Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: Nova Scotia (page 1 of 5)

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.

Okay

I went to Ryerson University in Toronto for my journalism degree. I was taking a course on non-fiction writing and one of our assignments was to write about a recent experience. The following is a story I wrote about an evening in 1995.

 Okay

I was sitting on the subway. Feeling fat, loveless and cranky. On Feb.14.

It was late at night, around 10:30. A woman and a little girl got on the train. I wondered what the girl was doing up so late on a school night.

People were scattered everywhere in the car. There was a man with big glasses sitting across from me. My roommate reading a book beside me. The mom and girl sitting a couple of rows down. But I didn’t turn to look at anyone. I didn’t want to see them.

I was drowning in the hum of the subway and the problems of the world. With me in it. How the ozone layer is dying. How children are starving. How humans are killing each other. How Valentine’s Day is just one more day to make money out of something that I can’t even get for free. How far away I feel from home. My real home in Nova Scotia with a dog and cats and warmth and family and friends. How cold the bright lights of the underground are. Making everything harsh. Making the blemishes stand out clearly. The red pimple on my roommate’s nose, the greasiness of that guy’s big glasses, dirt and grime and grossness.

Then I heard someone singing. And I turned around.

All I could see was the top of a beret further down the train. I stood up. Looked.

A woman, sitting alone, was singing. She was singing “Everything’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be all right.”

I recognized the tune; a Bob Marley song. Other heads turned. The woman with the child smiled. The man with the glasses picked up his head. My roommate put down her book.

For a moment, the world stood still and I actually believed the minstrel. For moment, I believed everything was okay. Everything was all right. For a moment, everybody listened and everyone heard.

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.

The dammed fish

Creek with snow.

The creek in winter.

My sisters and I spent a lot of our free time playing in the Nova Scotia woods with the neighbourhood kids. Since there were only a six houses in the area there wasn’t a lot of children but there was a lot of things to do. Sometimes we liked to go to the creek behind our family’s home and build dams.

The creek is what’s left of a mighty river that used to power a mill up the road. In 1950, the Nova Scotia government stopped up the river and made a lake by constructing a dam for hydroelectricity. And that was the end of the mill and the river and the beginning of the creek.

The dam.

The dam.

The creek was full of nimble water spiders and pretty florescent green dragonflies and beautifully freckled speckled trout. You had to stand still and stare at one spot in the dark brown tea coloured water before you could spot a fish. We think there were some gaspereau fish, also known as alewife, under a rock where the creek pooled. But never caught one so was never sure.

I always dreamed of reeling in a big fish in the creek. The trout dad taught us to catch were tasty but small. I wanted some that had heft, that would fight, that would make a good story.

One summer day my siblings and our friends cooled off by heading to the creek. We waded over to the other side to explore that part of the waterway. There were a couple of small streams branching off and we decided to dam a section.

We worked hard. Gathering rocks and large sticks and then moss to use as mortar. A wall took shape, resembling the inside of Nick’s log house. It reminded him he had to go home and he headed off, scaring his parents by getting lost for a couple of hours in the forest. We stayed and finished our project. Wouldn’t you know, the dam held the water back. Success.

A couple of months later and it was autumn. Nick and I were hanging out and needed something to do. What about checking out the dam? Off we went into the woods. Ducking under branches, jumping over rocks and leaping across the creek in our rubber boots and sweaters to find our handiwork.

It was still doing a good job but being kids we decided it needed to come down. So we started to pull at the sticks and loosen the rocks and grab at the moss.

What was that? I could see the top of something large and dark near the surface of the water. On the creek side that was dammed.

Stepping into the water I leaned down and peered into the churned up murky creek. It was a fish. A very big fish.

I shouted to Nick and he had a good look at it too.

“That’s a big fish!”

Here was the fish of my dreams. I needed to catch it. Since I didn’t have a rod or a net I would use my hands. Nick helped.

We wrestled with the several pound fish for a good five minutes. It was slippery and floppy and strong and didn’t want to leave home. Then, with one heave I threw it onto the land. It didn’t just lay it. It went wild with fury and scared me.

I had caught the fish. Now what? I didn’t want the fish to die. Besides, it wasn’t fishing season and I didn’t want to break the law. So I pick it up and slipped it back into the creek. The undammed part. And watched it swim away.

