All night I sweated like a pork sausage in a condom in an oven in a Caribbean rainy season.
Finally, at 1am, tormented by Cartagena’s heat, I stood under my shower – the water like a boiled kettle atop my skull.
I’ll be tired for class tomorrow I guess. I lay sprawled under my bed with my fan so close it was like a cat purring, curled on my chest. A slight reprieve until my skin dried. Not quite enough to sleep.
Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński nailed this feeling in his description of Africa:
“I was dripping with sweat, but others, too, were drenched – sweat prevented you from being incinerated on the summer’s blazing pyre.”
I woke in the morning to a small miracle. The sun was not out. I was immediately distrustful…. probably it is still night, my sleepy brain thought.
Deliciously however, it was 6:30am and raining lightly. I stood on the top floor balcony and looked out across my street. This was a nicer street than where I’d been living – it was considered middle class in Cartagena.
The roofs however were corrugated iron sheets and the powerlines linked to the homes in a dizzying entanglement of black against the drizzly sky.
A creek ran perpendicular to my street and was adorned on both banks with garbage. Once I saw an iguana beneath the bridge there. Skin like hard-boiled leather, green and huge and regal.
“Sorry about your home,” I whispered to him. “Humans are stupid.”
You couldn’t really walk alongside the creek alone because you might get robbed. You had to cut through the suburb and then cut back to the creek simply to cross the footbridge over it. There were a couple of elder gents who took turns sitting on the bridge with a collection tin marked ‘bridge security.’ You could pay them a coin for their efforts. They also sold iceblocks, hedging their bets.
Like usual in the tropics, the sun bit off the head of that delicious fresh morning after about 30 minutes, and resumed its ruthless governance of the sky.
The blind dog and I sat together outside for breakfast. The ideal companion while your brain swims sleepily into the consciousness of day is a dog. It will simply greet you warmly and then shut up. Not like those chirpy morning people who sap your energy before you have cultivated it.
I looked around. Mosquitoes were waking from their potplant nests and shouting at each other that a human (AKA breakfast) and a blind dog were stupidly waiting to be molested.
The baby’s pants, like tiny flags of humanity hung in rows above our heads. The avocado vender bellowed his wares through his megaphone, the wooden wheels of his cart pushing through the streets, his brow and lip beaded as always with pearls of sweat.
The coconut palm in my neighbour’s yard waved lazily in a rare breeze and children, those being who wake with the sun, were already shouting in their street baseball match – snatched moments before their mums wetted and brushed their rebellious curls and marched them off to school.
The Caribbean was waking up.
A passenger jet cut across the sky overhead, a reminder I would be on one in just two months. I pushed the thought out of my head. I could easily live here another two years.
What to teach today.
My 1pm class had at least nine very bright students who wanted to learn English – a true blessing for an English teacher in a Latino country. My 4pm class had around the same.
The problem lay with those who didn’t try. The thing about a language is if you chill, process what has been said to you and implement an ounce of cognitive reasoning it is possible to learn.
Some students however throw up a roadblock in their brains.
“That isn’t Spanish!” yells their brain in a panic.
“We can’t understand that.”
Others watch my actions, think about it and hazard a guess.
Yesterday one of my favourite students was leaving school as I arrived.
“¿A dónde vas?” I asked him.
His English was not good but he always showed up, participated and was respectful. And he had a cracking sense of humour, which I loved.
In Spanish he explained his cousin was killed in a gang shoot-out in Turbaco, a small town about an hour out of Cartagena. The funeral service was in an hour and Turbaco was an hour’s bus ride away.
Well what the hell do you say to that? I excused him from my class.
When something awful happens here the journalists print pictures of it.
I am not talking pictures depicting it; I am talking pictures of it.
When I worked at a newspaper in Australia there were many car crash fatalities. They were often avoidable. As I stood speaking with the police officer beside what was once a person or a car, my heart grieved at the pointlessness, the waste of human life.
I would print a picture of the mangled wreck of the car in hopes it would jolt people into the realisation that sending a text or overtaking with barely enough space can end like this – twisted metal and burnt flesh.
In Cartagena however the pictures are of the dead. A widow, roadside, crying over the body of her husband as he lies beside his crumpled motorbike. Red blood gone black on the bitumen.
A teenager with his skull opened in a machete fight, the contents of that skull spilled out and printed right there, in colour, on the front page of all three local newspapers.
The thing about this information is you cannot judge it through western eyes until you have lived here. Here life is cheaper, simply because there are less rules, less means of safety. People take motorbike taxis because they are half the price of taxi cars. Unless you plan to fly to Colombia and cover the difference you cannot judge the safety measures here.
For around 240 days I have been living here, and for about 200 of those days I have caught moto-taxis. I have had around 5 close calls, where my heart flew into my mouth and I thought, well, at least I got to live my dream before I died.
Fingers crossed I make it through two more months of these rides. I have already seen three who didn’t.
And yet there is a joy here.
When you ask a Colombian how they are, they will very often reply without hesitation “Excelente!”
This never fails to buoy my spirits. These are the people I talk to every day. Street vendors, taxi or moto drivers, fellow professors or housewives sweeping the fat green leaves from the street in front of their houses.
They are not rich but perhaps this is their secret.
This country is filled with music and noise and life. If you cut a Colombian’s arm, music will come out. In the tiendas (little stores that sell everything), on the buses, in the taxis, on the beach, from the boomboxes groups of friends sit around, from the boots of parked cars on Sunday afternoon. It is a place saturated in music.
I often feel like my life has a soundtrack as I walk around on my daily happenings in this city.
The one gift Colombia has given me is contentment. It has re-taught me what I once knew. (I was far more intelligent at 12 than in my 20s).
Life is temporary. At any moment you could be hit by something bigger than you and killed. Especially here!
So enjoy it.
When someone asks you how you are, if you are not replying “Excelente!” it is time to ask yourself why not.
The one thing I will take away from this country is a renewed appreciation for life.
My lungs breathe air and my legs bend whenever I tell them to. I (usually) have food to eat. This already gives me more reason to be happy than a lot of our Earth’s population.
One day I caught a taxi into the historical centre to run errands.
Windows down, and palms beating out the rhythm of salsa on his steering wheel; I looked at my driver’s face. Sea breeze blew into the taxi.
“¿A dónde va mi amor?” he asked me with the chopped coastal Spanish of los costeños.
Where are you going my love?
On the coast they use mi amor (my love), mi reina (my queen) and mi vida (my life). It is something I will dearly miss.
When I asked him how he was he replied “Excelente!” without a second thought.
“Por qué?” I asked.
“Mira,” he said, swinging one hand towards the ocean, “y escucha,” he said, turning up the dial on the salsa.
“La vida es Hermosa.”
(Look…and listen….life is beautiful.)
By the time I’d learned to say it correctly I had fallen under its spell.
Miles of nothing. Then mountains the colour of Bolivia, and nothing moving save a goat or open-mouthed lizard.
Forests of spiked succulents shouting their resilience into a blue dome that gives nothing back – just looks down at the desert with dry, blue eyes.
It was a total shock to the system after the highly tropical, beach life I’d been living.
My two housemates had already made the trek up north, so I was chasing them by a day. It was incredibly fun to be hoofing it on my own. Just me and my work-in-progress Spanish!
If you ever find yourself in Cartagena, wanting to get to Colombia’s northern desert region, this is how you do it.
Catch bus to Santa Martha (4hrs).
Flag any bus heading north from Santa Martha. Your destination is Riohacha, however you could be dropped in various towns.
Get off where bus drops you (in my case Palomino).
Stand on side of road with local woman, trying to figure out what you are both waiting for.
Ask local tienda (shop) to use bathroom. Response = “Solamente para chi chi.”
Figure out new word. Wee wee = chi chi.
Get in car with woman and pay 4mil to head north to next town.
Get out and wait on road again.
Get on next bus heading north. Stare subtly at woman feeding baby green parrot on lap.
Stare subtly at shoeless, Indigenous Kogi people, clad in white-linen moo-moos. Marvel at their jet-black hair. Feel like you are in a National Geographic episode.
Ask various people where to get off. Get various responses. Practise Spanish with cheeky teenagers. Get called Mona a lot.
Get off at town called Maipaca….or something.
Buy weird chicken thing from children who told you it was vegetarian.
Ask more people. Find expensive buses and search for cheaper option.
Turn down solo male car driver who wants to drive you there for ¼ of usual price.
Stand in what seems to be bus cue. Whole cue leaves without warning.
Bus pulls up from nowhere and collects you only.
Get out at Riohacha.
Find out friends are four more hours to the north in some place called Cabo de la Vela.
Write ‘Cabo de la Vela’ on your arm and crack your second bag of peanuts.
Follow woman with two sons because you here them say a northern town’s name.
Share car-taxi with them.
Watch giant sun slide into horizon. Think of Africa. Learn the secret Spanish talk of two little brothers.
Get off at Uribia. Wind blows, people feel a little wilder. Am I in a frontier town??
Meet some university students and cram into a truck/jeep for a reasonable price.
In the jeep we sped through a darkened desert. I was so excited for morning to see what it looked like. Show me your colour, desert.
We smelled a dank odour.
“Un animal?” I asked my new pals.
“Si,” they confirmed.
It smelled like fox to me.
“Es como un pero?” (like a dog?)
There was a mysterious desert animal out there. Smelling like a fox, but not looking like one. I’d have my eyes peeled for tracks the next day. Not sure what they’d look like. Maybe it flew, and there’d be none.
I met Ayumi, a perfectly-cheekboned Japanese girl who had been travelling the world for three years. She had all her stuff in a netting bag. She had two dreadlocks and was cool in that way only Asian travellers could truly rock.
I shared my trail mix (con chocolate), remembering that Colombians were a collective society and that meant the whole jeep needed a handful. It was a hit.
I accidentally stepped on a puppy in the darkness. I spoke to two desert sisters who were on their way back home to their little desert town, Cabo de la Vela. (I was on the right track, yes!). One wore the beautiful, flowing cotton dress of their region, the other skinny jeans and a singlet top.
One of their friends was working the outside of the jeep. Hanging on the back and swinging round to unstrap huge bags of water, backpacks and supplies like onions and toilet paper as we dropped people in the middle of nowhere.
We rolled into Cabo an hour or so later.
Little town. Hot, dry, with a perfect blue sea lapping the little houses. There was a friendly feel sitting in the back of that darkened jeep, as the guy unloaded everybody with their supplies, said hello and goodbye and swung with grace back onto the jeep.
The sisters showed me their bags, hand woven in the La Guajira region by women who had passed down the method for years.
“Ciao Lisa,” they called, getting off with their puppy.
“Bienvenidos para café por la mañana.” (Welcome for coffee in the morning.)
Their mama came out and made sure all supplies were in order at the drop off. Not getting your water in the jeep run was a big deal in this part of the country.
Eventually we arrived at Glamar, the hostel/restaurant my friends were at.
It had been a long day, and I fell into my hammock with thanks. There were three strung in a row for us, with the sea at our feet.
I slept; a desert baby in my bright cocoon.
In the morning we woke to the sounds of Gladis (the owner) and her family having breakfast, a few metres from our hammocks.
I had noticed something in this region: the women were calling the shots. Not in an overbearing way, just calmly and with great competency. It was a matriarchal society, and the hisses and catcalls of the southern coast were blissfully missing here! Yahoo.
I watched Galdis juggle a family, a busy restaurant kitchen, diffuse a drunken men’s argument and make us girls feel welcome all at once. It was impressive.
