Category Archives: Inspirational people

Emily Carr…Victoria’s free-spirited writer and painter

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IMG_3403Jack and Eloise

“Don’t you love her shoes? asks a lady in a cozy hand-knitted bonnet. “But I think Emily might have suffered a little from bunions,” she says pointing to sturdy, laced loafers. Surveying the bronze statue, I agree, then gesture to a monkey perched on Emily Carr’s shoulder. “That will be Woo, her Javanese monkey,” Eloise tells me with a ring of affection.

We happen to have ambled up to the likeness of Emily Carr at precisely the same time. The warmth in my new friend’s voice and the twinkle in her eyes endear me to her immediately.

It seems apt that I meet Jack and Eloise on the corner of Government and Belleville Streets – a window on the soul of Victoria. The grand Fairmont Empress is Emily’s backdrop, kitty-corner from British Colombia’s Parliament buildings, next to the Royal BC Museum; all anchored by the harbour with its schooners, pleasure boats and float planes.

Victoria, the capital of BC, sits at the southern tip of Vancouver island on the Pacific Coast. A short sail from Vancouver, it is a city of glorious blooms – billowy cherries, plump magnolias, abundant daffodils and tulips, heavenly hyacyniths and pansies; a cascade of colour in the crisp April air.IMG_3393 (1)

“Do you know our Emily?” Eloise asks, almost maternally.

“Indeed I do, in fact today”, I tell the friendly couple, “I’m tracking Emily through the city.”

Emily Carr (1871 – 1945) is one of British Columbia’s most beloved figures – a painter, a writer, a free-spirited rebel. Emily proclaimed her profound love for the Canadian West and is best known for lush, haunting forest-scapes and powerful portrayals of totem poles. At heart, she was also a fearless traveller; the essence of her nature was to embrace the landscape and native culture at their source.

IMG_4686I tell Jack and Eloise that as a writer, not only do I love Emily’s words, but I admire her intrepid explorations to capture her favourite subjects. Once vital cultural entities in First Nation villages, Emily seemed prescient in knowing that totems would ‘disappear’ as the Colonial settlers pushed the Coastal First Nations away from their lands, stripping them of their deep-rooted culture.

“Off she’d journey,” I added, “on working steamers, small boats, even dugout canoes. With a dog in tow, she’d arrive on the shores of a First Nation village, taking it on faith that she’d find shelter.”

Emily Carr’s paintings created a lasting, brooding documentation of the proud sentinels that watched over those villages. She was respectful and deeply empathic, “It  must have hurt the Indians dreadfully, to have the things they had always believed trampled and torn from their hugging.” E.C.

Emily became friends with the people of the First Nations and was bestowed with a native name that she proudly proclaimed for the rest of her life…Klee Wyck…it means the ‘Laughing One’.

The iconic symbols of Canada’s First Nations stand stalwart and proud from our vantage point; contemporary carvings by descendants of this land’s first settlers. One totem is nestled by the harbour and another seems to guard the nearby British Colombia Parliament Building. I admire the colours, the symbolism of each carved raven, orca and thunderbird capturing tribal lore, evoking spirit and culture.

“The next time I paint with the locals I’m going off on a tangent tear. There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don’t-like-it, the eternal spareness of it. Oh the West! I’m of it and I love it!” E.C.

It’s obvious that Jack and Eloise also have an appreciation for this island and this city. Like many retirees, they have chosen Victoria for the temperate climes, the ocean, the beauty, the quaint Victorian charm. With a sly grin, Eloise reminds her husband of sixty years that, “I’m not moving again dear.”

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I bid a fond farewell to Jack and Eloise. “Do go see Emily’s family home,” Eloise suggests as she takes my hand warmly.

“It’s on my list,” I promise, “but first I’ll duck into the Empress while I’m here.” “Oh yes dear you must. It’s been refurbished and the Victoria’s are lovely!”

A horse drawn carriage clops past, a London-inspired double-decker bus waits for tourists, while chimes reminiscent of ‘Big Ben’ pronounce the time.

 

The Victoria’s and Anthony

I spot the Victoria’s immediately. They weave history into art with a modern edge and are the perfect backdrop at The Empress’s Q Bar. Then again I muse, perhaps some modern versions of Emily Carr’s paintings might have been apropos.

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I’m distracted by a man’s voice at the bar. He’s weaving a tale of Victoria’s history to the bartender and I’m drawn to his narrative like a magnet. I practically pull out my Moleskin in anticipation as I slide onto the barstool next to him. “You’ve chosen the best seat in the house,’ Anthony smiles, offering his hand in welcome.

Born and raised in Victoria, Anthony declares, “I know every inch of this city and have a fierce love for this Empress Hotel.” Motioning towards the Crystal Ballroom, he fondly recalls this as the setting for his high school graduation and where most Victorians were treated by their parents to their first ‘legal’ drink.

With the Victoria’s as our backdrop, Anthony relates that life as an ‘island child’ was idyllic and a stint away in Eastern Canada from the age of six to ten was more than trying. “I was at peace when I came home again – this is where I belong, who I am.” His sentiments seem to echo Emily Carr’s.

Anthony looks outwards to Victoria’s inner harbour through aged stained glass set into tall window sashes. “I remember when there were no cruise ships, only steamships. I recall the Royal Visit in 1982, peeking into a port-hole of the Royal Yacht Britannia. You know why the Empress was built I’m sure”, he wonders out loud.


I do know that the Edwardian, chateau-style hotel was designed for Canadian Pacific Hotels and opened in 1908. Serving those who journeyed to Victoria by CP’s steamship line, it became a tourist destination from the mid 20’s. The impressive Rattenbury-designed edifice has played host to Royals, movie stars and the famous. “What of Emily Carr?” I ask.

I had read she was known to take tea, dine, attend lectures and concerts at the Empress. “A dull tea with a dull woman at the dull Empress. The pups were the only gay thing about it and the conservatory a joy of airy, fairy, gay colour, too exquisite and upstairs to describe in words, like colour stairways of joyousness leading out beyond earth things.” E.C.

We discuss that it wouldn’t be surprising for Emily to find the Victorian ritual of English Tea (still a major tourist draw at the Empress) too confining and pompous. We ponder the rebel side of Emily. To Victoria’s refined middle and upper-classes who melded into a city said to have been built as a replica of Britain, Emily was regarded as ‘quite crazy, eccentric and bizarre’. Eventually she would embrace the isolation, yet the loneliness never subsided.

After stints at Art Schools in the US and abroad, Emily thought nothing of smoking, wearing trousers and hand stitched clothes, riding cross-saddle, camping, and generally bucking the traditions of acceptable behaviour for someone born into a genteel English family.

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Emily Carr

“We didn’t learn much about Emily in school,” Anthony confides to me. “As a boy I knew her paintings were on stamps and that she once had a pet monkey. You kind of knew she had been an eccentric.”

I comment on the new, also delightfully eccentric murals and ask his opinion about the refurbishment. “Queen Victoria means a lot to me, like Emily Carr, my roots are English.”

Victoria was named in honour of the Queen in 1843, a few years after James Douglas was charged with establishing a trading fort for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The port city later became a supply base for miners, many from the US, en route to the gold fields along the Fraser River. Immigrants from the British Isles were plentiful, enticing families such as Anthony’s for its British ‘sensibilities’. I comment that perhaps it’s fitting that a statue of Queen Victoria towers just across the street – evidence not only of the past, but of Canada’s proud position today as a member of the Commonwealth. Along with the statues of Victoria and Emily, there are others along the harbour that tug at one’s emotions and attest to this harbour’s long, maritime history.

I can well imagine the countless tales that have been woven at this Empress bar throughout the years – the settlers, the travellers, the sailors and the gold miners. Or like today, an illuminating discussion during a delightful chance encounter. Yet it’s time to take my leave from the engaging Anthony and from the royal gaze of the Victoria’s. It’s time to visit the Carr family home.

 

The Carr Family Home

“Father bought ten aces of land, part of what was known as Beckley Farm. It was over James’ Bay and I have heard my mother tell how she cried at the lonesomeness of going to live in a forest….The house was large and well built of California redwood, the garden prim and tended.” E.C.

This ‘forest’ and the environs, only a mile out of the city in 1863, had a profound impact on Emily’s formative years. She was creative, a tomboy and prone to imagination as a child, a contrast to her ‘girlie’ sisters and her strict, autocratic father. Richard Carr was a successful merchant and had a soft spot for his youngest daughter. He had saved her first charcoal sketch of the family dog – perhaps the only recognition by a family member throughout her entire life, that she had any talent. Mr. Carr fired her artistic inclinations with stories of Native culture and the virgin forest he had encountered.

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Today the Carr home is flanked by spring flowers and signage with Emily’s evocative words. “Nothing, not even fairyland, could have been so lovely as our lily field. The wild lilies…did something to the back you your eyes…they were white, with gold in their hearts.” The home’s orchard, lily fields, farmyard and forays into nearby Beacon Hill Park and to the ocean, fuelled Emily’s love of nature. It would offer much needed solace when her mother died, and then her father. Emily was only seventeen.

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Kitwancool 1928

Escaping the stern ‘rule’ of an older sister to study at the California School of Design in San Fransisco, the nineteen year old embraced the freedom and her new outlets for expression, Yet she returned to the ‘big house’ in 1893, setting up her first studio in the barn’s hayloft and teaching art; hoarding her earnings in an old boot hanging from the rafters. A trip to Lake Cowichan, then one to Ucluelet, finds her sketching in the villages. It’s here she acquires the name Klee Wyck from the First Nation families with whom she bonds.

At the age of 28, Emily had saved enough to set out for further study in London. The hopeful beginnings turned to hardship, a spurned romance, a breakdown with 18 months in a sanatorium. Five and a half years later, she returned home via a stop in the Cariboo, further fuelling her love of nature and adventure; her streak of rebellion now firmly rooted. “No woman had ridden cross-saddle before in Victoria! Victoria was shocked. My family sighed…cross-saddle! Why everyone disapproved. Too bad, instead of England gentling me into an English Miss with nice ways, I was more me than ever, just pure me.”

Other acquired habits like smoking further alienated Emily from her family, conservative Victoria was aghast. Another studio was set up, political cartoons drawn for a local publication, a job offer in 1906 in Vancouver took her away from the English confines of Victoria. It seems there was a collective sigh of relief.

Today, the Emily Carr House has not yet opened for the season and so I can only circle the house. I gaze up to what was once young Emily’s bedroom, I notice an easel propped against a wall, I imagine how idyllic the setting must have been for a creative mind. And I play the next years of Emily’s often tumultuous life in my mind.

~ Teaches art in Vancouver. More sketching trips and a cruise to Alaska which confirms her commitment to record the ineluctable march of the aboriginal cultural demise.

~Studies art in France for a year or so. Returns to Vancouver, extensive sketching and painting trips throughout Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Islands.

