Monday, September 22, 2008

Grand Canyon Haiku

Tourists click at the

Brink of the unreal vastness
A big hole, for sure


Another Haiku (I got quite into them):

The American Question

Larger than life, or
Too large for this life-boat?
Looks like the latter

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Green Tortoise

The backpacker fun-bus...

It's fun hanging out with locals but I wanted to join the backpacker trail for a week. Green Tortoise tours have fantastic coaches, converted to sleep 30+, and at $450 for a week it seemed the perfect way to head east.

The group was great: international and of all ages. And the coaches redefined comfy travel for me: split into thirds you have the choice of giant bed (back), 'dinettes' (middle) or comfy choir-stall seats. And the luggage racks are bunks. Being able to swap between them made long journeys a pleasure.

We cooked dinner together and slept under the stars most nights.

Joshua Tree National Park

Venice Beach

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Washing feet in Frisco...

Travel highlights off the Rough Guide trail

Travel by contact is the most rewarding and the internet makes it easy to surf the six degrees of connectedness. Days before boarding my flight I'd sent out a 'Help, nowhere to stay' email and - excepting the first two nights in a hotel - friends of friends (or friends of theirs) have come through every time.

I was getting dropped off in San Francisco after a fun afternoon's sailing around the bay. "What's your friend Matt's address?" asked Eric (behind the wheel surfing Google Maps on his phone as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge). They all chuckled in mild disbelief when I politely corrected him that the term 'friend' was probably stretching it, applied to someone I'd exchanged a few emails and fewer words with.

'Friend' is apt now, though, after a blisteringly warm welcome and five days of fun at 'Hostel Ridenour'. Matt and his housemates welcomed me with open couch. (Matt, in yellow below, with his sister Christa and housemate Dan to his right).

They also introduced me to the best of San Francisco. Yet the highlight wasn't hitting the uber-cool Mission district, replete with hipsters, for a Friday nights dancing at the
Elbow Room. Or the movie-picnic in the park followed by taste-bud educating ice cream (Balsamic Strawberry anyone?). It wasn't the basement house-party where I learnt the art of 'Flipcup', or even the Lindy Hop ball where my poor attempts at improvising to the Blues band went generously enjoyed by the girls I danced with. The highlight was helping out at Matt's church's homeless mission for a few hours on the foot washing team.

Midday Saturday Matt was headed downtown, having heard that CityTeam was short of volunteers, and invited us along (there were other weekend guests at the 'Hostel'). On a side road from the plush main shopping street, through a nondescript entrance, was a room full of plastic tables and chairs, a buffet counter at one end and worship band warming up to one side. We headed to the basement to join a seated circle of volunteers being welcomed and assigned tasks by Paul, head of Mercy/Justice ministries at CityChurch.

Soon the lunch area was bustling. Matt called the names on the rota: those who had signed up for free clothes (down in the hanger-lined basement), and those who wanted a foot wash. Managed by gentle-voiced Anna, who has been doing this for seven years, the foot washing is obviously an explicit act of service and humility echoing
Christ's. It's also very practical - if my own feet got hot and tired after a days sight-seeing then I can imagine the effect of day-in, day-out trudging the sidewalks in ill-fitting shoes.

If I'd been expecting a chore ('How good of me to volunteer, so noble!') what I actually got was a delightful few hours chatting to interesting, warm and often inspiring characters.

Like Karen, a big-smiled African American who told me of her clean break in August, leaving her drug habit (and perhaps dealing), partner and home behind - sadly a new start for her begins on the streets. Her feet were in pretty good shape even though just weeks before her son had refused to believe what he saw - "Take your socks off mama!" "They ARE off, those is my feet. That white is my calloused SKIN!" - all on account of a miracle foot cream she'd mixed from a Charlie's Magic Medicine of different products. According to Karen everyone who tried it was impressed by the results, including the Hostel doctor!

Another lady spoke passionately about her work with young people, the pointlessness of arrests for petty drug use and the need for basketball games and BBQ's between neighbouring communities to stop them shooting each other. She was studying for a criminology qualification, getting up at 6am every day to get to college.

These people don't own homes (many are in short term accommodation) but most of them aren't lazy. They don't seem bitter-by-default either. Does our welfare system foster an attitude of being 'owed' without having to earn through one's effort? Yet so many good people allowed to fall to the streets in a country of such abundance.

