Monday, 7 July 2014

A Cabbie Abroad: Canada

Mason McQueen is a London cabbie who has taken to gaining the Knowledge in some of the world's most far-flung corners and most treacherous driving conditions. He believes he is well qualified. Not because he has mastered the nuances of the North Circular but simply because, he claims, a London cab driver is "naturally a nosy bastard".

His mantra is "Want the lowdown on a place? Speak to a cab driver." By working and living amongst the locals he can gain access to experiences and information that your average travelogue presenter can't. Last week he was in Cambodia, driving a tuk-tuk, eating tarantulas, learning about the horrors of the Killing Fields for the first time, and bearing witness to the extreme social divides of wealth versus poverty.

This week he is in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, in Canada's Arctic north. Here he also eats local delicacies (frozen whale meat or walrus penis, anyone?) and noodles, and discovers another world of contrasts - the extraordinary intermingling of a boomtown on the edge of oil, metal and mineral excavation and the harsh struggles of its native settlers, the Inuit.

Iqaluit is minus thirty degrees when Mason arrives, and as the sea has frozen over, the only way in is by plane. He is going to work for local cab firm Pai-Pa taxis. Few people own cars this far north and as there is no public transport, nearly everyone goes by taxi. At least in winter, when walking for even a couple of minutes outside can result in frostbite to exposed areas of skin, as Mason's cheeks very quickly discover. ("Makes me look a right boozer!") The taxi company prides itself in being the last off the road during a blizzard, determined not to leave their customers stranded. Taxi drivers come - like Mason - from all over the world to benefit from their necessity. As cabs charge per passenger as well as for distance travelled, it can prove very lucrative.

Craig is Mason's new boss and takes him out to show him the ropes. "Is this a four-wheel drive?" Mason asks of his car. No, is the answer, before he is made to drive up Iqaluit's slipperiest hill, which he simply slides straight back down again, time after time after time. It's too expensive to import salt for gritting the roads. Mason doesn't wear a seatbelt. He also fails to indicate at a junction and drives straight through a stop sign. Typical London cabbie, then.

Iqaluit has no street names, just house numbers and a junction known as Four Corners, which is the busiest intersection in town. It even, Mason's boss tells him, has an occasional "rush minute". Passengers climb in and simply ask to go to a number. ("723, please.") "Er, is that near Four Corners?" Mason usually replies.

Gradually, he starts to find his way around, and meets several interesting characters along the way. Nancy is a Inuit with a baby on her back. She tries to teach Mason throat singing. Zoya is a marine biologist who has shipped up a year's worth of toilet paper from Winnipeg and earns enough money to afford a boat and a Ski-Doo.

The voiceover tells us that Mason has "volunteered" to help at a local soup kitchen. You kind of think "Like hell he has," but there is no doubt that Mason is genuinely moved and troubled by what he finds there. Homelessness in a place like Iqaluit is invisible, since anyone who slept rough on the streets would die instantly. Instead people couch-surf or sleep in rickety shacks, risking carbon monoxide poisoning from a decrepit stove which is their only source of heat. The soup kitchen is open seven days a week and for many of the Inuit who use it, it provides their only meal of the day.

Mason gradually gains more layers of clothing, and a fur hat. By the time he is given a day off to go ice fishing, he is made to wear a sealskin coat and polar bear trousers. This is the full-on Pingu experience, with a snowmobile to drive them there, a power-drill to create a hole in the ice, and lures to dangle into it for hours on end. The Inuit's traditional ways (just like Pingu's) are being stamped out by technology, but they still try to teach Mason some of their stretching and pushing exercises to keep warm.

It is dark in winter for up to 18 hours a day. You wonder if this - as well as the substance abuse and social problems the people face - has anything to do with the worryingly high suicide rate, particularly amongst teenage boys. Mason meets a young lad who has lost his best friend and is totally unable to understand what led him to end his life. As a parent, Mason cannot imagine the pain of having to bury your child at an age when their life should just be truly beginning.

It's a very lonely place, and one you must either love or hate. There is certainly no escape. Mason says he feels totally cut-off from the rest of the world and technically he is, especially when a massive snowstorm shuts the airport. But a sighting of the spectacular Northern Lights shows him a beautiful side to this harsh Arctic wilderness.

I have never ventured so far north, in Canada or anywhere else. I did once experience a few days of winter in Montreal, which at only minus 25 degrees in the windchill would probably seem positively tropical to anyone from Iqaluit. There wasn't much snow on the ground until my last day there, but a stroll around the back of the Oratoire St Joseph one morning showed me what it is like to battle extreme cold. By the time I was back at my lodgings, a hostel run by nuns who knitted slippers for their guests to wear around the house, my cheeks were throbbing and my legs were numb and blue. Stepping out on the pavements from anywhere indoors literally took your breath away. It was like a knife slicing across your face. Thankfully Montreal is kitted out to prevent you from spending much time outside when the elements are at their most brutal. It has a whole heated underground city of malls and eateries, all hooked up to the outskirts by an efficient Metro system.

Le Vieux Port in Montreal. The harbour was frozen. 
Oratoire St Joseph 
These aren't clouds, they are ice particles
Slippers knitted by nuns
Me in the blistering Canadian cold, in December 2000

I have actually managed to see the Northern Lights without needing to venture into the Arctic circle. Or even anywhere that far north. It was in Missoula, Montana, which is on approximately the same latitude as Milan. The regular appearance of the Aurora Borealis was evident, since the locals were as blase about it ("What on earth is that amazing shimmering green cloud hovering above the mountains?" "Oh, that's just the northern lights") as they were about hummingbirds ("What on earth is that amazing shimmering green bird hovering next to me?" "Oh, that's just a hummingbird.") Generally, if you are shimmering, green and amazing, it seems you like to hang out in Missoula, Montana. But I still don't know how the Northern Lights get there.

Anyway, Mason McQueen is a top bloke, and I look forward to seeing him at his next stop, the island of Fiji.


  1. Wow, he's impressive, though I'd like to see Iqualuit drivers cope with Hyde Park Corner at 6pm in return. And I rather love the idea of a rush-minute. I shall ponder the concept as I sit in my car, stationary, failing to get home from work...

  2. Yes, there should definitely be some return invites sent out. I wonder if Mason will ever need to face Hyde Park Corner at 6pm ever again now he has a TV career...