Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: Calgary (page 1 of 7)

Firsts and forgets

Dr. Conley and I in Halifax.I love seeing people’s “first day of school” photos (especially those of my niece and nephew). While I was home in Nova Scotia last week, Acadia University students were moving into residence, some for the first time.

It has been more than 20 years since I was a student at Acadia, set on changing the world. I was going to be a foreign correspondent who would fly herself (in her own plane) to troubled regions and report the news. I would spread the word about terrible atrocities and make the world understand that it needed to help right away. I would force people to wake up and start caring. Yep, that was my plan.

I was reminded of these naïve aspirations a couple of weeks ago while visiting a professor / mentor in Halifax. Dr. Marshall Conley is a globetrotting human rights expert whom I first met when I was in his introductory political science class at Acadia. He also spearheaded a youth international internship program that paired volunteers under 30 with human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments. In 1998, I was one of Dr. Conley’s interns.

After finishing my degree at Acadia and then the journalism program at Ryerson University in Toronto, I was sent to the African Centre for Democracy and Human Right Studies in The Gambia as a publications officer. During my recent trip back to Nova Scotia, Dr. Conley (I still can’t call him by his first name even though we’ve been friends for years) invited my husband and I to his lovely home for lunch. When we arrived, I saw he had set out a photograph of the 16 interns he had sent around the world the year I went to The Gambia.

I blinked at the picture of young adults lined up in two rows. I had always thought that I would never forget the people in my intern cohort but here I was, blanking. While I remembered their faces, I couldn’t remember many of their names. It worried me. If I let these fine details escape from my brain, how many other things am I forgetting?

Dr. Conley came over and once he said who each person was, a light bulb went on inside my head.

“Oh, yes,” my brain said. “I remember now.”

I do remember. I remember tidbits about each person too. I remember where they all went, one to Estonia, one to Paris, two to Bangladesh, two to The Gambia (one was me), etc. I remember the excitement we all had when we were about to take off to exotic and strange locations. I remember the nervousness of heading into the unknown. I also remember trying to find a mosquito net in Halifax long before Mountain Equipment Co-op was a thing. I remember booking my flight that took me from Nova Scotia, to Iceland, to London and then to Africa. (Björk was on my plane from Reykjavik to London. She wore a white butcher’s apron as a dress and flip-flops with socks. The whole ensemble looked uncomfortable.)

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

I remember thinking that this internship would lay the foundation for my career as a foreign correspondent. In Gambia, I would get experience in human rights, NGOs, politics and policy and be introduced to new ideas and ways of life. With all these tools and insight, I would jump to an exciting and fulfilling journalism career.

I did learn a lot about human rights and statecraft and met all sorts of people from all walks of life in The Gambia. I also learned how to barter (my roommate was better, though), how to find my way through sandy streets and that unripe mangos make a tasty mango crisp. All these lessons and moments added up to a truly life-changing experience. I was on my way to making my goal a reality.

Then the real world got in the way.

When I returned home from my many months aboard, I needed a job. I got one in Calgary working as a news writer for a television station. I didn’t like working in TV and three years later, I left to be a pilot. Flying my own plane was the second piece to my world reporting aspirations. However, 9/11 happened and people were afraid to fly and the demand for pilots dropped. I did get my private licence but didn’t go on any further. I got a job at Mount Allison University and somewhere throughout the years, my dreams of being the flying foreign correspondent drifted away like clouds I flew through in my Cessna.

I'm flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

I’m flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

Last week while looking at the picture of the interns, I realized I hadn’t thought about my first life goal in a long, long time. It wasn’t that I had forgotten about it, I just needed a reminder about that “first.” But that’s why it was a first, because life isn’t linear and lots of other goals came after it. I’d still like to say thanks to Dr. Conley for giving me a step up on my way to changing the world. Because we all have in some way. While attending a pan-African human rights conference in Gambia, someone said, “’If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” (That quote has also been attributed to the Dalai Lama but I heard it attributed to an African proverb.) It’s true. We’re all making a difference.

Breaking up with Calgary

Nose Hill Park on a frosty March day.

Nose Hill Park on a frosty March day.

Dear Calgary,

It’s not you, it’s me. You’ve probably heard that before but it’s true. I’m not breaking up with you today because I want to, it’s because I have to. After living in Cowtown a total of eleven years, it’s time to move on. We’ll always have our memories.

When I first landed here in 1999, you were a bonafide city but you had doubts about yourself. Your skyscrapers weren’t Toronto height but you were growing. Downtown was dead on nights and weekends and Eau Claire Market was brimming with shops and shoppers. The mountains were farther away because the city limits didn’t stretch as far. There were independent cafes and no Starbucks and Tim Hortons were rare. A handful of diners managed the brunch crowd. You were friendly yet feisty.

