Vancouver Expedition to Unearth Rare Relatives

It's summer time (actually it's November, which is the off season for computer game writers - Monopoly 2000 was this year's effort), so I took advantage of a seat sale...

[Big Airplane Ticket with Loads of Fine Print]

...and booked an airplane trip to Vancouver to visit relatives (haven't been there for a decade or so) and to escape the threatening snows of Ottawa (they held off until I came back).

The trip was OK; I had the luck of having the seat next to the wing, which has extra leg room because the seat in front is missing to make room for the emergency exit. The only drawback is that you need long arms to reach the tray on the seatback two rows ahead :-). I spent part of the time looking out at the lights far below and trying to figure out which city we were passing over. The rest was reading about C++ programming and talking with the dairy farmer / group representative sitting next to me. There was one bit of excitement while flying in a cloud as small lightning bolts flared off the wing tip every two to ten seconds.

[Luggage Tag from YOW to YVR, front side]
[Boarding Pass Stub for YOW to YVR]
[Luggage Tag from YVR to YOW, back side]
[Boarding Pass Stub for YVR to YOW]
[Luggage Tag from YVR to YOW, front side]
[White Space]

November 5 1999

It's warm and sunny this Friday morning, something I didn't expect, but I'm assured that there will be 2-4cm of rain each day for the weekend.

[Vancouver Sea Wall, though not West Vancouver]After a simple breakfast (my request), I enjoyed the sun on a long walk with aunt Nora to the sea wall, stopping by at their seniors' center, one of the best in Canada. The sea wall sidewalk is different from most other sidewalks I've seen. For one thing, it's right beside a sea, not a road. It's about twice the width of a regular sidewalk, paved, has neatly made large stone curbs on each side, night lighting, and was full of people walking! This was during a weekday mid-morning; it must be packed with people at other times. I guess that's why wheeled people aren't allowed. There are big rocks piled on the shoreline between the path and the beach to absorb the energy of the waves, and a low wire fence on the other side, containing seaweed strands from the waves which got past the big rocks, and dents from the logs which got past the big rocks. Between the fence and the adjacent coastal railroad track (steam trains in summer to Squamish), there is a special dirt track for dogs. Is that Deluxe or what?

After reaching the end of the walkway, we headed inland and returned via Marine Drive. This is the main road down the coast, second only to the highway. It's a narrow and hilly road (lots of sharp curves and steep slopes where you can't see oncoming traffic) as it gets to the rougher parts of the coast, but with houses all the way along it mixed with green forests and rushing mountain streams. It must be impossible to drive on when there's snow on the ground, fortunately it only rains here. Anyway, I was going towards Vancouver so the road got wider, had two lanes, and stayed pretty level, and stores appeared beside it. Naturally, we stopped at some of the stores to do some shopping; I picked up a cargo shipment of chocolate gifts.

In the afternoon we went to visit my mom's elderly cousin Gerda at her apartment in central Vancouver. After a simple lunch, and my request to not go out touring, we spent several hours chatting about Gerda's life, the most interesting parts being in World War II. It turns out that she was quite a party girl then, and moved about a fair bit during the war, ending up as a translator for the American liberation force, and even meeting General Patton.

Of course there are lots of sad stories, like late night evacuations by truck and boat. Or talking to a German soldier (occupying her home country) who knew he was assigned to go to the Russian front and thus knew he would die soon. The aftermath of WWII for Gerda was a letdown (after the fun of that travelling translation job), as she moved from job to job in a depressing England. However, things looked up when she was invited to Canada by her other relatives who chose to go to Canada after the war. She ended up spending many years as a hospital administrator in Montreal. But that's another story.

Aunt Nora and uncle Garth also told about some of their experiences in WWII, and it was interesting to see how things fit together (like Gerda getting a job and sending money so that Nora and company could join her in a small apartment - taking trains going the other way from the troop trains). Garth turns out to have travelled around Africa and England in his aircraft technician rôle in the air force.

[Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts]After Gerda's afternoon tea, we went to JJ's diner, which I think is in the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, though I'm not absolutely certain it is the same place. Anyway, there were student chefs there, so that's probably the place.

At JJ's we met up with uncle Garth's nephew Paul and spent an hour or two feeding off the buffet there. He's in technical support at a fairly quickly growing company so he had a few interesting tales to tell, well at least interesting to another computer nut like me.

[Little Voice Ticket]After dinner we walked over to the Playhouse Theater to see a play called "Little Voice". It's about a shy daughter who only comes alive while playing the musical records left by her dead father.

[Vancouver Playhouse Theater]

She sings along and acts out the singer, for example behaving like Judy Garland while singing the songs from the Wizard of Oz. Her mother is a prostitute and is scrounging for work since she is getting old. A conniving showman finds the singing daughter and tries to get her to perform, while being chased by the mother. All ends badly when their cheap British row house's overloaded electrical system catches on fire. But the lover of the daughter (an oddball telephone repair guy interested in theatrical lighting) comes to the rescue and gets the daughter to grow a bit and have her own voice.

November 6 1999

[Point Atkinson Lighthouse]The morning started out with a drive westwards down Marine Drive. The weather was more typical Vancouver weather, raining nice and steadily with a temperature around 10 degrees Celsius. Translation: this means driving with the windshield wipers slapping away, dodging around the sharp curves and hills of the slick, single lane per direction, road twisted into the mountain side. A very expensive mountain side judging by all the fancy houses and drives and gates packed along its length and even clinging to the cliffs. After passing many storm swollen mountain streams (white water, big rocks), and a side trip to see the closed gate to Frank and Gwen's old house at the bottom of a really long steep road down the side of the mountain (guess it must not snow often here otherwise they would be trapped), we wound around and got to Lighthouse Park's parking lot.

We unfurled umbrellas and hiked down the forest trail to the sea. I looked up, from under my umbrella, way up, at the tops of the amazingly tall trees (Douglas Fir) and thought of ships masts, and falling rain streaking straight at me. The shades of green on the rocks and cliffs were exceedingly solid, not like at home where there's always a bit of gray rock or dead grass showing. Here everything was either covered with ferns (the same kind only seen in pots in Ottawa) or in thick moss, even the almost vertical cliffs and giant rocks.

As usual aunt Nora's hiking practice showed in her speed down the hilly and steeply descending trail, leaving uncle Garth behind when the trail got particularly steep (I didn't relish the thought of going back up it). Anyway, we passed through a boy scout camp (log cabins) and clambered up the rocks beside the lighthouse and got a good view of the harbour (fortunately it wasn't foggy). The walk back uphill was gruelling.

After a bit more driving (I was happy to let the engine do the pushing), we wound up and down the hills looking at houses and eventually got back home for lunch.

[Pikachu the Pokemon Mascot]After lunch we went to see my cousin Gwen and her children. As an unexpected bonus, her husband Frank was in too. Aunt Nora was busy collecing a large cardboard box at their gate (she's more enthusiastic about recycling than most) while the rest of us went on in to a warm welcome. Kevin and Daniel were busy with a newly arrived Pokémon board game, so we talked with Gwen and Frank while munching a snack in their kitchen. Frank mentioned that he may be going to a hockey game tomorrow, which gave me a good excuse for offering to come along, and perhaps see my first NHL game in person.

The house is a nice bungalow with red ceramic tile floors, a fireplace with a welcoming fire, a trampoline, and even an outdoor swimming pool, though that seems a bit redundant in rainy Vancouver. They seem to be doing well and the kids aren't total maniacs (they are intelligent enough to realise that evolving some Pokémon too far isn't always a good idea), and they each have their own Gameboy (cuts down on fighting :-), so what more could you want?

[Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge]I think we also went for a trip to see the Lynn Valley Canyon this afternoon, or some other rainy afternoon. It's a crack between two mountains with almost vertical slopes leading down to a rushing stream with dangerous whirlpools. Because of the rain, there were streams coming off the rocks at the top and falling spectacularly down down down to the white water below. There is also a nice metal suspension bridge - four long wire ropes with wood and metal boards (kind of like aircraft stairs - aluminium with lots of small holes) strung between the lower rope pair to walk on and fencing between the side pairs to prevent you from falling off, but nothing on the top pair to keep you from bouncing out (at least that's what it feels like). It's even more fun crossing while it is raining (wet and slipery) and you are carrying an umbrella, though that does cut down on the number of other people getting in the way. The middle of the bridge is right over the big whirlpool, which makes it very tempting for people to jump off into the pool. But it's so high (over 50m) that even missing the rocks and hitting the water can kill you. Still, people do try (usually young men), and there is a respectable collection of death markers and warning signs at the entrance to the bridge. However scary the bouncing bridge was, my near death experience happened while going through a red light on the way to the canyon. Yikes!

[Vancouver Aquarium Ticket]Later that afternoon we went off to the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park. First we wandered around the exhibits (mostly the nearby salmon cycle one), until the 16:30 coastal waters show. Then we watched a SCUBA diver play with the fish inside a large aquarium, while the normal guide outside explained what the fish were doing, where the octopus was, explained the plants and described the ecosystem. Having the diver there helped out a lot, since she could point at the fish being talked about, wave at the kids, avoid the horrible eel, and talk unintelligibly though the special diver's radio.

[Vancouver Aquarium Killer Whales Jumping]After a bit more exhibit trolling (the main fish tank one - which has a nice new frog section), I was getting a bit tired of fish and was happy to go outside into the rain and see a lively small dolphin, a huge killer whale, and a couple of human handlers with picnic baskets of fish put on a show. They justify it as giving the animals a bit of exercise and a bit of play time. They swam, slapped water, jumped into the air, and even managed to get part of the audience wetter than they already were - a huge wave of water right up to the back row on the right side of the amphitheater, soaking everyone there (except the hostess who could see it coming). Fortunately we were on the left side.

[Otter Eating a Crab]After the too short show, we wandered around looking for the sea otters for the 17:30 feeding. We found the arctic Beluga whales (fake ice - only Vancouver would have fake ice), found a sea otter tank with no sea otters and just a notice saying they weren't there, and went around in circles, ending up at the Belugas again. We gave up and went back to the entrance to find a staff member to ask for directions. They said, yes, there was a show on the day's schedule. We went back, and found the feeding by listening for the tour guide - it was around the corner from the empty tank. Anyway, we got to see the female otter eating some seafood, resting the chunk of it on her chest while she dined, leaving behind a floating and sinking bits. Apparently she'll go and eat the leftovers if she's still hungry after the main meal. We also learned that courtship involves serious nose biting, enough to cause bleeding, so that's why she was separated from her occasional mate.

[Caiman Crocodiles]Finally, we warmed up in the Amazon forest exhibit, admiring the banana trees (with fruit!), looking at the crocodile, watching the birds, and getting hot and sweaty. At least it wasn't raining, though the web site mentions hourly storms and I did notice an overhead sprinkler system. Some of the animals are a bit free-ranging; we had to wait for three ducks (playing a real duck hunting game) to get out of the side rooms and back into the forest. Fortunately for them the crocodile is in a fence and glass enclosure.

November 7 1999

Another morning dawned, and I had to get up at too early an hour yet again. This time to find a certain kind of bank machine so I could get enough cash to cover an NHL ticket, and to buy some hostess gifts for Maris for tomorrow. Nora and I walked from their place eastwards along Marine drive (stopping to look at a couple of rushing mountain streams intersecting our path). Eventually we found the right kind of bank machine in Ambleside, and amazingly enough, it worked.

[Fishing off Ambleside Pier]But that wasn't enough, I still needed a hostess gift so we decided to go to the Park Royal shopping center, taking the scenic route. We continued on down to the beach and walked along there, going past the nifty undrinkable fountain, and up to the pier at Ambleside to look at the ships in the harbour. There was a useful plaque there about recognising cargo ship types, and lots of ships at anchor to look at due to a dock workers strike. There was also one fisherman throwing a line from the end of the pier and dragging it back over the railing, which explains those strange cut marks in it. There was also a fish gutting station - a kind of large sink with a hole in the middle straight above the water and the sea gulls' fine dining establishment directly below.

