Category Archives: History

An ancient Greek meander… in the footsteps of a father, part one

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I had loved Rome, Paris and Istanbul… but Athens! It is profoundly special and awe-inspiring in its expanse of history and graceful beauty.

It was the perfect choice for our brief interlude. Keeping in mind that we would be laden with a pile of suitcases as we moved from India, we wanted somewhere en route to our destination, ideally warm, and a contrast to Asia. Greece was the perfect choice… and there was another poignant reason.

My husband’s father had been a classical scholar, a longtime philhellenic; a professed lover of all things Greek. George Greenaway Wilson was a didactic dad who took great joy in sharing his love of literature and military history, his bookshelves crammed with the works of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Euripides. He notably earned a Doctorate in Classics in his later years, studying the Ancient Greek language in parallel to better read the texts. Visiting Greece often with Bruce’s mother, Isabella, they had mostly forgone the tourist streets in cities such as Athens, Heraklion and Kalamata, preferring the clubs and haunts of local Greeks.

“He would unleash his Ancient Greek to the bemusement and delight of patrons in back-street tavernas and working men’s clubs,” Bruce recalled fondly, visualizing the scene with amusement.

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I had heard some of these stories through the years yet now being here, I could more easily imagine George as he transformed into Georgios during his visits. Bruce’s mother was very much a willing accomplice to the twice-yearly forays to Greece and Turkey.

“I can see why your mom loved it here so much,” I proclaimed on the first afternoon as we lingered over a languid lunch of Greek salad, spanakopita, bread, olives and a carafe of local white wine. “And how could you not, the food is enough to never want to leave!”

We were sitting in an outdoor taverna, Scholarkheio, a family run restaurant since 1935 situated in the quaint streets of Plaka. It became our local ‘go-to’ and from that first long indulgent lunch, the stress of the move from the past few months was lifted; a sense of recovery from the planning, packing and heartfelt farewells of India.

 

“Mom loved it here,” Bruce confirmed, as we imagined them walking these streets. “The sun and the heat. And the very drinkable cheap wine of course! There was never a problem with Dad luring her along with him,” he said, refilling our tumblers with local wine.

I understood this immediately. Athens is alive with colour, great food, wandering minstrels, and of course even arrays of Greek sandals to choose from! And wonderfully, it is a very approachable and walkable city. At its heart are the magnificent buildings of the Acropolis, overlooking the ancient settlement since 450 BC or so. Life radiates gently below – the charming streets of old Plaka, for dining, browsing and shopping. The ancient Forums and Libraries, the most excellent Acropolis Museum, and parks where grand sculptures rest amongst silvery oaks, fragrant olive and eucalyptus trees – I was quickly beguiled and in the city’s thrall.

 

Yet Athens is not a trivial holiday experience, it is humbling if one sets the span of a life against its timeless presence. It speaks of the founding of democracy and art, poets and scholars, and theatre of the great odeums where orators and actors guided and chided the world into independent thinking, towards democracy itself .

We stayed in the shadow of the Acropolis. The breathtaking view of the Parthenon held us spellbound as we lingered over drinks that first evening on the rooftop bar of the Herodion Hotel – feeling close enough to reach out and touch its aged, elegant marble. Its Ionic columns still evoking the power and refinement of ancient Greece. But life then, as now, plays out on the stage beneath its glorious prominence, fanning out over the plains and hills of old Attica.

After climbing the limestone crag of the Acropolis (literally ‘highest point of the city’), the magnificent ruins stood before us. While there is evidence that the hill was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, it was the astute and forward-thinking statesman Pericles (495 – 429 BC) who coordinated the construction of some of the site’s most important structures and others that followed: the delicate Temple of Athena Nike, the grand entrance of the Propylaia, the Erectheion with its maidens columns – all stunning even in the fractured mosaic of their sun-bleached remnants.

I thrilled in the ruins, content for them to hint at the once glorious past. My engineer partner suggested that he would rather see the Parthenon fully reconstructed and on that point I had to protest. I loved imagining it in my mind. Like all Greek temples, it was richly ornamented in vivid natural colours of blues, reds and golds. Statues honouring Greek mythology posed dramatically – Apollo and Athena Nike the goddess of victory,  Zeus, Hercules and the messenger god Hermes. I can imagine the beautifully adorned women in their flowing tunics, the chiton or the sleeveless peplos, maybe a himation (cloak) for cooler winter months. Perhaps their exquisite gold jewellery glinted in the sun as they strolled the temples with offerings of incense and honey-dripped sheafs of wheat.

We had visited the excellent Acropolis Museum before the site itself, its trove of treasures depicting everyday life, allowing ones imagination to easily meander to that time. In fact I learned that meander, one of my favourite words, comes from the Greek meandros, the ancient Meander River which was exceptionally winding and twisty. The meander design was a common theme, replicated on pottery, clothes and jewellery. As one of the most important symbols of Ancient Greece, its connotation of unity and infinity in continuous interlocking lines represents eternity, an unbroken flow of things, like the meandering of life. And to this day it permeates Greek design.

The Parthenon is the crowning glory of classical Greece ethos and standing in the midst of it, we understood George’s deep appreciation of Greek philosophy and its role in the dawning of democracy.DSCF5838

“I wish he was here to share his knowledge, bring it to life for us,” Bruce said with a tinge of regret. “He always thought he was better suited to this time. Perhaps it was the philosopher-warrior in him, the deep thinker and the stoic.” His maxim might have been a quote from his favourite general, Thucydides, subject of his doctorate, who said that ‘The State that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.’ Having once been a soldier himself, this resonated.

“I wish I had asked him more questions while he was alive,” I lamented and Bruce agreed. “I feel the same, but he’d be pleased to know we are now trying to understand his Greece.”

From the high outcrop, it’s possible to understand how Athens became the dominant power of the numerous Greek States, though nearby Sparta was long its rival as were the Persians and even the Venetians, to name a few.

But beyond the impressive and dominant Acropolis, the daily life of ancient Athens played out on the gentle hills and plains below; in the temples and agoras where people gathered to trade goods and ideas, and in the odea where orators spoke and playwrights provoked their audience into thought. These impressive outdoor auditoriums were often set into natural bowls in hillsides. The Theatre of Dionysus was created in 530 BC, believed to be where ‘drama’ and ‘theatre’ was first presented, where Thespis (yes where the word thespian derives) was likely the first to perform in a play. The impressive Herodeion is a later structure, from 161 AD. It’s stone-chiseled seats could accommodate 6000 spectators and still hosts events during the Athens Festival.

“Oh to have been here to see Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, even the Foo Fighters,” I commented to Bruce, remembering this is also a backdrop for world class performers… the Greek god drama and theatre, Dionysos, must indeed be smiling!

 

Our last day finds us meandering through the Roman Agora, the Tower of the Winds, and past Hadrian’s library of 132 AD, complete with music and lecture halls. I sit happily on a bench and contemplate… Athens is a lot to take in.

IMG_5587I muse over the people I’ve met and how they all showed me something of their kind nature. The lovely mother I happened to chat with as I appreciated her daughter’s May Day laurel that her father had crafted. And the waiter at Scholarkheio who found one of my camera memory cards and tracked me down to return it. Or the shopkeeper I met as I perused modern day chitons. We connected immediately.

“Do you feel like you’ve been here before?” She asked, as if she could sense how connected I felt, how I was claiming Athens as my own, even to having my own chiton.

Taking out one of George’s books that I had thought to pack at the last moment, I read quotes from the great poet and playwright Euripedes who lived around 400 BC. How fresh, how poignant his words are still today. And I think of George who was always one to ponder…

Nothing is hopeless, we must hope for everything.

It is a good thing to be rich and strong, but it is a better thing to be loved.

There is just one life for each of us: our own.

Experience travel – these are an education in themselves.

Yes, the last one particularly rings true to me and as much as Athens has thrilled me, it’s time to meander to the small island of Hydra… to be continued

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘India 101’… The Taj Mahal and to Dehli, part two

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It is a haunting image, Shah Jahan the great Mughul Emperor, peering out over the Yamuna River towards the Taj Mahal, year after lonely year. Imprisoned for eight long years by his own son in nearby Agra Fort, Shah Jahan gazed out to his own ethereal creation, a soaring mausoleum to immortalise his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. In helpless captivity, it is believed the Emperor’s last breath was taken while looking out to his exquisite monument.
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It was Valentine’s Day, 1989, when Bruce and I first ventured to the Taj Mahal. We had driven past the monument the day before. Young romantics that we were, we averted our eyes to save the first glimpse for that special occasion. Alighting from our cycle rickshaw, we paid a few rupees and quietly strolled into the grounds, walking directly into heart of the great edifice. It was so casual yet magical, breathtaking and yes, incredibly romantic.

Fast forward to the day of our second visit, we now join many thousands of people. Walking through the grand portal, we behold the luminous marble icon, a collective gasp issuing from onlookers, thrilled at this first glimpse, murmurs and exclamations of delight rippling the air; one of the seven wonders of the world is before us! There is no doubt, it is still as breathtakingly stunning as on our first visit.

Long lines of visitors patiently wind themselves around the perimeter and yet more stroll the grounds, serenity and solitude now firmly of the past – this time the experience is a shared one. Shared too with our family – and we’re all unanimous in our surprise at the sheer magnificence of the monument. As the visit turns into two hours maybe three, I realise that I’m surrounded by a sense of communal joy. We all wait patiently for a spot that affords that perfect backdrop for a photo. Cameras exchange and we take each other’s pictures. Snatches of many languages can be heard. Our ‘kids’ are asked to join group selfies… simply, there is a collective exuberance in the air.

