An English Boy in the New World. Canada 1980-81
Edmonton Alberta, June 1980
English boy follows Canadian girlfriend and arrives in the New World.
The first thing that makes me wonder is how, compared to England, the blue skies above feel so distantly remote. When autumn brings the city’s initial snowfall, will come a second: ‘If this is going to repeat for the next six months, where will they put it all?’ In winter I will watch the city answer that by bulldozing it into the river, where it will sit atop the jumbled blocks of ice frozen solidly in place after their journey across Canada’s Arctic North.
Edmonton – branding itself new and busily ripping down everything that isn’t. Even my partner Diana and her mum are shocked when they go downtown to find familiar landmarks gone overnight. Heavy industry lays vast areas to waste on the city outskirts beneath those towering skies. But then Albertans have vast areas to lay waste to, don’t they?
The waste! Mountainous garbage bins beside the big cars parked outside every house. Diana’s mum, talking endlessly about buying and prices, keeps the central heating on even in midsummer. We forget a few minor items of shopping and zoom out in her husband’s gigantic car to get them.
I’m carrying with me a longing to play the sarod, born a year of so before in Delhi. It will not birth properly for several years but during our year in Edmonton I’ll enroll in an evening course in Hindi at the University. And despite being the other side of the world something is keeping India alive in me. It’ll turn out that it won’t have to wait all that long……..
In May 1980 I obtained my teaching degree, cleared up my life in Canterbury, Kent and, with my partner Diana having gone before me to prepare the ground, flew in alone to Seattle. The Canadian border police didn’t like the look of this penniless twenty-five year old Englishman stepping off a Greyhound bus and after two reluctant hours gave me thirty days entry. After a night in grey and muggy Vancouver it was on discovering eight-grain sprouted bread in a natural food supermarket on 4th Ave that it sunk in that I was definitely no longer in stolid Canterbury.
Canadian National Rail rumbled me on through to the Rockies and beyond. The scale of their whole operation was mind-boggling; our train consisted of twenty coaches plus an observation car with snack bar. (Mushroom soup and crackers for 35 cents). It took five hours to do the first two hundred kilometers to Boston Bar, where a sign at the station read MONTREAL 4436 KM. While stopped at Kamloops a freight train with over a hundred boxcars crept past us in the opposite direction. I got out to admire the huge locomotives on ours, one on either end, 2400 horsepower apiece. We had time to get out again in Jasper, amidst incredible mountain scenery, but it was the smell of pine that captivated me as I dithered along the rail tracks, clutching a first little piece of Canadian rock to ground me.
Arriving in Edmonton and walking the cottonwood forests along the river, it is again the scent that I remember best, sweet and resinous in the sharp summer air. Out in the non-Kent countryside – fields too big, trees too small, farms a ramshackle mess – Diana and I pick mushrooms, saskatoon berries and wild flowers. But there are pretty prairie-style barns painted red. Diana gets upset when I ask from which European country the people who built them come from. ‘They’re Canadian!’ she insists.
A week on and we get our first days work, having joined an agency that asked no questions. I lied on the forms, which they didn’t even bother to look at before packing us off to a glass recycling facility. Nine hours unpacking box after box of bottles, heaving them into filthy machines in the heat and din. Staying at Diana’s mums house, we were up at six, and home at six with a mere $28 each in our pockets, the country boy in shock at those thousands upon thousands of gallons of liquor that must have been drunk to account for the quantity of glass he helped smash that day.
Late Summer and Fall in British Columbia
Diana is a sannyasin, a disciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho). We met and fell in love at the end of 1978 while she was passing through the UK on her way to his ashram in Pune. She came back to me with a new name, dressed in orange and with a bead mala around her neck. To keep up with her I joined some groups and meditations at the London center and started meeting other sannyasins. A clean vibe compared to my hippy past – I liked them. Now as we spend time around her old scene in Nelson and take part in a Rajneesh Meditation camp out in the forests outside the town, I find that the more I hang out with Bhagwan’s people the more impressed I am and the more humbled.
For Diana’s friends around Nelson are all older than me, full on sixties hipsters, American draft dodgers, tree planters, back-to-the-landers spending years stretching out their forest cabins high up on Yaku Yama Mountain. The Jam Factory in town is the cultural hub, part organic supermarket and café, part art gallery and gig venue. I know of no place like it, these people seem to be years ahead of merry England. We swim in the limpid Salmo river, spend time on a raft house moored out on Slocan Lake, reachable only by canoe; set up stall at the Lemon Creek Fair to sell off Diana’s excess possessions and soak up at Ainsworth Hot Springs, at that time a naked hippy spot undiscovered by tourists.
We make a trip to the semi-deserts of the Okanagan. A freak summer storm saw me driving in appalling weather for an hour along a desolate track with deep mud on either side offering no opportunity to turn around and retreat. Panic set in – were we ever going to find this campground that we had been told was out here somewhere? We finally rounded some contorted rock formations to find ourselves driving in to a party in the middle of all this empty nothingness, temporarily disconnected from the rest of the world.
The trip included participating in a three-day retreat with Hari Dass Baba (of ‘Be Here Now’ fame). We arrived to find the camp a chaos of people rushing hither and thither, children underfoot everywhere. Initially off-putting, it stayed that way, but Babaji’s peaceful, loving presence provided a calm center to it all. The best part was simply being around him as he played with children or just sat, chalkboard to hand, surrounded by singing. We plucked up courage and went up to ask him about marriage. His disciple Anand Dass offered to wed us with a fire ceremony in Vancouver. ‘That really makes it stick!” commented one of the many young English couples in this sangha, hanging around the kitchens, being relaxed and open and attributing it all to Canada. They didn’t look seasoned enough to have actually experienced the stick lasting long…..
