Sunday, November 22, 2009

La mejor boda de mi vida

Colombia may not be the first place that springs to mind when you think vacation spot. I just returned from a wedding in Bogota: it was a fairytale do. In all the photos everyone is smiling. Bride and groom are obviously crazy about each other, besides being good friends and good-looking. Colombians are passionate about their country and welcome you with friendly smiles and fantastic service. Picture choreographed, white-gloved waiters swooping on your table, each bearing a wide platter of the best things Colombian cuisine has to offer--mouth-watering steaks, colourful salads, strange but sumptuous fruit. A forest of sparkling crystal on the white linen, choices of smooth wines, some of the world's best. Good friends, good families, two cultures blending in celebration.

It's easy to be a millionaire in Colombia: 1800 Colombian pesos equals one dollar U.S., but things aren't cheap in the tourist areas. Taxis are great value for money. We spent an hour in a comfortable van in the traffic of rush hour, leaving the city for the airport. It cost about $14 US, not counting the tip. No meter, just a number on the dial, corresponding to a fare on a card displayed in front of the passenger. No hassle, no argument, and cheap.

Not well organized for photography, though. Armed guards are universal; two-thirds of the country seems to be employed in security--as police, army or in the large and thriving private security forces. Photographing almost anything is "Prohibido", although the locals seem to be quite happy to have their picture taken, responding to a query with a smile and a thumbs-up. A large (SLR) camera is dangerous, peligroso, we were told several times, a caution reinforced with tales of muggings at knife-point. Some of our party had invested in little inconspicuous cameras to avoid attracting attention. I wore a very modest gold chain round my neck and was warned to take it off.

But it's muy simpatico, and I look forward to returning before too long.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Last one out, turn off the lights.

The new-ish Visitor Centre at Massena's Moses-Saunders Power Dam is deserted, the desk manned by three bored students busy with their homework. Inside, a big display trumpets the benefits of cheap power for local industries: Kraft Foods: Going, going, gone, at least in Canada; can the US be far behind, especially since demand for dairy produce is falling? Paper mills: closed. GM Powertrain, source of half of Massena's "nobility": closed. Alcoa, source of the other half of Massena's "princes": now reduced to job-sharing.

Check out the nearby mega-mall: most of the Food Court is shuttered, and perhaps half the stores. At first, efforts were made to camouflage the empty sockets. Now it's just white-painted sheets of plywood. It's a place where the newly-unemployed and single moms hang out, and--on Fridays--roving gangs of teenagers, causing timid seniors to avoid it.

How many ships traverse the Seaway, once a promise of plenty for the North Country? Two, three a day? Historical photos show the local area humming with the construction of the Seaway. It was all downhill from then on. Won't be long before the weeds take over. The visitor centres will quietly close--no more money to employ the mayor's daughter behind the desk. And there'll be no money to mow the parks, either, if it's a toss-up between funding social programs and gardening. And what of the giant "palaces" in Massena's Mortgage Hill? How will the owners pay the heat, light and taxes if they're unemployed? I notice the Hummers are being replaced by pickup trucks, too. We're living on thin air.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Massena NY has an enormous new Customs/Immigration facility, of a size that makes you instantly suspicious, like the vast airport on Grenada that Castro built. (That had berms to protect it from view, a runway that would pave the Sahara and eleven huge hangars, "all for tourists").

Usually you pull up with a canoe and they ask where you're going with it, but this time they were promoting form I-68. I don't know if it was a sales drive, or whether they were running a book on who could persuade the most suckers that it was exactly what you needed to navigate US waters.

We pulled over and passed the agent our truck keys. Once inside we parted with $16 US apiece, filled out a fairly comprehensive form, planted our index fingers on the screen and submitted to a little fish-eye photo. All this for an afternoon's canoeing in Waddington.

We thought we'd save time, having arrived once before at the video check-in on the dock there and hung around for 45 minutes while the agents on the other end conferred among themselves as to what to do with a small canoe. ("Ummm...where's Iroquois?"). This afternoon took an hour, eating away at precious daylight we needed to cross to Ogden Island and set up camp. And I'm still none the wiser as to what it's for, and I suspect the INS agents aren't too sure either. You can't cross into Canadian waters and come back to the States. No, wait. You mustn't come into contact with any other US vessel (or is that Canadian?). All very Monty Python.

And such a waste of time. At the dock in Waddington was a Canadian couple in a modest little runabout power boat. They'd come ashore to do a little shopping for beer and smokes ("So much cheaper over here!"). They loaded up, big-time, and pushed off for home on the Canadian side. No checking with customs--and they'd never heard of the I-68. Some things just violate the KISS principle, and the I-68 is one of them.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Catching my breath.

Don't tell me it's been six months since I visited this page. Too busy living, or what.
Canoeing, camping, driving around exploring rural Ontario. Cooking, visiting, making new friends. Painting, writing, travelling to the Maritimes by train. I'm breathless, already.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Loaves and fishes

Kathleen died last Sunday. We had a hard time getting our heads round it; on Thursday she'd travelled to Ottawa for knee replacement surgery. She and Bill, her husband, seemed to shrug off the serious nature of the operation, optimistic that Kathleen would soon be up and around, if a little sore.

