6.22.2008

bonavista to twillingate

[Saturday, June 21]

Saturday morning, and most of the day, was chilly and drizzly. Everyone here talks about the weather all the time. Even taking into account the usual small-talk, this seems unusual. I imagine when you live in a place where the weather is constantly changing, and where a warm, sunny day is a minor event, and then throw in the influence of a maritime culture, where weather could mean life or death, it makes sense.

And everyone has been complaining about the weather, too. It hasn't seemed so bad to me - we've usually been comfortable with a light jacket, and only once had to really bundle up - but when you consider that it's late June, perhaps they've got a point. It was only when fellow guests at the B&B complained that it bothered me. Hell, you don't come to Newfoundland for the weather. And if sunny weather is that important to you, then wait for July and put up with the crowds. Grumble, grumble.

This mild irritation is the perfect lead-in to our breakfast on Saturday. On Friday morning we ate with our hosts, but this morning the table is full - us, a couple from BC, the couple from northern Ontario we met the night before and Teddy-Bear Guy.

TBG is declaiming loudly, holding court, making speechlets. He has a bad case of look-at-me-ism. Plus several disgusting personal habits that make it very difficult to look at him at all. Plus I haven't had my first cup of coffee. I can tell Allan is quietly gritting his teeth.

When TBG finally leaves - he had finished his breakfast a long time ago, and is just hanging around to make speeches - the atmosphere in my head improves considerably. But even making travel small-talk with the other couples (who are perfectly nice people) reminds me why we usually don't prefer B&Bs.

We settle up our ridiculously tiny bill, and thank Albert and Florence profusely. They see us off with directions and well-wishes as if we are family.

The plan is to drive down the Bonavista Peninsula to Clarenville, back to the Trans-Canada Highway to Gander, then turn off towards Twillingate. But first we want to stop at Port Union. Port Union represents a fascinating piece of history, and our stop there leads to one of our funniest travel moments, ever.

Port Union bills itself as Canada's only union-made town. It was founded in 1916 by William Ford Coaker, who began Canada's first fisherman's union, the Fisherman's Protective Union. Through Coaker's FPU, fishers and their families challenged the "merchant system," which was the maritime equivalent of sharecropping. The merchant - the big boss - owned everything. Fishers paid for all their essentials - tools, flour, anything - out of their catch and lived on credit. The system was designed to keep fishers in a constant state of poverty and debt.

Coaker encouraged community self-sufficiency, and unionism, and under his methods fisher communities lifted themselves out of poverty and began to thrive. The union motto was "To each his own".

The FPU formed a political party, and in 1912 ran on a platform of radical social change. In 1913, the FPU held eight seats in Newfoundland's House of Assembly. The FPU morphed into several different unions, but to this day, most fishers and fish-processing workers in Newfoundland are unionized.

It's a fascinating piece of labour - and of course, Newfoundland and Canadian - history. As its home is just down the road from Bonavista, we wanted to stop by. In Port Union, there's a small museum about Coaker, who was knighted in 1923, along with his home and grave. There's also an exhibit about the Fisherman's Advocate, the union newspaper that was an integral part of its organizing. Sounds perfect for us, eh? That's what we thought.

We purchased tickets, and the women hanging about introduced us to our guide. We'll call him Unintentionally Hilarious Tour Guide.

Now, Allan and I have taken guided tours or ranger talks on our travels together for more than 20 years, and I've been in this habit all my life, first from travel with my parents, then then on my own. Almost without exception, guides are very knowledgeable about their subject, offering context that illuminates whatever we're seeing, whether that is natural wonders or political history.

UHTG was in his 20s, and most likely intellectually disabled. Please know that we were nothing but polite and friendly to him. I'm certain no one else in Port Union knew what we were thinking.

As soon as UHTG started his talk, I knew something was wrong. He told a short story, probably memorized by rote, that was disjointed and out of context. The opening sentence: "We don't know what the workers earned, but after the strike, they made fifty cents an hour." What workers? What strike? What year is his? Then the Fisherman's Protective Union is formed. "On November 2, they held their first meeting." I asked, "Excuse me, what year is that?" He didn't know, but thought about it for a minute and decided on 1908. This was strange, but not yet ridiculous.

