San Francisco 2013 diary: Day 6

The last day of this trip!

Friday, 8 February, 2013. 09:54. BART train to San Francisco

I got up just after 08:00 this morning and packed my bags for departure. There was an itemised hotel bill slipped under the door. I noticed that in addition to the $18 breakfast I had on my first morning here, there was also an extra $37 breakfast charge in the same day! I pointed this out at reception when I checked out and they deducted the “second breakfast” charge. Then I left my large bag and poster tube with the baggage guy to pick up this evening before heading to the airport and walked out into the brisk morning air.

It was really cold and a bit windy. The sky looked sunny ahead, but when I turned around, I saw the entire sky behind me was covered in angry grey storm clouds. I quickened my pace, hoping to make it to Millbrae before it began raining. The clouds threatened and I thought they were gaining on me, but by the time I got near Millbrae station, it was clear they wouldn’t burst quite yet. So I stopped quickly into the Panera Bakery near the station and got a whole grain bagel with cream cheese “to go”. I took my paper bag outside and opened it, expecting to find it ready to eat, but it was a sliced bagel, a plastic knife, and a peel-back container of cream cheese. So I stopped on a seat outside to spread the cheese on the bagel, discard the waste, and then walked to the station, munching the bagel on the way.

At the station I bought a ticket. At the ticket machine next to me were a middle aged couple and an older woman (probably one of their mothers) and they were puzzling over the ticket machine. The asked me for help in buying tickets, and I told them as much as I knew, including that they needed a separate ticket for each person, which was news to them so it was lucky I told them.

16:45. Glen Park BART Station

I got off the train this morning here at Glen Park Station, then went outside to catch a number 44 bus to Golden Gate Park. I didn’t need to wait very long, and the bus took a winding route north, skirting the west side of Twin Peaks, until it reached the park. There I got off in front of the Academy of Sciences, but before going in I decided to walk across the open area in front and check out the Japanese Tea Garden. This cost $7 to enter, and at first I thought it was very small for the price. But walking around I realised that there was a lot more hidden behind the trees and small hills, making it quite expansive. The gardens were beautifully maintained and the water in the ponds was crystal clear, giving an excellent view of the koi in there. There was a small school group and a few other people around, but not too many, so it was fairly tranquil.

American Coot
American coot, Stow Lake, Golden Gate Park.

After exiting the gardens, I walked down the road past the botanical gardens to Stow Lake. I was surprised to find that the lake was actually uphill, the water level being higher than the main road that ran past it. The lake was beautiful, with lots of gulls, mallards, and grebes swimming around on the water. Quite a few people were taking advantage of the brightening weather to have picnics or just sit by the lake and admire the scenery.

I walked around the lake until I reached the southernmost of the two bridges across to the island in the middle. There I climbed the spiralling paths up the hill, gaining a long view over the various parts of San Francisco. I could see the Golden Gate Bridge, the downtown area, and a large cathedral, viewed between the trees that dotted the top of the hill. It was well worth the climb.

Hooded Merganser
Hooded merganser, Stow Lake, Golden Gate Park.

I found a shortcut down, taking a set of steps down beside a waterfall on the eastern end of the island, then walked around to the northern bridge and back to the mainland. From there I walked back past the Japanese gardens and over to a couple of food vans I’d noticed earlier. There was one doing hot dogs and pastries and stuff, and I was tempted to go for this stereotypical American food for lunch. But next to it was an Indian food van, and the lure of chicken tikka masala was too great. It was reasonable for fast Indian food, but not great. I was glad I’d opted for that though, because I saw someone with a hot dog, and the sausage looked boring and bland.

After eating lunch, I went to the Academy of Sciences. Admission was $29.95, but they had a $3 discount for people who’d used public transport. I showed my MUNI transfer and got the discounted admission price. An enthusiastic older guy inside gave me a map and a program of events for the day, and I asked him if photography was allowed. He said, “not only is it allowed, it’s compulsory! Just don’t take flash photos of the fish.” I checked my coat at the cloak room (a $2 fee, but the lady who took my coat was very nice and asked me where I was from) and then started wandering around.

First I went into the human experience exhibit, which had stuff on hominid fossils as well as a large room with dioramas of stuffed savanna animals, and at one end a pool with live African penguins. It was kind of a weird mix, the main thread in common being Africa. From there I went through the evolution exhibit and then to the adjacent Foucault pendulum. There a guy started explaining it to me, and I interrupted to say I had a Ph.D. in physics. He said “cool” and asked me from where and I said Sydney University, which he thought was even cooler.

Near there was a stand where people were handing out passes to the next show in the planetarium, which was due to start at 13:30, in about 20 minutes. So I took one and joined the queue which was already forming. They led us in 15 minutes before the show, into a darkened room to let our eyes adjust, then into the planetarium itself. A guy introduced the show, which was actually a movie about earthquakes and not an astronomy show at all! But that was still cool. The guy cracked lame science jokes as people settled into their seats. Eventually the show started and it was really cool and well put together, making good use of the immersive dome screen around us.

