I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in San Francisco last week for work to visit my colleagues based there.
It was the first time I’ve spent anything longer than an airport connection in the US since the six months I spent in LA and cross-country road tripping in 2011, and my first time in San Fran since it was part of a two-day stop on my year long travels in 2004.
As is often the case when I’m in an English-speaking country again, I found myself speaking to people in Spanish, especially at the airport when they would ask me something and I would respond “Sí”. I also started speaking to my colleagues in Spanish at some point and had to go back to the beginning and start again in English.
I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at how many people I heard speaking Spanish in the streets in San Francisco. I’m guessing there were lots of tourists visiting as I saw lots of families shopping heavily (because I spent all my spare time in the shops too!), but then the cleaning ladies at my hotel were speaking Spanish and the doorman at the office building greeted me in Spanish after he learned I live in Colombia. My first night was the night of the Copa America match where Colombia unfortunately lost to Chile and I saw people in yellow Colombian fútbol shirts pass by in the street.
I was surprised to find that in summer the weather was going to be around 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, the same as Bogota’s year-round temperature, but unlike Bogota where the four seasons in one day stays on repeat, it was bright and sunny (unusually lovely weather according to my friends in San Fran).
Anytime I go home to Australia or visit other Westernised countries now, I always feel guilty about putting toilet paper in the toilet instead of the bin. I’m not really sure how come in Latin America the plumbing system fails when a small wad of paper enters it, but it takes awhile to break that mentality and I always end up thinking about it for a few seconds every time I go to the bathroom.
I also suffer from nervous tipping syndrome. I’m not sure how to calculate the tip and how to avoid offending. Again, I had forgotten that in the US the published prices exclude tax, and that also needed to be taken into consideration. I couldn’t just pull out a $1 note to pay for the magnet which cost 99 cents because the final register price was $1.08. Americans must be excellent at maths with all these calculations to do to figure out the real price of something.
But I would have to say that the most confronting part of being in San Francisco, was seeing the sheer number of homeless and mentally ill people in the city streets. I was overwhelmed by the number of people talking to themselves or with someone not visible to everyone else because it would have been every second block or so.
In Bogota there are a lot of beggars, a lot of homeless people and a lot of mentally ill people in the streets. While I don’t see it often in the area where I live and work, I see it frequently in other parts of Bogota. On my last two visits back to Melbourne, I also noticed a larger number of people begging and living in the city streets than I ever recall seeing when I lived there.
But I have never seen a person shooting up in the middle of the day in the middle of the city. I have never seen a person taking a dump beside a small plaza of people eating their lunches. They were things I saw during the two lunch breaks I had in San Francisco.
On my final evening, I had dinner with some friends of mine who I hadn’t seen since I was living in Los Angeles, a friend from my hometown and his fiancee. She is an emergency room doctor at a hospital in downtown San Francisco, and when I mentioned the number of crazy people I’d seen and how shocked I’d been, she explained that San Francisco is a sanctuary city. It is where many people from across the states who are living with mental and drug abuse issues come due in some part to a more liberal and tolerant society.
My friend said that she will often see patients come into emergency who had literally just gotten off a Greyhound bus and arrived in San Francisco. And there are others that she sees on a fairly regular basis coming in and out of the emergency ward. It’s really sad.
Returning to Colombia I told Edwin about what I had seen on the streets of San Francisco. He couldn’t believe what I was describing. He hasn’t been to the US yet, so his perceptions are those that are typical for Colombians based on what is shown in the media. He has this perception of the US being clean, organised, full of opportunity, without corruption and without the poverty issues that Colombia has, with a far more advanced society and with access to programs and support for vulnerable communities.
I’m not sure if destroying Edwin’s image of the US is a good thing or not, but one thing is for sure, there is the good, the bad and the sad in all places.