CALIFORNIA: Away At Last

Summer is sacred to me. It represents freedom and adventure and culture. During this time, I am blessed with the opportunity to escape normalcy and have a grand and glorious time. These months are vital for my sanity and for the person I am. Travel has become my supreme passion. I think it might be my religion. I have learned so much about the world and myself, and I treasure those experiences. The things I have seen could come from a book, but it would be impossible to experience the sensations. The places I have been could have been visited virtually on Google Maps, but I wouldn’t hear the cars honking, smell the food cooking, or feel the rough roads beneath my feet. When I’m somewhere new, I’m my best self.

At heart, I’m an explorer. If I had been born centuries ago, there is no doubt that I would have been on the Silk Road, trading with Asia. I would be importing spices. I’d be mapping the coast of uncharted territory. I’d be wandering through new lands. I’d be seeking knowledge in all the cultural capitals of the known world. Unfortunately for my sense of adventure, the age of exploration is over. We know most of the world now. The only uncharted places are space and the depths of the ocean. I have no interest in going to space, reader. There are no Hiltons on the moon, there isn’t even a Super 8. I don’t want to dive down to the deepest trenches in the ocean, either. I don’t care for ugly fish that glow. I wouldn’t mind taking a peek at some of the unexplored regions of rainforests, but I’ve read too much about Amazonian exploration to really want to do this. You have to fight off hoards of murderous insects, a shocking lack of consumables, contaminated water, unknown disease, and potentially unfriendly tribes. It’d be thrilling, but I’m not sure I’m cut out for that line of work. I’d much prefer exploring the ancient ruins of Egypt and whatnot.

Anyway, that’s a lengthy introduction. I love traveling and I love exploring, so I was ready for a new adventure. I was about to be off for a month, spending weeks in California and then some more in Mexico City — uncharted territory for me — and I was going to live my very best life. I would be leaving behind my responsibilities and daily tasks and the inordinate number of people who constantly take up every single second of my free time. This is not an insult to anybody, reader, for I enjoy being social and helpful, but I have been feeling VERY drained of late. I needed blissful solitude and the time to recharge.

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And so it was decadent to get to Osceola and board the train out West. Ever since my first foray to this part of America, it has captured my heart and soul. I don’t know why I went so long ignoring it. I had dreams of Hollywood and seeing the Atlantic Ocean all my life, but I didn’t make it come true until I was an adult. I love being an adult. You can do anything. Well not anything, obviously, but you can go where you want and eat what you want and stay up as late as you want and do all the things that interest you. It’s great. I’d never want to be a child again. Last night in my Student Behavior class, we did an activity where we had to answer what age we’d like to be forever. I’d stay 25. A lot of the rest said they wanted to be 6 or 1 or 4. I couldn’t understand. Why would you want to be a dependent child? There’s no freedom in lacking bills or responsibilities. Youth is a prison that I’m thrilled to be out of. Now that I’m grown, I can go anywhere. I can be anybody. It is so fabulous.

The train was late to arrive, which is hardly a surprise for Amtrak, it’s a service that is renowned for tardiness. I didn’t know this when I first started riding years ago, since I left from the origin — which is always on time. As the train chugs across America, a bizarre number of things can create delay. I have been held up by Union Pacific coal deliveries, cows, people smoking in lavatories, derailments ahead, and bad weather. I just accept it now. I was to be aboard the California Zephyr for nearly three days, though, so I wasn’t too bothered by a minor delay.

And I was not bothered in the least because the Osceola station has been beautifully updated. The first time I left this station, the place looked like it could have collapsed in on itself. The ceiling was oddly stained, the lights flickered, the floors were uneven, the restrooms were unbelievable, and the ambiance was perfect for filming a train themed horror film.

Now, it’s beautiful. I had no idea that the station was going to be restored, so I’m so very happy that it happened. Now the floors gleam, the wooden benches are polished, the walls are gorgeously painted, the restrooms are a place I could happily live, and instead of being populated by murderers, kindly elderly people are waiting. It’s a grand change.

A large crowd was assembled to board the train, and I was pretty impressed with their boarding technique. Usually it’s a mad dash to a harassed looking attendant who randomly assigns seats. This time, we had to wait for our name to be called and then we were given a slip of paper with our assigned seats by a VERY HANDSOME attendant. This is a much nicer system than before when people pushed others out of the way to sit together. Everybody was actually fairly pleasant this time.

