2008/09/20

Crossing the Great Divide, Banff 1959

Something we seldom see here at the sea walk - - - someone sketching. She was a passenger from a cruise ship, or so I guessed. Beside her was a Holland America bag and a Holland America ship was docked nearby. I went over to take a look, her subject was the Olympic mountain range across Juan de Fuca Strait. From personal experience, I know that most outdoor or ‘plein air’ artists wish to be left alone, not disturbed or distracted. So, I quietly observed, saying not a word.
Seeing her sketching lit up my "memory-chamber", transporting me back in time to the spring and summer of 1959 in Banff, Alberta and the Rockies. There, I’d been doing lots of field painting on-the-spot, “en plein air”, like the Impressionists and Group of Seven.
My trip out west began when a doctor specialist in Toronto encouraged and sponsored me to spend some time in the Canadian Rockies, this after having been less than two years in Canada. Early May 1959, I boarded the CPR train from Toronto to Banff. An adventurous and memorable journey in itself, at any time.
It was hailing when I got off the train in Banff. I found a place to stay and settled in to 206 Otter Street (now called “Parkin House” and a heritage building). Next day I was eager to scout the region. A light snow was falling, dusting the streets white. Mount Rundle and Tunnel Mountain received an extra pack of winter’s last visit.
Mrs. Parkin lent me ear muffs and gloves. I’d brought along a small wooden easel, paint box and minimal supplies. The first few paintings were snowscapes.
Within a week the weather was milder, the snow quickly melted. Every day I went out, like the French Impressionists, selected a location and finished a painting on the spot. Sometimes in oil, sometimes oil pastel. By the end of May I’d rendered several paintings within walking distance of town, up Tunnel Mountain, over to Vermillion Lake.
When morning light started earlier, my landlady suggested I get up to Lake Louise. All very well, but I had no car or bicycle. Then one day on a morning walk, looking for a spot, a station wagon stopped. “Need a lift?” I replied, “Where to?” “ We’re going trout fishing, we can drop you wherever you like, for an artist there’s lots to paint in the Park, you know.” Thus began another chapter.
In those days there was little tourism, every morning I’d hitchhike and would always get a lift early in the morning, most often with early-rising fishermen.This opened the way to Peyto Lake, 

Lake Louise, Emerald Lake, Takakkawa Falls, White Fish Lake and Moraine Lake. Getting lifts in the morning was easy, but not always so later in the day. Often I had to wait quite awhile to get back home to Banff.
Many times in appreciation to a driver for the lift, I would give them the painting or pastel I’d just painted (much to their surprise). Unfortunately we have no record of where these early works are now. Thus began a journey, not only changing my life, but also my career. Should you still have time or be interested (what with all the goings-on, such as elections and the economy), then I’ll gladly continue to share the next ‘installment’ of Banff 1959 in a post to follow. Having had many unusual encounters with wildlife, and was often alone in the wilderness . . but that's for next post.

2008/09/18

Crossing Lake Titicaca o/b "ss Ollanta", Peru to Bolivia 1969

A reader asked if I could kindly follow-up my story from the Machu Picchu post of September 1. Here goes. (I feel like a mis-gendered "Sheherezade".) After the Machu Picchu visit, I took a train to Puno at the edge of Lake Titicaca to board the ship “ss Ollanta”.
It was almost nightfall. Embarkation process was like stepping into a reverse time zone. Customs and immigration was handled by one official who spoke no English; his office was an old wooden shack, a mottled green. My passport was stamped by candlelight. A full moon was rising on the horizon. I was being shown to my quarters when it suddenly struck me, “How did this antique vessel ever get way up here on the highest navigable lake in the world? And, from where?”  


