The Podium

The agent hit the keyboard and cried out in horror.

I leaned a little closer and asked her what was wrong. She pulled herself together and smiled; she told me not to worry.

“Do I look worried?”

Her colleague, a Singapore Chinese, came over to help.

“So what is the problem?” I asked.

“She just print you fourteen  luggage tags,” the girl said.

“Oh, ok. I only need the one. Why don’t you use the other thirteen on your next unsuspecting costumers?”

Both of them giggled. Then Singapore girl became serious. “Maybe a sign,” she said thoughtfully. “You must play the Euromillions lottery.”

I told her I never bet on anything if I can’t affect the outcome. We discussed Chinese superstitions. I complained fourteen is a very unlucky number in China. She was having none of it. To her, this was a signal from the heavens. She quickly concocted  a sequence, bolting on my flight number, my seat, the date, conjuring up the two lucky stars… She wrote it down on a luggage tag. Reviewed it for astrological integrity. She frowned. She nodded and smiled.

She repeated it was a message I could not ignore. Her colleague was looking serious now too; my bag, a kind of airline fortune cookie, lay abandoned on the scales, oblivious to the immense wealth it had just generated.

I relented.

“Ok, on my way through security, I’ll get a ticket. If I win, I’ll split it with both of you.”

Famous last words from so many ticket winners, the coveted prize doing what money does best—turning friends into enemies, smiles into frowns, lovers into foes.

Britain was pretty crazy that weekend, after the Saturday Six. All three spots are coveted, but gold still holds that magical attraction. And Britain, in the tradition of Eton and Harrow, had just received six of the best. For once, no one was talking about the weather—the whole country had gone olympic.

Later on in the week when I got to Halifax, I found out that coming first, second, or third can be a matter of life and death.

The Canadian city is small by European standards, home to some three hundred thousand souls. In China, it would be a village. But unlike many places triple its size, Halifax breathes history—all of it tied to the sea.

Eastern Canada and the US northeast witnessed a classic frontier struggle, a bitter battleground between the English and French. My knowledge of the whole thing is sparse, full of childhood memories about the books I read, the stories of Montcalm, Munro, tales of the Indian scouts…

That was in the XVII and XVIIIth centuries, when the great colonial wars for North America were underway. The Indians fought, but in the end, they had no chance.

History is written by the victors, and these days there isn’t much sign of grudges or strife; Nova Scotia is an easy place to live in, with people who will chat to you at every opportunity, genuine folk used to trust and friendship.

But Halifax has an undercurrent of tragedy, and you can feel it in the buildings, the escarped streets leading up to the Citadel. Apparently the area is now famous as a gay pick-up point, but I didn’t get a chance to verify that. I did see two ladies enthusiastically kissing each other in a bar a couple of hours ago, maybe they’d just strolled downtown from the Citadel and ducked in. At the time, I was busy investigating the merits of local seafood, and in particular oysters from Sober Island and Pristine Bay.

Several events in Halifax are sobering, and help you understand the stoic nature of the people. One of the more significant was the Halifax explosion, which destroyed a large part of the city, when a French ship carrying trinitroglycerine collided with another vessel and blew up. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tells us it was the biggest man-made explosion to date, destroying large parts of the city and killing thousands.

The maritime museum documents the 1917 tragedy, with a photo exhibition, depositions from survivors, newspaper clippings, and artifacts remaining after the blast.

The luncheon menu for first class passengers on the Titanic, April 10th, 1912.

That was a mere five years after the sinking of the Titanic. Halifax was the closest port with appropriate infrastructure, and it rapidly became the center of the rescue operation. The museum houses a wonderful, if rather morbid, permanent exhibition telling the story. I resisted the temptation to purchase a copy of the Titanic cookbook in the gift shop.

Gone were the days of  The India Road, when the Portuguese sailors came up to Newfoundland, then called the Land of Johannes Vaz. By rights, given that Joao Vaz Corte Real discovered it in 1472, and that both Henricus Martellus Germanicus and Gerhard Mercator labelled it thus on their world maps, I guess it could have been called Oldfoundland. By 1912, White Star lines and Cunard were racing each other across the Atlantic, trying to set a record for the Atlantic passage.

When you consider it today, it seems bizarre that a steamship carrying over two thousand people would be used in this way—a bit like drag racing with your two year old child. As a consequence, the captain ignored warnings of an iceberg that lay in wait, and the rest is history. It was the cable laying ships, the routers and switches of the internet of a century ago, that did the clean-up.

Part of the crew of the cable ship Minia, which picked up most of the bodies from the Titanic. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a smile to be seen.

Hard bitten sailors, used to the unforgiving North Atlantic storms, and experts at pulling up cable from the ocean depths for repair. Their job was to haul out the dead in their hundreds.

Passengers on the Titanic were transported in three classes: first, second, and third. The survivors manifest makes clear the difference between gold, silver, and bronze.

In first class, 329 sailed; 130 were lost.

In second class, 285 sailed; 166 were lost.

In third, 710 sailed; 536 were lost.

If you calculate the proportions lost, they are revealing: from one third, to one half, to three-quarters.

The other interesting thing about the stats is that while in first and second class, most of the women and children survived, in third it was very different. More men died, but nothing like the pattern in the upper classes.

As the bodies were recovered, a shortage in embalming fluid, together with health code restrictions, meant that many corpses were buried at sea. The captain’s decision was to bring the bodies of first class passengers, mainly men, since only eleven of the one hundred forty-five women and children died, into Halifax for burial. His reasoning was that since in all likelihood they were men of means, a positive identification was important for subsequent discussions on inheritance.

It’s not immediately clear to me why the surviving spouses could not perform that role, at a time when photography was already well developed (sorry), but I guess in a crisis poor people are destined for unmarked graves.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

That ticket turned out to be Chinese perfidy. I guess those two airline gals are going to have to work a few more years.

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