Tuesday, April 30, 2013

T is for Tourist - images of America

I've already talked about some aspects of being a tourist in a foreign country. Coffee, motels, fabulous scenery, (and here too) driving, but I haven't mentioned conversations or the near impossibility of reading street and town names let alone pronouncing them well enough to be understood by locals.

It can be a problem at times.

Scenario - "Hi could you direct me to ..... street?"

The person looks at you as if you were speaking some rarely heard strange language, possibly unheard by any living person for the last three thousand years.

Their eyes open wide, you can almost see their brain gears grinding painfully.

"Pardon?" (Americans are incredibly polite - none of our "whadjasaymate, ay?")

So in an effort to get the directions, you ask more slowly, enunciating each word clearly and carefully.

They squint, screw up their face in an effort at concentration ... it sounds a little like English.

"Sorry, could you ... ?"

Smiling hopefully, but almost despairing, you repeat the request for a third time.

A light goes on ... It is English, but different ... So that's what an honest to goodness, dinky-di Australian accent sounds like!

Everyone who's travelled tells tales of mime, misunderstandings, embarrassment, confusion ... and hilarity!

I experienced the joy of attending a professional training session with some 360+ psychologists and social workers, the majority of them from the US. I really appreciated the camaraderie and sharing professional information .... but of equal pleasure was the opportunity to interact and have fun together - and be teased mercilessly by some of the wonderful participants!

Being an Aussie tourist in the US can be kind of weird. We sort of speak a similar language, though our words and phrases often mean quite different things and there are lots of cultural stereotypes to be kicked under the chair. Film and TV has a lot to answer for.

And just when you think you've got a handle on the accent, whump! you come undone.

Awful offal? Offal Offal? Why would my colleagues be inviting me to a lunch spot where they serve offal? I know the saying is "When in Rome do as the Romans do", but  ... yuk. These guys seem nice - and normal - but was accepting the lunch invitation going to be a wise decision?

But I'd never be here again, and isn't that one of the "rules" of travel? to sample local foods?

So wondering what the hell I'd let myself in for, I toddled along trying desperately to understand the nuances of rapid-fire conversation between locals. Sigh - fail.
I mentioned in Images of Reno that my inability to get a hang of the accent let me down again!

The Aweful Aweful burger served at the Little Nugget Diner rates 4 1/2 stars on Urban Spoon - which is pretty good no matter what language you're speaking. It was a great burger if somewhat on the gigantic side. It's a place I wouldn't have found in Reno except for the welcoming locals. Thanks guys!

More on language here ;-)

Monday, April 29, 2013

S is for Snow - images of America

Coming from a baking hot Australia, it was glorious to see, feel, hear and smell snow - and be COLD.
Those in cold climates may not understand the desire to be cold, particularly when you're miserable and it's been going on seemingly for ever, and I appreciate that, I really do! But having suffered through the hottest months on record - over 40 degrees celsius for day after long day - and swelteringly hot nights - and sizzled and gasped our way through killing heat and bush fires, it was a wonderful relief.
Snow scrunches delightfully underfoot - when you feet are behaving and not slip sliding every which way! ... and of course when you're not having to work in it, drive in it, shovel it, unfreeze pipes and all the other challenging aspects. But I'm conveniently overlooking the negatives for this post!

When the sun shines, wonderful shadows are cast, moving across the undulating snow in strange ways.

We thought a brisk walk before breakfast was pretty neat - others were more energetic and were jogging. So much for a society populated only by sedentary, overweight folk one hears so much about.

The beauty of snow on the distant shore and peaks is perfect for tourists to stop and ooh and aaah.
Bare bushes, spiky against and rolling curves of the mountains and puffy clouds. A beaut spot for a peaceful picnic.
 Even the plum blossom wants to get in on the act!


Sunday, April 28, 2013

R is for Roads - images of America

Talking about roads, of course I'm going to mention how terrifying it is being a front seat passenger sitting on the right hand side of the car when you're used to being on that side with a steering wheel in front of you. Used to being in control!

