Ojibwe Musings – Finding my Third Ear in Algoma


rock face with drawing of canoe and horned animal

I’m barefoot, carefully feeling with my toes as I move along a sharply sloping rock face, because if I slip, it’s quick slide and a short drop into ccccold Lake Superior.

My cautious progress is taking me out to Agawa Rock in Lake Superior Provincial Park, a sacred site. Here, past generations of Ojibwe have come to record visions and events. 

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This Little Myanmar Synagogue Welcomes Everyone

The interior of Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon, Myanmar is lovingly cared for by the Samuels family who also try to be available to answer questions for visitors.

World religious leaders could learn a thing or two from the tiny Jewish community in Myanmar (Burma). This little Myanmar synagogue welcomes everyone and has become a beacon of ecumenism in this primarily Buddhist country. As a result, curiously enough, it has also become one of Trip Advisor’s Top Ten places to see in Yangon, the country’s capital.

Trip Advisor recommendation
Trip Advisor lists the synagogue one of the top ten places to visit in Yangon.

“I credit my father, Moses Samuels,” says Sammy Samuels of the Trip Advisor recommendation. Sammy and his sisters, Shana and Dinah, have taken over from his late father, as caretakers of Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon (Rangoon). ” Under my father’s care, the synagogue welcomed everyone. He never asked if they were Jewish. If they were interested, he would explain about our history.”

The synagogue

In the foreground of the tiny courtyard  is a Star of David and through the ornate gates, people rushing past
Outside the synagogue’s tiny courtyard, the narrow street is busy with sidewalk vendors and a multicultural melange of people rushing by.

The building dates to 1896 and is virtually unchanged. Outside, the Star of David makes an incongruous addition to the streetscape in this busy, distinctly Muslim quarter.

Busy business people hurry past the entrance

The street outside the quiet courtyard is bustling with a multicultural melange of shopkeepers and pedestrians. Inside it is peaceful.

Shana Samuels stands in front of the bimah, a raised dais with ornate gold surround
Shana Samuels, stands in front of the bimah, a raised dais where the torah is unrolled and read

The interior has been lovingly maintained by the tiny congregation. In the centre of the main sanctuary, surrounded by cane-panelled seats, is the bimah (the raised platform where the Torah is opened and read).

blue and white ceiling is decorated with Star of David motifs
The ceiling features an elaborate Star of David motif

Above, a simple wooden ceiling features a blue and white Star of David motif. The women would have been seated in the balcony, overlooking the proceedings.

The community

Once a vibrant, lively community numbering more than 3.000 members, only 20 Jews still remain in the whole country, just 11 of them in Yangon. “In 1930, the mayor of Rangoon was Jewish,” says Samuels. “The Jewish school had 200 students. There was everything the community needed, even a kosher wine store up the road, near the Jewish cemetery.”

black and white photo of students in 1937
A photo of the students that once filled the nearby Jewish school.

But when the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, most Jews fled to India. “For the Japanese, the problem actually wasn’t religion,” Sammy explains. “But the Jewish community had close ties to the British.”

While many returned after Burmese independence in 1948, the series of military coups and political upsets which followed resulted in an exodus to Australia, America, and Israel. By 1962, when the military took firm control, nearly everyone had left.

Keeping the faith

Yellowing photo of Moses Samuels standing beside the torahs.
The Samuels family was one of the few who remained and it fell to Moses Samuels to care for the synagogue. This picture holds pride of place in the photo gallery at the synagogue.

Through it all, the Samuels family remained. Sammy’s grandfather, Isaac Samuels, made Moses promise to care for the synagogue, and since 2015, this solemn responsibility has been passed on to Sammy. His two sisters, Shana and Dinah take turns greeting the 40-50 visitors that, thanks to Trip Advisor, come each day to see the little temple. “It saddens me that my dad can’t see this,” says Sammy. “He was delighted if just two or three visited.”

Bronze plaque to Moses Samuels place in the entrance by the Jewish community
Tribute to Moses Samuels from the community.

