that filters through the open door ways and the windows set high above us. Photos are not allowed in here, though an occasional flash from the uncontrollable crowd wandering through would go off. Our guide borrowed a smart phone from one of our group and used its flashlight to illuminate a small stone set in the marble in the pattern of the lotus flower. It lit up like a Christmas light and the vision of the mausoleum’s architects was suddenly before us. The interior walls are intricately covered in these stone lotus patterns and you knew that with just the right lighting these stones in their blues, yellows, greens and reds would ignite like a hundred thousand stars. One can book a night viewing of the Taj only in the few days around the full moon. I’m certain it would be worth the long flight to India just to stand in that chamber when the moonlight reveals the genius of India’s architects.

Shah Jahan the emperor responsible for the construction of the Taj had it raised in honour of his 3rd or 4th wife (his favourite) who died bearing her 14th child. She would never see the monument he had erected in her honour. It took 22 years to complete it. He would have gone on to erect a similar edifice in honour of himself made from black marble (10x the cost) but his son refused to let him spend the public funds on an edifice to his own ego and had him imprisoned where he eventually died. At least this is the legend according to our guide.

Upon leaving the grounds of the Taj Mahal we found ourselves directed to a stone craftsmen’s shop. Apparently the same families that built the original Taj still live at its feet and create stone art to this day. Again, according to our guide. They had some beautiful works of art that I wish I could afford. I was glad for the air conditioned shop though. At this point dad was completely cooked. He’d had too much sun so I flagged down a rickshaw driver and had him take us the kilometre back to the ticket office and a small restaurant.

Dad has done quite well this trip. We’ve put in a fair number of kilometres, endured some long days and extensive travel. We’ve gone by: plane, train, boat, car, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, bus and foot. We’ve come a long way since our days of exploring the Cariboo in the old station wagon. When I was 15 he and I drove the van out to Prince Rupert and back camping and fishing all along the way. We caught one fish, and a little one at that, but we made vibrant memories that are easily recalled today. Not many people have a dad like mine. I’m hopeful that we’ll have many years more together and many more adventures. Jaron and I will have adventures like this too and he with his sons and so on down through generations of time. My dad never knew his father and could have perpetuated that legacy with his own children but he chose a different path and my life is all the richer for it.

 

Dad and me at the Taj Mahal

 

The Taj Mahal framed by the red sandstone gates to its courtyard

 

Dad approaches the Taj Mahal

 

A Mosque in Old Delhi

It’s been a few days since my last post. My time in India has included much later nights than in Italy making it near impossible to write. Of course, I’ve been at a conference much of the time so there is little to report on a daily basis that would not bore you to tears.
A couple cultural observations (and while these may appear to be criticisms they are not intended as such): some cultures are more punctual than others. This culture is the least punctual of any I’ve encountered. The session I gave was a half hour late, the awards ceremony (I chair this committee) was 15 minutes late, the bus to the national arts festival was an hour late, the bus to the Taj Mahal (which I am now on) was 2 hours late. Indeed, nothing truly seems to run on time here and none of the locals seem the least irritated by it. Their lack of impatience is perhaps the most aggravating to this westerner. Second, there is a pronounced inability to not admit when you don’t know something often accompanied with a characteristic head shake. This is most aggravating when attempting to get somewhere by cab. “We need to go to Chintan Guest House. Do you know where that is?” “Okay, okay, okay, no problem, no problem.” Yet, it is not okay and there is a problem and it involves driving in circles in Delhi traffic.
Yesterday I managed to get dad out of the room and into Delhi. We took much the same route as I did the first day. We were joined by a colleague of mine, Scott, and his wife Debbie. Scott has worked at BYU for the last 31 years (dad is a BYU alumnus so they had something to chat about). I must say dad did remarkably well, he complained very little when he boarded the tuk-tuk for the ride to the metro. Never mind the death grip he had on the bar in front of him.
Scott needed an adapter to use his North America plugs so we made our way into the electronics district of Old Delhi. The entrance to this district is marked by the sour stench of the very public urinals. We wound our way through the crowd and visited a variety of shops to find everything from light bulbs to, well, mostly just light bulbs. We would eventually find an adapter but not in the electronics district.

