Walking through the streets of downtown San Jose on a Sunday morning was a surreal experience. Having trudged through a selection of the busiest airports the previous night, the city had a kind of lifelessness to it, and as we searched for larger groups of people or bustling streets, we began to get the feeling we were oblivious characters in The Truman Show, the wide, clean, sunny streets our stage. It was a typically sunny morning – just what we expected from California – and the perfect uniformity of the roads lined with palm trees and new, nondescript buildings gave it the quality of a film set. Or perhaps it was just that, coming from dreary autumnal England, everything we saw reflected that which we had only ever seen in Hollywood movies: yellow fire hydrants on every corner, four-lane roads with huge street signs at every mammoth intersection, pavements teeming with skateboarders, all set to a backdrop of awe-inspiring golden hills.
As if all this wasn’t cinematic enough, as we wandered we spotted young men playing catch with a football (not soccer, the other one) in a park area, shortly followed by a couple dressed in extravagant costumes and make-up in a ‘Day of the Dead’ style: their faces were completely deadpan, giving the impression this was in no way unusual. Further down the street, past bagel bars, burrito shops and Philz Coffee (with a queue out the door), were endless groups of young cheerleaders, closely followed by a few budding American football players in full uniform. Then, just as we’d decided to amble back to the hotel, a rumble of drums echoed in the distance. Drumline? we thought. Surely not. Everything had been far too predictable so far, and this was just the icing on the cake. Like hungry hounds we briskly turned on the spot and followed the sound until its source crept into view. There in front of us was a great mass of vibrant feather headdresses, bare dancing feet, powerful incense, painted faces and frightening masks: a parade of Hispanic men, women and even tiny children (some still in pushchairs) moving to the beat of two extraordinarily loud drums as part of the Día de Los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) celebrations. The group of thirty or more dancers passed us in a colourful blur and we raced after them down the street until they stopped in a square by the sidewalk and continued in a ritualistic dance, led by a masked man with a conch. To make way for the parade, other masked dancers appeared to stop traffic simply with the power of their aura.
We stood and watched the dancers for a good while, unable to believe our luck in happening upon such an event. Gradually the crowd of spectators grew and grew, and soon we were surrounded by people eating Mexican food and handing out free orange flowers through a cloud of strong incense. We eventually managed to pull ourselves away, and off we went to play our own drums in a huge conference hall, in preparation for the gig a couple of days later in front of 5000 people.
After relatively demanding tech and dress rehearsals on Sunday and Monday morning, Monday afternoon was our chance to go out and explore. After a great deal of deliberation, we hired a car and headed for the Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Boulder Creek. As soon as we got into the SUV on those wide American roads, it felt like freedom was ours. Every house we passed looked like the quintessential family movie location, with clapboard covered in Halloween decorations, tree-lined sidewalks, and always in the distance were those rolling California hills. We followed Bear Creek Road all the way to Highway 9 and Big Basin Way – a route we’ve since discovered is notoriously dangerous for all its winding turns along cliff edges. Of course, we went on the one night of our stay that it rained, and since nobody involved in our group outing that day had ever driven overseas, we found ourselves on slippery roads travelling on ‘the wrong side’ in an automatic car. Novices, we were, to say the least, but fortunately our drivers did an impressive job, and were suitably scared out of anything close to dangerous driving by the unfortunate car we passed that was being toed back up the cliff edge in a particularly ominous fashion.
Boulder Creek itself, a small town in Santa Cruz County, was both bleak and idyllic in equal measure. One main street of food stores, old saloon bars, the odd pizza place and a gas station made up the town centre, tucked deep into the forest. Looking up the road between old cafes and pickup trucks, we could see mist hanging like cobwebs between layers of towering pine trees. The low cloud and constant rain that day gave an eerie quality to the wilderness backdrop, while in the foreground impatient drivers honked their horns as workmen dug up the one through-road for the whole town.
