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If you’ve been reading this blog (and I know there are people faithfully reading – amazing but true!), you’ll know that I’ve been moving around a lot in the last few months. Since I started writing this little cyber-journal in April and then printed Walking with Wolf in May, I’ve written about my impressions and experiences while wandering through a bunch of places, selling a bunch of books. However, I don’t think I’ve written all that much about Hamilton Ontario, my birth place which I returned to after about twenty-five years of living in the northern bush and the tropical tangle.

In 2000 I came back here and bought a house with my ex-partner, Jim, in the fiercely proud north end of the city. Hamilton is a port and this is the oldest part of the city, close to the water. It was the only neighbourhood I was interested in living in, as it is bordered by the Hamilton Harbour and the Bayfront Park, giving me close access to the waterfront, as well as being a fifteen minute walk to downtown.  Although I wouldn’t swim in the water here, there are places that I can go to sit on a park bench and look across the bay, and totally forget where I am which I find quite conducive to day-dreaming and creative-writing.  As it says on the back of Walking with Wolf, I was born here but left, then came back rather unwillingly but stayed because I found this artistic renaissance happening here – and, always a grassroots person myself, I appreciated that the cultural revolution was swelling from the ground up.

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Hamilton, once a raging steel-factory-dominated city, built by Italians and with deep working-class roots, has always been maligned.  I grew up across the bay in Burlington, a suburban city – from there the body of water is called the Burlington Bay.  From the big houses along the Burlington lakeshore you look east or south at the Hamilton skyline of smokestacks and shoreline of slagpiles.  When the industrial barons built those big houses over in Burlington, they no doubt liked to look at the factories that were making them rich.  That skyline was one of the things that sent me running to the northern bush as a teenager. 

 

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Now, from my vantage point on the Hamilton side of the bay, I don’t see the factories at all.  I go a few minutes from my house and look north toward the tree-lined coast of Burlington, at the sailboats flying across the waves, the sun setting in the west, and the convoluted rocky Niagara Escarpment that adds a geographical uniqueness to the landscape.

I told Jim that I would stay here for two years and that was IT! I quickly found out that I could live here cheaper than in most places and that was reason to stay, since I was gone half of the year to Costa Rica. Jim had his work here and I began writing the book and didn’t want to uproot in the middle of that process. After a couple years, we bought the house directly across the street from where we were living – an indication of how much I liked the street and our neighbours. The neighbourhood changes constantly – people can actually afford to buy houses here and, even in a collapsed market, houses in this barrio sell quickly.  About four years ago I gave up my vehicle, realizing that I didn’t need it to get around in this city, preferring to walk or ride my bike, and public transit can take me easily to Toronto and the airport.  When Jim and I split up a few years ago, I stayed in the house which is perfect for one person, on this street where a number of single women live (a sign that it is a comfortable and safe neighbourhood to be in), and in this city, which slowly but surely seduced me with its dirty urban charms and incredible artistic community.

This is the appropriate time to focus on the gritty city (even our literary festival is called Grit Lit) because it is the week of the Hamilton Music Awards, when local fans and music industry folk get together to celebrate the Hammer’s musicians and the music.  This is my fourth year working as a volunteer backstage.  I do it simply to help JP Gauthier, whose brainchild this is, to honor the musicians, and to spend several nights feasting on the fine music here. 

Although the classics in all fields are represented in Hamilton (there is a thriving Philharmonic Orchestra and an ever-growing jazz scene), the music that excites me the most is the stuff that feels like it was born on the streets. The musicians I’ve met and those I’ve watched perform have a voice and a sensibility here that is very different from the other musical communities I’ve been part of – Quebec and Costa Rica – which actually share many characteristics – or eastern and northern Ontario. I’m not sure how to describe the difference – beyond being urban – but it is definitely fed by gravelly-voiced irreverant singer/songwriters (Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons), vixen songstresses (Lori Yates, Buckshot Bebee, Jude Johnson), smokin’ guitarists (Brian Griffith), flying keyboard fingers (Jesse O’Brien) and a whole slew of talented musicians, raunchy performers and hard-working producers.  Uber-producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers, on and on) comes from here and returns regularly.  The music community tends to be very supportive of each other. In this city of about half a million people, there is still a feeling of it being a town, a hard-rock over-sized village, but there have been enough imports and exports that there is a bit of a cosmic-politan air as well, even if that air is a little dirty.

