Posts Tagged ‘photos’

A visit to the Oakland Museum of California

February 10th, 2019

Oakland Museum of California

With so many museums in the Bay Area to choose from, I’d never gotten around to visiting the Oakland Museum of California until yesterday. It’s not that it wasn’t on my radar, I just wasn’t sure what it was aside from a funny looking building I occasionally pass by while walking from the Lake Merritt BART station to Lake Merritt itself.

The reason I finally decided to visit was the Eames special exhibit (more on that below.) A while back they had a special exhibit on Pixar and I’ve been kicking myself for missing it ever since; the Eames exhibit ends on February 18th and I was determined not to make the same mistake twice.

Before going any further, what is the Oakland Museum of California? The name tells you where it is, but not what kind of museum. Is it an art museum? Science? History? Who’s the target audience? There’s no definitive answer but I’ll provide the best one I can at the end.

I bought tickets at the museum rather than online. In the morning this wasn’t an issue, but in the afternoon the lines grew significantly longer. If you buy a “print at home” ticket you only have to wait in a short line to exchange your printouts for a sticker. As far as I know you can’t present tickets on your phone.

For backpacks and jackets they have a number of free lockers available. These work like hotel lockers where you punch in your own PIN. Be sure to test these before you leave your stuff here, I tried two lockers before I found one where the lock worked correctly.

Special Exhibit: The World of Charles and Ray Eames

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

If you’re at all familiar with mid-century American furniture you’ve probably heard of Eames. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell you’d probably recognize many of their iconic designs from shows like Mad Men or even cheap knockoffs sold at chain furniture stores.

Eames wasn’t some big faceless furniture company — it was the name of a Los Angeles design firm headed by husband and wife designers Charles and Ray Eames. While they both passed away a few decades ago, many of their iconic furniture designs are still manufactured today. In fact I’m even writing this from the comfort of an Eames Aluminum Group Management Chair.

Despite the Eames name being most closely associated with furniture it’s hardly the only type of design work they produced. The exhibit doesn’t go too deep into how Charles and Ray got their interest in design, instead delving into World War II as the couple experimented with molded plywood to develop leg splints and stretchers for wounded soldiers. When this didn’t pan out they turned their focus to home and office furniture after the war, partnering with Herman Miller for manufacturing and sales.

Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

This is where the exhibit took an unexpected (to me, at least) twist into film. After working on a few very short films Eames was hired by IBM to create a film for an exhibition. The film was displayed on several screens and explained in simple terms how to break down a problem into a model so a computer could help solve it. One such example involved predicting the weather, using the weather data to predict attendance at a baseball game, which the stadium would use to know how many hot dogs to order. Like most old educational films it’s a little hard to judge this one by modern standards. For one thing I doubt most people need to be sold on the concept of computers anymore.

Another Eames film in a similar multi-screen format was originally shown in the Soviet Union as part of a cross-cultural program. The description said this was intended to highlight advantages of American capitalism. This film didn’t age well; the dated images of Americans driving to shopping centers came across less like a promotion of capitalism and more like a parody of suburban banality. Between the dimly lit room, slow pacing, and the Eames Lounge Chair I was relaxing in, it felt like time for a nap. Each mini-theater at the exhibit featured Eames chairs to sit in but this one felt like a particularly poor choice.


The last film in the exhibit surprised me the most because I’ve seen it several times but had no idea it was created by Eames: Powers of Ten. The exhibit includes three versions of the film, starting with a glorified storyboard and ending up with the final 1977 version above.

Each version begins with a guy sleeping after a picnic in a park, then zooming out exponentially in powers of ten until ending up at the limit of the observable universe. The final version also zips back in the opposite direction into the nucleus of an atom inside the picnicker’s hand. I think the film still holds up even if the graphics look a little dated. Spend the next ten nine minutes watching the video above for yourself if you’ve never seen it.

Gallery of California History

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

After grabbing lunch at the museum’s cafe I headed back across from the special exhibit hall to see one of the three permanent exhibits: the Gallery of California History. Those of us who grew up in California probably won’t get much out of this one, but for kids there’s a lot of objects you’re free to touch or little doors and boxes to open.

The exhibit starts with the lives of California’s first human inhabitants, the native Ohlone people. From there time skips ahead with the arrival of the Spanish, followed by the takeover by America and the Gold Rush. Here the exhibit takes a bold yet straightforward stance: it refers to American settlers slaughtering California’s Native Americans as genocide.

