In the small hours of the coming morning, Jared and I will be catching our bus from Toronto to Thunder Bay; the trip is a long one and we will hopefully arrive in Thunder Bay tomorrow night around 10pm. Once there, we will spend that night in a youth hostel in the downtown and on the following day, it is up to us to find a way to Lake Nipogen, another hour’s drive north east, where our tree planting group will be meeting. From that point onwards I will be continuously outside for the next three or so months, living through whatever the forests of northern Ontario have to throw at me. The entire trip north, I will be lugging with me three enormous bags that hold my camping and tree planting equipment, as well as my clothes and living necessities; it is much more and much heavier than the bags I brought with me to Palestine, but then no one said this would be easy. Jared, who introduced me to Treeplanting, has recently received a promotion from the company we will be working for and is now a “crew boss”, meaning that he is in charge of instructing new planters on the best planting techniques and also on how not to become dinner for the local wildlife. This makes him my direct superior and I’ve promised not to be too insubordinate for as long as he’s responsible for me and the trees I shall be planting. In an hour and fifteen minutes, I will be saying goodbye to my family (who now after five months are probably more than a little sick of me) and heading off to the Toronto bus station; needless to say, I am very excited.
Twice on my Friday night shift I was nearly injured before the tree planting season had even begun - this would have been a shame, as on that day, my tree planting shovel finally arrived in the post all the way from Vancouver. Early on in the shift, a plastic mold that appeared to have become sentient and hugely resentful towards its operator overlords, aimed a spurt of molten plastic towards me while I was inside it. Upon closer inspection by the brave Horizon Plastic’s maintenance staff, it turned out that the world was not on the cusp of a robotic insurrection, but that my machine had, however, developed a leaky nozzle. Later, approaching six in the morning and the last hour of my working week, in a zombified state, partly brought on by sleep deprivation and partly brought on by the fact the radio was playing Taylor Swift’s Troublemaker for the fourteenth time that night (the Star FM gang won that night), I found myself reaching for an itch in my neck with an electric drill; thankfully, common sense kicked in before I became the latest recipient of a Darwin award.
On certain machines at Horizon Plastic’s you’ll find yourself working with fibreglass rods; these are hammered into giant boxes (called Orbises) to help work the hinges. If I never have to work with fibreglass again in my life it will be too soon; the rods easily splinter as you are hitting them into place with a hammer and your hands and arms quickly become covered in fibreglass dust. If hell existed, it would permanently snow fibreglass dust there; essentially the “dust” is just millions of tiny splinters, invisible to the human eye and razor sharp, that quickly become embedded in your skin wherever they make contact. The resulting condition results in pain and itching all over your arms and body (God help you if you accidentally touch your face and eyes) that can only be alleviated by by taking a freezing cold shower in order to open your pores so that you can then try and scrub the shards and splinters out.
Anyway, back to the shovel, which I’m really rather quite fond of. Tree planting shovels are not your generic garden shovels: much sharper (in order to break through the toughest ground) and sturdier too, they also cost quite bit more but are a worthwhile investment - in order to see really serious returns from tree planting, you are expected to join “plants” for more than just one year’s season (each season is called a plant). According to my friend, Jared Nonnekes, with whom I’ll be travelling north, the shovel also has to be shortened so that when your arm is fully extended, just the tip of the shovel touches the ground; this apparently makes planting trees easier (though I’ll leave the DIY to him). We are still unsure of the date we are leaving as the start of the season depends on when the northern ground fully thaws, but it’ll be no later than May 10th. On Monday, I have to let my employment agency know that past that date, I am no longer available for factory work - it will be an emotional moment.
It has been five months since I returned home to Cobourg from the West Bank, and once again I find myself on the precipice of another adventure. This time not so far afield, but still a little daunting nevertheless. Come May, a friend and I will be flying north to Thunder Bay where, for the duration of the summer, we will be making a living planting trees in the Canadian wilderness. Though I appreciate the outdoors, I would never go so far as to describe myself as the outdoors type, and so it is with a certain apprehension that I look forward to three months living in a tent surrounded by bears, and bugs, that although a little smaller, share the same carnivorous appetite.
In order to meet the start-up costs of tree planting, which are much cheaper if you already own camping equipment (I do not), as well as transportation costs, I have been working forty hours a week in a plastics factory in Cobourg, which has been a huge experience in itself. It is shift work and your hours change each week on a rotating basis. This week I’m working graveyard and as I write this at 9:30 in the evening, I have an eight-hour working day ahead of me starting at 11:00pm. Enjoying the company of South Ontario’s blue collar workers is a little similar to enjoying an Evelyn Waugh novel - you have to disregard a huge amount of overt racism and homophobia before beginning to appreciate the characters who expound such views (often a symptom of reading the Toronto Sun on a regular basis). This is ironic as most of these people are also staunch left-wing trade unionists who see no divergence between their opinions. However, beyond skin colour, politics and sexual orientation, the biggest divide among the workers of Horizon Plastics Canada is what radio station you listen to. Anyone who has worked in a factory will tell you that a radio is crucial to mitigating the overwhelming boredom and monotony of the eight-hour day, and so, who’s playing what station becomes a matter of vital importance. Inside Horizons Plastics, we can only reach two radio stations: The Star FM “for today’s popular music” and the Breeze, “south Ontario’s best classic rock station”. Both are equally awful, the Star will play the same ten songs over and over again, day in, day out; these songs were already overplayed even before the Star started bleeding them completely dry. The Breeze plays what it calls “classic rock,” which by their definition simply means cheesy hits from the 80’s that are played for their target audience, who nostalgically reminisce about better days. The twenty or so radios operating on any given shift tend to be split equally between the two stations and each side will try and outplay the other, making the enjoyment of either radio station impossible. On machines requiring more than one person to operate them, it has been said that the debate over which radio station to play has almost led to blows.
