Saturday, February 26, 2011

We are like manatees

I went to visit my folks in Florida. They are renting a mobile home in a “Gated Community for People over 55.” It is located just outside of Orlando, in a town called Tornado Alley. Actually, I’m not sure what the town is called, or if it even has a name. I think it is just a collection of golf carts, garden gnomes and American (and Canadian) flags. The only reason why it is called a town is because a Walmart and an International House of Pancakes are located 15 minutes away.
This is the second winter that my parents have migrated to the sun of Florida and seem to have found a home away from home. They haven’t yet joined the community’s Shuffleboard league. My mom says it is too competitive and has lead to bad feelings within the park. Apparently there is a big rivalry between those seniors who live inside the fence, and those who live outside the fence. My father is a retired senior officer in the Canadian Forces. During his career he faced off against Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic and dueled with fighter jets at the speed of sound. Shuffleboard against 80 year olds from ‘across the fence’ is too dangerous.
My parents are starting to evolve into full fledge retirees. They know that the ‘all you can eat’ lunch buffet is cheaper than the all you can eat supper buffet- and if you arrive at 3:30 and are patient to sit for a half hour you can one for the price of the lesser. 

Nothing says flea market than knock-off Disney hat and ugly shirt.
The most stressed I saw my father on our visit was the morning he was going to take us to a flea market 45 minutes down the interstate. It was the Monday morning flea market and he was worried that all the free parking spots would be taken by the time we showed up. We would be forced to park in either the $2.00 or $3.00 lots. 
Box of socks.
When I lived in Zanzibar, the best time to go to the market was the day after the new moon. Fishermen would use fire to light the surface of the water during their night expeditions and as a consequence it would bring in the really big catches. I once saw a 16 foot tiger shark eviscerated during one of these big catch days. The best time to go to a flea market in Florida is Monday morning. All the tourists are gone and the peddlers are ‘desperate’ to sell their stock. My wife bought 3 Louis Vitton purses for $60- the sellers must have been really desperate, Louis Vitton purses in the stores cost over 500 bucks each.
Something symbolic about this picture, but I am not articulate enough to say it.
Before I took my kids to Disney, my parents took us to a coal burning electricity generation plant.  There we were with all the other families of Canadian snowbird retirees, huddled under the smoke stacks gawking at manatees. For those that are not marine biologists (or almost marine biologists like myself), manatees are the unluckiest of the marine mammals. They are slow, and their tricks aren’t very impressive. They are kind of like retired hairless seals. 
Rumour has it that 17 century sailors thought that they were half women half fish. I understand how the myth of a mermaid came about- sailors aren’t that bright, and being at sea for long periods of time does make one see things that aren’t there.
After a year at sea, I can understand how this would turn you on.
One thing did strike me as we huddled under the majestic clouds of the smoke stacks. It was how similar we were to manatees. The have found a solution to the cold winter weather, they huddle in the warm effluent of the power plant- and so did we.
Manatees- also know as sea lumps

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Haraka haraka haina baraka

When I worked in East Africa, I learned swahili. I wasn’t fluent, but knew enough to negotiate a taxi cab fair, or ask for consular assistance when I was arrested for stopping my bike in a “No stopping your bike” zone. I knew how to order beer, pizza and malaria tests.
I knew how to ask ‘how are you doing’ at least fifteen ways. In Zanzibar, it usually took me a half an hour to say ‘good morning’ to the person selling my breakfast samosa. I was told that I had a very good accent- not just for a mzungu, but for a Tanzanian. I managed to become a Zanzibari resident and my Canadian passport was appropriately stamped to reflect my dual status.
When Disney’s the Lion King was released, I had a number of critiques of the movie’s portrayal of life on the grasslands of East Africa. First, the protagonist was a lion cub named Simba. Simba in swahili is lion. You can see how creatively this lacked imagination, and practically would cause a great deal of confusion to the rest of the members of the pride.
My second major critique was the catchy tune ‘Hakuna matata.’ Everyone everywhere whistled this African philosophy. Translated it means ‘no problem.’ There is a problem however, no one in East Africa says this. The correct phrase is ‘Humna matatizo,’ which means ‘there are no problems/concerns/worries.’ I’m sure it doesn’t bother the average person out there, but for those of us Swahili grammar-philes this is like nails on a chalk board.
I have forgotten most of my swahili. Recently, however I did say “Haraka haraka haina baraka,” to my co-pilot. He was flying an approach to a busy airport and was getting uncomfortable close to a small airplane that was landing ahead of us. Understandably, he looked at me like I was speaking in Tongues. 
‘Hurry hurry has no blessings,’ I clarified. “Slow down.” He did, and I managed not to make the evening news.
I recently returned from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where lions eat ‘lion food’ and snakes eat ‘snake food.’ It is a place where the circle of life has been sterilized. Naked mole rats are ‘cute’ and cat-eating frogs are ‘neat’.
Surprisingly, my favorite part of the Disney experience was Africa. They managed to cram all those countries onto one street and remove all the negative things that appear on the evening news. 
My first experience of Africa was formed while I huddled under a blanket on the floor of a Nairobi taxi cab while Kenyan students clashed with riot police as they tried to overthrow a thirty year military dictatorship. To be honest, my first experience of Africa was the goat dinner I had with the taxi cab driver I met at the Nairobi airport when I arrived earlier that morning. That taxi cab driver kept me safe from looters, tear gas and police. The next day we went for breakfast.
My daughter’s first experience of Africa was being swallowed by a Nile crocodile. 
Actually, her first experience of Africa was playing Bao with a nice lady from Botswana. The lady spent time teaching my daughter the strategies of this traditional game. She was patient and kind and funny. She let my daughter win. They played together for twenty minutes- and in a Disney amusement park twenty minutes is forever. I guess that is the magic of Disney.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Golden, Purple- Canada's Winter colours.

I’ve just spent the last two weeks on the road- or rather over the road, bush, forest, lakes, mountains, farm fields, of this great land. Ferrying a 45 year helicopter across Canada in the winter is something everyone should do before they die. 
For those unfamiliar with Canada, it is the big purple country in the upper left corner of most six grade maps. It is coloured purple to reflect the skin tone of its citizens. Nothing brings a country closer together than the fear of freezing to death.
I understand that flying a Sea King across Canada is a time consuming event. It isn’t like P90x, where in 90 days you are transformed into a middle aged man with misguided motives. No flying a Sea King on a winter cross country takes a lot of prep work. 

First, you have to get tethered to a mortgage in a small Newfoundland town, get laid off from your government job, refuse to bump someone from their job out of principle, convince your wife that you want to join the military during a war, have her quit her permanent job and move the family to Moose Jaw only to then tell her you want to fly the oldest aircraft in the Canadian inventory. Then you have to be the only Aircraft Captain available at the squadron when an aircraft has to be brought across the country.
A lot of the swiss cheese holes have to line up in order for someone to have this opportunity. So, allow me to describe what it is like.
The Canadian Rockies are beautiful, when you can see them from the ground. When you are in the air, trying to fly between them in marginal weather conditions only to be diverted off the flying route due to avalanche blasting, they are a bitch. They are very big, and yet surprisingly are easily hidden by clouds and snow showers. My most significant command decision to date was made trying to get through the mountains and was prefaced with “This is stupid.” I turned around.  
On my second attempt through the mountains, we made it through and arrived in Golden, British Columbia. The town of Golden was named after the first Aircraft captain who had to take a Sea King through Roger’s Pass in the winter. When he arrived the town’s people asked how he was feeling. He replied “Golden.” The town’s people thought his radiance was a nice description of the surroundings. The pilot’s crew knew he had just pissed himself.
After the Rockies everything else was pretty much a blur. I do vaguely remember doing a Gear Up Low Approach pass in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. In hind sight it probably wasn’t the best decision I have ever made. The Canadian Aerobatic demonstration team, the Snowbirds, call Moose Jaw home. There is nothing like having Snowbird #2 critique your fly by on Facebook.

Winnipeg is cold in the winter. The “Friendly Manitoba” license plates are a gentile reminder to Manitobans not to be jerks. But I understand why they are like they are- they live in Winnipeg.
Just to let you know, it cost $150.00 and a case of 24 beer to open a hangar door in Thunder Bay, Ontario. My Mother always said if you have nothing good to say don’t say anything at all. That’s pretty much all I can say about Thunder Bay. 
If you are ever in Marathon, Ontario, you are probably lost or low on gas, or both.
Sault Ste Marie has a very friendly air traffic controller. The kind of voice that would make you want to get violated. Also, if you are ever passing through, please call Sandra at the cafeteria prior to your crew’s arrival. She would appreciate 24-48 hours notice in order to defrost more burger patties. I have her number.
You can get gas in Ottawa. Also, Challenger pilots have sheep skin covers over their seats. 
Fredericton is after Sherbrooke. Somewhere in between expect Nav Canada to loose your flight plan and initiate Search and Rescue coordination. Thankfully they found us, right where we said we would be at the time we said we were going to be there. Oh, the laughs we had once they realized they made a mistake and that we were not frozen to death in Canada’s purple expanse.