I left you three years later. It was definitely you then. I wanted to experience other places and sights and sounds. So I went and did interesting and new things. (Some not so interesting.) Then you called me back in 2010 and I’m glad you did.

Returning to Calgary wasn’t hard. Friends I had made here earlier and kept in touch with were incredibly encouraging and supportive. I came back for work and a job that was strictly contract. It went week-to-week and I never knew when it was going to end. That’s when our relationship wavered. I felt you weren’t committed to me. Also, you had changed.

Your ego was larger than I remembered. You were loud with your streets full of large and roaring vehicles. Nine times out of ten, I was yelled at by drivers when I went for a walk or a bicycle ride. Downtown was humming with people and Eau Claire Market wasn’t. Chain cafes were everywhere. Your skyscrapers touched the clouds and the mountains were even closer as houses spread and spread and spread and the city limits moved with them, taking over former pastures.

However, in the last few years, you’ve mellowed and I’ve seen your true personality break through during the

All day I kept seeing hearts around Calgary - on the sidewalk, in Starbucks...

All day I kept seeing hearts around Calgary – on the sidewalk, in Starbucks…

rough times. Calgarians of all shapes and sizes and ages joined hands and helped their neighbours after the 2013 flood. I was one of those who put on rubber gloves and rubber boots and dug into the mud to rescue photographs and silver cutlery. I met my husband through you and together we have wonderful friends, born and bred Calgarians and others from across Canada and around the world. I’m upset about leaving them. I’m upset about leaving you too, Calgary, but I know you’ll understand. It’s part of your nature, your boom and bust attitude. You’ve seen bad times and good and been my home during both.

When I visit, I’ll remember my life here with you was woven with cold mornings and warm afternoons, cowboy hats and boots, lemon yellow autumn leaves, the rush of the Bow under the Centre Street Bridge and your people, friends of mine and foes of the bicycle. Thanks, Calgary. I’ll always love you.

The pulse of Hong Kong

View of Hong Kong from Mid Levels.

View of Hong Kong from Mid Levels.

“Can you get to Vancouver on Friday?” texted my friend late Wednesday night. “I can get you to from Hong Kong from there.”

Ummm…

 

“Sure!” I said, from Calgary. One perk of being self-employed is that I can work from anywhere, any time, 70 per cent of the time.

Two days later, on Friday April 28, I started the voyage west, waaaay west. I landed Saturday night and was immediately whisked away by my long-time friend Digger and her husband, VC, to an 80s dance party. It was a lot of fun grooving to the tunes of my youth. (Am I old?) The action didn’t stop there. I was constantly on the move seeing the Hong Kong sights and eating the Hong Kong delights.

Hong Kong was incredibly different from what I had imagined it to be. I thought it would be one massive city with tall buildings everywhere, traffic honking all the time and people crowding the streets. However, it is not like that.

The city pulses and breathes along with the waves surrounding it. It’s a city of energy and is always awake. There’s a lot of steel and skyline made up of many skyscrapers that are surrounded by lush green hills. There are hiking trails and beaches and quiet spots right in the city. The weather was fantastic and a little bit humid and a little bit hot: not super moist and suffocating. My friends took me to Repulse Bay and I swam in the China Sea. The next day, we hiked the MacLehose Trail, a trail that crosses the New Territories, and played Frisbee on Tai Long Wan beach. I swam here too and kicked something large and soft under the water.

“There have been shark attacks here,” said VC and we quickly kicked to shore.

After an afternoon of surf and sun, we took a boat back to where we had left the car. I think bull riders at the Stampede get gentler rides. Let’s just say the ups were up and the downs were very hard downs. Nevertheless, it was a good way to get the sand off your towel and get a facial scrub at the same time.

From boats to buses, I took the #15 to Victoria Peak almost every day. The peak is an incredible look off over of the city and harbour from the top of Mount Austin – if the fog, humidity and smog don’t drift over the view out of the view. Before vehicles wound their way up the steep road, residents who lived at the top used sedan chairs – chairs that had poles on each side that people used to lift and carry up hill. That would be one tough hike for the porters.

Besides the bus, you can also take your own car or a taxi or the train. When you arrive at the peak, there are two malls and many places to eat and get out of the heat. I didn’t mind the warm temperatures (around 27 C) and humidity after surviving a cold and dry Calgary winter. 

The summit is great for getting the blood pumping to the legs after a long flight (although the dancing from the night before was good for that too.) The walk I did was mainly Harlech Road, a paved and flat loop that goes around the peak. Early in the morning, the path is used by runners and dogs and their walkers. Later in the morning, the path is full of tourists. (I was one of them on my first day.) The loop is about 3.5 km and took me an hour to complete.

