Saturday, 17 July 2010

All The Way From America

Land of the free. Home of the Brave. ...... and England's equals on a football pitch. Because Robert Green couldn't catch a cold.

The mystery and myth surrounding the south and central america countries and the complete contrast with Western culture was always going to be a spectacular part of the trip, but the lure of the most powerful nation on earth grew ever stronger as we approached it. The film and music industries have referenced so much of this huge country that every name and location is wrought with familiarity, and the thought of actually being there fills you with a childish excitement. Especially if like us you are particularly childish and excitable anyway. And like the child who's visit to Disneyland rests on one good school report / week's behaviour / cessation of fraternal hostilities, we had but one hurdle to cross. Unfortunately that hurdle happened to be the same one that the US rightwing media would have you believe the entire Mexican population is also trying to cross, namely the US-Mexico border. Although we were all armed with our physical attributes of non-Mexican height and skin colour, coupled with our ability to speak English without sounding like Speedy Gonzales, the anally retentive reputation of the US Customs officials did give us cause for concern. The fact that I had flown from the cocaine capital of La Paz in Bolivia to New York for a weekend, and then proceeded back to the US via the historic Cali and Medellin cartel lands of Colombia and finally the smuggling hot spot of Baja California, Mexico, made me feel like a prime candidate for some explorative rubber glove treatment [You'd have happily volunteered anyway Tim - Ed].

We'd been instructed that the major border crossing of Tijuana on Mexico's western coast would be an absolute nightmare due to the volume of traffic. This coincided nicely with the testimonies from various friends that if we stepped into Tijuana we would be shot. Do not go there, as my Aunt relayed to us from her friend, "por ningún razón." (For any reason whatsoever!). Unfortunately consulting the Foreign Office website gave us little more encouragement, as every single border town had arisen specifically to assassinate British tourists, but happily Phil researched the nearby crossing point at Tecate, where apparently a small percentage of Westerners had actually made it through.

As we queued in our cars with hundreds of other hopefuls in the blistering sunshine, we decided to give Her Majesty's Passports a little vocal support by belting some Springsteen out of the radio. Although we weren't actually Born in the USA, we felt he could help us Across the Border (Okay admittedly I did Google that one; Born to Run didn't fit. Worryingly he also sang Wreck on the Highway and You're Missing. Steady there Bruce. We're all friends here.) Anyway little did we know that the Boss' influence really did hold sway as we had no problems crossing into the US and even less leaving Mexico. In fact in our haste to cross into the States we had somehow missed Mexico's half of the border. This was a problem for two reasons. Firstly Phil had left his credit card details with Mexican customs as insurance that Barry would leave the country (and therefor not be subject to import taxes) and secondly Tom and I were eager for another stamp in our passports. The chief objective was quickly overcome, at the advice of a US border official no less, by simply walking back into Mexico through a curiously unmanned gate and up to immigration, but disappointingly we could find no-one to register Barry's exit with. After twenty minutes meandering, which included Phil's illegal pedestrian border crossing back into the US to retrieve the car documents, we gave up. It would have been pretty easy for the 3 of us to simply walk back through the gate again but a vague sense of responsibility led us back to the official pedestrian border crossing 100 meters away. The official who had advised us to walk back into Mexico had told us that he'd make sure we had no problems crossing back in. That now appeared to be conditional on us making it back before he and the entire customs desk changed shift, and of course we didn't. Luckily what Her Majesty requests and requires, Her Majesty doth get, and again our passports and obvious Britishness (I'm frightfully sorry but one of your chaps said we could just pop back through, what what) overcame the confusion. Admittedly Phil has had to cancel his credit card, and hopefully will be at the center of some international extradition crisis, but we had finally crossed into country number 14 and were cruising Californ-I-A.

