Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

NORWAY AND SORROW’S END

with 6 comments

img_6130

The Spitsbergen’s thrusters whine into full power and gently push us away from the dock. In mid-harbour the helmsman takes advantage of the ship’s momentum and deftly executes an arc that turns the bow towards the channel markers. The main engines take over and we move, dead-slow, to the waiting open water just beyond the towering, treeless granite mountains standing on each side of the harbour mouth. Angry crags of rock dark from cloud shadow are sucking what sunlight they can into their crevices before the dark night clouds roll in.

img_5351

With the sun sinking behind us we are outward bound. A certain sadness sails with us.

September 19 – 3:30. On a soft, sun-filled afternoon Alice left us. She hadn’t the strength to fight any longer. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her mind. Now it wanted her spirit. We were with her. She knew because she held Norma’s hand tightly. It was one of those late September days that borders on autumn but is reluctant to cross over. You know this because you can see the light changing – loosing its softness – the colours becoming vivid and taking on a harder edge as the sun prepares for the oncoming fall.

She was days away from her 94th birthday. We were days away from our trip to Norway.

 There was little time to grieve. Just time enough for us to stop in our tracks and think about what just happened. Time enough for arrangements and lawyers and wills and settlements and a multitude of phone calls and of course, packing and travel needs. In the midst of it all we realized that we would have to pack our sorrow and take it with us as we sailed the coast of Norway.

img_5810

There is nothing as exasperating as travel to take your mind off everything else. Caught in the computer labyrinth of check-in and customs. The lateness of flight departures. The guaranteed jet lag. The stress of tight transfer timelines. The unknown of arriving sleep deprived in an unfamiliar country. Some would say this is the down side of travel; taking yourself out of your comfort zone – trying to create a new “now” even though it is only temporary but must be mastered, quickly. Lawrence Durrell in “Bitter Lemons” described it well: “Journeys…A 1000 different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.”

A new level of determination is needed because it is ‘travel’ – a personal challenge – a unfamiliar situation where you willingly place yourself – where the puzzle of logistics – the unfamiliar of an unknown place – the solving of ‘the way’ is your task. Maps, guidebooks, Internet recommendations don’t accurately deal with the new reality of location, language and customs. Hauling belongings. Running for trains. Searching for streets with unpronounceable names. Fighting fatigue. Lost in the din of strange words. Your best currency is your wit and your intelligence.

img_6099

When I was young. When I was dreaming dreams of traveling the world, I dreamt of sailing to strange places on a tramp steamer or a cargo ship crewed by misfits and lost souls running from their past – escaping from themselves. We would put-in to strange ports, drink rum in some noisy quayside bar, off-load cargo then sail on to repeat the same process in yet another port many nautical miles away.

I read stories of people who left their lives behind or vacationed recklessly as passengers on a rusty, creaky ship for months at a time seeking solitude, anonymity and the peace of just being themselves without the bother of having to be a tourist. This trip would be something like that only more civilized.

img_6086

The Spitsbergen is a supply ship for 200 travelers that stops in small ports up the coast of Norway, past the Arctic Circle turning at the Russian Border and heading back down again…a working ship with cruise ship amenities, but none of the luxury liner nonsense. It would be twelve days on the Norwegian Sea, time enough to move through the silent sorrow that was traveling with us.

img_5399

Lights creep towards us. As they come closer, they flash revealing a bigger ship approaching. Our bridge lights come full on. A blast from our ship’s horn startles us. Now the bridge lights of both vessels illuminate the darkness. Spitsbergen’s sister ship rushes past lights flashing as if waving. We rock with its wake. With engines full now we race ahead into the night of dark water.

img_5834

It was on this day that I learned of Henry’s passing. Henry had been a close friend since grade school. The loss of a childhood friend brings on a completely different feeling of grief than that of the loss of a family member. What is taken from you is a close relationship forged independently of family prerequisites. It is something deeply personal. A friendship founded on a sharing of intimate life-moments and experiences that infused your personality and contributed to your independence. And this independence let you leave your family; so to speak, so that you could become the individual you are now…the individual that only your friends would understand because they were there most steps of the way. Henry was one of those friends. But, like Alice, he left. And now we are sailing with the memory of them both.

