Tuesday, June 30, 2009

First flight...

25 years ago today, I took my first flight. I remember that day like it was...well, a quarter of a century ago. I was 14 years old and was visiting my friend in the Netherlands, who lived in Bilthoven, a small town not far from Utrecht.

For reasons that still aren't quite clear (something about good impressions) my parents thought I should wear a three-piece suit for the nine hour flight to Amsterdam. I'm not sure what my friend's parents thought when they first saw me. Maybe they thought every teenager in Canada wears suits all the time.

I had never been to an airport before. I remember saying goodbye to my parents, and then finding Gate 20, a short distance from security. I found a seat and marvelled at the large orange CPAir DC-10. I still like the look of this particular aircraft, but there are few still flying, as the last was built in 1989; however, if you're looking for an adventure, Biman Bangladesh Airlines still operates this type. In fact, for a time they operated a handful of former CPAir DC-1os.

My seat was located in the aft cabin close to the middle of the aircraft. It was an aisle seat (I have now come to appreciate window seats). Next to me on my left was an older lady, and across the aisle was a boy, maybe a year two older than I. Although he had flown before, he was travelling alone as well; on his way to visit family in Poland. A short taxi brought us to the end of what would have been at the time Vancouver's main runway for both take-offs and landings.

"CP 388, cleared for take-off, " the Tower would have directed the flight crew.

Both pilots would have then began pushing the thrust levers forward, while the flight engineer would probably have glanced sideways out the cockpit window, and then back at the control panel in front of him. With the parking brake off, the aircraft started rolling.

In the cabin, the sound of the three General Electric engines--two mounted on each wing and the number three engine sitting impressively atop the rear fuselage, beneath the tail stabilizer--was unmistakable. I remember the exhilaration of being pushed back into my seat, as we picked up speed down the runway.
Back in the cockpit, the co-pilot would have been calling out V-1, V-2 (at this point the aircraft would have been travelling 290 km/h), and finally - Rotate - which is when the nose wheel leaves the ground. At this point, the Captain gently pulled back on the yolk, and the aircraft would have climbed away from Vancouver.

Like an addict taking their first hit of Crack, I was hooked. So, this is what flying is all about.

It would be years later that I would come to appreciate the gift that my parents gave me that day. Growing up, I don't remember us having a lot of money, so for my parents to scramble together the $1,000 for the airline ticket was significant; however, the more important and lasting gift was something less tangible. They gave me the opportunity to see a different part of the world. Sure my Dad saw some of the world "fighting" for his country while in the Navy, but most of that time was probably spent in the bars of Mexico, or Hawaii, or San Diego. Getting on a jet and travelling to the other side of the world was something my parents had never experienced. Yet, they saw beyond that, and gave me opportunities unknown to them.

The movie that evening was James Bond's, Octopussy. A couple of hours into the flight, the young guy next to me asked the flight attendant if we could both visit the cockpit. The Captain obliged, and so we found ourselves on the flight deck, with the co-pilot pointing out Greenland, which looked like a large, white, barren mass of land, and not at all very green.

When we arrived at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport (thanks to Dutch ingenuity, at its lowest point the airport is 11 feet below sea level), I simply followed passengers from my plane to the immigration counter. My friend, Mark, and his father were waiting for me. Interestingly, they had been to the airport the day before thinking I was coming in then.

I remember Bilthoven being a small and charming town. With a population of 17,000, it is located in a forested region of the country. Mark's family lived on Soestdijkseweg, the town's main arterial street, lined with leafy trees.

I spent six weeks with Mark and his family. We spent most of our time riding bicycles--to the little shopping centre for ice cream, or to the town's outdoor swimming pool, or a short distance away to the Soesterberg Air Force Base, where we'd watch fighter jets scream into the air.

Mark taught me to play tennis. We played at the local school with no net. It didn't matter.
The Los Angeles Olympics were on at the time, and we would race around the block--he representing the Netherlands, and I, Canada. I remember Mark winning more of the races. But in the real Olympics that year, Canada won more medals.

During my stay, Mark, his parents, younger brother and I piled into the car for an 11 hour drive to Brissago, in southern Switzerland. We spent two weeks in a beautiful home high above the sunny shores of Lago Maggiore. I learned that palm trees do indeed grow in Switzerland.

When I arrived at the airport for my afternoon flight home, it seemed chaotic around the check-in counters. Looking up at the big board advertising the day’s departures, I noticed my flight:

CP 383 – Vancouver – DELAYED

At the counter, we learned that the flight would be delayed more than 18 hours. Mark’s mother wasn’t able to drive me back to the airport the next day, so like the rest of the passengers on that flight, I was given a voucher for an overnight stay at a hotel near the airport. Mark’s mother, and younger brother, had to return to Bilthoven that afternoon.

