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October 15, 2005



So this is it. That was that. My trip is over and I'm back in Europe after a year and half away. "Reassimilation" has been very easy: everyone seemed to remember me (including the cat) and nothing much has changed. In fact, after a few days revelling in the joys of not having to haul around a backpack, knowing where I would sleep each night, and rediscovering the clothes in my wardrobe, it was as though I had never been gone.

I've been sorting through about a billion photo CD ROMs I'd posted home, trying to put them in some kind of order. It's brought back memories from my trip, and I've been thinking about my favourite moments and those that, frankly, I'd rather forget. So in the manner of TV channels that have nothing new to broadcast and end up cobbling together cheesy old clips compilations, I bring you: Rowena's Best Of...

Best of... Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Best long-distance bus journey (surely an oxymoron?): Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires. It was certainly long at 33 hours, but the bus was comfortable, the company interesting, the rest-stops thankfully few (where's the attraction after all in hanging around some petrol station in the middle of nowhere at four in the morning?) and as for the free champagne... well, what more can I say?

Special mention: the magnificent Ghan (trains, buses... whatever, it's all the same when you're stuck on them for days on end) and the minibus trips through WA with Zoe, where we played boredom-induced games such as Twenty Questions with dried apricots and 'I Went to the Supermarket' with topical answers that reduced us to hysterical laughter. Blame it on the heat, I say.

And the wooden spoon goes to: Srinagar to New Delhi. Military convoys; people taken hostage en route; stops for lengthy prayers; 40 degree heat with no fans, let alone air con; and narrow winding roads through Himalayan ravines and precipices... do not a happy journey make.

Runner up: Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay. It doesn't bode well when the bus breaks down before you've even got going and the passengers have to get out and push.

Best airport: Singapore. I don't think it's exaggerating to say that I would quite happily live there, like the guy in "The Terminal." I reckon I could make a nice life for myself - pottering around the terminals checking my email on the free internet, relaxing on the comfy chairs, mooching around the orchid garden...

Wooden spoon: Tahiti. I spent two nights - two! - in that scuzzy airport, sleeping on a hard wooden bench, only to find that the actual departure lounge (which you can only get into once you've checked in and gone through immigration) is like an airport paradise, full of squashy leather settees and even a garden. Not impressed.

Best of... Grub

Best food: probably India, when it wasn't laced with disease. I loved all the vegetarian options and the regional variations. Just a pity I only had a week to enjoy it before it gave me giardia, a hideous gastro-intestinal illness that took months to recover from completely. But apart from that...

Special mention: gotta love the pastries, cakes and sucos in South America. So cheap, so tasty, so... uh, fattening. Would recommend dulce de leche with everything.

Wooden spoon: it pains me to say it because I loved Korea, but... pickled vegetables just don't hit the spot for me I'm afraid. Whatever I ordered seemed to arrive accompanied by little pots of minging cold preserved vegetables. Not stuff like carrots or potatoes, either. We're talking weird mushy things that were impossible to identify. Not even the pleasing names (bibambap, anyone?) were enough to redeem the sad, spicy little piles of goo.

Best of... Places to Kip

Best hostels: this is such a subjective topic as everyone has different ideas as to what constitutes a good place to stay. In addition, as Travis pointed out, you love or hate a hostel mainly because of whoever is staying there with you at the time. That said, this is my list, and to my mind, New Zealand had the best hostels (free food, hot tubs... mmm). In particular: The Villa in Picton, The Palace in Nelson and Fraureisenhaus in Christchurch.

Special mention: best places I stayed in, were of course non-hostels. However nice a hostel is, you can't get away from the fact that you're sharing a room and bathrooms with a whole bunch of other people. The fancy hotel in Sakhalin was pretty swish (apart from the kleptomaniacal cleaning staff), as was Steve and Jane's house in Sydney and Mark's place in Perth (with the comfiest bed in the world). Almost as cushy as Singapore airport. But not quite.

Wooden spoon: the possible brothel I unwittingly blundered into in Seoul and the cockroach-ridden hellhole in Pushkar. I wasn't keen on some of the cookie-cutter backpacker-oriented sleep factories you find in Australia, though these were easy to avoid.

