Friday, June 15, 2018

On voyeurism while urinating: The strange tale of the Opus Hotel video cam

I first heard about this story in April from a co-worker of mine, the wife of Paul Razzell. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and my old reporter instincts came to life in an instant as I encouraged her to have Paul call me so we could do a story.

The question at the heart of the story: Is it OK to film people as they go about their business in the bar for the entertainment of men as they pee? Like Paul Razzell, I found the idea revolting and was dumbstruck that it had been a practice at Yaletown's Opus Hotel since 2002, apparently with few complaints.

I thought I'd found an interested outlet for the story after I heard back from the Georgia Straight, which was interested in me writing the piece for them. For whatever reason, I never heard from them again after I submitted the story. So here it is, a blog post now.

I found it a fascinating example of the weird ideas that come into people's heads as "entertaining and fun," though it's too bad it will never be tested through our privacy laws. The resolution of the issue just as a complaint went to BC's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ended that possibility. Not a coincidence, I'm thinking, but at least Razzell did get his wish to see the practice ended.

It’s last call for the Opus Hotel’s 16-year-old practice of featuring a video feed of bar customers on monitors above the men’s urinals.

A complaint to BC’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) was filed May 3 by Victoria man Paul Razzell. He’s been trying for the last six months to persuade the Yaletown hotel to stop the practice. He stumbled upon it in November after visiting the coffee shop next door and being pointed to the Opus washroom when he asked about facilities.

Contacted for comment about the privacy complaint, Opus general manager Nicholas Gandossi said the hotel is planning a major washroom renovation this month (June). The monitors will be removed as part of that reno. The video feed from the bar camera is gone already, replaced by CNN, he adds.

“I know this fellow felt it wasn’t right, that there were privacy issues,” says Gandossi, who contends that nobody else has complained about the video feed. “But in the privacy context, we were never trying to cross the boundary with this. [Razzell’s] timing is perfect, because we’ve been planning an update of the washrooms for a while. And when even one person says he doesn’t like what we’re doing – well, it did get me thinking. “

Razzell says he was stunned last fall to be in front of the hotel urinals and realize he was looking at a number of large monitors on the wall showing a live feed of bar patrons and staff.

He went into the bar to confirm that’s what he was viewing, eventually spotting the discreet camera mounted high on the wall. He then sent his wife into the women’s washroom to see whether there were monitors in there as well. (There weren’t. But Gandossi says that up until the wiring fritzed out two or three years ago, the same feed was displayed in the mirror of the women’s washroom.)

Razzell wrote his first outraged email to Gandossi soon after. He told the hotel manager that the practice was not only an invasion of privacy, it was insulting and demeaning to the women unknowingly being watched by urinating men. It was all “so creepy and voyeuristic.”

Gandossi sees things differently.  The monitors were simply displaying the same images that anyone would see if they passed by on the sidewalk and looked in the bar window, he says. The feed isn’t recorded, or broadcast anywhere other than in the men’s washroom.

The Opus has always gone for a bit of “tongue-in-cheek” and voyeurism, adds Gandossi, noting that its hotel rooms have windows between the bathrooms and the living rooms.

“But this is voyeuristic in an ugly way,” says Razzell. “There are the bar patrons’ faces, broadcasting in proximity to guys peeing. It permits men to observe women without their knowing it.”

Is it legal? OIPC communications director Erin Beattie says the office can’t comment on any case that it hasn’t reviewed, but noted that all 500,000 or so private organizations in BC – whether churches, schools, businesses, unions, charities or Yaletown hotels – are governed by the Personal Information Protection Act.

On the issue of videotaping people, PIPA is considerably more restrictive than the act that governs the public sector, says Beattie. A case can be made for video surveillance to prevent or solve a crime, she says – installing security cameras in a parkade, for instance. But what happens to that footage, and who it’s shared with, has to meet tests around consent and reasonableness.

