Siem Reap & Phnom Penh: Or, Why I Love Morning Glory

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SOME FACTS ABOUT Cambodia:

– 53% of the population are aged 24 or under; 32% 14 or under;

– Average life expectancy is 63 years;

– Average daily income is $6.50/day, placing Cambodia at 129th in the world;

– Cambodians are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Children wave excitedly from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Children wave from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh. We didn’t meet a kid who wasn’t excited to see us.

FIVE DAYS: THAT’S all. It didn’t seem enough time to spend in Cambodia, but we’re on a tour with Toucan Travel for our first month of travelling, whizzing through SE Asia. Despite only being there for five days, Cambodia has stayed with us. We entered overland from Thailand, spending three hours in a weird no-man’s land between the countries filled with run-down casinos and fake Christmas snowmen, incongruous in the baking heat. Our first stop was Siem Reap, from where we launched our trip to Angkor Wat. The centre is backpacker-fantastic, with the neon lights and booming music of the bar-lined Pub Street. But wander beyond and you’re quickly lost in dark streets with glowing shop fronts, mopeds galore and not a western face in sight.

“Is it right, right, left from the hotel?” asked BK-C.
“Definitely,” I replied. “Or right, left, right.”
“We’ll work it out.”

45 minutes later we were hopelessly lost. It was nighttime, and there are no street lights in Siem Reap. As with everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia so far, the pavement is a place for parking, not for walking. The only people who walk are the poor or foreigners. Curious faces peered out of shopfronts us as we stepped around mopeds and cars, avoiding potholes at the side of the road. Whole families buzzed by on mopeds, babies balanced on the handle bars. There was the occasional smell of drains, the frequent smell of street food. I refused to pay a dollar to get a tuc tuc back to somewhere that we knew. We pressed on. “If we go left here I think that should rejoin the main street.” We didn’t. Words were said. We walked some more. More words were said. We got a tuc tuc.

Thank goodness we did, because it turned out that some idiot had been leading us in completely the wrong direction.

Not once in this unplanned sojourn did we feel threatened. As with everywhere else in SE Asia, tuc tuc drivers are ubiquitous, all offering their services. A polite “no, thank you” and a smile, though, and they’ll smile back and leave you alone. No one’s pushy, everyone has a ready smile.

Later, riding on quad bikes at dusk through dusty tracks, we saw some of the smaller villages around Siem Reap. People worked the fields, children played outside stilted shacks, cows wallowed in mud. Clinging on to the back of the quad bike, BK-C waved at kids as we passed and they waved back. We watched the sun set over the rice paddies, and felt immensely lucky to be there.

The sun sets over a rice paddy  outside Siem Reap.

The sun sets over a rice paddy outside Siem Reap.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they're riding their mopeds - or in Vietnam, where there's a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they’re riding their mopeds – or in Vietnam, where there’s a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

WHERE WE CAN, we try to avoid restaurants and instead eat where the locals eat. A line of mopeds outside a street food stall is always a good sign. It was at such a roadside stall, sitting in a tiny plastic chair, that my love affair with morning glory began. Morning Glory with Beef turned out to be a tasty dish of spicy, tamarind-tangy beef with a delicious shredded, green bean-esque vegetable – Morning Glory – chewy and crunchy at the same time. Yes, I ordered it purely on the strength of the name, but I never looked back.

Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it,. If I had 3G I'd be uploading it to instagram. I just don't know what's happened to me.

Sour Beef Soup With Morning Glory. Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it. If I had 3G I’d be uploading it to instagram. I just don’t know what’s happened to me.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they'd zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they'd get it to go as well. If not, they'd wander on. We soaked it all up.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they’d zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they’d get it to go as well. If not, they’d wander on. Through all of this, the staff of the restaurant stared entranced at the tv, occasionally with hands over their mouths, all caught up in the drama of a Cambodian soap. The food may change the world over, but the people don’t.

I didn't have the guts to try these.

There were large dishes of fried insects in quite a few places in Cambodia, especially in rest stops at the side of the road. I never saw anyone eating them. I wasn’t about to be the first.

CAMBODIA’S YOUNG POPULATION, the youngest in SE Asia, is largely a result of the Khmer Regime. Half of the population are post-regime baby boomers and remember nothing of the genocide between 1975 and 1979 when 1.7 – 2.5 million Cambodians were killed out of a population of approximately 8 million. Pol Pot is what people outside of SE Asia are most likely to remember Cambodia for, and it seemed wrong to go to the country without engaging in some atrocity tourism ourselves. It’s that awkward-morbid thing where you want to visit and feel that you should do, but almost feel bad for wanting to go. So we went, and it was horrific, and sobering, and utterly terrifying. The killing fields were very peaceful, with silent white bones placed in piles. I thought if that happened to me, I’d like there to be such a place for people to visit.

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Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists.

Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists. I’m not sure that I could do that if I were him.

WE DROVE BACK to Phnom Penh, leaving the Killing Fields behind. The cool air conditioning of the van was a relief after the sticky heat of outdoors. I’d like to say that we travelled in silence, each wrapped in some deep thoughts about the inhumanity of killing – but that would be a lie. As soon as we were in the van, the serenity of the place behind us, we were raucous and joking.  What’s both chilling and hopeful is that those things happened – all those Cambodians were killed (with an 800,000 people error margin in the death toll. Think about that: 800,000 may or may not have died, and we’ll never know) and yet life just goes on, eventually mass graves becoming a tourist attraction with an organised shuttle bus from the city, and vendors selling Coca-Cola.

We were bound for the market in Phnom Penh, a place bustling with people and life. There we jostled and haggled, browsed and bought – and over a big bowl of Morning Glory, I met a man called Sovann, who worked for an NGO, and who told me that the future of Cambodia was in its communities, which his organisation was helping to build.

He lamented the recent protests in Phnom Penh, over wages, where – a couple of days before we arrived – three protestors had been shot and killed when police fired into the crowd. We’d seen camps of police, their riot geared racked up in neat piles on the floor, outside of the Palace in the centre of the city. It had all seemed quiet, the most significant action being when we saw an officer helping an old lady to cross the road. Two days after we left, however, there were more protests, and more deaths.

In the market, though, like after the Killing Fields, people were living life. We joked with stall holders and haggled good naturedly over snacks. Five days hadn’t been enough to even scrape the surface of Cambodia, but it was enough to convince me of the essential good naturedness of Cambodian culture, to convince me that whatever problems the country had in the past or faced now, it’s people were on the up – and, of course, enough time for me to enjoy plenty of Morning Glory.

We vowed to return to see more of Cambodia, and departed for Vietnam.

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NEXT TIME: You suffer too many ‘ironic’ references to Vietnam War movies, whilst I eat some delicious Southern Vietnamese food.

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Angkor Wat: A Photo Essay

WE ROSE AT 4am. It was still pitch black when we reached Angkor Wat, yet people were queueing for tickets. We traipsed along the causeway crossing the temple’s moat, led by our guide’s torchlight. It was warm; cicadas buzzed in the trees and the glassy black moat reflected the stars. Angkor Wat was a grey outline across a wide pond. We joined the seething mass of tourists and guides, all stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the breaking of the night. Red began to creep up the edge of the sky. We and a thousand others began to snap blurry images of the temple’s towers.

