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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Into the Gobi with Books

    As a writer of children’s books, I often conduct author visits to International Schools. In 2010 I spent a week each in South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, followed by a visit to the International School of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Students there had knitted warm scarves for nomad children living in the Gobi Desert. I took these, along with many books, on my adventure into the Gobi. 
    Many years ago I had ‘met’ Dashdondog, a Mongolian children’s author. He helped me with the research for my book My Librarian is a Camel, an account of how children around the world get library books if they don’t have access to library buildings. Dashdondog shared stories and photos with me of his mobile library in the Gobi. He visits nomad families in gers (pronounced as in ‘Gary’; yurt is the Russian word for these nomadic tents) as well as schools in remote villages. He performs his poems, sings songs, reads books and leaves behind many volumes for the children.

Until I arrived in Mongolia I had no idea of how famous he is in his country. Take Robert Munsch, Pierre Berton and Raffi and roll them into one. Then you will get close to the popularity of Dashdondog. I discovered that every child, and indeed every adult, in Mongolia can instantly recite his poetry and sing the songs he composed. Many of them don’t even realize that these are texts that he wrote, they know them as their own national treasures. I don’t speak a word of Mongolian and Dashdondog does not speak much English.   But when he performed a poem about horses galloping across the steppe, I could picture what he was saying. I could just imagine their hooves and the dust.
    Dashdondog graciously invited my husband and I to stay with him in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. The walls of his living room are hung with photos of IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) friends from around the world: Astrid Lindgren, Katherine Paterson, Uri Orlev and many others. Before leaving for the Gobi, we roamed the streets of Ulaanbaatar, walked in and out of many shops and sampled local foods. There was still snow, melting in shaded piles among the buildings. Sidewalks had treacherous holes or manhole covers missing. Many buildings had long cracks in their concrete walls. It was obvious that the Soviet regime had not spent much money on the upkeep before they left Mongolia to its own resources.

Dashdondog arranged for a trip into the Gobi to bring books to children. For 12 hours we traveled by train and then continued for 12 more hours in a van, following sand tracks with no visible landmarks, deep into the desert. Occasionally we came upon a lonely white ger. We would stop to hand out scarves, books and candy for the children who lived here. In return they served us tea with camel milk, fed us dried camel milk cheese curds and let us ride their camels.
When we reached our destination, Khovsgols Soum, a forlorn windblown town bobbing on a sand ocean, we visited the local school and shared books with children.  They were incredibly keen. Mongolia may not be wealthy by western standards but has a 95% literacy rate. From Kindergartners to high school students, they all were polite, attentive and eager hear stories. I always bring Emma long, a chicken puppet based on my Emma’s Eggs books. Here too, children loved the chicken and were delighted to chant “tok-tok-tok!”, wondering if she might be a real chicken! Many of the children lived in homes, since their families were nomadic and moved far away from the school locations. 

We spent nights in different locations, including cots in the make shift hostel of a village administrative office. The outhouse was a long, cold walk across the barren, windblown desert.
We struggled with Mongolian food: it is similar to Canada's Inuit diet: high in animal fat and void of vegetables and fruits. For breakfast we were served a large, communal bowl of meat in broth and salted tea. By lunch time the broth had jelled but we still ate the meat. At night, more meat was added to the broth.

During one of our days in the Gobi, we experienced a national holiday. Horse races were held, with children as young as 4 and 5 years old riding bareback across the hard packed sand. We were treated to horsehead fiddle music and presented with warm mare's milk, and a tray of sugar cubes and cheese curds. 

    We left books with children in schools, in tents and on trains. Most of these books are paid for by Dashdondog himself. Through grants from Japan and thanks to being awarded the 2006 Asahi Reading Award for his innovative mobile library, this Mongolian Hans Christian Andersen is able to, single-handedly, put books in the hands of many appreciative children. As we left the Gobi to return to a more populated world, I listened to the haunting sounds of our new Mongolian friends as they sang folk songs. Seated on bags of camel wool, we drove back across the bumpy desert, secure in the knowledge that stories and books make the best of friends. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Northern Adventures: conducting readings in Nunavut

Traveling from Canada’s south to Nunavut, its northern most territory, is quite trip.  Twice I have been privileged to visit ‘Our Land’ as Nunavut is called in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. 
The first time, Kees and I traveled north together to visit close friends who lived in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, for a few years. It was also the year of the Arctic Winter Games being held here - a good reason to visit. The second trip was made possible thanks to Canadian Children’s Book Week. During both visits, I conducted readings at schools and libraries.
First I flew to Winnipeg, Manitoba where I stayed overnight.  Then on to Churchill, Manitoba the next day. I had no idea the plane would stop there or I would have made plans to spend a day there to go see the polar bears. Churchill is famous for its many polar bears around and even right in town. As soon as I walked into the small terminal, a lady came up to me and asked “Are you the writer who came to our school in Kimmirut three years ago?” I knew then that I was back in the Arctic, a huge region but so small people-wise! 

I was met in Rankin Inlet by the librarian from the John Ayaruaq Public Library and taken in a taxi to the B & B where I would stay at for three nights, and which was run by Tara Too-Too, an impressive, busy lady. I told her I hoped to see Northern Lights. “They are best above the cemetery behind my house,” she said, “two days after someone dies.” It is an ancient Inuit belief that the Northern Lights are the spirits of the dead.

    An hour after I arrived I was at a local coffee house to do some storytelling, a fundraiser for Literacy in Nunavut, coordinated by Michael Kusugak, an Inuit children’s writer and long time friend.
Early the next day, we drove out “on the land” - everything outside town is called ‘on the land’, the bare tundra. My hosts showed me that many people in town have a small, square cabin outside town, often near a lake where they go to hunt and fish.

    By 1:00 PM I was at the Public Library for a reading. Despite the cold and howling wind, some 80 children and adults showed up. This being late October, I had brought Halloween candies and a pumpkin (one pumpkin cost $50.- in Rankin since everything here has to be flown in).
That night I had supper of caribou stew and apple pie with Michael Kusugak’s family. Michael picked me up on his dirt bike. There are almost no cars in town, everyone here rides a dirt bike. I had to climb on and huddle behind Michael’s back as we roared across town in the dark and biting wind.
He said “We call this a Honda. Even though my Honda is a Bombadier, it is still called a ‘Honda’.” Everyone rides these quads around town until they can ride snowmobiles again. There wasn’t any snow on the ground, which worried people. The caribou are not coming until the snow comes. 
On Sunday I walked around town to take photos and buy a book at The Northern, the local department store where a loaf of bread costs around 5.- Fresh vegetables and fruit are scarce and terribly expensive. I was followed home by puppies that run rampant everywhere. Almost each house has dogs tied up to the piling (houses are built on stilts on top of the perma frost), and a qamutiik, a flat sled, next to it. Of course I bumped into people I knew (from the Coffee House) who walked back with me to buy some of my books.

On Monday I do two readings in Simon Alaittuk School for Grade 5 and Grade 6 students. The kids are keen and enthusiastic. The odd thing is that no one told me what time my presentations would start. Preparing for my presentations, I kept emailing and asking what time I needed to be there. Each time the answer was “When you get here...” The time frame up north is wonderfully relaxed. I started my presentation once I was all set up and my projector was plugged in. Then they called the kids down. I’m so used to rushing, racing to get it all done in time or the kids are already waiting. This was a great way to do it! I never once felt rushed or harried.

Later, Michael Kusugak picked me up on his Honda for a tour out on the land. I borrowed snow pants, a fur lined parka, wore my hat, scarf, gloves and mitts. But it was still very cold. The ride, behind Michael’s sheltering back, was very, very bumpy across the rocky tundra. No snow to smooth out the bumps. My teeth clattered and my hat kept falling over my eyes. I couldn’t let go of my hand grips... But it was an experience of a lifetime so I savored it all. We spotted a snowy owl, a flock of pure white ptarmigan and a peregrine falcon on its nest. What an impressive, haunting land. Small inukshuks guided us along the way. An inukshuk is the figure of a person, made out of rocks. With no sense of depth and no landmarks in the snow covered tundra, these can be life saving, if stony, figures.

I was glad to know that Michael (whose original Inuit name is Arvaarluk) knows this land like no other. He told me how he remembers when white people first came and told him that he had to pick a last name. They also assigned them a Christian name. He went from being Arvaarluk to being called Michael Kusugak (he choose his father’s name as a last name). He also remembers living in a sod hut in summer when his family followed the caribou. The Inuit lifestyle had remained untouched for centuries until the 1960’s.

When I visited Iqaluit, three years ago, Inuit people had built a traditional igloo. We were able to go inside, sit on the icy sleeping platform and smell the distinct odor of the burning seal oil lamp inside. We also watched traditional Inuit games such as one foot high kick and bone games.

    I had dinner of arctic char with my new Rankin friends. The whole town is out trick & treating! Halloween is a big thing here. On the news on TV I saw a report of Halloween in Churchill, where my plane had stopped. Here people parked all available cars in a tight circle around the town, headlines shining out onto the land. This was done in hopes of keeping the polar bears out of town so that the children could safely go door to door...

On Tuesday I do three presentations in Leo Ussak Elementary School. The children are very keen and excited by my books. But the biggest hit is when I show them what else I brought: a large bag full of wet fall leaves. I gathered brown and yellow maple leaves before I left home. Their reactions, as I pull a leaf out of the bag, bring tears to my eyes. “I have never seen a leaf!” 12 year old Mary whispers, holding out her hand to touch the leaves. They are passed around by the Grade Six students as if they were precious jewels. Big, tough boys put their nose down on the leaves to inhale the smell.

