In the 16 years that I have known my friend Mario I have heard many different tales of his world travels and he is one of those people who have lived, worked and hitchhiked through different exotic countries. Mario is a Toronto high school teacher and teaches French and world issues. He spent time living and working in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico and Quebec and came face-to-face with often vastly different cultures.
Mario is also an immigrant in two different countries, Australia where he moved as a small child in the 50s, and Canada, where he arrived as a teenager. Here is his story, the story of an immigrant, traveler and global adventurer.
1. Please tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in San Vita al Tagliamento in northeastern Italy in the province of Friuli. But my parents are of Calabrese origin from Southern Italy. After his military service in the north of Italy my father decided to stay there due to his fondness for Friuli culture. In 1953 my father moved our family to Australia where he worked with a French contracting firm and we settled in Brisbane, Queensland when I was 2.5 years old. It was there that I had my first memories of the immigrant reality which was a very simple house made of wood. The roof leaked into our house and we had plants growing through the floor in the kitchen. The conditions were very basic, but this would set the stage for 11 years of a very challenging cultural adjustment period, following which my father moved us to Canada in 1964.
At that time, Italians faced a lot of discrimination, even harassment or sometimes violence in different forms, physical and psychological. My family was actually the target of a number of different forms of attack because we were immigrants. It made for a rather paranoid existence, constantly having to looking over your shoulder.
Remember, this was the 50s and Australia was still governed within the framework of the “White Australia Policy”, a form of institutionalized apartheid. I witnessed various acts of brutality towards Australian aborigines with whom I was often mistaken, given the darkness of my skin. The proximity to the sea, however, made me appreciate the beauty of Australia in its purest form. During this time I developed a strong sense of self-reliance and I learned the importance of defending myself.
In the mid 70s I returned to Australia and I noticed that the work of many of those earlier immigrants had born fruit in the form of comfortable lifestyles and accomplished middle-class experiences. Italians had finally become mainstream and accepted. This also corresponded with Australia’s new multi-cultural policy. Australia started to open up to different nationalities, which made for a more tolerant society.
2. You are a gifted multi-lingual individual. How many languages do you speak and what are they?
English and Italian are my first two languages. I also speak French, Spanish and Portuguese at a pretty high level. In addition, I also get by in Indonesian and I speak basic German and some phrases in Russian. The sound of different foreign languages fascinates me and I also appreciate that speaking the language is the key to these foreign cultures. Apart from the initial period during high school when I was exposed to English, French and German for the first time, the rest of my languages were acquired through living in the culture.
3. What was it like when you first came to Canada?
I remember it being very very cold since we arrived in Canada on February 16, 1964. My first observation was a very abrupt introduction to the Canadian climate. For a good several years I found it very difficult to adapt to the climate. On the other hand, as far as culture went, I could finally tap into my Italian-ness. It was actually in Toronto that the whole notion of being an Italian took on a new meaning for me because I felt accepted. I felt embraced here and felt that I could express my Italian heritage which led to me perfecting my Italian, considering I had suppressed speaking Italian in Australia. Once we came to Toronto I felt a desire to further go into the language.
High school in Canada was an appreciation of many other languages. We were offered courses in French, German, Latin and Spanish at the high school level. The school I went to reflected the transitional nature of Toronto at that time, which had been very WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) until the 1960s and from then on started to change into a more cosmopolitan environment. There were people of different backgrounds which made you comfortable expressing yourself. By the time I went to university I was fairly at ease with my own intercultural identity.
My appreciation for Portuguese started on a construction job in Tecumseh, Ontario, where 2 gangs of construction workers, one Italian, one Portuguese, were confined to a very small house, provided by the construction company and were forced to live and interact with one another. I started to appreciate the similarities and differences with Portuguese culture, which I found absolutely fascinating. This was my initiation into the Portuguese language.
