I took these photos with a Kodak featuring my friend in the Mission District, then I found this old journal entry dated five years ago from when I was traveling in the Middle East.
January 1, 2009:
“Bombs were being dropped maybe 25 miles away in the Gaza Strip. I really don’t know. But over the heavy desert storm, I couldn’t tell the difference from thunder. When I awoke to the new year the storm had calmed, then I heard the detonations – a loud boom a minute or two after the F16s swept by us overhead. It was a strangely timeless experience; I don’t think she or I will ever remember properly. None of us will. Now though, palm trees are swaying with the tide, and the setting sun looks like a blanket over the red sea. I think I want to eat banana pancakes tomorrow. I wonder what I will be doing in five years?”
Then there was this one, dated October 25, 2010:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration; I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
If your life were a museum, what would it look like?
In one room, half-filled journals intermix with photos of close friends, and other photos would feature multifarious snaps from a dozen countries. The journals would be filled with lustful pursuits, intangible desires, endless quandaries and constant realizations. In another, vibrant bicycle frames of every hue would dangle from hangers with eclectic handlebars and missing back wheels. In the third, an old movie reel would play on repeat, showing all the would-be home-runs from my childhood that I couldn’t quite land, intermixed with shorts from hundreds of bike rides. There would be drawings everywhere, colorful markings bursting off of the page like shrapnel from a grenade – but none of them would be dated after 2004. Somewhere though, in that third room, there would be two finished pieces: the off-kilter, forest-green vase I made when I was 13. It’s the one with the painted bamboo on the sides. The other piece, an empty journal – the one I bound with dental floss and gave away.
Four miles in and my calves burn like salt in an open wound. The helmet strap chafes my left cheek, while around me others let out agitated grunts and moans. From memory, I know the peak is near – but people are staggering, falling behind, as the San Francisco hills stack like dominoes. A metallic clank slips my bike into its lowest gear, and I keep pedaling. By the hundreds we funnel into a narrow, unpaved path, toward Sutro Heights Park. With Richmond District behind us, our energy is buoyed by the cacophony of mobile stereos and the flashing lights coloring the trees enclosing everyone. Suddenly the branches flush back like the opening of a curtain, and the city lays lit like a torch below us. I lock my bike to a tree, crack open a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and head for the dancing crowd amassing around the stereos before me.
Bike Party is everything your Friday night needs. Its purpose, according to its website, is to “Build community through bicycling.” Dance and drink, embrace the enduring ride and introduce yourself to every single person that strikes you as either attractive or interesting. San Francisco celebrates the first Friday of every month, East Bay the second, and San Jose the third. For me, this means I already have my Friday night plans covered two weeks out of every month; I’m a San Francisco inhabitant and frequent visitor to the Easy Bay. My first Bike Party was back in February in San Francisco, and it was also my first date with Spree.
Before it all began, I was skittish. Not just because of the date, but because I expected the usual rag-tag of stop-sign-skipping, grungy, hardcore bike enthusiasts that have come to embody much of the ever-controversial Critical Mass, and the reason I stopped going. But I wanted to do something memorable – I wanted Spree to remember it, remember me. People told me Bike party was different. They used words like “civilized”, “cooperative”, and “dance”. And anyway, Spree said she had been before, so I figured she knew what I was getting us into. After a quick slice of pizza at Blondie’s over a pint in North Beach, we picked up a flask of Jack Daniels and ran into three of my friends in the liquor aisle of Safeway. Five of us now, we thought it best to divide a 12-pack of Tecate among our bags and make way toward Fort Mason’s Great Meadow for the 7:30 p.m. rendezvous time.
Bike Part is a co-op run by different volunteers in each city. The formula is simple: all parties meet at 7:30, ride out at 8(ish), and celebrate at each of three pre-determined party stops spread out over the evening, or until you are one of too tired or inebriated to carry on any longer (making sure to bus your bike home if you are above the 0.08% ABV limit, of course, as organizers will be keen to remind you). The routes, printed on half-sheets of paper and handed out minutes before rides, change each month, averaging about 13 miles during 4 hours. Designated volunteers direct the mass through intersections throughout the night, making way for passing traffic and keeping cyclists in the correct lanes per the civilized rules of the celebration. Bike Party even features a different theme each month: last month was Robot Revolution, while the February ride featured all things red in honor of National Wear Red Day.
Celebrate Charismatically (and Responsibly)
You’re close to the initial meet-up point when you hear music spilling out into the air. As we rode in, Tecates clanking, flashing neon lights illuminated cyclists converging on the meadow from every direction around us. Flushed with endorphins, people are already dancing to the pumping sound system that switches from Beastie Boys to bass-heavy electronica. Other riders mingle over the eclectic array of speakers, decorations and alterations that characterize the bikes scattered around us. One participant asks me how I heard about Bike Party (friends), while the rest gawk at the BMXer doing a wheelie – his spokes are lit on fire.
At 8 p.m., an organizer brings the crowd together over a megaphone and the music is silenced. “What do we do at red lights?” he yells. “Stop!” the crowd cries back. “How many lanes do we use!?” “One!” Minutes later, we hear “Bike Party, Move Out!” The mob cheers and we’re off to destination #1: The Embarcadero Pier.
I am elated, and a little drunk. Riding down Battery Street toward The Embarcadero, Spree is telling me about her Halloween-zombie-midnight ride with Bike Party last October, and then we’re bonding over our tendencies toward whiskey and a strong IPA when seeking inebriation. By my account, the night is passing splendidly, and I’m hardly cognizant of the hundreds of other riders around me as we reach our first stop. Bikes are haphazardly strewn next to every inch of available railing on Pier 14 – Spree locks her bike to mine, and we each take a swig of whiskey. Mobile stereos are amassing at the end of the peer facing the Bay Bridge, radiating with neon glare, and the dance party is underway. Around us, flasks are passed among new and old friends alike. Stories are told, and wide-eyed Instagrammers snap every photo worth taking. All around us, people are smiling.
A New Take
By utilizing the urban landscape of San Francisco against the grain of day-to-day practice, together we own it. I am suddenly exposed to chance experiences and relationships in places where tourists snap photos of motionless boats and salary workers eat their lunches by midday’s sun. In West Oakland, dilapidated parks are transformed into brimming festivals of celebration and light; Lake Merrit becomes one of the most happening spots in all of Oakland at 1 a.m. Reclaiming the streets through civic participation does more than engage the community – it creates involved citizens.
After Pier 14, we doubled back North to Portsmouth Square in Chinatown. Then we followed the coast along the Marina, past Crissy field and into the Presidio to end at Fort Point, just below Golden Gate. By then it’s 1 a.m., and our empty stomachs spelled the end of the night for Spree and me. We’d cycled approximately 15 miles, emptied our backpacks of whiskey and Tecates, and befriended a small living room worth of people. The night celebrated essential values: cooperation, a little manual labor, and socializing, all performed with a smile and killer views of the city. Bike Party is an unforgettable experience – despite the booze, my memories of Bike Party remain strong, if not exact.
Do it Yourself
Bike Party is a powerful reminder of what is lost in everyday use of a city: an honest sense of wonder and a true openness to impulse. Nobody checks their phones every seven minutes, or asks about plans for the night. Participants are busy riding, smiling, and engaging one another. So grab your bike and head out to your local Bike Party next Friday. If you don’t have a bike, find one on Craigslist, or borrow your friend’s (bring your friend’s lock, too). Visit a Bike Party website, like http://www.sfbikeparty.wordpress.com. Familiarize yourself with the rules, bring some warm clothes and a libation or three, and there’s a good chance I will see you there.
So, I have a delightful Swiss couchsurfer staying with me right now. “I love how friendly North Americans are”, she told me earlier. ” No one approaches you in Europe. They just think you want something!” And to be fair, I didn’t think twice today when that middle-aged man chimed in to our conversation, offering his opinion on local bars in North Beach, or when the park service employee asked how we are with no particular reason behind it. We just do that, us North Americans.
So backtrack to Sunday, Bay to Breakers.
