Friday 28 September 2018

Australia & USA Part II: Kindness & Hospitality

Time to wrap things up with our adventures Down Under and across the Land of the Free. If you haven’t yet read Part One of this Australia and USA coverage, don’t fret. This is a two-parter that can be consumed in whatever order you fancy. In this entry, we’ll be documenting the large chunk of our trip that followed the theme of Hospitality & Kindness, whereas Part One focused on the epic road trips we embarked on across both vast countries.

Right at the beginning of our trip, I put a quick post on Facebook listing the places we would likely be encountering along the way. This may seem a bit generic and public but I was aware that in this modern hyper-connected world of nomadic living, there would be many acquaintances, ex-travelling buddies and just generally awesome people floating around my Facebook contact list whose paths we would cross but would otherwise have been none the wiser. We received scores of comments and messages. From close friends who we’d completely forgotten lived on the other side of the world, but also from random people we didn't know very well. Regardless of where they placed on this friendship spectrum, we were blown away with the genuine love and altruism on show, and the incredible number of people offering to throw open their doors and provide shelter in their hometown.

There was some inevitable apprehension, especially with those we barely knew. “What if we don’t get along?”. “What if it’s awkward?”. “What if James really, really annoys them?”. We mused things over for a while. Eventually, we came to a decision. Nay, a pact. This was meant to be an adventure. And not just an adventure based on changing our location. The people we would interact with along the way played just as important a role, if not more. We decided that from now on we would say “Yes” to any and all offers of sanctuary. We would put our trust in people to provide the best connection and insight into their own backyards and to really enhance our the quality of our journey.

Very apt Fortune Cookie...
Kate with Joshua
Following this methodology, we ended up staying in more homes than hotels. Without exception, each homestay was a delight. A revelation in terms of the deepness of relationship we developed with each location as a result. Turns out, humans are typically kind and hospitable, and nothing provides a better outlook than the eye of a native.

Our time in Sydney really felt like home away from home, given the abundance of close friends waiting for us in this most picturesque of harbour cities. The two main characters, DB & Sarah, from my recent Best Man in Bali blog were our generous, gorgeous and welcoming hosts for the duration. It was great to spend time with the newlyweds (#honeymooncrashers) and also our favourite Irish couple, Sam & Conor, who had recently been through a major life event of their own with the arrival of baby Joshua (or Joseph, as I relentlessly insisted on incorrectly calling him).

One of the usual drawbacks to travelling is missing your mates. We lucked out unbelievably being able to explore the other side of the world with some of our favourite people in tow. It is about the highest compliment you can pay a city to say you could see yourselves living there, and Sydney definitely falls into that category for us. Even in what the Aussies euphemistically call ‘Winter’, it was an absolute dream to be based next to such a dramatically handsome coastline. Most days we either set off for a run along the clifftops between Bondi and Coogee or ventured out as a group on longer hikes like the 10km Spit to Manly trail that weaves between North Sydney’s stunning beaches and bays via meandering harbourside trails and vividly lush bushland.

Sydney hiking gang
There was personal history here too. Kate lived in Sydney for a year way back in 2010 – working at a pub, fannying around and just generally doing what 24-year-olds should. She obviously made an impact in her time here as her old colleagues organised a little reunion back at the pub for a nostalgic night of catching up, reminiscing and pretending we aren’t all really old now.

Sydney dominated our agenda in Aus, but we did find time for a short break away from the hustle and bustle with a visit to the Yarra Valley. This is one of the country’s premier wine-growing regions, boasting lush rolling valleys and picturesque picnic spots. Our hosts in this most-wonderful of hideaways were a couple we’d only met at the Bali wedding a month previously. It was one of those late-night, blurry wedding conversations during which we were introduced to Stephen & Linda via their daughter, Brianna, who was a bridesmaid at the wedding. Mention was made of our upcoming trip to Australia and the lack of any solid plan outside of Sydney. An invite was immediately forthcoming to stay at the family home in the Yarra Valley. No doubt many of us would give thanks for a spontaneous invite like this, but then not follow it up afterwards. We would usually do the same. But this time, our pact to accept offers of hospitality and kindness from strangers demanded we pursue it. This was when we first learned the truth. The truth that while people back in the UK often utter the words “Oh, you should come and stay with us” out of a sense of obligation, rather than real willing, the same isn’t true elsewhere on the planet. In Australia and the USA, offers of accommodation are actually genuine, and once accepted they are gladly locked in.

Yarra Valley views
Learning this lesson for the first time led us to Stephen & Linda’s door about a month after our meeting in Bali. And what a door it was. Their abode is a thing of beauty. An independently designed and lovingly built passion project – a sprawling, single story, warm and welcoming home. Perched on a hilltop, large glass windows leading to an interior that glows with natural light, while simultaneously providing drop-dead views across their vineyards and the vast greenery beyond. The immediate surroundings devoid of pesky people, but instead enthusiastically populated by that most bouncy, iconic and marvellous of marsupials, the Kangaroo.

With shelter secured, the next human need is sustenance. Not only did Stephen & Linda have a beautiful roof to put over our heads, but they also own a nearby restaurant. To which we were quickly whisked and treated to, quite simply, the best meal of our trip. Fondata 1872 is a dining revelation – steeped in history, but with renovations that have created a modern, airy dining experience, reassuringly supported by solid crisscrossed wooden beams and elegantly exposed brickwork. Only the best of seasonal Italian food on the menu. Beer, wine, and all the other naughty stuff, to die for. We couldn’t, and still can’t, thank Brianna, Stephen & Linda enough for their kindness.

Fondata 1872 (photo credit:
We only wished we had more time in the Yarra Valley dreamland. What we did have was one full day to spare. With a hire car in a famous wine region. What do you think happened? That’s right. I chauffeured Kate around while she got drunk. Early morning champagne quaffing at Chandon winery, pre-lunch extensive wine-tasting at a nearby vineyard, afternoon gin-sampling at a local distillery before ending the day at a chocolate factory. It has only taken about four years, but we finally achieved 'Kate's Perfect Day'. We may as well break up now because the only way from here is down.

Skipping forward a whole continent to Portland, Oregon, USA, and the next time we were warmly welcomed into that sacred space behind everyone’s front door. Stephen & Linda may have been little more than strangers, but at least we had met them recently. In Portland, we were willingly taken into the home of Jacob & Alexandra. I met Jacob on a whirlwind boat crossing from Panama to Colombia – a sun-bathed, rum-soaked three days of island-hopping high jinks. One of my most memorable travelling adventures (covered in this throwback blog post) but it was seven long years ago and we’d never crossed paths again since.

I don’t know who was taking the bigger risk: Them by inviting a couple of unknowns into their apartment, or us by laying down to sleep in a stranger’s house. All I knew is that Jacob had been a lovely guy seven years ago, and hopefully that hadn’t changed in the interim. I imagine he went through a similar thought process (although I was probably less lovely back in 2011) especially with convincing his wife Alex, who had never met either of us, that this was a good idea. The fact that Jacob ended up being away on business the night we arrived probably didn’t make things any more appealing for her! However, as you’re probably realising by now with the general theme of this piece, it seems that all you need to do is give people a chance to embrace those things that define real human nature – we are, after all, a socially-minded and collectivist species – and being nice seems to come naturally. Alex was a kind-hearted, open and generous host, effortlessly warm and sociable, putting us both at ease as we shared dinner, a few drinks and stories about Jacob behind his back before his return in the early hours.

Accordingly re- and newly- acquainted by the next morning, Jacob & Alex helped the two of us make the most of our short time in Portland by guiding a whistle-stop road trip through some of the greenest and most scenic spots on the periphery of town. The north side of Portland is caressed by the broad, border-defining waters of the Columbia River as it sweeps in from the east before heading up and across to the State’s western edge, searching for the relief of the North Pacific Ocean. We followed the river in the other direction, heading inland through a multitude of state parks and appropriately-named ‘areas of natural beauty’. The towering, snow-peaked summit of Mount Hood dominating our windscreen, Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier struggling for attention among the Cascade Mountain range in the far-off North. Our journey culminated at a grassy local lookout spot, the city shimmering in competition with the river below. The perfect spot for a hastily-prepared ghetto picnic of fridge-raided food, warm beer and communal slurps from last night’s leftover wine. Unpretentious bliss.

