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Vena McGrath

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San Francisco - an Aussie View September 2006
By Vena McGrath
Saturday, October 21, 2006

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The last leg of my around the world trip August/September 2006.

Sydney/Bangkok/London/Dublin/Ireland/Dublin/New York/San Francisco/Sydney

21 August 2006 to 15 September 2006 – Mileage 25,418

New York to San Francisco to Sydney - 11/9/06 to 15/9/06

We made good time flying from New York to San Francisco, in spite of the rough ride.  I was extremely nervous during the flight as it was 9/11 and we flew United Airlines.  By our itinerary from Australia, the flight was to take 6 hours and 16 minutes, arriving in San Francisco at 2.46 p.m.  We landed at 2.00 p.m., and I said a quiet thank you to whoever for getting us there safely.  Through the usual checkpoints and baggage collection delays, and the usual difficult time finding our transfer.  Eventually we arrived at the Holiday Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf at around 4.00 p.m., registered in the lobby and then had to walk up to the next street to find access to where our room was.  Fortunately there was a porter with a trolley to take our bags for us.  We had a room on the 5th floor overlooking the wharf area and a car park.  It was interesting to see a signpost on the way out from the Airport to Brisbane!  I told cuz I had seen the sign thinking she would be interested as she is from Brisbane in Australia.  All she said was, “I saw it”.  

It was great to see trams running around as they used to be used in Sydney years ago.  The tram tracks ran past the hotel under our window, and the turnaround point was across the road in front of Starbuck’s.  Starbuck's  was some find, and I drank quite a few large milkshake size cappuccinos from there in the couple of days we were in San Francisco.  I could rave on and on about the coffee as it was just delightful.

The weather was fine, but coolish, especially of a night.  The Bay area was shrouded in smog during the day, and of a morning the wharf area was shrouded in fog.  Our room overlooked Alcatraz, but of a morning you couldn’t see beyond the road running in front of the wharf area.  Going out early for a cruise on the Bay wasn’t much of an option at all. 

After we settled a bit in the room, cuz announced she was going to get something to eat, and walked out.  I went out for a walk and bought some T-shirts and postcards.  The T-shirts were so reasonably priced, a steal really, and I wished I had more room to take a heap of them home.  About a 2 minute walk from the entrance to our hotel there were a number of stalls set up on the footpath.  Clothing was very reasonably priced, from T-shirts to jackets and what we call sloppy-joes.  Most had hoods though, and as we really don't need hoods in Sydney even in winter, I didn't purchase any.  I was tempted a number of times to buy a light jacket, but resisted the temptation and wore my denim jacket for warmth.  There was a wonderful small jewellery stall where a host of leather jewellery was on display.  I made a mental note to return and buy a few items before I went home.  Unfortunately when I did get around to remembering that mental note, the stall wasn't open.  

The shops on the opposite side of the road to the wharf area were busy enterprises but like most other places overseas, they sold a lot of the same goods, perhaps cutting $1 off in different stores.  I walked up the road a short distance that afternoon, taking in my surroundings.  I saw a Wax Museum and some other interesting places to visit, but have to admit I didn't visit any of them.  Across the road there were a number of restaurants and outdoor cooking stalls.  It seemed that most of the food wasn't what I wanted to eat, and I was disappointed.  The traffic in this area was minimal, a huge difference to New York, and I don't remember seeing a taxi or a Police car.  Plenty of buses were around the area along with trams and cable cars.  I never did get to work out which was which.  The trams went until midnight, so it was a bit noisy the first night until I became used to the sound of them rattling by under the window.  A lot less people were around than in New York, although tourists were arriving all the time. I did notice what must have been a cable bus or electric bus, as it had a wire sticking out of the top of it, but was driving along the road like a normal bus.

I noticed a number of homeless people in the area in the couple of days I was there.  They hung around the garbage bins waiting for people walking in the streets and sitting on any seats available to throw out their food.  I sat on a bench and ate some lunch one day and fed the leftovers to the seagulls as there were a couple of down and out men hanging around.  The thought of them eating my leftovers didn't do much for my stomach.  I was asked by a man one night for a cigarette, while I sitting outside Starbuck's drinking a wonderful coffee.  I gave him a cigarette and he happily sat down with it, inhaling deeply.  I used to see men like him in Sydney when I worked in the CBD and they would bang on the car window when I was stopped at traffic lights asking for money.  I know that people do live like this, men and women, but I hate to be around them.  A failing in my makeup I guess. 

