March, 2014


31
Mar 14

PEI: My Island Pictures

PEI1

There are some trips that you make which seem a little magical and dream-like even at the time. Of course; memory softens the edges; that annoying wait for the car that one afternoon or the rainy morning which made you pout, they all melt away with time. But there was something special about Prince Edward Island right from the start.
PEI3
The sharp bright colours of the island made you feel as though you’d stepped into a child’s drawing; the sky so blue, the grass and trees so green and this vivid, almost-glowing red soil and red sand. The coastline dotted about with reminders from the past and standard bearers for the future; lighthouses painted with quaint deckchair-stripes next to bright white bands of wind turbines stretching their arms as they scraped the sky.

PEI4We took a sightseeing trip in a small plane, rising just high enough to make the illusion of it all being a child’s colouring book seem real. We saw the cold, clear waters where some of the world’s best lobsters, mussels and oysters thrive. That iron oxide-rich soil which grows such sweet flavoursome potatoes, the lush green grass which feeds some of the most-prized cattle in North America.

PEI6Over the next week I’d eat and drink so many delicious things – all from just a few miles away from where I was staying in its historic capital Charlottetown. I’d meet some of the warmest and most hospitable people I’ve encountered anywhere in the world; a friendly acceptance and a delight in sharing and showing the best that they had, that felt as gracious as something from a more sepia-tinted age.

almorrisonOne afternoon I met an elderly man in a cafe and fell into conversation with him. He insisted on giving me a copy of a book, ‘My Island Pictures’ a History of Prince Edward Island by folk artist, A.L. Morrison. The pictures have that child-like dreamy quality that the island conjured up for me. I wish I knew if it had been the artist who gave it to me; I was in a rush but adopting island ways, I made time to stop and talk. But I put the book in my bag as I left and didn’t look at it until I got back home to Vancouver; now I can’t match the hazy memory of the lovely old man with the author shot on the book. Flipping through its pages now, it’s all as I remember it, almost like he drew it for me just as I remember it. He must have been the author –  who else would carry around spare copies of their book but an author? And where else would such a thing happen but PEI?

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism PEI but as ever, all my words are 100% my own.

More information:

Tourism Prince Edward Island

Air tour in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk thanks to FD Airtours

 

 


26
Mar 14

Saskatoon and the King of Kovbasa

Image courtesy of: http://www.doukhobor.org

Image Courtesy Of Doukhobor

Picture leaving your home and your village; everything you ever knew and loved and travelling unimaginably far away, knowing that you’d probably never come back. Then imagine arriving in this new and foreign land; cold, sick and hungry after a gruelling sea journey of several weeks, then you have to spend days spent passing through immigration. Next, weak with exhaustion,  you’re loaded on a train for a journey of even more days and nights with nothing to rest on but bare boards, rattling across a vast and strange country to your final destination. And when you step off the train, your body aching and sore, your new home is some 20 miles away. And there is no road. No one is there to greet you. There is nothing.

The ache of separation from home and everything familiar must have been almost unbearable.

This is the story of the Ukrainians who arrived in Canada after the 1872 Dominion Lands Act, a law which encouraged pioneers to come to the prairies to settle and farm the land there. Men over 18 and women who were heads of their households were offered 160 acres of land for a $10 administration fee. They had to stay on the land for three years, build a permanent home and farm at least 4 acres and then the land was theirs.

Yevshan Dancers

What they left was heart-breaking enough; ruled over by Austro-Hungary, Poland and Russia, denied education and conscripted to fight for the Austrian army, the people of the Ukraine were treated abominably by those who had invaded their country (and oh, in the light of recent events, how depressing is it to see things have not changed over the years).  But they made things work, these immigrants. They faced up to the back-breaking challenge of clearing bushland and tons of rocks before they could even start to farm. The men left the women and children to subsist on the homesteads, as they took paying work in lumber camps or down the mines. But they survived and lived to tell the tale.  They built communities and they made a life for themselves on the prairies. And like all immigrants, they cherished the customs and the foods of the land that they had left behind. sas8

Which brings me neatly to a huge community centre, Prairieland Park, in the heart of Saskatoon. It’s February and minus 21 degrees outside. The wind chill factor brings it down to minus 30, and I stood outside for just a moment to try and imagine living in this without the benefit of modern clothing (thank GOD for my Canada Goose parka and gloves) never mind making it through without central heating. I lasted maybe a minute or two before scuttling inside into the warmth; my eyelashes began to freeze, my chest hurt from the cold air and what small part of my skin was exposed to the vicious cold ached from the icy wind. But just looking around the people in the room I know that their great-great grandparents didn’t just survive, they thrived. Clearly they were made of so much sterner stuff than I.

