Front page | Essays index




A number of my friends and acquaintances have made trips overseas in recent years, and they usually bring back a sheaf of photographs taken on their journey. Invariably, these photographs are all of a type - the friend or a member of the family posed in front of some famous or scenic place. I don't want to see pictures of my friend; I want to see interesting pictures of the places he went! I don't mean to be sarcastic, because my family photo album also contains similar pictures, and I understand why this happens; it is always difficult to take good photographs of scenery, especially with a small multi-purpose camera. Without a person posed in front of the lens, such pictures are almost always completely devoid of any point of interest. What looked like a beautiful and magnificent mountain range in 'real life' turns out in the developed print to be nothing more than a blurry row of bumps in the distance. But at least our friend standing there squinting in the sunshine is recognizable!

So for our trip this time, although I did take a camera, I didn't use it much, having long ago given up any expectations of coming back from trips with any photographs that I would feel proud of. But even though I thus have no actual photographs to show you, I do have a collection of remembered 'images' - moments from the two weeks that somehow made an impression on me, that stuck in my mind. Would you like to see some of my vacation 'snapshots'?

A bus stop: at which we stand waiting for the Number 3 'Robson' trolley to come and take us back to our hotel. Many other buses also stop at this point, and as one of them pulls in to the curb and stops, an elderly man with a cane limps towards the bus. As he approaches, the entire front corner of the bus suddenly collapses to the ground with a 'swoosh' of air - just as though one of the tires had become punctured. The old man steps easily onto the platform, which is now level with the sidewalk, and as soon as he is safely aboard, the driver reverses the mechanism and the vehicle smoothly lifts itself back into normal position and drives away. We notice a sign on the side ... "Kneeling Bus."

The Granville Mall: a main street in the centre of town, closed to cars to form a pedestrian mall, and featured prominently in all the tourist guide books. One morning I pass by here, and notice a group of four people standing forlornly on a street corner - a family of Japanese tourists, parents and two teenage children. Father inspects a guidebook, while the others take in the sights: a couple of drunks lying against a nearby building, the panhandlers standing with their hands out, the decrepit buildings housing sex appliance shops and adult video stores ...

Meanwhile, right outside our hotel just a few hundred yards away, the streets are buzzing with activity. People read their morning newspapers in sidewalk cafes, stroll along the seashore on the seawall, stop and chat in the morning sunshine ... It is an entirely different world, but as it's not a particularly 'famous' area, the Japanese tourists will probably never see it during their stay in Vancouver.

Which image of this city will that family take back to Japan, the panhandlers and sex shops, or the cheerful community?

A bank lobby: where as we wait in line to cash some traveler's cheques, we notice a small table off to one side on which stands a coffee pot and some cups, along with a sign: "Gourmet Coffee - Help Yourself." There are a couple of chairs there, and as we stand and watch, an elderly couple enter the building help themselves to coffee, and sit down to relax. A minute later they are joined by a friend, but as there are no chairs left he walks across the lobby and 'borrows' one from the loan department. When he returns with the chair and pours his coffee, the three of them settle down for a chat, just as though this was a lounge in the local community centre. At the counter doing our business I ask the clerk about this, and she tells me "Oh, we don't mind. They are in here almost every morning."

An overgrown, bushy area in one of the many parks: as we stroll along I notice clumps of large berries growing in the tangle of vines. They are blackberries, and five minutes later my tongue is a deep purple colour, there is a juice stain on my shirt, and I'm grimacing in pain from more than a few deep scratches on my arms and hands. But I'm very very happy. These delicious berries grow all over the city, anywhere that a few square metres of space has been left alone by the parks maintenance crews, and the end of August is the perfect time to sample them. Colour is your guide; the small red ones are not ready ... those that have gone black but are still quite hard are not ready ... but the big, soft, juicy purply-black ones are perfect! If you can reach them, that is. For no sooner does any particular berry reach this prime condition, than it is plucked off by the first passerby. Easily reached areas of the bush are thus kept 'picked clean'. As you stand there looking for prime targets you can always see many just waiting to be plucked ... but they are always just that fraction too high, or too deep within the bush. And those thorns! Long, hard, and very sharp! But we discovered a good way to quickly accumulate a handful of delicious berries - work in a group. On father's shoulders a light-weight daughter reaches up to 'unplucked' territory, and passes the fruit down to another daughter standing by.

These berries should be in the guidebooks!

In Lynn Valley, tucked away in the mountains that form the northern boundary to the urban area: we've come up on the bus for a short stroll among the tall trees. As we walk along the forest path, we pass stumps marking places where trees had been logged off many years ago. After ten years of living in Japan, where trees in the hills near my home are harvested at a girth of about 20cm, these massive stumps, about 2 meters in diameter, come as quite a shock. What must it have been like to walk through this forest when these giants were still alive? How could men ever have been so arrogant as to destroy them so coldbloodedly?

We reach the stream that flows down the valley, and stand in wonder on the bank overlooking a pool among the rocks. The colour of the water is beyond description: I want to tell you that it was an emerald green, yet that is not true, it was actually completely transparent - every tiny pebble on the bottom was visible. The desire to become submerged in this crystal liquid is intense, but as we have not come prepared for swimming, I can only stand and enviously watch the local children as they play in the magical fluid.

I make a private plan to return here for a swim before we have to leave Canada, but our list of 'places to go, things to do, people to see' is truly endless, and we don't make it. But I remember ... and I'll be back ...

The Stanley Park seawall: strolling along one evening after sunset. On our right, a rocky section of the beach, with gentle waves lapping at the shore. On the left, the dense undergrowth of the park. Out of the corner of my eye I notice a movement on the rocks below us, and we freeze and stand silently peeking through the gloom. What is it? A moment later, a head pokes up into view and scans left and right. It's a raccoon, and I speak softly to him, offering reassurance that we mean no harm; he is free to cross the path. He takes my word for it, and we watch as four of them (parents and two kids?) scramble up onto the seawall about two metres in front of us, and dart across into the dark greenery on the other side. For a few seconds we hear them scrambling deeper into the forest, and then all is silent again.

We weren't so surprised to find raccoons living in the heart of the city, but a few nights later, our eyes certainly opened wide when we spotted a skunk strolling along through the greenery just outside the door of our hotel! When we asked about this, the locals just shrugged their shoulders "Skunks? Oh, there's lots of those around. Why not? Who's going to bother them?" Who indeed!

This 'snapshot' is a 'double'... The beach at English Bay, just a few steps from our hotel, on a day near the end of our visit. The sand is packed with sunbathers, the water full of swimmers, and the large diving platform with a tall slide floats just off the shore, the children lined up waiting for their turn to slide down into the sea. The concession stands are doing booming business in hot dogs, fries and colas. Lifeguards in their red shorts watch over the summery scene from tall chairs and rowboats, and the beach front pathway is crowded with strollers and onlookers.

The second snapshot is of the same location, but taken on the next day, September 3rd - the first day of school. The summer vacation is over, and although the sun still shines and the water still beckons, the beach is absolutely deserted. The diving platform is gone, towed away to winter storage somewhere, the concessions are closed, and the lifeguards are busy cleaning out their 'station' in the low building that stands behind the beach path. Only a few strollers are on the path now, and all along the shoreline, sticks of wood, strands of seaweed, and other debris tossed ashore by the waves is starting to accumulate. But the sun still shines ...