Thursday, August 07, 2008

Friday 13 June: Portland, Oregon - Slowing

We landed in Portland International Airport, which is one of the best organised airports I've seen in the US. It helps that it's not so big. The thing I am still not used to is the American system whereby all of the shops are before you go through security. Therefore after you have checked in, you still mingle with thieves, drug smugglers and terrorists for a long time before you get on the flight. But I guess I'm used to security-conscious Europe rather than the commercially-minded US.

One thing I did touch upon was the problem we were having with NWA, the Network With Additional Costs. When we came to check in online, we were allocated seats. Two people who booked tickets together paid for in the same payment were allocated seats at two different ends of the plane. Why would any company do that? There is a 100% chance we would want to sit together in those situations. The reason is, NWA wanted to grab more money from us. It allowed us to change these seats, but most of the available seats were only available at a 50 dollar upgrade charge. So basically, they stick you in unacceptable seats and charge you to sit somewhere reasonable. We picked the last two free seats together that weren't charged for (right up near the back of the plane) because we didn't want to give these crooks any more money. We should have remembered their 1988 hit, "F**k tha Passengas."

On top of that the site wouldn't let us fully check in after we selected seats because we'd booked via KLM. It suggested trying then booking airline's site. We tried KLM's website told us "why not check in online at" Believe me, baby, we tried.

I am currently trying to complain but because of the fact we booked through KLM, they can't seem to find details. Criminal AND badly organised. Sounds like a bad combination.

We had a lot of time before the flight. I ate a huge mushroom burger while Cath napped. For some reason Americans think there is nothing better than putting a pickled gherkin in a bun otherwise filled with good things. They must either like them or think that it is good to do some penance with something that is otherwise enjoyable. Maybe they think it will help them get into heaven. Not with gherkin-breath, you won't.

Going through security, it was shown that my ticket had a random "S" on it. This random letter is added to the card based on criteria unknown and means extra security check required. It meant that I had to go through the "puffer." This is a glass box the size of a small elevator that blows air at you in order to dislodge particles. It then sniffs the air for whatever they are looking for: pesticides, drugs or explosives. Then a chatty woman swabbed my new bag and put the swabs into a machine. It was my new laptop bag and she swabbed pockets I hadn't even known were there. If the machine was calibrated for "new bag smell" alarms would have gone off all over the building. But whatever they were looking for, I didn't have any. They funny thing is, this extra security took me outside of the normal queue and I was all done before Catherine with her standard security was through. Evidently potential terrorists get fast-tracked onto the plane. The Americans have never really understood security. But I guess it protects the airport itself more.

We still had plenty of time and so nabbed some coffee and used the airport's power to laptoptify. Portland is a fun, small airport and huge jumbo planes have to line up with tiny little things that are barely bigger than the cockpit of the former.

Our flight was full and our seats at the back were not bad in that they had a little more room as there were only three of them instead of the four earlier on in the plane as it was starting to taper in there. And we weren't right at the back where the seats don't go back. However the flight was popular with people with children who I still insist should have a class of their own.

The safety instructions were given via a video with what seemed to be real aircrew carefully picked to be completely across the board racially. There was a Dutch translation after every explanation, but it was done quickly and only covered some of the topics. For example none of the first class apparatus was explained suggesting the cost-conscious Dutch don't travel first class.

Soon after take off we were offered a last glimpse of the magnificent Mount St. Helens, sitting there, biding its time.

It was a long ten-hour flight which Cath cleverly slept through. She part-fasted whilst I ate everything that came my way and completely failed to sleep whatsoever. My method was actually the more successful at getting back on the new time zone but only because I have the more flexible body clock that sorts itself out pretty quickly at the expense of being a zombie for the first few days back. I even managed to do a short improv gig the afternoon I arrived. I have no idea how it went, but I certainly wasn't in my head, which is a good thing.

