Sunday, 21 April 2013

Cathedrals, hammocks and naked yoga

I am not going to launch straight into how I sit here in a deckchair on the beach living the life because a dog has just come and sat next to me after doing a poo just 10 metres away.
Also a small group of people have collected around an apparently very dangerous sea snake (a bite can kill within 6 minutes) that is bathing on the sand and are trying to coerce it back into the ocean.
I can assure you though that we are in paradise!

We have now been in Mexico for nearly 3 weeks and the time has flown by in a haze of churches, cathedrals, tacos, sun, sea and sand.
We arrived into Mexico City on April 4th and by our 30th minute in a country that I deem to be proper 'traveling', not the simple western vacationing of Canada and USA, we had been scammed. It is a standard that new arrivals at the airport will overpay for a taxi to the city but having been through this predicament before I felt that we had at least sourced the best price amongst the various cab operators. How did I feel when a little later I thought about the transaction and realised that I had been short changed so had in fact paid around $10 more than the most expensive ride into town.

Every city / town in Mexico is formed about the Zocalo, the town square as such. To explore the capital city we based ourselves in a converted colonial building just off the Zocalo meaning that we perfectly placed to partake in some much needed foreign tourism.
The next morning we set out for a day long walking tour of the city and as I stood in the middle of the Plaza de la Constitucion observing the historic buildings that lined all sides of one of the largest public squares in the world I took long and deep breath of the warm polluted air with that tinge of dried human p*ss and smiled contently to myself - we were now back to the real thing and back to a world where everything might not go as planned or advertised; home!
One building of note in this plaza was the cathedral. Yes it was huge and impressive but the real interesting thing about it is that it is sinking and a huge project was recently undertaken not to stem the slow destruction but to ensure that it sunk uniformly and remained intact. I am not sure what will ultimately happen to the cathedral but I imagine that it will come to rest at some point rather than disappear completely.
Due to it also being the weekend the centre of the city was awash with market stalls and other services of the indigenous Mayan populations that come down from the surrounding hills and into the capital to sell their goods. I guess it could be compared to a farmer's market back home where you can avoid the high street and buy something hand made and traditionally grown by your own kind that still embrace the ways of your ancient past. However, it would be more interesting attending farmer's market in England and seeing semi naked people dressed in palm leaves with pained skeleton faces conducting cleansing ceremonies to rid patrons of bad energy.
Also just away from the main square were the recently discovered ruins of an Aztec city that was only found when plans to build a new car park went ahead. I still find it amazing that entire complexes such as this and Forum in Rome can lay undiscovered and forgotten until they are once again found by chance and happenstance. Bonkers.

The Lonely Planet places Mexico City amongst some of the great cities in Europe and given that it was of course shaped by the conquering Spanish forces of the 16th century it is not surprising to walk around and feel like you are on a weekend city break somewhere in the home continent. (but not quite)
The architecture and city parks are very European and buildings such as the Belles Artes would be special anywhere in the world; but fortunately the Mexicans have their own way of painting a building that clearly separates their greyer cousins back home. If I already take one thing away from this country it will be that some parts of my house will be painted in the deep red, vibrant orange and bright yellows that the stones are adorned in here.
There is no way I would do it back home so why we decided to go to the primary park in Mexico City and go to the zoo on a Saturday when everybody else was out and about is beyond me but we did and it was packed but what better way is there to mix with the locals and get stuck right in to the culture? The zoo was free as I think all zoo's should be and had a great collection of animals, it had the lot. Thankfully the cages were not overly cramped and the gorilla enclosure was one of the best that I have seen. It was also amusing to take a photo of AJ at the kangaroo enclosure amongst the throngs of people to see this unique and foreign species.
The only complaint I would have is that a polar bear has no place in Latin America, let alone in an open air enclosure with little in the way of shade.

Something that became immediately apparent in Mexico was that life is all about love and the family. Never before have I seen such an openly tactile country where nobody is afraid to show anyone who cares to look in their direction how they feel about their partner. Combined with a god fearing attitude to do things in the Catholic way I think this level of amour is why there are quite a number of young families wherever you look. However everybody is content, together and seemingly loving parenthood. Of course you can see the homeless and beggars on the streets but so far we had completely safe and were thoroughly enjoying our time here and the people have been nothing but helpful and always with a smile on their face.

The underground tube network is also an experience to behold. As well as getting the public from A to B the system also acts as a place of business. A 30 minute journey can easily pass by as you watch salesmen shift all number of goods from duel ended screwdrivers to flexible pencils and buskers ranging from a blind guitar player to a man just carrying around a speaker in his backpack playing operatic music.

We decided that after 3 nights in the capital it was time to move on. Yes we probably should've stayed a little longer especially to visit the largest pyramid in the America's just a few kilometres out of town but with a lack of the Spanish language to help us along we felt it best to head south ASAP to get to the cheaper Spanish schools. On our final night I had my first beer on Latin soil. The pint was flat and didn't taste completely right - but more on that later.

