Peregrinations in Gros Morne

Rocks, bogs and ponds are what come to mind when travelling the mountainous roads of this beautiful national treasure, a land that must take on desolation and danger when the winter arrives. I was in Gros Morne, partly as a writer attending a literary festival at Woody Point and partly as a tourist sampling the wares of this UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m not going to describe the geography—the tour brochures and Google do better jobs of that—but I would rather convey the impressions the land conjured for me.

For all of the jaded Newfoundlander’s claim that his Rock rightly belonged to Europe, before those conniving politicians switched it over to North America in 1949 and hitched it to a mainland he could not afford to travel to because of the atrocious cost, I immediately felt the presence of being in Canada while I was over there, more than when I was home in Ontario. The overt signs of federalism stood out: the RCMP providing policing, Parks Canada offering excellent conservation and tourism facilities, and the Trans Canada Highway stringing remote communities together. Even Air Canada flew into Deer Lake, the gateway to Gros Morne (there are no deer in Newfoundland, only caribou, but who cares!) Back in Ontario, federalism hides in a remote city called Ottawa and my view of Canada is obscured by provincial, municipal and…ahem..American flags. I explained that to my despondent Newfie chum, but he couldn’t see my point, even over a pint, or two. Proof of his patriotism came when the literary festival closed with the singing of “Ode to Newfoundland,” while “O Canada” was forgotten.

Fishing brought Europeans to this rocky island, and little communities still box on in the coves that ring the coastline, communities that surprisingly voted to join Canada (perhaps they saw the bigger picture) while the fat-cats in St. Johns opposed the move 2-1. Logging followed in the sailors’ wake to give birth to pulp and paper centres (correct that to “city”) like Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s second largest city—population 19,000. Music is very much a part of life here with guitars, accordions, banjos and fiddles providing accompaniment to strident voices that unabashedly slip in the f-word for effect. Literature is also important—poetry and memoir, in particular. I guess the creative arts provide solace and make sense of those long cold months of isolation when icy roads between towns like Trout Lake and Woody Point shut down. Ghosts and goblins are part of the scene, and every family has a tragic tale of someone lost, at sea, in an accident, or in childbirth. The sense of community is strong and I found it hard to break into the local gossip as I was the outsider from the mainland with a funny accent that didn’t trip easily off local ears. People were polite but not curious. I must have sounded like that ambitious relative who had gone “away” to earn his fortune on the distant mainland and who had now become “different.”

And so I amused myself doing the following: eating moose burgers, an animal that had been imported into Newfoundland in the 19th century and now outnumbered the native caribou—I guess caribou burgers are no longer on the menu; walking over the earth’s mantle in the Tablelands and inspecting its unique arctic alpine vegetation, while across the road a huge boreal forest grew on the earth’s proper crust; walking over a four-metre deep bog and taking a boat ride on Western Brook Pond, a former fjord turned into a fresh water lake due to the sinking of the ocean; drinking Icebergs and Black Horses—that’s Newfoundland beer, by the way; smelling manure and fish in the cove settlements, which reminded me of the rankness of life rather than of decay; listening to an overabundance of performing artists—musicians, singers, poets, playwrights and prose writers— and hoping that the cod fishing would return to similar abundance again.

And what were the images? Courage, Isolation, Loss, Endeavour, Humour, Art – the usual human smorgasbord of emotions captured in one place. Gros Morne is an acquired taste, and one I was getting quite used to by the time I came to the end of my visit, prompting the question: “Will I return?” I’ll let that question hang in the air for now.

Security is an illusion

We live under the constant threat of being hacked. In some cases, we have become immune to our e-mail addresses being used as agents for the selling of costume jewellery, Viagra and essay writing services. In other cases, our websites and Facebook pages have been taken over (see my previous article “Being Flogged on my Blog”) leading to more serious identity theft and personality hijacking. What can be done? Enter cryptography.

