Saturday, 31 December 2011

By The Label

I love a glass of really good wine. But it's always more interesting when the bottle it comes in has a fun and funky label and/or name.

A few years ago on our way to rock climb in the Needles of South Dakota, we stopped in Hill City at Prairie Berry Winery. We sampled and picked up a couple bottles of Red Ass Rhubarb -- which started out as a "mistake" when the winemaker added raspberries but is now one of their most popular wines. It really does have a distinct rhubarb flavour which I love.

We stopped there again last fall and this time brought home a bottle of Three Rednecks (cabernet sauvignon) and one of Phat Hogg (chardonnay). Again, very cool labels!

Naked Winery (located in Oregon) has tasting rooms both in Hill City and in Custer. We sampled several wines with very sexually suggestive names but settled on Diva and Oh! to bring home.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dear Mayor and Councilors:

I never thought I'd find myself writing a letter to City Council. I rarely get that worked up about things and I'd be more likely try to find other solutions to whatever the issue happens to be. When it comes to things like increased city taxes, I have the means to pay more and I don't want services cut. I want beautiful places like River Landing, a new art gallery, better cycling infrastructure, a children's museum and updated play area for kids. To get all these things costs money. Simple as that.

I'm also extremely cognizant of the fact that whatever I do in my personal life has the potential to impact on my work and on my employer -- whether that be positive or negative. Especially when much of my work these days involves interaction with our elected officials. It would be easy for them to think my personal thoughts are also those of the Police Service.

In September, a review was occurring and councillors were debating the merits of various City services. Up for discussion was increasing the cost of the seniors & low income bus pass. Normally, I probably wouldn't have voiced an opinion either way. But at this same time, I was busy working my way through the challenges of the Saskatoon Food Basket Challenge and I felt compelled to share my experience in learning of the value of a $5 bill.

Although I did get some very positive responses from a few of the councilors, in the end my letter didn't have much effect. In last week's final budget deliberations they voted to increase the cost of the pass from $21 to $25 per month.

For interest's sake, here's my letter dated September 26.

I’m writing this letter as Shelley Ballard-McKinlay. Not as Inspector Shelley Ballard. These are my own words, thoughts, feelings and are in no way meant to represent the Saskatoon Police Service.

From September 13-19, I was one of 13 participants in the Food Basket Challenge. Our challenge was to live off the contents of a food basket from the Saskatoon Food Bank for one week. The basket typically consists of 2-3 days worth of food, but many clients make it last much longer than that. Clients can only go to the Food Bank once every two weeks.

We were also allowed the use of only five pantry items (out of a choice of 12 items such as flour, coffee, tea, sugar, ketchup, mustard, etc.) and could spend only an additional $5 on food. Accepting food from family or friends was not allowed.

Our limited options and nearly complete lack of choice was very, very difficult for all of us. For myself, this lack of choice manifested itself in a total obsession with food both during the week and for at least a week or more prior to the Challenge. I religiously rationed my food and thought long and hard about what I was going to spend my $5 on, calculating the costs of items down to the penny. I purchased a ½ dozen eggs and 1L of milk for $3.41 and then carefully hoarded my remaining change to buy one peach at the Farmer’s Market for $1.22. (Considering myself quite privileged, I would normally not even think twice about how I spend $5 or $10 or $20+ dollars. Some of us admitted that we didn’t have a clue how much a piece of fruit costs – we just go and buy it!)

As participants, we were struggling to complete the Challenge. Many people felt too tired to work properly. Some were unable to complete the Challenge. People with families found it particularly difficult. And yet, we were the lucky ones. We had jobs and warm houses and transportation. Once the Challenge was over, we could restock our refrigerators, eat out in restaurants and enjoy the full range of food options.

People who live in poverty 365 days of the year are not so fortunate. Some of them responded to the participant’s blog posts on the Food Basket Challenge website (, telling about their experiences and feelings, and it made me very aware of how difficult it is to cope on an extremely limited budget because you have no choices.
Do you feed your children or yourself? Do you buy medicine using the money you have budgeted for food? Do you buy a bus pass or pay the telephone bill? These are not valid choices – they’re desperate measures.