We stopped to pick up a late lunch at the local farm food store, full of healthy and interesting produce typically found in bohemian neighbourhoods, and were offered advice by friendly locals on which vegan wrap to purchase (without asking for it, I should add). We had come from the mild, sunny city completely unprepared for the great outdoors and must have stood out a mile, but received remarkably warm greetings as opposed to any small-town animosity.
After purchasing our falafel, vegetable samosas and mystery health drinks, we were back on the road. On our way towards the redwoods we passed charming countryside houses dotted throughout the forest, where we presumed people must live wholesome lives, and even these were covered in witches, skeletons, pumpkins and fake cobwebs. Reaching the National Park itself we were astounded by the natural beauty of the place. We exchanged a few words with the woman working at the Visitor’s Centre, predictably joking about how we must have brought the rain with us from England, and she playfully thanked us, having endured droughts over recent years which put the redwoods at great risk of dying out.
Now that it was beginning to get dark (we really had spent a long time deliberating about what to do that day), we took the shortest walk through the forest, feeling like characters in the Blair Witch Project as we wandered through the mist at dusk, expecting any moment to be split up by some unfathomable event. The trees themselves were astonishingly large, many of them between 1000 and 2000 years old and around 300 feet tall. One or two were burnt out in the middle, which had created a huge space inside: a tree-shaped room, the trunk its walls. We took full advantage of this by doing the choreography for one of our drumming pieces in this unique space, which was then filmed on the phones of unsuspecting passers-by who seemed to feel they’d caught a magical moment on camera. We can now say we have done our routine inside a tree. That can be added to the long list of things I never thought I’d say.
That evening we returned to the hotel reasonably late and went in search of food in downtown San Jose. We ended up at a video games bar, playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Wii while we ate pizza and fries and drank Root Beer. It had the gaming nerds among us starry-eyed, and was perhaps the only kind of drinking establishment where the aggressive shouts and screams of customers from across the room did not pose any kind of threat. No bar brawls here, just impassioned outcries aimed entirely at fictional characters on a screen.
The following day was bookended by gigs: preparation for the first beginning at 6am, the gig itself completed just after 9am, while the second took place in the evening. We packed up after the morning performance while listening to American entrepreneurs onstage giving motivational speeches that contained more references to baseball than we could ever pretend to understand. I took the opportunity in the middle of the day to meet with family friends for lunch in the heart of Silicon Valley. We drove out on the highway between numerous company ‘campuses’ where professionals live out their working lives and coffee breaks, to an area full of restaurants surrounded by nothing but fast roads and hilly horizons. There was a choice of every type of world cuisine imaginable, and we ended up at a Malaysian place that was jam-packed everyday by 12 noon. Given the lack of residential areas in this part of town, it was clear just how many people work in the area. It also seemed, as we caught up on news of each others’ families, that we could have been almost anywhere in the world, except for those imposing hills all around us; green on the west side towards the ocean and golden to the east – a natural compass.
The gig that evening was lively and exciting, our main role being to draw the crowds into the City National Civic, a concert venue that has previously hosted performances by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Randy Newman and Barbara Streisand (I took note as I wandered down the autograph-lined corridor). We danced and drummed our way into the main hall to find an outrageous laser show that supported our act perfectly, and eventually drummed our way out again to make way for headline band Third Eye Blind. While it seemed every American attending the conference was their biggest fan, they were less familiar to us, except for a vague sense that we’d heard them before on the soundtrack to at least one teen movie from the nineties or early noughties. (It turns out we were right: they featured on the soundtracks to American Pie, Me Myself & Irene, and Coyote Ugly among many more.) So far America was everything we were hoping for and more.
