Debate Tibetan Style – 2019

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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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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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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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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Êtes-vous un écrivain? – France, 2016

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.

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Holy Cow(s)! – Delhi, India

At Humayuns Tomb

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.

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Finding Private Johnston – Paardeberg, South Africa

Field Hospital

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.

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A Musical Interlude on Camino – Spain 2016

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.

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Cultures of Honour and Shame – Cairo, 1998

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.

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Transcending Fundamentalism – The Lahore Literary Festival

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.

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A James Bond Moment in Pakistan

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.

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Deadly Echoes – Talks in Tehran, 2004

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.

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A Mountain in Tibet – the Kailash Kora

Kailash and Mansarovar

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.

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Opening the Iron Curtain – Germany, 1989

Lubeck 1989

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!”

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From Baalbek to Beirut – It’s a Small World

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.

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Istanbul – A feast for the imagination and senses

(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. (*)

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Beyond Words – Reflections 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

Santiago Matamoros Sculpture

“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”?

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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. Continue reading “Hanoi – Reflections on the “American War””

Lowering Flags at Wagah Crossing

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”

 

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

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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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”.

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