A third-culture kid (TCK / 3CK) or trans-culture kid is "someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more cultures other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Machu Picchu, The Lost City

Following the steps of the mighty Hiram Bingham and his brave band of archeological brothers, we made our way to Machu Picchu at the crack of dawn. Well, Hiram probably did not get out of Cusco on a train to a Machu Picchu, as he was the one who discovered the place back in 1911. This place used to be a Quechua citadel, buried deep in the jungle-like flora, on a mountain top overlooking the sacred Urubamba River. Before then, the site had not been undiscovered by non-Peruvians. A very well kept secret. Some have catalogued this magnificent find as one of the New SevenWonders of the World. There are three ways to get there from Cuzco: the first one was to venture through the famous Inca trail – this ancient civilization was known for its excellent road system – a walking trail of about 80 kms (more or less 50 miles) through challenging heights; the second was to hire a helicopter tour for those who are drowning in dollars; and the third, the train. Hiram probably walked… to the tune of El Condor Pasa.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu towering behind

Although the train was more of a midrange alternative, there were also many famous people that have travelled using these means, such as Ernesto Guevara, better known to the world as El Che. The engine and the overall system were designed in Switzerland, ingenious people that are very familiar with treacherous mountain terrain. The route climbs to around 3,800 m (11,800 ft) above sea-level. While the tourists watched the scenery, I kept feeling as if my skin was turning blue, purple and green as the train seemed to climb the side of the hill following a pinball pattern in slow motion. On certain sectors of the track, the train would move forward then come to a stop, and continue climbing up in reverse, and repeating the pattern until reaching a straight track down the sacred valley, to Ollantaytambo and beyond toward the final frontier. The train actually descends until coming to a full stop at the village of Aguas Calientes, now only at 2,040 m (6,693 ft). This colourful little town is on the Urubamba River bank and a short distance from the climb to Machu Picchu (6 kms or 3.7 miles). This village welcomes primarily tourists to the site and boasts some hot spring baths, restaurants, shops and a few quaint hotels.

Tourists generally tend to go on a day trip, but we decided to stay overnight. Upon arrival at Aguas Calientes, we boarded a small Japanese combi that would take us all the way up the hill. We sat in the back seat unfortunately, and when the bus navigated the hairpin turns near the top, the back swung out over the void, with a straight drop down to the valley floor where the train looked like a toy. The more adventurous gung-ho visitors can hike as there is a walking path intersecting parts of the windy road to the summit, although you would require an outstanding physique. Upon arrival to the site, it is easy to take in the overwhelming view of the Incan ruins and the surrounding hills and peaks. The iconic mountain on every postcard and famous picture of the area is called Hayna Picchu (meaning Young Peak), towering above and challenging the hardy foreigners that want to climb it in order to get that hallmark picture. What is so special about this site is that, as it had never been discovered by the Spanish, it was not subject to the kind of destruction and looting of other archeological sites. You can get a reasonable idea as to what the original construction must have looked at and admire the classical Incan architecture. It is speculated that it had been built as a royal estate in 1400 and the natives abandoned the fortification to fight the conquistadores. Of course, there are many variations of this story narrated by the various guides as nothing was written in stone to immortalize the accounts of a conquered civilization. What a shame.

Our trip here was also highlighted by sharing the moment with a Canadian celebrity. Our itinerary coincided with another embassy officer who brought along her visiting friend, Luba Goy from the Royal Canadian Air Farce, a beloved comedy show. The show itself contains satirical content regarding political issues affecting our beloved Canada, including imitations of public figures of all sorts. It is generally not well-known outside our borders as I suppose, the subject matter may be universal but the issues are domestic. I admired her behaviour as she was not constantly functioning with the on-switch, showing a very diverse persona. The short time she had spent in Peru allowed her to gain some perspective on the different reality people in the country faced. Even though she was unable to communicate in the local language, she was friendly with everyone, especially with the local kids – generally kids working for token wages and tips to help feed their families. She enjoyed entertaining the children, giving Donald Duck-like impersonations and often presenting them with small mementos she seemed to carry around in a bottom-less purse. Kids seemed to react very positively to these exchanges and it almost seemed as if they ran off generally happier than when they came.

