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30 May 2011

Houston, We Have a Problem

Houston was fun. Only one day, one night, but we got to see the NASA space center, which was more touristy-children-focused than I expected. We had an amazing couchsurfing host Josue, who took us out to Niko Nikos for awesome Greek food. He brought his kids too! Then we met some cool couchsurfing people at a meetup at Barnabys bar. Natalie and the St Louis Superman were there.

We left Houston this morning, had some kolaches adn donuts. Then drove into Louisiana, detoured into the gulf coast. Here we are now in Rayne, LA and I realized that I left my laptop in Houston. FUCK.

Dont expect any more travel blog updates for a while until I figure out my laptop situation.

29 May 2011

The Floating Continues, and the Austin I've Been Waiting For [no pictures!]

Floating downriver does not require much skill at all; in fact, all you do (literally) is just sit there, yet somehow I manage to suck at it!

As I explained in my previous post, I basically killed my camera by soaking it in the river. Real smart, Jason.

After realizing that my camera was dead, I quickly went through the 12 stages of grief right there in the hot Texan sun. I tried to walk back to the tube rental place, but I had docked myself in a private resort, and all the exits to the main road were fenced off. There was one way back, however: jumping in the water to go around the fence. So I was set to throw my camera and beers over the fence and then swim myself and my tube up to meet them, when, like a guardian angel, Ueli appeared right on the other side of the fence. He was wondering why I hadn't floated downriver in over 20 minutes. My flustered and panicked disposition must have given away the fact that I was grieving over my camera. We walked back, about 4 blocks along an abandoned set of railroad tracks, the pavement was so hot that my feet burned with each step. Then I realized that I had my slippers with me in the bag (because I was too smart to realize this earlier). Ueli barefooted it all the way back, over 200-degree gravel. I put my camera in the car, hoping against hope that it would dry out and that at least my memory card would be intact. We switched inner tubes to one without a bottom; there was a girl at the front desk, but she was just as sweet and sympathetic as the one earlier, despite my demandingly assertive tone. It felt reassuring.

We floated downriver again, this time going all the way. It took about an hour and a half, but I rushed us, because we got in the water at 5:30 and I thought that they closed at 6:00. So I urged Ueli and I to paddle ourselves downriver. At the now-infamous "tube shoot," I managed to get stuck swirling around in the same vortex. I had to get out of the tube and walk myself away (Ueli, like clockwork, was all the way downriver waiting for me). There was a second tube shoot which was just a waterfall, but I got stuck there too. Seriously?! Floating downriver does not require much skill at all; in fact, all you do (literally) is just sit there, yet somehow I manage to suck at it!

Juan in a Million and Floatin' the River

Ueli and I slept in. It had been several exhausting days of non-stop travel and activities, so it was time for us to heal and rest for once. It was close to noon when we woke up, and around 1:30 we left. We had breakfast/lunch at a casual Mexican restaurant, having a filling set of breakfast tacos.

Ok, we didn't go to just any "casual Mexican" restaurant, we went to Juan in a Million, made famous by the Travel Channel's Man vs. Food. Adam Richman traveled here to take on the Don Juan challenge, to set a new record of finishing 8 of their massive breakfast tacos. Let me tell you, calling these plates of eggs, potatoes, bacon, and tortillas simply "tacos" is quite misleading - each serving is like a double breakfast burrito.

Just finishing 1 had me stuffed the whole day!

Here's Adam's experience of the Don Juan challenge:

So after Juan in a Million, I check my phone and realized I had missed a call from Chris, a couchsurfer who was organizing a little get-together excursion to "Float the River" south of Austin in the small town of New Braunfels.

The Bats

After an exhausting arrival in Austin, Ueli and I headed back from the UT campus to our host's apartment. But along the way, we stopped by Whole Foods Market. And not just any Whole Foods, but the original/flagship store, on 5th and Lamar in Austin. It was quite the market - very big and with an unbelievable selection of anything you could ever want to eat.

We bought some ingredients to make some curry for dinner. Vegetarian curry. I was convinced that several days of road trip food (burgers and barbecue) were the reason that I was feeling so negative, so it was time for something healthy and light. That's the thing with traveling - it's really hard to stay healthy, whether it's eating right, getting enough exercise, or getting enough sleep. "Living as the locals do" in Texas means, to an extent, sacrificing your health. (However, it's not necessarily true in Austin - I've seen several vegetarian restaurants in town, and there are surprisingly many people riding bikes around town.)

