Sunday, 3 February 2013

San Francisco: Vietnamese Delights, Street Hikes and Lonely Alcatraz Nights

Although there is no actual entry requirement to wear flowers in your hair when going to San Francisco, I felt obligated to make some sort of effort. This was the last stop on the road trip extravaganza, after all. With no fresh blooms in sight at the grimy Megabus stop at LA's Union Train station, I made do with flower print leggings from the H&M sale and stepped aboard, ready to part-sleep the eight hour journey.

I arrived in the early hours, tumbling out onto the corner where I'd waved Leah goodbye a fortnight and a half ago amid crowds of merry students and hipsters dressed in their yuletide finest for SantaCon. My hostel was in North Beach, tucked in among tired nightclubs, depressing strip clubs and a grimy looking pizza/kebab shop that was surprisingly spitting out the most delicious aromas, even at eight in the morning.

I clambered up the narrow staircase, ready to plop into whichever bed I'd been allocated, but as is always the case, it was never that easy. The fat, beardy receptionist sweating behind the counter, who I just knew had a neat collection of perfect-in-their-box action dolls alongside his sticky hentai comics on his bedroom shelf, arrogantly denied me admittance. No check-in's until 11am.
I was knackered. I was having my period. I just wanted to sleep. Show some mercy, El Beardo. He stood steadfastly by his 'dems the rules' ethos. Frickin' jobsworth.
I was forced to hang about, drowsily looking through San Fran city guides in the common area and checking at my watch every six minutes, willing the hands to turn faster.

Restless and frustrated, I gave up at the 10am mark and went for a wander around Chinatown. It was here, at the unassumingly named Latte Express, that I found sanctuary in my first ever Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich. A new love affair with a filled baked good was born.

Glazed cuts of hot pork, chicken or beef came encased in a warm flaky baguette, the savory flavours colliding with slices of pickled carrot, daikon radish, fresh cucumber and sprigs of coriander. A crunch of jalapeno brought up the rear while some sort of pate (of which I usually am not a fan) spread across the bread reminded me of herby stuffing (of which I am a massive fan) and warded off any creeping dryness. How had I not encountered the simple Banh Mi earlier in life? I found plenty of cafes and restaurants in the city that were vying for the title of Best Banh Mi in San Francisco and made a vow to try at least one every day until my flight back to Heathrow.

There are hordes of homeless in San Fran, thanks to the generous benefit system and heavy duty soup kitchens. Most city guides I'd read had waxed lyrical about the delights of the Mission district, with its graffiti muraled walls, scores of thrift shops and multicultural vibe. To be fair, you can find this sort of community in any major city. London has Brixton and Harlesden, New York - Brooklyn and Harlem.

Read between the lines and it simply means a quarter where the poor, spirited and colourful were forced to live, but in recent years has caught the eye of developers, yuppies and hipsters. I'm pretty certain there was a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's lurking about (the Waitrose counterpart) and if that's not a sign of gentrification, you and your skinny Cheap Monday jeans can take a hike. 

I walked into a ghetto Dickensian tableau the moment I turned the corner into the Mission. One of the homeless was aggressively shoulder smashing a Chinese tourist, demanding he hand over the 'money, drugs and hoes.' The poor bloke looked petrified, despite being half a foot taller, and slightly stockier, than the (most likely disease-riddled) tramp. His flashy camera quivered as he looked about for possible saviours to rescue him from this street madness. I wound the shoulder strap of my bag, already strategically placed in an anti-theft position across my body, tighter in my wrist. 
Apart from the murals and odd kitschy shop, there wasn't much else to look at or do down in the Mission. Not that I stuck about to explore. Charity shops and down-and-outs make me nervy itchy. The depressing hopelessness of all the poverty was enough to propel me out of there and back towards the twinkling lights of the city after a mere few hours. 

The next day, after a pit stop at Saigon Sandwich in the Tenderloin for a $3.50 grilled pork de-frickin-light, I headed east towards Haight and Ashbury. This is where the Summer of Love happened, where hippy central was headquartered and where the theory that peace and love would heal international conflicts was conceived. Men in parked cars murmured 'Hey grrrrrl, oh hey', as I wheezed past them.  It reminded me a lot of Camden; clouds of weed dancing above the pavements and shifty dreadlocked stoners anchoring street corners, except it was very hilly. Some streets were so steep in fact, it was in that bit in Inception where the pavements turn vertical as you walk up to them.

No trip to San Fran would be complete in my eyes without a trip out to Alcatraz. Trips to the former US fort and prison are in such high demand, visitors are advised to book up to a fortnight in advance to guarantee tickets, advice which I duly followed. I left it until the morning of my final day, taking an early ferry out of Pier 33 across choppy waters and under a suitably grey sky to the Rock. Alcatraz sits on one of the most hostile, desolate lumps of land in the world, at the mercy of violent waves rolling into the Bay and San Francisco's temperamental weather. 

Ideal for caging America's dirty and dangerous. 

 Although its life as a prison is long dead, you can't help shuffling around the damp cells mournfully, as if you yourself had been banished here for a stretch. The worst bit was when I was having a look around the isolation block and someone briefly closed the door. I'm not afraid of the dark, and it was only for a second, but it was enough to give me heeby jeebies that took at least twenty minutes to shake off.
The free audio guide that comes with a standard ticket walked me through the main facility, giving me facts and figures and former inmate accounts that explained in detail just how grim it was to live in such a place. Didn't seem that bad. The cells looked a mere hygiene rung below some of the motel rooms we'd had to sleep in when Leah and I had the car.

A recording of the experience of one former inmate said one of the worst things about the prison was its proximity to downtown San Francisco. When the wind blew the right way, it carried laughter and music from clubs in the harbour across the bay, over the rocky cliffs, right through the concrete walls, mocking the miserable jailed with the sounds of the free. Torture in itself. I could have spent most of the day rattling my plastic water bottle against the cell bars, muttering lines from the Shawshank Redemption into the shadows, but my flight was departing in the early afternoon and I had to get a wiggle on for my ride to the airport. 
I stood waiting to dump my swelled backpack at Virgin Atlantic's departures lounge, idly flicking through my photo album and looking back at three months in the most fascinating nation on the planet. Clam chowder, Elvis fanatics, leis, hurricanes and voodoo superstition, cowboys, ghost towns and deserted desert highways. Home simultaneously to the brave and free, and Earth's most notorious penitentiary. 

What a hot mess of a country.