For private organizations, getting consent typically comes down to posting a bold sign at the entrance that says some version of “There’s video surveillance here,” says Beattie.  That way, a customer can choose not to enter.

“If we get a complaint about video surveillance, the questions we ask are: Do they have consent? Is it reasonable under the circumstances to collect these images? What authority do they have to collect it? That’s how we determine if it’s legal,” says Beattie.

 “But even after that, there are further considerations, such as whether that information is being disclosed to people outside the organization, and for what reason.”

The key considerations under BC privacy law are collection, use and disclosure. A private organization might be within the law to collect certain kinds of information through video surveillance, says Beattie, but it could still be breaking the law if the way that information is used – or who it’s shared with – fails the test of reasonableness and consent.

Some video surveillance gets a pass. Audiences at sporting events are presumed to be consenting (the Rogers Arena “Kiss Cam” being one such example). But “very few applications allow collection without consent,” says Beattie – and that consent has to come either on or before the information is collected.

Razzell says that even if what the hotel was doing turned out to be legal, it’s morally unacceptable, most especially in a time when campaigns like #MeToo have brought global attention to sexual harassment, abuse and rape. The high height of the camera alone was a virtual invitation to men to peek down the tops of women, he adds.

While Gandossi asserts there have been almost no complaints about the video feed in 16 years, Razzell says he posted his discovery on Facebook last fall and soon had a long list of comments from others who were equally outraged and disgusted. He’s been pushing hard since then to convince the hotel to stop.

“This is not 2002 anymore,” says Razzell. “We don’t want to permit things like this to be normalized in our world. If there was ever a time to do the right thing and stop this, now’s the time.”

Done, says Gandossi: “It was fun back in 2002, but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to evolve.”

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Our sexwork podcast has been launched!

I am remarkably excited that the long-talked-about podcast with sex workers that I've been wanting to do for more than a year now has finally come together.

Here's our first episode. With any luck, we'll be doing a new episode at least once a month.

All episodes will be looking at sex work as a small business, as there is so much the work has in common with any other small business. Yet that aspect is never touched on in the public discourse about sex work, where it's drowned out by shouting about victimization, exploitation, trafficking and abuse of women - the standard themes when talk turns to sex work out there in the world.

Our first episode features three of my favourite people, all sex workers from Greater Victoria. We wanted to kick off the podcast on June 2 to mark International Day of Action for Sex Workers' Rights. (It's got another name, as you'll see if you click the link, but I'll leave controversial labelling to be used by those who identify with it.)

Among the most pressing issues for this year's campaign were two new laws in the U.S. known as SESTA and FOSTA - The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act - so that's the subject for our debut episode. Those laws are wrongly being used to shut down online sites that adult, consenting sex workers use to advertise, screen clients and take safety precautions, and have serious implications for sex workers all over the world what with US companies dominating so many online services and domains.

To be clear, nobody in our podcast or any sex worker or rights activist I've ever met is in favour of sex trafficking. We want exploitation, violence, coercion and victimization in the sex industry stamped out as much as anyone. But tune into our podcast to learn the unintended consequences of lumping sex trafficking in with adult, consenting sex work.

We'll be featuring conversations with sex workers, clients and agencies in the coming months. Hope you'll listen in! One of the greatest harms that come to sex workers is stigma, and we can't eliminate stigma without helping the public understand that underneath that distracting word "sex" lies a complex, misunderstood business that's very different than what so many people imagine.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Martyn Brown: Say Wha-a-a-a-t?

People change. I get that. But I still feel a flash of furious disbelief every time I see one of my soft-left acquaintances embracing the writing of a man who not so long ago was the powerful architect of a most terrible era in BC - one that we're still trying to recover from.

Martyn Brown is the former chief of staff of former BC premier Gordon Campbell. Everything that right-minded people hated about Campbell's devastating first term in office almost certainly had Brown's fingerprints on it. "He's a very powerful man for someone who has never been elected," noted Nisga'a leader Chief Joseph Gosnell at the time. 

