It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Awaiting their moment in the spotlight.

There’s just something about giant pumpkins.

You may rhapsodize about your royal-size rutabagas, you may hail the humungous Hubbard squash, or commend the colossal cabbage. All are worthy, but all bow before the immenseness of the Great Orange One.

Nova Scotia’s Hants County is a hotbed of oversize vegetable growing, thanks to a man named Howard Dill, who developed the Atlantic Giant variety of pumpkin back in the 1980s. Today, his namesake farm sells wanna-be growers enough seed annually to sprout around 2.4 million pumpkin plants.

Let us be clear. These are not the pumpkins you see in your grocery store at Halloween, the ones you carve and set out as Jack-o-lanterns. They’re not even the same ones your angelic child chooses as “the biggest pumpkin in the field” and poses beside for the family Facebook snappie.

These pumpkins are really, really big. To put this in perspective, I point out that Windsor, Nova Scotia, hosts an annual pumpkin regatta, in which jolly yachties hollow out examples of said squash, sit in them, and race along an 800-metre watery course. And those are the babies, the ones not big enough to compete at weigh-offs. The world record pumpkin last year tipped the scales at nearly 1,200 kilos.

Last September, I found myself in Nova Scotia, right on the border of Giant Pumpkin Country, just at the time when the big ‘uns were being harvested and trucked into local weigh-offs. There was no question of resisting the siren call of the splendid squash, despite the strange look the BnB proprietor gave me when I asked for help finding the off-the-beaten-track event.

I drove through endless orchards of picture-perfect Annapolis Valley apples before finally spotting the farm market that was hosting the event. As I puttered through to the overflow parking in an adjacent field, I had a great view of the line-up of titans waiting to be judged, each reclining regally on its own pallet board. The pumpkins ranged in colour from chalky white through greenish-yellow to deep orange. They brought to mind a ring of rotund sultans at ease after a particularly palatial repast, their bodies bulging out in unique, sometimes grotesque, forms.

I joined the crowd of giant-vegetable fanciers in dungarees, plaid jackets, and baseball hats. Forty or fifty people stood around patiently, chatting and commenting on each entry as it was weighed. There was good-natured ribbing of some of the growers, obviously well-known figures in the area. Hot dogs and hot chocolate took the nip out of the autumn air. Someone was filming the entire contest, which took a couple of hours to complete. A reporter from a farming magazine was on hand to take notes and photos. There was no hurry. It had the comfortable feel of a local event where hard-working folks took a well-deserved day off to connect with neighbors and display the fruits of their labors.

As the assistants worked a sling under and around the next competitor so it could be lifted by a frontloader, the crowd would begin guessing its weight. Due to the eccentric shapes and varying densities, this was no easy task; a pumpkin that appeared larger might actually turn out to be lighter in weight. This uncertainty merely compounded the tense atmosphere of cut-throat competition.

Before an entry was lowered onto the scale, a judge checked it underneath and occasionally used a whisk broom to clean the bottom, I suppose in case the extra half gram of dirt was the deciding factor in this battle of the heavyweights.

Each grower—young and old, man or woman—was encouraged to pose for a photo beside their entry as it rested on the scales with the weight clearly showing in the background. I imagined a farmhouse wall covered with these snapshots stretching back years, perhaps with an occasional ribbon tacked alongside.

Top prize that day went to a 1202-lb behemoth; not exactly world-record class, but certainly the biggest darn vegetable I’d ever seen. As they loaded the Great Pumpkin onto its owner’s truck for the triumphal journey home, I toasted it with my hot chocolate and wished it and its mates all the best. The winners would move up to compete in the county fair and perhaps to even greater glory at the provincial level. The losers might still contribute to someone’s closely guarded pumpkin breeding scheme.

I carried back from Hants County my own sample single-seed packet of Atlantic Giant. Someday, I may find the perfect spot—the most sincere pumpkin patch—to nurture that seed. It may look just like any other pumpkin seed, but I know it has the potential to bring forth a champion.

What have you discovered by exploring rural backroads on your travels? Share your story in a comment.

 

Heaven for Horse Lovers

It was a sight I will never forget. Thousands of horses and riders packed virtually nose to tail, haunch mere inches from haunch, filling the main street of Costa Rica’s capital city as far as the eye could see.

Warmblood stallions with thick, arched necks, luxuriant braided manes falling over rolling eyes and silver-plated bridles, capered next to placid work ponies with no more than a rope hackamore to guide their measured steps. Riders in brilliant historical costumes sat stiffly erect in their saddles, knees expertly communicating with their mounts, while bosomy girls in cowboy hats and shirts tied tightly in front to show off their curves waved to the crowd from floats sponsored by beer companies.

On December 26 of each year, the Gran Tope Nacional takes over not only San Jose, but the entire country. It is a day for Ticos to embrace a once-a-year, completely over-the-top love affair with the horse.

Researching travel destinations is my passion and sometimes I discover something unexpected. We were planning a trip to Costa Rica and had little interest in San Jose; our goal was the parks and wildlife farther afield. As I idly browsed a hotel website, however, a phrase caught my eye: “Located close to the route of the Gran Tope.” Although I had already done a lot of reading on CR, I had never heard of the Tope. I began searching the web for more info. At that time, there was very little information available: a couple of Spanish-language sites and one or two news reports. The travel guides never mentioned it, yet it sounded big. At any rate, a day devoted to horses was enough to get me booking a hotel for the date.

