Archive for the 'Damn, I've Got It Good' Category

Serendipity, Street Art and the Best Layover EVER

It’s a fantasy common enough to warrant TV commercials, (porno) movie plots and a voyeuristic story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: you get seated next to an attractive person on an airplane. And you’re stuck beside each other, awkwardly negoitiating the small space for hours.

As most travelers will readily tell you, this is about as rare to air travel as getting bumped up to first class. No, rarer. The cast of characters usually beside you in the sardine can of coach include snorers, fidgeters, wiley children and consumers of mysterious day-old food. It really serves to drive home to actual percentage of datable people in the world’s population. I, for one, had given up on the fantasy and resigned myself to the mere hope of a recently showered individual that can fit in their own seat (which is also more or less when I’ve resigned myself in dating—and have been known to compromise on as well).

Well, holy shit if the travel gods didn’t smile down on me. And homeboy wasn’t just attractive—he was rad. As I discovered, not just during the flight, but on our 10-hour layover spent adventuring around Brooklyn together, spotting street art and searching for obscure vinyl.

I’d noticed him passing through security (as I was being pulled aside to have my purse dismembered in search on nonexistent weapons): hip without being pretentious, stubble beard, cowboy boots, a bulging bag of records. But I didn’t give it much thought until I was settling into my dismal seat in the back of the plane, next to the bathrooms. I watched him struggle to jam his record bag into the overhead compartment and smiled. When he looked down at his boarding pass, scanned the aisle numbers and ended up standing right beside me, we both smiled.

Sebastian had been traveling around the US for 5 weeks, and was on his way back to Zurich. He had a couple lines in his forhead, the well-traveled beginning of wrinkles. He had the worn-smooth hands of a cook, the black strand of a necklace peeking out from under his shirt. He had killer taste in music.

We chatted about life and travel and bands (“I saw some great shows in San Francisco.” “Like who?” “Ty Segall.” “On Wednesday? At the Rickshaw Stop? I was totally there!”). We talked about his trip and my trip (“I’ve got a 10 -hour layover.” “Me too. I was gonna go into the city, hang out. Better than being at the airport.” “That was my plan too.”) We fell into the fitful half-sleep of confined space and over air-conditioning; woke up stiff necked and lip smacking, ditched our bags at a luggage locker and rode the subway into Brooklyn.

It was a shuttered-up and bare-sidewalked Sunday morning on Bedford, ground zero of Brooklyn hipness. There was a record store Sebastian wanted to get back to, that wouldn’t be open for hours. We rubbed our aching eyes and looked for coffee.

I consulted my iPhone. “Oh shit, there’s a Blue Bottle?!” I exclaimed. “Yeah,” said a girl passing by, “it’s around the corner.”

We sat in the sun and drank our hand-dripped cups of black, watched the parade of dogs and toddlers and cool kids. We bombed around the neighborhood, going nowhere in particular, until the shops thinned and the wide walls of warehouses took over. And we began spotting some kick-ass street art.

All the pictures are on my phone, which for some reason my new (new to me, that is) netbook won’t download. So expect a post when I get home. But just to tease, I saw Roa, Faile, Space Invader, Gaia, and a whole bunch of folks I didn’t know but really wanted to.

We hit the record stores that had brought us there. Sebastian confessed to me that he was a music nerd with a record fetish. “There’s so many more records in the States,” he told me. He’d already shipped a crate back to Zurich. “It’s okay, though, it’s still cheaper than trying to buy it in Europe. If you can find it at all.”

We got back on the train, dazed and subdued with our long flights looming. We looked back through his pictures—he’d ended up going to Burning Man, on (another) serendipitous whim, and I leaned in over his shoulder to look at the small viewfinder, its story of dust and fire, the wind that moves through desolate places.

Our shoulders touched, just a little in the shudder of the train. I felt no desire to make a move, so to speak; it was enough to have a small flutter in my stomach. It was enough to have met someone awesome, totally serendipitously. It was enough to have wandered around sleep-dazed and discovering, to have sat on stoops smoking in the Brooklyn sun.

Sometimes you don’t need a big climax, don’t need to get all flirty and sleezy or anything at all. Sometimes it’s enough to feel liked, not just desired, and to genuinely like someone back. Not cause you want to make-out with them necessarily, but just because they’re rad.

We sat at the bar of a jokey airport restaurant, where Sebastian indulged in the last American hamburger of his trip. NFL games were flashing on the various television sets, the jarring loudspeaker announcements of boardings and departings echoing through the space.

“Sebastian,” I said, “you are by far the coolest person I’ve ever sat next to on an airplane.”

We hugged. “I had a great time,” he smiled. “Me too.”

And I walked away, through the terminal to my own adventure.

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A Circle of Stones

“I believe that the land has memory—that the earth remembers the things it has seen.”

