I left Cambridge for Fes on a Sunday night. After driving into town in a taxi cab I found myself greeted by Abdul Kareem, the proprietor of the gorgeous Dar Hafsa riad hotel. “Like Kareem Abdul Jabbar,” he laughed, grinning a wide mouthed grin. He had salt and pepper grey hair and large dark rings under his eyes, but his grin and animated, often smiling eyes gave him a younger look.
He had on a black Yankees cap. It was unclear if that meant anything to him. When I asked him if he was a baseball fan, he stared at me with his mouth open for about a second and a half, then smiled and said “Yes, yes,” which turned out to be his response every time he didn’t hear or didn’t understand what I was saying.
Standing about a full head below me, he would grab my arm or tap me with the back of his hand when he wanted to accentuate a point or get my attention, which turned out to be a Moroccan thing generally. Sometimes he would stop completely, in the middle of the endless medina foot traffic: “You’re only spending two days in Fes? No, no, not enough time! Fes is a big, big city! I’ll tell you what, my friend. You need a tour guide. I will set it up for you tomorrow.” The Moroccan merchant class has a skillful way of presenting choices as already decided realities.
I’ve never been much of a fan of tour guides, but at his insistence I opted for the guide. In a few hours, I would be touring Fes’s millennia-old medina. I indulged in a midnight meal of lamb tagine with prunes and a half an hour of Moroccan channel-surfing before sleep.
The highlight of Moroccan TV: a music video mostly consisting of a camel bobbing along the desert in rhythm with the music.
Cambridge was easily the most impressive college campus I’d ever been on. This is an unfair competition, given they have nearly a millennia on anyone else. Highlights of Cambridge included:
- Kings College, where Jack is pursuing his PhD in philosophy, has a campus that makes Harvard look like Disney Land. I learned about the rigid landscape hierarchy—that only full professors are allowed to walk on the grass in Kings Cottage, while the rest of the students and teachers (not to mention tourists) must keep to the stone paths that border them.
- The chapel at Kings College, built by the Catholic Henry VI but now used as an Anglican Church. We sat in on a mass that appeared to be a first communion for a group of besuited children.
- St. Johns College, similar in style to Kings College, boasts a few notable architectural gems like the Bridge of Sighs and, according to Jack, some of the more arrogant Cambridgers in the university. For those unfamiliar with Cambridge, each college is part of Cambridge University as a whole and share the same majors, departments, etc—the colleges themselves are social and residential units where you spend much of your time, but educationally it’s largely a distinction without a difference.
- Kings College dining hall, more of an atmospheric curiosity than a culinary draw, had cheap cafeteria food lavishly accompanied by a dining area with the tallest ceilings and lushest tapestries I’ve ever seen in a school cafeteria.
- Walking around the River Cam – Jack, a rower, regaled me with some good anecdotes about the annual rowing event which the town goes nuts over, rowing being their top local sport. There is one particularly ill-mannered swan who perches himself along one stretch of the river and is a particular bane to the coxswain of any given boat that passes too close by it.
- Emmanuel College – ‘Emma’ for short, this beautiful Cambridge college incongruously boasted a bounce house in the middle of 16th century building, set up to help undergraduates to relax in the midst of tripos, the final examinations that qualify students to receive their degrees.
I met with Jack and Ida later that night, joining them for dinner at the place of a friend of theirs who served a fantastic meal of stuffed zucchini with red sauce as dinner table conversation ping-ponged around the upcoming political scene in the United States and the UK (Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, the Brexit), an upcoming baby (I’ll say no more), my own trip and general life story (given I was the most unfamiliar face at the table), and the upcoming play we were about to see.
The play, Wishbone, put on by Jack and Ida’s friend Laura, began with four women standing in the room, swaying in sync with one another as the audience took their seats, staring straight ahead of themselves. This scene continued for a while after the lights went down and the audience went silent, until one-by-one the women let out staccato, birdlike cries. The play then began to pass through an bewitching array of curious, primal-feeling scenes, with emotions and wonder on pure display—a woman rubbing a pair of stones together and discussing with deep seriousness the center of the earth; a slow descent of each of the women towards the floor in varied states of incapacitation through anxiety or bodily stress; a heightening, chaining improvisation of places and things “put under other things”; a moving crescendo of worshipful chant around the pair of stones.