One day, I went off the beaten path … and into the path of a wild boar. Some seniors warned me about the big pig and while I didn’t see it, I could hear it crashing through the forest. Another time, I took Plantation Road and saw some amazing houses. The peak is known for being at the top of the luxury real estate market. 

Hong Kong is renowned for its food and I sampled a lot, thanks to Digger and VC. We went to hotspots like Little Bao (bao is a steamed bun) and Ho Lee Fook (which means “good fortune for your mouth”). Both places had fresh and interesting cuisine that I had never tasted before. From Fish Tempura (fish in a bao) and Prawn Toast and Okonomiyaki – it was all spectacular. 

For a more traditional experience, we went for dim sum at Maxims. It was my first time for dim sum and it was amazing.

Maxims is in city hall and constantly full on Sundays, when we decided to go for brunch. But there’s an app that lets you get a number and wait at home instead of waiting in line. But I’ll wait in line all day for Maxims now that I know what dim sum takes like. Why haven’t I had dim sum before? I don’t know. It’s just nothing I’ve ever thought about.

Servers walk around with trolley full of mouth-watering treats. Some servers are nicer than others but the glares are part of the charm. There are hundreds of dishes to choose from and we only had about nine of them. It was filling and delicious.

Next week I’ll tell you my shopping stories. Oh goodies.

Shared stories

ebook cover.

Cover by Eveline Kolijn.

Stories bind us. Words tie society together with strands of familiar narratives and shared experiences. Not all stories are happy ones but there’s value in listening to how people are dealing with tough times. You may also learn others are more like you and me than you know.

I heard a lot of these types of stories when I was a volunteer artist facilitator for This is My City Calgary Art Society (TMC). TMC is a not-for-profit organization that brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status.

The following is a story I wrote a couple of years ago after a memoir writing session at the Calgary Drop-in and Rehab Centre.

Shared stories

Today only two participants showed up for my last life writing workshop at the Drop-In Centre. Two regulars. Four other people were in the same space painting and drawing and playing the piano.

I was disappointed one man hadn’t made it to my class. He had been to the three other sessions and was an active learner. He asked a lot of questions and even wanted homework, which he always completed. I asked the other writers where the man was.

“Cheques are out,” one participant told me. “He usually disappears for a while after he gets his money.”

At first, it was a let-down that the man was missing the class. I liked him and having more than two people in my workshop made the low numbers easier to handle. Nevertheless, I gave my lecture like I have the other times. The two men were just as interested in what I had to say and asked questions. They took part in the writing exercises and wrote interesting and compelling memoirs. It was a lesson to me about numbers and participation. Even though there weren’t many people, two people wanted to learn. Wanted to write. And now have stories to share.

A collection of stories by the authors above as well as Alpha House and the Women’s Centre is now available for sale: http://bit.ly/2jHfyvu Profits from Voices in the Wind fund TMC artistic workshops: http://bit.ly/2k4Wymv

Gifts not presents

Woman sitting in Fanas, Switzerland.

My big ugly coat I can’t find. I’m in Fanas, Switzerland here.

Christmas is on the horizon and for many of us, that means lots of cookies and eggnog and family time. My immediate family (and family-in-laws) don’t live close enough to us to hop over for some seasonal cheer but my husband and I consider our friends as extended family.

It’s a gift we have these people in our lives in Calgary. This week though — this cold, cold week — I’ve been thinking about other gifts that I’m grateful for: and not expensive presents.

It’s super-duper freezing outside and I walk everywhere (most everywhere). Somehow, I’ve lost two winter coats. Oh I know they’re packed in boxes but I’m not sure which boxes. I didn’t label them when I loaded them full of housewares and clothing and knickknacks in preparation for a move. Well, that move hasn’t happened yet but winter has. I did know where one special winter coat was put and dug it out.

The special coat was my Nana’s. It’s pink and pure virgin wool (so says the tag) and has a fur-lined hood. Nana lived in northwestern Ontario and it’s cold there. The coat must have worked because she used it for a long time and then handed it to me before I moved from Nova Scotia to the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) about 10 years ago. I never used the vintage coat in the N.W.T. because I had a black, puffy parka that looked like a sleeping bag on steroids.

Now I can’t find that black coat nor another black parka that looks almost the same. I had to start using my Nana’s coat. I put it on today and walked downtown in the -33 (with wind-chill) weather. It worked! I was warm and cozy in the wool coat and I even got some compliments on it while I was shopping in the mall.

I never saw Nana again after she gave me the coat: she died soon after I went to the N.W.T. Her gift is finally being put to use 10 years later and I’m grateful for its warmth and the reminder of her as a flesh and blood person. She wasn’t always an old woman. She wasn’t always my Nana. She was young and had ideas and dreams and perhaps, in her coat, she lived some of them.

