Saturday, February 26, 2011



The weather in Florida was so bad last year that the pool heating at the condo we were renting collapsed with exhaustion.
We exchanged horror stories about cold weather with our friends, and they were in Florida.  Some vowed they would never return. And they didn't. I hope the weather now is good in Mexico too.
I am ecstatic to report that the 2011 February in Florida has been the best in years. It helped that not only was the new heating equipment for our condo pool working well, even on a few crappy days the pool was 86 F.
 When a pool is that warm, I can handle even a cold front from Canada. I remember as a kid editor working in the Yukon when we went to hot springs outside Whitehorse. The air was freezing. Your hair froze between strokes in the pool. It was a grand experience, made grander perhaps by the over-proof rum.
The contingent of Canadians at our condo flop around in the sun like beached dolphins. And then we all phone home to taunt relatives and friends with the temperatures here.
Unfortunately, there is a new curse to blight our day and to be the new big topic of conversation, the price of gasoline. Usually the conversation around the pool peters out after questions about where you're from and how long it took you to drive down, and what was your route. The location of the best happy hour and early bird special is still topic number one, and will be even if gasoline goes as high as the scare predictions.
All I want to know is why my oil stocks aren't going up at the same rate.
We spent some time anticipating the shuttle launch, and then on the scheduled day, Mary and I and our friends the Garricks made sure we were peering into the eastern sky at precisely the right time hoping to catch a glimpse of the tower of flame even across the peninsula.
 No luck. Guess that is pay back for the time when I saw the shuttle launch without the slightest planning on March 22, 2009.
Thanks to my son Mark, I have paid far more attention in recent years to the shuttle than I expected. I wrote about all his trouble to see one launch on Feb. 7, 2010 in a blog "Chasing the Shuttle".
Then we went in January to the Kennedy Space Centre along with many other Canadians. It was much more interesting than I remembered, and I wrote about it on Feb. 4 in a blog titled SIDE TRIPS FOR SNOW BIRDS.
I wonder if it's just Mark's influence on me but I sense more interest, and a growing nostalgia, in the space program as it winds down. The TV anchors talked wisfully about how it was all going to end. They were as sad as if they were reporting on the cancellation of their favourite hair product.
Everyone seems to be paying more attention. The launches are not just humdrum routine but are back as major events, complete to count-downs.
I'm sure that NASA is feeding this gleefully. And the White House will be paying close attention. Heaven knows that the world needs more good news, even if it costs billions, just as Canadians fleeing from winter need it to be sunny and clear and warm with all the cold fronts staying north of the Great Lakes.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011



My first visit to Egypt wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done.  I showed up with my wife several  months after Anwar Sadat had been assassinated and there were soldiers with machine guns in sandbag bunkers on most corners.
Mary and I had a wonderful time despite my dumb timing. But we were fools in a time capsule where  any turn in the road might reveal a challenging cop or a statute carved an eternity ago.
I returned to 1982 North American civilization filled with dire predictions that the wonders of the Egyptian past may have survived centuries but they may well be ruined in the next one. And it also seemed obvious that the brutal dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak wouldn't last either.
A second visit five years ago showed that the Egyptians were taking better care of their archaeological  treasures than they were three decades ago, and even though his overthrow was inevitable, Mubarak still ruled with an iron fist and very cheap bread. In fact, the media sifted the warning signs and concluded he was secure.      
 My naive first visit was prompted by a wonderful whim of the Toronto Sun's founding publisher, Doug Creighton, who believed in working hard but newspapers were also supposed to be fun and life often looked better through the bottom of a martini glass.
 When news was slow and the city's mood was down, Creighton believed that the Sun should be entertaining as well as informative. I remember him during a depressed time sending Allan Fotheringham  to sample the best hotels in the world. The Sun staff hated Foth's assignment hut the readers loved to hear about the Lord Nelson Hotel in Cape Town where they ironed your newspaper before a  lovely  breakfast.
 Creighton said things were slow around Ontario politics so I should pick several world cities and go see how they were run. And take Mary, he added. So off I went to Rome and Jerusalem. Then I added Cairo since life seemed to be quiet there.
Rome's mayoral office was hospitable and Teddy Kolleck, the legendary mayor of Jersulem, folded Mary and me into a week-long seminar for a committee of world leaders and eminent professors on how he was running the cradle of religions. It was Kolleck's clever manoeuvre against the move at the UN to make Jerusalem an international city not ruled by the Israelis.