But pundits will argue that we have had encryption and firewall technology around for a long time and the best ones have kept one step ahead of the bag guys. But these technologies only get better “in the breach,” that is, only after the miscreants have crept in, wreaked their damage, and left a trail for us to research build further protections against. One might argue that the data security firms are the very ones sponsoring the hackers, not only to stress-test their products but also to create more customers. After all, isn’t that what arms manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and private jails do?

And the threat of a breach to one’s security goes up exponentially as we put more of our identities online for convenience sake: banking passwords, medical records, demographic information, selfies taken at every day of our recent lives, purchasing transactions, the list is building… We trust “clouds” with our data, but do we know where these clouds exist? Are they in abandoned warehouses that are fire hazards, in desert server farms subject to climate change, or in countries where regime change is imminent? We just don’t know. All the more reason to encrypt our data from even those who are holding it in safekeeping. Like the old bank safety deposit box, that needs two keys, one of them being yours, in order to open it.

Okay, now we have got to the core need. I need a key, one that cannot be copied or stolen digitally, in order for my data storage box to be opened or closed. I need a physical key. Therefore, I need my data to be stored in a place which I can physically reach and use my physical key to access. Does that mean storing my data on a separate hard drive, not accessible to the internet? And does that imply placing it in a safe or bank deposit box with its own key somewhere within commuting distance? And when I need pieces of data to work on, I just retrieve them from this storage system described above, put them back on my laptop (that is hooked up to the Internet), hoping like hell that no one grabs anything while I am working, despite my fancy firewall protection software, and quickly returning my re-worked data to my safety deposit box after I have finished my work and after wiping my laptop clean? Seems like a rather convoluted process. The world, as we know it, would come to a grinding halt while we engage in these time consuming data security actions.

And the pundits of free enterprise will argue that this back-to-basics approach would be a restriction of our rights and options, a return to hiding our talents under a bushel, to inhibiting the hacker industry and the data security industry, and by extension, the arms, pharmaceuticals and private incarceration industries.

And so we say, “WTF,” and carry on our merry status-quo way, risking hackers, risking identity theft, risking losing all our social media friends who will un-friend us the moment we start behaving peculiarly, and losing our wealth when it is stolen from our bank. Our consolation is that information theft and cryptography has existed throughout the ages, like cat and mouse. Remember those Allied code breakers in WWII? They were the good-guy hackers of the day. Hackers and Cryptographers—one will never vanquish the other, in fact, one lives because of the other, and we are the poor suckers who give them life at our expense. So suck it up and get on with it—security is an illusion.

Misinformation Rules Cyberspace

While I was struggling to find out who had won the California Primary, it dawned on me that the sources of information I was consulting were often contradicting each other. In one report, Hillary had won, in the other, Bernie had won by a landslide, in another, the ballots were still being counted, in another, several ballots had been intentionally spoiled or withheld. The official news agencies were supposed to be suppressing and playing up Hillary, so we were advised not to trust Big Media. Finally, I gave up in frustration and posted a question on Facebook to my friends, requesting a credible source, and I was pointed to the Secretary of State’s website. But given the mud-slinging going on between the Democrats and the Republicans, I wondered whether this source too was a trustworthy one. Suddenly, I awoke to the frightening reality: Might is Right. Those who control the levers of power shape the narrative, and those who don’t, muddle it.

That this US election has been the dirtiest in living history is in no doubt. Elections, not only in America, have been getting dirtier over time, and the attack ad is now the weapon of mass destruction, the easiest to mobilize, and the most potent one that ensures decimation of the opponent. The philosophy is, “If I destroy the opposition, then weak old me will win.” Gone are platform positioning, and policy outlining; those strategies are not revealed for fear that the attack ad will be turned onto them in a flash, rendering them into flames. Then there are those “news agencies” that have sprung up on the web, some with names that resemble official news sites. Sometimes their bad grammar and poor proofing give them away, but given the shrinking fortunes of the official news media that has also suffered poor editorial copy as a consequence, both sources look pretty similar. Another give-away of the fake source is the abundance of ads and cookies that take over your screen and never let go the moment you click on its news pages. There will also be follow-up news items appended below the main article (after you have clicked through several scantily text-populated pages) that are sure to contain pictures of voluptuous women and virile men, with headlines such as “Lose 50 pounds in two days,” or “How to sculpt the perfect body,” or “How to drive your partner mad in bed.” But aren’t all these gimmicks copied from the traditional magazine circuit that pioneered the titillating headline?

