Knowing you are where you are supposed to be

I trekked in the Everest Region with Nick 20 years ago. I bumped into Nick in Kinja, he looked sort of familiar, but what are the chances? When I asked him have you ever been here before he answered "yes 20 years ago" I asked "is your name Nick?" He said "yes", I asked "did you trek with a guy named Ken?" He answered "yes". I couldn't believe it. I jumped up with a big smile, hand out stretched to shake his hand. "I am Steve McGrath, we trekked together 20 years ago" Took him awhile to remember, but so much fun to remember and share stories with the person you made them with.

He sent me a before photo from 20 years ago. Fantastic. So nice to know you are where you are supposed to be.

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Turkish Border

I was on a bus from Bulgaria to Istanbul Turkey. A long bus ride, the distance eludes me. I had met a girl from the USA. I think her name was Amy. We were the only english speakers on the bus and as it is traveling we became fated travel companions. Neither of us spoke Turkish. I would learn once I arrived in Turkey.

It is a night bus and the views of Bulgaria are few. We watched the sun go down, a dramatic firey red ball accentuated by the haze of industrial pollution. The night had been peacefull. I tried to sleep but the excitement of Istanbul raced through my brain. Constantinople capital of the East Roman empire, the Crusades, Stories of travellers like Richard Burton visiting. I had just travelled through eastern Europe. The battlegrounds between east and west, Europe and Asia, Christians, Muslims, Byzantium. I am travelling through history. Places that held empires, powerfull kings wealth and civilizations that rose and fell Millenia before Canada was even discovered.

The driver makes an announcement in Turkish, the conducter a little eastern european man with short greasey hair brushed with a single swipe of his hand, cigarette permanently fixed to his lip, “passport”, “Toourkesh bourder”. I start rumaging for my passport. The bus stops. The driver steps off with a passenger list I had signed my name to earlier. Some time passes. The driver returns, some directions are made in turkish and everyone gets off. He is waiting for Amy and myself as we step off the bus. “Over here” he says. I always have some apprehension in my belly when going through borders. But it is a warm starry night. You can even see stars with the lights from the border checkpost. He leads us to a seperate checkpost. The guard in here has a big grimace on his face, a requirement for anyone anywhere that ever wants to be a border official. He is a big man in khaki official type uniform. Tanned olive skin, dark eyes and a well shaved face that would host a thick beard if he let it. He gestures for Amy to go first. US passport. He checks the picture, punches some numbers into the computer. Kawump, goes a stamp $60 please. “Steep for a visa”, “but to be expected”, she mutters.

I am not of the same thinking. $60 is steep for me, thats almost a hundred Canadian! Yikes, I put my passport down. I am not sure if the visa price for a Canadian is the same as an American or not. The big man with the grimace looks at the passport, looks up at me. He says “Canada?” I answer. “Yes” smiling pleasantly. He looks at me, looks at the picture. He picks up the phone makes a call with an air of uncertainty. He puts down the phone and says “wait just a moment” There is no one else in this line, just us North Americans. We wait. I look over at the fray of people around the line up for Eastern Eurpeans. Nuts. 15 or 20 minutes go by and no call back. The guard dials up the phone again. No greeting he quickly says some words and hangs up giving the recipiant no time to reply. He looks at me. This time he has this real genuine look of goodwill on his face. Looks at the passport, Kawump, there goes the stamp. He slides my passport over to me. I am looking at him intently for the price. I ask “how much”, his hand raises over the passport on the table like a card player refusing another card. He shakes his head. “Nothing” I say. He looks up at me with an expression I will never forget. Yet I have a hard time describing. Sort of an appreciative giving look, flavours of happiness but with a uncomfortable streak in it, a streak I didn’t understand. He says to me straight and strong , confident like a soldier in control. “Canadian peace keepers saved my life in Cypress, you go free.” Then his eyes lowered as if to bow as best he could from his position of authority. He holds his eyes low respectfully. “Thank you” I answer. He looks up and nods and in that instant I understand the uncomfortable streak, it was fear. He pauses as I look at him upon the realisation. He looks at me again, I like to think he knows I understood his fear and replies. “Thank you Canadian man”. I smile he smiles and as I turn away I am completely choked up with emmotion.

Toughest man alive

I was on my way to Lhasa Tibet from Kathmandu Nepal for the Tibetan New Year called Losar. It promised a display of traditional Tibetan costumes. Celebration Tibetan style. I also really looked forward to the journey through Tibet and the Himalayas.