Maman, Brian and I enjoying some shade

I must say, everyone who has a chance to make it there should make the effort. I really treasured this unique experience, knowing many people may only have a chance to see Machu Picchu in a history book or a documentary. It is even more magical than one can imagine. As you walk through the ruins, admire empty chambers, remainders of plazas, the agricultural terraces with a major drop several hundred meters to the valley floor, your dreaming kicks into high gear. There are no foreign obnoxious noises, such as trucks zooming by, car alarms serenading the landscape, or people arguing over everyday nonsensical topics. Quiet prevails, which is unique when compared to most places in the world. Through this peace, you can imagine what people’s lives were in a simpler time. Of course, back then the Incas seemed to have constructed a multi-layered pyramidal hierarchical structure to their civilization, much like we seem to have replicated throughout most of our human history. It would not have been fun being the farmer or the courier. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in their version of El Condor Pasa: “I would rather be a hammer than a nail.” However, much is left to the imagination as to the wealth we could have harnessed from their knowledge in medicine, construction, astronomy and other undiscovered advancements, perhaps forgotten due to a time where violence asserted supremacy.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cusco, The Imperial City

After living for a while in Lima, foreigners often had the misconception that all Peru would be more or less the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Incan capital of Cusco (or Qosqo in the native Quechua) stands the test of the time, high atop the lofty Peruvian Andes. My family and I had the pleasure of visiting this national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site in July of 1996. It sits comfortably at a whopping 3,400m (11,200 ft) above sea level and yes, you can certainly feel the altitude and lack of oxygen up there. Everyone will advise before arriving to take it slow and drink mate de coca (coca tea). This hot beverage helps the transition to high altitudes and is part of the Andean culture, both in traditional medicine and religion. Some of the locals also chew the leaves and there is a colourful ritual involved making it a very social custom. Coca-Cola once contained this natural leaf as a key ingredient, explaining the first component of the hyphenated name. It is crucial to your survival to walk slowly, taking small penguin steps, as soon as that airplane door opens and everything gets depressurised. Don’t worry if the locals are faster than you, they are used to it. Don’t be a hero. Not many people are used to living at these altitudes, perhaps explaining why the city’s population holds a mere 350,000 inhabitants.

Brian, Maman and I posing before the city of Cusco

As the plane made its descent onto the Velasco Astete runway, a sea of white houses with ceramic tile roofing dressed the scenery, giving us a picturesque colonial architectural welcome. There were no hints of major modern construction from afar. The city looked frozen in time. We claimed our luggage from the carousel, found our shuttle booked by our travel agent in Lima, and headed for the heart of the city to our boutique hotel. I believe it was called La Posada del Inca. It was located in the radius of the Plaza de Armas, formerly known as the Square of the Warrior back in Incan days. This strategic centre was the location of several important events such as Francisco Pizarro’s proclamation of conquest and the execution of one of top 19th Century’s indigenous rebels. The businesses in the area included many fine restaurants, ready to plate high quality Peruvian food and the traditional Andean cuy (guinea pig) - a real delicacy many of us opted out of except for my adventurous Dad. I ordered my dependable and delicious lomo saltado, a dish I would strongly recommend to my meat-loving brethren. Keeping in line with culinary references, this is also the potato capital of the world cultivating over 2,000 different varieties of spuds. Your chances are high there of getting serenaded by a local pan flute band playing El Condor Pasa. In the covered sidewalks surrounding the square, many of the local business people displayed their arts and crafts hoping a tourist would be interested in purchasing. Here I bought a wonderful grey alpaca sweater that accompanied me easily for 10 years. The main park in the centre of the Plaza de Armas displayed some of the local flora, including some beautiful pink flowers that provided a distinguished touch.

