After more than 20 hours and 3 different flights, the plane finally touched down in Vancouver. By this time my initial excitement and anticipation had given away to the pure exhaustion of one who is unaccustomed to such lengthy travelling.
I was immediately struck by the fact that the sun was blazing outside yet my watch insisted that it was 7pm. Later, I would learn that in summer, the Vancouver sun sets at 10pm.
Vancouver is a west coast seaport in the Canadian Province of British Columbia. The city ranks high as one of North America’s densest and most ethnically diverse cities. For one born and raised in a landlocked country, I was fascinated by a cityscape that is surrounded by the azure coloured pacific ocean, snow- capped mountains and blue skies that look like they dip into the ocean at the edges.
My very first impression was that Vancouver was a painter’s paradise. Maybe over the next couple of years as I pursue my undergraduate degree, I will paint a black Mona Lisa.
A city of neighbourhoods
One year into my stay in Vancouver, my impression that the people of Vancouver are some of the nicest and most helpful people I have had the pleasure to interact with has not changed.
I have not heard the words, “thank you,” “excuse me,” “please,” and “I am sorry,” said so often in my life. Strangers on the streets smile at you shyly for no reason, they insist that you walk by first if you are in each other’s way, most young people promptly offer their seats to elders on buses and trains, and doors are opened and held for you at every turn.
Vancouver is referred to as a “city of neighbourhoods” because it is as linguistically diverse as it is ethnically. Most people I have met have a first language that is not English or French. Chinese are the largest visible ethnic group in the city, and there are neighbourhoods with distinct ethnic commercial areas such as the Punjabi Market and Chinatown.
The city lies on the traditional and still presently unceded territories of Canadian Aboriginal Peoples such the Squamish and Musqueam people. There is never a dull moment for people who enjoy or want to learn about rich and old cultures and traditions.
Food, Art and Places
Vancouver undoubtedly has a diverse cuisine which is mostly Asian. However it was a solid three months before I could stomach the skimmed milk, uncooked fish or slightly overcooked soups. The ultimate Canadian dish is “Poutine” made with French fries and cheese curds topped with a light brown gravy.
Most times I gave up on lunch and dinner and survived on a continental breakfast, fruits and a few select vegetables. The silver lining is that there is an abundance of food and places to get it from. Food trucks and fast food places line the streets. I learned quickly that you must as often as you can tip people or you risk perpetuating the stereotype that Africans don’t tip service providers like waiters and cab drivers.
The city has a consistent and thriving art, theatre and music scene. It is also a popular filming location and on any given day one runs into film sets and popular Hollywood faces. However the street art is a personal favourite.
There is a musician with his guitar or violin at every corner, art and often graffiti on the walls, messages engraved on wooden benches named after people long deceased, writers with journals neatly folded on their laps, photographs kneeling and bending trying to capture moments as well as traditional sculptures near most buildings. The streets look to me as though they were museums and galleys with their own charm.
Over the last decade, Vancouver has been ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world. However, Forbes ranked Vancouver as the 6th most overpriced real estate market in the world and one of Canada’s most expensive cities. With all its beauty, Vancouver is merciless to the wallet.
I am also of the opinion that apart from the artistic types, Vancouver is for people who enjoy slow pace and ambience. They can unwind by sailing on the pacific, cycling around parks, languishing in exotic gardens, taking lengthy canopy walks, luxurious hotels, sandy beaches (some nude) and genuinely stunning scenery all around.
The sportive types enjoy with the thousands of trails in the woods and mountains on which to hike. With the lively arts culture that comes with the fusion of many cultures, both the day and night life of Vancouver has something for everyone.
A few other Rwandans and I spent a memorable night camped on the floors of an aquarium surrounded by seal lions, belugas and other sorts of seal life. The next day we rented bicycles to ride the length of Vancouver’s largest park Stanley Park whose trails end by the ocean.
We were assaulted by large dozes of pure fresh air, the sound of strong waves hitting against rocks, and the sight of rainbow coloured trees and flowers that characterize summer giving way to fall. We cooled down by sliding down a giant 1,000-foot long waterslide in a popular “Slide the City” event held in the city every summer.
In its true multi- ethnic fashion, Vancouver is a city of numerous festivities. There is always a celebration about one thing or the other, all heavily companied by explosion of colours and fabrics worn by different ethnicities and all sorts of cultural displays and plenty of outdoor events. The Car Free Festivals are characterized by loud live music, coloured food trucks, artisans, kids fun zones, roving performers, outdoor patios and beverage gardens.
Vancouver is considered to be one of Canada’s warmest cities in the winter which to a Rwandan like myself means nothing at all. It got cold. Really Cold! The city is also considered one of the wettest and it rains consistently during the winter months from October to April.
I had subconsciously learned to tell time depending on the positions of the sun in Rwanda and I was often mislead by the Vancouver sun that sets at 4pm in winter and at 10pm in Summer. However each season brings its own beauty but the explosion of colour in summer as nature wakes up from the winter slumber has been a sight for my sore eyes.
The writer is an undergraduate student at The University of British Colombia.