Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Stocks, and a Matter of Public Record

In the old days, if you were convicted of a crime one of the possible punishments was essentially public humiliation.  You wore your crime literally in public, locked away in a wooden crossbar with your transgressions on display.  People threw rotten eggs and produce at you.  This was the law.

Modernly if you live in British Columbia (for instance) the stocks still exist, only without wood or iron bars or any physical structure.  If you want to know someone's transgressions (at least their provincial ones) all you need to do is look them up in Court Services Online.

St Helena goes one step further.  As a part of the public service function they serve, the newspapers publish details of every criminal offence that happens on the island.  If you get into an argument with a police officer, if you're arrested for assault, if you shoplift a chocolate bar you will literally see your name in print (p22) in the next run of the newspaper along with a description of what happened.  People even go so far as to post editorial responses to the incidents to refute or argue with the crimes they're accused of, or to try to salvage their name or reputation on the island.

Besmirch your good name and absolutely everyone will know about it.  I was curious about what is culturally distinct about the island... the lack of secrets stood out almost immediately as one of the most profound differences, with far-reaching implications.

There is definitely more to learn about this place.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Climbing Jacob's Ladder

Saint Helena is described as an emerald cast in bronze for a reason.  The island is part of the mid-Atlantic ridge and is essentially the top of a dormant volcano.  The bulk of the volcano extends deep underwater, the highest rocky point of the island sits 850 metres above sea level.  Looking at the sheer cliffs from the water it looks brown and stony and desolate, and it would be difficult to imagine anything but more emptiness and desolation on the top of the island.

The top of the island is beautiful.  There's pasture land and great expansive plantations of New Zealand flax surrounded by un-tamed jungle.  If you look at the island from the top down it looks like a lush green space with a tiny rim of rocks around the edge.

The bronze part


The main city (and the only port) on the island is Jamestown (which you can see a bit of in that photo).  It's a crevasse where some of the volcanic cliffs give way to something that might barely be called a valley.  Within the first 100 paces of landing on the island I walked past a currently active jail that was constructed 300 years ago, walked past a church of roughly equivalent age, and walked through the gates of a city wall that once protected the military outpost on this key trading port from bombardment by cannon from the ocean.

On a cliffside to the right as you walk through the fortified gates is one of the "tourist attractions" of St Helena.  Jacob's Ladder used to be a slide where fertilizer was dumped downhill and goods were shipped uphill until the needs of the city shifted to foot traffic and someone turned it into a staircase.  699 steps climbs about 400 or 500 metres of elevation and the tourism office at the base will print you a certificate with the time that it took you to ascend and descend the steps.  I was a tourist and decided to give it a go.

... if you've been following this blog for awhile, you'll know that travel has been more complicated for me than I wanted it to be.  I've been able to distil meaning out of it but I've also got some hard feelings about getting sick everywhere I go, and about the particular flavour of experience that I've found in most every place I've been to.  I started climbing up this steep and challenging staircase...


To discover that the locals have inscribed country names on a significant number of steps on the staircase.  I found myself walking steadily uphill and feeling the burn in my calves and thighs and seeing the names of a hundred places I was curious about and didn't visit during this year off.

I made the decisions I made, and there's no un-making them.  My sabbatical is only 2 more months.   St Helena was always a symbol of this experience, it represents the pinnacle of my curiosity about how an isolated and difficult to reach place holds special interest for me.  It was meant to be one of many experiences where I walked into an emptiness that I was curious about and found something interesting - a difficult to achieve peak experience that I finally had the freedom necessary to create.

I arrived at the top of the staircase, 699 steps later, and took the 700th step.  The names of a hundred experience I didn't give to myself this past year came up the steps with me.  I have regret.  With how little this year has looked like what I originally had in mind, I believe I am human for having regret.  Watching the sun set from the emerald and verdant cliff top, looking down at a mountain of bronze, I also tasted a fragment of the experience I *did* set out to have.  I had (and have) sadness at the choices I made that took me away from this gift I was to give to myself, many times over the last year.  I looked at the profound beauty of the place that I was standing and felt deeply the curiosity I was just beginning to scratch about this incredibly isolated and tiny country.



Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.  I am large.  I contain multitudes.

I went back down Jacob's Ladder.  I opted not to get a certificate from the tourism bureau.  I don't think I'll need help remembering that ascent, that descent, and everything that it meant to me.  I still had a whole island to explore.

~

(As an aside... the jail is little more than an oubliette.  There are no interior windows.  It's a 300 year-old dungeon made of dirty broken brickwork.  Those incarcerated there literally rot in solitude without access to daylight.  St Helena is not a place where you want to be convicted of a crime)

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Insurance Claims in Nigeria

I met someone on the RMS St Helena who talked about an experience that he had while living and working in Nigeria.

He and a friend were hang-gliding or ultralight enthusiasts.  I can't remember which.  The two of them were on a Nigerian hillside, all set up and ready to go.  His friend went out, got caught in a gust and fell off.  He died on impact.  All of the normal challenges of losing a friend were present, but there was also something else that immediately set in as a gigantic problem.

At the time in Nigeria, if you die, ownership of your house transferred to the government.  The government was then responsible for selling your house and giving the proceeds to your family, according to your will.  I don't know if it is still that way, but it was at the time.

The complication was that when ownership transferred to the government upon your death so that the sale could be arranged, your family was no longer allowed to live there.  In the midst of confronting the shocking loss of a friend who had fallen out of his aircraft there was the immediately present reality that his wife and child would be evicted from their home and would be destitute, without access to any family property or assets for the foreseeable future.  The government takes its time selling properties, and often sells them far below their proper sale value... and sometimes the proceeds of the sale disappear into the grift of government.

This particular friend had a life insurance policy (which was the only thing that would rescue his family from destitute poverty in Nigeria), but the specifics of the policy didn't cover accidents of this type.

I listened to his story and imagined it.  Standing in front of the dead body of my friend, watching him pale and stiffen, reflecting on how the laws of the country and the specifics of his insurance policy would leave his family in financial ruin ... in Nigeria.  As dented as the social safety network in Canada is, in Nigeria if you fall from prosperity there is a much greater distance to fall.

He collected his friend's body and put it in the trunk of his car.  He took it to a hiking trail, and left it at the base of a cliff.  The family collected an insurance payment and left Nigeria, accepting the house as a loss.

Where I come from, I'm insulated from ever needing to make decisions like that.  I had the feeling from the sage nods and understanding murmurs of the group the story was told to that those people who've experienced life in Africa have much more direct experience with dilemmas like that.  It puts my first world problems in perspective.

Monday, 15 June 2015

(Not) Sleeping on the RMS

The RMS St Helena is posh, structured, and lovely.  The people here are helpful and the ocean is gentle.  The food is good quality and the tiny little container forces people to get to know each other and become friends.

That, and I can't sleep.  At all.

It may have something to do with the fact that although it's 5:00pm and the sun is setting, my body is still reasonably sure that it's 8:00 in the morning.  I've never experienced half a world of time zones worth of jet lag before.  It could be that this is exactly that, or it could be that this is something else.

This ship is small, but it's still giving up its little mysteries.  It probably seems so mysterious because I haven't had more than 3 hours of sleep in any given 24 hour period for most of a week.  I wander corridors filled with sparkly uniformed staff and the fresh smell of cleaning chemicals, and it seems like whenever I go around a corner I find someplace new.  There's a laundry room I just discovered.  I think I remember discovering it a few days ago but I can't remember, I haven't been sleeping.  I don't think I would know.

I walked up 3 flights of outdoor stairs and found the gym.  Nothing in the gym requires balance because the ship is constantly rocking back and forth.  If you tried to run on a treadmill you'd pitch into the window or the other equipment in 20 paces or less.


A gym with a view

Later.  It's 3:00 in the morning.  No one is here.  Only 3 crew are awake, and none of the passengers.  I may as well have the ship to myself.  It's less romantic than it sounds.  I'm tired and my body is angry at me, but I have both jet lag and knots inside my chest that I had when I left home.  I haven't been successful at untangling them.  I go down the steps from the gym and discover the lifeboats.  I discovered them a few days ago, but I'm in such a fog that they feel new.  I'm surprised to see them even though I've walked past them several times.  I look at them closely and am fascinated by the diagrams that explain how to use them.  I might do this again tomorrow and it will be just as new.  The forgetful are not necessarily blessed.