Rush of Nova Scotia

zodiac boats and yellow rain slickers.

Shubenacadie River Runners in Maitland, NS.

I returned to the Maritimes last week to see my family. Among the hikes, bikes, lake swimming, night swimming and friend seeing, I went tidal bore rafting.

The fresh water of the Shubenacadie River swirls and boils as it rushes out to meet the tidal bore (a wave of salt water that fills the Bay of Fundy). We hopped in bright orange zodiacs to catch the chocolate brown swells that slapped us in the face and made our stomachs leap into our mouths (along with some of that muddy water). My brother-in-law wrote a blog about our experiences so I’ll let him tell you all about it:  http://bit.ly/2bsveQg.

Off the beaten track

 

Moko, city street.

Mokpo, a southern port city in South Korea. Twenty years ago, I was supposed to teach English here. Instead, I went to Puyo and Taejon.

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 IV of Singapore ‘16

Revisiting Taejon put a part of me at rest. I had left bits and pieces of my DNA there 20 years ago, remnants that had been twisted in uncertainty and pain. Back then, I was either looking into the past or at the future, I hadn’t really been present. This time I was in Taejon in the here and now.

I saw what I needed to see there and did what I needed to do and it was time to move on. After less than 24 hours in Taejon, Jason and I got on a train heading south. We were going to Jindo, South Korea’s third largest island. I had never been there but had seen it on the news. It was close to where the MV Sewol sank in 2014, killing more than 300 passengers, many students. Before the tragedy, Jindo was full of tourists enjoying the ocean air and seafood restaurants. Today, there are still some visitors but not like before.

Train to Mokpo.

Train to Mokpo.

We were going to Jindo because it was off the beaten path for international travellers. Lots of people like to go to Chejudo, another island. (“Do” means island in Korean.) Cheju is a party place and Jason and I wanted to avoid that. I had read that Jindo had some of the highest tides in the world, just like where I grew up near the Bay of Fundy. Our plans were further solidified when we found a place on Airbnb offering a traditional Korean home, a hanok, for the evening. Why not spend a night the old-fashioned way?

Getting to Jindo was going to take some time. We would spend more hours going to and from the island then actually being there. (I don’t know why I didn’t figure this out until we got there.) Edward, our Airbnb host, gave us directions but they were a bit off. After arriving by train from Taejon to Mokpo, a southern port city, we had to transfer to a city bus to get to the regional bus station. We didn’t know how to get there but a few friendly Koreans showed us how to get from Point A to Point B.  One man asked where we were from, and when we said we were Canadian, he proudly exclaimed to us, “Montreal!” I guess he had been there several years ago.

Mokpo train.

All aboard!

We got the first bus and then transferred to a second bus and rode it for an hour to Jindo. At the bus station on the island, we were supposed to take a third bus to our accommodation for the night. Edward’s directions said take the green bus to the village of Oh-il-see.

All the buses were green.

Green buses were coming and going. Going and coming. One pulled in. One pulled out. Which one did we take? We asked the bus drivers but it seemed no bus was going where we wanted to go. A senior waiting on a sunny bench outside the station said something and motioned for us to sit beside her. But without knowing Korean, I didn’t know what she was getting at. There was a man taking tickets and he looked at our tickets and then pointed to the bench the woman was on. That was where the bus would pull up. Ah. We got it.

We were sure we wouldn’t have to wait long for our green bus since there were many green buses buzzing around. But an hour and a half later we boarded our green bus. A 10 minute jaunt and we were dropped off in the middle of Oh-Il-See. Our next move was based on Edward’s description on how to find his house: when you arrive Oh-il-see, there are two super markets, and my place is about 10 min from there on foot.

The village was a maze of narrow quiet streets. Surely someone would know where Edward lived in this tiny place. We asked a shopkeeper and she pointed down the road. That way.

We had told our host we would be at his place between noon and 2 p.m. It was now 2:30. Jason and I started walking in the hazy afternoon and moved off the street when a man with a toddler strapped to the back of his bicycle rode towards us.

“Lea? Jason?” he asked.

It was Edward, concerned his guests were lost since they hadn’t shown up yet. He introduced himself and his daughter Danbi. It was the start of a new friendship and a great time in Jindo.

