In which it is proven that Zurich is the midpoint between London and San Francisco
24.09.2012 - 01.10.2012 20 °C
In one of those "This time I'll try a different approach" moments, I thought to ease the stress of flying out of London by booking our last night at a hotel just on the threshold of Heathrow. This decision was influenced by the memory of awaking after two hours sleep for a long taxi ride to the airport in the wee small hours on our first UK trip. There are many options out that way, all having in common that proximity factor to make you forget just how lousy the room really is. Anything for a no fuss transfer to the airport.
Out on the road at 6.15 am, onto the local free bus, and off to Terminal One. All good at check-in with Swissair, except for the lack of a required security clearance for travel to the USA. Off to an internet terminal to hurriedly apply online at a cost of about one hundred and fifty dollars for the two of us, and hoping that the applications are processed by the time we arrive in the states. After politely waiting its turn on the runway at crowded Heathrow, the Swissair jet eventually took off for Zurich. Due entirely to the mysterious art of plane routing, our round the world tickets required us to fly to San Francisco via Zurich. No strolling in alpine meadows for us, though. We just had time enough in Switzerland to hear cow bells and moo-ing piped in to the electric tramway between air terminals. And that was the end of our Swiss adventure;it was on to yet another plane, this one groaning with a full load of passengers.
San Francisco welcomed us to the queue of hopefuls at Immigration Control. Deemed an insignificant threat despite possessing multiple Tetley tea bags in an unsealed state, we gained admission to mainland USA. Unlike Melbourne, San Francisco welcomes visitors with well resourced information kiosks able to give information on what to do next. Options to get to the city centre included taxi (about $100 US) mini bus transfer at about $15 per head, or a simple underground train ride at $8.25 per head. The only complication of the train option being the ticket vending machines, where buttons labelled from A to G needed to be pressed in a dazzling sequence that I would never have achieved without the assistance of a jolly railway lady who did all the button pressing with a flurry of flying fingers on the uninformative buttons of the machine. At the other end of our San Fran stay, we would have the assistance of one of the city's homeless to assist with the tickets needed to get back to the airport.
With no line changes required, the subway station closest to our hotel was easy to find. Escalators made ascending to ground level not too difficult. Out on the streets of San Francisco, the hills that define the city were fortunately just beyond the neighborhood of our hotel. Still, it was an uphill slope that we pushed our suitcases slowly along, after fourteen hours of flying time and no real sleep. Before long the Andrews Hotel came into view, a narrow six storey building built in 1905 and surviving the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Reception welcomed us and installed us in a comfortable room with the novelty of enough space to walk three paces beyond the bed, an unheard of degree of personal freedom compared to most of the grimy boxes we have been shoehorned into during this tour. Also to our liking was the breakfast arrangements, where a huge basket of pastries, bread, muffins and so on, together with big pots of coffee and tea and orange juice, would appear on each floor of the hotel at seven in the morning. Our bioryhthms in chaos from travel, we were now waking at five and getting quite peckish by seven, so we gave that goody basket quite a thrashing.
Arming ourselves with three-day public transport passes (only $21 each, good value) we ventured out to ride the 1930s electric trolley car route to Fisherman's Wharf. This is touted as a world class tourist attraction. It features lots of seafood based food vendors clustered on one of the old piers, with other fast food joints and souvenir shops packing every available space on the adjoining numbered piers. A World War II submarine gathers barnacles alongside, with one of the Liberty ships that kept war supplies flowing in the background, a tribute to the largely female workforce that built them for the war effort. A cup of clam chowder is procured and devoured accompanied by a small bag of crackers. There is nowhere to sit ( to discourage the homeless, who improvise substantial seating nonetheless) and no rubbish bins (to minimise the risk of terrorism).
