Sunday, September 27, 2009

Humblest Apologies

Alright people, here's the post where I admit to being a terrible blogger with all the updating in fits and starts, three updates in one week and then one in six months. I've been restrained by a variety of piss poor excuses: the creativity-draining administrative career, finding a new religion (Australian Rules Football, can I get an Amen brother?) and the giant hurdle that's been stuffing me about most of all - keeping the continuity. Now as much as I enjoy a bit of casual bondage, I prefer to be the one tying the devil's tongue, instead of my devil's tongue being tied.

It's not that I don't want to write because I've been overseas twice since the big US/Canada year, not to mention a massive Australia trip last Jan and there are a multitude of ideas being tossed around in my head. The problem is, I cannot write about the U.S. For the moment. It's a fantastic place and I will get around to it, but for the moment I'm being dragged down by the Memphis mire. So here's the plan.

Fuck the continuity. I'm going to write about the first places that spring to mind and then back date each post as I go along so that they're still in order. I'm going to reclaim the love that I had for recounting my experiences because believe it or not, I do love writing and whenever I cease to write for a long period of time, parts of my brain start to crumble away.

The bonus here is that now that it's the footy offseason I have absolutely nothing to do with my spare time and, having recently escaped the admin suckhole (for the moment) I have plenty of time to spare. I'm going to attempt to write something at least once a week and have designated Chloe as my arse-kicker if I fail to do so. She's a bony lass with a big butch arm, so I'll be in strife if I renege on this promise.

I'm going to kick off this revival with one of my new favourite places - Singapore. Until that's up, I'm just going to have to say it with flowers:

Sorry guys!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sermon on the Little Rock

The Empress Hotel.

There ain't a great deal to Little Rock if you want to know the truth. It's a real Deep South kind of town - kind of quiet, kind of old-fashioned and hotter than hell in the dead of Summer. At this stage of my trip, I was begging for an opportunity to do absolutely nothing and I really found that opportunity in Little Rock. I only bothered to travel here for two reasons: one was for the Bed and Breakfast in the photo above and the other was to find the answer to a burning question I'd been asking since the primary planning stage of this whole trip:

Why the hell are Arkansas and Kansas spelt the same way but pronounced differently? Stop being so ridiculous America, you can't have it both ways all the time. After asking a few Northerners why Arkansas is pronounced Ar-kan-saw instead of Ar-kan-sas and not receiving any decent answers, I thought I'd go direct to the source.

The first thing I noticed about the city of Little Rock is that it's obsessed with lauding its one and only person of note: one former Arkansas governor-turned-president William Jefferson Clinton. The main street is named after him, as are many of the buildings and you can even visit the Clinton Presidential Center (I've heard good things about the library but do we really need to see an exact replica of Slick Willy's oval office? I really hope it has a pair of heels sticking out from underneath the desk). I didn't go because after several showerless hours on the bus I wasn't up for any more self-torture, just sleep. I was not disappointed on that front. If you ever find yourself stranded in Arkansas for whatever reason, I highly recommend crashing at The Empress.

The place is amazing. A fully renovated 1880's mansion turned into a sexy bed and breakfast, where every room is an exercise in antique overkill. I mean this in the best possible way. I was caught between feeling utterly charmed and flabbergasted by the place, it was far and away my favourite North American hotel. The rooms are reasonably priced, there's free liqueur in every room (always a drawcard) and the bed in the Eliza Cunningham room was so comfortable that I felt myself falling asleep whilst connecting the wi-fi. The housekeeper Mitzi was this wonderful Southern belle who turned out to be a total kitchen whiz as well. This was my breakfast on my first morning in Little Rock and oh my god, I'm amazed that I didn't hear a chorus of angels after the first bite.

Mind you, that would've been difficult as the chorus would've had to compete with my pontificating breakfast companions, who were some of the most insufferable people I've ever encounted. I realise that I was well and truly in the Bible belt at this point in my travels but I still didn't expect to hear a sermon over breakfast. I didn't even mean to bring Jesus into our conversation (hasn't he suffered enough already?) but the holidaying couple asked me about my university degree and well, what was I supposed to say? I can't help being a Religion major. As soon as the 'r' word tumbled from my mouth, they pounced with the obligatory "Religion major? So what faith are you a part of?."

Here's a tip, people. Never, ever say the words "Well actually you know what, after studying religion objectively I can't say I'm all that religious" to an American, unless you're talking to Steven Hawking, Richard Dawkins or someone you know full well is guaranteed to say "Oh yes, me too." and be done with it. Lie. Say you're a Pentecostal. Or a Catholic. Or a Puritanical Calvinist. If you're not an adherent to one of these and yet you still opt to tell the truth, look out.