Next would be one of two UNESCO listed cities in quick succession. Puebla was designed as the first perfect city in Mexico - which translates to it being built purely as a Spanish colonists only city, no indigenous allowed.
Generally the hostel / hotel booking websites are reliable when it comes to accommodation descriptions but the Hotel San Pedro was not exactly as described. Upon arrival the non English speaking 'boy' who was the only person around asked us how much we were supposed to pay. The booking was on my laptop so I said I would use the advertised wifi to call the details up. The said wifi didn't exist so I found myself loitering outside of another hotel opposite to take advantage of theirs which fortunately did not require a password.
The price was agreed so I got out my card to pay for the room to find that only cash could be accepted. In basic Spanish we got some directions to a bank and of course I was sent in completely the wrong direction. A full hour after arrival we finally got into our room / dungeon. It is funny how this room didn't appear on the website. I wouldn't really have minded that much except that during the bus journey there I was beginning to suffer from quite disturbing stomach cramps - damn beer.

What to say about Puebla itself? Colourful, beautiful and pleasant would sum it up. It is a tourist town for the Mexican's and the Zocalo has a certain Covent Garden meets Leicester Square feel to it with the numerous entertainers trying to make a few pesos amongst the gardens and fountains in its centre. There was plenty to see and the town tourist map had over 60 items listed including the obvious churches, cathedrals, museums and galleries.
During our first day we visited the main catherdral (huge), a colonial house noted for its internal walls displaying European style frescos but painted with local Mayan techniques, the grandest and most exquisite library you ever likely to see (just the type that will one day appear in Mansion Lambert) and finally the Chapel of the Rosary - listed as the most beautiful chapel in the world.
Was it the most beautiful? I am not sure but it was certainly impressive. The entire chapel was covered in the most intricately carved stonework and the entire thing was decorated in gold and gold leaf. Being an atheist I don't care for churches or places of worship and my views on religion are not positive, but I can still appreciate the architecture that is on display. What I didn't like about the chapel was the sheer level of opulence on show. It really irks me that the people that truly rule the world and preach about sin and the suffering of others do it from the surroundings of such riches where there are no doubt little boys locked up below deck for later. Sell off all of the treasures, clear world debt, give the money away to the needy and get back to basics! Amen brothers and sisters!!
With this view in mind you would think that I would have gotten myself out of the chapel quick-snap. No such luck. We were sat on the front pew and as I literally raised one bum cheek to leave the tour guide announced his arrival and set about his 40 minute dialogue in Spanish hemming us in.

During this day my stomach cramps diminished giving way a lovely condition that characterised itself as an anal waterfall that would strike exactly 20 minutes after every drink or meal. But more on this later!

Being a tourist town and considering that there were over 60 'to see' items on the map we thought it only right that we should take the open top tour bus. The commentary was all in Spanish so I can't tell you much about what I saw but what I can tell you is this:
  • The town really is a nice place to be - streets upon streets of multi-coloured houses and churches
  • It was hot - so much so that the visiting Mexicans even resorted to using a flannel or tissues as head protection - daft
  • Puebla sits in a valley and viewing the 3 volcanoes that surround the city from the top of a hill on the outskirts of the city was special (I can't wait until we get close up and personal with some volcanoes later in this trip)
  • Health and safety doesn't count for shit here - I wasn't paying attention and was nearly scalped by the electric cables that hang so low that you had to duck as the bus drove by. Seriously, it whacked me on the head whilst I wasn't looking.
On our final night in Puebla Arancha tucked into a traditional dish from the area - chicken coated in chocolate and sesame. I can't say that we were fans of this dish as it was quite sickly and talking of sickly I had to have chicken and chips as I was dealing with my own sickly chocolate dish!!

Next stop Oaxaca (pronounced Wahacka). Yet another UNESCO listed city but not nearly as beautiful as Puebla. However I preferred it.
Oaxaca is a major Spanish school location and so you walk around seeing many white faces but with that relaxed student energy about the place. We were staying in a great little hostel where all the rooms faced into the private sheltered courtyard that served a great breakfast out of traditional Mayan crockery. The simple things!
The Zocalo in Oaxaca really showed that this is the central place of each Mexican town and city. Each night the Zocalo was packed with locals, tourists and clowns alike (the Mexicans love a clown) either eating in restaurants or from the street carts or just milling about chatting and playing with the kids whilst the street musicians play away. On more that one occasion there were also full on bands belting out the hits as the locals hit the open air dance floors Samba style. A very nice place to be.
One tip though is not to play a spontaneous game of charades in the Zocalo with Arancha; you will end up looking live a div for much longer than is necessary.

My stomach had now taken a turn for the better so on our first night we entered the backstreets for a more authentic culinary experience but it wasn't the food that turned out to be memorable, it was the drink. We were introduced to the Michelada - simply a blend of beer, soy sauce and chilli juice - the result being a very fiery but tasty concoction.
The next day of course featured another church but the only Michelada to date ensured an explosive but upgraded return of my stomach issues. I now had a red and orange lava flow to contend with, with all its red hot fury!

