Book Burning or Fact Fudging? What I Found Out Researching the DFO “Book Burning” Claims

20140105-110903.jpgI was shocked recently to read an “article” a couple friends had linked to on Facebook about the Canadian Fishieries and Oceans Library and Archives being “simply sent to landfill or burned”.  Why would the government want to destroy centuries of archival research I wondered?  “Article” is in quotes because I quickly realized it was not a work of news, but a blog post, but many people don’t realize there’s a difference.  You’re about to see why there is.

This blog on a site called Boing Boing –which not helpfully links back on its own website, at least when the links actually work –claims there is a Conservative, “war on the environment”, that “An irreplaceable, 50-volume collection of logs from HMS Challenger’s 19th century expedition went to the landfill”, and disturbingly, “Some of the books were burned”, and also “The Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland: gone. Both collections were world-class.”

Wow.  Book burning by a major G8 government in 2013/2014?!  This is truly shocking. Decades of research being dumped? Stunning.  Libraries that are just “gone”?  Awful.   But as I kept reading, I realized none of these claims are backed up by anyone.  They’re not attributed to any identified person.  They’re not quotes.  The article contains a boxed link to something, again, not attributed, or linked back to its source that claims scientists are being “muzzled”.  It names someone called only “Hutchings”.  Who is this person?  Why are they mentioned?

So I decided to do a little investigating for myself.  (Incidentally, something I always recommend people do before posting something for all your friends and family to see.) As a journalist, I deal in facts.  Not hysteria, not hyperbole.  When you’re screeching, “The sky is falling!!”, I’m liable to go outside and see for myself, instead of running around with the other people who are now terrified simply because someone told them to be. You can have an opinion, just make sure you’ve done your homework.

Let’s look at the claims made here, one by one, for fact checking:

Claim 1.  “The Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland: gone. Both collections were world-class.”

Fact 1. I looked at several reputable news sources, and also went right to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website for their handy FAQ on Libraries Consolodation.  While, yes, they are closing both those libraries, they say, (a news article on the Winnipeg closure here) “The Department’s 11 library locations will be consolidated into 4 locations, composed of 2 primary locations, the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney BC, and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth NS, as well as 2 specialized collections residing at the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) College library in Sydney, Nova Scotia and the CCG technical library in the National Capital Region.”

So what’s happening to the collections, you might ask?  From DFO: “Consolidating Departmental libraries will result in minimal change for external users. There will be no changes to the size or scope of the collection,” and “The Department may remove only content that is duplicated at one or more libraries and, in rare instances, materials which fall outside the subject disciplines pertinent to the department’s mandate from its collection.”

The Winnipeg Free Press article linked above also goes on to say, “DFO scientists had already cannibalized what was left of the library, but hundreds of books, journals, maps and reports remain.”  So what appears to be happening, is the good stuff from the library was sent to one of the remaining libraries.  What they didn’t deem valuable was kept by other DFO scientists.  The leftovers were opened up to the public. This stuff is not being trashed willy nilly, from the research I’ve done.  And just as an aside, when scientists and librarians have deemed the stuff not valuable enough to keep, doesn’t that make you wonder if it’s truly as historically irreplaceable as some might suggest?  My grandmother kept years of old newspapers, but does that mean I need to become their custodian when no one wants them?  Might the DFO be getting rid of some stuff, as we all frequently do when years-old bills, used post-it notes and 9 year old greeting cards start to clutter up the home office?  Yes.  Are they dumping their vast collections in the garbage, and are they “gone”?  It would appear not from the facts at hand. They are digitizing and consolidating their collections.

Now, if you’d like to merely brush this stuff off by saying, “the government is lying!!!”, then knock yourself out.  But can you prove it? Merely being distrustful of an entity, government or person, “just because”, is not a substitute for a well-reasoned, fact-based opinion.   I can claim to be 21, and say I have a 23″ waist.  Can I prove it?  Nuh uhh.  In my world of journalism, you have to be able to back up what you publish or broadcast, or you get sued, or fired.

Claim 2.  “An irreplaceable, 50-volume collection of logs from HMS Challenger’s 19th century expedition went to the landfill”

Fact 2.  It’s hard to figure out where this one comes from, and thus fact check it.  Mainly because it comes with no other information, no source, no proof.  I can find no proof or evidence online this has happened. No one’s mentioned it.  I looked on the website for the HMS Challenger Society.  Surely an organization dedicated to and named after the very ship these logs came from would be decrying this loss of history?  Not a mention.  Then I found an article on canada.com that states, ”

“The libraries are home to the 50 illustrated volumes from Britain’s Challenger expedition that sailed the seas in the late 1800s exploring the mysteries of the deep…. history that is being packed into boxes as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans “consolidates” its world-class library collection.”

Huh.  So it’s being moved.  Not dumped.

But they’re still burning the books and maps and archival papers, right?

Claim 3.  The Big, Scary one:  “Some of the books were burned”

Fact 3.  Since the blog doesn’t tell me where this book burning went down, finding witnesses is a bit of a needle in a haystack.  And there’s not quote from any DFO employee, even anonymously, that they were forced to incinerate this stuff in the basement of a stuffy old building in Ottawa.  So what really happened? Another round of searches turns up this article from a BC online newsmagazine called the Tyee, whose headline reads, “Dismantling of Fishery Library ‘Like a Book Burning,’ Say Scientists”.

Well.  How about that.  Add the word “Like”, and it kinda changes everything, doesn’t it?  This phrase comes from a quote, from an unnamed scientist.  “I was sickened,” said one prominent research scientist who had worked for the federal government for 30 years, and who did not want to be identified. “All that intellectual capital is now gone. It’s like a book burning. It’s the destruction of our cultural heritage. It just makes us poorer as a nation.”

So I get it.  Scientists say this library consolidation is bad.  And again, having the info online or on paper, keeping a dozen libraries or just 2, those are all separate discussions you can have. All I’m doing here is looking for facts.  And “book burning” doesn’t appear to be one of them.  But hey, it makes a good blog headline, and gets it passed around, right?

Journalism vs Blogs

Now all of this fact checking is just what I had time to do in an hour at my kitchen table.  If I were doing this at work, we’d have people out there doing interviews, chasing witnesses and videotaping everything.  So before anyone discounts this mini investigation as just some internet searching, and says it barely scratches the surface, you’re right.  This is what I spent an hour on a Saturday doing: reading.  Fact checking.  And now it’s time for a glass of wine.    But bring me proof anything claimed in the original hysterical blog is true, and not only will I write about it, I’ll bring it to the major-market TV station where I work and share it with everyone.

Bottom line here, friends, before you repost stuff, do a few things:

1.  Check the facts.  If a neighbour tells you Joe Smith is killing babies in his basement on your street!!!! on Facebook, might you want to call the cops, ask how the tattler knows that, or even knock on Joe’s door yourself, before you join the lynch mob or molotov his house. Google search stuff.  Read reputable news articles about it.  Speak to someone in the know.  When you read something, see if a person has been quoted.  Does that person actually exist? Google them.  Who are they?  What do they do?

