Before taking up writing full time I’d spent a quarter-century assisting people on both sides of international disputes to meet informally and explore solutions that might be politically difficult to discuss officially. Indeed, in some cases, officials couldn’t even talk at all. It’s discreet, behind the scenes work that occasionally enables politicians to take credit for newsworthy diplomatic breakthroughs; sometimes sows seeds that won’t bear diplomatic fruit for years; but often has no measurable results at all, other than fostering modest improvements in mutual trust and communication. Inevitably, though, this somewhat arcane field of “Track Two diplomacy” provides its practitioner with some quite interesting moments.(*)
Five years ago, lingering over a last glass of wine and aftertaste of delicious Basque cooking, I was savouring the ambience of a little courtyard restaurant tucked under the medieval walls of St. Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the French Pyrenees. Calling for the bill, I jotted a few final notes in a little pocket notebook before returning to my lodgings for the night. It proved to be an unexpected life-changing moment.
The driver of one of the city’s three-wheel auto-rickshaws had proven honest and personable so I offered to hire him for a full day of exploring Old and New Delhi. The next morning Yogesh was at the door, right on time, in his little canvas-covered “tuk-tuk” with its puttering two-stroke engine, and off we went. As our final stop I wanted to wander the famous gardens surrounding Humayun’s Tomb so, after my faithful “rickshaw-wallah” took a picture of me taking a picture, I let him go with thanks. I thought that the thirty-minute stroll back to my lodgings would make the perfect end to a perfect adventure. I was wrong.
Private Johnston’s great adventure ended abruptly on February 18th 1900. The 19 year-old militiaman had lied about his age to join the special contingent of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, recruited to fight Boers in South Africa. But on the first day of the first battle Johnston took a bullet in the head. Mortally wounded, he died nine days later. “8105 Pte. Johnston G.” reads the casualty list. “Died of Wounds, 27-2-1900. Buried at Paardeberg, S. of Modder River, 150 yds S.W. of ford, 200 yds. west of house used as hospital.” A century later, preparing to travel to South Africa and intrigued by that cryptic entry, I resolved to find out who he was, explore where he fought, and visit his grave.
In the historic town of Carrión de los Condes in northern Spain, a diverse group of weary guests gathered in the vestibule of the albergue (pilgrim hostel) at the convent of Santa María to join some of the nuns for an evening sing-along before the nightly Pilgrim Mass. Most of us were strangers, united only by walking the Way of Saint James, the Camino de Santiago, to the great cathedral at Santiago de Compostella, still more than 400 kilometres ahead. Song sheets were distributed, a guitar produced, a few well known songs sung, and introductions made around the circle as we each described where we were from and why we were walking the Camino. We were invited to sing songs from our own countries, so a South African pilgrim and I offered a brief rendition of “Senzeni Na”, a protest song from apartheid days. And therein lies a musical tale spanning continents and cultures.
At Cairo’s airport the baggage staff were evading every request, suggestion or insistence that they issue the loss report I’d need to claim insurance for my missing luggage. It was nothing to do with them, they said – it was, after all, a Lufthansa flight and EgyptAir was just the local ground agent, so it was a German problem to solve, not Egyptian. After wearily accepting my host’s assurance that it would be looked after, I was grateful for reaching the hotel and the prospect of much needed sleep. But, as I opened the curtains, all accumulated grumpiness and fatigue evaporated. Floodlit, just half a kilometre away, rose the magnificent slopes of the great Pyramids of Giza. I must have spent at least an hour on the balcony savouring a cold drink, warm desert breeze and priceless view.
Reports from Afghanistan this week tell of of gunmen storming Kabul University just before the opening of a book fair. It reminds me of similar anti-cultural violence in Pakistan in 2015. Just two days before the Lahore Literary Festival was due to begin, a suicidal fanatic had blown himself up nearby. Officials tried to cancel the event but the organizers refused to be intimidated. Both the army and police vowed to provide protection. Some foreign ambassadors declined to attend, but over the course of three days thousands of Pakistanis and guests from around the world joined in a resounding repudiation of fanaticism and barbarism.
At the moment – and that’s an important qualifier – Nova Scotia is said to be the safest place from the COVID-19 coronavirus in North America, along with the neighbouring provinces cooperating as an “Atlantic Bubble.” Some other parts of Canada have spent Thanksgiving weekend locked back down after renewed outbreaks. The public health debacle south of the border in the world’s richest country beggars belief. Yet the Halifax waterfront has been lively during the summer. Most restaurants and pubs are open, albeit with limited occupancy, mandatory masking, physical distancing, and registering patrons for potential contact tracing. Shops, salons, other businesses and places of worship are struggling, but most are staying afloat. Those who can are working from home, and the public and private sector are doing their best to mitigate the economic hardships on the most vulnerable. So what’s making the difference?
A geographer friend has been encouraging me for a long time to try making story-maps, so herewith my first attempt – to begin, click here.
After two years of posting a new story each month it’s time to take a couple of months for site maintenance, upgrade and, perhaps, rebooting the design.
This post originally included a list of all essays from the beginning to latest. I’ve now incorporated that into the new “Index of Posts” page.
Some stories are so improbable that you just couldn’t make them up. This is one of them.
A decade ago there was much speculation about the newly-built port at Gwadar on the bleak coast of Pakistan’s underdeveloped and restive Balochistan province, better known for independently-minded tribes and a Taliban refuge than for maritime trade and commerce. Yet China had paid to transform this obscure fishing town, strategically located at the approaches to the Gulf of Hormuz through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes. I’d been hearing much theorizing among China’s rivals, but never met anyone who’d actually been there. So I went.
A timely trivia quiz for movie buffs:
1. What 1980 pandemic disaster movie used a Canadian submarine as a set?
2. Which submarine?
3. Who were the lead actors?
4. Which minor actor appears in the credits but not on screen?
The pangolin is a gentle little creature; harmless unless you happen to be an ant. It’s the only mammal covered with scales – picture a pudgy, pointy-nosed otter covered with large fingernails. When threatened it curls into an appealing ball that resembles a large seashell. Its most deadly predator is the human which, unlike other species, doesn’t simply hunt for food, but mindlessly drives any prey it relishes toward extinction. By some reports the pangolin is the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. But, to the satisfaction of those of us who cheer for the underdog, it seems that this mild-mannered little creature may have struck back.
March 1st being the feast of David, patron saint of Wales, puts me in mind of meeting the current Prince of Wales, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, at a cocktail party aboard the Canadian destroyer Gatineau. We were both naval Lieutenants, he serving aboard the Royal Navy frigate Jupiter as Communications Officer and me in one of Her Majesty’s (His Mother’s?) Canadian Submarines with the distinctly un-warlike name of “Rainbow”, after a British cruiser transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1910. Our respective vessels were making port calls to San Diego.
I hadn’t quite turned 15 when somehow I learned that Trans Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) would charter an airliner to organized groups for half-hour flights over Niagara Falls, flying out of nearby Malton airport (we still called it that, though it had been re-named “Toronto International” some months earlier). Being mad about flying I asked my Dad whether we could organize that for the youth group at the church where he was minister. Sure, he said, that wicked twinkle in his eye. Why don’t you do it? From experience I knew that an excuse of just being a kid wasn’t going to cut it. Dad was a born mentor.
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. Continue reading “Being Human on the Moon”
(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”?
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.
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.