My brother Mark and his wife and my sister Amy and I had tickets for a week in Cuba and I was determined to go. I was looking forward to getting out of our messed up house with it’s temporary kitchen and dust everywhere. I was determined to go. I may have mentioned that already. I figured it would do my cough good to get into the sun even though I had coughed up a bit of blood earlier that day.
When I met my sister Amy at the Toronto airport she noticed immediately that I was holding my body rigidly. Her big blue eyes searched my face as she asked me if I was okay. My green eyes began to water as I said: I have a few problems right now.
Cue the ominous music
The first two days in Cuba were fine. We walked on the beach and swam and laughed and Mark played his guitar and we all sang a whole lot but, my bronchitis was not improving.
It was worsening.
Amy, Mark and Irene went out in the evening to watch the band. I was going to stay and rest, I said. Mark was going to play a song and he was looking forward to that. Our rooms were about a five minute walk to the area on the beach where the music was to be performed. After they left, I decided to put something comfortable on and walk over and stand in the sand to just listen. By the time I walked the walkway to the beach, tears were streaming down my face due to the beauty everywhere and how frightened I was of what lay ahead. I knew it would be psychosis and psychosis can be a very scary place.
Someone in the band saw me crying and he whispered to his band mate. Suddenly they were playing, ‘No Woman No Cry‘ by Bob Marley. I just bawled some more at how sweet they were to try and help me with their music. I realized again just how much I love Cuba.
However, I could not sleep.
I would lay in bed staring at the ceiling and then, by the third night, the visions and the outrageous thoughts started: I was the Virgin Mary. I was the one meant to save the world. There was a numerology aspect. I was born on 03-03-66. Leo was born on 09-08-99. I was 33 when he was born. Mom was born in 16-06-30 and she had been 36 when I was born. My business was Incorporated on 06-06-06. So, lot’s of threes (and sixes and nines, all divisible by three). There were three in my family. Three was a special number, as a former Catholic I knew this well. The number of the Holy Trinity in Christianity. My mind churned these thoughts — twisting and turning them, over and over.
Then, I was having conversations with God. The Player family would all be saved from the coming world crisis if we gathered on a tropical island together. My pulse raced. My stomach churned with butterflies. My bowels turned to liquid. I was all keyed up and it was impossible to sleep. Mania was taking over my mind and I was familiar with it. All aboard the crazy train folks…
Things rapidly deteriorated from that point. Luckily our week was almost up. Mark and his wife began furtive preparations for home while Amy watched over me. I just wanted to walk around the resort and connect with every possible person in my vicinity. Mark and Amy were worried I wouldn’t be permitted on the flight if I was acting too manic, so Amy and I went to the medical clinic where a very kind and gentle doctor, while holding my hand, shot a huge syringe of tranquilizer into each cheek of my ass. Amy said that it was enough tranquilizer to drop a horse. But guess what, I was still manic with no tranquility in sight. I popped off the bed like the Energizer bunny. By the time we got to the airport though, I was much more calm but still no sleep. I should have been slumped over, drooling, in deep sleep.
Now, I was taking the hands of total strangers, gazing deeply into their eyes and telling them all about their lives and how to improve it. Funnily enough, people seemed to really want to hear what I was saying to them. It was bizarre. One man told me I was the most honest person he had ever spoken to. Meanwhile, my brother Mark was running around trying to keep me safe and to act normal so that the airline people would allow me to fly. I, of course, was oblivious by this point.
With our 18-year old son, Leo, having just finished up his first term of University, and his buddy, Reid, we decided to take a 12-day trip to Cuba…a non-resort trip…not exactly as strenuous as a ‘back-packing’ trip, per se, but a non-resort moving around trip none the less. And, all in all, it was a fine adventure to finish off 2017 in a unique fashion. Dean and I were also celebrating 25 years married and we wanted to do something special for the occasion.
We arrived in Havana in mid-December and made a bee-line first to the cadeca to change money, then to the tienda for a cold one each. We had arranged a driver to take us to our place in Vedado, a trendy area of the city but, he was familiar with ‘Cuba Time’ and had no trouble just chilling until the four of us quenched our thirst after a long, rather sparse flight. Don’t get me going but what the devil has happened to flights theses days?…I had told the boys of the days of unlimited free boozy drinks on flights and a full hot meal preceded by a warm towel for your face, neck and hands, blankets and pillows and head-sets handed to each traveler. What the heck happened??? Now we couldn’t even check a bag for free. The four of us went with carry-on only and had had our sun-screen confiscated at security. Let’s just read that line again…our sun-screen was confiscated at security. Why? Well, it seems since 9 – 11, sun-screen in any family-size container, is a security breech.
Our driver happily helped us into his vintage car and off we rolled to our apartment. Along the way, in a combination of broken English, Spanglish, gesture and sound effects, he told us about the area and his family. It seemed that he was a nearly pro ping-ponger with four babies (who were now adults) and then we rolled passed the Mental Health Hospital and he put two bent fingers to his right temple and made a creaking sound while moving his fingers back and forth and rolling his eyes. Ooookay. Meanwhile, in his back seat sits me with Bipolar1. I didn’t let on.
Our apartment was ideal and in good proximity to a landmark that we all wanted to check out. The Nacional Hotel. It seemed fitting to have our first mojito of the trip there.
The bartender happened to be our landlord, so he treated us to a Cubata cocktail as well and a couple of fine cigars for the lads. His protege was quite a nice-looking guy, very photogenic, and he was fine with me snapping his picture.
From there, we walked along the sea wall and marveled at the warm air.
It was getting dark and would soon be time to find a place to eat. We asked a young person who seemed to know some English. He told us to try Bicky’s and he drew us a little map. We walked the darkened streets with nary a flat sidewalk and several random ankle-busting holes as well as piles of dog doo and other garbage. We found it, though. Its neon-lighted sign beckoning like a lighthouse over choppy seas. It was an Italian place and we were seated on the balcony. The place was packed and we got the last table. When my food arrived, it didn’t look like much: penne pasta in a cream sauce. Oh my. It was fabulous. All of us were happy with our food, but mine was outstanding. I could barely speak due to my tongue being in love with the taste. A nice omen of our meals to come.
The next morning, the Senorita arrived to cook us breakfast and we had fun trying to understand each other. She had not a word of English and would just raise the volume of her Spanish to make us understand. Luckily, my previous study on duolingo and our old phrase book which we had used in Central America when Leo was four helped. As well, I employed a healthy and hilarious amount of gesture which I was comfortable with since learning conversational American Sign Language when Leo was a baby. I taught her how to do eggs ‘over-easy’ using my hand as the spatula in my gesticulating. We had wonderful foods for breakfast: fresh tropical fruit, coffee, toast, eggs, freshly made tropical juices. Wonderful.
Off we went to walk to the book store which was a couple of miles away in a quiet part of the city. We walked past many pastel-coloured stucco homes, newly painted with groomed yards and straight fences, often directly beside a very old, grey and crumbling crooked house. It was odd and interesting. When we got to Cuba Libro the bookstore, we were amazed at the wonderful books as well as other offerings there: cookies, coffee and a clean bathroom. It is owned by an expat and has a lively community following with various clubs meeting there and tours too. The lovely server told us how to get a car to take us to Old Havana and so next we were climbing into a red 51 Chevy with clear vinyl covered leather seats. It was mint.
Because we so enjoyed this man, with no English but a lovely manner, we negotiated with him for the 4.5 hour ride to Trinidad de Cuba for the next morning. Then we walked around seeing the sights of Old Havana and drinking in the ancient feel of the place.
It was commonplace to hear and see vendors yelling and selling their wares which ranged from brooms (which I REALLY wanted – joking) to lettuce (which I also REALLY wanted) to baked crackers and pastries, even home-made ice-cream and shaved meat sandwiches were being sold but the sandwich maker was without gloves and my Western sensibilities would not allow us to avail of them. I was quite intrigued with the cart of lettuce, and other veggies. It looked so good and yummy.
Our ride to Trinidad (well, Boca actually which is just south of Trinidad) was uneventful except for many bumps due to the non-existent shocks on the 51 Chevy. There were very few vehicles on the highway but we would see horse and buggy from time to time, many sugar-cane fields and not a single fast-food place like there are along our highways. We stopped about half-way for a bano break and the boys had a quick sandwich. When we arrived, the taxi-driver asked at several doors to find us a place to stay. We wanted two rooms with their own bathrooms. We found them and we met an east-coaster named Erika who was quite eager to get to know us and to talk a blue streak. While the Senora of the Casa made us a roast chicken lunch, we went swimming in the bay across from our rooms. Erika came along and continued to ask intriguing questions and I found myself filling her in on our previous travels because she was very interested.
