Riding a cable car in San Francisco

The cable cars in San Francisco are cute in the best kind of way.

Written on 23 January 2019

You haven’t been to San Francisco if you haven’t taken a ride on a cable car.

The cable cars are cute and old fashioned in the best kind of way.

San Francisco is a beautiful hilly and neatly packed city. It is a big magical city with a small-town feel.

I was travelling solo in Los Angeles and for $80 on an American Airline flight, I flew to San Francisco to explore the city.

It’s pretty cool that most city attractions are within reach for exploring so you don’t have to go too far. Riding a cable car is a great and cheap way to see many site attractions. They go near most of the popular destinations, especially Union Square, China Town, Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.

I googled my way to Market Street one morning to ride a cable car just, so I can say ‘I’ve taken a ride on a cable car in San Francisco’.

It isn’t difficult to locate the start or end of the cable car lines – look for the long line of tourists! The official way to ride a cable car is to join the queue at the start or end of the line. The main turning point is at Market turntable (beginning and end of the line).

These iconic San Francisco cable cars have been in all sorts of movies and photographs so it’s no wonder tourists line up for their chance to take a little cable car halfway to the stars!

The way cable cars work in San Francisco is quite remarkable. In fact, the San Francisco cable car system is the world’s last manually operated cable car system and has become an icon of San Francisco.

I paid $7 for one-way cable ticket on the Powell-Hyde line that would take me up (and up) and over Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Three cable car lines run through San Francisco – the Powell-Mason line, Powell-Hyde line and California line.

Cable cars have no engine or motor on the car themselves. The power source is centralised in the cable car barn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason Streets (also home to the Cable Car Museum). There, powerful electric motors (originally a stationary steam-powered engine) drive giant winding wheels that pull cables through a trench beneath the street, centred under the cable car tracks (that’s what’s in the slots between the tracks).

Street entertainers kept the atmosphere alive while we waited for our turn to ride the cable cars.

A young girl, about twelve years old and her dad were in front of me in the line and told me they had been waiting in the line for more than 45 mins. I thought I heard an Australian accent and I asked where they were visiting from. “We come from Queensland, Australia, “he said. He asked me if I was a local. I laughed. “I come from PNG not far from Queensland,” I said.

“So do you support the Blues or Maroons?” he asked almost immediately. “Neither. I’m not big on rugby league but I love and follow rugby union particularly rugby sevens,” I answered.

Who in Papua New Guinea came up with the notion that rugby league is the country’s national sport? It is not the national sport, in my opinion. Each region and province have their own favourite sport. Many people from Morobe and Milne Bay enjoy soccer, New Guinea Islanders generally love softball and have turned it into a family sport and cricket is enjoyed by most in Central Province. Not everyone plays and enjoy rugby league. Individual sports bring families and tribes together in the spirit of their favourite sport. Rugby league leads perhaps because of the huge government and corporate backing.

We chatted some more and took videos and photos of the cable cars arriving and turning around.

It was interesting to watch the conductor and grip operator literally turn the cable car around, so it can head back in the other direction!

When single-end cable cars reach the ends of the line, they are turned around on giant turntables. The cables under the street revers separately, away from the turntable, wrapping around a large wheel in an underground bunker called a ‘sheave pit’.

Cable cars can hold up to at least 60 or more passengers, half of them seated. The people riding on the outside of the cable car can see everything while those seated enjoy a pleasant experience but have to peek around the hangers-on.

I took the ride hanging on the outside and got my camera and phone ready to take photos and videos.

“If you’re carrying back packs, turn your bags around to the front,” announced the conductor as we got ready for take-off. And with the cheery ringing of cable car bells, we began the climb up the steep hill.

Each cable car has a staff of two. The conductor sells tickets and looks after passengers. The grip person runs the car, connecting it to the cable to move and disconnecting before applying the brakes. Along with all that, the grip person is also the bell-ringer, signalling a car’s approach. The way they work is almost as interesting as the ride itself.

I think the Powell-Hyde line that I was on has the most stunning views of all three lines. Though they all start at the same place, they end up at different areas of the city.

My ride climbed up Nob Hill and through parts of China Town. As we drove through China Town, all I could think of was the movie Pursuit of Happyness that Will Smith and his son Jaden took starring roles in. The story is set and filmed in San Francisco. The misspelling in the title stems from a mural on the wall outside (Christopher) Jaden’s day care centre in China Town.

We went down Hyde Street on Russian Hill and the conductor announced our arrival at Lombard Street (the world’s crookedest street). Lombard Street is famous for its steep, one-block section with eight hairpin turns. Tourists jumped off the cable car to take pictures then we headed downhill.

On the final descent to Fisherman’s Wharf, we were treated to spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay (or the Bay as it is famously known) and Alcatraz Island.

According to history, Alcatraz was one of the world’s most notorious and best-known prisons over the years that housed some 1,576 of America’s most ruthless criminals. It was closed down after 29 years of operation. Alcatraz is a rocky island and the deep waters surrounded by sharks, it seemed impossible for prisoners to escape by swimming.

This does not mean however that prisoners did not try to escape. According to history books, of the 36 inmates who staged 14 escape attempts over the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, 23 were recaptured, six were shot and killed, two drowned and five are listed as ‘missing and presumed drowned’.

Movies have since been filmed on Alcatraz Island after the prison was shutdown, Point Blank being the first. Other movies include The Rock, Escape from Alcatraz and Murder in the First.