The oddest characteristic of this square was that there were two major catholic shrines built by the Spaniards: the Church of La Compañía (Jesuits) and the Convent of Santo Domingo (Dominicans). Usually on the main square of Spanish cities, whether established or colonized, there is one major sanctuary holding vigil over the square. Maybe the Europeans felt remorseful regarding their behaviour in “interacting” with the locals. Inside one of these churches, a tour guide had mentioned that the Spanish originally built their structures over existing Inca walls, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate their supremacy. Furthermore, they had constructed their buildings with a type of European retrofitting able to withstand earthquakes in the old world. The problem with the old versus new worlds was that earthquakes in one place tend to shake the land up and down whereas in Latin America, side to side. As a consequence, the early buildings constructed by the Spanish caved in causing substantial havoc to the general population. I am not too sure how much of this interesting fact is true as I have only felt these phenomena in the new world. The conquistadors and their future generations had fought tirelessly to convert the locals to their religion and culture, but it appeared that the quechua was able to prevail in many aspects to this date. The locals dressed their traditional outfits, especially the women with their fabulous hats and colours. When roaming through the streets of the city, the predominant language was still the native and Spanish seemed to be reserved for the tourists. Peruvians from other regions would tell you that their Spanish is not inferior due to their lack of education but to the trained ear, this language was a form of early Spanish which had not evolved over time as it had in Lima. Obviously the Peruvian coast had been strategic for the colonizers to ship the extracted riches to the Madre Patria and the Church of Spain, therefore local peoples in the area were more susceptible to change. The mountain people, isolated in a tough terrain, were able to hold out longer and keep more of their identity. Modernization seems to have taken its sweet time to reach those areas. 

The following day after arrival – first day usually spent acclimatizing – we were picked up early in the morning to tour Cusco and the surrounding era. Our guide was a local who possessed many degrees in tourism and archaeology named Boris. Great name for a Quechua native, I know. The tiny narrow streets of the city uncovered secrets of the past, as remnants of Inca construction served as the base for newer Spanish-style buildings. Some of the locals referred to the lower portion as the wall of the Incas and the upper, the wall of the Inca-pables. After some uncomfortable bouncing around in the van, we made it to one of the most important pre-Colombian constructions in the northern outskirts of Cusco: the ruins of Sacsayhuamán – similar to perhaps other tourists, I initially though the ruins were called, Sexy Woman. This fortification provided an excellent example of Inca walls, and the many stones weighing several tons fitted together seamlessly. How anyone, even several thousand quechua people, could have placed these gargantuan stones on top of each other was beyond any tangible belief. Nevertheless, they were unbelievable architects. Their constructions were able to withstand years of decay and heavy earthquakes, and still, they stood proudly before any visitor and their cameras. The huge fortress and walled city provide also a great panoramic view into the valley where Cusco passively sits. Absolutely breathtaking, especially with El Condor Pasa playing in the background. This place left many unanswered questions, similarly to other native constructions, the Europeans had left a path destruction. The settlement could have housed people as their were systems of labyrinths resembling streets, a possible location of a destroyed temple, and even a large gathering area mimicking a city square, where nowadays locals dress in ceremonial outfits to entertain tourists dancing to the beat of El Condor Pasa. We visited afterwards other minor (in size but not importance) sites and retired to our hotel to rest for the next day.

Maman and I at the ruins of Sacsayhuamán

Our final day in Cusco was dedicated to the pre-Colombian mega structure of Ollantaytambo, a royal estate next to the sacred Urubamba River. On our way there on a Japanese van full of foreigners hailing from all corners of the world, we were able to see the various terraces on the sides of the mountains. The soothing sounds of the El Condor Pasa song delighted us on our way there. As flatlands were not readily available in these regions, the farmers had learned to create a system of steps for their crops where water could trickle from one to the next irrigating them as it descended. It is amazing to see the amount of work to convert mountains into an agricultural field. They had perhaps done this for thousands of years. As we arrived to the town bearing the same name as the royal estate, we walked around what used to be a ceremonial centre created under the orders of Emperor Pachacuti, who annexed this region on behalf of the Inca Empire. The carved rocks were massive and perfectly cut to fit into different ones, leaving the observers to wonder, did these people know something we didn’t? Beyond this, they were transported many kilometres to this site. How? It’s a mystery Charlie Brown. We had a lot of work done by contractors in our homes and embassies in Lima, yet none of these labourers seemed to have had a knack that the Incas did. Once we wrapped up this tour, we headed back to our hotel, as we would leave early the next day in the first train to Machu Picchu. I could not wait.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Transport Carnival

