A Travellerspoint blog

September 2009

Hey! Hey! USA!

Having a whale of a time in Washington D.C.

Having spent a month lazing around in Seville, we decided that it was time to start doing some serious travelling again. After much discussion and perusing of our (increasingly battered) world map, we decided on America, partly because it’s a country that is high on both our lists, and partly because we wanted to see it before winter sets in!

The flight from London was fabulous, the first long-haul flight I have actually enjoyed. We flew with United Airways and were extremely impressed. The crew were professional, courteous and helpful, our section of the plane was mercifully quiet, and the food was good. We will definitely fly with them again.

So, eight and a half hours later we landed in Washington D.C. This is my first visit to the U.S., and although Pete has been a couple of times before to visit family, he hasn’t really done much in the way of touristy stuff here. We wanted a relatively gentle introduction to the east coast, and figured that D.C. would be an easy city in which to get our bearings. It was a good choice! We loved it immediately, and soon decided to extend our one week stay to two.

The first thing that really struck me here was how strange it was to see places in real life that I’d seen forever on TV:

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a) Pete, with the Washington Monument way in the background. Most people recognise it as the monument which was built in honour of George Washington, the country's first president; me, I remember it from the movie Mars Attacks, where the aliens play spaceship ping-pong with it before finally knocking it over!
b) The Lincoln Memorial. Abraham Lincoln was America's 16th president, and the first to be assassinated. He reportedly had a premonition of his own death, and some people claim to have seen his ghost in the White House.

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c) The Capitol. The dome is cast iron and weighs 8,909,200 pounds. (I have it on good authority that the only thing holding it up is all the hot air from Congress!)
d) Me, as close to the White House as I was gonna get (and desperately in need of a hair cut!) We wanted to do a tour, but apparently you need to book well in advance. Oh well... shoulda done my homework, eh?

There are, of course, cultural differences, and even though we all speak English, it soon became clear that we are not necessarily talking the same language all of the time! Accents have been a problem for me, especially in situations where I am unable to see the speaker’s face. I never did overcome this problem, so station announcements on the Metro remained an incomprehensible babble. Happily this was not a problem because a) Pete understood what was being said 99% of the time, and b) each of the Metro trains had maps, and the stations themselves were clearly signed.

Further lingo lessons learned include:
- Do not ask for a ‘jam donut’ in bakeries ‘cos you will confuse the server. They’re jelly donuts here!
- Asking to have your ‘fringe’ cut may lead your hairdresser to have convulsions through laughing so hard. “They’re bangs”, she told me, between bouts of hysteria. (Has anybody written a UK English - American English dictionary? That would be most useful!)

On the whole, though, our British dialect received a positive response. We got chatting to a guy on the Metro, who said, “I love your accent. It’s cool.” After a short pause he continued: “You guys say ‘telly’, right?” He found this very amusing. Shame I didn’t get the chance to tell him about goggle boxes, boob tubes and idiot boxes. (Who knew that synonyms for the word ‘television’ could be so entertaining?)

People are also a lot more obvious about their political affiliations here. There are souvenir stalls where you can buy pro-Obama t-shirts, like these... or, the other side of the coin: “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for McCain and Palin”. There are political souvenir shops all over the place, and you can pose to have your picture taken with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the Prez. I didn't think this sort of thing would ever catch on in the UK, but apparently I was wrong!

As to be expected in a big city like D.C., there is a lot to see and do. Highlights we particularly enjoyed included:

The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian comprises 19 museums, 9 research centres and a national zoo - and they are all free to visit! We saw the Air and Space Museum, The American Indian Museum, and briefly popped into the Natural History Museum because I wanted to see the Hope diamond. (It's supposed to be cursed!)

The Hope Diamond weighs 45 carats, and is said to bring death or madness to its owners. The Smithsonian refute this claim, however, 'cos nothing weird has happened since they've been in possession of it. Yet.


DUCWs (or ‘ducks’) are old military vehicles which are capable of travelling on land or through water.

