Monday, November 19, 2012

San Francisco, Day 2

We woke up today at eight o'clock, as our room faces towards the east and lets in a lot of light. It's a nice way to wake up, because the light just gradually nudges you until you're not sleepy anymore.

We set off by streetcar for the boat that would take us to Alcatraz. On the way I learned something new - the streetcar was actually taken from Washington, D.C.,  and others were taken from different cities as a sort of cultural exchange. We also saw another one from Los Angeles, which had a somewhat different shape to it. Perhaps it's because I haven't traveled around much, but San Francisco seems to be full of minor little thoughtful touches like that - it's more detailed than Duluth. When we get back home I'll have to keep my eyes open to see whether that's really true.
Riding the Cable Car
Unfortunately, when we got to the dock we learned that Alyssa had been wrong about us having tickets to the island. Worse, because it's the week of Thanksgiving, they're sold out of tickets until next Sunday, and we fly out in the morning so would definitely miss it. Our only hope was to go on standby and hope that some other people who already bought tickets weren't able to make it. It seemed like a pretty slim hope, but with seven days of standing in standby lines it seemed likely that at least someone would bail. I really wanted to see Alcatraz. On the plus side, that meant that our City Pass does allow us a boat tour of the Bay, which for a small amount of money more will get us the Escape From The Rock tour that circles (but does not land on) Alcatraz.

We headed north the Fisherman's Wharf again, which is much better when it's not crowded. We had crepes for breakfast, which were fun to see made and quite good. After that, since the Aquarium wasn't open yet, we went to go see the seals. I do a really good sea lion impression. Their bark was the absolute height of humor to me, and I liked watching them slip into the water swim around, then launch themselves back up on the floating platforms for more lounging. There were also lots of birds, which seemed to have claimed one of the floating platforms for themselves.

We stopped at two places of note on Fisherman's Wharf that we hadn't stopped at before. The first was a spice and tea shop; the owner there was very friendly and personable, and since we were the only ones in the store he had us try a bunch of specialty sugars and salts. For that reason, we bought quite a few of them in little pouches, and I'm eager to try them out as toppers on various foods. The second place was a bath salt store, which was out in the open air. People take bottles and then fill them with whatever bath salts they want. Alyssa got a mixture of melon cucumber, green tea, lavender, and oatmeal honey. All of them smelled great, but we'll see how they are when bathing. It makes me wish that we had access to a tub that was built for two, but the one at our hotel is definitely not, and neither is the one at home.

Flavored Salts
Scented salts (very different from flavored salts)
The Aquarium of the Bay was awesome. The very first thing you see when you walk in is a column of fish. Through some trick of the water currents, this large school is spread out and all swimming in circles. From there, there are plenty of tanks of fish to look at, though the things that aren't fish are my favorites; the eels, starfish, anemones, turtles, crabs, octopus, etc. Thankfully, one of the tanks had an eel right next to the glass, mouth slightly agape where I could stare at him.

The jellyfish exhibit was quite interesting, as I've never seen a jellyfish up close before. They look quite fragile, which makes me want to touch them to see whether I'm right about that. After the jellyfish, there were two long tubes that you could walk down and see the fish swimming all around you. Alyssa's favorite part was seeing the rays, which look more like they're flying than swimming. I think my favorite part was the large fish that weighed as much as I do, swimming close enough to see the rippling of their gills.

These guys were only about 1 foot from nose to tail
After we took the elevator back up were got to the touching pools, which were shallow and let you touch some creatures. There were two types of rays, a tiger shark, and some starfish, and in a different pond were some anemones which grab onto you whenever you touch them with a finger. That room also had a couple of land animals, like tortoises  skinks, bees, and so on. It was the first time Alyssa had seen an oppossum, which despite all evidence to the contrary she called cute.

After we left the Aquarium we took the streetcar back downtown, stopping a few blocks early so that we could do a little bit of shopping at a couple of stores we had seen along the way.

After some rest and relaxation back at the hotel, we took the street car back over to Pier 31, stopping at a small Vietnamese place along the way (Cafe Latte) in order to grab a Vietnamese sandwich and Vietnamese tea. The tea was very orange for unknown reason, and the sandwich was a good quick bite while we stood in line. After some tense waiting in the standby line, we got onto the ship with more than enough space to spare. I don't know who the ten or so people were who bought tickets but didn't show up, but they're idiots, because Alcatraz was amazing.

We went up to the cell block and took the audio tour, which had voices of both guards and inmates. I could tell that I was enjoying it more than Alyssa was, because she kept walking ahead of where the audio tour told us to go. I do wonder whether the dilapidated buildings make the island seem more grim than it was in its heyday as a super-max prison. The tour guides also explained something that I'd been wondering about as far as escape attempts go; though the island is only a mile and a half from shore, which a person can swim in about an hour, the waters of the San Francisco Bay are in the low fifties almost year-round, and there are heavy currents from the outflow. The swim is hard, and hypothermia sets in before you can reach shore. People do it recreationally these days, which sounds like not too much fun.

Apparently the island had been occupied by some Native Americans for almost two years after it closed as a prison. I'd never heard of that, so it was fun to read and hear about. It made me think of Drop City; what happens when a bunch of hippies and activists create a community of their own on an island that's basically uninhabitable? The story told by the tour guides seemed more or less candy-coated, because of course there were legitimate grievances  and we like to pretend that legitimate grievances mostly belong to good people. There was a fire there during the occupation, which says a lot to me about how their mini-society got on.

Alyssa and I got quite a bit of stuff from the gift shop; a book, a movie, a shirt, post cards, and a booklet of rules and regulations that I have yet to read. Of all the places in San Francisco to drop money on tourist stuff, I think Alcatraz is one of the most worthy. The high cost of upkeep was the reason it was closed as a prison; I hope that it can keep making money as a national park. The book I got was written by a doctor on the island, while the movie was a documentary where they brought ex-cons back to the island, which I'm hoping is delightfully bizarre.

Operating Room

It was late at night when we took the ferry back, and we stopped at a noodle place (King of Thai) where we picked up some cheap Asian food. I sort of wish that we'd eaten there instead of taking it back to our room, because they had that sauce that I like and an intriguing little pot of some clear sauce with jalapeno slices floating in it. The food was decent, but I chose a dish with something called "Chinese sausage" in it, which was interesting and not much more than that. We ate our meals and then sat around watching TV, which was a nice way to relax after being on our feet all day. Tomorrow we're going to the Museum of Modern Art and doing Chinatown round two.

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