October on Prince Edward Island…

Standard

 

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” Lucy Maud Montgomery

 

As we tour Prince Edward Island this was indeed my prevailing thought, but they’re the words of the island’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery. Are they not precisely the sentiment that her beloved character, Anne, of Anne of Green Gables would exuberantly exclaim?

The island in October is simply stunning with hues in their autumnal glory, but it isn’t only the natural flora that wows. Whether in the cities, hamlets or countryside, the islanders truly delight in the season with elegant pumpkin-lined porches and flourishes of wreaths.

Prince Edward Island’s narrow roads wend through the forested and pastoral countryside – explosions of burnt reds, oranges, and golds line the way. Road signs suggest that you just might just be required to give way to a horse and carriage. The island does have that feeling of serenity, of simpler times, of history that lingers still.

My mom and I are first-time visitors this far east in Canada. It’s the ideal time to visit this ‘Garden of the Gulf’, yet be forewarned as many sites have already closed for the season. As the smallest province of Canada, PEI is a graceful canvas of quaint harbours, colourful bait shacks, tidy homesteads and lush agricultural land. It produces 25% of the nations potatoes, complimenting its fisheries, tourism, aerospace, bio-science and renewable energy endeavours.

It wasn’t too long after crossing the Confederation Bridge to the island that we chance upon Victoria by the Sea. With its squat lighthouse – traditional white, trimmed red – the small harbour town welcomes with a hearty bowl of seafood chowder, local crisp white wine, and glimpses into a fisherman’s daily life. Ropes, nets, buoys, and boats are at the ready for forays out to sea.

IMG_1472

 

In the summertime, the small harbour would be astir with visitors. Now we wander happily along the quiet streets and chance to meet Ben. Positioned just across from the lighthouse, this artisan moulds candle holders from the iron-red sandstone and clay of the island. The light glimmering from Ben’s tiny studio brightens up the gloomy October afternoon.

“This was once a healing house,” Ben tells us. “In the early years, diphtheria took many lives. Instead of going to the sanatorium, if a family had the means, they’d build a small cottage on the property for their loved one’s isolation… and hopefully recuperation.”

Ben’s perch has a view of the quaint wharf and the water, he finds it peaceful… just the way he likes it. Happily posing for a photograph with my mom, he gives us a few pointers for the island. “Don’t forget to say hi to Anne,” he says with a friendly laugh. “She keeps the tourists coming!”

After time in Nova Scotia, we’re touring for four days and chancing upon the unexpected, meeting locals, is very much part of the journey. Ben’s friendliness is matched time and time again in the days ahead.

IMG_0544

 

“The legend is that the island was formed by the Great Spirit placing on the Blue Waters some red crescent-shaped clay. We called it Epekwitk – cradled by the waves.” The Mi’kmaw, First Nations

The accent of many islanders hints at their roots, of the vast number of Scottish, English, Irish and Acadians who settled. Yet long before this time, the Mi’kmaw First Nations thrived on the island they called Epekwitk – the long pristine beaches, sand dunes and red sandstone cliffs inspiring their creation story.

IMG_0403I was fortunate to meet Bernie – not long after leaving the island –and I consider it an honour to have met this proud, compelling elder of the Mi ‘kmaw nation.

Gathered one evening around a blazing campfire, Bernie Francis greeted our writing group in the tradition of a powwow. With a healing drum and the gift of cedar, tobacco, sweetgrass and sage, Bernie’s soulful tunes wafted over us, spiritually connecting us to the land, to traditions, to storytelling.

The reverence for his nation’s people, who once moved with the rhythm of seasonal hunting and gathering, was palpable. We felt enveloped in a honeycomb of stories, heritage and soulful lyrics. As a Mi’kmaw elder, Bernie exemplifies the keeper of wisdom and traditions bestowed upon him.

As a linguist, he helped design the now official orthography, the writing of his people’s language. There had not been one and this achievement earned him honorary doctorates and grateful accolades. Leaving home, and the country, at 14, Bernie would eventually return in later life to work as a Director of the Court Worker Program, ensuring fair and just treatment of his people. His accomplishments are many, yet around the campfire that evening as Bernie serenaded us in Mi’kmaw, Spanish, and English, he taught us the gentle art of humility and generosity. For me, our evening with Bernie was the apogee of my trip.

Back in Charlottetown, I learn about the irrevocable change for the Mi’kmaw people. In 1763, The British, claiming dominion over the Maritimes, called the land St. John’s Island. Then a name change to Prince Edward Island, in honour of the fourth son of King George III, Prince Edward the Duke of Kent, Commander-in-chief of British troops, North America.

Hostilities grew as the island was soon divided into a mere 67 lots of properties – allocated to the King’s supporters by means of a lottery, most were absentee. Prince Edward was the father of Queen Victoria and in the course of her long reign, many more were encouraged to settle here, though the French were the first colonial settlers in Charlottetown.

In 1720, not far from the present-day city at Port La Joye, they staked their settlement bringing along Acadian settlers. Some forty years later, it was besieged by the British and renamed Charlottetown after the King’s consort. Then followed the tragic, wrongful expulsion of the Acadian settlers by the British –  an indelible stain in Canadian history.

Today, Charlottetown is widely remembered as the birthplace of confederation, where meetings and negotiations took place to discuss the forming of the nation – official on July 1, 1867. Paradoxically, Prince Edward Island declined to give up its status a colony of Britain, declining to join the fledgling union. Soon, it would be the railway that sealed the bargain.

 

“The railway moved mourners to funerals, brides to weddings, brass brands to picnics, hockey teams to tournaments. It got farmers’ produce to market, children to boarding schools… Islanders moved and mingled to the whistle of the train.” A signboard near Charlottetown’s first train station of 1907 

For many, before the railway came to Prince Edward Island, one could live ten miles from another village and barely know it existed. In 1871 this changed dramatically as railway branch lines slowly criss-crossed the island. Yet with too few passengers, too little freight, too many stops (every few miles) and unable to pay the debt, the colony faced bankruptcy. In 1873, Prince Edward Island reluctantly agreed to become Canada’s seventh province – the new nation would assume the island’s railway debts! Not only did this create jobs to compliment the long established fishing economy, railway coincided with the rise of shipbuilding and new wealth from shipping and timber.

The charming streets of Charlottetown attest to this. Perhaps a grand mansion such as Beaconsfield, its rooftop glass belvedere viewing out to the sea, its wealth of William Morris wallpaper speaking to its privileged past. Or wander the walkable streets and admire simpler homes, their facades in heavenly painted shades, their heritage and names proudly on display. I revel in the rich architectural past and their various styles – Georgian, Greek Revival, Italianate, simple Island Ell and Four Square – each with their own unique elegance.

IMG_0632

 

 

 

“It’s delightful when your imagination comes true, isn’t it?” Lucy Maud Montgomery

Back into the countryside, it was time to make our way to the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ house in Cavendish. As a writer, I wanted to know more about the author who created the spunky, loveable Anne Shirley. What had inspired Montgomery? Was the setting for her inspiration as beautiful as portrayed in her books. If you haven’t watched the current CBC series, Anne with an E… I simply implore you to do so!

IMG_0686 2

The drive from Charlottetown to Cavendish provides another showcase for the island’s beauty, but the town itself disappoints. With not much more than the church where Montgomery once played the organ, the small post office (already closed for the season) and the local cemetary the attraction is the home of a relative where Montgomery spent much of her time. The setting does feel like a storybook and it’s clear why she felt such a deep connection to the landscape. Embraced in the Cavendish community, Lucy was raised with a love for natural beauty… for the woods, the fields, the shores. Her imagination transformed it into a vivid, fictional world.

From the age of fifteen, the author began submitting poems, essays and stories. She partly credited fireside storytelling for her gift, ‘the romance of them in my blood.’ Despite the constrained expectations of women in the Victorian era, Montgomery was independent and strong-minded. She went away to Dalhousie University, became a school teacher, habitually rising early to write before class. After years away from home, she returned to care of her ill grandmother who ran the Cavendish post office from the kitchen of her own home.

It once stood near the present Cavendish post office, and the often lonely and dispirited young author discreetly sent out submission after submission from the humble surroundings. The manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, once stored away in a hatbox and safe from further rejection, was finally accepted on the sixth try. Published in 1908 to wide acclaim, it was an instant success. Lucy never shied away from the issues – the emancipation of women, freedom of speech, the struggle of identity, even the colonial treatment of the Mi ‘kmaq.

Anne Shirley’s adventures continued in numerous books – even as Montgomery struggled with her own depression and that of her husbands, a preacher, who ministered near Toronto. The author was stricken with the Spanish flu and almost died in 1918, afterwards almost divorcing her husband for his uncaring treatment. Difficult to obtain in Canada until 1967, Lucy ultimately decided against a divorce believing it was her Christian duty to make her marriage work. She returned to her beloved island as often as she could.

Awarded an OBE, many other awards, she is one of the most prolific authors in Canadian history. Upon her death 1942, Lucy Maud Montgomery was buried in Cavendish, the place she had always loved and that had given her so much inspiration.

As I wander the grounds, a single bus load of tourists from Japan is soaking up the surroundings, reminding me that from the outset Lucy enjoyed an international following and this continues today. Indeed, I get a true sense of the writer and her muse… this evocative place that she called home.

 

“On a cold day a winter sleigh ride and a picnic to survey the land for the best placement of the island’s first lighthouse. 13 miles across the frozen bay… basket lunches of bread and cheese, and fortifying wine was consumed by all.” Historical notes, March 31st, 1840

 

I had this one last destination in mind, Prince Edward Island’s oldest lighthouse. After all, I had been ‘collecting lighthouses’ throughout this trip. With the wind whipping up the waves and cold air biting, I venture out into the Atlantic wind to savour the lighthouse up close. My mom wisely remains in the warmth of the vehicle, as I peer up, then out, and around, to fully appreciate this vital structure.

Once the location for Point Prim Lighthouse had been determined by the surveyors that freezing day in 1840, it ended five years of petitioning, planning and funding. Simply put, as Charlottetown grew and shipping traffic increased, shipwrecks were piling up along the rugged shores. Merchants and fishermen often faced ruin and loss of life. Between 1770 and 1845, up to 100 ships had foundered in the island’s waters. The traditional bonfires at a harbours entrance now no longer sufficed.

As I guard myself against the roar and the spray of the ocean, I spare a thought for the lighthouse keepers. Their job was often one of loneliness and danger, but also of meaningful industriousness. The keeping of logs to record weather patterns, the buffing of the lights copper reflectors and the gleaming of salt-sprayed windows. And the summer months of tending gardens, farms and fish traps. Their names are recorded for posterity at many of the lighthouses and here at Point Prim, their contribution to the community is poignantly mentioned… ‘those enduring contributions.’ It strikes me that here on Prince Edward Island, community is and has always been the bedrock of this intriguing, compelling land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘Come from away’… feeling at home in Peggy’s Cove

Standard

IMG_0436

The Buoy Shop owner tilts his flat cap ever so slightly as he considers my question.

