Castle in the clouds

Firstly, apologies, but as usual (for hostels) there is no way to upload pictures. I’m due to meet up with Raslin tomorrow and he has a laptop, so I may be able to solve that particular problem then.

Yesterday I arrived in San Fran via the eastern bridge in the middle of the afternoon – except you wouldn’t know it was the afternoon. Instead, as we drove over the still waters, the city and its turrets were swamped in a thick mist, the looming silhouettes shifting enigmatically. Very surreal – T.S. Eliot’s famous ‘unreal cities’ came to mind. Or Silent Hill.

As I arrived, the slumbering city seemed to wake up; at street level visibility is much clearer and the fresh bite in the air was a more than welcome relief to my British bones. Somehow the city felt very familiar, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just a matter of climate, but it seemed as though this was a real, old city, that has grown over time – like that keystone of my own urban ideals, London. Dominating skyscrapers towered extraordinarily high, but down at gutter level the streets seemed a little on the smaller side, a little more personal, a little more dirty. I suppose there’s not much room on this small island for wide boulevards. Personally I thought it made the place much more engaging.

The brisk walk to the hostel was just the tonic for a soporific nine-hour bus journey that saw us cross through the scenic coastal routes. The landscape couldn’t seem to make up its mind: here it was a seaside spectacular, here golden vineyards rolled away over hills, and here was a winding mountain road smothered in pine. A break from the monotony of the Arizona/New Mexico area roads with their trampled sierras – but the sky had shrunk back to its normal size. A trade-off.

The hostel itself is capacious and newly-renovated and a superb place to stay if you’re here, which probably explains its slightly heftier-than-usual price-tag. But still, I was put in the dead centre of my new surroundings, with City Hall a matter of minutes away. There’s a heavy Vietnamese presence in the immediate area, and in general asian culture clearly has strong footholds here, as in LA and San Diego.

I pretty much immediately went a-walking, as I am wont to do, and unfortunately the first thing that struck me was how many homeless people there are here.

One thing I’ve noticed here is that America is more vicious to its poor than anywhere else I’ve seen in the first world. Job security seems weak and the net of social security has a lot of holes. The amount of people I’ve talked to, for example, who have no healthcare is incredible. Especially as frequently they are actually working. But I think healthcare is another post. On this matter of homelessness, I’ve seen a lot of people in the streets in America, again more than any other first-world country I’ve been to. There’s so many that it’s small wonder people seem so much more scared over here. I’m not one to often be intimidated, but more than a few times so far on my trip I’ve shoved my head into my metaphorical shell and quickened my pace. Crime frequently isn’t so much done by bad people as desperate people, and there are a lot of desperate people in plain view. Not just beggars and homeless folks sitting on cardboard beds in knocked-out doorways, but also people who are quite clearly not all there – talking to themselves; wandering half naked; clutching at their bodies; I’ve seen all of these. And yes, it’s frightening and yes, you wonder if you’re safe and yes, I can see why people don’t walk the streets at night. I’m not saying it’s unique to America, of course it’s not, but it does seem far more prevalent here than in other countries. All I can do is speculate why.

Today, I went out for a deliberately long walk. Taking a circuitous route through most of the north side of the city, I swung by almost every landmark I could fit in. It took seven and a half hours and was a lot of fun, but I hadn’t realized that the lovely cold misty weather I had yesterday wouldn’t hold. In short, I am now thoroughly sunburnt. I don’t know – I go through the entire south and the worst I get is a light red frosting at the Grand Canyon, and then I get sunburnt at the most temperate climate I’ve been in yet. More fool me. I hope it fades in time for PAX.

I started out by hiking up (and I mean hiking; San Francisco has comically steep hills, and one suspects for much of the time that someone is having a bit of a joke at your expense) the unfortunately named Nob Hill – seriously, right next to ‘Tenderloin?’ – and through the tacky bonanza of Chinatown with its insane tourist shops, lined with $200 kimonos and $20 katanas. San Fran’s Chinatown is big and loud and a lot of fun, with plenty of cheap food for the gourmet and a mixture of sublime and terrible souveniers. I then turned on to Broadway with its strip joints and clubs, went all the way to the pier, followed the seafront north and around to the Golden Gate bridge (sadly completely unphotogenic today; I’ll look again tomorrow), and finally traveled back southeast through the crazed up-and-down streets to the hostel.