Cold Calgary: view from Nose Hill Park.

Cold Calgary: view from Nose Hill Park.

Another gift is the gift of nature in the city. Like I said and many of you know, it’s freaking cold. But have you seen how beautiful it is outside? The fog rolling off the Bow River in the morning turns everything around it silver. The fresh snow covering the brown leaves on the ground and ugly grey pavement convinces us that the streets are pretty and Christmas is just around the corner. At night, when the festive lights are turned on, they still can’t compete with the stars. The clear cold air only accentuates their brilliance, reminding me that I’m one small person on this large planet.

With the holidays comes goodwill. People hold doors open for me. They stop their vehicles to let me cross the street. They put down their mobiles to engage in conversation with me, a stranger. This is a great gift and I wish it continued all year long because this is an important gift: the gift of time. Taking a couple of seconds to be friendly doesn’t take much and you’ll never know how deeply your kindness was felt.

“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The Forgotten War

Korean War photos.

Korean War photos. Photo Credit: By All photographs are works of the United States federal government. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed the Forgotten War, the Canadian participation in the Korean War is overshadowed by our efforts in the First and Second World Wars. I barely knew about the Korean War when I was in secondary school. My only connection to it was the names of the men who fought in that conflict being called out at every Remembrance Day ceremony in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. When I moved to South Korea after graduating university in 1997, this all changed.

I was an English teacher for half a year in South Korea. My first post was in Puyo (Bueyo), a rural town about three hours south of Seoul. When I wanted a taste of the big city, I took a bus to Taejon (Daejong), about an hour northeast of my Korean home. In the middle of the trip, the bus passed a war memorial. Huge bronze soldiers hoisted guns into the air on a gravel patch beside the highway. No one on the bus or in Puyo could ever tell me what the monument was for but it brought the Korean War to the forefront of my mind.

Twenty years ago it wasn’t hard to remember a war had been fought all over the peninsula. Sure, South Korea was a bustling place with lots of trade and tourism and great food. But there were signs that it was still on alert, ready for action in case the North decided to attack. There were armed soldiers at train stations, bus stations and sentry points on beaches.

The war between South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) started on June, 25 1950 when the DPRK invaded South Korea. In February of the next year, Canada, as part of a United Nations (UN) force, entered the war. Around 26,791 Canadian military personnel took part in combat as well as observer roles after an armistice was signed in July, 27 1953. The two Korean countries have been in an uneasy ceasefire ever since.

During my teaching stint, I hopped on a bus and took it to Inchon (now Incheon) to visit a fellow English teacher, Niki. In 1997 Inchon was a growing city. In 1950, it was an important port for Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and within striking distance of North Korea. It was also the scene of the Inchon Landings in September 1950 where the UN forces recaptured Seoul and delivered a tremendous wallop to the North Korean Peoples Army (KPA). It was a strategic and crucial victory for South Korea. (UN forces began hitting the KPA from the sea. The Royal Canadian Navy was a part of this attack.)

When this Canadian got off the bus in Inchon forty years later, I didn’t have to contend with shells going off or bullets whizzing by me. There were ROK military all over the place, an obvious sign of lingering tension, but I left that all behind once I left the station. I met up with my friend and we went for a hike in the hills of Inchon. It was New Year’s Day and sunny and bright. The temperature hovered just around zero and it was perfect for a jaunt outside. We walked up and up through a patch of fir trees tree and then waded through tall golden grass. We could see the ocean, the blue Yellow Sea, as we ascended higher into the hills. Soon we were walking along a ridge strewn with broken barbed wire. Along the way were worn concrete bunkers and broken down sentry posts. Were these remnants from the Korean War? Had we stumbled upon history? I’ll never know.

That’s the problem with being a traveller sometimes. With no one around to tell us what we were looking at or signs to guide us, we had no idea if these ramparts were from the war or just part of everyday life on the south side of Korea. I later asked my Korean friends about the military ruins but they didn’t have any answers. Neither did the internet, then and today.

Modern-day Incheon (the spelling was changed in 2000) is the site of an international airport. My husband and I landed there when we went to Korea this past May. The city has exploded in size, both population and square footage, and is the third most populated place in South Korea. I wonder if the remnants of what I had seen so many years ago still exist. The war certainly does although you wouldn’t know it. Seoul is a cosmopolitan city and no different from any other city in the world even though it’s just over 56 km (35 miles) from its enemy. There are no longer soldiers patrolling the train and bus stations because technology (CCTV) can be everywhere at once. That all changed when I went to the DMZ.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

North and South Korea are separated by the demilitarized zone (the DMZ), that’s only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The DMZ acts as a buffer between South and North Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. My husband Jason and I signed up for a DMZ tour and left on a bus one morning to get a glimpse of the other side.

