Monday, July 17, 2006

San Francisco – A Precious Experience

My tryst with San Francisco started with a Southwest Airlines flight which deposited me to the Oakland airport. From there I was advised to take AirBART to the Coliseum station and then take the BART to SF. The ticket vending machines looked very complicated and left me quite at sea. I decided to be shameless and dumb and asked the person behind me to assist me with the ticket, she pressed a few buttons and the machine greedily sucked in a 10 dollar note as that is the only denomination I had. Since machines are not intelligent enough to understand my thoughts, it d didn’t give me back the change. I headed up to the platform and boarded BART, which was comfortable, spacious and very fast and it dipped under the bay and zipped across and then I was in SF in just 20 minutes.

I emerged at Market Square and there were these tram lines right in front which reminded me of Calcutta. I had no idea how to get a taxi, I asked a person and she said “Oh just show your hand – they’ll stop” so I hailed a cab and clambered in and showed the address of the hotel and asked him to take me there. The cab driver was speaking in a language vaguely familiar but I could not quite decipher what it might be. Then he asked me where I was from and I promptly said Bombay, India. The cab driver immediately started speaking to me in Hindi and played some Hindi film music so that I felt at home. He was from Afghanistan but his family had settled in Peshawar, Pakistan. We had an animated discussion about the Khans of the Hindi film industry, he knowledgably said Hrithik Roshan was doing well too. In the midst of all this conversation, he took me to the wrong hotel, looked at the address again and drove all the way back – the meter had climbed to $25 but he said you give me only $10, the actual fare was probably $5 but I did not really mind as I had a nice conversation.

I checked into a place called America’s Best Inn and met a very sweet Indian boy at the reception. I was later told that almost all lodges and inns across west coast were owned by Indians, specifically Patels. I checked into the room which was tiny but had all that I needed for 2 nights. It smelled rather musty so I had to open the window to air the room. I had carried along my laptop and the super fast wireless internet made sure that I didn’t feel too lonely.
The next morning I was up early and went to the reception and gorged on bagels and doughnuts which were complimentary, the absence of dinner the night before had made me ravenous. A girl called Arju was at the reception, she was originally from Ahmedabad and was studying medicine and worked part time on weekends at the inn. She helped me to select a tour, I settled for the Grayline tour around the city and a bay cruise.
A charming trolley came to pick me up, they had bells for horns and it was made of wood and brass. The trolley took me to Fisherman’s Wharf from where the bus was to depart. The bus took us all around San Francisco starting with the Mission, Twin Peaks, the Crooked Street, Nobb Hill, Marina, the financial district, Washington Square, China Town, Town Hall, China Beach, over the Golden Gate Bridge, botanical gardens and back to Fisherman’s Wharf. The tour commentary could have been better but it covered the basics in a somewhat lack luster way so I did not tip the driver.

Hunger pangs could not be avoided further so I headed straight for the famous clam chowder in a sour dough bowl. The clam chowder was this creamy sauce like gravy with clams (without the shells) and what seemed to be potatoes; I could not make out the rest. The bread was sour and is somewhat an acquired taste but went well with the clam chowder. The crabs were huge and one could order a live crab and they would immediately dunk it in boiling hot oil or water (what a way to die) and serve it up with a dressing or sauce of your choice. I could not quite stomach the thought of eating crabs but I did have fried calamari (squids) and prawns with hot sauce. The sea food was amazingly fresh and tasty and I have never had anything like it before.