I noticed a number of seafood restaurants out of the hotel window and thought I would probably have a seafood dinner while I was at Fisherman’s Wharf, however I only tried shrimp and chips one day, and they were nothing like at home.  The chips looked like calamari rings, strange indeed.  The shrimp was tasteless compared to our wonderful prawns.  Most of the seafood seemed to be clam chowder and crab, neither of which I chose to try.  I was disappointed as I expected to see a huge array of seafood like at home.  Guess we all eat different, in fact I know we do after 26 days away from home.  My first night in San Francisco I ate alone in the restaurant at the hotel and had chicken, mash, gravy and corn and lemonade.  Cuz had gone off somewhere.  All of the food appeared to be fried and I would have paid anything for a big plate of vegetables and meat or chicken.

I was up early the next morning and as cuz was still asleep, I went for a walk and bought some more T-shirts.  When I arrived back, less than an hour later, cuz was gone.  Very strange, but I was used to the strangeness of my holiday by then, and was just biding time until I could go home.  I went back downstairs to the Concierge and he rang to check that our transfer vehicle would be there the following night at 7.00 p.m. to take us back to the Airport.  Cuz turned up while I was sitting at his desk, and we booked a City Bus Tour and Harbour Cruise.  As usual, I might as well have gone alone.  We walked to the main lobby at the other building to wait for the bus, and as I hadn’t had any breakfast, I went to the coffee shop in the lobby and decided to buy a rock cake and a couple of drinks.  I asked for a rock cake and the guy serving me looked perplexed.  “Rock cake”? he asked.  I pointed at what was to me a rock cake and he told me it was a scone.  Sure didn’t look like any scone I had ever seen before.  I sat outside waiting for the bus and ate my rock cake, and it tasted like one, not like a scone at all.  I would have expected butter and jam on a scone!

Because the transfer vehicle was coming so late, I booked the hotel room for another ½ day so we would have somewhere to wait the time out with our bags.  It cost $98US for the extra six hours – total rip-off.  I was angry that my travel agent hadn’t organised that for us. As usual, it was up to me to fix the problem; after all I did book the holiday J.  I also arranged for someone to fix the loo, as it wouldn’t flush most of the time.

The bus tour lasted for 3.5 hours, through the city and up into the hills.  Our driver pointed out buildings of interest as we drove around.  They were impressive buildings, more like those in Europe.  We drove over the Golden Gate Bridge that isn’t golden at all.  To me it was a brown/orange colour.  On the right side of the bridge is the Bay, on the left, the ocean.  The Bay was shrouded in smog and the bridge was half missing, shrouded in fog from the sea.  On the drive over the bridge you couldn’t see the ocean until almost at the far end.  We drove to a lookout above the bridge and all left the bus for about 20 minutes to take photos.  The view from up there was spectacular, or would have been except for the smog and fog and the haze that hung over the whole area.  I found it incredible when a hop on hop off bus pulled in behind our bus.  I hadn’t even looked for brochures for a double-decker bus with no roof, thinking there was no way that they would be driven around in San Francisco.  And yet, there it was!  I wouldn’t fancy riding in one in that city at all.

There was a lot less traffic in San Francisco compared to New York or appeared to be.  If you go to you can read quite a deal about the city and the places of interest that I haven’t mentioned.  Because of my disinterest in being in the US, nothing really impressed me, and that’s not a true reflection of what there is to offer.  With more time, and interest, I would have found plenty of interesting things to do and places to visit while I was in San Francisco.  The fact that I was alone made a big difference too as I like to share things with someone else, and that’s what really spoiled my dream holiday for me.  Trying to come to grips with not having someone to share it with; being with someone 24 hours a day and yet that someone chose to distance herself from me, for whatever reason.

There are many homes in the hills above San Francisco, and I was amazed to see that they are two-storeys or more, considering that the area is prone to earthquakes. We were told that only 750,000 of the population live in the city as it is so expensive, and the rest live out in the hills.  However, the price of land in the hills sure wasn’t for the poor.  I checked the statistics online about San Francisco and found that it is the second largest population of any city in the US, behind New York.  Because we were staying at Fisherman’s Wharf, outside the actual CBD, the city seemed so much quieter and more open and cleaner than New York.