“Are you happy to be back sweetheart,” my husband asks, squeezing my hand. I feel as if every pore of me is smiling – the answer is most definitely yes.

A mixture of Indian, Persian and Islamic influences, the Taj seems to have been transported from the heavens themselves and placed ever so gently on earth. Its construction however was indeed by mortal men – all 22,000 of them, aided by 1000 elephants. Masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans were requisitioned from the across the Mughal empire, Central Asia and Iran. The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653, after 22 years of construction.

IMG_2770Mumtaz had been Shah Jahan’s third wife and by all accounts his closest confidant. She died giving birth to their fourteenth child and during two years of mourning, the king shunned the court’s previously lavish lifestyle – of dancing girls and harems, of rich furnishings, jewels and grand processions.

His sons would battle for the empire they soon hoped to claim from their father, and, when Shah Jahan did not fully recover from an illness, he was declared incompetent to rule and placed under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb.

The house of his arrest was in fact Shah Jahan’s stately home, Agra Fort. We make our way there early the next morning. It’s a cold and misty start, two pashmina scarves attempt to keep me warm. And similar to the previous day, rickshaw drivers almost come to blows over who gets our fare. Tension levels in Agra can become a little elevated and, save for its spectacular monuments, it is not an attractive city – you visit the Taj, the fort, perhaps Fatehpur Sikri, and you leave. Many tourists choose to day-trip from Dehli.

Yet I feel the fort is an integral part of Shah Jahan’s story and a must-see. Once a red sandstone edifice from which the Mughul’s ruled from 1558, it was rebuilt to Shah Jahan’s own specifications after ascending to the throne in 1628 as the fifth Mughul Emperor. As with the Taj Mahal, his penchant for white marble is evident and the misty morning renders it even more ethereal, more translucent, more serene than I remember. It’s as if he commanded, ‘Let there be columns by the score, exquisite arches in abundance, vast quarters for my harem!” The effect is beautiful, almost mirage-like. So too is the ‘magic imagery’ that our tour guide encourages us to have fun with. Yet he becomes somber when relating Shah Jahan’s ‘fort arrest’.

On this morning, it is impossible to view the Taj just across the river from where the deposed Emperor languished. But I know it is out there hiding in the mist, and I envision the ruler on his fort balcony – counting his prayer beads, meditating, hoping and waiting for release, for the chance to visit Mumtaz Mahal’s grave just once more. He was laid to rest beside her at his death in 1666.

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Back on the streets, Agra has come alive as shopkeepers and vendors hope to entice the thousands upon thousands of tourists – with street food and tiny Taj replicas, with marble this and marble that. Or in my case, with a chess set. “We’re on the train today, let’s buy one!” I declare, this experienced traveller unknowingly about to encounter a classic North Indian scam.

It takes place in front of a shop and a fellow has interested me in a small chess set. I negotiate and we agree on 500 rupees (about 10 dollars), I only have a Rs. 2000 note and hand it to him. I watch him go into the shop with my money. He comes out followed by two other men with 1500 rupees in his hand.

“Give me the 2000, here’s your change,” the shopkeeper demands.

“No, I already gave you a 2000 note,” I protest.

“No, no note. Now you give me 2000,” he insists.

I check my wallet. Yes, I have already given him the 2000. Unbelieveably, the two men who followed the shopkeeper out, are also now insisting that I had not yet handed over the 2000, despite not being witness to the initial transaction.

“I absolutely gave you 2000 rupees. Come on, I live in India. I know what you’re trying to do here,” I say furiously.

One of my sons confirms that I’ve already given the money, but by this time a crowd has gathered. We argue but he doesn’t back down. Finally, grabbing the 1500 rupees from his hand, I practically throw his chess set back at him.

“You’re a thief! I don’t want your goods and you should feel ashamed of yourself for taking advantage of people.” The crowd looks on bemused and the man has made another easy 500 rupees. It is not a lot of money, it’s the principle, but it isn’t worth causing a scene. Besides, it is life in India… always a contrast of the beautiful and the wanting, the gentle soul and the manipulative, of reconciling our privilege against those working so hard to feed their families. I’m upset with myself, but the nearby street food wallahs soon help me forget my wounded pride. They are endlessly pleasant and when their hard work and long days are rewarded with compliments about their food, they are pleased and proud. Our middle son has become a bit of a street-food connoisseur and brings smiles to their faces as he partakes in the local offerings.

Making our way to the train station the next morning, the busy platform is welcoming as we’re greeted repeatedly by local travellers. We’re anxious to board the train and make the four and a half-hour trip to Delhi. We’re on the ‘slow train’ and due to fog it’s seven hours late, yes seven! We’ve been tracking its arrival into Agra since the morning. No, surely not ideal on New Year’s Eve.

The train pulls into New Dehli just in time for us to check into our hotel and to then celebrate. We reminisce about the trip’s experiences, the highs and lows, the laughs and the precious moments we’ll always cherish. But then the night isn’t only about India, it’s about family and the adventure that seven of us were able to experience together. It was magical all those years ago but to retrace those footsteps with our family… well, I’m so pleased I broke that ‘rule’ and returned!

Delhi is still to be explored, but with Andrew and Ayla having returned back to university in Canada, and one of us in bed with a serious bout of ‘Dehli belly’, the last fews days of our India 101 feels like a gentle footnote.

We briefly visit the Red Fort, yet the crowds on New Year’s day prevent us from entering its expansive grounds and even though it’s currently wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, its early 17th Century walls are impressive. Shah Jahan, feeling that the streets of Agra were not wide enough for grand processions, had sent his royal engineers to find a suitable site for a new city. Long a capital of empires, Dehli was chosen and with its strong Hindu traditions, the muslim Mughals felt they could reinforce their legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the people. In 1639 the vast plan for the Red Fort was begun, its extensive palace buildings were a small city within itself, where the emperor’s court lived in great luxury. A vibrant culture and commerce rejuvenated the ancient city, and with a population of 600,000, (greater than Paris at the time), its grand intellectual and cultural history is well recounted.

We find ourselves in the renowned bazaar area of Chandni Chowk, just outside the walls of the great fort. Designed by Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, Jahanara, it once boasted precisely 1560 shops. It radiates along a broad street and in that time, a central canal led to the square and reflected the moonlight, the chandni. Prominent residents enjoyed the evening air on caparisoned elephants passing through the bustling bazaars stuffed with spices, rich textiles, jewels, gold and silver.

Today the narrow streets are choked and hectic, noisy and alive – old Dehli in the truest sense. The air is pungent as mounds of spice sacks are laboriously hauled through the streets or piled precariously on bikes. We pass through the silver souk, the saree souk, the book and the stationary street, the spice and dried fruit bazaar, the ironmongers row, the purveyors of brass pots and cauldrons. Nothing seems changed since our visit in 1989, in fact if anything, it looks more aged as the buildings stand in various stages of decay and faded glory.

At Lodhi gardens however, the 15th Century monuments are still resplendent and echo the once great Lodhi empire. Perhaps their demise at the hands of the Mughals encapsulates our India 101 trip. Empires have come and gone, those before the Lodhis and those after the Mughals. Even as the East India Company morphed into the British Raj, ousting the Mughals, it too was destined to ultimately fall. From Varanasi, to Agra, to Dehli, the rich storied past is still here to embrace. On more trying days you must draw upon your resilience, but mostly, you are simply humbled and exhilarated to behold it all.

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A Canadian Summer… a passion for mountain towns, Whistler and Kimberley

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For now, I’ve bid farewell to my home in Canada. To my pine trees and my deck, perfectly-placed for moon and star gazing. To a place where the long summer evenings are precious with friends and family. It’s a home, and a town, that ever welcomes me when I return.

Now back in India, the inevitable week of adjustment is always my reality. I reconcile that I can’t jump into my vehicle and cruise the mountain roads or simply walk and breathe the fresh air. I already miss chats with family and not relying on Skype dates. Still, this past week was reserved to get over jet-lag and savour a little time before life gets busy for the rest of the year: final editing on a new book project, an upcoming visit from a dear friend, a retreat to Penang in November and the arrival of family for Christmas. But for just a few more days, I let vignettes of a Canadian summer play in my mind…

 

DSCF5086A passion for trains…for a mountain lifestyle

Kai looked very much the part in his striped train conductor’s hat. Greeting each passenger one by one as they stepped down from the pristine and impressive Rocky Mountaineer, Kai delighted them with a ‘high five’ and a warm “Hello!”

“You’re the little fellow we were told about,” one gentleman remarked. “So I hear you really love this train?” Kai nodded with a broad smile.

The picturesque station for the Rocky Mountaineer is just south of Whistler, British Columbia. We watched the train round the bend, and ease its massive weight to a halt along the edge of Nita Lake.

We were sojourning on its waterfront at The Lodge at Nita Lake. An idyllic place where canoes and kayaks tether to the Lodge’s private dock. We ventured out on early morning paddles – ducks floated gracefully in a line, loons called in the morning mist and a black bear browsed for berries at the water’s edge.