4. What were your earliest travel experiences?
Apart from the immigrant boat travels, my first travel memories were when I hitchhiked to Niagara Falls and Barrie, a medium-size town 90 minutes north of Toronto, when I was 15 years old. This gave me a sense of independence and the ability to design my own path on any trip. I felt in control and decided where I wanted to go. We did not realize that we needed a passport to cross into the United States, so we learned the lesson that you need your documents in order when traveling to foreign countries.
The next big trip was at the age of 17, crossing Canada with a fellow student in a VW beetle. We went to Vancouver for one month, picking strawberries, working on farms to survive. The second leg of that trip was to Mexico via California. This was the period of Height-Ashbury, the Summer of 68, and we truly experienced Flower Power in San Francisco. This left a lasting impression on me because of the freedom and the camaraderie among the youth. Anybody would open their house to you and you felt a bond with many young people.
The paradox of this period was that it was during the Vietnam War. So just as you had young people bonding with each other, believing that peace was the answer to the world’s dilemmas, people were getting killed on the other side of the globe. The administration in Washington believed that war was the answer and these young people had in effect opted out of the system.
Mexico in itself was an eye-opener. It was my initiation into Latino culture and decrepit third world conditions of the masses. This was my politicization when I realized the plight of the majority of humanity and it made me even more curious to go back and get in contact with these people.
When I came back from Mexico it was very difficult to adjust to mundane middle-class values, just fitting into my place into my system. So I dropped out of 2nd year university and continued traveling without a set itinerary.
I went to Europe first, starting with London, worked in a hospital, and then spent 2 months traveling Europe on a Eurail pass. After Spain I visited Morocco where I met a guy called Giovanni Pozzi who turned me onto images and illusions of Afghanistan, a place he had been to before. This created a great desire in me to also discover that part of the world.
After Morocco I intended to meet up with Giovanni and travel with him from Brindisi, Italy, overland to Afghanistan. In September of 1971 I visited him in Milan after having gone back to discover my Italian heritage, and I then linked up with him in Brindisi from where we took a ferry to Greece and began our overland journey in the direction of Afghanistan.
We made it to the Turkish-Iranian border after a harrowing incident on a Turkish train which derailed. Unfortunately I had not learned the lesson of my teen years and had not checked out visa requirements for Canadians. Iran required a visa for Canadians, so I had to return to an Iranian consulate on the Black Sea where I obtained my Iranian travel visa. Somehow Giovanni and I got separated and this was the beginning of true independent traveling. I learned never to depend on other people’s information, always double-check everything yourself.
3. Please tell us of your experiences and impressions during your first trip to Asia.
After traveling through Iran for about a week, which was during the repressive reign of the Shah, I hitchhiked with 2 Pakistani truck drivers from Tehran to Mashad, the site of the Blue Mosque, one of the most beautiful mosques in the Islamic world. From there we went to Herat, Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan, where I was privy to some of the most fantastic images of Afghan culture. I saw horsemen in bright green silk pants, in attire suited more to the Middle Ages than the 1970s. Afghanis appeared to be a very proud people, dignified and ferociously independent.
After a short stay in Kabul I went through the Khyber Pass into Peshawar in Pakistan. This too was an amazing view into the gun culture of this region. Every man had a gun 4, 5 feet long and it was truly an overwhelming sight to see this much weaponry on display. Unfortunately this was to continue since a war would erupt between Pakistan and India at this time, and after leaving Pakistan I ended up traveling through India during a time of war.
I was traveling on trains with a mobilized army, a people in frenetic motion not knowing what to do. The whole country was in a state of tension. Foreigners were asked to leave the country, so after a month in New Delhi I had to change my plans of visiting Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and take the next flight out of Calcutta in the direction of Bangkok. The flight ticket at that time cost US$80 one way in 1971. Calcutta was also the site of millions of refugees pouring in from what would eventually become Bangladesh. They literally overtook Calcutta. I was about to sleep outside when I was approached by a couple of Anglo-Bengalis who insisted that it was absolutely improper for a European to sleep on the ground that way. They then insisted that I go and stay with them for a couple of nights. Their only requested favour in return was to send them a Levi jacket when I’d get back to Australia.
