Day 162 - David (1st person I approached)
June 11, 2014 - I saw David from about a block away. He was sitting on a bench on the seawall, looking out over False Creek. We sat and chatted as countless walkers, cyclists and joggers went by, enjoying the sunny afternoon.
David was born in the tiny, 700 year old village of Kneesworth, near Cambridge, England.
“I think there were about 500 people that lived in Kneesworth,” said David. He has one older brother.
“I did all of my primary and secondary schooling in Kneesworth. At that time, the education system was called '11 plus.' At 11 years old based on testing, you started preparing for an academic life t then go on to a professional life. Or if you didn’t do so well, you continued with the idea of working in a trade when you finished school at 16. I didn’t do so good. I liked school, and things like woodworking and metal shop. We also had an acting program which I enjoyed until I became too self-conscious to perform,” he said shyly. David had always had an interest in horticulture, in part because of the location where he grew up.
“In school we learned about things that were relevant to our community. There were a lot of farms and people working on the land and we studied horticulture in school. I thought I’d like to work in a forest somewhere,” he said. When he finished school, at 16 years old, he got an apprenticeship in a glasshouse farming company.
“It was a three year apprenticeship. I worked in the glasshouses growing vegetables and things. I went to school one day a week and worked the rest of the time. Then I did a one year practicum to complete the program.”
After completing his apprenticeship, David “decided it was time to move on.” He considered Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
“I was thinking of Australia, but the Vietnam war was happening and there was talk of sending troops and I did not want to go to Vietnam. Canada wasn’t getting involved and so I came here.” David had done some travelling in Europe in his youth, usually with groups, but this was his first time moving away from England.
“I landed in Toronto and took a train across Canada. The sheer size of the country. For a young lad traveling alone, it was amazing. I ended up in Sidney, on Vancouver Island (British Columbia (BC)),” he said. David got a job working for the Forestry Department, in research.
“They were importing trees from all around the world and we would test and track how the different species fared in test grows. I was just finding my feet. I learned so much in that time,” said David. He met a woman and they got married and settled into life on the Island. The marriage didn’t last, and after a couple of years, David decided to sell up and return to England.
Back in England, David worked for a year and put together his next adventure.
“I bought a boat and got it ready, thinking I might sail to Australia. In the end though, I left England and headed back to Canada. I sailed to Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands. Then I crossed to the Panama Canal and up the west coast back to Sidney. I picked up crew among the way. It’s like people hitch-hiking. People will work on the boat as crew in exchange for passage. It took me about eleven months. I was in my late 20's and it was an incredible adventure,” said David.
“I was young enough then to be a bit more fearless. I wouldn’t do that same trip again, having done it and being older now, I know the risks. But at the time, I didn’t know what it would involve.” David landed another horticulture job with a family owned business. He became romantically involved with a woman he had met when he was in Sidney the first time.
“We kept in touch when I was back in England. Then when I came back to Canada, we started dating. I worked for a while and was living a good life. We planned to go on a sailing trip, and weren’t exactly how sure we’d be gone for. Then my girlfriend got pregnant” said David. They got an offer to live and work on Prevost Island, off the south coast of BC. The island is owned by an Irish family and is primarily a farm.
“It was definitely living off the land. There was no electricity and no running water. It was generators and collecting well water, looking after animals, farming and growing our own food,” he said. They stayed there for two years.
David and his wife applied to an organization called CUSO - Canadian University Service Overseas. They are a development organization that works to reduce poverty and inequality in developing countries.
“We got accepted and they offered us a position in Papua New Guinea. It was exciting and scary at the same time. So, with our daughter who was two and a half at the time, we headed to Papua New Guinea. There are over 800 distinct languages and tribes there, all separated by mountains, or valleys or bodies of water. The most common language spoken is Pidgin English. After a few weeks to acclimatize, we moved to our assignment,” said David.
“In 1967, a French Canadian Pastor had gone into the mountains near the Indonesian border. He discovered a tribe of people that had not had any contact with the outside world. This was about 20 years prior to us going there. Our assignment was to work with the tribes people, to help teach them about growing crops. They had obviously managed before we got there. But their diets had no protein, they were in poor health and they had a high infant mortality rate. We helped them to grow more productive crops that provided a more balanced diet. We provided education and health support as well as infrastructure,” he told me. I asked how the tribes people reacted to this outside help.
“As foreigners, and particularly white people coming in and helping them, they treated us well. There's an expression ‘Cargo Cult’ which means they trusted that we would provide them with tools, help them build shelter and provide supplies. In return they were open to our help.”
