Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Nobody Escapes Alcatraz

It is true, Alcatraz is hard to escape, especially if you are a tourist visiting San Francisco! And, because this is my mom’s first time in the city, yesterday we headed to the Rock so that she could see the famous island and learn about its extensive history.

When Joe and I spent the summer of 2009 in San Francisco, we took his younger sister to visit Alcatraz and we all really enjoyed the visit. Three years later, I was as excited about the tour as I was the first time I went there!

We arrived to Pier 33 just in time to start boarding the boat. The morning was foggy and a bit wet, but we were still very excited to jump on the boat for the 15-minute ride that was going to take us to the island. Alcatraz, or the Rock as it is known, is only 1 ¼ miles offshore from San Francisco.

On clear days, you can see the city and you can get fabulous views of both bridges, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, but yesterday we could only get some peaks of the Transamerica pyramid and Coit Tower. The rest was covered in fog. The fog was not too dense but was pretty low. In fact, we didn’t see Alcatraz until we were a minute or two away from it.

We got off the boat and, after finishing up our coffees at the boat landing, we started to climb up to the main prison to get our audio set for the tour.

I really love the way the Alcatraz tours work. It feels like most touristic places in the U.S. are very rigid and supervised. In Alcatraz, you are given an audio set and you are left alone to explore the prison and the island freely. It is quite fun!

Former prisoners and guards narrate the audio tour, which makes it even more engaging and interesting. They tell you their stories, their experiences, and share the history of the island with you, giving you a good idea of what life in the Rock was like.

Many people think of Alcatraz as just a prison, but the reality is that the island houses a lot of history in its 22 acres.  It is currently managed by the National Park Services but its history dates back to Native American times. In fact, after the prison was closed in 1963, Native American college students took over the island on November 20, 1969.  The occupation lasted nearly two years and, today, you can watch a movie about the occupation while visiting the island, and you can also see evidence of the occupation in graffiti paintings in some places in the island. Most of these are writings claiming the island as “Indian territory”, and a land of “peace and freedom.”

Despite the fact that Native Americans had known the island for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the island got its current name from the Spanish Conquistadores who called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” or ”The Island of the Pelicans.” Over the years, the English version “Alcatraz” caught on and is the one used to refer to the island nowadays.

Later on, the island was used as a military fort during the American Civil War, protecting San Francisco from the Confederates. After the war, the island served as a prison to house Civil War prisoners. The fact that it was such a cold place, surrounded by hazardous currents, made Alcatraz an ideal location for a high security prison.

But the Rock is definitely best known for the time it served as a Federal Penitentiary. In 1933, the island officially became a federal prison and, during its 29 years of operation, it housed some of the most infamous prisoners of the time such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Mickey Cohen.

Life in Alcatraz sounded pretty grim from the stories told by both the prisoners and the guards in the audio tour. No wonder some prisoners tried to escape. Despite a total of 14 escape attempts, the prison claims that nobody ever successfully escaped Alcatraz.

Today, Alcatraz houses a wonderful museum as well as the oldest lighthouse in the West Coast. During this visit I was also pleasantly surprised by a new program they seem to be promoting or supporting: The Prison University Project, which advocates for the rehabilitation of prisoners. As part of this program, the prison’s dining room has a display of several men’s photographs. Below each man’s photograph is his story. Most of them were convicted for murder and are now free members of society who are actually contributing to their communities in their lives after prison. The exhibit asks a very good question: Once a murderer, always a murderer?

Although I’m not quite clear about my feelings regarding that final question, I do know that I support rehabilitation over punishment, especially in today’s overcrowded prison system which seems to be breeding criminals instead of correcting them.

Once again, Alcatraz had proven to be not only a touristic experience but a thought-provoking one as well.

After our boat got back to Pier 33, we walked along the Embarcadero towards Pier 39 to go check out the sea lions. So much to show my mom!!!

I hope you enjoyed the photographs in this post. For more fun photos, visit my Etsy store at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/WorldPhotosByPaola

Friday, October 26, 2012

Wine Tasting with my Family!

Last week, my aunt and uncle were in town to celebrate my mom’s birthday. Their arrival was a surprise, and my mom was super excited to see them walk into the apartment the night before her big day!

To celebrate her birthday, we all headed to wine country, to Sonoma. Joe and I have been to Sonoma several times and we still continue to discover new vineyards and new fun places to hang out and to try good wines, and this time was no different.

I’ve been wanting to photograph wine country but, for one reason or another, every time we’ve been there, I have not been able to take my time to look around and capture good images. Fortunately, given the pace of my relatives, which is very low key and mellow, I was able to take a minute to look around, to take in my surroundings and to take some good photos.

