Nautical Royalty and the Migrant Experience

It’s not often you get to see two of the Cunard Line’s great passenger ships in port at the same time. It’s particularly significant in Halifax, where Samuel Cunard founded the company. Last week crowds lined the shores in brilliant late afternoon sunshine to watch the spectacle of Queen Elizabeth 3 and Queen Mary 2 leave their berths, steam in line up the Dartmouth side of the harbour, then turn seaward along the Halifax piers; Queen Elizabeth bound for St. John’s and Queen Mary for New York. Surely a more stately sight than Britannia, Cunard’s first tiny hybrid paddlewheel steamer with its full suit of sails furled away as backup, chuntering seaward along the same course 180 years ago.

Queens departing Halifax
Queen Mary (left) and Queen Elizabeth (ahead ) depart Halifax, 26 June 2019

I have a special fondness for Queen Mary 2, having immigrated to Canada (via New York) aboard her predecessor, back in the day when crossing the Atlantic by air was still a new but unaffordable luxury to us common folk. Dad had gone ahead to find a job, then Mum and I followed.

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Being Human on the Moon

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” (Analects of Confucius)

Grainy TV image
One small step – the grainy TV image as it appeared on CBS news

Fifty years ago tonight I was a young naval officer joining a bunch of students gathered around the TV in the common room at Pine Hill Divinity Hall (now Atlantic School of Theology) in Halifax. I was living aboard ship at the time so my recently-widowed mother, then a summer student, invited me to join them for the live broadcast of the first attempt to land people on the Moon. Just before midnight we were straining to interpret the grainy image of Neil Armstrong making his way carefully down the ladder of the lunar lander, waiting breathlessly to hear what he might say. What we heard was “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, which seemed ambiguously puzzling. It turned out that what he meant to say – and what he was sure he had said – was “one small step for a man…” which, of course, would make perfect sense. The did-he-or-didn’t-he” debate went on for years and was the even topic of academic study as recently as six years ago. For heaven’s sake – who cares! The moment was a shining achievement.

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Istanbul – A feast for the imagination and senses

Hagia Sophia at Sultanahmet park

At a busy intersection in the heart of old Istanbul there’s an unremarkable stone pillar tucked between the sidewalk and back wall of the 6th century Basilica Cistern. It could easily be missed by the casual passer-by, but a closer look reveals a small plaque that reads: “This stone pillar is all that remains of a Byzantine triumphal arch from which road distances to all corners of the empire were measured. Date IV Century A.D.”  A moment’s reflection for that to seep in must surely fire the imagination and give pause for thought – this barely noticeable stub in what is now an obscure corner of a busy modern city was once the very hub of the most widespread empire that the world had known until then.  Sic transit gloria mundi indeed. (*)

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Beyond Words – Reflections on Tai Shan

Azure Clouds Temple on Tai Shan

For more than 3,000 years (with the possible exception of the iconoclastic upheaval of the Cultural Revolution), China’s Tai Shan (Peaceful Mountain) (泰山) has been a pilgrimage destination for emperors, politicians, scholars, common folk, and even the occasional visiting Canadian. It’s a memorable climb up the 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) of path and reputed 6,660 steps to spend the night in a lodge at the top, then join the pre-dawn crowd to watch sunrise over the eastern sea, just as Confucius did 2,500 years ago.

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Camino de Santiago – On the Frontier Between Faith and Culture

“When the fresh showers of April have pierced the drought of March to the root…then folk long to go on pilgrimages.”   (Geoffrey Chaucer in his Prologue to “Canterbury Tales” – loosely translated from the Middle English)

Santiago Matamoros
Santiago Matamoros – Burgos Cathedral

Six and a half centuries after Chaucer led a diplomatic mission to the kingdom of Navarre, I passed the same way – an April pilgrim celebrating my 70th birthday with forty reflective days walking the legendary Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) along the popular route from southern France, across the Pyrenees and northern Spain to the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. An important Christian pilgrimage for over a thousand years, it’s now popular with people of all faiths or none at all, whether for reflection or just a physical challenge or safe adventure. That makes for some interesting conversation along the way. A couple of weeks into the 800 kilometre journey, a Muslim fellow pilgrim shared her difficulty in reconciling this pilgrimage to the alleged tomb of a disciple of Jesus, whose core teaching was about love, with the recurrent image in churches and cathedrals along the way celebrating “Santiago Matamoros” – Saint James, Killer of Moors – mounted on a white horse and lopping the heads off hapless Muslims. Whatever happened to “love your enemies”?

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Hanoi – Reflections on the “American War”

Deep below the manicured gardens and historic architecture of Hanoi’s ancient Imperial Citadel of Thang Long lies a secret that was opened to the public only in 2012: the headquarters from which the Politburo and Central Military Commission of North Vietnam conducted the “American War” between the bombing of 1967 through the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.

Gate to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi
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Lowering Flags at Wagah Crossing

“Carefully choreographed contempt”

It would be easy to dismiss the daily sunset ceremony at the crossing straddling the storied Grand Trunk Road linking Pakistan’s Lahore and India’s Amritsar, as a caricature of militarism taken to extremes. But I don’t, and here’s why. On the day I visited a few years ago it was indeed reminiscent at first of the famous Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch on 1970s television, but an unforeseen event uncovered a very human face behind the mask of blatant hostility.

