Lessons from the Snowman & 7-Year-Old

If warp speed is real, then we hit it. A thousand freezing needles stung our cheeks as tears swamped our eyes. The screams grew louder until we realized it was us. When finally crunching to a sudden stop on the sand-strewn rubber mat we sat frozen in place for a second or so until I groaned, rolled, and pulled myself to my knees. I wiped my face and stretched to realign tingling vertebrae. She, on the other hand, bounded up, leapt before me, and with wide-eyed, adrenaline fuelled, fist-clenched, unbridled joy squealed, “Let’s go again!”

“Sure,” I said. What else could I say? Quebec City’s toboggan slide, on the boardwalk – the Dufferin Terrace – adjacent to the majestic Château Frontenac, has been thrilling riders for over 100 years. Speeds have been reportedly clocked at over 70 miles an hour. I believe it.

She flopped atop the 10-foot solid-as-a-rock wooden toboggan with the thin red padding and we began the long haul back to the top. At the wooden ascending ramp, she moved in front and we trudged up and up and up. With the toboggan’s red rope around my waist, I measured each footfall on the cross pieces that resembled hockey sticks and presented no guarantee of a Wile E. Coyote slip and tumble back to the bottom, taking all those behind with me.

The summit offered a 10-by-10 wooden platform and spectacular view. The gigantic sky was cloudless and brilliantly blue and yet the St. Lawrence so far below morphed the sight to black and white. Only the Lévis ferry, gleaming white in the bright sun, broke the grey, pulsating river choked with chunks of gliding ice floes all disappearing at the horizon’s vanishing point.

The blissful moment ended with a French instruction grunted and tickets taken. We assembled ourselves on the long toboggan in the narrow centre lane. A thin metal bar blocked the bow while I adjusted my legs to flank hers, propped my boots upfront, and settled my arms over her shoulders to hold her in place. There would be no flopping about with possible injury on rough barriers that demarked the lanes, nearly touched us, and would soon be whirring by. A word in French, a dropped bar, and we were off. Warp speed.

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Canadian winters are not for the meek. Quebec City winters are especially harsh with mountains of snow and biting winds that whistle relentlessly up the river valley. Rather than deny winter, however, long ago the good folks of the fine city decided to welcome its challenge and revel in its glory. Observed every few years since 1894 but annually since 1955, the Quebec Winter Carnival is a three-week marvel.

A multi-room ice castle is built across the street from the magnificent, gothic National Assembly building. Nearby, the Plains of Abraham, where in 1759 the British defeated the French in a battle that still shapes Canada, hosts a festival of activities. What is best of all is that except for one crazy ride and a Ferris wheel, nothing is passive. There is no sitting down or strapping in and no watching others or screens. Instead, there is human foosball that had us playing, kicking, and cheering, dog sledding that had me leaning into turns behind the scurrying, yelping team, and hills where we dragged inner tubes and sleds back to the top to slide down again.

Forget other cities with subterranean sidewalks and malls and the hatless, silly-shod fashionable but freezing. Quebec City lives life outside with big boots, bigger coats, and even bigger toques. Forget delicate lunches in elegant settings. There are crepes, poutine, tourtiere, and stew, and then a line of maple syrup poured on a snow wall to be twirled around a tongue depressor for the sweetest and most Canadian of snacks. This is a place for practical people, enjoying unpretentious fare, and active, participatory fun. In Quebec City, low temperatures spark high spirits.

Our travelling companion was our energetic, witty, and always in the moment granddaughter who enabled us to see it all through the eyes and at the pace of a seven-year-old. Beyond the gift of her company and warm certainty of memories being forged and bonds being strengthened, she reminded us of the beauty of wonder. Her grade two French immersion allowed her to befriend a little girl in the hotel pool in a meeting of gentle sincerity. Absent were the false dichotomies of region, language, and religion, and in their place the essence of innocence.

The casual but intrepid way in which she tested her blood sugar level several times a day and accepted the insulin needle in restaurants, the hotel, and other places around town including a big police vehicle that an officer kindly offered, reminded us of her quiet courage. Type One diabetes is part of who she is. It does not and will never define her.

And then there is Bonhomme. The 7-foot tall snowman is not a mascot but an ambassador. He moves throughout the city in his traditional red hat and voyageur arrow sash welcoming guests and attracting crowds who swarm for pictures. Seldom is anyone alone with Bonhomme. Our granddaughter, however, watched, figured it out, devised a plan, and at just the right second, slid quickly from behind. His red-coated handler bellowed laughter at her cleverness and temerity. The snowman and 7-year-old exchanged a few thoughts in French and posed, just the two of them.

