Summer Reading

Some fun news this month!

A memoir piece I wrote is out in the current issue of Prairie Fire. It’s about trapeze training. And about dead dads. High-flying adventure! And sadness.

Also out this month is my short story “Love Me Like a Python.” It appears in the summer issue of The Feathertale Review. This magazine is all humour all the time. Check it out. It’s got a monkey on the cover. You can also read the story here.


Looking for Gold at the Top of the World

I live by the ocean. Just a few feet above sea level. Sea-level living is all right, I guess — oxygen is easy to come by. But sometimes I wonder what life might be like up at higher elevations. I mean, way up. Like in the very highest city in the world.

That city, as it turns out, is La Rinconada, Peru. Here’s a google map of its location.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 6.31.18 PM

La Rinconada sits at about 5100m above sea level. To put that in perspective, consider that 5100m is higher than any peak in the Alps or the Rocky Mountains. It’s higher than any point in the contiguous United States. In all of Canada, there are less than a handful of mountains that reach higher into the sky than does this small Peruvian city. Up above the tree line, above the grass line, on top of a glacier is La Rinconada.

So what would compel anyone to migrate so far upward? Well. That’s easy. Gold! Good old-fashioned gold. Decades ago, La Rinconada popped up as a temporary camp for Andean gold miners. But as the price of gold soared in the 2000s, mining seemed like ever more profitable work. La Rinconada’s population swelled, increasing by more than 200% over 8 years. As of 2012, the population is about 50,000.

This National Geographic article reports that the mining companies in the region pay their employees by means of a very old and curious system called cachorreo. Under this system, miners work without pay for 30 days, and then on the 31st, in lieu of cash, they get to keep whatever ore they’re able to carry out of the mountain. Interesting exchange. Whatever traces of gold happen to exist in the heap of rocks you lug out are yours to keep! Sometimes you strike it rich. Other times you don’t. It’s lottery tickets instead of a paycheque.

Because of La Rinconada’s remote location, there hasn’t been much infrastructure development. No garbage dump. No plumbing. No police station. The city is often described as lawless, because there’s no one there to enforce any laws. But there is electricity — there has been since 2002. So that’s nice.

Here’s a picture of the city. And this multimedia essay has some more neat photographs and detailed description of life at the top of the world.

*photograph by Hildegard Willer

*photograph by Hildegard Willer

Research suggests that the vertical human survivability limit is about 6000m. Beyond that, sustained human survival just doesn’t work. And even in the 5000-6000m range, the scarcity of oxygen can lead to various illnesses and physiological deterioration that hasten death. Life is tough going in the highest city in the world. But on a bright sunny day, up on those peaks…well, there must be some pretty views.

The Very Long Story of Oliver Cromwell’s Head

Most human heads have a pretty simple story. They spend a few decades on top of a body and then, when death arrives, they’re buried or cremated or entombed along with the rest of the corpse. And that’s usually where things end for the average head. But that wasn’t where things ended for the head of Oliver Cromwell. Not even close.

A few years after the overthrow of the English monarchy in 1649, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. He remained as such until his death (of natural causes) in 1658, upon which he was embalmed and honoured with a very fancy funeral. How nice for him.

But without Cromwell running things, the monarchy was soon reestablished and Charles II was brought back from exile to assume his place on the throne. One of King Charles’ first orders of business was to get his hands on Cromwell’s dead body in order to properly desecrate it as punishment for treason. Charles had the body exhumed and dragged through the streets of London on its way to a public posthumous hanging. For several hours, Cromwell’s long-dead body dangled from the gallows, and when it was finally taken down, his head was severed and set atop a tall spike at Westminster. That head just stayed there for years, for decades. I imagine old Cromwell’s decrepit head looking down on the people of London, serving as a revolting reminder not to challenge the divinely-sanctioned authority of the king. Here’s an 18th century sketch of the head on a spike.

cromwell's head on spike

Sometime in the late 1680s, a big bellowing storm broke out in London and snapped the spike upon which Cromwell’s head was impaled. The story goes that a sentinel found the fallen head and took it home, where he squirrelled it away in his chimney. After the sentinel’s death in the early 1700s, his family sold the head to a collector of weird and macabre artifacts. Over the next century, the head passed through the hands of several different collectors and freak show entrepreneurs, and in 1812, it was sold one last time to Josiah Henry Wilkinson. While in the Wilkinson family’s possession, the head underwent various scientific tests to verify it as Cromwell’s. After all, the authenticity of a centuries-old head that’s just been kicking around the realm isn’t easily guaranteed. The most conclusive of these studies — performed in the 1930s — declared that the head was indeed that of the Lord Protector.

