Otherwise

Otherwise
opinions about life, work, and spirituality

Banquet; a day of research in Huddersfield, UK

June 17th, 2013

We uncurl ourselves from the packed train like roly-polies. We hustle out of the station loaded down with backpacks, suitcases, stuffed animals, diaper bags and a silver lap-top. My research schedule for the next two days is packed tight. My daughter, Calla, and my husband, James must accompany me on this foray because we can’t afford separate hotels over the next two nights.

The three of us hurry hand-in-hand through the square outside the station, but Calla breaks free and sprints to an ornate fountain, where she begins to undress. We sprint after her. Our luggage bangs over cobblestone and slaps against our limbs. I sit on the lip of the fountain, and grab Calla. She kicks an enthusiastic and giggly can-can while I attempt to fit her back into socks and shoes. I give up and James places our bare-foot three year old into the stroller. “I want to walk!”, she screams. “You can walk, but you need to wear your shoes and hold our hands,” James says. I attempt shoes again, not bothering with socks, but she returns to the can-can. I don’t have time for this negotiation, I think, I have research to get to! New tactic: laugh along with her and make funny noises as I trap her feet and shove them into her shoes. Her laughter stops. “No shoes!” she yelps from the stroller and flails her feet so that the shoes spin off into the air, plopping down metres from the fountain. James rolls Calla onwards as I snatch the shoes, livid, all but throwing the damn things in the fountain myself.

My play, Wolf at the Door, uses the Luddite movement as a backdrop for the sometimes humorous breakdown of a single family, the Grenfells. As we lumber past Georgian era buildings that would have been familiar to the Grenfells, our muscles ache and we sweat profusely under our cumbersome, heavy loads. The sound of my sobbing child is like the screech of a dental drill, and feels like the sharp pain of tin on teeth. As we rumble past large, square-bricked buildings, I try to make eye contact with locals, but people keep their eyes to the ground or to the distance beyond us. The city feels rough and hard and impersonal. We arrive at the hotel on the last dregs of adrenaline where we are met with a long, steep flight of stairs to the entrance. “Oh, come on!” I yell and kick my suitcase like a two year old in a tantrum. My husband shoots me an angry glance and my daughter cries more furiously. It feels that we too, like the Grenfells, are on the brink of breakdown.

Out of breath and ragged, we dump copious bags and backpacks in our bland hotel room. We barely speak as we quickly head for Huddersfield’s joint public library and historical archives. James takes Calla to the kid’s section, while I rapidly climb to the third floor, through a set of double doors to Reference and Archives. The large room has high ceilings and arched windows, with wood desks lined in the middle, and shelving along the edges, and feels cozy rather than cavernous. It has taken what feels like arduous years, but finally: I’m here!

I immediately approach a librarian and tell her I’m interested in how weavers lived and worked, and how local Luddites organized themselves. I’ve already been to Manchester, I say, visiting a working industrial revolution-era cotton factory where I had to scream to be heard over the clanking and whirring of steel machines. I sheepishly point out that I don’t have much time to conduct my research. The librarian stalwartly enlists her peers, and soon a team of superstar librarians lead me to a banquet of first-hand sources. I allow myself a moment to salivate before digging in; letters of correspondence, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, warrants for arrest, legal documents and even some photos.

I scribble notes, photocopy maps and take pictures of posters. I work solidly and seamlessly. Hours pass in what feels like minutes. I file through lists of weaving apprentices when suddenly a lively, fuschia-bright voice pitches across the room,
“Mommy! Mommy! Are you hungry? I’m hungry! Daddy’s going to take me to get some dinner. Are you coming?” My daughter swaggers across the room and beams at me, while my husband follows, alternately chuckling and apologizing to patrons.

Dinner already?! I look at the clock. The library doesn’t close for another hour. “Mommy! You need to come to dinner,” my daughter implores. A tightness screws across my chest and my head buzzes like radio static. The table before me is spread with books and pamphlets, a buffet of information. I have to stay here, I need my research time! This is what I came to England for! My daughter pats my arm gently, and the gummy smile she’s inherited from me spreads across her face. My husband looks at me, happily hopeful. Ugh. I swivel my head between my family and work.

Choose research; this play’s my baby!
Choose family; I love them, and they’re so hopeful!
Choose research; so little time to work!

The weight of my decision is as heavy as large, mechanized steel across my chest.

I hurriedly ask James if he can tide Calla over with a bun from a nearby bakery and wait for me while I finish. He nods and my daughter gallops towards the library doors, dragging my husband by hand. A compromise because: I want it all. But like Matthias Grenfell, will my desire to have everything undermine all?

Damper the thought. No time for philosophy. Return to research.

Two minutes to closing time, as librarians tug on coats to go home, I slap my book closed, only halfway through. I leave the third floor, my delicious buffet of information unfinished, interrupted. Like a starving beggar thrown an hors d’oeuvre from the doors of an opulent wedding banquet, I feel sickened by what I can’t possess.

I pass through the library’s front doors towards my family. Resentment pours off of me like bubbles off soda. James smiles, half-warily, half-hopefully, from the front steps. My daughter runs to me and places a sticky chunk of current scone into my hand. I take a bite.

The bitter tang of orange rind; the sting of unsatisfied research needs. But then: the sweetness of tiny currents and the rolling, smooth creaminess of butter. The pressure of earlier, the loaded-down exhaustion and subsequent misery dissipate, and with it, my fear and anger. This scone, offered so giddily by my enthusiastic three year old daughter, may not be a banquet, but in this moment, it is more than enough. Tomorrow is another day of research, and it, too, will be enough. My family will live through the chaos, just as we have before. I fall in line with my hungry family as we munch on tasty english pastry, unfinished notes slung in a bag across my shoulders, all of us compromised, but, grateful for this life, like our mouthful of scone; enough.

