Time for another city: my travels in San Francisco

When debating whether to extend my travels in America with my suitcase in tow, I decided that I simply had to amend my ticket and visit the city made famous by the lush, stunning cinematography of Hitchcock’s Vertigo: San Francisco. As far different as possible from LA’s boulevards and beaches, I arrived on a Saturday morning to the blistering cold that characterises the city. A worthy note for anyone who travels with United or American Airlines by the way before I continue, suitcase charges exist like they would for a budget airline in the UK, and you’ll end up paying them. Anyway, the first day, like my first in Los Angeles was difficult to adjust to, in such a grand city: alone, and I was given an unforgettable first impression of San Francisco’s major problem just merely by stepping off the subway: poverty. At 8:30 in Union Square, suitcase in hand, confusion in my face, I was approached by a woman who looked ready to speak to me. Her appearance was pretty poor from a distance, and up close was almost intolerable – her hair was caked in a blanket of dandruff, her skin was the colour of an old sticker imprint; a heady fusion of yellow and grey, and the smell emanating from her indicated that she hadn’t pulled on a clean pair of panties since Obama got elected. Looking at her as she snarled at me, I noticed she was preparing to produce some fresh spittle to fling in my face, as it were she just managed to dribble slowly down her (very) stained jumper: sad really.

Pier 39.

If L.A. had a problem with race and integration, the city of the Golden Gate Bridge had major issues with poverty. Just two minutes of walking (slash running) from my least favourite hobo, I asked a guy for directions to a bank, the chirpy guy was really rather helpful because it was on his way, so he walked me to the bank. He then asked me to buy him a cake and a coffee for his troubles (and a generous compilation of drugs no doubt had I been stupid enough to say yes or if he were stupid enough to try and sour the ‘friendship’ we were creating). It was utterly ridiculous to me that people had such audacity and gave me a far greater respect for the homeless in the UK who obviously have a degree of respect and dignity to their name. The Americans I noticed straight-away are more vocal and brash…  but this was something else. On that day alone I had my final homeless person, a black woman with bad teeth the colour of jaundiced skin, begging me for a buck (for food, naturally) with a spliff in hand – you get my message about these desperate addicts, don’t you?

Anyway, on that first day I was going through some problems. I needed to dump my suitcase first, then I had a technology nightmare as my kindle mysteriously died whilst I was tucking in to a much needed cake. With a ‘what am I doing here?’ question imprinted on my brain I decided to hit Pier 39 (via the famous trams taking me away from the sprawling Occupy movement). This pier is a famous tourist attraction for the area because it boasts the boat that takes you to the premiere tourist attraction of the city: Alcatraz (there was a whole gift shop for the famed prison alone with Alcatraz embossed on almost every item they could, from key rings to place mats and plenty in-between). Also there are numerous shops and retail outlets to buy souvenirs and expensive toiletries. Managing to leave my suitcase with the most annoying woman on this entire planet (a woman who fused a disturbingly nasal voice with a tendency to continue using it, often speaking whole monologues at a time without any need for interaction with the tourists asking the questions), I strolled around for a while (and had to because I was waiting for a couchsurfer to host me for the evening), realised there wasn’t a great deal to do and strolled upon a lucky break. Around Pier 33 is a chocolate factory called Cho (apparently chocolate is meant to be pronounced like chow without the w) where I was lucky enough to get on a free chocolate tour. Whilst the tour was a video and a walk around a literal factory, being surrounded by chocolate and then eating the samples with fellow tourists was, for a chocaholic like me, delightful. This tour was indeed a great way to round off the first day. Comically though, that wasn’t the end of that day (read ‘My Couchsurfing story for more info) but enough rambling because on the second day, I hit the Golden Gate park.

  • Typical example of the gradient in SF.

The rain was almost never-ending on my walk from the infamous Tenderloin to the far left hand corner of the city where the park presides. Cold as it was, I was lucky enough to pass some excellent vintage shops and cafes on my way to the beautiful park. When I got there I walked past an indoor art class, visited the flower observatory and, very briefly, the (overpriced) Japanese tea gardens. Neither were too note worthy in terms of general excitement, but they were very stunning and serene in their well-ordered way. These places are designed to take your mind away from the feeling that you have to make every moment count purely because these gardens were small and accommodating, meaning you could happily watch the world go by. Plus it was a great way of completing tourist activities whilst leaving the bars and socialising towards the end of the trip.

Me admiring the sights...
...and in the flower observatory.
The famous Japanese tea garden.

The third day was where I left my first couchsurfer to meet up with my second. Ted was situated at a tiny apartment in Stockton, the heart of Chinatown. Amazingly, Ted was hosting two people at a time (almost impossible with how small the accommodation was) and treated me to a wonderful tour of some of San Francisco’s sights and views starting with Chinatown (naturally) before moving on to the Italian neighbourhood and stopping off at Lombardo Drive. The famous landmark is a twisted road at the top of a long hill, one of many which characterise San Francisco no less, where cars can drive though the tight kinks, whilst several tourists walk up the uphill road taking pictures continuously. The views are sublime and the energy is rather jovial. Completing that tourist activity, Ted took me to the (vastly) overpriced Colt Tower which offers further views of both the city and – of course – Alcatraz. The tour reached it’s piece de resistance when we went on the Golden Gate Bridge. Bridges aren’t really my thing but the experience was essential for me to see that reddish steel masterpiece.