Most synagogues boast only two or three Torahs, the large scrolls which contain the Books of Moses – the first five books of the Bible. “We used to have 126 silver-covered torahs,” says Samuels sadly. “They were lined up behind the three large doors at the back. But when our people left Burma, they took with them the scrolls their families had donated, in order to keep them safe.” Today, only two intricately wrought silver torahs remain.

Two silver-covered torahs sit on a dias with purple velvet cloth decorated with ornate embroidery
Only two small torahs remain of the 126 which once were here.

As a place of worship, this little synagogue remains a focus for the few remaining faithful and for visiting diplomats who might be Jewish. For High Holidays, the community invites a rabbi from North America. With expats and visitors, they might have as many as 60 people. “Often, guests come from other countries specifically for a High Holiday service,” explains Samuels. “Their families might have come from Burma, or they just want to be a part of it.”

Bringing the community together

But this little community takes welcome to extraordinary lengths. In 2011, as the military junta opened the country to the outside world, Moses Samuels decided they needed a celebration. That Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, 350 people of every religion gathered for the celebration. “We invited local Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. The American and Israeli Ambassadors came.” 

a carved wooden menorah is labelled Myanmar Jewish Community
A beautiful carved wooden Menorah – symbol of Hanukkah – stands in the synagogue.

And, he adds with pride, “Aung San Suu Kyi also came.” The elected leader of Myanmar had been under house arrest for more than 20 years.

He added, “Each one lit a Hanukkah candle. It was so wonderful to see all these religions getting together. In other parts of the world this might be impossible, but here, it was such a happy event.”

Samuels adds with a huge grin,”We may be only 20 but we make a big impact!”

Sammy Samuels sitting at his desk with Myanmar Shalom sign in background
Sammy Samuels in his office, Myanmar Shalom Tours.

As Myanmar opens its doors wider and more visitors start to come to this beautiful country, the little synagogue will continue to host them. Indeed, Sammy’s company – Myanmar Shalom Travels – has organized many tour groups. They come to Myanmar to see the magnificent golden stupas of Buddhist temples. But many make a detour to the corner of Mahabandoola and 26th Streets to see this unassuming little temple to a very different faith.

bust street with cars and buses, street markets, old buildings and temples. In the distance there's a golden stupa
The main street outside the synagogue

The reaction is always the same. Young people in cut-off shorts, backpackers, smartly dressed Europeans and Americans – they wander in, look around, then stand still at the sight of the interior.  “Most of these people have never seen the inside of a synagogue,” smiles Sammy. “And probably never will again.”

gold lettering on a blue background with many coloured tiny stars. The words read Shalom, Myanmar Jewish Community and are accompanied by a Star of David and a menorah
Shalom – peace – this sign greets visitors to the synagogue.

Does he worry about the future? “I love this country. Myanmar is mainly Buddhist and people generally respect one another. We are all affected by that mutual respect,”  he says.  “Besides, we’re such a small community; we’re no threat to anyone.”

The Myanmar Jewish community is undoubtedly small in numbers, but they offer a wonderful example to their own community and to the world. As Sammy says, in a country of many millions, this small community makes “a big impact”.

Want to know more about Myanmar? Check my story at East West News Service

Painting Algoma

In the footsteps of the Group of Seven

Rocks and shrubbery on the edge of the lake in the foreground and a small island in the distance on the lake.
A view of Lake Superior near Agawa Rock. Scenes like these directed the paintbrushes of Canada’s innovative artists – the Group of Seven.

Canada is undoubtedly singularly blessed with magnificent vistas. But in some parts of the country, sky and rocks, trees and water come together in spectacular and soul-stirring synchrony. Algoma is just such a place. Small wonder, then, that painting Algoma is an imperative for so many artists.

painting of rocks and sky in blues and orange
Lawren Harris painting of Lake Superior in the Fall.

Artists like Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Johnston, A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer – all members of Canada’s iconic Group of Seven – came here to paint these landscapes.