After a fine lunch, we grabbed a taxi to the big beach, Playa Ancon, and had a very sweet time throwing frisbee,
walking down the beach and when Senor came along to ask if we wanted a drink, I sprung for mojitos for all (perhaps a wee bit extravagant but, sometimes that’s just the way it goes).
When the sun began to go down we grabbed the last taxi for the 10k back to La Boca and sat on the front porch. Next, there was a bit of a sing-song, as it turned out that Erika could sing beautifully with a rich voice and was very talented on guitar. She had won an East Coast Music Award and such. http://erikakulnys.com/
Later, all the young folk went off to the Salsa House in Trinidad for a wild time. We heard them getting in a few hours later and it sounded like they were going to have some stories for us in the morning. Which they did…along the lines of how much rum one can drink before feeling rather sick…and such. And, they enjoyed dancing their legs off!
We spent the days either on the beach at Playa Ancon,
or walking around Trinidad
or hiking in the hills and swimming in small pools near the water falls.
Leo jumped in from a high ledge and it was really cool. I should comment that the second hike was very hard. Walking way down, down, down to get to this pool and waterfall and then up, up, UP to get back to the top where our loyal taxi-driver waited. My heart nearly burst. I couldn’t remember a more challenging hike, even when we trekked for 30 days in Nepal…I had been a lot younger then. That could account for it, I guess. One very good aspect though was that Dean surprised me with a lovely ring for our 25th anniversary, as we sat watching the boys by the waterfall. Doesn’t get any better than that, in my world.
We also ate a lot of really good food in many different establishments. Our Trinidad host, Rebeca, was so sweet to us too. She made us an elaborate breakfast each morning which included tropical fruit and juices, fresh-baked pie and pastries, omelettes, coffee with hot milk and chocolate. She would hug and kiss us regularly, in keeping with her affectionate culture and because we would smile and she could see that we were content. One morning she had Reid in a tight squeeze to her ample breasts. He surfaced saying he thought that was called ‘a motorboat’. We laughed. We breakfasted on her upper terrace and she went up and down the stairs at least a dozen times for us and not allowing us to help. Her granddaughter stole my heart and I gave her little gifts. To return the favour to us, Rebeca gave us a flask of Havana Club and a bottle of red wine. These would have cost her a heck of a lot and were very generous gifts.
In Trinidad, the boys went to the Iberostar Hotel a few times in order to avail themselves of wifi. It wasn’t free but nor was it too expensive. There was also a pool table there which they were able to use a few times. They would also have a cappuccino or a beer while they got their fill of social media and connecting with loved ones back home.
In the blink of an eye, it was time to head back to Havana to prepare for our journey home to Canada. Rebeca’s son would take us back to the big city. Without a word of English, we made our way with him. He was quite a good driver. He charged us a very fair rate for the trip. No English but a lovely persona and a big, quick smile. If you ever go to Trinidad de Cuba and need a place to stay, have the taxi take you to Casa Rebeca on Cienfuegos. Highly recommend!
Back in Havana, we found rooms in Centro, just outside of Old Havana. The landlady was a hurdle and it was apparent that she was a money grabbing opportunist behind her big fake smile. Can’t have the good ones every time, I guess. We walked the streets and looked at art, tasted various beers, Dean got a hair cut, and we tried a variety of restaurants and then it was time to grab a taxi to the airport.
My son and his shipmates walked down the plank and aboard the ship as the Indigenous girl sang a sweet sad song of good-bye. As she beat her skin drum the tears streamed down my face. ‘Come home to us’, I prayed.
Here is the story of my son’s crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on a Tall Ship, The Gulden Leeuw (as pictured above. Photo courtesy of Google Images). My husband, Dean, and I were ever so proud that Leo was selected to go on the ship, but I was also terrified of the whole idea. Anything could happen while crossing the North Atlantic — it was not to be trifled with. I was having out-of-body experiences as I imagined some of the more horrible possibilities, but, strangely, I was also very eager for him to be out there and experiencing it. ‘He will be fine,’ I was told. ‘That ship crosses the Atlantic all the time.’ They said. ‘The Captain will ensure that all is well.’ Meanwhile, my eyebrows moved higher and ever higher up my forehead. It sounds like I am foreshadowing that something bad would happen. Well, there was one big storm in which Leo told us about working in the galley with smashing dishes and flying carrots (yes, carrots), but other than some foggy days and cool temperatures, all went smoothly on the Golden Love, which is how I renamed the ship in my mind.
The morning they cast off, they smudged all present with smoking sage. A well-loved Mi’kmaq Chief approached me and with both hands holding the smudging bowl, kindly offered me the cleansing smoke. I reached out hungrily and pulled it over me. ‘This will help keep him safe, right?’ I thought. Blessings were bestowed by several Chiefs and Elders and best wishes were wished. We were asked to go around the crowd and ensure that every one of the 45 participants were given a hug by someone so that they understood how much we love and cherish them. It was unbelievably touching. But, I continued to check in with myself that this was my son who we were sending off. This was my only, cherished son who was about to sail away ACROSS THE NORTH ATLANTIC. Was I crazy??! Seems that way.
The time came for Leo and his shipmates to walk down the plank and to board the ship. An Indigenous girl sang a hauntingly sweet sad song of good-bye. As she beat her skin drum the tears streamed down my face. ‘Come home to us’, I prayed.
So, here is Leo’s story in a paper for school regarding types of tourism and, in it, he captures the magnitude of the adventure that he successfully undertook. My first guest-writer:
This summer I was involved in a travel project entitled Msit No’Kmaq: All My Relations. It was a travel experience that I applied for in which 45 aboriginal youth sailed across the Atlantic on a tall ship, while being involved in a rigorous sail training program. This crossing took place because of the vessel’s participation in a tall ship race, in which 11 ships race from Halifax to France. A laid-back vacation this was not, as it more closely resembled a work placement at sea, and it involved some of the hardest manual labour to which I have been exposed. I am certainly not complaining, as it was clearly the best and most rewarding trip I have been on.
The goal of the project was to transform the rag tag group of trainees into a somewhat coherent crew, and this was accomplished by putting us to work during daily “watches,” where that segment of the group would be responsible for running the ship. I absolutely loved it. I can admit that hard manual labour has never really appealed to me, and my work ethic when tackling work like that is not ideal. However, the work on the ship was certainly an exception. Although it is hard work, it is so rewarding in the way that you can immediately see the difference your hard work has made towards the betterment of the vessel or the race. In particular, I loved climbing aloft. While once again hard work, the excitement of being so high above everything really augments any feelings of boredom or longing for leisure into something closer to fulfilment and completeness. You look down to see the ship charging through the wake some 100+ feet below you as you hang on for dear life while tightly wrapping the t’gallant in gaskets. The intense heeling of the ship interrupted with violent shaking as she smashes through waves ensures that relaxation is never achieved. But relaxation is not the goal while aloft, even if your aching muscles scream that your bunk is more comfortable. The adrenaline is ever present, even when completing such a mundane task as furling a sail.
Although deep internal reflection sessions while staring into nothingness were never accomplished by me, I learned a great deal about myself during this crossing, and I think some personal development did indeed take place. The nature of living on a tall ship is conducive to reflective thought, the kind that makes you question the path you’ve set for yourself in life. Sailing is one of those pure pursuits. One of those passions that is enticing and exciting in its infancy, amazing and beautiful in its mastery. I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed both ends of the spectrum of sailing while on this voyage. You have the trainees, young men and woman who are taking a leap of faith and trying something completely outside their comfort zone. The beginning of our journey as sailors was raw and unkempt. We threw ourselves into the work and hoped something good would come from it, and of course it did. We kept that ship moving in the right direction, and kept our minds on the right path. We became more and more knowledgeable, skilled, and eager. The thirst for adventure propelled us to reach new heights (literally). On the other hand, there was the crew and captain. Experienced sailors, but many not so experienced at dealing with youth. Experienced or not, they were incredible. The patience, excitement for seeing us learn and grow, the humour, and the deft skill at motivation was beyond anything we could have hoped for. They really made the experience as fantastic as it was. All those pieces fit into the puzzle that made me question what I want out of life. I can say with some certainty that the most important thing I learned about myself is that I want to sail again. I want to be around the incredible and genuine characters that sailing attracts, and I aspire to someday be one of those characters myself.
