Part 1- Northward ho!
It is ironic that despite living in Seattle for 4 years, I had never once visited Vancouver BC, a mere 150 mile or a sub-3 hour drive from my home in Seattle. When I had a Canadian visa, I did not know how to drive, and by the time I had learned to drive, I was transitioning in between visas. When I bought a car and the visa transitions were taken care of, I had moved coasts and was now 3,000 miles away from both Seattle and Vancouver BC. Long story short, the long awaited trip to Canada never happened.
Serendipity. Last summer, I was excited when they announced that one of the bigger conferences in my field would be hosted in Vancouver BC in April. A fortuitous turn of events it was. I spent last summer writing and submitting a few research proposals, and hoping that at least one of them got accepted. Fortunately, both were accepted, and I was headed to Canada in a few months.
The next step was to renew my Canadian visa. On an early snowy morning, I showed up at the Canadian embassy at the Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, on my way back from a road trip to Rochester. I had all the documents neatly arranged, a freshly minted excitement that showed on my face, when they ignored my enthusiasm, looked at my passport, and asked me to come back with a repaired passport. The lamination on the front cover of my passport had worn off, and they wanted it fixed. The first experience at the Indian consulate should be a post in itself. To cut a long story short, my passport was fixed, and a new Canadian visa was stamped on my passport.
The next hurdle came when I injured my back a few weeks before the trip. The doctors diagnosed me with a herniated spine, and I was asked to rest. I was not sure if I would survive another plane ride, but I did. Visa transitions, a passport in the state of dereliction, and back problems aside, I flew to Seattle, and then took a train to Vancouver BC. I had the option of driving from Seattle, or taking the Amtrak. The train ride from Seattle to Vancouver BC is a scenic, along the Pacific coast kind of route (cost me $76.00 round trip, cheaper than renting a car), and in between completing pending assignments during the 4 hour long train ride, I got amazing views of the snow capped Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, the hills interspersed with the ocean and dotted by the small, mostly desolate beaches, as well as the lush landscape often consisting of farms and fields. Immigration on train takes way less time than immigration when you drive, the proof being the long queue of cars waiting at the US-Canada border when my train halted for about 10 minutes for the same reason. A few immigration officers boarded the compartments, checked passport and other documents, and we were done. The train also gives you the opportunity to marvel at the beautiful northwest landscape, and if you can time it right, watch a beautiful sunset by the ocean. I got fortunate during my return trip that way.
I was curious to see if Canada looks significantly different from the US. The visual contrast was starker when I moved from India, halted in Europe, and landed in the US six years ago. Even the west coast of US looks significantly different from the eastern coast. This time, there were differences, but not so much. Clearly Vancouver BC looked different compared to any other city, but the differences were very subtle.
I was presenting at a conference in Vancouver BC, along with, guess, 15,000 other people. Yes, you heard me right, 15,000 people from 65 countries had flown from all over to convene at the Convention Center in Vancouver BC. Which meant one thing. Everywhere you turned your head, you saw people ! People with conference tags and badges happily taking a break from presentations and going around sightseeing. It took me a while to check in to my hotel room, and this room was fancy. I usually do not care much about where I stay when I travel, more inclined toward saving money as a graduate student. I have lived in hostels and B&Bs everywhere I have traveled in Europe. However, my conference mate had insisted on a nice hotel, preferably on a higher floor with a view of the water. Her wishes were granted. Soon, we were boarding the elevator headed for the 17th floor, and entering a room with glass windows that had amazing views of the bay, the water, the mountains, the high rise buildings, the joggers, the hydroplanes, as well as the sunset. The meaning of traveling changes when you live in a room like that. For you are no longer motivated to wake up early and set out. You are more inclined to enjoy the comforts in the room, the prolonged breakfasts in bed, gazing out at the world outside, or watching the sky painted in crimsons and oranges with a glass of wine during sunset.
The Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver BC included), is known for its erratic weather. There is not much point in checking the weather beforehand, because a predicted sunny day turns out to be cloudy while a predicted rainy day turns out to be amazingly sunny. You wake up on a cloudy day, and it gets sunny in the next hour. If you have lived in the northwest for as long as I have, you learn to ignore the weather and move on with whatever outside activities you have planned. And that is what I did. Every morning, I would walk from my hotel to the conference venue, about a mile away, a tall raspberry mocha from Starbucks in hand. The walk was all along the waterfront.
Vancouver BC is an amazing melting pot of people, cultures, food, and interests. Our cab driver, while driving us to the hotel from the train station, informed us that it is the second most expensive city to live in North America, after New York City. A quick Google search actually showed it to be the most expensive one, which is not surprising, given that a cup of coffee cost me $6.30 every morning. A foot long Subway comes cheaper than that in the US.
I started my journey of exploring Vancouver with Canada Place, a hub of activity, with piers, water views, and mountain views. You can take a stroll on a sunny day, sit back and watch the world go by, look at the ships cruising into the sea and marvel at the majestic surrounding mountains. The first day, I spent hours with my camera, taking pictures of everything. You sense this energy from this place that makes you so happy. The mile long walk from the Westin to the Canada Place is dotted with hotels, cafes, restaurants, and small shops.
Granville Island is a small neighborhood, a cute little island located in the middle of the city. The island is a buzzport of activities, a much larger version of Seattle’s Pike Place market. Located under the Granville Street Bridge, it is an iconic tourist destination where you can shop, visit the public market, enjoy the local culinary, enjoy the fresh produce, walk by the marina, and visit numerous cute little shops. They say this is the first Farmer’s Market in the city. If you have visited New Market in Calcutta, Granville Island public market will remind you of New Market, with endless rows of bakery, fruits and vegetables, beer and wine, seafood, cafes and restaurants, et cetera. In fact, the performing arts scene is based there. The island is also a hub of maritime activities, boating and kayaking to name a few.
Granville Island is easily accessible from the city, and you can take a bus, ferry, or drive. I would have preferred walking all the way, but given my back problem, I took the cab and it cost me about $10.
I fell in love with Vancouver BC on my first trip. I am told that it looks significantly different from any other Canadian city, for example, Toronto or Montreal. This makes me want to go back to Canada again, and explore other cities as well as the various national parks. Given that it is a relatively cold country and I am not a big fan of winter, summer or fall might be a good time for me to visit next. Among other places nearby I did not get a chance to visit in this trip are the Whistler mountains (a world famous ski resort) and Victoria. You might want to check out these places too if you are in the area.
Coming up: Part 2- Exploring Gastown, Capilano Suspension Bridge, Grouse Mountain, and Stanley Park.