18.04.2006 20 °C
After much reservation and deliberation in visiting the current Most Wanted nation in the world, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and give it a go. Perhaps playing safe and limiting my stay to what I heard to be the most liberal and forward thinking of all the US states California.....
Arrived in San Francisco on 8th April, with short 4 hour flight from Calgary with (sc)Air Canada. A to San Francisco. Thankfully no bags are lost in transit for a change - I'll have to remember to set straight the hundreds of people who thought this part of the standard service package, I guess it's only for the lucky few.
Lucky I am that I have again a host for my stay here, Julian my old flat mate/buddy from back in London, 2004. He moved out here last year with a rather cushy deal from work and set up himself up nicely with a sweet studio, and social network of like minded peeps so once again I am thrust into the social elite of another great city, ish.
Luck would have it too that Bridget (who I met in Golden, Canada) was in town on the closing leg of her trip. We met for drinks and the like one night with her man Steve which was great, it was as tho no time had passed since our last meeting. A good friend made there. see you soon Briggi!!
My first (and lasting) impressions is that San Francisco and it's residents are European at heart, so much so that you could easily be forgiven for forgetting where you are in the world. There are such a diverse range of neighbourhoods and districts, each with their own unique piece of the pie to offer - Castro with it's strong Hispanic influence and flamboyant proud gay population, North Beach as the Italian quarter offering the finest coffee house experience to rival any European city, Marina as the young professional heaven and glitzy yuppy bars to suit, Mission as the down/up beat student quarter where you find grungy bars and clubs and alternative arts, the Haight with it's heavy hippy influence which is where the movement started back in the 60's, and finally Berkeley with it's far left radical freespeech Bush-hating student (UCLA) and professional residents. I've no doubt missed some out but hey 8 days in just not enough time.
Without doubt San Francisco is a big party town and you're spolit for places to frequent. Within 2 hours of arriving in the city, I found myself in a house party, invited by Jules of course, but this set the tone. That night was a 5am finish with a free bar and 2 kegs to wet the appetite, and had much fun with Jules' friends Nathan and Greg. A new phenomena too, when the kitchen is off limits (due to the paid pro-bartender taking this area) simply head to the roof as the alternative hang out - what a view of the city.
Mission seemed to be our main hangout, with nights at a friends battle of the bands gig, restaurants and films. The highlight was the final how-down - a cowboy themed warehouse party with free bar and neat Jack Daniels cocktails, and mechanical bullriding which this time I stormed after my training in Calgary - being blind drunk really helps, and karaoake which me and Jules did a foul rendition of Me, Myself and I (thanks Gail). To finish the night I did a running backflip up the mirrored wall which I've never done before but seemed like a good idea at the time - I really was quite gone.
The city has arguably the finest cuisine in the world with the quality and value for money surpassing my experiences in other large cities like London or Paris. One particular highlight was a visit to
a Bolivian restarant called Pena Pachamama, where the food served was incredible notably these cornish pastie type things filled with speciy vegetables and we treated to an intimate flamenco dancing display but the most incredibly beautiful South American ladies - amazing!
The city too is a cultural and art mecca, I'd guess, not really my cup of tea but fun none the less. I visited the SF Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) which had a special exhibition of 1906 earthquake photography - crazy to see a building split in 2 and each piece shifted 16 feet in opposite directions! On a rainy day in The Haight I went to see the documentary fim Sir No Sir @ Old Red Vic.
It was amazing, especially to find that the people in the audience with me lived and breathed these times, one woman even saw her husband in a protest, and fists were raised in defiance at the sight of their frequented coffee shop protest bases - it was amazing to watch a film with such local and historical importance, especially with the paralells to the current oppression, oops conflict in Iraq.
Other items to note include the Spike and Mike's Animation Film Festival - very very funny internet cartoons - check them out peeps!
The artistic flair flows over into the streets with the sides of buildings are decorated in the most spectacular murals, in particular in the Castro district, which for me shows the artistic influence of the local people, and the governments will to let people express themselves. Spend some time to wander the streets and take in the free gallery that many guide books seem to miss. This mural was painted on the side of Amoeba records in Berkeley depicting the Free Speech battles with police in the 1960s (learn more about the movement here.)
Julian's house was located in the North Beach district famed for it's strong Italian influence. Coit Tower is easily sighted at the to of the hill and provides commanding views over the city and bay for a measily $4. Also, close to Fisherman's Wharf which is the launch pad for all Bay Area ferries, and the tourist trap area close to the docks, overlooking the Bay to Alcatraz. On the Wharf at Pier 39 I was suprised to see a host of Elephant Seals basking on the jetties - pah, for all the excitement of Gabriola and their elusiveness, here it's given on a plate, ho hum, there is much more fun in the chase.
The wharf continues around the bay which is great for a long stroll, continuing all the way down to Bay Bridge and the home of the San Francisco giants baseball team. I stopped by the docks, to watch the ships roll in and watch them roll away again, and met a couple of guys fishing for bass but catching an endless supply of leopard sharks. I had a go and pulled up this beauty from the depths. I'd rather see them in the water and find the whole fishing thing a but weird but an experience none the less.
As far as touristy stuff goes, I took a ferry out to Alacatraz to do the mandatory tour of the famous prison. Was quite interesting to hear about the place but it was so packed with tourists it was hard to relax and enjoy. The audio guide is pretty comprehensive but the most interesting parts were talking to the ex-guards and ex-inmates about their experiences - some funny tales shared about Al Capone and his jailhouse conformist ways and physicillis induced insanity.
Besides the in-city entertainments, the San Francisco bay area has much to offer. A fun way to enjoy the sun was to take a cycle ride out to Sausolito and Tiburon, picturesque little seaside towns, and catch the ferry back to Fisherman's Wharf. Most spectacular, the ride takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge -watch out for rabid lycra clad cyclists who are likely to toss you over the edge in a rage if you block their path.
A 2 hour drive north of SF will bring you to Point Reyes National Park, where myself, Jules and Nathan ventured one sunny day. Taking Highway (Pacific Coast Road) northwards was a gnarly affair with winding roads traversing the intimidating cliff edges. Worse still, the 26 days of rain in March had made the cliffs incredbily unstable and severe subsidence was in effect, at times resulting in huge sectins of the road slipping away.
Heading out to Lighthouse Point, we tried to catch a glimpse of the migrating Grey Whales that follow the coast line, unfortunately we were a little late as migration ends in April but spectacular none the less. The afternoon was spent sea kayaking in Tomales Bay, which was created by the San Andreas Fault shifting north-westwards. Much fun and splashing around, dodging diving Ospreys and the like with a well deserved beer at our beach destination.
In reflection, I couldn't help but think of San Francisco as a living breathing Brave New World where the focus is definately on indulgence and good times. To what extent that this reflects on San Francisco, or whether it was hearing the word Soma each day I can't be sure. For sure, the wealthy enjoy a luxurious lifestyle eating in the best restaurants for super cheap prices, dating is a relaxed affair and not unusual to have many interests running in concurrency so that fits with Aldous Huxleys vision of the future. How this applies to the poorer populous I don't know but I expect that these pleasures are reserved for the fortunate few.
Certainly from talking to other travellers, their experience of SF was quite different to mine, struggling to find the right places to go, eating out was costly, and difficult to find areas to wander where you didn't feel threatened. I'm lucky to have the guide I did so thank you Jules and friends - you is legends innit!