2018 Annual Update: 10 highlights from an otherwise dreary year

Last year I didn’t get around to doing my annual update for family and friends; this year I’ll keep it much briefer than past updates. I’ll share 10 highlights from 2018, and would love to hear what your major highlights were too!

In 2018 I was in Canada, El Salvador, Canada, Netherlands, Canada, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Canada, USA, Canada, Bangladesh, Japan, Canada, USA, Canada, DR Congo, Canada. I spent a whopping 204 days in Canada this year. The last time I spent more time in Canada was twelve years ago, in 2006, when I was still a UBC student with a reasonably full head of hair!

In date order:

  1. January 2018: El Salvador
  2. In January I had the good fortune of working in El Salvador for four weeks. It was my first time ever in Latin America, and I loved it. I got to take Spanish lessons most evenings for an hour after work, eat pupusas, and hike not one but TWO volcanoes on my weekends off.






  3. February 2018: HEAT security training in Amersfoort, Netherlands
  4. In February, I was sent to the Netherlands for a intense security training. It was really well-run, with live simulations and excellent facilitators. I can’t really say much about what happened, but I give top marks to the Centre for Safety and Development for running it so well. After the training, I spent one night in a hotel in which my room door was hidden in a bookshelf!

    Learning to apply a makeshift tourniquet


  5. April 2018: Portland bachelor weekend for Jason
  6. In April, I took a short break from my work in Bangladesh to fly home to Canada for Jason’s bachelor weekend trip down to Portland. It was loads of fun, including brunch at a restaurant with swings for chairs.


  7. May 2018: Tokyo layover
  8. At the end of my assignment in Bangladesh in mid-May, I flew home via Tokyo. I had a 10-hour layover so I made the trek into the city and had a great time, including amazing coffee with these guys at Koffee Mameya, and no coffee but heaps of cuteness at the hedgehog cafe.




  9. July 2018: Hozoulina’s wedding
  10. In early July, Jason and Julia tied the knot at Van Dusen Botanical Gardens on a perfect day. I had a blast being one of the groomsmen during such a fun summer day and evening of adventure with such fine folks.


  11. July/August 2018: Oceanfront paradise
  12. A few days after the wedding, a few of us had our names officially put on title of the dilapidated cabin on Bowen Island that we had purchased a while earlier. There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but the first little bits of tidying inside and underneath have been a lot of fun. I also got to use the living room for a while to continue working on that rowboat that’s been in progress for a few years now. It’s getting close!




  13. July 2018: Ontario / Québec summer adventures
  14. I spent the second half of July in Ontario with Harpreet. We made weekend trips to Montreal and Prince Edward County (where our hosts Rick and Kerstin were the nicest!), went kayaking among the 1000 Islands from Gananoque a couple of times, and ziplined through the trees at Skywood Eco Adventure in Mallorytown.




  15. September 2018: Mudgirls cob plastering workshop
  16. In early September, I went up to the Sunshine Coast for a cob plastering workshop run by the Mudgirls. I had gone to a cob building workshop on the same site a year earlier, and I can’t wait for the next chance to go to one of their workshops. These people are really something special, and building and plastering with cob is SO. MUCH. FUN.

  17. December 2018: Kingston winter recovery
  18. After 2.5 months working on the latest Ebola outbreak in DR Congo, I landed in early December in Toronto and spent the next two and a half weeks in Kingston with Harpreet. It was the perfect place to relax and regain some balance after such a prolonged period of sleep deprivation and work overload.

    Taking a walk near the frozen waters

  19. December 2018: Christmas in BC
  20. I flew back to BC on December 20th, in time for Christmas on Bowen with my family. A big windstorm on the 20th did a bunch of damage to the family boathouse so we spent a lot of time getting a temporary fix in place. We also played games at the house, worked on an enormous crossword, finished a cupcakes puzzle in one night, and ate a lot of delicious comfort food. A few days after Christmas we made pizzas and played games with our little cousins for an afternoon then went over to Aunty Pat’s place for Yorkshire puddings from an old recipe she’s been using for years.



Here’s hoping 2019 has more highlights than 2018 did! I fly out of Vancouver today, bound once more for DR Congo to work some more on the ongoing Ebola outbreak there, but this time as a consultant for the World Health Organization.

