Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Never predictable


When I lived in Japan in the early 1990s, I was lucky to share a train line with some remarkable people, some with whom I’ve kept in touch for more than two decades. Our relationships grew via handwritten letters, fax machines (so much faster than a letter!), emails (so much faster than a fax!), and texts (instant is the new fast).

And as luck would have it, some of them became friends.

Rick Newton, above left wearing a sweater he claims to possess to this day, and I traversed the Japanese countryside over the course of 12 months, crammed into my tiny white Toyota, frequently accompanied by Mark Z. (second from left) and my dear father (who stayed for three months), visiting fish markets, the achingly devastated Hiroshima bomb site, subtitled Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, countless ramen restaurants, x-rated Shinto fertility shrines, and beautiful deep steamy and sulphuric onsen — hot springs.

Remarkably we never tired of any of it.

Nor of each other, apparently.

So when Rick decided to abandon his law practice in Birmingham AL in order to open a yakitori restaurant this fall, I had no qualms about inviting myself along on one of his Japanese buying trips. I mean, could he really say ‘no’ given that it was my car that took us on all of our trips?

He said yes.




What you may or may not know about Tokyo (leg one of this journey) is that weird and wacky is just kind of the order of the day.

And so why not start your day with a visit to the MoCHA Cat Cafe?

I couldn’t think of a good reason either so in we went.


The cat cafe’s raison d’etre is to let you commune, cuddle, caress and basically get mellow with a room full of felines.

After paying a modest entrance fee we were directed to a hand sanitizer dispenser, swapped our street shoes for sanitized slippers, locked our belongings in a little closet and put on the requisite kittycat ears. Oh yes we did.

Then past a sliding wooden door into a room with the felines.



Some guests opted to feed the cats, either with a small cup of food and a tiny spoon, or a little cat lollipop. The cats jumped on to the plastic mat when they observed snack time had arrived, and sat waiting, rather patiently, for their turn with the spoon.


At times a bit of assertiveness was required but overall, the cats appeared willing to wait.


When we entered the cat cafe we discussed our plans beforehand, kind of like the agreement one makes before going to a time-share presentation: We’re not going to buy, right? Nope, no way. You know they’re going to pressure us, but we’re going to say no, right? Right. Agreed? Absolutely.

And that’s how we entered the cat cafe.

Thirty minutes seem like enough to you?

Oh yeah. Sure. No way we’ll stay longer than 30 minutes.

Yep, we’ve got things to do.

Sure do.

Tinkling music, contented cats, a cup of tea, soft light coming through the windows, that purring….


Hey Rick?


Ready to go? 

Sure, if you want.

It’s been an hour.

Mmmm. That’s nice.


After liberal use of a lint roller, we continued on to our next Tokyo event — a St. Patrick’s Day parade, complete with bagpipes, Irish setters, marching bands and samba dancers.

Weird, wacky and wonderful.








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That little snippet ran through my head more than a few times today. 

It’s a good thing Rio is so gosh-darned pretty given the hours we’ve spent savouring her loveliness. I won’t beleaguer you with tour-bus-tales-from-h*ll because given the outcome we actually could barely have asked for a better happier more hilarious day. 

The first clue things were somewhat amiss was when the tour bus showed up — new, clean, spacious and on time. Oh-eight-hundred, ma’am. At your service. Really? Wow. Rio’s efforts to put all the naysayers to bed has even reached the usually sketchy tour bus industry.

And for complete transparency, given that many of you are seasoned backpackers and know well the benefits of taking off sans plan in hand, let’s just say given geographical and time constraints a guided tour seemed the most efficient use of time.

On we hopped at 0801. This is easy!

We stopped to pick up other travelers from other hotels, adding and discarding along the way according to languages spoken, until suddenly there was only us back on the bus. Whoa. How did that happen? Gestured off, we got on to a much larger, longer bus. Ah yes. This makes sense.

More people on, more people off. Okay, so the promised five-hour tour includes an hour of transportation. Makes sense. Silly us. 

We stopped at 0900 and were gestured on to another bus, smaller shorter, better able to make its way up the hills. Makes sense.

Surprise! It’s our original driver, the fellow who pick us up from the hotel. 

We shrugged, he shrugged. Oh boy.

Another 30 minutes of Groundhog Day (the movie) transpired as we collected and discarded until we had a healthy collection of blonde Californians, a purple haired-Afro-American doctor with a bejeweled American flag on her baseball cap, and Pam and Obama-sound-alike David from Indianapolis, all very energized, enthusiastic and outspoken.

