City of Glass

A not-very-entertaining stream-of-consciousness story about a day I spent in Vancouver.

Welcome to Vancouver

Douglas Copeland, a Canadian author, describes Vancouver in one of his books as the City of Glass. The nickname turns out to be well-justified. My first vista of Vancouver is a bunch of ugly feature-less glass buildings rising high up into the air obstructing a gorgeous view of snow-capped peaks in the background. I’m being told that those glass buildings are all condos. But where are all the people who live in those condos? The streets look deserted.

I might’ve made Vancouver sound like a mediocre city. But it really is not. In fact, it’s been consistently rated as one of the most livable cities in the world. Infrastructure, economy, healthcare, and education are top-notch in this city, as are cultural diversity, a society of tolerance, and general west-coast liberal values. Vancouver’s Davie Village looks as vibrant as San Francisco’s Castro.

I get hungry at this point and venture into a hipster cafe to eat an open-faced bagel-sandwich which comes with a little soup spoon filled up with ketchup.

With my hunger satiated, I walk towards the waterfront. I see a huge art installation of bronze, laughing statues. Is that a postmodern influence on the Vancouver art scene? It’s hard to tell. Mostly because I don’t know what postmodernism really means. All I can say is that the glass buildings came first and the laughing men came second.

By virtue of being a Pacific harbor city, Vancouver inherits the rugged beauty that one comes to expect from a coastal Pacific settlement. The skies are cloudy, the breeze is chilly, and a foghorn blows in the distance.

This bleakness of weather should make me feel sad. On the contrary, I feel content. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the sight of these massive birds that cheers me up. I try to get close to them, but then remember that Canadian geese can get quite vicious.

There is a huge section of forested land at the northern tip of downtown Vancouver. This urban reserve is called Stanley Park. It distinctly resembles the Presidio of San Francisco. For what it’s worth, there is also a Golden Gate Bridge like suspension bridge that connects Downtown Vancouver to North Vancouver.

But Vancouver has something that San Francisco doesn’t have.

Totem Poles.

Exquisitely carved and elaborately painted, these totem poles invoke the ancestral traditions of the First Nation People (a respectful and polite Canadian way of referring to the pre-European peoples living in Canada). Looking at these Totem Poles, I’m reminded of “The Pacific Spirit” racetrack in the Need For Speed 2 Game. Is that track inspired from Vancouver?

The Thunderbird, the bird-like creature atop most of these totem poles, is a supernatural figure, the signboard in front informs me. The controller of the upper world, the lord of the skies, rain, and thunder. While most of these animal figures are mythical and supernatural, the totem poles themselves don’t seem to be used for religious use. Rather, they are family crests passed on from one generation to another. In other words, the Pacific Northwest School of Witchcraft and Wizardry would have totem poles to depict their 4 houses.

The city of Vancouver is built on top of a network of rivers. This is prime salmon real-estate. While I don’t see any salmon jumping upstream, it’s cool to see these rivulets streaming through an urban park.

The south-eastern end of Stanley Park features more art installations. This particular one of an old lady waiting at the bus stop is poignant. Is she waiting for a husband who’s long dead, unable to accept reality? Is she waiting for a son/daughter to return from the army’s tour of duty? The sculpture is so life-like that I can’t help but empathize with her.

The sun is beginning to set. I make my way back into downtown Vancouver, cutting across the marina and into the urban glass jungle. I pass through Robson Street, a predominantly German settlement at one point. But I don’t find any German cafes there, so I hop into a trendy Malaysian chain and gobble down a Malaysian bun and masala chai. Everyone in this cafe is fiddling around with an iPad or an iPhone or a Mac, and everyone here seems to be of Asian origin. I don’t know the exact demographic numbers, but from what I see, it seems like Asians are the predominant demographic in this city. Also, it seems like Starbucks is huge here. There are at least two Starbuckses (Starbucksi?) on every block. I’m not kidding.

Twilight sets in as I find myself in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district. Apparently, Gastown is named for a dude called “Gassy” Jack. “Gassy” not because he had a Gastrointestinal disorder. But “Gassy” because he was a big storyteller. This is Vancouver’s original downtown — a place that, back in the day, was filled with warehouses, whorehouses, saloons and the like. The old-brick buildings have remained, or so it seems, but they now have establishments of the modern kind — dive bars, coffee shops, and hipster French restaurants.

Gastown also features a steam powered clock, the first of its kind. Given that it cost around 60,000 Canadian Dollars to build, it’s possibly the last of its kind too. Useful or not, cheap or not, I have to admit that the engineering inside it looks cool.

Having walked all around Vancouver, I come back to my hotel room in the Yuppie Yaletown district, rest my legs on the bed, and stare at this Martial Arts video game dude hung up on the wall.


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