Mark, who was 13 at the time, was able to stay with me until the evening, so we boarded the shuttle for the short drive to the hotel. I called my parents, knowing they’d be a little surprised to hear me since I should have been on an airplane flying home. It was still early in the morning when my mother answered. Having woken her up, she didn’t seem too out of sorts. I sounded so unfussed telling her of the delay, and that I would be staying in a hotel for the night, and giving her the new time of my anticipated arrival the following day.

After hanging up the phone, she expressed to my father the kind of worry that any mother would have, knowing that her 14 year old son was spending the night in a hotel by himself on the other side of the world. My father, on the other hand, was more pragmatic about it all. “He’ll be fine,” he muttered, and rolled over and went back to sleep.

The delay didn’t bother me in the slightest. Mark and I took the bus back to the airport, so we could grab some dinner at the airport before he had to take the train home. Schipol is one of those progressive airports, and had a great outside viewing deck. Lost on me at the time was the significance of the EL Al Israeli plane that was parked a distance from the terminal at a remote stand, and guarded by a soldier with a machine gun.

After dinner, I said goodbye to Mark and went back to my hotel. I had purchased a large triangle of Dutch cheese for my father. It seemed to be getting a little soft, and I had no idea if it should have been refrigerated, so I filled up the bathroom sink with cold water and plunked the cheese in to “cool” overnight.

In the morning, I went to the hotel lobby, where others from my plane were waiting. I don’t remember checking in, but I do remember walking a long way to the end of the departures concourse, where a Boeing 747, wearing the bright orange colours of CPAir was waiting. After a stop in Calgary, I arrived back in Vancouver.

When I took that first flight 25 years ago, I would never have thought that one day I would write for the industry, or travel more than 350,000 miles on more 200 flights all over the world.

To my parents. Thanks.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Best Dad in the World

In some parts of the world yesterday it was Father’s Day. The one day a year that wives take out the trash, mow the lawn, and wash the car. Okay, maybe not.

There’s something I’m a little confused about. My sons made me a card, and on it read, For the BEST Dad in the world! I didn’t even know I had been entered into that particular competition. Wow! What an honour. Best Dad in the world. How can I live up to such high expectations? Then at work today my colleague told me that her husband also got a card that said he was the Best Dad in the World (I’m not sure if his was in all caps like mine). He’s a nice bloke and all, and patient too, especially considering his high maintenance wife, but Best Dad? How can that be? I thought there could only be one BEST DAD in the world.

Then I noticed all the Father’s Day cards on for half price at the store today and they all said, #1 Dad, or Best Dad in the World. Why weren’t there any cards that read, 4th Best Dad in the World, I mean fourth is pretty good, and it’s a goal that’s seems achievable.

This whole Best Dad in the world thing reminds me when you read about someone in the newspaper who died and everyone makes them out to sound like a do gooder, like Mother Teresa or Jesus. Really, you just want to someone to be honest and say that he was a nice guy, but he was a screw up.

Maybe the writers of cards could be a little more honest. Then we’d see ones that read, To an Okay Dad, or Dad, you’re a screw up, but Happy Father’s Day, anyway. I mean, Best Dad in the World. There’s a lot of responsibility in that, and quite frankly some people just aren’t cut out for that kind of thing.

To be sure, I just asked my four-year old son who the Best Dad in the World is. “You,” he said, pointing to me knowingly. I guess my colleague's husband will have to settle for the being the second best Dad.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Surprising Iran...a beautiful country and beautiful people - part 2

Part two of our Iranian adventure

After two days in Esfahan, we flew south to the southern city of Shiraz. The government regulates domestic airfares, so the total cost of the one-hour flight was less than $40.

European traders once exported Shiraz’s famous wine, but while you won’t find any wine in the city today, there are still lots of treasures to explore. More than its mosques and mausoleums and gardens, Shiraz is known as the gateway to the ancient ruins of Persepolis. No visit to Iran would be complete without exploring the remains of this city, which is the best-preserved legacy of the great Achaemenid Empire, which ruled Persia between 559 and 330 BC. We went to a local travel agency, and hired a driver and guide for the one-hour journey to Persepolis. The dry barren hills surrounding the city, surprisingly, gave way to a vast, fertile plain.

