Vancouver to Jasper (written July 3)

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Canadian politeness

Politeness is certainly something the Canadians are proud of, part of their self-definition, and something tourists comment on with the same travel-guide self-evident certainty that they recount the rudeness of Parisian waiters, Japanese cleanliness or xenophobia, and Swiss efficiency ("the train was really bang on time!")  So far, I would have to say that the evidence is meagre.  One woman who we met, spinning wool with a tiny drop-spindle in the lobby of our hotel, complained about the decline of civility in Toronto (comparing it unfavorably with Vancouver): "Here, people will still say 'excuse me' when they bump into you on the street.  In Toronto twenty years ago they would, but not anymore."  We haven't been to Toronto yet, but it says something about the decline of manners that this concerned Torontan epitomized civility by bumping into people and saying "excuse me".  Berkeley is full of people who will knock you down, excuse themselves, and then knock you down again.  Higher politeness -- perhaps "courtesy" is a better word -- includes paying attention to avoid bumping into people, and even helping people up who have fallen down through no fault of your own.

We did get a friendly greeting right after the border post in Sydney, where we found a tourist information booth manned by two elderly gentlemen.  Thinking that this hut was an investment in keeping tourists in Sydney, I was slightly uncomfortable to be asking them only about the bus routes to Victoria.  It turned out, though, that it was intended to cover Vancouver Island more generally, so that was no problem.  They scraped the bottom of their cashbox for me, to change a $20 bill for bus fare.  I wanted to buy a map of Victoria -- we needed one anyway, and I thought they would be pleased to sell something -- but they insisted that the free map would be all I needed.

We stayed just one day in Victoria, and then had to ride back to the ferry on the same bus.  Or rather, the same bus line.  Whereas the bus down to Victoria was double-decked and nearly empty, the bus back had a single level and many backpackers.  I was standing around the middle with Chaya, trying to support her and my own backpack, with fellow passengers bobbing and colliding all around us.  To add to her misery, she had just eaten a moderately large portion of ice cream.  She screamed that she wanted to sit, but only an eighty-year-old woman took notice, and offered to let Chaya sit on her lap.  Sitting on a stranger's lap is not something that Chaya could tolerate just then.  Nor was sitting on my knees while I squatted.  I tried sarcasm: "You can't expect these adults to give up a seat, just so a two-year-old can sit," I admonished loudly.  No one took any notice.  After a bit, though, a gentleman sitting near Julia, slightly younger than the generous old lady, offered to stand, and give up his seat to Julia and Chaya.  It turned out to be one of the same men from the tourist information hut in Sydney.

I should counter this by mentioning that one of the very few times when I rode a bus in Vancouver, a woman boarded with a small child in a stroller.  Not only was she not verbally assaulted by the bus driver -- which is almost inevitably what happens to me when I bring a stroller onto a bus or tram in the SF Bay Area (sometimes because I've made use of space or facilities reserved for wheelchairs; I wonder why children don't count as mobility-impaired for purposes of the ADA -- perhaps there is a special exemption, to avoid the possibility of a misinterpretation, that there might be some compulsion to make public facilities accessible to such beastly creatures as children) -- the bus driver actually helped her to carry the stroller off the bus, something I have never seen happen in North America.

[Update: The inaccuracy of Canadian (and others') self-description has been scientifically confirmed.]


There is no gainsaying that Vancouver is sui generis, and I mean that in the most positive way.  Downtown is a field of skyscrapers, the way I imagine the colonial island states of Asia, like Singapore and Hong Kong.  But it also has significant stands of mostly old-growth forest on prime real estate, in Stanley Park -- around 1000 acres, nearly half of the peninsula that forms downtown Vancouver -- and the "endowment lands" of the University of British Columbia.  Hemmed in by water and mountains, the city has grown into the sky.  Despite some grumbling -- I've never lived in a city where people did not grumble about how expensive housing had become (homeowners excepted, who gloat instead) -- this strategy has maintained reasonably affordable housing without devouring public space.  

Vancouverites pride themselves on their commitment to the environment and to alternative transportation.  While they are surely sincere, this does not mean that you will see many Vancouverites bicycling to work through downtown, or that the streets are not clogged with private automobiles.  There is pretty good bus service, and an elegant but limited light-rail system, and the bicycles come out mostly after working hours, to ride around the lovely seaside paths, along with the rollerblades.

On the same day, the newspapers announced that the Parliament in Ottawa had approved gay marriage, and that the Vancouver city council had voted against a proposed Wal-Mart, and another big-box store.  It made it clear that we're not in California anymore.

The world's laziest juggler

Walking along the beach, we encountered the world's laziest busker.  We saw him laying out the tools of the juggler's trade, haranguing the passersby to stop and watch, and commanding those who were watching to gather in particular spots, so that the crowd would appear larger.  After a little while, of course, people got tired of waiting, and moved on down the beach.  The juggling poseur just continued prancing about, rearranging his clubs and stilts, criticizing the few spectators who remained, but who had not positioned themselves properly.  Finally, he gave up and started packing his things away.  A fellow standing next to us said, "I've been watching a couple of hours.  This is the third time I've seen him unpack his things and then pack them away again."

Via Rail

I can't say that Canada is served (for want of a better word) by the worst rail system in the world, because there are many countries with railroads that I have never even visited.  In contrast to the Egyptian train where I was stuck for 12 hours on a 300-mile trip from Cairo to Luxor, intermittently passed by oxcars, the Canadian trains at least are nonsmoking.  I have taken three train trips in Canada so far, each one more spectacularly delayed than the last.  Back in January I rode from Toronto to Kingston and back, supposedly about 2 1/4 hrs.  The first trip started on time, but fell behind, and ended up arriving close to an hour late.  In Canada, it seems, the freight rail company owns the tracks, and sells space to the passenger carrier Via Rail.  If Via misses its window, the train with all its passengers winds up on a siding to let the freight through, until another window opens up.  The trip back was delayed over two hours -- actually, the train I meant to take was over three hours late, long enough that the following train came through.

The most recent stage was the corker.  We started out several hours late from Vancouver, on what should have been a seventeen hour trip to Jasper, in the Canadian Rockies.  There is only one east-west route west of Toronto, and it travels three times a week.  If you get off, you have two or three days until the next train carries on.  We plan to split up three-day trip from Vancouver to Toronto into three one-day stages this way: Vancouver-Jasper, Jasper-Winnipeg, Winnipeg-Toronto.  The conductor seemed not at all fazed: Asked when we would arrive, he shrugged, I've seen this train start four hours late, and still arrive on time in Jasper.  Hmm.  That's an awful lot of slack in the schedule.  Whereas the station clock is proverbial for the railway man's fixation on precise schedules, Via Rail seems to run its schedule off an hourglass: At Via Central, the time is always Whenever.  It reminds me of the old joke, that Hell is where the the butlers are Swiss, the cooks British, and everything is organized by Italians.  Everyone likes "laid back and casual", but it is not a virtue in the railroad business.

To nobody's surprise, we did not make up lost time.  In fact, the train stopped at Kamloops station at 4 am, and didn't move for 12 hours.  We learned eventually that a freight train had derailed up ahead, and we couldn't budge until the track had been cleared and repaired.  Now, derailments can happen to the best of railways, but this seemed depressingly routine.  In the end, we arrived more than 17 hours late, after 4 am.  As compensation, they gave us a sandwich of two slices of buttered white bread, with cucumber, lettuce and tomato.

Delays are not the only way they keep their passengers on their toes.  Their prices are the highest I have ever seen, in economy class, and if you want a sleeper berth you'll pay an extra $600 a night or so.  The restaurant-car waiter was rude and high-handed.  For no apparent reason (and despite the fact that it had been prominently announced that they have 24 seats), he kept two of the six tables empty, forcing us to wait half an hour.  Maybe he hoped we would go away.  It was an odd combination of real-restaurant airs with fast-food gaucherie: cloth tablecloths, waiters, and reasonably substantial silverware, but plastic water cups, rolls on paper plates, and prepackaged pudding for the children's dessert.

A similar inconsistency runs through the whole system.  Some half-hearted attempts to be an efficient railway, without following through.  Most egregious are the stations, which are often elegantly appointed, but provide only minimal service of a railway sort.

I should also point out that the US counterpart Amtrak is not much better at timing, once you get outside of the Northeast Corridor.  The first leg of our trip took us up from Oakland to Portland.  Checking online, we could see that our train, scheduled to depart about 9:30 pm, was delayed.  Each time we checked, the predicted time got later, until it reached 4 hours delay.  Then, at midnight, we checked again, and the departure time had been moved back to 12:25 am.  Very disturbing, since it would be at least about a 20-minute drive to the Oakland station.  A quick phone call to Amtrak confirmed that the train had arrived at Oakland, and would leave at 12:25.  Fortunately, on the way over there, it occurred to us that the Emeryville station was later on the route, but closer to us.  Arrived at Emeryville, we learned that the train had not yet arrived at Oakland, and in fact it did not depart until 1:45.  And in the end, the train arrived about six hours late in Portland.

As for restaurant service, despite the fact that Amtrak kept us on until well after 9 pm, we couldn't get anything to eat.  Around 6 pm, someone came through asking who wanted reservations for dinner in the restaurant car.  When I said we did, she said, actually, they're full up.  "Why did you ask?" we wondered.  "That's my job," she replied.

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