A fascinating show in good company in a part of London that was full of this kind of interesting art and exploration—Hackney Wick, which immediately reminded me of West Oakland with its gorgeous street art and warehouse aesthetic.
We left for Cambridge later that night. In our hunger along the road I got to experience the diversity of British convenience store snack options, including Nik Naks, a type of puffed fry Jack described as being like fiery hot cheetos (my guilty pleasure snack food back home), though it tasted more like a bland-ish curry, and a bag of chips that was indistinguishable in taste and logo from Lays except for the name, “Walkers”. Other unexplored highlights include shrimp scampi chips and the sheer number of snacks flavored, with no adjectival embellishment, “Bacon”.
Always make sure to double check what kind of bike shop you are renting bikes from. Or else this will happen.
Not the most graceful way to explore the city of London, but by time I got to the bike shop at 1 p.m. I had neither the time or inclination to find some other rental spot—I had to be at Hackney Wick at 5:20 p.m. to meet Jack, and when your data is nonexistent and cell service spotty at best, you don’t mess with being late to rendezvous. Especially not in a foreign country.
The cart bike wasn’t the worst way to get around. Once you pick up a little speed, the cart stops wobbling and starts gliding along—though it always feels a little like you’re just careening around with the thing in control of you rather than the other way around.
I never quite decided if I felt like I had TOURIST written on my back in big letters or if, on the contrary, the very fact of a cart bike made people think I must be some kind of local—so local I was transacting business via cart bike. I realized, though, that the large DSLR on my back and the regular snapshotting of blatantly touristy attractions made the first possibility more likely than not.
Still, a city ride is a city ride. I toured two parks—The Regent’s Park and Hyde Park, swung by Big Ben and Parliament, crossed the Thames and headed for the London Eye along the water. All lovely, and all in good time, until a patch of the riverfront opened up immediately into a crowd of tourists so thick you could cut it with a knife. And here I was, with a goddamned cart bike. I made few friends on that riverfront (though quite a few nicked ankles) and—because riverfront esplanades have a way of trying to get as close to the water as possible—I eventually discovered that I had no way to escape without resorting to stairs. Let me rephrase that: without lugging a 50 pound cart bike up two flights of stairs. Let’s just say I was a star curiosity for the tourists down nearby the Millennium Bridge for those five hellish minutes.
It was called the Palmer’s Lodge, near Swiss Cottage station, just north of central London. The hostel was something out of a Harry Potter novel—like a wooden British boarding school with its tall, broad staircases and bunk beds fringed with red curtains. Balustrades, chandeliers, inlaid ceilings, suits of armor, stained glass, and decorative curtains—if it seemed like it didn’t belong in a hostel, Palmer’s Lodge had it.
I arrived at Palmer’s several hours later than I’d hoped, given I was on the clock. After navigating the overground from Gatwick and the Underground from London Bridge, I made it to the hostel and hastened to grab my first British dinner. It had to be fish and chips, even though the only place in the neighborhood advertising fish and chips was an Italian restaurant, Pasticcio. A young Polish nanny sat next to me, dining alone—when I explained to her I’d been to London before and liked the city quite a lot, she made a face and said, “Really? Ugh.” (She turned out to be a nature person.)
There is nothing exceptional about a night in London working in a hostel alone until close to midnight, except for the people watching. Palmer’s Lodge had a separate bar and lounge area, which made it easy to hole up in the lounge without a monumental sense of FOMO that I wasn’t out on a Friday on my first night traveling abroad. And the people in the lounge were, much as I was, silent, looking at their cellphones or computers or guidebooks. No doubt they were mostly trying to plan their trips, not crunching numbers in an Excel spreadsheet, but nevertheless they were not having envy-provoking buckets of gleeful fun.
I settled down with a cup of mediocre black tea on a leather easy chair and looked around for people to sympathize at a distance with, the Friday night overworked. There was a woman sitting alone in a cove of coaches, making official-sounding phone calls. Two American students drew architectural designs for a project—they would end up working all night from various places in the room, including next to me, where I snuck a peek of what looked like a drawing of a ferris wheel. An Asian guy sat over his laptop on a short table, literally statuesque; he may not have moved once the whole night, not even to top off his mediocre black tea.
