Tuesday 28 July 2015

On a train bound for Chicago

This is my longest train journey yet. The timetable says 51 hours from San Francisco to Chicago. It's likely we'll be three to four hours late.

People asked me before this trip if it wouldn't be quicker to fly. Indeed it would be quicker, and cheaper, but that's not the point.

The train itself is very comfortable. My sleeper "roomette" is a cabin made for two. The two facing seats fold down to make a bed and the other bed folds down from the ceiling. The seats are wide and soft, made to fit the more ample arse. (And boy have I seen a few of those!) I can shut my door and pass the time as I choose: reading, sleeping, writing this...

Or watching the fabulous scenery: from San Francisco Bay through the forests of the Sierra Nevada, over the high desert of Nevada and Utah, past Salt Lake City into the Rocky Mountains and the canyons of Colorado, then across the Continental Divide and on into Nebraska.

As I write, we're sweeping through the rolling countryside of Iowa. This looks for all the world like Ireland so I'm not gazing wide-eyed out the window. It's raining too, which completes the effect.

When it comes to meal times the crew assign you to a seat at a four-person table in the dining car. Who you end up sitting with is a matter of luck. But that's part of the adventure, and I've met people I wouldn't otherwise have met. Okay, some of those people could have stayed unmet and I wouldn't feel the loss, but overall it's been a very pleasant experience.

There was Sue from California who takes care of other people's pets as a semi-retirement occupation. As she left home on Sunday morning the forest fire was a long way from her house, but she left the keys of her packed car with the neighbours just in case.

Then there was a really boring couple from South Dakota who thought everything I said – where I'm from, where I live, what I do for a living, where I'd been on previous holidays – was awesome. And indeed it is when you compare it to their wretched, dreary existence. I'll spare you the boring details.

Mike from Nebraska is in the oil business. He taught me that fracking does not cause geological damage; it's all to do with how you dispose of the waste water. Or something.

Brent from Colorado is an anaesthetist, but his conversion was far from sleep-inducing. He was seeing the canyons from the inside for the first time. You don't see this stuff from the highway.

The only foreign people I met were two couples of German-speaking Swiss. I met them at two different meals, but I don't think they met each other.

Sandra looked about 60 years old. She was taking her sick son home. He was a fitness instructor, in perfect health. Had a stroke at the age of 37.

And finally, I came across some very nice crew members. The teams of conductors and engineers changed several times along the way, but the catering staff stayed throughout. On the first morning when I was putting my name on the list for lunch I gave my last name. From then on, every time I went to the dining car – two breakfasts, three lunches, two dinners – Reggie greeted me with a loud and cheerful "Hello, Mr Maguire!" If I was first at a table he'd invite/instruct others to "take a seat beside my friend Mr Maguire."

So long, Reggie, Mr B, Pete, Brad, Melissa, and the roster lady whose name I didn't get. You helped make my journey a pleasure.

Monday 27 July 2015


The house in Berkeley turned out to be a hovel!

Having confirmed my reservation for a room in a house, the owner then emailed a few hours later to say it was no longer available and there was only a mattress in the living room. I really had no choice at that point, so I accepted for a (slightly) reduced rate.

The owner wasn't there when I arrived, but his flatmate let me in. The room was filthy: dirty wall-to-wall carpet, bicycles parked on one side, empty pizza boxes on the floor. I was shown the couch, which looked as dirty as the floor, which had several blankets on it but no sheets. I took a look in the kitchen and found the counter tops strewn with unwashed cooking pots and pans, the sink piled high with dishes. The bathroom was as bad, and the shower cubicle clearly hadn't seen a squirt of Jif for years.

The flatmate called someone to come and prepare the room while I went out to dinner. When I got back there was a mattress with sheets, though I couldn't tell how clean they were. I used my shirt as a pillowcase and slept in another one. I also wore my jeans to bed.

This morning I couldn't find fresh towels so I used the cleanest looking white one I could find hanging up. I put another towel on the floor of the shower cubicle in the hope that whatever bacteria lived on it were less offensive than the community that inhabited the mouldy cracks in the tiled floor.

Needless to say I'll be leaving a review on Airbnb. It will probably be a copy-and-paste of the above.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Yes, I know the way to San Jose, thanks!