I'm not going to elaborate too much on what happened next, but let's just say that by the end of my breakfast I was so enraged that my skin felt fit to burst, Incredible Hulk style. My eyes were flashing red and I probably could've melted the silverware with one direct glare. My breakfast preachers launched into an evangelical tirade in the vain hope that I would see the light and when, after arguing at length they realised I wasn't budging, they chalked their failure down to my mind being 'clouded by the lies of Satan, oooh look see how angry she is'. It was at this point that the tunnel vision began, so I rose from the table literally shaking with rage and politely excused myself.

The thing that annoyed me the most about that whole exchange was that they didn't even have the common decency to be from the South. They were from Los Angeles. What the hell. If you're from L.A, you're not supposed to be a friggin' Pentecostal! Be a Scientologist, follow the Kabbalah, go out and paint yourself blue and worship the Sky Father or better yet, go pay homage to the Almighty Dollar like everyone else in town. Don't give me this born again bullshit.

I took a long walk around Little Rock that morning and came to a conclusion about people in the American South. There are two very good reasons why Southerners have earnt their stereotype as fat bastards. First of all, have you ever actually gone outside in the dead of summer in a place like Little Rock? The temperature outside is warmer than the blood of a newly sacrificed virgin and on top of that, there's a thick curtain of moisture in the air. Unless there's a tornado in town, that humid air doesn't move. They get the shit end of the weather stick down in the bayou and I don't blame 'em for wanting to travel around in the air conditioned comfort of an SUV. Second, there's the matter of food. Good Southern food is enough reason to warrant being a fat bastard. Spicy fried chicken, cajun catfish, red velvet cake? That's the ultimate comfort meal right there as far as I'm concerned, oh yeah.

And what about them grits? Yes, my dear non-American readers, grits are a food now. That word used to make me think of those three last grains stuck to the bottom of a kitty litter tray. With this image in mind, I decided to take a punt and ordered a meal with grits for dinner, sitting rigid with anxiety for most of the preparation time. Believe me when I tell you my children, there's no need for this fear. They're just ground corn, fried with butter and cream and placed in a great goopy mess next to your BBQ shrimp. Grits are living proof that sometimes the greatest pleasures in life are also the simplest (and fattiest).

There's not much pleasure to be found in Little Rock unless you fancy watching a group of ducks waddle their way out of a hotel elevator (I'm not joking, that's a tourist attraction), although the Farmer's market on the waterfront was a mild diversion and there's some great architecture in the old part of town. I spent most of my time in my hotel room reading Palahniuk's Diary (boring, plodding and probably still sitting in the basket next to the bath in the Eliza room) and to be honest, I'd recommend that you do the same.

I'm going to close this entry with the tale of my last night in Little Rock. Freshly bathed, dressed and powdered from a long day of bugger all, I decided to walk the fifteen or so blocks from the Empress to the main part of town. It was about six p.m and still humid as all buggery but I thought nothing of it, even as the beads of sweat began to form at the top of my forehead. About five blocks into the trek those beads had turned into waterfalls cascading down my face, back and everywhere else. I was beginning to feel concern for my increasingly matted knot of hair at this point, but still...them's the breaks in the Deep South. I reached my reasonably swank (for Arkansas) restaurant only to have the maitre'd look at me in horror. Upon excusing myself to go to the ladies I discovered why - there was a GIGANTIC patch of black all over my cheek and nought but water where my eyeliner used to be. I looked like the lead singer of an all-panda emo band. Of course, a proper lady carries eyeliner with her at all times so within five minutes the crisis was over and I had nought but grits and dignity to fret over. I could swear the waitstaff were still snorting to themselves as I exited the restaurant that night.

P.S. I never received a satisfactory answer to The Burning Question. Whenever I stopped people to ask them, most of the time told me they'd never even thought about it before and the others appeared to be quite genuinely confused by the question. Goddamn idiotic, gun totin', tank drivin', fat bastard Southerners!

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Very Special Note From The Road: Roswell to Little Rock (via Jesus Country, TX)

It's so special that I'm not going to put this NFTR entry in its customary italics.

My new Melbournian bus buddy (I've completely forgotten his name, in fact I forgot it the moment we got off the bus, how slack is that? It was some typical white boy name - Andrew? Matt? Oh goddamnit.) and I went roaring off into the New Mexican wasteland. At this stage in my trip, I was only too grateful for the prospect of conversation as the journey to Amarillo would take the vast majority of the daylight hours and I had yet another 14+ hr bus trip to look forward to after my dinnertime stopover. The other plus about having a Melbournian around was that I finally got to speak to someone whose first words to me weren't "So, are you British?"

