Day 249 (14th of November, 2016) – Mountain View, CA, USA
I must say, I feel like I’m a professional in fighting jet lag. The second you get an electronic device with plenty of blue light in front of my face (unless it’s playing a movie), I’m not ever falling asleep. That was certainly the case last night. I used the blog as a tool to keep me up well into the late evening (even early morning) U.S. time.
But perhaps I overdid it.
I woke up groggy as ever this morning, but after a coffee and a walk in the perfectly cool breeze of Mountain View, I was up and at ‘em (it turns out that my whole life I had thought this phrase was “up and Adam”…).
It looked like the Google Streetview car had the same idea as me.
The night before I had promised myself that I would visit Castro Street in the morning. I made good on that promise and caught a bus there. For the “downtown” of this city, it certainly doesn’t feel any more lively than Toowoomba. But that’s the nature of a lot of these American cities. Considering San Francisco only has 800,000 residents, you can only imagine how spread the population is through the Bay Area to make it the fifth most populated area in the U.S.
I settled down at a café with a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle to get me on top of the news. With the Google visit being today, I focused mainly on the technology section which largely covered AirBnB’s continued negotiations with the San Francisco government for lenience when renting out private property. Not unlike a lot of the battles going on in Australia right now with services such as Uber. There was one significant piece of news regarding Google which I studied up on before arriving: the announcement of banning fake news sites from using Google’s advertising tools, effectively cutting off their revenue stream (read here). That’s positive news, especially given the controversy regarding the abundance of fake news being proliferated by Google and Facebook during the US elections.
I ordered one of the more authentic American breakfasts I could think of – a cream cheese bagel. Surely not my first for the week.
Following breakfast, I jumped in an Uber to head to the famous ‘Googleplex’. My driver noted that I was the fifth person to be dropped there this morning. No surprise given that Google is the city’s biggest employer with 16,688 employees compared to the second biggest, Symantec, at 2,789.
Let me run you through the facts on Googleplex for the uninitiated. Googleplex is the corporate headquarters of, you guessed it, Google. It is located at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountain View, Santa Clara County, California. The campus contains 290,000 m2 of office space, making it the largest collection of Google buildings in the world.
Google, which employs 57,100 people worldwide, was founded as a privately held company in 1998. After an IPO in 2004 and the rapid growth following this, Google has become the provider of many of the technologies we know and love. Think Google Docs, Gmail, Google Drive, Google+, Google Hangouts, Google Translate, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Chrome and, of course, Google Search. With all these services underpinning the foundations of our online lives, it’s no wonder that the company was valued at US$133b this year.
But how did they end up settling down in Mountain View, of all places? Well, Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are actually quite important characters in the history of Silicon Valley and an important reason as to why it continued its surge to becoming the epicentre of the technology industry globally. They formed part of a horde of Stanford graduates who set up shop in the Valley with small, tech startups. The Valley already had an impressive history with technology – the first commercial radio broadcasts were from nearby in downtown San Jose. But business really started to thrive after one of the first notable technology companies began – Hewlett-Packard (HP). HP, as the result of a partnership between a Stanford faculty member and student, was founded on the basis of William Hewlett’s invention of an audio-oscillator. Stanford’s approach to encouraging local business, the abundance of venture capital and a relatively lenient societal attitude to disruptive innovation provided the perfect ingredients for the soon-to-be tech giants to set up shop.
I met Katie Kimball, the North American University and Intern Recruiter, in the lobby of one of the main buildings. Katie, who’s originally from New Jersey, was extraordinarily easy to get along with. It wasn’t long before signs of lasting hurt from the recent election results emerged (she’s not alone, especially in California), but it was quickly forgotten about when we got talking about the amazing opportunities there are to work at Google. It quickly became apparent to me that there’d be many more paths for me to work for this amazing company than I may originally have thought – it can be in any field, not just software engineering.