Further adrift from the city of Oaxaca were a number of sights that we wanted to see. Having read about them we decided that one in particular would be too much trouble to get to on our own so we had to bite the bullet and take the tourist bus. How I hate tour trips and this one would live up to the reputation of ultimately taking you to the place you paid for but to all of those crap places in between where they want you to spent your money on stuff you don't really need and at inflated prices.
So the day went as follows:
  1. A visit to Arbol del Tule - a giant 2,000 year old tree that is over 9 metres in diameter. It was something that we wanted to see so this was a tick. Something I did not want to see was a Mexican toilet but it was no use - I was struggling
  2. A visit to a house famous for it hand woven goods. Arancha said that the chat about how they did the weaving and made dyes from naturally found elements was good but I did not get to see it. I spent the whole time crying in the loo along with the red tears exiting my rear
  3. I couldn't think of anything worse than alcohol at the point but the next stop was at a local distillery to see how the local Mezcal, a very strong local spirit is made and to have a tasting session. I couldn't say no so had 6 different shots of the stuff and bought a bottle!
  4. Next we moved onto some distinctly average ruins and whilst I found it both interesting and crazy that the Spanish didn't completely destroy this temple because it happened to have a the pattern of the cross running through its carvings meaning that they were possibly enlightened people, it was bloody boiling and I was dehydrated
  5. Then it was lunch time and whilst the rest of the tour group got stuck into the buffet I ordered a very plain salad. No good, within 20 minutes I still found myself wondering how long this could possibly go on for.
  6. By 2:30pm we had finally arrived at the place we had set out to visit - Hierve el Agua - a set of natural rock formations that look like petrified waterfalls. Whilst everybody else stripped off and enjoyed the naturally formed waterholes that doubled as green infinity pools overlooking the surrounding mountains we ventured further adrift and climbed down to the bottom of the waterfalls for a better look. We were rewarded with magnificent views out across the valleys and a more close up experience of these interesting formations.
The next day we scrapped the tourist trips and made our own way to another sight on the list. Due to a bout of laziness that seems to have lasted about 10 days so far we didn't get ourselves up to Monte Alban until late afternoon which turned out to be a blessing. We spent 2 hours in near solitude exploring the magnificent remains of this huge Mesoamerican city that was over 2,000 years old. Set atop an artificially created ridge this city was exactly why I found myself wanting to be an explorer in South America as a little kid. Back in the day there was a cartoon on TV that I watched religiously called 'Lost Cities of Gold'. When they did eventually find the lost city it looked exactly like this one did and the yellow rocks and stones here did nothing to dispel the fact that this was not made out of solid gold.
We took our time and marvelled as we wondered about as well as wincing when reading about how the leaders from local villages would be rounded up and sacrificed to the gods; only after being castrated first.
Forget castration, cauterising my bum shut was what was required. The good thing was that after 6 days it finally did stop and even though it wasn't pleasant I did lose some weight so silver linings and all that.

Already we were a little over churches and cities so we were looking forward to getting over to the southern coast of Mexico. Even though we were getting by with our tourist Spanish we had decided that we would make our way into Guatemala to attend Spanish school before coming back in to Mexico to explore the Yucatan and white sandy beaches of the Gulf in the north.

The bus to the coast was the safest way but given that it was more expensive and took 4 hours longer we thought that it made sense to take one of the local shuttle buses up and over the mountains. Along with 2 withered old Mexican ladies we clambered into the minibus who I am sure also hadn't paid $20 each for the pleasure of sitting in a seat that wasn't properly screwed to the floor so that every time we went around a corner or braked it felt as though I was on my own personal rocking chair.
Did I enjoy this 6 hour sweaty journey up and over the mountains in the state of Oaxaca - no! Why somebody would want to overtake a lorry on a mountainous road with a large drop on one side around a blind bend at close to the speed of sound is beyond me but when we stopped for a break by a shack on the mountainside and we saw how bald the tyres actually were I decided that it was what it was so I just had to keep my head down, read and not look at the road.
To top it off one of the old ladies shared her fruit with us and whatever type of fruit it was smelled and tasted of farts. We sneakily pretended to be dropping the pips out of the window but really we were dropping the fruits one by one like a stinky trail for a blind Hansel and Gretel. Yuk.
But we made it!!!!