San Jose is a pleasant town in the San Francisco Bay Area. It bills itself as the capital of Silicon Valley, and indeed, Amazon, eBay, Cisco, PayPal, Google, Adobe, Facebook and many others have their bases here or nearby.

The downtown area is quite small, but the city spreads quite far around the core.  My hosts – my nephew, Éamon, and his wife, Pamela – live with their three children in a leafy neighbourhood called Evergreen Valley.  

And very good hosts they are too! They ferried me to and from the train station several times, took me around some of the sights downtown – Santa Clara mission, the Winchester Mystery House – and drove me to the beach at Santa Cruz to fulfil my my ambition to get my arse wet in the Pacific for the first time.   But they also made the ultimate sacrifice: instead of giving me the expected mattress in the baby's room, the they bunked in with their youngest and gave me their own room. No greater love hath nephew than to give up his bed for his uncle!

I strongly recommend Maguire's B&B in San Jose! 

Tomorrow, Sunday, I take the train from San Francisco to Chicago.  Originally, the idea was to leave SF on Tuesday but I had a change of plan. Unfortunately, when I changed the date of my train I didn't take into consideration Sunday schedules on the connecting trains from San Jose. The only option was a bus at 4.20am, which would get me to the main stain three hours before departure time.

So, tonight (Saturday) I'm staying in Berkeley, a ten-minute walk from Emeryville station, the departure point of the California Zephyr.

I don't believe there is WiFi on the train, so the next post will be published when I arrive in Chicago on Tuesday.

Saturday 25 July 2015

If you're going to San Francisco

The best way to get an overview of a city you don't know is to take a guided bus tour. There are several options from competing companies in San Francisco. I chose the Big Bus tour because it crosses the Golden Gate Bridge as part of its circular route.

Unfortunately, the day I took the tour it was cloudy and chilly so the conditions were not ideal for photos. The ticket cost $45, which I find a tad expensive, but I saw a lot of interesting things and places that I wouldn't have otherwise seen. It also gave me a good idea of which areas I'd like to visit and which I'd prefer to skip.
There are also several cruise tours of the Bay on offer, with varying routes and durations. Most of them announce "spectacular views" of the city skyline, Alcatraz, and the two bridges (Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge).  The ticket prices for those are also quite hefty, so I didn't bother.  There is a cheaper option, however, which I found by chance.
Yesterday was my last day in San Francisco. After a late lunch I had several hours to kill before my train back to San Jose, where I'm staying with my nephew and his family.  I took an electric streetcar (not to be confused with the city's cablecar system) on a whim to see where it would take me. I ended up at the Ferry Terminal, so I went in to see what options they had. I was told the best trip for sightseeing was the Sausalito ferry. It costs $20 return ($14 if you have a public transport Clipper card). Starting near the Bay Bridge, it goes past Alcatraz to the pretty coastal town of Sausalito. On the way, you get a great view of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. On the way back it goes closer to Alcatraz island and shows down to show you to take photos.
And that's for less than half the price of a cruise tour that offers more or less the same thing.

That's the Tip of the Day, folks.

Thursday 23 July 2015

Service with another smile

So I had a bad experience with "service" last week. I'm happy to report that I've had many examples of good service since.

Apart from the hotel receptionists, taxi drivers and waiters who've been genuinely helpful, I've been pleasantly surprised by the honest advice given in shops in San Francisco. More than once I've been told "I wouldn't by that here. You'll get a better deal a few doors down."

This happened when enquiring about sim cards, fruit, and  tickets for guided tours.


Wednesday 22 July 2015

The Streets of San Francisco

I remember as a child watching the TV series, The Streets of San Francisco, with Karl Malden and Michael Douglas as police detectives.  In it, cars racing up hills would glide through the air when they came to a crest, then crash to the ground before climbing the next unfeasibly steep section of  street. Camera trickery, I thought. Not so much, I've discovered! The hills really are very steep. 

No wonder they use cables to haul the trams up and down.  I had thought the name "cable car" was a misnomer, by the way, as there are no apparent cables. They are actually below the street, connected to the car through a slit in the street surface between the rails, driven by electric motors in a central power house.

