Despite three previous visits to the USA as a tween and teenager, I had yet to experience the West Coast of the country. California had a sort-of magical quality for me growing up, as the home of Hollywood and a perfect climate, and I knew that at some point in my life I would visit there, but I just needed a reason to.

 

 San Francisco 2013 - USA & California Flags

 

Although Coachella provided that reason, I know that I owe a great deal of the success of my trip to being able to stay with friends and connections whilst I was in the States. Almost immediately after purchasing my festival ticket, I got in touch with a good South African friend based in San Francisco who’d also got a Coachella ticket, and fortunately, for the same weekend. Not long after, it was confirmed that I could crash on his couch for however long it was necessary, as well as join him and his friends on an epic road-trip to the festival, where the five of us would camp together. It was a fairytale beginning to the trip, and set the tone for my first overseas odyssey as an adult.

I arrived in San Francisco a couple of days before the festival weekend, and oddly enough, a day after the terrible Boston Marathon bombings. Emerging from the 18-hour cocoon of international flight to customs in Washington, D.C., it was quite a shock to see the first piece of news on an airport TV being a CNN headline of “BOSTON TERROR ATTACK”. Knowing that I was to be in some major cities over the following month gave me a twinge of anxiety, but whilst the tragedy dominated the news cycles, my fears were fortunately unfounded.

The Coachella weekend divided my time in San Fran in two, and the first few days allowed for some sightseeing of the city and catching up with my friend, who’d recently emigrated from South Africa for an amazing job opportunity at Facebook. His apartment was in Lower Haight Street, just east of the famous Haight-Ashbury district, known as the birthplace of the hippie subculture and the bohemian musical and social revolution known as the ‘Summer of Love’. San Fran feels small for a major city, and even with taking into account its hills, I still found it relatively easy to traverse on foot, in combination with its excellent, but at times conflicting, public transport system (the main service is affectionately called “The Muni”). Haight Street is also walking distance from a lot of cosy bars, so evening sojourns to places like The Page (on my first night there, jetlagged to oblivion) and Smuggler’s Cove (a shrine to rum) are safely navigable after a few drinks.

 

 

I was left to my own devices most days, and although at first I got caught up with some tech admin for my new phone and SIM card, there were still opportunities to leave the apartment and wander, with a vague notion of where to go, and what to do. Taking the self-reliant, touristy approach, I tried to see as much of the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods on foot as possible, which saved me money and facilitated interaction with medicinal marjiuana shop owners, bike rental employees, music store patrons, homeless street preachers, and local jam bands in the park, to name a few. The city is incredibly friendly, laid-back and inviting, offering an eclectic mix of cultures and expression, and as a Cape Townian, I felt very much at home in the environment.

 

 

My second afternoon highlighted this spirit in action, as I headed west along Haight Street to the aforementioned Haight-Ashbury for some lunch. The array of colourful shops could’ve kept me there the whole day, but I had made up my mind that I needed to see the landmark Golden Gate Bridge up close. A helpful bike rental employee gleefully handed me a map of the city, pointing out tourist landmarks along the way, suggesting transport options back home, as well as giving me a brief rundown on life as a San Franciscan – not once suggesting that I should hire a bike. Dumbfounded and grateful, I followed her route through San Francisco National Park, soaking in the gorgeous expanse of green. At one point, I made a pit stop by a local jam band, semi-acoustically strumming away some tunes for a gathered crowd on the grass.

 

 

“Sorry friends, I need to be off. Gotta go stare at a big red bridge” were my parting words to a few of the local listeners I’d sat with, and vaguely heading north out of the park, I eventually made it to the entrance of Golden Gate National Park (San Francisco is just full of them). With rolling hills, countless trees, and many strategic lookout points (one of which gave a view of what I suddenly realised was Alcatraz Island, site of the former maximum security prison), it was a nature-lover’s paradise. Weirdly enough, the park is also part of the Presidio, a former military base. I was still not entirely sure in which direction to go, but thankfully a local hiker pointed me towards nearby Baker Beach (on the western, Pacific Ocean side of the park), and instructed me to follow the coastal trail till I found that big red bridge. Passing through old concrete beachfront batteries, feeling sand itching in my socks, watching the sun drop into the Pacific Ocean; this was not how I had envisioned my afternoon to be, and I loved every serendipitious twist of it.

 

 

The Coachella road-trip began on Thursday afternoon and our crew returned late on Monday afternoon, thoroughly exhausted from the long weekend. Proof of this came after Red Hot Chili Peppers closed off the festival on Sunday night, and the hours and hours I spent on my feet in the baking sun finally took its toll on me. I made my way back to our campsite, collapsed inside my tent, and began faintly weeping. The friend that I was sharing the tent with was concerned, and asked me if I was okay. Half-laughing, I requested a double-foot amputation, as it seemed to be the only solution in my sunstroked mind!  The trip was 15 hours there and back, and the return leg was mostly during the day, allowing me to appreciate the transition from the hazy desert views of Palm Springs and its otherworldly collection of wind turbines, to the leafy suburbs of Palo Alto and Mountain View along the way. Our crew was really international: two South Africans, one Australian, one German, and a lone American!

The Bay Area in Northern California is home to a sizeable eagle population, and when planning my trip, I knew that I had to take the opportunity to see a Golden Eagle up close, as they are not found in the Southern Hemisphere. A few phone calls and emails led me to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, across the bay from San Francisco (one of the oldest wildlife rehab centers in the USA). The volunteers there reassured me that I’d be able to see a bird in rehabilitation at one of their twice-weekly shows. Fortunately, I had some time after the festival to pay a visit to the centre, and tied it up with a lunch meeting with the US Branch chairman of my high school’s alumni society, who conveniently lives in Walnut Creek.

In its own way, getting to see Topaz (a 19-year-old female Golden Eagle) was a rather emotional experience, and one that fulfilled a burning desire of mine to witness the majesty of these birds first-hand. Although it wasn’t a full-on meltdown (a la Kristen Bell and a sloth), I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a tear or two in my eye when the presentation began, and Topaz rested on her trainer’s arm about five to six metres away from me. It was surreal to watch her movements and interactions with him right up close, and I was desperate to at least be able to pet her, but unfortunately she was very skittish and nervous that day, and it would’ve been unsafe for strangers to get any closer than we did. A compromise was made for a photo opportunity though: she was to be fed and bathed in a see-through enclosure in the middle of the museum hall, and her trainer would be able to bring her right up to the glass. I gladly accepted, and The Eagle finally got to meet an actual Golden Eagle

 

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