~First exhibit and lecture on Totems in 1913. Muted response to the more than 200 pieces. Hopes of the Government buying her collection not realized. Feels isolated with no fellow artists to commune with.

~From 1913 to 1927, art is sidelined as Emily owns a boarding house and mostly abhors the role of ‘landlady’…the attic becomes her respite. She fires pottery, knits rugs and raises dogs. Her love for her menagerie of animals keeps loneliness at bay.

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Odds & Ends 1939

~Invited in 1927 to exhibit in the Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern Show in Ontario, she meets the famous Group of 7 painters, those capturing the beauty of Eastern Canada. Encouraged by Lawren Harris and accepted by this prestigious group, her life is changed. She bursts with renewed creativity and resolves to become The West’s foremost painter.

~Her most productive period ensues from 1928…Emily Carr is 57 years old. She begins a regular journal, extensive trips, rents cottages for work then buys Elephant, a simple trailer for situating herself to capture the forest, now her main focus.

~Suffers first heart attack in 1937. Groups stories written over an eleven year period. First stories are read on CBC in 1940 to resounding appreciation. Suffers another heart attack, first book Klee Wyck published, wins Governor General’s Award. Book of Small published in 1942, House of Sorts in 1944. Growing Pains, Pause, The Heart of  Peacock, Hundreds and Thousands, Fresh Seeing, all published posthumously.

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The Indian Church 1929

After years of rejection and doubt, of solitude and impoverishment, a woman I feel much admiration for, had found solace, acceptance…happiness. Emily Carr was a great talent, the West she loved so fiercely now celebrates her.

I find some of Emily Carr’s last words before she passed away in 1945. Finally, they ring with joy…

“Outstanding events! work and more work! I sat self contained with dogs, monkey and work- writing into the long dark evenings after painting-loving everything terrifically. In later years my work had some praise and some successes but the outstanding event to me was the doing which I am still at. Don’t pickle me away as done.” E.C.

Priya’s story…part two

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has revealed itself gradually; snippets of conversation as we’ve come to know each other in our one year in India. I have known since she joined us as housekeeper, that Priya is widowed and raising children alone. This in itself, could be considered remarkable in India.

It is not uncommon for widows in India to be considered inauspicious and shameful to their family. They can be marginalized, cut off from family property and money, and considered an inconvenience and a burden. Widows can be abandoned with no place to go – simply cast adrift.

Traditionally, widows are expected to wear white, shave their heads and discard their jewellery – essentially renouncing anything that symbolizes womanhood. In some areas of India, social norms still hold to the belief that for a bereaved woman to remain in society, she must have a supportive brother or son.

In rural parts of India, where arranged marriages commit young women (often girls) to marry older men, it is not surprising that widows comprise ten percent of the adult female population, some forty million. Many, widowed at a young age, find that their life is essentially over or irrevocably altered. It can still be considered improper for upper castes to remarry, lower castes often do, ideally to a brother-in-law.

To understand their plight one has only to read about or see images of Vrindavan, a sacred city which has become home to thousands of destitute widows. Begging to pilgrims and chanting bhajan (sharing) hymns for up to four hours a day, earns them enough for one meal and perhaps shelter. For young widows in Vrindavan, poverty may lead to sexual exploitation, a last resort for those already stripped of their dignity. The organization Maitri endeavours to alleviate this, collecting contributions for the purchase of mosquito nets, fresh white linen saris (perhaps now a symbol of sisterhood) and even sewing machines for a widow’s livelihood.

The abhorrent practise of shunning widows is a grim residue of an Indian tradition sati or suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyres which was once (and by some accounts is still) practiced. The perception of woman as chattel is rooted in the patriarchal culture which must change, in step with the values of a civilized society. The women at Vrindavan and other shunned widows represent all women. They were once girls, wives, mothers and grandmothers – deserving respect and dignity.

Within this cultural context, Priya’s independence and resolve is all the more admirable. She has mentioned to me that she is very careful not to acknowledge that she is on her own.

Priya was somewhat distracted this past month as her search for a new home was far more difficult to secure without a man’s name on the lease. Our offer to help negotiate was politely declined and I was relieved that a driver of another family Priya works for was available to help.

Thankfully Priya has found a new home, one with tiled floors and running water, an improvement from her previous house. However, she is not pleased that so many cows wander close by and she worried that her previous landlord might take advantage by not returning her security deposit, “Madam, this is life without a man, not easy,” she said stoically.

Recently as I relaxed, reading on my sofa, Priya eased herself down on the carpet beside me. We had just arrived home from a trip, the house was already clean and I was happy to have some time to speak with her. Priya’s brave and inspiring story flowed forth. With her resilience worn firmly on her face and her engaging personality coming through, her reflections evoked introspection, wistfulness and even laughter.

I use Priya’s own speech patterns. Madam is usually said with a Ma..dam, the last syllable lilting up lyrically as if it is a happy topic. Otherwise, the dam dips down with a tone of seriousness…it is the name she uses for me.

Priya where did you grow up?  I am not from here, from Tamil Nadu. We lived in a house of coconut leaves with mud floor, like a squatter’s village. We had no food, maybe gravy with onions and rice, once at night. I tell my children,”You are lucky.”

Did your father work?  He died, I was five. Preya puts her thumb to her mouth like a soother, indicating that her father was an alcoholic. Four other children, never enough food.

Did your mother work then and take care of you all?  She worked in rice fields, taking the husk. Very hard work Madam, 6 rupees a day.

Your older brothers and sisters, did they go to school?  No, no, no one. Sisters from a convent came to take me, so poor were we Madam. My mother said, “Take her for better life.”

IMG_0124How did you feel, do you remember this?  Oh yes, I was happy. Food was there. The bus ride was far, to Kerala, a convent. Sister Paulina took me. You know Madam, Priya gazes out to the lush rain tree and palm trees beyond for inspiration, coconut leaves were rolled long for lights (torch). Moved back and forth, very pretty at night. And spoons from jackfruit, we eat rice, lots of rice and coconut chutney always there. Priya smiles with the memory of this and I tell her I love this kind of chutney. Oh yes Madam!

Priya what did you do at the convent, did you start school?  Just a little, maybe one month, but no interest. I work, clean, play with children, pick up the coconuts. Madam, then a rich family wants to take me, “Give us Priya,” they said. I was five and a half.

Did you miss your mother, your family?  No Madam, there is nice food, clothes, soap. I go with the family and play with the daughter. I see her go to school and now want to go. I cry to go, but they say no, just housework and playmate for the girl.

Was anything paid to you, or your mother?  Yes Madam, 10 rupees a month. The convent send money to post office, to my mother. The grandmother was nice in the house. At nine, a Sister dies and I’m at convent for a break, but don’t want to go home. Priya works three years in the convent. At twelve years I go to new home. Sometimes now I talk about my family, but they buy me gold earrings, new dress to stay. From five to twelve I don’t see my mother.

Priya, all this time you didn’t study, only worked?  Yes Madam, I’m sorry but what to do, work from five years old. One day I want to see my mother, big arrangement to do this. The sisters ask, “Why Priya, they are still poor.” But I must see my mother, so I go, fifteen day holiday. Madam I don’t know my mother’s face. I go home, my sisters, brothers don’t talk to me. My language is changed. So poor, no study, only playing, no food. Mother work all day. Again I’m hungry. No clean water. Only two days I stay.

Were you sad to leave your family again?  No Madam, only think of food. It’s clear this is difficult for Priya to reconcile. The convent keeps me now to work, mother can come once every two months if want, two long buses away. Madam I like the schedule at convent. 5 a.m.up, church, food, bath and work. Now too old to learn.

For five years Priya’s mother is sent a salary from the convent. They also saved money separately for her dowry.

Madam at seventeen, I’m asked, “Do you want to go to Dehli?” First time for train, happy but a little scared. One sister took me. Delhi very different Madam!

Where did you go in Delhi, to a new family?  Yes, first year was good Madam. A girl there about three, but then the Sir, you know, was slapping my bottom. One night tapping me on the arm, I sleep in the hallway. I tell him, “I will tell!” I cause big problem, no one understands why I want to go back. The Convent comes to get me, three days again Madam on train. And then bad.

What happens Priya?  My mother comes to Sisters and begs for money for my sister’s dowry. She’s old twenty-five, they give my dowry money Madam. I don’t go to wedding, a mess.

Priya that must have been a terrible shock; all those years you worked.  Yes, now the convent says, “Priya go to a convent in Bangalore, Saint Anne’s.” My God Madam, the first time off train there is breath coming from mouths, so cold, like a frozen town. I work Madam like before and now I’m old, twenty-two. Then one day, they tell me rules are change and I must marry.

IMG_9338You didn’t go back home of course, you had no choice but to marry?  No this is my life. I dream Madam and Priya laughs at her own naivety at the time, I can watch T.V, cook for my husband, a good life. Her voice trails off at what might have been…

They find money for dowry, 20,000 rupees, earrings and a chain. Some teachers collect saris for me. And Madam, everybody knows husband is a drunk. Me a good convent girl, no family wants him. And mother too, a drunk.

I’m so sorry Priya. Yes Madam, what I’m thinking, she pauses for some time, I trusted the Sisters. I remember a cleaning lady at engagement party, “The boy is a drunk,” she says and someone says shhh! But too late, maybe sisters know.


Where did you live after the wedding?  
A place Tannery Road, everybody drunk, even now I would never take children there. Fifteen days after marriage, he says, “Go to work,” the mother-in-law, “George B……Why is she sitting there, send your wife to work!” Priya laughs and repeats it twice in a threatening voice. My dreaming is finished. Madam I’m happy you’re writing.

So am I Priya. You are an inspiration, everything you’ve been through. So you went to work housekeeping, what did your husband do?  Worked in a small shop, TV repair but only drank. The Sisters came and talked to him four times, but Madam, what to do…nothing changed.

Priya would quickly become pregnant. A kindly family she worked for allowed her to rest at work, offering her extra food. With no one to collect her from the hospital after the birth, the pattern of neglect and abuse began. Priya was able to take the baby to work with her; she cannot imagine not having had this ‘refuge’. Unfortunately the family moved out of state. An incident soon after the birth of Priya’s second child, left her fearing for her life. She felt she had no choice but to flee from her husband with her two young children – with no money, no job and nowhere to go.

Priya persevered and bravely worked her way through these most difficult times. I am aware of other details of her heart-rending story but much of it is too personal to publicly share. Her resolve, determination, maternal instincts and loving character is an inspiration to me…a poignant emblem of the strength of womanhood.

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Sometime last year, despite being detached from her family for all those years, Priya took her children on the long bus trip back to the village in Tamil Nadu to pay respect to her mother,”Madam, no cross is on her grave, I must do it.”

