The Bright Side of the Rhodo(dendrons) – Nepal 2024

Rhododendron Trees

And time seems to go by so fast
In the twinkling of an eye
Let’s enjoy it while we can (let’s enjoy it while we can)
To the bright side of the road
(Van Morrison)

I’m a great admirer of professionals who make difficult work look easy – none more so than the guides, cooks and porters who support foreign travellers in the mountains and foothills of Nepal. Mountaineers know this of course: few would reach a Himalayan summit without an extensive local support team behind them. But less recognized – outside Nepal at least – are those who support ordinary trekkers from around the world whose “summit” is not a mountaintop but rather a peak experience; walking spectacular countryside in the company of its tough, resilient, gracious and hospitable people.

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On the road again

Nepali Prayer Wheel

I’m off to Nepal again soon and may take the opportunity to do some site maintenance after I get back, so it may be a couple of months before the next post. Meanwhile, there are sixty-one stories from around the world already here (or, if you’re really bored and desperate for something to read, links here to published work on professional matters).  Otherwise,  I’ll be dusting off the keyboard again some time after returning home.

p.s. The picture is of spinning a prayer wheel en route to Mount Everest in 2013

Hitching with Truckies – Australia, 1979

Truck lights

“You’ll have no trouble getting a ride out of Sydney mate” I’d been assured. Hitchhiking was common in Australia and lots of people would be driving out of the city for Easter. So, standing on the outskirts of the city I was mystified at the lack of response to a jaunty thumb and cheerful smile. It was getting dark when the driver of a little Mini stopped, rolled down his window cautiously, and asked if I was having trouble getting a ride. And that’s how I learned two murderous rapists had escaped from a ward for the criminally insane, triggering the biggest manhunt in the history of New South Wales. And that the police description of one sounded very much like me. It was promising to be a long night.

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Of Kremlins and Camaraderie – Russia, 2005

Astrakhan Kremlin

Mention “the Kremlin” and most of us will picture the brooding fortress-palace in Moscow, and perhaps use it as a shorthand title for authoritarian Russian regimes, from medieval tsars to Vladimir Putin. But although it’s customary to refer to it as “The” Kremlin it is, in fact, just one of about twenty such fortified complexes still standing in Russia – ornate monuments to its vibrant culture and stormy history.

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An Advent Adventure – South Africa, 2002

South Africa train

Security was a hot topic in December 2002, just over a year after a gang of mostly Saudi suicides had hijacked four American airliners (along with the good name of Allah “the Compassionate, the Merciful”) to murder thousands on 11 September 2001. I’d been invited to give the keynote address to a security panel at the International Ocean Institute’s twenty-ninth Pacem in Maribus conference. It was to be held in Cape Town, but I wasn’t going to travel all the way to South Africa without seeing something of the country. So, I flew to Johannesburg to visit a friend in nearby Pretoria (the nation’s capital), then boarded a train for Cape Town, 1,500 kilometres away.

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Child Camel Jockeys – Qatar, 2002

Child Camel Jockeys

Many things will have changed in the Gulf States since I was last there. Happily, one of them is abolition of child slavery associated with the camel-racing industry – one of the richer sports in the world. Twenty years ago, I was appalled to see tiny, skinny boys, some as young as four, who had been trafficked from poor Muslim countries to be exploited as camel jockeys in Qatar. Across the region such kids were being under-fed, educationally deprived, often injured and sometime killed. Now, it seems, innovative application of technology has contributed to much-needed reform. Continue reading “Child Camel Jockeys – Qatar, 2002”

A Walk to the End of the Earth – Galicia, 2023

Cape Finisterre

Somehow I had imagined Spain’s Cape Finisterre – “End of the Earth” – to be like a finger of Europe pointing westward toward the open sea. But it isn’t. It’s more like an appendix, hanging “down” from north to south. And that’s part of the magic. The pilgrim who augments their Camino de Santiago (the “Way of Saint James”) by walking an additional 90 kilometres westward eventually turns south toward the point, through the charming little town of Finisterre. To their left is the familiar land from which they have come. Over the hill to the right, the western cliffs plunge precipitously into open ocean and empty horizon. It’s not hard to see why, for millennia, Finisterre was a revered destination in its own right; a threshold between the known and unknown worlds.

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Musical Diplomacy in the Middle East: 1993-1995

Rabin and Arafat shake hands

Thirty years ago this month the world watched as Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat joined US President Clinton on the White House lawn to sign what became known as the Oslo Accord. Nowhere was that being more closely watched than at the Canadian Coast Guard College, where wary naval, coast guard and other maritime professionals from Israel, the PLO and a number of neighbouring Arab countries were meeting for the first time.

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Epiphany at a Fire Temple – Baku, Azerbaijan, 2007

Yanar Das natural flames

On Azerbaijan’s Abşeron Peninsula jutting eastward into the Caspian Sea, the ground on a hillside called Yanar Dağ appears to be on fire. At one time that was not uncommon here. Indeed, Azerbaijan may take its name from the words “azer” (fire) and “baydjan” meaning “guardian”. Ancient traders and pilgrims along the Silk Road, including Marco Polo in the 13th Century, marvelled at flames emerging from the ground, and occasionally from water. Strangely enough, there’s even a (very) loose connection to the Christmas story.