The goal of the trip was to visit the very large mosque in Old Delhi. It was built by the same Moghul emperor that raised the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal. In the same architectural style of the Red Fort the mosque rises above the city in blood red sandstone. We took a couple rickshaws from the electronics district to the mosque. Dad enjoyed this about as much as the tuk-tuk, which is to say, he tolerated it quite well.

We arrived at the mosque to find it was closed for the next couple hours. Right, it’s Friday. So, we walked back into the markets to look around. We passed through the fireworks market and an area devoted to brass works generally depicting Hindu gods. Debbie nearly stepped on a rat at one point. The streets were as crowded as before and possibly more so. Squeezing through one narrow space I was hit by an oncoming rickshaw. Not hard enough to do any real damage but enough to prompt greater caution on my part. We found ourselves on a street dedicated to used book vendors. Sadly these were not your typical bookstores. Merchants sat at their stalls with their books piled behind them from floor to ceiling. Apparently you had to know what you wanted and ask the merchant to retrieve it. The majority of items appeared to be textbooks: medical, dental, computer and business were the dominant subjects. String bound half a dozen titles together. I assume you buy the books by the bundle. Like everything in Delhi a thick layer of dust and grime covered the pages along with everything else.

We passed through a variety of merchant districts where the haggling was fast and furious: the paper district where we watched as paper was made and even decorated by hand, the poster district where the most animated trading seemed to take place, the Saree district with its colorful cloth a stark contrast to the filth around us.

Eventually we caught a couple more rickshaws back to the mosque. As soon as we dismounted, a little boy perhaps 4 or 5, was at my side begging for money. I tried my best to ignore him. We’d planned to stop for a snack just outside the mosque. The little boy followed me to the kiosk. He was so cute. “No money” I said “but would you like a drink?” “Bebsi, bebsi,” was his excited reply. So I bought him a cola and the sheer delight on his face was solace to my heart. Dad bought a drink for a woman in burqa (possibly the boy’s mother).

The mosque was like many others except we had to pay to bring a camera inside. I was wearing shorts so I had to wear a skirt. I looked pretty good in my skirt; my sisters would be jealous. There was a pool in the midst of the courtyard and prayer mats were being rolled up and stowed away. They’d thrown a large amount of bird seed out and hundreds of pigeons feasted and then scattered to circle and return to their meal. Some sort of circling hawks likely fed on the pigeons.

We walked about the mosque enjoying its architecture and its general peace after the crowds of the market. We paid the hundred rupees to ascend one of the spires for a view of the city. Dad found a corner to relax in and watched our shoes as we made the climb. Climbing and heights have got to be two of dad’s least favorite things.

The staircase wound up and up in a tight spiral for 120 steps. At its peak it opened to a small platform from which I imagine the call to prayer was sung in days past. The gated windows prevented any great pictures of the 360 degree view but they also prevented me from plummeting to my death so I was glad for their presence. The Delhi skyline reveals a vast sea of squat dilapidated buildings overflowing each other and home to more than 10 million people.

Our return to the guest house was much of the same, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and the metro. Except dad did spot a couple monkeys outside the metro and he managed a picture or two.

I left dad at the guest house; he’d had enough for one day. I went with the conference sponsored outing to the national arts festival. It was a huge production. The outdoor seating was couches in long rows with ample aisle width. Very comfortable! The performances from artists across India were both fascinating and bizarre to these western eyes. India has a unique musical sound and its dancers are equally unique. I quite enjoyed myself even if the performances were a little longer than we are used to. Time truly runs differently here.

I arrived back to the guest house after 10pm and packed for the trip to the Taj and then on home the next day. A few days in Delhi and I’m not the same man I was when I arrived. Neither is dad. He has hardly eaten since he arrived and he keeps having to cinch up the belt. He is leaving a good deal of himself behind.

