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Blog Archives: Entries for 2009

Another American trip

Revisiting America

Another journey to the US occurred over the Christmas and New Year of 2002–2003. I was a third of the way through my Master’s degree at Birmingham University, England, had just finished an essay and was exhausted. I should have gone home, but not a huge fan of Christmas, I opted for three weeks in America instead. As a student, I managed to obtain a relatively inexpensive flight and was able to get a month Greyhound pass, which allowed me travel access anywhere in the US. I rose late to begin with and missed my first train to London, but I figured I could get another one. That meant that I arrived at Heathrow with just twenty minutes to spare and could miss the flight, but luck was with me as it was delayed by two hours.

I arrived in New York around 10.00 pm after a seven and a half hour flight. I had another problem on landing. I was questioned aggressively by customs officials who found my passport suspicious. However, after some more direct enquiries about my reasons for visiting the US, the duration of my stay and my internal destination, I was eventually allowed to enter. Their main concern was over a previous five month stay. Nevertheless, I managed to catch the midnight bus to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Marcia, a lady I had met when studying there in 2000, met me the next day and we caught up; I told her of my latest travel adventures and she updated me on the progress of her studies. She helped me search the Internet for hostels in Florida. However, my first choice in St. Augustine, North America’s oldest continuous European settlement, founded in 1565, was fully booked and my second option in Fort Lauderdale was closed. Eventually, I chose the town of Clearwater, on the Gulf of Mexico, for my first destination. I was going to stay in Montgomery, Alabama, but I got a lucky break as Marcia was heading down there to spend Christmas with her son, so I opted for a lift. Several people had told me there was nothing to see in Montgomery and there were no hostels. I was learning quickly that the US was poorly equipped when it came to providing backpacker accommodation.

Some states are really prepared, like Utah, California and New York, but areas such as Texas and the major states in the south and also in the far north, as I discovered later, were more problematic. A few days before Christmas, we drove the eight-hour journey to Alabama. I spent a delightful couple of hours with Marcia’s son and his family, and then left, enduring another long bus journey to Clearwater via Tallahassee, Florida’s State Capital and college town. I arrived in the small town just below Tampa Bay mid afternoon the following day.

I met a young girl who I suspected was absconding, and together we set off by local bus to reach the hostel. After a forty-minute ride, and appeared to be nowhere nearer, we decided to alight and walk; we eventually hailed a taxi, which dropped us at the correct place within minutes. It was when I was checking in that I realised my companion was untrustworthy. She asked if there were any dorm rooms available and then said she had no money. She mentioned a different town from the one she had said to me. I told the receptionist that I was alone, had a reservation and got a dorm room.

Clearwater

Clearwater is a quaint town, on the eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico. The population is mainly white, middle class and retired. I stayed three days, meeting two friendly American guys; one was undertaking academic research in the country of Colombia and another gentleman in his sixties, who told me he had been born in the same hospital as Bob Dylan in Duluth, North Minnesota. It was hot weather, the kind that made you just want to sit around, chat and listen to the radio. I listened to Credence Clearwater Revival, who I fell in love with after hearing the song ‘Pride of Mary’ (1968).

I briefly explored the small town, particularly the beaches and nearby shops. I enquired about a boat ride along the Gulf, but discovered they were unavailable on Christmas Eve. When I arrived in Clearwater, I made the mistake of throwing my travel bus pass away! However, I did keep the original information and, this enabled me to continue using the buses. I had rung Kerry, an old university friend, who was working in Orlando, several days earlier informing her I would be in town for Christmas and we agreed to meet up. Therefore, on Christmas morning, when most people were still in bed or opening presents, I was travelling to Kissimmee, a suburb of Orlando.

Orlando

Once there, I got the local bus that dropped me across the road from my hostel. I checked in and asked to stay for five days. Kerry was working for Disney World and was able to get me in as a guest, so we agreed to meet the following day around midday. I rang my family and Marcia, but became somewhat emotional and felt sad as I was alone. The hostel was almost deserted so I went out to find some liquor to resolve my loneliness, but could not find any — luckily for me. I had only just stopped drinking, having quit in June, and was beginning to feel my first relapse. Nevertheless, I could not obtain any alcohol and the feelings passed.