Lucille Clifton said that at a reading I went to as a teenager, in introduction to her poem “Auction Street,” about how it felt to stand at former slave auctioning blocks in Memphis. I hadn’t traveled yet, hadn’t experienced much outside of the Bay Area, but something in me knew she was right: that rocks and trees and dirt have memories, maybe even dreams—that they hold little pieces of their histories in them, stored emotions, tender and swollen as our own knotted muscles.

I kept thinking about that line, said in passing in some beaming wooden room years ago, on my last trip. Walking amid the wordless rocky ruins of an abandoned village with a heat in my chest and a trouble in my mind, nothing seemed truer. Because, after all, Hawaii is a tragic place.

I stayed along the Kona Coast, a barren, burned-out mound of volcanic rock where the resorts stand out like green sores: lush, overly landscaped swaths of palm and grass against the expansive silence of lunar black.

P. was supposed to be one of them. Not a resort, but a tract of vacation homes: 7 acres divided into 10 lots, like much else along the winding 3-mile road that led from the highway to the coast. The land had belonged to a Hawaiian family who, amid the 80s mad-dash of development, could no longer afford the property tax and was forced to sell the land to a shady enterprise. A wealthy philanthropist came into contact with the family, bought P. from the enterprise, and built a personal vacation home there. My brother married the daughter of a the philanthropist’s good friend—which is how I came to find myself vacationing in a private, ocean-side villa earlier this month.

Sure, there was a gym and a media room and a billiards room and WiFi and groundskeepers and a gated entrance. But it wasn’t like a private resort. Not really. Because something had been retained, kept, preserved—not bulldozed and landscaped over (just landscaped around). The place quivered with a peculiar spiritual energy that made me hippie-out on heavy vibage. (And feel like I was on Vicodin.)

P. had once been a small Hawaiian village, abandoned for unknown reasons around the time Westerns arrived. Through a kind of cheat-the-locals-out-of-their-land swindle, a family came into possession of the land in the 1930s when they swapped their more lucrative property on a lusher side of the island for the rocky tangle of coast. As they bush-whacked into the overgrowth, the family discovered the rock-mound remains of the old buildings, as well as a burial site for what was later determined by archeologists to be a chief. The family was old-school, and believed in respecting the ruins; they didn’t move a stone, but left it in homage to their ancestors.

When the philanthropist came into possession of P., he respected the original family’s wishes and built his home around the ruins. He hired the son of the family, T., to be the property manager, an effort to maintain the sacred integrity of the place and undo some of the bad mojo that had cheated the family from their land.

That was as much of the story I knew as I walked the property the first day. Barefoot, the thick grass felt like carpet, and the air was soft and heavy and feeling of paradise. The path of grass snaked between the ruins, dotted by dense tangles of native trees. Neon birds flitted past, and the weasels darted like small, hungry ghosts.

I approached a perfectly circular mound to the immediate right of the house. Shaded by trees and covered in the round shells of their nuts, it seemed like a particularly potent spot.

As I got closer, I felt a warmth in my chest, rising into the base of my throat—not entirely unlike how I remember that first sip of alcohol: the healing heat, how something from the outside got inside, and suddenly made me feel more whole, less empty and aching. It was a curious, jarring feeling, at once intensely comforting and, well, disturbing in its unapologetic power.

I steered clear of the spot for the next few days. Frankly, I was freaked out. There was plenty else to do: I floated around the pool in an inner tube, did yoga on the deck, lounged in a hammock and read my self-help book on love addicition and co-dependancy. I’d glance sideways at the mound, avoid it, like it were a person watching me with too-blue eyes: it had seen through me and sat waiting.

T. came over to attend to some maintenance issues one day, and we got to talking. He filled in more of the history of P.—how he’d spent his summers there as a kid, how his grandmother had always told him about the spiritual power of the place and how he’d always felt it, even during his wild party days. He talked about respecting the land, saying thanks and being in tune. He told a story about an owl that lived on the property, that may or may not have been the spirit of his deceased grandmother, that had once come out in the middle of the day to watch him repair some of the stones the archeologists had moved.

If it were a movie, T. would have been wearing a lion cloth and the lights would have dimmed when he spoke, the sound of far-off drumming accompanying his tales. As it was, he wore flip-flops and a t-shirt, wrap-around sunglasses and an American moustache.

“P. has always been a healing place,” he told me simply. “I’m just glad that G. bought it, and it was able to stay the place it had always been.” He looked around the stately furniture in the vaulted-ceilinged living room, the hint of a wistful smile in the lines around his eyes. It was a far cry from the rustic shacks of his childhood, but I knew what he meant: it turned out as best it could, for the situation.

“That mound over by the house,” I pointed. “What was that?”

“Heavy, huh?” T. smiled. “We don’t really know. The archeologists thought it might have been a women’s house. Either way, it’s got some of the most powerful energy here.”

Later, I went over to the mound. Thinking of what T. had said, I bowed my head a little and asked permission before I entered into the center. I sat down cross-legged and breathed.

