Long overdue ramblings from the west coast
After a fun three weeks in Costa Rica, we had a decision to make: Did we want to go and explore South America, or go back to the USA and tour the west coast? It was a tough decision. We’d discussed the possibility of visiting Peru and Chile, and we’d heard very good things about Ecuador, but in the end the decision was made for us: Chile had just had a huge earthquake, and the British and New Zealand government international advisory services kept sendings us alerts saying, “Don’t go to South America – it’s dangerous!” We then discussed briefly popping to Ecuador (one of the few ‘safe’ places in that region), just so we could say we’d seen that part of the world, but the ridiculously expensive airfares put us off. Instead we opted for plan b) and did all the typical touristy stuff in California. You know: we walked the Golden Gate Bridge; “oohed” and “ahhed” at giant redwood trees; stared at downtown L.A. from the back of a traffic jam...
Getting there was fun – not. We had two days of 3am starts, with two flights per day, and it wasn’t long before the boredom set in. You can tell when Pete is getting antsy ‘cos he starts acting like a hyperactive five year old. If you happen to be on an American Airlines flight, flicking through the free magazine that they provide, and come across an advert for a plastic surgeon that has been ‘enhanced’ by the addition of spectacles, devil horns, fangs, a goatee beard and bunny ears... Pete woz there before ya!
Although it had only been a few months since we were last in America, there were a whole lot of things I’d forgotten. These included:
- Borders book shops, much to my delight. We’d got so used to looking for second-hand paperbacks in Mexico and Costa Rica that the existence of brand-spanking-new books was a pleasant surprise!
- How many different burger joints there are, and the amazing fact that they all stay in business.
- Over-the-top food serving sizes.
- Fabulous customer service and all-round politeness.
- The fact that pedestrians have rights and drivers will actually stop at pedestrian crossings. (Look and learn, Mexico!)
- And biscuits. How could I forget about biscuits? (When I have my inevitable heart attack, tell my cardiologist it was worth it.)
I don’t wanna blether on about food (again), but I’ve got a new version of the mystery menu game going. Across the road from our hotel was a restaurant called Mel’s Drive-in, as seen in the film American Graffitti. The film wasn't up to much (in my not-so-humble opinion), but the food was awesome. The only problem was, none of the waitstaff could understand a single word I said. “Tuna salad sandwich, please,” I’d say; “One turkey Cobb salad coming right up!” they’d reply. In the end I had to resort to the point-and-click approach I use when I don’t know the local lingo: speak slowly and loudly whilst jabbing a finger at the appropriate item on the menu. It was most embarrassing.
Still, it’s not the first time I’ve had problems with my accent. A woman on a tour bus in Costa Rica discovered we were British but living in New Zealand. “Oh,” she said. “I thought you sounded Australian!” (Note: my accent is still 100% no-quibble English. The nearest I’ve got to sounding even vaguely Antipodean is referring to a barbeque as a ‘barbie’.)
Anyhoo, because America is so horribly expensive, we decided to limit our time there to just three weeks. We know we could have spent another three months there quite happily, but our bank balance refused to cooperate. (It will insist on going in a downwards direction. Most unsporting of it, I say!) The trick, then, was to choose a few highlights. We agreed that the must-sees included San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon; anything else was a bonus.
We started off in San Francisco, partly so Pete could attend a Flash Games Developers’ Conference that was being held there, partly so that he could catch up with an old friend who he hadn’t seen in umpteen years, and partly because I was itching to walk the Golden Gate Bridge.
We did a lot of walking in S.F., by the way, and we had the calf cramps to prove it. See, San Francisco is rather hilly. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this before I got there; I’d lived in hilly areas before and quite enjoyed the exercise I got marching up and down ‘em. Edinburgh had hills; so did Auckland. What nobody told me, however, is that San Francisco has HILLS. We stupidly decided it would be fun to walk down Lombard Street, the crookedest street in America:
Unfortunately in order to reach the top of Lombard, we had to approach it from the other side:
It took three days for my leg muscles to recover. I wouldn’t mind, but I was feeling quite fit at the time, having had three energetic weeks in Costa Rica. Now I understand why the locals use the cable cars – it’s much easier!
Anyway, the Golden Gate Bridge was advertised as being one of the attractions near our hotel, so we asked the receptionist if it was within walking distance. “Sure,” he said. “It’ll take twenty to twenty-five minutes.” This sounded good, so off we went.
Twenty-five minutes later, we could see the bridge... but it was still a long way off. We’d forgotten about estimates in America: people rarely walk anywhere, so their times are usually out by a factor of two. It took us a total of 3½ hours to do the whole trip (something else for our muscles to moan about!)
It was worth it, though. Apparently we got lucky with the weather; the usual S.F. fog had taken a hiatus, and we had gorgeous sunshine for the duration of our stay.
The GGB was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it first opened in 1937, with a total length of 1.71 miles / 2,737 metres. It no longer holds that particular world record, but it is still the second longest suspension bridge in the United States.
