Thursday, December 18, 2014

Canada Travelogue 7 - Military museum

Another section in the Glenbow museum had letters written by Canadians who were held prisoner of wars in various countries - even in such circumstances a few soldiers had a sense of humour; felt sad though to think of their position - captivity in a foreign land, no idea if they would see another day, no idea whether their letter would reach their loved ones and only memories to cling to. One solider had written how lovely it was lying on a hospital bed after having spend so many nights in trenches! He joked about the jaundice he had - "you should see how yellow I am; a lovely mess".

Military museum

From home, I took the bus to the centre of the city (also known as 'downtown'). Bus charge is a flat $3. You have to tender exact change when you step into the bus; there is a big plastic box near the driver where you drop the money. The driver then gives you a small rectangular slip of paper that looks and feels like a newspaper clipping with the date, timing and some info on the back. This ticket is valid for 90 minutes. From downtown I had to switch to another bus and when boarding that bus I showed the driver this ticket; I didn't have to pay $3 again. There are no conductors on buses. The bus will only stop in bus stops in case there is someone waiting there or if someone inside the bus requests for a stop - you do that by pulling the yellow cord that runs above the window (you can see it on the left in the picture). I realised this when the bus never stopped in the location that Google indicated was a bus stop. I ended up getting off 2 stops later and had to walk quite a bit. The good thing is that the city is pedestrian friendly; every road has a footpath beside it. After walking for 25 minutes I reached the military museum at about 11:30 am where there were a lot of kids running around. 

Life in the trenches

The mural
The elderly staff gave me a map and told me where what was. He added, "You don't want to start down here because there are 150 kids below - it's like chickens on steroids out there." The entrance fee was $10. There was a huge mural in the main hall - hundreds of small images, each representing some piece of Canada's military history.

I entered the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) section - this regiment was deployed in the First World War in Europe; there were simulations of war trenches - cramped places infested with rats where soldiers had to stay for weeks with limited supplies. Trenches are occupied by troops even when there is no enemy attack; they try to hold the lines. Trench life did have a schedule when there was no attack - breakfast (brought to them from the kitchen), cleaning weapons, attending to personal matters etc. There was a guy who wrote poems for his daughter from the trenches (appropriately titled 'Wisdom from Nonsenseland'). Typical schedule involved spending 2 weeks in the front line, 1 week in support, 2 weeks in reserve and 1 week at rest. There was disease and stinking smells in the trenches. There was always a chance of death - taking a peek by stretching out of the trench could result in getting shot by an enemy sniper.

The PPCLI were part of the Second Battle of Ypres which involved a German gas attack. In 1915, of the 1000 soldiers that initially arrived (known as the Originals), only about 150 remained. On 10 Nov 1918 the PPCLI were in Belgium. When the German leader abdicated, the war stopped suddenly and there were celebrations in Belgium; it was a pleasant surprise but there was bittersweet feelings in the regiment - so many lives had been lost. Dying for what people would say is a larger cause; but one wonders why we should have people killed for the sake of a conflict that is generated by a few minds.

The other areas in this section were about involvement in the Cold War, Balkans, Korean conflict, Cyprus, Afghan conflict etc. 

The other section I found interesting in this museum was the Founder's Gallery where there was an art exhibition by a photo journalist on the Ukraine crisis - a few poignant photos and a video taken from the protestors side during the night showing bottle grenades being thrown to the police side. They burnt tyres to keep themselves warm in the winter.

For the first World War, there were around 48,000 Albertans who enlisted; the country was just coming out of the recession and there was unemployment - out of them 6,000 died and 24,000 were wounded.

Life for prisoners of war was also hard - the Germans had severe punishments. Blowing your nose in an undisciplined manner meant 5 days of closed confinement. 5 days for not standing during a parade; 8 days for trying to take German potatoes; 8 days for laughing at a German officer.

There were some articles about the relationship between the King's Own Cavalry Regiment and the Maratha Light Infantry (an Indian unit); they fought together in Italy between 1943 and 1946.

