Sunday, November 14, 2010

A journey into First Nations culture

Piers jut into the bay. Fishing boats, many in disrepair, bob in the water. Totem poles reach toward the sky. The tang of salt and seaweed hangs in the air. Alert Bay on Cormorant Island off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island is one of the most exotic towns in Canada.

My dearest, Ally, and I and eight other guests are aboard the Columbia III on a Mothership Adventures’ tour that is meandering through the Broughton Archipelago and focusing on First Nations culture.

We visit the U'mista Cultural Centre, which captures both the agony and glory of the Kwakwaka'wakw people. A film shows how the white man in the late 1800s banned the potlatch, an important Native ceremony. In 1921, a large “illegal” potlatch on Village Island was raided and the priceless ceremonial regalia confiscated. Some of the seized items were repatriated and are now displayed in the Potlatch Collection of the Centre. The gallery, designed as a big house, is full of colourful masks representing ravens, eagles, orcas, bears, the moon and sun as well as supernatural creatures. I sense a powerful pulse, an emotional celebration of the songs, legends and dances embodied in these masks.

Next door sits the abandoned, decaying St. Michael=s residential school, a hulking, red-bricked reminder of the persecution of the Native people.

Then we visit the Big House where a large fire lights the dusky interior, showing colourful totems and immense cedar posts and beams. Amidst the smell of smoke and cedar four men drum on a log. The “Determined” dancers, mostly youngsters, circle the flaming fire, proudly performing traditional dances in native regalia.

I am touched by the cemetery in the middle of downtown with its extraordinary array of totems as well as crosses, a strange mixture of Native and non-Native faiths.

Boarding the Columbia I don’t know whether to rejoice or to cry. The soul of the First Nations people is laid bare in this town of contrasts. In places it has poverty and living conditions that makes it feel like a third-world country. But it also displays a culture that is powerful, rich, appealing and rooted in nature. This contrast screams out about the injustices that native people have suffered and the difficulties they continue to face.

We motor on. Once the rising sun chases the fog, the Columbia purrs through the archipelago leaving a wake that gently caresses the shorelines. A mortuary box peers out of the greenery on one island. On another, vertical scars on cedar trees mark where Natives “farmed” bark. At Village Island a decaying totem pole lies in the forest. Along the shore of another isle, rocks are piled along the tide line so clams could be harvested. Later, a petroglyph winks at us from a cliff.

One day, the captain catches up with the A12 pod of killer whales (aka orcas). High black dorsal fins slice effortlessly through the water and spouts of spray rise in the air.

At the Burdwood Group, a glorious gaggle of little islands, we lower kayaks into the water. Some of us paddle while others go ashore to explore the middens (layers of broken clam shells left by centuries of First Nations habitation) and enjoy the view while sitting on sun-warmed rocks.

All too soon it is time to go aboard and chat about today’s adventures over a glass of wine and a gourmet meal. Dusk settles and the islands transform into soft velvety shapes.

More Info
• U’mista Cultural Center:
• I’ve prepared a 32-page, glossy, full-colour book that is rich with photos using Blurb publishing technology. It looks great and contains a lot of information about First Nations and the Broughton Archipelago! Order it through Blurb at: 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Literary-Soaked Edinburgh

Sipping a latté in Elephant House, the coffee shop where a destitute J.K. Rowling penned her first Harry Potter novel, I realized I had gone astray. Scotch whisky had lured me to Edinburgh, but instead I found myself immersed in literature.

Everywhere I found reminders that Scots love stories, and began to understand why, in 2004, Edinburgh was selected as the first UNESCO City of Literature. Only three other cities (Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin) have gained this distinction, which recognizes publishing, writing, festivals and encouragement of the written word.

Meandering through Old Town along the Royal Mile that joins Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse, I stumbled upon the Writers Museum, a cozy rambling old house accessed via a medieval close or laneway. The Museum celebrates Adam Scott (The Wealth of Nations), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Robbie Burns (Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae), who is widely regarded as Scotland’s national poet. Portraits of the authors gazed down from the walls, dusty original manuscripts peered up from glass cases as I learned how these gentlemen lived and wrote. I hoped that some of their talent would rub off on me.

Piercing the skyline to the north, and a constant reminder of Edinburgh’s literary heritage, is an ornate Victorian Gothic statue commemorating Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe, Lady of the Lake). Known affectionately as Edinburgh’s Rocket, it is the world’s tallest statue to honour an author.

Farther down the street I came upon the Scottish Storytelling Centre, where “the story is told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart.” The Centre celebrates Scotland’s strong oral tradition. The curator described the long list of events they host and how the Centre is integrated with other story-telling venues and events throughout the city. My favorite event was Tall Tales Oscar, where the silliest yarns are told with deadpan or surrealistic conviction.

For lunch, I savoured an ale and a dram at the Oxford Bar, the pub of choice for the gruff Inspector Rebus in Ian Rankin’s internationally acclaimed murder mysteries.

At the Scottish National Library I was led into the stacks. Amazingly, the international Dewey Decimal System of organizing books is shunned. Instead, books are shelved by size! A Library official explained, “We reorganized and saved five kilometres of shelving.”