The train chugged into the setting sun, and I relished having no seat mates beside me. That’s always an inconvenience, but it’s not so bad on a train instead of flying and being sandwiched between two inevitably large and smelly people. I can’t handle that. I’m glad that flying is so quick, it makes the horror of the experience less traumatic.

I needed popcorn and gin, my staple meal on the train, so I made my way down to the bar cart. I was delighted to find the same guy working. He’s always there. He’s British and I haven’t a clue what he’s doing there, but he seems to really enjoy his job and always make a good gin and tonic. We engaged in some light banter before I took my nibbles up to the observation car to watch the last lingering rays of sunlight.

All was wonderful and all was grand, and then two of the biggest idiots I have ever had the displeasure of hearing sat down beside me. Only one of them said much, but he said more than enough. He was going on endlessly about his racist views, and I was just about ready to start a verbal brawl when his friend told him to shut up. He must have seen my dagger-like glares at them. Or maybe he had some sense. Either way, good on him.

When I returned to my seat I found what appeared, for all the world, to be a corpse sitting in my assigned seat. This was irksome, but of course I was thrilled. What a story! My imagination kicked into overdrive at once. Was this going to be an Agatha Christie murder mystery? Where was Poirot? Was the solution the same as the one of Murder on the Orient Express? Was everybody in on it? Ignore that last sentence if you haven’t read that classic. Do it now. I’ll wait.

Then the guy snorted with a snore and all the criminalistic delight was taken from me. I was disappointed, but I suppose I was glad that the old man was still alive. I had no great story to tell, just a comment about an elderly fellow who didn’t know where to sit. Ugh. I tried to wake him up so that I could explain that he was in the wrong spot, but the man would not come to. He was quite soundly asleep. I really rather envied him.

So I just climbed over him, which was no easy feat, and sighed with irritation at the fact that he smelled like an old person smells. I know that is a generalization, and nobody hates generalizations more than I do, but he had that smell. I was glad that I was exhausted myself and soon entered dreamland.

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When I woke, we were in a completely different world. Instead of flat plains, rolling hills appeared to grow and stretch into mountains in the distance. I was eager to get a glimpse of them up close. I’m not a mountain ho, you know, reader? I am a desert ho through and through. Nothing better than a sandy vista and hot sun and a palm tree oasis. But these mountains looked really rather beautiful. I was transfixed by them.

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In truth, this might be the nicest Amtrak route of them all. Every few minutes, a great and wondrous new view came into sight. At first they weren’t terribly impressive, but soon we were amongst the great mountains of the Rocky’s and chugging through blasted tunnels. A tributary of the Colorado ran alongside us, and the water was decadently clear. I could hardly believe the beauty surrounding me. It was almost a virgin landscape, and I found myself jealous of those early American explorers who journeyed out west to see all there was to see. I can barely imagine their intoxication at the beautiful mountains, the rivers, the animals, all the flowers and plants they had no name for. And on the train, I felt something similar. This was all wondrous and new and I let it burn itself into my memories. I never want to forget.

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Monstrously large lakes came into view and the landscape grew wilder. My neighbor finally got off and an even worse one boarded in Denver. I didn’t have the best of luck. I usually meet some truly fascinating and fabulous people while I’m voyaging on the Amtrak. Not this time. The guests were rather pissy. Their loss. I’m a hoot and a half.

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I actually opened a book on this journey; I finally delved into 1491, a book about the Americas before they were allegedly discovered. I greedily tore through the pages becoming enraged and enlightened with each passing chapter. I am routinely shocked at my own lack of knowledge of the Americas before the Europeans invaded. I knew that they conquered the so-called New World brutally, but that was honestly the extent of my knowledge.

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I blame myself mainly for not being curious about the history around me and dedicating myself to far off Egypt instead of the past that surrounded me, but I don’t regret that for a minute. Egyptology has made me who I am and I don’t feel any shame whatsoever. Still, it would be nice to know about the great civilizations that thrived in this world before Europeans arrived. Since I was going to Mexico, the homeland of the Maya and Aztec and Olmec, amongst many others, I was determined to know as much as I could.

There is one major problem with learning and developing passions about topics, you begin to realize just how much you don’t know at all. It’s so much more comfortable to live in ignorance. We can’t stay living in ignorance, though. What’s the point of doing anything if we decide to stay in one spot? Once I knew more about the way the world was, I couldn’t stop wanting to find out more, and with each new fact — such as the irrigation techniques all over South America — I craved more knowledge about these fascinating people that were completely eradicated.

