Point of View

October 7, 2016


I think I just met a Donald Trump supporter.

But first, some context.

We got on the train last night (Thursday), and are headed south from Churchill to Winnipeg, where we will arrive Saturday afternoon.  This train is a money-loser for Canada’s Via Rail, but it is also the only connector for many of these communities — logging, mining, First Nations — and so there’s really no question about its continuing to run.  The cars are the same as those that run on the Canadianne – the service from Toronto to Vancouver –although it only makes sense that the older cars run on this line rather than the main line.  Certainly the upholstery is a bit tired.  But the train runs reasonably on time, and the point is, it runs, full or otherwise.

Like I said, we got on last night, and this morning discovered that the crowd we were getting on with was a tour group from Ann Arbor.  Get this:  A group of 30 people had left Winnipeg Tuesday on the train to Churchill, arrived Thursday morning, took a tour and did NOT see any bears, had dinner, went through a gift shop and were back on the train Thursday evening for the two day return trip  to Winnipeg.  Which means they didn’t see the 18th century Fort Merry, they didn’t see the Eskimo Museum or the town complex, they didn’t know that if you go to the Post Office and ask, the nice lady will stamp your passport with a cancellation stamp that shows a polar bear, they didn’t see the old DEW site or the missile launcher or the  wrecked DC-3 and most important, the only person they spoke with in Churchill was their driver.   How boring is that?

Anyway, at breakfast one of these tour members said that in her opinion, if the train would just improve its amenities,”they” would be able to make it on tourism.  I pointed out that the line was a loser for Canada’s Via Rail, and that the population density clearly didn’t recommend itself to further investment.  She said she had been on a train in Pennsylvania someplace that was very classy.  I said that was clearly not Amtrak, but some private company.  She said, and I kid you not:  “The government ruins everything it touches.” No concept of economics, or priorities, or the reality that no private firm would ever get involved in this service because it’s only alive due to government investment.  All she could think about was the fact that service on board this train does not rise up to her standards.

Actually, Frank and I have been enjoying the meals and the service immensely.

I should have stopped there.  I was thinking, this is the ultimate end-of-the-line destination, not the Orient Express.  What I said was that if I were a Canadian taxpayer and the government started investing in this line, it would be the Manitoba equivalent of Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere.”

Anyway, our fellow passengers may be a bit, umm, challenging, but the scenery is awesome and completely different from what we experienced earlier this week! When we were headed north it was late autumn; somewhere during the week the first snow fell and now we have a couple of inches on the ground.  The tamaracks — the golden conifers that shed their needles — were gorgeous previously, now they are bending over with their branches kissing the snow.  Wow.  And to think some people fly and miss all this.

We are in Thompson, the middle-of-the-trip stop, and I am taking advantage of the Internet while we have it.  Not that any of the news from the outside world makes me sorry to be dis-connected …




Polar Bears!

October 6, 2016


We came knowing that we are just at the start — actually a few days prior to the start — of polar bear season.  The bears spend the summer on land, not doing too much, and then with the start of winter they move onto the Hudson Bay ice pack, and get fat on seals.  With global warming, the ice pack is forming later and breaking up sooner, meaning the bears’ hunting season is shorter; the bears have less fat, and the cubs are less likely to survive.

Anyway, we knew all that, but came anyway because the train runs from Winnipeg and how often does one get the chance to be in Winnipeg?  Yesterday we took a tour to see the sights, and yes, those sights did indeed include polar bears.  Not many, and not close up, but enough and enough.  And my! these bears are BIG.

They are also top of the food chain, and as such, tend to go exactly where they want to go.  This bear is hanging out with some dogs.  We were told that most of the time the bear isn’t hungry, but if he is, woe betide the dog.


In addition to the bears, we also saw arctic hare, Canada geese, eider ducks, and lots and lots of tundra.  We saw the Prince of Wales fort, built by the Hudson Bay Company to provide support to the trading post, but which surrendered without a shot when the French approached in 1781. And we both bought fur-lined slippers, made out in back of the shop where we bought them. My feet are toasty just thinking about it! Mostly, however, we have seen a way of life in a small community 1000 miles from anywhere, where the supply freight train comes in once a week.  If it ain’t here, it will be awhile until it’s resupplied!

