10 May 2014

The Last Frontier, Part 4: Vancouver, British Columbia

[This is the final installment of my Alaska travelogue, covering the added visit to Vancouver, British Columbia, following our disembarkation from the MS Statendam and the voyage down the Inside Passage.  My mother and I stayed in Vancouver for two days before flying back to New York City.  I suggest that readers turn back to read the first three parts of “The Last Frontier,” posted on 26 March and 10 and 25 April, before reading this last segment.]

After reboarding the ship in Ketchikan on Friday, 15 August 2003, we set sail at about 6 p.m. for Vancouver.  The rest of that day and all of the next, the Statendam cruised along the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia.  Aside from scenery-watching, the ship provided nothing of special interest for the day.  (There were the usual nonsense activities—”final” art sales, “final” pastime activities, and so on—but nothing I’d have been interested in.)  There was a briefing about preparing for debarkation and the process of passing through customs and immigration into Canada the next morning, and instructions about filling out the necessary forms and attaching the appropriate luggage tags.  Then, of course, we had to pack and tag our luggage so we could put it out in the gangway before we went to bed and fill out the customs and immigration forms; we had to settle the ship bill, too, of course.  Other than such mundanities, however, it was a day mostly of just relaxing and watching the coast go by. 

The ship docked in Vancouver early the next morning, Sunday, 17 August, and all the passengers had assigned debarkation “codes” that determined when we got off the ship.  (This is obviously to assure that people with connections can make them without having to struggle through crowds of other passengers who are just trying to get early starts on their own schedules.  It’s actually pretty efficient.)  We had requested the earliest possible departure so we could get to our Vancouver hotel without wasting the whole day.  The luggage had been transported off the ship first thing and was waiting in the appropriate spots in the terminal, depending on your departure plans, so all we had were our carry-ons.  We had a moderately late breakfast in the informal dining room and then just hung around there—we had to wait in a “public” area, not our cabins, and listen for our code to be called—until we were called and told which gangplank to use.  (To prevent people from standing around blocking the ladders and gangplanks in anticipation of getting off, the codes aren’t called in any logical order and the exits are alternated—you can’t guess when or where your group will have to go.  So it pays just to sit some place comfortable and wait.)  We debarked at just about 8:30 or so and made it through the departure process pretty directly.  We were in a cab and at our hotel by 10 a.m. or so.  In fact, we got to the hotel early enough that our rooms weren’t even ready yet.  We had been warned that it might take hours to get through the debarkation process and through customs and immigration, which is why Mom didn’t book a return flight for that afternoon.  Of course, if she had, we wouldn’t have had two nice days in Vancouver at the end of our trip.

We had decided, once again, to take a city tour right off so we could get the lay of the city.  City tours took off in the morning and then at 2 in the afternoon (which we had learned from both the guidebooks and various websites I consulted before we left), and we had obviously decided to try to get on an afternoon trip the day we arrived.  We booked a tour when we checked into the hotel, and then went window shopping along Robson Street, where our hotel is located and which is the main shopping street of Vancouver.  We walked up the street several blocks, just strolling along looking in the store windows—many were not open yet on a Sunday morning, though they would be later in the day—until we arrived at the major intersection.  We found ourselves in front of the Vancouver Museum of Art, so we decided to go in for a look while we were there and had the time anyway. 

This is the regular art museum of the city, the contemporary and western art collection—the native stuff, as I said, is at the Museum of Anthropology, some distance from downtown.  We’d go there later.  It seems, however, that Canada just isn’t very good on contemporary art.  We had made a point to go on our own to the Quebec Art Museum when we were there, and it’s a very unappealing collection—and so is Vancouver’s.  (I certainly have never heard of any Canadian artists—and I guess this is why.)  There was an exhibit of works by “First Nations” artists (in case you didn’t already know, that’s the Canadian version of “Native American”) which was interesting, but not great.  I’ve seen many examples of Indian artists’ work, both live and in books, and there are many that are wonderful; these were more interesting from a sociological perspective than from the perspective of works of art.  Another exhibit here is a collection of paintings of the first local artist to record the native culture in British Columbia, Emily Carr (1871-1945).  She was essentially a realist—maybe a romantic realist, if there is such a designation—who painted scenes of Indian villages, totems, masks, ceremonies, and so on.  But her work is dark (in hue, I mean, not necessary in emotion) and somber, and not particularly interesting as art.  (I wouldn’t want one hanging in my home, that’s for sure.)  I mean, if you consider what she did, again from a sociological point of view—painting Indian culture at a time before it was considered worthy of preservation, much less interest—it was remarkable that she did it; but if you look at her paintings as art, from just an aesthetic point of view, well . . . yuck! 

