Travel Log: Christmas in San Francisco

Day 1: Travel

MARC train to Washington DC, Metro to National Airport, walk around terminal wondering where the ATA desk is, walk the entire length of the airport to Old Terminal A, be told that ATA desk isn’t open yet, walk back to Terminal B, eat a too-sweet Cinnabon with a too-flat iced mocha, walk back the length of the airport to Terminal A, confirm reservation, walk through security without a hitch, sit and wait, get on plane, sit at window, take pictures after takeoff, fall asleep.

Wake up, land at Chicago Midway, emerge from plane into a veritable sea of holiday travelers milling about the cramped corridors of Midway airport, go to transfer gate, learn of one-hour delay, go to food court, buy mushroom-emmenthal artopita, hunt around for outlet in airport with too few outlets for too many laptop-bearing travellers, accidentally drop pita on floor at gate, quickly pick up pita and brush off while muttering “Wala pang five seconds,” eat pita, find outlet, plug in laptop, suddenly unplug and stand up again as counter attendant informs passengers of abrupt change of gate to another gate two terminals away, hunt for outlet again, find one at elevator where one cannot sit to use computer, leave laptop in backpack and set beside outlet plugged straight into bag, sit opposite bag to read a book while informing passing security guard that yes, the backpack is mine and no, I am not a terrorist bomber, my laptop is simply charging, wait and read and look at the billowing snow outside until called to board two-hour delayed flight, get on plane, sit at window, take blurry photos of Sears Tower on the horizon before falling asleep.

Wake up, land at San Francisco International, come out with only handcarried luggage, call brother, wait outside terminal. Get picked up, head home to San Mateo. Eat. Talk at length. Fall asleep.

Total travel time from Baltimore to Washington to Chicago to San Francisco: 14 hours.

Day 2: A Wedding

The rains of yesterday have given way to balmy sunshine, and I can don my barong with less fear of a chill. My brother Francis drives me thirty minutes south, to Santa Clara University, in whose church, Mission Santa Clara, my childhood friend Martin is to marry his beloved, Kathleen.

Martin is there, with other friends, some known, some not. Years of separation fade away as old friends exchange smiles and laughs, hugs and handshakes. Many things have changed, but some things never do. It’s good to see them again.

Inside the church, I join the choir. There is some confusion over song sheets and binders, shortly rectified by a few minutes at the photocopier in the rectory. I have thirty minutes to become familiar with a full mass of songs, psalms, and sung responsories. The music is beautiful, all of it, easy to pick up on from the sheets. The wedding itself is a beautiful yet whimsical mass, Martin and Kathleen adoringly exchanging their vows together in a simultaneous “We do!” The songs come out well, and I am enthralled by the accompanying violinist’s proficiency. At the end of it, the newlywed bride sings an aria, accompanied by her groom on the piano. After mass, much picture-taking ensues.

The reception is held at Hyatt Saint Claire, downtown San Jose. My first impression of the city is how small and new it feels; I have grown accustomed to the open skies and historical buildings of Washington, DC. The closer, more modern buildings of San Jose feel almost like a theme park in comparison. From the entrance of Hyatt Saint Claire, I can see the top of Adobe headquarters, and I am reminded of seeing the Matterhorn in Disneyland. But it is much colder here than it would be in Disneyland, especially with me in my barong, so I return inside.

It is a fun night of food, wine, song, and dance, followed by a few hours channel-surfing and talking of various things with Raffy and Jody, old friends from grade school, at Martin and Kathleen’s home. (Minus the happy couple, of course, who spend their wedding night at the hotel.) It is too soon that Francis comes to pick me up and bring me home.

Day 3: Downtown with Raffy

Sunday.

Most of my childhood memories of the city of San Francisco are of a bored, passive life in the suburbs, with only brief, barely-remembered jaunts to tourist attractions in the downtown area. Today, after worship service at Bridgepoint (a fellowship of Bay Area Filipino Christians), Raffy is playing Downtown Tour Guide.

I hitch a ride with Raffy’s friend JJ to worship this morning. We pass through Daly City, and I marvel at how beautiful the view is from Gellert Blvd. On this clear day, South San Francisco is laid out before us, and one can see clear through to the other side of the Bay.

Bridgepoint service is lively and upbeat. Stodgy hymn-singer that I am, charismatic is not my preferred flavor of worship, but I certainly do not begrudge these believers the joy of singing and dancing for the Lord. After service, I join Raffy’s group of friends for lunch at Ongpin, a genuine Filipino restaurant in Daly City. A feast of classic Pinoy dishes is served: sinigang, inihaw na baboy, pakbet, pritong manok (with banana ketchup!), and of course, rice. Afterward, Raffy and I head for the BART station at Colma, and hop on the train to downtown.

The BART works much like any other subway, and one familiar with the DC or NY Metro should have no trouble with the standard ticket machines and turnstiles. This being San Francisco, however, transit prices are somewhat steeper. Trains are fast and relatively quiet. Along the way, Raffy and I catch up on each other’s lives, while South San Francisco, and later the tunnels underneath downtown, rush by outside.

On the MUNI rail carFrom the Embarcadero BART station, we get on a MUNI rail car down the harbor to Pier 39. A rare treat: we have boarded what seems to be a restored historic rail car, wood-paneled interior and all. It is a ten minute ride down the harbor to Pier 39.

I have grown years since I was last here, so Pier 39 is smaller than my childhood memories recall, yet still evoking that same amusement park feel; especially with that large carousel dominating the plaza. There are shops, tourist attractions, and restaurants aplenty, quaintly decorated for that classic San Francisco seaside feel. The far end of the pier opens out to the Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island in clear view. It is a beautiful day.

The water along the west edge of the pier has been populated with floating wood platforms, which native sea lions have taken to lying upon to bask themselves. There are literally hundreds of them on the platforms, most sleeping, some slipping in and out of the water, others fighting or simply barking at the tourists who line the railing to point and take pictures. The Sea Lions at Pier 39; this is not something I remember from my childhood. It is fascinating and funny at the same time.

We walk further down the wharf, through the market stalls and restaurants of Fisherman’s Wharf, past Ghirardelli’s, to the Municipal Pier which arcs out into the Bay. From there, the view is even more gorgeous, and the Golden Gate Bridge is a striking sight in the warm sun.

Raffy points out a one-legged bird, wondering how it turned out that way. He retracts his statement as the bird lowers the leg it had raised. I attempt a phoon, but fail. We take pictures. It’s a great day for it.

We walk back to the MUNI and return to Embarcadero and Market, debating as to whether the Metreon at Moscone Center is within walking distance, or if we should take the BART there, two stations down. We decide to walk, since it is only four blocks away.

It turns out that downtown San Francisco has very large blocks. It’s a long, tiring walk, but we reach Moscone Center, pausing for mochas at the Starbucks overlooking the park before heading inside the cubic building of the Metreon. Inside, it is part shopping mall, part technological showcase, and part cinema. We play Hyperbowl and The Grid in the arcade, browse through Sony accessories and Vaio laptops in the gallery, and watch The Two Towers in the IMAX theater.

After the movie, we walk down to Union Square, which is dominated by a stone pillar commemorating the victory of the American Navy against the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay during the Spanish American war at the close of the 19th Century. I had no idea such a monument existed. We then turn a corner for a hearty Irish dinner of corned beef and cabbage with potatoes at Lefty O’Toole’s; one of the best dinners I’ve ever had, complete with spicy horseradish mustard for the corned beef.

The day is over; we return to the BART, ride back to Colma, and Raffy drops me off at home.

Day 4: Deja Vu

The tourist attractions downtown are fairly rich experiences; I don’t mind visiting them again and again. Which is what I do today, to meet up with Rhesa at Pier 39. But first, Francis shows me around his real estate office in Burlingame. The view from his window is to die for; an expansive sweep of the Bay and the main airport runway, with planes taking off and landing every few minutes. It’s amazing.

BART back to Embarcadero, where I meet up with Rhesa, board the MUNI with her, and return to Pier 39 for a lunch of clam chowder in bread bowls. We walk about the Pier a bit, window-shopping and talking about blogs and bloggers. Too soon, it is time for us to go, so we bid farewell, and I go off to meet up with Martin, Kathleen, and Raffy (the other Raffy) in another part of the pier. Sea lions again, and a browse about the NFL store, then we head back to Metreon, where we eat nachos, play Hyperbowl, and watch The Two Towers. (Second time around for me. I love it.)

Day 5: Christmas Eve in Union City

My brother’s room in San Mateo is small; about as small as my old shared room back in Manila. It suffices, though, and I am perfectly happy to sleep till noon.

Today I head to Union City to meet up with Daniel. We spend the afternoon eating lunch at In-N-Out and browsing Union Landing, talking about life, faith, blogs, and Macs. There is a Jollibee at Union Landing, much to my surprise. $2 for a Champ, however, seems like a lot.

Christmas Eve itself is spent just a few minutes’ walk from the shopping center, where Martin’s mother’s side of the family has gathered. Many minutes are spent watching a Jacky Chan Drunken Master movie and eating immodest quantities of cocktail shrimp. We talk. I take pictures. The pictures later turn out too dark.

Back at home that night, Francis and I fire up our computers and webcams and have a voice-and-video chat with the family back in the Philippines, where it is already Christmas Day. The chat consists largely of “Can you see me?” and “I can’t hear you!”

Day 6: Christmas Day at Golden Gate Park

I have never seen this side of the Pacific Ocean. It is a cold, gray, windy Christmas day, and a gray, choppy Pacific batters the muddy beach with huge waves. Surfers are out in force by the dozen. The sand is smooth and dark, colored with streaks of copper and blue.

Across the road from the beach is Golden Gate Park. The wooded rectangle of land is smaller than the city maps make it out to be, and the demarcation between park and city is startlingly abrupt; one moment it is the colorful sloped houses of downtown, the next it is forest. We cross the road now, leaving the Pacific Ocean behind us, and wander about Golden Gate Park for the rest of the afternoon.

Golden Gate ParkThere are many treasures hidden among the trees: lakes and streams crossed by quaint stone bridges, little islands with waterfalls and steps up to beautiful panoramic views, paths through woods strewn with leaves, two whole windmills which seem to be there for no reason other than decoration, even horseback riding in season. It is settling and peaceful to walk about, speaking with my brother of life and work and Star Trek.

It gets dark early, and we head home.

Day 7: Nemesis

My last day in San Francisco presents an unexpected opportunity: there is time enough to go back to Metreon and watch Star Trek: Nemesis. Francis and I proceed downtown and make it so. It makes great science fiction, but unimpressive Star Trek.

After the movie and a few games of Hyperbowl, we return home to load my bags, then round a corner to his coworker’s home, where we feast on a post-Christmas dinner of kare-kare before heading to the airport.

After exchanging goodbyes at the terminal, I enter the airport, go through security (they go over my shoes and laptop twice), and wait for the plane at the gate. Once aboard, I fall asleep, and do not wake up till landing in Washington the next day, where I promptly disembark, get on the subway, and head straight to work.

And yes, I made sure to pack my heart before leaving.

Cable car tracks