It is a simple journey. You buy your ticket, then you get matched up with some other people that want to do the same thing you do. Get on a bus which takes you to a Land Cruiser which takes you to Lhasa. Nothing is that simple in this part of the world. After we started the frozen Land Cruisers and found that there were no avalanches blocking the road we were off. The trip was made easier by the fact that traveling in our group was a woman named Elisabeth who spoke fluent Tibetan.

We were in one of the little towns first night in Tibet. It was cold, at least -35ºC, I am Canadian, I am used to working in the Far North of Canada so I know cold, this was definitely below -35º C. The guest house we stayed in was not heated. We piled everyone in one room to share body heat. There really isn’t a bed for a person, more like a cushioned surface to lay your body down and lots of blankets everywhere and boiled hot water for tea. There is room for a lot of people. It is comfy in a chilly sort of way. The new altitude in Tibet had wiped me out and I was quickly to sleep.

06:00 and we are getting ready to hit the road again. It is still very cold. Quickly I change into every warm piece of clothes I own and make for the restaurant across the street. The others have the same idea. I walk out of the guest house, crisp and cold air hits me. I look to the side and what I am seeing in front of me hits harder than any cold air. I am stunned. There is a Tibetan man curled up on a stone step in a doorway. He is wearing no more than a normal sweater, some cotton pants and a toque. No mattress padding or even a box. He is curled up with a dog, not a big bushy warm dog just an ordinary hairless mut from the streets of Tibet. I am shocked, the moisture inside my nose is already starting to freeze. He is sleeping, or dead I am thinking. Tashi Dele, I say to him. He opens his eyes, stiffly starts to sit up, smiling, nothing moving very quickly. Are you OK? I ask. He doesn’t understand english. Elisabeth the english woman steps out of the guest house and sees what I see. She asks him something in Tibetan. He smiles, looks around sort of confused then back at her with an answer. Her face displays surprised and responds. He smiles and nods.

I am watching unsure of what is being said. She turns to me and says we should get him a tea. I go to the restaurant and get him a tea and bring it back. Elisabeth and the man are chatting away. She is noticably freezing the man is unconcerned about the weather. She has been asking him to come for breakfast with us. He thanks us but declines the offer.

I hand him the tea and he thanks me in Tibetan. I ask Elisabeth “what did you say?” She tells me she asked “Are you OK?” He said “yes”. “Aren’t you cold?” she asked? “Yes”, his smiling face replies, “but I will be warm again later.”

Richshaw Woes

I am standing on the side of the road with a travel companion Monica. We have managed to give some rickshaw drivers the slip by walking across a debris-strewn yard where their wheels cannot travel. We have just popped on the road we haven’t been detected yet. I look down the street. There is a little old lady. She is trying to flag down a rickshaw. She has Rupees in her hand to pay. There are 2 young boys sitting looking at her and her little pile of firewood that she has gathered. They will not pick her up. I see this and watch for a second. Monica is doing the same. She has this expression on her face. Why don’t those bastards pick her up she must be 100 years old. I recognize this expression. It is the same one as on my face.

We are slowly walking towards her. After a few seconds the rickshaw drivers leave her. They haven’t seen us yet. I walk up to this dejected old lady. She has clearly been working hard collecting firewood. I really feel for her. As I approach I smile. She smiles back a toothless grin a little sad. I wave my arm in the air. “Rickshaw” instantly rickshaws appear. I pick the first one to arrive. I ask him why he hasn’t taken this lady home. He says she is too poor. I look at her hand. She has enough rupees to go just about anywhere in Agra. What he means to say is that he would rather get more money from a white tourist. I tell him he will take this lady where she wants to go. He says no I will take you where you want to go. I grab her pile of wood and load the rickshaw. I tell the little guy that this is my mother and if she doesn’t get home safe I am coming looking for him. The little old lady is smiling, hands together thanking me. The driver with some argument agrees, not happy but obliged. Out of sight of the driver I gave her a couple extra rupees just in case.

I never knew if she arrived where she was going, was I a foolish tourist?

That is India for you.

Kurdish Friends

As I approached the Iranian border I had one of the best days as a traveller ever. Many rich experiences. I will share one. The red brick building on the edge of the photo was the worksite for 3 Kurdish men. If you don’t know about eastern Turkey there is considerable contraversy and conflict in regards to the Kurds.