Franklin Carmichael's painting of Lake Superior.
The North Shore of Lake Superior by Franklin Carmichael.

They found the harmony in those vistas and it guided their imaginations and their paintbrushes. The results have brought this unique group of Canadian artistic pioneers to the world’s attention.

Artists in Algoma

“Thanks to these five men and the Algoma Region, Canadian art would be recognized by many as a patriotic emblem of our land,” Eileen Halfpenny, a local water colour artist is an enthusiastic promoter of Algoma, “With the essence of Canada as a natural backdrop, and its rugged beauty defined by each artist, they showed the world the treasures that were and remain prominent in the Northern landscape.”

Eileen Halfpenny poses in front of one of her paintings.
Eileen Halfpenny is an artist and ardent promoter of the Algoma region’s spectacular settings.

I’m fortunate enough to take a trip on the Agawa Canyon Railway with Halfpenny. This train ride has been on my bucket list for some time and I relish each curve of the tracks that gives me a view of the engine as it steams past breathtaking scenes of trees and water.

Red train seen from inside the train as it curves along the track ahead
The bright red train curves through the forests of the canyon.

Halfpenny offers some basic instruction and gives us an opportunity to try our hand at painting some of the scenes we see.

Eileen Halfpenny leaning over a train seat on the Algoma Railroad.
Eileen Halfpenny makes the experience so much more meaningful on the Algoma Railroad.

As we pass iconic views, Halfpenny points out stony outcrops and waterfalls. This landscape hasn’t changed much in the 100 or more years since these artists immortalized them.

Clouds and forest reflected in a Northern lake in Algoma
One of many beautiful vistas seen from the Agawa Canyon Railway.

The waterfalls and J.E.H. Macdonald

We pass Bridal Veil Falls on the train. As soon as we stop, I head along the trail to see this cascade up close and I understand why Bridal Veil Falls has inspired so many artists. Pounding down the granite rock face, the water splits into two cascades, before it pours into the Algoma River. Remarkably, trees are growing straight out of the rock face, mute testimony to the tenacity and determination of nature to flourish against the odds.

One of the signs encouraging visitors to compare the Group of Seven's paintings to the actual scene they painted
J.E.H. Macdonald’s painting of Bridal Veil Falls.

Two of J.E.H. Macdonald’s colourful views of these waterfalls are set on an easel nearby. The Autumn scene is striking with bright orange foliage make a sharp contrast to the rock. The summer looks almost dull in comparison.

J.E.H. Macdonald's colourful view of Bridal Veil Falls in Autumn with red foliage and purple rocks
J.E.H. Macdonald’s painting of Bridal Veil Falls in Autumn..

It’s Spring when I visit and there’s a mist rising from the rushing water today, giving the scene an ethereal beauty. It makes me want to rush out, grab some paints and create my own view of these falls.

Bridal Veil Falls in the spring with bright green foliage and brown rocks
Bridal Veil Falls in Spring

Most people have gathered near Bridal Veil Falls but nearby, two more pretty waterfalls are labelled Black Beaver Falls, North and South.

Small waterfalls running down rocks amid bright green foliage with a strem in the foreground into which the falls empty
Beaver Falls are a quite refuge among the bright green foliage of late spring.

The puffing of our train has receded and it’s peaceful here, with only the sound of rushing water and an occasional bird call breaking the silence.

Rocky canyon walls and forest greenery surrounding a view of the river
The Algoma River meanders between rock walls and forest greenery.

I find myself imagining a time before trains, before carefully signposted trails, when the only feet to crunch the leaves on this forest floor were those of the First Nations who inhabited the area. Agawa means ‘shelter” in Ojibwa. And these rocky canyon walls and sheltering trees would indeed have been a refuge.

Agawa means ‘shelter’ in Ojibwa, an appropriate name for this landscape.