A woman dances while balancing pots on her head – conference entertainment

 

View from a window in the spiral staircase in the mosque spire.

 

Scott and Debbie in the rickshaw behind us – Old Delhi

 

First impressions of Delhi

Some experiences are raw and unfettered, experiences that leave you breathless and reflective that both cut deep and inspire. Today was such an experience. If this post feels like I am reaching, if its tone is strained, it is because the story is beyond my control of the English language. How does one convey in words the feel of a place, its sights, its sounds, its atmosphere, its emotion? The day we arrived a thick smog lay over the city of Delhi. Like a sickness it hung on the horizon. In just a few minutes the back of my throat was prickly and the corners of my eyes burned with it. The air can be felt like silty water. Delhi in many ways is ill. It is a sick man struggling to feed his people. To breathe the air, to feel it enter your lungs is to breathe its sickness. To walk its streets, to witness its people moving and being and living is to suffer if only a little with them. To be clear, sickness is not sin and suffering does not make a person or a people less than another. Indeed, it is through sickness and suffering that we must pass, or so I believe, to find peace and happiness.

After a light breakfast this morning I headed into Old Delhi with several colleagues and their companions. Dad was still suffering jet lag this morning and after a harrowing ride from the airport to the guest house yesterday evening he was not keen to venture into the city. So while he stayed behind 5 of us embarked on an adventure that I will not soon forget.

We flagged down a couple tuk-tuks. These are the 3 wheeled vehicles that look like the offspring of a VW bug and a dirt bike. For 100 rupees (about 2 dollars) the drivers took us into the metro station. I’ve ridden in a tuk-tuk once before on a back road devoid of traffic in Sri Lanka. This was nothing like that. This was utter chaos poured out without mixture. Bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, rickshaws, ox-drawn carriages, buses, BMWs, Jaguars, vans and people all moved, sometimes slowly and sometimes a little less slowly, in the same general direction. Like the vehicles that moved on the streets the people darting in and out of traffic were of every fashion, every age and persuasion. Poverty lined the streets like English hedgerows.

Within 30 minutes we were entering the subway. 16 rupees (maybe 30 cents) would take us into or near Old Delhi. Our destination was the Red Fort. A large red sandstone structure built by the same leader that raised the Taj Mahal. Indeed, the sandstone was imported from Agra where the Taj stands. The modern subway was a stark contrast to the chaos we left above it and what we were about to find.

I’ve experienced crowded souks in the Middle East, struggled in pilgrimage to the top of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, jostled through malls in Hong Kong, stood in crowded London squares and just days ago navigated the crowds of Rome and Venice but I was not prepared for this. The narrow streets outside the station were awash with humanity. Little shops to either side sold to metro goers an assortment of edibles and merchandise. Dogs wandered amongst the people or sat scratching their sores. A rat was seen nibbling something amongst the garbage. Beggars here are drowned out amongst the movement of people and many are too weary or too sick to beg. We passed a man curled lifeless in a corner his dark weathered body exposed to the elements except for a small cloth; every bone clearly visible beneath his aged skin. What is his story? Who is this man that lays helpless amongst all these people? Is there someone that cares for him? Is someone even now struggling beneath some burden to pay for this man’s last meal? We walked on. We walked on! What could I have done for this man or the man with the deformed hands and feet we would pass or the children that would beg at the side of our tuk-tuk?

Running by palaces in Dubai the thought occurred to me that I would never want the responsibility of that kind of wealth. What might I tell God at the end of this life when he asked what I did with such privilege? “I had a great theatre room; the leather seats in my Maserati were heated.” Walking the streets of Delhi today I realize I am the wealthy Emerati. What is my answer to the wealth and privilege I enjoy?

