Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Gate and The Rock

Pick up was at 2.30am this morning and the shuttle was early! After dropping off 4 others at La Guardia airport first, I arrive at Terminal 7 at JFK and there are people sitting outside on their bags. It will be another 30 mins before we are able to go inside! We line up and have to put our bags on a scale in front of an attendant…sweat sweat. My bag weighs in at 48.7 lb. not much to come and go on. It strange that they do not seemed concerned about the carry on and I must have 10kg in that…or at least it feels like it.
It was a great flight with very roomy seats but I have a bulk head seat and that helps. Beside me was a woman with a dog being carried in a sports like bag……a strange sight? We arrive in 45 mins early…and it’s hard to fathom that they must have some pretty fast tail winds here. It was pretty easy to navigate the BART train from the airport and arriving in downtown San Francisco I immediately am taken by the slower pace and the cooler temperatures.

My hotel is right in China town and it’s a bit of a hike up hills with my bag and hand luggage in tow. My room is tiny and a direct contrast to NY, very tired. Location is everything though and I take a stroll downtown passing Union Square. Yes another square named for its series of pro-union mass demonstrations staged on the eve of the Civil War. It is the epicentre of the city’s shopping district, Macy’s Saks, Tiffany’s, Armani, Niketown and company are located here and are surrounded by blocks of other high-end boutiques. There are few bargains but its fun to play lookey-loo.

After an average sleep (my body clock has absolutely no idea of what the time is anymore and when to sleep and when to be awake) I find myself lethargic to say the least and decide to take it easy today instead of the attack, attack. attack attitude. 

I have Alcatraz tonight and I am not sure what time that will finish so decide on a cable car ride and to explore Fisherman’s Wharf. San Francisco has lots of one way streets which is confusing at first but becomes easy to find your way around as the grid pattern continues. Chinatown is marked by a large red and green gate and inside is a labyrinth of restaurants, markets, temples, shops and lots of San Francisco’s Chinese residents. It’s at this point that you say goodbye to the world of fashion and hello to cheap tourist Chinese paraphernalia.
I walk down to Market Street and have a bagel and coffee for breakfast. A woman sits beside me and it’s easy to recognise her NZ accent when she asks if the seat beside me is taken. We have a good chat and exchange some travel stories. She is visiting with her husband who is here for work.

 The queue for the cable car is huge…I had been warned and so I decide to take a street car ….a  vintage trolley bus type arrangement that runs on tracks.The streetcar travels along the Embarcadero (skating, biking, strolling route which curves along the San Francisco Bay) and stops at different Piers announced by the driver.
As we pass the Ferry building it looks like a hive of activity so will return here later. The drivers have been hilarious with their “black” humour and they are very helpful to the bucket loads of tourists.

Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist oriented pier with many of the tour boats departing from here. There are heaps of tourists shops (I have seen enough to last my entire lifetime) restaurants and trinket shops but some beautiful views and walkways. I have yet to see “the bridge” it’s been covered in fog….normal I am told.

I catch the streetcar back to the Ferry Building and Framers Market. There are dozens of stalls and a place for some amazing grazing but also foodie heaven with epicurean concierges on hand with guided culinary excursions available. From here I jump on the cable car (there are 3 lines, the most famous one….maybe tomorrow) and take the ride to the end of California Street up some street hills on the way including the delightfully named Nobs Hill. I stay on for the return journey (the MUNI card $21 – 3 days gives unlimited rides on Metro, buses and cables) and return to the hotel to get ready for Alcatraz Night Tour.

The temperature is cool in the mornings and evenings and I decide to dress for it …just as well. This is a popular tourist activity and 300 others join me on the boat out to Alcatraz. As we approach the fog gets thicker and this makes it a rather eerie setting.

 It’s a polished tourist tour and the history and accompanying stories are transfixing. Construction of a fort began in 1853 at the same time as the first lighthouse on the Pacific coast began operation. Alcatraz was an important part of the US western defence plan before it was decommissioned in 1907. It was a prison almost from the beginning in the Civil war era, including a prison for Indians captured during various Indian wars. It was not till 1915 that Alcatraz was renamed “United States Disciplinary Barracks” a military prison. A huge concrete cell house was built with the prisoners providing the labour (I wonder if they heard of go slow?) and it re opened as a federal penitentiary in 1934.

Of the 1545 men who did time on Alcatraz only a handful were notorious, among them Al “Scarface”Capone and Robert Stroud “the Birdman of Alcatraz”. Most of the inmates were men who proved to be a problem in other prison populations and transfer to the undeniably maximum security facility was the answer. Rule 5 of the Alcatraz prison Rules and Regulations 1934 is “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege”

There were 14 attempted prison escapes, the most well-known in 1962 when 3 slipped into the water using raincoats as floatation devices…bodies never found...presumed drowned. It closed as a prison in 1963 but in 1969 there was a 19 month occupation by the “Indians of all Tribes”. Today Alcatraz is a designated part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.

The tour took us through the prison cells, shower rooms, dining area, recreational area all very grim and sparse. Stories abound with myths and mystery. Alcatraz has been the subject of many movies and books and has become a symbol of America’s dark side. The walls can tell a thousand stories and I have had my fill! Thick fog had descended and there was a salt laden cold wind as we boarded the ferry and left this harsh environment that many had endured and some had not.


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