I felt the heat come—not a burning, but a warmth. I tried not to fight it. (He left.) It reached down, to some very tiny place inside, a very old and glowing wound. (A black kitchen and a birthday cake.) I looked at the trees, imagined their roots reaching down, back, on in at something (purple sores, swallowed by black)—like the pulsing red roots of teeth, the throbbing behind the bones of things. (He was sick, I loved him, he left.) The wind was gentle but urgent, speaking in a language of leaves (if I could have loved them more), like a mournful ballad sung in a language you don’t understand. (And left me here: gone.) The stones scratched and the shells dug in.

I heard a hoot. My eyes shot open and my spine twitched.

I heard it again, a belly sound, a calling. I thought of T.’s story: his grandmother owl in the middle of the day, watching over him.

It could have been a dove, cooing at the wind. But in the center of that circle, the ancient black of rocks, it sounded like the voice of P., the voice of the past—whatever it was, still was, had been and was still being, despite the house and the sprinklers and walking of foreign feet: a place of healing. A place that could somehow get down, down into the tightly clutched hurt of things, and coo.

Does the earth remember what it was? Does it carry its past in special little pockets, like a wound we hardly remember, but keep reliving, searching to heal? Well, fucked if I know. All I know is that, with all its resorts and rental cars, Hawaii feels like a beautiful young girl who’s been forced to marry a man she doesn’t love—and P. feels like the place where she goes, not to weep, but to pretend, to dream, to whisper her fantasies to herself, in the voice of the wind.

Would You Like Travel With That?: Why Being a Waitress is a Killer Job for a Traveler

As I’m planning my California road trip, buying plane tickets to Hawaii and Texas, and feverishly saving for a three-month galavant through Southeast Asia, I’m sometimes asked a question about work. Someone that doesn’t know me that well will wistfully gasp, “Your job lets you take that much time off?”

It’s at times like those that I realize how good I’ve got it. As a waitress.

That’s right—a waitress. It’s an inglorious job that people outside of the restaurant industry tend to look down on. It doesn’t exactly scream “motivation,” and at its worst, it screams “uneducated” or “Hooters girls.” Sigh. But the more I dig into the travel writing world, the more I’ve come to appreciate my “day” job. And despite the lack of benefits and security, it couldn’t be a better gig for me right now.

I didn’t plan it this way. But I majored in Creative Writing, and it’s not like there’s full-time gigs writing poetry. I hosted and served (and managed a local swimming pool) to get through college. I left the country for the first time after graduation, fell in love with traveling, and decided to stick around restaurants, if for nothing else than the time off (and getting to sleep in).

I’ve never worked a 9-5, never worked in an office, and never felt stifled or constrained by my job. I forget about the corporate trap of 40+ hour work weeks, because I’ve never lived it. I come across blogs with lengthy “About” descriptions detailing the karate-chop someone gave to the confines of corporate life (“I quit a job with XYZ company, sold everything and took to the road”), and I think, “Huh. That’s a life experience I totally can’t relate to.” I’ve certainly felt claustrophobic and stuck in my own life, but never because of my work.

There are trade-offs for the freedoms that come along with being a waitress—big ones. I work holidays and weekends, have never had a paid day off in my life, and the idea of a retirement plan or dental insurance is for me as exotic a fantasy as, say, traveling around the world is for some. But I swap all these securities for the one thing I can’t live, or travel, without: the ability to pick up and leave, yes, but also to not feel trapped.

And while I sometimes stress about the fact that it’s been nearly 10 years since I graduated high school and I’m “still a waitress,” I can’t help but feel I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. Here’s why:

Time Off

Earlier in my “career,” I nervously asked my manager for an additional 4 days off during a month when I was already out of town for 2 weeks. He laughed. “Of course you can have the time off. That’s why you’re a server and not working for an insurance company.”

The number one plus of restaurant work for a traveler is the ability to take time off. It’s just a part of the culture—and why the cliche of a struggling artist or musician working as a server is so prevalent. The idea of being constricted to 2-3 weeks of vacation a year—paid or otherwise—scares the crap out of me. No wonder people quit their jobs to travel the world.

Flexibility

Allowing for time off is rooted in a deeper aspect of restaurant culture: flexibility. At most places it’s totally acceptable to switch shifts and in-times in order to accommodate whatever else is going on your life. Which is great for me now.

Short Hours

Shifts in most restaurants aren’t the grueling 8+ hour affairs they are in offices. My shifts currently average 5-6 hours, and are sometimes as short as 3 hours. This means that, even on days I work, I have time to write, and take care of all the tedious tasks/errands that come with being alive.

Internationalism

Because restaurant work is tough and doesn’t require traditional education, it’s chock full of immigrants. Mexicans and Central Americans fill the restaurants of California—which means you’re constantly immersed in Spanish. It’s impossible not to pick up a little Spanish in California restaurants. I’ve given myself pre-trip crash courses when I declare that no one should speak to me in English (this doesn’t really go as well as planned). As of late, I’ve been pretty lazy on the language tip; even still, I hear Spanish all the time and understand a fair amount (“Oh, Lorena, tienes un novio?”). I’m even picking up some random Mayan words (“pibil” means “baked”).

