True to the pattern of our previous few days, our ride into the city was a short affair to aid the slowing of pace as we come to the end of ‘leg 1′ of our journey. From New Westminster we had just 10miles to cycle to our destination, and with the help of Jenny’s directions, we navigated our way to the Central Valley Greenway cycle route that took us right into the city. Although some absent, ill-placed or ambiguous signs had us slipping off route once or twice, it was fantastic to finally have a dedicated cycle route and escape the throes of traffic as we headed into the hub of the city. Although we escaped the rain the sky was overcast and heavy, with the threat of more to come- and it was against this grey backdrop that we saw our first sights of the city of Vancouver. Our hosts for our few days off were to be Florian, Rebekka, Chan and baby Anuk, a lovely Swedish family from WarmShowers who we discovered we had actually been following via their blog during the preparations for our own adventure! Another cycling family, they had undertaken an epic cycling adventure spanning over 3 years around Canada and the Americas with their then-toddler, Chan. We were excited to hear their stories and share advice and experiences- traveling with a toddler brings a whole host of unexpected hurdles and challenges that you simply don’t encounter in normal traveling circumstances, and as novices we were hungry for all the help we could possibly get!
Fortunately our hosts lived outside of the very central of Vancouver so we hadn’t far to go and after our late start, we went straight to the house and settled in. We were fantastically looked after for the duration of our stay with incredible hospitality, and I genuinely found the entire lifestyle of this inspirational family really incredible. It was wonderful to see how traveling had impacted upon their philosophies and approaches to how they lived their lives, their relationships together as a family and how they’d settled back into ‘normality’ after such a long time on the road together! Although their apartment may be considered ‘small’ by Canadian standards, as they pointed out, it was like a mansion to them after 3 years in a tent and it was evident their time away had taught them to truly appreciate all that they had. It suited them perfectly and I loved the strong environmentally-conscious attitude they adopted in their lives there: from avidly recycling (although actually this is a keen interest in all parts of Canada we’ve visited- far more so than back in the UK) to choosing Fairtrade and organic products to make their delicious, vegetarian home-cooked meals, using real nappies (hurray!) and even- the most quirky aspect I loved- re-using jam jars as drinking glasses. Everything about their lives was wonderfully simple and unafflicted. I thought with great shame of my matching dinner set and my cupboard of 30+ wine glasses. Excessive, unnecessary and over-indulgent, to name but a few of the thoughts that occupied my mind at that point. I was wonderfully humbled by this family with the more that I learnt: and envied them, in a way, the simplicity, the morally and socially conscious nature to their lives. As we discussed the fact that organic and ‘honest’ food often frustratingly costs the earth to buy and as such, we tend to opt for cheaper alternatives, Rebekka pointed out the following to me, which has resonated through my mind ever since: “It’s about prioritizing. Some people prefer to buy a new phone, a new television or computer every year, the latest gadgets. We don’t need those, and the money we save can go towards things like this.” And it’s true. I bet if I were to completely overhaul our finances, I would find a huge black hole of money sinking into unnecessary luxuries. What’s more important? And could I ever be strong enough to sacrifice those things in order to bring my lifestyle in line with the values and attitudes I so greatly admire in others?
Our first full day in Vancouver opened with further grey skies and as such, we opted to delay our planned trip to Stanley Park in favour of indoor entertainment in order to escape the inevitable rain. After managing to traipse our way downtown via bus and SkyTrain (in true, clumsy tourist fashion, we attempted to board a bus going the wrong direction, got lost finding the train station and have since learnt that we massively over-complicated the entire operation, which could have easily been done in half the time and at a margin of what it cost us! You live, you learn..) we stopped for a spot of lunch before hitting the Telus World of Science. Set in Creekside Park overlooking False Creek, the Science World was actually undergoing renovation at the time we visited, which meant that while some exhibits were restricted or closed, we managed to get myself and Matt in on the child’s rate, while Theo got in for free. And genuinely, we didn’t notice the lack of exhibits at all, spending a good 4hours exploring, experimenting and experiencing all that there was on offer. From the ‘Body’ exhibit in which we surprised ourselves learning how fast Theo’s heartbeat was (as he placed his hands on two conductors that translated his heartrate into a pulse to bang a huge drum- he wouldn’t leave it alone!) and discovered how symmetrical (or not, in my case..) our faces were and how in turn that relates to our perception of beauty (apparently my lack of symmetry makes me less attractive!) to the reptile corner in which Matt and I both held snakes, there was a bit of everything and anything. I remembered how much I had enjoyed museums and outings like this when I was in school; just how interesting and interactive they are, bringing the entire world of science to life for children (and adults!). Theo was absolutely in his element, running from one thing to the next in sheer fascination, and genuinely, he was utterly enraptured by the entire set-up. Basically everything was interactive and clearly designed with children in mind- although actually, I’m sure Matt enjoyed it just as much (if not more!) than Theo did. From mind puzzles for the adults to the simpler cogs and weights that created movement in the basic experiments- something for all ages!- and it truly answered Theo’s craving and hunger for knowledge in discovering how things work and the way in which he can cause an effect through making small adjustments. I can see we have a true ‘mechanically’ minded boy on our hands! Whilst the full price may have been a little pricey, for what we paid, it was fantastic value for a great family day out and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for something to entertain younger children in the city. I don’t doubt the further exhibits that are set to open upon completion will probably make the World of Science more worthy of the full price once the standard rates are re-introduced: certainly though, it wasn’t lacking for content in spite of the closures.
After we left the World of Science, grabbed a coffee and figured out our way back downtown, we decided to separate and pursue individual interests. Matt undertook a little walk around the city and down to the port to show Theo the boats coming and going, and to photograph certain sights around the city, whilst I slipped into the Vancouver Art Gallery for an hour of solitude. The gallery had 3 exhibitions up and running, and a wedding taking place on the ground floor! (A good choice I felt: a beautiful, classic building by contrast to the modern glass-esque feel of Vancouver overall) On the first floor was a Ken Lum exhibition (a Vancouver-based artist) using performances in public places (the artist stood alongside a highway for 4 days running and filmed himself and the reactions of commuters..) scultpures from rented furniture, large-scale portrait photographs merging with faux-coporate logo and signs and more. My favorite piece by him was the Mirror Maze with 10 Signs of Depression (in which I got lost just before the gallery was due to close..and had to be retrieved and then escorted out of the gallery by security. Oh the shame.) The second floor, ‘from the collection: Unreal’ focused largely upon Surrealism and truly made me feel as though I had stepped into an alternative existence. The collection combined the works of multiple artists who explored the conflict between the rational and the obscure, the normal and fantastical. I completely lost myself as I walked around: Vancouver felt a million miles away from this world of mystery.
My favorite part of the gallery, though, had to be the ‘Walking and Falling’ exhibition on the top floor. This exhibition combined the works of Jim Campbell, Chris Marker and Eadweard Muybridge, who used a spectrum of new and innovative media to represent the notions of time, movement and memory. I wandered around this floor for what seemed an eternity, coming back repeatedly to specific pieces that really spoke to me. I only wish I could have had a guide and someone with whom I could have analyzed, dissected and greater understood the works I was seeing. Regardless, it was the perfect place for me to have some ‘alone’ time- I only wish I could have stayed longer! I emerged from that gallery so much calmer and collected: just that short time had almost ‘re-set’ my entire mindset and attitudes, and I was far better-equipped to deal with the tests thrown my way by Theo’s toddler tantrums later in the evening! If nothing else, I think it goes to show just how important it is not to neglect the individual, even when traveling in a group. We all have different tastes and desires when it comes to sightseeing or what we enjoy and much as I love my little family, sometimes I do need some ‘alone time’ in order to simply preserve my sanity and give myself the opportunity to appreciate them! It’s no secret that families who live on top of one another for long periods of time tend to get on one anothers nerves; we are no exception. And even just an hour here and there can help relieve any built-up tension and frustration, to help keep the trip going smoothly.
Day 2 of our city adventure saw the skies brightening into a delightful blue and as such, we knew we had made the right call in postponing our day at Stanley Park. After a shaky start navigating our way downtown along slightly poorly-posted cycle routes, we eventually found our way to the Sea Wall cycle route that would lead us around the length of the park. It was a perfect day’s ride and lovely to cycle for pleasure, rather than purely to get from A to B. Stanley Park itself was absolutely heaving with people; a true ‘hotspot’ for families, tourists, cyclists, walkers and skaters. The cyclepath around Stanley is actually one-direction as a result of the sheer volumes of traffic, which I must admit, is a wise choice. Going anti-clockwise from downtown, the path generally separates cyclists and pedestrians, lowering the risk of collisions and providing more space to navigate around. A speed restriction for cyclists is also in force: though due to the numbers using the path, it would have been rather difficult to reach any speed in any instance. A nice leisurely pace ensued, which was exactly what we needed. The path hugged the coastline, looking out at first across Vancouver harbor and later giving way to English Bay, with beautiful views across the water as well as back across the city. Our first ‘point of interest’ was the totem poles, which are widely recognized as a traditional part of Canadian heritage and are rumored as perhaps the most-visited tourist attraction in Canada. Whilst most of the original poles are actually now in storage or museums for protection and preservation, their duplicate replacements still possess the power to enthrall their audience and were certainly captivating. Some tremendous workmanship and an air of history and spiritual mystery surround them: each carries it’s own unique story and significance, although Theo’s impatience meant I couldn’t study them as much as I may have wanted. An ice-cream bribe had to suffice to keep him distracted whilst Matt and myself took in what we could!
As we continued round, I enjoyed people watching and generally taking in the scenery. It was the long May weekend so perhaps volumes of people were greater than usual for a Monday: however I’m told that the park generally comes to life as soon as the sun starts to shine so the high numbers weren’t really unusual! After some cheeky fish’n’chips for lunch (sadly I can’t say they’re as great as British… ) we actually found ourselves on a sandy stretch of beach, with me sunbathing in the glorious heat as Matt and Theo built sandcastles and chased the waves breaking on the shore. If anyone had told me I’d be sunbathing in May in Canada, I’d have laughed at them. Canada? the ‘land of snow’, as we were told?! But truly, we were- and for once, this didn’t feel so much like a tour as a proper holiday. Bliss. It was with great reluctance that I could finally be persuaded back onto my bike.
Just a little further and we actually bumped into our hosts, Rebekka and Florian, who had brought their brood along to Stanley Park also. After letting Theo loose in the huge (packed!) play park we had a chance to chill and relax, and exchange stories, ideas and tips for bike traveling. After being scared into believing we were carrying FAR too much weight on our bikes following our stay with the Dutch couple in Langley, we were reassured to discover we weren’t alone- and actually, having shed a box worth of weight in New Westminster, we were carrying a great deal less than they had for their long trip. Our daily mileage suddenly didn’t seem so pitiful; Theo’s adjustment to the trip seemed perfectly normal and we were tremendously reassured to discover the emotions and hurdles we’ve been experiencing are completely and utterly part and parcel of a trip such as this. Although we’ve come across other touring cyclists, and even touring families, those traveling with toddlers are thin on the ground (or more likely- have their hands far too full with the process of combining the two to have time to blog- believe me, I struggle at times!) and this information and reassurance is like gold dust to us. Absolutely invaluable. After a lazy hour by the park, we finally saw fit to undertake the slow and easy ride back to the house as a group- there was something somehow empowering and fulfilling about cycling with another family that really sealed the whole experience for us. I only hope we have the opportunity to repeat similar experiences in the upcoming months while we’re on the road!