The head stayed with the Wilikinsons until 1960 when someone in the family thought, hey maybe we should put this thing to rest once and for all. It was finally buried — over 300 years after Cromwell’s death! — at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where Cromwell had once matriculated. There was, however, some concern that royalists still angry over Cromwell’s role in the abolishment of the monarchy would dig up the head and screw around with it. So the burial was performed as a very private ceremony, and wasn’t even announced until two years after the fact. The specific resting spot of Cromwell’s head has been left unmarked. What exists at Sidney Sussex College is just this plaque offering the vague assurance that the head is somewhere nearby.


Only a few people in the world know exactly where Cromwell’s head is now. And they’re not telling.


On the 38th Parallel

Heavily-armed military border? Tourist attraction? Why not both!

The Korean Demilitarized Zone runs right across the Korean peninsula, on or near the 38th parallel. It’s about 250 km long and 4 km wide, and right inside this zone is a little place called the Joint Security Area (or Truce Village). The village is a collection of just a few buildings, where diplomatic meetings between the two Koreas are held. It’s also where North and South Korean guards stand facing each other all day, staring each other down and awaiting the next invasion. It’s still a war zone. And you can go visit! Because weirdly, the Joint Security Area has become a popular-ish tourist attraction. Tourism companies organize visits to the village so that you can see the grounds, tour the buildings, get within an arm’s length of the guards. It draws about 100,000 tourists a year. Here’s a picture of South Korean guards in action.

*photograph by Henrik Ishihara Globaljuggle

*photograph by Henrik Ishihara Globaljuggle

Here’s a closer shot of a South Korean soldier, guarding the door to North Korea.


*photograph by severin.stalder

The South Korean guards seem pretty severe and intimidating — with round helmets and black sunglasses. According to this article in National Geographic, the guards are required to be at least 5’8 and have a black belt in martial arts. No little guys defending the border.

Which brings to mind the claim I once read that North Koreans, because of years of famine and deprivation, are on average almost half a foot shorter than their South Korean counterparts. I think I first read this in a Christopher Hitchens column, so I’ve always taken it with a grain of salt. But this Wall Street Journal article confirms at least some disparity in height — though less than Hitchens claimed. Here’s a picture of the North Korean guards.

*photograph from Wikipedia Commons

*photograph from Wikipedia Commons

Behind the guard in the centre, you can see the physical border between the two Koreas. Talk about a clear line of demarcation.

There are some really neat videos on YouTube of visits to the JSA. Here and here are links to a couple. Although the South Korean guards seem to maintain a stern stance and expression in all the videos, the North Koreans can sometimes be seen waving at cameras and smiling. The North Koreans have also been accused of making rude gestures, spitting, and generally taunting the stoic South Koreans. Much like the hilarious French taunters from Monty Python and The Holy Grail. And just as absurd. The National Geographic article reports that the North Koreans even once chopped inches off the legs of the South Koreans’ chairs in advance of a diplomatic meeting so that the South Koreans would look “small and silly.”

As for the rest of the DMZ? Well, because human inhabitation in the region has been pretty much nonexistent in the last half-century, the zone has become an amazing wildlife reserve. Endangered and near-extinct species have found sanctuary right between the warring Koreas. There’s a good metaphor there.

Ghost Town in Paradise

Varosha in Northern Cyprus was once the most popular tourist spot in Cyprus. It had, and still has, all the makings of a Mediterranean paradise. Blue waters, soft beaches, warm sunshine. And for the past four decades, it’s had the added bonus of no crowds. Because it’s a ghost town. There’s no one there at all. No one but a few Turkish guards.

In 1974, a Greek-backed coup in Cyprus triggered a response from Turkey. The response was an invasion of the island from the North. As Turkish forces advanced down toward Varosha, the local residents feared a mass slaughter. So they fled the city, fully expecting to return to their homes when tensions simmered down. Instead, the Turkish forces threw up a fence around Varosha and stood guard, with orders to shoot anyone who tried to enter the area. Tensions eventually did simmer, but the fence and the guards remained. And that’s pretty much how things have been for decades. No one has been allowed to live there since.

Exiled residents tell stories about the haste with which they left their hometown. How they left pots on the stove and pans in the oven. Mementos were left in boxes, tucked away in attics or basements or wherever else, presumably still there somewhere, untouched. Lightbulbs were left on, and stayed on for years until finally they just burned out. It’s like the whole city has been weirdly petrified. Except it continues its slow decay. This New York Times article and this BBC article both describe the eerie, frozen-in-time quality of Varosha now. The mannequins wearing bell-bottoms in shop windows, the toys left scattered in hallways, the clothes still hanging in closets. There’s a car dealership stocked with 1974 model cars — a whole fleet of unused cars just sitting around gathering dust.

The taking of photographs of Varosha isn’t technically allowed, not even from outside the fence, so pictures are rare. But this website has some interesting ones. And here are a couple of shots of the empty beachfront buildings on the empty beaches.

*photograph by Ballantyne 108

*photograph by Ballantyne 108

*photograph by Julienbzh35

*photograph by Julienbzh35

Personally, I like the idea of vacationing in a ghost town. Strolling down deserted streets, investigating vacant buildings, watching nature reassert itself. A sort of post-Rapture tourism. And apart from having to duck the guards and dodge their bullets, it seems like it’d be a fine time. Quiet. Solitary. Good for contemplation. But if company is your thing — more company than that of a guard who’s threatening to kill you — there’s a fancy five-star hotel just beside the fenced-off area. You can sunbathe and make chitchat and enjoy a beer and not get shot at, but still gawk at this vacated paradise.

Here’s a google map of just how close the luxury Arkin Palm Beach Hotel is to the crumbling ghost town of Varosha. The dotted red line marks the perimeter of the no-go zone. It’s like 100m away.

palm beach hotel

Who’s Your Favourite Soviet Naval Officer?

Only one good answer to this question. Vasili Arkhipov. Here he is.


Doesn’t he look level-headed? Da, he does.

On October 27, 1962, nuclear tensions were running pretty high — height of the Cuban missile crisis. Vasili Arkhipov was the second-in-command on the Soviet submarine B-59, which was, at the time, hanging out in international waters near Cuba. The B-59 hadn’t heard from Moscow in a few days, and it had dropped out of range of radio signals, so the crew didn’t really know what was what with the world.

When American ships spotted the B-59 in the Caribbean, they started dropping practice depth charges on it. This wasn’t meant to be a deadly assault, just an attempt to get the Soviet sub to surface and identify itself. But the crew aboard the B-59 didn’t know that these were just warning shots. All they knew was that they were being attacked. Captain Valentin Savitsky thought that Yikes, this was it! World War III had started! Like any good officer comfortable enough with the idea of mutually-assured destruction, he decided to launch a nuclear torpedo. Here’s a picture of the sub.


Now apparently, to launch a nuclear torpedo from a Soviet submarine, you need the unanimous consent of three officers: the captain; the second-in-command; and the political officer. Arkhipov was the only dissenting voice among the three. An argument took place, but our champion Arkhipov finally persuaded the other two not to launch the torpedo that would have triggered a nuclear war and maybe ended the world.

I like to imagine that argument. How long did it take Arkhipov to persuade them? And what were the pressure points? In this Guardian article, Edward Wilson argues that it was Arkhipov’s reputation for courage and competence — earned a year earlier when he exposed himself to insane levels of radiation while trying to save a submarine — that vested in him a particular authority. But would a man’s reputation, however impressive, really be enough to change your mind about whether or not to launch a nuclear torpedo? Who knows.

This story is much like the story of Dr. Strangelove. But less hilarious. Which is too bad. But with a happier ending! Which is nice. I saw Dr. Strangelove on a plane about a year ago. It’s still really really funny.


On an Island Far, Far Away

Want to get away from it all? Yeah, me too. And I know just the place.The most remote uninhabited island on Earth — Bouvet Island. It’s in the South Atlantic. Here’s a google map of its location.


Notice that the scale in the bottom left corner is 500 km. That’s a  lot of kilometres of pure surrounding ocean. In fact, Bouvet Island is over 2000 kms from South Africa and a little under 2000 kms from Antarctica, the nearest land. If you’re on Bouvet island, the closest person to you is most likely on the Space Station. Unless some southern sailors happen to be passing by. But that’s unlikely. It’s not exactly on any shipping routes. Here’s a wider shot.


Bouvet Island is part of Norway. It has been since a Norwegian crew landed on it in 1927. Their claim to the land was originally disputed by the British (who else?), the latter claiming the sailor George Norris made contact with the island almost a century earlier. But that guy was maybe crazy and also reported landing on a second island nearby, which later turned out to be a phantom island. Also, his coordinates were off. So the island went to Norway. Here are some Norwegians staking their claim.


Although most of Bouvet Island is glacier-covered, there’s still plenty of room for all your typical southern wildlife. You’ve got your penguins, your seals, your albatross and petrel. Not much going on in the way of vegetation, though. Some algae, some fungi.

The island isn’t technically in the Southern Ocean, but it’s pretty close. Sort of. So it reminds me of this recent episode of Ideas, “The Godforsaken Sea,” all about the Southern Ocean. The episode features this quote: “Below 40 south there is no law; below 50 there is no God.” Bouvet Island lies at 54° south —  far enough south to escape God’s reach, but still not far enough south to be in the Southern Ocean proper, which is generally regarded to begin at the 60th parallel (though there’s no perfect agreement as to this boundary).

Here’s a water colour painting of the island by F. Winter. The painting is from the late 19th century. A German expedition, led by Carl Chun, spotted the island in 1898. But that ship was unable to land at the time. I like this painting. I find it both calming and intimidating. Like death.