The other pretty cool thing we got to do in S.F. was take a trip in a 1950s fire engine. I first saw this advertised on the Internet, immediately regressed to a mental age of four and started clamouring for a ride. It’s not like I wanted to be a fire(wo)man or anything when I was a kid – I hate heights, so would only be able to rescue people from caravans and bungalows – but I’ve always fancied the idea of riding in one of the engines (and, if I’m honest, getting to make an unholy racket with the bell).
Our hosts during this time was a husband-and-wife team called Bob and Marilyn (or, if you wanna get technical about it, Captain Bob and Co-captain Marilyn). Bob was the driver; Marilyn provided the commentary, songs, jokes and tap-dances – she really was quite a character!
After a week in S.F. we decided another roadtrip was in order. Our first port of call was Fresno, ‘cos I was in tree-hugging mode again and wanted to see some sequoias. (“So they grow tall,” said Pete, true to form. “They’re sequoias; that’s what they do.”)
And this is the point where I wish I’d done my homework more thoroughly. I did look at the Sequoia National Park website prior to our trip, but I somehow managed to miss the bit about the place being 7000 ft up a mountain... complete with three feet of snow! (24 hours later I was also wishing I’d held onto that coat I bought in Boston last year. Sadly that got ditched in Florida, when I swore up and down that I was never going anywhere cold ever again.)
Digressionary note: I am currently typing this on a plane. The flight has been perfectly smooth so far, so why is it the second I get my laptop out we hit freaking turbulence? Sort it out, Mr. Pilot. I only have an hour left on my battery.
The national park was amazing, though. I knew sequoias were big, but the scale of the things is impossible to comprehend until you’re standing next to one:
Once I’d satisfied my tree-hugging fetish it was time to move on again. More decisions: L.A. or not L.A.? Would we be interested in the City of Angels? A quick Google soon made up our minds. Los Angeles seems to be primarily about Disney attractions and celebrities. We’d already spent time assiduously avoiding all things Mickey in Florida, and neither one of us gives two hoots what the rich and famous get up to, so we chose to bypass the whole thing and headed to San Diego instead.
It was a good choice. We spent a fabulous day at San Diego Zoo – reputedly one of the best in the world – and I was especially delighted to see this furry fella:
Our trip to the west coast wouldn’t have been complete without dropping by Las Vegas, so off we headed to Nevada. Vegas is a strange place: tacky, touristy and not at all real. It felt like Toytown, except that everything is stupidly expensive and they won’t let you pay using Monopoly money.
That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy it, though. We had a great time, and I got to do all the things I’d always wanted to do out there. We walked the strip during the day, and cruised down it at night to see all the lights.
When I say we 'walked the strip', what I really mean is we did a pub crawl through the casinos. This is Pete with a ridiculously expensive beer in the Bellagio, which he had to have ‘cos he was tired and beer is a good source of energy. That's what he told me, anyway...
We booked a suite in a 5* theme hotel, the Venetian, which has a canal and gondolas running through the middle of it:
Not quite Venice, but we really enjoyed staying in our suite. One word of warning though: every item in the minibar is placed on a pressure pad. The second you remove something, that item is charged to your credit card. (Note they charge $9 for a box of Gummi Bears, so unless you've won a fortune in the casinos I'd recommend avoiding the minibar and buying your snacks elsewhere.)
And we saw two shows, stand-up comedian David Spade (very funny and cynical), and the Blue Man Group. We weren’t too sure about the BMG at first, and were concerned that we’d just spent a silly amount of money on tickets for a show that we wouldn’t enjoy much. It’s nice when you’re proved wrong, though, isn’t it? It was a fantastic mix of comedy, great music and jaw-dropping visual effects. (For those of you who don’t mind spoilers, you can see excerpts of their show here.)
The one thing we didn’t do much was gamble. My idea of what makes a good slot machine seems to have frozen in the 1970s. (Does anybody else remember calling them ‘one-armed bandits?’) I didn’t realise how much they’d changed. Gone are the nudge and hold buttons, and the moving mechanical arm; now all you can do is decide how many lines you want and how much money you wanna waste. It was really, really boring ‘cos there's no skill involved anymore. I mean, it’s not like we expected to win anything, but we at least hoped to have fun. Las Vegas casinos made a grand total of $9 from us, so I guess we’re not getting ‘comped’ any time soon!
For the final leg of this trip we went to the Grand Canyon to see what all the fuss was about:
Our snapshots can never do this place justice, though. For a selection of professional photos, click here.
One word of advice: most people head for the major viewpoints, take a couple of photos and get back in their cars to drive to the next one. We decided to walk the trail, which was much nicer. The scenic viewpoints are packed and noisy: people talking loudly, kids squabbling, everybody getting in the way of everybody else’s photos... it really was quite unpleasant. The Canyon is so huge and pretty, it just felt wrong that there was so much chaos and clamouring. The trail, however, was practically deserted. There were still many places to take pictures, and you could stand and take it all in in blissful silence.
And that was the end of a pretty exhausting three weeks.
Sadly it is now time for us to leave the Americas. We've enjoyed it here, though, and have spent approximately seven months touring the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica. We'll be heading back to Europe for a while now, and we still have Africa and India to explore.
My next entry will be from the Nile, so watch this space!