Our hostel was another example of internet fact and fiction but this time it worked very much in our favour. We thought that we had booked to stay in the sleepy little seaside town of Puerto Escondido but fortunately, because Puerto was not the best place I have seen, we were 15 minutes down the road in La Punta, a dirt road of a village set by the beach with a little row of restaurants and bars that would do us just nicely.
We spent 3 days in La Punta and it can be summarised quite easily as follows:
  • Each day we caught a collectivo (a communal open backed van that acts as a bus) into Puerto Escondido and after lunch would walk the 3 miles back to 'home' along the beach
  • The whole look and vibe of the Mexican south coast is a fine mix between Goa, India and Thailand and the restaurants and bars at night support this very much chilled out lifestyle
  • The sea was un-swimmable - it is all about the surf here which is why there are quite a few Aussies dotted about. I don't think I have ever seen waves that big
  • Our hostel had a great roof top where each night we would do our 30 min skipping session (you have to keep fit on the road) whilst watching the sun set over the ocean followed by a Corona or 2
  • Each day consisted of searing heat, blue skies and palm trees - nice
To bring us to our current location we packed our bags and in the high heat of the early morning we headed to the highway to flag down the local rickety public bus.
50 minutes later we exited the bus and stood by a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately there was a taxi on standby and after brief negotiations we both got a decent deal out of it with no short-changing in sight.
As we turned off the highway and made our way through the dense bush along dusty roads we looked at each other with raised eyebrows and wondered if yet again we had been duped by the internet?

We needn't have feared because as we turned onto the 'high street' we knew we had chosen correctly. Playa Zipolite is my Utopia and exactly the sort of the place I could disappear to and not be heard from again for quite a while.
We were staying at the Posada Mexico and quite simply it was a collection of beach cabins all with a deckchair and hammock and a view of the beach. A seriously strenuous 10 second walk would take us from our hammock through the bar and restaurant area and out onto the beach. Zipolite beach was itself perfect, still giving off that sense of being in Goa but even more laid back if that is possible and was essentially a 2 kilometre stretch of golden coloured sand hemmed in at each end by a headland and lined with rickety beach huts, restaurants and palm trees.

Zipolite is also known for retaining its hippie culture of the 1970's and many a hippy could be observed during the day or at night time selling their homemade wares. The one well known fact that somehow managed to pass us by was that Zipolite was one of Mexico's very few nude beaches, although it didn't take long for us to see this in a very much first hand manner.
Obviously being exhausted from the 90 minute journey to our new home was were recuperating in the deckchairs on the beach when a naked woman walked by and cheerily said 'Hola'. We both looked at each other and laughed and thought nothing more of it; so we were staying on a nudist beach, no worries.
However, the woman then stood directly in front of us and began to chant at the ocean before launching into a full on yoga session with some very flexible manoeuvres that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. For me the funniest moments of this 1 hour epic were:
  1. One particular pervy Mexican guy walked by at least 3 times and would stop to decide upon the best route to take so that he could get the best view
  2. A fellow nudist guy walked by and for a brief moment Arancha wasn't telling me off for looking!
  3. The woman attempted to do a handstand and toppled over into a crab position and so it was there winking at us
The following 6 days followed in a blur of nakedness and beach action such as one guy lying with his leg as wide open as possible exposing his massive ball sacks. The almost horizontal attitude of the people here also makes Zipolite a gay friendly destination so it is not uncommon to see an old white male walking along with a young tanned Mexican guy.

The evenings passed us by with a little more umph. For our first evening we decided to explore the 'high street' which was little more than a 50 metre stretch of road lined with restaurants that all encroached onto the actual tarmac at night along with the hippie stalls to create something akin to a food festival.
We made sure that we enjoyed what was on offer and helped it all down with a couple of glasses of red wine before heading back for a relatively early night. Back at our gaff we got talking to another of the guests, Sara from LA, who we had seen about but during introductions all I could think about what that my dreaded stomach issues wanted to make a comeback. I promise this is the last of these tales but this is what travels can be about, it needs to be told.
I rushed off to the loo and realised that I was to expel this bug with a fury that left me not knowing which way to turn. There was a duel-ended explosion and I was left with more tears in my ears as I sat there with my head in the waste paper bin. Do you know what is the worst thing about Mexico? You can't flush your loo paper down the toilet so it has to be discarded into the bins!
Fortunately this bin was relatively empty (until I was done with it) but what was in there made me retch all the more!! Ha ha, it was gross.

With a clean bill of health we arranged with the Sara the next evening to catch a taxi along the coast to the mostly southerly point of the state of Oaxaca to watch the sunset. After a very muggy walk through the bush we emerged onto the breezy headland with a perfect vantage point to watch the glowing deep orange orb of the sun settle over the horizon. We didn't actually get to see the sun set along with the other loving couples dotted along the coastline as Sara wanted to move on whilst the sun was still in the sky (I have given her some stick about getting us out there to then leave before the finale) but we have many, many more sunsets ahead of us so we weren't actually that fussed.
After another sweaty bush walk we emerged onto a small beach full of locals either surfing or playing football and we settled ourselves into a restaurant for a superb meal of fish cooked in orange, lemon and chilli.
I am already a little over refried beans, rice and tacos so this fish went a long way to satisfying me. Overall the food in Mexico has been really good and you can always get hold of a western dish if required but we have been told that this is as good as it gets in central America. From Guatemala down to Panama it becomes decidedly more limited - but we shall see.