At the end of August we got married at a Rajneesh center in Vancouver, in a ceremony complete with holy fire, scattering of rice etc, conducted by a white Hindu. My brother Robert, hitchhiking round the States, turned up in time to be a witness. Afterwards the three of us camped up on a peninsular jutting into Kootenay Lake facing a panoramic view of the mighty Purcell Range. A frisky stream forked just above our lonely site, sending its cascades on either side of us. A naive attempt to hike up to Kokanee Glacier ended with us turning back long before the ice, exhausted and terrified of bears, re-affirming that in dealing with Canada I should definitely not try to rely on experience learned from my first quarter century in the UK.
And so ended a summer of getting to know a bunch of people way more experienced than me around Nelson and getting clearer about the decision to marry D and stay in Canada. We hired a huge maroon automobile and drove the rest of her stuff from Nelson to her mum’s in Edmonton. I dropped the car off alone in Calgary, Edmonton’s neighbouring city (a hundred and eight-five miles away) and took a bus back to the mushrooming city that was to be our home. Back to the prospect of a winter of minus twenty-five Celsius plus wind chill factor.
We rent a basic little house down near the river, plant up some vegetables in its garden open to a public park and wake one morning to find them all ripped up by vandals. Despite our interview with Immigration going smoothly (the woman can see we’re in love) it is a blow to learn that I will not allowed be to work until my status as Landed Immigrant is confirmed in November. So in the meantime Diana and I focus on training at the Berlitz School as teachers of English As Foreign Language.
I begin to wonder why I’m here in this corporate industrial wasteland. Diana wants to stay at least for a year or so to get her health back after the terrible allergic reactions she experienced living in the UK last year. But I already feel an urgency to move on, travel more, find some kind of spiritual scene. Plus now that I’ve graduated I want to try out being a proper schoolteacher. That doesn’t look like it’s going to be so easy here.
We start work at Berlitz, teaching Vietnamese boat people, mostly young, very sweet and very keen to learn everything they can about how to make it in this new world they find themselves in. There’s a touching innocence to their trust in us as guides and we find ourselves going out for coffee or to eat with some of them after classes to answer more of their questions. Their own experiences and past they are reluctant to share with us.
There are still boardwalks in parts of the city, icy and slippery, amidst the glass and concrete towers of the new oil industry. The cold is unbelievable. At one point I find myself struggling on foot uphill across a park towards my parked car and realize how close to death one is here with the smallest misjudgement. But there are joyful mornings in clear air when I run over the snow-covered slopes towards the river. And they know how to stay warm here at minus thirty, the houses, shops and bus shelters are all blasted with an extravagance of hot air. The car is plugged in to a cable overnight so that in the morning you warm it – and most importantly its engine – up before you leave the house. Being careful not to lose skin by touching the metal door handle without gloves of course…
I get a job with the city government as a social worker in a lock up for stray teenage girls picked up off the streets, who it is our job to hold on to until the courts decide their fate. I am given a huge bunch of keys and have to keep them occupied in the lounge by day and lock them into individual rooms at night. I’m on shift work and part of a team of course, but I have no training or knowledge of the kind of psychology needed to deal with all this professionally. How desperate the city’s Social Services Department must be to hire me!
The job is crazy, we all sit around for hours doing nothing, reading, playing cards. I’m tired all the time from the weird hours and I hardly see Diana any more. Daytimes they are given TV to watch (by July it’s pretty much all Charles and Diana). I’m wondering what, beyond jangling the keys and being a jailor, I can possibly offer adolescent waifs in such a desperate mess that they had to run away from homes, parents, pimps. But I guess it must help that I can still relate well to being an adolescent myself. Fourteen-year old Brenda and I sit and play crib and find a real joy in each other’s company. Like older brother/younger sister we laugh and joke; but I hope behind that a serious point is communicating: ‘You don’t want to be in a place like this, Brenda, you don’t have to be’.
I get surprisingly good money for this, for sure, but it flows away quickly. Frustrated creativity burns in me. One of my diary entries reads: hoping we can do a weekend at a Rajneesh center soon……’ But then there isn’t one for hundreds of miles.
My oldest school friend Charles is in Canada is visiting. I’m excited to see what he makes of my new life here. The three of us cook up in hilarity and deep concentration an idea for a board game for travellers, people like us who like to explore off the beaten path, to experience varied cultures, take risks with the little-known. We are calling it ‘One World’, and our first task is to map out the destinations we choose. Weeks of fanatical research and creation follow. The board must consist of both a map of destinations and routes and a Monopoly-style circuit around it on which players can earn money or be forced to pick up cards which offer chances and random rewards and penalties. One of my favourites is from Charles: “You are bored and lonely in this concrete jungle and pay out $50 in alcohol, drugs and postage’.
Oct 2nd En Route San Fransisco to Mt Madonna Center, Watsonville
As autumn sets in neither Diana or I can face another winter. Bhagwan has disappeared, rumour has it to the US, so Poona is off the plan.My last diary entry sees us on our way, via Hari Dass Baba’s center in California, to Japan. The final memory I carry away off with me is Diana’s friend Rab taking us out onto the prairies to see medicine wheels, rings of stones set on low rises in the featureless flat. The buffalo-hunting Plains Cree laid them hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of years ago. Maybe their descendants still visit them from the city, Rab didn’t know. I walked away with a sense of something vanished in sadness over the empty horizon. All that bustling hubbub of Edmonton, built on top of this.