As this was a trip for indigenous people, there were some cross-cultural difficulties that came up between crew and trainees. There were some instances when crew accidentally said something offensive or derogatory, but I was very impressed by the common understanding of everyone onboard. People were not quick to judge each other, and understood that the vast cultural differences between many people onboard were likely to result in some uncomfortable moments. It was all handled very maturely. There were also cultural differences among the trainees. Some, like me, didn’t really grow up ensconced in their native culture, and many did. I really learned that I haven’t grown up with my indigenous culture nearly as much as I’d like. That was something largely outside of my control, but it still stings. Being a part of this project has really made me appreciate the rich history that I share with these amazing people, while also helping me fill many of the gaps in my knowledge that are present because of my upbringing. I feel proud to be a part of such an incredible people, whose population has had such a rough go. It prides me to see that so many Indigenous young people are so successful.
The destinations we toured were Falmouth and Alderney, UK, plus Le Havre, France and Paris. I can say with near complete certainty that Alderney is the best place I have ever been. If I was asked to sum it up in one word it would be “authentic.” The people, the geography, the history, even the other tourists there were a breath of fresh air. It is a small island in the English Channel, just off France. With a population of only 2,000, the island has a distinct small-town feel. I have never observed a more impressive group of tourists than I saw on the island of Alderney. Because it lacks a major airport of any kind, most people who come to Alderney are sailboat owners. The demographic who sails their own boat through the English Channel are a completely different type of people than a crowd fresh off a cruise ship, or even a passenger plane. I can recount with great fondness interactions with locals and other tourists and remember always enjoying the conversation. Real, genuine people.
I think this relates to some concepts especially the allocentric/psychocentric disparity, as well as respecting the wishes of locals and tourism. Alderney is pushing for higher levels of tourism, and I have to wonder if the locals will be happy if many more people start flooding the gates. The laid-back atmosphere may be lost, which is part of the reason I loved it so much. I can also speak to the presence of attractions as well as hidden gems, and I can say with certainty that I experienced them both.
Of all the travelling I have done, this trip made me feel the least like a conventional tourist. I think that was due to our rather interesting story and mode of transportation, and the immediate excitement and intrigue locals showed when they learned we had just sailed the Atlantic. That feeling of respect was new, and responsible for a completely different travel experience. A generalization I can make from that experience is that the way you arrive to a new spot is somewhat responsible for the way you feel about your time there. I saw many different demographics of tourists during my time abroad, and I can say that the more allocentric crowd really appeals to me over the psychocentric. There just seems to be a greater feeling of authenticity, a feeling that I strive to exhibit myself.
We arrived at the holy river of Hinduism, the Ganges, in Varanasi, India at 4 in the morning. We had been on an all-night converted school bus from Nepal. (see post Namaste, Nepal (age 30) 🙏) We sat on the ancient stone steps and watched in fascination as the pilgrims bathed in the holy black waters. Some of the pilgrims wore long lengths of fabric wound around their sinewy bodies. They methodically performed the rituals and prayers, their lips moving silently as they cupped water in their palms, raised them and poured it over their heads. To my husband Dean and I, at dawn in the incredibly exotic country of India, on the steps of the Ganges, it was out of this world to witness. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not.
From there, we hefted our packs onto our backs and walked up into the crushing crowds of Varanasi to find a place to stay. We had our guide book (remember, there were no cell phones or TripAdvisor back then; this was March 1996) and after about five tries and many exhausting steps, we managed to find a very inexpensive hostel that looked clean and suitable. Once there, we immediately purified some tap water in our Nalgene water bottles using our trusty iodine drops that took thirty minutes to kill off any major critters in the water. This chore would be repeated several times each day, as it was all through Nepal. Before that, in Australia (see post: We’re Not in Canada Anymore…this is Oz (age 28)) we had drank tap water and a fair bit of beer, with no issues.
I should mention here that, although unsavoury to write about, Dean and I had picked up some kind of bowel parasite in Nepal. Likely during the trek when dousing our heads in mountain run-off streams. On a few occasions, I let a bit of water into my mouth. I’m sure Dean had too. Said parasite was doing a serious number on us physically. We were nearly emaciated. I grabbed Dean’s upper arm one day to find my fingers almost wrapping all the way round. Scary. I wasn’t sure how much longer we could backpack – that is how weak we both were getting and with bad stomach cramps. There was also the obvious need to use the toilet a lot and with considerable urgency at times.
Anyhoo, we enjoyed the city, walking around and seeing the sights. We visited markets and bought fruit and nuts from vendors.
We drank many a fine lassi (yogurt and fruit smoothie-type drink). Indians do yogurt incredibly well.
Next, it was time to go visit the majestic Taj Mahal. So, onto a bus we climbed for the eleven hour ride from Varanasi to Agra. It was on this ride that we met an Indian-American family who were visiting India as tourists. They told us many wonderful tips and tricks. One of them was to order ‘the thali’ to eat, and always to eat it with yogurt, as yogurt would cool the palette in case of too much heat or spice.
I just have to say, there was nothing more delicious and satisfying to us than this incredible meal on a stainless-steel tray. Dean and I were overjoyed every meal time to get another chance to eat another thali. We indulged in a thali each at the lunch stop enroute to the Taj. Our Indian-American family joined our table and our education of India continued. It was fascinating. Again, it dawned on me that one of the best things about world travel were the folks we met along the way.
Finally, we reached the outskirts of Agra, where we could now see the Taj in the distance.
But this is what it looked like up close:
This incredible piece of architecture was built between 1632 and 1647 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The Taj Mahal was dedicated to Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It is shrouded in mystery, optical illusions, inset gems and the deaths of its many builders. It is a fascinating place and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
After Agra, we spent a week in New Delhi. We took the train and it was also other-worldly. There are a myriad of ticket classes you can buy, the worst being third class. We were on second class and it was dusty and dirty, but okay. The Indian train system is a marvel of efficiency and engineering. There is a network of over 65,000 km and 7,000 stations. At one point on our ride, the train came into a station where as soon as the train stopped there were scores of vendors selling their wares at the window, all yelling to announce their wares. Everything from safety pins to hankies to tea which is called ‘chai’.
“CHAI! CHAI! CHAI! cried the Chai-wallah, approaching with a large steel bucket of chai and a tray of little clay cups. We each took a cup of the sweet, spicy, milky tea through our window. It was only lukewarm, and went down fast. When we passed the cup back the chai-wallah, he smashed them on the tracks. A split second later, a lower cast man scrambled onto the tracks to collect the pieces. It was explained to us that the collector would sell those pieces back to the potter who would turn them back into little clay cups, and in turn, sell them back to the Chai-wallah.
Suddenly, Dean jumped up and said, “I’ll be right back”. He jumped off the train and, looking out the little window, I saw him over at a take-out window, buying two white boxes of food for us. He ran back and sat down. It was then that I realized I had been holding my breath. If the train had started to leave while Dean was getting the food, we may have never seen each other in India again. Such is the vast and convoluted system of Indian trains. Add that to the magnitude of a population at that time of nearly 1 billion people, and it would have been a needle in a haystack kinda situation. Remembering that we couldn’t just Facebook message each other or text, snapchat or Instagram or what have you. I’m not really sure what we would have done, had we been separated on that train.
In New Delhi, we found a lovely hostel with an internal garden where we rested up and did some reading but also our daily walks around the city streets to see the sights. One day, we walked into a luxury hotel. I shall preface this with the fact that we had just seen several lepers begging on the streets. They were also known as The Untouchables. The jewelry store in the hotel lobby was selling star rubies for thousands of dollars. The patrons of the hotel were wearing gold-threaded saris. The dichotomy of wealth was hard to comprehend.
It was getting to be time to head home to Canada, since our wee parasites were becoming more and more of an issue.
When we got back to our mother land, we had no idea what we would do for employment. And, we couldn’t wait too long because living in Canada is a heck of a lot more expensive than India and funds were dwindling. After some deliberation, we decided to head North again. This time to the bigger centre of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada. We had spent a year in the Arctic prior to traveling (see post North of 66 ~ A Trying Year in Polar River (age 27) ❄️) We organized ourselves and made the cross-Canada trek in our tiny little car, the three-cylinder Chevrolet Sprint (nicknamed “Puny”) that I had bought in Comox, BC, upon acceptance into training for Army Logistics (see post I’m In the Army Now … 🔫).
Upon arrival in Inuvik, some good friends of ours put us up for a few weeks in their house, which was very generous of them. We started looking for work immediately. Within ten days, and some good luck, I had a full-time position as a Receptionist at the most northerly medical clinic in Canada, but then soon thereafter as the general manager. Dean found a job at Aurora College as the Director of Extension Programs. So, really good jobs in very short order.
