Greetings from Moscow,
The bardo, in Tibetan, is the place between death and birth; a transition zone between the last existence and the next. For me, in this life, the airplane is the nearest experience to the bardo I can imagine. In the days leading up to a big climb, days are filling with the endless task of ticking items a perpetual to do list. It’s as if every task that has been postponed over the past six months screams for closure before the artificial deadline of Air Canada Flight 693 to Toronto.
Sent off with plenty of hugs and good wishes, I clamber down the jet way into the never never land of the winged aluminum sausage that will magically, (in my humble opinion), transport me from here to there. I settle gingerly down into my seat for my back is still tender accepting that this is “my home” for the next twenty-four hours or so. Airplane time is the purest form of leisure for me. I read. I watch. I daydream. And if I surrender to the bardo, I often find that I arrive “too soon.”
As I don’t have a TV, the seat back entertainment centres invoke the joy of Easter morning. Brightly coloured, multi-media treats are hidden behind layered menus waiting to be found with the poke of a finger. I plug into a world of drama, escape, and edutainment and we land in Toronto before I know it. The moment has arrived. I scamper towards the baggage claim, for just beyond its gates, lies a Tim Horton’s outlet. It is here I am to meet Velma II.
Those who have been along on this amazing journey of mine for some time may remember back to the summer of 2006 where a newly minted passion for mountaineering and an uncommon fondness for Tim Horton’s Vanilla Dips first met. I’d hoped to take a Vanilla Dip to the summit of Mount Elbrus. I tried several methods of getting the donut ready for the rigorous journey. I dried the first one out. Then shellacked it. Bad idea. The shellac caused all the sprinkles to lose their colour and become amorous balls of white sugar. For the second attempt, I let the Vanilla Dip dry and then stuck it in a round Ziploc container that fit perfectly.
In this end, this was a bad idea. For when I opened the container one week hence, in the tiny mountain village of Terskol, my once proud Vanilla Dip was an oozing mess of decomposing sugar. Not a pretty sight-quite traumatizing actually. My dear friend and mentor, Brenda, had named the Vanilla Dip, Velma. The original of the name Velma means “protector.” Protection on a mountain, whether it comes from a lama blessed red cord or a multi-coloured sprinkle covered donut, always seems like a good idea to me. In her rapidly deteriorated condition, Velma wasn’t going up any mountain. Her dream of the seven summits coming very prematurely to an end before it began really. I fed her to a stray dog.
Still traumatized from my first attempt at mountaineering with a donut, I hadn’t yet gained the courage to try again. When I realized I was speaking to a conference of food service experts, a tiny seed of hope was planted in the fertile soil of my mind. As I prepped my presentation, I decided to show the picture of Velma’s condition when we reached Terskol while making an impassioned plea for someone in the audience to share their expertise on how to prevent such a calamity from occurring again. At the close of the presentation, my cries for help were answered by Jeff Fryday of Tim Horton’s. He explained that at TDL Headquarters they have a museum. In that museum were several well-preserved donuts. Jeff said he would see if the museum curators could prepare a Vanilla Dip for the rigors of international travel and high altitude mountaineering. Truthfully, I didn’t expect to hear back from him any time soon so you could imagine my surprise when I received an email saying that my supercharged donut was ready to go.
I was leaving for Moscow the next day so first we explored the possibilities of getting Velma II to Moscow via courier. They could only promise delivery for the date we were leaving Moscow for Terskol. I then realized that I was traveling through Toronto and suggested a rendezvous there. Though it was the day before a holiday, Jeff made it happen and on Canada Day 2009, I met my carbohydrate companion for this year’s climb. I walked up to the counter and said to the clerk, “I think you have a donut for me.” I felt a little like I was a junior KGB agent.”
She asked me for my name. When I replied, she showed me a card with my name on it, and then danced joyfully towards the back of the store to fetch Velma. With a big grin, she handed off a Tim’s canister. I almost ordered a Vanilla Dip to go but didn’t think Velma II would appreciate my cannibalism on our first date. Just beyond the crowds, I stopped and lovingly eased Velma II out of her container and took a few pictures to immortalize the moment. We then passed unceremoniously back through security and had fun exploring the Toronto airport. You can see pictures at http://bit.ly/gzQtf
Hindsight being what it is, I wouldn’t have elected to watch the movie, “Taken” on the flight to Frankfurt. I know I am often tentative when I first arrive out of the bardo into a new location. My shyness, combined with past traumas, makes the first day or two higher on the anxiety scale until I get to know my way around and sort out how to get basic needs met. The high intensity thriller about two girls taken while on vacation in Paris provided images I didn’t need floating around in my head. After Taken, I switched to more banal stuff watching home and personal makeover shows in the W channel.
Time in Frankfurt passed quickly despite no Internet. I was unwilling to pay $32 an hour for access and knew Moscow was just around the corner. Flying over miles of green fields, the plane began its final descent. Immigration was a breeze despite Velma not having a visa and I met up with my driver. We emerged from the airport and he pointed out a polished black Lamborghini with its bat wing doors. I always find my senses are tuned finely for reception when I a birthed from the airplane/airport bardo. Pushing my luggage cart through the throngs of people is akin to passing through the birth canal and I am barraged with the sights and sounds of my new life.
We whizzed down the highway from the airport. I looked to the right and was struck by the blazing white bark of stands of birch. The black crust atop the paper smooth bark leapt towards my eyes. The green canopy swung in beat to the pulsing grey clouds above. The grassy sides of the highway were adorned with weathered women selling flats of strawberries. Piles of bright red spheres interrupted the sea of green pocked by the gingham dresses of these industrious highway-based entrepreneurs. I was transported back to Zimbabwe where such sights were the norm whenever I drove from Harare to Mutare.
As we closed in on Moscow, highway lanes multiplied providing a wider warp for the driver to deftly weave his car across. No horns bleated as he executed delicate lane changes back and forth across the river of cars. I was glad when he stopped texting and placed his full attention on the road. I would hate to become another statistic. An hour or so later, he dropped me at the massive hotel complex that would be my home for the next three days. Just as I had expressed gratitude at the close of each of my three flights, I did the same for same delivery from the ride from the airport. I often think the most dangerous part of the climb is getting there.
In the haze of exhausted post bardo existence, I checked in, showered, and walked outside a bit to give my body some clue as to time of day to begin overcoming the jet lag. Procured some dinner, did some laundry, and soon there after dropped into a deep 11 hour sleep. Waking this morning, I sampled the hotel buffet breakfast, half mournful that I couldn’t be more adventurous in my menu selections. In the time before the climb, I will follow travel-eating guidelines to a fault to try to avoid any gastrointestinal challenges that could derail my climb. I am aware, that different from sometimes, that I am here solely for the climb. Not that I won’t enjoy poking about Moscow with Velma a bit this afternoon and tomorrow, but I am so eager to get back to Elbrus to see how things will unfold this time.
So I’ll close for now, gather some courage and head out to explore. As a shy traveler, I use my keen sense of observation. Where some would just ask for direction, I watch and decipher. There is a bend in the Moscow River across from the hotel, I look forward to a walk along its banks, to enjoy the intense sensations of new existence before they fade, and to taking some fun Velma pictures.
Have a good day,