Featured

Peru: Week One

 

Peru, Week one, January 18, 2018, Thursday, 7:30 AM, Arequipa

Our first week in Peru has been busy: Lima 3 days, Paracas 1, Huacachina/Ica 1, Nazca 1, and now we have landed in Arequipa early in the morning after an all-night bus trip. We were lucky to have a rather luxurious bus with big comfy reclining seats and even a duvet to keep warm.

My first impressions are that Peruvians are polite, friendly people, a little on the quiet side. The countryside has been coastal so far. It is a narrow stretch of desert between the Pacific and the mountains. The towns are small, dusty, rather poor, but each centre has something of interest.

Obviously tourism plays a large part in the economy, but there is a thriving farming area around Ica because of ancient aqueduct systems built by the Nazca people. Today there are vineyards, fruits, and vegetables using the same ancient aquaducts.

Peruvian cuisine is very tasty with many spicy dishes. We have enjoyed the ceviche that they serve with different kinds of corn kernels and slices of sweet potato. It sounds weird but it quickly becomes addictive! We also enjoy the wonderful fruit juices: orange, mango, lulo, pineapple, passionfruit, (our favourite) watermelon, and more. We are starting to explore the chicha which is an ancient, slightly fermented drink made of almost anything that ferments!

What surprised us most is the size of the servings. They are huge! So we usually share an appetizer and one main dish with a little dessert. There is also a plethora of sweets often with chocolate and/or manjar blanco, which we call the cajeta in Mexico and dulce de leche in most other countries. I’ve noticed it’s becoming more popular in Canada lately.

Highlights in Lima: the Puk Llama ( a huge archeological site) Where I got off to a great introductory sunburn ( no hat, no sunscreen). DUH!

F2074959-0003-49F8-B182-EBD6BCB43149

The wonderful murals in Barranco. The National Museum of Archeology and the Larco Museum. On our final day we just enjoyed visiting a market and then taking a very crowded mini train into the historic center. After three days of walking we a good massage helped loosen our sore muscles.( 40 soles for 1hour, about $15)

D88E5E96-B732-458F-A703-B8AC2303EF33

In Paracas, six hours south of Lima by bus, we went out in a small speedboat to see the animal life on the Ballestas Islands (really just big rocks). They look white from a distance as they are covered by thousands of birds which produce large quantities of guano. But a few penguins and see lions don’t seem to mind the mess or the smell!

5477D8B0-5076-4120-9485-59459272A26A

 
Moving on the next day to Huacachina: Lots of towns here in Peru have the word Hua in them. It means place, and it makes things rather confusing as there are so many Huas. Here all the young’uns went sand-boarding on the huge dunes. They put arborite on the bottom and then wax it. If you have money a dune buggy will take you for a speedy ride up, but many people just climb up in their big boots and their board on their back. I can only imagine how difficult it must be as we trudged up this soft, fine sand in bare feet, and it was exhausting and hot too. On the ridge we watched the boarders and waited for the sunset as the wind came up and sand insinuated itself everywhere: eyes, hair, ears, clothes. I worried most about my camera.

Huacachina is really a little suburb for tourists surrounding a tiny natural lake outside of the rather prosperous town of Ica, the home of the famous Tejas candy. Tejas are mainly manjar blanco with nuts or dried fruit and covered with a plain sugar coating or chocolate for a fancier version. Very rich but no gluten!

71F08C89-AF4D-4AE2-9D51-2CCAC34FF9C4

They make Pisco and a rather sweet wine in this area. Also, there is a busy mining industry I am told.

Continuing south along the coast is Nazca named after the Nazca people who lived here from about 200 BC to 700 A.D. Over this 1000 year period, they created the Nasca lines which are considered one of the world’s marvels. Straight lines and figures go for kilometres on the flat, rocky desert. They had to have great mathematical knowledge to make them as you can’t really see the full figure from the ground. We did a 30 minute flight in a small Cesna over the lines which are truly amazing. There are many theories how and why they were made which include conjunctures of extra-terrestrials.

C7EE9AD3-A595-48FC-BA89-23234FE06D88
 
Today we are in Arequipa, perhaps Peru’s prettiest city which is inland at an altitude of 2300 meters. It is warm and sunny this morning. I had my breakfast on a second floor veranda overlooking the Plaza Major.