Although they are called 'ducks', they are really 'DUKWs'. The name comes from the model naming terminology used by General Motors: D indicates a vehicle designed in 1942; U means 'utility'; K is for all-wheel drive; and W indicates two powered rear axles. I think 'duck' is nicer!

I was most disappointed to find out that they couldn’t fly, but I wanted to go on one anyway. I think this was the perfect city tour for us. It lasted an hour and a half, took in all the major sights, and included a paddle along the Potomac River. Our captain was a friendly and enthusiastic guide, and interspersed his facts and figures with some really appalling duck jokes, like this one:

A duck walks into a drugstore and says, "Give me some Chapstick."
"How are you going to pay for that?" asks the clerk.
"Oh," the duck replied. "Just put it on my bill."

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Listening to all those duck jokes drove us quackers! (BTW, you might notice I finally got that hair cut.)

Mount Vernon

This is George Washington’s estate in Virginia, which has been kept in its original condition and opened to tourists. It was a lovely way to spend a few hours, wandering through the house and gardens.

The estate used to be known as Hunting Creek Plantation. During George Washington's occupancy, it grew from 2,000 acres to over 8,000.

Johnny Rockets

Silly, I know, but I got to eat a hotdog at one of those 50’s themed restaurants where they play Buddy Holly records and the servers all wear old-fashioned uniforms. I loved it, even though it was tacky in a ‘Happy Days’ kind of way.

So, America is off to a great start for us. I can really see this being the highlight of our trip!

More very soon,


Posted by Julie1972 21:01 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Free Saunas in Seville

Getting hot under the collar in southern Spain

So for the last four weeks we have being enjoying the laid-back lifestyle in Seville, not that we had much choice in the matter. The place is known as the Frying Pan of Europe for a reason, and it is much too hot to do anything that requires excessive effort or speed – during daylight hours, anyway! The Spanish run on a different time zone to the rest of Europe: up early, siesta for several hours in the afternoon, then carry on through the evening and into the night. To be honest, my body clock never caught onto this way of life, and the only bit I actually mastered was the long afternoon nap!

Pete loves the heat; if he had his way it'd be summer all year round.

Seville is a truly beautiful old city, full of cobbled streets with religious names and stunning Gothic architecture. Modern cars look out of place on the maze of narrow roads; it would seem a lot more natural if people drove around in horse and carts. Driving is actually quite nerve-racking through the back streets: the cars are too big to go round corners easily, and the pavements are too narrow in places for pedestrians to safely get out of their way!

Seville street scene, taken during siesta when only mad dogs and honorary Kiwis were out in the midday sun.

Another hazard these little streets cause is the Air Con Drip. Watch out for puddles of water on the pavement, and avoid them if you can, ‘cos sooner or later you are guaranteed to feel a warm splash of liquid from someone’s air conditioning pipe. Decidedly icky!

The intense heat means that there are a lot of fountains around, usually with someone dunking their head in it. The authorities have also cleverly provided street sprinkler systems in some areas: these give a fine spray of water throughout the day, and are very popular with small children and shaggy dogs.

Street sprinkler systems – probably the best idea Seville Council ever had!

As in so many other hot countries we’ve seen, Spanish life mainly takes place outdoors: people sit on their terraces and balconies chatting late into the night, or congregate at the many restaurants and bars for al fresco drinks and dining. We spent a great deal of time investigating many of these establishments ourselves, and felt right at home in Flaherty’s Irish Pub, conveniently opposite the cathedral in the city centre. (They serve a fabulous selection of British food - a godsend when you’re hit with fish and chip cravings!)

Spanish food tends to be based heavily around red meat – they love ham and heavy, spicy sausages like chorizo. You can find vegetarian versions of their traditional dishes, but you may have to look long and hard for them. One thing the Spanish don’t do properly, however, is sandwiches. Give ‘em two pieces of bread and they’ll generally stick one of three things inside it: ham, chorizo or tortilla. Don’t be fooled by the places that advertise ‘vegetal’ baguettes, either. Vegetal means ‘vegetable’ or ‘salad’ in Spanish, but both times I ordered it I got a tuna roll instead. (Tuna is ‘atún’, by the way, so I didn’t just order the wrong thing... twice.)

Actually renting an apartment rather than staying in a hotel meant that we got to experience more of the mundane day-to-day stuff than we usually would (including cleaning up after ourselves and cooking. Chambermaids and room service, oh how we missed you!) One of the first pieces of information we asked our landlord for –after nagging for the Wi-Fi login codes - was the location of nearby supermarkets, where the staff proved to be paranoid on one hand, and lackadaisical on the other. We were made to put our bags into lockers at the store entrance and Pete was pounced upon by one enthusiastic employee and made to wear plastic gloves when handling fresh produce, but toddlers using plums as missiles didn’t as much as raise an eyebrow. Oh well...

Shopping, naturally, leads to garbage, and disposing of this wasn’t as straightforward as we’d anticipated. Instead of sticking it into garbage/recycling bins and waiting for someone to come and collect it, you have to take it away yourself. There are huge bins on many street corners, with containers for organic waste, bottles, other recyclable materials and ‘everything else’. Every household is responsible for carrying their own rubbish down to these containers and disposing of it appropriately. Thinking about it, this make sense; the streets are so tiny you’d never fit a garbage truck down them, and if everyone stuck a trash can outside pedestrians would be forced to walk down the middle of the road. It’s just not practical! The other advantage of this mega-bin solution is that it provides an easy way for unwanted items to get recycled: if someone throws something away that is in decent condition, chances are somebody else will fish it out of the garbage and put it to good use. Better than clogging up the landfill sites anyway.

During our month here we did more than just eating, drinking and slobbing out. Not a lot more, admittedly, but that’s beside the point. Places of interest include:

Seville Cathedral (Catedral de Santa María de la Sede)

This is actually the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Christopher Columbus is buried here.

I have no words to explain how jaw-droppingly impressive this is. I’ve seen renowned cathedrals before, including Notre Dame and St. Pauls, but neither of them can hold a big fat candle to Santa Maria. If you get a chance to see it, go. Not into churches? Don’t care about architecture? Go anyway. There are a whole range of words I could use to describe this place, from opulent to ostentatious, but mere words and pictures can’t begin to scratch the surface.

Me at Seville cathedral, stupidly standing outside in the blistering sun instead of hiding inside the cool building, like a sensible person would do.

The Bullring (Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza)

Pete and I did much humming and hawing before we chose to take a tour of Seville’s famous bullring. Neither of us agrees with bullfighting, and we absolutely point-blank refuse to attend an actual fight, but we couldn’t decide whether or not it would be hypocritical of us to indirectly sponsor the ‘sport’ by paying to tour the arena. In the end we felt that we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see such a unique and unusual building. You just don’t get these places in many other parts of the world, and my nosy self got the better of my conscience (*).

The arena seats 14,000 people, and is a popular attraction for both locals and tourists. (The lady at the front was our tour guide.)

Anyway, the bullring tour was an unusually short one, taking only 30 minutes. The guide gave explanations alternately in Spanish and English, so we were able to do more than just look and take photos. For the gore-lovers among you, this is what I learned about Spanish bullfights:

They have three stages, and always involve two bullfighters.

Stage 1:

The bullfighter, mounted on a blindfolded horse, provokes the bull by stick a lance into its neck to weaken the strong muscles.

Stage 2:

The fighter further antagonises the bull using decorated darts called “banderillas”.

Stage 3:

The bullfighter uses his red cape to bring the bull closer to his body. When the bull is weak and cannot charge any more, the bullfighter administers the death stroke with his sword. It is interesting to note that bullfighters are rarely injured or killed during fights; pity the same can’t be said for the bulls!

(*) I can't consider myself an animal rights supporter in any real sense of the word: I eat meat and wear leather, and am well aware that animals are not always raised in wholesome conditions; but I also feel that there is a big difference between killing animals for a use (food, clothing) and torturing in the name of fun, and I will never be a fan of bullfighting or fox hunting.

Rant over. I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...

Free sauna at the Tower of Perdigones

By far the most memorable day trip for us was the one we made to the camera obscura on a boiling hot Sunday afternoon. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a camera obscura is basically a tall tower with a periscope on top. Inside the tower is a large screen, and by adjusting the periscope you can see the city for miles around. At first it looked like we were viewing an enormous photograph, but if you look closely you can make out details like washing flapping in the breeze, pedestrians walking, and tiny cars moving down the roads.

The camera obscura is 45m tall and lets you spy on people miles away!

This is how we got the free sauna: We’d finished with the periscope viewing, taken a walk around the balcony for some great city photos, thanked the guide for his excellent and enthusiastic presentation, and got into the lift. The lift proceeded to move several inches, then abruptly stopped. The lights on the control panel went out. Our guide says, “We have a problem.” Possibly the understatement of the year, seeing as how we were between floors, couldn’t force the doors, and couldn’t get the control panel to respond in any way. To top it off, our guide was the only bloke on duty. There used to be two staff members, he told us, but now he was the only one. He also told us that the lift frequently broke down. Great. To top it off, it was a Sunday. Nobody does anything in Spain on a Sunday, except go to church.

Oh dear.

So the guide does two things: 1) he calls his wife; 2) he presses the emergency button on the control panel and has a long-winded conversation with someone at the elevator manufacturers. Pete and I don’t understand either of these conversations, but are reassured that help is on the way.

It’s funny what goes through your mind when you’re stuck in a metal box in forty-degree heat. My thoughts started off logical enough, given the circumstances:

“I wish I’d bought a book. I never go anywhere without a book. Why didn’t I bring one today?”
“I wish I’d bought an air conditioning unit, too.”
“And a Coke machine.”

At this point I start fantasising about someone pushing a big straw under the door, attached to an unlimited supply of something cold and delicious. I started thinking about rescue dogs, and how St. Bernards will walk for miles through ice and snow to provide some poor frozen sucker with a keg of brandy; me, I’d have settled for a labradoodle with a carton of cheap white wine.

Finally Pete and I decide to find out the nature of our potential rescue:
“The technician is coming?”
“Yes, he is coming.”
“He’s coming from Sevilla?”
“Not from Madrid?”
(amused) “No, no from Madrid.”

You can laugh, mate, I thought. You haven’t been exposed to umpteen years of British incompetence and excuses! It was a totally reasonable question to ask as far as I’m concerned. He’d understand if he’d had any experience of British workmen.

Boredom inevitably led to a series of increasingly silly thoughts, my most vivid one being of slapping hysterical women. I eventually realised that I was the only female present, so I’d have to both have the hysterics and provide the sobering slap. I soon ditched the idea; it was way too hot to cause a fuss. It took all my energy to sit on the floor and ooze quietly from every pore. (Too graphic a description for ya? Sorry about that, but it’s true. Pete’s fingers actually went prune-y, like he’d been sitting in the bath for too long. Who’d a thunk that was possible?)

Finally the guide’s wife turns up. She tries unsuccessfully to reset the lift from the outside. Any hope of immediate rescue dies – we have to wait for the technician. I did, however, feel somewhat better knowing that someone else was in the building and knew where we were.

When I was a teenager, I remember there used to be questions girls would ask each other for fun, along the lines of, “Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with, and why?” Invariably at that age the answers would involve an actor/singer/heartthrob-du-jour; after this experience I assure you that I was not thinking of Johnny Depp, mosh-band Carcass when they all had super-long hair, or the entire elf-boy contingent from Lord of the Rings. These days the person I would most like to be stuck in a lift with is a lift repairman, preferably one who has a work buddy and a van full of tools parked outside the building. Sorry, Johnny and Legolas, the man with the gadgets cinches this one!

Rescue came sooner than we’d expected, much to everyone's relief; we were actually only trapped for forty minutes (though it felt longer!) I think I handled things remarkably well, given that I’m not keen on enclosed spaces.

So there you have it: one free sauna (free because the guide gave us our money back at the end by way of apology). Somehow I don’t think either of us will forget Seville in a hurry... and I also suspect we will be taking the stairs more often from now on!

Take care,

Julie & Pete

Posted by Julie1972 18:49 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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