This dichotomy of high and low moments continues throughout the decades as the exhibit goes on. Chinese laborers build the transcontinental railroad, only to return home to California facing racism and violence. Hollywood movie studios sprang up, but all the good roles went to white actors. The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed most of San Francisco leaving hundreds of thousands of people scrambling to find new lives, if not outright inventing new ones due the destruction of their paper documentation. Japanese internment camps stripped over one hundred thousand people of their rights during World War II.

Black Californians began protesting for equal rights in the 1960′s and 70′s, and at this point the exhibit’s timeline starts to seem more familiar. News footage, statistics, and a list of demands from the Black Power movement still seem relevant today.

Oakland Museum of California

The final section of the California History gallery wasn’t 100% operational during my visit, but what was open felt both interesting yet incomplete. It focused on the achievements of Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard and Apple starting out of their founders’ garages. Yesterday’s computers were behind glass, including an early Mac and a Palm Pilot. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt old seeing these “ancient” relics in a history exhibit.

The absence of any deeper insight of this part of the gallery was surprising. Perhaps it’s too soon to say who benefited or lost due to Silicon Valley’s rapid rise? It hardly fit the rest of the exhibit’s analysis of California’s history.

Gallery of California Natural Sciences

Oakland Museum of California

Just under the history gallery is the first floor exhibit on nature in California.

I hate to say it but this exhibit doesn’t have much going for it. The environmental info was hardly new or surprising, and the taxidermied animals felt a little creepy. Not sure who it was intended for as this exhibit was nearly deserted during my visit with maybe five or six others.

I quickly bailed on this gallery, but not after snapping the above photo of Oakland’s tree logo built out of pipes.

Gallery of California Art

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

The art gallery includes many styles and forms of art from or relating to California, arranged chronologically. The first part of the gallery largely focuses on 19th century oil paintings, mostly landscapes. Yosemite Valley is a recurring theme here as well as Gold Rush era San Francisco.

Gold Rush era photographs are displayed in a small side room, which I almost missed. That would have been a mistake — although the photos are very small, they’re also quite detailed and provide a glimpse into the past most of us rarely get a chance to see.

Walking away from the entrance is like a trip forward in time, with figure paintings, photographs, Impressionism, dioramas, modern art, and lastly a few contemporary special exhibits. It’s undoubtedly a solid collection though I wasn’t clear how some of the pieces connected to California, even after reading all the descriptions.

Unlike the rest of the museum there’s not much for younger children to do in the art gallery.

Before moving on here’s a couple paintings early on in this gallery I found interesting.

Oakland Museum of California

This piece by George Henry Burgess captures an unfamiliar landscape… or does it? The painting shows Gold Rush era San Francisco featuring Telegraph Hill in the center, with what I believe is Montgomery Street (or perhaps a parallel street west of Montgomery) leading up to the hill.

If you look closely a the edge of the bay there’s a pier under construction. All the ships are much further out in the bay, since the water was far too shallow near the eastern edge of San Francisco to bring ships closer in. What’s now Embarcadero and the Ferry Building would have been underwater.

Oakland Museum of California

The above painting by Albert Bierstadt sits at the end of a hallway. At first I didn’t think much of it — it’s clearly Yosemite Valley, perhaps on a hazy morning — but the background is so overdone it looks almost cartoonish.

But in front of the painting there’s a few seats with headphones. I sat down, put on a pair of headphones and hit the play button. An unnamed narrator (who sounds suspiciously like Oakland-based podcaster Avery Trufelman) walks the viewer through a short meditation-like exercise of essentially imaging oneself in the painting.

I came away enjoying the piece more after this exercise, and wondered why museums with audio guides don’t have similar features to help guide viewers in appreciating a piece rather than simply discussing facts about it.


Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

A network of terrace gardens, stairways, and patios extends across and above the museum, with a grassy field at the bottom. There’s a number of outdoor sculptures to see. During my visit some of the walkways were covered in large puddles due to the rain earlier in the day.

On the field down below a Chinese New Year celebration was taking place. Not many people had turned up, probably due to the weather.

I’m not sure if you need museum admission to enter the garden. I put on a sweatshirt that completely covered my museum admission sticker and nobody stopped me or said anything.

