Friday 1 June 2018
Early evening Sylvia and I met at the Vancouver airport. She had flown from Singapore via Taiwan and I had flown from Auckland via LA. It’s interesting just how much walking is involved at airports from landing in LA and changing terminals to getting through immigration in Vancouver I had walked according to my phone nearly 4kms. I feel sorry for old people travelling. We taxied to the downtown Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. With fantastic views over the grass-topped convention centre to the harbour, great staff and excellent service it’s a great place to stay.
After a lazy breakfast we took a short stroll around the town, visiting a few shops, where again people bent over backwards to be helpful. The streets are clean and the buildings tidy.
At noon we wandered down to the to a jetty next to the convention centre where Harbour Air are based. After checking in, and having free coffee during the wait, we boarded a Twin Otter float plane for the flight to Victoria on Vancouver Island.
We took of to the north up the harbour before turning south and passing a huge heap of sulphur. Known as the Vancouver Sulphur pile it has been there for years; not the same pile but a never ending pile that is brought in by rail, mainly from Alberta. It is a byproduct of oil sands. From here it is shipped all over the world.
We flew over a few dozen ships waiting for their turn to berth. Looking down at the sea it looks like there has been an oil spill with black streaks on the sand; it is in fact silt brought down from the mountains during the spring snow melt.
The flight over the many islands was very picturesque with lots of islands along the way. Flying at 1000ft we could only see a small part of Vancouver Island. There are lots of boats running around the harbour as we come into land but it all seems to work well.
A short taxi and we were at the jetty, tied up along with the other float planes. I had visited Victoria five years ago so was keen to give Sylvia a quick tour. This was going well until Sylvia spotted a funky shoe shop where we spent some time buying funky shoes. We continued out stroll around the town, which has lots of really neat buildings and is kept clean and tidy for the thousands of tourists that visit every day. Soon we spotted Big Bad John’s bar, which I had visited last time. We ventured in but not much had changed in spite of the barmaid telling us it had been refurbished a couple of years ago. The walls are lined with bras, money and other memorabilia from all over the world. We added a kiwi note with our names on it to the collection.
Across town we came to the parliament buildings – built of stone with grand lawns these are rather spectacular. They were closed for tours today with an orchestra playing on the steps. I did the tour last time I was here. We stopped at a wharfside cafe and enjoyed a nice lunch before catching the plane back to Vancouver. There are lots of water taxis running about the harbour that look quire top heavy but apparently are quite safe.
All too soon our visit was over. As we boarded the plane the pilot asked me to sit in the copilot’s seat for the flight home. We taxied to the outer part of the harbour to take-off into the light breeze. There was a ferry coming in but after some discussion over the radio we were cleared to take off with plenty of room to spare. We soon turned, heading north. Along the way the pilot pointed out different islands, mostly now owned by tech billionaires. One with a deep water port was used to manufacture ammunition during WWII, Another, Spieden Island, is the US territory where during the 60’s plains game such as kudu and bison were released so hunters could come and hunt them. This apparently went well until someone missed an animal and the bullet went through a house on a neighbouring island. Some of the animals still roam the island having adapted to the climate by growing thicker coats.
Sylvia was flying to Chicago just after lunch so we headed to the airport early to meet her uncle and aunt, Simon and Dale, who live at White Rocks near the US border. Simon, a former anesthesiologist, worked in Vancouver for many years and they are now enjoying their retirement here and, like us, they love to travel.
I took the train back to town and was surprised to see, when crossing the Fraser River, that large stocks of logs were contained but floating along the riverbank. I didn’t realise this method was still a method of transporting timber.
Arriving back at the hotel I took a free bike (they did have a stand of electric ones for $30 per hour). After being assured by the bike man it was not going to rain I headed of for a ride around what was once the island. Not far along the track it started to rain quite hard so I ended up stopping under a bridge and yarning to a Flemish couple who had also been caught out. After waiting some time and the rain not abating I put on my poncho and headed back to the hotel.