Jindo dog: a type of dog from Jindo.

Jindo dog: a type of dog from Jindo.

At Edward’s home, he showed us into the hanok. It was basic, rustic, but that was fine. It was all we needed for one night. The small wooden home had enough room for a mat on the floor for sleeping, two pillows filled with hay and our two backpacks. There was a pit toilet outside. Jason and I had wanted to do something different while we were in Korea. We didn’t just want to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. We had wanted to meet people and experience some of the culture. Here was our chance.

Edward and Danbi on the porch.

Edward and Danbi.

While we were getting our stuff organized, Edward brought us out some lunch. We sat at his outdoor kitchen table and ate kimchi and rice. Danbi brought out books and then musical toys and so we had an impromptu concert with our meal. Then we went for a hike into the surrounding hills where we passed rice fields and a lake. While Danbi played in a trickling stream, Edward told us some of the history of the island and why he and his wife Han were on Jindo.

Hanok bed - complete with hay pillows.

Hanok bed – complete with hay pillows.

Edward’s a musician as well as a fairy tale writer and philosopher. He liked the slower pace of life on the island, an island where a lot of artists live too. He asked why we were spending only one night in Jindo and we told him it was all the time we had. He asked why we had chosen Jindo and I told him the tides were a main drawn. That was when he decided to put us in his car and take us to the beach.

Dani peeking over her dad's shoulder.

So cute. Danbi peeks at me while we walk down the mountain and into the village.

The sun had stayed in Taejon. Rain started to fall in big heavy drops while we drove to the water. Edward let us out of the car with an umbrella and he went to visit a friend with Danbi. The tide was out and there was a familiarity with the scene: the mud flats stretching into the horizon, rope strewn on the beach and the smell of the sea. If I looked hard enough into the fog, maybe I’d see Parrsboro.

Jindo tide.

Jindo tide.

I shivered. The rain was cooling. This was the first time in a couple of weeks that I was cold outside. About 20 minutes into our beach foray, Edward pulled up. It was suppertime and so we tried out a few restaurants. The first one was for kimbap (Korean sushi) and mando (Korean dumplings). The second for duk bo gi (spicy rice cakes) and the third for sweet fried chicken. Everything was delicious and the way I remembered it.

IMG_1747

After supper, Edward was going to take us back to the hanok before picking up his wife at a potluck. Jason and I knew this would add hours onto his evening so we said we could all squeeze into the car. That was how we ended up being invited into the party when we arrived to pick up Han — and being serenaded by a talented musician. It was a completely random moment that made Jason and I feel like we had friends in Jindo.

A party in Jindo.

Party time.

Back at our hanok, we had no trouble drifting off to sleep on the floor. I did wake up a few times because the hay pillow was hard as a rock. Who knew straw could be molded into a brick? We woke up to the sounds of birds and the Jindo dogs barking instead of chugging motors and busy people starting their hectic day. It was a good break for my spirit. Seoul was the next and final stop on our journey and it would be filled to the brim with activities.

Hanok ceiling.

Hanok ceiling.

Breakfast was served to us: an apple and a piece of chocolate cake, and then Edward and Danbi dropped us off at the bus station. They stuck around while we boarded the bus and then waved goodbye as we drove away.

Edward and Danbi wave goodbye at the bus station in Jindo.

Edward and Danbi wave goodbye at the bus station in Jindo.

We had left Jindo too soon but we had certainly felt its magic. It has a different kind of energy: the type that’s used to being in the shadows of other, more popular places, but knows it’s special. The people are genuine and that doesn’t mean they’re all friendly. They can be grouchy too but they’ll be grouchy to everyone, not just the tourists. In Jindo, people came up to us and asked us where we were from. Then they would ask why we came to Jindo. We would tell them because we wanted to go somewhere different. Because we wanted fuller memories and stories rather than just photos taken in museums or conversations had only with other travellers.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Moments of the past and the present and the future

Rice field.

Rice field in Jindo.

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 III of Singapore ‘16

While planning our trip, my husband Jason and I tried to figure out how to get to South Korea from Singapore. Flights from Changi Airport were expensive. Flights from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) were cheap. We decided the best way to get to Korea was to flying back to KLIA from Singapore and then go on from there. So that’s what we did.