img_5680

As we sailed this rugged, rocky mystic coast with its cliffs, crags, snow-capped mountains, mist, fog and fiords – this shrouded landscape with steep scree strewn slopes that slide straight into the Norwegian sea – where rain clouds chased the light until they both blended into a kaleidoscope of colours – where stars dominate the night skies and the aurorae dance to the unheard music of the universe – we realized this is the perfect place for remembrance:

 But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

img_5539

On a cold rainy overcast day, in an old wooden Sami church in Trumso, we lit a candle for Alice and a candle for Henry. And then we got on with our journey.

img_6333

 

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

November 13, 2016 at 3:13 PM

Connect-The-Dots

with 2 comments

Travel is a ‘connect-the-dots-game’. You move, from one point to another at varying speeds, by various modes of transportation until you end up full circle – home. Along the way you experience degrees of discomfort. Airport hotels – small, noisy, uncomfortable, stale one night stands before moving on to the next dot. Airport boarding lounges full of sleep-deprived fellow travelers desperately seeking coffee. One or two night stands in strange places you previously believed would satisfy your ‘inner traveller’. In the days ahead, no matter how hard you try, your sleep clock will remain indelibly set to ‘home time’. Time zones play havoc with your head. Your biorhythms are constantly trying to correct themselves, searching for some inner landmark to anchor your spirit.

Our sleep clocks are set to ship’s time now and the ‘connect-the dots-game begins. We are cruising the Lesser Antilles, island hopping.

Dot2

First light slips through a slit in the drapes. A barely audible rushing sound like water lapping the shore of a Northern Ontario Lake lulls us awake. Opening the sliding glass doors we are slapped with heavy humidity rushing in to take advantage of a new opening. It drives us back into our equally heavily air-conditioned cabin to catch our breath.

The sea is calm. Dawn clouds dot the horizon. The ship’s wake is twisting, swirling white-foamed water rushing away from the white steel hull – dissipating then disappearing – losing its forced form – becoming waves in the softly rolling sea swells.

Boobies skim the sea’s surface. They glide between the troughs, rise up then dive deep into the wake with wings folded tight to their bodies, disappear then bob back up to the surface, sit briefly, then take flight. They repeat their kamikaze attacks again and again creating a rhythm that has dictated their lives for eons.

Dot3

Towering dark cumulus clouds dominate the horizon. We can see the rain lines falling from its gunmetal grey edge. As the ship moves steadily towards it like some jousting knight meeting a challenge, the cloud lifts itself above the horizon revealing a steadily growing gap of burning orange…a haze-fire in the luminous morning mist. Into this opening a red ball slips up from the sea line growing relentlessly. Its light reaches up piercing the cloud’s darkness etching its shape. In an effort to challenge the rising sun, the white-rimmed cloud contorts itself into multiple moguls and towering columns. But the challenge is well met. The now heated rays of the rising sun burn through the cloud’s base forcing the horizon gap to widen and claim the birth of a new day.

FullSizeRender

And then they appear – rocks in the sea born of fire. Oceanic crust and coral thrust upward by colliding sub sea plates moulded by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, green thick-wet verdant hills running up from sea to sky, cloud shrouded peaks and lush valleys…islands. Cruise islands…more dots to connect. The pilot boat comes rushing towards us.

Dot4

Island to island there isn’t much difference. The port towns are unbearably hot and heavy with humidity. Tight streets and lanes, sidewalks of alternating degrees of narrow, crowded with bewildered tourists looking for bargains in the markets and street side stores. Frigid air blasting from shop doorways (a moment of relief) is quickly sucked up by the humidity.

Each island’s hills are laced with roads twisting and turning their way up to somewhere. There is room only for one vehicle at a time. Passing is precarious because the culverts on either side are wide and deep to carry water downhill. If you slide over to quickly to make room for an oncoming car you could be lost, swallowed up to the axel. Towns, villas, shanties, shacks, abandoned half finished homes and churches, all perched on the hillsides, jut out from the greenery.