Ghetto picnic
Once again, our prayers had been answered and expectations far-surpassed by those who were kind and gracious enough to open their doors to us. Even our time spent wandering around town as a pair was enhanced by the well-informed insights Jacob & Alex provided. Portland is known for its great coffee, breweries and donuts (a dreamy combo) and we experienced only the best of all these, plus a pizza restaurant with the most outrageously benevolent happy hour, thanks to the educated counsel of our hosts.

Next stop on our couch-surfing spree was San Francisco and the accommodating arms of Pat & Andrea. Pat was another South American travel buddy of mine (first encountered in this blog from 2014) but one I’d seen on a couple of other occasions since. The good-natured consideration of his girlfriend and housemates were still required in order to accept these strange foreigners into their shared abode. They all continued the theme of being exceedingly considerate and charitable by putting us up for three nights in a row.

Buena Vista Park, San Francisco

The last time I was in town (back in 2015) Pat had been a brilliant tour guide – revealing the best San Fran has to offer after dark. The pattern was repeated three years on, but this time also included a walking tour in daylight hours through Golden Gate Park and the hipster neighbourhoods of Haight-Ashbury and The Mission, before we got back to what we were best-versed in doing together – sampling local ales, dinner at a hidden gem sushi restaurant, and then cocktails in a pleasingly-tacky Tiki Bar. We were joined by a group of Pat & Andrea’s friends as the evening morphed into night-time. As we’ve already established, there is never a better way to experience the best a place has to offer during daylight hours than with a local’s insights rattling around your head. The same can most definitely be said for a night out with a bunch of natives who know exactly where to scratch to reveal below the surface of the city’s nightlife.

San Francisco is such a wonderfully-varied city – whether it’s the seamless switching of character between distinct neighbourhoods, the melting-pot of nationalities and ethnicities, the clashing of cityscapes, green spaces and the sea, or the flummoxing variations in climate from one side of town to the other. How can one place always be foggy and cold, yet also always be sunny and hot?

This was an extra poignant visit for Katie, who has been to this part of the world once before, as a 6-year-old accompanying her parents on their honeymoon. Memories drifted with us through the fog as we cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge, unchanged and unyielding to the years that have passed since Kate was here before. There is some strange comfort to be found in looking upon a scene that has previously held the gaze of someone close to you – a common experience shared across space and time. We kept this firmly in mind throughout our stay in The Golden City, reassured by the retracing of footsteps. Ending the final day gazing out across the brilliant blue of San Francisco Bay, we raised a toast to those who had shaped us, laid the path for where we are today, and would always be with us on the journey beyond.

Raising a toast

The familial thread continued to run deeply through our next stop on the road. Kate’s cousins, Cath & Ben, have been living in Los Angeles for the last year and were kind enough to offer us a place during our travels down the Californian coast. We were accepted unequivocally into the family, along with their three fantastic kids, Joey, Lucas & Annie. This was particularly pleasing for me, as I could revert to my natural state of an 11-year-old – playing basketball, video games and just generally letting loose my latent immaturity – with the solid excuse that I was just connecting with the children.

All five of our hosts displayed such wonderful geniality as we laid down temporary roots for a whole week. Travelling is great fun and a real privilege but after a few months, the constant movement and hopping from substandard hotel to dive hostel can be extremely tiring (first world problem alert!). It is always a treat to have the opportunity for a brief period of stability, somewhere fixed in which you can settle for a while, reset the batteries. Do your laundry in bulk! For Kate, there was also the chance to enjoy her holy grail of the backpacking world. A long soak in a giant bath. There’s nothing like an extended period of time slumming it on the road to put these common luxuries into perspective.