A few minutes later, UHTG told a story about the fishermen's opposition to the war, and how Coaker voted for the war anyway. (I haven't verified that.) The story had jumped around a lot, and we didn't know what year we were in, or even what war he was referring to. Allan asked, "Which war?" UHTG drew a blank. Allan said politely, "Was it World War I, or World War II?" UHTG: "Either World War I or World War II. One of those. World War I would have come first, then World War II would have been later." From the exhibit, we later saw that Coaker died in 1938. Oh boy. That's when I decided not to ask any more questions, so as not to possibly embarrass him.

We followed UHTG around, trying to read the printed material as he chattered. The tour included a walk around the old printing machinery used to create The Advocate, guided by a former pressman. He had a very strong accent, spoke very quickly, and although I have no doubt he was an excellent printer, he possessed no skill as a tour guide. But at least it was a break from UHTG.

After the press room, things really deteriorated. Upstairs in the woodworking area, UHTG read the labels on the display cases. "Here we have some saws, here are some nails, here are some hooks. This is a really big hook." He walked quickly through the room, reading the signs to us. "This table used to be over here, and this one was over here. We had to switch them around. It was really hard to do, the tables are very heavy!"

At this point, I feel a fit of giggles coming on, and I'm afraid that if I start to laugh, I will be completely out of control. (I'm laughing as I type this!) Allan and I had exchanged looks behind TG's back a few times, but now I have to stop looking at Allan altogether. I start biting my lip, and occasionally coughing into my hand when laughter threatens to become audible.

We follow UHTG outside, for a stroll past Sir Coaker's house, small bungalows were workers lived, Coaker's grave, and a walk near the bay, from which you can see the boarded-up fish processing plant and the small, active plant where shrimp is now processed. (The Port Union fish-processing plant was the huge employer of our lovely guide in Bonavista, along with everyone else in the area.)

Outside, UHTG seems to lose all memory of what he's supposed to be doing. It's like we're walking around with some guy we met. I am struggling not to burst out in an uncontrollable laughing fit. It's drizzly, so I use that as an excuse to pull the hood of my windbreaker tightly around my head, and I hang back a few steps, so I can't hear anything. It's the only way.

When I do catch some of the "tour", UHTG is pointing out the overgrown grass - "They really should do something about this" - or the poor condition of the town's sad-looking playground. By the time we're back at the bay, he's pointing to pieces of trash and musing on what happens when you feed seagulls.

On our way back to the gift shop, we pass the small Coaker museum without a word, like it's not even there!

Finally we return. I hope I don't need to say that we had no intentions of telling anyone what just happened. I think the rest of the staff doesn't know what goes on on these tours. Allan disagrees, and is convinced that they must know, and not realize how inappropriate it is. Either way is strange, and kind of sad. This is not an official historic site that gets funding from Parks Canada. The entrance fee is steep, but they're never going to attract more visitors like this.

At the gift shop, I want to get something with the FPU logo, a big red U surrounding a fish. There is nothing, not a pin or a keychain or a postcard. There's not even a pamphlet about the FPU, just stuffed puffins and other generic Newfoundland gifts. When I asked about something with the logo on it, a gift-shop employee said other people have asked about it, and she agrees that they ought to sell those.

We talked a little about the union - her husband was a member for 30 years - and how it changed the lives of so many people. She says, "We did well around here. People owned their own homes, and could even save a bit of money. Who ever heard of a fisherman able to save money? The union was everything to us."

Finally we said goodbye, thanking UHTG, shaking his hand, and managing to drive away before we exploded. The whole way down the Bonavista Peninsula, we couldn't stop talking about, alternating between hilarity and incredulity. We didn't learn very much, but as Allan said, we got plenty of material.

We drove to Clarenville, where my cell phone worked, and called a few places to stay in Twillingate. Our first priority was internet access. Being offline for a short time can be refreshing, but being cut off from our dogwalker, my blog and the Red Sox for days was stressful! A few B&Bs were fully booked, but after some phone calls, we found a room at a larger motel. And after our irritating breakfast that morning, the anonymity and privacy of a motel seems like a plus.