It was nice to visit new places in the US. San Francisco and Portland I could definitely do again. In fact I suspect I could live in both places, and not many cities in the US make me feel like that.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Friday 13 June: San Francisco - Fasting

The latest scientific wisdom is that the way to beat jetlag is through fasting. Apparently if you don't eat for 14 hours before you land, you reset your internal clock the moment you eat, your body deciding this must be breakfast. All well and good for flights landing around breakfast time. If you land in the evening, what do you do then? Perhaps I should do some research rather than rely on second-hand hearsay. I remain unconvinced as to the scientific fact of this and will continue to eat and carry my magic time sticks with me.

We awoke at seven, grabbed a quick breakfast, packed and hopped on the shuttle-bus for the airport. It was all very easy, although our German driver was a tad grumpy that we were not ready when he turned up a couple of minutes early. We took a tiny little Alaskan Airline plane to Portland. 18 rows of seats it had. I was rather disappointed there were no Inuit on the flight. Maybe they were in Frost Class. (I know it's a bad joke but I woke up at 7, so what do you expect.)

I liked Alaska Airlines. They had a big picture of an Eskimo on the tail fin and served Starbucks coffee. However, even this managed to taste like mud as all airline coffee does. I think it is something to do with altitude.

Up in the air, we had some awesome views. A great snow-capped mountain drifted past some 45 minutes in. This was almost certainly Mount Shasta. Sometime later appeared a giant crater filled with water called Crater Lake. This was Oregon and more mountains followed many with snowy peaks, without which mountains don't really seem like mountains. Around that area there seemed many paths (they must have been roads/tracks from this height) but otherwise the area seemed very unspoilt woodland.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Thursday 12 June: San Francisco – Sway

Following yesterday's Japanese Tea Garden disappointment, we decided to take no chances. Once we had dispensed with breakfast, we headed that way on the number 71 bus. The Japanese Tea Garden is an island of peace and serenity and expensive tea in the middle of a moderately relaxed city by US standards. It's only spoilt by occasional throngs of tourists of all nationalities. And the tea isn't really that expensive given the peaceful surroundings and the great snacks you get with it. There is even some tamelife (it can't be called wildlife when it's so placid) including fat koi, some happy crayfish (or crawfish, or crawdaddies if you're Texan), a myriad of pond skaters and even an oddly marked bumble bee that could only walk. What was great to learn was that in the Eastern European language of the two very Boratian gentlemen with 4 English-speaking kids "crawfish" is the word for crawfish. Maybe it was originally an Uzbek, Kazik or Tjerkminik word in the first place, but I doubt it.

Cath and I spent many hours discussing the way of dealing with homelessness. There is a lot of it. Many places have different ways of dealing with it. Most with some success, but the problems seem to be a) not too much is done, and often it's not initiated by the city but individuals who may or may not be able to get city funds; and b) the policy in each area is quite rigid and often somewhat different. And the fact is different people are on the street for different reasons and the best method to help them out is not the same for each person. Variable measures is even more expensive than a fixed, one-size fits all solution. I think it fair to say we failed to come up with the perfect solution.

On the way out of the park, curiosity took hold and we looked in to see the Shakespeare Garden. Fortunately, a pair of elderly cyclists were being told all about it by one of the park-keepers. It's a recreation of an Elizabethan garden. What was even more interesting to learn was the fact that whole park (Japanese Tea, Shakespeare and other gardens) is "built" on sand. (If you look on the (Golden Gate) park on the map, it goes right up to the sea). It apparently requires almost constant watering for it to remain a park and not become a huge dune.

We caught the bus to Haight (pronounced, The Bus to Hate - a great title for a terrible 1950s drama; although not as good as the sign on the tram "Haight-Casto" or Hate Castro! - great title for terrible propaganda movie).

San Francisco prides itself on its coffee. It considers itself the real home of coffee in the US and that Seattle is just the pretender who just gave us a lot of chains. In a minimarket (grocery store a few blocks off Haight, there was a selection of 5 coffees in flasks. People on the go can squirt out any one of these into a beaker, pay and continue to go. Five types of coffee is more than most bars offer. We had our coffee (okay, my coffee) over the street in The Sacred Grounds Café <>, a suitably hippy sounding name for an established but still somewhat disorganised eatery. There was a Hillary Clinton poster in the window which was now just ironic since she was out of the race. (That is at least until her assassins get to Obama.) The food was great. I had a sandwich with some great Sudanese chicken thing and Cath had falafel. On another table (the only other filled one for most of the time) a woman talked with a loud penetrating voice about the peace of meditation. She might have been ironic too.

