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AWReunion Vancouver Part 1

Canada, our quiet neighbor to the north. If we consider England our dodgy and eccentric parent with a dry sense of humor, and we think of Australia as our crazy but endearing cousin on the other side of the globe, then Canada is in every respect our more subdued but talented sibling. Their history stretches as far back as America's and they've gone through a lot of the same triumphs and growing pains that we have. Their all-encompassing mind-set is to live with diversity in peace. Canada is less a melting pot and more of a hearty stew, where you can see all the different ingredients that make it up but it's all the better for each of those different types. And all this is laid out against a breathtaking backdrop of mountains, rivers, and grasslands that Canadians try greatly to live in balance with instead of conquer. It's a land and people you can easily fall in love with, not in the romantic way people fall in love with Paris, but the kind you feel eternally at ease with, the kind that makes you wish for the next "family" reunion.

Yes, waxing poetic. This trip brought that out in me. It was my first trip to Canada. I wasn't prepared. You try to prepare. You think you know what you are going into. You think you've done the research and you figure it's a lot like America, but in the end, it's alike and different at once, just like siblings often are. I ended up surprised, sometimes lost, laughing and delighted, and for my first culture shock it was a pleasant way to go.


Day 1, Thursday, August 6, 2009

But my journey starts in Seattle at the end of a 5 1/2 hour plane trip that was plagued by turbulence and restless passengers. My first sign that we were almost there: mountains above the vast cloudbank that had been our terrain for the last hour. I come from Pennsylvania. We have mountains. Ours were dwarfed in that moment. Mountains that even the clouds could not contain. And one stood out. It dominated above them all. I haven't figured out if it was Glacier Peak or Mount Rainier but it didn't matter; my jaw would have dropped for either and I scrambled for my camera as the plane steered away from it. My Kodak moment blurred into a memory.

We dipped below the cloudbank as we neared Seattle the city. Any of you that watch Grey's Anatomy get peppered with endless shots of the city by sea, by day, by light-betwinkled night. It really does look like that. All the cranes on the ocean front. The buildings and the Space Needle. A living, breathing city... or almost. Seattle, like Vancouver, is known for its incessant rain. But the same weather issues that have been plaguing the globe, and even more closely, California, have taken their toll on Washington as well. The grass was brown everywhere. People's yards, the patches between roads, all of it, brown, dotted here and there with a green tree. It was like looking down at Denver, Colorado, but feeling it was somehow out of place.

AWReunion Vancouver
Me trying to take a picture while the plane lands. Anything green is a bush or tree. Drought conditions in Seattle.

I got in around noon and the rest of the posse was going to be coming in between there and 4:00PM. Bored you say? Life doesn't allow for bored. Find a bathroom. Check. Avoid the bustle of baggage pickup because your luggage is one of only 3 left on the carousel? Awesome! Text message your posse that you've arrived and text message everyone you know that your plane missed hitting anything and you made it safe. Check. Pick up rental car. Apparently here is where we had to get interesting. I'm one of two people in the world that have had an issue with a credit check, and by issue I mean our records refused to be accessed or found. We don't exist. If you are that other person, I'd like to meet you. We probably share the same affinity of being invisible to the scanners that open doors at grocery stores. Maybe we can combine our superpowers. In the end, they went around the system and accepted my card anyway (money is money after all) and I was now the proud owner of a silver Mazda6 from Tennessee. Phone rings. SW Chris letting me know that he and Ferruccio made it in. I tell them to brush up on their southern accents for the border police.

AWReunion Vancouver
Our sweet ride.

We still had to wait for SW Comit's flight to come in. In that time I researched the sites in Seattle. There was the possibility that Tauntaun was going to drive up from Oregon for the day to meet us and having a few choices ready to make the most of the time would be prudent. Space Needle was out; almost $20 just to go up to the top, unless you went to the restaurant to eat where an appetizer alone could equal the price of admission. Apparently Three Sisters Bakery has some of the best sandwiches and baked goods in town, so that went on the tentative schedule for eating. And in my search I came up with a number of fun things to do. For instance, the Underground Tour. Like all great cities of the past, Seattle had a Great Fire in 1889. What wasn't destroyed by fire was not demolished but simply built over. There is a whole section of the old downtown that exists submerged under the Seattle of today and that's what you go down and breathe in on this tour. No fear for you history-phobics, this tour promises a healthy helping of humor with your history to make it well worth your while.

