After a fantastic time in Alberta, catching up with my great friends Kelsey and Aja, it was time to head east and on into the unknown: I had never previously strayed any further east in Canada than mid-Alberta and so the excitement built as I sat with Kelsey in the Greyhound departure area, awaiting a bus that would sweep me from Edmonton east to Saskatoon. The provincial capital of Saskatchewan would mark the beginning of my third province and the commencement of the prairie-lands.
The Canadian prairies are vast indeed. Stretching from mid-Alberta (roughly the Edmonton area) in the west, they expand over two provincial boundaries, encompassing the whole of Saskatchewan and Manitoba provinces before coming to a halt, finally, at the border into Ontario and the introduction to the Canadian lakes region. The bus ride from Edmonton took an entire afternoon and saw me exiting onto the streets of Saskatoon as night was falling. As I embarked upon the forty-five minute walk from the station to the home of my couch-surfing host, I became aware of the visual treat of a famous prairies sunset. Nowhere else have I been where the great bowl of sky above seems quite so vast, the strange flatness of the surroundings offering minimum distraction from the majesty of the heavens. Consequently, the sunsets in that part of the world are stunning indeed and on that, my first night in Saskatoon and in the prairies, the sky burnedsensational shades of yellow, then orange, then finally fiery red. The sky was lit up, radiant: Saskatoon basked in its glow and I with it.
My first day in Saskatoon was spend in energetic exploration, as I took to the streets once more, freed of my luggage on this occasion and with light pervading, rather than failing. I visited the university, strolled through its verdant campus grounds and observed some of its accomplished interiors. As is often the case, the Classics faculty was housed in a quite splendid building, but all was quiet in the tranquility of summer, students and members alike enjoying varying degrees of holidays, research, excavation and paid employment no doubt. I twas during my jaunt through the sizeable and beautiful grounds of the university that I became aware of the terminal health of my dear camera. Yes, the faithful companion who had journeyed with me across the Americas, documenting many of my experiences along the way, had finally snapped its last photograph: its sensor had caved to the pressure of eight years of sporadic photographing, according to the kind gentleman at the Kodak store that I visited later that afternoon on my way through the down-town area. Better, apparently, to invest in a new camera than to spend a near equal amount of money fixing my old, much outdated model. I decided that I needed some time to think, to grieve and - to be quite honest - to indulge in indolent disregard of my predicament.
It was while lodging in Saskatoon that a new facet of the couch-surfing universe revealed itself to me. I had delayed requesting a place to stay until rather late, as I found it a struggle - surprise, surprise - to leave Edmonton and so was unaware of my exact timeline of travel. One would-be host contacted me to apologize that she could not host me during my stay, but added that if I found myself at a loose end, then I should join her at the riverside for an evening of swing-dancing. The dance was unknown to me, but I had little trouble romantically imagining a style not dissimilar to that of a ceilidh (please, do not ask me why or even how I made this connection in my mind) and jumped at the opportunity to engage in something quite outside my comfort-zone, whilst simultaneously discovering something about the culture of Saskatoon.
I arrived at the location identified by my couch-surfing correspondant quite ahead of time and was able to restfully appreciate the excellent communal space set out below my park-bench vantage-point. Saskatoon is currently undergoing quite significant redevelopment and much of this is focused upon the utilization of the space flanking the banks of the Saskatchewan River flowing through the city`s centre. This particular area had been cleaned up and gifted a large, open space, an interactive playground detailing something of the region`s geographical information, a cafe and washroom facilities and an expansive circle of wooden decking, all with spectacular views out onto the river and across to the opposite shore. The decking was shaded by great boughs and a gentle breeze whistled through the scene. Warmly embraced in quiet, peaceful contemplation of the setting, others began to arrive, speakers were hooked up to a laptop and (approximately) 1930s-era American band music commenced to pipe out across the decking and up to my natural gantry: the time had arrived for me to abuse unsuspecting dance-partners with shuffling footwork, lamentable timing and awkward rhythm, all accompanied by a healthy slice of earnest, apologetic and utterly hapless Englishness.
In reality, the situation was not quite as I so self-deprecatingly describe: it was worse. It was worse because I forgot to include, amongst the other failings, my horrendous memory for such dance routines that make up a full, swinging number. Not only did my beleaguered partners (who changed every couple of minutes, with understandable enthusiasm) have to patiently, stoically endure being trodden on, bumblingly handed and occasionally dragged, but they also had to contend with my frequently losing my place in the dance. I suppose that it was, all-in-all, quite an alarming experience for all concerned. Quite miraculously, despite such reminiscence suggesting nothing short of an ordeal, I actually thoroughly enjoyed myself and, absolutely remarkably, so too did the majority of my partners, happily informing me that they themselves had struggled initially and that I should not expect miracles, especially with so little previous dance experience (my memory of traumatizing the tango in Buenos Aires did little to bolster my flagging confidence). In fact, the open hospitality of the Saskatoon dancing folk left me feeling quite breathless: Sarah was a bubbly, bright character who, upon discovering that I am traveller and had little with which to occupy myself the following day, promptly offered her services as chauffeur and general guide, a suggestion that I was very happy to accept. Carrie and Brett were further delightful characters and even gave me a ride back to my couch-surfing base at the end of a wonderful, whimsical, moonlit night of entertainment (a term that I use loosely, of course).
