One Tree gets naked!

By Adam Capelin

One-Tree montage

Trees everywhere are throwing their gear into the streets with little regard for order and decency.  Must be that time of year in Vancouver when trees get naked and people do the reverse by climbing into more layers of clothes.

It’s call “Fall” over here and I can see why.  Over the space of 4-5 weeks trees everywhere have slowly stripped naked in a burlesque display of yellow and red sunsets before submitting to browns, climaxing in a rapid descent of leaves falling to the ground.  I couldn’t help but focus on One Tree and photograph it everyday from the same spot on my way to work.  This picture should be a slideshow…  This is near the main entrance to the University of British Columbia.

I’ve added some other pictures below that capture the colours of Fall – Enjoy!

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Downtown living

by Keira Louis

Finally, some pictures of our apartment in Vancouver.

As was pointed out to me last night, we’ve been very slack at updating the Frog and Toad lately.  So here’s a little peak into our Downtown Vancouver lives…. this is for you Jules!

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The Man on the Bus

by Keira Louis

Vancouver buses are like any other public buses in Western countries.  A little bit more advanced, though, I feel. There’s an electronic screen that displays the name of the upcoming stop to prepare passengers for disembarkation, something Brisbane buses could really benefit from! The stops are also announced in advance by a recorded voice for the visually impaired. All in all, a hassle free bus ride anywhere around Vancouver!

But some things remain the same, including the people. You get happy passengers, you get grumpy passengers. You get mothers with children in strollers, the elderly in wheelchairs or with walking sticks, drunken passengers who don’t have any money on them, teenagers off to meet their friends downtown, professionals communting to and from work, aswell as physically and mentally disabled passengers.

And then you get the passengers that are just wanting to talk to someone. You know the ones.  I’m sure you’ve avoided making eye contact with them once or twice so you didn’t have to engage in conversation with them.  We’re all guilty of it. Even me. But the other day, I decided to accept the offer of conversation by a lone adult male on my bus and I’m really glad I did.

The conversation made such an impact on me that I remembered it almost word for word, and had to write it down and share it with you. It reminds us that sometimes we can judge a person too early on in a relationship and we don’t give people the chance they deserve. I learnt a lot from this stranger, in more ways than one.

Before you read, picture an adult male in his mid to late 40s. Mentally, he is quite intelligent but slow to process information. He reminds you of an excited 5 year old boy who is still struggling to pronounce words and string sentences together smoothly but is trying with all his might. His eyes are wide with excitement and intrigue, and a slight lisp can be heard when he speaks. It is as if he has learnt things from his teacher and has committed them to memory to recite at a later date. This is the man I met on Monday.

STRANGER:    Hi there!
KEIRA:        Hi.
S:        Do you have any experience working with disabled people?
K:        Not so much, no.
S:        Not so much? Ok, well I’m disabled.
K:        Right….
S:        I have adult autism.
K:        Ok…
S:        And one of the things people with adult autism are known for is that they’re good with numbers. I’m good with numbers, I am. But another thing that they’re  known for is that they have dreams and fantasies.
K:        Ok….
S:        I have dreams and fantasies. I discuss them with my therapist because he is trained to discuss them with me. But sometimes I feel like discussing them outside of therapy.  My therapist says I can do this but I have to ask people if they feel comfortable listening to me discuss them. I have all different types of fantasies but don’t worry, I never ever discuss sexual fantasties. My therapist says this is isn’t polite.
K:        Right.
S:        So how do you feel about listening to my dreams?
K:        Um, I’m not so sure about that. And I have to get off soon.
S:        What suburb are you in?
K:        I don’t know. I just know the stop number.  I’m new here.
S:        Ok, well I’ll be brief. I’ll make it brief.  I sometimes have monetary dreams. I dream that I’m getting a large amount of money. Let’s just say….let’s just say it’s about half of what Bill Gates earns. That’s a polite way of putting it, wouldn’t you say? I know you shouldn’t discuss money so would you say that’s a polite way of saying it’s a large amount of money?

(He looks at K for a reply)

K:        Yes, definitely.
S:         I think so. So that’s what I dream about. That’s a lot of money.
K:        Yes, it is.