As we headed out to the demilitarized zone, we began to see the markings of a country on guard. The highway skirting the river leading to the Yellow Sea had barbed wire wrapped around the guardrails and every few metres there were covered platforms with soldiers stationed in them. In some of these little houses, I saw the soldiers hunched over their guns pointed out to the water, ready to fire at any moment.

Guard post.

At the DMZ, the tension is high. We’re told when to take photos and not to make any gestures or faces towards the North Korean side. In one of the buildings on the South Korea side, there’s a plaque honouring the Canadians who fought in the Korean War. The bronze marker is one among 15 other United Nations countries that fought alongside South Korea and Canada. Five hundred and sixteen Canadians died in the Korea War, far less than the First and Second Wars. But they still sacrificed their lives for peace.

Plaque at the DMZ.

Plaque at the DMZ.

It’s only writing this blog piece that I learned that the first Canadian infantry unit to take part in the Korean War, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), was trained in Calgary. Another connection to the Forgotten War, this one in Canada. Lest we forget, the Forgotten War.

Healing history

Sir Frederick Stanley Maude leads the Indian Army into Baghdad, 11 March 1917.

Sir Frederick Stanley Maude leads the Indian Army into Baghdad, 11 March 1917.
Photo credit: Mrs. Stuart Menzies (1920). Sir Stanley Maude and Other Memories. p. 48., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11766648

I’m writing a blurb on the history of the Iraqi Royal Medical College for a client. From what I’ve heard and read so far, it’s fascinating. However, there’s not a lot of material written in English and there are holes in the story that need to be filled.

In 1958 there was a coup d’état and the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown and imperialism denounced. The Royal Medical College’s name was changed to the College of Medicine University of Baghdad. I’ve e-mailed three people at the college to get some additional information but haven’t heard back. Anyone out there know of a source to contact or a book I’ve missed? I specifically want to know how many M.D.’s went through the college from 1927 up until the 1958 coup. Thanks!

Entrepreneurial balance

Calgary, Alberta skyline at sunset.

Calgary, Alberta skyline at sunset.

Capital Ideas Calgary is a community that links business owners to an important resource: other business owners. Each week, Capital Ideas puts out a question that’s answered by entrepreneurs based on their experiences.

In June, Capital Ideas Calgary asked businesses: How do you maintain life balance as an entrepreneur?

Here’s my answer published in the Calgary Herald on June 16, 2016: http://capitalideascalgary.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/CH-0616-final.pdf

Another question Capital Ideas Calgary asked was: Is it time to launch your business?

Here’s my answer published in the Calgary Herald on January 21, 2016:

Is it time to launch your business?

Then to now

View of North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK).

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK).

I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.

South Korea

Part V of Singapore ‘16

I had been to Seoul twice when I lived in South Korea 20 years ago. I had gone with friends, both Korean and Canadian, to explore the markets and go salsa dancing at a Cuban bar. Seoul was huge at the time and I remembered walls of people coming towards me like an ancient Greek phalanx. Not so 2016. The never-ending flow of people coming at me from all angles didn’t seem to exist like it once did.

View of Seoul.

Seoul.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of people, over 10 million, in Seoul. I think I didn’t see the crowds because Jason and I used the metro (subway) to move around the city. We weren’t out and about when students were going to and from school. There were other differences I noticed about Korea from then to now. Where were all the soldiers patrolling the train and bus stations? Twenty years ago, the military was everywhere. Today I still saw soldiers in uniform but they weren’t on active duty. They were sitting on the bus going home on leave or eating in a restaurant. They weren’t on patrol.

Young women used to cover their mouths when they laughed. That isn’t happening anymore. Girls weren’t walking arm-in-arm either. The vendors who used to sell dried squid to bus passengers didn’t board the vehicle and walk up and down the aisles, hoping to grip your taste buds. Things have changed. But despite the things I found different, one thing has stayed the same: the threat of North Korea.

South Korea and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK)  have been in a ceasefire since the Korean War in the 1950s. The two countries are separated by the demilitarized zone (the DMZ), that’s only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The DMZ acts as a buffer between South and North Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Tourists can visit the DMZ but beware; you can also be shot while seeing the sights. Jason and I decided to live on the edge and signed up for a DMZ tour.

I think it’s kind of strange to travel to a border for a peek into another country’s way of life. But North Korea is fascinating in a dark and twisted way. Nowadays you can travel to North Korea and visit places handpicked by the government but Jason and I didn’t want to give Kim Jong-un’s regime any of our money. Instead, we settled for a glimpse from the South Korean side. We went to the DMZ with Koridoor, a tour company in Seoul affiliated with the USO (United Service Organizations), an organization for U. S. military personnel. Our DMZ tour left from Camp Kim, a U.S. military base.