After making some dinner for ourselves and Sharon, we noticed that it was close to sunset, so Ueli and I headed out to the Congress Street Bridge to see the famous appearance of the bats. I found a parking space south of the bridge, about 20 minutes before sunset, and we walked around to see the area before the sun went down. The east side of the bridge was already filling up with eager spectators waiting to see the bats.

We found a spot, then waited and waited. Several boats/barges carrying tourists had parked themselves on the lake below. Finally, about 15-20 minutes after sunset, the bats emerged. They started streaming out, right underneath our location on the bridge. It was already dark, so it was hard to see them in photos, but I could easily see them blasting out from under the bridge, looping around the bridge once, then rising into the sky in the distance. Where they were going, I don't know. But it really was quite a unique sight.

We returned to the apartment, and Sharon soon arrived (back from a full day at a networking event). We had dinner, then luckily we were ready for bed already. I say luckily because we had to first inflate an air mattress to sleep on. But the pump was a small little bicycle pump. So it took over an hour of taking turns pumping to fill up the mattress. If we had gone out, it would have been really late and pumping a mattress would have been the last thing we wanted.

27 May 2011

Welcome to Austin

Day 6: Thursday, May 26, 2011

Breakfast in San Antonio consisted of a donut. We left around 10am, heading to Austin. It was an hour and a half drive through varying levels of suburbia. Along the freeway, I saw a Whataburger and knew that I had tro try it, so I spontaneously pulled over. The cashier/manager there was very friendly and the burger (which I ordered on Texas toast) was buttery.

I found it odd that every freeway has a collector road on which there are stores and restaurants. You're speeding down these roads at 50 miles per hour and then pulling straight into driveways.

We arrived in Austin, and I drove us straight to our host Sharon's apartment. We said hi, then left to explore the city. It was still really hot. We went to the state capitol, then to the LBJ presidential library, and then walked around the University of Texas Austin. At the capitol, we sampled a bit of the walking tour and learned more about Texan history. I, for one, learned that I find Texan history uninteresting. And the tour of the state capitol was just like the tour of the California state capitol.

I rushed back to the car, fearing that the meter had expired. But it had 10 minutes left on it. So I just felt bad for making Ueli run. Exhausted and sweaty, yuck.

26 May 2011

Sizzling San Antonio

Day 5: Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In San Antonio, in late May, it's not just hot, it's BROILING. 100°F (38°C) with steamy humid air feels simply oppressive. It's like you're constantly under heat lamps.
The heat aside, San Antonio is a worthwhile city to visit. It's the 2nd largest city in Texas, and the 7th largest in the whole country. I've also been told more than once that it's the true heart of Texas and the most authentically Texan place you can visit.

The Long, Empty Drive Through Texas

Day 4: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - El Paso to San Antonio

The drive from El Paso to San Antonio is the longest drive of our trip. It's over 500 miles in total. 500 miles with no cities or landmarks along the way. Not exactly a pleasant experience. And the landscape is really uninspiring.

Our couchsurfing host in El Paso is in the army, so he had to be up and out to work by 6am, which meant that Ueli and I had an early start. This is a good thing, though, because it allowed us to climb a nearby mountain and watch the sun rise over El Paso and Juarez.

We then drove through downtown El Paso and to the border crossing, with hundreds of people lined up to enter the US. I can't imagine having to endure the de-humanizing experience of passing through US customs everyday, but somehow thousands of people do it everyday.

The sun was shining brightly at 7:30am as we left El Paso. There are about 1 million people in El Paso, and 1.5 over the border in Juarez. The city is large enough to have several radio stations that we were able to listen to, each with their morning mix of music and talk. The traffic reports on the radio discussed traffic jams that are simply laughable compared to what I'm experience in LA. They also report the wait times at each of the border crossings from Mexico.

About half and hour out of El Paso, we stopped at a McDonald's to use their free wifi (which is a very useful travel tip when you're on the road!). Another hour or so into the drive, the 10 turned, leaving the Mexican border behind. So, we passed through an immigration checkpoint where the police officers told us to pull over and show them our passports. My first reaction was to feel somewhat violated. Anyway, I had to pull my passport out of the car's trunk. The fold-out map on the seat of the car was blown out by the wind. It was frustrating, and for the first time on this trip, I felt homesick.

The sun was hot. Ueli drove for a couple hundred miles; I was half asleep for most of the ride. One of the warning lights came on the car, but it was just for fuel efficiency or something unimportant. The landscape transitioned from desert into scrubland, with more green shrubs all around. For some reason this is how I imagine Australia or east Africa looks like (minus the kangaroos and lions). Oil pumps began appearing on either side of the freeway. We stopped at a rest stop and I took over the driving.

Another 4 hours to go. I kept myself awake and aware by eating one grape each time I passed a mile marker. We reached the town of Junction, about 100 miles from San Antonio, and stopped for gas. When I opened the door, a powerful breeze filled the car with searing hot, steamy, humid air from outside. I was taken aback. We were no longer in the desert. Somewhere in the last few hours, we had left the desert Southwest behind and had entered the muggy American South.

Anyway, air conditioning in the car just barely good enough to keep us from succumbing to heat stroke. It was 4:30pm as we entered San Antonio, the Alamo City. Our couchsurfing hosts were a young married couple and were awaiting our arrival. We headed straight for their apartment, which is a nice luxury furnished apartment in a big suburban complex. After dropping off our things, we joined our host, who showed us around. She (and her husband) were new to the city and so were eager to see new things themselves. It was Tuesday, and on Tuesdays, the San Antonio Museum of Art has free admission after 4pm. Along the way there, we made an unplanned detour by the Alamo. We arrived at the museum (I continued to be impressed by the intensity of the heat every time I got out of the car), and we met one of our hosts' cousins and his female friend who were both anthropologists (and as such, they were interested in many of the historic artifacts in the museum). The museum was showcased an exhibition inspired by Buddhist teachings in addition to their regular collection of Greek and Egyptian artifacts.

The five of us then drove to The Cove, a wonderful bar/restaurant/beergarden/children's playground/car wash (no, really - it is!). It's run by a bunch of Texan hipsters, as oxymoronic as that sounds, which is not a bad thing: They serve grass-fed beef and bison. I definitely enjoyed it. We sat at an outdoor picnic table and put back a couple beers in the warm late afternoon sun. As the sun set, we headed home, stopping by H-E-B Plus, a massive supermarket, warehouse size. We bought some beers and picked up our other host as he walked down the street returning from work.

A few more beers and some good conversation followed, and by the end of it all, we had worn ourselves out. I took the couch and Ueli slept in the guest room.

A Memorable Evening in El Paso

Day 3 (continued): Monday night, May 23, 2011

As we entered Texas, I noted that I was now in a state that I had never visited before. Exiting the freeway, I noticed that the traffic lights were situated sideways on the pole (horizontally instead of vertically). Immediately to the right flowed the Rio Grande, and beyond that, Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in Mexico. What a sharp contrast: El Paso is one of the safest cities in the US.

We arrived at the apartment of our host, Chris, and he was actually outside, moving his truck into his garage. Perfect timing! It was about 8pm, and Chris was enthusiastically willing to show us around. We rode in his classic '63 Chevy pickup up the mountain to a wonderful viewpoint overlooking the entire city. It was spectacular, and more scenic than I thought. We looked form Fort Bliss in the east (the largest military base in the US) and south across the city into Mexico, and west toward the University of Texas, El Paso. Apparently the architecture of UTEP's campus is inspired by the architecture of Bhutan, which I found very interesting and unexpected.

25 May 2011

Old Western Towns - from Tucson to El Paso

Day 3: Monday, 23 May 2011
We slept a second night at Ashley and Trevor's. I had the guest bedroom, while Ueli slept on the couch again. Since it was a work day, our hosts had to work, so we left the house with them.

I had arranged to meet with two friends in Tucson whom had couchsurfed with me in LA. We met for breakfast, in a strip-mall diner in north Tucson. Everyone in the restaurant there was at least twice my age and twice my weight. It was sort of depressing to see. But it was great to catch up with some familiar faces, the first "reunion" of this trip!
After using some wifi and stocking up on some snacks, we hit the road, passing by what was likely the last In-N-Out Burger that I'd see. Instead of sticking to the 10 freeway, we detoured a bit to see the historic western towns of Tombstone and Bisbee. Tombstone is really an old western town, most widely known for the gunfight at the OK Corral.

