The Final Countdown: Europe, North America travel blog

Pier 33, we are on the way to Alcatraz

Pier 33

Bay Bridges, the new one will be finished in 2013. Yerba Buena...

Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island

San Francisco

San Francisco from the Alcatraz ferry

Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz

The Alcatraz ferry is solar powered

Alcatraz

Alcatraz

Visiting day for Cynthea

Officers' Club (what is left of it)

Guard tower

Water tower

The exercise yard

Golden Gate from the exercise yard

Anyone for jumping to escape?

Noisy seals

Watch the birdie - we saw hummingbirds in the garden

Cellblock and some of the gardens

Prisoner, Cell Block D

Cell Blocks B & C

Staff at Boudin's bakery are miked up to talk to people out...

Chilli in a sourdough bowl at Boudin's

The cable cars are turned by hand

Pole dancing?

Ready to ride

The griplever on the cable car grabs the cable and the car...

Steep streets in this town

Out and about with top down

Thanksgiving with Jennifer, Ruby and friends

Yerba Beuna Island and the Bay bridge

Leaving San Francisco


21st Nov

After breakfast we leave our bags in storage and take a streetcar to the Pier for the 9.30 sailing. As we get on Tony asks the driver how much, she tells us $2 each, unless we are over 62, then it is 75c. Cynthea is not impressed at her joke, and Tony wondered if they could have got the senior’s fares. At Pier 33 we have to wait in a long queue to exchange our vouchers, and then there is a longer queue to board. We can see why we were advised to buy our tickets well in advance, at this time of the year you need at least three days, and in the season bookings need to be a week in advance, the tour is that popular. The private ferry service is the only option for getting to the island. Our tour is part of a package, but the 10 minute boat trip (each way) normally costs around US$38. Money for jam, is it not? Today is another stunning day, there is no sign of the rubbish weather we had yesterday morning.

When they announce boarding the queue moves slowly, we think that the are doing security screening of bags, but it turns out to be a money grabbing exercise. People are being lined up and shot (in front of a green screen so they have the official photo of the visit). We tell them not to bother and carry on because the boat will leave in a few minutes, and it won’t wait. We are not sure if many people behind us (there were a lot), bothered with the photos or not. These places must waste a hell of a lot of photographic paper! We reckon the price could be halved if they actually asked people before the photos are printed, it would save a lot of waste.

Alcatraz (The Rock) is some 2km from San Francisco, in the past it has been a lighthouse, military base, military prison and most famously as a federal prison (1933-1963). Around 90 staff members guarded an average of around 260 prisoners. The federal prison was closed due to high operating costs. The island is currently administered by the National Park service, and is a haven for local fauna and flora. Alcatraz is not that big, roughly 500m long by 180m wide.

As a federal prison the jail held some of the worst hoodlums America had ever known, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Mickey Cohen, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). Some prison staff and their families also lived in apartments on the island.

Authorities claim that no prisoner successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men tried twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as "missing and presumed drowned". One could easily argue that in presuming an escapee to have drowned, is just as likely that he survived. The authorities argue that the dangerous currents and hungry sharks would ensure no survivors, however at least one prisoner is known to have made it to the other side, albeit in a state of exhaustion. He found on the beach and police called, because of the state he was in. Besides that there is a group of swimmers who call themselves the Polar Bear Club that make a daily swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco.

When we get off the boat we are asked to gather on the dock and no one is allowed to leave until the “welcome speech” is over. We are told the island has it’s dangers and we are not to climb fences or barriers. Well you would be silly to, wouldn’t you, some of the drops the other side of those fences is a good 30m or more. Plants and animals here are protected by law, plants are not to be collected, and the birds are not to be fed. (Later, while we were in the garden, a staff member was pruning succulents. A visitor asked for some cuttings, and was declined, but the gardener told her if a cutting was taken while her back was turned, she wouldn’t know!).

It is tough luck if you get hungry as there is no food service on the island, and you cannot bring food and drink past the dock area (the exception being bottled water). An electric cart available for those unable to make it up the steep path, the equivalent of around 13 stories.

We leave the docks to watch a video of the island's 200 year history, it is an excellent introduction to Alcatraz. There are a couple of gift shops on the island, selling all the usual souvenirs, books and clothing. Our tour of the island is self guided, with park staff giving free tours and talks through the day. The talk we want to go on is an hour off, so we fill in time with a walk along the east side to the power plant, a lot of it is solar. Many of the buildings, like the old officers club, are in a dilapidated state.

