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Doing touristy things - The Lyorn's Den

Sat Oct. 14th, 2006

10:26 pm - Doing touristy things

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Saturday I went into San Francisco -- by train, because while I felt up to navigating the city, I hate searching for parking spaces. I also like public transport. A car, to me, sometimes just feels like another big piece of baggage, even if I (fortunately!) don't have to carry it, I still have to account for it all the time. Public transport is more like a part of the landscape. A mountain or a timetable may be inconvenient, but no one expects you to do anything about it.

True to this, getting to the local BART station was more trouble than anything else. My navigation system and I strongly disagreed about the right way, and I actually got lost on the parking lot, trying to read all those little signs specifying who was allowed to park in which road, at which time, and under which conditions. Before I knew what had happened, I was off the parking lot and had to start all over again. Well, in the second attempt I managed.

Operating the ticket machine took some thought, but I'm good at figuring out these kinds of things. The train was loud and not too fast, and the view included a lot of places where (if you have seen as much "Highlander" as I have) you could easily imagine two trenchcoated figures with swords hunting each other on some dreary and gloomy night. (Note to self: Buy the DVDs.)

I got off the train at Powell Street. I had my list of bookstores, gaming stores and comic shops, but this day was for sightseeing, not for shopping. So, like any good tourist, I got me a day pass for MUNI, which allowed me to ride any bus, cable car or tram, and joined the queue for the cable car.

Cable Cars

Even if you have never been to San Francisco, you probably know what a cable car is. These small streetcars do not move under their own power, but hook unto a cable running below the street, and get drawn up and down the hills at a medium jogging pace. You can sit inside, or outside, or stand on the footboard and hang out (but not too much, and better put your backpack on your front, or you might get drawn off by a passing SUV). They are cute, very noisy, not very comfortable and better than any tour bus, because you are so much closer to everything (including the SUVs). Funny thing, the same trick with the cable has been used in Poland (or East Prussia, back then), to get ships up and down a waterway with too much incline for ordinary locks. They go through the city in three lines, two going North-South (starting at the same point in the South at Powell Street and diving about the height of Chinatown), one going East-West. And every tourist absolutely needs to ride the cable car.

So did I. I waited in line for some unmeasured time (unmeasured, because I had forgotten my cell phone, which is both my watch and my camera), entertained by a step dancer with a boom box and an Asian flutist without one, and got onto the fourth car that arrived. Which, of course, did take the more eastern of the North-South routes, and I wanted to take the other one. I didn't figure out how to communicate, "sorry, wrong train", so I jumped on and then stepped off two blocks from Chinatown (a "block", just in case you do not know, is what lies between one city street and the next. As the cities in the US are usually build in some chessboard pattern, blocks are rectangular, and in SF they measure roughly 100 m on one side), and waited for the next car. Which was full. The one after that had some standing space and went into the right direction. While I waited, I admired the fire escapes, (metal balconies, one for each floor, with metal stepladders connecting them. The final stepladder which would reach street level is folded up and can, presumably, be released in case of emergency), which were full of clothing hung out to dry. I very much wished for my cell phone, because I'd have loved to take a photograph. Later the cable car crossed Lombard street -- that's the one you know from all the postcards, with all that tiny serpentines and cars stuck between flower beds. I looked at it from "up" (the postcards look at it from "down") and saw car after car plunge fearlessly into the depths. There's a sign that forbids vans and trucks entering this part of the street, because (I read) when (not if) they get stuck, you'd need a helicopter to get them out.

The Exploratorium

I arrived at the western end of Fishermen's Wharf, which is a major tourist spot and just as crowded with tourists, shops and street vendors as one would expect, and then some. I took a bus west through the Marina district (mostly pretty, lots of coffee shops), and ended up in some very quiet neighborhood. To the Exploratorium I had to walk about one block, then I saw a park with some monumental pseudo-classical columns and a lake, walked around the building in the wrong way, passed two stretch white limos with a group of people looking as if they all were on the way to their marriage, or all took part in some strange stage show, and despite everything finally reached the entrance.

The Exploratorium is a place full of toys. Tiassa would love it. Its intent is to make kids curious about science (I have no idea whether it does, and I would probably have hated the place as a kid for being crowded and full of kids), so all the toys have something to do with physics, or chemistry, optical illusions and the like. You could make smoke-rings and air-rings, have wheels with differently distributed weight race down an incline, create chaos (I know, I know...), have a look into the "distorted room", where a person that walked through it seemed to change size, find out which of your eyes is dominant, make a rotating chair you sat on turn by holding a spinning bicycle wheel... lots of fun!

I left before my brain overloaded, and walked back to the road (the white stretch limos were still there but the people, or at least their attire, had changed -- the girls were now wearing pale red dresses instead of white, and the men white instead of pin-striped), learned that the monumental pseudo-greek stuff had been left over from some exhibition a century or more ago, and as it was a mild, sunny day (aren't they all?), walked down to the marina (=the place where the leisure boats dock), sat on a wall and watched the waves rolling in and children wading in the water, with the Golden Gate Bridge and a giant container ship in the background. The wind was fresh and a little cold.