That evening, nursing a nip of smooth, peaty single-malt, I day-dreamed about returning in August for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the biggest celebration of books and the written word in the world. Authors range from up-and-comers to Nobel-prize winners and have included Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Al Gore, John Irving, Salman Rushdie and more. Perhaps it was the quality (or quantity?) of whisky, but I pictured myself at the Festival reading to a mesmerized audience from one of my books.

Previously, I had thought that Scottish literature consisted of quoting Robbie Burns in a dusky pub. But now I realize literature permeates the very soul of Scotland — and nowhere more than in Edinburgh.

If You go
Scotland info:
Edinburgh info:
Edinburgh International book Festival:
Scotch Whisky Experience:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cardiff: A World-Class City

It’s unofficial, but I rank Cardiff among the top ten cities on the planet. How can you not love a city full of pubs, with a crenellated castle at its centre, where a bizarre language is spoken and with a confusingly large proportion of males named David? Cardiff — population 325,000 — is caught in a tug of war between the urbanity of a large capital city and the friendly casualness of a small rural centre. I love it.

I checked in at the Angel Hotel, my home for the next few days. From the window I ould see the stolid walls and colourful clock-tower of Cardiff Castle. I set out to explore and was pleasantly surprised that Cardiff is designed around pedestrians not cars. And being flat, it’s perfect for cycling and — get this — they provide bicycles for free. The downtown encompasses St. David’s Shopping Centre and broad, open walkways that contrast with the surrounding delightful narrow lanes, arcades and cobbled streets. The Gatekeeper, the City Arms, the Old Arcade, the Owain Glyndwr and numerous other pubs kept interrupting my wandering, luring me in with foaming pints of Brains cask ale, the local brew.

Bilingual signs are everywhere. The Welsh are proud of their language, although I was baffled by its consonant-filled, tongue-twisting words like Cymraeg, wrthgyferbyniadau and Etifeddiaeth.

Next day I toured Cardiff Bay, a beautifully restored former dockland, where the sun sparkled on waves and the tang of salt water drifted in the air. I strolled along large open plazas, rode an old merry-go-round and explored the Wales Millennium Centre, a spectacular huge opera house. It is one of the finest in the world and celebrates the Welsh love of music. Nearby sat the Senedd, the National Assembly of Wales, an ultra-green, new (2006) building featuring Welsh slate and acres of glass. Time flew by as I jostled with crowds who were drawn by boat tours, cafés, art exhibits and, of course, pubs.

On my final day, I embarked on the Cardiff Centenary Walk under another cloudless sky. I meandered through markets rich with the colours and aromas of vegetables, flowers and fresh fish. I passed St. John’s Church from the 12th century, narrow arcades, remnants of the old fortified city walls and Millennium Stadium, the home of the Welsh passion: rugby union. I entered the gate of Cardiff Castle, which dates to Roman times, and toured through lavish apartments and an interior Norman keep. Soon I was at the City Hall in Cathays Park, one of the most impressive civic centres in Britain. The clock tower rises 60 metres with a Welsh dragon roaring at the top. The interior is ornate with a domed council chamber. Next door are the Law Courts and National Museum of Wales.

My tour continued through Alexandra Garden with its War Memorial and bronzed figures of a soldier, sailor and airman. I gazed across the street to the imposing main building of Cardiff University, a reminder that Cardiff is a university city with a boisterous night life.

Back at the Angel, I savoured a pint of Brains and pondered the long history and proud culture of this Welsh capital. Cheers, all you Davids!

If You Go

Thursday, September 16, 2010

London: The Eternal City

I stepped off the train in Paddington Station and struggled through the pandemonium. Was it really more than 30 years since I had last been in London?

I bumped my suitcase along narrow crowded streets enveloped in the smells of restaurants, the sounds of British accents and the blaring of traffic. Everything seemed so compact, old and, well, grimy. The ubiquitous black taxis I remembered were now emblazoned with gaudy advertising. Double-decker buses rumbled past. I was excited.

After unpacking in a room barely larger than a closet at the Olympic Hotel, I strolled to Hyde Park. The Albert Memorial soared skyward like an over-decorated rocket whose carvings and elaborate wrought-iron-work still celebrate the halcyon days of the Victorian empire. Across the street the rotund Royal Albert Hall watched sedately.

I crossed Exhibition Road to the Victoria and Albert Museum and visited the Nehru Room to see an unusual and controversial exhibit: a model tiger eating a British soldier. A short walk took me to the cathedral-like Natural History Museum. An enormous dinosaur skeleton dominates the huge domed lobby.

Next morning, I took the tube to the Tower of London, the home of the British crown jewels. The ramparts gleamed in the sun as I imagined the many bloody executions in centuries past. I meandered across the colourful Tower Bridge. Up river, the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel, turned slowly, an in-your-face modern landmark.

An amble westward along the Thames took me into the business section, where the crowded streets were full of people in natty suits. I went into the Guildhall and said hello to Gog and Magog, the mythical founders of Britain.

Another brief saunter carried me to Christopher Wren’s awe-inspiring St. Paul’s Cathedral. I planned to climb to the dome but, sadly, it was closed.

