Much like my university city of Brighton (England), San Francisco has vibrant hippy and gay scenes, as well as being a hotbed of cultural and ethnic diversity. Being on the Pacific Coast, it’s had a lot of immigration especially from Asia. Also like Brighton, the city is cut into steep hills and has excellent public transport (for the US). However, unlike Brighton, San Francisco is a big city with a large tech/law/business side to it these days, which has given it a more serious, professional edge and had two unpleasant consequences.
First, the rent prices are the highest in the US, having now surpassed New York (average rent for an apartment is $3,871 per month as of January 2017).
Second, some say it has diluted the hippie glory of 60s San Francisco. Something is still in the air; there is a sense of freedom and curiosity that you can see from the hub of innovation that is Silicon Valley to the wild S&M hedonism of the Folsom Street Fair. Nevertheless, San Francisco is now the hippie that grew up and got a serious job.
More than in most other cities, my time San Francisco was very much coloured by my Couchsurfing hosts; thanks to them, I saw three distinct sides of the city. So, who were they?
Roger: The hiking
My first host was Roger, an older man who has hosted hundreds of people and now lives in Larkspur (Marin County), which is north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Roger was kind enough to pick me up from the airport, and what ensued for the next three days was largely sightseeing. As soon as we met, we bounced off each other, and though I hadn’t slept all night on my way over from Las Vegas, we made a day of it. We started with the Golden Gate Park and the view from the De Young Museum. Then we moved on to Sausalito, a legendary community of weird and wonderful houseboats where the great Alan Watts spent a lot of his later years. I understand why – it’s a beautiful place to stroll and reflect.
One of the most striking things about Roger is his curiosity. He displays it by being truly interested in you, but also by stopping pretty much anyone on the street and asking questions. He really personifies that curious side of being what the wonderful Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön calls a ‘child of illusion’: wide eyes, no prejudices, and no excuses for not speaking to random people. I really admire that.
Roger is a hiking man and some wonderful conditions came together for hiking plenty: great weather and Rogers’ passes/connections that made all the park entries and parking free. Mount Tamalpais (Mt Tam) was the star of our hiking show…it has some great trails to offer, as well as this kind of view of the bay.
My time with Roger felt thoughtful. Our visit to the enormous Buddhist centre Spirit Rock that Monday night for the weekly open talk, was a perfect symbol of our time together – amongst nature, talking and contemplating.
Saturn: The nudism
A beautiful morning ferry ride took me from Larkspur to Embarcadero, a central point in San Francisco. From there I went to Saturn’s house, where I already knew the drill that he specified on his Couchsurfing profile and that we had spoken about: his house is a nudist zone.
Some of you may be coughing into your drinks right now, but it really is alright. Not only is nakedness really rather natural and not a big deal, but if a host writes these things clearly on their profile and they have plenty of good references (which Saturn did), I’m happy to go for it. Also, my whole idea of travelling is meeting all sorts of people and stepping out of comfort zones – this is it.
As soon as I stepped into his house, I got undressed and…everything was normal. Surprise – it’s normal to be naked! Then again, it’s hard to feel uncomfortable when a man sends you a hilarious message with previous guests’ nudism FAQs before you stay with him. For example:
Question #1 (from Men): “What if I get an erection?” Answer: Congratulations!! Show off that humdinger! Wave it around! Let’s throw it a parade!
He turned out to be every bit as fun and genuine as that excerpt suggests. He’s also a fabulous artist. We spent the days working from his house and the evenings going out. Needless to say, there are few pictures of my largely “indoor and naked” or “out drinking” experiences with Saturn, so here’s a picture of the famous cable car, which I rode while I was staying with Saturn:
Jason: The Jacuzzi
Meeting my final host, Jason, and spending time with him was absolutely the best part of being hosted by him. He is such an all-round great guy with an open, giving mentality, and we’re still in touch. Still, there is no denying that his place is a sweet feature too.
Imagine this: You’re travelling around on Couchsurfing, happy for anywhere to sleep. Sofa, part of a bed, floor, whatever.
Then you’re led through apartment complex with a gym, pool and Jacuzzi, and into a stylish apartment with a baby grand piano where you have your own room with a king-size bed and an en-suite bathroom.
Then your host tells you over dinner that you can stay there while he’s away – in fact, you can have his keys and use his place for the next five days. It’s a stereotype to think of people with money as unwilling to share it with others, but as Jason puts it, “What are you going to do – steal my piano?”. He recognises that although his place is great and expensive, it’s just four walls, and the worst thing you could rob him of is his faith in Couchsurfing and in humanity as a whole. I fulfilled his wishes by enjoying it immensely.
When he came back , we had a great day together, starting with a gym/hot tub session, moving on to an underwhelming St Patrick’s Day parade, then to a relaxed afternoon at my favourite hangout spot in San Francisco, Dolores Park. And our talks about life, our love for Latin America, the big romances in our life….they cemented a friendship in very little time. I still find his approach to material things refreshing, and his openness touched me.
Thank you to all of you who made my time in San Francisco so great and varied. It’s really one of the better cities in the US. As long as you can afford it!
A big shout out, too, to the San Francisco Diamond Way Buddhist group, who were the first Diamond Way group I visited after the centre in Mallorca and really made me feel welcome. Note: Diamond Way is a lineage in the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, with around 700 centres around the world, especially Europe and the Americas, and I thoroughly recommend checking it out if you’re interested in meditation.
SAN FRANCISCO TIPS
- Dolores Park is one of the best spots in San Francisco. It’s set in the gorgeous Mission district, which has a very Hispanic and increasingly young/hipster vibe, and the view you’ll get here of downtown San Francisco can’t be beaten. Go on a sunny Saturday to see the park absolutely buzzing. Keep an eye out for the vendors selling everything from rum and coconut to weed truffles. If you get hungry, the Mission has the best taquerías in town.
- For some of the best sightseeing, go to Sausalito for a community of weird and wonderful houseboats, go up to Twin Peaks to get a view of the city.
- Walking through Tenderloin is something you won’t get to experience often – the place got its name for the extra reward given to police officers assigned to this particularly rough area, and you will see one of the most poverty-stricken, drug-addled areas you’re likely to see in the Western world. I am not suggesting this as a tourist attraction – I’m mentioning it because I find it gives you perspective.
- The Castro is, of course, a great place to see and is a very important part of San Francisco history and culture. They have the biggest rainbow flag I have ever seen, and it is truly fabulous.
- Bother less with Chinatown (bunch of shops) and Fisherman’s Wharf (tourist trap). However, it’s interesting to know that many cases, several generations of Chinese people have been living in Chinatown without speaking English, which is an impressive achievement of sorts.
- FOOD: Asian food, everywhere – watch out for lunch menus.
- GOING OUT: San Francisco isn’t the best place in the world to go out, but I found Novela to be one of my favourite bars, full of young professionals drinking cocktails but mostly lacking pretension. Polk St can be good, especially toward the north side. Don’t expect much of a party anywhere if it’s not the weekend, and remember that California law bans the selling of alcohol after 2am. If you want to party until late, Endup is one of your only options for a $20 entry fee…you will see some interesting characters, though.
- Watch out for the fog! It strikes at random and makes entire areas of its choice pretty much undriveable at night for as long as it cares to.