Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 21, No. 2, 2022
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Robert J. Lewis
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Jason McDonald
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Jason Mcdonald has been a college professor at Collège de Rosemont (Montreal) for nearly 15 years. He has travelled in many parts of the world, lived for a time in Europe and Asia, and lives his life in three languages. He has been a proud Montrealer for most of his life and calls it home with his wife Fany Rodriguez. For his in-depth views and analysis of the work of economist Thomas Sowell, check out the John Faithful Hamer podcast.

The world is a book and those
who do not travel read only one page.
St. Augustine

As I waited in line in the duty free shop holding my bottle of Irish Whiskey, the ferry hit a particularly large wave and we pitched up to a 90 degree angle (it felt like it anyway), sending bottles literally flying off the shelves into a cacophony of breaking glass. In a couple of instants, the room filled up with the odours of every kind of liquor imaginable, and the staff scurried to close the store and begin cleaning up. Why the shelves were not secured in some way to prevent this has never been clear to me. I was on an overnight ferry from Cherbourg, France to Rosslare, Ireland, and at that moment, I instantly felt quite lucky that I hadn’t waited an extra few minutes to hit the duty free.

Travelling is such a wonderful experience – we discover so many things about the world, and ourselves, from literally putting ourselves physically into new environments that facilitate direct contact with different peoples, languages, cultures, geographies, architectures, cuisines, environments etc. The world is a beautiful place. And of all the ways to travel, surface is the most amazing way to do it. Trains, boats, buses and cars all give us a chance to see how things are actually interconnected over time and space. We would all agree that however practical teleportation (air travel) is to get from point A to B, it rarely lends itself to an edifying travel experience.

That crossing was quite an adventure for me. It was long, leaving in the evening and arriving the next morning, charting a course around the Island of Great Britain, through the Irish Sea to Ireland. Some time after we left France, while it was still light, the seas began to toss and turn. As it got dark, it was getting very, very rough. People began to get seasick and were running into the bathrooms to throw up. I even recall some people not making it to the toilets, and there was vomit on the floor, usually near the bathrooms LOL; I remember one guy letting it out just as he was approaching the bathroom door. I suppose I have a strong stomach, I felt OK, and I passed my time drinking pints of Guinness, talking to a heavy-set, middle-aged Irishman I met in the bar, who seemed familiar with the area. It was instructive to me that even he seemed quite uneasy at the state of the sea. I recall him saying things like “Let’s hope we can make it back to Ireland in these waters.”

In the end, of course, we made it. The next interesting thing to happen was at Irish customs; I was going through it with some other travellers. As a young Canadian, I had made friends with a couple of others, a few of whom were young Americans. We went through, and the Irish Immigration people took one of them aside for extra questioning. After about 20 minutes, he emerged, and looked pale, and was shaking. When he rejoined us, he explained what had happened: “From the stamp in my passport, the guy saw I had been in Holland, and started asking me about Amsterdam and the hash bars. At one point, he said: ’Look, we know you have some drugs on you, we will go easy on you if you just give it up now.’ and I kept telling them, ‘no I don’t.’” The poor kid. I have often wondered what prompted Immigration to interrogate him: were they convinced that he was smuggling something? Did they do it just to torture a poor American kid, for a laugh?

Another great boat journey was in the Caribbean, and it also had some interesting immigration issues. It was from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and back. Leaving San Juan there was a long corridor out to board the boat, which had exit control, which is common in many parts of the world, though not common in North America where the country you are leaving wants to check you. I approached, and the US Homeland Security agent took my passport and looked at it quizzically. At the ferry terminal in San Juan, the agent probably spends his days stamping the same two passports over and over: US and Dominican. All of a sudden, here was a guy with a different one. It may well have been the first time he had interacted with a Canadian, since the ferry is mostly used by Dominicans living in Puerto Rico as a low cost means of transport home and back. He flipped through the pages of my passport, and then, as he got to the end, asked me, sounding surprised: “Sir, ‘where’ did you ‘enter’ the United States?” Then it hit me! Most people with foreign passports fly into an American airport, and thus have a US Homeland Security stamp. I had driven from my home in Montreal to the US border, crossed, then continued on to Florida, through a blazing heatwave, with no AC in my Dodge.

