Toothpick San Francisco

San Francisco in toothpicks. You’ve got to see this to believe it!


Humility and Roots

I learned a couple of things about myself as I travelled last month.

The first: that it takes a lot of humility to continually receive hospitality and I’m not very good at that.
The second: I’m no nomad, I need roots.

I loved visiting with my friends. It was . . . well, there aren’t really words that quantify how wonderful it was to see them again and in their natural environments too. To see their places of work, where they go to school, to meet their friends and family members, to visit their churches, and share their favourite eateries, was a privilege I was so grateful for. It’s really great to be able to put people in their contexts and now when we talk I’ll know exactly where they are speaking about!
I did find it hard, though, to continually be the one receiving. I desperately wanted to reciprocate their kindness but didn’t have the means to. If we lived in the same place I would have them round for dinner, or over to stay for a couple of nights but I just had to sit back and accept their generosity.
It was a really humbling experience. The situation makes you vulnerable; you’re completely dependent upon another individual, incapable of purchasing or attaining for yourself by any other means the services which they are fulfilling for you, services which you would be lost, homeless and hungry without. You are at their mercy.
When that mercy is gladly given, it humbles you further. That people would care about you so much to welcome you into their home, to go out of their way to accommodate you, to forego studying for their finals for you(!), you realise how undeserving you are of such kindness and how deeply blessed.

Before I left for California I had a conversation with one of my pastors around commitment to a place. I talked about my desire for adventure, the part of me that longs to leave everything behind and just set off into the sunset, not knowing where my feet might take me. Such a dreamer. In my head I thought I would be the nomad, the lonely wanderer picking up friends along the road. My pastor suggested that it was more natural, and more necessary, for us to have a centre of gravity, a place from which we could flow. He described people he knew who had tried to maintain two centres of gravity over a period of time but found it incredibly difficult and ended up choosing one place over another. So what, I thought. Doesn’t mean I won’t be successful in having no centre of gravity but simply floating as though on a cloud. (I hope you’re sensing the sarcasm here).
Just two weeks of spending no more than two nights in any one bed was enough to teach me that I am not a natural nomad. I do not thrive on that.
I want to be in one place for a significant amount of time and really be there. I want to know its secrets, its hidden gems. I want to know what makes it tick. I want to feel it. And I want to be in a place with purpose. I like to get involved, to know what’s going on in the community and contribute. Otherwise, I never really feel at peace in a place.
It’s not an easy realisation for me to accept. It sounds to me like I’m going to have to settle down in one place and there is nothing that I want less. The idea of settling, accepting less than adventure, horrifies me. Yet I have to hold that in tension with a desire and need to put down roots. Deep.
I wrestled for a lot of my trip with whether or not I would ever repeat it without returning to Scotland. I guess I partly went out to get some answers on that front. After a lot of wandering round San Francisco, whispered prayers and shouted grievances, conversations with people wiser than myself, I think I hear God saying that I’ve to go ahead and put down roots as deep as I like here in Edinburgh. I need not be scared that in a year’s time I’ll painfully have to pull myself out again, either because I’m not leaving or because, when that time comes, He will have prepared me.
The door to the USA is not closing tight. It’s got more of a revolving thing going on. And being here does not mean settling or saying no to adventure. It’s just a different kind of adventure. San Francisco may prove to be a place of refreshment and learning in the time ahead but it will not be home in the foreseeable future.
My roots are planted here.


I’ve discovered that one of my favourite things about travelling, and particularly by public transport, is the strangers that you get to meet.

Firstly there was the lovely lady that I met in the departures lounge of Aberdeen airport. Just as happened last year, I was reading my bible to to help with the last minute nerves a little, and then an older lady sat next to me, struck up a conversation and it turned out that she was a Christian too. She was headed to Gatwick to see her daughter and it was really comforting to to be able to talk to someone while we both waited on our planes.

On my flight to San Francisco I was sat next to a man from India. He had already been travelling for 24 hours having had to leave his home in India at 4am to catch his flight to Heathrow. He was headed to the city to work, something to do with computers. He had never been to the states before and was full of questions which I hope I answered sufficiently.