San Francisco is a very picturesque place with absolutely gorgeous houses. The rich here can’t move out of town unless they fancy living on a boat or in Alcatraz, so they make up for it by constructing these towering, four-storey mini-mansions, painted in bright yellows and blues. I wondered if perhaps this was for the same reasons as the buildings in St. Petersburg: they paint the houses in a bid to combat the heavy marsh fog and overcast skies. Either way, it’s easy to wander into almost any street and find one of these lovingly-crafted edifices, and they are criminally photogenic. I’ve taken far too many pictures of them.

The city itself is, well, hilly, with lots of people both on foot and in cars, and criss-crossed by its famous tram network. It’s hard work to get around, but rewarding. You find things in the oddest places – like Grace Cathedral, tucked away in the shadow of several taller buildings, lurking in its grey webbing. There’s an indeterminate but clear sense of culture here. That is to say, I don’t think anyone could tell me what San Fran is, but whatever it is it’s definitely that. Which makes for frustrating times writing this post, but hey.

I’ll just finish with a word on the piers. This is where Otis Redding wrote his most famous song (if you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know), and although Pier 39 is the tourist area, with its gaudy self-branding, its sourdough loafs and the hundreds-strong colony of braying seals that decided in 1990 it would be a jolly good idea to take over half the jetty, I myself preferred the quiet and preserved ones to the south. No gimmicks, no shops, just a series of ancient planks leading out into the sea, where old men in baseball caps cast their fishing lines and swap stories. The bay spreads before you and the east bridge runs off into the salinated air. If you close your eyes a little, it’s not too hard to imagine it: just sitting here, wasting time.

8 Responses to “Castle in the clouds”


  1. 1 Dylan 26/08/2009 at 1:03 am

    When you get back to England you’re not going to take up looking wistful all the time are you? I suppose it’s OK if you feel you really have to.

  2. 2 Arminas 26/08/2009 at 8:27 am

    Glad to hear you hit all the silly tourist places in SF. And I never noticed how curious the names of some of the districts were. Now you’ve gone and ruined it (by ruined, I mean made more hilarious) for me!

    The homeless in SF are half because of shitty job security and half because of mental health issues that no one wants to address or deal with. You’re only seeing the homeless that are too crazy or too scared to stay in the shelters, the problem really is quite terrible.

    Although, I must know, how are you planning each or your visitations per stop? It sounds like you let your local tour guide bring you around and/or the hostels seem to direct you.

  3. 3 BEAST! 26/08/2009 at 12:13 pm

    Also, I think a lot of the homeless in the country move to the west coast because of the weather there, which is where there is a larger concentration. Add to that all the stupid kids in seattle/portland who graduate college and then become homeless just because it’s cool, and you’ve got major homeless overload.

    As for your sunburn, do not understimate an overcast day in SF. The sunlight may not be getting through the clouds but the UV rays sure are.

  4. 4 Renée 26/08/2009 at 3:31 pm

    Arminas and Beast both make excellent points about the homelessness on the coast, particularly SF. SF has had a string of “progressive” programs that have done effectively nothing to impact the numbers. What they did do that impacted the numbers for the worse was enact a city policy basically ending mental hospitals a number of years ago. The cost of living in SF is unusually high, as well, aggravating the problem. SF does have a large number of shelters and soup kitchens to serve the homeless, which may actually increase their numbers by creating a soporific effect, so to speak. The thing about the homeless is that major cities, and even medium cities, have shelters, have soup kitchens, have both city and private programs. Some people just aren’t interested or won’t stop using. It’s a difficult issue no matter how you crack it.

    At any rate, SF is a beautiful, hilly town with a lovely climate. I think you should, at the end of your trip, write a comparison post of all the major cities. It would be really interesting to see your summarized impressions all together. 🙂

  5. 5 Eben 26/08/2009 at 4:37 pm

    As it happens large parts of SF are fairly new due to the devastation caused by the earthquake and fire of 1906 (and the ones before that). I imagine part of the reason for the more interesting feel is because of the limitations on space.

    As for London’s history I just found out today that I work a matter of metres from the site of The Theatre, where Shakespeare first acted and then put-on plays and where Romeo and Juliet opened.

  6. 6 Renée 26/08/2009 at 9:14 pm

    “New” being entirely subjective here. hahaha

  7. 7 Lava 27/08/2009 at 10:37 pm

    For extra emotional pull, load up the Decemberist’s “Grace Cathedral Hill” and walk around the church and then down to the warf.


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