One of the things we had to look forward to in America are the number of friends and family we could drop in on, and consequently spunge off, all the way up to Alaska. First stop was Tom's Aunt and Uncle in Orange County. Home of the Real OC, Clueless and a plethora of spoilt pseudo-Valley Girls. Awesome. Tom's family, Murray, Catherine and daughter Olivia, were actually in a beautiful part of Orange County called Mission Viejo and immediately cooked us up a storm on the first night with a steak barbecue, champagne, wine and homemade chocolate cake. Not a good move, it took them a week to get rid of us. While we toured round OC, shopped at the mall, chilled on the beach, watched the daily world cup football and generally enjoyed all the creature comforts we'd been denied for so long. Barry checked herself into a health spa and slowly regenerated into the mighty force of nature she had been before Tom and Phil broke her. We'd all like to say a very big thank you to the Page family, it truly was the most welcoming way we could have begun our tour of the States.

Tom had yet more family members dotted around California, and having spent 5 months trapped in a car with him I can certainly understand their desire for separation, but again Tom's Aunt Jane made for a great host in the famous and flawless Manhattan Beach. That weekend I hopped on a 6 hour (small fry) coach to Las Vegas to catch up with a Uni friend / make my millions while Tom and Phil caught up with family in Los Angeles. This included Phil's cousins Jonathan and Mary-Jo who were exhibiting their ingenious PieceHomes at the massive Dwell on Design Exhibition at the LA Conference Center and his other cousins, Roo and Lisa. Unfortunately Roo was away in South Africa, editing the forthcoming Blue Crush 2 movie no less, but his young'uns Zoe and Charlie were keeping things ticking over at home.

Vegas, meanwhile, really is a weird and wonderful place but it also has that sordid juxtaposition of wealth and wasteland that puts you a little on edge. It's a sort of Disneyland meets Amsterdam's Red Light District. Stop sniggering at the back. Obviously I'd be hugely more flattering if I'd won anything, or at least stopped when I was winning, but there's a reason they bring you free drinks while you gamble. Anyway, potential maternal recriminations notwithstanding I think I'll leave the Vegas stories at that. The only other bit of excitement on my little interlude was the 3 hour delayed return journey that resulted in an after dark arrival in Downtown Los Angeles. Not a good place to be. After ransacking my bag for clothes that offered no colour affiliations to the notorious Blood, Crip or Republican gangs I dropped my eyes to the ground and quick marched to the nearest skyscraper. Considering I was dressed in traditional, post-Vegas, Hobo attire, I had figured that I would attract little criminal attention once among LA's financial elite.

Although our raison d'etre for this trip is the Pan-American Highway which hugs America's western coastline, the States has so much to offer that we decided we should have a little trip inland. And having loosely decided on where we were going, we then decided to incorporate virtually every bit of scenery within an unreasonable driving distance of said route, and eventually settled on a fairly large loop around Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Nevada and back into California. Maybe not a traditional loop then, but certainly loopy. Before setting off though we had one more box office to tick, the movie Mecca of Hollywood. Another member of Tom's not so extended family (Feel free to delete that one Tom!) is a comedian who performs at the Laugh Factory on Hollywood Boulevard. Which I think we all agree is pretty seriously cool. We had already caught one of Jim's gigs on our way through Southern LA but he was a real gent and took time out on our last night in LA to give us a quick tour of the Hollywood sites. We all readily associate with the mighty Hollywood sign and glitzy Walk of Fame but Hollywood's real charm is it's rich celebratory history. From Charlie Chaplin's former lodgings to Al Capone's safe under the floorboards of the Formorsa Cafe, every street and building has a story and the wonderful accessibility to such national treasures is enough to set your heart racing.

[Britney Spear's Star]

Our next friendly port of call would be at my Aunt's house in Tucson Arizona, right back down on the border with Mexico and more concerningly, right back into desert terrain. We broke up the journey with a overnight camping stop in Joshua Tree, the first of many truly spectacular American national parks. The landscape is flat, dusty and decidedly desert-like, but these beautiful trees (actually they're closer to cacti than trees) stand as silhouetted sentinels. Probably the most famous Joshua Tree adorns the cover of the U2 album of that name and it's easy to understand why they used it.

