Thursday, 31 May 2012

San Francisco & Sleeping with Royalty in Oslo

Tokyo by way of California

It turned out that the cheapest way from Calgary to Tokyo, by far, was to fly out of Los Angeles: instead of $800 flying through somewhere more direct, like Vancouver, Malaysia Airlines had flights from L.A. for $450. I decided to fly down to San Francisco, spend a few days there visiting a friend, and then spend a few days in L.A. before flying to Tokyo.

San Francisco

From when I was a kid, I've always been enamored of San Francisco: its reputation and history as hippie central, the epicenter of '60s counter culture, a bastion of American liberalism, the home of some of the most vibrant Asian communities in the West, great weather and tremendous natural and geographic beauty.

I didn't see much of San Francisco on this trip, as I was staying with a friend, Nicole, down in Silicon Valley.

Big red breathing lotus
The Big Red Breathing Lotus Flower in front of City Hall.

St. Mary's Cathedral
Saint Mary's Cathedral, near Japantown.

Sunset off Sutro Heights.

The iconic Transamerica Pyramid through streetcar cables.

The Old & the New.

I first met Nicole on a train platform in Caceres, Spain. It was a cold night in January 2002, and we were waiting for the 2:00 am Lusitania night train to Lisbon. We were the only tourists, we were both carrying SLRs, we are both Asian, and we had actually seen each other the day before in Seville—that's enough to draw even me out of my shell. I ended up crashing on her couch for a few days in Florence (she was spending a year there studying abroad) later that year. Meeting her in San Francisco was the first time in 10 years we had seen each other (despite both of us teaching English in Japan at the same time), and she asked me to repeat what was perhaps the best travel story I have (it must have been pretty good if she remembered it after 10 years).

"I've got problems"

I visited Oslo in July of 1997. At that time of year the days are long, with sunset around 10:30 and sunrise at about 4:00 (but twilight extending from two hours before sunrise to two hours after sunset). In addition to the long hours, there was something of a heatwave in the country at the time, to the extent that they actually closed the top floor of the National Museum when I was there dues to high temperatures.

The hostel I stayed at was a University residence complex, with dorm rooms converted to hostel rooms during the summer. There were two German guys in my room, as well as an African guy. The African guy seemed a touch idiosyncratic, as he was bundled up in a red down parka which he had zipped all the way up, even though this was during a Norwegian heat wave (which, to be fair, only means temperatures touching 30°C). He also had interesting hair, as it was cut so that it looked like he had a potato sitting on top of his head. Different strokes for different folks.

Since the days are long, people typically stay out seeing the sights until pretty late. I came around 10:00 or so, and the Germans arrived shortly after. The African guy started getting ready for be, and got into bed still buttoned up in his parka. The rest of us followed suit and got into bed shortly thereafter.

Soon, however, the African guy started snoring. Loudly. Really loudly. Like, window-rattlingly loudly. I can sleep through almost anything, and I was reading in bed, so it didn't bother me too much. This was going to be a problem for the Germans, however, and they looked at me hopefully. I shrugged and left them to deal with it.

They did the usual things: clearing their throats, making noises, banging on his bed. Nothing was getting through. So then one of them got up and gently nudged his leg. Nothing. A small shake. No response. It got to the point where he had to grab him by the shoulders and shake him while telling him to wake up.

This had an effect.

The African guy shot up and swatted the German guy's arms away. He started shouting, frantically asking who he was and what he was doing to him. "What are you doing? I don't know you. You could be doing anything to me. Don't sneak up on me like that or I could attack you; it's dangerous."

The German was trying to explain that he was snoring and they were just trying to wake him up. The African was undeterred in his rage. "If that happens, don't touch me or I might do something. You should just clap your hands like this! But don't touch me." At this point the German was reduced to nodding weakly and backing away while he tried to extricate himself, while his friend and I pretended we didn't know who he was. And then the African delivered his coup de grace: "And if none of that works, you should just call out 'Your Highness! Your Highness!' and I should stop snoring. But never approach me because I don't know who you are and I could hurt you." At this the terrorized German was sent scurrying back to his bed with his tail between his legs.

I fell asleep before the African began snoring, and when I woke up the next morning the Germans were already gone. The African was up and about, and he left shortly before I got myself out of bed.

He came back when I was in the bathroom, knocking on the door and asking me when I would be done. I told him I would be out in a couple of minutes, and went back to brushing my teeth. I wasn't feeling especially solicitous of his needs, and apparently I wasn't moving fast enough, as after a minute or so he knocked again, telling me through the door "I have problems."

"You're goddam right you do," I thought to myself, telling him I would be just a few more seconds.

I opened the door, and even after the night before I was taken aback by what I saw. You know those clear plastic bags that supermarkets have to put your produce in? Well, the African had procured a roll of those bags, and he had put one over each hand. He rushed past me into the bathroom, holding the roll in one hand, and as I turned the corner from the bathroom to the sleeping area I heard him start to take an incredibly loud and voluminous piss through the door, which he had been in too much of a hurry to close. I took the opportunity to leave while he was still relieving himself.

That was the last I saw of him, as he checked out while I was out for the day.

I told this story to a few people I met while traveling, and in return I've apparently been called "Your Highness" in my sleep. For some reason, it hasn't made me stop snoring.

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