Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Utila and I: A Love Story

Downtown Utila
What is it about this place that makes me love it? It’s not particularly pretty, and in a few places it’s kind of smelly. There are even hellish sand flies at certain times of day that will motivate you to douse yourself with Deet before even considering hanging out at one especially bad beach. (I’m dabbing cortisone cream on several blistering bites at this very moment.)

Yet from the first time I set foot on Utila, Honduras in December 2012, I loved it. We’re now here for a whole month, giving me the luxury of time to reflect on what appeals to me about this small chunk of rock and mangrove swamp floating in the Caribbean. It’s my third visit here and the longest yet, and I’m still very much in Utila’s sway.

Definitely that big old Mesoamerican Reef that runs right past Utila is Charm No. 1 for me. Snorkelling is my favourite sport, if you can call it sport when you float around like a Macy’s parade balloon gazing at the glorious world of fishes below.

To be able to just pop on your water shoes and start swimming toward a vibrant reef in a warm, clear sea is a luxury that few other getaways can offer. One of my favourite entry points is a homely little bit of rough shore known as Airport Beach, with nary a palm tree or stretch of white sand in sight.

But swim out maybe 40 metres and suddenly you’re in a stunning seascape of coral ridges and peaks, with fish of every colour, shape and size going about their business below. Just beyond the ridge is a dramatic dropoff into blue infinity, and I hold out the hope that one day a whale shark will pass by.

Spiny-tailed iguana, found only on Utila
A short bicycle ride up the road (renting a rusty, poorly maintained mountain bike to is an essential part of the Utila experience) is Coral View and Blue Bayou, a whole other snorkelling experience that begins as soon as you make your way down a couple of steps into shallow waters where a small barracuda is routinely hanging about in search of the tiny fish under the dock.

Swim out barely any distance at all and once again you’re on the line between coral ridge and deep-sea dropoff. There, you might see schools of much larger barracuda, a ray scudding by on the sea floor, a big puffer fish looking up at you with a sour and skeptical face.

So yes, the snorkelling on Utila is a big, big part of its charm for me. But it’s also got this on-land vibe that appeals to me – one of real people going about a real life, happy enough for some tourists to keep the economy flowing but not yet so hooked on what are still fairly scant tourist dollars to make too much of the visitors. (The idea of a holiday in Honduras still seems to scare the hell out of many travellers.)

Getting to Utila generally starts with a flight into San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s biggest city and its commercial centre. Up until recently, San Pedro was known as the world’s most dangerous city for the staggering amount of murders that go on there, but now it’s slipped to No. 3, below Caracas, Venezuela and Acapulco, Mexico. Yay, San Pedro!
Rich people have the best houses, don't they?

At any rate, don’t let that little detail put you off. The violence in Honduras is almost exclusively violence between Hondurans, and a very purposeful violence visited upon those who are: 1. In the cocaine import/export business; 2. In a gang, or living in a profoundly poor barrio in a big city controlled by gangs; or 3. Involved in other criminal activities that sooner or later are going to get you killed by either your competitors, police, or the angry family of a victim that knows better than to rely on the country’s hopeless justice system to settle scores.

Besides, you’re only going to be passing through San Pedro. The airport is perfectly nice, and from there you can hop a bus, hire a private shuttle, or grab a flight to La Ceiba and be gone – bound for a region that feels different enough from mainland Honduras to be its own country. Once in La Ceiba, there’s a twice-daily catamaran ferry to Utila that takes about an hour. (Advice: Bring anti-nausea drugs just in case, or squeeze your eyes shut for the trip like I tend to do.)

Utila has a seriously multicultural history – one that blends European pirates and settlers, descendants of African slaves, and Spanish-speaking mainlanders. In modern times, these settlers have blended into a population of white people speaking their own Creole language - though a traveller will mostly hear it only when walking past groups of locals talking to each other - mainland Hondurans speaking Spanish, and black people speaking Creole, English, Garifuna and Spanish.

The other night we cycled past three elderly white women hanging over their balcony to chat with another elderly woman in a golf cart, that being a main mode of transportation on Utila. We could hear bits of English in their speech, but nothing we could make out. Had we stopped to ask directions, however, they’d have answered in perfectly clear English.

