Sunday, 20 September 2009

Day 849 - San Francisco (USA)

Sunday morning arrived all too quickly but it turned out to be a very long day, literally.

As we sat at breakfast Christine asked “Do you think the taxi will turn up on time to take us to the airport?”, a timely question, the driver had just turned up at reception 15 minutes early. Sunday is a good day to travel as there is little traffic on the roads. The estimated 70-120 minute journey took just 45. That turned out to be a God send, we were pushed for time in the end. Having weighed baggage and rearranged things so that nothing was over the weight limit, we checked in one after the other, no problems. At least no problems, until we tried to go through security as they wouldn’t let Christine go through with her saddle in hand baggage as apparently it is a dangerous weapon. I couldn’t really argue with that, if the saddle isn’t positioned correctly you can soon get a very sore arse, though I was surprised that security realised the problem too. We had to dash back to check in to try and get it checked in as normal baggage. It did cost a few dollars, though only half as much as they originally wanted as we argued we had been under the weight limit. Back we went and over to the boarding gates on a little train. Thankfully our gates were just 2 apart and departure times just 15 minutes apart. We had little time to get emotional about going our separate ways after 7 ½ months together through Southern Australia, New Zealand, Japan and finally Korea. We hugged and shed a few tears, the just minutes later my finally memory of Christine was as she turned and waved vigorously, a big smile on her face. I am sure we will meet again some day, probably on a walk somewhere, at least then I will have to shed baggage weight so she will no longer be able to joke about my 40kgs of ’crap’.

My flight left at about 13:15 on 13th September. As we taxied I watched Christine’s Aeroflot aircraft take off with just one plane between us, she soon disappeared into the clouds. My flight was a short one to Beijing, then a longer one to San Francisco. After around 13hrs of flying and passing through the night we landed at SF at 13:05 on 13th September having crossed the International Dateline. I always seem to pick the slow line at immigration, which probably meant he was a bit more thorough than the others, he certainly was in my case as he sent me to secondary immigration for further questioning. I was grilled on all sorts, where I had been, where was I going, “Give me a detailed itinerary of your plans in USA”. That was a tricky one, I couldn’t really answer truthfully “I dunno, I haven’t decided yet” probably wouldn’t help my cause. More question followed, “what’s your job?”, “who do you work for?”. “I am not working at the moment, I have been travelling for 2 years” never goes down well. “So you are unemployed. Did you lose your job in the global recession?” “How much money are you carrying?” was another one, to which my answer of “Sod all really” didn’t go down too well either. “So you are cycling are you, which route” he asked. “Probably through the southern states to Florida, then up the east coast to New York” I replied. “So you will fly from Florida?”, “No, no, by bike”. “How long will it take?”, “Dunno, but hopefully no more than the 6 months that I am asking for” . I was in need of a little help, then it arrived unexpectedly with a voice from behind me “Mr Harwood, do you have a bike? It is waiting at carousel 5 for you”. It was probably pure coincidence but following that I was very quickly given the 6 months entry permit I was after. I was escorted to my bike, everybody else had long since gone. Flying with a bike seems to be getting more and more difficult.

Having arrived at 13:15 and finally put the bike back together I departed the airport at 16:30. Within just a few kilometres I was feeling that immigration had done a crap job, they shouldn’t have let me in, I had already broken the law 3 times. Firstly I couldn’t seem to get away from the airport without using a freeway where bikes are not welcome and no cyclist would wish to be anyway, then when I did get off I found myself in an industrial area, empty being Sunday. The traffic lights couldn’t sense the bike, I had to jump red a number of times. Then I whizzed down the hill breaking the 25mph speed limit. Heading into San Francisco wasn’t easy for me. Information at the airport was so different to Korea and Japan where they were so helpful, here the woman seemed very put out that I should ask her a question, it WAS Sunday after all. So I had one map of downtown which I never used, 4 street names I needed to look for in Berkeley and a mental picture of the place and the Bay Bridge to take me across to Berkeley. Apart from the industrial area where I did a couple of laps it all went remarkably well, though would have been a nightmare in a non English speaking country. For the first time in over 2 years I am behind UK time, by 8 hours. It felt very strange, as I looked at the time my little brain was telling me it was 6pm yesterday…hang on, that can’t be right! I found my way to the bridge but it doesn’t cater for bikes, they all go on BART, the underground, so once again I was taking 40kg of crap gingerly down flights of steps. Once underground I latched onto another couple of cyclists who knew what they were doing. They even had to show me how to buy a ticket. In Seoul it was so easy, but here there seemed to be no way of buying a ticket cheaper than $15 for the $4 journey, even the locals struggled to help me. So having been relieved to $15 we went the rest of the way down with a lift. Lots of bikes use BART, bikes were in every carriage, nobody batted an eyelid. We passed through the station of MacArthur, later that evening I was to see the same name again and it turned out to be the same MacArthur we had learned so much about in South Korea, the general that masterminded the Incheon landing during the Korean War. My two cycling friends even got off at the same stop as me, I thanked them, and as it was getting dark I cycled off in the rain. Despite everybody telling me how dry California is, I was greeted with a very wet evening. I was after Santa Fe Ave, nobody knew exactly where it was but they did mention the other roads on my list of 4 and before long I was knocking on the front door of Dan and Wendy, I was Couch Surfing again. I had landed on my feet, they made me very welcome straight away, I even have a bedroom and bathroom to myself, none of this couch stuff. I was glad to arrive, the end of a very long day. Jet lag never normally bothers me, but I couldn’t sleep at all, I spent most of the night reading or pottering about, then had another go at sleeping. I eventually went to sleep at about 4am then woke at about 9:30 feeling totally knackered. Such is life.

