Canadian National Leaders’ Debate

In Canada we have a national election coming up on September 20th and tonight there was a debate of the five national party leaders.

There wasn’t enough time for each leader to explain in detail their party’s policies, except to say that issue x is very important and they will take care of it. The major topics were climate change, indigenous women and children, senior’s income, and inflation.

The incumbent Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, had to fend off attacks from everyone.The Conservative leader was underwhelming, while the Green and NDP leaders performed well, with Mr Singh mentioning expanding national health care to include pharmacare and dental and making billionaires and corporations pay their fair share.

It was the first time for me to see the Bloc Québécois leader and I got the impression that he had a chip on his shoulder about Quebec’s treatment by the rest of Canada. It is interesting that there was no discussion of foreign affairs, particularly relations with China.

In the end, I doubt the debate changed many voters’ minds. A question that I and other voters face is whether to vote strategically or for the party that is most closely aligned with our beliefs

Rye Catcher, Cycling Milestone, Afghan Fiasco

The Catcher in the Rye

(A month after the fall of Afghanistan I have softened my critique of Biden due to further research which leads me to believe that the unexpectedly swift fall of the government and military was a result of Afghans’ lack of faith in them due to rampant corruption. The blame should be spread over 4 US administrations that turned a blind eye to the corruption. However, I still believe Biden’s pullout was too fast. Perhaps it could have been done in stages. In addition it might have been wiser to hang onto Bagram airbase in order to control flights out until the last minute. My greatest concern is for the welfare of the ordinary people, particularly the women and children.)

I tried reading J.D. Salinger’s book about a troubled rich kid in 1940s New York when I was young, but I lacked the maturity to appreciate it, but now 40 years later I gave it another try and was blown away. I can understand what a radical breakthrough this book must have been when it was published in 1951.

I found the protagonist spoiled, immature, weak-minded and generally unlikeable, but at the same time he is intelligent and perceptive enough to see the hypocrisy that is rampant in his school and society in general, hence he uses the word “phony” a lot. He is (like me) somewhat of an intellectual and finds people who never read books to be rather dumb and boring. Despite Holden Caulfield being a highly annoying character, it is impossible to dismiss him because he is actually a compassionate person who sympathizes with his unpopular nerdy classmates who get bullied, and other characters such as the impecunious nuns he meets.

I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Holden as he tries to deal with his loneliness by striking up conversations with strangers and even inviting his taxi driver to go drinking with him (he declines). Holden points out different kinds of snobs (such as jazz musician) who only bother to speak with high-status people. Sex is another major theme, and interestingly, Holden arranges to meet a prostitute but then misses his chance to lose his virginity and ends up just chatting with the girl. Later he says he could only have intercourse with someone he loves. He makes some interesting observations about how women are attracted to knuckle-dragging brutes.

I took my time reading this book, savoring every page. The impetus for reading the book came from my recent viewing of the video “Rebel in the Rye” starring Nicholas Hoult as the author J.D. Salinger. I felt that Hoult was excellent in his role and replicated the 1940s New York accent so well that I was surprised to find out in an interview in the video bonus material that he (Hoult) is English, not American.

Cycling Milestone

Today, August 21, 2021, I went over 4,000 kilometers of cycling this year, which pleased me a lot. I am working and do not have much time to ride on weekdays, but earlier I had a long summer vacation that was a good opportunity for me to rack up the kilometers. In June I was eager to increase my training, but this change was too much for my body and the muscles above my right knee (the quadriceps and others) swelled up making my leg stiff. I had to then stop all training for a week before gradually resuming my training. I feel a lot stronger than a few months ago and even set some PRs (personal records) such as the climb on Barnet Highway up to Hastings Street in Burnaby, BC.

This summer I made some new training buddies through my old friend Peter. With these male and female friends I did several big rides (80 to 100 kms) and had a lot of fun. It was my pleasure to suggest a few routes for rides and lead the way. We would always stop at a nice café at the farthest point in our ride before turning back. A nice lunch with coffee was excellent fuel for the return leg. I have learned through painful experience that failure to eat and drink enough during a ride can lead to one experiencing what cyclists call “bonking”, which is running out of energy on a ride. (I am fully aware that “to bonk” has a different meaning in British English.) This year I hope I can add at least another 1,000 kms by the end of the year. Last year I managed a mere 3,748 kms. My yearly totals for other years according to the Strava app are: 2019 – 2,811 kms; 2018 – 2,345; 2017- 6,835 kms; 2016 – 6,509 kms; 2015 – 6,126 kms and 2014 – 3,739 kms.

Afghanistan Fiasco

Last week I was appalled to see the video of young Afghan who clung to the sides of US aircraft then fell to his death. Apparently he was a 19-year-old soccer player and member of his country’s youth national team who dreamed of having a career as professional soccer player (footballer). He is just one example of countless Afghans who have been trying to escape from the Taliban. In fact, I am extremely upset about the way President Biden handled the US withdrawal. Sure, I accept the need for the Americans to leave after 20 years there, but this departure is a self-inflicted US defeat by Biden. Ironically, there was no good reason for such a rushed exit. It has led to the collapse of the Afghan military and government, which could have been prevented with a bit of planning. It astounds me that this is the best that the richest country with the strongest military in history could do. It is simply pathetic.

