Sasieology

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The Quirks of Seattle

Posted by Sas on September 1, 2015

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

Seattle is a cool city. It’s as simple as that. If you’re at all arty, musical or a bit different, you’ll fit right in. When you scratch just under the surface, though, you realise that this creative and chilled out culture is by no means an accident. Local businesses, both big and small, and residents work hard to ensure that Seattle maintains its quirks. This city is proud to be different, and that’s why I like it.

One thing you’ll notice as you travel around Seattle is the massive amount of artwork everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It’s outside offices, in parks, on the sides of buildings. Styles and mediums differ greatly, too. It looks like no-one puts much thought into what goes where, although again I have a sneaky suspicion that this is purposely planned. The reason for the huge numbers of work becomes clear when you learn that, within Seattle, it’s compulsory for all businesses to use a percentage of their profits to support artists. It makes for an eclectic mish mash of pieces, but in Seattle that works fine.

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It Must Be Courgette Season Again!

Posted by Sas on August 31, 2015

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We had a bumper crop of courgettes at Plasnewydd Community Garden this weekend:

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After what felt like weeks of eating only courgettes last summer, I didn’t think I could come up with a new recipe involving them. However, using some vegan pesto, mushrooms, olives and gnocchi, ta daaaaaa…

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Exploring Seattle

Posted by Sas on August 25, 2015

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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After the relative calm and laidback attitudes of both Sacramento and Portland, arriving into Seattle on the Greyhound was a bit like the first time I visited London. I suddenly found myself in a world of tall buildings, heavy traffic and complicated looking transport systems.

Unfolding the map, I could see that this is a big city. With less than 48 hours before I had to leave to catch the ferry to Alaska, I had to plan my time carefully. Using a combination of my (already tired, but toughening up) feet, minibus tour and monorail, I somehow managed to almost see everything that I wanted to.

Every tourist town has one attraction that it is famous for. There are usually a thousand more exciting ( and cheaper) things to do there, and that one famous attraction is quite often a let down, but you have to go there just to say that you did whilst you were in ___________ (insert name of tourist town here). For Seattle, that attraction is the Space Needle. This impressive feat of engineering was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and is part of the Seattle Centre. It has over 1 million annual visitors, and it will feel like every single one of them is lining up for tickets with you. I was advised to visit the Space Needle in the evening (great if you like sunsets, plus the views tend to be clearer later in the day), so I booked a ticket for the 8pm ‘launch’ (the space theme does get a bit annoying – it’s an elevator). I didn’t get up to the observation deck until 8.45pm, and after 10 minutes I was done and wanted to come back down again. But, hey, when in Seattle…

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If you want to hear, and experience, a brilliant condensed history of Seattle, I highly recommend Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. Just like Sacramento, the streets of Seattle used to be a whole storey lower than they are today. However, unlike Sacramento, the residents of Seattle didn’t think the most logical solution to flooding was to jack-up the town. Instead, they boarded over the first storey of 33 blocks and started using the second floor as the new street level. Our guide, Rick, took us through a dramatic story of floods, fires and explosive sewers (really). And, once again, I maintain that if this were the UK we would have packed up after the first problem and moved elsewhere.

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Rick also told us about some of the colourful characters from Seattle’s past. Like the traders who sold ‘gold-sniffing gophers’ and ‘snow bicycles’ to prospectors heading to the Klondike. Legend has it there was also a local entrepreneur who sold sled dogs to the gold miners, having previously trained the dogs to jump off the ship as it was leaving and swim back to shore so he could re-sell them to his next unsuspecting victim. During the height of the gold rush, a census of the city revealed an unusually high number of ‘seamstresses’ in relation to the total population. Along with a group of his closest friends, the mayor bravely set out to investigate (although there were many more male volunteers!). When it was revealed just how much money these women were earning, and where all the loggers’ and miners’ pay was going (not on adjusting clothes, I might add), they were the first to be taxed.

Anyone else who has had to watch the ‘Fish’ video as part of customer service training will know Pike Place Market and it’s entertaining fish mongers. As a veggie, I have little interest in seeing the flying fish, but I did want to see the building(s). Due to my tight schedule, the only time I had to see Pike Place was after it was closed. Seeing as I don’t like crowds, though, this is probably a good thing. I don’t think I could have handled it mid-day, and I still got a sense of how enormous the labyrinth of the market is. It makes Cardiff indoor market look like a car boot stall in comparison. There are also amazing views over Elliott Bay from out on the decking.

