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.
“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.
Continue reading “The Hejaz Railway: Syria to Jordan, 2001”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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……
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.(*)
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?
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.
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.
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”
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”?
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.
“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.
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”