San Francisco, Highway 1, Sequoia National Park, Las Vegas

One week from now I will have been away from home for half a year. With that significant milestone coming up, I’ve been thinking a lot about what has happened for me personally over the last six months. Not just where I’ve been or what I’ve done, but rather the meaning and purpose (or lack thereof) of it all. I am not getting philosophical for the sake of it, but I do feel that by now I have mostly lost touch with my life as it has been for quite some time before I left. Of course there is change and upheaval in everyone’s existence, yet also solid constants, be it places, people or activities. It seems to me that the scales that symbolize this balance tip differently for everyone, and that the act of trying to find the optimal angle is as important as it is difficult. For me right now there are nearly no constants, all having been replaced with an enormous amount of change, adventurous but uncertain. Every day is different and usually unpredictable, from where you might end up to who you will meet and what conversations you might have. And that is definitely the most exhausting aspect of traveling a long time. I’ve mentioned before that I’m longing for a bit more stability down the line, and perhaps settle somewhere for a bit. But apparently not yet. The last couple of weeks have been the polar opposite of stable, and quite likely the most intense of the whole trip.

The grueling 36-hour journey from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco wasn’t without its host of problems. From onward ticket requirements to be allowed to board the plane in Osaka, to “random” extra security checks, a crazy rush through US immigration and customs at the monstrous LAX airport, and finally my 3-hour delayed backpack arrival in SF, I was initially too stressed to even phantom how utterly different my surroundings had become. After three and a half months in South East Asia, arriving to California was the biggest culture shock of my life. The comparatively insane cost of living was somewhat alleviated by a mix of CouchSurfing, staying at friends’ places and sticking to fast food meals. I felt tiny in the vast urban expanses where everything is more than twice the size compared to Europe or Asia. The cars, the meals, the buildings, the people… Being back in a Western society meant that rules applied strictly again, while I was very much used to the freedom I enjoyed so much in South East Asia. And all of a sudden I could understand peoples’ conversations! I can’t stress enough how nice if was to just be in a place and hear all these fragments of everyday talk, not necessarily even participating but just undergoing and listening.

My first week in California kind of went like this.

Friday: Arrival in San Francisco after the insane trip I described. Getting to CouchSurfing host’s apartment. Deciding to go out together to some gay bars. Meeting a bunch of interesting people.

Saturday: Exploring San Francisco Bay on foot the whole day, walking roughly 12km. Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. Going out on my own in downtown SF at night to a hip-hop dance bar.

Sunday: Changing to a fancy hostel for the night, getting lost in the skyscraped business district and eating McDonald’s with some homeless people. Going out on hostel dinner, ending up doing a piano-singing jam at 3am with an awesome guy who worked with Hillary Clinton. Then sharing bourbon and trading stories with a bunch of odd characters until the morning light.

Monday: Slightly hungover, picked up by David, a former work colleague of mine who now lives in the Bay Area. Going out to Palo Alto for fantastic Venezuelan food followed by ending up randomly at a ukulele jam in downtown Mountainview.

Tuesday: An all-day walk in Silicon Valley, exploring and lunching at the vast Google Campus. Going to the gym. Huge American dinner with David at a local brewery and wonderful conversations with a great friend.

Wednesday: Joe, a guy I met just one night in Poland offers me to stay at his place in Berkeley for a couple of days. I’m keen to check out American college life and head over. We visit college campus, talk to Evangelical Christian students about love. We visit the largest vinyl store in California. Quiet night with some beers.

Thursday: I borrow Joe’s bicycle and head out around Berkeley town for the day. I realize it’s been months since I’ve actually cycled. At night I finally find the student vibe I’ve been looking for at a local happening bar and end up hanging out with a bunch of grad students at one of their's apartment until 5am.

Friday: I make my way back to San Francisco, to meet two French Canadian girls I met at the hostel dinner on Sunday, we rent a campervan and set off on what will be a week-long drive through California and Nevada.

Clearly a run-of-the-mill week.

I spent a week on the road with Stephanie and Fany, doing the quintessential road trip down the Californian coast, through national parks and up to Las Vegas. Though not entirely. The worst storm in decades destroyed parts of Highway 1, blocking our pathway to Los Angeles. Many days were rainy ones, and driving up the winding road to the 2000m high Sequoia National Park was challenging at the least. But we made the most of it, parking overnight at the parking lot of the Home Depot, or a mesmerizing lake in the foothills of Sequoia, or a small coastal town overlooking the Pacific. Cooking pasta and noodles on the gas stove, taking improvised solar showers on abandoned camp grounds, trying to figure each day out as it went along. There were ups and downs, as with any undertaking of this kind, but reaching Las Vegas after 1700km of road made me realize what an amazing experience this has truly been. Intense once again, but great.

I spent just two nights in Vegas, but that was enough to see most of what makes this place so unique. To me it represented the pinnacle of human materialism and senseless capitalism. Decadence for the sake of decadence, where morals come to die and greed flourishes. Now I’m by no means someone who doesn’t appreciate some debauchery on occasion, but this city takes it to a whole new level. On the one hand there are the massive 24-hour casino’s, filled with row upon row of slot machines, poker, roulette, craps, any game of chance you could possibly imagine. Alcohol is cheap, making people drink and clouding their judgement. Everything looks similar and is built in such a way to prevent people from finding their way out easily. Every hotel and casino has its own night club or big-name show as part of their continued effort to stand out from the competition. Then on the other hand there are the scores of homeless people dotting the Strip and downtown area throughout, just a few meters away from the gambling addicts who don’t even blink when losing 1000 dollars on a single bet. The increasing divide between rich and poor is hardly better on display than in this supposedly fabulous Las Vegas. Nevertheless you can have fun here, if you have a lot of money to spend and don’t think too deeply about how you’re spending it. I myself played a bit of roulette and won five bucks, and that feeling of addictive excitement immediately took hold.

So as I’m writing this I’m getting out of Vegas, back west to Los Angeles for one final weekend in the United States. After that I’ll be happy to go recover from the madness in Mexico City for a while. Although I have a feeling the madness is only just beginning.

February 24th, 2017

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