Our own gigs were a great success and this was largely due to the support of the people we were working with: stage managers and organisers who offered words of support and encouragement at every possible moment throughout rehearsals and performances. This display of good character seemed to stretch beyond the realms of work and into every part of leisure as well. Californian ‘service with a smile’ is more than just that. Whether we were indulging in a fancy meal (admittedly that was just the once), asking for advice on where to go in San Francisco at the hotel’s front desk, or simply ordering a coffee, every employee went above and beyond the line of good customer service. By the end of one meal we felt like the waiters who had served us were our best friends, despite knowing nothing about them; meanwhile the baristas at Philz Coffee in downtown San Jose merrily called out ‘I can help!’ with a beaming smile instead of the bored-sounding ‘Who’s next?’ we’ve come to expect at home. What was most satisfying was the apparent passion, whether genuine or not, shown by many for their work, perhaps most perfectly summed up by the waiter who insisted our wine was ‘a Pinot that acts like a Merlot’. We nodded in faux-agreement, looks of bewilderment faintly glowing in our eyes. Even if this waiter was simply acting like a enthralled connoisseur just as the Pinot was acting like a Merlot, we believed him, and it made our evening altogether sensational.
After a night of post-gig dancing and merriment in the downtown bars with various colleagues and conference attendees, we had one final day to ‘go see the city,’ as we’d been so instructed to do by so many. ‘The city’ was not, as we’d originally thought, San Jose, but the more vibrant city of San Francisco, an hour up the road. Having last visited with my family almost a decade ago, San Francisco still held precedent in my mind as one of the world’s most inspiring metropolises. When we arrived over the hills into this beautiful urban chaos, my excitement was reignited. We only had half a day, but we used it well, beginning at Crissy Fields in Golden Gate Park, overlooking that striking red landmark across the bay. On our way towards it we passed numerous houses with an unspoiled view of the bridge, so expensive ‘you can’t even touch them,’ said our taxi driver, yet still every one of them was covered in extravagant Halloween decorations; even the wealthiest aren’t above this spooky holiday. It was a glorious day, all clear blue skies and sunshine – summer, I’d been told, happens later in San Francisco – and even the top of the bridge, which is so often covered in low cloud, was in perfect view. All around us was the idyllic American setting: dog walkers ambling along the beach, the sun low in the sky, the bridge on one side and a city silhouette on the other, Alcatraz looming just far enough away in the distance. There are moments that it feels good to just stand, stare and appreciate. This was one of them.
After taking enough photos of the Golden Gate Bridge to make those back home bored, we ordered taxis to Haight Ashbury to see what was on offer in one of the hippest districts ever known. After mooching up and down Haight Street and exploring its range of bohemian shops, we bought colossal sandwiches in Haight Street Market, yet another large farm foods store. Sitting outside in the street with a sandwich, surrounded by giant pumpkins, the odd busker and hippies selling handmade gifts, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Locals recommended interesting bars around the corner but soon enough we knew we’d have to leave for the airport. In the final ten minutes before our departure I ran to Rasputin Records and quickly browsed through its immense music collection, and in what felt like a heartbeat it was time to go. Our taxi took us on a scenic route up and down San Fran’s steep streets, through beautiful neighbourhoods of colourful clapboard houses overlooking the striking city below. Our short visit once again whet my appetite for the place and left me wanting more. Apparently house prices in San Francisco have now been driven so far up that it’s too expensive for most people to live there. This is hugely unfortunate, though unsurprising, but I still plan to pass through again soon, and take my sweet, sweet time.
Arriving at San Jose airport for our final departure, we were greeted by a group of giggling airline staff, who appeared to be having a lot more fun than one typically expects in an airport. Little did they know it was about to get better. When they asked what it was we were doing in the USA, we decided it would be fitting to launch into a dance routine with a cappella beats. If you happened to pass the front desk of San Jose airport at that precise moment you would have witnessed some dancing drummers surrounded by a bunch of enthusiastic, clapping, cheering airline staff and a few cheerful strangers who latched on along the way. During our time in California I had seen a man being pulled along on his skateboard at breakneck speed by a small dog on a leash; detected evidence of sushi burritos; listened to a lot of Spanish radio; witnessed a man taking photographs of his new trainers in various scenic settings for a good hour; enjoyed the rain; danced inside one of the most enormous trees I have ever seen; attempted to motivate 5000 accountants and business developers before nine o’clock in the morning, and now this. It had been, at the very least, entertaining, and at best, friendly, inviting, hilarious, and something we need to do a whole lot more of.
America, until next time, please take good care.