Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Thursday 14th April 2011

Because of our Big Sur diversion, night was falling as we dropped off the freeway into San Francisco, city of hippies and hobos. There seemed to be considerably more of the latter around in the 3 days we stayed, perhaps they all used to be the former.

As usual we did plenty of walking. On our first full day, George was pulled by her extra-sensory shopping powers to the vintage stores of Haight-Ashbury. Having travelled up and down the length of that colourful neighbourhood, and gulped down yet another Vanilla milkshake for sustinence, I sought out the Cartoon Museum in the area south of Market Street - "SoMa", naturally. George left me to my own devices, presumably to visit more shops.

The following day, we once again trekked over the city's hills, through Chinatown and Little Italy, to tourist friendly Fisherman's Wharf, where, after gawping at the diminishing population of sealions at Pier 39 (some say they are leaving because a big quake is imminent) we hired bicycles and pedalled off towards the Golden Gate Bridge. I am happy to report that in the 7 or so miles we covered, over the Bridge and back again, George managed not to fall off. She did however give voice to her suspicions that she had been given a "special" bike as it seemed extra hard to pedal.

We located a small bar near the hostel - dark and showing sports on the box, as we drank on the bar stools and nonchalantly flung down dollar bills as tips, we smugly felt we were living the true barfly experience. George even accused me of ogling the barmaid. I wasn't (although she was very pretty). Any jealousy issues didn't stop George recommending that we visit the bar again the following night, with Andrea and Mitch, who we met for a slap up Japanese meal. As a result, the following morning, a gnawing hangover attempted to distract me from steering the car over the Bay Bridge and out of the city towards Yosemite.

Cycling the Bridge

151 - posted at 02:29:49

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Saturday 9th April 2011

Having tracked us down to our Venice Beach digs, The Cadillac Hotel, Alisha chirpily told us that it was in an area frequented by crackheads and was infamous for its prostitution and bed-bug problem (the two may not be unrelated). Luckily, the place appears to have been renovated since it picked up that unsavoury reputation, and was pleasant enough. The part of the Venice Beach boardwalk the hotel sits on is a bit grotty though, with hobos emerging from their sleeping bags under palm trees each morning. The boardwalk in general is a bit like a sunny and tanned Camden market, except with more medicinal marijuana clinics, and one stroll along it on our first morning was enough for me.

Luckily Charlie and Alisha were there to rescue us from the beach, and we had our first home cooked meal for months at their place in Marina Del Rey. We were also taken to some great restaurants, including one for lunch in Los Feliz, where I ate a "Hearty Texas Omelette" that stayed with me for some time to follow, took a good few years off my life whilst giving inches to my waistline. But, with its double cheese, avocado, chili and cream, it had to be ordered.

Heart Attack Omelette

One morning I drove The Beast around to Charlie and Alisha's and then had to follow Alisha in her Lexus as we headed for the Hollywood sign. I cautiously maneuvered The Beast onto the freeway, which was screaming with traffic, as Alisha phoned Charlie (who was sitting next to me) and told him to tell me to stop driving like a pensioner. But the freeway was a piece of cake compared to the narrow winding streets leading up to the Hollywood Hills. By the time we had reached the sign I decided that The Beast was just too wide to properly enjoy driving. I didn't want to be forever worrying about knocking off wing mirrors. So Charlie and I headed back to LAX and I traded The Beast in for a Gold Ford Escape with a tan leather interior.

Other highlights of LA included watching dolphins playing around off Manhattan Beach, and a Clippers v Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game (National Anthem, Cheeleaders, Beer, Hotdog), which I was lucky enough to go to with Charlie, while George got drunk with Alisha in Venice. And then, very quickly it was time to board our new gold car and head out of town. A final breakfast helping Milla eat her pancake shaped like a bear's head (banana nose, grape eyes, orange slice mouth), and then out onto the Pacific Coast Highway, with no real idea of where we were going to spend the night.

We landed that afternoon in a town called Cambria, full of antique shops, and stayed in a very pretty independent motel on the edge of town. It was here when it struck us: we were suddenly on our own, on the road, struggling with American petrol stations (effectively you can't start pumping until the attendant is satisfied you're not going to scarper without paying) and how much to tip in restaurants (in LA C&A had guided us through this minefield).

Cambria is at the south end of the Big Sur stretch of coastal highway. Before setting off the morning after we left LA, we grabbed coffee in town. Unfortunately, the barista hadn't put the lid on mine properly, and as I drank I became aware of a growing hot damp sensation in my lap (no tip for her). Meanwhile George, who has been for the last few weeks exclaiming at random moments how she was looking forward to using her new thermos to drink hot coffee from during long car journeys, carefully filled up the thermos for the first time, only to discover an hour down the road that it had gone stone cold. We decided that it probably wasn't a thermos, but a canteen for keeping drinks cold. In the shadow of such inauspicious coffee based omens, we set off up the pretty ocean road. It is a spectacular drive, taking in windy hill passes, an elephant seal colony, inaccessible beaches and blankets of wild flowers. We noted the "Road Closed" signs every 50 miles or so, cheefully preparing for the imminent detour. Unfortunately, 200 miles north of Cambria, for the first time one of the signs also bluntly informed us "No Detour". And 9 miles later, sure enough, there was the end of the road, with no detour in sight. In fact the only way to get to San Franscisco was drive 200 miles all the way back to Cambria and find an alternative route. So, not a flawless start to a road trip, but at least the 400 superfluous miles we drove were through beautiful country.

