The Forever Month

I’m writing this from my home/office in Kitsilano on April 22, 2020. It’s a good day to sit down and write because, well, it’s raining out and I have little else to do. It’s not yet time to go out for my furtive human-avoidance daily walk, nor am I ready to venture out on my weekly life-threatening shopping excursion. Although the Coronavirus arrived locally in January, its impact was not felt – personally – until voluntary self-isolation & social distancing kicked in on March 19th…the beginning of this minimized and repetitive, Groundhog Month existence we all now share.

We British Columbians are – uncharacteristically – grateful for the rain, as we’ve just experienced the driest April in recorded history, and, as a forested province had begun to worry about our summer fire season. As we are not, as yet, experiencing complete societal lockdown, walking – albeit furtive, fearful and weird – has become one of our primary pleasures – a chance to leave the house/apartment and get much needed fresh air and exercise. This blog/journal is my attempt to keep a record of photos & observations from these local excursions, during this longest of months.

Luckily, I’d returned from a holiday in Mexico on March 6 – before the chaos of airports closing and airlines shutting down had begun. By March 13 though, everything had changed. Friends flying into Vancouver from Ottawa cancelled on the 13th, and my son and his partner Nekita had to cancel a trip to Peru, scheduled for the 14th. Another friend’s son made it to Peru on the 15th just as the airports closed and the country shut down, and Nekita’s mother is still trapped in Hungary with no hope of getting home until late May. I stumbled across these images on my my daily walks, which seemed to reflect the news. Chaos was coming closer to home, “Should I Be Worried?”

If I wasn’t worried previously, early forays into stores with depleted shelves set off some primal inner alarm bells that created a fear-based urge to stock up. My inner lizard had been unleashed. The media were stoking this fear with stories of “toilet paper hoarding” (still not sure what that was all about), and images of vast lines at grocery stores and people greedily clutching at their overloaded carts. I didn’t become one of the human-locusts, but my behaviour was definitely modified to make sure that Cathy and I had enough supplies at home to last for a month if the whole thing fell apart ….hence the Legume Shelf, our protection against the feared collapse of supply chains, and also a great food to assist with social distancing 🙂

I have a lot of faith in the essential goodness of my fellow citizens…it’s humans that I sometimes worry about. Knowing what they are capable of under duress adds a certain edge to ones decision making process in such times. Until rules were put in place by grocery stores ( socially-distant lines, entry limits), and people overcame their initial panic-buying, shopping was unpleasant, slightly fearful and greedy – and quite likely fraught with danger due to the proximity of potentially Covid-infected, clutching hordes of shoppers.

Self-isolation has unique challenges for couples, individuals, and parents at home with children. Emotional strain is being experienced by all. I feel fortunate, during these times, to share these duties – and my life – with my pragmatic & lovely partner Cathy. Whereas my own proclivity is to ignore, forget, or pick and choose from the growing list of rules that are designed to save my life, Cathy’s cautionary wisdom is there to help save me from myself. If not for her, I’d likely be SOL in an ICU at VGH 🙂 ❤

I suffer from mild Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) …this, coupled with my first attempt to do my own taxes in…oh…30 years, using unfamiliar software, while the rain drizzled down under a grey sky and the Canada Revenue Agency was inaccessible due to the Covid-19 outbreak, made self-isolation and the prospect of Global Pandemic especially…….fun. Every now and then – in life- we get to experience new shapes and flavours of misery that we never even dreamed existed…this was one of them 🙂

Coffee…learning to adjust to a coffee-shopless world

I love coffee, and coffee shops. So much so that I run one called Shavasana Art Gallery & Café on Mayne Island, where I, in fact, live when I am open for business…6 months of the year. So I can truthfully say that “I live in a coffee shop”, albeit part time.

One of my personal disappointments that has arrived with the Covid-19 shutdown, has been my need to close my business til further notice. I love my little endeavour and the wonderful community of friends that I have made there. Due to a shortage of medical professionals & facilities on Mayne Island, and a demographic dominated by seniors, the island is especially at risk for the Coronavirus outbreak, and has asked those of us who have alternate accommodation (as I do in Kitsilano) to remain in place.

One of my favourite coffee shops in Vancouver is Bruno’s Corner Cup, which is a short two blocks from my home and is – under normal circumstances – my first stop of the day where I grab my morning coffee and sit with “the boys” to discuss…”important things”. Bruno makes a great cup of coffee, best in Vancouver by my reckoning, and has had to repurpose his place since the shutdown, as indoor seating is disallowed. He’s a very resourceful guy and after a 3 week closure is now selling bags of coffee and doing takeout.

In his absence I played the daily game of trying to find those rare coffee shops that were still selling takeout. It almost felt like a drug deal…furtive and dangerous. I would take the occasional photo to send to my good friend and morning coffee buddy Jordy as a kind of game, “look what I found”. It’s good to have Bruno back …when the shutdown is over and we all return to some semblance of normalcy perhaps I’ll introduce Bruno’s blend to my Mayne Island audience.

Finding Joy During Crisis

Despite the weirdness & worry, and the upset of our comfortable routines, we adapt and find new or forgotten joys to replace what we have lost: We were very lucky to have 2 – 3 weeks of sunshine, which made walking so much better; I found great pleasure (all winter) feeding birds (my new little friends) on a ledge outside my office window; Traffic was cut back which made the city quieter, easier to navigate, and less polluted; Acts of kindness sprung up everywhere, including appreciation for our essential workers & health care professionals, hearts & signs everywhere and random individual acts like the “Table of Freebies” in front of someone’s home; Moments of tranquility at Lolly’s bench where songbirds abound; the joy of access to golf courses – which are closed to golfing – but open to walkers; and, lying down in a field of daisies.