Our guide Mabel (pronounced mah BELL) was also very energized, enthusiastic and outspoken.

“I like Hillary. She is a sister, a woman, like me. You like Trump?”

No, the Americans assured her. Anyone who likes Trump would not be in Brazil.

“Why? They no like Brazil?”

No, Mabel. Trump supporters wouldn’t have a passport.

Okay, so to the Canucks in the back, that was pretty funny. Mabel didn’t quite get the humour but she got the point.

We arrived to our first destination, the base of the oh-so-massive Christ the Redeemer statue which overlooks the city and can be observed from just about anywhere, learned we’d have to take a tram to the top and knew we’d be spending at least another two hours in lineups — one line up for the ticket, the next lineup for the metal detector (today’s apprehended weapons were unobtrusive but observable in a tucked-to-the-side plexiglas box) and finally to board the tram.

And it was very hot — 33 degrees. 

“This is a nice cool winter day,” said Mabel. “You be happy.”

We’re happy, Mabel. We’re happy.

But Mabel’s cheeks were starting to shine. Three line-ups, another bus to take to even get to the tram… 

“I come here last week, before Olympics, it is only me and three people. This is very very busy.”

Well, maybe it was the significance of Christ’s outstretched arms but purple-haired Kay reached into her Mary Poppins handbag and pulled out a blue handicapped sign.

Mabel’s eyes widened then narrowed. We were in.

To the front of the line to get through the metal detector. To the front of the line to get on the bus. To the front of the line to take the tram. And so it went. Forty minutes at the top, have a walk, drink some water, take your pictures, and off we go. 

This statue really is something to behold. And worth the trip.

But then as now, I am very thankful for Kay’s handicapped sign.

Just a note — I’m sitting in our hotel room at the moment and am listening to music coming through the window from the entertainment over in the revitalized harbour area.

A woman is singing a samba-ized version of Hi-ho, Hi-ho, It’s Off to Work I Go.

I leave that one to your imagination.

Really so beautiful. 

When the first Portuguese explorers came to this shore line they saw all the islands (below) and the geographical layout made them think they’d come to a river (not knowing they were still in the ocean) hence Rio and as it was January, Janeiro.

River of January.

I wish I could tell you which beach…. Will get back to you.

Very pretty tho. We were at the top of Sugar Loaf (picture below), the iconic hump in every image of Rio. More evaded lineups (thank you, Kay), two cable cars (four in total) and a quick tour around the top. Mabel kept us efficient, constantly berating the always-at-work-Obama/David for talking on his cell phone. His wife said a big Chicago real estate deal was in the works.

“Hey, Canada!” he’d call me, in a perfect Obama sound bite. “Where are we goin’ now?”

Even as our little tour approached the seven hour mark, we were all pretty grateful to Kay’s magical pass which allowed us to bypass every. single. heart-breaking (to others, mind you lol)  line-up, particularly as she didn’t appear to have need for any assistance of any kind.

How is it you come to have that pass, I asked.

“Sometimes my legs don’t work. It’s the chemo. After the third round that can happen. Or maybe it’s the fourth. Or fifth. Oh heck, honey. I can’t remember.”

Hence the purple hair?

“You still gotta have fun, Canada.”

Oh gee. Have we stopped somewhere?

Could it be Açai Time?

And this photo-collage brought to you by the Amazonian princess. Apparently I didn’t capture every single Açai experience of the last couple of days.

“Hey Canada!”

Yes, Dave?

“Is that any good?”

Why yes, Dave it is.

It’s all very good.

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The princess and I have been on a search for all things açai — do you know açai? It’s one of the wonder wünder marvy trendy hoopla’d foods that costs a Candian fortune to add to smoothies, salads, sorbets, however you want it. It’s an Amazonian berry crushed, mashed, puréed and eaten sweet or savoury, one of those recently rediscovered ancients that if consumed with regularity, should have us both living well to the time when our Bowen house-with-an-ocean-view becomes waterfront property.

So here’s how it’s sold in the grocery stores.  Pre-crushed, pre-portioned, pre-packaged into plastic bags about half the length and twice the width of a freezie (those summertime soccer field treats). In addition to being a healthy antioxidant addition to morning smoothies,  I understand açai can be mixed with onions and herbs to be used as a sauce with fish or beef.

A tigela is a bowl and here, anyways, the cups and bowls of creamy frozen açai are topped with fruit and granola. Bananas are best, according to the ladies at the stalls (we assume that’s what they’re indicating when after pointing to every other fruit they frown and shake their heads, proffering only sliced bananas with a big thumbs-up). 

