Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Alcatraz... the bare, windswept rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay where maximum-security prisoners were kept, the sight and sounds of the city so tantilisingly close!

On Sunday we did the "night tour" of Alcatraz, along with Ida, who is currently visiting us from NZ. It was very foggy and cold...

On the boat, Alcatraz loomed out of the mist. Foghorns blared somewhere in the distance. In the fog and the cold and the wind, this is a very desolate place. One can imagine very well how the prisoners might have felt upon arriving here!

We arrived at the island and stood at the dock. A sign left over from the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz was visible above us:

The guide stood underneath the sign and talked about how there would be four hills to climb on the island, scaring some people into catching the golf carts reserved for disabled tour members. The 'hills' were actually one small slope. I reminded myself that San Franciscans might be used to walking up hills, but most of America isn't. And tour visitors seem to be part of the second group.

We walked up through the Civil War-era fort, I think it's called a sally-port or something. There was a cannon still inside. One purpose for the big doors seems to be so that you can fire the cannon through the space! The small slits on each side are for people to fire rifles through.

Here is the outside of the fort:

Finally, we got to the main prison. Here are the showers and laundry area (laundry was done by prisoners):

We also played the "spot the San Francisco-labelled jackets" game, which signifies the wearer is a tourist visiting San Francisco. They have bought the aforementioned jacket or hoodie from one of the many shops in Chinatown or Fisherman's Wharf hawking cheap clothing, when they realised (almost immediately!) that San Francisco weather is NOT like the rest of California weather.

Here are the winners. They're all wearing the jackets. They thought I was taking a photo of the urinal behind them.

Then, each person was given a set of headphones and a little electronic player, and we all set off on our own "self-guided tour" of the prison. The audio commentary was very good, directing us around each part of the prison. Using samples from interviews with ex-prisoners, prison guards and other people associated with the island during that time, it told stories of famous people and events there (including an infamous hostage shootout), and gave a really good sense of what life must have been like.

Here is one of the cells where there was a famous escape. The men used hard steel spoons to scrape away the crumbling concrete by the vents, and escaped from the vents onto the roof. They created paper mache heads with hair made from paintbrushes, so the guards initially thought they were sleeping. While one of them eventually swam all the way to San Francisco against the tide (for a total of 7 miles!), he was picked up again when someone found him with severe hypothermia on the rocks by the beach, wearing only a pair of socks!

There are 3 rows of cells stacked on top of each other along each side. Each cell contains a tiny (fold-up?) chair and table, two shelves, a mattress, sink and a toilet. It feels very cramped.

Here I am in the isolation ward, where people who misbehaved were put. The cells on the bottom right were called 'The Hole'. Prisoners were put into them for a few days as punishment. The doors were closed, and it was pitch black. One former prisoner on the audio tour described how he would toss a button around and try to find it, to keep himself sane. I couldn't walk into them. I tried a few times. It felt too wrong, like hitting an invisible brick wall.

These isolation cells are actually a lot bigger than the normal cells. (If you click on the picture to make it larger, you can read the little informational board with the illustrations.)

The tour ended with a demonstration of the clanging cell doors. The tour guide told the story of one prisoner who got so fed up with hearing the sound all day, that he escaped! He spent three days hiding in an icy cave with water up to his chest, until he gave up and broke back in to Alcatraz, falling asleep in his cell by the heater!

Overall it was a really interesting tour - and the mist made for a great atmosphere!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gorgeous sunsets....

Pretty pictures of last night's sunset from the roof... click on the picture for a larger image.

It was warm yesterday, and it's even hotter today, which is really unusual for San Francisco! The evening was gorgeous, and topped off by a random fireworks show. I absolutely love these pictures.

Another "boot"....

So yesterday, because I'm somewhat paranoid at this point, I went and checked on both our cars. And, yes, once again, we have what is colloquially referred to here as a "boot" - another "Please move your car in 3 days or we will tow it!" notice. Luckily they only posted it two days ago, so we have to move it today. I guess it's just too conspicuous - the traffic cops are after us!

We've been trying to find a garage which can handle the over-sized height, with no luck so far. We need to get a couple of things repaired.

Here are the latest renovations: cupboards primed and painted!

Unfortunately we also covered every flat surface in a cloud of spraypaint, so we're going to have to use paint stripper on the floor.... and repaint the larger cupboard, since it dried a bit blotchy.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fat Kiwi renovations

Renovations on the Fat Kiwi are progressing slowly, in fits and starts, but at least it's progressing. Today I had a day off work (since I don't currently get a Saturday), so I took the bus down to the other side of town, after calling around all the paint shops, to find some blue spray paint for the interior.

We're very lucky where we live - a major bus route goes up the street perpendicular to ours, and down the street below. So what might have been a huge mission involving many buses, only needed me to walk about 100m to the bus stop on the street to the left, and another 50m up the hill to our house when I got off. In San Francisco, this is unusual. Plus, I got to see streets in San Francisco I normally don't see.

(This lady is walking her two small dogs in the pram. I kid you not.)

So I went down on the cable car to take off all the cupboards, and promptly got back on the next cable car when I realised I'd forgotten the keys. Oops.

I got strange looks on the cable car carrying a drawer and several small cupboard doors. I could barely move because the number of tourists increased dramatically between 2.30pm and 3.30 pm, and I underestimated the amount of personal space that would be available.

Here is the current 'look" of the van:

The last major work was painting the side panels - newspaper is about to come off. It has improved the look immensely already!

The stove has been painted with clear gloss on top of the white, to keep it clean. Unfortunately the opposite has happened, and the gloss is full of sealed-in dust. Ick. At least it looks clean from this distance.

So, we have bought new door handles, and all the doors are off their hinges and have had their handles removed. Tonight I'm borrowing a sewing machine from a friend to finish off the curtains since the "no-sew" webbing didn't work so well. We're also hoping to sand and paint some of the cupboards tonight. Wish us luck!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The first "Fat Kiwi" story.... our van is too ugly for Nob Hill

Yesterday, I was walking home from checking on our other car, parked out of sight around the corner (so I'm paranoid, and with good reason!) when I noticed a police car parked in the middle of our street. I had this weird feeling that they were looking at our car, so I went and asked. Turns out, they were. Some old lady complained that it had been there for two weeks, and that she couldn't see around the corner, and so she called the police!

So apparently there's this bylaw that you're supposed to move your car every 3 days, but I don't know how much it's enforced. So they were going to tow it away in 3 days!

Feeling extremely lucky that I happened to run into the two policemen, I went inside. That night there was a knock on our door, and a different policeman was standing there, to tell us about our car. I still think it's because the van's just too ugly for the snobby Nob Hill residents in the two apartments opposite us. Which is incredibly funny, for some reason.

So today I called AAA to get the battery started since it went flat, and we couldn't move it for street cleaning (hello parking ticket!) The AAA guy and I were trying to get the bonnet open with fingers and screwdrivers. An old lady drove up in her flash BMW or whatever, and proceeded to give me a huge lecture about how she was the one who had called the police, and how we were totally irresponsible for parking it on the corner and how her grandkids were that age or something. Heinous old woman. I tried to explain that, well, we were moving it, but she was completely and utterly rude, and I couldn't get a word in edgeways.

It took us a veeeery long time to find a park on a street where we could park perpendicular, since the handbrake is dodgy. It's really far away - I'll have to take the cable car just to work on it.