Everyone is a journalist today, mashing-up news from unreliable sources, choosing them for sensationalist value, photo-shopping pictures to distort reality, pledging allegiance to one party or the other (even being in their employ) and flooding cyberspace with contradictory information. Is this responsible curation? Is this unraveling the truth? Who does one believe? Do we become cynical instead and treat these stories as entertainment only, and thereby perpetuate the myth that politics is show-biz, and thus, as voters, face the difficult choice of either watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones or going out to vote on election day? Which “entertainment” do we pick? Is this cynicism-leading-to-apathy what caused the shock when Brexit actually happened?

We created this Misinformation Monster due to several confluences: Big Media sold out to corporations with vested interests, cyberspace was “occupied” by a few big players like Google and Facebook, politicians yielded to lobby groups that funded them. And Joe Blow citizen decided to become a journalist and add to the Babel of news that no one believes. And search engines don’t give a hoot about credibility, for their search and display algorithms don’t include a lie detector.

Welcome to the new world of (mis)information. I don’t have any solutions. But I have a wish that investigative journalists continue to be retained by news organizations, with the freedom to uncover and reveal that which is true but not necessarily that which is politically correct or palatable. And if the paid ones die out, then citizen journalists, fueled only by a passion for the truth, replace them. It’s wishful thinking, but at least, we are still free to wish, and to hope.

Inhabiting Alternative Universes

There is much being written about Quantum Theory, and the Alternative Universe that exists “just out there,” that only some of us who see ghosts are privileged to peep into. I have wondered however, whether we have always inhabited these other-worlds in many ways, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes for short spells, and sometimes making the journey with never the possibility of returning to our known worlds.

The most obvious example of travelling to the alternative universe is via dreams. The people and events that we encounter in dreams alternately please, frighten and confuse; back in our familiar universe they then make their way into stories and novels we write, plays we produce, and songs we sing. There are periods in our lives when we dream heavy and other times when we dream light. Some correlate to the stress in our lives, but I seem to be most dream-intensive when I am goofing off and not working hard.

Then there are the other alternative universes we inhabit only in our waking lives: for example, the corporate executive, celebrity movie star, or politician who has to project an image congruent with their respective product or platform. Never mind that they may be closet drunks, neurotics or sex maniacs, the media image has always got to project confidence, trust, and inspire followership. Then there are the video gamers who live in their game universes under pseudonyms for most of their leisure time, who find more validation and purpose in their alternative universe than in the cold world of harsh reality. Writers are no different; they are the masters of their fictive universes, killing off the bad guys at whim, having their heroes overcome challenges under the most harrowing circumstances, creating situations of love, pain, sorrow, or action as the mood demands.

What about the movies or theatre? Why do we pay to go into a dark auditorium with a similarly motivated bunch of souls, armed with coke and popcorn, to lose ourselves in another world for a couple of hours? Or in a fantasy novel far removed from our current world. The circus, theme parks and bungee jumps are other escape valves into temporary alternative worlds. How about the alcoholic or the drug addict who hops onto his next drink or needle just to vanish from this place? Or the party organizer who creates a happy environment so that a bunch of friends and family could eat, drink and be merry and forget about their cares for awhile. Or the tour organizers and travel agents who send their clients to holiday destinations to be cocooned in an artificial oasis of hedonistic pleasure. And the adventure seeker who pursues difficult terrain just to experience life on the wild side. And then there is, of course, Facebook, where most of us congregate for a few minutes (or hours) a day to interact with the alternate universes of friends.