I was stunned at the time that Campbell picked Brown as his right-hand man, knowing from my work as a journalist that Brown had led a movement committed to wiping out Indigenous rights. And I am stunned once again to see how Brown has reinvented himself as the voice of reason for a better British Columbia. 

Brown now writes very long pieces for the Georgia Straight, most of them fomenting loathing of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the Kinder Morgan pipeline. If it serves to foment more loathing, he will even celebrate Indigenous rights, which just kills me when I think back to the battle he helped lead from behind the scenes to extinguish those rights in the runup to the landmark Nisga'a treaty.

(I'm still gawp-mouthed at a sentence in his latest piece, where Brown invokes a Churchillian we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches zeal against the pipeline "for the harm it stands to suffer upon Aboriginal people, in flagrant contempt of Indigenous rights and title.")

Like I say, people change. I profiled Brown almost 20 years ago for the Times Colonist, when he was at the height of his political power - the only profile I've ever written in which the subject refused to grant me an interview. Maybe he's had a Damascus moment since then, a walk in the snow like his current enemy's father once had. He'll turn 61 this year. Maybe the Old Brown has been laid to rest.

But whenever I read the New Brown loving up the environment, Indigenous people and a better British Columbia, I keep hearing that saying about how the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

One of the people I interviewed for the profile on Brown noted that what was particularly fascinating about him was that he'd "never moved from his original point on the political spectrum - never wavered from his centre-right, populist, small-government beliefs." Keep that in mind, people. 

Here's my own very long piece that I wrote on Brown back in 2001:

(From the Victoria Times Colonist, December 4, 2001) 

If there was a moment that could be said to define Martyn Brown, it was surely the day 13 years ago when he issued a memo to the Social Credit caucus defending the severance the B.C. government had just paid to David Poole.

Brown was a 31-year-old political fledgling in the Socred research department at the time, one year out of university. Poole was Premier Bill Vander Zalm's principal secretary, the most powerful politico in government.

Poole had just been paid $100,500 in severance, prompting criticism from the New Democrat Opposition. Brown, director of caucus research for the Socreds, took it upon himself to write a memo explaining the deal. He'd been reading news of the criticisms, he wrote, and thought it "might be helpful" if he clarified a few details.

It was an unheard of breach of protocol, a young pup well down on the political food chain writing something directly to the MLAs. Carol Gran, caucus chairwoman, fumed that the memo was "unauthorized, contained editorial opinion and didn't reflect government views."

Brown quickly humbled himself. The memo had been ill-conceived, he told reporters. He regretted his audacity in writing it, acknowledging that "clearly, I stepped over the boundary."

There weren't many who knew it then, but they'd just witnessed the first solo flight of a political force. Martyn Brown was born to government in a moment that revealed him as brash and certain, engaged, loathe to make mistakes but principled enough to own up to them if it came to that.

All these years later, at the age of 44, Brown now holds the very position in Gordon Campbell's government that the late Poole held when Brown wrote his memo. As chief of staff, he's the boss of 200 appointed employees and Campbell's gatekeeper, top of the heap among political staff and arguably the most powerful non-elected person in government.

Brown's hand is said to be all over Campbell's New Era document, his influence felt in every corner of government. He's a driving force behind the contentious treaty referendum. His blessing is sought before Campbell makes a move, and he's widely credited by insiders for the Liberal win this spring.

"He's the guy who bosses British Columbians around," says Nisga'a negotiator and elder Joe Gosnell, who has tangled with Brown on treaty issues. "He's a very powerful man for someone who has never been elected."

Yet Brown keeps a low profile. Outside political circles, his name sparks few glimmers of recognition. He clearly likes it that way; he refused all comment for this article.

But the picture that emerges from talking to acquaintances and co- workers reveals a man not much different from the memo-writer. He still hates being wrong. He's still focused, driven, and an immensely hard worker. And he's still doing what he thinks is the right thing, even if it rubs people the wrong way.

