Thursday, November 10, 2011

USA Ya'll – traveller's tips

Well, we're back here in Sydney and the long and amazing eight-week holiday is over – already! We started off as novice travellers but we did pick up a few tips along the way to share with anyone thinking of setting off on a trip to the USA, especially a road trip like ours.

So here, in no particular order, are some random notes aimed mostly at my fellow Australians, but which might be handy for any 'foreigners' visiting this wonderful country. (Warning: it's not a short posting this time, and there are no photos, either!)

Apply online: instead of all the hassle of obtaining a visa, Aussies merely need to get an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) certificate, which is like a visa, and all of which can be done online, and printed out on your own printer at home. Here's the link to the ESTA home page. The only time we had to quote our ESTA number was when checking in online for our flights from Sydney to the USA. At the US end, they never asked for them.

2. Immigration/customs/flying
Relax! We entered the US via Hawaii, and it was quick and easy getting through customs/immigration (having the immigration/customs officer at the desk in Honolulu greet you with "Aloha" did put me at ease). Everyone knows security is tight with air travel, so my main tip is to bear with it, and wear slip-on shoes, as you always have to take them off at each security checkpoint.
The other main thing to remember with flying inside the USA is to get there 3 hours before take-off, to give yourself enough time to get through check-in, security, immigration, etc. Cut it too fine and you might not be allowed onto the flight. That 3-hour limit was emphasised to us a few times, so take it seriously.

3. Hotel/motel tips
Making coffee: Aussies accustomed to finding hotel or motel rooms equipped with electric kettles, instant coffee and teabags are in for a disappointment in the US. We stayed at more than 20 hotels/motels, and all had the same set-up of a little drip-filter coffee maker, with 2 single-serve normal coffee sachets, and 2 decaf sachets provided. No fresh milk, just milk powder (called 'creamer') and a mix of artificial and real sugar sachets.

Ice: every room has an ice bucket and somewhere down the corridor will be a machine dispensing as many ice-cubes as you need. We got into the habit of getting our ice, and in the warm weather we experienced the ice certainly cooled down a glass of water or soft drink very quickly.

Showers: Pammy and I had several mini-committee meetings in bathrooms soon after arriving at our hotels, trying to figure out how each shower worked. Almost no two shower faucet systems were the same in our 20 hotel/motels, but they all had one thing in common: you cannot adjust the pressure of the water, you can only adjust the temperature. In the end they all worked fine, but good luck!

Check in/check out hours: they're different in the US. Check-in time is usually 3pm, sometimes 4pm, and check-out time is usually either 11am or noon.

Electricity/lamps: you probably already know that US power points are different from Aussie ones, and you'll need a special adaptor if you bring Aussie electrical gear (like camera or laptop battery rechargers) with you.
In hotel/motel rooms, the lamps can take getting used to. The switches on 80% of the lamps we encountered are little black knobs near the light globe itself which you twiddle around. Just keep twiddling in the same direction and they go from off, to on, to brighter, to brightest, to off again. Most power points don't have 'on-off' switches. If you plug it in, it's on.

3. IT on the road

Mobile phones (ie, cell phones): I can't quote figures, but using your Aussie mobile phone in the US can become very expensive very quickly and most people advise against it. So, for our long holiday we bought two cheap $19.95 mobiles from AT&T (you can also get them from Walmart) and loaded each up with $25 of calls, which was more than enough for our needs. My only reason for choosing AT&T (instead of the Virgin mobiles and others sold at Walmart) was that AT&T had the better signal coverage in the southern states where we were travelling. Check out the signal maps for each of the mobile carriers you are considering. Virgin, for instance, was great for the east and west coasts (where the big populations are, and most tourists go) but for our lonely little travels down south we chose AT&T. When looking at phone costs in the US, remember that you get charged to both make a call, and receive a call, which is a big difference from Australian mobile phone plans.

WiFi: most hotels offered WiFi, some free of charge, some for a fee. It was free in our two Hawaiian hotels, and that included all the uploads I needed to do my blogs. On the mainland it was more common to be charged for it, and it wasn't cheap ($14.95 per day, about $60 a week was typical). I had my own WiFi modem (through AT&T, casual use plan $50 for 1GB for a month) for my laptop and I used that more often than not. You can also access free WiFi at Maccas and Starbucks, in some hotel foyers and other places, so if you're not blogging and just emailing some howdy-doodies to friends back home, you might be able to cross the country without paying for your WiFi.

Skype: this is definitely the way to go for phoning home. Tip: if you're a Skype newbie like we were, download it (it's free, just Google 'Skype') and install it before you leave, and do a few practice runs to get the hang of using it. Using it online to call other computers is free, but you'll need to pay a fee ($16 minimum) to set up an account for calling home phones from your Skype-equipped laptop.
We loaded up Skype with the $16 and used it quite a bit to phone people back home on their phone lines, and we still have about $12 of credit left after all those calls. It's super cheap. As for Skyping home for a video call to another person's computer, it's great in theory and worked fine for us sometimes, but we found the images, delays, dropouts and other techie problems made the experience only OK, not great. (However, as we were away for a long time, Pammy loved being able to see her mum and sister Laura, who isn't well right now, so Skype was priceless for those reasons.) I noticed that some people got 'stage fright' talking on screen with the video running, and when we just used Skype as a cheap telephone service, the conversations flowed a lot more smoothly. However, whatever you do, use it.