The first winery we stopped at was the Jacuzzi Family Vineyard. Tastings at this vineyard are free and the staff was super friendly! A fun fact about this family of Italian immigrants is that they were the ones who manufactured the water well pumps and the bath and spa that now has their name!

The Jacuzzi winery is gorgeous. As you walk in, you look up and see a beautiful crystal chandelier hanging from the very tall ceilings. To the right is the olive oil testing room and, to the right, is the wine tasting room. If you walk pass both rooms, you reach a beautiful courtyard that overlooks the vineyard. This was, by far, one of the most beautiful wineries I’ve every visited in Sonoma! It reminded me of traveling in Italy, or France.

Our next stop was at the one winery that has become a staple on our visits to Sonoma: The Robledo Family Vineyards. The Robledo family is the first winery to have been established by a former Mexican migrant worker and it opened its doors in 2003.

We love the Robledo Winery, especially their dessert wines! We hung out here for a while, ate some cheese, tried the reserve wines and headed to get lunch to a market in the center of Sonoma that had been recommended by the lady working at the Jacuzzi Winery.

After grabbing a nice lunch, we headed to the Buena Vista Vineyard, the first premium winery in California. We didn’t try the wines there, but we found a great spot to have a picnic lunch!

In order to get to the winery, you must park your car in the parking lot, and then walk about a half-mile to the winery. The walk is on a gorgeous wooden path and it leads to a very old stone building that has been registered as a designated Historic Landmark.

After we were done eating lunch, my relatives went into the winery to check out the wines and find some souvenirs. In the meantime, Joe and I went into the caves where the oak barrels containing the wine are kept. As we were walking in, a man stepped in front of us, from in between barrels, and told us we were welcome to go inside to check it out.  The caves reminded me of being inside catacombs, but overall it was pretty cool to be down there, in these very old caves!

Another awesome part of this winery was that they had a “Heritage Garden,” with plants dating as far back as the 1600s!

After lunch, we were pretty much ready to head back home but, before getting in the car for the hour and a half drive, we stopped at the plaza in downtown Sonoma to get a cup of coffee and to walk around the square.

I love this plaza! The first time Joe and I visited Sonoma, we went there, and I bought a pair of peace-sign earrings that traveled with me everywhere I have been around the world for the last 3 years, before breaking a month or two ago.  I didn’t try to find a new pair this time but maybe I will in the future.

At the café, we drank our coffees and were ready to head back to San Francisco. But, before we left, the ladies working at the café/boulangerie gave us a bag full of fresh bread to take with us!

As we drove into the city, the Golden Gate Bridge was totally covered in clouds. We were happy to have stopped to see the bridge on our way to Sonoma so that my family could see the very famous red bridge!

Back at home, we ate some bread and sat around, chatting. Wine tasting had been a total success and my mom had had a fabulous birthday!

I hope you liked my photos from wine country. For more fun photos, check out my Etsy store at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/WorldPhotosByPaola

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fleet Week in San Francisco

On October 6th, San Francisco hosted Fleet Week, which included an air show featuring some of the country’s best pilots. This particular weekend in San Francisco was called the best weekend ever because of the many events hosted in the city over the weekend.

I had never heard of Fleet Week prior to moving to San Francisco until a friend mentioned it at a party she was hosting, and it was this same friend who kindly invited us over to a party on her roof deck to see the Maritime Parade and the Air Show.

One of the highlights of the air show was the appearance of the Blue Angels, a U.S. flight demonstration squadron formed in 1946. Six planes and pilots fly the F/A-18 Hornet, “a twin engine supersonic, all weather carrier-capable multirole fighter jet, designed to dogfight and attack ground targets,” and capable of doing some of the most amazing pirouettes I have ever seen!

As the date of the show drew closer, I started to get really excited about seeing the air show. On the Friday before the party, while I was out with a friend walking our dogs, we were startled by the sound of jets flying extremely low, practicing their stunts. When I looked up, there were several blue planes with yellow lines. I was pretty sure those were the Blue Angels.

On the day of the party, we decided to walk to my friend’s house who has a gorgeous place in Cow Hollow. Her roof deck has fabulous views of Alcatraz, the Bay, and pretty good peaks of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The show started at 1:00 p.m. and went on until 4:00 p.m., with the Blue Angels closing it.

One of my favorite parts of the show, besides the Angels was watching a huge Boeing 747 flying very low and slow, and moving in a way you would think was impossible for such a big aircraft.

After a great show, fabulous food (thanks to my friend Claire’s superb cooking skills), and fun company, we headed back home the same way we had arrived there: walking.

Bomber came with us to the party because my friend Claire invited him (Claire and I met a while ago at the park when she was out with her two lovely dogs and I was out with Bomber—we are dog park friends!). After an hour walk each way, our puppy was tired and very happy.