After school I fly to Baker Lake, Nunavut. There are no security checks up north, no assigned seating on the planes. You just take what you need and get on.  When I walk up to the counter in the terminal, Adam, the son of the people I just had dinner with, works there. He hands me my boarding pass. No name asked. Then he walks me to the plane. I’m the only passenger tonight. The run way is unpaved gravel. It’s a short 40 minute flight across dark, frozen tundra.

On my previous visit to Nunavut, I flew to Kimmirut, a tiny community on Baffin Island. The 6 seater plane buzzed over the school to alert the principal that I had arrived. He jumped on his snow mobile to pick me up at the little airport. I keep being thankful here that I don’t wear skirts or high heels...
While in Kimmirut I was invited to the home of an elder. They had just hunted a polar bear. Would I like to come and see them skin it? It was a cultural event to see the ladies sitting on the kitchen floor with their traditional ulu knives, daftly separating the thick fur from the polar bear’s flesh.

It is still dark when I climb on the back of a Honda dirt bike. Huddling behind Sue, the public librarian, I try to keep my scarf and hood around my face to protect me from the biting wind. Tied to the front of her dirt bike is a cardboard box holding my books and equipment. 
We make our way down the main road of Baker Lake, Nunavut along the shore of the frozen lake. People wave. They all know that the stranger in town is here to tell stories in the Library. It’s been on the radio many times. The radio here is used like a telephone and a message board. A song will be playing when suddenly the phone rings. “Hello?” says the announcer. And someone may say “This is Johnny. Can Marie please come see me?” And he hangs up. The song continues. Then the phone rings again. It is Sue announcing that I will be speaking at the Library tomorrow night. The song continues for a minute but is once again interrupted by the phone. George Kavaluq has a washing machine for sale.... The radio is still the heartbeat of the north.
My presentations take place in Rachel Arngnammaktiq Elementary School. Maggie, the only teacher/librarian in all of Nunavut, has prepared the students well. They are keen and curious, excited to meet the Kabloonaq (white) visitor. Maggie has been reading to them and, even though books are not part of their cultural heritage, the children love stories. There is great excitement because they have heard that I have brought my chicken. My chicken puppet helps to tell my Emma books. Once she moves her head, many children are not sure if she is real or not. They love the stories and “ooh” and “aah” out loud when I show slides of the Rocky Mountains.

Last night I saw dancing Northern Lights. Now a low northern sunrise paints the lake and land soft pink. There is snow on the ground here, in Baker Lake. I briefly visit four high school classes. I meet an elder who makes paintings, spend an hour in the local heritage centre to learn about Inuit history and buy a soapstone carving. I’m told that the Inuit know that white people like to barter. But they don’t always understand the concept. “it is 50 or 60 dollars” they will tell you. You decide.
Dinner is caribou stew at Maggie’s house with many friends. Then I do a presentation in the library where lots of keen kids and adults show up and stay for more than two hours, wanting to know all about my stories. Until quite recently, the Inuit led a nomadic lifestyle. This did not allow for a house full of books. They have no reading background or tradition. But they do know storytelling and treasure it!

On Friday morning the taxi arrives at 7 AM. We asked for a taxi to “Sue’s place.” Even though there are some 1500 people in town, the taxi drivers know all houses by name. There are no street addresses.
Each house has a bright red lamp burning out front. If the light goes out, it is a signal to the water truck to come and refill the water tank.
    At the airport, the highschool soccer team is also waiting for the plane. The highschool girls shyly come up to me and ask to see my chicken!
    I fly to Arviat, Nunavut where the public librarian and a teacher are waiting for me on dirt bikes. I leave my suitcase at the airport, just somewhere in a corner.
     One presentation in Levi Angmak Elementary School for the Grade 5 students. In the afternoon I talk at the Donald Suluk Public Library. In between the librarian takes us home for a wonderful lunch which includes milk and fresh vegetables.  Her husband keeps looking out the window to see if there might be a polar bear out on the ice. I am send home with a large, frozen arctic char. When I get to the airport, my suitcase is already on the plane (they knew it was mine!) but they retrieve it so I can stuff my char in the front pouch so it will stay frozen.
Then I say goodbye to the north... this strange, wonderful, mystic, frozen land full of warm people, warm smiles and kind friends. I hope to return some day but for now, I take memories and gifts back to the south. “Ma’na” (thank you in Inuktutut).

If you would like to learn more about the Inuit, there is a wonderful picturebook co-authored by Simon Tookoome (an elder from Baker Lake) and Sheldon Oberman. THE SHAMAN’S NEPHEW. I highly recommend it!
Check out Michael Kusugak’s books: