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By Marziyeh Sheraze

Published on April 3, 2013

It was late in August and near the end of summer when my family decided to finally embark on a trip we had been discussing for six years. It was now or never, so the preparation began. Reservations were made for four cabins, at a camp ground in Tobermory, Ontario, a small town located northwest of Toronto at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. A couple of days before the trip, my brother and I pulled up some internet reviews of the camp ground. Some reviews were positive while others lowered our expectations. But online reviews are only just that, a review: a retrospective view of some stranger. Excited and determined to explore what lies ahead, we packed our bags and went forward with our plans. Where else would we find an end of the season package that could accommodate a family of twenty?

Early on a Thursday morning we started to load two of the five cars which were heading to Tobermory, with our GPS fed with the addresses of the meeting points and destination. After a five hour drive with our music playlist on repeat and the rhythmic complaints of everybody’s feet going numb, our GPS told us in an Australian accent, “you have arrived at your destination.”

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As I got out of the car, and completed a post-drive stretch, I noticed that there were what seemed to be Bible verses carved onto plaques that were hanging around the camp grounds. Some of the reviews had mentioned this. One reviewer wrote that the owners of the camp ground try to “push their religious beliefs on their visitors” and another reviewer had found the “Bible verses above the door disconcerting.” As we approached the registration desk, a part of me expected one of the staff members to make a comment regarding religion—either theirs or mine. Perhaps this was because of the reviews I had read, or because of how conscious I am of my own religious beliefs. Wearing a hijab as a Muslim woman in a small town like this camping ground tends to make one quite alert and jittery. Having travelled outside of the city before, I expected unwelcomed glares and the frequent and usually ignorant questions about how life must be like as a Muslim. However, no such comment was made; instead we were greeted with a smile and guided respectfully to our cabins.

I wondered how “disconcerting” these verses really were, and how words carved onto a plaque could make anyone so uneasy about being here. It wasn’t that the verse was provocative; it seemed to have no negative connotation at all. The more time I spent there, the more I started to disregard the reviews I had read because I realized that these reviews were flawed and biased. As I have learned in psychology, human beings tend to see the world through preconceived categories and ideologies. The reviews themselves were probably based on preconceptions, and they were helping create preconceptions for others.

Sheraze-2The next morning as my cousins and I headed out for a hike at the Bruce Peninsula National Park, we noticed that the camp grounds had a petting zoo. Who could resist petting llamas, ponies and goats? My little cousins sure couldn’t. Over by the enclosed area stood a young girl wearing a plain, long dress, apparently feeding the animals. At first glance, the girl reminded me of reviews referring to the camp ground owners as Mennonites or Amish. One reviewer said that the camp ground was “run by an Amish family – very bizarre.” Another reviewer commented that “They may not be Dutch Mennonite but they sure look the part.” Mennonites – I thought of all I had ever read or seen of them; books like Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, and TV shows with a similar theme: a protagonist is born into a community that is very restrictive and is often separated from the outside world, and the protagonist struggles to find freedom. This young girl, feeding the animals in the petting zoo, was like the protagonist from all those stories. I had her pegged from the minute I saw her; I thought she was going to be timid, soft-spoken and shy. As we approached her, she introduced herself as Grace, and asked if we wanted to feed some grains to the animals. She quickly brought out buckets of grain, poured some onto her hands and began to show us how to feed them. When one of my cousins asked Grace if there was a long commute to school, she cleverly responded “no, my school is just twenty steps away from here.” as she was home schooled. There was a confident charm about her.

When we returned from the hike, we saw Grace standing by one of the cabins, this time with her mother and grandmother. They too wore plain-looking maxi dresses, but they were also wearing a head cover; they later explained it was called a tichel. Grace and her mother and grandmother greeted us warmly, and we talked about how wonderful it was to meet people from different cultures. They asked where we were from, and just then Grace quickly asked, “Guess where we are from?” Once again I thought of the reviews I had read online. It was only when they told us that I realized that they were not Amish nor were they Mennonites. They were Jewish. Grace told us with pride that her family was from Israel. She was born in Mississauga, a suburb outside of Toronto, but strongly identified with being Israeli. Her grandmother also told us that she was born in Germany and that her family fled during World War II. They had bought the camp grounds approximately ten years ago and built the cabins themselves, as a family. Listening to Grace’s fondness for Israel made me think of how I identified with being Pakistani, despite my family’s Iranian background. Despite our cultural and religious differences, we could relate to each other and all it took for us to bond was a simple conversation.

On our way back from Tobermory, I wondered how many people make assumptions about who I am. The colour of my skin, the clothes I choose to wear or not to wear; do these superficial things define who I am? In an ideal world, these would not be the factors that one would be judged by. Instead, we would be defined by the words that we speak, and the things that we do. I do not know if the online reviewers meant any harm by what they wrote, and I do not know if they ever tried to get to know Grace’s family. But I do know that it is important to realize that reviews are partial and subjective. They reflect the partial viewpoints and limited perspectives of individuals like all of us. The best we could do is to consider multiple points of view and try to move beyond our preconceptions. Sometimes, it just takes a conversation at a camp ground.

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Sheraze-bioMarziyeh Sheraze is a third year student at UTSC, working toward a double major in Psychology and Geography. Marziyeh hopes to eventually work as a counselor for abused women. In her spare time she enjoys watches movies – one of her favourite films is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She also enjoys reading books, and will read anything written by Paulo Coelho.

Further reading suggestions

Byrne, Jason, and Jennifer Wolch. 2009. “Nature, Race, and Parks: Past Research and Future Directions for Geographic Research.” Progress in Human Geography 33 (6): 743-765.

Finney, Carolyn. 2014. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Livengood, Jennifer S., and Monika Stodolska. 2004. “The Effects of Discrimination and Constraints Negotiation on Leisure Behavior of American Muslims in Post-September 11 America.” Journal of Leisure Research 36 (2): 183-208.

Marks, Lynne. 1996. Revivals and Roller Rinks: Religion, Leisure and Identity in Late Nineteenth Century Small Town Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Thorpe, Jocelyne, and Stephanie Rutherford. 2010. “National Natures in a Globalized World: Climate Change, Power and the Erasure of the Local.” The Dalhousie Review 90 (1): 127-138.