Our guide explained that he came to Churchill when he was 19, escaping a farm in southern Manitoba.  Paul’s done practically everything one can do in the far north ever since – he exchanged free rides on a freight aircraft in exchange for helping to load/unload; he’s staffed the “polar bear jail” (where bears that get too close to town end up) and also trapped bears for marking/managing.  Now he runs a tour company, and he showed us where he lives:  Outside of town on a stretch of tundra with nothing but bears (in season) for company, and a great beach where he finds pre-Cambrian fossils.

Bear-looking is hard work, and we slept the clock around 12 hours last night.  Unfortunately, Frank woke up with a cough and the start of a cold, so we are taking it easy today.  Tonight we get back on the train, and start the 45 hour trip back to Winnipeg. I think sleeping most of the way back will be just the thing for Frank! And I won’t mind the solitude either.





North and Further North

October 3, 2016


Frank and I spent last week at the Rotary Zone Institute in Manitoba.  The theme was human rights – the venue was the Canadian Museum of Human Rights – the speakers ranged from A to Z:  “A” was Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and “Z” was Thandeka Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Tutu.  In between were three days of pretty amazing discussions and speeches.  It’s remarkable the opportunities that develop through Rotary.

All that ended Saturday night with a gala dinner, and on Sunday, we went to the train station and headed north.  Destination: 1000 miles and 45 hours later:  Churchill, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay.  But first: miles and miles of nothing but farmland, then birches, and now conifers interwoven with golden tamaracks.  Gorgeous in the late-fall sun.

Of course, it’s possible to fly to Churchill.  But that would be cheating. This way, moving slowly north by train (with lots of whistle stops – this is a main source of transport for the people who live up here) we have the opportunity to recognize just how big and beautiful this world is.  And to meet like-minded people who also think the journey is part of the destination.  We’re currently stopped at Thompson, a half-way destination and, for me, chance to piggy-back on a wifi connection while Frank goes into town to hunt up a proper map of Manitoba. And then it will be back to the train, and no more outside connex until we arrive in Churchill tomorrow.

“See” you then.

Our Last Day in Nigeria

September 17, 2016


One of the marvelous things about this trip is that the itinerary has seemed to grow with each passing day.  Media interviews appear out of nowhere, more visits with Rotarians.  More.  I learned when I was in Philippines with the GSE trip that there is a fifth line to the Four-Way Test:  Is it a surprise?  and to just roll with the punches.  Since then I’ve gotten much better about asking what is appropriate to wear, however.  In the Philippines I started off by saying, “is it appropriate to wear XXX”?  The answer would always be yes, and then we would be very inappropriately dressed.  Later I asked our mostly male counterparts, “what will you wear?” and tried to come up with the female equivalent, and similarly almost always ended up very inappropriately dressed.  Finally (about the third week in the Philippines, I learned to say, “What will your wife be wearing?” and then I had the information I needed to get it right.

As I say, these many years later we’re getting smarter.  And have learned to wear the dresses we were given. It works. An American in local dress is always dressed appropriately! I think it’s like the dog dancing in the bar.  It’s not really a matter of how well the dog dances. …

Anyway, on Thursday we wore our team shirts for yet another media interview, this one the morning program on the major Abuja station.  This was the first one for which we were made up, so I guess it was the most prestigious, but frankly, the interviewers weren’t as well prepared.  They wanted to know all about the camps, but they didn’t know until Claudia told them that we had only been to one camp, and they wanted to know why we went to Adamawa State instead of Borno State, the real center of the problem.  My answer:  Because our Rotary friends took us to Adamawa State.  I didn’t add:  Why don’t you go to Borno State?  but that would have been the correct come-back.

After that, we were invited to breakfast by Felix and Adetutu.  Their daughter, who is a nutritionist, had cooked for about 20 people; there was a remarkable amount of food, including pancakes made from plantains.

Adetutu had taken our measurements on Sunday, and her dressmaker had been at work.  She had dresses for each of us — very dressy, with a lot of glitter, which apparently is this year’s fashion statement.  So we changed into our new finery, and many kisses and second helpings and farewells later, rolled out the door.

Ogi had previously asked us what we wanted to purchase, and our expectations meant that we needed to visit both the  central market (spices, fabric) and the tourist market (collectables).  And we have been treated royally for the past week and haven’t been allowed to spend any money, so we had a lot of Naira to get rid of.  Off we went to the central market, Ogi leading the way.  The problem was that when the merchants saw her with three white women, the prices immediately escalated.  But we were in our Nigerian up-and-downs, so she just explained that we had recently married Nigerian men and were trying to learn how to cook properly.  I have no idea if anyone believed her, but at least the prices didn’t skyrocket.