2.  Check your sources. Don’t confuse blogs with real news.  Don’t confuse bloggers with obvious agendas and hate-ons as journalists.  Get your facts from real media. If it hasn’t been covered yet, send a friendly e-mail to your media outlet of choice inquiring about it. People who work in media are not omnipotent, we need tips, and to know about what concerns you, our customers. Or–better yet–get the facts for yourself.

3.  Don’t buy into hype.  If something sounds hysterical/unbelievable/insane, it’s probably because it is.  Don’t buy into the also oft-screeched paranoia of “the media are being blocked from covering (insert whatever story here) by the government/advertisers/shadowy men in black.  It just doesn’t happen.  Want one tiny example?  Google Air Canada.  Read all the stories of complaint and troubles and problems that come out monthly about them.  Don’t you think if this media/corporate conspiracy was real, all Air Canada’s news stories would read more like Westjet’s? I’ve worked in three major Canadian markets, for every network, and never once has myself, or anyone I’ve ever worked with been ordered to kybosh a story because a corporation asked.

And yes, I obviously see the irony in writing this on my blog. Comments welcome.

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Prison: Not Your Average Day Trip

I have, and now I can say I’m glad it’s a one-off.

I once made a trip to Saskatchewan Pennetentiary  to visit an inmate convicted of killing his daughter’s boyfriend.

<Aside: it was for a documentary I was working on some time ago for a local company. To my knowledge the film has yet to come to fruition>

The family had accused the boyfriend of hooking their daughter on drugs, injecting her with morphine, sleeping with her (even though she was 14 and he was 22) and selling drugs to the town.
Sask Penn is old–a building of those old brick and stone walls that seem to tower above you to the clouds. The rough and rugged walls are topped not just with barbed wire, but with that extra-painful looking razor wire. Guard towers man every corner and double borders of chain link hug the building creating concentric circles of security.
Even so, security seems deceptively low key, even for this medium security facility; but maybe that has something to do with my media pass, camera-crew-entourage, and the presence of a minder. We sign in, present ID, go through a metal detector and have a guard look in all our bags. He shrugs as he paws through wires, lights, tripods and stacks of tapes. “How am I supposed to know what half this stuff is?” he says, But satisfied there’s no contraband, even among things he doesn’t recognize, we’re allowed to pass.
Three sets of steel and heavy glass doors keep the outside world safe. Each opens remotely with a loud “thunk” and an electronic buzz. Guards nod to

each other as we pass.
I see no other inmates, and only two other visitors. They seem like they belong here, in that they’ve probably been here many times. They are seated at small round tables bolted to the floor and with chairs attached to those tables by rigid arms.
We set up our equipment in a tiny visiting room. There are exactly three chairs and a faux wood folding table.  Inmates who are not generally considered to be a problem are allowed to come here, with the priviledge of more privacy than is afforded others. More dangerous types use the single plexiglass boxes with phone connections in the room next to us.
I’m unsure of what to expect when I meet our interviewee. After all, he shot a man to death by firing 10 bullets at him and hitting him with 50% of them. The man bled out on the floor in front of him and his drug addicted daughter as he shakily dialed 911.
We’re here because there’s more to the story; the man believed his daughter was one injection away from an overdose; that the boyfriend had threatened to “make her disappear” as revenge for the parents intervening in the relationship. The father told us that when he arrived at the boyfriend’s house, he was threatened, and the boyfriend, a former bodybuilder, charged at him.
In so many ways this could be a self defense case. The jury didn’t see it that way.
The father shuffles towards the door with his head bowed, looking at the floor. He’s not wearing handcuffs or orange coveralls, but simple jeans, a white t-shirt and black runners. His red hair is still visible among the grey; mostly poking though his full beard. He definitely looks like the Scottsman he is. Dressed this way, he could be a plumber or a carpenter.  Instead, in this context, he is simply his label; a killer, an inmate, a man to be locked up

and kept from society.

We shake hands; I can see he’s visibly nervous. His hands shake, his voice quivers, his eyes dart. He sits and fidgets with one rolled up pant cuff.
I can tell he’s frightened. The camera and bright lights will do that to people.

How interesting that a man convicted of murder is afraid of me, and the questions I’m about to ask him beside the unblinking eye of the video camera.

-Originally written for friends in 2006

Food & Drink: Campicurean

A campfire roast we dubbed The Mona Lisa
A campfire roast we dubbed The Mona Lisa

So it may soon be too cold to pound a tent stake through the topsoil, but I’m always thinking about camping season.

The best thing about it for me; the food.  I’m not talking hot dogs on a stick or popcorn, no.  Our camping trips are a gourmet showdown of the highest order.

Making really, really good food at a campsite (and I’m talking over a FIRE) isn’t hard.  If you can barbecue some dogs or smokies, you can cook a roast, a whole chicken, or chili.  If you’re careful, you can even bake.

When my pals and I head for the hills, we divide up the weekend’s meals; every couple signs up to prepare 2 meals .  We’ve had everything from campfire chili, to scrambled eggs and bacon, German Apple pancake, to a double-stuffed roast beef with all the fixins. Not to mention grilled pineapple on waffles.

It starts with the prep; throw some decent pots and pans into your kit.  We always have a car, and make sure a large cast iron frypan is in the mix.  it works wonders for keeping food from burning over the hot fire. It’s super-easy to fill it full of ground beef, kidney beans and tomatoes and spices, and whip up a delicious, spicy smokey campfire chili with whatever recipe you normally use.

That same pan can do wonders for pancakes, french toast, scrambled eggs. or even a favourite of mine; German Apple Pancake. (Recipe below)

Gourmet dinners can be simple too; beer-can chicken is easy, fast, and guarantees a moist and crispy bird pretty much every time. Just rub the bird with oil and your favourite spice combo, and bake. I also love stuffing whole garlic cloves or lemon wedges under the skin for added flavour and moistness.   (ProTip: bring some heavy duty rubber gloves or sturdy tongs to make moving the chicken around easier). You can also grab one of those new beercan holsters that keeps the bird and the beer from tipping into the inferno.  Handy.

Stews are also the Campicurean’s friend; jambalaya, cajun stew, beef or bison stew, and even paella all lend themselves to the campfire, or even the campstove.

The key to not setting your meal ablaze is to build a big fire first, then allow it to burn down to hot coals; and that means getting the fire going in advance.  Keep it going with small pieces of wood that don’t re-ignite a bonfire.  That helps give you an even heat, with a bit of smoke for flavour.

The other way to go campicurean is in your appetizers.  A small block of cedar, a wheel of brie cheese, some garlic paste, or chopped garlic and a splash of rum make a pretty mean warned cheese & crackers appy.  Just oil the plank, place the cheese on it, paste it over with the garlic, mixed with a wee bit of butter or oil, then leave it to warm through on an edge of the fire.  Warm up a shot of rum in a tine or a cup.  When it’s done, pur the rum over the cheese plank, and light it up, flambee-style.  When the flame goes out, voila!

Another favourite campitizer is rumaki, or bacon wrapped chicken livers. (Shopping list: bacon, chicken livers, sliced water chesnuts, maple syrup)  Buy the livers frozen, so they keep in the cooler. Chop them small, wrap them in bacon with a slice or two of water chesnut.  Cook them on the edge of the campfire grill to about halfway, drizzle with maple syrup, then finish the cooking process.  Dee-lish.  (And for my squeamish friends,  if I didn’t tell you there were livers inside you’d NEVER know it!)