There are also the universes that you travel to and can never return from again without being changed: the bank robber or terrorist who transforms your world the moment he holds a gun to your face, the tractor-trailer that loses control on the highway and rams into your car, the doctor who looks up from your most recent medical report and says, “We have a small problem here…,” or the other doctor who comes out of the maternity ward and says, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!”

We are already creatures of alternative universes in our daily lives. Time and circumstance periodically invite, or force, us into alternative universes. And while Quantum Theory has brought the debate to the forefront, it does not change the fact that humans have always been privy to alternative universes, if we expand that definition. They provide us with the experience and enlightenment to grow. In fact, it would be difficult to take those universes away without downscaling our world into an unfamiliar, dull and somewhat frightening place.

In the Land of Fire and Ice

The Law Rock

The Law Rock

A writers’ retreat in Iceland was an irresistible opportunity and I went to the Land of Fire and Ice with an open mind. I’ll cover the writer’s retreat another time, but let me focus on the land in this article.

Made up of 130 volcanoes, stunning waterfalls, geysers spouting boiling water into the air at periodic intervals, receding glaciers, hot springs for a refreshing dip while en-route to or from the airport, and tectonic plates parting ways in the the middle of the country, this land is a civilized moonscape. Iceland is also writer’s Mecca: more books per-capita published than anywhere else in the world, sagas that date back to the 13th century and that gave birth to modern literature, literary walks, talks and landmarks throughout a land half the size of the United Kingdom, a land where the hidden people (trolls, elves and other magical people) are kept alive in a flourishing mythology that seeps into the quotidian.

Tourism bailed out the country which sank under fiscal mismanagement during the 2008 financial crisis, and now tourists are everywhere, 1.4 million of them a year in a country of only 330 thousand souls, fueling inflation again. While I visited, the Panama Papers scandal had sunk another senior politician, and now everyone in the country was running for president because they felt they could do a better job of governing. And as I passed the parliament buildings and the presidential palace I did not see any high security fences or security guards; in the olden days, with Iceland being the youngest and westernmost country in Europe and far away from Rome, local priests and bishops had sired children as the Pope had been too far away to check on them; similarly, I figured, the Icelanders must have reckoned that their country was too remote for terrorists, even in these days. We hope so too. Perhaps their Viking legacy and those exploding volcanoes, were deadly enough to send any bad guy packing…

And yet the city, which reminded me so much of St. John’s, Newfoundland (less hilly, perhaps) and which was full of museums, art galleries, bookshops and great restaurants, didn’t hold my attention as much as the stark countryside did. The drive from the airport to the city was through a lava field covered with moss – no trees, no flower gardens – and the lava fields continued as we travelled south and inland. Iceland is an agglomeration of land surfaced by exploding volcanoes over the centuries. When we traversed the volcano Hekla, we were told that this one exploded every 10 years and hadn’t done so for the last 15, so its next explosion was overdue. Catholic priests sailing past Hekla in the olden days had called it Hell as it was the closest they had seen of fire and brimstone when the old gal was in full blossom. And the volcano at Eyjallasokall was supposed to take the town below it into the sea when it next blew. The walk down no-man’s land between the American and European plates to the Alþingi (the seat of first Icelandic government in the 10th century) in Þingvellir, overlooking open fields, meandering streams and the impressive Law Rock from which the laws of the land were proclaimed, was a step back in time.

And despite this constant threat of doom, economic or geological, the Icelanders seemed to soldier on with a dour sense of humour. Perhaps they embody the writer’s psyche of living on the edge where most human experience accretes. Yes, definitely a land of contrasts – “fire and ice” is an apt descriptor.

Being Flogged on my Blog

This hasn’t happened to me before, but recently I stumbled across a blog on the secret lives of well known British and Hollywood actors posted on my blog site – except it wasn’t from me! It was an article about the private and somewhat seedy lives of Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and others in their cohort. On closer inspection, the article seemed to be a machine-generated “cut and paste job,” taking strings of data from or about this rather poorly rated (on Goodreads) book titled Damn you, Scarlett O’Hara: The Private Lives of Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier by Darwin Porter and Roy Moseley and creating some sort of a review, replete with pictures, video and sub headings. The sentence structure was noticeably garbled and the only things that stuck out were the juicy references to some of the salacious acts these famous actors had indulged in. The title of the blog was even more ridiculous: How To Begin a Writing Career.