It says much about her character that she had the charity and compassion to make this journey for a family which has not been a part of her life. I sense that she views herself as the ‘lucky one’ having been given to the convent as a young girl.

When I show this blog to Priya before I press publish, she sees her photos and laughs her infectious laugh, “Madam, to the world?” she asks. I tell her that I do know much of the rest of her story, but it isn’t printed here. “You know Madam?” Tears well in our eyes.

“Yes Priya, you are very brave.”

“Madam,” she says reflectively, “I wasn’t strong then, not like now. I tell my daughter she must study, she must be strong.”

Priya’s story…the cadence of an Indian neighbourhood, part one

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has inspired me to write. To write of her courage of overcoming a difficult past and of capturing the lives of all the hard-working people in our neighbourhood. Allow me first to paint a picture…

It has been busy these past few months; trips to Brunei, Singapore, Bangkok and a road trip in India. Our comings and goings every other week bewilder the staff of our five-family apartment building; a gardener, two security guards, a manager and Priya, our housekeeper. They are very much a part of our everyday life.

“Madam, where going now?” Boran our gardener typically asks when he sees me with luggage in the porticoed entrance. When I tell him my destination, he looks at me quizzically, “Airplane?”

“Yes by airplane Boran, back in seven days. Sir is back in four.” ‘Sir’ is my husband,  in deference our names are never used. Not only is the country which I’m traveling to a complete unknown, so is the fact that often my husband and I leave together, yet return at different times. Or I travel alone, leaving Sir to ‘fend for himself’.

“But who will cook his food?” it seems half of the street initially pondered. This question was reconciled as they saw Sir on the street buying his produce from Raj, our vegetable wallah. When my husband revealed that he could cook his own food, there were looks and mutterings of bemusement. “Sir cook himself?” This is something new…

IMG_1577Boran is thirty-two and like many men who work in Bangalore as gardeners or security guards, he is from the north of India. They are a three-day train journey from home, usually taken only once a year. Working from afar, their families remain in the villages, reliant on monthly remittances.

As Boran watered the plants on a recent afternoon, he was eager to share some news. “Madam, I get married.”

“Boran are you getting married, congratulations! Is it arranged?” I already know the answer to this question; it would be unheard of for him to not have an arranged marriage.

“Yes Madam,” he says, scrolling through photos on his phone to present his bride-to-be. She has a kind, cheerful face and I’m relieved to see she is not underaged, often the reality in India. “She twenty-six Madam, very good. Come to wedding Dec. 26?” Boran asks with his boyish smile. When I explain that we’ll be home in Canada at the time, he’s not too concerned and mentions that our day-time security guard Kajul will return soon with some news. “Maybe he married now,” Boran says with a sly grin.
IMG_1581Kajul has replaced our first guard Rajesh Kumar who, a little tipsy one night, took a topple from his bike. A month in his village to heal broken bones was prescribed, but no sign of him yet – the ‘grapevine’ hasn’t provided any answers.

Where Rajesh Kumar was reliable yet often mystifying to communicate with, Kajul is unfailingly good at his job and speaks enough English should an emergency arise.

He is also ever the gentleman. Meeting me half-way down the street if I’m carrying more than one bag. Telephoning as the cry of a wallah heralds a vendor’s arrival,”Good Morning Madam, today vegetables?” Insisting on standing at my open door should a repair or delivery man be present. “Safety Madam,” he says. I’ve missed Kajul while he’s been on leave for his sister’s marriage.

About the same age as Boran and as the head of his household, it was Kajul’s duty to provide the dowry money for his sister. “Maybe Madam, when I come back I married too. But sister first,” he told me before he left. He wasn’t sure if finances would stretch to allow his matrimony, though his mother had someone in mind. We shall know in a matter of days when he returns.

Kajul has worked in the Middle East, a desired location I learn from some of the security guards who man almost every apartment building, stores of any repute, schools, clubs, etc. The job is monotonous with twelve hour shifts of sitting and waiting…perhaps a visitor, a delivery, a vehicle to open the gate for.

The guards are a club unto themselves and nothing escapes their attention. When Sir recently had to climb down a ladder from our balcony to get to work at 6:30 a.m. (the lock had jammed), he was updated on the state of affairs as he turned onto our road at 5 p.m. The gaggle of guards in front of the jewellery store chuckled knowingly. “Sir, climbing down this morning? Locksmith here, all fixed now!”

On our street of three villas, three businesses, two apartments buildings and a private school, there are never fewer than a dozen guards at any time of the day. We know most of them and are greeted with a wave, a Namaskara, or a chat. “Madam going for lunch?” “Where is Sir now?’ “Sir, have not seen Madam for two days?”

And we learn of their lives. George Fernandez worked for years overseas, “Happy home now Madam, how is it in India?” he asks, peering through smudged glasses. He springs his roly-polly figure up from his chair each time I walk past. He tells me about his children, “some in university now”, the satisfaction radiating from his proud face…years of working away from his family now just a memory.

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Another ‘on-duty’ sits under the welcome shade of a large banyan tree. Vijay Kumar is a tall man with the countenance of a doctor or a lawyer. He also courteously rises from his chair with a greeting. “Good morning Madam, where going?” he asks on a recent morning. I tell Mr. Kumar  I’m on my way to the doctor and a look of alarm crosses his face. Reassuring him it’s nothing serious, I ask about his grandson. “Oh fine, fine,” he replies, pulling out a wallet-sized photo, “And now a name is there Ma’am.”

Mr. Kumar announced last month that he had become a grandfather and also informed us that the baby hadn’t yet been named. Following a Hindu tradition called Namakarama, on the fortieth day a baby is blessed, sprinkled with holy water and given its name at a local temple. It was a proud moment when Mr. Kumar could share his grandson’s name with the neighbourhood and distribute the requisite sweets.

Bidding farewell, my direction is the local doctor about three blocks away. It’s a beautiful spring morning; the trees are erupting with blooms, the bougainvillea bursting with lively shades, jack fruit and coconut are plumping up melon-big…I cross the road to avoid an imagined concussion. Mango trees are starting to bear their coveted fruit.
IMG_0121 (1)‘My’ mango tree which I see from my window will be harvested in July. A barefooted climber will scuttle up its massive branches and shake the mangos loose, dropping them onto a sheet, hoisted up at each corner. One after another the mangos will tumble down.

I had been promised last week by Anu, my neighbour across the way, that I must taste some this year. We hadn’t chatted for a few months and finally caught up Sunday morning IMG_2537around Mangalora’s fruit cart. After hugs from both of the ladies, and an admonishment that I am never here, Anu asked if I’m home now. “I leave later this week again Ma’am, I’m a speaker at a conference and will go home to see family.”

While we chose our apples and papayas, Anu asked what I’ll be speaking of and reveals that she had once been a teacher. The congenial Sunday morning chat ended with a “Safe travels and blessings to your family.” I resolved to make a point of getting to know Anu better, hopefully over some delicious mangos.

IMG_0277On this morning I turn the corner onto Lavelle Road, mindful of bikes, rickshaws and laden vegetable carts. A pony-pulled cart surprisingly trots past. Another unexpected sight greets me in front of Sodabottleopenerwallah, a restaurant we’re fond of. A brass polisher has set up in front to polish the tiffin boxes. The waft of red-hot charcoal infuses the air as the wallah heats, scrubs and buffs the small pots used for curries and rices. The sidewalk serves as the wallah’s work bench, ideal for this vital itinerant service.

The charm of our neighbourhood is just this; the traditional with the modern, the unexpected with the reliable.

As I make my way onto the busy main road, nestled in the shade is the usual chai wallah. His customers are gathered around for a morning tea break. He delights in his photo being taken, but the nearby newspaper wallahs don’t have time for such nonsense. They’re gathering their deliveries from stacks piled on the ground…The Times of India, The Deccan Herald, the Bangalore Times. Once strapped onto the back of their bicycles, they’ll be delivered in time for morning coffee.

When I reach the small hospital another block away, I am the only foreigner and curiousIMG_1280 stares greet me as I pay the 500 rupees (10 dollars) for my consultation. The doctor’s professionalism belies his simple surroundings and when he hears that I write, our conversation meanders to authors and history, to the once sleepy and peaceful Bangalore. “This was once the ideal city, so green with a temperate climate,” the doctor says ruefully, reflecting on his more than two decades in the city.

I leave and walk to my corner-store, Asha’s. I don’t know if it has served the community for twenty years, but I imagine so. About as big as an over-sized garden shed, two people cannot pass through its narrow space at the same time, yet the well-stocked shelves never seem to let me down.

Namaste Madam, what today?” Rafik asks, then pulls the items off the shelves as I call them out. He informs me that he finally has some cheese in stock, I’m pleased with this news but it seems I don’t have enough money with me. “Madam, tomorrow is there,” he says tearing a small recipt from its pad. Each item has been handwritten and it seems I’m 639 rupees short. “Thank you Rafik, I’ll come back tomorrow.” I smile to myself as I leave, knowing that my credit is good in the neighbourhood…truly a local now it seems.

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As I arrive back at my street, a busy scene greets me. Raj’s vegetable cart is positioned half-way down, Arun is cycling up with a bag of laundry in need of pressing and the postman is delivering today’s mail. I don’t get a chance to speak with him, but I engage Arun and Raj.

“How long have you been in business Raj,” I ask admiring the decorative touches on his trusty blue cart. It is well- laden, down to its inner compartment stuffed with greens –spinach, coriander, mint and curry leaves. It requires strength and concentration to maneuver this movable shop along the city’s busy streets.

IMG_0095 (1)“Nineteen years Madam, but the cart is new, 2004. Cost 32,000 rupees.”

“That’s a lot Raj,” I confirm, knowing it’s a substantial investment. “Yes,” he agrees and pats the handle of his cart,”and only one driver!”

We both laugh and Raj hands me the handwritten slip of my purchase. He clicks his tongue and shakes his head when I tell him I must go inside to get some money, “Tomorrow is there Madam.”

Arun unlatches a bag of laundry from his bicycle, just collected from a neighbourhood customer. He and his partner Laurence are iron wallahs and set up most days under the shade of ‘my’ mango tree. This bag of clean garments, along with many others awaiting their turn, will be pressed, wrapped in newspaper and delivered by dusk. Arun’s sturdy Atlas bicycle will roll back down the street with the deliveries.

“It’s a good bike Arun,” I offer, noting the brand.

“Yes Madam, Indian made and old.”

I ask how long he’s been in business and Arun seems chuffed to tell me. “First my uncle for 37 years, then dead. Now mine for 7 years.” I suggest to him that his Uncle would be proud and he smiles quietly.

Arun, as with all the wallahs and guards, no longer appear surprised that we choose to interact with them; perhaps they’re pleased to have some interaction as they work through another long day. The word wallah is Sanskrit for keeper and Hindi for doer, it describes these hard-working entrepreneurs well.

