Posted by: neilanddantrip | January 1, 2011

Disneyland, Anaheim

Taking the taxi to our little motel, located within walking distance to Disneyland, I noticed how that, within a certain radius of the theme parks, everything becomes geared towards what the average tourist would need for their holiday: motels, hotels, and family restaurants, and not much else. To be expected, really.

Neil and I had been staying in hostels, with the exception of our brief respite in Vancouver, for the entire trip thus far. As such, to have a motel was a relief – privacy, at last, no more worrying about waking people up in the room if you got in too late, or brushing your teeth next to random Dutch people. To our eyes, the Little Boy Blue Motel was luxury – a double bed each, a guaranteed hot shower, and a TV with loads of channels. It was nice just to lie down and vegetate on Family Guy for a while.

Our focus in Anaheim was purely Disneyland. Our Southern California City Pass gave us three days in which to explore the two parks on offer – the original Disneyland Park that had been around since the ‘50s, and the comparatively newer Disney California Adventure Park. Staying so close to the complex meant that we missed one of the small pleasures/inconveniences of going to big theme parks, which is of course, parking in a car park that is named after something to do with the company, like the “Toy Story” car park. In Universal they have a Jaws car park and a King Kong car park.

On the first day, we tackled the original Disneyland. Looking at the map, we quickly decided which rides to head for first. The main criteria for a decent ride are that it should be unsuitable for pregnant women and people with heart problems. Any rides with those warnings should be good.

Once we had our tickets, we headed into the preliminary “staging area”, where everyone waits behind a rope, and when the park opens, is lowered allowing full access. Neil and I wormed our way to the front, and practically ran to the first ride like little kids. We were the first group on the Indiana Jones ride, and went round twice because the first way through experienced technical difficulties.

Of the rides we went on, there were a few highlights – Splash Mountain, a log flume, was cool, but could do with less slow bits where you look at animatronic cartoon rabbits and foxes trying to outwit each other; Space Mountain, a roller coaster in the dark (so that you feel like you’re travelling through space!); and the Thunder Mountain roller coaster, an ok roller coaster. Overall the queues were very short, and we didn’t have to wait longer than half an hour to go on a ride, and even that was rare. I won’t describe every ride. That’d be dull.

At about 5pm, the Christmas parade started. We had to get a decent spot about an hour before hand, but it was worth it. The Christmas parade consisted of various Disney characters and some more generic Christmas goons (elves and stuff) either doing a dance routine or some skit to the cheesy “Christmas Fantasy” song that repeated itself every two minutes. If you were a girl aged 10, it would have been the best thing evar ^o^ 😉 As it was, we’re both 20 something blokes. It was a decently put together parade, but could have done with some guns or explosions. The fireworks were similarly cheesy and spectacular, very well choreographed to some disgustingly sappy crap about the Christmas spirit living in all of us, or some other such nonsense.

On Day 2, we hit up the other park big style. This one was the “Californian Adventure”, and indeed there were some California-themed rides. One was a simulated glide over Californian landscapes, which was relaxing – they even somehow simulate the smells of the places you were supposed to be flying over, like orange tree fields (fortunately they missed out any sewage treatment facilities in the virtual tour). The best ride of all was “Californian Screamin’” a roller coaster that has one of them magnetic propulsion starts, like Stealth at Thorpe Park. We went on it several times.

A lot of the second park was under construction – in a couple of years two new complete areas will be added: Cars land, based on the Disney-Pixar movie, and Little Mermaid land. As such, it felt like a large chunk of the park was inaccessible. Nevertheless, there were still some great rides. The parade for this park was Pixar themed, and it was cool to see Woody, Buzz, Nemo and the Monsters Inc characters doing cheesy choreographed jigs. Instead of fireworks, there was a water show – coloured jets of water, Disney films projected onto a sheet of water spray, all very amazing. Except we didn’t get a good position to see the show – you have to reserve your spot in advance. Something we would rectify on the final day.

On the final day, we went on our favourite rides over and over again. The evening also played host to “ElecTRONica”, where a section of the California park was transformed into a Tron themed nightclubby type dance and gaming area. Difficult to describe, really. For us, it entailed going to an arcade and playing on old skool games like the original Donkey Kong and Pac Man. In the evening, we saw the full-on World of Colour show. Very nice.

Overall, Disneyland was a nice diversion from our usual routine of hostelling and sightseeing. Our next destination would resume this theme – San Diego.

Dan

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Posted by: neilanddantrip | December 31, 2010

Hollywood

We arrived in Hollywood late in the evening, greeted by a Greyhound weirdo guy swearing and gesticulating at Neil in a threatening manner. Fortunately it was only a short walk to the hostel, which was just off of Hollywood Boulevard. Indeed, we passed several famous stars on the Walk of Fame just getting to the hostel.

In the morning, I noticed that the Hollywood sign was visible from the bathroom window as I was brushing my teeth. That was pretty cool. We had signed up to a walking tour of Beverly Hills and Bel Air through the hostel, which was only $12. Our tour guide was rather eccentric – he wore a pin-stripe suit, with the legs of the trousers torn off to form shorts. He had elvis-style hair and Elton John style yellow aviators. Upon setting off, he told us that for the day we were architectural students at UCLA. That way, we might be shown in to some of the stars’ houses on the pretence of looking at the architecture. The weather was hot and sunny, and we looked forward to the day, hoping we would get lucky and see a star. The mood was only slightly dampened when the tour guide informed us this was the first tour he had done since getting stabbed on the last one.