The following day dawned bright and power rays had me seeking shade as I awaited the arrival of Sarah on the road outside my lodgings that morning. I must confess that I was a little shocked, thrilled even, to see Sarah drive into view: this was no comedic prank played on the foreigner then, but an earnest undertaking. We spent some time exploring Broadway, the city`s main street and a social hub for local residents. We meandered down a gorgeous, tree-lined through-fare, breakfasted upon doughnut fritters and window-shopped (yes, I window-shopped - at this point, my comfort-zone boundaries seem stretched beyond all recognition). We concluded with a visit to one such store, where we tried on an assortment of fashionable second-hand garments, before posing for photographs (using Sarah`s camera), taken by the obliging shop assistant.
The afternoon stretched on and, facing an imminent parting, Sarah and I came up with a dazzling effort in spontaneity. I would accompany Sarah to her home-town, just beyond the city-limits, where she would complete a voluntary shift in her local, community cafe, whilst I would sample the cafe`s delightful desserts and work away at some much-needed blogging upon Sarah`s laptop. The town, Warmin, was wonderfully quaint and the cafe perfect for a light bite, a sturdy cup of cheer and a relaxing conversation with friends or, as in my case, completion of some pressing literary offering. I must confess, the burden of blogging (as indeed my writing felt that afternoon) was eased considerably by the accompaniment of a delicious home-made scone, crammed with white chocolate chunks and local Saskatoon berries (reminiscent of blackcurrants in appearance and slightly in taste as well). I had just finished my tasty motivational tool (oh yes) when I found myself being introduced to Sarah`s mother, who had stopped by for a quick chat and to meet the Englishman. Would I like to join the family for dinner later that evening? It would seem that prairies hospitality truly knowns no bounds: I accepted with excitement and humility.
Sarah and I enjoyed a lovely meal of spaghetti Bolognese with her folks and later a pleasant stroll through her affable little town. Boasting a mere 6,000 inhabitants, Warmin struck me as little more than a tiny village when compared to some towns back home (and here I do imagine Telford) and yet, by Canadian demographic law, Warmin can actually be considered a city, as it contains more than 5,000 people! Such a title seems strange to locals, Sarah assured me, because the neighbouring city holds 9,000 people and so is more deserving of the status - indeed! The `city` was wonderful indeed, with wide, green spaces, cute, wooden dwellings, dust-roads and children playing in the streets. After some time in the relative metropolitan centres of Saskatoon and Edmonton, it was delightful to indulge in a little small-town idyll for an evening.
Sarah drove me back to Saskatoon, our journey painted against a backdrop of another gorgeous sunset. I had plans to meet yet another couch-surfing host in a cool cafe on Broadway. After a little persuasion Sarah decided to join us for a drink, which eventually morphed into a full late-night discussion of travel, population growth, economic slump, religious and humanistic belief-systems and personal philosophies. Azzedine is a particularly interesting, questioning and conscientious young man of just nineteen (indeed, I could not quite process his youthful age in the face of such majestic reasoning and consummate respectfulness for each subject). Sarah and I were both captivated, swept up in our friend`s charismatic force and I enjoyed one of the finest conversations so far during a trip that has yielded at many turns sumptuous and rich dialogue in a range of settings. Azzedine is soon to embark upon his own physical journey and I am convinced that he will see and do great things and enjoy a splendid tapestry of experiences.
My final full day in Saskatoon, I rendezvoused with Sarah, Carrie and Brett for an evening at the local Fringe festival, commencing that evening on Broadway. We gathered for performances of fire-eating, juggling, impromptu live music and various other street-acts. The atmosphere was friendly, welcoming and entertaining: I had a brilliant time observing some very talented individuals, including one artist who created the most amazing, futuristic paintings using only spray-cans (and a face-mask I am relieved to add). The crowds were small yet bunched and attentive; it was fabulous to wander aimlessly up and down the short street, everything contained within three blocks, and allow my attention to drift to wherever seemed popular, interesting or just plain curious.
The following, final day, I lazed around for the most part, catching up on yet more blogging, before meeting Azzedine once more and accepting his generous offer of a lift to the Greyhound station and a bus that would carry me on through Saskatchewan and on into Manitoba, delivering me to Winnipeg some twenty hours or so later, in the early evening of the following day. We had time enough for a coffee, some poutine and an offer from Azzedine to spend the ensuing weekend with him before heading on to Winnipeg a couple of days later. Alas, I decided to decline, my mind already considering the possibilities of a new place, a new scene and hastened decisively by the rapidly-approaching family gathering in Sault-Ste-Marie, Ontario. That, however, is another blog, for another day.
Best wishes to all!