Special guest post by Andrew!!
Small and large are great themes in America, not least feeling very small beneath the very large Golden (well, orange) Gate Bridge. I’ve always wanted to travel to the USA, though I’m not entirely sure why. Aged 12-13 I walked into a travel agent at my local shopping mall and asked for all the glossy brochures of America they had. I still remember flipping through them, sitting in the car on the way home, absorbed by their images.
Images not of the basketball players I idolised, or of the American history I was beginning to learn, but of the landscape. From the wild deserts to the glistening blue lakes and the gleaming glass skyscrapers. It seems odd, given I come from a country almost the same size as America, and yet this northern continent has always seemed more vast and more enticing. The best explanation I’ve come up with, for my enduring fascination with America is the intrigue of small differences. This is a land so like Australia (we even caught some shade beneath some Eucalyptus trees yesterday), and yet so different.
To some people, the greater the difference, the greater the interest. They seek out remote jungles in Asia and ancient refinement in cosmopolitan Europe, all in a bid to escape the small world of their Australian home. I’ve been to, and loved such places, but the differences are too big, the gaps too large for me to truly appreciate. Instead, I prefer the magnitude of small differences, the slight shifts in how life occurs, the differences that tell you see how two societies have split, like alternate universes but for one choice, or slight difference of landscape or attitude. And so, on Tuesday we took to the water, seeking a bit of distance, but not too much, to appreciate this city, and its famous bay.
First, we traveled to Angel Island, a former military and immigration barracks. It served its time as a watchtower for confederate ships during the Civil War (none arrived), and for Asia-Pacific migrants after WWII (when great masses arrived)
The latter, had great resonance for Katina and I, given the stories of discriminatory migration, with whites passing through in mere hours while the Chinese migrants who also sought the land of the free were detained for months or, occasionally, years. They faced barrages of tests, 300, 400 questions long, designed to trip them up (probably not given in Welsh though). And, when faced with any such discrimination, people found ways around it. Those behind the bars scribbled poems on the walls to help relieve their suffering, while the chinese cooks and workers, hired to help manage this island prison, smuggled in cheat sheets and organised familial links to help those seeking entry prove their cause.
After another bracingly cold ferry ride across the bay (it might be summer, but it has a spring/autumn feel to us), we arrived at another prison, the famous Alcatraz – the Spanish name for large bird. While most of its history is as a military base, and now as a tourist attraction receiving over 1 million people a year, the stories we all came for were from the years 1933-1963, when it was a federal penitentiary. Perhaps another explanation for my fascination with America can be found here, for my understanding of this place was shaped by movies. Not only those charting the famous escape attempt, but also as a backdrop for the 1990s action movie The Rock. While walking past the cells provided that enjoyable sense of deja vu, looking at such a familiar scene up close, I experienced the same thrill seeing random staircases and walkways I remembered from the latter Hollywood film.
We toured the prison in two ways, a volunteer’s walking tour provided some of the back history, and an audio tape gave us the voices, stories and clamour of the jail in operation. Though only showing you a small section of the total cells and buildings, it was well designed and cleverly presented.
We ended the day down by the small, coastal town of Sausalito, with a fine French-inspired dinner with some friends of a relative who had graciously agreed to show us around this city that one had called home for most of her early life. After a full day of seeing San Francisco from afar and up close, it is a place that feels so similar, and yet also so very different. It’s a beautiful city, of Melbourne-like coffee shops, but based on a Sydney-like harbour. It’s so similar and yet so enjoyably different. That, I guess is the fascination of this trip, the magnitude of small differences.