So, what is the Oakland Museum of California?

With the three galleries covering different topics and exhibits for both children and adults, this museum wants to be all things to all people. Without any clear focus it’s a hit-or-miss affair, never quite going into the depth I’d expect for a museum of this size.

To me it seemed almost like three museums glued together. So it was no surprise to read this about the museum on Wikipedia: “It was created in the mid-1960s out of the merger of three separate museums dating from the early 20th century…”

There’s something else going on here too: according to the education section of the museum’s website students can “[e]xplore art, history, and natural science under one roof…” The website also includes curriculum for teachers. During weekdays the museum must act as a magnet for school field trips.

My recommendation: I don’t think I’d visit the Oakland Museum of California just for the permanent collection. That said if there’s a special exhibit that sounds interesting it’s worth checking out the rest of the museum too while visiting, or at least the top two floors (history and art galleries.) The cafe’s fine, though you could probably find better options nearby.

I built the San Francisco LEGO kit

January 25th, 2019

LEGO Architect San Francisco

Today after coming back from lunch the office manager stopped me to say “Hey, I got something for you. It’s on your desk.” When I saw what she’d left me I couldn’t help but to laugh.

A few months ago I spotted a rumor in the SF Examiner about a supposedly upcoming San Francisco LEGO kit. I half-jokingly posted to a company Slack channel that we should get one for our San Francisco office.

Turns out it became a real product, and I now had one! After powering through a long day of work I got to my second job: building San Francisco.

LEGO Architect San Francisco

Unlike the kid-friendly LEGO kits this one doesn’t come with an easy to assemble base. Building the base part felt tedious due to all the flat and tiny pieces.

You might notice some extra pieces in the corner of the photo. I think it’s normal for LEGO to include a handful of extra pieces, so good news if you tend to lose small objects between sofa cushions.

LEGO Architect San Francisco

Following the instructions the first building to go up is Salesforce Tower. Clearly they weren’t going for chronological order.

The most interesting part is the way the pieces fit together with some bricks fitting in the typical top-to-bottom fashion, while others hang on to the sides. Other buildings and the Golden Gate Bridge towers used similar techniques.

LEGO Architect San Francisco

Here’s the downtown skyline wrapped up. From left to right: Bank of America building (aka 555 California), Transamerica Pyramid, Salesforce Tower.

Two co-workers who wandered over while I worked on this important project didn’t recognize the Bank of America building — not because I screwed up or LEGO’s design was way off, but they weren’t familiar with it in the first place.

I think the slanted road at the bottom with the blue and red boxes is supposed to depict cable cars, maybe? Not sure.

LEGO Architect San Francisco

Alcatraz goes over the black “offset” pieces in the base. The tower on the left looks to be the island’s water tower, and on the right its light house.

For the record the red piece sticking out on the right is not part of the island, that’s a tower mount for the Golden Gate Bridge. It doesn’t actually touch Alcatraz.

LEGO Architect San Francisco

Next up: The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square. Perhaps not the best LEGO depiction of Victorian architecture, though at this scale you have to temper your expectations.

LEGO Architect San Francisco

The second to last step is Coit Tower, which looks kind of pointless without Telegraph Hill lifting it up to the skies. I wouldn’t have even guessed it was supposed to be Coit Tower without the instructions.

LEGO Architect San Francisco

Finally, the Golden Gate Bridge! To build this I assembled the two towers, then the roadway between them, and then gently bent the three included plastic “straws” in place between the towers and ends of the bridge.

As I fitted the straws in place I snickered at the result — rather than holding up the bridge, it caused the towers to bend away as the straws attempted to straighten out. Look I’m no civil engineer but that’s really the opposite of what you want from your cables in a solid suspension bridge design.

Many have criticized this LEGO kit for failing to include their favorite parts of San Francisco, like the Ferry Building or Chinatown. One coworker jokingly suggested the Millennium Tower.

My criticism is the depiction of the city’s geometry. I realize the kit is a diorama and that’s fine, but from what possible perspective could you see the Transamerica Pyramid between the Bank of America building and Salesforce Tower? Since the set places Alcatraz in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point on the left that means we’re looking at San Francisco from the East Bay, so the skyscrapers should be ordered Salesforce, Bank of America, then Transamerica in left-to-right ordering. Coit Tower is roughly in the right position, but the cable cars should be behind the skyscrapers and the Painted Ladies would be facing in the opposite direction.

