POD PLANET VIII: I still call Australia home

Trip Start Sep 25, 2006
Trip End Nov 01, 2006

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Flag of United States  , California
Friday, October 27, 2006

My last stop on this trip was the beautiful city of San Francisco. Nestled inside a beautiful bay it is easily the prettiest city I've been to in North America and no doubt many readers that have been here will agree with this assessment. It was only a matter of neat lateral thinking that got me here in the end as Allan's mobile phone decided NOT to work at a critical moment in our travels. I impressed even myself  by overcoming this problem and arrived at JFK airport at 4am in the morning only to be greeted by a member of the US army with a semi-automatic weapon, bullet proof vest and other weaponry who told me the airport was closed. This is really beyond a joke that one of the world's busiest airports could actually be closed. Wellington airport in NZ opens at 4am! Standing in the cold until 4:30am a small group of us stood their in disbelief that this airport could ever be closed and were let in only to stand in a queue for another 30 mins because the airport staff had not yet arrived. Staff really is the wrong word for these people as all they really need to do is turn the computers on and stand there not assisting you because the computers are meant to be so easy to use. Some food for thought for American based airlines is that it is quicker to have people serve customers then to have people spend 20 mins at a terminal trying to work out what to do.

California really seems to be a cut above the rest of America as everything is just better here. The food, climate and even the coffee are all better over here. There is a different feel to the east coast, helped no doubt by sunny blue skies and a relaxed atmosphere. The area is also quite a big melting pot of Chinese, Mexicans, Blacks and Whites. San Francisco is very much a tourist friendly city with excellent public transport and all the major attractions within reasonable walking distance from each other. That said the public transport ticketing system is easily the most complex and counter intuitive system I've ever used anywhere in the world. It's the only public transport system I've ever used that required me to seek assistance and the programmers that designed it should all be sacked. On all other public transport systems you select your ticket type and then pay an amount. Here its the opposite and you put in the cash for the ticket first and then ask for a ticket for that amount. This means you need to know the sort of ticket you need before starting and there is no way of finding these out without putting in the cash first.

San Francisco is a small city of 49 sq miles with a population of 750 000. It is California's 3rd largest city but the bay area itself houses millions. The geography of the place is a little like Sydney with a huge bay and various cities all nestled around it including Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose. I even know the way to San Jose but a couple I met earlier in my travels told me not to waste my time going. When locals tell you not to go somewhere then you don't go. The city is known for the modern engineering marvel, "The Golden Gate Bridge." Completed in 1937 it was the longest suspension bridge at the time. Every day the bridge is painted industrial orange to keep it beautiful. Indeed when I first came here and went down to the wharf I was surprised that I couldn't actually see the bridge. The bridge I could see was the Oakland-Bay Bridge, another modern engineering marvel. Indeed its probably better as you go over a bridge, through a tunnel and then over another bridge.

The thing to do when coming here is to head down to Fisherman's wharf and Pier 39. This is where everything happens and street performers are there trying to get you to give them money. Here also are large numbers of beggars trying to get money from the tourists. Rather then lie and give you s a sob story here they are actually quite honest and hold up signs saying they need money for beer. There  also a very large number of souvenir shops here offering tacky souvenirs of a much better quality then the rest of the country. One of the great things about Americans is their ability to take a tourist attraction, remove whats actually worth seeing and then replace this with 100 shops all selling the same things. At least here they can't take away the beautiful views of the bay area, ships, sea lions, city skyline and the hills in the background behind it.

At fisherman's wharf I shopped around and found the day tours I wanted to do. It was even possible for me to do another duck tour but I decided I was all ducked out and opted for a normal tour. Our tour driver turned out to be a complete twat. I wanted to hit him he was so annoying. When there wasn't anything to point out he would tell us fabricated stories about his personal life, jokes that weren't funny, and stories that were obviously made up and still not funny. Then he told us if we took too long to get back on the bus we wouldn't have time to stop at the golden gate bridge and I was outraged. The whole point of doing he tour was to go there and if this had've happened I would've officially complained. The problem was we all got back on the bus on time but he waited 10 mins each time for no apparent reason and the tour took 1.5 hours longer then it should've. He even had the nerve to tell people off for talking on the bus because they were ruining the tour for others that wanted to listen to what he had to say. I was so happy when I got off the bus and didn't give him a tip because quite frankly he didn't deserve one.

