Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

North America


Howdy everybody (American style greeting).

So, I haven't done a newsletter type thing for about a month so it is about time I did I think, furthermore the internet at the place I am staying is free as opposed to the extortionate prices charged at the internet cafes here (ironically this is the most expensive place I think I have ever been, despite the fact that they don't have the call charges here).

So, from the beginning of my American odyssey, this is what has happened.

After arriving bloody tired, after thirty odd hours of travelling including an eight-hour delay in Paris whilst they changed one of the engines (not a good sign), I checked into my hostel and slept very well. The following morning whilst doing my laundry I met a girl from Denver who was going to the mall I was also planning on going to, and she agreed to be my guide, which was helpful. It was funny going through Miami on the bus, through the suburbs and downtown etc. as it is the only place that I have ever been that really fulfils the pre-conceptions. Everywhere else I have been has looked and felt nothing like the media image, this place has. After doing a little shopping, but generally being disappointed with what was on offer we headed back to the hostel and I headed out on my own more. Over the next couple of days I took it quite easy, met some good folks and waited for my family to come out to Miami. When they arrived it was nice to see them as I hadn't seen them all for a long time. We all got on surprisingly well from the start (something my family is not renowned for). The day after they came out we went to the cruise ship, which would be our home for the next week. It is a bloody massive thing, apparently the largest passenger vehicle on the planet (fitted with amongst other things: a rock climbing wall, a small golf course, an ice rink, a two thousand seat theatre, a casino, numerous swimming pools, restaurants and bars). To say the least it was rather large taking ten minutes to walk from one end to the other, with fifteen decks.

So, we set sail on the Saturday evening for Labadee, a Haitian island. That evening we went for our meal in the main restaurant, where the food was less than good, not a good start and unfortunately it didn't really improve over the duration of the cruise. En route we passed by the length of Cuba on our Starboard side for much of Sunday and arrived in Labadee on Monday morning. The weather there was very nice, but the water was rather cold and the beach was coral, so not very nice on the feet. They did serve nice drinks there though and I caught more sun than I ought to have done. But it was a nice chilled day. We then got back on the boat and set sail for San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the evening Mickey Dolenz, formerly of the Monkeys put on a show in the theatre, which was fun, when he played some of the classics. We arrived in San Juan at midday the following day and my brothers, sister in law and I, just wandered round, looked in some shops and generally had a look around San Juan, a relatively undramatic port town, but still rather chilled. Our next stop was to St. Thomas, one of the US Virgin islands. After browsing through some of the shops we went to Magens Bay, according to National Geographic one of the ten best beaches on the planet. It is a beautiful beach with a dramatic setting, fine platinum sand and calm, clear, turquoise water. The only downside being how busy it was. A bonus was the drinks again which were served by scantily clad bar girls, which definitely added to the scenery. From there we were at sea again for the whole of the next day en route to Nassau in the Bahamas. When we arrived there it was overcast and windy. There wasn't too much to do, so after having a look round for a while we got back on the boat and went to an Ice show. The show was quite impressive, being performed by ex-soviet bloc champion skaters, who with no money for there profession in the east have gone to work on a cruise ship doing a few performances for their living, a bit of a come down I expect.

Nassau being our last stop we headed back to Miami where the weather had got better and my parents were heading home. My brothers and sister in law stayed on until New Year, which we celebrated in a club on South Beach and then they also went home.

So, the family all gone I went back to the cheaper accommodation at the hostel I had stayed at previously. Whilst there I met an Australian guy who agreed to chip in towards the cost of a hire car so we could go down to Key West, I was to get a hire car soon anyway as my friend David was coming out in a couple of days for a couple of weeks and we had agreed to have a hire car for the duration of his stay, I just started it a little earlier. We met a decent Indian guy who also felt like joining us for the journey, so he also chipped in a bit, which made the whole thing still more affordable. We headed down to Key West, quite a long drive with the Caribbean on one side and the Atlantic on the other. It was quite a nice place, but not a lot to it. Just a chilled place with a lot of bars and tourists. One night there was enough, so we headed back up to Miami the next day. From there I drove on the following day up to Orlando to meet David at the airport. Then from there we went to the timeshare his father had arranged for us. A nice big resort with several swimming pools, spas etc., as well as a Jacuzzi etc. in the apartment, a bit better than staying in a dorm in a hostel.

We had agreed previously that in Orlando we would visit most of the major attractions. So, after having a look around Downtown Disney the first evening, we decided to buy some tickets for a four-day pass, so we could see the four Disney resorts (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and MGM Studios). When we got back to the ticket booth at the resort they just closed so we went back in the morning to buy them. When we got there we were informed that the price had gone up ten percent overnight, typical. We bought our tickets and went off to the Magic Kingdom. We went on all the rides, watched all the parades, saw the shows and generally had a good time. The only downsides being that the food was expensive and total crap and that none of the characters were wandering around, something they apparently stopped doing a few years ago. Still we had a good day.

The weather which had to that point been fair decided to turn against us and it poured with rain for most of the next day, which we spent at the Animal Kingdom. The park, which is the newest in the Disney complex, was actually rather good, pleasantly surprising us. They had excellent shows, but more importantly interesting and varied animals, including some that are particularly endangered such as the Okapi and Bongos from the Congo. They also added a touch of authenticity to the place by employing African people in the African sections and Asians in the Asian sections. All said another good day. That evening we decided to go to the Party part of Disney, Pleasure Island. Most of the locals we had spoken with had recommended it. They celebrate new years eve every night of the year with fireworks, dancers and music (very cheesy) and there are also a number of clubs and bars, all with different themes. We went and were bored in no time, there was almost no one there, there was no atmosphere and generally it was a poor night. We were later told that was because it was cold during the day so people wouldn't turn up. Thursdays would be the best night as the Disney staff were allowed to attend on Thursdays as well as having their payday then, oh well.
So, our next outing was to Epcot, something that David and I had both been looking forward to but we were rather disappointed by the end, not least with the weather which was apparently a record low for Orlando (just our luck). The whole point of the place being about future developments etc. but there was very little like that at all, mostly just promotions by the likes of Motorola about products they would be launching shortly. Not particularly stimulating. The highlight was the fireworks display at the end of the day though which was incredible.
Thankfully the weather improved the next day, when we went to Disney-MGM studios. There were various studios, sound stages, tours and shows to keep us interested and occupied there including demonstrations by some of the Disney animators etc.

The rides there were also very good, one in particular the Aerosmith - Rock and Roller Coaster, which is very quick has several upside down bits and is almost all in the dark, good fun. Another one we enjoyed was the Twilight Zone haunted hotel where you go in a lift that drops sixteen stories, hoists you up, does it again and repeats it for about six times, also in the dark. So another fun day we went to watch the Fantasmic show which involves pyrotechnics, dancing fountains, actors and lots of other bits to impressive effect. That was it for our Disney days, and we enjoyed it all.
Next up in our schedule was a visit to Universal Studios, there were some good shows and rides there, but it lacked the panache of the Disney parks, but it wasn't as hectic at least, which was good. A couple of the shows were rather second rate though, but once again we had a good day. That evening we went back to Pleasure Island, where it was a lot busier and more vibrant, but it still didn't really have a lot of atmosphere. I think Disney do there things very well, but when it comes to clubs etc. they have tried to mess around with the standard and it doesn't work. One good bit was when we got a cab back to the resort there was a guitar in the front, so we joked that the cabbie should play us a couple of tunes, which he did (whilst driving) and then when we got to out apartment he played us a little set, asked for less money than anyone else and generally was a very nice guy, as well as a very good guitarist, especially considering the confined space in which he was playing. Good fun and not the sort of thing one ever gets in a London cab.
So, next day we went for the last of our excursions in Orlando, or in this case from Orlando, to the Kennedy Space Centre. The tour was very interesting and we got to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad ready for a launch on the eighteenth of January, that we were going to go and see but has now been postponed due to a dodgy cable. Then we got to see some of the older space vehicles, including the Saturn V, the largest rockets ever built, and they are bloody big. We also saw them assembling actual parts of the international space station, ready for imminent departure. We listened to a Q & A session with an astronaut, walked round a full size mock up of the space shuttle, saw an Imax film about life in space and generally learned and enjoyed ourselves. One of the real highlights was something we hadn't even considered which was the number of Alligators we saw around, and huge numbers of Armadillos running about, much cuter than the other residents.

That was it for Orlando for us so we headed back down to Miami where once again we had a timeshare apartment arranged, this time on the beach, very nice. The weather in Miami has been very good, apparently reaching record highs. Since being here we have generally lazed around during the days, done a bit of shopping, and gone out to bars in the evenings, making a point of not over exerting ourselves. On Saturday David heads back to blighty and I am going to start my whistle-stop tour of the country before heading back to India again. I will try and keep in touch but, ironically it is easier and cheaper to find an Internet cafe in India or almost anywhere in the third world than it has been so far here in America.


Later today I will be bidding a final farewell to the home of the free, which is a bloody lie because it isn't even cheap, let alone free. So, I thought I should take the opportunity of a cheap Internet cafe here in New York City (Operated by EasyEverything, same bloke as EasyJet, just goes to show you need a British Greek to sort out this place) to write you my newsletter, keeping you posted of my American exploits.

Last time I wrote, David was soon to be returning to the UK and I was to take off on a month long whistle stop tour of the States. Needless to say, Dave went home and I did take off on the tour of the States, after having deliberated for some time on the best way to do it, taking both expense and flexibility into consideration, I decided to rent a car, so immediately after driving to Orlando and dropping the car that David and I had hired together, I picked up another car that was to be used and abused for ten thousand miles, or so I thought. I also got a mobile hone, as I was told how cheap etc. it was. After I picked up the car, a Ford Taurus, bigger than I had asked for, but three years old, I drove to New Orleans, where the temperature already was markedly lower than in Florida. In New Orleans I generally wandered around, taking in some of the bars and street performances around the French Quarter. Some of the jazz was great, it was all good fun, but at the same time a little tacky. One quiet bar had an excellent band with a singer who sounded a lot like Louis Armstrong. En route, I had found the ABS and central locking on the car to not be working, so upon arrival called up Hertz to tell them, who told me to drop the car off at the local branch and get a replacement, the phone which was not working yet, they could do nothing about as it was a separate company that dealt with them. I went to the Hertz place where they further upgraded me to a Buick Regal, not a bad car, but a little worn (it had thirty thousand miles on the clock and burns in the carpet, chips in the windscreen etc. but was comfortable at least.

From New Orleans I drove to Houston, Texas. For two reasons, first, it was a reasonable place to stop after along drive. Second, I thought a visit to the Space Centre there might be interesting as a complement to having visited the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. In actuality, the Space Centre in Houston was in many ways more interesting than the other as this where everything is controlled from, as well as being the centre for research and development. As a result we were able to not only see the actual control room, but also development areas where they are building prototypes of the X-33, a new shuttle design and also saw how and where the astronauts are trained. All in all very interesting. I also managed to have a good Chinese meal at a local restaurant, where I told him exactly what I wanted and he made it to my liking.

The telephone I had rented from Hertz was still not working so, I phoned up the company who actually rent out the phones to find out why not, they told me it would be soon. During our conversation I thought it prudent to check all that the woman who had convinced me to rent it had told me. Firstly that there were ten free minutes included in the rental that could be used for international as well as domestic calls. No, not so, I would have to pay for any international calls I made. Second, that international calls and domestic calls were the same price. No, international calls were much more expensive. Third, that incoming calls were free. No, incoming calls would cost me the same as outgoing. Lastly, that calling toll free numbers would still be free from the phone. No, those free numbers would actually cost me the same as any other domestic calls. So, essentially the stupid woman had either made everything up, or deliberately lied to me, I wasn't happy, but there was little I could do. I sent the phone back to the people and told them not to activate it. It had actually turned out to be a blessing that it had not worked, otherwise I would have unwittingly run up exorbitant bills.

From Houston I drove straight across Texas to El Paso, which is on the border with New Mexico and Old Mexico, a twelve-hour drive. The following day I decided to go over and have a look at a bit of Mexico. Juarez, the town over the border is actually Mexico's fourth largest city. It was peculiar to cross over from the first world (or at least Texas), to the developing world in a few steps. Over the border it all seemed so much more vibrant and real, not to mention cheaper. Generally I just wandered around. I went and had a bad shave and had some kind of beef dish, which was actually very tasty as well as cheap (something my taste buds appreciated after having suffered crap food for the previous month). I crossed back to the US after a few hours, duty free in hand, to be interrogated by the US Customs official as to why I had visited so many places, he didn't really appreciate my answer "because they're interesting".
I then drove across New Mexico and Arizona towards the Grand Canyon. On the way the scenery, as well as the weather were both great, rolling desert and rocky outcrops, like Jebels springing out of the sand. I decided to take a little detour through the Saguaro Forest, these are the famous cacti from western films, not actually as common as appears in the movie, but confined to a small area in Arizona. By the time of my arrival there, the sun was setting but they were still interesting, with many in interesting shapes. I watched the beautiful sun set over the cacti and drove onto Williams just near to the Grand Canyon to spend the night. By the time I got there it was well below zero, with snow and ice on the windy mountainous roads, which made the drive a little more entertaining. The next morning I got up early to see the Grand Canyon and found that a replica had developed in the front windscreen of the car. The cold and the chips in the windscreen had obviously worked together to produce a ten inch crack, I wasn't being lucky was I. Undeterred, I drove to the Canyon and had a wander around the Canyon is very impressive. It has an immensity difficult to comprehend. It was also very picturesque with snow along some of the canyon walls and covering some of the outcrops in the middle. I decided to see about taking a scenic flight around the canyon, so went to the little airport and managed to haggle the people down to an agreeable amount and had a fly about, for around an hour in a little twenty seat plane, but there were actually only seven of us. Then when back on the ground, drove around some bits that are open to the public at this time of year, as it is low season. After having my fill of the big hole (yes, the pun was intended and I apologize), I drove onto Las Vegas. Vegas is without a doubt one of the most ridiculous places on the planet, it suddenly appears out of the desert and then driving along the strip, there are overwhelming sights and lights, distracting and at times blinding (not a particularly safe place to drive as a result). I checked into a motel and phoned up Hertz to tell them about the crack in the windshield, expecting them just to send someone to replace the glass. They apparently can't do that though, so I had to take it to the Las Vegas airport to have another swap. The guy on the phone commented that not only should have been sold by now, considering its mileage, but I definitely should not have been given it considering I was to be driving a long way. So, off to the Hertz depot I went, I told the lady at the desk, that I hoped she could me something that would last longer than a couple of days this time, considering my previous record. She told me excitedly that I would be getting a Town Car; this meant nothing to me, as I don't know American cars (my knowledge of them has now increased after having driven a variety of them). So she explained that this was the best car they had, after all it was a Lincoln, the only thing that Hertz rents, higher up the scale being a Jaguar. I was overwhelmed with nonchalance at this, merely wondering how much petrol this thing was going to consume. When I went out to see this thing, I thought it a little large for one person; you could install bus stops at various points along the thing to make travel more convenient. These things are used as Limousines, either stretched or Au Naturel, needless to say space would not be a problem, finding things in it might and with a four point six litre V8 engine, economy certainly would. I decided, given my previous luck I should thoroughly check this car before I drove it away, which was lucky, as I found that the doors weren't locking properly. I went in and told the folks who had just so unimpressed me with their generous recompense. They understandably thought that it must be me being imbecilic, not knowing how to lock a door, so they sent their mechanic out to show me how it is done. After a couple of minutes he concurred with me and went off to get me another car, the staff looked at me with awe, that I had managed to get through four cars in a week, they were obviously impressed with my jinxing ability. The mechanic turned up with another Town Car for me. I checked this one over, found it satisfactory and went back to the motel to work out how to operate the thing. Something the mechanic had inadvertently done though, was given me a car with a GPS navigator system in it, something that should've cost me an additional six dollars a day. I didn't think it was my place to correct his mistake, as it would be a useful little toy.

The following day I walked down through the strip. The plastic population and recreation in overdrive. After having had cursory overview I walked round to the Rio Hotel and Casino as it had been recommended to me as having the best of the buffets, as well as a good, free, carnival type show, suspended from the ceiling. So off I went to eat, the range of foods at the buffet was impressive, the quality wasn't though. Prior to coming to the States I had always considered myself having a more than healthy appetite, however the quantities consumed by the other diners was unbelievable. People would have table full of empty plates, considering that the staff there were clearing them away quickly, one really had to be eating like a world class bulimic on the binge of their life. It was a spectacle to behold. People slowly making their way back to their seats with a plate piled eighteen inches high in each hand. I thought the amount I had was too much, by the end I felt bloated to the extent that I did not, and felt I physically could not, eat anything more until the next day. My efforts however merely produced looks of contempt from my fellow diners who obviously thought I was wasting my time and money and merely being an obstruction in their pursuit of more food. I went to see the show, which was reasonable, the most impressive bit being the people playing the slots below who seemed to be completely oblivious to the fifty-foot boat floating above their heads with singers and dancers. I went and wasted a bit of money in the casino and then went down to Caesars Palace, wasted a little money there, had a look round New York, New York - A recreation of Manhattan and its most famous sights, the skyline, Central park, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty etc. which was all quite impressive in its imitation. Then onto the MGM-Grand which is apparently the biggest hotel in the world. They actually put on a rather good free show, called Heroes of Rock and Roll, which had various celebrity imitators. The high point obviously being the Elvis Presley imitator, who was not only very good, but also really got the crowd going. Between the various casino halls they for some reason have several young lionesses in a classroom, with staff that kick balls at them. The lions seem to enjoy it, and it makes a pleasant distraction from the rest of the cheese. I had a wander around the gigantic hotel, the amusement park was closed by the time I arrived there. I wasted a little bit of money at the casino and went onto the Venetian. The Venetian being an American interpretive recreation of Venice (Italy not California), complete with a canal and gondoliers serenading the punters (I know, another bad pun). There are also recreations of St. Marks square and Italian boutiques. The one thing I did not see in my time there actually was the Casino, whereas in all the other places one can't help but go through the Casino, I walked through the Venetian without seeing so much as a single slot machine, which was actually rather nice. Next stop was Paris, complete with a half size replica of the Eiffel tower, otherwise it wasn't too impressive inside, neither were the Flamingo, Aladdin or Treasure Island, however at Treasure Island they did have a pirate show where the rascally Yankee pirates manage to sink the British Navy ship that is trying to bring them to justice, it was all good fun, with
explosions and stunts and the British ship sinking and then re-emerging from the depths during the course of the show.

My final stop was to Circus Circus, where there is apparently the world's largest indoor theme park, complete with several roller coasters etc. I decided not to go up the Stratosphere tower to look down on the strip and called it a night, with losses totalling sixty dollars. I actually enjoyed Las Vegas, purely because it is so ridiculous. At least it doesn't have any pretensions about itself and the theme park it is.

The next morning I was thinking of driving to San Francisco, via Joshua Tree and Sequoia National Parks. I didn't actually get as far as Joshua Tree, but did see a number of them, firstly in a snowscape and then just a few miles further in the desert. So, I headed onto Sequoia National Forest to have a look at the big trees. En route I went past the Airplane graveyard in the Mojave desert, which was unexpected, but good. When I got to the entrance to the Forest, the ranger told me that I needed snow chains to get up to the big trees, which would take more than an hour to drive up to. As it was four o'clock, she said it would be best to come back the next day, as by the time I got the chains, got them on and got back up, it would be dark. So, I went to a motel to consider whether I wanted to spend the night there, so I could see the big trees, or if I should drive onto San Francisco. The Motel manager helped convince me to stay, by giving me a room cheap and generally being a nice bloke. We got talking and he wined me and dined me, literally. We got through a fair amount of wine and he made me dinner. A nice, interesting guy, we talked until about two in the morning. Next morning he showed me where to rent snow chains, and the guy demonstrated how easy it was to fit the things. I took off into the park, and at the designated area fitted the chains. Somehow it didn't seem to just all slot together as easily as it had for the guy I had rented them from. Eventually after me giving some shouting, pulling, whilst receiving cuts and filth, I got the things on. The need for them became very apparent after just a short way, where the road was just ice and snow. The big trees are, needless to say rather large, but also a nice cinnamon colour. I went and had a look at General Sherman, the largest living thing on the planet, rather tall. After having seen the trees I headed back down the mountain, game to the designated chain removal place and spent half an hour inflicting more cuts and filth on myself before getting the things off, went down to town dropped them off and headed onto Monterey, in a change of plan.
Monterey is on the Californian coast, a little south of San Francisco. The reasons for my going there being: it is where John Steinbeck, amongst my favourite authors is from, as well as being the setting for many of his books; There is a well renowned aquarium there. The last part of the drive there along the Pacific coast was very picturesque, as well as being the first time I had seen the Pacific Ocean. In Salinas, just outside Monterey, I visited the National Steinbeck centre, where they had exhibits about the life and works of John Steinbeck, presented very well, if a little child orientated. I then went to the aquarium, which was excellent with a whole range of exhibits including million gallon tanks, recreating the ocean environment. From just outside one could see a couple of sea otters (very endangered, about five hundred in existence) swimming about in the bay, one swimming along on its back, cracking a crab open on its belly and chomping on its legs. I walked down through the famous cannery row (now tacky touristy shops) to Fisherman's Wharf, to go on a whale watching boat as I had been told there were migrating gray whales just outside the bay. On the way I had a look at a colony of sea lions, which were big, noisy and remarkably cute. By the time I got to the wharf, the last boats of the day were already back and to hire a boat to go out and have a look was too expensive, so I skipped it and tried to drive to a point some people had suggested, where one can see the whales from the shore. My luck however was not running as the roads to those points were closed due to a golf match being played at Pebble Beach. So, a little disappointed I headed on to San Francisco.

In San Francisco, I stayed at a youth hostel, where I met some good folks. The hostel had a tour of Chinatown for the morning after I arrived so, a few of us decided to do it as it would not only get us up in the morning, but also mean we didn't have to work out the buses etc. as we would have someone to do that for us. The tour was reasonably interesting, our guide had made an effort to do some research and find some little bits of trivia for us. Considering this was the first time the tour had been done, she did a good job, it is just that there is only so much one can talk about. That afternoon a few of us got in my car/bus and went over to Sausalito which was very nice, more relaxed and picturesque, with nice views across the bay, a good place to wander around. It also involved driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, which was de rigueur. From there we went onto Tiburon (not as nice, but okay). We then decided to head towards a particularly large bridge we could see, we christened it the "Big Arse Bridge" because it looked rather big. We found out its actual name was the Richmond Bridge. We crossed that and then saw the Bay Bridge, which made the Big Arse Bridge look more like the Shnipselly Tuchus Bridge. We crossed the Bay Bridge and headed back to the hostel, through Chinatown. In a moment of temporary insanity Adam and I decided to make some flambéed bananas with the brandy I had bought duty free. After burning off significant amounts of brandy in the pursuit of bigger flames and more brandied bananas, we realised the error of our ways and just ate a couple of raw bananas and drank the brandy, much easier and less of a fire hazard. The next day after waking up later than planned I went off to Alcatraz. Whilst there I did a couple of ranger led tours, the first being about the history and construction of the place. As there were only a few people in the group the ranger was able to take us through generally off limits areas, some of which are potentially dangerous, but interesting nonetheless. I then did the audio tour, which was excellent, taking one around the facilities with commentaries from former inmates and guards. I then did another ranger tour which was about the most famous inmates of Alcatraz: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelley and of course The Birdman of Alcatraz, which was also very interesting. We went out and had some drinks, but in California they have a ridiculous law prohibiting smoking from any bar or restaurant, so part way through a drink we would all get up, put on our coats, tell the barmaid to look after our drinks and go out for a cigarette, bloody stupid.

The following day was just a continuous drive from early in the morning until about midnight when I arrived in Seattle. My reason for going to Seattle was to tour the Boeing facility, which I have heard is very impressive, even for those who have no interest in aviation. I was disappointed to find however, that the tours did not run over the weekend, I didn't want to spend several nights in Seattle, just to go to see the Boeing plant, so I went to the Museum of Flight which was very good and had some good exhibits including the recently decommissioned Air Force One and the only remaining MD-21 (a blackbird with a drone attachment). From there I drove through some more beautiful scenery to Bozeman, Montana, in order to go to Yellowstone National Park. The next morning I set off to Yellowstone, through great snowscapes, but when I got to the main park gate, it was closed to everything but snowmobiles. I was not having a good run of things. The main reason I wanted to go to Yellowstone was to see the geysers. The hire of a snowmobile and necessary gear was over a hundred dollars, too much to see a bit of water shoot out the ground. So I drove towards Mount Rushmore. I arrived in the nearby town about ten o'clock and all the motel offices were closed, so I had to stay in a more expensive hotel. Anywhere else, one can wake the staff up at any time of day or night to get a room, not there, they actually had signs saying they closed at eight thirty, lunacy. So, in the morning went to see the faces in the mountain. I got there and saw them, they are definitely impressive, but it is difficult to put the size in scale as one is so far away, it doesn't actually look that big. Something I had previously not heard about was Crazy Horse Mountain, but having read a little about it I decided to go and have a look at it. The story of the thing is that the Native Americans apparently decided that after Mount Rushmore was made they wanted some kind of big thing to show people they have a history. So, Chief Standing Bear went up to a Polish immigrant sculptor called Korzcak who had worked in the team that had carved Mount Rushmore and simply said "We want people to know we have heroes too". That spawned this mans life work, he spent fifty years of his life carving this bloody great mountain with drills and explosives. He died a couple of years ago, just before the face was finished. That is still the only finished part, the entire project is unbelievably immense. The face is actually big enough to have all the Rushmore heads inside it. Furthermore, this man did the first forty years work on his own, until his children were big enough to help, who have now carried on with the mission. It is also the sight of a large Native American museum, with exhibits about the various North American tribes. The day I was there, it was cloudy and overcast, but still from the viewing platform which is one mile from the mountain one can quite plainly see Crazy Horse's face even his features. This had to be one of my favourite things I have seen in America, just because it has everything, history, culture, folly and sensitivity all rolled into one. I then drove across South Dakota for most of the rest of the day. That was more boring than driving across Holland, where at least there is the occasional Windmill or Lock to see. South Dakota was just one long flat rolling highway. Minnesota wasn't much better. After spending a night in some little backwater town for the night, I eventually got to Chicago.

In Chicago I was to meet up with some folk I had originally met on the cruise ship. I called up and told them I would be in town and they invited me to dinner, which was nice. When I got there, they then insisted that I stay with them which was even nicer. Helene made a very nice dinner and later Bruce took me on his tour of Chicago by night, which included bits like I have no idea where we are, or where this leads but it seems to go the right way. He gave me a real feel for the city, pointing out the land marks which made navigating around the following day much easier. After staying up late talking I slept in the next morning so, threw my clothes into the washing machine and jumped in the shower. When I came down to check on its progress, Bruce was stood in the kitchen and told me I had somehow managed to flood their laundry room, he had got pissed off and broken two mops, clearing it up. The whole time I had been upstairs, probably not such a bad thing. After my clothes were dry, I went off to explore Chicago a bit. The ambience in Chicago seems different to other American towns, when eavesdropping conversations the people were not talking about work, unlike everywhere else, where that seemed to be all they talked about. There is also some interesting architecture and the Field Natural History Museum is excellent. On my return it turned out someone had tried to shoot the president and cocked the whole thing up completely and Bruce had thrown a shoe at the cat but actually hit and broke a glass pane in a cabinet, things were going well with my arrival. That evening Helene made another nice meal, which was good because my impression of American food was otherwise very negative and again we were up until late talking. The next day I drove off to Niagara Falls, arriving there that evening. In the morning when I was getting in the car, I noticed a bolt sticking through one of the tyres. So, I called up Hertz to tell them the good news, expecting to have to swap this thing as well, to be told that I could get it repaired and I would be reimbursed at the end of the rental. So, eventually found a place that did not have a ridiculous waiting time to get the whole plugged and then went off to see the falls.

The falls were nice, again the snow and huge icicles added to the picture, there was also an iceberg floating in the middle of the basin. After having a look from both the American and Canadian sides, I came to the conclusion that they were nice, but not as big as I had expected. Anyway, I went back to the States, picked up the car and drove to Canada, picking some duty free up on the way. I then drove onto Toronto, called a friend who was inconsiderately in Japan, as opposed to being ready to greet me in Toronto and show me around. When parking the car behind the hostel where I was staying it got stuck on the ice and I spent an hour digging, putting boards under the tyres, trying to move it etc. before some of the folk in the hostel, who had obviously heard me wheel spinning to no-where came out to help me. It still took four men five minutes, to push the immensity of the car up a very slight incline, in to the parking space, bloody ridiculous thing that it is. As I had no information about Canada (I had a guide book for the USA), I asked the tenants what there was to see in Toronto, apparently the best thing is the Hockey Hall of Fame, but not of much interest to me as I wouldn't know who these people were, the other thing is to have a look at the CN tower, then go somewhere else. It is quite possible there is more to see, but people have subsequently told me that the advice I was given was pretty accurate. So, after chatting with the other tenants and watching some TV I went to bed, only to be woken a couple of hours later by the landlord. It seemed that the roof above my bed had collapsed from the ice and rain and was actually dripping next to my head, as well as along side of the bed. So, I moved to another bed in another room, this seemed to be some theme developing, of leaks happening around me. Anyway, next morning I went off to have a look at the CN tower (the tallest free standing structure in the world) and then drove up to Ottawa, Canada's capital. When I got there I found it was all buzzing due to the Winterlude festival taking place that weekend. This included various events such as: a snow sculpting competition, an ice sculpting competition, world champion trampolinists bouncing around, ice skating and performances on the frozen Rideau canal, shows and other bits. When I got there, I went and had a look around Parliament Hill, which apart from being the site of the houses of parliament, was also the sight of the snow sculptures, one from each of the provinces. They were mostly quite impressive, but as it had been warmer than planned, some of the detail had melted and a couple had collapsed, it was apparently unseasonably warm, it was bloody minus twenty, with a wind chill making it feel like minus fifty, I don't care if you're a bloody Inuit who has never been anywhere but the frozen tundra, only knowing two colours: red (the blood that comes from baby seals when you club them to death) and white (everything else), it is still bloody cold. Anyway, as I was viewing the sculptures I met some pleasant locals and after a while we decided to go and get a coffee and some hot food and get out of the oppressive cold. The next day I wandered around town (in the biting cold, pleased to have my thermals and several layers of clothing on, including my Tibetan Balaclava) and saw the things mentioned above and also walked along the canal for a while, I didn't have any skates or I would have skated, but walking on it was surprisingly easy, a bit trickier in summer I hear. Next stop was Montreal, where the dreaded French Canadians live. I got there in the afternoon (it was even colder here) and had a wander around town, there is some nice architecture at the town hall, but nothing too inspiring. The best thing I found in Montreal was a Vietnamese restaurant that had a set menu for six Canadian dollars (less than three quid) and the food was actually very good, all three courses.

This was the end of my Canadian jaunt. So, I set off to Boston, where America has history and a town that is not a grid, I had high expectations. When I got to Boston the first place I tried to stay, the guy was too lazy to come and open the door, so I couldn't get in and the next was being refurbished. The guy there advised me to go and stay at the Ritz Carlton, as apparently it is rather nice. Peculiar advice from someone managing a hostel, as he should have realised it was a bit out of my price range. I eventually found the International Youth Hostel and stayed there. I also managed to save money on parking, as the attendant at the car park, who was Ethiopian was pleased to talk to someone who had been to his country, so didn't charge me for parking overnight. In Boston I did the Freedom Trail, a path that takes one around the town, to all the main sights of interest. This started from Boston Common, on to the Massachusetts State House, a nice old building with impressive atria. Then to the Old Granary and Kings Chapel Burying Grounds, a couple of very old cemeteries. Some of the graves were interesting, not only because of the folk interned (Paul Revere, Mother Goose, Passengers from the Mayflower, etc.) but because of the symbols and
carving on the slate headstones, which included death heads and skulls and crossbones. Next was the Old South Meeting House, where the Boston Tea Party kicked off. There is an interesting museum and good audio tour, which explained the whole build up to the revolutionary events that followed. From there I went onto The Old State House, dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers.

Again there was an interesting museum and audio tour. On the long walk to the USS Constitution, I went past Fanuiel Hall, an old market area. The USS Constitution (nicknamed Old Ironsides) is the oldest commissioned boat in the world. It was actually one of the first boats in the US Navy and it is still afloat, despite having been restored and renovated, a significant amount is still original, including the keel. The boat is still part of the US Naval fleet and as such is crewed by acting servicemen and women. Apparently this is the second most prestigious posting in the navy, after serving in the Presidents Colour Guard. A sailor gave a few of us a tour of the boat which she knew intimately, giving us the details of its manufacture, use, battles, fittings, ceremonial duties and how the various parts are operated. A surprisingly interesting tour. I then went back to the hostel, met another English bloke and we drank the night away. The following morning I had a look around Cambridge, seat of two of Americas most famous academic institutions, Harvard and MIT. There wasn't a huge amount to see, so I drove down to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia I visited Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. The ranger there and I got talking about the place, the history, modern comparisons etc. until it was closing time, so that was all I got to see in Philadelphia, as I was en route to Washington D.C.

I arrived in Washington in the evening and drove around the Mall, where all the main sights are situated and had a look at them all lit up, they looked rather good. The following morning I got up at an ungodly hour, as I had been told that in order to get tickets to see the White House I would need to get there at seven o'clock. When I did get there, I was informed that for the winter months tickets aren't issued as one can just turn up and do a self-guided tour, but that it wasn't open until ten. So, I wandered down to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was also not open until ten. With two and a half hours to kill, I decided to tour the memorials. First off to the Jefferson memorial, younger than I thought, but nice. Then to the F.D. Roosevelt Memorial, which I didn't even know existed, it was only completed recently. It is actually very nice, with a feel of nature about it, with rough-hewn rock and flowing water. It shows the times, when FDR was president i.e. the Great Depression, WWII, etc. Then to the Korean War Memorial, another one I had previously been ignorant of. It is also a reasonably recent addition, it has statues of a platoon on manoeuvres, evoking a sense of the battlefield. Then the Lincoln Memorial which is bloody massive and quite impressive as well. Then the Vietnam War Memorial, most impressive for its lack of political statement. Finally the Washington Memorial, a five hundred and fifty foot marble obelisk, needless to say, it is a rather imposing monolith. By the time I had finished visiting all these symbols of the dead, I was ready to see where the President lived. Off to the White House I went, through security checks, and watchful stares from the secret service. The tour takes one in a route around most of the ground floor, where police and not so secret service men keep an eye on the tourists and also point out some interesting factoids. There were some interesting artworks and artefacts, but the most lasting impression of the executive mansion is; it really isn't very big. It is actually rather cosy. Not at all the massive place portrayed through the media.
Next I went down to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which had been highly recommended to me and deservedly so. I ended up spending most of the rest of the day in there. The museum gives a comprehensive account of the build-up of the right wing in Germany, the Nazi use and abuse of power, the holocaust itself and finally its aftermath, including the war trials. It is actually excellently put together, with huge amounts of information, yet not overwhelming. There was also another interesting exhibition which showed how during the war, Japan, Germany's ally, had actually aided in the escape of a number of Jews from German occupied Europe to both Japan and Japanese occupied China, something I had previously never heard about.

After I emerged I went to the National Air and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian. The main reason for my visit being to see the Wright Flyer (the first heavier than air, person carrying aircraft) and the Spirit of St. Louis (the plane in which Charles Lindbergh made his historic Atlantic crossing in). Otherwise I could not be bothered to see much as I had seen two space centres and The Museum of Flight in the previous few weeks, enough air and space for the while. I then went to see the National Archives, where the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights are on display, as well as some other important bits of paper, including a Magna Carta from the thirteenth century. One of the most interesting of the exhibits there, particularly as it drew a number of parallels between the US Constitution and Magna Carta, pronouncing them almost identical in context (some bits seem to be almost direct plagiaries) except for the case of a monarchy or not. That was it for that day. The next day I went to the Capitol building which had some interesting art works and architecture as well as viewing galleries to have a look at the Senate and Congress chambers.

Next I went to the Supreme Court, where I attended an interesting talk on the processes, functions, people, jurisdiction, history, art and architecture of the Supreme Court. I then tried to have a tour around the FBI building, primarily because at the end of the tour there is apparently an impressive live firing display of a range of firearms. Unfortunately there were no public tours happening that day. Disappointed, but not downhearted, I went to the Museum of American History, which contains such vital historic relics as a pair of Judy Garlands Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz and a pair of Mohammed Ali's gloves. The rest of the thing was even less interesting. So, I left Washington for New York.
The traffic on the way made the journey rather slow and I arrived late in the evening. However, by the time I had driven around all over town getting confused with addresses etc. it was three thirty before I eventually got to the hostel. After a few hours sleep I dropped the car back to Hertz, quite pleased to not have a car to worry about, after having driven over ten thousand miles in less than four weeks.

Since being in New York I have visited the Statue of Liberty, impressive, but smaller than anticipated. Ellis island, much more interesting than I had preconceived. The World Trade Centre, more imposing than I had previously thought it would be. Travelled on the Subway, which was disappointingly clean and wholesome. Visited the Rockerfeller Centre, quite impressive. The Empire State Building, cool in an Art Deco way. Watched some films in Times Square. Walked along Fifth avenue and Broadway, basically just big roads. Seen Wall Street, a smaller road. Looked at the architecture on things like the Woolworth Building (nice), New York Library and City Hall, very republican. Walked through Central Park, confusing but pleasant. Had a Kosher hot dog from a street vendor, novel. Had some very tasty Pastrami Bagels. Got drunk with a Bolivian, a Peruvian and a bottle of Cognac. Otherwise just wandered around, as all the sights are on Manhattan, which is not very big.

Well that about wraps it up for my American odyssey. It has been interesting, my experience of Americans has been positive when it comes to their hospitality, helpfulness and even generosity. However they are often, the most narrow minded internationally ignorant people I have met. They also seem to produce crap food and crappier cars. There have been interesting sights and people but at the end of the day it is the nature here that is the most impressive. The range of scenery here is daunting, from desert to mountains, often in close proximity to each other. I have had a good, if expensive time in the US. I have enjoyed it and may return sometime, but there are more pressing places to visit.
Well, if you just read all of this the complete works of Leo Tolstoy will be a breeze.



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