Travel / USA

San Francisco I: Touch down

The hills are alive…

The old body clock is totally out of synch and I wake up at 06:00. A strange thing is streaming through the window and after a while I realise that it’s the sun. After a greasy grilled cheese sandwich in a retro diner at an hour I haven’t seen for a very long time, probably since I was at primary school, we make our way into the city on the Cal-Train. Trains in the US are like everything else in the US – massive – and I am surprised that trains even exist, given the yanks’ reputation as a nation of car lovers.

We arrive at the train station which, if it had been built in any European city, could only be described as ‘quaint’. For a city the size of San Francisco, the train station, end of the line, would not look out of place in toy town and I wonder what travelling Americans make of the behemoth stations we are used to in Europe.

As we are both a bit hyper, we lark about taking pictures and bouncing up and down the platform …

… until we realise that there is no one on the platform anymore and a huge security guard is rattling the glass door at the end of the platform, screaming:

“You two! Hurry up! Hurry IT UP or I’m gonna have to lock you in.”

Outside the station a middle-aged black man standing on the street says:

“Hey you two, are you ok with drugs? Because if not, I’m your guidance.” Is he offering us drugs? Or is he some kind of god-squad saviour type asking if we are addicted and need some help? I know we are a little jet-lagged and disheveled because of the backpack-itis our clothes have contracted, but really, we don’t look like we just shot up…

After five seconds I realise that living in Amsterdam for any length of time means that your body actually forgets how to walk up and down hills. Unfortunately, there are more hills in San Francisco than there are in the Sound of Music. This realisation prompts many hours of whinging about painful tootsies and a newly found impassioned hatred for the concept of the incline. Missing Alfie-the-scooter back home, we try to rent ourselves a scooter to quell the whinging, but at $129 a day, it’s the same price as renting a car for an entire week and so we are stuck with blisters, aches and whines.

The first thing I notice about the city is an astonishing amount of homeless people – not just crackheads and alcoholics but ‘normal’ looking people, well as normal as one can look when one sleeps in a doorway. Some push shopping trolleys loaded with stuff; some sit forlornly in doorways with battered backpacks. Some hardened boozers have caught onto a trend and hold cardboard signs saying “Why Lie? I need beer.”, which makes ignorant tourists laugh, take pictures and then contribute a dollar to the renal-failure fund.

One size fits most

Given that we both sport rather large masses of wild and unruly hair, we generally travel with a hairdryer but the electrical current is too weak in the US to make ours work. I guess this is so the idiots who stick knitting needles in plug sockets only get a mild shock and not the death they, and we, deserve. We decide to buy a hairdryer and venture into Walgreens, a pharmacy that has more branches in a square mile than Albert Hein has in Amsterdam.

Walgreens sells pretty much everything you want or or need, or don’t want or need but buy anyway because consumerism is infectious and let’s face it, there really isn’t much else to do in the US except consume.

I wander around in awe at the sheer amount of stuff available and come across this …

… which made me laugh and wonder which obese person could take enough time away from face-stuffing to file a lawsuit against the manufacturer.

“Your honour, I bought a swimming cap which stated on the box that one size fits all…the distress caused by my fat head not fitting into the ‘all’ category has caused me untold suffering. I would like $5690645064564568646450968 compensation.”

I wonder how fat your head has to be not to fit into a swimming cap. Then I wonder how many people whose heads are so fat they can’t fit it into a swimming cap can actually go swimming. And then I wonder where on earth they get swimsuits that are big enough…and then I come across this which jolts me out of the world of fat heads:

There’s random stuff locked away in plastic cases. You have to ask the staff to open the case for you if you want to buy whatever is contained within. I can’t work out the system of classifying what is deemed precious enough to be locked up. All the deodorants and some brands of shampoo and shower gel are behind the plastic, yet more expensive brands are not locked away. I really do not understand the logic. I marvel at the system for ages and take pictures until a greasy girl in a red Waldgreens sweater hovers too close for too long trying to intimidate me into leaving. We take the $19 hairdryer to the checkout, where the bloke takes our money, presses a button and our change flies out of a machine at the opposite end of the counter.

Outside Walgreens, an Indian man is playing a homemade electric guitar that he as made out of a chainsaw. I feel like I am on a different planet.

Mexican Mission

I once spent three weeks in Mexico. Being a vegetarian, not actually liking spicy food and trying, bravely, once, to eat some sort of soup from a roadside stall and violently vomiting it all up less than an hour later, meant that, in Mexico, I stuck to eating quesadilla or plain tortilla every day, three times a day for three weeks. Understandably, when I got home, it was at least six months before I could even look at a tortilla. Thank god those days are over because I could not wait to stuff my face with yummy Mexican food.

Later in the evening, we make our way to the Mission, as I’ve read that the best Mexican food to be had can be found there. I’m on a mission in the Mission to find myself the biggest saltiest margarita I can find. However, I’ve forgotten that Americans seem to have had a difficult time getting over the prohibition, even though they’ve had over 90 years to do so, and hold the bizarre puritanical view that booze is evil. Yes, people it is evil, but only the morning after. Anyway, finding my margarita proves difficult because most cafes and restaurants do not serve booze.

Of course, the place with a massive queue outside it and an hour wait for a table does serve booze but not even I’m that desperate for tequila. So, we find a small taqueria where the staff speak about as much English as I speak Spanish, which is pretty much nada, and we order Pacifico beer instead. It’s not a margarita but it’s booze and I’m happy. I get asked if I am over 21, to which I respond, “Yes, ten years over 21 hactually…” Although I am secretly pleased that he asked.

Vee orders a burrito that’s almost as big as his foot and I scoff down a massive shrimp quesadilla complete with lashings of sour cream, a big dollop of guacamole and a large scoop of refried beans. Together with beers, our huge and tasty meal comes to $12. After dinner we wander a few blocks south and realise that wandering a few blocks south is not actually a very good idea. It’s amazing how the streets and atmosphere change almost instantly from one block to another and for the only time during the entire trip I feel uneasy. There’s hardly anyone about. The zombified crackheads who limp about and hold out their hands and mumble continuously don’t frighten me; they are too smacked up to cause any harm. It’s more the occasional gangs of boys on the corner who stare at the obvious foreigners as we walk past.

Once we are safely back on the bus, I read in my guide book that the streets we were just perusing should be ‘avoided at night at all costs’. Oops.


5 thoughts on “San Francisco I: Touch down

  1. >This reminds me of the time that Mel and I were in SFO. We had dinner at Ananda Fuara (vegetarian restaurant) near the Bill Graham Civic Centre and as it was a pleasant evening decided to take a long stroll back to our hotel in Union Square.We stayed on the main roads but then entered and walked through this really dodgy area.. scary in some parts, OK in others. It was mainly just a huge mix of different types of people so was fun to walk through and generally we were OK.. just some parts of it were a bit worrying.Anyway, got back to the hotel and we tracked our journey – we had inadvertently walked through Tenderloin District – the area that the guidebook had told us to avoid walking through in the evenings! Oops.Is it Tenderloin you are talking about in your blog?

  2. >I have the initials DB, am from the UK and have been attending RIPE meetings since 1997. I have not yet registered for the next RIPE meeting, but will be doing so… and I know lots of people who work at NCC.Worked out who I am yet? 🙂

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