Then, after leaving my car at a friend’s workplace in Miami, I’d flown to San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is, of course, a domestic flight, as Puerto Rico is an ‘associated state’ of the United States. Because I had entered by land from Canada and I am a Canadian, there was no passport stamp. This is totally normal procedure, but it was causing trouble for this border agent who wanted to discern where I had entered his country. At that moment, I honestly could not remember the name of the US border station. (It is near Lacolle, Québec). So I told him: “What’s the name there, you drive south on Autoroute 15 to the border that goes into New York State, to Interstate 87, what’s it called . . . “ then it hit me: Champlain, New York. This seemed to assuage the agent, and I had a flash in my mind of him studying to become a US Homeland Security Agent watching a training video on all the points of entry into the US, and learning their names. He clearly had no idea about Quebec or New York State, they were just places on a map to him. In any case, he let me pass.

The voyage was mostly uneventful: Dominicans were dancing to Bachata (a Dominican form of music) in a main room where there was a bar. People seemed to be having a good time. When it got dark, I decided to go topside. As I put on a sweatshirt, the friend with whom I was travelling looked at me strangely. After we got outside, I realized why: even though it was dark and we were on the open sea, it must have been 30 degrees Celsius. I had only ever taken ferries in much colder parts of the world, where when you go out on deck at night you have to dress appropriately.

The return voyage also had some interesting immigration oddities. Leaving Santo Domingo, a corpulent Dominican border agent, doing exit control, looked at my passport. He smiled and looked at me, and asked in accented English: “Canadian? Where are you from in Canada?” “Montreal . . .” I replied. It occurred to me at that this border agent may never have seen a Canadian before, like the US Homeland Security agent in San Juan. “OK,” he continued, “please remind me where exactly is Quebec in Montreal? I haven’t looked at a map in a while.’”I paused at the question, since it was utterly illogical: Quebec is not in Montreal, Montreal is in Quebec. I immediately had a flash suspicion that he may have been testing me to see if I was who I said I was. It turns out I was probably right. I answered, carefully: “Umm, well, I’m not sure I understand the question, sir, Quebec is not in Montreal, Montreal is in Quebec. Quebec is the province, sir, like a US state.” At that, his face broke into a smile, and he said: “Have a great journey to Puerto Rico, señor.”

After docking in San Juan, we walked off the boat towards US customs and immigration. As with many points of entry into the United States, there were two lines, each with a sign: ‘US Citizens Only’ and ‘Non-US Citizens.’ As I approached and saw what was happening, I realized the signs might as well have read: ‘Puerto Ricans’ and ‘Dominicans.’ As the Puerto Ricans (US citizens) breezed by, practically waving their US passports, I, as a non-US citizen, got into the ‘Dominican’ line, and resigned myself to a long wait, which turned out to be three hours.

What struck me as almost surreal was that everyone around me was speaking only Spanish. Everyone was Hispanic: obviously the Dominicans, but also all of the US Homeland Security agents were all speaking Spanish, not English, which struck me as interesting when I looked at their uniforms and the huge Homeland Security logo on the wall behind the booth. Their uniforms were identical to those worn at any airport or when I cross the border into New York State – the wings of the Homeland Security insignia, and of course the insignia was in English. As well, they were just as cranky as any US border agents towards the non-US citizens. It’s almost as if they regarded the Dominicans even more negatively ‘because’ of the similarity: they too were Hispanic. At one point, one guard came out of the booth to literally yell at a few people in line not far in front of me, chastising entirely in Spanish, of course, for what seemed to be a relatively minor transgression. I might be reading too much into it psychologically, but many have observed the interesting phenomenon in social hierarchies that when people are similar in ethnic or linguistic background, but of different legal status, those at the top invariably want to make their advantage known. Either way, it was very interesting introduction to the importance of class in Latin America.

In East Asia, I took a ferry from Sokcho, South Korea to Zarubino, Russian Far East (part of a longer journey – Seoul, South Korea to Bordeaux, France – no airplanes, but that is a story for another article). That was a mostly uneventful journey, also an overnighter, and it got colder as we went north. I spent my time drinking and talking to some of the oddball people on the boat: one Russian couple who were very friendly, a Turkish guy who, for reasons entirely unclear to me, lived in the Russian Far East. I remember when we started talking about Russia and that it actually stretched all the way to Europe, he said: “Russia is half of world.”

