Posts Tagged 'san francisco bay area'



Where Do Dirtbags Go for Valentine’s?

One of Aly's photos from the Burlington Hotel

It happened like this:

Making the rounds last Friday at the Art Murmur, I came across the photos of a friend of mine, Aly Su Borst. They were pretty bad-ass: a series of self-portraits set in some run-down opulence that got my spooky/awesome sensors spiked. I took some photos on my phone. At home the next day, I showed my roommate, “Hey, Luke, check out Aly’s photos.”

“Oh, rad, Port Costa.”

“Where’s that?”

That’s how I found out about the overnight destination all the local dirtbags have apparently been partying it up in for decades. And like most things, I’ve found out just in the nick of time: the reputedly haunted, ramshackle old bordello/hotel that serves as the heart of the 250-person town of Port Costa (that despite being 30 miles from my house, I’d never heard of) has plans to spiffy itself up, and recently received coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle. I knew no time could be wasted—I booked a room for this Saturday night. It’ll be a Valentine’s weekend overnight the way I like it: full of bats, bedbugs, dive bar denizens and rock n roll.

The Chronicle‘s article made the Burlington Hotel sound like the very definition of “hidden gem”—not in the Tuscan villa sense of the word, but in the gritty, visceral sense—which is to say, the sense I dig the most. Whether it was in fact an old whorehouse, and whether it is indeed haunted by the ghosts of prostitutes and shipyard workers, one thing seems for sure: the Burlington Hotel is a relic of the Old West California, the one Jack Black captured in the book You Can’t Win—the one that’s all but gone amid the Botox and SUVs of Southern California, and the Blue Priuses and Tibetan prayer flags of Northern California. Which is why I want in.

It won’t be a relaxing, rejuvenating or romantic getaway. Its Yelp reviews reveal as much: “dirty,” “bad-ass,” “like a horror movie,” “whore-tel.” One person laments that it’s no longer the all-night rager spot it had been in previous years (frequented by the likes of none other than the East Bay Rats—nuff said). A raucous bar next door constitutes much of the clientele, including “bikers, transients, nazi crack addicts, and drifters. maybe tourists are in there somewhere, too.” (Really, there’s some effing gems on the Yelp page, read through that shit.)

Already pretty convinced, I came home from work the next night and found Liz and Melissa on the couch. “You guys ever heard of the Burlington Hotel?” They turned their heads slowly towards me. “Oh. Dude.”

They swapped debaucherous stories from their hard-partying youth—Liz being haunted in Room K, Melissa’s heshen friends getting permanently 86-ed (which apparently is saying a whole lot). “Make sure,” Liz advised, “that you bring your own sheets. Bedbug city, yo.”

I called to make a reservation, which wasn’t quite as difficult as the Chronicle article made it out to be. After a long succession of rings, someone picked up; muffled and scratchy, he told me they weren’t quite open yet, but to call back in a half-hour, and they’d be ready to “rock n roll.” I did, and they were. Butt rock blared in the background. All the rooms I’d been advised were the best were, of course, full, but I did get in on the “special” (Valentine’s Day special? probably not): the room and 2 surf-and-turf dinners for $99 total. Now that’s my kind of overnight.

Ridiculous photo from the Smokey's Tangle V-Day Photo Booth, February's Art Murmur

So sadly, since the Chronicle recently did a piece on the hotel, I’m gonna have to dig a little deeper to a) out-do their article, and b) find the right publication for it. The good news is that my partner in crime is bringing along his fancy camera, so the photos, well, they’re going to kill. Hopefully not literally.

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Honolulu, Black and White and Back in Time

Faces stare out from a two-dimensional black and white. They are laughing, posing, cast in shadows and cut-and-pasted beside lush palm trees, neon hummingbirds, tan thatching and pinkened skies. Sometimes they smile; other times they gaze off, someplace beyond the camera, looking out from thin layer of time and plastic. And I am completely obsessed.

It’s my weirdest and raddest score from the Bay Area’s rummage event of year. The annual Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale is a cult event local collectors, scavengers, cheapskates and lovers of vintage live for. The Oakland Museum benefit is held out in a Jingletown warehouse, and hosted by the spunky white-haired ladies of the Women’s Board. Donations are collected throughout the year, culminating in the kitschy bonanza of bargains. The event takes over the neighborhood, complete with taco trucks and a free shuttle to the BART station.

While the main event is a two-day affair held on the first weekend in March, this last Sunday was the special preview—when the die-hards shell out $10-15 months in advance to get first pickings. A friend finagled us onto the guest list; we traipsed down across the train tracks, through the sour estuary smell and into the warehouse bustling with bodies digging for treasure.