The cabin is a small windowless box with two bunks.  My bunkmate has relocated so I have the room to myself.  It rattles and shakes as if someone was running a gigantic diesel engine immediately underneath it.  This is because there's a gigantic diesel engine (two of them) immediately underneath it.  The screws that hold in the bolt lock are loose, because they've been shaken loose.  The screws that hold down the bunk are loose, because they've been shaken loose.  The pipes that lead to the sink rattle as if they were dice in a cup.  My room plays incessant craps all day, every day, and the rattling further frays my nerves as I lay in a bunk exhausted but unable to sleep.

All around me the ocean extends.  There's no way to reach out.  There's nothing to do, late at night.  The internet is inaccessible and even if there was such a thing as a telephone, there's no one awake on the West Coast of Canada that I can call.  All I have to do is wander and observe with surprise these things I've seen before but have forgotten, and wish for sleep.

It seems like when I go on an adventure I don't get the adventure I expected.  I didn't know what to expect, but insomnia probably wouldnt've been on my top 20 list of things.  This is a beautiful trip, the food is good, the culture is a strange mix of laid-back islanders going home in jeans and jerseys, businesspeople in collared shirts, and a tiny number of tourists who are almost as casual as the islanders.  We're all surrounded by cabin stewards and dinner service staff in naval uniforms with UK or St Helena accents.  If my cabin number wasn't printed on my key I would probably forget it, and wander the ship aimlessly.  This is a beautiful place made surreal by 21 hours of wakefulness and 3 hours of fitful sleep, each day, for days on end.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Very Posh RMS St Helena

The RMS St Helena is supposedly one of two remaining Royal Mail Ships, but in practical terms according to all of the crew and passengers that I spoke to, it's the only one that's truly accessible or truly close to the original experience of sailing on a Royal Mail Ship.  There's a second one, so I'm told, servicing a chain of small islands off a coast somewhere.  No one could tell me where.

.

Like a scaled down version of the Titanic, or some other last-century ocean liner


The smoke that comes from the central stack is diesel smoke and not coal smoke, but aside from that it could easily be a snapshot of a method of travel that's unknown in the modern era.  The crew all have Queen's English accents and wear snappy uniforms, the ship is owned more or less directly by the British Crown, and British naval terms creep into the lexicon and casual conversation of anyone wearing a white, well-pressed RMS uniform.

Saint Helena was discovered by the Portuguese and held as an incredibly important trading post by the East India Trading Company in the 17 and 1800s.  It was one of the scarce stopping points where sailing ships could restock with food and fresh water before continuing on to the far East.  It has a history steeped in the war of maritime nations, the creation and abolition of slavery, and the overseas power of the British government over the centuries.  The RMS is the only publicly available vessel that goes back and forth to the island, and has been for at least the last 70 years.  The residents of the island set their calendars by the arrival and departure of the RMS.  It's the only way to get the critically ill to a hospital, the only way to access any kind of tourism dollars, and is the origin of 90+% of the goods imported to an island that very literally has no economy of its own.

The RMS St Helena is a remnant of colonialism, and is a direct reflection of (and the lifeline to) the very isolated island of St Helena.  When we first sat down to lunch I couldn't help but notice an array of dishes and cutlery that I don't see in most fine dining restaurants.

See below for walkthrough...


The plate on the left for a bread roll, with the butter knife intended just for the bread roll.  The main plate, with the salad fork, main fork, main knife, butter knife and soup spoon.  The tablespoon, dessert spoon and dessert fork arranged above the main plate.  The upside-down water glass on the right, next to the empty wine glass.

In the era of my grandparents, knowing which fork was used for which course and being able to set a table like this was a symbol of upper class status.  You were one of the well-heeled and posh if you could set a table, or interact with a relatively dizzying array of utensils properly.  It's an obscure set of rules that exists almost exclusively as a way for people with the economic clout to own a thousand purposeless dishes (and re-wash them all after every meal) to demonstrate that they had the energy to waste on this symbol of upper class.