The contestants

Almost 700 people are here – the majority Ukrainian Canadians – and they are here to taste food from the old country and vote on this year’s King of Kovbasa. The contest is in its thirteenth year and it’s a cultural celebration of the traditional Ukrainian kovbasa sausage. Twelve local butchers enter, and every one attending gets to cast their vote to decide who will win the trophy. It’s a prestigious contest and tasting is taken seriously. Each table gets its own huge platter of samples and there are even instructions on how best to taste the sausage; regular palate-cleansers of pickles, cheese and crackers are essential – as is immediately logging your vote on the cards provided. We’re voting on best texture, seasoning, appearance and overall winner.

sas9This is also a fundraiser event with door prizes, a secret auction and vodka-and-pickle shots for cash donations – with money raised going to an adult literacy program, READ Saskatoon. I watch the the girls and boys in their shiny blue and white costumes bring out the trays of carefully-prepared meats to serve to each table. Later they’ll perform traditional dances on the stage, the girls whirling and swirling their skirts and the boys squat-kicking. I think about how important events like these must have been to those first immigrants; a chance to talk to someone other than your family – maybe the only chance that teenagers would have to meet someone to marry. I think about how much joy and pride is in the room and of the importance of tradition and continuity. I think about how, some days when I am missing my friends and family, I can cry just at the taste or smell of something that reminds me of home.

sas4I understand why these traditions are so fiercely guarded, why people dress up and come out in the heart of brutal winter to gather together and to celebrate. It’s a pride that makes the butchers so competitive – being Kovbasa king really means something – this year SmokeHaus Meats of Martensville swept the board, winning in every category.

The winners

Leaving I stood outside again in the car park, the stars seemed so bright in the crackling cold of the night. To live here; to build a home, dig out a farm, carve out a life and create a community in bitter, brutal weather and then, decades later, to have your descendants dance in a toasty-warm room, full of good cheese and sausages, happy with vodka and beer is the immigrant’s dream. From unimaginable hardship to comparative luxury in just a few generations. I wonder at the strength it must have taken to make that first step and then the next and the next. The faintest flavour of such a life must have been in their mind when they closed the door of their homes that one last time and started their long journey to a new life in Canada, with the hope of better days driving them through the hardship. sas3

My trip was made possible by support from Tourism Saskatoon, but – as ever – my words are 100% my own. 

Further information

Tourism Saskatchewan

Ukrainian Museum of Canada

 


23
Mar 14

Dolphins and Eagles Chase Away Immigration Blues

Dolphins!

Dolphins!

There are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky; I whisper that to myself as I walk along the beach, my dog racing ahead of me chasing stones and dive-bombing the sand. On a day like today I need that mantra; I need to see the snow and the mountains and feel them break my heart with their beauty. I need to look out to the sea and believe that whales and dolphins are there – just out of sight. It’s hard being an immigrant. There; I said it. Immigrant – not expat – I don’t want to go ‘home’ I want this to be where I stay and make my life. I’ve fallen in love with Canada and oh, it is a capricious thing to have fallen for.

Today I spent five hours taking exams in reading, writing, listening and speaking… English. I have to pass to prove that I can understand my own language. A $300 piece of red tape to add to the rest. When my lawyer asked if I had taken the test I assumed they were joking but of course, lawyers don’t joke – not even good-humoured ones like mine – I’m glad Wildy are with me on this winding, confused, painful journey through the Canadian immigration system, I’d have become impossibly lost without them.

Image courtesy of Twitter/@Nestah14 https://twitter.com/Nestah14/status/445324444785852416

Image courtesy of Twitter/@Nestah14

But yes, on a day when it feels that the hoops you have to jump through are just too high and too many you need a miracle and that is exactly what happened. Two pods of dolphins swam into the waters of False Creek – just outside my flat – this is, according to experts at the Vancouver Aquarium, very rare indeed.  I watched them swim under the Burrard Bridge, past Granville Island and then head back – again and again. There were so many of us watching them in absolute delight from the beach, just as we thought they’d gone – back they’d swim again. Because it was a grey day,  it was hard to see them but oh! when you did… it felt like magic could really happen. I watched a pod of five swim along, their skin glinting as they dipped in and out of the water. All this – just outside my front door.

Just outside my window

Just outside my window

Later at my desk, I looked up and saw an eagle swooping just beyond my 21st floor window; its wings stretching impossibly wide, circling against a backdrop of the mountains, their snowy tops peeking out from a wispy pashmina of mist. So bring on the endless forms and the crazy exams because there are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky.

