Interlude: The Silence and the Song Fall Colours

 

Interlude: The Silence and the Song

Fall Colours

Interlude: The Long Mists

Noone had warned me to expect the carpet of naked flesh that lay before me.

Vancouver Island, BC
19th September, 2001

It is well-known that the English think of the Irish as a race of freckled-headed clowns who, when they aren't jiggling around on stage in tights, spend their entire time consuming vast amounts of black beer. And singing. It is less well-known that the Irish see the average English man as an illiterate half-wit, well-meaning for sure, but with little on his brain except gussets, guzzling, and Gazza.

I don't lend myself to either view. But after a few weeks of cheery-faced Saxon warbling, I needed just a little time to myself. But rather than bog down in Vancouver, I chose to travel, by easy stages and public transport, to Vancouver Island for the low season and the company of my own thoughts.

Victoria

Victoria is a peaceful town in a moderate climate where nothing much happens. It is famous among Canadians for being terribly "English". By that, they mean that some of the houses have hedges and high-angled eaves, not that you'll get duffed up outside a nightclub after 1 a.m. for looking at someone else's bird. The weather was fine and there was noone about, and that suited me fine.

You arrive at Victoria by ferry, passing by forest-cloaked islands. The ferry company makes no fuss over these. It's rather as if the Irish ferry were to make its way every few hours through Lough Erne on a perfect day and never mention the fact in a brochure. It's beautiful, but don't worry, so is everything else here.

I met one of my own people in the hostel there, an event so rare it came like a breath of fresh air after a long smog. Oh, there are many Irish people in the world, or least an unlimited supply of Irish wanna-be's, plastic paddies and misty eyed hangers-on. There's no end of jackeens, biffos and yellabellies to fill many a giant green vat with a shamrock on the side on St. Patrick's Day - that most foreign of all holidays - but an real, unashamed Ulsterman or woman is as rare as the snows of an Irish spring.

Julia was a Northen Irish woman from the British tradition, and like many I had known in my youth, representing the best of that tradition: pride without bigotry, independent, intelligent and hard-working. After a month of Englishmen recounting How Drunk and Mad We Were Last Night, again and again, it was such a relief to hear some sense. The soft tones of the north Ulster countryside, and talk about architecture, and philosophy, and family, and home. I had not felt such ease of intellect since Emma Searle went back to England.

Tofino Isolate

I came to Tofino along the desolate Vancouver Island coast to spend a couple of days breathing the northern Pacific airs. This is a land of long, damp mists that wrap around forest-shrouded islands and inlets in a soft, liquid blanket, and give birth to the region's most famous feature - the great temperate rainforests of the Pacific Rim. These are dense regions of perpetual green damp, moulds and mosses and spiders webs, hidden under great twisted roots of giant cedars and firs hundreds of years old, rigid and proud.

I took a boat trip along the inlets, searching for bears come down to feed in glimpses through the fogs, before spending a few hours walking through the rainforest . I came to a hot spring, steaming and sulphurous in the cold air. You can bathe there in the lower pools, so I had been warned to bring my bathing shorts.

The Naked Ape

I changed, and I walked in my bare feet over the rocks to stand under a geothermal waterfall before turning to the rock pools in a the small canyon beyond.

I stood and stared.

Noone had warned me about the carpet of naked flesh that now lay before me.

Two young women lay flopped out in the first pool like Greek water nymphs, their spectacular breasts glistening in the steamy air. Oblivious to my presence, they murmured to each other in low tones while scooping handfuls of clear water over their torsos.

At moments like these I believe it's correct to act with non-chalance, as if nothing were out of the ordinary, and above all, not to stare. I stepped around the girls, trying to focus on a fascinating creeper, a passing cloud - oh look, there's a rock, how interesting - while at all times, trying not to jostle against anything. They continued murmuring behind me while splashing more water over their hot, radiant...

I thanked God I was wearing my loose bathing speedos. As it was, if they had started giggling and flicking water at each other I'd have had to sit down in a hurry. I considered sitting with the girls and chewing the fat, so to speak, for a while, but feared an unexpected tenting might give me away. Like a fool I allowed discretion to guide me down to a lower pool, I was then forced to endure a hour of conversation with a naked man perched on a rock in a saddlesore John Wayne position. He shifted from buttock to buttock whenever he wanted to emphasise a point. The effect was like a salmon fry seeking for the ocean. I directed my replies to the space over his left shoulder.

We went whale-watching on the boat trip back to Tofino, as if I hadn't seen mammals enough already. We found a gray whale, a majestic, solitary creature surfacing to replenish his air before returning to hunt below. Our boatman advised us to make noise on the boat, which the whales find re-assuring - a silent boat is eerie and menacing. Everyone tapped rails or banged the floor. I hummed the theme tune to The Big Country.

Coming to America

It's time to move on. I came back to Vancouver for a couple of days, and met Kristy again. She gave me a surprise present - a polished stone with one word, "Courage". Kristy, you are a flower among the world. It is time, to take up my courage again and drive forward. I'm going to the U.S. tomorrow.

America. It is not the same place that I had planned on visiting last week, before the 11th. At home, we like to poke fun at America, at American tourists, at American politics, at their view of the world. It's true, we do. They receive more of our attention than any other country. We laugh, lampoon, grouch, complain, we compile mental factsheets of every step the States has taken wrong, in order to hurl it in the face of any US citizen who raises his voice in defence of his nation.

But where do we go when our hopes fail us at home? For a better job, or a better way of life? For simple entertainment? For the re-assurance that it will always be there, that America will stand by us, defend us, take our side if ever the worst comes. We criticise the US so much because we need it so much, and need it to be perfect - perfectly reliable, perfectly moral, perfectly solid. Invulnerable. And now. America has stood up for a way of life that we all share. They stood up, not always perfect, not always moral, but always there. Now American citizens have paid a terrible price for us.

My heart goes out to them. Tomorrow I'm going to America. I hope I can find it within myself to treat them with better respect than I might have done.

 

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Tofino

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Sailing to Victoria

 

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Western Canada Route

 


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The Facts

Where I stayed
Victoria: HI Victoria. Huge dorms, small social area. Friendly staff.
Tofino: HI Tofino (Whalers on the Point). New, log-built hostel with views over the Pacific. Very comfortable.

How I got around:
Pacific Coach Lines from Vancouver to Victoria, including a wonderful trip by BC Ferries through the islands. Greyhound Coach from Victoria to Tofino with a long wait in Nanaimo.