The bottom line is, cooking gourmet meals at your campsite is easy, with just a little planning and creative thought!

Do you have a favourite camping recipe or cooking method?  Please share it on the comments.  I LOVE finding new gourmet ideas.

German Apple Pancake
recipe image
Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Cook Time: 20 Minutes
Ready In: 45 Minutes
Servings: 4
“A wonderful country style baked pancake that’s filled with apples and spice.”
Ingredients:
4 eggs
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pinch salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup white sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 large tart apple – peeled, cored and
sliced
Directions:
1. Try to bring a cast iron pan with a lid.  If not, pack some heavy duty foil.  In a large bowl, blend eggs, flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Gradually mix in milk, stirring constantly. Add vanilla, melted butter and 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg. Let batter stand for 30 minutes or overnight.
2. Make sure the fire is ready, ie hot but not a raging inferno.
3. Melt butter in a 10 inch oven proof skillet, brushing butter up on the sides of the pan. In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup sugar, cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg. Sprinkle mixture over the butter. Line the pan with apple slices. Sprinkle remaining sugar over apples. Place pan over fire until the mixture bubbles, then gently pour the batter mixture over the apples.
4. Cover with tinfoil or a lid and let it “bake” for about 8-15 minutes. Check it.. you’ll notice it should be puffing up. Depending on your fire, it may need another  10 minutes. Slide pancake onto serving platter and cut into wedges. 

Travel Blog: Taking a Chance in Cuba 2010

It started with a baseball cap.  And led to a cozy evening in the home of a Cuban family, sharing beer and watching baseball on a vintage black and white TV, before a soldier appeared at the door, dressed for battle.  But I’m ahead of myself.  The ball cap….

Havana’s Artisan Market is a maze of tarps and two-by-fours, stalls and hawkers.  It prides itself on selling everything a tourist or local could want.  But mostly the tourists.  My husband Roger and I had arrived at the market with one purpose; find a baseball cap with Cuba’s national team logo. We had been to dozens of stalls selling hats, but no luck, and frustrated we had stopped in front of another to converse about what to do.

Memory Card 1-Cuba, Palm Desert, Winter 167The young man behind the table overheard and asked us in Spanish if he could help.  I responded, as I’m fluent in Spanish, explaining what we were looking for.  He didn’t have one, he said, but could get one.  Would we be willing to come back in one hour, and he’d have the hat for $20 US dollars.  We agreed with a handshake.

In an hour he was back, cap in hand, so to speak.  Through me as translator, he asked why we wanted one of these hats so badly.  I told him Roger was crazy about baseball and wanted a local souvenir of the Cuban team.  He was pleased, and introduced himself with a handshake and a smile as Raul.  he told us he had run (literally jogged) across town to the National Stadium, asked a friend to open the concession for him, and purchased a hat that really only the locals are normally interested in.  We were impressed at the lengths he had gone to to get us a simple hat, and thanked him profusely, tucking a few extra bills into his hand.

We then asked him if he could recommend a local place to watch that night’s World Baseball Classic game which Cuba was playing in.  A pub, a bar, a restaurant, a plaza?

“No.  Cubans watch these games at home with their families.  Would you like to join us?”Memory Card 1-Cuba, Palm Desert, Winter 050

“No thanks,” was my immediate reply, but my husband was not so easily dissuaded.

I was immediately uncomfortable with the idea of meeting a local, in a strange foreign country, somewhere after dark, in an unfamiliar place.  Alarm bells went off.

My husband began to pantomime signs; where do you live?  How do we find you?

Raul drew us a map.  “There is no phone, so just knock on the door.  My mother in law will answer.  8pm.”

As we parted ways, my husband and I debated the merits of this invitation.

“We’ll get kidnapped or robbed,” I argued.

“This could be really fun, and a neat way to see the real Cuba,” countered my husband.

Memory Card 1-Cuba, Palm Desert, Winter 176

In the end, a compromise; I copied the map and left it, as well as names, and pertinent details about the market encounter in our room.  Clues, I reasoned, in case we went missing.  I also left our passports and valuables, just in case.

On the way to Raul’s home, we made a stop for beer to bring, as a good Canadian does when watching the game at a buddy’s house.

The cab driver gave us a sideways look when he dropped us off at the address on the map.  A look as if to say, what are YOU tourists doing in THIS part of town?

The address was a massive mansion, all crumbling stone and brickwork, with huge windows, Corinthian columns, heavy wooden doors and gorgeous ironwork.  The massive front door had seen better days and stood cracked and ajar, so we pushed inside.

The door opened onto a beautiful, if dark, courtyard.  A bare bulb hung from an open junction box and a string of Christmas lights circled a window. Above us the house soared two stories.  An old home that had clearly once been a majestic mansion, was now showing its age. Most of the windows overlooking the courtyard were empty of glass with lacy yellowed curtains puffing halfheartedly in what must be the breath of fans on their other side.

Memory Card 1-Cuba, Palm Desert, Winter 144Stuck for what to do next or where to go, we lingered in the courtyard trying not to look like either burglars, or out of place.  Both of which we probably did. Eventually a young boy skipped into view and stopped in front of us.

“Ingles?”

“Si.”

He pointed to a window on the second floor,  “Raul.”  And skipped off, but not before shouting, “RA-UUUUUL!”

We climbed a wide, curving marble staircase that had seen many feet; the treads were worn in dual grooves.  At the top, a door opened.

“Bienvinidos Canadienses!” Raul greeted us warmly and ushered us inside.

The “apartment” was one large room of this once grand and expansive mansion.  Inside was a counter, bar fridge and hot plate making up the kitchen.  Dry goods were stacked on shelves.  A double bed was on the other side of the room.  Two metal and vinyl chairs hugged a plywood table.  A rickety staircase that was really a glorified ladder vanished into a makeshift loft above.

Inside,  Raul introduced us to his wife Cecelia, and his mother-in-law Beatriz.  No one spoke English so I translated.  They were very warm and welcoming.  The apartment had clearly been tidied  for our arrival. A thin bedspread covered the bed and its two thin pillows. A worn knotted rug lay beside it.  Another knotted rug of different colour and vintage spanned the kitchen.  The apartment was spartan, but a lot of trouble had clearly gone into making it homey.

In Spanish: “We brought you some beer,” I said handing it to Cecelia.  She looked confused, but offered us the two seats.  She  sat on the bed, while Beatriz pulled over a crate. Raul went to the ancient looking TV, and turned it on.  Nothing happened.

“It needs to warm up,” he explained. In the meantime, he began fiddling with the giant rabbit ear antennae clinging to the TV’s top. Eventually a grainy image appeared.

Raul offered us a rum-box; kinda like a juice box, but filled with straight Cuban rum.  That stuff will knock you on your ear. We offered them beer in return, but they shook their heads, refusing several times.  Eventually the reason came clear:  “Beer is much too expensive.  This should be for you, the guests.”

We insisted, explaining that in Canada, bringing beer and sharing it with friends over a game is typical.  Finally the relented, telling us what a treat was to sample something they can’t usually afford on Cuba’s meagre salaries.

