I’m visiting Vancouver to give a speech and take a vacation. It’s awesome. But not completely.
Just a warning — this post starts as a sunny story but there is adult material coming, some heartbreaking, and not in a good way. If you don’t want that in your day, please just don’t read this.
I’ve been all over the world and Vancouver is the friendliest city I have visited. I’m spectacularly impressed with this place.
First off, where else can you visit a cosmopolitan downtown filled with gleaming towers overlooking a harbor — and see green mountains in middle distance. I am a sucker for pine-covered mountains. If I lived here I would never stop looking out the window.
My wife and I have only sampled Vancouver for a couple of days, but, wow. Stanley Park is 1000 acres of seawall and lagoons and massive evergreens and rose gardens and, yes, a model railroad and an aquarium. If you visit here in June it will refresh your soul. Early on a Sunday morning it was quiet and just the tonic for our jet lagged souls.
We’ve visited the vast collection of food halls and artists studios at Granville Island. We dined al fresco in Gastown across from the steam-powered clock — a sort of cross between Big Ben and a calliope — as we watched classic muscle cars drive by. We’ve gotten everywhere on the ubiquitous buses and SkyTrain, taken a tiny ferry to get to Granville, even tried the bike share. Every single interaction was gracious and friendly, down to the people on the buses giving up seats when they see my wife’s cane.
If you’ve read my travelogues before, you know we like to stay in places that immerse us in interesting parts of the culture of the places we visit. In Vancouver, this is a hotel called Skwachàys Lodge, run by aboriginal people in part to benefit the First Nations people here. Each room is decorated by an aboriginal artist in a style that connects to the tribe and the land.
Here’s where the hard part starts. Skwachàys is in a rough part of town called Downtown Eastside. Downtown Eastside has a lot of homeless people and drug addicts in it. As you walk along the street you see people in abject suffering — some shaking, some in wheelchairs. There is odor. Some of these people look happier than others, but they are living the roughest possible life.
They are not threatening or menacing. A few asked us for money, but like everyone else in Vancouver, they were very polite.
The city of Vancouver has tried various strategies to deal with these folks, including a safe injection site coupled with a rehab facility. This is controversial — it doesn’t solve the problem, and probably doesn’t contribute to it, but who knows. I’m not here to discuss the politics of it.
These people and their suffering are part of our trip now.
You may ask why we didn’t avoid this experience. But this is part of Vancouver, along with the pine trees and the steam-powered clock and the great seafood.
Some people vacation to escape. I guess I do want to escape, but what I want to escape from is the routine of home. I want to experience other places and other people.
I will not forget Vancouver, or those people, any more than I will forget the beautiful rose garden or the joy of navigating back to our hotel on bike shares. Or the people cheering madly in the bars as Toronto nearly took its first NBA championship, just a few feet from these suffering people.
I wish I could package up my experience into a nice near lesson for you. That is what writers are supposed to do. What is the moral of my story? I don’t know.
I don’t know if you should try to avoid pain like this on your vacation. If this bothers you — and it should — I certainly wouldn’t judge you for avoiding it.
I don’t know what Vancouver — and every other city in the world — should do about the homeless and the addicts.
I do know that the world is full of people who are not like you. You can spend your life avoiding encountering them, but what kind of a life is that?