San Francisco, before the burn
I'd planned to arrive in San Francisco about ten days before Burning Man to give myself plenty of time before hand to sort out all the preparations I would need to make to survive a week in the desert. However I messed up and assumed I would be able to figure out accommodation close to when I got there. By the time I did try and book somewhere, I couldn't find anywhere to stay that was going to be much less than USD$150 a night. This led to a lot of stress!
I contacted anyone and everyone I could think of that lived in the bay area, trying to find someone who had a couch I could stay on for a while, and I was saved by Sarah, Rachel's sister who I met in Guatemala. Her and her husband Chad had just bought a condo, were in the process of moving in from their old place and were happy to have me come stay in their new spare room.
Chad is even a bit of a Burning Man veteran, he's been going for a long time and now volunteers as a ranger each year, so it was fantastic for me to have someone who could answer my questions about what was and wasn't important stuff to take, and tell me tales of past years events.
Sarah and Chad's condo is a beautiful big place right near the mission district, really spacious and light. They have an awesome dog named River, an American bulldog, who seemed to take an instant shine to me, howling with excitement when I arrived, wagging her tail like mad and trying to jump up on me. Such a lovely natured dog!
Since Sarah and Chad were still in the process of moving, I got to be helpful by going and helping to pack some boxes at the old place (just two blocks away), and moving them down and up stairs.
One of the nights not long after I arrived, there was a 15th anniversary screening of Office Spacehappening at the Castro theatre that Sarah and Chad were going to, so I grabbed a ticket and went along too. The Castro Theatre is one of those historic old places that only plays arthouse movies and cult classics, and for the 15th anniversary of Office Space, they actually had Stephen Root (who played Milton with the Swingline stapler) there to talk at the beginning and do a Q&A afterwards. It was just as funny as it was when it came out, and it felt kind of surreal to be in a theatre full of people who loved the movie so much and even a member of the cast!
As I mentioned before, I'd planned to get to SF early to sort out my Burning Man prep, but between booking my flights and arriving, I had actually been lucky enough to be put in contact with a guy named Peter from the theme camp I was going to stay with, who had an RV and was looking for someone to share it with. This was a huge blessing, as it saved me blowing a bunch of money on a tent, camp mat, sleeping bag, etc, that I would only have to give away afterward anyway. Even more awesome was Peter's offer to handle acquisition of food and water in exchange for money and a shopping list. My stresses about how I was going to transport a weeks worth of food and water in when I was arriving by bus were completely solved! I can't thank Pete enough.
With so much of the prep taken care of already, I got to spend a lot of my time in San Francisco seeing touristy stuff instead. I also did do a lot of buying stuff on Amazon , making good use of an Amazon Prime trial for free fast shipping. After so long in Central America without easy access to a lot of things, having things arrive at the house after just a few clicks online felt like I was living in the future!
One day I went over to check out the SF cable car museum. I'd planned to actually take the cable car up Nob hill from Powell and Market, but the lines to get on were absurd so I just walked up instead. The museum was pretty neat, it's actually in the same building where they pull the cables from and you can see the giant motors and the big wheels they use to pull the cables through the network.
There's also a subterranean bit where you can see how they manage to navigate the cable around corners, and a lot of information about how the drivers have to release the cable at certain corners or intersections in order to pass other cables that cross the one that's pulling their car. It was all really interesting to see and learn about.
There was a big section of the museum about the 1906 earthquakes that flattened most of the city, destroying a lot of the old cable car lines, but also starting fires while simultaneously knocking out the water pressure, leaving the fire department unable to fight the fires and huge areas of the city just burning to the ground. It's incredible to think that San Francisco has been completely devastated by earthquakes twice in the same century.
Another day I went over to the East Bay and had a walk around Berkeley, checking out the very imposing building of the university there and some of the trendy streets nearby.
Then I headed over to the Berkeley pier, and walked out along it to get another view of the bay. The pier extends out about a kilometre into the bay, but from the end of the pier you can see remnants of the old pier which was apparently nearly 6km long!
Another day I got a bus over to the California Academy of Science museum. It's quite a cool building with a grassy, hilly rooftop, with lots of hardy plants up there, that insulate the building keeping the temperatures more stable. There's also a bunch of solar panels around the edge providing some of the buildings power needs.
Inside the building is split up into various sections about different areas and topics. The basement houses a fairly large aquarium, with many of the tanks also being viewable from above. From the top you can see the brightly coloured fish swimming around, and in a shallow pool there was a number of pretty rays gliding.