My ride ended near Fisherman’s Wharf, near the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The park offers sights and stories of Pacific Coast maritime history that includes a fleet of historic vessels, a visitor centre, a maritime museum and a library.

I hopped off the cable car and wandered through the park. An old man was playing the accordion and drew a small crowd.

A large “Ghirardelli Square’ sign sat at the top end of the park. It’s easier spelling ‘Ghirardelli’ than trying to pronounce the Italian word! Ghirardelli is synonymous with delicious, high quality chocolate. It’s a place to explore American history – the chocolate way.

According to Uncle Google, in 1852, chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli moved his company to four different locations before settling on North Point Street or what is now known as Ghirardelli Square. Although the original factory was sold and transferred elsewhere in the 1960s, a group of San Franciscans who were eager to preserve the historic factory purchased the property and made the square what it is today – a fabulous hodgepodge of great restaurants, one-of-a-kind shops and mouth-watering chocolate.

The Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop in the Clock Tower building pays homage to the original factory by giving visitors a first-hand view of chocolate manufacturing equipment. After you enjoy creamy, San Francisco-themed sundaes such as “The Ocean Beach Sea Salt Caramel Sundae” or “The Golden Gate Banana Split”, one can read the placards around the square—they tell the story of the factory, how it came to be, and its importance in San Francisco history. It’s not every day you have an excuse to eat chocolate at 9am, but when you’re in Ghirardelli Square, the enticing smells and rich history are reason enough to satisfy your sweet tooth all day long.

I could imagine how lovely it must be for chocolate lovers to take a whiff of rich, world-class chocolate while enjoying the perfectly salty breeze of the San Francisco Bay, I thought to myself as I took a slow walk along the beach. I could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, half immersed in the fog.

It was a bit chilly. San Francisco’s weather is strongly influenced by the cool currents of the Pacific Ocean and most times, it is foggy and cold. The fog, caused by icy Pacific water meeting warmer air, is cold and damp often blown in on a chilly ocean breeze.

I strolled to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s most famous waterfront community. It is a very popular tourist attraction that I’m pretty sure locals avoid it like the plague. I was tempted to have seafood at one of the many cute restaurants that lined up the seaside but there were just too many people.

I kept walking. There was another place I wanted to see that San Francisco is well known for. Near Pier 39 I found the place that sold the best and famous sourdough bread – Boudin Bakery.

I walked past the bakery and peered through the glasses with many other tourists to see the different shapes and sizes of sourdough bread created by the bakery.

San Francisco is a clear winner in the sourdough bread department. It’s interesting why San Francisco sourdough bread is the best in the world and tastes better.

Different bacteria make different sour flavours. Many people say San Francisco’s weather is awash in local bacteria species that make its sourdough bread famous! San Francisco is widely regarded as the mecca of sour-style bread.

My legs were getting tired. I opened up a map of San Francisco that I had picked up at the information booth at the airport earlier, and looking as touristy as possible, I looked for directions to where I could flag down a cable car to take me to where I was staying.

Memories of Christmases gone by ..

Written on 31 October 2018

The German nuns at the boarding house made the most delicious creamy rice pudding.

When Christmas rolled around, we sang ‘O Tannenbaum’ (O Christmas tree) and paraded into the boarding house in a slow sequence with huge smiles and candles alit. The large boarding house would have been scrubbed clean, a lofty Christmas tree with gifts for all and the large dining table laden with yummy Christmas food, snacks and buckets of iced homemade fruity cordial would greet us we entered the large wooden doors.

The boarding house catered for 30 girls each year who opted to board at the mission international school. There were about 250 school kids in the whole school.

I remember singing the opening line ‘O Tannenbaum, o tannenbaum’ loudly with confidence and quickly turned down the volume a couple of notches as I struggled to sing the next lines in German:

‘Wie true sind deine Blatter!

Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!

I watched the German nuns ride off on their bikes in the mornings to the mission hospital where they worked. My little mind often wondered why they did not smile often when they were in fact saving lives at the hospital. The tinkling of bicycle bells in the afternoon indicated their return, and they would ride past us as we were weeding flower and vegetable garden patches after school.

At seven on the dot each evening without fail, our school principal, an American nun from Pennsylvania, would come by the boarding house to check on our homework. We read aloud to Sister Bernadette and if we mis-pronounced a word, we had to look up the word and put the word in a sentence until we understood the definition and how to correctly pronounce the word.

Smudges of erasing pencil writing and messy hand writing were not tolerated. Everything had to be neat and perfect! She taught us how to darn our socks and to use baking soda to keep white clothes white. We made our own energy drinks for sports carnivals too.

Bits and bobs of German and American influence were manifested in little ways in the boarding home.

An Australian nun from Melbourne, Sr Mary Gertrude, supervised the boarding house and taught us how to play the piano and the guitar. In the evenings, she’d sit on the patio while we were doing our homework and she would play the accordion. The beautiful music would float beyond the hills of the Catholic mission in Vunapope, Kokopo – East New Britain Province.

The nuns taught us values of life and skills that took us beyond after we left the boarding house.

Looking back, I still remember the magical feeling of Christmas.

Our favourite time of the year was Christmas – more so because for boarders, we had more than one celebration – one with our classes, one with the school and one at the boarding house. And that meant many gifts!

At school, we ended the academic year with a week of Christmas festivities.

We would have the boarding house Christmas party a week before the school party.