4. Restaurants/ordering/tipping
Terminology: everyone knows the food serves are big in America, so that isn't anything new to tell you. However, the names of courses are different in the USA. What Aussies call 'entrees' or 'starters' are 'Appetisers' on most American menus. And what Aussies know as 'main courses' are called 'entrees' in the US. Desserts are desserts, but watch out for 'cordials' with the dessert menus, these are liqueurs such as Baileys, Frangelico, etc.

Tips/extras: wages for US wait-staff are low, so the tips you give them are more important than they are in Australia – the staff live off the tips, so don't be stingy! The standard tip is 15%. In New York, many restaurant 'checks' (ie, the bill) included a handy reckoner printed out on the bill showing what a 15% tip would be, a 20% tip, and so on. However, also factor in that the bill will be larger due to state taxes. These vary from one state to the next, can be as low as 5% or as high as 12%. So those cheap prices on the menu, when you add in the state taxes and tips, will often turn out to be not as cheap as they first seemed.

Restaurant bookings: you might find that restaurants often will only take bookings for larger groups (five or more) but won't take phone bookings for just two people.
However, one great website we used several times for making bookings in the US was Open Table. We found this initially via a restaurant website, which had a 'book a table online now' button. Open Table seems to be the market leader, as we used it in Santa Fe, Austin, New Orleans, Savannah, New York and San Francisco, in some cities more than once, and it never let us down. You can nominate the time you want to book your table, it's confirmed online and via an email back to you, and every time we showed up the system worked just fine. After we made our first booking (in Santa Fe) Open Table had our details, and so with each subsequent booking I didn't have to type in my contact details again. Quick and easy each time. And in New York one night we were running late, and online I was able to put our booking back 45 minutes, almost at the last moment, without any problems. Finally, Open Table emails you a day or so after each meal asking for your restaurant review, if you want to give feedback. I enjoyed doing that!

5. Breakfasts
Continental breakfasts: Americans love their cooked breakfasts, but almost all the time healthy alternatives such as cereals and fruit are offered as well. Their cereals are quite sweet (Froot Loops are popular, God forbid), and muesli isn't available (the closest they get to muesli is granola, and it ain't muesli!). The good news for porridge-lovers is that oatmeal is offered everywhere (either the slow-cooked stuff or the instant variety) and oatmeal aficionado Pammy says it's pretty good.
Toast is always available, coffee plentiful, juice also. The usual butter provided for toast is a strange, whipped white concoction that I don't think really is butter. There's usually a selection of very sweet muffins and other pastries as well.
Cooked breakfasts are a bit regional in nature, so what we were offered in New Mexico was different in Louisiana, and different again in Georgia, etc. However, eggs are always on the plate, so too potatoes (cooked in a variety of ways, and never as the crappy little 'hash brown' brickettes foisted on Aussies in Australia). Sausages are common, too, but they're often skinless, and they like their bacon plentiful and super-crisp almost everywhere. Omelettes are worth considering, as they are usually cooked to order and come out warm and fresh. And there are always pancakes, which are both sweet and savoury, often served with a sweet sauce plus something like bacon or sausages on the side.

6. Lunches
Try sandwiches: the Americans love sandwiches and do them well. If you're in a strange town and spot a Safeways supermarket, check it out as it probably has a deli which makes sandwiches to order, and as long as you avoid the extra-cheesy ones with special sauce (ie, creamy gunk), there usually are a couple of healthy-enough sanger choices on offer.
Burgers and fries: we never ate at any major fast food chain stores, so I can't say anything about them, but in the little diners and other lunch spots on the highways the burgers and fries are pretty good. The fries in the smaller diners are almost always hand-cut and the potatoes usually aren't peeled, so every fourth or fifth fry has a bit of skin on it. The burger quality varies with each establishment, as it does here in Oz, but if you see the words 'Green Chili Cheeseburger' and you're standing in a place called 'The Romero Street Grill' in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you would be certifiably insane if you didn't try one. Best burger in the US, possibly the world.

7. Wine/beer
Talk about plentiful and cheap! I love New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, and almost everywhere I could buy NZ Sauv Blanc in the US (Australian wines are nowhere near as plentiful). And it was fairly cheap, too: in restaurants it was usually around the $22-$30 mark, which is cheaper than most Sydney restaurants. I'm not a fan of the Californian whites (a bit bland) but many of their reds are just fine; however, the quite plentiful Chilean reds and whites in the US were always a good choice at a good price.
I can't remember going to a restaurant or even a cafe that didn't have a wine list, so you don't need to BYO (bring your own). Should you want to buy some wine or beer for your hotel/motel room, it's readily available as well. Pharmacies sell it (must be for medicinal purposes?), so too virtually every supermarket.

8. Toilets/restrooms
Plentiful and clean: as well as being freely available at roadside places like McDonalds and other fast food chains, restrooms are also found in shopping malls and in supermarket chains such as Safeways. Not all gas stations have them, though (try the bigger ones, especially those selling food as well). Almost everywhere we went, the restrooms were fabulously clean and civilised. The only trouble you might have is in the crowded tourist trap areas, such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, where a restroom can be hard to find (same goes for New York, come to think of it). In that case your best bet is to slow down for a half-hour, find a nice cafe somewhere, sit down, order a coffee or Coke or juice, enjoy that, and visit the restroom before you leave.