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That afternoon we had cycled along the trails to Whistler, passing families canoeing and picnicking by the water’s edge. As we cycled from lake to lake, we came upon sculptures set in the lush riparian forest and kayakers paddling lazily through waterways. On emerald green waters a floatplane waited alongside a canoe – emblematic of Whistler’s coveted lifestyle.

And if you’re fortunate, you’ll spy another black bear up close. We rolled up to a group of cyclists stopped on the trail. “Wouldn’t go any further,” a local cautioned, motioning to a healthy-sized bear in the bushes up ahead. It was our second sighting of the day, a reminder that Whistler is very much their territory.

“Think we should leave that big guy alone”, the friendly cyclist suggested, hopping back on his bike. “Come on, I’ll show you a different trail.” We cycled further and saw more of the postcard-perfect town, quiet and serene, away from the multitude of tourists – a peek into the daily life of a local. It was late afternoon by this time and I was conscious that the Rocky Mountaineer would soon be arriving at Nita Lake Lodge.

 

As the impressive train slowed into the station just after 6 pm, I immediately noticed Kai. He went about his unofficial duties conscientiously – rolling out the red carpet, raising the Canadian flag then that of British Columbia, then positioning himself to welcome the travellers.

“This little guy is here every chance he gets,” Janice Bondi, the train’s manager remarked with affection. “You’d be surprised how many regulars we have at each stop.” As I watched Kai, I couldn’t imagine a more committed train lover.

 

As his father watched proudly nearby, I knew there was a reason why I too wanted to greet this iconic train in the Rocky Mountains. Its arrival evoked a sense of that slower, older lifestyle that early pioneers must have experienced. Witnessing the passion of a boy named Kai, made it a little bit more special.

 

A passion for Whistler, and for hats

Like me, Erik is fond of hats and considers himself fortunate to work with his passion. It was easy to warm to his friendly and engaging nature. “I ordered my first hat when I was ten years old,” he explained, “I like that you can customize your outfit with just a different hat.”

And Erik knows them well: beanies, flat caps, fedoras, buckets, suns, cowboys and of course the iconic Canadian toque. The Hat Gallery in the heart of Whistler is a place to try something different, or stick with what you love – it’s always a fedora for me.

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“What kind of a pinch do you like in your fedora?” Erik asked as he scanned his displays. He patiently searched and suggested, all the while exuding an obvious love of his job. We found the fedora up high on a shelf – yes it was the perfect choice.

Erik is Canadian and admittedly a bit of an anomaly in Whistler’s workforce. The ski town has attracted thousands of young workers from other countries, especially from Australia and the U.K. I was told that most arrive with a two year work visa, but start the process of becoming a resident almost immediately. It’s an easy decision for them. They choose Whistler for the lifestyle – skiing, paddling, hiking and a mountain that transforms into a biker’s dream in the summer months.

 

Whistler’s pedestrian-friendly town is lively with tourists from all corners of the globe. Enticed by the allure of the mountains, the activities, the cool bars and restaurants, it attracts millions of tourists yearly and has grown beyond all expectations.

Two tribes of First Nations shared this territory before trappers, traders and loggers arrived in the mid 1800’s. All would change when the Phillips, a young couple from the United States, opened a fishing lodge in 1914. Rainbow Lodge enjoyed great success, especially renowned for its fishing package...return train trip from Vancouver, 2 nights at the lodge and fishing for $6.00…

DSCF5057 (1)Visitors could also hike and horseback ride, enjoy a paddle on Alta Lake, or play with Teddy, Mrs. Philips’s pet bear. Myrtle Philips was the pillar of this new community that would eventually spread to nearby Whistler.

A ski hill developed in the ’60’s, a smattering of houses and the village itself in the early ’70’s. When the town needed a centre, town planner Eldon Beck planned a pedestrian village “where one could get lost, where things flowed like a river.” He could not have foreseen the success the mountain city would one day enjoy – being part-host to the 2010 Winter Olympics certainly helped. The Olympic rings are a tourist draw in themselves, a must-have backdrop for photos and selfies.

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Whether it was Erik or other young people I met who couldn’t imagine leaving this outdoor haven, the passion for life in Whistler is palpable.

And of passion, there was one more stop to make. The new Audain Art Museum – ‘where art meets nature, nature meets art’. It is a fine collection of Northwest Coastal Masks, Emily Carr paintings and more. I have a great admiration for the gifted, if wonderfully eccentric, Canadian icon. The Audain is iconic as well. Designed as a modern day longhouse and raised above the forest floor, seemingly one with the trees in which it nestles, it is a recent addition to Whistler’s cultural mix – already an essential counterpoint anchoring the proud past to the present.

 

The pride of a ‘forever hometown’…

We enjoyed a quintessential summer road trip from Whistler, back through Vancouver, and eastward toward the Okanagan, Canada’s wine region, a detour to Banff, and back to our own mountain town in the interior of BC. Like Whistler, not only is Kimberley a ski town, it’s a summer feast of bike trails, golf courses, rivers and lakes. For us this town anchors our peripatetic life. It represents warmth and stability, the place we chose for our family home.

 

 

When a ski trip took us to the small city of 7,000 or so, we were immediately smitten. Situated in the Purcell Mountains with the Rockies as its backdrop, it seemed like an easy choice and we resolved that no matter where we live in the world, this is where we’d return to.

Kimberley was once home to the largest lead-zinc mine in the world and has long been a community that welcomes newcomers. The Scandiavians pioneered our first ski-hill, the Germans and Austrians gave us our Bavarian-themed town centre, the Platzl. It is a setting where, on a Saturday afternoon, you’re as likely to meet a barber-shop quartet as a party of golfers in town for a weekend foray. Kimberley might well be known as a golf and ski destination, but people are drawn to this mountain town for many more reasons. Increasingly young families are choosing Kimberley for its lifestyle, a place to raise children in a safe and active community. But then that is nothing new to generations of settlers.

 

I met Clarence, serenading visitors about to board the Kimberley Underground Mining Railway. Commuter trains no longer run to Kimberley, but this small train wends its way up the ski hill, or tours into the now closed Cominco Mine.

 

Clarence was playing ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, rather fitting considering the wildfires that rendered the mountains hazy through some of the summer. He flashed a wide grin as I identified the song and again when he heard I was an accordion player too. I asked Clarence how long he’s played.

“Oh since I was ten or so,” he remarked speaking fondly of his instrument, then assuring me that he loves keeping the tourists happy. “About ten-thousand rode this little train last year…good for the town.”

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Clarence shared that he has been here, ‘a long while’, drawn here from a neighbouring province. I also made small-talk with the conductor as he waited for the 11 am tour to fill up.

“Are you from Kimberley?” I asked.

“I’ve been here for years, where else would I live?” I’m told matter-of-factly. People here get a little protective about this city, one of the highest in Canada – 1100 meters of altitude and only one stop-light. I hear this kind of unbridled hometown sentiment time and again. As Sonya, a good friend of mine, often comments, “Don’t get me started about how much I love this place.” She and her husband retired here three years ago and it quickly became their ‘forever hometown’.

Like Whistler, Kimberley has its share of locals who are passionate about their jobs and businesses. I’ve long been welcomed home by Robin and delight in her refined taste of home and kitchen wares she offers in her store, Grater Good. 

And I love the quirky and eclectic goods at Old Koots. “Hey Terry Anne, welcome home,” Janet and Wendy greet me as I wander through their door, hoping for that one-of-a-kind find.

The date for my hair appointment at Wolfy’s is always booked the minute I get into the country. While Kellie and her mother Pat fill me in on the latest news, I sink back into the small town vibe and delight in the scene…yes, it’s a little like the set of Steel Magnolias.

 

I stop in at Caprice’s Fine Art Studio to admire her latest works. Caprice and I share the love of art-books and of Emily Carr. We even share the same hometowns, our original, and now our adopted. “Sometimes you just know when something is right,” Caprice tells me.

 

I find myself at my favourite coffee shop, Bean Tree. With its retro furniture, its door always propped open by a ski boot, and its antler-adorned fireplace, its charming atmosphere typifies this unique town.

With friends and family having come and gone, it was time to pack and ‘close up’ the house. And with that, I only just remembered to grab my new hat from its perch on the antlers at Bean Tree. I’ll need it for the days ahead in India. The pattern of my life continues…

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A train passage to Enchanting Hampi…

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Night train to Hampi – day one

The Hampi Express pulls into Bangalore just before 10 p.m. Hauling a staggering number
of carriages, it almost snakes its way back out of the station as hundreds of people rush at it. Those with general tickets jostle to find a seat; the 365 km journey to Hampi is a long way if you must stand.

We have the luxury of being booked in a four person sleeper. Two sturdy ceiling fans, frayed burgundy curtains and packages of linens await us…Southern Indian Railways bordering their edges. Two long seats below will transform into beds, while above, two bunks are perfectly serviceable for those who don’t toss and turn.

Lulled to sleep by the gentle locomotion, I am awakened through the night by the absence of movement at various stations. At one, I pull back the curtain as the unwelcome light from a platform threads into our compartment. On a station bench a tall gangly figure is wrapped in a shawl, arms on knees, his eyes pierce mine. I modestly retreat behind my drape, but as we roll along through the night I imagine all the people. All of the lives in the small villages that line the track…some seventy percent of India lives rurally.

I peer outside just before sunrise, steel factories loom against the awakening sky. This land is rich in iron ore and I see shadows of families scavenging scattered pieces, tumbled from passing trains and scooped into wicker baskets.

