Wikipedia describes San Francisco as ‘a center of liberal activism in the USA’. Like Kenya’s Parliament road. Sans the liberal bit. You know it’s not liberal because you’ve not seen Binyavanga cross it recently, have you?
I write for Project Survival Media on climate change and issues environment – so I’m an environmental activist of sorts. Ergo, littering irks me. Unchecked siltation in the R. Tana makes my hair follicles erect. Planting trees is my hobby and that is not in any way a sexual innuendo. Imagine the bliss when chance played kind and I got to stay in San Francisco, activism capital, on my maiden trip to the US.
We glided into San F airport from Chicago on a winter evening last December, the air as cold as a wizard’s bottom. My boss Shadia, along with my colleague Ritu from India picked me up from the American Airlines terminal just as I was rummaging for my third pair of socks, bent across my bag in silent prayer for warmth. Off to Berkeley we went, home to University of California (Orphan Black anyone?) and set camp with a family of nature lovers from 350.org to strategize in the next few days for a fundraising in Oakland and a retreat later in Grass valley.
I badly wanted to see one thing, The Golden Gate Bridge. But when you want to see something real bad, you don’t. So in its place for the first five days, I met the grand Bay Bridge and its pompous display of white fluorescent lights, the picturesque Pacific waters kissing the most powerful nation in a hushed illustration of might, the redwoods in Muir Woods and the tarmac on the rolling hills whose architectural design is loaned by God and civil engineers. Then the faux family-friendly homes with lawns that have known gardeners at Presidio. I saw Haight-Ashbury Street and its hippie subculture and the ferry building in Embarcadero (I like this name. Sounds like Emba and Kidero). But I really wanted to stand on the Golden gate. Cliché but let me meld you with my past so you understand. I have watched ‘The book of Eli’. And ‘The Internship’. And ‘X-Men-The Last Stand’. And Star- trek, Pacific Rim, Superman, The Core, Terminator; Salvation, Monsters Vs Aliens, Vertigo, 2012, Basic Instinct. Hollywood clearly cannot eschew this reddish bridge that juts out of the rolling mist in Spielberg-like direction and strides across the Pacific into the San F area. And I was going to try snob it? No way.
We stayed a week in Berkeley and Oakland, then attended the Bababa Party, an environmental groups’ creative cake competition outfit in the city where Odiero folk dance like Ba ba ba black sheep. Thank heavens it wasn’t a dance competition. Then we ate Artichokes. The Sunday after Muir woods and the gigantic redwoods, we cruised past the Golden Bridge as I silently sought out Hollywood monsters inside the water, past Sausalito, Hercules, Stockton, Willow Ave, Cummings Skyway, Napa Valley (Parent trap anyone?), Sacramento and to Grass Valley. We stayed in this posh house in the mountains taking a creative pause from the world to sketch out future plans in our work regions, Canada, USA, India and Kenya. Here’s how my boss began, “close your eyes for 10 minutes and visualize where you’d like to see PSM in the next year.” Now, I’m too ‘Kenyan’ for this. I struggle with things like contemporary dancing. Closing my eyes, I visualized completely different things for the first two minutes.
Usher’s V thing.
Here’s the thing about San F and its inhabitants that you won’t read on Wikipedia or discern from Hollywood productions, it oozes optimism in such copious amounts. It’s a melting pot of ideas, beliefs and hope that blends them into an artistic, laid back setting that allows for things and beings to be and thrive. Like the rest of coastal US, it has been home to a great deal of inventions in the last century. It’s the home of twitter, an exceptionally successful metaphor on just how less is more. It’s a live setting of the mantra, ‘Live and let live’. What with my first ever gay party that Friday, loudly blasting a version of Alicia Keys’, girl on Fire, “The Guy is a Bottom”. Really folks, the bottom is on you tube.
They refuse to be banal. You see it in the Sun’s dogged intent to shine past the harsh winter winds. Their subway – the Bart – goes right under the Bay Bridge, under the mighty Pacific like fish in River Nyando. The play that I watched “Amazing feats of loneliness” which had only four actors and actresses and a stage the size of a small lorry was by far the best play I have ever watched. Again, less is more.
Christmas was spent with the most cordial folks in the West Coast, the Lamb’s family in Berkeley. The night before Christmas, my delightful host Anna picked me up for this amazing Christmas tradition. The whole of Berkeley (we are talking the whole of Langata, starting from Uchumi all the way in to Ngei estate and beyond) meets up, each with volunteer tools of trade including paper, candles, sand, refreshments and music. Mull over that for a minute. Can we, oh cynic Kenyans? They put sand in the bags and put lighted candles inside then line these along hundreds of kilometers along the estate at dusk. We arrived and someone handed me a cup of gluehwein,(hot german wine) and off we went scouting for jingle bells and the wish tree.
Day after Christmas, then I met Alcatraz Island. The grey little island looks across silently beseeching the Golden gate bridge to lend a little of its warmth. It served as a prison until 1963 when it closed down due to high costs of operation. That cold little island that caged the two criminal heavyweights of the early 19th century. Al Capone, responsible for the St Valentine’s day massacre and Victor Lustig who sold the Eiffel tower, twice. Both cons had ties in Austria-hungary (present day Croatia), both lived in New York and both were held in Alcatraz. Alcatraz’ surly burdened look adds a character to San F. It is that bad past that gives something soul. That’s Alcatraz, poetry in standstill.
As I put the kybosh on my trip on the plane from San F to Dallas, I saw Las Vegas down below and blew kisses to Valerie Kimani. She lives there now, right? Then it came to me. Why I had been moronically emotional that morning until my host’s dog, Smudge, licked tears off my face. I thought it was a tie between the Golden gate and incredulity of the kindness accorded to me by previous complete strangers in San F. They really are like family, ridden of all cynicism and with a benevolence that looks beyond religion, background to just the human. But it was none of that. High up above the Silicon Valley in the company of my soul, my memories, a docile appendix and a collection of ovaries, it came to me. I just knew. I had to have a dog.