Tuesday, June 10, 2008

From Bonavista to Burin

After the end of the symposium, I set myself to more serious meanderings. I had rented the car for another week and had no plans for the next five days until I intended to take the ferry to Saint-Pierre from Fortune, on the southern tip of the Burin Peninsula. Which left me with plenty of time to explore the Bonavista peninsula, where Port Union is located, and make my way the two hundred miles south. For reference, here’s a map of the most direct route (obviously, not the one I took, though, which was slightly more circuitous) from Bonavista in the north to Fortune in the south.

View Larger Map
Bonavista, at the northern tip of the Bonavista peninsula, is thought to be the first place in Newfoundland visited by Europeans. According to the plaque on the statue of John Cabot looking out at the tip of the peninsula, “In early May, 1497, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), a Venetian citizen bearing letters patent from Henry VII sailed from Bristol in the Matthew to seek a western passage to Asia. On June 24, he made land somewhere on the east coast of Canada. Although the sources do not allow unequivocal identification of the site, local tradition records Cape Bonavista as the landfall. From this, the first official English voyage of exploration in the Western Ocean, derived Britain’s subsequent claims in the New World and the beginnings of her overseas empire.”
Though there is debate within the historical community about whether this was the actual site of Cabot’s landing, the story is considered as fact in Bonavista. The story goes that when Cabot first saw land, he cried “Buon Vista!” – “Happy Sight!” – hence the name for both the town and the peninsula. In 1997, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s original voyage, a recreation of the Matthew was built in Bristol and sailed across the Atlantic to Bonavista for a ceremony on June 24 presided over by Queen Elizabeth II. (Everyone was proud to tell me about the Queen’s visit, though the most vivid story I heard about the day was from a woman who had decided to avoid the crowds and the rain and just watch from her house.) That replica then returned to Bristol, where it remains today. Seeing a promising tourism opportunity, however, Bonavista decided to build its own replica of the Matthew, which is seasonally on display in the Bonavista harbor right alongside the fishing boats. Built, maintained, and interpreted all by locals, the aura surrounding the boat is nothing like one generally finds around historic or recreated wooden boats. The new Matthew is too authentic to be seaworthy (no engine or safety features), but locals are very proud of such an historic monument in their harbor and the work of locals in doing all the carpentry and maintenance on the boat. Since the harbor regularly ices over for the winter, they even have a clever set-up for keeping the Matthew indoors during the icy months. Beyond the history, though, the real beauty of these days of wandering was the ability to see the unfolding of spring in the scenic outports, drive through some of the most interesting parts of the province, and meet some of the most welcoming people I have met this year. In my four nights of meandering, I was twice taken in by strangers I met along the way – the two people who discovered that my other option was to sleep in my rental car. (Yes, Mom, I went home with strangers and slept in my car. I promise they were very upstanding strangers, and I locked the car doors even though I was at campgrounds all by myself.) I spent one night at the base of Cabot’s statue, looking out over the water, and the other on the shore at a campground on the Burin peninsula, where I remembered to record the view when I woke up:
In Bonavista, I was taken in by a retired schoolteacher who I met at the local coffeeshop/bar while watching game five of the Stanley Cup finals (Pittsburgh won in triple overtime). I met his dog and talked with him about travel and education and his childhood in Newfoundland before he sent me off with an open invitation to visit anytime. In Grand Bank, the first person I met was the Anglican minister’s wife, who gave me a tour of the old fish plant-turned-theatre where she works and insisted that I come and stay the night with her and her family at the Anglican rectory. And, as most Newfoundlanders were quick to tell me, such unquestioning hospitality is the rule rather than the exception.

And if such welcoming people weren’t enough to sell me on Newfoundland’s outports, I was content just to wander the towns and watch the scenery. I saw old fishing stages, signs of a by-gone era of fishing,

and small boats and fishing stages still being used as they were decades ago, looking quaint but also continuing to provide a livelihood.

There were sheep – rounding out the tally of Watson year sheep sightings to include all four of my original project countries,
and peaceful domestic scenes.
When I got to Newfoundland, everyone kept telling me that this is a place that people just end up staying. It gets in your blood and you just don’t want to leave. And really, I can see why.

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