Saturday, December 19, 2009

If you don't know me...better to just call me Mister

I don't expect a lot from the cashiers at the supermarket. I'm not fussy about how they bag the groceries, as long as they don't squish the bread (in fact fewer bags the better). I don't care that they have to look up the PLU code for parsnips, parsley, or persimmons. And I surely don't expect them to know my name. So why then do some supermarkets insist on the cashiers thanking customers by name when they don't even know them. It's torturous for the poor clerk who struggles with the proper pronunciation, and it's torturous for the person who has to listen to their name being butchered.

The other day I was at Safeway, and Gus (who had a button on his shirt that said something like, "take pity on me, I'm new) was doing a good job. The line was moving well, scanner was beeping, groceries were being bagged, money was exchanged. Everyone was happy. Then Gus remembers line 15 of the training manual that says he has to thank the customers by name. So, he stares at the loyalty card of the guy in front of me, and after a moment stammers out a name that sounds like a mix of German and Chinese. Realizing that he probably didn't get it right, Gus tries again. This time the name sounds like a cross between Hungarian and Nepalese. The customer smiled and said, "Not really, but thanks."

When I handed Gus my card, he looked at it, and realized he probably shouldn't have skipped his phonetics class. He then offered up..."Mr. Don?" Not quite, but at least he went back to scanning my groceries. Then when he returned my change and card, he just called me, "mister". Which at the end of the day is just easier. Same thing happened yesterday with another Safeway clerk. This time I was called "Mr. Dono".

No, the name is DONOHUE (which in Irish means handsome, intelligent, and charming).

To further illustrate how ridiculous this practice is, a few years ago I was at a store and the clerk looked at my Air Miles card and said, "thank you Mr. Williams." She looked blankly at me when I said, "not really!" What she didn't know, and why should she, was that the card I had was tied to my wife's account, which still had her maiden name on it.

Customers don't expect random clerks in random stores to know their names, so let's just dispense with the nonsense. Better for the customer and better for the poor clerks. A simple, thank you, is all I need.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NZ least corrupt nation

Transparency International, which calls itself the global civil society organization, released its annual corruption index. New Zealand (the only place my wife has been that I haven't) apparently is the least corrupt country in the world. Which is nice and all, but really how corrupt can a place be when the sheep population outnumbers humans 10:1. Yes, just over 4 million people call this island nation home, while more than 40 million sheep really run the place. As much as low corruption leads to good government, it sounds...well, rather boring.

In case you're interested, the five least corrupt nations are:

New Zealand

Canada was tied for 8th, sharing that place with Australia and Iceland. But it's the countries at the bottom of the list that sound like exciting places to visit.

The most corrupt nation is Somalia, which isn't surprising of course to those on one of the 65 ships that have been attacked or hijacked by Somali pirates. There hasn't been a functioning government for many years. The 5 most corrupt countries are:


The most corrupt country that I have visited is Iran, which placed 168th. Again, not surprising considering this year's disputed Presidential election. We didn't experience any overt corruption during our visit, although we were detained by the police for a short while, and had to secretly remove the film from our camera and hide it in our host's sock, so that it wouldn't be found and confiscated by the police at the airport.

Honestly, and really isn't that what this is all about, the only corruption that we have knowingly engaged in was in South Korea. As foreigners working in Korea, we needed to obtain an Alien Registration Card. One day, the mysterious Mr. Park, whose job we never really knew and who just appeared from time to time, escorted Carrie and I, along with two other teachers, to the Department of Immigration. Housed in a non-descript , concrete building, we found a seat along a back wall. After a long wait we went individually to a counter to get fingerprinted and had our picture taken, so we could be registered as Aliens.

There was more waiting, and then Mr. Park led one of the other teachers to a counter, where we could see her signing some papers. She seemed stunned when she returned and told us that they asked her to sign someone else's name on some immigration documents. Mr. Park then led Carrie to the counter, where she was asked to do the same thing. We have no idea what the documents were for, or why they were asked to sign them. Sometimes it's just easier not to ask.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Everything in America is Big

Have you noticed that everything in the U.S. is BIG--The Big Easy, Big Sur, Battle of the Big Horn, Super Big Gulps, Big Bear Lake, Big trees that they call giants, Big Brother. It's a big country (though not the biggest), with big portions and big people, big deficit, big cars that drive on equally big freeways. Even former president Bill Clinton talked big, when he said: big things are expected of us , and nothing big ever came of being small.

It's a larger than life place, so it wasn't surprising when I heard about the very big 4,060 year sentence given to a child sex offender and recently upheld by a Texas Appeals Court (apparently Texas is a BIG state, though not the biggest). I was thinking maybe a 3,000 year sentence was reasonable, but a Texas jury was looking for something bigger. James Pope will not be eligible for parole until the year 3209. Now that's a lot of years spent in the Big House.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Misleading Journalism

If you read Saturday's Sun from cover to cover you might have caught these two references:

South African Airways offers low airfares and good service between Seattle and a choice of destination cities in South Africa. The flight from Seattle connects through New York which makes for a nice break for such a long journey.


Saxena arrived Friday on Thai Airways flight 615 from Vancouver via Beijing.

And if you did catch these excerpts, from different stories, you could be forgiven for thinking that South African Airways flies to Seattle and that Thai Airways serves Vancouver. Neither is the case. Just some sloppy journalism.