(S thinks. While he thinks his right arm crosses his body and his left hand comes up to his face. He runs his pointer finger slowly over his face from right to left.)

S:        (After a slight pause) So where are you from?
K:        Australia.
S:        Australia? What part of Australia?
K:        Queensland.
S:        Queensland……
K:        Brisbane?
S:        Where’s that near? Sydney or Melbourne?
K:        (with a grin, everyone knows Sydney and Melbourne!) It’s north of Sydney.
S:        Oh, ok. Is it a country town?
K:        (grins again) No, it’s a city. It’s QLD’s capital city.
S:        Is it on the beach?
K:        It’s on the coast and it’s about an hour to the beach north or south.
S:        Hmmm. (S resumes thinking pose again) 90% of Australians live on the water.
K:        Is that right?
S:        Mm hm.

(Pause. Silence)

S:        Just because I dream about lots of money, doesn’t mean I’m actually going to get it, but I might. But if I had that much money, I would just like to live in Mt  Pleasant [an area in Vancouver]. I don’t like to live materialistically. I’d rather travel. Or volunteer. That’s where I’ve just come from. I’m doing job training and I volunteer there too.
K:        That’s great.

(Pause. Silence)

S:        Well have a nice day.
K:        You too.

(S doesn’t make to move. There is more silence, then..)

S:        Do I come across to you as just a tiny bit lonely?
K:        (shocked, feeling awkward, K shrugs) Umm, I –
S:        Well I am. I am lonely.
K:        (more awkward) Oh…
S:        Most people who are lonely will approach strangers and talk to them, like I’m doing with you. If a stranger came up to me and started  talking to me, I’d think  that they were lonely. Yeah, I’d say they were lonely.
K:        (lost for words, nods)

(S stands up to get off the bus)

S:        (Genuinely) Should we know each other by first name or just by face?
K:        (Smiles) Umm…
S:        (Raises hands defensively) Ok, just by face for now. Just by face.

(S walks to back door of bus and stands ready to disembark. K calls out after him)

K:        Have a lovely day.

(S doesn’t respond, focused on not missing his stop. He hops off the bus)

So next time you catch a bus and avoid the person trying to talk to you, remember the man I met on the bus on Monday!

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Breathless

By Adam Capelin

Looking back up the summit ridge

Sitting precariously on an exposed peak of wind blasted rock and ice that never melts, 6000m above sea level isn’t a typical way to start the day.  But this was the numb vista that was my reality on the 25 July.  I was anchored to the frozen earth via an ice screw at my feet and a 5m length of stiff rope that was tied to my two climbing companions, Johannes and our Bolivian climbing guide Adolfo.   It was dark when we summited. The light of the dawn was weakly descending around us.  Orange and golden hues were dancing on thin tortured clouds above us, like a veil of silk being torn apart by a relentless wind.  The land below was dark and unrevealing.  I was sitting on hard ice with no where higher to go, with no shelter left from the wind, in a cold dark place waiting for the altitude sickness headache to find me.

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We had been climbing the 6088m Bolivian peak of Huayna Potosi since 1:30am. I had been lured into the night by the small pool of light thrown onto the snow by my head torch and the sliding trace of the orange climbing rope tied to Johannes in front of me. I welcomed the early summit departure and the release from a restless sleep.

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Sleep had abandoned me on the mountain. For the past two nights I had lain in my sleeping bag and invited sleep to wrap it’s embrace around me, only it didn’t. Sleep was busy somewhere else. It eluded me. My breathing was erratic as it adjusted to the rarefied air. I felt like I was drowning in my own shallow breath. Lying still and breathing normally I would suddenly find myself short of breath and in a panic. I gulped at the still air with my arms flailing outside my sleeping bag pushing a hidden weight. Fatigue and altitude eventually overtook me, and I was haunted by a vivid imagination, neither asleep nor consciously awake or in control. When I closed my eyes on the eve of the summit departure, there was something meta-physical blocking my passage to sleep. This took the form of a large hard-back white book with a blank cover and filled with blank pages. Sleep perverted my imagination; if I could fill the book with a dream, a story, then sleep would read it to me and take me with it. Sleep had high expectations and I couldn’t project a lottery winning dream into these blank pages. It was cruel, I felt consciously awake yet I could almost hold sleeps hand. I could break the spell by opening my eyes to the same dark room and small window of light on the opposite wall, but it was despairing to do this over and over again and return to the same unchanging place. A place removed from sleep and time. If I rolled over and closed my eyes again, the vacant white book was waiting for me and I clutched it tight to my chest. Trapped, I lay in the darkness, drowning in my own breath, willing the light to change, for the silence to break and the movement of bodies to signal the call to climb.