As much as I enjoyed the air show, I think next year I’ll be heading to the Hardly Strictly Blue Grass Festival instead. Nonetheless, I was happy to have seen it!

I hope you enjoyed my pictures from the Air Show. For more fun photos, visit my Etsy store at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/WorldPhotosByPaola

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mother-Daugther time in Las Vegas

A couple of days ago, my mom and I returned from a trip to Las Vegas. This was the first trip we had ever taken together, just the two of us, and we had a wonderful time.

My mom lives in Peru and she visits my sister and I every year and stays with each of us for a month. This is the first time I’m really hosting her, and I wanted to do something special with her, show her something different, go somewhere she hadn’t been before, so we went to Vegas.

We got there on Monday and, after walking around some casinos, we checked into our hotel and then went on to the pool, where we spent some great hours in the sun, baking our not-so-tanned skin for some hours. Once the sun started to go down and the heat started to fade, we went outside, to walk and explore The Strip.

This was my third time in Las Vegas but, nonetheless, it felt like a new experience. The first two times there, Joe and I drove in. First, coming from San Francisco on our way back to Minnesota, and the second time driving from Minnesota on our way to Los Angeles, leaving Minnesota behind us permanently as we relocated to California.

Our first time in Las Vegas was in August and it was 111 degrees, which made it quite hard to enjoy being outside or even to hang out at the pool. The second time, in June, the weather was a lot more pleasant. This time was pleasant too. Even though the daytime heat was overbearing, I knew from our August visit that it could be a lot worse.

Visiting Las Vegas carries some mixed emotions for me. I currently work in an organization that is trying to abolish prostitution, to achieve gender equality, and to see a world free from violence against women (http://prostitutionresearch.com). In Vegas, women are widely objectified as yet another fun Vegas experience, and I had a hard time digesting that. In all city corners, there were several men handing out cards with photos of nude women, simply saying “girls” out loud to all men who walked by. I was happy to see several men turning down such offers in an obviously annoyed way, but I also saw several men who happily took the cards with them, maybe to try to get one of these “girls” to join them later.

That was, in my opinion, the worst part of my time in Las Vegas. I don’t deal well with the fact that women are objectified and sexualized in such a way. Just the thought that some of these women might have been trafficked into Las Vegas really makes me sad, and very upset.

But, I tried to set those thought aside while I was there, and tried to enjoy my time with my mom.

We walked the Strip and poked around several casinos and shopping malls. Our favorite game was the penny slots where, on several occasions, we bet a dollar and made over ten more. Even though I only remember all of those great wins, I don’t think I came out ahead in my gambling. Oh well. That’s why penny slots are so great: you don’t really lose more than a few cents or dollars and then move on to the next!

Because the sun is setting so early now that fall has arrived, I took most of my photos at night. Thinking about it, the Strip is a lot more colorful and alive at night, when the neon lights are beaming. I really enjoyed photographing Las Vegas, at least the places we walked around.

We also had fun at the Aria Mall, where Halloween decorations were quite unique. On the ground level, there were two very tall pumpkin-head characters that were sweeping leaves.  From the ceiling, several orange leaves were hanging, giving the impression that the pumpkin people had raked them into the sky! It was one of the most gorgeously done Halloween art installations I have ever seen!

And, for those who are big pumpkin fans, there was also an award winning pumpkin that was larger than any pumpkin I have ever seen in my life—yes, I’m even including the Blue Ribbon pumpkins at the MN State Fair when I say that!

Everything in Las Vegas is larger than life, even the pumpkins, I guess. 

A few steps away from the Halloween installation, was another installation that consisted of icicles that were sticking straight up from the ground. These were apparently kept frozen (in the middle of a desert city) with tubes that were about 50 degrees below freezing!

Another favorite from the trip was the Miracle Mile mall. I remember this place from my last time in Las Vegas. What’s special about this mall is that, in a certain area, even though you are still walking inside the mall, you feel like you are walking outside. But, not only does it feel like you are outdoor, it feels like you have stepped into the streets of Morocco. My mom really loved this part too. Last time I was there, Joe and I were caught in a “storm,” but this time the weather was good and we only enjoyed blue skies, even if they were just painted blue!

We spent a total of two and a half days in Sin City and we felt it was long enough. We had a wonderful stay, shared a great time together, bonded even more with each other, and had lots of fun walking around, exploring and gambling! I can’t wait to take my mom on another trip and to enjoy discovering the world with her! I’m so lucky to have her with me, and to be able to do this with her! She turns another year tomorrow and she is as active and full of vitality as she has even been!

Back in San Francisco, we were greeted by yet another heat wave. It was funny to arrive to the city and to shed layers of clothing instead of putting more clothes on!

I hope you enjoyed this week’s photos—even if they were posted a bit late! For more fun photos, visit my Etsy store at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/WorldPhotosByPaola