Being Active and Talking to People

Last year, I interned for several months at a rad travel website. Everyone was super nice and I enjoyed all the writing work I was doing, but the work environment felt totally alien: everyone sitting at desk, quietly clicking away on their keyboards. I was not used to the quiet, the immobility, the comfort and niceness of it all.

Restaurant work is visceral, and I like that. I tromp up and down stairs for hours, carrying trays of drinks and stacks of plates up my arms. I sweat. I spill salsas and half-eaten food down my apron. I sometimes have to pee for an hour, but am too busy to go. On a busy night, I’ll wait on over 100 people—interacting, reading them, talking and joking, making sure they have a good time. It’s intense and draining and I kind of love it.

But before you swap that comfy gig at the stifling job you say you hate, check out the other side of the scale: the restaurant work bummers.

When waitressing sucks your soul out...

No benefits

And I don’t just mean health benefits. These days, most restaurants in the Bay Area offer some kind of health insurance (albeit chintzy and hard to qualify for). What I mean are all the other “kushy” benefits (benefits that are automatics for all workers in some other countries—but that’s another post…).

I can take all the time I want off, but none of it is paid. That extends to paid holidays and sick days. If you’ve got the flu, tough. Maybe your landlord will accept a doctor’s note. Even those legally required 10 minute breaks are the stuff of waitress fantasy. Maybe someday we’ll unionize. Until then, we pop DayQuil and work sick.

No security

It’s not just the lack of unions; the lack of security in the restaurant world again goes down to the very nature of the job. When times are hard, as they are now, one of the first things people cut is eating out. Or worse, tipping. And there’s no safety net under the waitressing tightrope.

In most restaurants, you earn minimum wage (in some states, they can pay you under minimum wage; I knew a server in NYC who made $3.12 an hour!), which is usually just enough to cover taxes. So essentially all the money you’re making is from tips. If you have a slow night, get a string of 10% tippers, or, oh say, the economy totally falls into the shitter, you’re quickly screwed. There’s no guaranteed income to fall back on. By the same token, though, you can make insane amounts of money when times are good. But if you don’t know how to budget, it can devolve into a feast-or-famine lifestyle.

Hard on the body

The restaurant industry is great when you’re young and energetic and can’t stand the thought of sitting in a chair all day. But it’s not an industry to grow old in. Long hours on your feet, carrying trays and plates, seriously wears you down. By 23, I already had chronic lower back pain and an interstate roadmap of varicose veins criss-crossing my legs.

But these are the markings of someone who works for a living, like the calluses of my dad’s hands, the unwashable black under my brother’s nails: work you wear, that wears you. Whether I planned it this way or not, waitressing as become a part of me. And until I scramble my way to the top of travel writing heap (wink, wink), it’s not a bad way to earn my rent, fund my travels—and get the hell out of town.

I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Port Costa and the Past

In the hallway

It wasn’t the squeaking of the bats that kept me up all night. It wasn’t the way my shoulders dug in to the thin mattress that kept me rolling over, not the low-voiced howl of the passing freight trains that rattled me out of my half-dreams.

It was that I had to pee. And I was too scared of ghosts get up.

Not that I’m 7, and not that I actually saw or heard any ghosts. Just that, you know, I’m a wuss. The bathroom was only a couple doors down the hall. But I’d heard stories, of ghostly laughs and the clicking of century-old high heels, and I figured—why risk it? I waited until the gray light of dawn sank its fingers through the curtains, brushed the walls and illuminated the shadows. I relieved myself with incident.

The whole overnight to Port Costa, actually, went without incident, the kind that had been hyped and fore-warned: red necks, ghosts, bed bugs, cocaine-fueled partiers—I didn’t see any. What I did see: peeling velvet wallpaper, a spooky porcelain doll, fishermen tromping over gravel and train tracks, a stuffed polar bear, a dude playing a banjo and a whole lot of motorcycles.

We arrived after dark, weaving our way through the shadowed coastal hills of a regional park. The pavement gave way to gravel as we delved into a little valley, dim houses and an old chapel lining the one road of Port Costa. The road dead-ended into a wide parking lot, gravel, train tracks, the misty water of the Carquinez Strait. On one side of us was a three-story, dirt-colored old warehouse, on the other, the bay windows of the Burlington Hotel. That was it.

Inside The Warehouse

We turned the locked knob to the hotel’s door a couple times, until the banjo-playing dude on the corner told us we had to go across the street to the bar to check in. We entered The Warehouse, the main occupant of the 19th-century grain storage-house.  We stared stupidly for a couple moments, taking in the mish-mash of burlesque lampshades, checkered plastic tablecloths, mounted animal heads and vintage signs. We must have stood out—a man in the corner waved at us.