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Massive Recap 1: The Tour

October 10th, 2008

Okay, so I teased you with the last entry, as I was beginning the Winnipeg Fringe. I let you know about the whole process of writing a play, dramaturging and rehearsals, and then failed to give you the lowdown on the product. What can I say? Sorry! You can’t imagine – or quite possibly you can, if you’ve ever been self-employed and busting your butt to make a few nickels – how busy I was. Mostly it was publicity work. From sun-up to sun-down, if I wasn’t performing, I was yacking at people about how fabulous my play is, in an attempt to get bums in seats.

So how to recap? Here are some of the most vivid memories from the Fringe tour:

WINNIPEG

1. It’s my opening night, and I’m praying that more than five people show up. I’ve been passing out postcards to the crowds, confidently telling people about my fabulous play, and I’m ready to open the show! It’s a 10:40pm show on a Thursday night, and as time goose-steps closer to the appropriate time, I begin to falter. There is no-one in the audience. However, I tell myself, it doesn’t matter. I will play to whomever shows up. 7 people show up, and I play my heart out to them. I even manage to ignore the man in the front row who keeps falling asleep. It’s a good performance, and the miniscule audience is appreciative. This kind of thing continues for the next two nights; teeny-tiny audiences that give me standing ovations, cheers and hearty feedback.

2. It’s Saturday of the first week, and my show still has not been reviewed. I am stewing in a brine of frustration. This is my first Fringe, nobody knows me. Why are the papers first reviewing folks who’ve been at this game for six or seven years, who already have a great reputation to fuel their audience numbers? My audience is small again, but Eric, my technician lets me know beforehand that there are 3 critics in the audience. Finally. He tells me one of the critics present is Morley Walker from the Winnipeg Free Press. I’ve been warned about Mr. Walker. He’s the primary critic in Winnipeg, and apparently a very tough guy to please. A colleague tells me, “He doesn’t like ANYTHING.” Great.

I perform, well enough, and wonder how the critics will respond. Normally, I don’t check my reviews, but this is the Fringe. A four or five star-review can make you, anything lower can break you. And you need to be able to tell people all about your reviews, as you yack at them about your play. After my performance, I go to a colleague’s play, in the same venue. Morley sits a few seats from me. He taps me on the shoulder, “Thank you for that. I really enjoyed that. Very nice”, he says. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t need the critics to tell me my show is good, but I do need their help in getting greater audience numbers.

3. It’s Sunday morning. I check the newspaper. No review. It’s Monday morning; No review. Tuesday; nothing. I am in the brine of frustration again, pickling away my anger. I’m lonely, I’m all alone. My audiences are tiny. I feel like I can’t do this anymore. I feel ignored, isolated, unknown. All the artists are so busy publicizing, there’s no socializing going on, and I feel so very, very, very alone. Every performance, I go backstage, by myself. There are no friends in the audience, no family members waiting in the lobby and no co-workers in the green room. It’s just me. I tell myself, before each performance, when the seats remain incredibly empty and a great wall of quietness surrounds me as I perform, that numbers don’t matter, I don’t need that wonderful zinging energy a sizable audience brings. I can do this.

There are two things that keep me going at this point: the knowledge that I have an incredible support system back home (people who believe in my artistry and have formally commmited to encourage me), and God’s presence. Seriously. God is there backstage with me, so I am not completely alone. We pace the green room together, we both get an adrenaline rush before walking onstage and have to bounce up and down for a few minutes, and once onstage, he’s up there acting with me. My co-actor.

4. It’s Tuesday afternoon, I’m about to go for some dim-sum, when my cell phone rings. It’s my husband. My review from Mr. Walker is on-line. He reads it out to me, says I need to listen to it. What I hear is this, “Gorgeous brunette, expertly dileneates between characters, strength in writing, poetic, suspenseful, no distractions, holds our attention with our talent alone. Four stars.” I breathe a sigh of relief (and a chuckle about the gorgeous brunette comment). Thank you, thank you God. From here on in, the loneliness remains, but my audiences are sizable and appreciative. I get that wonderful ping-ping energy from my audiences. The other reviews pour in. They’re positive. I start to make some money.

SASKATOON

1. I’m in a Chinese restaurant in Saskatoon with a bunch of artists, and we’re talking. We’re having a real conversation, and not just about ticket sales or promo spiels or performing. The food is pretty bad, it’s mostly all fried, but we talk about all sort of things; childhood, eating patterns, spouses. My loneliness, so apparent in Winnipeg, like a strange taste in the mouth, an ache in the lungs, begins to subside. This is what Saskatoon is about; hanging out with the other artists, seeing their shows, conversing. I do a lot of this in Saskatoon, and soon I forget that I am a solo performer.

2. It’s Sunday night of the first week, and I am hanging out in the performer’s lounge, once again, conversing. My friend Julia is on the internet, and has found her review for her most amazing show, JAKE’S GIFT. It’s a perfect review; well written, overwhelmingly positive. She deserves it – the lady is one of my favorite actors and her show is beautiful, funny and tender. The performers congratulate her, and they really mean it. There isn’t any competition in Saskatoon. It’s a small city with a tiny audience base, and all the artists support each other. There’s a lot of postivity and love going around in Saskatoon. It’s really, really wonderful.

Julia suggests I check to see if my review is on-line, and I think, sure, why not? We open the review, and Julia gasps. The first thing we see is the posting of “2 stars”. Eeek, what the heck? We read on, and I feel strangely tinny. There is not a single positive statement. I think it’s possibly the most horrible review I’ve ever read, and I can’t believe the reviewer saw the same show my very appreciative audiences did. The reviewer likes nothing about my show – the acting, directing, writing, props, set. Nothing. It’s all shit to her. And, if I may say, her review is incredibly poorly written.

I walk home through tree-lined streets, a little numb. My audiences in Saskatoon have been small so far. And now, they will continue to be so. I know my play is poetic and touching. What was that critic thinking?

I wake up the next morning, ready myself to perform with the knowledge that the on-line review will now be in print in the city’s only newspaper. I go backstage, get into my costume, do all the normal warm-ups. I wait backstage at 15 minutes to performance.

