VANCOUVER, CANADA – October 2010

East Hastings Street

During our first afternoon in Vancouver, Huckleberry B took me on a quick tour of Gastown, which is the equivalent of the Rocks area in Sydney.

Two of the attractions in this area are a steam-driven clock (which we successfully located) and the Guinness Book of Records sanctioned, world’s narrowest shop (which we had more difficulty finding).

It was whilst searching for the world’s narrowest shop that we stumbled, without warning, across East Hastings Street. Our first sign that we had ventured away from the safe haven of down town Vancouver, was when a couple of very odd looking gentlemen staggered by. By the time we had walked past a cluster of drunks and walked behind a scantily clad – but utterly unappealing – hooker, we knew that we were probably somewhere we shouldn’t be.

We found out later that all the homeless in Vancouver were corralled on East Hastings Street, located no more than a ten minute stroll from the city’s central business district. Whilst there – during late afternoon on a Sunday – we saw people dealing drugs in the street, people who were obviously high on something and a homeless man trying to score a freebie from one of the prostitutes. It was as though all the misery in Vancouver had been dumped in one, very sad, little corner of the city.

Whilst I will always have fond memories of our week in Vancouver, my memory of the human desolation on East Hastings Street is also likely to stay with me for some time. I knew that such places existed in the world. However, I did not expect to find one of them in Canada.

Not All Goes To Plan On “Transport” Outing

They were probably tempting fate, from the get-go, by describing the tour of Vancouver, and her surrounding environs: “By Sea, By Land, By Air”.

The sea leg – if you’ll excuse the rather inept pun – went swimmingly. We boarded a ferry and crossed  Vancouver Harbour without incident. However, the land segment of the journey was more troublesome. The plan was to catch a pre-arranged bus to the base of Grouse Mountain before proceeding to a gondola which would take us to the summit.

Sounded simple enough…

Our bus, however, had not even left the bus station adjacent to the ferry wharf when it rounded a bend to find a very slow moving train impeding its path. The bus driver brought his conveyance to a stop. He assured us that we would soon, once more, be on our way. I mean, how long could a train be?

First five minutes passed, then ten. The fifteen minute mark was closing in and the slow moving train was still ambling by, in no apparent hurry and clearly oblivious to our driver’s ever mounting impatience. Finally, the driver left his seat and scurried over to the train tracks. He peered down the line once, he peered down the line twice. He scratched his head and peered a third time. His body language told us that the end the world’s longest – and slowest – train was still nowhere in sight.

Remarkably, only then did it emerge that there was another route the driver could have taken!

Mr Bus Driver reversed his bus and headed out another exit which took him to a bridge which – wait for it…stop me if you’ve heard it before – allowed the bus to pass over the railway tracks! What?

Why our slow-witted bus driver did not take this route earlier remains a conundrum wrapped inside a riddle.

Our problems, however, did not end there.

The gondola ride to the summit of Grouse Mountain looked daunting from its base. At times, it looked as though the climb might almost be vertical. Doubtless, the summit looked a vast distance above us.

Yet we embraced the danger – after a careful analysis of the risk warning printed on the ticket – and crowded into the gondola. Lurching forward abruptly, the small gondola rocked forward and headed towards the sky. Never fully at ease with heights and with a limited trust in mechanics, I took a deep breath to keep my nerves in check.

Regrettably, my anxiety was well founded. As we approached the last tower, our gondola inexplicably sped up and, once past the tower, swung dangerously forward and back, causing alarm in even the most steadfast heart.

And then we came to an abrupt stop.

Looking forward, I could see the gondola station; a mere five iron’s drive away. Looking down, however, was a mistake. The tips of the pine trees still seemed an awfully long way below us. I envisaged our packed gondola creating a very large crater in the ground should it suddenly fall.

I took a deep breath. And then I took another.

An announcement assured us that the irregularities which occurred at the last tower had activated a computer override procedure which caused the chain on the gondola to come to halt. Somebody, we were told, would be rebooting the computer to permit the gondola to complete its circuit. Meanwhile, the passing of time weighed heavily on my shoulders.

Initially, my fellow tourists continued their chatter. However, as the moments passed the prattle fell silent and the anxiety rose. I saw people repeatedly glancing at their watches. Looking down through the window, those tree-tops seemed even further below than they had before. My mind reluctantly drifted to thoughts of what contingency plans may exist to get us out of here.

But suddenly – and mercifully – the gondola swung back into motion. We rocked forward and, once more, commenced our journey skyward.

Upon reflection, we were probably only stationary – perched high above the canopy of the trees – for about fifteen minutes. However, it felt like vastly longer in my uneasy mind.