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As it was a sunny, warm day I didn’t want to spend much time indoors. I did, however, want to visit the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Centre and I’m glad I made space for it. Above the door, signs read ‘Enter Curious’ and ‘Leave Inspired’. I totally did!DSC_0347 DSC_0350

The Visitors Centre is totally free, very welcoming and instantly addictive. If I’d had the time, I could have spent hours in there playing with all the interactive exhibits. It’s totally inclusive, your 99 year old grandmother would get the same joy and education from taking part in one of the many activities as your 6 year old child would. As well as learning about the Gates/French family, and the incredible work the Gates Foundation does around the world, your are encouraged to input your own ideas. I don’t know whether or not this is true, but I felt that my thoughts would be read by someone and maybe used at some point in the future. At the end of the exhibition, you are invited to take a test to discover what kind of thinker you are and how best to use your skills to change the world. Unsurprisingly, I came out as artistic. I was then directed to a work station where I could create a poster and upload it to Facebook.

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En route to my next location, I got to walk past the headquarters of the Gates Foundation. I believe there is also a tour of this building, but alas I didn’t have the time. It looked so interesting, though. I don’t think my office building would ever have such cool artwork outside.

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Lake Union, believe it or not, has something in common with Cardiff Bay. It’s a man-made, freshwater lake that is connected to the salt water by locks. Just like on the River Taff back home, they also have fish ladders. Although, in Cardiff it certainly isn’t huge salmon that are returning home to spawn.

Close to the city centre, Lake Union Park is a great place to watch the seaplanes landing and taking off, take a dip in the lake on a warm day or just chill out for a while. If you’ve ever wanted to learn to paddle a canoe, it’s also home to the Centre for Wooden Boats.

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At the opposite end of the lake from Lake Union Park is Gasworks Park. As the name suggests, this was once the gasworks. As you enter the park, some of the railway track used to transport coal down from the mountains is still visible. When residents realised just how dangerous the gasworks potentially were, the buildings were abandoned and left untouched for many years. In 1975, attempts were made to tear down one of the buildings. But, as it was still deemed too dangerous, they gave up, put a mound of soil over the ticking time bomb and called it a park. Apparently, the grass on the hill needs to be replaced every couple of years. It’s not somewhere I’d choose to sunbathe, but lots of people seemed to be enjoying the park whilst I was there.

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Just up the road from Gasworks Park is Fremont, a very free-thinking neighbourhood that is home to cool artwork, including the Fremont Troll.

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Like everywhere on this trip, I wish I could have had more time in Seattle as there are so many different neighbourhoods to explore. It’s definitely going to have to go on the list for one to come back to.

Useful Info

Greyhound from Portland to Seattle: from $22

HI Seattle at the American Hotel: from approx. $33 per person per night

Entrance to Space Needle: from $21

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour: $19

Seattle Overlook Tour with Emerald City Trolley: $32.77

Monorail: $2.25 one-way

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The Architecture of Portland

Posted by Sas on August 18, 2015

Just like the street art of Sacramento had stood out for me, so too did the architecture of Portland. The city has many neighbourhoods that are hugely different from each other, and the designs of the buildings really reflect that.

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Beneath Your Feet

Posted by Sas on August 12, 2015

This week’s photo challenge is Beneath Your Feet. It’s an ironic subject matter for me as I’m currently sat on the sofa with a possible broken toe. My feet aren’t going anywhere for the moment.

When I’m travelling, I make a point of looking above me and also beneath my feet to seek out things that I wouldn’t otherwise notice. I particularly like taking photos of unusual surfaces beneath my feet.

In Iceland, I walked onto a frozen lake…

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In Death Valley I walked on salt…

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I  like to have snow beneath my feet (or skis) whenever possible…

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And, most recently, I got the chance to experience a glacier beneath my feet while walking in crampons in Alaska…

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The Long Night to Portland

Posted by Sas on August 11, 2015

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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As I was pushed for time to get up to Anchorage by 20th June (when I would pick up my G Adventures tour), I had the genius idea of catching the Greyhound overnight from Sacramento to Portland, OR. It was due to leave Sacramento at 7pm and arrive into Portland 9am the following day, giving me a whole day in each destination. Brilliant. Unfortunately, the gods of bus maintenance had other ideas. Due to previous problems before it even got to us, the bus didn’t leave Sacramento until gone 8pm. Then, as soon as we left the flat land of northern California and began to encounter hills, the bus began to struggle again. One of my fellow passengers did explain to me what had happened, but in all honesty all I understood was that there was a snapped belt lying on the floor outside the bus door and without it we couldn’t go anywhere. So, just after midnight, we found ourselves stranded in a place called Reading with a water fountain and a broken vending machine. Oh, and about a thousand cockroaches, mosquitoes and a few homeless people asking for money. It didn’t help that the driver kept getting our hopes up only to dash them again. I kid you not, this was her announcement to a bus full of tired, sweaty travellers stuck in the middle of nowhere with no air conditioning:

‘In a few minutes a really nice, new Greyhound bus will stop here. It will say Portland on the front.’

Good so far, right?

‘That is not our bus.’

‘In another hour, a really old, white box bus will pull up. That is our bus.’

Was she kidding us?

Despite its age, however, and sounding like it too might pack in every time we hit an incline, Old Faithful did not let us down.

The delay also allowed us to bond with our fellow passengers on the bus. Greyhound buses are much roomier than other similar transport, which leads to a more relaxed atmosphere where you don’t feel you want to commit mass murder by the time you get off. We all swapped stories of why we were there. Some people were making their way home, some to visit family. A few, like me, were travelling (although no-one else to Alaska). One guy looked like even he wasn’t sure why he was on his way north. All in all, though, I couldn’t have wished for a nicer group of people to be stranded with.

We didn’t reach Portland until 1pm, four hours behind schedule. I considered staying on the bus with the others and continuing straight on to Seattle, but changed my mind when I heard they’d have to wait until 5pm for yet another bus to pick them up. They weren’t going to get to Seattle until 9pm.

Another person due into Portland the same day was James Lawrence, also known as the Iron Cowboy. He’d challenged himself to complete 50 triathlons, in 50 states in 50 days. I had no right to complain about 17 hours on a bus and having to walk from the Greyhound station with swollen ankles.

After checking in at HI Portland, my first stop was food. One amazing superfood-filled Bali bowl from Veggie Grill later, I was (slightly more) full of energy and ready to explore.

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By this time it was already gone 3pm. I needed to find a way to see as much of Portland as possible in a short time. I wandered down to Pioneer Square (Portland’s ‘living room’) to find the Visitors Centre. On the way, I’d passed children playing in the water fountains. In this heat they probably had the best idea, and I considered joining them.

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In the Visitors Centre, a bright pink leaflet caught my eye. The Big Pink Sightseeing Trolley is a hop-on, hop-off service that stops off at 12 Portland highlights. I scanned the schedule – the last trolley didn’t leave until 4pm! I wouldn’t have time to hop-off anywhere, but at least I’d get to see some of Portland. The lady at the ticket booth even gave me a discount because it was the end of the day.

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Although the commentary could barely be heard above the noise of the trolley, our driver was really nice and happily answered questions that he probably gets asked a thousand times a day.

I definitely made the right decision by taking the trolley tour. It took 90 minutes to go around the whole of Portland, and the driver wasn’t holding off the gas, believe me. There’s no way my swollen, blistered feet would have carried me up to Washington Park, the International Rose Test Garden or the Oregon Zoo. And it was worth it for the panorama. We had a clear view of Mount Hood, with it’s snow cap teasing us as we sweltered in the city heat.

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Due to its unusual number of breweries, Portland has many nicknames that revolve around beer. What I noticed was not so much the breweries, but the number of bridges that cross the river. Our driver explained to us that, before the bridges, there were 3 ferry services. Before the ferries, a local businessman taught his horse to swim and would charge people to be dragged along behind it.

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One of Portland’s famous sons is Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. Apparently, there are still teachers at Lincoln High School who turned into characters in the show, and you can see road signs and landmarks around the city that obviously inspired the young cartoonist.

I’ve always wanted to shop in Whole Foods, and it particular try one of their to-go boxes. Portland gave me that opportunity at long last. My take-out dinner of quinoa, beans, salad and veggies with a bottle of Kombucha (my new obsession) was the perfect way to relax after my dizzying tour of Portland. It was sobering to think that while I’d been touring Portland and eating two whole meals, by the time I was back at my hostel some of my bus companions from the previous night would not have even reached Seattle yet. Hopefully, my bus journey the next day would not prove as eventful.

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Useful Info:

Greyhound Sacramento to Portland: from $75

The Big Pink Sightseeing Trolley day ticket: $32

HI Portland: from approx. $30 per night

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Street Art of Sacramento

Posted by Sas on August 4, 2015

One of the things that stood out for me in Sacramento is the street art. There wasn’t a huge amount, but it was really impressive. Like in Reykjavik, the street art of Sacramento is also used to advertise many businesses.

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Sacramento/American River Cycle Ride

Posted by Sas on July 28, 2015

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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I am so glad that I decided to spend the first few days of my trip in Sacramento. It provides the perfect mix of exploring and relaxing/getting over jetlag.

After exhausting Old Sacramento on my first day, I decided to have a stroll through the ‘new’ town and compare the two. Unfortunately, the city is one big building site at the moment. Weirdly, I like photographing building sites, but I’m sure it doesn’t appeal to most tourists. From what I could see, they’re planning to build a new sports stadium, and it should look amazing once it’s finished.

In a bid to stay active whilst on holiday, and to give my blistered feet a rest after all the walking I’d done the previous day, I decided to hire a bike from Old Sacramento and venture out onto the American River trail.

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Bike rental at Practical Cycle begins at just $5 per hour/$25 for the day for a basic, one-speed cruiser. This is the option I went for. If you’re planning on covering some distance, cycling on main roads or you’re not too confident on a push bike, I’d recommend upgrading. Once you’re on the trail, it’s an easy surface to ride on. Ironically, the track you need to ride on to get from the bike shop to the trail when you’re still getting used to the bike is really bumpy. I only had time to cycle about 45 minutes along the river before I had to turn back, but the trail apparently stretches over 30km.

Heading out onto the bike trail also gave me the opportunity to have a closer look at the two water towers that I had seen from the boat cruise. The difference in size between the two, old and new, shows you how much the population of Sacramento has exploded.

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Useful Info:

2 hours bike rental: $10

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Exploring Old Sacramento

Posted by Sas on July 21, 2015

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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Old Sacramento is totally not what I’d expected. I knew very little about Sacramento before I travelled there, and it was a really nice surprise. On the underground tour our guide, Steve, told us all about the history of California’s capital city. He is so entertaining, I could have followed him around and listened to him for hours.

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Sacramento has not been a town blessed with luck. When it’s not being burnt to the ground, it’s flooding. A 10ft levy that was built to protect Sacramento in the 1800s proved useless when the flood waters rose to over 20ft, and in fact only made the problem worse by effectively turning the area into one big reservoir when the waters started to subside. If this had happened to a town in the UK, us British probably would have just shrugged our shoulders, grabbed what we could and moved on to build somewhere else. This is the USA, though, where early white settlers believed it was their right to build coast to coast and ‘improve’ the land. So, most of Sacramento was raised about 10ft to it’s current level. Workers were paid $5 per day to crawl into floor spaces and operate hand winches. This painstaking work resulted in the buildings raising just 1 inch per day on average. It also resulted in a lot of crooked buildings and uneven flooring as all the winches wouldn’t be turned in sync. There are stories of buildings falling apart and people rolling out into the street, but miraculously no records of anyone being killed.

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I’ve discovered something confusing about (renovated) old towns. You head towards the building that has a huge sign above it reading ‘General Store’, only to discover it hasn’t been a general store for 100 years and has now been converted into a coffee shop.

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Purely by fluke, rather than planning, I explored Old Sacramento on a quiet day. From talking to the people who work there, I get the impression that it can get very busy. I managed to walk straight on to every tour I took, but on a regular day during the season I’d advise planning your time there.

The River Cruise gave me the opportunity to see Old Sacramento from the water. The boat takes you to the convergence between the Sacramento River and American River. You can see a definite line between the blue of the American and the green of the Sacramento. The beach at the convergence was full of families sunbathing and cooling off in the water. Considering the 102 degree heat, I couldn’t blame them.

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After burning off some calories in the old town, I headed to Pieology in the new town for dinner. This is pies in the American sense, as in pizza. My veggie pizza on a gluten-free base with Daiya vegan cheese was heaven! Great pizza, friendly and efficient service – what more can you ask for? I was a little offended that the lady behind the counter didn’t immediately ID me when I ordered wine. Fair enough, I understand I rarely get asked in the UK anymore where there is a Challenge 21 policy. But here in the States they ID everyone who looks under 40! She asked the guy in front of me, although in all honesty he did look under 21.

Useful Info:

Sacramento Underground Tour: $15

Hornblower River Cruise: $20

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Cardiff to Sacramento

Posted by Sas on July 14, 2015

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Although it sounds miles away from Cardiff (another capital city in another country!?!), Heathrow is actually only a two hour drive from where I live. Even at peak times, the M4 is never anywhere as crazy as the M25 (otherwise known as the London orbital car park). Unfortunately, although getting to Heathrow is easy, you have to tack an extra hour on to your journey to find the long stay car park. I swear if you follow the road signs you double back on yourself at least twice and end up somewhere close to the motorway exit you just came off.

Note to car battery – please, please do not die during the four weeks you are parked at Heathrow airport.

When did the Virgin Atlantic check-in procedure suddenly get more complicated than your passport application? I love flying with Virgin (especially if the option is them or British Airways, who I only fly with when walking is my only other viable choice), but having to give them my mum’s contact details and a brief summary of my planned trip seems a bit extreme just to board a plane.

My early morning start was soon forgotten when I popped into Pret for breakfast. Oh my god I love those guys! Soya milk decaf latte, gluten-free and vegan porridge (yes!!!), fresh fruit salad and a protein salad. What a great healthy meal to start my trip.

If only my plane food had been as successful as my breakfast. I’d contacted Virgin Atlantic via email the previous week and asked if they could provide me with a vegan and gluten-free meal. They’d replied no, I had to choose one or the other. I chose the vegan option in the hope that there would be something I could eat. Other than the fruit snack, there wasn’t. It was all pasta, sandwiches and wraps. I’d taken my own food on board, so I didn’t go hungry. And the cabin crew were very understanding, giving more of the things I could eat and even offering to make me a jacket potato. I was annoyed when one of them told me you can pre-order a bespoke meal, so if anyone finds themselves in the same situation I’d recommend pushing the subject with customer services before you travel. And take some food with you just in case.

When I was at school, we used to argue with our maths teacher that the subject was useless. On the off chance that he might be reading this, I’d like to apologise. I have found a genuine use for GCSE maths – trying to buy a ticket for the BART in San Francisco. The Bay Area Transit is a great mode of transport, but I don’t remember it being so weird to use. Never before have I seen a ticket machine where you have to find the fare you need from a list, put in what money you have and then subtract off what you don’t need. But hey, as the lady next to me who was also having trouble with the machine pointed out, people from San Francisco probably find the London Underground strange.

I caught the BART to Oakland, and then dashed through the city (as much as I could dash with 2 backpacks on) to the Greyhound station. Oakland looks nice, I’d like to go back some time and see it properly.

The Greyhound I travelled on from Oakland to Sacramento has the slipperiest seats I have ever been on. I’m glad I’ve been keeping up with pilates training recently because it took all my core strength just to stay on the damn thing. I also heard the funniest introduction ever from a bus driver – ‘I don’t like to be called Driver, Miss or Ma’am. My name is Nesha, if you can’t remember that then just walk up to the front of the bus and start talking.’

We pulled into Sacramento on one of the hottest days of the year. I decided to power through and walk to my hostel, which in hindsight probably wasn’t a good idea. Don’t listen to the directions on Hostelling International’s website. They are for the old Greyhound station, which was really close to the hostel. The new station is miles away. After sweating out what felt like half my body weight, I arrived at my first proper bed and vowed to take a cab back to the bus station when I left Sacramento.

One of the reasons I love staying in hostels is that each one is unique. Sacramento HI is housed in a beautiful (rumoured to be haunted) old mansion house. It is an incredible building to stay in, made all the nicer by the super friendly, welcoming staff. Plus, they have free use of towels, great kitchen facilities and cheap laundry facilities.

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Useful Info:

BART San Francisco airport to Oakland: $8.95

Greyhound Oakland to Sacramento: from $7.00

Dorm beds at HI Sacramento: from around $30 per night

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