Dia de los muertos in SF

One of the reasons why I love San Francisco is that the people here know how to live. Most any reason becomes an opportunity for people to come together, dress up, and simply celebrate. The most magical of celebrations, for me, are those that are mired in deep cultural tradition.

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I felt the stares on my face paint and crown of gerbera daisies as I walked through the streets down to the Mission district for Dia de los Muertos. The stares were even more apparent in the bar I stopped in at to meet friends for a cocktail enroute. But once I arrived within a few blocks of the parade, I felt more at home.

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Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) is a traditional Mexican holiday (that aligns with the Catholic All Saints Day) to honor all those who have passed. Each year in San Francisco, people dress up in traditional and not-so-traditional costume and parade through the Mission district to celebrate the holiday. Some carry candles, pictures, or altars of their beloved deceased. The celebration is an invitation for those souls to commune with the living and hear their prayers.

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In quintessential San Francisco style, it is a free, open event to anyone who wishes to partake in the festivities, and people are free to join and leave the parade as they wish as it moves along its pre-determined route through the city.

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What struck me was how carefully planned and executed many of the costumes were. While death is commonly looked at as a grotesque and ugly thing, this holiday is a chance to honor it with beauty. It was interesting to see how people expressed this artistically. My minimal face paint was nothing compared to some of these costumes.

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And of course, it culminated in a dance party as a drumming group assembled in the center of the parade. I would have taken pictures of it, had I not been too busy dancing it down.

The night ended when cop cars drove up from behind and parted the crowds from the street. I guess SF can have all the fun it wants, just not past quiet hours.

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Why? Because it’s fun!

Live music, sunshine, and bike riding are at the top of my list of things that make me happy. Put those three together, and you have one helluva good time. Welcome to the Bicycle Music Festival, which I had the pleasure to be a part of this past Saturday.

It’s been going on annually for six years now, and is a complete DIY affair, right down to the energy that is needed to power the stages. You need to work for your music by pedaling one of the many bikes that are hooked up to a giant, homemade battery pack. It is assumed that everyone will at some point during the festival contribute some sweat and calories to powering the event. An energy meter, which looks like a giant red and green thermometer, tracks the juice level of the battery. If it dips into the red, one of the many organizers holds up a sign saying “Pedal” to encourage pedalers to ride faster. (Pedalers are awarded with a spoke card that they can proudly display in the bike tires.)

The festival starts around noon in Golden Gate Park, with surprisingly great and energetic bands taking the stage. By 5pm the stage is being dismantled for transport. But the festival is not over; the fun is just beginning. A smaller stage holding two musicians and a sound system is set up on a wagon behind one bike. It leads an entourage of festival goers, bikers hooked up with wireless speakers, and bikers towing carts of stage pieces out of the park and into the streets of San Francisco.

This festival is on the move, playing music in the streets (stopping traffic along the way) as it crawls to its second venue on the other side of the city. I say crawl because, well, the poor biker towing the stage can only go so fast. And it is hard to ride a bike slowly, especially when surrounded by other bikers on all sides. But it does allow one to dance a bit while in the saddle. The head organizer is singing catchy, original tunes into his mic, accompanied by a ukulele player, while wearing a blue helmet. Safety first, boys and girls.

I wonder what the unfortunate drivers are thinking, as they have no choice but to stop and let our parade of bikes pass. Most seem amused, smiling and honking rhythmically to indicate enthusiasm. Others sit stoically in their seats, not so amused. And of course there are a few strong honks of annoyance and near-misses with bikes as they try to take advantage of gaps within the crowd.

Parading through the streets was by far my favorite part of the festival, and definitely one of the most amusing things I’ve done in this city to date. It was a pure expression of fun and joy – what can be more pure than dancing and singing outside in the streets? – with no alcohol or other substances needed. Just a bike.

In fact, the whole festival is inspiring to me since it is a complete DIY event that brings people together to share in simple celebration. No cause or greater purpose. No sponsors. No cost even (other than some cardio burn). It is an example of what wonderful things are possible when people come together around a common idea, founded simply on the desire to enjoy life.  I even made some new friends. Look how happy everyone is!!

After our 5 mile trek, the stage was set-up once again in an abandoned parking lot in Potrero Hill, where several great bands played until midnight. My favorite was one with Tunisian musicians that fused an Arabic style with funk (MC RAI they are called). Each band expressed their gratitude to be part of such a unique event, and one musician even said it was the coolest event he had ever played at. Indeed.

It reminds me that not everything we do has to be done for reaching a goal or meeting an objective. How about doing something simply because it is fun and makes you smile. How much different would your life be if this alone became your purpose?

Hello, Tree

Dear tree,

How tall and proud you stand amidst the city chaos.

Subjected to years of loud traffic passing you on two sides. Ignored by the countless people running, cycling, and walking over your roots each day. How many people have slept under your branches, and how many creatures have relieved themselves at your trunk?

What amusing stories you must have from the years of debaucherous music festivals and parades that have happened around you. A silent witness to the park’s history, you hold many secrets.

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And today, here you are, majestically smiling as the sun shines through your branches. A survivor of human pollution and earthquakes, you’ve learned to adapt to your changing environment and thrive, all while remaining a solid pillar of life for the birds, squirrels and insects that take refuge in you.

And today, you’ve inspired one girl to stop and honor you.

Expect the unexpected

The writer Steven Johnson said that our memory seems to get worse as we get older because we tend to settle into a routine that lacks spontaneity and new stimuli, causing our brain to blank out the mundane details.

I do have a notoriously poor memory, though I like to think that my life is not that boring. Maybe this is why I get a kick out of stumbling upon unexpected things in my travels.

Found on Lands End Beach: an engine, graffiti-ridden ruins of a someone’s bathroom, and a labyrinth.

But maybe if we start to expect the unexpected, we can start to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the mundane become things worth remembering.

What ordinary thing will you celebrate today?