 Apparently, we were on the only “walking” tour of star houses in all of Hollywood. As such, we took a bus to Bel Air, and then walked around the neighbourhood. However, seeing as this was America, and one of the richest parts of America where only the fabulously wealthy lived in giant mansions behind heavy security, there were no pavements – why walk when you can drive expensive and exclusive sports cars?

 Our tour took us to several ornately designed and impregnable looking gates, behind which stood, we were reliably informed, presumably some wonderfully opulent and dazzling mansions. Unfortunately, at ground level, all you can really see is fleeting glimpses of some brickwork. I’m sure the same is true if you were to do the same from an open-topped tour bus, which occasionally drove past. Still, it’s one of them things that you do as a tourist in Hollywood. It wasn’t the most exciting day – no stars were spotted, though the security guards at the Playboy Mansion were jovial enough, and complained that there weren’t enough women in our little tour. Indeed, I doubt anyone could have been in any way aroused by the grey haired old German lady who constituted the group’s sole female. We also walked down Rodeo Drive, which I’d not heard of before, but is apparently famous. I don’t know why the second syllable of “Rodeo” is stressed so it sounds like “Roh-Day-Oh” instead of a cowboy’s party. Reminds me of Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances. In any case, Rodeo Drive is a road that has lots of ridiculously expensive clothes and jewellery shops in it, and has probably been in films.

 Next day (Saturday 13th November – I should probably go back through this blog and edit in dates at some point, don’t you think?) we signed up for another cheap hostel-organised tour, this time to go and stare at some massive letters on the side of a hill that spell out the word “Hollywood”. Neil had, the night before, gone on a hostel-organised night out, which seemed to turn into one hell of a bender – Neil couldn’t account for his actions after a certain point through an alcohol induced memory wipe. I congratulated myself on my decision to opt out as Neil and an Australian guy struggled up the steep hills, battling with not only the oppressive heat and the gradient, but a nauseous hangover too.

 At length we arrived at a spot that offered as good a view of the sign as you could really hope for (no point going too close – you wouldn’t be able to fit it all in your camera lens). We were given a short history of the sign from the tour guide – it originally said “HOLLYWOODLAND”, and was set up in 1923. The “LAND” was removed, and after that, became a landmark and so underwent preservation. After that, I’m afraid to quote the guide, who at one point said the Great Depression was in the 1920s. I didn’t want to pipe up and contradict this catastrophic historical blunder and be viewed as a smartass. I just looked at the sign and geared myself for one heck of a good video blog entry. Just wait till you see it.

 Back at the hostel, and a quick check of Facebook revealed that Emma from Somerset had arrived in Hollywood too, and that the hostel she had chosen was only a small walk along Hollywood Boulevard. When I bumped into her in San Francisco, we had discussed our respective trip trajectories, and resolved to meet in Hollywood for a drink, and perhaps to go to Universal Studios together so that she’d have manly support for all the scary rides. With this in mind, I gave Emma a call, and arranged to meet with her and a couple of others from her hostel for some Thai food. Pleasant conversation and spicy food were thus enjoyed that evening.

 Next day (Sunday 14th November), Neil and I met Emma by the subway station at Hollywood and Vine, and proceeded to take the train to Universal Studios, only about 20 minutes away. When in the queue, we discussed the merits of getting a “front of the line” pass… it would near enough double the ticket price, but would lead to a great day. In the end, we all bought the extra pass, but made up for the extra expense by buying the Southern Californian City Pass, which included entry into Disneyland for 3 days, SeaWorld San Diego, and San Diego Zoo, which in the long run would save money.

 Universal Studios was a fun day out. The main draw was the shows – a water show with jet skis, an animal show with famous animal actors (including the dog from the film in which two people own a dog, Marley and Me), a Terminator 2 show, and a special effects show. There were a few thrill seeking rides, like the Jurassic Park water ride and The Mummy ride, but no real roller coasters. Emma freaked out at the haunted house – they have live actors dressed up as murderers and werewolves and the like, and they jump out and try to grab you (but not really grab you). You’ve probably seen the same kind of thing if you’ve been to Madame Tussauds or the Saw ride at Thorpe Park recently. When watching the Blues Brothers show later, we spotted a woman being consoled by her partner at the wusses’ exit of the haunted house. Our front of the line passes meant that we had managed to see pretty much everything, AND get behind-the-scenes looks at some of the shows. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and it was sad to see Emma go. Would we ever see her again? Yes. Yes we would.

 For some reason, the next day is a bit fuzzy in my memory. I’m pretty sure we had planned to do something, but it didn’t pan out for some reason… In any case, we ended up spending three hours walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street looking at the Walk of Fame, taking pictures of the ones we recognised (and some we thought we recognised – is that the guy who played Bill in Kill Bill? Oh well, take the picture anyway!). Christina Aguilera and Cher had the audacity to cover part of the street up with red carpet for the premiere for their new (and, according to MetaCritic, average) film Burlesque, and so we may have missed some. It’s a bit strange to spend so long staring at the ground… on reflection, wouldn’t it be better to put the stars in places where you don’t get pains in your neck? Only Muhammed Ali thought so – his is on a wall, apparently (we didn’t see it).

 On the Tuesday, we had planned to get the hostel-organised shuttle to Muscle Beach, but it was full. Instead we watched the new Sherlock Holmes film and counted down the hours until our next fabulous Greyhound journey to Anaheim, the home of Disneyland. We managed to check another American fast food chain off of the enormous list – Popeye’s Chicken. It’s KFC, basically.

 Dan

Posted by: neilanddantrip | December 29, 2010

Yosemite and San Fran part deux

We were picked up from the hostel in San Francisco by the so-called “bug bus” of the Yosemite Bug Bus Tour, which was in fact a plain silver van. The tour group consisted of Neil and myself, two (probably gay) Brazilians, and two Aussie birds. The price of the tour included all of our meals, all transportation, all accommodation, and all hikes and guided trails.