Layover guide: Tokyo with under 10 hours between Narita flights

TL;DR
This post is a little lengthy. I think the level of detail will be helpful to many, but if you’re in a hurry you can click here to download the bullet points. There are also a number of important disclaimers at the end of this post; please read them and don’t blame me if you miss a flight by copying me.

Background
Every time I have a layover long enough to leave an airport and see the local town, I make an effort to do so, whether it’s just long enough to get a coffee in Amsterdam and turn right back around, or a few hours to explore Frankfurt, visit friends in Paris or London, check out Istanbul, or admire the windows of Bad Wimpfen. If I can leave an airport to have some fun, I do it.

So when I ended up with a flight home from Bangladesh via Tokyo Narita airport in Japan, with 9 hours and 45 minutes between landing and taking off, the first thing I did was start googling how to get out of the airport and make the most of my day. I’d never been to Japan before, knew next to nothing about it, but so many friends had told me amazing things that I couldn’t pass up this short chance to get a little glimpse of it.

Initially, I thought I would only have time to visit Narita, the town in which the airport is actually located, well over 70km away from Tokyo, because this is the advice that most commonly comes up on TripAdvisor and other online fora. Everyone seems to say that Tokyo is so far away, it’s not worth the trip if you’re not staying longer. However, on a whim I decided to see if a quick trip to Tokyo might actually be possible within my short timeframe. This was a rare time that Google was less helpful than usual, and I found myself only semi-confident that I would succeed, but I did it anyways. Now, having been to Tokyo and enjoyed it immensely, I felt it could be helpful if I share what I learned so the next person searching online will be able to make a more informed decision.

Getting out of Tokyo Narita Airport and storing luggage for the day
On 18 May 2018, the Thai Airways Airbus A330 descended to Tokyo Narita Airport through thick, dark, low clouds that nearly touched the runway in the cool morning hours. The landing gear hit the tarmac at 06:20 and the plane arrived at the gate at 06:34. Google Maps had told me that I could catch a 07:26 train into Tokyo, or another one about an hour later. With an afternoon flight boarding at 16:05, I had already decided that I should be back at the airport to clear customs and security one hour beforehand, so about 15:00 (3pm for those of you who don’t like 24-hour time). Narita terminal 1 is an old and relatively small airport (with bizarrely low ceilings), so I knew my walk from security to any international departure gate wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

The plan I made before arriving was to leave my carry-on bag at a left luggage storage facility in the international departures area before going through immigration – I figured this would allow me to get back into the airport with just my pocket contents, possibly shortening the security screening and allowing me to walk much faster through the airport. The internet told me that a QL Liner left luggage facility exists in international departures, open from 06:30. As I followed the signs from the gate to customs it became clear that I would have to go out of my way to get to the departures area, and my number one focus was to hustle through the airport as fast as I could to catch the 07:26 train, so I cancelled that plan and hoped I wouldn’t have to lug my backpack all around Tokyo.

I needn’t have worried.

At that early hour, even though I was at the back of the plane, it took only a few minutes on a series of moving sidewalks to reach the immigration area. I handed over my passport and arrival information forms. The immigration officer asked no questions; she just smiled and had a quick look at my passport. A machine with a very cheerfully colourful screen instructed me to place both index fingers on a pair of fingerprint scanners, then the camera took a quick photo of my face. The officer stuck a little visa sticker in my passport and that was that. You can read more details on the arrivals procedure and how to complete the forms here: https://myjapantips.com/2014/11/04/so-youve-landed-in-japan-customs-and-immigration/

I then walked down a short escalator to the baggage carousels. With no luggage to collect, I did a u-turn to head toward the exit. At the exit, I had to show my passport to a customs officer standing by one of those steel surfaces for bag searches; he took the customs declaration form and asked where I had travelled from (Bangladesh), why I had come to Japan (for a short tourist visit), how long I would stay (until the same afternoon), and several times whether I had any luggage to collect. His English wasn’t perfect so I’m not sure if he was asking whether I had checked luggage to collect at the carrousel (no) or if I had checked luggage that was still somewhere in the airport (yes). I just said my backpack was the only bag I was taking with me, which was the truth, and he returned my passport and said goodbye.

