Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

Life in a California Mission: on a summer afternoon

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A side street in Mission District

The cemetary at Mission Dolores

Last weekend, I needed to get out of exurbia again. And I really needed to do something different, something other than hiking or shopping. After searching high and low for some days, I found a tour of Mission Dolores, arranged by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. The walk was named “Father Serra, Graves and Vigilantes” and promised to lead us through the Mission, the oldest standing building in San Francisco city, the 20th century parish church next door with its beautiful stained glass windows and the cemetery in the back, the only remaining cemetery in the city with graves of Indians, Spanish, Mexicans, victims of Vigilantes and Gold Rush immigrants.

I am not your typical guided tour enthusiast. It conjures up memory of a bus load of people on a tour where they don’t even step down from the bus. Besides, the memory of my Bangkok tour guide was still raw.

However, I do like the Missions in this area. Partly because of the movie Vertigo, which is one of my all time favorites and partly because these Missions are some of the oldest bits of history that California has to offer. Also, I was never a fourth grader in California. I am sure if I had to learn about the missions in school, like the fourth graders, they wouldn’t have held equal allure for me. Another good thing about Mission District is, if things went wrong, I would be able to step out and go on to something more fun like mural hunting or taking a nap at the nearby Mission Dolores Park.

View of the city from Mission Dolores Park

View of the city from Mission Dolores Park

Lesley, whom I met at the steps of the Mission, turned out to be this sweetheart of an old matronly woman, who appeared to know everything there is to know about Indian and Missionary life during late eighteenth century California. If I had listened to her, I probably could have written a complete term paper on the subject. But on a Saturday afternoon, after a luncheon of Camarones a la Diabla (aka deviled shrimp), at El Castillito, the best I could do was to lend her half an ear. The rest of me day dreamt – hard to not do so when surrounded by the romance of adobe walls and church bells.

She started with the Mission. While she showed us around, she told us about the missionaries and Father Serra, about the Creek of the Sorrows and de Anza expedition, about the Ohlones and how the Indians hate being called Native Americans, about the three original bells from Mexico, and getting rid of cockroaches during restoration, and also about her travels through the gold country. Suddenly in the middle of her narrative, a middle aged Mexican guy appeared in handcuffs, and shouted, “Do I look like a joker to you?”. Well he didn’t. He looked a bit mad. Although, in San Francisco, you never know. I for one thought that he was pulling a prank. Lesley just said “Out or I will call the police, get out right now” and out he went, like a child well admonished. We all admired Lesley for her firmness and she went back to her narration. A good five minutes later, the police were there. Hah, it wasn’t a joke afterall. This whole commotion lasted a full five minutes. And then, business as usual.

Rustic charm of Mission San Juan Bautista (from Hitchcocks Vertigo)

Rustic charm of Mission San Juan Bautista (from Hitchcock's Vertigo)

The church next door, designated a Basilica in early 1950s, has some beautiful stained glass windows depicting Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint. The diorama and the period drawings, including ones that show bull fights and saloons, give an insight into the changing life at the Mission during the last two centuries. Lesley finished up the tour at the cemetery. During the Mexican War of Independence, 5000 Indians were buried here. The cemetery was much bigger then. Now the nearby Mission Dolores School playground occupies most of the old cemetery grounds. The statue of Father Serra stands at the center of the garden that had grown a little wild this time of the year. We were told that many of those buried here have given their names to the streets of San Francisco.

We had started with half a dozen people but by the time we ended the tour, Lesley had gathered a couple of dozen people around her – passing tourists had joined in. On our way out, we chatted with the manager who was clearly tickled by the incident with the police. All in all, it was my best guided tour experience to date. OK, I would rather have taken a nap in the park but that wouldn’t have been a quintessential San Francisco experience.

Outside, I saw a bright red tour bus. Not a single person had stepped off the bus and a characterless metallic voice was droning something in the background.

You can combine a trip to the Mission Dolores with a walking tour of the Mission district. For a step by step guide, with photos and a Google map, click here

Travel Note: If you get an opportunity, do go with the guided tours organized by San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. They are free of cost, typically held by local city folks who do this out of their love for the city. I think it would be a pleasant experience to be inside Mission Dolores when the organ plays. Although, I prefer the Mission at San Juan Bautista, there is no comparison between the liveliness of Mission District with the sleepy town of San Juan Bautista.

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  1. […] here, we will walk couple of blocks to Mission Dolores and catch a bit of old Californian history and architecture, and more importantly, some peace and […]

  2. […] to the Mission District can always be combined with plenty of cheap good eats, trip to the nearby Mission Dolores and the Mission Dolores park from where there is a beautiful view of the downtown skyline. Also, […]

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