Friday, February 18, 2006, 4:39 p.m.: The weather is milder than usual in Nanaimo today; the early afternoon sun is warming up the West Coast winter air, and it looks as if it won’t rain for the rest of the day. I arrive at the Nanaimo harbor side of the Gabriola ferry terminal just in time to see the ferry pull away from the dock. Normally I’d be upset with myself for missing the boat by such a narrow margin. But they changed the schedule recently, so it’s not my fault. When I used to take the ferry in high school and early college, the ferry left Nanaimo every hour on the half-hour. Not this one, anymore. Oh well, I have some shopping I should do anyway. “I could just walk across the street to the mall to get groceries,” I think to myself, “I have fifty minutes to kill.”
The Nanaimo harbour ferry terminal is like a poor neighbourhood with a great view. It looks square and flat, almost drowned by the large metal cranes adjacent to it. The lot leads to a small waiting room at the far end near the ferry dock. The harbour hasn’t changed for at least 10 years, except for the usual uneventful safety upgrades to the dock itself and the odd paint job when the lane lines fade from the pavement. If it weren’t for the large road sign reminding motorists that indeed it is a ferry terminal, you’d think this was a cheap parking lot where car stereos disappear as frequently as cash changes hands. The view makes it all worth it though: Gabriola Island’s coniferous trees look almost as if they were hugging the coastline all the way to Cedar, on the right, whereas on the left Protection Island and its small lighthouse pose as a perfect foreground for the Coast Mountains on the distant mainland.
Groceries in hand, I make my way back, weaving through the tail end of the car line-up at the ferry terminal. I halt at the ticket booth to pay my fare. I look up at the familiar cashier sitting in the booth and smile to greet him. “We haven’t seen you in a while,” he comments. I don’t know his name, but I remember him from countless commutes as a teenager going to secondary school every day. Though he has never lived on the island, he has worked for BC Ferries for over 15 years and knows all the islanders well. It’s as if he were an islander himself, or at least a close neighbour.
I slouch on a hard wooden bench in the waiting area for a good 30 minutes, gazing out the window toward the harbour. From the terminal many islanders watch the ferry as it makes most of its trip across, as a way of keeping time. As the ferry berths I reflect on the way it seems to grow larger as it moves closer. It can’t be easy to dock that old cumbersome boat at the Nanaimo harbour. The shape of the harbour prevents the Quinsam from coasting straight in to dock, slowing as she goes. The dock is close to a 90-degree angle to her path so that she has to turn, then dock. Because of this, she always pulls awkwardly into the dock. And when new people are learning to captain the boat, she usually berths either too quickly or too slowly. Too quickly and she’ll hit the floats near the dock with a loud bang. This causes no safety worries but sure must embarrass the poor new captain. Too slow into dock, and passengers start to get antsy. Either way, it’s a good show, even if you have seen it countless times before.
When the MV Quinsam finally makes it into Nanaimo harbour she first unloads the walk-on passengers and bicycles, then the cars. After all the cars have disembarked, the foot passengers waiting to scramble on board can start their mellow-paced yet driven foot race. I head toward the far lounge on the left-hand side. In fact, I always choose this lounge, and I am not alone in my seating habits. Most islanders choose, if not a lounge, then a preferred side to sit when they walk on the ferry. Some even have a preferred seat. It is one of the unspoken social rules on the ferry. You can meet someone you know while waiting for the boat, engage in conversation, start to board together, but once you get down the ramp, if you usually sit in two different lounges, your conversation will end as you board the ferry and walk your way.
I sprawl my stuff and my tired body on an uncomfortable chair and wake up my laptop to write some notes. Life’s been busy in Victoria; it feels like there’s never enough time to do everything, so it feels good to bury my nose in the screen and let the white noise of the ferry engine drown out people’s voices. People’s voices, indeed. Nobody else seems to be having a mute conversation with a laptop. It’s as if everybody’s chatting with friends. If this were Victoria, everybody would be glued to either their laptop, their cellphone, or both at the same time.
