I decided to walk east today, for about 12km, or probably a bit more because i went higgledy piggledy to try catch some highlights - Chinatown, Little Italy and every patch of green i could find on the map.
I never made it to Chinatown last time i was in Vancouver, when i was with J. I remember her saying "we must under no conditions go to Hastings and Main, it's a really dangerous part of town". But because Vancouver is tiny we accidentally did walk through there. From one block to the next there are suddenly hundreds of drug addicts camped out on the sidewalk openly injecting and mumbling and pawing. It's pretty disconcerting, although i don't think it's actually very dangerous. We made a swift exit to the left, when we should've gone right, so i missed Chinatown.
This time i made it, but a lot of shops were closed. Whether from corona or if it's just a dying Chinatown because all the Chinese moved to the suburbs, i don't know. There were a few butchers open, and tiny places with roast ducks hanging in the window. A few places selling medicinal herbs and dry goods too. It was shabby, but it had a nice local feeling.
I stopped at a Hong Kong restaurant and got a 叉燒包 pork bun. I also bought a coke for a homeless guy out the front. Pork bun is one of my "cheat dishes", for rare and special occasions when i deliberately eat meat. It has a Hong Kong memory for me, a Chinatown memory, it brings back a flavor of childhood. This was a great pork bun, much better than in Shenzhen where they suck, and just as good as any in Hong Kong.
Then i just kept walking. And walking. I didn't have anywhere to go.
I found a nicely painted warehouse.
I walked out to Commercial Drive, which is a road in suburban Vancouver that has Little Italy and also some hippie shops and whatnot. I visited last time i was here too and didn't find it super interesting, but i figured it'd be a nice place to stop for a real coffee. After drinking Tim Hortons for a week, it was awesome to get something made in an espresso machine.
A lot of cafés and restaurants have got decks out the front at the moment for social distancing. Inside they either have no tables, or the tables are 2 meters apart. (Restaurants aren't doing bubbles like bars are.) But outside? Parking spaces along the road have been removed, and some streets have been shut down completely so the restaurants can put tables instead. It's a nice vibe and something that i dearly hope continues after coronavirus is gone. The city should be for people, not for cars. Always.
After my coffee i kept walking, and i realized i had a problem. I should've peed at the coffee shop. I had walked into the burbs, and there were no more shops around. Definitely no public toilets. I held it in as i marched to a park with a lake in it, where families were making the most of the weekend - lazing on blankets, dancing and barbecuing. I got in line for the toilet block. It was especially conspicuous because everyone was lined up 2 meters apart. I was out in the middle of the park hopping from one foot to the other like a child.
I have been talking to a friend, N, who is someone i met in a nightclub in Berlin. We met up once or twice, which is very rare for me. He left Berlin around the same time that i did, but while i went to China to work, he did the hippie trail, bummed around India and Nepal and spent time working on farms and doing meditation retreats and shit like that.
Last year N's backpacking took him to Canada, where he's paused due to corona. He bought a van to roam around in, so he has been giving me hot tips about all the hippie-friendly small towns and advice about where to try find accommodation. Everyone here is struggling to find a place to stay, it's so expensive. He also relayed his sad story of being here during the initial lockdown when the government closed all the public toilets. He said he went to Walmart and bought a camping toilet to keep in his van for emergencies. He also said in the smaller towns Walmart lets you boondock in their parking lots.
Anyway, i thought about N while i was sitting in the public toilet, and pondered if i'd really want to run to a public toilet first thing in the morning to pee. I don't mind public toilets when i'm out and about, but i don't like the idea of having to depend on them 24/7, because they're not always open and not always nearby.
And, as i continued to walk east, i realized... there is fucking nothing nearby.
That's when i had the anxiety attack.
Stuck out there, in the middle of a fucking wasteland, no services for miles around. I mean, there were houses. Miles and miles and miles of houses. And nothing else. No public toilets. No shops. No restaurants. No bars. No pedestrians. No nothing. Just single-storey houses with cars out the front. Half the roads didn't even have a sidewalk. And it just continued on that way, endlessly, in every direction.
I wanted to throw up, i was so freaked out. This is it. This is the culture shock. This is the hideous, terrible car culture that i have managed to stay away from for years. I felt trapped, oppressed, completely powerless. I frantically checked my map app to see if there were any shops nearby i could walk to, but there was nothing. Like, literally. Fucking. Nothing. An absolute desolate wasteland of residential housing. God, why would anybody ever want to live out there? I think i would kill myself.
I wanted to kill myself just walking through it.
I wouldn't even have to find a way, i was just walking, and i was already dying. Suffocating. I couldn't breathe. Each step brought me nearer to my doom.
I found a main road, but all that was on it was car dealerships. They were all closed. Internal combustion vehicles zoomed past. I was choking on exhaust fumes. Sunburnt. Alone. For sure i would die.
Finally, i saw a sign pointing to an oasis. A microbrewery, smack bang in the middle of the wasteland. I breathed. I didn't particularly want a beer, but i was parched for culture. I needed to see a tiny sliver of civilization again - any kind of civilization - so i went inside and ordered a sour. They were playing house music, which made me feel better.
After the beer i had calmed down a bit, so i made a beeline for a stretch of road where the map said there were some restaurants. Hardly anything on the strip was open. Sunday evening, Burnaby suburbs. This wasn't a hopping main street with a bustling community or people sitting out on the deck. This was a utilitarian stretch of take-out joints. Most depressingly, the prices were exactly the same as in downtown Vancouver.
I was dismayed, but then i remembered that this is exactly what huge swathes of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America are like. Miles upon miles of residential wasteland, with sad little strips of dying businesses peppered in between. People don't even care because they just drive a triangle from their house to their office to the mall and back. It's horrifying.
I decided i needed comfort food, so i sat down at the Chinese restaurant. It was a real old-fashioned Canadian Chinese place. Round tables, 山水 mountain/lake watercolor paintings, they bring a private pot of tea when you sit down, a fortune cookie when you leave, the works. The menu had all the "classics" like sweet'n'sour pork, lemon chicken, beef and broccoli etc. I ordered 紅燒豆腐 which means red braised tofu, but the English name they used was "bean curd with Chinese mushroom and vegetable".
It turned out to be tofu, shiitake, bok choy and carrot cooked in that mystery gravy that pretty much all American/Canadian Chinese food is cooked in. No spring onions or chilis, but hey, this is BC, not Hunan province. It hit the spot for that home style Cantonese restaurant feeling.
Cantonese for breakfast and Cantonese for dinner. 好好食呀！The laoban was talking to her husband in Cantonese, and that made me happy. Even here in Canada, i can still find something like a plastic stool restaurant, sort of an equivalent for Canadian tastes. Of course i had to pay for rice, and tip, but still.
Then i took the bus all the way back to the city.
This was it, you know, the day i panicked when faced with the reality of what life is like outside of the urban neighborhoods. I am planning to head out to a smaller town on Tuesday after i have my credit card, and no doubt that will be even worse. Or perhaps it won't be so bad, since smaller towns you walk for 12km you're in the countryside.
I dunno, maybe not. I am scared now. Scared of the suburbs, scared of the food deserts, scared of these wastelands where you're technically surrounded by people but there's actually nothing there.
I need to go into it with my head screwed on. Prep better. It's terrifying out there.