We flew directly from Tel Aviv to Cairo on a bootleg flight that didn't exist officially. The plane had no markings, the barf bags were from EgyptAir, and the flight crew were ex American fighter pilots working for El Al.  They flew the battered anonymous jet as if we were in the Six Day war.
Just getting downtown to the Nile Hilton was an adventure since the cab companies and limousine operators were having their own war. I didn't ask to see Sadat's assassination site but we were taken there anyway, and then we were abandoned on a railway crossing in the middle of nowhere because I don't think the driver liked me.
The idea that some Canadian columnist wanted to visit Cairo's administrative headquarters was so farfetched, to the Egyptian bureaucrats that is, that I never did get a reply.
So Mary and I wandered around, wading through the begging kids, ignoring the exorbitant tip demands for any service, getting mixed reactions at all the military checkpoints. At one mosque, they almost hugged us, saying we were the only visitors they had had for a week and what could the soldiers show us.
The fabulous collection of treasures in the  Egyptian Museum were dusty and painters were not even using drop clothes to protect splatters raining down on King Tut's wonders. No one seemed to care.
On my last visit, the improvement in basic housework in the museum was astounding.
The museum, as the world now knows from all the coverage of the uprising, is on Tahrir Square. We spent a lot of time there because it was just outside the back door of the Hilton and it is a crossroads for the city. That is where I went to find the illegal money dealers who gave you deals on Egyptian pounds that were 50% better than in the Hilton lobby. (Nervous transactions because the dealers feared the secret police. And the buyer had to be careful that no phoney notes were shoved into the middle of the wad.)
So why am I detailing a visit 30 years ago? Because in the early months of the new leader, Mubarak, there was no sign, no illusion, no hint, that there was any freedom of any kind for any Egyptian. And no one said it was about to change. Any person holding a sign demanding just one taste of democracy would not have lasted in Tahrir Square. Even though it has been a traditional centre for careful protests, its second name of Liberation Square was cruel irony...until now.
 By noon, the diesel fumes in the square would give you a headache if you didn't retreat from the sun to air conditioning and the excellent Stella beer.  I'm sure for many Egyptians, fear also made that air heavy.
There was no suggestion then that Tahrir Square would really be known more as Liberation Square, not with the suffocating security that blanketed it because of surrounding government offices.
There was one overwhelming fact that any tourist should have noticed on my last visit. When tourists moved between the wonders of the ages like Luxor or the Valley of the Kings, the buses moved in convoy as if it was a military operation in enemy territory. No bus driver or tour company rebelled. If your bus was headed to the Red Sea, it waited at the side of the road in the dusty heat until the main convoy arrived and then you all headed through the hot desert past the watch towers of  soldiers. Safety in numbers, or so the tour companies and dictator hoped.
Any healthy government doesn't live in daily fear of terrorism in every part of the country. And Mubarak's did for its entire life. Surely a government is rotten to its core when it rules by brutal cops and a military that lines the major roads and insists that tourists be protected in ways that are unique in the world.
About 12% of Egyptians are involved in the tourist business. Tourist dollars are essential to the country's economy.  It's not just Egyptians who have died in Liberation Square. Nine German tourists were blown up just outside the museum in 1995. In 1997, more than fifty tourists and Egyptians were killed at the Valley of the Queens.  There was a major bombing at a Red Sea resort where Mary and I had wondered at the tropical fish just months before.
All you had to do was skim the Internet and the deadly deeds of extremists, and the government's warnings about terrorism were mentioned often in items about Egypt. For example, take the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor but it would be better if you didn't get off at certain stations.
The wonder isn't that Mubarek was toppled from his throne made from the skulls of murdered dissidents in 18 days, but that it didn't happen sooner.

Friday, February 4, 2011



Once upon a time, when holidays were too brief and taking the kids on any trip was playing Russian roulette with your credit cards, I perfected the Downing rush to somewhere.
We loaded the car with snacks and good pop and threatened to behead any son who asked whether we were there yet. It worked fine, and readers of the Tely, Sun and the Ontario Motor League magazine seemed to appreciate my tales from the road.
Just before the sons flew the nest, we specialized in Toronto to the south of Florida in 27 non-stop hours. Even though we had four drivers, dad always drives the most, I find, and I used to sink into the sea with a Bacardi and coke in hand, semi-comatose, on Saturday afternoon after fleeing Toronto in the wee hours of Friday morning.
Old habits die hard, and Mary and I have continued the dash to Florida, after increasing it to a civilized two days. My son, Mark, who lives in China, has rejoined the expedition for the last two years. And last year he grumbled that it would be nice to actually see something as we roared south.