South African Airways, which by the way has one of the finest liveries (that's the fancy paint on the outside of the plane) in the world, doesn't fly anywhere near Seattle. In fact, their only two North American destinations are Washington DC and New York. Instead of fine South African service between Seattle and New York, you'll get no service on an American airline, and if you choose to book through the airline's website as the article suggests you'll be forced into making an inconvenient and expensive connection between New York airports (I've done it before it's a hassle, and the cab ride will be over $100). Oh, and the fare will set you back more than $2000. But in case you're interested, I checked on Travelocity, and found a fare for the unbelievable price of $1400, all in, and no need to transfer airports. Consider it my gift to you. Just send me a postcard.

Now on to the second misleading article. Presumably long time fugitive, Rakesh Saxena, who was extradited last week to Thailand after 13 years of playing the Canadian judicial system did indeed arrive on Thai Airways flight 615, but that flight originates in Beijing. Thai Airways has never served Vancouver. It is likely Saxena and his entourage of Thai police officers flew from Vancouver to Beijing on Air China.
So when you're at your next cocktail party and someone says they heard that Thai Airways flies into Vancouver, you'll know they don't. Don't believe everything you read in the paper.
By the way, if you were interested in purchasing a ticket on that South African Airways flight to Jo'burg, my legal name in my passport is KENNETH.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What exactly is the Prince's job?

Next week, Prince Charles (known by close friends as Chuck) will be coming to Canada, and if a poll of 1,400 Canadians is a reflection of the country, then indifference will probably mark his 15th visit to Canada.

Out in the colonies, the British royalty are kind of like those distant relatives, who come to visit every once in while. They’re pleasant visits, but not really full of much substance. So, it doesn’t surprise me when I read that half of those polled no longer believe there should be a Queen or King as a Head of State, and that only one in five would make an effort to see the Prince of Wales if he were nearby.

What does surprise me about the poll is that almost 700 people thought that Chuck was doing a good job, while just 34% thought he was doing a poor, or extremely poor job. And 62% said the Queen was doing a fair, good, or excellent job.

Really? And what are there jobs? It’s not like the days of old when Kings and Queens led countries, oppressed their subjects, invaded foreign lands, and ruled distant empires. Even Chuck’s website is a little vague about what he does. Under the Work section it reads:

The Prince of Wales, as Heir to the Throne, seeks, with the support of his wife, to do all he can to use his unique position to make a difference for the better in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Yah nice, but aren’t many of us trying to make a difference for our respective countries and the world?

I was chatting about the state of British throne just the other day with my colleague, who apparently claims to be Canadian, but spent of her impressionable years growing up in London, so she talks a funny kind of English. She told me that the Windsors (sounds like it could be the name of a soap opera) took a much greater interest in British affairs than we hear about in the backwaters of the Empire. Maybe so, but it seems that the Royals of old had a much greater impact on the affairs of their countries. Take for instance William, the bastard, a French dude, who by the time he was 19 was dealing with threats of rebellion and invasion. Later he sailed across The Channel and invaded England and proclaimed himself King. Talk about overachiever.

While I don’t often run out when Elizabeth or her sons come to town (though in school once we stood on the side of the street waving a little Union Jack while Liz and Phil drove by, and I did bid farewell to the Royal clan when they boarded their Yacht), I am a sucker for pomp and pageantry, and I don’t mean to sell Chuck short, because he engages in many charitable causes and speaks out about environmental degradation, but it just seems that these Royal visits are merely tightly controlled glad-handing events.

His website says that he and Camilla hope to meet a cross-section of Canadians during their 11-day visit. If his handlers would let the guy loose, I’m sure he would have a more meaningful dialogue with Canadians, but he won’t get much of a sense of Canada being hustled from one heavily scripted event to another. Not like his younger brother, Edward, who while staying in Victoria at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, apparently donned a ball cap and slipped out the side door at Government House without his security detail and walked downtown to take in the nightly concerts in the Inner Harbour.
I wish the Prince and his Princess a pleasant visit, but like most Canadians I won't be rushing out to see them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A long road trip

So I learned today that it may soon be possible to travel to Mars in 39 days. This thanks to a new Ion propulsion engine. Not sure what that really means, but it sounds fast.

Apparently Mars and Earth only pass close together every two years, so space junkies always assumed a crew would have to travel one way, wait a year, then fly back the next time the planets were close together--raising the same kind of fear you have when your in-laws visit for Christmas and they might have to stay a year before returning home.

55 million km in 39 days--now that's one long road trip. I'm not sure it would work for our family. These days before we leave the garage, the older one is always asking, "are we there yet...are we there yet?". And when the little one starts screaming in the car, the older one starts in. Soon the back seat is a symphony of shrill shrieks.

Where would you stop for snacks along the way? Are there rest stops? "Hey honey, can you pull over, so I can use the toilet? Imagine the kind of musical play list you would have to put together.

"Haven't we heard this song before?"

"Well, not since day 17!"

My son would be playing one of his favourite songs over and over. A ditty by The Backyardigans (A grunge band from the early '90s) called, We're going to Mars.

It goes something like this:

Uniqua, Pablo and Austin:
We're going to Mars We're going to Mars A mission is what we've got

We're gonna say 'roger' a lot

Uniqua, Pablo and Austin:
We're going to Mars We're going to Mars We don't know what lies ahead

But we do know the planet's red

Uniqua, Pablo and Austin:
We're going to Mars

What will we find when we get there

Probably some dude that is red there

Who knows, maybe we'll see you out there one day on the Milky Way travelling to Mars.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I'm no Brad Pitt, but I have three toilets

I often hear my wife talking in her sleep. The theme goes something like this. Why didn't I marry someone with the rugged good looks of Brad Pitt, or the refined charm of George Clooney, or the wit of Louis CK. Then she wakes up. And sees my adorable face.