What a city! Simply too much to see! The tube transported me to a crowded Covent Garden where I savoured lunch at the White Lion pub. At Leicester Square many booths offered cut-rate tickets to the numerous West End theatres.

Then I found myself in the pigeon-infested Trafalgar Square with its towering statue of Nelson and bordered by the National Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Field church. Soon after I arrived at one of my favourite places, the Horse Guards Parade on Whitehall. Sabres flashed and horses whinnied as the guard of bright-red-coated soldiers and horsemen changed.

At the Houses of Parliament I pushed through the heavy crowds and yellow-jacketed constables of a protest march. Big Ben chimed from above as I strode onto Westminster Bridge, which offers the best views of the splendid Gothic architecture of the parliament building.

The next two days flew by in a blur: Portobello Market on Saturday morning; the British Museum and the famous Elgin Marbles; Little Venice Canal, a peaceful quiet oasis lined with long, narrow houseboats; dinner at an Indian restaurant; Buckingham Palace.
Too soon it was over and I was at Paddington Station. As the train pulled out, I thought of how little London has changed. Perhaps it’s more polyglot, with more foreign accents, but just as exciting as always, bustling and bursting with history and culture. Only we people change, we revolve through this grand city in our brief lives. But London endures. London is eternal.

Plan Your Trip at:

Friday, March 26, 2010

Golden Inca Civilization

I lean against an enormous, carved boulder, part of a wall at the world’s number one tourist attraction, Machu Picchu, Peru. Stone buildings, temples and terraces, overwhelming in their elegance and size, lie before me arrayed on the side of a frighteningly steep mountainside. I’m fascinated by the Inca empire, which in the 1400s stretched from Ecuador through Bolivia and Peru to Argentina and Chile, leaving impressive monuments like this, now abandoned and lifeless except for tourists.

Earlier I visited Cuzco, the former centre of the Inca empire. Memories of the golden days are everywhere. I strolled through Coricancha, a temple built for the Sun God Inti, whose walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold and the courtyard was filled with golden statues. A few minutes outside the city is the sprawling Fort Sacsayhuaman, renowned for the size of its construction stones, from 90 to 120 tons.

I learn that the Inca society was remarkably advanced. They were accomplished engineers and designed and built complex stone structures without using cement. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily stable, an important feature in an earthquake-prone area. Just as impressive, the Incas were also very capable administrators, governing in a benign and wise manner. Crime, for example, was almost non-existent. The Inca used quipu (bundled knotted strings) for recording and sending messages, and had an extensive road system including two main roads that ran the length of the empire, one in the highlands (5,250 kilometres) and one along the seacoast.

Providing food for the empire was a priority. On a hillside at Moray I looked down on a series of sinuous terraces laid out in concentric circles and arcs. The terraces mimic different climatic zones and were used as an agricultural laboratory to experiment with various types of plants.

At nearby Maras, I meandered through the oldest and most unusual salt mine in the world. It consists of about 2,000 small glistening white pools in which the waters from a saline-rich stream are evaporated, leaving salt. It is still “mined” as it was in the Inca days.

In 1553, Spanish conquistadors led by Fransisco Pizzaro and accompanied by disease, greed, treachery and cruelty, destroyed what was arguably the most socially-advanced society in the world. Now only the silent stones remain.

If You Go

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Best Jungle Experience

Light headed and gasping, I was at 16,000 feet elevation, high above the Andes in an unpressurized Twin Otter airplane. While most visitors to Peru make a beeline to Machu Picchu, I was heading to the the Peruvian Amazon and the best jungle experience ever. Soon, happily, we descended into richer oxygen, and then bumped down on a small grass airstrip hacked out of the dense jungle. The smells were ripe and rich. The foliage was lush and alive with strange caws and chirps. Bugs buzzed. Most of all, it was hot and humid. We boarded a native canoe and travelled up a fast-flowing, turbid tributary of the Amazon, the River of Mother of God, ever deeper into the jungle, ever deeper into a strange lush world in which I felt totally lost.

Once at the Manu Wildlife Center, I settled into a small but comfortable thatch-roofed cabin on stilts. Generator-provided electricity was only on for a few hours each day so we relied on candles at night, a romantic touch. We arose early each morning and boated to clay licks where dozens of macaws and parrots, like technicolour rainbows, fluttered and swirled. We climbed canopy towers and found cactus, orchids and other exotic species high above a dense and variegated jungle. We boated along lake and river and saw endangered giant otters, lethal kaimans, toucans and birds of every ilk. Late one afternoon we hiked to a tapir blind where we lay under mosquito nets and listened to the awesome, scary sounds of the jungle as dusk fell and darkness enclosed us. Our imaginations ran riot as around us the jungle crackled, moaned, hissed and, occasionally, screamed. A troop of howler monkeys screeched past and then, our objective, a 500-pound tapir lumbered past.

Next day while hiking a troop of monkeys rained nuts down on us from the upper canopy. The visit into the jungle was an adventure, like a trip to Mars. Life abounded, nature was in control and I could almost see and feel evolution happening.

More Information