Someone (often the chubbiest girl) would dress up as Santa and we’d all get dressed up and help ‘Santa’ carry the sack of gifts around the mission singing Christmas carols after dinner in the evening.

The mission is set on rolling green hills. Neat rows of daisies and roses of all colours, marigold and ferns adorned the white picket fence near the boarding house. A bridge connected one part of the mission to the church, the shoemaker and the priest’s monastery.

We would deliver gifts to the sick children at the hospital, nurses, priests and nuns at the convents.

On one of these Christmas rounds, ‘Santa’ climbed through the open window at the FMI Sisters’ convent to deliver gifts. We forgot they had a dog. The dog chased ‘Santa’ and the Christmas carol singing turned into shrieks and squeals. The nuns came running out and had all of us including the nuns in stitches. It was hilarious.

Giving at Christmas was a traditional custom at the boarding house that we grew up in.

On the last week of school, the whole school would watch a Christmas tape on the VCR after lunch in the library.

“Bah! Humbug!“ some kids would tease each other after we watched Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

All the school kids would wear their play clothes to school to do a major cleanup, scrubbing floors and wiping down windows, chairs, desks and shelves. The whole school cooled off with ice cream or ice blocks after the cleanup.

The night after, the school would host a Christmas pageant for our parents and families in the evening. Each year’s presentation of the Nativity Scene would be in a different style and theme. I recall one Christmas, we did a shadow play, enacting the Nativity scene behind a white curtain. We used flood lights to cast a shadow behind the curtains. It was so creative and such a beautiful play. On the night, class prizes were also given out to students.

On the last day of school, the smell of warm Christmas food, fruits and dessert would fill the room partitioned by a sliding door to the library. All classes would cross over to the library after lunch in single file lines and we’d all open our Christmas gifts. The teachers took their time to carefully choose our gifts, it was a joy unwrapping our gifts.

When the bell rang to go home, we would all run out of the classrooms and leave the school grounds excitedly. I enjoyed the Christmas holidays. The days seemed long and were filled with fun, family and food.

I look back with a sense of nostalgia for good times long gone.

A festival that conserves

The Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival is a smorgasbord of traditional rich culture & other activities that promote sustainable tourism. 

Written on 31 October 2018

Take the path less travelled sometimes.

Travelling is a fun way to learn new things. An experience off the beaten path in Papua New Guinea can offer deeper, richer and more fulfilling appreciation of our traditions and cultures that makes PNG so unique.

The Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival is like no other – it is a smorgasbord of traditional cultural dancing in all its authentic glory and an array of activities that range from bird watching to legend storytelling.

The kundu is used all over Papua New Guinea in traditional song and dance and I often wondered why the Kutubu kundu was different so as to have a festival named after it.

A kundu is a general name used for an hour-glass shaped drum. Parchment of dried snake or large lizard skin is stretched over the two hollowed ends to produce sound when it is beat.

Sheer curiosity prompted the Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival to be on my ‘to do’ list. I decided to get away from the dusty and hot Port Moresby and bask in the glorious beauty of the rich culture of the people of Kutubu.

Kutubu, in the Southern Highlands Province, is geographically diverse. It is warmer than the rest of the Southern Highlands Province and rainfall is frequent. Kutubu borders the Gulf Province to the south and the variation in the vegetation is testament to this change in altitude. Even coconuts grow here.

It is a region that is rich in minerals such as crude oil and natural gas. The companies who have operations in the vicinity provide most of the funding support to host the annual event.

The Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival also features the biodiversity and ecological significance of Lake Kutubu.

Lake Kutubu is PNG’s highest freshwater lake at 800 metres above sea level and is the second largest lake in PNG after Lake Murray in the Western Province.

The lake is home to a variety of species of flora and fauna and in 1992, an area of 24,000 hectares was gazetted as a Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

I learnt from pamphlets at the Lake Kutubu Wildlife Management stall that Lake Kutubu is part of the Kikori River Basin, into which it eventually drains and is one of the most biologically rich areas in PNG. For example, the basin consists of over 2,000 moth species, over 200 butterfly species, more than 100 freshwater fish species, around 250 bird species, more than 60 species of frogs and 103 mammal species have been found to live in the area (D’cruz 2008).

The lake is beautiful. The reflection of the blue skies on the calm waters fusions with the greenery of the wetlands, creating a backdrop for Instagram-worthy photos.

A lodge is perched on one of the islands in the middle of the lake. I could see myself returning to the lodge someday, turning off my phone and shutting down from the rest of the world for a week while I recharge the battery and rest. Tubo Lodge overlooks the majestic lake and other smaller islands.

The sunshine shone warmly on the first day of the festival.

The chanting and feet stomping of warrior dancers clad in black and white face paint, armed with stone axes coalesced easily with the rattle shakers and soft singing voices of the women dancing in a straight line.

The people take pride in show casing their culture. The dancing groups from Mt Bosavi had walked for two days following a bush track to get to the festival.

A small hut purposely built near the arena served traditionally prepared lunch of pork, sweet potatoes and bananas cooked in underground ovens of hot stones (mumu). Platters of watermelon and pineapple and cold mountain water stored in thin bamboo provided water for drinking while a stack of neatly packed leaves served as plates.