Traffic is a cross-cultural topic with everyone having his or her own war stories to relate. The veteran road warriors share their local wisdom with rookies entering the fray, such as “Here in Los Angeles, we stick to the freeway” or “In Caracas, we use shortcuts to avoid traffic jams.” Lima is a city with traffic bottlenecks of different and sometimes uncommon nature compared to its sister cities around the globe, at least in contrast to those that I had the pleasure of visiting. I became aware of the nature of their high seas of congestion when my parents agreed to take me to the Centro Peruano-Japonés, where I was interested in pursuing my Martial Arts studies. I wanted to take audit classes and examine facilities for the students. I had completed three years of judo in an Ottawa dojo, a defensive discipline, which had greatly aided me in becoming more serene and focused. The value of hard work as some may say. I wanted to progress in Peru, a country that housed a strong concentration of Japanese people. They continued to preserve aspects of their culture, including the ancient arts of self-defence. The unfortunate thing was having to cross the city through very disorganized and heavy traffic patterns. The dreaded rush hour. I cannot remember how long the trip was, but I soon decided judo would have to take a back seat in my own road of life. We did not even get to the destination.

A normal day in Lima traffic

When travelling through the streets of Lima, you would think there are no rules to driving. Cutting people off is a normal daily manoeuvre and almost everyone is prepared for this. If you give an inch, be ready for the other person to take a mile. Expect it. Intersections can get clogged with four cars, each of these unwilling to surrender that precious inch to another motorist. The holy trinity of Me, Myself and I dictated priority. The logic was: a) it is important for me to get where I have to go; b) everyone in my way is an obstacle to complete my task. The wide avenues have several pretty little white lines (more or less lines depending on the specific road in question), suggesting this is a three-lane road. This lane concept had been agreed during some international summit for ministers of transportation and communication or something of the sorts, as it is a generally embraced concept worldwide. However, the ingenious Peruvian people realized they could fit more cars in the given space between curbs. It was a clever problem-solving method increasing road capacity, facilitating intimacy with the neighbouring drivers and passengers as they waited in a large parkade hoping for order to prevail. The white dividing lines on the pavement sole purpose was décor, propping up the prestige of an already elegant thoroughfare. Minor streets, such as my Monte Real in Chacarilla, did not have these aforementioned lines. Actually, most streets did not even have signs, perhaps due to the rapid growth of the city in a short time leading to respective governments dropping signs from their priorities, which is understandable. Socio-economic concerns are paramount along with the development of human capital. My guess was that locals were so familiar with their own city that it was not necessary to have signs. Here I became an expert using points of reference to know where I was or how to locate specific areas when going to a given location.

The variety of cars involved in the carnival of transit provided some insight as to the income disparity of the metropolis’s inhabitants. Perhaps in Canada, my home and most recent posting, this was somewhat more camouflaged as owners were supposed to adhere to certain standards and regulations qualifying their vehicle as roadworthy. The city bus population was made up of second or third hand vans originating from Asia – some of these had original markings in Japanese – and carried colourful passengers almost hanging from its windows shouting at pedestrians on the street. Don’t be offended if you encounter this as many public transit riders cannot read or write. The approaching voices from the vans announce the heading of the van. I remember the first time I encountered this I thought I had offended or angered the locals with my attire or behaviour unknowingly. The widely accepted use of older generation models of automobiles contributed to concern for overall safety, especially as some cars may not have had headlights able to operate in a night driving theatre. It may be romantic for a couple to be illuminated solely by ambient lights as they sit in a car in the dark, but quite dangerous for a pedestrian timing his or her run across the Panamericana freeway. Although some places did have pedestrian overpasses, some opted for an Olympic dash through waves of incoming traffic. Other interesting concoctions from Asian automakers dressed for their participation in the local dance rehearsal on the pavement were the Daewoo Tico (one of my favourites as you could stick your arm out the window and touch the street), many Toyotas and Nissans bringing flashbacks of a different age in the industry, the beloved, reliable Volkswagen Beatle, buzzing through the busy streets as well and even Soviet-era Ladas. Those were indestructible cars but I never met anyone who could properly fit in one. The Tico was an incredible machine designed to combat aerodynamics. I had seen many of these overturned, but due to its boxy build, they could easily be re-flipped and continue to their destination. If their engines were pushed hard enough, the cars would even levitate.