While I'm no Pitt or Clooney, I am a great husband, but for reasons that may not at first seem obvious. I have provided my dear wife with a house that has three toilets--one on the main floor and two upstairs. I know, the pampered luxury that my wife has become accustomed to.

Now before you minimize the significance of such facilities, consider that in rural India many young women are refusing to marry unless their suitor furnishes their future home with a bathroom. This means the ladies won't be inconvenienced by having to use community toilets or squatting in fields.

In one state, close to 1.5 million toilets have been built since the No Toilet, No Bride campaign started two years ago. One woman said she won't let her daughter near a boy that doesn't have a toilet. "No loo? No, I do," she was quoted saying in a newspaper article.

The culture of favouring sons, and thus aborting female fetuses (an illegal, yet widespread practice), means there are more bachelors than eligible brides. Women and their parents are now able to be more selective when arranging a match. There's always a price to pay for screwing with nature, isn't there?

Imagine what a catch I would be in India with three toilets. I just won't tell my wife that Brad Pitt's French home has seven bathrooms, with another seven in the outbuildings on the property.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

15 cent Metro

Those who know me well know that I'm a frugal guy. Not cheap...frugal, there's a difference. If I was cheap I wouldn't have given the homeless guy some money for volunteering the directions to my hotel, during a recent visit to Seattle. It's a trait I'm sure passed down from some Scottish ancestry, and tucked deep inside my DNA. My mind is often consumed by money--how much did that taxi cost me? And that breakfast? And those two belts I bought from a street vendor yesterday in Mexico City. $20, $12, and $8, in case you were curious.

I try to live by a simple philosophy. We all have a certain amount of money, and if we are careful with it, we can experience much more than if we squander it away. That's why I shared a room with 9 others a couple of years ago, and paid $35 to stay a night in midtown Manhattan, or stayed with a family in Bucharest with no hot water for $15. But back to Mexico City.

Yesterday afternoon, I left my hotel and started walking along the impressive Paseo de la Reforma towards Zocola, the city's historical area. The de la Reforma is a multi-laned road bordered by wide boulevards, and lined with leafy trees. After passing the impressive Fountain de la Diana Cazadora and further along the Angel of the Revolution monument, I stopped in at a tourist info kiosk, and asked how long it would take to walk. 30 minutes. So I asked about the bus. The helpful attendant pointed to stop on the far side of the round about, and told me it would cost 5 pesos, 40 cents. What a bargain. Frugal guy likes that.

After spending some time ambling through the central part of the city, I thought I would take the subway back to my hotel. I scanned the colourful subway map and figured that if I walked to the Pino Suarez station, I could take the pink line to Sevilla, which would deliver me two blocks from the hotel.

I descended beneath the street and into the baking and busy maze of tunnels below, like ants burrowing through the ground. I found the ticket counter, and handed over 2 pesos, 15 cents, for a ticket. Yes, 15 cents. For a frugal guy like me, that's like pulling three sevens on a Vegas slot machine. I could ride the metro all day long at that price.

In case you need to impress someone at your next cocktail party, here's a little information on the subway. Yes, time saved looking it up online. My gift to you.

The Sistemo de Transporte Colectivo Metro, the official name of Mexico City's metro. Opened in 1969, it is the second largest metro system in North America, next to New York's, and serves more than 1.4 billion passengers a year (the Tokyo metro is the most used with more than 3 billion riders each year). There are 11 lines and more than 450 km of track. And indeed it is the cheapest metro ticket in the world.

During the initial construction, two archeological ruins were discovered, along with an Aztec idol, which apparently is different than an American Idol, and the bones of a mammoth.

The trains are long, and normally full of people, although on one train coming back from the airport this afternoon, I was able to get a seat. The windows on most cars have been scratched up by delinquents, but I never felt unsafe. Vendors ply their trade selling tic tacs, freezies, flashlights, small toys, and presumably a factory of other things. The din of the train is sometimes disturbed, pleasantly so, by the pulsing music from someone's large stereo. Music is, after all, meant to be shared.

And the one thing I noticed is that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, people entering the train don't wait to let those getting off the train, before they barge on. Humans are idiots, but I love the 15 cent metro.

Friday, October 2, 2009

We're always waiting for something

“It seems like everyone is waiting for something,” my 10-year old nephew observed recently over a family dinner. And while he was referring to the chicken, or potatoes, or salad, I thought it was an appropriate statement for life in general. Seems we’re always waiting for something.

Before we are born even, we wait to be freed from inside our mothers. And our parents, too, eagerly await our arrival. And when we do arrive, they hold their breath waiting for that shrill cry, and the thumbs up from the doctor.

As a youngster we eagerly wait for Santa Claus to come. Then on Christmas morning we wait some more until our parents get up and breakfast is made. And if you have a father like mine, you’ll wait even more, because he takes hours to open one gift.

At school, we wait outside until the bell calls us inside, where we wait until the teacher shows up, and begins the roll call (do they still do that). Students with names at the end of the alphabet always think they have to wait longer. Turns out we all wait the same amount of time. We wait for the results of our tests, while our parents wait for our report card. I always waited for my mother to ask why I don’t try harder and apply myself.

When we graduate from grade school we wait on the stage for our name to be called out, only to wait even longer until those students whose names are at the end of alphabet get called up. Then we wait for our final grades to see if we’ve applied ourselves enough to continue our education. We wait for the university to accept our application, where the waiting begins all over, except this time there are no bells to let us know when the class starts. And there is no recess.

