Trying to Find the Perfect Wedding Gift?

“But you can’t do that,” gasped Alvaro, “it is your niece’s wedding and the money should go to her and her husband.”

“Why?” I replied. “They don’t need it. When my nephew Curtis and his wife Trish got married on New Year’s Eve this year, I donated the same $100 to Educate a Girl in Cambodia and they thought it was a great present.”

Jessica and Matt Lang
Jessica and Matt Lang

“The $100 dollars would cover a restaurant meal or a haircut for Matt. It will go a lot further in Colmbia and it will be given with the explanation that it comes from Jessica and her husband, not me.

Locating Maria

Marie is an older woman who lives in the barrio. She doesn’t have much money. Many people – including me – feed her as she is far too dignified to beg and just graciously accepts.

Maria with her yogurt.
Maria with her yogurt.

Her dream was to get a tango dress and shoes so she could dance at Malagar and make a bit of money that people give the dancers. The venue doesn’t allow sneakers, so shoes were essential.

We arranged to meet Marie at a local store/restaurant/bar/junk-food-place. As she ate her tub of yogurt with cereal, Alvaro explained that my niece’s wedding present to her was 100,000 pesos (about $50) for her dress and shoes. When I handed her the cash — which she quickly stashed so as not to get robbed — her eyes welled up with tears.

Then she hugged and gave me so many signs of the cross that I started to worry that I might end up next to Mother Teresa.

Looking for Quisera

Next, we were going to buy a cane for el senior Quisera. He is a down-and-outer who sells candy in Boston Park. He had a stroke and ambles along with a heavy pail of sweets and struggles to get anywhere slowly.

His eyes always light up when he sees me as I will give him 50 cents and take one small package of gum. Taking the candy is important as that way he is providing a service and it isn’t charity.

Quisera was no where to be found at his usual haunts, so we went to a street shop where I know he hangs out and asked if anyone had seen him. Stephan – a darling clerk who climbs down ladders when he is stocking top shelves to serve me as I am his preferred customer – was horrified.

There was a bit of a conference in the store and the rest of the staff joined in the conversation. Yes, Quisera has it hard, but giving him a cane wouldn’t help. He gets drunk most nights and the cane – along with his plastic pail of sweets – would be stolen shortly. He had also broken a window in the shop when he was angry about something.

Good advice. So I will just continue to pay inflated prices for his candy that I collect in a bag and give away as I don’t eat any of that crap. But, as mentioned, I always take something to keep it as a business exchange.

Donating to Alvaro

So, all of a sudden, I had more money to give away than I thought.

At 67, my friend Alvaro is a retired chef with two bad knees that he has to keep bandaged so he can walk with a cane. Since there isn’t a welfare system in Colombia, he is totally dependent on money from family and friends.

Alvaro, my darling friend in Medellin. He lived in New York for 12 years and spoke English.
Alvaro, my darling friend in Medellin. He lived in New York for 12 years and speakes English.

He had run up a bill at a local store and the wife of the owner was hounding him to pay the full amount. Since he was short of cash, I slipped him 75,000 pesos (about $38) to keep up his credit rating up so he could eat while I was away.

Spending the rest

When I returned to Medellin I still had 25,000 ($13) wedding present pesos to spend. Vamos – let’s go.

So I dolled it out in dribs and drabs: a meal for a street musician, , a contribution to a shoe shiner – which will come back to haunt me as he will expect the same amount every time –

Gustavo. Alas, a terrible photo of a good singer.
Gustavo. Alas, a terrible photo of a good musician.
Another bad photo of a great singer and J
Another bad photo of a great singer and J







an a capella singer who belted out a song written by Miguel Herrandez who is a legend, and an old, skinny beggar woman.

Going strong

After all of that I still have some money to spend that will bring happiness in the neighbourhood as Jess and Matt’s wedding present. There is no lack of people in need; I am so good at donating other people’s money.

So on behalf of the needy in Medellin, we all send Jessica and Matt the best happy marriage wishes. Your present may well become part of the legend of the neighbourhood.

So anyone else who decides to get married in the future, don’t expect a crystal candy dish from the registry list from me, as I will give away your present.

Thank-you and gracias.

More wedding photos:

Sarah, Kathy, Matt, Jessica, Jean -- aka Mom -- Mackenna
Sarah, Kathy, Matt, Jessica, Jean — aka Mom — Mackenna



According to Karen Owens -- aka The Nurse -- my sister Sheely and I look "okay," but Jean -- our mother -- is the star of the photo.
According to Karen Owens — aka The Nurse — my sister Shelly and I look “okay,” but Jean — our mother — is the star of the photo. Agreed.




Amachewespimawin Adventures

“I’m surprised you know how to drive on unsealed – New Zealand speak for “gravel” — roads,” commented Karen Owens, who is better known as The Nurse.

I snorted softly and tried to calculate how many thousands of kilometers I would have chalked up over the years of living in northern Saskatchewan. It is a sparsely populated area with vast distances between settlements along the Churchill River. gravel_road

We – namely The Nurse, Bonnie – the widow of my high-school English teacher – and I – were headed for Stanley Mission.

The original name of the settlement was Amachewespimawin which means “the shooting up hill.”

Historically the Cree paddling down the river for the winter would aim an arrow at the steep cliff on the river. If it went over it signaled a good season; if not, it could be rough.

We arrived at our destination and did a ticky-tour down the main street. Not much had changed in the 24 years since I’d been there. A bigger Co-op store where Jeannie has worked forever, a fast food restaurant and a gas station, a few buildings renovated or gone missing.

Living in Stanley

When I went to teach in Stanley Mission in 1976 there was no road, so we flew in on bush planes that landed on the river with pontoons in summer and skis in the winter. float_plane

There was no telephone, no radio or television and we got mail once a week on Wednesday. It was also the day milk came in. After school we would rush to the store, open a carton and sip. If it was sour it went back in the fridge.

In January 1977 I bought the shell of a log house from Annie McLeod for the princely sum of $500. With no electricity, running water or insulation I had to learn bush skills quickly: chopping wood, using a chain saw, hauling water, banking the cabin with snow.

The McLeod family across the street adopted me and without their help I wouldn’t have survived. When nipapa saw me crossing the street to get water from the river, for example, he would send one of the kids to accompany me to make sure the ice hole was open. It was covered with a piece of plywood and there was a pick nearby to chop if necessary.

The log cabin became my base until 1992 when I went on a round-the-world trip and then moved to New Zealand in 1994.

When I had my pointy-little-house-on-the prairie near the town where my parents lived from 1992 to 2010, the McLeods would visit me. We kept in touch via Skype and Facebook over the years.

Returning to Stanley

Driving into town was coming home.

Stanley Mission from across the Churchill River.
Stanley Mission from across the Churchill River.

Sallie took us on a tour of the new developments on the reserve: schools, the band office, houses.

While the main street hadn’t changed much, the building that stretched across where the air strip used to be is now a proverbial suburb.


“No problem. The three of you can stay at my house,” announced Annie. “Annie, you can stay at Jodie’s and Wendy (her daughter) can sleep with me.”

Jodie and Annie
As an aside, Jodie (left) and Annie (right) – born in 1986 – are our nequimises, children named after their aunt Annie and me

The next morning, The Nurse, Bonnie and I went to the new band office, the administrative center of the reserve. Impressive.

Jodie and Saqllie at the Band office. Note the birch bark basket on the right.
Jodie and Sallie at the Band office. Note the birch bark basket on the right.






There is a gallery of elders so I took photos of the photos of those who were closest to me. A good time for some reflection.

Cocum Elizabeth: Photo credit Nir Bareket
Cocum Elizabeth: Photo credit Nir Bareket


Harry McLeod
Nipapa Harry McLeod







Nimama Lydia McLeod
Nimama Lydia McLeod
Annie Hardlotte
Annie Hardlotte








Jodie took us on a tour of the building and introduced various people.

Jimmy Charles – now a guidance counsellor – told me that I had him write an essay when he was 17 about what it meant to be successful. He went on to say that he still keeps it 24 years later. His story touched my teacher’s heart.

We were given books and posters of the Holy Trinity Church, a significant historical site in Saskatchewan. church

Jodie also gave each of us a beaded card-holder made with home-tanned moose hide.


The leather has a pungent smell and now every time I open my handbag to give out a card, a wiff takes me back to my time in the North. card holders


The Nurse – whom I’ve known since February 1995 when I taught at the University of Waikato in New Zealand – now lives in Cambodia.

Our paths have crossed many times and she was the only one of the over 500 people I invited to my 50th birthday party at Timbuktu who showed up.

When planning her trip to meet up with me in Canada in August 2016, she declared that her two primary agenda items were to visit a reserve and to meet a traditional medicine woman.  As we say in Cambodia – “can.”

Besides being the director of education – a job she does very well – Sallie is also practicing traditional medicine.

The Nurse and Sallie
The Nurse and Sallie

The Nurse was most impressed with the local remedies. Later in the day Sallie took her out on the river to show her where rat-root grows.

Although I didn’t know what the traditional medicines were when I lived there, they worked.


And they cured everything from the worst sore throat I’ve ever had to the flu to an infected cut.

Touring the Churchill

John-John – the fastest boat driver in town — called Annie who phoned Sallie to see if we were ready to go out on the river. Yes.


We met him down at the dock and shortly after Joseph roared up.

While out on the river Joseph and I reminisced about the time he had rescued my mother, father, aunt, uncle and me after our boat went through the Little Stanley rapids backwards.


Joseph also mentioned the time he was driving my father’s boat when we stalled going up Big Stanley rapids.

Had it not been for his quick response we would have plunged into the ice filled river and hyperthermia would have taken us out very quickly.

Meanwhile, my sister and sister-in-law sat in the back of the boat, oblivious to the danger.

Over the years I’ve done more tours of the river with Joseph than I can remember. He is the perfect little brother/guide/friend.

Bonnie, Lisa and John-John

As always, our first stop was the church.


Nipapa's grave
Nipapa’s grave

I wanted to visit the family graves and pay my respects: cocum, nipapa, nimama, our sister and her grandchildren children who had died in a fire. More memories of people who are important to me.

The next point of interest was the rock paintings. Rock paintingsThey were done with a special type of dye centuries ago, depicting life as it was then.

Bonnie, Lisa and John-John
Bonnie, Lisa and John-John



The walk up to  Nistowiak Falls  was longer than I remember. But, then again, 24 years may have something to do with it.

Bonnie was in her glory as we strolled along and she picked and ate wild raspberries, chokecherries, pin-cherries, strawberries and other fruit known only by their Cree names

Lisa at the falls
Lisa at the falls.
Nistowiak Fals
Nistowiak Fals

As we were heading out, Lisa yelled, “You may be the first to leave, but we will beat you there.” And she was right as John-John was in front of the motor.

At Drinking Falls Lodge, the McLeod women hauled out a “snack” that was enough food to feed a fire-fighting crew.

At Drinkg Falls Lodge.
At Drinking Falls Lodge.

Norma – who owns the lodge – arrived and told us to pick out a mug or flask as a souvenir. Much appreciated.

While we were munching, Joseph and John-John took their fishing rods and caught 17 walleye/pickerel in about half an hour.


We headed for the McLeod trap-line where family members have their various cabins.

At the trapline
At the trapline
The original cabin.
The original cabin.

It was another deja vous as I have been there a number of times. While the men filleted the fish – without a bone in them – the women got to work preparing the feast.

Annie preparing the Annie preparing the vegetables my mother sent from  her garden in Watrous.
Annie preparing the vegetables my mother sent from
her garden in Watrous.
Sandra cooks the fish.
Judy helps out.
Judy helps out.








As fresh as it gets.
As good as it gets.
Fresh, fresh, fresh
Fresh, fresh, fresh












Fish, bannock, and vegetables fresh from my mother’s garden. Really, does it get any better?

After the meal we hopped in the boats and headed back to town to continue visiting at Annie’s

Sallie and J
Sallie and J in the shadows.
I finally got to mmet my nephew Max in person: photo credit Jodie McLeoa
I finally got to meet my nephew Max in person: photo credit Jodie McLeod

For me, it was an encounter that left a feeling of reciprocal love.

Max. Sallie, Annie, Antoine: photo credit Jodie McLeod
Max. Sallie, Annie, Antoine: photo credit Jodie McLeod









On the drive south, The Nurse and Bonnie waxed eloquently about how they were overwhelmed by the McLeod family’s hospitality and generosity. They were also pleased that they had been invited to visit again.

The trip to Amachewespimawin/Stanley Mission marked a special time for all of us.

And I’ve told my McLeod family that next time I will invite myself to stay longer.

Sunset over the Churchill.
Sunset over the Churchill. The almost-end of a perfect day.