Best of... The Rest

Best cities: Hanoi, Seoul, Hobart, Buenos Aires.

Wooden spoon: Alice Springs (hot, remote, dull), Christchurch (cold, miserable, boring), Sao Paulo (45 murders a day. Reason enough?). However, all these look like paradise destinations compared with the ultimate winner (well, loser), Korsakov. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I'd rather hammer pins under my fingernails than spend another afternoon in that dump.

Best adrenaline rush: skydiving. Jumping out of a plane at 45,000 ft was as amazing as I had always dreamed it would be.

Wooden spoon: bungy jumping. One of those glad-I've-done-it-but-only-because-it-means-I'll-never-have-to-again experiences. I'm just proud that I managed not to chicken out or wet my pants, though I did scream pathetically the entire time.

Best natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef, closely followed by Iguazzu Falls, Milford Sound and Uluru.

Best man-made wonder: the Taj Mahal. I was prepared to be underwhelmed having seen it so many times in pictures, but I was honestly astounded by its beauty and tranquility. The peaceful gardens, intricate inlaid detail, and overall symmetry were just perfect. I left it with a sense of calm that stayed with me despite the scary monkeys and persistent hawkers enveloping us outside.

Best beach: on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Palm trees, white sand, clear turquoise water... in short, just how you imagine a South Pacific island when you're daydreaming in a cubicle at work. It was a fantastic place.

Runner up: Eighty Mile Beach in Western Australia, which was huge and empty, save for millions of sand dollars and a glorious sunset reflected in the wet sand so that the vivid colours were everywhere.

Special mention: Prigorodnoye beach on Sakhalin Island in Russia. I'm taking it on trust that this was actually a beach, since it was under a few metres of solid ice when I was there. It was a massive sheet of white as far as you could see, with tiny specks of people ice-fishing.

I could go on forever in this vein, but suffice it to say that there were many highs and lows, and truly, I wouldn't change any of them. Except maybe the giardia. Yeah, that wasn't so hot. But I had a great trip and was lucky to see a lot of fantastic sights, meet many terrific people, have some crazy nights out and bizarre experiences, none of which I can do justice to here.

I've enjoyed writing this blog - for one thing, it's saved me from feeling guilty about not keeping a proper journal - but it looks like we're about to part ways. To be sure, it hasn't always been riveting reading, but I think I'd be scraping the barrel with dispatches from my next destination... the cubicle. Or potentially... the dole queue.

It's been real. As the road train drivers don't really say at all: keep on truckin'!


Posted by Rowena at 06:31 PM
Category: Lists

October 11, 2005

Lap of Luxury

I had planned to travel up to Asuncion, then up to Campo Grande and the Pantanal, but it turned out there wasn't a bus for five days. I had recently been offered more work in Russia and it looked likely that I would head back to Sakhalin in early November. I didn't want to fly straight from South America and wanted a chance to see everyone at home again and ditch my stinky backpack, so I changed my flight to London at the last minute. I then couldn't get a place on a bus from Montevideo to Sao Paulo, so I ended up having to wait eight hours in the bus station, then catching a bus to Porto Alegre, then another epic wait and another overnight bus journey. It's fortunate that the South American buses are so luxurious, although there was no free champagne on these trips! I've been spoilt forever now!

I reached Sao Paulo at six in the morning (after a surprisingly deep sleep) and after two days and two nights without a bed or a shower, I was feeling pretty manky. I had no desire to go back into the city, and my flight wasn't until 21.30 that night, so I had twelve hours to kill. I couldn't face the prospect of trying to shower and sleep at the bus station or any of the sketchy hotels in the vicinity which looked as though you'd pay by the hour for a room, so I decided to finish my trip clean and well-rested, and checked into the Novotel for a day. Decadent, eh? I loved it - had a gorgeous hot shower with clean towels, watched some trashy telly, slept peacefully for a few hours, then had another shower... just because I could.

