..: Seat of My Pants :..

Monday, June 05, 2006


Hello all,

This blog will now go dormant.

I will be continuing this blog over:


While I will keep this blogger account, no further updates will be posted here. Thanks for tuning in!


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Lovely Day...

Begun by the usual classes of Gymnastics in the morning, but followed today by a walk through the local Maple Festival. It was rather cold and so we didn't stay long. However, we did find time to ask Finney if she wanted her face painted ("no", from Owen):

Owen went in the house to finish off his candy apple:

Carrie rented a Roto-Tiller and got the garden going. It was tough work. After this she turned a large circle of grass sod to start a new flower garden in the field. She'll sleep well tonight...

Owen later found a fallen Swallow's egg in the barn. There was some explaining that the egg wouldn't hatch and that it was, indeed, OK to hold it gently. I desaturated Owen's hands to make the image more dramatic:

Friday, May 05, 2006

Ottawa media lockup - Budget 2006

I was at the federal media lockup earlier this week with another IT fellow. We were there on behalf of our newspaper to make sure there were reliable communications lines for reporters to file their stories when the budget embargo lifted. A media lockup is a great big room where hundreds of journalists are closeted in without outside communication while the federal budget is 'handed down' in the House of Commons. Once inside the lockup, there is no outside communication with the world until later in the day. Everyone is given several texts and a CD comprising all the data and proposals by the federal government to be read out and delivered to the Canadian people.

The reason for locking up the journalists is twofold. One, this gives the journalists five hours or so to review the documents and write up stories and make charts and graphs and so on, all ahead of time so as to be able to file completed work to their respective organisations at onec to meet publishing deadlines. And two, there would be no advantage of one organisation over another across the country of divulging information prematurely and trumping the government. The government wants to deliver the budget on its own terms and to be the first to do so, while recognizing that it must rely on the media for interpretation for the Canadian people. The journalists in lockup are given five or so hours to interpret the data, but not release it until the government begins its delivery in the House. At that point, the communications embargo is lifted and there is a scramble among the various media orgs to get their info back to the various motherships. Colin and I were there to set up and ensure the comms pipes were open and free back to our mothership.

Here are some photos of what the lockup looks like.

It's a big room. Almost all screen are latops (about 250 or so), and I walked around and counted no less than 70 Mac latops of those 250. Quite a high number I thought.

At first, there is a lot of discussion about who will write on which aspect opf the budget (childcare, healthcare, national security disbursements, etc):

Then, there is a lot of reading:

and concentrating (maybe too much concentrating):

But after awhile, the documents are read and poured over, things get a little boring and journalists start to do what all responsible journalists do - they interview each other (when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail):

Me? After all technical issues are addressed, there's isn't that much to do. So I did what all responsible IT people do when confronted by 3+ hours of jaw-dropping boredom, I watched a DVD:

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Outside day - Be they all...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Proposal

I had forgotten the dry, gritty, smell of it. The colour was as I had remembered and hoped it still would be and so was the feel underfoot. But the air in Egypt was suddenly specific to my senses and I inhaled great lung-fulls of it as we stepped out of the Cairo airport that warm evening.

Carrie and I had missed our flight from Paris because of a stupid time-setting problem with my watch and were turned away at the gate 20 minutes prior to scheduled departure. We could then only imagine the confusion and disappointment our absence on the arriving flight in Cairo would entail with my sister. She was coming to the airport there to meet us specifically. We could only arrive the next evening instead and make our own way to the Pension Roma in mid-town Cairo not far from the Nile (but a helluva long ways from the Nile Hilton, so to speak).

We were well-encumbered by our baggage: a backpack each, a good sized camera bag each, I with a tripod and I think we had a bag specifically for film. Those were the days before the world had gone fully digital, but the transition was practically on the world’s doorstep. I had brought my old Graflex 4x5 camera, a press-view camera and had brought 40 sheets of a particular Polaroid black and white negative film – yes, film from Polaroid. It produced a paper print as Polaroids do, but also a B&W negative of exceptional range and beauty. The trick with this special film (called Type 55), is that it required a special ‘fixing’ bath after ‘pulling’ the ‘roid and then a soaking in another solution to prevent watermarks from appearing on the film as it dried. I had taken this kit to Guatemala five years earlier and had a lot of fun with it. Here in Egypt, I hoped to lug it to Karnak and Luxor when our journey took us there. Carrie brought her Hasselblad as well and shot some beautiful images with it. These cameras were in addition to our 35mm gear. All in all, we intended to take a picture or two home with us.