It’s five minutes to performance. My tech approaches me cautiously, an apologetic look on his face. His voice is unusually quiet. “Um, uh, Tina, so it’s five minutes to performance, and uh, not a single ticket has been sold.” My heart drops in a rapid elevator dive, right into my shoes. I say, “Okay, well, if even one person shows up, I’ll perform the show if they’re comfortable with that.” He tip-toes away, a worried look on his face. Shit. “I can do this. I can do this.” What if only one person shows up? I feel completely humiliated. Like I’ve been stipped naked, and someone is pointing at my exposed body and laughing uproariously. Metaphorically, I look at my body and think, “It’s a great body; it runs and cycles, and hikes up mountains, laughs, cries, and experiences enormous sensations.” Nevertheless, it is disconcerting to be naked and laughed at. The thought of performing for one or two people, the words of that critic hanging between us, is too much for me. My courage fails. I phone my husband, tell him what’s going on. He prays. I pray. About 7 people show up, and I gulp, walk onstage. The acting is when I am NOT crying today. I make it to the end of the play, walk backstage, and begin to howl.

A performer calls me back onstage, and gives me a hug. He tells me I have nothing to cry about; that it was a great performance. He tells me some ladies were in tears as they left the theatre. Oh, he adds, there’s a guy from the local radio station who wants to interview you. I quickly change out of my costume, wipe away my tears and blow my nose. I did it. That reviewer can point and laugh all she wants at my naked body; I have nothing to be ashamed of!

3. Performer support. The next few days are awash with performers communicating their support and their disappointment at my shoddy review. One performer actually writes in to the newspaper, expressing his regret at the mean natured reviews lately, of which mine is included. Another performer tells me she is going to e-mail the paper because she’s seen my show, and really can’t understand how it deserved such a poor review. One performer notes, “But yours isn’t even a show you CAN give a bad review to. I mean, some shows, they can go either way, but not yours!” It is such an unexpected gift to be so generously given this type of support and understanding. I fully expected that I would simply have to tough it out alone. I am suprised, shocked and delighted. I’m pretty honest with people about how things are going – I’m losing money, my audiences are small, but, strangely, I am not unhappy. Most of my contentedness comes from the fact that every day I make a new friend, and in spite of the low numbers, I am performing my play, and it’s a priveledge.

On the last night of Saskatoon, there is a funny awards show. I recieve the award, “Performer with the Most Idiotic Review.” When asked what I would like to say to the critic who reviewed my show, I say, “Thank you for helping me out. You know, I wasn’t really The Saddest Girl in the World before.” It’s meant to be funny, but people think I’m serious, and a big sad sigh fills the room. Oh vey! It’s a joke, people! But thanks, anyways, thank you very much for your wonderful empathy and understanding. Adios, Saskatoon!

4. I guess, for publicity’s sake, I shouldn’t tell you about that bad review, but I wanted to be honest about the reality of being a solo performer on tour. The really exciting thing is that, from that bad review, I received a whole lot of kindness and care from my fellow artists. I was suprised, because my basic assumption was that this “biz” is cut-throat and competitive and full of egoists. My experience in Saskatoon proved me wrong. (I have reasons for that former assumption, none of which have to do with my experience at Pacific Theatre, but I thought PT was the exception, not the norm.)

So, there you go, my most vivid memories of the tour. A lot of hard stuff, but some really wonderful stuff too. Stay tuned for the recap of the Vancouver production!

Travel Highlights 15: Buenos Aires Day 3

December 13th, 2007

We wake late, after a barely adequate, interrupted sleep and stumble into The Hippopotamo for breakfast. I order apple pancakes, but realize when they arrive that they are a dessert item. Plump apples sleep under a bed of thick, crunchy caramel and a dusting of icing sugar. We pay for our bill, jittery from last night’s indulgence and too much sugar. We buy a giant crusty bun from the confiterie next door and savour its doughy plainness.

We walk to the Casa de Rosada, the famous coral coloured building whose hue derives from ox-blood. It is here that many Argentine revolutions and political uprisings have occurred. Evita gave her speeches from the balcony of this building. We hope to take a tour of the inside, but are disappointed to learn that none are being given today.

After a few choice words of frustration, we decide to take Subte Linea A (Subway Line A) to the National Congress. The subway train we ride, and the line we take is the oldest in South America. The car is panelled in rich, dark wood and boasts brass fixtures. Even the lighting is subdued, which furthers the elegant atmosphere. It is strange to look around and see people in sweat pants and coveralls and dirty jeans in such opulent transportation. It is nice though; a change from the fact that, in North America, the poorest are often denied aesthetics. Here, even the humble subway is a specimen of beauty (Linea A, at least).

The congress buildings are stately and ornate. There are plenty of architectural bits and bobs – curlicues, angels, gargoyle-type figures, swirling pieces, grooves, patterns etc. I’m sure there are official names for each of these architectural features, of which I am completely ignorant. The effect, even upon my ignorance, is pleasing if slightly intimidating. My intimidation is much lessened, however, by the fact that the Argentine parliament is set withing the confines of the city, on a normal city block. There are no sprawling, perfectly manicured green lawns surrounding the building, though there is an interesting park out front. The effect of the opulent building set in a normal city block, like a condominium or library, is congruent with Argentina’s political history; whenever a politician tries to intimidate, cheat or pull a fast one over the people, the people are there to shout and scream and demand justice.

Though I am not envious of Argentina’s troubled history of corrupt, murderous politicians, I admit, I am jealous of the people’s political fervour. Every Thursday a group of mothers whose sons “went missing” during the dirty war led by Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, in the late 1970’s, protest in front of Casa de Rosada. They protest not only the fact that 20,000 to 30,000 people simply “disappeared” during that time, but that later governments, including the current government, are resistant to bringing about justice by prosecuting the perpetrators. They protest in hope that the cycle of corruption, of politicians who look after themselves before looking after the people, will stop. Every Thursday as the Mothers peacefully protest with speeches and chants, hundreds of riot police gather in front of them, dressed in bullet proof black clothes and helmets. They stand behind hundreds of body length black shields, a protection from the Mothers’ words; the demand for justice.