One of my shipmates commented "You're really impressed by this colonial etiquette," and I mentioned that impressed wasn't exactly the word that I would use.  It's a curious place to layer on so much etiquette.  The RMS is a functional vessel - most of the passengers that I'm sharing space with are employees of a construction company active on the island, businesspeople trying to find St Helena ahead of the tourism curve the new airport will undoubtedly bring, but only a dozen of the 100 people I'm sharing the ship with are going to St Helena for tourism.  None of us are on this ship exclusively for the ship itself.  There's a weird incongruence between the jeans and T-shirts and visible tattoos, the clearly visible absence of expectations of poshness and ponce from the passengers, and the very significant efforts of the crew to make the experience feel intensively "upper-class."

This is the last of the Royal Mail Ships for all intents and purposes.  Next year it will be decommissioned shortly after the first flights of the airport in St Helena - it will have a final sailing across the Atlantic and up the Thames and once it arrives in London it will be stripped down and sold for 4 million USD, give or take.  The vast majority of passengers here have no expectation of posh catered dinners or waiters with a white towel over their arms and yet the ship does it anyway.  This is a symbol of an empire, a colonial power that projected its stiff upper lip and class-structured mentality across the better part of the world.  The sun still never sets on the Empire that spawned this ship (currently thanks to the Pitcairn islands), and it seems at first glance like the upper-class posh naval feeling so carefully created on the RMS is more a projection of the remnants of an oceanic empire than it is for the benefit of the passengers.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Cape Town, on the first pass

Cape Town will be more than a stopover on the return trip, but for the moment it's very temporary.  Fried after 36 hours in airports, I went directly to the hotel from the airport and slept for 4 hours.  I spoke briefly with a friend and then slept for another 5 hours, just in time to get up and go to find the ship I would be sailing away on.

The first things I noticed about the Green Point area of Cape Town - everywhere has barbed wire, broken glass on the walls and electrified fences.  It's as if anything that resembles wealth is at immediate threat of violence, everywhere.  The streets have restaurants and attractions and they look busy and interesting, and two blocks away the streets are quiet and empty.  Every warning I've ever heard about keeping your eyes open in South Africa comes to mind.  One old acquaintance who grew up here assured me (and our group of friends) that South Africa would chew us all up and spit us out.  There are moments where I can't tell if I hear cicadas or electric fences in the background.

The ocean here is as salty as ever.  The smell of the place is unique.  The sunlight is beautiful, and occasional scattered rains remind me that in this hemisphere it's wintertime.  It's still as warm as summer in the Pacific Northwest.

As I clamber up into the RMS St Helena for the next leg of my trip, I look back at the city and realize there's a mountaintop directly next to where I was staying.  I was startled.  Somehow I managed not to notice the adjacent mountain during the cab ride to the hotel.  Table Mountain, it must be, the beautiful place I was told I had to hike while in Cape Town.  Literally it dominated an entire horizon and somehow I managed not to notice it at all until I was on the RMS sailing away.  36 airplane hours and many, many time zones, I can apparently miss noticing an entire mountain.

An hour later I'm well under way to one of the most remote places on the planet.  No cellphone reception, no internet, no access to the outside world.  If someone has a medical crisis the only way back to shore is to literally turn the ship around and make haste back to the mainland - nothing airborne can reach us.  The mountain I hadn't noticed is gone, and in its place is a 360 degree flat blue horizon.  I've been wondering what it's like in such a remote and difficult-to-reach place for a long time and this voyage is how I find out.  5 more days at sea, and I'll be on the island of St Helena.


Monday, 8 June 2015

The smell of South Africa

One place in the Green Point area is called Giovanni's.  They're a cafe and grocer and they make a mean espresso and chocolate croissant.  I don't know if it was mist or fog that covered the docks, but it slowly burned off as I walked towards the waterfront.  The area smelled more and more like the ocean, vaguely spoiled seaweed smells and all, only with a background note peculiar to this place.  At least I've never smelled another place like it.

If I ever smell that smell again it'll bring me back to Cape Town the way that smelling a particular creamed spinach brought me back to my week at Children's Hospital in grade 3.