We continued on past Ambleside beach, where gray skies, piles of logs, rain and cool weather kept the people off the beach (but not me!), forcing the public onto the path - making walking crowded. The path went past the golf course and doggy heaven (a place where dogs can run free and bushes are well fertilized), and up along the raging Capilano river (lots of white water and big rocks), under the railroad bridge (close view of white water and big rocks and the Lion's Gate bridge under reconstruction), and to the back of the Park Royal shopping center were we found an empty Eaton's store.

I was getting a bit tired after the hour of walking and decided that we'd just head straight back and pick up some chocolates at a drug store (they sell them there because they are addictive?). More walking, this time on the avenue beside the railroad tracks, past the soccer club playing in the rain (the coach gets an umbrella), along the small street with the old houses, many used by artists and community groups, back to Marine Drive and a drug store, then back west to home. Total elapsed time: 2 hours, tired feet: 2.

My leg was sore the rest of the day, so I was happy to spend the afternoon just reading a good Patrick O'Brian book, Surgeon's Mate, which I had brought with me. My mom has the whole addictive series and gave me the first one a few months ago - speaking about addictive again, this web page will probably show up at the top of the list when you search for addictions!

[Back of a Hockey Ticket with Much Fine Print]

[A Pair of Hockey Tickets]In the evening, Frank came by and we headed off to the GM Place arena to see a Vancouver Canucks / St. Louis Blues NHL hockey game. After a quick drive (Frank has a nice fast souped up luxury car with a 400HP engine, 12 inch wide tires for traction, and a driver not afraid to use that power), with a stop to pick up the tickets, we arrived at the reserved parking spot at the arena and quickly got to our seats. The suite was quite nice, and we had it all to ourselves, except for a Japanese reporter from the crowded press box next to us who politely asked if she could come in to take pictures of the game.

Compared to TV, the picture is much sharper (those bright white TV lights make it really well lit, giving it a visually crisp look), wider (you can see the whole rink), audible (no commercials, you can hear the skating and the puck hitting sticks, players, and glass, and it is all in 3D). But instant replays are missing and you have to watch the puck yourself rather than letting the camera man do it (I kept on losing track of it and then had to look at the players to see where they were looking). Fortunately there are also a couple of TVs strategically located around the suite so you can see the replays too. Speaking of having your cake and eating it too, we grabbed some really delicious chocolate fudge and ice cream during an intermission.

[Executive Suite at GM Place]While watching the game, I tried to figure out what made the winners win. I think it's the better passers who win - St. Louis players caught the puck more often and passed it snappily forwards, into the Canucks goal fairly often (ended 6-1). Vancouver just kept on missing the passes, which can't help.

Anyway, we left early in the 3rd period and I got another ride in Frank's car. He gave a quick demonstration of how it's possible to zip from traffic light to traffic light on wet roads quickly and relatively safely (good equipment plus he stays in his lane and doesn't drive through red lights). So, I got home early enough to get enough sleep for the next busy day.

November 8 1999

[The Kind of Ferry we Took]We got up early in the foggy morning to go to Gerda's to pick up my mom (Doris) for a visit to my other cousin Maris's family near Nanaimo. We drove west along Marine Drive, all the way up to Horseshoe Bay, where the ferry dock is. The whole length of the mountain-side road was filled with fancy houses, often precariously perched on the steep rocky slopes, with treacherous stairs down to a small parking spot squeezed between the road and the rocks.

[Horseshoe Bay, with ferry docks on the right]The ferry loading dock is quite sophisticated, with separate lanes for preloading and sorting out the vehicles going onto the boats. We waited in the lineup for about twenty minutes then drove on board. The departure from Horseshoe Bay (a small harbour and town surrounded by mountains and topped by foggy peaks) is very spectacular, as you watch it from the stern while the ferry leaves the dock. The trip itself was fast, with ferocious wind on the deck near the bow, and occasional spatterings of rain - stay at the stern if you want to be outside in fall weather. The rest of the family stayed inside on the comfy chairs and read magazines.

