Travel Writing

Travel Writing Introduction

For many early British Columbians, their journeys began and ended at this train station. In operation until 1960, the Fraser Mills station and similar stations all around Canada represented new opportunities for countless people. This station is the starting point for our journey into the world of travel writing.

Travel writing, by definition, is a reflection on and chronicle of places the author has visited. in describing their experiences and journeys, it becomes as much a mirror of the writer themself as the places they visit.

Travel writing was a new frontier in writing, both socially and politically, when it debuted in the Middle Ages. In its earliest forms, it was a lens to the outside world, showing life outside the relative confines of 14th-century life. The first travel writings weren’t even marketed as travel writing specifically, but as narratives of what traders and explorers saw.

Over the years, travel writing evolved and came to represent a new idea of what travel meant – as a form of leisure rather than as a tool for trade. Travel became a commodity. Talking about travel for the sake of travel was a modern idea, and the idea of showing the world became an artistic endeavour, caught up in the romanticism of the day. During its heyday in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Europeans wrote about their Grand Tours as well as travels to the colonies, travel writing provided intimate details of foreign life. Consumed en masse among European audiences, it was like reality television and represented a new era of wealth and opulence. As time went on, some writers took a different tone, using travel writing as social commentary or imbuing travel narratives with sharp critiques, especially of the colonial system.

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Over the years, travel writing evolved and came to represent a new idea of what travel meant – as a form of leisure rather than as a tool for trade. Travel became a commodity. Talking about travel for the sake of travel was a modern idea, and the idea of showing the world became an artistic endeavour, caught up in the romanticism of the day. During its heyday in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Europeans wrote about their Grand Tours as well as travels to the colonies, travel writing provided intimate details of foreign life. Consumed en masse among European audiences, it was like reality television and represented a new era of wealth and opulence. As time went on, some writers took a different tone, using travel writing as social commentary or imbuing travel narratives with sharp critiques, especially of the colonial system.

In the past, the typical travel writer was male, privileged and eager to fulfill his desire experiencing the “exotic.” Travel and travel writing were largely seen as something Westerners would do – to marvel, objectify and often misunderstand foreign cultures and bodies. The archetypal “other”, often a colonial subject or other non-European they encountered, was treated with contempt rather than as a fellow human. Any journey is also an encounter of differences in landscape and cultural understanding; but in doing so it also holds a mirror to our face. Who am I and what is my relationship to this place?

Much has changed from traditional writing, transitioning now to a blog-style format or a series of images on Instagram. Travel writing gives us the feeling that there is still a place which we can discover. Contemporary writers look beyond the pure spectacle of observing other cultures, and the writing it produces, to reflect upon their own place in the world and how people relate to themselves; to define how the world works. Paul and Louis Theroux, for example, show the less-romanticized, non-safari sides of Africa and Asia while Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes was a Civil Rights-era exposé on colonialism in Africa.

The newfound role of travel writing, and the agency it brings more diverse groups of people, can be seen in the writing of South Asian authors. Their writing can be seen as empowering, making them part of the global citizenry, engaging with the cultures of England and Canada on their terms.

In the past, the so-called “Indian eye” commented on English life, thus allowing them to claim their own collective identity outside of being an Imperial subject. Travel writing transformed South Asian authors into citizens of the world and allowed them a more realistic view of the countries they visited. They shed their identity as imperial subjects and could observe and judge through their value system.

There are many varieties of South Asian travel-related writing. In Tamil, there is poetry associated with the pain of moving to other landscapes, called “Aatruppadai,” meaning “guiding others to unfamiliar destinations.” While Western travel writers often use their works to observe others, South Asian writers use travel writing as a framework to define the self in these new situations.

Mobility, the luxury that created travel writing, certainly cannot be taken for granted. The right to move freely from one country to another is considered almost a basic right for Europeans and North American travellers. However, not everyone enjoys this right. The story My Indian Passport is a B**** by Deepti Kapoor juxtaposes the difficulties faced by Kapoor in getting a visa compared to Western backpackers. Despite being about travelling, it shows a world from a different perspective where mobility is severely limited. It introduces social critique and commentary into travel writing, a notably modern addition to the genre. Many people from all over the world are always on the move, not for leisure and curiosity but due to displacements brought about by war, disasters, and climate change. Modern travel writing must contend with the political and social issues that plague our world.

Chinese Immigration and Travel

Starting in 1885, Chinese migrants were forced to pay a $50 head tax when entering the country. This was increased to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903, until the Chinese Immigration Act was enacted in 1923 which prohibited a majority of Chinese immigration into Canada. This legislation was not repealed until 1947.

Due to the head tax, most immigrants who came over from China were typically single men, coming
over for work.

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Despite the heavy tax, Chinese labourers continued to seek work in Canada. On average, a worker
would earn about 10 to 20 times more in Canada than the average $2 per month they made in China. For most Chinese passengers, the journey to Canada ended in Victoria. There they would be escorted off the ship and taken to a prison-like immigration office.

The new arrivals were subjected to medical examinations and the head tax. If they could not pay they could arrange for family or friends to pay. The whole process could take days or weeks, during which time they were confined to a room with locked doors and barred windows.

At one point, a credit-ticket system was developed where Chinese lenders would agree to pay the travel expenses of a migrant who would then be bound to the lender until the debt was paid off. A majority of Chinese immigrants coming over as industrial labourers were also frequently hired on a contract, and became stereotyped as temporary residents only here to make money to send back home to China.

While the Chinese Immigration Act halted immigration into Canada, it also required Chinese residents who were born in, or already living in Canada, to register for new identification cards.

Travel Stories

We invited local writers to provide samples of travel writing. We hope you enjoy.

"Train Journey" by Abnash Kaur Gill

My very first journey by train was in 1960 when my mother and my siblings were moving from India to England to join our father. Until then, I had only lived in a village and had no reason to go on a train. I had seen trains going by, when I visited my mother’s family and when I went to middle school in a different village.

Train tracks were near by but the first time riding one was when I was going to Bombay to move to UK. Lots of people came to see us at home. But only my father’s brother came to the train station to see us off. He helped as we had lots of luggage to carry on the train we said our goodbyes and he left. My mother said “Abnash, you have to be very alert and we will take turn to sleep. One of us has to stay up to keep an eye on the children and the luggage.” It was so beautiful to see fields and villages as they passed by. People and animals gathered around ponds of water to escape the heat. I enjoyed the train rocking me gently while the speed of the train amazed me.

The sound of the train was making music for me as well. When the train stopped at the next station, so many young boys came running to sell food through the windows of the train. We brought our own food with us so we did not have to buy but at one of the stations I heard someone shouting “Mathura de peda.” I woke up from my sleep and said “mom I want ‘Mathura de peda,’ she replied, what is so good about them?” I told her they were very famous in a book I read. My mom give in and bought it for us. But when I eat them, they did not taste so great. I was very disappointed but I didn’t say anything to my mom. Then I started thinking what will happened when we reach Bombay? How will the person who is going to pick us up know where to pick us up at the station? It will be so crowded! But to my surprise when we reached the station our relative just walked into our compartment. He had a porter with him who quickly picked up our heavy luggage while we carried something small in hand. In no time we were all sitting in a taxi. This was a first time I sat in a car as well.

Our journey from Bombay to UK on the ship took 14 days. After being in England for a few days, my father took me to the bus stop and showed me how to read the chart on the bus stop. Then he took me to the train station where he showed me how to find out whenever the train was coming and going. I went to school by bus so I started figuring out about buses. One day my mom had to go to the next town on the train and my father asked me to take mom. I was very excited about going but worried about fingering out how to get help at the station. Somehow I did and I dropped my mom off and I came back to the station, bought my ticket, hopped on the train and my town came but the train never stopped. I got scared, I couldn’t do anything. When the train stopped at the next train station, I got off. I showed my ticket to the ticket master and he gave me directions but every few steps I showed my ticket to someone and they pointed me towards the right direction. When I sat in the train, I again asked if I was in the right train. My English was next to nothing so I kept showing my ticket. Now I was wondering about if the station masters at the end of my journey will ask for more money or he will get angry with me. But thank God, no one said anything to me. That evening my father went to pick up my mom and I never told everyone how I took the wrong train. This is the first time I am taking about it.

In Canada, I took a train to Jasper. Now I can speak English so it is so much easier to travel. Train ride was great! I spotted so many bears and deer, beautiful mountains throughout the journey and even went boat riding.

You must be wondering what are “Mathura de peda?” It’s sweets made of condensed milk. The milk is boiled down to milk solids, fined powdered sugar is added, then hand rolled into a small ball. Press down from centre and add a pistachio in the centre. Mathura is one of city’s name in India.

"Trains" by Diane Kizik-MacDonald

“Mummy, she’s blocking my train again,” wailed my brother, after I had crawled over and sat on the track, fascinated with this moving toy. Mother once again lifted me off so that his little train would go around the little figure of eight track unimpeded. This is my earliest memory of train affairs. (Ca. 1941)

We then lived near the Don Valley in Toronto, and at that time there was no Don Valley Parkway, just a beautiful river valley with frogs’ eggs, cat tails, birds of all kinds, and paths through the wild growth where we occasionally came across and tip toed around “hobos” sleeping in a sunny glade. But there was a train track in the valley where the trains were headed to and from Union Station. They had great, black, monstrous, wonderful engines and that bright red caboose at the back. We could feel the rush of air as the train sped by, spewing smoke and with those great wheels churning on the tracks. We didn’t dare get too close, but still close enough to give the engineers a fright, I’m sure. Sometimes we would put pennies or little pebbles on the track and see what would happen to them. I don’t think we really ever saw them again. There was a viaduct near by and we were always careful and afraid to go more than a few feet on it in case a train would come by. I can’t think that our parents knew what we were doing. I think we just told them that we were looking for tadpoles. Years later, my brother heard of a friend who had been caught on the viaduct. He survived but lost a leg. Must have been a terrifying experience.

My grandmother from Scotland decided when she was in her late 70’s to visit her daughter in Toronto (my mother) then to see her sister in California. Mother always laughed at the memory of granny, last through the gate at Union Station, sauntering towards us with her hat jauntily perched on her head. We loved that grand Union Station, with the high ceiling and marble floors, grand wooded ticket teller stations, and that wide marble staircase to the next level down. From a vantage point outside we could see the turntable where the engines were shunted, then rotated to their own storage place. All those tracks, wow! (Ca. 1949)

Years later, in 1953, we moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Mother and father went first for dad to settle in his work and for them to find a house. My brother and I finished our school year in Toronto and we were housed with neighbours. Then mother came back for us and we took the train to Halifax. We had a lovely compartment, and could go out in the corridor, weaving side to side as the train rocked along. At nighttime, these compact, little narrow beds would appear from above, and the little washroom seemed to have a miniature sink and toilet at our disposal. It was always fun going from one carriage to another, much more rocking and jiggling between the cars, and noisier. I think it was Montreal where we got out to stretch our legs and buy some food from a vendor. Dad picked us up in Halifax and a new adventure started for us all during the two years we lived in Halifax.