I was on my way to Little Rock, AK and he was on a non-stop trip heading over to a college in South Carolina for an exchange term. We spoke of our respective travels, life (he was wary about leaving his girlfriend for six months), AFL and the docudrama Supervolcano. Thankfully that was the only drama worth a mention on that bus trip, which remains a clear favourite in my memory banks.

Once you hit Texas, you know darn well you've hit Texas. The landscape is a long stretch of flat green void replacing the dust of New Mexico and the humidity goes up by 50% the second you're over the state line. The Southwest well and truly becomes the South here, with white church steeples and corn fields dotting the landscape, people sitting on their porches with a shotgun in one hand, an iced tea and the sweet sound of honky tonk permeating the air*. There are an inordinate amount of pick-up trucks and corn silos on the side of the roads. We pulled into Amarillo around 5, I farewelled the Aussie and began my epic Texan mission.

You see folks, I had all kinds of plans for this cowpoke town. Amarillo is the epicenter from which all the waves of tacky emanate across America and I couldn't wait to make the most of my all too few hours here. I jumped in a cab and demanded to be taken to the Cadillac Ranch. This being Texas, my cabbie was listening to a Christian radio station. To be fair, Texas may not actually have any other type of radio station outside of Austin. After a few excruciating minutes of Jesus warbling, we pulled up outside a paddock.

"That's them over there ma'am"
".....I'm sorry, where?"

Squinting into the distance I could make out ten shadowy blots on the paddock landscape. Caddy Ranch is so difficult to see from the I-40, I'm willing to bet that all first time visitors have to drive past twice before they find it. I told my driver to keep the meter running and sprinted across the cowpats. I know I've mentioned it before in this blog, but let me explain Cadillac Ranch once more. There are ten Cadillac cars buried halfway into the ground at the same angle as the Cheops pyramid, because the Cadillac is apparently the only American contribution to engineering significant enough to rival the Pyramids. The site is the brainchild of an eccentric millionaire (aren't they all?) by the name of Stan Marsh 3 (no, the three is not a typo and I don't know if he has any relation to the South Park character) who has erected all these weird pieces of 'art' all over Amarillo. After you're done at the Ranch, go see his giant pair of legs or perhaps the 'floating' mesa. Oh by the way, a small correction from one of my previous posts - as it turns out, the largest cross in North America (perhaps the world) isn't in Amarillo, it's even further out in the backwaters of the I-40 in a place called Groom.

So anyway, the Ranch. That photo at the top of the post is how they looked the day I arrived and every so often they get repainted, either for a theme, a cause (they were painted pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month) or they're blanked so that a new mob of graffiti artists can add their own personal layer of colourful rubbish. I forgot to bring spray paint, but a kind family travelling home to Oklahoma let me borrow theirs. After I spent a few minutes marvelling at my handiwork, I sprinted back across the paddock, jumped into my cab and directed the driver to The Big Texan.

Oh. My. God.

Absolutely nothing...not the rumours, not the bloggers, not even their own website can fully prepare you for the sensory explosion that is the Big Texan Eatin' Joint. It's not just an assault on the tastebuds either, from the second you arrive you are blinded by the garish blue and yellow paint job, the giant cow statue and the home-on-the-range country porch swing. Then you go *inside* and you're confronted by the faux-gunshot boom coming from the shooting gallery and the chatter from the main dining room. The air is thick with the smell of grilling cow. If you weren't blinded by the exterior decorating scheme, you'll be done in by the interior, which is mostly comprised of various stuffed animal heads adorning the bannisters all the way around both floors of the dining room**. As far as Texas is concerned, animal rights activists can fuck right off. They have two wandering minstrel cowboys who come around to every table with their guitar and fiddle in order to take song requests. I thought I'd go for the classic:

Me: "Can you play Stairway to Heaven?"
Cowboys: *blank look* Sorry ma'am.
Me: "Right. Hmm. How about some blues?"
Cowboys: *more blank looks*
Me: "You only play country, don't you?"
Cowboys: "That's right ma'am"

I requested The Yellow Rose of Texas and oh boy, they sure knew how to play that, you're darn tootin'. As they're going around the outside, your attention is frequently diverted to the centre, which is where most of the real action happens. You see, the Big Texan is home to the oft-imitiated, never equalled 72oz. Steak Challenge where suicidal people can undertake the challenge of eating a big fuckoff slab of meat, a baked potato and a side salad in an hour and get it all for free. For my metric people, 72oz is just over 2 kilograms of cow. Gross. There's a platform erected to these brave souls in the middle of the dining hall and there's even a webcam for those of you who want to watch people massacre their insides with steak from the privacy of your own home. I got to watch three idiots take the challenge. One succeeded. You'd expect the victor to be a fat bastard but he was surprisingly, if you'll pardon the pun, beefy.