In the early evening, Des, a member of the local police ERT (Emergency Response Team) arrived. I had met Des in Texas last year while doing some long range shooting. We had a good catch up in the lounge on the 20th floor with his wife Kerri joining us later. One of the staff recommended a local restaurant called Nightingale so we headed there for a very nice meal and a good catch up, also enjoying the decor and the well-stocked bar. A game of pool and a couple more drinks at a local bar brought the evening/early morning to a close.
I was in the lounge doing some work when I looked up to see a bloke hanging around on a rope cleaning the windows. I went out onto the balcony to have a closer look. This building is 48 storeys and the lounge is on the 20th floor. Duncan looked very comfortable hanging in his harness, suspended on a rope with another there, I presume, as a back up. He had been in NZ during the last Rugby World Cup and worked there teaching rock climbing.
Later in the morning I met Des and Kerri and they drove me around a few of the local places. Chinatown is a very tidy part of town as is the Gastown district with its steam clock. Hastings Street however is not quite what I was expecting. It’s like they have got every bad bugger in Canada and confined them to one street. Des explained how the street is just seething with crime, every illicit drug is available, local properties are constantly burgled to obtain items to sell to buy drugs, there are fights, stabbings and more. Apparently the city does its best to try and house, help and rehabilitate these people with little success and for some reason they all seem to congregate in this area.
We checked out the stream clock, the first of its kind in the world, installed apparently over a steam vent to stop the homeless congregating there to keep warm. At a cost of 42k it blows steam every 45 minutes and keeps people amused with a series of balls being carried up and down inside.
We then enjoyed a nice lunch at a local Japanese restaurant, after which Des and Kerri dropped me back at the hotel. I again took a bike and headed off for a ride around Stanley Park. This is a pretty area with good bike and walking paths and lots of green spaces. On the southern and eastern sides there are some beaches, all with logs laid out for seating and back rests. I presume they have been fished from the sea having escaped on the way to the saw mill. The bike trail back off the island lead me past a stadium and the World of Science, through Chinatown, across Hastings street and past the steam clock.
Around 5.30 Dayne (an ERT chap I also met in Texas last year) picked me up in his work SUV. The doormen did a bit of a double take as this tall, fully tooled up bloke dismounted and shook my hand before we jumped in the big black machine and headed off.
We cruised down Hastings St, where several cop cars were parked, lights flashing, as the cops were sorting out a bit of trouble. Several people lay cuffed, face down on the footpath, a few others in the process of being restrained while calling the cops not very nice names. We watched for a while, Dayne not wanting to get involved in case something serious went down somewhere else. From there we headed over to their HQ and took a look at their new armoured truck and had a look around their muster room and kit lockers. We had a good chat about various tools of their trade and then headed across town to the shooting range and training complex. Here all 1200 Vancouver police do both their shooting and situation-type training. In addition to the 25 and 50M shooting ranges there are rooms that can be set up with various sonorous sim (like a paint ball round) ammunition can be used to ensure police get it right in a real situation. There is also a large matted room where police are taught the art of restraining people. A lot of judo techniques are being brought into play here to try and restrain people without injuring them.
In the car park Dayne opened up the back of his truck to show me through the kit they carry, which, to name a bit, included stun grenades, runner and tear gas bullets, little mobile cameras to throw on buildings to see what is going on, a sniper rifle and night vision gear. Unfortunately nowadays there is a strong likelihood that some really bad bastards will show up in town so Vancouver, like many cities worldwide, has to have some real good bastards with the best kit to keep the rest of us safe.
As we left there Dayne got a call out – a guy was barricaded in a 6 floor apartment with a samurai sword threatening to kill people. He dropped me back at the hotel and went to help deal with the stand-off that lasted five hours.