Travelling is all about waiting, too. We go to the airport and wait to check-in, then wait again to put our bags on the conveyor belt. We wait at security and then again at the gate. Sometimes if the flight is delayed, we have to wait some more. Once onboard, we have to wait until all the passengers and cargo are loaded. Once in Dallas we had to wait until a thunderstorm passed. And when it was safe to leave we had to wait for the back up of airplanes to take off. The moment we leave, our loved ones can't wait until we return. They stand at the airport waiting for our plane to arrive.

Some mornings we lay awake waiting for the alarm to go off, and then wait for the hot water to warm up the bath or shower. We wait for the toast to jump out of the toaster, or the coffee to brew, or the Rice Krispies to go snap, crackle, pop.

Sports, too is a waiting game. We wait to enter the arena or stadium, then wait for the players to skate onto the ice, or run onto the pitch. We wait for the warm up to finish, and the puck to be dropped, or ball to be kicked. During the intermissions we wait some more--in lineups for food and drink, and for the toilet. We wait for the final buzzer to see if our team won. Then we wait to get out of the building, and wait some more to get our car out of the parking lot or to find a train home. In some cases, we wait decades before our team finally wins a championship, while others still wait for the first taste of victory.

At the supermarket we wait at the check stand for the person in front to pay for their groceries. It always seems that I’m waiting behind the person fumbling for loose change in their purse? We then wait for the cashier to scan our items, only to have to wait longer because they don’t know the code for organic spinach. We then wait for the total payment to be displayed. The cashier in turn waits for us to get find some cash or a plastic card.

The unlucky wait for the test results and then wait a doctor’s diagnosis, only to be told there is nothing more that can be done. They then wait to die. Life is cruel that way.

I’m not sure how they know this, but apparently we spend 10 weeks of our lives waiting. I guess I’ll have to wait to see if that’s true.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Now may be the time to visit the UK...or maybe not.

If you’ve been putting off that trip to the United Kingdom or Great Britain or whatever you want to call that place where they talk that funny sort of English, now may be the time to go. As an aside have you noticed that the Kingdom, which is actually ruled by a Queen is hardly united, nor is it as great as it once was? I digress.

Instead of taking money from unsuspecting tourists and locals, 20 former pickpockets have been slipping 5 to 20 pound notes into people’s pockets or handbags for the past month in London. The “put-pocket” initiative, which is now apparently being rolled out country wide, and is being funded by Internet provider, TalkTalk. A clever marketing stunt, me thinks.

Fortunately, in all of my travels, I have never been pickpocketed. My camera was stolen at a Venice youth hostel (the miscreant didn’t even have the courtesy to leave the film behind), and someone tried to open my backpack while on a busy street in Costa Rica, but Carrie wrestled the guy to the ground and punched him in the nose.

What you may not know is that the biggest pickpocket is actually the British government. Compare the taxes and fees paid on flights to London and other European cities and you’ll see why you’re being fleeced. What's almost as bad is that most airline booking sites just display the total taxes and fees, so you have no idea who's ripping you off. But believe me, the UK government is getting a fistful of your Dollars or Euros, or Dinars.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Tax Barometer, taxes on international air passengers has risen more than 250% in London since 1994. In 1996, the UK government introduced a new international air passenger duty, which started out at 10 Pounds, but has now increased to 40 Pounds, and is set to rise again this year.

Below are the taxes and fees for flights to some European cities from Vancouver (in CAN$)

London - $457
Paris - $413
Amsterdam - $395
Frankfurt - $316

Alistair Darling, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, must put his feet up each evening at 11 Downing Street, counting his dosh, because London's Heathrow is the world's busiest airport in terms of international passengers, with more than 69 million passing through each year.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Canada Line...a nice ride, lame name

The other day I rode the Canada Line, Vancouver’s newest rail link, and had lunch at the airport. The trip took less than 20 minutes, which is a vast improvement from a few months ago when I last went to the airport from my office. Then I had to take three buses and it took more than hour.

The Canada Line though seems like an odd choice of name. Is Canada the only country in the world that would think to name a rail line after itself? I can’t see the Mexicans building a subway line and calling it the Mexico Line, or the British calling the Heathrow Express the United Kingdom line. Or what about the Congo Line (isn’t that a dance or something)? Equally ridiculous would be a subway line called the Brunei Darussalum Line or the Equitorial Guinea Line, or the Peru Line.

Logically, it should be called the Olympic Line, as the city’s two other SkyTrain routes are aptly named the Expo Line, because it was built for Expo 86, and the Millennium Line, because it was supposed to open in 2000, though it was late by a year or so. But politics often trumps logic. And to have named it the Olympic Line would have invited the whiny Olympic naysayers to add the $2 billion price tag for the train line to the cost of hosting the Olympics. Safer instead to call it the Canada Line. Who would argue with that? A little lame I think.

When the initial plans for the rail link to the airport and Richmond were first proposed, I remember Burnaby mayor, Derek Corrigan, saying something stupid--suggesting that the RAV line (as it was known before we got all vain) is a waste of money, because the only people that will ride the train are airport workers and backpackers, everyone else will take a cab.

When I rode the Olympic Line to the airport, I did see a few backpackers and maybe even some airport workers, but I also saw people with luggage (and a throng of “transit tourists” like me). How presumptuous to assume that the only people that would be inclined to take the train into the city would be workers and backpackers.

And yes, it is possible to travel on the train with luggage. In fact, I once travelled from London’s Heathrow Airport on the Tube with my family and 11 bags of varying sizes. I remember it was 11, because as we got off of every train in the UK and the Netherlands, we counted the bags to make sure we had them all. In fact, I have taken the train to and from the airport in the following cities:

Washington DC
New York
Hong Kong
Kuala Lumpar

Sure some people will continue to take a cab from the airport. It has some very real benefits, but most travellers want to make their travel dollars go further, and as such will opt for the train. While it’s still early to trumpet the success of the Olympic Line, some taxi drivers are complaining that they are waiting longer for fares at the airport, because fewer travelers are hailing cabs, since the route opened.