We did, indeed, meet with my sister and she showed us around her archeological site on the Giza Plateau and we met some very nice people (she is a combination dirt and desk Egyptologist – meaning she digs in the field and also produces papers as an academic). However, this story is about something else that happened on that trip, something that turned into a life-changing event for us. It happened in Karnak about a week later. We had made our way up there by overnight train without event really (‘up’ is such odd nomenclature, because Karnak is south of Cairo, but the area is called Upper Egypt). This stood in stark contrast to the same trip I’d made in 1992 when I’d cleverly saved some Falafels from dinner the night before to eat on the train in the morning. As a result, I spent most of that train journey in one of the more disgusting washrooms I have ever seen trying to have a BM while standing because everything was too filthy to touch and the train was rocking all over the place. I spent my first visit to Luxor vomiting all over the ground as hotel touts tried their damndest to get myself and two travelling companions to go to their hotel.

But we arrived in good shape in March of 2000 and set off to find the hotel that sounded best from our guidebook. There was something very large in my camera bag that Carrie did not know about and I wanted her to see it when we got to Luxor. But the time was not yet right just then.

We spent three or four days exploring the ruins at Luxor and Karnak and the Valley of the Kings and Deir Al Medinet across the Nile. We would each have our gear with us and would split up for an hour or so at a time, re-uniting here and there to share what we’d seen or drag the other to a choice location. As well as the sand-smell of Egypt, I had forgotten the quiet and flittery sound of birds wreathing the columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall in Karnak, and I wandered amongst them as so many have before me in utter awe and abandonment. The columns rose up and flared out like palms at the top, supporting huge lintels for several millennia now. We would arrive each day at the sites as early as we could – usually before 8 am. This allowed for fewer tourists, fewer touts selling crappy souvenirs, and a much greater feel for light. Once the sun had risen fully, the light became flat and banal and shadows deeper and blacker. We had colour slide film as well as B&W film and the first time we went to Karnak I lugged that damn Graflex and tripod. I became apoplectic when the site guards insisted my tripod was a video tripod and wanted to charge me the video cost of US$60/day. Despite my proving that I had no video equipment, they insisted that this was the tripod’s purpose. I felt like banging heads together and just marching on in. Bloody idiots! I kept thinking. I was stubborn enough that I bargained them down to half that cost, but still was severely put out and off my photograph game (so to speak) for the day. I did take some adequate pictures in the end with the 4x5 that day, but not what I had felt in me at the day’s outset. I have a lovely one of Carrie close up, sitting at the bottom of one of the great pillars in the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, chin on hand (her hand decorated with henna from a shop we stopped into the previous day – a beauty shop run by Arab Christians).

At one point during the day we met up toward the rear of the Karnak complex, near two pillars attributed to the reign of Tutankamun. One pillar flowed into a lotus at the top and the other became a papyrus frond, each a symbol of Upper or Lower Egypt; the median being the series of Nile cataracts that separate the two. We wended our way along a wall outside the Hypostyle Hall and turned right to see a freestanding box of a structure, near the wall. It was a single enclosed room with a normal doorway, but a ceiling inside perhaps twenty feet up. There wasn’t that much to see inside other than an earthen floor and some bas-relief carvings on the walls. While Carrie’s back was turned, inspecting the walls, I withdrew the small box I’d been carrying for the past week. This was the ‘large’ object I referred to earlier and while small, it carried great weight for me and so many hopes and dreams. I placed it on a short wall jutting into the room from the entrance to the structure. Within a few seconds, Carrie had turned around and noticed the small blue box on the wall and flung her eyes up to me in surprise. Just at that moment, a slew of Germans poured into the room and we were obliged to step back away from each other as they all piled in clutching tour books and shuffling attentively after the guide. Carrie and I regarded each other shyly and with surreptitious smiles and looks. I pawed the ground with my toe and felt my face grow redder by the second. The guide droned on and on about the significance of the room – in German – and I remember being impressed by his voice. How authentic he sounded! After an eternity, the Germans filed out and Carrie started to speak. I jumped in and asked her if she’d marry me. She immediately replied Yes, followed by How come you’re not on your knee? I dropped like a rock but she hoisted me up and we embraced. Stepping back out of the room, the sun was blinding. We winced in the light to get our bearings, feeling heady and so in love. The Germans, it turned out, were just outside and the guide was droning on further. I caught him as they were leaving to ask the name of the building. The Chapel of Hatshepsut he replied, somewhat annoyed, and hurried off after his charges. The Chapel of Hatshepsut. I knew then that I would remember that location for the rest of my life. Perhaps we’ll go back one day and I will propose again to Carrie, but on bended knee this time.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Some from today...

Just posting a few picsh I shot about half an hour ago. Bloody cold day (count your fingers when you come in from outside...):

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Maaloula, Syria - 1994

It was an easy crossing. The border guards barely looked at our hard-won visas and waved us through into Syria.

It wasn’t that much different from North Jordan on the other side of the border. Scrub, sand, cinderblock buildings, the odd brown tent pitched at angel against the wind (did I mention sand?). There was a small bus waiting and we climbed on after learning it was Damascus-bound. We waited for a few more passengers to collect from the border crossing and then the bus rattled off spewing black out of the tailpipe. It must have been an uneventful ride into the capital, as I think I feel asleep.

The arrival at the Damascus drop-off point downtown was on an elevated concrete area overlooking a large plaza in the middle of town. Opposite us were large buildings perhaps 30 storeys in height, several with enormous multi-storey drapes with Bachir Al Assad’s image on them. His father had recently died and the son had come to power. He looked like a weakling, surprised by the events that overtook him. His weedy moustache did nothing to improve his visage and his gaunt stance made him slope forward slightly like Lurch from The Addams Family. Hardly the despotic Syrian hard-ass his father was, he seemed unlikely to grow into the position. But grow into it he would over the coming years, and take up the reins of state terrorism-as-policy. But that’s another rant.

We located a philatelist to look for some stamps for my father back home – the first thing you should do in Damascus, really. It happened to be quite close to our drop-off spot and we spent a happy hour or so looking through stamp books. Next was a money-changer, followed by late lunch/early supper. The place we were to stay the first night in-country was nice enough. Barely a small room really with a sink and bathroom down the hall. However, they did have an in-house restaurant that overlooked a small conflation of three streets, which provided lots to look at while we ordered. The dishes were more geared toward larger groups and so we settled on just two dishes and pops. I ordered a simple baaba ganouj, and when it came saw that it had a thin black swirl of bean curd wound through its centre. I swabbed a hunk of bread through it and took it in. I was flooded with the most sensuous, smoky flavour I had ever experienced. It was instantly remindful of campfires as a boy, spices from the far east, and a wholesomeness good food always brings to the pallete. I remember that taste still.

We were bound, on that trip, for the Aramaic town of Maaloula. It lay nestled in some sharp rises coming up out of the desert near the Syrian ridge overlooking the Bekaa valley in The Lebanon. Aramaic is a language, a long disused language actually, surviving only peripherally in one or two towns such as Maaloula anywhere in the world. Old enough linguistically, to be believed the language Christ spoke. I looked forward very much to hearing it. It would be like hearing the dead speak, I thought.

But first, the covered souk (or Market) of Damascus. Long fabled, the souk had been in-place beside the Grand Mosque since antiquity. Lawrence had written about having lunch there in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Waugh had sampled its Turkish delight in the ‘20s. There had been some diplomatic squabble long ago (1960s?) and Syria had opted to deny tourist passports to British citizens. We were the envy of the archeologists at the British Institute in ‘Amman later when we said where we’d been. The borders opened once again to Brits shortly after our trip. My companion had mentioned an ice cream place in the souk where several generations of Damascenes had made the stuff by hand and pulled portions for customers from great barrels. I became fixated and felt driven to find this place and sample the flavours. So we set off and eventually found the winding alleys that made the market. It was, indeed, covered (as many in the Levant are not) by cotton sheeting far above our heads – perhaps 4 storeys or so with the bordering buildings opening their windows out onto the throngs on the streets below. Very medieval it was, with light streaming through edges in the fabric above, boring down through the musty air, creating long shafts of bright light. People flashed brilliantly for a second and then vanished into darkness when passing through these beams: flash, dark, flash, dark. I was mesmerized. There were the usual textile stalls and cheap clothing places, but not far in we came upon what we were sure was the place.