I realize that this is the day I truly feel at ease with my life in India. We’ve just celebrated our one year anniversary in the neighbourhood; it’s home.

IMG_0098Just then Priya walks up to start her three hour shift. “Madam, just home? Where were you?” she wants to know as she takes one of the shopping bags.

We walk up the wide steps, to my apartment where a wooden bench from the Middle East sits against my marbled entrance wall. It has welcomed me home in five different countries. We plunk the shopping down on it as we remove our shoes.

I fill Priya in on my morning, “I was at Asha’s and seemed to speak to everyone in the neighbourhood this morning, Mr. Kumar’s baby now has a name Priya. And I had to go to the doctor before I leave at the end of the week.”

“But Madam,” Priya says, her usual vibrant tone turning melancholy. “So long, over one month away?” she says remembering I’ll be gone longer than usual.

As she ties on her apron once inside, Priya asks ,”Madam, still cold in Europe and Canada?”

“Yes still cold, I must pack warm clothes this time.” With this she smiles mischievously then raises her voice in laughter, “Well Madam, enough clothes are there,” Priya says referencing my closets. This I can’t deny, nor that Priya always manages to brighten my day.

Thankfully, her days are brighter now than they once were….Priya’s story will be continued

The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia

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img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.

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The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.

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Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.

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Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.

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img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.

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The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.

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We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…

The joy of womanhood and a Tante…of tulips and hofjes in Amsterdam

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IMG_2279Her name was Klara. She was a true Amsterdammer who rowed the Amstel and cruised the cobbled streets, stylish and carefree on the back of her paramour’s motorcycle.

That was many years ago, just after the second world war, long before she succumbed to old age and a mind stripped of precious memories.

I thought of her this past trip as I strolled from my hotel to the FIGT Conference in Amsterdam. I not only luxuriated in the cool air, but in the Anton Pieck perfection of doll-like houses along serene canals. I take my level of comfort here for granted, yet I owe much of that to Klara who shared it with me eagerly from my first visit.

Not long out of college, I fell head over heels for this city of Rembrandt and IMG_2219Golden Age architecture, of stout upright bikes and tulips in infinite bunches…of tall homes with gables of necks, steps and bells.

From her simple, postage-stamp sized home, Klara seldom joined me, but would send me forth with explicit directions to explore. Then on my return, would relish in every little detail.

To my delight, Klara’s book-shelf was stuffed with musty history books of Amsterdam that I would thumb through, then return exactly to where I had found them. In a small space, everything has its place and she liked things just so; we were quite similar it seems. Klara could be stubborn and delightfully opinionated (a little like all of the women in our family), but she grabbed life and dangled it enticingly before you.

IMG_2490I keenly felt tante (aunt) Klara’s absence one chilly day of exploring. I warmed in a simple cafe; one that serves mushy pea soup and burns long stemmed candles on scratched, worn tables. One where velvet curtains encircle the entrance to keep out the draft and the locals linger over a Heineken.

I longed to practice my Dutch with my great-aunt as I always had and explore with her this neighbourhood that I found myself in, the Jordaan. This had been a working class neighbourhood, where the tanneries once bustled, where masons and road builders had lived. Where stone carvings on building fronts tell stories even today…ah, there lived a cobbler, a builder, a mason, a cooper, or a seller of hot water and heated bricks so you could warm your feet when the fog and damp settled over the canals and froze you to the bone.

IMG_2494These chiseled cartouches implore us to slow down and conjure that time. I come across shops that aren’t fancy and offer ‘stuff’ spullen, places where one can browse endlessly. I see a vision of Klara’s home that once proudly displayed all the trinkets gifted to her…I wonder what happened to it all.IMG_2453

Yet as much as I miss Klara, I hear her Dutch accent echoed in other women that I have the pleasure to meet during my stay. I’m befriended by Patricia at the Van Loon Museum; her English has the same cadence and warmth.

“Are you enjoying the exhibit?” she asks as I’m intently perusing faded receipts from Parisian corset and lingerie shops. They’re arrayed beside an ‘evening wear diary’…so vital was it to not repeat frocks and evening gowns in the social whirl of a wealthy Dutch family at the turn of the century.

Patricia and I continue together and marvel at the exquisiteness of the Mode Exhibit. We appreciate collections of jewellery and fine beaded handbags, then transfix on lush fabric wall-covering that adorns this stately mansion. We admire the chandeliers, detailed family portraits and even modern-day tulips and perfumed roses. I brim over with the richness of, simply…beautiful things.

I sense Patricia is familiar with the giddy lifestyle of cocktail parties, soirees and lovely homes as she relates her ‘swinging’ Paris days. She’s a striking, refined lady of a ‘certain age’ which she reveals to me over a cup of strong Dutch coffee.

“I’ve had it all,”Patricia tells me, “now my life is art galleries, museums and concerts.” It seems this cultured life suits us both and as if to prove it, she implores…

IMG_2207“If you like this, you must see the Catwalk IMG_2192Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum.” Off we go on a sun drenched, yet brisk day, to soak up yet more exquisite fabrics and designs. Gathered from centuries past, as early as the Golden Age when Dutch culture was at its zenith, the creations rotate slowly on an long oblong stage, as if on a sumptuous sushi belt. Enthusiasts of all ages sit at this avant garde fashion show, coveting the delicate, aged designs.

IMG_2241 (1)“Oh how my Tante Klara would have loved this,” I proclaim to my fellow culture lover and relate how years ago Klara had given me a black lacy dress, sleeveless and hand-stitched. She had once worn it with panache; I was thrilled to have it as mine and wore it with infinite pleasure. Klara’s seamstress eye would have devoured this collection that was swirling slowly for appreciative fashion- lovers.

My new friend and I admire the ‘poster’ of the exhibition. Model Ymre Stickma’s image is super-imposed into a print of the voluptuous wedding dress, the elaborate ‘masterpiece’ of the collection. It’s captured by the renowned Dutch photographer, Erwin Olaf. He has her hair deliciously coiffed and her décolletage devilishly exposed; it was the ankles during that period that were seductive and kept hidden under heavy hems.

I take a photo of Olaf’s work, brilliant in its marrying of classic fashion with the vitality of a beautiful, empowered young woman. Prachtig, prachtig, I hear Tante Klara’s approval…superb, superb!

IMG_2214Through the following days I meet many empowered and interesting women. The Families in Global Transition Conference brings many together; they thrive in careers and raise children globally, they are entrepreneurs, authors, publishers, educators, life coaches and more. We network, learn from each other, dine, laugh and lament as one. We comment on how fortunate we are to come together, how marvellous it is to share stories of womanhood against the backdrop of a global life. We hug our farewells, restored and uplifted.

IMG_2506 (1)The company of these kindred spirits comforts me in this first return to Amsterdam; the first time that Klara is no longer here. The last few visits, dementia had stolen her spirit, her creative and inquisitive mind and just a few months ago, her life.

Late one afternoon a few of my friends and I are on our way to dinner. “Come with me,” I say,”there’s a special place I want to show you,” and I guide them off a busy street through a carved, stone archway that reads…Begijnhof. We emerge into a serene setting, the rattle of trams and the whirl of bicycles disappear. The courtyard is quaint with churches and houses that beg you to whisper and reflect.

This tucked-away sanctuary was similar to a monastery for women, the Beguines, a Christian religious order whose members lived in semi-monastic communities. First mentioned in 1346, the Begijnhof is the only medieval almshouse founded in Amsterdam. The last Beguine, Sister Antonia, died here in 1971 and still today, all the inhabitants are female.

IMG_2375Klara first introduced me to this serene oasis, and as I was then, my friends are charmed with its beauty and calm. The houses and churches that line the square are mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries; beautiful in their aged grace as is the elderly lady we encounter.

Shielded from the chilled March air in a camel-coloured fur, she has just placed her walker at a solid wooden door. When we ask if she’s fortunate enough to live in this lovely Begijnhof, she nods and points to the first floor. Books crowd her window sill along with one of those simple brass candle holders…all framed by delicate lace curtains.

We introduce ourselves,”My name sounds much prettier in Hebrew, “she says with an engaging smile and she lingers to speak to us. “Where are you from,” she wants to know and her eyes twinkle even brighter when she hears that we come from various continents and yet live in others. Susan is inquisitive and delighted to hear this and then earnestly tells us to enjoy our time together. It warms my heart to know that these hofjes were once scattered throughout the city, sanctuaries for women.

IMG_2444 (1)A few days later I spend the day with a dear family friend, we were both fortunate to have been the children that Klara never had. Hetty tells me of her final days and the peaceful end.

We had planned this gathering to reminisce. “These are for you,” Hetty says softly, motioning to an array of ‘stuff’ on her dining table…it’s heartwarming that it remains.

There are photos albums with dried flowers from my wedding and pressed heather from a trip to Scotland; moments in time. There’s a tea cup from a visit to Canada and tarnished silver spoons embellished with Delft blue and white.

“Choose some jewellery,” Hetty continues, “and I think you’ll like these.” A passel of thimbles lay close by and my finger-tips brush over the dimpled silver. I know that Klara used them often. She loved stitching and creating of all kinds; it’s what she ‘did.’

Just one woman’s pursuit that fulfilled and gave satisfaction. No, her creations weren’t as beautiful as the lovely things this trip has put before me, but that isn’t what’s important. Engaging in anything from stitching to poetry, from reading to golf, to quilting to hiking, …anything that we women pursue for pleasure, for the joy of womanhood is to be coveted and embraced.

IMG_2579The first thing I had done when I arrived in Amsterdam was to buy tulips, “I’ll need a vase for my bloomen, please Meneer,” I said to my host Pierre when I checked in at the charming Seven Bridges Hotel. As if by design, my room had thick velvet curtains, an armoire and an antique oval table for those tulips and at which to sit and enjoy an evening aperitif. I felt as if I was back at Klara and Alberts, my mothers beloved uncle.

Before departing from the city that I adore and returning to my new home in India, I posted a card to my mother in Canada.

As a ten year-old, she had waved farewell on the S.S. Waterman as her family sailed away for a new life, leaving not only their family but also country behind. She remembers doubting that she’d ever see them, or the Netherlands again. Happily, they have both been a special part of our lives through the years.

That card to my mother was decorated with tulips and I penned the details to her; of remembering Klara, the lovely mementos and time with Hetty, and that she had most certainly been there with me in spirit…it seems that Klara had been as well.

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The Ktunaxa people, Gordie’s story…part two

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The former St. Eugene Mission School on an autumn day

This is a continuation from part one

“My grandmother brought me to the school, it was 1957. We pulled up in a horse and buggy, my brother and sister were already here which helped a little.”

I’m standing with Gordie at the bottom of the steps that lead to the imposing door of the St. Eugene Mission; once a Residential School. It’s easy to imagine the foreboding, the instinctive fear that young Native children like Gordie felt when they entered the school for their first ten month term.