Nature & solitude can be excellent companions during this – and any – time, and are great substitutes for whatever self-important things I may have been doing previously. Just one recommendation though…if you have an opportunity to lie in a field of daisies, by all means do so…just check for Canada Goose poop first! 🙂

“Adventures in Leather”

The rewards of running a Gallery Café on a small island are not always financial…as I think about it, in my own case, they’re not financial at all,  because I really don’t make a lot of money at this gig. What the Art Gallery Café may lack in remuneration though is more than compensated…well, mitigated perhaps…by a depth & breadth of experience that I have come to cherish…tolerate…endure…and fear.

Mostly it’s been good…fabulous actually…how can you not love it when friends and neighbours drop in with fresh baked scones and home-made preserves just out of a spirit of generosity. It’s a very giving community and I’ve been the happy recipient of so much largesse…food of all sorts: smoked salmon, various teas and coffees, baked goods of all kinds, numerous bouquets of flowers, award winning sunflowers, canned items from homegrown gardens, and perhaps one of my favourites, the friends who showed up with an entire ice-cream maker full of freshly made blackberry ice cream…God that was good, perhaps the best ice cream I’d ever dipped my spoon into.

And the fearful? Well, at the moment the bucket of ice cream scares me as I try and shed 20 pounds after my winter excesses. All kidding aside though…it’s people. When you run a retail operation, as I do, it’s a public space open to all, and you never know who is going to walk through the front door. I’ve been fortunate, I know, as I can safely say that 99%+ of those who have graced my Gallery with their presence have been kind, funny, happy, bright and engaging.

And the <1% ?…mostly a garden variety of quirky individuals whom we all encounter from time to time who trigger our awareness mechanism in a way that speaks of unpredictability. We know that our ability to communicate and understand might be challenged and may try our patience. But these individuals are – ultimately – harmless and wander off on their quixotic journeys. Then there are the in-your-face recovering drug addicts who generate wariness and, of course, the irritating drunks who wander in eliciting anger, wariness and thoughts of self defence…

….and then there’s Colin*. Colin was the “1 in a 1,000” deeply troubled individual who walked in one fine spring morning and stayed for a year and a half. I’m not going to go into detail but suffice it to say that Colin’s depth of personal pain had created a malevolence filled with hair-trigger anger, paranoia and threats of violence which I became privy to on an almost daily basis. His appearance, and my exposure to his toxicity made me seriously consider closing my shop…and then, one day, he was gone!

The experiences I have come to value the most (next to buckets of ice-cream) are those which feel unique and fresh and unlike anything I’ve previously encountered. Situations or events which arouse my sense of the absurd….friends who drop in by horse, performance artists appearing with giant puppets, phone calls to help move a giant pot-bellied pig to a Church Fair, a friend showing up with a truckful of retrievers, a hunter coming in with a bag full of bloody deer hooves for “my art”, and, one of my faves, an elderly friend dropping off her late husbands collection of retro leatherwork magazines which I’ve captured in this short video “Adventures in Leather”

“Adventures in Leather”

The magazines went to a good home as I decided against a new career in leatherwork. The adventure – now in its sixth year – continues 🙂

*Colin is the name I have given to “He who shall remain nameless”…

The Blüthner

It was there, waiting for me, when I got back from Vancouver. Black, lustrous and imposing, it now occupied the space I’d left for it against the far wall between the two cabinets. Possessing a certain presence and grace, it sat there patiently, as if expecting me. My new roommate had arrived – the Blüthner was here.

The movers had obviously found the “secret key” and managed to access my Gallery and wrestle its awkward bulk into place, without my assistance. For this I was grateful as pianos are notoriously difficult to move. Three-men with a truck, a special dolly and straps is still no guarantee of safety – for the piano or the movers. This is why you’ll find many pianos being offered for “free”…if you pick up the moving fees.

In fact, the piano was not mine – a friend had received it, for free, when the local Community Centre on Mayne Island decided to divest themselves of their two pianos. His impulsive agreement to take the piano was short-lived though, when he realized that he didn’t have space for it. Pianos are beautiful instruments and have an intrinsic allure, even if you don’t know how to play them – like myself. When offered a chance to “store it indefinitely” in my Gallery Café, I readily accepted, and now, it was here…what to do?

It looked lovely in its new home, fitting perfectly between the two cabinets, allowing for stylish art displays on the wall in the alcove above, and on top of the piano too. But what of the piano itself? What is a Blüthner? A name I’d never heard, before one showed up in my Gallery. I was curious.

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It all starts with a little Wikipedia…

Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik  manufactures pianos in Leipzig Germany. Along with Bechstein, Bösendorfer, and Steinway, Blüthner is frequently referred to as one of the “Big Four” piano manufacturers. Established in 1853, Julius Blüthner, a deeply religious man, spoke the defining words that would allow his company to survive and flourish for the next 167 years, “May God Prevail”. The age of any particular Blüthner piano can be determined by matching its serial number to the age table freely available on the Blüthner website”

Blüthner pianos have won international awards consistently since their inception, and have been prized by pianists all over the world, including Rachmaninoff who said, “There are only two things which I took with me on my way to America…my wife and my precious Blüthner”.