We always go with the advice of the locals. And as my personal experience has proven time and time again, the nearer I am to the country in which they were grown, the more bananas taste like something I’d like to eat.

** It wasn’t until a mid-80s trip to India that I discovered what bananas were supposed to taste like, and learned I didn’t hate them after all. If you’re not a banana lover, you might try those teeny ones from Chinatown or another Asian market. There really is no comparison.

So this little 400ml cup was prepared in some back room and also, I understand, mixed with guarana,  another magical energy producing Amazonian elixir.

Pushed along in little Revel and Fudgcicle-type carts are the purveyors of Açai-in-a-cup, all real, all natural, only a couple of dollars for a container and a lot more life-affirming that a plain old cup of HagenDaz. Or maybe not. But at least you can pretend to be healthier.

Included with this little pot was a spoon and a granola topping which, along with fruit, is the other preferred manner of enjoying frozen açai. 

But you knew there had to be an adult version, didn’t you? And this looks meek enough, doesn’t it? 


There’s some extremely harsh liquor floating around these parts that reminds me a lot of something brewed in the basement by a certain first degree relative of mine, called cachaça (ka-SHA-sa). Mixed with the tart and medicinal-tasting crushed açai berries, it’s a potent reminder of why sky-high Jimmy Choos should not be worn to formal functions. 

I sipped mine slowly. There was no other way that was wise.

Them ain’t raspberries.

And then, because it just had to be done, the most adult version of all.

The taste of this one is pretty much like the orange cloud on the bottle.

Next up: Northern country food that’s frighteningly slimey but startlingly good!

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Ulu day

Looking east, deep into the Pang

Looking east, deep into the Pangnirtung fjord

We wake up knowing it’s our last full day. How much can we absorb, how much more can we savour this indescribably attractive corner of the planet?

The prime reason for visiting this remote Inuit community has been to explore food issues in the north. We have spoken with youth, elders, white, Inuk, government officials, residents of the community. Everyone has an opinion and there is no single answer for what is ‘right,’ what is the next step, what can be changed, what should be saved.

Every person interviewed represents a separate stratum of opinion. It’s stupefyingly complex. I will try to recount all these opinions in a series of coming posts, and of course Liliana will be exploring the topic this coming year for school. But on this last day, is there something, someone, somewhere we’ve left untapped?

Daily water delivery to Hannah's house

Daily water delivery to Hannah’s house

Liliana heads out Hannah’s door to take some photos of the landing turboprops, and for a final playdate with the puppy she’s befriended. I go to return the hazing gun (I bet not many of y’all can add that activity to the penultimate day of a vacation) and wander down to talk with a conservation officer at the far end of town. I want to get a permit to take home a raw sealskin and leaving Nunavut without a marine mammal exit permit might cause a bit of fuss on switching planes in Ottawa.

The south side of the fjord, at the west end of the hamlet

The south side of the fjord, at the west end of the hamlet

As I walk to the federal office I see a very small man out on his very small porch, sparks flying as he sharpens something on his grinder. I see the shape – a half moon with a metal stem.

“Hello!” I call out, in my friendliest southernly manner. “Did you talk to Hannah?”

It’s a hamlet, remember? Everyone knows everyone, especially elders such as Hannah.

He looks at me.

“Did Hannah ask you, telephone you to make an ulu?” I’d spoken with her about one earlier in the week and she’d said she’d ask around to see if someone would have one for me. Clearly I’d found that someone. What luck!

“Is that ulu for me?”

He’s quiet until now.

“You come back. Five o’clock. Fifty bucks.”

I smile. What a great little community. Here I am, walking along, and see the guy Hannah called to make an ulu. Wow! Can’t wait to come back and pick up the finished knife.

I make my way to the conservation officer’s building. A huge metal garage, packed with stacks of sealskins, maps, pamphlets, walrus skulls and a canvas kayak. The officer is a soft-spoken South African, from Kelowna, here for six years, while his wife stays in BC as his children finish up university.

Day 2 Saturday 074

I get my marine mammal release permit, tell him the location of some gigantic lumbar vertebrae (above, and contrasted with Liliana’s size 7 foot) we saw on the beach (he thinks they’re whale) and hear his opinion on Canadian sovereignty in the north. He’s enormously compassionate regarding the struggles of people in the north and he’s also a bit lonely. I feel badly for leaving him after 30 minutes of conversation.