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Last Sunday afternoon, I set up a little Walking with Wolf table at the Mad Hatter’s Green Tea Party in Dundas (once its own town, now considered part of the larger Hamilton area unless, of course, you live there). After a week of balmy weather, it had turned cold and grey with frosty flakes drifting about.  So it was pleasant to be in a cozy room with a number of greenish vendors, a silent auction, live music provided by locals Kim and Frank Koren, and a bonus to be set up right next door to the coffee and goodies.  They were healthy ones and exceptional, especially a chocolate-covered mousse-filled biscotti….

Besides spending a very nice afternoon, I sold two books and traded another one for a stained glass peace dove and a glass bauble.  I also bought a theatre ticket from a fast-talking man who I had met the night of my book launch at the Pearl Company [see A Pearl of a Night.] The play, “You Are What You Do” is actually at that same Pearl in December and now I’ll be going, thanks to this very good salesman (not that I mind at all-in fact look forward to it). The organizers of the tea party – including Peter Ormond, a local Green Party candidate, and Barbara Maccaroni, a raw food chef and soon to be house-sitter while I head south – did a great job, provided us with a pleasant time, and even made a fair chunk of change for the Green Party. 

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The rest of the week is about the music. It got started off in a great way as people gathered last night at the Bread and Roses Cafe to celebrate Jackie Washington’s 89th birthday. Jackie is a local legend, a great blues man but not just that – he is reputed to know more than 1200 songs off the popular charts. He is a very entertaining storyteller, his voice strong and clear even on the cusp of his ninetieth year.  Jackie was born in Hamilton and has been singing songs since the age of five, first with his three brothers, and then as a regular well-loved participant in blues and folk festivals around the country.  He’s played with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. He no doubt could have had a career in the United States but instead rode the rails in Canada working for Canadian Pacific to satisfy his restlessness and always lived his life in the Hammer – in the words of songwriter Colin Linden, in a song sung by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings –  “He never crossed over that American border, though he lived just a few miles away.  He said ‘everything I need I can find right here – north of the USA’.” 

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A crowd of local musicians, fans and friends came out to honor him last night and listen to his stories of what the music business was like in Hamilton in the thirties, the sixties, the eighties – well, close to ninety years of tales and tunes.  So very happy birthday, Mr. Washington – “long may your sweet song carry on”.

 

 

 

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 Lori Yates

 

I was there with my pal, Lori Yates, and also bumped into guitarist extraordinaire, Brian Griffith.  Brian is Jackie’s nephew – he has the incredible musical genes that have been passed through this family – these genes also have given them both the longest fingers in the land. He is another man happy to stay in the Hammer and as he says, will only go on the road if the opportunity is just too much to miss – as in when he toured with Willie Nelson for three years and played with Bonnie Raitt or was asked by Dan Lanois to sit in on recording sessions. He is Hamilton’s guitar idol and the sweetest man as well.  That’s in his genes too.  

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                                                                                      Brian Griffith

 So for the next four nights I will be out at musical events, taking tickets at the door (at the Pearl, once again), running around backstage first at the industry awards on Saturday and then the big celebrity-laden rockin’ Hammies on Sunday, each night followed by fun and frolicking in the Hammer-core.  In the days, I’ll be re-working my power point presentation to present the book in Guelph at the eBar next Tuesday night as well as be connecting with the kind folks who are helping me set up book events next spring in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Maine.  Yaaaaawwww – excuse me -nnnnn…I’m getting tired just thinking of it.  

Your roving reporter will be back in a few days with more musical tales from the Hammer.