Hampi unwrapped – day two

The cry of a chai wallah from outside our compartment awakes us– an informal announcement that we’ve arrived at Hospete station. We disembark at 7:20 am, two of us rested, one of us groggy. Our senses are immediately heightened as we alight. Carriages disgorge flocks of passengers. Porters proffer their services twirling cloths into mini turbans on crowns of heads, a ready perch for a bag or two. Wallahs announce and drivers implore, tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk?

We have a driver waiting and he is soon maneuvering through traffic along with stray dogs, cows and bulls, wild pigs and piglets…all navigating the lively streets.

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After a quick refresh and breakfast at our hotel, we’re back on the road and the lush countryside welcomes us. We pass bullock cart after bullock cart laden with feed, crops and the fruits of the land. I understand why this site was chosen as the heart of an empire. The Tungabhadra river runs through the valley bringing sustenance to sugar cane and banana plantations, rice paddies and coconut groves. It is fertile and beautiful.

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A few kilometres down the road we come upon Hampi, a richness of deep-red soil framed by massive monolithic boulders. Shades of bronzes and rust, pale pinks and greys offered a natural defence (and building material) for the once mighty Vijayanagara Empire. After waiting for a shepherd and his goats to pass, we enter through the narrow Talavaraghatta Gate. One passes into an enchanting land…

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hampi has attracted settlers, travellers, traders and pilgrims since the mid 1300’s. With ruins that rival those of Rome and Pompeii, accounts from early foreign travellers capture scenes from the past…

DSCF1078“Travelling about three-hundred miles from Goa, we arrived at the great city of Vijayanagara…sixty miles in circumference…ninety thousand men bear arms. Their king is more powerful than all the other kings in India. He takes to himself twelve thousand wives, of whom four thousand follow him on foot wherever he may go. A like number are handsomely equipped and ride on horseback.” Nicole Conti, an Italian traveller, 1420

The lore of Hampi is not only infused with tales of an extravagant and powerful empire, but with the presence of gods, goddesses and heroes – a connection to the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys. We learn this through Basava, our guide throughout the day from Explore Hampi.

“Everyone calls me Hampi Basava,” he tells us. The son of a farmer, Basava grew up hearing tales of the great empire from his grandmother, inspiring him to share the richness of his hometown. As did encounters with archeologists who excavated the site, “I learned much from them, but still learning.”

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The Vijayanagara empire reached the zenith of its power under Krishnadevaraya from 1509 to 1529. Over time the city of Vijayanagara Pattana, became simply ‘Hampi’ and hosted the Pan Supari Bazaar with its daily market and almost one-thousand meters of stalls.

We walk the broad boulevards now quiet and forlorn, but I can still feel and hear the pulse of the people. The clatter of hooves mixing with the slow squeak of a rusty oxen cart. The calling of traders from colonnaded street-long bazaars. Colours gleaming against the scorching sun – gold and jewels glinting. Exotic spices, vermillion, turmeric and sandalwood piling in peaked domes. Sensuous silks and imported Chinese blue and white, hiding in the shade of the columned stalls. A chiseled relief of a fish announcing a nearby water-well. A sign suggesting the courtesan’s bazaar…always held on a Tuesday.

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In 1520 Domingo Paes, a Portuguese horse-trader, wrote…”In this city, you will find belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it was and the many precious stones there…the streets and markets are full of laden oxen.”

We approach the Vitthala Temple and I am instantly mesmerized. The massive enclosure has lofty gopuras (pyramidal temples) to three sides, grandiose protection to Vishnu’s mode of conveyance, the opulent stone chariot. “The wheels were once capable of turning,” Basava assures us. The king, concerned with the long treks the pilgrims endured to the sacred temples, entreated the weary pilgrims…Take the energy of the wheels.

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The nearby mandapas, intricately columned gathering places, are exquisite. Relief carvings depict dancers, drummers, voluptuous courtesans and warriors, royal elephants and sartorial hints of foreign visitors…a fez from Morocco, a cloak from Europe, a turban from the Middle East.

Basava taps on musical stone pillars sending harmonious notes through the open air pavilions. The granite architecture has beguiling lotus motifs with traces of colours that once decorated and hints of Chinese, Indo-Islamic and European influence. We see shrines, sculptured gateways and monuments to a legion of gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha, a god favoured for good luck.

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Nearby at the Royal Enclosure, the queens private bath, the royal stage, the king’s underground shrine and even a stepped water-tank speak of grandeur. The king had admired it else elsewhere and imported it piece by piece, step by step. Numbered and reassembled in its odd- numbered formatting. These are the numbers Indians favour – 1 for a preferred God, 3 for the past, present and future, 5 for the elements, 7 for the days, 9 for the planets.

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By late afternoon the much anticipated monsoon-rain threatens on the horizon. Clouds roll over orchards and palms, and the granite-bouldered sky. It’s been a stifling hot day, the wind picks up and the clouds shower upon us. We don’t mind. It is cooling and refreshing. “Raindrops like lotus buds,” Basava says lyrically. “The farmers will be blessed. Come, we can’t miss the elephant stables.”
The number varies as to how many elephants the kings kept, accounts speak of anywhere from four to nine-hundred. Twelve or so royal elephants resided in the lavish stables. Domingo Paes elaborated…“The elephants are covered with velvet and gold with fringes, and rich cloths of many colours, with bells so that the earth resounds. On their heads are painted faces of giants and beasts. On the back of each one of them are three or four men, armed with shields and javelins.”

imagesWe dash across the rain-soaked grass to the stables with its lofty doomed roofs, surely too beautiful to only house elephants. But these beasts were an integral part of daily and royal life, fitting of an empire that ends…abruptly.

 

IMG_5164I almost don’t want to hear the fate of this once great city. In 1565 the empire’s armies
suffered a catastrophic defeat by an alliance of Muslim sultanates. The great city was captured, plundered, holy Hindu sites destroyed and more than 100,000 Hindus massacred. As with many great empires, its life cut abruptly short…its heart and soul ripped away.

On a mountain side at the end of the day, we stop for a cooling drink of coconut water. The river gently flows below us and I hear a haunting voice, repeating like an ancient mantra. Lost in her own thoughts, a tiny aged woman crouches under the shade of a boulder. The plaintive strains of her lyrics punctuate the day. Quietly I sit, and listen.

 

 

 

A coracle across the river – day three

With the option of a small ferry or a coracle, we chose the latter. The round cane-bound vessels have plied this river since before the days of the empire and though precarious to board, we float peacefully down the Tungabhadra River. Only the warnings of crocodiles concern us…the monkeys play in the temples, the sloth bears and leopards stay on land. Patches of leafy greens contrast the boulders that seem set to topple into the shallow waters. Temples are chiseled from the granite, integrated seamlessly into the chunky contours of the land.

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We walk a kilometre or so along a winding road, through a hamlet and past emerald fields. We pass local teens playing cricket, heaps of sugar cane piled on stout wagons and the shell of an old coracle now tidily protecting firewood.DSCF0802

We reach Anegondi the 3rd century capital of the Vijayanagara empire. Yet even before then, legend speaks of the monkey kingdom here as noted in Ramayana. Local story-tellers refer to Anegondi as mother earth, one of the cradles of dynasties.

After walking through its ancient gate, we are almost immediately upon the town square, a ceremonial ‘temple car’ parked off to one corner. Unlike the stone chariot in Hampi, the elaborately carved wooden ‘car’ can be pulled through the streets on festival days. Rickshaws, town-folk, holy-cows and cyclists manouver a smooth, black-stoned sculpture…perhaps it is the town round-about.

 

Close by, the Gagan Mahal begs to be restored and I picture how stunning the palace must have once been with its lattice work detailed arches and breezy terraces. While I’m peeking inside, Bruce is surrounded by village children. They flip through our guide book and hoist themselves up on the stone wall. I line them up for a photograph and on a whim decide to buy them a drink. Our ‘child’ is back at the hotel recovering from sun-stroke so we’re happy to improvise. It’s Father’s Day after all.

We march the troops across the street and besiege the small shop. The shopkeeper is surprised, perhaps he knows that news travels fast in this sleepy town. Before we know it, yet more youngsters gather and holler out their drink of choice. “Now enough,” the shopkeeper firmly cuts us off as other customers await their turn, not entirely amused by our generosity.

We wander further, the same children pass on their bikes and shout a ‘hello, namaste, thank-you.’ We stroll onwards through the streets.
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Rice shifts and slides from bamboo baskets.

 

 

 

 

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Bangles are offered from a turbaned peddler.

 

 

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Slathers of mandarin-orange paint brighten a simple village home.

 

 

I am happy here, surrounded by shades of pinks, baby-blues and soft greens. It reminds me of those romantic, carefree days of travelling in India from our past…no agenda, no expectations, just the hope of serendipity.

We travel the ferry back across the river, taking the bus instead of a tuk-tuk to the hotel and unbeknownst to us, the next day we’ll hire a car instead of returning home by train. Southern Indian Railways inexplicably cancels our return tickets. We can stand, we can wait five days until sleepers can be booked, or we can see the countryside by car. There isn’t much choice, perhaps it is what I hoped for after all. And my lingering image?

As we leave Hampi behind, a group of nine or so people journey along-side the road. One waves a bright red trianglular flag, each person wears a matching scarf – no bags, no luggage. They are pilgrims.

