Signs Part 3 — Poignant reminders

Taking a mental health break during pandemic lockdown in March

There’s a box of three-ply surgical masks on the stairs in our entryway, and another box on the console in my hubby’s truck. We never imagined the day that we’d have that necessity.

Two weeks ago we had our first Covid-19 vaccine shots, in a big arena with row upon row of chairs for people to sit during their 15-minute post-inoculation wait period. My hubby and I have had many inoculations over the years for our travels, delivered one-on-one by our family physician most of the time, but at a small travel clinic for the Yellow Fever shots needed to go to Kenya and the Amazon Jungle.

(If you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure we’re not radioactive or sending out electronic signals to governments since the shot 😉 )

After months of flaring virus cases across Canada, our numbers are thankfully falling again amid thousands of people getting their shots, and most of the provinces are talking about their reopening plans. We’re not out of the woods yet, but just like the odd mild day in March heralds the advent of spring, we can look forward with hope toward the point when the pandemic is no longer such.

There are a lot of signs we’ll remember when we look back – Curbside Pickup Only, Takeout Only, If You Have Any of These Symptoms…, Only xx People Allowed Inside at One Time.

Signs have been put up over the centuries to commemorate significant events. They’re poignant reminders of a time when history was made, usually not in a good way. Will our governments erect signs related to the pandemic, do you suppose? I guess time will tell.

We’ve seen many such signs on our travels. Reading them is a solemn activity as we acknowledge the pathos of the event they refer to.

This sign is at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, a tribute to the thousands of men who fought bravely on either side and gave up their lives for what they believed in.

This exhibit sign inside the Gettysburg Museum of History highlights the impact of the war and what it was being fought for.

One of the most poignant wall murals in Belfast is this image of a giant quilt highlighting the voices of women in the ideological conflict. The mural contains a softer message than the more violent artwork it replaced, offering instead words for peace, love and hope.

A small white and red luggage tag represents the baggage loaded onto the SS Nomadic as passengers and cargo were transferred by tender out to the RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, France. The Nomadic is the only remaining original White Star vessel, dry-docked permanently in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Visitors can go aboard and imagine the happy faces of the passengers as they set off on what was to be a great adventure on a great ship.

Here’s a sign from last fall, when we visited a Halloween-themed attraction during the brief window when there were enough facilities open for us to take a short vacation break. The historic site that hosted the attraction, Upper Canada Village, was closed to visitors during the day; it only opened at dusk to limited numbers. We waited in line, separated by six feet from other waiting groups of varying sizes, and allowed to enter only after the previous group had completely cleared the ticketing area. I missed walking around the village during the day, but the flip side was that the evening attraction was really cool to visit without crowds. I could take as much time as I needed to capture the wonderful light displays after dark with a little monopod. Silver linings 🙂

I’m not sure many visitors to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles notice this small memorial to one of the most famous actors in movie history. The little Cairn Terrier who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz will be forever remembered by generations of movie fans, though.

I don’t know if this billboard is still up. When we visited Botswana in 2010, AIDS was still a major problem in the country, although scrupulous safari operators made sure that guests had nothing to worry about. Botswana is one of the most progressive countries in Africa, and had mounted an aggressive campaign to educate its citizens about the dangers of HIV, while many other countries still refused to acknowledge the issue.

You may or may not recognize this bus, with its number “2857” and route sign “Cleveland Ave.”. It’s the bus on which an ordinary black seamstress in Alabama refused to give up her seat for a white person, and changed the course of history. She took great personal risk in doing so, and decades later her battle continues in a different form, but she demonstrated that even ordinary people can have the power to change something unjust.

Large and small bits of history give us pause to think, to look through a window onto what it was like to live through those times, and to remember those who did.

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

One step forward, two steps back: the dance of progress

This month the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This is an interesting event for me because it shouldn’t need to exist. It shouldn’t require a special occasion to recognize the contributions of women.

When I was in university studying biology I spent a couple of summers working for different sectors of the government. There were an assortment of female and male students, and most of them were great to work with, but I still remember one fellow in particular who declared that he would never work for a female boss. I can still picture him spitting out those angry words.

Women’s rights have come a long way in my lifetime, but I still see so much divisiveness.

We consider ourselves modern, at the pinnacle of human achievement in recorded history, yet we continue to devalue people who are different, whether it’s another gender, skin colour, religious belief, or any other number of other characteristics that diverge from our own. Every creature on this earth has a place, whether it’s human or non-human, and deserves to be able to live in peace and harmony.