I soon discovered that the imposter had not only snapped this ridiculous article on my property but he (or she) had changed my passwords and shut me out of my own site, a site I had cultivated over many years as a place for well thought out articles and book reviews, with no advertizing to support it; it had been my volunteer contribution to literature, and now it was despoiled.

Several thoughts ran through my head. First, I felt violated. I thought that the authors of this book were taking cheap cracks at promoting their work via sites that featured quality reviews and articles. But then I also wondered: were the perpetrators the authors of this book themselves or was it someone who had decided to play a trick on me? Has anyone taken machine-assembled reviews of my books and plastered on them on other blog sites to my discredit? There were embedded links in the article that suggested some advertising of essay writing services that I dared not click onto lest I be taken to another limbo. I recalled seeing these links on another syndicated news site where these “floggers,” as I have labeled them, had shown up and practically overrun the site with their gobbledygook, rendering that site unworkable and unsuitable for anyone looking for credible editorial. I had protested to that site’s owner, and like Jesus driving the greedy merchants from the temple, he reacted and that site has now been (almost) cleaned up. And now, were the floggers visiting me in revenge? I also looked at the positive side: someone must be reading my articles otherwise I couldn’t have become a target. The only comfort I could take from this episode was to conclude that anyone familiar with my writing would quickly recognize that even though I am a colonial with a different language rhythm, I do not write broken English. I hoped my readers would ignore this crap.

Whatever the motive, a few facts stand out for me. (1) If floggers are able to make a living from this activity, they must indeed be selling to a low level of reading populace (2) If people are actually reading this stuff they must be reading for keywords and not for structure, coherence of thought, and elegance of language (3) If there is no constant vigilance, we will let the internet sink into a Tower of Babel, allowing for the privateers who have being trying to control it for a long time have their proof that gated communities work best.

As for me, my site was cleaned up, passwords restored and tightened into unbreakable combinations. and I will continue to seek quality in my writing and send a message to the floggers in a couple of keywords that they will surely recognize: “Up Yours!”

The Old School Bell: a formative symbol

Every time I hear a school bell, it grounds me to who I once was, who I became, and therefore, who I now am. Like a mother’s heartbeat, it fills me with a sense of security. It once gave me the boundaries of my school day: asserting itself vigorously when we began at 8.45am, lowering its tone to a “silent bell” when we filed into the chapel, it shifted my mind from subject to subject during the day by demarcating the “periods”, releasing me temporarily to the tuck shop for maalu paan (fish roll), pol toffee (coconut candy) or bulto (a solidified treacly candy) during the “intervals”, and finally, when my mind was boggled and my body longed for release, it sounded freedom that sent us rushing out at 3.30pm to play cricket, rugby, marbles or simply ogle the girls at our sister school next door.

The bell summons formative images to mind: the breakup of fisticuffs and bloody noses out in the playground because we had to be ready for class, the dreaded Prefects walking the corridors looking for tell-tale signs of lawbreakers, the shrewd teachers who used the silences that the bell demanded to study our faces and file away those whom they believed would make it in life and those who would not, and therefore, those whom they should develop and those whom they should ignore.

The bell spelled reward and punishment. Reward came in releasing us to the playground during intervals and after school; it came in switching us to our favourite periods or ushering in the teachers we loved the most. Reward was being dispatched by the bell to the library, where the world of books awaited those who looked beyond, and where a cocoon of hushed gossiping would envelop those who played the system. Punishment came when you missed the bell and had to take that “long walk” to the office to get a late chit. Punishment also came when the glorious bell rang at day’s end and those who had not done their work knew that it signaled detention, not freedom.