I had been looking forward to something of a quiet journey from San Francisco to Santa Clara, some time to reflect and process, but it wasn’t to be. Instead I met Jonathan who was headed to a job interview. He was very chatty. That much conversation would be so totally socially unacceptable in the UK! But he was friendly and enthusiastic and told me all kinds of things about the games design job he was applying for. Quite a character.

I really enjoyed my Amtrak experience and thankfully I had none of the problems I had been warned to expect. There I met a lady called Rebecca who was a bit of an old pro on Amtrak and Greyhound and she kept me right/gave me a few tips for my onward journey. She never really said what she did, only that she traveled a lot. She was carrying a guitar and sensibly brought a pillow so she could get some sleep.

At the Greyhound station in LA I met a young guy, 18 or 19, who was quite clearly high. We got to talking about college somehow and he told me he went to Santa Barbara City College. He had decided to go there because in Santa Barbara County marijuana has been legalised for medical use. So he’d managed to get himself diagnosed with glaucoma and could now smoke all the pot he wanted. Well, that’s one way to choose your college!

On the Greyhound to Porterville I first sat next to Amy. She had had quite a difficult day and night with broken down buses and missed connections as she tried to get home from college to visit her mom for a few days as a surprise! Her mom had no idea she was coming and Amy let a call from her go to voicemail so that she would think she was a work. Other than seeing her mom, Amy was desperate for In’n’Out (the world’s best fast food for those of you who haven’t experienced the joy) which she’s not had in her year away at college (it’s a California thing). On the second leg of that journey I sat next to a very lovely older lady whose name I never caught but I remember that she took a phone call from her son and one of her grandchildren was ill so when she finished the call she sat and prayed. Later in the journey she insisted on giving me a bottle of ice cold water and candy from her well stocked cooler bag. Her kindness was beautiful – we hadn’t really spoken but I’d told her I was travelling alone and she really just wanted to look after me. It was simple but perfect.

Another person I/we met, who will forever be something of a legend in our family, was the gentleman on an LA street corner who directed us to the most luxurious and delicious breakfast we had ever had. We came out of the subway station in downtown LA and were stood looking at our map trying to figure out where we should head first. He was just casually standing next to us and asked what we were looking for. We explained we just wanted somewhere to get breakfast first and after deliberating, because apparently they don’t really do breakfast in downtown LA, he suggested a place only a couple blocks down called Bottega Louie. We had no idea what we were in for but the macaroon towers in the windows and the 40ft cake and pastry counter were a pretty big indication as we walked through the door. The epitome of understated opulence.

Speaking to strangers is something quite alien to those of us indoctrinated in the Great British Reserve. It’s just not done here. But I admire and love the openness that I have experienced in the American people. Strangers needn’t be strangers for long.


I might bore you with specifics from my trip some other time but let me gush a little about the state itself first.

It is b-e-a-utiful.

Last year, I only left San Francisco for short day trips to Marin and Berkeley on the other side of the Bay. I had no idea what I was missing and I’m a little glad or else I might have been disappointed not to see it. In the past month though I managed to cover 1500miles and just about everything across the state between SF and LA.

The very first thing I learned as I left San Jose on the train was that California is a desert. I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was but I had just never realised while in the very green bay area. Every row of crops – strawberries, corn, grape vines and citrus trees – has a line of plastic piping to irrigate it. It seems a little ridiculous to me, surely it’s a sign that we’re not using the land for its intended purpose, but apparently it’s working quite well for them. And it contributes wonderfully to California’s landscape of contrast.

A contrast of ocean and mountains; green crops and golden grass; deserts and reservoirs; forests and skyscrapers; big cities and sleepy towns. Not to mention wind and fog on the coast and 100F (40C) heat in the valley.

It has all the grandeur of Switzerland and the awe factor of the Isle of Skye but there is something unique about California, or at least, it’s very different to any other place I’ve been and I love it.

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After handing in three essays (three days early!) on friday, I set off with friends to one of their parent’s houses in Kendal, in the Lake District.