Creations of tapa (stretched and beaten parchment of tree bark) painted in checked hues of brown, orange and yellow bush paint were prominently worn by the women from villages near Lake Kutubu. Tiered necklaces of red and white-greyish seeds from the forest and bilum (hand woven bags created from twisted bark of trees) accessorised the rest of the look. They performed the rattle shaking dance and sang ritual songs of mourning.

I loved the vivid colours and patterns and I felt a sense of pride being a PNG woman.

Traditionally, our PNG women had been slaying their intricate designs, colours and styles for generations before the runway was invented.

The singing and dancing of women dancers from Hegeso told stories of the tedious beating of sago palm pith that begins the process of extracting flour-like starchy sago.

The men from Ibutaba and Fiwaga danced the fish tail kundu dance. The dance featured one of the Kutubu kundu drums – the fish tail kundu. One end of the kundu is hollowed out while the other is carved in the shape of a fish tail, representing fish found in Lake Kutubu. After each song and dance, the fish-tail kundu is put over the heat of a small fire as if to tune it. I have never seen a fish-tail kundu before.

The second type of Kutubu kundu is the short headed kundu drum. This kundu is hollowed out on both ends and is shorter than the fish tail kundu. This type of kundu is typically found in the New Guinea Islands where I come from and other parts of the country.

Held over three days, the festival is gradually becoming a photographers’ mecca for the growing number of tourists who are treated to an authentic display of traditional culture and unique flora and fauna of Lake Kutubu.

Held annually in mid-September, tourists and visitors travel by road from Mendi or Tari to Pimaga government station and stay at a lodge in Daga village, a stone’s throw away from the main arena where the festivities takes place or in homestays with the local community. I stayed at a homestay in Daga and the local people were very friendly. The lodge was abuzz that night with happy tourists as they retold the day’s events.

“We have never seen anything like this (Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival) and we’ve travelled quite a fair bit around the world. This is so much fun and there is so much authenticity,” said one.

The excited tourists finally when to sleep when the last glow on the ember flickered and died at 3 am.

Day two of the festival began with more dancing and singing by the different groups. This gave tourists and photographers another chance at taking any photos they missed the previous day. Several string bands also performed some numbers. Before lunch time, a demonstration on the process of producing sago was displayed near a creek.

A short play illustrating the healing benefits of the digaso oil ended the day at lunch time. The thick oil has a suffocating stenchy smell and is extracted from the digaso tree. For the Kutubu people, the digaso tree oil has a long history for treating wounds and is usually the go-to first aid.

A range of fun activities was the order of the third day at the festival. Tourists and visitors could choose from a range of activities such as visit the skull cave at the lakeside, a tour to the local orchid farms and bird watching. Bird watching has proven to be popular, I was told – where a Bird of Paradise in the wild could present itself.

Other activities included bush trekking near the ridge at Tubo lodge, canoeing on the lake, a barbecue at Ibugesa Island (one of the island villages in the middle of the lake) and visits to the long men’s houses and women’s houses.

A canoe race on Lake Kutubu between men and women’s teams clad in traditional attire, ended the festival.

The Kutubu Kundu and Digaso Festival is quite different from other cultural shows in PNG because it also promotes sustainable tourism.

Solo travel to California

Venice vibes! The famous Venice sign in California.

Written on 12 December 2018

Everyone needs a pit-stop every now and then – to rejuvenate, refresh and recharge the batteries.

It was a bright sunny day in Port Moresby and I had a warm fuzzy feeling about me – a tingly feeling that I was about to escape temporarily from the 9-5 rat race and travel solo to California. I packed my essentials in a bag. The trustworthy sky blue Caribbee that had travelled with me everywhere had been nibbled on by bandicoot-size rats at 5 Mile in Port Moresby.

The plan was to buy a new suitcase in Brisbane, Australia. I thought I’d go easy on myself and buy a new suitcase in a city where I was more familiar with versus coping with being overwhelmed as a first-time solo traveler and attempting to locate a shop that sold suitcases in a city as large as Los Angeles.

Port Moresby disappeared beneath me as the plane soared over the Coral Sea to Brisbane. I put my face against the window on the Qantas aircraft and let the afternoon sun rays dance on my face as I closed my eyes.

The two days stay in Brisbane began each day with an early morning run and then slow walks to book stores after a long bath and brunch. I love reading books and it had been a very long while since I had read a good book. I missed reading a good book, turning over each leaf in anticipation as Danielle Steele or John Grisham took me on an adventure.

The books and a cup of latte kept me company at the Brisbane International Airport as I waited for QF 15 to take me from BNE to LAX direct.

In front of me, a sports team of young kids were chatting excitedly. “I can’t wait to go home to a long shower. A California shower,” said one girl. Some more kids were taking photos with someone who from afar seemed like a celebrity. I took a closer look. It was Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon fame. “Funny we meet him for the first time for a photo and it’s not in America,” chuckled one of the kids. I quickly googled to see what Danny Glover was doing in Brisbane. One headline read “Lethal Weapon Star catches footy match amid union campaign’ while another, “Unions recruit Danny Glover as lethal weapon in work rules campaign’.

Super excited, I stayed awake throughout the 13-hour flight. “We will begin the decent to Los Angeles in 10 minutes. It’s a cloudy day today, 28 degrees out. Welcome to Los Angeles, ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot announced. I looked at my watch. It was 10:40 pm in PNG.

I spent a few days in Los Angeles. I filled the days sipping fresh watermelon juice at the Olvera Street Market in downtown LA (a hanging ceramic string of garlic, capsicums, onions and chilli decorative piece of Mexican inspiration, now hangs in my kitchen to mark the moment), shopped at Third Street Promenade, visited Hollywood, hiked the Runyon Canyon, went on location to Dodger Stadium where in the beginning of Fast and Furious, Brian O’Conner (late Paul Walker) tests out his racing skills with the downtown LA skyline in the background. Brian returns with the rest of the ‘familia’ in Furious 7 as they discuss how to take down Jakande on their own turf. I took so many photos.

I liked the service rendered to my friend and I at the Hard Rock Café in Hollywood where we had lunch. “Hi my name is Steve and I’ll be your servant. I can give you a few minutes to go through the menu, just let me know when you’re ready to order. I’ll be right over there,” said Steve the waiter as he pointed to the service counter. “After you’ve ordered, you can take a look around. This place is like a museum,” he added. A large frame held one of MC Hammer’s boots.

I am an ‘80s kid and remember singing along to ‘you can’t touch this’ and ‘2 legit, 2 quit’ in primary school.

I also took long drives with my friend along Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, Beverly Hills and Bel Air – just talking, about everything and anything, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the mansions and randomly tailed behind some rich people to see which mansion they lived in. It was interesting how many mansions had very tall (and neat) garden hedges at five to ten metres high. I think they wanted privacy from prying eyes from the public, like mine.

“OJ Simpson’s house is on this street,” my friend said. We turned into the street. “I’m not sure if it’s this house or that house,” she said pointing to two houses. “Does this look OJ Simpson-ish to you,” she asked vaguely, pointing to a house as we slowed down and peered past the large garden and stylish picket fence. A lone apple tree blocked our view partly.

‘How is an OJ-Simpson house supposed to look like? Can’t tell,” I supplied. We looked at each other and burst into laughter until tears welled in our eyes.

That ended our ‘mansion stalking’ and with the sunset and Hollywood sign behind us, we drove to the ‘Venice of America’, famous for its man-made canals. We took a walk along Muscle Beach and watched performers and skateboard enthusiasts along the boardwalk.

My friend had taken me to Islands Restaurant one evening, some minutes away from Venice Pier in Marina Del Ray. The burger chain gets its menu inspiration from Hawaii and is known for the finest burger fix, cool happy hour deals and tropical drinks. My friend’s daughter had challenged me to try a ‘double double animal farm’ burger from In and Out. She was determined the fries were better at In and Out.

We drove by an In and Out for burgers to complete the burger challenge. The burgers, fries and free endless drink refills from Islands Restaurant tickled the taste buds better.

I had planned to ride the Mega Bus from Los Angeles to San Francisco but my friends said there was really not much to see on the drive and recommended I fly to SF.

It cost me 80 dollars (about PGK190) for an airline ticket. I said goodbye to Los Angeles one evening and boarded an American Airline flight for San Francisco. I enjoyed the free wifi in the plane – I thought that was pretty cool for a domestic flight that was only a little over an hour. I hope someday soon Air Niugini can introduce free inflight internet wifi.

Our government leaders travel all over the world, I thought to myself. Don’t they see these sorts of services and want to take the idea back to our country? It’s hard to comprehend.

While Los Angeles is very spread out, San Francisco is a neatly packed hilly city.

When you ride a cable car over the hill, the whole city is tossed out in front of you – the iconic bright orange Golden Gate Bridge that spells out San Francisco, half immersed in fog and clouds welcomes you while Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 wait at the bottom of the hill near the ocean. It is a beautiful city.

San Fran or Frisco as it is fondly known by locals is easy. However, easy can be overrated. San Fran is expensive and like many other cities around the world, there are many homeless people (homeless but harmless).

One place I always wanted to visit was the Silicon Valley. I explored Silicon Valley on a Tuesday.

To me, Silicon Valley is a big village where simple ideas become million-dollar innovation that give birth to large corporations. It is the home of high technology and social media.

Isn’t it amazing that these simple ideas came from a group of friends or nerds who were failing classes?

Airbnb started when three friends turned an air mattress in their apartment into a $25 billion company. Uber is an app that has changed how the world hails a taxi. Uber is now worth more than $60 billion. I had visited the Airbnb and Uber headquarters (well, from the outside) in San Francisco. Hewlett and Packard (the makers of the HP laptop and computers) began with a one-car garage and $538 in capital.

These stories come alive when you visit the Silicon Valley. There is an enterprising vibe around this place.

My friend and I parked outside the Face book headquarters at Menlo Park. We looked for a car park ticket machine to pay for parking but couldn’t see one so we asked a group of young men standing under a white canopy. “Err… no this is all private property so you don’t pay for parking. The only place that’s open to the public is the Face book like sign near the highway. Instagram’s on the other side,” was the answer we got.

We thanked them and stood in the middle of the gardens and looked around. My eyes searched for the ‘young computer geeks with backpacks who rode bicycles to work’ that I often read about. There was a bicycle rank near the reception and yes young people were coming and riding off in their bicycles.

We took photos near the Face book like sign and thought we’d chance our luck at the reception. A very casually dressed man greeted us inside the reception area and asked in a sing-song voice who we wanted to see. We said we were only taking a look around. “I’m sorry, you can’t go beyond that door unless you know someone who works here who can take you through,” he smiled apologetically. Beyond the glass door was a garden that led to more offices and I think more surprises!