The air force section had a section about the decorative art that crews painted just below the cockpit; it was a type of graffiti also called as 'nose art'. Air crew members wanted to personalize their aircraft; they felt it was special. There were paintings of women and even disney characters. I had my packed lunch in the pantry - there was no one else around; by 2pm the place was getting empty; the school kids had all left. There was also a Navy section where the guy in charge joked, "As you see I am quite busy right now."

Overall it is a nice museum - for those interested in history, wars and military this is a worthwhile place to spend some time. If you do keep reading everything that is there in the museum it will surely take you the whole day.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Canada Travelogue 6 - History lessons

The third floor of the Glenbow museum had the 'Mavericks' collection - details about people who had made an impact in Alberta; people who did things differently. There were stories about people from the oil industry - Alberta advanced greatly due to the discovery of oil and gas and there were pioneers in this area. Jack Gallaher said, "You  only go through life once," and took risks. When he founded his oil company, for the first two years he was the only employee. He believed the oil business was 90% luck - you had to be lucky to strike oil. He had the vision of searching for oil in the Arctic and his company was the first to undertake this venture.

First Nations

Art on display in Glenbox museum
More interesting exhibits on this floor was about the original residents of Alberta - they were the 'Indians', now called First Nations. They lived in peace and joy. The bison was the most important animal in this period. There were primarily 3 groups of First Nations and the exhibits on display focussed on their lives and how it changed slowly with the landing of immigrants in other parts of Canada. In the 1800s, the buffalos/bisons started disappearing. This was a problem for the First Nations in Alberta since they didn't do much farming. This was the ideal time for the Government formed by the British to take over - they had been present in few parts of Canada prior to this. Treaties were established between the government and the First Nations - the government taking over the lands and promising to teach the First Nations farming, providing them with education and medicine. Medicine was required because the First Nations lost a number of people to diseases which they believe came from the Europeans. The First Nations really didn't have any choice but to sign the treaties. 

The treaties were abused - First Nations people claim that residential schools destroyed their family structures and identity; children were sent to schools far away from their parents so that they would forget all ties to their community and culture. Physical abuse was common - one of their comments says, "We learned how to bully the weak; we learned to treat each other with contempt and violence; institutional behaviour replaced traditional values."

Interesting but sad comment if you reflect at what is happening in India as well; instead of absorbing the goodness of another culture we end up replacing what existed; and we destroy the goodness that existed.

Betrayal repeatedly

The First Nations people were heavily regulated; rations provided to them by the Government were sub-standard; the government which promised to take care of them while signing the treaties, later cut down on food supplies saying it was costly to feed them. The people were used to traditional foods; the commercial foods supplied to them made them sick - diet changes wrecked their health. The First Nations leaders say they never agreed to transfer land to the government in the treaty; they agreed to live peacefully with the immigrants in return for adjusting to a new way of life since the buffalo disappeared. An Indian Act was passed which the First Nations were not even aware of - this gave more control to the government over the Indians. 

Before this event, the US government wanted to ensure safe passage of US migrants from their lands to the First Nations; they signed treaties with the First Nations for this - to provide protection to First Nations from others in return for safety of US migrants. But soon the US themselves started encroaching into the First Nations area - they started mining for their benefit.

Along with this there was trading that was happening with another tribe; they gave whiskey in return for buffalo hides. People who never knew about alcohol began drinking; they fought with one another and beat their wives. The alcohol was a combination of rum, gunpowder and other toxic ingredients - it slowly killed or blinded the First Nations people but it was addictive.

It is sad to read how the First Nations were taken advantage of - the powerful taking advantage of the weak. There are numerous stories in history of such events; and it's not just at the macro level -  we see such things even in our day to day lives, be it in school, college or office.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Canada Travelogue 5 - Spiritualism in a strange place

First place I visited in Calgary was the Glenbow museum. Entrance fee is CAD $15. There weren't many people around but there was a gang of school kids inside an auditorium on the ground floor.