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In Moses’ Footsteps: Glimpses of the “Promised Land”

Khamsin sandstorm
A khamsin sandstorm (NASA)

The good news from my travel agent was that she could get an excellent price on a home-bound flight from Cairo by booking on Royal Jordanian Airlines to Amman, and then catch its recently-inaugurated service to Tel Aviv where I’d connect with another airline for the trans-Atlantic leg. The bad news, she said, was that it would mean a ten-hour stopover in Amman and transfer between airports. But to me that was pure opportunity. This new service between Jordan and Israel was possible because of a historic peace treaty signed three and a half years earlier, in 1994, meaning that I could get one of the first boarding passes with “Tel Aviv” printed in Arabic; a souvenir of Middle East peacemaking too good to miss. Better yet, Amman is an easy 30 kilometre drive from Mount Nebo where God is said to have shown Moses the “promised land” that his tribes were supposed to conquer. Ten hours would be enough to immerse myself in some historical context for that continuing quarrel over ancestral land which was taking me to Cairo in the first place. Since I’d have to transfer between airports anyway I would rent a car and go tread the legendary footsteps of Moses.

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Comfort and Joy – Wartime Version

An unlikely wartime command for a sailor

She was unremarkable in appearance, but there was something of steel and fire beneath that soft-spoken shyness. It was apparent that the young soldier holding her hand represented welcome moral support, but not an irreplaceable element in achieving her purpose. Though she would not have recognized it in herself, she had come to the local office of the European Community Monitoring Mission not so much to petition for help as to enlist us as the chosen instrument for her inexorable campaign.

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Thoughts for Remembrance Day

“5/6 June 1940: 1 Hampden and 1 Wellington lost …”:

In the history of the epic drama of the Second World War, this cryptic entry in the Bomber Command War Diary of Britain’s Royal Air Force seems little more than an inconsequential footnote. As those words were penned, two million German soldiers were facing the combined armies of France and Britain in the struggle for France. Adolph Hitler’s armies had trampled across the futile neutrality of Belgium and Holland in a matter of days. Neutral Norway had been taken with apparent ease. France was to fall to the Nazi onslaught within less than three weeks. When studying such momentous and overwhelming events, it is well to remember that such little footnotes are enormously momentous in their own right for the individuals to whom they refer.

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Trekking to Mount Everest – Goals and Intentions

Our Nepali sirdar (expedition team leader and guide) moved quietly from tent to tent, waking us in turn. In the cold pre-dawn darkness we dressed quickly and followed him up to a small plateau above the town of Namche Bazaar, 3,500 metres (11.500 feet) above sea level in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. There we stood as the sky lightened slowly until, finally, a golden glow illuminated the summit of Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Nepalese), topped with a halo of cloud, jutting coyly above the massive Lhotse-Nuptse mountain wall, 28 kilometres away. After some time utterly absorbed in the moment I turned to thank our Nepali friend but no words came. Choking back unexpected tears, all I could manage was a soundlessly mouthed “thank you”.

Morning sun on Everest (the peak to the left, under the little cloud). It’s actually several kilometres beyond the massif extending leftward from Lhotse, which is itself the world’s fourth highest mountain)

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A Lunenburg Sketch-About

From the moment I first saw Emma Fitzgerald’s Hand Drawn Halifax I enjoyed her funny, spontaneous, uninhibited sketching style. My own amateurish attempts tend to be fiddly and fussy, with lots of dithering and erasing in trying to get everything just right (which it never is). So this summer I couldn’t resist an advertisement for Emma’s week-long course at Lunenburg School of the Arts “for those who want to sketch on location, in public, without fear.” That’s me. Continue reading “A Lunenburg Sketch-About”

Resilience – Reflections on the Swissair Tragedy Twenty Years Later

One of two Swissair memorials on shore, this one overlooking Peggy’s Cove. The right-hand stone points to the interment site at Bayswater, the one on the left to the third corner of a triangle, the crash site offshore.

Tomorrow night, at 22:31 Atlantic Time, hundreds of people around the world will be taking quiet moments in their own way to mark the twentieth anniversary of that awful moment when Swissair’s Flight 111 from New York to Geneva plunged into the shallow waters of St. Margaret’s Bay, just a few minutes flying time from the city of Halifax. The tragedy was compounded by the terrible knowledge that only one of the 229 bodies, a child, was sufficiently intact to be identifiable visually. Recovering remains of the others, whether floating, entangled in the wreckage or washed ashore, was to be a mammoth and grisly challenge. Those involved in supporting grieving families; recovering and trying to identify body parts; retrieving wreckage; reconstructing bits of the aircraft to determine the cause; cleaning up the shoreline; or simply supporting those who did – they number in the thousands, and all have their own meaningful memories. Here’s three of mine.

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Leaps of Faith

I can’t say that I was particularly scared at my first parachute jump – excited for sure, but not scared. There’s a theory that both those emotions are physiologically the same thing and it just depends on how you interpret them. That makes sense to me.

Before the plane takes off you have no way of predicting what it must be like to step outside, half a mile above the ground, and then trust that the nylon line joining your aircraft to the pins keeping your parachute pack closed will tug them out when your falling body reaches the end of it. There’s a strange moment on takeoff when you realize that you will not be landing in the same aircraft, and once it starts climbing with the door open the unreality really kicks in. By the time your instructor tells you to get out on the step, the adrenaline rush, engine roar, howling wind and realization that you are standing outside an airplane in flight come close to sensory overload. Things get surreal as you hear “Have a good jump — GO!”, feel a firm but somehow encouraging thump on you shoulder, and hop backward into empty space. All those good intentions to follow instructions and count out the seconds before the parachute should be opening evaporate, and all that comes out is YEEEEHAW! Continue reading “Leaps of Faith”