Back on the Road after 12weeks in the Bay Area
The 6:00 am flight lifted off the hazy San Bruno runway at SFO, up into the thick moisture of the fog that seems to permanently coat the northern end of the San Francisco Peninsula. I gazed out of the plane window over the tilted wing and into the deep gray as I began my journey back to South America. I reflected on the past three months and wondered where my next adventure would take me.
I continued to stare long after the vessel penetrated the layer of clouds and opened up to a breathtaking sunrise. I couldn’t help but think of it as a metaphor, knowing the spectacle was invisible to the mass of people in the Highway 101 stop-and-go traffic on their ways to work in the cold morning dew.
I initially wrote my first piece, “On the Way Back,” with the intention of making it the first in a trilogy of articles. The first about the anticipation of returning home after a long journey, next about what it was like to be back home, and finally about my thoughts and feelings while getting ready to leave again. But I’m writing this now in a hostel common room in Peru, scratching my head and wondering where the past 12 weeks went.
For me, being back home can be summed up in one word: BUSY! Before this return, I spent two years backpacking and hitchhiking through Europe, the Middle East, Canada, and South America. Rarely did I have a schedule or a hard date of where I wanted or needed to be. I spent most days sleeping in in a hammock, and most nights up late partying, playing music, and drinking exotic cocktails and cheap beer with strangers. So when I arrived back in my hometown to take a night shift working 12 hours per day, 7 days per week, I didn’t just hit the ground running, I slammed to the earth at the full clip of a clidesdale.
There were pros and cons to starting work so soon after my return, as one might imagine. The money from that initial pay check quickly served to re-inflate the severe depletion in my bank account due to years of traveling. And, my being at work so much helped me to continue to save money rather than to spend it in the overwhelmingly expensive economy that exists in Silicon Valley (more on that shortly). It also insulated me from the other rather jarring changes that I would later discover had taken place in the area in my absence.
On the other side of things, I was immediately bum-rushed with the fast paced intensity of the daily life in San Francisco. I quickly felt the anxiety and pressure to plan catch-up dinners and drink grabs around my already busy work schedule and my friends’ and family’s daily routines. The squeeze I felt for time was tremendous and in stark contrast to the freedom I had enjoyed for so long abroad. The traffic, the construction, all of the faces constantly lit up by the glow of their devices’ screens; I found it all to be quite overwhelming.
The six weeks I spent at work flew by like a rocket. Working the nights caused the days to blend and left me feeling like a ghost in a fog. Me being on the opposite cycle from the rest of the world made it seem like I was living in a dream land with no traffic to battle on the way to work and no lines to wait in when running errands during my off time in the middle of the day. I was also fortunate enough to work side by side with one of my best friends and travel partners, which kept work fun and light. It hardly felt like work at all.
After earning enough money to get back on the road for a while, and making sure I put enough aside to give Uncle Sam his cut, I promptly quit and switched my focus to spending as much time as I could with the friends and family I miss so much when I’m away.
I visited my sister at her new place in Oakland and met her new partner during a night out on the town. I couch surfed at my friend’s spot in San Carlos and learned over coffee about his new hobbies and endeavors. I hung out with my parents at their new house in a retirement community in San Jose and went with them on outings to rediscover the coast and explore the area around their new home in the South Bay. Of course, I wished I had more time, as there are so many more people that I never got around to seeing, but, for what it was, it was truly delightful to spend the time I did with the people I did.
My being back wasn’t without its shocks and disappointments. For one thing, the Bay Area is FUCKING EXPENSIVE!!! Like really expensive… Like stupid expensive… Like a basic one- bedroom condo going for $1 million U.S. expensive. And everyone there keeps going on with his or her day as if it’s normal?!
Inflation is a concept that can be elusive to grasp until you live long enough to actually experience it. We all remember the stories our grandparents used to tell us about how when they were young they could leave the house for a date with nothing but a dollar bill in their pockets; enough to go out to dinner, see a movie, and still have change after taking a cab back home. We would chalk their tales up to senility and exaggeration, finishing the story for them with declaring, “and you had to walk up hill in the snow both ways,” as we rolled our eyes to display our disbelief.
But after spending some time away I now see that my elders memories may not have been so hazy after all. I noticed a significant price increase on all sorts of things since I’d been away. Most of the noticeable price hikes were on food and drinks, but I also found out what rent was costing my peers and wondered how anyone could survive in such an economic climate. Then after a few conversations and observations I slowly came to realize that they can’t.
When I started to hang out with my friends and catch up the topic would inevitably turn to the cost of living in the bay area. There seems now to be only a few options for survival for the 20 and 30 somethings that are still renters in Silicon Valley. They can either work ridiculous hours (50-60 hours per week minimum) at a decent paying job and maybe afford a small place with a room mate or four. The second option is moving outside of the area where housing is cheaper, but then they’re looking at a commute that basically makes sitting in traffic a part time job. The only other option outside of moving back home with their parents is packing up and moving away to another state entirely.
The sudden surge of money and commerce the dot-com industry has brought to the region is great if you’re in the tech bubble, but the side effect is the complete gentrification of the area, forcing all the people that were there before out. The few people that are hanging on are struggling just to keep up, and they are doing so at the expense of their quality of life.
Perhaps the average American reading this may shrug their shoulders and say “Ya. Of course. That’s how you live, in debt and overworked, suck it up.” But in my experiences outside the country I’ve learned that that’s no way to live. I’ve met Germans that go to four years of college and come out completely debt free. I have a friend in Cyprus that lives off the grid on a farm he built on land that’s been in his family for generations. I even had kids at an orphanage in India ask me about old folks homes and not understand the concept… Orphans! And Canada’s free health care is no secret.
The different ways I’ve witnessed others’ lives and learned how to live my life in other countries, as well as my experiences of different cultural norms I’ve encountered, has really changed my views on how it’s done in the US. After each new place I visit, I realize more and more life in the US is not for me.
I saw poverty on my travels to India, when I was stepping over emaciated beggars of the untouchable class with their bony hands outstretched to tug at my shirt or on the streets of Cambodia where child prostitution is a family’s only means of survival. But there’s a different type of poverty happening in the States that’s just as real and just as heartbreaking. A poverty more insidious and pernicious, precisely because it’s so subtle.
There are poor people all over the world, I know, I’ve met them, and at times I am one of them. But most poor people I know have a remarkable baseline of happiness. Meanwhile, in my time back in one of the most prosperous societies in the world, I found depression and anxiety to be the common moods of my countrymen.
Everyone knows phrases such as, “money can’t buy you happiness” and “money is the root of all evil,” and I think most people know and genuinely believe this to be true. But the vast majority of the population still seems to be chasing money and idolizing the people who have it, as if it were the meal to stop hunger forever.
The truth is there are a myriad of other things that make one truly wealthy, such as community, family, and health. As Americans, our culture encourages us to throw all that away in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Success is actually hinged on it more than any other trait.
People are working to pay for the nanny and schooling of their kids; kids they never see because they’re working overtime. They’re busting their asses to put a roof over the head of a spouse with whom they rarely talk because they’re both busy working late. They’re withering away as they try to stay on top of their car note and cell phone bill, and still be able to buy healthy groceries… And don’t forget the college debt that they’re still paying off… and the outstanding medical bill that won’t go away… and that parking ticket they got over the weekend… and the list of the average person’s expenses goes on and on.
The bottom line is it’s impossible to live in most of California without debt . And that might seem normal, but if you look at the way the long game is played, it’s impossible to ever get out of that debt in a lifetime.
To turn this back to traveling and what it’s done for me, I now have a different relationship with money. First off, living out of a backpack has provided me a comfort and security that most homeowners don’t have. By having few possessions, not only do I not have debt, but I also don’t have to pay for much by the way of maintenance.
My dealing frequently with different currencies has given me a different perspective on money in general. Money seems so fake and illusory, but it gets really silly when $1 equals 10,000 Indonesian Rupiah, and both are enough to buy a can of coke.
I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that I can return to where I’m from and go to work and make the money I do, but I’m also amazingly blessed that I can take my earnings and go other places with it.
Overall being back was a positive experience. I realized a lot more than I anticipated about my self, my culture and the world. I ended my last essay with this quote by Marcel Proust and I think it’s apt to be repeated here: “We travel, not to see new places, but to bring new eyes to the places we’ve been.” My eyes have been refreshed, along with the view of my old home and my new self. And now, as I venture back out into the parts of the globe that are yet unknown to me, I’m forever indebted to that place that started me on the path of becoming who I am. The piece of my heart that always resides in the San Francisco Bay Area will continue to beat the encouragement to check back in, and move me to never be a stranger. Till next time…