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And at that special moment, a second in time, there was the symbol of the Quebec Winter Carnival: traditional and corny, fun and funny, retro-cool and cold, and as Canadian as you can get. And smiling with him, the little girl who remains our most profound teacher, reminding us to be in the moment, accept difference without judgement, be courageous in adversity, remember what matters, to seek fun, love goofiness, eat when hungry, sleep when tired, and to unconditionally love and be loved.

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When It’s Time To Burn Your House and Go

Sometimes it’s not your fault. Sometimes the business cycle’s spin, the greed or stupidity of folks with big wallets and little hearts, a microscopic bug, or tiny shift in weather patterns can change everything. No matter how hard you work or how well you raise your children, respect your neighbours, love your spouse, or live by your God’s rules and land’s laws, things slip away. Cyril Oxford understands that. Today he is considering burning his house down.

When It's Time to Burn Your House and Go..

(Photo: www.fireengineering.com)

You see, Cyril lives in Little Bay Islands, Newfoundland. He was born there. For his seventy-two years, Cyril forged a life and living as a cod-fishing boat captain. Now, though, with his wife gone and children moved away, he has a decision to make.

Little Bay Islands is a group of five islands just off Newfoundland’s northeast coast. The abundant fish attracted Europeans over 200 years ago. The story goes that in 1825, a summer resident named Budgell shot the last Beothuck, thus ending the indigenous nation that had once thrived. But, of course, like many stories on and about the rock, legends and facts are seldom on speaking terms.

The Little Bay Island community grew with the bounty of the sea and indomitable spirit of people toughened and united by perpetual wind, ruthless winters, and the songs, jokes, and tales that fill dark nights and ease tough times. By the 1920s, 116 men on 14 boats fished and trapped cod, crab, and shrimp, a ship building company created three fine schooners a year, and determined farmers coaxed vegetables from thin soil. The Wesleyan church pews were full every Sunday and children learned at the little school. By the 1940s, nearly 800 people proudly called the place home.

Things changed after the war. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. In 1957, its premier, Joey Smallwood, the mercurial little man to whom so much is owed and on whom so much is blamed, undertook an aggressive program of relocation. More than 300 outport communities, accessible only by boat, that had been around for one or two hundred years were deemed financially unfeasible. People were given money to leave. Many fought. Many pocketed the cash. Black and white photographs of big wooden houses lashed to bigger barges and steaming through the waves were either sad signs of defeat or sparkling signals of courageous resilience. Through it all, Little Bay Island survived.

There was a crab processing plant, a cooperage, a shipyard, a fish plant, and eleven stores. Along with the new road came electricity, telephones, and a water system. A shiny, new ferry connected the islands to the mainland. A gym was added to the school. History books and old men’s tales boasted of days when you could drop a bucket over a dory’s side and pull up fish, over and over, stopping only when arms ached. Such abundance, it was believed, could never end.

But foreign trawlers and profligate habits meant that by the late 1980s, there were fewer crab, and then shrimp, and then cod. In a feeble and far too late attempt to save what remained, a moratorium was declared. And then there was none. One at a time the businesses closed. One at a time the young people left, and then families. Boats were sold and houses were shuttered. Today, only two students attend the school. The gym’s hardwood floor gleams in silence. There are no stores. There are no jobs. Only about 70, mostly gray-haired people remain.

When It's Time to Burn Your House and Go

(photo: www.lanephotography.com)

Three years ago a town counsellor approached the Newfoundland and Labrador government. He proposed the assisted suicide of his town. If it were killed, or allowed to finally die, then money could be saved with the end of government services. A deal was made whereby each resident would be offered $270,000 to leave. To ensure that death was truly the community’s will, it was insisted that a secret vote must be held and that 90% must agree.

The impending referendum split families. It divided friends. Summer residents had no vote but exerted pressure to vote no. There were arguments and threats as some wanted the cash and others spoke of tradition, home, and ancestor’s bones.

When the vote was tallied, all but ten had opted to go. It meant only an 89.47%, plurality, just shy of the necessary 90%. The government would not round up. The money stayed in St. John’s and the acidic atmosphere remained in Little Bay Island.