I sit and write this last blog entry back in the safety and comfort of Cobourg, Ontario. Being home, it feels as if I never left, almost as if my trip were a very long and surreal dream. I had packed so much activity into the last two months that seem to have slipped by faster than two weeks of my ordinary Canadian life. Arriving in Canada fresh from the West Bank, it is impossible not to reflect on the Harper administration’s policy towards the Palestinian people. It is no secret that Harper has been courting Netanyahu’s government since he came to power, his unrelenting support for the Israeli government, in the face of the new UN vote now seems increasingly abhorrent: How can a country that prides itself on being a bastion of human freedom and a champion of human rights support such clear transgressions of international law and morality? Does Canada truly support home demolitions as a form of collective punishment, or the settler communities, who in the case of Hebron, forcibly removed Arab residents from their houses in the Old City whilst being protected by the IDF; how is it that a country such a Canada unflinchingly supports only one side in a conflict where mediation between the two sides is essential? Canada even failed to condemn Israel’s vindictive instant reaction to the vote (putting it at odds with even the United States): an announcement that a thousand new homes were to be built in the controversial E1 area of East Jerusalem, a move that would effectively remove any last hopes of a two-state solution. Canadians must ask why their government has left them at odds with the international community, and that whether, in the not too distant future they too could find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Today I had to say goodbye to the West Bank and cross the checkpoint into Israel for the last time. Saying goodbye to the my Arab friends was a very emotive experience involving lots of hugs, kisses and promises of return (Palestinians, like all Mediterranean peoples, are incredibly hot-blooded and far more inclined to express emotion through physical contact than us in the more reserved Anglo-sphere). Before I left, I got up early and after a glass of piping hot Arabic coffee, decided to hike the Bayt Sahour hills to get a final taste of Palestine. I was not disappointed, for the first half of my walk I was chased by child, olive harvesters who constantly repeated: “One dollar, one dollar!” In the vague hope I’d have some money to give them. They gave up once I reached the main settler road, on which, I was quickly passed by three Israeli armoured cars and a military truck heading towards a plume of black smoke (presumably from burning tires), that was rising in the distance.
Hitchhiking in Israel is usually a very easy matter, lasting no longer than five minutes of standing by the side of the road staring down passing drivers, whilst making nearly any gesture you choose to with one of your hands. However, today I was stuck in the town of Ra’anana for two hours until, finally, I was picked up by a passing Eastern-Orthodox nun in a beaten up Fiat. Say what you like about the religious, but in my experience it is consistently the pious who will stop at the side of the road for hitchhikers. Sleeping in Kochav Ya’ir tonight, eagerly waiting for my flight to London tomorrow morning.
Celebrations in the streets of Bethlehem last night after it was announced that Abbas had won an upgraded status for the Palestinian state by a landslide; European support adding further clout to the diplomatic manoeuvre. Yesterday night, as people celebrated around us, Samuel and I hitched a lift with a former US Marine to Jerusalem. The ex-marine, named Dave, had spotted us at the side of the road, turned his car around and then proceeded to drive us the entire way to Jerusalem. This turned what is usually a forty minute trip, including numerous security checks as we pass through the wall, into a short ten minute drive. Dave has rare, foreign access to the Israeli-only roads. Along the way to Jerusalem, Dave explained to us how he had ended up in the West Bank: He had come from a “secular, broken home” in Southern California and had joined the US marines to get away from his miserable home-life. Instead of finding fulfilment in the military he explained to us that his marine service had left him “mentally and emotionally sick”; he had trained to become a killing machine and now felt inhuman and empty because of it. After his service in the marines, he got heavily into drugs and eventually overdosed, nearly dying. After his near-death experience he converted to Christianity, this new found faith prompted him to move to the West Bank where he now operates a charity that helps Palestinian children with heart defects gain access to Israeli hospitals on the other side of the wall. It was an interesting car ride to say the least.
It’s unusual to have to apologize for living in Canada, even more so when one is not Canadian. However, that is what I spent most of today doing, one Palestinian man even asked to see my passport, suspicious that I was a Canadian pretending to be British (I told him to go away). Many Palestinians I’ve talked to today are very offended by the Canadian government’s choice (however futile) to vote against upgraded Palestinian UN membership. As one Palestinian put it to me, this is the behaviour they expect of America. I now only have three days left in the West Bank, I’d finally been becoming used to life here; things that seemed strange and surreal on my first day in the territory now strike me as entirely normal (the near-constant rumble of fighter jets, for example). Increasingly, I feel that this is an area of the world I will be coming back to (providing Shin Bet doesn’t now have me on some sort of list) and though not all of my experiences here were pleasant, I think I’ll miss the place.