“Well now, you must be a come from away – not from these parts – if you’s asking that. Different buoys you know, have different purposes.”

Roger is seemingly drowning in buoys. They dangle in nets and perch in the crooks of his aged bait shop – shades of blues, turquoises, oranges and faded reds.

“See this small one here, it’s carved from Portuguese cork. Those net floats there, they help catch the fin fish.” Roger’s sliver mustache curls into a smile when I ask how long he’s been a fisherman.

“I’m fifth generation, my children are six. These days, it’s more lobster fishing, but it was once more cod and haddock.”

Once I’ve browsed and chosen a handcrafted wooden buoy, Roger offers some advice. Shoving his large, calloused hands into the pockets of his checked flannel jacket, he cautions me. “You’ve come on a nice day, but yous be sure to stay off those black rocks. They get slippery and we don’t want to be fishing you out of the sea.’’

Roger and his Buoy Shop are an institution in Peggy’s Cove. Now, gazing out over the steamship-sized inlet, one gets a sense of time standing still, of maritime heritage preserved and presented to perfection.

IMG_0439

Crab and lobster traps nestle against weathered bait shacks. Snakes of rope coil on wooden docks. Small schooners, dories and Cape Islander’s anchor in the late October sun.

To get a true snapshot of Peggy’s Cove, I amble across from the docks, along the narrow path of Lobster Lane. A stranded buoy, bobs in the shallows and seaweed smothers the rocks at waters’ edge. Clusters of buoys arrayed in bouquets of colours and sea-green Adirondack chairs poise out to sea from the deck of the lonely Wharfside Cottage. The end of the season is already upon many parts of the Maritimes as the come from aways return to other parts of the province, country, or the world. The more permanent homes perch on a gentle cliff above, no strangers to the volatile maritime weather. Theirs is a spectacular, albeit often wind-whipped vista.

The gentle sibilant breeze is suddenly interrupted by the engine of a Cape Islander. The Harbour Mist,a lobster-fishing vessel, glides past slowly. Its cherry-red bow gracefully parting the deep-blue waters as it returns to the safety of Peggy’s Cove.

I soon hear an, “Ay, welcome back,” as the crew is greeted back home. The welcome, and the relief, of a seafarer’s return has been playing out here since 1811 when six families were issued a land grant of 800 acres. Fishing was their mainstay, but cattle also grazed the fertile soil that surrounds the coastal village. By the early 1900’s, a lobster cannery, a church, the General Store, and a schoolhouse supported a population of some three-hundred locals. Today, only thirty-five permanent residents call it home.

IMG_0874

Wandering onwards, I chance upon much more charming names than ‘General Store.’ These days it’s The Foggy Rock, Hags on the Hill and the Sou’ Wester. The once settlers’ cottages serve as quaint gift shops, restaurants and even the old schoolhouse has been converted into a charming homestead.

I hear the scraping of a wire-bristled brush even before I chance upon it. Eliza is five-steps up a ladder, tilted against the old school house. She is brushing away layers of paint… patinas of history. I peek through the window, admiring its transformation from schoolhouse to cozy cottage.

IMG_0998“It was built about 1858,” Eliza tells me, gingerly backing down the rungs to welcome me. “I married the son of a local fisherman, about forty years ago.” Yet our conversation soon meanders not to the personal, but to the local economy, now greatly influenced by the multitude of bus tours making their way from Halifax.

“The number of cruise-ship tourists grows each year,” Eliza laments. “We’re becoming overwhelmed.” Eliza and other locals agree that surely there is a limit as to how many buses these narrow roads, limited parking, and the environment can sustain.

She mentions Roger, back at the Buoy Shop. “He’s one of the residents speaking out. As am I, but some older people are leaving well enough alone.”

Of course, the star attraction of Peggy’s Cove is its iconic lighthouse. One of the most photographed images in Canada, it beckons to millions of tourists a year. The eight-sided concrete tower rises 50 feet from the grey-white granite outcrops; ancient rocks polished by glaciers and the ocean’s unrelenting tide. Guiding vessels into St. Margaret’s Bay since 1914, this lighthouse replaced the first structure of 1868– a mere beacon on the roof of a lighthouse keepers wooden home. Up until automation in 1958, the keepers ensured the kerosene oil lamp perpetually shone – first red, then white, then green – finally settling on red to conform to world navigation standards.

IMG_0444 2

I watch visitors clamber over those evocative, timeless outcrops; thankfully none are venturing down to the perilous black rocks where rogue waves have swept some out to sea. I gaze back towards the land… vegetation ablaze with the burnt reds of autumn and the church spire rising above the paint-box hues of bait shacks, cottages, and anchored boats.

A fighter-jet suddenly pierces the sky, roaring low over the cove and I turn again to the silvery-blues of the ocean. Just beyond, is a sacred place. It’s impossible to not think of those who perished here in the tragic aviation crash of September 2, 1998. The memorial, two imposing oval granite monuments at nearby Whale’s Back, lie in direct alignment with the crash site. “In memory of the 229 men, women and children aboard the Swissair Flight 111 who perished off these shores. They have been joined to the sea and sky. May they rest in Peace.”

As I take my leave, the strains of a bagpiper punctuate the scene. His kilt fluttering gently in the breeze, the piper stands alone. The melody drifts over the rocks and across the sea.

The plaintive tune harkens to the many Scots who sailed to this new land. It evokes the ferocity and the serenity of this rugged landscape. It honours the tragedies, and the vibrance of life at the cove. It is one of the most beautiful, soulful and unique places I have visited.

With it all, this appreciative come from away, feels very much at home here…

IMG_0459

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upside Down In The North Sea… the ‘Salsa-Kayak Pact’

Standard

 

IMG_0126

The instructor’s voice was serious and authoritative, her German accent rendering it non-negotiable.

“Time for the roll. Throw your body in the water, come up the other side.”

It was October in Norway. Along with the creeping hypothermia, I now froze in fear. Afloat in the numbing waters of the North Sea, the wind was whipping up waves and lashing the rain down like daggers.

Tucked inside the cockpit of my kayak, a ‘spray deck’ – like a skirt with a rubber seal around my waist – was attached around the oval lip of the vessel. It packed me in tightly, like a sardine in a tin; for after all, a kayak is meant to be an extension of the upper body. My lower body was now yellow, streamlined fibreglass.

“Time to roll,” the command bellowed again. But I knew that I didn’t have the body strength to fling myself into the water on one side and pop up on the other. I feared I would be stuck upside down, the weight of my vessel trapping me. Would I drown slowly, or perish from the cold first, I conjectured numbly?

“No fear,” we were encouraged, “One of the instructors will show you how.”

Sven looked like a real-life ‘action man’, melded as one with his kayak – a veritable extension of his broad torso and rugged, good-looking Nordic face. In the two-day Open Seas Kayaking Course, he projected calm, a modern-day Norse God on water who we all aspired to emulate.

With his paddle slicing the choppy water, Sven folded gently sideways into the sea like it was the most natural thing. One second, two, the bottom of his kayak pointing skyward, then on the count of three he popped up like magic… a perfect roll! He was unfazed, even his Tilly-hat remaining intact over his glistening golden hair.

One by one, the other students began plunging themselves into the frigid sea. I knew I was protected somewhat from the cold, at least my new neoprene wetsuit was doing its job of keeping me dry. With rubber cuffs that sealed out the water – at the wrists, ankles and neck – I could have been much colder than I was. The suit was a gift from hubby, more like a bribe, I now suspected!

We had just finished lunch, huddled on the shore as the rain pelted on our soggy smørbrød and any part of the body that wasn’t suited up. I had asked myself ‘what on earth was I doing here?’ I don’t like the cold, yet there I was enduring the elements on the shores of the North Sea, frozen and out my depth both mentally and physically. And all for the sake of a kayaking course? The instructor had even roped my kayak to his at one point, lest I drift off to distant Iceland. I reminded myself that it all came down to a pact… ‘the salsa-kayak pact.’

IMG_9645

A few months prior, a friend had announced that Salsa dance lessons were about to begin. A female engineer was offering them at the company, once a week.

“We should join,” I cornered Bruce. “You’ve always promised we’d take dance lessons together. It’ll be fun.”

He had acquiesced, but with a counter-proposal. “I’ll take salsa lessons, if you’ll take the sea kayaking skills course. It would be great to do that together. Gliding through the fjords, along the coastal scenery…”

I had actually agreed quite enthusiastically, and we soon found ourselves with ten or so other couples at the ‘office yoga studio now dance floor.’ Some were already keen dancers and kept up beautifully with the instructor. Engineer-by-day and sensuous-salsa -aficionado by night, her fluid steps – one, two three, back, five, six, seven – had the two of us baffled.

We were hopeless and maybe a little disappointed. Where was the opportunity for spontantious expression, the freedom of movement? And where was my long-ago cheerleading acumen, my ability to pick up dance steps without missing a beat?

Our zest for the lessons petered out by week three, maybe four, but now it was my turn to deliver on my part of the pact, that pesky kayaking. I had noted ruefully that Bruce had passed his kayaking course in the balmy month of May. How on earth did I end up with dismal days of October?

IMG_0164

But there I was, the instructor waiting not-so-patiently for my roll. Many of the kayakers had already completed their first and were now showing off with their second.

I leaned to the left, hit the water, gurgled my way until I was upside down. As predicted, I couldn’t thrust myself around to the other side. I was trapped, upside down in the North Sea. I panicked. I kicked with all my might against the oval-shaped rubber seal and as it came free, I flailed my way to the surface of the water… spluttering, bewildered, half-drowned and bedraggled.

The brusque German instructor looked at me, unfazed.

“Ok?” I had barely nodded before she boomed, “Now try again!”

Of course one can kayak without this certification, yet somehow, I knew that if I failed this, right there and right then, I might be afraid to know the true wonder of sea kayaking…. to ride the waves then gaze from a fjord’s waters up to chiselled granite cliffs and swooping eagles. I might never ply the open waters, through clustered islands dotted with quaint wooden hyttes, aromas of birchwood fires evocatively scenting the air.

I might miss the wonder of gliding into a vista – onto the canvas of nature’s masterpiece – embracing the call of the loons and the passing gaggle of ducklings as my sweetheart and I paddle together in our double kayak. What if I never had the opportunity of revelling in the serenity of silence, gazing towards the land in reverence, our children in silent communion beside us.

So, yes, I did that darn roll again. Of course, it wasn’t perfect like Sven’s, but with all my will and might, I got a ‘pass’ from the instructors. Still now, I refuse to seal myself in completely.

As I write today, autumn has tinted the trees in hues of gold, rust and deep red. We might just make it out on the water for one last autumnal paddle. We’ve paddled often since we returned home at the end of July and, indeed, the ‘salsa-kayak pact’ has turned out to be one of lifes’ most fortunate agreements.

