Going, going … (Haven’t they left yet?!)

Going, going … we’re just about gone … we’ve divested ourselves of almost everything not necessary for our trip: the red Echo has been sold, the bikes have been put away in storage, the skates and remaining clothes and accoutrements not needed on the voyage will go into the locker tonight. Marsha has graciously agreed to help us transport one more carload of stuff downtown and then, that’s it until the plane to Hawaii tomorrow at 6 pm.

Three things I’m going to miss about Vancouver:

1)    The Seawall

My favourite place to be, summer or winter, whether cycling, skating or walking.

This 25 kilometer stretch of pavement running around Stanley Park, through Yaletown, past Science World and the Olympic Athletes Village,

past Granville Island to Kits Beach is fabulous rain or shine (but preferably shine).

Along its length we can make stone sculptures, learn about mason bees and urban gardens, see wildlife such as seals, otters and eagles, drink beer and eat appies,

fish, collect bottles, make pottery, display art, strike a pose, dock a boat,

protest,  and dance, all in the same day if that’s what’s desired. We can also see the Google Mapping bike in action:

While downing a beverage at the Pirate Pub, we can also observe the top seven Seawall Faux-pas:

Not wearing a helmet while cycling (or skating): this one is a no-brainer – if you have an accident and are unfortunate enough to hit your head on a curb, even at a slow speed, your brain may be no longer. People seem to have no idea of the damage even a seemingly small crash can make – think pumpkin split open on the ground and wear your helmet. The helmet will not protect you if it’s hanging from your handlebars or in your basket.

Wearing a helmet but not having it done up: see above. The helmet will not protect anyone in an accident unless it’s done up tight around the skull.

Wearing a helmet, but having it on backwards: this one’s a funny-looking faux-pas. Make sure you know how the helmet is supposed to be worn.

Riding too fast, with no hands and no helmet: see above

Not obeying the posted signs: For most of its length the seawall is divided, one side reserved for pedestrians and the other for cyclists and skaters – keep to your own side! That pedestrians are oblivious to or deliberately disregard these signs is a major source of frustration for cyclists and skaters, especially skaters, for whom safe paved paths are a must (especially since there are so few of them around). Ditto cyclists – keep on your own side.

Unleashed dogs on the loose: I love dogs; I have a dog, too – but don’t let Fido run free along the seawall. He’s a loose and dangerous canon to skaters and cyclists into whose path he may unexpectedly run.

Blocking the path with your bike, your kids’ bikes, your stroller etc.: don’t be oblivious. If you’re going to stop, get off the path so that those behind you have room to get by and won’t run into you.

2)    Food

Of all the places that I’ve been Vancouver has the best food scene. As a result of its multicultural mosaic, the restaurants here are very varied and fantastic. Within a half mile radius of our downtown condo, we can eat excellent Chinese (check out the pleasant Restaurant on Davie between Granville and Seymour), Thai, Japanese, Indian, Asia Fusion, Korean, Mexican, Continental, Italian, German and more.

3)    Fun

Although Vancouver sometimes gets a bum rap as No-Funcouver, there are lots of ways to have summer fun in this town. So far this year, we’ve sampled grand street parties (Hello Game 5), Summer Solstice Festival, sailing, nighttime urban skating, cycling the many bike paths around the city, Luminaires Lantern Festival, Canada Day Parade, Means of Production Art Garden Party, Zombie Walk, and the PNE, just as a sample.

A big thank you to everyone who’s helped us on our way and a special shout-out to Doug, caretaker of our beloved beast Brubin the dog, and Marsha, caretaker of our much-loved cat Aran.

See more pictures here.

A small tale of two Chinatowns

When I was a kid one of the very great family treats was a trip across the bridge, from the wilds of Lynn Valley in North Vancouver where we lived, to Chinatown, a fascinating collection of blocks sandwiched between the downtown eastside and Strathcona, for dinner at the Ho Ho Inn on Pender Street. I loved Chinese food, back in the day the only “ethnic” food available in my small white existence. My especial favorites were Mushroom Egg Foo Yung, Cashew Chicken and Chow Mein; these, to my small child’s taste buds, were foreign delicacies of a high order. The Ho Ho Inn had the requisite large circular tables, around which my family clustered, plastic tablecloths and arborite counters, de rigeur in those far-off days when the earth was still cooling.