The following evening will be one those evenings that will be remembered on this trip and one that can only ever truly happen in a traveling environment. One of our neighbours, Nick from London came to introduce himself to us and we had a good old chat about home before heading out to meet Sara on the beach to take advantage of happy hour - which is more of a happy evening in these parts, 17:30pm - 22:30pm.
Before we knew it the 4 of us had downed a few cocktails and beers under the open starry sky and decided to move the party into 'town'. Later that evening after a few random conversations with the locals the party moved back to Sara's prime suite that had double doors that opened up to look out over the beach and there we partied good and proper until about 5am the next morning.

As for the next few days well they just passed us by like the tick-tock of the swinging the hammock; we did absolutely nothing apart from walk the beach, sit of the beach and partake in our 30 minute skipping ritual every evening to the amusement of others.

Tonight we are finally tearing ourselves away from the southern coast and are heading north on a sleeper bus to the town of San Cristobal, along with Nick, before heading further north to the delights of the Yucatan peninsular such as Mayan ruins in the jungle and the beaches on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier in the post I mentioned that we were supposed to be heading into Guatemala for some schooling. Given that Mexico is so tourist friendly and backpacking plans are there to be broken we have decided to complete Mexico, travel down the east coast into the Caribbean like country of Belize before then hitting Guatemala and the study. Why not!



Wednesday, 10 April 2013

America's big stuff

Hola me amigos de Mexico. I can’t believe that we have finally made it into Latin America and it feels like it has been a long time in coming and this is where the real traveling finally begins.

Recapping on our past few weeks in the US we left Portland in the US north-west and boarded a plane to San Francisco to briefly explore the US mid and south-west.
Now we all know that the Americans can be a little enthusiastic and loud at times but up until now Seattle and Portland had been somewhat reserved in nature. The call to board the plane came over a microphone from a Taylor Swift wannabe and went something like this in a ‘The price is right, come on down’ sort of fashion:
“Good afternoon folks it is time to board your flight to San Francisco so firstly I will be calling on all of you amazing, adorable and attractive people in Group A”
“Ok, now it is time for the beautiful, brilliant and best Group B, yeah…”

We were in Group E so had to sit through 3 more lots of this. When we, the excellent, exquisite and electrifying ones were called forward she almost creamed herself as she read aloud my boarding pass and exclaimed that she had just boarded Adam Lambert. (Note: crap American singer)
I just tried to walk by as fast as possible.

We took our seats and to head air hostess took to the airwaves:
“Good afternoon everybody and welcome. Who is flying with Virgin America for the first time today?”
Much to Arancha’s insistence not to, I eagerly put my hand up with a few others
“Well welcome aboard people. Everyone, give these guys a huge round of applause for choosing Virgin”
The plane erupts into applause and I am not talking the odd bonehead; everyone.
“Today we are flying to San Francisco, who here is from San Fran?
The plane goes crazy with whoops and fist pumping akin to a “USA, USA” chant. Even the cool looking black dude next to us let out a manly “Yeah!”
“I myself am from the greatest city of all, New York”
A chorus of booing rings around the plane.
We had no idea what to make of this so just sat back and enjoyed the show. Americans – a race all to themselves.

We arrived into San Francisco mid-afternoon and within no time at all we were sat in the front room of our good friend Rachael looking out over the rooftops towards the beach with the top of the Golden Gate Bridge to our right.
The following day we attempted to explore the city but with a persistent rain we gave up and decided to get the chores out of the way ie. Laundry and food shopping.
The sun had his hat back on in no time and the next day we were able to venture downtown and do the touristy stuff. We explored the food markets at the Ferry Terminal, walked by the ocean to Pier 39 to view the resident sea lions (who stunk), jumped onto an infamous San Fran cable car to ride up and down the city hills before taking a stroll through the Golden Gate Park and watching one of the coolest dudes to ever don a pair of roller skates (see the youtube clip at the end of this post). Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough to film the transvestite on rollerblades who seductively bent over to change the music and providing me with a lovely upskirt view of his tiny pants.

Our next tourist day saw us on an early morning boat making our way over to the fabled Alcatraz. Don’t get me wrong, with my looks and curly hair I wouldn’t last 30 seconds in jail before I became somebody’s bitch and a full time picker-upper of the shower soap but it is precisely for these reasons that I didn’t think that Alcatraz seemed that bad.; you got a cell to yourself!
In all seriousness it was a gloriously sunny day but inside it all seemed very bleak in what was a huge hall that had 160 or so cells running through it with no room for privacy. We followed the impressive audio tour and wandered around the prison trying the cells out for size, the dining room, the Governor offices and control room, the recreational yard and of course the cells that still show the evidence of the ‘escape’ with newly created paper-mache heads in the beds; and all of this was accompanied with the verbal recollections of the guards and prisoners.

I think the worst part for me was when one of the prisoners described how especially on New Year’s Eve they would be able to hear the sounds of the revellers and the laughter of women floating across the Bay from the mainland that was just a 2,000 metres away reminding them that they had nothing and no life. So near yet so very far; sod that, especially if they were taking out the lack of women on me!!