After the 20-minute crossing, the Quinsam docks at Descanso Bay on Gabriola Island. We disembark in much the same way we boarded the ferry: first foot passengers, then cars. Once off the ferry, I am standing in the ferry parking lot at the bottom of a large hill. Cars waiting to board the ferry form a long line up the hill and around a corner. I start my trek up the hill, burdened by luggage and grocery bags. The house where people are gathering for the group interview I scheduled is about a 20-minute walk, first up the hill, then down a dirt road. As I hike up the hill attempting to keep safe to the roadside, ferry traffic zips by. Almost everyone on the island has to go at least part of the way up the big hill on their way home. There are only three main roads on the island, and they all connect to the ferry hill, the only place where you could rush through without looking out of place. After about five minutes, the ferry traffic has died down and I can walk the rest of the way in a silence that is interrupted only by seagulls and my rhythmic panting.
Everything is quieter and slower than the place I just came from. There are no street lights or traffic lights. I have a few steps to go, but it feels as if I have long arrived. I should be upset to be arriving at the group interview later than I had hoped, but for some reason I am not. After a while waiting for people to arrive, I realize why I wasn’t upset to be late. Everyone else is late, at least 45 minutes. And nobody minds; we are on island time. Every islander has at least one good story about island time. Russ reminds me of an island favourite: a while ago a couple of small-town crooks tried to steal a cash machine late at night. Unable to steal a speedboat for their getaway, with wine in and wits out they headed for the terminal and waited for the morning ferry. And waited. And waited. Until the police showed up. They just weren’t used to island time.
Every islander also seems to have a Rusty McGurr story.
“We all have a Rusty story,” Mike exclaims.
“Yep,” Jim adds. “We waited, we waited three months for Rusty to do the drainage around the perimeter of the house. We got a big hole in the ground. We didn’t know about Rusty, and everybody around here was like ‘Get Rusty, get Rusty to do your thing.’ So we got Rusty. Rusty came and so we got this pipe to put around, and we sat for THREE months waiting for Rusty to come back to put in the drainage pipe in around the perimeter of the house”
“A hole around our house,” Selma adds.
“So we say, ‘Let’s get it done ourselves, you know, it’s been this long now,” Jim picks up the story again, “let’s go to Nanaimo to get the better plastic pipe and put that around the foundation. So we go into town and we buy $100 worth of plastic pipe, we come back and Rusty’s there waiting for us!”
Uncontrolled, knowing laughter breaks out in the room.
“Oh yes,” Jenny remarks, “typical Rusty.”
“He shows up when you least expect it,” Jim says.
“He shows up when he shows up,” concludes Tom.
The essence of island time is slowing down to appreciate the important things in life. “It may be a little coser to our aboriginal peoples’ conception of time,” opines Jessica, “which I’ve experienced particularly at work, and at first it was a shock to me, and I was somewhat, you know, outraged when they said something was gonna happen at five and it happened at eight. Then all of a sudden I realized: ‘That’s okay.'”
Jessica worked for some time on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where, alongside some First Nations men and women, she learned to feel the pace of time in a whole different way. Now she finds that some of those feelings are common amongst Gabriolans:
“When you’re in a ferry lineup,” she explains, “and you just miss the ferry, you know what, you get out your car pillow, and you get out your magazines, and you sit back.”
“And there’s nothing you can do about it,” interjects Jake, “you need to go with it.”
“True,” Henry adds. “It took us a long time to understand time attitudes when we were in Africa. Then somebody said to us that an African sleeping under a tree is not wasting time, he’s making time.”
Dan has also learned to “make time.” He and his wife are both in their late forties and have lived on Gabriola for the past 15 years. Dan learned to make his own bread back when there was only one small convenience store on the island. Back then bread would only be delivered to the store once a week, so by the end of the week the bread at the convenience store was mouldy and green. But to Dan, island time meant taking the time out of his daily routine to make bread.
As the conversation about island time continues, everybody seems to be particularly interested in Kate’s story and perspective. Kate is a 22-year-old woman who fell on tough times a year and a half ago when she was laid off from her previous job. Employment insurance did not leave her enough money to pay the rent, so she ended up living with her mother on Gabriola. Kate only intended to stay at her mother’s house for a few months, enough time to find a new job and save up money for a damage deposit on a new apartment. Instead, she ended up living in her mother’s house for almost two years.
“You have to be careful with island time,” Kate warns, “because you can end up spending a lot of time doing nothing without even realizing.” Kate was not incapable of getting a new job; she was simply on island time. She wanted a job in Nanaimo, so looking for work meant that the usual résumé preparation and pavement pounding had to be accompanied by a daily 20-minute commute on and off the island. She would start the week with the best of intentions. She would make it into Nanaimo on Monday, but the rest of the week, instead of sticking to her job search schedule she would end up staying on the island, meeting people for coffee or helping her mother in the garden. Before she knew it, her week would be over. For Kate, island time meant being open to the experiences that presented themselves along the way. It meant not being agenda bound but free to go where life led her.