Flinching continually at the traffic is no fun, especially as it seems to be wandering all over the place following some unknown trajectory. Cars and trucks kept swooping in front of us at an extraordinary speed from unexpected and unfamiliar directions.

Why is that person speeding in from the right? He should be on the other side!

I suspect the drivers were, on the whole, safe, competent, law abiding citizens, it just didn't feel like it!

Four lanes of the wretched beasts - groan. Kerthunk, kerthunk, kerthunk went the tyres on the road. Whirrrrrring sounds like a helicopter low overhead were made by the tyres whizzing over the parallel lines in the road surface. Different, unexpected and all taking a bit of getting used to so you're not wondering if it's the car falling apart or some other dire event unfolding.

My sharply sucked in breaths didn't help the already stressful situation. When the GPS mentions turn right, does she mean now or metres ahead at the next sign???

And because you don't know the town or road names on the way to your destination, road signs aren't always particularly helpful. Joy, oh joy.

I suspect the tiny hire car may still show evidence of my fingernails in the seat, particularly from on the narrow, winding, steep roads with no shoulder and deep gutter, where locals naturally wanted to speed along on familiar terrain.

But even though we were hesitant, not one person raged, gave the finger or otherwise showed obvious signs of impatience. WOW!!

Thankfully, after some weeks, my nerves hit overload and subsided into a happy state of submission, or perhaps it was simply exhaustion. Enough in fact, for me to hesitantly suggest that I have a go behind the wheel. The hubster was extremely supportive - enthusiastic really, and made noises of encouragement as I zoomed off, sweat flying from my furrowed brow.

Roads disappearing into the distance with no cars take extra concentration so you don't stray onto the more familiar side!

We may have just been fortunate, but we found that the drivers were amazing courteous compared to many Aussie drivers who seem to consider any hesitation a personal affront. They regularly use the occasion to flex their finger and vocal muscles and test that the horn is still working ... for an extended period of time :(

You have to be a particular kind of person to hold the stop sign at roadworks near Death Valley. There's not a lot to distract or entertain you.
 A road disappearing into a lake. Will it go right or left over the crest?
In tones of wonder, we've been telling people "they made room for each other on the slip lanes", "they allowed other cars in", "no-one was deliberately obstructive", "when we walked across the roads, no one tried to run us over", "someone actually leaned out of the car and apologised that her car had crept forward".

Maybe we were just lucky - no doubt large cities have their own challenges and cranky people, but stressful driving was made significantly more pleasant by the attitude and courtesy of other road users. I wish that was more common here.

Driving in America is an experience I'll never forget, both for the courtesy of the other drivers and the heart stopping fear of everything being back to front!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Q is for quirky: images of America

A cafe!!
And a petting zoo!!

Oh, my goodness, if they've got those wonders, who knows what else they could have to entice the wandering tourist!!!!

Not that Australia doesn't have billboards, but somehow, being in a different country, these were positively screaming out and demanding we take notice and STOP!

Yeehaaaa! (Shouted loudly in my feeble attempt at an American accent which fools no one, but is fun to try) We weren't disappointed. The tree house was fantastical, amazing, unbelievable and oozed gingerbread, wicked witches, dreams and nightmares, and all the fairy tales combined, in one glorious, indulgent, over the top razzle-dazzle and with frosting as well! It was HUGE, oh how I'd have loved to go inside and wander into those entrancing rooms on different levels and dream. Sigh....
There was old, sometimes frayed, tatty and broken ... stuff ... from days gone by. Some was so familiar, not only from my own childhood, but from old tv shows and movies. I could have spent hours, oohing and aahing over the extraordinary collection of memorabilia.
Not only that, but there was a shop - no surprises there! Tourist stuff, kitsch, trinkets, junk, plastic things, cheese and wine and an ... interesting ... selection of reading matter, some of it well thumbed.
Then placed carefully back on the shelf.