We walked out the reception and I asked the black American bouncer outside if I could take a picture at the entry to the reception. “I’m sorry sweetie, you aren’t allowed to take photos here but I could just turn my back and pretend I didn’t see you and you can take a quick photo in say 20 seconds?” he said. A quick-smile-for-the camera later, we thanked him and went on our way.

The Google headquarters and campus (Googleplex) reflects the company’s philosophy, which is essentially ‘to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world’. Some buildings, tables, benches and canopy are splashed in the Google colours of blue, red, yellow and green.

There’s no place quite like Google with its fleet of hundreds of bicycles in blue, red, yellow and green that are available in all sizes to pretty much anyone who wants to ride and have a look-see around the campus.

We passed by some Google employees playing beach volleyball while some were stretched out on the lawn on yoga mats.

It seemed like the kind of work place where employees would look forward to coming to work at every day.

Android sculptures were spread out on the garden lawn. The sculptures or statues are versions of Google’s Android mobile operating system which are named after desserts and sweet treats such as Jelly Bean and Gingerbread.

Silicon Valley is also home to other big corporations such as Apple, HP (Hewlett-Packard), Oracle, Amazon, Wells Fargo and Chevron.

When people discuss Silicon Valley, the next thing they typically mention is Stanford University. The university is located in the heart of Silicon Valley and the relationship between the pair go a long way back in history. The presence of Stanford University was a key factor in the development of the technology enterprise now known as Silicon Valley.  Stanford University is a private research university, dedicated to finding solutions to big challenges.

I discovered so many new things on my trip to California. Travelling solo is awesome. It is a great stress buster, enhances creativity, makes me mentally resilient and helps me re-invent myself. I can’t wait for the next solo trip!

My travel companion

Written on 31 October 2018

I’ve had to say goodbye to my loyal travel companion of many years.

My new travel companion – a wine-red Delsey suitcase.

We had a great relationship that had spanned four years and a bit more, until the bandicoot-size rats at 5 Mile in Port Moresby took a huge bite at the top of the suitcase, leaving a large crater near the zipper pull. I cursed the rats that did this and went to Stop N Shop that evening to buy rat poison.

The old steel blue Caribee suitcase was not just a travel companion. It had character. It had so many wonderful and equally horror tales to tell like the time it was pushed and shoved by tourists at the Ladies Night Market in Hong Kong.

The faithful Caribee is to me what a blanket is to a baby. It gave me comfort. We understood each other. By lifting the suitcase lightly, I could guesstimate 30 kg (my personal max limit) without using a portable luggage scale to avoid paying excess charges. The limit weight on Air Niugini’s international travel anywhere from Australia to Port Moresby on a direct flight is 35 kg for economy class.

The Caribee gave me a warm sense of satisfaction. I knew my shopping bags from H&M, new heels, little gifts for special people and souveniors were safe and sound. There was a certain level of joy and satisfaction after I zipped and locked the suitcase. I knew my items would be safe. The hard shell casing and sides absorbed the impact from knocks and bumps. It was also water resistant.

On that occasion at the night market in Mong Kok in Hong Kong, I maneuvered my faithful companion through crowds of tourists and it stood by my side and waited for me like a faithful dog while I haggled over prices for a couple of souvenior fridge magnets that I wanted to add to my growing collection.

I had come prepared to the night market. I had worn my best bargaining act and I told myself I was there to win bargains which was why I brought the blue Caribee to take in my prized winnings.

Tugging the suitcase through the streets of Hong Kong left light scratch marks at the bottom of the suitcase. The marks remain to tell a story of its travel adventures in the streets and on the trains in Hong Kong.

I first met my companion in 2014 at Gabaka Street, Gordons in Port Moresby. I fell in love with the steel blue colour straight away as it sat there at the corner near the doorway at the NGF store. ‘It will be so easy now to spot my luggage from the popular black luggage bags on a luggage carousel,” I thought to myself as I inspected the tag. I pressed the cover. It had a hard case. Perfect! I paid K250 and a bit more for the Australian brand – and thus our relationship and journey began.

One day, the Caribee travelled with me to Cairns in Australia for work for two weeks. I was a lone passenger on the Far North Queensland airport transfer service line that picked me up at the airport. The female driver was nice to my suitcase, had picked up the Caribee and placed it gently in the cargo carriage that was hauled to the back of the bus.

When we arrived at the apartment, I opened the suitcase and took out the few clothes and toiletries that I had packed and laid them out. I emptied out the suitcase and carefully dusted the insides then I wiped down the suitcase and placed it on two folding chairs on the balcony for it to dry and get some sun and fresh air.

A Woolworths store was across the apartment. I crossed the road and went grocery shopping for the two weeks I was going to be there.

I took my time walking between the aisles and selected my supply of essentials for two weeks. Marinades, spices and sauces from the Masterfoods range were on the weekly specials for $2.50. They normally cost a bit more than K12 at home. I told myself I was going to do some serious marinade, sauces and spices shopping to bring back home with me.

My Caribee remembers the countless times it has had to carefully hold olive oils, Nobby’s salted peanuts, chips and chocolates for the kiddies’ treasure hunt parties, almond and Brazilian nuts and the 5 litres of liquid laundry detergent that cost $3 at the Reject Store on my travels to Australia. These items were a regular in my suitcase. And each time, the Caribee would take them to Port Moresby safely, without any casualties.

