"You need to wake up the tea." My friend and I watch as the store-clerk shifts different cups of oolong between his hands, careful not to spill any scalding water over their brim. "Never just poor and drink. Rinse the leaves first."
He tells us more about the tea, about the conferences he's been to and the mountains where these herbs are gathered. I can't help but sit there, just a little more than shocked and enthralled by his stories.
"How'd you end up here?" I ask, perhaps a bit rudely. It's a blunt question that almost sounds accusatory, and I don't intend for it to be like that. I'm just 23 and caught in my own crossroads, wondering how someone can find such a career as a tea-enthusiast.
He looks startled for a second. I don't blame him. But then he shrugs his shoulders and laughs. "I don't know exactly...life just fell out this way."
On Food and Travel
There are a few different types of travel buddies. We've got the foodie, the accountant, the photographer, the linguist, the primadona, the survivalist, the planner, the improviser, the...
You get the idea. We all have our own groove, and you'll notice you have some friends who you could never travel on an airplane with for an hour, let alone plan an entire vacation. It's nothing on you--or on them--but falls to a difference in style. To be honest, we need these differences, these styles of traveling and looking at the world. Sometimes we'll need a penny-pinching accountant to remind us we don't need four different snow globes with the golden gate bridge half-floating into a glycerin filled vacuum. Other times we'll appreciate the primadona's idea to get dolled up for a fancy dinner we never planned for but had nonetheless led us to dine with our favorite celebrities sitting the next table over. (Please leave them alone to enjoy the overpriced BLA, by the way.)
You're not one for hiking? Let the survivalist have her fun at least once. History? Give the museum a shot. You want authentic and out-of-your-way hole-in-the-walls, and your buddy wants to see a top-tourist-sight? Take turns.
If I had to ID myself as a specific kind of traveler, I'd say I'm a cross between planner, photographer, and survivalist. I've got my teacher-cliched love of spreadsheets and Microsoft Word, but I'm also the kind of person to throw that all out the window if it means I can get lost on a mountain top for a day or two (or three or seven or twenty). Usually I'm dying to explore the not-so-easy-to-find nooks and crannies of a destination just so I can catch a photo I'd been picturing in my head before the trip. I plan for 3pm "waterfall chasing," which even in a city can mean wandering until I find a water-fountain to read by, snap a pic, and post on Instagram. It can be annoying. I know that after five minutes staring through a camera lens, my companion is probably anxious to move on.
On this particular trip to California I traveled with a foodie. Not just any foodie, but a fully certified culinary student and a sommelier in the making. This made eating and drinking and eating some more and drinking some more a top priority--and I had no complaints whatsoever. From the million-dollar bacon at a breakfast joint on Sutter Street to Sonoma wine tasting, I indulged in a way I hadn't for a long time. But besides the obvious foodie luxuries and Instagram-able treats, we exchanged un-capturable moments with other travelers, other locals, other people over something as simple as a cup of tea.
For my foodie friend, this was something she always knew and loved about entering the culinary field. For myself? It was a conscious reminder to set aside the camera and learn. I have my reality-checks when hiking, when finding myself so in awe of my surroundings that a photo would never do it justice and so I just want to stand there, a little longer please, to feel the earth under my hands and the cold wind on my face, to stamp in the sunset and the trees on my memory. Travel hiking has always been my moment. My stand-at-the-top-and-learn-who-I-am second.
When it comes to food and travel, everyone from the Instafamous (hate myself for typing that up) to the socially inept feel obligated, at least once in their lives, to snag a photo of that delicious dessert before we dive right in. Sometimes it drags us away from the person sitting across and beside us--
--from the hostel owners setting up puzzle night while you eat the free ramen they'd offered, the best friend's boyfriend you're meeting for the first time over monstrous burgers, the woman setting another glass of wine in front of you while she talks about the weather that cultivated these grapes and her own travels.
