Road Trip Day 2: Salinas to Ben Lomond

Great night at Ted’s comfortable airbnb in Salinas, then drove to Santa Cruz to see the traditional amusements on the boardwalk, including the Giant Dipper which dates from 1924. Anyone who knows me will know that the last place you would expect to find me (apart from on a horse) is on a roller coaster. But here I am!

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Other attractions of Santa Cruz.

We then drove up to view the giant redwoods in the state park.

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Tonight’s accommodation is in an amazing airbnb perched on the side of a forested mountain with magnificent views and full eco credentials.

After settling in we went out to Ben Lomond for a German meal of sausage, sauerkraut and weissbier.

60 miles

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Road Trip Day 1: Merced to Salinas

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Our abode in Merced.

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Marina Beach. Yes, it looks like Norfolk. Where do you think California got its name?

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Fishermen’s Wharf, Monterey. Pelican and seals.

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Clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.

150 miles

Christmas 2014

We couldn’t get a car as they were all booked out for the holidays so Christmas was looking a little bleak. But, in the end, it turned out to be rather lovely.

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We discovered Grocery Outlet and bought salmon, vegetables, panettone and a bottle of wine. After a late breakfast Christmas Day we went to the cinema to see Wild, about a woman trekking the Sierra Nevada. Then we went home to open the presents Heather had given us, Skype a few family members and eat our dinner, along with the usual Christmas treats of choccies etc. Very laid back, relaxed and simple.

Boxing Day and we still couldn’t get a car so we went to the Merced Court House museum. This is a beautiful building and gave us a good insight into the early residents of this area including American Indians and Mexicans who settled here before California became part of America. We also got an understanding of the hardships of the first modern American pioneers and settlers making their way over the Sierra Nevada. On the way home we went to the Branding Iron Steak House and had . . . steak!

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Today we got up at 6 and caught a bus to Yosemite for a steep uphill 3 mile hike to the Yosemite Falls. It seemed very recognisable from numerous Westerns, including Django Unchained. Blue skies, sun, snow topped mountains, ice and giant sequoia trees. Quite stunning!

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We’ve also been planning our mini road trip down the Pacific coast, which will now start on Monday.

California 1, Helpx 3

 We just completed 10 days in Visalia, staying with Heather and her son, Cayman. Heather used to work in Hollywood and has lots of fascinating tales, so much so that she has written a novel based on some of her experiences. Cayman is a student and provided us with the highlight of our stay, Scotland the Brave and Amazing Grace played  on his own bagpipes. Awesome!

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Heather and Cayman are well-travelled and have a refreshingly international take on world affairs and get our sense of humour. We had some great conversations and it felt like a real exchange of ideas and cultures as well as work (painting the kitchen ceiling and erecting a gazebo) and bed and board (including cookies, pancakes and tamales). I feel sure we’ll keep in touch with Heather and Cayman and see them again.

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Before and after the pergola.  Painted ceiling.

Visalia is a small town with one Main Street as most of the shopping etc is done in out of town retail parks. We went to one Mall, which was pretty much like ours, but out of the centre. Heather introduced us to friends at the Celtic Society, all of whom had some connection with the UK, and we went to a Christmas party with a group of artists and writers. It was really great to be invited to people’s houses and everyone was welcoming, interesting and interested in our trip. We also went to the Quaker Meeting House with Heather and Cayman, experienced the silent meeting and shared lunch.

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The only thing we wish we’d done from Visalia but didn’t manage to organise was a visit to the Sequoia National Park. It’s only 40 miles away but buses aren’t running at the moment but we may be able to organise something from here.

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We arrived in Merced to spend Christmas earlier today. First impressions are that it’s a rather depressed and depressing little town, and we seem to be staying in the most depressing part if it. We have a nice little self-contained bungalow but the ‘hood seems a bit dodgy so we need to hire a car in order to organise our time here. This is difficult as the owner of the apartment has not yet given us the WiFi code. Hopefully it’ll get sorted this evening. Unfortunately we may have to splash out a bit of money if we want to have a non-depressing Christmas.

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Visalia days

The stress and drama of our reentry to America and lost baggage is now behind us and we are looking make the most of our time here before leaving for Singapore. Tonights our last night in Visalia, tomorrow we are heading North to a town called Merced where we have booked a small apartment for the10 days over Christmas and new year. Merced like Visalia is a small central valley town, California coolsville it is not, but it will be nice to have our own space again. This is the farming heartland of America, more your teaparty and pickup truck territory than West coast hipster. To date we have experienced nothing but kindness from the people we’ve met, from serene and worldly Quakers through to God fearing conservative folk with guns, As you can imagine, my Richard Dawkins impression and best of Tim Minchin album went down a storm.