Turned out he was Howie, accompanied by Barbie, proprietors of the Burlington Hotel. They greeted us in what we’d discover was a typical Port Costa way: genuinely friendly and down-to-earth. It wasn’t the affected over-sweetness of a typical tourist town, nor the you-ain’t-from-round-here skepticism of an isolated small town. The vibe was unpretentious and warm, but not overly warm. It was the Goldilocks of small towns—just right.

Everything was just right about Port Costa: just enough overnighters that I didn’t feel too out of place, just enough decrepitude to make the hotel really really cool, just enough vestiges of history to make the town special—not undiscovered, but not blown up or theme-parky.

On the mantel in front of our room.

We wandered around the Burlington Hotel with our jaws dropped—it was the antique/vintage/ creaky dollhouse of cool we’d hoped for. But it wasn’t the stinky filth-pot Yelp reviewers and the Chronicle had made it out to be. Sure, it was faded and had the musty smell of an attic, but I had to wonder—had the people who’d called it dirty ever stayed in a cheap third-world hotel? Or a flea-bag American one, for that matter? It was no Courtyard Inn, but definitely one of the nicer hotels I’ve stayed in the US (not saying much, granted).

Maybe they’ve already started to spiffy up and straighten out, as the Chronicle article claimed. Aside from the lack of bed bugs and grime, there wasn’t a lot of raucous activity either. The other guests definitely looked like they were there for a good time, but the most debauchery we experienced at the Burlington Hotel was some middle-aged folks having a Hank Williams sing-along (I wanted in), followed by some late-night bed creaking (I did not want in). Pretty mild, really.

Ate all that!

As part of the Valentine’s Special, a $99 dinner-room combo, we headed back to The Warehouse for some good ole American eating. I’m usually a free-range, organic kinda girl, but I figured, meh, when in Port Costa. We grubbed on a whole lobster, one pound of prime rib, and unlimited salad/chili/chowder bar, washed down with soda served in a glass jar. My pants felt quite a bit snugger. A post-dinner stroll was definitely in order.

We tip-toed across the puddle-ridden parking lot, through an opening in the chain-link fence, and across the dark of gravel and train tracks. The nighttime mist made everything feel dream-like and removed, like we were somewhere much further away, like those weren’t the lights of a suburb blinking and sighing across the water. The way the Amtrack and freight trains’ horns would wail, the way their lights gleamed like animal eyes, how the heaved and rattled past—it made it feel like we were in some little pocket of the world, not quite forgotten by time, but where time just kind of rumbled past, without really stopping, leaving only a puff of exhaust and the echo of its cry.

Sitting on the rocks, I looked out across the water, and had a strange, back-of-the-head tingle. The lights of a far-off refinery winked in the billows of steam pouring out its towers, glittering like some kind of industrial Oz. Jagged fragments of memory came cutting back. “Fuck,” I said. “I’ve been here.”

High school. Malt liquor and weed and pills. We’d piled into B’s truck, drove around El Sob and Crockett looking for drugs and trouble, finding none of one and only a little of the other. We’d pulled into a parking lot, staggered across gravel. Refineries twinkling. Feet numb, and sides closing in, black. Cigarette smoke in my hair. Wanting to sleep.

My little kaleidoscope of fucked-up broken memories came out of some forgotten fold of my brain, stinging and still alcohol-damp. So I’d partied in Port Costa after all. Who knew.

The next morning, the town was mist-shrouded and dewey-eyed. I was dazed; all night I’d listened to the trains, thinking of all the other people who’d laid in that room before me, in the gray and shadows, listening to that same rumble and sigh. We drank teeth-burning from styrofoam cups and took another tromp around town, then further down the train tracks. Lots of killer photos ensued (currently, only the digital ones are ready; pro film shots will take plenty longer). Coolest find: on some rusty old rails, someone with a similar nerdy affinity for trains and travel left their mark:

The mild afternoon melted past, time a far away thing. The trains continued to pass, rumbling and horn blowing at a couple of kids poking around the rocks and rails of a once-great railway hub, filled with miners and shipyard workers and whores and ferry horns—and now, just the ghostly groan of the trains, passing, passing, but never stopping, no, not anymore.

Photos by Theo Konrad Auer. More on the way…

Relatives and Revelations: What My Brother’s Wedding Taught Me about Travel

Photo booth fun

“What can I say? When you’re children get married, it’s one of the happiest days of your life.”

That was my dad, toasting at my brother’s wedding two weeks ago. Simple, but true: celebrating my brother’s marriage to a rad lady will definitely go down as one of my happiest days. Aside from the awesomeness of why we were all there, it was a gorgeous event at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in Downtown San Francisco, complete with caviar and a five-tier chocolate fondue fountain (that’s right, you heard me). I was surrounded with life-long friends and far-away family, flown in from the Midwest and East Coast.