As the bus wound its way up the hills to the lookout, I could see that a lot of homes were around the edges of the cliffs.  The road was steep and winding, with switchbacks, and I could imagine some of the mad young drivers from Sydney wiping themselves out up there.  I noticed on the way through the city a street that was almost straight up a quite steep hill.  All of the houses were built staggered up the hill and the footpath consisted of big steps.  You would have to be fit to live in that street!

There was a full-page of safety rules for earthquakes in the hotel room, and that was scary.  It suggested that you get underneath the basin in the bathroom, or under the bed, and definitely don’t use the lifts and only use the fire exits if directed to.  You were supposed to stay in your room unless told to evacuate, and if that happened, you were just to take your valuables and leave the rest behind.  Sydney was looking better every day I was in the US.

On arriving back at Fisherman’s Wharf we wandered around until cuz found where we were supposed to line up for the harbour cruise.  We boarded the boat and went onto the open deck.  Once we headed out in the Bay the wind was unbelievable, and I braced myself against a rail.  The area of the boat where we were stood, filled up quickly with Japanese tourists who all crowded around the railings on the sides of the boat, so there wasn’t any chance to take photos of Alcatraz or The Golden Gate Bridge as we cruised under it.  The boat was crowded inside with most people standing as there weren’t enough seats, so I spent the entire cruise standing outside in a wind that almost blew you over the side.  I was eternally grateful when we arrived back to the dock and I felt solid ground once more, and that dreadful gale was gone. 

Compared to New York, San Francisco doesn’t have the big name sites to see, but it is a smaller city, or seemed so to me, without all that high-rise, and it certainly was a much cleaner looking city as well.  And the city has homes, not just apartment buildings.  That was a refreshing change.  Of course none of the bus tours take you into the less affluent areas of cities, except for Bangkok where there really didn’t appear to be any affluent areas except for the temples.

It was late afternoon when we arrived back after the cruise and I grabbed some lunch.  I was really looking forward to being home and having my usual food to eat.  The best part about Fisherman’s Wharf was Starbuck’s coffee.  My mobile phone wouldn’t work in the hotel room so I spent a bit of time at Fisherman’s Wharf either sitting on the steps outside the hotel drinking coffee, or at Starbuck’s on a chair on the pavement,  sending sms messages home to Bryan. 

The next day I went off on my own again and wandered around the wharf area as cuz had disappeared. I found a nice little restaurant and had a good breakfast, knowing that I had to face a 13-hour flight home during the night, plus the hours waiting at the airport. I also knew there would be no farewell dinner with cuz before we departed.  Being a bit adventurous that last morning, I found a delightful jewellery shop, nothing like I had ever seen before, and had a lovely time in the store choosing some pieces to take home for my family, and for me. I also bought my brother a buckle with two handguns on it in another store, as he had asked me to see if I could find a buckle for him while I was away.  I knew I was going to be taking about $1000US back home with me in traveller’s cheques, and I spent up on the last day so that I didn’t have much cash on me when I left. All I needed was enough to tip the transfer driver and perhaps buy something to eat at the airport.  More T-shirts and postcards.  My cabin bag was filling up and I decided I best stop shopping.

I watched a show on TV that last afternoon, called Tyra I think.  Interestingly, it was about kids on the Internet and the dangers of chat.  Nothing on there surprised me as I have been saying for about 4 years that there are dangers on the Internet for kids and that the danger is escalating.  No one really wanted to hear about it and scoffed at me.  It appears I was very right, as I knew I was, and that’s sad.  There are 500,000 plus registered sex offenders in the US and the special agent who appeared on the show that day from Wisconsin Justice Department, has already put over 150 Internet male predators behind bars. The Internet of course gives them a perfect vehicle for their sick practices.  Statistics are that US kids can and do spend up to 5.5 hours per day chatting on the Internet.  I hope that what the people in the audience saw on that show opened their eyes to the dangers, and that they went home and began taking notice of just what their kids were getting up to on the Internet.

