Finding comfort

I am again in Hong Kong, briefly.

Over the past decade I’ve spent a dozen days like this, give or take. They’re days of freedom on either end of busy work travels. They’re days plucked from the vagaries of jetlag and airline schedules in an attempt to maximize time on the ground.

It’s not a common approach. Many try to minimize time in country, to avoid skipping a child’s soccer game or a Saturday morning breakfast. I have done that too frequently, and now my priorities are different, born of being a person who loves many places, rather than one. Luckily my family understands that I am better company returning from an extra day of quiet thinking than a tight Friday night rush to the airport from a factory in Dongguan. At least usually. Spending Friday evening exploring or at a dinner and then Saturday wandering leaves me with an impression of the world I want to return to, rather than viewing it as a place of work necessity. As always, I try to maintain that curiosity.

In this fashion I’ve spent a weekend in Changsha, doing research, and many weekends in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, the loci of my global slingshot routes. And yet, despite years of practice, I’m still learning. I’m learning how to find special places, how to be a more adventurous visitor. Being a frequent visitor rather than a tourist should provide different opportunities, and does. Lately I’ve been visiting climbing gyms, small parks, and new neighborhoods. Mostly, as always, I walk long distances and speak little.

After several hours of wandering, after a day of looking down alleys and up stair cases, I find somewhere to get cheap noodles, maybe a local beer, and read some fiction. The novel lets me tune out the city I’ve worked so hard to focus in on. And eventually, calmer and ready for company, I head to the airport for my long commute back to our small apartment, to Mr. Squish and our four am jetlag mornings.

On the river

Deer Creek

For three weeks we drift down the Colorado. The Grand Canyon is so large as to take hours to approach by car. Finding the flat space at Lees Ferry where we launch our boats feels very random, and I wonder how the first explorers managed. So many miles of walking or riding to reach this place, and so hidden from view. How many ridges had they crested looking for a way to the river before discovering this one?

Our days are nothing like theirs must have been. Our route is well planned and food precisely proportioned. We cook in crews and camp at spots long favored by the elders of our group. We stop for hikes to waterfalls that pour into the canyon, and stand in them, letting the cleaner, warmer water wash and refresh. It is a hundred and ten degrees in Arizona in August, and we are often in the sun.

Mostly a passenger, I spend some part of every day with my feet up and my hat over my eyes, watching a narrow sliver of river and sky without a care. It is peaceful, to be rowed, though less so to row, and several of our party eat ravenously every day. I manage to read three books, mostly in the quiet hours after camp is made, on nights when I am not responsible for the cooking. It’s a beautiful scene, to look up from one’s book and see the canyon walls rise high into the distance, or to see the river wind away into the sunset. For three weeks any conversation can be interrupted by wow, look at that,” and everyone will. Condors, mountain sheep, hawks, herons, and frogs cause these exclamations, as do waterfalls, landslide evidence, and the cliffs themselves as we wind through one type of rock into another of a far earlier era.

So often the canyon reveals beauty in hidden spots. These side hikes, hidden caverns, or waterfalls are a surprise, the beauty of place that is invisible from without. The grandeur, the huge vistas and towering walls that sprawl across the horizon is overwhelming and an excellent reminder of real scale. These giant vistas have been photographed though, and can be seen in some sense from the rim, from above. The small canyons, etched by water in oddly smooth curves, with pools in between small waterfalls, that can be swam in or sat beneath, are impossible to discover any other way. They can only be found from the river.

And so for three weeks these small discoveries keep us climbing, hiking, and sweating, up hills and over cliffs, looking for another beautiful spot that takes work to find.

Always be holding

Cat watches

Travel in the modern world consists of a series of electronic notifications, an evening packing, a sad cat, a train ride and some time alone waiting. The process has become routine. Packing takes an hour. The train ride 40 minutes. The waiting time is peaceful, thinking time.