Furthermore, it sends a message to all US allies that the US can’t be relied on. Of course, the exit from Afghanistan was Trump’s project, and he undermined the Afghan government by negotiating behind their backs with the Taliban. Biden’s big mistake was to continue Trump’s Afghanistan policy simply for the sake of a quick pullout, no matter the cost to the citizens of the country. My heart bleeds for the people of that country, but especially for the women and children. Under the Taliban the country is going to go back in time to the Middle Ages with stoning to death for petty crimes and an assault on the education system. It really is tragic and so unnecessary.

Summer Adventures 2021

This year I was determined to get out of Vancouver and do a bit of cycling and hiking in some of the incredible wilderness areas that are easily accessible from the city.

1. On June 22, 2021 I drove to the village of Brookmere where I planned to ride eastwards on the old KVR (Kettle Valley Railway) grade to the village of Tulameen. The ride turned out to be harder than expected due to the rough loose gravel surface. In addition, I realized that the area was unexpectedly remote with no other humans around for miles; therefore, I turned around before reaching my objective. Still, I rode 40 kilometers under a strong sun and saw a deer and some beautiful scenery.

Cycling on the KVR from Brookmere, British Columbia
Deer seen on old railway grade

On the drive back I paid a visit to the Othello Tunnels which are an impressive feat of construction from 1916.

Othello Tunnels, Hope, BC
Othello Tunnels

2. Sunshine Coast Mountain Biking on June 26, 2021. This outing was organized by my friend Peter, and involved driving to Horseshoe Bay then taking our mountain bikes on the ferry to Langdale. There we had a grueling uphill ride to where we were met by our friend Stuart. He gave us a guided tour that included mountain biking and some hiking. I am a beginner mountain biker and found the route very challenging.

3. Hiking trip to Garibaldi Lake on July 9, 2021. The last time I visited this area was in 1988 when a friend and I ran (!) uphill from the parking area to the lake and I was eager to see this area again. However, it had been many years since I had done any serious hiking and my leg muscles were not used to this type of activity and were very sore afterwards. The route was 9 kms one way or 18 in total. I almost didn’t get to do the hike because I had not obtained a day pass from a website but the park rangers kindly let me in.

4. Hiking at Mount Seymour on July 16, 2021.

Mount Seymour

Mount Seymour overlooks Vancouver and is very easy to get to; however, visitors should not be lulled into a false sense of security as the trail is through wilderness and involves sections where one has to deal with steep slopes boulders, stumps and roots. I found it quite physically demanding even though it was shorter than the trail to Garibaldi Lake. Peter joined me on this hike where it was even cold and foggy- strange for the summertime.

Me descending Mount Seymour – note snow

5. Hiking in Cypress Provincial Park on July 27, 2021. Like with most of the parks around Vancouver it had been over 30 years since I had been here. Coming again I have to say it is a magnificent place.

Starting at the Cypress Park Lodge (for ski area with chairlifts and ski trails) I set out on a nicely groomed wheelchair-accessible path to Yew Lake. This small area had frequent signs explaining details of the alpine marsh area. Walking another kilometer or so I reached the lookout over Bowen Island where I and other hikers took photos of the high elevation panorama.

All of this so far had been merely the prelude to the main event which was the hike to Saint Mark’s Summit. This was a further five kilometers and the final third was tough, like Mount Seymour, and required me to sometimes crawl on all fours over boulders, stumps, and roots. Other hikers going downhill encouraged me by saying “almost there” and so on. All the exertion was worth it because from the summit I could see over Howe Sound, the Cascade Range and even Vancouver Island in the distance. While I ate my lunch I was visited by chipmunks, little chickadees and even a raven.

My Reviews of ” One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Of Love and Other Demons” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude is like no other that I have read, and it is undoubtedly a classic that helped Gabriel Garcia Marquez to earn the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. The story revolves around the early years of the fictional town of Macondo (based on Garcia Marquez’s hometown of Aracataca, Colombia). The central characters are the founder of the town Jose Arcadia Buendia and his wife Ursula, but also their two sons, Aureliano and Jose Arcadio, and daughter Amaranta and their children.

Most of the characters are named after their parents; therefore it becomes a challenge for the reader to tell who is who correctly. For me, the first half of the book was the most interesting as it covered the family’s involvement in a long, vicious civil war between Liberals and Conservatives. The residents of Macondo are self-reliant people and resent the arrival of the first priest and magistrate, saying they don’t need a church to interfere with the them and God and that they don’t need the government’s laws as they had been governing themselves perfectly well up until that point. It also deals with the arrival of an American fruit company that establishes banana plantations near the town resulting in rising prosperity for the residents; however, it eventually leaves taking prosperity with it.

One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Other Demons

The book contains a fair bit of violence, especially as regards the civil war. Romance and sexual episodes are an important part of the story and found throughout it. Incest even comes up when a husband and wife produce a child with a “pig’s tail.” Furthermore, near the end of the book an aunt and her nephew have a tragic romance that is beautifully described.