13B75748-52DF-4F71-B2E3-0929AD61B3F1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the ‘notes’ archives… The Kingdom of Brunei – it’s always about the people

Standard

img_2627

From the ‘notes’ archives

The Sultan of Brunei – surely, stories of his legendary wealth precede him. His tiny oil-rich kingdom on the island of Borneo has a population of just over 400,000. The nation enjoys free medical, subsidised housing, higher education, and no taxes. I had known most of this when my husband suggested that I join him on a business trip.

I was also aware that in 2014, the Sultan had introduced Sharia Law to his kingdom and contradictory for someone who lived for seven years in the Middle East, I found myself questioning whether I wanted to go… to a country that I perceived as having oppressive and inhumane laws. Yet I also asked myself whether it was fair to be ‘judge and jury’ when it comes to human rights. Most countries have tarnished legacies in their history. In my country of Canada for example, it includes both the past and the present… including the treatment of our indigenous peoples, the Japanese, the Doukhobors, the Chinese.

Even though Brunei’s framework of law stood counter to my enduring, perhaps slightly romantic, belief in the universal hope for equality, I decided to accompany Bruce on his trip. I resolved to simply let the people and the place speak for itself.

Flying from our home in Bangalore, through Singapore, we were welcomed in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, with genuine graciousness. Airport officials met our eyes with smiles and casually chatted about our travel plans as we awaited our bags. In a somewhat chilling counterpoint, my gaze landed on a notice, ‘Death for all drug traffickers’. 

Through our week-long visit I saw no outward signs of the law, which I soon learned was undergoing a ‘phased implementation’. It wasn’t necessary to cover my hair in public, fashion attire ran the gamut from revealing sundresses to full burka. Time enjoyed at a resort was like any other. Young romantics cuddled on benches as they took in the spectacular sunsets and bikinis were the norm around the poolside. And it shouldn’t have surprised us that the only wet part of the ‘swim-up bar’ is the water.

Brunei is a ‘dry’ country where no alcohol is served or purchased – although I don’t rule out the existence of the odd illicit ‘speakeasy’ with guarded door and secret knock, or so we were quietly told. Despite the warnings of drug trafficking, the authorities are more lenient on alcohol and we learned (too late, alas) that we could have brought a few bottles of wine into the country after all.

We stayed in the Bandar area and Bruce made the daily trip to his company facilities in Kuala Belait, one hour’s drive to the east. I admit, most days I luxuriated in the impressive Empire Hotel and Country Club. No expensive had been spared in creating the lush, sprawling grounds, complete with a golf course that meanders along the edge of the South China Sea.

img_2639-2

Guests were sparse however, save for a few busloads of visitors from China and Korea, and young soldiers on leave for the weekend – British troops and Nepalese Gurkas stationed near the vast oil refineries. This is a remnant agreement between the Bruneian government and their former colonial masters. “Just in case of attack,” our congenial taxi driver informed us.

With a sense of humour and with a certain ‘joie de vivre’, the people of the small nation quickly chipped away at my preconceptions and reservations.

img_2622The nature of the residents is evident not only from the locals, but from other nationalities as well… those from the Philippines, India and Nepal. Working long hours in the service industry, we often heard variations of the sentiment, ‘It’s a good place to work. We work and save money, there’s not much else to do.’

img_2633Indeed, the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan does not take long to explore. There is an abundance of power-evoking government buildings situated on tidy, manicured streets. But its uniformity lacks exuberance and is somewhat of a bland experience for a traveller.

A number of side streets channel the characteristic Indian and Chinese entrepreneurial spirit; tailoring and barber shops, traditional medicine, spices and bespoke jewellery.img_5595

Along with grand mosques, red Chinese lanterns announced a traditional Chinese temple, while white crosses marked the ubiquitous St. Andrew’s Church. Yet I learn that strictly no religious celebrations other than Islam can be held in public. “If it weren’t for the children’s school life here,” an expatriate confides as we chat in a cafe, “life would get extremely monotonous.”

Still, I know from a previous trip to Borneo (an island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) that there is much to explore. Borneo is home to the world’s oldest rainforest with unique flora and fauna and its fine white-sand beaches are breathtaking. It is the domain of majestic hornbills, four-hundred species of butterflies and the elusive proboscis monkey.

Back at the tame but salubrious Empire, we are told rather conspiratorially that the vast complex was built by the indulgent and profligate brother of the Sultan, now living in exile with his royal title intact. We are driven past villas that are maintained at-the-ready for the extensive royal family. A little digging on the internet reveals why indeed the family is so vast and extended. And dare I say, therein partly lies the source that fuels perceptions of hypocrisy underlies the nations’ laws.

The Sultan is a Bolkiah, a descendent of the long lineage of Sultans who have ruled over the Bruneian empire since the 1400’s. They controlled most regions of Borneo and Seludong, including modern-day Manila in the Philippines. An ambitious British adventurer would capitalize on the empire’s decline in the mid 1800’s, infringing on the Bolkiah’s long reign and ultimately usurping power.

img_2644

A depiction of a Sultan’s lavish reception for the first Europeans, 1521

That opportunist was James Brooke who would become known as the White Rajah. Arriving to Borneo in 1838 aboard his own trading ship, Brooke found himself at the right place at the right time. Helping quell a rebellion in 1842, Brooke was rewarded with his own sovereign state and would ultimately govern Sarawak (now part of Malaysia) as a British protectorate.

sir_james_brooke_1847_by_francis_grant

James Brooke, Known as the White Rajah

Brooke took naturally to island life and worked vigorously to not only suppress piracy in the region but to also eradicate headhunting, a common practice in Borneo. As intriguing as this story is, in short, Brunei became a British Protectorate in 1888 and did not achieve its independence from the United Kingdom until 1984 when development of oil and gas reserves spurred economic growth. The present day Sultan’s father is known as the Father of Independence. It’s clear he lived far more simply than his son.

We see evidence of this as a water taxi drops us off near a charming and homely former residence of the Royal family. Surrounded by a high chain-link fence, we’re still able to admire its simplicity; a sharp contrast to the present day palace complex the Sultan calls home.

img_5703

We catch just a glimpse of the 1700 room residence, nestled along the leafy riverside. Naturally,  the Sultan’s palace is off-limits, but its massive, opulent golden dome casts an imposing silhouette on the skyline.

The edifice is pointed out to us by the water taxi driver as we cruise the Brunei River. Did I detect just a hint of disdain?

Our destination, Kampong Ayer is said to be the largest water village in the world; it was referred to as far back as 1521 as the ‘Venice of the East’. It is an extensive community of wooden houses built on timber and concrete piles, connected by walkways to schools, mosques, a firehall, a police station and a recently added museum.

img_5613

img_5609

The village of roughly 3000 people was once a series of smaller settlements, named for the occupations of its settlers. Pablat for those who made fishing gear. Pagan where palm leaves were woven into roofs. Pasir where rice took the form of rice cakes and Pemriuk, the residence for the handicraft of copper pots. Up until the early 1900’s, the home of the hereditary Sultan was also in Kampong Ayer. Its watery channels and rough-planked sidewalks were home to almost half of Brunei’s population.

 

 

 

Above all, the village was known for padian, an integral aspect of life in the water village for centuries. Visiting in 1521, Antonio Pigafetta wrote, “When the tide is high, the women go in boats through the settlement selling all the necessities of life.”

Padian, a term describing how women glided through the narrow waterways in small boats or bancas, piled to the brim with goods to sell and trade. The sellers distinctive wide umbrella hats, woven from nipa leaves, shielded from the tropical elements. Still today, the locals are nostalgic about this bygone era. Speed boats now ply the waters and discarded plastic accumulates around aging stilted wooden homes.

 

As we stroll the boardwalks, we come across a generational family. Grandma lovingly cuddles her granddaughter and we make small talk and they pose for a photo. They eye my husband and express their approval. “Nice man,” they tell me and break out in fits of laughter.

img_5678

Nearby we meet Rashme. A boat pulls up to her cafe and a young fellow hitches his vessel to a post for a quick takeaway. The shop owner obliges us with a smile as she holds up the order… two ABC’s, the shaved, flavoured ice, a cooling staple in this country that sits just above the equator. “My cafe here for twenty years,” Rashme tells me through her son’s translation. “Some years good, some years bad.” Her frankness, a reminder of what’s important the world over… that of providing for ones’ family.

img_5684

Hopping into a water-taxi, the driver soon entices us to visit the nearby mangroves, “See monkeys, see monkeys,” he implores, pointing to his nose. I keep my fear of monkeys in check as I know we’ll remain safe aboard the small boat.

From Kampong Ayer we wend through narrow waterways lined with homes that perch tenuously on slender stilts. Once in the thick mangrove, the driver kills the engine and we glide into an inlet. We wait and it isn’t long before we hear them; a family of proboscis monkeys, peering down from high in the trees that fringe the mangroves. I catch only a glimpse of their distinctive noses and golden hair, but I hear them chattering and grappling with leaves as a late afternoon snack. The mangroves are also home to langur silver leaf and long tail macaques and even for someone with the dreaded pithecophobia, it was a precious moment to have seen a proboscis this close up. Borneo is their only home on earth – encroachment on their habitat threatens their existence.

IMG_5631

 

It’s the end of the school day as we cruise back to one of Bandar’s main docks. A ‘water school bus’ passes and without hesitation, students in dazzling white shirts, black songkots on their young heads, shout hellos and wave eagerly. The many personal encounters and the openness of the people remind me of what I know to be true… to judge people by their leader or laws is ill advised and shortsighted, I know that my reluctance to visit Brunei was unfounded.

As a traveller who encounters people from all religions, ethnicities and cultures, it’s impossible to view the world in the black and white tones that certain leaders would have us believe exist. It is quite the contrary and what motivates me, time and time again, to keep packing my travel bags. It’s a privilege, it’s a joy, and intrinsically we are all very similar the world over.

Brunei is a microcosm of diversity – Ibans, descended from the original inhabitants of Borneo and mainly Christian, ethnic Chinese descended from early pioneers from the 6th century. Malays, the majority of whom are Muslim, representing about a quarter of the population, and a further quarter comprising a multiplicity of indigenous and ethnic groups including Indians and Europeans. Somehow it all seems to work, but the central contradiction is Sharia Law which seems anachronistic and out of place in such a culturally diverse society, favouring one world view over many others. As a visitor, I experienced openness and many beautiful nuances of culture nonetheless.

I’m proud to have a Bruneian stamp in my passport. To know the place in some small way is an enlightening experience. To know the people – the warm, engaging, beautiful people – yes, it’s always the people…

img_3862

Unknown-1

Jennie’s Masterpiece… the story of Butchart Gardens

Standard

IMG_5118

I can picture Jennie Butchart, suspended high up in a bosun’s chair, carefully coaxing soil and vine roots into limestone crevices of the abandoned quarry. She had commandeered the vast gaping hole, and now her Sunken Garden was taking shape.

“You’re ruining the country, Bob, just to get your old cement,” Jennie had reportedly chided her husband. A 1952 article in Maclean’s Magazine described it as thus…

“One day in 1909, in a glade sloping to a salt-water bay on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island… a woman stood on the edge of an abandoned quarry and began to cry.

Jennie Butchart knew the quarry well. For more than three years she had lived beside it. As a chemist in the cement works of her husband, she had analysed its high-grade limestone. She watched it yield them wealth. She knew its moods in the moonlight and at the height of storm. But the tears came because she hated it more than anything else in the world; its very ugliness so fascinated her, she could not stay away. 

The perpendicular quarry walls, twisted from dynamite blasting, dropped sixty feet to a quagmire of two and a half acres of clay. Out of a subterranean spring percolated a muddy creek which fed a deep pond on the quarry floor. A hummock of grey rock, unfit for cement, rose like a spire from the centre… Jennie Butchart stood and cried.

It was then an inspiration came to her, ‘Like a flame’ she was to say, ‘for which I shall ever thank God.”

The Butchart Estate (pronounced Butch – Art) included both their home and the quarry. Now that Jennie’s creativity and determination had been sparked, debris and rocks were replaced or hauled out. Horses with wagonloads of soil trudged back and forth to the site. Douglas firs, cedars and Lombardy poplars were strategically placed – flowering trees, shrubs and annuals would follow. Jennie envisioned colour and vibrancy. To her, the eyesore was a canvas on which to blend a palette of nature’s rich hues and textures. After all, at heart Jennie was an artist… the world famous Butchart Gardens would become her living masterpiece.

IMG_5120

Born in Toronto, in 1866, Jenanette Foster Kennedy was orphaned at only fourteen. Sent to Owen Sound to live with an aunt and her seven cousins, Jennie thrived in her new family. Both intelligent and artistic, she also embraced outdoor life while attending the prestigious Brantford Young Ladies’ College. Yet when offered a scholarship to continue art training in France, the young graduate declined. Instead, she choose a life with her new beau. The eighteen-year-old married the tall, determined, twenty-seven-year-old Robert (Bob) Butchart.

The young businessman was an innovator and within four years had opened Portland Cement Mill in Owen Sound. Portland cement derives its name from England, where in 1824 bricklayer Joseph Aspdin, patented the blend of limestone and clay. He named it after the local Portland stone it resembled.

In 1902, Bob would hear of a large deposit of limestone at Tod Inlet on Vancouver Island, about 20 km north of Victoria. With two daughters in tow, Bob and Jennie moved across the country and soon established a quarry and processing plant. Vancouver Island Portland Cement Company was the only cement-producing company west of the Great Lakes. The company not only pioneered refinements, but was the first to ship cement in sacks, rather than heavy, cumbersome barrels. Fortunes soared dramatically as Bob began to supply cement to facilitate the rapid building in the burgeoning province and beyond.

Jennie did not sit on the sidelines; she earned a certificate in chemistry to work in the firm’s laboratory. Yet her surroundings awakened her artistic inclinations. Re-envisioning her quaint on-site home, she hosted tea, croquet and tennis parties. Jennie was always forging ahead. The magnificent Sunken Garden was completed in nine years and to this day, cradles Jennie’s breathtaking vision. Yet if the old quarry is Butchart Garden’s celebrated centrepiece, supporting works of ‘art’ accompany this National Historic Site of Canada.

IMG_9442

The rambling Rose Garden, blooms with some 280 varieties. The Japanese Garden, its authentic Torii gate, stepping stones, maple and beech trees evoking serenity. The Mediterranean Garden, a celebration of the island’s balmy, temperate climate. The Coast Salish totem poles, honouring the storied culture of the island’s indigenous peoples. And my personal favourite, The Italian Garden – once the family tennis court – anchored by a sensuous arched wall of green, exotic palms and plants flourishing from around the globe.

For indeed, the Butcharts were also avid travellers. A trip to Rome had inspired The Italian Garden, while travels to the Himalayas, the Pyrenees and the orient garnered yet more unusual plants as well as collectibles such as urns, statues and pagodas.

As Jennie’s gardens were designed, planted and flourished – with flowering plums, magnolia, dogwood, Siberian wallflowers, bachelor’s buttons, peony and so much more – her home flourished as well. After numerous expansions, a welcome sign in Italian hung over the door. The lady of the house epitomised the spirit of ‘Benvenuto‘.

Friends began to visit the gardens, they brought their friends, and their friends brought other friends. Soon the garden opened officially three days a week. By the First World War, sightseers were flocking to the garden in tallyhos, on horseback, aboard country trolleys. Now, Jennie flung her garden gates wide open… and left them open seven days a week.

When strangers peered in the windows of Benvenuto, friends would suggest to Jenny that she should charge admission. “Oh no” she’d reply, “the flowers are fleeting. Why shouldn’t people enjoy them? They’re free for all.” Only one sign asked for ‘privacy’, and still does today. Enclosed by white lattice, it was Jennie’s one retreat – her private garden.

IMG_9488

Bob contributed to the thrilling panoply with rare birds, peacocks, pearl breasted pigeons, English and Mexican canaries, water fowl and German bullfinches trained to whistle. He imported 565 Japanese cherry trees to lavishly line the public road to the estate. At the time, its ‘beauty second only to Potomac Drive’ in Washington DC.

The entrepreneur expanded into timber, steamships, shipbuilding, coal, hardware and trusts. He had one of the first automobiles on Vancouver Island and followed it up with imported European and luxury models. With his chauffeur often in the back seat, Bob was known to cruise at breakneck speeds. When he reached eighty, his concerned wife convinced the police to revoke his driver’s license.

It’s said that Bob had the bearing of a distinguished officer, but it seems the self-made millionaire enjoyed life with a wry sense of humour: games of rummy with his servants, given to piping melodies from his beloved pipe organ into The Italian Garden to serenade lovers on evening strolls, offering a doctor who had performed an operation part cash and part world travel for payment… the doctor took him up on it!

It’s reported that in contrast to her husband, Jennie was ‘as blunt as an Irish washerwoman’. Just over five feet, she was a force to be reckoned, one who cared more about the colour flow of her gardens than the cut and fashion of her dresses. Who can blame her that overalls and a straw hat were her preferred garb. She was an excellent storyteller, loved a good earthy joke… she was generous and kind. Each week, a gardener would don high rubber boots, wade into the wishing well to fish out the coins that visitors had cast in. Wheelbarrowed over to Jennie as she sat on her sun porch, she would help package the coins to donate to charity.

As the unpaid official welcomer for the city of Victoria, Jennie entertained dignitaries, conventions and whole army regiments. She hosted tea parties for the poor and the aged, and delighted in drawing word pictures of the flowers for the blind so they could envision them as they savoured their scents. Sharing the enchantment of her garden was Jennie’s gift. Even when, by 1915, some 18,000 people toured the gardens, she refused to charge admission.

During the ‘off season’, the Butcharts embarked on extensive world tours (today the gardens are open year round.) “It seems lonely when the crowds stop coming,” Jennie lamented and Bob agreed, “I can’t understand how some people shut themselves away from their fellow man. Why, I’m never lonely when I can see so many people enjoying themselves every day.”

In 1931 Jennie was recognised as Citizen of the Year by the City of Victoria. In 1938, the ownership of the gardens was transferred to their grandson, Ian Ross on his 21st birthday… it is still in the family today. In 2015, Jennie was inducted into the Business Laureates of British Columbia’s Hall of fame. Their motto – they built, we benefit – seems tailor-made for Jennie Butchart.

As I wandered the gardens, I mused that her spirit still graces the vistas; from the dramatic Sunken Garden to the whisper of maples gently rustling in the Japanese Garden from the dancing fountain to the riots of colour and the vivacious scents of the blooms. It’s recalled that during Jennie’s time, many visitors didn’t realise the property was a private garden. People plucked flowers and fruit from the trees – this meant fewer to give away to hospitals. A few were known to pilfer coins from the wishing well. A family dog and a garden peacock were carried off. When visitors carved their initials on various trees, Bob patiently designated a tree for that purpose alone.

Yet more often than not, their generous hospitality was repaid in kind. When the King of Siam visited, he invited the Butcharts to visit his palace in Bangkok. The following year, the travelling couple gladly took the King up on his offer, spending twelve days as his guests. The Butcharts lived well, both overseas and in their tucked-away haven on the Tod Inlet.

I vividly envisioned Jennie, weaving her way through her garden, luxuriating in the divine setting she had created. Perhaps this last anecdotal story, during the visit of an English explorer, portrays this inspiring lady at her finest.

“I know one flower you haven’t got,” the visitor piped up as Jennie showed off her 5000 varieties. “You don’t have the blue poppy of Tibet.”

Jennie slyly led the visitor to a bed of heavenly blue poppies. “Why that’s impossible,” the Englishman exclaimed. “I just discovered them myself in Tibet!”

And indeed he had, and had then sent one flower from Tibet to London’s Kew Gardens. But Jennie being Jennie, had wasted no time and had already garnered the seeds from the blue poppy. I like to imagine her re-offering the guest a seed or two from the very flower he had sourced.

If only, if only we could stroll through the gardens with Jennie by our side…

IMG_9413

If you go…

The Buchart Gardens are a short drive from Victoria, or hop on a bus

Visit in the afternoon and stay for the free summer evening concerts… Jennie would be pleased with that!

Enjoy dinner in the Dining Room overlooking the Italian Garden, or at the more informal Blue Poppy Garden

Do buy some seeds in the wonderfully stocked Gift Store

Adhere to the Garden’s Etiquette including no selfie-sticks and quiet conversation…

Read more about Vancouver Island’s other inspiring artist I’ve written of, Emily Carr, and of the island itself

IMG_9476

 

 

Meandering the Croatian Islands…

Standard

 

Korcula

 

The table was set with lavender and white pressed linens… and for my birthday, a luscious red rose. July 1st found us on the Croatian island of Korcula, a setting of calm and beauty.

Breakfast on the elegant terrace of Hotel Korcula de la Ville was under a canopy of grape vines offering shade from the already warming Mediterranean sun. A feeling of grand, old-world charm infused the scene and I reflected on the famous guests who have shared this space. Visits from King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, and the prolific English writer Rebecca West.

West in her epic novel, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey Through Yugoslavia, described the hotel as… ‘Either a converted Venetian palace or built by one accustomed to palaces from birth.’ Her journey through the former Yugoslavian countries, and islands in the early 1940’s, is a somewhat archaic read, yet redolent with descriptions that capture still the essence of the island.

In the weeks prior, we had made our ‘base’ in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where our eldest son lives. Planning to return, we set out on a two week journey through the Croatian islands; regrettably not on the steamships of West’s day, but on the region’s extensive network of modern ferries. We had planned very little and I admit that as the days unfolded in unbridled bliss, I came to love the islands of Croatia.

