Thursday, 30 April 2009

swine flu?

I have a terrible cold.
Have been coughing and spluttering for days now.
Job hunting is a horrible, boring, soul destroying process.
All I want to do is ride my bike around town and play with my mum's new puppy...

Back in Blighty

So, we're back in that there London. At first we went to Camberwell and stayed with my mum, sister, brother and new puppy. In the first few jobless, homeless, jet-lagged days I showed Ric around Peckham, Walworth, Dulwich and other parts of south east London – poor thing really had no idea where on the map we were.

At least we have had loads of friends to catch up with in other parts of London.

We also spent a couple of days looking for a place to live and to our surprise found London not half as bad as we liked to remember it. It really looks rather old and charming, even Peckham. Better still, there's hardly been a drop of rain since we got back. We have been blessed with long, warm and sunny days. We quickly found a spacious two bed warehouse conversion in Aldgate East, a place I had only ever been to at night for a curry. The price was good and the central location, a big draw but perhaps we were a bit quick to snap it up as we failed to notice the damp air, the wee stained passage our front door faces in to and the fact that our upstairs neighbours can peer in on us in the bedroom from the skylights.

Now we are here with all our dozens of boxes and my bike and loving it. I have never had so much room for my things! I am so excited about exploring the whole area, the seemingly endless curry restaurants, the markets and the cobbled wharfs and docks just south of us. I can get to the river in five minutes on my bike and Oxford Circus in fifteen.

We still have to find jobs and the place needs some personal touches but we are happy to be here as long as we can get rid of the damp smell.

Friday, 10 April 2009

London here we come

I can't really believe it but this is the last blog of my year-long travels.

After visiting 14 countries, staying in countless hotels, motels, vans and hostels, making a whole host of new friends and meeting up with old ones, we are finally on our way home.

Tonight we climbed up Westmoor Hill with Ric's cousin and his girlfriend so that we could look out across San Francisco. There we were, just the four of us, high above the city with no fog to obscure the view - we could see everything so clearly. So many little yellow lights. So many people down below.

I am so excited about going home especially since my mum has bought an eight week old black Labrador puppy, but I also have many fears for the future days and weeks and many regrets about the way this year has panned out, specifically, the way I have failed to overcome my demons.

Ah well. Onwards and upwards. I'm coming home!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Salinas and San Francisco

We're now in San Francisco, recovering from the sensory overload of Vegas and to an extent, LA which I have decided would be far too big, brash and car-obsessed for me to ever live in, despite the numerous vegan restaurants!

We drove out of LA, past Miami Beach along the Pacific Highway and then joined Route 101 to get here, stopping off only at the Getty Villa, Santa Barbara, Monterey and Salinas, the pretty childhood home of John Steinbeck, one of my favorite American writers.

I was charmed by Santa Barbara and could easily have spent a few days there soaking up the friendly, holiday vibes and wandering around the many shops and restaurants which, although mostly hip and modern have an old fashioned sensibility. I must admit that while I once craved spring rolls, stir fries and all things tofu for every meal, I am becoming rather addicted to burritos, cheese and brown rice. I think would easily become very fat if I did move here.

After a late lunch here we drove in to the night until we reached Monterey, a small-ish town on the coast. The only place open for food was Denny's diner right next door to the Motel we crashed in for the night. The only things on the menu which didn't have meat were onion rings and coleslaw, so I had both. I can't wait to be able to cook for myself once again!

Visiting Steinbeck's childhood town was a real treat and, for me, a highlight of our California visit. The Steinbeck Centre was interesting and well done, even for the uninitiated (Ric). From there it was just a couple of hours until we arrived in San Francisco.

I love it here. It's not hot, it's often foggy, there are bums on the street but it has character. It has an edgy, artsy, multi-ethnic (and obviously, mutli-sexual) feel without being too busy or overcrowded. It is very photogenic, has masses of cool places to eat, has fantastic murals and pretty buildings and there are runners and cyclists all over the place!

The city and its residents are so vastly different from Los Angeles that it is hard to believe they exist in the same state. I can't help but liken it to London, well London's best bits.

Last night we walked over to the lively Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 to see the resident sea-lions, wander around the novelty shops and sample the clam chowder in a bun offerings. We could just about see the Golden Gate Bridge too as the sun went down.

Today we wandered over to Union Square and mooched around the shops before going to see Monsters vs Aliens at the IMAX 3D cinema. I've never been to an IMAX before and was blown away by the effects!

We then met up with Ric's young cousin John who has lived here for five years and is a non-smoking, non-drinking, vegan cyclist - at last, someone even straighter than me!

He is a real delight to socialise with and tomorrow, on his day off from studies, he is going to take us across the Golden Gate Bridge to show us some of the rural highlights of this region.

On a totally different subject, I have been avidly following the Obamas' European tour and am glad Michelle has proved such a hit in London, especially with the Queen it seems. Doesn't the media just love a Queen story?

With the assistance of some glossy magazines I have also been keeping up to date with poor old Jade Goody's cancer battle and although I didn't particularly like the girl, I was really upset about her sorry tale. I hope it prompts at least a few girls to make sure they get themselves checked.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Viva Las Vegas, and all the other cliches

Some Las Vegas Photos

As soon as we had booked our hotel in Las Vegas I started thinking about what to expect, based largely on what I had seen in the movies.