After my short work stint in Cairns, I packed the suitcase with red wine and garlic marinade, smoking barbecue marinade, olive oil with infused garlic, teriyaki marinade, hoi sin sauce, chicken seasoning, garlic and herb salt and fish sauce and brought them home with me to Port Moresby.

In 2016, the steel blue Caribee touched down at Wellington Airport, New Zealand, at midnight. The cold ‘Windy Welly’ winds were harsh. After going through Customs and Immigration, we were reunited and I opened the suitcase to get out a thick sweater and beanie to keep warm. We stayed in a 4-star hotel in Wellington for a week.

My companion, the Caribee has travelled with me to many places including Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore.

It was a stressful moment for me when I prepared to travel to the USA recently. I needed a replacement for the blue Caribee. I went online searching for a suitcase just like my old steel blue Caribee.

I remember walking through a luggage store in West End, Brisbane and carefully inspected the suitcases. I looked at the Caribee brands but could not see anything like my blue companion. “They don’t make them like my steel blue friend anymore, “I thought to myself, disappointed.

After spending close to an hour at the luggage store, I decided to buy a French brand – Delsey. I had to choose between black, cobalt blue and light wine red colours. I settled for the light wine red colour. There was an air of elegance around my new buy – after all, it is a French brand!

I glanced at the suitcase after I made payment and smiled. The new Delsey suitcase had large shoes to fill.

Riding smart, Uber smart

Uber hq- 24.7.18
I tried ubering from the Uber headquarters on Market Street in SF.

Written on 8 September 2018

A friend introduced me to Uber some time back in Australia.

On a solo trip to California recently, I decided to utilise Uber. It’s generally cheaper than cabbing. Uber has become so popular that expressions like ‘ubering’ and ‘ubered’ have become widely understood.

I spent two night nights in Brisbane, Australia, prior to my travel to Los Angeles – the first night in a self-contained apartment in Hamilton and the second night in a bright orange lodge near the Valley – all Airbnb. The minute I walked into the lodge, I wished I hadn’t left the cosy self-contained apartment near the Brisbane River in Hamilton. So much for raking up Qantas frequent flyer points, I thought, annoyed with myself.

I had Ubered from Hamilton and the driver, Dave, was a lively young man. He even offered me bottled water. I planned to rate him a five star after he dropped me off.

I left my luggage bag and a bag of shopping from Woolworths at the reception area. ‘Your room is not quite ready yet. Please fill in your details here,” the woman at the reception pointed to a piece of paper, “and sign at the bottom. You might want to get some lunch nearby while we finish cleaning up your room. You can leave your luggage at the corner over there,” she pointed to a little space near the only couch in the room.

I asked her directions to get into the city. “There’s a stop just outside here on the other side of the road,” she pointed out the window. “All buses that stop there will take you into the city”. I thanked her and was on my way.

Of course I missed the stop. My sense of direction is poor to the point of being ridiculous. If anyone says something like ‘go east, then turn right after 500 metres’ it’s definite I will get lost.

I thought I’d use some logic so I surveyed the skyline. Ah, there are tall buildings that way which means the city is in that direction. I followed a path that led to an inside street. A mix of residential homes and small offices lined up the one way street. There was a sign on a white picket fence for a practicing law firm. A young woman was walking her dog next door. She smiled at me when I walked past. There was a castle shaped café further down the road and it looked so cute I almost stopped by for lunch. I kept walking until I saw a street sign that had one of the royal names – can’t remember if it was Albert, George or Mary – and I knew the main Queen Street was not too far off.

When I reached the main street, I settled for an Asian eatery opposite the road. I had rice and some Thai beef stew (my first real meal for the day) and watched people going by. The tall buildings that I had seen earlier were offices. It was lunch time and people were coming out of the buildings for a smoke or to have a bite. There was a seven eleven next door. I made a mental note to pick up Cornetto ice cream, something sweet like lemonade and water after I was done with lunch. There was also a self-serve burger place and a posh coffee shop.

By the time I arrived at the lodge, it was 2pm. I saw a bus stopping near the curb and realised that was the bus stop the reception woman was talking about. The stop was right next to the path I had taken. Anywaaaaay, I picked up my room key, wifi password and bags and climbed the steep stairs to the room.

The winter chills were still in the air and I did not feel like taking a shower yet. I rested for half an hour then I requested Uber to drop me off at Luggage Direct in West End.

The Uber driver had the radio on and smiled at me as I got in. “How’s your day been?” I asked him. “Pretty good, pretty good. Been up since 5am,” he said. He asked if I was ok with the radio on.

I took my time inspecting the different suitcases at Luggage Direct. The good old blue hard cover Caribee suitcase that had been my travelling companion for many years was worn out. The rats from 5 Mile in Port Moresby had also chewed a bit off at the top too so it was time for a new suitcase. I was happy with my light wine red Delsey suitcase purchase. My first solo trip to the USA, I thought, might as well step out in a bit of style.

The afternoon sun hit my face as I waited for my Uber ride. I checked my phone – my ride was a minute away.

I set my time for an early rise the next morning for the 10 am direct flight to LA.

I promised myself when I got to LA to hike to the Hollywood sign and sweat off some jet lag and get my body a little used to the 13 hour time difference. That was difficult, trying to tell my body it was midnight when it knew perfectly well, like it had for the last 30+ years that it was 5pm and almost dinner time back home.

When I arrived in LA, I couldn’t do roaming from my Australian number for some reason and was heavily dependent on free wifi. Free wifi havens like Starbucks and Maccas were my target.