I'm a survivalist, a hiker, a photographer--but foodie traveling teaches me a lot about others, a lot about what they have to teach me.
My Five Day Itinerary
I woke bright and early in New York to catch an 8 o'clock flight out from JFK. Since this trip fell exactly a week and a half before my NYS teaching exams, I had planned to study for my content specialty test...but I watched Pride and Prejudice instead. Go figure. Since I'm going for English Lit, that movie counts as studying anyway, right?
Truthfully, these certification exams had brought up a lot of inner turmoil in the past month, a lot of doubt. I'm not sure if I want to be a teacher in New York, if I want high school English as my ultimate goal. Part of me might believe that in going to California a week before the tests, I was running away from the anxiety of certification.
Anyway I got off the plane and headed for our hostel. It was my first time staying in a US-based hostel, as the last few times I'd been to California I'd stayed with friends or went camping. After winding around Chinatown in search of the practically hidden entrance, my uber driver pulled up to a sign-less, bright blue gate.
I rang the buzzer to be let in, door opening to a staircase that climbed past other entryways to the ground-level Hunan restaurant. Making my way up, I ran into one of the hostel employees coming down.
So began one of my favorite hostel experiences at Pacific Tradewinds San Francisco. I could blather on like a typical reviewer ("The staff was friendly and approachable, and the fascilities clean! I enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere, as well as the daily trips/excursions they put together for their guests!")
But the long and the short of it is that I felt almost at home--and I only say "almost" because I don't usually sleep in a bunk bed!
After my friend arrived, we made our way out on the town for lunch (dinner-ish?) and to walk the Embarcadero. We walked all along the waterfront, buying chocolate and cheese and other goodies from the markets at the ferry-building on pier 1, then stopped for San Francisco's sea-lebrities *wink wink nudgenudge*
(I'm not sorry for stealing that pun; the plaque on pier 39 had it written and I LOVE WORD-PLAY)
While we'd loosely planned to go to a rollerdisco that evening, both my friend and I felt pretty tired and decided to stay in watching puzzle-night. Not exactly the most thrilling, but we shared a lot of laughs.
"You're cool!" said one of the staff told me. "Just stay here. Work in the hostel!" I was half tipsy for sleep, slurrping my ramen and periodically adding more sriracha while punching two pieces together that didn't really want to be together. My study notes were discarded to my left.
"Here," another employee said, "I'll take all the tree-barky colored pieces."
"Works for me." I took another bite of my ramen and shoved the puzzle I'd puzzled on over to him.
Honestly, there isn't a lot I can say for Sunday's itinerary. Brunch at Sunflower Cafe. Wineries, wineries, and more wineries. Dinner at The Girl and the Fig. We did have a short stint where we sincerely believed we'd get ice cream from Sweet Scoops to eat both walking around Sonoma Plaza and at the AirBnB later. (We ended up asleep at 9pm with a melted tub of lavender and fig ice cream.)
Here are some photos and links to each winery's website!
Our first stop: St. Francis Winery
Between the Spanish style architecture and 360 views of mountain range and vineyard rows, I felt absolutely transported to a different world.
Second stop and winner of best atmosphere: Imagery Estate Winery
This winery has collaborated with artists for the past thirty years, so every bottle gets a unique piece of fine art for its label and the artists' work gets put on display in the estate's gallery. They also host events for their wine club, bringing in food trucks like the one pictured above while opening the lawn to croquet for those who have no idea how to play croquet.
Our last winery was BR Cohn, which also specializes in olive oil. Rather than do another wine tasting (#designateddriver), I roamed the winery's property. Golden hour, comfortable tree nooks, and a sense of perfect contentment.
Rather than just straight-shoot it back to San Francisco, we stopped at In-N-Out, hiked around Point Reyes National Seashore, had lunch in Sausalito, and roamed the Golden Gate's sprawling hills. Interspersed through all of this was a leisurely road-trip filled with laughter and (not so) friendly competition. As someone who hates driving and cars and being cramped up for hours on end--this was surprisingly one of my favorite days.