James and I walk through this scene one day. We wind our way in between the shouting mothers and the hard, blackened police men. We walk in front of a giant tank the size of our living room at home, its long machine gun points across the street towards the shouting women. James wants to take a picture of this unbelievable scene, but I am wary. Argentines walk past us, converse and argue and laugh. None glance at the gigantic war machine parked on the sidewalk in front of us. Though many, as they quickly stride to work or lunch, glance at the Mothers, there is nary an eye upon the police. Their presence is felt, I believe, but unacknowledged. Such is the way we humans tend to naturally react when we find ourselves in the same room as someone who hurt us badly in the past. We skirt around the person, a dance of avoidance. Only when we are cornered, will we look towards that person, rarely focusing upon their face, usually letting our eyes drift over their shoulder to the potted plant behind them, and say a curt “hello.” The Mothers are different though. They walk up to that person, look her straight in the eye and demand an answer for all their pain.

Now, back to the Congress buildings. We walk away from parliament towards Café Tortoni. There is a link between Argentine politics and the cafés of Buenos Aires, in that many revolutions had their humble beginnings in conversations held over café con leche. Café Tortoni, at 150 years old, is one of the oldest cafés in Bs As. Inside, high ceilings of creamy stained glass windows mingle with antique furnishings and rich artwork that adorns the walls. The atmosphere is of supreme elegance. Our waiter has a dignified air typical of his profession in Bs As. I have noticed that most waiters are male in this city, and often old and always proud, whether the menu is pricey or not. Serving is not a job one takes as a stint in the summer in Bs As, but a career that will likely last a lifetime.

After we are finished our delicious salads, we saunter back towards our hotel, and drop in various stores on the way. We run into Kenny and Lisa, who look just as ragged as we do, and chat for a few minutes. They say they are taking it easy today. They have time to take it easy, I think, aware of the fact that they have taken five months off to tour around the world. They are appreciative of their travelling time, however, so I am happy for them.

Around 8 pm, James and I famished, but it is much too early to eat dinner in Bs As. Many restaurants will not open for another hour. We find a nice parilla around the corner from our hotel that opens early, and we practically run in drooling. The food is excellent, the Malbec delicious and at 11 pm, as the restaurant begins to fill with customers, we drag ourselves back to our hotel and collapse into bed. Buenas noches!

Travel Highlights 14: Buenos Aires Day 2

December 6th, 2007

We wake early and head over to the corner “Cafe Brittanico”, another neighborhood joint with plenty of character. After a very light breakfast of tostados (little cuts of French bread) with dulce de leche, excellent peach jam, butter and cream cheese, we buy a couple of pastries at the confiterie (bakery) beside our hotel. I am not helping myself to eradicate heartburn, but damn it, I’m in another country half way around the world. I’ll have my pastry and eat it too! The confiterie is an elegant store of burgundy flower flecked wallpaper, wooden racks that boast rough, yeasty smelling bread and smooth glass showcases filled with delicate, gem-like treats. I order a sweet, flaky little bun filled with the dulce de leche. Delicious! Fresh, buttery, creamy, rich and sweet all at once.

We saunter through Parque Lezama, kitty corner to our hotel. Winding walkways converge on each other through gardens of palms and conifers. We pass several dog walkers who attempt to guide ten or eleven dogs through the pathways and past the myriad of statues that sprout up everywhere, like the pop-up constructions in a pop-up book. We are on our way to the famous street of Camanito, and so we pass through one of BsAs most quintessential neighborhoods; La Boca.

We pass by the famous La Boca stadium where thousands of soccer fans meet to enthusiastically cheer on their neighborhood team and afterwards grapple with the competitor’s fans. This morning, it is quiet, however. As we walk, the winter sun teases us with its slanted warmth; the rays mellow the cool bite of the air, but it is still too cold to take our coats off. The neighborhood of La Boca is blue collared quirky. Iron corrugated homes sit next to old, ornate and solid houses which lie next to more modern, blank abodes. There are produce shoppes and butchers stores on every block, which interweave among the residences. The sidewalks are crumbled and uneven, but there are plenty of adults and children going about their daily business. The neighborhood of La Boca looks to me like a South American version of Sesame Street. It pleases the eye, and the heart.

We arrive in Camanito and are taken back by its gaudy tackiness. The surrounding neighborhood of La Boca is so so dirt-earth-and-bones-authentic that this area feels like Walt Disney’s cartoon version. Tourists are everywhere, and the snap of cameras is a sound like teeth upon teeth . The buildings themselves, in a plethora of vivid hues, are charming, but the area is hollowed out for the sake of tourism. No one actually lives here anymore. It’s devoid of that basic aspect which made La Boca so attractive – the daily humdrum of human activity and life. That isn’t to say there aren’t people around. There are plenty of tourists and a plethora of Argentines selling souvenirs.

We head into La Boca’s Museum of Fine Arts, which is mostly dedicated to works by Benito Horacio Quinquela. I’ve never heard of Quinquela, like most North Americans, which is a shame. His work is fabulous. Mostly focusing on dockyard life, ships and the sea, Quinquela’s art is idiosyncratic, full of movement and colour and thoroughly enticing. One portion of the museum is devoted to the artist’s paintings of shipwrecks, and here are some of his most compelling works. In one painting, a throttled ship looks like a gigantic set of blakened jaws that gapes open to show rotting, jagged teeth. Another painting is tranquil – a weeping tree bends its bowing leaves over a broken ship as light strands of soft grass grow upwards through the ship’s hull.