We had been advised by our consultant (engaged for the price of one dollar for the homeless street newspaper) to head for Fisherman's Wharf via the less glamorous electric streetcars, with a view to catching the classic cable car back afterwards. Being at the opposite end of the cable car route, it was easy to get a seat on the Powell-Hyde Cable Car to head back into town. The cars are turned by hand on a rotating section of track at the end of the route, and much bell-ringing is rhythmically performed as the small open vehicles cross each intersection. The conductor roams the car with a wad of dollars in his hand, collecting bills hand over fist. The hills rise and fall dramatically along the way, illustrating the need to have a means of transport held securely by the wire cable to protect against sliding backwards. With most of the cable car network destroyed in the earthquake of 1906, the few that remain are a way to get around that is both charming and perfectly suited to its environment.
The following day we ventured further afield, again on public transport, to see the Golden Gate Bridge. Even in the middle of the day, the thick fog swirled around the bridge, obscuring what what be a grand vista on a clear day. A remarkable structure that bends with the massive forces of wind, so that it feels almost alive under your feet. Not many structures can wear the colour orange, but the Golden Gate carries it off with panache.
Continuing on in the #28 bus, we headed south through the Presidio National Park and jumped off at the lower edge of the Golden Gate Park. This large expanse of greenery with lakes, forests of evergreens provides plenty of walking tracks as well as holding art galleries, a science museum and planetarium. The birds and turtles seem content with conditions, sunning themselves at the edge of a lake died blue to counter the growth of algae. After wearing out our feet for several hours we waited at the suddenly chilly bus stop in the middle of the park and made it back to our hotel on the busy afternoon bus system.
I had a hankering to see some of that rugged American scenery, so I booked a day trip to Yosemite National Park. Wisely, M stayed in SF to check out the city's core, as the drive up the Sierra Nevada mountains was turbulent enough to make any traveller's tummy feel a little unsettled. Travelling in a minibus, fourteen passengers drawn from German, Canadian, Dutch, English, and American as well as this little Australian, raced over the Bay Bridge and up the central valley where Californian farmers ply their trade. The coastal fog was left behind as we ascended higher into the mountains where it was once observed: " There's gold in them thar hills!"
Reaching the Yosemite valley, we stop to take photos where the massive granite formations El Capitan and Halfdome dominate the deep valley gouged out by glaciers, where the meadows have now been invaded by trees. A view of such grandeur that a hundred tourists snapping at it with cameras and i-phones could never hope to capture more than a hint of it.
On the long drive back from Yosemite, the less prosperous side of rural America slides by our biodiesel powered bus. Lots of fundamentalist meeting houses, cheap and nasty looking motels like Pyscho sets, and trailer communities where the impoverished live cheek by jowl with the deranged. The icons of consumption shine above the bumpy, decaying highways, the signs of Burger King and Dennys and McDonalds, and many more less familiar distributors of oily chicken and fatty burgers. The smell of cheap oil frying pervades the early evening air. We pass through Altamont, site of the Rolling Stones concert where a guy was stabbed. A brilliantly sparkling baseball diamond shines where the local team is having a big game.
For our final day, the hotel kindly hosted our bags for most of the day so we could have a stroll around town. On a whim I aimed our steps to a tiny green patch on the map just to see what was there. Within a brief space of time the following random objects were encountered:
Martin Luther King Memorial waterfall style fountain; iced coffee that was just that - black coffee with ice in it; the Americas Cup and its crew and boat; colourful work by Keith Harkin near the Museum of Modern Art. Our personal tour-o-meters were indicating we had reached saturation point and could not sensibly take in any more stuff.
Thank you San Francisco for your city to airport rail link, but please put some explanatory notes on your ticket machines.
But then, everywhere you go, the people go about their business, in a hundred small ways that are different and living long enough in each place lets you begin to get an understanding of some of them. Like Van the man says,
Got my ticket for the airport
Wo, guess I've been marking time
I've been living in another country
That operates along entirely different lines
And so to the departure lounge, where United Airlines was pleading for some passengers to give up their seats on the overbooked plane. We looked on, stony faced, but as the cattle class assumed their position of cowed suffering, we had been placed on opposite sides of the plane. Just as well it didn't go down.
Melbourne smells beautiful and the spring sun gleams. It's good to be home.