One of the things that my hubby and I have learned on our travels is that people all over the world are the same as us: they live, love, laugh, cry, feel pain. They want the same things – to be able to provide and care for their loved ones, and to be treated with dignity. They may choose to live their lives differently than we do, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We need to get over our fears and embrace other styles and viewpoints; there’s often a lot we can learn.

We’ve encountered remarkable people wherever we’ve gone. One of my favourite stories involving women comes out of Kenya, the first African country to start offering commercial safaris.

Kenya is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It’s also highly developed, meaning that the game reserves you visit on safari are in pockets separated by long roads edged with civilization. The main roads are in decent shape, but once off of those your driver spends their time playing dodge ball with numerous, sizeable potholes. It’s impossible to drive in a straight line on the country roads, and vehicles constantly zigzag back and forth across lanes to avoid the biggest ruts.

We were amused by the experience – until our guide couldn’t avoid one gigantic hole on the road to the Masai Mara Reserve. With a big bounce and a loud bang, the left rear tire of the van was shredded.

So there we were, a guide and six passengers, stuck in the middle of nowhere, just miles of lion country and the odd tiny Maasai village. We all clambered out of the van and watched in the dry-season heat as my hubby and the guide removed the damaged tire and tried to put on the spare.

When the old tire was off, they discovered that it wasn’t actually the road that damaged the tire – when leaf springs meet pitted asphalt, they don’t come out of it well. Our leaf spring had been dislodged and bent, so it wasn’t just a matter of changing the tire. They struggled for a while but the vehicle’s jack wasn’t able to lift the van high enough to get at the spring.

By that point, we’d begun attracting a lot of attention from the nearby village. Quite a few people came over to us with various things they thought might help, from crowbars to odd pieces of wood and metal.

Nothing worked, though, until the village’s matriarch brought out an old exhaust pipe, slowly walking over with her wonderfully wise face. Like all great matriarchs, her wisdom and experience saved the day. I took this photo of her after a few of us got back into the van briefly to get out of the blazing afternoon sun.    

My hubby was able to use a couple of rocks and smash the leaf spring back into its accustomed spot, and the spare tire was bolted into place. We only managed to limp about a mile down the road, though, before the jury-rigged system gave out, and our guide had to radio ahead to our lodge for rescue.

For a different kind of adventure, I recently stumbled upon a great movie called Maiden, the true story of Tracy Edwards, who at the age of 24 took on the male-dominated sport of yacht racing by putting together the first all-female crew in the famous Whitbread Round-the-World Race.

Many influences shaped Tracy’s determination to take on the challenge, not least the early death of her father and her mother’s remarriage to an abusive man.

Tracy ran away while still a teenager and began working as a cook on a charter boat, still trying to work through the emotional baggage. She fell in love with sailing and after a lot of cajoling was able to sign on as cook on one of the yachts participating in the 1985 world race, but even after sweating the more than 25,000 miles of rough open water with the all-male crew, she never felt truly accepted by them, and became resolved to enter an all-female crew.

Through reminiscences by Tracy and all the young women who signed on, and actual footage from the time, the movie documents Tracy’s ads for a crew, the derision she received, and the exhausting quest for a sponsor when no one was willing to take a risk on a crew with no men. She did eventually find a single sponsor – and I won’t spoil things by telling you who it turned out to be – and she and her fellow adventurers spent a year repairing a used boat.

By the day of the 1989 race departure, the crew of the boat now named “Maiden” had been thoroughly trashed by the media and some of the male crew on other boats, a variety of whom were also interviewed throughout the film. No-one beside Tracy and her crew believed they would even finish the first leg of the race from Southampton England to Uruguay. All the men expected them to give up partway and turn tail back to England.

I’ll let you discover what happened as the ladies of the Maiden battled calm spells, raging seas, cold so severe that snow often coated the deck of the boat, and endless days of non-stop rigging and navigation. I will only say here that those remarkable women made history in a way they never expected.

The movie has streamed on several stations lately, and hopefully one of the services like Netflix or Prime Video will pick it up. If you can catch it, you won’t regret watching this testament to what people are capable of when they strive to achieve something bigger than themselves.

Out of the mind’s eye

It’s week three of the NaNoWriMo writing marathon and some participants are feeling frantic. I’ve seen comments from writers that they’ve got lots of words that in total feel like a confused mess, or they’re just now getting down to the brass tacks of writing after spending the first two weeks laying out the plot. We’re not supposed to worry about editing, but some people feel they need to in order to get back on track.

