Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Week 43.2 - San Francisco

Well, Auckland airport was quite the experience…from the couple doing their pre-flight stretches, to the barefoot man playing his ukulele (badly), the yoga man and the cheeky bastards that went behind the check in desk to plug their phones into the computer to charge, we certainly had an entertaining few hours people watching whilst waiting for our flight to San Fransisco. A 12 hour flight I was actually not too worried about after the wonderful things which we’d heard about Air New Zealand, it was just a shame that all these things couldn’t be applied to our flight. Yes the service was good, the food was better than most inflight meals and they had free wine and pretty decent movies, but for me the most important thing on a night flight is the seating. Imagine my horror when they sat us on sandbags that had your back and arse aching within 10 minutes, even if you did use the cotton wool (pillow) they provided as a buffer. Fortunately, I can sleep through any given situation and managed to get around 4 hours sleep, poor Kyle was left with none…I don’t know how much of that was his own fault mind, he did watch 6 films.

Upon arrival at San Fran airport we were sent down the U.S citizen and ESTA lane, where after a 5 minute wait we scanned our passports and finger prints, posed for a picture and got a receipt..great we thought that’s us in. Of course it wasn’t the simple, next we were led to a long line where we waited 45 minutes to do the same thing we’d just done with the machines, with a man, I mean how many times do you need our fingerprints and pictures? The guy was alright though, we had a good 15 minute chat about our travels, I don’t think Kyle was too impressed all he wanted was to get to bed. 

A 20 minute taxi journey took us from the airport to the Minna Hotel in Downtown San Fransisco. It was nice to see from both, on the plane, and on the drive that this stunning city of skyscrapers and pastel coloured houses is surrounded by blue seas, huge mountains and lush green forests. Though I am secretly hoping that they don’t build more buildings on the little nature that is left here. We checked in at 1.30pm and the first thing I saw outside our hotel, a guy preparing his heroin shot. I suppose being in a small country like New Zealand you forget the hardships and struggles of other countries, things you soon remember when you see the people on the street in San Fran, shouting, gathering in groups, smoking a lot of weed or trying to sell their belongings on the street to make some money…for the first time in a long time I got a feeling of unease in my surroundings. Thankfully a 5 minute walk takes us to the more upmarket area of Union Square. 
We woke the next morning still feeling a little jet lagged but nevertheless we were excited to see what San Fran had to offer, donning our usual attire of shorts and t-shirt we made our way outside. I have no idea how California can be classed as the golden state, (which I thought meant warm) it was that bloody cold we could see our breath! Did we go back to the hotel for more layers? No we manned up and continued on to Union Square to meet our troop for the “free” walking tour. (Free in America means, give a suggested donation of $10-$20). On the way we passed by the famous city trams making their way up the steep hills, designer stores, Macy’s, Bloomingdales and food carts. Our guide for the day was, Wes, from Wild San Fransisco tours, a eclectic guy with a real passion for his city and it’s tales. The walk began on Union Square, now a public park, Union Square was originally a tall sand dune but was developed into an area for pro-union rallies and religious gatherings, however now it is more cosmopolitan with a cafe on site and many, many stores surrounding it. 

Onwards walking took us down Maiden Lane, a former section of the red light district where many women campaigned for rights for sex workers which have since been abolished, resulting in what some believe, as an increase in sex trafficking. Lotta’s fountain on Market Street is the oldest monument in the city and the meeting place for survivors of the great 1906 earthquake, where many gas pipes burst resulting in the majority of San Fransisco being burnt down. It was here that we also learnt about how government cuts have led to the homeless crisis and how a majority of the people you see with no homes are ex-veterans or people of African-American descent.

Ghirardelli chocolate shop was my favourite stop of the day. Named after Domenico Ghirardelli an Italian chocolate maker who moved to California from South America who produced and sold chocolate during the gold rush, making him lots of money. Now, it’s not quite as good as Galaxy but its pretty good and a damn site better than Hersheys. Our final stops were in the business district, it was here we learnt about Leidesdorff, America’s first prominent businessman of black ancestry. Taken in by an Englishman on a plantation and given good care and education, Leidesdorff was sent by the same man to New Orleans to become a cotton merchant. With a passion for business and hardworking he was left the business when the English man died leaving Leidesdorff their New Orleans estate. After his wedding got cancelled by his bride to be’s parents resulting in her suicide, he moved to California and began successful businesses in San Fransisco. Leidesdorff dies of a suspected brain tumour, but many believe that there was more to his death. 

After that in depth history lesson we were taken by Wes to a public area in a mega posh building, 15 stories up. It was amazing, stepping outside we were allowed views over the city towards the harbour, spaces like these exist all over the city and are free for anyone to go to. Finally we ended our trail at the Transamerica pyramid, now the second tallest tower in the city, built in the shape of a pyramid to allow light into the city, the unique architecture came under fire from many of the local citizens who believed it was too tall. Wes however calls it San Francisco’s Eiffel Tower. 

We bid the group goodbye after a delicious Burmese lunch and made our way to Chinatown. One of the best Chinatowns we have visited since actual China, besides other tourists we were the only Western people there. Hearing everyone chatting in Chinese, meditating, eating and dancing in the parks transported us back to China itself, even all the buildings were decorated with Chinese artefacts and the streets were adorned with lanterns…if we hadn’t already eaten I think we would of stuffed our faces on the delights which were on offer. 

