Friday, September 30, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - A Shameful Admission of Failure

Failure!  Ah, the bitter sting of an ambition unfulfilled.  Keen followers of this blog will know that I travelled to St Paul, Minnesota for the sole purpose of visiting a vegan butcher in Minneapolis.  There I intended to take a selfie of myself consuming a meat based product and send said photo to certain vegan friends of mine who hopefully have a great sense of humour and wouldn't murder me on my return.

Well karma didn't like this (admittedly slightly malicious) plan and gave me a thorough bitch slapping as a consequence.  First Amtrak delivered me to St Paul some six hours late.  As I result I arrived in mid afternoon rather than in the morning.  After dropping my bags I then had to get to Minneapolis.  That was easy, unfortunately that's where easy ended.

Minneapolis seemed deserted when I arrived.  There are broad streets and big solid looking buildings but with the exception of those who got off the light rail with me (who rapidly vanished) there didn't seem to be any people.  Part of this was no doubt due to the fact that it was the middle of the week and most people were at work, school or court ordered rehab programs.  However part of it was to do with the fact that Minneapolis is obviously an indoor city.  Winter probably plays a large part in this.  Those big solid buildings all seemed to have shops inside them, taking up the first few floors no matter what else the building might be used for.  They also have sky bridges to allow people to get from on to the other without actually having to leave.  I crossed three blocks and managed to get a bit lost without actually going outside.  In fact towards the end I got a bit panicky trying to find a way out, I think I may actually have used a service access.

Back out on the streets I looked for public transport.  Minneapolis has plenty of this and the bus route map looked like a plate of tortured spaghetti.  One route ran straight past where I needed to go but I couldn't tell which one or where it started (and to be fair I was only aware in the broadest sense of where I actually was at the time) with shoulders slumped I admitted defeat.  It was cold and getting dark, hoping none of the handful of people around could sense my inner shame I slunk onto the light rail back to St Paul in utter defeat.  On the other hand...

I ate an elk!  At least I ate part of one.  As I slouched dejectedly back to my accomodation I passed a burger bar my host had recommended.  I entered and there it was on the menu; elkburger.  How could I resist?  Gator burgers were also on offer but I stuck resolutely to elk.  With onion rings of course.
For those vegans who have been chuckling at my tale of woe and are now horrified at my random elk butchery I offer this comfort.  Compared to the size of a full grown elk the amount I ate was sufficiently small that it is at least theoretically possible that the elk in question is still alive somewhere.  And what a story he's got to tell his kids.

Travelling Hopefully - Missing Everything of Interest

There is beautiful scenery going through the Glacier region of western Montana.  I know this because my rail car attendant told me so when I mentioned that I'd been asleep in my cabin for the past two hours.  I couldn't help it, I'd been awake for the previous thirty hours due to various Amtrak related issues and I desperately needed to sleep.  I did see some nice scenery when we left Spokane and followed what I believe was the Kootenay River through scenic mountain stuff.  The water was a glassy green and apparently thronged with salmon.  Mind you they could have been piranha for all I know, I didn't exactly get a good look at any from the train.

A person familiar with the area announced that a swing bridge and some picturesque falls were coming up.  I waited, camera in hand but unfortunately somebody had parked a massive freight train at that point and I didn't get so see either of them.  I did get to see an extremely long freight train mind you.  Then as previously mentioned I went to bed.

I woke up to rolling cattle country.  One can always tell when you're passing through a rural area.  The twin markers of rusting vehicle wrecks and sheds that are falling apart tells you that civilisation has arrived or at least thrown away its crappy cars and collapsing sheds on its way past.  I think I saw a tumbleweed but it may just have been a bush that had fallen on its side.

