The shuttle bus lurches around a corner and we cling to the metal railing while exclaiming over the catci. “That a saguaro,” I point out to my daughters, “and there’s a bougainvillea!” We crane our necks, taking in as much possible during our first minutes on the ground in Arizona. Everything is so rocky and colourful, and so different than the winterscape we left behind.
A few days later, on our way to hike in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, we eye the scenery with the same awe. “We’ll have to lather on sunscreen as soon as we step out of the van,” I murmur nervously to no one in particular. “Did you all bring your hats?” Stan asks, looking in the rear-view mirror. We pull into the trail-head parking lot and brace ourselves before opening the doors of our air-conditioned vehicle. “It looks so… so…” Susanna hesitates for a bit, looking at the prickly vegetation surrounding us, “so hot!” I wonder if this is how our friends from Iran, Venezuela or Ethiopia feel when we invite them to go ice-fishing, skiing or sailing with us in Canada. Do they, too, steel themselves in the parking lot for what lies ahead?
Later that night, we sit outside my parents’ trailer while the sun silhouettes palm-trees in their 55-plus park. We’re talking about which bio-region would’ve been easier on the first nations, settlers and explorers: central Canada or the South-West. “I’d take forest and streams any day of the week, ” I say, even if it means mosquitoes and brutal winters. My brother-in-law, Derek, makes a wise comment, “You need to build a certain kind of skill-set for wherever you live.
Days later I’m reminded of that skill-set when we pass caravans of farm labourers on the highway to San Deigo. The first bus is packed and pulls a trailer with three faded porta-potties. I stare at the bus windows to get a glimpse of the people inside. Are these workers undocumented, underpaid or ill-treated? I’m shamefully curious. Who are the people who harvest the lettuce that makes it all the way to my fridge in mid-winter? Old men, young women and teenagers are dozing with their heads tilted back. Many look Latino, are wearing straw hats and some even have scarves around their necks and chins to shield themselves from the sun. As our own vehicle climbs out of the irrigated desert and into the rocky coastal range, I imagine what their lives must be like. I wonder at the skill-set these agricultural soldiers have honed for survival.
Our second day in San Diego we head to the touristy enclave of La Jolla. I’ve rented 2 kayks and envision my parents and family exploring caves, taking pictures of sea-lions and paddling in a calm cove. I am terribly mistaken. As soon as my parents see the waves crashing on shore they decide to use their kayak as a bench on the sand. I don’t blame them–the ocean looks wild. Nothing like I’d imagined while reserving the kayaks over the phone, watching snow fall gently outside my kitchen window. Stan and Belén stare at the froth for a few minutes, get in the kayak and then beat their way through the surf. The rest of us squint our eyes and try to keep track of them.
While Vivi chases seagulls and squishes wet sand between her fingers I start worrying. Why are they going so far out! What could happen if they tip? The swells are so big, will Belén ever make it back on the boat? Will the kayak get swept away? What about sharks? I’m not sure if it’s because I’m sick with the flu, or simply scared of the ocean, that everything suddenly seems ominous.
I interrupt a kayak guide who is admiring a freshly-caught fish, which is about the size of my eleven-year-old daughter. Under normal circumstances I might ask a few questions, congratulate the fisherman, or at least wait until they’re finished talking. But these are not normal circumstances. My husband and child are being tossed around in the open sea, likely about to drown or be eaten by sharks. I can already imagine identifying their bodies and returning to Canada as a widow.
“What happens if someone who rents a kayak gets in trouble?” I ask urgently. The guide, with curly brown hair is laughing and doesn’t hear me. I try again. “My husband is out there with my daughter and they’re not with a tour group or anything, will they be okay?” What I want to know is when I should call 911 or a helicopter or some kind of SWAT team. He grins, asks a few questions and assures me that everything will be fine, even though it’s “a gnarly day out there”. He looks about 25. I think I must look about 75, with my huge sun-hat and worried eyes. “Thanks,” I say and try to smile. I also add something lame about being used to canoeing in flat-water.
An hour later Belén and Stan return, shooting through the surf onto the shore. They are whole, unscathed and breathing. Just as I predicted to my parents who have been worrying with me, both Stan and Belén are shocked I was concerned at all. It is imminently clear I have no skill-set for ocean-side living.
Ten days after we step into the desert we land back in Regina. While Stan runs to get the car we pull our suitcases off the baggage carousel and root through our bags, pulling out jackets and toques. We wait and wait and wait for Stan to pick us up. It is now almost 2 am and all the other travelers are long gone. I ask a security guard eating a tuna sandwich if the airport stays open all night. And does he have any idea how far away the economy parking lot is? He radios another guard and asks about a man in a tee-shirt (Stan) who might be looking for his van. No news. Finally he radios again and we hear he is on his way. When he finally pulls up to the airport’s sliding doors I ask him what happened. Did he fall? Fight off an attacker? How come he took so long?
“The car was completely iced in. Must’ve melted while we were away and water froze around the wheels. It was totally stuck. Had to chip it out and push.” He closes the trunk and we shiver in our leather seats, waiting for the heater to warm the air.
A few days later I see Vivian’s plush baby-blanket on the floor of the van. It’s dirty and torn with a gaping hole in its middle. I hold it up and Vivi wails, “My blanket!”
“Oh” says Stan casually, “I put it under the wheels for some traction when I was trying to get out of the airport parking lot. Sorry Vivi.” She whimpers a little more, but I don’t feel too sympathetic. It’s not her favourite blankie, and besides, it served as an important tool in Stan’s skill-set for dealing with Saskatchewan.
What kind of skill-set do you need to live where you do? What do you wish you could tell newcomers about the skill-set they need to flourish? Have you ever been in a place where you didn’t possess the required skill-set? Please share!