I think I will go and wake up Eduardo; he was grumpy this morning as he didn’t sleep well on the bus, and he forgot his phone plugged into the wall of our last hotel, nine hours back. I left my sunglasses on the table in a restaurant yesterday. Fortunately I got them back! (So I am keeping my mouth shut!)

Hasta la próxima.

Advertisements

People of Peru

Good people I have met in Peru

My last days in Peru, sitting on a beach in the small town of Pacasmayo thinking of the people I have met in the last three months and getting distracted by the people, mostly families, around me. I love the way they play. There is a young father next to me helping his young children (maybe 2 and 4) dig the proverbial hole in the sand. He is having as much fun as they are, digging and fetching water from the sea. No pressure, just being together. Now Mom and Grandma have arrived with food.

The water is cold, but some venture out past the waves where the water is still shallow. This is surfing country.

During the first month while travelling with Eduardo, we had some good guides of all ages: from early 20’s to an erudite man in his 60’s. If I were to judge Peruvians by their guides I’d say they are polite, reserved, and proud. When required, they can be authoritative. I didn’t hear much humour from any of them.

For the most part, our Airbnb hosts have been welcoming, rather quiet, helpful, but not imposing.

Sometimes, Peruvians can be quite loud, but I have never found it overwhelming, except for their continuous honking of car horns. Reminds me of Cairo.

I have been lucky to know some Peruvians more personally. In the café where I was volunteering, there were two charming young people helping out.

The young man, I will call Daniel, usually works on cruise ships six or seven months at a time. As a bar waiter, he makes very good money. He is helping his family and has bought a modest home for them; he has sent his three siblings to post-secondary studies, and helps with his niece’s education.

It was his mother who invited me to spend the weekend at their farm. It was a pleasure to see her in the country with her family and animals. They live in a large three bedroom adobe house with a dirt floor. Their humble generosity impressed me. I wonder how many Canadians invite foreign visitors into their homes. This is a picture of her granddaughter.

The young lady at the café was very attentive towards me. Almost every day, she would bring me a fruit or some little gift. She was a good worker, in fact she had two jobs to help finance her university education. Here she is visiting her Grandmother.

At the school where I have been teaching English this past month, the teacher are an interesting mix of people. There is the coquette who tells everyone all her problems, the handsome gentleman who practises his English with me, the loving grade six teacher, the exhausted grade one teacher. We meet every day in a lean-to beside the food kiosk and sit on tiny, old chairs during the break. Teachers in Peru are generally underpaid for the work they do. They earn around $400 a month. A primary school teacher usually stays with the same class from grades 1 to 6. She/he will teach all the subjects. They have great influence, therefore, over their charges. The principal at this school drives a small motorcycle. He works both shifts: primary classes from 7:30 to 12:30, and secondary students (in the same classes on the same little chairs)from 12:30 to 6:30pm. He also takes courses on the weekend. When I asked him if they paid him double, he just laughed.

The one thing that is remarkably different from Canada is the number of children you see everywhere. Peruvians are very family oriented. We regularly see children and teenagers walking with a grandparent. Families often consist of three generations. And like everywhere poor people usually have more children than their wealthier neighbours.

At the school assembly this past Wednesday before the Easter weekend, many mothers of our students came to the celebrations. Most brought preschoolers with them. Babies are carried in a cloth on the mother’s back.

The children at this primary school are fairly lively (undisciplined, in plain English). It is often challenging to teach them, especially as classes are large, usually around thirty students, and for some unexplainable reason, each class gets English, all three 45 minute periods, once a week. That adds up to 2hours and 15 minutes. I challenge anyone to devise meaningful, fun classes in a foreign language for this amount of time. Pedagogically it would make more sense to see them three times a week for 45 minutes, but I can’t convince anyone of this.

The only other volunteer at the moment, is Micha (Profesor Mica). He is a loving, cheerful person. The children adore him. Everyday they run to meet him and shower him with hugs. He is also a good flat-mate. I was lucky to find him and his organization, LCQC (lcqcperu.org).

My Spanish teacher, Rita, is a wonderful person. Her paternal grandfather was Japanese. Her mother, now in her 80’s was a teacher. All their children are professionals. Rita is a very strong woman and a great language teacher. She has a 16 year old daughter who is the centre of her life. They have a loving, cheerful relationship. I will miss them.

This is my last week at the school, then a few days in Lima before heading home. Back to my comfy home, family and friends!