Anyway, by now it was time to go back down the street to change clothes a little and meet our tour.  We weren’t really hungry for lunch, but we knew we would be at an inopportune time later if we didn’t catch a bite, so we strolled back toward the hotel and stopped in at a pub-type place and had a sandwich (which actually turned out to be huge) and looked in a few more windows.  (I actually found a carving I liked and which seemed to be a good price—it was on sale—but I was uncomfortable buying it on my very first afternoon right up the street from the hotel, and also because the salesgirl kept warning me that it might not be around the next day.  That kind of put me off.  I turned out to be right—though Mother kept saying I should go back and get it.  The next afternoon, I found work by the same carver at lower prices than the sale price in that store, and eventually found a piece I liked better for a whole lot less than either price!)

The tour was pretty much what we expected, and we did get a sense of the city.  Except that Vancouver is built sort of upside-down—what feels like north is actually south—and we just never got our sense of direction right.  We’d look at a map, and be totally confused because what we felt was “up” on the ground was actually “down” on the map.  So much for getting a feel for the city!  (Of course, I’m not necessarily the best one to judge.  I’m the guy who comes out of a subway in New York City and heads off in the wrong direction because I have no sense of geography—and I’ve lived in New York for almost 30 years.)

Anyway, we did go over most of the city, including Chinatown—the third largest in North America (after New York City and San Francisco, I believe)—and Gastown, a kind of Greenwich Village or Gaslight District (in San Diego) that’s where Vancouver started a little over a century ago.  (British Columbia is relatively new, as far as settlement is concerned.  Vancouver was essentially invented by the Canadian Pacific Railroad barons as the terminus of their new railroad.  It had been nothing but a trading post and a lumber camp before that.  Nothing in Vancouver is much more than 100 years old; it was founded around 1875 (as Granville) and only named Vancouver in 1886.  Most of the modern city is very, very new.)  Both Chinatown and Gastown are near the downtown area where our hotel was located, though it’s too much for Mom to walk comfortably.  Vancouver is pretty hilly, like a little San Francisco, because the mountains start pretty much right up from the coast.  We took busses, including two out to the Museum of Anthropology the next day. 

Despite all the new buildings and even the Victorian-era oldies, Vancouver didn’t strike me as a particularly pretty city.  (Vancouverites have a predilection for round buildings for some reason.)  And there’s a lot of construction going on everywhere, which doesn’t help.  It’s obviously a booming city economically—well, for Canada, that is.  Compared to New York or Los Angeles, or even Chicago and San Francisco, it’d be called downright mellow.  Stores on the main shopping strip closed on Sunday morning?  Never happen here!  And when we arrived too early to get into our hotel, we took a short stroll around the downtown area.  There was almost no car traffic!  We’d wait at lights, and no cars would go by.  (By the way, it’s an odd thing, but if you jaywalk in Vancouver, and a car does come by . . . it’ll stop to let you cross!  Even though you’re jaywalking in the middle of the block, nowhere near a crosswalk, the driver’ll stop and let you pass.  Try that in New York City!  German drivers will stop for pedestrians—but you have to be in a crosswalk.)

The city tour got us back to the hotel after 6, and we had made reservations for dinner at a First Nations restaurant, so we took a little down time.  We took a taxi to the restaurant, which wasn’t far but we didn’t want to walk the hills or get disoriented as we had begun to do.  The restaurant, Liliget (which means something like “happy eating”), was very interesting.  It’s set up like a native feast house—you sit on the floor, but the tables are set into pits so it’s like sitting at a bench, not Japanese style—and the menu features foods common to the local Indians: elk, buffalo, duck, and lots of seafood (especially salmon, of course).  I’d have liked to try the meat dishes, but they were only on a feast platter, which was huge even for two people, so we had to opt for the seafood dishes.  I had what amounted essentially to an Indian bouillabaisse, but in a tomato-based “broth,” and it was quite good.  Mother had crab cakes—which look a lot like the ones you get here (or, more appropriately, in Maryland), though they’re made from Dungeness crabs instead of blues.  (For some reason, Dungeness crabmeat shreds; it doesn’t come out in nice lumps like blueshell.)  We also had bannock bread, which the natives learned to make from tribes to the east and south.  It was an interesting experience, and a very nice meal.  (I still wish I could have found out what elk tastes like.  Probably like venison, I’d imagine.  We did eventually get to taste reindeer sausage, by the way—after the disappointment at Denali.  It was served at one poolside lunch on the boat and then at the cannery in Ketchikan.  It’s very good—a little spicy, though I don’t know if that’s the meat or the way the sausage is made.  So, as awful as it may sound to some folks, I’ve happily eaten Bambi, Thumper, and now Rudolph!  Ya wanna make somethin’ of it . . .?)