The bathroom proved to be an adventure. To do it properly, you walked through the kitchen and on your left was a door unclearly marked Toilet. However, go through the kitchen and turn right, ignoring the scruffy barely-marked door on the left, and you end up in a cavernous area that leads down many paths. Some to stairs, another to an exit and a another one to a toilet marked "For pizza patrons only." This was locked. And anyway, we were in a cafe, not a pizza restaurant. I followed the thread of my jeans back and found the entrance to the lair. I fancied I heard what could have been screams far off in the distance. Presumably from the pizza place. Back in the kitchen I asked where the bathroom was. It was immediately on the left out of the kitchen. I would have felt stupid had not a girl appeared in the kitchen for the same purpose I appeared there a few minutes earlier. I let her go first and she immediately turned right. It wasn't me. The door was invisible.

We took 2 buses to the Golden Gate Bridge. (That is we changed, rather than went on separate buses.) The Golden Gate Bridge was once the longest suspension bridge in the world, and it is certainly one of the most famous. It's mainly recognisable because 90% of suspension bridges all look the same. From the look-out point, just before you get on the bridge by foot, you can look down and see an historic army fort. It's not obviously reachable from there, although it is clearly reachable by many people.

We walked about 1/3 of the way across the bridge and back mainly to say we'd done that. We had been expecting it to sway in the reasonably strong winds, as some guide books had suggested, but it didn't. Sometime around Portland we'd been past the bridge that sometime in the 50s or 60s swayed so violently in the wind it fell down. It's one of those piece of footages you never forget. And so when we read that the Golden Gate Bridge can sway in the wind, this is the image we had. We were both relieved and disappointed. Even so, without the swaying it was still not a casual experience for someone who is scared of heights.

I wasn't scared a bit.

We then took two buses to the coast to go visit the Seal Rocks. These are rocks where seals are known to hang out. At that time they were all rock and no seal. I guess the seals don't work after 5 pm. They must go to their night home and eat their fish suppers. Mind you, they're probably sick of fish.

We took another bus back to our hotel and steeled ourselves for dealing with nwa - navigators with attitude. Airlines, once companies of apparent generosity, are becoming very miserly and grasping. We booked two seats at the same time and when we came to check in, we were allocated seats miles apart from each other at different ends of the plane. Most available seats were in the aisle, but were "premium" seats, i.e. you had to pay to sit there. So they give you unacceptable seats and then make you pay to sit with the people you booked the tickets with. It was just a cynical, penny-pinching way of grabbing more cash off you. A complaint has been made.

We had dinner in a Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant not far from the hotel. The best thing about it was the aquarium display of potential dishes in the front. Of all the creatures only a couple of the shrimp showed any enthusiasm and were trying hard to get out of their tank.

On the way back, we encountered a chatty woman who was begging. That is she was sitting by the side of the sidewalk talking to passers-by in a friendly and kindly way. We spoke for a bit until she brought up the subject of kids. She explained she had 5, and that they were the greatest thing that had happened to her, but due to some mistake she could no longer see them. She burst into tears and it was clear she preferred us to leave her be. There was a story there and we were both curious to know and to help if at all possible. She was well dressed, well-groomed, and had she been walking along we wouldn't have thought beggar except that her shoes had seen better days. Sitting on a blanket on a city street is all you need to say beggar, it seems.

AAfter putting much thought into solving or alleviating the problem of homelessness, we came to few concrete conclusions, packed and went to bed. All we know is that there are people without any home and there are seals with two.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Wednesday 11 June: San Francisco – My new favourite Asian city

Notice the UFO in the above picture. Is any more proof needed?

We grabbed our breakfast from the hall and then headed out. There was a whole saga in searching for a stamp. We gave up for then, but eventually had word that there was a post office beneath Macy's. We wandered down to Market Street via a somewhat dodgy area. There were many beggars and at one point a guy had fallen out of his wheelchair. Two motorcycle cops were already on the scene and taking charge firmly but friendlily. We caught the historic Tram Line F where old trams (not just from San Francisco but also from other cities are run for the use of locals and the joy of tourists. We caught it in a bad part of Market Street but it meant the tram was not too busy before the stop where all the tourists get on it. The line goes to the end of Market Street and then heads up along the harbour. We went to Pier 33 as the night before we'd booked tickets to go to Alcatraz.