We have enjoyed staying with Heather and Cayman, we’ve been introduced to a variety of interesting folk, heard lots of stories from Heathers days as a PA to the Hollywood stars and even managed to fit in some work for our keep, building a large pergola and painting the kitchen ceiling. We leave as friends and maybe sometime we shall get the chance to play host to them back in England.

California has some amazing places that we have yet to see and explore, we have been fortunate in that we have met some of the people and learned a bit about the place and not just looked at the scenery and moved on. Getting to see the sites will eat in to our budget, but this trip is a one off experience and if its a week in a caravan in Skeggie next year, so be it.

The Bad, the Good and the Lovely

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Friday 12 December was a disaster! It didn’t start too badly. When we boarded the plane in Guatemala City it was announced that no liquids could be taken onto the plane – just after we had thrown away our bottles and bought 2 more after check in (as you do). So we hurriedly put the bottles into my rucksack to smuggle on board. Then as we were boarding we were pulled aside for a random search. I prepared my innocent ‘Oh, I didn’t hear the announcements about the bottles of water’ face as they started to search Sean but they looked at me and said, No you can go ahead. Yay! We had water.

The trouble started when we got to Fort Lauderdale. They had a new automated machine for checking passports, taking fingerprints and photos. Unfortunately we, like 90% of those using the machines, were rejected and we had to join a long queue to see a person. It was very slow moving and we eventually gleaned that the systems were down. About an hour after landing we were beckoned forward by a very rude official and went through the whole process again. Only this time the fingerprint reading device wouldn’t read Sean’s hand. After a few attempts the official beckoned to Sean and said, ‘You have to come in here’ and led him off into a side room. He wouldn’t let me follow and said I had to wait downstairs. I had no idea where they had taken Sean, or why or what they were going to do. All I could imagine was him sitting in a room, being searched. I didn’t know what to think but as I got to the bottom of the escalator I saw 4 or 5 other people sitting on the floor or standing, all looking very resigned, so I could see it wasn’t going to be a short wait.

After a while I started to ask anyone in a uniform what might be happening. How long will they keep him? Oh, it could be 2 hours. Or, Could be up to four hours. Or, Depends, does he have a criminal record? What will they be doing with him? Oh, just observing, maybe search him, ask him some questions. Just check him over, could be a machine error. I imagined him alone, being searched, not knowing what was going on and worrying about me as he knows I have a fertile imagination when it comes to disasters.

I discovered I had WiFi. I suspected Sean wouldn’t be able use his phone but I knew if he was left alone the first thing he would do would be to look at it so I sent him a message via Messenger, ‘RU OK?’ not really expecting an answer. About 15 minutes later the answer came back, ‘Still in waiting room, systems down.’ This was great as I now knew nothing terrible had happened and the systems were to blame. I could also tell that he had had to write this in a hurry surreptitiously so I didn’t expect any more. I’d overheard an official saying that if anyone missed their connecting flight they would be put up overnight in a hotel so I resigned myself to missing the flight, collected our backpacks from the carousel and settled down to wait.

Three hours after we had gone through passports Sean appeared. He’d been held in a crowded room, not allowed to use his phone, simply waiting to be electronically checked one more time. He was livid, and gave vent to a torrent of colourful language and Sean has quite a range at his disposal. I just felt relieved and it looked like we might just make our connecting flight.

We found the desk and rechecked in our luggage, just managed to grab Sean a take away sandwich (we’d been expecting plenty of time to eat in Fort Lauderdake, although I wasn’t eating as I had a stomach upset) and made our flight. As we took off Sean said, ‘I reckon the chances of our bags being on this flight are 50:50.

And he was right. His bag arrived. Mine didn’t. We arrived in LA at midnight (2 am our time). We’d been travelling for 16 hours on very little sleep and I had eaten only dry biscuits in 30 hours. All I had was the clothes I was standing up in and no toiletries. I was thoroughly miserable!

We filed a report for my missing bag and settled down to the six hour wait for the next leg of our journey. It was cold; we were exhausted, hungry and fed up. Sean found a seat with a table in between, made a place I could lie down, covered me up with his coat, and we managed to get an hour or so’s sleep.

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At 5 am things started to look up. We got on the shuttle to Union Station LA and it was warm with comfortable seats. It was a forty minute journey but I would have been happy for it to go on all day. The station was beautiful and, best of all, it had a Starbucks. I have never been so happy to see a Starbucks in my life and decided to risk a latte and a bagel. We also bought a toothbrush, toothpaste and shampoo. We then headed off to get our bus and we met Denise Brown.

She was our bus driver and she gave us a wonderful Tarantinoesque introduction to her bus. Here’s a sample:

The bathroom is located at the back of the bus. If you use the bathroom make sure you lock the door so they can’t see your goodies, cos they don’t knock, they just walk right on in.