In 2014, acclaimed Newfoundland novelist Michael Crummey published a superb novel entitled Sweetland. It tells the story of a small, remote, and declining island town whose people are offered resettlement packages with the proviso that all must leave. Moses Sweetland says no. He then watches the community torn asunder by those seeking to change his mind and others changing theirs. The novel is exceptionally well written and the characters quirky and expertly drawn. It suggests the thin and wavering line between fact and fiction and Oscar Wilde’s wisdom in observing the imitative nature of art and life. I highly recommend the book.

A provincial election held on November 30 threw out the Tories and created a Liberal majority government. When the dust clears, the new government will need new answers to Little Bay Island’s old questions. For now, like Moses Sweetland, Cyril Oxford sits alone in his house. Outside and around town, the warmth of emotion fights the chill of logic as what’s fair battles what’s possible and proof is once again rendered that money does not really talk; it swears. Cyril told a reporter, “Things just can’t go on like this around here. When I go, my dear, it will be the last of the Oxfords on Little Bay Islands.”

If he goes, if they all go, it will be the last of a lot of things. It will represent the inevitable turning of the wheels of progress and the tragic consequence of bad decisions and lost opportunities. It will be a victory of the head and failure of the heart. It will be the sad end of two hundred years of hard work and dreams. If Mr. Oxford and the others go, the wind will still blow, the waves will still crash, and Little Bay Island ghosts will stand in silent reverence with Beothuck spirits.

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Watch for Your Crazy-Eyed Monkey

We were all nervous so I went first. The nurse walked me to a world map where I pointed to Nepal’s remote north-west and explained that the other teacher, six Lakefield College School students and I would be enjoying a two-week rafting and kayaking adventure down the Karnali River.
“Well then,” she said, “let’s not worry about the rabies shot because it’s just meant to keep you alive for a few hours until you can reach a hospital. But if you’re way out there then by the time you get to a medical facility you’ll be dead anyway. So I suggest you stay away from crazy-eyed monkeys.”
I promised to do my best. When properly stabbed I told the first of what would be several white lies; the little stories for which parents and teachers forgive themselves when protecting kids from being afraid of things they can do nothing about anyway. “Good news,” I said, “the needles are painless and we don’t need the rabies shot.”
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport is the perfect introduction to Nepal. We deplaned down rusting metal stairs and as we crossed the cracking tarmac we grouped a little closer upon entering the cacophony of the small terminal. Pimple-faced kids not much older than our young charges slouched in ill-fitting army uniforms with the universal look of sullen teenaged boredom and enormous automatic weapons slung over slender shoulders.
There is always a point, a precise moment, when you realize that the carousel will not produce your bags. I stood in a long line of disgruntled tourists until finally able to tell the disinterested young woman behind the old card table about our mixed up connecting flight in Los Angeles and the promise that our bags would be properly transferred. She had me fill out a long form and then drop it into a tall, wooden box that must have contained at least two hundred others. With a glance over her John Lennon glasses she promised to call our hotel if the bags arrived. If.
Stepping into the bright sunlight, we were staggered by the line of shouting cab drivers, hucksters and sign-wavers , the sudden sting of heat and the pungent smell of diesel and cow shit. We stumbled to our bus and after swerving around a large and sickly looking cow lying casually in the middle of the road were soon on our way to the tourist district.
A jaunty guide told us of the city. The green lawn and white gleaming splendour of the Narayanhiti Palace was a jarring sight after miles of shabby brown buildings and dusty brown streets. It was March, 2001. On the day of our arrival, the long-suspended parliament reconvened only to be suspended again when members immediately fell into a bench-clearing brawl. A few months after our departure, a young prince interrupted a palace dinner by spraying gun fire and killing nine members of his family including his father the king. A few days later the prince died mysteriously which put his uncle on the throne. This would happen later, of course, but the chatty guide that day said of nothing the country’s current political chaos or of the Maoist rebellion that was sweeping the countryside.
Our hotel was a clean and pleasant three-story concrete bunker. We enjoyed dinner on the roof, awed by the spectacular view of the city bathed in the gold of the gigantic sun sinking slowly behind the mountains. We met our lead river guide who promised to loan us camping gear while delaying our departure so we could buy clothes.