“I was frightened and remember the feeling of resentment towards my grandma. She had helped raise me, it wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t have a choice but to let me go.”

Gordie is tall and lean, his long greying hair topped by a baseball cap. It’s the tradition of many Natives to keep their hair long as it’s an extension of their spiritual self.

Having offered to give me a tour and talk about his time at the school, Gordie greets me warmly this cool autumn morning. He’s just finished his shift as the night-time superintendent of the St Eugene Mission Resort. As a student, Gordie lived and breathed this school, his memories deeply etched. He now walks through it with some measure of peace.

From 1912 to 1970, more than 5000 Native children were removed from their families to comply with the government assimilation program and brought to this school, one of eighty former schools across Canada. However, its perfect postcard setting in the interior of British Columbia is deceptive.

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Refurbished and renewed

“I suppose I was lucky, I was dropped off by a family member. Some kids were left here by Indian Agents, whisked away before their families even knew they were gone.”

Gordie explains the cruel truth that Agents were often paid to ‘round up’ Native children, especially in remote areas. The children were sometimes taken when they ran to a plane that had landed, then spirited away with the promise of a ‘ride’.

“They were given a number, with no consideration of their name, then placed in a Residential School.”

Gordie will tell you that this was by no means the worst of the Residential Schools. The entrance of the former St . Eugene Mission School is now a hotel lobby. It has a welcoming and dignified atmosphere, vastly different than it once was. Solid in their longevity, the red brick walls are invisibly marred with strife and untold hurts. People like Gordie are now willing to tell their story.

“Our hair was chopped off, and from that moment the school did its best to eradicate our language and culture. This is where you waited to be taken away by the nuns to the dormitories.”

‘Indian Hall’, I believe Gordie called it as we begin a tour and conversation that lasts five hours, yet felt like just a few. He points to a black and white photo near the front desk. The image shows a group of older girls, smiling astride their horses, gathered in front of the school.

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Gordie Sebastian with a plaque that pays tribute to his role in the refurbishment of St. Eugene Mission

“Do you know anything about horses?” Gordie asks, pointing to their bridles and saddles. “Does this look like we were poor or wanting? No we had a culture, it was taken away.”

I’m instinctively drawn to the collection of photos in the nearby corridor that I had been so taken with the day before. Gordie reveals parts of his story through these, bringing the images to life with his narrative.

A seemingly typical school is portrayed; a hockey team, the school band, a choir, children in uniforms seated at their desks.

“It looks like you were involved in a lot of activities?” I ask.

“We were. Saturday was hockey, we also had a baseball field,” Gordie tells me.

“Are you in any of these?” I wonder as my finger scans over children positioned in front of the school steps. Standing behind the children are a number of priests and nuns some dressed in black habits, others in white.

“No, I usually had some kind of injury when it was time for photos. One time I had a bruise on my eye from a hockey puck so couldn’t be in it, it might have looked like I had been hit by one of the staff…”

Gordie is referring to the now well-documented mental, physical and sexual abuse, even death, that students suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns who came from afar to work in these schools.

“I didn’t have as many issues as some. I was from one of the more respected Native families so usually safe from the abuse of the staff and other students. My dad held some sway.”

Gordie Sebastian comes from a long line of prominent Ktunaxa who owned and bred horses. He points to a photo of a group of men, four sit on their horses. One of them wears a blanket, tucked-in at the waist.

“That’s my great-grandfather, Sabas, Joseph Sebastian. He was a medicine man.”

A medicine man was a highly respected member of an Indian tribe. They were healers or ‘shaman’ who didn’t believe in bloodshed.

Gordie explains that Sabas and the tribal head at the time, Chief Isadore, believed that no man had the right to erect fences on the Ktunaxa land. This held fast until European and Canadian settlers usurped their ancestral land following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1887. This treaty confined the First Nations peoples to Reserves where many of the Ktunaxa stil live today.

Gordie gestures to the photo of St. Eugene Mission, the once cluster of tipis and houses around the church where his forebears would have gathered.

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Red brick walls

He shows me a detail that had escaped me. A house stands with the top of a tipi sticking out from its roof. Like most First Nations, the Ktunaxa people didn’t adapt well to the confines of a house.

“That’s Indian Pete’s house, set his tipi up in the middle of it.”

In another photo dated 1887, a man dressed in baggy trousers and a waist coat stands in front of the St. Eugene Church. He smiles widely, beside him is a priest. They seem to know each other.

“That’s Father Coccola and Indian Pete. They paid to have the church built. In fact Indian Pete paid our way into heaven,” Gordie says with a  chuckle.

Gordie is open and candid as he explains the more serious and devastating impact the Residential Schools have had on generations of First Nations people.

“But I’ve also been told by some people that these were the best of days, away from poverty and their alcoholic parents on the Reserves.” Gordie explains that many parents weren’t well adapted to parenting as they only saw their children during the two-month summer break and perhaps for a few hours once every three weeks. Also, many of them had been students themselves; their own wounds ever present.

“My father was a student here, he never told me but I think he had been sexually abused. He always checked us for signs.” Gordie says quietly.

We talk about the Priests and Nuns whose frequent indifference to their students’ humanity exacted so much pain.

“Some of the priests weren’t that bad, but the nuns were battle-axes. Some of them could teach well enough but they had little or no compassion. Through their actions we were taught hate. It was drilled into our heads that we were useless…little more than savages.”

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The healing power of the tipi

Perhaps because of Gordie’s influential family, he reports having pushed the envelope a little further than other students. By the time he was a young teenager, he railed against his situation.

“One time I argued with a nun over a basic fact that she was teaching,” Gordie confided. “Now you know that St. Eugene Mission sits between two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Purcells. Well she had the two ranges mixed up and I told her so. We argued back and forth, I wasn’t backing down. All of a sudden she hit me and I pushed back.”

Gordie was made to sit in the Priests’ office for the day as punishment. Once he told his side of the story, he wasn’t reprimanded further.

“Did she teach the correct mountain ranges after that,” I ask.

“Oh no, she kept telling us the wrong thing,” he says, making light of the story all these years later.

But not all punishment was that easy. Male students who ran away from the school were often found again by the Indian Agents and returned to the school. For the next two weeks they were forced to dress as girls. As shaming as this would have been, it pales into comparison of other punishments that Gordie leaves untold.

I’m particularly haunted by Gordie’s accounts of the tuberculosis outbreaks. Nodding to a photo of a clearly ill student, his head bandaged, he precedes to tell me of the infectious conditions that existed in the school.

“That student had TB, he shouldn’t have been with other students,” Gordie says ruefully. The rate of deaths in the schools from influenza and TB far exceeded that of anywhere else in Canada.

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The St. Eugene Mission Resort and Golf Course

Unlike many Residential Schools, only one death occurred here.

“This is her,” Gordie says pointing to a young girl. “She died when snow fell onto her from the roof. It’s good that her relatives have been here. Her name was Anette.”

Gordie and I have coffee in the former chapel. It’s being readied for a function and we sit at a long table that will soon be set with linen and fine china. I’m told that healing occurs at St. Eugene on a regular basis. As painful as it is, many former students and their families return to confront the hurts of the past.

“The tipi outside is there for a reason. Even as the school was being re-purposed, it was provided for prayers and counselling.”

We glance out towards the tall white canvas. I learn that the poles of a tipi represent the different spiritualities of all people, yet they are bound together as one.

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A painting of Elder Mary Paul

“Facing the past is difficult, but it brings peace. Just as Elder Mary Paul gave us the permission to do so.”

Gordie had pointed out the painting of Elder Paul as we entered the lobby. It is with her blessing that the re-construction of this building was undertaken.

We make our way upstairs to the ‘inner sanctuary’ of the school. Now mostly hotel rooms, Gordie points out the areas which were once dormitories, kitchens and mess halls. The rooms of the nuns and priests were close by.

My sense of this building’s history is suddenly very real. I’m shown the place where Gordie’s bed had stood. We look toward the window and beyond, where the road lies.

“At least I was able to look out of the window and see my father or grandfather pass on the road once in a while. Many kids were far, far from home.”

I’m shown where a young boy stood on a precarious ledge while attempting to run away. I see the burn marks from two arson attempts on the school. I become emotional as I contemplate the daunting stairs that girls as young as four had to negotiate in the middle of the night to go to the washroom. I feel their loneliness, the longing for their home, the yearning for a mother’s touch.

“There are 68 stairs,” Gordie tells me. “I should know, it was my job to sweep and scrub them.”

He tells me it was here that a young student was kicked down the stairs by a priest, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. Thankfully he lived.

a-first-nation-partnership-success-story-8-638“One of the workers saw it happen and pinned the priest up against the wall by the throat. He warned him never to hurt a student again,” Gordie recounts. “The next day we noticed that all of the straps had been removed from the classrooms.”

As the students reached their mid teens, I imagine control must have become more difficult. By the time Gordie is this age, one of the ‘Fathers’ uses government money to fund a swimming pool and provide horses for the students. Gordie takes on the role of the ‘horse guy.’

“Finally on Sunday afternoons we were allowed to leave the school premises and ride free on our land.”

I agree with Gordie how important that must have been; that sense of independence and freedom. This also evolved naturally as the older students were sent to a local school to complete their education.

“It didn’t get much better for us. We weren’t Native anymore and we weren’t ‘white’, so we didn’t fit in. We were ‘apples’…white on the inside but red on the outside.”

Gordie was eventually asked to leave his new school over an incident that he didn’t explain. When his father found out, he was also told to leave the house. He was 17 and on his own; he went north to work in the logging industry.

I don’t hear the entire story of the years between then and now. But I know a number of family members passed away because of alcohol abuse. I know Gordie is raising the young daughter of a relative who still battles with the trauma of Residential School.

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Solace and Peace

I also know that Gordie is one of the good guys. Not only is he helping to heal his own family, but also many of those who walk through the doors of St. Eugene Mission. They seek solace and peace from the past.

I admire Gordie greatly.

An autumn of colour, a discovery of the Ktunaxa people…part one

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“Dappled with crimson, copper and golden leaves”

There are times when a story travels along an unexpected path, bringing you to a place you were hesitant, yet curious to venture into. Once enveloped and drawn into its emotion, you know you must share it.

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Fall, against a blue metal roof

I set out with the intention of writing something less significant than the story that unfolded. I simply wanted to convey the splendour of autumn in Kimberley and the East Kootenays.

This broad valley, book-ended by the Purcell mountains and the Rockies, is ablaze with colour. Nature has dappled crimson, copper and golden leaves onto a backdrop of stately pines and tall firs…a vast Monet canvas, breathtaking in its scale. Evening skies parade spectacular vistas as alpenglow brushes lavender and indigo over jagged peaks. Each dusk comes just that little bit earlier as autumn settles in and winter looms.