Despite my ill feelings toward the driver we saw the sights. Somewhat surprisingly the first place we went to was called "the painted sisters", better known as the house that was used for the exterior shots of Full House. Excited at seeing this, in particular because I've been watching the show alot on cable here, and because my sister wanted me to see this place when coming here, another pop culture item was ticked off my list. There was a beautiful park across the road, Alamo Square, that was used for external locations for the show. Uno when they played with the dog in the park and I later returned here to stroll around and take a few photos. The tour also took us to a place known as twin Peaks, the highest point of the city and excellent for photos. A pretty spot I am not sure if it had anything to do with the tv show it shares a name with as I didn't actually watch it. Golden Gate bridge was easily the highlight and I was able to take an abudandce of photos from both sides of the bridge on a picture perfect day of 20 degrees, clear blue skies and slight humiditity. Indeed one of the things I've noticed in all my travels everywhere in the world is that the humidity always seems to be higher then Melbourne.

Taking in the sights of San Francisco always leaves you wishing you had more time to see everything as there is so much to do. I spent much time down by the bay eating all of the yummy food. Chowder soup, pizza, fish n chips and food from the French inspired Cafe Boudin. After 5 weeks of being in America you'd think I'd have this ordering system all worked out but Boudin again manages to over complicate things to levels that it really doesn't need to. You order at one counter, pay at another, pick food up from one counter, soup from another, espresso coffee from another, normal coffee from another, and all other drinks from another and the list goes on. Well I managed to get my food but my coffee didn't turn up because uno, I didn't go to the right counter, and the girl took pity on me and made my coffee again cos it was cold by the time I got there.

Other sights of San Francisco include Lombardy, with the crooked street and large numbers of German tourists taking photos. Indeed these 2 American woman next to me caught a taxi down to the bottom of the street because they didn't want to risk falling over. The hills are steep here but not so steep you can't walk down and up them. I also went to the Coit tower, a tower high up on a hill it also offers stunning views of the city. The downside was the fact it was run by these Chinese people that didn't shut-up the entire time I was there. I can't handle the Chinese accent as it gives me headaches and I just laughed to myself when I saw the tip bowl for the elevator operator. I mean are these people dreaming - they charge you $5 to go up a lift, which is really only a few floors and then they have the nerve to ask for a tip. The Golden Gate gardens are another highlight of the city, boasting the Botanic gardens as well as a Japanese Tea Garden. The best thing about the Japanese tea garden is that you can actually drink tea when you're here. Sadly in order for it to be palatable for Americans it is not very hot. Americans just don't do tea. Easily the highlight of my time was a cruise around the Bay which offered a lovely naration of the sights and gave you close up views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

On one day I took an excellent day tour to Yosemite National Park which took us to Yosemite valley and we were able to visit El Capitan. In fact we saw El Capitan from just about every angle. Its really just a big large granite rock. We also saw some waterfalls but they didn't have any water and various other rock structures all boasting strange names. Still it was a fun tour but it was here that I felt really embarrassed to be Australian. Stopping at a small coffee shop in the middle of nowhere on the way up this Australian girl in front of me in the queue goes up to the barrister and orders a, "Soy Latte" in her heavy Australian accent. Cringing I wasn't surprised when she was told they were all out of Soy and she said that skin milk was fine. Soon after she then calls out, "Is anyone else here from Australia?" and I didn't put my hand up. Its moments like these when you start thinking that being a New Zealander might not be as bad as it sounds and then you pinch yourself and think about how hard it would be to support their cricket team of losers.