So San Frans hills are pretty damn steep, and taking the famous cable car up and down them is certainly a experience. We decided to get the cable car from Powell Street to Fishermans Wharf, a $7 one way journey which had us sliding off our seats on the way down the hills and feeling like we were taking off in a plane on the way up them. It was a great experience though and we got to see a lot of the city, including the tall, brightly coloured residential houses and views over the city and harbours. We’d booked the 9.30am Alcatraz tour, so it was a bit of a dash from the wharf to pier 33 to make it in time for our ferry, but a brisk jog meant that we actually got there in time to join the 9.10am trip. The 15 minute ride to Alcatraz island provided great views of the city skyline, Golden Gate bridge and the island itself, on the plus side it was a warm, sunny day too with no wind, meaning no bumps on the ferry. On arrival at Alcatraz we were greeted by a park warden who advised us of all the rules and gave a brief introduction to the island. We’d been warned that the walk to the cell blocks was difficult, and though the paths a little steep it’s actually not too bad. 

Walking into the prison and through the shower blocks (which you would never want to use) took us to the audio tour section which is a much do. The (free) headset gives you detailed explanations and stories of all the areas both inside and outside the prison, it’s also key to get there early as we did, there were hardly any people compared to the 1000’s around as we were leaving. Walking along the isles and looking up at the rows of cells gives you quite an odd feeling, you can imagine how loud and smelly it must have been when the prison was full. The cells are 5ft by 9ft and contain nothing more than a bed, a metal table and chair, a sink, a toilet and a shelf to store your goods…not a great location for spending a large amount of time. We also explored the isolation cells, these were tiny with heavy metal doors and many prisoners would be kept inside them, with no lights, for up to 19 days.

We also learnt that some prisoners got treats for good behaviour, such as access to the library and books, time in the recreational area outside to play sports, or additional items for their cells, such as headphones or paper and paint. Hearing about the attempted breakouts was a real eye opener, especially when you enter the area and see where grenades were dropped into the prison to prevent convicts from escaping and toilets that had been hacked off walls with spoons…like a real life prison break. The last stop of the tour was the kitchen, with tear gas canisters on the ceiling to keep prisoners in check and knife racks that were heavily watched to ensure all of them were returned.

Upon leaving we entered the bookstore and we’re lucky enough to encounter George Devincenzi, a former correctional officer who had returned to share his story and answer questions for visitors to the island. Alcatraz closed its doors as a prison on march 21st, 1963, as it was too expensive to keep running, however the grounds are being well cared for and maintained by the American National Parks and as well as the prison you can also visit/see the laundry rooms, wardens and guards homes, military sections and the administration building. A slightly expensive trip for us at $40 each but well worth it.

Once back on land we walked back along the water to Pier 39, a long stretch of shops, restaurants and entertainment. After watching a guy try and fit his body through a tennis racket we walked round to see the famous sea lions. There were 100’s of them lounging on platforms, fighting for space and barking for attention. The sea lions are protected by the Marine Mammals Protection act, and come and go as they please to the bay meaning that each day may see a different amount of sea lions but they will always return to Pier 39. Feeling peckish we headed to Fishermans Wharf, where after a trip to Musee Mechanique (a creepy/fun museum of working old and new 25cent machines) we enjoyed a much recommended clam chowder and Anchor Steam beer, San Francisco’s home brew. Or Kyle did anyway, I wasn’t a fan of the creamy chowder so opted for a Lobster brisk instead.

We obviously hadn’t walked enough, so we headed up the extremely steep Lombard Street to the section which makes the street famous. A one block stretch of road so steep that it is made up of 8 hairpin turns to allow cars an easy decline, though watching people slowly creep down it I don’t think I would ever fancy getting behind the steering wheel.

Having a car in NZ may have given us freedom but it also made us really lazy, and we never seemed to get lost (or too badly lost anyway). Yesterday we thought we’d catch a bus to the Golden Gate bridge, how hard could that be? Pretty difficult actually, turns out the stop Google advised was wrong, it wasn’t even the right bus number either. So after asking the kind lady at the bus ticket stand we were soon on our way to Golden Gate Park on the number 5 bus, it’s when we had to change to the 28 that things went wrong, again. Turns out putting the R after a number means it’s a rapid bus, cutting out tourist spots and getting to places quicker, if a kind man on the bus hadn't of told us about that we’d have ended up back in the city centre rather than at the bridge. 

One whole hour later and we were stood under the Golden Gate bridge, if you haven’t been it’s actually pretty spectacular. It doesn’t look quite as red close up, more of a dirty orange but still it’s bright, huge and fucking long. Rather than bike across we thought we’d walk, which when you’re not a huge fan of heights may not be the best idea, I stuck close to the cycle lane whilst Kyle took pictures from the side closest to the edge. Once we were passed the half way mark the walk got better as fewer people walk this far, we pretty much had the bridge to ourselves, which at 11am wasn’t too bad. The views back over the sea to the city centre and Alcatraz were some of the best we’ve seen, even if the fog did cloud it over ever so slightly, it’s still impressive to see how big San Fran is, and to see the differences between the centre with its sky rises and the smaller buildings of the residential areas. 

From the bridge we continued on to Sausalito, a cute little seaside town with houses that must be worth millions. We stopped to refuel with a coffee and a bagel before catching the ferry back to town, and trekking up Market Street towards the hotel. My poor little legs are crying after 2 days of full on walking.

Today it’s back on the buses, and a 7 hour journey to L.A. I’ve not read good reports about the bus services in America, but I’m hoping that this journeys not going to be too bad. I suppose I better get used to carrying my backpack again too…joy!!


Love Carrie xxx