Monday, 9 July 2012

California dreamin'?

Street car in San Francisco

It started almost as soon as we landed in the USA. We were sitting on our backpacks at a bus stop, waiting for a bus to Los Angeles, when a scary looking guy wandered by, lifted a bottle of spirits in a brown bag from his pocket and downed it. Some other dodgy characters passed by, staring at us. We held onto our bags and began to feel a little on edge- this was not what we had expected. Two bus journeys later, in downtown LA, things got worse. Just a couple of blocks walk from Broadway, full of theatres, restaurants and people, the atmosphere was completely different. We were suddenly very aware that we were carrying all our belongings on our backs, and feeling pretty vulnerable. The only open place in sight was a food hall advertising 'hot food coupons accepted here'. There were no cars on the roads, no taxis to hail. People were hanging out on street corners, they were yelling at each other, they were drinking, and they were staring at us. Karl's facebook status that day describes the scene: 'Just accidentally walked onto the set of Pulp Fiction. Hobos with their life's belongings in shopping trolleys, toothless crack-head hookers on street corners, coupon food halls with drunks outside and the whole area smells of p1ss. We ran away!'

I feel like I'm fairly well travelled and worldly-wise- but I don't remember anywhere that I've felt so uncomfortable walking along a street. Giving up on getting to the bus station on foot, we turned on our heels, made it back to the main drag and found a trendy little cafe to hide in. It was a different world in there- cool music, free wifi, massive waffles, trendy arty types and students chilling out. Our first taste of the two very different sides of American society. When the waitress asked me, with a smile, how I was doing I felt like crying, and we ate our massive sandwiches with a generous portion of relief! We had learnt our lesson, and hailed a taxi for the short journey to the bus station. Travelling America by public transport may be harder than we anticipated.

4th July fireworks
San Francisco has been better, but still a shock. We were totally unprepared for the problems you see here. There are homeless people on every street corner, a large proportion with physical or mental disabilities. The smell of marijuana is only beaten by the stink of urine, and beggars are pretty confident in asking for a dollar. It's hard to feel generous when they're sitting outside a liquor store with one hand out, the other holding a can in a brown paper bag. One guy's placard read 'Why lie, I want beer'! I felt that, as a vet in Worksop, I'd experienced a fair cross section of society, but it just doesn't compare to what you see here. I certainly won't be looking at the job ads! Some of it is just tragic, like the lady I saw circling a tree. It has certainly made me appreciate the situation in the UK, where we may complain about the benefits system, but we don't have starving, disturbed people in desperate need on every street corner. People here seem to have learnt to ignore it, but we just can't get over the poverty in this leading first world nation. Maybe we have a jilted view- some quick research on google suggests that San Francisco and Los Angeles are the capitals of homelessness and drug addiction in the USA.

In a classic American diner
Despite all this there is still a lot to like about San Francisco. The architecture is great- carved stone facades on the early skyscrapers, others faced with glass, and modern villas lining the steep streets along which old-fashioned street cars run. We're staying in a really nice hostel, and have spent most of our time here running around between outdoor stores and the post office getting organised for our trek. Little sightseeing has been done, but we enjoyed the 4th July fireworks by the waterfront and like the bohemian atmosphere in the bars and shops. The Golden Gate Bridge, rising out of the fog the city is infamous for, really is very cool, and we could even watch dolphins frolicking in the water below us. The scenery that surrounds the city all adds to the appeal and makes us want to explore the Californian coastline. It's surprisingly cold here, with wind whistling down the canyons formed by tower blocks, and a fog often hanging over the whole place, so we're glad to have exchanged our Asia backpacking gear for some more appropriate clothing. We've benefited from the generous clothing sizes, which mean that both of us have been able to buy children's size down jackets at half the adult price- thank god for fat american kids! The huge portion sizes mean we can get by on two meals a day (one of which is the free hostel breakfast!), and even the ice creams seem to be large enough to feed a family. We're enjoying it while it lasts and before our dry food trekking rations start in a few days!


Just a little ice cream!

Trying out our new trekking gear, Golden Gate bridge

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