Still it’s somehow recognizable as San Francisco. Not sure it’s worth the $50 price tag though if you ever get a chance to build this kit for free while sipping complimentary LaCroix from an office fridge, it’s a solid 90 minutes or so of frustrating yet fun entertainment.

Mission mural roundup

January 20th, 2019

Calvin and Hobbes mural

It’s been too long since I posted about murals at home here in the Mission District. To fix that here’s some recent photos of murals in the neighborhood, starting with the Calvin and Hobbes one above across vacant storefronts.

The image seemed familiar; after Googling around I found the original on this page, which claims it was for the LA Times to accompany an interview they did with Bill Watterson.

Mission Street Mural

Further down Mission Street is this mural depicting a bird’s impossibly-colored feathers with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. It’s by Cameron “Camer1″ Moberg, who also created the mural at the nearby Cornerstone Church.

Now on to Clarion Alley. I haven’t been terribly impressed with many recent murals there, but a few caught my eye.

Clarion Alley mural

The mural of a woman here somehow fits this funny bookmark-shaped spot perfectly. If it looks familiar, it replaced a similar mural by the same artist group, WHOLE9 from Osaka, Japan.

Clarion Alley mural

The least serious mural here is a depiction of Adam Bomb (scroll down) of the Garbage Pail Kids. If you don’t remember the Garbage Pail Kids, they were collectible stickers parodying the wholesome Cabbage Patch dolls by depicting them in disgusting and disturbing situations.

There is a local street artist who goes by GPK, but the “GPK” here could also be a reference to the Garbage Pail Kids? Or both? I’m not sure about this one.

Clarion Alley mural

Somehow I never took a photo of Girlmobb‘s depiction of disembodied hands holding smartphones until recently, but the mural’s been there for a while. There’s something amusing about taking a photo of this one with your smartphone.

Clarion Alley mural

I’m afraid I’ve saved the saddest one for last. This one’s by Twin Walls in honor of Luis D. Gongora Pat. If this mural’s the first you’ve heard of him don’t be surprised — he was killed by SFPD but the news of his death didn’t get much local coverage. For all the details you’ll have to read about it in The Guardian. (The British paper, not the defunct local publication.)

Toward the end of his life Gongora Pat became homeless and spent a lot of time practicing soccer on Folsom Street in the Mission. Never knew the guy but that’s where I remember seeing him, kicking a ball around on the sidewalk.

My biggest surprise returning to San Francisco

January 3rd, 2019

Given my short holiday vacation I was surprised to return to San Francisco to notice a few rather obvious changes. On the smaller scale, the Muni Metro electrical substation upgrade seemed to have progressed faster than expected. The biggest physical change is at Moscone Center where the new structures appear to be nearly complete. If anyone worked over the holidays I hope they were well compensated.

But those changes have been in the works for years and were expected to some degree. The biggest surprise was what didn’t change: the ping pong table at 16th and Mission BART is somehow still there.

The People's Table The People's Table

The existence of the table was first reported by Mission Local on December 21st. Depending on your perspective that the ping pong table is still there is either due to its whimsical benevolence or the anarchist nature of BART’s public spaces. There’s no official statement from BART.

Though I’ve yet to see anyone play ping pong at this particular table during its short duration at 16th and Mission, perhaps it could be a new venue for the “Berlin style” ping pong once promoted by Mission Mission? Time will tell.

The murals of Chicano Park

January 2nd, 2019

Chicano Park

Every now and then some boring government official decides what to do with a boring piece of land under a boring freeway overpass. More often than not the land ends up as a parking lot or some other type of storage — and that’s almost what happened with a stretch of land in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego in the early 1970′s.

But when the mostly Latino neighbors found out about the plan, they organized and pressured the city to put a park there instead. Gotta love a story where the little guy wins. For more details on the history of Chicano Park head over to Wikipedia.

A key element of the park’s development happened early on when an artist came up with the idea of using the freeway pillars in the park as surfaces for murals. Today the murals themselves seem like more of an attraction than the park.