Marquez constantly describes the colors of the vegetation, the heat, dust, mold, rust, moisture of the landscape and buildings, and physical features, sweat, and grime of the characters.

On the downside, I found myself losing interest halfway through the book because there were no main central characters, except for Ursula, the ancient family matriarch. Instead, the reader is constantly introduced to new characters – the grandchildren and great grandchildren. In many parts of the book the events are just beyond belief, such as the fact that Aureliano, a general in the revolutionary army, has 17 sons all named Aureliano, each by a different mother. The 17 sons who come from different regions all arrive in Macondo on exactly the same day.

To be honest, I feel that Of Love and Other Demons is concise, full of more interesting details, and better written. The reason may be that Of Love was written 30 years after One Hundred Years of Solitude and “Gabo’s” writing had improved. Needless to say, I am fascinated by Garcia Marquez and look forward to reading another of his works, perhaps Love in a Time of Cholera.

Review of Of Love and Other Demons

This was my first book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and reading it was such an overwhelmingly positive experience that I am keen to read more of his works.
One of its most enjoyable aspects is the rich historical context of Colombian society 200 years ago where different races – Spaniards, African slaves and mixed race “mulatos” as well as indigenous people interact. The power of the colonial government and the nearly as powerful Catholic Church are important elements. The prospect of cruel punishments or even being burnt at the stake is a possibility for anyone who runs afoul of the civic and religious authorities.
There is a wide range of memorable characters such as the central figure, the girl Sierva Maria, her pathetic father the Marquis, Doctor Abrenuncio, the wise Bishop and the irascible Abbess. Interestingly, the protagonist, Father Delaura, only first appears halfway through the book. He is tasked with investigating the case of a noble girl who was bitten by a rabid dog and is suspected of being possessed by the Devil. He is unable to play the emotioness official and finds himself in love with the girl in spite of it being a career-ruining act, that could event result in severe punishment or even excecution. In my opinion it shows how unnatural it is to expect celibacy from the clergy — they have the same primal drives as everyone else.

Shocking Discovery of Indigenous Canadian Mass Graves

Memorial to 215 Indigenous Children, Vancouver Art Gallery, June 1, 2021

For many years, I like most Canadians have been aware of the injustice and cruelty of the Canadian residential school system for indigenous children. For those who are not aware, starting in the 1880s the Canadian government had a policy of taking indigenous children from their families, often with police (RCMP) support, and installing them in boarding schools run by the Catholic or Anglican churches.

At the residential schools the goal was to try to assimilate the indigenous children into Canadian society; therefore, the children were forbidden to speak their native languages, and this and other rules were enforced with disproportionately severe measures like beatings with “the strap.” Often the food provided at the schools was inadequate, leading to malnutrition, and in many cases the schools were badly insulated, causing the children to catch respiratory diseases, and since the children were packed into overcrowded schools diseases spread and many children died.

The government’s misguided and racist behavior makes me angry and saddened, but what truly disgusts me is to repeatedly hear from many survivors is that highly respected priests, nuns, teachers, etc. who had obviously no oversight abused their authority by sexually assaulting children. In my opinion such people are the lowest of the low and vile hypocrites. Since the residential school system ended in 1996 these evil pedophiles managed to live out their lives without having to pay for their crimes.

2021 will go down as an important year regarding residential schools, as in May 27, though the use of ground penetrating sensors, the remains of 215 native children were found in a mass grave on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia. Apparently the graves are unmarked and the children buried there probably died of diseases from neglect.

This discovery provoked sadness and disgust across the country, especially among indigenous people. As a way to show their grief at prominent places like the BC Legislature and the Vancouver Art Gallery steps people placed wreaths, children’s shoes, teddy bears and so on. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada has apologized for past government policies and even asked the Pope for an official apology, but this is not likely to be forthcoming.

Memorial, Vancouver, June 1, 2021

Since the Kamloops mass grave discovery, similar finds have been made at a former school in Saskatchewan (751 bodies) and near Cranbrook, BC (182 bodies).

The key to these discoveries is modern ground penetrating sensor equipment, and undoubtedly its use will lead to the discovery of more mass graves.

One of the consequences of this was the call by some activists for a boycott of Canada Day on July 1 but it still was celebrated. A statue of Queen Victoria was toppled and smeared with red paint symbolizing blood. Hand prints in red paint are used by indigenous rights supporters against targets they view as representing oppression of native people. More seriously, numerous historic Catholic churches located on native land have been destroyed through arson attacks. I by no means support vandalism and believe that could lead to alienation by some members of society.

For years there have been news reports about the terrible conditions at many “Indian” reserves, such as a lack of clean drinking water. While many indigenous communities are prospering in modern Canada, others still face serious problems with unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, and high suicide rates. Clearly, Canadian society needs to do more to help the indigenous people to overcome their problems.


It is encouraging to learn that not everyone in the Canadian government supported the residential school system. Doctor Peter Bryce who had first-hand experience in the program spoke out about the harm being done but he was sidelined and ignored and had his career impacted negatively. In 1922, Bryce wrote a book, The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, but it failed to improve the situation.

