ADVENTURE TRAVEL REPORT #6*
FADGING AROUND THE ROCK
To many people in California, the "Rock" brings to mind Alcatraz island, site of the former federal prison located in the San Francisco Bay, and which was a key part of a Sean Connery movie of the same name. However, in much of Canada the Rock refers to another island, Newfoundland, described further below. John Cabot and other Englishmen arrived on Newfoundland over 500 years ago, speaking a version of English at least 100 years older than Shakespeare's. That dialect evolved, with a heavily nautical influence, and included until this century the verb to fadge, meaning to bustle about or to manage one's affairs. During the month of August, 1998, I hurried around, from place to place, in Newfoundland. I arrived at, and left by plane from, the capital city, St. John's, and spent a few days there at each end of my fadging around the Rock. St. John's is closer to London than to Chicago, and is considered the easternmost city in North America.
Newfoundland was the first English colony, and continued to be a colony until about 50 years ago. During World War II there were about 300,000 US military men stationed in Newfoundland, and after the war about 30,000 of those men returned to the States with Newfoundland war brides. In 1948 the citizens of Newfoundland were given the opportunity to vote to change their status as a colony, and either join with Canada as a province, or to seek some sort of affiliation with the US. The vote was close, and Newfoundland became confederated with Canada, although there are still those who believe it should have become a state or some other political entity of the US, such as a territory, or commonwealth. Newfoundland is roughly a rectangle, 300 miles east-west, and 200 miles north-south, with a long (150 miles) slender peninsula extending northeast from the northwest corner of the main land mass. The north tip of this peninsula is separated from mainland Canada by about 20 miles, and the southwest corner of Newfoundland is about 100 miles northeast of Nova Scotia. It has a population of about 500,000, with the heaviest concentration around St. John's.
Although I generally travel alone, on this adventure I was accompanied by a friend for most of the time. We share some of the same interests, and enjoyed getting to know the residents of the small fishing villages, many of whom were our hosts as we stayed in their homes and ate at their tables. We traveled together and did most of the same things, but for ease of communication I write mostly in the first person singular.
St. John's reminds me of a miniature San Francisco. It has a good harbor, with only a narrow opening to the sea (no bridge crosses that opening) that provides shelter for ocean going ships of all flags. There are rows and rows of brightly painted houses, "and they're all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same." Like San Francisco, the streets are dirty, there are many panhandlers, hookers, cheap bars, and shops selling trinkets to the tourists. Some distance away from downtown there is a large university campus and medical school. There are quiet residential neighborhoods and suburban shopping malls with Wal-mart and Sears. Political Correctness has not made much headway on the Rock. Girls are still girls well into middle age, men open and hold doors for women, and both teenagers and shop clerks speak deferentially and respectfully when called upon. But, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken are there, and TV carries US network programming. In St. John's I was able to access my email at one of about a dozen book stores. Away from this one city, however, Internet access was very limited.
One of the common observations about Newfoundland is that the towns there have unusual names. Many of these are obviously nautical, with the terms cove, beach, island, harbour, bay, point, port, shoal, and shore occurring in many of them. Besides those, however, there are other names that attract the visitor's attention, such as: Bareneed, Blackhead, Blow Me Down, Come By Chance, Dildo, Goobies, Heart's Content, Heart's Delight, Heart's Desire, Joe Batt's Arm, Leading Tickles, Little Heart's Ease, Open Hall, and Seldom. I ate in some fancy restaurants in St. John's, and in a variety of pubs, cafes, fast food outlets, and private homes. Newfoundland cuisine combines the best of fresh seafood with the worst of English cooking. Spicy food (except for one Indian restaurant) was not to be found, and sometimes neither salt nor pepper was provided on the table. Meat was uniformly cooked very, very well done. In short, the meals were adequate in amount, nutritious in content, and lacking visual or taste appeal. In some of the villages I prepared my own canned food purchased at the local stores, supplemented with items from my backpack. Because of my previous experience with the "Commonwealth Ice Tea Problem" (the difficulty of obtaining ice tea in a place where tea is only consumed hot), I immediately switched to coffee, soda, and beer for my beverages; I did learn that some places make ice tea using a syrup, and that others import bottled ice tea (Snapple?) from the US. Smoking is very common in Newfoundland, and the concept of non-smoking sections in restaurants is just being introduced. More common than not, the law or recommendation (I was unable to learn whether it is really a legal requirement, or just the health department's urging) is ignored, or one or two tables will be designated as non-smoking. (That is as effective as having a non-peeing section in a swimming pool.)
