Chasing Alaska

Chasing Alaska by C.B. Bernard“Alaska makes everything ordinary impossible to bear.”

Here is another great travelogue. In Chasing Alaska, author C.B. Bernard chronicles his travels across ‘The Last Frontier’ while gathering and piecing together clues about the life of a distant relative, who, like him – but decades earlier – travelled to Alaska from the East Coast and became a bona fide Arctic explorer.

Bernard’s writing is sharp, insightful and leisurely paced. The book isn’t exceedingly long, but it covers a lot of spatial and temporal ground, giving it an epic quality. It’s a ‘journey of self-discovery’ book – in my opinion the best kind – with lots of grit and character.

It’s redirected my attention to a part of the world that I’ve put off visiting for way too long.

The Butcher of Polis

I was rummaging the other day and dug up this postcard I bought while travelling through Cyprus in the summer of 2001.

It’s one of my favourites. The inscription on the back of the card reads: “Moustachio’d Simos, the butcher of Polis.”

The epithet has a kind of war criminal ring to it. But soon after buying the card, I ran into Simos in a back-alley in the village of Polis (a seaside community on the border of Northern Cyprus). He was as gentle and disarming as he is in this photo.

Icelandic Manners

A cover of the books, Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss, a book about IcelandI’ve just finished reading Names for the Sea, a travelogue by writer Sarah Moss. The book chronicles her difficulties living and working as a teacher in Iceland, with her husband and kids in tow.

Although it’s less action-packed than I like my travel literature to be, the book contains more than a few brilliant gems of cross-cultural observation. Moss, who’s British, has a very hard time assimilating into Icelandic culture, which, as it turns out, is sometimes hugely at odds with her own – but in extraordinarily subtle ways.

I’ve written on this blog before that one of the boons of travel to places far removed from one’s own culture is that it can provide deep insight into other norms and ways of being, which, ultimately, comes full circle and provides insight into one’s own. Struggling to move through other cultures challenges our assumptions, which become mechanized and set according to our more predictable norms. Moss, explores this dynamic more than a few times in her book:

“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to the inattentive foreigner. One of the Icelandic clichés about Icelanders is that, by foreign standards (as if ‘foreigners’ had one standard), they are rude. There is no word for ‘please’ in Icelandic. ‘Thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are used much less than in British and American English. Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn’t need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is un-Icelandic to explain yourself. Self-explanation suggests some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life. Icelandic drivers don’t indicate, Pétur once old me, because they don’t see why anyone else needs to know where they’re going.”

Sarah’s friend Pétur, who, decades earlier, moved to Iceland from the U.K., goes on to tell her about his experiences among Icelanders during his first few years there:

“There were manners of course, but the manners were sometimes not to say anything. So I’d say, ‘Excuse me, but please would you pass the potatoes.’ They’d pass them and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ And they’d look at me, because you don’t say thank you when someone gives you a potato. That’s why you’re there, and why the potatoes are there, so you can eat them, and you know that and they know that you know that so why would you say thank you? There’s not very much of that kind of thing in Icelandic, it’s at a lower level in the same way that the flowers in the fields and the trees on the hills are at a lower level. They’re smaller and more subtle and they make more sense.”

Adventures in Uyghur Cuisine

lamb shank on pilau riceOne doesn’t come across Uyghur food very often. As a culturally persecuted Muslim minority living in a far-flung and landlocked area of western China, their regional cuisine doesn’t get a whole lot of play either within, or outside, that country.

So when I discovered a Uyghur eatery while in Vancouver a few months back, I made a beeline to its door.

The place was called Efendi Uyghur Restaurant (“was” because, sadly, it has since closed down). Eating there was a revelation. Although the Uyghurs live in China their cuisine is not at all Chinese in the way we know Chinese food to be. It is more akin, in my opinion, to Afghan food featuring staples like grilled kebab, roast lamb and pilau rice. The Uyghurs, being a Turkic race with strong links to the Middle East and Central Asia (via Islam and the ancient Silk Road), also show traces of Arab, Persian and Turkish influences in their cooking. Cumin, parsley, and sumac were evident in some of the dishes we tried. The noodle and dumpling dishes, however, were more out of the Chinese playbook.

If you’ve visited even just a few countries along the old Silk Road route, then eating Uyghur cuisine can be a nostalgic journey through one’s past travels. All the different layers of subtle flavouring speak directly to other places.

My dining partner and I asked for an order of steamed dumplings filled with spiced lamb. They looked very much like something you’d get at a Chinese dim-sum restaurant. Sampling them was one of the more fascinating culinary experiences of my life.

Quick back story: my dad’s family come from a Silk Road town in eastern Turkey near the Syrian border called Mardin. There is a local dish there among the Arabized Christians called kobeibat – a typical Middle Eastern kibbe ball, made of bulgar, that is steamed (not fried) and filled with spiced meat that’s heavily infused with onion and parsley.

The meat filling in the Uyghur dumpling tasted exactly like that of Mardin’s kobeibat, a culinary connection of several thousand kilometres. It was uncanny. In spite of the distance I intuitively knew that the recipes were linked, and that I had experienced cross-cultural mingling from the distant past tied directly to my own lineage.

Here’s a link to a Globe & Mail review by Alexandra Gill about the erstwhile Effendi Uyghur Restaurant. It serves as a good guide and starting point to exploring the Uyghur cuisine. The writing’s also great.