We played a game I learned in New Zealand called 'My Cows.' If you google it, you'll get some weird description of it being a strategy game in which you're trying to become a successful farmer by accumulating the most livestock.
This all sounds very complicated when, in short, if you see a herd of cows and scream out 'MY COWS' first, then you get the cows. You give a guess as to how many there are, and the person with the most cows at the end wins. Of course you're also in danger of your opponents spotting a cemetery; they can choose to kill off all your cows.
In all seriousness, the serenity of this little drive really brought a lot of clarity for me. Between three bags of Chex mix, bars of dark chocolate, and a winding road, my friend and I spoke about life, from romance to dreams to friendship to growth. I've been struggling as I try to figure out my path in life. After all I'm 23. I need to figure out how to begin my life, whether I want to stick with teaching or pursue something more creative. During this drive of crumbs-in-the-car and too-many-snacks, I had a Chex mix epiphany. I found a bit of a career-crossroads-intersection I hadn't considered before. I'm still thinking it through, but it had come to me so clearly that I almost wondered how I could have believed I'd pursue anything else.
Driving through rolling hillsides, soft music muffled by the thrumming wind, felt like a deep cleanse. Do you guys know that feeling from childhood summers? When you're in a pool or ocean and take a deep gulp of air before crawling under the water's surface, and everything sounds like it's been cancelled out, your eyes shut and your body floating in what feels almost like nothing and nowhere--and everywhere?
That's what it felt like. As I drove--the sun warm on my skin, salt smudging the wheel from my fingers, and the fields sprawled in front of me like hidden stories from Tolkien or Maurice Sendak--my heart swelled. It felt right being there. It felt right traveling and moving. I loved the moment and loved the butterflies for our next destination, from In-N-Out burgers to Ghiardelli ice cream after a long day of hiking.
Our last day was supposed to be much shorter than it actually was, but thanks to a flight delay we left San Francisco at nearly midnight. During the day, we explored the Exploratium (I demanded we do this #TeacherLena) and hunted around Chinatown for some good tea and delicious dim sum.
San Francisco's Vital Tea Leaf offers free tea tasting with as much knowledge as the sommeliers we'd met up in Sonoma. The walls were lined with shelves and shelves of large glass and metal tea cases, and a parrot crawled along an open tree branch in the back. We probably tried one too many types of oolong, and I'd gladly do it again.The overcast day led us craving soup dumplings, but the ones we got were, sadly, deflated--though we did get to enjoy some of the best pork buns I've ever tasted. My friend and I felt almost a little silly, traveling 3,000 miles away from our Chinese-American neighborhood only to crave the tea and dim sum we've always had growing up. In one way, it may feel like staying within our comfort zones; in another way, it may simply be finding a piece of home in an unfamiliar place. Another way food and travel create this odd, steady little bridge between who we are and who is the stranger passing us on the street.
Finally, we boarded our plane with little fan-fare, drifting to sleep with The Secret Garden playing as background noise, no airplane meals for either of us. The day I arrived home, I made a plan for my dreams.
***This last part I'm not sure what to say. It's an imperfect section that'll read more like a diary, off-topic in a blog post with some minor cohesion.
In the time between my trip and this post, Anthony Bourdain, an amazing traveler and chef, had passed away. Given my stories of instant ramen comradry and chex mix epiphanies, I know I don't have the culinary know-how to seem like a big fan with life-changing moments. But I still feel odd. Like my culinary life lessons from this trip had connected somehow to the things Anthony Bourdain had always spoken about regarding travel and food and people and connection--and growth.
Nothing more than that to say, really. I could end with his quotes. I could put the suicide hotline down here. We all know what it is. There's been a song already.
But I guess I want to end with love. Love for food, for travel, for the people sitting at meals with me, for strangers and family and anyone willing to both go and grow. That's it, really. Let's honor Bourdain's life.
From guides to rants.