I thought of Elvis Priestly, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, fancy casinos, women in ball gowns, Indecent Proposal, strip clubs, tuxedos, rom-coms where the guys go on crazy drunken stag weekends and where ill-matched characters tie the knot in one of the various hotel wedding chapels.

We arrived here at dusk after a five hour drive through almost barren, sometimes desert, landscape (we even spotted tumbleweed on the motorway).

Like a mirage the city seemed to spring out of the dust and before long we were driving down Las Vegas Boulevard gawping up at the vast, brightly lit themed hotels, listening to the music each of their casinos were pumping out and watching the swathes of people bustling past each other on the pavements. Wow.

This was my first impression but I don't think any of this or my movie knowledge could have prepared me for the full onslaught of Vegas' glorious, tacky extravagance. If the USA is known for not doing things by half then Vegas does things by the double.

We are staying at The Paris, a grand hotel complex which includes a replica of the Eiffel Tower (which you can pay to climb!), the Arch de Triomphe, as well as a big round roof top pool, a spa, a plush casino and a large series of undercover corridors full of tempting boutiques, gift shops, wine sellers, bars and restaurants and where it is always minutes before sunset. As we walked to the reception from the car park (we were allowed to self park thankfully - we weren't up for the valet malarkey) we felt pretty overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all and the hundreds of people wandering about. On closer inspection it was obvious that this place isn't as fancy as it looks - indeed, not only is every thing a replica (thus fake) but also rather cheaply made. The cobbled streets, framed wall paintings, handmade wooden furniture, chandeliers, marble bathroom surfaces etc. reveal themselves to be almost exclusively plastic and plaster and probably made in China. That's not to say it isn't fun. Let's just say it's more mainstream than I expected. And why not? Everyone here looks like they are having a great time, especially where the Margaritas are flowing.

It feels a lot like a Disneyland for grown-ups although there are as many families here as there are wealthy business people. There's obviously a lot more gambling and drinking going on too.

Since arriving on Monday night we have spent three days wandering along the 'strip' and exploring most of the main hotels including the iconic MGM Grand with it's live lion house, Caesars Palace with it's Atlantis show (which run every hour on the hour), New York-New York (we also did the roller coaster on it's roof), Planet Hollywood, Rio, Luxor, ultra tacky Circus Circus, Bellagio and it's spectacular fountain shows, Bally's, Excalibur, Monte Carlo, The Mirage, Treasure Island and the ridiculous but wonderful Venetian which houses its own canals and singing gondoliers. Aside from the casinos and bars which are all quite similar to each other, these hotels are home to a vast array of other attractions including shows, restaurants and shops. Many bars offer novelty drinking vessels such as ceramic Eiffel Towers, guitars, cowboy boots and the more traditional 'yards' and many people wander from casino to casino drinking these as they go. All the way up and down the strip Mexican workers were handing out cards for 'sexy girls' who will come to your door within 20 minutes.

Vegas is fun to explore during the day and there is always somewhere good to go for food (and there is a whole four-level store devoted to M&Ms) but it's at night that the place really comes in to its own. Every inch of wall space on the main strip seems to be covered with neon signs, bright flashing advertisements, water displays or video screens and the pavements are filled with tourists, many with a bottle or an aforementioned novelty glass in hand. There doesn't seem to be a specific dress code here. Some dress up (the clubbers and serious gamblers I suppose) but most are in shorts or jeans. We haven't tried our luck on any gambling games. Somewhere between the Luxor's toilets and the Bodies Show, I lost a lovely brand new bikini which I had spent three hours choosing in the Bikini Bay in the Miracle Mile shopping arcade. That was a loss enough. I went back there twice but no one had handed it in :(

Thinking we'd best see a show while in town, we went to see the comedy magicians Penn & Teller (Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller). Ric remembers watching them on the telly in the '90s and Penn continues to make all sorts of television and radio appearances as a political commentator, atheist, libertarian, comedy presenter etc.

They were mostly excellent and their energetic show involves a lot of witty banter and dramatic tricks. Considering they have been living here in Vegas for years, they seemed very fresh and happy to be there. I wasn't forced on to the stage at any point thank God.

We have eaten a lot of buffets here and they are good but by far the best meal we have had here was at Ah Sin in Paris. I'm glad I didn't read the terrible reviews I have just found on the Internet before I went (crikey)! We didn't order the rather boring and too-good-too-be-true sounding ALL YOU CAN EAT SUSHI. Instead, Ric had half a duck which he said was done to perfection while I had some green bean tempura, cucumber and seaweed salad, spicy grilled eggplant and an asparagus and mushroom dish. All of these were great. Here are the hilarious reviews though:

We haven't spotted anyone famous yet but we did pass a very glamorous bride and groom and their entire wedding party on Las Vegas Boulevard.

So that's a little bit about Vegas for you. I would definitely come again but not for a while and perhaps with group of friends for more of a party vibe. I'm just about getting used to the tax and tipping maths one has to apply to almost everything here.

My OCD and eating are bad and I get upset and annoyed with myself a hundred times a day for it, but I am hanging in here and clinging on to the fact that soon will be home and getting back to some sort of routine. I can't wait to see my family and friends again and ploughing my energies in to finding a fulfilling job. Ric has been so supportive during this year away and I adore him for it.