Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 3, 2006. California, at last!



I got to California almost two weeks ago, but I didnít see the Pacific Ocean till today. At the risk of belaboring the weather theme yet more, I managed to arrive just at the same time as a massive system of storms that left half the state under a state of flood emergency, with hillsides washed away, roads flooded out, and homes filled with water. Not as bad as New Orleans,

but not quite the right time to check out the amazing landscapes and scenic wonders of the state. Unless what I wanted to see was steady gray fog stretching as far as the eye could see Ė which was maybe twenty feet Ė accompanied by a steady downpour.

I did manage to hook up with a few old friends, one who happened to be passing through Berkeley to collect her clothes and move to Singapore, the other living in Palo Alto with her partner and their two young sons. That was really nice, though both were in the middle of stressful times, and the best I could do was help Julia pack and watch Renata and Annieís kids from time to time. So

instead of seeing the wonders of northern California, I worked. For a week I camped Ė stealthily Ė in a state park in Marin County. Every day Iíd head into ďdowntownĒ San Rafael, and settle in at a nice coffeehouse, or the library, or the tables of Whole Foods, computer at hand, and fill in three months work of gaps in this website. (You have the rain to thank for the fact that Iím finally getting up to date!). When I got tired of that, Iíd head to the YMCA and work out. Then continue working, even go to the movies a couple of times. San Rafael was a comfortable place to be. It reminded me, actually, of Metuchen, New Jersey Ė an old, well-to-do suburb that had once been a ďrealĒ town so it had a main street (Fourth Avenue, in this case) with sidewalks and shops and coffee houses and fairly normal things. The people at the YMCA seemed

like New Yorkers Ė upper middle class New Yorkers, that is Ė white, Jewish, educated. The folks in the coffee house mostly seemed to know each other, and they all knew the owners, a Chinese couple, one of whom had immigrated from Vietnam some twenty five years ago, when Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City.

I went into Berkeley one afternoon to meet up with Julia, the one day that the sun came out that whole week. If San Rafael was Metuchen, Berkeley was more like someplace in New York Ė in Brooklyn, perhaps. Much more urban than San Rafael, more mixed racially, and with a big Indian community, if the presence of half a dozen sari shops is any basis for judging. Grittier than San Rafael,

busier, less pretty scenery and more gray walls and streets. Juliaís parents both live up in the Berkeley hills, her mother in a delightful old apartment, and her father in a charming Italianate house with red tile roofs, built around a terraced garden. After Julia and I took our leave, I had dinner at a proper Jewish deli that was celebrating Chanukah with big dishes of latkes (though I didnít have any). Berkeley felt a bit like being in New York, but with nicer weather and much prettier. I could probably handle it, though itís just as expensive, and therefore just as difficult to imagine, as New York.


Since I returned from Malawi, Iíve been thinking a lot about settling down. Not because I have any grand ideas as to what I want out of life, or where I want to be, really. More because Iím just sick of having to worry where Iíll find my next shower, or where Iíll put myself (and my van) to sleep for the night. It just has gotten to seem like it would be very nice to have a home to go to, and when Iím home I donít have to worry about whether Iím camped legally, or where Iíll be able to wash my laundry or my dishes. I donít think itís by chance that my website fell three months behind, or that my last two entries have been about weather and road conditions. I havenít been talking to strangers lately. I havenít been curious about the places Iíve been. Iíve been quite content to spend my days working and going to the gym, getting into an ordinary routine. And in that routine, itís inconvenient to be living in a van. In fact, it gets to feeling more like being homeless, and less like being on the road.

Not that Iím going to settle down anytime soon. Iím returning to Malawi later this month, for something like two months, so clearly Iím not going to do anything about housing before then. After that Ė well, Iíll see. I still donít quite know where I want to live. Well, thatís not true. I know exactly where I want to live. I just canít afford Manhattan, especially not if I want to continue to own a van, and a kayak, not to mention my car and the other kayak thatís in my basement in Virginia. And especially not if I want to continue freelancing instead of having a ďrealĒ job. Living in Matilda is rather less costly than having housing, as it turns out, even with all the repairs and the skyrocketing price of gas. Iíve done a reasonable amount of consulting in the past two years, but not so much that I could really be unconcerned about employment if I were paying for housing. I definitely donít want to stay in my van simply because itís cheap Ė that really would be turning into a homeless person, and thatís not what Iím after. But it is nice not to be too concerned about how much work I have!


Anyway, from San Rafael I headed down to Palo Alto to see Renata and her family. Iíd expected to stay just two nights, but the weather didnít comply. Every day theyíd warn us that the next day would bring more rain, and Iíd decide not to

bother heading out on the road yet. After all, Renata and Annie were on vacation, the kids were on vacation Ė it was nice to be there. When their holidays ended the weather was supposed to clear up some, but I stayed another night to help out with some child care concerns.

But I did decide to take advantage of the weather to visit some sights instead of working. So today, after Renata and Annie left for work, with the kids in tow to be dropped off at school and daycare, I headed out to the coast. And I finally saw the Pacific, for the first time in two years of traveling! Despite the clouds and fog Ė the weather folks didnít quite have it right Ė the waves were splendid, as was the landscape. More a study in muted grays than a glorious golden view of blue sea and sky, green hillsides, and soaring cliffs,

but still lovely. The wind was howling, huge waves pushed up the beaches and poured back into the sea, white jets of spray were flung into the air as water crashed against the rocks. Flocks of seagulls and pelicans circled above, hovering with their beaks pointed into the wind, riding the air currents. I love pelicans, they seem prehistoric with their huge bills and their angled wings. Iíve never seen enough of them to get used to them, they always startle me cruising over the water.

My destination was AŮo Nuevo Nature Preserve, where one can take a guided walk to see mammoth elephant seals perform bizarre mating rituals on the beach. ďMammothĒ is not just a figure of speech in this case. The males are fifteen feet long, and arrive at the beach weighing between 4000 and 5000 pounds. The pups are born at 80 pounds; after a month of their mothersí rich milk, they are up to 300. The seals

fatten up before coming to the west coast beaches to mate, for during the few months they spend there, they do not eat at all. While there, they must conserve their energy, lest they starve. And with five inches of blubber under their skins to keep them warm in the frigid waters of the Pacific, they risk overheating on land if they exert themselves, even in weather that had all of us shivering. So they spend their days sprawled on the sand immobile. The young males occasionally let out snorting hoots to intimidate each other, and slither over to pick fights, rearing up with their heads in the air and biting at each otherís necks and shoulders. The fights can get

rough; the older males had massive scarring to show for the energy of their youth. But when theyíre not fighting, they all flop on the beach, tossing wet sand on their backs with their flippers to keep themselves cool. They are definitely a weird sight.


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