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Hues of autumn

It’s unusual that I’m here to appreciate this season. This time last year I had just joined my husband in Kazakhstan and recall yearning for the hues and trappings of autumn.

It’s now before me; a riot of nature, a time of harvest and impending hibernation. I marvel at the changes in our yard/garden where deep ruby leaves cling to barbed branches, nature’s natural deer proofing. Delicate red maple leaves flutter onto the lawn, each one cookie-cutter perfect. I see the familiar doe grazing nearby. Her two fauns have grown through the summer, their white Bambi-like patches now replaced by a thick coat that will warm them through the first winter.

A trail of delicate leaves

A trail of delicate leaves

And so I’ve revelled in these tranquil days…treasuring time with friends and family, savouring walks through fallen leaves, climbing the ski hill to be awed and inspired. An early dusting of snow on the mountains hints at nature’s march of the seasons.

In the spirit of autumn, I sign up for a canning workshop. We chop plump tomatoes, garlic, onions and luscious peppers. Large steaming canning pots transform the colourful chunks into flavourful homemade salsa. We work together to sieve the recipe into tiny mason jars, dunking them back into boiling water to preserve.

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Plump tomatoes and luscious peppers

Mason jars of prized preserves

Throughout the evening we laugh and learn with new people. I meet Dirk from Wildsight. He and his colleagues work within the community to protect regional ecology and promote sustainable lifestyles. Organizing grass-root events and workshops along with the Kimberley Farmer’s Market, Wildsight champions many issues that locals are passionate about.

As we leave the workshop with our prized preserves, Dirk implores us to use the Open Gate Garden, a communal vegetable patch.

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Kimberley Open Gate Garden

“You don’t have to work in it, but there’s still vegetables to be had,” he says encouragingly. Taking him on his word, the next day I fill a small basket of tasty sharp arugula and leafy kale. I chide myself that I hadn’t known about the garden throughout the summer but resolve to do some weeding here next summer. A meagre contribution for the opportunity to pick fresh produce at will. Vegetable gardens in Kimberley are typically fenced from the groups of deer that roam and help themselves to weeds, flowers and those elusive veggies.

The mingling of reds

The mingling of reds

Colours beckon at every turn. Metal roofs of reds, greens and blues cap many buildings in Kimberley; vivid backdrops for the changing foliage. More importantly metal sheeting is practical, helping shed the thick blankets of winter snow…to be honest the odd spring or autumn snowfall as well!

“Vivid backdrops for the changing foliage”

This technique of roofing, adapted in Quebec in the late 18th century, was referred to as ‘metal roofing Canadian style.’ Wonderfully they suit this mountain town. Actually Kimberley is a small city, competing with a few others as the city with the highest elevation in Canada.

On one of those rare Sundays that I’m alone, I drive a short while and take a walk on a warm, cloudless afternoon. With my tinkling bear bell and pepper-spray ready at my hip, I climb a butte, an almost conical hill rising from the valley floor. It’s a walk that invites reflection…it overlooks the traditional land of the Ktunaxa, the Kootenay.

I gaze out over barbed wire and faded green fence posts, out to distant horses grazing in tawny fields. The majestic Rocky Mountains rise above this ancestral home of the Ktunaxa. I’ve tramped through here before but today I linger, conjuring an image of a time when horses roamed free and tipis dotted the landscape.

Looking out the land of the Ktunaxa

Gazing out to the land of the Ktunaxa

A mere 130 years ago, this land was all theirs. They were not nomadic people ‘just passing through’. They had hunted, fished and gathered in this territory for more than 10,000 years. The Ktunaxa lived a spiritual life, in complete rhythm with the land. Obtaining all their food, medicine, clothing and shelter from nature, their reverence for this land was rooted in their culture. Then it all changed…abruptly.

A few days later, I find myself on their reserve, ostensibly to take a few photos. Or was it with the hope that I’d learn something, draw someone into conversation, make a connection?

St. Eugene Mission Church

St. Eugene Mission Church

I meet Dorothy Alpine.

I drive into the ‘new’ school yard of the Ktunaxa. The playground is alive with chatter. The school is attractive with its basic architecture, standing in the shadow of St. Eugene Mission Church. I take photos of the church and its fading white facade. Its precarious yet enduring steeple and crosses, all set against an impossibly blue sky. Built in 1897, it seems out of place on this patch of open prairie, encircled by low rolling hills that merge into the mountains beyond.

I soon chat with a lady enjoying the afternoon sun and casually ask about the history of the church. I broach that other subject; the old school, the former ‘Indian Residential School’ across the road.

“You’re in luck!” she tells me. “There’s Dorothy driving up, she’s the one you should speak to.”

I’m introduced and Dorothy graciously invites me into the school. As the Traditional Knowledge and Culture Instructor for this tribe of the Ktunaxa, the St. Mary’s band, she is committed to preserving the history and culture of her people. She is petite with a warm smile and kind eyes.

A steadfast steeple and crosses

steeple and crosses

“This was all the St. Eugene Mission,” Dorothy says, the sweep of her hand indicating not only the church, but also encompassing the cluster of wooden houses and tipis that surrounded it at the end of the 19th century.

“Right here was the meeting place of our people, the tribes of the Ktunaxa whose land stretched to the areas of Creston, Fairmont, Windermere and into Alberta, Montana, Washington and Idaho.” I would later read it was a vast 70,000 square kilometres of land; the size of Scotland.

Dorothy takes the time to write the names of the other ‘bands’ in the Ktunaxa language. Zaq’am she writes for St. Eugene Village.

Dorothy Alpine, framed by a colourful rendition of the 'new' school

Dorothy Alpine, with a colourful painting of the ‘new’ school

“Back in my grandfather’s time, about 1884, there was already a one room school that the missionaries had set up. Eventually Father Coccola was put in charge here.”

Father Nicolas Coccola was French and ventured to the ‘wilds’ of Western Canada in 1881. He would ultimately spend 63 years as a missionary, working with eight different First Nation Tribes. Tasked with the charge of St. Eugene Mission in 1887, Father Coccola also taught, provided medical attention and built houses. He had the help of the Sisters of Providence.

“They did a lot of good,” Dorothy says, “but we didn’t adapt well to houses. Our houses were mostly tipis, we had the first mobile homes after all,” she quips with a chuckle.

“Is it true that Father Coccola built the St. Eugene church, I hear most of it was transported from Italy?”

“Yes that’s true but it wasn’t just him, there was Indian Pete as well.”

I learn that soon after Coccola arrived in the area he staked a claim with a partner, Pierre Cronin, or Indian Pete as he was known. They had discovered valuable ore. Before long the St. Eugene mine yielded a good return, allowing both men to contribute to the the building of St. Eugene Mission Church.

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Explaining the creation story of the Ktunaxa

Dorothy explains that despite the Ktunaxa’s creation story, they believe that different beliefs are all under one God. Going to church was therefore a continuation of their spiritual experience to some extent and most importantly, a meeting place.

The Government and the arrival of European settlers had not only stripped the First Nations of vast amounts of land (which led to Indian Reserves) but also of their right to hold traditional gatherings and ceremonies, such as the potlatch. Thus for many of the Ktunaxa, the church was very much a compromise for what they had lost.

The Mission grew into a self-supporting community with the first flour mill in the region, a school and hospital. Yet I know that things changed drastically in 1912; the year that St. Eugene Mission School was built.

Residential schools were established by the government with the intent of ‘taking the Indian out of the child’ and assimilation to the ‘white man’s culture’. The St. Eugene Mission was the first comprehensive ‘Industrial and Residential’ school to be built in the Canadian West.

It’s a striking Spanish-Colonial style building that rises abruptly out of the prairie, incongruous even in its stately beauty. I’m well aware that the walls of these former Residential schools hold stories that are difficult to comprehend.

“Dorothy did you go to the school?”

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St. Eugene Mission area in the late 1800’s

“Oh yes and my two sisters as well, we had no choice. Our parents would have gone to jail if we hadn’t.”

I learn that Federal law dictated that all First Nation children were to attend Residential schools; to be assimilated and stripped of their language, culture, even their families.

But Dorothy relates mostly good stories of learning the basics and valuable skills.

“Some of the nuns were better teachers than others, I remember singing away most of grade 5, didn’t learn much that year.”

When I ask how often she was allowed to see her parents, Dorothy tells me that it was only the third Sunday of each month, and two months in the summer. She doesn’t dwell on it and brings the conversation back to the present-day.

“Things are getting better. Our children are learning but also exposed to their own language and culture again. We hold pow wows every summer, we’re trying to move forward.”

After expressing my thanks and taking leave, the storied building across the road beckons to me. It didn’t close until 1970 when the government changed their policy. A plan to turn it into a facility for psychiatric care faltered. Stripped of its original fixtures and artifacts, it lay abandoned for more than twenty years; a constant reminder for the Ktunaxa people of that dark period.

Eventually the Ktunaxa, the Samson Cree Nation and Chippewa’s of Rama First Nations formed a partnership. Since the early 2000’s, the transformed building has welcomed people far and wide as the St. Eugene Mission Resort, Golf Course and Casino.

It’s a success story of healing, through rebuilding. By sheer determination and tenacity, an old Indian Residential School has become a powerful economic engine, but not before families and former students were invited back to confront and lay the ghosts of the past.

Dorothy had made this very clear. “Our beloved elder Mary Paul gave us the strength to go forward.” In 1984, Elder Paul had declared, “Since it was within St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”

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The St. Eugene Mission with Fisher Peak rising in its shadow

It’s late afternoon by now and I walk almost reverently through the Resort. The walls of the former school have been stripped down to the original reddish brick and they do seem to talk. Many beautifully framed black and white photos from the school days are arranged along the solid walls; I have a thousand questions. I sit in the cozy Fisher Peak lounge, the Peak itself framed brilliantly through the tall paned windows.

I ask the waitress if she knew what this room had been in the school.

“If you want to know more, you should speak to Gordie, our night watchman. His father came here, as did he. He knows pretty much everything.”

At that point, I want the full story to unfold full circle. Around me people are dining and enjoying a drink, staff members both First Nations and non, work side by side. Great strides have been made.

I leave my number, hopeful, but not fully expecting a call. My phone rings at 7:15 the next morning.

It’s Gordie. “I just got off work and was given your number. I hear you want to come for a tour and talk.”

I arrive at 10 that morning, notebook in hand…I leave at 3 in the afternoon.

To be continued….

Alpenglow on the Rockies

Alpenglow on the Rockies

They’ll be home…where the garden is, where memories live

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The pond, for fishing and skating

Our evening stroll offered swooping owls, waddling ducks and darting dogs. The sun sunk low into a newly planted field that borders the acreage, we call it home…’the farm.’ I’ve made my way back to Canada to surprise my parents for their 40th Anniversary, returning to a plot of land that embodies nature’s bounty, a lifetime of work and more memories than can be captured on film. But there’s no need; the images are imprinted on our hearts, embedded into our collective family memory.