There is also an art exhibition outside, high up on the museum’s roof. The museum has built half walls along the edges of the roof and painted them brilliant coral, shrimp and agate. Delightfully and unexpectedly, sculptures of busts and heads sit in windows along these walls, their background the dockyards, sea, and steel bridges themselves. I imagine that a hurricane would topple these pieces of art, sending them crashing into the neighborhood below, splinters of heads, throats and chest sprayed over the sidewalks and alleys. Somehow this image pleases me; nature allowed to directly interact and toy with art. Sometimes I get a little sick of the sterile, scientifically balanced gallery air and atmosphere. Isn’t art about life? Then why do so few galleries encourage this sense? Here, heads balanced on the edges of window sills, open to brilliant blue sky and the neighborhood’s industrial body, I feel the danger, the heart beat of art, which is life itself.

In the evening, we walk to a music store/restaurant that advertises a jazz concert. We seat ourselves and order a bottle of Malbec. The band, a jazz quartet, arrives with instruments soon after ten. They are a shy, self efffacing group led by a sweet female pianist with a round face and dark owl eyes. We watch and listen as the musicians play off each other, like a game of tag. The night improvises away as we drink our Malbec (heartburn be damned, once again) and tap our feet and fingers in time. After two hours of playing, the musicians thank the small audience and begin to look for their guitar and bass cases. The audience lustily repeats “An autre! an autre!” and the band relents and plays one last song.

We hear a familiar string of vocal bumps to our left – english! We introduce ourselves to a couple from Scotland and a couple from Wisconsin. It is exciting to speak in english and all of us, made giddy from delicious Argentine wine, rattle on and on. We are asked to leave, and I brag to everyone that we really are the example of wild nightlife – to shut down an Argentine restaurant is quite a feat! Outside, the Scottish couple, Kenny and Lisa, invite us out for another drink. Drunk with wine and with communication, we agree and walk to the nearby “Million”, a posh, beautiful bar in an old stone mansion. We sit around a table in the garden courtyard, ivy on the stone walls around us, a square patch of black sky above us, and talk, and talk, and talk. I am heartened to share stories and we laugh at each other’s travel foibles. Finally, as the bartender wipes down his granite counter, we are asked to leave this bar too. Two hours have passed, and it is now almost 3:30am. We hail a taxi, and watch Buenos Aires whizz by us, too happy to speak.

Travel Highlights 13: Buenos Aires Day 1

November 25th, 2007

We arrive at our simple, clean hotel in San Telmo, one of the oldest barrios in Buenos Aires. We walk down Salle Defensa, a cobblestone one lane road lined with stately old buildings, antique shops and European style cafes (rather than say, North American style, ie. Starbastards). We are tired from our long bus ride overnight from San Ignacio, but have only a few days in BA, so we keenly march onwards. We head down Salle Florida, which has to be one of Buenos Aires’ more aggravating streets, in spite of the fact that its a pedestrian-only route. The street is fraught with commercial shopping stores, which each boast unbelievable sales and whose contents of colourful v-neck sweaters and angled leather jackets look blearily alike. The flow of people is compelling, and we have to fight our way past scores of salespeople on the streets who aggressively hand out pamphlet after pamphlet of advertisements.

We eat lunch off of Salle Florida, and are introduced to Buenos Aires’ dining (fabulous) and prices (jaw-dropping cheap). Up Salle Corrientes we tread, towards the giant obelisk that marks Buenos Aires’ 400th anniversary. We are in search of bookstore, in hope of a Spanish phrasebook, as we know even less Spanish than Portuguese. Argentina’s literacy rate stands at 98%, which is one of the best in the world, and certainly the most inspiring in South America. We figure if any place were to have the book we need, Buenos Aires, and particularly the notoriously bookstore-crammed area around Corrientes, will. We step into bookstore after bookstore, enthralled by the dizzying array of books and variety of architecture, but the necessary english-to-spanish phrasebook eludes us. Finally, we give up, and head back towards our hotel.

Three doors down from our hotel is the attractive Cafe Hippopotamo, with heavy wood tables and sturdy chairs, gilt glass windows and loads of character. We order what we think will be a light, but pleasant dinner: two salads, and a tortilla and smoothie to split between the two of us. What we get are two enormous cookie-jar sized salads, a tortilla the circumfrence of our dining table at home and a smoothie in a milk pitcher. My salad, which purported to be grilled vegetables and cheese, is in fact, someones entire vegetable garden tastily fired up with a full wheel of creamy cheese. The “tortilla” is actually a delicious omellete, stuffed with half of PEI’s potatoes, Italy’s sausages and England’s cheese. Needless to say, we are unable to finish our meal. The bill? About twelve dollars Canadian.

Earlier, while rifling through the Buenos Aires’ Herald, the city’s english newspaper, we caught an advertisement about a night of Argentine folk music at the Buenos Aires’ Cultural Centre. After dinner, we take a taxi to the Cultural Centre, and look forward to listening to some authentic Argentine music. We are befuddled, however, as we search through the cultural centre and see no similar advertisements on the walls, doors or in racks of pamphlets. The man at the information desk seems to know nothing about an evening of Argentine folk music. We head next door to the smaller art gallery and rehearsal hall. Music students with guitars, flutes, violins and cellos packed in hard sturdy cases or cloth bags strung from shoulders move past us, but there is no suggestion as to where the folk music might be. Finally, we ask a night guard, who through muddled english, explains to us that there is most certainly no folk music tonight. The night for folk music was a week ago. The english newspaper was wrong.

Disappointed, we tread for an hour back to our hotel. The cool air carries upon it the savoury scent of sizzling goat, lamb and beef. The streets are full of Argentines both young and old on their way to dinner. The sound of accordions zipping in and out; the sensual, appealing voice of tango beckons like a golden drop of aromatic cognac after a weary week of work. But we are tired, now, and even the sweet, sexy sound of Argentina’s music can’t lull us away from the comfort of bed.