The aquarium was split up between marine and freshwater fish, and then again into regions of the globe. The prettiest tanks were the two giant marine tanks for the Phillipines and the California coast. Interesting fact, what they call a leopard shark in the USA is completely different from a leopard shark back in Australia.
In the fresh water and swamp section they had some of the biggest freshwater fish I've ever seen, and probably the biggest in the aquarium. I don't recall the type, but they were enormous. Strange, I never think of fresh water fish as having any real mass to them.
They had some leafy and weedy sea dragons, along with pot belly seahorses. I miss those guys from the piers around Port Philip Bay!
There is a big sealed up rainforest zone, which has the temperature and humidity of a real rainforest. I sped through a good chunk at the start because it was all the animals I'd gotten used to seeing regularly in Central America. In the later parts there were some neat creatures from South America, and lots of tiny very poisonous pretty frogs.
There is also a big section about earthquakes, with info about SF's big quakes, and a simulator that roughly shows what it would have been like to be in both of them. It was kind of cool, but the fear that you get in a real earthquake (like the one I felt in Xela, in buildings of unknown structural soundness) just wasn't there.
After I finished up at the museum, I found out you could go up the tower across the way at the de Young museum and get a good view of the city, so I did.
I wanted to go and see Alcatraz, but I'd heard you usually have to book at least a few days in advance, and for the night tours, sometimes months in advance. I looked into it a few days before I wanted to go and most of the times were pretty crappy and the night tour was full, but then I looked again the next day and now there was one ticket available for the night tour, so I booked that. Glad I procrastinated booking that one or I would have missed out!
The beautiful weather that day held out into the afternoon, so when I got the boat went over to Alcatraz I got a great view of the Golden Gate bridge, followed by a nice loop around the rock itself.
Since it was the night tour, we were given some extra commentary by a live speaker on the boat over. Once we landed we had another short tour with some more stories and history about the place, leading us up to prison where we were given audio guide that led us around the prison, telling us about the guards in the inmates who had lived there.
It started in the showers, and then led us up and around through the various cell blocks, the library, into the administration section, out to the wardens house (where paused it and ducked over to get another look at the bridge with the sun set), then back through the cell blocks, past "time square" (the prison clock) and into the mess hall.
I saw the dummy heads used in the escape of three prisoners, completely with human hair. Later a guest guide gave a story about that escape, how the guys involved had worked out there were vents in the maintenance shaft between the cells, because of one part of the prison that had been remodeled, leaving a vent showing in open roof.
He told us how they were working painting the ceilings, and claimed that they wanted to paint the whole way through (inside maintenance shafts too). They kicked a lot of dust off while there were in there, which then went into prisoner cells making a lot of people unhappy, and so they were allowed to put up painters drop sheets, providing them with the cover they needed to work on their escape.
We heard how they'd steal spoons, since the knives were carefully counted and one missing would have resulted in everyone having to go through a metal detector, but spoons weren't considered a dangerous weapon. We were told how they carved out the vents in their rooms, hiding their work with art they had painted; and how after they escaped, they were never seen again, their bodies never found. To this day it's a mystery as to their fate.
Another guide told us a story about the final escape at the prison. A guy who had always acted like a model prisoner got promoted to the store room. He then stacked boxes in front of a window until it was well obscured, then spent a year cutting through the bars inside the window.
The outer bars were softer steal, so eventually he made a break for it, cutting through them in just one night. He then blew up rubber gloves and stuffed them in his shirt to make himself a floatation device and headed out into the bay, but he got caught in the tide and missed all the piers he had aimed to end up at. He ended up landing at Presidio, which was at the time a military base, where he was recaptured immediately.
Other perks of the night tour were that there were lots more talks and presentations than normal, and several parts of the prison were open that are not normally open such as the rec yard and the hospital. Unfortunately, the talks were all great, and back to back, so I didn't actually get much time to explore the hospital and didn't get to the rec yard at all. I would have loved another 2-3 hours to explore, and a tripod to have a go at some real HDR photos.
One of the coolest things on the night tour was the slamming of the cell doors, a presentation where they opened and closed the doors of a row of cells, telling us how that booming sound was specifically designed to communicate to the prisoners who was in control. There is a big metal cover over the doors machinery and the doors actually work just fine without it, but nearly silently instead of the loud booming sounds.
They told us that the sound of those doors has been sampled and used in lots of movies, for example Jurassic Park and The Empire Strikes Back. It's a pretty iconic sound.