The funniest thing would happen due to the parasite I still had. As the receptionist in the medical clinic, I would routinely have to lead patients to their examination room. What was happening, in this evolution of the parasite problem, was it was causing me to toot upon movement of my body of any kind. So, I’d be politely speaking to the patients as I walked them to the room and in the ‘back’ground was: toot, toot, toot like a little motor with each step I took. After being truly mortified when it first started, I later just mentally threw up my hands and gave in to the hilarity of it. There was really nothing I could do. I don’t think anyone really noticed anyway. Right?
After our first paycheck, we found an apartment.
Living in the tiny town of Inuvik (7,000 people) after travelling in India (~1 billion people) was like night and day. Dean and I were so blessed to have each other and our friendship, which was strong and had seen many adventures, hardships and blessings already. We stayed in Inuvik for two years until it was time to go South, and we found ourselves Exiting the Arctic ☃️enroute to Toronto, Canada for another chapter.
By the time we reached Boquete, we were done. There had been many legs to this journey from Costa Rica, but at least now we had arrived into the eternal springtime that is Boquete. It was February 2004, our third month of overland travel as we rolled into Boquete in Panama’s Green Mountain Highlands, the nearest city being David.After a few tries, we found a wonderful hostel. We had our own room and bathroom and it was just down the hall from a large, organized, cook-your-own-food kinda set up. There was also a dining room with square tables and brightly-coloured red and green checked oil cloths. The whole place was, clean, organized and well run and the owners were diminutive. They weren’t in our faces, but they made it all happen from behind the scenes.
Across the street there was a large dusty open field where several children would play pick-up soccer matches. Leo, who was four years old, was in heaven. He just wanted to run around and play with the children. We went to the field and played frisbee, a game they had never seen before. My husband Dean and I enjoyed teaching the local children about frisbee. They caught on quickly – very coordinated and fit but, not a word of English. Ricardo and Eddie proudly showed us two tarantulas. They poked at these shy creatures with a piece of hay until their hairy mandibles grasped the hay. Then the children would swing the spider side to side showing us how the tarantula would hold on. Next the boys showed us the spiders’ casas, pointing and saying to us, ‘Casa! Casa!’, which was a hole in the dry ground. The play continued with Leo getting soaked by the water “pistoles”, kicking the soccer ball and throwing the frisbee.
A few easy days passed which saw us walk lazily all over the town of Boquete and explore its various parks and markets. I bought a huge bag of fruit and vegetables, plus pasta, butter, milk, cheese and eggs, all for less than $20.
One day we stopped into a small place to have some supper. It was a couple of hours after eating there that Leo began to vomit. He could keep nothing down, not even little sips of water. The night hours passed in somewhat of a blurr because we were up with him for hours and hours and praying and worrying for him to improve. At one point he was hot to the touch and he began to moan loudly and said’ please help my belly.’ He also screamed with the cramps, burped, vomited and then fell back to sleep. Then he would begin to vomit or wretch again. I began to get pretty worried. In the morning he became listless and I screamed at Dean to get a taxi…NOW! Destination, the medical clinic.
We walked into the clinic, Dean carrying a listless Leo, and within about five minutes, Leo was hooked up to an IV for re-hydration. The local doctor spoke perfect English because he had been away to the States for a work term. He answered all of our questions and re-assured us that Leo would be fine once he was re-hydrated. The nurse came into the room and tucked a hand-stitched quilt tenderly around Leo. I was left wondering if we would have received this level of care in Halifax. Wait, first we would have had to shovel the driveway, drive the 20 minutes to the children’s hospital and then find parking. Then we’d wait in emerg. It would have likely been hours, depending on the triaging at the time of our arrival. Here, it was minutes and we were the only folks in the clinic and they were totally and completely sweet to us. The fee was so small it was negligible. Leo rested and slept with the IV in his arm. When he was awake, we read to him and told him stories. Later that day, we all walked out of there.
Unfortunately, the vomiting continued shortly after we got back to our hostel, so we had a repeat performance at the clinic. Then we took Leo out to a restaurant and ordered him a bowl of soup. He promptly threw up into the soup bowl. After that, we were ‘soup-er‘ careful. He directed what his tummy could handle. It was in Boquete that Leo had his first ever can of pop. Canada Dry Ginger Ale, of course. And, it stayed down. Boquete was also the place where Leo learned to tie his shoes. Add playing with the tarantula and having an IV re-hydration and it was the place of firsts. We will fondly remember Boquete, even though we had a bit of a scare there.
From Panama we made our way back to Costa Rica to catch our fight home to Canada. There were several over-land legs to the journey back and it was bitter sweet as we knew our big four-month adventure had come to an end.
We landed in Toronto and made our way west to visit everyone in Leeford…Eva and family, Amy and family, Mark and family who threw a very large and fun 35th birthday for moi, with tons of balloons and with a big cake, singing and story-telling. We laughed and laughed. At one point I reached into my jeans and pulled out the grey, worn waist band of my underwear to illustrate the struggle of over-land, back-packer-style travel. Everyone smiled and nodded. Now they GOT it! Some had assumed we were resorting the whole time or something (NOT!).
From there we went to Scarborough to stay with Paulie for several days. Leo just LOVED being with his big cousins who indulged him so much. Paulie and I worked on clearing out unneeded stuff so that Paulie and Seth could sell up and move to Leeford. The nearby vertical slum was pushing them out and Dean and I wanted to help them get going.
When 16 to 18, Dad and his new wife Wendy took my little brother, Luke and I, to Florida with them for Christmas break (our older five siblings were all moved out by then). Except for the first year, we drove down, all 2500 km in Dad’s Mercury Zephyr. Yes, there used to be a car called a Zephyr. Dad had a skin-tone coloured one. It was super sexy. Not.
The first year, however, Dad put Luke and I on a Greyhound bus for the forty hour trip. We had to change buses at 2 o’clock in the morning in Detroit, Michigan which is known to be one of the most dangerous cities in the US of A. Let’s face it, Grey Hound bus stations are not usually located in the nicest parts of town. I was 16 and Luke was 13. Dad’s best advice was to use my scarf to tie my purse tight to my body. Luke and I found a seat on the dingy molded plastic chairs and linked arms with eye-balls peeled. We were terrified. Since I am writing this today, I guess we survived the Detroit Bus Station, twice, actually. We were there on the way home too.
Ever organized, we packed this little cooler with things like hard-boiled eggs, fruit, cheese, bread so that we didn’t have to spend much on restaurant stops. All we wanted to do was get off that bus as much as possible and stretch our legs. A long Greyhound ride gets rather ripe, especially after eating one too many hard-boiled eggs. By the time we arrived at Valdosta, Georgia, we were overjoyed to see Palm trees, finally.
When we finally arrived in Fort Myers, we were picked up by our eldest brothers wife, June’s Mother, who’s name is also June (rest in peace), driving a huge caddy and telling us in a thick Southern accent that she would adopt while in Florida for the winter, how very dANgerous it was here: ‘Nevah take out your wallet in pahblic’, she advised. ‘Almost ahveryone has a GUUN so just be caheful’ and then she accelerated to get across a lane of traffic and screamed: ‘HANG ON!!’ June Senior was quite a character. She took us in and fed us (I remember one meal in particular was turkey necks — I had never had a meal of turkey necks before) and made sure we had everything we needed for the couple of days before Dad and Wen arrived and we would move into the motel that Dad had booked from afar.
Luke and I spent many hours on the beach and walking around the town of Fort Myers. We didn’t have much spending money so we would usually have an ice-cream and maybe some fries around lunch time.When we would walk all the way back the couple miles to where we were staying with Dad and Wen. By that time, we were wiped. We had swam, sunbathed, played frisbee plus the walk to and from the beach. Luke would carry his boom box on his shoulder and play music for us all the way.
Sometimes we would eat supper all together or we would go to a very good value All-U-Can-Eat Buffet which are prevalent in Florida. The odd time Dad would say, you kids are on your own, we are going out for supper without you. After supper, Dad would get us into the car and we would drive through the well-to-do neighbourhoods looking at the Christmas lights. It was so strange to see this without snow. Sometimes Dad would take us to some random high school gym to watch basketball. There seemed to always be a basketball game on somewhere and both Luke and I were big fans of the game. Luke could even spin a basketball for a significant length of time on his finger, then bounce it off his knee and back to his finger. In basketball practice with Mr. Laset, ball-handling drills had been highly encouraged. Luke and I would often play hours of 21 in our driveway and when sitting watching a television program, we would often be holding and spinning the ball.
