Mission San Francisco Solano

I recently went to visit my good friends Michael and Paul in beautiful Marin County, California. I hadn’t been down since late 2011 and figured now was as a good a time as any to pop in for a visit.

“What do you want to do while you’re down here,” asked Paul.

I’ve done all of the tourist things in San Francisco and this visit I was content to relax and enjoy the company of my dear friends. There was, however, one thing I wanted to see while I was there.

“Can you drive me up to Sonoma?” I ask Paul on a whim. “I’ve always wanted to visit Mission San Francisco Solano!”

The end of the Mission Trail at Mission San Francisco Solano!

I have long been fascinated with the Spanish and Mexican history of California which was at one time known as Alta California. Although the Spanish and Mexican period ended long ago it still lives on in the 21 missions that extend from San Diego to Sonoma.

Established in 1823 Mission San Francisco Solano was the northernmost and last of the California missions. It was also the only one established after Mexican independence.

Without hesitation on his part, or a solid plan on my end, Paul graciously agrees to facilitate my geeky obsession with history.

Paul, who is quite organized, assumed I had everything figured out. The night before we drove up there, however, I had no clue what we would be doing. Other than the mission I had no idea what else there was to see or do in Sonoma.

This original bell from the mission was cast in Mexico in 1829.

I was kind of freaking out so I did a frantic Google search and was delighted to discover that the mission is part of Sonoma State Historic Park which is comprised of a series of historic attractions located in several sites throughout Sonoma!

Better yet the US$3 entrance fee gives one access to all of the sites including: the Sonoma Barracks, Casa Grande Servants’ Quarters, the Toscano Hotel, Vallejo Home (Lachryma Montis), the Chalet Museum, the Blue Wing Inn and the mission itself.

Before my sleeping pills kicked in I converted the Wikipedia articles for these sites into .epub files and loaded them on to my awesome Sony PRS-T1 e-book reader to read on the drive to Sonoma.

Michael and Paul enjoy a relaxing moment outside the mission.

The park itself offered a full day of what I felt were exciting activities and I figured I had the know-how to make the excursion at least somewhat interesting to my gracious hosts.

It’s not the most famous or imposing of the mission but I love San Francisco Solano as it blends Spanish architectural elements with a rustic elegance that conjures images of the American Frontier.

Chapel roof at Mission San Francisco Solano.

It’s situated near several intact structures from the Mexican era as well as more contemporary buildings and this lends the mission and the surrounding neighbourhood an aura of history that is readily accessible to all visitors.

And access historic sites I did!

Seven flags at Sonoma City Hall.

“I will never go to Europe with you,” Paul told Michael as I was reading every plaque and historic display. “We’d never make it out of the first museum over there!”

One the staff people there – a rather handsome park ranger who appeared to be my age – shared my enthusiasm for the fact that the mission is part of a state park.

“I love that we’re secular, man!” he said after I expressed my relief that this was not a church owned building. “Your admission fee goes to the state.”

Nathaniel in front of the mission!

I should point out, however, that these are my own thoughts. The handsome ranger made no comment on church affairs and was completely professional.

Interior of the Sonoma Barracks.

After the mission we went to the Sonoma Barracks which is a two-storey adobe barracks that was built in the 1830s to house Mexican troops. Unfortunately, it was a very dusty and musty old building and both Michael and I had a pretty severe allergic kind of reaction to something in there.

Also, I was getting a bit woozy on account of the sun so we decided to call it a day.

And what a day it was!

I had a great time in California and I hope to return for another visit soon.

That new bus seat smell!

There’s nothing quite like that new furniture smell – especially on your bus!

I recently boarded a 135 Burrard Station bus outside my home in North Burnaby and noticed the bus smelled like new vinyl. Upon closer investigation I discovered the seats appeared to be brand new. This was nice!

From New bus seats!

Coast Mountain Bus Company which manages 96 per cent of the bus services in the Greater Vancouver area have, in fact, replaced the seats on the New Flyer Industries D60LF low floor articulated bus that serves my route.

“The 135 bus you are inquiring about did have its seats replaced as part as part of the midlife repair in December 2013,” says Vic Carreira who is the director of fleet maintenance at Coast Mountain Bus Company. “TransLink is committed to keeping our system in a state of good repair. We have strict maintenance practices where in the long run, it will help our buses run better and ultimately service our customers better. Thanks for noticing our efforts.”

I don’t drive so I rely on public transit to get around. I spend at least an hour a day on the bus or SkyTrain so a hassle-free and pleasant transit experience contributes to my quality of life. I like it when the buses and trains are clean, arrive on time and have enough seats for everyone on board.

From New bus seats!

They installed the comfortable Model 6484 (City Service Bus) seats which are manufactured by American Seating. Their website describes them as follows, “Superior comfort and styling define the fully upholstered 6484 design. This comfortable and refined seating solution is built and tested for durability, safety, comfort and style.”

From New bus seats!

The old seats were also the 6484 design but they were getting quite ratty and greasy with age. The new seats, however, are comfortable, clean and sturdy.

From New bus seats!

“As a regular maintenance practice, the interior and exterior of our buses are cleaned on a daily basis, this includes sweeping the floors and washing the exterior of the buses,” says Carreira. “In addition, approximately four times per year, we fully clean the interior of each bus by vacuuming the seats with a hepa filtered industrial vacuum and then spraying the seats with disinfectant. Also, our buses go through a rebuild near the midpoint of their 17 year life. Depending on the condition of the bus the midlife repairs can include seat replacement.”

Nathaniel in Quebec!

As some of you may know I recently returned from a week-long trip to Quebec. I went out there to be with one of my dearest friends as she celebrated her 30th birthday. She recently moved to Quebec from our hometown on Vancouver Island.

Moving across the country is not always easy – I would know. In 2002 I moved from Vancouver to Peterborough, Ontario and while I count those years as the most productive and rewarding of my life the initial transition was a very lonely period. And while I know that my friend will do well in her new home it pained me to think that she may be feeling the same homesickness and detachment that I felt out East.

So, mindful of the support she gave me while I lived in Ontario, I made a plan to come see her (and her two beautiful cats) as an affirmation that her friendship will always be an integral part of my life no matter where she lives.

So, on Oct. 17 I flew to Montreal. It was my first trip to Montreal in 10 years and my first visit to Eastern Canada since I moved back to British Columbia in 2005.

It was wonderful to reconnect with my old friend and her boyfriend in their new environs. Now whenever she talks about the places and people in her day-to-day life I’ll be able to say “I’ve been there!” or “I met them!” I especially enjoyed getting to know her boyfriend’s family. I spent quite a bit of time with them and think they are the loveliest people I’ve ever met and one of many reasons to return for another visit as soon as I can.

A quote by former US First Lady Pat Nixon (1912-1993) sums up my feelings about my trip to Quebec and the people I met there:

Even when people can’t speak your language, they can tell if you have love in your heart.

My trip to Quebec
Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal, (French: Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal).
Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal, (French: Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal).
These wooden statues were giving me a nasty look...
These wooden statues were giving me a nasty look…
This is where they keep the heart of Saint André Bessette
This is where they keep the heart of Saint André Bessette
A close up of Saint André Bessette's heart!
A close up of Saint André Bessette's heart!
This place, remiere Moisson, was the best bakery I've ever eaten at!
This place, remiere Moisson, was the best bakery I've ever eaten at!
"I want those pink things!" I told the cute guy behind the counter. His name was Alexis X. and he told me, in French, that my French was "very good"!
"I want those pink things!" I told the cute guy behind the counter. His name was Alexis X. and he told me, in French, that my French was "very good"!
This is called "Macaron Rose-Framboises". It was, without a doubt, the yummiest thing I've ever eaten in my life. MMMMMMMM!
This is called "Macaron Rose-Framboises". It was, without a doubt, the yummiest thing I've ever eaten in my life. MMMMMMMM!
They give you packets of mayo in Quebec!
They give you packets of mayo in Quebec!

Huge police presence at BART protest in San Francisco, CA

I’m currently visiting some friends in lovely San Francisco, California. Today I did some freestyle wanderin’ which led me to the lovely City Hall. As I walked out of City Hall I noticed a huge police presence assembled down the street.
I thought, perhaps, that it was the police headquarters or something, but someone told me that they were there to “deal” with a protest.

The protest, which attracted about 100 participants, was apparently organised by the social activist group Anonymous. They were protesting the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency’s decision last month to cut phone service at their stations in response to another protest over the BART police shooting of Charles Hill on the Civic Center station platform on July 3.
I did not witness the actual protest but I did see the police assembly beforehand.

Huge police presence at BART protest
San Francisco, California
These two buses were filled with police officers.
These two buses were filled with police officers.
Another view of the police. In addition to the buses the two sides of the streets were lined with several police cars and bikes.
Another view of the police. In addition to the buses the two sides of the streets were lined with several police cars and bikes.
Another view of the police cars.
Another view of the police cars.
The protest attracted the attention of many news outlets.
The protest attracted the attention of many news outlets.

A one block stretch of Fulton St. between Larkin and Hyde was lined on either side with dozens of police cars, trucks, and motorcycles. There was also a large “mobile command centre” as well as two city buses filled with police officers.
I approached a group of policemen and politely asked why there was such a large police presence there.

“Are you serious?” one officer shot back. I gave him an innocent stare and said, “Yeah, there are quite a lot of you, what’s going on?” “There’s a BART protest,” he said. “But why do you need so many police for that?” I said, glancing at the 30-odd people assembled near United Nations Plaza “Don’t you have protests in England?” he said, grossly mistaking my accent.

At this point he walked away and another police officer began a friendly conversation with me. He was much nicer, less hostile than his colleague.  “I’ve never seen a camera like that,” he said in a southern kind of drawl. “Where do you get one like that?” I explained that I bought it online and showed him some of my pretty photos of City Hall. “You know, my friend has a Pentax and he swears by it,” he said. “I’ve never seen a red one but it goes nicely with your red Coke shirt,” he said glancing at my red Coca Cola shirt. I learned that he is from Fort Worth, Texas and my friends are sure he was hitting on me.

Friendly conversation aside, I was a little disturbed by the overwhelming police presence.

My trip to Mexico!

Last month I travelled to beautiful Palm Desert, California to visit my friend Yuri.

“If there’s anything you want to do or see while you’re down here let me know and we’ll drive there,” he said. I pulled up Google Earth to check out what was nearby and my eyes were drawn to a big yellow line about two hours south of Palm Desert. “I want to go to Mexico!” I said. And we did!

I’ve always wanted to go there but I’ve never had the cash for one of those beach vacations or a fabulous tour of Mexico City or the Mayan Riviera.

So, I pretty much did the cheapest and easiest Mexican trip possible: Mexicali.

The closest border crossing was located at Calexico, California which is adjacent to Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. I read about Mexicali on Wikipedia, where I learned  it’s the northernmost city in Latin America.

We had no idea where the border crossing to Mexico was – we just followed the crowds which led us to the imposing United States Border Inspection edifice.  A steady line of people dispersed out from a door on the right and a small trickle casually walked into a door on the left.

“I think that might be the door to Mexico!” I said. We walked through the building out to a giant fence with a row of full-height turnstiles. I go through the turnstile and *clunk* we’re in Mexico! I didn’t see any flags or “Bienvenido a Mexico” signs but the sturdiness of the gate and the giant line across the ground suggested that we had crossed a border.

Everywhere around there were small, noisy shops but absolutely no customs station!

Street sign advertisements
Street sign advertisements

“We just freakin’ walked into another country,” I exclaimed. “No border guards or customs or anything! That’s freakin’ sketchy!” Yuri, however didn’t seem too fazed. “I told you it was this way,” he said. “Yeah, but I wasn’t listening!”

I looked around and noticed a single-file line which stretched about two blocks.

“Oh, God. I hope that’s not the lineup back into the U.S.,” said Yuri. “I think it might be.”

I approached two policemen who were wearing uniforms reminiscent of a mall security guard with faux-polo shirts, old-school portable radio thing, and dollar store sunglasses.

“Excuse me, do you know if that’s the line back into Calexico?” I asked, pointing to the queue. “Sorry,” one cop said with a smile. “I don’t speak English!” He then turned to his partner, asked. something Spanish  turned back to me and said “Sorry, I do not know!”

Silly ignorant me! I just walked in there and assumed everyone would know English. I don’t know a damn word of Spanish so the trip would be limited as I love chatting with people.

There were a lot of pharmacies, little restaurants, bars and other random shops up and down the main streets which seemed geared to pedestrian shoppers. It’s a bustling downtown with a lot of character. A stark contrast from many of the “dead” downtowns I saw during my trip to California. The roads and sidewalks are in very poor form with garbage scattered everywhere.

“Okay, we’re here in Mexico now what do you want do?” asked Yuri. “I want to drink a margarita!” I exclaim. It’s always been my dream to drink a brightly coloured drink in Mexico. So we wandered the streets looking for a bar – I didn’t care which one. I just wanted a place with a bathroom.

So we wandered down Av. Reforma which was lined with brightly painted bars. Yuri asked me to pick one so I just opened the first door to my left which happened to be a place called Jala La Jarra which Yuri thought might be a strip-bar by night.

View Larger Map

The place was long and narrow with a bar on one side and a partition wall on the other. Mexican pop music was blaring at an ear blistering volume and the television was playing some C-list American movie from the ‘90s complete with Spanish subtitles.

“Hola!” said the young and friendly waitress.  “¿Qué le gusta beber?” Yuri ordered a Dos Equis (XX) beer and I pointed to an illuminated poster of some super fruity bacardi drink on the wall and said “That!” The waitress went from one end of the bar to another in a fruitless scramble to locate the fruity ingredients.

The poor girl seemed completely lost so I smiled and let her know that a beer would suffice. She was pleased with this choice.

After two beers and a quick bathroom break we decided it was time for lunch!

Prior to my trip I read a fun blog about Mexicali written by an American woman who lives there. I asked her where to go and she suggested some of the Chinese restaurants.  I think we went to this place:

View Larger Map

The staff were Mexican and the owners Chinese. It looked pretty much like a Chinese restaurant here in Burnaby with its tear-away calendar printed in Guangzhou, faded prints of Chinese landscapes, and checkered vinyl table cloths. I felt at home.

When the bubbly server came to my table and I smiled like an idiot and pointed to an item that said “taco” and said “Uno Coca Cola por favor!”

The Coke is amazing down there. It’s made from cane sugar so it’s extra yummy with a very pleasant aftertaste.  The tacos, however, were disgusting. The meat was gristly and mysterious and the cheese was bland and mysterious. The shell and vegetables were okay. I managed to choke down two of them.

Gross Tacos

On her blog MaryAnn mentions that many of the restaurant owners speak Chinese. I took Chinese as a teenager and I’ve lived in Vancouver for umpteen years so I am able to say some very basic phrases here and there.

When it came time to pay I chatted a bit with the owners who seemed surprised and delighted that some strange white guy could say a few words of Chinese. I just asked “how much”, exchanged pleasantries and told them that I was visiting from Vancouver, Canada.  So yeah, that was pretty cool!

At this point I was ready to leave Mexico. I had been there, seen it, had a beer and a taco and was ready to go back to Calexico where Yuri’s car was parked in a dusty parking lot.

As I suspected, the huge lineup was indeed for the border. Fortunately, it seemed to be a “walking line” that snaked rather quickly through this strange outdoor mini-mall thing.  As we came closer to the American customs building Yuri points to a table across from us.

“That’s Mexican customs right there,” he said.

Seated at one of those folding card table things were a man and a woman no more than 25 years of age. They each had a cell phone and unlike me the guy had a DSLR camera. They were  wearing glasses and a T-shirt with their departmental logo on it. They were chatting with each other, laughing and checking their text messages. They really weren’t doing much as far as I could see.

When I got to U.S. customs I quickly learned why the line was so quick – they just rush everyone through! While I laud expediency I am shocked at how different it is from entering the U.S. from Canada where they really put you through the grinder with a long list of questions. “Where are you going?” asks the U.S. customs dude, “Palm Desert.” I reply. “Have a nice trip!” he says. And that’s it! I’m in!

I’m glad that I got to see Mexico. When people ask me “Where have you been?” I am forced to say, usually in an apologetic tone, “Just Canada and the States.”  Now I have some “real” international experience! I’m a jet-setting, cosmopolitan world traveller! W00t!

Oh yeah, I also bought a baby poncho for my friend Marie! Here’s Khan trying it on:

Khan in a poncho
Khan in a poncho

Searching for Cher’s birthplace in El Centro, California

I was recently down in California visiting my buddy Yuri in the Palm Springs area.

The last time I hung out with Yuri was back in 2009 when I flew to Vegas to see Cher in concert. Sadly, there would be no Cher on this trip… or so I thought. On the way back from Mexico Yuri offered to drive me out to El Centro, California which is the birthplace of Cher! He drove me around town and filmed this video:

You can learn more about Yuri at his website.

My bus driver reads Whoopi!

Buses are an essential part of my life yet I know so little about the women and men who ensure I get home safely every night. But today that changed.

When I boarded my bus this afternoon I noticed the driver tucking a book away as she settled in and greeted me with a smile and friendly hello.

While most bus drivers on my route are quite nice this one was especially friendly.

“Whatcha readin’ there?” I ask wondering if the book is behind her smile. “It’s called ‘Is It Just Me’ by Whoopi Goldberg,” she says. “The title just says it all for me.”

Sandra, who has been a TransLink driver for 20 years, strongly identifies with Goldberg’s no-nonsense approach to the decline of courtesy in today’s world.

“It’s not her normal ‘ha ha’ stuff,” she says. “It’s full of observations and in one chapter she mentions people who clip their nails on the bus. I can relate to that because I’ve seen people do it here.”

As a passenger I get annoyed by rude beaviour on the bus. It’s easy to put up with when you know you only have to take a few bus trips every day but drivers have to deal with it all day.

Some of the worst offenders according to Sandra are cell phone users.

“Sometimes people will sit on that seat directly behind me and talk really loudly on their cell phone,” she says. “It’s very distracting.”

While Sandra frequently greets her passengers with a smile and hello this isn’t always reciprocated. Many transit users file on and off the bus without so much as a hello.

“Only one in 10 people say hello or otherwise acknowledge our presence,” she says.

But it’s more than just being rude. Sometimes inconsiderate behaviour poses a very real safety concern.

“Sometimes people will be constantly flashing their cameras, taking pictures,” she says noting that the constant flashes severely obstruct her vision. “They’re not like you who asked me for a photo. They just snap away until I tell them that if they don’t stop I’ll ask them to leave the bus.”

Bus drivers like Sandra make me glad I miserably failed my driver’s test. I feel knowing that people like her are making sure that people like me get home in one piece.

Taking the city bus from Vancouver to Seattle

Vancouver to Seattle
Vancouver to Seattle

Have you ever considered taking the city bus from Vancouver to Seattle? Not the Greyhound, car, or Amtrak but public transit. I considered it, found out it was possible.

I was curious to see how far south I could go on public transit. I was hoping there’d be a way to go all the way down to San Francisco on public transit commuter buses but I can’t seem to find a way to go further south than Olympia without hopping on an Amtrak or Greyhound.

My friend and I wanted to go down to the US border on transit for a day of fun and happiness in Blaine, Washington. But I was like “Screw Blaine, let’s go to Seattle!” She was like “Okay!” But I just looked at all the long bus trips and connections and am like “Blaine will be fine!”

Here’s what such a trip might look like:

  1. Take the SkyTrain at 5:30 in the morning and then transfer on three Surrey buses until you get to 8th Ave. and King George Highway at approximately 6:50 a.m.
  2. Walk (or bike) approximately 2 km to the US border station. I don’t know if they have a walk-through section or anything. Hopefully they are more accomodating than the McDonald’s drive thru.
    US Border Crossing
  3. Head to downtown Blaine and catch the 70X Bellingham/WWU at 7:51 a.m. Arrive in Bellingham at 8:41 a.m.
  4. Catch the 80X Mt. Vernon bus at Bellingham Station at 9:40 a.m. Arrive at Skagit Station in Mt. Vernon at 10:22 a.m.

    Mount Vernon, Washington
  6. Hop on the 90X County Connector – Everett Express bus at 4:15 p.m. and arrive at Everett Station at 5:00 p.m.
  7. Take the 510 Everett – Seattle bus at 5:20 p.m. and get off in downtown Seattle at 6:10 p.m.
  8. Have dinner at the Space Needle!

    Space Needle Restaurant
  9. Hmm… I don’t think I’ll be going to Seattle this way…