The tricky part of this operation comes after the patient's wheeled back to Recovery; the tourniquet's off, and the raw bone ends and interrupted ligaments and tissues start to lose blood in earnest. Often these patients are older, with compromised heart or brain circulations that don't tolerate bumpy patches in their blood and oxygen supply. Kathleen was one of these; a day or two after surgery she suffered a stroke from which she never recovered.

Kathleen was truly a queen. A retired teacher and mother of nine children, she impacted many lives, especially since she and Bill reached out to many in the community, volunteering with her church women's group, Meals on Wheels, the Agape centre soup kitchen and chauffeuring for the local Seniors' Support Centre. All this when she could so easily have been taking it easy after a life of toil and dedication; after all, she'd reached her early eighties.

Her extended family crowded the front half of our village church: fine upstanding people, adults and children alike all neatly turned out and respectfully dressed mostly in black; not a pair of blue jeans to be seen. There wasn't an inch to squeeze yourself into if you'd arrived just on time: spare chairs had been brought in and people were huddled standing at the back, overflowing into the church hall. The singing was sweet and tender.

Immediately afterwards the women's group served a lunch for Kathleen's family and friends. A dense press of over three hundred mourners filled the hall; how to cater for this group at short notice? The little community didn't let Kathleen down. She who had spent her life conjuring up feasts for her extended family at every holiday and gathering, and whose baking was a thing of legend, would have been proud. Gifts of food from volunteers poured in: sandwiches, cakes, squares, fruit, vegetable, dips, pickles, tea and coffee. Even as the reception was in full swing, men and women slipped into the kitchen with freshly-prepared food from home. Volunteers worked the hall, making sure that plates were filled and cups refreshed, calling out orders for more sandwiches, or fresh coffee. There was even plenty of food left over for the family to take home to serve visitors.

The last guests straggled home. Volunteers cleaned up and tidied the kitchen and hall to Kathleen's high standards. It became achingly quiet and empty. Already we miss her; Kathleen was one of a kind: irreplaceable.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

St. Lawrence

When I first clapped eyes on the St. Lawrence, that sunny morning years ago, I was struck by its blueness, the sheer size and might of it. My life since then has been twined around it: canoeing, tent-camping, swimming, diving. Sometimes, especially in winter, when it's un-navigable, I listen to the growl and scream of shifting ice, the twitter of the ice plates along the shoreline and the chime of the swaying willow branches laden with glittering pendants of ice.

There's so much lying beneath the surface: the remains of the Lost Villages and hundreds of wrecks, which make it a paradise for sport divers. Zebra mussels are an ill wind: they have made the St. Lawrence clearer, better than the thin pea-soup that it once was. In addition divers now ride jet-propelled drives, which means less air expended in fighting the current, and fewer clouds of silt kicked up.

My favourite spot was the wreck of the Lilly Parsons (take a peek at: She's a beautiful, clinker-built wooden coal ship that went down in 1877 and lies upside-down in the Brockville Narrows underneath the shipping lane, her keel arching up towards the sunlight. The current alongside is fierce, whipping the guide rope into vibrations like a plucked guitar string. Around her lies scattered coal, which will still burn even after so many years in the dark depths, though with a foul sulphur smell.

I wonder if the little moray eel still lives in the wreck, or whether generations of divers have scared it away...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Seeing double, thinking single.

"Jim Brownell's Free Picnic", the wheel-up sign proclaimed beside Highway 2. Jim is our local Liberal MPP; from the number of times I've seen him attending local events from ribbon-cutting to church suppers I can confidently reveal that the man has the ability, like Padre Pio, to appear in more than one location at once, unless he has a body double. He's been at Queen's Park for several years now, but has managed to hang on to a guileless, open face and quick smile. The waistline creep tells another story, of the stress and busy-ness of the job. Jim has done a lot of good for our struggling area, which is why, apart from being a Liberal anyway, I vote for him.

Guy Lauzon is our MP in Ottawa. The thing about having this small rural riding as your turf is that you know you're not going to rise to your feet in the House of Commons and have the attention of the world riveted upon you. You may as well devote your time to improving the lives of the ordinary people in your riding, which is what Guy does. I vote for him in the Federal Elections, though he's a Tory.

When I let slip this convoluted logic to my elder daughter she was aghast, as though I'd confessed to running a cat-house for these past few years. "Typical bloody Boomer," she sneered. "Talking Liberal and voting Conservative." She filled me in on the evils of Stephen Harper, who is not regarded as Calgary's favourite son. (Where have I been? I must have had my head in a bag.) I'd always thought he was too cozy with the US; one morning we're going to pull back the curtains and see that Lake Ontario has been piped down to Arizona, so they can squander it on artificial lakes for their golf-courses, in 45*c desert heat. Or all of BC's water has been siphoned away to fill the swimming-pools and wash the cars of Californians.

"Check out 'Security and Prosperity'" she said. "There's a whole body of negotiations going on without the public's knowledge or input."

Water is the new oil. Will the US one day be parachuting troops in to "restore peace" in Canada, seeing as we're such a terrorist threat?

Guess I'll not be voting Conservative, then.