The real kings of the road there were the cab drivers. They knew the ins and outs of this place. First of all, the radio taxi service, the kind you order the night before or call a central number for pickup is beyond secondary in the travellers’ menu. During our first year we tried different services, including one of the leaders, EcoTaxi, whose drivers had issues in simply showing up. One day, a driver showed up when we had not even requested or needed the service. Through my friends, especially Alejandro Alves and Glen Swanson, I learned that the easiest way of getting anywhere was going to the edge of the sidewalk in any street, waive your hand in the air when a car approaches and they would stop. A taxi. They were not of any specific colour as they were individually owned and operated. Who knows if any of them ever bothered to register. The only way you could tell they were a taxi was when they were within a close enough range, a hot pink sticker on the windshield would display the letters T-A-X-I. Once the vehicle comes to a stop, the first thing you do is say where you want to go and they will not reply with an affirmation as to the fare. You must never say yes. Foreigners like myself had often been told $15 to $25 Soles – somewhere between $5 to $8 US dollars - only because we looked like outsiders, therefore, we were rolling in cash. If this were true I would probably have hired a helicopter taxi. You then reply with a ridiculously low rate that you know will be shot down. Then eventually you can agree to a price. I learned that one of the best things if the negotiation breaks down is to move away from the window of the car saying “No way, man!” (not to use the more colourful and “obscene-to-some” language) loud enough. Chances are the driver will fold. Then you can resume the negotiation committing to $5 Soles (in the neighbourhood of $2 US Dollars) and he will be game. I say “he” because I never met a female taxi driver in my time there. Of course, you have to be reasonable with them as this is their daily bread and they have families like all of us. Make sure you do not get ripped off, but be sure not to rip them off either, after all, it is a service.

The world class Daewoo Tico posing next to a city bus

Besides knowing relatively well their city, the main streets and neighbourhoods, many of the drivers had other jobs. They were not driving cabs for fun. I learned this through one of the drivers I seemed to get three times in one week from pure coincidence. The third time I asked for his name and he told me his friends called him Piña (Pineapple in English). His face must have suffered from a terrible case of acne as a youth due to the several holes in his skin, resembling the outside of a pineapple. He was a lawyer with a degree from a Peruvian university. He was knowledgeable as we chatted about issues affecting his beautiful country and he was curious about the world outside of his Peru. His work as a professional alone could not pay the bills to dig his family out of the pueblos jóvenes. Other drivers I met were in similar situations with jobs as policemen, civil engineers and teachers. You could always tell when they were truthful in their dialogue and purpose in life. I enjoyed talking to these friendly drivers to become more acquainted with their struggle and continuously asked myself how I could help. They were hard workers and resourceful but could not catch a break. Who knew if they would. Although I became a good negotiator for my fares, I always gave them a tip, which was not customary, hoping the extra little bit would help these brave road warriors put some more food on the table for their families to survive another day. Most fourteen year olds here were put to work to help feed the family and school was only for the really privileged.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Fall For A Close Call: The Quebec Referendum

During my struggle to find serenity in the ebb and flow of my new limeño lifestyle, my country was coping with its own conundrum. We were both simultaneously undergoing an internal struggle of sorts, fighting our inner demons but maintaining an outer calm. Even when the whole world seems to be falling apart, it is important to appear in control. Kind of like a brilliant T-shirt I saw someone wearing on the street a while ago announcing: "God is coming. Look busy!" The world had to know both Canada and William Bickford still had their houses in order and our demeanour demonstrated a reassuring "business as usual". By October, I noticed my situation was not as serious as I had originally thought when the talk of town - Canadian embassy staff and expats - centred on Quebec and the probability of separation. I was shocked and could not believe anyone would want to break away from Canada as it portrayed a sort of utopian society from my experiences and acquired knowledge. A land of tolerance and diversity. Everyone was free to be himself or herself under the Maple Leaf. It became even more surprising when people who were not affected by this situation would approach me and ask about the actual causes for the troubles between the two different cultures: the Anglos and Quebec. I rapidly became an expert at only 14 on the subject.