So what can I tell you about San Francisco? Firstly I can tell you that my fist impressions turned out to be totally correct….it is a city. It’s a city I have always wanted to visit, so many of the places are recognisable from pictures I have seen and programmes on the television, some were totally new. I checked out Fisherman’s Wharf, I was looking for pier No.39. All the others leading to it looked perfectly normal, boats were docked at some, others were lined with restaurants, but No.39 was different. The wharf is famous for its sea lions, hundreds of them, crammed on, sleeping together in such a mass that occasionally one would fall off. I made the trip across Golden Gate Bridge, a classic sight if ever there was one. It reminded me of the Severn Bridge, though tourists come flocking here, hundreds on hired bikes, even more on foot. I rode across the far side and viewed it from the cliffs above before it disappeared in fog. By the time I was back over the other side it was beautifully clear again, ain’t that typical! I have always wanted to see the bridge, but I was a bit disappointed with it, to me it always seemed so fantastic, it was supposed to be much better than the Severn Bridge. The hills of San Francisco were even more impressive than I expected. From the map you can’t tell where they are, the whole city is laid out on a grid system, the roads continue straight no matter how steep it gets, and it does get steep. The only flat bits around are the little squares of road that form the centre of the crossroads. If you live here you know how to do a proper hill start in the car. They were great streets to wander around each street being different and inviting. There are nice churches too, Grace Cathedral being a kaleidoscope of stained glass. And now for a little story, a very little one this one. Years ago, when I was a kid, I can remember doing a jigsaw of some old houses with the city beyond. I always loved the picture, though at that age I didn’t really care for where it was. I don’t know when, but I found out it was in San Francisco, whilst here I just had to visit it. It didn’t get a mention in the guide book I have just bought, so I made another trip to the book shop and I found a picture of the place and the name of the street. I paid a visit (photo), I still love the scene, in fact it is my favourite photo of all the pictures I have taken here, still exactly the same as I remember from the jigsaw years ago. I visited it twice, I was blessed with great weather on both occasions, and I left very happy both times. Across the bay linked by the 5 mile Bay Bridge is Berkeley, home of the University, just a short hop from San Francisco. Dan took me for a trip around in the car, the place is just as hilly, though once over the crest of the hill the place is a wilderness, you are a world away from the city wandering through the hills and Redwood forest, then back at the hill crest you can look across the bay to the city beyond, hard to believe that it so close. I have quickly grown very fond of San Francisco and the bay area, I think I will be hard pushed to find a city in the US that I like better.

And what about the city’s people? The place is very diverse, I still had the ability to ask for directions and get a shrug of the shoulders and the answer of “No English”. There are people here from all over the world and so many from Mexico that you even see signs in Spanish. Life of the streets is exactly how I had imagined it with street talk that is English that seems to make no sense to me, though I have seen an alarming amount of people that seem to be talking to themselves, perhaps nobody else understands them either.

Unlike Britain, the US doesn’t feel the same need to go metric. I am back in a land of miles, a place where people have no clue what you mean if you talk in metres and millimetres. There are even road signs for hazards ’500 ft ahead’. They weigh in pounds and ounces, but have no idea about stones, you body weight is talked about as, say, 150 pounds. Everything in the shops are measured in pounds, I am finding it all a bit confusing at the moment.