We spent a fabulously lazy day. The region was strange on the eye, the red sand a total juxtaposition against jade seas.
We hired motorbike drivers for the day and jetted into the blinkless face of the desert. My driver was a young hot-shot who sped up to everything, skidded us through the sand and never listened when I asked him to chill out. He reminded me of me at seventeen.
A sign of my age perhaps, that the kind of driving I’d once broken my collarbone with was now making me anxious.
The drivers would pull up and us girls would explore up hills of cacti. Millions of spikes in brittle grey and khaki-brown pushing themselves up on straightened elbows from the red dust.
Against an endless cliff wind we’d push uphill until our breaths were stolen clean away by the stunning view thrown out below us.
Was there anything so strange and beautiful as a desert meeting the ocean?
That night we paid 5mil for a bucket of water and crowded into the small toilet stall to wash. Three white bums, three sets of white boobies – the rest a jumble of brown limbs covered in red dust. A life lived in bikinis for two months!
We walked around as the evening chill set in, a welcome visitor in this terrain. We bargained gently with the La Guajira weavers, seeing the work in each of their mochilas, and each bought a stunning bag to remember the trip and the people by.
That evening the feel of the place changed. All Colombians were now on holiday and those bent of partying flooded into tranquil Cabo.
Gladis had her hands full. A fat, drunk man insulted guests at our little ‘hostel’, made jokes about us sharing a hammock with him (blurgh), blared champeta music all night and all morning, and the next morning (to my delight) crashed his car into his other car while drunkenly trying to reverse it at 5am.
I told him in the best version of my bad Spanish it was lucky he’d hit his own car not one of the little kids who were staying with the families on holiday here.
“You’re not from this land,” he said.
“You’re not from Cabo de la Vela,” I said.
After that frustrating dispute, where he still refused to turn the music off (it was now 5am) we decided to walk into the desert and watch the sunrise.
Sometimes you just have to walk away.
It was truly stunning. It refreshed us, washed the memory of a sleepless night away, and reminded me what beauty there is in the world.
I found dog tracks, the tracks of a baby donkey walking beside its mother and, sadly, no trace of the mysterious animal that smelled but not looked like a fox.
We caught the next ride we could find out of there, keen to get away from the dank partygoers, and preserve the tranquil memory of the place that had wormed its way into our hearts.
Women floating by in their cotton, flowered dresses, wrapped headscarfs and an easy way of being.
Landscape that looked like the moon. Or Bolivia. Or a Bolivian moon.
Pastels and greys and burnt orange, with hills streaked in purple standing silent in the distance.
The shock of red against blue. Cacti forests and prickly pears that stretched on forever.
And one sight, which often rises unbidden to my eyelids when I lie in bed after a day’s teaching: the pink petals of a cacti flower, curled outward to reveal the yellow wad of its centre. Adorned with black ants and fresh as linen in that first light of a sweltering desert day.
You are magical life. Whenever I die, may it be in nature.
This morning we woke up in paradise.
“I feel like I’m hatching from an egg every time I get out of that hammock,” Ash said, struggling free of hers, slung in a line of four.
We ate the oats that hadn’t spilled through my backpack, with water and bananas.
We hung around (literally) in hammocks talking smack at our campsite. I relished the energy of these three great ladies.
Ashley- The oldest in our quartet, with some delightful life experience up her sleeve. Running on German time, topped with good humour and utterly settled into herself. Whatever you need she probably has in her backpack. Nail file, sardines, pack of cards. Choosing to really live in Colombia (not just say she did, while only talking to other foreigners)- with a Colombian family in a small town down south, taking Spanish lessons and saying “yes” to most cultural opportunities that come her way. My partner in crime while we learned scuba diving, always up for a dark ale. A proud Newfy. Constantly bemused by Fiona.
Fiona- A Ugandan/Boston glamour with a whacked-out view on the world who makes me laugh at least once an hour. Often times more. Youthful, inquisitive and refreshingly strange. In a word, unique. Looking wistfully into the horizon she will declare, “Logic is the greatest threat to imagination,” before laughing at herself. A total babe, often found posing bikini-clad, with beautiful black skin, against scenes of ocean, coconut trees and bunches of bananas, so every time I glance up I‘m confronted by a postcard. More to her than you first garner – perseverance and enjoyment for life, and some street smarts. Going to live an interesting life.
Meg- The calm energy that flows through our group. Unflappable, caring and with a laid-back Aussie humour that makes me ache for home as though I’d just had Vegemite. Patient as a hunting hawk and far more mature than her age would normally dictate. A real giver and over-packer. Brought more shoes to Colombia than I put in storage at home. A definite island of sanity for me in the wash of loud, strange experiences that is Colombian life. Known to prefer bike or skateboard to feet. Heart of gold.
Last night we’d built a failing fire on the sand. Green kindling the only at our disposal. Bear Grylls would have shaken his head, then asked his camera-man for some kerosene.
Our fire failed slowly as we spoke Spanglish with three chicos from Bucaramanga. They worked in hospitality, they told us, offering around rum and mandarins. They taught us some cool slang to say to our students, and were impressed we already knew ‘chichipato’.
We had beers and salad for dinner. Like all good athletes.
The next morning I caught the aggressive little waves, scrambling free before they pounded my head into the pebbles and shattered baby shells that made up the beach.
I met Juan Stephen from Medellin who was there with his surfer girlfriend. What a place for romance. He had a nipple pierced and an assortment of random tattoos. Probably the look I’d create for myself if I were a young, Colombian surfer bro. Good on you mate.
I was due to meet my housemates in the desert that evening. Little did I know how many forms of odd transport lay ahead of me.
It was April Fool’s Day.
I tried to text them; “Won’t make it, just jumped off a bus before he’d stopped properly and have broken my ankle. On way to Santa Marta hospital L Battery almost dead. Call later.”
No service. Dammit paradise!
And April Fool’s Day runs out at midday.
I lay on the beach with Meg. The rainbowed threads of her Mexican blanket mirrored my mood. Amazing what good company can do to the spirits.
Red toenail polish, chipping off, poking through white sand. Blue and white waves biting the coast. Palms and peace and nothing but.
It was perfect here. And perfect doesn’t find you that often in the average week.
A guy was trying to surf in the 3m stretch between the breaking waves and the shore. I hoped he knew what he was doing. They were the kind of waves that enjoy snapping boards and necks.
I scouted out a green coconut, shook it for milk. It sounded just perfect. A hombre at the little juice bar on the sand cracked it for us. Hammering his machete down in expert blows. Ending with all his fingers still attached, sweet coconut water and a stack of the white fruit.
I sat in utter delight munching that white flesh.
A great guy told me something a great girl told him; People have reservoirs. We need to fill these reservoirs up with the good stuff, so we can drink from them in the shitty times.
Two days of the great conversation that female friendships are made up of.
Fiona regaled us with tales of her kingdom and Queen from Uganda. Whose name she didn’t know. We traded ridiculous banter. We talked about how Ash and I had made each other laugh underwater until we had to swim in opposite directions, lest our instructor refuse to certify us for scuba. Meg patiently corrected my Spanish.
I walked out to the road just after 1pm to flag down a bus and begin hoofing it up north to the desert. My reservoirs full to overflowing.
Never put up with bad people in your life. There are too many good ones out there.
Location of paradise: Parque Los Angeles, circa Parque Tayrona, Colombia.
I crept quietly from my dorm room, the other girls curled in sleep like kittens.
Shoes in hand, I met Laas in the foyer for our 5km run, circumventing the ancient walled city of Cartagena; Centro Historico.
A well-built running partner in South America was a bonus, just in case someone fancied your Ipod.
Past fairytale scenes. Pink bougainvillea sprouting from mint-green walls, yellow-washed balconies with sea-blue trimmings. Dark skinned locals in hip-hugging pants chatted as the neighbourhood woke.
No wonder this was the romantic city. Everything within Cartagena’s old walls was beautiful. The doors were from Colonial times, huge and full of stories.
As my sneakers pounded the brickwork I pictured the Spanish invaders, resplendent in red and gold threads, trotting their carriages in through the thick wooden doors, turning in the spacious interior courtyard, the horses steaming heavily in the humidity.
“You set the tempo,” came Laas’ Denmark accent, breaking my reverie.
‘Get ready to crawl,’ I thought.
We kept up a pretty good pace. It was too early for the pony-drawn carriages that now pulled tourists through the pretty streets, and too early for the barrage of taxis.
The ornate doorknockers looked down at us. Lions, iguanas, a fish king, even a cockatoo.
We picked up the pace, jogging through an opening in the historic wall, out to the morning buzz of traffic; Cartagena was yawning.
Past a park; a man stretched out on his couch, looking across the sea, and tightened the scrap of rope he used as a belt. Another man rifled through an industrial bin. The stench of urine signalled the bedroom of the homeless.
Little waves crashed against the sea wall and palm trees flapped lazily. I looked with disbelief at my new home for a year. Yeah there was highway, but there was also an ancient fortress wall….and a beach.
A breeze cooled my neck (a small miracle in Cartagena I am told). This isn’t so bad I thought, just as The Fleet Foxes sung in my ear… lyrics about a wall.
Under the yawning canopy of fig trees, dark green and glossy. Here the morning was in full swing. It was 6.45am and already the plantain (big bananas) were being deep fried in heart-stopping oil.
The recarga (mobile phone credit) vendors were in their usual spots, surveying all with their usual disdain. The ceviche vendors were still tucked in bed somewhere, no doubt with a fan going full bore.
There was still a slight choke of car fumes, even at this hour, and it made me miss my morning beach runs on Mooloolaba’s white sands. We truly are spoilt in Australia.
We cut back away from the ocean, away from that sea breeze.
As we rounded what I hoped was the final corner of the wall I held four fingers up hopefully in Laas’ direction.
With a laugh he shook his head and signalled we’d only done 3km. The humidity crept over me like an unwanted friend. Holy hell…..what’s it like to run here at 8am!
That night I met up with met a friend for a cerveza (beer) in the square beside the famous clock tower.
He was a Colombian gent from Cali (1.5hrs flight south of Cartagena) and worked around Colombia as a tour guide. We sipped and people-watched as he spilled the beans on the city’s secrets.
“That square is where the slaves were auctioned,” he said.
“And this square here is known as the one of prostitution.”
It wasn’t long before I saw he was right. Groups of women, subtle in their twos or threes, had begun cutting slow and deliberate laps around the packed square.
I had read about the troubling prostitution situation of Cartagena; women who needed the money, drawn to the tourist honeypot of the Old Town.
This report by the always on-the-pulse Vice.com, highlights the sad reality of underage exploitation in Cartagena. Bound to happen in the playground of rich foreigners.
It was an interesting place. Inside the historic walls people whipped out smartphones for selfies, motorbike taxis were banned from entry – to stop drive by handbag thefts- and there was an atmosphere of charm and frivolity.
Outside the walls the feeling changed. Life became real again, the buses were hot and crowded, and many lived life in slums, oblivious to the cavorting within the walls.
In my five days in the city I’d seen little of Cartagena’s other faces, save a hot one-hour bus back from one of the furthest centres where volunteers taught English.
I’d also ventured into a Centro Commericial (small street mall) for the worst haircut of my life.
There were no airs and graces. The lady begrudgingly cut my already short hair, complaining the whole time in Spanish that if she cut anymore off I would be bald.