Getting to Disney World was difficult. First, I had to cross a busy two-lane road and then find the bus stop; it was hard to locate, as they are just metal benches set back from the pavement. Eventually, I arrived and walked up a series of slopes where I caught a small tram that took me to the correct park. A staff member who was just going to work, let me in, but Kerry was nowhere in sight. I had been told to wait at the large spaceship, but still she could not be found. I went to Kerry’s workplace. Three hours later, she appeared at the bar. She said that she thought I had stood her up once more, and failing to find me had gone home.

We had a quick tour of the large circular park that contained a series of acts representing various countries through an array of musical events. For instance, there was a group who imitated the Beatles. When Kerry started work, I spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering the park, listening to the different acts. The Canadian show was dramatic, with bagpipes and electric guitars. I also heard a Wild West display and an Indiana Jones show, which included loud explosions. In the evening, I attended the Christmas concert by candle light. Although it was religious, it was enjoyable; the music and singing with candles was excellent. When it finished I needed to find the exit and was escorted by security staff all the way to the bus stop; this happened every night I was in the parks.

On the second day, Kerry got me in again and I took a small ferry to another park and went on a fast car ride. I was able to navigate by following the park’s perimeter, using my hearing to detect and avoid large crowds.

I saw little of Kerry as she was busy working, but when we did meet we had fun; she showed me the large tennis balls they sold and we played with them, bouncing them around in the shop. Kerry still found it amazing that I was travelling independently around the world doing crazy activities.

Florida Keys

I next headed to the Florida Keys and the end of the American land mass. Once I got near to the Keys, the buses were less full until it was just me, a humorous driver, a couple of South Korean girls and an American who had worked in Asia. The scenery was spectacular, palm trees and green bushes, with hot, sunny weather and stillness all around. The Keys are a trio of islands connected by road bridges, Key West being the last and largest island of the three. It is a strange place, full of unusual people of all ages, sex, character and colour. I stayed in a hostel, with extremely rude staff that made me wait, along with other backpackers, until 2.00 pm before we were admitted. The hostel was open, with wooden dorms that backed onto each other. There were homosexuals everywhere, and many Americans who migrated to Key West from the most Northern states such as Minnesota, New Hampshire and Montana, who returned home during their summer.

I did little on the islands, being low in money. There are many expensive activities available, such as fishing, diving and water sports. There is also the Ernest Hemingway house to visit, but at $10 per person I decided against it. I hung around the hostel in the evenings, talking to people, and explored the beach during the day.

I met an amusing Canadian guy who only had sight in one eye; we talked until late dusk. I met a retired US marine and discussed the Vietnam War with him. We listened to the fireworks on New Years Eve before going to a bar for a drink at around 3.00 am. A little local culture is always interesting. I was chatted up by a gay man who asked me if I was homosexual, I replied “Only on Sundays!” Next, I headed to Miami for a couple of days before deciding to return to South Carolina, with a brief stop in Atlanta, Georgia. Miami was uneventful; the large hostel was full of Cubans and Argentinians.

Miami, Atlanta, South Carolina and New York

I met an English couple and we spent an afternoon together on the beach. I got lost on another occasion and was offered a lift by a couple of guys in a golf buggy who were in the water sport business. I did not wander the city as, on my arrival, I sensed from the noise and tense atmosphere that it was big, dirty and dangerous. Atlanta, alternatively, what little I experienced of it, was lovely. I got a Metro from the bus station and then a transit bus, which dropped me outside the hostel. The Backpackers was spacious. The weather was constantly hot and the hostel’s owners were charming, very accommodating and eager to help. I stayed one night, confident that I had discovered a place to revisit in the future, and returned to South Carolina and Marcia. I had a couple of days with her, just recuperating after all the bus journeys. Although I enjoy those long bus rides, if you get a driver who is exasperating, patronising or antagonistic, then they can feel even longer than they really are.

