Gray Skies, Blue Days- Rainy Adventures in San Francisco

Rain.

The soft pitter-patter against the windowsill. The melodic splattering against the ground. The relentless drumming on the rooftop.

I love the rain. The tingly touch of it on your tongue, the musty and distinctly earthy smell of the air, the grayish pensive skies.

Most days I relish the short spells of heavy rain: it is a welcome relief from the scorching and stifling heat of the day in the tropics (although it can be rather inconvenient if it pours when you’re trying to enjoy a good book by the beach). However, there is nothing more irksome than bad weather when you’re on a holiday, especially if you’re trying to do some sightseeing. California may be known for its sunny skies and beautiful palms, but Mr. Sun must have been in a bad mood the five days we were there. Perhaps it was mourning the abnormally low tourist season, I don’t know. Whatever it was, I didn’t get very many good photos due to the cloudy skies. We couldn’t even see the Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point, which apparently is supposed to give a breathtaking and up-close view of the renowned structure. That is, undoubtedly, my greatest regret. But no worries, I’m sure I’ll be returning to San Francisco sometime in the near future because I absolutely love the city and its surroundings. I fell in love with Stanford (it’s up there with all my other favorites on the East Coast), so if I do make it to the school then I’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore San Francisco.

It was misty on Day 1, but we explored the vicinity (we were staying near Fisherman’s Wharf), making a stop at Ghiradelli Square (over the course of the next few days we duly went to collect our daily free chocolate- Peppermint Bark- just by walking into the store), then having a wonderful breakfast at the Hollywood Cafe (we came back a few days later, it lives up to its name!)

Omelette and bacon stuffed croissant- so good you begin to doubt your own sanity.
Omelette and bacon stuffed croissant- so good you begin to doubt your own sanity.
Scrambled eggs and a big bowl of healthy fruits!

After a satisfying breakfast that filled us to the brim (American portions are daunting conquests for us Asians), we took the cable car up Powell and explored Union Square and Chinatown. The cable car was a rickety old thing- and at 6 dollars one way it was a definite tourist trap. But a trip to San Francisco without riding one of these iconic contraptions is an incomplete one indeed- it serves its purpose well and brings you on a relatively comfortable journey up the steep slopes of San Francisco. Unlike the easily navigable grid patterned streets of New York, San Francisco’s streets are steep and windy- it would take a very resolute man with dogged determination (and an insane possession of muscle power) to walk from any one place to another. At any rate, the conductor was a friendly chap that willingly shuffled over with a wide grin to help us take pictures, and enthusiastically pointed out landmarks, explaining their importance along the way. The ride provided many scenic views of San Francisco- and I couldn’t help but marvel at its sloping gradients and architecturally affluent hills. Standing at the top of one of SF’s hilly streets makes you feel invincible, as if you’re at the top of the world.

Breathtaking.

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Union Square was nothing amazing, just shops that you could find along Orchard in Singapore. I did find a Pinkberry a little way down from it, though, which was delightful because Pinkberry is undoubtedly my favorite froyo joint in the world. I’ve missed it ever so much, since I spent the summer before last in New York (Pinkberry became a staple food)!

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Mango delight with a sprinkle of berrylicious goodness.

Chinatown was less of an ersatz imitation than the Chinatown here in Singapore, but I think we all have to establish that Chinatowns never look like China. The fact is, China looks like any other place in the world- its cities are cluttered with skyscrapers, its villages torn down and dilapidated. Rarely do you see glaring red signs hanging all over the street, or tacky souvenir shops selling pandas and ‘I love [insert city]’ t-shirts. In fact, I think Chinatown is an overhyped spinoff of the most rural town centers of mainland China, perpetually stuck in the 15 days of Chinese New Year.

Sorry for the less than pleasurable and more than scathing review of Chinatown. The morning’s explorations of Union Square and Chinatown was disappointing to say the least. However, when we made our way back we stumbled upon this miraculous bookstore  called City Lights Bookstore that salvaged the entire trip.

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Alright, so I forgot to mention the one amazing thing about Chinatown- R&G. The food there is virtually unparalleled at that price range. If you ever do visit San Francisco and are craving some Chinese cuisine, you absolutely have to stop by. Do try their Dungeness crab and their beef cubes. You don’t even have to like Chinese cuisine to love this.

Its beady eyes bore into your soul, but you bite down and hear that delightful crunch with little regret; savoring the salty taste of the sea on your tongue, the stringy tangy flesh that tears away effortlessly from carbonate shell, the gritty explosion of melodic and yet aggressive flavors that compose the roe.

The next day we went for a tour of the Alcatraz- but the rainy weather called for oversized, dripping ponchos that transformed us into ridiculous-looking and attention-attracting wanna-be astronauts. I think we were the object of some very astonished and bemused gazes, though why wouldn’t anyone wear a poncho when it’s pouring out I cannot imagine!

The boat ride there was short and pleasant, the trudge up the hill with squishing socks and water sloshing back and forth in our shoes was not. However it was entirely worth it when we took the tour of the Alcatraz- that was, hands-down, the most engaging audio tour I’ve ever been on. The rich history of Alcatraz combined with the smooth, well-explained nature of the tour translated into a riveting two hours. I think what made this audio tour different from all else is that it required you to press no buttons, it brought you on one extended tour, guiding you along the concrete hallways and rusting cells. At the end, you marvel at how it brought the entire prison alive as it weaved you through the dismal halls.

I think this should be on the list of 1001 things to do before you die. Including the City Lights Bookstore.

So then we walked from Pier 33 (where the Alcatraz ferry landing was) to Pier 1 where the Ferry Building Marketplace stood in all its culinary and artistic splendor. At that time the sun was out and shining brilliantly in the sky (one out of the only two short moments where the Sun courteously showed its face during the trip), so it was a very enjoyable walk along the coast. San Francisco is really beautiful, far exceeding the [also enjoyable] walk along the Singapore River near MBS.

Ferry Building Marketplace had amazing food. First was Miette, a place that I had pointed out to my mother online and emphasized that we had to go there. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a delightful little stall decorated with all kinds of pretty little pastries and washed with beautiful pastel colors and petite countertops.

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What really caught my eye were their cakes, and of course their macarons.

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My mom grudgingly bought me my box and I went along hopping like an overjoyed bunny after them to Peet’s Coffee and Tea, apparently the first place this trip that served good, undiluted coffee. (For some reason adults just can’t stand the coffee at Starbucks and Coffee Bean, call me an amateur but they seem just fine to me.) We had lunch next door at the contemporary Japanese delicatessen that served a delicious Japanese Beef Curry made entirely of Californian ingredients.

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Oh, plus I found a place that sold almond flour.

Foodie’s heaven, I tell you.

After a rest at the hotel, we went out in the early evening to the touristy Pier 39- saw the seals, raided the candy store, etc, etc. Typical tourist stuff. Then we had an amazing dinner at Albona, an Italian restaurant bringing food from the Italian region of the same name.

On the third day we took a drive to Berkeley- but the town was a bit run-down and the gray skies weren’t too welcoming either. Nevertheless, we had a good admissions talk and the students there were pretty friendly and evidently very bright. Berkeley is a public university, so fees are substantially lower for Americans but are only a fraction less than the Ivy-leagues for international students. From what I hear Berkeley’s computing science department is superb, but technology and I are frequently at odds (well, although I do love technology, it just doesn’t quite love me back) so I’m not sure Berkeley is the place for me. Their mathematics department is quite famous and arguably one of the best, but I think I’m still going to take a shot at MIT first because I simply love the place, the people, and of course the sharing of knowledge (what would I do without the OCW courses online?). But it’s hardly fair to compare the two; one is private and the other public.

The whole ordeal of getting there and back took about 5 hours in total, I have no idea why. But a day in Berkeley was a day well spent because I finally got to find out more about the school, which would really help in my considerations for college (which are quite shockingly not so far away, only two more years!)

After Berkeley we went to Napa Valley (and had a beautiful lunch at Angele, photos below) but the dismal weather meant that we barely visited any wineries before we made our way back home. Prior to the trip we wanted to dine at one of the more renowned restaurants there but most of them were simply booked up months before. Angele was an angelic delight, however.

Star of the show: Deliciously tantalizing Valrhona chocolate creme de pot and creme fraiche!

The next day was Stanford, and I must say I fell in love the moment I stepped on campus. The campus is beautiful; but not in the same manner as the grandeur and antique buildings of the likes of Princeton and Harvard, but a kind of architectural wonder where the old is infused with new; the two coalesce into something beautiful and unparalleled. Being so close to the technological havens of Silicon Valley and other clusters, Stanford is extremely in touch with technology. The interactive panels right outside the room where we had the admissions talk simply demonstrated a minute facet of the vast amount of technological opportunities.

406672_3968025402377_1363221847_nThe students are also very open-minded and never fail to speak of the sharing of knowledge (say this and I will immediately fall in love!) and are very diverse. Some may be more quiet and reserve (but stunningly bright and willing to share), some are wonderfully bubbly, but most importantly all of them are incredibly proud of their school.

The school traditions also send excitement coursing through my veins.

Maybe I should really spend the summer in Stanford to see whether I really love it. People always say to find a school that’s right for you, not only right for your image. But doing that is harder than it seems. Really, a schooling experience depends on the people, and at a school that admits over a thousand people every year, you never know what the students in your year would really be like, even if you do talk to a few current students. So I suppose you have to look to the school culture, then at whether they have the facilities and access to expertise that ties in with what you’re interested in. But with the Ivies (did you know that the Ivy League is actually an athletic conference, but became associated with the academic excellence that accompanied the schools?) and MIT and Stanford, most of them have the facilities, have the expertise, and have the diverse community and open values. They all have things that distinguish them from one another, but for a prospective student undergoing a decision process (which, I have to say, is besieged with doubts and uncertainties about simply being admitted, let alone which to choose), it’s incredibly hard.

There was a time where people told me there’s still 5 years to go, but with two years to go I’m unsure about how to feel. I mean a part of me (the part that has always been there) is anxious- what if I don’t get in into any of the schools I like? The other part tells me not to worry and just to take things as it comes. After all it’s not do or die, and there’s always graduate school. And a great undergraduate experience isn’t only tied to these prestigious schools; it really lies with the people.

People.

7 billion of us in the world and yet we confine ourselves to knowing so few.

On with seeing the world! (Enough with my newfound love of Stanford, continuing the post on San Francisco!)

On the last day we tried to see the Golden Gate Bridge once more at Fort Point, but to no avail. Instead, my sister and I were dropped off at the Exploratarium (a science museum of sorts) while my parents and grandparents went off to take the drive down the crookedest street (Lombard!). I would’ve gone for the sake of my camera but it was so rainy and misty the pictures wouldn’t have turned out well anyways. From what we heard afterwards, there was an accident while they were there and my dad had the once in a lifetime chance of driving up Lombard street rather than down. Maybe we should’ve gone, it would’ve been quite a spectacle but the Exploratarium was an incredible experience with some very friendly staff so no regrets there!

There were some extremely cool experimental stations there that played with the mind and taunted the idea of perception. What really intrigued me was this one where you had to throw this small orange ball into a hoop (not a challenging task at all, even the most athletically impaired person like me could do it). The twist was that you had to wear these glasses that made everything appear to be more to the left than it actually is. After a few throws you naturally throw things to the left without thinking, but upon taking off the glasses, no matter how hard you concentrate, your brain automatically slants it left so the ball doesn’t end up in the hoop. Some intriguing mind-bending there. Couldn’t help but wonder if this could be put to some applicational use, it’s pretty cool. Just goes to show how incredible our brains are.

Although I was constantly mourning the weather and felt as if we could have done more in the five days (although jet lag and lack of stamina meant otherwise), seeing as I’ve penned a 2500 word post on San Francisco, I can rightfully say that I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. I love San Francisco, even though its weather hated us.

Wait for me, SF. I’ll be back before you know it.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. I really like the first lines of your post, they remind me of the innocence and care free times of my youth. Keep up the great work

    1. ruruhoong says:

      thank you so much for the kind comment!

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