I knew South Americans preferred long hair but I reminded her through gritted teeth that it was my hair, not hers. She grew increasingly annoyed. At one point I had to take the scissors out of her hand and demonstrate how to thin a fringe.
She was clearly used to trimming the end from Repunzel locks and calling it a day.
“I’m going to charge her 20 for bothering me so much,” she said in Spanish.
My friend translated and I was sure to fish out the exact (agreed upon) price of 15,000 for the hack-fest.
Despite the gringos in the old city I liked how there were also so many costeños. They occupied amazing ground level apartments behind bright yellow, orange or blue painted walls.
In the afternoons costeños cranked up their music, the heady beats of regaeton, cumbia and salsa spinning out into the afternoon heat. They sat out in plastic chairs, the old men often airing their bellies, and threw back tiny espresso shots of tinto.
There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.
If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.
The Scratchy Side of the States
“Some of the centres you’ll be teaching in will have no resources, so I suggest you bring as much material as you can fit in your luggage.”
These were the scary words of our coordinator for the teaching English program.
‘Great!’ I thought, visions of myself with a half-stick of chalk staring back at a blank class of 30 university students. Gulp!
Three op-shops later I set off to sneak my way through airport baggage weigh-ins, approximately 3kgs overweight with books.
In the blur of small talk, security checkpoints and bad food that is travel I hit my first stroke of fortune……
I was merrily walking around Los Angeles airport, killing time, when a security officer came up to me.
“Are you Lisa?”
“Ah…yeah…how did you know that?”
“Are you missing a laptop?”
To my great luck, the security team had opened the forgotten laptop at the end of the x-ray conveyer belt to discover my spare ream of passport photos.
“My boss said to just go find you,” the grinning security officer said.
She marched me back to security like a trophy.
“How good am I!” she yelled to a team of about seven, who all turned and gave a shout of hooray. How embarrassing.
THANK YOU Los Angeles security people! I wouldn’t be typing this blog without you.
That night I stayed in the tackiest place I have ever been (and I’ve travelled South-East Asia!).
It was called, ironically, Backpackers Paradise, located in dodgy old Inglewood, a suburb not far from the airport.
Tubes of party lights wrapped to the top of palm trees, there was an Egyptian gift shop on one side (the owner told me I’d be worth 100 camels in the old trading), little tables clustered around while people smoked doobs or had pointless arguments about topics they didn’t really know that much about.
The swimming pool reflected back the whole depressing scene.
I chose it for the free airport shuttle and free shuttle to LA’s best beaches. It was just a bed for a night after all.
It was about 11pm. Rude receptionists (“I just wanna get home and watch my shows” “Did you hear what he was telling her that night!?” “Here’s your key…anyway”), a free glass of champagne (gross pink stuff) upon check in, and a room including three women who lived there permanently.
The bartender finished an argument with her boyfriend on the phone before she got around to serving me. She was from Slovenia and a toilet-installer from South Carolina and I spent the next while teaching her words like ‘rekindled’- you need to rekindle your love with you man- and ‘disposition’ – you have a very saucy disposition.
Everyone I met at that place was bizarre. Most of them lived or worked there. I couldn’t wrap my head around this scene being a daily sight.
A guy named Robert walked past with a coke-can bong.
“You’ve gotta watch ya’self round him,” said the toilet-installer.
“I’ll probably be gone in the morning before you’re up, guess I’ll never see you again.”
“Guess not,” I said, wondering what the point of that statement was.
“Yeah I’m from the south,” he continued, as though we’d been talking about it.
“Just a regular old redneck. My work takes me everywhere though, everyone needs a toilet!”
When I walked down the street to buy an adaptor the next day guys yelled “Ooh look what just got in! How you doin? Looking good.”
I replied automatically then stopped very quickly.
The ladies I passed were all nice, and said hello, beaming from under cornrows and buoyant fringes.
Still, I’m glad I stayed there. It showed me a very different side of America to the one I’d seen as a tourist three months ago. This was the side Obama tried to fight for with his healthcare legislation. And boy did it need it.
Cleveland the Cricket Loving Jamaican
On my flight to Bogota I had the pleasure of sitting beside an elderly Jamaican gent.
He was a real gent. He helped pass my stuff across the seat, had a chequered kerchief in his pocket, and tipped his hat and said “shpank-you!” with a hearty laugh whenever he cracked a joke.
Cool frames, a leather cap and the refined manner of an educated man.
“Australia. Now there was a guy killed there from a cricket ball to the throat right?”
“Oh you mean Phil Hughes. To the back of the head while batting, very sad, the whole country was so sad.”
Cleveland was a huge cricket fan. He’d played in Jamaica and spoke with reverence of an Australian fast bowler (name escapes me) the West Indies team faced in the days of Bradman.
“Our first mon, Allan Rae (Jamaican batter, son of Ernest Rae), took da pitch, and ‘e was good.”
“But ‘e ‘it ‘im on da hand!”
“Our second mon took da pitch, and ‘boom!’… ‘it ‘im on da arm.”
“Oooh ‘e was fast!”
Cleveland was one of those people that give me my kick in life. The kind you can sit down with as strangers and leave as friends.
He thought in a few years Colombia would legalise marijuana. He told me how his friend had seen in planted between coffee rows high in the mountains.
“’e said to me, “mon those buds, they leave a tar on yo hands.””
He held out two fingers to show the size of Colombian buds.
Surprisingly it still wasn’t legal in Jamaica. Old Cleveland had never smoked a cigarette in his life, and didn’t smoke pot. But he did have a useful remedy for stomach troubles.
It involved taking some marijuana, putting it in vodka and storing it for a year or more.
“Yo stomach giving you trouble, take a little sip, and mwa!”
He kissed his fingertips in the manner Italians used.
We got to talking about the cancer he’d had.
“Where was it?” I asked.
“In da anus,” he said without blinking.
“Dey told me I have tree to five years, and that was two years ago.”
“I think you’ll live longer,” I said, and meant it.
“You’ve got that spark. Lots of people don’t have that.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” he said with emotion.
He’d lived a great life. He’d schooled in Connecticut, where his parents had also made him learn the dreaded piano.
Like me, he hated the cold (an obvious position for a Jamaican) and moved to California to study business at university.
“Dey gave me money to continue my piano, and I took that money and had a good time!” he chuckled.
He’d been everywhere; Africa, Europe, America, Australia, you name it. He knew the president of Jamaica and would tell him frequently to legalise marijuana so the people could make a better living.
He’s worked as a business consultant at government level and gave me his address to post my first copy of my book to. “Make sure you write it,” he said.
A rasta walked past to use the bathroom.
“See dat guy,” Cleveland said in his too-loud for a plane voice.
“Yeah?” I yelled back (he was slightly deaf).
“’is Dad was the finance minister for Jamaica. ‘E’s a famous musician. You like reggae?”
When the plane landed he called his mate.
“Yeah mon, we landed, but we still on da plane.”
People tried to push past while Cleveland got slowly out of his seat. I blocked them with my large posterior until he was finished and shook his hand goodbye.
You can’t silence paint- Bogota’s Graffiti Movement
The real start to 2015 for me.
Blocks of 5pm light sat in golden fullness on the dormitory wall. A cat on the terracotta roof tiles yowled mournfully into the chilly afternoon. Hello South America. I was back, and it felt wonderful.
Touchdown in Bogota and I had already been ripped off by my taxi driver. The rookie error of not researching how much a trip to your suburb should really cost. Live and learn!
Still, Alejandro had provided me with a good warm up for my Spanish before re-entry into the fast paced world that is Colombia.
Not far from the airport we passed a stunning seven-storey mural of a couple hugging. I was to learn about this the next day.
Alegria’s Hostal (cnr Carrera 2 and Calle 9 in La Candelaria) was all I’d hoped for; quiet, wanker-free, comfy bed with good blankets, and a homely atmosphere with friendly staff.
Vivianna insisted we speak Spanish and told me I could be fluent in 3 months. Ambitious, but possible she said.
She said I’d be a good teacher and laughed at the offer to come to Cartagena and be my Spanish professor.
She pretty much laughed at everything though, so it wasn’t a good measure of how funny you are.
The next day I woke in time to seize the last breakfast croissant and a cup of coffee (many SA hostels have breakfast included). I was happy as a pig in mud, full of good energy and enjoying flying solo for now.
I set off for the Bogota Grafiti Tour (sign up here http://bogotagraffiti.com ) just a short walk away.
I’d missed it last time I was in town due to partying with a local who didn’t care to differentiate between night and day.
Running 2.5hrs and costing tips only (20,000 to 30, 000 pesos is courteous) it was the best walking tour I’ve been on.
The Bogota graffiti scene has been around for 20 years, really exploding in the last 10, and solidifying itself as part of the national identity in the last five.
It has a similar concentration of talent in the one city to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
The flyer given out by our guide Ray stated the importance of graffiti as social commentary and cultural expression during “La Violencia” and the height of Colombia’s ten-year civil war.
“With a growing middle class and a drastically improved political system, modern taggers have removed some of the preach from the paint and continue to focus on creating artwork that showcases their skills rather than on a cause.”
Ray was an artist himself and a general mover and shaker in the Bogota Grafiti World, sourcing commissions for artists and walls for them to showcase their works.
While La Candelaria by night involves a fair amount of hassling from its many (persistent) homeless, it is a true pleasure during the day. Bursting with life and colour, this old historical centre draws tourists just as much for its modern graffiti murals as for its old cobblestoned streets.
First up was Bastardilla, a Bogota woman making her skilful mark in a male-dominated scene.
She draws from poverty, feminie empowerment, the effects of violence, pain and nature.
Father and son duo Rodez and Nomad also put up some impressive paint. Papa bear prefers to work in arylic. He has more than 30 years experience and has put out more than 60 children’s books.
His work is characterised by abstract line work and multiple eyes.
Keep one of yours open as you traipse around Bogota and Rodez’s presence is not hard to spot. He also has a paints a unique signature on his work, including date, location, time, other collaborators and even the names of passers by.
His son Nomad prefers spray paint as a medium. A little more expensive but much faster when putting up a large mural.
The two often work together and Rodez is now teaching his younger son.
Bogota’s street artists are now coming out to paint during the day in hopes of making themselves identifiable as artists and removing the stigma of street art as a form of vandalism.
Needing mention is street crew Animal Crew Collective (also know as Animal Crew Culture). They have a big presence in Bogota, and you can see their APC tags everywhere in the city.
Venture into the more forgotten suburbs, off the tourist trail of La Candelaria and you will see some of their more extravagant work. They are constantly replenishing their crew, and artists rotating in and out of it.
APC had claimed this wall for some time, but it was recently painted over in green by city authorities.
Since the artists’ appear more in public Bogota’s public has developed an almost protective nature towards their favourites.
In this beautiful piece by Guache, commissioned by the building owner, you can see white paint on the left of the piece where the police tried to paint over it.
Citizens saw what was happening and rushed out to stop it. The repaint was happening due to no permit being acquired by Guache for the work.
Not all business owners are so happy to have their walls adorned, however. The owner of The Platypus Hostel was so sick of graffiti that he invested in paint that can simply be gurneyed clean each morning. Expensive, but effective!
A Mexican artist named Pez has coined his own ‘happy style,’ featuring fish (pez in Spanish) and gaining him rapid notoriety as an artist.
This wall was valued at $20-$30,000 US dollars were it to go to auction. Not bad for a guy who started out with a simple ‘pez’ signature that he gradually grew into the happy fish characters pictured.