This land, a grain field forty years ago, is now an oasis with towering blue and white spruce, and ponderosa pine that shelter from howling north winds. The grass is verdant this spring, its rich emerald hue a backdrop for flowers in bloom, golden spurge and delicate May Day trees.

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At the garden shed

These are the prairies of Western Canada where settlers have arrived for the past few hundred years; enticed by fertile farm land, hopeful for idyllic homesteads and new beginnings.

From their European homelands they ventured by ship, uncertain of what the future held. They journeyed onward by train, along the newly laid Canadian Pacific Railway, disembarking at communities across this vast country.

As with my mother’s family in the ’50’s, many arrived from the Netherlands, risking all for a new life; hard work and toil yielded success. Proud, new citizens in a welcoming land. Some settlers trekked from the east or the U.S. in caravans of wagons, stacked high with furniture and family. The wagon parked on the acreage from my father’s family, is a proud reminder of their storied journey. Now a backdrop for a yellow rose bush, it was once a means of transport. A working wagon for hauling hay, feed, grain to elevators.

Quiet country roads

Quiet country roads

In my family, you garden, work in the yard, grow things, landscape and stroll the land; just as our ancestors have done. Is it in your blood, this need to commune with the land, I feel it is. I felt it wouldn’t be spring for me until I could dig a little, plant, walk the dogs along scented lilacs and quiet country roads.

And so, I’ve come home to my parents and I find them where they should be…where I’m delighted to be.

They’re ambling below dreamy blue skies, dogs nudging at their sides and geese gliding over sky. I’ve found them plucking asparagus, planting gladiolas and poking hollyhock seeds into tilled earth. It’s time to cut first grass, take the ‘storm plastic’ off and let the deck breath, prepare the planters and the ‘beds’. Soon the kitchen table will display their bounty; bouquets of lupins, tulips, dahlias, peonies, lilacs and glads.

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Tulips in bloom

My parents awaken, work and stroll to a symphony of cooing, cawing; a melody of birds. Plump robins, doves, meadowlarks and elusive owls. Partridges, pheasants, hawks and cowbirds chirp and squawk. Butterflies flutter and bees flit past, en route to blossoms and buds.

Where grandchildren played and played

Where grandchildren played and great- grandchildren now play

Under billowy clouds, skunks duck into warrens and gophers tunnel, deer prance through fields past gangly hares. The dogs wait patiently on a weathered deck as we have a ‘wee dram’ at dear, long time neighbours. Storm clouds brew, awakening our senses as we rush home through the shelter belt of trees.

These glorious days of spring find us reminiscing of grandchildren that grew up in this haven of outdoor activity. My children who were raised on different continents, came here…to be home.

Towering elms

Towering elms

Here, with cousins, they learned how to skate on a frozen pond and ‘hold on tight’ for tractor-drawn sleigh rides. How to build snow forts and duck snowballs. Summers passed in perpetual movement…running barefoot over green lawns, soaked and squealing. ‘Secret missions’ played out through trees and fields. Golf carts, bikes and trikes circled the yard, eager for an adventure.

It’s here they played ball, built campfires and gazed at a million stars. Where Grandpa taught them how to fish, to golf, to ‘drive a standard’ in a rusty, green pickup truck. Where Grandma ensured they knew how to play ‘Texas Hold Em’, sing ‘Hollandse leidjes’ and bake waffle cookies. Yes, it’s here they came to bond with family, find their roots, to become…Canadian.

This oasis has been a constant in our lives, a refuge on the beloved flatlands of the prairies. I find my parents offering the same inviting hospitality that has always been for my family, since the day I was married…here, on this land. The elms and pines are taller now, the wagon more weathered and the kitchen table a little scuffed from hearty meals and lively gatherings.

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Grandfather’s wagon

And as it was recently when I crept into their home from halfway around the world, it was as always, gezillig…that Dutch word for cozy. The surprise was genuine; as were the friends and family here to celebrate these two special people. I know we’re fortunate to live and travel the world. Yet, we have a haven to come home to…it’s just east of Barnwell*, Alberta, Canada. And my parents, I’ll find them here…home.

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An Anniversary surprise

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The colour of beehives

*Barnwell is not named after a barn and a well, but after William Barnwell who immigrated from England. His family dates back to the Baron de Barnwell who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066

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An early spring bouquet

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The neighbour’s barn

Every market tells a story…

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Tomatoes with a story

You’ll remember when I wrote my first dispatch from Kazakhstan I hoped for… “a labyrinth of streets and souks that come to life; exotic scenes, smells and intrigues.” I’m pleased to report that such markets are here in Aktau, at least three. They are lively, authentic and represent certain aspects of Eurasian culture and hospitality. Is a market not a place that tells stories and allows glimpses into cultures? I believe that to be true and so I give you….

Three markets known for their meat, fruit, vegetables, spices, plastic goods, cheap clothes and more.

Markets, where many of the vendors are from other lands. Home is Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan; all those new Republics that were suddenly cut adrift from the Soviet Union, encountering unprecedented challenges in the years since. Some people have struggled, the next generation has found it easier.

“Many poor people,” Samira, my Azeri friend tells me.

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A simple market display

We are at the small Volna Market, stalls and stores just off a busy, main street. When the vendors discover that Samira is from Azerbaijan, she is surrounded.

“Please send greetings back home,” they say wistfully…they are homesick. A lady with striking red lipstick and tidy blond hair wraps smoked fish then puts her hand to her heart.

“I’m from Sakhalin, Russia,” she says, seeming lonely despite the bustle around her. Perhaps like many, she was sent here as a dissident, never finding her way back home.

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The friendly vendor from Azerbaijan

 

 

 

 

Eager for our attention, the vendor across the way gestures to her pyramid of eggs. I gladly buy some; she is ecstatic to have her photo taken, to have chatted with Samira in her native language. She pecks me on the cheek bidding farewell, pressing her jolly self against me for a friendly hug. Of course, being at the market with a ‘local’ is a different experience. Even our taxi driver has refused to leave us, now willingly laden with our purchases. He chuckles alongside the humourous Samira; I chide myself for not having kept up my Russian lessons.

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Warm smiles

On other days at two of the larger markets, my husband and I are mostly made to feel welcome. Tea and dumplings are offered, photos taken, stilted but eager conversation. Always we’re asked, ‘Which country are you from?’

“Ah, Canada good, Ottawa?”…our capital they know. Yet on one occasion, we are thought to be suspicious and we’re followed, told brusquely to put the camera away. I comply until I’ve turned the corner.

We buy produce that journeyed across the country by train, from the fertile region of Kazakhstan. Staples such as apples from Almaty. This mountainous area in the Southern part of the country is the ancestral home of the apple…of all apples on earth, genetecists have recently confirmed.

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‘Azerbaijani pomegranates’ and Almaty apples

Many of the ‘greens’ arrive from across the Caspian, grown by the Azeris, the Georgians. The vegetables are plentiful but one day I’m refused service. I’m too choosy about the tomatoes I am selecting. The vendor shoos me away with a scowl, a holler and a flick of her hand. I’m offended until I ponder, Does her family have memories of the ‘hunger winters?‘ Those that starved; the fate of half of the Kazakh population in the winters of 1931-33…Stalin’s forced collectivization. I regret being picky about which tomatoes I was piling into my bag. Perhaps everyone should take some over-ripe and some firm, just thankful that there is food.

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The essential sheep’s head

Meat is ample and readily available as Kazakh culture dictates.

Here, they opine that chicken is merely a vegetable; sheep, beef and horse reign. Vital to any celebration, or dastarkhan, a sheep’s head is displayed and served first to the honoured guest. Then carved bit by bit; a piece of ear given to children, to be careful, to listen well. A smidgen of tongue to become more expressive. The eyes are delicacies, to seek wisdom. The brain, the best bit of all.

The dastarkhan still heeds the ancient ritual of showing respect to guests, to the elderly and relations. And ideally, this is accompanied by shots of vodka, with plentiful toasting, usually every five minutes or so. The most senior starts it off and it goes from there. I have experienced this custom often…a toast, a shot (I forego the vodka), a toast, a shot…the third toast always salutes the ladies. I shall miss this tradition, as it poignantly imbues festivities with meaning and respect. Between the vodka, ample food, speeches and dancing if possible, a Kazakh celebration is not to be missed. But more of the ever present meat…

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Bit by bit…

Besbarmak is boiled meat served in large hunks. Shashlik is marinated meat on a stick, often eaten at roadside cafes. Ulpershek is a dish made from the heart, aorta, and fat of a horse. Prepared in a kettle, it’s often shared between sisters-in-law as a sign of unity. Kazy is a sausage eaten in the spring when a cow has a new calf, sometimes served with rice. Mypalau is a dish made from sheep’s brain. Put the brain in a wooden bowl, add marrow, pieces of meat, salted fat in broth and garlic. On and on, go the meat recipes.

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‘Fresh Meat’

Kazakh culture dictates that bread is never wasted. Furthermore, Kazakh hospitality demands that one must not leave a house without ‘at least having eaten a crumb.’

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The ‘Naan’ baker

One doesn’t actually see much bread at these markets, but we peek into a naan bakery. The scent of fresh baking from the tandoor enticing us to enter. The baker poses proudly while I openly covet his old, weighty scale.

In our market visits, I had been intrigued by white, stone-like pieces that are displayed amongst spices, pulses and grains. Imprinted with knuckle-marks, they have a haunting story to tell.

In the desolate and remote Kazakh hinterland, once stood the gulag, the network of Soviet era concentration camps. The harsh weather and the impossible distances made escape futile. One such gulag, Alzhir, was solely for women and children. Their only ‘crime’; being, a wife, mother, or child of a man convicted of ‘betrayal of the motherland.’

Local villagers, risking their own lives, secretly tried to ease the prisoners’ hunger by throwing ‘stones’ at them. The guards delighted in this…’even your own kind throw stones at you!’ But the ‘rocks’ were actually hand formed, dessicated pieces of cheese curd, kurt. To this day, they are reminders of the repugnant man-made hells and of thousands of lost, innocent lives.

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Kurt on display

When I see kurt in the markets, I am reminded of my Dutch grandmother’s own wartime experiences. She would tell us sternly, yet lovingly, that ‘alles moet op’…you must eat everything on your plate.

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Knitted socks…from women prisoners

On a chilly day a few months ago, it wasn’t food that I bought at the market, but something to warm me. Two things in fact, both reminding of my stoic grandmother. First, a cozy pair of knitted socks, crafted by women prisoners…from dog hair. I remember my grandmother often knitting or crocheting. Through her life she also embodied resourcefulness; drawing from her frugal upbringing, from raising children during the Second World War, to the harsh realities of being new immigrants in Canada.