Of course, as a travel person, my antennaes were perked by all the out-of-towners. Watching them all come in—arrive at the hotel, rent cars, hang wrapped dress clothes in closets—I realized I only travel a very specific way, and it’s lent a very limited perspective.

I’d argue that most Americans travel the way my family did two weeks ago: domestically, in hotels, either shelling out for a rental car or attempting to traverse poorly funded mass transit systems. It’s pretty far-off from the international ramblings I do on second-class buses and cheap pensions/hostels/couchsurfing. The weekend resulted a series of travel revelations—“light bulb moments,” as I’d once heard them described on Oprah.

Before the guests arrived

What shocked me most was the sheer expense of it all. Even at an off-season rate, further discounted for the wedding party, staying in Downtown San Francisco is not cheap. Renting a car is not cheap. Eating at the restaurants and cafes Downtown is also not cheap. No wonder people ask me “But how can you afford to travel so much?” I used to feel that travel within the US was kinda a rip-off. I don’t take it that far now, but I will say you get a lot more bang for your buck elsewhere. (That being said, I have done New York City on $40 a day, so maybe I’m just a cheapskate.)

The night of the wedding, my parents decided to not add battling the Bay Bridge to the day’s ledger, and booked a room, which I piggy-backed on. Which brings me to the next travel revelation I had: looking good on the road is a major hassle.

As far as hassles go, mine were pretty minimal: the morning of the wedding, I dropped my shoes, dress and fancy jacket off at my parents’ house in Oakland before taking BART out to the city to get my hair and make-up done. I toted with me my overnight bag, in which I carried more make-up and hair products, as well as jewelry, nail polish, etc. My parents brought my dress clothes; I met them at the hotel and changed. The next day they took my dress clothes back to the East Bay while I hung out with my cousins. Not bad at all, considering I didn’t even have to negotiate riding the train with a hanger of dress clothes.

Classy as shit

But considering the way I normally travel, this jaunt across the Bay was complicated exponentially by the need to wear something other than jeans and sneakers. When I travel, all bets are off: I bring my most utilitarian clothes, no makeup, a dabble of hair gel and loads of sunscreen. I look like a total ragamuffin—handy, since it tends to decrease the amount I’m hit on. Wanting to look not just presentable, but my drop-dead best, is tricky enough; doing it out of a bag was even harder. I garnered a new appreciation for business travelers, beauty pageant contestants and all other non-backpacker/dirtbags travelers.

Here’s another thing I learned: logistics are tough. Organizing big groups of people, getting them here and there when they don’t know where they are, is really hard. No wonder tour companies charter buses. And no wonder people trundle on them happily.

I’m the kind of traveler that loves transit. I grew up riding buses and trains, and I get a kick out of figuring out new metro systems: where train lines connect, what lines run where, the fastest and easiest way to get from Point A to Point B. There’s a skill to transit, and I’ve honed a kind of sixth sense for the rhythm and order of it. So when my dad started to fret over how we’d get everyone from the Downtown hotel to a Sunday night pizza dinner at my brother’s house on 27th and Dolores, I responded, “We’ll have them take the J-Church.” Easy, right?

Well, it was easier than shuttling loads of people back and forth in the couple of rental cars, but not as easy as you’d suspect. I played transit tour guide, leading everyone to the Montgomery Station, through the turnstiles, down to the platform, on to the train (luckily, we all got seats). I alerted everyone to our stop, got us all out of the back doors (although almost lost my grandfather in the process), and down the two blocks to my brother’s house.

There’s not a lot of hand-holding or coddling on MUNI, and I like it that way. MUNI’s not most intuitive system—you can only pay station turnstiles in coins, have to retain a transfer ticket, and all lines eventually come aboveground, where stops are unmarked. But it’s still cheaper and more comprehensive than BART, long-distance commuter trains that double as mass transit for the Greater Bay Area, with a pathetic number of inner-city stations and a whopping $7 round trip fare from my neighborhood in Oakland to Downtown SF. In my mind, this makes BART infinitely inferior to MUNI. Who needs plush seats and timetables anyway? I’ll take hard plastic and a vague urine smell over a $7 fare any day.

iPhones have no flash, but you can still kinda make out five tiers of fondue.

But riding the train with my relatives, I realized that transit can be damn stressful. If you’re not already in the groove of it, or don’t share my nerdy obsession with maps and routes, it’s really just a pain in the ass. The potential to get lost is huge: you could get on the wrong train, get off at the wrong stop, end up god-only-knows-where. It’s confusing, station agents are exasperated, locals impatient. My relatives that rented cars were hit with overnight parking fees and having to traverse a maze of one-way streets, but when they got lost, they were warm and dry, and could easily turn back around. I realized why, despite the costs, so many travelers opt to rent cars over riding transit. Guiding everyone through the process, I also realized why tour guides carry those little colored umbrellas.

In the end, everyone got to and fro and everywhere inbetween safely. We gussied up, boogied down and had a killer time. And that’s what weddings are all about, right?