I had anticipated weather in the 50s and 60s, but instead found an unusually warm August, with common temperatures in the 70s and occasionally higher. There were several days during which it rained for a few minutes now and then, but generally not hard. There was one evening lightning storm in St. John's that cut off the electricity for a couple of hours. Long time residents told me that these summer lightning storms were very rare, coming along perhaps once every 20 years. With the decline of the fishing industry in recent years, many "Newfies" (as the natives are often called) have had to leave the Rock to seek employment in mainland Canada. Others have found jobs in the emerging off-shore oil industry. Tourism is growing slowly, impeded perhaps by an inept provincial tourism office and a long-standing expectation in the cities for government to solve problems, instead of looking to the marketplace for economic growth.
My interest in visiting Newfoundland grew out of reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel (The Shipping News, by Anne Proulx.) Most of the plot takes place in a small fishing village in Newfoundland, and I found the descriptions of life there very intriguing. Therefore, I spent most of my time away from the cities, and concentrated on visiting a number of small, isolated fishing villages. By studying maps and gathering information over the Internet from people in Newfoundland I determined that the south coast of the island was where I wanted to go. The west, north, and east coasts are well served by the Trans-Canada Highway, but there is no road along the south coast. Along the south coast there are coastal boats which call at the fishing villages several times a week. Each boat serves five or six villages, on almost a daily basis. However, the routes do not overlap, so there is no frequent service from one end of a boat's route to the nearest end of the adjacent boat's route. Instead, once a week there is an additional service that connects each of these small webs of service. This scheduling practice, and the difficulty in tracking down the sailing days and times for the various boats, make it very difficult for an outsider to plan a trip along the south coast. It appeared that most people in these fishing villages had never been beyond the next village or two, certainly not to any of the larger communities in Newfoundland. I learned that 30% of the people in one village are named Williams, in another village 30% of the people are named Durnford. Another village had 20% named Fudge, and in one village 70% of the people were named Lushman. While it was generally easy to communicate with these village people, English there has evolved to drop the "H" sound at the start of a word, and to add such a sound at the start of a word that begins with a vowel; thus, "ice house" becomes "hice ouse." Spoken sentences and phrases are punctuated every few words with the term "hey" so you might hear "Hi went to the store, hey, hand hi saw er usband, hey, who works hat the hice ouse, hey."
Before leaving on the trip I had obtained over the Internet some schedule information for the coastal boats. I knew that there was one bus that runs the length of the Trans-Canada Highway, but I had no idea whether I would end up hitchhiking between towns at the start and end of the south coast segment, or whether there was some sort of public transportation available. As it turned out, I did hitchhike, but never got a ride. Instead I was able to hire someone in a couple of places (once for a very reasonable fee, once I was substantially overcharged, based on the miles traveled) and find semi-scheduled taxi-vans that provided service between other locations.
The real heart and soul of the trip, the fadging part, came after climbing aboard the first coastal boat, and ended nearly three weeks later when I got off the last one. This amounted to seven boat trips, varying from one to three hours each in duration. The coastal boats, about 100 feet long, are diesel powered and quite seaworthy. They all have a small crane mounted somewhere, so that heavy cargo can be loaded, generally on pallets, and unloaded as needed. Passengers are allowed on the open decks, and there is a warm and dry passenger lounge available also. I usually rode outside, and the boat was rarely more than a few miles off shore. The crew was friendly, and I spent part of some rides in the wheelhouse, observing the radar and other navigation equipment, and talking with the Captain and/or Mate.
I spent at least one night in seven villages, and observed a few more. Sometimes I just watched from the boat, but on one occasion I went ashore and sought a place to stay and then rushed back to catch the boat just as it was leaving because there was "no room at the inn." In that village there was a hotel of sorts that puts up travelers, but a construction crew doing some repairs to the local power generation station had already booked up both rooms. Fortunately for me, the boat crew encountered some trouble unloading cargo, and was delayed in its departure by about 20 minutes. I returned to the boat just as the gangway was being hoisted aboard, and the crew gracefully lowered it for me and welcomed me back aboard. In another village, at the end of one boat's daily trip, (meaning that there was no way to move on to another village until the next day) I went door to door, asking if there was a place for me to sleep. Fortunately, the third house took me in, and I ended up staying there several days.
These villages have populations of 100 to 200 people, and have been declining in size for a number of years. The fishing industry has suffered substantial declines in recent years, bordering on devastation. Less than ten years ago the cod almost disappeared from the grand banks fishing areas, and fishermen from Newfoundland, as well as Spain, Portugal, and other countries have fallen on very hard times. The only economic reason for these villages was the catching, processing, and reshipment of the fish to the rest of the world. Everything needed is brought in by boat. Each day the boat arrives one can see the bulk groceries being unloaded for the one or two small stores in each village, the mail-order packages of clothes being distributed at the post office, and the occasional hot water heater or other appliance being carried from the boat to someone's home. Each village has a helicopter pad, and once every two or three weeks (weather permitting) a government medical team arrives by air. Generally this is an MD and a nurse, sometimes just a nurse. For a few hours at a time patients are seen, medications are dispensed, and advice is provided; then the "bird" is gone until next time. Unless an autopsy is ordered, when a death occurs the casket is built on the spot from available lumber, and the deceased is buried in the local cemetery. Each village has a church (Church of England, generally, or a close variant thereof) and, like the medical team, is visited every few weeks by a minister. Unlike the physicians, whose expenses are paid by the government, the ministers arrive and leave by coastal boat, and stay a day or two (in someone's home) depending on the boat schedules. There is a diesel power generating facility in each village, and a tall tower that provides an electronic link (telephone and television) to the outside world.
At one of the villages its annual festival was being held. This included dory races, a dance for kids, a dance for adults, live music, singing, and street dancing, a rubber duck race, and other community fundraising attractions. I ate hot dogs and hamburgers and drank soda pop and beer, and generally mixed with the natives and met their children and friends. Only by accident did I escape being "put in jail" where it would cost $5 to be bailed out. I wandered around all afternoon, observing and drinking and talking to people, and had returned to my lodgings briefly when the posse was out looking for me. By the time I emerged that part of the afternoon schedule was over, although the person who had paid another $5 to have me thrown in jail did not get his money back. A good time was had by all, and I learned the next morning that some of the dancing and music had continued all night, stopping just in time for some of the guests to leave on the 8 a.m. boat.
Practically no tourists visit these villages. A lot of the men have to leave to get jobs elsewhere, and return when they can to visit their families. Relatives visit, and those who have moved away sometimes return to see old friends and relatives. I was a real oddity - someone who came there for no other reason than to see the village, meet the people, live there briefly, and try to learn something about life there. In many ways this trip was similar to my several weeks traveling* on foot through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. There I would be the only outsider, I would arrive unexpectedly on foot carrying my own supplies, never sure of the reception I would receive but inevitably being welcomed warmly even though we shared no language in common. In Newfoundland of course we all spoke English; nevertheless there was some sense of being an explorer in a strange land.
The people I met in the fishing villages were all warm, welcoming, and friendly. They were very trusting, and quite curious about my life and interests. For me there was a spiritual mystery about the fishing villages. I had a sense that I had lived there long ago, or somewhere long ago where no one was more than a few hundred feet away and there was only irregular contact with the rest of the world. The echoes I heard were of people helping their neighbors in both good times and bad time, and of constant anxiety about the weather and the sea and the cycle of fish and game, sickness and good health, and other elements of the unknown.
After I completed my voyage of discovery westward along the south coast I took a modern bus (restroom, attendant who provided snacks and drinks regularly) for 14 hours (550 miles) back across the island, along the Trans-Canada Highway. That day showed me the green and rocky rolling terrain that makes up most of the interior of the Rock. I found I much preferred the rocky coasts and the boats darting in and out of small harbors to the smooth drone of the diesel bus across hundreds of miles of freeway. I arrived at least 10 years too late to observe any railroad operations. At one time there was an extensive narrow-gauge railroad that serviced the island along what is now the Trans-Canada Highway, with branch lines to many other communities. Although the last of that railroad was removed 10 years ago, I did visit three railroad museums and equipment displays of that earlier era.
I did only a modest amount of physical preparation for this trip, since I carried only about 20 pounds of gear, and planned generally to travel by motorized vehicles. I was prepared to live for a few days if necessary out of my backpack, with food, emergency supplies, and cold weather clothing. However, the weather was generally warmer than expected, food was easily available, and the transportation and lodging problems were easily resolved.
The approximate costs involved were as follows:
700 for international airfare**
170 for surface transportation
30 for coastal boats
900 for lodging
500 for food
100 for miscellaneous
C. W. Lee, October 15, 1998
(Revised December 21, 1998)
* Available by email for free upon request:
** Imputed cost, since frequent flyer miles were used for part of the journey.