My (Brief) Life on Vancouver’s Skid Row

E Hasting Street (aka Skid Row)

Dressed in khaki shorts, trendy t-shirt and a baby blue bike helmet, I jump on my bike, with camera around my neck, and head to Vancouver’s skid row.  I wandered onto Hasting Street the pervious night in search of a late-night Chinese noodle shop.  What I found instead was drug deals taking place in front of me and residents smoking and injecting drugs openly.  The only other place I have seen anything like it was in Zurich in one particular block.  In Vancouver, the squalidity goes on for blocks and blocks . . . and it is crowded.

I imagine myself using the photos I will take today to tell the story of drug addiction in Canada.  A couple blocks in, the smell of old urine and used beer hits me like an epiphany.  The streets are dirty and filled with trash; apparent addicts in filthy bright-orange worker vests roam the streets.  I imagine the city gives them “jobs” that don’t ever get quite done.  I bike on.

Pay-by-the-hour Hotels Line the Street

I stop at a street corner where I can see up and down Hastings Street.  At 11am it is nearly as thick as the night before.  It feels like a bad remake of Night of the Living Dead; the citizens of this land shuffle down the street, some in torn and/or dirty clothes, vacant, almost dead expressions on their faces.  A transgender prostitute – with a bit of life in her – shouts “hello handsome.”  “Lookin’ good girl!” I yell back.  She smiles.  I bike on.

Another stop and I  encounter a man named Michael digging through the city-owned trash can.  He thinks I am an officer of the peace and, pointing down the street, tells me that someone stole a painting.  I tell him I am not the fuzz, but I don’t think he believes me.  A moment passes and Michael hands me a crumpled, hand written note titled “this is my inheritance.”  The collection of words make up sentences that don’t quite make sense. . . to me.  Still, I read it – out loud – out of respect.  I see that it doesn’t matter whether it makes sense to me, it is important to him that others see his heirloom.

To be honest, I am more interested in the couple sitting behind him on the street, grey skin, sunken cheeks, preparing something for a glass pipe.  I guess heroin, but ask Michael.  He looks down to avoid the question.  I step past him and say good morning to the twosome.  Neither look up at me, but go about their business.  I ask if I may take their picture – the woman says, again without looking at me, “I don’t want my picture taken today.”  I feel suddenly warm and as if I am intruding.  It feels like I am in someone else’s living room, but I see no furniture.  I bike on.

Another man on the street declines to have his picture taken.  The warmth I was feeling starts to expand from my belly into my chest – I identify the feeling: anxiety.  I look around; I am not welcome here – physically or energetically. My mind tries to justify my presence: I know what it is to fight the monkey on my back, to jones and to feel as though nothing else matters.  I see the battle scars on my own body and identify with the uninhabited faces I witness walking past me.  I am them and they are me: we are the same.

Looking down the Alley

But on the outside, I look like a tourist.  I feel like a tourist in that moment and, although I hate to admit it, I am.  I have come into someone else’s living room – their life – with the intention of capturing something exotic and taking it back to my own world.  I bike a block and then take my camera out to at least capture a street scene.  I get two snapped off when a rather tall man approaches me: “I don’t want my picture taken,” he says.  My heart beats faster, now I am feeling fear.  “I’m just taking them of the street,” I respond.  “Yes, but when you take a picture of the street, you take a picture of the people, and no one around here wants their picture taken.”  There is incredible clarity in his statement.  I finally get it: this is not where I belong; I am not invited. “Sorry, no disrespect meant, I’ll put it away.”  I roll a few feet on my bike and another man who witnesses the exchange tells me the residents of Hastings Street will “riot” if anyone takes a camera out.  He concludes ”it’s too bad, such nice architecture.”  I bike on.

A few blocks over and I am in the trendy part of Gastown.  Taking a quick bathroom break in Starbucks, I then head over to the Inuit Gallery where I see First Nations artwork in the range of $1000 – $25,000 CAD.  I fit more easily into this world than the one I was in 15 minutes ago.  Reflecting upon the difference between me and the people on Hasting Street I realize that I am able to bike, walk or drive away to more comfortable surroundings.  With this unexpected revelation comes immense gratitude for my life.  Thank you Universe for the amazing life I have today, yesterday and tomorrow!

Places I Love: Vancouver

Vancouver Harbour

I fall in love with Vancouver as soon as I arrive.  The mountains, bridges, glimmering high rises,  streets, and energy infects my soul and I hear my mind negotiate with my body: you won’t get much rest or sleep while here, but you will have an amazing time.  The first thing I notice is how expansive the city feels, maybe because of the mountain peaks – some still snow capped – that provide dramatic backdrop to this Northwest metropolis.  Vancouver feels open and airy.

Vancouver Convention Center

I settle into the Nelson House Bed and Breakfast in the West End and then take a spin around town.  I bike to Stanley Park, which is a 10 minute ride from the B&B; I am amazed at how quickly the city fades into trees and trails.  With exception of the road, which bisects the green space, it feels like I am in a secluded section of the Northwest.  I make my way around the seawall to witness amazing views of Vancouver harbor, downtown and the North End.