Back then, Chinatown was hot; throngs of people visited to shop, eat and enjoy the vibe. I can remember the excitement of entering the shops there, their interiors dark and heavily scented with incense, and gazing at the rows and rows of objects for sale: small plastic dolls in red dresses, thin sheets of parchment paper, folding red paper lanterns, wooden lions and cats painted gold. Sometimes I’d actually buy something; most times I was content to just look and touch, immersed in the feel of a foreign culture.

These days that mystique is sadly gone; my Orientalist fantasies have faded, along with the allure of Chinatown itself, now a hollow husk of its former gold and red glory. I’m not sure when the exodus to Richmond began but it’s picked up lately; that the epicentre of the Chinese community is now Number 3 Road and Cambie rather than Pender and Main is testified to by the many shuttered storefronts, the remnants of their inventories left as dirty garbage or crumpled paper on the sidewalk in front.

The buildings themselves are still architecturally beautiful, their patterned rooflines silhouetted against the sky and their facades still colourful albeit faded. I understand that Bob Rennie intended for his private gallery, opened in 2009, to be an impetus for a revitalization of Chinatown but as yet I don’t see much evidence of that.

Rennie, the so-called Condo King reviled by many local artists and activists for “house-washing”, the gentrification of the downtown eastside that is continuing apace, purchased the Wing Sang building, built in 1889 by Yip Sang, a “Chinatown legend who made his fortune hiring the Chinese labourers that built the Canadian Pacific Railway”, for an office and private gallery space.

“The property at 51 East Pender is actually two structures, a three-storey building in front and a six-storey building in back. The front building held Yip Sang’s import-export business, the Wing Sang company. Originally two storeys, a third was added in 1901. In 1912, Yip added a six storey building in back, where he housed his large family – four wives and 23 children” (Vancouver Sun article).

This structure now holds the offices of the “Rennie Marketing System” and Rennie’s private art gallery, only open to the public occasionally. Read the Sun article about Rennie’s building here. Read about today’s Chinatown here.

In contrast to Vancouver’s waning scene, one of the most spectacular Chinatowns I have had occasion to visit is the one in Bangkok, a vast village within a vast city of teeming, screaming humanity.

Bangkok’s Chinatown is enormous, a gigantic rabbit warren of tiny alleyways criss-crossing one another, each jam packed with stalls and street vendors selling every conceivable product and potion. Pedestrians, bikes, trikes, tuk-tuks, trucks, and motorcycles all compete for room within the confines of this pulsing hydra-headed quarter. The smell of plastic and roasting meat competed with one another in my nostrils, while visions of fake flowers, hair doodads, and colourful shiny knic-knacs beguiled me in this frenzied environment of commerce and consumption.

I made sure that, as we pushed our way through the tiny streets, I was firmly attached to Ty’s backpack, because if we had ever become separated in there, I’m sure we’d still be looking for one another now.

Tourist in my own home town II

Having sold the red Echo, Ty and I are travelling transit until we leave. Yesterday we headed out via the Skytrain to grab Ty’s bike from our locker downtown and then made our way to Third Beach through the urban forest. While there, I had a quick chat with Mick, one of the park’s regulars who makes his home in the trees there: “Well, I have the beach for my front yard and the trees for my back – who wouldn’t like that?”.

A 60 year old, wiry, brown and lean from days and nights living rough, and with a ripped tendon from pushing his loaded cart all over town, Mick looked more beaten down than his contemporary Gipsy Jack (who, with the same long grey hair in a ponytail, could have been his more prosperous brother). “It is what it is”, he said resignedly when I asked about his daily treks collecting anything useable to sell.