My map said that it was only about one and a half miles back to Fishermen's Wharf, so I walked. The sidewalk was a skater's dream, very broad, completely flat, with a very smooth surface. I passed a large grassy area where hordes of small kids were playing soccer on about a dozen small fields. Another marina, up a hill into a park where a Youth Hostel was, looking down to some warehouse where they were holding an "Oktoberfest", with a not-quite-right brass band and Spaten Bier, and queues about twenty metres long at the entrance. The park had very nice trees, and down the hill one ended up on a beach promenade. On the piers ahead were a lot of ships from different times, including a three-mast sailing ship, and some warships. I made a mental note to visit them sometimes, but now my stomach was growling, I was thirsty, and my feet were tired, and I still wanted to visit the Aquarium.

Pier 39

The aquarium is located at Pier 39, which is another open air shopping mall with gift shops, galleries, restaurants, a merry-go-round and a juggler on stage. And an aquarium. Unfortunately, the aquarium had no squid, but they made up for it in sharks. They had recreated the flora and fauna one would find right under the pier, in the bay, and visitors could walk right through it in some long plexiglass tunnels and watch the fish, and the sea anemones. The largest was a bass that wasn't much shorter than me. They had some tanks with jellies, which look a lot better on the other side of a glass pane than stranded on the beach. But, no squid, and no otters. I guess I'll go to the Monterey aquarium some other weekend.

The whole pier 39 is, as shopping malls tend to be, inward-centered. All the shops and stores and eateries open towards a long central courtyard. The whole construction is two-storied, the upper-story shops open towards a walkway. As the shape of the whole thing is rather irregular, it can become a little bit labyrinthine, especially if it's loud and crowded. (I like doing the tourist thing, but I'm slightly phobic of crowds. That is like enjoying eating fried grasshoppers with honey, yet being afraid of bugs.) I found a store selling fugde that helped me not get lost because I could always locate it by smell. I bought some dark chocolate fudge and a big chocolate truffle, and it's a very good thing that I didn't taste both there and then, or I would have crawled home laden with ten kilos of fudge and truffles. Great stuff.

The sea lions which used to be on (IIRC) pier 42 in '93 had moved, or at least the pier had moved, i.e., disappeared. But in its place were a number of floats chained to the ground, covered in sea lions. I had nearly forgotten them, but then I heard them barking and howling and hurried to have a look. Sea lions always look happy. They are fat and round and grin like cats, and when they get up on their flippers and bark, they have pretty faces, with large eyes and a muzzle like a young dachshound. I watched them bark, or lazing around, climbing over each other, diving in the sea and swimming out on some sea lion business and remembered that I was hungry and had a slight headache from not drinking enough.

The trouble with being hungry in a place like that is that one has to decide on one eatery when they all look and smell delicious. Usually, in a situation like that, I opt for not making a decision and not eating. But my travel guide recommended two places, so I told off my indecisiveness and tried the first of them. Brrr. Dark. Loud. Crowded. With someone talking over a PA all the time (or maybe they had the TV on at top volume). No food is good enough to make me endure that. (Well, maybe the truffles...) I made my escape. The other place was a more conventional restaurant, which was busy but not crowded, and had a glass front looking out over the bay, so it wasn't dark, either. You do not walk up to some table, but tell a kind of receptionist how many you are, and wait for them to find a place for you to sit. They found me a place at a window within three minutes, so I can't complain. Service was incredibly fast, and I wondered whether that was a culture thing or whether they wanted to get rid of me. (Paranoia central calling...) But the food was great, I had some swordfish with asian sesame sauce and ginger (remember what Vlad said about ginger? Exactly.) and jasmine rice. Eating it the American way (cut it up, then place the left hand solidly out of reach and eat with the fork only) demanded some concentration, but I managed, mostly. Only with the greens I had to cheat. The whole meal, including tip and a thing called "Minimum wage surcharge" cost 20 Euro, which is kind of OK.

The long way back home

In the meantime it had gotten dark, and my mind played tricks on me. Because I had gotten up at half past seven, and the temperatures were like June, my inner clock muttered something about "ten something in the evening, see that you do not miss the last train." In fact, it was probably more like seven, or half past eight at the most, still I decided to take the fastest way back. Which meant taking the tram. At the station a long line had already formed. (Not only the British are good at forming lines.) Over the next [whatever] minutes, it shortened only when people, fed up with waiting, walked away. No tram arrived. Finally I got fed up with waiting (my feet, back and arms were giving me hell), consulted my map and decided to walk the four blocks to the cable car stop. That, at least, would take me exactly where I wanted to go.

It took me some time, because first I got distracted by a bookstore, and then I mixed up east-west and north-south streets and looked for a crossing that never came, but having paid attention to street names all day paid off, and I noticed after one-and-a-half blocks. It had gotten cool by then, and I was glad I had packed my jacket. The cable car took me, slowly, groaning, rattling, jingling to Powell Street, where I caught a train at about 9 pm, found my car and, after another debate with the navigation system (I kind of won, the route I remembered was correct), got back to the hotel, tired and limping and mostly content.