There is a different vibe to Vancouver: It is not an American city.  I realize the absurdity of this statement as I make it, but it’s true.  If cities have soul, this one certainly feels tangibly different than even the other West Coast urban centers I visit.  Although I have a hard time putting my finger on the difference, I settle on this: People are nice here, less stressed out – I notice this as I bike through the neighborhoods.  Drivers rarely honk their horns and there is a certain politeness I don’t find in the US.  There is a huge Asian influence here, but that is true in other places (for example, San Francisco).  I eat Korean food for dinner one night and Vietnamese Pho the next.

Totem at UBC MOA

One of the reasons I came to Vancouver is to experience the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA).  I am drawn to the repository to find out more about Inuit and First Nations’ art and mythology, a subject in which I have growing interest.  MOA is impressive; it houses literally hundreds of thousands of art pieces from indigenous artists, both modern and archaeological.  Many are stored in research display cases, resembling large, glass-covered file cabinets, giving me the opportunity to ‘discover’ works on my own (not to mention spend hours getting lost in sliding bins).  My favorite display is a covered mask on an altar.  The description says it is cloaked to represent the First Nations view that everything is not for public view.

Before I leave Canada, I stock up on my 400mg tablets of Advil and Allegra-D, both of which are over the counter.  I take a walk and cycle around the city (one of which I describe in a separate entry) and try to spend all the Canadian money I have collected while in country: I am mostly successful, except for a Loonie or two and a few CAD quarters, dimes and nickels.  I think to myself before I hit the road again that I would like to spend a month or two or three in Vancouver getting to know her.  I wonder if first impressions are always correct.

For pictures of Vancouver –> Click Here

Disconnected in Canada

Oh Canada!

Within a few miles of crossing the Canadian border my cell phone reception fades.  I think to myself that I would like to have at least a few more miles (or kilometers), but instead notice my phone connected to ROGERS, not AT&T.  Calls now cost $0.79/minute; I joke to myself that at price I had better have a smile on face at the end of the exchange!  Next, I receive a text indicating the data roaming plan: $15.36 per Megabyte.  I turn data roaming off, which means no more GPS maps, text messages or internet surfing . . .  I am in a foreign country and now completely cut off from the world.

It’s not long before I am patting myself on the back for finding my way to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal (about 45 minutes from the border) without GPS.  Even prouder for making it to Cindy and Brendan’s house in Victoria, BC, although it is not without help because I am able to download GPS maps while on the car ferry due to the fact they offer wi-fi.  In fact, as soon as I figure out I can connect my iPhone to the boat’s wi-fi, I shoot Cindy an email: “I’m on the boat, be there around 5:30.”  I next check my email and turn on my Google Voice account, texting a few friends my “alternate” contact information “just in case there is an emergency and you need to reach me,” noting that I need to be connected to a network in order to receive messages.

Victoria is beautiful and mellow, and Cindy and Brendan’s house reflects that essence.  Nestled on a short “dead end” street, they each work out of their home and grow vegetables and flowers in the backyard. The island is one of the only places in Canada where you can grow things year round, so there exist amazing gardens, plants and trees everywhere.  I settle in for a week with my friends and take my bike off the roof rack for the second time in 4500 miles.  I bike around town and take in the backyards and fresh sea air.

Victoria Blueberries

Cindy and I venture to a farm just outside town where we pick blueberries.  The abundance is astounding – we spend an hour-and-a-half and return with over 17 pounds of blues.  As I pick, I think about how disconnected I am from my food, from the earth.  Normally I go to the store and pick out my fruit in plastic or green paper containers.  I sometimes know the country from where it came – US, Mexico, Peru – but rarely the location and never the actual farm.  Rarely do I actually work with the plant, earth or animal that is feeding me.  Not so today, I am actually pulling big, beautiful, ripe berries right from the bush where they grow, popping one or two in my mouth here and there.

Victoria Landscape

Later in the week, we take a hike “up island.”  The rocks and land crash into the water in a dramatic and beautiful way.  Juniper and sequoia trees cling to the dark rocks projecting shade onto pebble beaches while hearty ocean grasses and vines grow nearby.  In the distance, the Washington coastline jets up above the clouds to reveal snow capped mountains.  Suddenly I receive text and voice message alerts.  I am picking up AT&T signal from the USA!  I jump for joy and nearly forget I am hiking with friends.  I shoot several picture texts off just to make my friends jealous: “my current location,” I send with a picture. I receive a text back with a picture of my friend on his couch: “my current location,” he responds

It nearly escapes me that the disconnect I feel from the earth is less concerning or alarming than the disconnect I feel when I cannot get a mobile phone signal.  I reason that it must be because I have spent a lifetime ‘getting used to’ not being connected to the earth and only a few years with the feeling of disconnect from the network.  It makes me think: If people experienced the feeling of disconnect from the earth as intensely as they do when their technology doesn’t work, would we have as much illness, pollution or problems as we see today?