After passing through rolling cattle country I passed through more rolling cattle country and then some more after that.  Eventually the rolling cattle country ended and I went through corn country instead.  That went on for quite a while.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - City of Squirrels

Portland really does have a lot of squirrels.  My hosts must have been getting sick to death of them by  the time I left as I insisted on mentioning them every time I saw them.  They were genuinely surprised that Australia doesn't have any squirrels of our own.  I mentioned that we have rabbits which cheered them up a bit until I added that we've been trying to murder them all for the last couple of centuries.

I appalled my hosts by dining at Applebee's one night despite the plethora of nice restaurants in the vicinity but they were more approving of my breakfast choice which was a rather nice diner/cafe five minutes walk (squirrels!) from where I was staying.  I had waffles with syrup, a side order of peppered bacon and a gallon jug of not terribly good coffee.  I felt incredibly American, I even left a tip.  Of course I pushed my cultural assimilation a little too far the next day (squirrels!) when I ordered French toast with peanut butter and grape jelly.  After that experience I scuttled back to the waffles and bacon.

My first day in Portland had been all about Powells Books.  On the second day (squirrels!) I just wandered around town.  I hit a couple of market which were selling the sort of things you get in markets; hand crafted this and ethically sourced that.  Plus elephant ears!  There was a food cart selling elephant ears and I bought one out of sheer curiosity.  Elephant ears turn out to be a monstrously sized wodge of deep fried batter dusted in sugar and cinnamon.  One diabetic episode later and I was ready to return to my accommodation.

My hosts, Meaghan and Kaylee were a charming couple who gave helpful advice, tolerated random squirrel rants and my Amtrak induced unreliability.  Amtrak would get a chance to redeem itself the next day (you already know how that worked out) but for now, squirrels!

Travelling Hopefully - A Book Store Surrounded by a City

Although due in at 3.30 pm I didn't get to Portland until after sundown.  Night had fallen and was sprawled inelegantly across the city like a drunk in a gutter by the time I arrived by which time my hosts could have been forgiven for thinking I wasn't going to turn up at all.  I got into a cab and gave the driver the address,
"Where's that?" He asked.
"Portland," I replied in a fit of helpfulness.
Eventually he found the place and my hosts arrived just in time to stop me tearing the lockbox containing the house keys off the wall.  Dog noises emanated from inside the house and were revealed to belong to a pair of pug like animals who were disposed to be friendly.  There was also a cat whose attitude was a lot more ambiguous.

Squirrels!  I saw squirrels!  I was so excited I started taking photos of them.  Hopefully the neighbours whose lawn the squirrels were frolicking on realised it was just the squirrels I was interested in.  My hosts informed me that squirrels are quite common in these parts and they were a little bemused by my fascination with all things squirrel.

With the squirrel generated excitement temporarily over (it would recur throughout my stay) I took stock of my plans for the day.  Powell's Books!  Wow, that didn't take long.  Yes the truth is I only really came to Portland to check out this bookstore which was said to cover an entire block (spoiler alert, it does).  In keeping with my newfound sense of direction I didn't get lost on the way there.

Portland is a city I could get used to very quickly.  It's reasonably small with an unreasonably large amount of public transport.  Plus they also grow roses (and did I mention the squirrels?) although I didn't see any until I was actually leaving.  The Amtrak station has a rose garden out the front but of course I didn't see that when I arrived due to it being pitch black.

There were at least two street fair/market things happening when I entered the city both of which I ignored as I headed towards Powells.  Powells is as big and impressive as expected with colour coded rooms to help guide you around.  It also has a cafe so you can gloat over your new purchases with the assistance of caffeine.  The one criticism I would make is that while its broad it isn't necessarily deep.  It's sections on the Habsburgs and Byzantium were easily outmatched by what I have on my shelves at home.  Still I was able to pick up a few items (plus a birthday present for my brother), all in all I was lucky to get away with only spending a hundred dollars.

I hate Apple stores, large square glass boxes filled with people and tables and no apparent customer service centre.  I find them intimidating to enter and infuriating to experience once there.  Part of it is probably because I only go there when I want something specific, a discrete purchase that should be a five minute in and out job.  I'm not interested in getting my tablet to boil eggs or synching up my toilet so it can download my favourite songs from Netflix or whatever the fuck it is they do in these stores.  In this case, at the behest of a work colleague, I wanted an iTunes card (see what I go through for you Liza?).  Failing to find one (my fault, they were there) I walked to a table and waited to be served.  When that didn't work I did something clever.  Rather than look for a staff member I just looked at the nearest customers.  When they had finished talking to someone I grabbed him on the (accurate) assumption that he must work there.  Cornered, he gave me directions to the iTunes cards.  He couldn't serve me himself, apparently he wasn't that kind of shop assistant.

Of course once it looked like I might finger the merchandise a helpful young man detached himself from the throng so I could pay him.  He was a little thrown when I attempted to pay with green slips of paper signed by the US Treasury Secretary instead with a device that went "beep" but he rallied magnificently (having the correct change helped) and even provided me with a paper receipt although I do get the impression he had to pop out and cut down a tree in order to do so.

I emerged from Apple's Temple of Obscurity purchase triumphantly in hand and discovered something amazing about the Portland Apple Store.  It was less than a minute from the light rail that would take me back to my accommodation.  I'm really starting to like Portland.

Travelling Hopefully but with Increasing Impatience

Amtrak, my cross continental steed of choice introduced itself to me at Emeryville, a town across the bay from San Francisco.  It being nearly 11pm at night all I can say about Emeryville is that it's dark and not terribly well lit.  Amtrak got off to a bad start by being forty minutes late still for someone who's travelled the Lunatic Express a delay that can be measured in minutes seemed inconsequential. Remember the preceding statement, I will be paying for it.

The train itself was a big double decker thing which looked even bigger due to the American habit of designing their railway stations to look like vacant lots.  Thus rather than looking at the station from the level of a platform you peer up at it from the ground as it looms above you.  The staff were a strange combination of brusque efficiency and cheerful incompetence but eventually they loaded us up and got us rolling through the California night.

I travelled Coach (peasant scum) class to Portland and I have to say I am impressed.  There were big comfy seats that reclined, there were footrests, a little table and general comfort.  Sadly I had been placed in the brightest spot in the carriage so sleep was a little difficult.

We'd started forty minutes late, by the time morning came we were two hours late because apparently they had to nail the track down in front of us or something.  Somebody took advantage of our immobility to attach their own railway car to the rear of our train which I can only consider a piece of damned cheek.

Despite the delays the driver had obviously redlined the reactor or whatever powers the train (illegal immigrants in hamster wheels I suspect) as the train was due in Seattle, it's final destination seventeen minutes early.

And it turns out that sentence was written in a fit of blind optimism.  Apparently some clown at Union Pacific had managed to derail a freight car ahead of us.  As a result while waiting for the track to clear we waited for several hours at Salem, Oregon a town whose principal claim to fame is the fact that our train was delayed there for several hours.  I was supposed to get into Portland at 3.30 in the afternoon.  I arrived at 8.30 at night.

To derail one train might be accounted a misfortune, to derail two smacks of carelessness.  I left Portland for my three day journey across the American northwest.  I had a sleeper car and was feeling rather pleased with myself.  The train left Portland on time and made all the way to Pasco, Washington some hours up the track when the announcement was made.  Some halfwit freight jockey had jumped the tracks again and it was a doozy.  He'd actually managed to put the engine unit on its side and cranes to recover it wouldn't reach the scene for several hours when recovery work would begin.

In the meantime we were stuck in Pasco.  Amtrak rose to the occasion, they sent out for pizza.  Have I mentioned that our dining car was due to join us in Spokane on the other side of the derailment?  After four hours of sampling the delights of Pasco railway station ("an enchantingly long stretch on concrete artistically pitted with an abstract display of extinguished cigarette marks" gushed one excited critic who may have been somewhat sleep deprived at the time) Amtrak decided to take its bat, ball and train and go home to Portland.  Those of us with an irrational desire to reach our destination were herded onto buses to Spokane.

Spokane seemed nice if you take into account the fact that it was dawn, I was exhausted and would cheerfully have burnt Spokane to the ground if it put me back on time.  Kindly souls told me it wouldn't help and wrestled the lighter out of my hand.

We've all seen those anti terrorist ads about encountering abandoned parcels in public places.  Well they have them in America too.  So what did we do when we noticed an abandoned case on our bus? Grabbed it and tossed it to the driver on our way out.  In our defence if we had got Homeland Security involved we'd probably still be in Spokane.  And we're not, at the time of writing we're rocking and rolling (literally, the side to side motion on these things is a little disturbing) heading points east.  We're all grumpy and sleep deprived but Amtrak has gone one better.  They've pointed out that none of the train staff have slept for twenty four hours and could we please have some patience?  I hope that no sleep for twenty four hours statement doesn't include the driver.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - Emperor Norton

I met an emperor!  Well, not really I met a man dressed as an emperor.  Well, not really I met a man dressed as a man who thought he was an emperor.  I've given Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico a shout out before on this blog.  He was a failed businessman who went bankrupt due to an injudicious rice speculation and who appears to have gone completely out of his mind as a result.  One day in the 1860s he walked into the offices of a San Francisco newspaper and handed over a proclamation announcing his accession to the non existent throne and summarily dismissing the president and both houses of Congress.  The newspaper published the proclamation the next day and Emperor Norton had arrived.  Anywhere else he would probably have been locked up or completely ignored but not here.  He became an instant favourite with the people of San Francisco.  He dined in restaurants free of charge, had box seats for every opening night and paid his bills with "imperial treasury bonds" which were accepted as legal tender.  Incidentally if you ever come across one of these bonds keep hold of it.  Wells Fargo Bank has one on display in its company museum, it's valued at US$7,000.

I was going on a historical walking tour around San Francisco with an Emperor Norton impersonator as my guide.  The instructions were simple, go to Union Square and find Emperor Norton.  You wouldn't think it would be too difficult to find someone dressed as a madman dressed as an emperor would you?  Actually I found it difficult to locate Union Square.  The whole area around it is being dig up for a rail line and Union Square is surrounded by fences, boarding and what looks like hessian.  Inside all of this Union Square is still functioning but I walked past it twice before I realised it wasn't a construction site.

Eventually I found both Union Square and the emperor and along with a group of like minded individuals trotted off on a walking tour of the city.  Our guide, decked out in shabby, semi military finery worthy of the emperor himself guided us through the financial district, Barbary Coast and Chinatown with a fund of historical information about San Francisco in general and Emperor Norton in particular all related in the first person.  We went to the small park which was the site of the boarding house he lived in and the spot where, on his way to a meeting, he suffered a stroke and died.

Norton's funeral is still the largest to have happened in San Francisco.  Some two hundred thousand people turned out to pay their respects as his coffin was escorted to its final resting place.  I left my version of Emperor Norton alive and well and went to collect my luggage from my hosts.  A word about my hosts: Adrian & Kevin were amazing.  Anyone wanting to use Airbnb in San Francisco should check them out.

But now I was leaving San Francisco, ahead of me was a trolley ride, a brief walk, a bus ride and a train journey which collectively would deliver me to Portland, the next city in the US to be blessed with my presence.

Travelling Hopefully - Fire Engines and Prison Islands

I rose early the next morning determined to sample the breakfast delights I had missed out on the previous day.  Full of confidence I strolled down to the diner, it was closed.

After this auspicious beginning I hit the streets of San Francisco, my objective; a fire engine.  Open top bus tours of a city are nothing new but in this case the open top bus was a shiny red Mack fire truck, built in 1955, retired from the SFD in 1989 and now carting tourists with an actual or mental age of six through the Presidio, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back again.  It looked exactly like my childhood impression of what a fire truck should look like, proof that American cultural imperialism is the bit of their imperialism that actually works.

Perhaps there is a goatherd in Tajikistan who doesn't know what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like.  That goatherd is no doubt mocked mercilessly by his fellow goatherds for his provincialism and ignorance.  Suffice it to say that everyone else on the planet including the aliens who secretly rule us and the netherworldly demons who conspire against them know what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like.  And it doesn't matter.  It looks exactly as you think it's going to look and it's still breathtaking.  Sydney Harbour Bridge is pretty impressive but it is, and looks, massive.  Raw power is evident in every hulking inch.  The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a weightlifter, the Golden Gate is a gymnast.  The muscle is there but it's clothed in elegance.

After goggling appropriately at the  bridge we rolled back into town passing real or rather, current fire engines along the way.  Fire trucks are something you can always see in San Francisco for a very good reason according to our guide.  After the last major earthquake trapped a lot of the SFD's engines in their buildings a law was passed stating that a third of the departments vehicles must be on the streets at any given time.

But enough of fire engines, I had other, soggier fish to fry.  Alcatraz beckoned.  Pausing only to eat some chicken fried chicken in a restaurant decked out to be the worlds most implausible rainforest imitation I presented myself at the appropriate pier and was directed to the back of a very long queue.  San Francisco is still a working port (they import a third of their pollution from China for example) and while I was there a monstrous cruise ship turned up.  It's name was the Infinity Explorer which certainly takes flatulent pretentiousness to the level of an art form.

My transport to Alcatraz was a box shaped floaty thing of much more modest dimensions.  It was called the Alcatraz Flyer, a name I was prepared to dispute on aerodynamic grounds alone.  They poured us in through a hole in the Flyer's side and when it was full it struggled gamely off in the direction of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz wasn't always prison.  We are informed of this fact so that the boatload of human freaks with a ghoulish interest in what was effectively a human zoo feel a little better about themselves.  "We are going for the history," we tell ourselves, "part of the rich tapestry of human existence in the San Francisco area and we totally don't wish there were still a couple of prisoners around that we could prod with sticks."

Once there of course the mask was thrown off and we all charged for the cell block as quickly as a pack of out of shape, largely middle aged people could, ie not very swiftly at all.  The actual cell block is right near the top of the island unlike the dock which, for reasons of water accessibility, is located somewhere near the bottom.  Warnings abounded informing us of the arduous climb ahead of us and also mentioning that spaces on the little vehicle provided were limited and should be restricted  to those genuinely in need.  A brutal free for all erupted between the obese, the lazy and the occasionally genuinely disabled.  People who looked like there mere effort of drawing another breath would give them heart failure clawed and bit at each other in an effort to get on board.  I was halfway up the hill when the staff deployed the fire hoses but I believe they got it sorted out in the end.

"You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical assistance, everything else is a privilege."  Thus spake the welcome pack every prisoner received on arrival.  As a paying guest I was also entitled to an audio tour.  The voices on the audio tour were provided by a group of former guards and a group of former inmates.  This led me to conclude that the retirement provision for former guards must be disturbingly close to that for former violent criminals.  The audio tour was excellent and spiced with anecdotes from both sides.  Since Alcatraz, like most disused government buildings, is essentially a series of empty rooms (albeit many of them quite small) the audio tour was essential for adding the necessary colour.

After exhausting the interest value of the cell block (which took nearly two hours) I made my way back down to the dock where I joined another very long queue waiting for the ferry to leave.  Disaster!  There were too many of us for the boat.  If this was West Africa the captain would have pocketed a little baksheesh and let us on anyway but here in San Francisco the captain spitefully adhered to the safety regulations and departed leaving those of us stranded on the dock cursing the Fates (and in one case the IRS but that was because a close friend was gaoled for tax fraud).  Just when all hope seemed lost a boxy, borderline seaworthy shape appeared.  It was the Alcatraz Flyer wallowing gamely to our rescue.  I'm getting rather fond of the Alcatraz Flyer.