We make our way to the cellhouse for our tour. We are lucky to make it as we have to join a queue to pick up the audio guides first, before we go to the dining room. We are taken down to the parade ground, and leave the tour soon after as it continues to a section we have already visited. We spend a bit of time enjoying the views from the city lookout listening to the seals making a racket from the buoy just off shore. In the gardens by the lookout we spot a humming bird in the lavender. These guys are so small, and so fast! Tony tried to get a photo, and thought he failed, but a closer look later showed he got it, only just though.

We take the steep, narrow steps back to the parade ground and up more steep, narrow steps to the bottleneck at the doorway to the cellhouse. The prisoner’s cells are not that big, about 2m by 3m, each with small sink with cold running water, small sleeping cot, and a toilet. In D block, where the cells are slightly bigger, prisoners were kept in isolation, confined 24 hours a day, with the exception of one solo visit a week to the recreation yard.

We are back on the mainland by 1.30pm, we want to look around Fisherman’s wharf, Cynthea wants another seafood feed, and Tony wants to try the chilli in sourdough bowls at Boudins (a bakery chain that started here on the wharf). The bakery had a large viewing window on the street so passers by can watch the bakers at work. The baker working at the window has a mike to talk to people out on the street. We have lunch and go shopping for Tshirts, Tony has had to bin a couple lately and they will do as a souvenir. He finds a Tshirt, but the shop will not accept cards for transactions under $10, and there is nothing to show that until Tony goes to pay. What is with that? I wonder how many sales they lose in a day. Cynthea was outside with Tony’s wallet, so he just left the shop and didn’t bother going back in. A couple of shops down the street he found something nicer, and bought three Tshirts from them both.

The one thing we must do before we leave is to ride the trams up those steep hills. When we took the bus tour the other day the drivers told us not to try and catch a tram at the terminus near Aquatic Park, but to go a couple of stops along the road. We decided we would anyway, and soon saw why we had been told that. The queue was an hour or more long waiting for a ride. Tony asked the ticket office if we could buy a ticket now and get on at a different stop, but was told that the trams were busy today, and we would not be able to get on at any stop nearby. Sort of defeats the purpose of the exercise.

We decide to go to another terminus, a few blocks along, it was a bit further than we expected but the queue here was much shorter. We join the queue and are entertained with music while we wait, courtesy of the chap organising the queue. We expected the hat to be passed around, but that didn’t happen. There is a turntable set into the ground beside us, and the trams are all turned by hand. We are near the front of the queue for the second tram, but as we go to board some people behind us push in front, and we are unable to board this side. We have to go around to the other side and people there are holding seats for friends. Tony pushes his way in anyway, and Cynthea ends up standing, hanging on to the pole. We might have been able to get seats inside at the back, but it so much better riding in the open section. So much for orderly boarding though. Tickets are US$6 each, quite a lot more expensive than the rest of the transport system.

There are three separate braking mechanisms for these heavy cars: main track brakes in the front of the car, front wheel brakes operated by the foot pedal in the front of the car, and rear wheel brakes are operated by the crank at the back of the car. Every cable car is pulled along it's hilly track by an underground cable. The cable is gripped with a vice-like mechanism that is operated through the grip lever in the front of the car. Tony is sitting on the back of the seat (due to lack of room) and is asked by the gripman to sit down in case he falls backwards into the grip lever mechanism, so Tony squeezes down into the seat. As we head off the conductor swings his way around the car collecting fares.

Our route takes us up Taylor St, Mason St and then Powell Street, we really notice those hills now, we sometimes feel like we are going to topple back, they are that steep. There was not a lot of room for people trying to board at the next stop, just as well we didn’t try that trick after all, and closer to Union Square we eventually had room to sit more comfortably. We rode to Union Square and on to the hostel, getting there around 4pm.

We collect our bags and walk to the bus stop, we are using the regular bus service to get to Fairfax and we hope the bus will not be too crowded with commuters. We are not in the nicest area, and we grateful it is not dark yet. Tony carries Cynthea’s backpack for her, and she carries the two small day packs so that we can get to the bus as quick as possible. It is an uncomfortable feeling being here, especially when we pass the welfare office, but we don’t feel it is dangerous. Head down, bum up and go for it as quick as we can. We arrive at the bus stop, and realise we don’t know what side of the road we should be standing on. Tony is trying to find the bus schedule on the notice board when our bus pulls up, that was good timing. Tony explains where we are heading and is told we are at the right stop.

We drag all our gear aboard, luckily there are not many passengers aboard. The front seats are empty too, so we are not disrupting the other passengers carting our gear through the bus. Tony goes to pay the fare and the driver says he will have to issue a transfer ticket, so to save us all trouble we are to pay the next driver (the fare is the same). He is a nice guy and is great to chat to, he asks us if we are in the Amazing Race. Yeah, some days we feel like that! He drops us off and makes sure we know what bus to get to Fairfax, Tony double checks that this is the right place, because it is not the stop the transport office told him to use, and he is concerned as it is near dark. But all is well, there is a route number on the signpost when we check it.

It seems quite a long wait for the next bus, although it wasn’t really that long at all. It probably seemed like that because we were nervous about being stranded at night and didn’t have much idea where we were. The bus arrives and Tony explains where we are to get off, but the driver doesn’t know it. Wonderful. A passenger says she knows the stop and will let us know, so we board. That was really fortunate because there are two similar stops on this route, and we would probably have got off at the wrong one. There are only two or three other people on the bus. We find that unusual given the time of day. Tony rings Jennifer and tells her we will be 45 minutes at the most, the traffic is flowing well despite it being rush hour.

We are treated to a beautiful sight as we cross the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. We arrive at the bus stop around 6pm, there is a small shopping centre there. Knowing about that would have helped identify the stop a lot. Jennifer arrives shortly after, driving a convertible Mini. We have a bit of difficulty getting all our gear in the car, the bags won’t fit in the boot (hardly anything would fit in a boot that size!). Tony offers to wait outside the 7/11 while Jennifer takes Cynthea, and the luggage, back to the house, it is not far away, about one and a half kilometres.

Fairfax is on the San Marino headland, it looks to be a nice town, a lot of alternative lifestylers out this way. Cell phone towers are few because the “green” community does not want them. There is cell cover here on the main road, but at Jennifer’s place it is patchy at best. The cinema here is solar powered (wonder how that works at night?).

It is a lovely home, Jennifer and her daughter Ruby have only been here a couple of months, and still have a lot of unpacking to do. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and they have spent the last two days getting the house prepared for that. They have two dogs, and are looking after three others over the holiday. We are their second couchsurf guests, our room has a sofa bed. There is a big swimming pool, and Jennifer tells us that when they moved in they bought a new cover for it. That night there was a huge ruckus by the pool, and she looks out to see two stags fighting. One took off across the pool and was amazed that the animal didn’t break through the cover. She wonders how she would have coped with a huge buck stranded in her pool.

We buy tea tonight as a contribution to our stay, we get takeaways from their favourite Japanese restaurant and Ruby’s boyfriend joins us for tea. Jennifer has everything organised for Thanksgiving tomorrow, so there is nothing for us to do there. Jennifer asks Tony if he knows anything about electrics because the sensor lights at the front of the house have stopped working. Yes, she has replaced the bulbs and checked the fuses. Tony asks where the light switch is, and Jennifer tells him she never found it. Tony says that is strange, it would logically be with the internal lights in the garage. There is a switch there that is taped so it cannot be used, Jennifer tells Tony that it doesn’t work. Tony has a look but cannot find anything obvious, the missing switch is bugging him.

Thursday 22nd November

Happy Thanksgiving. Jennifer has three guests joining us for dinner tonight (Lisa, Lisa’s daughter, and Chase, Lisa’s partner). They will be here late afternoon but with most of the work done there is not a lot to do. Jennifer is disappointed that the special table settings she ordered did not arrive. She finally got through to the company late last night, but they were pretty indifferent about the delay, saying it would be another week, and that the express delivery she paid extra for was not available to her area. She was not a happy chappy.

Tony goes to the garage and has another look at the wiring for the lights. He checks a junction box and then follows the trail of wires to the switch on the wall… the switch that is taped off, you know, the obvious spot that Tony asked about. He removes the tape, flicks the switch and presto, the lights are going. We think that when Jennifer was checking the lights it was not dark enough for the sensors to activate.

We have a light lunch and Jennifer takes us for a ride in the mini with the top down. It is another gorgeous day, a little cool with the top down, but we can cope with that. We drive along the Nicasio Valley, through a redwood forest, towards the reservoir, with a short detour down Lucas Valley to George Lucas’ ranch (we don’t call in). We have a quick tour around Fairfax before heading back home.

We are getting the meal ready, and realise we are missing cream and getting low on another essential - wine, so Tony goes for a walk to the shops. Lisa and Chase are at the house when he returns. The meal and the company are great. We have a feast of turkey and cranberry sauce, salad, mashed potatoes, and candied yams. The yams are not like we know them at home, they are more like our kumara (sweet potato), and they are served with melted marshmallow baked over the top. We have pumpkin pie and cheesecake for dessert. It was wonderful to be invited to have thanksgiving in someone’s home.

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