Here's what the chief steward told me. It all began in the late 1860’s when renowned British shipbuilders Earle’s of Hull, UK received an order from the Peruvian government. It was to build a two 70-passenger vessels, later named “Yavari” and a sister ship “Yapura”. These would provide the only transportation between Peru and Bolivia (Bolivia is a landlocked nation.)
It was to be an extraordinary feat of engineering: somehow, the ship had to get over the Andes Mountains! And, all the way to Lake Titicaca, 3,810 metres above sea level (12,500 ft.).
The ships (with eight British engineers) were brought from England around Cape Horn, aboard “Mayola”, 2,766 packing crates all marked and numbered and weighing a total of 210 tons, plus two crankshafts. These were first transported by train from the port of Arica on the Peruvian coast, inland to Tacna (on the oldest railway line in South America.
Then onwards over the Andes, by mules - - - over a “moonscape of the driest desert in the world with mountain passes higher than European peaks and sub-zero windswept wastes of the Altiplano”. Also something to keep in mind is the air at such an altitude requires for most of us extra oxygen.
For example the “Tren del Sol” (another amazing achievement of engineering) from Lima to Huancayo, which I also took in 1969, carried oxygen tanks in each compartment of the train. “ss Yavari” became the blueprint for “ss Yapura”. Later, she was followed by “ss Ollanta”, and this was the historic vessel I sailed aboard. She had been launched 39 years earlier, in 1930.
Following the Chief Steward's explaining how this remarkable vessel got to Lake Titicaca, (after temporarily being transported into that “believe it or not” realm of amazing human achievement), he proudly gave me a complete tour of “ss Ollanta”. Suffice to say the interior of First Class was elegant and luxurious, with mahogany, rosewood, teak, polished brass everywhere, and lace curtains over the port holes. The dining room featured pure linen, genuine silverware, crystal glasses and decanters; while the galley was a feast for the eye with copper pots and pans.
During my crossing aboard “ss Ollanta”, there were about 20 passengers. The food was five-star. I’d only ever experienced such lavishness back in the late 1940’s when I was a waiter in the top-quality restaurants of Amsterdam and later a dining-room steward with Holland America Line where I served Hollywood movie stars. (More on this some other time.)
Who could ask for anything more, to sail from Peru to Bolivia on the highest navigable lake in the world – Lake Titicaca, the spiritual realm of the ‘Altiplano’ people, with a full moon! Signing off. Henri

p.s. The now-famous reed boats of this Lake are the only reminder of the ancient ways. Imagine the reaction of the native people who first set eyes on the steamships, smoke-spewing metal monsters, which crossed their sacred Lake Titicaca? And what about transportation today? The native people still use their reed boats, while hovercraft and catamarans ply the Lake, to bring the human family back and forth between Peru and Bolivia. Progress! Adios, Henri

2008/09/16

Memory Lane

The sea walk is more popular than ever it seems, with this summer sun bonus. The benches are taken most of the time now. No matter, can sit on our balcony and watch the sky, the nautical, human and animal world.
This morning, seagulls in Rambo mode chased away a fish-eagle (Osprey), and, for an encore, a Blue Heron, who’d been waiting patiently focused for its breakfast.
This aggressive behaviour by the seagulls took me back a few years to South Georgia, Antarctica when fearless Skuas dive-bombed penguin chicks (and us too).
Other vignettes came next like frames in a movie, flashing images from the past, each one could be chapter in itself, but this is a blog, so here they are in “point form”. (It’s intriguing how all this is recorded and filed away into that mystery chamber called “memory”.)
-from the Skuas to an Elephant Seal Cub who roared at me like a lion, to the zodiac ride amongst icebergs where we could smell the fishy breath and almost pluck the barnacles from the humpback whales

- to the penguin family who used icebergs as a slide into icy waters
-to Albatross chicks we viewed after climbing a slippery, steep hill for a glimpse of the nests
-the millions of King Penguins, amongst whom we cautiously wandered
-massive Elephant Seal bulls, skirmishing with rivals to protect their harem
-this transferred me to an incident while snorkelling in the Galapagos when a male Fur Seal literally tossed me out of the water

-Blue-Footed Boobies, who performed a dapper parade, showing off their power-blue feet
-while all this talk of “elephants” took me back to The Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka, where I stood amongst the herd
-to 1972, when I spent a week with the Masai, as guest of a former trophy-hunter turned photographer-guide
-to Kenya, witnessing in the middle of the night at “Tree Tops Lodge” a Bush Baby (a nocturnal creature) with its enormous eyes, sitting quietly on a tree branch right, peering into my window
-a few years later, while on safari in Tsavo Park, a pride of lions having a siesta right in the middle of the road; our jeep coming to a full stop while we awaited the end of their nap
-still at Tsavo Park, when our guide suddenly came upon a herd of elephants, and he told us to be absolutely quiet or else we would upset the bull elephant that was keeping a wary eye on us and who started to flap his ears; but one of the female passengers suddenly started screaming in a primordial outburst of fear. Only the cool and clear mind of our driver got us out of that one! Never experienced a vehicle backing up so fast!
-reveries brought me next to Ibiza, 1961, where I had a donkey who came with rental of my dwelling; one day he hurt his leg against a small boulder on the road as we descended a hill into town; then upon returning from our trip to get art supplies, he refused to go on that section of the road, and made a big detour in a field. He remembered! They’re not all that dumb. And not the only ones with a ‘memory’.