We first stopped at Nacropolis, where the tombs of four Persian kings have been carved out of a cliff, high above the ground. The magnitude of this burial place is impressive. After leaving the tombs, our driver missed the turnoff to Persepolis, which was ironic considering the ancient city was lost to time for centuries. Covered in sand, it was only in the 1930s that major excavations began. We finally found the ruins, and fortunately the parking lot was nearly empty. On weekends, and in high season, thousands of people flock to Persepolis, but on this day, we had much of the place to ourselves.

Our guide led us up the grand staircase, which would have been the main entrance to the city, and told us that instead of the stones we were walking on, there would have been marble floors covered with lavish Persian carpets. Surprisingly there is still much to see of this regal city that once stood more than 2,500 years ago. Of all the reliefs found here, the ones showing the 23 delegations are most interesting. Representatives from each country under the Persian Empire would come to Persepolis bearing unique gifts for the King. At its zenith, the Empire stretched from Europe to India. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great visited Persepolis, but he wasn’t the best house guest, as he burned the city to the ground. After a few hours of walking through history, we drove back to Shiraz, while our guide passed around delicious Iranian sweets.

The next morning, while walking through a small plaza, in Shiraz, a friendly group of students and their teacher surrounded us, and began peppering us with questions--what is your name? Where do you live? What is your job? We had come to expect this kind of attention. Shattering the perception that many have of Iran, we found Iranians to be kind and generous, and they yearned to meet foreigners. One student pulled out a camera and took a picture of me, and then more cameras came out. Soon my wife suggested it was time we went.

“Now I know how Brad Pitt feels”, I commented as we walked away. She looked at me and said, “You’re no Brad Pitt.” With my ego sufficiently humbled we headed for the bazaar.

As I peered out the airplane on our return to Tehran, I reflected on everything we had seen, and the people we met. Iran is easily one of the world’s most misunderstood countries. It is one of stark beauty
--barren, moon-like deserts, soaring snow capped mountains, and historical treasures that will amaze. And despite its geographical location, Iran is a safe place for visitors. But the best thing about Iran is its people. They will welcome you with open arms the moment you enter the country.

Surprising Iran...a beautiful country and beautiful people - part 1

Earlier this year, Iran marked the 30th anniversary of its Islamic revolution. And while that change three decades ago was brought about for noble reasons, as most uprisings are, the Iranian leadership has failed its people. They are equally as repressive as the previous regime, the country is mired in double-digit unemployment, and the country's oil wealth has been squandered.

The unrest that we see today on the streets of Iranian cities is a manifestation of the failure of its leaders. Because of the government's isolationist policies and inflammatory rhetoric, Iran is one of the world's most misunderstood countries. Five years ago, Carrie and I were fortunate to visit Iran. What we found was a beautiful country, with a history dating thousands of years. The people we met were welcoming and gracious. It still ranks as the one of our best travel experiences. Below is part 1 of that story.

When my wife and I told people that we were going to Iran, we were usually met with two kinds of responses. Some openly questioned why we would even consider going to such a place. “Aren’t you afraid,” they would ask, in a way that suggested they knew something we didn’t? Others wouldn’t say anything, but we could tell from the look on their faces that they wanted to. The more people raised their eyebrows, the more we wanted to visit this much-maligned country. But more than anything, we couldn’t wait to prove people wrong. And so we found ourselves in a taxi, racing across the Iranian desert in the middle of the night. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were meant to fly from the capital, Tehran to Esfahan, a city in the central part of the country, but a cancelled flight led to a missed connection. With few options left, an Iranian friend arranged the taxi, which cost less than a hundred dollars for the five-hour journey.

Our driver pushed on, and as morning came to life, so did the desert. The rising sun created silhouettes of the cragged mountains, giving the impression of a backdrop for a Hollywood Western. The stark beauty of the desert soon gave way to another kind of beauty as we arrived in Esfahan, with its long boulevards lined with leafy trees.

After a quick nap at our hotel, we set out to explore the city, which many regard as the jewel of Iran. For a brief time, Esfahan was a capital of ancient Persia, but while its golden age was short lived, several architectural wonders were constructed, which still draw visitors more than four hundred years later.

Eleven bridges span the Zāyandeh River--five of them old, and six new. We set off across the Si-o-Se Bridge, which means Bridge of 33 Arches. This bridge, located across the street from our hotel, is 160 metres long and was built in 1602. Esfahan’s old bridges are a walker’s delight as they are free from vehicle traffic, and offer a great way to explore the Zāyandeh, and the surrounding parkland.