The tour left early in the morning and the bus was filled with tourists of all nationalities but mainly Americans from the Rotary convention. As we headed out to the demilitarized zone, we began to see the markings of a country on guard. The highway skirting the river leading to the Yellow Sea had barbed wire wrapped around the guardrails and every few metres there were covered platforms with soldiers stationed in them. In some of these little houses, I saw the soldiers hunched over their guns pointed out to the water, ready to fire at any moment.

Guard post.Seoul is so close to the DMZ, just over 56 km (35 miles). The South Korean capital is always hopping with people going to and from work and school and living life: business as usual. The people here know their world hangs in the balance. But what can you do when your neighbour is hostile and doesn’t care about human rights?

We started our tour at Camp Bonifas, a United Nations Command military post, where a U.S. army private gave us some history about the DMZ. (I thought I had a good grasp on the background but there’s a lot I didn’t know. Google it.) Going from cosmopolitan Seoul, to the strict rules of the DMZ was a big change. Private Chun (a Korean-American raised in California) told us not to point or make gestures of any kind. This is so the North Koreans can’t use it as propaganda. (Pointing is rude in Korean culture.) He also told us not to take photographs until he gave us the word. (Although this didn’t stop some people.) Then we continued on to the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Joint Security Area (JSA) sign.It’s at the JSA where the two sides face each other: South Korea on one side. North Korea on the other. We went into a building where the sides meet and I stood, technically, in North Korea for five minutes. Private Chun said sometimes North Korean soldiers will make comments and laugh at the tourists but no one bothered us that day. We could see one North Korean solider posted at a building on the other side. There was a second man who we couldn’t see because he has his gun trained on the first man in case he decides to defect and bolts for the South. Then the second man will kill him.

The JSA is surreal and fascinating. It was a solemn occasion too. There was nothing to be smiling about when the people on the North side are being governed by megalomaniacs. Many South Koreans have family in North Korea and it must be heartbreaking to be apart from them. From the JSA, we stopped at a view point of the Bridge of No Return. It was used as a prisoner exchange point but is now just a landmark. Off in the distance there looks to be a North Korean city. Except it’s just the façade of buildings. It’s the fake city of Kijong-dong and the only thing active there are loudspeakers blaring music and propaganda messages. There’s also a gargantuan flagpole erected in response to one built on the South Korean side.

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) soldier.

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) soldier.

Meeting room in "Truce Village" at the JSA.

Meeting room in “Truce Village” at the JSA.

South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) soldier.

South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) soldier.

Divide between south and north. I'm standing on the North Korea side.

Divide between south and north. I’m standing on the North Korea side.

Bridge of No Return.

Bridge of No Return.

There’s a lot of background and events that I’m glazing over. My story is about my experiences, not the minutiae of the history. The North Korean propaganda directed at South Koreans would be laughable if it all wasn’t so terrible. There are no limits on what the North Korean leaders have done or are doing to their people. Efforts for unification are under

way by some South Koreans. A train is ready to roll into North Korea at any time although only sightseers visit the eerie stop to nowhere today.

JSA. Looking towards North Korea side.

JSA. Looking towards North Korea side.

Over a lunch of bebimbap (rice and egg), Jason and I sat with an off-duty American soldier. He had been stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and was in Korea for his second time. Growing up he had adopted Korean siblings and so Korea wasn’t a new experience for him. However, he had never been to the DMZ. We chatted about what we saw and his time as a solider. I asked him why I wasn’t seeing Korean soldiers posted around the country.

 

“They used to be all over the place,” I said, “even on the beach.”

“With today’s surveillance technology like CCTV (closed-circuit television), you don’t need people anymore,” replied the American solider. “You can monitor far more now with cameras and other systems.”

Train station. One of our last stops on the DMZ tour was to a tunnel known as the Third Tunnel of Aggression. North Korea dug 1,600 metres into South Korea in the late 70s. There are three other tunnels around the DMZ. Jason and I walked about 10 minutes down a sloping passageway into the darkness. There was not much to see but it was pretty terrifying to see how far the North Koreans got. It’s said the shaft’s wide enough for about 2,000 soldiers to pass into South Korea in an hour.

The tour was exhausting not because I was walking around all day. It was tiring because I was on guard all the time. I was reminding myself not to point (I also had to remind Jason. He’s a hand-talker and kept pointing to everything.) I had to remind myself not to take photos. These days with mobile phones and always having a camera for every moment, it was tough to remember not everything is a photo opp. Especially when heavily-armed soldiers are the subject.

The bus ride back to Camp Kim wasn’t as silent as I would have liked. The Rotarians were making their evening plans. Loudly. Jason and I already knew what we were doing: meeting a university friend of mine for supper. Dean and I lived in Seminary House at the same time at Acadia University. He had moved to South Korea around the same time I had. While I left after six months, he had stayed, got married and had a son.