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Death on St Sava’s Day – “Republika Srpska”, January 1993

Historic town of Trebinje before the mosque was destroyed.

The rugged back roads between Montenegro and the valleys of Bosnia and Hercegovina are not for the faint-hearted. Particularly in winter, with isolated checkpoints manned by unsympathetic militia whose discipline and sobriety could be questionable. But in wartime you go with what you’ve got. The brutal tide of “ethnic cleansing” sweeping the former Yugoslavia had finally reached a place that our team from the European Community Monitoring Mission had been watching closely. With a fellow monitor from Greece, along with our Montenegrin interpreter and French driver, we set out to do what we could. Thirty years later, my most enduring memory of the days that followed is of someone I never met – a decent, likeable and talented young man who made a split-second decision that cost him his life, but became a symbol of reconciliation for decent Bosnian Muslims and Serbs alike. Continue reading “Death on St Sava’s Day – “Republika Srpska”, January 1993”

Debate Tibetan Style – 2019

Tinetan Buddhist monks debating at Sera monastery

The shady courtyard of Sera Monastery hums with energy as dozens of maroon-robed monks pair off in philosophical debate. One defends a proposition calmly, seated cross-legged on the ground. The other stands; challenging animatedly, concluding each argument with a dramatic sweep of the arms and a stamp of a foot. It looks like some sort of exotic scholastic Tai Chi, and perhaps in some ways it is. But it also has lessons to offer on critical thinking in a world awash with digitally-proliferated information misinformation, disinformation, opinion and downright lies.

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Aircraft Carrier vs. Submarine – Exercise RIMPAC 1972

This weekend’s visit to Halifax by the latest and greatest United States Navy aircraft carrier, Gerald R. Ford, has put me in mind of a lesson from fifty years ago. Impressive as these great ships are, and while we can be justifiably awed by the technology, we shouldn’t get over-awed. Let me take you back to 1972 for an example.

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Operation “Pony Express” – 1953

Family watching coronation

On my first opportunity to greet royalty I flubbed my lines. As a six year-old lad welcoming the newly crowned Queen on her first visit to Wales, I’d been given a little flag to wave and encouragement to give a hearty cheer as she walked by.  I was well-placed at the front of the crowd, but when the time came to perform I was so over-awed that I just stood speechless with my little flag drooping [insert your own joke here].  In my defence, as well as being The Queen she was also the first TV star I’d ever seen. Her funeral last month reminded me of watching her coronation seven decades earlier, and a Canadian operation that made North American television history.

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The Hejaz Railway: Syria to Jordan, 2001

View from train

“You’d be silly to take the Hejaz Railway” the locals assured us. It would be primitive, shabby and slow. We could travel from Damascus to Amman in comfort by car, or even bus, in less than half the time. They were right of course, but for less than the cost of a movie at home, a friend and I opted for an excellent little adventure and a memory to last a lifetime.
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Kana’ta Day 2022

Canadian Flag

June First. Canada Day. Or, as we are calling it Halifax this year, “Kana’ta Day” to acknowledge the discoverers of this country whose descendants made it their home for millennia before Europeans mastered ocean navigation and gunpowder. “Kana’ta” is an indigenous work for “village”, which European arrivals mistakenly thought was the name of the entire country. Still, when you stop to think about it, that seems appropriate on many levels. Despite its many imperfections and inequalities, this half-continent village of ours is relatively one of the freest, safest and most affluent places in the world to live, notwithstanding the carping and tantrums of the trumpkins among us who persist on using that freedom to take their “fifteen minutes of fame” in spite of inconveniencing everyone else.

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Sharing the Wealth – Nepal 2013

Bus to Jiri

My friend Peter and I were about to embark on a 185 kilometre, eight hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Jiri, a village at the end of what’s generously described as a road. From there, we would be trekking with our Nepali crew to Everest Base Camp at the foot of the great mountain; retracing the steps of the legendary 1953 expedition that had been the first to put climbers on the summit of the world’s highest peak, sixty years earlier. Because seats in Nepali mini-buses are not designed for long-legged six-footers, the local agent for the ever-efficient Canadian Himalayan Expeditions had booked two seats each for us so that we could spread out a bit with our packs. “Don’t give up the extra seats” he emphasized. “They’re paid for”. That was easier said than done.

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Rhyming Conflicts II – South Atlantic to Black Sea

HMS Coventry sinking

When Russia’s flagship, Moskva, went to the bottom of the Black Sea on 14 April, it became the first major naval combattant sunk in war since a British submarine fired torpedoes into Argentina’s General Belgrano in the battle for the Falkland Islands, exactly forty years ago today. For me, though, the more pertinent memory of the South Atlantic war is the sinking of the British destroyer Coventry a little over three weeks later (pictured above). Someone I knew was among the dead, and some of the lessons still resonate.