It must’ve been literally only about ten steps from this officer’s station to the Terminal 1 landside arrivals area where people wait to welcome their arriving family, friends, and clients. Off to my left I could see the words visitor service centre in huge letters.

Visitor Service Centre, Tokyo Narita International Airport

Walking in that direction, there were bus service counters along the right-hand side of the hall and on the left-hand side a left luggage service called Green Port Agency Company Ltd. The gentleman working there was so incredibly happy to see me, it really started my day off well! He was very quick to accept my backpack and give me a claim tag to collect my bag in the afternoon and wish me well on my way.

Green Port Agency Company Ltd left luggage / baggage storage in Tokyo Narita Airport
Claim ticket for left luggage; you pay in cash when you pick up your bag

Getting cash at Tokyo Narita Airport
Online searches had led me to believe that shops and the travel centre in Narita airport would all be closed until 08:30, but everything I needed was either automated or open already by 07:00. I guess I was reading the wrong internet.

From the left luggage office, I walked to the visitor service centre area just a few steps away. There I found a bunch of ATMs, including one from 7-11 (which all good trivia players know originated in Japan) which clearly indicated it was compatible with foreign cards with the Plus logo, Visa, MasterCard, American Express, UCB, etc. I took out a bunch of cash which, much to my surprise, was disbursed in 10,000 yen notes (10,000 JPY was about 90 USD / 120 CAD / 78 EUR at the time).

7-11 ATM for foreign debit / bank cards and credit cards at Tokyo Narita Airport

Buying a local data SIM at Tokyo Narita Airport to use phone data in Tokyo
These large denomination notes turned out to be a problem, because my next step was to buy a data SIM card from a vending machine so I could use data to navigate Tokyo and make the most of my time. The SIM vending machines are located just after the ATMs, as you walk toward the airport trains. The U-Mobile machine selling the cheaper SIM for 2500 yen for 7-days with 2GB data only accepted cash and only up to 1000 yen notes. Lesson learned: Try asking the ATM for either 9000, 19000, or 29000 yen and it will hopefully then give you some 1000 notes in the mix.

The second, more expensive SIM vending machine from NTT accepts only credit cards, so I used my MasterCard and coughed up almost 3800 yen for a 7-day data SIM with 2GB data. Yes that’s a lot of money, but to be honest it was still worth it. My Hong Kong layover adventure in April was severely hampered by an inability to look up information and directions on the fly; I cursed myself for forgetting to buy a SIM and an Octopus pass at the Hong Kong airport (both of which ended up costing me dearly in wasted time finding my way, and waiting in the non-Octopus queue for the Victoria Peak tram) and this time in Tokyo I refused to repeat that mistake. Note that you can only buy a data SIM from a machine – a full-feature SIM with phone call capabilities requires a more complicated registration process, but you can use a data SIM to make calls by Skype, WhatsApp, Signal, Facetime, etc so this shouldn’t be a problem for most people.

Data SIM card vending machine, Tokyo Narita Airport

In my rush, however, I failed to take note of the obvious instruction on the vending machine to activate my SIM. It appears from the huge arrow sign in my photo above that this can be done on the touch screen, though I’m not 100% certain. More on this process below.

Buying a train ticket from Narita Airport to Tokyo
SIM in hand, I continued walking just a few more steps and saw the “Skyliner and Keisei information center” with 3 staff sitting behind the counter and plenty of English signage. They answered my questions, gave me some advice, and sold me a Keisei Skyliner same-day return ticket with free 24-hour subway ticket, as well as a Pasmo card. It’s important to tell them if you’re returning the same day or later, as it’s much cheaper to return the same day. I didn’t need the free subway pass but I knew I needed a Pasmo card, which is just a preloaded transit card (like Oyster in London, Compass in Vancouver, Octopus in Hong Kong, Presto in Toronto). Train stations in Tokyo can be crazy busy so trying to pay each time for trains during the day would be confusing and time-consuming, while the prepaid card just needs to be tapped on entry and exit.

Keisei Skyliner train ticket and 24-hour subway pass
Pasmo IC card

There are actually a total of 10 different prepaid transit card types in Japan from different transit companies, which are now largely compatible with each other. Pasmo is what the visitor info centre was selling, and it worked for everything I needed. The other main card in Tokyo is called Suica and that would’ve worked for me as well. More info on the different cards here: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2359_003.html. You can actually even use these cards as cash debit cards to pay for stuff at some shops like 7-11, and if you’re done with the card you can return it to an appropriate transit service desk (like the one in Narita Airport) to get your remaining balance back in cash.

Warning: there’s no wifi on the train! Activate your SIM before departing.
I boarded the 07:26 Keisei Skyliner express train about 10 minutes before departure, and congratulated myself on being so efficient in getting from the plane to the train in so little time without any running involved. I connected to the free wifi, sent a few WhatsApp messages, checked email, and then we pulled away from the station. As I was sitting comfortably in my seat, the wifi suddenly disappeared! Every frequent traveller knows that modern airport express trains all around the world generally have free, if substandard, wifi. Well, despite signs everywhere about the free Keisei WiFi, it turns out it’s only in the stations – so if the train is between stations you’re out of luck. My plan to use the train ride to research my morning activities and plan a walk in the gardens was shut down.

You might be thinking, “Why not just use data with my new SIM, if there was no wifi”. Well, your data SIM won’t even let you connect to the provider’s website for activation – you need a wifi connection to go to their website to activate the SIM. Even before I discovered this issue, I faced the challenge of not having anything with which to eject my existing SIM from my phone. I used to always carry a paperclip with me but had recently lost it in Bangladesh and forgot to get a new one. A local passenger on the train was kind enough to lend me a safety pin, so that problem was quickly solved.

In case you’re worried about phone compatibility with Japan’s networks: your phone needs to be compatible with at least one of the Japanese mobile frequency bands, but these days pretty much all smartphones are. My phone is an ancient 2014 LG Nexus 5 and it worked just fine. There were two instruction leaflets with my SIM. One explained how to set the APN, but in my case the network broadcasted those settings to my phone automatically so they were already correctly set when I checked. The small print on the second leaflet had one important instruction hidden around the halfway point: the website address to register the SIM online before it can be used.

So if you’re sitting on the train with a non-activated SIM, get that done quickly before departure. If you don’t have time, don’t worry too much: the same free wifi network exists at the other stations, so if you get off at Nippori or Ueno station you can connect to the wifi there and activate your SIM. I got off at Nippori station to switch to a local train for Harajuku, the part of town I decided to explore (tip: on the Keisei Skyliner, the TV screen gives very clear instructions in English for how to transfer to the local trains with your Skyliner ticket and Pasmo card). I connected to wifi and began the registration process but my onward JR Yamanote Line train was about to leave so I left the wifi coverage area to jump on the train. I could’ve/should’ve just caught the next one 5 minutes later but I didn’t know they were so frequent because I was too tired to come to the realisation that I could just google it now that I had wifi to do so… So I hopped on the train for the 25-minute ride, annoyed that I still had no access to data to see what restaurants would be open for breakfast, or how to get to the local parks and gardens for a morning walk.

Instead of getting off at Harajuku station as planned, I got off one stop early at Yoyogi because I wanted to visit Yoyogi Park, not realising that there’s no entrance to the park near the station of the same name. There was no free wifi in this station, but five minutes into my walk from the station I managed to find a very slow free public wifi connection. I managed to activate my SIM, and from then on it was smooth sailing with Google Maps directions and searches for restaurants, cafés, things to do, etc.

Adventures on foot in Harajuku

Sake barrels at Yoyogi Park, Tokyo, Japan

Despite the dark clouds when we landed, by the time I was walking from Yoyogi station it was so bright and sunny I was dripping sweat. I took a long walk through Yoyogi Park, then walked through …. to Omotesandō where I found breakfast and coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker and you get a chance to visit the tiny little Koffee Mameya, you won’t be disappointed – they have beans from some of the world’s best roasters, and the baristas will let you sample several before deciding what to buy. You can get whole beans to take home, or a full-sized coffee to drink in Tokyo.

Koffee Mameya in Omotesando, Tokyo, Japan

Next, I headed to Hedgehog Cafe Harry for a pretty cute experience feeding a pair of cuddly animals. You can even pay to adopt one and take it home. Elsewhere in Tokyo there are similar “cafes” with cats, rabbits, otters, and even owls!

