Summer in the City II

Cycling through downtown Vancouver is one of my favourite things to do, and I love Chinatown, Strathcona, and the area around the docks. When wandering through the back alleys there I am always fascinated to see how the street art has changed and developed.

This small labyrinth is tucked away near Union Street.

Many murals grace the walls of buildings and bridges down here; this first nations sun is part of a large image beneath an overpass near the old Sugar Factory.

On Alexander Street, in Gastown right near Chill Winston’s restaurant, is the gallery and studio of Choboter, an artist whose name was previously unknown to me. His works are vaguely reminiscent of Pollock’s drips, although more kitschy, with women’s faces and bodies embellished upon the paint drips and drops.

One of the blocks along Hastings is constantly metamorphosing. Every time I ride by, another piece of old time Vancouver has disappeared to be replaced by yet more restaurants, coffee shops, and palaces of consumption.

SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts faces off against the not-so-Regal Hotel across the street, its windows usually full of interesting art.

I have been photographing the alleyways between Cambie and Richards for a few years now; each time I return, the images have changed. Having been away from the area for a year, it was interesting to see what has happened with the street art and graffiti.

The alley behind the Dominion Building yielded some cool stencil art.

These large-scale wall stencils represent the contemporary evolution of printmaking art. Rather than the small, rather intimate aesthetic of traditional printmaking, these works are big, bold, and often have a socially conscious point to make.

However, there’s also lots of the usual guys with huge guns, death’s heads, and rampaging monsters thing …

A few weeks ago we checked out Tomoyo’s small installation Yearning at Solder and Sons books and cafe, 241 Main Street. Originally from Japan, Tomoyo has lived in Vancouver many years. She also spends part of the year in Ladakh, India where she is involved with the Tibetan community. Her drawings speak to issues of community, spirituality, and the injustices perpetrated on the people of Tibet.

Solder and Sons is right near the Main Street viaduct, from the top of which is a great view out over the docks, the harbour, and the North Shore mountains.

Riding along the Carrall Street bikeway from False Creek to Gastown, we pass the Sun Yat Sen Park and Gardens, recently voted the World’s Top Urban garden. It is an oasis of calm and green beauty in a sea of concrete.

From the gardens we can see the revolving “W” of the former Woodwards Department Store, now the epicentre of downtown eastside Vancouver gentrification.

While vestiges of the gritty downtown eastside remain, such as the West Hotel, the areas untouched by real estate hipsters are shrinking in the face of an influx of expensive doughnut shops and trendy restaurants.

At the yearly Powell Street Festival, the remains of Vancouver’s original Japanese community gather in Oppenheimer Park (between Powell Street and the waterfront).

See more pics here and here.

From Barbados to Soufriere, Saint Lucia, West Indies

We’d arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the Coconut Grove Hotel at 3:50 am for our 6:30 flight to Saint Lucia and set our alarm for 3:20. All was ready to go as we drifted off to sleep (well, Ty drifted, I listened to him snore …) Then, merciful oblivion … when I woke with a start to a blank-faced alarm clock and, checking the watch, realised it was 3:50 and we’d almost slept through our taxi ride. After 5 minutes of throwing on clothes and dragging the bags to the van we were out the door at 4:00 and on the LIAT prop plane to Saint Lucia, where we landed some 45 minutes later.

Marcus picked us up and transported us down the very windy up and down coast road to the old capital of Saint Lucia, Soufriere, in the south west. Soufriere is French for “sulphur in the air”, a reference to the island’s “drive-in” volcano and its sulphur hot springs. Although we can’t smell them, apparently there are no snakes in this area because they hate the sulphur fumes. Set in a narrow valley backed with tall palm tree carpeted hills, this town was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2004. Just south of town are the two Pitons (peaks), Petit Piton and Gros Piton, narrow, steep spikes of rock jutting skyward on the edge of the coast.

The town itself has narrow streets lined with colonial shop houses, a small central park in which the cathedral sits, and a bustling waterfront, from which water taxis ferry people back and forth to farther away beaches. Soufriere reminds me quite a bit of Levuka, the old colonial capital of Fiji, although this place is much older and busier.

We’re hanging out at the Downtown Hotel, one of a very few hotels in town, and we have a very sweet large room with a wrap-around deck on the fourth floor, offering a view of both the water and the downtown area. We’re right across the street from the cathedral and from the minibuses that travel north and south up and down the coast. Many vendors on the streets downtown sell fresh fruit and vegetables, especially bananas – there are several banana plantations here and, as a result, no wild monkeys. We can see chickens crossing the road all day long here and a few dogs trying to steal food. Bob Marley lives on here, in the dreadlocks, colours, and music of reggaeland Caribbean.

After dropping off our bags, we grabbed a coffee and pastry at the nearby bakery and headed off along the waterfront in the direction of Petit Piton. As we walked, many locals wanted to chat and, of course, sell us merchandise and taxi rides. Walking south out of town, we passed many fishermen’s houses, their boats anchored and nets hung up to dry. I’m not sure what the fishing is like here but seafood is expensive. Once at the end of town, the paved road became a dirt track and led us along the edge of the tall coastline cliffs to Matgretoute Beach.

Coming down towards the beach, we passed a ruined structure with many, many rusting wheelchairs stacked up outside; we later found out that it used to be an old folk’s home and was closed just last year. It’s going to be torn down one of these days to make way for a resort.

The beach was virtually deserted; only a couple of tourists and one local guy were about, and the restaurant/bar was closed.

We were told that it couldn’t be done, but we decided that we’d try to walk all the way along the coast to Jalousie Beach, a beautiful area that lies in between the two pitons. Scrambling over rocks large and small and trying to avoid the pounding surf, we made it perhaps half-way around the base of Petit Piton before being stopped by sheer cliffs over which we couldn’t see a way. The walk was beautiful and we could see the water taxis zooming by as they deposited more visitors on the far off beaches. After making our way back again, luckily the restaurant was open for business and we were able to down a pint and some food just as we were feeling quite bedraggled.

For you history buffs, here’s a few tidbits: Like Barbados, the first peoples here were Amerindian; Spaniards arrived first in the 15th century but didn’t bother colonising the island because it had no gold. The English first landed in 1605, and the French in 1651. The two countries fought over Saint Lucia for 150 years, the country changing hands between them 14 times; as a result the country is often referred to as the “Helen of the West Indies”, a nod to Helen of Troy’s role in igniting the Trojan War. In the 18th century Saint Lucia was a slave-holding society, slaves beings used mainly as agricultural labour in the sugar industry. Slavery was abolished finally in 1834. In 1842 English became the country’s official language, but almost all the place names here are French and the locals speak a Franco-Creole patois. Saint Lucia became an independent nation in 1979 and its population is 172,000.

As usual, Ty’s everyone’s friend here; the guys call him the Hell’s Angel or Mr Pirate.

See more pics here.

Bridgetown, Barbados

Bridgetown was founded in 1628, settled by successive groups of Amerindians on a series of red mangrove swamps. As the most easterly of the Caribbean islands, its importance was far in excess of its small 166 square mile size. Along with Boston and London, 17th and 18th century Bridgetown was an economic hub, and the early Navigation Acts passed by the English Parliament after colonization were designed to block the Dutch from trading with Barbados.

We walked from the minibus depot along the inlet, across a bridge, through the Heroes Square, across another bridge, and along the boardwalk fronting the Careenage, a harbour where 17th and 18th century ships would be cleaned of barnacles. Here several large catamarans were taking on passengers for snorkelling and diving trips and the Jolly Roger, a replica pirate ship, is docked.

We strolled the backstreets and came upon St Mary’s Church, consecrated in 1827; it has a graveyard surrounding it in which famous local citizens were buried. During our visit, a local lay sleeping off a bender just outside the front door.

From the church we walked along Suttle Street, on which several of the buildings were roofless and decrepit, ghosts of their former 19th century glory.

Like both Nathon on Koh Samui and Levuka in Fiji, here, too, shop houses dominate, two storey structures in which the family lives upstairs while conducting business below. Many of these have wrought iron balconies. The back streets are quite narrow and winding, full of small grocery shops and bars, many of which advertise 24 hour slots.

Not too far from the riverfront downtown area are the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Museum, and Cemetery. The name means “the scattered of Israel” and it was here that the Sephardic community of Barbados worshipped. From the Free Library, donated by that 19th century robber baron Andrew Carnegie, we walked along several streets trying to find the Nidhe Israel, only to realise after talking to a local, that we’d passed it without noticing.

She was kind enough to walk us back. The Museum was pretty much a non-event, with only a very few small artifacts along with its educational panels, but the mikvah, a ritual purification bath house only discovered in 2008 in the cemetery yard, was pretty interesting.

The small structure is tall and narrow, with stone steps leading down to a bath in which women would wash after menstruation and before bedding their husbands. Recently restored, the synagogue sits in the middle of a forest of seventeenth century grave markers.

In the 17th and 18th centuries Bridgetown expanded as a result of the wealth generated by the sugar trade; as it did the wealthy moved east and established the Cathedral of St Michael and All the Angels in 1665, to which we slowly made our way in a rain squall. Around the Cathedral, now sadly somewhat decrepit, with scaffolding and decaying stone and cement, is the Old Churchyard cemetery, where feral pigs ran wild in the 17th century and slaves buried their dead.

The town is quite clean and tidy and many of the buildings are painted in beautiful pastel, and sometimes vibrant red and blue, colours. Barbados is on the cruise ship map and the only other tourists we saw were a few folks in from the boats visiting the Nidhe Israel. I don’t know where the rest of the multitudes who visit this island go, but not Bridgetown, it seems. We hopped a big blue bus at the terminal and were back at the Coconut Grove in about ten minutes.

While Barbados and Bridgetown were economic hubs in earlier decades, the place seems quiet today. While some tourists are about, there are certainly no hordes and the people who are here seem to do little other than lie on the beach and consume happy hour rum drinks (some days us included!). The country is trying to reinvent itself as a destination for wealthy property investors and villas here go for a pretty penny. In fact, we have found the island to be very expensive, more expensive than Vancouver for food and drink (and not very good food at that, except for Mama Mia’s, the Italian café luckily just across the street from the hotel). Especially after South East Asia, sticker shock is hitting us hard! Especially tough is the 18% tax added on to everything we buy.

It’s funny that, wherever I go on this trip, I compare where I am to where I’ve been. After being there for three months, I was sick of Thailand by the time we left; but now that we’re in a very quiet, comparatively-speaking, Barbados, I miss the hive of activity that is Pattaya. I also miss the inexpensive and mostly very good food in Thailand and the café culture in SE Asia. Surprisingly, Bridgetown has nothing in the way of outdoor cafes, at least that we were able to find. However, it is a pleasant enough place with an interesting history.

Going out on our balcony in Thailand in the morning, I was greeted with a screaming hot sun and a blaze of white sky; by seven in the morning, it would already be 30 degrees – hot! Here the temperature is much more moderate – maybe 20 in the mornings, pleasant enough although I’d prefer more heat. A weather system is passing through and we’d had quite a bit of rain in the afternoons and early evenings here.

While in Thailand and Bali everyone had mopeds, and the traffic was horrendous; here there are virtually none. Local people travel on buses, minibuses, or walk. Gas and vehicles must be enormously expensive here, judging from the price of everything else.

Since I’ve not been to any Caribbean islands other than the Bahamas when I was 12, the only place I can compare Barbados to is Samoa, to which it is somewhat similar, although more populous, and, as a result of its colonial history as a trading hub and British garrison, with much more in the way of towns and interesting architecture.

See more pics here.