And so passed our few days off in Vancouver. We really enjoyed our time in the city- finding Vancouver a great deal less compact and busy in comparison to London, with quieter main streets and less traffic- both on the roads and the pavements!- and generally just less crowded. The city as a whole is very modern with every skyscraper a wall of sheer glass- and yet intermittently spaced, without the ‘closing in on each other’ feel that London boasts. Many residents of Canada have told us that the country as a whole lacks a great deal of extensive history; buildings in particular, once they reach a certain age, tend to be pulled down and replaced, with the Heritage Society struggling to hold onto anything of historical value. We see this reflected in the towns and cities we have passed through: the architecture is generally very new, sharp and forward-thinking, and classical influences are thin on the ground. The Vancouver Art Gallery was perhaps the only exception to the rule I saw whilst we were in Vancouver- a stone building with a little more character and echoes of classical architecture, with which I could identify and appreciate perhaps a little more. And yet there is a strange appeal to the fresh feel of Vancouver: a strange juxtaposition of the bustle and pace of a city with the clean-cut, relatively spaced modern-looking buildings. I can’t decide whether I prefer it to London or not: there are clear arguments on both sides.
The one point on which Matt and I found ourselves almost shocked was the stark and almost uncomfortable conflict between the socially deprived and more wealthy areas of the city. As we made our way from the house of our hosts downtown, we passed through an area that saw some dramatic signs of poverty, hardship and drug use. Neither of us quite knew what to say or where to look when the bus stopped at an intersection and right alongside on the street, in broad daylight, we saw a guy ‘shooting up’ heroin beside us. We passed a street corner where the homeless had spread their wares to sell on tattered rugs spread upon the floor and crowds of people were huddled in doorways or on benches begging. I was deeply saddened to pass several women not even wearing shoes: not a sight we normally see, even in such socially deprived situations, in the western world. There was evidence of drug use, prostitution and a general overall struggle to survive. The sheer population of them was shocking enough- they were literally all gathered together, almost like a small community- but once the bus moved on, we were literally just two blocks down when suddenly, it was as though we had entered a different world. Not one homeless person to be seen; smart, sharp-looking business buildings and contemporary cafes boasted businessmen and tourists going about their day in a nonchalant, starkly contrasting manner to what we had just seen. So it wasn’t so much the sight of poverty that shocked us, as the division of the city into certain ‘areas’ in this manner: how had it come about that the city had become so divided in this way?
We would have liked a little more time to explore the city, but found both the weather (unpredictable at best) and the challenge of having a toddler in tow (not easy!) inhibited our ability to explore as far and wide as we may have done otherwise. Consequently, the city actually felt rather small to us: but this gave it another source of appeal, making it slightly more accessible, intimate and easier to navigate. Perhaps if we had more time and opportunity to explore further afield, we may have discovered otherwise!
The only other noteworthy aspect that I can’t fail to mention is, of course, the performance of the Cannucks – the Vancouver ice-hockey team!- who are having their best season for perhaps 17, 18??yrs and are tantalizingly close to securing their place in the final of the Stanley Cup. The entire city (and come to think it, the majority of Canada through which we have passed!) are consumed with pride and support for their team- you can’t go 5 minutes without seeing someone wearing a Cannucks shirt, hat, or a sign, flag or poster suspended from various buildings, shops, buses and trains. Although I’m not a follower of hockey I have to admit the excitement is contagious and I continue to hold a soft spot for the sport after dating an ice-hockey player in my teens- it’s certainly exciting and fast-paced to watch!- so we’ve been drawn into the spirit almost subconsciously. It’s fantastic to observe such a strong sense of pride and excitement- reminds me of being caught up in the 1998 World Cup! So I’m just gonna bite my lip and say it- GO CANNUCKS GO!
Next stop? – Victoria.
Miles today – New Westminster to Vancouver 14.5miles
Vancouver day 1 – 0 miles
Vancouver day 2 (Stanley Park) – 14miles