Then we moved to Scotland where dad, after his first heart attack in Halifax, worked at the head office and away from his previous field work. Then, almost two years later, we moved to England, just south of London, when the company’s head office moved from Glasgow to Croydon. A few times we took the train to Scotland from London to visit family. All the big cities in the U.K. were still very dirty then (ca. 1956), with all the houses, trains, and commerce etc. burning coal. Smog abounded and there were real “pea supers,” most unpleasant.

Special chest hospitals housed many people ill with chronic lung disease with the poor air quality. Soon after we arrived, coal was exchanged with coke for burning and the air became much cleaner. It would still take years for the cities to have their buildings and historical monuments cleaned and for peoples’ health to improve.

Those were wonderful trips to and from Scotland by train. The city, then villages, would whiz by, then rural scenes with cows, rivers, and rolling hills. Again we seemed to have a carriage in those days and it was fun keeping our balance, as we would move to the dining car, explore all the others, and then get back to our compartment. The greatest sound was the constant “clickity clack” of the metal wheels over the joins in the rails. Clickity clack, clicking clack! We’d try desperately to read the signs of the village stations we passed, getting almost dizzy whizzing our heads back and forth trying to read the station names. Rarely did we get them right, but there was great excitement when we did.

When I was in school in London, three years I took the train, the Brighton Line, into Victoria Station from our station in Wallington. It was the “7:33.” Usually the cars were open and you could walk from one end to the other. The trip took about a 1/2 hour, each stop brief, as they seemed to get people off and on in what seemed like 30 seconds, although it may have been longer. Sometimes the cars had closed compartments where there were bench-like seats with a door at either end. I didn’t like these as well, and would feel nervous if I was alone with a man in the car. There were some men who liked to expose themselves to sweet young things like myself, which was quite disturbing. I was about 19 at the time. This didn’t happen very often, but just enough to make you want to be with lots of people. (Ca. 1961)

We’ve been in electric trains in Spain, from Madrid to Leon, where the seat backs could be slid from one side to the other. At first we weren’t aware that we could change the seat backs our selves, and sat facing the back, but when we saw the locals move them the way they wanted, we soon caught on. That was at the beginning of our wonderful hike on the Camino in northern Spain with a Canadian group, Sept. 2003.

I haven’t been on the “Chunnel,” the express train from London to Paris which goes under the English Channel in the tunnel, but we picked up my daughter Christine in London a few years ago after she left her friends in Paris. She was coming with us and Duncan’s son, Graham, to visit Duncan’s sister in Scotland and tour around. “A great trip on the Chunnel!” she said.

Following an Elderhostel trip to San Francisco we spent an extra week north of San Diego. There we went on the Coaster, the train that runs up and down the west coast of California. We preferred using the Coaster when going to tour San Diego, it was much easier than driving and looking for parking. The Coaster was modern and much like Toronto’s Go Trains or Vancouver’s Sky Trains. California was sorry it didn’t keep more of its train rail lines, as they were mostly dismantled for the car and truck transportation systems.

The trip from Port Credit to Toronto’s Union Station has been taken on the superb Go Train system. Not being a regular passenger, it was a little hectic in rush hour at Union Station when all the other commuters knew exactly where they were going, often rushing to just make their train where they could then relax on the trip home.

I like the Via Rail in Ontario. We’ve been on it a few times; the last trip was from Coburg to Ottawa when I visited my daughter, Laurie. The station felt like a real little country station, with a small but adequate waiting room, some second hand books in a rack for the taking, a teller and rail helper. The visible sign that we were in the 21st century was the machine where you could collect your ticket from the paper you printed off at home on the computer. The station in Ottawa was much more sophisticated and had superb bus service directly to downtown Ottawa where my daughter met me at the Rideau Mall near her work.

The second last train I’ve been on is the SkyTrain in Vancouver when visiting daughter Christine in May 2008, when she and Eran had their first baby, Sophie. I raved about my senior bus pass, $42.00 for a month, which could be used on the busses, SkyTrain, and ferries to North Van. I used this pass several times daily, much to the amusement of all as I raved on and on about it. When I got on the SkyTrain at the downtown stop and was pondering which train to get on, a lady asked me where I wanted to go. I didn’t really know and hopped on the one she pointed to, since I was mainly exploring at that time and had lots of maps with me. Later that day I got on a train when there was a transfer, and luckily it took its time leaving. I had time to ask a gentleman in uniform if I was on the correct train to my destination. He quickly informed me to get off that train, go down another level, and take the correct train. That is one advantage of being retired, had I been on the wrong train, no worries, since the SkyTrain would not take me out of province!

A dream of my husband was to have a ride on the Amtrak train from Seattle to San Francisco with a sleeping car for overnight travel. This did happen in September 2017. There was much dismay and amusement in our tiny room, which would have been perfect for one person. It was fine during the day, but on our sleepover, the very narrow top bunk was lowered and, since I am younger than my husband, the top bunk was mine. There was no space to put anything and I had to hook in the safety netting, which was very tight and a struggle. After a surprisingly good sleep with the gentle rocking and movement of the train, it was again a struggle to unhook the netting, maneuver around, and climb down. Fortunately, there was lots of other space on the Amtrak, in the dining car, the observation deck, and the parlour.

"Cambrin" by Margaret Whitelegg

This is about two sisters, both in their seventies when they set off on this trip. It started as a search, became an adventure story and the realisation of a dream and ended as the forging of a new friendship in a faraway country.

At this time we were in the habit of taking an almost annual vacation together to England where we had been born.