After our own escape from the hordes of Alcatraz we ventured to the top of the Coit Tower for a glorious 360 degree view of the city and the bay before heading over to Lombard Street, the world’s most crooked street to watch the many tourists driving down it at 5mph. Why hundreds of tourists were here to see this, including ourselves I am not sure and I am still a little perplexed about why we did this.
After a quick detour via China Town and watching a homeless person steal some $5 jewellery in the most obvious theft known to man we met Rachael for a few drinks and some food in Upper Haight; a neighbourhood made famous for its hippy heyday in the swinging sixties and home to Jim Morrison and Janice Joplin. Today the area is still an eclectic mix of hippies, bums, drug dealers and tourists and a good night was had in the company of some interesting characters including a Dutch businessman who had seen it all and had the photos to prove it with a list of his actual flight dates from the previous year - yawn.

We had now reached the weekend which meant that Rach had some well-earned time off from study and work. After a morning stroll through the park for breakfast we jumped into the Moore mobile and headed out of town into the Californian countryside. Before heading north we drove through the surrounding affluent neighbourhoods including Robin Williams’ mansion and via some of the beaches before then driving over the most famous San Fran monument of all; the Golden Gate Bridge.

We were heading out of town as we would be spending the night at Rachael’s parents in the sleepy wine country town of Kenwood. The drive took us through the greenest countryside, by mountainous land and Lucas Ranch, home of George Lucas (Star Wars and Indiana Jones). I would've loved to have knocked on the door but we had a date!

Looking out of the car window you could see why everybody was sold on the American dream and the land of the plenty and arriving at The Moore’s did nothing to dispel this. Their house was set amongst 2 acres of land and consisted of the main house, a separate guest cottage, ample gardens with hot tub, a field for the pet pygmy goats to graze and a ‘games’ area where you could partake in a spot of archery or knife throwing which Arancha picked up with far too much ease. If we get lost in the Amazon then she is our designated hunter gatherer.
We had a great time drinking around the open fire in the garden conversing with Brent, Diane (Rach’s parents) and Aunty Barb and when we were called in for dinner we were amazed to see the inside of the main house that we had yet to frequent. The house was split into two habitats, the dining area, seemingly homely and American in nature with some very comfy arm chairs and a grand piano whilst the ‘living room’ was a Japanese infused barn with high ceilings and wooden beams complete with indoor fish pond, fountain and hidden dart board – it was the dogs bollocks of a house.

Dinner was a touch of classic home cooking which we had so far been missing on our trip and was greatly appreciated.
We rose late the next morning and were treated a real American breakfast; homemade waffles and golden syrup. Over breakfast I sat enthralled as I chatted to Brent about his 2 month cycling trip across Japan in the 1970’s and listened to him talk about his many interests that keep him occupied during his retirement – such as week-long forays up into the Californian mountains to prospect for gold.
It was a gloriously sunny day so it wasn’t long before Brent said his goodbyes and disappeared for a ride on his custom built Harley Davidson – what a man!
Thanks Brent and Diane for the hospitality; this is your official invitation for us to repay the favour once we finally settle somewhere in the world.

We made our way back to San Francisco and spent an afternoon exploring the beaches and coastal cliff walks around the west of the city before attending the Legion of Honour Gallery, an exact replica of a building of the same name in Paris to view the various works of art on display.

For our last couple of days in the city we visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, probably one of the most enjoyable galleries that I have been to on account of it having a little bit of everything so you couldn’t get bored, we went to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies (a famous place to take a snapshot of the city) and we went back to Golden Gate Park so that we could see a missing icon from our American trip to date – the buffalo.
However, it was the hummingbirds hovering around and perching directly in front of us that were of more interest. Vibrant luminous colours, supersonic speed and only as big as my thumb – superb creatures.

We had spent a total of 8 days in the city of San Francisco and as far as I am concerned this city has it all. Downtown has that professional city feel to it but with the ocean just a 10 minute walk away, it is in sunny California, it has numerous neighbourhoods all with their individual thing going on, there is the cosmopolitan mix of people and it has numerous beaches and parkland. If it wasn’t for the fact that American’s only get 10 days annual leave per year and it is in gun toting America I would add it to the list of cities to live in.
A massive thanks to Rachael Moore for giving us a place to stay for a week even if it was on the floor!!

We boarded the plane with great anticipation of becoming rich beyond our wildest dreams as we were now headed to Las Vegas. Unfortunately this flight was pretty dull compared to the previous one but I kid you not, during check-in the employee took my passport and having viewed it declared that Leicester was one of his favourite places! Yes he was Indian but he lives in San Francisco!

We landed mid-morning but before we could even think about pumping those slot machines with quarters we had the small task of doing something much more rewarding – picking up a hire car and driving the 300 miles for a 2 day trip to one of the Bucket List items; the Grand Canyon.

Due to it being spring break and that it never even occurred to me until later we did not hire a classic convertible to drive to the GC but I was more than content with our Chevrolet especially as every radio station was belting out some old school classics. Seriously, what more do you want than driving along Route 66 with a view stretching for miles, actual real tumbleweeds crossing your path and The Eagles blaring out?
We pretty much blitzed the 5 hour drive to the GC but did manage a stop along the way for a chilli dog in a middle of nowhere diner where if they wanted to, you’d be dead and never found.