To be honest, I think the challenge would be a doddle if the quality of the food is anything to go by. I didn't partake in any of the steaks but the broiled salmon was almost as delicious as the waiter who delivered it to my table. Seeing as this is Texas, you get a choice of two sides with every meal and it all arrives on a plate big enough to feed a small family. The service is as good as the food - I know that in a tourist hotspot you'd expect the waitstaff to be the picture of servitude in order to score tips, yet a lot of the time you'll have horrific service and they'll still expect a tip from you at the end. Not so at the Texan - I've never experienced hospitality as warm as it was in the South.

With a heavy stomach and a full heart, I cabbed it back to the bus terminal (I had toyed with the idea of staying the night, or better yet, taking a free limo back to the terminal but they only offered hotel transfers). That's when I found that my bus was delayed. By two hours. Gollygosh, darn and gee whiz y'all I was none too pleased about that. I attempted to read, but the guy behind the desk kept thwarting me with his incessant flirting. So I thought "What the hell, I'll flirt back." I needed the practice and it made the wait for the bus go a lot faster.

The bus to Little Rock was a long-ass trip through Texas in the dead of night with a transfer in Dallas at some godawful hour of the morning. Now there's an experience I hope never to repeat. I was sitting around in the Dallas terminal caught between listening to the televangelist on the overhead screen or listening to some scrag on army leave discuss her views on Bush, Southern food and how she was 'goin' on home' to a place called 'Leezyana' (where ever that is) with anyone in the terminal who would care to listen. I like to judge a city by the amount of dodgy people hanging around their Greyhound and based on that criterion alone I can tell that Dallas, like LA and Vegas before it, is a total shithole. When I wasn't irritated by the preaching, I was terrified/hopeful that someone was going to pull out and handgun and shoot up the place/the Louisianan. Another two hours of torture later, my bus for Little Rock arrived. I can sum up that leg of the trip with a conversation that might have taken place after they'd drawn up the official state borders down south:

Vernon: Hey Jim ya varmit, we're at the border of Texas and Arkansas and we're thinkin' we might set up camp here, even though it's a lil' groty. What d'ya wanna call this place?

Jim: Well gee Vernon, I dunno. How about Texarkana***?

Oh Texas, you crazy state. Despite the fact that you're obsessed with size, your people are mildly retarded and the air compostion is roughly 75% methane, I'd love to come back and do you properly one day. I'm not happy about missing Austin (especially with the curse of hindsight) and I'm dying to see just how crazy you get down Mexico way.

* I may be lying here.
** I am not lying here.
*** Seriously, that's what it's called.

Friday, February 20, 2009

New Mexico Part 3: There's Something A Bit Weird About Roswell

Roswell in a nutshell.

I was on the bus from Albuquerque after narrowly avoiding an abduction by my cabbie, heading to the place where the Dusty Southwest meets the Dirty South. I believe that the true South begins on Interstate 380 in New Mexico. Any place south of Soccorro in New Mexico or Arizona is cause for concern, although once you've travelled as far east as the Texas/Oklahoma border, it doesn't matter how far north you are, you're still in the South, a territory ruled by a fearsome entity known only as the Lord-ah Jeezurhs. I knew we were in trouble when I looked at the New Mexico map and saw towns with names such as 'Truth or Consequences', 'Carlsbad' and 'Loving'.

There's not much to say about the actual bus ride, seeing as I was unconscious for the vast majority of it. A nearly-empty bus of mostly Hispanic guys with a few white boys scattered in the seats meant that I didn't have to share, and the view outside the window was dusty, flat and dull - much like the foreheadless parts of Arizona. So I resumed my epic quest to find the most comfortable sleeping position on two Greyhound seats and I think I've got it. Armrest up, window seat slightly back, as many jackets/scarves/soft bags as you can squish against the window to use as a pillow, legs diagonal across the two seats so you can stretch out as close to the aisle as you can get, arms curled up to your neck, head facing the window. It's not the Ritz, but with this method you don't wake up with your extremities flopping retardedly about, deprived of proper circulation. Of course, the best spot is right up the back near the W.C. - gross if you've got an upchucker riding with you, but most Greyhounds have *three* seats in the back, so you can lie straight across them.

