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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Journey Home to Winnipeg

(Note: This is part of a short story from my manuscript of my trip to Winnipeg in October 2012. Wanted to share a snippet of my journey home)


Travelling is in my blood. If I don’t pick up and go at least once a year, I get antsy. It didn’t used to be like that, but when I started traveling a few years ago, I began to like it. There was just something about packing a suitcase, standing in line at the airport, going through check in and settling in your seat on the airplane and taking off to a new destination that makes me smile.

I wasn’t heading to a warm destination this time like California or Belize or out west to Banff, Alberta but nonetheless I was traveling. This time around I was heading to Winnipeg to see my mom. It was late October, not the greatest time to head to what everyone calls Winterpeg, but my flight was booked and I was raring to go. My mom had sent me monies to get myself an airline ticket with monies she had just received from the government for her residential school settlement.

My first trip that we had talked about had been postponed, but this time, even though I had butterflies in my stomach, I didn’t back down.  I wasn’t sure what to expect this time around, I hadn’t seen her in ten years and she had only just started contacting me a few months before we decided that I would go out and see her again at her new place in Ashern, Manitoba.

Ashern, Manitoba is a sleepy little hamlet with about 1,500 to 2,000 people, and around an hour away from my home reserve Peguis First Nation. I call this town sleepy, because there is literally no action in the town at all, unless you are witness to the antics that my mom’s partner gets up to-like banging on the door, waiting for you to answer the door and then yelling BOO at you, and laughing when he sees your annoyance, or walking through the doors of the resource centre, where my mom and her partner go every day to hang out, have coffee and shoot the breeze. Even then, the most action you get is people laughing and joking around or breaking into singing snippets of songs.

This was my second time traveling to Winnipeg. My first visit had been over ten years earlier when a repatriation worker organized a reunion between my mom and I and we had stayed at the infamous Regis Hotel in downtown Winnipeg. This time, I didn’t take the bus or take three days to get there. It was a two-hour airplane flight. My friend Jackie had helped me book the flight through West Jet airlines, and I had arranged with another friend Verne to pick me up and drive me to the airport.

Arriving at the airport was uneventful, but walking through security screening was a bit embarrassing especially when I accidently left my belt on my jeans and set the alarm off. Annoyingly, I was told by the airport security

“M’aam please step back, remove your belt and come through again.”

I remember my heart racing and my face turning about fifty shades of red, as the line up behind me grew and I had to walk through screening one more time.  As I walked through screening, I was muttering to myself

“Please, let me get through this without setting off that damn alarm again.”

My prayer was answered because I passed security this time, but the anxiety of what had just happened had me breaking into a sweat, as I gathered all my stuff, and hobbled over to a nearby chair to put my shoes and belt back on.

I had a window seat on my flight to Winnipeg, which I totally loved, because I could look out the window, and not have to worry about brushing against other passengers or the air flight attendants arms as they walked up and down the aisles with their carts of coffee and drinks.

I remember grabbing onto the arms of my seat, feeling my eardrums pop as the airplane lifted off into the air. As I looked out my window, I saw a circular shining orb that seemed to follow the plane the whole way to my destination. It disappeared as I disembarked from the plane. When I saw this orb I felt truly blessed and wondered, “is this my ancestors showing me they are happy that I am heading back home?”

The city of Winnipeg felt so strange to me. I was a bit afraid especially when I remembered that I had to hang around the city for the day until at least 9:30 at night.  I didn’t know what the heck I was going to do. The only money I had was in my wallet, a couple of twenties, maybe a ten-dollar bill, and my change purse looked even leaner than that!

I didn’t know what to expect of Winnipeg, because people had always told me “Winnipeg is pretty rough, and you have to be careful.” I recalled newspaper accounts of crime in downtown Winnipeg, and I had read about the racism shown towards Native people. How can you not forget, when the media always blasts this across the airwaves of radio and television, or the articles you read in your daily newspapers?

I retrieved my baggage and went down a set of escalators, pulling my overloaded suitcase behind me. I was heading to the nearest exit so that I could have a much-needed cigarette. AH! Winter, you gotta love it, I thought as the revolving doors opened to a below freezing wind that hit me smack dab in the face.

After drawing a few puffs from my cigarette, and smashing what’s left of it under my foot, I gather up the courage to go over to a valet waiting outside his car at the arrivals door to ask for directions.

“Excuse me, sir, how do I get to the Greyhound bus station?”  The man’s face lights up, and starts waving animatedly as he says, “Just cross this street, go through the underground parking lot, and the station is right there.”

“Thank you, sir!” I say and start my trek. My back is aching, from my heavy bags, and my non-existent Nish butt hurts from sitting for two hours straight. Ten minutes later, I arrive at the Winnipeg Greyhound station, and make my way to the counter.

“Hello, I need a one way ticket for Ashern,” I say.

The Greyhound attendant, typing and looking at his computer screen says “ Oh, that bus isn’t until 9:30pm.”

I reply, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” He turns to me and says

“Nope, the bus schedule has been like this for years, but at least you’ll get a lot of shopping in!”

I purchase my bus ticket, and stuff the paper into my purse. I’m looking over at the lockers, and the attendant says “You can store your suitcase there in the lockers, it will cost you five or six dollars more, otherwise you will have to carry your suitcase with you.”

Thinking HELL NO! I make my way over to the lockers. There are big lockers, the size of a kitchen cupboard, and little lockers. As I am standing in front of locker 125, the maintenance man sees my confusion at what locker to use, and comes over to where I am standing. He advises, “Take a small locker and put $5 in so that you can have the maximum amount of hours before your bus comes.”

As I open the locker door, and go to put my suitcase in, the maintenance guy asks me

“Where are you coming from?”

I tell him “Oh from Toronto, do you know how I can get downtown? My bus doesn’t come until later tonight.”

After telling me what bus to take, I walk away; thankful for the kindness this stranger has shown me. I walk outside and cross the small parking lot to the bus stop. I’m alone, I think to myself. I hope I make it downtown all right.

Well, the bus trip should have been easy, but in my anxiety of being somewhere new I made it harder and got myself lost. I was supposed to take the number 15 bus and get off at Main and Portage. The bus driver was anything but kind. I had said when I got on

“Where is the nearest shopping mall?”

His reply was a curt “There are a ton of malls in this city, just sit down.”

Sitting down, my heart was beating like crazy and I hung onto my purse and backpack like there was no tomorrow.  I took in the sights around me, as I traveled all around the city. Dilapidated buildings here and there, the newer buildings seemed like they were all government buildings. “Interesting architecture, and interesting people,” I thought.

After what seemed like two hours, the bus driver finally noticed that I had stayed on his bus for the whole route. He turned around in his seat and motioned with his hand for me to go up and see him.

“M’aam, where did you want to go? You’ve been on here for a long time,” he says.

“Sir,” I mumble “I’ve never been here before and I don’t know where Main and Portage is, or where I can go until my bus comes tonight. Someone told me there was shopping malls that I can go to, but I don’t know where they are.”

“Well, we passed Main and Portage a long long time ago! When you hear the system say CITY HALL, come up to me and I’ll tell you where you need to get off,” he says.

The bus seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Houses are few and far between and the landscape is dotted with industrial buildings. The bus lurches along for a few minutes with me as the lone passenger. Finally I hear the screech of the brakes and a few people straggle on.

From my seat at the front of the bus, I notice that almost all of the passengers are Native like me. A couple of them are pushing baby strollers, the children inside them staring out with big brown eyes. I’m surrounded by Nish, I think, and laugh to myself as I take in the way that they are dressed, and hear the slow drawl in their voices, followed by the inflection eh after each sentence.

I overhear a conversation between a thin white woman and an older Native man

“Hey, how are ya? Says the lady as her eyes meet this Native man’s eyes across the aisle from her.

“Oh, I’m good eh,” he replies

“I haven’t seen you in forever, she says back,

“Where ya been?”

“Oh I was in Halifax eh,” the guy says. A big smile spreads across his face, as his hand pats the battered old suitcase on the floor beside him.”
“I just welcomed my latest grandkid.”

“Oh wow,” says the lady, nodding her head.

There’s silence for a couple of seconds and then the conversation shifts to her old man and how he ended up on probation instead of having to serve 3 years in the slammer.

I shake my head at this conversation I am hearing because it’s not something I would want to be talking about, especially on a bus full of people. I realize though, conversations on the TTC in Toronto are no different than the buses here in Winnipeg.

Through the chatter of everyone on the bus, an automated voice breaks through

“CITY HALL”, it announces.

I get up off my seat and wrangle my way around the two baby strollers and stand at the bus driver’s elbow.

“Okay sir, where do I get off, is it here?”

“No,” he says. Stay right here and I’ll tell you in a minute.”

Hanging onto a bar near the bus driver’s shoulder, the bus seems to speed up, or maybe its my wishful thinking. Two seconds later, the bus comes to a halt. The driver turns and says

“At the lights behind me, cross over where the RBC building is. Go down the steps and there’s Winnipeg Square

“Thank you, sir” I reply as I squeeze between two people who are trying to get on the bus.

My feet hit the sidewalk and I hear the screeching sound of the bus door closing and turn back. The bus leaves a cloud of dust in its wake, as it speeds off.

I AM ALONE. I think to myself, as I turn and make my way across the street. Unfamiliar sounds, sights and smells are all around me. I’m on a new journey.

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