I haven't really been to Cape Town yet.  I walked 100 paces along a portion of its length while trying to clarify where a particular dock and berth is located.  E Berth at Duncan dock is not East, it's on the West side of the dock (I think).  I'm about to walk there, right now.

It's 4am back home.  It's 1:00pm out here.  I'm about to board the RMS St Helena and experience isolation from the outside world.  I have to wonder if I'm going to meet a bunch of UK citizens who are lavished in finery and interested in having a gated community tour of the world.  Only one way to find out.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Another Lesson in Transience

36 hours ago I went through Vancouver International Airport.  An old flame complained about YVR and about the abbreviations for airports in general because the abbreviations follow no rhyme or reason.  I can't disagree with her.

Next to the International Departures gate of YVR there's a large jade (bronze, but jade coloured) statue that depicts a number of Native American characters (Raven, Bear, Frog, etc) coming to Turtle Island.  That statue has been in place for ages.  I remember being 20 and sitting in front of it, having dropped off the woman I was sure I would spend the rest of my life with, and slowly coming to the realization that she was never coming home and it would never work out.  It didn't.  She didn't.  That statue told me the truth.

I checked in, 36 hours ago, and got my tickets to Cape Town.  I kept expecting someone to tell me that I couldn't take the trip (I'd spent 5 hours that morning scrambling to disagree with someone who had said I couldn't take the trip).  I expected them to deny me because of my passport, because of my timing, because of the season, because I'd missed a detail, because I was wearing the wrong glasses, because I looked suspicious.  I expected to be turned away just because this adventure feels too big for me.  I expected to be turned away because somewhere inside of me I had the potent and un-addressed feeling that such a grand thing was beyond the reach of a human with a soul as dented as mine.

One time a long time ago I went to Costa Rica.  I felt, through the whole plane ride, that Costa Rican customs would turn me away.  I wrote about it.  "Why would they let a person so gray as I am into so bright and warm a place?"

It was like that.  Why would they let me do this?

I passed by that jade statue again.  Another time, more modernly, I dropped off a girl I had been in the process of gently falling for.  She was visiting her family in China.  She went home to parents who assured me, and her, that she would lose the approval and support (practical and metaphorical) of her family if she ever really committed to a white man.  I sat underneath that statue, tinged as it always has been for me with loss, sadness and transience.

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was a deeply formative book in my younger years.  His son died in San Francisco, stabbed to death in an alleyway.  The Zen monk who instructed at the monastery in San Francisco walked into a meditation class and announced "Chris Pirsig is dead.  This teaches us all a lesson in transience."  He continued the meditation as ever.  Just because the lesson was especially potent or difficult to face did not mean that the lesson should be turned away from.

This statue teaches me a lesson in transience.  YVR is a transient place.  My heart broke in Vancouver.  I'm going into isolation to reflect as deeply as I can on that... to make a little container for the heartbreak, a comfortable bed where it can lay down, storms for it to watch, an island for it to visit.  Maybe I can help it heal, maybe I can just learn to live with it, and maybe my travels will just be a lesson in how it is foolish to go to one of the most remote places in the world and isolate yourself from friends, family and loved ones at a time where your heart is broken.  I don't know yet.

All I know is that life has taught me another lesson in transience.  That jade statue, now as ever, stands as a reminder.

Choking on Breakfast

(There's a wide gap between my last post and this one.  My last post was October.  This post is happening right now, today.  I'll still fill in the gaps)

I had what I would call "idle curiosity."  A friend of mine who I've known for ages spent years researching everything that she and her partner wanted to do with their world tour, and planned each step of their travels to the nth degree.  They found odd museums of pickled brains in South America, they ate Ostritch eggs in Africa, and they knew exactly what they wanted to do as they tooled around the globe.

Me...  I did some research, but somehow my heart just never seemed called to a specific thing.  I was curious to go to a place and see what was there, see what the people were like, breathe the air and find out if it was different.  No travelogues I read were inspiring.  No stories of adventures or caving or underground salt mine tours inspired me enough for me to stand up and say "Yeah!  I want to do that.  I'm going to plan that."  I wanted to wander softly through the world.  That was the original plan.  Me, my backpack and the wind would just go wherever seemed like a good idea from day to day.