Elephant Seals, Artichoke Bread and a Lighthouse: Cheap Kicks on the California Coast

The wind had something to say. Howling, moaning, rattling through the fog-swelled rafters, it talked to us all night. The next morning, it fingered our hair, pinkened our noses, and carried the cries of birth and battles, sea gulls and elephant seals…

I think I’ll start the article something like that, depending on how highfalutin I wanna get. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds; the drama of the California coast during a winter storm evokes that kind of mulling, moody language. The main character, if you will, of my mini-trip down the San Francisco peninsula was the wind, urgent and unrelenting. But the supporting cast was pretty rad too.

I’m trying not to get too claustrophobic in my own life, and trying to keep the travel writing material a’coming. So despite a heavy-duty week-long storm, my friend Liz and I hopped into my beat-up little car and headed out for a little Northern California overnighting action in Pescadero.

Aside from being super accessible from the inner Bay Area, a trip down to Pescadero is also one of cheapest getaways around. We hiked around redwoods, espied an elephant seal colony, ate “world famous” artichoke bread and local goat milk cheese, and lazed in a cliffside hot tub—all for under $90 each.

Pescadero is an old-school fishing town down the peninsula between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Aside from some seriously killer breads from Arcangeli Grocery, its main claims to fame are its surroundings: the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, and Ano Nuevo State Park. Pigeon Point is a pretty basic hostel—except for its dramatic perch literally on the edge of the continent, its historic lighthouse, and its cliffside hot tub (yes, really). Ano Nuevo is a sandy stretch of shoreline best known as the winter home of migrating elephant seals, where they birth and wean and fuss and fight.

"Look, nature!"

The drive from Oakland was about an hour long, Highway 92 delving us down the spine of the peninsula into Half Moon Bay, a quintessentially quirky Northern California beach town. Then we headed down the 1, California’s most famously beautiful highway. It winds you past pastoral fields, green hills, a sprinkling of cove beaches and family farms, and a crashing, crumbling coastline. Everything was grey and heavy and wet. It was perfect Lucero-listening weather.

Huddled on a cliff next to an run-down, chained-off old lighthouse, Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel smells like salt, and the ocean winds rattle the humble buildings endlessly. The hostel is divided into three houses, each with its own kitchen and common room. There was only one other couple in the house, fellow overnighters from the East Bay. It was $25 for a dorm bunk; we had a whole room to ourselves.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

The main draw of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel isn’t the ocean views or its precipitous perch; it’s the hot tub. I don’t know how a youth hostel came to have a feature like a hot tub, but it’s about the raddest thing you can imagine. A trip to the hot tub cost $7 per person; you sign up for a half-hour slot when you check-in.

We stumbled in the dark to the hot tub, shuffling in our sneakers and shivering in our towels. We kicked it in the hot tub, listening to the sound of wind and waves. It was a dark, cloudy night; there were no stars, just the white froth of water on rocks, and the lonesome beam of the lighthouse.

The next morning, we drove 10 minutes down to Ano Nuevo. Celebrities may have Miami; elephant seals winter in Ano Nuevo. They arrive from Alaska in mid-December; moms birth pups, wean them, and they hang around confused and blubberous until about late March. Mid-January is the best time to check out the seals; on our tour, we saw a birth, a fight, plenty of sulking and lots of squealing.

Hella seals

The seal tour is pretty popular, especially as a field trip for Bay Area schools. You have to take a guided tour, and it’s best to book ahead, but here’s the good news: the tour is an hour and a half long, and only $7. (Parking in the lot, though, costs a $10; there’s not any other viable parking around.)

Our naturalist docent guide was a cool old dude that solidified my opinion that being a park volunteer after you retire is about the most bad-ass thing you can do with your time. Our group of 13 people, mostly all Californians on day trips, headed out into the sand dunes, a mile traipse from the parking lot.

First we passed “Losers’ Alley,” where male seals that have lost the fight for prestige pout and sulk in solitude for the remainder of the season. We got pretty close to one; he arched his back up, his nose/trunk hanging like an absurd, uncircumcised phallus. A guttural, grunting nose erupted, bursting out of his mouth in a gust of white breath; it sounded like a stopped-up toilet. It was his get-the-hell-back cry, and we obliged.

We climbed up a dune that overlooked the colony, and spent about an hour watching them flop around in the sand, squealing and moaning and rumbling their enormous selves around. The pups were adorable, too fat to do much of anything but wiggle their fins around and cry for milk. The moms flipped sand over their backs, rolled over to let pups nurse, and grumbled. The men did what men do: fight.

Bashing chests...

We caught a pretty good fight, full of plenty of screaming, biting and butting. It broke out amid the crowd, dominoed its way through the colony, pups wiggling to get out of the way; it rumbled all the way down to the shore, where the loser got 86ed. “It’s just like a bar fight,” Liz surmised.