If that wasn't enough to make Seattle fun, there was the Experience Music Project Science Fiction Museum. Long name, but in a nutshell it's a museum that dedicates itself to the appreciation of popular music and the ideas and experiences of science fiction. At this particular time they had 3 main exhibits: one for Jimi Hendrix, one for Michael Jackson, and one on the works of Jim Henson, creator of all the lovable characters from Sesame Street, Muppets, and movies like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Best of all, the admission was free on Thursdays between 5:00 and 8:00PM.

Darn, at the rate I was finding cool places to visit we'd be here all week! As fate would have it though, Tauntaun had unexpected company come in and when SW Comit arrived at the airport the posse was eager to get underway for our hotel in Vancouver. This would end up being a very wise decision.

AWReunion Vancouver
Leaving Seattle.

We got underway around 4:00, carefully weaving our way out of the parking garage around minivans driving on the wrong side of the road. The traffic did not thin or pick up speed until we neared the Canadian border, but it gave us time to relate our experiences from the hectic week of preparation, coordinate the schedule for the days ahead, snap pictures of scenery and buildings we'd love to recreate [in AW] and to generally chitchat about Active Worlds and life inside it.

We were chatting obliviously and then, boom - there it was, my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. In Active Worlds, you get a much better view of something when you are flying or on an elevated piece of terrain. This was elevated terrain (mountains after all, Gandalf) overlooking a vast expanse of water with the western evening sun gleaming over its peaceful surface. And it suddenly all felt like magic. We were in for a wonderful trip, I thought to myself.

The border between the United States and Canada. It reminded me of the entrance to Disney World. You had numerous stalls, cars waiting in each aisle, groomed gardens and monuments, all peaceful and nowhere near as crowded as I had expected. In fact, from there on we had smooth sailing. Our border patrolman collected our passports and asked us where we were from and the nature of our visit. You could see his interest pique when we mentioned we were from three different states and that we were doing a yearly get-together reunion, and this year Vancouver was our destination. "How did all of you meet?" I think inside he was chuckling when we answered, "In an online virtual 3D program called Active Worlds," though he never once smiled on the outside.

There was a round of other random questions, partially to verify that we were what we appeared to be and partially I think to satisfy his curiosity. The question of "Do you have any firearms in the car?" always gets me. Please tell me I'm not the only one that isn't tempted to reply, "Well there are the grenades in the glove compartment and the rocket launcher in the trunk. But other than that…" You never say it aloud of course unless you want to spend some time having a full body search or visiting a holding cell, and that would end the vacation fun pretty quick.

We passed inspection and traveled on, through mountains and farmland, occasionally catching glimpses of the ocean as evening drew on. SW Chris had been the trusty navigator on this trip. Being the navigator is an important job and he handled it with finesse. Night fell as we caught a glimpse of the neon lights on our hotel.

Check-in was uneventful and it turned out the guys' room was on the same floor and separated by only one room from mine. A bellboy walked my bags up and opened my room for me. I tipped him and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized my error: I had given him his tip in American money. Not in Kansas anymore Dorothy, have to remember that. The guys' room was just the slightest bit smaller so I offered to swap. Three guys can use all the room they can get.

Up at dawn, only one meal the entire day (and 4 miniature cookies, complimentary of the airlines), 5+ hours of flying and about 4 hours driving made for quite enough in one day, but I still had plans. I wanted to scope out the neighborhood and see what was in the area. I also wanted to find a debit machine (Canadian money!) and a place to commandeer some drinks. The guys were interested and our posse wandered out. We started our learning experience immediately. Green street lights blink in Canada. Why? Never did figure that one out. And when the pedestrian walk sign lights up, speakers also play birdcalls to alert blind people (or people like me that aren't paying attention). Canada is very big on making everything handicap accessible.

Here we were wandering around at 10:00 at night and the prospect of anything being open anymore was slim. Spotting a man taking a break near his bike, I inquired about finding a place to get some juices and sodas. He pointed around me at a store nearby that apparently stays open until midnight and we gleefully raided the place gathering up goodies, trying out our debit and credit cards to see which ones would work in Canada. Treasures in hand, we decided to go back to the hotel.