The one exception was St Helena.  Of all things I found it on a website that talked about the places in the world you would never, ever want to go, like the "doorway to hell."  Places that sound bleak and lonely and impossible.  It painted the 6-day ocean voyage to the island as lonely and empty, and the exile of Napoleon as one of the lonesome and forlorn tourist attractions.  I remember reading the article and thinking "the hell with that, I want to go there."  It was one of the only places I really felt called to go to, during the time that I was planning all of this.  I would wander the world without a plan... except for going to Cape Town, boarding the RMS St Helena, and going to one of the most remote archipelagos on the planet and finding out what the world looked like, smelled like and felt like when the rest of the world was impossibly remote.

The circumstances in my life changed so quickly that the transition from "I plan to go there" to "I'm going there" happened in less than 10 days.  When a voyage takes 24 days back-to-front if you push hard at each edge (2 days to fly there, 6 days at sea, 8 days on the island, 6 days at sea back to cape Town, 2 days to fly home) people don't tend to call the relevant booking agency and say "I'd like to be on the boat in 10 days."

So... the day I was scheduled to get on an airplane for 36 hours they informed me that I needed travel insurance and that I needed accommodation on the island.  I made some inquiries.  What they didn't tell me is that unless I have a specific type of travel insurance (with a specific threshold of repatriation insurance in case of severe injury) and also travel insurance of the appropriate type *they will deny me passage.* I just about choked on my breakfast.  I had flights and accommodations booked in Cape Town before I ever had any idea this was needed, and I was panicked.  In three hours I left to get on the airplane.  I had to have accommodation finalized before I landed.  None of my emails had been successful (the island life), and phone calls seemed abjectly impossible (also the island life, in the middle of the Atlantic with minimal infrastructure).

I took a hail mary pass.  I tested a few phone calls and prayed that the time difference wasn't too great.  One of the B&Bs on the island let me know 10 minutes before the travel office closed that even though they were full, they'd give me a place to stay.  I didn't need to rearrange my whole life around the cancellation of this trip.  I am, indeed, going to St Helena.

Monday, 23 February 2015

On Health Care, Personal Experience, and Reasonable Arguments

I have people I love and respect in the USA who have objections to "Obamacare" and those objections are based on really reasonable arguments.  There's a component of US constitutional law that is in direct conflict with a "universal" healthcare system in the USA, and constitutional law is the highest form of law.  The constitution of the USA is equivalent to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, roughly (emphasis roughly) and people in Canada get pretty pissed off when they feel that their charter rights are being violated.  When the Supreme Court ruled on the legality of "Obamacare" it neglected to respond to the constitutional challenge.  It's still a problem.  So far as I can tell people on both sides of this debate are sensible people applying reasonable arguments - just very different reasonable arguments.  Personally, I'd say that if you can't see the sense in why someone disagrees about something like universal healthcare in the USA and you don't understand why, you should look deeper.  You don't have to agree on conclusions to believe that someone is rational, sensible, and basing their ideas on sound and reasoned thinking.

Having said that...  I was sick and scared and opted to just go back to Canada to see a doctor rather than risk some kind of exception in the States that an insurance provider would have used to deny coverage.  It's illegal in Canada to charge money for a medically necessary test or procedure.  We have had universal healthcare for quite some time, and I'm a fan of it.  I like it better than the alternative that I see in the United States.

While it follows the same rules as the rest of Canada broadly speaking, Quebec as a province is a bit different than the rest of Canada.  That's true in lots of ways and specifically it's true with the medical system.  If you have a non-emergency issue that requires urgent care but not a visit to the hospital's emergency room, it's like you're trying to pull one over on the medical system... as in (literally) you've gotta get up pretty damn early in the morning.

Walk-in clinics in Quebec are mostly government run.  They only take 12 walk-in patients in a day.  They open at 8am.  To reliably get in and see a doctor you have to show up 90 minutes before they open (6:30am) and sit on the steps.  If a mother with a child is in line before you, that counts as 2 people.  If you're person #13 it sucks to be you - either go to the emergency room or wake up earlier tomorrow and try again.  I imagine during flu season you have to wake up even earlier. 