I meet up with the patient Liliana who’s been perched on a rock and waiting an hour, and we go to say goodbye to Ooleepeeka at the Angmarlik visitor centre. Ooleepeeka is a sweet woman we met on one of our first days wandering around the hamlet. On an earlier visit she invited us in to have tea and cookies and to play cards with some of the elders… those little ladies tossed down the cards with gusto but without knowing the language or the card game we were happy to watch and listen to the laughter.

On this visit Ooleepeeka calls out some girls and asks them to give Liliana a crash course in throat singing. Throat singing is typically performed by females, sometimes with a competitive element (she who laughs first — loses) or to tell a story.

This particular entry level version they teach Liliana is just to get going… the girls demonstrate a few other patterns, beautiful and hypnotic. They hold on to each other to ensure they keep the rhythm.

After our goodbyes, we head back to the Lodge to say goodbye to Louis Robillard, whom we’ve not seen since our arrival, when he tried to clear out a room for us in his hotel, but equally never gave up on securing us our rightful spot at Hannah’s house.


Louis is chopping tomatoes and making ketchup in the hotel kitchen when we arrive and once he gets the last few in the pot he stuffs various herbs into a tea ball, tosses in the ball along with salt and pepper, grabs his pipe and tobacco and we go sit outside in afternoon sun. Louis has fierce opinions about what is wonderful about life in the north, and of course, about what he’d change if he could. It’s a good life, we concur.

We make our way back to see Hannah and to have a final dinner. Arctic char, boiled vegetables, and as a special treat for our last day, a cake. Hannah laughs about it – she is unsure about making a cake from a box and thinks maybe it should have come out more level. The cake is sweet – tastes like chocolate milk — crazily sweet but we are touched by Hannah’s joy in having a young person in her life.

As we are eating I thank Hannah for calling the man about the ulu.

“The ulu! Ohhhhh! I forget.”

Oh, but that’s all right, Hannah, I say. I saw him today. He was making the ulu right there.

She’s not listening.

“Oh! I sorry, I forget to call.”

But I saw him today, I say. He was making it. I’m going back this evening.

“I no call.”

A pause.


“You get ulu?”

Uh, no. Not yet. I’m going back after dinner.

And how to explain my sheepish self that moment? Here I am, southern gal sauntering along, seeing a guy making a knife. Hey, buddy, wanna sell that ulu?

Hannah laughs and laughs. Then her eyes narrow.

“How much?”

Fifty dollars. She approves, tells me to get going and to pick up my knife.

When I return a little while later with my new ulu, she inspects it.


I’m happy she’s happy. Really Hannah? You think it’s a good one?

“I tell you it is nice. How many times you want me to say it?”

Ten times, I say.

“Nice nice nice nice nice….”

We have a good laugh and in the most fortunate of moments, I have my camera nearby when she reaches to hug Liliana. “I want keep you, honey. You [that’s me she’s talking to] can go home. I keep her.”

Friday Day 8 7

Hannah also finally shares the identity of the pictures in the hallway. Over the first few days when we inquired who they were she’d only say, “Old pictures. Old people.” Today she lets us know – they’re pictures of a baby Hannah.

If you’ve read any other of these posts you can probably surmise this is a tender moment. Hannah no doubt has seen scores of us southerners come and go, dropping in and out of her life. Small wonder that she might choose to remain reserved.

So the sharing of the moment where we see her, and her parents, from very long ago, marks a special final moment for us.

IMG_1321 IMG_1322

We are grateful.

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Hannah is flustered and nervous today. Twelve people are coming for dinner and she needs to begin cooking. Maybe you go out soon?


Last night she fretted about a number of new guests arriving and proposed we sleep outside: “I don’t charge you for sleeping. Only for food.” I’ve heard the dogs whine and the ATVs rumble past and I don’t know how we’d sleep in the all-night sunshine but I tell her no problem. Liliana looks at me, says nothing.

Hannah's ulu stash

Hannah’s ulu stash

But this morning the worry about rooms seems to have passed and now she just wants us out of the house so she can cook for the crowd. She sits at the kitchen table, slicing up a caribou haunch with her ulu. Her daughter Julia pulls a pan of bannock from the oven, then finishes slicing up the Arctic char.

It will be a party, I smile to Hannah.

No! Not a party! I hate parties! I don’t like that at all.

I wonder what unhappy memory the word ‘party’ evokes for her and I wonder if it has anything to do with the banning of alcohol in Pangnirtung.

Diorama from the parks office. Cute and cuddly,  not like the orientation video...

Diorama from the parks office. Cute and cuddly, not like the orientation video…

As we intend to hike in the Auyuittuq park tomorrow, we go to the national parks office to register and have a compulsory one-hour orientation which includes a rather frightening video on what to do when confronted by a polar bear. My little chicken is sufficiently disturbed that the guide offers us a hazing gun – essentially a pistol with a charge that emits a sound similar to a screaming woman (yep, that’s what he said. “It really scares the bears.”).

Pang garbage dump with photobombing fly! (look in the very centre)

Pang garbage dump with photobombing fly! (look in the very centre)

After a wander through the abandoned Hudson Bay Blubber Station (ground it up and shipped it back to England to light their lamps, I hear) and the more contemporary turbot and Arctic char fish processing plant, we traipse a couple of kilometres east of the hamlet, down a dusty road to what’s referred to here as the Canadian Tire of the North. In fact, it’s the Pangnirtung garbage dump and we’ve been told that if enterprising enough one can find a piece or a part to fix, repair, replace or build anything. It’s all there. In fact, it’s a sad testament to the isolation of this northern community. Goods come in, they don’t go out. Cargo ships are in the business of transporting and they’d rather carry air than transport items without recompense. For who will pay to ship garbage? No doubt the answer to that question will be placed on a future generation but in the meantime cans, paper, glass, refrigerators, kitchen chairs, plastic bags and pocketbooks decay, rust and blow about the dump.

Tuesday Day 5 116

Stew Caribou

Tuesday Day 5 117

Arctic char en four

Hannah greets us with a smile on our return. “I tired. I cook all day. You like caribou?”

Simmering in a large aluminum pot are chunks of carrot, potato, turnip and caribou. She dips in a spoon and lifts out a meaty cube. “You try.”

Have I mentioned that I’ve eaten more animal protein this week than I have in the last thirty years?

As I chew Hannah whispers to me about the young woman who has just taken a room for the night. “Not good. She vegetarian. She not eat my dinner.”

And Hannah is very proud of the meal she has prepared for the guests who are to arrive any minute. A pot of caribou stew, a baking pan of Arctic char, rice, salad, steamed vegetables, blueberry pie – all laid out with love and care by this rather elderly great grandmother.

I swallow the caribou and I tell her it is wonderful.

Her beautiful brown eyes crinkle with a grin. “You sure? You no vegetarian?”

For this week, Hannah, just for your sweet smiling self, I no vegetarian.

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Ice blown into the fjord from Cumberland Sound

Fog and ice blown into the fjord

Monday arrives, cold enough that we see our breath, and a white blanket of fog settles on the hamlet. Overnight the wind has shifted, coming from the northwest, pushing giant plates of ice into the fjord from Cumberland Sound.

The phone rings and our guide Peter Kilabuk tells us the ice floes and fog have made it too treacherous to go out on the water. We’d planned to go seal hunting but the weather has changed our plans, just as it has for many other members of the community.

A few days ago we met with Peter in a small building behind his house. Peter is a former Nunavut MLA and patiently answers our questions about lifestyle, food security, hunting and living on the land.

In particular he wants Liliana to see the stack of prepared sealskins, and jackets, pants and kamiks (boots) his wife has made from the skins they’ve tanned.

Day1 83

The ringed seal skin is spotted and grey, shiny and smooth-haired. Until the seal hunt was banned in Europe, there was a profitable overseas market for this by-product of the traditional diet. The ringed seal is the tastiest seal meat, according to Peter, better than harp, bearded or elephant seal. The skins are softer and superior for clothing. The bearded seal, by contrast, does not taste as good (“like comparing elephant to cow,” says Peter) but has a thicker skin well suited to the soles of the kamiks.

We’d been hopeful to hunt a seal, participate in the butchering, and observe the whole process of sharing the kill, probably something we’d understand better seeing than hearing it described. But just as the weather is keeping the people from heading out to their summer camps, it’s keeping us on shore as well.

Monday Day 4 9

We head out instead to the Arctic Co-Op and the Northern Store, to do some grocery store price comparisons. Liliana has created a week’s menu for a family of four, assembling a long list of ingredients, and wants to record prices, with the intent of comparing prices from the stores in the south. At the store we see Peter, Stevie the note-writer from church, Abraham the minister, and a couple of ladies from the elders’ centre. No doubt others recognize our pale faces, but these are the ones who smile and greet us.

Monday Day 4 12

The food prices continue to astound and naïve as it sounds, we begin to have an appreciation for some of the challenges of life in the north.

We head back to Hannah’s for lunch. Hot dogs and French fries. I know she’s being kind, thinking generously of what southerners might want to eat. Liliana’s glance asks me how much longer we are going to keep this up. I add as much relish as the bun will hold.

After lunch Peter calls – the fog has lifted sufficiently that he feels safe taking out his boat amidst the ice floes.

We meet him at the dock, don orange windsuits, jump into his aluminum boat and are away. My girl has a smile I’ve not seen before. We are on the water, navigating the fjord, hunting for seals. Life is good.

Monday Day 4 103 Monday Day 4 36

We do see a seal bob its head up and down in the water and learn a few things about hunting: The seal comes up for a breath, once, twice, maybe three times, and before the final breath will arch out as it dives down to swim. Once that little behaviour is recognized it’s easy to see. Secondly, an experienced hunter will know how far a seal can travel on a held breath and, having watched the direction of that final arc downwards, will have a fairly accurate mark of where the seal will re-emerge.

We didn’t. All the better for the seal.

Monday Day 4 122

On the fjord banks we see some summer tents set up with small smoky fires and orange lines of arctic char drying in the sun. The collection of “country food” is an important summertime activity and given the prices of food in the co-op, a critical means of decreasing the monthly grocery bill.

Weaving between the ice floes we travel toward the mouth of the fjord until Peter says any deeper and we risk getting locked in the ice. Later Hannah remarks her brother got stuck in the ice once and could not come home til the wind shifted, two days later.

Monday Day 4 89

As we ease out of the ice Peter pulls the boat to shore so we can scramble up the rocks for a better view of the sound. At the top of the crest an Inukshuk points rocky arms east and west and we see just how jammed with ice the sound is. It’s unlikely the ice will be break up anytime soon, says Peter, delaying the sea lift – loaded with dry goods and supplies – even further.

We head back, heady and thrilled by the ice and the blue. The Nunavut flag – white and yellow with an Inukshuk in the centre is so apt now.

We leave Peter at the dock, arranging for one more trip on the water later this week, and hike back up the shore to Hannah’s. The little puppy we befriended earlier bounds up to greet us. We have spaghetti for dinner.

A happy happy day.

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For some reason it’s hard to get out of bed today. Our little room at the end of the house is cool, and at night we leave the window open.

Because it doesn’t get dark the children have no natural inclination to head indoors and the sounds of their squealing and laughter are as bright and happy at 10 in the evening as they are at two in the afternoon. And the occasional yip yip of a dog or the skid of ATV tires on gravel are not governed by any particular schedule.

And the brightness does manage to seep in under the eyeshades early in the morning, so small wonder that Hannah’s schedule is one of rising very early, working in the kitchen, then napping for a few hours before rising again.

After breakfast (eggs and toast) we take the sandwiches Hannah has prepared (Arctic char, ham and cheese) and head up the mountain behind her house.

If you think of Heidi in her grandfather’s house, surrounded entirely by mountains, then cut the circle in half and drive a fjord up the middle, you’d have Pangnirtung. The hamlet hugs the shore of the fjord, and is completely ringed by mountains. No roads leading in or out. Northeast of here is the Akshayuk Pass, a 100-mile trail that will take you over the Arctic Circle and out to Davis Strait. But otherwise if you’re here you stay here.

Historically Pangnirtung was one of many coastal sites the Inuit visited, following the flow of food – seal, walrus, beluga, narwhale and char. As such small now-permanent communities dot the edges of Cumberland Sound, showing the traditional hunting and gathering sites.

Heading up the mountain behind Hannah’s house shows the fjord in all its spectacular springtime beauty. Pink, purple and white flowers find purchase on the sand and gravel. The Duval River pours into the fjord while underground springs spill water from cracks deep in the mountains. The moss and blueberry bushes make a spongy layer that’s like walking on an innerspring mattress. And the fjord’s immensity suddenly makes sense as the waterway that gives and takes.

Liliana discovers a dead creature

Liliana discovers a dead creature

Right now the mouth of the fjord is jammed with ice and the people here can’t leave for their traditional summer camping sites. Usually they’d be on their way out, in their fishing boats, several generations of the same family, living on the land for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, hunting and gathering their ‘country food’ of blueberries, Eider duck and eggs, fish, seal and if lucky, a beluga or narwhale.

But the ice jam has prevented all of that this year and there’s a general air of “what can we do.” An anticipated tourist ship has rerouted, outfitters can’t take visitors hunting or whale watching, the Inuit can’t get to their summer campsites, and the sea lift, carrying provisions plus perhaps a car, a new snowmobile or ATV, furniture, a new stove, plywood, drywall, lumber, diesel fuel…. already a month overdue and while promised dates are frequently posted, the reality is the ice is not moving.

But up high on the mountain the scenery is stunning and on this sunny warm day there isn’t anywhere we’d rather be.

Day 2 Saturday 074

We eat our char sandwiches, throwing a few crusts to the sweet puppy that has wandered along for the hike, and then drop down the mountain until we are back at the water’s edge. We collect sunbleached shells and tiny seal finger bones and then come upon a giant set of vertebrae. Judging from the fur and claws nearby it was a substantial furry mammal but any guess and I’d be bluffing.

We wander back to Hannah’s and it’s suppertime.

Nearly four decades have passed since I regularly consumed meat and I remind myself to buck up. It’s only for a week. I remark how good the meat is. What is it? Pork, she says, wondering what kind of southern person doesn’t recognize pork.

Two bones rest at the side of Liliana’s plate.

“You want more?”

“No thank you,” says the girl who has just eaten pork ribs for the first time in her life. She’s been game, she’s been stoic. She knows there’s only one answer.

“You vegetarian?”

She smiles. She is brave. This is our joke.

“Oh, no, Hannah. Not vegetarian.”

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Pangnirtung fjord

Pangnirtung fjord

My sweet travelling companion and I caught last Thursday’s late night redeye from Vancouver to Ottawa, via Toronto, through Iqaluit to Pangnirtung, only a bit painful because we were on our way Somewhere Wonderful. A brief stop in each airport, just long enough to find our way to the appropriate check-in.

We didn’t know yet but several of the people on the flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit would become our flightmates all the way through to Pangnirtung, some would become our dining companions and one poor soul would voluntarily evacuate his room so that we’d have a place to stay.

On arrival to the flight strip in Pang, everyone and no one had arrived to meet us. Looking back, we could have asked any number of people for a lift to our lodging as I recognized one man by his voice, another from his picture. While not there specifically for us, both kindly offered to take us where we needed to go – Hannah’s Homestay. The story was that 78-year-old great grandmother Hannah Tautuajuk ran a warm and friendly boarding house from her home and when I’d called her a month earlier she assured me she had no boarders in July and that all I needed to do was show up.

Liliana and I piled our bags into the back of a dusty 4×4 and were driven by Jason, an east coaster who arrived in Pang a year ago and now works at the hamlet office, across the labyrinthine paths that make up the roads of Pang. No street names but every house has a number.

We arrived at Hannah’s, number 765, and knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked harder. “Maybe she’s sleeping,” said Jason. Knocked again. It was pretty clear to all that no one was home.

We piled ourselves and our bags back into the truck and drove around a bit. Perhaps her daughter Julia was at the clinic where she sometimes worked. She wasn’t. What about the GN office where she also occasionally worked? (GN? Government of Nunavut, informed Jason.) Not there either.

We returned to Jason’s room at the hamlet office. I could imagine he deeply regretted having offered us a ride. Where would this mother-daughter-duo stay? He offered, perhaps reluctantly, “You can always stay at our place,” referring to the home he shared with others.

There’s also a modest hotel in Pangnirtung, known as The Lodge, where the business and government folk stay, run by the colourful Quebecois Louis Robilliard. Jason called over to the Lodge and said he was bringing us over. Louis too was not terribly overjoyed to see the two of us as his establishment was already full. He too telephoned Hannah, Julia, their home, their cell phones. Nothing. He disappeared out his back door for a few minutes, then returned.

Come with me. We did. There was one of the guys from the plane, hastily packing up and moving in with his buddy in the adjoining room. They’d be sharing a room, it turned out, so that Liliana and I had somewhere to sleep.

The guys were pretty cool about it and as we had dinner in the upstairs dining hall a little while later they regaled us with stories about travelling in the north at the whim of the weather. Turns out as well that Louis the innkeeper was also Louis the cook, Louis the server and Louis the busboy. After our raisin pie we returned to our room, but were intercepted by Louis the innkeeper. He was obviously concerned that we might be his guests for more than one night and he clearly didn’t have room.

He began calling Hannah’s numbers again. Her daughter Julia answered and Louis passed the phone to me:

You came in?

Yes we did.

You’re here with your daughter?


We had lots of cancellations this week.

Oh. I’m sorry.

I didn’t pick you up from the airport because I thought you were like all the rest.


You want me to come and get you? Or do you want to stay at the hotel? It’s up to you.

I’ll still stay with you if that’s all right.

I don’t care. It’s your choice.

(Louis, overhearing both ends of the conversation, gestured that I should go go go to Hannah’s.)

We’ll stay with you.


I returned the phone to Louis, paid for our dinner and we were out the door with Julia, on our way to Hannah’s.

We met Hannah – dark haired, crinkly eyed, all smiles and expressive face. She showed us our room, the shared bathroom, the coffee pot. “You need anything? You ask me.”

And we went for a walk in the bright-as-day evening sun. The wind was coming from the west, blowing over the ice-packed Cumberland Strait and I suddenly considered there was no way I’d brought enough clothes. Great ice floes rested on the beach, hung up there as the tide receded. Puppies and children ran about the dusty roads, little boys on bikes skidding on the gravel, the occasional adult making easy eye contact with the obvious visitors, each one calling out “Hi!” with a smile.

We returned to Hannah’s, ready for bed. It had been a long two days, broken up by the occasional nap.

Hannah met us at the door. “What time you eat breakfast? What you like eat for breakfast?”

I was prepared for this and had forewarned Liliana that we were going to respect local hospitality and eat what was in front of us. We would be guests after all.

You like bacon and eggs? I like bacon and eggs. You eat bacon and eggs tomorrow?

We’ll eat anything, said the vegetarians.

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I didn’t really pay too much attention to learning Cyrillic the first few days in Russia, although we ought to have known better after the first day in St. Petersburg, when we came home with a bag of frozen meatballs thinking they were cheese perogies.

Friday 09.09.13, Kievskaya

But upon arriving at the Moscow subway, a certain degree of fluency was suddenly deemed important.

In fact, reading the language turned out to be fairly straightforward.

P = R, C = S, B = V, b = B … that sort of thing. A basic substitution cypher to make the cryptographers happy, and a lot of phonetic similarities for us uniglots.

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Down, down, down deep into the underground of the Moscow Metro. Reminded us of descending into a coal mine in Australia a couple of years ago.

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Crisp and clean!

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I’d heard earlier about the astonishing and dramatic works of art in the subway system and it was true.

When Stalin ordered the artists and architects to design a structure that embodied a brilliant and radiant future, it was his intent to remind the riders that he and his party had delivered something substantial to the people in return for their sacrifices.

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Stalin tried to create an environment that would encourage people to look *up,* admiring the station’s art (and perhaps thinking of him in god-like terms?).  At the time, the chandeliers were the most technically advanced elements of the metro.

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And the metro truly is beautiful. It’s clean, no litter or graffitti, despite transporting more than nine million passengers per day!

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Interestingly, voice announcements refer to the lines by name, with a male voice announcing the next station as one travels toward the centre of the city, and a female voice when going away from it.

Of course, you must remember which is which…

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Sushi, anyone?

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And after braving the rabbit warren below, it was time for a break in the daylight.

Okay, so here’s the query: What well known company is represented here?

(with a clue or two at the start of the post)

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Wandering around the Red Square just 13 days ago, we paid a third and final visit to that most iconic of Russian landmarks to bid a fond до свидания (do svidaniya — goodbye) to Saint Basil’s Cathedral or, as it’s more properly known in the world of Russian Orthodoxy, The Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat.

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The cathedral, which is actually eight small churches arranged around a ninth, was built on orders from Ivan the Terrible to commemorate a successful capture of the city of Kazan from the Mongols in 1552.

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The church was completed eight years later in 1560 and legend has it that Ivan ordered the the builders blinded with hot irons so that they could not recreate anything else as beautiful.

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For a time in the Soviet Union there was talk of demolishing the building largely because it was in the way of Stalin’s plans for massive parades in Red Square. One architect, Pyotr Baranovsky, when ordered to prepare the building for demolition wrote a letter where he bluntly refused to do so. While Baranovsky earned five years in jail for his opinion, the cathedral remained standing.

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The walls of the interior (too dark for photos) are covered in frescoes and in one tiny room three burly Muscovites serenaded us with traditional Russian hymns which resonated gorgeously in the acoustics of the vaulted stone walls. With stacks of CDs for sale at a side table it was nice to see the Russian entrepreneurial spirit alive and well.

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As part a result of state atheism the church was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox community and has operated as a part of the state historical museum since 1928.

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I have to say, this building was a real treat to the eyes. As one approaches Red Square the cathedral peeks out with its splendid onion domes. Other cathedrals are topped with golden domes, but these painted beauties are unique.

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It was a bit of a hike from our hotel to the Kremlin and the Arbatskaya, the area we wandered through to get there, offered much in terms of food, drink and trinkets.

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And on this particular day, something for everyone.

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На здоровье!

Na Zdoroviya!

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