The tour of Grouse Mountain was pleasant and comparatively uneventful. We were treated to a goofy lumberjack show. The view to Vancouver was lovely. However, the journey back to the foot of the mountain on the gondola still lay ahead of us…

The Extraordinary Life of the Flying Belgian

Huckleberry Band I met DL whilst onboard Veendam on our way to Antarctica on a previous journey.

We learned then that DL was born in Flanders, had served in the air force and now lived near Vancouver. Huck B happily kept in email contact. When she told him that we were travelling to Vancouver, DL readily offered to drive an hour from his residence at White Rock – within viewing distance of the American border – in order to take us on a twenty minute journey from the airport to our hotel. He even offered a room in his house.

Later in the week, DL jumped at the opportunity to drive us on a day trip to the alpine village at Whistler. It was on that journey that we learned more about the astonishingly full life led by our remarkable Belgian friend.

Born in 1931, DL could have easily passed as a man in his mid to late 50’s. Indeed, even at the age of 79, DL’s main gripe in life appeared to be that he could not convince J – or any of the other former girlfriends he had dated since his wife sadly passed in 1999 – to move in with him.

I am sure that there remains much about DL which we do not know. However, what we do know is that he lived through the German occupation of Belgium during World War II. He was more than happy to tell us stories about watching German fighter planes flying overhead towards London during the Battle of Britain. Later in the war, he and his friends would count the Allied Bombers flying east to drop bombs on the Third Reich. He remembered the sky being full of planes; squadrons of aircraft filling the sky all the way to each horizon. There were times during the war when the skies above Belgium were never free from the sound of planes flying hither and yon.

DL told us about his older friends being seized by the Germans to be taken away for the purpose of slave labour. Being only 14 when the war ended, DL was not old enough to come to the attention of the slave masters. However, he remembers an older friend being marked for slave labour and refusing to go. Some German soldiers came to his house to arrest him. Fortunately, he was out on an errand at the time. The Germans surrounded his house and waited for his return.

From a vantage point within this house, DL could see his friend walking though a field on his way home. Luckily, DL’s friend saw the German soldiers before they saw him. He hastily dove into some long grass and remained there until nightfall before he was able to slip away under the cover of darkness. DL sagely remarked that his friend was very lucky. The slaves the Germans seized were normally, quite literally, worked to death.

After the war, DL joined the Belgian air force. He was working as an electrician next to an airbase and was transfixed by the brave young men flying at remarkable speeds above his head. During a lunch break, DL strolled across to the airbase and asked what he had to do to join the air force. They signed him up immediately.

However, during some training in Canada, he decided that North America was his real home. So, after completing six years flying Spitfires for Belgium, DL migrated to Canada. He recalled arriving at the snow-covered Toronto train station with his new bride and a young child, but without either a home or a job. Within a week he found work and set about building his new life in Canada.

Before long, DL joined the Canadian Air Force. He was still flying jets for the Canadians during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. DL described sleeping by his plane – and not even taking his boots off – for a period of ten days during the crisis. Displaying my ignorance, I asked what role the Canadian Air Force would have in a conflict in Cuba. DL was happy to explain that the concern, at the time, was that a wider conflict might develop. A war between Russia and the USA over Cuba might have escalated to a Russian invasion of Alaska and Canada. DL said that the fear of this occurring, in 1962, was very, very real.

DL was quick to give the American fighter pilots enormous credit. He explained that it took just one of them – in a fit of rage or a bout of depression – to use the thumb hovering over the firing mechanism of their fighter jets to invoke the rules of engagement which would have led to a catastrophic conflict between two nuclear powers.

Later in life, DL studied dentistry and made his fortune through property investment. Early during his married life, he promised his young bride that one day they would live in a big house. He kept his promise. What his wife did not know, however, was that she would have to help him to build it.

Huckleberry B and I were privileged to be given a tour of DL’s mansion during our last night in Vancouver. It was a beautiful dwelling. Featuring four spacious guest bedrooms on the upper level and a self contained apartment (where DL and his wife lived during the initial construction), the mansion’s special features included a large dining room, a solarium, a pool room, a cellar, a movie theatre and a study. DL performed all the wood work – including the intricate ceiling work and floor tiling – himself in his workshop (which formed part of the house).

In fact, DL had only completed his wood paneled study in the last six months. This marked the fulfilment of DL’s masterpiece; a true labour of love which took him over thirty years to finish and which, sadly, outlived the beloved wife to whom his labour was devoted.

Huckleberry B and I felt very fortunate to meet DL and to spend some time with him. A truly remarkable man.


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