Back to the train itself. On the station platform, an automated voice announced the destination of inbound and outbound trains, and signs displayed the waiting time of the next train. Large picture windows at the front of the train offered up excellent views for passengers. And as we zoomed beneath the city streets, one young girl said it was just like riding a roller coaster. And that's my kind of roller without the steep drops.

Name aside, when I arrived at the airport I thought to myself that with this one line Vancouver’s transit system had just grown up, and Vancouver itself had matured.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A stallion no more!

Like an old gelding standing in a field of green grass and wildflower, swishing the flies away with its tail, my breeding days are over. A stallion, no more.

I'm not sure what it means when your father-in-law accompanies you to get a vasectomy. I guess after knocking up his daughter twice, he'd had enough, so he dragged me to the clinic. The small waiting room was full of similarly aged men, and one woman. Perhaps a sympathetic wife. Turns out most of the guys were back for a quick follow-up check. I tried to see if they walked any differently when they left.

As Dr. Rich (an appropriate name, I suppose for a guy that has performed more than 15,000 vasectomies in the last 15 years), was looping an elastic band around my penis and clipping it to my shirt--sounds like a fraternity prank gone bad--I asked him how he got into the business of population control.

"It's a dirty business, but someone has to do it," he replied dryly.

Turns out he used to be a GP, delivery babies and the like, but I guess he delivered one too many crying baby and decided to curb that nonsense.

"The people that really need this procedure, aren't the ones that come here" he went on, "they're too busy thinking about recreation than procreation."

With the political statement aside, and penis firmly secured to my shirt, the rich doctor used his handy jet injector to penetrate (no pun intended) the scrotal skin and freeze the vas and surrounding tissue. On the ceiling above was a picture of some happy sperm swimming along with the words, sorry, boys! printed on it. At least he has a sense of humour.

After a minute or two to let the freezing take, he punctured the skin, grabbed one vas and cut it, then the other; forever severing my ability to sire any children.

"You'll smell some smoke," he said. Actually I could see it. I thought maybe he was etching his name, performed by Dr. Rich.

Then he patched up the small hole, put a few inches of gauze padding on the wound, and off I went, with my instructions to rest and a bottle of Ibuprofen.

I swear I saw the guys in the waiting room watching to see if I walked any differently.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It takes an American to expose our arrogance

Given all the jingoism that we often hear from Americans about theirs being the best country in the world, some might find it ironic that it takes an American to point out our arrogance. After a recent visit to British Columbia, David Rich, of Glendale Arizona, was gobsmacked (his words) by BC's slogan, The Best Place on Earth. And so should we all. What began as a slogan in some slick ads for Tourism BC, somehow morphed into the official provincial slogan. Who thought this was a good thing?

British Columbia is indeed a beautifully diverse place, but to suggest that it is the best place on earth smacks of a smugness that is unbecoming and embarrassing. A little humility is a good thing.

And what does the rest of the world think when they see that slogan? It's laughable and dismissive of other places, which in some cases are more beautiful than British Columbia. Ritch suggests that British Columbians who subscribe to this best place on earth nonsense (my word) may fall into the trap of being too insular, like some of his fellow Americans. And he says that they need to visit Pakistan's Karakoram Mountains, Nepal, Chile's Torres del Paine National Park or Iguazu Falls.

We've all come across braggarts in our lives, and they aren't always pleasant to be around. As a person, as a business, as a province, or a country, never believe that you're the best. You'll stop striving to be better, and everyone will pass you by. And by the time you notice, no one will want to play with you.

The sooner we get back to being Super. Natural British Columbia, the better

Friday, August 7, 2009

A dog by any other name

According to a UK analysis of 12,000 dog names, Max, Jack (no, we did not name our sons after dogs), Molly, and Charlie, and other human-sounding names are the most popular. Similar findings in North America echo this trend. One anthropologist suggested that it only natural that we (that’s the collective we) would give names traditionally reserved for humans, reflecting the new status that dogs, and other pets, have as family members.

Just 13 dogs in the U.S. Veterinary Pet Insurance database had the name Fido. And Rover, Patch, Spot, and Lassie were only nominally more popular. For the 6th consecutive year Max was the top name for a dog--at least by those purchasing pet insurance.

All of this doesn’t surprise me considering that Americans spend more than $40 billion each year on their pets. In the past all one needed was a bag of dog chow, a food dish, and a couple of squeaky toys. Now we've gotten a bit goofy with doggy spas, bottled water for dogs, organic food, clothing, and accessories. In some circles dogs have become status symbols. In China, dogs used to be food, but now in fashionable cities, such as a Shanghai, people carry about miniature dogs as a sign of their material wealth.

In a recent Maclean’s magazine article titled, The Case Against Kids, I found it interesting that one couple talked about their decision not to have children, yet they admitted to doting on their dog. A child still, just a different kind of animal.

Now back to dog names. A colleague and her husband named their little mutt, Perro, which may sound unique, but really it means DOG in Spanish. Now that’s original. And I know of someone else who named their dog, Puppy. It’s kind of like calling your kid, Human or Baby.

My wife did say that with a dog you can always send it to the Kennel if you want to go away on vacation. Can’t really do that with the kids, I suppose. Though maybe an idea for a business opportunity. We could call it a Kiddel.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Hosted by Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby, Kids Say the Darndest Things aired on television from 1996 to 2000, and was named, because, well, sometimes kids say the darndest things.