What to say about the Grand Canyon itself? Fortunately the past couple of years has left me in the very fortuitous position of having seen quite a few impressive natural sights but only standing at the top of Gokyo Peak looking out over Mt Everest and Himalaya can compare to this. The Grand Canyon is simply awesome, breath-taking and frankly quite emotional. The sheer scale of what stretches out in front of you cannot really be described, it just has to be seen to be believed. Seriously, it is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over 1 mile deep and all of this created over millions of years by the Colorado River. It is so vast that all perspective goes out of the window; there was an outcrop that to me didn’t seem too far but it was 15 miles away.

We arrived quite late in the day so after a quick look around the main observation point we made our way over to the prime spot to watch the sunset. Once again this was one of ‘those’ experiences where you look about yourself and know that you’ve got it pretty good. We were sat on the edge with our legs dangling over the side (just; as it was a little nervy) and watched the layered rocks change from a deep red, to orange and as the sun set on the day the last fingers of light seemed to bounce off the top of the land and stretch down into the canyon itself as the rock finally settled to a blue and purple colour. Even after the sun had set the sky exploded with a colourful show all of its own.

Completely knackered from a long day on travel we headed away from the GC to our accommodation for the evening – a proper motel on Route 66 – once again we could’ve easily vanished with no trace and that was what I wished had happened before I had to pay the bill for our evening meal that was only decent because the waitress was about ninety and it was funny watching her serve in wobbly slow motion.

The aim had been to watch the sun rise over the GC from another vantage point to the east but given that we were staying 60 miles from the entrance and sunrise was at approx. 6:45am we stayed in bed. We were still some of the first people there for that day and being relatively early we were not only treated to a quieter experience (ie. Americans are loud and say some dumb stuff such as when we saw a squirrel chasing a chipmunk one guy said to his son, “Look at that big chipmunk chasing the smaller one”, and an old lady pointed to the squirrel and asked AJ “What is that?”), we also got to see wild elk and a coyote.

Seeing the GC during the morning was completely different to late afternoon and you could probably spend weeks there and not get bored. The only regret that we did have upon leaving is that due to time constraints we were unable to partake in one of a number of treks where you venture right into the heart of the canyon itself and can rough it for a week or more – this needs to be done in some capacity before I die.

Being a couple of nosey parkers we had overheard somebody recommend the town of Sedona as a must see and it transpired that this place had been on AJ’s list of must-sees for nearly 20 years. Sedona’s main attraction is its array of red sandstone formations and these formed the backdrop to many a Western movie back in the day. Also a little further out you can still come into contact with indigenous people of the America’s and live with the natives in spiritual retreats. The surrounding environment of Sedona was worth the detour but the town itself was a tourist-ville complete with safaris in pink Jeeps!

Via the Hoover Dam (whatever) we now passed from the sublime in to the ridiculous – Las Vegas. What to say about LV? It is a funny old place but I cannot shake off my view of it being a larger than life Benidorm! I know that sounds ridiculous but you walk around the concrete jungle with the sun blazing down, music fills the streets from the numerous bars and majority of the younger and older adults are plastered and stumbling about with a beverage in their hands – but being America these drinks can be bought in yard long containers or a life size plastic guitar with straw. I am not saying that I didn’t enjoy my time here but 4 nights was more than enough.

We were staying at the Excalibur Hotel (the one that looks like a fairytale castle) but it was far from fantasy like. It was the cheap hotel and the clientele did not disappoint – think Walmart shoppers as opposed to Harrods – but we knew this would be the case so no dramas. We didn’t have time to ponder as to what to do first as we had pre-booked tickets to a Las Vegas show. No it wasn’t Celine Dion, Elton John, Boyz II Men or Matt Goss (yeah, from Bros); we wanted to do at least one thing properly in Vegas so we had bought tickets for the front row of Cirque Du Soleil, Ka.

Given that the theatre cost $165m to construct I was expecting something out of the ordinary and what a show it was. Simply put it was like watching a Chinese fantasy fight movie combined with the Street Fighter computer game and the Never Ending Story with a classic story of good vs evil to accompany it. The stage itself was able to move in both horizontally and vertically whilst at the same time completing 360 degrees and the production took you via castles, beaches, storms at sea and the arctic. Never before have I watched a complete fight scene with over 15 participants conducted vertically so that the audience member is watching it with a bird’s eye view and given that we were in the front row it felt at times that we were seriously close to getting a kick in the face as they flew overhead – a thoroughly brilliant show.

