I waved a fond farewell to Saskatoon after deciding to forego Azzedine's tempting offer to stay for the weekend, jumped aboard a Greyhound bus and continued east to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The bus station in Saskatoon was cavernous, populated by cold metallic seats and a chilling draft. Darkness came, but my bus did not: after facing a delay of some 90 minutes in Edmonton after the genius at the central depot gifted us a bus without a permit allowing travel into Saskatchewan, I now waited in Saskatoon for an hour, this time with no explanation - pitiful or otherwise - forthcoming. Fortunately, Azzedine had accompanied me all the way to the station and so we sat and enjoyed one final conversation of import. I am far from convinced how many of our fellow passengers-to-be were interested in our thoughtful discussion of love in some of its manifestations (particularly the sexual variety experienced between lovers), but we certainly had fun and it passed the time admirably.
The drive to Winnipeg was long and cramped, but after my frequent journeys throughout South America, I was fully prepared for the monotony, the stiffness of sitting still for too long and the strain of struggling to doze, fitfully at best, through the night. After two hours on the bus, we stopped along the main street in a nondescript, small prairie town, where the night was held at bay by the orange glow of streetlights and the equally unnatural florescent-white strip-lighting spilling forth from the façade of the sole shop still open for business - our business - so late into the night. The bakery and café clearly knew of our itinerary and sought to take advantage of our listlessness by offering all manner of edible distractions from the boredom of the bus. Evidently it was worth the while of the bakery owner to remain open so late in order to capitalize upon our custom: indeed, I joined the straggling line to shuffle forward, acquaint myself with a pastry cabinet of disappointingly lacklustre repute and plow ahead in ordering some-such dubious delicacy nonetheless. Carrying my prize back outside into the quiet night, I scoffed down a sugary apple turnover on a pavement littered with cigarette-butts, warm in the glow of those examples extant still between the lips of various members of our party. I walked further down the street, motivated by the twin yearnings to escape the smoky miasma hanging heavy upon the air and to encourage a stronger blood-flow through my idle legs. I turned a corner, much like any other corner, and found myself in the silvery, ethereal embrace of a full moon. Her benevolent gaze swept across a scene of darkened brick buildings, empty by-ways and a lifeless post office, the tender quiet of the night punctuated by the chirp of crickets. An idle thought crossed my mind, followed by a smile upon my lips: we may well all be lying in the gutter, but some of us are indeed looking at the stars.
The bus deposited me in Winnipeg in the mellow light of the late morning. My ride had consisted chiefly of being prevented from sleeping by a particularly unhappy toddler sat two rows forward from me, who saw absolutely no reason to be quiet, especially none that were provided by the hushed, steady pleading conjured by her desperate mother. I befriended the older man sat next to me and whose bulk had me confined to a particularly small space, my legs screaming for release until he departed early in the morning at the final stopping point before Winnipeg. By this time I had been earnestly informed, at great length, of the specific wing-span, horsepower and various other capabilities of a variety of war-planes, predominantly, though not restricted to, those active in the two world wars. Taking my bewildered, polite murmurings for enthusiastic encouragement, my acquaintance continued his foray further, into naval craft, military uniforms and possibly one or two other subjects that - alas - presently elude my memory. Speaking quietly and rapidly, I found myself unable to grasp the full extent of everything directed toward my sleep-deprived, lethargic state. Nevertheless, the conversation certainly helped to pass the time and whilst the subjects were of little interest, I was inspired by the gentleman's obvious pleasure in speaking of his passions. As I have frequent recourse to consider, the world would be a poor place indeed if we all of us were motivated by the same hobbies and pursuits: whilst in this case our pursuits did not match, our belief in our varying pursuits and joy in the pleasure derived therein were the same. This earnest fellow even left me with a gift in the form of a free pass to a small, independent cinema in Winnipeg, providing a possible form of entertainment, depending upon the competing distractions that Manitoba's capital might present to me.
I made my way to the local Hostelling International establishment, dumped my bags and set out to explore the city for the remainder of the afternoon and evening. A swift chat with the helpful lady behind the desk at the hostel confirmed a rough outline of a route through the city's down-town core and off I went, meandering through quiet side-streets and roaring through-fares, past sparse, quirky shops and huge, multi-level malls. Both this and the following day's exploration yielded to me a city that is quite clean, compact in its centre, with an extensive French quarter and a lovely situation upon the river. A particular space of activity and interest is offered in 'The Forks', an area naturally shaped at the confluence of two rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine, providing cafes, restaurants, outside patios, grassy hillocks and a thriving indoor farmers' market. I wandered aimlessly for a short while in this area, enjoying my own company and a crossword puzzle or two, before making my way to the renowned French quarter and later the independent cinema that first evening.