Leaving the cat, watching him realize what is happening as the duffle bag hits the floor, is the hardest part, the saddest part. And yet he too knows that this is our life; that commuting across the Pacific is how we pay for that apartment in San Francisco.

His face this morning, sitting on a Japanese-style stool looking out our window at the street, was perfect. He knows, he has known, that it was time for me to go again. But rather than watch me pack, rather than huddle on the bed, he sat at the window watching the pigeons on the telephone line outside. He looked out, calm, from the seat purchased specifically to give him this view.

These three months of peace, the down time between November’s wrap and March’s new start, have gone quickly. We’ve enjoyed lazy weekends, sleeping in and walking to the coffee shop or waking early and sitting by the window together. We’ve enjoyed long naps in the sun after beach ultimate on Sundays, confident that there was no better use of time. For three months we’ve spent most of our evenings together, sprawled on the sofa, happy to be home.

But the world is big, and adventures call. He and I are both curious animals, and underneath the sadness is a certainty. It’s the same certainty that brings us to the window at 4 am when there is yelling outside on the street, that wakes us both from the bed in our deepest sleeps. We must go see. We can not be content to sit and wonder what the racket means.

I must know how our products are made. He must watch the pigeons each morning. We are creatures of habit, true, but we are also creatures of adventure.

Out again into the world I go. Shanghai this week, and then Tokyo, Las Vegas, and Colorado.

The last one he and I will do together, a visit to the mountains and distant family. The thought of traveling together is exciting.

Watching him sit by the window, almost four years old now, his eyes on the wire and his body still, I know that he isn’t aware of our upcoming adventure. And given the choice, he might not like to leave his comfortable apartment, his daily routine. But like myself he will be happy once we’re elsewhere, able to look out new windows at new things.

Spring is here, I tell him, putting my bag on my shoulders. It’s time to go. Again.

Walking the High Line

In New York for a week at the end of October we work from coffee shops and visit old friends in the dark. Breaks like these, weeks on other coasts and other shores, keep friendships and our feel for the country alive. Yet laptops in one city are much like those in any other, in fact the same. And so on Friday afternoon we put them down and head out to see something of New York.

We end up on the High Line, which neither of us have ever seen. On the first of November Manhattan is warm and welcoming, and the other tourists likewise calm. We walk and talk, take pictures and breath the air. Across the Hudson we can see Stevens, where a cousin went. I remember looking at this view from the other side on her graduation, an event that seems both recent and forever ago.

The High Line, like the pedestrian sections of Broadway, gives me hope for cities. Gives me hope for American cities, at least, so long under siege from the automobile, the highway, the culture of divided lane no left turn. It is a small thing, this elevated railway line repurposed as a tourist path, an exploratory walkway. And yet, photographing construction from its glass sides, I think of the elevated path through Xujiahui Park, and the benefits of investing in comforts for people, rather than machines.

New York seems well, despite the challenges of being home to eight plus million. In the late fall of 2013 it seems like a city in growth mode, and the feeling of motion and life is a joy to be amidst.

Towards the end of the day we sit in a small park further south. I nap as my companion answers a work phone call. On other benches men read the newspaper and women listen to music. Despite the street and trucks scant feet away, we all relax and breathe in the last of the sunshine.

In Union Square we watch the sun set over the farmer’s market, taking pictures of the skyline. We are not alone, amidst a group of New Yorkers and tourists holding our phones skyward to capture the spectrum of colors that has stopped all of us in our tracks. The two of us are not comfortable as tourists by nature, and yet so often that is what we are, wandering through cities that are not our homes in search of new things. In a dozen trips to New York we have yet to climb the Empire State, or see the Statue of Liberty save from the plane. On this Friday, though, we wander enough to feel like visitors, mingle enough to feel at home, and are content. Lost amid the fruit stalls, hearing Chinese and French, the comfort is not of New York, but of people, of a city large enough to become lost in and large enough to produce beauty accidentally. Unbidden, I recall scooter rides through Shanghai on November Sundays six years ago. Like this we would then wander, out of doors in the sunshine with no specific destination or curfew. Those were some of our first adventures together, climbing abandoned buildings and exploring back alleys, zipping around turns on our electric scooter. There too we did not seek famous temples or specific buildings, content to wander as traffic took us, to turn where our eyes led us.

