Alcatraz!

We’d made plans on Saturday to meet Anna for breakfast with her friend Chris at 9am on Sunday. We were feeling a little sleep-deprived when we woke up in the morning, the three-hour time difference between San Fran and Toronto taking its toll. But we roused ourselves and went on a little adventure on San Francisco’s public transport system. We took the BART.

As I’m sure most people do, all I could think of was Homer Simpson shouting, ‘Bart!’ BART actually stands for something: Bay Area Rapid Transit. We went down into Powell St station, asked how to buy a ticket and then faffed around for a while before we succeeded. Then went downstairs and waited for the train.

The trains could really do with some sprucing up. They look like they haven’t been upgraded since the 1970s and are designed in a weird sort of futuristic style—or what would have been futuristic to people in the 70s. Anyway, we went through the tunnel to the other side of the bay, switched trains and then ended up in Downtown Berkeley.

We were having breakfast at a place called Venus. Glen and I walked in and claimed a table of four. Glen then asked me whether the two guys—who had Australian accents—that had been standing in front of us were waiting for Anna. I said they couldn’t be because Chris was picking Anna up and she wasn’t there. Two seconds after I said that, one of the guys walks over and asks if we’re meeting Anna. It was Chris and his mate Alex. Anna wasn’t getting a lift and was walking instead. She arrived a few minutes later.

Breakfast was good and filling, conversation was easy and interesting and we whiled away an hour or so before four of us (Alex headed home) set off to go for a hike in Tilden Park (or whatever it’s called). We climbed to the peak, which was an easy-ish walk. We didn’t see any mountain lions or rattle snakes or Lyme ticks, however, we did see two birds of prey when we reached the top. They were cool.

We took a little longer getting back down the hill as we’d gone another way but we eventually reached the visitors centre and a small farm with cows, ducks, geese, sheep and pigs. One thing I noticed on the walk was how dry the ground was. It was cracked like those photos of deserts you see. California is in the midst of its worst drought in years and despite the greenery around us, the place is suffering from lack of rain. (Never mind that it rained later that night, but I’ll save that for later.)

Back to the car, Chris drove us all back to where we needed to go. Anna was dropped off first. She was heading off to Utah in a few hours for a conference. Then Chris drove us back to our hotel in the city, which saved us having to take public transport again. I was tired, so doubly relieved. We then napped for a couple of hours (I know, we’re weak) before heading out for the next round of exploration.

Alcatraz

I’d booked us evening tours of Alcatraz over a month ago so we needed to head to the pier for 5:30 to catch the ferry. This gave us time to check out what was on the other piers. Glen had been recommended this place that sells sour dough with clam chowder in it. When we arrived, Glen decided he didn’t like clam chowder and opted for tomato soup instead. I had a chicken sour dough sandwich. The experience didn’t live up to the hype. Sour dough is really difficult to chew; it’s quite leathery.

We then walked around Pier 39 which has a lot of entertainment on it, and therefore was packed with people. Lots of shops and fast food places, but also an aquarium, Madame Tussaud’s and the San Francisco Dungeon. I was much more interested in the hundred or so Californian Sea Lions that were lounging on the pontoons. I wasn’t alone in this. They were all lying there, not bothered in the slightest with the scores of people crowding the jetty to get a look at them on the water below.

Having had enough of the crowds, we took the quieter route back to the end of the pier and walked down to Pier 33 to catch the Alcatraz Ferry. We were herded onto the boat for a 5:55 departure and set sail for The Rock. We arrived while there was still light so we could to take in its size in sunlight. I had expected something bigger. From the movies and TV shows I’ve seen that feature Alcatraz, it always seems to loom large and imposing. That’s camera angles for you I suppose.

We shuffled off the boat and were divided into two groups of 100, with a guide who gave us some instructions, a bit of history, and then led us up to the jailhouse proper where we collected our audio guides. We started by going through the checking-in area where the prisoners would have been given their uniforms and showered. Seeing these showers all lined up chilled my spine as my mind equated it with mass processing in a Nazi concentration camp.

Once given our guides, we ascended the steps to the next level and were told when to press play. I held back a bit to get some photos and was then summoned over by one of the guides. I thought I’d done something wrong but had no idea what. Turns out he just wanted to show me where the mirrors were positioned so a guard standing at one point could see a guard at the other point.

The audio guide was very good. It directed you through the cellblock, to the administrative section, outside, and then back into the jailhouse. There was one narrator with a bunch of previous inmates and prison guards telling different stories. It was very personal and you can see why it won awards.

The cells were pitifully small and there were only three walls to each. The fourth was all bars so there was very little privacy. The isolation chambers were not all that nice either and having to sit in that darkness would have been maddening. We heard stories about famous inmates like the Birdman of Alcatraz (who never got to keep birds at Alcatraz) and Al Capone, as well as the “Battle of Alcatraz”. The hospital was especially creepy as most of it was in shadow with various bits of equipment strategically placed to enhance its creepiness.

There was also an Ai Wei Wei exhibition on that featured five artworks in different places around the island. They were ok. Very contemporary.

Once we’d finished our guide and checked out the artwork, we made our way back to the pier so we could catch the 8:40pm ferry (the next and last was an hour away). We’d seen enough. Perhaps there’d be more to see during the day (I know we missed out on the garden), but overall it wasn’t the thrilling and exciting experience I’d expected.

Too many people have said how great it was, and that always makes it hard to live up to. Perhaps we’ve also been spoilt by seeing other impressive prisons like Fremantle Gaol and Chateau d’If. Still, I’m glad we saw it as we couldn’t go to San Francisco without paying a visit. (And from the moment we’d landed in San Francisco I’d had Eddie Izzard’s voice going, “Alcatraaaaaaaaz.”)

Searching for Food

We landed back at Pier 33 around 9pm and decided to go find some dinner. We waited for the F bus but by the time it arrived (it was late too), it was packed and didn’t stop. The next one wasn’t for an hour, and as Eddie Izzard has pointed out, there are about five taxis in San Francisco. We decided to walk.

Some of San Francisco’s city streets are as deserted as Perth City’s after 6pm. We barely saw anyone as we hurried to find some life and some food. We eventually found a Hong Kong kitchen place that was open in a dodgy part of town. We ordered and ate food. I didn’t like it but it filled me up enough. Then we stepped outside into the rain.

We desperately wanted to catch a taxi but there were none so we walked. The rain eased up eventually and we got home about 20 minutes later. Safely, despite our fears of being mugged and/or murdered. We collapsed into bed and slept soundly.

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