Transient

The building has a ladder going to the top where I could get a great photo of Mt Arat, the final resting place of Noahs Arc. My Turkish is limited so I gesture for permission to go up the ladder to the to

The three curious workers nod. They watch as I climb up, set up and take my photo. I come back down and the three approach. There is one really big guy a big guy and a younger guy who actually speaks some english. I get the standard 10 questions everyone is taught in school. Smiles all around. You see they are taught the questions, but they don’t understand the answers. I try my Turkish, which always is a reason to laugh. After a few moments the big one utters something I do not understand, he has a serious stern face. The little guy translated “ What do you think of the Kurds?” In any language there are a few phrases I like to know, hello thank you , no problem big problem… I respond I have no problem with Kurds.” The big guy looks at me a stern face, the other two watching him intently. He is looking deep into my skull and I stand there with a big friendly smile miles from another foreigner. Slowly he reaches out offer his hand to shake and says something. The little guy says you are a courageous man to come here. The sternness dissappears and a smile comes across the really big guys face. He invites me to his home to meet his son. They are not finished work yet so they resume for awhile. I jump in and help. They all laugh and we go to work.

The next day I am leaving my new friends. We all shake hands. The really big man again repeats “ you are a courageous man ” as translated. I look at them and ask why? I don’t get it. The little guy says “ He thinks you are a brave man to come here and say that Kurds are a big problem ”. I am stunned. I say “ no no no I meant I have no problems with Kurds ”. It takes them a few seconds to register my initial error. The young guy explains to the other two. Once everyone understands big laughs and smiles all around. People are good at heart. I have no doubts about that.

Iran Shirt Shopping

I like to travel incognito. Not to say that I deliberately travel as someone else. Rather I enjoy dressing as close to what people are wearing in the country I am visiting. Iran was one of those places. After a couple of days of wandering around clearly a westerner. I decided to buy a new shirt. The dress type that people anywhere in the city would have on. I window shop for a little while enjoying the sunny dry warmth of mid day in Hamadan. Keeping a sharp eye to what people are wearing.

I love to slip between the cracks. I love to see how people live about their daily lives. My beard neatly kept for a traveler and a good tan. No one would ever suspect I was foreign unless I spoke. Iranians are so happy to meet travelers. You quickly attain celebrity status. It is great people want to extend warmth to foreigners. It is truly is wonderful, yet the frequency of it can be overwhelming. Everyone is so nice all of the time it is impossible to get any freedom to do anything. It sounds strange and it is. You literally run for the hotel so you donot have to meet someone, visit something or answer friendly questions. It is exhausting. It sounds horrible saying it but it is true.

With disguise in mind I walk into a store with a likable shirt displayed in the window. I greet the man in the shop, “Salaam Alikhuom”, he responds “Alikhoum Salaam”. He knows I am a foreigner by my accent and proceeds to ask me the traditional questions as he pours us tea.

Where are you from? How old are you? How many children? and so on. The exchange is concluded with ” you are my brother welcome to Iran”. I ask about a couple of shirts, not mentioning the one I am interested in first, that is just poor bartering tactics. Eventually I point to it and ask “how much for that one” in my new Farsi. It is 30 Rials. A little less than $6 Can. Steep I am thinking. “No, thank you”. He says “how much?” I pause pondering and respond with 20 Rials and the debate begins. For thirty minutes our faces fluctuated tones of intense negotiation as we crunch out the price. I thought he was never going to budge off 27 Rials. I was happy to eventually get him down to 24.

Exchange completed I pull cash out of my pocket to pay the man. He puts his hand out palm facing me, signing the universal no. I am confused? “You do not pay, you are my brother, you are my guest” he says. What a fine gesture I think, I put the money down for him anyways. “No no no, you no pay. You are guest in Iran”. “Of course I am going to pay. Why would you barter with me for a half an hour only to give the shirt away?” He replies with “you are a good man” and mutters something out of the Koran in Farsi that I do not understand. The debating starts again, “take this money”, “No sir”, I am stunned “OK take 20 rials” I say. “No” he says, “You have to take something for this shirt” “OK 5″ “No 15″ “no not 15 that is too much 5 at most you are my brother…”. “OK take ten”, “OK ten”.

I hand him the ten Rials both of us smiling. Was he smiling because a foreigner bought a shirt in his shop or because of the ludicrous nature of the interaction? I will never know. I do know I am smiling because there is no way in a million years that could ever have happened in Canada. And I am one of the few people in the world who knows it.

Directions in Pakistan

Do not let anyone tell you Muslims are not friendly people. I was so surprised at how hospitable Islamic people were with me. Often though they were too helpfull. I have infinate stories of being helped and offered meals, things paid for me. It was unbelieveable. The media does not paint a pretty picture. I don’t know where they get there ideas. Being white and of christian background was all the more reason to befriend me.