Yukon Travel Album

I grew up in suburban Vancouver, in southern British Columbia, but it was always my dream to drive the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek in northern British Columbia to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. I had the chance to finally achieve my dream when did the trip from July 10 to July 22, 2011 with my wife and daughter. We rented a Ford Escape which is a small SUV with a four-cylinder engine which we used to carry us and our camping equipment. We stayed at campsites when the weather was sunny and motels is the weather was rainy. A highlight of the trip was observing wildlife such as bears, moose and bison. (For some background, the Alaska Highway was built during World War 2 to connect Anchorage, Alaska, USA with the city of Dawson Creek in northern BC.) Here are some photos from the trip:

Trapper’s Cabin with Lynx, Fort St. John, BC, Museum, July 11, 2011
Alaska Highway Mile Zero Monument, Dawson Creek, BC, July 12, 2011
Stuffed Animals at Museum in Fort St. John, BC: Big Horn Sheep, Black Bear and Moose,
July 12, 2011
The Peace River, northern BC, July 13, 2011
Caribou Mother and Calf on Highway, northern BC, July 13, 2011
Bison (Buffalo) next to Highway, northern BC, July 13, 2011
Bison (Buffalo) Herd next to Alaska Highway, Northern BC, July 13, 2011
SS Klondike Paddlewheeler Ship on Yukon River, Whitehorse, July 17, 201
Wooly Mammoth at Beringia Interpreteive Centre, Whitehorse, Yukon, July 19, 2011
Early Canadian Pacific Airlines Plane, Whitehorse, Yukon, July 20, 2011
US Army Truck used in Highway Construction, Whitehorse Museum, July 20, 2011
Diorama of Indigenous People, Whitehorse Museum, July 20, 2011
Grizzly Bear, Yukon, July 21, 2011
Our Campsite, Yukon, July 21, 2011
Pickup Truck carrying ATV, Alaska Highway, Northern BC, July 22, 2011
Car Camping, Northern BC, July 23, 2011
Park next to Fraser River, Southern BC, July 24, 2011
Video of Animals Seen in Yukon and Northern BC

Trip to Jordan in 2013

While I lived in the Emirates one of the most popular nearby vacation destinations was Petra, Jordan one of the so-called New Seven Wonders of the World. I have a strong interest in ancient history and I thought that it would a mistake to pass up the opportunity to visit this site which was only a short flight from Dubai. I bought the Lonely Planet guidebook to Jordan, studied it carefully and devised an itinerary which would include Petra, the ruined Greco-Roman city of Jerash and the fortress of Ajloun.

My daughter Rachel and I departed Dubai International Airport on an Emirates Airlines flight at 8 am (0755) on Dec 26, 2013 and arrived at Queen Alia International Airport (Amman) at 10:35 am. Many people opt to hire driver/guide for their trip to Jordan, but I chose to have total control over our movements and planned to do my own driving and navigating. I had become a regular customer of Avis, the car rental company, after having unsatisfactory experiences with other firms. Additionally, the year before I had rented a car from Avis in Paris, France and had had no problems. Little did I know that in Jordan it is common to rent cars with an empty fuel tank. So, when I picked up my car from the Amman Airport Avis I was surprised that the fuel gauge was at “Empty.” I would have felt a lot better if there had been 1/4 of a tank or even 1/8, but seeing the needle at the bottom of the gauge was terrible. When I complained about it to a staff member he said I had nothing to worry about as there was a petrol station just a few kilometers down to the highway to Amman and that the car had enough fuel to reach it (but not much farther). I had made my reservation and had no choice but to do as the man said. During that short drive I felt extremely stressed out, imagining what I would do if the car stalled, but I did manage to reach the petrol station and fill the tank. Incidentally, the Avis staff had not bothered to remove the empty potato chip bags and chocolate bar wrappers from the back seat. Furthermore, the driver’s floor mat was muddy and one rear taillight was broken. However, it has to said that the car, a new Renault Clio (2006 European Car of the Year) performed perfectly over the six-day trip. (After the trip I wrote an email of complaint to Avis about renting cars with empty fuel tanks, but it appears that is just the accepted practice in Jordan. I still think it is an example of terrible customer service.)

The Siq (entranceway) at Petra

After filling the fuel tank my task was to drive into Jordan’s capital and check into the Amman International Hotel across from the University of Jordan. This was on the far side of the city and meant I had to navigate through Amman. I felt that driving in Jordan was a little wilder than in the UAE or Canada and it was disconcerting that a lot of the cars seemed to have big dents in them. We finally reached our hotel and left the car in a parking lot that had stray cats sitting on cars and soaking up the rays of the sun on a cold clear winter day.

Al Khazneh (The Treasury), Petra

The Amman International Hotel was quite nice and decorated for Christmas. After a meal Rachel and I went for a walk around the neighborhood and saw patches of snow on the ground which we had not expected.

The morning of Day 2 (27/12/2013), after a big hotel breakfast, we began the long three-hour drive south along highway 15 through the desert to Wadi Musa, next to the Petra archaeological site. At one of the towns along the way where we stopped for fuel and snacks the checkout person asked if Rachel was my wife, to which I replied she was my 13-year-old daughter! In Wadi Musa we found La Maison Hotel where we had made reservations for two nights.