Cusco and Machu Pichu

Machu Picchu is the most visited archaeological site in South America, and the gateway is the beautiful city of Cusco. Please forgive me if I don’t know where to start…

First, I must say that the Incas and the peoples who preceded them left awe-inspiring constructions all over Peru. The Incas conquered and administered a large region from Quito Ecuador to Santiago, Chile for a relatively short period of time. Their rule was brutally overturned by the Spanish conquistadors.

Eduardo and I had been visiting Southern Peru and La Paz, Bolivia for almost three weeks before we arrived in Cusco. We were amazed by the agricultural terraces that are still used today to facilitate the growing of crops at higher altitudes and lower temperatures than would otherwise be possible.

Our knowledgeable Airbnb hostess in Cusco suggested we visit some of the surrounding sites and museums before we go to Machu Picchu. Each one was like a delicious appetizer with exotic names:

Sasaywaman just outside Cusco and the site of a terrible massacre.

Q’enqo where mummies were kept, displayed and revered.

Pukapukar, the Red Fort, an outlook point along the Inca road.

Tambomachay where pure water still runs through stone Inca baths.

Salinas is a series of more than 1,000 salt pans on a terraced mountainside that has been productive since Inca times.

Chincero a pretty little town high up in the Andes (3762 metres) where one can check out the market, the colonial church built on Inca ruina, and great mountain views.

Moray where the Inca built experimental terraces in huge deep circles in order to discover and develop crops that could be grown at different temperatures as the lower levels would be hotter than the upper levels.

It was these incredible structures that have withstood centuries of earthquakes, and demonstrate highly scientific thinking and skilled workmanship that impressed us throughout Peru and more specifically in and around Cusco.

At the same time, it was sad to think how the Spanish invaded, destroyed, and looted these lands and the people. Today we see a beautiful country that has poor infrastructure and is polluted beyond belief. Nevertheless, the people endure. Around Cusco, traditional cultures seem to be thriving although poverty is overwhelmong.

Our trip to to Machu Picchu was organized by a tour agency with a private guide. We were driven to Ollantaytambo where we hiked up to some ancient ruins called Pumamarka. These structures predated the Incas, we were told. It was a short hike up, a good thing for me as I quickly get out of breath at these altitudes. The purpose of the ruins is unknown; our guide suggested it might have been a kind of retirement home! They must have had better lungs than me! Then a nice walk down into Ollantaytambo where there are magnificient ruins on the side of the mountain. I kept wondering how Machu Picchu was going to impress me more than this site.

We ate lunch in a restaurant founded by a German woman who uses the profits to fund a pre-school for poor rural children. There they are fed and taught basic Spanish (Their mother tongue is Quechua.) so they don’t fall behind once they start school.

Then we took the fabled (and expensive) train to Aguas Calientes for a good night’s sleep in a rather ritzy hotel. A good massage got rid of the day’s aches, for tommorow we must be ready for the great Mach Picchu!

Next day, up at 4:30, breakfast, bus to Machu Picchu in order to be there for dawn.

I wasn’t hopeful as it was cloudy, but our guide promised us that foggy mornings were the best. He was right! Machu Picchu revealed itself to us gradually as the mists rose. The sun came out, and we enjoyed all the nooks and crannies without too many tourists. February is low-season for tourists precisely because it is the rainy season.

At 10 am we dashed over to the base of Huayna Picchu, the huge 300 metre high monticule that dominates one end of Machu Picchu. Fortunately, the irregular steps up to the top were mainly in the shade. It took us two hours to ascend. We stopped often to catch our breath and enjoy the view. We took a few pictures at the top to celebrate our victory and view Machu Picchu below us. Then a careful one hour descent. I was glad to have a walking pole as my old knees were complaining.

By 2pm we were back in Aguas Calientes having lunch overlooking the rushing waters of the Urubamba River before taking the train back to Urubamba and a car on to Cusco.

This is a trip we will not forget.

La Paz, Bolivia

During our last week of January, Eduardo and I spent five days in La Paz, Bolivia. The highest capital in the world at 3,640 metres above sea level. That must be the average as much of the city is precariously built on the surrounding mountains

Its tumultuous, confusing streets take your breath away, literally and figuratively. Traffic and people mingle in often chaotic ways. We used taxis as buses were just too confusing. We walked a lot too, frequently going around in circles. Especially one evening. We had tickets for a traditional music concert by three of Bolivia’s most well-known artists, and we were looking for a relatively clean place to eat.