Pro-Federalist rally in Montreal, Quebec

Quebec separatism has followed an historic trend resembling a ride on a roller coaster. The highs and lows are extremely noticeable. The highs generally occurred during times of economic difficulty (i.e. 1990s recession), international conflict (i.e. during the great wars, Quebecers opposed involvement or conscription), in-house boondoggles (i.e. Quebec not being recognized as a distinct society, or signing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) or meddling from people who should not get involved (i.e. Charles de Gaules infamous call to francophones "Long live free Quebec.") The lows, well that is slightly easier, you just don't hear any talk about it. In the mid-90s, The separatist machine seemed to be losing its momentum as the Parti Quebecois Premier, Jacques Parizeau, spearheaded his lifelong dream of achieving independence. At the Federal level, he enjoyed the support of Lucien Bouchard, representing the Bloc Quebecois in our House of Commons. Quite an incredible accomplishment that a party committed to secession is the second largest in Parliament. Prior to the October 30, 1995 referendum, they were central figures campaigning in favour of the "YES" (in favour of separation). Although a previous referendum had been shot down, to the discontent of the sovereigntists, they were committed to obtain a yes at all costs. Reality regarding the ramifications of an unfavourable vote for the rest of Canada, or the importance their provincial partner brought to the table in terms of economy, culture and history, had failed to set in, even in the final week leading up to the vote. Only the people of Quebec were allowed to decide their fate in the concert of nations.

The catalyst for the independence movement in Quebec was arguably the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, where institutions were largely reformed. The Roman Catholic church was dethroned as the main providers of health and education by a newly created and well-funded unionized public sector, increased control of the management of the economy and the nationalization of  electricity production and distribution. This period gave birth to the Parti Quebecois committed to separatism as well as a small faction of Marxist separatists that undertook terrorist actions under the name of Front de libération du Québec. The spike of their activity came in the October Crisis  in 1970 during which James Cross, a British diplomat, as well as Quebec Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte were both kidnapped with Laporte eventually being killed. He was found in the trunk of a car parked in the Quebec City Airport. In 1980, the first referendum failed - the question centred on political sovereignty with economic association. The second, in 1995, was designed to achieve full independence although the question on its own was rather ambiguous to say the least. Judge for yourselves:

"Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

Correct me if I am wrong, but this question is as crystal clear as the water of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. Something that would perhaps made more sense in my opinion was to simply state something along the lines of: "Do you agree Quebec should become a sovereign nation and negotiate new treaties as a new player in the world economy”. Something clear in my mind is an all or nothing concept. When you decide to buy a brand new tv, do you buy a refurbished one with no warranty? In my mind, Quebec was selling a broken object to "its" people. Parizeau and his Parti Québécois government in 1995 proposed the bill in question to the Quebec National Assembly. It proposed to give the Assembly the power to declare the province sovereign with the exclusive power to pass all its laws, levy all its taxes and conclude all its treaties. It received a first reading but the final version of the bill depended on the results of the 1995 referendum. Had this become law after approval by the assembly, it would have served as the legal basis for the Quebec government to declare Quebec a sovereign country.