Jason and I met Dean and his family and over fantastic Korean barbecue and grapefruit soju, we talked about life and our different paths. When I told them about the things that I noticed that were different, Dean’s wife said like every country, things change. New generations have different outlooks. They want different things. Just like in Canada.

Korean bbq.

Korean bbq – grill at your own table.

Later that evening, Dean, Jason and me headed to Itaewon, an area of Seoul. For me, it holds memories of cramped food stalls and narrow streets full of boxes of fruits, vegetables and Korean slippers. It used to have a seedy side too as it was a red light district. It was also an area known for ex-pats and that still rings true — and now it’s most known for its lively nightlife. We went to the Wolfhound, an Irish pub, and Dean was immediately surrounded by friends from all different countries. That hadn’t changed.

Jason and I got back to our hotel room after our enjoyable evening on the town. We had two and a half more days to go in the city. Over the next couple days, we saw a baseball game (Doosan Bears versus LG Twins), visited some palaces, went shopping, ate at a North Korean food stall during a Unification event and I had a business meeting at the Canadian Embassy. We packed in as many things possible while having pockets of time to relax and let the memories soak in.

Doosan Bears vs LG Twins. The teams share Jamsil Baseball Stadium so it was a home game for both teams.

Doosan Bears vs LG Twins. The teams share Jamsil Baseball Stadium so it was a home game for both teams.

Jamsil Baseball Stadium. Great atmosphere with the fans cheering and singing songs.

Jamsil Baseball Stadium. Great atmosphere with the fans cheering and singing songs.

Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace.

Our first day in Malaysia seemed so far away on our last night in Korea. We had lots of photos and experiences and stories to take back to Calgary with us. While this was the end of our Singapore ’16, the trip we had been planning for a while, it signalled the beginning of something else: a life in Edmonton. Jason has a new job there. It’ll be a hard transition as Calgary has been our home for several years. We have amazing friends here and I don’t want to leave them. However, after visits with old friends, new friends, former homes and new sights, I know home is where you make it.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Who we used to be, who we are

I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.

Singapore

Part II of Singapore ‘16

Family_Lines_orchids

Singapore Botanical Gardens

We’re were only in Malaysia for less than 72 hours. There was a lot to see in the country but we had other plans. Friends were waiting for us in Singapore. After 12 hours of sleep, my husband and I packed up our stuff and walked to the train station to board a car to Kuala Lumpur Sentral, the main station, and then take an express train to airport.

The heat was there, as always, and rotating fans whirred above our heads on the train platform. It sounded like hundreds of bees are buzzing around. Which is what Kuala Lumpur reminds me of: a busy bee flying from brightly coloured flower to brightly coloured flower. Always on the move. Like most of its people. Always going from here to there to here. And here we are. At the airport.

Thankfully, my husband’s backpack is here too. He exchanged his passport for a security pass and was allowed to lug his baggage from arrivals to departures. We checked in to our AirAsia flight and soon, are up, up and away to Singapore.

Singapore is a place I’ve never thought about visiting until close friends moved there a couple of years ago. They told us that their new apartment had lots of room if we ever wanted to visit the city state. So about two years ago, Singapore ’16 came into focus. Jason and I added side trips to Malaysia and South Korea. Malaysia was close, bordering Singapore, so why not see it? The reasoning for South Korea was that I lived there 20 years ago and wanted to see it again.

After landing at Singapore’s airport, Changi, Jason and I got a taxi to take us to our friends’ home. Driving through the roads, I noticed how everything was in order: nothing was out of place. The lush vegetation around and along the streets was trimmed neatly. Traffic streamed at a comfortable pace. No one going too fast or too slow. There was no litter on the sidewalks. Everything was tidy. Except that heat. It was an unruly beast that smashed into me again.

The temperatures were high again in Singapore but we had a lovely respite. Our friends’ have an apartment with air conditioning and cool tile floors. There’s also an outdoor pool and refreshing gin and tonics to wind down a hot day. Our first full day on the island was our hottest. That was when the sun came out from behind thunder clouds.

We went for a morning walk to the Singapore Botanical Gardens, a 156-year-old green oasis and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The garden with its orchids and glass-still ponds is a leftover from British colonial times. Some of my Scottish relations had also lived in Singapore during this time and I wondered if they had ever been to see the flowers. Orchids bloomed everywhere I looked and were abundant as weeds.

I thought I was dealing with the high temperatures and humidity well. I felt calm, cool and collected. Until I looked into a mirror at the gift shop. There was so much sweat that it couldn’t even trickle or stream down my face. It pooled above my lips and in the hollows of my cheeks. I was a mess. Time to find a place to mop up. We hopped — or really slid sloppily — into a taxi to a hip area of town, Tiong Bahru, and had drinks with huge chunks of ice and a chocolate cupcake.