We hit Roswell in the late afternoon and as we were pulling into town, I thanked my lucky stars that I was only here overnight. All I saw out the window were streets with no footpaths, a military academy and fast food chains everywhere. On the main road near my hotel there was quite literally a KFC next to an Arby's next to a Wendy's next to a Sonic, next to a Dairy Queen near the McDonald's. I may have buggered up the exact order but I can guarantee that they are all in walking distance of one another. There was also a small strip mall nearby with a drive thru Starbucks across the parking lot from a drive thru pharmacy, with a drive thru ATM around the corner. I am not joking when I say that I saw a guy in a pickup drive across a fricking parking lot to get from the drive thru (I am getting so sick of writing the not-word 'thru' all the time) 'bucks to the pharmacy. Sigh.

It didn't take long before I proved my intelligence was at the same level as your average alien encountering Joe. I got off the bus, called a cab from the public phone, told them the address of the hotel and waited. Now, the Greyhound station in Roswell is even smaller than the one in Santa Fe, it is quite literally a tiny tin shed in the middle of nowhere with three people (myself, a Hispanic guy and one of the white guys from my bus) sitting around waiting for transport and two others behind the counter. It was in this tiny tin shed in the middle of nowhere that I experienced one of those strange, serendipitous occurrences (that only ever seem to happen in the most innocuous of places). Three women and two men enter and take a seat in the station. One of the women opens her mouth and this brazen, rough yet oh so familiar accent comes tumbling out. She's an Australian. All four of her companions are Aussies as well, from Queensland. They're going in the opposite direction to myself with their final destination being Las Vegas. We share travel experiences and remark how odd it is to find Australians in Roswell of all places. Their bus arrives after about fifteen minutes, we all wish each other luck on our travels and they depart.

I'm still waiting on my cab to arrive, getting agitated when I notice that the public phone is ringing. Being the last one to use it, I pick it up and it's the cab company. They'd been calling for fifteen minutes because they couldn't find the hotel I had named in town. After some confusion, they decide to send someone around in five minutes. My cabbie arrives and she has no idea where the Springhill Suites are. I go digging about in my luggage trying to find my hotel confirmation and upon locating it, discover that I'd given them the name of my Memphis hotel instead of my Roswell hotel. What's even better is that from outside the bus station, I can see my hotel. It's 200 metres away. My wonderful cab driver realises that I've had a bitch of a day and sympathetically offers me a ride to the hotel, free of charge ("So you won't have to drag your heavy bags over"). I arrive at my hotel less than a minute later wearing my very best Dunce cap and dragging my tail between my legs. Sighh.

After the cab debacle I walked everywhere in Roswell. I was the only one who did so, even though the centre of town was only a mile away from everywhere else. The very centre of town is where all the alien-related garbage lies (all three blocks of it in the main st). You'll find the Cover-Up Cafe, the Crash Down cafe (yes shitty television fans, it really exists), the UFO Museum and Research Centre, a McDonald's that looks like a flying saucer and tackiest of all, alien shaped street lamps that glow green at night. Sighhh.

Unfortunately everything was shut as it was past 5 p.m, and the combination of not eating much on the bus and walking around Roswell in the heat made me realise I was starving. Roswell has no restaurants in the downtown that are open for dinner and if they do, then I clearly missed them. So I walked back towards my hotel with people harrassing me from inside the cars, curious as to why I was using my legs for walking (such a novel concept in this part of the world). One of the few restaurants in town was a bar and grill a few blocks in the opposite direction, devoid of gourmet delights but at least it was better than a Sonic cheeseburger deal. At about 10pm I was nowhere near sleep, so I decided to do as the Roswellians did and tried the Seppo version of Wendy's for the first time. As repulsed as I am by American fast food chains I have to say, Wendy's Chocolate Frosties are amazing.

The next morning I went back to the tin shed in order to board my bus for Texas. As I'm waiting, I hear another eerily familiar accent addressing me "Hey, excuse're Australian right?" Wouldn't you know it, it's one of the white boys from my Albuquerque bus the day before. He was also the same white boy (his name sadly escapes me) who was inside the bus terminal when the other five Australians appeared, had overheard our conversation and was about to get on the same bus, as we were both heading towards Amarillo.

So there were no real aliens in Roswell, but on one bizarre afternoon in a tiny tin shed in the Middle of Nowhere there were seven (little) Australians. Yeah. There's something a bit weird about Roswell.

New Mexico Part 2: Paradise at 7,199 ft

Outside a Canyon Rd Gallery, Santa Fe.