Travel Highlights 12: San Ignacio Mini (Guarani Missions)

October 17th, 2007

It’s cold, incredibly cold in this tiny rundown town. But the sky is cloudless, with the most intense light filled blue I can ever recall seeing. We bundle up, tread over to the former Guarani Missions, the reason for our visit in this is poor, run down town. We stop on our way to the missions at a grocery store, which is barely stocked. The wooden floor wilts, and the concrete walls are gouged and pockmarked. The only produce here is green tinged bananas, hardy apples and long, thick carrots displayed on a dilapidated wooden shelf. Mostly there are bags of prepackaged buns and crackers, cookies and pasta. Children with grubby, patched sweatpants and frayed, holey sweaters play a game on the edge of the dirt road beside us that involves tossing and collecting coins. Nothing much seems to happen in this town.

With biscuits in hand, we make our way to the Missions. In the early 1600’s, Spanish Jesuit priests came to the “new world” of South America and sought to win souls for Jesus. The Spanish crown hoped to use the Jesuits to keep the natives under control in their imperial bounty. The Jesuits refused to be a political ploy, however. They built “missions”, little villages in which the native Guarani peoples sought protection from the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who would blithely force them into slavery. The Jesuits formed a kind of monastic community within these missions, while still allowing the Guarani to maintain their culture.

The Guarani people were deeply artistic and nature-oriented. Thus, the missions became places of unique artistic productivity, with work that reflected both the Guarani nature-culture and the more “sophisticated” European sensibilities the Jesuits imported. The missions are a fascinating piece of history in which community, art and worship coincide. They were by no means perfect; by post-modern standards, imperialistic towards the Guarani people. And yet the missions maintained the integrity of both the Jesuit priests, who sought to bring people to Christ, and the Guarani, who wanted simply to live as they had for years; artistically and naturally. If anything, the missions were pragmatic – the Jesuits found their souls to save and the Guarani were protected from invasive colonists and able to live as close to their traditional ways as possible.

Yet, to see the magnificent genre-defying sculpture and to listen to the pure, rythmic music, and to know that there was dancing and performances that came from this blending of two cultures is to know that something else was at work; something beautiful, in which there is conversation rather than dictation, choice rather than oppression, and art rather than war. In short, something Godly.

The missions themselves are now nothing more than crumbling walls with glorious facades and appealing tile-work. They are a place for contemplation. Set among leafy trees, sweetly pipping birds, jewel green grass and vivid robin’s egg blue sky, the broken missions are fully peaceful. As we stroll through the grass, we step upon crunchy leaves, left over from autumn, and the smell of things both growing and rotting is a wonderfully satisfying perfume. Everything is fresh, still, and yet there is movement. Some of the former homes of the Guarani people are full of velvety light green clover which forms a carpet where once there were stone floors. Birds make their nests in the wrinkling orifices of the mission church, and fleet in and out.

We leave the missions tranquil. As we walk the dirt streets and kick up stones in our pathway, I imagine this town as it might have been years ago; a place to meet friends, a place to make art and, in doing so, a place to worship God.

Travel Highlights 11: Iguassu Falls Day 3

September 27th, 2007

Once in Argentina’s national park, we take the short boat ride to San Martin Island. The roughly hewn rock stairs to the top of the cliffed island are steep and wet which makes the hike up them a bit of a challenge. The first trail leads to one of the more powerful falls. Thick mist sprays over us and into the pools beside us which brim with water and threaten to overflow. Yesterday was extremely rainy and the island’s crevices, holes and ponds are disturbingly full of water. The second trail leads to a view of a large, rock archway with a natural window that overlooks the “Gargantua del diablo” or Devil’s Throat, the most powerful of all falls. Crusty-headed vultures hulk in a nearby tree, soar above us and extend their thin, grizzled legs and pointed nails.

We head down another trail, away from the hungry vultures, along the northern edge of the island. Here there are views of the fast flowing river and steep cliffs, and smaller, misty falls. At the end of this trail, there is caution tape across the path. I guess we weren’t supposed to go on that trail, though I’m not sure why. Snakes (there are caution signs about snakes throughout the island), the risk of a landslide, the high level of water? We are all too glad we didn’t find out.

After a few last fleeting glances of the panarama of falls, we hike through a quiet forest trail. As we walk, the clouds part, sunlight filters through the canopy of the rainforest, and creates patterns like those of the paper snowflakes we used to make as kids. The trail is intensely peaceful and conjures memories of slow autumn meanders through crispy-leafed paths. We run across the now familiar “cutia” (very thin faced, fat bummed, cat sized rodents), who are typically skittish and tear away from us as though we were jaguars with barred teeth. An eerie, jarring song of mysterious birds is like an electric can opener set on speed dial; a continuously electric-sounding whir and pop.

We hike down a skinny path, and duck under bulging rocks, to a tranquil waterfall and pool. We don’t have much time, so after a few deep breaths, we turn and make our way back. As we stride homewards, I almost step on a startlingly bright leaf. I wonder about its colour, bend down to take a closer look and realize it is a leaf bug. It is a perfect replica of its surrounding geography, though brighter, with spindly legs and needle thin antannae. It moves slowly, like the ancient, wrinkled turtles we saw in Belem. As we near the exit, we watch a pack of giant vermilion soldier ants whose fierce scissor-like antannae are known to send humans into reams of pain. We stay comfortably distant.

Back in town, we lug our backpacks onto the luxury bus that will take us first to San Ignacio Mini, then to Buenos Aires.

Travel Highlights 10: Iguassu Falls Day 2

September 20th, 2007

We wake to the spatter of rain. Today we will visit the Brazilian side of the falls. I take out my trusty rain coat that covers so much of my body it reminds me of a burka; a sunshine yellow, transparent plastic burka. Ahem.

On our way through the Argentine-Brazil border we are the only two people to get off the bus to stamp our passports. Argentines and Brazilians do not need their passports stamped when crossing borders into each other’s countries. There looked to be one or two tourists on the bus with us, but I suppose they haven’t been notified that they need to take this pre-caution? We have read that tourists can get into trouble if they are caught crossing the border without stamped passports. Trouble in Brazil, at the hands of corrupt police or border guards, is not something we want to invite.