One day, we met this family on the beach. The Bates’. There was a boy my age, a girl one year older and they were from Indiana. We hung out. They were really nice and we loved their accent and they liked ours. They arranged for Luke and I to go out for supper with them at a Mexican restaurant. We had never eaten Mexican food and we were so eager to give it a try. That was a fun night. Especially trying hot sauces and pico de gallo for the first time. The virgin lime margarita was spectacular too. Sour, sweet and salty all at once. I still love margaritas today. We ended up staying over at their house, which was actually their relatives house, in Fort Myers, for the night. Luke and I slept on the couches in the den. I was astounded by their generosity. In fact, I have been astounded at the generosity of Americans again and again when I lived there over the decades. The Bates’ were good people and they liked us. It was a nice feeling. We kept in touch and saw them the next years too.
Wendy found this beach park for us to go explore. No one was there and it was gorgeous. We walked along the sand and found wee little treasures while a very relaxed Dad slept on a towel on the beach. Luke and I jokingly calling him a beached whale, when we were out of earshot. After a good snore, he awoke and sat up with sand all over the side of his face and pine needles in his hair. Oh my, we chuckled. Perhaps he did these things on purpose to get a reaction. I’m still not sure about that.
That pure white-sand crescent-shaped beach was just spectacular and I have always enjoyed, for some reason, the places where few people go, but which are incredible. I have also enjoyed the wondering. The wondering why they are not there.
When it was time to head North, I dreaded it. Going back to the cold, dark North after all this sun, sea and sand. The only cool thing would be showing off our sun-kissed tan skin to all of our pasty white friends.
Those trips to Florida were bittersweet. In one sense it was amazing to be with my little brother, Luke and be on an adventure together down to Florida, especially for three years in a row, making it almost a tradition. Luke and I were very close. In another sense it was tough to be trapped with our parents in a car for several days on a road trip. The travail of teenagers, perhaps?
In the car, Luke and I would be in the back seat finding any reason to laugh hysterically at Dad. Dad had these habits that drove us wild with hilarity. Every so often, he would reach up to daintily scratch his balding pate with just his middle sausage-shaped finger. Next he would be asking Wendy if she wanted to split a black coffee. He would pull into a gas station, struggle into his huge down coat, and pay a quarter for the gut-rot coffee on offer. With a big smile on his face he would come back to the Zephyr with a single styrofoam coffee cup which was barely visible in his large hand. Wendy would hold it. Dad would pull out and get back onto the highway and only then would he take off his huge coat. Every time, while driving and with the three of us helping to get his coat off, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. Another time, we were at some diner in a tiny little town, for some lunch. Dad asked the server a question about her hometown, the very town she had lived in her whole life. The server answers but her answer is not what Dad was expecting. Much to the embarrassment of Luke and I, and as we would have liked to slide off our chairs and hide under the table, Dad says, ‘Honey baby,’ waving his thumb at himself and Wendy, ‘We’re both teachers. You must have your facts mixed up. That can’t be right.‘ Ooookay. There was one thing about Dad. He was not boring and he enjoyed both a good argument and a good adventure, as long as he didn’t have to walk too far. Rest in Peace, Dad.
We trekked for about thirty days in the Himalayas doing the Annapurna Circuit, in an unconventional manner, which will come to light as the story unfolds. To get to the starting point of the trek, we bought a ticket for the bus. Not lucky enough to grab a seat each on the inside of the bus, Dean and I, with our hired guide, Naba, were seated on the roof of the bus. This trek was sure to be interesting, if we could get there in one piece. That bus, that we were on top of, was not driving a straight, smooth roadway. Picture the opposite: a twisty-turny, gravel, crumbling donkey track along the side of a mountain with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet if the bus driver was to make a wrong turn, or get too close to the eroding edge. Not to worry — the horn worked well and seemed to be the sole means of defensive driving techniques employed.
We had flown into Kathmandu late and were immediately wooed by several touts wanting us to take his taxi. We picked one, told him our destination: the Kathmandu Guesthouse and agreed on a price. We fell asleep and in the morning made our way to their breakfast room and ordered our first lassi of the trip which is a blend of yogurt, water, spices and fruit. The server was a sweet and most attentive Nepali man who put his palms together and bowed his head at us, ‘Namaste’. Dean said to me afterward that he was an example of ‘service without servitude’. When we returned to the Guest House after a walk all over Kathmandu and through the fascinating market, the sight we saw was like something out of an old fashioned orphanage. All of the staff of the Guesthouse were in the main lobby. They were fast asleep, lying on straw mats and wrapped in wool blankets like toasty sausage rolls on a baking sheet. If one rolled over, so would they all.
The next evening, we attended a slide show for a river rafting expedition that we thought was too expensive for our budget. This cool group of Westerners with several Nepalese had started a river rafting group which charged $200 US for a five-day expedition on the Kali Gandaki River. After eating several bowls of incredibly delicious, tallow-popped pop-corn and drinking a few of their complimentary rum drinks each, it seemed that we suddenly had enough money to go on this expedition. It was a great decision as we had a blast. We met several other fun and adventurous travelers on the trip too.
This is a group of children we met on the beach who were running and tumbling together. Suddenly, there was a whistle from their mom and off they ran, full tilt UP the mountain. So fit.
Next we went trekking: the Annapurna Circuit hike. Here I am on top of the bus enroute to the starting point of the big trek. From on top of the bus, I asked hubby to buy me a pop (Canadian speak for soda) from a place advertising GOOD FOODING AND LODGING. I liked that sign, although I was feeling rather queasy by that time.
The trek was, of course, amazing. We did about 20 k per day, depending on weather and best stopping places and Tea Houses, which were known to our guide, Naba. We saw incredible beauty all around us.
The trail was often quite rough and sometimes included donkey trains — which were tricky because you had to be sure to get to the inside of the donkey train. They could easily bump you off the trail. That would be bad.
We would see tiny women carrying huge loads of wood on their backs. We even saw a porter carrying an injured person in a chair strapped to his back. Heading to the hospital many tens of kilometers away.
After a week or so, we got into the snow at elevation. This came with the obvious challenges due to the cold and wet and the need to be very careful about stepping properly so as not to slip off the trail or anything. Being Canadian, we are naturally pretty good about understanding the slipperiness of snow, but we were meeting other travelers from non-snow countries, particularly Ozzies and South Americans who were having trouble with it.
We finally made it to Thorung Phedi which sits at a cool 4,538 meters above sea level. This was the jumping off point for the Thorong La Pass with an elevation of 5,416 meters. There was a large group waiting for a clearing in the weather so as to safely set out for the pass. This was February – so, lots of snow. As a group gathered in the smokey dining hall with large tin cans full of smoking coals to warm us under the tables, we decided to leave at 4 a.m. after a breakfast at 3 a.m. There were about a dozen of us: a couple of Swedes, an American, a Japanese girl, a couple of Ozzies, a couple of New Zealanders and a Chinese guy, plus us two Canadians.
With headlamps blazing on some heads, we started up the mountain. Step, breath, step, breath. It was slow and steady. Would we ever get there? After a couple of hours, my hands were frozen. Our guide gave me his mittens which were toasty warm. He just smiled at me gently. He had done this pass many, many times.
We finally made it to a little shack which was at 5,000 meters. The weather worsened. The wind blew colder and stronger. Then ice-pellet snow began to pelt us like tiny sharp knives. We could tell that our attempt at the pass was not going to work today. Even if we could make it over, there was no way we were going to drag these other folks with us, and besides, that, there was six more hours down the other side, before the next village. The American woman with her state-of-the-art Arctic hiking gear and porter went on into the storm, but we turned back and headed down. A week later we met up with some of the folks from the snowy pass attempt. They told us they were waiting on us to decide about whether they would attempt the pass that day or not. ‘Why us?’ we asked. ‘Because you’re Canadian.’ they said. ‘You know snow and weather. If you weren’t going, neither were we.’
So we trekked down to the bottom, re-grouped in Pokhara for a couple of days and then went back up the other side for another ten days. I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in Tatopani. Dean arranged for the baking of a cake for me. I was very surprised and pleased.
After trekking, we decided to head to the Royal Chitwan National Park for a week at sea level and with warmth and sunshine, plus the odd elephant or two.
We met this hilarious traveler who behaved just like Jerry Seinfeld and knew all the funny lines too. So, of course we spent time with him, walking about and telling stories, laughing and being silly.
A comment on the people of Nepal. We have yet to meet a nicer culture, although Cuban would be close. The Nepalese are cheerful, gentle, kind, strong and thoughtful. It was an honour to spend time in their exceptionally beautiful country.
In the summer of 1989, while posted in Lahr, Germany, I was asked to join a marching team as the token female, to head to Holland for the four-day International Nijmegen Marches, which is the largest multi-day marching event in the world. It has happened every year since 1916 to promote sport and fitness. Military participants walk forty kilometers per day for four days in a row, in formation of 20-soldier teams. Almost fifty thousand marchers now walk this walk every year.