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Stepping into the cold wasted air above 5000m at 1:30am in the morning and fastening steel crampons to plastic mountaineering boots is a surreal experience. The first groups were already away and hovered above us higher on the first pitch, enveloped in their own halos of torch light reflecting off the crisp snow. The mountain hid itself. My peripheral vision was blinkered by my own torch light. Only the spheres of light from other climbing groups above and below us revealed the distorted distance and gradient of what was up ahead and what we’d already climbed.

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My breath was ragged. The ascent was brutal. I had no sense of what I was climbing or steering for, no idea when we would crest the next pitch. Follow the torch light, watch the thin orange trace of climbing rope sliding over the snow and step over the crevasse that leers before you. I was forcing air into my lungs and punching it back out again. The pain of breathlessness saturated my lethargic body. Swinging my arms in time with my dragging legs only made it worse. I was shuffling along, side stepping up steeper sections to make sure my crampons were biting into the snow. One laboured inhale and one sharp exhale of breath for every pathetic foot step. When we stopped I was bent over double leaning on my ice pick for support. I gasped between inhales of tortured breath and lied about being ok. Bien, bien (good, good). Doubt crept into my mind and trespassed my thoughts. “You´re not going to make this” I internalized, “This is beyond you, you’re not fit for this”. I practiced my retirement speech for the next stop, but each time I pushed on to the next crest or corner I found the strength to continue. My breathing found a rhythm and a voice. I found a mantra inside my breathing, “stick it, stick it, you’ve got it in the neck”. Each time my conviction failed and defeat polluted my mind, my breathing repeated louder, “stick it, stick it, you’ve got it in the neck”.

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A quick fact: At 5500m there is only 50% of the available oxygen found at sea level. The air at the summit of Mt Everest is a suffocating waste of 30% of the available oxygen found at sea level. If you could be picked up at sea level and dropped at the summit of Mt Everest you would remain conscious for a couple of minutes before passing into a comatose state.

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The monotony of the crawling ascent gave way to survival. The pitch steepened over uneven icy sastrugi and frozen rock. We were climbing diagonally across a slope up towards the exposed summit ridge. My breath left me and I ignored the lactic acid swelling in my legs and the vacuum in my chest. I swung my ice pick up and kicked my crampons in hard, checked my weight and then swung and kicked again clawing on all fours. The rope went slack and then taut as Johannes and I struggled with our own mountaineering inexperience. I reached the summit ridge behind Johannes and my breath came up behind me attached to its own desperate rope looking white and spent.

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I had a strange sense of dislocation. The ice and rock fell away from me into infinite inky depths on both sides. I was on top of something, floating but fixed to the spot. We were exposed now, crouching behind a small drift of hard ice and snow. The wind assaulted the drift from the other side sending a plume of icing sugar spin drift over everything. “Only 15 minutes to go” shouted Andolfo. I looked up and squinted through the roaring shape of the wind. I could see distorted pools of head torches from other climbers floating towards an obscure summit. My breath reached inside me and picked up my tense body. We crawled forward together separated by bonds of climbing rope. Barren jagged rocks guarded my left and a small wall of hard drifted ice defended my right. Again and again I swung my ice pick up and kicked my crampons in hard, checking and re-checking the bite of the ice pick before moving up. The trace of orange climbing rope above me slithered with the advance of Johannes. A confusion of frozen tumbled rocks barred my way. My crampons scratched steel on rock defiling the surface searching for a purchase. I threw my ice pick up in an expanding arc searching for hard ice above me to the right. I pulled myself up and kicked my toes into hard ice again. Into the night we ascended, into the wind and into thin air, until I sat next to Johannes on a blunt cone of exposed ice on the highest point of the mountain.