 The drive there took us through part of California’s giant fruit garden, although this segment was mainly just pistachio trees and the occasional clumping of wind farms on the rolling hills. At length, the scenery became more mountainous and rugged, and in the early afternoon we arrived in Yosemite “bug” hostel, which consisted of a few wooden lodges, one of which housed a restaurant and spa facilities. The dorm room wasn’t anything particularly special, and as we would learn the next morning, the showers certainly fitted the “rustic” description.

 Our packed schedule didn’t leave us much time to get settled, and we were soon whisked off to see one of the natural attractions of the park: the giant Sequoia trees. They certainly were massive, but somehow the big tree experience in Tofino back in Vancouver Island made this vegetable gigantism less arresting than it otherwise would have been. I put this down to the surroundings. In Tofino, the trees were mysterious – we had been dropped off and left to explore a tiny island at our leisure. Here, the trees were comparatively thinly spread out, fenced off by wooden barriers, and surrounded by signs pleading the stupid tourist not to do anything dumb, like climb them or take away the seeds on the ground. Our guide (an ageing hippy with a grey little will o’ the wisp chin goatee) was full of interesting facts which I now can’t remember, though he did stress that the likelihood of a sequoia seed germinating were exceedingly rare, akin to winning the lottery. One of the most arresting aspects to this excursion was the weather, or more specifically, the temperature, which had dropped to the single digits, compared to the incredible heat of San Francisco.

The daylight began to fade at about 5pm, giving us a criminally short time to gaze upon these natural giants. The “bug bus” took us back to the “bug” hostel, where we had dinner at the rustic little restaurant. This dinner is worth mentioning – although I can’t remember what we had, I can remember what we didn’t have, that being pasta, pesto and cheese, which was becoming the meal du jour on the trip at that point due to the ingredients being easily transported and easily cooked. Instead, it was a properly nice meal. After dinner, we and the Aussie birds, or rather, Bree and Louise, chatted, and spent the evening watching YouTube videos, where I learnt that the Australians have their own version of chavs, except they’re called “bogans”.

The next morning we awoke rather too early for my liking, in readiness for the day’s adventures in Yosemite. Our guide (this time a middle-aged woman who reminded me of Claire’s foster mother in “Heroes”) took us to a camping area that marked the beginning of a trail up the side of one of the mountains, and would eventually lead to breathtaking views of the valley. The hike wasn’t particularly arduous, though the Brazilians fell behind on account of one of them being horrendously fat. We powered on, my mind focusing on that scene from Star Trek IV where Captain Kirk climbs a mountain in Yosemite, and William Shatner’s subsequent Shatner-isms in the DVD extras where he discusses the scene (“Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain… why do I climb the mountain? Because I’m in love.” Etc.) After about an hour’s walk, we made the lookout point. The view was indeed breathtaking, picture postcard-esque. The granite mountains stood proudly in the distance, like sleeping behemoths, dressed in green tunics with smatterings of snow-white hair. The valley stretched on for miles, and I was content to sit there and drink in the majesty of the view for a few minutes whilst I munched on a granola bar. At length we departed, collecting the sweat-drenched and panting tubster on the way.

We lunched by the river and under the sun, and underwent one of those “let’s get to know each other” Q and A sessions designed to break the ice, which are always awkward but kind of necessary. Neil explained the scope of our trip. I’ve found that, with travelling, there are certain stock questions that everyone asks each other, including “where are you from”, “how long are you staying here?”, “how long is your trip?” and “where are you going next?” It would probably be prudent to write all this information down and print it out on business cards you can just hand to people. It would save you from repeating yourself ad nauseam for the trip’s duration.

In the time remaining of the day, we went to a couple more lookout locations, and went to a big rock on top of one of the mountains where if you climb on top of it, it looks like you’re in mortal danger of falling off, but you’re not. It looks great on camera.

Back in the hostel, we partook of another wonderful meal, and played trivial pursuit, which was fun. The ladies and Neil also used the spa facilities, but I decided to keep my hideous body hidden from the gaze of attractive Australians. In the morning, we were driven back to San Francisco by the same route. I strengthened my resolution to purchase a radio, so incredible was the playlist of the classic rock stations the chin-beard guy tuned the radio to on the way back. We had one more night in San Francisco before our journey to Hollywood the next day. I made good on my promise to myself, and got a small radio from RadioShack.

In the evening, me and one of the Australians, Bree, arranged to meet the other Australian, Louise, at a club her hostel was organising a trip to (Neil stayed home to take advantage of the free beer some Frenchmen were giving him). Unfortunately, the club excursion was cancelled, but not before Bree and I wandered about aimlessly for a bit. Eventually we met with Louise, had a couple of drinks at a nearby bar, then hung out in the common room of the Green Tortoise hostel, but not before bumping into Emma, whom Neil and I had hung out with in Salt Lake City. She was of course, delighted to see me, and excitedly told the people she was with that I was one of the people who stopped her from going insane in that Mormon hell-hole. I think she was on her way to becoming “lucky” that evening, so I left her to her new friends. Later, after some pleasant conversation with the Aussies in the hostel’s common room, I was somehow dragged into talking to a couple of Brits, a boy and a girl, who were possibly the strangest people I have met travelling outside of Greyhound journeys. They boasted of being “spoilt rich kids”, and then regaled their hideous sexual exploits with strippers, before (I think) testing the waters about a possible threesome with me. Under the pretences of getting a cup of tea (which I never drink), I fled aghast from the two drunken weirdos. They fortunately left before I had to pretend to get some tea.