So this year I played hooky from the normal schedule. And it took us four days and 300 km. more. Say about $600 extra for museums, motels and meals. But the three Downing musketeers had a good time. (Or so they say. Wait, however, until they're mad at me.)
Mark has a science and chemical engineering degree from U of T, plus a MBA that he finished on an exchange with a Hong Kong university. He was fascinated with the birth place of THE bomb, much of which happened at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. Not that far off the main street for Canadians fleeing to Florida, I-75. Pleasant drive in, and then the museum called the American Museum of Science and Technology. Admission for adults is $5, $4 for seniors. And we had a good visit.
There was one wing jammed with information on the Oak Ridge community and  the staggering numbers of people who worked on the atom bomb. I had no idea that something like 80,000 people were there for a few years, or that the project "borrowed" $100 million worth of silver in the work developing the bomb.
As someone who reads widely and was also in the RCAF a decade later -  not all old military equipment looks that strange to me - I was surprised pleasantly to find much of the material to be new and  interesting. Fascinating stuff on the instant houses and instant transit system that were created in weeks. Don't remember anything about this in my urban geography classes.
Much of the displays in the museum resemble what you find in the better science centres of the world (for example the Ontario Science Museum in Toronto) but the displays related to the Manhattan Project  just brim with information. As Mark quipped in a twitter, the information is so dense, "there is a critical mass of ideas."
So yes, to answer the eternal question from parents hurtling south with kids bouncing off the roofs, it is an interesting detour.
Mary then announced that she had always wanted to see the aquarium in Atlants. I have always gone around Atlanta rather than through it since we were almost mugged on a hot summer night by a street full of angry blacks (but that's another story.)
So we went around and around downtown,  past the CNN headquarters and Coca Cola museum, and then Mark using his I-phone found us Martin Luther King's church. We finally ended up at a Holiday Inn that didn't cost a fortune
We were at the Georgia Aquarium before it opened. It is debt free, it claims, and no wonder. Seniors pay $21.95 each and adults $25.95. I have been to aquariums all over the world and love them, but I have never paid that much. But it says it is the largest squarium in the world and its huge main tank is a wonder to behold. It is packed with such spectacles as three of the world's largest fish, the whale shark, cruising comfortably while a giant manta ray practises languid somersaults over and over.
The fish shimmer and dance in puffs of colour. All the exhibits are first class, the staff great, and the crowds  tolerable. (I would hate to be there during a school break.) For the first time in decades, I thought I might recommend that driving through Atlanta, which many do instead of taking the bypass, is worth considering.
Since Mark in 2010 made two trips across Florida to watch a night launch of the shuttle around 4.15 a.m. on Super Bowl weekend,  it  seemed that not going to the Kennedy Space Centre was rather dumb. After all, we hadn't been there for a couple of decades. (I wrote a blog about Mark's nocturnal adventure, Chasing The Shuttle, on Feb. 7, 2010. On March 22, 2009, I wrote about how most of us now view the shuttle in a blog titled A Shuttle Of Past Glories.)
As the space centre continually reminds visitors, it receives no taxes to support it. Obviously it couldn't exist without all the exhibit and material provided by NASA, and the centre and the active launch pads on the Cape have a symbiotic relationship that is more important to the space centre, I suspect, than it is to NASA.
So there is a hefty admission charge, a basic $39.11 for seniors and $43.46 for adults. Is it worth it? I thought it was. But I really think readers should consider those costs, when one of the big arguments in government today is making programs and projects, whether in culture or education, pay for themselves.
So the aquarium and the space centre don't get government money and as a result, the three Downings had to pay $200 to get in. Do I really have to say that such admission charges mean that there are families who just can't afford it, no matter how wonderful the displays are.
And they were. The garden of rockets at the centre. Walking underneath the gigantic tube of Apollo 18. A wonderful IMAX film about the glorious colours of space revealed by the Hubble telescope after it was fitted with two new lenses in a space walk that we viewed in vivid 3-D technology.
I have not given you a shopping list of what to see in the Georgia Aquarium and the Kennedy Space Centre because you can Google them and see everything they have to offer. i thought every single display was done superbly, from the humble one off to one side in a giant hangar where you could touch a rock from the moon to trying to find the leafy seahorses hiding in the kelp.
However, if I had left Ontario a few days later when the predictions were that most of North America was about to be buried under avalanches of snow at any minute, I might have been inclined to roar right through to where you could swim in the pools, not skate on them.
Thank heavens we caught a break. And thanks to my wife and son, it was a pleasant interlude!