There are as many writing styles as there are participants. I went into this with a lot of background research already in the can – I’ve often used that type of research to spark ideas – as well as a pretty solid outline of my first book’s plot with threads that will tie into Books Two and Three. I also created detailed diagrams of two key locations in Book One, a small town where the bulk of the action takes place, and a college campus within that town. To me these places are vivid in my mind’s eye, but laying them out on electronic paper in a way that made them work logically solidified them. Now, when my heroine is exploring these places, I can describe her exact path as if she was navigating a real town or college campus, and I’ll be consistent every time the action takes place in these locales (I hope 😊).

Writing reminds me of taking photographs. For a long time on my travels I took photos of the famous places we visited. My slides of Egypt, for example, where my hubby and I went early in our marriage, are pretty standard shots – the Pyramids, each of us sitting on a block of the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx’s enigmatic face, the Nile, cruising up the Nile… Well, you get the idea.

But as time went on I began to use more of a painter’s eye, to capture more scenes that told a story. Paintings by the old Masters like Rembrandt are tiny novels in paint form – you have to study all the components to understand what they’re telling you, from the choice of colours, the use of light/shadow/emphasis, and the artist’s decision of what to include both in the foreground and in the background. Every single detail was put there for a specific reason, and so it is with good photographs, especially travel photographs.

I began to realize that most of my viewers would never actually see or experience what I was standing in front of at that moment, whether it was beautiful or ugly, so I wanted to be able to bring it to them virtually, through my photos.

A couple of years ago my hubby and I visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a microcosm of the American Revolutionary war. The docents were exemplary in explaining in unflinching detail what life was like for residents on both sides of the conflict. Walking through one of the original houses from the time period, that of a wealthy landowner, I was struck by this document in the home and had to take a photo of it.

It lists the family’s possessions and their monetary value, and included in that tally were all the slaves. Along with items of furniture and garden tools, each slave was assigned an amount in pounds sterling, the currency in use in the colonies before the Revolution. Each of these humans were valued as pieces of property, and not even of equal value. If you were a strong adult male, for example, you were worth more than someone aged who couldn’t do as much work any more. There right in front of me was something that brought to life the awfulness of the slave system in a way more compelling than many shows I’ve watched, because it wasn’t just a portrayal, it was a real thing. Any person who sees this photo will likely be able to feel the same emotion I felt standing in front of that piece of paper.

As writers it’s our job to do the same thing as this photo or a piece of art, to create a scene which is in our head so vividly that our readers can see it too, and can feel the emotions of the characters, whether love, fear, anger, revulsion, lust, hope, despair. If we’re writing about something that really happened it’s easier, but if we’re creating an entire imagined world in a book we have to be able to see it as if we’d lived it before we can share it with you the reader. So I empathize with my fellow marathoners in trying to get that out onto paper. We do it because there’s a story that simply must be told.

Women around the world

My dad was ahead of his time. His generation viewed women only as wives and mothers, but he encouraged me to study science as a career choice. When I was a little girl and wanted a bicycle, he took me to the bank to open my first bank account and helped me save up enough money to buy one. Years later, he taught me not only how to drive but also the basics of car maintenance — he showed me how to check the oil, change a flat tire, top up the windshield washer fluid.

When I was just seventeen and adventurous, I decided I wanted to drive 300 miles to visit my great-aunt in the city I was born in, and he agreed to let me take the family car. He drew a map for me of how to get there while avoiding the craziness that was Toronto traffic at the time. My mother, who couldn’t drive herself, came along with me, but in contrast to my dad’s calm assumption that I’d do just fine, she prayed surreptitiously most of the way. She was a good sport, though, and we had quite a few laughs along the way.

I was lucky — both my parents raised me with a strong sense of ethics and taught me how to be an independent woman. When my husband and I decided not to have children, they supported our right to make that decision for ourselves.

Not all young women in the world have had that encouragement and respect, so the annual celebration of International Women’s Day, just around the corner on March 8, is so important because it’s also a celebration of equality for all genders, whether female, male or any other. The theme this year is EachforEqual, which speaks to exactly that point.

There’s a photo contest attached to the event, but I’m not a competitive person (except when playing Backgammon, at which I’m ruthless 😀 ), so I’m happy to just post my own photos of wonderful females from my travels.

Flower arranger, Lima Peru
Group of lively girls dressed up for a Day of All Souls parade, Camana Peru
Ladies selling handmade dolls, Arequipa Peru
Samburu women with their spectacular beaded neckpieces, Samuru Kenya
A mother elephant protects her baby, Samburu Kenya
The sisterhood, Masai Mara Kenya
Grandmother making flour, Uros Floating Island, Lake Titicaca Peru
Young woman herding llamas, Andes Mountains Peru
Girl selling handwoven reed cup, Khwai village Botswana
A devoted mother