The next morning, Monday, 18 August, we went into Gastown (named for “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a frontier character who built a saloon there to serve the lumbermen, thus starting what would become Vancouver; “Gassy” refers to his tendency to talk a lot and tell tales—no smart-ass remarks, please—it’s a Canuck sobriquet, not what Americans might otherwise think).  This is where most of the galleries that specialize in native art are located, so I wanted to check them out anyway.  It’s not a large district, and the principal street, Water Street, is only a couple of blocks long, so we took a bus over and walked from one end to the other on one side of the street and then crossed over and walked back.  We checked out the named galleries and all the little tchotchke shops in between.  Except one or two of the galleries which featured “real” art (as opposed to folk art or crafts, if you get my distinction; “high” art, I guess it would be called), which had some terrific things at some very high prices, the things in the other named shops (“named” in the sense that they were listed in guidebooks, or advertised in tourist magazines and art brochures like the one we picked up at the art museum) were of the same quality range as the junky shops, and usually had higher prices.  (They did also have a larger selection most of the time, too, and a greater variety of objects—masks, plaques, drums, paddles, figurines, prints, and so on.)  Since by this time, I had pretty much decided what I wanted, and the matter was only of finding the right price, quality, and image, it was relatively easy to sift out what I wanted to consider from anything that I could just dismiss.  Ironically, it was in one of the last stores—one of the junky ones, too—where I found the piece I ended up buying.  (It was even on sale, and then the shopkeeper ate the sales tax to boot.  I’d have taken the piece anyway, but what the hey!) 

(By the way, “Gassy” Jack’s story is somewhat amusing: He came to the area when there wasn’t any town, just a lumber camp.  He convinced the lumbermen to build him a saloon in which to serve them, and they did.  In one day!  Tom Sawyer—or was that Huck?  Don’t remember—didn’t have nothin’ on ol’ Gassy Jack!)

After checking out one or two galleries just as “museums” (we weren’t buying, just looking), especially one that specialized in Inuit art, we headed back to the hotel by bus.  (The Inuit gallery was interesting to me because I had bought an Inuit sculpture in Quebec two years ago, and I had read about Pudlo Pudlat, an Inuit artist on whom I did some research some years ago.  He’s dead now, but he’s fairly well known.  (I published “Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist” on ROT on 28 September 2009.)  I saw some of his stuff on exhibit in Quebec, but I spotted one of his lithographs in this Vancouver gallery.  I’m sure the gallery owner was astounded to hear me drop Pudlo’s name; how many browsers would 1) know the name or 2) spot his work behind the sales counter?  We had a brief exchange about Pudlo’s work.)  We realized we weren’t going to make it to Chinatown if we were going to go out to the Museum of Anthropology, which I insisted on, so we had dim sum for lunch at one of the recommended Chinese restaurants which just happened to be right across the street from the hotel.  We had stopped in at the hotel briefly for a quick refreshening, had our dim sum, and took the bus all the way out to the U.B.C. campus—two busses, actually—to see the Museum of Anthropology collection of native artifacts.

We’d had a little consternation over the Museum of Anthropology after we arrived in Vancouver.  We hadn’t considered that our only full day in town would be Monday, a day many museums are traditionally closed.  It was Sunday evening when we realized this, and we asked the hotel concierge to check if the Museum of Anthropology would be open the next day.  He looked it up in an information booklet the hotel keeps, and reported that the Museum of Anthropology was, indeed, closed on Mondays.  Something told me this wasn’t accurate, and I checked the Fodor’s guidebook for Vancouver I had brought from the library here.  It was a 2003 edition, so it was as accurate as a guidebook could be, and it said very specifically that in the summer season, the Museum of Anthropology is open Mondays.  (It is closed that day after the summer, suggesting that the concierge had looked at the off-season schedule by mistake.)  Of course, one or the other source could have been wrong, but the dichotomy meant that we should check again more carefully.  On our way out to Gastown the next morning, I asked the concierge then on duty—a different guy—to check again, and he called the museum.  It wasn’t open at that hour, but the recording clearly said it was open till 5 every day and later on Thursdays or something.  So after our trip down to Gastown and our dim sum lunch, we took the busses as instructed out to U.B.C., found the museum (which is on the other side of the campus, but a pleasant enough walk—including through a formal rose garden where Mom could stop for a brief rest) at about 3:30.

