Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Embracing the tourist within

Saturday February 8 (after the wee hours of the morning!)

I start the morning with a phone call from The Husband, who tells me that he has decided to go back to Guadalajara. The new university is too much like a country club, he says. The grounds boasts rolling green lawns like a golf course and a swimming pool and the town of Cholula has nice cafes and bars as befits a university town catering to rich Americans. But it’s not the experience he wants. I am relieved, to tell the truth. One of the many things that kept me awake last night was the niggling feeling he’s not happy in Cholula and that he would soon wish that he’d stayed where he was.

It’s wonderful to hear his voice, especially because I haven’t had a real conversation with anyone in the past few days. I remember The Husband telling me something similar when he first arrived in Guadalajara – that his longest conversation in the first few days was with a street kid who asked him for money.

This morning, I decide to forgo my distaste for obvious ‘tourist’ activities and take a ferry tour of the bay that I’ve seen advertised on Pier 39. I catch the F tram from Market Street directly to the wharves, determined not to be sidetracked. No one approaches me for the brief moments I wait outside the hotel – a good sign. Maybe I look less vulnerable today?

It is not yet raining, for the first time since I’ve arrived, but the seats of the ferry’s upper decks are still wet. Most of my fellow passengers are a large group of Japanese tourists, all clad in yellow Alcatraz rain ponchos. I’ve seen them for sale at the souvenir shop next to where we bought our tickets. I watch as one mother brings out a towel and wipes the seat dry for her family to sit down. So organised! I fumble in my bag, but the best I can do is a free tourist booklet. I fold it out from the middle and do my best to mop up my seat. Ink smudges on the plastic bench. I sit awkwardly on the booklet, and try to ignore my damp bottom.

Tinny nautical music blares from the loudspeakers above our heads. As the engine starts up, the music stops and is replaced by something worse. We have a ‘ship’s captain’. A fake, recorded one, something like ‘Captain Ahab’, who talks with lots of ar hars and mateys, and seems to have confused his persona with that of a pirate. Or maybe the one-eyed fisherman from The Simpsons. I try to tune out the annoying commentary and just focus on the bay. It’s not hard. The waves are choppy, a biting wind whips about us, and rain threatens overhead. But the view is incredible and despite Captain Ahab, I am thoroughly charmed. I feel all the stress of navigating the city fall away. Here, I have paid someone to be safe and secure for an hour (okay, and to see the bay), to have someone else decide where to go, what to see, how to get there. When the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly looms up before us, dramatically throwing off the fog as we near, I am entranced. It is just magnificent. I don’t know quite why – it’s a man-made structure, just a bridge - but it is. I only half hear the fake ex-bridge worker who has joined the fake captain to reminisce over his labours.

The tourists – me included – go crazy with our cameras. We rush the bridge of the boat, politely jostling for position. Up against the railings, we stumble from one side to another to get the best view, ignoring the lurching waves and the sea spray. The others hand their cameras back and forth to get their photos taken with the bridge as backdrop. I sorely want to, but am too shy.

Next stop: Alcatraz. It’s bizarre to think that I’m actually looking at this mythical evil place, former home of America’s worst criminals. The inescapable prison. The new voice (a ‘former prisoner’, this time) talks about the agony of seeing home just across the shores, but not being able to reach it. Wow. I hadn’t thought of that, but the Promethean agony of it captures my imagination. It’s incredibly clever, really. The Americans seem to be geniuses at psychological torture (think: Guantanamo). I look over at San Francisco and put myself in the prisoners’ shoes.

I find myself zooming the lens in as far as I can, trying to get as much detail as I can as we pass. I’m still doing it when I see the other ferry, the Alcatraz ferry, land on the island through my viewfinder. I am determined not to go – too gruesome, too ‘true crime’. But I have to admit, if I’m honest, that I really, really want to.

It's during the Alcatraz component of the tour that the rain starts. I juggle my umbrella and my camera, operating the camera with one hand and fighting the sea winds to keep the umbrella in place with the other. Needless to say, the umbrella is not much use out here. The rain blows horizontally at us as we teeter on deck. I am so absorbed in what I am doing, so determined not to give up, that I manage to pretty much ignore my predicament for longer than just about anyone else. I use my scarf to wipe my lens free of instrusive rain spots after every photo, holding the umbrella in place in the crook of my arm. I suddenly realise that I am almost alone on deck. One pair of Japanaese tourists are left, on the far side of the boat. I am literally dripping wet. My hair hangs down my back and against my cheeks like damp spaghetti. My woollen cardigan reeks of damp. I'm pretty sure my mascara is running. We are heading back to shore now, anyway. Reluctantly, I peel away and trudge down the stairs to the relative warmth of below deck.

As I leave the boat, I notice a subversive sticker, ‘Boycott Alcatraz’, that has so far gone unnoticed by the tour operators. It looks new. I make a note to try googling it later.* I want to find out the reasoning. I know I think Alcatraz tours are creepy, but I can’t articulate why.

I have just googled it. It’s nothing to do with Alcatraz tours being distasteful. It’s because the tour operator refuses to hire trained and qualified union boating staff to run the cruises.

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