Hedgehog Café Menu
Hedgehog at Café Harry, Tokyo, Japan

Once I got bored of holding sleepy hedgehogs, I walked a few blocks to Harajuku Gyozarou (alternatively spelled Gyozaro or Gyoza Lou) for a cheap but delicious lunch.

Gyoza cooktops at Harajuku Gyouzarou, Tokyo, Japan

After eating a plate of hot gyoza, I spent some time walking through the little side streets of Harajuku filled with modern Japanese fashion and ended up picking up a pair of Onitsuka Tiger shoes.

Onitsuka Tiger yellow Mexico 66 shoes

I also had some more coffee at a little van converted into a mobile cafe, before walking back to Harajuku station in the bright sunshine to catch the JR Yamanote line back to Nippori.

Moar coffee!

Getting back to Tokyo Narita Airport
At Nippori station, I showed my open return train ticket to a guy in a booth, so that he could issue me the real ticket with my seat number on it. Within 10 minutes of starting the Keisei Skyliner journey from Nippori back to Narita Airport, thick ash-coloured clouds appeared ahead and it suddenly looked like most of the year in Vancouver: grey and threatening rain. Just my luck that I had a full day of warm sunshine for my adventure.

On arriving back at the airport at 15:01, I walked the short distance past the ATMs back to the left luggage desk to retrieve my carry-on backpack. It only cost me around 320 yen for the day’s storage.

From the luggage storage, it was a short walk to the escalators up to 4th floor departures lobby. On arriving at the top of the escalator, I walked straight through the check-in concourse to the opposite side of the large hall where there’s a big departures sign. There was a huge crowd people lined up to clear security but, with the same efficiency I noticed throughout the day in Tokyo, the queue was processed very quickly. It took only about 5 minutes to clear security. Next, I went to the immigration area where I was again processed very quickly.

By 15:32 I was already in the duty-free shops area, and by 15:40 I was sitting in the KAL lounge using my Priority Pass. Food options there were very limited compared to other Priority Pass lounges in other airports, but I had one of each of the sticky rice snacks: sea cabbage, vegetable, and sweet chicken which were pretty good. It only took me 5 minutes to walk to my gate in good time for the 16:05 scheduled boarding time.

I could’ve actually arrived half an hour later than I did and still walked onto the plane without breaking a sweat.

So despite having only 9 hours and 45 minutes from landing to takeoff, 1 hour 30 minutes travel time to Tokyo, and the same to return to the airport, I was still easily able to spend a solid 5 hours and 30 minutes exploring the Harajuku area without feeling particularly rushed.

Click here to download a printable very short summary of the main points above

Important disclaimers
If you’re making plans to visit Tokyo or any other city on a same-day layover, please bear in mind that I’m 185cm / 6’1″ and walk quite quickly, so if you’re a slow walker you may need to add a little more time to get around. I also have a high risk tolerance for arriving at the last minute for flights – if you’re the kind of person who arrives at the airport 3 hours before your flight, or you frequently end up getting extra attention from customs or airport security, then plan your trip carefully.

Before trying to exit the airport in Japan or any other country, make sure that you’ll be permitted to do so by the local government. Depending on the passport you hold, and the country you’re visiting, you may need a visa before arrival. In the case of Japan, I knew beforehand that I could show up unannounced with my Canadian passport and receive a 90-day tourist visa on arrival just by filling out the regular arrivals card provided by the airline on the flight. Some countries require additional forms, payment, or an advance application. Unfortunately, all nationalities are not treated equally and you may simply find that you can’t leave the airport at all. In the case of the UK, citizens of many countries discover too late that they are not even be able to transit through a UK airport without getting a transit visa in advance. For more info specific to Japan, see https://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/short/novisa.html

Check whether your arriving and departing flights are both at the same terminal. I arrived at Narita Terminal 1 and departed from Narita Terminal 1, but if I had to switch to Terminals 2-3 there would’ve been a shuttle bus involved, requiring more time. Switching terminals at some airports, like Dubai DXB, Lost Angeles LAX, London LHR and others can take over an hour, especially if you’re not familiar with those airport layouts. One Tokyo-specific problem is that some people don’t notice that one flight arrives at Tokyo Narita and the next departs from Tokyo Haneda or vice versa, so pay careful attention when booking your trip. It’s also common to find yourself in need of a shuttle transfer between the two major Paris airports: Roissy Charles de Gaulle CDG and Orly ORY.