We got back to the hotel to find the club inside hopping with music, but the only thing that looked interesting to me at that point was a bed. Exhaustion was catching up. It was almost 11:30PM Vancouver time, which translates to 2:30AM my home time. I was becoming extremely incoherent. I said my goodnights to the guys and we talked about meeting up at around 9:00AM. One of the last things I did before going to bed was look out my hotel window with the room lights off. From there on the sixth floor I looked out into a little piece of the surrounding neighborhood, a few late-nighters walking to the club downstairs and a random person walking their dog and then I let my eyes travel outward. Out beyond all the lights of the city you could see the outline of dark mountains, some with a trail of lights gliding down on what I assume was a ski slope. In between me and the mountains was a ship waiting in the harbor. Vancouver was going to be just awesome, I felt it.


Day 2, Friday, August 7, 2009

I was up at 4:30AM... and every half hour thereafter until 7:30. I went to bed late, but my internal clock insisted on keeping to the old time schedule. What a way to start vacation! After battling for a few hours I got up and took a hot shower to get myself going. Dressed and groomed, I snuck over to the guys and listened at the door for a moment. Not a peep inside. They must be sleeping yet. No worries, let's explore the hotel! I wanted to find the pool first. I knew it was on the roof but discovered this "roof" was not on the seventh floor but on the second.

I rode up and down the elevator. I ended up on every floor and discovered which ones had ice machines, which ones had sodas, and which one had snacks. But the elevator refused to take me to the second floor. What the whooie. "Fine," I figured, "I'll use the stairs." But the stairs had only one exit on the second floor and that was to the rooms. The pool remained elusive. It turned out that the opposing elevator, which would not open for me initially, was the only way to get to the pool. I finally made it to the hidden wonder and snapped some pictures just as my cell phone rang. The guys were awake. Time to meet up! Yes, it's amazing how consumed I get in such simple things. What can I say, I like a challenge.

Since it was just the four of us, we could be a little flexible with how we spent our day. We were going to meet up with Baro and his wife Lena some time in the early afternoon, so that gave us time to catch some breakfast and explore the city. First up, we bought a day pass for the public transportation. A few minutes later the bus pulls up to the stop and we hop on. Now mind you, we've done buses before. Bus drivers are crazy drivers, period. Probably the safest drivers out there, but crazy to be riding with. You grab a pole or a ceiling loop or a seat as fast as you can and hang on for dear life. We were zipping along, making abrupt stops here and there. Chris, our trusty navigator (I swear, how does he store this stuff in his head?) let us know where we needed to get off, and from there we caught the skytrain into downtown Vancouver. In no time we were wandering around the skyscrapers of the city.

When I visited Chicago I saw tons of skyscrapers of all different shapes and ages. But Vancouver had a very different flavor. Any time they build something in Vancouver it's like they plan out exactly how it's going to meld into its surroundings. If there is an older building, they don't just demolish it and start over, not if the building is in good condition. It just gets a facelift and maybe a brand new fancy hat to wear on top. In Vancouver, they like to share their building plans with all. You don’t have to wonder or guess what is going up, no, they make this huge banner that drapes over the side of the work-in-progress that shows you exactly what the finished product is going to be and what it will be for. What a novel idea.

And you can be walking along, taking in the sights when all of a sudden, there will be an opening to a beautifully manicured English garden that you are convinced is a private area here in the middle of the city, but no, it's public. Canadians love nature. Almost every apartment had a balcony overflowing with plant life, trees growing on the top of skyscrapers. They even punch out huge holes in the ceiling of their underground parking garages and plant trees and exotic scrubs to grow up out through the holes. I think I love these people.

It was just in one of these garden areas that we stumbled onto our breakfast spot. You grab a tray, just like in school, and proceed to pick out what you want along the way. Food was first rate for a fair price. It was nice to sit down and eat a meal for a change, and we poured over some of the free maps we managed to track down at the skytrain station. We spotted the art museum, where we were due to meet Baro.

