Out of the Desert ¡Si, se pudo!

 

Out of the Desert

¡Si, se pudo!

The Fops and the Bay

Try talking yourself into a whore-loween party

San Francisco, California
31st October, 2001

The end of the Trek America tour involved visiting Las Vegas and L.A., two places I had no real interest in, but I thought I should make the best of things. Tired though. Infinitely tired now, as I could never had thought possible, I who had always prided myself on physical endurance: tired even of hiking, tramping, climbing, mountains, nature. All I wanted was to crawl into a Starbucks coffee and sleep... sleep... sleep... But first, Las Vegas, L.A.

Las Vegas

Dump.

Los Angeles

Dump.

There. That's that taken care of. Oh, all right:

Las Vegas

I knew the gambling mecca would be tacky, but I hoped it might at least be interesting in a sleazy, sordid way. Screeching hookers, rolling pimps, gambling hells. But no.

Las Vegas is dull. Tacky and dull, and filled with the most unsympathetic run of humanity I have ever seen. It reminds me of nothing less than a gigantic airport waiting lounge, filled with a convention for the most terminally overweight, stupid and miserable people in America. All of whom had saved up enough from their wages from the chicken factory to come here for a week. They wandered between the hotel buffet and the gambling halls, all the time wondering in their hearts why they weren't having any fun yet.

The gambling. Everyone talked about how much would they were going to enjoy the gambling. Sitting stone faced and silent in front of a one-armed bandit or a croupier, and drip-by-drip handing over your pitiful mound of dollar bills must be the greatest thrill in life. And when it was all gone, off they go. I pitched over from the boredom, and ... pathos, of watching all this and wandered up the streets looking more tangible forms of fun. But there wasn't even as much as one attractive woman in the whole town not professionally employed there in some way.

Sex Tourists

When I left the others from the Trek group, they were standing around the silent draws and shuffles of a blackjack table, jaws slackening, stupified with boredom as they nursed the plastic glass of Harp (of all things) that you get for 'free' after investing about twenty dollars in the gambling. I wasn't fooled. The girls had begun their Las Vegas adventure singing Tom Jones, squeaking, waving their arms, and reminding each other of what a good time they were about to have. The last six hours of drool-loosening mediocrity would make it doubly important for them to prove to themselves how much fun it must have been. As I walked away I took a wager with myself on the chances that I'd be told in the morning what a great night it had been.

"What a far-out night, man!" It was 11.45am. Really? "Oh it was mad you should have been there, ho ho, amazing!" What happened? Apparently Sue, Larraine and Ian went to a club where a couple of strippers had sex on stage. "Crazy, man, crazy. Should have seen Ian!" So what happened then? "Oh yeah, uh, hung around, uh, came home!"

Far out. So you paid to watch women have sex? I inquired. You do realise that makes you into punters?

The hookers meanwhile, had left the streets and gone into marketing. At every corner, in addition to the usual USA Today newspaper vending machines, there were free papers advertising personal services, complete with picture and a short write up. I found these articles to be the most creative and original entertainment to be found in this whole city. But then as the writers were, apparently, all 18-year old college students, fresh, energetic and with a desire to try something new, I guess I shouldn't be suprised at such talent.

Los Angeles

L.A. is very large collection of suburbs with no centre. I stayed in a hostel in a seedy neighbourhood where I got lots of uncomfortable stares when I went outside. Inside, however, there was a pool and 99 cent margaritas. Guess where I spent my time in L.A.

The Mean Streets

I looked forward to San Francisco. It is far more interesting than other west coast cities, far older, with a proper city centre and plenty of history and colorful neighbourhoods.

It's also disturbing and miserable. San Francisco has between eight and fourteen thousand homeless people, all congregated in the centre, everywhere, many of them mentally disturbed, all of them distressed, defeated and dirty. For a lone backpacker arriving in the middle of the night and navigating on foot to a hostel, it is very disheartening.

Such poverty! And such wealth! The unwashed and disheartened shuffle along in their carboard box existence past the towers of the great financial houses, past the fine hotels of Union Square, the elegant shops, the flocks of tourists. The essential mystery of the United States is nowhere more plain than here. The two poles of the American dream co-exist in the centre of San Francisco, only a breath away, a world apart.

The Hills of San Francisco

The city is attractive, all the hills, the districts. Chinatown a babel of Chinese, the Mission district a rapid Spanish chatter, Haight-Ashbury a stream of shops and bistros. I met Elisabeth, an old workmate, who took me cycling. She said, did I mind a couple of hills. Of course not, said I, the big man, thinking she meant a couple of times round Telegraph hill then stop for an ice-cream on Fisherman's Wharf.