Rounding a corner you come to the elegant, Escher-esque tessellating birds of fellow Mexican artist Gilberto Perez.
This piece, artist unknown to me – but tagged with PCK, evokes the ancient spiritual culture of South America through Pacha Mama images (the hands, earth, plants) as well as the use of hummingbirds, known as the messengers of the underworld.
A fun artist to spot around town is Mr Troll. This sculptor/artist places a plastic like material on cookie trays and bakes it in the oven to achieve his bright, hardened wall mounts.
Another artist whose works deliver a burst of delight if you happen to look up, out of the ordinary periphery, is a recently deceased paper mache master. Unfortunately our tour guide did not know their name, but their work was some of my favourite around Bogota.
Here the shoe shiner’s box doubles as a bird-house. Shoe shiners are one of the common staples around Plaza Bolivar.
A unicycling juggler stands as a monument to Bogota’s large circus and performer culture. Jugglers have in fact performed on this very wall.
It is a strange week in Bogota if you don’t see street performers performing tricks in front of traffic for money, or in the La Candelaria plaza.
At the end of my three days of freedom I caught the bus with 150 excited (and exhaustingly chattery) volunteers and headed to our two-week classroom prison. Fourteen days sitting and learning….it had been a while. It required a lot of coffee.
I felt good to be back in South America, and excited about the year ahead. Each day of training gave me further insight into the challenges waiting ahead.
“I had one kid who lit a fire in my classroom,” the lecturer said.
“But it was only a little fire.”
2015 here I come!
On the second leg of my three day voyage home to Aus I flew from Los Angeles to Honolulu, Hawaii.
I hit the tarmac at 8.30pm, island time, and was due to leave again at 9.45am the next day.
Perfect, I thought. I would sniff out a cheap room somewhere, buy fish for dinner and have an early morning dip before heading back to the airport.
But my plans were thwarted. My money had not transferred back onto my Aussie card as promised by the lovely lady at ANZ.
And so I found myself with five US dollars in my pocket and around 12.5 hours to kill.
I stared in disbelief as the hibiscus shirted staffer spoke.
“There aren’t any showers in this airport, and we don’t have wifi,” he informed me.
“That’s ok, I enjoy counting tiles anyway.”
He didn’t laugh.
I sat on a chair and pondered, beautiful images of Hawaii’s beaches and waterfalls mocking me from the mounted flatscreens. I couldn’t even afford a taxi to get some dinner and return.
I was nodding off so went to find my roost for the night.
It was hot as Hades outside, muggy as a proper Cairns summer. The ‘waiting areas’ were open to the air, with numerous people camped out with bags. They were clearly passengers, but one guy had a sleeping mat and another guy had a dog, who were clearly not. It was a bit too suss to sleep there with my video camera and laptop I thought, so I made my way down to the enclosed baggage collection area.
Curled awkwardly across three chairs whose armrests wouldn’t go up, I stuffed clothing around them to lessen the dig on my stomach and legs.
To take my mind off the hunger I actually counted tiles.
I met two sisters who were also spending the night. Joy and Jem from Los Angeles. Cute as buttons. They had just returned from visiting family in South Korea, and the Honolulu airport was a rude shock after the plushness of Seoul’s.
They had loved South Korea.
“The people don’t really speak much English, but they were still all so helpful,,” Joy told me.
“They would go out of their way to help us. And the food was amazing.”
It had never been on my list, but now I considered it. It sounded very similar to my experiences in Japan.
We fell asleep haphazardly.
The music was good, until interrupted by frequent messages much louder than the music, and thus startling.
“Due to increased security baggage found unattended will be confiscated and destroyed,” boomed the excessive voice.
This seemed like an ambitious target in a deserted airport with no wifi, showers or manpower.
At the unspecific time of 1.23am we were awoken by an apologetic security officer.
“Sorry mam but we have to lock this building now. We open it again at 4am.”
“Can I go up one level?”
“So that will be open?”
“No, we’re about to lock that too.”
“So I can’t go up a level then.”
“You can go to the curb. I’m sorry about that.”
Radical. Hopefully the good vibes of Hawaii will protect me from being robbed on the final leg home.
On the plus side it was much warmer outside and the concrete bench was fit for a queen. A really wide but impoverished queen.
There was a faint smell of cigarette butts rising from the garden beneath my head…similar to tucking a sprig of lavender beneath your pillow for a good night’s sleep. But not at all.
I stretched out, my hoodie as a pillow, and fell instantly asleep under the muggy sky.
This ain’t so bad I thought as I drifted off.
I dreamed of food. And swimming.
Someone began spitting on me. Even through my subconscious I’d been woken up by rain enough times to realise this wasn’t actually spit.
Godammit Hawaii, throw me a fricken bone here.
We relocated to smaller, harder benches fit for one and a half toddlers. Ugh.
After snatching a few disrupted hours (to the lovely sound of rain) I was woken by the roar of a metal beast. It was around 4am because staff were beginning to file into the baggage claim area.
An impossibly loud truck with ‘Dry Ice’ scrawled across its side blasted off down the road.
I was too tired to write so I took off my shirt in the bathroom and washed my armpits with the hand-soap, changed my underwear and splashed my face. No showers. Tsssss.
Hours crawled by like injured rats. I put two coats of nailpolish on both my fingers and toenails.
I dreamed of the first steak sandwish (pun intended) with beetroot and caramelised onion I would order when I went to visit my Dalby girls.
Finally, 6:45am. I ditched my big bag and set off to security through the stream of overweight American tourists being led by a guide in hibiscus print. They mostly wore sneakers, socks, and awkward length shorts (both men and women).
Then came the hordes of Asian tourists in much the same fashion but with better luggage.
A mountain of a woman got into an argument with a staffer, Jem and Joy woke up and we said goodbye, and everywhere repulsively touristic happenings kept happening.
This is the side of Hawaii I’d make sure to avoid if I ever made it beyond the airport.
Away from the chaos I ventured deeper into the folds of my airport prison to see what $5 could buy me in this fine land.
It was seven in the morning and Burger Kind had a line-up. Disgusting. I had three options:
1) Starbucks: Fruit cup for $4.45, (tragically the yoghurt and muesli cup was $5.20)
2) Burger King: A crois-wich (or some equally stupid name) for $4.50 which was a croissant with egg, cheese and some spammy looking meat.
3) The Asian place: Two bits of French toast (sweet) for $4.50 or a vegetarian omelette for $4.50.
I went with the omelette for maximum filling capacity, and it was actually quite good.
So many hours left. This is what it must feel like to be sentenced to death by cheese grater.
I looked to the TV to break my gloom.
An American suit called Hagel was speaking live from the Pentagon.
The US would be launching a longterm campaign against ISIS. Belgium, Denmark and ?Spain? had also jumped onboard, and the British Parliament had just voted to join their yankee chums too.
I wondered what news from Australia on that front. It had been pleasant being away while Abbott was in control, but now it seemed I was returning for the next bout of madness.
CNN was having a field day, for once having fresh fodder to fill their revolving crap cycle. I mean news. News cycle.
I hadn’t researched enough about Isis to have an opinion on it. All I knew was their decree for the forced genital mutilation of every female in one town. I hoped it hadn’t come to pass.
I sat with a rumbling stomach. I was $1.50 shy of an espresso coffee, and the sad realisation that Hawaiin Airlines would serve only one small meal on the whole flight sunk in.
I was going to eat a horse when I got to Brisbane……hopefully one of my sisters had one, because I had not one dime accessible.
Spirit Airways, the cheapest way I could fling my travel-weary body from Bogota, Colombia across to Los Angeles.
Their seats don’t recline and their airhostesses yell at you without finesse to stow your bags under the seat for takeoff. But hey, that $200 saving is half a month’s travel in South America!
I sat beside a lady and her son, originally from Panama. I looked at the rich purple/black of her skin and wished for the millionth time I could go ten shades darker. Her clothing was like a vibrant shout against that shade.
“You should go there when you return to Central America. It’s a really good place to travel there.”
She told me about her favourite area.
“Watch your stuff, but you get that everywhere. Food is really cheap, and a taxi is like $3.
“The only thing is there’s a lotta hookers around there, but they shouldn’t bother you.”
We both laughed at that.
“Hopefully not,” I agreed.
With a budget airline the five hours felt like ten. I thanked the powers that be (whoever they may be) for my short legs and tried unsuccessfully to sleep on my window.
Two hours to kill in Fort Lauderdale, which was beautiful to land in at night, ablaze with a grid-work of lights. Luckily for me I made a friend.
As always, the best people I meet travelling seem to appear in the dullest spots. A boring layover where you eat your over-cheesed sandwich and watch everybody sit on wifi instead of talking.
Organised as usual, I had arranged not much for my midnight arrival in LA, with a whole day and night to kill until I flew out at 6pm the next day.
“If you get stuck,” said my new acquaintance, “you can always crash at mine.”
“I have two bedrooms, and I’m not creepy. And you don’t seem creepy, so that’s always good.”
A stunning woman of Indian heritage, it came as no surprise when she said she’d moved to LA to further her acting career.
She had been acting professionally for around ten years, and I was intrigued to learn that an audition could still be nerve racking after that time.
“It’s good though sometimes because you can turn those nerves into really great on-stage energy,” she said.
We had a great chat about the challenge of doing what you love for a living while walking the thin tightrope of not leaching it of all creative joy.
“I want to write books for a living one day,” I told her.
“Fiction with characters you can really picture, to an extent you know what they’d do in certain situations… as though they are real people.”
We looked around at the crowded waiting lounge, a flat and luck-lustre backdrop for a conversation about chasing your dreams.
Tired people said tired things to each other, chewing airport food unenthusiastically and wishing they were home already.
“You could write about this waiting room and make it really funny, if you just get your dialogue right, and use a fresh perception,” I said, thinking out loud.
It remains my motivation for moving somewhere I know nobody and learning another language. To loosen my mind and distance myself from my ability to earn money through writing. Only then I feel will the proper creative juices flow.
In the end the friend in Venice Beach I had emailed last minute got back to me with great news. Yes I could crash on her couch, she had just finished a late night business meeting and her and her partner were on the way to pick me up from LAX airport now!
“Wait outside, we’re close,” the message buzzed on my laptop.
“Black convertible, see you soon! Xx”
I said goodbye to the kind-hearted actress, and thanked the world for sending a stranger to brighten my dull day of transit. We swapped Facebook details, as is the glory of our times.
There I stood at the front door of the LAX terminal, my chode of a backpack strapped on, and my video camera bag on my front. I looked like 2-Pak, but obviously tougher.
Then they pulled in. Could there be anything more LA? I counted the number of times I’d been collected in a black convertible….oh that’s right…one. LA baby!
I met my friend’s partner for the first time. He walked past my outstretched hand and wrapped me in a bear hug. After just five minuted, whizzing back to Venice Beach with the hood up so we could hear each other, I was glad he was with my Aria.
A handy twenty minutes from the airport, their apartment was a cool studio style layout, one large-room encompassing lounge, bedroom and kitchen, with a bathroom and walk-in robe leading off.
There were surfboards in the bathroom, bikes beside the front door and a huge printed graphic of a New York streetscape with the Flat Iron building immediately drawing the eye.
I slept on the extremely comfy couch, picturing a pile of feathers beneath me. I could hear the very distant hum of LA traffic as I felt myself sink down through the layers of sleep. Just as I drifted out of consciousness I felt content, safe and comfy…once again in the home of a friend.