Katie’s own history is remarkably interesting, but one of the things which I enjoyed hearing about most about was when work sent her to Dublin for a number of months. The way she spoke about the Irish people and culture made me realise just how similar it is to Australia on every level – it made me want to hop continents yet again and go to check it out. She also shares the same passion for independent travel as I do. It was refreshing to hear observations like “you learn so much about yourself” and “it’s never lonely” from someone else – it convinced me that I wasn’t crazy.
Katie was more than happy to take the mandatory photo of me outside the campus entrance.
We began walking through the main pathways of the campus, and the blaring contradiction of this place began to poke its head: it’s so lax, and yet, so productive.
But I don’t think that’s a contradiction. I think it’s just something which too many workplaces are failing to realise.
The facilities made available to the staff here blew my mind. The multicoloured umbrellas and bikes were just the start of it.
It had beach volleyball.
Gyms and pools.
Indoor slides and sleeping pods.
How one finishes work here, I don’t know. But they sure do a damn good job. It almost seems unfair. But no, Google have earned it. “Celebrate success the right way”, as the great DJ Khaled himself would say.
One of the most exciting bits of the tour was walking through the dozen or so restaurants and cafeterias, all with extensive menus without prices (and a kid on a gap year never says no to a free meal). So before I knew it, my Google headquarters tour had turned into a culinary tour of the world. The first stop was the food carts – street vendors had been contracted to come onto the campus and give away as much food as the employees so desired. I picked up a cheese steak – an embarrassment in comparison to Katie’s salad. But of course, we weren’t done. A second meal was in order.
Welcome to the main dining hall.
On that stage is where Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, speak to the staff every Thursday. Apparently last week they had spoken about their take on the election results and what it means for the company.
Katie was eager to take me to the park where they have all of the Android operating system logos – everything from Android Alpha to Android Nougat.
It’s always good to be shown around by someone who’s so clearly very passionate about what they do. While Katie loves recruiting, it was evident that what gets her going is the company more than the field. She spoke very highly of all the different paths she can see herself taking, and all of them lay within Google. It says something good about a company if they can hold good employees like her with such ease.
For now, though, Katie kindly channeled her effort into taking my pictures!
I made sure to get a photo in front of my favourite Android – Ice Cream Sandwich.
I was eager to make sure that Katie and I had a very in-depth chat about Google and its position in the technology market currently. I was particularly interested in Google’s attitude towards China. The Chinese government blocking their services and tampering with stock Android on all Android smartphones could hardly be taken nicely by the company, but at the same time, hostility would block out any opportunity to tap in to the world’s biggest market. I wanted to know the basics of Google’s strategy when approaching an economy like this one, especially given a possible role that I see for myself in the future of bridging that divide in whatever field that may be. One of my other fascinations with Google revolves around their brand image and maintaining users who trust their integrity whilst also being a company whose main stream of revenue is AdWords. As a company who’s unofficial slogan is “Don’t be evil”, or as it’s written in their parent company Alphabet Inc.’s Code of Conduct, “Do the right thing”, I wondered how that translated to the unbiased operation of arguably the most influential media platform in the world – google.com.
Katie answered the questions which she could and promised to get back to me with any unanswered questions over email. She was very knowledgable and intelligent, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll stay in touch. If only she recruited from Australian universities too…
Katie very kindly dropped me off on Castro Street in the centre of Mountain View where I was able to have a stroll and properly check out what the street had to offer. My favourite shop was ‘Rocket Fizz’, a store selling classic American candy, sodas and posters.
I was very close to buying this tin sign for my room, but I held off and promised myself that I’d find it when I’m back in Sydney.
What I did buy, though, was a peanut chocolate bar.
I took a walk around the City Library and City Hall, appreciating the huge amount of greenery in what is a global technology centre.
And then, the shuttle home.
I arrived back at the AirBnB planning to dump some of my Google goodies which I bought at the gift shop before heading out to Palo Alto and Stanford for a look around, but the second I sat on my bed, I didn’t get up again for another three hours.
I guess jet lag did get the better of me.
By the time I woke up it was dark, and I figured that it wasn’t worth the trek out to Palo Alto’s University Avenue and that I would instead save it for tomorrow. I jumped onto Google Maps to see what classic American fast food joints were in the area.