Back on the Trans-Canada, we drive on steep hills, past rock outcroppings and scrubby pine forests. The highway cuts through Terra Nova National Park. Every so often the trees give way to a view of a lake, pond, bay or inlet. There is water everywhere.

We exit the highway at Gander, where, surprisingly, I again don't have cell service, so good job we booked our room from Clarenville. The road out to Twillingate is rutted and slow, but the scenery is amazing. There are dozens of ponds and quiet bays, small white houses perched on the water's edge, a more gentle landscape then we had seen before. The road eventually branches out into causeways, as the end of the peninsula is an archipelago of large and small islands.

Towards Twillingate, the land becomes rugged again, with jagged cliffs and spectacular views. Twillingate calls itself the iceberg capital of Newfoundland. There are tour boat companies out here that are supposed to know where all the icebergs and whales have been spotted. As we approach Twillingate, the sun comes out, and suddenly it's summer again.

We find our hotel, and hooray, we're back online! We managed to pull ourselves away from our computers long enough to eat amazing seafood chowder and admire the sun-drenched scenery, then back inside to write more.

Random note: my feet don't hurt! I have had zero foot pain. It was this trip that pushed me to see a podiatrist and get orthotics, and it's really paying off. There's no way I could be doing this otherwise.

16 comments:

Amy said...

LOL! "These are hooks, and this is a really big hook." That one just sent me laughing out loud. You must have more self-control than I do to muffle all giggles.

redsock said...

L has barely touched on our hapless tour guide (because she had tuned out). Honestly, I wish I had recorded it somehow.

The WWI/II confusion was funny (since the guy died before WWII began), but as L said once we got outside, the hilarity went off the charts.

Without knowing it, he seemed to be alternately praising Coaker as a man who cared about the workers and insulting him as an ego-maniac who cared only about power. He could have been somewhere in the middle, of course, and perhaps was, but we have no idea what he actually was like.

Walking along a boardwalk, UHTG was pointing out pieces of trash that had washed up on shore as if they were actual exhibits.

He told us about the time he fed a couple of seagulls and then more seagulls came by (as seagulls will do), hoping for food.

"Sometimes the seagulls drop their lunch", he told me, in a nerdy voice that was something like a Newfoundland version of Comic Book Guy. I actually thought at that point he was trying to make a joke about bird poop, but then he showed me some bits of crab shells and legs on the walkway.

Another example: "See that cement square. There are four of them in this little area. I don't know what they were for."

Since L was trying to stay out of voice range, I felt bad and thought I should walk closer and ask a few questions. I asked if there were a lot of docks along the shore when the plant was going strong. He thought I said "ducks" -- which may have been how I sounded to him -- and talked about the wildlife some more.

When I said, "No, docks, where the ships came in", he basically pointed to the remaining docks that I could see and said they existed.

Wouldn't it be normal for a site, when they hire tour guides, to have a mock tour, as sort of a test for the guides, so they can see if the man or woman can do the job? If this was done, couldn't they see that this guy was more cut out to clean the gift shop than answer questions about the site?

We talked about it for miles in the car. I had thought the guy was not retarded, but simply an a older teenager who was a dim bulb. When L said she thought he was in his mid-20s. Hmmmmmm.....

redsock said...

Amy: I read Laura your comment and she is giggling Orsillo-like yet again. A lot!

And the big hook wasn't even a hook!!! I was expecting a fish hook or an anchor, but it was more of a pulley winch.

redsock said...

Standing behind a cash register:

"This is really heavy. I know because I tried to lift it. When we moved it here, and we plugged it in, it caught on fire! ... And it only goes up to 99 dollars, not 100. It goes from 90, to 80, to 70, all the way down to one dollar."

And the register was not an old one from the 1910s. It was a bulky tan one from (I'd say) the mid-70s.

(Oh god, L is red-faced and out of control .... :>) )

...

I almost want to go back for more!!!!!!!!!!!!

redsock said...