People pinballed in all night, indecisively bouncing their way to their ultimate destination in some couch or easy chair, until it spit them back out again into the doorway from where they arrived. Some folks stuck around for a while. Others navigated around them, moved from couch to couch or came and went and were replaced—a girl in slightly ripped jeans and a punkish black concert tee with Japanese letters; a blonde girl with shoulderblade tattoos wearing a white tank top and light-colored denim; a curly-haired girl with a baggy black T-shirt with a spirit-wolf-like motif; a German or French family, dead silent, barely acknowledging each other, waiting for something, neither looking at their phones nor any other reading material.
There were a few more garrulous types whose conversations I couldn’t help but overhear. The couch to my right was occupied, as midnight approached, by a family with two French teenage girls, a French mother, and a British man. The latter was clearly a boyfriend, not a father—around for long enough to have a joking familiarity with the girls, but not to have clearly settled into a fatherly role. He and the girls spent most of the time trading light-hearted barbs in English—he relishing his ability to do so more quickly and wittily than the apathetic, tired, and native French speaking teens.
I knew the night was getting late and a little weird when a bespectacled girl with a nasally voice across the lounge loudly responded to one of his offhand comments about drinking by saying, “You know, I just bought a bottle of absinthe for my friend”—confidentially, as if confessing some devious secret. Without looking up, I could tell the man just gave her a look and let silence stop the conversation. I was gratefully ready for bed and left without having saying a word to any one of them, glad to have gotten my work done and ready to start the trip in earnest the following day.
She took my passport in hand. I didn’t ask her how her day was going, but I figured I was friendly enough, smiling, cheerful voiced. Maybe a little discombobulated—it had been hours since I was on my feet on sea level.
“How long are you here for?”
“Are you traveling further on from the UK?”
“Yes, to Spain and Morocco”
“What is this address for?”
“For the hostel I am staying at,” smiling. Is it my imagination that these are feeling a little pointed?
“And just what is the purpose of your trip?”
“Are you here for work?” Something had been slowly forming in her eyes—a sharp angle, of the sort you see in the eyes of school librarians.
“No, just vacationing.”
“What do you do?”
“I work in tech, marketing and engineering.”
She looked at me with her hardening eyes a half a second longer than would have been appropriate for a normal conversation, then looked down at the passport. She had been flipping back and forth through the pages at a constant clip since I first approached her kiosk and laid the well-worn blue pamphlet down on the counter. But this flipping took on increased vigor and purpose.
“You have sure been to a lot of countries.” This wasn’t said in a complementary or matter-of-factly way. It was a clear accusation. I had to keep myself from laughing, partly because her hostility flattered me without at all intending to, and partly because I didn’t know whether to take her seriously. Of course, she didn’t show anything but dead seriousness. This is a lady I have a hard time imagining with a smile on her face.
And then the volley began.
“Where do you get the money for these trips of yours? Where is your plane ticket for your flight back? Show me your ticket. Where was the last place you went to? When was that? What was the place before that? Why does your passport look like this? Why does it look so tatty? You really ought to take better care of it. It really is quite tatty.”
And with that verdict, I was officially deemed a reprehensible young man in poor care of his papery belongings, but no longer a suspected drug smuggler or illegal migrant worker. I was free to go. I permitted myself a quick, barely perceptible grin at her and a ever-so-slightly snide, “Have a nice day,” before getting on with it.
The first thing I did once I got settled in the bay post-Burning Man was buy a bicycle. The hazy cloud of Burning Man idleness lingered quite a while after the event itself was finished. My broken netbook presently in repairs didn’t help matters much, but neither did my desire to do nothing more than walk around Berkeley barefoot, eat almond croissants daily and read books about Greek mythology instead of looking for a job. I needed something to jolt me awake, something fast and intense.
I decided to pick a point on the map, cycle to it in a day, then cycle back the next day. Realizing very quickly that spinning my finger and thrusting it at the map was landing me in parts of the state with more meth labs than cheap hotels, I instead decided to limit myself to finishing some place with a hostel, narrowing it down to three plausible locations. After eliminating those places booked up until July with recession-era honeymooners, I settled on one spot – Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, 55 miles south of San Francisco.
I started out bright and early on Monday, October the 8th, from a friend’s place in San Francisco. Put my shiny new black panniers on, packed them up, and got ready to ride by 8:26 AM (after successfully resisting an almond croissant pitstop). After riding down 19th Avenue onto California Highway 1 for around 15 minutes, I was out of San Francisco and on the road.