The most intriguing thing that I learned, I think, amongst a huge number of delightful new tidbits of knowledge was the reasoning behind the lack of education we provide on Mesosmerica in the American curriculum. It is absurdly ethnocentric, but there is surprising validity in scholarly ignorance. I’m going to try and sum it up briefly.

When the Europeans landed in the Americas, they treated the native people as inferior and heathen because of their resources and lack of Christian religion. This is absurd, of course, but history has taught us that the Europeans (and white people in general) committed many mortal sins that weigh heavy on the heart. They slaughtered, they pillaged, they destroyed. There were very few scholarly conquistadors after all, to the bad luck of historians and humanity. Learning about the New World was not the purpose of their laborious trip across the ocean. They were there to find whatever gold or spices they could. They wanted valuables, not the rich history of the Aztec people. The codices that were so lovingly put together by Aztec scribes were not considered important, so they were burned. Native religions were not acceptable to the Christian adventurers, so these so-called heathens needed to have their temples torn down, their sacred writings destroyed, and the will of Jesus imposed on them all to save their eternal souls.

This was all bad enough, but with their uncaring attitudes, they also brought disease along from the Old World. The plague had gone through Europe a number of times, but there were other diseases that were just as deadly as that. Smallpox is undoubtedly the greatest killer of all time. A great number of Europeans had developed an immunity to the disease after living around the virus. The people of the Americas had no such immunity, so once smallpox came on the scene, it spread like an actual fire.

Smallpox can travel much faster than people can, so this devastating disease marched through the new territory unabashed. Communities were decimated. Civilizations collapsed. By the time European explorers arrived in modern day America, Mexico, and the Amazon rainforest, they found an empty wilderness. Instead of the millions of people who had inhabited this region, there were a few native tribes. Some modern calculations estimate that about ninety percent of the population died due to disease. These great losses were never understood, and so the explorers saw nothing but what they considered a virgin landscape, untouched by natives, ready to be sculpted in their image.

This view of the Americas continues today and permeates our thoughts about the New World. We are taught that the simple people here made no achievements, had limited culture, and were no more than savages. This is wrong. Utterly. And so we must re-educate ourselves on the history around us. It is vital so that we have a better understanding of our fascinating world.

Im not at all sorry for that miniature lecture, it is important information that we all need to know. I highly recommend you get a copy of the book, you can get used ones online for a penny on Amazon. There are other installments, too, 1492, and 1493. I have the latter one on my coffee table awaiting reading. I’ll get to that before others in my monstrous stacks of books, I think, because this is such fascinating information. I need a year off just to catch up on my reading! I have something called The Cairo Trilogy which is monstrously large, but looks utterly fascinating…

But back to the train. When I wasn’t reading, staring out the window, or catching up on my gin intake, I was listening to podcasts. One of my favorites of all time is What’s the Tee featuring Ru Paul and Michelle Visage. This is a delight because they’re such good friends, and when we listen to them chatting, it’s like being involved in a conversation with your best friend. They often discuss Broadway, pop culture, politics, PC culture, travel tips, and everything in between.

One of my favorite things is when Ru talks about his spiritual practices. He is like my Evita; I find him fascinating. He doesn’t have one particular belief system, instead he practices mindfulness and meditation every day. He is tremendously wise, and I find that many of my opinions and thoughts about the world are shared by Ru. In one particular episode, Ru discusses the “Rule of 7,” which is the idea that every seven years, our cells are basically recycled and we are different from who we were before. Every seven years brings a great change. I was particularly interested because I would be turning twenty-eight in a number of weeks and I knew that much in my life was beginning to change. I believe in this. 28 has been a time of change but deep inner peace for myself. I still have my stresses and irritations, but I have never been more unapologetically myself.

And after all of this, the landscape had changed to a scrubby brush and California was just around the next curve. I was on pins and needles to cross the border into my favorite American state. There’s nowhere that I feel more at home in this country than California. I love the liberalism, the weather, the culture, all of it. California feels like its own country, and it is a place where I belong.

San Francisco wasn’t too far off, and soon I’d be back with my cousin Pam in a place that I adore with all my heart. The weather changed and the temperature shot up. I loved the heat, so I got off on the first smoke break that I could to bask in the sunshine. It was fabulous. And there were palm trees. Reader, you know how I love a palm tree.