Indeed, the story of Algoma is inextricably linked to the indigenous people who once inhabited this land, a land they cherished and protected. Sadly much of that knowledge and history has been lost but fortunately, much remains to be explored.

The Agawa Canyon Railway loading up in Sault Ste. Marie.

Don’t miss an opportunity to see this extraordinary landscape up close and one of the best ways to do this is to take the Agawa Canyon Railway……but don’t forget your paintbox and easel!

Celebrate Valentine’s Day – How do I Love Thee?

woman in red coat behind metal letters spelling LOVE with locks attached to the mesh
The Machine Shop complex in Sault Ste Marie has turned industrial buildings into a dining and event destination. And the recent addition of a love lock fence already has couples locking their hearts forever.

The North American version of Valentine’s Day has become very commercial – chocolates, flowers, expensive cards. Many other countries have followed suit and are doing the same things. But there are love traditions around the world that have withstood the onslaught of Hallmark and Hershey’s.

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Volunteer in Costa Rica

Volunteering is a great way to really get to know a new country. Costa Rica encompasses only 0.03 per cent of the earth’s surface, but it boasts 6 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Volunteers come here to help protect and preserve this precious heritage.

three howler monkeys walk along a telephone line
Three howler monkeys walk nonchalantly along the telephone wire highway. Monkeys are part of the experience when one volunteers in Costa Rica.

A clan of howler monkeys walks calmly along the electrical lines at the side of the road. Excited, we stop the car to stare, but they ignore us. These are just one of four species of monkey that live in Costa Rica. Two days later we manage to see a second as we zip line through the forest canopy. Impish, white-faced capuchin monkeys provide a background chorus of screeches but scamper away before I can get my camera out.

capuchin monkey
This photo comes from Wikimedia but I met his noisy brothers in the forest canopy while zip lining. Unfortunately, by the time my heart returned to normal and I retrieved my camera, they were gone.

Stories abound about the thieving activities of these pint-sized pickpockets of the Central American jungle. Capuchins will apparently even open backpacks.

red and blue macaw in a green tree
A macaw stands out colourfully against the green foliage. These beautiful birds are common.

Monkeys are just a small part of the wildlife in Costa Rica. This tiny country which encompasses only 0.03 per cent of the earth’s surface, boasts 6 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Protecting that heritage has become a critical job for both the government and many non-governmental agencies who recognize the importance of this task. And it has also become the mission for hundreds of travellers who visit Costa Rica every year. These visitors are a whole new breed of tourist. They’re coming to volunteer.

Three volunteers playing cards  at a table on a covered porch
Shami Sindayigaya spent her gap year helping with the turtle rescue in Ostional

Turtle Rescue

At Ostional, on the Pacific coast, I meet Shami Sindayigaya,  a Toronto student taking a gap year. “I wanted a change, and to see if I really wanted to do eco-management.” She has come to help with the turtle rescue program here.

Just two days earlier, Shami tells me, she watched as thousands of turtles came ashore to lay their eggs on this 13 kilometre stretch of beach. It’s an event that is repeated several times throughout the laying season and the volunteers are here to protect them as well as track the numbers.

a lone turtle returns to the water
A lone turtle returns to the water having laid her eggs.
turtle eggs in the sand
The eggs must be removed to safety to prevent predators from eating them

The last arribada, as these arrivals are called, brought an estimated 278,000 turtles over six days! “It’s an awesome sight!” is the oft repeated comment from the volunteers.

“It was very exciting but we were very busy. We count turtles actually laying because many come, but not all lay eggs. And we monitor nest density,” Shami explains. “In the morning, we check activities from the previous night.”

Three people with hats digging in the sand with large shovels
We take a turn digging up eggs laid the previous night.
A blue hatted volunteer lifts a single egg from the nest.
A volunteer carefully lifts each egg to move them to a place safe from predators. Each egg represents a new turtle who could return to the sea.

There are currently 15 volunteers helping here, the youngest is 18 and the oldest is 65. Some stay for two weeks, others for six months, and most live with local families.They gather for meals and for relaxation, like the card game in progress when we visit.