It was a little odd to head south rather than north – I don’t think I’ve actually crossed the border (and flying into Heathrow doesn’t count in my head for some reason) in about three years. I’ll be a little cheeky in admitting it felt like venturing into enemy territory and to be surrounded by even more English accents than when in Edinburgh was a tad surreal. However, whilst their lakes and mountains aren’t quite as pretty as Scottish ones, they didn’t do half bad.

On Saturday we took a bus to Windermere and had a wee dander around the edge of the lake. We stopped at a very picturesque spot for our picnic lunch before carrying on through the town of Bowness and then up over a wee hill back into Windermere to get the bus home again. It wasn’t a very long or difficult walk but it was sufficient to test my severe lack of fitness and reminded me how painful walking ten miles is going to be in two weeks time!

After a lovely roast chicken dinner, cooked for us by Marty’s parents, we embarked upon quite an epic game of Risk. I’d never played before and you could kind of tell. I was doing pretty well in North America for a while before Marty decimated me and then I backed myself into a corner in Australia. Ed was soon in control of Europe but there were just too many borders and not enough troops to defend against the impressive Marty/Katrina alliance. Even Antonia, acting as the UN, couldn’t ensure Marty didn’t monopolise the whole thing and he soon took the victory as Katrina and I admitted defeat, holding on to only tiny bits of Asia and Australia. Then we played pool for a while and once again Marty and Katrina beat me quite easily before Ed came and showed us all how it should really be done.

On Sunday we went up the castle ruins in Kendal. It was a gloriously sunny day and the views across the valley were beautiful. There were many silly pictures taken and a game of Pooh Sticks (which I won!) too before it was time to return to base for lunch and then catch the train back to Edinburgh again.

I needed out of the city this weekend – cabin fever was setting in once more – and (other than Skye) I don’t think there could have been a more perfect place to go. It was lovely to spend quality time with friends who usually just put up with my moaning and nagging about one thing or another. And of course, we have another set of stories to reminisce about for years to come!

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SF: Preparations Underway

It’s been a super busy week for San Francisco prep!

You may remember the list – well, we’re fair getting through it!!

At the start of the week my acceptance packet from YWAM arrived, giving me a much clearer idea of exactly what I’ll be doing when I’m out there: everything from prayer walking to sharing lunch with the homeless, soup kitchen stuff to sending the youth out to live homeless for a day. It all looks fantastic and I can already see where I’m going to be completely out of my comfort zone, but that’s half the fun right? I also have more of an idea about accommodation, meals, hours etc. which makes control-freaky-rach a little happier.

We decided last week that I don’t need a visa because I’ll be in the country less than 90 days. I may just have to be a little careful at immigration but they are all lovely, helpful, understanding . . . Yeh, prayers appreciated for border control!

I also went to get my first of three Hepatitis B vaccinations last week so that is underway and I should be all immune before I leave.

On Wednesday I bought me some travel insurance. Up to £5million for medical expenses, £1000 for my luggage and £25 a day if I get taken hostage, with £250 for counselling if I get out alive! Bargain!

And then yesterday I booked flights. No going back now. BA had better not strike. (Prayers for 11hours on a plane also requested – I might love flying but not small enclosed spaces or jet lag, it didn’t end well last time!)

There’s also been some ground made on the finances front. After retrieving my online banking number I was able to access my account to see how much money I have – it’s not looking too bad. I’ve discovered a couple of grants I can apply for and one of my most particularly amazing friends has started organising a fundraiser! Without me asking or anything, she’s just gone ahead and done it = wowzers.

So really, the only things left to do are getting some money, figuring out how I’ll access it in SF, looking into phones a little more and buying some new shoes. Oh, and praying. Lots and lots of praying.

That. Is. All.

But it makes it all very real and very scary.

I go from being ecstatically excited one moment to almost having a panic attack the next. It’s making life interesting to say the least.

But God is good. Bigger and better than it all. He’s made all this happen in a week and will make everything happen in the next few months too.


SF: Lists

I have a funny feeling that every time I call home now,  is going to result in a list of San Francisco related things to do.

