Returning Rivers – San Francisco, U.S.A.
In Route from the Frozen Land
People move in and out – a stream, often a torrent of rivers, merging at the confluence of the mightiest elements. It is an inexhaustible movement, churned in thought and action, speech falling over the tumults of smooth pebbles to rocky boulders. Whether you're in the smooth stillness of a calming pool, or stuck in a white mass of water tumbling upon water, you're a part of it. Here or there, you're a part of this massive flowing river.
PDX, better known as Portland Airport, is that maze of the elements, the churning tides of this way and that, even though it is small in comparison to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) or at LHR (London-Heathrow). There are sources moving, flowing and intermingling in a connection of bodies, emitting sound and energies. It's a mass of common consumption.
Through these eyes, from an old traveler returning after camping at the river's edge for six months, it's the Mississippi, slow and lethargic, but falsely turbulent. The river is wide, stretching wider and fatter as time evolves and the land is run over. It masks its simple essence of water in water on water, a plain, pliable fluidity. The river hides under a mask of licentious fangs to be wide and ill, progressive like the Niagara with the crush of erosion, yet it plays in the game of its landscape as if it falls from the fore waters deep in the Canadian Mountains.
But this Mississippi is far along, slow and stagnant, collecting the industrial turns of the hands that claim to own it. Bright colors are foreign to its purity. Gross scents are lost in a breeze from a nearby mill, turbine, or hydraulic dam. Noise and a menace of gossip radiate from the fans of various systems and structures, when the once clear crystalline waters sounded still among the vernal lush of Nature's peaks.
PDX – people in and out, out and in. And here I am, a part of the rush and torrent, the red letters of the Jumping Jellybeans corner store with its yellow retro shadowing and blue background sign. Catchy names, drawing us nearer for more, for the new: Juice Jazz, Pizza Schmizza, the Coffee People, and then the classic idealized, Hudson Newsstand, spilling the pictures of a torn and loud world gone asunder. It is an airport of many, a place like millions of mouths where people converge, bills and coins passed along in exchange for the sultry pleasures of something other than that original silence.
The river still moves – mine ahead of me as it is and remains so. Thirty minutes until boarding. My clock ticks as engines roar toward that ultimate destination we all seem to swim up river from.
Faces of San Francisco
Martin of Prague, the Czech Republic, he said to me upon our meeting, "I was in Chinatown. I ate and then I like started climbing these hills, man. I mean, come on!" he exclaimed, pawing at the air as if reaching for finger holes. "I was about to call my mom and tell her I was stuck in the snow!" He only had his T-shirt throughout the chilly evening air, with a breeze gusting around the high walls of skyscrapers standing like cypresses on a mountain's precipice. His airline lost his luggage. I arrived just in time to see his reunion with warmth.
It's San Francisco. It's the city, and I'm deep in the travelers' world of my hostel. I'm surrounded by souls from Europe, Asia, from Far Eastern countries with accents absurd to my logic. They read, write and share stories and adventures. I hear the Rice-A-Roni theme song echo in my brain, bouncing off the walls at a steady 9.5 M.P.H., a conductor up front, a brakeman in back. It's a Rice-A-Roni treat in San Francisco as the Cable Cars are filled with the hordes of August tourists. Video camcorders; those old archaic film-carriers rolling down the steeps of the hills, up and down Powell Street, Mason and onward.
As I roll at my own speed, a pair of light rope sandals padding my steps, I gaze at the towers in the late afternoon sky. Reflections gleam off glass walls. Blue skies are caught in the grips of opalescent clouds licking at one another with lucidity. There is noise surrounding me, constant racket of the tides and the rapids of city life. It's intriguing. I'm caught in its magic of diversity, a touch of brilliance within the carving knife's slicing menace.
From the different walls and avenues beneath, I find myself along Kearny Street, receding further north into Chinatown. The strange juxtaposition of life in the city strikes me. A cross off the bell tower of Old St. Mary's Church, the oldest Catholic church in San Francisco, sits like a raw source of the West's history, while rod-iron staircases glued with a green-amber mold attached to old chipped concrete buildings and tagged with vibrant Chinese banners flash in the looming shadows. It's a touch of history, an old brick cathedral in the radii of the globalization of the 1990s.
Strange. A three-story wall reads "Emperor of China". This is San Francisco, yet I'm transported in that same river, the monstrous torrent of mass movement into a foreign land of new thoughts and masses of cheap goods, marble Buddhas, delicately carved ivory husks hacked brutally from another one of Earth's creatures, and Dim Sum houses five to each block. I walk on; find my way up the mountain once climbed by Martin of the Czech Republic and head west toward Mason Street. At the summit, in an imagined foot of snow, I trudge back down through the cypresses in a descent toward Union Square.
Sleeping With Whom?
Night passed sorely. On the corner of Oferrall and Mason, the hostel absorbed the city traffic like a cloud sucking at the seas over the Bay. It was intense. Sirens, screeching truck brakes on the asphalt as rigs picked up trash and garbage, or dropped off passengers, or delivered goods. Something. Something was happening throughout the whole evening's ruckus.
There were four bunks in my room. It was #200. Myself in Bunk A, Martin in Bunk C, and two other travelers I never met, never even saw, under their blankets, covering their entire body as if to hide from the incubus present in the night's movement. Bunk A was the bottom bunk. The guy in Bunk B shifted. It shook the structure's frame.
Earlier that night I read the earthquake pamphlet taped to our door. Was this one? Is this the next? Each movement from one another stirred us from any possible dreamy image we happened to receive in the sleep managed. I moved, the guy atop moved. Martin moved. And the other guy? I never paid him a penny of attention.
Seven thirty five in the morning. and I have my sole purpose of this visit approaching: applying in person for a French visa, requiring an approval for an eight month stay with the necessary fingerprints and photo shots. It's a Biometric visa. Interpol needs my identity for their data. So they assume that if you can fly all the way to the other side of the planet, you might as well be able to spend more time and more energy flying to another city to apply for your visa. The days of simplicity are long gone. They've got us, a gaff to the gums.
The office looms longingly for the return of foreign faces – identities folded in pages and sealed with a stamp. They wait for the approval; a grant of admittance to a plot of land inhabited by culture. It's the Consulate of France where we sit in a cream room, boxed in white walls with orderly rows of wire chairs laid in brown plastic. The air smells of your common cleaning supplies. The carpet short, nonexistent, as though laid for a mere design of color in panoply of bland art.
Sitting, observing, thinking of something to think, I find it hard to believe the amount of bureaucracy and processing required to venture abroad. It takes much effort today to experience the other. Some nations and their citizens don't even have such blessings of freedom and acceptance, yet we all find our limiting identities along the road.
The era when you could walk and compose a life as a Basho, when you could traverse the European continent as a Patrick Leigh Fermor – as a pilgrim of your life – is gone. Place to place, bed to bed, bench to bench waking in a cell iron-barred, and up through mountain heights down a descent into their sunken valleys folding across a verdant plane of agriculture and herding; it seems like a hapless dream in a broadening world with shrinking minds. That cresting Odyssean sea where another sprawl of landmass inhabiting the distinctions of Life's diversity has been chopped into a zone of grids requiring access to sail. It's now shred by the solidification of threatening fears. Hung about the neck is the very idea of freedom – let alone – travel.
I have discovered today, via the informants at the French Consulate, that it is impossible to travel as a tourist for more than three months in the whole of the European Union. It's no longer pliable to walk the ancient routes like the Bishop of Le Puy, Godescalc, who in 951 reached the Northwestern coast of Spain after an arduous trek from central France. The roads to history are now divided and subdivided with the process of stamps and nods, where once freedom of travel allowed the wanderer to drift silently in the directions of the pilgrim's breeze. Governments require rules, regulations, itineraries and inquiries into your reason, purpose and goal.
"Then why you need French?" The woman, head of the day's office, in auburn-brown hair with skinny frail limbs questioned my travels beyond the studies in France. "If you want to go to Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, why learn French?"
"It's my passion to travel and live with a culture. What better way to enjoy France and its beauty than to live and learn the language within her borders with her people."
A smile spread across in thin lips upon a narrow face. My reply pleased her. It satisfied the true purpose and the essential qualities of travel, not as a tourist, but as an explorer and observer. But I needed more, though, a new itinerary conforming to the EU's regulations of being our publicly massed American-deemed "tourist". I wish I could swear with a certain promise I don't even own a pair of Levis, nor will I ever wear my white running sneakers in their borders.