In the morning, well rested from my time on the couch of dreams, we strolled down Pacific Ave, past the famous Venice Beach sign strung across an intersecting street, and ordered bagels and coffee at Café Collage.
Oh salmon bagel, welcome back to my life. Australia was slowly catching onto the beauty of bagels, but here you could pretty much trip over them.
I liked thinking they had the same effect on my physical appearance as say, broccoli would, however their deliciousness made me doubt this.
We sat on the beach to eat, watching surfers appear on the white caps one by one like evening stars.
Can there be anything better linked to happiness than a morning surf before work. The waves were so close to the beach it was like a box-office seat at the theatre.
I watched a guy scampering back and forth on his longboard, distributing his weight with each lift and drop of the wave. Eventually, the wave won.
We talked for around an hour about almost everything, my golden-haired friend and I. Love, sustainability, growing into adults, living in a smaller place but a better location, the need to run away from life as you know it and return wiser, better travelled and with a newfound tenacity.
We had met in primary school and seemed to have grown into adults who still shared similar values and enjoyed an easy connection. I love our generation’s view of the world, the ability to reduce it in size so that moving overseas no longer means you drift inevitably away from people.
Thank you technology and great airfare deals.
We spent the morning in her apartment, her working remotely and me remotely working…mostly scouting jobs in Australia and Colombia.
In between we’d break for coffee or chocolate. It was good old-fashioned girl hangs, and much needed.
Back on the job search, depressing and hopeful at the same time. Eventually the temptation of the pool was too much. I let the cold water swallow me as choppers cruised overhead in the LA skyline.
One mention must be made of the take-out we got from Pacific Ave’s culinary gem…..Mexican joint, The Flying Jalapeno.
Holy smack that food is good. With a whole counter of fresh toppings, you create your own taco, burrito or bowl of delicious.
They cooked my fish fresh and I chose black beans, guacamole, lettuce, corn, grilled peppers, onion and some unknown breed of great salsa.
As I sat waiting for my fish, sipping an amazing house-made lemonade, I realised I had misjudged Venice Beach on my last visit.
Don’t get me wrong, I still hate the boardwalk strip of weird beggars and hawkers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the foot, board and bicycle traffic that went past as I waited.
Many people running, surfers, Dads with great tattoos carrying kids on shoulders, girls with wicked rockabilly hairdos, artistic types and pinup types.
I also noticed the street art everywhere, which I hadn’t seen as much of on my last visit, and my friend informed me of the fantastic local arts and creative community in the area.
With a bit of afternoon left before the hours at the airport began, I walked the very short jaunt to the Venice canals.
Built by American developer and environmentalist Abbot Kinney in 1905, the canals fell into disrepair after losing functionality/popularity with the increase of the automobile in Los Angeles.
They were drained, renovated and refilled in 1992 and are now home to some stunning and pricey waterfront houses.
It’s a beautiful walk, with white, arched bridges intersecting the walkways and canoes and rowboats moored nonchalantly in front of houses.
The gardens burst with hydrangeas, bougainvillea and yellow hibiscus bursting in vibrant colour pops on all sides. Little fish swam, the water was still and the day felt easy.
So, Venice Beach, on round two I liked you much better.
NB: No photos because I lost my camera in an overloaded taxi in Peru. Sigh.
The great thing about visiting friends scattered across the United States is the variation in places that we visit.
We touched down in Buffalo, state of New York, with images of hoe-downs and chicken wings racing through my mind.
While I didn’t see the first, the latter was in delicious abundance. Nobody does Buffalo wings like a Buffalonian.
After reaching our friend’s house (she was at work) we sat on the couch, ate a bagel, and woke up in a daze one hour later. I have always liked how your body calls the shots. If it’s exhausted it will just shut down, without warning, like a flat microphone.
She had left the keys to her Jeep, and feeling very Americana, we drove the hour to the school she taught at to offer ourselves as Aussie show-and-tell.
The neighbourhoods were so American it was funny. I felt like I was featuring in Dennis The Menace. Front porches sporting American flags stood proudly on green lawns that ran to the road without fences. There were maple trees lining the streets and people doing wholesome things like tending gardens.
Memorial Day weekend was coming up so patriotism was in full swing. Every second house had a flag.
As we got closer to the school I noticed the neighbourhoods drop in affluence. I knew it was a lower socio-economic school, which made me only more keen to see it. Having gone to an girls private school it was completely the opposite.
Cool groups of kids hung around the lockers in the hallway, teachers and students were in dress, and everyone was more relaxed and in my opinion more grown-up feeling than when I sat in front of a blackboard.
We visited art class. A girl with eyeliner and a cool fringe told us about the places she’d lived. She was cool and collected, far more mature than I remembered myself at her age.
Another kid up the back was bent quietly to his work. One of the best students, his teacher told us. After the class emptied the teacher showed us a chair he had painted. It was beautiful. She explained the scenes on each side and their meaning was sad and simple in places, dark but hopeful in others.
Kids never cease to amaze me. Youth is an amazing thing. I find it often more truthful than the lives many adults are living. Before it has been corrupted by expectations or norms. It’s probably the closest we come to being who we truly are in some ways.
The kids couldn’t carry backpacks until the bell rang due to gun security. I thought sadly how the power of the gun lobby in America continued to block gun control reforms and put people’s lives at risk. As I walked down the corridors I imagined shots ringing out and the blind panic of hundreds of bodies trying to cram through one small doorway to safety. It is a mind-boggling concept that the safety of American children can be out-muscled by the greed of companies selling steel.
While we were in the States 22-year-old Elliot Rodger stabbed to death his three roommates and then shot down three people in cold blood before killing himself. None of them had turned 23 yet.
It went down in Santa Barbara, California. A really nice town with excessively high prices that we’d stopped in for lunch on our road trip the week before. One victim was shot down in a sandwich shop.
Rodger’s parents had alerted authorities about concerns over their son months before the May 16 attack, but no grounds were found to detain him or search his premises.
In a manifesto published online Rodger cited a history of rejection from women as his motive. Just another messed up kid given too easy access to murder. If he couldn’t walk into a store and buy a gun perhaps he would have done something else destructive. I used to pinch a carton of eggs from the fridge and pelt them one by one at the horse trailer to deal with my own inexpressible juvenile angst. Nobody was ever killed during this ten minute release of anger.
The pro-gun lobbyists say it’s people not guns that kill. Stabbing three people is one thing, but standing metres away and letting the pull of a trigger mow down three more is a damn sight easier.
Maybe one day the head of America’s powerful and filthy rich National Rifle Association will have someone they love gunned down in cold blood. Until that day they will continue to pour money into opposing any kind of gun reform in the United States. It’s a sad, stupid state of affairs and one I have little patience for debating anymore. Every time they pick the young body of a school massacre off the ground I wonder dully how it is even still up for debate.
We walked down the hall where some kids were painting a mural on the wall.
“Good job guys,” said our teacher friend.
She walked to a boy kneeling down painting the white caps of waves.
“I think we need to get a little more shading on this light coming out of the lighthouse,” she said.
“See how it’s blending too much with the water?”
Leaning back on his haunches the kid surveyed his work and agreed. He dipped his brush in a darker yellow and began adding a subtle shadow line to the lighthouse beam.
people need is nurturing, a bit of guidance and the space to grow and achieve things for themselves.
Seeing my friend interact with the kids was beautiful. She was fun, cheeky and patient with them. I could see how they loved her. If the world had more people like this lady we would be turning out more kids who felt they had options for help, rather than feeling backed into a corner with the need to lash out. My hat off to the great teachers toiling in this world. I know the work doesn’t stop when the bell rings.
I decided a long time ago I wanted to take in foster kids. There seem to be so many souls who aren’t given the chance from the outset. They don’t need much. Just someone who gives a shit and a bed they know they are safe in at night.
That night we gathered at our friend’s parents’ place for a good old fashioned American dinner. Luckily for us they were from a long line of chicken farmers, and their great-grandparents had even paid good money for a secret recipe back in the day.
Just like the KFC legend, before it was commercialised to death!
I love meeting people’s families. People are generally a product of their nature and nurture. Gretty’s family were like her: gracious, hospitable and friendly. And her mum had the same booming laugh I loved her for.
It erupted without warning, pure as honey and honest to its last resounding note.
After her dad found out I worked as a journalist we had some great chats around the barbecue. The US was having fracking dramas with exploration for gas/energy sources similar to Australia’s. I explained our huge underground water table and the fears of local farmers that such a dry country was risking water security for the short term dollar.
Mr Gretty basted the split chicken halves with the secret sauce his ancestors had paid for those years ago. The meat looked out of this world delicious. He wouldn’t tell me the ingredients, a true flavour guardian of the oldest order.
“You should see this place in the winter,” he told me, as we looked across the stunning green spread of his lawn.
“Everything is white. It’s just melted not long before you guys arrived.”
Their house was beautiful, they’d done well. I looked up the street and was sorry I wasn’t here in the waist-deep white of winter. I imagined how red my coat would look against the blanket of white. I imagined the kids dining each others’ doorbells and standing back to pelt snowballs when the door swung open. How different to my dry, inland upbringing of gumtrees and red dirt!
Our hosts covered the table with enough food for a small country, and we ate with relish (the enthusiasm not the condiment) as we envisaged the strict budget ahead for the next five months.
Buffalo probably doesn’t feature high on the average US itinerary, but I was glad we went. The next morning we ate in the garden, cold air on our faces. A red breasted robin and a squirrel frolicked in the garden. I waited patiently for Snow White to step out of the greenery, fawns at her heels. It was very pleasant after the concrete rambling of San Fran.
We visited Niagra falls, spectacular but marred by the casinos on either side. Nature should be natural.
The Hornblower boat glided underneath the hallway of blinding white water, its deck packed with poncho-clad tourists. I pictured the spray raining down on them, their cameras taking blurred snaps of nothing much. Their eyes goggling at the might of it .
That night we went for beers and buffalo wings at a little local joint. Dark and great. A sign on the wall declared “if it needs a blender we’re out of that.”
A moose head hung above the beer taps. The bartender shouted a shot of local whisky. I always hoped I’d find bars like this in America.
We also squeezed in a night out on the town, which was highly amusing. Cinnamon flavoured shots are a big trend at the moment in the US. A bit like shotting pureed bakery items, but tasty nonetheless.
We left the industrial town of Buffalo, with its pretty outer suburbs and unassuming galleries and vintage shops, and clambered onto a bus for New York City.
Little did we know it would be the quickest of our bus trips over the next six months.
New York, New York!
IF you have ever seen a dog riding in the back of a ute – wild eyes rolling, drool flying in gleaming, wet strands – you will understand how it feels to be a human in New York.
For a dog smells are everything. So imagine the ecstasy of hundreds hurtling towards that snoz. The delight as they hit those moist receptors. The information, the gossip they contain. It must be like ecstacy for the canine senses.
As I walked through the streets of the world’s biggest city, wearing the hippest gear I owned and feeling decidedly under-hip, my eyes could not work fast enough.
A guy wielding an elephant-trunk pipe sucked greese from the pit of a takeaway shop, disappearing down the hatch in his perfect NYC street worker costume.
A dog pulled its owner past on rollerblades. The dog just wore feet.
Under the New York Police Department people in costume posed for photos with tourists to make a buck. Spiderman peeled back his head and took a breather, flicking a skittle into his mouth, cool as shit.
