The next place we’re stopping is a street corner in Chinatown and Professor Duff is asking, did we lose people. It’s not that our tour guides are leaving people behind on purpose so much that it doesn’t seem to occur to them that this is something that might happen. Whether we have any losses is unknown as we hear about the history of development in the city and how things came to be the way they are today. This is still the first part of our afternoon and we’re riding the bike path around False Creek. The ocean inlet around which Vancouver is built takes its name from the easy confusion that this could be a river, especially to those of us from Portland. At our first stop, a waste treatment plant (a destination that earned some sidelong glances among us), we’re meeting our tour guide and leaving again.
Even in a city as accustomed and accommodating to bikes as Vancouver, the people relaxing in Victory Square off Cambie Street still do a double take when our mob of twenty bicyclists adds to the chaos of a busy intersection. Dinner today is part of the tour at what we’re told is the best, if smallest, taco place in the city, and we are not disappointed. In the instant it takes to lock bikes to parking meters and trees, the line to order is out the door, much to the bafflement of the people just getting off work and stopping by for what they thought was going to be a quick bite. When we get back to the hotel, it will be eighteen students with bikes trying ascend to the seventh and eighth floors, drawing what we hope is only mild amusement from the inconvenienced hotel guests who will be taking the next one.
Riding a bike here is another part of life more than a form of transportation. It’s from a city planner turned tour guide for the day that we’re learning that the expansion of streets to accommodate more traffic, thereby creating more traffic, is a popular trend in cities but deliberately eschewed here. The result is traffic got bad, then stayed bad until people learned better than to drive their cars. For me every morning, it’s walking or biking down to the water and taking a short ferry ride across False Creek to Granville Island. Riding the ferry on a weekend afternoon immediately explains the success of the business model, but in the early mornings on weekdays, I am frequently the only occupant. This is the quietest part of my day, when in the center of the city I am as likely to encounter a heron or seal or Canada Goose as I am other people. For the few short minutes it takes to travel between shores, I can justifiably not worry or think about anything, surrounded by salty air and waves lapping the side of the boat against the backdrop of the quiescent, still awakening city.
On this tour, food is a destination and our guide is describing our next stop only as “two-hundred and eighteen flavors” before darting into traffic and we’re chasing behind. The gelato place where we arrive is “international themed,” but no one quite knows what that means, even standing in the middle of it. The competition prompt is right away apparent: How many flavors can you sample, each with its own colorful spoon, thereby tracking your progress, before settling on your choice? We are informed of the standing record from past years.
The tiny park across the street can barely accommodate our class where we sit in the shade of blossoming trees and hear from each person what flavor they chose and how many they sampled, with those contending to win or at least hoping to medal displaying their spoon collection with pride. And as soon as we can catch our breath we’re playing soccer and it’s the last day and pretty soon it’ll be that I can only remember this. I don’t know it yet, but this bike tour — the chaos of chasing a tour guide around the city in a gaggle of bikes, following a plan that only murkily materializes and then just barely ahead of us — will come to symbolize my entire study abroad experience in Vancouver. While this approach is fundamentally at odds with the very core of my personality, I am able to accept it, and am better for it.
But the reprieve of this park won’t last, and before much longer we’re scrambling to reattach our helmets and jump back on our bikes before our tour guides leave without us and we’re lost on the streets of Vancouver, left to fend for ourselves.
– Adam Oswald, Vancouver, Canada