Before heading out for that destination though, we took a look around the building we had lunch in. On the entrance wall of the lobby hung several large chunks of what originally looked to be a huge glass and copper device, all covered in a language I could not make out. The small plaque below it described where the intricate artifact had been dug up and what they believed it might have been. Canada has a sense of whimsy. It was all made up. It was a beautiful piece of art and the story just added to the contemplation that all good art should inspire. My bet? It was washed ashore when Atlantis was destroyed.

AWReunion Vancouver
An intriguing piece of art with a backstory to make you think.

From there we decided to track down the art museum. We passed buildings that looked like they might take off into the sky at any moment and some that looked like they were straight out of merry old England. And then the street opened out into a large plaza with fountains, giant lions in repose, and a large sign with a digital clock counting down the days and hours until the winter Olympics came to Vancouver. People everywhere: young boys doing bicycle tricks, tourists getting their picture taken, students scattered over the stairs discussing various topics, business people grabbing bites to eat as they walked by chatting on their cell phones, and artists plying their trade or musicians strumming their guitars while those watching tossed “loonies” (Canadian one-dollar coins) into waiting hats. The city just invited people to congregate and have fun.

AWReunion Vancouver
This is a "loonie" Canadian dollar piece, so named after the bird shown on it.

We walked up the stairs past the guard lions (someone had scrawled the names "Mufasa" and "Scar" onto the podiums below them) to find that the doors at the top were not used as entrances. What we thought was the front of the building was actually the back. Wandering around to the other side we found two more sets of stairs with two more sets of doors. "Meet Baro on the stairs of the Art Museum." Yeah. Right. I hope someone knows what he looks like because these stairs run around the whole building. The guys began snapping some photos of textures and whatnot while I wandered to a station set up to direct people around the city in anticipation of the crowds that would be arriving during the Olympics. There was one thing I wanted to see: The Sri Lankan Gem Museum. I tracked down the address from the help station. Apparently it wasn't too far from where we were, which was a good thing, but I'd save that trip for another day.

Just about then Baro and Lena came across the plaza. It's always a shock to see people for the first time. You meet them in Active Worlds and they start out as a name. Then you get to know them and your mind automatically tries to put an image with their emerging personality. My mind is creative; whatever it envisions is usually nothing like the actual person. So it always ends up as a shock for me when I see them in real life. I have to attach a new image to the name I already know, and sometimes I have to try to attach a new name too. I'm old. It's just too much for my brain. You get stuck with the AW name. The thing that never changes is the coolness of meeting people in RL. It's the difference between watching a video of something and actually being there, the real thing is always more astounding.

AWReunion VancouverSomewhere in the midst of introductions it was decided that we'd go to the top of The Lookout to get a great overview of the city. Baro and SW Chris in the lead, we took off down the avenues, babbling excitedly with new people in our midst. Let's face it, there are a million things to learn about people in the short time you are there, don't waste it! Babble excitedly! I admit I'm pretty much at home around guys. I work around them all the time. Some of my best friends are guys. And at the reunion I was completely surrounded by them. But there is something to be said for having another female to relate to, and Lena was wonderful to pal around with. I learned about her homeland in Russia and how Baro and her had come to meet. I know what you're thinking: online relationships are crazy. Seriously, the account of how they met was enough to make you believe in all the romantic fairy tales ever told and the tooth fairy to boot. Together, they are a harmonious team.

At that point, you could have walked me all around the entire city and I'd never have noticed, I was so absorbed in learning about our new friends. That's why it didn't seem very long before we were at the base of The Lookout. I whipped out a coupon that discounted our tickets and then we loaded into the elevator. You know how people automatically face the doors when riding in an elevator? This elevator had a surprise, because as we zoomed (and yes, I mean zoooomed) upward it instantly went from the doors we came through to window. Yes, those elevators are on the outside of the building. We got to watch the whole trip upward at a zoom! For those afraid of heights, that can be daunting. I was feeling adventuresome so I gravitated closer to look out. Wheeeeee! We just kept going up and up.

The building itself is like a normal skyscraper, rectangular, but at the top is what can best be described as a giant old-style spaceship straight out of the 1950s. Up there, it's possible to walk around and get a 360-degree view of the entire area and SW Chris took the pictures to prove it! We could watch the water planes full of tourists taking off and landing in the bay. And the mountains beckoned even closer to the north. Baro pointed out various landmarks and gave us some cool history about Vancouver and the features in it.