It takes a few minutes to stamp our passport, and afterwards we stand at the bus stop and wait for the next bus. We wait, and wait, and wait. There is nothing to do here at the border, and so we giddily amuse ourselves with silly games that involve jumping from one piece of cement to another. But as we continue to wait, the mood turns from giddy to annoyance. Where is the stinking bus? We try to think of another game, but there is not much to inspire us: a couple of cement blocks beside a roadway outside a looming industrial building, with fenced off fields behind us. And as it begins to rain more steadily, we try not to think about the fact that we are stuck on a couple of cement blocks in the middle of butt-nowhere, instead of at the beautiful falls. We’re in Brazil, I tell myself cheerily, we’re together as a couple. But as I think about the fact that we only have three weeks to experience South America, and that every moment is precious, I begin to feel even more at edge.

On our travels, we bump into many backpackers who tell us their shame and woe that they are “only in South America for five months” or “a pathetic eight months, man”. I grit my teeth at these backpackers, the spoiled brats of the travelling world. Most of them have cushy jobs at home in finances or advertising. Try being an underpaid artist, I think! We are here for three weeks, of which I intend to use to their very fullest. Except that, I am stuck at a border crossing, with cars speeding by, wheezing exhaust past us, as we stand in the rain on a couple of slabs of concrete. Grrrrrrr!! My agitation increases. Why couldn’t we have stayed an extra week, I think? Why does my job, er artistry, pay so poorly? Why do we have so much debt? And why do people complain about five months!!?? I am just about to rip my way into a long exposition about the injustice of our situation, when the bus putters up like a teenager on a Saturday morning. Finally, I think, and grab the steel handlebar to pull myself inside.

In the dryness of the bus, I am once again grateful. Three whole weeks to travel and experience! Many of the people on this bus will never travel beyond the border towns of Brazil and Argentina. Many of the people on this bus don’t know what a “holiday” is. I’m an idiot, obviously; a ethnocentric gringo. On our way to the entrance of Brazil’s national park, we are sidetracked by a woman who gives us information about the park, but then launches into a pushy sales pitch. I try to imagine the long expanse of three weeks and conjure my ethnocentrism, but at the same time, I watch the crowds line past us to purchase tickets, aware that we are now going to be at the end of a very long, deep line. The woman gabs on about the river tours, and I want to cut her off. In Canada, I most certainly would politely but firmly brush her off, but this is Brazil, and I don’t want to appear to be the ethnocentric, spoiled gringo that I am. Finally, she stops, a look of expectation on her pale, pretty face. “No, thank you,” we say,” sorry,” and we trudge to the end of the ticket line.

The trails through the Brazilian park are not as intensive or well planned as on the Argentine. Nevertheless, we take our time to enjoy the incredible sight, the earthy, leafy smell, the thunderous sound and the sensation of the mist that coats our faces. On our way to lunch, we run across a thick pack of scrappish coati who prowl amongst the tables and chairs for food. The coati here are nasty, as they have learned that unthinking tourists will feed them. They are known to be aggressive, stealing purses from underneath ladies feet, snatching food from people’s plates as they sit and eat. I am glad we saw these animals in a habitat untouched by people (in the Pantanal), peacefully lounging across the branches of a tree. Here, the coati are bandits and gangbusters, encouraged by unknowing visitors.

We end up at an all-you-can-eat-buffet. I never do justice to my wallet at a buffet. I am the kind of person the buffet owner loves because I hardly eat a quarter of any smorgasborg’s worth. I am lured in, however, by the mounds of passionfruit and guava on large silver platters near the entrance. As we tuck into our first plates, the rain begins to fall heavily outside. I am grateful for my tender cut of lamb (the best I’ve ever tasted), hot feijoada, and tropical fruit.

On our bus ride back from the falls, we must get out to have our passports re-stamped. We will be in trouble if we have an entrance stamp into Brazil, but no exit stamp. We reluctantly plod off the bus, into the passport office. Outside, the situation proves itself no different from this morning’s. We once again try to maintain cheer, but as the sky darkens, the temperature drops. Not only are we dulled by the sightless vista, we are cold. We wait for an hour, when a man in a tour bus says he will drive us to the Argentine side of the border for free. At the edge of Argentina, we wait still more. At least here there is a warm convenience store. Finally a bus arrives. We learn that our bus tickets are not valid for this bus, that we would have to wait for another fifty minutes for the bus our tickets are good for. Without a thought, we pull out some change, and pay the fare.

Long after dark, we arrive at our hotel. I wish that we had been like those ignorant tourists that simply stayed on the morning’s bus. Three weeks is a wonderfully spacious amount of time, but it is still short enough to feel precious. We are blessed to have the finances to spend such a long time travelling, especially (and I do not write this trivially) when there are so many in the world who have neither the time nor money to do so. It is our time, our life, which God has blessed us with, and I am anxious to experience it to the very fullest. I may be a spoiled gringo, but one who appreciates my blessings, the truly good in life, and who wants to revel daily in God’s creation and bounty. I thank God for every good thing I see, experience and sense, like a running soundtrack of gratitude that plays upwards and outwards – or at least I try my darndest to. Am I a hedonist? Oh, most certainly. But if I recognize and affirm from whom the bounty derives, and am sincerely thankful, is that so wrong??

Travel Highlights 9: Iguassu Falls Day 1

September 20th, 2007

The word for falls in Spanish (now that we are in Argentina) is “Cataratas”, a sound which bounces around the mouth like bumping down a watery canyon in a rubber tire. I use any opportunity to say “cataratas”, which causes pleasant, bubbly feelings in my belly. Even more pleasant, however, are the actual “Cataratas de Iguazu”; a paradise of tropical vegetation, brilliant flora, dominant powerful falls and pretty small and medium falls separated by moist green islands.