In fact, those who have known Brown the longest say he's barely changed at all since those early days of 1988, when he emerged from a legislative intern program to take a job with the Socreds. That he has since grown into a Liberal premier's muse is not a result of changes in Martyn Brown, but simply because the things he has always stood for have caught on.

Former B.C. politician David Mitchell, a professor at the University of B.C., described it as the "oddly stationary journey of Martyn Brown."

Brown, noted Mitchell, has never moved from his original point on the political spectrum, never wavered from his centre-right, populist, small-government beliefs. And eventually, government has come around to seeing things his way.

- - -

Born in St. Catharines, Ont. and raised in Scarborough, Brown moved to the Island with his family as a teenager. He worked in Kelly's stereo store for a few years when Victoria still had one, then finished up a bachelor of political science at UVic and was picked for the legislative intern program.

Brown spent a year immersed at the legislature as an intern before being hired in 1988 into the Socred caucus research department. It was trial by fire: on his first day on the job, Vander Zalm made his infamous comments about restricting abortions. "And ever since then it's been one thing after another," Brown mused years later.

UVic political science professor Norman Ruff taught Brown and remembers him as a bright and "capital-C Conservative" student. He too has been struck by Brown's new fit with the Liberals.

"In the years I've known him, he was always the same person he is now," says Ruff. "It was like he was ahead of where B.C. politics eventually went."

Brown was known as an exceptional "policy wonk" and researcher in his early days in government. Jess Ketchum, a political staffer from that era, takes "some of the blame" for introducing him to the political side of things in the 1990 election, when the Socreds were heading into the fight of their lives against the New Democrats.

Socred campaign manager at the time, Ketchum arranged a leave for Brown to work on the election, giving him "a really good taste of hard-knocks politics."

Only seven Socreds were left standing by the end of it. Jack Weisgerber, who'd been eyeing Brown for better things for years, was one of them. He took Brown on as his chief aide, a position Brown held through Weisgerber's 1993 transition out of Social Credit and into B.C. Reform.

And for a year or two, Reform flourished with Brown as its strategist. In 1995 when the Vancouver Sun named Brown "one of the new power brokers," the party was riding high in the polls. The press took to describing him alternately as Weisgerber's Svengali, spin doctor, mastermind and hidden puppet-master, words that are still bandied about today.

He and Weisgerber remained a team until the disastrous 1996 election, when Reform won just two seats. Brown wouldn't soon forget the painful lessons of the election. He'd mistakenly thought the right-wing vote wouldn't split because no one would vote New Democrat. The party subsequently won with 40 per cent of the vote.

Weisgerber retired. Brown quit B.C. Reform and the following year launched Citizens' Voice on Native Claims, a lobby group deeply opposed to the Nisga'a treaty.

But Brown didn't last long out of politics. By January 1998, he was special advisor to Gordon Campbell, an appointment that delighted Weisgerber.

"I thought Martyn really had a lot to offer Gordon," says Weisgerber. "He has good political instincts. His strongest point is an immediate grasp of a situation, a kind of instinctive reaction that's not always right, but right most of the time."

Brown had been drifting toward the Liberals since leaving Reform, seeing no other choice but to unite the right in B.C. if another 1996 was to be avoided. But he never recanted his Reform roots. Soon after Campbell hired him, Brown was quoted saying he was "only here because I'm convinced we are a genuine coalition."

His status with the Liberals has risen considerably since then. In just three years, Brown has gone from adviser to election strategist to chief of staff, his salary climbing from $60,000 to $148,500. He's credited with creating the new image for Campbell that got him elected, and is said to be "incredibly tight" with the premier.

Political observers say Brown's influence on Campbell is evident in Liberal policy. The party has moved markedly to the right and exchanged its "downtown Vancouver" outlook for one more in touch with the issues of rural B.C. and small business, not incidentally a population that Brown's Socreds had a particular affinity for.