Below are a few recent examples.

At dinner the other night, my four-year old son, Jack, said with certainty, “I want to go to Chicago!” This surprised us. Not that he would like to visit another city, but because we haven’t talked much about Chicago. New York, yes, Chicago not so much. My wife then asked, “why do you want to go there?” "Because I want to know what’s there," he said, sounding very grown up. Sounds reasonable enough, I suppose.

I have a friend who has travelled extensively through the United States, and Chicago is his favourite city. Maybe we'll get there some day.

To further illustrate how Jack has picked up his parent's love of travel, my wife asked him the other week where he wanted to go this summer. "Fiji would be nice," he replied matter-of-factly. Indeed, Fiji would be nice, but I think his mother was thinking of somewhere a little closer to home.

Yesterday Jack and I went grocery shopping while his mother and brother had a nap (lucky them). As he always does when we come to the bakery section, Jack eyed up all the decorated cakes. After examining each in detail, he pointed to one and said,"I'll have that one for my 5th birthday and that one (Sponge Bob) for my 41st birthday, and I'll have a Cars cake for my 65th birthday." Wow, nothing like being organized and doing a little pre-planning. I then started doing the math, and figured that if I'm still around, I'll be 100 years old when Jack digs into that Cars cake.

As we were driving to the grocery store, I turned a corner and then heard Jack say:

"Daddy, you didn’t do the click click."

The what?

"The click, click," he said again, his voice rising.

The what? I replied in that tone that all parents have when they have no idea what their child is trying to say.

"The lever," he said, in that tone that all children have when they can't understand why their parents don't know what they are trying to say.

Right, I forget that his mother has been teaching him about levers.

Ah, the turn signal. Right, the click click. The lever. (His mother has been teaching him about levers) Of course, I forgot to put the turn signal on. It makes so much sense now.

"Yes Daddy, you forgot to do the turn signal."

Nothing like your kids keeping you honest.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Losing my virginity...oh no, that's something different

Bob Barker, the former, long-time host of the game show, The Price is Right, used to end the show with a message reminding people to spay and neuter their pets. I think my wife thought he said make sure you get your husbands neutered, because I found myself on a bus this morning going to the doctor’s office for a vasectomy referral. It was ironic that on the way I was reading the Maclean’s magazine cover story, The Case Against Having Kids. Too late for me, but something others may consider, I suppose.

Dr. Rich, who apparently has gotten quite rich neutering males, will be doing the procedure. In fact, on his website he says he’s done 15,000 of them. Now that’s a lot of dicks!

On the rich doctor’s website is the bible of no scalpel vasectomies, otherwise known as The Book. Apparently, this is required reading. Who knew there would be homework?

Page one sounds promising…
A vasectomy has no direct being on sexual function. No better. No worse.

But what about just some? I mean, being married with two kids seems protection enough. Why the need for a vasectomy?

Page two gets a little more technical...
The No-needle injector delivers a fine jet of Xylocaine right through the scrotal skin onto the vas and surrounding tissue. It requires only 1/10th the volume of anesthetic compared with the needle method so there is less tissue distension (this is good, I was worried about tissue distension) and less risk of bleeding. Also it is a proven medical fact that men prefer to have needles kept as far from their scrotums as possible. (no kidding, and how many years of schooling did it take the doctor to learn this?)

The Book says that surgery and recovery are usually fast and the pain is usually minimal. Though the following is a little unsettling. The penis is encircled with an elastic band the other end of which is clipped to the bottom of your shirt. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! One’s penis (if you have one) should never, I repeat never, be clipped to your shirt.

A few things that could go wrong, according to Dr. Rich.

Hematoma: This results from bleeding into the scrotum. It can get large and painful, and turn the scrotum black and blue. Incidence with conventional vasectomy is around 3%. The NSV literature puts it at 0.3%, but I’ve only seen 3 “big ones” in 15,000 (0.03%).

Infection: Minor infections occur in about 1 to 2% of patients. Serious infections, requiring intravenous antibiotics or drainage of an abscess occur in about 0.2% of cases. Even these rare and serious infections usually resolve completely in a few weeks.

Vasitis or Epididymitis: Inflammation and swelling of the tissue surrounding the vas or extending down around the epididymis (the part just below the vas that joins it to the testicle) occurs about 10% of the time. It’s usually mild and transient, no bigger than a grape, but rarely this can get to the size of “a third testicle”. Needless to say, this can be painful, but this too will settle with religious use of industrial strength non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), but it can sometimes take a few weeks to settle down. Given that swelling is what the male genitalia like to do best, all this is not surprising. In fact, inflammation and erection both produce swelling through almost identical biochemical pathways. That is why I encourage the liberal use of ibuprofen or other NSAIDs for a full week post-op, even if you're not having pain. Tylenol is usually not as effective for this.

If pain and inflammation lasts for a month, the good doctor advises to come back and see him. Like what can he do? He’s the no scalpel doc, after all. It’s not like he has the tools in his office to cut IT off should the swelling become intolerable. I think a trip to the nearest hospital would be in order.

My doctor told me they should be able to schedule the procedure in a month or two. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why do we closet away wedding dresses?

The other day my colleagues and I were talking about wedding dresses. I’m not sure how we got on to that subject, but we did. One minute we were talking the finer points of liver transplant surgery and the next we’re talking wedding dresses.

I was asking my colleagues why many women keep their weddings dresses closeted away years after the big day? It’s a question I’ve asked from time to time, but the answers I receive usually leave me with more questions.

After our wedding, my wife had her dress dry-cleaned and boxed, where it has sat in my in-laws storage room for the last 11 years. I don’t think she’ll wear the dress again, so why does it sit in a closet?

