Before leaving for the US we had decided to buy the VUSA tickets that were being advertised around that time. It was claimed that they would work out very cheap. We worked on our itinerary and decided the number of tickets we would buy. After all, once we were in USA we wouldn’t be sitting tight at my sister’s place or the place of my nephew, both being small suburban places. We decided on 12 such tickets for both of us. The VUSA tickets used to cost equivalent of $80 per ticket. Constrained by finances we bought only 10 VUSA tickets which covered our long journeys from New York to St Louis to Charlotte and from Charlotte to San Francisco and back. Charlotte is hub of airlines in North Carolina.
We drove down from Cary to Charlotte to catch the flight for San Francisco. VUSA used to be patronised by US Air, a flourishing airline which, incidentally, had an IIT grad as its CEO. Almost a six-hour flight, it took us right across from close to the East Coast to the West Coast. On the way we could see the meandering Mississippi and the Grand Canyon country. As we got closer to San Francisco we were seemingly put in queue as the planes ahead could be seen from the window preparing to land one after the other. That only showed how busy the airport was.
We were booked at Holiday Inn off the Market Street. Market Street is a major artery running for more than 3 miles right across the town practically from the waterfront in the north to the neighbourhood of the region of the hills dominated by what are known as Twin Peaks. The Street is pretty historical as the civil engineer who established it once had to escape on a relay of horses for the simple reason that he was under the threat of being lynched for designing an inordinately wide road of 120 feet. The street is virtually the cultural centre of the town as parades and marches are often held on it. There have been occasions when open air concerts have been held here. Later, of course, demonstrations connected with civil rights, gay rights etc. became common occurrences on the street.
We were naturally excited to be in San Francisco, the city that came into being largely because of the “Californian Gold Rush” is now a prosperous part of California. We were more interested because we would be seeing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. We have been seeing its photographs since we were in schools. San Francisco became part of the United States not too long ago. It was captured un-resisted from Mexico around 1850s. Soon after, it developed into a rapidly growing and prosperous city despite a setback in 1906 when more than half the city grievously suffered destruction because of a massive earthquake.
Soon after settling down we headed towards the North Beach – the sandy area near the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a suspension bridge that connects northern tip of San Francisco Peninsula with Marin County of California. A six-lane bridge, it came up after much efforts and procrastinations and was thrown open in 1937 making it one of the most internationally recognized symbols of San Francisco. Some people reckon it as one of the most beautiful bridges in the world and, as has been claimed, it certainly is one of the most photographed bridges. I too had taken numerous photographs, some bad, some indifferent and only a few usable. Whatever might be the results of the photographs the bridge is undoubtedly very beautiful and is a sight to behold. We saw it from both its sides and from the Bay, It is indeed incredibly beautiful. The day it was opened an estimated two hundred thousand people walked, ran, tap-danced and roller-skated on it. Automobiles drove through it only a day later..
That was one sight put away although we would off and on see the Bridge from various locations. In the Bay area we would often visit the Fishermen’s Wharf where the Pier 39 has acquired, again, an iconic status. The Pier is a tourist spot with its shopping and dining and amusement for children including live sea lions – as live as they can be. I set my eyes on a sea lion for the first time from Pier 39. In the midst of it all there is a famous statue of a sea lion in the circulating area for the restaurants. The sea lions seemed to be hanging around most of the time mostly grunting and on occasions playfully diving into the waters in front. Massive of build, they are confined to the rocks that form the wall for them against the Bay with a small body of water in front to keep them at a safe distance from humans.
At Pier 39 you get mostly sea food – from prawns and lobsters to crabs, octopuses and what have you. Close by there was a shopping centre where I espied a Harley Davidson store that had all the associated gear for the Harleys – all in black. We had often seen young men riding Harleys in groups wearing the all-black motorcycle gear including the boots, gloves and helmets. The Harleys then were yet to make their way into India and hence my curiosity overpowered me and I took in visually all that was being made available to riders of the iconic bike.
From the Fishermen’s Wharf one can see Golden Gate and two islands, one of them known to history as Alcatraz. Here on the rocky outcrop is what once used to be a massive military prison converted later into a Federal Prison. Today it is included in the San Francisco Recreational Area and is open for tourism. While on a Bay cruise we climbed up the rocky island to get a view of the innards of a reputed US prison. It seemed to be a good place to lose your liberty and freedom with the waters of the Bay lapping away on the Island’s rocks.