Speaking of directions, no worries that you’re going to get lost on Utila. There’s one main road that’s maybe eight kilometres from end to end, and no more than a handful of looping or dead-end side roads. Transportation is via golf cart, motorcycle, quad, bicycle or on foot. Whatever mode you choose, expect to make way for all those other forms of transport as everyone weaves and dodges along a narrow and poorly maintained road that is a pastiche of cement, interlocking brick, rock, mud and enormous puddles from that morning’s rain.

I think that’s another reason I love Utila and Honduras. Coming from such a rule-bound and regulated land as Greater Victoria, it’s exhilarating to experience freedom once in a while.

International hotel chains have given Utila a miss, but accommodation in every price range is available, or high-end vacation home rentals if that suits you. We rented one of those in 2012 when my son’s family joined us for a week at Christmas, but this time have opted for an affordable $450 US/month apartment at a small hotel. Electricity is on top of that, and will add significantly to the cost if you’re using air-conditioning. For me, a good ceiling fan suffices.
Public beach at Utila, on a "tropical monsoon" kind of day

While I don’t imagine anyone comes to Utila just for the food, the grilled fish at RJ’s is definitely going to be part of our regular diet while here, and was the first thing that one of my grandsons asked about after we arrived for this latest visit. There’s no competing with the vast cultural banquet available to us every day in Canada, so best to prepare for much simpler, basic fare here on the island. But RJs and an ample supply of Honduran bananas keep me happy.

I don’t even like bananas in Canada, but discovered when we were living here for two-plus years that that’s only because I hadn’t eaten a real one before – picked fresh from a tree when actually ripe, available in a dozen different varieties, subtle flavours, firmer textures. It pleased me to no end to stumble upon a small market here that sells manzanas, the small, fat bananas grown on Utila and named for their apple flavour.

And finally, there’s the climate. Officially, Utila has a “tropical monsoon” climate, and a daily downpour certainly appears to be the norm at this time of year. But that keeps the vegetation green and the temperature at a comfortable 25-27 C most days, just right for sitting in a chaise lounge with a good book and a homemade rum drink in between snorkels. (Bottle of Bacardi: $13. Bottle of cheap but palatable vodka: $8. Honduran beer: $1 a can.)
The nightly view from where we're staying.

Oh, and the sunsets. Whatever tropical-monsoon kind of day it’s been, evenings are almost always clear enough to deliver a gorgeous finale. These days, it’s a ritual to head up to a little overlook at our hotel around 5:15 p.m. and spend the next half an hour bathed in tones of orange and pink, thinking: This place.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Three stories to knock that Christmas cheer right out of you

'Tis the season for sharing, which in this case means sharing some of the stories that caught my attention today.

Putting them into a blog post will not only add (incrementally) to their profile, but will ensure I have them here for whenever I need them, to remind me why my favourite bumper sticker of all time was "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

Plus it's my birthday today, and I would feel good about putting up a post that lets me feel less badly about my decidedly lacklustre posting record of late.

First, this survey of 153 Canadian executives, of which only eight were women (no surprise, given that the glass ceiling has in fact turned out to be made of hardwood, or of glass so slippery that we females simply lose our footing once on top of it), in which 95 per cent reported that sexual harassment is not a problem in their workplace.

Sweet jesus, how they even say such things with a straight face is beyond me, but just let me say this to the Canadian execs: Watch out, buddy, because Harvey Weinstein is not an anomaly. And right now, some former employee of yours is out there speaking your name as the creepy boss from her distant past, and that will not go unheard by the karma gods, who will almost certainly be turning you out into your next life as a low-level young female employee under a disgusting lecher of a boss.

Then there was this story from Ben Parfitt in the Tyee, in which it's revealed that not only have 48 dams been built on public lands without permits by energy companies fracking for gas in northeast BC in recent years, but that more than half of them have serious structural problems.

It turns out that BC's Oil and Gas Commission was being rather free with a clause in the Land Act that lets companies use public lands to "store water."

"But in approving the applications," writes Parfitt, "commission personnel failed to ask basic, critical questions: How did companies intend to store the water? In tanks? In pits? Behind dams? Since the OGC didn’t ask, the companies didn’t disclose that they planned to build dams — lots of them.