At the time, I was a transportation platoon commander in Supply and Transport Company in 4 Service Battalion in the Canadian Army. To put it simply, I had a platoon of 30 soldiers who drove MAN 10-ton trucks which would carry supplies: ammunition, water, rations, various items, and spare parts needed by both forward fighting troops and other support units within the Brigade. During peace time, we conducted training operations such as weapons use, field exercises and fitness competitions to improve morale, esprit-de-corps and to prepare for future deployments. As the Platoon Commander, I routinely conducted all manner of administrative duties, personnel evaluations and reports, test and inspection readiness, subordinate training, orders groups, equipment maintenance checks, and many other duties in accordance with my rank and position. In a field unit, staying physically fit is one of the requirements of the job. Five days per week, we did physical training first thing at 7:30 am. Joining the Nijmegen March team covered the fitness requirement and provided an adventure and a trip to another country, all expenses paid.
A month prior to the event, the march training began. In combat boots and combat uniform, we would form up, two by two in lines and walk for eight to sixteen K out through the German countryside, along farmers fields, river-side pathways and over trails through small woods. Back then, in ’89, there were no ‘devices’ to listen to, other than the odd Walkman, which almost no one had anyway, and nothing like spotify or itunes or podcasts to listen to. Marching in formation was a little bit like torture. The back of one head to stare at and exacting ‘left right’ pace to maintain for the whole two to three hours. Thankfully, there were a few songs we would sing for a while. One soldier knew all the words to ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. You can get anything that you want at Alice’s Restaurant…(by Arlo Guthrie). It was only slightly annoying to listen to it after about the second time, but, well, what could be done? ‘Just take one more step. Now, one more step,’ became my mental litany. Most of the time, I was extremely bored and under-challenged by this walking. Not only that, I couldn’t easily ‘talk it up’ with the soldier beside me because of the need to maintain a professional ‘distance’. Sometimes being a female officer could be both isolating and awkward. It was tough to stay positive and pleasant but that became another litany. Stay positive and pleasant.Just one more step. Stay positive and pleasant. I chalked this training up to good discipline. One could never get enough discipline. Am I right?
We went to Nijmegen by bus. It took about six hours, due North, and when we arrived, there was already a tent city erected by the forward party and we were assigned to our tents and to our cots, within the tents. We were to begin Day 1 at 06:00 the next morning. The route for the four days formed somewhat of a clover leaf out and around the city of Nijmegen. The route wound its way through the Dutch countryside with its green pastures, cows grazing, chickens running, fences diminishing into the distance.
One time, a civilian marcher was playing the bagpipes and low and behold all the cows in the field got curious and began to trot toward the fence to more closely see the man. Thankfully, at the fence, the cows stopped and then just stood and stared, chewing their cud, looking bemused and fluttering their long eyelashes at the bagpiper. Could it be that these ladies thought the bagpiper was a well-hung bull ready to service them? One will never know.
At ten K, twenty K and thirty K marks, we would come upon our unit’s flag and see our kitchen trucks, first aid station, water stations and porta-potties in a field. We were well taken care of. There would be a menu of foods or snacks and drinks for us, including huge schnitzel sandwiches. I don’t think I ever went hungry, not once, while in the Canadian Forces. We would sit on the grass with our plate and drink and rest for twenty minutes before beginning again. One doctor attached to our unit even organized a child’s swimming pool with ice for us to soak our poor feet at the end of the day.
While resting, we could also inspect our feet for the dreaded blisters. I am pleased to report, I didn’t get a single blister. Fortunately, a friend had told me of the wonders of moleskin and how to wrap it over the heel in such a manner as to provide fool-proof protection against blisters. Secondly, Vaseline on and in-between the toes. I now pass this on to anyone I know going on a long walk. My friend Mary recently went for a big hike in Ireland. Her feet were fine due to the moleskin application. Blisters are nothing to sneeze at in a long, multiple day march, hike or walk. Good feet are crucial to the success and comfort of the walk. Bad feet can be debilitating and very painful especially if they also become infected. Game over. On training at CFB Borden called Environmental Specialty Land, which I did just after Nijmegen, our final test of the course was to complete a night march from Stayner, Ontario to the back gate of the Base, about 30 K with packs and rifles. We started at 11:00 pm and we walked all night. Our friend Andy carried a huge boom box up on his shoulders and had it cranked and playing ‘FINAL COUNTDOWN’ by Europe, the whole way. Song finishes. Rewind. Song begins again. We were all very sleep deprived because we had been in and out of the field for weeks, up all night sometimes on missions, patrols and then duties and classes during the day and with no real time to recuperate. Myself, I was literally falling asleep as I walked, while carrying my rifle at the ready. There was this line that they would shout whenever someone was in danger of hitting the deck due to exhaustion: ‘SOLDIER! MAKE SURE YOU HIT THAT DECK BEFORE THAT WEAPON DOES!!!’ Kinda sums it all up, doesn’t it?
Anyway, the Captain of this officer training course was Airborne – an elite group of Infantry. His feet turned to hamburger during this march. He had to get in the first aid truck and be driven to base. Embaaarassing. It wouldn’t have been so bad but he had bragged about what a great and fit soldier he was. Of course, HE didn’t know the secret of the moleskin. Myself, Dean and Nee sure did, and anyone else who cared to be prepared. I had just finished the Nijmegen marches a couple of months prior, so I was fully aware.
Back in Nijmegen, by the time we walked into the camp at the end of the forty K march, we were done. I would soak my feet in ice water for ten minutes, show the good doc the mysterious lump on the top of my foot which may or may not have been a stress fracture, he said. Having eaten at all the stops during the march, I certainly didn’t need more food, so I simply made my way to my tent, tucked my combat boots under my camp cot and fell fast asleep until the next early morning.
We Canadians are very much loved in Holland because our troops liberated the Dutch from the Germans in World War II in 1944. So, anytime we would come across large Dutch civilian marching groups, they would holler and cheer and sometimes sing a song for the Canadians. Weren’t we proud to receive these accolades. We would all smile and wave bashfully and then take one more step. Just one more.
Everyday there would be at least one city to march through. There would be a lot to see and invariably young children would run along side our team for a bit. We would give out those tiny Canada flag pins and then receive a sweet smile, sometimes with missing front teeth. A few times, a tiny warm hand would slip into mine and we would walk together for a few minutes. Priceless memory.
While marching, there would often be other Canadian teams from other units unrelated to ours, except that they were also Canadian and also posted in Germany. For instance, there was an Armored Team, an Infantry Team, a Signals Team and the like. I remember that I so enjoyed when the French Canadian Teams would be near us. They would invariably be singing their old regimental songs which I found to be incredibly moving and haunting. They would often pass us singing these songs in their deep rich voices. Sharp beret with dark-haired head tilted to the ground. Arms swinging. Boots hitting the trail in perfect synchronicity. It was mesmerizing. One song they sang which is about the building of the dam across the Manicouagan River in Quebec, was especially sorrowful. If I try hard, I can still hear their deep voices singing this incredible song by Georges Dor. It is a song of longing and boredom and homesickness.
After the last day, there was a huge party in which a lot of Heineken were quaffed and then, the next morning, we boarded the bus back to Southern Germany.
Nowadays, there are so many folks wanting to participate in the Nijmegen Marches that they have set a limit of forty-seven thousand marchers per year. Doing this march was an honour and is a fond memory.
(All photos courtesy of google images — I would have loved to have some of my own photos but I didn’t own a camera back then and there were no smart phones either.)
I arrived in the Bahamas and caught the wee boat over to Paradise Island but only after a tall cold Kalik from a little place on the dock.I was heading into my second turn at thirty days of certain austerity. Surely I could have one last beer? This was five hundred hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Training or ATTC at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. (I had completed the 200 hour teacher training course or TTC the previous year).
The Sivananda Yoga Retreat is situated on five slowly eroding acres on the tiny Paradise Island which is just a couple of minutes across the water from Nassau. The ashram enjoys two waterfronts, the South side facing Nassau and the North side facing the Atlantic. Over to the East is the huge resort of Atlantis and to the West, a few private properties.
There were about three hundred people at the ashram for the two months I was there (Dec 2013 and Jan 2015) and the whole place was run by about six monks, a dozen disciples, a few dozen volunteers, guest instructors and local staff who were mainly cleaning staff. The volunteers did an amazing job when one considered all of the work involved in running a business of that size.
So for the yoga teacher training we had a tough schedule:
4:30 wake up
5:00 Pranayama (advanced breathing techniques)
6:30 Chanting (or once per week meditative beach walk and chanting)
7:00 Inspirational Speaker
9:00 Asana Practise (Yoga)
10:00 – 12:00 Brunch* Satvic vegetarian (no eggs, no mushrooms, no onions, no garlic, no caffeine)
6:00 Dinner* Satvic vegetarian (no eggs, no mushrooms, no onions, no garlic, no caffeine, no alcohol)
9:00 Inspirational Speaker
10:00 Lights out (often, the speaker went late and so lights out was really more like 10:30)
When I showed my teenage son, Leo, the schedule his one remark was: ‘That advanced breathing techniques must have been tough, eh Mom?’ Actually, the morning pranayama was likely my favorite thing, as well as learning to read and write Sanskrit. Yoga asana was also very enjoyable but, the vedanta teaching and raja yoga were barely tolerable. A lot of it was very hard for me to grasp as I am more of a concrete person. Anatomy was interesting but, did I really need to study exclusively the Central Nervous System to be a yoga teacher??! How about a few hours on say, the spine?
We were up at 4:30 for the full thirty days (The previous year, for 200-hour teacher training, we awoke at 5:30 and did not have pranayama practice). On Friday’s we were given a few hours off in the middle of the day. It was my time to walk way down the beach and then to do laundry, shower and a concentrated effort at home-work.
Pranayama practice took place in the dark on a deck by the bay. The water lapping at the deck footings and the breeze off the bay lent the experience a surreal quality. We lined up our mats along the edges of the dark platform and sat cross-legged, facing in, forming a large u-shape. Our teacher stood at the opening of the U and guided us through the seven types of pranayama for an hour. It was completely rhythmical and meditative bringing a
deep sense of relaxation, wellness and calm. The only trouble was, at the end of the hour we were hastily dismissed and had to tear off, silently, to the temple for morning satsang.
Satsang started with thirty minutes of silent meditation, sitting cross-legged on the large garden platform which had been transformed into a temporary temple due to the large numbers at the ashram (a couple of dozen yogis sat in chairs due to various injuries. I myself sat in a chair due to my army-worn knees which would pain badly after about 20 minutes of cross-legged sitting. How I envied the knees of the younger yogis). Chanting took up after meditation and was wonderful especially when it came to twice daily Jaya Ganesha which was fun and musical and small instruments were passed around to make it even more so: bells, tambourines, small bongos and shakers. Now, all of this was taking place before breakfast, so again, there was this lazy kinda of dream-like quality to it.
The inspirational speaker was usually fairly boring and I got the feeling that they really enjoyed hearing themselves speak. The swami who spoke for two solid hours per night for several nights in a row about the Bhagavad gita had us nearly crying in boredom. It was literally painful to be that tired and to have to try to listen to her monotonic voice. She did not once check in with her audience. It was astounding. A few times over the two months I was there, there was actually a very interesting talk regarding something that I cared to listen to. Otherwise, I would usually just zone out and slip back into that meditative state. The best speaker for me was the one about sleep and the importance of dreaming as well as the one about sound healing. At the end of the sound healing talk, we were asked to close our eyes while several helpers floated around with tuning forks humming and waved them over and around our heads to encourage the healing of whatever may be ailing us, physically, spiritually or emotionally. It was a mystical experience.
The ashram experience was riddled with dichotomous occurrences. I will attempt to explain here:
Compostable Waste: a huge amount of food waste was hauled away daily. Two or three huge barrels of wasted food. Why not compost it or at least ask those at the ashram to take less food. How about stopping the use of trays. People take more food than necessary if given a tray. Apparently they tried composting the food waste but it caused a rat problem so they stopped. So, at least ask people to take less. I saw people loading up their trays and then throwing a third of the food away. Another reason for loading up was the two meals a day routine. People were VERY hungry come brunch at 10 and supper at 6. Food waste has always been a sore point for me, raised the way we were. Mom taught us to not waste precious food. So, simply get rid of trays. Fill a plate, then come back for more, if necessary. One of the inspirational speakers did a talk about wasted food. But, nothing changed. It was weird. Hire a speaker. All sit and listen, nodding, ask questions, applaud…then….do NOTHING differently.
Plastic Bottles of Water on the temple. This confused me every time I looked at it. There was fresh water available at a filtered tap for everyone in the ashram and it was located just a few steps from the temple. There were temple workers who kept everything perfect in the temple. How much effort would it have been to fill a nice refillable glass bottle or jug and glass for the temple? To watch the volunteers off-loading cases and cases of water in plastic bottles for the monks in the temple was just ridiculous. This could be improved easily and help save our plastic-choked oceans.
High-fructose Corn Syrup Products like Skippy peanut butter and crap jam was being served to us in the meal hall at brunch. That’s fine and good but let me get this straight, we were not allowed to have (gasp) eggs, mushrooms, onions or garlic BECAUSE WE WERE ON A SATVIC (clean) DIET, BUT HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP is ALLOWED????!!!I’m sorry. That’s just wrong. One of my classmate yogis stood up and informed us of this because he had been helping to offload the supplies. We would not have known about the poor quality peanut butter and jam because it was dispensed daily into huge bowls. The brands and ingredients were hidden from us. This just seems like a pure business decision. These products were obviously cheaper than the better quality more pure equivalents like the peanut-only peanut butter and the fruit-only jam. My beef here is that if you’re going to spout a SATVIC (clean / yogi) diet. Make it ALL satvic. Don’t demonize harmless God-given, Earth grown mushrooms, onions, garlic and eggs.
Beach platform there were several large platforms around the ashram but the best and most coveted platform was the beach one. It is ironic that the marketing photo of the Yoga Teacher Training Class in yellow and white uniforms above was taken on the beach platform BECAUSE FOR THIRTY DAYS OF TWICE DAILY CLASSES, WE DID NOT ONCE HAVE YOGA ON THE BEACH PLATFORM FOR OUR CLASS OF ATTC students even when we repeatedly requested it. Our classes took place in the forest or on the Bay platforms. The beach platform was ALWAYS saved for yoga classes for guests, not for paying Yoga Teacher Training students. Hmmm. That was a piss-off because when I decided to do Sivananda Teacher Training, I saw the marketing photos and wanted my classes on the Beach platform, just like the photo. It is lovely to do yoga while looking out to the horizon over the sea. And, by the way, the fee for our month-long program was not inexpensive. We too, albeit yoga teacher training students, were paying customers.
Light Pollution at Night lighting around the ashram should be on timers and / or on motion detectors. There were many lights left on all over the ashram, all night long and for those in tents, it must have been impossible to sleep. In my bunk, I used a dark cloth to form a curtain to block the light. But here’s the thing. One of our inspirational speakers spoke about the menace of light at night and how it can interrupts sleep cycles, hormonal release and production especially of melatonin. Again, nothing was done.
So, after twenty-nine days of our strict schedule, we were given a three hour written exam on the final day. I had studied hard for my exam, in every spare moment allotted. And you may be getting it that there is a lot more to yoga than just stretching and contorting. In fact, there are volumes and volumes of ancient teachings on yoga. From my text: Yoga is the process of uniting the individual soul with the Universal Soul. Yoga is also the state in which the activities of the mind are restrained. In a nutshell yoga is really about quieting the mind (chitta-vritti-nirodhah) for meditation in order to one day become fully realized but, only after ages of study (jalna yoga) and devotion (bahkti yoga) asana practice (raja yoga) as well as karma yoga (selfless service). I was never a scholar, so some of the material, like: What are the six orthodox heads of the Sanskrit literature? or What is the Sakshi Bhav method of Vedantic meditation? came down to straight memorization.
After morning pranayama on the Bay Platform, we were offered a light breakfast with an open lunch time promised after our exam. I wrote my heart out and was somewhat pleased with myself that I was the second person finished. I re-read it and re-read it again then handed it in and walked over to the kitchen. The first guy finished immediately started asking me about my experience on the exam. He asked me: Morgan, what did you think of the anatomy questions? I stopped eating, my food mid-way down my throat.
Oh my god. I didn’t have an anatomy section!!! OH MY GOD. I somehow FORGOT to do the anatomy section. But wait, I had re-read the exam and re-read it again. There was NO anatomy section on my exam.
So, reader, you may be wondering why I was panicking so much over this. Well, I had worked really hard for thirty days of austerity and spirituality. I did not want to finish this with the PARTICIPANT Certificate. I wanted the full 500 hour Yoga Certificate. Yoga Acharya. Call me crazy, but I wanted to finish with the full designation, and, it wasn’t my fault that a page of my exam was left out.