Here are just a few other things I learned during the Challenge week:
  • 44% of low-income households include at least 1 working adult;
  •  Full-time minimum wage pays almost $16,000 below the poverty line for a family of four;
  • Social assistance doesn’t cover the cost of affordable housing. The 2010 Saskatoon rental allowance was $625 for a family of four, yet the average rent for a 2 bedroom apartment is $934;
  • Social assistance provides $255 per month to cover food, clothing, travel, personal and household items for an adult. The amount is the same for a single parent and one child!

Given the above information I know, better than ever before, that it would be an extreme hardship for low-income individuals and families to have to spend another $5 per month, per person, on transit.

You all have a choice to make in the coming months. I emphasize it is a CHOICE. This is something that my fellow Challengers and I did not have from September 13-19. And something that low income people don’t have each and every day.

I ask that you choose to keep the low-income subsidy for transit users. It is one small item in a very large budget, but it will make an enormous difference to individuals and families living in poverty and struggling to survive.

Respectfully submitted,

Shelley Ballard-McKinlay

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Spanish Anchor and the Curse of the West Caicos

Before diving at each new location, one of the Dive Masters would give a short briefing about the area – the layout, what we could expect to see, and a bit of history or a story to go with the site. Lynn provided great entertainment about the “G Spot” which was apparently so named because it’s hard to find. Of course many other sexual innuendos accompanied the telling!

At “Spanish Anchor” Brandt provided a story filled with both fact and fiction.  I’ve supplemented it below with some names, dates, etc. found in a history book and Internet.

The story goes like this . . .

Many, many years ago in the day of pirates . . . a Spanish Pirate moored his boat just off the coast of West Caicos Island. The British tried to chase him away but he couldn’t move because his anchor got stuck. He fought off the British for a time and finally got away by cutting his mooring line, leaving the anchor at the depths of the sea. The British eventually caught up with him and sank the ship but the pirate’s Haitian girlfriend put a curse on the island so that no one could live there. (Fiction – although there is an old anchor there, which we never did see, no one really knows for sure how it got there. This part of the story may be based somewhat on the notorious pirate Duliaen who would hide his vessel in a rocky inlet on the northern coast of West Caicos, tying branches and trees to the masts to screen the ship from observation while he lay in wait for merchant ships passing by.)

In the 1850’s a Grand Turk company began building Salinas for salt production but a quarrel between the partners ended this venture. Shortly after, the Belle Isle Manufacturing Company of West Caicos spend a considerable amount of money (for that time period) constructing a salt-water canal and installing a tramway and other facilities. This venture also didn’t last long due to financial conditions as a result of the American Civil War and the company was foreclosed on. (Fact)

The 1890’s saw a boom in the sisal industry and the West Caicos Fibre Company was formed. (Fact) The demand for sisal diminished when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and cotton became the fibre of choice. (Artistic license by Brandt since Whitney invented the cotton gin about 100 years before this!)

West Caicos was declared a Port of Entry and Royal Mail steamers picked up their first load of 100 bales in March 1903. The manager of the West Caicos Fibre Company returned to England later that year and once again financial difficulties led to the end of this enterprise. The ruins of “Yankee Town", railway tracks and equipment from these industries can still be seen on the island. (Fact)

spotted filefish

Raphael Trujillo, the dictator of Santo Domingo, tried to purchase West Caicos in the 1950’s, probably for use as a hideaway, but due to problems in procuring a clear title, the negotiations fell through. (Fact) He was on his way to sign the sale documents when he was assassinated. (Fiction by Brandt). Trujillo was assassinated some years later, in 1961. (Fact)

In the 1970’s, Esso International acquired an option to build an oil refinery on West Caicos and in anticipation of this, another wealthy group from Nassau received a land option and built a small airstrip on the island.  Once again, fate stepped in and the scheme died due to the sudden death of the main business promoter. (Fact)

Facts from “Turks Islands Landfall, Volume 4” by H. E. Sadler and this website

(It’s interesting to note the above website states that “development is underway to construct a small, exclusive community with yacht harbor and airport on a small port of the West Caicos” but the link to the Isle of West Caicos doesn’t work. Another business venture cursed?