“Going to the Hampi temple,” our drivers enlightens us, “finding sleep in temples along the way.”

“How far have they walked?” I ask.

“Maybe days are there, or weeks from village.”

For many this will always be a spiritual and magical place.

 

 

 

The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? What did you know of the city before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government to educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia

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img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.

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The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.

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Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.

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Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.

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img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.

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The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.

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We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…

The joy of womanhood and a Tante…of tulips and hofjes in Amsterdam

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IMG_2279Her name was Klara. She was a true Amsterdammer who rowed the Amstel and cruised the cobbled streets, stylish and carefree on the back of her paramour’s motorcycle.

That was many years ago, just after the second world war, long before she succumbed to old age and a mind stripped of precious memories.

I thought of her this past trip as I strolled from my hotel to the FIGT Conference in Amsterdam. I not only luxuriated in the cool air, but in the Anton Pieck perfection of doll-like houses along serene canals. I take my level of comfort here for granted, yet I owe much of that to Klara who shared it with me eagerly from my first visit.

Not long out of college, I fell head over heels for this city of Rembrandt and IMG_2219Golden Age architecture, of stout upright bikes and tulips in infinite bunches…of tall homes with gables of necks, steps and bells.

From her simple, postage-stamp sized home, Klara seldom joined me, but would send me forth with explicit directions to explore. Then on my return, would relish in every little detail.

To my delight, Klara’s book-shelf was stuffed with musty history books of Amsterdam that I would thumb through, then return exactly to where I had found them. In a small space, everything has its place and she liked things just so; we were quite similar it seems. Klara could be stubborn and delightfully opinionated (a little like all of the women in our family), but she grabbed life and dangled it enticingly before you.

IMG_2490I keenly felt tante (aunt) Klara’s absence one chilly day of exploring. I warmed in a simple cafe; one that serves mushy pea soup and burns long stemmed candles on scratched, worn tables. One where velvet curtains encircle the entrance to keep out the draft and where locals linger over a Heineken.

I longed to practice my Dutch with my great-aunt as I always had and explore with  her this neighbourhood I now found myself in, the Jordaan. This had been a working class neighbourhood where the tanneries once bustled and where masons and road builders had lived. Where stone carvings on building fronts tell stories even today. Ah there lived the cobbler, a builder, a mason, a cooper, or a seller of hot water and heated bricks so you could warm your feet. Much needed when the fog and damp settled over the canals and froze you to the bone.

IMG_2494These chiseled cartouches implore us to slow down and conjure that time. I come across shops that aren’t fancy and offer ‘stuff’ spullen, places where one can browse endlessly. I see a vision of Klara’s home that once proudly displayed all the trinkets gifted to her…I wonder what happened to it all.IMG_2453

Yet as much as I miss Klara, I hear her Dutch accent echo in other women that I have the pleasure to meet during my stay. I’m befriended by Patricia at the Van Loon Museum; her English has the same cadence and warmth.

“Are you enjoying the exhibit?” the stylish woman asks as I’m intently perusing faded receipts from Parisian corset and lingerie shops. They’re arrayed beside an ‘evening wear diary’…so vital was it to not repeat frocks and evening gowns in the social whirl of a wealthy Dutch family at the turn of the century.

Patricia and I continue together and marvel at the exquisiteness of the Mode Exhibit. We appreciate collections of jewellery and fine beaded handbags, then transfix on lush fabric wall-covering that adorns this stately mansion. We admire the chandeliers, detailed family portraits and even modern-day tulips and perfumed roses. I brim over with the richness of, simply…beautiful things.

I sense Patricia is familiar with the giddy lifestyle of cocktail parties, soirees and lovely homes as she relates her ‘swinging’ Paris days. She’s a striking, refined lady of a ‘certain age’ which she reveals to me over a cup of strong Dutch coffee.

“I’ve had it all,”Patricia tells me, “now my life is art galleries, museums and concerts.” It seems this cultured life suits us both and as if to prove it, she implores…

IMG_2207“If you like this, you must see the Catwalk IMG_2192Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum.” Off we go on a sun drenched, yet brisk day, to soak up yet more exquisite fabrics and designs. Gathered from centuries past, as early as the Golden Age when Dutch culture was at its zenith, the creations rotate slowly on an long oblong stage as if on a sumptuous sushi belt. Enthusiasts of all ages sit at this avant garde fashion show, coveting the delicate, aged designs.

IMG_2241 (1)“Oh how my Tante Klara would have loved this,” I proclaim to my fellow culture lover. I relate how years ago Klara had given me a black lacy dress, sleeveless and hand-stitched. She had once worn it with panache; I was thrilled to have it as mine and wore it with infinite pleasure. Klara’s seamstress eye would have devoured this collection that was swirling slowly for appreciative fashion- lovers.

My new friend and I admire the ‘poster’ of the exhibition. Model Ymre Stickma’s image is super-imposed into a print of the voluptuous wedding dress, the elaborate ‘masterpiece’ of the collection. It’s captured by the renowned Dutch photographer, Erwin Olaf. He has her hair deliciously coiffed and her décolletage devilishly exposed; it was the ankles during that period that were seductive and kept hidden under heavy hems.

I take a photo of Olaf’s work, brilliant in its marrying of classic fashion with the vitality of a beautiful, empowered young woman. Prachtig, prachtig, I hear Tante Klara’s approval…superb, superb!

IMG_2214Through the following days I meet many empowered and interesting women. The Families in Global Transition Conference brings many together; they thrive in careers and raise children globally, they are entrepreneurs, authors, publishers, educators, life coaches and more. We network, learn from each other, dine, laugh and lament as one. We comment on how fortunate we are to come together, how marvellous it is to share stories of womanhood against the backdrop of a global life. We hug our farewells, restored and uplifted.

IMG_2506 (1)The company of these kindred spirits comforts me in this first return to Amsterdam; the first time that Klara is no longer here. The last few visits dementia had stolen her spirit, her creative and inquisitive mind, and just a few months ago her life.

Late one afternoon a few of my friends and I are on our way to dinner. “Come with me,” I say, “there’s a special place I want to show you.”  I guide them off a busy street through a carved, stone archway that reads…Begijnhof. We emerge into a serene setting, the rattle of trams and the whirl of bicycles disappear. The courtyard is quaint with churches and houses that beg you to whisper and reflect.

This tucked-away sanctuary was similar to a monastery for women, the Beguines, a Christian religious order whose members lived in semi-monastic communities. First mentioned in 1346, the Begijnhof is the only medieval almshouse founded in Amsterdam. The last Beguine, Sister Antonia, died here in 1971 and still today, all the inhabitants are female.

IMG_2375Klara first introduced me to this serene oasis, and as I was then, my friends are charmed with its beauty and calm. The houses and churches that line the square are mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries; beautiful in their aged grace as is the elderly lady we encounter.

Shielded from the chilled March air in a camel-coloured fur, an elderly lady has just placed her walker at a solid wooden door. When we ask if she’s fortunate enough to live in this lovely Begijnhof, she nods and points to the first floor. Books crowd her window sill along with one of those simple brass candle holders…all framed by delicate lace curtains.

We introduce ourselves, “My name sounds much prettier in Hebrew,” she says with an engaging smile. We’re pleased when she lingers to speak to us.

“Where are you from?” she wants to know and her eyes twinkle even brighter when she hears that we come from various continents, yet live in others. Susan is inquisitive and delighted to hear this and then earnestly tells us to enjoy our time together. We bid her a fond farewell and agree it’s good to know these hofjes were once scattered throughout the city, sanctuaries for women. They still are it seems.

IMG_2444 (1)A few days later I spend the day with a dear family friend, we were both fortunate to have been the children that Klara never had. Hetty tells me of her final days and the peaceful end.

We had planned this gathering to reminisce. “These are for you,” Hetty says softly, motioning to an array of ‘stuff’ on her dining table…it is heartwarming that it remains.

There are photos albums with dried flowers from my wedding and pressed heather from a trip to Scotland. There’s a tea cup from a visit to Canada and tarnished silver spoons embellished with Delft blue and white. All moments in time…

“Choose some jewellery,” Hetty continues, “and I think you’ll like these.” A passel of thimbles lay close by and my finger-tips brush over the dimpled silver. I know that Klara used them often. She loved stitching and creating of all kinds; it’s what she ‘did.’

Just one woman’s pursuit that fulfilled and gave satisfaction. No, her creations weren’t as beautiful as the lovely things this trip has put before me, but that isn’t what’s important. Engaging in anything from stitching to poetry, from reading to golf, to quilting to hiking, …anything that we women pursue for pleasure, for the joy of womanhood is to be coveted and embraced.

IMG_2579The first thing I had done when I arrived in Amsterdam was to buy tulips, “I’ll need a vase for my bloomen, please Meneer,” I said to my host Pierre when I checked in at the charming Seven Bridges Hotel. As if by design, my room had thick velvet curtains, an armoire and an antique oval table for those tulips. I felt as if I was back at Klara and Alberts, my mother’s beloved uncle.

Before departing from the city that I adore and returning to my new home in India, I posted a card to my mother in Canada.

As a ten year-old, she had waved farewell on the S.S. Waterman as her family sailed away for a new life, leaving not only country but their family. She remembers wondering she’d ever see them. Happily, they have both been a special part of our lives through the years.