Upon my arrival in Santa Fe, I found I had three major problems:

#1 - The Greyhound station in Santa Fe is a tiny shed in the middle of the arse end of nowhere.
#2 - There were no transport options waiting outside the terminal, as it was around 10 p.m. at night and well, you've already read #1.
#3 - I did not know any cab numbers.


Thankfully, Santa Fe is a town full of hippies and when they're not hazed out of their brains from all that bucket bong smoking, they're full of kindness and goodwill towards humanity, two concepts I haven't quite got my head around yet. So I hitched a ride in a station wagon with your typical Mama-Bear-who-Runs-with-the-Dolphins type and her offspring who she was picking up from the bus station. I really should be nicer; when all was said and done they took pity on the sick, stranded Australian, dropped me all the way to my hotel and didn't even run off with my luggage (that happened later on in the piece).

Here's the lowdown on Santa Fe. According to our friend Wikipedia, it is the highest state capital in the country, positioned at an almost altitude sickness worthy 7,199 ft (hence the title). To all my Australians reading this, our highest peak Mt Kosciuszko is a whopping 7,310 ft. All my Canadians are probably busy exploding from laughter right now. The city itself is divided into two distinct parts: the Old Santa Fe (beautiful, full of galleries, revoltingly expensive and home to all the fancy schmancy hotels) and Stripville (low, flat chain stores, suburbs, all the cheap hotels that bargain hunting tourists frequent). To their credit, most of the cheap hotels are more confortable than they should be and run complimentary shuttle services into old town. New Mexican cabs, like most places in the South, are fairly priced as well.

The cost of living in Santa Fe is double that of Albuquerque because of all the corporate CEO's who retired, bought up half the land in New Mexico, built ranches and became artists. The guy who runs The Gap, for example, has a huge property just outside of Santa Fe. I was told this one afternoon in a gallery on Canyon Rd, a street full of nothing but galleries and a place called The Tea House at the end of it (with an extensive selection of tea and yummy cookies). In one of the Canyon Rd galleries I saw an exhibition by a Chinese artist called Ying Zhao Liu who has since become one of my favourite artists. His still life paintings look more like photographs, I wanted to reach into the canvas and tear the tablecloth away. Out of all the Santa Fe galleries, I was most interested in the Georgia O'Keeffe museum (being a huge fan of her delicate and I wasn't disappointed. The museum exhibited more than just her classic paintings - there were some early sketches and most exciting of all - some of the Stieglitz portraits of O'Keeffe. This one is my personal favourite.

If you're not lifting your jaw along with your skirts inside the galleries of Santa Fe, take a look outside. The New Mexican landscape covers the whole spectrum of colour, especially the Jemez Mountains. It makes me wonder if people move to Santa Fe because they are artists, or whether they became artists because they moved to Santa Fe. The town centre is equally stunning, you don't have the development issues that Albuquerque is dealing with in Santa Fe because the city tries its very best to maintain the original adobe structures. A highlight is the St Francis of Assisi cathedral. If you haven't figured yet, I'm quite the fan of churches despite my disdain where organised religion is concerned. St Francis is a particularly special memory, because I walked in seeking respite from my nagging flu and ended up catching the end of the choir rehearsal.

Everywhere you wander in Santa Fe, you'll find the tan adobe buildings and turquoise/white window frames. One of the few exceptions is that of the State Capitol building, which stands out because it looks nothing like the other cookie cutter Capitol buildings.

The adobe buildings even look gorgeous through the lens of my terrible phone camera.

The other reasons to visit Santa Fe (not that you need more reasons) are the shopping and the food. The jewellery stores are of a higher quality than the ones you find in Albuquerque, but the theme is the same - turquoise and silver. The restaurants in Old Town (outside of town is nothing but burger and other restaurant chains, pass) are pricey but you're paying for quality. I went for dinner at a place called Dinner For Two (and sheepishly asked for a table for one), the owner took pity on me and kept me company with the usual tourist/local conversation ("Oh, you're Australian? My sister/uncle/ex-teacher/brother's ex girlfriend's dad's monkey's aunt went there for a couple of months, loved the place." etc.) and I had a chance to some to try some high-end local fare, like salmon (or was it tuna?) with mole sauce. Weiiiiiird. Quality though, and their desserts were amazing. I also went for high tea at the Hotel St Francis which was the equal of Sydney's Victoria Room for taste and was my favourite American high tea overall (The Victoria Room set the benchmark for all my high tea escapades, I've yet to find a better place) - I'd really like to stay at the St Francis next time. I am convinced that the mountain air, good food and all that tea I drank in Santa Fe cured my bout of Vegas flu.

I'm going to finish this entry with a couple of stories from Santa Fe. On my last night in Santa Fe I'd just returned from Canyon Rd and was about to sniff around town for some dinner when I hear voices calling in my general direction. Whaddya know, it's the hippie kids from my first night in town. I go over and bullshit with them for a while, let them know how I got on and leave them to their 'peace pipe'.

The day I left Santa Fe (another kerfuffle, there were no Greyhounds that went direct to Roswell from Santa Fe and no buses left for Albuquerque that matched up with the bus I would have to take from Albuquerque to Roswell). The Sandia Shuttle was my salvation and naturally I spent most of my time up front chatting to the driver who doubled as a technician in the local film studios. As I left Santa Fe in the morning, I had a chance to witness the Turquoise Trail (my previous glimpses of the landscape had been through brief lightning flashes) There was a moment where the mountain road opened up to unveil a panoramic view of the valley below. The intensity of the colours in the landscape made me want to cry, I'd never seen anything like it. The fantastic views soon gave way to reality when we pulled into the Sunport, I hailed a cab back into town and my driver wanted to personally drive me to Roswell himself. He spent the entire 15 minute drive back into town trying to convince me "You come with me, pretty thing, I take you to Roswell, it'll be cheap!" "Uh...yeah, but my Greyhound bus will be free (sort of)". Gross. Unfortunately that was small potatoes when compared to what came next...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Mexico Part 1: The Lighter Side of Purgatory

The 300 year old San Felipe de Neri Cathedral, Albuquerque.

I'm back folks. Unexpected requests for me to resume writing my Great American Saga gave me the much needed kick up the arse. I aim to be writing about Canada by the time I'm 25. Now, where were we?

I spent most of my time in New Mexico sick as a second stage syphilitic skank in the noonday sun thanks to the torments of Las Vegas, and the pain of hindsight hurts me still. Why the hell didn't I say screw Vegas altogether and go straight to New Mexico from Portland? Why didn't I charge my camera battery and take better photos of such a photogenic piece of country? Why didn't I go to Taos? I have so many regrets concerning this underrated, beautiful state and cannot wait to go back someday.

After waiting a queasy, storming hour for a cab to appear at the Albuquerque Greyhound station (always a good start), I checked into my room at the Hilton (that's not a euphemism, the hotel was on special). I awoke feeling repulsive. Not wanting to let this small bout of flu get the better of me, I pressed on with my mission to explore the architectural gems of Route 66 so I grabbed a cab going into the Old Town Plaza, which is close to the strip all the old hotels and diners are.

Oh wait, I'm sorry. Were. Albuquerque, I've got a bone to pick with you.

I had grand plans to stay in a place called the El Vado motel when I was first planning my trip, primarily because of its history as one of the classic motor courts during the Mother Highway's heyday. My slightly dated Lonely Planet told me it was possible to stay here, but I couldn't find a website. It turns out that the El Vado was purchased by some bastard developer who wanted to raze the hotel and build luxury townhouses on the site. If you take away the white dots of old motels then the area around the El Vado is, despite it being tourist central, pretty much an unattractive, strip-malled dust bowl and luxury townhouses would've looked ridiculous. In conclusion, developers are idiots. As a result of the ongoing tussle between those who wished to preserve history and those who are the personification of Satan's colonic emissions, when I visited Albuquerque most of the Route 66 motels were crumbling to pieces, boarded up behind wire fencing. I was heartbroken. The good news is, just under a year later moves were made to save the El Vado. I hope the other historic Route 66 buildings are blessed with a similar fate.

If the wanton destruction of history is Albuquerque's downfall, its weirdness will be its saving grace. Their museums are a great example. They've got an Atomic Museum (the building with the giant warhead out front), a Rattlesnake Museum (awesome, cheap and characterised by the tortoises in a tub out front) and weirdest of all, a Holocaust Museum (I'm sorry, but when I think of New Mexico, I don't think of Jews). The Plaza area (home to the Rattlesnake museum) is a shameless, touristy place but I loved it anyway. They have a bunch of rough cowboy types trolling about shooting (blanks) at each other. They have this wonderful ability to blend the (pardon the English/Religion Major expression here) sacred and profane (yeah, sorry, I can hardly forgive myself for saying that but there's really no better way of explaining it. It's a place designed for religious reflection and yet it's so...tacky). Best of all, they have an entire store devoted to chilli sauce.

Yes. Oh God yes.

I bought one marked 10 + (they started at 5 and ended at 10 +++). It took me six months and the bitterest part of the Canadian winter for me to work up the courage to actually try some. I now think I've scorched off half my tastebuds.

At this point of my trip I had no working tastebuds to speak of. Wandering around in the heat did not help my illness, so after killing some time checking out the rattlesnakes and turquoise jewellery hawkers, I dined at a New Mexican restaurant in order to try some of the local fare. Big mistake. I'd consumed barely a quarter of my lunch when my sickness grew upon me, so I promptly paid my check (the staff noticed that I looked like death warmed over and thus knocked the price of my food off the bill. I tipped them the equivalent of my meal because I'm not a heinous bitch) and scarpered off, trying to will the horrific cramps away whilst waiting for my wonderful lady taxi driver (for some reason the name Rosie springs to mind). If you get on well with your cabbie when travelling around the smaller cities of America, always get their personal number. They'll reward your business with a bit of local history and, when you're about to puke in their cab, a bloody fast trip back to your hotel.

And that's right about the time that I projectile vomited. Joy.

After a night in with pay-per-view movies and room service, I woke up feeling decent enough to wander about the city again although this time I decided on eating my meals in places that didn't smother everything in green chile. I can't help but think now that I would've gotten more out of the city if I'd planned ahead. Albuquerque isn't really meant for aimless wandering unlike its richer cousin Santa Fe, but at the same time you cannot accuse it of being boring. I've got another American trip itinerary brewing in my mind in which I do Albuquerque & New Mexico justice and get a chance to do everything I missed out on this time like see the Balloon Fiesta, go up the Sandia Peak and find the 66 Diner.

Anyway, this blog isn't about what I didn't do. After my whirlwind tour of Albuquerque, I caught an evening bus to Santa Fe. The bus trip is only one hour, so it's not worth me doing a traditional note from the road post. I did end up chatting to a girl I met on the bus to Santa Fe who was originally from Denver, Colorado. She'd found the cost of living was becoming way too expensive (in Colorado?!) so she moved out of her apartment, married a Mexican and was in the process of shifting her stuff from home to her new ranch just south of the border where the cost of living was 1/3rd that of her former city, but her standard of living was, if anything, better. And Americans bag out Mexico because...why?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Note From The Road - Vegas to Albuquerque

There's a woman and her two brats in front of me in the queue at the gates to get the hell out of Hell. The daughter is fairly undisturbed, despite the fact that she is toddler age, but I can already tell that the son is going to make my next twelve hours on the bus my penance for not giving in to the various temptations of Sin City. He will not stop moving around. My patience is wearing thinner than usual, as not only am I still trying to gather my ramshackle shreds of sanity together after my experiences of Vegas, but there's a tell-tale catch in my throat and I know something is festering in my chest cavity. It's not a good situation from the outset.

And wouldn't you know it, it gets worse.

I'm somewhere in the backdeserts of Nowhere, Arizona en route to Flagstaff. The bastard spawn is sitting directly in front of me. The girl, quiet though she was at the beginning, has been screaming at random intervals throughout the trip and the boy is giving his long-suffering mother grief by hassling the yelling girl. That catch has developed into a full blown sore throat, I'm red hot from fever and white hot with rage. Worse still, we've picked up a drunk. He's been hollering from the back of the bus since Henderson, NV and the bus driver's protests do nothing, because he doesn't speak a work of English and the driver isn't fluent in imbecile. We get held up as he gets kicked off the bus. That's my favourite part of Greyhound's policy - you cause trouble, you get packed off at the next stop and left there to sober up and wait for the next form of transport to shoot through and rescue you. The stop the drunk is stranded at won't see a bus for the next TEN HOURS and there's nothing around except for tumbleweed and skin cancer.

At the next stop, a guy gets on the bus and he has NO FOREHEAD. A huge chunk is missing from the top of his head. It's concave. His nose is grizzled, his hair is barely hanging onto his tightly-skinned skull and oh my god, if this was a film I'd be dead in an hour's time after he hijacks the bus and drives it off a cliff. And he's one of the more attractive patrons.

Some many hours later, I've managed to get a good two hours worth of rest and I'm gradually feeling worse as the minutes progress. The kid in front of me keeps looking back in my direction and every so often he shoots me a cheeky look, but there's also a note of concern in his eyes. As the sunlight fades and we near Albuquerque, his mother and sister fast asleep nearby, he works his tiny hand through the gap so that it reaches beyond the head rest and over into my side where my hand is resting against the window and the little fucker grabs hold. He looks about as tired as I feel, and we sit holding hands on and off for the rest of the bus ride. To this day it remains one of the most heart-warming and innocent gestures I've ever received from another human being.

Damn kids.

As we step off the bus a storm erupts around us, the stifling heat from the day erased by the downpour. The air instantly felt fresher. I waved goodbye to my little buddy and mouthed a thank you. I don't think he understood.