Tonight’s conversation resulted in the following:

  • Phone consulate about visa
    • Research cost of going to London to get it vs. going to Belfast to get it
  • Get Hepatitis B vaccination
    • ask health professional if there are any other vaccinations I should get
  • Ask YWAM about specific dates/timetable
  • Book flights
  • Make fundraising plans

Less important but also weighing on my mind:

  • Money whilst I’m out there – possibly opening new, no currency/foreign exchange account
  • Phone whilst I’m out there – buy one there or get mine unlocked
  • Shoes – going to need a new pair of trainers
  • How does one survive without weetabix, blackcurrant squash or real chocolate for 2.5 months?

You and I might be thinking “there’s aaaaages!! Four months is pleeeenty of time”. My parents thinks otherwise so I should get on these asap!

Edit: I am also adding health and travel insurance to the list . . .

SF 2011

I’ve just received the very exciting news that I have been accepted to be a part of YWAM San Francisco’s Summer of Service programme!!

This is EXCITING!!!

(I’m excited, BTW)

This means that I will be spending two and a half months this summer working with the youth groups who come to YWAM SF for a week of mission in the inner city. The base is only a stone’s throw from the affluent shopping and civic districts, the street it is on intersects with the famous cable car road, but I’m unlikely to see much of this. We’ll be working in the Tenderloin – an area known for homelessness, illegal drug trading, prostitution etc.

It’s likely to be the hardest I’ve ever worked in all my life. I imagine it’s going to take more than the physical, mental or spiritual strength I can muster. I’ll see, hear and experience things I’m not going to be prepared for or know how to deal with. I’ll admit to being scared about it – 2 1/2 months on the other side of the world from all my friends and family is petrifying. AND I hate long haul flights!

As passionate as I am about Scotland and about serving the people who live here and are suffering, this is an excellent programme that will train and equip me to return to Scotland and work for change.

I’ve been speaking about doing a mission trip some summer for years. I’ve been talking about going to America for quite some time too. I don’t know that anyone really expected me to do it. I didn’t really expect me to do it! But here it is. And I can’t wait, because I’m certain that. whilst being possibly the toughest 10 weeks of my life, these could also be the best 10 weeks: when I have to truly rely totally on God and get to learn all kinds of incredible lessons from Him.

So now there’s lots of planning and preparing to do. Lots of reading and praying. Finances to gather. A visa to get. But I think I’ll revel in the excitement for a few days first!

Skye, the 2nd

A few weeks ago my good friend Faye moved to the beautiful Isle of Skye for her probationary teaching year and it just seemed good mannered that we go and visit her as she settled in.

So Ruth skived work for a few days (or took a legit holiday, but skived sounds more fun!) and she, Stef, and I, headed North West once more.

I know you’re sick of me saying this, but it is the most beautiful place EVER!

It gets me: every time.

We didn’t do too much: Buffy the Vampire box sets, Sheepskin shopping, pub lunch, kilt rock, fairy glen and church. Nice and peaceful, just what was required.

It was great to be able to spend a last few days with Faye, Stef and Ruth before coming back to Edinburgh. I don’t know if they’ll believe me when I say it but, I really do miss them (and Pamela too) when I’m down here.

There was one particularly adventurous part of our trip and that was the journey home. We managed to take the Perth road out of Inverness (none of us is sure how) so had to take a wee detour over the Lecht to make it back to Aberdeen.

It led us to stunning scenery, such as this:

Good huh?

I will be the first to admit, however, that I was not entirely at ease with this – not so – minor detour. Unscheduled change never goes down well with control freaks like me. I thought it was very telling that, despite my insistence that I was fine, Stef and Ruth both knew I was freaking out a little in the back seat. They know me too well!

But we made it in one piece (despite Ruth’s tendency towards road rage) and with some cracking memories to add to the Skye collection!


I spent the last few days with my family in London, a little surprise addition to my parents Swiss rail holiday. It’s been ten years since my first visit to London and I didn’t exactly fall in love with the city then. The size and busyness of it all scared me a little then, and though that part of it has probably gotten worse rather than better, I’m less likely to get trampled now, so I’m a  little more able to cope!