We had always felt the loss of our two grandfathers who had both died as a result of WW 1. I had managed to find the War Record of our Paternal grandfather, but the only thing that we knew of William (Billy ) Young, my mother’s father, was that he had been killed and was buried in Northern France. From what our Nana, our maternal grandmother had told me I had been able to find the location of his grave, and its number, in a small town called Cambrin in Pas de Calais.

Neither his wife nor his daughter, nor anyone else in the family had ever seen this grave until my younger grandson found and visited it on one of his trips from Canada to France. He it was who was the first to see the small Military Cemetery in Cambrin, behind the Mayor’s house, which my Nana had told me of so many years ago – and to see that on Billy’s headstone were the words “Oh Jesus, open up Thy Heart and let him rest therein.”

Now that we knew that the grave actually still existed we determined that we would see it too !

So having spent time in England and having visited second cousins whom we had never met before, we set off very early in the morning – getting up at 4.15 a.m., to take Eurostar from London to Lille.

We stayed overnight and the next morning, a Sunday, we took a train to La Bassee, the nearest station to the Cemetery I was told by the ticket seller in the station. Because it was Sunday there were few trains which were about 4 hours apart. There were no buses running and there were only 2 taxis in town. The taxi drivers didn’t work on Sunday unless the cabs were pre-ordered, so we were out of luck there.

We searched and searched for ways in which we could get to Cambrin and the Cemetery. We stopped people going into church, people coming out of church, people walking their dogs, even the woman in the information kiosk in the little Supermarket, who told us that it was about 4 km away and that the best way for us to get to it was to walk . Not only was this a bit of a test of our ingenuity, but we didn’t meet ONE person who spoke English! We managed with what French we could summon up, but the local accent was very different from any that we’d heard before and the speed at which people spoke was almost supersonic ! Added to that, we’d only arrived last night, and it takes a short time to get ones ear attuned to another language, I find.

Well, we’d come so far and we were not about to give up now, so we made up our minds to do the 4 km walk. We set off and immediately came to a little bar with countless motorcycles parked outside. The locals were on their Sunday Run. This was to be our final attempt. Now this is where my sister and I differ somewhat. She insists that I pushed her into the bar and made her do the talking because I was afraid of a crowd of Bikers, and I say that I steered her gently inside first out of politeness. Whatever … she told our tale to the young woman behind the bar who said that it was a lot further than 4 km. and that we shouldn’t even think of walking there.

A young man, her husband, came in, took off his coat , hung it behind the bar and joined us. When he heard our story he put his coat back on again and said that if we didn’t mind sitting among a pile of his children’s toys in the car he’d take us. He then drove us the almost 8 km to Cambrin. Thank goodness we hadn’t tried to walk.

When we arrived, he asked around, searched for the Mayor’s House and dropped us off there. I had assumed that he was taxiing us, but when I opened my purse, he stopped me and said that it was his pleasure. He then gave us big hugs and left us at the gate.

We walked down a little path behind the house and there it was! By Military Cemetery standards, it is not large, but the effect of seeing it took our breath away. We went to Billy Young’s grave first and read the inscription – through our tears, I can tell you. Then we walked along the rows of graves. Such sadness! So many young men lie there – most in their early twenties, but some only eighteen or nineteen. The eldest one that I saw was thirty six. Two Germans are there, one named and one without a name and I’m sure that they didn’t want the war any more than the others there did. It made me very angry as well as sad, because WW 1 was supposed to be the War to End Wars – and wars are still going on all over the world.

Now we had to leave – but we had quite a problem. We had taken a local train and had return tickets from Lille to La Bassee. We had then been given a ride from La Bassee to Cambrin. so…. we had no idea where there was a station from which we could get a train to take us back to Lille. In fact, we didn’t know where Cambrin was in relation to anywhere else – except La Bassee, nearly 8 km away, and no buses, no taxis… our earlier problem in reverse.

First things first, though. The temperature was about 28 and we were hot and thirsty. As we were driving into Cambrin we had spotted a little Flea Market on the street, so we headed that way. It’s a small town and this affair seemed to be on the main street only.

We came to a building with signs for Pernod, wine, juice etc. and with a table seating about 8 people just outside the door. Assuming it to be a little bar I walked boldly in through the front door and found myself in someone’s living room ! A woman came striding towards me from another room and asked if she could help me. I apologised for my presence in her home and asked for juice. She took a couple of chairs from her dining table and set them down outside for us , gave us our drinks and then asked us what we were doing there. When we explained, she told everyone in the vicinity and people came over to shake our hands and to thank us for what our grandfathers had done in WW1. We were told that the local people take care of the Cemetery and that every November 11th there’s a Parade. The Mayor, came over to be introduced and a photographer appeared from somewhere with an enormous camera and took about a dozen photographs.

Talk continued and then “Madame”, who was by now “Martine” asked us when was the last time we had eaten, and when did we intend to eat again.

When we said that we would eat when we returned to Lille she was appalled. No ! No! This would not do ! “To-day is Sunday,” she said, “and my family is here for dinner. I have two pots of Cassoulet in the kitchen , so you must eat here and now. Do you drink wine?” She then disappeared into the house.

About ten minutes later she came out and ushered us into her dining room where she had laid a table for two with a beautiful lace cloth, two glasses and a bottle of Rose wine. She then brought from the kitchen a huge tureen of the most delicious Cassoulet full of beans and sausage and other good things. Hospitality like this is hard to believe and I will never, never forget it.

The atmosphere became very festive. Members of the family, young and older were wandering in and out of our dining room and Pierre , the other half of this lovely couple said that we really were getting the red carpet treatment. Then people from the street started poking their heads round the door and wishing us “Bon Appetit”. The photographer came in and took one more picture of us eating.