I ordered a vanilla pistachio, the first barrel I saw. The fellow across the counter pulled out an odd instrument. It had a worn wooden handle with a flat blade branching out from two sides. The blade flattened out and the branches met in the middle making a sort of rectangle with the handle on one end. He sprinkled some very green pistachio nuts across the surface of the vanilla and then struck into the ice cream and pulled it towards him. The ice cream curled up and around in a circular fashion and he took this curl and placed on a plate. I had ordered two scoops and he repeated this procedure with the second. Now, as many will know, eating ice cream in the developing world is never a good idea due to possible contagion lingering in the cooled substance. Eating handmade ice cream is foolhardy. But oh that pistachio looked good and I threw caution to the wind. It was, of course, delicious and the pistachio nuts stuck in my teeth for hours – something I have never minded in the least.

The next day we caught another small bus to Maaloula and arrived midday. There were Christian symbols throughout the town; an enclave really, because the high ridges of rock very closely guarded the town, even from the sun when at any angle but directly above. There was a large crucifix painted onto a flat wall of rock above the main street leading sharply up into town. It was perhaps sixty feet up the rock and maybe 20 feet long on the nave. Huge. We inspected a very old church dating from the turn of the first millennium and then, prize of prizes, stoked ourselves with a very cold beer from a canopied terrace above the church. It was somewhat thick, almost mead-like and had a slight sweetness to it. Perfect for a hot day’s walking and hiking.

We needed to return to Damascus for the evening and strode down out of town back to the main road leading south and east. We hadn’t a ride organized and hoped to find a station or staging area for transport. Slightly alarmed to find none, and it approaching 4pm, we felt our only option was to attempt then to hitchhike. And within a few minutes of the familiar hitchhiker stance known the world over, a minivan pulled over ahead of us and crunched to a stop on the gravel. Approaching the vehicle we saw that it already had a number of people in it. Perhaps there was a bus staging area after all and we had missed it? We squeezed into the minivan, my companion over to the far side next to some women and I next to the sliding door and a jovial fellow beaming at everyone.

The driver was singing and clearly enjoying himself as he sashayed between the lines on the road, softly but clearly singing a little ditty. A woman joined in, and then the smiley guy next to me, and soon all were bouncing off each others’ shoulders as voices were raised in song. A national tune, a folk song? No, the driver called back over his shoulder in broken English, We have come from a wedding! They’d picked us up simply because they’d been in a good mood. How refreshing to have that happen. I could not imagine my own culture allowing for happy people to happily pick up strangers and happily carry on with them in their midst. How repressive Canadian society seemed at that point. Suddenly, I noticed the driver was fiddling around in his seat as he drove, the van careening around in the lane. He feet came up and planted themselves on the steering wheel and his hands fished out a short recorder from his pockets. He began to play a melody and drive with his feet. He even stuck his left arm out the window as he drove to show off further. My companion and I were aghast, but soon laughing with the rest of the company. Not to be outdone, I slid open the window next to me and pulled out my yo-yo and stuck my arm out as well. It was difficult, and my yo-yo wonked off the side of the van a few times, but I did manage a couple of inside loops and even one around-the-world. There were shouts of hurrah for both of us and we were soon back in Damascus and clapping one another on the back.

As a denouement, we were detained at the Jordanian border for what were declared insufficient multiple entry visas. We were clear that we had obtained them in Canada and were very stubborn about it. We sat in the office of the commandant for two hours, as he grew increasingly bored of us, asking the same questions over and again not really interested in the replies anymore. We were eventually released and passed through back into Jordan. I remember it felt good to be back, like our home for some silly reason. I had only spent a couple of months there that year and the previous one; hardly enough to even warrant the idea of living there. But home it felt and to ‘Amman we returned.

Picture below taken with B&W infrared film: