21 October 2016

The Rock

They call it the Rock. And driving through this wind-swept, largely barren island in Canada's extreme east, one can certainly appreciate the nickname.

But Newfoundland is more than just steep cliffs, craggy outcrops and jagged plateaus. This stark landscape is dotted with calm protected bays,  lush valleys and cute villages, which brighten up the bleak environs with their typical colorful clapboard houses.

Just as charming as their architecture are the towns' names: Setting out from St. John's, the provincial capital, automobile explorers soon find themselves cruising through Cupids, Come By Chance, or Little Paradise. Heading south on route 80, we passed Heart's Content, Heart's Desire, and Heart's Delight, in that order. Should you require more to get satisfaction, just keep driving on the same road, and you will find Dildo, Newfoundland (if you can read this, your adult content filter does not work...).

Postcards duly placed in that hamlet's postbox, we started looking around and wondering what the islanders could possibly do for a living. We travelled the province on the Thanksgiving long weekend, after the short summer tourist season had ended, and struggled to imagine that it could sustain the locals year-round. Fishing was the obvious other industry, and indeed plenty of little boats, nets, lobster traps and associated gear were evident. But our prior visit to The Rooms, an excellent museum in the capital, had educated us on the dramatic collapse of the cod fishery in provincial waters.

We never quite found out what does pay for the meticulous upkeep evident in most houses, and we were too shy to ask the locals. They probably wouldn't have minded our curiousity, for the Newfies lived up to their reputation of exceptional friendliness and hospitality (but not to their equally prevalent fame for being the dimwits of Canada).

It is perhaps the harsh nature of their habitat that makes the islanders stick together and help each other out. Either way, visitors like us are the beneficiaries of this kindness, which saw waitresses recommend coffee shops hundreds of kilometers away, volunteers proactively offer directions on a breezy night in St. John's two-street downtown area, and museum staff start video presentations at our leisure, rather than the posted schedule.

Through it all, we sensed a certain pride of place, for Newfoundlanders have, often quite literally, carved their existence out of the Rock. And they turned it into a lovely, and lovable place - although it may not feel that way during the winter months.

"Canada begins here" proclaims a sign at Cape Spear, North America's easternmost point. This Rock is a most promising start.

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