Monday, 29 October 2012

I'm loving Angels instead

It is not every day you find yourself on a remote Pacific island discussing an evacuation of your hostel due to a tsunami warning. The earthquake in British Columbia had tsunami sirens sounding signalling a need to move to higher ground on the Hawaiian islands. It reminded me of many other crises I have faced through work like when we had a mad man on the roof. Usual rules apply - keep calm, make a decision based on the best information available and communicate clearly. There were 20 of us who evacuated en masse to the lobby of the Holiday Inn. There are worse places to hang out and they were - in fairness - very tolerant of our beer drinking. Thankfully the waves didn't amount to much and today island life continues as normal.

James and I are here on a break from cycling meeting up with friends and loved ones who have flown out to see us. It is wonderful to be around familiar faces as it can be hard to make connections in a new place.

Los Angeles is a massive sprawling city. I knew I was only there for a short time and was unsure of how to make the most of my visit. Like London, LA can be overwhelming. What does it mean to 'do' a city? Having driven down from San Francisco I did not want to experience LA by car. Reunited with cycling buddy James, we were lucky enough to stay in a friend's apartment near the marina. Thanks Mari Davies.

Santa Monica and Venice Beach are neighbouring and merging communities on the coast of LA. They reminded me of Islington and Camden by the sea. Santa Monica is upscale and Venice Beach has medical marijuana on sale with people dressed in green giving out cards. Most people do drive but they also cycle and walk along the beach which go to make these communities feel friendly and safe.

I was lucky to be invited to join a morning ocean swim with a friend Michael who has run 13 marathons, the last in 2 hours and 39 minutes.

I got to the car lot at 645am as planned. I scrambled around in my spare change to fine money for a parking ticket. Another guy politely asked the homeless guy who was sleeping by the meter to move out of the way.

So there I was in my bikini, in a dark LA car park.

I started talking to people in the lot who were putting on wet suits (triathletes love a wet suit) and soon identified the swimmers.

The sun was just rising. The ocean looked calm and as soon as I put my feet in the water I was relieved that it was relatively (relative to San Francisco Bay and any British water) warm. Through the break waters and out to a buoy. These guys could swim. We swam along the beach toward the candy coloured lights of Santa Monica pier.

There is something about the feeling of swimming that feels incredibly primitive, especially swimming with others. You have company and solitude all in one. Humans were designed for group survival. Swimming in 'pods' gives you courage to swim harder and safer. Sharks like lions pick off the weakest.

Just over a mile we regrouped and turned back. It was hard to sight the others when swimming into the sun. One minute you are in a watery valley and next on the peak of a swell. Back to the buoy and then in - easy. I relaxed and swam back in. I glanced to where I thought the swimmers were but I had lost them. I was metres from the beach but felt disorientated. I had hit the break waters. I tried to stand up but there was no sand. I swam further in and saw a woman (Alison) and her yellow cap. I stood up and saw her pointing behind me. I looked around and saw a smallish wave as it crashed around me. The power of the sea in that tiny wave was incredible. It pushed my goggles off my face and soon I had lost them in the surf. I had to concentrate hard to keep my balance. I was glad to get my feet back on the beach.

Delia, one of the swimmers, kindly invited me for coffee and it felt good to make swimming connections 1000s of miles from home. I was given a Santa Monica Bathing society swim hat and felt like I had lived like a Santa Monican. This is what visiting a city should be.

America is a huge diverse country and yet it is through these connections that I have understood its rich collage. Statistics give a frame work but it is these nuances in society that fascinate me. Trends, changing habits and ideas give clues to how the future might look. My personal prediction for fashion: Wide legged jeans have got to be back. I have see them on Venice Beach and I am sure I have been wearing skinny for too long. Remember you read it here first. Or maybe you didn't and I'm already behind the curve.

Another example of understanding a place through local connections was when I headed north with my parents to visit family friends in Redding. Proper rest and relaxation. One day stands out in our visit. Mary Lou had very kindly done her research and found the local folk group for my dad who plays the fiddle. The standing joke throughout the week was that Mary Lou had invited an orchestra sized group and they were probably going to be moving in. Sunday came and I accompanied my dad and Meurig (confusingly the same name as my dad) to the Sunday practice.

And there I was. In the middle of a place most people have never heard of - (Redding California) in a circle of people and my dad is teaching them a Welsh folk tune. After the practice four of the lads joined us at Meurig and Mary Lou's for more playing, singing and musical exchange. Mary-Lou had cooked me a cake that said 'Way to go Mari' and showed our route across the states. I felt very lucky and loved - and like I belonged.

Be it cycling, swimming, politics or whatever floats your boat, (Did I really just say that?) modern cities are full of these sub groups which give all of us belonging beyond ourselves. Newspapers and blogs add to this feeling of belonging so that you can still feel that in a city.

Starting making those connections can be hard and I found it very difficult when I first moved to London but now, even miles away from friends family I feel still part of communities in London and increasingly with friends in different places across the states.

Connections are complex but technology means connections can be world wide and borders are less significant. In Hawaii I followed the same logic. I found the Waikiki Swim Club on line and signed up for a stoke improvemen at the university and was welcomed to the swimming fold. Tomorrow I will be joining some of these swimmers to start my day with an ocean swim.

Technology offers an opportunity to challenge the tendency for us as humans to be unafraid of the unknown. Technology however also can take us away from the moment. I went into Starbucks in Waikiki and saw rows of people on lap tops and phone plugged into to a virtual world. The room was silent. Perhaps no different from everyone reading the newspaper or perhaps many lost opportunities. When we were cycling across America we went to so many local cafes with a group of over 60s all starting their day with coffee and a good gossip. To live in the moment rather than the virtual moment has got to be important. I will try to take the advice myself given how much I can be addicted to Facebook.

We can only experience life by moments and learning to enjoy and appreciate the now is one of my challenges for this year.

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