Trip Advisor sent us on a wild goose chase. We finally found “the place”, but it had closed down. No wonder! We lost about one hour just trying to locate it. People on the street sent us to a “safe” place although the man said he preferred the food in the market.

Let me assure you: clean is a relative term. Luckily, Eduardo and I have fairly tough digestive systems!

Food-wise we never did eat anything really good. Although I heard later that we should have gone into the richer section of the city for some better fare.

Our Airbnb was located fairly centrally, and the family was very nice. They lived in a modern 10th floor three bedroom apartment.

The father is an architect, and still works on contracts part-time. His wife (both around 60) keeps this room rented plus an apartment on another floor that her son (who lives in the US) owns. Another son who is doing a Masters degree stays with them one week a month, along with his wife who works nearby, and their two year old son. Grandparents take him to and from daycare. They seem to be a very close family who help each other in many different ways.

That’s what I like about Airbnb. You often get to meet and interact with a local family.

During our stay, there was a festival going on called Alasitas. It honours the Aymara god, of abundance, Ekeku. Merchants sell all kinds of miniature objects and money. People buy what they would like to have in the coming year. Or what they want to give to friends and family: cars, houses, money, gold, or other more mundane articles such as cell phones or even university diplomas!

It reminded me of the Chinese custom of buying miniatures for the dead. Things one would need in the next world.

At the concert, the musician even gave out wads of miniature money to the audience. He gave me so much I had lots to share with everyone around me.

Oh, yes, we took a ride up a mountainside on their new “Mi Teleferico”. There are four different lines of cable cars. What would take one hour in a noisy, crowded, dusty, smoky bus takes only ten minutes. But locals told me it costs twice as much as the bus.

So don’t go to La Paz to relax or enjoy fine cuisine. Go for the experience! People watch! Breathe deeply; drinks lots of water; and chew coca leaves.

La Paz is interesting, but it would not be my favourite place to live…

Cusco, on the other hand… but that is for my next blog.

Peru/ Bolivia

Week two in Peru and into Bolivia

Arequipa is a big city, about one million people. The historical centre is nice, but the rest is blah. We did a four hour city tour… boring… but we did find out why they have so many ceramic bulls. They have a bull fighting tradition: bull against bull. “So we don’t kill the bulls like the Spanish,” the guide explained. But when questioned about the losing bull, as the winner is the one which wears the other out by sticking his horn into the poor loser, the guide admitted that he was taken to the slaughter house!

Another interesting but (for me) rather horrifying place was the Monastery of Santa Catalina. A rich widow founded the huge convent and then charged exorbitant fees for families to send a chosen daughter to become a nun. The poor chosen, twelve year old had to keep silence and couldn’t see her family during her four year noviciate. When she she became a full-fledged nun she would live in a house on the property sometimes with another nun or a boarder and would have three or four servants ( local indigenous women) to do the work while she prayed seven hours a day! Some lived well into their hundreds, while one self-flagellating saint died at the age of 33. The idea crossed my irreverent mind that she might have been trying to commit suicide. As for the boarders, they would be admitted at the age of three and would study the womanly arts of singing and embroidery until she was ready to be married at the age of twelve.

505E792D-32B8-4010-8C70-FFFC65735236

Our day trip to the Kolka Canyon and Valley was amazing. Early in the day there was snow on the mountains. We saw vicuñas, the wild ancestor of the llama, condors twice; once very close over our heads. Incredible ancient terraces that produce food at over 5000 metres. The people built the walls of the highest terraces with black stones to hold the heat, and when possible, in the shape of a huge amphi-theatre which also protected the plants.

Our Airbnb was a great apartment with a roof-top patio and a great host. His favourite restaurant, ZigZag is pricey and just down the street from us, so we treated ourselves to a wonderful dinner. Although Peru is known for its fine cuisine, it is not commonly served. Most places fry a perfectly good piece of fish or meat and plop it on a huge pile of white rice and french fries!

E6302F47-8D11-4A2B-834F-6BDFC4817CC5

We got the impression from Lonely Planet that Puno was a small, ramshackle town. Small, it is not, with a population of over 200,000. We had a very interesting day visiting the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titikaka, and the real island of Taquile. On the floating islands, we saw how people live, how the island is built and maintained. Quite amazing! On beautiful Taquile Island, we walked UP to the town centre and visited their textile store. they are well known for the hats the men knit. So, we crossed the boarder and went to Copacabana, Bolivia which is a tiny, picturesque town on the south end of Lake Titikaka. We wandered around during the afternoon overlay and checked out our hotel where we will stay on the way back. Very cute, good view of the lake, and serves good food!