I took a walk one morning down Grand View Boulevard in Venice and picked up a flat white from Starbucks. Using the free wifi, I requested an Uber ride.

The Uber app on my phone picked up about 10 drivers nearby. Five minutes later, the plate number and make of car that appeared on my phone screen parked outside Starbucks. I got in.  I was the only passenger. This was my first Uber experience in the USA. The young driver casually said hi and we were on our way. We picked up a young man then a black American school girl along the way.

After the morning hike, I caught the Metro to Hollywood. The Metro had free wifi and I quickly checked in online for my evening flight to San Francisco. I still had some time to kill. I was here earlier in the week and had lunch at the Hard Rock Café. There was free wifi. I ordered a berry and pineapple blended juice and requested an Uber ride. About 30 rides popped up on my screen and ‘to give Uber 15 minutes while they scanned for one nearest to me’. Less than five minutes later, I was notified ‘to walk 2 minutes to north Orange Drive’, the nearest pick up point near Hard Rock Café.

I walked quickly to the pick-up point, crashing into Shrek and a man on the loud hailer heralding the sale of souvenior tshirts selling at $5. Shrek was fuming. I scanned the cars lining up for the plate number I was given. Five minutes later, there was still no sign of my Uber ride. My gut feeling told me I was standing in the wrong place. I walked back to Hard Rock Café to use the free wifi, cancelled the ride and ordered another ride at the same pick up point. When my ride was 3 minutes away, I walked back to the same place, again scanning the many cars lined up on the side and scanned the many more driving through Hollywood Boulevard – I realised that was the craziest idea ever, I mean how many cars drive through Hollywood Boulevard each day and here I was trying to single out one car?

I half walked and half ran back to Hard Rock Café to cancel the trip and ordered another. This time, I put Hotel Roosevelt as pick up point.

By now, I had walked past the TCL Chinese Theatre, Madame Tussauds and walked the many Hollywood footprints so many times already I could tell you exactly how many steps it took in normal walk and in half walk/half run.

I told myself this was going to be my last attempt and I would resort to cabbing. I had been trying to locate my Uber rides for close to an hour now. I took a screen shot of my Uber ride details and crossed the road to Hotel Roosevelt.

I took a quick photo of Vin Diesel’s star outside the hotel entrance and kept an eye out for my ride. I decided to stand aside from the many others standing in front of the hotel in the hope my driver could recognise that I was looking for a ride and not touristing.

Three minutes later, I saw the white Buick, parked on the other side of the Hotel Roosevelt. I waved at the driver and he waved for me to cross the road. The wait for the green light on the pedestrian crossing seemed like an eternity! Forget about the pictures of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the TCL Chinese Theatre that I looked over many times on the internet before my travel – I was just so happy to get out of Hollywood Boulevard.

There was already another passenger in the car, a young woman with many shopping bags and she took up the back seat. I hopped into the front seat, avoiding the glaring eyes of the Asian American driver. I apologised profusely to the driver and the passenger for making them wait. “The pick-up point is on this side, not that side” the driver responded.  Mi save ya, inap o (I know, enough already) I thought to myself.

I arrived in San Francisco after 10 pm local time. It’s easy to get around the airport in San Francisco – signs are easy to follow. I ordered a shared ride on Uber and took the elevator to Level 3 to wait for my ride. There were other people also waiting for their rides. When my ride rolled up, two young boys were already seated at the back and I got in front. Our driver was a black American young woman. I said a quick hi to everyone and leaned back on the seat. I was tired. The driver, Shen, was playing tunes from her iphone and they were in a discussion about music. I picked out from the discussions they were having that one of the young men in the back seat was a dj. The driver played another song. “Deep. That song reminds me of an ex,” said the dj. Everyone laughed, I smiled.

I made sure I visited Uber hq on Market Street in San Francisco. I gazed at the glass and concrete building for a while. Amazing how working smart can make billions in profits. Uber started as a simple idea: what if you could request a ride from your phone? And using a map on the phone, it connected a driver to a passenger via GPS.

Uber is a ridesharing service transportation company (it has also expanded to include food delivery service) and was founded in 2009 in San Francisco.

In 2011, Uber went international and was launched in Paris.

Today, Uber operates in more than 600 cities in 86 countries.

To me, Uber speaks a universal language. I can use Uber in Australia and in America on one app.

I decided to do some research on share riding companies around the world.

Lyft is Uber’s best known competitor. Many people would tend to have both Uber and Lyft apps on their phones, and use one or the other based on preference, availability and price.

Ola is India’s Uber – they offer all sorts of rides including rickshaws. Tokyo have Takkun (Tokyo’s largest dispatching system) and reports indicate the fees are cheaper than Uber.

99 is popular in Rio and well-known throughout Brazil and expanding into the European market. 99 uses PayPal as the mode of payment.

Didi Chuxing is used in China.

On my return trip from California to Brisbane where I spent another two days before returning home to Port Moresby, I chatted with an Uber driver from Ethiopia, Africa.

Tony summed up the Uber driving experience.

“I drive for Uber mostly in the mornings and evenings and on school holidays. I like driving on Saturday nights, that’s when the demand is the highest and few people want to drive other people around.

Driving for Uber is flexible and puts extra cash into the pocket. I am studying for a Masters at the university and I have no one to get home to except my books so I spend my extra time driving for Uber,” said Tony.