On a recent Sunday, I walked outdoors and up to the dirt ATV track where there was once a railroad north of Carbonear. The trains have been gone from that particular route for almost a century, but every now and then, random railway spikes still work their way up to the surface like shrapnel surfacing from old scars.
It was sunny, the dust knocked down by light rain the night before, and it was one of those few truly still Newfoundland days when you could look out over the ocean and see the tops of the swells coming in as long silver lines, not the usual crushed-foil sparkle of windmussed water.
Nine o’clock and the sun already high and autumn-white, and I walked the old railway line without thinking about how far I would have to walk to reach the nearest border, and what kind of welcome I would face when I got there. A simple trip, really; the blueberries are ripe, and I was going to pick a few baskets, just to have fresh blueberries and because I like the simple solitude of picking them, the measurable industry tucked into otherwise thoughtful time. I didn’t have to pick them because I had no choice but to forage for food, or because I was trying to supplement a family’s meagre refugee camp rations.
I stepped off the old railway trail exactly where I wanted to, onto a narrow path down to blueberry bog, and no riot police stood in my way. No one pulled me aside on the railway gravel and wrote a number on my arm, spelling out which transit camp I was going to be moved into. I smelled the August smell of hot juniper and Labrador tea, the amalgam of peat and heat and scores of different botanical smells.
I was bothered by the sun on my neck and a series of rainbow-eyed, hungry horseflies circling for the chance at a small drink of blood: I wasn’t hiding from aircraft that sought a far larger portion of that fluid.
I found an old, flattened stone wall that I’ve been to before, where the bushes hang in on both sides from the blueberry bog but where it’s dry enough that you can sit while you pick, instead of crouching or bending at the waist. There I sat for a few hours, picking litre after litre of berries, thinking about the sounds from nearby birds and the way the flickers have dug up the massive anthills and the shape of the barrens hills against the sky.
I saw not one single other soul. And no one shot at me. No one was raped. And not for one single second was there any reason for me to be afraid.
The only death I saw was an unfortunate rabbit that must have been clipped by an ATV the night before, its sleek fur still pristine and laid as flat as if brushed, albeit marred by the trails of night slugs, the sky-turned eye still bright and clear. The flies hadn’t even arrived yet.
I didn’t go to the beach, but if I had, the stones and sand would not have been in the process of being searched for the morning’s dead bodies, washed up from countless refugee ships lost during perilous travel.
Thank your lucky stars that you were born where you were born, that you live where you live.
For all the “pull-yourself-upby-your-own-bootstrappers” out there, I’d just point out that I don’t doubt for a moment that there are refugees who are more skilled, smarter, harder workers and more dedicated employees than I will ever be. Better writers, too. And that hasn’t necessarily helped them even one little bit.
If you’re lucky, an accident of birth — and only an accident of birth — has kept you out of Hungarian transit camps and Syrian war zones, out of smugglers’ boats and away from barbed-wire pens.
Surrounded by riches, we should be far more willing to share.