That card to my mother was decorated with tulips and I penned details to her; of remembering Klara, the lovely mementos and time with Hetty, and that she had most certainly been there with me in spirit…it seems that Klara had been as well.

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Notes from a Thai Island…singing birds in bamboo cages

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IMG_0285 (1)We packed our pens and notebooks for a grown-up field trip. With our hats donned and cameras poised, the destination was Koh Panyee, in the inlet of Thailand. I had been here before with my family. This time however, a writing assignment was on my mind.

The village of Koh Panyee is surrounded by shadowy, fingerlike mountains. Reaching up from calm waters, they are serene, yet evocative and mysterious as they entice visitors into their enclave.

As our longboat glides into the harbour, we circumvent fish lines and crab traps, and groups of traditional longboats. This is how one arrives in Koh Panyee…for it’s a village that resides on bamboo stilts.

IMG_0305Sturdy longboats have long been the desired mode of transport in these waters. A solid column rises from their prow like an IMG_0426upturned tail. Adorned with vibrant tassels of cloth, I’m told they protect the safety and spirit of the vessel.

Thai people believe that each mode of transport possesses a spirit, so best to honour and respect it. The swishes of cloth compliment the often brightly painted vessels and provide a grip for fishermen to drag their boats home into shallow waters.

Koh Panyee’s population is descended from just two seafaring Muslim families. Settling here at the end of the 18th century, the fishing trade that they established is still evident as we disembark on the simple dock. Bamboo fish traps rest on knotted planks, tangles of nets cluster on poles and colourful netted piles lay at the ready.

A puzzle of spartan homes and shop fronts greet visitors to Koh Panyee. This once secluded island has welcomed tourism. ‘James Bond Island’ is nearby which attracts  sightseers and snorkelers alike.

IMG_0310After disembarking, we wander the humid labyrinth that offers the usual array of elephant printed skirts, frocks, sarongs and slouchy bags. By day five in Thailand, we’re a little more discerning and hope for something unique.

And we soon find it. Fresh water pearls are here in abundance with their milky shades of cream, lemon and white, on offer for a pittance.

A vast array of sea shells is also displayed, much of it having been fashioned into jewellery, key chains and tinkling chimes. It crosses your mind…does it eventually all get sold?Perhaps stuffed into suitcases and carried off to other lands where it’s appreciated…or sadly, perhaps not?

And then there is the abundant coconut merchandise, carved into spoons, bowls and combs or left in its organic form of IMG_0306cooling coconut juice. Hollowed coconut shells appear stuffed with orchids, hanging here and there, thriving in the sultry air.

I notice slivers of bamboo that have been coaxed into welcome mats, baskets, water buckets, paddy-bins and rice vessels.

Rice is vital to daily life; what with carrying, threshing, winnowing and measuring of its vital staple. Pliable cane is also abundant and forms the basis of many kitchen essentials.

IMG_0325Most of all the bird cages speak to me. Intricate strips of bamboo have been crafted into round, square or hexagonal enclosures. They’re not gilded, but somehow the earthy material seems less restrictive for the ruffled birds that inhabit them. Cages hang in most store fronts, between narrow strips of buildings and in shady corners of simple homes.

The lyrical chirps and serenades seem to lighten the lanes and distract from the still, suffocating air. I ask about the cages as I approach a shop.

Sawadee-kaa,” a man greets me as he comes forward from the shadows of his home to his shop front. His batik sarong is knotted at his lean waist and he seems open to conversation.

“Bird competitions very important in Southern Thailand,”he tells me with a knowing smile.

“High status to have winning bird. Which bird can sing best, longest, maybe happiest.” TheIMG_0387 affection for his feathered friends radiates from his eyes.

“What kind of birds do you have,” I ask, noticing multiple cages in his home.

“Red-whiskered Bulbul,” he says proudly, “the best, sing better, ka?  Must have tropical fruit first, no sing without sunshine.”
“Hmm, I didn’t know,” I admit, and it dawns on me that I’m surrounded by more than just pet birds. They’re performers, competitors, even prize winners. And they’re discerning.

“Rainy day very bad,” the shop keeper assures me, motioning to the patter of rain on the tin awning above us.

IMG_0321I discover that competitions are cancelled if there’s rain, for seemingly the birds are only willingly to serenade when the sun shines. Competitions are held in open fields with the location only revealed to those who enter, and maybe to those who want to bet a bhat or two. And perhaps not surprisingly the earthly competitors are men…it seems it’s a man’s pastime.

I linger at the cages, watching the birds flutter and flit. It’s easy to adore these delicate aviary homes and appreciate the valuable species inside them. I check the latches of their tiny doors; and yes, they’re most certainly locked.

We make our way out of the covered market street, desperate for a breath ofIMG_0356 air. The chatter of school children greet us as they slide into their shoes that await outside the classroom doors. The open-air school transports me back to schools that my sons attended in Qatar and Oman with their hallways open to the elements. As here, I find it creates a joyous, uninhibited atmosphere as children go about their studies and play. Happy memories of my children’s early school days flood back to me and I am transported by the familiar scene.

IMG_0363This island school is awash with colours of pink, baby blue and sea green; uniforms for both girls and boys alike IMG_0351are a soft pink. The youngsters play tag, giggle for photos and gather for after-school band practice. It’s difficult to pull myself away from their carefree presence.

But the moment is soon lost as yet more tourists pace through the school yard. I peek down a side hallway for quiet. I delight in a scribbled note on a chalkboard in both English and Thai. I gaze out to the calm of the scenery that encloses Koh Panyee. Yet more boats crammed with eager tourists are edging their way towards the stilted settlement, eager to see the sights – part of me is dismayed with our intrusion.

IMG_0367I imagine there is a serenity that returns to this community at nightfall, when the tourists retreat and the waters are silent from boat engines. Around 1700 souls live here and I’ve been welcomed into their unique way of life. For the villager’s sake, I hope their culture is preserved despite the continuous curiousity of tourists.

Today, I was yet another of those tourists. I took away some strands of pearls and appreciated the ‘little things’…like intricate bamboo bird cages, smiling children absorbed in their school day and the camaraderie of fellow writers on a field trip that we Phuket Paradise Writer’s, happily found ourselves on.

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The Ktunaxa people, Gordie’s story…part two

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The former St. Eugene Mission School on an autumn day

This is a continuation from part one

“My grandmother brought me to the school, it was 1957. We pulled up in a horse and buggy, my brother and sister were already here which helped a little.”

I’m standing with Gordie at the bottom of the steps that lead to the imposing door of the St. Eugene Mission, once a Residential School. It is easy to imagine the foreboding, the instinctive fear that young Native children like Gordie felt when they entered the school for their first ten month term.

“I was frightened and remember the feeling of resentment towards my grandma. She had helped raise me. It wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t have a choice but to let me go.”

Gordie is tall and lean, his long greying hair topped by a baseball cap. It’s the tradition of many First Nations to keep their hair long, it’s an extension of their spiritual self.

Having offered to give me a tour and talk about his time at the school, Gordie greets me warmly this cool autumn morning. He’s just finished his shift as the night-time superintendent of the St Eugene Mission Resort. As a student, Gordie lived and breathed this school, his memories are deeply etched. He now walks through it with some measure of peace and acceptance.

From 1912 to 1970, more than 5000 First Nation children were removed from their families to comply with the government assimilation program and brought to this school, one of eighty former schools across Canada. However, its perfect postcard setting in the interior of British Columbia is deceptive.

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Refurbished and renewed

“I suppose I was lucky, I was dropped off by a family member. Some kids were left here by Indian Agents, whisked away before their families even knew they were gone.”

Gordie explains the cruel truth that Agents were often paid to ‘round up’ ‘Indian’ children, especially in remote areas. The children were sometimes taken when they ran to a plane that had landed, then spirited away with the promise of a ‘ride’.

“They were given a number, with no consideration of their name, then placed in a Residential School.”

Gordie will tell you that this was by no means the worst of the Residential Schools. The entrance of the former St . Eugene Mission School is now a hotel lobby. It has a welcoming and dignified atmosphere, vastly different than it once was. Solid in their longevity, the red brick walls are invisibly marred with strife and untold hurts. People like Gordie are now willing to tell their story.

“Our hair was chopped off, and from that moment the school did its best to eradicate our language and culture. This is where you waited to be taken away by the nuns to the dormitories.”

‘Indian Hall’, I believe Gordie called it as we begin a tour and conversation that lasts five hours, but felt like just a few. He points to a black and white photo near the front desk. The image shows a group of older girls gathered in front of the school, smiling proudly astride their horses.

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Gordie Sebastian with a plaque that pays tribute to his role in the refurbishment of St. Eugene Mission

“Do you know anything about horses?” Gordie asks, pointing to their bridles and saddles. “Does this look like we were poor or wanting? No we had a culture, a life, it was taken away.”

I’m instinctively drawn to the collection of photos in the nearby corridor that I had been so taken with the previous day. Gordie reveals parts of his story through them, bringing the images to life with his narrative.

A seemingly typical school is portrayed; a hockey team, the school band, a choir, children in uniforms seated at their desks.

“It looks like you were involved in a lot of activities?”

“We were. Saturday was hockey, we also had a baseball field,” Gordie tells me.

“Are you in any of these?” I ask as my finger scans over children positioned in front of the school steps. Standing behind the children are a number of priests and nuns, some dressed in black habits, others in white.