On we went down the broken sidewalks of Delhi toward the Red Fort. Something dripped on me from an awning above (water I hope). Through dusty streets, in and out of traffic we went and the whole time a man pestered us to be our guide. A rickshaw driver, he would take us all over Old Delhi: to the Red Fort, to the spice markets, to the mosque, to the jewellery market. We declined and he pestered, we ignored and he pestered, I got quite rude with him “the answer is no!” and he pestered still. He followed us all the way to the gates of the Red Fort and then promised to wait for us and he would take us to all the places we wanted to go. Finally we agreed that should he be there on our return we would take him up on his… offer, pleading.

What can I really say about the Red Fort? It is a massive stone building of stunning architecture. Within its walls are impressive relics and structures of an opulence passed. We found a guide, or a guide found us, who walked us through the structures and told us the history and stories in an accent that made it hard to understand. I don’t like being guided through these places, mostly, because I don’t trust the history I’m being told but also because I feel rushed and then obligated to hand over my money. We wandered the grounds of the Fort and its buildings, watched children play on the grassy courtyards while patched and thin dogs bathed in the growing heat of the day. Sitting on a park bench for a break we were approached by a woman who wanted to take a picture with us, we posed. Then a group of 5 young men (studying law at a local college) asked if they could take a selfie with us. Others I could see simply stood in the distance and took their selfies slyly. Our blue eyes and western dress made us famous.

An hour or two after leaving our pestering rickshaw driver we emerged from the Red Fort to find him waiting with friends. We climbed aboard the tricycles and proceeded on an adventure that I can hardly retell. I thought I had been daring to take a tuk-tuk a rickshaw is another experience entirely. To their word they took us to the spice market. More than this they led us through the market to the wholesale spice market in a dark and filthy building. The overflowing bags of spices and chilies filled the air and we could not help but cough and sneeze and water at the eyes. They took us up a gloomy flight of stairs and then another and another. Men were sitting in the stairwells chatting and eating. We emerged on a roof top where food was being served to a group of local men. Tourists must be shown these sites often as they did not stir as we moved amongst them. We were presented with a view of the streets below us. A chaotic jumble of old and new. Then to the other side of the roof and a view of the courtyard of some monastery or mosque. Clean for India and marked by a tall ornate obelisk and a fountain filled with colourful fish. Delhi, we are learning, is a city of contrasts.

From the spice market we were taken to a silk and fabric store through narrow streets filled with vendors of all kinds. There seems to be districts of goods. Now we are passing through the shoe district, then the bangles, automotive parts and then fried foods. It was the meat market that really got me. A multi-layered cage held chickens ready for the butcher. The remains of their sisters, freshly dissected, lay atop the cage dripping their life’s blood upon the butcher’s next victims. Goats were in the streets, no doubt, destined to meet a similar end. Mutton hung openly in the stalls and fish exposed in boxes where flies were occasionally brushed away by merchants. I understand why many Indians would choose to be vegetarian.

We ended our rickshaw tour at the Mahatma Ghandi museum. The museum was surprisingly free. A group of school children loudly toured the facility in our wake and were very pleased to try their limited English with us. Outside the museum we finally stopped for a rest and small snack: chips and a cola at a local vendor. Finally, we walked through the resting place of Ghandi’s ashes. A beautiful memorial to a man that strived to bring peace to India.

We were getting really bold now. We piled 5 of us into a single tuk-tuk built for two. I sat up front sharing a single seat with the driver. There was nothing between me and the open road as we wove in and out of traffic. An ambulance desperately tried to push its way through traffic but the traffic responded reluctantly and I watched as the big ambulance stopped centimetres from ramming the tuk-tuk in front of me clear from the road. Back on the subway and then another tuk-tuk, which got lost, we finally made it back to the guest house 10 hours after we’d begun.

The conference begins tomorrow and I speak first thing. I should have spent some time going over that speech tonight but I had to get this down while it was fresh. Reading it through I am certain it will not convey what I wish it could. My first brush with Delhi will affect me for a long time. I suspect that like all great memories I will mine it for meaning and enlightenment over many years.