The flight to London was all right, though I was stuck in the seat near the toilets - despite checking in early and asking for another. Varig is probably the worst airline I've flown on as they seem to be consistently delayed and I always end up in a crummy seat. The aeroplane itself was an MD-11 which looked like it hadn't been updated since the 1970s, with small discoloured TV screens hung above the aisle. We took forever to take off and I wondered whether we'd ever get airbourne or if the pilot planned to drive to London. It was the only flight I've been on where the cabin crew led the applause when we landed, with whoops and cheers. I don't know whether it was an in-joke on their part, or genuine relief that we'd made it without incident, but it didn't fill you with confidence. At least we hadn't made any stops en route, though there were some poor lemons staying on board to go onto Copenhagen.

Not unexpectedly, it was raining at Heathrow. I was going to try and get a bus from London to Brussels, but realised I would miss it after the delay and the time it took to get out of the plane, through immigration, customs, baggage collection, and into central London. I knew there was a BMI flight leaving at 14.30 and decided to try and catch that, since it was the cheapest one going and the same price as the Eurostar (which, by the way, is extortionate at the moment). By the time I had raced through the underground passages at the airport from Terminal 4 to 1 - losing control of my trolley along the way and crashing into a wall, to the mirth of onlookers - it was 14.00. They let me buy a ticket and told me to move fast and I rushed through to the gate, where they were doing the last call. Made it!

Posted by Rowena at 06:11 PM
Category: Brazil

October 09, 2005


On my last day in Buenos Aires, Marcelo took me to lunch at a lovely restaurant. We had a long chat as the business people from nearby offices flocked in, ate and then returned to their desks. I wasn't very organised - just for a change - and Marcelo gave me a lift to the Buquebus and we had a coffee as I waited to board the 19.30 boat to Uruguay. Meeting people like Marcelo, who are interesting and knowledgeable, is one of my favourite things about travelling.

We said goodbye and I boarded the boat, only to realise I had a stack of postcards with Argentinian stamps in my bag. Luckily, I managed to persuade one of the boat staff to take them with her and post them. The boat sailed to Colonia, where we went through customs and were met by a bus to take us to Montevideo. The other passengers were mainly wealthy Argentinians heading to Punta del Este, a swanky upscale beach town in Uruguay, where they were arranging places to rent for the summer season.

Montevideo was a nice city - not one to set the world on fire or anything - but quite pleasant. I spent a couple of days wandering around getting the lay of the land and seeing the sights. There were some interesting markets - one selling touristy tat, another with fruit and veg, one down at the port with loads of restaurants (and options for the non-steak-eaters) and then my favourite: a flea market in a park. I love shuffling around stalls, looking at other people's gems and junk, which in this market seemed to have in equal measure. There were pieces of beautiful vintage jewellery next to tacky plastic beads, and rare books and intricate ceramics near tatty old nightdresses and rubbishy magazines. The strangest thing to me was the sight of loads of boxes of old family photographs and postcards. I had a look through one carton and it was all so poignant and sad, these people posing decades ago, little knowing that they would end up one day in a jumble sale. I wondered whether the stallholders were being forced to sell these treasured bits of family history because they were so desperate for money, but when I asked about it, I was told that simply no one wanted the pictures anymore. I'm a real sentimental sucker, and I ended up buying three photos because I felt so sorry for them, all lonely and unwanted and forgotten, stuffed in an old shoebox. Then I watched some dancing and had a lovely cheap meal for tea...

Posted by Rowena at 06:02 PM
Category: Uruguay

October 04, 2005

Buenos Aires

The bus journey to Buenos Aires from Sao Paulo took 33 hours. It was 13 hours before the bus stopped for a break. I can't begin to imagine how many tea stops the New Zealand Intercity bus would have made by then.

I had tried to get a bus to Montevideo, but the bus company wouldn't let me since I didn't have the legally required entrance paper in my passport. The Argentinian authorities had removed it in Foz do Iguazu and I hadn't realised I needed another one. I was stuck in Sao Paulo for a bit and had a slight meltdown before trying a company that went to Argentina and would let me on. That is, they sold me a ticket and said it would be no problem, but then refused to let me board at 23.30 that night when we were due to leave. Eventually the driver let me on, after some other passengers weighed in on my behalf, though he told me the bus would wait for 10 minutes at immigration if I had problems, but no longer. I managed to cross the border the next afternoon with a little help from my fellow passengers and the driver, who demanded a bottle of wine as a reward.