At first the talk was about baseball.  Roger spoke English to Raul.  Somehow  Raul understood, and would then reply in Spanish, and Roger would somehow understand him.  It was pretty entertaining watching two men, each speaking in a different language, have a full conversation with little difficulty.  The language of sports, I guess.

Che Guevara is still present in modern-day Cuba.
Che Guevara is still present in modern-day Cuba.

We swapped stories over drinks and the game; what life is like in Canada, and in Cuba. Eventually talk turned to politics, and here Celia lowered her voice substantially.

“We must be careful, ” she said looking out at the paneless window frames, “Everyone listens, and some will report you for saying things against…” and here she stroked an imaginary beard on her chin. “We don’t use his name,” she explained of Fidel Castro.

We got deeper into communism, socialism, politics, and the Castro family, and with the rum loosening tongues we learned that many people were not big on Castro.  Salaries were fixed, and meagre.  “Friends” of the elite Cuban class got better jobs, bigger cheques, more rations.  Teenagers were ‘assigned” a career, based on what a panel thought you “should” do, not what you were good at necessarily, or what you loved.  All was not equal in Cuba.  As the saying goes, some are more equal than others under the Castro regime.

At that moment there was a loud pounding at the door.  Raul and Celia exchanged glances and Raul got up to answer it.

A soldier in full fatigues was there.

My husband and I froze.

First, some calm questions, then a more heated discussion.  Raul was blocking the door, trying to prevent the soldier from seeing inside.  Despite my fluency in Spanish, the conversation was rapid-fire, and loaded with slang and I couldn’t follow what was happening. Eventually an argument ensued until the door was pushed open and the soldier came in, glanced around, and went immediately  up the stairs to the loft.  We could hear him pounding around on the thin boards.

Raul came back, sat down, picked up his beer and resumed his conversation about baseball, as if nothing was wrong. Not sure what to do, (do we make a run for it? Stay put and try not to rock the boat for them OR us?) We stayed.

After about 10 minutes we heard footsteps on the stairs again. Flip-flop-clad feet emerged, attached to basketball shorts and a tank top.  It was the soldier, freshly scrubbed and re-dressed.

“Meet my cousin, Julio, ” said Raul

Introductions were made all around, and Julio shook our hands with warmth, welcoming us to the neighbourhood.

It was then I dared ask, “What was the fight at the door about?”

“Julio wanted to use the shower, but it was not his night.  We fought about it, but I allowed him.”  Julio just grinned and toasted us with a freshly opened box of rum.

“I thought you were here to arrest us!” I couldn’t resist exclaiming.

Julio laughed, and here the talk turned to working for the government.  Hearing Julio talk about how he did his job as a soldier, despite not agreeing with many of the policies of his superiors was very enlightening.

The insight from the entire family gave us a very unique picture of Cuba.  While on the surface, things seem like they roll along just fine, under the surface, there’s discontent, but no one dares try to do anything about it for fear of arrest, reprisal against other family members, or jail.

We talked long into the night, before Julio called a friend with a taxi to take us back to our hotel.

We exchanged addresses and promised to share letters and post cards.

The chance we took that day I would not recommend to anyone.  But for us it turned out great.  Sometimes taking a chance and going with your gut while travelling can leave you with fond memories… and a great story to share.

Memory Card 1-Cuba, Palm Desert, Winter 170

Travel Blog: Adventures & Explosions in Egypt and Jordan

Great Pyramid, Egypt
Great Pyramid, Egypt

With the situation in Egypt this week, it’s been reminding me of the trip I took there (and to Jordan) many years ago.  I had a great time, met lovely, friendly people and really immersed myself in the history and culture.  I kept a travel journal in the form of e-mails home.  Here they are for the first time ever.

Amman, Jordan:  Well, I made it. Looks like several of the keys on this arabic keyboard are sticky or just plain useless, so bear with me on the grammatical formalities here.
It was an exceedingly long trip. Made longer by the unscheduled stop in BEIRUT. Turns out a flight got cancelled so they decided to load everyone on my flight and make an extra stop. I got in at 6am local time on Saturday. I had a big nap then decided to venture out. Except when I woke at noon it was raining. Not just raining (in the desert, mind you), but call-in-the-ark raining. Did I mention this is the desert? The streets ran like rivers. Actual rivers. I wondered why the desk clerk at my hotel was laughing when I went out. He knew what was coming.
No one speaks English. Even those that say they speak English. Even many people in hotels. Kinda funny. I was looking for a restaurant and asked for directions in a hotel and the guy couldn’t help me. Couldn’t even find his own hotel on my map, at least not that he could communicate.

I love the people of Jordan & Egypt.
I love the people of Jordan & Egypt.

I managed to buy myself fresh squeezed-in -the-street juice, but have been largely unsuccessful finding a restaurant. Good thing I’m not hungry yet. Though I did pass a bbq chicken place…. Chicken!
I was also going to head over to a much recommended Turkish bath I read about in the guidebook, but since no one can read maps, I can’t read Arabic, and the streets are actually not labelled, this is proving difficult.
I’m actually giggling to myself right now, so amusing is this place…and me in it. It’s a bit of a trip to be so incommunicado. Good to be out of the old comfort zone once in a while.

Next Entry

Petra was amazing. We got up before dawn so we could be the first ones into Petra, and we were. For awhile we were the only people there at all. It was peaceful and quiet and so stunning. We walked down through a giant canyon called the Siq (sick). It’s hundreds of feet high, and used to be prone to flash flooding. But after a flood swept away a whole group of tourists, they dammed it. Dammit is right.

Peering through the siq to the Treasury.  Petra, Jordan
Peering through the siq to the Treasury. Petra, Jordan

The walk is about 20 minutes at a slow pace, and at that time of day the rock is pinky-coral. It’s sandstone so very soft, and in many places it’s pitted and pocked. Caves are everywhere. Many Bedoin used to live here.
Soon we came to the narrowest part of the Siq, and through this small fissure, you can just make out the treasury, the best preserved and most lavish building of Petra’s remains. It’s easily 6-8 stories tall, and cut right from the side of the gorge by the Nabatean people. The detail is amazing; corinthian columns, roman friezes, carved figures of women dancing. It was sooo cool. We sat there just looking at it as bedoin nomads came into the canyon on camel, donkey and horse (sometimes even in pickup trucks!) and began to set up shops. Many of them wear traditional clothing; headscarves, long shirts and pants, but just as many wear western clothing like jeans and t-shirts.
We spent most of the day in Petra, just wandering around, looking into caves that look like thieir insides are smeared with candlewax.

Crazy striped rocks, twisted from years of movement.
Crazy striped rocks, twisted from years of movement.

The rock here is fascinating, it’s a million shades of pink, peach, orange and cocoa. But the patterns are unforgettable; swirled like waves and fingerprints. It’s easy to see how this place can be captivating.

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There’s also so much more to Petra than just the famous treasury. Entire streets with elaborate facades scraped from the rock, homes and even an entire 3000 seat theatre. There’s also a lot of Roman ruins here too, as they came in and took the city, then set up shop here. There’s a Byzantene church, temples and tombs all ready to be explored.
Another highlight was climbing one of the mountains here to see the monastery building at the top–a place once reserved only for priests.
It’s several hundred metres up from the gorge floor via a series of stone steps and gravel cuts. With the sun beating down and the wind rustling the few trees here it was quite peaceful.