“No I usually had some kind of injury when it was time for photos. One time I had a bruise on my eye from a hockey puck so couldn’t be in the photo. It might have looked like I had been hit by one of the staff…”

Gordie is referring to the now well-documented mental, physical and sexual abuse, even death, that students suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns who came from afar to work in these schools.

“I didn’t have as many issues as some. I was from one of the more respected Native families so was usually safe from the abuse of the staff and other students. My dad held some sway.”

Gordie Sebastian comes from a long line of prominent Ktunaxa who owned and bred horses. He points to a photo of a group of men, four sit on their horses. One of them wears a blanket, tucked-in at the waist.

“That’s my great-grandfather, Sabas, Joseph Sebastian. He was a medicine man.”

A medicine man was a highly respected member of an Indian tribe. They were healers or ‘shaman’ who did not believe in bloodshed.

Gordie explains that Sabas and the tribal head at the time, Chief Isadore, believed that no man had the right to erect fences on the Ktunaxa land. This held fast until European and Canadian settlers usurped their ancestral land following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1887. This treaty confined the First Nations peoples to Reserves, where many of the Ktunaxa stil live today.

Gordie gestures to the photo of St. Eugene Mission, the once cluster of tipis and houses around the church where his forebears would have gathered.

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Red brick walls

He shows me a detail that had escaped me. A house stands with the top of a tipi sticking out from its roof. Like most First Nations, the Ktunaxa people didn’t adapt well to the confines of a house.

“That’s Indian Pete’s house, set his tipi up in the middle of it.”

In another photo dated 1887, a man dressed in baggy trousers and a waist coat stands in front of the St. Eugene Church. He smiles widely, beside him is a priest. They seem to know each other.

“That’s Father Coccola and Indian Pete. They paid to have the church built. In fact Indian Pete paid our way into heaven,” Gordie says with a  chuckle.

Gordie is open and candid as he explains the more serious and devastating impact the Residential Schools have had on generations of First Nations people.

“But I’ve also been told by some people that these were the best of days, away from poverty and their alcoholic parents on the Reserves.” Gordie explains that many parents weren’t well adapted to parenting as they only saw their children during the two-month summer break and perhaps for a few hours once every three weeks. Also many of them had been students themselves; their own wounds ever present.

“My father was a student here, he never told me but I think he had been sexually abused. He always checked us for signs.” Gordie says quietly.

We talk about the Priests and the Nuns whose frequent indifference to their students’ humanity exacted so much pain.

“Some of the priests weren’t that bad, but the nuns were battle-axes. Some of them could teach well enough but they had little or no compassion. Through their actions we were taught hate. It was drilled into our heads that we were useless…little more than savages.”

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The healing power of the tipi

Perhaps because of Gordie’s influential family, he reports having pushed the envelope a little further than other students. By the time he was a young teenager, he railed against his situation.

“One time I argued with a nun over a basic fact that she was teaching,” Gordie confided. “Now you know that St. Eugene Mission sits between two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Purcells. Well she had the two ranges mixed up and I told her so. We argued back and forth, I wasn’t backing down. All of a sudden she hit me and I pushed back.”

Gordie was made to sit in the Priests’ office for the day as punishment. Once he told his side of the story, he wasn’t reprimanded further.

“Did she teach the correct mountain ranges after that,” I ask.

“Oh no, she kept telling us the wrong thing,” he says, making light of the story all these years later.

But not all punishment was that easy. Male students who ran away from the school were often found again by the Indian Agents and returned to the school. For the next two weeks they were forced to dress as girls. As shaming as this would have been, it pales into comparison of other punishments that Gordie leaves untold.

I’m particularly haunted by his accounts of the tuberculosis outbreaks. Nodding to a photo of a clearly ill student, his head bandaged, he precedes to tell me of the infectious conditions that existed in the school.

“That student had TB, he shouldn’t have been with other students,” Gordie says matter-of-factly. The rate of deaths in the schools from influenza and TB far exceeded that of elsewhere in Canada.

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The St. Eugene Mission Resort and Golf Course

Unlike many Residential Schools, only one death occurred here.

“This is her,” Gordie says pointing to a young girl. “She died when snow fell onto her from the roof. It’s good that her relatives have been here. Her name was Anette.”

Late in the interview, Gordie and I have coffee in the former chapel. It’s being readied for a function and we sit at a long table that will soon be set with linen and fine china. I’m told that healing occurs at St. Eugene on a regular basis. As painful as it is, many former students and their families return to confront the hurts of the past.

“The tipi outside is there for a reason. Even as the school was being re-purposed, it was provided for prayers and counselling.”

We glance out towards the tall white canvas. I learn that the poles of a tipi represent the different spiritualities of all people, yet they are bound together as one.

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A painting of Elder Mary Paul

“Facing the past is difficult, but it brings peace. Just as Elder Mary Paul gave us the permission to do so.”

Gordie had pointed out the painting of Elder Paul as we entered the lobby. It is with her blessing that the re-construction of this building was undertaken.

We make our way upstairs to the ‘inner sanctuary’ of the school. Now mostly hotel rooms, Gordie points out the areas which were once dormitories, kitchens and mess halls. The rooms of the nuns and priests were close by.

My sense of this building’s history is suddenly very real. I’m shown the place where Gordie’s bed had stood. We look toward the window and beyond, where the road lies.

“At least I was able to look out of the window and see my father or grandfather pass on the road once in a while. Many kids were far, far from home.”

I’m shown where a young boy stood on a precarious ledge while attempting to run away. I see the burn marks from two arson attempts on the school. I become emotional as I contemplate the daunting stairs that girls as young as four had to negotiate in the middle of the night to go to the washroom. I feel their loneliness, the longing for their home, the yearning for a mother’s touch.

“There are 68 stairs,” Gordie tells me. “I should know, it was my job to sweep and scrub them.”

He tells me it was here that a young student was kicked down the stairs by a priest, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. Thankfully he lived.

a-first-nation-partnership-success-story-8-638“One of the workers saw it happen and pinned the priest up against the wall by the throat. He warned him never to hurt a student again,” Gordie recounts. “The next day we noticed that all of the straps had been removed from the classrooms.”

As the students reached their mid teens, I imagine control must have become more difficult. By the time Gordie is this age, one of the ‘Fathers’ uses government money to fund a swimming pool and provide horses for the students. Gordie takes on the role of the ‘horse guy.’

“Finally on Sunday afternoons we were allowed to leave the school premises and ride free on our land.”

I agree with Gordie how important that must have been; that sense of independence and freedom. This also evolved naturally as the older students were sent to a local school to complete their education.

“It didn’t get much better for us. We weren’t Native anymore and we weren’t ‘white’, so we didn’t fit in. We were ‘apples’…white on the inside but red on the outside.”

Gordie was eventually asked to leave his new school over an incident that he didn’t explain. When his father found out, he was also told to leave the house. He was seventeen and on his own. Gordie went north to work in the logging industry.

I don’t hear the entire story of the years between then and now. But I know a number of family members passed away due to alcohol abuse. And I know Gordie is raising the young daughter of a relative who still battles with the trauma of Residential School.

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Solace and Peace

I also know that Gordie is one of the good guys. Not only is he helping to heal his own family, but also many of those who walk through the doors of St. Eugene Mission. They seek solace and peace from the past.

I admire Gordie greatly.

An autumn of colour, a discovery of the Ktunaxa people…part one

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“Dappled with crimson, copper and golden leaves”

There are times when a story travels along an unexpected path, bringing you to a place you were hesitant, yet curious to venture into. Once enveloped and drawn into its emotion, you know you must share it.

Autumn foliage against a blue metal roof

Fall, against a blue metal roof

I set out with the intention of writing something less significant than the story that unfolded. I simply wanted to convey the splendour of autumn in Kimberley and the East Kootenays.

This broad valley, book-ended by the Purcell mountains and the Rockies, is ablaze with colour. Nature has dappled crimson, copper and golden leaves onto a backdrop of stately pines and tall firs…a vast Monet canvas, breathtaking in its scale. Evening skies parade spectacular vistas as alpenglow brushes lavender and indigo over jagged peaks. Each dusk comes just that little bit earlier as autumn settles in and winter looms.

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Hues of autumn

It’s unusual that I’m here to appreciate this season. This time last year I had just joined my husband in Kazakhstan and recall yearning for the hues and trappings of autumn.

It’s now before me; a riot of nature, a time of harvest and impending hibernation. I marvel at the changes in our yard/garden where deep ruby leaves cling to barbed branches, nature’s natural deer proofing. Delicate red maple leaves flutter onto the lawn, each one cookie-cutter perfect. I see the familiar doe grazing nearby. Her two fauns have grown through the summer, their white Bambi-like patches now replaced by a thick coat that will warm them through the first winter.

A trail of delicate leaves

A trail of delicate leaves

And so I’ve revelled in these tranquil days…treasuring time with friends and family, savouring walks through fallen leaves, climbing the ski hill to be awed and inspired. An early dusting of snow on the mountains hints at nature’s march of the seasons.

In the spirit of autumn, I sign up for a canning workshop. We chop plump tomatoes, garlic, onions and luscious peppers. Large steaming canning pots transform the colourful chunks into flavourful homemade salsa. We work together to sieve the recipe into tiny mason jars, dunking them back into boiling water to preserve.