Imagine a guide at Fenway park talking at length about the hot dog wrappers and straws strewn about, and then telling you that Ted Williams fought in one of the World Wars -- I or II -- "I'm not sure which"!

(And you knowing TSW was born in 1918!)

impudent strumpet said...

I greatly admire your self-restraint! I wouldn't have been able to resist getting in a couple of digs, despite best intentions.

World War I would have come first, then World War II would have been later

"Really? And I always thought it was the other way around. I'll have to google when I get home."

Re: "fishers", is that word commonly used in Nfld.? We were trying to work this out at work just the other day. Someone found it once as a gender-neutral option, but it didn't seem to be very commonly used and we weren't sure if it would make the reader stop and go huh. (Although it does fit in very smoothly in your story here, and I only noticed it at all because we'd been debating it at work).

Amy said...

Just hilarious! The more you tell, the more I laugh! He sounds like something out of Seinfeld. Too bizarre to be true, but it is.

Amy said...

The Seinfeld parallel just came to me: George pretending to be a marine biologist to impress a woman.

I think this kid was really just a volunteer who they sent out because they HAVE no tour guides.

Amy said...

(BTW, I am watching the game as I post. Almost like a game thread, but without talking about the game. Since I don't know when you are "watching" the game, I don't want to talk about the game itself.)

L-girl said...

I greatly admire your self-restraint! I wouldn't have been able to resist getting in a couple of digs, despite best intentions.

I kept telling myself, this is a young man with a disability, and you are a visitor from the mainland. You must not embarrass him, you must not embarrass him. I was trying to make it like a sacred responsibility.

But as I said, later the only thing I could do was pull my hood on and keep a few paces back.

Several times today I started laughing just thinking about it!!!

Amy, good call on the Seinfeld connection. And thanks for not mentioning anything about the game. It's 8:20 pm here, we're in for the night, and Allan is going to watch the archived game while I blog.

L-girl said...

Re: "fishers", is that word commonly used in Nfld.? We were trying to work this out at work just the other day. Someone found it once as a gender-neutral option, but it didn't seem to be very commonly used and we weren't sure if it would make the reader stop and go huh. (Although it does fit in very smoothly in your story here, and I only noticed it at all because we'd been debating it at work).

I'm glad it worked!

I haven't heard any regular people use it, but I haven't heard them say "fishermen" either. They're more likely to say something like, "When the men come in with the boats" or "While the men were out at sea, the women were doing such and such."

I saw "fisher" in museum/interpretative material, and also heard it in the "Taking Stock" film. I liked it as both neutral and accurate.

Nancy said...

Your tour was hilarious. And I'm glad you got the orthotics. They are definitely worth the money.

Hope your puppies and bunnies stay 'separate and equal(ly healthy)

L-girl said...

separate and equal(ly healthy)

:>)

I like that! So far, so good - thanks.

Jen said...

The gift shop employee, later at the pub:

...so dere I was righ' tinkin' "Jaysus, 'ow the 'ell will I gets [UFTG] offa me 'ands?" cuz you knows yerself how he can drive yez righ' round the bend barmy, an I can't decide if he's an angishore like 'is da, or just slower than molasses goin' up 'ill righ' b'y? When up walks dees 2 Hontarians, righ' and I knows dere gonna bug me abouts the puffins righ'? So I tinks "I know I'll send 'em out wi' [UFTG] for a TOR see? ... they even paid me! For a tor wi' [UFTG]! Jaysus, I've been laughin' to fits abo' it all the day... He was pointin' out the rubbish for pity's sake! Jaysus, what a carper...

L-girl said...

ROFL!!

Jen, I think you have a point there. It was all a big joke on the mainlanders, how to get "de by" off their hands. And we're the dummies who paid for the privilege!

redsock said...

Jen: As we drove away and were deconstructing the event, I wondered (since it seemed so hard to accept what had happened at face value) if perhaps he was a performance artist conducting an Andy Kaufman-esque experiement, pushing his "dumb act" as far as he could, seeing when we'd laugh in his face or ask if he was insane/retarded. Maybe he had cameras set up around the site and we're going to appear on some Canadian reality show!