Campbell has also hardened on treaties. The old Campbell talked occasionally of a referendum but for the most part left the treaty issue alone. The new Campbell sounds much more like Brown's defunct Citizens' Voice: treaties, yes, but not before B.C. voters are polled on how they want them handled.

Perhaps Campbell is in Brown's thrall, another victim of the puppet-master. More likely, he recognizes Brown's role in getting him elected premier.

"Gordon was so lost in the 1996 election," says one government insider. "He just wasn't up to the vicious campaign Glen Clark was running. But then he worked with Martyn all through 1998, and they really bonded. Martyn is so much about turning Gordon Campbell around."

Weisgerber says Brown is the consummate right-hand-man for a political leader, on top of every detail and a "straight shooter" intensely focused on the boss's best interests.

Noted for his impeccable grooming and style, Brown even knows how to keep that particular vanity in check as required.

"He's very conscious of looking neat and sharp, but he also knows you don't come out in a better power suit than the guy you're with," Weisgerber says. "He wants to keep the spotlight on the right person."

- - -

Brown cites his ongoing desire to stay out of the spotlight in declining to be interviewed for this article.

"I'm not elected," he says. "I don't think it's the role of staff to be talking about themselves or their role in government."

The increasingly tight leash on government communications staff speaks to Brown's distaste for others' loose lips as well, as does his edict forbidding anyone but ministers from being quoted in the press. Ruff remembers him as a "micro-manager," which would explain the current rumour that Brown vets every detail right down to the design of staffers' business cards.

Weisgerber says Brown's interpersonal skills have improved dramatically since his early days in politics.

"He didn't delegate well or suffer fools lightly," says Weisgerber. "He let it show too much. Fortunately, wisdom and maturity have made him more subtle."

But Brown isn't above a little vindictiveness. Reportedly still brooding over the rough treatment and cramped quarters accorded the Socreds after Social Credit lost the 1991 election to the New Democrats, Brown has in turn made life extremely difficult for the remnants of the NDP.

While lesser mortals usually tend to the details of divvying up office space after an election, Brown himself decided where the New Democrats would go -- jammed into one small office and a room in the basement.

"I'm not proud that it was New Democrats who did that to the Socreds back then," says one disgruntled NDP staffer. "But you'd think there'd be some magnanimousness in the man."

New Democrat MLA Joy MacPhail suspects a similar "mean-spirited" pitch from Brown convinced Campbell to get tough and deny her party official opposition status after the spring election.

"I've only actually met the man once," says MacPhail. "I've been in the same room with him more often than that, but only met him once. And I had to be the one to introduce myself that time. He's certainly no extrovert."

When Brown isn't working -- not often -- he lives a private life in Shawnigan with his wife Linda, who does office work in a veterinary clinic. The couple have no children. He's reputed to be an aggressive and exceptional downhill skier.

Brown was born in the Year of the Rooster, 1957. The Chinese horoscope sign fits him well. The Rooster is "neither complicated nor profound," reads his horoscope; rather, "he is very forthright and straightforward."

And just like Brown, a typical Rooster is always right. Untrusting of others. Devoted to his work. Extremely conscious of clothing and appearance. They're said to make excellent trouble- shooters.

Brown shares his birth year with Confucius, Wagner, Yoko Ono and Groucho Marx.

- - -

Brown's most notable venture into the public eye was four years ago when he and a group of like-minded British Columbians formed Citizens' Voice on Native Claims.

He was executive director of the group; John Pitts, former head of Okanagan Helicopters, was president. Other members included lawyer Harry Bell-Irving -- previously active in opposing the self- government provisions of the Charlottetown Accord -- and former federal Tory MPs Lorne Greenaway and Ron Huntington.