6.00 p.m. was fast approaching and we would have to be leaving the room to wait in the lobby for our transfer.  I decided to have one last coffee after my bags were packed, so went to Starbuck’s, and then sat and sent my last sms message.  My phone was going dead and the charger wouldn’t work at the hotel.  I hoped that I would have enough charge left in it for when I arrived at Sydney Airport to ring my family so they could come and pick me up.  I was dreading the flight home, and hoped that the plane was a lot bigger than the domestic flight plane had been from New York. 

It was 6.00 p.m. and we dragged our bags downstairs, found seats in the lounge area, and waited for the transfer vehicle.  It was a freezing cold night.  I ended up going to the desk and asking for the transfer company to be contacted when I realised it was past 7.30 p.m. and no show.  I found out that the person who was to pick us up had gone to the lobby at the other part of the hotel, didn’t find us, so left.  I heard the Concierge give the address to the transfer company when he phoned them the day before, and he emphasised that we were in the other part of the hotel.  We finally got out of there around 8.00 p.m.  After a boring ride to the airport, cramped up with a number of other people that were either in the bus when we joined it, or were picked up on the way, we arrived at the Airport.  Fortunately our flight wasn’t to leave until 10.52 p.m., so we still had plenty of time.

My bag was weighed at the check-in desk and once again I was told it was overweight and would cost me $50.  I put the $50 on the counter and complained that the only place I was charged for excess bag weight was in the US.  The lady who was giving us our papers said it was United Airlines that pushed the rule.  She told me to put the money away and that she had put my bag through as being okay.  I thanked her gratefully.

Through the usual checkpoints, shoes off again, show your passport, have your bags searched.  As we were flying through the night I had my eye drops with me, and my doctor’s letter, but no one bothered about it. I sighed at all the rigmarole, but it was the last time, so no point in getting agro about it.  The long walk to the departure lounge once more, and then the long wait to departure.  I chatted to a young man who was on his way to Australia to work for a time if he could, and to travel around, roughing it.  I gave him some pointers on our lifestyle, and he seemed interested and grateful.  A visit to the loo, and to a small coffee shop I had noticed earlier, where I bought some coffee and a sandwich and a coke for cuz.  I wondered why I bothered to get her a drink, but I was used to her reactions, and after all it was the right thing to do as I bought myself a drink.

Finally we were aboard and for the first time, we were sitting in different rows.  It seemed somewhat strange as we had booked in together, but as cuz never spoke on the flights, sitting in a different row wasn’t a worry.  I was in a middle seat, as was cuz, in the row in front.  I wished I could have had an aisle seat, especially as the man who did have the aisle seat next to me was quite large.  I asked him if he would swap seats with me but he refused.  I asked him did he go to sleep on long flights and he said that he probably would, so I told him that he would have to put up with me climbing over him then during the night.  We flew out later than we were scheduled to as the plane was waiting for connecting flights.  They didn’t turn up and when the door was closed, there were empty seats available.  The guy next to me moved up further to a window seat, and I moved into his seat.  There was now a vacant seat in the middle, which meant things were a bit more comfortable during the long night.

An elderly gentleman was sitting in front of me and he seemed very disoriented.  His English was very poor and he appeared to only know a few words and understood just a few.  He was sitting next to cuz and was a constant annoyance not only to the flight attendants, but also to cuz and the other lady in that row, as they ended up being left to look after him.  I went to the loo a few hours after take-off, and when I returned he was in my seat, asleep.  I had to wake him up and show him where his seat was!  I thought it was a total disgrace that none of the airline staff kept a watch on him and helped him only when they had to.  I would assume it was their duty of care to have done so.  I felt very sorry for him, as he seemed so lost and worried constantly about things.  People were at the airport to meet him and I wondered how families could allow elderly relatives to fly long distances alone when they so obviously were in need of a helping hand. 

The movies that were on I had seen before so I tried to get some sleep.  I wished I were like the majority of people on board who did sleep most of the way.  The plane consisted of the usual up-front roomy accommodation for first-class and business class, and then rolled into 10 seats across for the rest of the cattle class, of which I was one. The only good thing was we were seated in premium economy, which meant we had 5” more legroom than those further back had.  We were told we could only use the loos (lavatories) in our own area, of which there weren’t many for the number of people wanting to use them. 