Dot5

A rainbow rises from the sea. Rain, fog and mist hang over the deep green hills that run layer after layer into the dark clouds that blanket the mountaintops and slide between the peaks. It is a damp, dreary day. Our guide is driving us deep into the rainforest. Switchbacks, fallen roadside rocks, chewed up asphalt, potholes and washed out roads with cars parked on either side, mean nothing to him. Compared to the claustrophobic congested warren of market stalls on the harbor streets, although treacherous, at least these are open roads. There is beauty in the lush verdant hills even though rain clouds rule their peaks.

And as we drive deeper into the rainforest I wonder if we will ever find a clearing that would give us a view of the surrounding sea.

We climb Mount Sage the highest peak in the British Virgin Islands for a change of perspective. But clouds shroud the land beneath us. There is no sea. There is no island. No dots can be see. There is no connection to landmarks of place or spirit to settle you.

And it is still raining.

Dot1

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

July 11, 2015 at 5:17 PM

CEMETERY ROAD

with 6 comments

I walked the Cemetery Road the other morning. It leads to the remains of Southampton’s original cemetery that lies, long since abandoned on a high, crumbling cliff overlooking the Saugeen River. This road is always at winter’s mercy, as the Town doesn’t maintain it except in late spring.

Attachment-12

A cold east wind soughed through the trees. There was a chill in the air even though the sun did its best to pierce the battlement-like tall cedars that lined each side of the road. The shade from these trees is the reason for the slow melt on the forest floor. Even so, water runs freely in the ditches that hug the shoulders of the damp, rutted, pot-holed road. Overhead a Bald Eagle inscribes lazy circles in an unbelievably blue sky. A sentinel Crow sounds the alarm as I round a turn out of sunshine into shade.

On the road, a short distance ahead of me, I see a man, slightly stooped, slowly walking with the aid of a cane, his gait steady, measured, deliberate. It isn’t long before I’m beside him, my pace now moderated to match his.

“Good morning.” I say. “Great day for a walk.”

He stopped. Smiled. Nodded. “Indeed it is.”

We walked, side by side for a ways, talking of nothing in particular and everything in general. His eyes were bright blue. His smile suggested gentleness. He wore a greying mustache that gave him the rakish look of someone who flew Lancaster Bombers in World War Two. His leather Bomber Jacket with a fur collar fit perfectly with the mental picture I was drawing of my new companion.

“That’s quite a camera you have there. You must be a photographer.”

“No.” I said. “I play at photography. Just a hobby.”

“I had a Mamiya 6. Got it after the war. Fine camera…a lot different than what you’ve got there.”

“Times change,” I said politely.

At that moment I felt myself becoming impatient with the slowness of our walk. That if I wanted to keep chatting, I was compelled to move at his pace. I wondered if he was aware that because of our chance meeting, he had slowed me down…forcing me, however subtly, into his world.

Don’t be ridiculous, I thought. Then again, don’t we all do that every day of our lives…gently steer people to meet us on our terms…to agree with our outlook on life…our thinking…our opinions…to move at our pace? And more often than not, our resistance is a source of conflict in our lives.

“I think I’ll head home now” His words broke through my silly train of thought. “I’ve gone far enough.”

He had no thoughts other than a pleasant walk with a stranger. On this quiet country road this elderly gentleman had reached his limit. I watched him retrace his path leaning on his cane more than before; shoulders hunched…his step a little slower now. “Cemetery Road,” I muttered to myself.

I picked up my usual pace and moved on…not sure of when I would turn back. Before I rounded a corner I glanced over my shoulder, but he was nowhere in sight.

Regrettably, I never asked him his name.