Columned road, Petra

For those who don’t know, Petra was built 2,000 years ago by the Nabateans, an Arab tribe who became wealthy by controlling the trade routes through their territory. They used their wealth to create massive carved stone structures such as tombs and temples. Their power declined due to the rise of ocean shipping which caused them to be bypassed. Petra was “rediscovered” by a Swiss explorer in 1812.

Next, we bought tickets (55 Jordanian Dinars each) for Petra at the Visitor Center and bought a few souvenirs. We followed the path into Petra and the first sight we encountered was the Djinn (Ghost) Blocks dating to AD0 to AD100, which are carved from sandstone and six to eight meters high with detailed carvings on them. Then, passing the Obelisk Tomb we reached the Siq which is the east entrance to Petra and is a natural canyon eroded through sandstone and about three to five meters wide and a few hundred meters long. Emerging from the Siq we faced Petra’s most impressive structure which the Al Khazneh (The Treasury) which is carved into a sandstone wall and is about four stories high.

Temple, Petra

After that we clambered around the Theater, which is a Greek-style amphitheater carved into the side of a hill. We looked at many tombs cared into the sides of the sandstone cliffs and climbed a hill called Jabal Madbah which had the Sacrificial Place and the Lion Monument. It is impossible to see all of Petra properly in a day, so we decided to see the rest of the Petra the following day and returned to our hotel.

On Day 3 (28/12/2013) we returned to Petra and saw the Great temple and the Qasr Al Bint (Temple of Dushares). In this area we watched a small group of Jordanian men dressed as ancient Nabateans perform military drill. Some even posed for us. For tourists who don’t want to walk around Petra it is possible to ride a donkey, camel or even a horse-drawn carriage, and we saw many of these. One thing that surprised me was riderless donkeys walking unescorted down steps back to their starting point. There is a museum where we saw artifacts such as a carved stone head from a sculpture. There were also tents selling souvenirs. We entered and poked around many tombs but the highlight was seeing the imposing Ad Deir (Monastery) carved into the side of a hill at a higher elevation than the rest of Petra.

Ad Deir (The Monastery), Petra

On Day 4 (29/12/2013) it was time to stick to our itinerary and leave Petra in spite of feeling that we could have spent a few more days exploring that wonderful site. We drove back north to near the town of Jerash, which is another of Jordan’s archaeological sites. Jerash is an entire Greco-Roman city with amazing ruins that was covered in sand and forgotten. We entered by Hadrian’s Arch built in honor of the Roman Emperor. What struck me about Jerash was its huge size. Inside it contained a long street with columns, temples to Hercules and Artemis and many other features. That night we stayed at the Olive Branch Hotel which was a simpler budget hotel a few kilometers west of Jerash. This hotel was very airy and not well insulated, and as it was winter, quite cold. Fortunately we had brought coats, wool hats and gloves and wore those to stay warm. For supper we had a simple Arabic meal which included soup, Arabic bread, hummus and olives.

Hadrian’s Arch, Jerash
Amphitheater, Jerash

On Day 5 (30/12/2013) we set out for Ajloun Castle, near the city of Ajloun. This was a fascinating place. It was built by one of Saladin’s generals on a mountain top over the ruins of a monastery in the 12th Century. It was interesting to learn that in 1260 a Mongol army besieged the castle and destroyed parts of it. There was a table top model showing what the castle would have looked like at its peak. Inside the castle there were lots of passageways with high arches and stairs. On the ground floor there was a pile of soccer-ball sized stones which were ammunition for catapults. One thing that seemed strange was that next to the road to Ajloun there was a full-sized MiG fighter jet on a pedestal. It looked like it could have used a fresh coat of paint. Near the castle there was a large sign with the portrait of Jordan’s King Abdullah. Leaving Ajloun we spent three hours driving back to the International Hotel in Amman and walked from our hotel to the Amnan Citadel, but since it was late we had only a quick look and planned to see more the next day.

On Day 6 (31/12/2013) we spent the morning exploring the Amman Citadel on a hill which has Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins. We were very interested in a 1/2 meter hand which is all that it left of a giant statue of Hercules. In my opinion the people of Amman are very fortunate to have such an impressive historical site in the center of their city. That afternoon we drove back to the airport, returned the Renault Clio and departed for Dubai at 6 pm (1755). It was a fantastic trip but we did not manage to see the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum, Aqaba or Kerak Castle, so I will have to go back to see them one day.

The Handmaid’s Tale – My Review

For many years I have felt that my knowledge of Canadian authors was not as strong as I felt it should be. Margaret Atwood is one of my country’s most highly regarded writers and someone whose books I wanted to read. Going on a friend’s recommendation I read “Oryx and Crake” which is an amazing dystopian novel, but that was the only book of hers that I had read. This year, however, I was lucky enough to spot a used copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in a Vancouver store and immediately snatched it off the shelf.

I realize that a lot of people may be familiar with the story due to the 2017 Netflix series based on the book, but I still have not watched it and was therefore able to read the book without any preconceptions. The Handmaid’s Tale has received a lot of awards and recognition, and now that I have read it I can understand why. Considering that the book was written in 1985, Atwood showed a lot of foresight to write about issues that are particularly relevant  today: the threat of totalitarianism, the rise of Christian evangelical fundamentalism, omnipresent surveillance, religious fanaticism and brainwashing, subjugation of women, environmental collapse, and nuclear war.