Once the last place you might want to be sent, now huge queues of people wait to get on the boat to go there. The island is prime real estate; plumb in the middle of the bay with great views of both bridges and of the city itself. The trip over is quick, and the boats are large but full. You need a couple of hours to really do the island properly, even though there is much of the island you can't get to, either due to renovation / dilapidation or because birds are nesting. The island is prime nest site for gulls, guillemots and other sea-faring birds.

Most people start with the short film giving an overview of the history. It was originally made by or for the Discovery Channel and I had seen it before as it was somewhat familiar. So I even knew vaguely about the Indian Occupation which Catherine didn't. This, for those of you who didn't know was in 1969 when a group of Native American activists took over the island as a protest about the generally dreadful treatment they were receiving and had been receiving since the first boat load of immigrants piled into the country. In particular it was against a kind of forced integration that was in action at the time.

Wandering around the island is pleasant and no doubt good for you. But the most interesting part is the audio tour of the prison itself. Ex wardens and former prisoners tell you what was where, what it was like to be there, and about the various escape attempts. Some of the latter were studies in patience and ingenuity.

We took the ferry back. This is the only way if you discount swimming which is ill-advised because the waters have treacherous currents and sharks. The sharks however are only vegetarian, which means they kill you by boring you to death about how they don't eat meat. (Only kidding. Smiley face.)

San Francisco is one of the few major cities that still have abandoned harbour warehouses. In many other cities these have all been converted from crummy, rat-infested eye-sores to some of the most expensive places to live in the city.

We headed over to Chinatown. Actually half the city could be called Chinatown, but we were heading to the bit that has most of the restaurants. It was curious to hear the children on the bus all speaking Chinese to each other. It's not what I would have expected, but it was nice to hear. I don't hear enough Chinese these days except from random conversations on the train via the airport and from my Shanghai neighbour at work.

We ate in a Vietnamese restaurant that we think was called Pho or Golden Flower. I know, go to Chinatown to eat Vietnamese is a bit like getting French food in a Tapas bar, but Amsterdam is short of Vietnamese places. Keeping with the Asian theme, we went on to the famed Japanese Tea Garden. However it was shut.

That evening we decided to check out the real nightlife of the city. We took the old-fashioned tram to Castro, the lively gay side of town. Even for a Wednesday it was pretty happening. A few restaurants were open but we decided to look for our light supper in another part of town, supposed to be the main going-out centre, the Mission District. We walked there, avoiding dark streets, and for those of used to the scale of Amsterdam maps, it was a touch further than anticipated. The Mission District is a going-out sort of place, but it's also a bit down-at-heel. It's supposed to be good for bar hopping, but it's not like there is a line of bars, you have to know where the next one is. Most bars and restaurants were closing as we were arriving. The only clearly open eatery was a Mexican fast-food 'restaurant' (it had a counter and no chairs as far as I could see) which was packed and needed a security guard. The two guys who went in as we passed smelt like they had come from a cannabis sauna. They seemed to be in good spirits.

We also passed a guy who was dressed a pimp. The very stereotype of a pimp. If you'd have seen him in a movie or gangsta rap video you'd have said how clichéd surely pimps don't dress like that any more. I'm not saying he was a pimp, I'm only saying he dressed like one. And the girl on his arm dressed like a ho.

We realised a snack would not be forthcoming without queuing for a long time behind two guy who could be classed as a class-C narcotic. We bought some nuts and hailed a taxi. The taxi sped through the city and afforded us our first Bullitt moment. A Bullitt moment can only happen in San Francisco on those streets where the roads slope up or down but are level for an intersection. It's when you go too fast on the up or down and it causes a bit of a suspension crunch you hit the flat. I was so happy to have had this experience. Someone should start a Bullitt tour, so that any tourist can experience this (as well as a few key sites from the movie).