The Fishermen’s Wharf also had an aquarium the like of which many of us would be stranger to. We have read about them being located in various cities of advanced countries but have never heard of any such aquarium in any developing country. Basically, it is like a tunnel and all around you is water with the creatures of the seas taking a peek at you before moving away. The transparent walls enable you to see around twenty-odd thousand fishes and other creatures of water, some of which are unique to the Bay area. It was very interesting to see sharks and other curious sea animals like jelly fishes pass by without showing total unconcern for you
San Francisco has streets named after men like Columbus, Kearney, Castro, etc. One day we thought of walking on the Market Street away from the direction we were regularly taking to go towards the sea-front. It was around mid morning and we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw a few men were just getting out of their sleeping bags spread on the pavements. Some of them had already got up and were packing away their belongings into bags kept next to street planters. It was quite shocking – sort of eye-popping – as we never expected to see pavement dwellers in this affluent corner of the United States.
As we progressed further, on the same road we came across a “Hindu” restaurant that served “satwik” food. Further up as we went we saw some beautiful shops selling curios and home-décor stuff. A few people were seen gossiping on the pavements but their get-up and behavior seemed to be strange. They wore weirdness on their sleeves. True enough, we had stumbled into the city’s gay area known as Castro.
Feeling not quite comfortable, we rushed back to the safe confines of our hotel room.
The best of shopping and dining is supposed ro be at the Union Square. The major stores here were of Macy’s and Tiffany’s spreading over yards and yards of real estate. Once again, off the Market Street, it is a treat to watch the crowds that are moving around on their errands or gossiping by the roadsides or tucking in refreshments accompanied by beverages in open-air food joints or simply posing as live statues painted in gold for the enjoyment of onlookers. One such “statue” caught the fancy of my wife and we hung around him for quite some time forcing him to hold the attitude that we saw him in giving him, in the process, the creeps.
More than a decade ago a serial by the name “Bold and the Beautiful” became very popular in India telecast by a popular English language channel. In this serial the Palace of Fine Arts of San Francisco was used as a location. We happened to stumble on it while walking around. It is close to the North Beach and was built about hundred years ago to display works of art that were exhibited in Panama-Pacific Exposition held here in 1915. Most of it has apparently disappeared but the main structure has been repaired and stands beautifully in the midst of the lagoon. It is reportedly used now less for artistic displays and more for social events like weddings, etc. It is a great tourist draw. We too spent an afternoon out there despite a rather sharp Californian sun.
Once again on a walking expedition we came across the San Francisco Civic Centre located off the Market Street. It has some marvelous classical style buildings and this is the place where the UN Charter was signed. It is also the place where the weekly farmers’ market is organized. The plaza is magnificent and has great recreational value. An opera house, a performing arts centre and a library form the nucleus of Centre. A remarkable building of familiar architectural design is the City Hall which is the seat of the city administration as well as that of the San Francisco County.
The China Town of San Francisco is the oldest and the largest Chinese settlement outside China. We walked through the imposing gate and got into a crowded street with shops on both sides packed with stuff. The stuff available was mostly Chinese but we saw some remarkable Chinese porcelain. Many Chinese seem to be walking around sleepy eyed, somewhat unkempt with irregular untended beards. The language spoken is Chinese and it is said that many of them have lived through their lives in China Town without ever uttering an English word.
On the other end of the town is an area which is known as Twin Peaks. The two peaks are about a 1000 ft high and around 500 ft apart and is approached via a boulevard that makes the figure of eight around them. One gets a magnificent view of the city sprawled down below with the Market Street running right through its middle. It was an interesting excursion.
About 25 kilometres north of San Francisco is located the Muir Woods National Monument. I should like to think it is a monument, firstly, to those giant redwood trees that once flourished in the entire North American lnd mass but are now confined to a narrow tract in coastal California. Secondly, the other distinctive feature is that it is also a monument to an environmentalist John Muir who was a friend of William Kent, the Californian politician, the brain behind establishment of the Monument. Because of his good offices around 600 acres of land with red wood trees – also known as Sequoia – have been protected and preserved. These are the trees that grow to more than 250 ft. in height and survive for eight to nine hundred years. These fantastic trees were virtually wiped out by the lumbering industry. A few hundred acres of them survived because of the initiatives of men like Kent.
There are two other distinctive attributes of San Francisco that must be mentioned. One is the Lombard Street that is known as the Crookedest Street in the world. It takes one from Market Street down a steep incline with as many as eight hairpin bends within perhaps a block. It also is a very colourful street with patches of flowering plants and green well-watered lawns.
The other attribute of the city are its street cars. They are among the touristiest of items apart from Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island or the Fishermen’s Wharf. The cable car system dates back to the 19th Century but several lines have been shed or combined to make it serve the current purposes, especially of tourism. It is said that these street cars with vintage appearances and manually operated are more patronized by tourists than by the locals. One would find tourists commuting by them even if they have to hang by its sides.