I shot this rather shaky video – but oh! DOLPHINS!


21
Mar 14

Challenge #4: Go to Whistler and Zipline Down a Mountain at Night

I’m trying to be brave and try new things—truly I am. But as I hang in my harness, my teeth chattering in the sub-zero cold, swinging in a cradle as helpless as a baby, I began to think, ‘hey – what was so wrong with the old ways?’. It’s pitch black ahead of me on the mountain, just a small twinkling light, god knows how far away – that’s where I’m heading on this insane zipline and god help me, if they’re not about to release the brakes

Ready to swing off into the dark void. Squint and you'll see the lights below.

Ready to swing off into the dark void. Squint and you’ll see the lights below.

A curse on this whole ‘try something Canadian and new’  plan. I’ve given ziplining at night a whirl and decided that, nope, it is absolutely not for me. Was it the screaming through the darkness god knows how high up – just attached by a wire – that made me turn my stomach? Or perhaps it was the fatal-crash feeling every time I ‘zipped’ into the end of each line? Or maybe it was the weird sensation of being horribly scared as I flew in darkness across the mountain and yet at the same time - feeling weirdly bored because I couldn’t see anything? Whatever, as fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, this girl has gotta never do this again. And yet… I could see that if you liked it (and I was with a crew who clearly adored it) then this would be all kinds of fun.

Making tracks up the mountain

Making tracks up the mountain

It all started rather nicely with a heated snowcat ride up Rainbow Mountain. I loved this! The snow was deep, it felt like the most delicious sort of rufty-tufty Canadian fun inside the ‘Cat; blankets-over-the-knees and the rumble of the engine as we climbed at a thrilling angle up, up the mountain. The light was on in the cabin and my fellow zippers-to-be were excited. I peered out into the night: nothing. Sadly the fun bit was over too soon – we got dropped at a yurt half-way up the isolated mountain for dinner.

Normally I’d have been dancing with excitement over this; it had been catered by the Bearfoot Bistro – one of my favourite Whistler restaurants – but as I sat down and sipped on water (never have I wanted a glass of wine more) and watched the flames dance in the log fire, I realised I was genuinely nervous about what lay ahead. I pushed my perfect short rib around the plate, forcing down a few mouthfuls of whipped buttery mash and savoury gravy before giving up. Bad enough to scream, but how much worse if I threw up later?

See - how perfect and lovely is this adorable yurt?

See – how perfect and lovely is this adorable yurt?

When you dread what lies ahead, there comes a point when you don’t want to delay – you just want it to be over. Make the dinner, end, let’s just get this done, I wished to the gods of bad decisions and perilous ideas. Who knows – I was not letting the tiny flame of optimism burn out at this point – maybe I would love this. But every minute we spent in that gorgeous little wooden yurt made me doubt it more and more. For those familiar with the drill, you know what lies ahead – you carry your own kit from line to line over your shoulder. I wasn’t expecting this and as I slid around on the narrow trail in the half-light on the ice and snow, I wondered if I wasn’t about to find a far, far faster way down.

The two staff with us on the mountain with us were fantastic – friendly, helpful, fun and – kind – when it was clear that I was struggling to stay upright one of them shouldered my load and I was never made to feel like I was making a fuss. One of the group after one line decided that was enough; and they were kind to her too. Idiot that I am, I decided to stick with it. Maybe I’d grow to love it? (I didn’t.)

Not everyone hated this. OK - so ONLY I hated this...

Not everyone hated this. OK – so ONLY I hated this…

There were only 4 ziplines but it felt like oh, so much more; one was the longest in Canada, 600 feet above the ground and over a kilometer long. The part of me that wasn’t hating it all, was wondering what it would be like in the daytime? Maybe if I had all that stunning scenery to distract me from me grinding terror, I’d have had more fun?

It was very cool hanging out in the trees.

It was very cool hanging out in the trees.

Not so my companions, who whooped their way through the evening. They flew down the mountain, their helmet lights like little halos, and whooped like bad angels as they went. Apologies for this most anaemic of phrases but really: if you like this kind of thing, you’d love this. It’s well organised, if you could stomach the food it was delicious, the yurt and snowcat were a lot of fun and yes, if hurtling through the night is your bag then have at it.
I plan to keep my feet on the ground for now.

God bless them for having me – I was a guest of Superfly – who were so nice to me even though I clearly loathed it.

Also thank you to my chateau home away from home, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler who gave me somewhere beautiful and serene to rest my very achey bones after all this crazy. Oh, how I wished I’d have been able to stow away one of their special mustard-spiked cocktails with me on the line – maybe that would have helped?

As ever – my words though are 100% my own.

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