Highway 1 makes California biking a breeze. The shoulders are wide, the scenery beautiful, and the highway itself is neither dangerous nor congested. But I didn’t know this as I was leaving San Francisco. And the first thing I hit was a roaring 3-4 lane highway jam-packed with cars speeding by so fast my bike shook underneath me. I cursed everyone who told me how nice Highway 1 is, cursed the cars who couldn’t hear me, and cursed myself for not just biking to a hostel at Fisherman’s Wharf.
And to top things off, I discovered that my lane was rapidly becoming… no longer a lane. Bordered by two converging 3-lane highways of cars all going at max speed, I soon saw my shoulder taper off into nothing – or, more specifically, into a grisly bike-and-several-cars pileup. I stopped for a moment. Two moments. Three. About 78 moments later, there came a momentary lull in the flood of these automotive phalanxes, just enough time for me to scramble awkwardly all over my bike and myself to get to the other side, praying I don’t trip in front of the white Subaru rapidly coming around the bend…
The rest of the morning was relatively problem-free and extremely picturesque, as the 1 follows, for almost its whole length, the cliffs above the California shoreline. I arrived in Half Moon Bay a half an hour under schedule at 12 PM, and stopped for butternut squash soup at a downtown restaurant. Congratulating myself on my good job, I figured I could take it leisurely from here on out, and arrive at the lighthouse by 4 PM just in time to grab dinner and use their hot tub.
So, soon after, when I followed a detour sign that led nowhere and popped me out by the beach, I struck up a conversation with another confused-looking dreadlocked biker nearby, “You following the detour sign too?” “Yea… crap.” He offered me some homemade jerky and explained that his load, which piled up and spilled over the front and back sides of his bicycle, was for a tour from Canada to Mexico, whereupon he would sell his cheapo hybrid bike and backpack further on down into Latin America. He was 55 days into his journey. I sat on my nice new bike and listened to his story. He asked me how far I had gone. “Uhh, from San Francisco. Since earlier today.”
After he introduced himself as Jono and told me he was riding down to Santa Cruz we agreed to ride together, though he was fatigued from a hangover and had just woken up a half an hour ago. I didn’t mind – I figured even with my afternoon laziness and the soup in my belly, I’d be able to beat this under-the-weather veteran at his own sport.
Within moments, I was scrambling. As, I think, is typical of any two guys who bike together, every increase in speed on the part of one appears – unconsciously, at least – as a challenge to the other’s cycling prowess. And soon, even if neither biker wishes it, they are pedaling as fast as they possibly can. After about 45 minutes of this, while I was convinced that he hadn’t broken a sweat, he turned to me and said, “Damn, you are kicking my ass.” Whereupon I realized we were kicking our own asses.
We made it to Pescadero, near Pigeon Point way under schedule, around 3 PM, largely thanks to our mutual one-upmanship. Moments after I saw the sign, I noticed Jono stopped on the side of the road up ahead (he had long since beat me) and I pulled over. “There’s a beached whale, here!” he told me. I had heard about this days ago but couldn’t imagine it would still be down there when I arrived. But lo and behold.
We made fun of a mother and daughter who were posing in front of the whale “Smile for the picture, honey!” then proceeded to take our own callous snapshots in front of the hulking, dead mass. The smell, however, was atrocious – somewhere between rotting chicken and rotting fish. It was difficult to stick around long, though we made sure to scope out every angle of the 91-foot long beast and the stillborn white baby whale who was floating nearby the mother. We were not so intrepid as one spectator, who made a point to touch every angle he could find of both the mama whale and the baby.
Sufficiently brightened by the reality that we were both not dead whales and didn’t stink as bad as them, we set out for Pigeon Point. He said goodbye and continued down to Santa Cruz, his final destination. I lounged around the hostel, glad to be finished with my ride. But as I sniffed the air I noticed a hint of dead whale in the air. I asked one of the hostel residents if they smelled it as well. They didn’t. Then I realized – it was in clothes, my hair and my shoes, especially, for contact with the air and water the whale was bobbing in. And I had no other pair of shoes for my two night stay at the hostel
Then I thought of Jono and realized it could be far worse. Wherever you are, Jono, I hope that load of yours doesn’t smell too bad.