California Dreaming (San Francisco, California, USA)

Published: May 12th 2010
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(Day 766 on the road)San Francisco at last. I have been looking forward to coming here for a while now. I guess it is just one of these cities that I can associate various different things with, a city that somehow captures my imagination. Who wouldn't think of the Golden Gate Bridge spanning the bay, of ancient Cable Cars rattling around the impossibly steep streets, crooked Lombard Street, busy Fishermen's Wharf, forbidding Alcatraz, the Summer of Love and much more?

I had been in San Francisco when I was about 14, and my memory of that time is pretty much reduced to Ghirardelli Square and the Golden Gate Bridge. In a way, not remembering much about a place is a nice thing, as it meant that I could explore it all over again. All the same, I hope that I remember more about the places I visit this time around. Otherwise, ten years down the line, I could repeat this exact same trip and it'd be all new again. Can you have Alzheimer at 32 years of age?

Suzanne lived in a very nice and light apartment in a good location of Frisco, which proved somewhat detrimental to my energy to go out and explore. But I had a full week in San Francisco, so I was still able to take it somewhat easy and strike a good balance between relaxing at "home" and sightseeing. And had I come a few weeks later I would have stayed in an even nicer apartment, as Suzanne was just in the process of buying a beautiful condo. Way to go girl, and it was so great to see you again!

On the sightseeing front, I of course took in all the things I described above, plus a few that I didn't know about before I came here, including the liberal neighbourhood of Castro, the picturesque Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium (a great hands-on science museum), and Golden Gate Park. What a lovely, beautiful city!

But exploring the various, quite distinctive, neighbourhoods of the city, I couldn't help but notice just how many homeless people are around everywhere. I am not sure just exactly what facilities are available for people in need, but unless these offerings are just not taken up by the homeless for whatever reason, I feel that there is just not enough being done.

The contrast between the Iphone-operating banker crowds in downtown passing the guy in the shabby clothes pushing his supermarket trolley with his sole belongings couldn't be greater. In Europe, people often moan about high taxes, but I guess the flip-side of the coin can be seen in the number of these homeless people - lower taxes translate into more disposable income for the ones who have a job, but also into less money for social welfare it seems.

Using the bus system it was easy enough to navigate the streets of the city; they are laid out on a grid, as in so many US cities. And as apparently it is easier to find true love in San Francisco than a parking space, it was definitely the way to go. Although driving here in America is of course ridiculously cheap, with a gallon (3,785 litres) of petrol costing just $3,20, or about $0,85 per litre, or about 0,67 Euro. A litre of petrol in Western Europe sets you back a cool 1,40 Euro, roughly double what it costs in the US. No wonder people here in the US drive everywhere in those massive, petrol-gulping monster-cars (although there are less of these around in San Francisco I feel). In this context, banning plastic bags in supermarkets (as they do here) is laudable but seems somewhat trivial and petty if the issues that really matter are just not tackled.

One other thing that I just can't seem to get used to is that prices here in the US are mostly quoted excluding sales tax. You think the ice cream you are buying at McDonald's costs the advertised 99 cents? Or that you are getting a good deal on those pair of shoes for $98? Think again, as the final price that you actually have to pay is always higher than the advertised one. I found this especially misleading in restaurants - if your dinner costs $9,99 according to the menu, the total you pay will be about $13: 10% for tax, and then another 10%-20% for tips, which are near mandatory here. So, the advertised price is pretty much 30% lower than the actual one. Nice.

Honestly, I don't get it, no matter how much I think about it. Am I missing something here? Who the heck cares about how much tax is added to the price that the shop charges? As a consumer, I am only interested in the final price. Having to calculate for myself how much I am really paying for something makes the whole process extremely cumbersome and much less transparent than needed. I have never seen anything like it anywhere. It just makes products appear cheaper than they are, so advertising something for $99 that really costs $110 after you add the mandatory tax is not only confusing, but downright misleading.

Anyway, I am not going to change the system (I would though if I could!), so moving on. The best way to see the San Fran is by riding along in a cool Segway. I had done it once in Rome a few years ago with my good friends Tina and Joko and have been fascinated ever since. The technology behind this machine is just amazing. If these little wonder of technology only were cheaper; $5500 just seems a little on the dear side of things here. Ah, one day...

On my final day in California, Suzanne had a special treat set out for us. We took a day-trip down to what I thought would bring us to Big Sur. It did, but along the way we passed Pebble Beach, the world-famous links golf course. I knew that it was in California somewhere, but I had no idea that it was less than two hours south of SF. Driving the 17 mile coastal road around the Pebble Beach peninsular and seeing the five or so awesome golf courses was just amazing, and for just a minute I was toying with the idea of teeing off. That is, until I found out that the green fee was $500 for 18 holes. Oh, and you had to book months in advance, too. Maybe next time.