The bell spelled separation: on my first day of school, as my mother let go of my hand and I entered the gates, I sensed that my life had changed forever. It rang during moments of prayer when Catholics separated from non-Catholics, the latter to play and master the art of marbles and other sports, the former to pray in the chapel seeking divine intervention so that their non-Catholic colleagues would not improve their game and beat them.

Bells have existed since ancient times and in many civilizations and have comforted us in times of despair, accompanied us in battle and in revelry, announced births, deaths, marriages, and called us to worship. Even today, when I hear that sound, be it a church bell or a VIA Rail train pulling into the station, it takes me back to that most significant of chimes – my old school bell.

Replaced by the Robot

I was reading about the rapid disappearance of journalism jobs across the land (“another community newspaper closes” etc.) and began wondering whether it was us armchair philosophers, DIY writers, and opinionated bloggers who were driving journeymen journalists out of their jobs. Then I read about computer programmes that write political speeches, and others that write novels based on certain inputs, and I didn’t forget Google that serves up every fact we need, and I realized that the machine, or the robot, would soon replace all writers.

I recently observed a 30-something talking to her best friend, Siri, Apple’s automated assistant, who would serve up everything this human asked for, in the most polite manner—well, almost everything. During that short interval of observation, Siri provided answers to several general knowledge questions, served up the latest updates on current political issues, read poetry, clarified literature, but when mischievously asked, “Siri, do you ever have sex?”, answered demurely, “Now, you know I don’t like to talk about those matters,”— a truly prudish North American response from a companion who is always available and never loses her temper. Jeeves would have a hard time competing with this one!

When I was in the computer business, not so long ago, every time we encountered a process problem caused by human error, we automated it. I didn’t realize at the time that we were sowing the seeds to throw thousands out of work. On the other hand, our bosses loved it, for the cost-benefit equation was totally skewed in favour of the business owner. First, we automated data gathering and analysis, then we automated customer service, then we automated accounting, then we automated transaction processing, and we began throwing out sales reps, check-out counter reps, call centre reps, help desk reps, and accounting clerks by the truckload. What I didn’t stop to add into my cost-benefit model was that we were not reaping a net benefit but transferring a cost somewhere else. Those unemployed workers were now going to be someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s cost, and ultimately our cost, be it in higher taxes or higher employment insurance deductions. No one was also taking into account the personal costs to the individual: the crushing depersonalization caused by job loss, and the nervous breakdowns and marriage breakdowns that spring onto centre stage during periods of unemployment.

Automation cannot be reversed. And with Artificial Intelligence going mainstream, the robots are making deeper incursions into human activity and are moving up the hierarchy of human organizations replacing project managers, scientists, lawyers, doctors and other professionals who rely on codified knowledge for their expertise. And if the two species ever get into a showdown, it may boil down to a “battle for the switch” between them and us that could either, (a) render the robots inactive, or (b) kill off the humans with some noxious gas that robots are immune to, that would decide who rules whom in the years ahead. We cannot trust corporations or governments to think that far into the future and avert a confrontation either, for the former only think one financial quarter at a time and the latter think as far as only one political term in office.

Someone proposed that the answer should be to provide every human on the planet a living wage whether they are working or not, to compensate for the robots taking over human jobs; this solution is predicated on the premise that ultimately all humans will be displaced by machines. This might be problematic, for no one has yet solved the divide of “us vs. them,” that is likely to ensue between those who choose not to work and those who do, and unless a premium is paid to the latter, the solution may flounder. And one wonders what would happen to our economy which was built on the principle of “competition?” Some Japanese companies are trying the “phased-in” approach and are assisting their human employees to automate their jobs, and, if successful, be paid early retirement. I don’t know where the answer lies but we need to give this man-made problem, just like climate change, some serious thought, with a view towards the long term.

In the meantime, just like Gary Kasparov was finally outdone by Big Blue, I wonder when my job as a writer would be better served up by a robot writing under my name, churning out articles, stories and novels at a faster and better clip than I have ever been able to do? Now, if this alter-ego is able to make more money at this gig than I was ever able to do, then I wish “him” luck, while I retire from this profession and focus on my golf game. And let’s hope like heck that golf is never robotized!

