Thursday, July 17, 2014

San Francisco

It's Ammon again.  I'm still alive though many might say I stopped "living" nearly 2 years ago when I came back to Vancouver.  2 years ago I dreaded being in the position I am now and would have agreed.  It is a very different kind of life actually having some kind of schedule and responsibilities more than just continuing to have amazing adventures and keeping a blog updated once in a while. I'm not gonna lie, I miss that life.  A lot.
I passed (with more difficulty that I had anticipated) my ATC basic course at the end of February with the 2 others in my class.  All 3 of us were then posted to Boundary Bay airport in Delta, BC for our on-the-job training.  I'll eventually have to write something about all that but lets just say for now that I'm still in the middle of that on-the-job training and the intensity and stress level is ridiculous.  It is the busiest flight training airport in the country and as the weather has improved the traffic levels have increased.  If all goes well I should be licensed in the fall...
After passing the training course in February I moved out with my girlfriend, Sasha, to a small apartment in south Vancouver to be closer to work.  Believe it or not it is the first time I've actually lived on my own and played "grown up".  It's a work in progress....
With all these changes and commitments it has been impossible to do any travelling up to this point and after 2 years of not going anywhere and listening to friends (and sister's) stories of travel to make me jealous, it became necessary to do something, anything to have a little taste once more.
Only able to get a few days off together and with its close proximity, San Francisco became the destination of choice.  Sasha hadn't been there and believe it or not, despite roughly a dozen previous visits to California, neither had I.  It's just over a 2 hour flight away so we found a seat sale, catching the first flight out on a Saturday morning and the last flight home on the Monday night.  This would be not only a test of how well the 2 of us travel together, but also how well this style of travel works for me in general.
One thing that has not changed for me is my belief that the best experiences to be had are via local contacts and we were very fortunate that Jim, a friend that we all first met in Ghana in 2008 was going to be in San Francisco at the same time.  He lives in LA, but is a regular to SF and offered to show us around.
We arrived in the morning and met up with Jim right away at a cafe in the North Beach area and had a duck lunch at a nearby Chinese cafe.  I haven't had duck since Malaysia and that brought back a few memories.
It was a beautiful sunny day so Jim took us for a drive in his car down to Crissy Field for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.  As it turns out, the bridge was the most disappointing part of the entire trip.  Although we had great weather the whole weekend, we never really saw the bridge while we were there.  You hear stories about the SF fog in the summers and that it is cold but I think you have to see it to believe it.  Along the coast and covering the bridge was a thick layer of fog, starting at a height just above the bridge deck and extending 1000 ft into the air.  But a few miles inland, perfectly sunny blue skies with a chilly wind blowing.  In the mornings the fog would extend over the city centre and then burn off, but it was never clear along the coast and over the bridge.
We drove out to the coast and through Golden Gate Park (which, oddly enough isn't the park right by the bridge) before stopping for a quick walk around the Haight-Ashbury area.  This is the neighbourhood made famous as the start and center of the hippy movement though nowadays it is mostly a tourist attraction of hippy-themed shops and cafes.  We did a quick up and down the street and saw some nice Victorian houses on the streets a block removed from Ashbury.
Next was a quick drive down Castro street, the epicentre of the LGBT community in SF, the largest in North America, but in all honesty, I didn't notice much looking out the car window.  Maybe I'm too used to it, or maybe I just find Davie street in Vancouver to be more visually aggressive in its declaration.
Our last stop of the day was in Mission, a traditionally Mexican neighbourhood.  Parts of Mission are kind of sketchy and other parts are becoming gentrified, but we tried to stick to areas, particularly along 24th avenue, that still have that traditional feel with the simple family shops and restaurants.  At times you could almost believe you were in a small Central American town.  Mission is also famous for it's many large murals in it's alleys and on the fronts and sides of buildings depicting a huge variety of scenes.  Don't ask me how that got started but some of them were quite impressive. 