9. On the road
Driver's licences: I went to the trouble of getting an International Driver's Licence and I didn't use it once. My Australian driver's licence was fine for all rental car companies, and with its photo ID it also came in handy when checking in to hotels and as ID for using my credit card in shops.

Left-hand-drive cars: it took me ages to get used to driving on the 'other' side of the road. My natural instincts after driving on my side of the road for 40 years were very hard to shake off, so my advice is to drive slowly and carefully and treat each intersection with the greatest of respect. Busy roads are the easiest, as there are cars aplenty showing you where to go. Lonely quiet roads are the places where you might absent-mindedly head off in the morning down the wrong side of the road.

Gas stations: in most US gas stations we visited they want you to pay in advance (or at least by swiping your credit card before filling up). The trouble for me was that my Mastercard wasn't recognised by their machines (they wanted a 5-digit pin number, and mine only has 4) and so I had to pop into the cashier and either leave a cash deposit before pumping gas or at least have the cashier say 'no problem' and OK it for me to start refilling. It was never a major hassle, and as soon as they heard my Aussie accent they were friendly with me every time.
Don't be fooled by US octane ratings for gas, either, as the US numbers are different from Australian numbers. I used octane 89 all the time for my Mazda 6, and it was fine. Apparently US 89 octane is about the same as Australian 92 octane.

Interstate highways: my advice is to avoid them wherever possible, as the views of the countryside from most interstates were somewhere between limited and non-existent. You see very little from a US interstate.
The quality of backroads is high, and passing through all the countryside and the towns is well worth the extra time spent driving a bit further, and slower. I only travelled on interstates a few times in the southern states, but I found them dangerous due to the high traffic loads travelling at high speeds. Apart from short stretches leading into and out of cities, where the interstates could be up to four or six lanes wide in each direction, they soon got back to being two lanes in each direction, separated by a very wide median grass strip (sometimes up to 100 yards wide). What that means is the slow lane of a two-lane interstate is full of slower trucks, and the fast lane is full of faster trucks overtaking slower trucks, plus a few even faster cars trying to get by unscathed.

Speed limits/police: I saw highway patrol cops everywhere, and they're especially vigilant coming into or leaving towns. The solution is simple, though: stick to the speed limit. My car had cruise control, and so whatever was the speed limit was my setting for the cruise control. However, when traffic is busy or roads are winding, cruise control is not a safe option, so just stick to the speed limit then. In the quiet backroads the limit is often 55mph; on the better backroads 60-65 is the norm; on the interstates 70-75mph is the usual top speed (it varies from one state to the next).

Road rules: it's your job to find out what they are, but commonsense rules in the US, just as it does in Australia. One thing to remember is that at a set of traffic lights, if you are sitting at a red light, it is OK to make a right-hand turn if the way is clear. Early on I didn't know this and wondered why people behind me were honking.
Their 'Yield' signs are our 'Give Way' signs. However, the simple rule is not to be an aggressive driver. Generally, I found US drivers all through the South to be forgiving and unaggressive (well, when compared with manic Sydney drivers) so if you take it easy you should get through just fine. In the bigger cities (Las Vegas and Atlanta, for instance) they were more rude, aggressive and willing to honk their horn in displeasure, just like Sydney drivers.

Navigating: unlike most modern people, who rely on a GPS thingy, we used maps (I also do organic gardening, and make my own soup stocks, so I am old-fashioned sometimes). Pammy was the navigator, and she did a great job doing it the old-fashioned way – reading maps. However, we did use the Internet to help us sometimes, even if Pammy handled 99% of all the navigating the paper-based way.

Google maps directions: what really came in handy was the 'Google Maps Directions' feature (on the left hand side of the Google Maps window. It was particularly useful for either getting into cities and finding our hotel, or for finding the best way out of a city, back out onto our chosen highway. All you need to do is type in your starting point address (if leaving town) or hotel address (if arriving) and Google Maps then tells you the right exits and streets to get you your next objective. Very, very often the Google directions proved to be right, and not what we would have chosen just by staring at the map. It was a Godsend helping us find our hotel in the high-speed, multi-lane, dodgem car madhouse of Atlanta, Georgia!

Highway exit numbers: you probably already know all about how US cities and towns are often logically ordered into street and avenue numbers, for easy navigating. Well, the highways are similar, and what we found most useful out on the highways was the system of Exit Numbers. Each exit off a major highway (and interstates) is numbered, and so knowing that we had to take 'Exit 67' to find XYZ town really helped, and driving along, counting down the exits, helped us not miss our exits, too. Good system!

10. Money
Travel Money Cards: before leaving Australia we organised to have two 'Travel Money' cards through our bank, then we bought a few thousand dollars in US currency. Once in the US, we could use these cards in any ATM machine to withdraw cash, in pre-paid US dollars. They worked without a hitch everywhere, as our bank's cards were Mastercards. However, they aren't a credit card. They're a cash card, and at the ATM machine we withdrew our money by choosing the 'Savings' account option, after entering the PIN. We miscalculated how much money we would need (ie, we ran out) so I was able to get onto my online bank and transfer more money to my Travel Money Card. It took a couple of days for the transaction to go through, so remember that delay if you're running low.

Credit cards: this proved to be a shock when we got home. We used our credit cards to book accommodation as we drove around, and each and every time the banks whacked a hefty 'International Transaction Fee' onto our card. All I can suggest is that you find out what competing banks' International Transaction Fees are, and go with the best deal. I didn't know about the extent of the rip-off beforehand, and am a few hundred dollars worse off as a result.

American cash: get used to having bulging wallets or purses. The US dollar is still a paper note, so 15 single dollars isn't worth all that much but it takes up a fair bit of space. Be wary of having large denomination bills (ie, $50 or $100) as some shops will simply refuse to handle them, forcing you to use your credit card instead.
Also, if you are likely to be tipping porters at hotels, etc, try to remember to keep a stash of $1 notes handy for tips. While the $1 notes are a bit of a pain to live with, at the same time they are handy in the area of tipping.

Expedia: we used to book ahead for accommodation sometimes on our road journey, but it has its pros and cons. One positive is that the room rates are cheaper. One negative is that you pay in advance, so changing your mind might be expensive.

11. The people
I love 'em! Finally, let me put in several good words for the ordinary American people you're likely to meet in your travels. I really liked them all. I have a big soft spot for Texans (hi, y'all!), but everywhere we went people were welcoming and helpful (even the busy New Yorkers were friendly – time and again they helped us out with the Subway maps).
All the Americans we met loved the fact that we were from Australia, so maybe Aussies get a particularly warm welcome? In some small towns they were just astonished that Australians were even visiting – "what on Earth brings you here?"
I noticed that time and again, not just when I was dealing with people, but when I watched others interact, that politeness is a very important thing, and it's how people in America like to talk to each other, at least for starters. So that's my only tip: be polite, be friendly and there's every chance the lovely Americans you meet will be polite and friendly back!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

San Francisco stories (2)

We simply cannot believe that eight weeks could go so quickly. At the beginning of this amazing holiday, the idea of taking two whole months off work and just motoring off into the desert to places beyond seemed like a plan that might go on forever. After a couple of weeks on the road, that feeling was almost stronger. We wanted to run away and do this forever! And yet here we are in San Francisco with no more sleeps to go before we jump onto our long flight home. We fly out today!

One thing we are really glad about is the quality of San Franciscan weather forecasting. They've got it wrong more often than not. When they forecast showers for Friday, we got a beautiful, sunny day. And even this Sunday morning is meant to be cloudy and wet, and unless they have blue clouds here in California, I think we've got another sunny one on our hands.

While I have another blog posting in mind about travel tips for Aussies in America (to be done when we get back to Sydney) for this last posting here from the USA I'd just like to tell you a bit more about how wonderful a place San Francisco is to visit. Come on over some time: it's only a short 14.5 hour flight across the Pacific from Sydney!

For starters, my last pan shot (sniff...) of the holidays. The view from our hotel room.

When I watched this pan shot a second time, I realised the Golden Gate Bridge is virtually invisible in the picture, so don't strain your eyes looking for it.

Here it is, in one of Pammy's mega-zoom shots taken from our hotel room balcony. One of the tourist brochures I picked up tried to describe the colour of the Golden Gate Bridge as 'vermilion-orange'. Nice try, but I think 'pink' still hits the spot, as this photo shows.

"Make sure to visit the Coit Tower," said our good mate Zora in one of her emails to us. And so I went to Wikipedia to find out all about it, and it has a remarkable background story, which you can read here. The short version is that a wealthy San Franciscan woman, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, bequeathed a large sum of money to the city to help beautify it, and the first thing built was this tall tower on Telegraph Hill, from which you can enjoy the very best views the city has to offer. Do read the Wikipedia entry when you get time, as she was a wonderful eccentric who had quite a 'thing' for firemen. The allegation about the size, shape and symbolism of the tower is just scuttlebutt, probably. This photo of the Coit Tower taken from the waterfront streets shows what a prominent landmark it is.

Inside the Coit Tower, which was built during the years of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, a team of artists with Socialist sympathies decorated the walls with murals.

Naturally enough the murals caused quite a bit of controversy at the time – workers revolution and all those threatening bears – but now they are an essential part of the fabric of the building.

After travelling up the super-slow lift which takes you near the top of the tower, you then need to climb another 37 steps to get to the top and enjoy the views, which are spectacular. In the distance you can see the Golden Gate Bridge spanning San Francisco Bay.

We didn't know there was a bus which takes you up to Coit Tower, and so we climbed the steep streets and the thousand or so steps to get there. Phew! Once we had taken in the views, we discovered the bus's existence and caught it for the ride down to Fisherman's Wharf, on the harbour. At Pier 39, these sea lions have set up a permanent colony on these pontoons, entertaining the crowds.

We retired to the Crab House Restaurant on the Pier and were lucky enough to be given a good window view.

The decor of the Crab House is all white tiles, with decorations of hand-painted crab shells all around the walls. It felt like a really big bathroom. Almost everyone there ordered, devoured and enjoyed the restaurant's famous crabs, but quite frankly folks, if there's one type of seafood I cannot be bothered with, it's fiddling around trying to get meat out of a crab. Too much hard work (although yummy USA-style crabcakes, which are almost all-crabmeat, are another delicious thing altogether). And so I tucked into a superb plate of mussels and shrimp, while Pam had a crab omelette, which was excellent.