The Car

150 - posted at 00:33:19

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Friday 8th April 2011

The beginning of what was to be a very long day didn't start promisingly. "I feel sick" announced George. We were sitting on our rucksacks by a Caye Caulker jetty, waiting for the 7am water taxi to Belize City, the first of a variety pack of transport options we were to sample that day.

Despite the water taxi bouncing with increasing violence over the Caribbean, when it deposited us at Belize City George's nausea appeared to have diminished, and we jumped in a taxi bound for the airport. My heart sank as the driver told us he was going to take us on a guided tour of the city, and then asked what time our flight was. George lied and said it was an hour earlier than it was, but the tour began anyway. Fortunately this wasn't, as I had suspected, a convoluted way of taking us to his friends' shops and restaurants (like a crooked Avis driver had done in Delhi). Instead he simply pointed out the points of (vague) interest that cropped up on the way (some government buildings, a sports stadium, a boys' school, a girls' school) and it turned out to be a pleasant way of seeing a city that received wisdom states is too much of a dump to bother staying the night in.

There's not much to do in Belize City airport, so George and I spent much of the time messing around on our iPhones as we waited for the plane. This is one of our two top ways of killing time. The other has been playing "Shithead", but George has been reluctant to play following my historic winning streak in Caye Caulker. I haven't seen the pack of cards for at least a week. After about 3 hours' wait, we were flown to El Salvador (an hour's journey) where we waited yet again, this time to board the 5 hour flight to Los Angeles.

The queue for immigration at LAX seemed to take almost as long as the flight there. But by the time we got to the front of the queue we were virtually waved through (at least after submitting our finger prints), a very different experience to my ordeal at Wayne State Airport in Detroit some years ago, where I was removed to a separate room for questioning. Customs was a breeze, and then it was on to the Hertz shuttle which dropped us a few miles over on the other side of the airport (it is massive, thank God we didn't attempt to walk to the car rental lot as we had briefly discussed). Night had well and truly fallen by the time we tracked down the correct car parking bay and came face to face with The Beast.

We booked the rental car on the Hertz website some months ago (a rare example of our forward-planning on this trip). Not being a particularly numerically-orientated person (i.e. my maths is exceptionally poor) I didn't bother looking at the dimensions of the vehicle we were to hire. I'm also not very automobile orientated (i.e. I know absolutely nothing about them) so engine size, cylinders, wheelbase, meant nothing to me, as little as height, width, length. Instead I just looked at the picture on the website and went for what looked like a nice compact SUV. The Chevy Traverse is, in reality, an absolute monster. Behind the front seats there are two further rows of seats, and then a boot. In terms of width, it is akin to a transit van. George flat-out refused to drive. I climbed in. It was lovely and new, with helpful features like rear camera display in the rear-view mirror and that beeping thing that tells you when you are too near an object (invaluable in a tank like this - what a shame it only works for the front and back, not the sides). Despite these features, I was still bloody terrified, but not as terrified as George who, as I thundered out into the the LA night desperately trying to listen to the woman's voice purring out of the SatNav, gasped and shrieked and exclaimed at every turn, stop, start and near-miss.

We made it though, down to Venice Beach, and a car park, and a hotel, and, at last, bed.

149 - posted at 02:12:59

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Tuesday 5th April 2011

I feel a bit silly now, getting so worked up over seeing one measly turtle in Roatan. In our snorkelling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve off the coast of Caye Caulker in Belize we bobbed around with loads of them - along with dozens of rays, barracuda, a huge and terrifyingly confident groupa and plenty of other fish of various shapes sizes and colours, all going about their daily business over Belize's barrier reef. Hopefully a record of this menagerie will be on the Underwater Instant camera we bought - that is if it really was waterproof, and if I didn't put my thumb over the lens every time.

The snorkelling trip consisted of 3 further dips off the side of the boat, in different spots around the reef, one of which was in "Shark Alley", where we shared the water with a few nurse sharks, some up to five foot long, all sinister long bodies and opaque blue eyes.