Sheila bought some really really hot pepper, but fast-forwarding to later in the evening, when she opened the container (a recycled soda pop bottle) she found a bug crawling in the pepper, so she left it behind.  Ogi couldn’t understand why.  I bought dates and ginger — good, freshly ground ginger.  I guess I will freeze the bottle to kill any protein that might be crawling around …

We also went to the wholesale end of the fabric area, where I indulged myself.  Fabric is sold in six-yard lengths — that’s enough for a dress — and I went wild. I will use the fabric in quilts, of course.  Someday.

Then it was time to go to the Abuja Metro meeting, which meets at lunchtime (but not over lunch) at the Sheraton hotel.  There are about 85 members in the club, and there was a good representation. Since the club includes two past District Governors, not to mention a past RI president, there was also plenty of protocol.  A highlight was the Sgt-at-Arms — who asked each of us to participate, and included a club Rotarian as the fourth person to collect money.  He announced at the beginning that the money would go to one of the club’s projects, and that we wanted to collect 20,000 Naira from each of the four sections of the room, and then he started fining.  At some point, the four sections started a rivalry, and members started adding Naira to the pot in order to “win” with the most donations.  It all got rather scattered and I forget the final total, but we made his number, that’s for sure.

I have already said how President Jonathan called us “angels” in his toast.  I quietly demur, but I also understand that for American women to go to Yola and visit the camp of displaced persons means something.

Then the meeting after the meeting.  Bob had done a great deal of work since we talked on Saturday (the first night of our visit – it seems months ago by now) and Claudia fine-tuned what he had accomplished, and he will send to us electronically, and I am cautiously optimistic.  We talked of many things over lunch — a working lunch — and left the table around 4:30.  But we still had Naira to spend, so Ogi took us to the craft market, where we stayed until we were out of money.  Well, almost:  We went to the shopping center to get to the supermarket and purchase champagne and Bailey’s Irish Creme (a local favorite) as thank-you gifts.

We arrived home in time to change (wearing an up-and-down all day can be tiring in itself!) and dinner at Big Mike and Missy’s house, next door to the guest quarters were we have been staying.  Missy and her maid have been cooking up another storm, and so we faced the third big meal of the day.  It was a small gathering — just Felix and Ogi and president Bob from Abuja Metro, BIg Mike and Missy and the three of us.  Felix showed up in the Boothbay Harbor club shirt I had had made/personalized for him back in 2012.  (The next morning Ogi wore the tie-dyed “Peace through Service” tee I had had made for President Sakuji’s visit and given to members of the GSE team!).

We ate, we talked, we laughed, we exchanged gifts, and I am afraid Big Mike won the gift-giving contest  … he had had a whole collection of Rotary tschochkes made for his District Governor year and District conference — everything from a “Four-Way Test board game” to picnic paraphernalia to a book he had written and, well, you get the idea.  It was all wonderful, but the careful planning we had done for packing went out the window.  (He offered to give us an extra suitcase if we wanted …) In the end, the three of us fit into two large duffel bags and two roll-aboards.  To put that in perspective, we had come with four large bags and three small ones.  So we left three bags in Nigeria.  Good.

We tumbled into bed around 10:00 p.m. and the alarm went off at 4:15.  We left for the airport at 5:00 for an 8:00 flight.  We changed planes in Heathrow and arrived in Logan about 1 hour late, at 8:00 or so local time.  All of which recommends that I save reflections for a later post and go to bed myself!



Society with Class

September 16, 2016


Wednesday (was it only Wednesday?) our airplane landed in Abuja at about 1:00 p.m.  We were met at the airport by Oge, and we waited a few minutes for Big Mike’s airplane to come in as well.  Then we left in a parade — guys with guns, baggage, two trucks of Rotarians — for the village of Sauka.  Frankly, Big Mike always travels in a parade, and the guys with guns seem to me more for the show of a big man than for actual security, but since I don’t really know, I’m really not in a position to complain.

