“Good morning,” said the public bus driver.
I replied in kind, wondering what I had done to deserve the salutation.
“Thank you,” he added as I deposited my fare.
A little different from non-existent greetings on New York City buses, I thought as I took a seat. Without exception, the driver welcomed every rider the same way during the 30-minute trip from my hotel to the University of British Columbia.
By the time I disembarked, with the driver offering a sincere “Enjoy your day,” I was primed to explore three highly regarded sites on the Vancouver campus of UBC.
Fringed by beaches and the Pacific Spirit Regional Park on the tip of a peninsula along the coast of the Salish Sea, the UBC Vancouver campus functions as a small city, with facilities ranging from an aquatic center to a hospital. At a whopping 990 acres, the campus is entirely too enormous for its 50,000 students to walk to their classes; they would be perpetually late without utilizing some sort of wheels.
But I was in no rush to meet pending academic deadlines, so I began a long, leisurely walk, past overcrowded bicycle racks and the odd skateboard here and there on my way to my first destination — the lovely UBC Botanical Garden, the oldest botanical garden at a Canadian university, established in 1916. I followed dirt paths as they curved their way around the garden’s 110 acres, jam-packed with more than 10,000 different trees, shrubs, and flowers. Eight distinct gardens highlight a variety of ecosystems, including the Alpine Garden, with its clusters of purple Primula juliae; the Asian Garden, with blue Himalayan poppies and flamboyant rhododendrons; and the BC Native Garden, highlighted by bogs and water meadows. I was particularly attracted to the Physic Garden, a medicinal refuge that displays plants used in the 16th century (when Anglo-Saxon archers dipped their arrows in poisonous aconite to kill their enemies, and when mullein was used to repel witches) as well as those used today, such as Digitalis purpurea, a component of the heart drug digitalis.
The sudden appearance of a couple of raccoons with beady eyes emerging from the bosky trails leading to the beach transformed my lengthy walk to my next site into a wildlife encounter. At a compact 2.5 acres, the Nitobe Memorial Garden has been hailed as the most authentic Japanese garden outside Japan, named for the Japanese author and politician Nitobe Inazō. Opened in 1960, it features a Tea Garden, with a ceremonial tea house; the Stroll Garden, which reflects an idealized conception of nature in harmony among its elements — waterfalls, islands, ponds, rocks, and forests; and several enchanting stone lanterns. The garden naturally beckons students who need a silent place to study, and if I were feeling a little unsettled, this would have been the perfect setting for a little meditation. But the serenity around me had already worked its charm, so I was ready to move on.
The world-renowned Museum of Anthropology occupies a brutalist concrete building with walls of windows that is both a severe contrast to the traditional wood buildings of the re-created Haida village beside it and a nod to the post-and-beam structures of northern Northwest Coast First Nations people. The museum’s collection comprises more than 500,000 archaeological objects from around the world. Two or three temporary exhibitions can range anywhere from “The Spiritual World of Taiwan Through Contemporary Art” to “Luminescence: The Silver of Peru,” but the permanent exhibit demanded my attention. I entered the Great Hall and was immediately dwarfed by soaring totem poles that present an entire history of a people all on one column of wood. With the world’s preeminent collection of totem poles, this was clearly the best place to learn about a people who believed in the transmutation between human and animal spirits, for instance, and in transportation of the souls of the recently deceased by canoe to the Land of the Souls to await reincarnation.
Under the watchful faces of eagles, wolves, and thunderbirds, I inspected canoes from local native peoples and assorted carved wooden figures. Farther along, the visible storage gallery holds more than 14,000 smaller items in glass cabinets for visitors to peruse, ranging from weapons to textiles to jewelry. Below the circular skylight in the Bill Reid Rotunda, I admired Raven and the First Men, a fascinating sculpture carved out of laminated yellow cedar by Haida artist Bill Reid that depicts the story of human creation: Raven spied a clamshell on a nearby beach, from which several small human beings were visible. Raven convinced them to leave the safety of the shell and join him in his world, and thus they became the first Haida people. For almost a decade, Reid’s work appeared on the Canadian $20 bill.
Saturated with new knowledge, I quickly concluded that this was one of my top five museums in Canada. And, with a pleasant bus ride back to my hotel practically assured by a friendly, civilized driver, I also realized that spending a day at the UBC campus was one of the best things to do in Vancouver.