We spent an hour-and-a-half at the museum looking at the totems, masks, paddles, and other carved, painted native British Columbia artifacts.  (The Museum of Anthropology, which is part of the university’s anthropology department, also has exhibits of artifacts from other cultures from around the world, but our interest was in the local Indian stuff.)  These things were relatively old for the most part, of course, removed from sites where they were deteriorating from exposure to preserve them.  Some of the examples of totems and masks and such on exhibit here were obviously outstanding and special, with particularly expressive or unique features, but it was clear that the techniques of the work, especially the carving (since the painting was necessarily faded on these examples), were the same as the modern works we’d seen all along our trip.  (For more discussion about totems and native carvers, see Part 3 of “The Last Frontier,” 25 April.)  Today’s carvers may be using metal tools and chemical paints (and getting paid cash for the work, perhaps), but they are doing the same work their predecessors were doing a century and more ago (and, I presume, before that as well).  I never saw any evidence that the real artists used power tools (the hacks turning out the souvenir totems and masks might—probably do, I’m sure), so it still takes months and even years to carve a tree trunk.  The modern carvers apparently sketch their plan for the totem, which the oldsters probably didn’t do, but I imagine they planned the totem out beforehand—just in their heads instead of on paper.  (The mask carver on the boat didn’t have a sketch, but he was making small masks.  I’m not sure that’s an indication that for other, larger work he or other mask-makers wouldn’t also sketch out a plan.)  It apparently isn’t an inspiration-of-the-moment kind of art.  (Reminds me of the descriptions of Michelangelo and Diego Rivera doing their frescoes and murals—the “cartoons” they drew before applying paint to the walls.)

After the museum, a very worthwhile trip, and our bus ride back to the hotel—it’s about an hour each way, plus the walk to and from the museum itself—we got ready for our last evening in the Northwest.  We had chosen a seafood restaurant on a pier for dinner, and we caught a cab down even though it really wasn’t very far.  The weather in Vancouver, by the way, had been terrific—warm and sunny, after the rain of the last days in Alaska—and the evening was just right.  The restaurant is a big and bustling place, obviously popular, especially with the 20-something crowd.  We couldn’t get a table when we had really wanted to, so we arrived early in hopes that we might get seated before our reservation.  It didn’t work out that way, but we had planned to have a drink before dinner anyway, so we ordered an appetizer in the “pub” and had our drink and a knosh (fried oysters) while we waited and watched the marina outside.  No hardship, as you can imagine.  When our table was ready, we chose our final meal for the trip—salmon, wouldn’t you know—and ate looking out at part of Vancouver’s harbor and across to nearby mountains.  Not an unpleasant way to end our trip. 

Our flight out on Tuesday, 19 August, was at 11 a.m., a nice hour—not too early and not too late.  Everything went without event, from the check-in through customs and immigration (U.S.) to the change at O’Hare.  In contrast with the miserable trip out, the return was a joy (if flying can ever be a joy these days).  We got into LaGuardia on time and got back to Manhattan and home at about 10:30 or 11 p.m., as I had expected.  I took Thespis, my Jack Russell-mix, out as soon as we got in, and met my young dog-sitter just as she was coming in to retrieve her stuff.  As I said, the tour aspects of the trip left a lot to be desired, but the Alaska parts were good enough to make up for it for the most part.  If we had known better, we’d have been better off making some plans just on our own and cut out HAL altogether for everything except the ship.  But I don’t know how we’d have known that until after we’d made the mistake.  Even the travel agent in Washington Mother used for the flights and the hotel in Vancouver recommended going through HAL because it was easier to coordinate that way, and they had the reputation of being good.  Well, either they never deserved the reputation or they’ve slipped recently.  It all ended very well, however.

This whole saga reminds me of something my dad said after we’d seen the six-hour, two-part Soviet film version of War and Peace way back when.  The next morning he said, “I’m exhausted.  All night long, I kept marching back and forth across Russia!”  Do you feel like you’ve trekked from Anchorage to Vancouver now?  I guess I did go on, didn’t I.

[Well, if I did “go on,” and you’re still here, I guess it wasn’t that taxing, was it?  Rereading this travelogue after 11 years brought a lot of this trip back to me—and I hope you all who read it here had something of the experience.  Because of the hardship of travel nowadays, this trip to Alaska was one of the last long ones I’ve made.  In the old days, my mother and I tried to make one longish voyage a year—Istanbul was the last one we did (reported on ROT on 24 June 2010)—but that’s no longer true.  (On that last trip, when we were making our way out of the airport after the return flight, Mom insisted that it would be the last one she made.  It’s just more work and less fun now.)  In any case, I hope this log of my long-ago trip to “The Last Frontier” entertained you all.]


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