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“Hmm…impressive pedigree…and I can determine the age of my Blüthner?,” That’s cool I thought…I had to look. Lifting up the lid, and exposing the Hammer Action I saw the Serial number stencilled on the metal frame, “92989” Returning to the computer and the Blüthner website I was able to determine that my Blüthner was built in 1914 – exactly 100 years earlier (I was doing all this sleuthing in March 2014).

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100 years. I paused to reflect for a moment on this significant date. I think we naturally accredit a special respect for anything that is celebrating a century of life on this earth. If the Blüthner was not technically alive, it had experienced a lot of life at the hands of its various owners. And, significantly, it was born in Leipzig Germany at the start of World War 1 which began on July 28th of that year. Where did it go? How did it get here?

My curiosity about the Blüthner’s journey was piqued and I wanted to know all I could about her…but all I had was the piano sitting before me – and she wasn’t speaking. I grabbed a flashlight and a screwdriver and started to explore.

Removing the bottom panel just above the piano pedals I peered in with my flashlight and saw the Serial number again, handwritten in pencil along with what appeared to be a signature. My first thought was of a young German piano maker leaving his mark for posterity – a little Saxon graffiti – and immediately wondered what might have happened to him with the advent of War.

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Without knowing for certain though, I sent a photo to my German friend Rainer Schroeder (Valhalla Tours ), for translation. Rainer said that although “it’s definitely a word…the font is in Old German “Suetterlin” …but I’m not sure”.

Undaunted, I went online and found Katherine Shober of SK Translations who works in this field to see if she could help. (Chasing this one word translation becomes a story in itself: Katherine was too busy but directed me to Geneologist Dr. Ellen Yutzy Glebe. She too was busy but gave me three Facebook Translation Groups – which I joined – and within hours had a viable translation from Georg Patrzek – “Tschempel (or Tschumpel/Tschampel)” which is a family name…God I love the internet)

I was glad that the word I’d discovered was a family name and didn’t mean “right piano leg” in Sütterlinschrift . Knowing that M. Tschempel decided to sign this instrument upon which he (or she) worked creates, for me at least, a whole thread of historic inquiry to ponder or pursue. Was he young, old, married with family? What happened to Tschempel? World War 1? 2?…in a last grasp at trying to understand, and complete this circle, I found one Tschempel reference online – again on Facebook, a Marie Lea Tschempel whom I have messaged…I await her reply.

The next and most obvious clue in the Blüthner’s journey was a small metal plaque attached to the keyboard lid which read: “Bowran & Co. Ltd – Newcastle on Tyne”

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I knew that Newcastle on Tyne was in England, so the Blüthner had to have made it’s way safely between two warring countries, but I had no way of knowing when it made that perilous trip. Mr. Google was there to help and gave me a little tidbit from the Newcastle Journal August 4th, 1916…a small classified ad indicating that E. O. Bowran was indeed engaged in piano sales, representing several makes & models of new & used pianos. Bowran survived the war but not the great Depression, and had to be “wound up due to liabilities”, as published in the London Gazette, February 5, 1935

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So, somewhere between 1914 and 1935, the Blüthner made it’s way to England, sat in a Piano Shop in Newcastle upon Tyne and was sold either new, used or as part of a bankruptcy liquidation.

Sometime during it’s long life, an aspiring pianist, or perhaps a child who didn’t know better, sat down at the piano with a pen and piece of paper, and forever scarred the keyboard cover while writing out the notes and lyrics to a song:

“Bridge…Bb…Crazy…on…After…Em…Let’s…on…Bill…Dean…Eb…F#m…D”

Their scribbling moved around too much for me to identify the song, or tell what era it’s from. I visualize a young student or budding musician from the 60’s or 70’s copying or creating a piece for personal enjoyment or to entertain family and friends. I find these words add a human element to the Blüthner’s almost indecipherable journey.

The trail goes cold here until August 10, 1986 (or perhaps October 8) when the Blüthner was tuned up by Cliff Brownlee of Penticton, BC.

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I’ve attempted to fill in some gaps with the Blüthner’s history but have been unable to do so beyond the plaques, stickers, and graffiti that were left attached to the piano. The 50 year gap between Newcastle & Penticton is long so I decided to take a chance and call Cliff Brownlee in Penticton to see if he could remember anything about the piano – 28 years after his tuning job. It was a long shot.

Much to my surprise, there he was in the directory, no longer listed as a piano tuner and living at a different address but I felt compelled to call him. What possible harm could it do? Again, surprisingly, Cliff picked up the phone after a couple of rings. I could tell by his voice that I was not dealing with a young man. I explained who I was and why I was calling, that I was on a crazy mission to try and understand the life of a piano. How did it get to Pentiction?…and then to Mayne Island?

Cliff was friendly but admitted that – after this length of time – he really had little memory of working on my Blüthner, but – again with the surprises – he would look into his files, and call me back. He did just that. Two days later I received a call from him, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to elaborate much more on my pianos journey. He did recall coming to Mayne to tune David Hodges Grand Piano back when he was still in business, so we speculated that perhaps the Blüthner was here at that time, and not in Penticton, and that Cliff had picked up some additional tuning jobs.

I had one more lead to try – call the Community Centre and see where they got the piano and talk to whomever donated it. A chat with Lauren led me to Lise who gave me the final word on my quest. A couple named Don and Nina Thompson had made the donation to the Community Centre but they were now both in a seniors care facility in Victoria and should really not be disturbed. The thought being that perhaps they would be dismayed to know that their “donation” had changed hands and was now in a Gallery Café.

After all my sleuthing I certainly wanted to call them, or their family members but I honoured the suggestion. If Don and Nina’s intent when they made their donation was for the Blüthner to be cared for and played lovingly, I’m sure this little video that I made: “Eleven Pieces for the Blüthner” would warm their hearts and assuage any concerns they may have…

“Eleven Pieces for the Blüthner”

The Anecdotard

“an old person whose mental faculties have declined, but not enough to dissuade him from telling short stories about himself”

                                             From the “Bathgate Book of Puns & Portmanteaus”

I suffer from the occasional bout of depression. Although it’s not clinical or chronic, and usually dissipates within a day or two, while it lingers, it can have a nasty crippling effect upon my productivity and sense of accomplishment. I don’t medicate – anymore – as I have assembled tools & techniques, from years of self-work to help me deal with the down. A little reading and self-awareness, a little counselling, and a little Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have been the Hardware stores from which I have filled my emotional toolbox. Luckily, these discouraging feelings are oft times mitigated, as well, by a zany sense of humour, which I have in spades.

It usually starts with some kind of self-critical observation. 

I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing recently (and not so recently) and have had the  disquieting thought that a lot of my current writing lacks substance and depth and is merely anecdotal in nature.  This is the crack in the door through which the depressive thought tries to gain a foothold. 

“Of what lasting value are your anecdotes…old man?” Sneers the cruel inner critic as the crack of despondency widens further. It’s the same accusation of meaninglessness that my demon has conjured up anytime I’ve picked up a pen, a paintbrush or a musical instrument. “Gee…am I just an old guy writing his memoirs?” I ask myself glumly. “Limited talent and minimal lasting value I can accept…but old?…I still have red hair for fuck sake”  My “Sensei of Humour” arrives with a pun and some self-deprecatory thoughts, to teach me a valuable lesson and deflect the cruel blows of self-doubt. “That would make you an Anecdotard, Seito” he says,  “an old man with diminishing mental acuity, telling amusing stories about himself.”

Despondency lifts as I comfort myself with this playful pun. But self-doubt has not released its grip and returns with a pointed remark which casts doubt on my knowledge of language, “That’s not a pun” he oozes, with thinly veiled contempt …Anecdotard is a portmanteau!” Like a deer in the headlights, paralyzed by self-doubts’ cocky certainty, I slowly reach for my cell phone. “What the fuck is a portmanteau?” I wonder. “Sounds like a French overcoat….I need to reach out to a higher linguistic power” No, not Google or Wiktionary – higher than that – I text my friend Jon Steeves, creator of  “Moot – The World’s Toughest Language Game” and pose my question.

“Ahhh, I’m not wrong”… I ponder, optimistically, as I lean back in my chair with my hands clasped behind my head…“I’m half right”. Depression and self-doubt are – for a time – vanquished, and I return to my normal happy-go-lucky state.

Friends and an appreciation of the absurdity of life – two of the most important contents of any depressive’s toolbox.

Afghanistan – December,1973

I’ve been writing a few short stories recently, most of which have been gleaned from experiences I had back in the early 70’s as a young long-haired traveller. I’ve enjoyed the process – thus far – feeding these stories to my website and friends on social media for general consumption. For some reason, as I tackle this story about my time in Afghanistan, in December, 1973, I’ve been hit with one of those occasional moments of self-doubt about my motivations for writing…at all…or the value or purpose of what I’m doing.  Seeds of creative doubt and purposelessness creep in.  To spare you my current angst I’m going to forge ahead with this story, and save my pathos for a subsequent  article, tentatively titled, “The Anecdotard”.

It’s Wednesday December 12, 1973 and we are trying to get into Afghanistan. We had picked up our Afghan Visas in Mashhad, Iran, the day before and boarded the bus for the 3 hour trip to the border, blissfully unaware of the hassles we were soon to face as we negotiated entry at the crossing…from my journal:

“Super cold, some guys are just in rags. Desert. They have a “So Long” sign (at the border) in Iran. Crazy system at the two border posts. The Afghani one is insane. The bus stopped because we were being ripped off. Driver refused to pay. Then we had to go through 6 people to see our passports….a real hassle, it took us 5 hours to get across. Men are always praying to Mecca”

The drive to Herat should have been a breeze but was punctuated with potholes and Toll-roads, which took an additional  2 or 3  hours to navigate the remaining 100 km. Once in Herat we found a Hotel for 20 Afghanis (the unit of currency…about 40 cents) and dinner for about 30 cents…

A piece of very worn Afghani paper currency from 1973 – the image is of King Mohammed Zahir Shah who had been deposed in a coup d’etat 4 months before my arrival

“…and we got about 10 – 14 grams (of Hash) for $1. I was elated but it turned out to be bad – paranoia inducing  – shit…we heard of a jam session (of Afghani musicians) so we walked to it.  All was well until the manager asked for 200 Afghanis for the show, we started to leave and he was going to kill himself. He was begging and getting really ugly so we paid 10 Afghanis each and got tea and music and dope. The vibe was edgy and we all got super paranoid so we left. Insane”

Thursday 13th – Day two in the land known as “The Graveyard of Empires”…”a notoriously difficult country to govern. Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan”…1973 was a time of relative peace, a window through which we travellers could pass unscathed. Allah willing…

“Woke up and everybody has a bad cold. Steve and Brad the worst, they will probably sleep today. Omelette, bread, yogurt & tea for 40 cents. Prices here are quite appealing…got stoned, no good, worse cold and paranoia.”

