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Thursday 31 Oct 2013
San Francisco, USA

Well, look at that. I'm 35.

I woke up this morning to find myself sprinkled in birthday confetti and gold ribbons.  Ailsa had been up to no good before I woke up and had covered me, the room and even the bathroom in birthday decorations.  Aw, thanks mate!  I had a couple of cards to open (thanks Mum and Dad) and Ailsa had bought me a lovely sparkly pink and silver bracelet.  I still love birthdays, but this was the first one where I'd felt less than enthusiastic about my age.  Having Ailsa there snapped me out of it and reminded me we were in San Francisco and going to visit Alcatraz!

We had an enormous breakfast at the Hollywood diner and walked down to pier 33, where we managed to catch an earlier ferry over to Alcatraz.  I'm so glad the government sorted things out before my birthday as this was one visit I'd have been very sorry to miss.  We had a great view of the Bay Bridge and the SF skyline from the boat and were greeted on the island by one of the volunteer guides.  We followed him slowly up the hill as he told us the history of the island.  It was made into a fort in the 1850s, one of three intended to defend the bay area once gold had been discovered.  Thousands of ships arrived and many were then abandonned in the rush to find gold, but there was no military invasion, as feared. 

The fort included one of the first military prisons - an early precursor to Guantanamo Bay - housing civil war prisoners from the 1860s.  The military eventually moved out and in 1934 a Federal Penitentiary opened on the site.  Over the next 29 years, it housed over 1500 of the country's most dangerous and disturbed prisoners, including the infamous Al Capone, George 'Machine gun' Kelly and Robert Franklin Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. The prison was said to be inescapable and, although 36 men tried, nobody ever made it successfully off the island.  The possible exceptions to this were three escapees in 1962.  They spent a year using spoons to carve tunnels out of the back walls of their cells.  On the night in question, they crawled through into the service cavity, climbed up pipes to the roof and then clambered down the outside, where they assembled an inflatable raft out of raincoats and contact cement.  They have never been found, begging the question of whether they actually escaped or drowned in the process.  The story of their escape is remarkably similar to that of Andy Dufresne in Stephen King's 'The Shawshank Redemption'.  Walking around the prison, it is easy to see where King got his inspiration.  The audio guides to the prison tour are narrated by former prisoners and guards, which definitely adds to the atmosphere.  Despite being packed full of tourists, the audio guide still makes the prison feel cold and isolated, especially looking at (and standing in) the solitary confinement cells.  Robert Stroud spent almost his entire sentence in solitary confinement, so it is hardly surprising he went insane.

In one of the other buildings on the island, a half derelict exercise hall, they had an exhibition of photographs taken on Alcatraz's last day as a Federal Penitentiary.  These were commissioned by Life magazine, but never used and remained unseen in the photographer's archives for almost 50 years.  They only came to light when his son was sorting through his late father's estate.  It was quite eerie to see the buildings standing empty as the prisoners filed down the hill, watched by the last warden.  

Following the closure of the prison, the island was occupied for a couple of years by a number of American Indians of different tribes with the intention of founding an education and cultural centre.  This too came to an end and the island was left empty again, this time for nearly 40 years.  The derelict island was eventually restored as a National Monument and opened to the public.  Every year, American Indians hold a special service on the island on Columbus and Thanksgiving Days.  This year, the island was closed on Columbus Day as part of the Government Shutdown, which caused a lot of upset.  They held demonstrations on the Embarcadero instead.

After our tour of Alcatraz, Ailsa and I headed back to Pier 39 for a very touristy wander through the shops and a birthday lunch in Bubba Gump's Shrip Factory.  Ailsa told them it was my birthday and i had to stand up while all the staff sang a birthday song at me - very embarrassing, Ailsa thought it was hilarious - but I was rewarded with a free ice cream, so it wasn't all bad.  After lunch we watched the crazy sealions on their platforms next to the Pier.  There must have been at least a hundred of them, sleeping, twitching, barking, clambering over each other and pushing each other off to try and claim a whole platform to themselves.  It was very funny to watch and see such human characteristics in these creatures.

We went to see the bread making at the Sourdough factory but got diverted into their bar for Happy Hour instead (as this got us free entry into the museum).  A dozen oysters (Ailsa) and a few cocktails later and we got to watch the sourdough being mixed and tipped over the edge into the funnel below, where it was squeezed out, chopped and rolled into small round loaves by a very clever spiral conveyor belt.  Fun to watch, but still too glutenous for me to eat :o(

We finished the day with a walk along the wharf to our hotel and a nice chilled out evening.  It may not be rock'n'roll, but it was perfect.


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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #1 America

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    San Francisco