Transient

Here is a dialogue I wrote down immediately after it occured. I had just arrived in Peshewar Pakistan on a bus from Rawal Pindi. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was on the map. I decided to ask the locals. After trying to explain my situation this is what entailed.

"I just want to know where I am."
"but where do you want to go?"
"Right here"
"But you are already here? Where do you want to go?"
"Yes but tommorrow I will need to get back to here and won’t know where it is?"
"Well I will help you get to where you are going then I will come get you to bring you back here."
"I know you are trying to be helpfull but please just tell me where I am, that would be the most helpfull thing."
"But where do you want to go, I will help you you are my guest, you are my brother, welcome to Pakistan."
"Do you know where we are?"
"Yes in Peshawar."
"Where in Peshewar?"
"At the bus stop."
"Which one."
"The one where buses com from Pindi."
"They all have buses that come from Pindi."
"Yes they do"
"Which one is this?"
"This one is near to the old town."
"They are all near to old town."
"Yes they are. Just tell me where you want to go and I will help you get there."
"Can you show me on this map?" I pull out a map.

The map draws a crowd several rows thick of spectators wishing to be the person to be selected to help me. Big smiles, enthusiastic eyes and continuous offers of assistance.
"Where do you want to go?"
"Here."
Confused, uncertain looks.
"But you are already here, I will help you, you are my brother, welcome to Pakistan…"

D-Day Legacy

Part 1
D-day LegacyI was working as a first mate and chef on a beautiful sailboat in Corsica. It is hard work and long hours. It was after midnight and I was still cleaning the galley when Hans one of the guests poked his head in and gave a slightly drunken hello.”Grab a bottle of wine off the rack. Take a break and come socialize on the deck”.

The conversation starts to slow down as the wine settles in. The night sky is amazing and we are sitting under a blanket of stars. “So you are Canadian?” I knew he knew this, so I am wondering what this means. I continue to stare at the sky. A moment later without any response from me he continues. ” I never met a Canadian before.” This is an older business guy who does transactions all over the world. How can he have never have met a Canadian? I ask him. He says “Well yes I have done deals with Canadians, had them in the room but never sat and talked with one.”

Strange I think to myself. I don’t really have a response. I sit quietly enjoying the wine waiting for the inevitable. Why is he telling me this? The pause in the conversation enables me to take in the smell of the ocean on a warm mediteranean night. This sure beats cleaning the galley.

“My dad was killed in the war by a Canadian.” he throws out. This attention grabber has me scanning his face for his demeanor on the topic. “Whoa”, I am dumbfounded. “you have never spoke with a Canadian because of this?”. “Ya” he says. A little uncomfortable. After a very long pause, my mind racing as to what must be going through his mind. Fifty five year old memories. I don’t think either of us was ready for that.

“Tell me about your father” is my response.

“I don’t remember him well. I was young, but I have a memory of his face. He was an experienced soldier, he had been in the war for several years. About 2 days after we found out he had been killed in Normandy a letter arrived addressed to me. It had been mailed before the battle. He said everyone knew the allies would be invading. They didn’t know where exactly. He told me everything will be fine. “We just hope that we don’t get the Canadians landing on our beach. They are fierce soldiers. They attack with little support and have to fight for their lives because they have nowhere to retreat to. That comment hadn’t meant much until a couple years later I found out that he had been stationed near the town of Courseulles where the Canadians landed. Known as Juno beach to the Allies.”

I think to myself. This short exerpt in a long letter has stuck with Hans 55 years, dramatically changing his life. There is no expression to describe my astonishment. I didn’t know what to say. It is quite intimidating to instantly become a one on one ambassador of Canada under the circumstance. “Wow” I say in a calm contemplative fashion.

“I never really felt comfortable with the thought of Canada after that. Times have changed, enemies have become allies. Old hatred thankfully lost. Yet I have always felt uneasy. And now I meet a Canadian while on holidays.” he says.
“Have you been to Normandy?” he continues.
“No” I say.
“You should go to Normandy, I go once a year. Last year I visited a Canadian cemetry from that battle. It was near where my father died”
“What was it like?” I ask.
He looks at me, he holds up his wine glass in salute like he has finalized a decision. ” I am not going to tell you. You must see Normandy for yourself. Many lives have been changed from what happened that summer. You should visit battlefields and cemetries of all the nations. It is history, yours and mine. You should go.”
“You are right Hans, I will go to Normandy” I answer. “There is something to learn there.”
“Good” he says “lets have some more wine, I want to know more about Canada. Do you play hockey?…”

Busted by the Dali Lama

I have a very good friend named Kiwi who is a Thai Buddhist monk. We traveled together in India, Nepal and a little in Thailand. Unlike many Thai monks, who become monks for a short time then go back to their lives, Kiwi has been a monk for over 30 years. He is strictly committed and has traveled extensively for over 14 years learning many forms of Buddhism, several of the healing arts, and a large variety of languages.