Lo and behold.
The esteemed In-N-Out. I’ve been waiting all my life for one of these holy mother-of-all-burgers to enter my mouth.
Did it live up to the hype? For the first three bites, yep.
But then, the burger combined with the thick (super thick, actually) shake was just too much. It was laborious after I’d only finished half of it. But it certainly filled me up for the next two days…
I slept on that full stomach, no doubt putting on an extra few kilos overnight.
Day 250 (15th of November, 2016) – San Francisco, CA, USA
With my luggage still being overweight I decided to send one final box home. After a recommendation from Katie, I also decided that I was going to visit Stanford and Palo Alto elsewhere in the Bay Area. I figured that I could kill two birds with one stone by hauling any excess things over to Palo Alto on the bus for postage.
On the way, I passed by a few classic American stores.
Stanford, founded in 1891, has one of the largest campuses in the United States. Impressively, as well as being one of the world’s most prestigious universities, it is also one of the top fundraising institutions in the country, becoming the first school to raise more than a billion dollars in a year.
I followed University Avenue past the Caltrain Station before eventually arriving at the gates of the campus.
Inside, the gumtrees and huge parklands reminded me a lot of home.
The campus was incredibly peaceful. Its silence was only broken by the occasional whirr of an electric shuttle bus or red-shirted students softly talking as they walked past.
In the distance here is Hoover Tower, the tallest structure on the campus.
Inside the Main Quad I walked through the cloisters up to the Stanford Memorial Church.
Like in all of NorCal, bikes are very common here. More so even than at the University of Sydney.
It was a fairly long walk to get to the Main Quad and see the essential sights of the University, so I decided to catch a shuttle bus back to Palo Alto. Palo Alto (Spanish for “tall tree”, also meaning “Coastal Redwood”) was established at the same time as Stanford University. The city includes portions of Stanford and is headquarters to a number of high-technology companies, including Hewlett-Packard, VMware, Tesla and Skype. Pretty impressive for a city of 70,000 people (then again, most people who work in the area don’t actually reside there).
University Avenue is famous for its student atmosphere, and it certainly lived up to its name. Within a few minutes of beginning my stroll, I had already passed a protest. The demonstrators seemed to be protesting two things at once: Trump and gender inequality.
But I had more pressing things on my mind (i.e. my appetite) than to stay and watch a protest. A few Google searches later and it became evident that “Crepevine” was one of the more popular food joints on the street. I enthusiastically found myself a table and ordered myself a caramelised banana crêpe.
Relative to Asia, the public transport in this part of the U.S. (and other parts, as far as I understand) is nothing special. It means that you need to leave long gaps to commute between different places even if the geographical distance isn’t necessarily very large. As a result, I had to cut my afternoon short by the need to return to my AirBnB in Mountain View to collect my luggage and then move on to San Francisco.
I hauled my luggage down California Avenue towards the San Antonio Caltrain Station for my journey to San Fran.
It was some time before my train arrived, and in the meantime a number of express trains zoomed through the unfenced station. The huge, heavy-duty vehicles sent a gust of wind which at one point knocked me off my feet. It made me realise the sheer size of the vehicle and the damage it could do if a car or person was in the way. I began doing some searching out of curiosity and came across some truly horrifying stories about the absurdly high youth suicide rate on these Caltrain tracks. With Silicon Valley schools being amongst the highest performing in the country, the pressure on these students to perform would be absurdly high. It’s no wonder that a few of them find themselves without room to vent.
Read the story here. It’s a tough read about some real-world problems.
I fell asleep on the Caltrain knowing that my station, 4th and King Street, was at the end of the line. I emerged into gridlock traffic and toughed out the wait until my bus arrived.
The bus dropped me off at Union Square which was very close the hostel. I have clear memories of walking through Union Square with the family in 2011 back in my (somewhat) long-haired days.
I checked in at the hostel and enjoyed seeing the classic American CBD features which surrounded it.
I immediately knew what I wanted to do: Taco Bell. This was quickly turning into a fast food tour of America, but so be it. I remember eating at a Taco Bell near Market Street on one of our first nights in San Fran with the family. It was a night which Mum and Dad were deeply ashamed of what they were putting into their children’s mouths. But, I loved it. And I promised myself that I would be back.
I put “Taco Bell” into Google Maps and followed it without much thought. What I completely forgot about was the huge homeless population of San Francisco and how aggressive some of the people can be. It’s incredibly discomforting to walk through at night. During my expedition to Taco Bell I would have heard at least a dozen N-words, plenty of wolf whistling and “aye b*tch” being yelled at women, and I received a few shouts of “aye white boy” myself. Just keep walkin’.
I eventually got my feed, and it was predictably filling.
I walked back to Union Square down Market Street in an attempt to enter safer areas.
Even Market Street can get pretty dodgy, though. It reminded me a lot of walking through New York at night. I think that the nature of the American social welfare system means that these sorts of downtown environments are much more common than in Australia.
It wasn’t until 1:30am that I wrapped up my final tutoring student. I don’t mind the really late nights, because it means that I can travel more comfortably by not being so tight on a budget. I’m sure my roommates were not as happy though, especially with me walking in and out of the room at ridiclous hours to get books and other materials.
Day 251 (16th of November, 2016) – San Francisco, CA, USA
The late bedtime didn’t pair well with the 5:30am wakeup, but it meant that I could sleep on the bus to the day’s activity. Today I had organised for a day trip to Yosemite with a tour company. Yosemite covers over 3,000km2 and reaches across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. To take from Wikipedia: “Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite is internationally recognized for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves, lakes, mountains, glaciers, and biological diversity.”
Even though I slept for most of the bus trip, I still woke up to some stunning greenery each time I opened my eyes.
On the way to Yosemite Valley we stopped at a Giant Sequoia (sequoiadendron giganteum) grove. Giant Sequoias grow naturally only in groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are the world’s largest single trees and the largest living thing by volume, growing to an average height of 50–85m and 6–8 m in diameter.
The walk led down a path for a few kilometres deep into the valley. It was a pleasant bush walk at first with fairly tall trees.
But then the behemoths started appearing.
A lot of the branches of these trees bend up at the top like elbows.
The volume of these trees is not adequately displayed in these pictures. Maybe this is the one picture which does it any justice. This is me standing in a cutout of one of the trunks of the trees.
It was an unreal experience and one which I hadn’t even intended on doing when I came to California. I was far more interested in the Redwoods – the tallest trees on Earth. But these trees were far more impressive than I ever would have predicted. It’d be a top recommendation from me for anyone coming to Cali.
20 minutes down the road was ‘The Tunnel’ of Yosemite Valley. You might recognise this view from your Mac background.
It was breathtaking. We sat staring at it for almost half an hour taking everything in. There’s a few famous features in that picture, namely El Capitan (the cliff on the left) and The Dome (in the background).
A picture in front of this masterpiece of nature was a necessity.
Now there’s two masterpieces of nature in the one picture… (no, I’m not that good)
We continued the drive down to the valley floor where accommodation is for those who want to stay overnight in the National Park. From here we were given some free time to do any hikes that we wished. I decided to head towards the lower waterfall after having spied it on the bus trip.
I did not see any bears (thankfully) or deer on the way down, but there was plenty of birds to satisfy my animal spotting needs.
Following the signs to the waterfall, I found myself on a beautiful avenue of trees with the cascading water flowing off the top of the cliff at the end.
I excitedly continued towards its base.
After being asked to take another family’s photo, they kindly offered to take one of me too.
I decided that it would be the perfect location to stop and read my book for an hour with the sound of water flowing over rocks in the background.
After finishing most of my book, I headed back to the tour bus.
We began driving to a better viewpoint for El Capitan. El Capitan extends 900m from base to summit, just a little higher than the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai.
Now, focus your eyes carefully on this picture. Try to spot something on the cliff.
A little closer?
And some more?
And just a little more?
Yep, those are some climbers attempting the ‘Dawn Wall’, one of the hardest climbs in the world. The first people to do this free climb did it over 19 days. Pictured are the current climbers’ tents hanging off some minuscule ledges. There would be people in there. Incredible.
One of my other favourite views of the valley was of the “Three Brothers”.
We went for a bit of a walk closer to one of the rivers.
This was the last stop of the Yosemite trip before the drive back to San Francisco.
Emerging from the bus and walking back to the hostel, I decided to pop into Macy’s to remind myself of what an American department store looks like before Christmas. It’s a beautiful sight. I much prefer cold Christmases. For once all of the carols’ lyrics are relevant.
Day 252 (17th of November, 2016) – San Francisco, CA, USA
A good hostel breakfast if you ask me.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles about how these low-cost hostels (along with AirBnB) are really giving budget hotels a run for their money. It’s clear why. They’re objectively better in every way. And very few are still “youth hostels”. A lot of the people I’ve met at this hostel are families or people aged 40 or so.
While in Harbin I had pre-booked tickets to Alcatraz online. I made my way by tram to the pier for the boat trip out.
Alcatraz was a maximum high-security federal prison on Alcatraz Island, 2km off the coast of San Francisco. Operating from 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. It therefore was home to some of the world’s most notorious criminals, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis.
It was a stunning day for a trip on the harbour.
The tiny island slowly grew bigger.
The first thing you see when you step foot on this island is this sign and the graffiti surrounding it, leftover from the “Occupation of Alcatraz” by 89 American Indians in 1969.
The main activity on the island is its award-winning audio tour. I had heard a lot about this tour including from Dad who went there many years ago and bought the family a pack of Alcatraz playing cards which we still use. In fact, those very cards have been used in my undefeated streak against Papa in cooncan.
The audio tour is located in the cell house which is at the peak of the island. You have to walk up the winding road in order to reach it, passing old supply stores and prisoner industries on the way up.
I eventually reached the outside of the cell house.
You collect your audio guide in the prisoners’ showering hall.
You then climb another flight of stairs and are left facing “Broadway”, the main corridor of cells.
Visions of countless documentaries instantly flooded back. The audio tour was genuinely more entertaining than most good movies. It wasn’t a bland recitation of history, but rather an actual production. Speaking into your ear was the main officer as he guided you past each cell, introducing you to the characters who once lived within.
This is what your typical cell looked like.
I can’t imagine sitting on my throne with everyone watching.
There was even more appalling living conditions reserved for those in solitary confinement.
This is what the library looked like. Not the most attractive one I’ve ever seen. Through good behaviour the prisoners could earn the privilege of borrowing books.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the tour was when the guard recounted the tale of the most infamous escape at Alcatraz. It involved two prisoners who used spoons to dig holes out of their cells into the piping system behind their cell walls where they then climbed up and out to freedom, straight past the guards in the gun gallery watching over the prisoners below.
Using a range of materials which had been smuggled to them, the two prisoners constructed fake heads which they put in their bed so that any patrolling guards wouldn’t notice their absence until morning.
It would have been an incredibly liberating feeling seeing this view from atop the cell house after years of confinement.
The escape plan worked, but the prisoners were never found again after their departure. Some say that they drowned at sea in the heavy currents and cold temperatures, but others hypothesise that they made it to shore and integrated back into society without detection.
I spent some extra time wandering around the cells looking at some of the more interesting displays, particularly on escape attempts. These are the marks left over from grenades dropped by the military into the jailhouse during an escape attempt.
Before too long I made my way back down to the ferry for the trip back to one of the piers near Fisherman’s Wharf.
I had another tour planned for the afternoon to go and see the Redwoods, so in the time that I had between activities I roamed the Mission district of San Francisco walking all the way back to the hostel where I was to be picked up.
I also passed the San Francisco Chronicle offices.
