Saturday, 13 October 2012

Californian Dreams and Reality

The end of a 3600 mile bike ride is a bit like the end of a school term. You think it is never going to arrive and then, bang, you're in Vallejo just outside San Fran and you have 10 minutes before you have to get on the ferry. We had time to rush a photo and sat inside the boat ordered a beer and a packet of crisps. Well done us. It was not the iconic cycle across the Golden Gate bridge I had imagined. But we had still done it. Quite an accomplishment. Something I had never even thought of doing, let alone aspired to do. Yet in the days that followed I have found many ways to celebrate the end of the first leg of our journey.

The final few weeks across California were good fun. The desert had given me some understanding of those early pioneers. 300,O00 people people made the journey between 1846 and 1860 - mainly men. 13,000 Chinese immigrants also came to California, 7 of these were women. Over the same period the Native American population in the state is estimated to have reduced from 150,000 to 3000. They did not emigrate. Food supply, disease and violence was the cause of the wipe out.

The Sierra Nevada mountains are the last mountain range before California. It was these mountains where the infamous Donner Party perished. Of 87 men, women and children who set out with wagons from Illinois only 46 survived. They took longer to cross the desert than they had hoped and got caught by the onset of winter. They sheltered in deserted log cabins and resorted to eating each other.

Our journey over the Sierras was more straightforward. We passed a final 'bears crossing' sign and descended into South Tahoe. The first part of the town has lots of casinos and then a tiny little sign and you're in California. 12% of Americans live in California compared with 0.2% who live in Wyoming. There are more people living in California than all the people from all the states we have cycled through put together. The last few days promised days of down hill. After a month at over 4000 feet we were heading into the warm sunshine state.

In our final week we were very lucky to benefit from the hospitality of folks from a site called Warm Showers. Cyclists willing to host fellow cyclists.

Just outside Sacramento, the state capital we were hosted by Matthew and Cathie. I was attracted to their profile not just because they were teachers but because they promised food, wine and a swimming pool. Not surprisingly however the best part of staying with them was the conversation and finding kindred spirits.

Matthew and Cathie were 7 weeks into term when we arrived on a Tuesday night. Their next break would be Christmas vacation. Cathie's passion for her job - a primary school teacher - making learning interesting for children reminded me of what is inspiring about great teachers . She said whenever she travels she always thinks of what she can bring back for her students. And that is after 30 years of teaching. Matthew is an art teacher but has chosen to teach drawing and painting. 'You cannot teach art' he said. But I can teach them a skill.

'When I went to art college I could only copy. For ages I hid the fact I could not draw. I wish someone had taught me'. He also introduced me to the philosopher Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell was an American philosopher who explored how as human beings we use common myths to explain our lives.

He said ''Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.''

He was fascinated by the stories used by Native Americans and different religions. Different cultures uses heroes and quests often as a way of coping and understanding life and he noted common threads across the globe.

Being on the road has given me a lot of time to think and to think beyond the classroom. The story that I wrote for myself growing up is not quite how my life is turning out. As Campbell suggested 'We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us'

It has really made me feel both very tiny in the universe and also made me consider how big and important some things are.

Meeting Matthew and Cathie reminded me of the joys of teaching and how important it is that teachers are looked after. I recently read an interview with Kathryn Lovewell (what a great surname) about her book 'Every Teacher Matters'. She talks about not being a martyr. She said:

'As a teacher, you are trained to focus entirely on the needs of your pupils and, since the teaching profession attracts people who give their time generously, teachers can easily forget their own needs. Ironically, this self-sacrificing approach does not necessarily help pupils and instead provides a poor example for the young people you teach.'

Until I chose to take a year out of the classroom I didn't really think Teacher Support Network was much of a worthy cause. My mum convinced me it was. Teachers are now paid relatively well, it's a stable job and it's supposed to be hard work, plus you get plenty of holiday and a good pension even if some of us will have to work until 68. Being out of the classroom however has made me reflect on how much of my life has been focused on my job. That's a good thing because it's great to have made a significant contribution to young people's education but teaching should be a job that can be done well without exhaustion or burn out. It should not be only for missionaries. Neither should it be a macho contest about who can work the hardest, latest or sacrifice the most. School leaders have a particularly important role in setting this culture and I am determined when I return to London schools to remember how important that is. I want teachers in my school to enjoy their work and be energised and inspired by their lives outside the classroom.

As we pedalled closer to San Francisco so we saw more cyclists. At Davis we hit biking hippie culture. There were microbreweries, a cycling museum and the first ever painted bike lane in the US. We stayed with John and Kathy members of the Davis cycling club and enjoyed the luxuries of a gas pit fire and an outdoor shower. 'Just don't look' was the rule.

So back to our final destination as a cycling duo - San Fran. We landed on the dock at dusk and found our way to the train to San Mateo where I was met by old friends. A splendid group of ladies who swim for a Masters Club in San Mateo. Truly swimming is my first love. If I could have swum round the world - and not frozen to death or eaten be eaten by sharks - I would have done. Two years ago I went on a swimming holiday in Greece and met this wonderful bunch.

Patt and Regina met us at the station and we were whisked away to Patt's gorgeous apartment for food, wine, showers and general rest and relaxation. Regina kept accidentally doing a British accent and then apologising. The following day Patt had planned a wonderful night of Moussaka and drinks for the whole gang. Patt also told us what we should do in case of an earthquake. A reminder that a city is no protection from nature's will.