2008/09/15

Audio pollution and politicans

We all know elections are on their way, both in Canada and in the ‘good old' USA. Just after the last post about the Florida couple who strolled by wearing their “Stars and Stripes”and “Star-spangled banner” attire, yesterday on my visit to pick up the weekly ‘Quiz’ at the local Internet Cafe, the topic was politics.
We changed the subject to the Antarctic because a book about this last-frontier realm was on display. We’ve been there on a few occasions. Soon the topic switched from Antarctica to the Arctic and the rapid melting of ice caps and glaciers. You get the picture.
Returning though to politics and the election, although we believe strongly in a true democratic process, I’ll let you in on a secret, about how we "see" the euphoria and hysteria, the hype and instant care for us by the politicians.
Don’t know how many other people on this planet can say this, but yours truly has never heard the voice of U.S. President Bush and that’s after eight years in office.
For that matter, this includes the whole Administration, and the voices of many other so-called ‘world leaders’, as well as our own here in Canada, none of these have entered my ears. This would be an “invasion”, or pollution in my view. (Promises and more promises, they all make. Most suffer from a Santa Claus or Robin Hood complex, treating us like we’re four year olds.)
And how do I manage to keep these voices and sounds away?  

Well, first of all we have closed-captioning. And last, but not least, I have a buddy, the “Mute” button on our TV remote! Signing off for now, Henri

2008/09/14

An encounter on the Dallas Road Sea Walk, Victoria

We’re having a “First Nations” summer here in beautiful Victoria. Early last Thursday morning, eleventh of September, another Alaska-bound ship docked at Ogden Point, nearby our home. This was one of the smaller and luxurious vessels, not the huge ships which usually visit our port-of-call.
It was mid-morning; I was sitting at a bench right by the ocean, enjoying watching the world go by on this balmy September day.

An older couple came by; she wore a “Star-spangled” blouse with bright, Sky Blue pants while he was dressed in white and wore a hat with “Stars and Stripes” head-band. Signalling they were friendly neighbours from the south. Or, as the Bushman (San) would say, “I saw them coming from afar.”
You both look dapper and colourful, are you from the ship?” I asked. “Yes, we are, we’re heading to Alaska. Is it always so nice and sunny here in September?” They stopped strolling, but didn’t sit down.
Sometimes it’s sunny like this, but not often. This year we’re experiencing a “First Nations Summer”, was my reply. “What’s that?” asked the woman. “Well, most people say “Indian Summer”, but I call it “First Nations Summer”. I continued, “Indians are people from India. Columbus made a mistake.” The woman asked if I lived here. “Yes, I live right there in that building”, pointing to our apartment just 25 metres away.
With their attire, I asked if they were celebrating their anniversary or some other special occasion. His eyebrows shot up, and he said, “Don’t you know it was 7 years ago that September 11 happened?.”
Sorry”, I replied, “I completely forgot”. Silence.
We’re very proud of being American!”, he exclaimed, “we’re not from New York, we’re from Florida, but we feel it, you know, said the gentleman. The lady did not seem amused. They walked slowly away, mumbling “Can you imagine? He didn’t even remember . . . etc.” I couldn’t catch the rest since their voices faded away. . . 
I would have liked to tell them about the sea otters that come by and frolic in the kelp beds, about the eagles, Great Blue Herons, about James Bay village (where we live), and how the very spot where they stood was originally was the home of the “Swengwhung” nation.
But that’s how it goes. Some ships anchor, while others just pass by in the night.
Anyway, I trust our Floridians are having a memorable journey and cruise to Alaska. At least the weather is cooperating.