After breakfast that morning, I opened my journal and with my new ‘boyas’ a uniquely styled crayon (originated in Korcula) I shaded the morning scene. The potted olive trees adorning, the palm trees and soft-pink oleanders anchoring, sprays of lavender perfuming. What I could not sketch were the yachts, ferries and colourful fishing boats moored across the narrow boulevard. Nor could I adequately capture the formidable fortress walls that almost seem to buttress the hotel. As I contemplated the morning, it was with a feeling of much gratitude to be welcoming my ‘new year’ in this utopian setting.

We made a late start to my birthday morning as the evening before, our anniversary, had coincided with Korcula’s famed ‘Half New Year’s’ Party. Apparently one of the only places on earth to do so, the town hosted a carnival-like evening with a parade to show off costumes, a band and a DJ that filled the piazzas with music until the wee hours. As the moon illuminated the sea and the flotilla of yachts that had sailed in for the party, we agreed that it could not have been a more joyous and fun anniversary.

Luxuriating now with one last Americano in the rising heat of the morning, we strike up a conversation with our neighbours at the table opposite, and in particular Tanya who grew up on Korcula before taking up residence in Scotland. Tanya enlightens us on life on the island before tourists and sprinkles in some interesting local knowledge.

“I went there to work; it was supposed to be for just a short time.” she explains. “But then I fell in love with a Scotsman.” I look lovingly across the table at my own Scots beau, having no idea that the conversation would soon focus on yet another Scottish native.

IMG_8237

“I had an idyllic childhood here, really carefree. Our summers were spent swimming in the sea, fishing and picnicking on the islands. When the street lights came on, we knew it was time to go home.”

As we chat, I learn that Tanya’s father had once owned Hotel Korcula and needless to say, images dance in my mind of what life must have been like for her.

“We came often for pancakes and our birthday parties were held here. And yes, there’s been a lot of famous people who have sailed this way.”

Tanya reveals one of the more intriguing characters who came to be considered one of the island’s locals. The dashing Scottish daredevil, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, part inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, would fall in love with the island.

“His old villa, Palazzo Boschi is just up the street, close to the Cathedral. President Tito made sure he could buy property here. That was unheard of as a foreigner in the ‘60’s,” Tanya tells us.

It seems Maclean had once called Tito a friend, as well as the author Ian Fleming. Maclean gave up a career as a British diplomat to enlist as a private in the army, eventually serving in the SAS, the British special forces. And  perhaps this quote by Maclean helped inspire the James Bond character. “To some people, my life might seem one long adventure… blowing up forts in the desert, clandestinely parachuting into guerrilla wars, penetrating forbidden cities deep behind closed frontiers.”

Maclean, born in Cairo to a major in the British Army, was raised in Scotland, India and Italy. After attending Eton and jointing the Foreign Office, he was posted to Paris and Moscow where he’d make journeys by train into the Soviet Union and Central Asia to places few foreigners had ever stepped foot in. Rising through the ranks, he was eventually chosen by Churchill to go to Yugoslavia to build a relationship with Tito, Maclean parachuted into Korcula in the summer of 1943 while it was under German occupation.

The scenes are difficult to contemplate today as we relax on the shady terrace. Tanya added that her father formed a friendship with Ian Fleming’s grandson and I picture the two of them sharing stories right where we now sit.

“My dad was the consummate host. This hotel was his ‘living room’. A lot of famous and interesting people… and many drinks…” “He gave it up at the start of the war.” she said, referring to the 1991-95 Croatian War for Independence. Apparently, all hotels ceased to operate during the war, but that was just the beginning.

“I remember the day of the first sniper attack of Dubrovnik. Those idyllic days were suddenly over…”

Tanya’s voice trails off, as if wanting to leave the subject of the war. This happened time and again throughout our travels and conversations in Croatia. It is still painful and we sensed that people want to move forward, trusting that time will heal the scars. The tragic dimensions of that war added an indelible chapter to Croatia’s rich and storied past.

IMG_8080

As big as Malta, this large island just off the southern Dalmatian coast, has been prized by many civilisations. The Illyrians in 1000 BC dwelt here, then in the 6thcentury BC, Greek colonists settled and christened it ‘Black Corfu’ after their homeland to the south. Here, the oldest stone monument in Croatia records that more Greek settlers arrived in the 3rdcentury BC, the two communities living peacefully until the arrival of the Romans. Next in line to conquer the island, they absorbed it into the Roman province of Illyricum. Korcula then spent periods under the Byzantines, Venetians, and sundry others before the Austro-Hungarian Empire enveloped the region. As that empire collapsed, by degrees it fell under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918), the socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, then eventually the independent Croatia.

However, a constant in Korcula’s history and the nearby hill-town of Zrnovo, is its excellent culture of quarrying and stonemasonry. We hear that there is a mysterious connection between the people and the stones of their craft – like living things taking the form of ancient walls, robust towers, medieval churches, monasteries, patrician palaces or delicate carvings. Rebecca West enthused… ‘the thousand-year-old architectural wealth oozes like honey from a honeycomb.’

We spend five halcyon days on the island. There are more evenings of music and much swimming in the pristine, pale emerald waters. We marvel daily at heavily laden orange trees and striking purple-mauve bougainvillaea that drape the walls and shade quiet gardens. We taste wine in nearby Lumbarda; we rent a car to see more of the island’s pleasant villages and dramatic vistas. 

 

Our stroll on the final evening takes us past the cathedral – the pride and the ornament of any town along the Dalmatian coast, not only a measure of their prosperity, but also of their artistic enlightenment. I nod at Fitzroy Maclean’s house along the way, wondering if we’ll catch a glimpse of it in the next James Bond movie, to be set in Croatia.

We also pass the reputed home of the great explorer Marco Polo and those lesser revered urban palaces of noblemen and bishops. Then its along the parapets of the town wall, with its belvedere view out to the narrow channel which once bordered two great maritime powers – the Republics of Venice and Dubrovnik. The channel still plays host to the island’s long shipbuilding tradition.

IMG_8390Through the tangle of narrow lanes, we happily tread on centuries-old polished stone, emerging through the grand chiseled gate of Kopnena Vrata, the Land Gate. I descend the sweeping steps but pause at the bottom when I notice local children with sea shells. It’s been a common sight on the island where just as kids in North America may explore their entrepreneurial skills by selling lemonade, here, sea shells are arranged like jewels on a cardboard box or maybe along a low stone wall.

I peruse the shells and choose two. Admittedly as a kindness to the children, but more as a reminder of this beguiling island.

Back at the Hotel Korcula, I tuck the shells into my bag along with Rebecca West’s weighty novel and daydream of returning. When the tourists leave and the cold bora winds blow this way, this hotel is the only one that remains open during the off season. I easily envision returning then. A little research perhaps… there’s all that Byzantine, Venetian and Austrian history to sink into. A lot of reading… West’s novel will take eons to get through; an ideal diversion while waiting for those warm island evenings to once again grace this golden-hued town. And definitely some writing… what other characters might this island invoke?

Oh, one can daydream of a longer sojourn on Korcula…

 

 

Vrnik

IMG_8167

One afternoon from Korcula, a water taxi ferried us to the tiny island of Vrnik. Claiming even older quarrying history than Korcula, the island proudly boasts once world-class stonemasons. In the search for solid building stone for their palaces, the ancient Romans discovered the milky sable hues of Vrnik stone and set Christian slaves to work in the quarries. That stone, and the craft of those stonemasons was sought far and wide, sourced for the many grand structures along the Dalmatian coast, including the palaces of Dubrovnik. Vrnik stone, from long abandoned quarries, graces buildings from Stockholm to Budapest, Venice to Istanbul.

 

It was late afternoon as we joined the locals, jumping hand in hand into the warm, azure waters. We wandered past charming stone cottages, once homes to retired sea captains, these days summer vacation getaways. Now only three people claim the island as their permanent residence.

We dined at the now redundant but recently refurbished school house, the lower floor transformed into the Arts Club, an excellent restaurant close to the water’s edge. As the lazy afternoon unfolded, vacationing locals gathered around simple wooden tables for a glass of local liqueur. A man sauntered over to the small chapel, opening the doors wide to air it out.

“Only open twice a year now,” we’re told, a testament to the dwindling number of parishioners. Where a century before, some six-hundred people worked in the quarries and along the quaysides, there is now only tranquility, some fishing and gentle repose. The once bald rock-faces are now dressed in lush canopies of trees and shrubs; out of sight perhaps, but still a point of pride.

 

 

Hvar

 

Butterflies on the island of Hvar are dreamy shades; tawny and brown, speckled with tints of lemony yellows. They flit and flutter over the island’s ethereal lavender like heavenly beings. Lavender is profuse on Hvar and if there’s a reason to visit this small island… go for the lavender and stay in Old Town Hvar.

Admittedly, the reputation of Hvar’s old town is more about its glamourous-party side and the catwalk-like promenade where each sun-dress is more gorgeous than the next, where each yacht is more opulent than the last. But that’s not the only story.

We stay just beyond the square, cocooned in the streets that flow naturally up the hillside. The streets are a crisscross of aged chiseled stone – where now restaurants and shops inhabit once stately palaces or simple homes of fishermen and sailors. From our outdoor ‘living room’, we peer out over the town’s rooftops and beyond to the castle. We gaze down at the postage stamp of a church square around which this particular neighbourhood gathers. The small piazza can be a meeting point, a place to pause for the melodic bells, or even to tilt a ladder against the aged wall and take advantage of a caper plant bursting through crevices of stone. The capparis spinose is native to the Mediterranean and as we return to our guest house late one afternoon, the proprietor is plucking from the family caper plant – a simple image, yet evocative of this area.

Like all of Croatia, good food and wine is essential to life. The rich soil, tilled for thousands of years, yields excellent capers, olive and pumpkin oils, oranges and figs… and the wines? Also recommended. And then there’s the lavender!

We decide to cruise the island in a blue convertible VW Beatle that drives like a tractor, but breezes us along the island with a seventies insouciance. We admire vineyards, pastures and small family chapels. We stroll through Stari Grad, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in Europe. Its vibe is more understated and sedate, a much different option to Hvar Old Town.

IMG_7888

We drive on, eastwards to the more modest town of Jelsa. Sampling a glass of local wine, I toast my friend back in Zagreb who entreated me to visit the town of his youth. Our walk around the harbour is swiftly abandoned as the siren call of the town’s rocky strand lures us to the water’s edge…in Croatia it’s natural to simply slip into the embrace of the sea, joining locals who swim with ritual passion. The chatter of half a dozen languages ripples over the water as people splash and glide in the arc of the little bay. We join them for a while, blissful and contented, cooling ourselves in the height of the noon sun.

Yet the true purpose for our cruise is to visit the island’s prolific lavender fields. For sale throughout the island, lavander is bottled or pouched in soaps and sachets. I’m pleased to buy a delicate hand stitched pouch from a local, Anna, who informs me that by mid-July, it’s harvest time and ‘have I seen the fields’ she asks.