  
  
  

“Home James” A Car in Italia

Dad was on his last ounce of energy when we finally stumbled into our hotel last night. It was a long train ride, followed by another train ride, followed by a taxi to the hotel. We’ve made this mistake two years in a row now: booking a hotel near the airport rather than next to a metro station. I followed this up with another mistake. I scheduled our flight to leave at 7pm today not at 7am. I must not have been paying attention when I booked the flights. So there we were this morning at a hotel 5 kilometres from the airport with nothing around us and an entire day tragically looking like it’d be lost to boredom. Of course, we could take a cab into the metro and then the metro into Rome and then a train back to the airport but all this would cost quite a bit and probably lead to my dad’s early demise. What would we do with our bags? We could go spend the entire day hanging out at the airport! Please, anything but that.So, late last night I decided to rent a car. I could run to the airport in the morning (it is only 5k) pick up the car and we could do a little exploring. This would solve the luggage problem as well as keep me from walking dad to death. I dragged myself out of bed this morning and set out to run to the airport. I took my passport, driver’s license and credit card (I booked the car online the night before). I felt impressed to take along a few coins. Maybe I could buy a water at the airport. The run was going pretty well for the first 3k. Then I came to the bridge spanning a little river I don’t recall the name of. There was no sidewalk. A giant 4 lane overpass with no sidewalks and absolutely no shoulder. Dang it!

I ran around the approach to the bridge several times looking for a way across on foot. Nothing! I checked my Google Maps again and scrolled up and down the water way. Nothing! What idiot builds a massive multi-million dollar bridge with no way to cross on foot. You sir or madame are a jerk of the highest order but I forgive you… only because I have to. I thought about giving up and heading back to the hotel. It was 3k to the bridge and I’d covered another 3.5k running around looking for a way across that did not involve becoming road kill. I started looking for people to ask directions from. I love Europeans and their multi-lingual abilities. My entire Italian vocabulary consists of: grazie, prego, sucsimi, bonjourno and ciao (thank you, please, excuse me, hello and goodbye). After a couple conversations (and silent prayers) I learned that a city bus could take me across the bridge for a few coins (glad I brought that change with me). I had to find the bus stop and I had to wait 20 minutes to catch it but awesome! I’d googled it the day before but the local bus schedule is not in Google Maps (giving me the impression there was no city bus to the airport).

I rented a little 2-door Fiat 500. Europeans like their manual transmissions it seems. The last time I drove a stick was in London. I’m not going to lie. I stalled it a couple times but may have also had a little fun on the winding Italian roads. The Romans sure built some great roads. It’s too bad that they haven’t repaired them since the empire fell! The worst roads I’ve ever driven on. Worse than Prince George even.

We drove down to the beach in Ostia, rolled the windows down and cruised the coastal road with the music from my iPod humming in the background. We found a public beach and walked down to the water. A beautifully warm November day. I removed my shoes and waded in the cool waves of the Mediterranean. Sadly the beach reminded me of the UAE, a filthy mess. Rome is essentially an open garbage can and it seems to be the same here. The beach was pretty bad. Despite this there were several people enjoying the day. Kids were playing tag on the beach, lovers making out in the sand, deeply leather browned sun bathers worked on their cancer.

Once we had enough of the beach we decided to take a road trip down to the coastal city of Anzio. The road follows the coast closely in that direction. We took our time and drove with the windows down. Dad snapped pictures from the moving vehicle and I expertly avoided the car sized potholes. We stopped at a gas station in Anzio and got a few snacks. Then it was back to the airport to wish Italy goodbye. Turns out our flight has been delayed several hours. We’ll roll into Delhi about 9am and I’ll go straight to a long board meeting. I may be a little sleep deprived when I write next. Should make for an interesting read.