 Atwood does not provide readers with much context at first but makes them understand the overall situation as it revealed little by little. The protagonist is a married woman called “Offred”, whose true name from before the totalitarian takeover is not given, who serves as a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, formerly known as the USA. In Gilead there is a serious problem with lack of fertility and population decline due, presumably, to pollution and radiation sickness.  Handmaids, therefore, perform the vital role of childbearing for the regime’s rulers who are known as Commanders. Offred is required to have intercourse regularly with her Commander until she becomes pregnant, which is performed, perversely, in the company of the Commander’s wife (to ensure that there is no pleasure). After a while no baby seems to be on the way, so the Commander’s barren wife, Serena Joy, arranges for a younger member of the Commander’s entourage, Nick, to meet with Offred regularly until she can become pregnant and thus avoid the fate of unsuccessful Handmaids which is to be sent to the dumping ground for outcasts known as the Colonies. In Gilead society women are subjugated and are not allowed to read or write or even speak publicly. Atwood brilliantly visualized a complete society with different castes such as “the Wives”, “the Marthas” who are female enforcers of the regime, “the Aunts” who are high status women, “Econowives,” and “the Eyes” who are a secret police force. In this twisted Christian society women are required to cover their heads and bodies and the sexes are generally kept apart. Basically no form of fun is allowed and people are expected to simply work or pray.

Like so many members of elite groups throughout history, the Commander hypocritically breaks the regime’s own rules by enjoying contraband products and forcing Offred to visit him in secret, where he bizarrely makes her play Scrabble with him in the hope they can build a true loving relationship, which of course is impossible because Offred has zero freedom of choice in the relationship and realizes her best option is to go along with the impotent Commander’s quirky behavior. He procures a kind of cocktail waitress’s angel outfit with wings and forces her to wear it to a decadent party where high level officials like the Commander drink alcohol and enjoy their prostitutes and concubines.

Some other clever features that Atwood devises for Gilead society are “Prayvaganzas” which are government sanctioned religious rallies, the uses of “Identipasses” which are essential ID cards, “Compucards” which allow cashless shopping and provided a record of all purchases.

Throughout the book there are flashbacks to the time in Offred’s life before the totalitarian takeover in which she had an outrageous feminist mother, a loving husband called Luke, and a young daughter. When she and her family tried to escape to Canada they were arrested and separated, and now she does not even know whether her husband is alive or dead. Her daughter presumably is in a state orphanage and being brainwashed.

One of the most gruesome aspects of the book is the Wall where the bodies of executed people hang on hooks as a warning to everyone about the penalties for violating the laws of Gilead. The victims are criminals, political dissidents and even Jews who escaped deportation. In one scene a male so-called criminal, but actually a political dissident, is literally torn apart by a mob of puritanical female believers at a public execution/rally.

One of the main themes of the book is trust. Offred often does not know which of her fellow Handmaids are brainwashed true believers or sceptics like her who are just trying to survive until they can escape. Offred takes a huge risk in revealing her scepticism, which is punishable by death, to a new roommate who appears to be a straight-laced, brainwashed fanatic, but turns out to be a resister like her. In spite of this gloomy state of affairs the book offers hope for an end to this brutal regime. It becomes apparent that there is a resistance movement which has even infiltrated the government. At the end of the story it turns out that Nick is not really a lowly servant but in fact a member of the Eyes, and most interestingly, a double-agent who risks his life to help Offred escape, although the ending is somewhat ambiguous.

The final chapter was supposedly written 150 years after the events recounted in the Handmaid’s Tale and makes it clear that the Gilead regime did not last long and was supplanted my more reasonable forms of government.

I hope that by now you will understand why I view the book as a classic. There is so much more about the book that I have not gone into such as Atwood’s writing style which is one that plays with words, and the theme of the celebration of female sexuality.

Pickpocketed in Paris

It’s quite a few years ago now -in 2001 –  and I was on vacation in Paris, France when I had an experience that soured my view of that city.

It took place when I was riding the metro near the Eiffel Tower with my wife, and my baby daughter was in a child-carrier on my back. Suddenly a short young man stood very close to me, which I felt was quite strange since the train car was only half full. You’re not going to believe this, but just before we reached our next stop, the man quickly unzipped the pouch on my waist, took out my wallet and ran out, disappearing down some stairs.

It took me a few seconds to realize what had just happened. I stood there feeling like an idiot and wished I had kept my wallet more safely. I felt that the whole train car must have seen what had happened but everyone acted normally. At the next metro station a kind middle aged French woman who spoke English helped us locate a “gendarme” (police officer) and I told him that a pickpocket had stolen my wallet. The officer was very relaxed and almost amused about the situation and we all trekked to a nearby police station where I had to fill out a report. In good English he said robberies like this were a daily occurrence, which was not much consolation for me.

