Climb every mountain

The city of San Francisco, didn’t have a great first impression on me. But it did do better the more I looked around. Within hours I had gone from feeling alienated to feeling elated. One of the many things that surprised me was that the city was built on a hill. It seems trivial in hindsight, but when I discovered it ascending a steep slope, it was as if the city was challenging me—a challenge I was eager to take on.

San Francisco


With death comes calm

Rediscovering the greatest moments of my visit to the US, I came upon this week’s photo challenge: serene. Not only was my entire trip a soul-satisfying experience, but it was also full of positive energy that revitalised me from within. Every day that I set out to explore the city on my own, I found calm all around me. Although it was an official trip, my weekend getaways were worthy of a holiday.

This photo was at the National AIDS Memorial Grove inside the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This grove sat hidden in plain sight, a tribute to all lives lost aid-less, because of AIDS. As soon as I entered, an aura of serene beauty and supreme sadness engulfed me. I couldn’t identify the reason or the source, but seeing the memorial, the flowers, and the words of love left me overwhelmed.

National AIDS Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park

The Washington Park

The moment I landed in Portland, I saw how the clouds shrouded the sky. It was a Saturday morning and rain was forecast for the whole of the following week. Portlanders rejoiced at the news of rain, I heard from my friend, because raging fires in the gorge had brought about smoke into the city. What a wonderful way to start my vacation, I wondered, with fires on one side and rains on the other.

Nevertheless, Portland was promising. My friend had helped me find a place to stay and as he escorted me from the airport to my host’s house, he explained Portland is accustomed to constant rain. Not only does the city get rains throughout the year, but they’re also unpredictable and often short lived. Although it dampened my spirit a little bit, I’d soon come to appreciate, and even enjoy Portland’s weather.

After lunch, my friend and I parted ways as he went home and I to explore. The sky cleared up, bluish hues visible amidst greyish clouds. It was a good sign. It’s a good day for a walk in the park, I mused heading to Washington Park.

Washington Park

As I flipped through the brochure of the park, I evaluated what was worth my time and money. Turns out the entire 410 acre-park was well worth my while. The free park shuttle service took tourists from one attraction to another, and although I’d thought I’d walk the distance, the park was far bigger than I imagined it. Cruising along the roads in the shuttle, I saw trees lining up either side of well-paved roads designed for driving. The Washington park isn’t just a small area with some grass, but instead, a massive collaboration of museums and smaller gardens.

I’d been to plenty of rose gardens in India and despite being bored of roses, I still went to the International Rose Test Garden. Entrance free. When I stepped inside I saw it was bigger than any other garden I’ve been to. It seemed smaller on one side, and as I walked the aisle observing the various types of roses, smiling to myself at the cheeky and often weird names, the garden extended well beyond my expectations. Rows and rows of roses were in bloom, looking up at the passers by teasing to photograph them. Young couples and older tourists alike leaned in to smell the roses and click pictures. All around me were people curious and enchanted by the approaching rose-blend sunset. Walking along a line of roses, I came upon a board I hadn’t expected.

It was a tribute to the greatest playwright the world had ever seen. Much like the Shakespeare Garden in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, this one, too, hosts a collection of all the plants the Bard referred to in his works. Unlike the one in the Golden Gate Park, however, this one was larger, and had a more welcoming glow. There sure were more people interested in the garden in Portland than there were in San Francisco.

Without meaning to, I spent a long time in the Rose Test Garden. Although I would’ve liked to see the other sights in the park, I don’t regret my time with the roses. For as I was walking along, the sun began to set. It flaunted the sole positive effect of the fires in the gorge. The smoke clouded the sky so that the sunset became a fiery glow itself. It gave off a stunning view through thorny rose bushes. Shameless in admiring it, I was rooted in silence. When I came out my reverie, I know I had little time for the rest of the park.

Heading out of the rose garden, I walked a short distance to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I didn’t know what to expect. But what I saw made me feel as if someone inflated a balloon within me. With every step I took towards the centre of the memorial, my heard swelled in inexplicable joy and pride. It was a large round memorial with marble stones lining the way and the names of veterans inscribed on it. It named soldiers who’d died trying to protect the they loved and people they’d never heard of alike. It gave off a sense of responsibility that I as an observer and as a walker in the memorial should assume. With goosebumps all over my skin and a light head, I trotted off about to head back.

Sitting in the shuttle and flipping through the brochure, I saw something called Hoyt Arboretum. A “museum of living trees,” the description read. How could living trees live inside a museum? Perhaps it’s a marketing writer’s way of attracting tourists. But when the shuttle stopped at the information centre of the Arboretum, I decided to check it out anyway. A shack, it was locked with a sign announcing they’d closed for the day. It didn’t seem big, and sure enough I couldn’t see how they’d fit a museum inside such a small space.