It is popular amongst some in my social class - the bachelor degreed liberatti - to bash religion, or at least Christianity (lest you stray off-limits into cultural or racial critique), especially of the American kind. Yet the flip side of nuts in the White House is young, passionate and talented San Franciscans enjoying life while avoiding excess and giving up their Saturday afternoon to serve the homeless of their city. I was so impressed by how kind-hearted Matt, Kevin and the others were. They looked everyone in the eye and treated every beggar as a person.

Of course it's not just Christians that serve and sacrifice, but there is a deeply beautiful strand of Christianity (one lost completely by the domination-at-all-costs Neocons) that exalts service and humility. The revolutionary 'first shall be last'. Leadership as servanthood.

Anna said that when she started on CityTeam she thought she was going to bless the homeless, but found that it is they who have blessed her. I can second that.

Rich experiences not in any Rough Guide, that you only get to see through email, the efforts of contacts and the hospitality of strangers. Who now aren't. I feel like I've left some good friends in Frisco Bay.


San Francisco supposedly has a fairly progressive set of policies towards the homeless. Nonetheless a very different spirit to that of CityTeam was on display on Sunday night as the cleaning trucks passed down Market Street. "Hey, get up!" said a street cleaner, kicking a blanketed form curled in a doorway. "You want some water? That'll get you up?". He retreated to his truck as the water tanker aimed its jet spray and dowsed the 'bum' til he stumble up and away down the sidewalk, soaked and cursing.

More photos:

I loved San Francisco, with its charming wooden terraced housing
and mural covered Mission district - and public transport system that

Honesty is the best policy!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mrs Dog

"Obama's our only hope." "No, there is another..."

I've discovered the heart of the resistance. Forget Neo or Macavity. All command lines in the fight against the Neocon New World Order lead back to a basset hound in Palo Alto.

Co-ordinating her network through her owner, Skip Macy (an Astro Physics PhD and retired Intel employee), Mrs Dog (real name Cleo) has built a formidable network of agent provocateurs and inside contacts, managed out of Silicon Valley's heartland. With key sources throughout America - Sergey Brin's cat Meooow; the boardroom goldfish, Swaps, at Goldman Sachs; Jamie Dimon's dachhund Go Long; Pentagon chickens Shock and Awe; and others - Mrs Dog is preparing a series of master strokes that will redraw America's political landscape for the better. Watch this space. (And if you're seeking an audience, take a pig's ear).

(Oh, and the Macy's are a fantastic family who gave me the warmest of welcomes. My own bed and a sturdy washing machine were just what was needed post Burning Man. Thanks to Marie and all the family.)

(This posting was approved by Mrs Dog, knowing that Americans would never believe it - although after the Palin pick I'm not so sure).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Big Surf, Big Trees

Surf's up in Santa Cruz

'Everything's bigger' is a common reaction, I would guess, from those visiting the USA from crowded Europe. In a country that's almost a continent there's a lot of space to go around, and a lot of Nature.

California's teaming with it, from noisy sea lions on the Santa Cruz peer and pelicans bobbing between surfers to the ever-present threat of the Great White. Despite being undeniably subdued - most of California's forests have long been felled - Nature seems somehow more assertive here, on more equal terms - and perhaps less fragile? Is that one of the reasons American's have found it hard to accept humanity's wholesale alteration of the climate - in spite of their role as pioneers in our industrial-scale tinkering with the carbon cycle?

I spent a weekend with my friend Adam, out here finishing his Oxford doctorate, and quickly succombed to the fun-seeking optimism of one of surfing's home towns.

Adam had arranged for my first surf lesson with Tod, a forty-something local surfer who, fresh from a Saturday's labouring as a painter was ready to get down to the real reason for his existence and get onto the waves. "There's people who surf and there's surfers", Tod eplained. "I'm a surfer. It mean's everything to me. See, if I moved inland, I'd die, no question. I'd die." One surfing mag had featured a letter's page titled 'Is surfing a religion?' and I was about to learn why.

Driving out of town and parking on the freeway, Tod took us to a favourite local surf spot: '3 Mile'. We walked down a track between millions of brussel sprouts and down a steep path to a beautiful little beach, unspoilt coves stretched out in either direction. Tod was reassuringly relaxed about the size of the breakers (but there did seem an awful lot of spray coming up from the rocks) and about the presence of sharks ("No sharks today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today" he said, winking). Quite a spot for a first-timer.

I threw myself into it and within minutes had a newfound respect for surfers and the sea. It is a
tough sport - Tod was chiselled like an Athenian marble - and you pit your fitness and skill against the might of the ocean. I managed to body-board the first time (jumping off when I realised only the approaching rocks were going to slow my wave) and get onto my knees the second. The third effort was a lesson in respect. Off the board, into the wave and battered again and again, kicking away from the rocks and trying to punch through rolling walls of foam, only to get jerked back by the board trailing behind one leg by its chord, kicking free of kelp, amidst the rising sombre panic of a survival situation. The waves subsided (as Tod promised they would - they come in sets) and hauling myself onto my board, exhausted, ('like, totally'), I limply paddled towards the calm water, only able to grunt in reply to Tod's remarks: "You're tired, uh?... Hard work, isn't it?".

Afterwards we sat in the fading sunlight, sipping beer and staring out to sea, and the potent combination of mortal challenge, beauty and community that makes surfing much more than a sport for many was clear. You taunt the might of the ocean, playing in the Lion's den, learning to skip away inches from a foamy mauling, and in the sparing find a communion with Nature.

That night I had a running dream - the one's where you're chased until you wake up.

Tree Huggers

The following day Adam and I drove to Big Basin Redwood State Park. California's oldest state park, it was saved from the loggers when the Sempervirens Club bought 15km sq. of old growth Redwood forest in 1902.

'What were the loggers thinking' Adam and I wondered, as we strolled through the echoing halls of giant Redwoods. Did they feel sad, driven on my hungry mouths at home and bosses far removed who didn't care? Or did they actually see these high-Gothic cathedrals of nature as 'resources', counting each ones' size by the number of railway sleepers it could yield?

We hugged a tree each. Had to be done. Then hopped back into our gas-hungry hire car and left.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Best Party on the Planet...

...If there's an afterlife, let it be like Burning Man.

Every August the cracked, dusty skin of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada becomes home to an amazing expression of human exuberance, creativity and good will.

There, stretched between the mountains, the appropriately named Playa hosts what must be the greatest show on Earth, as 40,000 'Burners' leave behind the pre-created identities of consumer culture and paint a kaleidoscopic week-long artistic happening that wows everyone who attends.

American's may be fond of superlatives but where Burning Man is concerned they are more than justified. I've had an absolutely AWESOME week and the scrappy shards below cannot begin to convey the mosaic they're taken from.

In fact I seriously considered a one-line blog entry: 'Burning Man. You have GOT to go.'

Into the wilderness

Getting to Burning Man takes commitment and planning. Situated in the middle of a high elevation desert, miles from the nearest habitation, it is a harsh environment - people need to look after each other. The only things for sale on site are coffee and ice! Everything else you need must be brought with you - or 'gifted' from another 'Burner', as those attending are known - including a minimum 1.5 gallons of water per person per day.

I was with Camp Starstruck in the Alternative Energy Zone. Organised by Jon and Amanda, they worked logistical wizardry in hiring a van, buying and planning camp meals, and preparing the essential shade structure that would provide our social space.

We had driven through the night, excitement building as we joined the narrowing funnel of Burners, until we reached the desert and a string of red tail lights stretching out into the darkness. As the sun rose we made the final approach along a strip lined with quotes on politics and the American Dream (this year's theme), and at the gate myself and Tim, both of us first-timers, were greeted with a hug, a 'Welcome home' and invited to ring the bell. We had arrived.

Black Rock City

BRC appears and disappears every year, barely leaving a mark: a central tenet of Burning Man being 'Leave No Trace'. (This is a principle taken very seriously and all MOOP - Matter Out Of Place - must be pounced on and removed).

The camp forms a partial circle, over 10,000 feet in diameter, with the towering Man at the center, faced by the open section with looks out on the expanding desert plain beyond, with its Temple and various scattered art
stretching out to 'The End'.

Streets radiate from the man according to times on a clock face, from 2 o'clock through to 10 o'clock, bisecting concentric rings starting from the inner Esplanade where many of the bars and venues are, and out past alphabetically ordered streets: Allante, Beneville, Corvair, etc. Our camp's address that I'd so carefully noted finally made sense: 6.30 and Dart.

Into this orderly outline, that would satisfy the most ardent Modernist city planner, bloomed a romantic, chaotic, anarchic explosion of life.


The people make Burning Man. What is astounding is that everything you see is the result of some person or groups self-expression. No logos allowed (only Budget Rental' and 'U-Haul' were occasionally on display, but often in subverted form).

'Art Cars' roam the playa and adapted 'Art Bikes' - each one choosing fun over function. From the cartoon like...
... to the surreal:

The delightful wit kept a smile glued to my face. Some favorites were the 'Hug Deli' (I chose the 'Slow, Awkward Hug' out of intrigue. Yes it was)....

...and the BRC Police, on the prowl to enforce good humour:

The exuberance came through in the 'What, Where, When' book of listings for BRC events, classes, happenings etc, some of which included:
'Black Rock Gang Watergun Shootout'; 'Pimp My Bike'; 'Adopt a Trained Sock Monkey'; 'Start Your Own Cult'; 'Laughter Yoga'; 'Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony'; 'BRC Annual Kite Fly'; 'Utah Bob Has a Rash'; 'Lockpicking 101'; 'Rub Sid's Feet'; 'Socially Appropriate Burp Day'; 'Snowball Fight'; 'Couples Smooching Workshop'; 'Global Dream Crystal Grid Activation'; 'How to Start a Housing Co-op'; 'Orange Peel Sculpture Workshop'; 'Erotic Rope Bondage 101'; 'Tent Folding Clinic'; 'Nuclear Reactor and Fusion Workshop'.
Some typical entries:
Monday-Sunday, 11.00am - 12.00pm
Abuse by Andrew
Camping with a moron? Tired of your significant other? Know someone you can't stand? Bring them for a little abuse by Andrew!

Thursday, 6:00pm - 7:00pm
Gondwanaland Bike Race
Millions of years ago, a noble union blessed this planet: The supercontinent Gondwanaland. Today we race in opposition to tectonic drift.
Wednesday, 8:00pm - 9:00pm
Cancer Walk to the Temple
Join burner cancer survivors & loved ones to walk to the temple and joyfully SHOUT out being alive! Meet at the temple (12) side of the Man.
Looking through the guide on the first day I felt overwhelmed by the options. But I quickly learned that every day at Burning Man is best experienced like a road trip. You set off and just see where you end up. Every Burner's day will be different, every one full of its own wonders. Like coming upon a slip'n'slide:

Night time on the Playa

At night Black Rock City really comes alive. Like some giant anthropic coral reef, the Playa is a sea of neon shapes, spectacular fire shows and incredible Art Cars swirling past you.

The clubs are unreal and it's easy to feel you've landed in The Matrix...

The meaning of Burning Man

I asked people I met what word they'd choose to sum up Burning Man:
"Freedom. There are just two rules: don't be violent; and pick up your crap."

"Life. Being alive. Feeling alive" Alabaster

"Community. And communication. Sharing and opening up. Seeing people as unique, aside from all the boxes we put each other in, aside from the commercial" Scott

"Awakening. My first Burning Man was last year and I found something profound. People are so welcoming and I didn't feel judged by anybody. Release is the one word to describe this temple [see video below]. Everybody has something they want to release." Ramsey, pictured below with his girlfriend Krista

For me, my favourite poem fitted perfectly with the spirit of Burning Man. Not only does Omar Khayyam's 'Rhubaiyat' passionately preach 'carpe diem' and loving life while it lasts, but written in 12th Century Persia, it's desert imagery came alive on the Playa:
Ah, make the most of what we may yet spend,
Before we too into the Dust descent;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and - sans End!
I gifted verses to people, scrawled on post-it notes, handed out from my briefcase or bowler hat.

My best day

Dust-storm's swept the Playa...

And from the Temple humankind
seemed glorious and fragile...

With face mask and goggles sealed,
I wandered further into the whiteout,

finding a huge teepee of many-nations...

There we mixed new cocktails
and donned prom dresses,
their price tags
still attached...

Adopted by some crazy Californian's,
I joined them in their Cherry Pie

as we set off in the blizzard,
a meter or less, navigating by
occasional glimpses of the sun...

Finding our way back to the Esplanade
we took shelter in the Moonshine Bar,
and I ordered a drink for myself
and my bowling ball Louise
(the most unusual piece of MOOP yet)

Thank you Burning Man, thank you Burners... God Bless America!