At the beginning of October, I found myself feeling stressed. I needed to get away, and fast! So, I thought about where I'd like to go. Somewhere with friendly people, beautiful surroundings, nature trails, tourist attractions that don't cost a fortune, and a relaxing atmosphere. The answer was obvious: I had to visit
Two weeks later, I found myself on a plane to St. John's, Newfoundland. I felt quite nervous and a little sick as we took off, not from fear of flying but from worry about the state of air travel as of late. Fortunately, I was distracted by the two women sitting beside me, who had grown up in Newfoundland and were returning home for a visit. I hadn't even reached Newfoundland, and I was already making friends with the natives! They recommended some places for me to visit and reassured me that I would have a wonderful time.
I arrived at the tiniest airport I have ever seen. It has only 1 baggage carousel, located in the room used both as the entrance and exit. I was quickly whisked away by a friendly cab driver, who told me where to find the best traditional Newfie cuisine in the city. "City" is a strange word to use for St. John's. With a population of about 150 000 including the new outer portion of the city, it was actually rather small. The harbour itself is only 1.8 km long, and the city follows the length of the harbour, making it almost impossible to get lost. If you can see the water, you know where you are. If you can't see the water, walk downhill and you'll always be walking east. It was a relief to know that I would be able to find my way easily, as I am the world's worst navigator!
I stayed in a hostel on Gower Street, right in the middle of St. John's. The Backpacker Bunk & Bagel was a great choice for my accommodation, as it was cheap, clean, central, and had lots of friendly travelers staying there. Ben and Betty own the place and live upstairs. Josh, a journalist from New York, and David, an Englishman moving back to St. John's after several years away, were long-term residents, staying for a couple of months. They knew the area fairly well, so I kept my ears open to their ideas of what to do and where to go. I shared a room with the shorter term guests: PJ, a nurse from Belgium, and Ian, a local in limbo between apartments. These house mates made for great conversation and companions for a day excursion or evening out.
The highlights of my trip were plentiful. We had gorgeous weather, all except for 3 days. Of course, it was a foggy, rainy day I chose to take a 3-hour hike up Signal Hill to Cabot Tower. At the top, I looked like a drowned rat, and two wonderful ladies on the top of the tower took pity on me and offered me a ride down the hill. Joyce was from Waterloo, and was helping her friend, Theresa, move back to St. John's after a couple of years living in Ontario. They were kind enough to show me some of their favourite places in town, and we even stopped at the narrows (the entrance to the harbour) and they took some digital photos to e-mail home to my parents. I also spent my last full day with them, and we went out to Petty Harbour and saw Cape Spear in the sun.
Once, I rented a car for the day with David and PJ, and we drove 400 km that day! We visited places with magnificent scenery and strange names. We even visited the Dildo Quick Mart, and got told off by a native for taking pictures standing by the Dildo sign. We walked through the thick fog at Cape Spear, listening to the sounds of the sea and the foghorn, but not being able to see anything at all. We found the old World War 2 bunker there, and wandered through it. The foghorn echoed throughout its length, making an eerie moan. We kept ducking around corners and jumping out of the darkness to scare each other. We drove from town to town, looking for the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto. It took so long to find, we joked about how hard it is to find a virgin in Newfoundland! Eventually, we found her high on a hill overlooking Flatrock.
Because I had arrived in St. John's just as tourist season ended, there were no tours, whales, or puffins for me to see. I visited the city's museum and saw native animals that were stuffed and displayed in glass boxes. I visited the fluvarium, an educational centre built in the middle of a river, with windows in the basement so you could see what was happening underwater. I was also lucky enough to get in on a special Halloween ghost walk, and heard plenty of strange-but-true stories of the city. On this walk, I met another traveler, Amanda from Kamloops, who I ended up pub hopping with later that night and the following night. It always seemed that one adventure led to another, and everywhere I went I made a new friend.
Another day, I walked up to Lady's Lookout, which I dubbed the windiest place on earth. It is the highest point in St. John's, at 160 M above sea level. This is where women would stand and watch for their husbands to return from sea, as it's very close to shore. I flew a kite up there, and tourists that were driving down Signal Hill Road honked and waved at me as they passed. I didn't get arrested, so I guess they weren't trying to warn me about anything! When the kite came down after half an hour, I continued my hike down the north side of the hill, down to Quidi Vidi Village, a 16th century fishing village. I strayed from the path on the way and found myself standing in a field of wild blueberries, which I picked and ate as I hopped over and around rocks that protruded from the spongy ground.
I swear Newfoundland is covered in Astroturf! The earth was bouncy, due to many years of decaying plant matter covered by thick moss. I experienced this both in and outside the city. Outside the city, at Bay Bulls pond, I found another strange thing: the trees were softer than Ontario trees. Although they were densely packed, you could walk between the evergreens and not get a scratch on your skin or a tear in your clothes. The gap in the trees would close up behind me, and it was hard to tell anybody had even been there. I did a lot of wandering through bushes out there, as I was participating in an exercise the local Rovers put on for the Air Cadets.
Yes, you read right. There ARE Rovers in Newfoundland. I met two of them, Aaron and Joel, through a contact given to me by Newfoundland Scout Council. I was blown away by how Rovers offer service to the community. There are two Crews in St. John's, the guys I met are from 6th St. John's Crew. It consists of 38 Rovers, most of them over the age of 26, but all of them quite active. I took along some Ontario Rover magazines, and suggested they write an article about Newfoundland Rovering. Their response was, "What do we do that anyone would want to read about?" Add humility to their list of virtues.
Rather than worrying about program and traditions as practiced by many Crews elsewhere, these guys offered service in the form of a search and rescue team. Last year, the Crew purchased an emergency vehicle with $50 000 they had raised. The square white truck is similar in appearance to those cube-shaped fire trucks, emblazoned with "Rover Search & Rescue" on all sides and the names of their biggest sponsors. The truck is equipped with police-style flashing lights, huge searchlights, radio and surveillance equipment, and anything you could think of that would aid in the rescue of a missing person.
This was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. Yes, there are police and medical Venturers and Rovers in many places across the country, but their duties tend to be limited to aiding the professionals. The 6th St. John's Crew, it turns out, ARE the professionals. They are called out to search for missing persons, find evidence such as murder weapons, and have just been officially added to a call list for any hazardous material calls. Three times in the first week I was there, Crew members were called out to investigate anthrax scares. In addition to all this work, they do the usual security and events for Beaverees, Cuborees, etcetera.
Of course, these guys also know how to have fun. Although I am adamantly against the use of alcohol in Scouting, this Crew has found a way to incorporate it into their program, and I think it's ingenious. Every so often, the Rovers get together for a camping trip. In the morning, they send a couple of guys out into the forest with cases of beer. The bottles are hidden up in trees, under bushes and rocks, in streams, and once someone put one upside-down in a bog and stamped it down level with the ground, covering it with mud. Then everyone goes into the forest to practice evidence searches, and they pick up as many bottles as they can find. The bottles come back unopened and are counted, and the search isn't over until every bottle is recovered. In the evening, their reward is to destroy the evidence!
One of my favourite parts of the trip was the Halloween Mardi Gras. Newfies are VERY into Halloween, and enjoy decorating their houses for it more than most Ontarians ever decorate for Christmas! The Mardi Gras is held on George Street, a very, very short street (about a block long) that houses 36 pubs, all piled on top of each other. The street was closed off at both ends on Friday and Saturday night, and admission to the street was only $5. Once inside, you could wander around the street with drink(s) in hand, listening to the bands on the outdoor stage, and laughing at all the crazy costumes people were wearing. I tell you, that crowd was creative! I met Lady Godiva, Cookie Monster, 2 toilets, a guy in a kybo, Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, and Daphne dancing in the Mystery Machine, a lot of sperm, pimps, and drag queens, and a case of Molson Canadian beer. I befriended 3 girls when I first arrived, and they took me around and introduced me to their friends. Men were fascinated by my sparkly bumblebee wings. I was given an upside-down shooter by a hunky bartender dressed as a pirate. (Upside-down shooters are given by the recipient leaning backwards over the bar and having the bartender pour the drink down your throat.) I partied all night and thoroughly enjoyed myself, and crawled home to bed when I finally got tired enough to leave the soiree.
In case you were wondering, yes, I did get screeched in. I am officially an honourary Newfoundlander! I was disappointed the bar didn't have us kiss a live cod according to tradition, but I can now say I've kissed the ass of a puffin. (Okay, it was plastic, but I still did it!) I can also say I flew a kite in the windiest place on earth, trespassed *under* the campus of Memorial Univesity of Newfoundland, truly enjoyed screech and Newfie beer, got my first body piercing (you guess where!), accepted rides from total strangers, experienced real fog, and made a cell phone call from the site of reception of the first trans-atlantic radio signal.
Actually, it turns out I was born a Newfie, I just didn't know it until I went out there. I even speak fluent Newfanese when I've had a few shots of screech! With all the friends I made, and all the good it did me, I'm now thinking maybe I should move out there someday. We'll see!
Ali Gothard is a Pas Philos Rover in Newmarket, Ontario. Her web site can be found at http://www.oocities.com/armedwithjello