** Update – it has been exactly 1 year since I started writing these remaining parts of the diaries, memory might have fainted quite a fair bit **
We reached SFO in one piece but stumbled to find our way through the maze of BART stops and Caltrain stops that we had to take to each California Avenue, where our host Yu-shan and Xinyi planned to pick us up. I was unfamiliar with Caltrain especially, since I had the luxury of my trusty Honda when I went to school, and ended up hanging around the bike cabin of Caltrain without a seat. At least we learned a lot about the system where people tag their bikes and try to put all the bikes alighting at the same station together.
After a short rest at California Ave Starbucks, Yu-shan came to pick us back to his humble place in Los Altos, right along El Camino Real, while Xinyi joined us later as we dined in one of Bay Area’s latest organic food place LYFE Kitchen. Lots of pampering and catching up that night since we all met in Ang Mo Kio S11 just months back. Dear was particularly attracted by a pair of huge pine cones that Xinyi displayed in a glass box in the living room.
* * *
May 7 (Tuesday)
Unlike Seattle, SF has always felt like a tourist trap than a place to work or study. The fact that during my years of absence, more mobile startups have moved from where the “old money” (i.e. Bay Area, around Stanford, Sand Hill road) resides up to San Francisco is still a mystery, but Market Street is indeed bustling with startup activity.
And that’s how we got our free ride by Yu-shan there in the morning as he was going to work anyways. Enduring this commute could be frustrating as some have already settled down in the Bay when jobs went northward.
When we got off Market Street, we started to wander instinctively towards coffee. After some deliberation, I introduced dear to Peet’s Coffee. It was a good choice. The hustle and bustle of the city did not affect our optimism as we had one very clear goal for the day: Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge.
The prospect of biking over the bridge soon became quite clear – it was not an easy feat, even for an experienced biker as me. The weather was still cold despite being late spring, while the SF fog lingered and lifted rarely. Still hoping for the best, we rented our bikes and set off on the simpler part of the journey as instructed by the bike rental company, where we crossed many flat and scenic roads between Fisherman’s Wharf and the foot of the bridge.
After being treated with great SF pastel-coloured houses, some nice architectures, and a number of pet walkers (1 person to 10 dogs!) we reached our first milestone at Torpedo wharf where one can finally see the challenge at hand. First, a steep elevation that most bikers simply gave up and pushed their bike up the slope, which we conquered tirelessly.
Next, we faced the daunting task of crossing the bridge with lots of pedestrian traffic, each lost in their own world of photo taking and admiring the beauty of the San Francisco bay. Determined not to stop, we pedalled up and down the arc of the bridge in one breath, taking in the wind chill as the fog brushed through our dry and cracking face, stopping only around the 2 major beams to navigate the tight turning.
When we finally reached the other end, it was a glorious moment as the fog lifted slightly, presenting the city and the bridge to us. I believe we took more than 3 hours for the entire journey to get to our destination, but it was worth it, more so than my last trip that I simply drove up the little mountain at the north end of the bridge.
Deciding against Sausalito and the return ferry trip, we rode back the same way we came, except a detour got us into the middle of many official looking buildings along Lincoln boulevard. It took us some time to find our way back to the Palace of Fine Arts, said hi to the beautiful goose, and then back to the piers.
Exhausted and starving at 3pm in the afternoon, we wolfed down our In-and-Out burger like it was the best burger in the world. I was worried about dear because it was a pretty intense day in terms of exercise, fortunately she was happy and insisted we continue our visit to Lombard street – again a wrong timing thing as most of the flowers weren’t blooming yet – before returning our bike to the rental company. The steep climb with the bike to Lombard further tired us out and by the time we hoped on the F train, we could barely lift our legs.
We met Sophyan at his Expedia office before we went walking around SF, waiting for his wife Joohee to get off work to have dinner together. To our surprise Ken also showed up, solving our transport back to Los Altos, and made the night more enjoyable with his ever positive spirit.
Unfortunately, that night, I hit the lowest point of the trip.