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I somehow find myself in my last week in Costa Rica.  No matter how long I’m here, whether two months or six months, the time flies by.  I never get to everything I want to, I don’t see everyone I want to, but I always seem to manage to experience a new part of the country and see some old friends who I missed the last time around.  This year has been no exception – what has been exceptional has been the addition of Walking with Wolf  in my life and now it is in the community and the country. 

A book has a long life and so what I have missed in promoting it this time I will get to the next time.  Wolf and I are still waiting for the interview that we did with Alex Leff of the English paper the Tico Times to appear.  A month has passed and it hasn’t shown up, yet it was a great interview we thought.  When I contacted Alex a couple of weeks ago about the state of the article, he admitted to me that he was still working on it but was having a problem interpreting Wolf from the taped conversation that we had.  He said, ”I have a renewed appreciation of just what was involved for you in writing this book”. As in, how did I understand Wolf? Let’s just call it a sixth sense, luck and determination. So there is now only one Friday left, the publication day for Tico Times, before I leave.  Who knows if the story will be there.  I will start it all up again when I return next winter so am not worried. 

The negotiations for the Spanish translation have also been stalled as we awaited word from Wolf’s son, Carlos, who lives and works in the northeastern USA.  I just got word from him that he can’t come up with a price but does want to do the work.  So before I leave, perhaps we’ll have a chance for one serious conversation with the Tropical Science Center who is interested in financing it, otherwise thank goodness for the internet and cheap long distance phone plans. This too will happen when it should.

The book is in many bookstores and selling.  And those who have read it seem to really like it and appreciate the history it relates. For this, I am most grateful.

I have returned to San Carlos, to the base of Arenal Volcano, to be with my friends, the Martinez family, for a few days before I go.  The last week I experienced a number of strange health issues.  I had a twenty-four hour virus in Monteverde that felt like I had been hit by a truck, every bone and muscle, particularly my neck, very painful.  It passed, but the sore neck part of it returned the day I got here and I’ve been receiving nightly neck massages which have helped. The virus didn’t affect my stomach or give me a headache, so I think that it isn’t dengue. One never knows around the tropics.

The other problem is the continuing saga of a bug bite that I got while on the Caribbean, that the folks here are quite sure is a nasty little number called papalamoya.  Most Ticos I know, especially the ones who have lived part of their lives in the country, have big scars (usually round patches of rippled skin) from this bug that gets into their blood and takes forever to cure.  The treatment usually involves injections of something nastier than the bug venum.  In my eighteen years coming to Costa Rica, I’ve been waiting on two things – a scorpion bite and papalamoya.  So far, I’ve evaded the scorpion bite, but I may finally have been caught by the bug that causes the other.  I’m not really sure if it is a botfly or a sand fly or what it is (I’ve heard many versions) but I know the scar.  So I am now using a country treatment – I’m using a cow drug called sulphatiasol ground up with fresh nutmeg and some of my own saliva which I plaster on the bite.  Slowly but surely the big wound is shrinking in size and doesn’t look as nasty, but the new tough skin that the treatment forms must be softened and washed off a couple times a day and more guck put on and, well, it’s a process.  The good news is that it hasn’t erupted anywhere else in my body, meaning that the venom hasn’t traveled in my bloodstream – she says hopefully. If I end up with a small scar on the back of my leg from this, well, it only makes me more Tica, something I am already in my heart and soul. In which case I will wear it like a badge of honor.