"Nor did they disclose that in many cases, the water sources for their dams would be creeks and other water bodies that the companies were not entitled to draw from because they hadn’t applied for, let alone received, water licences. Since they hadn’t applied for those licences, they weren’t legally entitled to build the dams."

Oops. Now what, we might ask? The offenders are already asking for retroactive approval. As Parfitt notes, that certainly would make things interesting around the requirement to consult with First Nations, seeing as the dams already exist. 

Then there's this story about a group of Big Pharma executives in the US charged with racketeering for fraudulent business dealings, bribing doctors (who, I must say, don't come out of this looking so great), and essentially being the evil bastards that I've long thought they are. 

Admittedly, this story is from October, not today. But with news out this very day that Canada's fentanyl crisis continues unabated (the situation is even worse in the US, where overdose deaths in the last two decades have killed more people than World War I, II and Vietnam combined), I want to do my part to give this staggering tale of truly despicable collusion a little more profile. 

The case involves InSys Therapeutics Inc.'s desire to increase the use of a fentanyl-based drug that was supposed to be used only for cancer patients in the grips of pain so fierce that no other drug would stop it. The bosses at InSys wanted so badly to increase sales beyond cancer patients that they set up a "reimbursement unit" whose whole raison d'etre was to trick insurers and pharmacy benefit managers into believing that doctors - who we now know were on the InSys payroll - had non-cancer patients who needed this drug. 

Too bleak? Am I supposed to be posting "nice" news so we can all feel warm about our brethren as we head into a new year? Well, here's the trouble with good news - it apparently brings us such comfort that we forget that there's still a hell of a lot of misery and outrageous behaviour going on out here. I'm the Grinch. Oscar the Grouch. Eeyore. I'm a pessimistic optimist, driven to go against my nature by the hard truths of this willfully blind, crushingly disappointing and dangerously stupid world. 

Oh, and best of the holiday season to you and yours. Such a joyous time of year. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

On joy: Reflections on finding happiness even when life does its best to get in your way

I had the opportunity to write this reflection on joy for Victoria's YAM Magazine's November-December issue. It was one of the most moving stories I've worked on, taking in people's stories of strength in the face of significant adversity.

My only regret is that I over-interviewed, ending up with so many stories that everyone here literally gets a few paragraphs and no more. You'll just have to take my word for it that each and every one of them was worth an entire article on their own.

Find the link to the piece in YAM here, or scroll on down to read about these extraordinary Victorians.

Clockwise from top left: Pippa Blake, Debra Bell, Jacqueline McAdam, Sam Jones,
Mary Katharine Ross, Michael Cameron, Jeneece Edroff (centre). Photo: Jeffery Bosdet

It’s the season of comfort and joy, but what does joy really mean? As YAM discovers, some of the most inspiring wisdom comes from people who have seemingly had the greatest burdens to carry.

By Jody Paterson

“And they all lived happily ever after.” Wouldn’t it be something if that were true — if we all could wake up feeling joyous every single day, in a life without suffering?

But any person grown beyond childhood — and even some still in it — know from their own experiences that joy is not a given, not a permanent state. It’s fleeting and mercurial, notoriously hard to hold onto as life’s ups and downs take their toll. Joy is elusive, even for those who appear to “have it all.”

Yet somebody with a lifetime of struggle and barely a buck in their pocket can still be the most joyous person in the room. Someone who’s known nothing but setbacks can be relentlessly optimistic. How do people dealing with adversity find joy even while people with every reason to be happy bog down in their search for it?

Victoria academic and entrepreneur Jacqueline McAdam asked herself the same question after extensive travel in Africa, where she met cheerful children and young people carrying on with their lives despite growing up in dire poverty and seeming hopelessness. She wrote her doctoral thesis, “More Than Luck,” a decade ago on what she found out.

We spoke with McAdam for this piece and also did a little crowdsourcing to ask Greater Victorians who came to mind when they thought of someone they knew who sought joy despite dealing with adversity. People responded with dozens of names.

The moving stories of the small selection featured here echo many of McAdam’s findings in her studies of African children. Their stories underline the points made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama in their Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World — that joy comes most readily to those who feel connected to a larger world; that it’s rooted in spirituality and the way we frame our experiences; that we are most joyous when helping others.