Did they find what they were looking for, some inspiration, belief or prayer that fitted the moment,  or was it all a bit too wishful and airy fairy and they walked scratching their head?

Most useful of all, there were also extremely helpful staff who directed us to a supermarket with clear, turn by turn directions.

"Yeehaaa" again ;-)


Friday, April 26, 2013

P is for plastics - images of America

One of the many joys of travelling is seeing how other cultures do normal everyday things. The tendency is not only to look for similarities and differences, but to wonder if they're doing whatever it is better!

Whilst I would love to have taken a tent and camped, it didn't seem particularly friendly. No doubt there were ravenous BEARS roaming around all over the place who'd just woken up and would be looking for a tasty meal - oh, and it was pretty cold as well!

So, motels it was.

In Australia, it's common for motel rooms to have a frig, kettle, either fresh or dinky containers of long-life milk, tea bags, coffee, sometimes cocoa and mostly there'll be small packs of sweet bikkies. Often there'll be a toaster and microwave as well! And there are china cups or mugs and generally real glasses for your water, juice or wine.

So it was with some surprise that we discovered this was not the usual custom in the US, at least where we visited. Plastic, polystyrene and paper were common not only in the rooms, but also where breakfast was included.

I've never seen such huge mounds of plastic after a meal. Large bins were strategically placed and full to overflowing each morning. This was presumably happening in motels all over the country as well as in fast food places everywhere. What an environmental disaster.
Is it because water is so scarce or is it a labour saving strategy? If there are no plates to wash, you don't need to employ anyone for the task, and also don't use water - which makes sense on a small scale, but country wide I'm not so sure.

Someone, somewhere may have done a comparison of the amount of water and cost required to extract oil, transport it to be made into the plastic pellets, then possibly somewhere else to be made into the plastic item, then ship it to the end user. I wonder if it uses less water over the life of the item? And of course, that's not including the environmental problems of disposing of plastics and their enormous role as a pollutant. There's more about plastics here: P is for Plastics and Pollution.

I'd never eaten a meal from a polystyrene bowl or plate before, and can't recommend it, there's an extraordinary amount of waste, polystyrene isn't biodegradable, and it's an unpleasant experience eating from them.  It's horrible stuff however you look at it. The wibbly plastic knife and fork weren't anywhere near capable of the demanding rigours of slicing through a waffle, even though it was freshly made.
 Great beer in a plastic container, just doesn't work ...
Honestly guys, paper plates, made from reliably sourced, sustainable timber must be better! See here for Info about the Sustainable Forestry Program. Some places are doing it really well! I'd love to see all the motel chains follow suite.

So how to manage when you're travelling? We purchased refillable traveller mugs, refilled the water bottles I'd brought from home with tap water, and mostly ate breakfast in our room using one container each that doubled as a bowl. It was sturdy enough to survive! We mostly used our own knives, forks and spoons at the provided breakfast and took a spoon with us when we purchased a drink and wanted to stir it. It mightn't have made a huge difference to the amount of plastic that was disposed, but ... well, it's a start.

Some information about being a responsible traveller is here


Thursday, April 25, 2013

O is for oil - images of America

Oil comes from deep underground
 from vast areas of land
to feed our addiction,
to power trains, cars and trucks
vying for space with agriculture: vineyards
and orchards of oranges, plums and olives in the fertile valley where sometimes the air is clear and mountains visible.
More often resulting in toxic air,
and problems we don't seem to be either willing or able to solve adequately (see N is for noxious)

The high Sierra Nevadas can't always be seen through the dense haze, the magnificent snow capped peaks are hidden, yet you know they're there ... somewhere.

From the valley floor, you drive through mile upon mile of orange groves, the sprays and fertilisers adding to the toxic potion rising up into the mountains when the conditions are right (or wrong depending on how you look at it).