* * *
May 8 (Wednesday)
When we finally reached Yu-shan’s place, my stomach started growling and reacting. Even though I went to sleep as soon as I could, it became so bad at night I kept waking up and stayed in the toilet. The diarrhoea was extremely acute – even when there’s nothing left in the tummy, it kept torturing me.
When morning came, the pain did not subside. I had to cancel my trip to Redwood City to meet up with Adeline, but my perfectionist traits pushed me to continue with the all so packed and well thought out plan, that I still went ahead to get Yu-shan to drop us at Stanford, just to make sure dear gets to visit both my alma mater.
But then, it was quite hard for dear to enjoy – we were on a honeymoon and when one didn’t seem to be taking in the moment, the other just kinda followed. I felt fortunate still being able to give her a good sense of campus life that’s happening obliviously around us, unfortunately half way through I started to again hunt for an outlet for my agony. Cringing alone in FloMo (Florence Moore Hall) toilet, I prayed for Clarence to arrive early to accompany dear – so fortunately he did just that!
Campus life hasn’t changed much on the surface since my time 10 years ago. The food truck is gone, some new buildings here and there, but by and large the school had left the core intact, in contrast with CMU who had seen more expansion. Unfortunately the trip did not provide for a longer stay here to, say, watch a concert at the new Bing auditorium.
We took Clarence’s trusty car to Googleplex – I recall dear rode with a bit of trepidation, and Chio was apologetic about it, but I liked it all the more – this was student car! Definitely no worse than Yuen-lin’s 1983 Volkswagon rabbit he bought for $300 and managed to drive it to Pittsburgh and back to CMU.
We met Carolyn at Google, who bought us lunch again (shhh) as I saw dear marvelling at the facilities and food that the company served. Even though I wasn’t particularly interested in the nitty gritty of Google life, Clarence and dear was both intrigued and I guess Carol also felt obliged to walk us through some of the main displays and to bring us to the shop.
Google was one of those other possibilities. Hiring globally, they had attempted to head hunt me a couple of times to their Sydney offices, but never back to US. I wandered around the public areas looking at the conference bikes that looked abandoned thinking whether I lost those opportunities or did life actually wanted me to go down this path anyways, like there’s someone actually steering the bike even though I was pedalling hard at an angle.
At the same time, one could easily identify with some of the grudges Carolyn mentioned about work, mortal-ising the company in some sense because that’s the same grudges one would get in many other companies. Finding a great team to work on a meaningful and challenging problem would be the holy grail of employment of our era across most developed countries.
After hugging some Android plush toys, we left Carol to get back to work as Clarence fetched us back to rest. I so desperately wanted to fix myself I did nothing for the afternoon as we had already packed in the morning for Yu-shan’s mother to take over the guest room.
By the time the drugs worn off, it was time to bid farewell to Yu-shan and Xinyi, as Yuen-lin picked us up with his completely silent Toyota Prius. Dear got into much laughter when she realised that both me and Yuen-lin used the same bag. I was more amused that he wore the same jacket since college that we bought together (mine was .. lost, for now). Immediately we knew we had much catching up to do, but like the car we zoomed quietly to Fremont for dinner before heading to Berkeley where Yuen-lin resided.
* * *
May 9 (Thursday)
Yuen-lin stayed right across from Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, where he actively participates in their meditation sessions. But for us, staying at his place was just as much a meditation session as we can get already, as he continued the simple life style that we used to have in school. He was like a time capsule, still with his laptop snugging on the bed underneath the comforter coding, as if it was Resnik House in 2001.
Technically still “working from home”, dear and I wandered around Berkeley as I tried (probably in vain) to explain concepts of liberal activism here in the past. Eventually we found common ground in Trader’s Joe, as she soaked it in like she did in Whole Foods while we were at Penn. But the limelight was eventually stolen by some $1 gelato ice cream along the street.
Having been on mainly a fruit diet and fully rested in the past 2 days, we set off to pack for another unique part of our trip – that is to camp amongst the great Sequoias in Yosemite – and retired early.