The bus journey was the most comfortable I've ever had, with big fat reclining seats, footrests and a free dinner. They showed some awful films with different language combinations (Spanish dialogue, Portuguese subtitles didn't work so well for me) but we got free breakfast (a little tray of crackers) and dinner at a bus stop, which included champagne! Woo hoo! Granted, the champagne bottle had a picture of a bus on it, and wasn't the best, but who cares when it's free and at a bus stop? Not me. A guy even came round when we were back on the bus to give out glasses of whisky. I spent most of the time reading, listening to music and chatting to Marcelo, an Argentinian idealist philosopher who had led a very interesting life (and looked a little like Gabriel Byrne). We had a good laugh and a long conversation about everything from regrets to Seneca.

Buenos Aires reminds me of Brussels - the same shabby grand old houses, the smell of croissants and cakes emanating from little cafes, and the ubiquitous dog mess. Calle Florida is a bit like Rue Neuve - lots of shops and people cruising around. Bizarrely, the world and his wife wanted to sell me a fur coat and kept popping out of doorways and thrusting leaflets into my hand. In Brazil, I got asked for directions a few times and people didn't seem to see me as an obvious foreigner, whereas here for some reason, everyone knows I'm a gringo.

I had a great time in Buenos Aires: saw the Casa Rosada and the musuem, the Cabildo, the National Congress, the Cathedral, and wandered around the streets, stopping off every now and then in the gorgeous cafes. I love it that everyone takes time to sit around and have a cup of coffee and a cake while reading the newspaper or having a chat. The Recoleta Cemetary was a strange place, with streets of mausoleums like little houses, complete with net curtains in some cases. Others were a bit broken and you could see coffins and urns inside. There were stray cats everywhere, and loads of tourists looking for Evita´s grave. I went to the fantastic Museum of Fine Arts, which was filled with school children, all dressed in their uniforms, which consisted of white lab coats, strangely enough. They looked like an army of teeny tiny doctors and dentists.

I went to La Boca, a really touristy area at the mouth of the river, where the Boca Juniors stadium is located. There was a match on, and a guy I spoke to at the hostel the next day told me that he'd been on a bus and all these hooligans appeared and tried to board, ripping off the rearview mirrors and bashing them on the doors. I met a couple of Argentinian guys and their Italian friend who all worked as lifeguards on the Adriatic Coast, and ended up going for lunch with them back in the city. It was an all-you-can-eat place, which is a dangerous proposition for a backpacker. I ended up making a complete pig out of myself, especially when it came to the dessert table. I came back with a big wobbling overloaded pile of puddings and tarts on my plate, only to find that the guys had each chosen one small polite slice of cake. They goggled at my enormous helping and remarked on my "healthy appetite."

The four of us - Luca, Lucas, Jeremiah and I - took the metro to Palermo and wandered around the Botanic Gardens, which was full of manky-looking stray cats meowing about, and the Japanese Garden, which seemed to be undergoing some reconstruction. They acted as muscle - and interpreters - during my negotiations with the camera shop man. He demanded 350 pesos to repair the broken zoom, which seemed extortionate. I decided not to get it fixed, but when he returned the camera to me, it turned out to be working - the mechanic must have sorted it out despite me not paying for it. Mwa ha ha!

We mooched around for a bit and they cracked me up. Latin American men seem to feel obligated to flirt with every woman they pass on the street, even yelling their "piropos" across the road. They do it in such a way though, that it just makes me laugh and doesn't seem especially leery or threatening. I've found that generally the people I've met here have been friendly and relaxed, with a really good sense of humour. Buenos Aires is somewhere I'd definitely like to return to.