The officer gave me a number to call which I could use to cancel my credit cards, and I did that within an hour. Besides cancelling my credit cards I had to replace my UAE driver’s license and ID card which was a real nuisance as it meant more hassles. The thief was either too slow to use my credit cards before I cancelled them because I didn’t find any unexpected purchases on them, or perhaps he was simply interested in taking the cash in my wallet – about $100.

The strangest thing was that about a month later a French friend mailed my wallet to me in the UAE as the police had recovered my wallet. It had all my credit cards, driver’s license and ID but they were useless because I had replaced them all. The thief could have been mean and scattered my credit and ID cards but, to his credit, he left them in the wallet.

It is fortunate that my passport was safely back at our accommodation. Replacing that would have been a huge headache.

What I learned from this was to be very careful about my valuables and be more aware of my surroundings. Needless to say I never used the waist pouch again. Finally, if you’re ever in Paris be on your guard.

Photo by Nextvoyage on

Ask your partner:

1. Tell me what happened (summarize the story).

2. How would you feel if you were in this situation?

3. Are pickpockets a problem where you live? Explain.

4. How can we stop pickpockets?

Teaching in Korea, Part 3

Honeymoon in Thailand, A Tragedy, Modelling, Manila Visa Run, University Lecturing, Cycling around Ansan

One of the great things about living in Korea was the close proximity to other Asian countries. A lot of the English teachers I knew had travelled to Thailand, so that is where my wife and I decided to spend our honeymoon. We flew to Bangkok in January 1996 in the height of the cold Korean winter and were immediately struck by the heat and humidity of the place. We explored the most famous attractions of the city such as the great temples along the river. We also spent some time in the western backpacker’s ghetto of Khaosan Road where there are a lot of cheap hotels, shops and bars. One bizarre experience we had was when we were walking on the street and were approached by a Thai man dressed in a suit who targeted us and wanted to start up a conversation. I thought this was odd because normally the Thais show no interest in talking to foreigners on the street and have better things to do. In addition, in one of my travel guidebooks I had read about men such as this who would befriend gullible foreigners and cheat them out of their money. With this in mind, I politely stated that I wasn’t interested, and then the Thai man got angry and shouted saying “You are a bad man!” etc. No doubt he was repeating the words that his victims had used towards him. About four days in Bangkok was enough for us and we took a bus to Rayong, a coastal city in the north east of the country. Our goal was to visit the Island of Koh Samet and to get there we took a fishing boat with some other western backpackers. There were different levels of accommodation on the island so the first night we stayed at a place that was $2 per night, but since it was a little too basic for us we upgraded to a $6 per night “hotel”. We enjoyed snorkeling in the sea and dining in the little restaurants on the beach. It was strange that there were plenty of families but also many foreign men with Thai prostitutes. The Thai people were gentle and the cuisine was awesome. When it was time to return to Korea we really didn’t want to leave this undeveloped paradise, but the need to make a living forced us back.

Photo by Markus Winkler on

A Tragedy

One of my colleagues at ELS was an Englishman in his late 20s named B. who came across as one of the “coolest” people I’ve worked with. To me he seemed like a rock musician with a very sharp tongue. However, he was obviously from the upper middle class and was clearly well educated. B. was a bit of a rebel and got into trouble after a student complained about him wearing slippers to class which the student felt was disrespectful. I remember him telling me to stop working so hard because it made him and all the teachers look bad. This chap had also managed to find a very pretty young Korean woman to be his girlfriend. The tragedy was that B. went to Thailand and was found dead of a drug overdose, presumably heroin, in his hotel room. The entire school staff was devastated and we all signed a large condolences card to send to his parents. To me it all seemed such a senseless loss. His girlfriend must have been heartbroken, but at least she was only about 19 years old and could move on with her life.

Before he died, B. had been teaching the “Phrasal Verbs Club” at ELS Kangnam, taking advantage of the school’s desire to offer more options to students. One of the benefits of teaching a club was that one could replace a standard course, which required following the school’s curriculum, with one’s own material. Following B.’s lead I started the “Idioms Club” where I taught expressions such as “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” and so on. Teaching a club was a win-win situation for the school, the teacher and the students. What I liked that, first, I had total control over the course content and, second, the course only attracted students who were genuinely interested in learning about advanced English expressions.


One of the strangest experiences I had in Korea was when I was a model. It began when I was having a drink in a coffee shop near the school when a pretty young lady started a conversation with me. She said she was a representative for a modelling agency and invited me to come to their office and talk about working as a model in my free time. I ended up working for the modelling agency for a few months, making a nice addition to my teaching salary, and probably making a lot of money for the modelling agency. I did different types of modelling assignments: sometimes for men’s wear like suits and twice as a hand model – they liked the hair on the back of my hands! I even worked as an extra in a TV commercial featuring a famous Korean actor. My job was to act like a patron in a lounge and make small talk. Unfortunately, it all came to an end when my school director saw my picture in a newspaper advertisement. He said that such work was in violation of my work visa and that it had to stop immediately, and naturally I complied. I had no regrets as I had earned a few extra thousand tax-free dollars and had an interesting experience. I am not vain enough to assume that I could obtain such work in my home country, but in Korea there was a very limited supply of Westerners to act as models and I benefitted from that. Actually, I think most, if not all, teachers were often compared to famous Hollywood actors. Students have said that I looked like Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen, etc. which is certainly good for the ego.