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Rhyming Conflicts – Yugoslavia / Ukraine

Destroyed Church in Krazina

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
(Mark Twain)

The Croatian “special police” crowding into the hotel bar were singing songs of the notorious Second World War pro-Nazi Ustaše (Ustasha). All were sporting the “skinhead” look, which may be benign now but was once the fashion choice of neo-Nazis. It was late. I was bone-weary. Over the past few days I’d been responding to Croatian “ethnic cleansing” and cease-fire violations. I’d allegedly been shot at by Serbs, although I was pretty certain that it was just some Croat trying to inject a touch of drama into a front-line visit. As the child of parents whose lives had been upended by a Nazi regime, my feelings on returning to the familiar comfort of our hotel to find it full of neo-fascists would be difficult to put into words. But my job was to monitor, so I settled down to nurse a beer and watch.

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Portents of Putin’s Ukraine War – Halifax, 1993

In preparation for his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin deployed the flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet to the Mediterranean. Now, the powerful cruiser Marshal Ustinov stands between NATO’s naval forces (including Canada’s HMCS Montreal) and the Dardanelles, which link the Mediterranean to the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Twenty-nine years ago the relationship had been very different. Ustinov made a memorably visit to Halifax and conducted friendly exercises with the Canadian Navy before heading on to the U.S. Looking back, there were warning signs even then that if the collapse of the Soviet Union were not handled prudently, sooner or later Russia would become an adversary again. And so it has proved.

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Sable Island’s Lonesome Pine

Please note: There were some inaccuracies in the original post which are now corrected. My apologies.

A brisk wind was gusting straight down the expanse of South Beach as Debbie set Sable Aviation’s little Islander down with deceptive ease. Earlier that morning the Parks Canada team had scouted out a suitable stretch of sand firm enough, despite the rain which had cancelled our flight plans a day earlier. The spot was about four kilometres from Sable Island Station, the sole permanent habitation for those on the island for professional reasons. For the few hundred casual visitors permitted each year between June and October, staying overnight is not an option. By sunset we had to be airborne again.

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Snakes in the Cave – Batu, Malaysia, 2018

A 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur offered a perfect opportunity to visit the famous Batu Caves, a half-hour from city centre by commuter train. For tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists the main attraction is a profusion of flamboyant shrines and statues, particularly those inside the vast Temple (or Cathedral) Cave, 272 steps above the imposing guardian statue. Near the top, a gate on a side-path caught my eye, its sign welcoming passers-by to a “Dark Cave”. Checking that out after visiting the main feature turned out to be the best decision of my day.

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Remembrance Day – Kiel 1989

Each year, thousands of Canadians gather at cenotaphs on November 11th – Remembrance Day – to reflect on the futility of war, and to honour those who have paid a heavy price for their service. I have many personal reasons for standing silently at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month; the anniversary of guns falling silent in 1918, ending what had been optimistically dubbed “The War to End all Wars”. But from a lifetime of Remembrance Day memories the one that still stands out is observing the day in Germany in 1989.

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Mi’kmaw Feasts at Kjipuktuk (Halifax)

On October 1st each year Nova Scotia celebrates Treaty Day, when nation-to-nation covenants between the indigenous Mi’kmaq and British Crown (now the Government of Canada) are reaffirmed in Halifax (Kjipuktuk in the Mi’kmaw language). Yesterday, to mark the occasion the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre presented a program of dance, song, drumming and cultural teaching along with a free meal of Atlantic salmon to all comers as a gesture of the Peace and Friendship which the treaties were intended to nurture. The troubled three-century history of the treaties and subsequent colonial abuses is too complex to relate here, but is the reason why many people were wearing orange shirts of remembrance. But this was a day of celebration and reconciliation, which put me in mind of another, more ancient annual feast.

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Message to a Young Muslim – 2001

For some days after the al-Qaeda attacks of “9/11” I was among the Red Cross volunteers assisting some 8,000 passengers and crew from 40 aircraft diverted to Halifax.  It was the start of a brief time of heady opportunity, with America’s allies pulling together, and even its enemies acknowledging that the barbaric attacks were a step too far.  Reflecting on the United States’ recent surrender to the Taliban,  I’ll share something I wrote twenty years ago to a student at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University where I’d spoken some months earlier. “What do you think of the current Afghanistan imbroglio?” he had emailed.  I think much of my lengthy reply has stood the test of time – but with one glaring and deeply disturbing exception near the end. I’ll leave you to judge.

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Each summer I try to take a couple of months off to reboot, clear the mind, learn new stuff and refresh the spirit.  This year I’m also starting a year-long sabbatical from responsibilities like committees, boards, task forces and so on. I need the break, and reckon that organizations may need to do some soul-searching if they can’t manage twelve months without one, particular, chronologically and melanin challenged part of the cisgender heteropatriarchy. (For those who ain’t woke, that means “old, white, straight guy”.)

See you back here in September. Hopefully by then we’ll have all cooperated in outsmarting that brainless but tenacious little coronavirus, so tiny that it would take a couple of thousand to span the period at the end of this sentence.  And to those unwilling to follow simple public health guidelines, I offer this thought for the summer……

(With thanks to