After a while, we were joined by some other people at the table we were sat by. One of the blokes looked a bit sheepish, and told us that he was in fact a local resident who lived up the road from the hostel, and who had an ambition to see what it was like inside. Today he had succeeded. He was a cool guy, and it eventually transpired that he had Rock Band at his place (Rock Band was on my mind because the third iteration of Harmonix’s seminal rhythm action series had just been released Stateside), and I, seeing an opportunity of impressing (or weirding out) some total strangers by my skills on a plastic guitar, in my drunken state seemed like a fantastic idea.

As such, I, the Aussies, and some other revellers, joined the charming stranger back to his swanky San Francisco pad. He showed us the view from the roof, which was indeed impressive. We hung out for a while, until a neighbour threatened us with police action unless we quietened down. The Irish guy (called “Collum”, easily remembered due to its similarity to the Lord of the Rings character) who was with us was not particularly impressed, and told the neighbour so. We returned to his apartment, and in due time I impressed all with my amazing plastic guitar skills, even earning the guy, Andrew, a Playstation trophy for 100%ing a song on Expert. Much fun was had until the police turned up to stop all the noise. I eventually returned home at about 4am. The night had certainly been interesting.

The next day, we set off for Hollywood on the crappy horrible Greyhound. More on that next time.

Dan

Posted by: neilanddantrip | December 29, 2010

The Big Catch Up

Well, it certainly has been a long time, hasn’t it? I can only apologise, for there is no real reason for the lack of updates other than forgetfulness and procrastination. But hopefully that will soon be a thing of the past.

 I shall first provide you with a whistle-stop tour of where Neil and I have been over the course of the past few months since San Francisco. Then, in further blog updates, I’ll flesh out the details as best I can from my memory.

After San Francisco, we had a small excursion in the world-famous Yosemite National Park. After getting back to nature, we then ventured on to Hollywood, and saw the sights and sounds of the movie capital. Having purchased a “Southern Californian City Pass”, which gave us a 3 day park hopper pass at Disneyland, we travelled on to Anaheim and stayed in a small motel close to the parks, and spent the next few days going on the rides over and over again. Once our thrill seeking urges had been satiated, we resumed our tour of California, stopping in San Diego for the week preceding Thanks Giving.

Having reached the bottom of the States, we now faced a dilemma: where to go next? Whilst staying with my cousin in Stanford, we had booked flights to Costa Rica that left on the evening of the 14th of December from Las Vegas. The flight would return to Las Vegas on the 6th January 2011, when we would spend just shy of a week in the gambling Mecca. As such, we needed to spend time in the States that would lead us eventually to Las Vegas, but not to spend too much time in Vegas itself, for that would be done in the new year.

There was of course, only one way to go: East. And so our first port of call was Phoenix in Arizona. A couple of days in Phoenix was sufficient to prepare us for our next journey: a torturous 20-odd hour journey to San Antonio in Texas on the Greyhound. Only a day was spent in the city home to the Battle of the Alamo, we next took a short detour to Corpus Christi on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to see the USS Lexington naval museum. Having done so, we headed north to the Texan State Capitol, Austin. There we stayed for a couple of days, seeing the famous bats under the bridge and the Capitol building, as well as stumbling across a Christmas parade. The final destination in our trip to Texas was Amarillo, a place we went to for a number of reasons: Route 66 passes through the town, it is home to a ridiculous 72-ounce steak challenge, and it is of course, the place that Tony Christie sang about, and which Peter Kay so deftly treadmill walked to.

After being thoroughly disappointed by Route 66, we started the journey back to Las Vegas. We went via Flagstaff, as our base of operations to visit the Grand Canyon. Having seen this natural wonder, we carried on to Vegas, where we had a couple of days before the flight. The hostel being located in a rather dodgy part of town, we were eager to get going to Costa Rica, where we would spend Christmas and New Years.

At length, the evening of the 14th December rolled around, and we took a shuttle to McCarren airport. Our flight went via Miami, and was enlivened by a rich businessman on vacation, who supplied Neil and I with alcohol for the duration of the internal flight. It was thus that Neil turned 24 – in mid-air, getting drunk.

After touching down in San Jose International Airport, Costa Rica, we were greeted by a bloke called John who had set up a business getting people from the airport to the public bus station hassle free and by way of the bank. We were certainly glad of his assistance, and eventually arrived in Cahuita after traversing tropical jungles and small shanty towns where the principal roofing material is rusting corrugated iron. After asking around, we got a taxi to the hotel we had booked for three weeks.

And it is in the hotel complex where I now type this blog update. In the coming days and weeks, the details of each leg of the journey will (hopefully) be fleshed out. In the meantime, be reassured: Neil and I are alive and well, though thoroughly bitten by mosquitos and biting insects.

Dan

Posted by: neilanddantrip | December 7, 2010

San Francisco

We arrived in San Francisco on the day that the San Francisco Giants had won the World Series of Baseball. Never before have I witnessed a city as joyously noisy as San Francisco that night – cars blaring their horns incessantly, random passers by screaming “Let’s go Giants!” at the top of their lungs, occasional gun-shots cutting through it all in the near-distance.

After checking in at the hostel, we decided to go for a meal at the Italian restaurant over the road. The food was fine, but the service was bizarre – the effeminate Italian waiter seemed to forget every single important thing needed at a restaurant – cutlery, napkins, glasses, plates even. He looked either extremely low IQ or extremely high. The meal would be ocassionally interrupted by a Giants fan screaming at us through the window.

The next day, we went and did Typical Tourist Attraction #1: Alcatraz. What struck me most about Alcatraz is how run-down the place looks from the outside. The front side has rubble everywhere, and all the buildings bar the main prison are burnt-out husks. It gives Alcatraz an appropriately antiquated vibe that, contrasted to the beauty of the bay that day, was rather pleasing. The self-guided audio tour of the prison was excellent – much better than simply reading plaques everywhere.

The next day was the Giants’ victory parade. For a Giants fan, I’m sure it would have been great. For an Englishman who doesn’t particularly enjoy field sports, it was as much fun as standing in a crowded mass of people on a very hot day for a few hours with a view of the backs of people’s heads as they shout and scream could be – i.e. not great. It’s one of those things you do so that afterwards you can say “I was there”.

Later that day, we decided to go to Ocean beach. Bad idea. The parade had seriously buggered the city’s transport network, and the bus we eventually got was a sardine tin on wheels, where one of the sardines that got on had, from the smell of him, probably not washed in a week and had, on several occasions, failed to find a public restroom and so just did it in his underwear. Unpleasant. Still, when we got there, the beach was very nice. Neil and a girl from the hostel stabbed a jellyfish with some sticks, and then Neil got very angry when a couple of 5 year olds ruined the massive sandcastle he had been building for half an hour.

On one of the days we did Typical Tourist Attraction #2: The Golden Gate Bridge. We hired bikes from close by the hostel, and proceeded on a route that would take us through Alamo square and the famous painted ladies (which Neil thought were rubbish), through Golden Gate park (where some hippies were smoking weed and playing bongo drums), up a lot of hills and finally across the bridge. The ride was pleasant, though made me realise how out of shape I am. We bumped into one of the British girls from Salt Lake City on the bridge, which was weird. The ride from the bridge to Sausalito, where a ferry would give us a short cut back home, was awesome – very very steep downhill roads. Sausalito itself was also beautiful, bathed as it was in a sunset-pink sky.

After a couple of lazy days lounging around the hostel, Neil and I went to Typical Tourist Attraction #3: Pier 39. This pier is famous for having these floating platforms where sea lions lie in a thronging mass on top of each other. When we went, they were there, so, you know, it lived up to expectations. But the main fun was to be had at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. It’s amazing, and you should try going to one if you are ever in America. They play scenes from Forrest Gump, and all the food is themed from the film. It’s mostly shrimp, of course.

And that pretty much was it in terms of stuff we did in San Francisco. I remember we did have Thai food at one point, and that the Thai Ice Tea was horrible. We then booked a two day tour to Yosemite. Which is what the next blog post will be about, most likely.

Dan

Posted by: neilanddantrip | November 16, 2010

Sacramento and Stanford University

Snow had begun to fall when we left Salt Lake City. After hours of waiting in the impersonal, hangar-like bus terminal, our thankfully mostly-empty bus whisked us off into the night.

As the sun lazily clambered over the horizon, the salt flats and rolling desert hills of the mid-west finally gave way to some more interesting scenery. Tree filled valleys became mountainous trails, which in turn became san baked highway. By the early afternoon, the bus pulled into Sacramento, the first leg in our Californian sojourn.

As might be expected from a place called Sacramento, the Spanish and Mexican influence here was far more noticeable than anywhere else on our trip so far. Mexican food was being advertised everywhere, as were bail bonds (which made me a little nervous).

The hostel in Sacramento was located in an old Victorian era mansion, and was suitably impressive and striking. However, it was also mostly deserted. This would later change, as a fat old American soon wormed his way into chatting with Neil and I. He had a tendency to be incredibly difficult to talk to due to his inability to discuss anything other than what had happened to him in his life. He also took great pleasure in telling two people who had lived in England for most of their lives what England was like, and mostly his observations were completely wrong.

However, we were able to escape his clutches. The weather the next day was good, and we headed to Old Sacramento, which was set out in a semi-Wild West fashion, with saloon style doors on some of the shops and wooden promenades. The Sacramento Railway Museum beckoned, and we saw some big trains, and learnt about how transformational the trans-continental railway was for California and Western America.

I had arranged with my cousin, Rebecca Dru, to meet up with her whilst Neil and I were in America, and so the next day we took the bus to San Francisco and then the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to Berkeley, where Becky was about to play field hockey for Stanford University against the University of California on their home turf. Stanford eventually won 4-2, despite a very supportive home crowd. Neil and I did our best to encourage the team, and to be honest, I think we were instrumental in their final victory.

After the game, Becky introduced me and Neil to her teammates at the “tailgate” party. It was a very pleasant evening until some cowardly Cal student threw an egg in the crowd’s general vicinity, hitting my cousin on the back of her neck. Sports rivalries are taken very seriously out here, but sometimes it just seems malicious and bad-sportsmanlike.

One of the parents had kindly agreed to take us back to Stanford by car, and we all chatted pleasantly on the way back. Becky met us in one of the University’s dorm car parks, and sorted both of us out with beds. ALL FREE BABY!

The next day, Becky showed us around campus, and boy, what a place. All the buildings are in a tropical-mediterannean palace style, dotted with fountains, benches and trees, which all give the impression that everything is very new, expensive, and beautiful. The campus is also massive, and as such everyone zooms around on bicycles, which makes everyone seem joyfully carefree.

All of the facilities there are also top of the range. Libraries are bursting with expensive looking Mac computers, the Sports Halls are furnished with impressive, shiny floors and massive glass walls. Cafe’s and little eateries are everywhere, and the dorms are fully catered with an impressive selection of fruits, breads, cereals, drinks, and on some days, omelettes cooked to order by professional chefs. It is, in other words, a paradise.

With a growing sense of jealousy at my cousin’s good fortune, Neil and I explored the place in awe. Less than 10% of those who apply to Stanford will get in. For those that do, their rewards are ample.

Neil and I stayed for Halloween, and prepared for the evening’s festivities with a small dose of shopping. Neil purchased a monk’s outfit, whilst Becky’s friend Emily was able to lend me some Harry Potter props. The party was being held at the university mausoleum (appropriately/inappropriately enough – delete as applicable), with the only catch being that this was an exclusive party for Stanford students. To bypass security, Becky went in and borrowed a couple of male students’ cards. It was too easy.

The party itself was very strange. Everyone there was dressed for the occasion – there were mummies, pumpkin headed men, all manner of pop cultural references, Chilean miners (the surprise hit costume this year – Becky and most of the women’s field hockey team were dressed as those unfortunate South American men), and two people dressed as sushi. The music was suitably poor (that modern club stuff, you know, the kind that’s mainly “urr urr urr urr urr urr urr urr SCREEEEEECH urr urr urr urr”), whilst the crowd were unusually active for a group of people too young to drink alcohol (perhap they broke the laws of the land?). Dancing was strictly limited to the one square foot in which you stood, pressed upon by all sides by gyrating vampires and Frankenstein getting his freak on. It certainly was an interesting experience.

Becky had a midterm exam to sit that week, and so the rest of our time in Stanford was spent lounging and booking our flights to COSTA RICA! All in all, our time in Stanford was very well spent, partially because it cost us so very little, but mostly because Stanford is such an incredibly impressively pretty place. Becky had been a fantastic host, but time waits for no man, and we had to be pushing on to our next destination. San Francisco.

Dan

Posted by: neilanddantrip | November 4, 2010

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City is, apparently, a place where no-one wanted to live. In the middle of a vast, desolate plain with little to no biodiversity, and close to a huge, shallow lake with a saline content so high, irrigation would be difficult and costly, the effort needed to live there made the location highly undesirable.

And that is why Salt Lake City was so desirable for the Mormons. They were free to live and practise their religion in peace. And so, Salt Lake City is the world’s centre for Mormonism. Mormons are very polite and very absurd. Their beliefs are neatly ridiculed in an episode of South Park, which is probably the best introduction to Mormonism. Nevertheless, it is thanks to these polite, passive people that Salt Lake City exists.

Much like Winnipeg, Salt Lake City suddenly appears on the horizon with little to no warning – as if some urbane deity sprinkled settlement dust over the land. After our not-so-pleasant Greyhound journey, Neil and I were eager to check in to our hostel.

We almost immediately got chatting to a girl called Emma, who had within a very short space of time offered us food and company for the night’s revelries. She was from Somerset. And so after a shower and some pizza, we headed off to see what the Mormon Capital of the World held for a bunch of Brits (and one Belgian) out on the lash.

The first bar we went to was a mixed bag. On the one hand, there was a live band that was playing “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughn with an extended guitar solo (awesome), and massive 24 ounce beer cans for $3 (awesome). On the other, the woman behind the bar bit my head off for ordering drinks in the wrong way (rubbish, and they still expect tips), there wasn’t anywhere to sit down without sheesha (or whatever the heck it is) smoke cascading into your nostrils, and the rest of the now-7 strong gang wanted to go somewhere else. I wanted to finish listening to the guitar solo, but I went with the flow.

The next place was, I guess, a club. They had weird artwork on the wall, and girls in skimpy outfits gyrating on podiums. It was a mix of nouveau riche with new age smut. It puzzled all of us in the party. I David Brent danced in one of the dancer girl’s faces before leaving, just to prove how hardcore I was. She loved it (probably).

The final bar had a high entry fee and some (c)rappers performing some (c)raps, occasionally shouting “MAKE SOME NOISE SALT LAKE CITY!”, which were always met with a muted response from the crowd.

Next day, after only a few hours sleep, Neil and I signed up for the Arches National Park trip the hostel offered. Also on the tour were two of the girls from the day before, Faye and Christine, and a new guy, Phil, yet another Brit. The car we took was only supposed to carry 4 passengers, and so the 3-4 hour journey there and back was a little cramped, but quite fun too. The Arches park itself was certainly worth putting up with the discomfort for. Massive, orange eruptions of stone emanating forth from the earth punching triumphantly into the sky, delicately eroded archways and hidden trails amongst the rocks were the order of the day. Hopefully the majesty of the views will translate when the footage we took eventually makes it onto YouTube, but suffice it to say we had a very enjoyable day.

A couple of days later, Neil, myself, and Phil went on an excursion to see the Great Salt Lake. After all, what’s the point of going to Salt Lake City if you don’t see the lake? The size of the lake is, in descriptions, impressive. Larger than the State of Rhode Island, the Great Salt Lake stretches for hundreds of miles, yet only reaches a maximum depth of 33 feet. In reality, it’s difficult to appreciate the scale without driving its length or flying over it, which we didn’t do. Instead, we learnt how to lasso inanimate objects at a ranch on one of the lake’s islands. All of us were surprisingly natural beginners. My craving to play Red Dead Redemption was partly satiated. Also, we managed to take a lot of good footage, so all in all a good day.

On our final day, Neil and I fully ingratiated ourselves in the Mormon experience. On arriving at Temple Square, two lovely looking ladies approached me and started chatting to me (which is a very rare occurrence, I assure you). Turns out they were Mormons on a mission, which that day involved giving me and Neil a free guided tour as they gave a potted history of Mormonism and their beliefs. They did a fantastic job, and managed to convince us to sign up for a free book of Mormon that would be delivered home. A little while later, Neil reported that his Dad had been visited by a couple of Mormons at home, which sounded hilarious.