Maybe it is the smell of a city in fall, or the trees in Union Square, or the remove from the rest of our lives that brings those images back. Maybe it is simply watching each other relax and smile, or maybe it is our joy in exploration. No matter which, standing this afternoon on the deck of an old railroad above new construction, watching the workers below, we are happy and still for a moment in an otherwise well-scheduled trip.

After six years of taking our time, of exploring together, we will be married in the spring, adding one more set of promises to a long list of hopes. Standing in the New York sunshine with overlapping memories of all the cities we’ve seen together, the future looks promising.

Biking with a cat, part 1

Yesterday after work, with a friend’s offer of dinner in mind, I threw Mr. Squish in my backpack, with his leash tied to the top handle. Knowing he’d be unhappy eventually I put his furry bed in too, folded as a liner for the bag. And I got on my bike, helmet and all, and set off across the city. He handled it well, head poking up through the unzipped top of the bag, peeking out at the world whipping past. It was cold but not unpleasant, and we rode up through the Richmond and into Golden Gate Park, up JFK and out into the Panhandle. I was worried about him in traffic, because he doesn’t like cars much and busses even less, but he handled it fine, never moving much. He’s really a champ of a cat in most respects.

When we arrived I pulled the bike inside and he scrambled out of the pack, leashed to me while I locked up. He knows the house, having stayed there before while we were out of town, and was excited to see the resident cat. She might not have been as excited to see him, but at least they can cohabit a bit.

Going home was a different adventure. It was dark and cold and Mr. Squish was tired. He had no interest in staying put in my backpack. Halfway back through the Panhandle he was up on my shoulder, crouched with his head facing the wind. Not my ideal way to ride, as he could leap off at any moment and, because of the leash, be dragged by the bike. Once I got into the park I slowed down, and sure enough he jumped off. I did too and for a while walked the bike with him running along side, still tied to my backpack. This wasn’t too bad, we go on walks a lot, but it wasn’t a fast way home, and it was almost midnight. So I pushed him back in the bag and started off again, figuring any bit of the ride I could do on the bike would be worth it.

He scrambled out again almost immediately, up on to my shoulder. Worried about the jump but wanting to keep going I headed up onto the sidewalk, figuring I could ride slowly along it and he’d be ok.

Wrong call. About twenty feet from where I got on the sidewalk the sprinklers started. The first one hit us both in the face, him crouched by my head. No one was pleased, cold water added to the cold wind, and at least three more sprinklers ahead. I did the stupid thing and tried to keep going, grabbing Mr. Squish with my right hand and biking with my left, somehow thinking I could make it through these 3 more sprinklers and be ok. Squish wasn’t having any of it. The second one got us both, but by now I was holding him dangling by the harness as he frantically tried to avoid the third sprinkler. We never made it to the fourth one. After the third I was soaked, scratched to hell, and holding the harness but no Squish.

This is my worst fear with taking Mr. Squish out on the leash. It’s a harness that clips around his middle and neck, connected by a strap with a loop for the leash. Pretty secure, but I know from experience that if he gets really spooked he can squirm his front paws out of the thing and somehow get it off his head.

I hopped off the bike, throwing it to the ground, and headed back to him. He was squatting in the middle of the sidewalk between two sprinklers, huddled in a wet ball. I was pretty soaked too, and bleeding from my hand, though I didn’t notice then. I managed to gently grab him and pulled us both back onto the road, away from the sprinklers, where I calmed him down, somehow got the harness back on, and got him into the backpack. At this point I just desperately wanted to make it home, and I’m sure he did too. He was cold, wet, and at least a little banged up from the scramble and fall.

He stayed in the backpack, just his nose peeking out, all the rest of the way home to Tara, who took him and brushed him and put him in front of the heater.

And that’s how Mr. Squish’s first bike ride went.

Hopefully the next one will go better. And be in the daylight.

Scotland

It is October, and we drive the M90 north through the tiny Kingdom of Fife. Though it’s home to the home of golf we have miles to go and do not linger. Having rented a car with incredible acceleration we pass rather rapidly, overtaking slower vehicles in mild terror on their left. Right.

In fact Scotland is to the north of our lives. After our first weekend in Edinburgh every step we take in Scotland is further north than either of us have ever been.  We realize this on a beach facing the North Sea in Banff. It’s a tiny town not terribly far south, latitude wise, of Juneau Alaska. October is past half done and the sunshine and warmth are a gift to our travels. The roads are dry and skies clear, and we visit castles leaving our jackets in the car.

We are on an adventure again, to the last new place we have plans to learn in twenty twelve. It is an entire country in a week, another island nation and a few more old fiends. We adventure by car and train and foot. We see castles in the mornings and oceans at sunset. We see snow in the first light of dawn and lochs by the last. We wander with little in the way of plan from east coast to west, from Edinburgh to Inverness, Aberdeen to Portree and Mallaig.

Scotland is a country of rolling hills and steep cliffs, of lakes that stretch long through valleys, and fields of furry cows tucked into the gaps. It is a country of trains and lorries, beer, cider, and whisky. More than anything it is a country of kind people, from the strangers who help us with our flat to the two NFL fans who sit opposite us on the train south, excited by the opportunity to see the St. Louis Rams play the New England Patriots in London. They drink Budweiser, like Nickelback, and work in the oil industry in Aberdeen. Like everyone we meet they are the kind of direct polite that surprises sarcastic Americans, mocking each other yet kind to passers by.

Much of the week we reside in a cottage on the grounds of a castle in the hills south west of Inverness. It is the kind of accommodation hard to imagine prior to arrival, half fantasy and half luxury, found by a friend. For, like our trip to Japan, Scotland is an adventure with old friends, and the four of us spend each evening building a fire, cooking together, discussing the future, and telling stories of the past. Here at last is someone who was there when I fell off the bridge in Saitama, who walked me home scraped and in shock. Here’s someone who remembers standing on the stairwell in Kawaguchi between English classes, looking out at the city with the exhausted and uncurious eyes of a resident. It’s been years since our last meeting, in Amsterdam after Italy won the World Cup, and we are old enough now to cherish each evening together.

Scotland, like Japan, like any nation, is far too much to encapsulate in a week of travel, though we try. Mostly it is a chance to adventure, to challenge ourselves by learning new things together. It is a way to remember how we met, if not where, and why we are always on the move. Walking on the dam that holds back Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin we think of James Bond, of the beauty of nature, and of the perseverance of humans in exploring, mapping, and building on so much of this globe.

The first morning in Edinburgh we look at each other, wide-eyed with jet lag and the joy of discovery, and remember. Five years ago in Shanghai, riding an electric scooter together and discovering new districts, new routes home late at night. In Scotland five years later the scooter is an Audi, rented for the week. The look in our eyes though is familiar, as we stand on top of Arthur’s Seat, a little winded from the climb. Five years seems both impossibly long and never enough. Twenty twelve may have brought Japan, Scotland, and old friends, but the world is wide and there are always more of you to see.

Mobile

In Pescadero, along the coast of the Pacific an hour south of San Francisco, the water and the sky are one. The sun has set and the lightning, when it breaks, blankets everything. The ocean, in the last light, was white and whipped with the onrushing storm.

In a parking lot a group of a dozen debate shelter. Possible permutations of bodies to fill four bunks and one queen are offered and countered. Camping, formerly the refuge of the rugged or underfunded, has become undesirable.

As the hail hits there comes agreement. Newly gifted with the ability, we withdraw our need from the group. For the remainder of the stormy evening, the Fit that brought us here will be our home. It’s rear seats folded flat and padded with zipped-down sleeping bags, the little car has ample room for two people who routinely claim 5’10. With a bit of contortion I manage to stretch my legs straight, a blessing with hip joints that ache from a day spent running in wet sand.

This ability, to travel short distances to strange places on our own schedule, is not newly gained. For years now the trusty Volvo has been our steed, taking us across the western states with pace. The Fit would not win by any measure of speed or acceleration, but this new found capacity, to shelter, impresses greatly.

In the two months it has been with us the Fit has seen the Pacific from a wide range of angles. Manzanita, Oregon last month and Pescadero, California today represent but the end points. It crosses the Golden Gate daily, winding first through the Presidio and then up into Marin. It has seen Mount Shasta and driven the streets of Portland, not to mention Berkeley and San Mateo. Some day soon it will see Los Angeles, I imagine.

First though will come more days like today, random parking lots and stands of weeds made into them, near grass fields or beaches, with cleats and discs and water bottles filling the back seats. The mobile is good for that, with it’s small frame and seats for five it handles odd spaces without question.

And, as we woke this morning, we realized it could do so much more, having sheltered us comfortably through downpours while moving and now while asleep. Wiping condensation from the windshield’s interior with a t-shirt though it occurred to us exactly why door visors are an option. Sleeping with ventilation that did not also let in the weather would be an improvement.

Perhaps the mobile will get a Christmas present.

Foot traffic

Bike packed I am back to pedestrian travel, moving at the speed of aimless amble rather than that of jogger mom or homeless cart pusher.  I no longer whip past people caught between Land Rover and coffee shop.  Instead, wearing torn jeans, battered sandals and ironic tee I am in their midst, lucky to have less rush propelling my morning and more patience for the dog walkers and the sky mumblers, whether they be bluetooth powered or other radiation fueled.  It is good to be back in Venice, which has become a home base of homelessness for me as it has always been for others.  Nine months ago I sat on these same carpets, steps and couches, my belongings in boxes from China to Houston.

Now, the Houston portion of my adventure complete, I am here again en route to somewhere I have never lived.  Venice welcomes this, her streets lined with vans and Winnebagos that reek of extended occupation. Weather-wise these blocks off the beach are an ideal spot for homelessness, and I watch the wanderers, contemplating the gradual gentrification of Venice and the changes along Rose’s sidewalks these past five years.  There are old men with the air of a previous time trapped in their scraggly beards, and a cereal bar, new and portentous, if not pre-.  The grocery’s windows remain barred and the laundry mat oddly packed mid-morning, signs that while Rose welcomes new company old inhabitants remain.

At an intersection an older women on her bicycle admonishes me as she breaks traffic laws while wearing long gloves and a wide-brimmed hat.  That wasn’t right, horrible I know, shhh,” she says, and I smile.  Telling someone was not in my plans, though it comes to be, and with coffee and bagels balanced and eyes on the surroundings instead of the vehicles I am already a traffic disaster.

Sitting at the cereal bar, several days later, I watch the old Greyhound parked across the street, trailer attached.  It has the sleek lines of the future as seen from the eighties and the curtained windows driven by the last decade’s real estate boom, where prices quintupled as gang violence fell.  The bus’ owner is invisible, though people pass our table in waves, and homeless or not is hard to say.  Is this gradual shift, where Rose loses its gang members and gains dog walkers, as momentous after all?  Fewer gun battles and more Chihuahuas, yet Venice still welcomes those of us with our belongings in our cars, as long as we have friends with more permanent residences.  Breakfast finished, we rise, and, at a clothing store down the street shop but do not buy, the difference between these two levels of homelessness a matter of friendship and attire.

It will be some time still, I think, before Rose resembles Abbot Kinney, and the Shopping Carts for Homeless program, whose product litters the sidewalks, is ironic enough for me to love.