I Love Victoria

Victoria, Vancouver Island

I love Victoria. No – I really love Victoria.

This fantastic city is located on Vancouver Island, which is roughly the same size as The Netherlands. Victoria is also the state capital of British Colombia.

My original route plan didn’t include a visit to this city and island. However I decided to take a trip over for a few days following numerous recommendations from both people back home and Canadians alike. And what a great recommendation it turned out. To get there a 90-minute ferry ride from Vancouver plus a 25-minute drive from the port is required.

I arrived into the Victoria on a late Sunday afternoon and knew immediately I’d like the place. There was still a vide on the street amongst its shoppers, diners and revellers. As for the buildings, for the most part they consisted of nice well maintained low rise structures but the most impressive is the state parliament and the Empress Hotel. Both stunning buildings and designed by the same English architect. Their presence is all the more impressive as they are spaciously laid out with large gardens that are not overlooked by glass towers and sit in front of the river. The river is home to a small marina and also an amphibious airport. It’s interesting to see a plane albeit a small one land next to a city’s main street.

During the first few days I did a couple of local tours including one of the parliament building, which was pretty good. An Irish lad (Dave) from Kildare was also on the tour and we had a few pints over a couple of nights in the Irish Times. While becoming familiar with the city I did notice one negative which applies to Canada in general. Like Vancouver, Victoria has a shocking number of beggars on the street.

In fact, the level of street begging in Canada is the worst I’ve seen in all of my travels. Thankfully I didn’t see any child beggars. I’d first noticed the issue in Montreal and Toronto but the problem gets much worse on the east coast as the less fortunate naturally avoid the terrible winters experienced in other parts of the country. Not that I’m unsympathetic to their plight as many have addiction and or mental health problems. I gave regularly during the earlier parts of the trip and then less frequently. Then only to people who looked desperate. Strangely quite a few don’t have the familiar tatty and vagabond look of homelessness.

Initally as some approached, I thought they’d ask the time of day or pass a comment on the motorbike. Of course by then it’s too late as eye contact has been made so you have to take an extra step to say no. On the east coast this happens on every third or fourth corner and not just by one person, which just becomes annoying and of course they hang out near tourist spots and on the main streets. But worse. It ends up changing your personality as it made me harder.

Not only did I stop giving money but began to criticise some. Like the mid 30’s hippy who was able to keep three large dogs were all four didn’t have the look of hunger about them. Or the old witch who I told to f*** off as she was getting nasty, the offence being a dollar donation when she asked for three. Then you feel sucker punched when you ignore someone who asks for only 25 cents or the old timer who was a couple of dollars short for his seniors diapers. Naturally I turned back and gave it to him but I really didn’t need to hear that but do feel better for sharing. In the end, Canada is a bloody rich country and should do more to help their citizens and save their visitors from being besieged.

On a more positive note I did get a break when I treated myself to lunch as I wrote up a blog in the Bengal Room of the Empress Hotel. Nice place with large and deep leather chairs where you definitely get a sense of old world Regal’ ness. While there, I chatted with two gents who sat next to me. And contrary to me initial thoughts they weren’t a couple but just good friends.

Eric was a former archaeologist before retiring and his friend Jay Larrin is a famous singer songwriter and also a writer. He kindly gave me an autographed poem and I was glad he didn’t take offence when I said I didn’t know his work. Generational thing. I took Eric up on his kind offer to show me the nearby tribal sacred site, as he knew its history having worked closely with the tribes for over thirty years and he actually spoke their language. The three of us met the next day at the costal site where Eric showed me an ancient medicine wheel, explained the rituals and some of the customs undertaken. He then impressively recanted aloud a prayer in tribal tongue for a couple of minutes.

While this is not my spirituality of baptism, on a trip like this and in general I’m happy to take as many blessings and well wishes as I can get. And he was inspired to give me a chain on the suggestion of his late friend and tribal leader Grandmother Grizzly who spoke to him during the prayer were she said it would keep me safe on my travels. Afterward I dropped Jay back to his hotel and later had a veggie dinner with Eric. Who interestingly became a vegetarian over 50 years ago were the motivation came from his first job in Canada.

As an 18 year old Danish emigrant who couldn’t then speak English the only job he could get was in the city morgue dissecting bodies. The effects of poor lifestyles on the cadavers put him off both meat and alcohol. Another unexpected but very interesting chance meeting and nice not to meet people in a bar for a change. However the following night I meet a great crew in a bar over a game of pool.

As I racked the balls, I asked the group sitting next to the table if they’d like to play. One of the girls immediately accepted the challenge. A petit girl who I thought I’d have to play softly against; given the female of the species aren’t widely known for their skill at the game. Lord I was wrong. As Daisy confidently sunk four balls from the break I knew where the challenge lay. While eating imaginary humble pie, I lined up my shot with precision and mounted the comeback. It was a fast game where Daisy cleared the table while I held my own finishing with a respectable single ball on the table. Obviously I didn’t ask for another game but I did join her, Kat and Brandon for drinks that night and over the course of the next few nights.

Literally a great crew as they all worked in Canada’s Navy, which has its east coast base in Victoria. One afternoon I went out for a motorbike ride with Daisy who’d just bought a new CBR125, jogging with Brandon and I gave Kat her first motorbike ride. Unfortunately the tour of their 40 person frigate didn’t work out but they kindly invited me to their ship’s end of summer BBQ. My own summer BBQ’s are always good affairs but this blew mine out of the water!

When I saw the full pig on the spit, two kegs, five bottle of vodka etc I knew it was going to be a huge night. The food was outrageously tasty and particularly the pork as naturally the animal had been infused with applesauce. In truth, the decadency of eating from an entire pig probably added to the flavour. A few days later I got to cook for a few of the crew; one of whom included the ship’s chef. Who kindly said he’d serve up some of my dishes on the ship. After the BBQ the crazy drinking games started.

It reminded me of Freshers week in University, rugby tour behaviour or more recently various mates stag/bachelor parties. The games included flip a cup which my team won, drinking upside down from a keg, which I didn’t enter. Amazingly this event was apparently one of their tamer sessions. Nonetheless I did the Irish stereotype proud. Moreover as I headed back into the city with Brandon and Kat I thought what a great night funded by the Canadian government, which just about compensated me for the expensive parking tickets!

As we passed a well known hotel chain Brandon had the crazy idea of using the hotel’s hot tub. Before I knew it he and Kat scaled the mid height fence, clothes (only) off and dropped into the external section of the swimming pool, ducked under the divide entering the hotel and waved from the tub. I wasn’t going to be left behind by a pair of 25 year olds so naturally I followed. What a warm and relaxing 25 five minutes in the tub. Even nicer of the hotel to leave super soft and large towels nearby. What a great few days with this group of new friends which all started with a simple invitation to play a game of pool.

This is a much easier way of meeting people than going to karaoke night. And, I also have a decent chance of winning or a least holding my own. That’s not to say I’ve forgotten my earlier undertaken. I did go to Soprano’s on Karaoke night. However this time I didn’t join in as I knew I would be on the losing side. The winning prize of CAD250 seemed to have drawn Pop Idol wannabes. The kind who’d make it far in the contest. I stayed for a while as it was a good show. Despite having being humbled here and at pool I was still pleased that I visited this great city and got to meet some super people.

I left Canada for Seattle on the ferry from Victoria to the US port of St Angeles. As I did so, I knew I could easily preserve the cold winters where I’d be happy to live in this great country. And who knows, perhaps even do some voluntary work for the homeless.

Al Dempsey

10 November 2010