I eventually caught my last bus to New York City, where I teamed up with Ross, a guy I had met in Thailand a year earlier. He was living in the Big Apple and looking for work. We spent a day together, walked across Brooklyn Bridge, and visited Ground Zero where the Twin Towers of the World Trade centre had once stood, and had a general wander around the city that I still dislike. This time though, it was less busy; it was wintertime so there were few people and less traffic.

I finally returned to the UK – another interesting and eventful trip over until the next time.

Stories from a friend!

This is from a friend I met in Seville, southern Spain, in December-January 2007-08. His name is Will, from France. He is a cool guy. He is currently travelling Australia and now looking for work.
Enjoy his stories.
Tonythetraveller.

17,46, the mobile phone vibrates, a new message received… After a whole day spent sleeping, it’s this damn phone that wakes me up, the headache is really present, but I also want to do something else of my day than just recovering… Good coincidence, the message asks me if I’m available for the evening. I reply, get up, get prepared (having a shower etc…), talk for about ten minutes with my flatmate who also spent a big part of the day sleeping, and I head to the meeting place: a Starbucks Cafe in the centre where I’m supposed to be at 7:30pm. The lady is still not there, whatever, as I’m here, I order a coffee, and even before it’s ready, she arrives. It’s the beginning of a night that, from the first sight, doesn’t seem exceptional, but will actually be full with surprises.

Three weeks I hadn’t seen her, we stay for a while sitting on the terrace of the Starbuck in the San Fernando street to tell each other what happened in our lives in the meantime. Then I remember that I haven’t eaten anything since the afternoon of the previous day, I recommend a small tapas bar, but on the way, the Flaherty’s is calling for us, and after all, at 8:30pm, it’s still a bit too early to eat. So we walk into the Irish pub where some customers already lost their freshness, and we order while keeping on talking. It’s breakfast time for me, but as I’m used to do in Irish pubs, I order an Irish Coffee. Once again, we stay sitting there for a while, we still have many things to tell each other, and the bartender passes next to us with a particular smile on his face, the kind of smile which means he understands French. It makes us laugh, we keep talking, a bit surprised to be heard in spite of being in a foreign country. Then we move on in direction of Plaza Alfalfa through the small streets where walking around is always nice. And the temperature is still enjoyable for a beginning of December. The terrace of the Bar Manolo calls for me once again, that’s good timing, I’m still hungry, and I have my habits there. As usual, their Solomillo al Whisky is great, with a small Kas Limon, that’s perfect! That’s true, I hardly expect to start drinking again after last night having rum and cokes. So I take it easy, I eat that small tapas, and we head back to Santa Cruz using another way. Of course we get lost, even better, it allows us some time to chat. We avoid a pretty crowded tapas bar and we do a loop passing in front of the Carboneria (a very touristy flamenco bar, quite cheap but always packed, and overall a very average show when we have a minimum of comparison points), just to show her where it is because she’s been looking for it everywhere in vain the other day. While we’re here, we sneak in a tiny street, I know a patio we can’t access, but we can see it from the street and it’s a wonderful place we find walking by going nowhere when walking around. No guidebook describes that kind of place. Water and plants are coexisting with much taste. We get back to the way after getting lost once again. Passing in front of the bar Las Terasas, I tell her I’ve heard good things about it, and it’s even in the Routard (famous French guidebook). With no hesitation, we’re having a tapas there, I stick to fruit juice but we leave the place a bit disappointed. Despite of being cheap, the quantity served is ridiculous. We will avoid it in the future. Walking towards the Avenida de la Constitucion again, a furious envy for cheesecake assails us. Passing in front of the Café de Indias, we have a look through the window, but they have very few pastries left. It’s no big deal, we’re heading to the district of Triana, the other side of the river, because we want to check if the bar she told me about is open anyway. The last Café de Indias we still haven’t checked is packing everything when we arrive, bad luck, but across the street is another Starbucks, and even if it’s more expensive, their cheesecake is always awesome. We enjoy the comfort and the heat of the Starbucks to eat our cakes, then we’re back in the streets towards the Mannigan’s, another Irish pub where the TV is always tuned on a music channel. The conversation is around Spanish pop, and Shakira and Ricky Martin’s incredible longevity in Spain, actually served with a pint of Murphy’s. Whatever is said, even the bad memory of an awkward headache is blown away with a good Irish beer.

So now comes the time to check if the bar we wanted to visit is open, but unfortunately, Seville on a Sunday night is quite limited. Not a problem, the Elefunk is open and on Sunday nights there’s a jam session. A bit crowded, but not too much neither, the blind goldfishes are still swimming around in their jars hung on the lamps over the bar, and the concert is quite good, some great jazz classics well interpreted.

It’s really sympathetic while we’re having a beer, but we escape to the Anima, a more typical bar near her place. Typical, that’s the least we can say, Azulejos all on the walls, the owner is a sympathetic grandpa who warmly recommends his excellent sangria to us, and despite it’s a tiny local bar, we find there a surprising diversity of people. Not only coming from all over the world, Colombians, Spanish, Canadians and us, frenchies lost in this sympathetic melting pot, but also original and open-minded as the music a group of 7 or 8 young Spanish are playing right in the middle of the bar: from violin to tin whistle, to Bodhrans and guitars, everything is there to play a perfect Irish music as I’ve never heard in live so far. She meets her friends, talks to them, and I get to know a few people in this so charming and unusual place, marvelling at that band whose music bewitches and fulfils the bar with good mood. I stay a whole hour on my own, paying attention to that scene, even watching original strangers who would be old enough to be my dad rolling their joints and dancing with no shame. I eventually decide to catch up with the miss, and meet her friends. We chat for 20 minutes before hitting the road again. It’s two in the morning, I would have never expected walking everywhere across the city and staying in so many place at a time in only one night.

An evening totally improvised but actually really pleasant with a cute blond I leave on my way to a Sevici station before I get back to my flat.

Who would have known Sunday nights in Seville were not dead?

The return to work on Monday brought me two good surprises: Tony, the independent blind traveller who was here for New Years’ Eve came back to visit us, and Mark, a totally crazy Californian who also stayed twice in our hostel during the last few months is back too.

So I enjoyed the opportunity to come along this morning with Tony for a tourist walk, and I must reckon it’s the best tourist experience I’ve had since I’m in Seville.

We went to the Plaza de Toros (the Bullring), crossed the bridge of Triana, walked to the cathedral where we entered for free, climbed up the Giralda, and overall, paid attention to so many details I would never have noticed before such as the smells, the sensations, and even the sights, because I wanted to describe him everything, and despite he didn’t ask too precise questions, I tried myself to enrich the descriptions, the colours, the forms added to the significations of the places.

So, this is another point of view upon Seville, walking with a blind friend at my arm. This guy has a heart big like that, and when you get to know him better, he’s really cool, I really laughed a lot, he told me some cheeky jokes, and softer ones, sometimes involving his blindness. It was really a great day.

A special secret story!

The wandering albatross is one of the worlds’ amazing species. It lives among the islands of the Southern Ocean ‘Antarctic Ocean’, leaving its home annually, sleeping on the wind. It soars through the air, its vast wing span enabling it to fly for months, hunting for seafood seeming to be beyond the parallels of lesser creatures such as humans. It flies in solitude, sleeping when necessary and only returning home to mate and recharge its batteries ready for the next adventure. I have often felt like that albatross, travelling for days at a time, alone, sleeping fitfully, always on the alert for predators and keeping a keen sense for the next discovery ahead.

It is a fascinating life for me and the wandering albatross, a bird I first heard about on a trip which began in South America. I came across the large creature in a documentary which was being shown as I was travelling through Chile’s southern fjords, a cold and exciting journey. Listening to this documentary gave me the notion of real freedom.

The story about this bird provoked a further dimension of wonder and fascination. My email address whilst travelling was tonythetraveller[at]hotmail.com, although my close friends like to think of me as Tony the Tiger! It was the mixture of nature’s creatures and the challenge of single mindedness, the solo flight of that bird living a life of solitude and perfection in my mind, that provided the idea of a further challenge, the trial of writing, a task also containing loneliness and solitude. I have come to think of myself as that albatross flying over the oceans on a solo journey of who knows what, only returning when necessity calls.

All travellers

Hay all, its Tonythetraveller saying hi and Happy New Year. I am out of hospital after my successful kidney transplant from my Step Dad. We are both doing fine.
I am back living in my flat by the sea in Devon. I am getting stronger each day and soon hope to be on less medications. Unfortunately, I will not be going anywhere far until the end of April. Then it will only be round the UK and Northern Europe.
The plan is to spend the next few months gaining my travel strength then take several weekends backpacking around Britain and the Scottish Isles before heading further afield in September – medications and doctors permitting!
I aim to head for the U.S. and Canada for December, spending Xmas in Toronto. I plan to start 2010 in Antarctica and then travel around the remainder of South America in the first 2 months of 2010.
That is the rough plan, it just depends on how quickly I fully recover and the doctors readiness to allow me to travel. Fingers crossed.
All travel stories and updates from anyone in any country, place or area please send.
I currently have a friend Scot from the US who has been travelling Europe for a year. I also know a French mate who has been in Australia for several months. Happy travels to them both.
Success on the road to one and all. Tonythetraveller

Travel friend updates

A travel blog and update from a fellow traveller and friend. Hope you find interesting.
Will be back on the road myself this summer. Somewhere in Europe. Tony The Traveller.
Enjoy.

photos (Nepal, India, Thailand) are now up on my website:
http://picasaweb.google.com/bf.intransit
I have added some maps showing the routes covered by bike (in black) and on foot in Nepal (black & yellow).

I left Ilam early morning in the middle of November, cruising down to the Mai Khola river, then beginning the long, steep climb on the other side. One of the great things about the mountain roads in eastern Nepal is the relative lack of traffic. It means that however steep the road becomes, you can reduce the steepness of the slope by zig-zagging from side to side, keeping up your momentum and not getting overly-tired. The small wheels on my folding bike were particularly suited to this, even with panniers. It took me 2 days to reach the Indian border, where I made a fast return trip to Siliguri to book rail (sleeper) tickets to Varanasi and Delhi. It was a good move as there were few berths remaining. Once you have experience of travelling overnight without
a reservation in a packed (and I mean PACKED) unreserved carriage, it takes a true masochist to want to do it again!

The last 15 kms. into and out of Siliguri were the most unpleasant I can recall on a bike – dusty, noisy, bumpy on the awful road, and probably a bit dangerous, given the quality of Indian driving. There are many pleasant places to cycle in India, but they are all well away from population centres. Once back in Nepal I had a long ride to Dharan along the flat (easy) but interesting road through the Terai (plains area). Dharan is a fairly large town, due mainly to the fact that it was one of the two (Pokhara is the remaining one) recruiting centres for Nepali soldiers to join the Gurkha regiments of the British army. After India became independent, the majority of the Gurkhas were transferred to the Indian Army, but recruitment to the British army continued. The old army camp is now a huge hospital. Another legacy of British involvement is the road to Dhankuta and Hile. By a long way it is the finest mountain road in the country – superbly engineered, well maintained (thanks to ongoing funding from the UK), wide, and safe. It probably has more sturdy concrete crash barriers than the whole of the rest of the country. All it lacks is views of snow-capped mountains, though the foothill scenery is superb.

For the next few days I had some serious climbing, with night-time temperatures at Basantapur close to freezing. Here I left the bike, as the road beyond is still being constructed, and is either very dusty, very muddy, or too bumpy to ride with a load without suspension. I walked to Chainpur, in my opinion the most beautiful village in Nepal. Due to it’s location it has changed little since Toni Hagen – a Swiss geologist who spent much of his life working in the country, and who wrote the first ‘coffee-table’ large-format book with many colour photos – visited. It produces reputedly the highest quality metal (brass and bronze) vessels in the country – all hand made, though sadly this skill is not being taken up by a younger generation that is more interested in the bright lights of Kathmandu.

Now that the road has arrived, jeeps have already begun to break up the stone slabs that have served the populace well for hundreds of years. A few motorbikes race along narrow trails, and trucks will soon bring cement, as beautiful old buildings will be torn down to be replaced by ugly concrete ones. Nepal’s current UNESCO World Heritage Sites are:
Kathmandu Valley (1979),
Lumbini, the Birthplace of the Lord Buddha (1997),
Royal Chitwan National Park (1984), and
Sagarmatha National Park (1979).
Chainpur would make a unique addition.

Having made the long and steep walk there in a single day, arriving well after dark, I took a jeep part of the way back to avoid some serious climbing. I spent a few days in Dhankuta, the capital of Nepal’s Eastern Zone (there are 5 zones), which has been fortunately by-passed by the highway and is a delightful
town, sprawling along a steep ridge.

It took 3 days to ride from Dharan back to Ilam, the second (and toughest) one particularly pleasant as there was a nationwide strike, and the road was virtually deserted. Unfortunately most of the tea-shops were closed, but I managed to find a couple where I could get a much-needed brew. I spent a few days in Ilam, including an overnight walk, then rode the bike north to Phidim & back. This offered fine views of Kangchenchunga, the world’s 3rd highest mountain, some memorable climbs, and descents that had the rims of my wheels getting so hot from braking that I had to make frequent ‘cooling’ stops.

I spent a few days at my old school in Ilam, visited old friends to say goodbye, then packed the bike into its case and travelled to Kalimpong, in the Himalayan foothills in India. After a couple of relaxing days I was able to take a bus direct to the railway station outside Siliguri for my direct overnight train
to Varanasi.

Varanasi is the centre of Hinduism in India, and is claimed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varanasi).
I left almost everything at the station’s ‘left-luggage’ office to be collected on my departure. Indian traffic has become so horrendously unpleasant that for me many activities are spoiled; you can’t even enjoy a roadside ‘cuppa’ with the incessant blaring of horns at near pain-threshold level. What makes Varanasi especially pleasant is that most of the ‘sights’ are along the Ganges river, i.e. no traffic noise! It is at its most atmospheric at dawn when pilgrims come to bathe in the holy (if rather dirty) water. Just after sunset the are a number of elaborate prayer ceremonies at the more important ghats, which are a visual feast. I have a number of movie clips to put together when I get the time, but I’m sure you can find others with a search on Youtube. Thanks to a decent breeze and some vehicle emission controls, Delhi was slightly less polluted than I remember – that’s if you ignore noise pollution! I didn’t do much except eat well (I was there on Xmas Day) and buy a few souvenirs.

After India, Thailand seemed so civilised. Hardly anybody uses their vehicle horn, and motorists generally gave me a wide berth when they passed. Leaving most of my things in a guesthouse in Ayutthaya (the old Thai capital a little north of Bangkok) I took a train up to Nong Khai on the Mekong River from where I began my cycling. After Nepal, it was a piece of cake, except for some occasional headwinds. Instead of slogging up huge hills and hurtling down into steep valleys, you get into a nice rhythm and just cruise along for a couple of hours at a time. It’s hard to get decent tea in Thailand, so my breaks usually consisted of ice-cream & water, with a couple of beers at the end of the day. Quite frankly, much of the scenery is uninspiring, but the riding, on the wonderfully smooth roads, is great. I always found somewhere decent to stay, even in places where I thought there might not be a guesthouse or hotel, due of lack of anything to attract tourists. The local food, as always, was superb, but it was still hard to put all those calories back on! A pleasant surprise was the unexpectedly cool weather, especially close to the Mekong where winter winds blew constantly generally from the north-east. Locals sometimes wore woollen hats & gloves in the mornings, and the riverside restaurants were deserted during the evenings.

Payback time came when I arrived back in Sydney to one of the hottest spells of summer weather for a long time. It felt like I had expected Bangkok to be. The day before I flew back, the Thai capital had a maximum of 26 degrees. On my first weekend in Sydney almost every suburb passed 40 degrees! A week later Adelaide and Melbourne were up to the mid-forties.

Having bought a van, I’ll now be heading west to Bathurst where I lived for many years, then down to southern NSW in a couple of months. Back to the UK in June.
Cheers
Jeff