On Boxing Day, the Tope commands day-long national television coverage. This is the Superbowl, the Oscars. There’s a pre-Tope show with multiple celebrity hosts and there’s moment-by-moment on-the-ground coverage of the four-hour parade, with interviews, comedic episodes, and lots of shots of pretty women with cleavage. Happy spectators push up against the barriers, some sucking on beer bottles, other on baby bottles. Loud music blares, people shout, a drone zooms overhead.

In the face of this chaos, the horses are amazingly calm. As the parade stops and starts, stops and starts again, they wait patiently as they are jostled by other steeds or fondled by strangers’ hands that stretch out over the barriers to stroke silken rumps and noses. When the tiniest space opens up, a rider is sure to have his mount dance across it with fancy steps, inviting admiration. If a child beckons from the sidelines or a lovely lady is spotted, the most mettlesome stallion is brought to the barrier to be petted and praised and accepts it with equine dignity.

I see small children pulled from the crowd by riders who swing the young ones up behind for a taste of what it feels like to be King Cowboy. I am embraced by half-drunken celebrants who are intent on nothing more than having a fun day and think being photographed with a gringa tourist is a lark. I point a camera at the parade, and riders stop before me and pose with obvious pride.

As far as I could tell, there is no competition, no prizes, no winners or losers. Just an outpouring of affection and appreciation for the horse. Imagine that: an event that’s all about participation.

For the rest of the trip, when locals inquired politely as to what I had done in Costa Rica, their faces would light up when I mentioned the Tope. It was as if I was now a member of a secret club because I had sought out and experienced this event dear to the Tico heart. “What did you think of it?” everyone asked eagerly, and they would beam when I said in all sincerity, “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

 

 

Wild Animals I Have Annoyed

Elephants are majestic and beautiful. The babies can even be cute, with those little trunks and mischievous eyes, hiding between Big Mama’s massive legs. Awwww.

Elephants can also be very, very scary.

It was my second trip to Africa and I had already seen a lot of elephants. Elephants tearing up trees for lunch. Elephants bathing in rivers and rolling in the wet mud. Elephants playing or trundling across the horizon on elephant business. I had been extremely close to some of those pachyderms. Not that I approached them, but often when I stopped at roadside to watch, their meanderings would bring them near. They would continue doing whatever it was they were doing, clearly aware of my presence and about as concerned as if I were a small, harmless mammal, which is probably what I was from their towering point of view. They seemed like gargantuan but amusing vegetarians.

I had read all the safety tips for safaris and I never, ever left my car. So long as you’re in your car, the guidebooks say, the animals see you as a part of it and, since they have long since learned that cars don’t do much other than chug along well-worn tracks, they view you as neither prey nor predator and, consequently, of little interest.

As I drove slowly down one of the backroads of Kruger National Park, my car topped a hill. Below, about a hundred metres away, a herd of elephants was crossing the road. I stopped the car to enjoy the sight and to stay a non-threatening distance away. The group consisted of cows and their offspring of various ages.

As the parade wound down, the tiniest calf of all scuttled across, followed by the largest cow. I guessed that she was the matriarch of the group, bringing up the rear to make sure no one was left behind or nabbed by lions in her absence.

Maybe she was feeling especially protective of that newborn calf, or maybe she didn’t like the way my car was perched above them on the hill. Whatever it was, she turned in the road to face me.

Oh, crap, I thought.

All the signs of an elephant preparing to charge flashed through my mind. Direct stare: check.  Ears flapping: check. Trumpeting: check. Trunk swinging: check.

Double crap.

I threw the car in reverse and began backing up just as she charged. It is nearly impossible to drive rapidly backwards down a narrow, winding road while keeping terrified eyes on an elephant that is looming ever-larger in your windshield. Within moments, I missed the track and backed firmly into a thorn bush.

The elephant pounded up to the bumper of the car and stood there, swaying with menace. She stamped her feet so close that I was sure she was going to mash the hood. I wondered briefly if the damage waiver on the rental car covered crushing by angry elephant. She backed up and made repeated short charges at the car, trumpeting furiously all the while.

I remembered every detail of every photo and video I’d seen that demonstrated the destructive power of the great grey beasts—the tusk thrust through a window, the rolling of a VW Bug to the edge of a precipice, the flattening of a sedan when an ellie chose to make a joke out of reclining upon said vehicle.

I shouted to my companions: “Get down, and don’t look her in the eye!” as if the challenge of our puny gazes could incite this behemoth to any greater wrath.

The matriarch was shortly joined by a second, smaller cow, which ran around the melee, calling excitedly. I thought perhaps this was Big Mama’s teenage daughter, come to join in the fun of terrorizing tourists. Luckily, she provided a desperately needed distraction for the murderous matriarch. After what seemed like an eternity of close and hostile action, Big Mama turned away for a quick tete-a-tete with her daughter. Instantly, I slammed down the accelerator to send the car past the two elephants, and shot off down the road, in the opposite direction to the herd, needless to say.

Shaking with fear, I spent the next couple of hours reciting nonsensical expletives and repeatedly reminding my companions that we had actually just been charged by an elephant, like it would have somehow slipped their minds.

Do I still think elephants are majestic and beautiful and sometimes cute? Absolutely. Would I go to Africa again on safari? In a heartbeat. Do I want to see wild elephants up close and personal? Not on your life. But I wouldn’t trade this memory for a month of free nights in a calm, safe resort hotel.

Have you had a frightening encounter with wild animals while travelling? I’d love to hear about it.