Mount Shasta

There is something deeply alluring about a white-capped, mystical volcano set in the middle of the Northern California wilderness – even from its map.

Mount Mt Shasta Northern California Trails Cascade Range


The Ancient Holloways of Dorset

holloways holloway dorset england UKEarly last summer I was in the U.K. and paid a visit to a friend living in the Dorset region on the south coast of England. The two of us went on a day-hike through the rolling green hills and pastures surrounding his town. At one point we entered a forest enclosure and found ourselves in a deep gully running through the foliage.

My friend said we were walking through a ‘Holloway’ – a sunken rut in the ground made by centuries of plodding feet, cartwheels, livestock and erosion from rainwater. The name “holloway” comes from “hola weg,” meaning sunken road in Old English.

What made that moment doubly surreal (standing in a holloway is a hauntingly beautiful experience) was that the year before, while teaching a travel writing course, my students and I had read a newspaper article in the Toronto Star about that exact same Holloway in Dorset. I’d never heard of the hidden trenches prior to reading about them in class. Nor did I imagine afterwards that I’d ever set foot in one – let alone that same one.

Holloways are found all over rural U.K. and can date as far back as the Iron Age. Each has a different appearance depending on their size and shape, and the region in which they are found.

You can see a variety of U.K. holloways here.

Exposure to New Realities

Colin Turnbull Forest People Mbuti Congo ZaireI just finished reading Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People which documents his three years living among the Mbuti pygmies of the Belgian Congo (modern day Zaire) in the late 1950s.

There is a poignant scene near the end of the story when Turnbull and Kenge, his Mbuti friend, leave the confines of the dense tropical rainforest and arrive by jeep to the edges of an expansive grassland and wildlife reserve below the Ruwenzori Mountains near the Uganda border. There they are met by an African park ranger named Henri. It is Kenge’s very first journey outside of the cloistered jungle.

Turnbull’s fascinating description of Kenge’s reaction to the expansive views of the high, snow-topped peaks of the Ruwenzori Mountains and the plains below them is illustrative of how all of us are shaped by our environment. It also shows how obdurate we can be in the face of new information, or new realities, which we had no idea existed before they are pointed out to us:

“Kenge could not believe that they were the same mountains that we had seen from the forest; there they had seemed just like large hills to him. I tried to explain what the snow was – he thought it was some kind of white rock. Henri said that it was water that turned colour when it was high up, but Kenge wanted to know why it didn’t run down the mountainside like any other water. When Henri told him it also turned solid at that height, Kenge gave him a long steady look and said, “Bongo yako!” (“You liar!”)

“When Kenge topped the rise, he stopped dead. Every smallest sign of mirth suddenly left his face. He opened his mouth but could say nothing. He moved his head and eyes slowly and unbelievingly. Down below us, on the far side of the hill, stretched mile after mile of rolling grasslands, a lush, fresh green, with an occasional shrub or tree standing out like a sentinel into a sky that had suddenly become brilliantly clear. It was like nothing Kenge had ever seen before. On the plains, animals were grazing everywhere—a small herd of elephant to the left, about twenty antelopes staring curiously at us from straight ahead, and down to the right a gigantic herd of about a hundred and fifty buffalo. But Kenge did not seem to see them.”

“Then he saw the buffalo, still grazing lazily several miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said, “What insects are those?” At first I hardly understood; then I realized that in the forest the range of vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here in the plains, however, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grasslands, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison. The same thing happened later on when I pointed out a boat in the middle of the lake. It was a large fishing boat with a number of people in it but Kenge at first refused to believe this. He thought it was a floating piece of wood.

“When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies. When Henri, who was thoroughly puzzled, told him the same thing and explained that visitors to the park had to have a guide with them at all times because there were so many dangerous animals, Kenge still did not believe, but he strained his eyes to see more clearly and asked what kind of buffalo were so small. I told him they were sometimes nearly twice the size of a forest buffalo, and he shrugged his shoulders and said we would not be standing out there in the open if they were. I tried telling him they were possibly as far away as from Epulu to the village of Kopu, beyond Eboyo. He began scraping the mud off his arms and legs, no longer interested in such fantasies.” (pp. 251-253)

Indigenous Stone Fish Trap

I recently went on a day trip from Bella Bella to King Island, British Columbia, where I came upon a relic from an earlier time. I was exploring the mouth of a salmon creek near an old Heiltsuk village site when, in the afternoon, during low tide, the beach revealed a number of traditional fish traps.

A traditional native American fish trap and weir located in British Columbia, CanadaThe traps, walls of piled stones arranged in a U-shape around 3 feet high, were an brilliant method of catching fish, particularly salmon. Various models, each catered to its particular environment and prey, have been found in coastal areas around the world. Many date back thousands of years.

Here’s how this particular trap worked: the stone walls were built just offshore where they’d be submerged at high tide, but exposed at low-tide. As the tide began to roll out, the catchment area within the U-shape of the stone walls, facing shore, retained water. Any fish that happened to be swimming in it, unaware that the tide had receded, would be unable to escape.

In earlier epochs, salmon were more plentiful and would return to creeks and rivers in huge numbers to spawn. At low-tide the fish traps would be teaming with them. But the inhabitants only selected certain salmon, and the amount they needed, releasing the rest.

Kitlope Journey

Canadian travel blog Toque & Canoe ran a story about a schooner trip I took to the remote Kitlope region in Haisla Territory, British Columbia. Read about it here.

A sailboat in the Kitlope region of the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada