Monday, August 16, 2010


The trip back over Oakland Bridge was just as nice as the one entering San Francisco. Travelling overland affords the opportunities that flight can’t. Given that I don’t have a car, public transport takes this one step further, as there seem to be few direct routes to anywhere of interest.
What you lose in time you can make up for in experience. The distance between Monterey and San Francisco may only take 2 hours by car, but my public transport route  added another 3-4 hours to this. Part of the detour included a trip past Oakland’s Colosseum, a monolithic stadium that houses their football and baseball teams – the Raiders and the Athletics.  Not far from there is Jack London Square. I can’t tell you what’s there, or why, but it’s nice to know that such a great writer is being honoured by the city in such a significant way.

Unlike Australian trains, the American ones seem to share roads and not build fences around the tracks. The tracks that go through these streets take you through some large houses, complete with cars nicer than my own. However, these are the poor areas of town, littered with trash on the streets and the occasional torn up mattress. It’s juxtaposition that such large houses and expensive auto-mobiles are still affordable to the poorer areas.
Most of the area that surrounds public roads and trains seems to be occupied. When it’s not the suburbs, the land is generally designated some agricultural purpose. You can easily see the immigrant workers picking fruit, the wheat farms getting ploughed and random housing estates or power stations that seem to pop up from out of nowhere.
One particular area where the land wasn’t being put to use was a swamp like area. Among the reeds were the skeletons of old wooden houses that look like something straight out of a Mark Twain book. Their run down look is something romanticised in books by John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie’s Bound For Glory and was one of the reasons I was looking forward to travelling through the more remote parts of California.
After the train had stopped in San Jose I changed  to the second bus of the day. It was a two-hour ride that would initially go through the university’s surrounding suburbs. There were frat houses with Greek characters displayed out the front, just like in all of those films I watched when I was younger. It was also nice to see some of San Jose’s other buildings. It’s easy to understand how California has so many people, as even the smaller towns are more built up that my home town.

After going through some more of California’s dry hills the scenery took a significant turn, as yellow dust was replaced with large green trees and hints of suburbia. The bus entered Monterey, going over the hills and making it to the coast. There was a quick city tour, but after 6 hours of travelling the long way to Monterey, I had finally made it to the city centre.

I’m not one for travelling around with a map, so finding my way to the couchsurfer’s house required that I do a bit of research beforehand. It looked easy enough to find, and the only direction I wrote down in my chicken-scrawl was “left at Pearl st.” Given that Monterey’s bus stop is a triangular island in the middle of the road, I turned left at Pearl St, but after 5 minutes with a heavy pack, realised I had taken the wrong left. After turning back and reacquainting myself with the transit triangle, I took the real left and walked up a hill - passing some giant residences of suburbia - before making to the house.
The house I was staying at was occupied by four permanent guests, a giant German Shepherd, a fostered dog, 2 Marines who were staying for a few weeks and a gay couple who were also couchsurfing. It was as busy as any hostel I’ve stayed in, but far cleaner and with less drunken Australians/Brits.
The trip up the hill had left me smelling like a bag of garbage that had been left outside for a few weeks. A quick shower left me feeling and smelling human again, and having not eaten properly for about 24 hours by then I was more than pleased to head into town with everyone for Indian food.
Emma, one of the girls from the house, was having her 23rd birthday so everyone from the house and few of her friends went into the city for a feed. Indian is my favourite food, and it was still absolutely brilliant, even if it didn’t come close to some of the curry houses back home and in the UK.
I ended up ordering an Indian beer called Old Monk 10,000 from the bar as I’ve never had it before. The bottles they gave Duke, Paul (the gay couple) and myself were all out of date but it seemed to count for little. The brew is 8% and was remarkably sweet for a beer. It’s something I’d definitely try again, but at 8% it didn’t take too long for the effects to catch up.
With some Indian rocket-fuel in my belly I began probing Caitlin, the couchsurfing host and Naval student about US politics. The comparisons to what her & Duke, a University student thought  was quite different and not exactly like what is reported online. It wasn’t exactly proper etiquette to incite a mini debate at dinner, but proof that all of this University/Journalism student business is beginning to rub off onto me.

Monterey is very much like Wollongong, though much cooler. There’s mountains, the water and a shared sense of nothing great going happening on a Friday night. After dinner we ended up in Cannery Row, visiting the basement of a Mexican restaurant to see some bands. Their quality was much higher than that in L.A., playing some pretty cool hipster like tunes. Sure it was dingy, but it was something different to what was happening back in the San Francisco hotels, and that was great for me.
Every time you see more than 0 vintage Ferraris is pretty unusual, but when I first arrived in Monterey the day before I noticed there were a few driving around the city. Turns out this weekend was the same time as a massive car auction. I walked through a few of the lots, tripping over my jaw as it fell lower and lower with each machine. Between the vintage American cars, E-type Jags, Bentleys and Adam West era Batmobile my inner boner was going off. I walked from one yard to another, being passed by a Ferrari F50 and Enzo in quick succession. The next yard was so exclusive that you had to pay $40 just to have a peek at some car porn. Instead, I directed my attention to the city’s pier and an eventual trip to Cannery Row.
Car porn. Spread em.

The pier and the harbour stank. It’s like that typical crusty ocean smell, peppered with wet dog. The reason becomes obvious when I see a number of seals flapping their way in the bay. The pier was an absolute tourist hive, with capitalist restaurants and caricature painters scattered throughout. Save for the nice views, I was more than happy to get out and walk to Cannery row.