Halloween turned out to be quite a sight and experience. People aren't shy about dressing up and workers often turn up for work in costume. Wandering the streets on the 31st October is a fun way to spend the day as you see all kinds of weird and wonderful sights. Its not just about dressing up as ghosts, vampires, wizards and witches but people can dress up as anything. It could be a cowboy, Indian, cowgirl, a fairy and the prettier girls often dress up as beautiful princesses. Parties form all around the city and its very noisy being out and about but there is a definite buzz and vibe. On the train I had Elvis sitting next to me, I felt like asking him if he was dead but he
looked very much alive. The shopping in San Francisco may well be excellent but to be honest there isn't really much here. There is a Westfield mall in the center of town and numerous shops around Union Square but after that there isn't much.

San Francisco was in fact the first city that I went to when we came to North America when I was a boy. It was important if only for the fact that I had my first thick shake here. I couldn't find that store again but even if I did I couldn't have one now being lactose intolerant. I remember staying in the city and my parents having all sorts of trouble finding food for us and we had to eat french fries. This hasn't changed. The city area itself has very few places to eat and if you want something you need to go down to the overpriced fisherman's wharf or head off to little Italy or China town. There are surprisingly few McDonald's here, as in all American cities. Melbourne easily has more Maca's then any city in America. This is largely to do with American laws on Monopoly and you find that the cities here just boast lots of different chains all selling the same things in slightly different ways. Being my last stop I indulged in all the yummy food for the last time, a highlight being a Burrito in the Mexican mission district of town. I also did alot of last minute shopping for CD's and DVD's and was horrified when I found a very large Men at Work selection at Borders. Thinking this to be overkill, it was business as usual when I found all the American music soon after.

That's pretty much all I have to write about San Francisco. I'm here at Berkeley, University of California today, and there is a vibe about the place but not all that much to see. I'll be flying back to Australia in just a few hours and it is traditional for me to spend my last day reflecting on what I've seen and done and writing up the last installment of the travel series. America was indeed much more interesting then Canada, which will no doubt surprise many people. The people are quirkier here and more interested in you being an Aussie and all. I love American food, the secret being that it either has too much sugar or salt which keeps you coming back for more. This is why I discovered food in America as a kid. Once I got hooked on hamburgers and Chinese over here I overcame a mental barrier and could eat it when returning to Australia. American pizza is definitely yummier over here because they put sugar in the tomato sauce and its oilier. And the donuts you all know are light years ahead of Australia. This is largely because the donut base is light and fluffy and has just the right amount of sugar in it. It's the sugar glazed icing that takes the donut to an even greater level. In Australia they saturate the tops of donuts with sugar, here sugar glazed or chocolate frosted donuts put just the right amount of sugar and icing on the top. And if that doesn't do it, its the beautiful center of creme, custard or jelly that oozes out as you eat it. Australian donuts often have too much icing (ie too thick) but the thing that kills them is the idiot that decided to put hundreds and thousands on them all and ruin all flavour. S/He should have to forfeit their Australian citizenship.

America is a great place and it's really by coming here that you understand Americans much better. Shops are open until at least 8pm on all nights (later if its a CD/bookstore) and the philosophy is bigger is better.  When you experience this for yourself you understand why Americans complain in Europe when shops close too early or aren't open on Sunday. Fast food is available at any time and the theory seems to be that time is precious and drive through are everywhere. There are drive through donut shops and even drive through atm's. Why would anyone want to walk anywhere? Indeed walking around has been a pain in many cities as no one ever thinks about the pedestrian. You really need a car when you come here. You can really see why Americans are so fat. The junk food keeps you craving more and the servings everywhere are huge.