After Pebble Beach, I figured things could not quite live up to its splendour, but Big Sur, the famous coastal stretch and a place I had been wanting to visit for years, proved me wrong. I have seen many coastal roads and everything that comes with it in my life (dramatic cliffs, deserted beaches, crashing surf), but Big Sur topped it all. The road hugged the steep hills as if in desperation, and the numerous viewpoints that we stopped at were just breathtaking. As with many amazing places around the world, the pictures I took can only offer a hint of how stunning this place really is.

Unfortunately my time in the US was coming to an end the very same day, with my flight to Mexico (via Atlanta) was leaving later that evening. We thus had to soon rush back to the airport and were only able to travel a short bit of the 90-odd miles of Big Sur - I definitely want to come back one day!

For now however, Mexico (and the rest of Central America) beckons. The journey continues...

Next stop: Tulum (Quintana Roo, Mexico).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


12th May 2010

I love to read that SF got your approval too! ;) During my exchange I went to SF twice, I LOVE that city! We took the 1 from LA all the way up to SF and every turn gives you a more beautiful view it seems. By reading your blog I realize that I really would to go some day. Hopefully soon! For now, Enjoy Mejico gringo! Hope u can speak some Spanish. It will sure do you good!
12th May 2010

Looking forward to read your blog from Mexico
Hi Ben, nice to read that you are going to Central America. I hope you will continue your travelling down to Peru. Let us know in advance if you go there. I also hope that you will come to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua. It is the sister city of my former hometown
12th May 2010

Thanks for stopping by!
Hi Ben, I love your description of Big Sur. It makes me appreciate how lucky I am to get to visit two or three times every year! I agree that it's one of the most spectacular places in the world. I'm glad you enjoyed your time in the USA and I look forward to reading about your travels in Latin America. Buen Viaje!
12th May 2010

beautiful world
Hiya Ben I happened to come across your blog on SFO and it turned out to be a very interesting read. I would really like to do what you all looks and sounds so exciting and adventurous, just the way life is meant to be! Once have figured out the moolah bit, I'll be off too! :D (hopefully soon!) Anyway, hope you enjoy the rest of your journey! Cheers! Ginny
12th May 2010

To answer the tax question one would need to understand the federal system in the US, but the basic answer is that taxes are different in different cities and states: municipal tax, state tax, food tax, non-food tax, clothes tax, alcohol tax, environmental tax, tax free weekends, jaywalking tax etc… So for the businesses - particularly chains - this system is more efficient due to the economic theory of ‘menu costs’ (the costs to firms of updating menus, price lists, brochures, and other materials when prices are different or fluctuate). So, not to go into too much economic theory, basically, It is infinitely more cost effective for McDonalds to mount a national advertisement for that Double Cheeseburger at 99cents, and then mass produce posters and billboards (economies of scale) - rather than 25,000 different local ‘price accurate’ campaigns! (I'm actually more surprised you didn't mention 'gratuity' - a much more complex phenomena for your average Brit!)
12th May 2010

The homeless are treated like royalty in Frisco
The problem of homelessness in Frisco is exacerbated by the fact that the city government does not do enough to discourage homeless people from coming to Frisco. I can just imagine a bunch of homeless people inside a boxcar drinking coffee or tea or whatever the hell it is that they drink and talking about their next destination. “Hello there Jethro, where you headed to?” “Just down yonder to Frisco, Joe Bob. I hear they treat homeless scum like us pretty good down there.” “You don’t say? I might just go down there myself, I reckon.” I was at the city library one time in Frisco reading W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe in one of the reading rooms when a couple of foul smelling homeless people came in with their stinking backpacks. These two looked like they hadn’t had a shower in months, maybe years even. At first they were real quiet and behaving like good citizens. But they couldn’t keep their mouths shut for too long. It only took two minutes before one of them started whispering about what they were serving at the nearest soup kitchen. “What are they serving over at the soup kitchen Ed?” “Mushroom soup and sourdough” replied Ed monotonically. “I’m sick of mushroom soup.” “Yeah, me too. They served noodle soup all week last week, and the week before that they served ham sandwiches.” “How’s the panhandlin’ these days. Gettin’ much lately?” “Nah, people are a little tight with their money these days.” “Cheap bastards. I hate people who don’t like giving away their money. It’s not like we’re asking for a lot, just a few dollars here and there so we don’t have to eat in that stinking soup kitchen everyday.” “Yeah, the city needs to do something about that soup kitchen. We gotta demonstrate at city hall to demand for better food at the soup kitchen. Same menu everyday for cryin’ out loud! Don’t they know how boring eating the same thing everyday is? These people probably never missed a meal all their lives.” “Yeah, just because we’re homeless doesn’t mean that we have to eat boring food everyday. Homeless people have a right to eat decent food too you know?” Believe me, that conversation actually took place between those two homeless folks. And you wonder why the homeless are ubiquitous in Frisco. Not only are they tolerated but they treat these folks like royalty.
13th May 2010

I'm glad you like San Fran. I went to visit this lovely city, 7 times in my 5 years living in NYC. Its where we had our honeymoon and also took a side trip to Lake Tahoe - a charming place too.

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