Monastery, Petra.
Monastery, Petra.

At the top, the building the Nabateans teased from the rock was even larger than the ones before–it’s the only thing here and its presence feels like it’s the biggest thing for miles–it totally overpowers you. I stood on what felt like the top of the world and looked around to see the Jordanian desert, and Israel beyond.

Afloat in the Dead Sea.
Afloat in the Dead Sea.

The day before we swam in the Dead Sea, and that was something! You couldn’t sink if you tried…just bob on toplike flotsam and the water tingles; almost like it might feel if you bathed in ginger ale. But the water is horrible to the taste and burns any tiny cuts or bites. If you’ve just shaved it can be very painful.

RSCN0466The water is super warm but it leaves a kind of oily feel on your skin. I covered myself head to toe with the mud from the bottom, as it’s supposed to be theraputic. It burns a bit, but once it was washed off it felt amazing. My skin was really soft.
Last night was spent camping in the desert of Wadi Rum with Bedoin nomads. Our tent was simple camel hair blankets fashioned into large tents with cots inside. The air was warm even at night and I was more than cozy in my sleeping bag.
We were treated to a bedonin feast for dinner then our drivers and the bedoin took up a drum, tamborine and some kind of guitar and played music for us around a fire. This morning we rode camels through the desert.

Camel ride.  Not very easy to do!
Camel ride. Not very easy to do!

In the morning tomorrow, Friday, we’ll take the hydrofoil across the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea to Dahab, Egypt.

Beautiful Dahab, Egypt
Beautiful Dahab, Egypt

Dahab Egypt. It’s the first city we’ve been to here since crossing this morning. Despite dire warnings about the hours of hassle and bureaucracy, we crossed without incident from Jordan. I have to say Dahab is stunning, though it really sneaks up on you. From the road it’s all dirt and dust and crumbling half-finished buildings. I was unimpressed. But I walked out the back of the hotel and instantly my feet hit sand. The town is spread across a large cresent beach here, and it’s just packed with restaurants, small hotels, stores and dive shops. Though we arrived after dark, the lights were bright and inviting. Our group went right away to a beautiful seafood place so close to the Red Sea, I could almost use the water to rinse my hands. And since we sit on cushions on the floor here, that was very nearly possible.
Though it’s low season here there are still a few tourists. Those who are here are stretched out across pillow-couches, sipping mango juice and lazily smoking the sheesha pipes. This place has quite the hippy feel.
Already Egypt is so much cheaper than Jordan. I can’t wait to shop in Cairo…I have so many things I’d like to bring home. The only thing I bought in Jordan was a Pashmina in Petra because things were so pricey. So I’m looking forward to spending my travellers cheques. Tomorrow we go snorkelling in a famous spot here for divers known as Blue Hole. I guess there’s a Blue Hole in Belize too…so I’ll take notes for later comparison. The following day we rise at 2am for a 2 hour climb of Mt Sinai to watch the sunrise. Not looking forward to the wake up call, but the experience is supposed to be surreal…even for the Athiests.

Mt Sinai at dawn.
Mt Sinai at dawn.
Dawn over Sinai.
Dawn over Sinai.

Aswan, Egypt:  We arrived by gruelling 13 hour overnight train journey. It was reasonably comfortable–the seats were big. I had taken a sleeping pill and prepped for a good 8 hours when something strange woke me up. I preface this all by saying it really was not as bad as it’ll sound.
I had a sleep mask on and my contacts out but I knew something was wrong. I pulled the mask off and the train car was full of smoke. Something acrid was burning my nostrils. I put on my glasses, ready to make a major dash for it, but I look and all the other foreigners in the car are just sitting there, like this was normal. Since they had been largely awake and I was asleep, I figured they knew something I didn’t, so I sat, but stuffed my stuff into my pack. All of a sudden all these rail guys go running through our carriage to the adjoining one. They opened the door and smoke pours in. Crazy. But again, they don’t seem too alarmed. Someone comes back and asks for anyone who’s a doctor or nurse, and one of our group was. She went off…in the meantime the smoke is clearing, and everything seems ok, though by now the train had come to a sudden halt.
Then a guy comes out to tell us something has exploded on the train. I was ready to jump off, but he goes on to say that it was something in the electrical lights overhead. I looked into the car, and I can see scorched light casings. So I figured he wasn’t shitting us for appearances (ie tourists’)sake.
When the panel blew it shattered one of the overhead luggage racks which (duh!) is made of thick glass. That rained down on one Aussie girl, and cut her up pretty bad. An ambulance and the cops show up, she and her boyfriend are taken to the hospital. We sat there for two hours, while they unhooked the blow-up car and took it away. Then it was as if nothing had happened. ‘Sweet tea? Coca-cola?”
I asked about the victim today, I guess she’s ok…many stitches, and the couple has returned to Cairo for improved treatment.

See…told you it wasn’t so bad. Just a bit freaky.

DSCN0931Aswan is ok. It’s right on the Nile so it’s picturesque. A bit small, but it has a nice market, though I can’t tell you how tired I am today of being hassled by shopkeepers. At EVERY shop, “Hello, Allo, bonjour, vegates….” and so on. Then, “are you looking for a scarf/shirt/alabaster/hat/rug” and if there’s no bite there, “Where are you from? Austrailia/America/Canada/Finland?” Until they hit on something. Once they know it’s Canada I get “Canada Dry, Never Dry!” or “Oh Canada!”, or my personal fave. “My wife is Canadian!” Then there is a long conversation about “where is your husband? You want Egyptian husband?” It’s charming at first, then weary, then just plain annoying.

Yesterday was the best. We went to the Giza pyramids in the morning then the Egyptian museum in the afternoon.
The pyramids are amazing. Really amazing. As the bus is driving along through traffic-choked Cairo, all of a sudden between the buildings, a quick glimpse of something… then it’s covered by another highrise. Then another quick peep, until suddenly there they are, filling my field of view. Cairo has grown so much that, literally, one second you’re in the city, the next, pyramidial desert. It’s really surreal, and doesn’t look at all right.

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These pyramids are massive. I mean I knew they’d be big, but they’re really imposing. And beautiful. So precisely perfect, all smooth edges and towering lines at a distance. I had to just sit there and marvel for a while. Up close, it’s just the opposite. The wear and tear and punishing desert wind have eroded their beauty, and they look like just a big pile of rocks. I chose to ponder them from further afield.
DSCN0804And the Sphinx. Soo cool. This massive figure at rest in the sand, lion’s body regal in repose, handsome face relaxed as it watches the city creep ever closer. It’s amazing to think that this site has been here for 5000 years.
OK, I’ve typed myself out. I’m gonna go meet the group for dinner. Early tomorrow, we’re going on a 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel, the massive temples and statues that were actually cut from the rock and moved to avoid the rising Nile after they put up the Aswan Dam. Then in the afternoon and tomorrow night, we’ll be on a Felucca boat, cruising the Nile.

Aboard the felucca.
Aboard the felucca.

At least I’ll have plenty of water to put out any fires.

 

Have a favourite Egypt memory?  Share it in comments!

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Food & Drink: Bachelorgood

One of my friends once asked me to marry him.

He wasn’t serious of course, but what prompted his question was the black bean soup I’d made for lunch and reheated in the office microwave.

He had bought lunch from some fish and chip joint, and all the greasy goodness had made him feel quite lethargic.  So rather than get back to work, he decided to corner me with questions about how much money it must be costing me to cook meals EVERY SINGLE DAY.

I explained that I can shop for a week’s worth of food, and three weeks worth of cooking staples for just over a hundred bucks.  That includes things like fruit or cereal for breakfast, leftovers for lunch, and full dinners.  I asked what he spent for a week’s worth of takeout.  He mumbled something in response.

What he did verbalize was a lament about only having the same limited choices when eating out: pizza, fried chicken, burgers, subs…you get the idea.

So I asked him what kind of stuff he LIKED to eat.  Meals he maybe hadn’t had in a while…pick anything.

Anything?

Anything.

He told me about a stew his mom used to make.  He really liked tacos.  I lent him a cookbook and he also picked out a pasta dish, a stir fry, and meatloaf.

I challenged him to make those five meals for himself.  And pledged to be there for moral support.

I copied the five recipes for him, and went over how they’re made.  Truth be told they’re all quite simple.  We made a list of all the ingredients he’d need, and  I took him to the grocery store for supplies.

The first night I got a call.  How thick is the stew supposed to be?  I explained that’s up to the chef.  If you like it thick, let it simmer.  If I gets too thick, add a little water.

“Really, I can do that?”

“You’re the chef, you can have it any way you like.”

“Cool.”

The leftovers appeared the next day.  And he was proud, showing off his creation to the ladies in the office.  They were proud too.

That night was taco night.  No phone call.

Pasta night sparked a semi-frantic ring.  He forgot to buy mushrooms.

“What else is in the fridge?”

“Uhh… carrots, celery, peppers…”

“Just chop some peppers and throw them in.”

“But the recipe says mushrooms.”

“It’s called improvising.  You could use canned mushrooms too.”

“Cool.”

After a week my friend was pretty impressed with himself.  He’d fended for himself for 7 days, hadn’t gone hungry, and had just realized his food options were not limited to the Yellow Pages.

I got him a cookbook for his birthday.  As he’s learning, there are definitely more pages to pick from than he thought.

Travel: Craters of the Moon — on Earth

With all the billionaires paying millions to rocket into space, it’s too bad they don’t know there’s a way to pay a visit to a lunar surface, without leaving earth, and without the sky-high cost.

Photo: Erin L
Photo: Erin L

Buried deep in the middle of Nowhere, Idaho, is a small park; a national park, no less. But hurtling across the undulating Idaho farmlands, barren of everything except corn and beans, one has to wonder what National Monument could possibly be cowering in the gulches and gullies here.

Mile after mile of fields suddenly and violently gives way to blackness.  Out of nowhere, the landscape changes from green to asphalt black, from dirt’s dullness and dust, to the sheen of blacktop and the glitter of rock. It’s a shocking transition, and most unexpected in this part of America’s heartland.

AMAZING LANDSCAPES

Photo: Erin L
Countryside approach to Craters of the Moon. Photo: Erin L

This is Craters of the Moon National Monument. Simplified, it’s a gigantic and widespread lava flow, that rolled over the ancient landscape two-thousand years ago, eating and incinerating everything in its path. In 1924, National Geographic called it, “a land supposedly barren of vegetation, destitute of water, devoid of animal life, and lacking in scenic interest.”

Here, I beg to differ.  This fascinating place is packed with oddities, life, curiosity, and a unique beauty.  On arrival, it looks as though some Goliath road crew went nuts with the blacktop, spilling it by the lake-full in every direction. On closer look that asphalt-looking rock is porous, bubbly, like the good old Aero bar. And plant life, trees and even small mammals have all made life here.

The easiest way to get an overview of the park’s wonders is to take a drive along Seven Mile Loop Road.

CRAZY LAVA SCULPTURES: THE “DEVIL’S VOMIT”

The first stops show off thundercloud-like piles of lava.  If Tetris used lava, this park would be the game board.  The lava has piled and curled up on itself, creating hills, spires and mini-mountains with an easy trail that winds among them.

Aa lava. Courtesy: nps.gov
Aa lava. Courtesy: nps.gov

Getting up close with these formations is really cool.  I learned there are actually three kinds of lava; pahoehoe (pronounced ‘paw-hoey-hoey”) and aa (pronounced “ah-ah”).  Not surprisingly, their names originate from the very volcanic islands of Hawaii. Aa is sharp, spiny and difficult to navigate on foot.  Pahoehoe is much smoother, and almost ropey. ” ‘The Devil’s Vomit’ is how one Oregon- bound pioneer described his encounter with Craters of the Moon”, according to the National Parks Service website. I wouldn’t go that far, but there is something almost sinister in the spartan blackness of this place.

Pahoehoe lava. Courtesy: nps.gov
Pahoehoe lava. Courtesy: nps.gov

CLIMBING THE INFERNO CONE

Next stop is the amazingly austere Inferno Cone; a giant mountain of black gravel (old volcanic debris) covering an ancient volcanic cinder cone.  It’s amazing in that it’s all tiny bits of black gravel, that look almost groomed, like snow might be on a ski hill.  The stark black background contrasts with the bright blue sky, amazing for gorgeous views and funky photos, and certainly lend that moonscape feeling to the walk.

Photo Erin L
Photo Erin L

In fact, the landscape here is so austere, in 1969, Apollo 14 Astronauts used this National monument as a moon training ground and real-life classroom for volcanic geology lessons.

CAVE ADVENTURES

Photo Erin L
Photo Erin L
Lava close-up. Photo: Erin L
Lava close-up. Photo: Erin L

The Apollo astronauts never went beneath the moon’s surface, but here you can. Hidden among and under the rocks are caves and caverns to marvel at.  They’re an easy walk with no special equipment required.

Photo: Erin L
One of the many easily accessible caves. Photo: Erin L

Hollows and coves, and lengthy tubes that would fit a train, and each have their own unique animal and plant life, and temperature variations.  Some can be quite cold, despite the scorched earth above. While the terrain isn’t difficult and there’s not really any climbing, you definitely need closed toe shoes.  The rough lava is like a cheese grater to open-toed shoes, and can easily shred your extremities.

If the landscape lures you, there’s camping in the park.  A warning that in the summer, that baked black terrain can be scorchingly hot.  And then the whole area cools off at night, not unlike a desert. Be warned there’s no food service in the park; you’ll need to head to nearby sleepy Arco, Idaho for your needs.

Photo: Erin L
Photo: Erin L
Map Courtesy: National Parks Service
Map Courtesy: National Parks Service

Craters of the Moon National Monument is one of those side-trips that you probably never knew existed, but will be forever seared in your memory if you come. And since scientists at the National Parks Service think the park is merely sleeping, not dead, you never know what it may look like in the future.

The author and her husband. Photo: R. Kingkade.
The author and her husband. Photo: R. Kingkade.