[Nanaimo, Lighthouse Bistro is round blob at right edge]At Nanaimo we stopped for a bit of tourism, lunch and shopping. The tourism simply meant leaving the parking lot building and wandering around a bit, looking at their whitewashed old fortified tower and cannon, and walking along the docks. [Bill from Lighthouse Bistro]Lunch was at the Lighthouse Bistro, which is actually part of the seaplane terminus - we saw one take off and another one land, just outside the restaurant windows. As you can see from the bill, most of the party had fish, but I had a hamburger and dessert. Nobody got sick. Nora kept on pestering the waitress for Nanaimo Bars, but fortunately they didn't have any of them in the off-season, since only tourists eat them.

We then got directions from the waitress for the nearest toy store, left the restaurant, headed in roughly the right direction, and actually found it. There we got some toys for Maris's children: a book of picture stickers and a poster with words and spaces for the stickers for Fiona, and for Hannah, a small book with semi-transparent cutouts in the pages so you could look through it.

The drive to Maris's place started with a couple of loops around Nanaimo (due to navigation errors) and ended after passing thousands of houses along the coastal road. Thousands. This place is a super-suburbia. Houses, not a single strip mall or commercial building, just houses, and new houses under construction. I assume that's because people like to build next to the coast and there are a lot of retired people here (just living in houses, not working).

Anyway, a quarter hour later we arrived at a particular house among the thousands. While waiting for Maris to arrive, Nora showed us around the garden, and pointed out artifacts (like the watering can) from her old house in Beaconsfield, Quebec. Maris soon came up the street with the kids and friends in tow, coming back from school. We went inside and had an afternoon snack and drinks. Nora kept Hannah busy with toys and natcho chips, while I helped Fiona with her word stickers, polishing off the whole poster before the afternoon was done. I presume the rest of the adults were chatting with each other, while Maris prepared supper. Before eating, we went for a walk down to the rocky sea beach (Fiona moves faster than the rest of her family), with a bit of a scramble down rocks from where the path ended to where the beach starts. Fiona pointed out likely hiding places for crabs, and I turned over the big rocks - and found quite a few miniature crabs.

Supper was good (thanks Maris, for the switch from seafood to chicken), and I had a chance to talk with her husband, Jim. He's a pretty good conversationalist, showing interest in what people are saying and having interesting comments of his own. Maris wasn't quite as big a presence at the table, as Hannah kept on distracting her. Unfortunately, supper was over too quickly and we had to leave to catch the ferry back. I found out why Fiona had been so quiet in the other room during dinner when she presented me with a nice drawing of a tropical island scene. I think the things she drew were inspired by all those stickers, but they were nicely drawn by Fiona rather than being mass produced.

[Fiona's Tropical Island Drawing, Click for Full Size Image]

[Ferry Ticket]The trip back in the pitch black evening was even more suspenseful than usual. Besides the terrifying dread of a car crash, there was the time limit - would we arrive in time for the 7pm ferry? Then there was the accident on the road (ha! someone else crashed!), at the turnoff to the ferry. Police cars and ambulances blocked the way, and they waved us back when we tried to go down the ferry road. Instead, we drove nervously on towards Nanaimo, and I helped navigate us around and back to a crossroad which intersected with the ferry road. We arrived with minutes to spare and were the last car on the ferry, parked right at the stern end.

The night-time ferry ride was spectacular in its own way, as you could see the lights of Nanaimo moving away, the lights of the other ferry passing us, and the lights of the big cities brightening up the clouds on the horizon. Instead of the PacifiCat fast ferry I had been looking forwards to, which was broken yet again, we were on the standard ferry. We had a small dessert snack on the ferry, and Nora was able to find her Nanaimo bars, which if you think about it, is the most genuine place to find them.