The geography and climate cause an inversion layer to form over the valleys, trapping the air and concentrating the pollutants in it. A high proportion (10%) of the US population lives in California, and whilst air quality has improved over the years, more will need to be done to ensure the survival and health of the plants and animals in the surrounding peaks as well as the health of the people on the valley floor.

A 2013 interactive map by the California Environmental Protection Agency showing assorted data including pollutants can be found via this link.


N is for Noxious: images of America

N could have been for nightmare, describing the nerve-wracking experience of driving on the wrong side of the road. A "character building" experience from which I'm still recovering!

Or N could be for "No".  The kind of long, drawn out "No" one utters when stuck for words after having seen something surprising or unexpected. A bit like "Nooooooo, that can't possibly be real."

"No!" in the sense I've described above, could refer to the close relationship some US citizens have with Aliens, the extraordinary landscape of Death Valley, the giant Sequoia trees, the weird Joshua trees or the strange fibrous golden floss on the tree below:
"NO, that can't possibly be real" is also how one friend reacted when I told her of the warnings I'd read about becoming ill as a result of visiting the Sequoia National Park.

But unfortunately it's true, so N is for noxious. An unpleasantly accurate word for poisoning the air so badly beneath the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks that tourists are warned that during the Summer months they may feel light headed and ill and are advised when it's unsafe to hike. Job applicants are warned that the workplace can be unhealthy. Your lungs can be blistered by the pollutants surging up from the valley below.

Visiting the Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Parks can make you ill. That deserves an extremely loud NO - this should not be allowed to continue. Surely it's time to invest heavily in addressing the pollution problem at the source, increasing funding to the responsible agencies and supporting the National Parks Service rather than continually cutting back!

National Parks are traditionally places where people come to become rejuvenated, they paint, contemplate, exercise and delight in the wonders of nature.

Wikipedia informs us (here) that:
On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that mandated the agency [ie the National Park Service] "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." (my bold)
But in less than a hundred years from that mandate, trees which can live for over 2500 years are being damaged by airborne pollutants. The generations in between have allowed an appalling situation to arise ... continue ... and get worse.

The noxious air is a combination of fertilisers, PCB's (which affect wildlife reproduction, intelligence and behaviour as well as leading to cancers and mutations) pesticides from the sprays used on fruit trees in the highly productive valley as well as pollutants from factories and vehicles.

The beautiful, majestic forest of giant Sequoia trees are suffering from the noxious air. Seedlings are stressed and some trees have yellowing, dropping needles. Of course, it's not just the awe inspiring Sequoia trees, but other varieties as well.

Their worth is beyond a dollar value, our entire environment is priceless and unable to be replicated.
For now tourists can stand in awe at the base of these amazing trees, to muse and wonder as they gaze upwards with delight.

Where will they and we be in another hundred years?

A 2013 interactive map by the California Environmental Protection Agency showing assorted data including pollutants can be found via this link.

You can read more about the toxic fumes here, here and here. A quick Google search will lead to many more discussions about the air pollution.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

M is for Marilyn Monroe - images of America

Along with hundreds of other tourists, we came across a gigantic statue of Marilyn Monroe in Palm Springs, in fact she's massive*. She's presented in the iconic pose, laughing joyously; the pose exudes a sense of fun and is eye-catching.
(thanks to Hilary over at Positive Letters ... Inspirational Stories for the massive suggestion)
We heard accents from many different countries, England, Germany, Russia and Ireland along with many locals. Some of the people who queued politely and patiently to have their photos taken standing at Marilyn Monroe's feet may never have seen her in any movies - they were young, possibly the age she was when she died in 1962. (I've noticed my perception of age has changed as they years progress, some people might have perceived them as old!)

People were swapping phones and cameras, taking photos for people they'd never met before, so that everyone who wanted could have a memento as well. I was struck with how polite and orderly everyone was. The British are known for their ability to queue neatly - but they definitely aren't on their own!