I absolutely love John Steinbeck’s book, Cannery Row. Before I returned it to the library I photocopied passages that grabbed my attention for their quality of words. It’s something I’d never done before until then and hopefully speaks volumes for how good John Steinbeck is. Once on Cannery Row I quickly realised that I was not the only person to have performed such a task, with passages from the book printed onto signs all through the street.

I had this one picture of the place painted in my mind and unfortunately the reality was of a different world all together. The whole area had been turned into an almost Disneyland like world, with souvenir shops, fresh paint and tourist hordes completely changing the once dilapidated and romanticised industrial area.

At the end of Cannery Row is Monterey Aquarium. Caitlin had offered me a free pass so I walked among the masses staring at walls of fish and other sea creatures. It had taken Paul and Duke about 3 hours to see the whole aquarium the day before, but my patience with the Saturday crowd meant I was about 2 hours quicker than them. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting - there were some brilliant parts – I was just happier to be out in the fresh air, than stuck in the duck, waiting in lines with other tourists. However, the one exhibit on seahorses was particularly good, even if they were showing seahorse porn on a big screen.

I walked back to the house after my Cannery Row disappointment. I did manage to see one abandoned house that was something more akin to what I was looking for, but that was a small part of a fading motif. On my way I went through some of the city’s old record, book and comic stores. I couldn’t help myself in the book stores, picking up some Hemingway, Machiavelli and To Kill A Mockingbird for $10. Back at the house I found out that there was going to be an additional four couchsurfers, this time some Austrians who were on a mission to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I met Neil, the other couchsurfer at the house. He was from Washington DC, via North Carolina and was in town for an energy conference. If ever I was looking for evidence of a small world he was it. He had studied in Wollongong a few years ago and lived in the student accommodation around the corner from my last house. When everyone went out that night Neil I joined Anton, the Russian who lived in the house, for a few beers and an eventual quiet night. On the journey for beer we ended up seeing a Ferrari painted in camouflage, even if you couldn’t see it, you could clearly hear it.

The next morning the house was again buzzing. This time Caitlin had organised a brunch, bringing along an additional 10 or so of her friends. A lot of them were military personnel, with Monterey being known for its academic University base. What made it interesting is that these people were nothing like other military I had encountered. They were working in intelligence, or something similar, and saw it as a great job, even feeling their anti-war opinions weren’t compromised.
One particular solider/student was a guy called Jaguar, or as the Americans pronounce it, Jag-wah. He seemed to represent the typical opinion of Americans for foreigners, loud with a hint of obnoxious, again offering some more advice on the ladies. He was however particularly intelligent and a nice enough guy, even if his lady advice was tripe.
After Brunch I headed back to the aquarium to begin the trip back to San Francisco. It took an hour on the bus to Selinas, a place more akin to John Steinbeck than Cannery Row. The train-station was restored and a picture of the depression era in the west. There was a tile mosaic depicting the old west just below the ceiling, giant wooden beams holding up the metal room and the walls were painted in a faded orange/pink. Outside was freight trains and no fence around them. At various points there were some drifters looking to hitch rides, though none of the attendants seemed to care. It’s an almost Bob Dylan-esque way to get about, but for now I’m happy to trump up $30 for a seat inside.

The train I got was the Coastal Starlight, which goes from San Diego to Seattle along the coast. Unfortunately Salinas is right where the coastal part of the trip ends and is where my ride began. The train was 30 minutes late, much to the annoyance of most people waiting. On the train I sat next to John, who was in town for the same conference as Neil. He noticed me doing all of this writing and mentioned that he used to be a journalist. While he was sharing his views on energy efficiency (it was a bit more educated than most left-wing University enviro groups) he mentioned that he and a group of writers won a Pulitzer prize in the 1960s. He was writing for the Detroit Free Press and their coverage of the 1967 Race Riots won the group the prize. Between Salinas and San Jose the train had made up a lot of the time it had lost. John and I kept talking and when we got to San Jose, neither of us noticed that this was his stop. When he realised he had to rush downstairs, after the doors had closed, before he was eventually allowed off. His late departure caused further delays, and the time that was eventually made up was lost by a conversation I was having. Oops.

John was replaced by Helen, who lived in Oakland and worked in community radio. She’s a coloured woman who was in San Jose for the jazz festival. We talked between San Jose and Oakland, before we both separated.
On the bus between Oakland and San Francisco I met Anna, a lady from Houston in her 70s who had spent 2 days on trains getting to the west coast. Through her thick southern accent she told about when she lived in Tehran in the 60’s and how much she loved it. The bus passed through Oakland at night, and seeing the harbour all lit up was amazing. Maybe it's because I'm from Wollongong, but there is something remarkably pretty about seeing a bunch of cranes lit up and reflecting in the water.
It was great to meet three really interesting and polite Americans in such a short space of time. It’s one of the reasons I’m more than happy to travel on public transport, even if it operates as necessity.
Once in San Francsico I had to walk a few blocks with all my bags guitar before I was able to check into the hostel. It was 11:30 and I hadn’t eaten since brunch. I managed to find a late night Thai restaurant where I finally got fed at midnight, while I spent the rest of the time scribbling notes in my little notepad.
It was a good weekend, and a nice break from the city. I was able to meet a whole bunch of people I wouldn’t normally meet through hostels/Uni and all of them were particularly lovely. Now that I’m back in San Francisco I’m going to try to meet up with some family from Sydney who arrived in town last night. It is a small world after all*.
*Don’t sue me Disney.
Note: Back in a hostel, annoying Australian guy in short shorts is talking loudly about girls and ‘travelling’ on his iPhone. Wanker.

Song: Wilco - You and I. An absolutely sweet alt-country track. I spent the train trip compiling my own Wilco best of. Needless to say, this song featured.

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