Our time in Singapore, just short of a week, was more about hanging out with friends than

View from Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

View from Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

sightseeing. We saw a lot though from the outstanding city view from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel to shopping on Orchard Road, to eating and eating and more eating. Singapore has a lot of restaurants with its own local flavours and from away. For one lunch we went to a hawker centre at a busy market. A hawker centre is like a giant food court. The different smells of things frying and cooking as well as the steam blasting out of the tiny food booths was overwhelming. There were too many choices. We ended up having one of Singapore’s national dishes, Hainanese chicken rice, (basically rice with chicken and spices) from a booth where there was a long line-up. There was a lot of choice too when it came to sit-down restaurants. We had steamed pork buns, Thai shrimp dishes and sushi. Not at all the same place. We also got to eat Tasmanian beef, mangoes, jackfruit and snake fruit. (The snake fruit didn’t bite.)

Singapore Sling.

Bad photo of a Singapore Sling. (I only had one.)

In between eating we had gin and tonics and went to Raffles for a Singapore Sling. Raffles is a renowned hotel from 1887 and named after the founder of Singapore Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. The place was a stopping point for anyone who was anyone. Now anyone and everyone can have a drink at the Long Bar (even in acid wash denim jean shortshorts. Which mortified our host.) I enjoyed a sweet Singapore Sling, a drink created at the establishment in 1915 by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon.

On our last day, Jason and I went to Pulau Ubin, an island off the eastern side of Singapore. Ubin is the last of the rural and traditional villages in the area. We took a bus to the ferry terminal and then hopped on a “bumboat” for the 10-minute ride out to the small hunk of land in the sea.

Bumboat driver.

Bumboat driver.

We hired two bikes in the busy village for $16 Family_Lines_bikeSingapore dollars and pedalled around the island being pummelled by sunlight. At first, we cycled along shaded paved roads and there was a cool (ish) breeze pushing the heat away from our bodies. But then I wanted to see the German Girl Shrine and we started going uphill on a sandy pathway, out from underneath the protection of the green canopy and into the scorching sun. Jason and I had some heated words while we both melted into the dirt trail trying to find the shrine. He wanted to turn around and I wanted to find the spot where a young German woman died and then became a deity. The 18 year old had lived on the island with her coffee growing family in World War I. She ran off during a British raid on the property and died. Her body was found by locals and she has since been turned into a divine being who smiles upon gamblers.

German Girl Shrine.

German Girl Shrine.

We did turn around and stumbled upon the path to the shrine. It’s filled with offerings of flowers and dolls. A stray dog met us there. He looked at me and then walked away. We followed him out and back into the tangled cover of the jungle. We left the island shortly after on another chugging boat filled with tourists like us. The sea breeze dried our sweat and calmed our tempers.

Stray dog.

Me.

Me on the boat.

Back at the ferry terminal, I spotted the word Brewery stenciled on a building. My husband is a beer geek and so we walked over to the Little Island Brewery Company, a pub and restaurant.

“Where are you from?” the Singapore server asked us.

“Calgary, Canada,” we replied.

“Oh, I went to school in Halifax, Nova Scotia.”

“I went to Acadia!” I shared proudly. Of course he had been there. It is a small world after all.

After a drink, my husband and I went to a Peranakan restaurant. Peranakans are people of mixed local and foreign ancestry. They have great food. Jason and I shared ayam buah keluak, a beef dish with some kind of nut used for flavouring. We asked our server about the nut and she said we could eat it. So I chomped down on the hard shell. Ouch.

“No, no,” she laughed. “You eat what’s in the shell.”

She told us the nuts are harvested and then buried in the ground for a period of time. Then they’re dug up and used in food. They have to turn a certain colour before they’re used, otherwise, they’re poisonous. What kind of cooking spice is this? Turns out, the nut is actually a fruit produced by the pangium edule tree. The “football” fruit contains hydrogen cyanide but when it’s fermented, it lets go of its deadly flavour. Yum!

We saw a lot in our short time in Singapore but friends were the impetus for the trip. They were why we went and it was here we reminded each other of who we used to be with stories from high school and university. It was here we told each other who we were now as we spoke about our lives today. It was here we told each other who we hoped to be in the years to come.Family_lines_flags

Almost every morning, around 6:30 a.m., I got up to do laps in the pool at my friends’ complex. Even that early, the temperature was still 27 C and the water was warm, actually too warm to do long sets, but inviting enough that I didn’t shiver when I got in. The sun was always just rising and sending tendrils of light into the sky. The only noises then were of birds and insects, calling the city to wake up. I had already started my morning and was propelling my body through the water and into a new day with new stories.

Part I

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