* * *
May 10 (Friday)
A camping trip like this would have been so much more fun if there were more people, but we were fully aware that we were indeed intruding on people’s gainfully employed lives (and it’s not yet summer holidays yet). Instead, we counted our blessings being able to spend intimate time with an old friend who was to say the least inseparable during school days.
Before departing Berkeley, we did our final round of shopping at the Berkeley Bowl (similar to Trader’s Joe) and loaded up our tummy with Burritos, just in case we couldn’t make ourselves lunch or dinner in time. The drive to Yosemite was much longer than I remembered it to be, considering we managed to leave Stanford for Yosemite, hiked up and down Half Dome in the span of 14 hours, and returned to Stanford on the same day long ago in 2004.
Still, the drive there was quite epic. Especially the winding 120 road before Groveland, where we gained tremendous elevation and dizziness. The Californian plains also gave rise to huge wind farms, with hundreds and hundreds of turbines spinning in unison (for the data centres!), the long and windy California Aqueduct, an engineering marvel to bring huge amounts of water to the endless farms that feeds America.
We settled into our camp ground (D?) that’s just right of the entrance to the park. After setting up our 4-man tent, we still had enough time to walk around irrationally trying to find the bear that the ranger was just warning us about, before utilising Yuen-lin large repertoire of camping equipment for making dinner and fire.
My tummy ache attacked twice that night, and I had to be woken up by the excruciating pain, braved the sub zero temperatures in the forest to reach the common restrooms. It wasn’t the most pleasant of all experience, and I looked at the stars to pray in tears for health. Some of these experiences had had a lasting impact on my new priorities in life. I was also woken up and completely frozen by some animal scratching the tent from outside, perhaps finding food. Maybe the bear did show up after all?
* * *
May 11 (Saturday)
Being the only full day at Yosemite, we had to do the day hike thing. After making breakfast, we locked up all our food in the metal cabin and headed out to take pictures of Bridalveil Falls first, then Horsetail falls with El Capitan, and finally struggled to find a parking spot to put our car as we hiked up Vernal Falls.
Yosemite was just _full_ of tourist, even though it was not even peak season yet. As the cables were down, Half Dome was out of the question, but even so, the entire place seemed crowded. According to the system we actually booked the final available camp site 3 months in advance. So it was a pleasant surprise when we found a quiet spot along the river where dear could step into the icy cold river and giggled herself at the cold, interacted with the only other family there, before we set off on our strenuous hike.
We aimed at Vernal Falls because I wanted to see if I could still reach and see that bald tree where I once took one of the most iconic profile picture of my entire university life in US circa 2000 to 2004. In that picture, I was at the fittest ever in my life, and was at the peak of the privilege given to me to afford me a prestigious education in 2 of the world’s best university and still have enough money left to travel to these sanctuaries.
10 years later, I think I nearly fell going up those steps, and needed my wife’s verbal encouragement to take the next step. I wouldn’t admit it, but deep in my heart I knew that my physical peak was over, and now it’s about maintaining the body so that it can still last a lifetime.
Didn’t expect reality to hit me so hard during a honeymoon!
Later in the day, we gathered enough leftover energy to hike down an old unpaved road to come face to face with a few sequoia trees. You know, every sequoia is a temple. The size and the stillness of such a majestic elder does the same thing to everyone: it keeps you quiet and makes you want to stay silent. It then tells a tale of its existence, with woodpeckers pecking on it and the rustling of its leaves, surviving for hundreds and some thousands of years in solitude.
* * *
May 12 (Sunday)
I was happy that in these 3 days dear found enough pine cones to bring back as souvenirs, some of which were substantially larger than what I thought it could be. I was also happy that I really really caught up with Yuen-lin, and got a good deal of sounding board advice about how to take steps towards life’s happiness. It’s as if a sage fetched us to the mountains, preached, and fetched us back – unbelievable.
To celebrate and fulfil our modern civilisation desires, we bought very sweet coffee and Jamba Juice along the way back. They go very well with the sweet victory of conquering the wild.
In the evening we also managed to catch up with Fani and David at a remote vegetarian restaurant in SF and traversing the about to be demolished Bay Bridge as the new earthquake proof one readies itself for use.