After appeasing my tummy, I went for the bay cruise and bumped into some rather bad ambassadors of my country. My fellow countrymen were a bunch of travelers with the SOTC guided tours whose queue etiquette and manners left a lot to be desired. The bay cruise audio was excellent and gave a very detailed background of the city. We sailed past Alcatraz, Sausalito, Under the Golden Gate, past the one time detention center for the Chinese immigrants, the other magnificent bridge – the Bay Bridge which is a double storied bridge, the panoramic view of the San Francisco City and so on.
San Francisco came into being with the gold rush but was ravaged by major earthquakes but was rebuilt quickly. The Panama Canal celebrations were held in San Francisco to prove that the city had recovered and was back on its feet. Some celebrities have chosen San Francisco over Los Angeles as their home; some names I can remember are Robin Williams and Danielle Steele. The transport department of San Francisco had to devise a very unique form of transportation due to the undulating roads; the buses are attached to overhead tram wires which aid them to negotiate the steep inclines.
Walking around Fisherman’s Wharf was a wonderful experience; I let my chocolaty desires run wild in Ghirardelli Square and indulged in buying a basket load of chocolates of all kinds. There were eateries everywhere serving every variation of sea food imaginable and one of the restaurants had a live band playing some great music, I was walking down at a leisurely pace when one man leaped towards me, he was hiding behind some bushes and was ‘scaring’ most of the passers by and everybody around had a good laugh – so did I. I walked on and a psychic tarot reader convinced me to part with $10 for a palm reading. Whatever she told me then helped me to get through some difficult days so I guess it was money well spent.
Pier 39 was another tourist attraction with the sea lions putting up a performance for whoever cared to watch. The Boudin Bakery “where it all started” – I guess they are referring to the sour dough invention was quite a popular spot. The bakers put up a show for all the curious bystanders by flipping dough up in the air and rotating it and then layering it with jalapeno peppers and cheese and rolled it up and thrust it into the oven. My wicked tummy urged me to buy it but it was merely a greedy reaction to visual stimuli so I managed to ignore it. I could have spent hours in the area just absorbing the energy of the place but I had to trudge back to the hotel and my legs were not capable of taking me around any longer so with one last wistful glance at a ship in the bay I headed back to the hotel.

The next day was reserved for China Town and surrounding areas, Arju, the girl at the reception was very sweet and lent me her monthly bus pass so I could go anywhere I pleased. She gave me the numbers of the buses which went to China Town and I set out for my oriental experience. The North Beach festival was going on and the area surrounding Washington Square was very festive and there were stalls selling all kinds of Italian things. I entered a church in the vicinity; I later learnt that Joe DiMaggio and Marylyn Monroe were married in this church. There was a special service in progress in Italian in honor of a visiting dignitary from the Vatican. I sat through the service for a while and tried and failed to understand what was said in Italian. The choir music was beautiful and the atmosphere was peace filled though the attendance was rather poor at the Sunday service.

I walked along Grant Street (humming ‘If you come to San Francisco – you must wear some flowers in your hair’) which is one of the major street s of China Town, it was intriguing to see all people speaking in Chinese, the grocery shops selling all kinds of Chinese vegetables and groceries and some small shop keepers could barely speak English. I brought some candied ginger, some bamboo mats, ate a moon cake and a melon cake from a Chinese bakery and headed to the dim sum shop to indulge in every kind of dim sum available and ended my meal with a dumpling (combination of pork and shrimps) broth and I was ready to burst. I don’t think I will ever be able to have another dim sum without remembering that bursting feeling.

Soon it was time to head back to the hotel, I sat and caught my breath at the reception and as I was waiting for my taxi to arrive, I saw rather entertaining scenes when guests checked in. One person’s wife threw a tantrum and wanted to move out after an hour of checking in because of a smelly room, another couple was going around USA and celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and stressed upon the need to have a king size bed to befit the occasion, a British couple who were on their annual holiday and needed advise on their next holiday. I obliged and told them about Palace on Wheels in Rajasthan which was sure to thrill them but the gentleman was more interested in covering India on Indian Railways like an average Indian, he said he loved the country last time he went there. A Dutch couple checked in who were jokingly threatened by the golden anniversary couple not to make any kind of noise next door as they intend to make all the noise. Amidst all this colorful conversation Arju prettily blushed and once the guests had left she rolled her eyes and rued about the kind of people she has to deal with everyday but agreed that it was a lot of fun as well.

Finally it was time to say goodbye, Arju and I exchanged email IDs and promised to keep in touch, San Francisco was indeed a very precious experience that I will treasure for a long time to come.