  • A true winding road.
Obviously needs no description

Saving my magnificent wine tour for another entry, the Tuesday evening was the first opportunity I had for a social. Meeting up with a couchsurfer, I was naturally nervous. The day before I had attended a couchsurfing ‘meeting’ which was so unexciting I actually left twenty minutes in. Maybe these ‘meetings’ are flawed, after all, because I wasn’t staying in a hostel, I naturally saw the event as a perfect chance to recapture some of those occasions you have talking to people your own age about anything really. These people were older, residents of the city and somewhat clique-ish. Plus there was a disturbingly annoying girl called Caroline whose voice infused all the likeability of a mosquito bite. Meeting with the couchsurfing ‘dude’, I ended up walking around the two main bar areas without actually going in a bar. The Mission and the Castro were full of colours, crowds and ‘characters,’ but the person I was with was luckily quite a character himself. In fact I broke couchsurfing etiquette by allowing him to host me for that night instead of the couchsurfer who had given me a grand tour of the city. This was also a great experience for me to bring my personality back into the forefront and validate once again that I could strike out alone. It was an excellent (entirely sober) experience.

Now Alcatraz (I hope you like the excessive detail I’m providing) was the activity I did on the Thursday, my penultimate day in the city. Alcatraz was as much a tourist activity as a passport stamp for a foreign non-EU country on your travels, and one you had to book in advance for. The staff on the ship and the island were unnaturally happy ALL the time appearing to be more like airline staff, and I received at least eight ‘have a nice trip’ and ‘have a happy thanksgiving’ messages, obviously a light-relief from the darkness that characterises a dark, desolate place. The Island is mostly in disrepair and cloaked in disrepute, whilst walking around I kept asking myself why is this a tourist attraction?! Aside from looking in to a very totalitarian system of justice, there were few worthy stories of merit for the prison’s thirty year history. The amount of times I was told that Al Capone was arrested for tax evasion was far more than the amounts of years he actually served in the prison for example. And, much to my astonishment, an author of an Al Capone biography was in the gift shop signing copies of his book there daily (daily, I might add). The audio guide given at the start of the tour was a brilliant evocation of the bleak alienation the prisoners suffered and worked well with the continually upsetting sights within the prison. Appreciating the trip for as much as I possibly could, I spent a decent three or four hours absorbing the stories and happily appreciating the fact that Alcatraz is only referred to in the past tense. The flowers planted on an obscure patch facing the back of the island were a nice touch and the staff definitely deserve a second mention for their zesty happiness at being a part of the national park (which, as they mentioned several times, people did not know).

The one and only...

Now that you’ve traveled over 1,600 words with me so far, I’ll end on a dubious high. The evening of Alcatraz I spent visiting the American stores that are famed in the world of retail (New York on a far tinier scale basically,) namely: Macy’s, Bloomingdales, the original Gap and American Apparel and even (for purely ironic reasons) Abercrombie and Fitch. That day was pretty busy with shoppers and their exhausted credit cards, for my final day in the US coincided with Thanksgiving…

Invited to a Thanksgiving pool luck, I walked around San Fran for the final morning and prepared for the Thanksgiving buying snacks and alcohol, if only I knew there was more to the event than snacks. So, arriving last to the event, hosted by a couchsurfer, I was greeted by a colourful cohort of people. I couldn’t work out if the event gelled however, for starters every time I talked, others stopped. Jokes were miscommunicated and everyone was being exceptionally polite. It was a bit of a serious affair for such a ‘crazy’ area (the Mission) and the first noticable highlight was when a French guy invented a biography of his life which included a divorce three days before, the death of his parents two days before and the realisation he had cancer the day before Thanksgiving… only to tell us he was actually joking. It kind of worked, kind of didn’t. So, I imagine you’re guessing how it was, especially by the number of photos taken (about zero if you haven’t guessed).

The host I naturally liked because we had met beforehand, where we had a heated debate about whether we should pay for Couchsurfing (I categorically disagreed with this) but the other guests were either too nervous or too self-righteous. Case in point, a conversation about mental illness. One French guy, reflecting on a meeting with a schizophrenic girl referred to mental illness as sad. People were unsure how to take this, but I thought it was obvious he meant the condition, not the person. One guy however wasn’t happy with the way mental illness was handled arguing that mentally ill people shouldn’t have to conform with our society where we class ourselves as normal. Having been stopped in my tracks with the discussion about cinema on my final night in L.A, I was ready pointing out the obvious: that mentally ill people naturally are a danger to themselves, the public and their loved ones. I paraphrase at some point here because the conversation was longer, but this hipster was not happy I was challenging him and took a radical direction arguing that we should kill any abnormalities. I pointed out that this sounded like a Hitler kind of comment and argued whether that was what he wanted. “That’s my utopia” he said tersely and without room for further discussion. Having already consumed too much wine and listened to too much self-righteous frippery. It seemed with that memorable moment, it was time to leave San Francisco, America and the northern hemisphere in general. Roll on New Zealand.

San Francisco was fresh and alive with a great variety of attractions. If you step away from the poverty and aren’t too intimidated by the big city that it is, you can’t help but fail to be attracted to its charm. It also helps that one of my favourite movies was filmed there: the unforgettable Basic Instinct. Whilst it’ll take a bit more getting used to, I agree that America is a land of possibilities, with the bay area being a lucrative source of adventure and excitement. 3.75/5.


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