We visited Vancouver a few years ago and know it is a clean, pleasant, walking and bike-friendly city blessed with ocean on one side and mountains on the other. It was therefore a shock to drive in through the Downtown Eastside at six in the evening and watch the people waiting in straggly lines on dirty streets for the homeless shelters and soup kitchens to open as ‘entrepreneurs’ worked the lines, selling drugs, alcohol – for what kind of payment? The billboards urged people to call 911 if they saw a fentanyl overdose, even if they were using themselves. The city’s mild climate attracts more street people than Halifax, and they are more visible. Affordable housing is a hot topic in Vancouver – everyone talks about it – from the millennials who believe they will never own their own home, to the drug experts looking to solve an overdose epidemic. There is much speculation about how the new provincial government (New Democratic Party – socialist in 2017) will handle the situation.
We were lucky enough to be staying with a relative in a lovely neighbourhood with a stunning view of the city centre and the mountains behind it. Vancouver is the sort of place you want to be outdoors and active, and we have spent long hours driving, so we spent the rest of the week outdoors. First, we ricocheted from community bike station to station all around Vancouver, docking one bike and picking up the next, finding the stations on an app. The price was right; $10 each for 24 hours; but the system is designed to help people bike from A to B, not sight-see; you can only use each bike for 30 minutes at a time. We got quite good at docking one bike and picking up the next. Nine hours later we walked the three kilometres back up the hill from the last station to the house, knees buckling and backsides sore, having been all the way around English Bay, Stanley Park, False Creek and Downtown on bicycle paths. “We might have overdone it.” Said MLH that evening. The next morning, we knew we had.
Thinking swimming would be a good gentle exercise, we headed to Kitsilano Park, where we exhausted ourselves swimming in an open-air salt-water community swimming pool 130 metres long. It was a wonderful facility, but it took me five minutes to swim from one end to the other. The pool is so huge that families, swimming lessons, summer day camps and adults swimming lanes all used it without anyone feeling squashed. Everyone was very well-behaved, many people obviously there for the day with picnics. I counted six different languages being spoken, and many different English accents. There are a lot of Irish and Australians.
We started up the ‘Grouse Grind’ the next day because we were too cheap to pay $50 each for the gondola. The Grind is where you climb Grouse Mountain, an 850m elevation with a superb view of Vancouver at the top, basically straight up. It’s like a giant Stairmaster trail which never stops. Some people run up it; they have a competition every year. Most of the amateurs could only gasp, sweat, groan, and at a certain point (OK, a quarter of the way up) decide that a) if they’d been prepared for the climb and b) it hadn’t been so late in the day and c) their legs hadn’t been so sore from the cycling; they could have done it easily.
It wasn’t all walking, swimming and cycling. We joined locals and tourists on the beach to see a Japanese-themed beach party and fireworks show. Groups of friends and families were there all afternoon and evening, cooking on portable barbeques and playing games. An evening at the Richmond Night Market was a cultural novelty. Through the summer the Asian-themed market is open three nights a week in a huge parking lot. We waited 45 minutes to get in to the market, entertained by dinosaur models which roared and wagged their tails at us. It got stranger from there. It’s a mix of fun fair, where the prizes are all a version of Hello Kitty dolls: merchandise such as socks and onesies pyjamas, cell phone covers and fidget toys, also printed with Asian-themed motifs and fast-food stalls. Everyone was heading for the food, so we joined them. It was very hard to decide between the spicy barbequed octopus, the pork sao, and the lamb liver kebabs; so we didn’t. That meant we did not have room for the Japanese crepes filled with marshmallows and strawberries, the fried ice cream served in a cup set in a blow-up pink flamenco, or the neon-coloured pop drinks served in a container shaped like a light blub which had a flashing LED light in the base. I told MLH the last one would turn me on, but he knew I wouldn’t drink it, and cleverly distracted me by pointing out that the off-key singer on the ‘community stage’ was starting his third rendition of ‘I’m in Love with Your Body’ to an audience of two.
Culture continued our last day in Vancouver, first with a visit to the Art Gallery to see a visiting Monet exhibition and forest paintings by Emily Carr, a Victoria native who painted contemporaneously with The Group of Seven. I was impressed with how she was willing to experiment and progress in her art, and how well she captured the spire-like nature of the huge cedar forests. Finally, we met Daughter #1’s boyfriend at a First Nations-inspired restaurant named Bannock and Salmon. On the menu were elk, duck, and bison, sauces made from blueberries and wild sage, bannock bread, and choke cherries smoked in sweet grass. Intriguing food and good company.
The wild fire smoke moved in again with shifting winds from the North, and it was time to pack up and head South, to the US border. Our cross-Canada tour was to become a cross-US tour as well.