Sauka is a small village located not too far from Abuja, but the dirt road to get there is practically non-existent.  The trucks — as opposed to city cars — were an absolute necessity.  When we finally got there, we found the chief of the village, various elders, and members of a Rotary Community Corps waiting for us.  Abuja Metro Rotary Club has been working to build the school, and it is almost completed.  Kirstin Kershner of the Saco Bay club has worked hard to raise the money and make it all happen.  By “it all” I mean literacy training and materials, a sanitation block and new borehole.  It’s  been quite a saga – by combining so many different elements the Rotary Foundation grant has been very difficult to put together.  The first night we were in Abuja we had talked to Bob, president of Abuja Metro, about what still needed to be done, and over the course of the past few days he has done a remarkable amount of work on the grant.  All of which is to say, I am cautiously optimistic that we can now move forward and get this thing accomplished.

Then we returned to our quarters at Big Mike’s house, changed quickly, and off we went to dinner with RI President Jonathan. He was hosting a dinner in our honor, and of course with various members of the club — Abuja Metro is his home club — plus a representative of the current District Governor, et cetera.  President Jonathan could not have been more gracious – and the evening could not have been more memorable.  First, of course, the parade of cars to get to his house just seemed to grow.  And the entrance to his home is quite grand.  And we were ushered into the living room and served wine (big deal in Nigeria, where beer is the standard fare) and sweet potato cakes.  Much talk, and as all the Nigerians greeted Jonathan many bows and curtseys.  It was all quite old world and wonderful.  Then Jonathan invited us to come into his room of Rotary memorabilia, and it is quite a room.  Several rooms, to be exact.  He has lots of banners over the bar, for example, but the room itself is chock-a-block with what I am sure is the best of the best of all the memorabilia he collected in a lifetime of service.

Then, because there was construction or something going on in the house, we walked to another Rotarian’s house for dinner.  It turned out there were about 20 of us, and after more wine, we settled down for dinner.  Much good talk, many toasts, more curtseying, much ceremony.  Truly an evening to be savored.

But wait, there’s more! Because jumping ahead in the story, at the Abuja Metro meeting yesterday at lunchtime, President Jonathan was asked to make the closing toast.  Among other things, he called the three of us “angels” for our trip here, and our willingness to go to Yola and Jada.  Again, the answer is that one is not an angel if one is traveling with Rotarians and friends who are committed to your safety, but apparently it is true that some Nigerians refuse to go to Yola.  Well, their loss, is all I can say.

Foreign Perceptions and Peace

September 15, 2016


And so, after three incredible days in Yola, we have returned to Abuja.

All this media interest in us, I am slowly realizing, is because three American women chose of their own free will to come to Yola, which — if you pay attention to the State Department site — is the epicenter of Boko Haram and a place to avoid at all costs.  I think I speak for Sheila and Claudia when I say we beg to disagree.

First, I had absolutely no concerns about coming here.  We were the guests of Felix and Big Mike, both  Rotarians and Past District Governors, and therefore we would be safe.  Simple as that.  I knew that between their own resources, contacts, influenced and guys with guns, all would be well.  But it turned out to be even more simple, because Yola is a “safe zone.”  Yes, Boko Haram is recruiting from there (and everywhere) but the discord does not play out in the streets.  And even more importantly, we were staying at the American University.

The American University in Nigeria, or AUN, started as a joint venture with American University in Washington DC.  It’s now completely separate, but retains American-grade professors, teaching system, infrastructure. It’s also crawling with Rotarians.  Senior staff, professors are Rotarians; many students are Rotaractors.  Our hotel stay and all meals were taken care of, for example, because the University president, an American woman, made the decision.  More critically, there’s a perception of first-world mentality that pervades the place. From academics to internationality to, yes, security, the University is clearly an oasis.

The University is also a complete surprise.  I have been hearing about the University from Felix since I first met him in 2010.  It’s where, from the beginning, he said the GSE team would stay, et cetera.  What he neglected to tell me is that he was a cofounder of the University in 2000 or so.  He’s the one who was in Washington cutting the deal with American University there.  He’s the one who made sure that the University had enough land for expansion.  And expand they have.  As he explained, if the Univeristy needs something and it doesn’t exist, they start it.  So they have started new curriculums and a faculty center.