Another ferry I took in that part of the world was from Busan, South Korea to Hiroshima, Japan, another overnight journey. I woke up early, watched the sun come up. It was a beautiful morning and the boat glided along the mostly deserted and forested low mountains of that part of Japan. That struck me as noteworthy, since Japan is thought to be so heavily populated: here is an archipelago of islands slightly smaller in size than California or Norway, with a population of 125 million people. Yet here was what appeared to be a great coastal forest that took us several hours to pass before arriving at the port of Hiroshima.

Another life changing event happened later when I discovered the beautiful city of Hiroshima in full cherry blossom season. I think I had expected to see much more evidence of the nuclear explosion. To be sure, there is some evidence: the building over which the bomb detonated is still intact, amazingly (the blast seems to have rained down all around it, destroying everything else) they have left it pretty much as is: windows broken and blasted debris fallen onto the grass. But the fenced in edifice is entirely intact; it is quite a beautiful 19th century building, designed by a Czech architect). But overall, it is a stunningly beautiful city that I never would have guessed had had such a calamity befall it in the previous century.

At the museum dedicated to the terrible event of the dropping of the nuclear bomb, I held back tears looking at all the horrific things that occurred. Though I also learned that at one point, not long after the disaster, a group of scientific experts went to the city to study the effects. After they concluded their research, they then declared that nothing would grow in that area for at least 75 years. As it happened, the ‘following’ spring (1946) flowers sprouted, and the natural environment repaired itself in very short order. This fact, as well as actually visiting that city, was life-changing to me: no matter how bad we think an all out nuclear exchange might be, the disastrous effects would mostly be to ‘us.’ Nature would just pick up the pieces and keep on evolving. It was a lesson in humility, and how as humans, we tend to overestimate our impact and importance.

Finally, there were my ferry experiences in my own country of Canada. On a roadtrip with my father to the former Viking settlement in L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, we had to take three ferries: one from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to Port-aux-Basques, Nfld, the next was from St Barbe, Nfld, to Blanc Sablon, Quebec where we continued by land into Labrador. The road from there ‘only’ goes to Labrador. From that point, the only communications back west to the rest of Quebec are by boat. At that time (Mid-2000s) the Trans-Labrador Highway was not completed, so after a long drive from Blanc Sablon we had to board another ferry from Cartwright, Labrador, through a very deep fjord to Happy Valley Goose Bay, Labrador. The first and last ferries were overnighters; the one to Blanc Sablon was relatively short, only about an hour or two.

On the boat to Newfoundland from Nova Scotia, topside, I spent some time talking to some kids who had travelled all across Canada from Alberta – their parents were there working on the oil patch (Alberta Tar Sands – petroleum extraction). There is a very long tradition of Newfoundlanders migrating to other parts of the country to work, yet they maintain strong ties to their homeland. I also remember a very festive atmosphere on the boat – traditional Newfoundland folk music and people laughing and drinking. It was somewhat similar to the Dominicans on the boat from Puerto Rico, and for the same reasons. For one thing, people are often happy to go home, so that would lead to a festive atmosphere. As well, both peoples are using boats as a lower cost form of transport to get home by people who migrate to find work. For an entire family, it actually may make sense economically to drive all the way across Canada and then take the ferry than it is to fly, especially if the destination is in a remote part of Newfoundland. On the short crossing to Blanc Sablon, we watched as a porpoise did pirouettes for about half the crossing alongside the boat. My father said at one point: “He’s having a great time. He’s showing off to us,” which may well have been the case, such animals are pretty intelligent and seem to socialize with us in different ways.

As I stated at the start, experience has taught me that travelling surface is the most rewarding means to encounter the world. These boat voyages shaped me, as have other long road and rail trips, which could be the subject of a future article. Also, there are a number of ferries I still dream about. One is across the Black Sea: there are several ferries from Varna, Bulgaria to the Ukraine and even to Georgia. There is also one from Odessa, Ukraine to Istanbul and several fascinating crossings in the culturally rich Mediterranean. Suffice to say, the world and all its variety is inexhaustible and there’s nothing more satisfying than discovering it.


By Jason McDonald:
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