It’s cruise ship season here just now and there always seemed to be three in port and at least one in the bay leaving or coming. Some of these ships look more like a set of apartments, with each upper deck cabin having its own little balcony. After watching one of these leave the harbour I headed to the station and caught the train to the airport.
Arriving in Chicago late afternoon I caught the train towards the city, alighting at Damen a few kms north west of down town. Sylvia and her crew are staying in this wedge-shaped hotel, I think once a commercial building. On the roof is a bar; the sky is really clear this evening making for some great views over the city.
Sylvia and a team of senior managers from Mars are here working with a charity organisation called CARA who specialise in getting ex drug addicts homeless and other disadvantaged people back into the workforce, with a real focus on inclusive employment. The charity has been around for 27 years.
After a leisurely breakfast I took a slow stroll into the city. I was surprised how little traffic there was as I headed down Milwaukee Ave.
I have been here a couple of times before and have looked at the museum, the Wells tower and done the ‘must do’ Architectural River Tour, where they explain how they reverse engineered the river to get it to run out of the lake to take the pollution down to the Mississippi River, and how over 100 years ago they jacked up all the buildings to raise the city. There are even more lift up bridges here than there are roads. The river splits, running north and south a few ks from the lake.
This time I booked to do the Gangasters and Ghosts Walking tour. As I made my way through the streets crossing the river, amazed at the number of bridges – all of which lift up to let yachts and ships through, including the odd spare one permanently stuck up in the air as if waiting for a new road road reach it. Arriving a little early at 75 Upper Wacker Drive I headed into the Land and Lake Cafe for a bite to eat. There I had a good bit of banter with Roberta, the waitress as I explained how what they call cream is really closer to what we call milk as that’s sort of how you get it from the cow.
Eventually finding Stefan, the charming, well-rehearsed walking guide a few doors down the road, we headed off on our tour joined by an Aussi bloke and a couple of women from Florida.
The first stop was to point out the building where Al Capone had his Stratosphere Club on the top floor. Interestingly the building housed mainly diamond traders who were consistently robbed on their way to and from work. To alleviate this problem a car elevator was installed, the first of its kind in the world, so the traders could drive in off lower Wacker drive and take car and all up to their office.
Next are the towers where interestingly, in the one on the right, over 1000 people have died through suuicide or murder by backing their cars over the edge of the car park. These were the first buildings in the world using a tower crane to build them. Apparently when they were digging the foundations on the right one they found human bones, maybe from an old Indian burial site and just carried on building. The building on the left has had only one suicide since they were completed in the 60’s hence the rent is cheaper in the right one.
The ship Eastland was berthed in the river and looked a bit top heavy as upper cabins, and then, following the Titanic sinking extra life boats added. One night during a fireworks display all the people on board rushed to the riverside to watch and it tipped over, killing over 800 people.
Next was the great fire. Apparently people jumped into the river to escape the flames. The river was so polluted with fat from the meat works that it caught fire around 300 people died. Not far from there is Death Alley, next to what was once the Iroquois Theatre, which was packed to over capacity, with people seated on the floor and exit doors that opened inwards, when a kerosene lamp set fire to the curtains and over 600 people died. The alley was curtained off and the charred remains laid out there.
The tour continued explaining various places where Capone had had people walked, particularly under the train lines while a train was passing to hide the noise. The above ground train lines were built in the late 1800s as too many people were being run over by trains. Interestingly they are the only lines I have seen where the electric rail is fully exposed.
As the city has been raised there is a huge amount of disused basement space, which is where many of the illegal bars were set up during the probation era. We stopped at the Palmer House Hilton, built in the early 1900’s with ornate ceilings and surroundings. Here was where many of the jazz musicians, brought up from the south by Capone, stayed.
We then wandered across to the Congress Hotel, where not only did Capone have a penthouse, but a mass murderer also picked up a lot of his victims from here.
By this stage my bloody nuisance ankle was starting to swell again so I took the train back to the hotel where we spent a quiet evening.