The French quarter is, in fact, rather small and lacking in much information: indeed, there is little there that I found to recommend at all. The site of early French frontier settlements and a French Catholic order of nuns and various missionaries, Saint-Boniface is now home to a small cultural museum and the impressive ruins of a large cathedral. I was defeated in my earnest search for a French café and not even the chap at the tourist information centre, locally born and raised, could provide much by way of sights to visit and things to do. I cut my losses, whilst enjoying a very pleasant walk, and made my way to the cinema and an evening showing of a documentary recalling the struggle of Black Americans, under the direction of Martin Luther King, to free themselves from the yolk of racist oppression in the deep south of the '60s. The film looked especially at the 'songs of freedom' that accompanied this movement, whilst incidentally drawing attention to the many despicable acts endured by the film's subjects and their often inspirational responses. It was a timely reminder to me of the all-too-recent hardships suffered by a group of people due only to the colour of their skin and a stark example of how far some societies have come and how much further yet the whole world must travel on its journey towards tolerance, understanding and acceptance. The recent religious controversies in that same great country of America - of the potential for a mosque at Ground Zero in New York, of the potential for the burning of the Koran in Florida - highlight just one example of how divided we remain, of how complex are some of the relationships of different faiths and nationalities, to this day.
I meditated at length upon some of these issues as I made my way back to the hostel, noticing only in a rather distracted sense how run-down were the streets and how anxious the atmosphere of the area in which I had previously sauntered, but now, hasted by perception, I marched. Of course, I found myself back at the hostel in swift time, with not so much as an unpleasant glance exchanged with anyone else populating the streets. I struck up a conversation with the lady behind the desk - the evening shift - and soon found myself deep in earnest discussion of Gaelic music and international travel. Initially arriving back at the hostel with the intention of an early night and a long sleep, I soon found myself instead chatting into the late hours with Tara, before joining her for a drink in the hostel bar once she had finished her shift. It transpired that Tara knew England very well and had previously journeyed very close to Shropshire: it was wonderful to talk to someone about the old country and to really connect with Tara as to what she had seen and where she had been. All of this took place against a backdrop of karaoke: the bar was hosting some fairly dubious impersonators of a plethora of musical stars and not-quite-stars, so our interesting chat contended with the interesting songs that had frequent occasion to impinge upon our table. Eventually, the night wearing on, my alertness waning, I called it a night and stumped off up the stairs to my warm bed, but I carried with me the friendly and wholly unexpected experience of a worthy discussion with a fellow student of the world and a smile upon my face.
Eager to push on to Ontario and the promise of a large family gathering in Sault-Ste-Marie that would include my aunt, uncle and cousins from back home, I decided to spend the next day further exploring Winnipeg before jumping aboard yet another Greyhound bus later that evening - one that would carry me all the way to the Sault and to the party. Thus I enjoyed a leisurely stroll through another section of the down-town core, calling in at the splendid legislative building that, quite wonderfully, was at the time displaying a copy of the Magna Carta, brought over all the way from the archives at Oxford University and heralding the occasion of the recent visit of the Queen to Winnipeg as part of her state visit, centered largely upon Toronto. This special treat put me in mind of my visit to the British Library in London late last year, before I made my way back over to the US and on up into Canada. During that trip, I had viewed three copies of the Magna Carta in a central exhibition there. To my considerable chagrin, I realized now that I had forgotten much of the information that I had read upon that occasion, such that I was unable to recall the nature of the manuscripts pertaining to their historical journey down to the present day. In fact, I had viewed one of the four original 1215 copies that still exist whilst I was in London, the other two copies being from later dates, and now, in Winnipeg, I saw one of the four copies owned by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, this example dated to 1217. Although many of the original terms of the 'great charter' have been revised or even repealed over the eight centuries since its first conception, three important clauses remain as part of the law of England and Wales, including the central right of any "freeman" to suffer punishment only through the 'law of the land'. The Magna Carta is an immensely important document, heralding the rise of the freedom of the individual from arbitrary, despotic authority and serving as a key pillar in the eventual foundation of constitutional law in the English-speaking world, including that of the United States. Now if only I could commit such knowledge to memory, rather than having to resort to Wikipedia whenever I have cause to detail such information…
My trip to the legislative building and to the important historical document held therein ended in much more sombre fashion. As I made to leave the room containing the Magna Carta, I struck up a conversation with the lady on guard duty at the door (in fact, she was simply clicking the number of visitors to walk through the door, whilst offering everyone a bright smile to boot). After some minutes spent musing together over the importance of the historical treasure in our midst and our mutual fascination for the subjects of history, personal rights and manuscript traditions (be honest; you wish that you too had been present to discuss such weighty matters), talk turned to my acquaintance. I discovered not only that my new friend wanted to become a fully-fledged police officer, but that one such motivation behind this intention lay in a frightful tragedy in her family. Her eldest son had been murdered some years previously whilst out one night in Winnipeg: his killers were sentenced to paltry jail-time, before emerging to continue their nefarious lives - one of the men is now back in court, accused of killing again. I learned of this from the victim's mother, who informed me with calm, pitiable sadness: she disregarded bitterness and anger, for this would only further the pain already inflicted by such vile monsters. I could only marvel at her strength, whilst feeling quite abject sorrow for both her family and for the state of affairs in general. I am an optimist by nature and by intention wherever possible: such instances remain relatively rare to my knowledge - indeed; this is the first such conversation that I have passed with anyone upon my trip. I was especially glad to see that this lady had refused to let her tormentors beat her and that she was channeling her energies in such a positive fashion. Nonetheless, this story struck me deeply and it was with a heavy heart that I departed the building and Winnipeg, set upon my carefree course east, on into Ontario.
Best wishes to all!