American donut in hand, I boarded the next tour bus. Our tour was headed towards the Muir Woods along with an hour-long visit to Sausalito, the richest district of San Francisco on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Muir Woods National Monument includes 240 acres of old growth Coast Redwood (sequoia sempervirens) forests, one of a few such stands remaining in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Getting there involved driving through Chinatown and then crossing the big orange bridge. This would have to rival the Sydney Harbour Bridge as being my favourite bridge in the world.
You could look down from the highway on the other side of the bay to the city in the distance.
I finished a good portion of my book on the way to the woods. I knew that we had arrived when the light from outside slowly dimmed as the canopy stretched overhead.
The boardwalk led past small cabins in the woods to collections of the famous Coastal Redwoods.
These trees were tall. No wonder they’re called the “tall tree” in Spanish.
They didn’t give the impression of being substantially taller than the Giant Sequoias because they were not nearly as wide, but as the Redwoods grew in number and I slowly craned my neck upwards, I started to realise just how significantly taller these trees were.
These guys can reach up to 110m tall. Taller than a rugby pitch is long.
The paths began weaving their way throughout the taller ones of the lot.
We had an hour until we had to be back at the bus, but I decided that I had enough time to do the (typically overestimated) one-and-a-half hour walk deep into the forest. I had the guide’s phone number in case anything went wrong.
The extra hike went by without a hitch and I’m glad I put in the effort. It brought me onto some dirt tracks where I saw more than just tall trees.
I made it back to the bus on time and slept for the whole journey to Sausalito. In my mind, the word Sausalito conjures up a clear image of Dad in his blazer at one of the restaurants overlooking the harbour on our family trip. It was nostalgic being back.
I ran into my guide at a pizza shop and ate with him while talking about his efforts to stop Redwood logging.
By the time we emerged, it was dark.
With a bit more time on my hands before the evening’s bus to Los Angeles, I found the opportunity to try and go see the “Painted Ladies”. “Painted ladies” is a term in American architecture used for Victorian and Edwardian houses and buildings painted in three or more colours that embellish or enhance their architectural details.
By my own stupidity, though, I hopped on the right bus heading in the wrong direction and it was only half an hour into the trip that I realised. It meant that I didn’t have time to reroute and catch my bus on time, so I returned to the hostel to collect my luggage.
I’ll show you a picture from the internet instead.
In the midst of this fiasco I had realised that I had left my ski jacket at a tailor which was now closed. I needed the pockets of my ski jacket to be sewn together because they’d all split (as if it costs $40 to do that, by the way), and promised the man that I’d be back in time for the shop’s close. Bombarding his phone was initially no use – I figured that I might just have to cop buying a new ski jacket if it couldn’t be mailed to LA in time for my departure (which in itself would be expensive). On the lucky 5th attempt, though, he picked up. He was kind enough to open up the store again so that I could collect my jacket. Bullet dodged.
On the way back from collecting the jacket I also walked past a Best Buy and figured that it was as good of a time as ever to pick up one of the cheap Amazon Kindles which I was planning on buying. Yet another weight-saving device. No longer any need to haul around books.
The rest of the evening was uneventful up to boarding the overnight bus to LA via Oakland at 11:00pm. Overnight buses, though giving you a horrible sleep, are certainly a good way to save a few dollars. The staff member on board was showing a few signs of bad sleep after what has probably been a career of overnight trips. When she asked for my ID to verify my ticket, I handed her my student ID from SISU since my passport was deep in my luggage.
“THIS IS IN ASIAN, I DAWN’T SPEAK ASIAN,” she yelled, completely ignoring the fact that the ID was in both Chinese and English.
I pointed that out to her and she was still unsatisfied.
“PASSPAWT, PLEASE.” she screamed.
I fell to my knees and rummaged through my luggage until I found it.
My lasting impressions of San Francisco were fairly positive. It certainly is a beautiful city, but no doubt one which survives mainly due to its tourism. Whilst picturesque, San Francisco is very expensive and quite uncomfortable to walk in at night (so is all of the U.S., though). The most positive things I took away from San Francisco was the areas just outside of the city like Yosemite and Muir Woods, both of which were some of the highlights of the gap year as a whole.
Until next time,