After two years living in the mountains with tribes people, David was ready to leave. I wondered if the time spent living off the land on Prevost Island had helped them to prepare for life in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. David told me
“I don’t know if anything could have fully prepared us for that experience. I mean, yes, I guess it did somewhat, but I still question whether we did them any good in the long run. I mean their health was better, they had better resources. The infant mortality rate improved and the young ones got an education. The down side to that was there were more tribes people, with no more land. The young people who were getting an education had no way of utilizing that knowledge. It seemed to create a whole new set of problems.” The son of the headmaster of the school and David’s daughter had formed a strong bond, with them being around the same age.
“The headmaster was from Papua New Guinea himself and I think he was thinking about arrangements for his son’s future. He was so grateful for everything we had done, he offered to give his son to us. Literally. Of course we couldn’t do that,” said David. The family settled back in Canada, this time choosing a small farm in the Cowichan Valley, on Vancouver Island.
“After we had been back for about eight months or so, the young boy did come to live with us for about a year. He was seven years old. I think the flight and travelling alone was overwhelming for him. He was quite freaked out, and it was a huge culture shock for him as well. We got him into school and he started making friends and seemed to adapt okay. We didn't want him to get too caught up in consumerism or western culture. After almost a year, he went back home to Papua New Guinea. It seems we didn’t keep him long enough to spoil him. He ended up becoming a school teacher,” said David with a sense of pride in his voice.
Once again, the family got into a routine of living on the west coast of Canada. David got a job working for CP Rail.
“They had gotten large tracks of land when they were building the railway and still owned much of it. I was working on the reforestation, managing and planting seedlings. I did that for seven years,” he said.
“Then one day the phone rang. It was a coordinator for CUSO, the organization that we had worked with in Papua New Guinea. They had a project that they thought we’d be good for and wanted to know if we would be interested,” said David. Their daughter was a teenager now and his wife wasn’t interested in going. But David was interested.
“We talked it over and it took some time to decide, but my wife told me that she wanted me to go, if that’s what I wanted. We had been together for close to twenty years and I guess timing is everything. We decided I would go, and we would just see what happened for each of us. And so, I went to Papua New Guinea again,” said David.
Going back a second time was completely different for David.
“I was working in an office based in Port Moresby, which is the largest city in Papua New Guinea. It is also very dangerous. At that time it was the second most dangerous city listed on the UN (United Nations) safety listings. There was a lot of violence and crime and poverty. And of course being a caucasian male, I was a moving target. The job was very stressful. I was coordinating volunteers and resources. Helping with planning and logistics of the various assignments we had going on there,” said David. During this two year assignment, David met a woman and they became romantically involved.
“I had been communicating with my wife and we had both come to agree that our marriage was at it’s end. We both wanted to be supportive of one another and we are still close and remain good friends. It was completely amicable. We corresponded via fax and we spoke on the phone. There wasn’t much emailing going on," he said.
"There's something that happens when you're living in those dangerous circumstances. When you're dealing with that kind of pressure daily. People become closer.” When their time was up, David and his girlfriend returned to Canada together.
“She’s Japanese Canadian and is from Regina (Saskatchewan). Her parents had been living in Vancouver during World War II. They had their farm property confiscated and were one of hundreds of Japanese families sent out of BC during the war,” he told me.
David got a job with the horticulture company that he had worked with during his second time back in Sidney.
“My girlfriend had established her own business in Vancouver. I would work during the week in Sidney and then come back to Vancouver on my days off. After work I would go to the dock. I built a boat from an old hull and spent three years working on that. The plan was to sail the boat to Mexico, and leave it there. Then we’d winter in Mexico on the boat and come back to Vancouver for the summers,” he said. Owing to personal circumstances, plans changed and David sold the boat.
“My girlfriend's daughter was ill and we needed to be in Vancouver.”
I had talked with David for almost an hour, and was enthralled with his story. We spoke about David stopping every now and again to appreciate just how fortunate his life has been . All the adventures, the positive impact and experiences he has had.
“Every now and then, like anyone I get a bit down. I stop and think about just how lucky I’ve been to have lived the life that I have. It’s in those moments that I’m most grateful for my life,” he said.
I asked David what he had been doing sitting on that bench alone when I first came over to chat.
“Oh. I was just coming back from looking at a boat I’m thinking about buying. I don't like to make decisions in a hurry. I was just sitting here thinking about that.” #notastranger