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|
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|
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|
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: www.goodfood.com.au)|
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.
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.
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|
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|
|Empire State Building|
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|
|Spit to Manly walk|
|Beer tasting in Portland|
|Columbia River outside Portland|
|Cycling Golden Gate Bridge|
|Pat & I|
|San Fran Cycling|
|Golden Gate Bridge|
|Malibu Beach, LA|
|Hollywood Bowl, LA|
|Hiking Angeles National Forest|
|Angeles National Forest|
|The High Line, New York|
|Brooklyn Bridge, New York|
|New York Skyline|
|Central Park Boating|
|Central Park Boating|
|9/11 Memorial (a flower in someones name indicates it is their birthday)|