The bridge was teeming with people, and almost everyone we passed offered up a curious, shy smile, or a bold, “hello”. A young woman came up to us and started a conversation. She walked with us to the end of the bridge, where an older woman, cloaked in a bat-like chador said something to her in Farsi. She wanted to know where we were from, and so we told her we were from Canada. A smile lit up across the older woman’s face. It turned out her daughter had recently moved to Canada, and wanted to know that she would be safe there. We assured the woman that Canada was a safe place, and with that, we brightened the day of a stranger. The young woman, who had walked with us across the bridge, hailed us a taxi and offered to pay the fare. We appreciated the kindness that Iranians are known for, but kindly refused. She told the driver to take us to Emām Khomeini Square.

The square is closed to vehicles, so the driver let us off a short distance away. We walked down a narrow lane, which opened up into the stunning plaza; home to some of the most majestic buildings in the Islamic world. The famed Emām Mosque rises at one end of the square, while the equally magnificent Sheik Lotfollāh Mosque and Alī Qāpu Palace stand opposite one another. Traditionally, the square was closed to men for one day each week, so women could come and shop. Today though, everyone is welcome and the square is a magnet for visitors and residents alike. We were first drawn to the Emām Mosque, which is one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, and as a result, probably one of the most photographed sites in Iran. Work on the impressive entrance portal began in 1611 and took four years to construct, while the entire mosque itself took 18 years to complete. We began to appreciate the craftsmanship, as we got closer, and saw the intricate mosaic tiles that covered the outside of the mosque. The building is unique in that the entrance portal was built to face the square, but the mosque itself is angled to face the holy city of Mecca. Inside is a large, treed courtyard, and a large pool for ritual ablations.

In contrast, the Sheik Lotfallāh Mosque is smaller, yet no less impressive. Its dome resembles a Faberge Easter egg, and is covered with cream-coloured tiles, instead of the blue and turquoise ones that Esfahan is known for. The dome changes colour throughout the day, depending on the light.

Esfahan’s shops and bazaars, which flank each side of the square, are widely recognized as some of the best in Iran. We found the entrance to the main bazaar, and lost ourselves in the labyrinth of alleyways. Carpet merchants welcomed us into their shops with offerings of tea, and educated us in the finer details of Iran’s most well known export. We learned about the number of knots in a carpet, the natural products used to make dyes for the different colours, and the regional differences in the patterns. In another part of the bazaar, we found artisans banging away and shaping pieces of copper into works of art.

Any time is a great time to visit the square, but we returned in the early evening as the setting sun cast brilliant hues on the buildings. We sat on a bench and people-watched. Families and young couples ambled through the square. Ice cream vendors did a brisk business. An older man sat next to us and introduced himself. We talked about politics and the perception that many have of Iran, especially in the west. He lamented the poor economic situation and restrictions placed on his people, but noticed that more tourists have come to Iran this year, than in the recent past.

Our travels through Iran continues in part 2

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The most delicious apple

I had the most delicious apple today. It was beautiful and sweet. The moment I bit into the pale red and creamy-yellow skin, I knew I found that once-in-a-lifetime perfection. It was like love at first taste. It was a solid crunch, like the sound of your feet walking through the snow on a quiet winter night.

Apples, like a lot of fruit, can be hit and miss. Some look deceiving good, only to offer up disappointment. Soft ones are especially disappointing.

I was once partial to Granny Smiths, those tart and refreshingly green coloured apples, which you usually see stacked neatly in a silver bowl, and gracing the glossy pages of an interior design magazine.

More recently, I have sought out the Gala. The delightful apple that I had today was a Royal Gala, which was grown in New Zealand. Such a long way to travel, I thought. I have never been to New Zealand (It’s the one place that my wife has been that I haven’t). I pictured my apple being nurtured by the richness of the Waimea Plains, on New Zealand’s South Island. Or maybe warmed by the summer breeze sweeping off the North Island’s Hawke’s Bay.

The taste of the apple took me back to my childhood, when I would visit my grandparent’s home, in Duncan. They had a couple of apple trees in their front and back yards. The warm summers of the Cowichan Valley filled the trees with delicious apples. I would go out with my Grandma and stand on my tippy toes to reach the highest apple that my tiny eight-year-old arms could grab.

I learned that the Gala apple was developed in New Zealand in the 1920s by orchardist, J.H. Kidd, and is a cross between a Golden Delicious and Kidd's Orange Red.

