This September my husband and I spent a couple of weeks in California. We were there for the wedding of a very dear friend, but we also made the most of the trip to explore San Francisco and Yosemite. So predictably, this whirlwind trip was mostly about photographing murals (SF) and nature (everywhere else). When in Cali...
For the most part San Francisco is a rather lovely city with a really exceptional history - many waves of immigration brought on by various booms and busts (gold rush, tech rush, etc), geographical and natural disasters (fires and earthquakes), the emergence of social movements (gay rights and the hippies of the summer of love), and a generally quite liberal outlook. But as is happening in what seems like every major city right now, gentrification seems to be accelerating well past the normal rate of "change" and hurtling headlong toward alienating, marginalising and / or hiding those who can't keep up. If we were on a different kind of trip, I would have liked to have focused my "getting to know the city" activities on understanding the housing crisis there (the housing minister quit while we were there because she could no longer afford to live in SF herself), and interviewing some of the folks affected by it. And it seems there are many. The downsides to the tech boom..
Speaking of which - there was a major tech conference on (which added an extra 70,000 heads to the already difficult hunt for beds) making it a very expensive stay. Thank god we missed Salesforce's major event by two weeks. It apparently adds an approximate 170,000 people to the city, and they bring in cruise ships to add temporary accommodation capacity to the city.
We got our tourist on. We ate our hearts out and made up for it by riding the hills of SF. We were again disappointed by American coffee and lack of breakfast game. We were again impressed by their ridiculous burgers and exceptionally good martinis. We tried to get a sense of the city without getting cynical about the impact of the tech industry. Not sure if we succeeded there.
We made our way to wedding adventures via a quick stop at Muir Woods. The experience of staring up at these Redwood and Sequoia trees was brief and calming. Nothing like a wander through a forest of hundreds-of-years-old trees to help you get some perspective...
The wedding itself was lovely and picturesque. It was such a pleasure to spend time with a great bunch of people from all over the world - most of whom I hadn't previously met because they're friends my global traveller friend has gathered from all across the globe. I will say that it's nice to know that good people find each other wherever they are. But I'll leave all that because it isn't my (love) story to tell. And because I have no doubt there will be far better photos than mine...
Our final stop was a few days of nature in Yosemite. After 3 hours of driving on the wrong side of the road, we arrived unscathed and ready to relax. Exploring Yosemite National Park was spectacular. There were cars and people everywhere so it was hard to find any kind of stillness for a moment to truly appreciate the landscape but it is truly awe inspiring. Like everything in the US, everything seems bigger.
The biggest thing I learnt from this trip to remind myself just how good we have it in Australia.
Driving through California, I was genuinely stunned to see so many Trump signs in front yards. Isn't California supposed to be quite politically progressive? But when you stop to look, is it really so surprising? I found it so depressing to drive from place to place and see only multiplexes (complete with budget supermarkets and fast food restaurants) as the cultural landmarks. I found it so interesting to see what happens when cars are a a key causal factor in urban, suburban and rural design. It doesn't leave a lot of room for organic social touch points or serendipitous moments of connection with others. I wasn't entirely surprised to see a burger joint functioning as a kind of surrogate community centre. It doesn't seem to be a unique phenomenon across the country.
And Australia seems to be evolving in the same way. I remember reading Denniss and Hamilton's Affluenza many years back which essentially articulates that the more a country is like America the worse it fares in life satisfaction indicators. Surely the US is more a case study in what not to do? Yet why do we seem so keen to follow in their footsteps...?
So while I'm happy to visit, but America just feels like a less good version of Australia, and therefore doesn't make much sense to me. I'll have to satisfy myself with marvelling at their astounding natural landscape, and remind myself to do more of the same back in my own country.