It seems quite a cycle and pedestrian friendly place to me. Bikes are allowed on BART and all buses have bike racks on the front. On most streets junctions there are crossing points for pedestrians and no given right of way for vehicles. So pedestrians go first, but vehicles slow down almost to a stop anyway to check for other cars. This is all well and good and very safe for pedestrians, that is until I get on my bike. I still haven’t quite adjusted to it, I forget and wonder why people step out right in front of me….don’t they understand, I will mow ‘em down!

Dan and Wendy have been great and reminded me just why I loved Couch Surfing so much in Australia. They have made their home my home, their friends my friends. The took me out to a sort of ‘house nightclub’ where a live group played to a small audience of about 40 or 50 sat around and lounging of sofas. Dan has shown me around in the car and even taken me to a gym for the first time in my life. It made me realise just how useless my arms are, I shan’t go again!

So what happens now? Well shortly I set off on the final leg of my journey, at least right now I assume it is the final leg, you can never tell what might happen. The final destination is New York. I have mixed feelings about the journey, it feels the same as when I was about to set out across Australia from Darwin, the USA is a big place, but at the same time it only feels a very short time before I return home. I am sure some wonderful experiences are ahead of me, I look forward to them with relish, though I am not looking forward to the winter.


dad said...

Great pictures again, even a windmill!! I seem to know 'Frisco through books and films. Monterey and Salinas 100 miles down the coast feature in many of John Steinbeck's books, and photo 1020020 is I'm sure the scene of an hilarious car chase in "What's up Doc". I wonder how you'll fare with camp sites in the States, shat with wild beats and possibly wilder locals. All the best.

aoiffe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aoiffe said...

I don't remember the jigsaw but as soon as I saw the photo I was reminded of Littlehampton - perhaps it is the fight of steps leading to the door, the balcony or the particular light you get at a coastal place.
Clever photo of the building reflected in the car. Did you go into John's Grill and was the 'Mona Lisa' done in chalks?

jac said...

Ah, lovely San Fran. :-) Just had a thought...if you're camping, you'll need a bear can for your food. My Californian friend swears by them for keeping the bears out of your dinner!!!

John Harwood said...

Didn't go into John's Grill Aoiffe, just liked the scene. Everything is John's this, Peets that, Phil'z the other. The Mona Lisa was taken near the bay area where there was an area with lots modern art, I just loved the simplicity of the Mona Lisa though.

Thanks for the advice on the bears Jac, I had given it a passing thought, but that is about as far as it has got so far.

Maria said...

Hi John - what a fantastic adventure. I love reading your blog. Have a fab time in the States - we flew to New York last New Year to meet my brother. If you get the chance, go to Washington - even, if like us, just for a day. New York is all abuzz and Washington so different. We will probably be home in mid November.

caff said...

Aoiffe is so right those houses with the steps do look like the ones in Littlehampton - they're even facing the green!
Incredible memory about the jigsaw. One of my residing memories is getting the game Spirotot at around the age of 5 and getting into a tantrum because I couldn't get it to work.......I haven't changed I still throw my toys out of the pram when my golf doesn't go right!!!! :-)

Mr Larrington said...

Dang! Was in SF (briefly) on September 12th. It was raining, and when it wasn't raining it was too foggy to see the Golden Gate bridge even when you were driving across it chiz.

John Harwood said...

WOW! Our paths almost crossed Mr Larrington. I assure you are no longer in the area.

The Golden Gate Bridge was good, but you have been over the Severn Bridge enough times to get the idea of it though. My journey south along the coast was almost entirely in fog, so I know how you felt. said...

John, we have never been closer. Hope you enjoy the US leg of the trip. If you really want some leg crunching stuff then head opn down to the Andes...Greetings from Peru
sonya xxx
and ali too!

Lorna said...

I can't believe it's almost that time of year again when you'll be another year older. Will I be the first to wish you a happy birthday for next Monday? I hope however you choose to spend the day that it will be memorable and happy. It will be a good reason to raise a glass to you:-) Wishing you (an early) many happy returns of the day!

Lorna said...

Oh forgot to say that we bumped into a ringer in Devon who mentioned that you'd got married. I wonder if you can guess who it was?

caff said...

Oh No!!! I thought I was going to be the first to wish you a Happy Birthday. Had aimed to blog it tonight and now Lorna has beaten me to it!!! I too will raise a glass to you on the 12th - I will raise a couple to you as I will be having a sunny wonderful time in Cyprus. Have a fabulous birthday and I'll be in contact when I get back to the UK :-)