Andrew -- the best dive buddy ever!

From Hawksbill Turtles to Spotted Eagle Rays

Our last dive of the live aboard trip was definitely one to remember! I was just behind Andrew and above the edge of the wall. I saw a hawksbill turtle coming from the side and since it’s not really common to see turtles I desperately tried to get Andrew’s attention. But he was looking forward so I raced up to him, grabbed onto his tank, gave it a good shake and then raced back in the other direction.

Earlier in the week when Andrew had spotted a turtle he got a few good photos and then everyone else came in and started flashing away and the turtle quickly swam away. This time, I made no other motion to attract people’s attention, giving Andrew as much time as possible to take photos and not bother the turtle too much. Eventually every one else saw it and you couldn’t get close but for all the cameras of the paparazzi!

Dive master Brandt was off on his own watching the chaos when a spotted eagle ray came up along the wall and underneath him. Having already backed off from the turtle, Andrew and I were the only other ones who got to see it. The one & only spotted eagle ray we saw the whole trip. Amazing, graceful and beautiful! 

Beyond the Thunderdome

Last week Andrew and I did our first live aboard dive trip on the Turks and Caicos Explorer II. Although the boat holds up to 20 guests, it was very nice there were only nine of us which made it easier to get to know people and provided a bit of extra room on the dive deck. It was a great group of people/experienced divers from US & Canada and this was complemented by five great crew members who looked after us very well -- Captain Ken (Texas), Chef Stan (Turks and Caicos), Engineer Mark (Jamaica), Pursor Polly (Vancouver), and Dive Masters Lynn (Florida) and Brandt (Washington).

Lynn blowing the conch shell to signal it's time to dive!
We dove three main areas -- Northwest Point of Providenciales, West Caicos and French Cay. One of my favourite dives was one off the Northwest Point. 

Thunderdome is a great dive site that we did both as a shallow daytime dive and as a night dive. The Dome is a “wreck”, which has some interesting history.

“This was once the site of a French television game show (circa 1990”s) . . . Contestants had to free-dive through a rectangular opening in the top of the dome and ask for air from one of several ‘mermaids’ equipped with air tanks and an octopus regulator. If you asked the wrong one for air, you received only a breath or two and had to swim like mad for the surface. The show was cancelled after several contestants suffered air embolisms and had to go to the local recompression chamber.

The dome itself is a large, heavy, steel-mesh structure that sits upright on a flat sand bottom in about 35 or 40ft of water. A couple of sections of the dome have fallen off the structure, leaving one side open and easy to penetrate.”  (Diving and Snorkeling Turks & Caicos, Lonely Planet, 2001)

There is also further damage to the structure due to hurricanes but it still provides a great area for fish and other sea creatures to hang around. Even though they’re on the inside, you can still see through to them. These were likely some of the largest groups of fish we saw and the most variety in one place. Sting rays, spotted drum, peacock flounder, yellow goatfish, spotted goatfish, blennies, jacks, queen angelfish; on the night dive we saw sting rays, two big sea turtles, nudibranchs, and a very large green moray eel. 

spotted moray eel

There Are Sharks in the Shark Hotel!

We saw sharks on almost every dive we did in Turks & Caicos! Both reef sharks and nurse sharks anywhere from about 2 – 9 feet long. No matter where we go, everyone seems to get so excited about seeing sharks and this trip was no different with people scrambling to take photo after photo of them but, personally, I like the more colorful fish such as the angelfish or parrotfish. Or the odd shaped ones such as the hogfish or the puffers. Sharks are just a dull silvery grey color.

Having said this, the sharks did provide some entertainment with their apparent friendliness. On the night dives in particular they followed us around and also followed the boat one day as we moved a short distance from one site to another. As far as the boat crew knows, none of the boats feed them so it’s odd that they do this.