What you can learn about Time Management from a TV news Producer

There are fewer jobs more stressful that working in television news. The constantly changing stories, last minute breaking news, and the looming pressure of a daily deadline can turn even the most well-adjusted person into a puddle of jello. But the lessons of the newsroom can teach you how to manage your workload, and dissipate stress in real life.

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Set deadlines.

In all TV newsrooms there are strict deadlines. The show has to be ready to go at 6pm—and failure, as they say is definitely not an option.

We plan backwards through the day, with mini-deadlines through the afternoon to ensure there’s no last minute crunch. How can this help you? Know how much time you have to get work done, and exactly how much work you have to cram into that time period. Make sure you aren’t overloaded, and if you are, ask for help.

Make your own “Rundown”

In TV news, the list of stories and their order of importance is called the rundown. It’s essentially a list of each story, the facts about it, all arranged in order of importance. We also write down where the story is coming from. Having all the assigned tasks written down helps everyone keep their duties straight, and prevents us from forgetting something. What you can take away from this; keep a “To Do” list of all the things you have to do and prioritize it.

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Spot the “top story”

We often have a lot of news to choose from—we have to evaluate each story, and see how it fits into our lineup. We have to know if it’s lead story material, or if it really isn’t newsworthy in the big picture. Obviously not every story can fit into limited amounts of time, so we have to prioritize. And leave out the stuff that’s just not as important. what you can learn from the producer here; Take a look at your daily lineup of chores and obligations. Something may have to be cut.

Schedule carefully

The worst time to try to phone or talk to a TV producer, reporter or technician is in the hour before their show goes to air. That’s when all the last minute stories are coming in, new details are emerging and any emerging last minute crunch is happening. You’re likely to get the brush off if you try to wedge a request or even a dinner invite into that part of the day. It’s helpful if you can know when is the best time to approach people –and when not to. Know this about yourself too. Don’t’ try to take care of unpleasant or critical chores first thing in the morning, if you’re a mess before noon.

Clear your head

TV news is a lot like a roller coaster. There are ups and downs all day long, stories that pan out and some that don’t. Each day, I use the phone as a reminder to breathe and take a few seconds to be calm; before I answer the phone, I take 2 deep breaths before picking up. After the big newscast or your big, busy day at the office, take some time to transition to being “fun you”, or “at-home you” again. Everyone has bad or just plan stressful days, so take a few minutes to put the work day behind you. Hit the gym, go for a walk with the dog. Play loud music on your way home in the car or on transit. Whatever you can do to distance yourself from the day will make you happier.

-Erin L is a Canadian TV Producer, hobby silversmith, world traveller and imaginary gourmet chef.

Journalism: How to Pitch Your Story to the News

So why does some news get covered and some doesn’t? That’s a whole blog post in and of itself.  But I can say with certainty that getting a story–any story–covered starts with a good pitch.
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Got a big event happening and want to invite the news?  Grandparents celebrating their 60th Anniversary and you think it deserves to be on TV? Community golf tourney, BBQ or fundraiser?  Maybe you’ve been the victim of a crime or a rip-off.  It you want to get the word out to the media there are some simple do’s and dont’s.

(Disclaimer:  I work in TV news, so most of my suggestions are geared at pitching to MY industry)

First: Does Your Story Fit The Key Criteria? The DO’S

Stories should :
-be unique; something that doesn’t happen daily, weekly, monthly or commonly
-should involve real people
-be new, happening NOW, or soon (not days or weeks old)
-have people willing to be on camera, on the record, or otherwise willingly go public, or be in the public eye

-is there CONFLICT? All good stories have winners & losers, heroes and villains, tension, injustice, outrage, or a battle.  It could be as simple as “woman fights parking ticket error”, but there needs to be something.

-Should be relevant to a large number of people in some way, or be directly affecting a large group

Where’s this happening?

All good TV stories need a visual location.  Boardrooms are bad, factory floors are great.  You actually working in your environment (Falafel shop, shoe repair man, chef) is even better.  And all pertinent people should be available together or at least on the same day.

Is this an Ad for Your Business?

If that’s all you’re looking for; airtime about a product or service, then my TV newscast is not for you.  There are limited exceptions, but your pitch about why YOU should get one, better be really really good.  See above. And below.

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The When/Where/How of Getting Me Your Pitch

The When:
If you’re calling a TV station; do a wee bit of research; don’t call while a newscast is on the air.  Staff is usually busy at that time and won’t have much time to hear you out.  In most newsrooms you can ask for the assignment desk–those are the folks tasked with assigning news stories.  You could also try pitching a reporter directly, but they’re much, much harder to get in touch with.

When calling the assignment desk, call mid morning.  Early morning, we’re trying to get the reporters out the door and get up to speed on the day’s events. That’s usually done by 10am.

EVEN BETTER: e-mail us.

All stations have a viewer response, or story ideas email addresses.  Give it a short, catchy, descriptive headline in the Subject field that will grab our attention. “News Release”, “Big Story”, or “Important News Event” are lame, amateurish grabs that rarely get opened.

The benefit of using email is that we can read it when we have time to focus on it; and if it has a good headline, we will.

In the body of the email:

-keep it short; a page is more than enough

-Don’t give me details I don’t need

-Include the 5W’s of journalism: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How if relevant.

-Include contact info including a cell phone so we can reach you.

Pitching Don’ts:

Don’t tell me “all your friends are interested in your business, event, problem  or product, so you think all my viewers should be too”.  Of course they are, or they wouldn’t be your friends.  I get hundreds of pitches a week; yours has to be truly unique, not just popular among your friends.

Don’t send a press release or e-mail out and then be unavailable, or unreachable.  If I call you, its likely because I’m going to want something on the day you reach out, ie. TODAY.
Don’t go on and on on the phone.. practice giving me your pitch in 3-4 sentences.  If you can’t do that, I’m going to have a hard time giving it to my viewers in the minute or two that we have on TV.
KNOW who you’re pitching to.  I can’t tell you how many free cd’s I get mailled to me, with follow up offers to have a band come on my newscast.  We don’t run music news or entertainment. It’s good practice to watch the newscast you’re pitching to and make sure there’s a fit.
If not, check around for other programs that might be suited to what you have in mind.
Don’t take rejection personally. I get hundreds of pitches… so the bar is pretty high.  If I don’t like your story, ask if you can send me your contact info to be kept on file.  We often call people about future stories.
Don’t pitch a feature on a busy news day, ie Election Day, or on a day when there’s been a triple murder.  BUT if you have something relevant to a breaking story today (ie. you’ve witnessed election fraud or ballot box stuffing, or know the victims in that murder)–call in. Please!
NO JARGON!  Distill your story down to what would interest regular folks…  If I can’t understand your release or e-mail, I can’t expect my viewers to either, and  I’ll probably file it under “g”.
Don’t expect veto power, or for the story to turn out as you expect.  Journalists almost never let people see their stories before they’re done.  If you’re concerned about how you’re going to be included in the story, ask the reporter to clarify.
Don’t Spam me. Please don’t send a copy of the press release, or your email every day, and/or call every day.  That gets annoying, clutters up my inbox and my voicemail, and takes me away from other work.  Me personally, I like one email, and I’m ok with one call on the day-of. The media will always call you if we’re interested– If you’re phone’s not ringing, it’s likely because we’re not.