He is a joy to travel with. He is always happy and at the same time there are moments when he is human and you forget he is a monk. For instance negotiating a price for purchasing or when he asks questions about women. He is very intuitive and can offer a lot of insight on the matter which dumbfounds me at times. Remember Thai monks aren’t allowed to touch women. Not even hug their mothers. Yet within their wisdom still lies a place for curiosity.

I was in Bodhgaya India for the Dali Lama teachings in 1999. They last 10 days. I was staying in a tent in the Thai monastery. Bodhgaya was full of Buddhist monks from every nationality. Tibetan, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Bangladesh, Laotian, Cambodian amongst many others. Tibetan deep red robes predominated the teachings. I would have guessed there were around 30 000 monks visiting. Among them there were probably only 500 westerners; I was fortunate to be living and eating amongst monks and spending time with these little smiling happy faced guys from all over the world.

Everyday prior to the teachings there would be chanting by monks of different nations in their own language. Not every nation had a lot of monks who chanted. Kiwi in his travels had learned all the chants. He would be up there, in his gold robes noticeably different than the monks of other nations, helping them out.

For 5 days Kiwi was up chanting with different monks before the Dali Lama would come out. On day 6 the Dali Lama came out with his smiling face, hands together bowing. Thousands in the audience were prostrating and bowing in return. He sat down and got comfortable while the audience followed him. The chanting continued while the Dali Lama looked back and noticed Kiwi; again out of place in his golden robes with monks clad in dark brown. I am told it is unheard of for the Dali Lama to get up at this point but as the chanting ends he stood up and walked over to Kiwi. The crowd wasn’t sure what to do so they all stood up again looking around in a half unsure bowing position, some prostrating once more. Kiwi and the Dali Lama conversed for a moment and then they both smiled and laughed. The Dali Lama returned to his seat with a huge smile on his face and began his lesson for the day with a chuckle in his voice.

Afterwards my curiosity peaked and I asked Kiwi, “What did the Dali Lama say to you?”

Kiwi replied, “He asked me how many languages I spoke and if I knew all the chants in all these languages.”

“What did you say?” I asked.

Kiwis brow lowers and a look of concern crosses his face “I can’t lie to the Dali Lama. I said yes sometimes that happens, His holiness then smiled at me and we both laughed and he sat down very happy I think.”

I laughed hysterically, “Wow Kiwi you got busted by the Dali Lama.”

“Yes I think so” he claimed with a big Thai smile."

A little gift of life

Journal Entry: Mar 29 1999
Ajaccio Corsica
Today I had a warm moment. I was crossing a busy road on the way back from buying groceries. Halfway across the road hiding in between the lanes was a little white kitten crunched up totally immobilized with fear. I am not certain the best term to use but that kitten was as imbedded into the concrete as fear could get it. Terrified big eyes looked up at me overwhelmed at the situation. I approached quickly, bent over and scooped her up under her belly. Her heart was pounding but she was relaxed in my arm. I must have been a pillar of confidence. Imagine me being a protector and savior to a small animal doomed to being squished by a high-speed automobile.

The little white kitty with splashes of black and brown, tiny little paws and big eyes new to looking at this world was learning that this road was not a good place to be. At first I walked her across the road and let her loose by the beach. She didn’t like that one bit, mewing and looking back to the other side. So I picked her up and re-crossed the busy lanes. This little bundle of fur was happy. I could tell in her disposition she felt safe, comfortable and glad to be where she was. Totally content, not even a squirm.

It made me happy to help but it also made me feel worthy of something. Like I belonged. I want to care for something other than myself and making money. This kitten inspired a very good feeling in me. It warmed my heart and that I had connected with this little creature. I would really liked to have kept her and had a little travel companion. I wonder if I could? Perhaps I will go back and look for her again. Maybe now she has found a new home, if she didn’t already a have one. Where I left her looked promising. I walked a block off the main road and found an apartment complex. Out front were great flower gardens harboring great cat hiding places. When I put her down she seemed to be in familiar territory. Quickly disappearing into a patch of flowers. I hope she was just scared and mistakenly crossed the road. I hope no one put her there to die. I think I know how that kitten must have felt. I wish sometimes someone would just come along and carry me to a nice safe patch of flowers.