 

A beach in Ostia, Italy

 

A beach in Ostia, Italy

 

Best airport chairs ever

 

Hot Chocolate and Selfie Sticks

On our final day in Venice dad and I walked into St. Marks Square for breakfast and to catch a view of the place without all the tourists. We picked up a couple hot sandwiches on the way. Note, do not eat a sandwich while walking through St. Marks Square you are liable to be attacked by seagulls and pigeons and pecked to death for your stupidity. I actually caught myself doing this very thing on video; I also scream like a little kid. It is not very flattering but I’ll post it here for your general amusement. Unfortunately in the video you don’t see how close these birds come to my head. (bad wifi connections – video will have to wait…)

We walked through the square and out to the promenade. Dad wanted to sit in a chair rather than on the steps. The chairs, of course, belong to a restaurant and a waiter was by within a few moments to take an order. He probably could have said “oh, I’m just an old man taking a rest” and the waiter would have moved on. Its not like the 250 other tables were occupied. Dad felt bad, naturally, and ordered a hot chocolate. The hot chocolate soon came and with it the bill, 10 euros! We laughed at our own idiocy and dad enjoyed the best cup of hot chocolate he has ever had. He let me have a sip and then tried to charge me 2 euros. There must have been 30 or more chickadees around our table earnestly waiting for the merest crumb. We enjoyed watching the birds.

We spent the rest of the day wandering the city as we waited for the train to return us to Rome. All week we’ve laughed at the selfie sticks every other tourist has and street sellers have desperately tried to sell us. I finally broke down and bought one. The guy tried to charge me 10 euros for it. I paid 5 (which is about 4.5 more than it is worth). Okay, selfie sticks are pretty awesome I’ll admit. I know selfies are absurd and narcissistic but I don’t care. I include a few selfies here for your enjoyment and my ego.

 

Selfie of dad and me in front of the Grand Canal

 

Dad and me with cool building on the banks of the Grand Canal

 

A selfie on the streets of Venice – unfortunatley the bell tower in the background is a little washed out

 

Dad enjoys his pricey hot chocolate

 

Running and an opera

The air was brisk when I set out for my morning run. The sun had barely crested the horizon and the narrow lanes of Venice were shrouded in darkness. The occasional lamp cast shadows on the stone paths gliding beneath my feet. Italians are not early risers. The once vibrant shops were dark or shuttered as I wound my way surreptitiously through the city. I emerged in an empty St. Mark’s square save for a few birds and men sweeping up the litter of the night before. Past the bell tower I ran to the water’s edge and a view of a massive cruise ship lit with a thousand lights pulling slowly toward the ocean.I followed the water’s edge marvelling at the architecture of the city slowly being lit by the rising sun. A few other morning runners passed going in the other direction. The flat stone paths were broken every few hundred meters by stepped bridges spanning the canals leading into the city. Their banks lined with boats and skiffs. In a few short kilometres I entered a park; a thick bed of fallen leaves crunched beneath my feet though the towering trees still held enough leaves to form a wonderful canopy overhead. The island ended and I was forced to follow its course and turn back into its labyrinth. I left behind the Venice of tourism and entered the clean streets of Venezia’s residents. The occasional clothes line still held yesterday’s washing. Remarkably I found no dead ends but wound on and on to emerge at a canal here and enter a quaint courtyard there.
The streets slowly filled with merchants readying their shops or unloading their wares from the boats. A vegetable market was coming to life. Ahead of me a group of pigeons gathered frantically over the remains of something spilled. I thought to scatter them with my pounding feet but they would not stir at my approach and I passed by nearly unnoticed a few feet away. Suddenly a bird skimmed past my ear on the right then another and another and I found myself running in the midst of a flock of flying rats. I had visions of being pecked to death, a fitting end on a halloween morning, but gladly they simply continued on.
I soon found myself back in St. Marks Square and into the final stretch: left at the sandwich shop, right at the lingerie store, left at the bedding shop and I was sensing a pattern. Lost in that thought I missed the next few turns and required my GPS to find my way back the few hundred meters to the hotel.
Dad and I spent the day exploring Venice. We took the water bus back to the train station and picked up tickets to head back to Rome the next day and then back into the streets of Venice. We found a quaint shop for a bite of breakfast and bought a map. The map didn’t seem to help as we ended up on the wrong bus and in the completely wrong direction for the glass factories in Murano. By the time we’d finished exploring our unintended destination dad was out of energy to make it to Murano. I left him at the hotel for a nap while I ventured over the Rialto bridge and into a corner of Venice I had not seen yet. I peered into churches but avoided entering any that charged a fee. I found many that didn’t, however, and was amazed at the art work and history lying about. One church had the inner workings of a 16th century clock tick-tocking away in the corner.
On my way back to the hotel still peering in every nook and cranny and doing my best to get lost in Venice I stumbled into an Opera hall. The hall, Scuola Grande Di San Teodoro, was featuring an opera concerto comprised of many famous pieces from Mozart to Puccini and Verdi. Better yet the hall was a short walk from our hotel. I convinced dad to splurge with me and try out the opera. Its not like we are going to Venice every other day. The man that sold us the tickets literally looked down his nose at the riffraff in front of him. We just smiled and put on our best low born accents (not hard at all) and made him sell us tickets anyway… the cheap ones in the back.
The musicians dressed in period costume. Their white powdered wigs and lacey clothing had me reflecting on how idiotic we’ll likely look to our posterity in 500 years. The show was excellent and I was moved more than once by the skill of the musicians. A duet with the soprano and the baritone “La ci darem la mano” had me closing my eyes to better feel the music; though, i have no idea what they were singing.
Have you ever starred at a ceiling fan and focused on a single blade? Eventually you can track the blade and pick it out of the otherwise whirling colours above you. I like to do the same at concerts, focus on an instrument until I can hear its music through all the others. Everyone must do that I suppose. It was a wonderful concert in a lovely baroque period hall.
It was after 10pm when we returned to the hotel. As much as I like my dad I’m missing my wife and children. Lisa and I chatted via text for over two hours. Her in British Columbia and me all the way on the other side of the planet. It has me immensely grateful for the technology I’d otherwise take for granted.