The section I stepped into on the first floor had paintings based on the history about the First Nations (the original people who lived in Canada were earlier called 'Indians') - how they were dependent on the bison (buffalo) for everything in life, the extinction of the buffalo, the First Nations' Treaties with the British and the search for occupying more land (trying to reach the borders along the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans). There were some good scenic paintings in this lot.


I then landed in the Art of Asia exhibition hall which had a dimmed light at the entrance. Inside it was filled with sculptures and statues; first was the Buddha with the mudra that we are used to seeing often - mudras are hand gestures and the abhaya mudra is the one people use for blessing someone (palm outward, fingers straight up); it signifies freedom from fear. 

Going further down, there was a statue of goddess Kali standing on top of god Shiva (the destroyer) from whom she gets her energy - she has four arms and a garland of human heads around her neck - symbolising that the human body is temporary and can be destroyed. She stands for victory over ego. The description beside each of the artifacts was very informative.

A few exhibits were on the rivers and goddesses Ganga and Yamuna. Water is used for cleansing and that's why many temples have a water tank/pond in front of them.

Buddha's enlightenment

There was an emaciated Buddha statue whose ribs and bones could be seen; Buddha went on the path of austerity by starving for six years in the hope of finding truth/enlightenment. But even then he didn't and so realized that this wasn't the right path. The statue depicted the moment he decided to give up austerity. It was after this that he had the encounter with Mara; nearby was the statue of Mara - a demon who tried to tempt Buddha during his meditation. He took the form of a beautiful lady to tempt Buddha. It didn't work and he tried to create fear in Buddha by using his army to shoot arrows at him but the Buddha responded with the 'bhumisparsha mudra' (touching the earth) - a sign of resistance and telling the Earth to witness his deed. Temptation and fear, two very powerful emotions in us. Buddha was now enlightened.

Explanations of the mudras here:

In one corner of the hall, the sight of a large life size Buddha statue was comforting and reassuring. Ideally placed was a bench right in front of that statue. The lighting in this section was great - not too bright and not too dark; created that perfect meditative and introspective atmosphere. Since there were not many people and even the few that came passed by quickly, you could just sit in a trance as long as you wanted. There were some security guards moving around but they were unobtrusive to visitors.

Other displays and explanations

There were some exhibits about Amida Buddha - one branch of Buddhism that believes in the concept of a 'Pure Land'. One statue was of Tirthankara - this is part of Jainism; looked very similar to the Buddha sculptures except that they have a diamond shape object on their chest. There was a display of the Palden Lhamo - a wrathful deity from Tibet to symbolize strength over negative emotions like jealousy, hatred, desire and ego.

There were write-ups about the use of deities and images for prayers - many people think hinduism is about worshiping idols alone; but the reason for having idols is that during prayers/rituals it is believed that the Gods would actually be present in the idols. There are also reasons why there are so many gods in Hinduism - the idea being to represent all materialistic things as God so that when man goes in pursuit of any of these, man thinks of the respective God. Unfortunately nowadays we get lost in focussing so much on the material part of life that we forget everything else that matters.

Fighting inside and outside

All the displays within the Asian section had some commonalities (be it from Japan or Cambodia or Thailand or India) - freedom from fear/desire, going above the ego/self and realizing the fragility/temporary nature of the human body. Just witnessing the exhibits gave me calmness within and even goosebumps - wonderfully displayed and good descriptions.

The fourth floor had a section about West Africa that included a few exhibits on Yoruba cosmology - Yoruba are people from the Nigerian area; their beliefs are interesting - they believe in destiny, cycle of life and death, they believe everything in death merges to one, they believe thoughts/actions of each person interact with others including the Earth. Kind of similar to the Asian beliefs.

There was another section in the museum that described wars - pages, squires, knights, war strategies (like forming a square against a cavalry attack), guns, cannons, mustard gas for blindness, archers and death. After seeing the section on religion, one will wonder why we lose lives in war when there are so many other things to overcome in life. Why are we fighting outside when there is so much unexplored inside?