South Korea was my home for six months in 1997. I went after graduating from journalism school in Toronto and not being able to find a job as a reporter. (I had a job at The Gap.) As well, the guy I had been dating broke up with me and broke my heart and I decided the best way to mend it was to go far, far away. Where I knew no one and no one knew me.

I spent a lot of time on my own my first two months as an English teacher in Korea. I couldn’t speak or read Korean. I was illiterate and didn’t even understand street signs. However, my experiences forced me to grow up. Now, almost 20 years later, I was going back to Taejon, where I had once taught.

teach er and students.

My teen students twenty years ago. Photo credit: 이광림.

Jason and I landed at KLIA, an airport well-known to us by now. We planned our incoming and outgoing flights with many hours in between in case anything happened. Jason whiled away the eight hours by reading and I went from shop to shop trying to spend all our Malaysian ringgit, currency we wouldn’t be needing anymore. (I bought postcards, a Singaporean cookbook, tea and cookies. We still have a few ringgit left.)

Finally, it was check in time for our overnight flight to Korea on Vietnam Airlines. We went to the counter where the agents scared us by telling us we may be turned away at customs in Korea if we didn’t have a return trip booked. We had tickets home — albeit on a different airline — and when we showed them our itinerary, they checked us in and we were good to go.

Our first flight landed in Ho Chi Minh City at night. The airplane taxied past Air Force One on the apron. Turns out U.S. President Barack Obama was in Vietnam. But he wasn’t hanging out in the terminal, where we parked ourselves amidst noisy French tourists. For some reason, they had to congregate right by us even though there were rows of empty seats a couple of steps away. They chitter-chatted loudly, interrupting my thoughts and sleep, until their plane to Paris left an hour before our connecting flight.

Our second flight to Incheon International Airport was late leaving but that was fine. We didn’t have another plane to catch, only a train, and they ran numerous times a day. We were going to Taejon (also known as Daejeon) first, where I had lived for most of my time in South Korea. In my head Taejon, a city 140 km south of Seoul, hadn’t changed at all. But of course I knew it would be different. How different, I wondered.

After an almost seven-hour flight, we had outrun the heat and arrived in a cooler Incheon at 6:30 a.m. among what seemed to be a billion Rotarians from all over the world. (There was a Rotary International Convention going on in Seoul the last week of May.) Jason and I got our bags (both of them) and went downstairs to the Korea Train Express (KTX) station. We had missed the first train to Taejon but another one was coming along at 9 a.m.

I don’t think there was an express train to Taejon when I lived there. I took the bus everywhere then. But the train is certainly a faster way to travel – speeding up to 300 km an hour at some points. I was excited to go to Taejon. Excited to be back in a place I once knew as home. But entering the outskirts of Taejon, nothing looked familiar. Sky high apartment buildings, new to me, sprouted out of what used to be rural rice fields. I didn’t know where I was.

Street in Taejon.

Street in Taejon.

At the train station, Jason and I stowed our backpacks in a locker and found a tourist information booth. I wanted to find out just exactly we were. I don’t remember this station in 1997 and I thought if I could figure out where in the city we were, I could get us to my old neighbourhood.

When I told the tourist information officer where I wanted to go, she had no idea what I was talking about. Taejon had grown, grown, grown and was huge. There were many new communities, too many to know. I did remember that I had lived near a large department store, Say, and asked where it was. She pointed it out on a map.
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Jason and I went outside into the sunny afternoon and I was pulled left by an invisible force. I knew we had to go left. Checking the map, that was the way we were supposed to go. We walked and walked. Walked some more. Walked by Say and the park where I had played with the toddlers enrolled in my school. Jason and I walked by markets and shops that I must have visited a long time ago. Except it didn’t seem like a long time ago.

As I’ve said before, my experiences in Korea made me grow up. Yet being back in Taejon I felt like I was the same person. I didn’t feel any older or wiser or mature. How could twenty years have passed? They had. The grey in my hair told me I was no longer a young adult. The streets that had multiplied in Taejon said it wasn’t the same place. Then we got to a place that hadn’t changed at all: the river.

I stood on the bridge and looked down at the water. It still moved in the same direction. It still rippled when the wind hit it. It still offered herons a place to fish. People still walked along the pathway beside the Geum River. I used to run alongside it. I used to mull over what I was going to do next with my life. I was lonely and mourning a Toronto boyfriend when I was here the last time. I had no clue what I was going to do next. I had been lost. Now here I was, with my husband, no longer wandering and wondering. I knew my future was secure. This river was a conduit to a different time. Moments of the past and the present and the future chained together.

Geum River.

Geum River.

We walked on and found my old neighbourhood but couldn’t find my Taejon home or where I had worked, Kwak’s English Country School. We had already been walking for over four hours and had to turn around. A former student of mine, Suzan, was meeting us at our hotel room and Jason and I had to boot it back to the station to pick up our bags before we checked in.

We were sunburned and our feet hurt by the time we made it to our room. Tired too. Suzan came by at 6 p.m. and took us out for a drink. She was 13 when I last saw her. Now she was over 30. She had been one of my favourite students because she was spunky and said what was on her mind. We had stayed in touch via letters, e-mail and Facebook through the years.
IMG_1683Over grapefruit Soju (a distilled rice drink), I reminded Suzan that she once said she was never going to get married. She laughed and told me her parents were trying hard to match her up. Maybe if she visited Canada we could find her someone? Suzan’s friend Sun-Mi joined our little party and suggested we go to a traditional Korean restaurant in a village about 30 minutes away. Jason and I had been sleepy but the conversation (and drinks) gave us a boost of energy and we said sure to the offer. I’m glad we did.

Sun-Mi and Suzan drinking rice wine.

Sun-Mi and Suzan.

The place was truly magical. The sun was setting behind some large pottery kimchi jars (jars used to make a fermented spicy cabbage dish) and the air glowed blue behind them, profiling the mountains in the distance. I had seen this before. Not this exact scene but this setting. It was a perfect Korea moment. One made richer by the presence of old friends and new memories.

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Part 1 One and a half days in KL

Part 11  Who we used to be, who we are     

 

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

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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

The Maritime homing beacon

Scott's Bay, Nova Scotia.

Me being silly at Scott’s Bay, Nova Scotia. (the bay is actually the Minas Basin but it’s still salt water.)

“What is it with you Maritimers?” asked a friend born and raised in Calgary. “You always want to go home.”

Home.

Home, to Maritimers, can be Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. Three provinces with proud distinctions on their own, but together, together they are a tight-knit community unfurled on the Atlantic ocean. When we were born, somehow, a bit of that ocean must have leaked into our veins. Made us salt brothers and sisters with the sea: a life-long bond.

Today I live in Calgary. The city has grown on me like a callous forming on the palms of my hands after hard work. Life is fast-paced and the way of the West comes with cowboy boots and big trucks. I love how the land lies flat before rising into gargantuan mountains. The Rockies are a spiked forest, an insurmountable ridge that wraps its protective arms around the Calgary.

The Rockies are brown in the summer. In the fall, while leaves are changing colour, I can see the tips of the mountains slowly turn white. It’s still winter up there today while the city gets a peek at warm weather.

Other than summer and winter, the mountains never seem to change. Unlike the ocean. Which changes with our every breath and sigh. Oh to be on the water on a calm, clear morning. Flat, motionless and still. Look down and what might you see? Fish perhaps. Seaweed for sure. And you. Your reflection staring back from the depths.

When the wind finally stirs the Atlantic in the afternoon, it will smear your image on the waves. The water will bounce you on its knee and send messages to lap up against your boat. It will also rock you to sleep if you let it.

Mount Yamnuska.

View from Mount Yamnuska.

Sometimes the waves thrash instead of dance and the sea boils and froths into a fierce monster. That’s when the ocean makes you forget that it loves you. It makes you frightened and scared and fearful. Because this sea has great power — tremendous power. Enough force to take you prisoner and smother you with its affection. You are angry and it is angry and you’d better leave it alone lest you get caught up in the bitter blue. Just for now. You can return later.

Alberta is being rocked right now by tough economic times. Maritimers know all about this. That’s why we headed west in the first place, when Calgary was the land of opportunity. A lot of us are still here today despite the change in fortune. We’re staying and mucking in while the goings aren’t so good. My Maritime roots will always be tugging me eastward, towards the ocean. But for now, my home is Alberta.

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