A cluster of army/navy ? troops waited at the lights. They were in town for the wknd, and their stiff hats poked ahead like beaks through the human surge of traffic.
There were just people everywhere. Everywhere there was something to watch.
If you visit the Big Apple, get the open bus tour. Bargain it down a little, there’s so many on offer this isn’t hard. Pay $30 or less.
As you glide through the streets on the top deck, traffic lights close to taking you out if you stand to snap a picture, you realise how old and remarkable the city is.
In the good old days people just got stuff done.
The Empire State Building went up in just one year, with four storeys done in one week. Bet Campbell Newman can’t get that kind of progress in Queensland in 2014.
Not many people know it, but a plane crashed into the side of the famous building after WWII.
We glided down 5th Ave, with Rupert Murdoch’s three-storey penthouse throwing a careless shadow across our bus.
I thought of the greedy man sitting up there sipping a gin and planning the biased front pages that marked his Australian papers’ federal election coverage. GRRRR.
“How much do you think it’s worth?” our tour guide asked the group.
My guess of three million was met with laughter and the answer “$57 million actually.”
Whatever you wanted this city had it. We saw Cooper University, a free-tuition institution started by Peter Cooper, which accepted students with the best grades into courses such as architecture, arts and others.
The world needs more opportunities for brains rather than wallets to get you into uni.
Abraham Lincoln spoke there, lucky buggers.
We gazed upon the might of New York University. These guys were so loaded that when building of the premises was halted due to a supplies problem with the quarry, they simply purchased the quarry and finished the job.
Times Square was predictably amazing. Video footage advertising spanning two storeys lit up the sky, hundreds of people gathered for discounted Broadway show tickets, and every few metres someone tried to sell you something.
It was electric.
We stayed in Brooklyn, about 20mins out on the subway line, at the hipster hang of Williamsburg (Billsburg if you’re a real hipster).
It was a different taste of the city. At night empty looking warehouse buildings would slide open a corrugated tin panel and a funky bar or pizza joint would come to life. There was great street art, great coffee and the general hum of daily life that you only find in the suburbs. Families would sit in big groups around someone’s house front sharing drinks and cooking on a heat-bead bbq.
We only had four days in NYC and didn’t care too much about ticking off the tourist list. That doesn’t tell you anything about a city. We didn’t bother with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building…etc.
Instead we explored the Lower East Side, poked through galleries and museums and generally checked out the scene.
New Yorkers are a funny lot. Street smart and geared faster than the rest. Nice if they have the time, short if they don’t.
I didn’t achieve my dream of banging on a taxi’s yellow hood and yelling “Hey! I’m walkin’ here.”
I highly recommend the New Museum in Brooklyn. One exhibit featured a group of around 12 guys singing and playing guitar constantly for eight hours. The effect was to walk into an almost meditative state of song; harmonies, altos and steadily building intensity to culminate in a beautiful, strange experience.
Some of the guys would stop to have a drink and lie on a mattress in the large room while their comrades carried on the music. It had something to do with the Sigur Ross singer, which I can’t remember.
There was a huge lineup at Footlocker one day for cool kicks, which are like gold teeth in New York. One entrepreneur was even renting camping chairs along the queue.
As we hoofed it past Bryant Park, one of NYC’s best pockets of green, I overhead a kid on a school group outing.
“I should do a thing on it, like a whole science project, about how people respond better to low fives, like right in the middle of the chest region……not high.”
Filled my laugh quota for the day.
After getting my first pimple in years I decided I needed some time out of the smog (which by the way is nowhere near as bad as Bangkok, as most New Yorkers catch public transport and don’t clog the roads), so we set up camp at Central Park.
It is magic. Visit it.
There are whole Instagram and online communities dedicated to exploring new pockets of this amazing green sprawl.
I shut my eyes and dug my fingernails deep into the grass. It was still so loud! A muffled loudness, but that NYC buzz was still there.
Big groups of friends shared food and swapped babies; a steady stream of horses pulling carriages, plumes bouncing, held up pedestrians; kids practised cartwheels; people took photos; kids asked for donations to their basketball team for jerseys; joggers and roller bladers glided by; bold squirrels approached for treats; lovers lay tangled in the sun.
The place was uplifting.
We explored a tiny corner of its immensity. I found forums on people’s favourite parts, and realised you could spend a year in the park and see new things every day.
We left refreshed, and stumbled upon a true highlight.
The street crew who breakdance, flip and spin under the golden horse statue on one edge of Central Park.
A solid crowd had gathered, and they knew how to work it.
I watched as they moved forward in turns and did their thing. Whoa.
Muscles bunched under their dark skin, the kind that came from actually using them, not just pumping them at the gym. The main guy went from a one armed handstand into a dizzying head-spin, then flipped effortlessly onto his feet and into a spinning breakdance move.
And they were funny too.
“Obama wants change, but we want twenties,” the guy yelled to the crowd.
“I want you to keep in mind that the moves we do do risk our bodies, and we could get seriously hurt doing them. But we consider this our job.”
They plucked four people from the crowd, lined them up, and got everyone involved as one crew member (who looked around 10-12 years old) took a running jump and flipped over the top of all four. He landed on the rock-hard cobblestones. Amazing.
“Remember, if we are here performing for you it’s good for two reasons; one – we’re not on the streets, and two, we’re not at your house.”
Two members toured the crowd with their collection hat. Yelling out when there was a good donation.
“We just got ten dollars from New Zealand!”
“Twenty dollars from Mexico!”
An African American lady handed them a tenner and the guy held it up to the sun. She laughed, embarrassed. He was very good looking, shirtless, and flirting with her.
“A black lady just gave us ten dollars, and it’s real!” he yelled to a laughing crowd.
Her and her friend laughed hardest.
We walked the Brooklyn Bridge, being softly shoulder charged by the throng of people going the other way. It was like salmon going upstream.
The structure itself was stunning, curving into a striking assembly of lines the closer you got to the city.
We watched a World Cup qualifier in a crowded pub, drank some of our old friend, Blue Moon – with hunks of orange of course, and fell exhausted into bed at night.
New York, New York. Ha-mazing!
I have always admired nudity in public, particularly as it’s not usually the good-looking people who seem to lead the way.
Look at every streaker to ever grace a sporting field: white ass blazing and skin slapping.
While in San Fran we had a stroke of luck. The annual Bay to Breakers Race was on….kicking off about two blocks from our hotel.
Everyone dresses up for it and there are skill levels from the Kenyans, who do the long distance as a sprint, right down to the fraternity kids who have been drinking since daybreak.
We got in position and let the chaos unfold around us. It was sensational.
San Francisco brought out its best.
There were of course the typical annoying drunk people, young kids who think being loud equals being the most drunk. Just like me ten years ago!
A guy pissed on the street and we moved positions.
The bad-ass San Fran cops cleared the streets and the buzzer sounded. We didn’t really know what we were in for.
The African runners led, naturally, their long limbs eating the bitumen with grace and ease. The metre-eaters as my friend would say.
Then, in the pack of serious runners close behind, we spotted our first naked people.
The man was starkers and the woman (being liberated but not irrational) wore a sports bra. If you’re in it to win it the bounce factor is not an option.
Everyone got excited and a guy running past yelled out “What? Haven’t you ever seen a naked person before?”
Well if you hadn’t, today was your day! We stopped counting at 50.
All sorts of bodies came by completely bare. There was a great contingent of proud older men, most with penis rings or decorated headwear. There was a definite salute to San Fran’s gay community and gay and lesbian rights movement.
There were rainbow flags, groups of 15 people joined as caterpillars by ropes, a guy dressed as a soccer goal -who people kept tripping over, a bunch of men dressed as cheerleaders, some face-painted terrorists in camouflage underpants, a set of tetris blocks, bedazzled breasts and beaded chests, President Obama, a guy juggling as he ran, Spongebob Squarepants, lots of burgers, skeletons, zombies, a giant upside down letter R, the Goldengate Bridge, and…my favourite, a strip of bacon and his mate holding a pancake pourer, as shake and bake.
It was a parade of the weird and wonderful, and made me love the city more.
Every now and then a serious runner would pass; eyes straight ahead, dodging naked butts and Mr Potato Heads.
Good on all who bared all. That is what living in a liberal city is all about.
On the train I talked to two San Fran cops to get the measure of the place. I’d heard the cops here were pretty violent, but these two were exceptionally nice.
“We don’t have much trouble on the Breakers day,” the male cop told me.
“Usually we just ask people to put their clothes back on afterwards, but it’s not really a problem.”
He was from New York City and told me it had changed a lot since the 9/11 attack, with cameras virtually everywhere in the centre.
“What are the cops in Australia like?” they asked me.
Hmm…how to answer that one!
On the whole good, I told them. Some have power trips like bouncers, but in my experience mostly good.
Hats off to them I reckon. I wouldn’t have the patience.
We got off at Castro , a neighbourhood with a large gay community and great cafes. A guy returning home from the morning’s race walked past completely starkers and a bum yelled at him.
A bum yelling at a bum.
The subway station had a plaque dedicated to Harvey Milk, the famous gay politician who had secured important rights in San Francisco. An enormous rainbow flag flew against the blue sky, and well-dressed people walking niche breeds of dogs stopped to chat on their door stoops or at shop fronts.
The next day, and this simply must be included, we saw some shit go down. Literally.
We were waiting with the business crowd to catch a morning bus. Everyone was respectable, freshly scrubbed and in their day’s attire. My friend was telling me a story when over her shoulder I caught sight of….
A homeless woman had dropped her pants and was leaning her bum up against what looked like a bus stop. It was actually a donga that housed a flower shop, which had not yet opened for the morning. The poor florist when she arrived for work that day!
To my disgust she began to urinate. She dropped a tissue in it and picked it up. A man stopped walking, leaned on his walking stick and stared in disgust at the event.
Then she defecated. It made me feel sick.
She was clearly living on the streets, and when she had finished a homeless man wandered over and urinated in the same spot.
It was unexpected, gross and confronting.
As always though it was a pointed reminded about the seeming class gap in the city.
To get to the point that you would do that without a care in the middle of the morning peak hour, I don’t know if many of us can appreciate her circumstances til we’ve been there.
See my earlier post for a link to a great article written on San Fran’s homeless population and attitudes towards it.
The middle class people and I boarded the bus.
I wondered if she had some cardboard to block the cold sidewalk from seeping into her bones that night.
It was cold as we caught the ferry over, the wind whipped my short hair into my eyes and the ocean slewed below us. Ominous and freezing.
Alcatraz sat ahead, stony and unforgiving. The very sight of it chilled me and set my imagination racing.
An escape! Months and months of planning. A rush of adrenalin. A race against time, against being discovered. Holding you breath and plunging into that icy water, knowing you would rather die of hypothermia than go back to that six-foot concrete cage.
Holy crap I was excited.
It was almost morbid. But everyone has seen the movie, and it is one of the greatest escape stories of all time.
Digging out a tunnel over many nights with (allegedly) a spoon. Making fake heads to fool the wardens on their check, complete with painted faces and real hair from each escaped prisoner.
Docking on the rock it was clear what a tough swim it would be for anyone trying to reach freedom. They told us you’d have around one hour in the water before hypothermia set in. A good swimmer could make the distance in 50 minutes if the tide was right.
The night the three escapees made their dash the tide was not in their favour.
The first thing you see at Alcatraz is “Indians welcome” scrawled across the front of a building. The little known history of the place is that it is traditional American Indian land, and was in fact on of the first protest occupations that spurned the Red Power Movement.