Chicano Park Chicano Park Chicano Park Chicano Park Chicano Park

Even the trees and benches are painted with park’s theme:

Chicano Park Chicano Park

The park includes a few skate ramps, complete with corresponding skate-themed murals:

Chicano Park Chicano Park Chicano Park

One archway seems to implore the park to extend “Hasta la bahia” or “All the way to the bay.” Several murals appear on freeway posts outside the boundaries of the park. It remains to be seen if the park itself will extend further over the years.

Chicano Park Chicano Park

The original intent for this blog post was to just throw together a photo gallery of street art in San Diego. But after looking at all the photos, it was pretty clear Chicano Park was the star attraction. While you can find plenty of great street art all around San Diego, Chicano Park has many great murals in one place — and an inspiring story too.

Photos of downtown San Diego after dark

January 2nd, 2019

Due to early evenings this time of year, I spent a lot of time walking the streets of San Diego’s downtown after the sun had set. These are my favorite photos I took after dark.

Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter at night

Gaslamp Quarter welcome sign over the southern tip (and ultra-touristy part) of Fifth Avenue.

San Diego Convention Center at night

The Convention Center just across the street looks like a glowing tube at night.

Horton Plaza Park at night

The U.S. Grant Hotel and Horton Plaza Park all lit up for Christmas.

Horton Plaza Park at night

Christmas tree in front of the mural at Horton Plaza Park.

East Village

Historic Streetcar in San Diego

Historic streetcar arrives at Park & Market station.

"Haunted" house at night

This spooky house near the Park & Market trolley stop is in fine shape, the ghosts haunting it must be keeping it up well.

Half Door Brewing Co.

Half Door Brewing Company, a new brewpub in an old building.

Quartyard at night

The Quartyard, a cafe, beer garden, and doggie play area on a slow (and chilly) evening.

A walk along San Diego’s Embarcadero

December 31st, 2018

Sailboat at sunset

Walking along San Diego’s Embarcadero brought back a lot of unexpected memories. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Far too late in my trip I thought it’d be great to book a sunset cruise on San Diego’s bay. By the time I thought of this there were no available cruises. If you think of this obvious activity in advance it can be booked everywhere from Hornblower to Viator to Airbnb.

So I settled for taking a nice walk along the Embarcadero waterfront as the sun slowly set over the horizon.

Heading south from the USS Midway Museum I found myself at a small waterfront shopping center. From there the busy footpath hits two parks bordering a private marina.

Kites at Embarcadero Marina Park

At the north end of the park people were stacking rocks, flying kites, and making large soap bubbles. It was touristy but also very low-key, as far as I could tell the kite flyers in particular weren’t asking for tips.

The north and south ends of the park aren’t connected. They only exist to protect the Mariott’s private marina from waves.

Mariott marina

It’s a long walk between the two parks, but I felt compelled to continue. In between is the marina with boats that must cost a fortune. On the opposite side is the convention center. They were hosting a car show with test drives for new cars out back on the waterfront side.

When I finally reached the south side of the park, a group of tourists zipped up on electric scooters and asked me to take a photo of them against the sunset.

This was maybe the fourth group who asked me to take a photo, but I happily obliged. One woman in the group wanted to line up the shot before I hit the button on her iPhone as though she was a director of photography.


At some point while walking around — I’m not sure quite when — I recalled having visited this part of the bay’s shore last time. The convention I attended back in 2007 had an after party here at the park.

Suddenly it all came flooding back. At the party I met a young woman about my age and we got to chatting. We both felt kind of intimidated among the larger group of professors and intellectuals. It wasn’t anything romantic as neither of us were single, but a mutual feeling of being lost in an academic and professional world neither of us truly understood as students. We hung out at the party for hours, young and confused by those around us.

I don’t recall her name or even what she looked like, and I’m pretty sure we never exchanged contact info. But our chance encounter was all I could think about sitting around that funny little park behind the Convention Center as the sun set on San Diego Bay.

USS Midway Museum

December 31st, 2018

USS Midway Museum

Initially I didn’t plan on visiting the USS Midway Museum as it sits right in the most touristy part of San Diego, next to the cruise ship terminals. But glowing reviews online made me figure it was worth a visit, especially considering I wanted to see the Maritime Museum which is just down the street. Besides, the museum itself is an aircraft carrier — not a place most of us civilians would get to see up close.

So I bought a ticket and headed over. I decided to walk since I needed to burn off all those calories from the Tijuana street food tour yesterday.

It’s easy enough to find the USS Midway Museum, but on my walk over I noticed something that made my heart stop for a second: an enormous cruise ship — taller than the Midway herself — was docked right next door. That meant thousands of potential more tourists to compete with!

Worse as I soon found out the USS Midway Museum doesn’t handle crowds well. You have to wait in up to six lines to get in: bag check, ticket check, mandatory photo, plus one if you drove and want to park there, plus one if you didn’t buy a ticket in advance, plus one if you want an audio guide.

Strangely none of these lines did much for crowd control, so once I got into the main area — the hangar deck — it was quite crowded and hard to move around. The hangar deck has a wide array of exhibits, but the main attraction seems to be some flight simulator rides. For the kids that’s probably fun, but not really what I came to see.

The most interesting part by far is the flight deck up on top. Since the Midway was in service from 1945 through 1992 it’s seen a number of different types of aircraft, from propeller planes to helicopters to cargo aircraft to fighter jets — and they have one of everything. Some of them you can climb or walk into.

But the best part of the flight deck isn’t the airplanes, it’s the navy veteran tour guides explaining how it all worked. Some interesting things I learned:

  • Planes could take off or land every 45 seconds at peak capacity.
  • To land, planes had to catch a cable that would bring them to a quick and unpleasant stop. I saw several videos of this in action, both in day and at night.
  • Planes had to land with their engines at maximum, because if the cable mechanism didn’t work they’d have to take off again. Once more there was a video of this. According to the guide this only happens once every 25 years or so.
  • If the plane could fly but was too damaged to land properly, they’d set up a giant net on the runway to catch the plane. The ship’s firefighters were on hand for rescue. The video of this was too insane to describe, it looked like something out of a Road Runner cartoon. Yet the guide said the pilot’s only injuries in this particular case were pulled muscles and he was out flying again the next day, and even the jet fighter itself took only ten days to repair.

Nothing else was quite as impressive as those talks and videos, but a close second is the views from up on the flight deck. On the one side you’ve got downtown San Diego, the bay on the other.

USS Midway Museum USS Midway Museum

Around the time I was thinking of leaving I was getting a little thirsty — they’re very picky about the water bottles allows on board — so I checked the vending machines. They were all sold out of everything! Worse, the cafes had long lines.

In the end I think my initial snap judgement of the USS Midway Museum was partially correct: yes, it’s super touristy and as such can be crowded. On the other hand if you want to learn more about post World War II military history it’s the place to go.

My recommendation: If you’re interested in the military, ships, and/or airplanes definitely check it out, otherwise skip it. Buy tickets online (it’s cheaper and you skip the main entry line) and either walk or take the trolley if possible. Wear sunscreen and/or a hat because the most interesting parts are all on the flight deck up top.

Tijuana street food tour

December 30th, 2018

Tijana street food tour

I spent this afternoon on a guided street food tour of Tijuana. Starting at the Blue Line trolley stop near my Airbnb, I took a ~45 minute ride to the last stop on the line at San Ysidro. The trolley stop is a stone’s throw from the border between the US and Mexico.

I’d signed up for the Wild Foodie Tours Tijuana street food tour based on many positive online reviews. As it turned out our guide Albert is the one man operation behind the company. He’s a self-described foodie who comes from a restaurant family.

The tour I’m about to describe is my experience only; this tour varies depending on what’s available on Tijuana’s street food scene. I should also point out I’ve commented on Mexico’s excellent street food scene before during my visit to Mexico City in 2011.

The tour started — ironically enough — just outside a McDonald’s at the border. You can’t miss the location if you take the trolley since it’s at the trolley platform. Albert guided us through Mexico’s customs. On foot it’s not super obvious where to go, but once you’re inside you get a passport stamp, they scan your bags, and that’s about it.

Aside from the guide our group included myself from California, two people from New Jersey, and a family from New Zealand. The last group took a little longer but I think the total time was probably under ten minutes. It’s not like the old days where people could apparently just walk into Mexico, but it’s still pretty fast.

On the other side of the border we walked over to a shared taxi stop. If you’re unfamiliar with Mexico’s transit this might be a little confusing. In American English we call a shared taxi a “jitney”, but I doubt many Americans are familiar with the term. It’s kind of like public transit in that it’s cheap and shared, but it’s not strictly official. Even if you speak Spanish I’d recommend a local guide for this mode of transit.