Call me practical (I, like most men, returned my wedding day get-up the day after our wedding. I didn’t even have to pay to have it cleaned), but if the dress has some value why don’t we sell it.
The responses I have received when I pose that question are typical. Some express sentimental reasons for keeping the dress. But surely sentiments are found in our love and the memories, rather than the physical thing stuffed away in a box that we’ll never use or rarely see again?

Others contend that a daughter may one day want to wear the dress at her wedding. A nice thought, but unlikely given that it may not fit, and the daughter may want her own dress, not something her mother wore a few decades before. When I told my colleagues that I have two sons, and I doubted they would need their mother’s hand-me-down wedding dress, they suggested that my son’s future wife might want to wear the dress. Right! With the utmost respect to mothers-in-law the world over, I really doubt that my son’s future bride (let’s not think too far ahead, they aren’t even in Kindergarten yet) will want to wear her mother-in-law’s wedding dress.

My ever persistent colleague, who interestingly got rid of the dress she wore at her wedding some time ago suggested that someone in the future may want to wear the dress. The future is now. Someone right now may want to wear that dress.

Wouldn’t it be nice to pass on a dress to someone who may not be able to afford a new one, and at the same time put a few bucks in your pocket? Maybe take a trip with your husband, and create some new memories.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

We can send people into space, but we can't...

There's a lot about this world that I just don't understand. Like how I can send an email to someone on the other side of the world, and it is received in seconds, or how an office tower being built, just magically rises from a hole in the ground, or how the salmon finds the river of its birth after hanging out in the ocean for a couple of year. But why can't they (whoever they is) make the glue on envelopes taste better.

40 years ago today--before I was born by a hair--the first manned mission to the moon lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre, in Florida. And just yesterday Endeavour lifted off from the same spot. Its three main engines and two booster rockets will propel the orbiter to a speed of more than 17,500 miles per hour, before docking two days later at the International Space Station. Now you're probably wondering how fast 17,500 miles an hour is. Let me put it this way. In 26 minutes you could fly from Vancouver to Sydney, Australia, where you could be sitting on a patio in Darling Harbour, enjoying a coldie and some lunch, and be home for dinner. Yet, we still can't make envelope glue that tastes good.

I don't often seal envelopes by hand, or rather by tongue anymore. At work we have a big machine that does that, and besides it's seems like a workplace hazard. Have you ever had a paper cut on your tongue?

Anyway, yesterday I sealed an envelope with my tongue and it tasted awful. It reminded me of the time when I was in high school and I had a work experience placement (which really means you stuff envelopes all day) at the Ministry of Education, and I had to mail out 350 packages. Not knowing any different, I started licking all the envelopes shut. When I got to package 349, someone told me that they have a sponge for that. why didn't someone tell me that before I lost the feeling in my mouth. My tongue seemed as dry as the side of a camel for what seemed like days. (while I've ridden a camel, I didn't actually lick it to find out if it really is dry).

I'm still puzzled how we can send people into space, but we can't make better tasting envelope glue.

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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Someone what?

This morning I was waiting at a very busy bus stop, and someone sneezed. "Bless you...whoever sneezed," a woman schlepping newspapers, and some distance from the sneeezer, called out. I found it all very strange. In fact, I've never really understood the whole blessing someone after they sneeze. One of my colleagues, who is a devout non-believer in anything religious (despite being educated by the Catholic Sisters), is always blessing people around the office when they sneeze.

Someone what...carry on. We don't bless people when they cough or burp or fart, so why when someone sneezes, and how did this all begin?

As could be expected from a habit that dates back nearly two thousands, a definitive answer is hard to come by. Theories abound. And I bet you're itchin' to know, so here is some research I performed on your behalf.

Some believe that the sneeze itself is the expulsion of a demon or evil spirit, which had taken up residence in a person (I'm not sure what this says about my aforementioned colleague who always sneezes in threes), and the Bless You is meant to ward off the re-entry of an evil spirit.

Others believed that the heart momentarily stops during a sneeze. Apparently, it doesn't, but it was thought that to Bless someone was meant as a prayer for life to return or as a congratulations upon its restart.

And others still claim the practice was associated with calamitous diseases, such as the plague. It was said that an infected person's sneeze was sure sign that death was imminent and the Bless You was commending the sneezer's soul to the care of God.

Some believe that a sneeze is lucky and foretells good fortune, thus the "Bless You!" is a recognition of forthcoming good luck, and even an attempt on the blesser's part to attract a bit of the good luck themselves.

Finally, some see the acknowledgement of a sneeze simply as good manners. Though, I'm not so sure. I think people pretend this to be the case. A more probable explanation is that we have been so programed to acknowledge a sneeze that we don't even think about it.

Whatever the reason, I still find it a little odd. So, if I don't acknowledge your sneeze don't think any less of me.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lost in translation

The other day I went to my Peruvian neighbours to borrow an egg. The Grandmother answered and when I asked for an egg, she told me she didn't speak English. I didn't know the Spanish word for egg, so I held my thumb and index finger up as if holding one. What was I thinking? Of course she didn't know what I was trying to do. Who would? Instead, I started acting like a chicken, in hopes that she would know I wanted an egg.

She looked at me with a puzzled look. I ran to my house, turned on the computer, and looked up how to say egg in Spanish. I dashed back outside, and just then the mother arrived. I told her that I wanted to borrow an egg, but didn't know how in Spanish. "Heuvo," she said, and with that the Grandmother went into the kitchen and brought an egg.

Gracias, thank you, I said, after having expanded my Spanish vocabulary.