And so, our time in Salt Lake City came to an end. We had met some nice, reassuringly normal Brits, seen some beautiful landscapes, and learnt about how John the Baptist appeared to a 14-year-old American in the 1840s. Next up, some California sunshine!

Dan

Posted by: neilanddantrip | October 28, 2010

Portland and the Greyhound experience

So after a very good time in Seattle we decided to set off to Portland.  We had had a good journey from Canada to the States in an American Greyhound bus.  So we arrived at the bus station in Seattle an hour before departure and got our tickets with our expectations high for this excellent service to continue.  

After waiting nearly an hour later after our expected departure the bus finally arrived to pick us up.  After a 15 minute boarding, we finally left exactly an hour late.  The bus driver, unlike the previous american bus driver, was not funny, did not speak coherently and in fact did not communicate with the bus with any positive feedback.  Instead, told all those people with connections in Portland that they won’t make it, no refunds, no apologies, to then say ‘thank you for travelling with Greyhound’.   This could then all have been sidelined as just a problem with the bus drivers english as he was most likely a Mexican if not at least Spanish speaking.  But the bad picture was cemented in my mind when later on in the journey the bus driver then pulled out of a T-Junction a bit too wide.  Dan and I were sitting in the front with a good view of the situation.  The driver saw that a metal railing that’s end was on the opposite pavement was going to be a problem.  Instead of the normal reaction, which would be to stop and reverse and then try again, this bus driver had something else on his mind.  His own words, ‘I don’t think we will make it!’  He then hit the accelerator and we ploughed through the rail and back onto the road with a grinding crunch!

When we arrived in Portland it was evening.  We did the standard thing and set up camp at the HI Hostel we had booked.  A converted house with all the basic facilities hostels give.  When we had sorted ourselves out, we then proceeded to go to one of the local Breweries and tried the 7 tasters they had on offer.  Very good for an ale fanatic, not good for the lager equivalent.   And that about sums up the first day in Portland.

The next day was a gorgeous sunny day.  The sun was so hot, I had to wear shorts.  Dan and I decided to check out the town that day.  We took the bus from literally just outside the hostel to town at a cost of $2.05.  Fairly cheap since you can then have the option to use the ticket on bus transport for the next 2 to 3 hours.  In town, we didn’t achieve too much that day.  We visited Powells City of Books a vast library of books that inspired us to read at the cafe within the library as so many other people were doing.  I felt I could have got used to that kind of life.  Very relaxed and they had a nice coffee selection to go with the books.

After such an eventful day, we walked back to the hostel, only stopping off at a Burger King to tick off another chain from our list.  We met a very friendly Englishman from Manchester, where upon we proceeded to do the usual and tell him all about our trip and that we are recording it and putting it up on Youtube in episodes.

And that was our last night in Portland.  The next day the hostel was kind enough to hold our bags till we collected them that evening before we took the bus to Salt Lake city, our next destination.  In this day we had left in Portland we managed a lunch at a Japanese restaurant (Seaweed etc) to then return to the City of Books to read some more.  So relaxed.  It was great. 

In the evening, after collecting our bags, we took the bus and then tram from the hostel to the bus station.  We caught the 11pm bus to Salt Lake City.  We were thankful this wasn’t late like the previous bus as this was a night bus and we needed at least some sort of a sleep.  The bus was not too full, but not as empty as night buses had tended to be in Canada.  So we had to make do with only 2 seats to sleep on.  It turned out their were some weird people on the same bus as us.  When I say weird, I mean that a couple of the ladies on the bus wouldn’t stop talking.  Not that they were talking to each other or, in fact, to anyone for that matter.  So all I can say to that is thank god for ear plugs.  What was more, is that my sun glasses got stolen while on the bus.  Dan had his iPod stolen, although he only realised when we arrived at the hostel in Salt Lake City.  The straw being the 17 hours it took to get to Salt Lake City.

So far in the States the places we have stayed at have been pretty good.  But the travel has been bad.  Still the journey continues!

Neil

Posted by: neilanddantrip | October 21, 2010

Seattle, Washington

The border cross from Canada into the United States of America was a prospect I didn’t particularly relish. When I arrived in Toronto Pearson International Airport over a month ago, I was ushered to the immigration desk and inundated with questions about the purpose of my stay, its duration, my level of funds, my means of transportation, etc. I imagined that the level of scrutiny I would be placed under by the Americans would be far, far greater.

And so, with my uke clutched in one quavering hand, my massive Berghaus backpack in the other, I proceeded to the immigration desk. The official there boredly glanced at my passport and visa waiver form, monotonly asked me to place my finger tips and thumbs on the electronic pad, and sent me on my way with nary a suspicious look or difficult question. Relief enveloped me in an awesome wave.

Unfortunately, Neil wasn’t having as much luck as me. Having procured a Canadian passport for himself prior to my arrival in Canada, I looked over to see the border official giving Neil quizzical looks as Neil exasperatedly gave some hasty replies with a worried expression on his face. Seems like the mismatch between Neil’s Canadian passport and his distinct, British accent was a bit too suspicious for the official to accept. Neil later told me that the official was totally perplexed by the nature of the trip we were undertaking – who goes to America to be a tourist? In any case, he was eventually let through, and we got back on the Greyhound bus to Seattle.

The Greyhound service in America introduced to us a notable language shift. No longer will we see signs, labels and leaflets printed in English and French. They will now be printed in English and Spanish. Other differences between Canada and America soon started to filter their way through too. The prices, for one, are far cheaper in the States. People are more fascinated by our English accents. Both good changes!

The hostel we had plumped for in Seattle was the City Hostel, which we chose based on its tax-inclusive price, location, and its status as an “art hostel”. Indeed, our room was painted from floor to ceiling with famous faces that we didn’t quite recognise. Facilities were good, staff friendly and helpful. On the night of our arrival, we happened to stumble across the annual “Lebowski Fest”, and decided to give it a go. There was a small gig by a local band, a burlesque performance, and then finally the film, which most of the audience knew off by heart. Also, Neil got lucky with a lady. I just watched the film.

Initially we had only booked two nights in Seattle, but during our first day seeing the city, we decided to extend our stay by two nights to take advantage of a City Pass deal, 6 attractions for less than 60 bucks. On the first day, we went to the Seattle Space Needle (good views of the Seattle skyline) and the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction museum (both located in the same building). They had an impressive ‘tornado’ of guitars, which was mechanically playing itself, a Jimi Hendrix exhibition, an area in which I could sate my electric-guitar-playing urges, and in the Science Fiction museum, The Terminator and R2D2.

On the second day, we were blessed by amazingly clear blue skies, and so we decided to take a cruise around Seattle harbour. The views of the city from the water were, if anything, even better than the views from the top of the Space Needle. In addition, there was a tour guide who was giving interesting bits and pieces of information about the sites, which made the tour really enjoyable. After a quick visit to the nearby curiosity shop (which had a real life mummy and various weird shrunken heads), Neil and I ticked another fast food chain off of what is no doubt a gigantic list by visiting a Red Robin. It reminded me of that episode of The Simpsons where Moe turns his bar into a family restaurant, based on the “all kinds of crazy crap on the walls”. Bottomless fries and bottomless drinks were very welcome, and I hope the “bottomless” refill trend continues!

Next on the agenda, the Seattle Aquarium. Not the best aquarium I’ve ever been in, but they did have a good selection of fish. The visit reaffirmed my aversion to octopi and squid. Seemed like the Salmon was the star of the show though, with most of the information devoted to the hardworking, stream climbing fish.

The next day, we headed off to the Zoo, which had a pretty decent selection of animals, which will of course be featured in the YouTube video once it’s uploaded. Don’t want to spoil too much! Good day overall. The day after we tried going to yet another Science Center, but this one was closed on Tuesdays, so all we did was watch an iMax film on why Boeing is so amazing (answer = because they make planes). After that, we got the bus to Portland, which is where we are now! But that’s another story, OOH!

Dan

Posted by: neilanddantrip | October 17, 2010

Vancouver City

Vancouver is a busy and bustling city with a sprawl of skyscrapers networking the downtown island and surrounding areas like islands in themselves.  An hours drive from the centre wouldn’t necessarily mean you had left the skyscrapers behind!  

Dan and I were located in the Downtown section of the city on Granville Street, a haven of Bars and Nightclubs where people were buzzing all night.  Not very welcoming at first due to the number of homeless that prowled the corners asking for change near the Hotel.  But we found that by walking or taking the Skytrain to other locations of the city, like Stanley Park (a beautiful escape from the city within the city itself!)  or even Broadway, the true shopping district, we escaped the homeless.

Vancouver had many things to see and do I am sure.  Dan and I never really went to anyone with knowledge to ask however.  With our own knowledge we came up with sufficient things to do in the short time we stayed. 

The Telus World of Science was the highlight of our trip.  At roughly $30 entrance it wasn’t exactly cheap, but it did have a variety of things to do that took up our whole day of activities.  The Science Centre section was very interactive and Dan and I had a good mess around feeling like kids again.  Very entertaining.

The Imax wasn’t something we hadn’t seen before but the film we watched about the human body was funny even if it hadn’t intended to be.  Maybe it was the music?  Maybe the cheesy lines?  Or maybe the combination of both?  Either way I had tears in my eyes by the end! 

At the other end of the spectrum, the The Body Works Exhibit was a shocker.  Not as in aweful, though you could say that.  It exhibited real human people who had died and given their bodies to science where with modern technology had plastinated the bodies in order to preserve them and examine them for scientific purposes.  All in the name of science.  If you could get your head around the fact that they were once living like you or me, seeing about 100 of these bodies, split apart like some sort of horror film, I guess it was very factual to look upon.  I think Dan took it worse than I did.  I managed to stick to the facts written on the boards rather than look at the bodies.  I leave the imagination to you.

On other days we managed a visit to Stanley Park.  As I said earlier, an escape from the city.  The park was situated right next to the Downtown section of the city and thus in the heart.  Not only that but wildlife was plentiful, with Racoons and Squirrels and more.  Big trees were here as well, Douglas Firs and Western Red Ceders were littered everywhere amongst other plant life.  Not too many people either which made it a pleasant walk.

The last things we managed to achieve was a day of Markets and shops.  We experienced Granville Island Market first, a hustling and bustling (well, in some areas) market where every type of food and drink was sold, cooked or uncooked.  We couldn’t help but notice the prices were high though!  Just next to the market was a couple of wine shops and a brewery which we of course took a look around.  Dan and I tried a Pumpkin Beer. We suggest you don’t.   Broadway Ave was the heart of the shopping district which we couldn’t help but notice how long the road was.  We walked a stretch in 30 minutes, around 7 to 10 blocks, but that was nothing in the length of the road.  We hardly scratched the surface.

To sum up our time in Vancouver we had a good time I think in most part.  A few less homeless would make Downtown Vancouver more welcoming and appear safer.  I think next time a visit to the Arts and Culture side of things would be a must.  Dan and I were a little ‘Arts and Cultured out’ still at that point.

On to Seattle next!

Neil

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