Then on, mostly in the dark to La Paz which, I think deserves its own blog!

See you soon, Val

Time Travel: A War Bride: 1919

A war bride: 1919

My name is Elizabeth. Family call me Lizzie. We are actually British Presbyterians living in North Ireland. My father owned a big bakery that employed around twenty workers. We had a nice home with all the amenities of the time. I was a working girl: a book-keeper at the Belfast Co-op. During the first years of the war, I kept busy, working and waiting for my beau who was off fighting for the British. Evenings were spent at home, sewing my trousseau and writing letters to him.

One Sunday, at church, the minister read the list of the recently killed men. When I heard his name, it was like a bomb had hit me; I gasped and slumped over in a faint. Smelling salts and a smart slap brought me back to my senses. Everyone was staring. My father and brother held me up as we left the church.

I was almost thirty; my chances were growing slimmer by the day when I met David. He was tall, slim, very handsome, a little darker than our boys from home, and a lot more self-assured. He was also of British descent, although sometimes he joked that he had Indian blood in him. His family was from the States and had come to Canada because they were British Empire Loyalists. He talked a lot about Canada, about the future, about his land. Shortly, he asked my father for my hand.

I felt rather excited really, it would be such an adventure to travel across the Atlantic by ship and then half way across America to Manitoba by train. David had a house waiting for us. I had a trunk full of linens. I was ready.

What a ninny I was. What did I know about a man? What did I know about farming? What did I know about winter on the prairies?

That house was less than a cottage, a bit better than a hut; there were two rooms: kitchen and living room. No running water, no electricity. David kept his promise and bought me a second hand piano, and a mission-style pull-out sofa. That is where we slept. Soon I was the chickens, raise a pig, and grow a garden if we were to survive. In the house, I learned to bake bread pregnant. David was pleased with himself. I didn’t have time to feel pity for myself as he expected three meals a day, and often there would be hired men to feed. I had to learn to milk the cow, feed, lay up preserves, make butter, cook the chicken I had killed, plucked, and eviscerated. I washed clothes by hand in a tub. David hauled the water in to heat it on the stove, but I had to wash, boil, rinse and wring it out before hanging it up on the line to dry. It was heavy work.

David worked hard on the land, but all the money he earned went back into the farm. He expected me to be responsible for home expenses, so I started giving a few children piano lessons. Their mothers would bring them over in a horse-drawn cart or cutter in the winter, and sit by the wood stove in the kitchen and drink tea while her darling plunked away at the piano.  Sometimes, the three of us would have a little sing-song before they went home. On Sundays, David and I would go to the church in town where I would play the piano and lead the congregation in song. That was usually our only outing except when we needed supplies.

David was nervous since it was my first child. He took me to town early to stay with his mother. I had a week’s rest before, finally, I gave birth. Really, that is such a misnomer. That child did not want to come out, I did not “give” birth; she was literally torn out of me. I was in bed for a month afterwards; David could not hide his disappointment. He had wanted a son, and a wife back in the kitchen. I felt like such a failure. I directed from the sofa, but the hired-girl burnt all the food, and my daughter didn’t stop crying until I finally got back on my feet and tied her, peasant style, to my hip while I worked.

I often wondered if the life of spinster would have been so bad after all.

Buoyancy

This is a rewrite of my last short story: In a hurry, at last

A tall, pale, skinny child, shivers as her feet touch the cold water of the unheated, outdoor pool in her small prairie town. The young girl, around seven years old, tried to protect her face from the splashes of older children who were jumping directly into the pool around her. Her lips quickly turned blue as she hung onto the ladder and looked at the other kids who were already trying to dog paddle or float. Even in the shallow end, the water was up to her lips when she stood on her tip toes. She was venturing carefully over toward her group of beginners when some boys pushed her down into the water. She sputtered, fought her way to the surface and rushed back to the ladder. Once safely back on the deck, she grabbed the old towel her mother had given her to take to the pool and wrapped herself in it. Shivering, she headed back to the change rooms.  On her walk home, she wondered what she would say about her swim class to her mother, and how she could avoid going back there ever again.

“What do I have to do to become a competent swimmer?” I asked.