I vowed once more that I would never fly overseas again unless I could afford to fly business class.  I was totally sick of cattle class and having to sit up in a cramped position for hours on end.  A man who was sitting two rows in front collapsed a few hours out of Sydney.  He ended up lying on the floor with a doctor, who happened to be on the flight looking after him, together with a couple of the flight attendants.  This set everything back a bit and the usual drinks every hour or so didn’t happen.  Breakfast was late coming and I was hungry, as I hadn’t eaten anything much at all since breakfast the day before. 

We left San Francisco on Wednesday night, and now it was Friday morning as we flew across the date line.  We flew all night across the Pacific Ocean and I noticed on the map on the screen that we crossed Honolulu and a few islands during the night.  I watched the screen for hours once the movies finished, and the clock counted down the minutes until it was almost time to land in Sydney.  We arrived over Sydney a bit before 6.00 a.m., end of curfew.  We landed at 6.10 a.m.  I made my way out of the plane and ended up catching up with cuz before customs.  She was in the Duty Free shop but I kept going, as I just wanted to get out of the airport and say hello to home.

After having my passport checked, I found my bag on the carousel after quite a wait, or so it seemed.  I walked to the final checkpoint and there it was again, hundreds of people lined up to get out.  I followed behind a couple to get on the end of the long queue when a lady walked over to them and asked to see their papers.  She told them to go to gate D and they could go straight out without lining up.  She asked to see my papers and told me the same thing.  At 7.10 a.m. I was standing on the footpath outside the Arrivals area.  The fastest escape of any airport around the world.  However, because I was out of there so early, no one had left home to pick me up.  My son arrived at 9.00 a.m. and I was eternally grateful to see him.

I was asked by the lady at Customs if I had anything to declare and I said, “Yes, I am so happy to be home”.  I actually made her smile.  That lady was one of only two friendly customs people I had made contact with since leaving home.  The other was the Customs Officer at New York who mentioned Steve Irwin to me and expressed his sadness at our loss.  And the official at Sydney at the gate, who let us leave without lining up, was a gem too.  No Gestapo-like actions in Sydney - how refreshing and to be applauded.  It appears all our customer service training in Australia is paying off, and I congratulate the staff because the difference was outstanding.

My views of the world I saw while I was away are personal views of course.  I don’t think I am a one-eyed person and I went away with an open mind, although I really only ever wanted to go to Ireland.  I guess in a way my views are clouded because of that.  However, I have to say after being away for a month, I am one lucky person that I do live in Australia.  Our lifestyle is so different to what I saw in my travels, but then of course, with the exception of a week driving around Ireland, I was visiting cities.  I don’t live in a city, I live in a suburb of Sydney that is over 50 kilometres from the city, and therefore my lifestyle is very different to a city dweller’s lifestyle.  I missed all the things about my life that are convenient, and I missed the kind of food I like to eat such as lots of vegetables and salads.  Most of all, I missed my loved ones and my pets, Jasmine the moggie, and Shaye my beautiful Golden Retriever. 

Ireland is the only country I would like to return to, and I hope that I get the chance to do that before too long.  London was nice to visit and perhaps I wouldn’t mind driving around England and Scotland and Wales one day where the real people live.  Asia leaves me all hot and bothered, and as I’ve seen Singapore and Bangkok, I don’t have a desire to visit anywhere in that region again.  America is so huge, so many people, so many tourists.  Again, if I could get out on the road and travel around the countryside, I would probably find it totally different.  However, I doubt it would be on my agenda to ever return there.

Going back to work was very difficult for the first couple of weeks as I suffered badly with jetlag.  However, I think that getting back into routine probably helped me because when I hit a brick wall every day and wanted to sleep, I couldn’t.  I’m now right back into routine and my time away did me a lot of good.  It made me appreciate what I have much more than I did before, and for that I am grateful.  I think of Ireland often and still travel a lot at night, half asleep and half awake.  That part of being away is still with me although I don’t wake up thinking I have to get up and go to an airport anymore J

Summer is almost upon us in Sydney, and then so is Christmas.  The end of another year looms and I can’t help wondering what the next year will bring.  I watch TV and see stories in some of the places I have been, and marvel that I was actually walking around there a few weeks ago. 

Thank you for reading my travel notes, and I hope you enjoyed the banter.

Vena McGrath October 2006

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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 10/21/2006
Wonderful travelogue, Vena; very enjoyable and well written! BRAVA!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in America, Karen Lynn in Texas. :D

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