I arrived in San Francisco on April 16th with a suitcase full of clothes and a plan to stay there for three months working in a hostel only a five minute walk away from Union Square. I had just about $1000 to my name and as my work covered my room, I figured that this would leave me about $90 a week to spend on food, public transport and to enjoy – what some would call a tight budget in an expensive city but for me it was definitely more than enough to survive very comfortably off.
I stayed in USA Hostels and if I’m honest, it was the probably best I’d seen so far. It had a huge kitchen, a theater, pool table, yoga room and free wine on Mondays as well as free cocktails every Saturday, i.e. a lot more than the bunk bed and dodgy wifi I’d experienced a lot in hostels around Europe. For all this I worked four hours a day seven days week and on top of all the free activities I got free breakfast and first dibs on any beer or food guests left behind. To conclude, it was a very reasonable work exchange.
San Francisco SF)itself was very impressive. To begin with I was overwhelmed by the size of the buildings and shops and even more shocked to see how many homeless people there were beneath them. A beggar at the doors of Macys seemed an appropriate way to sum up the gap between the rich and the poor in America. I later found out that in the 50s the president deinstutionalised the mentally ill patients of the city leaving them at the mercy of the community. With no support from their family, many of these people were forced onto the streets. As sympathetic as I felt towards these people, I can’t deny that I felt nervous when I’d go out alone. The hostel was just a block away from Tenderloin which is a particular rough part of SF. On my first day I walked down this part and saw a prostitute smashing a man’s window with a brick… at two o’ clock in the afternoon. Travelers from New York would scoff at this and say it’s nothing in comparison but compared to my safe little town in England, I was quite shocked.
I really did enjoy my time there though, despite being taken aback by the poverty and violence. I loved the Golden Gate park, the abundance of music and art – the fact there was so much creativity to enjoy for cheap or even free. Every other Monday I went to Mission district for free screenings of cult classics. Thursday evenings were reserved for $12 entry to the science museum (that’s less than a cinema ticket) where I saw bands play, enjoyed the Planetarium and their rain-forest dome and aquarium. On the first days of the month many of the museums were free which meant I got to enjoy impressive selections of art and exhibitions without having my budget eaten into.
It was actually on one of the science nights that I realised it was time for me to move on. Despite being careful all week with my budget I’d ended up getting drunk on overpriced cocktails and was outside in the early hours of the morning smoking a cigarette with my friend Joey. I’d realised that as much as I was enjoying the city, it wasn’t inspiring me like I’d hoped and even though I met a lot of great people in the hostel, the lifestyle I had ended up leading was actually quite similar to the one I had at home. San Francisco was eccentric and different, but at the end of the day it was still a city and so there was a limit on what I could gain from it that I wouldn’t in London. If you stay in the same place long enough, old habits start to return. I discussed this with Joey at the hostel and he mentioned that he was planning to hitchhike down to San Diego on Monday. I impulsively asked him if I could join him and he said yes.
When I mentioned to other people that my plans had change, above all my mother, they naturally said I was crazy and tried to put me off the idea. I was actually very nearly convinced that my decision was naive and not thought through but I’d come to America for adventure and I really didn’t see myself getting it if I was to spend another two months in the hostel cleaning and pub crawling. At the end of the day, the warnings people gave were true; it would be riskier than staying in the security of the hostel, but, the idea of working my way down California Keurack style filled me with an excitement I couldn’t resist. My mother had a saying whenever I complained that she didn’t trust me to be independent -that it wasn’t me she didn’t trust, it was the rest of the world. I realised that of course it was understandable not to have trust in the world, it is full of dangerous things, but at the end of the day the most important thing for me was trusting myself.
In the heat of my spontaneity I also booked a flight the next day to Montreal and organised a work exchange there starting on June 2nd. I have a rule with films that if three different people recommend the same film I’ll always watch it and four people had talked about how much they’d love Montreal that week after I’d started wondering if I should look for somewhere else to work. I don’t believe in fate but I think that a coincidence is a good start to a story so when things seem to oddly synchronize I tend to go all out. After booking my flight, with a little bit of help from my grandmother, I had $500 left to spread over the next two months which inspired me to challenge myself to spend as little as possible during my time left in California.
On the day I was leaving I packed a few clothes, a pair of sandles, my mouth harp and my notebook in my hand luggage bag. I bought a sleeping back from a thrift store and then I set off with Joey with absolutely no plan and absolutely no idea what to expect. It was sad saying goodbye to my friends at the hostel but I felt a sense of relief that things were going to change the moment I walked out the door.
We started by catching the metro with the money left on out MUNI cards to get to the nearest freeway. We stood at the side of the road in high spirits, excited to head South. Out spirits started to sink as it started to get colder and closer to the evening and still no one had stopped. It was hard watching car after car drive past not even acknowledging us and I was imagining the faces of everyone laughing at us when we’d show up in the hostel that night because no one had stopped. The other half of me was getting increasingly nervous that a car would stop and that the person inside would be the stereotype from a horror movie. My imagination ran away with me like the smoke on the motorway until it was interrupted by Joey calling me over to a pulled over car.
And that’s where our adventure began…