Beginning in 1969, the Alcatraz occupation lasted 19 months and was a rally of all tribes of American Indian people to fight for self-governance and better equality in America’s treatment of them. It triggered 36 other occupations and won American Indians important ground and social rights.
In her poem Alcatraz Reunion, Jewelle Gomez (Wampanoag, Iowan, Cape Verdean), expresses gentle contempt for the tourists who flock to the famous rock. There on a trip with her mother, to reconnect with their own land and each other, she writes:
It’s a cold ride and perverse
to be among those eager to
peer through prison bars and
glimpse long dead misery,
the ghosts of anger pacing and fear
huddled in darkness
so close to the city lights
As I read it I realise I fall into that exact category. But it is so damn interesting to think of the human spirit broken behind bars, of a life lived out, year by endless year, in small cement corridors and rooms.
It fascinates me because I believe I have grit. I could survive it. I could make it. An easy claim from someone living their life free as a bird I suppose.
The Alcatraz tour comes with a fantastic audio experience. The voices of former inmates and wardens accompany you down the corridors. Sound effects of clanking keys, prisoners yelling out and the daily sounds of caged life transport you there, as though you were walking past the cells for the first time as a new prisoner. Exactly what you don’t want to be in a place like Alcatraz….a fresh face.
In the solitary confinement cell I sat in the corner and shut my eyes. Someone came past and took a photo of me. That will make for a weird on in their holiday snaps.
The slow, weather voice of an inmate travelled down my headphones. To get through the hours of pitch-black solitary confinement he would rip off a button and flick it behind him in the dark.
“Then I’d get down on my hands and knees and search for that button until I found it.”
“Then I’d get up and do it again.”
How it would mess with your head. He was smart; he knew how to keep his brain active.
The showers were scary. The mess hall was big and had guard posts on ceiling level. The bleachers in the exercise yard made me sad for all the wasted lives of so many men. Reading about some of their crimes though…kidnap for example, my pity evaporated.
I walked a little further and looked into the face of Bernard Coy, staring back from his photograph with big ears and a drawn face.
His story was an interesting one. Turning to crime in The Great Depression, Coy earned himself 25 years for bank robbery.
He coordinated an escape while working in the library, a job that allowed him access to a lot of the prison. After spotting a weakness in the bars above the gun gallery he fashioned a homemade bar-spreader and managed to overthrow the guard in the galley.
He starved himself to squeeze through the bars.
It resulted in a bloody two-day siege where Coy himself was shot, along with two prison guards and two of his co-conspirators.
Seeing the cells of the three successful escapees however was the clear highlight.
They had left it all as it was found on the morning after the escape.
The fake heads were tucked on their pillows, the grill was removed to reveal the secret tunnel, and you could even see where the three men had climbed –in between the cells – to reach freedom.
The trio had been learning Spanish for months before their escape, and one warden believes they lived out their days in South America.
They were never seen again.
Succinctly, the day is US $30 very well spent.
I’m goooooooooing to Saaaaaan Fraaaaaan-cisco!
We were sick of using the GPS, so we simply aimed for the Golden Gate Bridge. Oh so famous, oh so pretty.
I had grown up hearing a lot about San Fran; streets that went on in ribbons to the horizon, hills skateboarders dream of and liberal people living their blessedly aware lives.
The home of gay politician and general social mover-and-shaker Harvey Milk, architecture akin to Paris or Portugal and everywhere trendy motherfu*#ers drinking coffee, walking dogs, lounging in parks or striding to work.
It was a city very much alive with its population and I felt instantly at home in it.
High on the hill, looking out at the famous bridge. There was a sports car with giant teddy bears parked nearby, all wearing Giants baseball jerseys.
People were going nuts getting selfies beside them…but then the Giants did win the World Series last year, so I guess a selfie with a giant Giants bear was normal.
Looking across the water at Alcatraz it was impossible not to feel a slight chill as I imagined the desperate escapees plunging into the freezing water.
We stayed up high, as one should in a big city, and ate strawberries above the throbbing centre of 4th Street.
Walking around in this city was spectacular. The buildings were gorgeous and on every turn you were confronted with people rocking great shoes, cool jackets or fantastic hair. It was a very trendy place.
I decided to step it up a bit and wear Sketchers (purchased of course from a great Toowoomba op-shop) instead of Havaianas!
We meandered over to China Town, where the fruit and veg was cheap – ideal for hostel cooking. There was also good food for around $10 a meal.
A truck was parked outside the fish shop, a man pulling flapping catfish from its inside with a huge net. The whiskered things flopped madly in their captivity, probably sensing the end was near.
Inside turtles lay on their back, futilely pawing the air. A lady handed over $4 and three catfish said goodbye to the world via three efficient bashes from a lump of wood. Wham, bam thank you mam. Pleasure doing business. The frogs looked on aghast.
We walked on and soon hit a bottleneck of people at the top of a fantastic hill.
We were deep in the Nob Hill district, known as snob hill we later found out. Mercs were casually parked outside staggering houses.
The hill looked down onto the bay below, great ships turned museums waiting patiently for their long-dead captains.
But there was an even more impressive view. The skaters were here. On strange skinny boards that bent like planks they made their way down the corkscrew hill.
I watched as one guy waited for the cars to go, but losing his patience went anyway, GoPro on his helmet, pants low and hipness high.
Reaching the first bend he executed a neat 360 jump and was quickly at the back tyres of the black Chrysler driving slowly ahead of him. Dragging his foot as a break he gave a simple kick, a twist of his hips and was around it, speeding into the magnificent view at the bottom.
Skaters: Go to the corner of Lombard and Hyde Streets to test your skills.
We walked for so long in this city but never got bored, so good were the sights, the people watching and the weather.
At the bay we watched gobsmacked as people cut laps in the freezing water. A man was drying his ears on the bleachers, his wetsuit stripped back from his torso.
“Looks a bit nippy out there,” I said. “How long were you swimming for?”
“Around 50 minutes, it’s ok as long as you keep your hands moving, your face gets used to it after a while.”
“What about the people without wetsuits!? Are they sane?”
“Actually there’s a swimming club up there which you can’t be in unless you swim without one.”
One way of keeping the whingers out I guess.
Anyone who’s been to San Fran will probably tell you in their first breath what a cool city it is and in their second how bad the homelessness is.
Homeless people seem to be everywhere. Everybody in San Fran wears good, closed in shoes because there is undoubtedly a lot of grottyness at foot level.
I was waiting for a bus on Market St when the lady approached me. She had an old jacket on for when the sun drops and the wind shrieks through the CBD’s buildings. It was early in the morning. She had a face that looked like it had poured a lot out for other people over the years; been the comforter.
“Excuse me, I’m just trying to get something to eat, can you help me? I just wanna get two dollas for a…..for a hotdog or somethin’,” she said.
Everyone ignored her or looked away. It was around 9am.
Homeless people at the bus stop is like salt on chips.
She held out two silver tokens.
“I wouldn’t cheat you,” she said, looking at me with two brown eyes.
“You just put each one of these tokens in the slot machine when the bus pulls up and they get you a two dolla ride.”
I agreed to try it once the bus pulled up and hand the money back to her if it worked.
I didn’t ask her name, but she had been living on the streets for five months. She had slender fingers, which clutched her tokens, and she repeated her request often.
“The shelter kicks you out at 8am each morning and you can go back in at 12.”
The tokens worked and I handed back the $2, her face looking up at me like I’d just given her a house. I knew she was going to buy the hotdog she’d talked about.
I guessed they got the tokens at the shelter, but I also guessed they got meals there too. Who knows.
The city of San Francisco estimates the homeless population at around 7,350, based on a 2013 count. Of that, 1,902 were unaccompanied children or youth under 25.
One of many safe havens offered by the city is ‘A Woman’s Place’ shelter: an ironic salute to the domestic violence problem that underlies many homeless women’s situations.
An excellent article which explores the dehumanisation of the city’s homeless can be read here: http://www.sfbg.com/2014/03/25/san-franciscos-untouchables
The part about the kids with the video camera is particularly sad. In an affluent city like San Fran the homeless seem to be viewed as a pain, not a social issue.
In the 2013 Point-In-Time Count of homeless persons in the city, 59% were found to be unsheltered.
Anyway, it was Saturday night and Aussie band Big Scary were playing at Mission, the land of cool bars and understated venues. They were good too.
We caught a bus most of the way and then walked through some dodgy parts, past some dodgy people. And it was here I had my first encounter with a crack head.
We stood at the bus stop. I was wearing red lipstick, a backpacker’s secret weapon for looking good with limited space and money.
A homeless man dropped a coin onto the road and stepped down after it.
“Watch out dude, car coming,” I yelled out as a taxi ht the breaks.
Instantly he came over to us. Godammit I thought. Wild eyed and rambling he got right up in my face asking for money in a garbled gremlin speak. I could barely understand him. Coming from Australia personal space is a given.
Without thinking I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed him gently to the side, saying, “you can go up there, it’s better near the bus.”
Boom. Crack head went nuts. He spoke in gremlin again, animated and fast. I only caught “bitch.”
It boiled down to nothing and he went away. Luckily.
Lesson learned….never touch a crack head.
San Francisco however, was one of my favourite cities to date.
Our ride was pimpin’, but it was a fuel guzzler! The wide grill of our Chrysler grinned at the bitumen as we hugged the Californian west coast, making our way north towards San Francisco.
After leaving the parallel universe of Venice Beach behind, and glimpsing an uncanny Bruce Willis lookalike refuelling his convertible, we left the clogged outer beach suburbs of LA and headed towards the windswept coast.
The land started to plump out, urban and beach sprawl giving way to grassed hills.
I hung my head out the window and delighted in the air. And then I saw them…….a herd of zebras calmly chewing on their grassy knoll, like it was just another day on the Serengeti plains.
We threw up dust as we peeled to a stop. And I thought I’d have to go to Africa to set eyes on disco donkeys! Each animal has a different set of stripes, which work as a strobe light to throw out the vision of predators as the plump behinds run for their lives.
I waited, but alas no lions.
It was too early for anyone to sell us coffee so we pulled in to a beach, my toes greeted by the freezing water of the (WHAT OCEAN?). I discovered I could still skim a stone like a demon.
After paying a small fortune for coffee, due to the café’s great viewpoint of whale migration, we headed towards what was a highlight of the trip.
Near the small town of San Simeon, flubbering in all their glory, were hundreds of elephant seals.
These were even better than the cavorting sea lions of La Jolla, though not nearly as active.
They sprawled in grotesque fatness up and down the shoreline, their huge girths begging to be slapped like a sack of goon.
Regularly one would decided to take a dip, and move in heaving caterpillar thrusts towards the water, needing to rest every five metres from the exertion of it all.
I laughed like a child. How fantastic someone had made this world.
It was moulting season for these gargantuan beasts, so unfortunately the big bucks were away on a different island and it was the females and adolescent males who claimed the sand.
The young males, between marinating in their own fat, would practise fighting, for when they joined macho island down the track.
Leaning back on the base of their stomachs/tails until their back wrinkled up in huge grey corrugations, they would lunge at each other. Most of it contained little gusto, but they would smack against each other in the way I imagined two pieces of steak might fight.
They bared their teeth, whiskers back, and mouths agape to show the bright pink cavities inside.
One huge female, propped on her side like the woman I had seen under the lifeguard stand at Venice Beach, looked right at me. Her black eyes seemed to laugh and I was sure she knew I would rather be on the beach than getting back in the car.