Attachment-1

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

April 20, 2015 at 3:13 PM

MEA CULPA

with one comment

I have not paid too much attention to this Blog since well before January. Not because I haven’t had anything to say (which is partly true). But blogging, to me, becomes a tad boring (for the writer) if the writer isn’t following a personal message or cause or theme. And I, for one, don’t believe in listing or recounting all that happens to me on a regular basis.

brdfest2What I have been doing on a fairly regular basis, though, is posting a blog for the Huron Fringe Birding Festival (http://huronfringefest.wordpress.com). Not because I am birder but because I’m married to one and she is on the Festival Committee and I let myself be talked into becoming their ‘Blog Master’ as they have titled me.

Birders are interesting people, if not a touch obsessed. Actually a lot of them have become good friends. Their varied backgrounds and varied interests make for good conversation and good laughs. The Festival is over now so more time will be spent literally rambling on metropolitanhomesickblues.

So what has been happening over the many months? Sadly our cat of 19 years has left us. 

Image 1

Miss Molly was a clawless, long hair “tort” as they say, a rescue cat my wife brought home one day. She does that sort of thing with animals. Molly and I were buddies. When she wasn’t sleeping she was wherever I was, even in the middle of the night. When she walked into a room she walked to me and demanded (in the voice of her people) that I pick her up to carry her on my shoulder or place her beside me in whatever chair I was sitting in…room for her or not.

When she had had enough of her lazy life, Molly told us. She went quietly. She is well remembered.

A short piece of the Bruce Trail became my responsibility over that period.

Image

I am Trail Captain for a length that runs above the Slough of Despond towards Skinner’s Bluff. Its up on the North Bruce Peninsula and it’s a lovely hike. My duties are to inspect the trail at least three times a year and keep it clear and walkable as it varies from gentle to rocky to wet in the spring. Rest assured there will be words and pictures coming your way as summer unfolds.

Of course, who can forget the now legendary Winter of 2014.

Image 2 

I can’t remember when it started, but it felt like it lasted forever. The Great Lakes were frozen over. The ice never left Lake Huron until mid May. Blizzards, road and town closures, endless driveway snow blowing, shovels and roof rakes were the norm.

boulder

 All of that is past us now. Just had to get it all out of my mind on to the page as an excuse to write this blog.

THE OLD RAILWAY TRESTLE

with one comment

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past…”

Shakespeare – Sonnet 30

Recently a haze of childhood memories clouded my mind struggling to become clear. I was back in the city of my early years, revisiting the people and places that were so much a part of my early life. To my Italian relatives, especially my elderly aunts, those formative years were still clear. It was easy for them for they never left Sault Ste. Marie. They never abandoned the memories. I, unfortunately, did for a different life in a different place. I depended on their stories to bring those days into sharper focus.

One morning, I walked with N. to the now closed Soo Locks where I use to come to watch the big Lakers carefully creep through the canal leaving barely enough room on either side. I would marvel when the water gates closed at their stern and marvel even more when water levels rose lifting the ship ever so slowly up to meet the open expanse of the St. Marys River, before it crept away creaking and groaning under dead slow speed.

Image 2

Looking down the length of the waterway I saw the long span of the International Bridge to Soo Michigan rising over the river. Beneath it, rusting and abandoned was the old rail bridge. It didn’t take me long to remember what childhood friends and I did there on lazy Sault Ste. Marie summer afternoons.

Sault_canal_NHS_adjusted

Railway tracks ran behind our schoolyard straight to the trestle. We would follow them, running between the steel rails trying to stay on the railroad ties and not touch the thick gravel. We paused only when we spotted a spike sticking up above the wood. This was a prize we stopped to pry loose.

It was only when we approached the trestle that we slowed down. Here we had to be careful. As we moved out under its steel span the ground gave way to open air. We were suspended over water now. To us, it was a long way to fall. We stepped carefully from tie to tie, yelling at the top of our lungs partly to keep fear at bay and partly to prove that we knew no fear. To hestitate would invite the taunt, “codardo, codardo, codardo, andare a casa di mamma.” Translated it branded you a sissy telling you to, “run home to mamma you coward.” None of us ever did.

