Saturday, February 4, 2006

Clotheless in Canada

By Timothy Lamb

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

As soon as I sat down on the bus I could feel the sweat starting to form on the hair-ridden sections of my body.

I was travelling west from downtown Vancouver bound for the University of British Columbia. But, there was something taboo that lay beyond the border of the college. The ethnic woman with the young child, the two giggly teenage girls and the man with the oversized headphones, they all knew where I was heading; I could feel the stares from across the bus. At least that is what I thought.

I was told if in Vancouver I had to visit Wreck Beach. It's said to be one of the biggest nudey beaches, or if you prefer the PC term; naturalist colony, in North America. So I was taking up this suggestion.

But it seems leaving your comfort zone can accelerate a number of emotions, for example paranoia. Is it wrong to go to a place where everyone is naked? What is the etiquette? Are there any limits on behaviour or is it just one big x-rated movie?

However, there is always the fantasy that goes hand-in-hand with travelling to an unknown realm that you will thoroughly enjoy leaving 'normal life' and fitting in somewhere unexpected.

On my way to the bus stop I even had a premonition that after pitching a few witty comments to the locals I would become one with them. By the end of the night we would be sitting naked around the beach fire singing Kumbaya watching the sun set over Vancouver Island. Then the next time I would visit, they would assign me with an Inuit nickname, which translated as "Naked Kiwi".

That happening however, would involve me conquering my fear by baring both sets of cheeks (upper and lower) at the same time � something I am only 50 per cent comfortable with (and you can guess which half).

In an (completely innocent) internet search, I found a Wreck Beach website. It seemed I wasn't the only one who did not know the etiquette at a nudey beach, because there was an entire section devoted to protocol.


They knew I was coming.

My sole reason is to "gawk" � I want to see how the other side live. I don't know whether to feel like a rebel or a shady character; someone likely to appear in court in the pursuing days of my expedition on charges of 'gawkery'.

I arrive at the university campus leaving my paranoia on the bus and prepare to make the most of the sun-drenched day.

There were tens of others also making this religious-like pilgrimage, negotiating down the hundreds on man-made steps towards the sand and waves.

The beach is 7.8km long, and is Canada's largest legal clothing-optional site.

From the bottom of the stairs, it fans to the left and right for several kilometres each way. However, a majority of sun-bathers are situated within 200m of the entrance, where tree bark litters the dirty brown, and on this day tremendously hot, sand. More than 30 smooth, partially-worn out tree trunks are strewn on these sanded areas, serving as shelter and seating.
To the right is a stoney area, partially sheltered, which I can only initially see for about 400 metres before it takes a dogleg to the right. To the left is a swampy area, which is populated by high flax-like shrubs and apparently a lot of gays.

I peel my shoes from my feet and set off strolling in the direction of the masses, immediately feeling the stares like darts to a dartboard. Paranoia has found me again. Me with my pasty effort at a tan (and what is worse, I was fully clothed - an amateur mistake), we don't belong here. These people have the fear-sense of a pack of dogs, they have the nous to know there is fresh meat on the beach, or so I think.

When I build up enough confidence to graze the people on the beach I am surprised at the range of ages and bodies. There were the natural bodies and the not-so natural, which have been well crafted under the watchful eye of a) a gym trainer; b) a plastic surgeon; or c) both of the above. There are the well-tanned and the wannabe be well-tanned.

College girls and guys in groups of three, lower the mean age of the population, which I had expected to be much older. A number of young families make castles in the wet sand, while a dozen teenage skim-boarders occupy a good 50m of the beach in the shallow waters.

The place feels more like a clothes-less hippy commune rather something sinister like I had assumed before arriving.

Acoustic guitars appeared common for groups of more than four people and about five hammocks seemed to be occupied by middle-aged people, whose dark, raisin-like skin indicates they may not have left the beach since the 1980s.

I make my way to the water's edge where two fully de-robed men, who appeared to be of a retired age and carried well-catered midriffs, were preparing to hit the cloudy-brown water.

My confidence was growing and I was, sort of, ready to chat. How do you strike up a conversation with two men when they're starkers? I go with the obvious.

"It's quite big isn't it?"

I always remember one of my biggest problems as a teenager was not thinking things through in my head before I said them aloud. It is something I thought I would eventually grow out of. Nope. This Lamb is still plagued by foot-in-mouth disease. So I scramble to justify the words I have spoken to these naked men. "The beach I mean," I add with a nervous haste.

I felt flush and it had nothing to do with the warm sun.

The men looked at me momentarily, one looked as though he was about to conversate, but instead they carried on their voyage into the roughly breaking waves.

I kept walking along the beach to where I found a women standing behind a table, situated at one of the entry/exit points to the beach. The only fashion decoration off-setting her au natural look is a pair of ear-rings made out of door keys. On the table were plans outlining proposed building developments on university land at the top of the cliff overlooking the beach. Ms. keys-for-ear-rings was using her heafty set of lungs (which accessorised her rugged figure) to ensure everyone at the beach that day would know the "locals" were opposing the developments.

This is bound to be my ticket into the friendship circle of the locals I thought, so I aim to grab her attention.

"It'd be a great view from the top floor of that building, though eh?"

Something immediately told me I shouldn't have said that.

Ms keys-for-ear-rings turned to me for two seconds and gave a look, which I read as: "You better leave before I do something to you that's illegal and unpleasant."

I took that as my cue to leave and headed to Stormin' Norman's Spirit Grill, one of two eateries on the beach. The premises is sheltered solely by a parachute canopy, which was tied to several wooden poles.

About 10 semi and fully-nude people are cuing for one of the ten items on the menu, which is crudely hand-drawn, likely by someone under the age of five, on a piece of cardboard. They are offering a range of wild food items including buffalo, but bottled water seems to be the safest option.

I offer an ice-breaker to my server in an attempt to make conversation. "Great job you've got," I say with a sarcastic chuckle and looking around at the patrons.

No smile. Not even a nod of acknowledgement, or raised eyebrow. She must get that one all the time. She hands me my water, looks past me and shrieks, "next."

I had learned the hard way one of the unwritten rules of Wreck Beach. Rule 13... SARCASM MUST BE KEPT ON A LEASH AT ALL TIMES. ANY COMMENTS BORDERING ON SMART OR SARCASTIC WILL BE IMPOUNDED.

With my conversational skills yet to make an impression on the locals I retreated to the solace of towel on sand. I discarded my shirt, lay on my back and fixed my eyes firmly on the travel guide I had brought with me.

I came to Wreck Beach with the hope of meeting some locals and finding out more about these sometimes taboo recreational jaunts.

I had spent half of my time here trying to fit in, make conversation and not feel so out of place.
Then it hit me after two hours of sun later and a feeling of near dehydration. I need to take the plunge � what do I have to lose except for my nudist colony virginity? I had almost forgotten the real reasons for coming to the beach - to gawk and to cure my own insecurities.

No one at the beach knows me and the chance of meeting any of these people again is minuscule.

Off came the shorts.

I packed up my belongings, stood up and harnessed my backpack on my shoulders.

I walked down the beach towards the same steps that had brought me here in the morning. Except this time, I am naked.

And unlike earlier, this time there were no glares or stares. Possibly due to the lack of gym work I had put in recently, but, more likely because I am doing what they do.

I temporarily conquered my Everest and had done as those Romans.

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