So, that was me.  Once I actually got to see a medical professional I was treated very well.  They asked a lot of good questions, they were more conversational and more curious than any doctor in BC has been in a long time and I felt like they were really paying attention to what was happening for me.  I was queued up for a couple of simple tests and reassured that it was probably just a cold or flu that took a long time to go away.  It took me (in total) from 6:30am when I lined up until 11:00am just to see a doctor. 

I know I would've seen a doctor much more quickly in the US if I'd chosen to access my travel insurance, and I suspect the care would've been just as good or better, so the advantages of a totally privatized health care system were clear at 11:00am when I finally stepped away from that whole medical process... but removing the chance that my medical expenses would've been paid out-of-pocket on the off chance that an insurance company denied me coverage made the whole thing seem a lot more bearable.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Where Even the Graffiti is Beautiful

One of the best ways to get to know a place is by walking around.  When your feet are on pavement and your method of travel is your body the world passes by slowly enough that you can really take it in.  The way that people look at you tells you whether or not you're in the right neighborhood.  The way that the street smells points you towards the right kind of food.  The way that the streets are marked tells you about the spirit of the place.

One of the first telling signs - everywhere I went in the States the graffiti was present and ugly.  Even at its best it seemed like little more than a tag.  In Montreal, a stylized blue woman sat with a tranquil expression on sea serpents and stormy waves.

Even the defacement of public property was attractive.
It was also the heart of summer at the time.  There's a park in central Montreal called Mount Royal (Mont Royal) where there's a weekly informal "festival" called Tam Tams and on a hot, sunny day there are circus performers practicing and showing off doing slacklines and acro yoga.  There are LARPers doing sword fighting melees with padded weaponry in a gravel patch.  There's a market full of curios and charming items.  There's a drumming circle full of people who just show up to dance and drum - it varied between 20 and 50 people who turned up to drum in the few hours that I was there.

I had lunch in that park with a friend and her family and soaked it all in.  The thread of illness was still there but it felt like it had hit the high water mark and begun to recede.  Montreal was telling me that it loved me, and that everything would probably be ok. 

In British Columbia I had grown up without ever meeting someone who spoke French as a first language and to hear French spoken so consistently was still disarming, but so many things about being in Montreal reminded me that this was my home country.  It was less foreign than the United States despite the fact that the primary language being spoken wasn't English.

Here I was at home and feeling the heaviest part of the storm begin to break and fade away.  Here I was in a place where even the graffiti was beautiful.  Here I was in late September during summertime's last great effort, and beginning to feel that everything might just work out after all.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Beauty is in the Eye

Riding the Amtrak train from New York to Montreal was stunningly beautiful.  Penn Station in NY is the busiest train station in the country, and the ride from NY to Montreal is considered one of the most beautiful and scenic in the world.  Late September / early October the trees were burning with fall colours and the scenery was stunning. 

There was a beautiful, dark-haired French Canadian woman at the front-most compartment of the train who had crawled up underneath the plexiglass ceiling so that she could see as far forward as possible, and she audibly whispered "yesssss..." when the train was about to go through a tunnel.  Her excitement was infectious.


In the midst of all that beauty, I took one picture.  It was of an incredibly boring cornfield.  I was still sick, seeing everything through a blur of pain and nausea.  I could appreciate how beautiful everything was.  The *feeling* that came with it was like looking through a window at something far away.  My camera barely came up out of my pocket.


The first night in Montreal I was humbled by the kindness of friends.  A recent acquaintance from the burn had invited me to stay.  After being on the road for so long I had become accustomed to an insulated pad and a sleeping mat, or a hostel mattress with a handful of sheets.  This place felt like someone's home.  Books that spoke of my friend's interests stacked shelves, the living room was scattered with signs of his hobbies and technical curiosities, and the kitchen was both stocked with equipment that a real person would use and also decorated as if a human being who felt at home was there.  Sick, homesick and burnt out, I picked the key up from a hidden spot out front and felt immediately like I had stepped out of the cold into a place where there was a fire in the hearth and warm water in the bath.  It felt doubly generous that he let me stay while he was away himself, but when I landed I fell into a deep sleep and thanked my lucky stars to be in a place where I knew I was welcome.  Montreal and I started on good terms.