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.