Gumballs: that’s my first memory of Vancouver

Giant bubblegums  - Photo by Chelsea Nesvig, Flickr

Giant bubblegums - Photo by Chelsea Nesvig, Flickr


The Mount Pinatubo eruption of 1991 made headlines; made records for the second largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century and made a future in Canada a permanent reality for me. Swept in a stream of flowing lava, my sister and I landed on Vancouver’s doorstep. Ok, fine – we flew.

I don’t remember much about that trip. My sister insists I threw up on her. Conveniently enough, I don’t remember that.

No, it isn’t the plane ride that sticks out in my memory. Nor is it the first conscious memory I have of meeting my parents. It is gumballs.

The first stop we made after my parents picked us up from the airport was the grocery store.

Although the Philippines is now commercially developed with sprawling megamalls, including the third largest mall in Asia, shopping at a big grocery store is still uncommon. People shop at the many small family-owned businesses and outdoor markets that sell everything, from live to canned foods.

So going to Superstore, with its tiled floors, uniformed attendants and cashiers, and rows and rows of food choices, was a foreign experience. An entire aisle dedicated to cereal! The concept of it, even now, is a little absurd to me.

It was also odd to hear the noises in that grocery store. Odd – because in fact, it was relatively quiet. With the exception of sporadic spurts of announcements on the speaker about two for one Tide detergent or 10 per cent off of VHS players for one week only, people went about their shopping politely without engaging with each other, probably silently ticking off their mental grocery lists. This is in comparison, of course, to the open air markets in the Philippines with garlic and meat hanging from hooks on the ceiling, vendors yelling good morning to one another, and shoppers bargaining intensely.

And where were all the smells and odours? How could we be in a gigantic room filled with food and not smell anything? What’s common and convenient to me now seemed, at the time, so… sterile. That’s not a word I want to associate with food.

My dad took me over to the gumball machine as we were paying for the groceries. Maybe because of the store’s overwhelming size and the creepily quiet buzz of shopping, I found comfort in this little corner. In my memory, this was no ordinary gumball machine. This was the mother of gumball machines. It was a sensational gumball machine: the bearer of salacious delicacies, the bringer of shiny coloured pearls, the home of plump, round oh-so-sweet chewable goodness. My dad dropped a quarter in, showed me how to turn the knob and out it rolled: one shiny red gumball.

Of course, this is the Hollywood version of my memory. I was five, for Pete’s sake. On a side note, we do a lot of things for Pete’s sake. Why not do it for Sam’s sake for a change?

But I’ve really been thinking about those gumballs lately. It’s a little quixotic, and maybe it’s just misfiring neurons and tangled synapses insisting that there’s a connection, but I think those gumballs foreshadowed many aspects of my life, and also life in general in Vancouver.

The easiest metaphor to make would be to say that all the different colours represent the diversity of people in Vancouver. Not just diversity in colour, but also diversity in spiritual beliefs, lifestyle choices and ideologies.

On another level, it represented the element of surprise. After you turn the knob and hear that quarter rattling down, it’s too late to turn back. You can’t be sure of what you’ll get. And although it’s really all sucrose, glucose or fructose in the end, there’s still a difference between blueberry blast and strawberry smash. The same is true for life in Vancouver. Sometimes it snows halfway between spring and summer; sometimes the city is rendered useless after one inch of snow; sometimes we have riots; sometimes we camp out in front of the Art Gallery for five weeks; and sometimes we even elect a majority Conservative government! Anything can happen.

Maybe more than anything, to me, that gumball was the first sweet taste of adventure. Even at five, I knew that change was happening and that this marked some new beginning.

Or perhaps, twenty years later, I’m projecting too many ideas and too much philosophy on a piece of candy. That might be it.

Regardless, like the Stanley Park seawall, things tend to loop back around full-circle. I find myself, again, with one foot here and one foot out the door. Except this time I’m not arriving: I’m leaving, and it will be almost another year before I’m reunited with this city.

People say that travel helps you find yourself. I can’t say that I agree or disagree. But, in linguistic and plain practical terms, to say that you’ll find yourself means that you’re looking for your SELF. And if you’re looking for yourself when you leave to travel, then where in dog’s name have you been all this time?

Me? I’ve been in Vancouver.

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