“Can you swim at all?”

I nod.

“Well, jump in and show me.”

I walk over to the ladder at the shallow end of the pool, gingerly lower myself into the cool water, and start doing a side-stroke down the length of the pool. She follows me on the deck. “Can you do the crawl?”

Reluctantly, I take a deep breath, turn on my stomach, and try to remember the crawl, stretching my arms out close to the surface of the cool water as far forward as I can. I take quick gulps of air on alternate stokes, trying to relax. After three breaths, I turn on my back and show her my back stroke, relieved I can breathe again. Soon, we are at the deep end: me treading water, her squatting down, “Not bad, you know how to swim, but you don’t look like you are enjoying yourself.”

She had hit the nail on the head. I want to get as much pleasure from swimming as I do from cycling, hiking or skiing.

The next day, the little girl took her towel and swimsuit and went outside. Cautiously, she turned the hose on and wet her bathing suit, then wrapped it up in the towel and hid it in the caragana bushes. She saw the neighbour loading her three children into their car to take them to the pool, but they ignored her. She wished her dad would buy a car, but she was sure he wouldn’t. She quickly walked up the street toward her grandmother’s house. Every time she thought of her father, the song, “Oh my papa” came to mind and tears would form in her eyes as she silently hummed the tune and wished for a wonderful papa.

“Let’s talk,” she suggested holding out my towel.

Sitting on comfortable lounging chairs, on the deck of this adult-only pool, she waits for me to start.

I am not sure what she needs to know about my life-long fear of water. Maybe I should tell her about how I have tried to learn, my series of failures.

No, I think, she needs to know why I want to learn to swim and my puzzling attraction to water.

“O.K., well, you already know I am 70 years old, seventy and a half as my grandchildren would say.”

She chuckled and glanced at the information sheet I had filled out. Birth date: November 8, 1946. Place of birth: Biggar, Saskatchewan. The prairies, she thought.

Grandma always welcomed her grandchildren into her little house with warm hugs and something good to eat. Tomato soup or cinnamon toasts were the best. Her oldest granddaughter enjoyed checking the garden each time she came for a visit. The cosmos flowers that lined the path to the back lane were already almost as tall as the child. They carefully chose a stalk of rhubarb to eat. The sour fruit dipped into the sugar bowl would take her mind off her troubles.

“I enjoy the water and some water sports.”

She looked surprised.

“During the summer I crew on a sail boat. We race twice a week on Lake Deschenes. Winters, I like to travel to warmer climes. For the last six years, I have been diving.”

Her eyebrows rise involuntarily.

“Scuba diving,” I gushed. “I learned in the Red Sea. The reefs are fascinating.

“I even guided wilderness canoe trips one summer after graduating from university.

“This summer, I am learning to row… those long narrow boats. I like the full-body workout and the team-work. But I would like to enjoy swimming as much as these other sports. I want to be able to dive into the water and swim just for fun.”

Things were OK in grade one. The young girl got into trouble with her girlfriends in Miss Reader’s class. So she must have had friends that year.  In grade two, the girls liked to walk their pretty teacher, Miss Page, home. They would take turns holding her hand or carrying her books. After her dad left home, and her mother started going to church every day, the young girl spent more time looking after her little brothers and sister. That year, on her birthday, all her friends came over to her house after school for a birthday party, but her mother had forgotten. There was no cake that year.

“Are you afraid of the water?” she asked.

“Well,” I hesitate, “yes. Not as much as before; but sometimes I still panic in the water.”

“I wonder why. You seem to know the basics.”

“I am the only person in my family who knows how to swim. We didn’t have any lakes around where I grew up. Mom sent me to swimming classes one summer. Maybe I was six or seven, but the pool was crowded and some kids tried to dunk me. It was a noisy, dangerous place. I was afraid and ashamed.”

“Ashamed?” she prodded.

“Yes. Ashamed of how skinny and white I looked in a bathing suit, and ashamed of being afraid.

One day when the young girl was sitting on the front doorstep, she saw her three friends approaching her house: Alex, Janice and Debbie. They hadn’t played together for a long time. Maybe today they would let her join them in their games. She eagerly walked to the sidewalk to meet them. One by one, they walked up to her, and one by one they slapped her across the face. She just stood there too surprised to respond. Then they walked off with their heads held high. What had she done? Why did they do that? She slowly walked to the back yard and cried as she rocked herself on the swing suspended from the branch of a big tree. Her Dad had made that swing when he still lived at home.