Once across and before we ran down the embankment to the river we always looked back. It was in that one brief silent moment that we realized it was our only path. We knew the times when the freight trains rolled through so we were sure of safe passage home. And when the whistle blew for the sift change at the steel plant we knew we must be on our way. A freight was due through about an hour after that. Any later getting home would always mean trouble. Somehow our mothers knew where we had been even though they repeatedly forbid us to go there.

There is a river of memories that flows through us all. Its source springs from things past. These memories are but embers sitting silently, buried deep in our soul. All we need do is breathe on them gently to ignite a remembrance of things past.

ADVERSITY

with one comment

Perhaps there is something about adversity that makes brothers and sisters of us all. Something in the sharing of what we choose to call our passion rather than just our hobby. Something about being out there in the soaking rain and wild wind, hiking a tortured root-twisted, rock-strewn, slippery trail in search of that perfect shot, that once-a-season-wildflower or that elusive bird you can hear but can’t see in the dense spring-green foliage. Birders and amateur botanists will understand. So will nature photographers, amateur or professional. At least, that’s my personal take after three foul weather days – two hiking the North Bruce and one photographing the waterfalls of Grey County (www.visitgrey.ca/waterfalls), in the company of strangers who willingly, without complaint, accepted whatever mother nature threw at us.

Day One was supposed to be spent on Flowerpot Island looking at the geology of the place and specifically orchids. But the pending high winds and storm coming in from the East cancelled the trip. Everyone was disappointed but graciously accepted Plan B. The rewards of this change first took us to the top of the National Park’s viewing tower where a Pileated Woodpecker glided by at our eye-level, banked directly in front of us, its slow, deep wing beats taking it to a treetop just eye-sight away. For some, it was a major sighting.

That afternoon on the Alvar Trail we came upon an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake pretending to hide. We gawked and considered ourselves fortunate for the find. Continuing on we found another, coiled and from the sound of it, not pleased to be discovered. Two rattlers in the space of 15 minuets, it was a good day.

Day Two. Under darkening skies we headed to Malcolm Bluff Shores Nature Reserve (Malcolm Bluff Shores | Bruce Trail). It was cold. Winds were high. A heavy rain fell – not a good day. We hiked the lower trail. On one side it fell off steeply down to Georgian Bay. On the other a grey, cedar clad cliff face rose to a towering, heavily wooded precipice. A Black Throated Green Warbler was calling. My binoculars found it and I could finally say that I’d seen my first warbler. Not significant to anyone but me. We scrambled down a steep, slim, slippery path and scree to the rocky shoreline below to look for fossils but the pounding wind and rain drove us back up.

Malcolm Bluff Shores is a magnificent 1000 plus acre nature reserve with over 110 metres of elevation change and we happily climbed it all in what felt like a deluge. The top trail is spectacular as it hugs the crest of the cliff giving you spectacular lookouts that, in better weather, would probably present you with unlimited vistas of Georgian Bay. At that height, though, the gusts made covering the entire trail risky to say the least. So we headed home with a few lessons learned:

  • Wools socks stay warm when wet.
  • Glove liners are useless in the rain.
  • Gore Tex hiking boots are not always waterproof.
  • I need rain pants with pockets.
  • My rain gear is past its Best-Before-Date.
  • My camera doesn’t like the rain.

Day Three was a direct copy of days one and two only this time the objective was to photograph 4 different types of waterfalls. The idea of trying to shoot falling water in falling rain was amusing to me. Perhaps it was because waterfalls give off negative ions, which are supposed to be rejuvenating. That being said the adverse weather did not dampen our spirits (sorry for the pun) although at one point we did consider mutiny if only to preserve our cameras.

Plastic bags, wide brim hats and golf umbrellas held over tripods don’t necessarily keep splash spray away. In our defiance of Mother Nature the storm broke that afternoon and the sun shone…a just reward for our perseverance.

A fairly steep ascent up the side of a gorge brought us to a horseshoe shaped ‘bridal veil’ of falling water.They call Indian Falls a ‘classic plunge waterfall’ that drops about 15 metres into a bowl-shaped gorge.