You are welcome to eat on my bus. When I say drink I mean only the good stuff. If the driver can’t drink, then you can’t drink. If the driver can’t smoke, you can’t smoke. You just save your habit till you reach your destination.

This here is the escape window. This is how it works. You push the handle you push the window and you jump out. But don’t you use that escape window cos if you jump out the bus your driver’s gotta jump out the bus and I don’t wanna jump out the bus.

As we drove out of LA everything became worthwhile again. We saw the Hollywood sign and then started to get beautiful views of mountains, sometimes snowcapped, in the distance. Then the mountains gave way to plains and fields that reached literally as far as the eye could see of grapes, walnuts and cows. We’d never seen such vast swathes of flat, cultivated land.

Part of the journey was on double decker train and we reached our destination, Visalia (to rhyme with azalea), at 1.00 pm, to be met by the lovely Heather who is to be our helpx host for the next 10 days.

I still don’t have my bag but the airline have located it and I should have it within the next 2 or 3 days. I’ve bought underwear and a T-shirt. We’ve already met some amazing people since we’ve been here and things feel like they’re getting back on track.

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Adios Guatemala

Tonight is our last night here in Central America, it has been a fantastic experience and Jane and I would both like to return one day soon to continue our exploration. I am going to wrap up my thoughts about this part of our trip with an account of our final full day and some bits I wrote a while back but never posted. I could easily write more, there are so many stories here, so many thoughts provoked in my mind, this trip is the most amazing voyage of discovery, seeing and learning about our world and about myself too.

I am conscious that I have written some fairly heavy stuff possibly giving the impression that it is all woes here, I can assure you that I am of the opinion that the Guatemalan glass is half full ( admittedly it is a very very tall glass and there is indeed a fair amount of shit in the bottom half but hey with an equal or possibly greater amount of space above there’s great potential for improvement). This country is resource rich and the greatest of these, its people. We have been treated with nothing but kindness and patience at every turn by people who often can never even aspire to have the comforts in life that we enjoy. They, like a lot of people who by accident of birth live in a third world country, deserve more from life and maybe us lucky folk enjoying our successful delivery in the first world should learn to manage with a bit less!

Today we were busy exploring some of sights of Guatemalas quite dysfunctional but none the less charming capital city. Among our activities we visited the park central that has been given over to a Christmas festival that is drawing people in their thousands to enjoy the nearest thing to an alpine Christmas available in a country where the closest people ever get to snow is a plastic cup of Slushpuppy. With an ice rink, ski slope and ski lift ingeniously created (err, well actually a roller skate rink, riding down a wet plastic slide on rubber rings and some cables suspended about 6m above the ground) the happy folks cheerfully stood in line and handed over their hard earned dosh.

Christmas here is a huge deal, with a multitude of shops and a very large market given over to selling nothing but Christmas decorations and nativity figures in all shapes, sizes and degrees of artistic interpretation, but clearly this whole gaudy, wonderfully colourful bazaar has at its core the people’s belief in Christianity and the family. It will be a sad day when easy credit arrives, the multinationals set up store and people turn to consumerism as their deity of choice.

Yesterday the local paper carried 5 pages of gruesome accounts of murders (including a decapitation) of taxi drivers who refused to pay protection money. A couple of days before we read in a Honduran paper about 1000’s of children who have been abducted, often forced into prostitution or coerced into working for criminal gangs. There was a report of a boy believed aged about ten who was shot and killed a week ago and has still not been identified, he died alone with no family or friends ever knowing his fate. Another example of the harsh reality of life in what should be a subtropical paradise for all!

Guatemala and it’s people endure a great deal, mostly with a stoic cheerfulness that belies the harsh reality and tensions that lay beneath the rugged, dusty but oddly charming shambles it appears. A while back in Panajachel we met Tom the owner of an art gallery, over a coffee he gave us a potted history of Guatemala from the Spanish conquistadors through to a pretty nasty civic disturbance that had happened in the market place just an hour before (fortunately we were on the other side of town, so missed it). Tom has mixed ancestry, half indigenous Guatemalan, half German, I found his knowledge of historical events and his take on the current situation quite riveting. Tom’s comprehensive account was similar to others I had heard. It is clear that dark undercurrents converge here, a confluence of the murky waters that spring from narcotics, Uncle Sam and widespread corruption. Unchecked they threaten to undermine this Rocky country far more and in a lot less time than any of the smoking volcanos that dot the place. This is a wonderful country, the terrain will ensure that life is never going to be too easy but by necessity will always have to be “lived” in the real sense, I just hope that the people are allowed to get on with it, with health, education and opportunity, free of these ruinous influences. Adios Guatemala, gracias y hasta luego.