Over the next couple of days we contented ourselves with exploring the famous Las Vegas strip, frequenting all of the famous hotels just to look around at their opulence and of course dabbling here and there on the Roulette and Blackjack tables. The highlights are as follows:
  • New York, New York Hotel - you view the skyline of NYC from the outside complete with Statue of Liberty whilst a rollercoaster shuttles around the outside and inside of the hotel
  • Paris Hotel - Eiffel Tower and Arc De Triumph outside, a French street inside complete with restaurants and bakeries
  • The Bellagio - the dancing fountains outside and we left here $5 up!! Yeah. 
  • Caesars Palace - gigantic and a sight to behold
  • The Mirage - pretty impressive Volcano eruption every evening on the hour
  • The Venetian - inside it is always daytime and you can ride the Grand Canal of Venice in a gondola (indoors)
Each hotel is designed so that you never need to see the light of day; they are basically shopping malls that are open 24/7 and you can do everything from eat, drink, party and sleep in each one.

I would say that without a doubt my favourite part of Las Vegas was the Freemont Street Experience. Freemont St is located 30min bus ride from the Strip but it is well worth the journey. The street itself is entirely covered from one end to the other by a roof that doubles as the largest video screen in the world and on the hour it becomes a virtual music video as it belts out a 15 minute homage to a particular band - during our evening there we had Bon Jovi, Queen and The Doors. When it isn't the first quarter of every hour the street is full of live bands and people hanging around drinking, dancing an having a good time. It was great fun and as all walks of life could be found in this one place it was brilliant watching a lad in a bikini dance for money and circles form around various drug induced bums who were pulling off very impressive dance moves.

We were actually quite happy to be leaving Vegas but I think I would come back for a weekend to do it in style. Saying that, one place that we would not visit again would be the Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant. This is not because of the food because it was really good but jumping on the Forrest Gump bandwagon it was a little annoying to be served our food and then whilst taking our first bites have the most enthusiastic waitress stand over us and reel off a Forrest Gump quiz. Just to feed Arancha's look of "Just f**k off" I successfully answered all but one of the questions correctly and encouraged her to ask more.

Next was Los Angeles and this was never on our list of places to visit but by a happy coincidence it just so happened that Arancha's sister Nadia would be stopping over for 17 hours on her way with 2 friends to her own South American adventure.
I don't really have much to say about LA. Yes it is home of the stars and the rich and I am sure life in Malibu and Beverly Hills is very sweet indeed but the city was humongous and a bitch to travel around and from the parts of it that we saw it is a dangerous shithole and to be honest I felt on edge at times.

We were staying on Sunset Boulevard and were literally 10 minutes away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I didn't realise that there are over 2,500 stars planted within the pavements and they cover quite a distance over a number of city blocks. We contented ourselves with walking over at least a few hundred and took time to have photos with the ones that count.We also explored the front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre - hands and footprints in the cement etc as well as taking photos of the Hollywood sign in the distance.

The next morning Arancha was reunited with her twin after a year apart, if only for a day and along with myself and Johnno (Nadia's travelling companion) we spent an excellent day of initial sightseeing that spiralled into drunken frivolity. First up was the Hollywood Walk of Fame which was briefly followed by a walk down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Things of note from Rodeo Drive was a parked Bugatti Veyron, approx retail price of £1m and Tim from the American Office walking by. Next we all headed over to Venice and if there is one area to enjoy in LA this would be it. Venice Beach has it all going on:
  • A real freak show - which was being filmed for a tv show
  • The beach minus The Hoff and Pammy
  • The hippies - completely out there and stoned
  • Muscle Beach - men in very tight trunks and leotards
  • The basketball courts - hustling just like in White Men Can't Jump
  • Various TV / films being filmed - we sat in a bar which was being used as part of a set and watched the filming. It starred John Stamos (AJ's era) and was directed by the guy who committed the murders in the original Scream movie.
Before we knew it day had turned into night and we were all a little tipsy. This was fine for myself and AJ but given that Nadia and Johnno had now been up for about 24 hrs I did not envy them. So what should we do? Head back to their hotel at the airport to meet up with the final part of their trio, the delayed Bec, who had been part of our own trio in Canada to have some dinner and drink some more?
How they 3 of them flew out to Peru that evening and got through security I will never know but I am glad they did because our hotel was poo and we stayed in their plush room for free - result.

The original plan had been to move onto San Diego before leaving the USA for Mexico via an overland trip to Tijuana but we decided that having spent out on the day before we should head straight in to Latin America so we booked the bus tickets and the hotel in Tijuana to leave the following morning. 5 minutes later we decided that this plan was crap so we scrapped the overland route for a flight directly into the beating heart of the capital, Mexico City and a baptism by Latin fire. Mexico is where I write to you from and is where we shall leave this post.

So the USA, country number 2 is done. Before I entered the US I didn't really have much good to say about the country but my 4 weeks there have changed my opinions. Yes it still has more than its fair share of f*cked up individuals, some complete morons and far, far too many needy left on the streets to fend for themselves but overall it was a positive experience, we met some really nice people and saw some really 'swell' things. Plus, what can't you love about a country that allows you to order a 12 egg omelette or answer questions about the Forrest Gump movie whilst eating Bubba Gump shrimp?

It is always difficult to summarise my time in a country so the only way to do it justice is with a condensed clip of our time here. God Bless America!: