Friday, July 22, 2005

following your soul from byron bay to san francisco

After 90 minutes of getting pommelled by the waves, I finally understood they weren't kidding: surfing is hard. This is especially true when you grow up in a city that's 1000 miles from the sea. But I kept trying ... and then it finally happened. For the first time after popping up to my feet, I didn't immediately crash back into the water. I was actually catching a wave! Hang ten, baby ... I still remember like it was yesterday ... the soft roar of the ocean ... the bright afternoon sun ... the warming breeze on my face. For a suspended moment in time, I walking on water and my strange world was in perfect balance. This was going to be another good day, like all of the others I had spent in Byron Bay.

Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia. (2000). That's me, on a longboard, just seconds before wiping out and doing a faceplant into the Pacific. Photo taken with a first generation digital camera by my surf instructor (I think his name was Duane?), who was surprised as anyone I managed to stand up on my board by the end of the afternoon considering how badly I was flailing around in the water earlier in the day.

Byron Bay is the beach town of my dreams. I don't say this because it's especially tropical or secluded or lined with palm trees, but only because it's the kind of seashore community I always envisioned myself living in one day. It's the type of place that's big enough to have all of the amenities you ought to ever need ... but small enough such that you're never too far away to hear the sound of the Pacific, find your own personal stretch of white sandy beach, or escape to the lush greenery of the Aussie hinterland.

This was more or less what I was thinking to myself when I made my way back to the hostel after my day in the surf. By the time I had finished showering off the sea salt from my skin, it was already suppertime. Supper that evening, if I recall correctly, consisted of a quarter loaf of raisin bread, some bulk almonds, and a Granny Smith apple. (When you're a budget-restricted backpacker, you cut costs where you can). For a fair-sized hostel, the Cape Byron YHA had a comically small dining room, but the upshot of this was plenty of opportunities to meet new people over your meals.

It was late into the night when an Irish girl with the deliciously-Gaelic name of Oeifa (that's "EE' fuh", pronounced phonetically) sat down next to me. Oeifa stood out for two reasons:
  1. She would be the prettiest girl I'd meet in Australia. Petite, brunette, and with the clearest, deepest blue eyes you could ever imagine, Oeifa was probably the object of an Irish folk song in a past life. She had a cute half-smile and slightly artsy look to her that made her the type of girl you wish you could grow old with in a place like Byron Bay.
  2. She was cerebral. Obviously well-read and well-travelled, she had me spellbound when she spoke.
The conversation was brisk and the laughter genuine. We talked about alot of the things independent travellers talk about when they first meet ... where we were from ... funny moments ... some of our favourite places. Oeifa's favourite place was San Francisco. She told me how she loved the romantic rolling fog, the ridiculously sloped streets, the diverse people, the beautiful Bay. Up until that moment, it had never before crossed my mind to visit San Francisco but now I was left intrigued and wondering. I must have looked like I was intrigued and wondering because Oeifa looked at me with a kind of puzzlement and then, out of nowhere, imparted on me this gem of a line:

"You've got to follow your soul."

It was like she read my mind - I was speechless. Maybe it was her Dublin accent which, by default, made her words sound all the more profound, I don't know. But those were six of the most insightful words I'd ever heard in my life. And the way she said it ... not with any kind of smug self-assurance or preachiness, but rather with a tinge of sadness or maybe even regret, that could have only come out of the persuasion of self-experience ...

Call me crazy, but in that brief instance, I was in love with a stranger I'd only just met.

However, when I woke up early the next morning, Oeifa was gone. Just like that. Our paths have never crossed since.

I had been in San Francisco for four days; today would be my fifth. Akiyo left the hotel room early in the morning to catch her flight back to Osaka and, to be truthful, I was probably still half-asleep when I said my goodbyes. I hope she understood that I was going to miss her.

It was really great to have had the opportunity to ring in New Year's 2005 with Akiyo, a good friend I had first met when I was travelling up the east coast of Australia five years ago. But now that she was gone, I was alone with my thoughts and free to explore the Bay Area on my own terms.

Looking southwest on Market Street, San Francisco, California. (2005). I took this photo with an Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 camera and my back to The Embarcadero. Dare I say, without having visited 99% of the world's cities, that San Francisco is the finest urban environment anywhere on our green planet.

Instinctively, I boarded a #5 bus on Market Street. The westbound #5 provides an interesting microcosm of San Francisco as it winds its way to the Pacific. When you start off on Market Street, the commerce and wealth built from important industries past and present (e.g., gold, banking, real estate, technology) are evident when you look up at the skyscrapers and around the bustling downtown ... further on, the prosperity morphs into despair as you pass through the gritty neighborhoods of The Tenderloin and the Civic Center ... in a blink of an eye, hope recovers around the tree-lined streets near the University of San Francisco ... which is followed by a seemingly endless wave of residential as the bus skirts along the northside of expansive Golden Gate Park ... after which, in the distance, you can finally see the ocean.

I got off at my stop on La Playa Avenue, one block from the Pacific - immediately, I could smell the saltiness in the air. As I made my way down the steps onto Ocean Beach and noticed the number of surfers, I weighed the idea of renting some gear from the surf shop just across the street. But only for a second. Common sense got the better of me when I considered the cold temperature of the water, the size of the waves, and the fact that I could probably no longer stand on a surfboard to save my life. So today, I was just going to be a spectator.

The view south along Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California. (2005). If I had a dog, I would probably love taking him for a walk on Ocean Beach. He would probably love it, too. "Woof, woof," he would say.

There must have been a storm far offshore ... there was a decent amount of swell. All the better, however, for the line of California surfers to show off their awesome skill ... and they didn't disappoint. Overhead, a beautiful sunset was starting to take shape.

The waves spilled over my feet as the tide slowly came in. The water was freezing but I didn't care. There's something inherently lucid and soothing about the consistent roaring of the sea, and there's maybe no better place to gather your thoughts. So thinking was what I did.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California. (2005). A real surfer (unlike me) heads out into waves off Ocean Beach.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California. (2005). The beautiful, sweeping Pacific.

It's been almost five years since I've left the comfort of school to make it happen in the real world. Thus far, the results have been mixed. Although there have been many happy times, sometimes I get frustrated when I think of all of the mistakes and stupid things I've done with regard to my family, friends, relationships, and career. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever figure it out before it's too late.

As the sky turned to vibrant colours of red, orange and gold, I thought of what Oeifa had told me. I wondered where she was now. In essence, I had followed my soul to San Francisco, searching for that something I haven't been able to find. To be honest, I don't even know exactly what that something is, but I've been searching for it for a very long time ... and I think I'm still looking. Maybe it's a fool's game, maybe it only exists in dreams. But for now at least, I choose to believe otherwise ... if for no other reason other than because my soul wouldn't have it any other way.

I took one last look at the Pacific as the sun disappeared over the edge of the horizon and turned around to catch a bus back toward the bright lights of the city. The Northern California air was getting cold and the sky was already dark. But at least the night was still young. And tomorrow would be a another day.

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