4. From India you moved on to Thailand. Please tell us about your experience in South East Asia.
In Bangkok of 1971 I would stay at the Atlantic Hotel for $1 a night, Bangkok was still a relatively small capital at that time. I left Bangkok and headed south, hitchhiking where I was brutally initiated to Thai culture. I was at the back of a pickup truck and dangling my feet out of it, the pickup truck was passed by another vehicle whose occupants got out and threatened me, pointing to my feet. Luckily a young Canadian from Saskatoon, Murray Wright, was sitting in the front of my pickup and explained that it was a big mistake to show the soles of your feet. This is a major insult in Thai culture. I then realized that when traveling it is very important to understand non-verbal communication as well. This was a major lesson for me.
This meeting with Murray was fortuitous. He had had an accident building a Japanese sugar factory and asked me if I would take over his job as a carpenter. This led to one month working with Thais and understanding to some degree Thai culture. It was also my first experience of amoebic dysentery, a tropical disease, which nearly killed me. This is how I was initiated to eating conditions in the developing world.
5. You also spent an extended amount of time living in South East Asia. What about that experience? What can you tell us about the intercultural experiences that you encountered?
From Thailand I went on to Malaysia and worked in Kuala Lumpur, correcting English essays at an ESL school. After that I went to Penang and took a ferry to Medan in Sumatra. This was to be the most phenomenal and mind-blowing encounter with the beauty of the Indonesian people, especially the women and their colourful dresses and their exotic beauty. I have never quite experienced anything like that before or after. I knew that I would be spending a lot of time in Indonesia. There was so much happiness on these people’s faces despite all their poverty. It was in Sumatra that I started to learn the Indonesian language, having mastered one simple question: Apa yang dikatakan? Which means: How do you say….? I went on to use this question to learn literally thousands of Indonesian words which I used as the foundation of my eventual mastery of the language.
After circumnavigating Sumatra via the volcano Krakatoa and a brief stint in Djakarta, a train crossing of Java, and a ferry ride to Bali, I came upon one of the most beautiful places on this planet: the island of Bali. Words cannot describe my feelings when I first moved there, when I first came into contact with its volcanoes, its jungle, its beaches, its temples, its rice paddies, and its devoted, deeply religious people.
I eventually would spend over a year teaching English on this island in a local high school. I would also teach members of the immigration department and a number of local personalities, i.e. the head of taxation, the owner of the Tanjungsari Hotel, and students at the School of Journalism.
6. You spent some time living and working in Mexico. Please tell us about that.
After my return to Canada from Asia 3.5 years later, I suffered a culture shock which eventually pushed me away again from Toronto and this time in the direction of Mexico. This was more of a work-travel experience, having accepted a job with Suntours Wholesale Company as a destination representative, looking after back-to-back charters. I spent the most time in Cozumel where I received and welcomed the travelers, took care of their hotel accommodation and also was responsible for ground handling, i.e. taking care of their luggage and connections with the airport. I also organized tours with local tour operators.
The actual experience with the tourists was not very pleasant. Most of these tourists went to Mexico for self-indulgent reasons and were hardly ever interested in Mexican culture. It was all about hedonistic pleasures: sun, sand and sex.
I on the other hand was more interested in learning Spanish, which I taught myself while I was staying there. I also indulged in learning a little bit of the local Mayan language. This was truly the greatest gift Mexico could ever have afforded me because I went on to teach Spanish many years later.
I had wonderful connections with the locals. I spent most of my free time visiting families of hotel staff, discovering non-touristy parts of the island, local fishermen, and other parts of Mexico, ie. Merida, Cancun, Progreso, Tulum, but more on a personal level. I participated in local dances where only Mexicans went. This was truly an immersion into Mexican culture for me, as opposed to a foreigner working in Mexico.