The next morning, a Saturday, we wandered down to the Ferry Plaza Markets to check out what is claimed to be one of the largest and best farmers' markets in the USA. It certainly lived up the hype: it was huge, covered several areas, starting with the large, restored Ferry Building itself then spreading out into the streets and squares nearby, under the cover of countless marquees. Buskers entertained the throngs at this waterside setting, while dense, busy crowds of locals and tourists shopped for gourmet foods and fresh produce.

The quality of the produce here was really impressive, and extensive. Specialist in all sorts of goods provided whatever you wanted in their chosen field (wait till you see my 'Tasty Salted Pig Parts' T-shirt!). The peppers and chillies stands were both colourful and rich with variety.

The mushroom specialists had over a dozen different varieties in artfully arranged profusion. This is a colour photo by Pam, but it looks like a painting already.

And the fruits! Persimmons, figs, pomegranates, grapes and lots more in abundance. You really could come here and buy all the ingredients you need for a gourmet fantasy. The only thing I noticed the markets lacked was fresh Asian ingredients. I saw no Chinese cabbage (wombok), choy sum, pak choy etc, and no lemon grass or Thai kaffir lime leaves, etc. I know they're probably all available up in Chinatown, but it seems the local mainstream Californian cuisine hasn't fully embraced traditional Asian ingredients yet.

Everywhere we went as we wandered around San Francisco (and we love to wander!) the charming variety of houses adds so much character to each and every street. We liked the way these simple, plain clapboard houses went all out on showing an impressive facade. Keeping up appearances, as they say.

And as you can see in the photo here, the wires of the cable cars, and the cable cars themselves are another constant in many views. We ended up not going on any cable car rides, alas. The crowds to get on the cable cars, especially those cute old-style ones where people 'hang-off' the sides, were so huge that we couldn't be bothered queuing for 40 minutes for the ride, when we could walk the distance required in the same time.

And so that's our last posting from here for this incredible journey across the United States of America. We've had such a wonderful time, the weather has been outstandingly kind to us everywhere and the people we've met along the way have been a pleasure to talk to as well as being very friendly and and helpful. I really like ordinary, everyday Americans!

Just doing this blog itself has been a buzz, too. As well as all the terrific (and often very helpful) comments posted here on the blog itself, we've had stacks of personal email messages from friends and relatives who've been taking the journey with us from the day we started. So, a big THANK YOU to everyone for coming along with us on the trip. You've been great company, and we look forward to seeing and actually talking with so many of you when we get home in a few days' time.

And an especially big THANK YOU to our support team back home who kept things ticking over superbly while we swanned around the place over here: Colin and Barbara for looking after transport, logistics, mail, bills and unexpected problems; Fraser for house-sitting in the wilds of Marrickville; our neighbour Katerina for watering the garden; Zora and Sean for mopping up operations after Pammy's art show, and much more. And Benno, master Photoshop guru, for the beautifully tricked up photo of Pam and I at Grand Canyon, which has served at the top of the page for almost every posting on this trip.

Bye for now, see you soon, from Jamie and Pam.

San Francisco Stories (1)

Opening scene: Japanese restaurant in Japan Town, San Francisco, where we're staying. In the booth next to us, a family of mum, dad, 10-year-old daughter and mum's sister are talking.

Mum (to daughter): "Don't you want to learn Chinese?"
Daughter: "No, I don't like Chinese."
Mum: "But you ARE Chinese."
Daughter: "I don't like Chinese, it's stupid."
Mum: "But honey, there are over a billion Chinese people in the world, and if you speak good English and good Chinese, that's a big advantage for you, honey."
Daughter: "OK then, Mum, what's 'cactus' in Chinese?"
*Stunned silence from the adult end of the booth next to us.*
Daughter: "Like I told you, it's stupid."

That's what I like about America, they've made a success of multi-culturalism in so many ways. Every time I turn on the TV and see that they're about to interview the Chief of this government department, the spokesperson for this group or that, or the person in charge of XYZ corporation, the weather person on TV, the news reporter, or the whatever responsible for something: you don't have a clue who is going to show up. It could be a person of any ethnicity, either sex. It could be a Romirez, a Wong, a Kowalski, Gutenburg, Smith, Lorenzo, Mobutu, Malouf, Sandeep, Papoulis, Kim – whatever. Sure, the multiculturalism is of the 'integrated into the mainstream' sort, but I really like the fact that this is a country which doesn't seem to have a problem with where you come from.

Anyway, now that I've got that little editorial off my chest, it's time to tell you about San Francisco. First up, steep streets, then Chinatown. I'll save up the rest for San Francisco Stories (2).

Steep streets. San Francisco has more really, hugely, steep streets than any place I have ever been to. Walking around here is like mountain climbing on asphalt.

This remarkable shot taken by Pam looks as if it's taken from the top of a building, but she is standing on the sidewalk at the top of Fillmore Street (major shopping zone, well worth visiting), looking back towards the harbour, and back down the peak she had just climbed.

Look at a simple street map of San Francisco and you think "That's only four blocks from X to Y, should be easy" but when you do that short walk it includes two urban Matterhorns along the way. Good exercise for legs, San Francisco, but not sure about hearts, though.

The other wonderful discovery here in San Francisco is Chinatown. For starters, it's big, much bigger than Chinatown in Sydney and way, way way bigger than Chinatown in New York.

Chinatown covers a really substantial area here, stretching several streets in all directions. While it is in parts a tourist trap with lots of the usual shops selling the usual crap, it's also a very old Chinese community that bustles with business activity and is aloud with Chinese voices chattering in their familiar, staccato way. Old men sit in groups noisily playing some kind of game that's not Mah Jong nor Checkers: not sure what it is but they all have an opinion on what the next move should be, or at least should have been.

It's a fabulous place to just wander around aimlessly, looking up at the balconies with the clothes drying, the murals on the walls, the vivid colours in the posters, lanterns and advertising banners.

There's so much to cover with our brief San Francisco visit and so we'll tell you a bit more about our very enjoyable stay here tomorrow. A few friends who have been here mentioned that San Francisco (Edit: thanks Michelle!) is a bit like Sydney, and we know what they mean now. It is like Sydney in many ways – both are harbourside, scenic cities with a gay-friendly culture and breezy interest in all things new and fashionable – but San Francisco is its own town, so is Sydney, and so we'll look at a bit more SF-ness tomorrow, just before we fly home.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Traveller's trivia

Almost home, but not quite! We're in San Francisco now for a very short stay, prior to jumping back on a (non-Qantas, thankfully) plane for the long haul home across the Pacific. All the while we've been travelling round we've been accumulating quite a store-house of trivia about the USA that didn't quite fit into any of the other blog topics we've done so far, so this is the Trivia blog, a miscellaneous grab-bag of stuff we've noticed along the way.

America's famous, or more likely infamous, for its gun laws and gun law enthusiasts. So how many guns have we seen (apart from those on the hips of police and security officers)? None! That's right, not one. We kept an eye out for gun racks in the back of pickups all through the South, and not a firearm in sight, folks. We saw plenty of gun shops and huntin' ads, but no guns anywhere. The only place where we actually saw a sign saying "no guns allowed in the cafeteria" was in Grand Canyon, and we didn't see anyone packing a piece there, either.

Now, one thing we did see everywhere was yellow School Buses like this one. Apparently there's an act of Congress specifying how a School Bus should be designed, and different companies make them according to this design. There's a strict road rule with School Buses: when the bus stops and pokes out its arm with the red 'Stop' sign, traffic in BOTH directions has to stop. Everywhere we went, all drivers obeyed this rule. One really lovely example was out in Cajun country in Louisiana. The School Bus in front of us stopped in a country road. Cars in both directions stopped. The first little boy got out of the bus: he was the big brother, he looked about 7. Then his little brother climbed out. He looked 5. Then the School Bus driver got out, held the boys' hands, walked them across the road to their front gate, the boys ran in to Dad on the porch, everyone waved. The driver returned to the bus, the traffic was still waiting patiently, then once the bus was underway, so was everyone else.

If School Buses are ubiquitous, then Winnebagos – also called RVs or Recreational Vehicles (truly mobile homes mostly driven by retirees keen on spending everything they own before the kids inherit it) – are a very common sight out on the highways. And around 90% of all Winnebagos we saw were also towing another car behind, usually an SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) like this Honda.

To keep ourselves amused on our 4000 mile drive, Pammy and I played an informal game we called 'Numberplate Spotto'. As we drove along the highways we'd call out the first sightings of numberplates from different American states as we spotted them. "Hey look, Arkansas plates!". The rules are strict and ruthless, however. We both had to see the plates. It was no use saying "I just saw an Illinois plate" if the other person couldn't also see it, because we'd just accuse the other of making it up and would scotch any pleadings that "I really saw it, I did, truly ruly." Hee hee hee. As the weeks went by, we had probably spotted about 40 or so out of the 50 plates on the list (or 51 counting Washington DC). "Oh wow, Rhode Island" was spotted in Georgia – that was a biggie. But in the end we never spotted North or South Dakota (don't they ever go travelling, those guys?) or Vermont, or Wyoming, or Idaho, Nebraska or Alaska, plus a couple more. The prize? None, of course, silly. If it helps anyone to understand these rather odd rules, they're loosely based on those used on Stephen Fry's TV Quiz Show, 'QI'.

Cottonfields: we saw stacks of these, from the bone-dry northern parts of Texas all the way through the South and on over to the counties around Savannah Georgia on the East Coast. While most of the fields were big things, where mechanical harvesters munch through them in autumn, there were also lots of little cotton fields tucked into corners here and there, where the big machinery couldn't possibly go. I wonder if they still hand-pick these little patches of white?

Italian motorcycles: in all of our 4000 mile trip on the roads of America we didn't see one. And then in New York, in a shop window, a Ducati, used as a prop to sell Ducati luggage to Manhattan yuppies. How humiliating! The day after I took this shot I saw my first Italian bike on the streets, and lo and behold it was my bike – a Moto Guzzi V7 Classic. It's not a common bike anywhere, and there it was, turning off 5th Avenue in New York. As we pottered about the streets of New York we spotted more Guzzis and Ducatis in roughly equal numbers, but the total spotted was still less than 10. I tell you, American motorcyclists, with their love of Harleys, are missing out on some nice machinery.

Here's another rarity: one dollar coins. These are the only ones we spotted: spat out of an automated parking lot payment machine in Galveston, Texas. I didn't even know that one dollar coins existed over here until then. Everywhere you go there are greenbacks – one dollar notes. These are such an anachronism. You can have a wallet bulging with notes and still have less than $20 on you. I watched a TV talk show where the majority liked their paper money just as it is and didn't want $1 coins, so in the end I decided that until America ditches the greenback and replaces it with coins, it's not really serious about economic reform. It's my litmus test. I'm waiting, America!

Ice: it took me a while to get into this, but hotels everywhere have ice machines on most floors. And ice buckets in every room. We mostly stayed in fairly nice hotels everywhere we went, yet not all of them had fridges in the rooms. But all had ice buckets and ice machines. After a while I got into the same routine as the other travellers here. Once settled into the room, I wandered down the corridor, filled our ice bucket with ice, brought it back to the room and used that to chill our drinks. It feels like a remnant of times gone by, when no-one's room had a fridge, which everyone has gotten used to now and doesn't want to let go of.

Art galleries. I could say quite a few things about the art galleries we visited here, but this photo was taken inside my favourite on the trip, the Museum of Modern Art – MoMA – in New York. Like the wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I love MoMA's embrace of design as art. It's where I'm at with art, too.

And here's to all those museums and galleries with strict "no photography" rules. Blahhhhhh to them all! This photo of Buddy Holly was taken outside the Buddy Holly Museum in Lubbock, Texas, so I could photograph it, legally. But I couldn't show you any more of the Buddy Holly Museum, because they're protecting copyright in there. Same goes for the Guggenheim

© in New York, and the Hank Williams Museum

© in Montgomery Alabama.

Finally, this is one of those pleasant discoveries which has come from eating out for breakfast so much. We've both developed a taste for eggs cooked 'sunny side up'. We always just thought of these as fried eggs, but cooked in a teflon pan, they're just sunny side up, with nicely runny yolks. We cooked these eggs for ourselves in our little Manhattan hotel room for breakfast: the 'bread' is two bagels, split in half, then halved again, and pan-fried too. We've always been poached eggs or scrambled eggs kids for our Sunday breakfasts, but every now and then we'll have them sunny-side-up, and each time we do so we'll think of this wonderful holiday.

One more blog post to go before we fly home, a little report on our short stay here in beautiful San Francisco which we'll put up here tomorrow.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New York Stories (8) – Central Park

Bravo, New York! What a marvellous thing is Central Park, for dozens of healthy, green reasons. However, I couldn't help marvelling that on an island as jam-packed with enormous buildings and millions of people, somehow New Yorkers have made room for well over 800 acres of parkland in the centre of it all. Millions of locals and visitors use it every day, all-year-round, to walk or jog through, to sit and talk, paint, play or just relax in. Just like the big, vibrant, complex city around it, Central Park also has many distinct sections plus varying moods. It really is several parks in one, and maybe to its thousands of visitors it represents a thousand different parks.

You can read a lot more about Central Park itself here at Wikipedia, but in the photos below, taken on a beautifully sunny and warmish Autumn day, here's what we saw and enjoyed in this peaceful green island within an island.

First of all, the Autumn colours were coming on beautifully. By the way, one little surprise for me here is the frequent use of the word 'autumn' to describe the season. I thought American used 'Fall' exclusively, but not so. The word 'autumn' appeared in the heading for a story on the front page of the New York Times the other day, and in one town in Georgia the streets were lined with 'Autumn Festival' banners.

The various lakes, reservoirs and ponds throughout the park add so much to the atmosphere while also opening out the tree-filled surrounding spaces to the air and blue sky above. The first one pictured below, the largest body of water in Central Park, is now called the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir.

We expected pathways aplenty through Central Park, but there are a few roadways here as well, though most of the time the traffic is slow and light. There's much to discover and explore here; at one stage we found a castle on a rocky outcrop.

The thousands of trees in the park had a bittersweet story to tell. At first glance you'd think "what's the problem, they're magnificent?" but as we wandered around there were dozens of mature trees damaged by the snowstorm last weekend. As I mentioned in an earlier posting here, the October snowstorms set new weather records for New York. Unfortunately for the trees, which were still in relatively full leaf in mid-autumn, the enormous weight of the heavy snowfalls were too much for many branches to bear, and down they came. The local news reports said the snowstorm brought down more branches in many districts than the hurricane which hit two months ago.

And so everywhere we saw piles of fallen branches, clean-up crews lopping limbs from trees and pushing fallen branches through noisy industrial mulchers. The mounds of mulched trees in some areas were 10 feet high and wide.

Our visit to Central Park on this, our last day in New York before we fly out tomorrow, was not all we did here today (we also visited the Guggenheim Museum, which is next door to Central Park, and the Museum of Modern Art – MoMA – which is down on 53rd Street, a few blocks beyond the southern edge of Central Park) and so a slow, two-hour wander through Central park in between the first dose of art and the next, really was the highlight of our day, although I must say Frank Lloyd Wright does design a nice building.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

New York Stories (7) – Districts

"Hi, Gulliver here, just letting you know that I have mastered the Subway system here in New York. It's a snap to get around underground. All you need is a map and an Australian accent. What you do is stand at the entrance to a Subway, poke your finger at the map and talk with your partner in an Aussie accent. In no time at all a helpful New Yorker, keen to show off their PhD in Subway Know-how, stops and helps you choose which line to take. "Oh, you'll need to walk two blocks up to Lafayette, get on the Subway there, take the F train and that will get you to your destination with the least walking. Have a nice day." Works a treat, this method. Anyway, Pam and Jamie have been giving their Subway weekly passes a hammering in the last couple of days, getting around to see several of the main districts of New York that lie beyond Manhattan, so here's how they went."

It's probably illegal to take pictures on the Subway (security and all that stuff) but we managed to take a snap of Gulliver at an undisclosed Subway station when the security staff weren't looking.

Let's just say that undisclosed location for the Subway photo was in Brooklyn, where we wandered about in search of the arty end of this city, on Bedford Avenue. We didn't know there are two Subway stations called 'Bedford Avenue' and of course we got off at the wrong one, then walked a mile or more to find what we were after. That walk was interesting in itself, as we passed through many streets where the Hasidic Jewish community live. Finally, when we saw this bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, we were close to the Bedford Avenue we were after.

Bedford Avenue itself is rather like those old inner-city areas of many cities where the arts crowd has moved in en masse. Lots of nice cafes, people on pushbikes and quirky shops.

This corner store on Bedford was both colourful and popular – no sign of any shopping malls around here!

I'm not sure why I like Orthodox churches with their onion domes so much, but I do.

After Bedford Avenue we jumped on the Subway to High Street (and did it without any help from the locals!) and made our way down to the Hudson River shoreline to see the Brooklyn Bridge. On the way we passed by several streets of really charming houses.

The Brooklyn Bridge itself is a wonderful span; even today it's impressive enough but what a marvel it must have seemed to all on both sides of the river when it was built in the second half of the 19th century. No-one had ever built a suspension bridge this big or wide before.

The view from the Brooklyn side of the river is impressive by day; I can only imagine what it would look like when lit up every night.

Another part of town Jamie visited one morning was the Bronx (to the north of Manhattan Island). He was there to see Yankee Stadium (the baseball ground) but while there he also wandered around a few streets on the morning after the snowstorm, and it was eerily quiet here with just a few people out and about amid the piles of snow, but the area looked a bit run-down and in need of some civic love.

The next day we went for a walk to 'The Highline' an innovative urban 'hi-rise' garden on the West Side of Manhattan that makes use of a disused above-ground railway line. On the way we passed this 'hi-rise' parking lot, called 'Unparalleled Parking' where the cars are cleverly stacked on hoists. We passed several of these later in the day.

We climbed the stairs at 20th West street on 10th Avenue to join the above-ground Highline walk. As it's mid-autumn, and there was a snowstorm last weekend, the plantings here weren't exactly at their peak, but it still looked good.

Ornamental grasses play a big role in the planting choices up here in this difficult, exposed spot, but they have also included hardy blue daisies (in sunny spots) and hydrangeas (in shady spots) in between the various grasses.

Here and there, for decorative effect, they have left sections of the old railway lines in place to tell the story of the garden's origins. It's no small garden either, and they're planning to expand it soon. As you walk the length of the Highline you traverse several streets on the West Side.

Along its length there is some interesting architecture (pictured above and below) to take in as you walk the Highline.

Hydrangeas are a great choice here, as they still look good even when all their summer colours have faded. By the time we made it to the southern end of the Highline, it was a short Subway ride down to South Ferry, where we caught the Staten Island Ferry to Staten Island.

There are several great things about the Staten Island Ferry. The first is that it's free. The second is that there is one every 20 minutes. And the third, fourth, fifth to umpteenth great things are the views, such as this one as the ferry pulled away from Manhattan.

Down at the very southern tip of Manhattan apartments, not offices, line the shore.

A good two-thirds of all the people on the Staten Island Ferry were tourists, most of whom were there to see this grand lady.

Pammy's camera has a really good zoom function that captured the magnificence of this statue on a sunny day. As well as being a superb statue, its placement in the harbour was a stroke of genius by the old New Yorkers. Once we returned to Manhattan from the untidy, uninspiring shores of Staten Island, we soon made our way up to the Soho district of Manhattan.

Our first surprise down this end of town was the extent of the cobblestoned streets. These aren't cutesy new cobblestones installed to make a touristy area look and feel older: these are the irregular, worn old real-deal.

Down at street level, Soho is all about ultra-expensive designer retail shops that we couldn't afford, but looking up around us the architecture is free to behold, such as this very narrow, tall (12-15 storey high) ornately decorated building complete with fire escapes.

If you keep on walking through Soho, before you know it, you're in Little Italy, where several streets are lined with Italian cafes, restaurants and Italian flags. Around one corner, we came across a deli with this impressive array of whole cheeses in the window (each is much larger that a basketball). Other windows were decorated with equally gargantuan parma hams and salamis. Inside, the aroma was divine.

Little Italy is little. Within just a couple of streets it abruptly ends, and Chinatown begins. That's one of the features of neighbourhoods in this city: they literally end at one side of a street, and across the road a completely different neighbourhood begins.

The other major discovery down this end of Manhattan, which is not far at all from the Financial District and Wall Street, is that all the buildings here are fairly low, with very few above 10 stories. Look up and you see sky, not skyscrapers. These are the older parts of New York which are probably over 100 years old now, maybe a lot more, and so they are being preserved and indeed are being revived, restored and appreciated.

After seven days here (just one day to go!) we have barely scratched the surface of seeing New York, but by visiting Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, the West Side, Soho, Greenwich Village, Little Italy and Chinatown we've realised that this extraordinarily large city is also a lot more complex, varied and delightful that we'd ever imagined.