We are all young. The oldest of our travelling companions is likely 25 and I was clocking in as the youngest at 18. None of us are well-versed in moderation or proper self-care. The rigors of the road are demanding, eating is sporadic and getting high is chronic. We are in the legendary land of Black Afghani Hashish. Some hippies on the road have travelled specifically here for this latter reason – inexpensive, accessible, and powerful dope.

“Friday 14th – Very cold here, and I feel pretty sick. I vowed “no dope” but I did and regretted it. The manager taught us to say “Chulta Bukharum” as a way to say thank you but it really means “lick my ass”. Smoked more dope…no good”

We discovered fairly quickly what Chulta Bukharum meant by the uproarious laughs of the manager and staff when he encouraged us to say it to anyone who came in. To this day, I still use it as a form a greeting with Brad, the last of my fellow travellers that I am still in contact with on a regular basis.

“Saturday 15th – Went to the Bazaar, really strange, hard to believe you are really there”

Was this culture shock? Delirium from my nasty cold? Or, the combined effects of the aforementioned and chronic hash smoking?

“Donkeys, garbage, everyone in rags. My cold is worse – sore throat. No dope tonight. Went and listened to music and danced. The old man with one tooth looks like he is out of an insane asylum – but he sure could dance

Sunday 16th – We catch the 9 hour bus for Kandahar, getting in around 6 at night. My cold persists as we acclimatize to our new surroundings…

“nice looking spot. Found a cheap hotel (30 cents). I felt rotten so I went to bed while the others smoked…wild dreams about Jesus, revenge, lightning and death”

Monday 17th – Arose and had tea on the mud veranda overlooking town. Our party of eight is now seven as our British friend Jackie decides to leave.

“Moved to another Hotel – Bamiyan – nice place, good menu. Lazed around & walked to the bazaar where Steve & Knute bought shirts. Great brownies and apple turnovers. The people sell their dope just like a market, anything you like is in their shops. Went back and got high and ate a great vegetable stew.”

Tuesday 18th“1 week til Xmas and we are all  fairly sick. Graham is in bed and I walked the streets in a stupor – really weird, the two girls are fine. No dope til I’m better.”

Wednesday 19th – The imminent arrival of the comet Kohoutek was a much-hyped celestial display that we were all anticipating. It was billed as the “comet of the century” on its “once in 150,000 years” flyby, and was scheduled to reach perihelion on December 28th while we were in Afghanistan. Every night in this clear, pollution-free country, with its arid but cold December evenings we would go out and scan the skies for its presence.

“David Berg, founder of the religious cult, Children of God, predicted that Comet Kohoutek foretold a colossal doomsday event in January 1974. Children of God members fled in anticipation to existing communes, or formed new ones, around the world. Because Comet Kohoutek fell far short of expectations, its name became synonymous with spectacular disappointment.” …Wikipedia

“The girls and Steve leave for Kabul tomorrow. Graham had the shits and I’m about the same…walked over to the Indian and Pakistani consulates. Lazed around. Looked for the comet – only small”

Thursday 20th –Life on the road – even in Afghanistan – develops its own routines. Unless something remarkable occurs, Journal entries can be a little repetitive “got up, ate, walked around” or mundane “Brad broke the tape player and fixed it”…”played poker, won 100 Afghanis”, “traded my Asimov book for another Asimov”, or bizarre & lacking explanation, “most people have some disfiguration.” Some of my entries – such as this one – leave me mystified as I don’t recall, now, people being disfigured. Maybe this was the day I bought oranges from a young boy with leprosy who was selling them from a donkey, also with some facial disfiguration. A mystery…maybe Brad will know.

Friday 21st – We’re off to Kabul – we must’ve left quite early because it’s a 10 hour drive and my Journal notes a 3 o’clock arrival, with only one stop at “a crazy café with green-looking meat”.

“Got into Kabul about 3, swarmed over with hotel men (hawkers), each one competing for our business. I stood in the mud to escape. Got a ride into town with me holding the door not to fall out. Our first impressions of Kabul are lousy…dead rat in the road…meat hanging off carts onto the ground. Getting sick of chai. Have to stay a couple of days, at least, to get our visas for Pakistan. Met a guy named René who told us of his times in jail for hash busts”

Saturday 22nd – Moved closer to the Embassy section of town, into the “Friends Hotel”. We met up with our other friends Jill & Sally (sisters from Australia) and Steve (…“a real hypochondriac, always on pills”…). We are being accosted by an armada of beggars “Baksheesh mister…please!”, and another reference to disfiguration, “one with a really diseased puffo face”.  

Rumours of a “really great restaurant called Sigi’s” has piqued our curiosity, as we haven’t encountered anything but basic food – flatbread, rice, yoghurt, meat, eggs, occasional fruit – for quite some time.  Sigi’s, as it turned out, was to Kabul, as the Pudding Shop was to Istanbul…

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Courtesy of  Pamela Woodland on Flikr

“another legendary place among travelers in the early seventies… one of those western traveler-oriented places (with) great ambiance.  …It was all very surreal.  Taking off our shoes at the door, we entered one of the large, carpeted rooms, sat down on cushions and ordered our meal.  We were briefly greeted by the owner, Siegfreid, a tall German in his forties with blue eyes and short blonde hair. Psychedelic music was playing and people were sitting in small groups swapping road stories …There were two house rules, no dope smoking and no sleeping.  You would be asked to leave if found doing either”……from “On the Hippie Trail” by Tony Walton…( I highly recommend this fellow’s blog if you are interested in stories about the overland trip from Istanbul to Nepal/India in the early 70’ – great photos and writing (either a great memory or a detailed Journal) – I read his site to see what I did….and then pretend that I did it. 🙂 )

“…had Weiner Schnitzel with potato salad, green salad and bread. Banana shakes! All the free mint tea you could drink and beautiful music. A really great place, easily the best in months.”