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I sat with my back to the wind and grinned stupidly at the nothingness below. Fighting to catch my breath before the wind stole it from my lungs. I was shivering with cold and adrenalin, and waited patiently for the sun to rescue me and reveal the earth far below.


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Bolivian Markets…

by Keira Louis

A Bolivian market stall

At first glance, this lady in La Paz, like many other Bolivian ladies on Witches Market (a street full of stores specifically tailored to tourist shopping), seems to be selling masses of silver jewellery, bright coloured shawls and beanies, cushion covers and assorted nick-nacks. But on closer inspection, the contents of the basket on the left of the table (your left) become scarily visible.

Llama fetus'

Yes, that’s right – they are baby Llamas and fetus’. We were both so intrigued (and quite disgusted) by this we just had to get a photo as proof (but not without paying). We soon noticed that they were being sold at nearly every stall on Witches Market (now we know how it got its name!), in various sizes and at various levels of development.

In Bolivia, Llamas are farmed for both their meat and fleece. Sometimes, a Llama is pregnant when killed so the fetus’ or ready-to-be-born llamas are removed and sold. It is thought that burying a Llama fetus under a new house which is being built, is said to bring good luck. I’m still confused as to why they are sold at a tourist market then –  perhaps so that bewildered tourists like myself will pay for a photo, bringing in money in another way?

Whatever the reason, it definitely lends itself to an interesting blog!

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Swine Flu, Argentina

Swine flu posters are everywhere

by Keira Louis

We’ve been hearing about the Swine Flu or H1N1 Virus for months now. It all started in Mexico but now it’s a pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of cases reported in countries all over the world. As a result, some strange things are happening, as you know – schools have been closed down, football crowds are being told to stay at home for a week after attending games, and surgical masks are being distributed at airports to travellers with possible ‘Swine flu’ symptoms. But in terms of crazy preventative measures, it’s possible that Argentina takes the cake.

Since we arrived in this country 3 weeks ago, we have not stopped hearing about the Swine Flu and the precautions the government is taking to control its spread. Perhaps it is the same back home, but the orders being made here just seem ridiculous!

On arriving in Mendoza, we made a brief visit to the Tourist Information centre to help us plan our stay. Having not seen any performances for a long while, I asked about what was on at the local theatre, eager to see anything. The response – I don’t know if anything will be on for a while as the government is worried about the spread of Swine Flu. Ok…..

We returned to our hostel and had a great chat with the owner. What is going on? we asked him. He had a similar story. The rugby team he played for in Mendoza had invited a New Zealand rugby team to Argentina to play them. A few days after the NZ boys had organised their trip, the Argentinian government announced that no contact sports were allowed to be played because of Swine Flu. Crazy! So instead, the NZ boys will fly all the way to Argentina for a BBQ!

Even in other cities, bars were being closed left, right and centre; some places were closing their internet cafes; and the annual 9th of July Argentinian Independance Day celebrations were cancelled, all for the same reason – Swine Flu.  How ironic then, that travelling for 20+ hours on a bus with 40 other people in a confined space with no ventilation across Argentina is still ok!

Let us know what crazy precautions the government is putting into place back home!

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A pinch of salt

By Adam Capelin

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The Salinas Grandes; a vast barren salt lake in Argentina’s North West on the border with Chile. Neither Keira nor I have ever been to a salt lake before. It was quite a novelty. I had always imagined walking on a salt lake to be similar to a thin layer of crisp snow, soft and crunching under foot. In fact, it’s the opposite. Rock hard and impenetrable. You couldn’t retrace your footsteps if your life depended on it. Even more curious was the mosaic of inverted egg shell cracks running across the surface, like the pattern on a chocolate Easter egg.

The locals scrape the salt off the surface into piles ready for your fish & chips in a restaurant near you. And guess what, it tastes like salt. I had to taste it! (That’s not a local swinging the pick by the way. Brigette’s a Swiss Miss who’s not afraid of hard work). We hired a car with Christian and Brigette and drove from Salta together through some amazing country to reach the Salinas Grandes.

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