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Plump tomatoes and luscious peppers

Mason jars of prized preserves

Throughout the evening we laugh and learn with new people. I meet Dirk from Wildsight. He and his colleagues work within the community to protect regional ecology and promote sustainable lifestyles. Organizing grass-root events and workshops along with the Kimberley Farmer’s Market, Wildsight champions many issues that locals are passionate about.

As we leave the workshop with our prized preserves, Dirk implores us to use the Open Gate Garden, a communal vegetable patch.

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Kimberley Open Gate Garden

“You don’t have to work in it, but there’s still vegetables to be had,” he says encouragingly. Taking him on his word, the next day I fill a small basket of tasty sharp arugula and leafy kale. I chide myself that I hadn’t known about the garden throughout the summer but resolve to do some weeding here next summer. A meagre contribution for the opportunity to pick fresh produce at will. Vegetable gardens in Kimberley are typically fenced from the groups of deer that roam and help themselves to weeds, flowers and those elusive veggies.

The mingling of reds

The mingling of reds

Colours beckon at every turn. Metal roofs of reds, greens and blues cap many buildings in Kimberley; vivid backdrops for the changing foliage. More importantly metal sheeting is practical, helping shed the thick blankets of winter snow…to be honest the odd spring or autumn snowfall as well!

“Vivid backdrops for the changing foliage”

This technique of roofing, adapted in Quebec in the late 18th century, was referred to as ‘metal roofing Canadian style.’ Wonderfully they suit this mountain town. Actually Kimberley is a small city, competing with a few others as the city with the highest elevation in Canada.

On one of those rare Sundays that I’m alone, I drive a short while and take a walk on a warm, cloudless afternoon. With my tinkling bear bell and pepper-spray ready at my hip, I climb a butte, an almost conical hill rising from the valley floor. It’s a walk that invites reflection…it overlooks the traditional land of the Ktunaxa, the Kootenay.

I gaze out over barbed wire and faded green fence posts, out to distant horses grazing in tawny fields. The majestic Rocky Mountains rise above this ancestral home of the Ktunaxa. I’ve tramped through here before but today I linger, conjuring an image of a time when horses roamed free and tipis dotted the landscape.

Looking out the land of the Ktunaxa

Gazing out to the land of the Ktunaxa

A mere 130 years ago, this land was all theirs. They were not nomadic people ‘just passing through’. They had hunted, fished and gathered in this territory for more than 10,000 years. The Ktunaxa lived a spiritual life, in complete rhythm with the land. Obtaining all their food, medicine, clothing and shelter from nature, their reverence for this land was rooted in their culture. Then it all changed…abruptly.

A few days later, I find myself on their reserve, ostensibly to take a few photos. Or was it with the hope that I’d learn something, draw someone into conversation, make a connection?

St. Eugene Mission Church

St. Eugene Mission Church

I meet Dorothy Alpine.

I drive into the ‘new’ school yard of the Ktunaxa. The playground is alive with chatter. The school is attractive with its basic architecture, standing in the shadow of St. Eugene Mission Church. I take photos of the church and its fading white facade. Its precarious yet enduring steeple and crosses, all set against an impossibly blue sky. Built in 1897, it seems out of place on this patch of open prairie, encircled by low rolling hills that merge into the mountains beyond.

I soon chat with a lady enjoying the afternoon sun and casually ask about the history of the church. I broach that other subject; the old school, the former ‘Indian Residential School’ across the road.

“You’re in luck!” she tells me. “There’s Dorothy driving up, she’s the one you should speak to.”

I’m introduced and Dorothy graciously invites me into the school. As the Traditional Knowledge and Culture Instructor for this tribe of the Ktunaxa, the St. Mary’s band, she is committed to preserving the history and culture of her people. She is petite with a warm smile and kind eyes.

A steadfast steeple and crosses

steeple and crosses

“This was all the St. Eugene Mission,” Dorothy says, the sweep of her hand indicating not only the church, but also encompassing the cluster of wooden houses and tipis that surrounded it at the end of the 19th century.

“Right here was the meeting place of our people, the tribes of the Ktunaxa whose land stretched to the areas of Creston, Fairmont, Windermere and into Alberta, Montana, Washington and Idaho.” I would later read it was a vast 70,000 square kilometres of land; the size of Scotland.

Dorothy takes the time to write the names of the other ‘bands’ in the Ktunaxa language. Zaq’am she writes for St. Eugene Village.

Dorothy Alpine, framed by a colourful rendition of the 'new' school

Dorothy Alpine, with a colourful painting of the ‘new’ school

“Back in my grandfather’s time, about 1884, there was already a one room school that the missionaries had set up. Eventually Father Coccola was put in charge here.”

Father Nicolas Coccola was French and ventured to the ‘wilds’ of Western Canada in 1881. He would ultimately spend 63 years as a missionary, working with eight different First Nation Tribes. Tasked with the charge of St. Eugene Mission in 1887, Father Coccola also taught, provided medical attention and built houses. He had the help of the Sisters of Providence.

“They did a lot of good,” Dorothy says, “but we didn’t adapt well to houses. Our houses were mostly tipis, we had the first mobile homes after all,” she quips with a chuckle.

“Is it true that Father Coccola built the St. Eugene church, I hear most of it was transported from Italy?”

“Yes that’s true but it wasn’t just him, there was Indian Pete as well.”

I learn that soon after Coccola arrived in the area he staked a claim with a partner, Pierre Cronin, or Indian Pete as he was known. They had discovered valuable ore. Before long the St. Eugene mine yielded a good return, allowing both men to contribute to the the building of St. Eugene Mission Church.

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Explaining the creation story of the Ktunaxa

Dorothy explains that despite the Ktunaxa’s creation story, they believe that different beliefs are all under one God. Going to church was therefore a continuation of their spiritual experience to some extent and most importantly, a meeting place.

The Government and the arrival of European settlers had not only stripped the First Nations of vast amounts of land (which led to Indian Reserves) but also of their right to hold traditional gatherings and ceremonies, such as the potlatch. Thus for many of the Ktunaxa, the church was very much a compromise for what they had lost.

The Mission grew into a self-supporting community with the first flour mill in the region, a school and hospital. Yet I know that things changed drastically in 1912; the year that St. Eugene Mission School was built.

Residential schools were established by the government with the intent of ‘taking the Indian out of the child’ and assimilation to the ‘white man’s culture’. The St. Eugene Mission was the first comprehensive ‘Industrial and Residential’ school to be built in the Canadian West.

It’s a striking Spanish-Colonial style building that rises abruptly out of the prairie, incongruous even in its stately beauty. I’m well aware that the walls of these former Residential schools hold stories that are difficult to comprehend.

“Dorothy did you go to the school?”

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St. Eugene Mission area in the late 1800’s

“Oh yes and my two sisters as well, we had no choice. Our parents would have gone to jail if we hadn’t.”

I learn that Federal law dictated that all First Nation children were to attend Residential schools; to be assimilated and stripped of their language, culture, even their families.

But Dorothy relates mostly good stories of learning the basics and valuable skills.

“Some of the nuns were better teachers than others, I remember singing away most of grade 5, didn’t learn much that year.”

When I ask how often she was allowed to see her parents, Dorothy tells me that it was only the third Sunday of each month, and two months in the summer. She doesn’t dwell on it and brings the conversation back to the present-day.

“Things are getting better. Our children are learning but also exposed to their own language and culture again. We hold pow wows every summer, we’re trying to move forward.”

After expressing my thanks and taking leave, the storied building across the road beckons to me. It didn’t close until 1970 when the government changed their policy. A plan to turn it into a facility for psychiatric care faltered. Stripped of its original fixtures and artifacts, it lay abandoned for more than twenty years; a constant reminder for the Ktunaxa people of that dark period.

Eventually the Ktunaxa, the Samson Cree Nation and Chippewa’s of Rama First Nations formed a partnership. Since the early 2000’s, the transformed building has welcomed people far and wide as the St. Eugene Mission Resort, Golf Course and Casino.

It’s a success story of healing, through rebuilding. By sheer determination and tenacity, an old Indian Residential School has become a powerful economic engine, but not before families and former students were invited back to confront and lay the ghosts of the past.

Dorothy had made this very clear. “Our beloved elder Mary Paul gave us the strength to go forward.” In 1984, Elder Paul had declared, “Since it was within St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”

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The St. Eugene Mission with Fisher Peak rising in its shadow

It’s late afternoon by now and I walk almost reverently through the Resort. The walls of the former school have been stripped down to the original reddish brick and they do seem to talk. Many beautifully framed black and white photos from the school days are arranged along the solid walls; I have a thousand questions. I sit in the cozy Fisher Peak lounge, the Peak itself framed brilliantly through the tall paned windows.

I ask the waitress if she knew what this room had been in the school.

“If you want to know more, you should speak to Gordie, our night watchman. His father came here, as did he. He knows pretty much everything.”

At that point, I want the full story to unfold full circle. Around me people are dining and enjoying a drink, staff members both First Nations and non, work side by side. Great strides have been made.

I leave my number, hopeful, but not fully expecting a call. My phone rings at 7:15 the next morning.

It’s Gordie. “I just got off work and was given your number. I hear you want to come for a tour and talk.”

I arrive at 10 that morning, notebook in hand…I leave at 3 in the afternoon.

To be continued….

Alpenglow on the Rockies

Alpenglow on the Rockies