A South African Journey

I recently travelled to South Africa to research a novel. This was a journey taken 225 years earlier by a European ancestor of mine who sailed via the Cape of Good Hope for the East Indies. This ancestor never returned from the East—in those days journeys of that nature, lasting several months, were undertaken once in a lifetime, and usually performed one-way only. Today, one-way was a 16 hour non-stop flight from New York.

The first thing that struck me was that this was a developed country, if development could be measured in materially progressive signs like transportation, commerce and communications infrastructure. But on closer inspection, the country’s social fabric, a mere 20 years after the dismantling of Apartheid, is still mired in dysfunction. “Townships” remain on the outskirts of residential suburbs, and are run-down shanties in the most appalling conditions, while the “white suburbs” are opulent, sprawling and gated. Coloured communities straddle the middle ground. The new South Africa, post Mandela and de Klerk, is not going to copy its neighbour Zimbabwe and steal from the rich to give the poor, I was told; there has to be a willing buyer and a willing seller when it comes to land transfers. But with buyers without the means to buy and sellers unwilling to part with hereditary land, the impasse of inequality continues.

Political awareness is high among the locals, and no conversation ends without some reference to race. I was quite surprised when terms like “black,” “white” and “coloured” were thrown about so casually. Street protests and demonstrations were rife, be it breakaway factions of the monolithic ANC or students protesting the raising of tuition fees.

And yet, when you leave the messy people issues behind, the land is ruggedly beautiful and ever contrasting. From the stunningly scenic Cape Town and its cloudy sentinel Table Mountain, where everything began (at least for the white colonists), to the Cape Flats and its crumbling townships, to the fertile wine country in Paarl and Stellenbosch, to Hugenot country in Franschoek, to the dry Karoo with its scrub vegetation, acacia and agave, and then down and across the Eastern Cape with its giant pine and imported gum trees, the land is ridged with progressive mountain ranges, creating micro-climates within their valleys. Finally, one comes across the tallest range, the Drakensburg, that straddles two other environments: the grassy high veldt and the dry low veldt, the latter being home to the country’s famed Big Five and a myriad of lesser quadrupeds—a must-see for the avid tourist.

The complexity of South Africa came home to me in Johannesburg, the City of Gold, built on abandoned mine shafts, with splotches of gold from abandoned mines still adorning its landscape. The city’s history is littered with the carcasses of those who died from poor mine conditions, arsenic poisoning being the main killer; it’s labour history bears many travesties, among them: how mine owners reduced migrant worker wages by 50% in 1902 and kept them frozen for 60 years! The city’s core is virtually abandoned to hordes of immigrants (mostly illegal) who have forcibly occupied areas like Hillbrow, while new business districts like Sandton spring up on the periphery of this sprawling metropolis of 10 million. And yet enclaves like Houghton, covered in a blanket of purple jacaranda flowers, are islands of opulence and calm. I felt at home in Soweto, Jo-burg’s own township, a city unto itself of 3million where shanties jostled with modern haciendas replete with BMWs in their garages. Life was on display in Soweto, from street performers to open air restaurants, to “buy your own shanty” sales, to the bullet-riddled house of Nelson and Winnie Mandela that opponents used to drive by and take pot-shots at while Winnie and the children were still indoors. And there were some overlooked marks of embarrassment too: forgotten street signs of a bygone era, reading “Whites Only,” or “Coloureds Only”.

As I left South Africa with a book full of notes, I realized that Apartheid was still alive, even if only as a socio-economic reality, blighting this otherwise energetic, rich and beautiful country. I also realized that it would take many generations before that legacy is finally eradicated, if ever. It certainly will not be in my lifetime.

A letter to a Syrian Refugee

Dear Syrian New Canadian,
Welcome to Canada! I’m sorry I was not at the airport, along with our photogenic Prime Minister, to welcome you to our cold country where the hearts are warm and the feelings are mushy. Actually I was feeling a bit jealous, for when I came to this country nearly 30 years ago from a similarly war-torn one like yours, with a wife and two small children (one sick and the other post-operative), there was no one to welcome us; we just checked into an apartment and started life, funded only by our savings. Oh yes, the diffident immigration officer did say “Welcome to Canada,” after stamping our passports and accepting us as landed immigrants.