Also, don’t expect a reply to your request, email and/or news release.  We get literally HUNDREDS of requests for coverage each day.  We can’t possibly reply or RSVP to each one. Sorry.

How to use Social Media to Pitch the Media

I troll Twitter all the time.  I will frequently Tweet out when I’m looking for a person, someone who’s had an experience related to a news story that’s in the works,  so follow me (@TVChick13), and other journalists and engage with us.  And again..if I tweet today, know that I probably need it today.  Be available… or suggest someone else that might be good.  Another good way to be in touch with the media is to “Like” media FB pages, as frequently we ask for input there too.

One final note; always take photos and video of news you see, problems you’re having, battles you’re fighting or other important happenings.  Examples would be, you find black mould in your hotel room, you see a house fire, you think someone’s trying to pull a fast one on you, or you find a finger in your chili.  Photos and video make the story MUCH more than it would be if it was just your words after the event is over.  You know the saying, “a picture’s worth 1000 words?”  It ain’t a cliche for nothin’.

Courtesy fineartamerica.com
Courtesy fineartamerica.com

-Erin is a Calgary-based TV News Producer.  I’m happy to answer your questions on this subject.  Please post ’em in the comments section.

Why that package you ordered to Canada costs so much – Saving Yourself Money on Shipping/Brokerage

Approved!
Approved!

If you LIKE paying more than you should for things, stop reading now.  If you think brokerage fees are a terribly blatant overcharge, carry on.

For those of you who receive packages from the US particularly:  did you know you can save a lot of money on your shipments relatively easily?

Major shipping companies like UPS, FedEx Purolator, etc all routinely charge Brokerage fees to clear your shipments through Canada customs.  These fees (for me personally) have ranged anywhere from $10-$50 or more on things like small hand tools, metals, clothing, food or or craft supplies, depending on the total value of what’s shipped, and what’s inside the box.

I feel like brokerage fees are a rip off; especially since I now know what’s involved in clearing a package through customs myself. After all, I’m already paying $20-50 in shipping charges for these folks to get me my package; am I really to believe that the 2-3 minutes of work for a shipping company employee is worth THAT much money??

What Brokerage Gets You

Essentially, the shippers are charging you a premium for getting your paperwork stamped. Yup.  That’s it.  And for collecting the duties and taxes on behalf of our lovely federal government.  This is something you can quickly and easily do; I’ll even tell you how.

How To Clear Your Own Shipment – in YYC – in 6 Easy Steps

If you live in Calgary Alberta, as I do, here’s what you do:

1. If the shipment arrives at your door, ask the driver to detail the fees. (You’ll likely be paying duty, taxes including GST and a Brokerage Fee.  Get that info BEFORE you sign for and accept the package.  If you can’t get it from the driver, refuse the shipment, and call the shipper’s  head office with your tracking number to get details.)

2.  Decline the shipment by telling the driver you wish to clear the shipment through customs yourself. You can also do this by calling your shipper of choice if you’ve received a delivery notice (as I did), or even before the package arrives to your door.

3.  The shipper will be required to give you a copy of the waybill or itemized packing slip, and this should include the country of origin itemization for each item.  In some cases the shipper will ask you to come and pick it up (if they want to make life difficult for you).  In my case, they offered to email it to me.  This did me the kindness of saving me a trip.  Another time I tried to self-clear, I had to ask for this information specifically, and for it to be e-mailled to me. fax is also an option the shippers seem to prefer.

4.  Take the waybill/invoice to Canada Customs/Border Services Agency  (**UPDATE:  they’ve MOVED from  2588 27 St NE to a NEW location MUCH CLOSER to the shippers up by the Calgary Airport New Address (and it’s a new street some online maps won’t know yet) 22 Aero Dr NE). Take a number. I have yet to see a lineup in this office first thing in the morning when I usually go.  The CBSA agent will input your stuff into their computer, calculate your taxes and duty and hand you a bill, that you take to the adjacent cashier and pay.

While in 95% of cases, I’ve saved a LOT of money self-clearing (saving anywhere from 15-, there was one occasion I came out basically even. My shipper told me my bill was :Taxes: $33.00, Duty: $1.56 and Brokerage: $24.60.  CBSA told me my bill was Taxes: $34.02, Duty $20.21, and of course zero brokerage fees.  So my total bill from the shipper was about $59.  From CBSA: $54.  I’ll get to why that is in a sec, but first the rest of the steps for my friends in a hurry.

On another package pick-up attempt, I was asked by CBSA to provide “Proof of Payment” on a dress.  The agent politely but firmly said the shippers often “make up generic packing slips” and “lie about the value so duty is avoided.  They think they’re doing the customers a favour”.  She was insistent I provide either a copy of my credit card bill,  bank statement, or a receipt.  Since I had none of those (as they’d be INSIDE the box I was hoping to get cleared) I had to improvise.  A quick phone call to the company I purchased the dress from and they were able to e-mail me a receipt that showed the value.  Though it wasn’t technically a receipt, the CBSA agent was able to use it and verify what was on the “generic packing slip”.  My total: $39 in tax and duty, and total avoidance of the additional FORTY DOLLAR brokerage fee UPS was going to tack on!

5.  Take your paid bill (the CBSA agent will stamp it again as proof you’ve paid and they know it; Ahhh, yes,  red tape and paperwork in triplicate!) and drive to your shipper’s headquarters near the Calgary Airport in the NE.  This is now a 2 minute drive from the CBSA office.  Go inside, present your shipping notification or tracking number, along with the completed/approved/stamped paperwork.

6.  Getcher package, and drive all the way back across the city home.

And there’s always a but…

So WHY on that one occasion did I end up paying pretty much the same bill in the end by doing all the work?  Well,1) it could be a CBSA mistake; getting them to re-calculate the duty “just to double check” did NOT go over well. And let’s be honest, they don’t have to justify anything, and won’t.  Arguing with a federal agent is truly a waste of time and really just buys you a cavity search.  2) The CBSA agent could have been a little overzealous in applying the duty, or really just sticking to the EXACT letter of the law.  3) My shipper could also have miscalculated and undercharged me on *their* bill. Or 4)  perhaps there is some kind of arrangement with the shippers and the federal government that the shippers can legally charge Brokerage Fees, in exchange for slightly lower duties?  I have no knowledge of why, and not really a lot of desire to begin navigating several levels of government to find out over that particular $4 difference.

On another occasion, there was another odd wrinkle in my plans; when I went to pick up the package, UPS told me it had been “re-addressed”.  The package  had been forwarded to another random person in another random city in Alberta ( by “someone”, they don’t know or wouldn’t say who).  I don’t know if this was a genuine mistake, or a cute joke to delay me further, or (if I were the suspicious, malicious type) if someone was giving me payback for cheating a giant multinational out of their brokerage fees and talking about it on Twitter.  But I digress.

Bottom Line

So out of the one dozen times I’ve now done this, I come out waaay ahead in 95% of the cases, like I said.  If you want to be sure, you could try calling CBSA to get an accurate assessment of the duties BEFORE opting for self clearing, just to be sure it’s worth it.

I’d love to hear your stories and input on this.  Good experiences or bad, let me know!