Patt took us across to Half Moon Bay for our official 'we just cycled across America' photograph and fish and chips. Though because it's American fish and chips, it is fish with either fries, salad or coleslaw. Patt also gave James advice about cycling down to Los Angeles on Highway 1. I have headed north with my parents to Redding to stay with our incredibly hospitable family friends Meurig and Mary-Lou. Meurig comes from the same place as my dad - Cwmavan near Port Talbot and they have a daughter called Mari Sian. Well I never. It has been great to be in one place for a few days.

Soon after my arrival in San Fran, my parents (who have taken some time to come round to the 'So mum and dad I am quitting my job and cycling round the world with a maths teacher' idea. How unexpected.) arrived. They had brought me an 'I loves the 'diff' (Cardiff) T shirt.

One morning in the city I left our hotel at 6am and walked across the city to meet my friend Suzie for an early morning swim in The Bay. We met at her swimming club on the harbour. With my bikini, hat and nose clip we swum out to the harbour wall and watched the sun rise light Alcatraz and the Golden Gate. She and many others start every day like this. Wow.

San Francisco thrives in its reputation as a welcoming, liberal and lively city. Inhabitants are fiercely proud of this heritage and rightly so. The Castro area became the gay area of town because a group of gay men who were ridiculously discharged from the United States army because of their homosexuality settled there. By 1980 an estimated 17% of the city's population was gay.

One of the things I have noticed - that everyone notices about San Fran is the number of what Americans call panhandlers. Beggars. We were first told about these people in Cold Springs. A tiny place in the middle of the Nevada desert. Our breakfast server told us - 'Do you know they earn $100,000 dollars a day?' James feigned surprise and questioned whether that was documented.
'Oh yes' came the well evidenced reply.
On the bike trail on the way in to Sacramento we were told the same. 'there was this one guy that had $250,00 in the bank'.

I was still genuinely surprised by how visible homelessness is in the city. London has changed dramatically since the 1980s when cardboard city was a well known place on the South Bank. When people come right up to you and ask for money it poses a dilemma. I want to help you but I'm not sure if giving you money does help and I'd also prefer that you weren't in front of me exacerbating my middle class guilt. As always with any kind of complex problem, the solutions are not easy. The cause factors, as I understand are:
a mild enough climate.
a lot of people who became homeless in the 1980s are still here.
a liberal population that will not support harsh anti social policies that merely move people out of the eye of tourists.

The city has numerous organisations that are dedicated to try and help the chronic homeless. One initiative recently gave dogs to homeless people to train them and in return they had to not beg.

Mitt Romney was recently caught saying that he wasn't interested in the 47% that depend on the state. What has been good about the debate that followed is that it has made Americans talk about who gets what and who gives in. Healthcare is one of the biggest issues and language is powerful in the campaign. Socialist and liberal are dirty words in America. If you want socialist medicine it is assumed you want a Soviet style state.

So this is how it works. You work, your company pays for your insurance. You get ill. You go to the doctor. You get a bill and you send it to the insurance company and they pay.

If you live on the street, you get ill, you go to the hospital and Medicare will pick up the bill. One San Fran journalist estimated that one guy on the streets of the City had clocked up a million dollar medical bill over his life time.

If you can afford health care but you haven't been able to afford insurance and you are ill you have to pay. For example in one man Patt told us about went to the hospital and was told to go to a doctor on the Monday to have his broken arm put in a cast. He went and because he couldn't afford it the doctor would not set it. A one night hospital stay is likely to set you back $15,000 dollars. Of course your insurance pays after you pay around 20% excess depending on your policy. These high costs already pay for those who cannot afford it so why not make the system more fair?

Toby in Kansas told me about her brother who because he had leukaemia the insurance company refused to fund a bone marrow transplant until a stem cell implant had been tried. The doctors said it would not work but the insurance companies insisted. It didn't. He had the transplant but then died shortly afterward.

Obama's plan is to make insurance compulsory - like it is compulsory to have car insurance in the UK or California. And if you don't have insurance you'd pay a fine. Romney liked the idea so much he introduced a universal healthcare system when he was state governor of Massachusetts but now he's apparently changed his mind.

When I have been surrounded by Republicans it is hard to imagine that Obama stands a chance but the reality of the electoral system is that it will come down to the swing states.

And finally, back to Joseph Campbell ..

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss,
you put yourself on a kind of track
that has been there all the while waiting for you,
and the life you ought to be living
is the one you are living.
When you can see that,
you begin to meet people
who are in the field of your bliss,
and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid,
and doors will open
where you didn't know they were going to be.
If you follow your bliss,
doors will open for you that wouldn't have opened for anyone else.”

So the cycle across America is over. Next stop is Los Angeles then Hawaii then New Zealand. So we'll see if Campbell has a point. - Thanks to Teacher Support Network for creating this great interactive map of our journey


  1. Love it all, Mari!

    You bring so much detail, colour and passion to your writing, I can't wait for the next post :)

    Is Mick Romney, Mit's brother?


  2. I'm loving this blog, Mari! What you are doing is very inspiring!
    (I'm a school friend of Jimmy's) Very proud of you Jimmy - looks like an amazing trip!
    I'm going to get a few teacher friends of mine to read this blog. What you have written about teachers being looked after - I agree completely! It's such a shame when they bring such passion and value to young people's lives.
    Enjoy Hawaii!!!

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