Sunday 23rd – Spent a good part of the day at the Indian and Pakistani Embassy getting permits (No visas necessary according to my Journal) and planning our Christmas Eve party for the 24th. Taking advantage of Sigi’s food & ambience oasis, again, was a unanimous decision. (I was so taken with Sigi’s use of Afghani style carpet & cushion seating that I would adopt this style – on several occasions – when I returned to Canada.)

Monday 24th – Party planning involved tracking down alcohol, which is always problematic in a Muslim country. There are no liquor stores so one has to ask around, and make furtive under-the-counter purchases. My efforts produced a bottle of brandy for the nights festivities, while the others went out on similar hunting and gathering excursions. We all enjoyed another fabulous meal at Sigi’s. “We” at this point in the journey includes my six travelling companions: Knute, Steve, Graham & Brad (young American guys), Jill & Sally (sisters from Australia) and myself – the token Canadian.

After Sigi’s we returned to one of our Hotel rooms for a little party – which, in fact, was not unlike parties anywhere that young western kids congregate…

My travelling companions – Steve, Graham, Jill & Sally, Brad & Knute

“Started drinking and smoking, took a pic of us all. Got pretty destroyed, had to work to keep straight. Lots of fun was had. Bought flowers and a tree branch (for decoration) and lots of goodies. Passed out about 12:30 along with all the others. The people next door have been here 1 year because of a death, so they were all decked out for Xmas. Knute scored with Sally, so that’s good”

Tuesday, December 25th – Merry Christmas! I have no idea why I thought Knute “scoring with Sally” was good. Perhaps, as a young red-blooded male I was glad to know that – at the very least –someone was getting lucky.

“…the girls (Jill & Sally) treated us all to a new pair of socks for Xmas. Steve, Graham, Brad & I walked to the top of a local mountain – fantastic scenery. Everyone was hungover.”

It was a low-key day of recovery. Cleaning up our room from last night’s party. Another meal at Sigi’s, fattening up on inexpensive delicious food after weeks of lack, and not knowing what lay in store for us further down the road in Pakistan, India & beyond.

Wednesday 26th“Not much happening. Went to the American Library, no big news, just bad – 20-30 million predicted to die in India. Girls across the hall have scabies”

I find some of young George’s entries hilarious – so matter of fact & devoid of explanatory information…”20-30 million expected to die in India (where I am headed). Girls across the hall have scabies.” Apocalypse juxtaposed with an irritating rash. In fact, I was probably more alarmed by the scabies.

Thursday 27th – We are slowly preparing our exit from Afghanistan. Steve, who had borrowed money from several of us, received $$ from home and paid us all back. I wrote a few letters, and, from the Journal:

“Knute has no passport and we all have tickets. Steve leaves Tuesday, Graham, Brad & I leave Saturday. It’s very cold. René is having bad problems, Mike is accused of spying. Our poor Afghan, “Good Morning Mister” friend says passports are too much for his 40 cent job to handle.”

Friday 28th – It seems that, from my journal, I take some issue with Steve, “he lives off his parents but hates the system”…in fact, most of our group is soon to split up. Steve will head for parts unknown, Graham will go to Nepal, we’ll part with Jill and Sally in northern India and only Brad & Knute and I would make it all the way to Goa. For our last evening in Kabul though, we go to the Star Café which had decent cuisine and a fabulous musical group playing traditional Afghani music on Tablas and the  21-stringed Rabaab. A beautiful way to wrap up our unforgettable (thank God for Journal-keeping) time in Afghanistan.

“The comet is supposed to come out now…I think I’ll paint a picture of the beautiful scenery – planets, star, moon, comet, dark blue sky & mountain…beautiful…Got up at 7 and headed for the bus”

I painted this picture of the mountain and sky, in the heart of Kabul, when I returned to Vancouver in 1974

Iran – December 1973 – “Things”

In all likelihood, we offended every Iranian that was on that late-night bus to Mashhad. Those that were making a holy pilgrimage to the Imam Reza Shrine – one of the holiest sites in Islam, dubbed “the heart of Shia Iran” – could have been justifiably upset by our display of boisterous disrespect, others may have simmered quietly while trying, unsuccessfully, to get some sleep on their ten hour journey. My only defense is that I was a follower, not an instigator – Knute knew all the lyrics, I was only there as part of the Chorus.

“Every night I sit here by my window (window)” he bellowed drunkenly to our assembled, and equally drunk or stoned choir.

“Starin’ at the lonely avenue (avenue)” We all jumped in on the call and response.

“Watchin’ lovers holdin’ hands and laughin’ (HaHaHa)…with loud exaggeration.

“And thinkin’ ‘bout the things we used to do”

Little did Bobby Darin know that when he wrote the song “Things” in 1962 it would be used as a form of sleep deprivation on unsuspecting Iranian pilgrims ten years later. It was around this time that we started to receive the “withering glances” from passengers in the forward section of the bus.

“(Things!)Like a walk in the park!”

“(Things!) Like a kiss in the dark!

“(THINGS!) Like a sailboat RIDE!

WHAT ABOUT THE NIGHT WE CRIED!…everybody now! etc etc.

We were young, high, and unstoppable. At some point, hijab-covered women would turn and go “Shhhhhh!”…it didn’t work. Even young mothers sporting swaddled babies pleading for quiet had little or no effect. We were having too much fun. “Hmmm”, pondered Knute, “perhaps they are not Bobby Darin fans…how about a little Marty Robbins.”