I'm going to miss all of the choices available to me when I came to this country upon my return. I never worked out what to do with the bottle of ketchup I received at breakfast each day (I suspect I was meant to put it on my eggs). Today they even took the bottle from me because I wasn't using it. I never had a super salad in the end, though in New York they did have "big salads" just like on Seinfeld. I'm going to miss ordering and working out if I should be having a green salad, Caesar salad, house salad, Greek salad with the possible addition of chicken, choosing between 4 different dressings, then choosing between 3 different breads, deciding between french fries, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes or just rice (and if rice is it plain rice, Jasmine rice or fried rice), choosing between steamed vegetables or Brussels sprouts and numerous other things that I can't even remember as there are so many. Ordering a sandwich back in Australia just won't be the same anymore, what am I going to do without the fries and side of salad with my order. And of course I will miss my beloved bagels and all of the 12 different varieties and cream cheese options that brings. And of course there is the rootbeer. A drink I first experienced in Canada many years ago and spent the next 25 years struggling over the little I can find in Australia. Its so readily
available here and each brand is slightly different. I wish I could take it back but sadly I can't.

Of course I never met anyone special in my travels. This didn't surprise me as after a few days it didn't take long to realise that people keep largely to themselves. America is a place of contrasts. On the one hand there are the very rich and wealthy but there is also much poverty here. There are many beggars in every city asking you for money wherever you go. They prey on tourists in tourist areas. I find it annoying but they are relentless, and most of these beggars are black. Sometimes they hassle you, "Come on come on come on, over here, just some change". Once I got followed into 7-11 where they know you will get change. I always say, "No sorry" and never make eye contact and they leave you alone. Its a country where all of the stereotypes are actually true. Everyone in the service industry at hotels is Spanish, the cleaning ladies, check in people, maintenance guy are all Spanish. Security guards are always black as well as people in the low end jobs, bus drivers, taxi drivers. The blacks do drive down the street listening to loud hip hop music and dress with baggy pants and long white shirts. The Spanish speak their own language and stick around with their own kind. And the white man is always in a hurry, out of time, and will never get out of your way on the sidewalk and play chicken with you.

And so this is the end. After 38 days and far too much junk food, all of which my system had little problem processing, I will be returning home. Probably not quite as healthy as when I left, with a very minor cold, and feeling very tired after spending much time in crappy beds, early morning starts and the stresses of finding my way around cities I'm unfamiliar with I will be back with a vengeance. I'm not sure how many of you noticed but each email had numerous pop culture references embedded into them from songs, movies and the 12th man. A couple of these were deliberately wrong to see if anyone was paying attention but as no one emailed me on them I can only assume these were not picked up on. Travelling with Allan had its highs and lows but the details of which I've kept largely out of these emails as he receives them himself. It went much more smoothly this time but as always there is the "low down" which I will be happy to share with people. After all the cities I've been and places I've gone America isn't a patch on Europe but worth experiencing at least once in your lifetime. I've no doubt I'll be back and the experience has taught me where at least I should go next time and how I should go about getting there but it really doesn't matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home.

I'm closing this email with the name of one of the local San Francisco donut chains.

Happy Donut,


1. Foreigner are still really big in this country. It surprises me the amount of times I've heard Foreigner on the radio here. Probably the biggest hint as to their undying popularity was one time in Quebec City when this guy was driving down the street with the stereo on full blast repeating the same song, "I want to know what love is." Then 3 teenage girls walked past his car and broke into singing the same song.

2. There is no deal with the pidgeons. There is an episode of Seinfeld when George Constanza is told by Jerry that we have a deal with the pidgeons. They are meant to get out of our way. And then of course he runs over one in the car. The pidgeons often don't bother getting out of your way anymore. Indeed many times pidgeons have gone straight for my head and I've had to duck for cover.

3. Tipping is optional in America .... apparantly. The argument is whether or not the tip is pre-tax of post tax but at the end of the day I use a system of rounding up to the next dollar, adding a dollar and then adding a dollar from there depending on how good the service was. What really killed me in America was the organized tours. This resulted in payments of $15 - $30 / tour to the driver which is pathetic but you have to do it as there are signs and everyone expects it. At Starbucks I refused to tip, cos the coffee was so bad, unless I got a smile from a pretty girl with my order. Places without table service have tip bowls and indeed tipping here is optional but sometimes they move the bowl as you make your order which is a hint meaning they want some cash.
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