 

A staircase of books in a used book store in Venice.

  

Random “fire exit” sign found in Venice during our explorations

  

A bookstore in Venice

  

Tickets to the opera.

  

Ceiling art in the opeea hall.

 

First Impressions of Venezia

A high speed train took us from Rome this morning through the Italian countryside. Rolling hills lined with trees and patched together with recently disced farmers fields sped by. The train travelled at 245 kilometres an hour much of the time. Soon the hills gave way to an immense flat land that remindedus of British Columbia’s lower mainland. Suddenly the train was surrounded by the Mediterranean and we were gliding into the Venezia S. Lucia Station. The moment we stepped out of the train terminal and into the plaza I fell in love with this city. 

The blueish green waters of the Grand Canal were spread out before me. Boats of varying sizes plied the water laden with passengers of all types. A blue sky could not restrict the sun from pouring itself out upon the mingling crowds. Across the canal blocky heavy buildings sat directly in the water seemingly resting immovable on the gently heaving water. In the middle of these sat a white stone building its Roman columns pushing up from its foundation to a high domed roof blueish green and strangely captivating.

Like a fool I had put little good use to my three hours of idle time on the train. I could not be bothered to take the time to register for the wifi on board. I should have been plotting our course to the hotel from the station. My kingdom for a wifi signal! Actually, I hardly cared. We made a left and started walking into Venice. The stone road we followed was lined with shops, restaurants, fruit stands, pizzerias, gelato stands… oh gelato. I convinced dad to stop for gelato! The atmosphere was carnival like but somehow different. For a moment it reminded me of Disney World but no this was real. Real people lived in those apartments overlooking our path and the shops below them. Real Venetians ply their wares, live, love and eventually die here. An old man, clearly a local, shuffled past me intent on some unknown destination. We walked a kilometre into the city until we spotted, of all things, a McDonalds. Certainly they’d have wifi. The place was beyond packed and I could not connect to the wifi. We must have passed 25 or more restaurants all moderately busy and McDonalds is over run. We decided to back track to a restaurant we’d seen along the way. Turns out they had free wifi too. Google really is awesome. I quickly learned that our hotel was a simple 2 kilometre walk away or we could cut that trip down to 450 meters with a ride, on what I’ll call, the water bus. Dad opted for the water bus. I don’t blame him. I’d already walked him a kilometre into the city and a kilometre back. The transit is far from cheap; it’s 7 euros for a single ride or 30 euros for a two day pass. We purchased two day passes.