A white sports coat and a pink carnation!

“I’m all dressed up for the dance!”

Knute stood in the aisle swaying and singing as the bus careened through eastern Iran. We were all spellbound by his human jukebox ability to conjure up familiar songs and engage us in rousing renditions. The choir had broken ranks and was now jumping in wherever memory of lyrics allowed…

“A white sports coat and a pink carnation!”
“I’m all alone in romance!

“Ohh, I love Marty Robbins” (said no Iranian pilgrim ever) “can you sing…“El Paso”?” “Of course, a song of intercultural love, as a metaphor for the abiding respect & love shared between the American & Iranian people”, said none of the young culturally insensitive hippie travellers.

“Out in the West Texas town of El Paso”
“I fell in love with a Mexican girl!”

“Night time would find me in Rosa’s cantina”

“Music would play and Feleena would whirl!”

After a time, the pilgrims seemed to accept their fate and stopped shushing our singing and laughter. Perhaps it was resignation to the forces of youthful exuberance, perhaps through 20 years of  – involuntary – pro-Western leadership under the Shah, they had acquired enough tolerance to know that “this too shall pass.” Maybe they just succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep, or, as I noted in my journal, “The people here are so much more friendly than the Turks” …elsewhere, Knute may have been physically restrained.

Was our rude behaviour enough to sway the opinions of some of our co-travellers? Did we tip anyone over into sympathy for the anti-government forces which were growing? “Enough is enough!”…”let’s kick the bums out!”  The Iranian Revolution occurred  several years later…how many indignities does it take to start a revolution? Knute, Bobby Darin,  and the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Epilogue:

30 Years later – 25 years after the Iranian Revolution – Knute would rob a bank in Beaverton, Oregon…and get caught. His heist made news under “stupid robber tricks.”  Evidently, he brought a gun, a bandana for his face, and a bag for the $188,655 he walked out with – a good haul for a bank robber – but he forgot a getaway car. As a result, he demanded keys from a customer, very politely saying, “I will leave them under the front seat.”  The  only problem was, Knute couldn’t figure out which key opened up the owner’s car, according to reports, so he took off the mask, and went back into the bank to inquire.

Big mistake.

After he finally got the car open, Knute took off, passing a Beaverton police car along the way. The officer received signals from the tracking device planted in the stolen loot, and tracked him down within minutes – and arrested him.

The last we heard he was cooling his heels in an Oregon Detention Facility – no doubt entertaining his cell mates with his Karaoke command of Golden Oldie pop tunes.

New Year’s Eve 1973 – Peshawar, Pakistan

The Nice Pakistani Shopkeeper Gave me a Little Head

I had considered the above subhead as a title for this story, but after the deepest of ponderings I felt that it might adversely affect my political aspirations – don’t want to lose the shopkeeper vote…also, it is New Year’s Eve 2019 as I write this so the reference to dates and times and locations seemed apropos.

The bus trip from Kabul to Peshawar is only 300 kilometers and, depending on the mechanical worthiness of your bus, the number of eyes that your bus driver has (ours had one), the number of herds of goats that cross the road, and the general mood of the border guards (ranging from angry and uncooperative, to indifferent and distracted) the trip should only take between 6 and 10 hours. And this is in the days before roadside bombs and ambushes.

My travelling companions and I arrived in Peshawar mid-afternoon on December 29th…enough time to find a hotel, unload our backpacks, and wander around a bit before grabbing a bite of dinner.  We’d been on the road since 7am with limited access to food and only intermittent washroom breaks – there were no washrooms on buses then….and in fact, often, there were no washrooms at the various “rest stops”.  Relieving oneself involved stepping over feces on an open field behind a wall, squatting and pooping.

As it is winter the countryside here is sparse, arid and brown and we are cold. Everyone (we hippie travellers) was wearing all their clothing to stay warm. The first Pakistanis we meet seem slightly more affluent than the impoverished Afghanis, and are more fluent in English. Due no doubt to 100 years of British influence during the Raj.

It’s December 30 and we are exploring our new neighbourhood, and according to my Journal, the effects of the world renowned local hashish, “…these are the craziest days of my life…man we are getting so zonked, bought 1 ounce for about $2.50 from a really paranoid type guy.” The cultural & sensory differences here, for a young Canadian, are so vast and complete that getting stoned is really unnecessary. Why dilute the intensity of the experience?  Why not maintain one’s wits in a foreign land where unknown danger lurks? Chalk it up to hippie culture and blind youthful invincibility  – it’s what we did…no harm could befall us.

But dangers abound in foreign lands and they take many different forms and seek out unexpected opportunities. The “paranoid guy” related a story about his cousins “bust” in a chai shop for possession. Apparently he was stuck continuing to sell drugs to foreigners to help pay for his fine because he had no money. Running afoul of the law in a foreign land is never fun and can be made much worse by corrupt police and officials.

Inappropriate and unwanted advances can also be dangerous – for both parties. When our hash dealer told me that “I had a pretty face” my young straight male desire to defend my sexuality with violence was barely suppressed by my emerging tolerance and worldliness. According to my journal I considered “cutting my hair…. but, decided not to because all the guys were getting hit on.”