Dodgers baseball game
We really did become part of the family and were absolutely spoilt rotten by Cath & Ben. Delicious home-cooked food, an ample supply of delectable wine, chauffeured trips to local restaurants, household outings to watch the Dodgers Baseball and frolics in the picture-perfect sunshine on Malibu Beach. Their pad was also the perfect base for us to explore both the blockbuster familiar sites within LA city limits, but also to get out of the urban hustle and explore some of the best hiking routes on offer at the often-overlooked yet beautifully vast forests that surround it. We will be eternally grateful for the kindness and compassion displayed by Cath, Ben & the kids, and hopefully one day we can repay the favour.

Malibu Beach
Skipping across the continent to the next time we were taken under the charge of friends – it’s time for New York, baby! The Big Apple provided a double whammy of hospitability as we spent our three nights here split between two dwellings. First up, another buddy from the Bali wedding, Haley, graciously offered her room as a place to crash for the first two evenings. She wasn’t in town herself (hence the availability of the room) but we were thoughtfully looked after by her housemate, Lindsey, and her beautiful new pup, Bodie.

Brooklyn Bridge
Located in the fashionable Williamsburg neighbourhood (think Shoreditch before the luxury flats really started multiplying) we were ideally situated for wandering to nearby trendy bars and restaurants, over to Brooklyn to bask in riverside Brooklyn Bridge Park, before crossing the bridge itself for a wee walking tour of Manhattan including delectable delights at Chelsea Market and a quick explore on the brilliant High Line elevated walkway. Being good little tourists, we also found time to take a boat out in Central Park, attend a Yankees Baseball game with a couple of London mates, Tim & Ali, and spend a very brief period of time at Times Square (my pithy review: Too many people). By far and away the most memorable activity during our time in NY, though, came with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. I’ve never been so deeply affected by a museum or a memorial. Perhaps it is the way the exhibits are situated within the bowels of the Twin Towers themselves with some of the remaining foundations and original structures still in place; perhaps it is the jarring manner in which wrecked emergency vehicles scatter across the floor of the vast atrium; perhaps it is the harrowing recordings of first responders and 911 phone calls; or perhaps it is the sheer number of names and portraits that truly bring home the incredible loss of life on that fateful day. More poignant than any of this, we realised it was probably the first place of remembrance of such scale we’d ever visited that was honouring and remembering a day we can so vividly recall ourselves. This shocking immediacy was unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. An utterly heart-breaking memorial, but one whose existence is essential.

Empire State Building
Our last night in New York was also our very last in the US, so it felt like we should do something special to mark this occasion. As it turned out, one final act of selfless hospitality and generosity provided exactly this. An old London housemate of mine, Banko, has lived in New York for the past seven years and kindly offered the spare room in the Brooklyn apartment shared with his girlfriend, Anna. They are evidently a couple of great taste. The flat is a vision of unbridled beauty. Teetering on the 30th floor, the corner position and floor-to-ceiling windows afford panoramic views across the city’s most iconic of skylines. Compared to the rest of our trip, we were in the lap of luxury here, and absolutely pampered by Anna & Banko who also took us out for a heavenly meal at their favourite French restaurant. They made our final evening a real treat.

Back in bed that night, glowing like the skyscrapers framed by our window, we reflected on all the wonderfully gracious individuals who’d welcomed us with open arms over the last few weeks in America and Australia. They defined our adventure. They made the memories that vastly improved our trip. Life is good when you’re in the right company, and we are blessed to have spent this trip in the company of some of the most thoughtful, generous and altruistic humans on this planet. There’s hope for humanity yet with people like this around…

Coogee Beach, Sydney

Bondi Beach, Sydney

Sydney Harbour

Spit to Manly walk

Sydney Harbour

Yarra Valley

Kangaroo Ground

Portland waterfall

Beer tasting in Portland
Columbia River outside Portland
Cycling Golden Gate Bridge

Pat & I

San Fran Cycling
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco

Malibu Beach, LA

Hollywood Bowl, LA

Hiking Angeles National Forest

Angeles National Forest

The High Line, New York

New York

Brooklyn Bridge, New York 
New York Skyline

Times Square

Central Park Boating

Central Park Boating

9/11 Museum

9/11 Museum

9/11 Memorial (a flower in someones name indicates it is their birthday)

9/11 Memorial