The train finally chugged to a stop in Emeryville, and I was on the bus. San Francisco was on the horizon, and I was swept up like I was the first night I arrived. I love the way the bridge takes you into the city, it feels as if you are flying through the skyscrapers, slowly working your way down to ground level. The buildings dashed by, I could see the restaurants, I was in love as I have ever been with The City. I could simply not wait to explore.

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My times in the Sunshine State were glorious. I feel more at ease, at home, and completely at my leisure. Everything about California satisfies everything in me.

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I love the sunshine and the weather and the liberal mentality and the chill. California is the chillest place I know, and I can’t think of a better word to explain what I mean. They are laidback in a way that rarely happens in America. The closest I have come to it is the mentality towards time in the south of France or in Egypt. Things don’t need to happen as punctually as we seem to think in the midwest. I mean, people are expected to be at their job on time and appointments are kept, but about everything else, there is a much more casual awareness of time. Dinner can be anywhere from five o’clock to nine o’clock. I like that lack of structure more than I ever thought.

And so I was thriving in California.

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The first couple nights, we stayed in San Francisco in a nice little boutique hotel just off Market Street. I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting up with a friend from work at her hotel, which was wonderfully strange. And I loved roaming the streets late at night. There is a delicious danger to a big city.

I devoured Mediterranean food at several locations and nearly lost my mind at a restaurant called Pharaohs that served authentic Egyptian cuisine. The koshari was phenomenal. I felt like I was back in Cairo eating street food late at night. There is nothing more satisfying on a cold night — and like we’ve learned together, San Francisco can be freezing — than a bowl of lentils, pasta, chickpeas, caramelized onions, and spicy tomato sauce. It heats you up from the inside in the most decadent way and fills you up with all those lovely carbohydrates. And you know how weak I am for handsome Egyptian men and the gorgeous sound of Arabic… I was in heaven.

We wandered through the Ferry Building, sipped coffee, munched on pizza in the Castro and had the most fabulous time. I don’t love San Francisco with the same abandon that I did on my first trip into town. The magic is somewhat lessened by the frequency of my visits, but there is still something in the air. San Francisco is vibrant and beautiful. And expensive. So expensive.

I spent nearly two weeks at Pam’s house with precious Papí:

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I’m so grateful that we’ve gotten to know each other over the years. It’s so nice to have family in a place I love so much. I can’t wait to make my next trip out west.

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I spent hours at the pool each day, bathing in the sunlight and going for laps.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise, which is absurd. I don’t like exercise. If I did, I would have abs and a modeling contract and be in Paris for Fashion Week. But I enjoyed swimming. I even spent hours walking on the trails, the beach, wandering through town. It was fabulous. I had the nicest time. And I met the most gorgeous cats!

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And chickens!

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And avocado farms!

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And gloomy vistas!

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And decadent sunsets!

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I was so relaxed. I’m never relaxed anymore, but on the Central Coast, I’m the Ben that I forgot I could be. There was time in the day for simple pleasures, for enjoying the world, for learning, and for loving the world around me.

The beach was an adventure every time I made it down to the beautiful Atlantic.

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This part of California is easily the most beautiful part of America. How lucky I am to have loved ones here!

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This cowboy rode off into the sunset after his hat flew off and I caught it. I handed it back to him, he winked, and I swooned.

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This gorgeous creature was a bit less romantic than the cowboy, but no less exciting.

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One of my favorite traditions each time I visit Pam is heading to Hearst Castle. This is a confection of an architectural triumph high in the hills of San Simeon. Every time I go, I’m inspired more and more for my future retirement villa in Luxor, Egypt. I think it’ll be grand. Of course I won’t go to the great expense and work William Hearst did to create his manor…I’ll have retired teacher wages, but I’m so delighted by his taste. It suits me down to the ground.

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I swear I’m not a model, I was just artistically sitting here while Pam held the camera in my general direction and took this picture when I was at my best .¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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ME LOOKING MOODY AND CANDID

We had the very best time there, we both get to dreaming. And the beaches along the Central Coast are the best of the entire state. We saw the elephant seals and the most oddly tame squirrels. They would come right up to your shoe and look up expectantly for nibbles. It was honestly a bit scary.

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It was great. And those chickens were daring.

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