During my trip to Pleasanton, California, I spent a few days exploring the city of San Francisco. Travelling from a developing country all the way up to a developed one such as the USA, I had no idea what to expect except awespiring sights.
When I stepped out of the Embarcadero Bart station and stepped into the streets of the city, I as if I’d walked into a science fiction movie about the future. On either side of the street towered buildings of all sizes and shapes. Posters and banners accompanied the buildings on high pedestals. The street below my feet lined with rail tracks while the sky over my head bore cable car lines. Pedestrians navigated between one another and skateboarders swerved through strollers. Down the street from where I stood, a clock and a sign announced the city’s name in all the grandeur it deserved. Further down was my first peek of the ocean and the supposed sea lions that attracted millions to the piers each year.
My friend and I (for she was with me) had planned to take on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour. We reached the rendezvous point, met our bus driver, and got our tickets. We hopped on hoping to see the whole city in a day. Little did I know then that I’d have to come back twice more and still see only a fraction of the city.
Our first stop was Washington Square. Although I had no idea about the church there, it came as a pleasant surprise of architectural marvel. I didn’t want to spend too much time there, though. I was more keen on the Coit Tower because I’d read that the views are beautiful. And so we trekked to the tower navigating with the maps on my phone. In hindsight, going up the tower was the most touristy thing I had done in my trip, but the journey towards the tower was more satisfying than waiting for the other tourists to give us space at the tower’s window. Despite all the research I had done, I had no idea that San Francisco was all hills. So the path to the tower was strenuous than I’d expected—although enjoyable in every sense. By the time the views took my breath away, I felt glad I’d pursued the trail.
Back on the bus, we heeded the tour guide’s commentary about Union Square when my friend’s eyes gleamed at the looming buildings. On every side, towering glass structures brimmed with people carrying big brown bags and smug looks. It was the shopping zone of San Francisco. We hopped off, me as an accompaniment. As a heroine in a flimsy movie about an ignorant girl from the visiting the city, I felt overwhelmed by the masses. Containing the balloon of fear that welled up within me, I followed my friend into Macy’s. Unmistakable and intimidating, it was the first building we saw. Inside was a different world altogether. From the breeze that kissed the back of my neck, I’d walked into a rush of people breathing down each others’. Perfumes and deodorants blended while excited voices echoed through the hallway. From a little bakery on the left wafted the scent of warmed butter and chocolate chips. With so many people and too much adrenaline, the place was too annoying for me to enjoy. But it was what it was: a shopping destination for every person. For someone who hates shopping, though, it was pure hell.
While my friend shopped around, deciding, I lingered in a corner passing judgements about the city I now stood in. It was easy: The city is big. Far too big, in fact, touristy, and vain. I didn’t like the city. It seemed to me as if people in the city only cared about living a high life and having fun. Nothing about San Francisco seemed soulful, and I accepted it as a fact I couldn’t change.
So without much hope or excitement, I followed my friend on to our bus, We stopped again at Painted Ladies. We walked up a hill and through a valley of lusciousness before some ancient architecture made my jaw drop. Even as I walked through the park to the houses, I felt my ideas about the city transform into something more liquid. The city didn’t feel hard and cold anymore. I was now at the other side of the city—the side that I could relate. Standing atop the little hill, I looked all around me in shameless greed to take in the beauty of the buildings. The Painted Ladies, I had read, referred to the more than 45,000 houses built in San Francisco between 1849 and 1915.
They resembled Victorian and Edwardian architecture and were famous for their many paint colours. The weather had become chilly and as I hugged at my sweatshirt, I felt a rush of love towards the sight I faced. An inexplicable joy ran through my body and at that moment, I felt immense joy realising that the city of San Francisco had something for everyone.
Back on the bus I was trying to understand my change of opinion when our next stop arrived: Haight Ashbury. I wasn’t interested at first, but decided to check it out anyway. And I’m thankful I did. From the strict and straight lives of the city mongers, I had moved into the world of hippies. Even as our bus rode down the street, my pulse quickened and my face cracked a smile. The buildings sported graffiti, people wore their hair long and in colour, and some even skipped while walking. Just looking at them boosted my energy, and I had a compulsive urge to hop off the bus.
Walking down Haight Street, I saw quirkiness and unruliness etched in every corner. A sense of rebellion hung in the air making me smile to myself like a maniac. Compared to the corporatism that lived on the other side of the city, here was the soul I searched for. Getting coffee from one of the shops, I stared at signs in most shops and peeped into some.
Evening was upon us and it was time for the next big thing on our list: The Golden Gate Bridge. It’s the ultimate tourist destination, and like any obedient tourist, we headed towards it. Although the Golden Gate Bridge is the most photographed bridge in the world, it’s just another bridge. The Bay Bridge is far more impressive, older, and longer than the Golden Gate Bridge. But despite all of its fascinating qualities, The Bay Bridge has always been under appreciated. What’s sad though, is that most tourists misinterpret the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge. Funny how humans conform to the most popular opinions.
We saw both bridges, and couldn’t keep our cameras off them. My sensible brain concluded that no matter how many pictures I took, I’d still find better photos online. It was a mere waste of time, but even then, my heart wouldn’t agree. From every corner I could, I clicked away at random.
That’s one of the curious things about San Francisco: It’s almost always filled with tourists making all the wrong assumptions, taking the wrong turns, walking in bike lanes, and gawking at the towers when they should be looking at the street they’re walking on. But even so, the city bore all nonsense with patience. Locals didn’t seem perturbed by the annoying straddlers who had taken over their city for a weekend. They, instead, went about their daily business, with mild smiles on their lips amused at all and the two Indian women trying to decode MUNI.