I ran to find the teacher of anatomy and report this error. There was no way I was going to just keep quiet about it. Better to tell them. I found Isaiah in one of the nearby buildings and with pale face and furiously beating heart, told him what had happened. He said, okay, stay around here. I will speak to Swami B about it and let you know what he says. Four hours later, he still had not told me what was going on. My hands were visibly shaking now. I read in the central garden and I helped in the kitchen. Finally my Asana teacher found me and told me, All is well Morgan. I was there when the Swami marked your exam, he said it was very strong. You can go now. All is well.
So, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and went for a long walk way down the beach and into and around the Atlantis Resort, which, by the way, was like walking around Mars in it’s opulence. I looked at the price tag on a simple summer dress in the boutique: $5000 U.S. I looked down at my simple skirt and cotton blouse. No comment.
When I came back to the ashram, I helped again in the kitchen and then one of the younger disciples came up behind me and said, Are you Morgan?You need to go see Isaiah, he was looking for you earlier.
What the hell. Oh my god. This wasn’t over yet at all. My heart started to race. It had been a long, stressful day.
I found Isaiah and he told me he would test me orally on Anatomy. I was to meet him in the south garden at 7 pm.
I was basically a basket case by this time. I looked over my notes but my eyes were blurry and my pulse was all over the map. From my learning about the Central Nervous System, the very topic I was to be tested on, I knew that I was having a stress response. And, that is pretty much all I knew. Ironic. Consequently, the oral test did not go well. I could barely remember my name let alone the parts of the cell, nerve and brain. In fact, I had one nerve left and it was frazzled.
Finally, the oral test was done and I was free to go to my room and prepare for graduation. First, I asked Isaiah if I had passed. He said he wasn’t allowed to tell me. Wonderful. You may be getting a feel for just how torn I was about this place by now.
As it turns out, I passed and Isaiah apologized to me. He said that the mistake was theirs and that I should not have had to be tested on Anatomy. Thanks a pant load, Isaiah.
Now I couldn’t wait to get home to wintery Nova Scotia and just chill and have my own time to do what I liked. It’s funny, I went away to a yoga retreat to do something that most people would think of as relaxing. A month at a tropical beach-side ashram (I swam twice in the month I was there) to learn something I was already pretty good at. Most of the time I was there, though, I was stressed, and I wasn’t the only one. My roommates complained about the scheduling a lot. They were not getting enough sleep and they were very over tired. People were always falling asleep during Satsang and lectures. During yoga classes (asanas) several yogi classmates would lay in sivasana (corpse pose – laying flat on their backs on their mats) for the whole class, sleeping. Every part of the day had Attendance takers for arrival and dismissal of the section of the day. Too many lates or abscesses and the disciple in charge of discipline would speak to you. One could even be sent home for too little discipline. The first time I was at the ashram, in December 2013, a young woman had taken to walking around the ashram during part of the Satsangs because the Hindu teaching confused her as she was of a different faith. She was sent home.
Uniforms were to be worn for most parts of the day, as seen in the photo: white pants and yellow t-shirt. We had two uniforms and only a few machines for laundry to share amoung 300 people. A slight problem for getting laundry done.
Before arrival at the ashram, I had asked for a Doctor’s note about my mental illness (I am Bipolar 1). I was worried about sleep deprivation and its effects. Sleeping from 10:30 – 4:30 was just not enough sleep for me. My doctor insisted that I get at least seven hours per night or eight if possible. So, I had a get out of jail free card for the final speaker at Satsang every night. BONUS. My roommates understood and I was honest with them about how bad it could get if I had an episode but, it was hard on them because of the perceived favourtism I had arranged for myself. At this time, I was managing my bipolar disorder with lifestyle. I was not on meds (which I know now was a very large risk and, with Bipolar 1, was actually stupid). So, one day, early in the month of the second time I was there, one of the disciples confronted me on my leaving of Satsang at 9:00 every night. He asked me if it was truly necessary. I asked him if he wanted me to contradict my doctor’s instructions. That shut him up. I left Satsang at 9:00 every night.
So, yes, I was happy to have completed the 500 hour advanced yoga teacher training course but, I am really not sure if I could recommend it to anyone. It would be best to go into it knowing all the seeming weirdnesses. One more thing, it was slightly cult-ish. What do I mean by that? Well, it seemed that with all the strict rules around little sleep and with feeling hungry all the time and then attending teachings twice per day as well as the chanting and such, I would worry that some poor souls would be pulled a little too far into the vortex of Sivananda. I personally met and spoke to several full-time, somewhat tight-lipped and therefore mysterious volunteers (karma yogis) who DO NOT GET PAID to stay there and perform their trade or profession (like marketing and videography) for months and years at a time. Ooookay. You gotta ask yourself, where are the revenues going? They are definitely NOT going into salaries or peanut-only peanut butter or fruit-only jam or washing machines.
But, even with all the inconsistencies of this ashram, I will always love yoga and will always have it in my life. I will always invite people to join in yoga because it is a wonderful practice which brings calm, wellness and peace.
On that note, here below is a pumpkin person exploring dancer pose in order to bring you a smile…Namaste.
At eight months pregnant, my friend Nancy asked me if wanted to go on a road trip with her to her hometown of Virginia Beach from Leesburg, some four and a half hours away. It was summertime, her two girls were out of school and she wanted to take them down to see their grandparents. We piled into her SUV with snacks and a cooler of drinks, including my ever present bottle of prune juice. You see, at that time, I had been told that one of the keys to a healthy pregnancy was to ensure a daily movement…of… well, the bowels. Always a sucker for health tips, I grasped onto said tip and sure enough, I would have a glass of cool prune juice every morning of my 270 day pregnancy term (I haven’t touched it again, since). Keeping that in mind, when I awoke on the second day of our trip and being out of routine, forgot to take my beloved prune juice, I was more than a little worried by mid-morning when nothing had, as of yet, moved.
Nancy was a nurse. She understood my worry. She asked her youngest daughter, Kerry, to bring me a glass of prune juice. We were seated on the patio, just taking a break after a stroll around the neighbourhood. Out comes eight-year old Kerry with quite a large glass of prune juice. Where I would normally have about four ounces, this was more like ten. Feeling rather touched to be served, I graciously accepted Kerry’s offering and, what the hell, drank it down, hearing Mom’s voice in my head: Waste not, want not, Morgan.
Not long thereafter, Nancy offered to take all of us for a walk on Virginia Beach, about 20 minutes away. We again all got into her vehicle and off we went. Nancy was pointing things out all the way with a look of nostalgia on her face: there was her old school; her old shopping area; her old hangout; her old favorite fast-food joint; her friend’s house. I could feel the vibes of her memories and could almost see a youthful Nancy running along beside us as we slowly toured the neighourhood.
Onto the highway next and up the ramp and over the bridge. Suddenly, my bowels started to feel odd. I must be imaging it, I thought. Everything is fine. Everything is fine, I thought. Next, out seeped a silent but deadly one with the automatic instantaneous human reactions: windows rolled down; four noses into the clean wind; worried eyes; hands over mouths. Sorry, sorry. I seem to be having a reaction to something. I told Nancy and the girls.
My guts churned and roiled and tiny stink-bomb expulsions continued. A few miles later I was bent in two holding my very pregnant middle. Which was difficult in itself. It was like bending over at basketball.
Oh my god Nancy, I have take a dump right now!!!
Nancy told me to hang in there and to let her know when it was a true emergency. She clearly did not understand. My pants would be soiled in a matter of minutes if I didn’t get out of the vehicle and onto a toilet. All I could see out the windows though, was a guard rail and what looked to be a fairly seedy area of the city.
This is truly an emergency, Nancy. I see an Arby’s. Can we go in there?
By this time I wasn’t talking very clearly because I had every part of my anatomy CLENCHED.
Nancy said, Morgan, that’s a really bad part of town. Are you sure?
Yes, Nancy. Hurry!
Nancy pulled in and out I got, walking funny into the Arby’s due to my full-body CLENCH coupled with my huge baby belly. I found the Lady’s room which was just inside the door. In I went and closed and latched the door. Maternity pants down and onto the cool toilet seat. What happened next was not pretty. A bomb went off into that toilet bowl. At that point, the couple of other ladies who had been in the bathroom, made a hasty departure with an OH MY GOD, just outside the door. I can hear you. I thought. Whatever, I had to get this out.
I was on the toilet for a few more minutes and was feeling a whole heck of a lot better. Washing well then waddling out of the Arby’s, there was Nancy with wild eyes, her driver’s window cracked open pushing coins out to a Rastafarian-looking guy who was obviously quite down on his luck. Jenny unlocked my door and I hopped in and off we went to the beach as if nothing had ever happened.