What a day that was . We were absolutely overcome by kindness. It still seems like a dream to me. Maybe the world has many people as kind and hospitable as this , I don’t know. I do know that we were very lucky to find them here.

Now we said that we must leave, and Martine told us that the station we needed was just at the end of the street and across a field. Everything seemed to be working out so well for us. However, she insisted that we “go pipi” before we left, because we didn’t know how long it would be before we reached Lille. More tears flowed as we left and I suspect that even Pierre’s eyes were moist.

An hour later we were sitting at a table outside a bar at the corner of the main square in Lille with a beautiful glass of Leffe to cool us off and calm us down ! The perfect end to a perfect day – until we got back to our hotel to find that the elevator had broken down… Our room was on the fifth floor, the temperature was still about 28 degrees, and there was no air conditioning. My pathetic protests to the hotel manager that we were two old ladies and that it wasn’t easy for us to climb all those narrow, marble stairs were met with a very Gallic shrug , and “C’est la vie, Madame.”

We now have friends in Cambrin and we send each other cards at Christmas and Easter, and on November 11th we contact each other and I remind them to take good care of my Grandpa Billy, even as I know that I don’t need to do that because the Cemetery is in perfect, pristine condition.

One of my granddaughters, Julia, has a friend in England whose father’s hobby is researching WW1. He and his friends have meetings and do this together. When he heard our story he offered to do some work for me and they have found out exactly where Billy died, and what his Battalion was doing at the time. I now believe that my sister and I may very well have been standing on the spot where the crater was at which he died. We hadn’t known before that he had actually died in Cambrin: we thought that his body may have been collected and taken there.

We didn’t know anything about the craters or what a Sap is , or that he was at Mad Point Sap. From what I have gathered, Mad Point Sap was where the Rue du Marais is now. Incredible as it may seem, our new friends’ home, the one to which we were welcomed with such hospitality, is in the Rue du Marais ! Sometimes things happen that you would dismiss as too far-fetched if you read about them in a book of fiction!

World War 1. What a dreadful thing it was. William Young was 29 when he died and left a young widow and two little girls aged 5 and 7. What more can one say?

"Up, Up, and Away" by Margaret Whitelegg

We had been driving around the South West of the United States, stopping here and there at places of interest, and for the past few days we had been in New Mexico.  We had visited Alamogordo  for the Space Museum , and then White Sands National Monument, an astonishingly beautiful site of pure white sand dunes with stark contrasting shadows.  There, by our parked car we met a woman who had lived in the small town in which  Peter had been born and had lived in until we married – half a world away in England.  She, her husband and Peter and I, maybe except for a Park Ranger ( although we didn’t see one ) were the only people in maybe a twenty mile radius, and she and Peter had both lived in Sale, Cheshire.  The world never ceases to amaze me!

We had been also to the Bat Flight at Carlsbad Caverns, an unbelievable spectacle which I’m thrilled to have seen.  This is possibly a tale for another time.  To-day’s story is about Albuquerque.

I can’t remember where we were driving from that day, but we arrived at our hotel  in the  evening and in the dark.  We  had tried to get a room in many hotels but with no success.  Eventually at this one we were told, “Well, aren’t you lucky?  We’ve just had a cancellation.” , so we took the room, unloaded our luggage and went straight to the Cantina, a warm, candle-lit area with soft music.  A man was playing a guitar there, a lovely, calm piece of music, “Memories of the Alhambra” by Tarrega.    We sat and relaxed with a glass of wine after our long day and let the music take over, then went gratefully to bed.

Thee next morning I was awake early as I usually am and got up to make tea and coffee.  I crept around until I heard Peter’s voice then I went to the window, threw open the curtains and stood there speechless. There, against the bluest sky that you ever will see, were hundreds of hot-air balloons, rising slowly and majestically over the plain which was flat as far as the horizon – as far as could be seen.

It was the weekend of the Albquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta – a world renowned event, and we had been lucky enough to find a room in the  hotel nearest to the Event Centre, just in the field next door .

The Flight was to be the next day, and to-night was The Glow.  Whatever The Glow was, we had to see it, so we went.

For this event, the balloons, hundreds  of them, enormous things when they are on the ground next to you, are tethered so that they will not rise.  At a given signal the pilots turn on their burners  and these spectacular balloons light up from the inside, vivid, glowing, brightly coloured against   the black of the night sky, the roaring of the flames adding to the atmosphere.

The Park was open so crowds of people were milling around, wandering around, finding their way between the balloons  towering above them and talking to the pilots who were  keen to answer any questions.  It was magical – a never-to-be forgotten  feast for the senses.

One area was filled with what one expects of a hot air balloon – the traditional shape with the basket underneath.  Then another area   had various shapes  – some beautiful, like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, flowers, etc.,  others amusing  , Disney characters animals, pigs, a stork with a baby in a basket, a Fedex truck, that kind of thing, and all the time there was a feeling of fun and excitement, and, I have to say, even awe, at their size and diversity.  A Balloon is not just a Balloon. 

We spent hours there, soaking up the atmosphere, then made our way , happily and drowsily, back to the Cantina and so to bed.

The next morning, having found out as much as we could about the programme, we got up at about five a.m  in order to watch The   Mass Ascension. We walked around the field to see them inflate and to hear the hissing of the fires.  Pete said that he thought it “very dodgy” to have a naked flame inside a balloon, and I had to agree with him.

I can’t describe the Ascension.  To see  maybe more than 500  enormous, colourful balloons rising slowly and gracefully  against a  deep blue sky is truly a sight to behold. At a given signal they rise, in two waves so that there are no collisions.  Breathtaking is the best word for it !

