Friday, July 3, 2009

home and native land: wreck beach

I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much of my Canada Day in Vancouver. I come from Ottawa, that sleepy town that roars awake only twice a year: St. Patrick’s Day and Canada Day. The streets downtown are closed off from cars so young (drunk) people can fill up the streets with raucous lively partying. There are street performers and vendors everywhere. You wake up at 8AM with a breakfast beer and keep ploughing right through the day. You fight the 8PM hangover; you calm down a random friend freaking out from the fireworks because they took too many drugs; you lose your boyfriend in the crowd and figure you’ll catch up with him at the next party. You sit on the Hill with contraband booze and sing along to blue rodeo even though you hate blue rodeo. You find yourself in the supply closet of a hotel with your high school friends, and none of you can explain how you got there. YOU DO NOT RELIEVE YOURSELF ON THE WAR MEMORIAL.

Anyway, my roommate had warned me that Canada Day is not quite that wild here in Vancouver, so I thought maybe I was going to take it easy. Maybe go to the beach, see an evening show. As it turned out, the girl that is couchsurfing at our place was going to Wreck Beach with her friends for the day, so I invited myself along.

When I was seventeen years old, setting off to explore Vancouver by myself, my father warned me to avoid Wreck Beach, so of course I have been curious about the place ever since. I didn’t quite know what to expect. Certainly it was a trek just getting there; you have to commute all the way to the UBC campus, and then hike on foot through the forest down the bluffs for a while until the thick rainforest suddenly opens up wide to an ocean, beach, and a lot of naked men.

Wreck Beach, according to Wikipedia, is one of the largest, most popular nudist beaches in North America. It is the Vancouver that everyone thinks of when they think of Vancouver aka “Vansterdam”, land of the hippies. A naked old man that introduced himself to me as “I’m not gay, but I am European” told me that Vancouver is a big la-la land where everyone is on drugs and lives in their own world. Well, I spend enough time in the business district downtown and in Kitsilano to know that’s not quite true, but someone living at Wreck Beach could certainly get that impression.

do you remember the San Franscisco beach party scene in the Princess Diaries? A bunch of young people hanging out with their friends, shooting the breeze, carrying boards under their arms, playing guitars, looking cool? yeah, it's a bit like that, only everyone is naked.

Besides the scores of naked people of all ages comfortably hanging out, there is the open air black market that is quite characteristic of Wreck Beach. This ranges from pot cookies to scarves to beach-mixed margaritas to contraband American cigarettes.

I sat myself down right by a rainbow umbrella where a muslim woman wearing a hijab was tanning her bare bottom. I introduced myself to my couchsurfer’s friends, naked young guys playing guitars and a game of Go. I declined the chocolate covered mushrooms offered to me by a nice man wearing nothing but a backpack, finding that Wreck Beach was enough of a hallucination without psychotic drugs. But I did buy myself a yummy veggie hot dog from a brave man that was barbecuing naked.

The waves were fierce that day, so I didn’t wade in the water past my ankles. I was pretty content to lie in the sun, with the rare chance to tan parts of my body that don’t normally see sun.

Someone gave some kind of a signal, and suddenly everyone was rustling. Cops. They come around every once in a while for random raids. Everyone was hiding their drugs and booze, so I hid my bottle of ginger ale in my purse, only to remember that it’s not actually illegal to drink ginger ale in public.

after the cops left, looking awkwardly overdressed in their full uniforms, the party picked up again. Down the way, some folks had lugged along to the beach a full drum set, amps and guitars, and were started up a rousing chorus of Bachman Turner Overdrive, with crowds gathering around and singing along. Little kids ran around in the buff squealing. Our friends set off in inflatable rafts into the waters, led by Conrad, who had painted his face like a tiger, determined to make it down to Jericho Beach. The not-gay European man was right: this was a bizarre la la land, a land that normal social conventions forgot. but everyone was just having a good time.