Across the alley, a welcoming lady nods to her wares; she has crocheted slippers. They are just as my grandmother had made for me. I remember choosing the colour of Phentex I wanted; they are long since frayed and worn.

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‘My grandmother’s slippers’

 

I take my time deciding on a pair, thinking of Margje, knowing she’d be amused at finding ‘her slippers’ in such a faraway place. And the story of the kurt would have resonated with her, having suffered through her own ‘hunger winters.’ I think of her, and of all the ladies whose own trials are etched on their faces. I can’t hear all of their stories, but I can look into their eyes with sincerity and a smile…I can make contact. There is no language barrier to that.

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New friends from Uzbekistan, after tea and dumplings

 

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A mishmash of goods

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A rainbow of plastic

 

 

A lovely Kazakh bride and her ‘prince of the hearth’…

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The lovely bride, Rysgul at her ‘first’ wedding

I first met Rysgul at our hotel where she works in sales.  It was a fleeting moment and our paths didn’t cross again until a recent cocktail evening. I was immediately struck by her warmth and we chatted easily.  When I asked what her name meant, Rysgul replied “It means ‘kind flower.” Her name suits her perfectly; she has a modest grace and classic Kazakh beauty, embodied in dark enchanting eyes and glossy black hair.

“I’m a newlywed,’ she happily announced early into our conversation.  After congratulating her, I steeled myself to ask the question, curiosity getting the better of me. “Did you marry a ‘prince of the hearth?’ “I did,” Rysgul beamed, “so yes, I now live with my husband and his parents.’ I was referring to the Kazakh tradition of the youngest son taking the role of…’prince of the hearth.’  It is his duty to live with and care for his parents.  When one marries ‘the prince’, custom dictates that the bride moves to his childhood home.  This new extended family isn’t for a month or a year; it’s a life long commitment. Rysgul explained that she was raised to respect this tradition and is proud, as is her family, that she’s now in this role.  When I ventured that this would be considered unusual in many Western cultures, she did not waver or appear to desire it any other way.

Rysgul is a modern woman, yet committed to traditions that bind this area of Kazakhstan together, more so than other parts of the country. “I’d love to hear more about your culture,” I said, ‘and of course your wedding.  I’m also curious about your striking wedding jackets and the unique hats you wear.’ Having noticed countless weddings at the hotel, the premier venue in the city, the questions were already forming in my mind. “Yes the kamzol and saukele, we could do an interview if you’d like?” Rsygul responded graciously. What followed the next day was a delightful two-hour conversation and an outing to the award winning showroom, Nur Shah.  It was an unexpected insight into the journey of a modern day bride, one that is still very much layered with tradition.

 Where did you meet your husband Rysgul, how long were you engaged?   We met in a nightclub; neither of us were particularly in the mood to be there.  We dated for about four years, but once you get engaged here it all happens quickly.  In Kazakh tradition, a group from the boy’s family visits his girlfriend’s parents, they sip tea and eventually ask for her hand in marriage. A female relative of the hopeful groom adorns the girl with golden earrings. This means the girl is now taken, engaged. My fiancé offered a diamond ring as well.  A day was agreed upon and it was official. Typically, an engagement is only 2-3 months.

Is anything given to the groom’s family? Yes, depending on the status of the family, some money is given.  It’s like a dowry to compensate for what the groom’s side has spent on new furniture, houseware, bedding items and carpets. There was once the tradition of giving 47 head of cattle for a bride.  This has transformed into presenting a korzhun, a traditional bag with 47 various gifts inside. The bags are decorated with coins, rings and bead necklaces. They are passed down within the family. There are two wedding ceremonies, the first is for me as a send off, which was here at the hotel.  All of my friends were here and my husband’s siblings.

Is that when you wear the beautiful kamzol and the saukele? Yes, the traditional part of the wedding is when I wore the national dress or kamzol.  I felt like a princess.  The silver jewellery is also important, kind of good luck charms.  That’s also when my braids were displayed.

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The traditional image with braids displayed

Tell me about that, the knee-length hair that many young Kazakh women have. It is the custom, if possible, to grow our hair to this length at least until we get married.  It’s considered very feminine and beautiful. Yet when we do reveal it, we should off-set it with big bows or even bells, so as to not appear vain.

Will you cut your hair now that you’re married?  I might, maybe, but my husband doesn’t want me to, it’s well… (Rysgul chuckled coyly as her words tailed off)

I’m sure it looks stunning, to say the least.  Is it shown at home? Only to my husband.  When I get home, my outer image changes. I go into my room and change into a caftan type dress, a white kimishek* covers my hair and we always cover our feet.  It’s then time to cook the evening meal which I do gladly.  My mother in-law will get started if I’m delayed.

So your ‘first wedding’ is traditional.  Is it after this you begin life in your new home? Yes, there was a ceremony after the wedding party, we entered the home to singing and dancing. It’s the custom that my new sisters in-law put a kimishek on my head as I kneel down.  A fabric threshold hangs behind us which is white, but a woven red fabric is then draped over that, symbolizing the new marriage. This ‘artifact’ hangs in the home until I become pregnant.  That evening there was also a dombra player who offered marital advice through music and prose.

It sounds lovely, and the second wedding?

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A bride in the hotel lobby

That was the next day, Western style, when I wore a white gown that I designed.  That wedding was in my hometown.  I’m not from Aktau, but my husband is from this area – from the Adai clan.  They’re more traditional, from the Mangistau area and very respected.  We try to marry from neighbouring clans, but you must prove that your family lines are separated by seven generations.  (I remember reading that it has always been shameful not to know your family lineage that far back. It dates back to the days of Genghis Khan and when they were recited in verse.)

Is there a ceremony at the mosque?  Did you have a honeymoon?  Was it difficult, adjusting to joining his family home? The blessing at the mosque can be done beforehand. No, we don’t have a honeymoon and for me it was quite natural to make the change.  Every morning I greet my in-laws with a type of curtsy and a cupped hand gesture, as tradition calls for. (I had noticed this Sufi symbol of a blessing depicted in an ancient mosque and often see references to it.)  But I’m able to be independent and still work, however some brides that are younger may be required to stay in the home.  The foundation of our culture is respect for elders, this is ingrained in our tradition.

Your family must miss you Rysgul? Yes, but I see them often and soon it is the three month mark.  They will come to my new home for the final ceremony and bring my dishes and household goods that I’ve collected.  Also, my in-laws will give a present to my mother, an acknowledgement that their daughter is now with a new family.

Is there one special present or does if vary? Well, it depends on social status but in our case, it will be a fur coat.

Gosh how lovely. Is that the reason so many women here wear fur coats?  I’ve never seen so many gorgeous furs. Yes, it’s one reason and by that time in life, having a fur conveys a certain status.

Very interesting.  Tell me, is there any chance that having gold teeth was once a status symbol? (I allude to the many men and women here in their 50’s or older that have golden teeth. They’re often conscious that this is no longer ‘in fashion’ and hide their smiles.) Yes, exactly, that’s what it was.  People melted down their jewellery to have it converted to gold teeth.

Do you plan to have children? But of course and as you know, we are fortunate as the grandparents help raise their grandchildren. We don’t have to worry about child care.

One last question. How does your society react when a Kazakh woman marries a foreigner?

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Kazakh tradition in every stitch

My parents would have been heartbroken, probably wouldn’t have allowed it in some way, but I do know a few friends that have.  They love their husbands and lead a different life.  But to a certain extent, they’ve walked away from our proud culture; I could never have done that.

 

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The lovely Nurbibi indulges me

Late the next afternoon, as promised, Rysgul is waiting, ready for our rendezvous.  She directs the hotel driver to Nur Shah, the acclaimed showroom. As we make our way in the rush hour traffic, I’m told that we’re going to the preferred place in which to buy kamzols for a ‘first wedding’ or for celebrations.  The showroom began as a small home business, but the exquisite designs have now become status symbols.

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A short kamzol in black

When we arrive at the nondescript building, its drabness surprises me.  It offers no hint of the sumptuous atmosphere inside. “It’s our custom when you enter a place for the first time, that one should make a wish.” Rysgul tells me as she holds the door for me to step inside.  A massive chandelier hangs in the centre of the room, illuminating a large Persian carpet on the marbled floor.  My eye is immediately drawn to the array of exquisite kamzols and elegant dresses. They’re resplendent with glittering stones, jewels and intricate design work that intertwine symbols of swans necks, flowers, even the horns of mouflon sheep.  Here, a woman’s beauty is compared to the graceful curves of a swan and as they mate for life, their likeness is the inspiration for the ever present motif.  Stitching on garments and hats also echoes the past, but Nur Shah has expertly incorporated an intriguing modern flair.  I can well imagine the excitement a bride to-be must feel as she enters this feast of wedding indulgences.

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With my gracious hosts

Nurbibi, the lovely assistant, kindly allows me to try on a number of Kamzols.  They feel elegant and sensual. I sense the tradition the garment embodies.   Much as I admire the saukeles, the pointed hats perch on the upper shelves, suggesting they are too valuable to try on.  The bejewelled ones are breathtaking and if you’re fortunate enough to have been married in one, you will proudly display it in your home.  Typically, fabric saukeles either have a fur-like plumage or the more expensive ones feature owl feathers.

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Elegance and tradition

The saukele fascinates me.  I’ve read that tribes called “tigrahauda” (wearing pointed hats) once occupied vast territories of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan.  In the 1970’s, Kazakh archeologists found an undisturbed burial place of a Saka chief from the 5th century BC.  His clothes were covered with golden plates and he wore a tall ‘golden headdress.’  Similarly, something akin to the present day Kazakh saukele is depicted on two ancient golden belt buckles.  Both men and women wore this tall, pointed headgear.

Almost two and a half thousand years separate these treasures, yet the Kazakh saukele is still an important element of a wedding ceremony. I ask Nurbibi how long a bride normally takes to choose an ensemble.  Rysgul translates to me that it can take as long as a year, but usually a month. “Yes indeed, how would you ever decide!” I say.  “Will you please give my sincere thanks to Nurbibi for allowing me this opportunity, it’s been a pleasure.” When this is translated, Nurbibi returns the sentiment, a warm smile on her enchanting face.  The subtle elegance of these ladies is in perfect harmony with the luxurious items that adorn the showroom…evocative in their modest, yet beguiling beauty.

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An old depiction of a Kazakh marriage.

As we bid farewell and step back outside into dusk, Rysgul asks me if I had made a wish when we entered. “Yes I certainly did,” I assure her with a smile.  And indeed I had.  I wished this lovely new bride every happiness there is, with perhaps a newborn ‘prince of the hearth’ and a little ‘princess’ as well.

 

* The kimishek is the traditional white scarf that a married woman wears in the home and elderly women in public. They are often embellished with decoration. Once banned when Kazakhstan was under Soviet rule, the Kazakhs have embraced them again since regaining independence in 1991.