This day we decided to take the 49th bus out to UBC to check out the action pre-back-to-school at our old Alma Mater. The campus was quiet and dusty; we were surprised to see the amount of landscaping construction going on, with route detour signs and orange fencing everywhere. Hopefully this will be completed within the next three weeks, otherwise, with the rains that are sure to come, the whole place will be a gigantic mud pit. We were also surprised to see how unkempt everything – the buildings and gardens – looked; I suppose the current austerity climate has even affected this place.

We visited the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, a new version of what would have been called a Natural History Museum back in the day. Upon entering a visitor is greeted with a gigantic Blue Whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling; down a ramp is the collection itself, a series of black cabinets and drawers that hold specimens from every period of historic life.

We were fortunate enough to hook onto a tour that was just starting; the guide Tanis was great and explained some of the highlights of the collection, including replicas of 19th century curiosity cabinets, a dangerous tropical cone snail shell with beautiful patterned markings which can paralyze prey (including humans if the animal is large enough) (note to self: avoid while travelling), a species of fish, two branches of which are quickly evolving in separate directions because of changing habitat, and fossils from the Burgess Shale. The displays themselves are really gorgeous, with the specimens beautifully displayed in glass containers and wooden boxes.

The display setup here is much more modern and sleek than the older style of museum epitomised by, say, La Specola in Florence. That place, built in the 18th century, contains row after row of glass cases of dusty specimens unenlivened by any narrative material that could contextualise the exhibits for a non-scientific visitor. For me, the best part of La Specola is instead its collection of wax anatomical teaching models, 1800 or so wax body parts and several full-scale human bodies sculpted in the 18th century and posed free-standing (the men) and reclining (the women), their positions indicating the gender conventions formerly adhered to … manly rigidity for males and languid, made-up receptivity for females.

After finishing our perusal of natural history, Ty and I headed off down to the Nitobe Gardens, with a stop at Rodney Graham’s Millennial Time Machine on the way, an old turn of the century motor car containing a camera obscura housed within a glass and cement structure.

The Nitobe Garden is an oasis of quiet varieties of green, bonsai trees, cherry trees, which are unfortunately afflicted by the same blight affecting their brothers lining the streets of Vancouver (meaning they’re all going to have to be cut down eventually – a real shame), bridges, small pagoda sculptures and ponds (although the $18 entry fee is a bit much).

Back on the bus, we made our way down to English Bay, realising as we looked out the window, that we were heading into zombie territory as more and more made-up figures roamed the roadway the further into the west end we travelled. Remembering that today was the fourth annual Zombie Walk, we took some time to investigate the varieties of ghouls on display, enjoying the theatricality of the spectacle taking place in and around the Amazing Laughter sculpture, ranging from the munching of (fake) bloody limbs and heads, to gigantic axe and pistol fighting, to sleep-walking, to carnivorous dead-devouring.

Later, we enjoyed the company of friends on the rooftop deck of a classic 60s west end apartment building as the sun set, another fabulous day here on the west coast.

Read about the Beaty Biodiversity Museum here.

Read about La Specola Natural History Museum here. See pictures of the displays here. Read about my anatomical art work here. More information about my La Specola art work here.

Read about the Nitobe Garden at UBC here.

See more pictures here.

Tourist in my own home town I

While cat-sitting my own cat, whose temporary caretaker had left for a few days, I took advantage of the finally summery weather here on the gloomy coast to walk from Kits Beach to Jericho along the rocky foreshore. In amidst the rocks and kelp were small pockets of sand, each occupied by refugees from the city’s vastly more popular – and sandy – beaches either side of this stony strip. I was interested to see that, along the many retaining walls preventing the mansions of Vancouver’s rich and not-so-famous from tumbling into the sea, anonymous artists had painted vast canvases of colourful graffiti.

Back again in South Van I rolled my bike out along the Ontario Street bikeway running from South East Marine down to the seawall to find out what a bike commute from this area would look like. Ontario runs through several neighborhoods, from Sunset to Riley Park to Mount Pleasant to the Athletes’ Village. Along its length are roundabouts, mostly decorated with plants and flowers thanks to a Green Cities initiative in which people agree to look after said gardens. Some are still hoping to attract a gardener’s interest and consequently looking very shabby in comparison, dusty and friendless. I like this bike-route; like others in what purports to be, and maybe one day actually will be, a bike-friendly place, it has street-crossing buttons mounted on light standards at a biker rider’s height and several traffic-calming devices in place to make riding a more pleasant activity that it was back in the day when my old Dad used to get into horrible altercations with bus drivers as we rode along Kingsway or Broadway in a city that was even less bike-friendly than now.