Posted by Rowena at 03:15 PM
Category: Argentina

September 29, 2005

Sleepless in Sao Paulo

I´ve been having problems sleeping for three weeks or so now. I don´t know whether it´s jet lag, or the result of interrupted sleep on aeroplanes and in airports, or what, but it makes me cranky and tired. I went into a pharmacy called `Farto´ and bought a small packet of sleeping pills, but they are `natural´ (I didn´t want to get the hardcore ones for the same reason I don´t use ear plugs when travelling alone, in case there´s some kind of emergency like a fire, and I don´t wake up) and didn´t work. Maybe a niiiiiice looooong distance bus journey will help...

I was out like a light on the flight from Foz to Sao Paulo. We stopped off in Curitiba on the way and some people left and others got on, much like a bus. It was the same coming from LA to Rio - we stopped in Sao Paulo and they came on to clean the plane while a bunch of us were sitting in it, hoovering around our feet.

I got into Sao Paulo later than I expected after just missing a bus and it turned out that the hotel described by the infuriatingly useless Lonely Planet as being on a quiet, safe street, was actually in a really dodgy area full of homeless people, sex shops, and dodgy characters lurking in doorways. I normally walk with confidence and try to blend in as much as I can, but when you are carrying a backpack and other bags, you might as well have a neon sign on your head saying ´I am a tourist. I have just arrived and don´t know where I´m going. I have all my belongings with me.´ I might as well have stuck a bullseye target on my back. I reached the hotel with relief, only to find it was full, and so were some others I approached in the area. I finally found one that was more expensive than I would have liked, but I was pretty desperate to get off the streets by that point.

Sao Paulo is a ginormous, dirty, crowded city full of street vendors and haphazard roads. I visited the MASP (art gallery), which had a fantastic collection of art by the likes of Degas, Monet, Constable and Picasso, and found a loud protest taking place outside by students, carefully watched by battalions of police. I walked around the city with a leaflet I´d picked up at the tourist info place which pointed out the sights. Not the safest place I´ve ever been though, and am planning to leave tonight...

Posted by Rowena at 07:40 PM
Category: Brazil

September 28, 2005

Ciudad del Este

I´d been running into two Colombian guys for a couple of days, and saw them again on the bus that crossed into Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. We were all going there for the day to see the Itaipu dam, a massive hydroelectric project, but they were doing some cheap duty-free shopping first. I tried to go straight to the dam but ended up missing the stop and was stuck at the bus terminal in the middle of nowhere for a while, being offered ´yerba mate´, a weird herbal drink in a tin cup with a metal straw and listening to romantic orations by the boss of the station. I have never had so many marriage proposals in such a short space of time - Paraguay seems to be the place to come if your self-esteem is flagging. I´ve heard a fair bit about the Latin American ´machismo´ but this was the first time I saw it in action.

I eventually made it to the dam after crawling under a barbed wire fence, and found my Colombian amigos looking bemused. It turned out that the 13.30 tour that we´d been aiming to get was on schedule, but that Paraguay was an hour behind Brazil, so we were an hour early. None of us could afford to hang around for a long tour since we had to be back in Foz in the late afternoon. Dielo and Eduardo were catching a bus to Sao Paulo, and I, for once, was flying, thanks to Gwen, the wonder-agent who´d booked my tickets and made sure I stayed below the mile threshold I paid for. We managed to sort out that we´d do the main bit of the tour, miss the video, and then take a taxi across the border. We hung around for an hour in the cafe, chewing the fat, and they were very patient with my um-ing and er-ing Spanish.

It turned out we were the only ones on the tour, so our guide, Marta, gave us her undivided attention. Luckily, she spoke very clearly so I could understand, and she had an incredible memory for all the statistics she reeled off. Unless she was making them up off the top of her head - I guess we wouldn´t know the difference. The dam was built in the 1970s and is a binational project, supplying almost all of Paraguay´s energy and some of Brazil´s (they have 9 turbines each). The scale of the dam is massive and the lake behind it is colossal, though it is still paying off the debt incurred in its construction.