On the other side of the vote, the Federalist players were led by - in the words of Ahmad Rashad - my main man, Jean Chrétien, Daniel Johnson, leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Jean Charest, leader of the Quebec Conservatives and Brian Tobin, then Federal Minister of Oceans and Fisheries. It seemed troublesome in the beginning that the Federalists had not taken their task very seriously. I recall some people mentioned our Prime Minister had gone golfing before the end of the season. The Federal Government in the possibility of a “YES” vote did little contingency planning. Some cabinet ministers had met to discuss scenarios such as referring the results to the Supreme Court. Senior civil servants considered the impact of the vote on issues such as territorial boundaries, federal debt, whether or not Chrétien, since elected in a Quebec riding, would be able to assure the Governor General he retained sufficient support within his party to remain Prime Minister. The Department of National Defence made preparations to increase security at some federal institutions and ordered our CF-18 aircraft out of Quebec, ensuring these would not be used as pawns in any future negotiations. The aboriginals in Quebec were also on the federalist side. First Nations chiefs claimed that joining an independent Quebec would violate international law, as their agreements were with the Canadian government. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come underlined the right of the Cree to self-determination by keeping their territories in Canada.

Jacques Parizeau belting out his nationalist propaganda 

The day Quebec voted was an all-nighter for me. It was the first time in my pre-adult life my parents had allowed me to stay up as late as I wanted. After all, the fate of my country was at stake. Being a strong proponent of the French language, having attended schooling and tied to the culture, I was hoping the "NO" vote would win. I saw a strong Canada as one with Quebec. As Jean said in the House of Commons: "No Quebec? No Canada." It was a hard night's work watching the results coming in, always bordering the 50% margin sometimes slightly tipping toward the "Yes" and others to the "No". I had never been this nervous, even in an Argentina football match. By the time Montreal, the Outaouais region (right across the river from Ottawa), the First Nations and the Eastern Townships' votes came in, it was clear the Separatists had lost. Booyah! At the end of the night, the score was 50.58% (2,362,648 votes) for the NO and 49.42% (2,308,360 votes) for the YES camp. What an unbelievable night! Jacques Parizeau came on the big screen, almost in tears due to his defeat, delivering his speech to his supporters along with his resignation as Premier of Quebec. In his memoirs, he said if he had obtained a majority of 50% +1, he would have negotiated separation but that immigrants, aboriginals and other groups were responsible for the defeat. I suppose we did not see eye to eye in terms of multiculturalism, tolerance and diversity. I was just happy Canada survived intact and the dragon of separatism would go back to its deep slumber.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Softball Saturdays

As is customary in venturing overseas, the change of lifestyle often becomes synonymous with experiencing “first times”. On this occasion, I was introduced to slow pitch softball. My first time. Don’t knock it until you try it! Some of my father’s colleagues participated in an organized softball league where games were regularly played at the Franklin D. Roosevelt High School over the weekends. They were scouting for new recruits to add on to the Canadian presence in a world dominated by American sluggers. My brother, Brian, who was somewhat more gifted when it came to organized sports – at least better natural ability and coordination, especially after my major growth spurt – had agreed to join, so I was happy to tag along and give it a shot. I would love to say that I was courageous and a superstar athlete ready to represent my country while thumping Yanks around the field, but really it was just an honour to serve my country as best I could and share an activity with my compatriots.

Brian pitching up a storm

The team setup was predominantly American, as previously mentioned. The teams I can remember from back then are: AID (Americans from various aid organizations), DEA (somewhat self-explanatory), Embassy (not many career diplomats there, mainly US marines responsible for Embassy security), Fetzer (a school of American Baptist kids who seemed to get by on walks), Profes (the Roosevelt teachers and major rivals to the students), Prophets (adequate name for a team of mainly US missionaries bringing the word of The Big Man Upstairs), Roosevelt (a team of students from the school, mainly High Schoolers) and Team Canada. The latter was perhaps the most fun loving of all the teams and I was fortunate to be on the roster. The Canadian talent, a source of national pride, counted among their ranks two RCMP officers, Alain Lambert and Jim Whalen, Stuart Bale, our admin officer, David Marshall, a trade commissioner, Gilles Rivard, head of the development section, Jules Audet, representing the Canada-Peru development program, Dave Schmidt, working for FedEx, Michel, a UN employee who looked like Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Scott, the lone American who had been excluded from the DEA team for some reason. Brian found his knack on the pitching mound, demonstrating great form and intestinal fortitude. Mario Lambert and I were there as well representing the rest of the promising youth.