We stood for a long time watching them and also saw the Chase cars set off.  Each balloon has a chase crew which helps inflate the balloon and then follows it  to the area where the pilot hopes to land it.  Once it lands and is deflated, the chase crew helps pack it up and brings it, the pilot and any crew  – usually a crew of two people, back to the field.

What an experience, and what luck we had to find a room so close.  Opening the curtains and seeing the balloons rising that morning is one of the most memorable sights I have ever seen, and I know that on my travels I’ve been lucky enough to have seen more than my fair share of wonderful sights.

"The Train..." by Sukhdev Brar

Travelling in a train is lots of fun. In the train compartment lots of people sit together, talking during long trips. Some carry food to eat and to  share with others. Sometimes on a train you meet people, sometimes they become friends forever, but sometimes tragedy can ruin somebody’s life. It becomes such a horrible trip that person can’t forget it while sleeping or awake. I know the story of a girl. She was my mom’s cousin, born in the Punjab,when the British Emperor ruled India. In 1947 India was divided into two parts ( India and Pakistan ). At that time she was five years old.

Punjab state was divided into two parts, people were moving East to West or West to East by bullcarts, walking in groups, some by train. The girl’s family took the train. It was a very hot day, the train was packed. Everybody was trying to reach home. Lots of people were killed by evil doers who wanted to rob them. Everybody was so scared. 

When the train was close to Amirtsir city, there was a group of gangsters. They started killing people. Women and small kids were crying. They killed everyone on the train, there was blood everywhere. The little girl slowly sat down. She hid behind the train wheel, she got so scared that she hid herself. When the military came and removed the dead bodies, they found the girl alive. Her whole body was covered with blood. A military officer took her to Pakistan, and kept her with his family. The girl still remembered her father’s and mother’s name. She knew the whole family got killed, she remembered her uncle’s name, who was living in east Punjab. After one year when things got settled  between both countries; the officer brought her to India and returned her to her uncle. If God wants to save somebody nobody can kill that person.

"Moving to the United States..." by Sam Geisberg

In 1973, Sam Geisberg was living in the Soviet Union. As a Soviet Jew, life and opportunities were worse and fewer than for others, and leaving was a remote possibility. However, Sam’s brother, Vladimir, had just left for Israel due to a humanitarian emigration scheme for Soviet Jews encouraged by negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Being associated with someone who leaves the USSR was socially and politically dangerous, and Sam knew he either had to suffer in the USSR or leave. This is the story of Sam and his son Mark leaving the USSR.

Once Vladimir and Pesach left, Sam knew he had no future in the USSR. Being 37 years old, he also knew he was also running out of time to restart a productive life outside of the USSR and began to start the process for leaving the USSR. At the beginning of the academic year in September 1973, six months after Vladimir left, Sam got extremely sick while delivering his first lecture. He was sent by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors told him his appendix had burst and he needed immediate surgery. The conditions were awful and it wasn’t until his Aunt Fira arrived and started bribing the hospital staff did conditions improve; a Ruble here and a Ruble there got Sam robes that fit, a nicer room, and extra servings of food. He stayed in the hospital for a month, finally being released in early October 1973. When he was released, Sam decided to apply for permission to leave:

“I kind of decided enough is enough and decided that I would apply for permission to leave [the USSR]. So I came to my department, gave a note to the Dean that I would like to leave for Israel, and right away they kicked me out. Then I went through usual procedure at that time. I had to go through four different meetings where people had to say how bad I was, how I’m a traitor to the Soviet Union, and all that because I wanted to get permission to leave. The purpose of the meetings were simply to denigrate me; put me down. But they had no influence on me because I didn’t care. The moment when I applied [to leave], it was obvious that all the values of life in Russia had disappeared. The only thing was that I felt a feeling of pity. I knew all the colleagues in my department since childhood and we were very close friends. When these friends were forced to loudly say how bad I was and had to beat themselves on the chest saying how they would never leave the Soviet Union, I knew how much they hated the Soviet Union and would leave if given a chance.” 

Suddenly, Sam was a “free” man, although not in a positive way. Most of his friends and all of Mira’s relatives were afraid of them; they were persona non grata.

“When I got pneumonia, the surgeon got really mad. I was in his office when he went to the next room and raise hell to the woman that was in charge of the post-operating ward. I overheard the nurse ask him ‘Why the hell you care so much for that filthy Jew?’ He told her ‘I don’t care whether he’s a Jew, a Russian, or a Tatar, he is my patient and I want him to live.’ This shows the dangerous atmosphere in the USSR at the time and really reveals what it was like then.”

As spring changed into summer, life continued albeit with some major changes. In spring 1974, Sam and Mira “divorced” as a formality to try and speed up Sam’s approval process, even though they were still a family and lived together, and Mira quit her job at the factory she worked at to lose security clearance. They hoped that these two actions would make it appear as if Mira did not want to be with Sam and for her to seem less like a valuable asset who could be used as an excuse to deny Sam’s exit visa; combined, these two actions would look as if Sam was truly an outcast who had no value to the Soviet Union anymore.

All along, Sam realized he had to have somebody with him; he had to be with his family, not just by himself, and could not be alone in a strange place. The family’s conception of what the West was like was completely distorted by Soviet media, making it hard for Sam to know what he was going to face when he left. Even more difficult was the reality that Sam and Mark had no idea about when, or if, they would see Mira and Asya again. Mark decided to leave with Sam and they began preparing to leave.

After a little bit of resistance, Sam convinced OVIR to issue Mark an exit visa as well. Once OVIR granted the visas, they had a month to leave the country. During this month, Sam had to obtain paperwork proving he didn’t owe any money, scrape together some cash to take with them, and go to Moscow to obtain transit visas to pass through Western countries. While at the Austrian embassy in Moscow, Sam used the embassy’s photocopier to make copies of his PhD diploma because the Soviet government rescinded it as they deemed him not worthy anymore of the certification. He had to have proof if he wanted a chance at getting a job abroad. Mira, meanwhile, helped them pack what meagre belongings they could bring with them. Sam and Mark had a few sets of clothes each and Sam had a brand new suit from Finland. When it came time to leave, Sam and Mark collected the two suitcases they had packed and went to the airport. They boarded the plane to Warsaw and left.

Sam and Mark left the Soviet Union on June 19, 1974. Sam had just turned 38 and Mark was about to turn 11. They flew to Warsaw and then Budapest before getting on their first non-Soviet bloc airline to Vienna. Once in Vienna, Sam had no idea what to expect. Who would meet them? What would it be like? What would they have to say? After clearing customs, a representative from HIAS met them and asked where they wanted to go: the U.S. or Israel? Sam paused, balancing the options. Israel had family and familiarity, but was also at war, while the U.S. was completely unknown but had more stability and opportunities. He turned to the HIAS representative, said “we are going to the U.S.” – a simple, unceremonious, uneventful occasion that belied a life-changing decision and seismic change in his life. Unable to turn back, and unaware of what lay ahead, Sam and Mark got in line. Life in the Soviet Bloc was over.

In Vienna, HIAS took Sam and Mark to a hotel where they stayed for several weeks. For refugees leaving the Soviet Union, a stopover in a neutral country like Austria was necessary to process paperwork and sort out visas. While nominally safe as it was not the USSR, Austria was still a grey zone as Sam did not know if their visas would be approved and if they would be deported back to the USSR. However, making it to the West was like landing on a whole new planet. 

Lots of people afterwards asked me what the most striking impression of the Western world was. For associate professor Sam Geisberg who, as a matter of fact, is not a bad mathematician, and has read a lot of stuff, the most striking feature was potatoes that I bought in a store – there were no rotten potatoes in all the potatoes I bought! If you went into a Russian store to buy potatoes, the lady [behind the counter] is using a rotten, dirty glove to measure the potatoes and, out of those, maybe 15% are frozen so they are so sweet you can’t eat them. Another 30% are rotten. So you only really peel and eat 50% of the potatoes. But in Vienna, they were all fresh and tasty.”

In total, Mark and Sam spent a month in Vienna. After several interviews with HIAS and completing more paperwork, Sam and Mark were put on a train with other refugees to Rome, where they arrived on July 25th, 1974. For most Soviet émigrés to the U.S., Rome was the final stop before going to the United States as there was a large American immigration office in Rome which issued visas and approved residency status for Soviet émigrés. 

In Rome, HIAS gave each family a small allowance and taught English to the émigrés while they waited to see if their American visas would be approved. Much to Sam’s relief, the room and food were paid for by HIAS, meaning that he could still hold onto the small amount of money he had saved throughout the trip by scraping together the HIAS stipends.As they could not get jobs in Italy and had only the small HIAS allowance to live off of, there was nothing to do but wait. Everyone was scared of the future and was trying to live frugally; nobody knew how long their stay in Rome would be or if they would be sent back to the Soviet Union:

“Four days a week I would leave Mark with some people in Ostia to sit on the beach while I took English lessons in Rome. About 8 o’clock I would board the train, there were about four hours of English lessons, and I would be back by roughly 3 PM when I would take Mark, go to the apartment, and prepare some food. I tried to keep Mark in good shape while I mostly ate pears. The cheapest fruit. We spent days on the beach and, in the evening, lots of potential emigres would converge to walk and talk. The main subject of conversation was always future life in the United States. We never interacted with locals, except through informal interactions. We would never buy food in the store, only in cheap farmer’s markets. Everyone around had a lot more money than us, I was scared like hell for the future so I didn’t spend anything.”

“It was raining and life became pretty miserable. So I told Mark ‘Well I’ll go to HIAS and when I come back, I’ll know where we’re going.’ I was in a very aggressive mood when I arrived at HIAS. To my surprise when I got to the office they said ‘Oh Dr. Geisberg we’ve been trying to find you because the Boston Jewish community agreed to take you and your son!’ So that’s how it was, I came back to the apartment and told Mark that we would leave in three days. According to other immigrants, the clothes and shoes were much cheaper in Italy than the United States and Americans have no taste how to dress, but the Italians have real style. So I said okay, we went to the store in my best shoes from Leningrad and I looked at the shoes in the Italian shoe store. First of all, the salesman guy looks at my shoes and says ‘where did you get those from’ as he was bewildered at how cheap and awful they were. I bought the cheapest shoes in Italy and they were 100 times better than what I considered very nice shoes in Russia, so I took my ‘really great shoes’ from Russia and just dropped them in the wastebasket!

Sam and Mark arrived in Boston on October 11, 1974. After arriving in Boston, two HIAS people met them and took them around the city, giving an introductory tour of their new home. Sam didn’t care about any of that. All he wanted to know is where they were being taken; would it be their new home or yet another visa office? Finally, they were brought to a beautiful building and shown to their apartment, a two-bedroom, four-room apartment that was bigger than any place Sam had ever lived; it was their new home. The first question that Sam asked was why they needed two bedrooms!

"My Trip to Toronto by Via Rail" by Vicki L. Stacey

I have always thought that traveling by train was a romantic way to travel. It doesn’t help much that I have a fear of flying and my dislike intensifies when I have to fly on my own. So when I decided to visit my youngest sister, Lisa, in Toronto in October of 2002 and my husband Rod didn’t want to come with me; I decided that I would go “ViaRail” from Vancouver to Toronto, a 3½ day journey.

I also knew that I didn’t want to be isolated in a roomette so I decided to take a berth and the full package deal that included all of the food for the 3½ days. I was told that the upper berth was less expensive than the lower berth and since I was doing a round-trip by train, the price would be a little better if I took the upper one. The only problem I could perceive about taking the upper berth was “how easy would it be to get up into the bed via the ladder and would I have any problems getting down the ladder in the early morning for a bathroom break?” Since I am a rather large lady this was a genuine concern. I stewed over this situation for quite awhile and finally I decided that I would be proactive and address the problem head-on. I had seen a small portable, cylinder potty that you could purchase at a Regal outlet store. It included a female adaptor piece so that women could easily use this potty anywhere. I decided that if I was stuck up in the berth and found getting down a little precarious in the middle of the night, I could use my little potty and later climb down the ladder when I was more fully awake. My problem was solved! I purchased my potty!

I packed my bags and on Tuesday, October 8th at 5:30 pm, I was on the Silver and Blue Via Rail train heading towards Toronto.

On the first leg of the trip I was absolutely alone in my passenger car number 215–Stuart Manor. The porter made up my bed around 9:30 pm and I found that I had no problems climbing up the ladder to my cozy berth. I had a wonderful night’s sleep and in the morning, after a refreshing shower, I headed into the dining car for breakfast. The food was absolutely delicious and I had several choices on what I could eat at each mealtime.

I was also pleased to see that the dining car was set very tastefully with lovely linen tablecloths and silverware.

The scenery was incredible. I loved the mountains, the tunnels, the raging rivers and we hadn’t even gotten out of BC yet. When I arrived in Jasper, I had an hour to wander about the quaint town and look in souvenir shops before boarding the train an hour later. In Jasper, the new passengers who came on board were a large group of men and women from Great Britain and Ireland. In my car now I had the company of three single men (as far as I could tell they were single and they were from Great Britain and one from Ireland). The train left Jasper around noon and I settled in for my second day of travelling.

I had all my belongings on the seat opposite me. My bag of embroidery, my books and the bag of towels, shampoo and soap which Via Rail gives you to use in the shower. My small suitcase was under the seat. The day passed and as night came the porter again made up my bed. When the porter makes up the beds, he does the lower bed first and then the upper bed which had the bedding on it. Then the porter pulls the heavy curtain closed which he snaps shut (on the lower berth first) and the upper berth is left open until you are in the bed and then you snap the rest of the curtain shut from inside your berth. It is a comfortable, cozy feeling up there.

After getting into my pj’s in the ladies bathroom and doing all of my nightly rituals, I climbed up into my berth. I snapped the curtain. closed and I lay in my bunk reading my book. Just about 11 pm, I heard someone rattling around in my plastic bags on my daytime seat. Since I knew there was nothing in there worth taking I didn’t bother to open the curtain. At about 11:30 pm, I had just turned off my light when someone bumped into my ladder with their foot and I heard a thick, English voice say “bloody hell!” Once more I didn’t open the curtain and I didn’t worry too much about the incident as I drifted off to sleep. I woke up about 5:30 am with the need to go to the bathroom. I proceeded to open my curtain in order to get down the ladder. Lo and behold, someone had removed my ladder and placed it over onto the seat across from my berth. I really could not get down and I really, really had to go to the bathroom! Well, then I remembered that I had my handy, dandy little potty (with the female adapter, of course) and bingo, bango, in a few minutes my problem was solved and I blissfully went back to sleep.

At about 6:30 am, I again heard someone rustling around in my bags; so this time I opened the curtain. I saw a tall gentleman looking for something—(later on I found out that he was trying to find his bag of shampoo and towels). I said to this man, “Excuse me, but could you please put my ladder back on the rail.” He replied, “Oh, do ya need your ladder?” I replied, (in a rather strident voice) “Yes, I need my ladder because I am not able to get down from here without it and I have been stuck up here since you removed it last night!” The gentleman sheepishly hooked my ladder back up onto my railing and I proceeded to climb down.

After my shower, I headed into the dining car for breakfast. I sat at a table with several ladies from this Great Britain tour—one of them was the tour guide herself. I related my story about the missing ladder and the use of my wonderful little red porta potty. The ladies had a really good laugh. The tour guide lady rolled her eyes and told me she knew just which one of the men on the tour would have removed my ladder. She had already had a few silly problems with this fellow already.

The rest of the trip proceeded beautifully and I didn’t have to use my little potty ever again—even on the way back.

P.S. One of the fellows that I mentioned that was in my train car was from Ireland. He used to come and sit and talk with me a bit now and then. His accent was so thick that I had to listen really well to try and catch what he was talking about. So I’d manage to understand a word or two and then I was able to keep the conversation going for a while more. At the end of the journey, just as we were coming into Toronto, this young Irish fellow came over to my seat to say good-bye and tell me that he had enjoyed talking to me. He mentioned that other people that he had talked to on this trip seemed to have trouble understanding him but I didn’t seem to have that problem at all. If he had only known the listening skills that I had to put into place just to keep our conversation moving smoothly!!!!

Thank you to Sam Geisberg and the Dogwood Pavillion Writers Group, Abnash Kaur Gill, Diane Kizik-MacDonald, Margaret Whitelegg, Vicki L. Stacey, and Sukhdev Brar for sharing their works.

Imagined Journeys

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