I’m writing this ten days after the 4th July, and half the world away. I’m typing on my phone, in the noisy and crowded corridor of a Chinese train, at a weird angle so I can keep the phone charger in the socket, so forgive any typos.
The 4th was our last day in the States, and as we headed to the airport for our late night flight to Hong Kong, we could see the fireworks lighting up the sky.
Earlier in the day, in between retrieving our stuff which had gradually infiltrated the household, packing, cleaning and watering the plants, we made time to walk down to the Alameda 4th July parade.
It was a pretty relaxed affair, with whole families bringing their kids and dogs and setting up their deckchairs by the side of the road.
Floats were mainly representing local businesses and sports clubs and ranged from highly decorated trucks with choreographed routines, to cars with a hand written poster stuck on the side.
The military had a couple of trucks, there were all sorts of cultural floats (my favourite was “Sikhs on Bikes” a group of turbanned guys on massive motorbikes) but the most applause was when the mexican bands came past, playing lively music and flanked by gauchos on horses, long horned cows and even a donkey. There qas one old guy in a motorized wheelchair decked out in flags and ribbons. There were women in fairy outfits urging people to register to vote and handing out pocket sized copies of the constitution. In the lulls between floats we read parts out and discussed it in relation to current events. One might hope the orange one would follow suit.
Lauren got some free popcorn, a couple lent us one of their spare camping benches, and we watched as floats rumbled by, along with some more energetic types who had done the route on foot.
I have grown to like San Francisco, in all its bonkersness.
The confident self-expression of its people, the foodie culture, the openness and tolerance, the activism, the friendliness of the people (yes, I even caught myself initiating conversations with strangers!), the guys skateboarding, rollerblading, scootering (scooting?) to work, the multitude of free events bringing people together (from jazz to corgi conventions to world cup breakfasts…..)…
Just underneath the glossy veneer, though, there are a few rough edges, with plenty of homeless people, many clearly suffering from mental illness, some sketchy neighbourhoods (we took the bus a lot……google maps doesn’t have an ‘avoid connections in dodgy areas option…), and long, exhausting commutes for the many working poor who cannot afford somewhere in the city.
It’s the sort of place you can be a free-spirited hippy, as long as you have plenty of money…..
It’s the sort of place you could live in a lovely liberal bubble, if only you could ignore the rest of the country…..
Or, you know, that’s my impression after a sum total of 6 visits to the place from the ‘burbs….
We shopped at Macy’s, ate enormous plates of fried food and cheesecake, hung around Union square, saw Grease, wandered round the residential areas with the wooden painted houses SF is known for, climbed a hell of a lot of hills, caught the ferry, and spent time in some of the city parks.
Mainly, though, we spent our time in SF applying for visas.
For the next stage of our journey, we need visas for China, Mongolia and Russia.
Mongolia was a breeze. Fill in an application form downloaded from the website, attach a photo and a copy of the train tickets. No queue, the receptionist had barely asked us to wait when a lovely gently-spoken woman ushered us into her quiet, carpeted office, asked us to take a seat and courteously took our application and money. She asked where we were going to stay, made a few recommendations of tourist sights, and told us they would phone when the visas were ready. The next day, they phoned and we picked it up from another staff member, who wished us a pleasant stay, told us our trip was amazing, and gave us 10 USD because he said they had mistakenly overcharged us.
China wasn’t quite so easy. We arrived dead on opening time at the consulate, to face a line that already stretched up the steep hill and around the corner of the next block. We shuffled along for about half an hour before gaining entry to the total chaos inside. Or rather, it just looked like chaos, there was actually a fairly efficient system as long as you knew which of the many, many queues you needed to be in. There was a queue for visa application submission, another for pick up, and various queues for Chinese citizens doing admin things. There were also impressively long queues for the photocopier machine, the passport photo machine, the information desk, and the ladies loo. All of these queues merged and wound around each other, but people generally had an idea where they were. Luckily, I was prepared and had every possible bit of documentation. I had checked the website and had duplicates of everything.
Except, of course, for what wasn’t stated on the website.
They wanted Lauren’s birth certificate. I kicked myself, as I do carry this but as it wasn’t on the list, I hadn’t thought to bring it, and it was a good hour and a half from where we were staying. Luckily, they agreed to accept a photocopy, so we went off to a local post office, where I used their computer to download and print a scan of her birth certificate. That full afternoon spent scanning in every conceivable official document last year finally paid off!
Once back in the chaos we came up on the issue of us not being resident in the US. Technically, you are supposed to apply in ‘your country of residence’ which is a laugh as we don’t have one…and you can only apply 90 days prior to travel, so we couldn’t have applied in any place we might have reasonably considered our residence….. After a consultation with superiors, and my gentle refusal to be fobbed off, I was told they would ‘only’ give us a single entry for 30 days (which was exactly what I was applying for….). They also wanted my passport from 2004 when I spent 6 months in China working as an English teacher. I explained that was not going to happen and they eventually seemed OK with that. Three working days later – one less than officially required, crucially meaning we would not be forced to miss the England v Colombia game, we collected our visas after a 2 hour wait.
Russia was a total non-starter, we were told by a very rude and dismissive woman at the information desk that we could only apply in our country of residence 90 days before travel. She wasn’t at all interested in our situation, and actually walked off as I was in the middle of politely explaining. I did expect this, though, so we have a plan B – British citizens get an automatic temporary residence card for 180 days on arrival in Hong Kong, so we are flying there next week to apply for a Russian visa.
The last few weeks I haven’t written much, partly because we were having too much fun with our friends in Alameda, San Francisco. We arrived just before the end of school here, and Lauren was lucky enough to be invited to join her friend Maddie’s class for the last few days. She even put together and presented a powerpoint about our trip and answered the children’s questions (including ‘how many people have you met’ and ‘how many states have you visited…’).
Maddie and Lauren met when they were toddlers – Lauren was not yet two – and along with Maddie’s older sister Ava, were great friends until they left Mozambique before us, in 2015. It’s been wonderful to catch up and to see that the girls’ friendship has lasted, with plans already being made for future meet-ups. That’s not to say there wasn’t the odd bit of drama – we are talking 3 pre-teen girls after all 🙂
Most of the time we have been content to hang around the island (Alameda is an island in the bay across from San Francisco, just next to Oakland and not far from Berkeley), taking the dog for walks, playing games and catching up. After ten months on the move, its nice just to be somewhere with a washing maching, decent wifi, nice vegetables, and more than two rings on the cooker.
We went for a walk in the Oakland hills one hot day, and Lauren and I went up to San Francisco a couple of times to get visas for the next leg of our journey, and to watch the England-Tunisia game, which we ended up watching in an Irish pub, as the English one had a no-child policy.
One day we took the three girls to the SF science museum, the Exploratorium, where they spent almost the entire day learning from hands-on exhibits. Plenty of hard science is covered (“molecules and stuff”, as Lauren put it) but some of their favourites were more social – a version of the prisoner’s dilemma saw Lauren putting me in jail for three years (snitching brat), and a minor tiff broke out when one girl ‘broke her promise’ and squirted the other with water instead of giving her a drink in another ‘individual interest vs. cooperation’ experiment. I can think of some politicians on both sides of the Atlantic who could do with some reminders about how a functioning society should behave… maybe we should lock them into the Exploratorium until they learn how to be civil.
Another day we visited the ‘county fair’ – in part, a funfair as we might have in the UK, with dodgems (‘bumper cars’) and big wheels and rollercoasters and those horrible rides that turn you upside down and around all at the same time, as well as candy floss and fried food. Lauren and the two other girls absolutely loved the rides, spending hours going from one to the other in a state of high excitement bordering on hysteria.
There were some elements though that were uniquely American. Lauren and I were horrified at the pig racing – widely condemned by animal rights organizations such as PETA, but with a willing audience here, as baby pigs raced round a track and were made to jump fences. Lauren looked stricken, and we left. Its not just the ways these animals are trained and treated (dreadfully, according to animal rights groups), its also the whole concept of animals existing to entertain us. There were also animals in small cages, including a peacock pacing up and down, and a number of animals the children could ‘handle’, which seems barbaric in this day and age. Don’t get me wrong, the area was shady, they looked well fed and watered, but still, they hardly looked contented and some seemed positively anxious. But then in a country with authorities willing to separate defenseless children from their parents and send them goodness knows where, perhaps the rights of animals don’t rank highly. … (I try to keep this blog away from politics, but what is going on in this country is horrifying right now).
The food was also fairly, ahem, unique – we had deep fried oreos (actually quite tasty, basically just a doughnut with an oreo filling…) and Lauren had a corn dog – a frankfurter deep fried in batter. It looked and smelled as you might expect, but Lauren enjoyed it.
David also took the three girls away for a few days of fun by the beach – they swam, hiked, and even panned for gold. Lauren found two miniscule pieces of gold, barely discernible with the naked eye, so unfortunately not enough to fund another year of travelling…. While I was separated from Lauren for the first time in 9 months, I hopped on a plane to catch up with my friend Lynn and her husband. It was a lovely few days full of good food and conversation,although we did spend much of the time mourning the state of the country and the world more generally. It was intense, and after 9 months of deliberately distancing myself from the world’s ills, it felt like I was suddenly plunged back into the depths of despair at the state of humanity. Democrats in this country seem to be totally lost, geographically segregated in liberal bubbles, unable to fight against a president and party who don’t play by the rules and not helped by a divided party. People are struggling with how to combat outright lies, how to engage in a debate when the other side rubbishes evidence, data, reasoned debate and ‘experts’ and relies instead on deliberate stoking of hatred and divisiveness.
Oops, strayed again…
Anyway, another high point of the last few weeks was our trip to San Diego, to visit good friends from Mozambique, Mindy and her son Sebastian, who also left before us. Sebastian is 3 years younger than Lauren, but they got on really well, and we had a very chilled weekend, including plenty of good food and wine, ice cream sundaes, lots of play time, a concert picnic in the park, some world cup games, and a day at the ‘Old Town’ where San Diego was first founded. It was also great to catch up with my friend Claire’s son Tanguy – last time I saw him he was Lauren’s age, now he’s a strapping 18 year old lifeguard.
We also had very special sightings of two blue whales, largest creature on the planet, which has been a long-time dream of Lauren’s. We went quite a way out to sea on a smallish boat and were lucky to spot the spouts from miles away, racing towards them in time to spend half an hour bobbing around the regulatory 100 feet from these magnificent creatures as they repeatedly dived and ‘spouted’ (??).
Blue whales migrate past the Pacific coast at this time of year, and while it was impossible to get a full look at them, we did see them diving a couple of times, seeing the whole body slowly arch and subside, ending with a massive slap of the tail on the ocean. Very special. Photos below courtesy of the San Diego Whale Watch naturalist on board with a huge camera, I didn’t even try….
Right now, we are back in Alameda and house and cat sitting as David, Tracy and the two girls (and the dog) are making their way north in their camper. We are also doing the rounds of the embassies for our next leg, through China, Mongolia and Russia.
It was a sad goodbye, but we will see them again somehow, somewhere. Have fun folks!