Our first stop was a semi-open air farmer’s market, Mercado M. Hidalgo. It’s a super crowded and not particularly tourist friendly market where you can find everything from fruits and vegetables to religious figurines and pinatas. I had to keep dodging people and ducking in order to follow our group around the place.

Early on our guide got a large fruta con chile to share for the group. This is a simple, classic Mexican snack: it’s a bunch of big wedges of fruit (melons, jicama, etc.) dusted with chili powder. The sweet juicy fruits combined with the spices combine in your mouth to explode with a strange sensation of burning sweetness.

Tijana street food tour

We stopped at the market to sample a variety of foods available for purchase, the highlight for me was a shop selling spiced nuts and dried fruits. I wish I’d bought some of the spiced peanuts but I also know I’d have wolfed them all down by now.

Tijana street food tour

The next stop was a food truck well known among locals and had a small crowd. We got fish tacos that took a while to prepare, but were outstanding. I’ve never had anything quite like it — the soft shell tacos were crunchy and grilled on the outside, but soft on the inside.

This was by far the highlight of the tour for me. Fish tacos are a classic Californian dish, but this variation blew me away. The younger member of the New Jersey group confessed this was the best fish taco she’d ever had, and I couldn’t disagree.

On the way to the next stop one member of our group pointed out that the top of a fire hydrant seemed to be sticking out from the sidewalk. Albert brushed this off replying with “a lot of what you’ll see in Mexico makes no sense.” Words to live by.

Tijana street food tour

Next we wandered over to a street food vendor offering a variety of seafood dishes. We got their ceviche, which was good though it seemed like a step down from the previous tacos. Then again almost anything would seem like a step down from those delicious tacos.

Some of the other seafood dishes they offered seemed more interesting, including a raw clam dish. One person in the group wanted to try it, but our guide warned them it would be very filling and spoil their appetite for the rest of the tour.

Tijana street food tour

Although not part of the tour exactly, we went to a traditional Mexican bakery for those interested in purchasing classic Mexican sweet pastries and cookies. Apparently California’s food import laws allow baked goods to be brought in. They’re much pickier about fruits, however. But fruits in baked goods are okay.

We made a brief stop at a corner taco stand serving carne asada tacos. As a pescatarian I had a bean taco which was fine, especially after adding various toppings including extremely spicy salsa and grilled onions. The best part was the tortilla, handmade to order right there at the taco stand as we watched.

Tijana street food tour

We had a much longer stop at an indoor juice shop for agua frescas and horchata. The owner’s daughter served the beverages for us, she was barely tall enough to reach over the refrigerators. My horchata was excellent. Aside from the bakery this was the only stop that I guess isn’t technically street food, though the sides of the store were open to the sidewalk.

This stop offered a nice chance to sit at some makeshift tables and chairs and chat for a bit while watching the people, cars, and taxi buses pass by. Albert told us about some of the other tours he offers, including one to Caesars, the Tijuana restaurant that invented the Caesar salad. The guy gets around, he says he’s going to have some completely new food tours just days away in 2019.

As we sat at the corner juice spot one person in the group pointed out how Mexico’s stoplights work differently — before switching to yellow, the green light starts flashing. At the same time the walk signal starts flashing as well, before switching to a solid red hand.

I’d noticed this as well. Some of the pedestrian signals have countdown timers, but they often aren’t hooked up correctly. (Many just flash “88.”) This hardly matters since Mexican drivers treat stop lights as suggestions rather than rules so you have to be careful and cross your fingers as you cross the street.

The father of the New Zealander in the group told me he thought California drivers were overly polite and was more used to haphazard way people drive in Mexico. He claimed it’s due to some weird quirk in New Zealand’s law where car insurance is partially government subsidized so there’s less personal incentive to avoid collisions.

Tijana street food tour

Our last major food break was another taco stand, a big street food operation that attracted quite a crowd. At this point I was super stuffed and could only finish off one of the two fried fish and seasoned sour cream tacos. Two police officers were taking their time at their lunch break as we ate. They hogged the salsa stand perched on an outdoor windowsill.

Strangely this street food stand had a storefront across the sidewalk they used for storing ingredients and such. Seemed to me they could have just operated out of there? Then again they were clearly successful operating just off the sidewalk so who am I to argue.