And it’s at the University that, for example, the returned Chibok girls are living.  THey are working with Amy, one of the Rotarians who specializes in dealing with troubled youth, and the University is making sure they complete their education.  Can I tell you how incredible it was to sit across the table from Amy and hear her speak matter-of-factly about working with these girls?  But this is everyday at the University, because this is the frontlines in the battle for peace.  The feed-and-read girls aren’t being saved from a life on the streets.  They are being saved from recruitment by Boko Haram.  The Internally Displaced Persons Camp isn’t a camp just of homeless poor.  It is a camp for people displaced by Boko Haram.  The JADA school for disabled kids isn’t short on supplies because the government is underfunded or doesn’t care.  I’m sure that’s part of it, but the government also has had to turn its attention to the fight against Boko Haram.  The fighters we witnessed during Sallah pledging fealty to their king weren’t just acting out an ancient ritual.  They have been in the bush fighting Boko Haram and may well be out there again.

In Rotary we talk a lot about peace. Here we are on the front lines, and every action — every bag of rice or gift of a Beanie Baby toy or small purchase of a craft — has immediate consequences.

Frankly, it’s been humbling to witness even in a small degree and to work hand-in-hand to the Rotarians who are here, fighting every day for the peace we all fervently desire.


Playing Catch up

September 14, 2016


I have fallen behind on this blog, which is not a good thing when running as fast as we have been running.  We started off with a full itinerary, and things have only been added to it … quite remarkable.

We had a quick breakfast yesterday morning and set off in the van yesterday morning for Jada, three hours away.  Our van held about 20 people, but by the time we made two stops to pick up club Rotarians and an assortment of media camera men and reporters, we were SRO.  It’s a three hour trip to Jada, mostly because the road alternates between bad dirt and broken  pavement.  We traveled through land that time forgot — round huts behind mud walls and surrounded by corn and other agriculture.

Finally we reached our destination.  Jada is unique in Nigeria — each state (there are six) has institutions for special needs kids; the kids in Jada cover all special needs – deaf, blind, mentally challenged, physically handicapped.  You name it, Jada’s got it, and there are around 1000 kids in the school.  They weren’t there today, because of the Sallah holiday, but about 40 kids had been rounded up for us – mostly blind and deaf.  The three principals (one for the primary school, one for the secondary school, and I never did figure out who the third one was) were also there, and so was the local board of ed representative, head of the Parents Teachers Association; you are beginning to get the picture.

The usual speeches started; the only weird thing was that the TV cameras got in the way and kept the children from being part of what was going on. Then we went off base – it turns out that the bore hole that our District was part of has never operated – villagers are cutting the pipeline.  THe local Rotarians have reconnected the line three times, and still it isn;t working.  Felix got up and demanded attention, and later we all talked to the principals. It’s clear that they may or may not be part of the problem, but they certainly aren’t part of the solution.

After various interviews, we  went to the library to deliver the Braille books.  Sheila had insisted on putting them into the library – not just deliver them in boxes – and she was right to do so.  She also spoke to the teacher who teaches Braille and made sure he understood what was now in the library.  Meanwhile, Felix was getting promises out of the principals that the books would be both used and cared for (the library was pretty dusty and obviously not well used).

We delivered mosquito netting; then went to the bore hole.  At that point Duabi, the Rotarian who happens to be a hydrology engineer and a member of the royal family (we have him to thank for our inclusion in the Sallah on Monday) took over.  He spoke to the local village elder and municipality representative and he came away satisfied that since they had promised him there would be no more vandalism, the vandalism would stop.  From a western perspective I don;t get it, but I was remarkably impressed both by how he handled the situation and by the respect he obviously engenders, so we shall see.

Then it was a long drive back to Yola.  But wait! There’s more. Sheila and Claudia and I had previously decided we wanted to purchase whatever goods we could (made from recycled materials ) from the ladies at the IDP camp.  So we returned there, bought all they had (which wasn;t much); but the highlight of the trip was watching the boys play with the tennis balls we had given them the previous day.  Then back to the hotel, but there was still more – a meeting iwth the two clubs to determine next steps on the myriad of projects we have been discussing over the past two days.  Only then could we have dinner and collapse.  And as I mentioned, I was much too exhausted to face this blog.

This morning we woke to yet another interview, this one on peace initiatives.  I have finally figured out that the real interest in these interviews is to see three American women who are traveling to a place that is on the front-lines of the “war on terrorism.”  Believe me, I have never felt more safe than in the past few days, between the Rotarians, the obvious love, and yes, the guys with guns who have traveled with us. Only after that final (I thought) interview did we return to the airport with four suitcases (we had arrived with eight, but had given the majority of our stuff away.\

And so back to Abuja.  And lots more to talk about, but it will have to wait for tomorrow.  We awake early for yet another media interview! So clearly, I must get my beauty sleep.