They also partook in sand bathing, their flippers flicking sand up like a slow motion fountain across their thunderous forms.
A squirrel, nose twitching, climbed down from its hideout in the dunes and made its way towards the big bopper. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I thought. Sniffing, it jumped back as big mama lunged towards the water, her blubber propelling her through its sheer waves of momentum.
One young male was really coming in to his own, his snout developing into a respectable elephant shnoz that would one day win him a portly bride.
Buoyed as always by nature we got back in the fuel guzzler.
Then began a spectacular piece of coastline that I will see forever in my mind. The Big Sur coastal drive. Go and get a pen, get your list out of the bucket, and write it down.
The hills loomed huge and our red car sped between them like a spec of polish. There was blonde savannah grass and more dense, dark green shrubbery. But best of all, it was all windswept; full of space and romance.
Craggy cliffs dropped right off to an ocean below, where greens, deep blues, teals, azures and aquas shone beside the frothing white caps of waves. This is probably where Taubman and Pank came when they needed to think up a new name for a wanky shade of suburban paint.
“Just don’t go back to Big Sur. Baby, baby please don’t go,” begged The Thrills from the iPhone propped on the dash.
“So much for city lights. They’re never gonna guide you home.”
We wound our way beside the vision splendid, up high, our eyes glued to the windows.
After growing mighty hungry the cliffs finally subsided long enough for someone to build a town with beach access, and it was here we stumbled upon the little gem of Carmel.
The usual lunch of tuna, totillas, tomato and avo. We sat propped above the beach under the lazy shade of a tree, looking down at the cold, winking water. It was bliss. ‘Maybe I’ll never go back to employment,’ I thought as I ran down the sand hill in huge lolloping strides, my toes digging deep into the white grains.
The water was so cold it stung, and I emerged fresh and feeling very alive.
A throng of camera brandishing people had gathered and to my surprise I looked up to find a small seal on the beach.
It was very stunned looking. A dog ran up and sniffed it. An angry woman drew a circle in the sand around it and yelled at the man to leash his dog. People started taking selfies with the seal in the background. It looked like a lost pup.
Eventually marine services came and caught it in a travel cage. I wondered how many times that day it would appear on Facebook and Instagram.
On the way out of town I realised Carmel was a good place to drop some cash – with a sprawling golf course and clubhouse and stores like Tiffany in the main street.
That day we were pulled up by state troopers, none of whom said “meow” to my grave disappointment. The Tour California bike race was on and the leading peloton was due past any minute.
This was a pretty good cycling event we discovered, as we gathered on the side of the road with the other commuters.
A ‘pump up car’ came by to rev up the crowd.
“Who here is a cycling fan?” the guy yelled through his loudspeaker out the window.
Us three alone stuck our hands up. “This might help,” he yelled, flinging candy out the window. Most of it landed at the feet of the state trooper who didn’t share.
Then they were there. Packed in tight like a school of fish, legs pumping like pistons, their teardrop helmets bent low to their handlebars. There was a fantastic, quiet whir of speed as a pack of tyres sped past. You could feel the competitiveness like a raw energy, all those brains bending their wills against the pain, bidding their legs pedal and ignore the burning kilometres of hills ahead.
An instant and they were gone, motoring towards the actual fans dotted along the coastline with their chairs and signs.
Wiggens was in the lead! This tour was a good one apparently. Our Aussie Cadel Evans’ team was hanging tight in 11th place.
The support vehicles were a fantastic array of carbon frames, spare tyres and excessive personnel.
“There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bikes on those roof racks,” the security guard told me.
I’d have to tell my kiwi cyclist friend how close I got to the stars!
We found a cheap hotel for the night and I let the steaming hot water run down my back, wondering how many showers I’d get in South America.
I turned the tap as hot as I could bear and thought with a grin about zebras, elephant seals and cliffs.
While I was staying at Newport Beach I had just enough time to epilate one leg and pluck one eyebrow. Luckily they were both on the same side of my body, so depending which way you approached….I was looking good.
Or at least half good.
Anyway, I thought it was a healthy dose of realism for Newport Beach, where bad looking people were deported.
We visited Mary’s work and headed out on the research/educational boat she calls an office.
“Now if you look very carefully we might be able to see some sea birds, and maybe even some other animals,” the instructor was saying to the field trip.
Then boom! Chaos on deck.
They had spotted a whale and 25 squealing kids ran to the front deck, Iphones in hand.
Iphones!!! At tweenhood. Bloody hell. Pretty sure I was still campaigning for my own room at that age.
A gray whale and her calf were closer to shore than I would have believed. We stood on the top deck and looked in wonder.
26 years on earth and today I was seeing my first whale. It was amazing. She surfaced to breathe, spouting through her blowhole, the little calf sticking close by her side.
Mary told me they will always position themselves between a boat and their calf.
It was magic, and I felt a great sense of gratitude to the Sea Shepherd crew, and a great sadness that anyone could hunt and kill these animals for an unnecessary food source.
I thought of the long, beautiful calls she must be making underwater. Echoing as though through a cathedral. I thought of her baby, surrounded by blue, and with the thing it loved most in the world.
I’ve always loved the ocean, and Dana Point turned on a cracking day for us.
I learned that the white rocks making up the stone pier/ship wall thing were actually white from years of bird shit. No longer evoking the whitewashed romance of Greece! Baha.
The crew dragged up a shining mass of kelp, vibrant green and khaki tangles; wild as sea witch hair.
I loved the stuff. It slid and slopped against the side of the boat as the marine bios hacked some off to sample.
I could feel the sun smiling down on me, polishing my shoulders into two brown bulbs, warning my nose of its Rudolph potential.
A burst of laughter, and they brandished the algae sample towards us, floaters swirling through the plastic container.
One of the kids had vomited overboard, and the sample had caught nothing but that. The best kind of funny is always the gross kind.
That night we got burgers and I fought the urge to run into the streets, throw up my arms and scream, “show me the salad America!”
I never knew I would miss you this much lettuce, tomato, cucumber and baby spinach.
I fell asleep in mattress land in the loungeroom, surrounded by people I love. This is what it must be like to be a kitten in a litter, I thought.
In the morning we woke early and softened the blow with mugs of the good black stuff. (Not Guinness, the other good black stuff).
The one bedroom apartment that had diligently housed all five of us was being surrendered back to Matt, Mary and their three thousand surfboards, and it was sad.
Mary wrapped me in one of the hugs only kind spirited people can give, and I felt a little fist close around my heart. I hoped it wouldn’t be so long between visits. I vowed to try everything to get across the five countries separating me from her wedding in August.
We hit the road north.
I was going to eat every piece of salad between here and San Francisco.
All the hipsters are in Cali, and they’re eating great tacos.
Listen up hipsters, if you’ve got a skill of some kind then Ocean Beach, San Diego has your name all over it. You can even get one of the bird OB stickers for your car.
We headed to San Diego to visit another old uni friend, and hit town spot on time for lunch.
Her car took us begrudgingly down the main street, its gear box groaning as it endured the corners.
Everywhere there were cool people. It was like the pavement was sprouting hipsters, but with a more street edge to them than Aussie hipsters.
They all seemed to have a skill of some sort. There were tattoo artists having a cigarette break below their parlours, surfers hoofing it towards the beach and skaters with great hair skating, chatting or just generally standing around like tattoo parlour adverts.
Yep, OB was cool. More than hipster cool though, it was laid back and had an atmosphere crunchy with fun. Everywhere there were happy nobodies enjoying happy lives.
It was a toss-up between the two storey bar on the corner (with good drinks and ocean views) and the local favourite, Oscars taco shop (both on Newport Av).
Good food won out and after parting with a tenner we sunk our teeth into the best thing I’ve eaten in a while.The surf and turf torta. God bless you Mexico.
San Diego was nothing like I expected. We got killer weather for the two days, so a big sun basted us all day before the winds picked up in the evening and the temperature dropped, consistent with a dessert climate.
The geography was some of my favourite. Rugged dessert beauty; dry arid looking cliffs, dropping off to a smashing blue ocean.
We picked our way along the bottom of the Sunset cliffs, birds wheeling above. Dedicated surfers were paddling out over rocks at the bottom of the staircase to catch a tricky wave that spat them out close to the sharp rocks.
Back in the clunking car we chewed bitumen for 20 minutes up to La Jolla Cove (pronounced La Hoiya) and were met with the overwhelming stench of a community of sea lions.
They were fantastic and wild and played like dogs.
They were not so loved by local business owners, with a group called Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement filing a lawsuit against the city of San Diego and state of California for the economic peril the mammals were wreaking/reeking on the area.
Some members of the group included restaurant and hotel owners, who I’m sure were losing customers.
I thought watching these sleek and seemingly spineless creatures (fluid in the ocean, bulbous on land) fight and flop across the rocks was the greatest thing ever. Humans and nature. We built on their home, I think it’s important to remember.
An article in the San Diego Reader, 2013 made me laugh particularly hard.
It referred to a post from the lifeguard log at La Jolla Cove which read:
…. “seal nuzzles and mounts woman off beach, [lifeguard Mark] Feighan in on board to assist and chase seal away.”
Full article here.
Anyway, one of the first things I saw after recovering from the smell was what I thought to be a brave seagull, waltzing up to a baby sea lion. Turns out the baby was dead, and the gull proceeded to peck both its eyes out. Oh nature.
That night we drank beers around one of the concrete fire pits that pepper the beach. The moon was bright and wonky, still a few days from full.
Every time we got cold we threw more wood on the fire, and every now and then some free-spirited soul would wander up to say g’day. It reminded me of our camping trips at Saunders beach in Townsville, where everyone curled up in the sand to sleep by the fire, their one uni blanket over them.
“It’s not that hard to be happy,” the guy beside me said. And I was glad someone had reminded me of that.
Waves crashed, Peanut the dog sniffed along the sand and the city lights prickled like gems on the mountains behind us.
Kenny Rogers drifted randomly through my head, singing (incorrectly) “San Diego midnight moonlight, tropical stars above,
San Diego midnight moonlight, the perfect place to fall in love.”
Everything is on steroids.
And EVERYone is driving the wrong way.
After a never ending flight from Brissie to LA we selected our phat red Chrysler from the hire depot and set off into the concrete jungle.
Driving on the opposite side of the road is scary enough as a passenger, so as Ryan hugged the wrong side of the road and monster trucks (aka normal vehicles for Americans) sidled up to us, I stuffed sour worms into my mouth and counted the lanes on the Freeway.
Nothing lights you up like seeing an old friend, and this one is quite something. The only girl I know who not only appreciated the vintage koala jumper I got her, but also made it look good. Sigh. I guess that’s just a given when you’re from Newport Beach.
The koalas glared back from Mary’s tanned skin with the gruesome glamour that only green sequin noses can create. True ambassadors for our sunny shores.
Mary’s house has twelve surfboard leaned against the wall. Nine in the loungeroom and three in the bedroom. Newport Beach must have some diverse waves. A whale holds the soap in the bathroom and a vibe you cannot argue with slides down your nose and loosens your whole take on life. The sun shone, we were jobless and homeless and life was perfect again.
Then the girls produced the largest punnett of strawberries I have ever seen (only $3.99 for 1.3kg) and told me you can get cheap vodka for $4 a litre and good vodka for $16 a litre.
WHAT A COUNTRY.
Bring it on Ameri-kaye-aye!