There are about 6 blocks of persevered "old town" saloons and whatnot, and there are actors dressed as cowboys walking around everywhere, trying to sell you tickets to the next "gun fight" show or historic mine tour. In the whole town, there were about 75 tourists, and just as many cowboys.

23 May 2011

Zombies in the Desert!

Day 2: Sunday, 22 May 2011
Tucson is Arizona's second city, if you will, often overshadowed by the much larger Phoenix. However, unlike Phoenix, Tucson seems to retain a good deal of its history and has a fledgling artist/alternative community, fostered in no small part by the presence of the University of Arizona right in the center of town.

The day started with breakfast at our hosts' place, homemade breakfast burritos. Ashley and Trevor had tickets to a playoff softball game at the U of A, so as they left for that, Ueli and I headed out to explore the city ourselves. It was hot, as one might expect from the Sonora desert in late May. We drove into downtown Tucson, dropped off some postcards at the first mailbox we could find, and then drove toward the Presidio, a historic part of town that seemed worthwhile to visit. But again, it was completely deserted. There was no one else walking around.

There were a few people hanging around like hobos in the plaza near city hall. We walked around, saw some government buildings and then discovered the original pueblo settlement built by the Spanish in 1775 or whatever. The general history of Tucson is almost the same as the history of any city in California: It was settled by the Spanish, who tried to convert the natives to Christianity, then it became part of Mexico during their independence, and a couple decades later was made part of the U.S., and the city really began to grow after the railroad came into town in the late 1800s.

22 May 2011

First Day of the Big Trip

Day 1.

It's Sunday, the 22nd of May, 2011. In the "news," if you will, yesterday was supposed to be the day of the rapture, judgment day, the end of the world. Personally, it was the end of the world in a sense - the end of a stage of my life in LA. It was also the beginning of my big journey this summer.

Let me rewind and give some background: I'll be starting grad school in London in September. Instead of simply traveling to London directly from LA, I'll be traveling the whole summer. First, I'm driving across the US to Miami, and then driving to New York, then taking a bus to Boston. From there I'll fly to Iceland, where I'll spend a week, and then onward to England, and around Europe for a couple months before finally returning to London. I only have vague ideas of where I'll be and what I'll do, but things have already been falling into place and I feel like I'm making a good start.

The day started early, and I had been up late trying to pack smartly (which was especially difficult, since I didn't know where I'd end up on this trip). After some goodbyes, I drove to West LA to pick up my travelmate Ueli and to say goodbye to my flatmate. And so the journey began: Our first stop, Santa Monica Beach, where I waded into the ocean and filled an empty water bottle with seawater. The idea was to take this water with me and pour it into the Atlantic Ocean.

20 May 2011

Bay Area Weekend 2011

Last weekend I drove to the Bay Area with some friends. Here's everything we did, condensed into a neat little video:

04 May 2011

The Final Days in the US

I'm about to embark on my big summer travel adventure. I've been planning this for months--no, for years--and it's finally coming true! I'm a bit nervous, but only because there are still many things to plan (couchsurfing requests to write, flights to book, train schedules to research, guidebooks to buy, and clothes to pack). Because I just left my job two weeks ago, the immediacy of this decision has really begun to hit me. I'm feeling more attached to LA and California than I have ever felt before. It would be much easier to leave if I hated my life here. But I don't. The fact that it has been sunny and hot for the last 10 days (I can't remember how long it's been since I've seen a cloud here!) hasn't helped either.

But the road beckons! Here's my itinerary as it looks now:

21 May - Leave LA
21-22 May - Tucson, AZ
23-24 May - El Paso, TX
25-27 May - San Antonio and Austin, TX
28-29 May - Houston, TX
30-31 May - New Orleans, LA
1 June  - Mobile, AL / Florida Panhandle
2 June - Orlando or Tampa Florida
3-5 June - Miami, FL
6 June - Florida coast
7-9 June - GA, SC, NC
10-13 June - VA, DC, Philadelphia, PA
14-15 June - New York, NY
16-18 June - Boston, MA
18-26 June - Iceland
26 June - 5 July - Manchester, Liverpool, northern England
5-12 July - Finland
13-21 July - Sweden
22-25 July - Denmark
26-31 July - Hamburg
1-6 August - Berlin
10-15 August - Budapest (Sziget Festival!)

Then, I'm not sure - Croatia? Slovenia? Austria/Switzerland? Italy/France? Poland? Luxembourg?
mid-September - London