7. In addition, as a teacher, you spent several major summer holidays abroad in other interesting countries. Please tell us about your trips to:
During the 4 trips I took to Italy, each time what was brought home to me was the depth of Italian history, the range of Italian culture, the limitless delights of Italian cuisine, and my own enduring love for my birth country. The places I love most was the spectacular scenery of Mount Aetna in Sicily, the wilderness of Calabria, Puglia which has outstanding scenery as well as the trulli, ancient almost igloo-like stone dwellings. There are also the beautiful golden-white beaches and emerald seas of Sardinia, the beautiful beaches of Pescara on the Adriatic side, Siena with its medieval splendor, Asisi in Umbria struck me with its peacefulness and reclusiveness.
– The United States
I spent some time in the Southwest and was greatly impressed by the canyons, especially the hues. Places like Sedona with their orange and purple hues impressed me. The Grand Canyon is just over-powering in its size; it dominates the psyche and engulfs you. The beauty of it is overwhelming. I also loved Bryce Canyon with its yellow-coloured sandstone. The Grant Teton Range in Wyoming also left an imprint on me as well as the many sights one sees on California’s Highway 1 from San Diego to the Big Sur. The east coast also left lasting memories with the variety of beaches in Florida, up through the Carolinas to New York City and on to Maine. The exposure to that variety is something to behold. You can do it in 2 days driving, but it could take you months to absorb it all.
Austria is sheer pristine beauty, from perfectly carved snow-capped mountains in Tyrol, to the beautiful gardened cities of Graz and Baden (just outside Vienna). The crossroads of cultures that Vienna represents fascinated me with all its monuments, wonderful churches, gardens, castles.
– Central America
I discovered the Ruta Maya which begins in Cozumel, Mexico, goes through Belize, Guatemala and then back through Chiapas and Chichen Itza. The scenery is spectacular. Monuments that remained covered for so many centuries are now exposed in their perfect state, i.e. Tikal and Chichen Itza. I also noticed the blend of animist beliefs with the veneer of Catholicism, a very intriguing mixture that manifests itself in places like Chichicastenango in Guatemala. The church looks like a big Catholic church, but when you enter inside you see effigies of deities that the population has not relinquished during centuries of Catholic domination.
Rio de Janeiro and its danger mesmerize you with their sheer geographic location. The outstanding ever-impressive view of Sugar Loaf Mountain and the numerous beaches from Ipanema to the Copacabana and the others make for a spectacular view. The monument of Christ, Corcovado, dominates the whole scene, and let’s not forget the favelas which remind us of the ever-present danger if one takes too lacksadaisical an approach to wondering around.
You can just take a bus ride from Rio de Janeiro northeast and pass through some of the most enchanting beaches, all the way up to Natal. You get an insight into the lives of local Brazilian fishermen, how they eek out their existence and somehow find time to enjoy their “cachaça”, a local Brazilian drink, and an outdoor dance in their local bars. The Amazon is just monstruous, you feel it from the day you get to Belem when you take a 2-day boat ride up to Manaos in the centre of the Amazonian region. You are just removed from all forms of civilization and again reminded of why this is called the “Lungs of the Planet”. On the other end you can go to southern Brazil, marked by its European colonizers, mostly Germans and Italians, explore cities like Blumenau, which could be located in the Black Forest, or Santa Catarina’s city of Garibaldi, which resembles parts of Italy.
– Russia / Siberia
Russia and Siberia were absolute eye-openers for a well-seasoned traveler like me. Moscow in particular with 10 years of recent gentrification, has brought to life its past centuries of spectacular history and architectural splendour. In Siberia, 4 hours by plane east of Moscow, I came to Yurga, a small town near Kemerovo, where I felt the true essence of Siberian life. Tightly knit families, celebrating summer activities by the Tom River, boating up and down in search of the perfect spot for a picnic. I truly felt the warmth of Russian family life, having been taken in by my two families as an adopted son. The tastes of Siberia, ranging from different varieties of fish from their local rivers, to various meats, vegetables and salads, never forgetting the role of vodka in all of its forms, was a truly unforgettable experience.