Commuting is a unique way of making island time. Jessica is a long-time regular ferry commuter. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years,” she tells me. “There’s two very different types of commute for me. There’s the car commute, and there’s the walk-on commute, and they’re totally different.” She goes on:
“The car commute starts earlier in the morning. I’m leaving the house a good 45 minutes before the ferry leaves. There’s a difference from when I moved here and we left the house one or two minutes before the ferry left. So I do that, and I make sure that I have my work with me. I consider that the time during the wait in the ferry line when I’m in my vehicle is my ‘me time.’ Then I drive the car on the ferry, and I generally just sit and do work all the way to Nanaimo and that’s the car commute.”
“The walk-on is totally different. I’m totally prepared to visit with people. I do bring work with me, but if there’s somebody sitting nearby that wants to visit, that’s okay. And if nobody’s around and I don’t feel like doing work, I’ll read the bulletin boards. I love the bulletin boards, so I do lots of business on them.”
“It sounds like between the bulletin boards and gabbing you don’t get much work done when you walk on,” I observe. “You’re right, and I’m prepared for that,” Jessica explains. “There’s a bit of a protocol too. When you’re sitting on the ferry, the rule is, if you’ve got your nose in a book, it means you don’t want to talk.”
“That’s totally true,” agrees Kate.
“Tell me about your commute, Kate,” I ask.
“I wake up at about 7:00,” she tells me. “I don’t usually shower in the morning because I need my sleep, but if I do shower in the morning, then I get up at about 6:45. I start off by getting dressed, I wash my face, and put on mascara. Then I go upstairs and by that time Mum has already made tea.” She continues: “I grab a cup, add some sugar and cream, and go sit on the bed. Oh, and before I grab tea, I always call my stepdad at 7:00 to ask him for a ride. Around 7:35 I have to finish up, so I go back downstairs, and I take my purse, shoes, and jacket upstairs to wait for my ride. My ride arrives around 7:42 and I leave, yelling ‘BYE MUM!’ and get in the car. My stepdad drives me down to the ferry, we wait till it’s time for me to load, and then I say ‘Thanks’ and ‘See ya later’ and board the ferry,” Kate concludes with a smile.
Both Jessica and Kate have their routine worked out to the minute, but often the Quinsam won’t cooperate. Sometimes the ferry is late on the 8:00 a.m. run, or any other run for that matter, due to early heavy traffic, mechanical problems, bad weather, or a million other reasons, like having to rescue stranded boaters along the way. Kate and Jessica tell me they don’t sweat the small stuff though. When the ferry is late, you can do more work or more catching up with family and friends. These two are true islanders. Jessica says, “This ferry is a community, a community of commuters!”
“Hey, I like that,” echoes Kate, “a community of commuters.”
“I have a good example of the routine of commuting,” Patrice says. “It always seems, inevitably, that when my father comes out here, hum, you know, he doesn’t really like the commute to Gabriola, eh? He’ll come at a time when there are tons of tourists or something, and we’ll have to get him to line up a couple of times because he keeps missing the ferry and it just makes it worse for him, so he doesn’t want to come over again, because he doesn’t want to go on the ferry. And oh, it just drives him crazy, yeah, any time we’re going to go take the ferry, he knows we’re going to town. He wants to get there at least a half an hour ahead of time, and you know that this particular ferry isn’t gonna fill up until like 10 minutes before, or five minutes before. In fact, Scott and I actually pride ourselves on being the last ones on the boat!”
Laughter breaks out. “We can hear it, we can hear it when it pulls up,” Scott adds.
“There’s nothing worse than to be the first person in the car line for the next boat,” Jeannie agrees, causing even more laughter.
“Or, if you get there too early, you can drive away and get a coffee,” Kate remarks.
“Yeah,” agrees Patrice, trying to contain her laughter, “but if we miss it, we live close enough that we can go home, and have a sandwich, and miss it again, or get back in time.”
“Once I missed it three times doing that” Jessica exclaims.
“Yeah, and it’s weird,” Scott follows, “it’s like a weird feeling, by the third one, you don’t care anymore!”