After my chocolate cake dessert, I was able to wander around the deck, staying mostly at the stern, or in the solarium (half roofed area with radiant heaters in the ceiling and smokers standing around) and avoiding the windy bow (almost too windy to stand up). However, I was able to watch the landing from the bow, which upset the rest of the group who wondered where I was. Fortunately the wise staff told them to expect me to arrive at the car at the last minute. I knew they were in the last car, so that being late wouldn't slow down the lineup to get out, but still there was a moment of panic as I got lost on the middle deck, trying to find the stairs down to the car deck. I arrived just in time.

This time we took the highway back, rather than Marine Drive, and I got dropped off while the rest of the group went to Gerda's. That gave me time to write up the notes for this long story.

November 9 1999

[Bus Transfer Front]Today's big event was a field trip to visit Gerda. After breakfast, Nora and I grabbed umbrellas and took the local bus to downtown Vancouver. Then we caught one of those fully automated (no driver) Translink subway trains to the sea bus terminal to look at the scenery, mostly the harbour, with boats and a seabus cruising away that we had just missed. Ha! This time I didn't care about missing the bus, since we weren't crossing the harbour anyways. Instead we took the train back downtown and walked over to the Vancouver Art Gallery (with Nora pointing out the sights along the way). Nora left at this point to meet my mom and attend an art talk.

[Vancouver Art Gallery]

[Bus Transfer Back]I continued on, trying to find my way back to the street with the bus to Gerda's place, but I ended up at the harbour instead (the bus street was parallel to the one I was on). Fortunately I found a map at a bus stop and went over to wait for the electric bus which goes down Arbutus street (named after a tree that sheds its bark). While waiting for the bus, several other buses came by, and this odd elderly man in a rain coat would dash out and fix them (a new windshield wiper for example). Finally, my bus came and everybody got on, then the elderly man dashed out and disconnected the power and replaced the spool and cable that pulls down one of the aerial contact poles. Finally, he was finished, and we whirred out into the traffic. I also got to see what the bus does when there is no power, as we had to pass a road construction site. One of the construction guys hauled down the contact poles, and the bus crept on at about 5 km/h, seemingly using emergency batteries to run the motor. Eventually we got to the other side of the construction site, got hooked up and whizzed up Arbutus to Gerda's place.

[Seasons in the Park Restaurant]Gerda was fine, and we had a bit of a chat about this and that. I also got to meet her house keeping assistant and her meals on wheels delivery person, who dropped off enough food for several days. Speaking of food, Gerda took me out to lunch at the Seasons in the Park Restaurant. She may seem elderly but she does know how to order a taxi and get around on her own. We had a fine lunch at the elegant restaurant, while watching the blustery weather outside, then took a taxi back. Gerda insisted on paying, thanks! Actually, I never got to spend all that much (other than air fare), so my big cash withdrawal never got used. I'll hold onto it until the Y2K crisis is over, just in case.

[Interior of Beach House Restaurant]I took the bus back to Nora & Garth's place to get ready for dinner, which unfortunately Gerda was unable to attend due to back pain when sitting too long.

However, Daniel, Kevin, Frank & Gwen and some old friends of the parents came to the Beach House restaurant for a fine meal (thanks Garth). Frank picked the wines, since he was knowledgeable about wine from his days as a wine speculator, and he also generously picked up the wine bill too. The boys were well behaved for their age; only spilling water on a chair. They were rewarded by the waiter with a special dessert not on the menu. Did they get their just desserts?

Tomorrow should be my last day here, but we've already scheduled a visit to the Marine Museum and Space center before the 2PM takeoff. Airplane takeoff, that is. We ended up only going to the Marine museum; the St. Roch RCMP boat which went through the arctic passage being the highlight. The trip back was routine - an airplane packed full of people with no space for elbows or feet.

So now you know what it's like to visit my relatives. If you have any comments or corrections or want to add more details, please write to me at

- Alex

Copyright © 1999 by Alexander G. M. Smith.