We had an early start the next morning, which was lucky as the early start was thrust upon us by a desert sun that shows little respect for nylon tents bereft of air conditioning. As Barry was back in flying four-by-four form we took a two hour detour over some spectacularly rocky terrain which would have been a struggle to navigate on foot, but Barry gamely powered through to let us all know she was back in the game. We then had a 6 hour drive along interstates (motorways) to Tucson that was to coincide with the hottest part of the day. We had been warned about the heat, and we had halfheartedly planned to drive in the cooler hours of the day, but it's difficult to take that kind of thing truly seriously when every windows-down, British summer drive you have ever taken has been absolute bliss. The difference, however, that accompanies an outside air temperature that is hotter than the human body, is remarkable. And all of those remarks slot neatly into the central theme of, Oh my God it's so hot I think I'm going to die. We don't have AC, and opening the windows felt like hugging a giant hairdryer set to max power. Which meant we were trapped between driving a greenhouse or the aforementioned hairdryer treatment. Obviously the other option would be to stop the car and hop out but I'm pretty sure that disintegration type thing that Vampires succumb to under sunlight would have been on the cards. It was at some point along this drive that I noticed a new physical feature in myself. Namely after sustained exposure to oppressive heat and blasting hot air the inside of my eyelids seem to sweat, and the subsequent stinging blindness is not conducive to interstate driving.

Finally though we hissed into Tucson and were rewarded with a lovely couple of nights at a blessedly air-conditioned hotel and two excellent meals with my Aunt's husband David (My Aunt had unfortunately by then made her annual escape to a cooler and nephew free climate!) Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona and seemed like a cool place to hang out, but with a pool, air-conditioned room, gym and most importantly world cup football to keep us entertained we only made one daytime foray, down to the Titan museum which houses the only viewable Inter Continental Ballistic Missile silo in the States. And yes, it is every little boys dream. Shy of a bespectacled, grey suited man stroking a chubby white cat, the ICBM silo was the perfect setting for a Bond movie. ICBM's are one of the three methods of launching nuclear missiles, hence Nuclear Triad, the two others being from submarines and stealth bombers, effectively land, sea and air. Titan is simply the name for this family of missiles and they were used both as part of America's nuclear deterrent and also as part of their space programme. The missile is housed underground, with a retractable metal covering that opens up to allow it to fire. It's underground so obviously those pesky Russians can't blow it up and nuke America without fear of reprisal. Actually this is all about thirty years ago as technology has moved on, and all the Titans have been decomissioned and deconstructed apart from the one in Tucson. The retractable covering is set half open and concreted into place, to prevent the missile from being readily recomissioned and launched, otherwise it would count towards the number of Nuclear missiles the USA is currently allowed to point at undisclosed locations that may or may not be downtown Moscow.

After visiting the second biggest city in Arizona, only the numero uno of Phoenix itself would be a worthy destination to follow up with. Phoenix is the most populated state capital in all of America, a question that my housemates and I once correctly answered in a pub quiz. The fact that one of those housemates, Rob, is actually from Phoenix meant that feat was marginally less impressive, but it did at least mean we had Rob's family to call in on once we had arrived. Again the transatlantic hospitality was hugely appreciated as Joel, Pam and son Mark welcomed us into their home. Even the ever so slightly grouchy German Shephard Bergen warmed up to us, although admittedly the dog biscuits helped. Our second night coincided with the 4th of July and the most spectacular fireworks display imaginable. Americans have an infectious enthusiasm and the celebrations of national pride was a riot. Admittedly we were teetering on the edge of dressing up in colonial red coats and powdered wigs and brazenly marching down the street, but who wants to lose the same battle twice? On our final day we got our own American on with a quick jaunt around the Native American museum and a baseball game which was excellent. Yes it was strange to see multi-millionaire sports athletes with physiques more akin to darts players, but it would be wrong to openly mock them. That's just not cricket.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We just finished reading your blog, and it sounds like you're having a fantastic trip! Good luck traveling and everything!
-The Two American People Who Helped You Find WiFi Yesterday

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