Making it to Algonquin, without the automobile

Originally published in the Toronto Star

Fabiola Carletti
Staff Reporter

Photo by Flickr user Яick Harris

Ontario’s top park just got a lot closer to the city.

Currently, car-less Torontonians must either rent a vehicle or take an indirect route by public transit to get to Canada’s oldest provincial park. But starting next Thursday, a new express service called Parkbus will roll out as a new option.

Outdoor enthusiasts will be able to board a non-stop bus from four Toronto locations to four popular drop-off points in the sprawling park. At $84 per round-trip the ride is less expensive than taking existing bus routes to Huntsville followed by a private shuttle. And if you factor in the cost of gas, parking and renting a car, it’s a lot cheaper than taking a personal vehicle. Even drivers may want to hang up their keys for an environmentally friendly and even educational alternative.

“Parkbus is a non-profit initiative that aims to eventually make other popular Ontario parks accessible by bus,” said Alex Berlyand, co-founder of the project. “We also intend to have a volunteer on each bus talking about the fragile and valuable elements of Algonquin Park.”

The founders find it ironic that in wanting to enjoy nature, most people are contributing to carbon emissions that damage the environment. The 56-seat coach buses are set to outdo even the most ambitious carpool and foster friendships between first-time and veteran visitors. (continue reading…)


Tofino and teenage love songs

Tofino, Vancouver Island
All photographs by Fabiola Carletti

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As I stood on the shores of MacKenzie beach in Tofino, I was overwhelmed by feelings of nostalgia. Although it was the first time I’d ever seen a much loved beach in the surfer town, it reminded me of a song I fell in love with as a teenage girl.  I felt, on those cool April evenings during off-season, like the luckiest person to have ever watched the waves write poetry onto the sand.

Forgive my sentimentality, but we often forget to marvel at the world.

Wish you were here

I dig my toes into the sand
The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds
Strewn across a blue blanket
I lean against the wind
Pretend that I am weightless
And in this moment I am happy…happy

I wish you were here (x4)

I lay my head onto the sand
The sky resembles a back lit canopy
With holes punched in it
I’m counting UFOs
I signal them with my lighter
And in this moment I am happy…happy

I wish you were here (x4)

The world’s a roller coaster
And I am not strapped in
Maybe I should hold with care
But my hands are busy in the air saying:

I wish you were here

I wish you were…

I wish you were here (x4)

A Cup of Kava: UBC student gains insight on Fijian culture

Wanying Zhao, MA Candidate at UBC Psychology Department

Wanying Zhao’s lips were itchy, and her tongue felt slightly numb.

In a roomful of Fijians, the young researcher was drinking Kava, a mildly intoxicating beverage that comes from a plant of the same name. Kava, she explained, is the foundation of social activity in the village of Teci, Fiji, where she lived as a cultural researcher in the summer of 2009.

“Kava looks like muddy water and it tastes pretty much the same,” laughed Zhao, who explained that the drink becomes more potent over time, creating a body buzz that makes the drinker feel mellow.

To demonstrate one of kava’s effects, Zhao momentarily closed her eyes, smiled and swayed gently.

Not all ethnographers could describe such details first hand, as some don’t believe outsiders should actively participate in the cultures they study. But Zhao’s team consciously chose participant observation as their research strategy, doing ethnography by conducting experiments and interviews, as well as engaging in day-to-day routines.

“I’m used to living in large cities where people mostly leave each other alone,” said Zhao. She described the strong kinship in the small 26-family village, where it was possible to walk anywhere in 15 minutes or less.

Her team’s interest was in understanding how and why people cooperate, and having intimate access was a very important advantage. Teci is one of more than a dozen field sites, where researchers like Zhao are actively examining human cognition through the Culture & the Mind project to see what people around the world have in common and also how they differ.

Little Sione, the mischievous child featured in Zhao’s audio story (see below).

“Fiji was really good in terms of people being very inclusive, warm and inviting,” said Zhao, who didn’t take the Fijian’s openness for granted, “It’s harder to understand a culture from the outside when you’re being treated with suspicion.”

From a solar-powered bure (Fijian hut), Zhao and her team engaged with tremendous questions, such as “what are norms?” and “what solutions have different cultures evolved to maintain social order?”

While engaging with the villagers, including large groups of enthusiastic children, Zhao gained what she calls an “embodied understanding” of her host community.

“You miss a lot when you don’t engage,” Zhao explained. “It’s only by participating and interacting that you begin to understand what it means to live, think and feel in another cultural world.”

Listen to Wanying Zhao tell a story about the Fijian “Denise the Menace”

“He’d wack the dogs and chase the cats…”


The Deepest Wilderness: UBC student was a ‘missing person’

Originally posted at the blog: Secret Lives of UBC students

Robert Singley, PhD candidate in composition at the UBC School of Music

There’s something wrong with Glastenbury Mountain, at least according to local lore in Bennington, Vermont.

Many people, especially watchers of the paranormal, have ominous theories about that stretch of the Appalachian Trail. A number of people are said to have gone missing there.

But none of this fazed Robert Singley, a PhD candidate at UBC, who used to hike the trail when he lived in Bennington. That is, until the day he too got lost in the woods.

Two years ago, while hiking back to his car, Singley became disoriented.

“I still think I was sucked through some sort of time space continuum,” said the composer, who channels his long hikes into creative impetuses for his music.

“All I know is that it got dark. It got foggy,” he said, adding that head lamp he’d brought with him wasn’t working. “I followed the trail for as long as I could see it, but then I lost the trail and I was totally alone in the woods.”

As his girlfriend worried at home, Singley struggled to find his way out of an area with an eerie reputation.

Some call it Bennington’s triangle, a reference to the mysterious Bermuda triangle. Others tell tales of a Bennington monster. And still others refer to Native American stories of rocks that swallow people up in this place where the four winds meet.

Regardless of which stories Singley believed, if any, there was no doubt he was in for an unusual night.

Robert examines the type of wood that "saved his life." Photo by Frank Singley

Next came the rain. The young American’s attempts to make a fire became futile and he eventually lay down from exhaustion.

“Later I started to shiver and I knew I was starting to get hypothermia,” said Singley. He got back up and started to look for kindling. Instead he was alarmed to find animal bones.

But somehow, in this precarious situation, Singley found a way to calm himself.

Listen to Robert Singley explain what was going through his head that night, and why he turned it into music:
An excerpt of his wilderness-inspired string quartet [audio here]

In the end, Singley managed to survive the night–largely thanks to finding a birch tree with highly flammable bark and coming up with wilderness-inspired musical ideas. In the morning, he ran into police that had been searching for him, and the local newspaper featured his story as an escape from danger.

But Singley heard his experience differently: “It was a magical experience, quite life affirming,” he has written.

In fact, in his work as a composer, he has tapped into the “non-directionality” he felt that night, creating music that is not heading in any direction–as in Escher’s staircase–and that values the journey as a series of individual steps.

“Getting lost really solidified these ideas for me, of just being happy wherever you are.”