“People who experience joy give more than they get,” says McAdam, a university instructor and owner of the social enterprise Resilient Generations. “Joyful people know that it’s through other people that we grow, and so they take the risk. Joyful people look for new experiences. They overemphasize the positive while underplaying the negative.”

That last finding in particular describes each of the people sharing their stories here.

A life transformed forever at age 12 by a massive head injury. A single mom who finds herself in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. A woman beset by childhood bullies, depression, sexual assault and now a fatal cancer. A recovering drug user who went through chemotherapy while living homeless on Victoria’s streets. A young person who’s been fighting her way through a life-threatening illness from the time she was born.

All seemed surprised to hear that someone had named them as a person notable for their joy. All framed their adversities as something that ultimately bettered them.

“I’m an ordinary person who has had some things that the average person hasn’t had to deal with, but maybe that’s what makes me able to juggle stress,” says Sam Jones, owner of 2% Jazz Coffee.

His painful memories of being teased about a speech impediment and his appearance — he has a still-undiagnosed genetic condition that causes tumour-like growths on the left side of his face and neck — tainted his school experience so much that he opted to home-school his three children when the time came.

“It occurs to me that my adversity as a child strengthens me, has made me who I am. Part of what I do is survive, and I think that comes from working hard enough throughout my life to get through the bad times.”

Pippa Blake, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a young mother and in a wheelchair for the last 26 years, says she likely wouldn’t have spent the years since then sky-diving, sailing, horseback riding and making her way to Mount Everest base camp in 2007 were it not for developing MS.

“All these things I do, I wouldn’t be doing if I weren’t in a wheelchair,” says Blake. “You get to a stage where you say, ‘Why not?’ Getting MS has opened so many doors for me. It has made me a nicer person. I have time for people.”

People who find joy appear to reframe the negative events of their lives in positive ways, says McAdam. Mary Katharine Ross, communications officer with the Community Social Planning Council, exemplifies that, having embarked on a “year of forgiveness” as an adult to be able to forgive, among other things, the two men who raped her at 15.

“We are responsible for how we feel,” says Ross. “I am not responsible for being raped, but I am responsible for how I view it, how I incorporate that experience into my life.”

If joy comes from giving to others, Jeneece Edroff deserves to be among the most joyous in town. Beset with lifelong severe health challenges from neurofibromatosis, the 23-year-old has a legendary drive to give back to her community that started when she was only seven. She has raised $1.25 million to date for local health charities.

“To find joy, look at things with a different perspective,” advises Edroff. “Be around people. Smile and say hi. It’s the little things that can change a person’s attitude. Find a hobby that makes you happy.”

Joyous people know when to call on friends and family for help, notes McAdam.

Michael James Cameron, who went through 20 hard years of substance use and suicidal thoughts from Grade 8 on after a ski accident at age 12 left him with a severe head injury, remembers his family as his “biggest fans” through it all.

Now in recovery and a volunteer with the Victoria Brain Injury Society, Cameron can still recite every word of the Robert Service poem “The Quitter,” which “really resonated with me” when he came across it after his Grade 8 teacher assigned everyone to memorize a poem. By then, he was already heading into drug and alcohol issues, out of step in a small Alberta town where few knew anything about brain injuries.

“My advice: don’t give up,” says Cameron. “I remember this guy in high school telling me, ‘Don’t let the assholes beat you down.’”

Sara McKerracher also recalls her family as “amazing” through the period in 2015 when she was living homeless and addicted on the streets of Victoria, going through chemotherapy for Stage 4 lymphoma (now vanquished). The 28-year-old survived that hard experience determined to change her life.

“Joy for me is something that happens from the moment I wake up now,” says McKerracher. “I’m in a warm bed, waking up in good health. I don’t ever want to forget the things I went through, but I also don’t want to dwell on them.”

Joyous people embrace new experiences, says McAdam. They know how to live in the moment. Sue Morgan, 67, is facing down end-stage kidney failure by packing her bag for six more months in her beloved Guanajuato, Mexico, having rejected dialysis and organ transplant as “not for me.”

She says given her many health issues, she wouldn’t feel right about lining up for a new kidney at this point when so many other younger, healthier people need one.

“I still make plans, just not long-term ones,” says Morgan. “My advice? Don’t be afraid. We’re all going to die. Figure out what matters and live every moment.”

A number of those interviewed cited spiritual practice as vital in their lives: faith, meditation, yoga, mindfulness. McAdam saw that among those she studied as well: “Most people who are highly resilient have a fundamental spirituality.”

Debra Bell has suffered one major life challenge after another, including the death of her son Robbie from a heart condition at age 10 and the diagnosis of her other son, Riel, with schizophrenia at age 17. But connecting to her Bahá’i community and faith never fails to bring her joy, says Bell.

Ross says "Illuminata," based on A Course in Miracles — a spiritual thought system developed in 1975 by the Foundation for Inner Peace — is “my prayer book.” The Findhorn Foundation’s Game of Transformation is an integral part of her life.

But just in case anyone is thinking that those who know how to seek joy never suffer again, best to let that one go. Bad things happen to good people, including everyone interviewed for this piece.

That Jones never leaves his workplace without saying to his employees, “Be nice” didn’t protect him from being “totally and completely hosed,” as he puts it, in a business relationship a few years ago, costing him his business, his home and very nearly his marriage.

Ross’s year of forgiveness didn’t spare her a diagnosis 18 months ago of multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer. Blake’s amazing adventures still haven’t replaced the feeling of a hike through the woods on her own strong legs. Edroff’s health challenges will never go away.

“Our adversities change, but we’ll always have them,” says Jones. “It’s part of being human — hunting for food, climbing up a tree at night to stay safe. It makes us more human … and humane. Maybe it’s actually positive that we have these adverse things happen to us.”

Saturday, October 21, 2017

OK, #MeToo, and almost certainly #YouToo if you're female

My old newspaper stomping grounds lured me out of column retirement this week to write a piece launching their #MeToo series. Here it is. You can find the Times Colonist version here.

I admit, the first day of the #MeToo phenomenon was a pretty brutal day to be on Facebook. So many terrible stories, though I felt genuinely heartened by the heartfelt, stunned response from men who clearly had no idea.

The critics are already popping up at this point, saying things like how wrong it is for women to have to be out there in public with their painful stories. Personally, I see real power in the #MeToo thing. Sexual assault and harassment remain one of the most common shared experiences of women around the world, and this is the first time I’ve really seen women out there about it in a big way.

I mean, seriously, can most of us even count how many times we’ve had weird and creepy experiences with a sexual overtone involving men? One of my family members and I were just recounting the time when she was 13 and some Italian on a crowded Venice ferry pressed into her from behind with his erection.

And on the one hand, I think, “Good grief, a child of 13!” and shake my head. But on the other, I know that my own understanding of “the way men are” came right around that age, too.

I’ve had many more reminders since then, from the scruffy clerk in the small Kamloops store who I realized was masturbating while I browsed, to the boss who lifted up my skirt to ascertain whether I was wearing stockings.

More intimate examples as well, of course, though the #MeToo phenomenon helped me see that there are lines in the sand for me, some things I will not put out to the world to reflect on. So just suffice to say, I know how it can be when the lines between intimacy and assault get blurred.

Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve continued to love and appreciate men. Never once did I classify what happened to me as being about all men, because I had met and loved far too many good ones to think that the issue was about all of them. I really hope we can get past any pitting of women against men in the conversation that’s to come around #MeToo. The issues are sexual assault and harassment, not gender.

That said, guys, it IS rather noticeable that this stuff almost always comes back on your gender. It does seem to indicate some troubling issue at the heart of male sexuality.

Sure, we could come up with examples to the contrary. But let’s stick with the obvious for now: Being sexually assaulted and harassed is a troubling rite of passage for virtually every girl/woman, and it’s almost always a man who is the perpetrator.

What’s the problem at the heart of all of this? Kind of a sexual privilege, perhaps. The men who have these anti-social, demeaning and even criminal behaviours believe that their desire trumps your consent.

I’m not even sure if the concept of consent is a consideration for them. Sometimes, the lack of it appears to be the turn-on, as anyone knows who has ever experienced a Thetis Lake flasher staked out on the towel beside them. At times it’s also very clearly a power move, kind of like a full-of-himself monkey who mates with whoever he chooses as a show of strength to the others.

But here’s one thing I do know: It’s got to stop. The Bill Cosby stuff, Harvey Weinstein, Jian Ghomeshi, and now accusations against David Blaine – it’s so awful.

And as women everywhere know, it’s not just happening to pretty starlets. Nor is it only rich, piggish men who are guilty. Imagine the weight of all our #MeToos if every one of us was honest about what has been done to us by men we didn’t want touching us.

There are many good men who are distraught by the #MeToo wave, asking what they can do.

First and always, listen to our stories, because we, too, need to see how disturbing it is to the men who love us that we are still having these experiences. We’re worried for our daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters.

And then, help us understand. Why do we have these experiences with men? What can men do to change in other men whatever behaviour is going on here? Men, we need you for that part, because such questions are mysteries to women. We have our issues as a gender, but grinding our pelvises up against strangers in public spaces or groping our young nephews is not one of them.

Talk, everyone. If #MeToo is to be anything other than a really rough few days on Facebook, women need to tear back the veil on our routine experiences of sexual assault and harassment. And men have to help us set things right.

Monday, October 09, 2017

An open letter to my Facebook friends on the occasion of this morning's bit of bother

First, time to get honest about our relationship. Mostly we aren’t really friends, are we? I’m connected to 2,400 Facebook “friends,” and it might be a stretch to imagine that even five per cent of them are genuine friends of mine. So how about we think of each other as “connections” instead, all of us with our various reasons for deciding who we connect with on this odd thing we know as Facebook.

My connections have grown vast since I first opened my Facebook account a decade ago. But right from the get-go I took the approach that if you’re a real person and plan to contribute something to the public conversation beyond trying to get my vote or my money for your multi-level-marketing product, I’m up for connecting.

I happily connect to people without knowing whether we share the same opinions, values, world views. I appreciate diversity of thinking and culture, even when it’s uncomfortable. I almost never “unfriend” a connection, having decided long ago that freedom of speech is a foundational element of democracy that I want to actively support.

But that’s not to say I won’t give you a rough time now and then when you post something that irritates the hell out of me.

I sometimes wonder if it feels like a shock to a Facebook connection when I get prickly over something they wrote. If so, my apologies to any in my Facebook network who assume our being connected means that we agree on all the issues of the world, or at the very least have a tacit agreement not to acknowledge said differences publicly. I don't see things that way.

No worries that I’ll be prowling through all your Facebook posts, barking at you for this or that. I’m only reserving the right to get crabby when you come onto my Facebook page and say whatever you’re saying. Our pages are kind of like our houses, so when a person stands on my doorstep yelling their uninvited views through my door, I figure I’ve got every right to yell them right back out the door and off the property.

Here’s my promise to you: I will never be rude, or at least not until way late in a lengthy and fruitless back-and-forth that is getting tedious. I will do my best to make myself clear without malice, meanness or abusive language. But I won’t always be nice.

One thing my connections definitely need to understand is that I offer no protection from other people in my Facebook network who play much rougher than I do. Those who post on a post of mine are on their own to settle any differences between each other. I usually walk away from comment threads once they get completely out of control.

Every now and then, I do unfriend someone. If a person is relentlessly awful - racist, homophobic, idiotic or otherwise generally horrible whenever they post something on my page - they’re gone. One guy threatened violence, so he got the hook, too.

Should you feel the need to unfriend me after suffering one of my attacks, please don’t hesitate. I’m just fine with that. Whatever our reasons for connecting on Facebook, we are free to bail when the cons start to outweigh the pros. A lot of times we don't even know each other, after all. Also, many people take great umbrage at having their views challenged. Who knew?

I suspect I’ve lost some “friends” over my sex work perspective as well, so might as well get that one on the record while we’re being honest with each other: I am a committed and unequivocal supporter of sex workers’ rights to work and live free of discrimination, stigma and bad laws that routinely cause far more harm than good. I will come after you like a Cooper’s hawk on a plump robin if you come over to my page and start posting uninformed BS about sex workers.

Other than that, welcome, friend! I expect we’ll (mostly) get along just fine.