As we motored slowly down the Grand Canal I marvelled at the ingenuity of this city. Its earliest inhabitants had fled here to escape the barbarian hordes that were the ruin of the Roman empire. It seems the most brilliant cities rise from most unlikely of places. There is a life lesson somewhere in these thoughts. Perhaps it is that what we perceive as our great flaw, terminal weakness or most painful setback may ultimately turn to good with a little effort?

Using my GPS we meandered through the venetian labyrinth to our hotel. Narrow stone pathways run in every direction caught in the gloom of brick building rising on either side. There are no crosswalks, no stop lights, no horns blaring in the distance, no motors tap tap tapping in idle impatience. The streets are too narrow for rickshaws and there are no fields to support beasts of burden. The occasional cat wanders past or a small dog leading its owners. This evening I saw a rat scurry down a dimly lit path seeking some morsel of food. This is a walking city! Men pull oversized dolly’s through the streets burdened with boxes and assorted cargo. These are the truckers of Venice. The sounds that fill the city are the idle talk of strangers and friends in the soft roll of Italian and a hundred other languages. I am entranced with its beauty.

I left my dad in the quaint hotel tucked down an obscure dead end lane. While he grabbed a shower and a nap I ventured out to find the Piazzo San Marco. You know this place. You’ve seen it in a thousand movies. The pigeons congregate here to be fed by countless tourists. A large rectangle surrounded on three sides by columned buildings and crowned on its east by the enormous Basilica di San Marco and to its right rises a brick bell tower. The bells are ringing as I walk through the plaza smiling at the birds as they land on the outstretched arms of tourists and the frightened shoulders of children. There are quartets playing classical music or jazz every 50 meters or so for the passersby and the patrons of restaurants that have spread their tables out into the square. It is all a little surreal. Later dad and I would walk through St. Marks and marvel at the 12th century byzantine floor and the mosaics painted far into the lofty domes above us.

Moving beyond the square I found myself along the waters edge where artists painted venetian scenes and offered them for sale. Kiosks sold knickknacks of the usual sort. It is then that I stumble upon a public park. The city is hardly green but for the potted plants that hang from the windows and balconies of towering residences. Here though in a patch no bigger than a football field is a treed square. The scent of roses greeted me at its gates and I was suddenly aware of the smells of the city I’d passed through already. The tight spaces trap the aromas of bakeries and pizzerias, of tobacco smoke and perfumes and less frequently than I would have thought the smell of the sea.

I got lost returning to the hotel. The GPS was confused by the rising concrete around me. I walked past hundreds of shops: glass works, exquisite masks, books, stylish fountain pens, fine clothes and shoes and everything else imaginable. I began to feel as though I’d been trapped in a condensed Mall of the Emirates. A tinge of sadness at this thought. Yet, a small price to pay to enjoy this city with its thousands of twisting lanes and its hundreds of stone bridges, its solid wooden doors that hide enumerable secrets. This is the setting for a thousand million stories. This is a city to set the imagination ablaze. How badly I wanted my family here with me. My children should be running these streets. I saw Kirsten in every artist and Lilli in every foreign conversation. I saw Jaron in every care free child feeding the birds or running through the plazas. I am already mentally planning the European bike trip that will some day bring Lisa and I to this gem in the Mediterranean.

 

Venezia railway station plaza.

  

A typical wide road in Venice.

  

Venitian trucker

  

One of a bjillion canals

    

Typical Venetian building