Like finding that perfect love. I'll probably never taste anything better, I thought to myself, as I crunched my way through this mouth-watering apple.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Canadians and their flag

My mother sent me an email after my last post. Nice to know that at least my mom reads my musings. This was her message:

Ken I have a Canadian flag on my backpack left over from Guiding days and I got comments on it when we were in England and the Netherlands. I do not really think it weird to be proud of where we are from. Although a nice leather one would be preferable to my 70's bright blue one. But you know I might put a flag on that too. Love Mum

While this wasn’t my mother’s motivation, let’s be clear, many Canadians (Americans too, apparently) put Canadian flags on their backpacks and bags, not because they are proud, but rather so they aren’t mistaken for an American when travelling abroad. It’s embarrassing to think that Canadians would use our flag in such a way. I have travelled all over the world, and not once did I feel it necessary to “prove” that I wasn’t an American. When my wife and her friend were travelling throughout Australia some years ago, her friend was so ridiculed for having a Canadian flag on her backpack that she ended up taking it off.

Back though to my mother’s comments about flags and pride. We agree on one thing, that it is indeed not weird to be proud of where we are from. For me, there is nothing more moving than to see Dutch school children placing candles at the gravestones of Canadian soldiers who died fighting for the freedom of those children’s parents and grandparents. Or watching a Canadian athlete excel at an international sporting event. Or listening to the international business community laud Canada for its stable banking system, while banks around the world were collapsing. Or knowing that the zipper was invented by a Canadian.

Where we differ maybe is that I believe we don’t have to wear that pride on our sleeve, or in this case on our backpack, when we travel. Attending an international sporting event? Go ahead and wave the red maple leaf, but not just because you are visiting another country.

When I was travelling throughout Europe some sixteen years ago, the only flags I saw on bags were Canadian, and one fellow with a Finnish flag on his bag. Indeed of all my travels around the world, the only flag I usually see stitched to a bag is the Canadian flag, which says a lot. In fact, I saw some guy on the bus yesterday with one.

If pride is about wearing a flag on a bag, then I should see a lot of Scottish or Welsh flags on my travels. Are Icelanders or Germans, or Brits any less proud of their country? I think not, and yet I don’t see people of those countries slapping their country’s flag on their bag before travelling.

For many Canadians, the notion of a flag on a backpack has been so ingrained that people stop to think about the message their sending. Some may ask, what does it matter? It matters because humility is a nice trait, and this, look at me, look at me, I’m Canadian attitude is embarrassing. Canada is indeed a great nation, and well regarded around the world, so be humble about that.

To further illustrate my point, the other day, my wife was watching her “Monday night show”, The Bachelorette, featuring Gillian Harris, who is trying to find love on television. Being her “hometown”, this particular episode was being filmed in Vancouver. I was intrigued by the sights they were showing. The city looked great, and even better with the use of a blue filter on the camera lens for some of the harbour scenes. What struck me most though, was when Harris and her gaggle of suitors went curling (how Canadian). Inside the curling rink, numerous Canadian flags had been placed around the walls. It seemed so glaring. So obvious. So out of place. I looked to my wife, and said, “I bet those flags aren’t on the wall all the time.” It reminded me how insecure we are as a nation that we have to wave our flag around, in this case, for the benefit of a largely American TV audience. Look at us! Look at us!

People have told me that putting a Canadian flag on a bag generates conversation. It surely did for my wife’s friend in Australia, though not in the way she probably expected. Surprising to some maybe, but conversation can still be generated without a flag. At least they can start the conversation by asking, “Where are you from?”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Girls Rule!!

The other day I saw a woman on the train wearing a bright pink lanyard, and on it were the words, Girls Rule!! Presumably the exclamation points were there to ensure we got the point. Got it. Girls rule. I’m a little confused, though. While some men will say that their wives do indeed rule the house, I’m not really sure what that statement means.

It’s a manifestation, I guess, of the Girl Power phenomenon which supposedly was a term of empowerment, popularized in the 1990s by the British band, The Spice Girls.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary added the term in 2001 and defined it as:

Power exercised by girls; spec. a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness and individualism…

I'm all for female ambition, assertiveness and indiviudalism, but humility is also a worthy trait. If girls rule, then apparently they also kick ass. At least that’s the conclusion one could draw from the t-shirts emblazoned with that particular slogan. I’ve seen others that say Canadian Girls Kick Ass. Nice. And what’s the message?

This all reminds me of the schoolyard in grade school when some whiny girl, who probably had trouble making friends, would call out in an annoying voice, “girls are better than boys, girls are better than boys!”

“Right you are, now can you scram, so we can continue flicking hockey cards against the school wall.”

Like people who put Canadian flags on their backpacks, where does this insecurity come from? Maybe I’m wrong, but surely all women don’t associate with the Girls Rule mantra. Seems to me that if you need to wear t-shirts and accessories telling people how great you are—you’re probably not.