Mount Pleasant still has some lovely old heritage buildings, the Ukrainian Church on Tenth and what used to be another church, now converted to condos across the street, as well as the Heritage Hall at 15th and Main, a former post office now used for cultural events. It also has some less attractive features, including a large fenced-off grassy area across from Queen Elizabeth Park in which soil remediation is supposed to be taking place, although it appears that no such remediation has actually taken place in a long, long time. The fenced-off trees look dusty and lonely in their sea of unkempt grass.

In addition, the ride features at least two turn of the century brick elementary schools, unfortunately to become rubble in the next great quake that’s due here any time now when the Cascadia Fault ruptures, the Sir William Van Horne and the General Wolfe, built in 1911 and 1910 by what looks to be the same architect.

Hopefully the collapse will come when the schools are not occupied! Ty and I have also been interested to note the number of empty corner lots in South Van which used to house gas stations; it’s apparent that these have been closed because no longer profitable and that, rather than take out the old gas tanks and clean the soil, instead whoever owns them is just waiting for the oil and gas remnants to drain away and become someone else’s problem. After a roll of about 30 or 40 minutes I hit the revitalising Athletes’ Village and then made my way along the wall to Granville Island. Earlier in the week I had cycled along the wall from Kits and stopped at Habitat Island where I listened to a grad student from UBC talk about her project raising Mason bees.

The area in which this talk took place has been converted into the Bulkhead Urban Garden and has been planted with flowers and veggies attractive to bees, those tiny pollinators without whom we’re screwed.

This day I stopped to have a chat with Gipsy Jack, a very dapper well-dressed homeless man with a nice bike and trailer rig who’s made the area his home.

After dropping off my tube of art work, a contribution to the 101 Prints fundraiser in the Fall, to Malaspina Printmakers on Granville Island, I headed back uphill and stopped at the Mountain View Cemetery, a vast sea of the dead occupying a large area between Main and Fraser. I was surprised to see that some new elements have been added to the grounds, a Memory Hall (which can be rented for private events) and many walls of columbaria, as well as a beautiful water feature on the east side, and a flowery stream bed garden for infants and the still born a bit farther north.

Other than myself, there were 5 other visitors this day. While not as beautiful as the European cemeteries with which I’m familiar, Mountain View is nevertheless a restful place to contemplate one’s mortality. I love cemeteries and often visit them while travelling; among the ones that I like the best are the small patch of very colourfully-painted graves on Cozumel Island in Mexico, the one in Side, Turkey, and the grand monumental gravesite for the rich behind San Miniato al Monte in Florence, Italy.

Many of the headstones in Turkish graves have Ruhuna Fatiha inscribed on them; before I realised that this meant something like rest in peace, I assumed that there were very many people so named in Turkey … The best time to visit a cemetery is sunset, when the long shadows and beautiful colours light up the graves in intriguing ways. Unfortunately, the Mountain View closes at 7; in the summer that’s way before sunset.

See more cemetery pictures here and here

Read about Mountain View Cemetery here.

See more pictures here.

Touring Steveston

Since we’re now living so close to the Fraser River, it only makes sense to check out the action along its banks; last weekend, this meant a trip out to Richmond, to Finn Slough and Steveston.

The village of Finn Slough can be found at the foot of No 4 Road, although if one didn’t know it was there, I’m not sure whether you’d find it or not since much of it is overgrown by brush and blackberry brambles.

Founded in the 1890s (old for this part of the world) by – wait for it – Finnish immigrants, the village consists of wooden houses and shacks built along Woodward Slough, an opening to the south arm of the Fraser that is flooded at high tide and mud flats at low.

