Ham-fisted airport security
As we had to endure a 15 hour flight from Caracas to San Francisco via Miami, it was with some reluctance that we shuffled onto the awaiting plane for the lengthy travel ahead. However, the plane left on time, got in early and all seemed well. Until we got to Miami, that is, and got to experience first hand the mild farce that is US airport security. A long delay in customs, followed by traipsing around the airport asking very irritable security-types where we needed to go, meant that we were feeling less than bouyant by the time we eventually made it across the airport to our awaiting connection to San Francisco.
Things didn't really pick up when we got to the northern Californian city though. As we arrived too late to get the airport shuttle to our residence, we had to take a cab. Problems soom bloomed when the first cab driver looked blankly at us when we told him where we wanted to go, neccessitating us having to repeat ourselves several times before giving up and trying another. This chap proved even worse however, when not only did he not know where we were going - we'd decided to get him to drop us at Union Square and we'd sort ourselves out from there - but when we politely asked him if it was a $30 flat airport fee like we'd been told, he flew into a hissy fit and promptly got out of the cab and started to unload our bags back onto the airport pavement, all the while ranting that "I'm not doing it for that little!". Our patience had long since worn thin, and this latest episode led to Dunc firing some choice expletives at this strange chap, before rapidly tiring of the petty arm waving, and dishing out a tirade to the airport taxi helper before stalking back to the terminal to try and sort something else out.
Eventually, we managed to get a ride with a different cab driver, and crashed into our beds at the Adelaide hostel for a well deserved rest. We awoke 12 hours later to the very pleasant city of San Francisco, and set off to explore our inviting new surroundings post haste.
It took us preciselly three blocks of walking before we noticed two central charicteristics of the place they call "The city". Firstly, it is steep. Very steep. Some streets are so steep that they have required steps to be installed to help pedestrians traverse them. This led to a new travel phenomenon we affectionately titled "The bum bump". The bum bump essentially involved Dunc having to push Vickie up the steeper hills by her bottom, making us the cause of much finger pointing and confused giggling by car-based passers-by. We'd managed to climb angel falls, navigate northern canada and swim in the orinoco delta, but the northern california streets had us tucked up good and proper.
Realising that we were, shall we say, standing out from the crowd with our rather unique method of walking, we soon noticed the second of San Franciscos interesting features. The crazy people. San Francisco seems to have a positive deluge of bearded, leather faced, shuffling oddballs, all of whom seem to be very content in their own multi-personalitied worlds as they shamble down the streets having some very interesting conversations with themselves. Our first encounter was with a hairy woman ranting at some nearby pigeons who one could only assume had wronged her terribly in a previous life. All the while she was being pursued by a shouty reverend type, clutching a bible and declaring that he really wanted to pray for her soul. We hesitated at the point of getting the video camera out to capture this unique street theatre, thinking it to be at the borders of tourist good form.
First landmark stop was to jump on one of the citys famous cable cars, and hitch a ride down to fishermans wharf. The ride was somewhat akin to a very pedestrian roller coaster being as we were going up and down virtual cliff-faces, hanging onto the side of a 100 year old vehicle at speeds slightly faster than walking pace. Arriving at the wharf, we were greeted by a scene more than slightly reminicent of a British seaside town, except with some charm and pleasantness about it. There were parades of little men selling whole crabs for lunch, small boats buzzing about the marina and chattering tourists working out where to pick up the nicest alcatraz souveniers from the plethora littering the streets.
At this point we noticed something else about San Francisco. There are a huge volume of Brits kicking around the place. We briefly considered if this number and the number of crazy people around were intrinsically linked, but soon left such treasonous thoughts behind when we found a nearby Ben and Jerrys and distracted ourselves with copious volumes of sugary goodness.
Returning to our hostel, we had a second crazy person encounter when a large hairy chap stopped us on the stairs and earnestly declared that we'd best be careful because someone called Damien was an anti-american terrorist and was out in the streets with machine guns and bombs, but the police were on him so we might be ok. Suitably forewarned, we chuckled to each other long after closing the door on our room for the night.
After booking a tour of alcatraz the previous day, we set off from the harbour towards the imposing structure sat squat and intimidatingly in the middle of the wharf. But not before we spotted a whole load of sealions hanging around in the sun just next to our ferry. Dunc briefly speculated if that meant any sharks would be nearby. The prospect of his upcoming shark dive was clearly getting to him a tad.
A brief but choppy ride across the wharf, and we docked at alcatraz, with Dunc loudly declaring "Welcome to the Rock" in his best Sean Connery accent, to the mild consternation of other nearby tourists. Touring our way around alcatraz, ducking in an out of the cells and generally reading up on prison life, we got a real sense of how isolated many of the "guests" would have felt in this place, and found some amusement in the irony that it now makes huge volumes of money as a tourist attraction, when it was closed down as a prison due to lack of funds. You could almost think they planned it that way.
As we'd been so successful thus far in the thrifty living stakes - especially with such nutritionally excellent dinners as a yoghurt and half a tube of pringles each - we decided to treat ourselves to a couple of beers. A local liquour store seemed the easiest outlet until, much to Duncs stuttering amazement, he was asked for ID for the first time in over ten years. Confusion soon gave way to amusement as Dunc repeatedly asked the serving counter man if we was winding us up, only to be replied to with "No, do you have any ID". It dawned on us that we hadn't thought to bring anything out with us, and the prospect of being refused beer was simply too embarrassing to contemplate. Nontheless, we managed to wear the shopkeeper down by pretending to rummage through Duncs backpack in search of a non-existant driving licence. This procrastination clearly got too much for the man, and he relented with a "Oh go on, i suppose you're old enough". Success did indeed taste sweet that evening.
We were again getting lucky with the local weather, so decided that a trip to hang out in Union Square and the Golden Gate park were in order for our next day. This was to prove to be our most crazy-laden day to date as we encountered a huge amount of people in various states of distress. One chap was jumping around behind us in the square, ranting about his groin being on fire and not trusting the water round here. A bearded man on the bus was having an in-depth conversation with a nearby advert about Richard Burtons film career, and don't even get us started on the volumnous amounts of nutters sprawled all over Golden Gate park, keeping us amused long into the afternoon.
One thing we were definitely looking forward to was the forthcoming roadtrip down historic route one to Los Angeles, so we were more than a little excited to pick up our hire car and drive across town to our next abode, a charming little English style B&B called the Edward II inn. If our previous neighbourhood had been rather "Camden town-ish" in its flavour, then this new part of town was definitely more in the "Richmond/Fulham Broadway" scale of things, which suited us to a tee.
The drive to this new hotel was the stuff of dreams for Dunc, who felt just like Steve Mcqueen in "Bullit", albeit rather an OAP version as the car we had was only marginally quicker than a flymo, and sounded as though it had an engine of similar size under the bonnet. Nontheless, every hill traversed led to giggles and calls of "Whee!" from Vickie, who was finding the whole experience more than a little exhilarating.
Rather fortuitiously for us, we unexpectidly stumbled into a sizeable event in the northern california calendar, the San Francisco fleet week. This is essentially a US navy chest-beating excercise, cunningly disguised as an ship and flying display. Intruigued, we ventured through the crowd to take in the event. Several hours and a touch of sunburn later, we were thoroughly impressed by some of the ariel acrobatics on display, but even more so at the amount of what we would categorise as "Proper dogs" being taken for walks. Earlier in the week, we had noticed that people in california seemed to have an even bigger liking for truly rubbish canines than their bretheren on the east coast. We saw a multitude of frankly useless dogs being carried and cuddled around the streets, much to our snotty nosed displeasure. The presence of several decent dogs around the wharf - including a truly mammoth English Mastiff who seemed to take mild pleasure in dragging his pre-pubescent girl owner wherever he fancied - gave us heart for the people of california's pet choices.
The climax of fleet week was a large-scale display from the American aerobatics team, the Blue Angels. Impressive though it was to see them loop and pirouette across the azure blue californian sky, we couldn't help but feel stirrings of patriotism as we discussed the fact that "They're good, but they're no Red Arrows".
Our walk home took us via a local pharmacy, where we encountered a woman who seemed to be entering into quite a philosophical debate with a tube of toothpaste she was about to purchase, pausing only briefly to giggle and twitch occasionally. By this point, these sorts of antics were water off a ducks back to us, and we barely noticed as we purchased our goods and followed her back out into the street to see her wander off, toothpaste still clutched tightly in hand.
The Farallon Islands
One very early night later, we were rudely awoken by our phone, chirping away at us, announcing that it was the ungodly hour of 4am. It was time to go on our great white shark dive. We yawned our way across the Golden Gate bridge and into the sleepy little harbour town of Tiburon to meet the transport that would take us to the Farallon Island marine sanctury some two hours away by boat. We were greeted by a crew that was a little too chipper for that time in the morning, and led onto our very comfy vessel, a sturdy 59 footer that doubles as the boat the San Francisco Giants baseball team use to take them around the bay for matches downtown.
We were given some seasickness tablets as soon as we boarded, which we sniffed at slightly before taking them out of politeness. As it turns out, that proved to be a most sage move because as soon as we left the bay area, the Pacific suddenly began to appear as though it wasn't all that pleased to have us there. Our boat began to plough through some sizeable swells of up to about 8 feet, which had the occupants pitching and rolling all over the place. This unpleasent environment soon got the better of a couple of guests, who promptly voiced a chunky yawn of displeasure over the side of the boat. Even our usually hardy stomachs were being tested, so we decided to head up to the bow and tackle the seas head on.
The fresh air definitely helped things out, and we were soon hooting with laughter as we stumbled and fell about the deck, clinging onto the side railing and making various pirate type noises to anyone within earshot. Soon enough, the Farallon islands began to hove into view, and the sense of anticipation grew. Previously, our expectations had been well and truly managed by our on board naturalist, a very friendly chap from Somerset. He had helpfully informed us that unfortunately, the elephant seals were unusually late getting to the islands this year, which in turn meant there were less sharks around than usual. He also let us know that a storm off the coast in the past week had churned up the water and reduced underwater visibility. Finally, he mentioned that, with the Farallons being a marine sanctuary, we were not allowed to chum for the sharks by putting blood and meat in the water, and had to rely on man made decoy seals instead. All of these factors were potentially going to stymie us in our search for a great white, so our chances had just dropped to somewhere around 50%. Not too promising.
As we got nearer to the islands, our naturalist guide told us that they used to be called "The Devils Teeth" by the local indians who were the first to spot them off the coastline. Dunc wasn't really paying attention to his explanation as to why because he couldn't help but notice that the largest island bore a striking resemblance to a boob, causing him to smirk and giggle childishly to himself until we eventually put down the anchor near the islands.
We had pulled up to the spot where the big females - who average around 18 feet in length - had been seen feeding by the resident island researchers. The cage was swiftly assembled, and Dunc was all limbs and exitement as he struggled into his wetsuit and prepared himself for the dive.
As he decended the 8 feet underwater down to the bottom of the cage, he realised that the naturalist hadn't been lying. Visibility was poor indeed and sunk as low as 10 feet in places. He could just make out the shapes of our two seal shaped lures - affectionatly entitled curly joe and shep - just above him as he scanned the water for movement. The reduced visibility was something of a double edged sword because, although he knew it was lessening his chances of seeing anything, the prospect that one of these gliding giants could pass within a few feet of him without him knowing, made for a very eery feeling.
Meanwhile, on the surface of the boat, Vickie had decided that the most judicious use of her time was to intersperce scanning the surface of the water with copious volumes of eating, drinking and falling asleep on the deck in the bright sunshine. In our respective ways, we were both having a great time.
As the day wore on, Dunc went back into the chilly brine for another lenghty turn in the cage. He was rapidly becoming more comfortable in this environment, and was concentrating intently on the gloomy murk around him. Several times he thought he saw some large shadows drifting around in the distance, but in the end he had to conclude that it was probably his excitement and lack of vision tricking his mind into seeing things. Unfortunately, our time at the islands ended all too soon, and Dunc was forced to trudge from the cage having not seen a single great white.
On our way back, we briefly stopped at a seal colony to see if we could see anything there. At this juncture, Dunc was unashamadly willing some of the seals to hurt themselves in the water to hopefully bring one of the big fellas in for some action but alas, it was not to be. Previously, he had even considered cutting his hand while he was in the water to try and help things along, but sense and the chilliness of the pacific won out in the end, and he had to go home disapointed. South Africa now has the dubious pleasure of being added to our list of must do future destinations to allow us another crack at seeing one of natures most majestic animals in its natural habitat.
Historic Route One
Route one, as it turns out, is not only a boringly predictable football tactic employeed by randy Swedes in charge of national teams, but is also one of the last great roadtrips in America. And we were going to take our little car on the two day journey down the Californian coastline to our next stop, Los Angeles.
However, our early enthusiasm was blunted slightly when we missed our turning out of San Francisco, and got lost for several minutes as we stumbled around the mesh of one way streets looking for a way out. Some swift map-reading from Vickie and london-style driving from Dunc eventually got us back on the right path however, and we headed off into the sunny horizon in an even sunnier mood.
Less than one hour onto the open road, we crusied past several "pick your own" pumpkin farms, clearly being well stocked in the run up to Halloween. However, it was one farm in particular that brought us screeching to a halt and back-tracking up the road for a closer look. The wonderfully rustic "Farmer Johns". We pulled up into a scene reminisent of a time gone by, as people in big straw hats led dungareed children around a sun parched field, putting pumpkins into a home made wooden cart. Add a river, and you would have the setting for a Mark Twain novel, it was that charming. We strolled through the lot until we reached a sight that literally took our breath away. On the back of a truck were three pumpkins, one was the size of a small planet, one was big enough to be cinderellas actual carriage, and one was a cube of such geometric symmetry and excellence, that Jack could have painted some dots on it and taken it up the beanstalk for the biggest game of "Yahtzee" in the world.
At this point, a chap who could only have been Farmer John himself, moseyed over and proudly exclaimed that his big-uns had won largest pumpkins at the recent local show, and the cube-one had won the (slightly disturbing) title of "Prettiest Pumpkin" in show. Apparently, this had upset the big local pumpkin farmers, but Farmer John seemed unrepentant as he stared glazy-eyed at his pride an joy. Duly impressed but now more than a little intimidated by such huge root vegetables, we smiled politely and returned to the road, passing a huge "Honk if you love Pumpkins" sign nailed to a roadside tree on the way.
Route one is generally regarded as having some spectacular vistas over the pacific coastline, and sure enough, we were not disapointed. Every five minutes neccessitated another halt to our journey, followed by hushed mouthings on how impressive it all was, before returning to our car only to stop 500 yards down the road to repeat the process. Looking out over the cliff faces, to see the sight of a wild pacific ocean breaking against the rugged coastline in a scene far more hypnotic than any lava lamp, we really got a feeling of wilderness and of a time long forgotten by people tucked away in their cities and towns. Again, the views we were experiencing on our travels were somehow managing to exceed our now lofty expectations.
Continuing on our drive, we meandered our way through the big sur national park, and were given yet more visual treats as the road was flanked one side by huge cliff faces, rapidly dropping off to the pacific ocean far below on the other. Vickie commented that driving on this road felt like she should be on top gear, driving a soft top sports car and talking in a funny voice about strange car metaphors.
A couple of hours later, we passed through the pleasant little coastal town of Pismo beach, and considered stopping there to watch the sunset. However, we'd been on the road for nearly 8 hours and, due to our nasty habit of getting lost, we decided not to try navigating our way to our proposed stopover town of Santa Maria in the dark, and instead pressed on. We were a touch non-plussed by the drab little town of Santa Maria as the name suggested something rather exotic. Instead we were greeted by an identikit californian town, with a slight hispanic feel to it. Briefly we considered returing to Pismo beach but that was now over an hours drive in the wrong direction, so we decided to decant for the evening in a little budget place called the Rose Inn Motel.
We were more than pleasently surprised, however, when we checked in to find that our room not only had a view of the very pretty and heated hotel pool, but we also had a large TV, and very clean room furnished with a bed the size of a small eastern european country. Chuffed with this turn of events, we tucked into a junk food dinner and settled in for the night.
The following morning, we pressed onto LA, aiming to get to another place we'd identified as a good stop, Santa Barbara, for lunch. We arrived to a charming little fishing town which was clearly something of a getaway resort for LA's well-to-do. Some more aimless wandering along one way streets eventually took us to the town pier, and we pulled up for some lunch and relaxation whilst staring out over the palm tree lined beach and nearby marina. Nice and relaxed, it was time to leave Santa Barbara behind, and tackle the (in)famous LA traffic.
Fortunately, we had decided that our place of residence, the Nite Inn, would not actually be in downtown LA at all, but in a small suburb called Studio City which, conveniently, is just off highway 101, so was nice and easy to get to. We pulled in, checked in, dumped our bags and went off to explore our new surroundings. Dunc was especially delighted to find that right next door, we had a 24 hour Subway restaurant, a Doughnut shop and a burger joint with the glorious monikor of "Fatburger".
The main purpose of our trip to LA, other than the airport, was to see the famous Universal Studios, and our thrifty internet surfing earlier in the week had provided us with cheap tickets that included a free second day in the park. Furnished with this knowledge, and a slight sense of smugness, we were in no hurry to get to the park, and even less of a hurry once we were in there.
California had clearly decided to turn up the thermometer a couple of notches, so we were more than pleased when we didn't have to queue longer than 15 minutes for any ride or attraction (although Vickie did make several comments about the amount of kids in front of us in queues who should really be in school). This lack of waiting allowed us to try out such rides as "Van Helsings Castle Dracula", "Terminator 2:3D", "Shrek 4D", "Jurassic Park" and "The Mummys Tomb". Almost all of the rides were great fun (especially Shrek and T2) but all had the same problem. They were just too short. We didn't mind this at all because we could go pretty much straight back on them when we were done the first time, but could imagine it would get more than a little irritating if one had to wait for more than an hour to get on any of the 30 second rides, which is what would inevitably happen in peak season. We slowly began to understand why some of the parents had elected to bring their kids here in term time.
Nontheless, the place was immense fun to wander around and experience, and we amused ourselves by taking daft pictures in front of many of the various exhibits, including a large shark, the Incredible hulk and the star car from 2 fast 2 furious: the movie. The car in particular was a sourse of amusement as it was a silver Nissan Skyline. Dunc had to restrain himself on several occasions from going up to the various people posing for pictures next to the car and telling them that they could have a picture of his Skyline for half the price if they wanted.
The studio tour of the Universal movie lot was next up, and we embarked on a fun-filled 45 minute tour of the sets from such film giants as Psycho, Jaws (at which point Vickie jokingly remarked that we'd seen a shark at last. Dunc chose to ignore her flippancy), The Mummy and, most impressively, the set of the plane crash from War of the Worlds. This final scene was haunting in its illusion of reality and was not really what Vickie wanted to see 2 days before we were due to fly out over the pacific, a fact that she voiced through gritted teeth as we rumbled on through the set.
On our way back, we experienced a slice of real movie cool, when we had our faces super imposed onto Han Solo and Princess Leias bodies in a piece of photographic wizadry. Dunc made more than a dashing Han, it has to be said, and we definitely looked the part as the coolest movie duo in history. However, the high cost of purchase combined with Vickies inbuilt dislike of any photos that contain her, precluded us from buying this movie keepsake.
The second day at Universal was even hotter than the first, so we decided that our first stop needed to be the huge live action Waterworld show. We perched on the "You WILL get wet" seats, and promptly got a solid drenching during a highly entertaining 20 minute stunt show. One quick ride on the rather quaint Back to the Future simulater, and we headed off to try the Mummys tomb and Jurassic park again. At this point, we noticed something that caused us no end of hilarity. The Mummys tomb had all the usual disclaimers about pregnant women and people with heart conditions, but had a final one that neither of us had ever seen before. Apparently, the seats are not suitable for people of a certain "carriage", and before you get into the queue, you need to sit in a test seat to ensure that you are not too fat for the restraints to fit around you.
This both amused and perplexed us, until we took a long look around us and realised that a large proportion of people would indeed not be suitable to ride this roller-coaster, due to their over-ample physiques. In fact, Dunc entered from casual smirking into virtual incredulity when he noticed three very rotund children, being pushed around the park in hire buggies by their sweating parents. Not in itself too worrying, you may think, until he noticed that these kids were at least 6 years old, and all of them were tucking into family sized packs of Cheetos. With that, we left this ridiculous, yet strangly American, scene behind and headed over to the nearby special effect studio for a 30 minute tour.
The tour was hosted by a man who would make Dale Winton look positively butch, and he gleefully minced and sashayed his way around the tour, being both aided and hindered by his audience assistants, one of which was a young latino chap who either spoke no english or was not quite playing with a full deck. We idly commented that, although this chap was called Rodrigo, he would really be better off with the monikor of "Manuel", in honour of the confused but very content little waiter from Barcelona.
The final stop for us in California was to be the city of the stars, Hollywood. Initially we rather foolishly tried to walk from our hotel to our destination. However, we eventually had to give up when we realised that there is more distance between Studio City and Hollywood than between London and Moscow, and LA really doesn't cater for pedestrians. Interesting fact time: Did you know that LA encompasses roughly the same geographic area as New York City, San Francisco, Washington and Seattle combined? It is a monster of a city and, clearly defeated, we hopped onto a bus for the remainder of our journey.
Arriving at Hollywood Boulevard, we immediately noticed just how seedy the whole area was. Granted, the pavements on star walk were littered with famous names, but far more noticable were the numbers of "Sexy Costume and Tatoo" shops, "Erotic" Video shops, and companies offering tacky souveniers and maps to movie stars homes. Leaflet distributing touts in some genuinely rubbish, seemingly homemade costumes littered the streets (apparently Darth Vader has recently grown himself some long blond hair, no less!), and we were stopped by a man proclaiming himself as the next 50 cent, before attempting to sell us his homemade CD compilation.
We stopped briefly outside the famous Manns Chinese Theatre, and looked at the various stars handprints in the pavement, but the tackiness of it all soon got the better of us and we wandered off in search of the Hollywood hill sign. On our way, we were stopped by another tout attempting to sell us a tour consisting of stops outside 50 movie stars homes, followed by the Hollywood sign. As we both thought the idea of leering at some non-discript house that may or may not contain a film star was rather insipid, we had a little fun with him instead, knocking his price down from $70, to $30 for the two of us, before declining and sneaking off for some lunch.
We concluded that the state of Hollywood boulevard was actually somewhat of a shame as it had the potential to be the LA equivalent of New Yorks 5th Avenue, or Londons Oxford street, but instead seems to have lost its way over the years and become more of a self-depreciating insult to the industry it houses.
After having spent several days in LA, we began to liken it somewhat to Birmingham back home for several reasons. Both are their respective countries "Second Cities" and as such, struggle in the shadow of a more illustrious competitor. Both are large, sprawling cities and both seem to struggle in the PR department. In fact, replace the clear blue southern californian skies with grey Brummie ones, and you'd have a chance of twinning the towns.
Leaving Los Angeles
We got another taste of just how huge LA is, when we got ourselves lost on the way to the airport, and ended up driving around the Long Beach highway, desperately looking for anything resembline a sign for LAX airport. Vickie suggested stopping and asking directions but at that particular juncture, we were passing through Crenshaw Boulevard and Dunc commented that the chance of two White, clearly foreign, people in a hire car stopping and asking for directions to the airport, getting away with out losing our car and bags was frankly a little on the slim slide so we decided to press on.
Eventually, we pulled up at the airport and spent more time stressing ourselves out by having to wander aimlessley between various airline ticket desks trying to get the dates on our future flights amended to fit with our plans for the rest of our trip. All in all, the drive to the airport and ticket palava had taken us 5 hours to sort, so once we finally got checked into our ongoing flight, we settled down with a relaxing ice cream, and began to savour the prospect of two and a half weeks in our next destination, the island paradise of Fiji.