The cataratas in Argentina are surrounded and facilitated by a well planned national park. Steel catwalks, firmly embedded into river rock, lead across rivers and perch precrariously over the edge of falls. Stone walkways on the blade of forested cliffs lend the park a wild, untamed atmosphere. There is none of Niagara’s touristy exploitation here, but simply nature and extraordinary geography. The hundreds of separate falls which make up the total of Iguassu Falls are of remarkable variety. There are mighty, forceful falls with a strong convergence of sound akin to thunder, trains and rushing wind. There are luxuriously steamy falls, boldly exotic falls, scraggly stream-like falls and more and more. James and I walk the trails and catwalks for hours, explore the corners and nooks of this pretty park, and gulp down each stunning new view, like famished people at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

We take a boat ride beyond the mist of the falls, into the spray. This ride is no tame “Maid of the Mist” with octogenarians wielding cameras like champagne glasses. Here we, excited and nervous, are taken to the water’s massive eddies and swirls. The boat forces itself further into the turbulence, until waves crash over the boat’s edge, and soak everyone inside as they scream and holler. People leave the boat as if having swum in their clothes. (Except for me. I had a head to ankle plastic rain slicker complete with protective hoodie, which prevented me from getting all but a few wet patches.)

All in all, a fabulous day.

Travel Highlights 8: Pantanal Day 3

September 18th, 2007

Very early morning, while the howler monkeys still echo their gutteral growls across the jungle around us, and flocks of birds honk and “caroo!” above us, we hike to watch the sunset. Claire and Olivier, an amiable, well educated couple (she’s a neurosurgeon, he’s an architect) come with us, and we all tag behind the chipper, barefoot Mario through the back of strangers’ land and gardens. A partner of dusty mutts paw their way beside us, tongues already hanging out of slack jaws. From out of the twilight, unexpectedly, a trio of beagles sprint and lunge in our direction. I gasp. But the beagles force their way around us to the pair of mutts. One mutt speeds away, but the other is not so lucky. The beagles gang up on him, and all three pairs of pointy teeth sink into the mutt’s filthy fur and clamp down. The mutt cries in terror, a sharp yelp that makes me take a breath inwards. The mutt writhes with such quickness that he appears a tangle of skinny front legs, hind paws, long tail and body. I want to drive a shovel or tree branch into the beagles, who are relentless, but Mario treads on, and Claire and Olivier are right behind him, and even James urges me to stay close. There is nothing I can do, as I am a Canadian girl unaccustomed to dangerous dogs in Brazil. If I take action, I could end up with three sets of glinty beagle chompers through my ankles. So, frustrated and hoping for the best, I walk on.

The sunset is a beautiful vivid pink from where we watch it on the trestle bridge above the Rio Miranda, but my thoughts fly back to the mutt and the image of the locked jaws upon him. I suppose this is life in Brazil. Animals live and die without any of our silly human interception, let alone “dog spas”. Perhaps it isn’t a great way to go, but isn’t much different from the wild boar who tries to ungrapple herself from the caiman’s scissor teeth, or the capybara who, unlike Choochooga, finds himself in the strong grip of a rank smelling anaconda. It is the cycle of nature, is it not? And yet, I feel angry towards the beagles, those unthinking iron-fist militants of the dog world. On our way back for breakfast, I expect to see the dying mutt, blood spilling from its body and congealing in the warm air. I watch out for the beagles. But neither the bloody mutt nor the bastardly beagles I see. Back at the camp, I am startled by the sight of the mutt. He sprints and snuffles at the ground, nudges his nose into a mound of some sort of food. I look but can’t note any deep gouges, either. Did the beagles get tired of his wriggling? (Was it survival by wiggles?) Or did some owner mercifully call them off? Or did the beagles smell something else, something more satisfying, upon the air and leave the mutt for a potential meal? Mystified, but happy, I turn for breakfast.

After breakfast, we fish for piranha at the river’s edge with a simple bamboo sheath for a pole. I feel a pull on my line, and rapidly jerk my pole in the air, as taught to do. There is nothing though; the little bait fish has been nibbled away, but I have failed to catch the sneaky piranha. This happens several other times while people around me cry out joyously as they lure in big, fat fish. I begin to wonder if I am simply unlucky. I move downstream and stretch my line far into the water. Another pull on my line, and I wonder if I have been a victim of “the nibbler” again, but upon jerking the pole, a nice flat hand- sized piranha flies into the air as well. I dance a little at my success. Soon after, I catch three more piranha. I even unhook the steel piece out of the piranha’s mouth, (after learning how to do so), squeezing my fingers into the bloody, gooey part of the fish’s gills beside it’s teeth. Woowee! James catches a piranha and a very large fish as well, but only keeps the piranha for food. Later, our fish is fried, and in spite of my constant heartburn, I enjoy the fresh, moist taste of food I caught.

After a satisfying lunch, Mario’s eyes shine as he announces that we are to go tubing down the river. That is, down the river we just caught our piranha in. That is, the river that also sports caiman on its banks. It is the last day, and it is steaming hot, so I think, “What the heck! Why not?” Into the tin boat we pile once again, and our guide takes us upstream with black tubes in hand. A few of us are nervous. James and Olivier are trepidatious. Ed and Alice, the attractive British couple, head into the water first. Their tubes are nice and thick, the size of La-Z-Boy chairs. I look down at my patched up tube, thin and tiny, more like the size of a lifering. Mario is mischeviously splashing me, so I plunge my dinky tube into the water and kick water at him. Down the river I go…

We have all been told that piranha do not attack unless they can smell blood. While none of us have open cuts, it is still a bit troubling to think of sharp teethed fish swimming beneath our tubes. We watch as the caiman on the river banks slip into the water as we lazily pass. Oh dear. With something like gumption or stupidity, Claire slides out of her tube and begins to swim. Her toes are not nibbled, her breasts not bitten. Olivier, her partner, follows. Ed forces himself into the water, and even Alice foregoes the tube for a minute or two. Soon, I too am treading the slow moving river. James joins me quickly after. The water is refreshing, and all the more invigorating when one thinks of the perils beneath and at the side. I swim just long enough to call myself brave, and no more. Back into the tube I slide, happy to have swum, and all the happier to be in one piece!

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