Many of the houses were built on wooden stilts; small motor and fishing boats rest on the muddy bottom when the tide recedes. On this day the scene was quiet and peaceful, no-one about but two very skinny cats meowing piteously.

Having explored all there was to see of Finn Slough, we headed off through the farm fields to Steveston, another waterfront community which I had not visited in probably 30 years. Has it ever expanded since then – acres of new townhouse developments now fill the space that used to be part of the agricultural reserve. The town mostly seems to consist of seafood restaurants specialising in fish n’ chips and T-shirt shops; Ty and I sampled the goods at the Sockeye City – not bad but pretty small portions.

At the end of the boardwalk is the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Historical Site; as part of the Salmon Stomp admission to the Cannery was free and we enjoyed following the process of salmon canning from the catch to the can.

The displays are very well done and the building itself is fabulous, with much of the old equipment still intact. Ty knows quite a bit about fishing and was able to give me the rundown on what the various pieces of machinery were used for.

Read more about Finn Slough here.

Read more about the Gulf of Georgia Cannery here.

See more pictures here.

Culture Shock in South Vancouver

From the penthouse to the basement … since we’ve rented our own place out for a year, and we’re on the road for ten months, we needed a place to stay before and after the Grand Tour. It’s a bit of a culture shock to move from the urban core, where everything we like to do is within walking distance and we hardly ever fire up the car, to the burbs of south Vancouver, our home for the next 26 days, where there’s nothing we like to do within walking distance and everything requires firing up the car. Living downtown has spoiled us, I’m afraid.

The suite itself is quite nice, newly made with new all-Ikea furniture and appliances and, oh joy for Ty, a large flat-screen TV. We haven’t had a TV for 10 years so for the first couple of days we watched it and discovered that, no, nothing has changed, it’s still 500 channels and nothing on … back to the computer screens and the kindles. I had a bit of a meltdown the other day when, for some unknown reason, our internet was down – I really am an addict.

One nice aspect of living in a house is the back yard; we have a grassy area with several beautiful flowers and a gigantic leafy tree for shade, as well as access to the recently constructed deck and BBQ while the house’s owners are away.

This morning, wanting to explore the area on bike, I headed off down towards the Fraser River. Along the way I saw many houses in what appears to be the new Vancouver Special style, a very ornate design, and large house, on the usual 33 foot lot. Each of these houses has the same kind of stone/brick fence and inscribed granite address number plate – whoever is making these is making a fortune. Once having crossed over the very busy, and bike-unfriendly, SE Marine Drive, I followed a guy on a bike onto the Kent Avenue bikeway along the river (I had no idea this bike path existed).

This not-so-scenic route took me past a cement plant, the City of Vancouver recycling depot, and a bunch of small industrial buildings on the river’s edge. Past these the view became better as I was able to turn onto a gravel path that ran right along the river, from which I could watch the tugs towing barges and log booms up towards New Westminster.

Cycling further out along this route I came to some new upscale townhouses and condos in an area that has been christened the “River District”. As with all things related to housing in this town, once someone has a good idea – homes on the river – everyone wants to get in on the action and the area is now in the process of redevelopment all along the river as far as Burnaby.

In certain sections wooden piers and viewing platforms have been erected, from which one can observe the many ducks and herons enjoying the water. Lots of folks take advantage of these to fish, although I’m pretty sure that I’d not eat anything that came from the Fraser River, given its muddy brown colour at the moment and the signs warning of water treatment plant outflow …

Crossing over the city boundary into Burnaby, the river-side area becomes the Burnaby Fraser Foreshore Park, in which apparently bicycles are not allowed on the trails. Bah humbug!

Since riding along the roads here is not at all enjoyable, since they travel through industrial areas and are busy with gigantic trucks and many other speeding vehicles, I ignored the no-cycling signs and rode gently and quietly along the gravel path through the forest, a much more pleasant and scenic — and safe — route. Most of the pedestrians I saw were also ignoring the posted signs with respect to unleashed dogs so I did not feel too bad about my small transgression.

Read more about the River District here.

Read more about the Kent Street bike path here.

Read more about the Burnaby Fraser Foreshore Park here.

See more pictures here.