The following day I was riding the bus with my neighbour. I told him that I was trying to borrow an egg from his mother-in-law. "I know," he said laughing. "She thought you wanted a chicken."

Now, if you find yourself looking for an egg in Spain or Latin America, or parts of Los Angeles, you'll know. Consider it my gift to you.

This reminded me of the first day Carrie and I were in Korea. We met up with two other teachers and found one of the many small restaurants that dotted downtown Seoul's alleyways. The menu, in Korean of course, was hung on the wall, and unlike many restaurants there were no photographs of the gastronomic offerings. A husband and wife team toiled in this modest restaurant. She in the kitchen, and he out front.

We were seated at a table, and given some green tea. We asked for a menu, and the man pointed to the wall. We were not able to speak or read Korean, and he was unable to speak English. The four of us sat looking at one another, wondering if the only dinner we were going to get would be the hot tea. We looked over at other tables trying to find something that looked good.

The man came back to take our order, and we all looked at each other. The only thing that came from our mouths was an insecure laugh. After what seemed like hours, the standoff ended, when we pointed to a few other dishes that other patrons were devouring, and told him to bring whatever he wanted.

I don't remember what we ate that night, but for the most part it was delicious. But from then on, we made sure to find restaurants that had pictures on their menu.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I thought memoirs were for people with important things to say

Apologies for my blog sabbatical. Whitemanwalking hasn't done much walking, but he has done a lot of thinking and writing elsewhere recently.

So, I read in the paper that vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, is going to be writing a memoir. Aren't memoirs for people with important things to say? An account of something noteworthy, that's how the dictionary defines a memoir. I imagine a memoir to be a thick tome about one's life...full of adventure and thought, like Michael J. Fox's recent work, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.

Maybe Palin has led an interesting life, but what importance can someone with 66 days of fame really share? Her professional accomplishments include two three-year terms as the Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. Maybe she did a great job, but we're not talking big city Mayor challenges. Wasilla's population is less than 10,000. In 2006, she became the Governor of Alaska. Now Alaska may be the largest US state, but its population ranks 47th, only surpassing the equally powerful states of Vermont, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Alaska has two things going for it - Oil, and a nice place for a cruise. Oh, and the highest mountain in North America. But most people in the U.S. (and Canada) wouldn't know that, so does it really matter?

I think the following sums up why you should save your money and forgo the Palin memoir.

"All of 'em, any of 'em that have been in front of me over all these years." --Sarah Palin, unable to name a single newspaper or magazine she reads, interview with Katie Couric, CBS News, Oct. 1, 2008

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Happy Birthday Rome

My mother, or father, or maybe some other wise sage used to tell me that Rome wasn't built in a day. Patience, Ken, patience. Maybe so, but did you know the Eternal City, as it is known, came into being on this day 2,762 years ago? Hard to imagine really that in 44 BC, the city's population had swollen to more than one million.

The birth of Rome reminded me of my own trip to the Italian capital 16 years ago. I was travelling through Europe with a friend, and as our travels drew us nearer to Rome, we kept hearing horrific tales from other travellers about their experience of being pick pocketed and robbed in the city. It seemed as if everyone we met was fleeing Rome, much as the populous would have in the year 64 when Rome burned.

Undaunted, we were determined to see this historical city, and we weren't about to let a pack of lowlife, thieving miscreants ruin our visit. As our train neared Rome's Termini Station, we decided to carry only one large backpack each, instead of the extra day pack that we usually carried. With a sense of excitement and some anxiety, we stepped onto the station platform, and were prepared for the roving gangs.

We spent a couple of days in Rome, dazzled by the incredible sights--the Colisseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, and Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and the Fountain of the Four Rivers--yet not once did we feel threatened. The only unnerving thing was walking past the machine gun toting Carabiniere, which occupy most street corners in the city.

Maybe we were lucky not to have had our pockets picked, or maybe because we were prepared, the thieves were lured to easier targets. Whatever the case, Rome still stands as one of the magnificent cities I have visited.

Buon Compleanno, Roma

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Don't mess with Hinakuluiau

So, the other day I was taking the bus to the airport in Vancouver (actually I had to take three buses, but I'll save discussion of that for another time), and a young couple sat next to me, each carrying a large pack. I imagined a trek to Asia or Europe. Instead they were headed for a camping trip in Hawaii, the "Big Island" to be precise. I told them I was going to Maui.

It was a beautiful spring day, and the young guy was chatting to a traveller from Germany, when he announced that he hoped it would start raining in Vancouver. The sentiment being that he'd basking in the sun, while Vancouverites would be dripping in the rain.

"I tell him it's a very spiteful attitude," his girlfriend said, turning to me.

"And you never know it could be raining in Hawaii," I replied.

In fact, the wettest place on earth is located on the Hawaiian island of Kaui. It is here, on Mt. Wai'ale'ale, where more than 486 inches of rain falls each year. Let me do the math for you--that's 40 feet of rain.

I think Hinakuluiau, the Hawaiian goddess of rain, was listening in on that conversation on the way to the airport, and she is one scorned woman. In the past three days we have only seen the sun for a fleeting moment before the trade winds blew in the clouds. It has rained for much of the day.

If I knew how to reach Hinakuluiau, I would repent and tell her that except for the ravaged farmers of central Australia, where water hasn't fallen from the sky for several years, I will never wish rain on anyone again.

As I hear the rain dripping from the palms and hibiscus, I wonder how that young couple is doing in their tent. I imagine her cursing, and blaming her boyfriend's spiteful attitude for unleashing the wrath of Hinakuluiau.

In the meantime, I'm trying to find out how I can reach the Hawaiian sun god!