Saturday, 16 February 2008

A San Francisco Chronicle

It's 4:30 a.m. in the morning as I start this piece and you may well ask, why such an early start?
The reason of course is that my body's time clock has failed to adjust back to Singapore time after 15 hours of flying time across the international date line.

This despite following my usual in-flight routine of ensuring at least five to six hours sleep. I learnt this trick from a frequent flyer to Europe. He always took a sleeping mask, earplugs, an inflatable neck pillow and a sleeping tablet - in that order.

While I am not a great fan of sleeping drugs, it does seem to work along with drinking lots of water and not devouring the entire content of the plastic food trays that come my way.

Why San Francisco? Well post-trip I am asking myself that very question especially as we had the choice of a leisurely cruise in the China Sea or another trip to the USA.

The reason was deceptively simple. Neither my wife had ever been to San Francisco and we are both of an age where we can remember the flower power generation and Scott McKenzie's catchy melody.

So this Chinese New Year we left Asia and headed to the States aboard United Airlines flights. A word about this airline. The 777 flight from Singapore to Narita (yes there was a short stop over) was pleasant and comfortable as the plane had plenty of leg room. The Boeing 747 flight from Narita to San Francisco and the return flight was nowhere near as pleasant as the seat configuration in 'cattle class' meant that we felt crammed in.

Being winter in the States we packed a lot of woollen garments that hadn't seen the light of day since our New Zealand life, two years ago. These proved a lifesaver although the purchase of two good winter coats was high on the list of our priorities.

When we arrived in San Francisco we booked into the Westin St Francis in Union Square. This has an ideal central city location and the building itself had survived the 1905 earthquake so it resonated with the charm of yesteryear.

The service was excellent but a word to the wise, do not open the mini-bar refrigerator and shift any of the contents. The system is built around computer sensors so each bottle move is recorded as a 'purchase' in the central system, even if you are only putting your own carton of milk into the fridge. Fortunately we had an understanding reservations clerk when it came to check out and the matter was speedily resolved.

Having checked in to our hotel we made a bee line to the Burlington Coat factory which is on 5th street and within easy walking distance of our hotel. There are some great bargains to be had here and we bought stylish, woollen, winter coats for around $US 140-160, a fraction of the price in the department stores of Singapore.

The abiding memory I have of San Francisco is not a pleasant one. The number of homeless begging on the streets was quite shocking to behold and many of them were suffering from mental illness (top image). One visit to the tourist trap of Fisherman's Wharf we were appalled to see a man putting his hand into the rubbish bin and stuffing food scraps into his mouth.

The Mayor doesn't seem to have this problem high on his agenda and during our stay, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on his hiring of highly paid staff at the expense of the city's social needs.

A note about Fisherman's Wharf. Take the cable car which is great fun even in winter. Buy a three day pass for $US18 which is value for money when one considers that a one way fare is $5. We went on the Powell Hyde line to the Wharf and returned on the Powell Mason Line.

Our arrival at the end of the Hyde line was fortuitously near the Ghirardelli chocolate factory so sampling was undertaken. We made most of our Ghirardelli purchases though at the local supermarket, Walgreens.

It was the Dungeness Crab season so Fisherman's Wharf was featuring this local delicacy. I have always found crab a bit bland in taste and the Dungeness variety was no different even when served with the local sourdough bread. Worth a taste but give me Singaporean Chilli Crab any day!

A word about the other much vaunted tourist trap that features in every Bay Guidebook - Chinatown. What a disappointment this place is. Tawdry trinket emporiums and tacky decorations featured largely and this at the height of the celebratory season, Chinese New Year. It maybe the "largest Chinatown outside Asia" but my strong advice is give the place a miss.

I readily admit that I could be biased in my judgement of the San Francisco version, as we have a bustling and true Chinatown here in Singapore. Truth was that both of us were expecting more of the place. My only abiding memory was a dispute between a local city ordinance officer of majestic proportions and a Chinese green grocer which took place in our earshot. It seems that she, the green grocer, had failed to remove her produce from the roadside despite repeated previous violations. The result, a fine of $700 which was surely not the luck she was hoping for at New Year.

Our visit coincided with the Super Tuesday primary elections so the media was full of Obama versus Clinton and forecasts of their future campaign results.

The best day of our San Francisco experience was the Saturday Farmers' Market at the Ferry building (image with hat). Succulent fresh dates, nuts, cheeses and other produce were to be had and at a reasonable price although the prefix 'organic' as usual meant a hike in prices.

On the subject of victuals. We breakfasted at Lori's Diner on Powell street most mornings. The cooked meal was ample in proportion and shared between us. The experience is one of dining in a 1950's time warp museum with suspended monoplanes, coke signs and Chevrolets sliced in half and wall mounted. Great fun and reasonably priced. Charlie the doorman (image left) was there to greet us each morning, even if his garb was a little grubby and in need of a clean.

So was after five days in San Francisco did I leave my heart there? Well frankly no.

I think one visit was enough in a lifetime to this city that spawned the flower power generation. It reminded me so much of Wellington, New Zealand (but with better weather!)

From San Francisco we went for a couple of days to Las Vegas and this will be the subject of my next entry. See other images

Saturday, 2 February 2008

CNY Shopping

Photos taken in Takashimaya Singapore using a mobile phone camera

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Let's Hear it for the Beeb

Sometimes I am reminded that this blog is not just a self indulgent stream of consciousness. There are actually people who break, or add to, the daily tedium of their lives by reading it!

So it was when I received some feedback recently from an expat recently relocated to Singapore and who had followed my ramblings, as an information source prior to her shift.

Having lived in Singapore since September 2006 it is easy to forget the little things one needs to know when moving to a new country. With such readers in minds I thought I would recap on my early comments and suggestions

The efficiency of local public transport has been mentioned in this blog before and there is news in today that the MRT system is to be further extended with two additional lines. The buses are in the main very efficiently run although the quality & cleanliness of some vehicles leaves a lot to be desired. Taxis are comparatively cheap when compared to other countries and private cars are expensive to own and operate.

I have no desire to own a car here for the above reasons and with the possible exception of supermarket shopping, there is no reason to do so.

One big suggestion I would make is to bring with you, or purchase upon arrival, a radio capable of tuning into overseas stations. While I listen to a lot of radio via the Internet nowadays if you are a person who likes to hear what is happening in the big wide world, don't rely on the local Singaporean media to inform you.

In the main the programming of both radio and free to air television is parochial in its vision and content is very patchy. There are a few exceptions and Channel News Asia is one, although as its title suggests its focus is largely Asia. Not that I personally have any problem with the control of media here, it is simply a case of variety in one's listening diet.

BBC Radio has been a godsend in keeping us informed. Fortunately the 'Beeb' has a station base (relay?) in Singapore which has a powerful signal. I also use the web to subscribe to various podcasts from around the world and to scan online newspapers. That way I can create my own media channel and view it and as when I like.

A word about the local Mediacorp artistes (and I used this term advisedly). As Mediacorp owns and operates the free-to-air channels and there is a very small talent pool, the same faces can be found in situation comedies, gameshows, introducing documentary features and traipsing around the food courts, sighing orgasmically at every mouthful of local hawker fare.

This is not to suggest that there aren't a couple of talented people amongst the performers, it is just that they are totally over exposed.

Eating Noodles

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Year Of The Rat

It's also the cold and flu season. I sense this because there is a cacophony of coughing and rowdy throat clearing throughout the MRT cabin. I have also managed to catch the head cold virus that is going around and for the past couple of days it has laid me low.

At least it happened now and not next week when we will be getting ready to board a long haul aircraft to the States.

Preparations are in full swing for the forthcoming New Year. This Chinese New Year is the Year of the Rat, my sign. Equally importantly & according to Chinese mythology it is more precisely known as the year of the Earth Rat.

Talking of Rattus Rattus, there is a nest of them just outside the entry of my place of work. Sometimes in the early morning I will spot one disappearing under the large concrete slab that protects their nest.

Also at this time of year the price of Bak Kwa rises dramatically. I note that this traditional barbequed meat has joined the age of the internet and one can actually purchase it online. In older times it was only available around New Year but now one can buy it at any time. The current online price is $43 but this will no doubt rise further, which is more than can be said for world share markets at the moment.

Buying shares is a passion for many Singaporeans and I fear many of them got burnt in the spate of panic selling that has traversed the globe in recent days. It is hard to know if the worst is over as today there has been a 4% rise in value across the Singaporean board.

Today's Image

Dusk - Sentosa