After walking through some of the city and seeing numerous famous sites, including Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, we went to the Tower of London. It was really interesting! Lots of murderous history and brilliant exhibits, including armour from throughout the centuries and, of course, the crown jewels. S-H-I-N-Y!!!! Mum and I then walked down the Thames and crossed the (thankfully not too wobbly) millennium bridge to go to the Tate Modern. I’m not a huge fan of lots of old school landscapes and portraits but do love more modern art. We saw pieces by Matisse and Picasso, Warhol and Lichtenstein. I think my favourite exhibition was Dalam by Simryn Gill, a collection of photographs of the interior of 240 Malaysian living rooms. I love that every room tells a different story and we have no idea if the story we concoct is true or not. On Monday evening went to see Avenue Q – “about the lovably hopeless characters on a downtown New York street trying to make sense of life’s burning issues: love, work, relationships and, above all, just how are you supposed to pay the bills with a BA in English?” It was hilarious and the songs were really catchy, definitely one to see. Oh, and it has puppets.

On Tuesday we spent the day at the Imperial War Museum, looking at tanks and uniforms and posters and just anything and everything from both world wars. They have brilliant interactive trench and blitz “experiences” too and the cafe was serving food made from WW2 rationing recipes. We spent most of the afternoon in the Holocaust exhibition which, other than Auschwitz itself, has to be the best one I’ve seen. It covers two floors of the museum and every aspect of the Holocaust; a vital educational resource for people from around the world. In the evening we went to see The Lion King!!

It. Was. AMAZING!!!

I’ve wanted to see it for forever (Lion King was and is my favourite ever Disney movie) and it completely lived up to my very high expectations. In fact, just so you understand how happy I was to be there, and how it absolutely brilliant it was, I’ll even admit that I cried during the opening! (Cut me some slack okay, it’s very emotional!)

We just had time on our last morning for the boys to go to the natural history museum to see dinosaurs and the girls went to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tapestries, theatre stuff, jewellery and architecture. You could spend a week in there and I’d love to go back and look properly some time.

So, it was a brilliant few days in the capital, plenty sight seeing, though with all the walking my feet need a holiday of their own!

Skye 2010

I think after four years of going I can definitely say that my wee trips to the Isle of Skye are an annual thing!

This time I went with four friends from uni for three nights staying in a couple of hostels.

It was AMAZING!!!

I drove lots, we walked lots, we changed the car tyre, removed a tic, cooked, saw sheep, slept, drank good Skye brewed ale, saw sheep, visited the distillery and the fairies, ate ice cream, saw sheep, visited castle ruins and museum, stood in awe of the scenery and the amount of sheep.

The beauty of this island never fails to amaze me. It never gets old, in fact, it gets better every time.

Looking forward to next year already

Skye – part 3

Okay, so now you pretty much have the day by day rundown, I thought I’d also let you in on some of the smaller, slightly more random things that are always the type of things which stand out for me.

First of all is sheep on the road. I got very excited when it first happened and to be honest it never fails to amuse me. It’s just something that I completely associate with Skye and in particular the complete disinterest of the sheep in the cars – their attitude is very much, “I was here first – it’s my piece of road – you will wait your turn”; as they give you a bit of a glare. And of course there’s always a chance of a nice piece of lamb for dinner!

The other thing I really love about Skye are the roads, or more precisely driving on them – it is so much fun!! High speeds (though I, of course, stuck to speed limits!) around windy roads with few other drivers and amazing views. The chance that another car could be hurtling around the blind corner of the single track road right towards you keeps you on your toes and makes it even more exciting. Getting stuck behind tourists only doing thirty does, however, bring out the worst in me. It is so much more challenging and interesting than driving round the suburbs or town centre. We only had one incident of clipped wing mirrors and you just shouldn’t listen to Stef about the overtaking on Loch Ness – I had plenty of time!!

The Gaelic Salms in church on Sunday morning once again gave me goosebumps – there’s just something about it, so beautifully haunting.

