Beneath the surface

It’s hard to write about Vancouver.

Officially, it has been named one of the most liveable cities in the world, even through skyrocketing property prices (thanks to foreign speculation and buying), with a huge and impressive backcountry of British Columbia backing it up. An hour’s drive northwards brings you to Squamish, a haven for outdoorsy types. Drive east and you’d still be hard-pressed to escape the beautiful scenery that encircles the entire place.

In Vancouver itself, there is a multitude of fascinating neighbourhoods that hold their own ethnic enclaves and by extension, the cuisine on offer is as varied and authentic as the immigrants themselves who bring a wealth of diversity to the city. Gastown–the oldest part of the city centre–is a hodgepodge of quirky restaurants and souvenir shops. Walk a few streets down and the skyscrapers attest to the financial core of the place along with the waterfront properties where the super-rich cavort and preen. Whip out your wallet if the shops appeal…though it was London Drugs that I gravitated towards, each and every time.

The kind of Vancouver that the travel companion and I wanted to experience was the daily life that most Vancouverites lived. We went grocery-shopping, we cooked dinner and did laundry in a rental apartment, took the subway, drove out of town for a bit and went rock-climbing in a gym that looked at us funny because of the way we belayed. We even fell sick and stayed in when we could, as TC came down with a sore throat that soon turned into a full-blown flu. We didn’t cram as many touristy activities as we normally do because this time around, we have an entirely different purpose driving our visit. There were some places that we visited which were absolutely breathtaking (Port Moody and Coquitlam for instance) and others which we didn’t think we liked at all.

And amidst the glittering picture that many travel guide print of this place, our experience showed that many juggled the same anxieties of living in a city as they fretted over paying their mortgages, and a deep divide in the ethnic and wealth classes that seems to be growing ever deeper. The polite friendliness is always there, though it might well be a veneer that masks a kind of social aloofness that I found surprising, though it’s probably arguable that all cities demonstrate this sort of alienating trend and a standoffishness that skewed my initial impression of Vancouver.

The ability to speak English isn’t a requirement to settle in Canada (or so said an alarmingly chatty cabbie who talked about investor programs and problems the population faces in general); the result is the growth of insular communities that don’t interact outside of themselves not only because of language difficulties. The part where TC and I stayed was a rental AirBnB apartment and I’d barely heard English spoken at all in the days we were there. The ring of Asian shops and eateries had for a moment, however, had me wondering if I was really in Canada. A short drive into North Vancouver however, showed yet a different side of the inhabiting population.

A cousin of mine who lives in Vancouver raves about the place, nonetheless. Having been in Canada for over 3 decades, the picture that she paints of Vancouver is quite a different one that we’ve experienced, so the contradictory information is giving us pause.

We left the city after a week. Unlike some places, we weren’t exactly sorry to say goodbye, though the awe-inspiring landscape was difficult to leave. Vancouver’s left us mixed, though it’s admittedly a rather gloomy impression I had of it by the end of that short week.

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