The Tables Are Turned: Elly goes to Vancouver

Posted on August 7, 2010


This past week, I (Elly) left Mike at home to hold down the fort while I went to a conference in Vancouver. I stayed a few days afterward to see the city. Besides the incredible weather (sunny and mid-70s every day!), there was a lot of interesting things to see. If you have the opportunity, I’d highly recommend a visit.

Convention Center
The conference itself was at the Vancouver Convention Center. Those of you who watched the 2010 Winter Olympics coverage might recognize the pixilated art right outside:
as well as the “outdoor” version of the Olympic torch:
I am pretty sure the larger peak in the background is Grouse Mountain — home of the “Grouse Grind”, where hikers go straight up to the top in a grueling 1.8-mile hike ending in excellent views of the city. Unfortunately, later in the week when I was able to get out of the city, there was too much smoke from forest fires in the north to make a “view” worth the hike. Here you can see the difference between the smoke on Wednesday late afternoon (left) and Thursday mid-day (center and right):

The Convention Center is adjacent to the Vancouver sea airport. All day, you could watch the sea planes take off and land.

The inside of the convention center was pretty cool. In addition to various works of art, the walls were constructed to look like piles of wood, so in one direction they were all smooth, but in the other direction looked like slightly staggered ends:
The convention center itself is also very “green” — literally with a green grass roof that you can see here if you look very closely in this view from Stanley Park.

Stanley Park

My first excursion was a late-afternoon bike-ride around Stanley Park, which is a huge park on a near-island in the northwest of the city. This was a great adventure, and I would highly recommend bike rental in this very bike-friendly city. If I’d had more time, I might have kept my bike to see some other parts of the city, too.
I first biked the approximately 8 km (5 miles) perimeter of the park (all on a bike path), and then rode around some of the trails that cross the interior of the park. Probably the most-visited attraction here is the Aquarium, which I skipped. Second is probably the display of totem poles:
Most of these date to the mid-to-late 20th century, with the later ones being replicas of older ones. While I feel a bit like a cultural gawker, the art on the poles is positively beautiful. In their original purpose, the poles would be placed in front of family houses (huge affairs that would house large extended families), and would identify the family that lived there — sort of like a name on the mailbox. The carved figures often represent some even in the lives of ancestors of the current residents, although it seemed that sometimes the person would still be alive when the pole was carved. Before visiting Vancouver, I had assumed that the art on the poles was “sacred” in some sense, and depicted spiritually oriented things. Now, I am left entirely unclear on the matter. There are other pieces of northwest native art that are clearly spiritual (for example the masks used in rituals), but these poles seemed a little more like domestic art to me. As a last note on totem poles, one plaque that I read did note that only those who were allowed to have the information would understand the story depicted in the pole. This explained the often frustrating experience of looking at a pole, and having the description say something like “bear with human figure sitting between ears” — almost totally uninformative.

The next site along my trip was a replica of the figurehead of the S.S. Empress of Japan. This ship carried goods back and forth from Japan and China between 1891 and 1992, and seems to be a symbol of Vancouver commerce. As you can see from the huge container ships in the harbour, Vancouver is still a huge center of shipping.

My trusty steed with the Lion’s gate bridge in the background:


Whenever I visit a city with a Chinatown, I make a point of going. I love Chinese cuisine, and find it fun to browse the nick-knack shops. Vancouver seems to be a bit different from the other Chinatown-cities I’ve been to. Since it has such a large Asian population, it seems the best Chinese cuisine is not actually located in Chinatown. The meal I had with colleagues at a dim sum restaurant near the convention center far outpaced the fare I had in Chinatown proper. The endless groceries, bakeries and shops were exactly what I expected.
Like many of the communities in Vancouver, Chinatown closes down some streets to vehicular traffic on Friday night for the Night Market. This was much less exciting than I had expected, with the main offerings being cheap imported “stuff”. Nevertheless, the city’s support of pedestrian areas is fantastic — I wish Columbus would shut down High Street for the monthly gallery hop. It’d make the experience much more pleasant.
Lynn Canyon
On Thursday morning, the conference ended and I headed north to Lynn Canyon. It was fairly convenient to take a city bus there (although you do need to walk the last km from the bus stop). On a side note, the Vancouver public transit system is highly efficient and friendly. You buy tickets at kiosks or on busses that are good for about 2 hours. Then, on busses, you simply show your valid ticket (transfer) when you get on. For the larger transport (the sky train or sea bus), you just need to be prepared to prove that you paid if you get stopped by a transit authority. The system seemed to work very well. Coming from Columbus, which has a modest at best public transport system, I am often impressed with well-oiled public transport machines.
Anyhow — I thought Lynn Canyon was known for its suspention bridge:

It is actually known as a natural water park, as you can see from this view from the bridge:
If you look carefully, you can see a gaggle of teenaged boys standing at the bottom of the waterfall, watching as the boy in the blue standing near the top of the waterfall (a little to the left) prepared to jump into the pool below. He eventually got up his nerve, and seemed fine afterward. A little upstream is another jumping pool that is a bit less tall, but just as harrowing, as there’s only about a 6 foot square area in which to land safely in the water. You will be dashed on the rocks if you miss. As I saw many rangers walking around, this swimming activity seems to be sanctioned. I did not get in, but may have waded around if I’d been wearing more water-friendly clothes.
Instead, I hiked around the park, and up to a lookout that was too smokey to warrant a photo. However, I was constantly reminded of the different scale of nature in the northwest. I kept catching myself thinking that I’d better hurry to be sure to get out of the woods before nightfall. But, I would think this because the shadows were long and the light dim. Actually, the shadows are long because the trees are HUGE, and the light is dim because the forest is quite dense. No worries — I was exhaustedly riding the bus back to civilization well before sunset.

Museum of Anthropology at UBC
My last day I took the long trip out to the University of British Columbia to see the Museum of Anthropology. It was well worth the trip. I learned so much about the lives and art of Northwest Native people. One of the things I learned about was the pot-latch, which is a big feast that one family/group hosts for all the other families/groups in the area. It would not be unusual to have more than 100 people at the feast. A bit feast requires a big serving bowl. In the left photo there is a three-bowl “train” with wheels that would have ostensibly been used to serve food. The photo on the right gives you a sense of scale, where the train is on the far right (with some other collosal bowls). However, the plaque says that at least in more modern times, these bowls would not have actually been used to serve food, but instead would have been carried (rolled) around the village as an announcement that the feast is to begin. There are older vessels on this same scale, though, that would have been carved in the form of the “wild woman” (the plaque never said why she was wild), and the part of the bowl that you got served from would indicate your status.

Also food-related, much of the food was steamed by partly filling a wooden box with water, then adding red-hot stones and the food to be cooked. The boxes were built from one plank of wood, which itself was steamed to bend into a box-shape, and then tied to stay in place. They end up looking like the boxes in the photos above, but would not have been decorated. The Northwest people were also master mariners (depending on fish for much of their sustinence). They would build canoes by hollowing out a tree trunk, and then also steaming it until it got soft enough to spread the seating area wider. The examples they had in the museum would probably have held two people on each bench. Here I thought that they needed to find a giant tree.

The museum also has an extensive collection of smaller objects both from the northwest and throughout the rest of the world. If I’d had more time, I could have spent all day there.

I’m not quite sure why, but the museum also houses some contemporary artwork. This includes works by Bill Reid — probably the most famous “contemporary” Northwest native artist. The centerpiece of the Bill Reid collection is his “The Raven and The First Men”. It depicts the legend of the trickster Raven finding the first men inside a clam shell and coaxing them out into the world. That is, the story of creation of the Haida people. This was a very clever (ironic?) commision from Bill Reid, who knew before conceptualizing the piece that it would be displayed on top of the gun turret that was necessarily incorporated into the architecture of the museum. I suppose Bill Reid is also a trickster.

Posted in: Travel