Going mad for the placenta

We also got to see a birth. Well, not really. It was too far away to see, but we were alerted by the swooping, squawking riot of sea gulls. Sea gulls, apparently, love to eat placenta, so you can always tell when a birth is going down when the gulls start going crazy, a frenzy of white wings and diving beaks.

Muddy and wind-tossed, we tramped back to the car, cranked up the heat, and headed home. It was invigorating to get out of town, even if it was just for a night. Aside from gathering info for an article (not yet sold, if there’s any takers out there), I needed to clear my mind. It’s so easy to get tunnel-vision, to get caught up in the everydayness of my own life. It’s a good life, but there should be more to it than errands and work and my computer. I really am happiest when I’m traveling, and my mini-trip confirmed that. And reminded me how much killer stuff there is within an hour of where I live. And that it doesn’t need to cost any more than a new pair of pants.

Thanks for Nothing / Everything

I celebrated this Thanksgiving at two long-standing Oakland events: Thanks for Nothing, the legendary potluck of punk debauchery, and my family’s annual Day-After-Thanksgiving party, legendary in its own right. Both events were a little less epic this year, with an intimacy that reminded me of what’s good about Thanksgiving and about family—as untraditional as they may come.

Anyone in the East Bay who’s ever donned liberty spikes and a studded anything has gone to Thanks for Nothing. And possibly passed out at it. Now in its 18th year, the Thanksgiving potluck is an Oakland punk tradition, a place for all the family-less kids in black to come together, at picnic tables under jimmied lights, and create their own family.

Of course, by “kids” I mean “punks” and not kids at all, anymore. These are the die-hards, wearing smile wrinkles and old band shirts—the folks that, once the scene-ness melts away, once all the other folks have grown out of what was just a phase, are still there, purely for the love of it. Punk may be mostly dead, but it’s not all-the-way dead; it just lives in the hearts of a small handful. And, on Thanksgiving, in an East Oakland backyard.

Thanks for Nothing has taken on a larger-than-life status; the woman that puts in on is convinced that even if she were out of town one year, people would still show up. They didn’t pump it too much this year—no flyers or MySpace posts, just word-of-mouth—and the result was a smaller, friendlier crowd, that was also a bit tamer. The event historically gets increasingly raucous as the evening progresses; as the steam from the turkey table cools and the toddlers konk out, staggering, slurring sing-alongs ensue (among other things). This year, the pot food table was nearly empty and the jar of homemade Bailey’s went fast, but the Jell-O shots were plentiful, tossed around in a haphazard game of catch that somehow didn’t end in neon goo being splattered across someone’s head.

Despite the uber-punk name, this year’s Thanks for Nothing felt more about community than anything else. Family, as most travelers know, isn’t really about blood lines; it’s got little to do with genes or ethnicity or even, as we learn on the road, nationality. Family’s about people that share similar values and perspectives coming together and sharing, growing together. (And at Thanks for Nothing, singing along to Cock Sparrer together.) It sounds more one-love than punk, more Berkeley than Oakland, but sometimes it takes unexpected manifestations to drive a point home.

But most of my “family” growing up wasn’t about blood lines—a lot of Californians’ aren’t. My parents moved my toddler brother and my infant self to California with only one blood relative within 2,000 miles. Once my uncle passed away, it was really just the four of us for holidays. Plus an ever-growing band of fellow Bay Area orphans. It seemed that my dad’s first couple of years in the fire department, he kept having to work Thanksgiving (turkey at the fire house!). So we started having all our family friends over the day after, when we’d sit back and talk and laugh and eat for hours. We invited everyone, and it became a kind of neighborhood affair. A tradition was born, and yesterday, carried into its 22nd year.

Like Thanks for Nothing, we don’t really need to invite people anymore; everyone just knows to show up. Charles deep-fries two turkeys in the driveway, Karen and Jamal make the marshmellow sweet potatoes, Nhu and Jacobo bring the bread pudding, my brother makes the famous firehouse Caesar (I used to make the vegan entree, but those days are long gone…). My parents’ small bungalow overflows; there’s an incessant wait for the one bathroom and a warm glow from the fireplace. It’s consistently one of my favorite days of the year.

The event was smaller this year, just under 60 people, and I had a couple bittersweet moments, missing people who used to come—people who’ve moved, who we’ve lost touch with, but mostly people who’ve passed away. But at the same time, there were folks there that I’ve grown up with, that I’ve known my whole life, that are the aunts and uncles and cousins I otherwise wouldn’t have really had, so many miles and states away.

Family is one of the most important things to me, as traditional or untraditional as mine may be regarded. Of course, much has been written about the “demise” of the American family, and holidays like Thanksgiving hold a particular weight for those from untraditional or un-intact families. But I’d argue that the American family isn’t crumbling, just reshaping; seeing as though this guy got a book deal out of the concept, I don’t think I’m alone. And as travelers know, the traditions of a family are some of the best glimpses you’ll get into a culture—whether it’s making stuffing with your play-cousin, or pounding Jell-O shots with punks. It may not be a Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s as close as some of us get.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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