Manila Visa Run

I spent the period from July 1996 to July 1997 in Canada then in Brattleboro, Vermont, studying for my Master’s degree in Teaching at the School for International Training. I was fortunate that I had a job offer with Hanyang University in Korea as an instructor in their Practical English Education Center (PEEC), however, when I went to the South Korean Consulate in Vancouver to obtain a work visa they stated that due to the number of complaints from Canadian English teachers about their jobs in Korea, the South Korean Consulate no longer issued such visas. Instead I would have to obtain a work visa from another country. This was extremely frustrating because by that time my wife and I had used up all of our savings and did not know how I would travel to another country to obtain my work visa. Fortunately, a family member lent me enough money to travel to Ansan, Korea and then fly to Manila, the Philippines. The idea was to combine business – obtaining a work visa – with sightseeing in an Asian country. The original plan was to travel to the tropical island of Boracay for snorkeling, but before we could take the flight there Manila was hit by a cyclone. There was serious flooding and a few people even died. In order to get around the city we had to walk through filthy knee-deep water. In Manila we saw real poverty and some very unhygienic practices. We also felt that the people were not very friendly and even sometimes hostile. As example of this was that when we went into a Philipino restaurant a young man deliberately jostled my arm trying to provoke me into a fight. Fortunately, no harm was done and I was able to keep calm. I realized that I was in a vulnerable position being the only white man in restaurant full of Philipinos. The man didn’t say anything but just glared at me. This is what I could term a case of reverse racism. Obviously, I don’t know what specific experiences made this guy so hostile to a white person like me, but, ironically for him, I am pretty sympathetic to the Philipino people in general. Sure enough, I was able to obtain a work visa from the South Korean Embassy in Manila, and felt quite relieved to get back on the plane to Seoul.

Hanyang University

Back in Korea, Hanyang University provided us with a two-bedroom apartment in Ansan, within walking distance of the university. I joined a team made up of about 16 foreign teachers, all Americans or Canadians. The basic teaching load was only 16 hours per week, which seemed extremely light after teaching 30 hours in my previous job. Most, but not all, teachers took on extra work with the university’s Continuing Education Department. It was a fantastic job in many ways because there was a four-month summer holiday and about one month of vacation time during the year. The downside was that it was not practical to spend the full four months on vacation, so most instructors found other short-term teaching work. Hanyang University was the first place where I taught large classes with up to 35 students, and I had to adjust to his quickly. When I first arrived I was eager to use some of the more progressive teaching techniques that I had learned at SIT but I realized that students expected more traditional classroom activities, and that “modern” methods would have to be introduced gradually. There was a textbook that almost all instructors disliked and did not use, but as I was now trained in TESOL I realized that it had a lot of good content and, since the students had the book, I might as well use it. I supplemented it with material that I wrote myself and got photocopied. Strangely, the rest of the staff at the university wanted nothing to do with us foreign instructors. It could have been due to insecurity about their English, but I feel we could have contributed to other departments and were under-utilized. The departmental meetings with pizza were fun! During my time at Hanyang University I made friendships with some other teachers that I maintain today.

University Protests

Like campuses everywhere in the world, Korea’s university campuses were the sites of political protests. Once there was a large group of women wearing facemasks with a black X taped on front who were protesting against sexual harassment. I wanted to take a picture but they wouldn’t allow me to. In addition, at that time Koreans were upset about US policies towards Korea, and in fact, since the Korean War, at Korean universities many students have been anti-American I and other teachers were approached by agitated students and harangued in Korean about US policies. Saying I was Canadian didn’t help. One student even slapped me in the chest with a rolled up newspaper while he lectured me. Fortunately there were no beatings or lynchings. As you can see, the life of an English teacher in Korea is “not all beer and skittles.”


Although I did a little running in Ansan (where a teenager shouted “psycho!” at me), my main hobby there was cycling. I bought a used mountain bike and used to go for rides on the weekend with Todd, an American that I worked with, and Peter, a German who was with the Physics Department of the university. I wish we had had a Korean with us but cycling was not popular in Korea in those days. It was great to explore the countryside around Ansan. One of our favorite destinations was a lake northeast of the city where Koreans used to fish. One of my best experiences was when we met a farmer on a quiet road and started a conversation with him. He had never spoken with a foreigner but by then my Korean was good enough to greet him, explain what we were doing, answer some questions, and wish him good luck. The old farmer was really happy to speak to us and I was glad we made his day. Incidentally, one annoying thing that my German friend often experienced was to be called “Miguk saram” which means American. In the eyes of most Koreans any white people they met were assumed to be Americans due to the decades of US military presence. A Frenchman I knew there also faced this problem a lot. Once, when I was getting my hair cut the barber said he disliked Americans but that I was okay since I was Canadian. I replied that there are good and bad everywhere. (2,000 words)

Me modelling a suit, Seoul, Korea 1995
Bike ride in Ansan, Korea 1998
Taking a break, Cycling, Ansan, Korea, 1998
Peter at lake near Ansan, Korea 1998