While the familiar drone of the race carried on around me (that is to say, the stationary drink-fest among costumed celebrators in the panhandle), I took a much-needed breather from the imbibing, high-fiving and gallivanting, taking a moment to lay down solitary in the grass. The erratic San Francisco sun felt good on my skin, I thought. I did not expect to draw such an eclectic group of attention during my brief repose, however.
Quick background: I was clad in not-entirely-unusual (given the occasion) sports-esque clothes of a rather vibrant nature. Nothing too unusual.
Anyway, my passerby’s, in sequential order:
- Four young women clad in pink tutus and matching bras, posing around me as I feigned unconsciousness. They traded photo-taking with each of their respective Iphones.
- One half-naked man wearing only jean-shorts and suspenders who lay next to me, warning me about furries.
- Three 20’s-style prohibitionists that implored me to wear more sunscreen (I let them know I bore plenty, though).
- Two middle-aged passerby’s, commenting on my colorful demeanor, clearly not from San Francisco.
- One teddy bear, who posed for a photo with two thumbs up. I’m not sure who took the photo.
- One panty-clad twenty-something in a 49ers jersey, commenting only, “his legs are so contrasting!” To be fair, they don’t see much sun.
North America: we’re friendly!
I wrote this one for a student exchange nonprofit. Basically, if you’re still in college, do yourself the favor and study abroad.
“The best part about air planes”, my friend began, “is the take off. How will you know? It’s a sudden release – just, boom. The engines roar like an avalanche, and within seconds you’re suddenly being propelled at several hundred miles an hour. And just as suddenly, you’re in the sky. You will know.”
I was 18. I had never boarded a plane. I had never left the country, and I had only visited one state outside of my native California – about 8 miles in to adjacent Nevada. So when I stepped on board the Italy-bound Lufthansa 737 airliner, I was eager, overwhelmed. I sent out a final text message to my closest of friends, something to the effect of “See you all next year…Italy here I come!” It was late August, and I would soon be peering down at distant landscapes and the Atlantic Ocean from 36,000 feet for the ensuing 14 hours of my life, finally to pop up on the other side of the world.
In 2007, I left for Italy as a Business Administration major concerned with some day living in an affluent neighborhood with an expensive car. If I met an embodiment of that person now, I do not think I would recognize him. Before leaving, I had no expectations of instilling within myself a more informed understanding of global issues, nor developing a more universal perspective needed to balance challenges both local and international in scale. Really, I just wanted to expose myself to something new. I was not sure if this opportunity would ever again present itself – I was young, and the time seemed ripe. And so it was, that I decided to study abroad in Italy for the 2007 fall semester.
I returned from my Italian experience 5 years, 4 months weeks and 17 days ago. I have a degree each in International Relations and French. I have cycled through the alps of Switzerland, cooked breakfast with the mountain-dwelling Bedouins of Jordan, learned about sustainable agricultural practices while volunteering on French farms, attended free sailing lessons in Croatia, and spent a year of my life attending university in Paris. But none of this came without tremendous effort.
Studying abroad, visiting another culture is not easy. In fact, it is downright challenging. It requires a incredible amount of maturity, openness and self-discipline. But with all of this comes unparalleled growth and reward. Sometimes, I remind myself of what Clifton Fradiman, a 1900s author and intellectual said. “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
The significance of study abroad in shaping a generation of global diplomats, promoting cross-cultural tolerance and international relations was highlighted by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a message aired during the 2012 Open Doors briefing on international education exchange in Washington D.C recently. “The ties of friendship and understanding you’re building are the most effective forms of diplomacy,” Clinton said. “They truly will help shape our common future.”
Opportunities are abound and unprecedented for American and international students alike. Youth already make up for 20% of all international travellers, with expectations for the international education industry to double by 2020, says CEO Samuel Vetrak of StudentMarketing. U.S. Senator David L. Boren reiterates, “Never in our history has it been more important for America’s future leaders to have a deep understanding of the rest of the world. As we seek to lead through partnerships, respect for and understanding of other cultures and languages is absolutely essential.”
Forget your prejudices, and accept newness. Ask questions, collaborate, and get involved. Embrace your life, embrace diversity, take initiative and expand the world. Study abroad. Challenge yourself. It’s worth it.