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!:


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