Originally published on MSN Sympatico
My first draft for this love letter began: “Shall I compare thee to a hot summer day? Fireworks erupt and the BBQ steams a sweet sticky scent into the air, both driving my neighbour’s dogs insane.” It went on to praise the 10 provinces and 3 territories, the virtues and industriousness of our people (IMAX, Insulin, Basketball), the extraordinary natural beauty, coast to coast. I had a few lines about our money, our artists, our national temperament, our national sport (watching our teams crash out of the Stanley Cup).
Said the letter: We mine over 60 minerals inside the world's 9th largest economy, but have a healthy respect for nature and enjoy the outdoors. Unless it's freezing the carrot off a snowman, in which case, we are known to enjoy underground heated shopping malls.
But I knew something was missing, and if you’ll indulge me a few moments more, I’d like to share some vignettes.
A 23 year-old Brazilian girl is having a BBQ. She works two jobs, one as a nanny for a family in the suburbs, and they are throwing a celebration because she has just received her permanent residency status. From a poor background, offering little opportunity for education or much else, she has worked her way into Canada at great personal sacrifice, and promises to accomplish much. There is a speech, and she tears up, and in her face I see a tough past and promising future. This is Canada.
Auschwitz, Poland, 1942. Condemned prisoners arrive by cattle car carrying the few belongings they haven’t sold for their survival. Immediately, their bags and battered suitcases are confiscated. Family heirlooms, wedding rings, and anything of value stripped away, replaced with a striped uniform and numbered tattoo. The goods are transported to a large warehouse on site, which fills up so quickly, another is needed. To the prisoners, these warehouses represent a wealth of material treasure, cherished memories, and most importantly, hope. They give the warehouses a nickname. They call them Canada.
In May 2004, I was sworn in as a Canadian citizen. The day before, a car had run me down at a Vancouver section, breaking my knee, and setting me on the path to travel journalism. I popped a small pill of morphine before I settled in the front row of the courthouse, my leg heavily strapped up. Missing the ceremony would delay the process, and after five years, I had waited enough. My older brother immigrated to Vancouver without once having stepped foot in Canada. I followed him 18 months later in the same manner. What made me leave everything I know behind on the other side of the world (South Africa is literally the opposite side of the globe) to start fresh? Very simply, the answer is Canada.
For all the negative news you might read in the newspapers, for all the economic challenges we face, the rising crime, reports of corruption, environmental disaster, it pays to put things in perspective. I moved here, along with so many others, because Canada offers a better life. By my reasoning and research, the best life I could hope to find. I didn’t need UN Reports and various research indexes to tell me that the quality of life in Canada is amongst the best in the world. It would take me a year before I could find a good job, longer still reestablish the kind of friendships I had lost. Through it all, I felt safe, I felt welcomed, and I felt that anything is possible, because the opportunity exists. Ten years later, I have a successful career, a TV show no less, that pays me to travel the world, my dream job. This is Canada.
My first love letter lightheartedly identified modern icons of Canada, from yoga-stretching hippies on the West Coast to foot-thumping lobster chompers in the Maritimes. We have wolves and cougars and bears and moose, but our national animal is the beaver: industrious, capable, a bucktooth smile for teamwork. We embrace the outdoors, the big prairie sky, the Albertan Rockies, the Quebecois’ providing tenacious unity in diversity. Sports, science, comedians, writers – for a relatively small nation, we have had a relatively large impact on the world, even if sometimes we feel they don’t exactly notice.
My second love letter is a lot more personal. I love that I can drive on a highway for days, meeting friendly people along the way, chewing on eye candy throughout. I love that it’s safe, that politicians are called to task, that our much criticized medical system helps me every time I’m sick. I love conversations with immigrant taxi drivers and nurses and dock workers and computer scientists who work hard and have made great sacrifices to be here. I love drinking tap water. I love the efficiency of our transport system, the police, the phones, the internet. I love that our Canadian teams are always the underdog. I love our beer and wine and fresh seafood and healthy beef. You can criticize everything I love, and sure there’s room for improvement. But compared to just about any other country on the planet, things could not get any better. And that, in the end, is Canada.
Happy Canada Day.
You’ll find Doctor Fish in spas from Croatia to Singapore, Belgium to China, on the streets of Bangkok and Siem Reap. My own consultation was in Seoul, where several dozen little fish were gleefully dining on my feet. Literally, chomping down with gusto, hold the mayo, extra toe jam please. They’re called Doctor Fish, also known as “nibble” or “kangal” fish, although the scientific community calls them garra rufa. Originating in Turkey, these bottom feeders are sought the world over by sufferers of psoriasis, an icky skin condition. Reason being: they just love to to eat flaky dead skin cells, rejuvenating your feet in the process to leave them soft and shiny.
Unlike piranhas, which have trouble distinguishing disposable edibles from your essential body parts, Dr. Fish have evolved to only nibble what you don’t need, attracted to dead skin, calluses, corns, and other delightful things you like to share with your neighbours in the local public pool. Although they don’t heal skin conditions, they are known to relieve the symptoms. Lord knows I’ve eaten enough fish in my time, so it was time to give something back to a species that has given me so much.
Like many spas in Seoul, the Sea La La Spa and Waterpark is a haven of relaxation. There’s various types of saunas, dozens of jet pools, steam baths, pools, Jacuzzis, meditation rooms, even coffin-sized private caverns where you can slide inside and doze off free of distraction (unless you choose the caverns with the TV sets and DVD players). The Dr Fish pool is located at the back of the giant indoor pool plaza, and costs about $10 for a 15-minute soak. There are two ponds, one containing the garra rufa, and another containing a larger species of fish called Chin Chin. Although the spa claims both eat your dead skin, I subsequently learn that Chin Chin (or kissing fish) are impostors, nibbling away without actually giving any of the medicinal benefits. In fact, some experts reckon they could actually spread diseases instead, which makes sense considering they spend their days kissing complete strangers. I approach the garra rufa pond, sit down, dip my feet in the water, and wait for the feast.
After an initial tasting by one bold fish (who must have been an important food critic), dozens proceed to munch away, selecting the heel, toe or underside the way we might select a cut of steak. The sensation is one third pins and needles, one third tickle, and one third “holy crap, I’m being eaten alive by tiny hungry fish.” It’s important to remain still, after all, we don’t like it when our dinner plate moves around either. When your time is up, your feet are left refreshed, radiant, free of excess dead skin, corns, and other itchy conditions you might find in a locker room.
The Chin Chin in the other pool may not be real Dr Fish, but this species of tilapia actually have teeth, which means their bite is worse than their, em, blow? They approach my feet like bandits, and this time I practically hit the roof as they attack. I haven’t squirmed this much since I mistakenly told a Bolivian political leader his wife looked like goat cheese (it was a slight mispronunciation).
Turkey passed a law protecting garra rufa from “commercial exploitation” over fears of they’d be exploited, but it’s not as simple as filling your bath tub with the fish to start a spa. Conditions, ranging from water temperature to diet, have to be ideal before the garra rafa will want to feed on your scales. I once knew a real Dr Fish, and I was mentally spiralling out of control at the prospect of a dermatologist named Dr Fish treating his patients with Dr Fish.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.