Elisabeth mountain bikes in competitions. We went to the Presidio, crossed Golden Gate bridge and then started climbing to the hills beyond. We pedaled up - and down - and up and down - and I was exhaused But I couldn't admit that, to a girl! That I can't feel my backside anymore! I want to give up but I can't - I'm a man! - and up - and down - and up... and I lived, just. Crossing back over the bridge in the evening light. Well deserved drinks.

I met Helena, my mate in Guatemala, now a student in Berkeley. She described the national fervour, like none she had ever known, current among herself and her friends. Previously she had been content to study general government policy and work for non-profit organisation. Now she wondered whether she should enlist in the army.

The Big Break

We had met in a little restaurant in the Haight, where Helena mentioned a party on that night. It was a pre-Halloween party and we had no costumes. So better not go, she said. What was the theme, I inquired. Oh, she said, whore-lloween, all the women dress like whores. But, she shook her head, I know all the men, they're all gay.

"You - mean - to - say, we could go to a party where all the women are dressed like prostitutes and I'm the only heterosexual male there!" I sat bolt upright in my seat. "We should go! Let's go! It'd be... rude!... not to go!" But I couldn't convince her. Oh well. What if the party had been all gay men, and they dressed as whores? Would have been egg on my face then.

I went to Alcatraz. I had always pictured this as a giant maximum security jail, somewhere out in the crashing ocean waves. In fact it's small and right inside the bay. You can hear the people talking, laughing, living free lives as they walk on San Francisco's piers a short distance away. It must have driven the prisoners mad as they looked out over the harbour at the life they longed for, almost in reach... I dutifully did the tour, listened to the Rangers, and then did what I guess half the tourists do here: went looking for movie locations. I found two or three from The Rock and one from Dirty Harry.

Georgina, Fop Magnet

This is a city where people come to be themselves, or to be weird, or to turn into vehicles for their own fops. They develop a fop: a silly hat, a funny hair growth, a grossly extended tattoo, and they become the fop. Who needs to have character, to be a person within themselves? Look at my fop! This proves what an interesting person I am!

I met Georgina the Fop-Magnet at my hostel. Georgina was a fun, intelligent English accountant, but with one remarkable power: every wierdo in San Francisco wanted to talk to her and be her friend. And now me. It was funny to watch: one minute we'd be sitting talking about something perfectly normal, then bang, here comes the looper of the day, in his bare feet and tattoo (note the multi-element fop) to stare straight at her, and announce "In this state it's legal for me - not you! - to carry a sidearm! Dressed like this!" And then he'd march straight off! Leaving me wondering whether to hit him or laugh.

It's All About Me

Hum. Travel. I once pictured myself as an intrepid travel-hero striding manfully across the continents, with never a glance behind. Now, I'm tired again. Fatigue builds up over long periods of travel and you can't shake it off. And there's worse. You meet so many people, for such short periods - a hour, ten minutes, a day, a week - that new people, new friends, seem less and less real as time goes by. You want to build walls of silence, of privacy against having to explain yourself again. Sometimes it seems that travel, instead of broadening my mind, is making me more isolated and self obsessed.

I could go home I suppose, but that would look bad. Spent a lot of time here trying to figure out what to do. I'm going to Quito, Ecuador, where, mirabile dictu, I can afford to have my own room. My own room, for the first time in over four months. Can't wait.

I'm glad to have seen so much of the U.S. but it will be good to leave it now. There is an undercurrent of fear and suspicion around the place. It's only slight, but which each vague FBI alert, each anthrax scare, it grows just a bit. Added to the strange squalor and machismo of the American city, it has become taxing. Quito is of course more dangerous in that sense, but what else do you expect from a poor, struggling country. In the U.S., the greatest nation on Earth, these things are harder to fathom.

But America does get things done. What a remarkable place North America is. All I have seen was wrought from almost nothing in just three hundred years. And as I wander round all the communities here, Chinese, Spanish, all the Asian and European and Latin American immgrant neighborhoods, I wonder, where would all these people be if there weren't an America to escape to? Slaves to the land, to the whim of a warlord, to poverty, to hopelessness? And here they are, with at least the possibility of freedom. And if offered the chance of freedom, rather than slavery, even with a chance of failing, of falling between the cracks, who would say no?

 

TheJoshuaTree2001.jpg
Joshua Tree

 

TrekEats.jpg
A Trek Meal

 

/unitedstates.jpg
USA Route

 


Hat & Spoon

 

 

You can comment on this article on the Message Board.

Contact me

 

 

 

 

The Facts

Where I stayed
Los Angeles: Paradise Hostel. Cheap party place near airport. Swimming pool and free drink every night. Turbulent. Big thirty bed dorms in huts.
San Francisco: HI San Francisco Downtown. Central, large, but prison-like hostel.

How I got around:
Trek America for a three week camping tour. Brilliant fun. We visited and camped in sixteen different national parks. I couldn't imagine a better way to see the US.