Let me re-assure you that you have made a good choice in coming to Canada. But instead of the warm and fuzzies, let me give you a few do’s and don’ts that you need to be aware of here, facts that the immigration brochures do not reveal, as we are, for the most part, a polite nation.

Do’s
1) Get yourself a job as soon as you can. Any job! Canadian Experience gets you into progressively better jobs faster than all the credentials you can bring from your home country. Besides, the longer you stay unemployed the higher the risk-hire you become. And don’t quit a job before getting the next one. We love to hire currently-employed people because someone else has already done the filtering and taken the risk on you. And when you get a job, work hard at it. Luck is the product of hard work.
2) Unless you wish to reside in Quebec, learn “Canadian English” as soon as you can, replete with “eh”s and “duh”s and other expressions. And when you are stuck for words, throw in stuff like “basically,” “that’s a good question,” “as a matter of fact,” etc – these are acceptable fillers.
3) Do pay your taxes and obey the law. The law here is what makes this country different from where we came from; it’s terribly slow once you get into its clutches, and outcomes are based on compromise not justice. That’s why when two Canadians bump into each other they both say “sorry” and go their way without getting into a punch up or a shoot-out. And don’t try to change this law with imported ones either. We like it methodical and labyrinthine. Just don’t get tangled up with the law and you’ll be fine.
4) Do learn to accommodate your neighbour. That’s how this place works. I don’t know my next door neighbour nor subscribe to his peculiar habits and customs. But I respect his space and he gives me mine and I offer to look after his place when he is away on holidays, and he does the same for me.

Don’ts
1) Don’t try to live on subsidy for longer than you can. We have welfare and medicare and EI and other props. These are very addictive and are only for those genuinely in need.
2) Try to become a net producer rather than a net consumer. We love shopping and buying things we don’t need that only put us in debt, especially after Christmas. This is an Achilles Heel that will ultimately be our undoing. Don’t fall for this trap of living today based on tomorrow’s potential earnings.
3) While you are free to indulge in your customs and rituals that give you your identity, don’t impose them on others. And, like me, you might want to sample, even adopt, some of the customs that make us Canadian: we play Christmas songs from November to December, we go crazy during Hockey season, we unite around a National Anthem that brings a clutch to my throat every time I sing it, we like to criticize our politicians without shooting them, we drink a lot of coffee, flush a lot of toilets and eat doughnuts even if it’s not good for us. Please don’t try to change these customs, because if I don’t hear my Christmas songs on the radio and in public places anymore, I’m going to be pretty pissed off!
4) Make sure your kids get an education, integrate and become Canadian. This “multi-cultural” business is good only to get newcomers through the door. But after a few years here we all have to find some commonality that hangs us all together as Canadians.

This may be a bit much to absorb all at once. Sorry. Besides, you need to bask in the celebrity status with which you have been welcomed into this country; many who came before you have not had this privilege. And you have earned it, after your treacherous voyage from your war-torn homeland. So relax and let it soak in during this Christmas season. But remember, that in these Attention Deficit times, the show will be over very soon, the audience would have moved on to the next big thing and you will be left on the stage, alone, wondering what happened. That’s when I hope you will read and re-read my do’s and don’ts and find them helpful. They are offered from the heart and not from the handbook.

Canada is a land of milk and honey, but only if you bring (or grow) your own cows and bees. Since you have come to this country with nothing more than yourselves and a few belongings, I suggest you cut through the hoopla ASAP (another acronym we use excessively) and get down to seriously growing your personal treasure chest. And with hard work, you will. All the best!

Sincerely,
A Fellow New Canadian

P.S. – It might interest you to know that, by definition, you will remain a New Canadian for the rest of your life – another quirk of this place! Enjoy!