Inside the warehouse

There was a little of everything: antique furniture, vintage suits, old Polaroid cameras, $1 LPs, 80s action figures that brought me back to my childhood—even a box of expired condoms. The prices put any flea market to shame, and everyone was in a good mood. The staff was sweet and grandparently. An old dude with a vest full of buttons from previous years’ sales stood by a Thomas Edison record player, explaining to whoever passed how it worked and the history behind it. Some staff dressed up—I saw a Napoleon look-alike—which added to the festive atmosphere and reconfirmed my aspiration to be a cool old volunteer/docent person when I retire (like I’ll ever be able to…). A truly awesome moment came when, rifling through old records, a tween boy with shoulder-length blond hair picked up a Van Halen LP and let out a long, “Yessssss.”

I scored a couple cool vintage-y household items, but by far the coolest thing I came across was a 20″ x 16″ photo collage. It’s cheaply framed, cost $1 and is full of the kind of mystery that gets my wheels turning, my imagination shooting sparks.

The artfully executed collage of photos is from a group of young people’s vacation to Honolulu. The handwritten note on the cardboard back guesses the year to either be 1939, or 1940-43, World War II. Beneath that, four names appear: Virginia Matthiesen, Cole McFarland, Bud Matthiesen and “Sailor Friend.” Those are the only tangibles I have to cling to, the only ones I want. In the grey photos of shorelines and hotel rooms, a garden and a roadside, I have all the fodder for fantasy I need.

The group is young, mid-20s I’d guess. They have the eyes and expressions of old-school rebels, a kind of pre-Beatnik vibe, something carefree and a little wild in their smiles and poses. One has a Neal Cassady look; a girl has sharp cheekbones and piercing eyes; another stares off from above bare shoulders and a shell necklace. In a different photo, Neal Cassady is wearing the shell necklace, leaning in towards the girl as she looks away. The light has caught her blouse, making it blaze with a whiteness that obscures her face.

There’s an impossible number of stories inside the collage, silent and lost like a dream you can’t remember. Whoever made it set it in a border of tiki-style thatch print, then pasted a couple cut-outs of palm trees, to add color and a tropical vibe. It’s visually cool and kitschy enough to be hip. But really, it’s the faces that make me love the collage.

Of course, I’m projecting all of this—maybe they’re not artsy rebels at all. But that’s the fun of it, imagining a trip like that, then: how long it must have taken to get to Hawaii, how rustic and undeveloped it looked, how more pointed and romantic everything looks in black and white. And the timelessness of getting into adventures on the road. I haven’t found the perfect place for it yet; one of my roommates loves it, the other thinks it’s creepy. For now, it’s leaning against my bedroom wall, where I can stare and dream.

At the center of the collage, pasted on a pastel sunset, is a solo shot of the sharp-cheeked woman. She’s looking back, over her shoulder, holding a straw hat down against what might be wind, what might be the passage of time. I like to think she’s looking back at me, out from a moment that’s long passed, a place that isn’t the same, a youth that is gone. Probably, she was looking back at one of the boys in the collage. But a girl can dream, can’t she?

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.

We Wish You a Merry Solstice, and a Non-Denominational New Year: A Muir Woods Solstice

Into the darkness...

Nature lover, pagan, hippie, cheapskate—call me what you will, but the Muir Woods Solstice Event ruled. And not just in a Wicker Man kind of way.

The free, annual event honoring the longest night of the year is uber North-Bay: wholesome, granola-y, non-denominational family fun, set amid old-growth redwoods and adorned with weedy handmade garlands. Luminaria-lit paths fill with white-breathed revelers, whose flashlights make the falling rain look like snow, or that scene from Edward Scissorheads. Puppet shows, antler-clashing Germanic dances and de-Christianized caroling ensue in an event that makes even a cynical 20-something (me) smile.

The promise of free entry and free hot cider lured me out on a moody Monday afternoon, to brave the bridges and highways of a Bay Area rush hour. On a slow Saturday, I’d gotten to chatting with some regulars at work, who gushed to me about the event. Traipsing around the damp dark of one of the Bay Area’s most impressive natural attractions had sounded like a damn good way to spend the longest night of the year. I grabbed a crappy flashlight and a hooded puff coat, roped a friend into riding shotgun and playing DJ, and we set out, sliding along the green curves of Marin, through afternoon sun that shone through the clouds like light into a church.

A ranger with plastic encasing her hat ushered us past the forever-full parking lot; we joined the assembly of cars lined up along the soft shoulder. We walked a muddy, pleasant 15 minutes to the park entrance. Slicker-clod kids tromped puddles as their parents juggled umbrellas and thermoses.

We arrived just as the crowd was thickening. A bearded ranger that looked like a nervous cross between a bluegrass singer and a surfer handed us a booklet of Solsticized/Muirized Christmas carols, complete with lines and titles such as “Deck the woods with luminaria,” “I’m Dreaming of a Green Solstice,” “O Redwood Tree,” and “Come All Ye People.” My personal favorite was “On the first day of Solstice / A Ranger showed to me / A spotted owl in a redwood tree.” The adapted songs captured the progressive eco-politics and non-religious spirituality of Marin better than an Anne Lamott novel. You know that stir a couple years back when right-wing Christians got their knickers in a twist over “Happy Holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas”? Well, these were the folks they were pissed at.

It was, as you might guess, a mellow crowd of nature-y families and local weirdos (a simplification that I suppose puts me into the latter category). We grabbed some cups of cider and strolled around in the intermittent rain, soggy sneakers and cold noses. The creek was full from the recent storm, the stumps mossy; everything felt wet and alive.

We joined the huddle of firepits and hunched shoulders encircling a small, makeshift stage. It was time for some wholesome, non-offensive entertainment. The crowd sang a couple carols, and was then held rapt by a story-telling performance featuring exuberantly portrayed animal characters that I’m sure have inspired several voice-over school rejections. We agreed that the confused shadow puppet show was most definitely the improved result of a flash of marijuana-fueled brilliance. We took it as our cue to stroll the now-dark trails.

Candles in white paper bags lined the trails, making it feel almost like we were walking through an altar. Raindrops held heavy on the tree branches as little kids ran past in a bobble of flashlight beams. Other than that, it was all sound. It reminded me of an interview I’d read with a travel writer (Don George?) who’d wanted to write about something other than the cathedral-ish quality of light in Muir Woods. He’d blindfolded himself and walked around, experiencing the famous woods with mostly just his sense of sound, and written the article from that perspective. It was true that it was a totally different Muir Woods without the light and the sight of redwoods—all rambling water and the solid, rooted presence of those trees, the way you feel a stranger in a dark room.

We got back to the caroling crowd just in time to catch the most bad-ass and spooky performance of the night, a Germanic Solstice dance by the Christmas Rebels (which sounds kind of punk rock). Composed of members of the German fraternal society California Rebels, the group did a slow, hypnotic folk dance that included antler-clashing and creepy flute playing. A bearded dude with a crazy eye hushedly explained the pre-Christian roots of the dance, which got back to the potent mix of fear and worship that fuels most religions, not just Paganism. Under the illuminated, snow-like mist, the clanks of the antlers and the wet clomp of the determined feet felt like a ritual not from long ago, but rather some deranged allegorical movie. Which is to say it was rad.

Toes numb and bellies hungry, we trekked back to the car under the dim halo of my flashlight. A half-grin of moon cut through the heavy clouds, and the earth rustled, sighed, pulled a blanket of darkness up to its chin and settled in for the longest sleep of the year. And Marin celebrated, the way Marin knows how: amid the trees.

Top Three Travel Secrets: A Chain Letter for Travel Bloggers

It reads as ominously as a middle school chain letter. Except, in the end, failure to perpetuate the chain isn’t sworn to result in untimely death or spinsterhood (which are more or less the same thing when you’re 12). Rather, in this chain, compliance results in access to a treasure trove of travelers’ secrets. And probably some new friends.

I was hit by two writers in the TripBase Blog Tag, spreading through the travel blogosphere like hot gossip around a lunch table. Or a dirty note during Math class, light-up sneakers in a mean game of duck-duck-goose. (The analogies could go on forever.) The idea is you write a post about your top three travel secrets: out-of-the-way towns, little-known restaurants, unheard-of hotels—“hidden gems” that lay glittering in the dimness of obscurity. Until now, that is.

Aside from amassing an ass-kicking list of previously unknown spots around the world, the other objective of the TripBase Blog Tag is to be build community and get folks involved. I can get down with that. In addition to the awesome ladies that tagged me—Stephanie from Twenty-Something Travel and Abbie from Miles of Abbie—I’ve already discovered some new writers on the TripBase list of bloggers tagged so far. (Best blog names? Dirtbag Writer and Snarky Tofu. Fuck yeah.) My hunch: the final list won’t just expose travel secrets, but also some bad-ass writers I hadn’t encountered yet.

They say you’re only as sick as your secrets. Here’s to travel health:

End of the hike: waterfall into the Pacific

#1 Palomarin Hike, Marin County, California

My work friend had been telling me about “the secret hike” for months. Huddled over our staff meals in the cramped bus station, she made rope-swinging into the clear lake, and the coastal waterfall at the trail’s end, sound like a dream. Or at least a damn good fantasy.

We finally coordinated a day off together in August and headed up to Marin to the Palomarin Hike. We grabbed sandwiches and drove up past Stinson Beach to tackle the 11-mile hike. And I gotta say, it was just as killer as she’d described.

The hike starts through rather typical dusty California coastal terrain, taking you past sweeping Pacific vistas us locals have grown accustomed to. After about 45 minutes, the foliage and trees thicken, and you eventually get to Bass Lake, a frigid-water lake that’s biggest draw is an old-school rope swing. You could while away hours here, but, seeing as though it was August in the Bay Area and foggy as hell, we were too cold to partake. We continued on, and ended up at the trail’s end, where a waterfall tumbles into an isolated coastal cove.

The good news: the hike, although long, is gentle and not too strenuous. Which means just about anyone could do it—including my smoke-a-pack-a-day friend and me, who was then recovering from swine flu (yes, really).

The bad news: the Palomarin Hike is a total word-of-mouth Bay Area secret. As is the way with Marinites, locals don’t want outsiders to know about their secrets or have access to them (see also: why BART doesn’t run to Marin). Locals take down street signs and signposts, meaning that you’ve pretty much gotta go with someone who’s been there. So if you’re headed to the Bay soon, just hit me up; I’ll take you.

Ahhh...

#2 Legzira Plage, Atlantic Coast, Morocco

Okay, if you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you’ve already heard me gush about the most deserted and beautiful beach I’ve ever been to: Legzira Plage, Morocco.

Talk about tucked-away: from Tiznit, take an hour bus ride, hop off at the faded roadside sign, and hike down 20 minutes. It’ll really just be you, a couple stray tourists, some fisherman and their donkeys—and the sandstone arches that dive red earth into blue water.

Among the handful of pink building that cascade down the cliff into the main beach, there’s two hotels that offer relatively cheap rooms. I went high-class and got one with my own shower, squat toilet (doin’ big things), and a window that opened onto the ocean view—for under $20.

Another bonus is the Moroccan street harassment factor, and the fact that Legzira Plage doesn’t have one. After a couple weeks of solo backpacking, sweating in long sleeves and fending off the barrage of “bonjour”s, it felt pretty damn sweet to strip down to my bikini and wave-hop in peace.

Kids on their way to school

#3 El Congo, Venezuela

The story goes that, when Europeans first arrived in what is now Venezuela, they came to the Lake Maracaibo villages, perched on stilts amid the marshes and water. Watching the village folks traverse the “streets” in handmade rafts reminded the Europeans of Venice—and they dubbed the place Venezuela.

El Congo, Venezuela is the most other-worldly places I’ve ever been. It’s only reachable by boat, a 30-minute ride through the hazy flat expanse of water, and you’ve gotta book a tour to get there. But surprisingly, the town isn’t the main draw of the tour. The Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon is what draws most people—mysterious, thunderless lightning that occurs almost nightly in the skies over Lake Maracaibo.

The road to Los Llanos was flooded when I was in Merida, so I opted to take the Catatumbo tour in its place. I hadn’t heard of El Congo, but it ended up being the highlight of the tour (the lightning didn’t really happen that night). The town had everything—a school, a fire station, a convenience store, even a Plaza Bolivar—all erected on stilts. Rumor had it there were a couple old folks still living in the town who’d only ever stepped foot for dry land to bury relatives.

It wasn’t an untouched Eden: El Congo was extremely isolated, making inbreeding a huge problem, and the town was quite poor. Sanitation was a major issue, with most refuse and human waste going directly into the water. Owning an actual boat was a sign of privilege. The less well-to-do had to construct their own floatation devices—this girl tied a piece of wood to some leftover styrofoam, dug a stick down into the mushy lakebed, and propelled herself along that way.

The thing that really bummed me out were the poor yapping dogs chained to the “front porch” of some of the houses. So much for getting a walk, little buddy. But hands down, El Congo was the most unusual place I’ve ever traveled to—and so far off the beaten path, there wasn’t a path at all.

So that’s my top three, scrawled not-so-jaggedly into the margins of a wrinkled note. Now to fold it up and shove it into another sweaty, unsuspecting palm. This could get good…

Dos Dias de los Muertos: Oakland Vs. SF Celebrations

DSCN3892It’s not Mexican Halloween. Or Northern Californian Halloween. It’s Dia de los Muertos, and it’s everyone’s holiday now.

You can’t escape Dia de los Muertos in the Bay Area. That’s a good thing. It’s a pretty bad-ass holiday, based in the Aztec belief of death not as a definitive end, but merely a continuation in a parallel form. Aided by elaborate graveside altars, souls of the departed return for one night (traditionally two) to kick it with the living. The celebratory approach towards death comes complete with a comically macabre aesthetic derived largely from a good ole’ revolutionary, Jose Guadalupe Posada (see: my first tattoo).

What makes the holiday fascinating to me is its endurance and evolution. Dia de los Muertos is the little holiday that could: millennia-old, it’s survived colonialism, Catholicism, and more recently, the United States. But while all these outside elements have altered the holiday, the fundamental spirit has managed to survive. Observances vary wildly, both within and outside Mexico, and serve to say a lot about their respective communities (see: my latest Matador article). Case in point? Oakland versus San Francisco celebrations.

The Bay Area’s enormous Hispanic population has two established homebases: East Oakland’s increasingly cleaned-up Fruitvale district, and San Francisco’s contentiously gentrified Mission District (claimed to be birthplace of the burrito). Both host huge Dia de los Muertos celebrations that shut down city blocks and draw thousands with marigold-adorned, incense-laced festivities. Neither celebration is traditional, in the Patzcuaro sense of the term, but neither are the same. They contrast as starkly as an SF hipster’s ironic mullet and an Oakland hyphy  kid’s synthetic dreads.

DSCN3846

International Blvd during the Dia de los Muertos

Oakland celebrates with a family-oriented daytime street fair on the Sunday preceding the holiday, this year November 1. While drawing a healthy cross-section of the city’s ever-diverse population, the event is mostly representative of contemporary Mexican and Latin culture in the Bay Area. Powerhouse Spanish radio stations, La Raza and La Preciosa, set up stages on opposite ends of the festival and vie for on-lookers. Local taquerias set up stands that pump out carne asada smoke, while DIY vendors push helado carts and set up raspado stands. Women hawkers cry, “Churros, Churros, Churros!” while others wrap still-steaming elotes in foil. Local businesses abut booths with corporate superpowers like Safeway, while non-profits erect altars next to those of neighborhood school kids. Dancers decked out in Aztec garb (the feather- and skull-adorned headdresses are bad-ass) break into spontaneous drum-infused performances, and there’s more men in cowboy hats and little girls in mini-skirts than you can count.

DSC_0381On November 2, San Francisco holds an evening procession that a jaded friend of mine has dubbed “Gringos Gone Wild.” True, the participants are largely not of Hispanic decent and, boy, do they get down. People dress up in calavera face paint and elaborate Tim-Burton-esque costumes that I suspect derive from Victorian Catrina dolls. A modest group of Aztec dancers leads the procession, which then follows with revelers of the purely San Franciscan variety: costumed people with politicized signs, curious interpretive dancers, bicycle-powered floats, and a whole lotta candle-clutching white folks. The procession ends at a public park filled with some seriously artistic altars—this year, an anatomical heart suspended by red nerves, a papier-mache carniceria, a parlor scene that looked like the inside of Edward Gorey’s head.

I can see how people get down on San Francisco’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration for not being authentico; I understand why others deem Oakland’s as boring and not creative enough. But isn’t that just an extension of the Oakland-SF rivalry, the cities’ differences demonstrated through the observance of another culture’s holiday?

I’m an Oakland girl, so I’m partial to an event where I run into about a dozen people I know. And if nothing else, the Fruitvale festival is thrilling for the mere fact that Oakland manages to hold a peaceful public festival (I remember seeing stray post-Festival-At-The-Lake rioters pass by the bottom of my block as a kid—that was the end of that neighborhood event). Events like the Dia de los Muertos celebration remind me why I love my hometown—though I never really forget.

DSCN3907At the same time, the Mission procession captures so much of San Francisco’s cultural landscape. Just when you get disheartened, want to write the whole place off as over-priced and gentrified, the city comes through with something insanely creative or beautiful. Despite the changing demographics, beneath the paling population and depressing socioeconomics, San Francisco’s still a city with soul.

And at the center of both of these celebrations is the fact that they don’t derive from, well, here. They aren’t American, have been brought over by immigrants and subsequently Americanized. Some shout cultural appropriation, and, sure, these festivities are a far cry from the all-night graveside vigils I attended last year in Tzintzuntzan. But, at the core of these modern interpretations, both stay true to the fundamentally celebratory Aztec approach of the holiday. And if that’s not survival, I don’t know what is.


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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