The Colonel from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was visibly annoyed. How, he said, could I possibly suggest talking directly with American warships when they are simply following orders from Washington, and a constant provocation and threat to Iranian sovereignty! My reply was equally emphatic, although genuinely sympathetic because this was not just a debating position but, literally, a potential matter of life and death. Our resulting animated but cordial discussion extended well into post-meeting teatime. Now, more than fifteen years later, the tragic deaths of 176 innocent civilians aboard Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 are a haunting reminder of that exchange.
A majestic mountain called Kailash towers above the high point of the Tibetan plateau, a three-day drive west from the capital of Lhasa. Until mid-20th Century it had been seen by only a handful of Westerners, but it has always been sacred to millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Tibetan Bonpo. Today, hundreds visit between June and September, most to attempt what one lyrical author has called “the greatest and hardest of all earthly pilgrimages” – a 52-kilometre “kora” or circumambulation of the mountain at altitudes ranging from 4,600 metres (15,000 feet) to over 5.600 metres (18,500) where the available oxygen is only half that at sea level.
A Turkish friend has pointed out that my June 2019 essay on Istanbul contained a misunderstanding based on a misleading translation. It is now revised.
Thirty years ago this month, naval officers on the Canadian Forces Command and Staff Course were taking the annual professional tour of NATO naval and military facilities across western Europe. As usual, the itinerary included Lübeck, on the border between East and West Germany, for briefing by the West German Federal Border Protection service (Bundesgrenzschutz) on the 1,380 kilometre network of fences, fortifications, guard towers and security zones isolating the ironically named German “Democratic” Republic. But 1989 was different. “I don’t know what to tell you” the BGS briefing officer told us. “Yesterday even the cleaners here had to undergo a six month security clearance. Today I have a thousand East Germans in my parking lot!”
The Global (formerly Foreign) Affairs website was advising Canadian travellers to Lebanon to avoid the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Baalbek; partly because of a volatile security situation and partly the presence of Hezbollah, designated by the Canadian government as a “listed terrorist entity”. That was disappointing because it’s a fabulous complex of temples: originally a Phoenician centre of worship, then Greek and finally, as Heliopolis, one of the most important sanctuaries of the Roman empire, with some of largest temples of the ancient world. Today it is one of the best preserved. While I’d never suggest disregarding these warnings (not least because doing so can invalidate your travel insurance), it’s worth remembering that they are, after all, only advisories.
The last few years have been rough for the 400-odd remaining Atlantic Right Whales; a once-abundant species that’s never recovered from being hunted almost to extinction. A habitat close enough to shore to coincide with fishing zones and ship traffic lanes means that some die a slow death from tangling in fishing gear while others are wounded by ships’ propellers slicing into their backs, sometimes dying from direct blows. Some people may wonder how a species so finely evolved to detect underwater sound can be so vulnerable, but not me. I learned the hard way during a few adrenaline-filled moments on a Cold War submarine patrol.
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.
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.
“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” (Analects of Confucius)
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.
(Revised, 13 December 2019)
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. (*)
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.
“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)
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”?Continue reading “Camino de Santiago – On the Frontier Between Faith and Culture”
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.Continue reading “Hanoi – Reflections on the “American War””
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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”.
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”
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.
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”