On our second last dive, which was a transitional dive (got in while it was still dark, got lighter throughout the dive, and sun just coming up as we got out) a little nurse shark came up beside Andrew and rubbed up against his regulator similar to the way a cat would rub up against a person’s leg. Spending our last few minutes around the mooring before coming up, our dive master Lynn put her hands down in a push up position and was looking for small things in the sand when a shark came up from the side and nudged her hand. It startled her but she put her hand back and moved a few inches away. The shark just lay there beside her. She moved a few more inches away and the shark moved the few inches with her. This went on for some time, which was so interesting to watch! When a second shark came along Lynn decided it was time for her to move on. Someone earlier had referred to her as “The Shark Whisperer” and the name is aptly suited! 

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Curmudgeons

More “interesting” people arrived at Small Hope Bay Lodge the other day. The best single word to describe them would be “curmudgeons”.  Definitely a couple of characters! Curmudgeon #1 is 76 years old and started diving (self taught) when he was 19 – long before diving became a mainstream activity. He and Jeff’s father (Small Hope Bay’s original owner) began diving together and he’s been coming to this lodge every year for the past 40 years. He and his friend, Curmudgeon #2, along with various others in their group, do the “over the wall” dive each morning that is 185 ft in depth (the deepest Andrew and I have gone is about 130 ft). It’s obviously a rather short dive and there’s not much to see at that depth. The dive staff have put a variety of things there just for fun such as the “chicken fish” (a rubber chicken). Although we were pleased by the fact the dive staff thought we were experienced enough to invite us to do this dive, we simply didn’t feel comfortable at the thought of going that deep.

#2 was also on the three dives we did on Wednesday. I don’t think I can politely give my impression of him so I’ll just say it – annoying, loud, obnoxious. That about covers it. He was continually interrupting staff when they were trying to do the dive briefing and very critical of others. They’re both very set in their ways and believe in simplicity but seem to very laissez-faire in the safety aspects of diving that have been drilled into our heads. For example, you don’t need a dust cap on your regulator, you don’t need to have your regulator professionally serviced every year, don’t worry about leaks in the tank, integrated weight systems will kill you, you don’t need an octopus with a spare reg, if you don’t think about it you’ll never get the bends, safety stops aren’t necessary on shallow dives, most people have way too much gear, and the list goes on.  Luckily we only dove with them one day!

On our day before flying back to Nassau we biked around a bit, visiting the Androsia batik factory and an inland blue hole that was quite beautiful.

Today we’re off to Turks & Caicos for a live aboard dive trip. Hoping for smooth waters!! 

(For photos, check Andrew's blog post.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Eyes on the Horizon

To keep from getting seasick on a boat, you’re supposed to keep your eyes on the horizon. It also helps if the wind isn’t blowing and the waves aren’t a bazillion feet high! And if you don’t have to take your eyes off the horizon to get dive gear and yourself organized to jump in the water . . . well, that probably helps too!

We made it through the first couple days of “queasy dives” with minimal throwing up and now that the wind has calmed, so have our stomachs. Which makes for much more enjoyable diving!

I arrived in Nassau, Bahamas on Saturday, met up with Andrew and early Sunday morning we took a 15 minute flight over to Andros Island. We got right into the diving!

Small Hope Bay Lodge is an “all-inclusive” but is actually the furthest thing from the typical all-inclusive that I imagine when this term is used. It’s a second generation owned facility that is 50 years old, with 20 small cabins and a main dining hall/games room/reading room/lounge. There are even two friendly dogs,  Sassy and Scuba. The owner himself, Jeff, greeted us at the door and led us to our room. He and the approximately 7 dive staff know all the guests by name and the night before each guest leaves they receive a certificate of achievement in whatever their specialty -- so far there's been diving, snorkelling, bone fishing, drinking and dancing. The majority of people coming here are divers. It’s very quiet, fairly isolated, and definitely not a tourist trap. 

