24 Hours in Fog City (USA Day 131)
So. ‘Rest’. We rose at 6, threw on some clothes and rushed to a local bakery where, if you get there early enough, the cheesy, puffy gougeres are still warm from the oven. Sat on the corner, watching the city go to work, we gorged on pastry and got all greasy, then cycled north until we hit the bay.
Like the dirty tourists we’ve decided to become, our first task today was to get in line and board the boat to Alcatraz. Having done our homework last night by watching 1996 documentary ‘The Rock’, where a biochemist who looks like Nicholas Cage and an escape artist who looks like Sean Connery saved the world from some terrorists who took over the island’s defunct prison, we felt fully prepared. It’s one of those layer cakes of an island: a museum built on a prison built on a military fort built on a civil war defence station built on an inhospitable piece of rock in the bay. At some point in the sixties, a group of Native Americans took it over to protest their stolen lands. Now it’s a national park, in no small part due to the strange array of plants brought over by centuries of home-making inhabitants and the birds who dwell here, predator-free, all year round.
We did the tour, following in the footsteps of the various escape attempts, spending twenty-or-so seconds in solitary confinement and watching a very informative demonstration on how the doors go ‘clang’. I don’t remember having been in prison before, but I’ll have to check my criminal record. Either way, it was brilliant to play convict for a while. Aside from the mortal terror of the other criminals, the guards and the inevitable descent of my own mental health, I think I’d have probably enjoyed the peace and quiet of a tiny cell and a good book. The library had a great choice of novels.
Once back on the mainland, we cycled to Chinatown for a dim sum crawl with Kyle, off of Kyle and Nick from the TAT. He was the first of many (I hope) gems of a human being who we’ll see again at some point. It was great to reminisce about a trip that we’re still on, and chat future plans while dipping in and out of dingy joints for sticky buns filled with delicious yet unidentified meats. There was an exciting element of risk in every bite, though we didn’t come across a bun we didn’t love, so the anxiety faded fast.
The streets are busier here, filled with crooked vegetables that probably had names and uses but seemed to have neither by my reckoning. On every corner were the kinds of exotic fishmongers and butchers that you get used to in foreign countries, that share an ethical code with the inhabitants of Alcatraz. Kyle mentioned that bartering was a factor in prices here, and he seemed to be right: there certainly weren’t any menus about. At one point, he tried to give the lady a dollar less for a plateful, and she seemed perfectly okay with that deal, giving us two less buns for the effort. Less bartering, more scaling down.
Buns done, we pootled up to Lombard Street, the steepest street in the world (except for the one next to it), where the road has been replaced by a series of cobbled hairpins, with beautifully-planted flowerbeds on each curve. We cycled up the unfathomably steep road beside it to wait in line to descend, then edged down, our brakes singing at an interval of a Minor 3rd, then carried on descending all the way to the bay for our next sight: sealions.
Encouraged by designated floats and a big sign, sealions flock to Pier 39 in their hundreds. When we got there, they’d packed themselves onto the six nearest floats like a greasy jigsaw, wiggling and clambering until they were happy with their slot, then closing their eyes, folding in their flippers and slopping off to sleep. Of course, their new spot would inevitably interfere with the comfort of another sealion, who’d sit up, honk with irritation and then flop right over a pile of other sealions to its preferred spot. This performance played itself out for about an hour, with a good ten percent of the oily beasts at any one time wriggling into position causing the others to complain. There was also lots of sneezing, which filled the sunset sky with an aerosol of fish breath.
We didn’t wait for them to settle. Our hosts tell us that they never do. In a way, it feels a bit like us in our tent, re-arranging numbed limbs, putting on an extra jumper, removing socks, re-inflating the soon-to-retire pillows. Admittedly, we don’t do quite so much honking, but we do stink of fish.