From my travel journal: Saturday 2 April, 6.20 pm

San Francisco

Signs we’re in America: the breakfast provided by the hostel offered a choice of bagel or waffles.

Signs we’re in California: there are recycling bins in every room, and signs reminding you to save water.

Amazingly, we were all awake reasonably early and managed to get breakfasted and out of the hostel without too much mucking around this morning. (It’s always a danger when travelling as a group, that just as you think you’re all ready to go, someone will just pop back to their room for something, and then someone else will remember something they needed to do, and before you know it the day is gone).

Our first destination for the day was Pier 39, to see the sealions. They like to bask on the jetties, so an area of pontoons has been set up for them in the middle of the port area where they’re reasonably safe from humans. I was more entertained by the crowds of people lining the pier to watch them, and hearing their reactions as they approached, which were pretty much universally “Oh look, seals, how cool… ugh, what a stink!” They do smell rather spectacularly bad, reminiscent of baby poo with a good dose of fish mixed in, multiplied by about a thousand. And somehow the smell is much worse when you smell it in the middle of a city rather than on some remote beach in the middle of nowhere.

Someone else watching the tourists watching the sealions

A nearby pier was a sort of floating museum of ships. The name of this one was a surprise:

It’s a long way from home! 😉

A shrimp junk

Pier 39, as well as being the place to watch sealions, is a hugely kitsch tourist trap, with a double-decker merry-go-round and all sorts of weird and wonderful shops (sources of much distraction for DOS and FOS).

When discussing our plans for the day, our one point of agreement was that we had to ride the cable cars. So (once we found the right street) we piled onto one heading for the city centre. Naturally, being such a tourist draw they charge a premium compared to the ordinary buses, but still at $5 a trip they’re a bargain compared to Christchurch’s trams! In the city we split up, the kids (argghh, have I just shown my age calling them kids?) to do some serious shopping, and Skyring and I back towards the wharves (by trolley bus this time) with the aim of visiting Alcatraz.

Taking the tram down a typically steep San Franciscan street

Our plans were foiled when we joined the queue for tickets and saw the sign saying “Next tour: Sunday”, but we weren’t deterred from having an adventure – instead we took a harbour cruise that sailed past Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate bridge. And just to prove my theory that the best bits of travelling happen when plans go awry, it was great fun. We stood on the outside deck up in the bow, and were joined there by a wonderfully exuberant Fijian family, who laughed and cheered every time the boat went over a wave. They’ve been living in America for 20-odd years, so when I said I was from New Zealand they greeted me as a long lost sister from another Pacific island. Skyring was included in the family too, as they assumed he was my husband and a fellow Kiwi, and he didn’t have the heart to correct them. We left them at the end of the cruise with promises to have dinner with them if we ever found ourselves in Sacramento (not likely, as we are heading in completely the opposite direction, but it was a nice offer :-)).

The cruise itself was lovely, giving a great perspective on the sheer size of the harbour (sorry, “Bay” :-)). We were surrounded by yachts of various sizes out enjoying the water (it reminded me of a typical weekend view in Auckland), spotted a sealion swimming in the harbour, and were accompanied for a while by a curious seagull who flew just overhead, easily keeping pace with the boat.

As we passed under the bridge, the sea got much bigger suddenly (much to the delight of our Fijian friends) but all too soon we turned around and were back in calmer waters. We passed by quite close to Alcatraz, and it certainly looked a grim place. Imposing grey buildings on a small island (not quite small enough to warrant the “rock” nickname though), with only a couple of trees to break the monotony. It was easy to imagine why it was considered such a punishment to be imprisoned there – not just the conditions in the prison, but to be able to see San Francisco just across the water, so near yet unreachable, must have been torture to the inmates.

The boat we *should* have taken 😉

Back on shore, we walked to the City Lights bookshop on the edge of Chinatown. A totally amazing place, with so many temptations (all the more tempting because new books are half the price here compared to NZ, even taking the exchange rate into account). I could easily have bought a dozen books, but I was very restrained and restricted myself to two – a book of short stories by Native American writer Sherman Alexie and another on the origins of language.

Chinatown was fun to walk through, full of shops selling unidentifiable ingredients, people letting off firecrackers, and all the colour and life common to every Chinatown district in every city. We stopped off at a bakery promising the city’s best steam pork buns, and they were very good, with a surprisingly tender filling and just the right hint of sweetness. That plus a Ben & Jerrie’s icecream made up our lunch (albeit spread over several hours). I tried a scoop of “Cherry Garcia” on Skyring’s recommendation, and asked the shop assistant to recommend a flavour for the second scoop. “Something without nuts” was my only stipulation… so she suggested peanut butter flavour…??????
Her second suggestion, called (I think) American Classic, turned out a lot tastier (vanilla with fudgey bits) but Skyring was right about how good Cherry Garcia is.

Faced with a long uphill walk back to the hostel (everything is uphill in San Francisco – it’s worse than Wellington!), we decided to take a cable car. Unfortunately, that meant a long uphill walk to find a cable car stop. San Francisco streets are very steep (though not quite as steep as Baldwin Street ;-)). When the cable car arrived it was almost full, so we had to stand on the very narrow outside step and hang on for dear life. Quite an adventure, as the cable car tracks run down the centre of the streets, so you’ve got cars passing right beside you, and the steep inclines and occasional corner made hanging on even trickier – my arms were aching by the time we reached our stop!

See, I told you they have steep streets!

I spent a lot of the day getting over-excited about the fact the signs are all bilingual 🙂

Proof that you can have old brick buildings in a city prone to earthquakes

Strange artwork near the hostel

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