Also note that I was already checked in for my next flight as I was on a single booking from Dhaka to Bangkok to Tokyo to Vancouver; the airline assumes that passengers stay in the transit airports so luggage is transferred to the next plane and passengers just need to be at the gate in time for boarding. If you buy a separate ticket to get to a country and another one to leave that country just a few hours later, which is a very risky thing to do, you’ll likely have to collect your luggage and check in again for your next flight (the risk is that your arriving flight is delayed and, since you’re on unconnected bookings, if you miss your next flight then the airline can make you pay for a new ticket).

400

On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Cox’s Bazar airport for my flight to Dhaka to apply for a visa extension at the Bangladesh immigration and passport office. The airport metal detector beeped loudly even though I had no metal or dense shoes on, but the security guy just gave me a fake pat down and waved me into the airport anyways.

My backpack rolled through the x-ray machine on the left side of the entrance. Now standing in the crowded check-in hall, the airline staff said there’d be a half hour delay before issuing boarding passes. I heard a banging noise near the entrance, so I looked back. A technician was standing on a wooden table, performing percussive maintenance against the side of the second x-ray machine with a crescent wrench. Two red indicators were brightly lit up with the words “X-RAY ON”. The sides of the machine were open. The technician jumped down, pushed some buttons on a control panel, jumped back up, hit the machine some more with his wrench. X-rays flew through the room, or so I imagined. I kept my distance, hoping I want being irradiated.

The X-ray machine being repaired while turned on in Cox's Bazar Airport, Bangladesh

Boarding passes were issued. I showed mine to the security guy at the entrance to the gates. This second metal detector didn’t beep. The guy stamped my boarding pass with a passed security check stamp, and he said to me “I knew just from looking at you that you’re alright, no problem with you!”

A few minutes later they announced the flight was cancelled due to bad weather in Dhaka; come back in the morning.

Sunday morning I caught my 43rd flight of 2017, which was my 400th flight in my lifetime.

Boarding pass for my 400th flight; I
Selfie time in Cox's Bazar Airport, Bangladesh

That second x-ray machine was still out of service. The weather on arrival in Dhaka was clear and sunny, with a few floodwaters.

Floodwaters in Dhaka, Bangladesh, following heavy rains

Goodbye, Akela

When I was a little boy, one of the highlights of the week was attending the weekly wolf pack meetings of the 54th Dunbar wolf cubs. When my brothers and I joined, we got second-hand retro uniforms, green caps with yellow seams, and neckerchiefs that were half navy blue and half sky blue, held together by a funny little thing called a woggle. We walked into the little old wood-floored hall attached to Immaculate Conception church just west of Dunbar in Vancouver, and were welcomed into a group of young boys who were led by a man with a strong Hungarian accent and very little hair. The cubs called him Akela, and along with his assistant Bagheera he led our pack every week. We had races to reach candy at the other end of the hall, played various team sports, learned to tie knots, sang campfire songs around a little contraption that was basically a few small logs nailed together with some translucent orange plastic cut into flame shapes lit up by an incandescent light bulb in the centre, and lots of things I no longer remember.

One time we were playing floor hockey outdoors across the street, and the ball flew over the low chainlink fence. As was our habit, a number of us would compete to get over the fence and get the ball back fastest. I jumped over the fence but my shoelace got caught on the fence and I fell headfirst onto my face on the concrete, chipping one of my relatively new two front teeth. Akela checked that I was OK, and I think he let me keep playing, though I can’t be certain anymore. Maybe we got ice, maybe not. My tooth is still chipped, and I’ve always thought of that as a fond memory. Akela didn’t baby us, but he treated us well and always showed us that he cared. I had a huge amount of respect and admiration for him.

He was a wolf cub leader for many decades. I was lucky to be in his pack for 4 years, which was 1 year longer than usual but I enjoyed it so much they let me stay through the end of Grade 4 when Dan and Matt had already joined the older boys in Scouts at another hall a couple blocks north of there. In those 4 years we went camping 12 times to Camp Byng on the Sunshine Coast. The first time we went, I remember climbing into the back of Bagheera’s huge camper van with my brothers and some of the others to head to the ferry. I had never been in a van that had an oven in it! Akela took us on nature walks through different parts of the 200 acre camp, pointing out and giving the latin names for all sorts of plants, and I’ve never forgotten pseudotsuga (Douglas-fir). He also taught us about Western redcedar and other local trees, and the edible Oregon grapes, salal berries, salmonberries, huckleberries, and sorrel leaves easily found in our BC rainforests and on mossy bluffs. He would whittle away at little bits of wood he’d picked up, making a little spoon or paddle with his Swiss Army knife. He reminded us frequently that we were not to kill any wild animals or bugs, with one exception: mosquitoes.

Akela would make us stand in a circle outside in the early morning and do his version of yoga like the “slow boat to China” lowering ourselves as slowly as possible into a crouch, as if we were to continue lowering until we went down through the Earth and came out the other side (of course such a tunnel would really have had us come out in the ocean to the south of Africa, but we didn’t know that). Akela taught us to use a bow and arrows; I for one was amazed to see an arrow fly with so much power into a target or, occasionally a tree behind it. He also taught us a game called kick the can, which was loads of fun as the tin can was placed in the centre of a clearing next to the lodge while we all ran and hid in the dense forest around it, so getting back and through to kick the can without being tagged was extra adventurous for us kids.

Of course Akela had a legal name outside of scouting circles: Stephen Sothy. He was actually born and raised as István, but after escaping the Communist regime in Hungary by jumping off a prisoner train and gradually making his way by foot and regular train beyond the Iron Curtain, arriving eventually in Canada, it was easier to give the English equivalent – Stephen. To me and my siblings, outside our wolf cub events, he was Uncle Stephen, husband to my mom’s older sister Cecilia, who died in February 2010 from cancer.

Uncle Stephen alternated between calling me Christopher Robin or Christophoro. He brought us huge rhubarb stalks from his garden, occasionally invited us over to pick his amazing raspberries in the backyard, took us kids up the gondola to the top of Grouse Mountain with Aunty Celia, helped her run a booth at the May Fair at their church, wore a Santa hat at our annual family Boxing Day party, and cracked jokes left, right, and centre. At Bowen Island, if we saw a hat hanging way up on the deer antlers in the hall, we knew Uncle Stephen was there. As we sat in the living room at Bowen, kids playing cards or reading old books and older Readers Digests on the couches and seats lining the walls, we knew we’d hear despairing gasps from Mom, Aunty Celia, or Granny if Uncle Stephen was playing Scrabble with them at the card table in the centre of the room – he took the longest out of anyone to decide what letters to play.

Stephen Sothy, Boxing Day 2008

One time when I was still very young, probably in the late 80s, Uncle Stephen’s blue early 80s car pulled up in front of our house on W 41st. I remember going out to the car, and Aunty Celia was the one driving. She liked driving very fast. In the passenger seat was Uncle Stephen, happy as usual, and he showed us a big sewn-up scar on his chest. He’d had a multiple bypass heart surgery, one of a number of heart surgeries he’d have over the years. Another time, many years later, he was the first person to have a new type of stent put in his heart.

On New Year’s Day 2017, Uncle Stephen started feeling dizzy and short of breath while having coffee at church after mass. He had three new stents put in that afternoon, and we visited with him in the evening for a couple of hours at St Paul’s hospital. I managed to see him in hospital one more time three days later, just before I left to South Sudan. During my next short break home in late May, I drove Lisa and Aunty Pat over to his house in Dunbar and sat with him for a little over an hour, helping him sit up and rubbing his back like he asked, massaging his neck a bit, and repositioning his legs, heavily swollen from congestive heart failure. Aunty Pat told a good joke and Uncle Stephen laughed his usual laugh and said it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. He asked me where I was going next for work, and I told him I was leaving the next day to Yemen. He told me to take care of myself and stay safe, I gave him a hug and said I love you, and he said I love you too, thanks for your visit, and we said our goodbyes.

Uncle Stephen, “Akela”, was moved just over two weeks later to a hospice, where he had frequent visits from family every day until he died Friday, June 16th with his son John by his side.

Stephen Sothy, Bowen Island, August 2009