The way Canadians explained the game to my brother and I was to just get out there, take a swing and have fun. That was the reason for playing slow pitch softball. Everyone had their chance to shine facing a slow ball almost anyone could hit, leading to a momentary belief of being amazing. Nobody and everybody was a hero. My fellow countrymen took this sport and its philosophy to a whole different and enjoyable level. I remember on some occasions, our batters who will remain nameless ran out of the batter’s box chasing a bad pitch to hit while everyone else had a good laugh on the bench. Sportsmanship was everything to us even if we were doing a ridiculous job. The opposition frowned on our disregard for real competition and the proper rules. The umpires were perhaps among the few locals involved in the Saturday league and had little to no understanding of the basic rules such as foul balls – when a ball is hit and lands  outside of the line – or strikes - a ball being missed when swung at or hitting the plate after a high arching parabola. This was sometimes frustrating as some teams played for walks. I recall my brother initiating confrontations over a bad call against our side with one of the umpires and all our team rallied behind him in support. The other teams, which took their game very seriously, over-competitiveness and aggression was common, but not for the laid-back Canadians. We were not out there primarily to win games - we hardly ever did - but we felt we deserved the same treatment our rivals enjoyed. If we complained, other teams and their fans (usually spouses taking in the game) looked down at us claiming we were whining. If they did it, it was normal. Therefore it was a league of whiners. Most of the time however, nobody had as many laughs and as good a time as we did.

I had never played baseball or softball in my life, and neither did Brian. This did not deter us from engaging in the activity. In the beginning, I was not too sure if the glove was supposed to go on my right or left hand as neither seemed exactly comfortable – although I am ambidextrous. While warming up before a weekend match – our only source of practice - I missed a catch as I tossed a ball around with Jim Whalen, hitting me right in the knee. That was some awful pain I never wanted to replicate again. He suggested I walk it off, as all police-machoman-tough guys would, and eventually the pain would go away. He was right. Although no real technique was taught (i.e. positioning for a catch, defending a line-drive, how to time your swing when up at bat), we continued to practice a variation of America’s favourite pastime. It was apparent that the game did not require superior athleticism even though none among us was particularly good. The key was hand-eye coordination to determine positioning. The Marines annoyingly would say to their batters when they didn’t swing, regardless of the nature of the pitch “good eye”. The ball used in the game is significantly bigger than a baseball. Not only is it easier to keep an eye on it, but the speed is greatly reduced as it travels through the air. Aside from this, depending on what position you are assigned to in the field, you would have to sprint from time to time to make a play and having a bigger ball travelling slower makes it a game pretty much anyone can play. I thought I could get a hang of this eventually with practice, although our team did not consider that to be important. Warm-up on game day was good enough, a very Canadian approach to competition.

Best picture I could find of the Softball field

The league was also undergoing a period of expansion as a new franchise team was added the same year Brian and I were on our rookie season. The team in question was Mobil. The team was made up of some US executive businessmen from Mobil Oil, recently setting up operations in Peru. The rest of their roster seemed to include locally-engaged staff that had never played the game before and appeared to be coerced into the sport in a team-building effort. They did have some nice uniforms though. Maybe someone lost a bet on poker night, but they did not seem to want to be there at all. Their first match was against our team, a game we won easily. Hard to believe as we generally did not win. As a matter of fact, Stuart Bale, the closest we had to a team captain, had not come on that fateful day as he was ill. Upon arriving to work on Monday, my Dad bumped into him and told him the news. My Dad had never seen Stuart so disappointed, missing the only game in his entire posting that his team won. Mobil became better as they improved their skills and showed promising teamwork on the field, eventually declaring that their goal before the end of the season was to beat the Canadians. They trained twice a week on school grounds whereas the Canadians continued their relaxed attitude.  When game day came along, the men on a mission came up short against us. I thoroughly enjoyed being on this team as it brought a sense of camaraderie among my countrymen and the true value of sportsmanship: it’s just a game.