Having said this, they do get some “interesting” characters coming to stay. This week it’s the Russians. Four couples – well, not really “couples” as we later learned – 4 middle aged men with women who are not their wives. Three of the guys came diving with us one morning. The other guy had beer with his breakfast. The women wanted to know where the disco was. And they’ve definitely gotten their money’s worth from the bar! (Yes, they got the drinking and dancing achievement awards!)

There are lots of really good dive sites, and variety of dive sites here. We’ve done both shallow dives and our deepest dive to date. We dove a “blue hole” this morning, which took us through several crevasses and caverns – luckily we could always see light in the distance! More diving to come! 

(p.s. Photos to come too. Not sure how great the internet connection is for that sort of volume.) 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Grip It!!!

Saskatoon has a new climbing gym! Oh, but not just an amazing, high, awesome climbing gym with fun, friendly and fabulous owners and staff . . . but also a yoga studio, a massage therapy business, a lounge area and a party cave!!!

This is definitely a fun place to be! I've been climbing a few times in the past 3 weeks since it opened; I'm helping teach some beginner classes and am looking forward to taking advantage of other amenities. Heck, I might even organize a birthday party for myself so I can book the party cave!

Awesome staff & owners
This way to the fun!

Party Cave

Amazing art work! 

One climbing room.

Another climbing room.

Teaching wall with nice big holds!

Weight room

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Values are only words . . .

I had a "debrief" meeting today with organizers and fellow participants of the Saskatoon Food Basket Challenge. The participants were given a lovely and very unique thank you gift. (Can you see the photo in the middle of the tree?)

"Values are only words . . . until it costs us something to stand behind them."

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Food Basket Challenge Experience

I started thinking about having my own blog when I was asked to take part in the Food Basket Challenge – to live off the contents of a food basket from the Saskatoon Food Bank for a week (Sept 13 - 19, 2011) and blog about my experiences. I didn’t get my act together in time to copy my posts to a blog of my own (had a bit of trouble coming up with a blog name that wasn’t already spoken for) but really found the whole process incredibly interesting, including the blogging!

Here are my Food Basket Challenge posts in chronological order . . . kept here for posterity!

Expectations - What I "think" the week is going to be like. 

Motivation - Why am I doing this???? 

Food Prices and Another Challenge - "She has a spreadsheet!" my friend Deirdra says! In hindsight, this post shows some of my ignorance as to what I'll get in my food basket. 

Pleasantly Surprised - Expecting Worse - Our food baskets were better than expected! Well, for the first few days anyway! 

Sleepless Night - The obsession gets going full steam ahead! 

Dumpster Diving - Thank goodness this is as close as I got! 

Lentils - One way to use lentils. Here's another. 

What Does Poverty Look Like? - There is such a wide range! 

Living the Challenge - People share the "real" life experience. 

Long Day - Two events to volunteer at! 

Similarities and Differences - How Food Basket meals differed from "normal" meals. 

A Peach! - Mmmmm, a lovely peach! 

Shelley & Ann at the Friendship Inn - Thanks Jackie for going with me! 

On Being Vegetarian - And trying to live a Food Basket diet. Also includes a list of what I ate all week. 

The Answers??? (I'm all out of catchy titles too!) - Answering some followup questions from the windup forum held at the Indian & Metis Friendship Centre on Sept 20. 

The Adventure Begins!

I'm starting an adventure! Yes, I’m the proud new owner of a blog! If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

To steal a couple lines from my niece Julie, I’m not going to “analyze the world” like my husband Andrew and I’m not going to “analyze books” like my nephew Andrew. Nor am I going to analyze movies or post funny pictures like Julie does; nor am I going to analyze food, wine and restaurants (well, at least not much) like my sister-in-law Penny does.

I’m simply going to blab once in a while about my adventures in life. Whether it be climbing, diving, travel or any of life’s other amazing experiences.

Oh, and I’m also not going to obsess about stats and how many people are reading this drivel!  Because really, who cares!?!   J