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When the sky was light we crept further into the temple to witness the rising of the sun. The smell of incense wafted across us as we quickly left the crowds behind, and we found ourselves at the foot of a smaller building, which we climbed using steep stone steps. At its top we paused, not a soul in sight, and watched the sun rise.

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When the sun had fully risen, we joined the rest of our group – those wise enough to have had the extra two hours in bed – and followed our guide (a short, well meaning, though somewhat long winded man), through the temple as he explained to us the history of this twelfth century temple, the largest temple in the world.

There were a lot of engravings.

They were amazing, interesting, full of history and…. a little bit boring. Unfortunately, our guide also had a very pronounced accent and at one point spent ten minutes telling us how the French had used semen to mend a part of the temple. “They used semen?” I asked. “Yes, that’s right,” he replied, pointing to the cement on the ceiling, “semen.” Obviously, I was very mature about this mispronunciation.

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Eventually, mercifully, the engravings ended, and by popular mutiny we decided not to follow the guide’s suggested course through the temples, and instead bussed directly over to Ta Phrohm, AKA the “tombraider temple,” where Angelina Jolie was filmed jumping through ruins as Lara Croft. Many photographs ensued. Roots wider then me gripped, broke through, supported and entangled walls built many centuries ago, their trees rising tall tall, high above, their tendrils coiled and looped like someone had poured them over the temple. Here and there, the face of Buddha peeked out from between roots.

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Inside, the temples were dark and wonderfully cool except for shafts of muzzy sunlight lancing through the broken roofs or walls. Here and there, monks prayed, and wizened old women sat burning incense or selling trinkets. Outside, the sun hammered down, ratcheting up the humidity.

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We made one final stop, to Bayon – the temple of the faces.

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We left hot and tired, having only seen a fraction of the whole complex, but happy to have been there. And that was Angkor Wat, the largest temple in the world.

Trav3-19NEXT TIME: I enjoy morning glory.

Lost in Transit

Airport!

WORLD, I’M FREAKING out. Actually, that’s a lie. I’m not freaking out, but I feel like I should be. I’m sat in a very comfy reclining seat with a footrest, looking at a giant sign for Le Clos, purveyor of the Finest Wines & Luxury Spirits.  This is Dubai Airport: a shining glass and chrome building dedicated to the quiet, desperate, soothing capitalism of travellers in airline limbo.

Next stop: Bangkok and a year of travelling in Asia and Australasia.

Costa Coffee: It gets everywhere. There's probably some witty joke about arabica coffee beans to be made here, but to be frank I'm just too tired.

Costa Coffee: It gets everywhere. There’s probably some witty joke about arabica coffee beans to be made here, but to be frank I’m just too tired.

BUT LET ME take a step back. My last update was 3 November. What happened to my promised posts? Time accelerated. Travmin took over. Packing up our flat became a priority. Saying goodbye to friends, equally important. I veered between frustration at having to repeat the same information (“yes, yes, we are going away for a year and yes it’s going to be awesome – what of it?”) to embarrassment that we’re privileged enough to be going away for a whole year (“yes but guys, think how depressed we’ll be when we get back.”). We packed, we moved, we said our goodbyes, Christmas and New Year happened, and now I’m sitting here in front of Le Clos, having circumnavigated the departure lounges twice, declined to buy any camel-related merchandise (if the shop Dubai Gifts is anything to go by – and really, what better way to judge a place than its airport giftshop – then camels are pretty big out here) and nipped into McDonald’s for the sole reason of seeing what concession they’ve made to the locale (the Arabian Plate, in case you were wondering).

Christmas and New Year in different parts of the UK made me miss both my friends and the English countryside before I’d even left. At 8.30am this morning, saying farewells to family, a year seemed like a long time. So BK-C and I were strangely subdued as we boarded the plane. Even the very best in-flight entertainment systems known to humankind (for which the Emirates systems must gain the accolade simply for having all three of the Back to the Future movies available for your viewing pleasure) could not alleviate the malaise. Landing in Dubai – A Real Foreign Place – changed it all. The year stretches out ahead of us, unblemished and full of promise that we could go anywhere.

World, I’m freaking out.

English Countryside

All that’s left behind.

A Year’s Navel Gazing

Devon: not where we're going.

Devon: not where we’re going.

I CAN’T DECIDE whether or not to take a pair of jeans.

Two months to go until we depart for a year of travelling, and this is what is preoccupying me. The internet is divided on the issue, and the arguments for (dress up or down, it’s the uniform of the world, they’re comfy, and they don’t need washing often) and against (they’re heavy, slow drying and not much use in hot climates) are well worn and probably a little cliché (this article on BK-C’s new favourite website for the packing obsessed summarises the debate nicely).

Arguably I should be worrying more about the very real issues of our chinese visa, securing a cholera vaccination or how we will access our money when abroad. I am acutely aware of The Things That Need To Be Done, but cannot stop obsessing over inconsequential details. It was all fine until we spent a Saturday evening watching YouTube videos of people unpacking their travelling bags and describing what they’d taken on their trip (it’s a rich seam of Saturday night fun, with more videos than could ever fill your rapidly diminishing social life. Check it out). Then the lists took over. Our families have been issued with Christmas lists of needed items (“Mother, it’s essential that I have a silk sleeping bag inner and a bottle of iodine”), our friends with dates when they are required to say their farewells to us (weeping is optional but strongly encouraged) and various assorted relatives with inventories of items they will be required (“honoured”) to look after for a year. The gravitational pull of the Master List increases as we speed towards January 3rd.

THERE HAVE BEEN some early wins. New passports, their covers stiff and unblemished, complete with our married name (yeah, we’re those people with a double barrelled surname). Vietnamese visas, excitingly foreign looking in our otherwise blank passports. And the contents of one bookcase (out of five) transported to my parents’ for safe keeping (except for the Riverside Chaucer, which, for some unknown reason, I insisted keeping here in case I wake up in the middle of the night have to check something from The Canterbury Tales. It hasn’t happened yet).

Here we come, Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Here we come, Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

As 2014 gets closer, things are starting to get a bit more real. Little things – like this week we went away to Devon for half term and the bed was neither as comfy or as big as our bed at home, and the realisation that “our bed” wouldn’t be ours for much longer and frankly we better get used to lumpy mattresses. I’ve had to stop visiting our local British Red Cross shop to buy their £1.25 paperbacks because “you can’t take the library with you David.” And when we buy store cupboard food items, we’re starting to think whether we’ll get through them before we leave.

Unlike this rocking chair

Goodbye home comforts. In an effort to harden herself against the expected deprivations of travelling, in Devon BK-C bought this chair with four legs that don’t even touch the ground. It will also, she tells me, simulate the rocking of the ocean, so that I can acclimatise for all that sailing we’ll have to do between Indonesian islands. That’s right, we’re in training.

Meanwhile, all of my friends seem to be buying babies and having houses, or combinations thereof. Some are onto their second of each. But for us, I find it hard to plan beyond our year away. Where will we be living, what jobs will we be doing? We have an idea but nothing set in stone. It’s exciting but also slightly dislocating when we visit friends’ houses and talk about their next few years’ planned renovations. This week in Devon we visited some good friends. As we were saying our goodbyes, I realised that I wouldn’t see them for probably another eighteen months – their baby would be walking and talking and their three year old would be, well, doing whatever it is that five year olds do.

The temptation, as you may have guessed from this blogpost, is to become a little self indulgent. Perhaps that’s the point of taking a year out: it’s a grand exercise in navel gazing. I try to get over it by worrying about the jeans.

The writing on the wall§

North of San Francisco: The Kindness of Strangers

The Pacific

In a continuation of my series on our recent trip to California, we head north from San Francisco and discover a slice of real America.

WE ARE STANDING in line at the hire car company, waiting our turn to escape San Francisco. It’s hot and the line is long. We’ve carried our two massive backpacks, two suitcases and multiple bags of shopping across half of the city to get here (in our defence we needed all that stuff because we were going backpacking in Yosemite and, well, I HAD to buy all those books because I NEEDED them, ok?).

Fortunately, being from Britain, we are uniquely adapted to queueing: standing in line actually calms us down. In the unlikely event that we do lose our cool in a queue, we’re likely to express our dissatisfaction by tutting, under our breath. Scientific FACT.

Anyway, we don’t care. We’re on honeymoon and we’re hiring a car to drive up the Californian coast. The couple in front of us is fighting with each other over the length of the queue (“why didn’t you make us leave earlier?”). I am hopeful that their relationship will implode under the pressure as at least then we’ll get to the front quicker, but sadly they hang on in there.

IT’S FORTY FIVE minutes later and we’re at the counter. The woman dealing with us, Marge, is positively ecstatic that we are on honeymoon, and offers us an upgrade to a convertible. Unfortunately it turns out that we have too much luggage because someone bought too many books, so we just stick with our mid-size SUV and enough luggage capacity to open a bookstore.

Prince Harry happens to be over in the US, and conversation turns to the Royal Family. Marge commiserates with us over the death of Diana; we agree that she was probably desperately unhappy and she should never have married Charles. Marge is excited about Kate, though. She thinks that she’ll do the Royal Family proud, although she’s heard that the Duke of Edinburgh is controlling and is actually the power behind the throne, so she worries for the new Princess. She also has strong views on Camilla being Queen one day (“if she was queen, we’d probably go to war with you guys again”). We agree that Will has made a better match than his father, and leave with a discount on our SatNav.

We are destined to repeat this conversation with about three other people over the course of our trip. Frankly, I find this enthusiasm for our Royals baffling. The people that we speak to about them are similarly baffled by our lack of enthusiasm. It’s probably how Americans experience Obama when they go abroad. 

A hair raising drive through San Francisco later (“you’re close to the kerb, Dave, close… close close close CLOSE!”), and we’re on the open road heading north on Highway One.

Something witty

BK-C was standing next to that highway for hours waiting for a catalogue talent spotter to pass.

HIGHWAY ONE IS a spectacular journey along wild coasts. Waves crash onto long beaches, the scent of redwoods fills the car and scenery displaces conversation. Hands down my favourite road, anywhere. We ate up the miles, excited to see places we’d only known on google maps. Our progress was impeded only by oysters, and the near death experience of me doing a u-turn in the road to consume the delicious bivalves.

Crazy Man

This man really loves his job.

Oyster

He does it all for the mollusc.

Oyster

The mollusc.

Oyster

The mollusc, yeah.

Bon Appetit!

Best oysters ever. We had ours raw, but could also have had them Rockefeller (with spinach and cheese) or barbecued. I like mine with tongue-tingling amounts of tabasco. If you’re ever in the area, the place is the Marshall Store and Oyster Bar. Go there. Eat oysters. Be happy.

WE HOPSCOTCHED UP the coast, stopping off wherever took our fancy. We watched people and even talked to a few too. Suddenly San Francisco seemed like a different country. This was America we were in now, and SF was just some cosmopolitan pseudo-European outpost. Outside of the city were mom & pop stores selling everything under the sun, couples in convertibles up from the ‘burbs for a day in the country, College kids in beaten up old bangers out for a day at the beach, and big family cars filled with postcard picture kids, harassed parents, empty coke bottles and crinkled Mcdonalds wrappers. It felt like the real USA.

As we drove further away from SF the day trippers fell away and we started to see more pickup trucks, fewer estate cars. We stopped at one road towns, antique barns and beautiful beaches. And there were many beaches, most with hardly a soul along their vast expanse, a few crowded by those harnessing the fearsome Pacific wind to fly kites.

The kite flying that I remember doing as a child consisted mostly of running with the kite held aloft in a desperate effort to get it airborne, then a montage of stunning nosedives once the thing was in the air. In California, the kites just fly.

The kite flying that I remember doing as a child consisted mostly of running with the kite held aloft in a desperate effort to get it airborne, then a montage of stunning nosedives once the thing was in the air. In California, the kites just fly.

AS THE SUN began to dip into the Pacific, we arrived in the pretty little town of Jenner where we stopped at the gas station to stretch our legs. I picked up a big bottle of water to keep us going whilst driving. “That’s our wallet-busting water,” advised the man behind the counter. “You can actually get a gallon and still save yourself thirty cents.” He nodded sagely, pointing out the cheaper option, priced at a whopping $1.70. “Aquafina is Coca-cola and I guess that they charge a lot for their water.” His cheerful, open attitude opened the miles between Jenner and San Francisco. Although (mostly) friendly, the people of SF had the distance of city-dwellers – those used to the churn of transients.

We instantly wanted to spend the night in Jenner and asked the gas man where was best to stay. “Hey, I know,” he said, his face lighting up, “you could stay in this place up the road. It’s a house with two bedrooms. It’s real nice. The couple that own it are next door and rent it out.” After a brief, unsuccessful search for their phone number, he drew us a map and despatched us on our way.

Five minutes later I was attempting a million point turn to get our Jeep out of the dead end that I’d driven down, and we were approached by an amiable looking man (everyone looks amiable in Jenner) who waved at me to wind down the window. “Hey,” he said to us, “Karl found our number and gave us a call to say he’d sent you up here from the gas station. I’m real sorry, but our place is booked up tonight.” He gave us his card, “just in case you folks come back here,” and then watched as I manfully manoeuvred our Jeep back onto Highway One in just sixteen turns.

The state animal of California is the grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they've now  all been hunted to extinction in the state, so they don't use real bear fur on the flags anymore.

The state animal of California is the grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they’ve now all been hunted to extinction in the state, so they don’t use real bear fur on the flags anymore.

This is a creepy church in the one road town of Tomales. The Hitchcock film The Birds was filmed nearby, and I can understand why. The place had an end of the world feel to it.

This is a creepy church in the one road town of Tomales. The Hitchcock film The Birds was filmed nearby, and I can understand why. The place had an end of the world feel to it.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

REACTIONS TO THE concept of holiday spreadsheets fall, in my experience, into two camps: “of course, why wouldn’t you?” and “you are dead inside, a roadblock to adventure and all that is good about life.” There is no middle ground. I fall into the former: I know where I’m staying and when, and I have a piece of paper with the address written down. But in comparison to BK-C, I am positively chaotic. Yes, we are both dead inside.

Everywhere in Jenner was either full or more than we were prepared to pay (a difficult internal tug-of-war here between our anxiety to plan and our innate stinginess – in the end the penny pinching won out). Anxiety was rising. But once again we were saved by the good natured people of Jenner. At the Riverside Inn, despite us neither staying or eating there, the lady behind the desk googled places for us to stay up Highway One, and then spent about fifteen minutes on the phone finding a place the wasn’t booked up.

A short utterance of our credit card details down the line later, we were on the road again, buoyed by the friendly generosity that we’d experienced in Jenner. Guala was our destination, an hour further north, where we’d booked a room in a hotel boasting beautiful views of the ocean. We had very specific directions, dictated to us by the owner in decreasingly small fractions of miles (“….a quarter mile after that you’ll go over a bridge, and a tenth of a mile later, you turn right….” How far is a tenth of a mile? I have no idea. Do people not use smaller units of measurement in the US? This was a common way of explaining directions that we encountered all up the Californian coast).

We arrived, many fractions of miles later. The sun was setting and we had had a wonderful day. We bounced into the lobby and were met by the man we had spoken to on the phone, an elderly, particular gentleman, who was determined not to let anything get in the way of the information he had to impart or the crazy stories he had to tell about his time in College. Nevertheless, filled with bounty of kindness we had encountered from people along Highway One, we tried for the upgrade anyway. “We’re on honeymoon!” we gushed. “That’s great,” he replied, “ice is down the corridor. Now that’ll be $175.”

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Goodbye London, Hello World

The FutureTHERE ARE GOING to be some changes round here.

I love South East London as much as the next man, but it does have some vital deficiencies:

-There’s no sea.

-There’s no sand

-I have to go to work

I realise that the last one isn’t strictly restricted to living in London (but from the way some Londoners go on you could believe that nothing happens outside of the capital). But it’s such a major minus, I thought that I’d chuck it in there anyway.

So we’re leaving to go travelling for a year.

The future. A perpetual roller coaster ride of excitement, and definitely not a year living in cockroach infested hostels.

The future. A perpetual roller coaster ride of excitement (much like this blog), and definitely not a year living in cockroach infested hostels (not like this blog).

THE TERM IS “Career Break,” which is a wonderfully professional sounding phrase for a year long holiday. And the really weird thing about it all, to my mind at least, is that no one has said that we shouldn’t do it. I’m kinda expecting someone to stage an intervention soon, y’know? We’ll come into our flat from work or something and all of our friends and family will be there.

“We had to go along with your crazy talk for a while, David,” they’ll tell us, “we thought you’d get it out of your system but now you’re talking about actually booking real tickets that will let you get on a plane. This madness has to stop.” Then everyone will nod sympathetically, their expression sorry but serious, like when someone tells you they’ve just run out of gin at cocktail party, and they’ll all repeat “it has to stop.” Then my mum will cut our passports into little pieces and everyone will go home.

There's going to be a lot of pseudo-arty pictures featuring sunsets and lens glare. ("Oh God not ANOTHER breathtaking sunset. Better get the camera...")

There’s going to be a lot of pseudo-arty pictures featuring sunsets and lens glare. (“Oh God not ANOTHER breathtaking sunset. Better get the camera…”). Yes, it’ll be sickening.

There’s a lot of literature around career breaks. And Chapter 1 is always “how to tell your family, friends and work colleagues that you’re leaving.” There are always sections like “overcoming nay sayers,” and “convincing your boss.” I don’t know if it’s because a lot of this literature is American and apparently having a holiday as a US Citizen is pretty much a criminal offence, but this has not been my experience. I haven’t met a single person who thought it was a bad idea. Perhaps my parents might have had more reservations if they’d have first asked where we intended to store all our stuff for the year; but, seriously, that back room has needed clearing out for some time now. Dad, you won’t even notice the difference when it’s filled with all our junk instead of yours*.

Honestly, you'll be sick of inanimate objects silhouetted against the sun by the time our year of travelling is over.

Honestly, you’ll be sick of inanimate objects silhouetted against the sun by the time our year of travelling is over.

SO WHERE ARE we going? The headlines: SE Asia and Australasia. The details:

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Japan, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand.

That’s the plan anyway. We were just going to get a one way ticket to Bangkok and let the wind take us, but then we got a fantastic quote for flights from the wonderful Travel Nation and we realised that we could save quite a bit of money and stress on the road if we booked our flights in advance, so that’s exactly what we’ve done (for a rundown of the pros and cons of each approach, I recommend Bootsnall). No perhaps it’s not what Paul Theroux would have done, but there’s still a five month gap from when we fly into Rangoon in April until we fly from Bali in September.

So I reckon that’s plenty of time to get lost.

I've never been so excited about the prospect of getting lost. When taken with my poor sense of direction, it's a winning combination.

I’ve never been so excited about the prospect of getting lost. When taken with my poor sense of direction, it’s a winning combination.

SO WHAT DOES this mean for Elsewhere, Underwritten? You’ll see some changes over the next few weeks. I’ll still be continuing with my longer, more in depth pieces on the places that I’ve been in Britain and beyond. And the California series is certainly not over. But you’ll also start to see some shorter pieces on my preparations for our Round The World Trip. The focus will still be on a slightly offbeat, under the skin look, with an eye to the absurdities of life. I can’t help but feel that the trip to the Chinese Embassy to pick up our visas is going to feature somewhere, in a kind of it-was-a-horrifying-five-hour-wait-to-be-told-that-we-filled-our-forms-in-wrong kind of a way.

And I don’t even want to contemplate the fact that I might end up with a matching backpack to my wife (OMG we are those people. We might as well just give it all up now and buy matching gilets).

In short, there’s a lot to write about, and that’s before Mrs Knight-Croft and I even leave the country.

And then, on 3 January 2014, I’ll get to write about stuff like a real travel blog. You know, actually involving travelling.

I hope that you’ll stay with me for it.

Lago de Atitlan

For those who are curious, all of the pictures featured in this post were taken during our two trips to Central America in 2009 and 2011. The sunset is Roatan, Honduras, the dive bombing in Belize, the city sunscapes Leon, Nicaragua, the get lost picture Antigua, Guatemala, and the volcano picture Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala.

*I am, of course, incredibly grateful to my parents for agreeing to look after all our stuff for a year. Though every time I tell them that we bought another book or piece of furniture there’s a significant pause at the other end of the phone.

Got any recommendations about where I absolutely need to visit in SE Asia and Australasia? Let me know.

The Golden Gate Bridge Isn’t Blue

San Francisco Street

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

WE MET Greg over breakfast in a place called Posh Bagels that on first glance didn’t quite live up to its name, but on first bite did. I liked the place, as much as anything because the woman behind the counter silently handed me back the extra $50 that I accidentally gave her when paying for our bagels. I was awash with the milk of human kindness, and began talking to Greg. I asked him where home was. “Here,” he replied. But where are you from? I pressed him, curious about who actually lives in San Francisco.
“Nowheresville, Washington. Nobody ever knows where it is and it’s full of farms and cows. Everything smells of cowshit.” He took another bite of his bagel. “No one is from here,” he continued, “everyone runs away to here. Especially gay people,” he gestured at himself, mouth already full from another bite of bagel. But what do people do in San Franciso? I asked him.
“Good question. People don’t seem to have jobs. You go to West Park at 2pm on a Wednesday when it’s sunny and the ground is covered in people sunbathing, and you think: haven’t you people got jobs? Everyone’s working an angle.” And with that, he stuffed the last piece of bagel into his mouth, said his farewells, and was gone, evidently in a rush to go and work his own angle. Or at least to escape from two nosey tourists.

THIS CONVERSATION has stuck with me. More like chewing gum at the bottom of my shoe than a faithful hound, but it’s stuck with me nonetheless. I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences of the people in San Francisco and the city more generally. When I visit a place I like to think that I’m like some great explorer cutting to the heart of a place. Seeing sights. Getting inside insights. Exploding expectations. Etc. You get the picture. I can only deal with the whole travel-place-shoe-gum-problem by trying to make sense of the things I see, to weave those things into some kind of narrative. As if I could nod sagely about San Francisco and pronounce upon it with the certainty of a 19th century explorer. Clearly this is impossible.

But I realised that I still had stuff to say about San Francisco, and Greg’s comments were my jumping off place. Or the start of my angle on the city. So, San Francisco. What’s that all about?

A lot of people seem to hang from the sides of street cars, certainly more than you would ever imagine could safely fit there. But when we travelled on a street car our driver seemed to know at all times how many spaces were left and where, politely telling people where to stand when they got on. They were all tourists, of course.

A lot of people seem to hang from the sides of street cars, certainly more than you would ever imagine could safely fit there. But when we travelled on a street car our driver seemed to know at all times how many spaces were left and where, politely telling people where to stand when they got on. Of course, they were all tourists.

UPON FIRST arriving in San Francisco we sought out the sights, like any other tourist. No they wouldn’t tell us what the city was about, but step one upon arriving somewhere new is, surely (or is this my father speaking?), always to orientate yourself.

This picture is one of a series with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the background, or the Bay Bridge as its known locally. We could have done with some of that local knowledge, because we spent the whole morning completely underwhelmed by the Golden Gate Bridge. "It's supposed to be orange," I whined at my wife, "I'm sure that it's supposed to be orange. It is in all the films. Why is it blue?" As we snapped more pictures of the underwhelming bridge she breezily reassured me that the light reflecting off the water made it look blue. I nearly tweeted some witticism about how the GGB was the wrong colour Thank God I didn't, because then I would have looked like an IDIOT.

This picture is one of a series with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the background, or the Bay Bridge as its known locally. We could have done with some of that local knowledge, because we spent the whole morning completely underwhelmed by the Golden Gate Bridge. “It’s supposed to be orange,” I whined at my wife, “I’m sure that it’s supposed to be orange. It is in all the films. Why is it blue?” As we snapped more pictures of the underwhelming bridge she breezily reassured me that the light reflecting off the water made it look blue. I nearly tweeted some witticism about how the GGB was the wrong colour Thank God I didn’t, because then I would have looked like an IDIOT.

CA4-4The next day we actually looked at a map, which is a good job because we were planning to cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge. We wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Why did these San Franciscans get so exercised about their bridge? It was the wrong colour, for a start.

Our bike ride began down by the piers, a gentle perambulation along the waterfront, weaving in and out of tourists and joggers. After the tourist-madness of Fisherman’s Wharf, the piers gave way to streets of mismatched houses, some with turrets, some with grand old 1920s-looking fronts and others evidently owned by once-hippies, still-new-age San Franciscans, their gardens all hanging glass wind chimes and vegetables. Every house was a different colour. Not a hundred yards from their front doors, the pacific ocean lapped at marinas and boat moorings. A nearby sign helpfully warned people that they were in a Tsunami high risk zone, and advised that when the wave comes, they head for higher ground. It all felt very SF.

Further round the bay still, and the Golden Gate Bridge appears (“I told you it was orange”), small enough that you feel you could almost lean forward and pluck it out of the bay in one hand. Much pedalling and several hills later it stands above you, massive and hulking, ethereal and elegant all at once. Then you’re on the bridge and so is everyone else, pedestrians and cyclists weaving in an out of each other, all looking at the view, no one looking where they’re going, and the bay is a long long way down. Yes, it’s a health and safety nightmare.

The sun was shining as we rode across the bridge, and it was hot despite the strong wind blowing in off the pacific. We kept stopping to take photos of ourselves, of the bridge, of the bay beyond. Frankly we couldn't have been anywhere better at that moment. This is not always so with everyone who visits the bridge.

The sun was shining as we rode across the bridge, and it was hot despite the strong wind blowing in off the pacific. We kept stopping to take photos of ourselves, of the bridge, of the bay beyond. Frankly we couldn’t have been anywhere better at that moment. This is not always so with everyone who visits the bridge.

The view from Alcatraz.

THE THINGS that stay in the memory about a city are most often not the iconic sites. It’s the vignettes of city living peculiar to that place that stick in the mind. In the City Lights Bookshop, where Allen Ginsberg first read Howl, where Jack Kerouac hung out, and which was heavily involved in the beat movement, I remember not sitting in the chair that Ginsberg sat in, but the view out of the window of somebody’s apartment. It was peaceful inside the bookshop, but the apartment seemed chaotic. Washing was strung across the fire escape, and inside the place looked cramped and untidy. All cities are places of contrast, but San Francisco seemed at that moment to like its contrasts all on top of each other.

The City Lights Bookshop was a wonderful place, with great books and great history. Its till was staffed by two men perhaps in their mid-twenties, dressed in a boho style with hair scarfs and plenty of tattoos. They literally couldn’t give a shit that we existed, and smiling seemed to cause them physical pain. I made sure that I wished them a great day when we left. I encountered this too-cool for school attitude a few times when we were in San Francisco. Why is it that counter-cultures and the places that breed it can be so intolerant of other ways of living?

City Lights Bookstore

City Lights Bookstore.

San Francisco is not a place of suits. Even at the height of the early morning rush hour, there are few people in suits, even fewer in ties. Most are in denim, many in T-shirts. Stand on a London street at rush hour and you can spot the Londoners a mile off – from the way they dress, how fast they walk. In San Francisco, it’s not so easy to spot the natives.

The only people who seem to belong are the homeless. And there are so many homeless people in San Francisco. They stumble along the sidewalks, pushing all of their belongings in a trolley, or towing them in makeshift trailer-bags, or just carrying them in shopping bags. They loiter around the entrances to parks and in the squares, along the edges of streets and under the awnings of buildings. On three separate occasions I literally had to step over homeless people in the street – and this was not on quiet streets. The tide of humanity, myself included, just flowed around them. On two consecutive days I saw a man sitting next to the Powell MUNI station with a sign that said “Iraq Vet. Need a little help.”

According to the San Francisco Public Press (“Independent, Non-Profit, In-Depth”), which I picked up a copy of,  two years ago the city estimated that 6,455 people lived without housing. The city-funded shelters take in 1,139 single families and up to 10 families a night – giving about 18 per cent of the homeless population a bed on any single night. Mental health problems are rampant amongst the homeless population. I lost count of the amount of times that I saw people talking to themselves or shouting at walls.

I understand that America is different to the UK, that there is no social safety net like in Europe. But this isn’t just about helping people who can’t help themselves: it’s about helping a city. Homelessness is ruining San Francisco. It increases crime, makes places unsafe to go at night and the whole city a less desirable place to be. For me, it profoundly coloured my experience of the city.

Alcatraz tower

OF COURSE, San Francisco is full of natives, all of whom are from somewhere else, and they’re all happy to tell you about their city. With the exception of the too cool for school crowd, everyone talked to us. Although the moment that this really struck me was when we arrived back in London and were travelling home. Because we had big bags, we got the elevator up from the Underground instead of the escalator, and we shared our lift with a man on crutches. Standing in such close proximity in such a confined space, it seemed natural to strike up conversation. But then I realised this was London and not San Francisco, so instead we stood there in silence whilst we made our slow ascent.

On our final day in San Francisco I struck up a conversation with Chris, who was originally from Northern Ireland. He had, he told me, been in SF for “fucking ages.” When I met him, in the line for the men’s room in a coffee shop, he was complaining that there were no public toilets in the city. “They can put a fucking laser guided bomb on a target in Afghanistan, but they can’t public toilets in San Francisco.”

I asked him what he thought of the city, and he told me that he was “jaded” because he’d been there too long. “Sure,” he said, “it’s good now, but it was fucking unbelievable in the 90s. The rave scene was happening, you know? And it wasn’t so fucking expensive.”

“People say I just think it’s not as good because I’m not young anymore,” he continued, “and I’m not getting laid all the time. But I’m 46 and I’m still having a good time.” I asked him why he thought that he wasn’t having as good a time as in the 90s. Partly, he thought, it was down to the “facebook culture” of everyone being on their phones rather than talking to each other. “But partly,” he told me, “it’s because San Francisco now thinks it’s so cool. I mean, California’s cool, but it’s not that cool. People need to remember that sometimes.” Then he was next in line, and we said our goodbyes. “Happy trails,” he wished me on his way out.

San Francisco is a great city (especially for its food), but is not without its problems. Its a city of many angles, some seemingly contradictory. For me, the big test of a place is: could I live there? At first I dismissed it, and decided I could never live there. But I find myself revisiting the question, like a puzzle you can’t solve, mulling it over in my mind. Or perhaps the gum on my shoe that I can’t seem to shake. Maybe I couldn’t live there – but I seem to have taken a little piece of it away with me. Happy trails, San Francisco.

Wires

San Francisco Grape & Grain, Part 2: Or, Thinking Drinking Through Time & Space

Vintage Barrel Man

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

A SURPRISING OBSERVATION: beer geeks are snobbier than wine connoisseurs. Compare, for instance, my experience in the beer shop Healthy Spirits in the Castro district of San Francisco, and my experience at the Larson Family Winery, in Sonoma (which sits beside the more famous Napa Valley in the Bay Area). In the former I asked the extremely knowledgeable and, it has to be said, very friendly, man behind the counter for advice in buying a wheat beer. He took me through some of their stock, pausing over the Hell or High Watermelon beer from 21st Amendment brewery – which I had drunk and enjoyed the previous night at Starbelly – to tell me to avoid it because “it’s shit out of a can.” Several days later at the Larson Family Winery the manager of the tasting room, Marvin, was expounding the delights of trying everything and judging nobody. “There’s wine educators and there’s wine snobs,” he told me. “Wine snobs want you to think how they do, educators will admit that there’s so much stuff out there that you’re always still learning. Every wine you drink, every bit of wine lore you gather, it’s another brick in the wall of knowledge.” This may sound like a line that Marvin repeats to all who visit his tasting room, but it reflects an accepting attitude that I have found to be common amongst wine lovers, but less so amongst beer fans.

Marvin does his customary duck impression before pouring the wine.

Marvin does his customary duck impression before pouring the wine.

Slosh slosh.

Slosh slosh…

Sip sip.

Sip sip….. Repeat. It’s easy to get the hang of wine tasting.

We were in Sonoma with Green Dream Tours (highly recommended: you can read my wife’s review of them here). Eli, the owner of the company, was our tour guide for what was the first day of the wine tour season. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing in that customary Pacific Coast way, where it whips the breath out of your mouth and makes you regret wearing only a T-shirt. Stepping off our air conditioned bus at Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma County, outside of San Francisco, it felt about ten degrees hotter then in windy SF. But within 15 minutes of arriving at the winery we had ceased to care about the heat, because we were all pissed. Drinking alcohol in the morning is like all the best bits of being 16 again: you either have no responsibilities or you don’t care about them, and it feels like literally anything could happen, all of the time. Being drunk and partly hungover in the early evening, after a wine tour, whilst wandering around an REI store in search for kit for going backpacking in Yosemite is like all the worst bits of being 16 again: responsibility for sensible decisions is something you’re ill equipped for and EVERYTHING IS SO FAR AWAY. But that was future David’s problem: at 11am I was supping my wine and loving every moment of it.

I think that you'll agree, I am ROCKING the socks and shorts look. Have I always been this tragic, or is it something that happened when I got older? On the plus side, after 3 glasses of wine this is exactly the kind of thing that you don't care about.

I think that you’ll agree, I am ROCKING the socks and shorts look. Have I always been this tragic, or is it something that happened when I got older? Please don’t answer that. On the plus side, after 3 glasses of wine this is exactly the kind of thing that you don’t care about.

The Vexillologists (ok I admit it: I just learnt that word through google) amongst you may recognise one of the flags in the photo above as being Mexican. Papa Robledo came to the US as a teenager in 1968 to pick grapes for the season, and never went back. Thirty years later he bought his own vineyard. Seven years after that, Reynaldo Robledo became the first former Mexican migrant worker to open a winery and start making his own wine commercially. On the walls of the tasting room there are pictures of him meeting with the former Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, and Barak Obama. In the tasting room we met one of Reynaldo’s six sons, Lazaro Robledo, who proudly took us through the history of his family and the winery. It’s one of those immigrant success stories that to my mind are so defining of America. It wasn’t grape picking season when we were in Sonoma, so there weren’t workers out amongst the vines; but later on in our trip as we drove through the Californian heartland we passed through acres and acres of fruit farms, with lines and lines of immigrant workers picking fruit. We drove for miles and miles along dusty, flat highways where every other car was a pickup truck and the sun baked the road until it cracked at the edges. The scenery changed only with the crop – from apricot trees to cherry trees, from peaches to plums; and in every field, at every junction were immigrant workers. If they weren’t toiling in the fields then they were sheltering from the sun at the side of the road, under makeshift tarpaulin sunshades, and selling fruit to passing motorists. We stopped at a few of these places, and the people were uniformly grim and downtrodden, dusty from the road and hot from the sun. No typical cheery American welcome here of “how ya doin’?” This experience of passing through the fruit farms later put Reynaldo’s journey much more into perspective for me. The tale of an immigrant coming to American and building success from nothing may be a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any the less real.

Not appropriate to use for bobbing for apples. This photograph would be better if it was straight but I was a little unsteady on my feed when I took it.

Not appropriate to use for bobbing for apples. This photograph would be better if it was straight but I was a little unsteady on my feed when I took it.

I'm guessing they're not seedless.

I’m guessing they’re not seedless.

By 1pm we had visited two wineries, lunched and were now stumbling around the pretty little town of Sonoma, presumably so that our tourguides could have some respite from a tourbus full of loud drunkards.

As we wandered, I pondered on both the Robledo family’s journey and Marvin’s words about learning. There’s something that visiting a winery has over visiting brewery: community. Yes it’s true that they were small, family owned wineries that we visited in Sonoma and so it’s inevitable that there would be a sense of community, but there’s also something about the link between the land and the wine. I imagine that very few breweries grow their own grains on site; the best wineries will always have their own vineyards, probably in the same place where they also crush, ferment and ultimately bottle the grapes. There’s community around breweries, but these are the communities created amongst their drinkers, their fans, rather than the people who make the beer. This fact struck home with me when, later on in our trip we visited the newly opened ol’ Republic Brewery in the small, close community of Nevada City. A lady I spoke to in the brewery bar told me how happy everyone was at last to have a brewery of their own in town. “there’s a few microbreweries close by, like 20 miles or something,” she told me, “but they’re not ours. This one is for Nevada City.”

Beer and wine are different drinks, often drunk at different times and in different social settings. We might order a bottle of wine when out for a romantic meal, but it’s less likely that we’d order a bottle of beer. Whilst wine is a more intimate drink, beer is a drink which is social in a different way – it’s easier to imagine it being drunk at a BBQ, or amongst a group of friends at the pub. And I think that the different ways in which we consume these beverages are also reflected in the way that they’re produced, and the history – and geography – behind that production. Clearly I’m generalising here, but having visited both breweries and wineries in such quick succession, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something in the different way that we as a culture consume (in every sense of the word) the two drinks, and that this difference starts even before the first drop of alcohol is fermented.

ANYWAY, WITH ALL these thoughts kicking around my mind in Sonoma, I knew that I had entered the contemplative, thoughtful stage of drunkenness and it was time to push on through. So, we headed on to our final vineyard, where I was looking forward to rounding off my thoughts about immigration, geography, family and community by hearing about another American success story. And who did it turn out that the brewery was owned by? A bloody Brit.

Note the humorous play on a famous British actor's name.

Note the humorous play on a famous British actor’s name.

Something witty

It may have been the last glass of the day, but that didn’t make it any the less tastier. Cheers!

San Francisco Grape & Grain: Or, How You Can Never Be Late For Beer In SF

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

THIS IS A picture from the day of my wedding*:

Obviously, it's from when I was getting ready

Clearly, this is pre-ceremony. But it’s true that I’d been perusing the Northern California Craft Beer Guide on the morning of my wedding. Anticipation of the honeymoon? Of course not! I was focused solely on getting married. This was an attempt to relieve some pre-wedding nerves. But, yes, now you mention it, I was excited about the beer in NorCal. Obviously this was COMPLETELY UNRELATED to me reading it on my wedding day (that’s not actually me reading it in the picture by the way – I’m the one crouching down into the background and, yes, thank you those are fabulous socks, I KNOW).

*courtesy of our wonderful wedding photographers Christian & Erica, of Christian Ward Photography.  Getting married? Go with these guys. Their photos are art.

CA3-1I think that I probably owe a public thanks and apology to Kyle, our server at Starbelly, the first stop on our Beer-Tasting-Trip-That-My-Wife-Mistakenly-Believed-Was-Our-Honeymoon. I won’t lie, I had a bit of a man-crush on Kyle: he was funny and he knew about beer. And he kept bringing me different ones to try. I may also have used the phrase “please could you bring me something more challenging?” Yes, I am that pretentious. And, yes, I do hate myself. Anyway, Kyle gave us free beer because it was our honeymoon (it’s sad that my wife doesn’t like beer, but sacrifices have to be made in marriage, I understand). “If I could do your road trip, I would,” Kyle said to us as we left Starbelly. “You can,” I joked, “we’ll just fit you in our suitcase, it’ll be fine!” The beaming smile that he shot me in return as he ushered us out was definitely one of mutual appreciation, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to verify this fact as he locked the door behind us. Weird. What A Nice Man, I thought, as we walked away, me stumbling slightly.

Anyway, the highlight of any trip to SF for the beer enthusiast, both my guide book and my far geekier beer friends told me, was a visit to the Anchor Brewery. You can only pre-book and the tours get filled up months in advance. So naturally I was excited that we’d managed to secure a space on the tour for when we were there. That morning we were vintiqueing (yeah, I used that word) on Haight Street, which is the hippy, vintage, grimey-but-proud-of-it part of SF. Frankly it’s hard to tell the difference between the hippy (crusty?) folks who live there and the homeless people who, well, probably also live there, but not in a studio apartment.

Haight Street is less about the drinking. I was queueing up in a record store to buy some vinyl and the guy in front of me, who had purchased two Star Wars VHS, was chatting to the cashier. "Yeah," he told him, "I'm just gonna go home, get high and watch these." Frankly, I pitied him. Can you remember what VHS was like? In his stoned state how would he select the cast commentary? Some things should just stay superseded and not go retro.

Haight Street is less about the drinking. I was queueing up in a record store to buy some vinyl and the guy in front of me, who had purchased two Star Wars VHS, was chatting to the cashier. “Yeah,” he told him, “I’m just gonna go home, get high and watch these.” Frankly, I pitied him. Can you remember what VHS was like? How would he select the cast commentary? Some things just shouldn’t go retro.

We lost track of time. Or, rather, one of us lost track of time in a dress shop whilst the other fretted over the time. We finished on Haight Street, we rushed to get the 24 bus to Anchor Brewery, passed the rolling fog at the tops of houses (because that’s what happens in SF), passed the congregation of homeless outside the park (because that’s what happens in SF), passed the cars parked at right angles to the kerb (you get the picture), onto the bus, onto another bus…. and we arrived on time! Celebration! Checked in at the desk. Discovered that I got the time wrong! We were an hour late. Devastation! Deep inside me I felt something break. Only thing that held back the tears was It Would Not Be Cool To Cry At Anchor Brewery. “Don’t worry, though,” the guy on the front desk told us, “the tour hasn’t got to the bar, yet, so you can join them for the tasting.” I regained my composure. Manned up. “I think I can do it,” I announced. “To the bar!”

I took what solace I could.

I took what solace I could.

But then magic happened. My wife spoke to one of the brewers, explained the situation and convinced him to take us on a tour of the brewery when he finished his shift. And that is why I married this woman. Or, alternatively, our impromptu brewery tour has something to do with the fact that Anchor Brewing workers can drink on shift, for free, and hang out in their own bar afterwards. They’re just perpetually happy people. Or perhaps it’s just because SF people are some of  the friendliest city people I’ve met. Either way, thank you Ramon, for showing us around the place and sharing some delicious drinks with us in the bar. The lesson? Whether it’s about the people or the drinks, you can never be late for beer in SF.

Ramon dips his hand in the... wort? pre-beer? Who knows. Beer Science.

Ramon dips his hand in the… wort? pre-beer? Who knows. Beer Science.

CA3-7

Hops. Cascade hops, in fact. They give beer American beers that distinctive bitter-fruity-hoppy taste.

CA3-8

Me rubbing hops through my hands, as encouraged by Ramon. “The only thing is that they’re really oily and you can’t get the smell off with soap,” he told me as he watched me rub them all over my palms. My hands smelt of beer for the rest of the day, as did everything that I touched. It was like a more rubbish version of the Greek King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold. My touch turned everything slightly beery, except that you couldn’t drink it. This curse probably figures somewhere in Dante’s Inferno.

CA3-9

If you ever go to the Anchor Brewery, remember this: there is a cabinet at the back of the tasting room where you can buy Anchor memorabilia. I know this, because I was told about it after I had visited by a sympathetic Canadian who had been there the day before. There’s probably a silver lining to this story, but somehow I can’t really bring myself to write it.

NEXT TIME: I go drinking in the morning.

San Francisco by Plate, Fork & Chopstick: Or, How Stuffing My Face Showed Me San Francisco – Part 2

Welcome to San Francisco - Proceed With Caution

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

I’LL JUST come right out with it: in San Francisco we spent $558.22 on one meal for the two of us. It is the most expensive meal that I have ever eaten. And it goes without saying – but shouldn’t be left unsaid – that being able to enjoy such a meal is a privilege; if it weren’t a wedding gift we would never have enjoyed it. But it was and we did. So: with the expensive-eater guilt statement out of the way, let me tell you what that kind of nosh $558 buys you.

Eleven courses. I mean, that’s pretty good don’t you think? If you’re spending a lot on food then you want to be able to measure how exceptional it is in some way, and number of courses is a great metric. I lost count of which one we were on. It’s a cliché, but actually how many times in your life can you actually use that phrase and mean it? Excepting the times when you’re so drunk you can’t count your own fingers, obviously.

It was our second night and we were at the restaurant Coi (pronounced not like the fish but like the French “quoi” because, apparently, San Franciscans cannot spell). There’s plenty that you can read on the internet about the place and the chef behind it (Daniel Patterson), so I won’t repeat any of that here (but here’s a great summary from a food writer that I really rate). To give you a picture, though, Coi is a small, exclusive restaurant of perhaps twenty tables. There is no menu outside for you to browse if you happen to be passing. Your napkin is replaced with a new one if you get up to use the restroom half-way through the meal. There are decorative pebbles in the bathroom sink, so washing your hands is like participating in some kind of Japanese rock garden ritual. It’s that kind of a place.

And here's the menu from the night we were there. Our server presented it to us right at the end of the meal, after watching me desperately try to scribble down all the ingredients after each course.

And here’s the menu from the night we were there. We had the tasting menu, so we also got a glug of each wine paired with the appropriate dish. Unfortunately we got a bit excited on the first serving, so I have no idea how the sake tastes with the Geoduck (whatever that is). I can also testify that the herbs served with the strawberries at the end were, indeed, tiny.

But Coi’s not sniffy. No question was too dumb for our Jude Law-lookalike waiter. Which is good, because I asked him some dumb questions. Like, is this tiny piece of bread you’re serving me now another course? “No, sir,” said Jude Law, “the bread is not a course.” Or, what’s in this little jar? “That’s butter, sir.” Thanks Jude.

The food, he told us, would be “aroma and flavour forward,” with “no heavy and cloying French-like sauces.” When I didn’t recognise one of the ingredients, he would painstakingly describe what  it was and where it came from. He had the patience of a man serving people prepared to pay for one meal what many earn in a week.

Never before have I been so excited by turnips as at a farmers market in San Francisco.

In Northern California, ingredient is king. Everything is fresh and it all looks like it came out of some food-porn magazine. Never before have I been so excited by turnips as at a farmers’ market in San Francisco.

In Northern California, they love food so much that they spread it over their bodies. Don't try this with turnips at a farmers market.

In Northern California, they love food so much that they spread it over their bodies. Don’t try this with turnips at a farmers market.

I have to say, I found the laid back, unpretentious-but-discerning approach to food in Coi, and NorCal more widely, refreshing. If I were in Paris and I asked which item of cutlery I should use, then I’d certainly feel like the ignorant English tourist that I am. But here it was a fair question. “Daniel [the chef] thinks about the whole eating experience, down to how you’ll eat it,” our server explained. “I remember that we once had a chicken wing on the menu and it was in this broth, and Daniel didn’t want people just to pick the wing up and eat it with their fork, he wanted them to taste the broth as well. So we served it with just a spoon. That confused a few people.” It would confuse me too.

The whole meal, from start to finish, was like a culinary narrative of place, time and taste. It was the ultimate dining experience. It was, in my opinion, money well spent. I’ll even forgive Jude for forgetting to bring me the ketchup.

I WOULDN’T want you to think that San Francisco is all bank-breaking eateries. As with so many North American cities these days, there’s a big food truck movement. And, yes, to those unfamiliar with the concept – a food truck is just a glorified burger van. But what burgers…

It's street food, so it's ok to let the sauce dribble down your chin when you bite into the deliciousness. Note: this is not ok in Coi.

It’s street food, so it’s ok to let the sauce dribble down your chin when you bite into the deliciousness. Note: this is not ok in Coi.

And San Francisco, it turns out, is next to the sea, so there’s a lot of fish. Who knew? San Franciscans used to eat a lot of seafood, but then they realised that they could make a lot of money just selling it all to the tourists instead. All of the seafood restaurants being sensibly clustered around the piers, this development also had the happy effect of ensuring that all the tourists just went to the piers, where they were corralled into a single place called Pier 39, attracted by flashing lights, overpriced tat and, inexplicably, an Irish giftshop. Here idiotic Englishmen could have their photos taken with crabs (the crustacean, you understand), leaving the rest of the city happily free from blundering Brits, so prone to walking out into the road in front of a car whilst looking the wrong way. In fact this last phenomenon became so much of a problem that the city began issuing crash helmets to all those from countries where they drove on the left.

Life in the San Franciscan piers.

Life in the San Franciscan piers.

Those tourists just go crazy for the San Franciscan seafood at the piers. This one is dangerous because she hasn't been issued with her crash helmet yet.

Those tourists just go crazy for the San Franciscan seafood at the piers. This one is dangerous because she hasn’t been issued with her crash helmet yet.

Sometimes the tourists inadvisedly wander out of the Piers. But it’s ok, because the San Franciscans have developed a special tram just for the tourists called the F Line, which picks them up and dumps them back at Pier 39. Regardless of whether they want to go there or not. Then they eat some more crab and forget about what they saw in the rest of the city. It’s a bit like the Hunger Games, but in reverse. True story.

AND THAT’S how stuffing my face in San Francisco showed me the city. From high end to low end, from burgers to crabs – it was all delicious. And I even left the pier. Don’t tell anyone though.

NEXT TIME: I’m Drinkin’ in SF.