In fact we’re on our way and soon, we’re wending our way along a narrow road, clinging to a ridge, dramatic vistas of the sea and the lush forest beyond. Soon it gives way to fields and fields of lavender, the intoxicating scent greeting us as we park the blue beetle. Creeping almost respectfully to the bursts of lavender nestled between rows of Illriyan-period stone walls, the royal-mauve hues are simply spectacular.

Back in old town Hvar cultural life continues to thrive. We enjoy a late glass of Grk on the terrace of one of the oldest surviving theaters in Europe, opened in 1612. It is the ideal spot to watch the sun slowly sink into the placid Adriatic. Now – after the day’s boating, snorkeling and swimming trips – the town square is a swirling mix of locals. Children play football against the town’s pretty church walls, parents chat with neighbours and we travellers find a perch and breathe it all in.

Then an evening stroll along the promenade, ambling past the stately yachts with their lights twinkling against the darkening sky. Hvar is a popular port-of-call in the Adriatic and by this time, we’ve spotted some of the same vessels seemingly on the same route that we are… Split, Korcula, Hvar, Dubrovnik. I keep an eye out for Jon Bon Jovi, and Beyonce who, we hear, are also island hopping.

A few days later, we rent our own small vessel for the day off Cavtat, an ancient summer retreat close to Dubrovnik. Bruce, Ayla and I are exhilarated with our day on the sea. We jump in and swim often, we glide our hands through the water as we put-put along, gazing contentedly out toward the marvellous Croatian coastline. Now this is living… no yacht necessary.

How did Rebecca West put it?

‘In that, and a further bay, we made the boat linger. The green water glittered clean as ice, but gentle. Could we buy some land? Could we build a villa?’

 Oh yes, I understand completely…

IMG_7837 2

 

IMG_8530

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes on a train boarding pass… Zagreb, a welcome to Croatia

Standard

It was almost noon as the train rolled into Zagreb. We had left Ljubljana early morning, wending our way along the banks of the Sava river, through Slovenia’s pastoral countryside of summer greens, tidy chalet-style farm houses and tall church steeples.

At a nondescript station, the train stopped abruptly. We were at the Croatian border, a sister country also once part of Yugoslavia – the former federation of the southern slavic peoples.

Guards stamped our passports with curt efficiency (and a charming small train icon). Croatia, until recently absent from my travel wish list, now laid before us.

As I write this now, on day six, how fortunate I feel to be meeting Croatians in their own country. They are disarmingly gregarious, welcoming, and prone to robust outbreaks of humour.

As to the sites and the history? Beautiful and richly layered.

The drawbacks? It is scorching hot, summer-tourist busy, and that’s before we’ve even reached the epicentre of tourism that is Dubrovnik. Yet already, I have developed a fondness for Croatia, for its people and place.

IMG_7645

We’ve journeyed through the Slovenian hinterland before, the views are familiar, yet on the Croatian side of the border, the countryside was not quite as picture-perfect. Absent was the pristine orderliness of farms and villages, those neatly stacked woodpiles and signature window boxes in blossoming reds.

We passed through towns like Zadine Most, Sevinca, Blanca Rozno and Libna. At each station I noticed a station master standing at attention as the train passed. In Slovenia they were dressed in blue shirts, navy trousers and berry-red berets. In Croatia, their shirts shifted to white and each man, or woman, stood as if a sentinel as the train passed.

I began to watch for them, with just a hint of anticipation. I imagined the station masters’ presence as assurance that the trains are running as they should, that all is in order – my mind drifted to the heartaches of this once war-riven region .

Today, the trains are efficient, safe, economic and as always, I relish the unhurried pleasure of train travel. For does not a train journey ease one more gently into a new country, allowing it, mile by mile, to introduce its signature and beauty?

IMG_7651

Zagreb…

We alight at Zagreb, the once-ornate station now showing signs of neglect. Across the street, a park greets us, modern bright blue trams glide past grand buildings. I immediately love that hydrangea is prolific in green spaces and in planters; splashes of colour against the terracotta roofs and cobbled streets.

I try not to compare Zagreb to the more-polished Ljubljana, our ‘home base’ for this past month, but Zagreb at once feels different.

The city is wrapped in much the same layers of history, yet perhaps it reveals its treasures more slowly. But then how better to delight than rounding a bend to come across the chapel within the Kamenita Vrata, the stone gate that guards the old upper town, or encountering the impressively coloured tiled roof of St. Marks. And within half an hour of arriving, I’m welcomed in traditional Croatian style with a glass of chilled local wine. It is the perfect introduction to this beautiful country.

 

The market just off Dolac Square is winding down as we stop for a late morning coffee at Cafe Opatovina. The café has front row seats to the busy market, its chairs mostly occupied by older men, gently rotund, straw hats shading tanned faces, some reading the morning paper, others chatting animatedly. All are already enjoying a beer or glass of wine. As in neighbouring Slovenia, anytime of the day is wine and beer time.

Outsized umbrellas shade both produce and vendors and after coffee, I take note of the cast-iron scales weighing the fruit and veg. I have observed these intriguing contraptions in markets far and wide and notice that these possess a unique ‘holder’, almost like a bucket. And as in India, the vendors rent the scales on a daily basis. I offer a ‘Dober dan,” as greeting to the young man operating the scale-rental stall. I learn that he charges only 13 kuna (about 2 US dollars) for a rental and his face tells me that he’s mystified at my interest.

Meanwhile, my travel companion has ventured off to St. Mark’s to survey the intriguing tiled roof that bears this country’s coat of arms. I’m happy to be alone for an hour or so as it often opens different doors. So it is here that I enjoy a pleasant and unexpected welcome to Croatia.

IMG_1611IMG_7646IMG_7711

I meander through the nearby market stalls; amply stocked with lace and aprons, wicker and honey. A small tavern in hues of Greek blue is tucked alongside and ever curious, I take a peek inside.

Five men, of a certain age, are nestled inside the postage-stamp of a bar, though I soon learn its actually a private club. It’s a cool refuge from the heat and I’m immediately invited to join them.

I’ve read enough about Croatian culture to know that it’s impolite to refuse and after all, the church bells have just chimed noon! I accept a glass of  dry white and join the locals on the long banquette. It seats maybe six people, the exact width of the club at the back.

“Zivjeli”, Cheers! Their toast is wholehearted and genuine.

I ask Branco, Miro, Nikola and Seavo if they come here often. They’re deadpan serious when they retort, ‘every day, and all day’.

When they that learn that I’m Canadian, they’re surprised to hear that our capital isn’t Vancouver or Toronto. Ottawa is indeed a revelation. We discuss the recent Raptors win – big news in basketball-crazy Croatia. Another glass of wine is placed in front of me before I can refuse.

When the ‘men’s club’ discover that I’ve spent time in Slovenia, Branco nudges his heavy glasses up on his nose and settles a little deeper into the sofa to qualify the situation in Croatia.

“Here’s not as rich. Many young people leave Croatia,” he laments. “The retirement pension isn’t enough and we can’t work even if we wanted to. It was better when we were part of Yugolsavia.”

Yet Luca, positioned by chance under a poster of his home town on the island of Hvar, listens to the conversation. He interjects only cautiously. He’s debonair in a movie-set kind of way with a white fedora and a thick moustache complimenting his handsome face. He becomes a little more mysterious still when he mentions that he’s spent time I San Francisco, but doesn’t elaborate. The discussion trails off to handball, local wine and our upcoming itinerary.

“Go to Jelsa for sure,” Luca suggests just as an older gentlemen, with the face of a cherished grandfather, rises from the bar to shake my hand. He proffers me a piece of notepaper. On it is a name of a distant relative.

“In case, you’re in Toronto, go visit. Tell him you met Nikola in Zagreb,” he says with the genuine warmth and another handshake.

It’s time to take my leave and my attempt to pay for my wine is emphatically rebuffed and I accept gratefully. “Hvala lepa,” I say, thanking them for my ‘official’ welcome on Croatian soil. They ease themselves off the banquette.

“Time for lunch,” says Miro. He gives me a final wave from the doorway.

I disappear into the streets of Zagreb’s old town to find Bruce and over a late lunch, we brush up on Croatia’s history. As a country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, it borders Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Its people are a legacy of their maritime past and history of a former territory of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Venetian Empires… and that’s just the recent past. Even the Greeks and the Romans built on what came before. As Miro had mentioned at the club, “We are a proud mix of everything.”

As we glide out of Zagreb on the 3:20 to Split, I’m appreciative for this snapshot of a city that despite being the capital, is often overshadowed by Split, Dubrovnik, and the much vaunted Adriatic coast.

By 9 pm, Croatian flags fluttering on lamp posts welcome us into Split. The station master, tips his berry-red beret and we enter a city for the ages…

IMG_7719

 

 

 

 

 

Escape from Tiananmen Square… A Remembrance

Standard

IMG_3319

From the ‘notes’ archives

The newspaper clipping has long since tattered and yellowed. It is now thirty years old, with the heading, ‘The Day Tanks Laid Down the Law in Beijing,’ and the article I wrote not long after the event, bears witness to the events of those tragic days.

I was in my mid-twenties when, with my backpacker-boyfriend, we fled the carnage and atrocities of what many simply refer to as ‘Tiananmen Square’. Thirty years have passed, yet I think often of the innocent lives lost in the struggle to open the doors to democracy – something that should never be taken for granted.

The events of early June, 1989, are deeply etched in my memory. Most especially our fortunate escape. I don’t quite know how, but in the height of that emergency we survived and managed to secure train tickets to Shanghai. It was the last train that made it out… the one afterwards would be derailed.

Once aboard in the corridors, rising over the stillness of shock and disbelief, we listened to the fearful, whispering voices of the students and protestors who were still alive and managing to escape. They were being wrenched from their lives – from their families, studies, careers and from their country that would soon paint them as insurrectionists and traitors. All they had hoped for was dialogue and a peaceful solution; a voice in a new China.

“Please, please tell the West what has happened. Do they know, do they know?” we were asked in hushed tones as the train carried us sombrely through the night to Shanghai.

I recall the guilt I felt, knowing that for the most part life, for us life would resume. To those who fled, to those who lost their lives, and to the families who still mourn… I remember you often.

As fairly savvy backpackers who had already been on the trail for five months – Thailand, India and Nepal was the common route in the late ‘80’s – we were naïve in purposely traveling to Beijing. We had been in Hong Kong when the news of the fledgling democracy protests reached us and were surprised to be granted tourists’ visas. Entering China around mid-May, we made a long sweeping arc, first to the western provinces and then to the north. As news of escalating protests reached us, we foolishly threw away any caution and journeyed to what we imagined would be history in the making for democracy.

We entered the city on June 2ndand immediately witnessed long convoys of army vehicles stalled on the main arteries, apparently at an impasse with the locals who were nevertheless provisioning them with water, food and smokes. For all that it was alarming, the scene looked hopeful and there appeared still to be friendly banter between the troops and the people.

On the afternoon of June 3rd, we joined the crowds in Tiananmen Square. The obvious perseverance, sacrifice and courage of the hunger-striking students was profound. Colourful protest banners flew proudly over their tents, their only protection from the blazing sun and blustery nights. Many sat, quiet and pensive, smoking to stave off hunger.