Jonah M. Kessel / China Daily

Armed with useless maps and pocketsful of rupees we navigated the district’s narrow winding streets. We found that stop signs were merely suggestions, mangy dogs were everywhere, the diesel fumes were suffocating, and the packed, tiny stores with their negotiable prices invited claustrophobia. We drank it in. We loved it all.
After leaving the group to find something a little different, one of the students and I hopped into a small, three-wheeled cab. After a minute I tapped the driver’s shoulder and suggested that he was going the wrong way. “Short cut,” he insisted. A couple of minutes later I said, in a little firmer tone, that we really needed to turn around and he then confessed that we were on our way to his uncle’s “very special” store. I whispered to my young friend and then on the count of three we leapt from the moving cab, disappeared under string of colourful saris and ran until the driver’s shouts faded. Safely back at the hotel our guide told us that we were indeed probably being kidnapped.
The next morning found us standing together in stunned silence before a small Tata bus. It was a Frankenstein of a rusty hulk, obviously cobbled together from long-gone others. The back of my cracked, vinyl seat scissored me forward at 75 degrees or so and its legs were secured by two concrete blocks. This was our home for two days.
The countryside was spectacular. The jungle was dense, the valleys deep and vast and the enormous sky was a brilliant clear blue. We had seen Everest piercing the clouds as we flew in and now the Himalayas were a backdrop to overwhelming beauty.
The villages along the way were small, poor and dusty. Around noon we stepped over an open sewer to an outdoor restaurant to enjoy our first of many plates of Bhat, Nepal’s staple diet, consisting of rice, lentils and curried vegetables that you dip into one of three fiery hot sauces. Our guide had warned that we would adjust but only after first falling ill after a day or so of Bhat. The vomiting soon began with a green and moaning girl hanging her head out the window of the rickety, bouncing bus.
We slept that night in the third floor rooms of another bunker hotel. The lone toilet was bolted to a cement porch surrounded by plywood walls, a ceiling open to the sky and a hole beneath it that allowed deposits to plop loudly into a large barrel on the ground far below. I spent most of the night alone on the roof with its cooler, fresher air and making frequent jogs to offer Bhat to the barrel.
The next day saw us on increasingly narrow roads carved into mountain sides that dropped into deep, rocky chasms. A boy of about ten years of age had joined our group and was hanging out the side of the bus and from time to time tapping on the roof. The driver explained that his tap indicated when the tires were nearing the edge of the abyss. I decided to neither distract the boy nor explain his job to the others.
We were all riding on the roof when stopped by a makeshift barricade. The driver had us climb back inside while he spoke with a small group of folks. I was a little shaken to see a man appear wearing shorts and flip flops like everyone else but also an alarmingly out of place powder-blue button-down oxford shirt. In his left hand he casually toted an automatic weapon. The driver said that he was a Maoist rebel and was demanding a fee for us to continue. I reached for my money but the driver said he could negotiate. He waved off my objection and disappeared with oxford man into a small hut. I told everyone that the driver was just paying a toll but waited to hear shots and wondered what I could possibly do if oxford man then returned for us. In five minutes that seemed like hours the driver was back. He had bargained the price of our lives and freedom down to about three Canadian dollars.
The twelve days on the river were magnificent. The guides were skilled and friendly and every night around the fire we shared songs and stories. An Australian told us of his love for the outback. An Isreali spoke of his military service and his desperate hope for peace. An American told us of the vastness of Montana and his love for horses, rivers and adventure. Each of us was far, far from home and yet when each day’s thrill of rapids and serenity of floating through the dazzling valley was over, it was thoughts of home to which each of us returned.

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After our short flight back to Kathmandu the rest of our group enjoyed a tour in which they saw temples and even a little girl who was celebrated as a living God – but I was at the airport. Not surprisingly, my form was lost but after ascending several rungs of the bureaucratic ladder a man was escorting me to his office when I glanced through an open door and into a gym-sized room strewn with suitcases. I spotted my big green pack perched high on one of the piles. I eventually found all of my group’s packs and secured a cart to haul them away. The gentleman never consulted a piece of paper or had me sign a thing. I guess he either trusted me or didn’t care.
All travel is time travel and all travel is good. Few minds that travel remain small. How invigorating and instructive to allow even a brief immersion into a society where one’s rules, assumptions and expectations no longer apply. It is to be humbled with the twin reminders that people wake up every day everywhere and do the best they can and that other cultures are not failed attempts at being you.
Last night I sat on my deck and stared up at Orion glittering in the heavens. It was years ago now that I gazed up at him every night from the banks of the Karnali River. Shortly after our return, the Maoists won their revolution and swept aside Nepal’s monarchy and the planes that struck New York and Washington swept away much of the west’s blind innocence. But tonight, in my safe little Ontario village, there is Orion reminding me of how much that truly matters remains the same. And waiting for me somewhere is a crazy-eyed monkey that I will meet someday in whatever form he decides to appear – but not tonight.

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