The most common comment we hear is, “It’s a life-changing experience.”

Two men and a woman pose with smiles
Volunteers pose for a last pic. “It’s been a life-changing experience.”

It certainly has been for Connor Koblansky. The Tuscon, Arizona student is taking a year off after high school and his experience here has guided his future career. “Now I want to major in biology and get involved,” he says. “It’s been an incredible experience working here – cleaning beaches, collecting data, making sure everything is okay for the arribada.”

Barra Honda National Park

Inside a cave at Barra Honda National Park, strange formations of stalagtites and stalagmites
Barra Honda National Park’s caves are a favourite for exploring but volunteer naturalists are tracking bat populations in these caves.

At nearby Barra Honda National Park, Heloise, a volunteer from France, is working with local naturalists to track bat populations in one of the 42 caves. Nature has carved these out of the soft limestone remains of ancient coral reefs, pushed upward by tectonic faults 60 million years ago and delicate and beautiful stalactites and stalagmites formations decorate the caves. Thus far, only 19 have been explored so there’s still much work to be done.

The protection provided by Barra Honda has permitted many animal species in the surrounding forest to recover from the brink of extinction. Apart from spelunking enthusiasts, volunteers are needed here to help with everything from maintaining the forest and facilities, to working with the naturalists on data collection.

A male volunteer stands beside a walled trench
A volunteer working with sustainable agriculture initiatives at Barra Honda National Park

Accommodation includes bunk rooms within the park as well as opportunities to stay with locals. Meals are communal and Costa Rican style with occasional North American favourites (like hamburgers). On their two days off, volunteers can visit local towns and beaches or enjoy attractions like zip-lining or boat tours.

Andrea Prendas wearing blue shirt beside a poster for Funecodes
Andrea Prendas coordinates the volunteer program at Barra Honda National Park

A favourite activity is visiting the local school to work with the children, says Andrea Prendas, volunteer program coordinator. “The volunteers fall in love with this place. It’s so different than being in the city,” she explains. “You might be woken by a howler monkey. You can hear  the birds, the animals, the rain on the trees. ”

Rain in Barra Honda

As if to illustrate her point, a sudden tropical shower thunders against the roof of the dining area. From the veranda, we can hear it splashing on the forest leaves. It’s a heavy downpour but it lasts only a short time, leaving the air refreshed, scented with earth and vegetation.

four women posing with shovels
Our little shovel crew – we didn’t work long but we were enthusiastic!

“We’ve had volunteers who have never touched a shovel, but it’s an experience and they love it,” she adds. “Many contact us and come back several times. And they send us letters asking about the kids at the school.”

FYI Want a sustainable holiday in a unique hotel in Costa Rica? Visit Macaw Lodge.

Volunteering Tips

Volunteering has become big business. There are many agencies offering volunteer opportunities but it’s important to vet these carefully. According to Prendas, many agencies charge $3000 or more for a single week’s volunteer experience (airfare not included), but when I visited Barra Honda was paid just $16 per night to house and feed these volunteers.

A few volunteers at Ostional are here with Volunteer Base Camp (VBC). David Morrison began VBC because of his own bad experience volunteering in Nepal.  They charge $250 to register and $620 for all in-country costs and programs, including some basic language training where required.

The cost of transportation to the country and visas are not included with most volunteer agencies, though some include medical and travel insurance (VBC does not). Transportation to and from the airport is often included. In-country support and some training for longer term volunteers is usually part of the package.

Another option in Costa Rica is Fundecodes, the local non-profit agency that promotes the culture of sustainable rural development in the Nicoya Peninsula. Prendas suggests those interested in volunteering at Ostional or Barra Honda contact Fundecodes directly.

More Information:

Costa Rica information: A good starting place is www.visitcostarica.com

Fundecodes:  For project and volunteer information: www.fundecodes.org

Volunteer Base Camp: www.volunteerbasecamp.com