It's testament, not only to excellent marketing, but the the allure of this fabulous pose that her legend lives on.
We barely come up to her knee caps!
For overseas visitors desperate for coffee, there are a couple of places opposite the statue (ie opposite Starbucks) which serve a drinkable cappuccino - not brilliant, but certainly better than most!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

L is for Lakes - images of America (and Australia)

A lake, with water in it!
And snow!
For an Aussie to find a perfect lake surrounded by snow capped mountains and with snow receding on a gravelly shore is a thing of wonder and delight!
The morning sun hits the trees, creating lovely shadows and a rich red on the tree trunks at Richardson's Camp, Lake Tahoe.
For travellers who have come from lands where the word lake conjures up images of wide expanses of crystal clear water and delightful wooden homes fetchingly built to make the most of the fragrant breezes, some Australian lakes could come as a bit of a surprise.
Lake Hart - South Australia. Fabulous red rolling hills, greenish tussocky grasses, shimmering water in the lake positively welcoming you to don the bathers, grab a towel and leap in with shouts of glee. Or perhaps what you see isn't what you get!

Lake Hart is called a lake, because sometimes, on rare occasions, flood waters that originated thousands of kilometres way in Queensland, flow across the flat landscape and end up here and taadaa, there's water and huge numbers of birds flock to breed. Mostly though, there's no water, just salt as far as they eye can see. No swimming or fishing, though that would be very welcome! Not only overseas tourists, but many locals are bewildered by the use of the word lake and their hopes are rudely shattered when they arrive. (Here's a post about an unsatisfying visit to Lake Hart.)

 What better place to relax than in the middle of a peaceful lake?
Salt used to be collected here. It was scooped up and brought to shore by train for processing.  It's a long way out along the old rotten tracks before you can find a good spot to relax away from the madding crowds ;-)
There were however, similarities between Lake Tahoe and Lake Hart. There were few people around and we virtually had the shoreline to ourselves to stroll, dream and be absorbed by the beauty, peace and silence. It was also too cold to swim at either lake, even if there had been water in Lake Hart! The desert can be cold too!

Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for Knobbly - images of America

Fantastic knobbly rock formations at Pyramid Lake 
The colour of Pyramid Lake was extraordinary. It was a rich turquoise, surrounded by a barren landscape with stubbly dead looking grasses and a flat shoreline. Everything seemed coloured with the same drab hue - bland, unexciting, dusty, repetitive and yet mesmerising. The rock formations were surreal and improbable. Some looked like a child's "blob and drip" sandcastle - the kind you can only make with some beach sands which have to be of the perfect consistency to drip and flow without merging into the surrounding sand. In parts they'd eroded and exposed the inner layers which were brain like in appearance, others more like the spine of a long dead animal. Amazing!
As with many lakes and waterways, overuse for irrigation, and general mismanagement since white settlement has seen fish stocks depleted and salinity increase.

We really don't have a good track record of looking after our food or water supplies sustainably.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

J is for Joshua trees - images of America

These interesting tree shaped plants were in flower when we visited.  The story is that they were named by Mormon settlers, and being steeped in stories from the bible, they named them after Joshua holding his arms up in prayer.

They have a strange beauty and I imagine on a moonlit night some could look very like a tall person, looming out of the darkness.

Watching me running around trying to get my phone high enough above my head to get a photo of the flowers must have been amusing for any onlookers! I really needed a ladder or telephoto lens (I wonder if they'll eventually make them for phones?)

Thankfully there weren't many people around, which is probably just as well as I'd decided to take the plunge and try driving through the Mojave Reserve. My logic went that it would be relatively safe - there were few animals around, and plants can be reliably trusted to stay where they are and not take it into their heads and run across the road!

We survived! The hire car survived! I managed to park on the side of the road in a very respectable manner. The big challenge was driving into a town ... with stoplights ... and daydreaming pedestrians with skittish children ... and needing to turn a corner - thank goodness there weren't any roundabouts!