“Then one summer, when I was sixteen, I worked as a nanny for a very rich family in Montreal. They had a pool behind their city home and a lovely house at a lake in the Laurentian Mountains. In my spare time I would try to get a tan. One day, at the public beach, I ventured out onto the long dock. I could see people playing in water up to their waists. I walked farther out and jumped in. The water was much deeper out there.

I went down, my feet touched the bottom. I bent my knees and pushed off as hard as I could, hoping to reach the surface and grab onto something. Emerging from the water, I gasped for air and saw a rope that looped along the edge of the dock. I reached for it and missed. I went down again. Tried to push off harder this time. Missed. I think I did this four times before some kind person noticed and helped me climb up onto the dock.

“Wow,” she said, “it is amazing how well you reacted. You didn’t really panic. You had a plan.”

“Well, I never jumped into any water again until I started diving.”

“So when did you learn to swim?” she asked.

“In my thirties, I used to watch our son at his swimming lessons. On Sundays, we would go to the pool and play with him. He would try to teach me. Finally, I decided to take lessons myself, but they could never get me to dive or even jump into the water.

When the young girl’s mother remarried, they moved to the country. She enjoyed making new friends. She learned to ride a horse. The family would go to church together every Sunday; people would drop by for tea or Sunday dinner. Her mother was very busy looking after her growing family, and the young girl became even more useful in the kitchen or the garden. At the one-room country school, she was getting pretty good at baseball too.

“So how did you ever learn to scuba dive?”

“I was teaching in Egypt. The whole staff went to Dahab, on the Red Sea. The water was so warm and inviting. I tried snorkelling out to a nearby reef, but I was very nervous and afraid the water would come in my snorkel. So I rationalized that if I could breathe without fear of water entering my nose or mouth, I could explore the reefs. Scuba diving seemed like the perfect solution.

“My first dive was just an exploratory dive very near the surface of the famous Blue Hole in Dahab. It was spectacular: so many fish, such a colourful variety of coral and sponges. I wanted to learn to dive!

“It wasn’t easy, but that year, I got my Basic Open Water and Advanced Open Water certificates.”

Almost fifteen, the young girl was sent to a French boarding school. She took the train all by herself. Two days and two nights to arrive in Montreal. Everyone thought she was so brave. She knew that was not true. At school she picked up French easily. Everyone thought she was so intelligent. She knew that was not true either.

“What were the hardest things to learn?” she asked.

“Oh,” pausing as I caught my breath, “jumping off the boat into the water. It felt like in those movies where the guy with the parachute is at the open door of the plane, so afraid to jump out. My knees were shaking and the crew would give me the countdown. A couple of time, I almost gave up. Maybe I was just too old to learn. Sixty-four, already.

“Waa7id” (one), “ithnaan” (two), “thalaatha” (three), they would call out. I would take a big step and sink into the ocean before rising again to the surface.”

At boarding school, the young girl was called “la grand anglaise”, for being taller than most of her companions, but she liked her nickname. She had many friends who would invite her to spend weekends with their families. She observed how her girlfriends related to their parents and siblings. Sometimes it was shocking to hear them contradict or argue with each other, and then carry on as if… as if it didn’t matter.

“And now, how are you?” she asked.

“Not a problem,” I smile, “but there are some other manoeuvres that are more difficult.”

“Like what?”

“Like taking your mouthpiece out of your mouth when you are ten or fifteen metres under water. You have to learn to do that in case you ever need to use someone else’s air. Some instructors do it for fun. They can blow air rings, or they let a small fish nibble at their teeth! I would like to be that relaxed.”

One day, many years later, this young girl, now a mother, invited her father for a visit. He brought a photo album of pictures of her mother when they were young. Each photo was carefully positioned with silver sticky corners on black pages. Underneath, he had written short descriptions in beautiful, almost feminine-like script:  “My pumpkin princess” beneath a picture of her mother sitting on a huge pumpkin and other affectionate descriptions. It was the first time she had realized that there had been love between them.

“O.K., I get the picture. You want to have a different relationship with water. You want to have fun.”

“You are right, fun swimming, jumping in, diving, and playing.”

“Well, you have come a long way already,”

“Yes, let’s get started. I don’t have another seventy years. I need to fast-track this bit,” I said throwing off my towel as I stood up, still tall, white, and skinny.