Caye Caulker itself is a Caribbean island, just under 2 hours by boat from Belize City. It's much smaller than Roatan - there are no cars, only golf carts bumbling up and down the sand streets. We stayed in a guesthouse very near "The Split", where a hurricane split the island in half about 30 years ago. The guesthouse boasted its very own deck, extending into the sea. In an attempt to escape the sun's furnace I jumped from the deck, intending to swim around the side of the island and through the Split. After experiencing initial problems owing to the water only reaching up to my shins, and consequently swimming with the seabed brushing my chest, I reached deeper water and swam around to the small artificial beach on the side of the Split (which, owing to the bar at one corner is Spring Break central ("SPRING BREAK!")). I then turned to swim back and found myself in a bit of difficulty. Battling against a very strong current, I just about managed it around the corner of the island, but then found myself splashing around in a choppy and cruel sea. Spluttering and coughing up sea-water I labouriously made my way back towards the deck. After 20 minutes of struggle, seriously worried I could go on no further, I felt I had no option but to tread water for a few minutes, in order to recover my dwindling strength. I put down my legs, only to find myself standing in waist-high water. To complete my humiliation, I found a sea louse sticking to my foot when I climbed out.

Caye Caulker also offered us lots of cocktails (after too many of which I gleefully drew all over the tables and walls of a pizza joint that encouraged the practice), excellent pizzas (see above), playful local dogs and unbelievable amounts of almost unbearably hot sun, at least for our timid North Atlantic complexions. This nourished my/our innate laziness, and apart from our snorkelling excursion we did very little else in our five days there, even ruling out a kayak excursion to the mysterious far side of the Split, where crocodiles lurk in a lagoon, and boa constrictors hang in the trees. Our North Atlantic, or at least Anglo-Saxon, attitude may have also rendered us slightly aloof, on an island where people are forever cycling past trying to get you to buy some cashews, or beads, or lunch at a particular restaurant, or cake (although The Cake Man's cake was amazing), or, and most persistently, tamales - "HOT Tamales, I got HOT tamales, chicken, vegetable, pork TAMALES". At first we felt obliged to politely decline, but over the days we simply ignored the constant solicitations, muttering instead to ourselves, "I don't want any fucking tamales. What the hell are tamales anyway?"

Caye Caulker

148 - posted at 19:30:03

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Friday 1st April 2011

San Ignacio in Belize, just past the Guatemala border, has to be one of the friendliest towns we've troubled over the last two months. Admittedly communication here was easier than in other Central American countries or Argentina, because English, not Spanish, is the official lanaguage in Belize. This meant an end to my halting and self-conscious Spanish and to George's resolute insistence that she is no good at lanaguages and should therefore be absolved from either trying to understand something or having to make herself understood. It was only when reading up on Belize a couple of days before crossing the border that I learnt that Belize had been a British colony until 1981 - as usual, my general ignorance continues to startle and worry me.

The centre of town contained a couple of good and cheap restaurants, a small bar behind which an excellent mixologist made me too many Long Island Ice Teas, and Pop's restaurant, a little cafe up a side street, which we were told served the best breakfast in town. My over easy eggs and toast leant weight to this opinion. After making short work of them I attempted a scribbled drawing of the place, including a surreptitious sketch of a rotund ruddy faced man with white hair and a beard. I showed my picture to a local a couple of days later and he confirmed that this was Pop himself. I wasn't sure whether to be more pleased that we had been in Pop's presence or that my scrawl was actually competent enough for someone to recognise who was in it.

I'm not sure George was as keen on San Igancio as me. At one point she decided to go for a stroll around the streets on her own. She came back a short time later complaining that it was impossible for her to go around alone because of the unwanted attention she got from men ("Hey lady", whistles, stares etc).

We stopped in San Igancio because we wanted to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal (or "ATM") caves outside the town. This is a cave network in the middle of some jungle where numerous Mayan artefacts have been found. To get there, we hiked along a pleasant jungle path, wading through a river a couple of times, before getting to the mouth of the cave. There we put on our helmets, complete with head torch, and jumped into the water that fills the mouth of the cave, before swimming and climbing up a rock ledge inside. I have to be honest - I was more excited at the swimming, wading, squeezing through narrow holes in rocks, crawling up gushing channels of water etc etc that took us deeper into ATM than the Mayan history involved. But then, as if it couldn't get anymore Indiana Jones, we walked across a almighty stone chamber, deep underground, covered in glittering cauxite, eldritch rocks formations, stalactites and stalacmites, to find, amongst the ubiquitous broken Mayan pots, a skull lodged in the floor. And then another one further on. And then, deeper in still, an entire Mayan skeleton, furred in calcium built up over the hundreds of years its lain there.

The caves are very popular with tourists. However, our guide manaufactured it so we were the last into the caves that day, and so also the last out. As a result, as we took our leave from the gaping skeleton and begain the 20 minute swim/squeeze/scamble/slip/wade to daylight, we left the caves in total darkness and silence (apart from the occaisional drip). The best thing of all was to still to come through. We reached the stone ledge at the mouth of the cave, and I jumped in the pool to swim out. As I swam, I looked back at George splashing around behind me, so entranced by the excitement and novelty of the place that, as she spluttered through the water, she couldn't take the grin off her face.

Actun Tunichil Muknal

147 - posted at 00:39:32

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