Brown's group took out full-page ads in Victoria and Vancouver newspapers urging the citizenry to wake up before the Nisga'a treaty was a done deal. Raising the spectre of fewer rights for non- aboriginals on Indian land and a "third level" of government, Citizens' Voice contended that the draft agreement reached that year with the Nisga'a tipped the scale in favour of aboriginals.

"There was always the nub of an issue in the Citizens' Voice stuff, but let's call it what it was: Fear-mongering," says one critic close to the treaty process.

Nisga'a elder Joe Gosnell was quickly drawn into the debate: "Despite their motherhood statement that `we agree with the treaty process,' " he said at the time, "I think their overall agenda is to completely wreck the treaty process in B.C. and halt the Nisga'a treaty."

The group faded away shortly after a Supreme Court ruling affirmed the existence of aboriginal rights. But Brown carried on, taking up with the Liberals within weeks and no doubt playing a major role in Campbell's 1998 decision while in Opposition to sue the provincial and federal governments over the now-ratified Nisga'a treaty.

The Liberals lost. They'd planned to appeal, but abandoned that after winning the election this year and realizing they'd essentially be suing themselves. Brown was said to be devastated at the decision not to go ahead.

Brown was once on the political fringes with his ideas around treaties. The Citizens' Voice viewpoint was routinely quoted in an array of right-wing publications, from the Fraser Institute to Alberta Report and the U.S. anti-abortion Life Advocate.

And Brown's days guiding B.C. Reform strategy connects him directly to past Reform resolutions calling for the minimum wage to be scrapped, the civil service to be slashed, public-sector strikes banned and English declared the only official language of B.C.

But the extreme is now the mainstream. A referendum on treaties is now a certainty. The minimum wage is effectively scrapped as a result of the Liberals' 500-hour "training wage." The civil service is headed for a bloodletting.

With a new job in the highest echelons of government and a receptive ear in Gordon Campbell, Brown's moment has arrived.

- - -

Politicos expected Brown would last "five minutes max" with Campbell. They've now had to concede that the partnership appears to be working.

But the future is never certain for a chief of staff, and Brown will be lucky if he lasts two years, says one past insider. "You make too many enemies, because you have to take on the premier's enemies. That's the nature of the beast."

There are already hints of trouble: dissension in the caucus, conflict between Brown and senior staff in charge of the civil service, growing concern among a handful of remaining "Liberal- Liberals" that the party has essentially become Reform.

There's also the question of what happens to an ideologue like Brown if his political masters start doubting his unswerving advice.

"Look how the world has changed since the election," says the insider. "It was fine that the Liberals did their independent reviews and told staff to manage money wiser, but they went out and spent those savings on a tax cut. Now we've got Sept. 11 and the softwood lumber disaster, and it's not working."

It seems odd that Brown hasn't been drawn into the political arena himself after all this time. But Weisgerber says Brown has always understood where his strengths lie.

"I'm not sure that Martyn would be nearly as good trying to campaign for himself as he is in the position he's in," says Weisgerber. "They're very different skills, and I think Martyn knows that."

As for strokes to the ego, Brown gets his away from the public eye.

"He gets enormous satisfaction out of political wins, whether big ones like an election or the kind of things that go on day to day," says Weisgerber. "For instance, the Throne Speech, which got described by a number of media as one of the most comprehensive they'd seen. Hearing that would have given Martyn a lot of satisfaction."

Fans turn up in the strangest places. Brown has an unexpected one in Adrian Dix, who did the same job as Brown for former New Democrat premier Glen Clark.

Dix doesn't profess to know Brown well, but clearly admires him.

"In 1996, when it would have been easy for his career to go the route of joining the Liberals, he stuck with Jack Weisgerber and Reform because he was committed to that," Dix says. "He's not simply a political fixer. He obviously has strong beliefs."

They're dramatically different than his own, Dix adds, but at least Brown hasn't swayed from them. That's not common in the fickle world of politics.

"I think he has greatly improved things for the Liberals," says Dix. "And I have to say he's a person of principle. Even if I profoundly disagree with some of them."

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.