The square around them was showing signs of deterioration and garbage littered the area. Mounds of clothing lay out for disinfection by medical aides. Above the flags, a new symbol of hope now surveyed the scene… the recently erected ‘Lady Victory’ Statue. She beamed radiantly across the Avenue of Eternal Peace at the pug-faced portrait of Chairman Mao. The half-villain, half-hero looked out of place in the students’ vision for a new China.

Earlier that morning, in an area behind the People’s Assembly, we had encountered a sea of green army helmets. They were young, mostly frightened teenagers and at that time still unarmed. We would learn that these early waves of troops mostly spoke local dialects and had been brought in from the countryside with little appetite for becoming embroiled in this political impasse.

We watched as crowds quickly surrounded them and a driver pulled his bus across the road to block their onward passage to the square. The bus became a vantage point for newsmen and for those few Chinese who possessed a camera. Thirty years ago, there were few luxuries in evidence. The streets were still teeming with millions of bicycles, only a few thousand cars travelled the city streets.

Eager to secure a good photo, Bruce hoisted me up on his shoulders. Many flashed the victory sign which, caught up in the moment, I returned to the cheers of the crowds. Besides my own, I gladly took photos for those who handed up their camera to me. Not until an irate senior soldier motioned towards me, did I grasp the enormity of the situation and hastily clambered down to the questionable anonymity that my auburn hair might enjoy amidst a crowd of Chinese. Of course, we were never truly able to disappear into the crowd. Time and again over the next few days, we were told to leave, ‘Foreigners bad now, go, go!’

We circled on our bikes toward the southern approach to the square, blending into the fringe of a crowd that was interacting with another contingent of troops. Peeling away from that crowd left us feeling exposed, but we had pulled back only a few metres when there was a roar from behind. We turned as the masses bolted away from the troops towards us. Dropping our bikes, we ran with them. It was a false alarm and untangling our bikes, we pedalled away, hearts pounding and very conscious of the growing intensity – much like the electric charge in the air before a thunderstorm.

Along the main thoroughfare of Chang ‘an Avenue, now around 6 pm, steadily more people filled the streets. All traffic had stopped. A group of protestors marched past, the crowds singing loudly to drown out the bark of party propaganda blaring from the tinny loud speakers mounted along the street. The atmosphere was raw and pulsating.

Ahead, an army truck had been set upon by the angry crowd, now a study of twisted metal and shattered glass. A block further was more frightening and perhaps foreshadowed what the night held for Beijing. A machine gun was propped on a desk atop a bus that had clearly been commandeered from the army. As students conferred on the roof and others within the bus, it was possible to imagine that perhaps the students might just have the upper hand. It was not to last.

Knowing, as foreigners that we had exposed ourselves enough, we pedalled back to our hotel just in time for the 8 pm martial law curfew. Yet thousands were defying it. People still gathered in groups and in conspiratorial voices, were either strategising or sharing anecdotes… all appeared greatly on edge.

IMG_3317

Returning to the rudimentary comfort and relative safety of our backpackers’ hotel, we tried to sleep; fully clothed, backpacks ready at the door, bed pushed away from the window. As the long night unfolded, we could hear tanks moving through city streets, the unmistakeable squeal of metal on pavement, gunfire piercing the air – both single shots and long sustained bursts. I was terrified, and convinced… surely, they would come looking for the foreigner who had dared to take so many ‘illegal photographs.’ Indeed, a news broadcast had warned of this traitorous act.

At daybreak, a gaggle of backpackers gathered in the lobby. Upon arrival, some of us had signed up for a bus trip to the Great Wall. Now, the visibly frightened desk clerk hinted at the grave reality on the ground. “No buses. No buses anywhere. Everywhere stopped. All danger.” With a trip to the Great Wall now the last things on our mind, we struggled to comprehend the horror that had unfolded overnight. A crackling voice from the BBC World Service was coaxed out of a transistor radio in the hotel’s austere lobby. The news that many had lost their lives both in the square and at the university confirmed our worst fears.

We learned later that as darkness had fallen, battalions of heavily armed soldiers made their way into the city through underground passages to walled-off confines of the Forbidden City. No longer the teen soldiers of the local militias, this new wave pitted battle hardened troops from the provinces against unarmed democracy protesters. Independent sources estimate that some ten thousand innocent people were murdered that night.

Panic gripped us and sensibly most travellers elected to remain inside and plot their next move. Five of us however, decided to venture out. In reality, Bruce and I had no choice. Our prime concern was to retrieve his passport. On the first afternoon of arrival, we had foolishly left it for security for our bike rentals.

Overnight, the city had turned into a war zone and we knew we must escape. Making our way cautiously around the south-east flank of Tiananmen, we pressed slowly forward, one block at a time. It was unknown territory accompanied by an unfamiliar heart-pulsing fear. We pushed on, past charred remnants of trucks and buses. Past disarray and destruction – crushed garbage cans, mangled barriers, torn-up pavement – visible signs of the merciless trail of army tanks. At strategic junctions, armed convoys blocked access to the square, ground zero of the atrocity.

A lone soldier strode towards us as throngs of people cheered his obvious desertion. His eyes fixed ahead, he clung to his crumpled shirt then disappeared into the crowd. Small clusters of soldiers, separated from their squads straggled cagily past, dishevelled and edgy. Crowds of bystanders angrily harassed forlorn groups of army wounded.

We moved on, skirting smouldering wreckage, until Tiananmen Gate came into sight. Suddenly shots pierced the air. Dropping our bikes, we all bolted ahead with the crowd. Then all stopped a little further on. Out of breath, Bruce and I found each other in the chaos then I waited anxiously as he and a friend retrieved the bikes.

A crowd surrounded me. A man who spoke little English became agitated, repeatedly telling me to not go further. Forming a gun with his hand, he warned that the Army would shoot indiscriminately. More shots rang out. I was desperate for Bruce’s safety… finally he reappeared and we quickly turned down a back street, edging our way towards the bike shop.

I don’t quite know what caused us to hope that it would be open – except, escape of course – and when we saw the shutters rolled up and the shop open for business, I finally broke down and sobbed. All these years later, the thought of not having retrieved the passport still fills me with panic. Chastening ourselves at our stupidity, we continued on foot towards Chang ‘an Avenue, the main boulevard.

We had no choice but to try to book a train out; I would learn much later that some 250 Canadians had been flown to safety by the government. Hoping to gather some insight on the situation from other travellers, we stopped at what was at the time an iconic bastion of the West, The Beijing Hotel. For the moment, it was relatively unscathed, though bullet holes pierced the front door reminding guests they were in range of random gunfire.

As we tried to force down some food, sporadic gunfire jolted any sense of safety. My stomach reeled as Bruce tried to remain calm for my sake, yet each of us silently wondered if we would make it back to our hotel alive. Word emerged that troops had been indiscriminately firing at people in a twisted logic of revenge.

The constant chatter of helicopter rotors washed ominously over us. And then a new sound emerged – a rumble that vibrated through the hotel foundations. Following the lead of a few others, and against the better judgement of staff, we climbed the stairs to a roof-top vantage point. A column of tanks, as far as we could see, was crawling down Chang ‘an Avenue. The sound was deafening.

Peering out to the square some five hundred metres distant, we watched as the dark silhouette of a rising chopper, the black payload swinging beneath the machine told us all we needed to know. Helicopters were ferrying body after body from the cordoned-off square just beyond our view.

Suddenly, the convoy of tanks grounded to a halt. Below us and to our right, strode a single man who blocked their path. He would not yield and even as the lead tank made to detour around him, he stepped deliberately back into its line. This indelible scene, captured from the hotel on a sixth floor balcony and smuggled out by a French student concealed in a box of tea, was soon shared with the world. Even in that simpler era before the endless news cycle, the scene would play out infinitely as a symbol of peaceful resistance. It was an act so defiant, so brave… simply unfathomable for anyone who had witnessed the display of might emanating from the long column of tanks.

Already then, we knew. During the night, these same tanks had been less sparing of life. Randomly and deliberately, they had mowed down the innocent, their own people. Writing this today, my whole being recoils in disbelief… and still, in deep sadness.

Realizing that our parents would be panicked, we sought to telephone from the main post office four blocks away. The telephone wires at the Beijing Hotel had been cut and it was no surprise that the post office was shuttered. The overpass directly beyond the building was awash with crowds gathered to observe the tanks and the troops stationed below. Edging closer to the scene we stumbled upon flattened bikes and then the sight of the bloodied, crushed body of a young man. His image became another rallying cry, an iconic image on magazine covers that rekindled the rage against the government.

Finally, we reached the railway station, thankful, then almost perplexed at our good fortune of obtaining tickets outbound for Shanghai the next evening. Once back outside, the darkening sky now broke into torrential loud claps of thunder and pounding rain. Like blows on an anvil, I saw symbolism in the storm’s anger. The aggressor had won – driving a final emphatic nail in the coffin of democracy.

Hailing a cycle rickshaw, feeling relatively invisible behind the plastic sheet that protected from the downpour, I occasionally poked my head out to the wreckage of the streets. I saw army trucks smouldering in the cool, misty air. I cried when I glimpsed sight of the charred, distorted image of a young soldier hanging from an overpass. My composure broke when the Chong Wen Men Hotel finally came into sight.

There, we would wait it out until our train left the next evening. We all gathered often around the transistor. We ate little and sleep eluded us. In fact it was pointless to even try. For as night fell, the clatter of gunfire erupted anew – rapid, staccato, unceasing for a second night of retribution against democracy protesters and anyone thought to be associated.

The next evening with the sound of gunfire still in the distance we boarded the train, we escaped the city. A city that only days before had been bathed in the hopeful glow of awakening democracy.

In Shanghai, we slept on the airport floor for two nights and like so many others, were desperate to fly to the safety of Hong Kong. Bribes were plentiful and we travellers fought continuously to secure seats on an outbound flight.

Once in Hong Kong, we took a flight to Japan. Within days we had found jobs teaching English in Osaka. While there, one year later, we ventured home to Canada for a reunion with family, and to marry.

Rather unexpectedly, we have largely lived a global life since and raised our three sons. And especially, as a mother, I lament for those who yearn for their deceased children… without any official recognition of wrongdoing, apology, or justice.

For all of the fallen of Tiananmen Square, and their families… I offer this remembrance.

IMG_3314

IMG_3313

 

 

 

 

 

On Penang Island… a writer in residence, a canvas of storied heritage

Standard

 

I write this from the island of Penang as a writer in residence. To use that cliche, if I may,  over the moon begins to describe it. I’m ensconced in a studio apartment on Lebuh China, the street of George Town’s earliest traders. In fact, the Chinese have called it Tua Kay, Main Street, since it was laid out in 1786 by Captain Francis Light. That same year, Light with the audacity of those colonial times, ‘claimed’ this island for the British East India Company.

The narrow street that I call home for the month of May, reminds me of so many places; of our travels through China and Thailand, of our two-year stay in Japan, and most recently of our home in Bangalore, India. Lebuh China fringes Little India, and for me, George Town encompasses all of those treasured places… melded into one storied milieu.

Not long after arriving, I set my workspace, found my friendly flower wallah, sourced my go-to corner shops and just a few steps away, found my favourite local cafe. The setting of Ren i Tang – an old Chinese medical hall now a Heritage Inn and Bistro – is simple yet evocative. Its tall ceilings, aged ceramic tiles and reminders of its days as the neighbourhood dispensary, are characteristic of George Town’s iconic shop houses. Many have a unique story to tell and at Ren i Tang, my favourite low table often seems to be waiting just for me at the bistro’s edge. With its open view to the street beyond, I can watch life pass by in a contented and unhurried flow. I might savour a bowl of spicy Laksa, then fresh watermelon juice to help combat the heat and humidity. I admit, I revel in this climate!

Shop houses like Ren i Tang, help give George Town its rich and eclectic character. Many have been refurbished, some are in need of saving, but they all very much contributed to the city being accorded a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008… as did the heritage buildings, narrow roads, colonial-era mansions, Chinese clan houses, ornate temples and Little India. And of course, we must mention the iconic street art, the fantastic street food and the traditional artisans – rattan weavers, garland makers, wooden sign-board carvers, lantern and joss stick makers. Even generations of tart makers are deemed part of George Town’s cultural heritage.

As I pass through the streets whether to research, to an event at Hikayat ‘my’ excellent local book shop, or to meet friends for dinner, all of my senses are invited to engage. The strains of Hindi love songs drift through the balmy, sandalwood-infused air. The tok-tok-tok of an enthusiastically wielded spatula against a wok, large as an upturned umbrella, pre-empts the aromas of Penang’s beloved street food. And as always, commerce abounds – gold jewellers and saree shops, refined displays of colourful Malay batiks,  profusions of collectable Chinese and Nonya porcelain.

Yet, the intrinsic backdrop of George Town is the layer upon layer of founding cultures – Malay, Indian, Chinese, Siamese, Armenian, British, German, and more – all of which appear to exist in respectful harmony. Languages, religions and cultures brush Penang’s canvas with rich and intricate tones, creating a hopeful picture of balance and acceptance.

How did the young Malay taxi driver put it on my arrival?

“Welcome, welcome. First time to Penang, Miss?”

I smiled just a little that, in Malaysia and Thailand, they still endearingly call me ‘miss.’

“No, I’ve been here quite a few times I admitted,” explaining that I have visited often since first working on a book project a number of years ago.

“So you know then. Here, we all live in harmony, many religions, many cultures. How the world should be.”

He could not have said it more poignantly and in truth, I believe this is one of the reasons why I so embrace this small island in the Malay Archipelago. As I discovered through researching its history for the book previously to this one, there are many facets to uncover, yet the building-blocks of this unique and multi-cultural island are steadfast and represented just a short walk from my apartment … the cornerstones of four religions on one harmonious street.

A few evenings ago, I strolled to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling just before dusk. I wanted to embrace the uniqueness of this treasured street. Initially named Pitt Street after the once British Prime Minster, still today, it is proof that religions can live side by side.

At the Goddess of Mercy Temple, over-sized joss sticks burned in quiet reverence at the edge of the temple. A few last visitors cupped their much smaller pieces of sandalwood, circling them in devoted hands… a quiet Taoist prayer.

A few doors away, the gleaming white spires of St. George’s Church reached skyward, mirrored by the tips of tall palms and framed by the sprawling branches of a grand mahogany tree. It is the oldest Anglican Church in South east Asia. “Two hundred years old today,” a proud parishioner told me. “Please, you are very welcome.”

As sunset swept the sky with wisps of golds and luminous pinks, the melodic call to prayer drifted languidly from a little way down the street. As it has done since 1801, the Mosque seemed to entice rather than summon its believers for evening prayer. As Muslim Malays and Indians made their way, many took the time to nod a hello or bid a ‘good evening.’ In an instant, I drifted back to our seven years in Qatar and Oman where I recall going to Christmas church services. Perhaps, where I first experienced this diverse blend of coexistence. And here? It has been crafted from the outset, as Francis Light encouraged a multi-cultural settlement.

In my glow of bonhomie, a rainbow of pastel colours soon caught my eye from the opposite side of the street. It was the Indian gopuram of Sri Mahamariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in George Town. Since 1833 it has welcomed followers. Many were the original stevedores who loaded and unloaded ships dockside. The temple must have been a refuge and a comfort to some of these first hard working migrants.Then, as now, one enters into a cool, incense-clouded interior. Intricate garlands of roses, jasmine and marigolds also permeate the air. Once a year the devotees place their statue, the goddess Mariamman, on a wooden chariot and an evening procession parades her through the streets of Little India.

That evening however, things were much more serene. Tourists paused to marvel at the dance of colours in the sky and trishaw peddlers waited sanguinely for one last fare. As I continued my evening stroll, I pondered if there was any city in the world where four prominent religions occupy the same street in harmony?

I meditated a ‘gratitude’ for the friends and many acquaintances I have here… all of them representing one of these religions, others, or perhaps none at all. As the young Malay driver commented, “This harmony, is how the world should be…”

 

The tulips of Keukenhof… the flower of Kings and Sultans

Standard

IMG_3918

There is a sense of anticipation as we are near the Keukenhof. In gaps between farmhouses and buildings, glimpses of colour flash through the windows of our bus. Field upon field of tulips are slowly revealed, like living rainbows laid flat and narrow. They are a preview of what is to come – a tantalizing aperitif before the sumptuous feast that will soon be laid out before us.

With some time to spare in our travels, we’ve taken a bus from Schiphol Airport to one of the world’s most expansive and joyous displays of flowers. Even before we pass through the gates of these once 15thcentury hunting grounds, murmurs of anticipation bubble and swirl. As we enter, we are arrested, transfixed by the first of many beautiful vistas that have been planned with such loving attention. It is truly a remarkable sight.

Many years have passed since my last visit and so it felt almost like seeing it with fresh eyes. Despite my Dutch heritage, I don’t think that I fully appreciated just what a treasure the Keukenhof is… and just how intimately it is linked to the identity and history of this small nation. Keukenhof, which essentially means kitchen garden, is a wonder, a pride and joy… a celebration of one of earth’s most coveted gardens.

Also known as the Garden of Europe, between October and Christmas, the Keukenhof’s horticultural team plants a staggering 7 million flower bulbs, covering almost 80 acres. With practiced precision, they are ‘timed’ to bloom for the garden’s springtime opening and we are fortunate to be here at the sweet-spot– the day is warm and sunny, the tulips profuse and the first tender green leaves of the trees provide a pastel-lime backdrop to the displays beauty. There is no colour of the spectrum not represented – buttery yellow, creamy white, saffron yellow, crimson and carmine red, plum and deep purple, single colours or variegated; evocative in their diversity.

Without question, tulips are all hermaphroditic, carrying both male and female characteristics. They have petals, sepals and tepals. I learn that their waxy leaves are ‘cauline’, emanating, unwinding from the stem of the plant and that they thrive in climates with long, cool springs for germination. That climate is certainly not only found in The Netherlands, but also in the steppes, meadows and shrubby chaparral, from Afghanistan to the plains of India. But in their journey from eastern origins, it is clear that in the Netherlands they truly found their full blossoming.

Babur, who founded the Indian Mughal Empire five centuries ago, mentioned tulips in his memoir. They were precious, like melons and grapes, and presented as fond gifts. In Turkey, tulips were considered holy, revered even by Sultans who displayed them artfully on their turbans. In fact, it is held that the word tulip is derived from the word duliband (or dulib) the Persian for turban. While the tulips were abloom, tulip gardens were settings for the sumptuous parties of Sultans, some replete with candle-backed tortoises illuminating the sublime setting.

The scene at Keukenhof is more elemental, but no less marvellous than those extravagant scenes. It is serene, yet also exuberant, in its carefully orchestrated scenes and vistas. Exciting, but also hushed, as crowds marvel at the spectacle. In this spectacular parkland setting, the tulips are the main event with fragrant hyacinths and narcissus playing supporting roles to the star attraction.

The tulips are arranged in swathes of colour – some like streams flowing amongst trees or like a manicured English garden, precise and geometric. Other vignettes are simply riots of colour, exuberant explosions. Plaques throughout the garden speak of the vast number of species and variants. Each cluster is labelled, names inspired by their origins or distinct characteristics – pointed like stars, jagged and rustic, or smooth and delicate like a peachy, fulsome breast.

Surely there’s a perfect tulip for everyone’s taste and I quickly spot my favourite… it’s my typical white flower but with wisps of the softest pink. A simple flower, unlike the variegated and marbled varieties which at one point in the tulip’s history became sought after to the point that a bulb could trade for the same value as a well-appointed house in Amsterdam.

During the mid-1500’s, Sultans commonly gave the coveted tulips as gifts to visiting Western diplomats. Then in 1573, one Carolus Clusius planted tulips at the Vienna Imperial Botanical Gardens. He completed the first major paper on the flower, with specific notes on the variations of colour. When appointed director of Leiden University in the Netherlands, Clusius planted a teaching garden and then a private garden in the late 1593. Thus, 1594 is considered the date of the tulip’s first flowering in the country, yet the tulip expert would lose more than one hundred of his precious bulbs to raiding in his garden… the secret of the precious tulip was spreading.

IMG_3924

Tulips gained in popularity across Europe with more opulent varieties pursued to the point of mania. This was a time when people’s appetite for curiosities and natural oddities was at its height in the Netherlands, France, Germany and England, driven by the spice trade from the East Indies. This created a new wealth and introduced a steady stream of novelty.

The ‘exotic’ tulip acquired an aura of mystique and between 1634 to 1637, this enthusiasm sparked a tulip trading frenzy. Bulbs became a form of currency, a luxury product that spoke of the good taste and esteemed learning of the merchant class. Many of those who bought tulips also collected valuable paintings – the tulips themselves were soon depicted in Dutch still-life paintings of the rich and opulent Golden Age.

With the crash of the tulip market in 1637, this former flower of Kings and Sultans set forth on a more democratic path through history, one in which tulips could be owned and adored by all. Today, the Dutch grow almost 80 % of the world’s tulip bulbs – some 3 billion – yet as we stroll through Keukenhof, it strikes me that is not simply a business. It is a source of pride and identity, one that is exquisitely showcased to the world year after year in a springtime of abundance and unbridled colour.

67A86EBD-65E3-48E4-A4E6-9C81B7008E49And I give the visionaries who have shaped this former ‘kitchen garden’ much credit, it has it all!

Play areas for children, indoor displays, whimsical themed arrangements, even the opportunity to climb the steep steps of a traditional windmill to take in the vistas beyond. And their view? None other than those rainbow fields of tulips… as we say in Dutch, echt prachtig,just beautiful!