New Year’s Eve 1973. Pakistan and India had been at war 3 times in 30 years and there was – at that time – a much more noticeable military presence in Pakistan than there was in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was, largely, at peace and would remain so until the Russians invaded in 1979, whereas Peshawar, and Pakistan, felt edgier. It was common to see armed Pushtuns wandering around, and hear random gunshots going off in the near and far. Our hotel was only a short walk from an Arms Bazaar where merchants hawked guns of all kinds and young boys could be found working away at various weapons manufacturing/assembly jobs.

Boy hauling entrails on a cart

Our route also took us past open slaughterhouses where children, bathed in blood, would be up to their elbows in entrails, with large knives cutting edible/saleable pieces of lamb and sheep. Nothing gets wasted – except for we hippies experiencing this carnage through a hashish-addled fog.

We were smoking a lot of hash as we went about our day. Played snooker – smoked hash. Had Lunch – smoked hash. Met a guy selling hash in Campbell soup cans for us to smuggle back to Canada – decided it was a bad idea, smoked more hash. Eventually our journeys led us to a carpet shop where we met our new best friend Karwan, the shopkeeper. Graham bought a $17 carpet so Karwan showed his appreciation by smoking some hash with us and taking us to his warehouse where he had a section of floor covered in ancient artifacts that he had dug up from a local archaeological site….”Have a look at these old pieces I have dug up…if you see something you like, please take it…it is my gift to you.”

The little head given to me by Karwan. Years later a professor of archaeology at UBC told me that it may be 2,000 years old

As backpackers on a long-distance trip, every ounce of weight has significance. I looked around at the various pieces and found a little head that I liked, while Brad picked up an equally attractive small piece that would fit into his pack. We thanked Karwan and he insisted that we join him back in his shop for brandy. It’s quite easy to get hash in Pakistan but – as a Muslim country – alcohol is forbidden. Of course we joined him, adding booze onto our already stoned perspectives.

“Hey Karwan”, I asked, “do you know where we can get some booze for tonight? It’s New Year’s Eve and we’re going to have a little party back at our hotel…you could join us…Our other friends will be there too – just bring some of your hash” Delighted by this invite, Karwan happily gave directions to the store where alcohol could be purchased – just a few blocks away in a little bakery. We told him the name of our hotel and that he could drop in after 8, then we set out in search of the bakery…and alcohol.

It was a nondescript little shop with a few baked goods displayed in the window. We ascended the two stone steps, opened the door and walked in. The owner greeted us warmly, it was late afternoon and most of his wares had been purchased except for  some flatbreads and a few sweets. He spoke a little English so we said “Karwan at the carpet shop said you might have some alcohol for sale?” Immediately, his cheerful demeanor darkened, the smile left and his brows furrowed. His eyes darted from Brad to myself, then he came out from behind the counter, opened the front door and looked up and down the street before shutting the door, pulling down the blinds and locking it. “One moment please”, he said as he disappeared into the back. He soon reappeared with a bottle of brandy in a bag which he handed to us in exchange for about $5.00. We thanked him and left…gaining some insight into the paranoia of yesterdays hash dealer…but not enough to make us stop.

We smoked a bit more hash, ate something somewhere and made our way back to our hotel to begin our little New Year’s Eve celebration. Graham, Knute, and Brad and I convened in Jill & Sally’s room to share the brandy, followed soon after by the arrival of our new friend Karwan the carpet merchant. We are doing what young people at parties do in the west…drinking, smoking, sharing laughs, flirting with the girls – vying for their attention while keeping an eye on the competition. It’s a small intimate group and we’ve been travelling together for a month through these foreign lands. Karwan seems be having fun, drinking & smoking & telling awkward jokes, he could be the foreign student in our college dorm trying to fit in, to be one of the guys & impress the girls.

As midnight approached, we decided to have some kind of countdown on Graham’s watch… 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 Midnight! Happy New Year! Spontaneously, we all gave each other hugs, high fives and handshakes…until I noticed that Karwan wasn’t participating in our little celebratory group hug, instead he was sitting on one of the beds looking around rather furtively, with his hands clasped between his legs. “Go on girls, why don’t you give Karwan a hug too?” I said.

As Jill reached over to embrace our shopkeeper friend he stood up with a full-blown erection ballooning out from under his very baggy & loose-fitting white cotton pants. He grabbed Jill, pushed her onto the bed, lay on top of her and began squeezing her breasts vigorously. Without hesitation the boys grabbed Karwan and peeled him off Jill, and sat him back on the bed so she could escape. “No, no man, that’s not good”, we said to him, “It was just a friendly hug, nothing else intended”…have another drink, it’s ok, man”

Someone splashed a bit of  brandy in his glass, but between the mistaken expectation of what Karwan thought was happening with two western women in a hotel room, and the embarrassing reality of our collective reaction, he was both humiliated and angry. He lifted his glass to his lips, drank the contents and then smashed it on the floor. At this, we decided that Karwan had overstayed his welcome…we four guys grabbed him by the arms and lift-walked him out the door, down the stairs and outside where we released him and he fell  – unconscious –  onto the street  in front of our hotel.

We stood there for a while wondering what else to do. Karwan was indeed, passed out on the street. Horses, cars and people slowly made their way around his immobile body. Eventually, the manager of the hotel came out, looked at Karwan, shrugged his shoulders and went back in….according to my journal, “the hotel guys were supposedly trying to kill him so they let him lie in the street…”  As we grabbed Karwan by the legs and tried to haul him away from the worst of the traffic, a freak bearing free beer approached us and said, “What’s all this Brouhaha?, “Brouhaha? I retorted, and then together, “Ha Ha”…and he was gone. Maybe I need to cut down on the hash, I thought. Happy New Year!