The final piece of bad news before I get to some good, is that last night, after we arrived back from our day spent on the beautiful Rio Celeste, we received the horrible news that Zulay’s nephew, Victor, who was just here with us up until a couple of days ago, had been shot by robbers trying to steal his motorcycle in the city of Alajuela.  Unfortunately this is a more common occurrence here now.  In fact, people say that they, los ladrones, will shoot you for a cell phone.  I refuse to be overrun with fear and I’m not convinced that Costa Rica has become more crime-riddled than anywhere else, but I do know that the difference of rich and poor in this country has grown and the influx of serious drug-related activity has increased and this all means that it feels at times like there is a general air of lawlessness.  My great sadness for the whole country is the amount of fear that people live with here.  If they watch the news in the evening, they go to bed with these images of robberies and assaults on the streets in their heads.  It reminds me of when I was young, living in the very safe suburban city of Burlington in southern Ontario, but we watched the Buffalo, New York, TV stations.  It became very obvious over the years that some of these stations started their newscasts with all the street crime and police reports and so we were assaulted nightly with images of killings and armed robberies – as a kid I got very nervous, but sooner or later we realized that this was affecting us and we stopped watching those stations.  And the news wasn’t even about our locality,  where this stuff seldom happened, but it made us feel unsafe as well.

Now here in Costa Rica, people are living with this fear everywhere, in some places much more justified than in others.  And when crime hits a family personally, as it just has this family, then it only reinforces the terrible possibilities.  Victor, who is only 19 years old,  as well as two of his brothers, has been assaulted before (while being robbed), and the story right now about last night is that he refused to give the motorcycle to the guys, who shot him in the lung, and then fled – well, my dear Victor, hand over the bike, please.  But who knows what passes in the mind at a moment such as that? Anyway, I believe he is going to be okay, even if he loses his lung (and as this is published, he is past the danger).  At least he is alive. And he kept his motorcycle. But a very troubling day for this family.

Before this tragedy yesterday, ten of us piled into two cars and drove fifty kilometers north of here to the town of Guatuso.  Another fifteen kilometers or so, down a rough rocky road, took us to the entrance to Tenorio National Park and the magical Rio Celeste.  I only started hearing about this place about two years ago, when it captured my attention and imagination, and find that it now shows up more and more in articles in tourist guides and newspapers.  I know that as word gets out, people will go there, and am always happy to be there before the crowds, although there were several Ticos visiting, being the end of a 2 week school holiday.  What a beautiful place.

The deep turquoise color of the river is caused by the convergence of two rivers which carry certain minerals – you can smell the sulphur – on which studies are being done to determine just what chemical reaction is occurring.  We entered the area from the ”backside”.  There is another entrance into Tenorio National Park from a place called Bijagua, from which I think the hike is longer. From our entrance, we hiked on very beautifully maintained wide muddy trails (remember, I know what rough trails in these mountains are). 

You can walk to the teñidoras, the convergence of the two rivers where you see a grey-green river mixing with a yellowish river and very distinctly, at a line, becoming this brilliant blue. We walked in pure jungle, with twittering birds and a large variety of tropical plants and trees hanging over us, along with the occasional roar of Arenal Volcano but more often the loud cracking of thunder.  Somehow we didn’t receive more than a drop of water on us, even though the thunder around us was ominous. 

The trail was only maybe four kilometers long to get to everything – the convergence, the waterfall, the hot springs as well as a lookout and blue lagoon – unfortunately we didn’t make it to the last two because of time and that increasing threat of a big storm. The waterfall was out of the movies, the shady path along the cascading blue and white water was inviting, the meandering turquoise like a liquid jewel, and the hot springs were super hot.  As in, you couldn’t put your hand into the water in places, it was boiling hot.  In other places the cool mountain water flushed the hot water and created very comfortable pools to sit in, but if you happened to move out of the cool current and touch the hot mineral water, it scalded.  Incredible.

We spent about four hours hiking and playing in the waters until the threatening storm sent us back to the car – and sure enough, we were just back on the road when the downpour came.  Driving back from Guatuso we were facing Arenal Volcano which went in and out of clouds all the way, and lightning appeared and disappeared in various parts of the sky all the way home providing a light show of special effects.  It is places like this and days like this that make Costa Rica the phenomenally intriguing place that it is – sadly, the spell is broken when you return home to bad news, but the splendour of the day isn’t negated, only temporarily replaced by life’s reality checks.

  Andrey in front of the huge ceiba, The Tree of Peace near Rio Celeste

August 2019
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