Using a single leg of our tripods as walking sticks we navigated a tricky, narrow path down to its base. The drumming of the water into the bedrock sent spray all around us taking the place of the rain that had stopped. But, this was a wet infused with refreshing negative ions, so we had no choice but to be happy for it.

Our three days began under grey skies and ended under sunny skies. Through it all everyone stayed upbeat because were united under a common cause and here by choice. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why mere humans can oftentimes overcome nature’s adversity.  

A lone Dwarf Lake Iris on the Alvar Trail

Locked in the rock on the side of the gorge descending to Indian Falls

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

June 4, 2012 at 3:17 PM

RUNNING THE BAR

with one comment

We left our berth under full power, Regatta’s prop wash, wake and the ocean’s swells melding into an angry, foaming, swirling mass behind us. It looked like we were leaving a trail for someone to follow.

I was surprised at the speed of our cruise ship. Usually, the Captain left Port gently, slowly, slipping away on little cat’s feet. This was a curious change in his pattern. Why would he be in such a hurry?

From our window table in the grand dining room aft, we watched Astoria, Oregon disappear into the oncoming mist. Under my feet I could feel the vibration of the huge diesel engines straining to drive us forward.

As the sun set the horizon burned with an equally angry red glow matching the mood of the sea. Tiny white fishing boats boldly slipped into our wake bouncing like bobs on the end of a fishing line. A large trawler cut across our stern fearlessly challenging our churning wake. Pelicans darted by, big and brown, their strong, long wingspan carrying them effortlessly forward.

Chasing us a yellow Pilot Boat jumped the swells and soon sprinted along side. Regatta cut one engine, settled into a deep trough and began to roll with the motion of the sea. We were approaching The Bar and a Columbia River Bar Pilot was coming aboard to lead us out.

At the mouth of the Columbia River there is a system of bars and shoals about 4.8 km wide and 9.7 km long. This is where the river’s current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean, often as large standing waves. These waves, the wind, and current are hazardous for vessels of all sizes. The Columbia current is focused “like a fire hose” and varies from 4 to 7 knots westward. The predominantly westerly winds, ocean swells and strong outgoing tides create conditions that can change from calm to life-threatening in as little as five minutes due to changes in wind direction and ocean swell.

Behind us we could see big breakers crashing on the rocks of Cape Disappointment. The Pacific was churning like boiling water as the Columbia River brazenly emptied itself into her waters. We were in that danger zone that has earned these Pilots their vaunted reputation. No big ship enters or exits this channel without one of them guiding her.

Our big ship seemed to be moving cautiously, slowly forward now. She was in the safe hands of the Pilot who has memorize every inch of sea bottom, wave pattern, shoreline, rock formations, sand bars, weather patterns, winds, tides and currents. He was taking us out to the safety of the open sea from memory.

How he got on board I have no idea. The first open deck of the Regatta is 25 feet above the water line. I’m told they basically tie themselves in and climb the ship’s ladder. Sometimes they rappel down from a helicopter. These Pilots and their crew are clearly cowboys – daredevils – brave men who meet the challenge of the Bar no matter when or what the weather.

Suddenly, it felt as though Regatta was dead in the water. From my vantage point directly at the stern I could feel the ship shutter as waves hit her broadside. I could see the sea swells and troughs, their every motion shifting the horizon to unsettling angles. Dinner was going on all around me but I was transfixed by the scene unfolding beyond the glass. Then I felt the engines kick in.

The propellers hummed confidently as they pushed us out to open ocean.

A flash of yellow darted by. The Pilot boat skipped forward over the waves, slowed, turned to face us, watched and waited as we sailed away…like a mother watches a school bus carrying her child away from her. She hung back a while, then, satisfied that we were well past the Bar, she turned her head and sailed shoreward into the gathering fog.

(With notes from Wikipedia and http://www.columbiariverbarpilots.com/)

A NOTE TO MY READERS: We’ve just returned from a 14 day cruise from San Francisco to Alaska and back to San Francisco. I’ll be blogging about my impressions of the trip over the next couple of weeks. I’ll try to keep it interesting and not a travelogue. Thanks for reading.

Mountains above Skagway Alaska