My first observation of the streets of the city was on the way from the train station to my hotel. I could have taken a ten-dollar taxi but I decided to walk so I could get a feel for the place. Market Street is appropriately named, lined with department stores and boutiques. The shortest route took me from there along Turk Street to Polk Street in the Tenderloin district. There was a dramatic change in atmosphere just around the corner from the chic shopping street. Turk Street is dirty and delapidated, and the corner shops have metal grills on the windows. 

I happened to be there mid-morning, which is just as well; I would have felt very uneasy there at night. There were many people hanging around, in doorways or on corners, smoking and drinking. I'm not sure how many were drunk and how many stoned, but they all looked equally oblivious to me passing by, though I put my smartphone away just in case. 

Later, I asked the hotel receptionist for suggestions for places to have lunch near the hotel. "Whatever you do," she said, "don't go down Turk Street!" That evening I decided not to walk home, so I got an Über. The driver advised me to put my camera in my pocket before I got out of the car. He dropped me at the door and watched until I was safely inside.

There is a surprising number of homeless people in the city. Down by Fisherman's Wharf almost every lamppost is manned by someone with a cardboard sign and a plastic cup; some in wheelchairs or on crutches, others with obvious mental health problems.

The contrast is sharp between the poor and the non-poor, not to mention the rich. 

An eye-opener.

Monday 20 July 2015

Service with a smile

The cliché of the aggressively polite American waiter is pretty accurate. I've met a few over the last few days. And while they're usually very professional, there are, of course, exceptions. I met one of those the other night. 

At dinner with my hosts in an Italian restaurant, the service was chaotic: my starter and main course were delivered at the same time; other main courses came 20 minutes later so I had to have mine reheated; the white wine was at room temperature; the pizza of one of my companions was lots of puffy bread and not much else; the waiter presented our bill with a cheery "whenever you guys are ready" despite my having asked him earlier to hold it for me so that I could go discreetly to the desk to pay.

All this was not a disaster, but slightly annoying. I made my point to the manager who apologised and offered me a discount, which I gratefully accepted as reasonable amends. I asked her to add 15% to my credit card as a tip to show my appreciation of the gesture and that there were no hard feelings.

An hour later I got a text message from my credit card company showing the amount billed. They had added 30%. 

When I went back the next day, another manager handled my complaint. I demanded a refund of the double tip, not just the excess. He didn't argue.

 He handed me the cash with a smile and instructed me to "have a nice day!"

Saturday 18 July 2015


Sarah Winchester, widow of the gun manufacturer, considered herself cursed after the death of her baby daughter and, soon after, several members of her family. She consulted a psychic who told her that she was being haunted by the spirits of all those who had ended up at the wrong end of a Winchester rifle.

The only way to appease them was – obviously – to build a house. And keep on building, adding rooms and annexes constantly for the rest of her life.  The result is a sprawling, chaotic mansion with crazy features such as a staircase from floor to ceiling, leading nowhere; a door that opens on to a brick wall; a window with crystal insets designed to diffuse the sunlight, installed on a north-facing wall.

Whether these incoherent features were the result of Sarah's incompetence as a designer, or of her desire to confuse the spirits she believed were haunting her, is a matter of speculation.

As our bubbly tour guide at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose told us, you can decide which version is true.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Plan B

I've had to change my plans for various reasons and the Seattle leg of the trip has been cancelled.  This is a big disappointment as I was looking forward to discovering the city and visiting my cousin, Gillian, and her family.

On the upside, I was able to bring forward my train trip to Chicago by two days at no extra cost.  I'll now be spending four days in the Windy City instead of just two.

So the new plan looks like this:

16 July Paris – San Francisco
16 – 25 July California
26 – 28 July San Francisco to Chicago aboard the California Zephyr train (3924 km in 51 hours) – via the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Utah Desert to Salt Lake City, across the Rocky Mountains, past the canyons of Colorado, through the plains of Nebraska and the rolling hills of southern Iowa, over the Mississippi River to Illinois and the Windy City
California Zephyr
28 July – 2 August Chicago
2 – 8 August New York
9 – 11 August Toms River (New Jersey)
11 August NY – Paris