Sitting on that rock watching the sunset was quite possibly the most at peace I’ve felt in about a year – all thoughts of work and results and university were forgotten as I considered Stef’s suggestion that God had crafted that view just for us, there and then, to sit and look at. I’m sure many others have been priviledged to enjoy it too but that God knew as he created it that we would one day sit and look at it amazes me.

So that was Skye – now it’s on with life in the real world, at least until my next visit.

Skye – part 2

Okay, you ready for this??

After quite literally months of anticipation, a whole two hours of planning and just 5/6 hours sleep at 11am on Sunday 7th my friend Stef and I left the granite city for a week on the beautiful Isle of Skye!!

The drive up was pretty uneventful – Stef stayed awake all the way to Keith, far better than my estimation of Inverurie, and then I was on my own until Inverness where we stopped for some shopping. We made it to Kilmuir, in the very North of Skye where we were staying, just in time for the evening service which was lovely after a long day travelling and quite a contrast to Frenzy the day before. I have to be honest though, and say that I probably preferred the small service of maybe thirty people in a building nearly 100 years old to the gathering of 7000 or so the day before.

On our first day we went to Dunvegan Castle, the stronghold of the Chiefs of the MacLeod Clan for nearly eight hundred years! We took a small boat out on to the loch to see the resident seals and then had a look around the castle before taking a walk through the gardens.

That evening we took a walk up the road, further towards the most northerly tip of the Island and climbed a wee hill (not even a molehill in comparison to most of the mountains on Skye) to watch the sunset over Harris in the distance – at least I think it’s Harris, Hector can correct me! It was really quite something. I can’t understand how people think that a world as beautiful as ours can happen by accident.

The next day we took a boat from Elgol to Loch Coruisk – an isolated loch, surrounded by the Cuillin mountains and  inaccessible except by boat or foot. With three hours to spend ashore Stef was determined we were going to walk all the way round it and did a great job of ensuring I made it. I was very grateful that she was there to chivvy me along – I would probably have gone for the shorter trip and just pottered about at the mouth of the river if it hadn’t been for her and the views were most definitely worth the walk! There were some precarious moments through bogs, over boulders, when Stef attempted to climb a very large rock, and I was never certain that we’d make it back in time for our boat home but sure enough we made it in plenty of time and in good health. My day was absolutely made when we got back on the boat and were offered a cup of tea and a piece of shortbread – some of us are very easily pleased!

On Wednesday we went to the Museum of Island Life – a little glimpse into the history of the Island and particularly life on the crofts over the past two hundred years – and then spent some time in Portree visiting all the little shops full of lovely things before heading home, where I hada nap and Stef cooked the roast for dinner!!

On Thursday we went to Talisker Distillery and each had our first dram. It burned is all I’m saying!! We went on a tour around the distillery and saw how it all works, giving me time to sober up (yes it was necessary – alcohol really does have that much affect on me!) before we spent the afternoon driving around Waternish (North West part of the Isand) from one craft shop/ visitor attraction to another. Stef bought some wool at Shilasdair where we saw how they dye their own wool and then we went to Skyeskyns and learned how they still tan the skins in the traditional way. Going into their showroom was perhaps a mistake however, because I walked out with something that looks like this:

Except, mine is more beautiful! I really wrestled with myself about it – and still feel a little guilty – but I needed a souveneir and what better to remind myself about Skye than a sheepskin!!

We had a bit of a lazy day at the cottage on Friday before Stef’s big day running the Isle of Skye Half Marathon on Saturday. She did really well and made us all very proud though I believe moving is now proving somewhat difficult!

On Saturday night, Stef’s parents took us to the very prestigious Three Chimneys restaurant. I have never been and probably will never go to a restaurant nearly as posh again – we had pre-starters and pre-desserts!! I spent most of the night in a state of complete shock at the sheer amazingness of it all – the setting, the building, the service, the food – it was all impeccably fabulous! My parents had always spoken of it like something that was far beyond our means, something I could hope to experience one day, far in the future if I saved up for a month or so, so to actually be sitting there experiencing it was really quite cool.

Then, unfortunately it came time to return home.

Well done if you got through that but I’m afraid there’s more to come . . .