I went around the building and saw walking trails extending on all sides, leading deeper into the park. On my right was The Oak Trail. I followed that path, not sure what I’d find. With nothing but oak trees on either side of me, I walked on. The trail seemed safe and paved. But the entire area was deserted. Confused but also thrilled that I’d ventured into one of my wildest desires, I retraced my way back to the information centre. Going the other way around it, I found a different trail extending in front of me—the Redwood Trail. Walking down the trail, I began to understand. Hoyt Arboretum was a collection of tree-spotting trails that could get any hiker high.

I almost laughed out loud in joy as I skipped my way through the trail. I stopped caring about taking pictures—I was too busy breathing in the scent of natural goodness. Walking around the different trails, I realised there were over 15 different trails that veined throughout the park. Half a day doesn’t do justice to the Arboretum. It needs the attention and dedication of an entire day, I wondered as I wandered towards the train station. I didn’t cover much ground, but as I look back now, I’m glad I went to the Arboretum even for a short while. I didn’t get all of it, but I did get a taste of it that would last me a lifetime.

From the bay to port

My last day in Pleasanton, I went out for dinner with friends. I should’ve stayed back packing, instead. I don’t regret the dinner, though, because I had some of the best Italian food I had ever had. I did, however, return to my hotel late and spent another couple of hours preparing for the next leg of my trip to the US: Portland.

At 9:30 the next morning, I would fly to the great Oregon city. And I stayed awake until 12:30 am making sure I had everything I needed. Then I was just too excited to sleep. When I reached the Oakland International Airport well ahead of time (I get anxious if I’m late), I realised I didn’t know what to do. It was my first time in the US and I was about to fly a domestic airlines, which I had no idea works how. Nevertheless, I stepped right into the information counter of Alaska Air, the airlines I was flying. Expecting a decent reply, I asked the gentleman what to do. He took a look at my online checkin confirmation and boarding pass, and asked me to head right over to the security checks. Huh? I remember feeling. It was hard to believe that that was all I had to do—ask.

Although the lack of airport complexity surprised me, I was even more astonished at how easy things had become when I asked for help. In retrospect, if I hadn’t asked for information, I would’ve walked in circles like a lost child at the airport. Sure, I would’ve found my way some way or the other, but it would’ve been a more daunting experience. As a first time solo traveller, that was my first lesson: Ask, and people will help.

And so I asked again. This time, at the queue for security checks. As I headed for gate 10, I realised I had to join the only queue there was—regardless of gate number. I asked another passenger—in an incredulous voice—if there were no other queues. He shook his head in frustration, “Nope. It’s the only queue. Oakland’s a small airport, you know…” he trailed off with a vague shrug between resenting and understanding.

Smiling to myself, I joined the end of the queue. I had over an hour before boarding began and so I resorted to people watching—my favourite low-energy-exerting sport. A couple of women discussed an event they were attending, wondering if their clothes were appropriate. One of them mentioned she wore the light jacket to hide a hole in her t-shirt. They smiled at me, and I at them. After all, I know only too well the art of patch working my clothes. A little ahead of us stood another woman waving a bottle of water around asking if anyone would like some. It was still early in the day and as is the common scene, high-schoolers sipped sodas and coffees while scrolling through their mobile screens.

The lined moved and so did I.

Cleared, I headed to the waiting area and looked around more. Airports always fascinate me—massive winged beasts come and go, and no one even bats an eye. I, however, can’t take my eyes off them. When it was boarding time, it struck me how small the aircraft was. But when I found my seat, it was still a snug fit. The gentleman who sat next to me, slept through the entire hour of the flight, while I amused myself at the clouds below. We ascended and it struck me how beautiful the bay area is. San Francisco city came into view and as it went out of my view, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness. California had been nice. I don’t know if I’d ever return, but I knew at that moment—hovering in the air above the city—that it had changed my perspective of life forever.

And with that, I turned forward.

Portland, ahoy! The adventure had just begun.

Rounding them up

Rounds represent completion, encapsulation, and to an extent, closure. And that’s why this week’s photo prompt reminded me of cookies—round cookies baked to a crisp perfection, gooey on the middle and crunchy on the edges. As I heaved a huge sigh just thinking about cookies and the closure they offer, I remembered something else that had the same effect on me in San Francisco: It was the experience of looking down at the city from a vantage point. I was at the de Young Museum observatory, observing the false silence if the city below me. Looking down from one side, I saw tiny grass patches, water bodies, and walkways around the museum for visitors to enjoy. And from up above, I tried my best to round them all in one picture.