After a long and full day we said our goodbyes to Jim and checked into our simple and central hotel right on the edge of Chinatown, our first destination the following morning.  Vancouver was recently declared to be, by percentage of it's population, the most Asian city outside of Asia (SF was 3rd on that list) and having spent time in China, I found Chinatown to be, well, normal.
The highlight of day 2, our only full day in SF, was a trip to Alcatraz island.  Alcatraz is a popular attraction and has a limited capacity, tickets sell out fast and often over a week ahead of time for the most popular time slots.  We'd bought our tickets well in advance online.  Boats to the island only take about 10 minutes and run every half hour so when you buy a ticket you have to pick a time to go.  Once you're on Alcatraz you can take any boat back so are free to spend as much or as little time as you want.  We were there about 3 hours which is pretty normal.
I thought Alcatraz was cool.  I hadn't realized ahead of time how close it is to the mainland and that there was history to it other than as a prison.  It was originally built as a military fort during the civil war to protect the bay as SF was the most important west coast city at the time.  It didn't see any action.  In the 1930's it became the prison it is most famous for and was shut down in 1963.  From 1969 to 1971 it was occupied by Native Indian protestors and of course now it is an attraction as part of the National Park system.  There is an audio tour through the actual prison building and you can walk around the rest of the island on your own to see other displays or the ruins of other buildings.  I liked it because I like forts and ruins, and this was a mix of both though it might be the first time I've seen a ruin where people are still alive to talk about working and growing up there.  I had no idea that most of the prison guards lived on the island too with their families.  The island itself is pretty small.  I can't imagine being a little kid and growing up right there beside the most dangerous prisoners in the US. 
After returning to the mainland, Sasha and I wandered through the tourist trappy Fisherman's Wharf area, had a bowl of clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl like everyone else, and went to see the sea lions at Pier 39.  Another reason not to visit SF in the summer.  Not only is that the worst time for fog, but most of the sea lions are away breeding during the summer.  We saw a total of 3, when they've had over 1000 at other times of the year.  Not that I'm complaining.  We actually had a very good trip overall.  Another "attraction" that we never got to do was ride the cable cars.  We saw lots of them, got plenty of photos but every time we looked the line-up to get on one was about an hour, which was longer than the walk to get where we wanted to go.  Maybe it's the system capacity or to be nice to all the rest of the traffic, but it seems that the cable cars don't run very frequently.  Both the cars and the passengers would be lined up waiting to go for quite a while.  So we walked up Russian hill and back down Lombard street, the super famous twisty road down Russian hill.  I don't know what the story is behind this street but all the parallel streets are straight and very steep.  The entrances into people's driveways look really awkward as do the cars parked sideways on the street and look like they're going to tip over and roll down the hill.
Our final morning was spent with Jim again with a visit up Coit Tower for a different view over the city.  After a final cafe stop (one of many on the trip) we said a final goodbye to Jim and made our way to Market street and Union Square where all the big name shopping is located.  After a quick look around and a new pair of shoes for me it was time for our flight home.
Overall, SF is a very pretty city and I can see why tourism is such a big thing here.  It had a different feel from the stereotypical US city.  Not once did I see a McDonald's or other fast food place and only the odd Starbucks on the corner.  Granted we didn't visit everywhere but you'd expect to see some of that.  It was also weird to see how segregated the neighbourhoods were.  Chinatown was very Chinese, Mission was very Latino, Ashbury was very hippy, but you didn't really see them mixing beyond the neighbourhood borders.  What was nice was all the little cafes and shops in the different areas and of course the great views of the bay from so many different parts of the city.  Overall a good trip but it leaves me craving for more...
Enjoying the view from Alcatraz.

With Jim atop Coit Tower.

Can't imagine parking on these steep hills like this.

The view from Alcatraz.
Golden Gate bridge covered by fog. 
 Victorian houses of SF.
One of many murals in Mission.
Another mural.
 Isolation cell block in Alcatraz.
 Most of the other buildings on Alcatraz are just ruins now.
 Fisherman's wharf is very popular.
 Where are all the sea lions?  There is just one in the back.
 Down on the wharf.
 Alcatraz is not far offshore.
 Cable car.
Market street.
At the top of Lombard street.  Coit tower in the background.