Aside from fish tacos this vendor also specialized in a seafood soup. That might have been a better option at this spot but it was interesting watching the guy operating the fryer, tossing breaded fish into a huge vat of oil for the fried fish tacos.

Tijana street food tour

The last food stop crossed the ultra-touristy Avenida Revolucion to a vendor offering churros. Don’t get me wrong, a freshly fried churro is great; but it also seemed anti-climactic for a food tour. Then again I was far more used to Mexican food than most of the participants in the group, being the only Californian.

The vendor made each churro by extruding the dough from a device built into the cart by cranking what looked like a steering wheel before dipping it in the fryer. These were very small, thin churros sold in a small paper bag like french fries. And I have to say they were delicious.

On the opposite side of the sidewalk a store was selling shoes… and mobile phones. Only in Mexico!

At the end Albert took us on a on a shared taxi back to the border and instructed us where to go. He said he’d stay the night in Tijuana as we all passed customs back into the US.

Entering the US on foot from Tijuana was very quick. There was no special line for US citizens. One of the New Zealanders made it across before I did, and we wished one another a happy new year before I had to literally run to catch the Blue Line trolley back to downtown San Diego.

San Diego’s Balboa Park

December 29th, 2018

Balboa Park

I suspected one of the places I had to see in San Diego was Balboa Park, but I also knew very little about it. Where to start? So I signed up for a 90 minute morning walking tour through Airbnb, Tour & Hidden Secrets of Balboa Park. The tour was a great intro to the park, going over its history, plants, architecture, and pointing out a few hidden spots most visitors probably miss.

The main area of the park includes a lot to see: a number of museums, a botanical garden, a Spanish Village-themed art gallery, the Shakespeare-inspired Old Globe Theater, a couple of restaurants, an outdoor auditorium for organist performances, various gardens, and probably many other things I missed.

Point is you could easily spend a day or two here if you wanted to see everything. And that’s only one small section of the park: there are also hiking trails, the San Diego Zoo (but not the Safari Zoo), and even a hospital.

Balboa Park Balboa Park Balboa Park Balboa Park

Many of the buildings in the main stretch of the park today were built for two expositions, the first of which coincided with the opening of the Panama Canal. Those buildings have either been restored or replaced since exposition buildings are typically meant to be temporary.

The reflecting pool in the last photo in the above gallery sits in front of the botanical garden. For whatever reason so many people have abandoned unwanted exotic pets there the park had to put up a sign telling people not to abandon animals in the pool.

This immediately reminded me of a story I heard on the Gaslamp tour where a bar owner kept exotic animals including a bear. His animal collection was tolerated until the bear bit a police officer’s nose, and so the barkeeper was ordered to remove the animals from his bar. The barkeeper’s solution? He just abandoned them all outside of town. If this is how San Diegans have treated their animals over the years, it certainly puts SeaWorld in context.

Balboa Park

My favorite part of the botanical garden was this tiny sign in a small garden devoted to carnivorous plants, although the touch-and-sniff herb garden was a close second.

Speaking of funny and unexpected signs…

Balboa Park

As the tour ended a fleet of food trucks were setting up shop. Due to a scheduling problem — for once not my fault — I thought I only had a few hours to spare after the tour. So I grabbed a quick lunch at a food truck and ate it at a sunken garden that at one point in time was apparently a nudist colony.

On one hand it’s hard to imagine paying to watch naked people go about their day at a park, on the other hand they didn’t exactly have YouTube back then. And hey, you’re reading about my travels so who are you to judge how other spend their free time?

Before jumping on a bus out of Balboa Park for the day, there was one quick stop I knew I had to make.

Timken Museum of Art Timken Museum of Art

The Timken Museum of Art is a tiny museum with free admission in Balboa Park. It’s a quirky little museum featuring mostly European paintings from the 16th through the 18th centuries, give or take.

Overall it’s a tasteful collection and it’s hard to argue with the price of entry. The museum guards kept having to shoo away toddlers and small children from the priceless paintings — a thankless job to be sure.

Timken Museum of Art

A few minutes before I left the above painting caught my eye. At first I thought I must have seen the painting before, then I realized no, it only looked familiar because I’ve been there. I forgot to write down the year or artist behind this painting but suffice it to say Saint Mark’s Square in Venice is well preserved.

How strange is it that a trip to San Diego made me reminisce about my trip to Italy?