After the 30 minute show, we exited at the top of the domed theatre, putting us on the second floor of the building. Here there was a “naturalist centre”, which was a large room with specimens of all sorts of animals (stuffed and preserved in jars), plants, bones, minerals, and things for children and people in general to touch and explore. It looked really cool and I would have spent longer exploring if I’d had the time. Nearby stairs led up to the roof observation deck, which overlooked the living roof. The roof was planted with grasses and small plants, all native to California. Back on the second floor was an exhibition of Native American arts and crafts.

Heading back downstairs to the ground floor, I walked into the rainforest exhibit, which involved going through double sealed doors into a tropical environment full of trees, birds, and butterflies. There were also display cases with snakes and frogs and bizarre insects. A walkway spiralled up through the levels of the forest to the canopy. Unfortunately on an upper level I fumbled changing a lens and dropped the rear end cap of a lens into the trees and to the ground two floors below. I spiralled back down to the ground level and found a staff member to ask about getting my cap back. He used a phone to contact a biologist to go into the enclosed area and look for it. She arrived a few minutes later and, with a bit of searching, managed to find my errant cap. She washed and dried it before giving it back to me.

20:10. San Francisco International Airport

Back up to the top of the rainforest, there were multiple different and brightly coloured butterflies, and a few different small birds. I tried to get photos of as many as I could, but I’m not sure I got them all. The exit from the rainforest was via lifts descending three floors down to the basement, which is where the aquarium is.

The first area is a continuation of the rainforest above, showing what the Amazon forest looks like when the seasonal floods submerge the lower levels in water. A walk-through clear tube led under the water, giving a view directly up to the forest above, except with fish swimming overhead. The aquarium floor continued with rooms full of tanks devoted to the Californian coast, marine creature mating habits, marine animals from all over the world, a touching tidepool, and the Philippine coral reefs. There was lots to see, including an amazing giant tropical aquarium wall.

39/365 Wall o' Fish
Steinhart Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park.

Walking back upstairs, I went to the remaining display area on the ground floor. On the way, I passed a room with glass walls, inside which scientists were working on various things. One woman was cataloguing small mammals, while another pair of women were measuring bones of sea otters. These two had a camera trained on them and a large TV screen showed detail of them using digital callipers to make the measurements. I took some photos of them working while they tried to ignore me.

The next area was devoted to an earthquake exhibit, with lots of displays centred around an earthquake simulator. I queued up to experience this, and was led with a small group of people into a small room decorated to look like the inside of a house. A voice over explained a bit about the 1989 earthquake, then the room shook with a simulation of the strength of that one. There was a break, then the same procedure repeated for the 1906 earthquake, which was noticeably stronger, although either one would be terrifying enough to experience for real.

The last little area I visited contained a selection of fossils and displays of marsupials and other fauna from Australia, New Zealand, and South America. I went for a browse in the museum shop, which had some interesting things. I bought a T-shirt with a big butterfly on it for M. Then I collected my coat from the cloak room and went out to the bus stop nearby. A bus arrived within a few minutes, taking me back to Glen Park, where I caught a train back to Millbrae.

I walked from there to the hotel, timing the walk this time and finding that it took a solid half hour. At the hotel. I went straight to the gym and pool area, and into the men’s change room. I knew from last time I stayed here that there was a shower in there, and I washed myself clean and changed into clean underwear, socks, and a new shirt that I’d been carrying with me. Refreshed, I went to reception and picked up the bags I’d left when I checked out. The next shuttle to the airport was ten minutes away, so I opened and replaced my bags for the flight, moving as much as possible into the checked luggage.

There were a few other people waiting for the airport shuttle too, and soon a hotel guy called us to from inside the door to the waiting shuttle. The driver asked us where we were going, and almost everyone was getting United international. I asked if they were going to Sydney and at least five of them said yes! They were all Americans though. I wondered why they’d been staying in a hotel, but one couple said they’d flown from Toronto and got messed up by the airline. I guess they must have had an unscheduled night here in SF.

We got to the airport and we all wandered around looking for the United check in counters. It wasn’t obvious and it took some work to find a sign that told us where we needed to be. There were no queues at the counters and I got in first, checking my own bag and paying another $70 for the excess luggage fee for the poster tube. I asked for an exit row, but none were available this time. I also asked the lady if there were restaurants through security. She said there was more choice outside, but there was a good Japanese place inside security. I decided to try that and went straight to the security check, which took about ten minutes since there was a small queue.

In the gate area there isn’t much, half a dozen shops and about four food places. I found the Japanese and grabbed a table, ordering miso soup and a sushi combo which looked good. It had six small California rolls and five assorted seafood on rice sushi pieces. It was pretty good, and the place was doing fairly good business.

And now I’m just sitting and waiting for my flight to board.

Saturday 9 February. Flight UA873 to Sydney. 01:22 San Francisco time, 20:22 Sydney time

The flight took quite a while to depart. Everyone seemed to be on board on time, but we didn’t move for some time, and then the taxi to the runway took ages. However, the captain announced that we expect to be at the gate in Sydney on time at 08:10 tomorrow. Dinner was served as soon as we took off, so people could get to sleep quickly, though it might be better to stay awake a bit to help with the time zone shift.

Sunday 10 February

My flight landed almost on time just after 08:00. I had to pick up my poster from the oversized baggage claim, and my taxi driver didn’t know where Wollstonecraft was – he said he’d only just started on the job – but apart from that the trip home was uneventful.

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