AWReunion Vancouver
360 of Vancouver from Lookout. Click for a larger view.

At some point, I found myself separated from the group and a couple next to me started up a conversation. The wife was explaining how they were leaving tomorrow on a 7-day cruise up to Alaska. It was her husband though that caught me off guard. He was a dead ringer for Admiral Adama from Battlestar Galactica! Inside I'm doing little flips wondering where the rest of my group is (O…MWORD, he looks just like Adama!) but outwardly I'm conversing calmly with the two. We had a pretty lively chat despite one mind bloop on my part. Part of the territory of living with my mind is hearing one thing and having my mind produce a picture of something completely different, which I then respond to. They mentioned having a timeshare. I knew what that was but my mind instantly pictured something entirely different. I enthusiastically related to them that I was on that too, though I've never had one in my life. The funny part came when they asked me what I had one for at which point I came to realize my mind's faux pas. If it were on TV, we’d be amused to see how the main character gets out of that one gracefully. Unfortunately my writers stink and I probably came across as slightly insane but harmless nonetheless. At some point we were discussing cruises (hey now that I did do!) and Adama (I had to give him a name) was telling me about how to light a drink on fire while it's in your mouth and some crazy drink that involves having all the ingredients put into your mouth and then having someone turn you bodily upside-down and shaking you. I think this is in the Caribbean or Mexico. I wish I could remember what he called those drinks. Anyway, as you can see, Adama knows how to have a good time. Eventually I had to look for my posse (great, now no one is going to believe me, argh!) and so I wished them well on their cruise and we parted.

We decided the aquarium would be a great next destination. At the time I was not aware that it was probably a 16-block trek to get from the Lookout to the aquarium in Stanley Park. Baro and Lena love walking. Apparently at home they walk everywhere. So it was with enthusiasm they set about walking to the aquarium, and we tagged along after them. It reminded me vividly of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry being followed by four traveling hobbits to explore the wonders around them. We actually got to see the city in a way we never would have whizzing by on a bus. The buildings, people out for strolls and going about their daily activities, the gardens everywhere, fountains, oh the fountains... gobs of great things to take pictures of and I was camera-less! I was silently cursing the little camera that had let me down. I never got any pictures of Baro and Lena.

Stanley Park was a neat experience. I had my first look at redwood trees. Amaaazingly tall and stately. I'm used to maples and oaks and pines, but redwoods are majestic. I just had to touch one because I swear, it could have probably told me hundreds of year's worth of history in one touch. And then, we caught our first sign of wildlife: black squirrels! I've only ever seen grey. These were pitch black. And out comes SW Comit's green laser. The squirrel was not amused. We also got to see a raccoon in one of the little plazas in the park. Now Americans, if they see wildlife like that, decide they need to feed it or try to pet it. Canadians watch from a distance to observe said creature, but they realize that it is a wild animal. It can, if it wants, rip your face off or give you a good bite on your outstretched hand. And feeding it only heightens the possibility of such an occurrence. All those people around and not a one tried to approach it. Just quietly watched. The green laser did not come out this time. Probably a good thing. Visiting the emergency room kind of puts a damper on a vacation.

AWReunion Vancouver
It only gets worse from here. Poor wildlife.

Eventually, we did make it to the aquarium. It was a hub of activity with food stands attracting patrons, artists drawing caricatures and pencil sketches of children and animals, and a swarm of parents and kids milling in and out of the aquarium or dropping coins in the cool fountain. But for us, the aquarium was not to be. SW Chris alerted us that it was getting painfully close to dinner time. I felt so torn. I was really having fun. Baro and Lena were wonderful to gallivant about the city with and half of me wanted to ditch dinner to continue this fun. It was with heavy heart that we had to take our leave of them. Baro and Lena decided to go to the aquarium anyway, and SW Chris, Comit, Ferruccio, and I headed back into Stanley Park to the nearest bus stop so we could catch our rides back.

Now it's worth noting that Canada definitely is multi-ethnic friendly. Not only do many people of several languages, nationalities, and backgrounds live there, but you will find people from all over the world visiting it too. At the bus stop, we were joined by a group of young people that I believe were visiting from somewhere on an exchange program. They were laughing happily in one language but would occasionally talk in English, and they would test each other in yet another language. Language has always fascinated me. It's melodic to hear people talk, even if I can't understand what they are saying.

Jumping on and off of several buses finally brought us back to our hotel. We had about 20 minutes to get ready before we drove out to Coquitlam for our evening dinner arrangement. By nature, I'm a slow person, so this might come as a surprise, but I was bedecked and ready in 15 minutes, and so were the guys. SW Chris, master navigator, directions in hand, hurried us out to the car and we were off! Now I think it's fair to say, I'm not a bad driver. In Canada, while the rules are generally the same, the road etiquette itself is different from the US. I come from New England, and they tend to be fairly aggressive and somewhat rude *gasp* in their manner. Canadians on the other hand seem to realize we should share the road. So I felt kind of horrible when I had to pull out in front of someone so we wouldn't get off on the wrong exit and just narrowly missed being slammed into. SW Comit and Ferruccio were in the back and didn't have a clue what was happening, but I think SW Chris thought we might die that day.

We made it to Giggledam Dinner Theatre with a little time to spare. The lights were dim inside and we were shown to the head of a table that ended up being front and center to the stage. We were no sooner seated than a bearded man in lederhosen and a huge crazy grin came up and started asking us about ourselves and explaining a little about himself. After his departure, a girl with wild, dark hair streaked with red nonchalantly came to the table followed shortly thereafter by her bobbing and chipper tall blond sister. The dark-haired girl took a decided interest in SW Comit. Both quietly informed our group that their brother, the guy in lederhosen, was "not all there".

Shortly after that the lights began to dim even further and the three siblings began milling through the crowd picking out random people. I became one of the random people. They hustled us backstage as the show began and immediately had us putting on costumes. I think you know where this is going. I became a cow. We were going to be introducing that evening's meal choices. After our little saunter on the catwalk, they thanked us backstage with a shot of... something. All I know is it felt like fire going down and when I got back to my table I could do nothing but giggle for a half hour at everything and nothing. Liquor is not one of my specialties. From there it was four hours of non-stop fun, laughter, and definite craziness. Ever watched Laugh-In? Benny Hill? It was a combination of both.

The main gist of the show was a family of circus entertainers in shows unlike any circus you've ever seen. They'd often drag members of the audience into the storylines. Yup, SW Comit became the love-intrigue of their youngest dark-haired daughter, launching a line of hilarious threats from her "father" on-stage. By evenings end, my cheeks hurt from being in a perpetual grin and I had a headache from laughing. It would be impossible to recount the entire experience here, but it was worth every penny we paid and more. If you are ever in the Vancouver area, I highly, highly recommend this show. It changes every few months, so the experience you have won't be the same one, but it will be a night you remember.

Canadians know how to have a good time. They also, I found, love entertaining Americans. If I had been nervous about being in a new country, I felt forever at home from that point on. Laughter really can bring people together. Near the end of the show, the host asked people around the room where they were from and what they were celebrating. The entire room seemed intrigued by us, the Americans. They asked what brought us all from such vastly different parts of the US. Bemusement might be the term to describe them when we answered that we had all met in a 3D environment.

After the show, we were able to meet up with the cast. It was astonishing to see the contrast between the characters they had embodied and the people they really were, right down to the phony accents. They played their parts so incredibly well! And I let them know their performances were great. They asked us how long we would be around and what we had seen. They recommended some of the things we should definitely see while we were here. Whistler Mountain was on the top of their list.

Eventually we waddled out of there, new catch phrases being tossed about from the show (the "fog" machine, pronounced "fock" with an English? accent) was one such new term Ferruccio mastered. On our drive home we were stopped by police who were searching cars... for what we never did learn. When they learned we were American they seemed uninterested in searching us and waved us through quickly. SW Chris got us home safely and we decided to call it an evening.

AWReunion Vancouver
Daddy is standing off to the left of the picture. Bridget got "up close and personal" with SW Comit.

Two days in Vancouver, and it wasn't over yet. For anyone still intrigued about what else happened, the final two days will be chronicled in next month's AWNewsletter.

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