We took a taxi back to Ciudad del Este, as the driver´s papers weren´t in order so he wouldn´t take us over the border. It was just as well since the road leading up to the bridge was packed with traffic. We walked a way, stopping for the Colombian guys to buy a Carlos Vives CD as a present for me, as they told me I would like Colombian music. We got a minibus into town and then I rushed to get a bus to the airport, arriving 45 minutes before take off. Luckily for once, the flight was delayed.

Posted by Rowena at 07:22 PM
Category: Paraguay

September 27, 2005

Foz do Iguazu

Waterfalls. Nice and all, but not usually anything to write home about in my experience, apart from Niagara. Well, Iguazu Falls pretty much blew Niagara out of the water, so to speak. There are 275 separate `cataratas´ and the effect is just amazing, with walls of water plunging hundreds of feet into the river, surrounded on all sides by rainforest. The river runs along the border between Brazil and Argentina, and you can see the falls from both sides. In the Brazilian park, I was blown away by my first sight of the waterfalls, and then as I continued on the path, I realised that what I´d seen was just one part of the whole. The parks are really well maintained (and should be after extracting a hefty entrance fee) and you can get up close to the torrents on catwalks and overlooks, where you end up soaked to the skin by the fierce spray. There are loads of racoon-like creatures hanging around scavenging for food, which are actually quite sweet. From the Brazilian side, you see a good panorama of the falls, but on the Argentinian side, you can cross the Rio Iguacu itself and see the Garganta del Diablo (throat of the devil) section of the falls, and stand over the gushing water with rainbows appearing in the spray and the thunder of the crashing water in your ears. It was strange crossing the border into Argentina and suddenly being able to understand some of what was being said in Spanish, then going back into Brazil on the same public buses and not understanding anything again. I will never look at waterfalls in the same way again!

Posted by Rowena at 06:59 PM
Category: Brazil

September 24, 2005

Rio de Janeiro

Brazil is great! Everyone is really relaxed here, no one hassles you, people are always helpful and friendly. Unless they're robbing you blind of course, and I've heard some pretty hair-raising tales, but thankfully none to tell first-hand at the moment.

Rio de Janeiro is a huge, exciting, sprawling city of extremes, where the scenery varies from beaches to jungle-covered hills, and the districts range from swanky guarded apartment blocks in Ipanema to the forsaken favelas. Rio is incredibly multi-cultural and there are pastry and juice shops everywhere. I stayed in Gloria, and explored the city by foot, bus and metro, since luckily the public transport system - in stark contrast to LA - was great. The weather wasn't great - in fact a mini cyclone hit while I was there and caused flooding; I don't think I've ever seen so much rain fall at once, it was as though someone was tipping a giant bucket from the sky - so I had a mooch around a couple of museums and a cathedral. The Museu del Republica, was a beautiful old palace with ornate furniture and murals, and rather creepily included a room preserved exactly as it was when a former president committed suicide in it. There was even the revolver and his pyjamas with a bullet hole in them, in a glass case! The Museu de las Belas Artes had interesting modern and classic Brazilian art, and exhibitions on Rodin and Boudin, among others. In the upstairs galleries, the paint was chipping away from the walls, the lights were dim and there were buckets on the wooden parquet to catch drips from the broken ceiling. It was a grand old building, but falling apart somewhat, and it made me realize just how much effort goes into art galleries where you don't even notice the expert lighting and layout.

I took the cog train up to the famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue overlooking the city. I can understand some written Portuguese in the newspaper or on signs, but am totally lost whenever anyone speaks, and I clearly have an appalling accent as people seem to find it hard to understand me when I try to say anything. I was trying to find a bus to go to the Corcovado, where the statue is located, but the person I asked just looked at me blankly until I ended up sticking my arms out with my feet together like the statue. It resulted in a communications breakthrough, but I'm not sure it's ever a good idea to do a Jesus imitation in a religious country.

By the time I got up there, the statue itself was shrouded in mist and there was no hope of seeing any of the spectacular views since you could barely see a hand in front of your face. The fog cleared ever so slightly for a brief minute so that the statue was visible (cue a cheer from the crowd of other disappointed tourists) but then regathered.

Copacabana and Ipanema were also a bit of a washout when I went there: gone were the throngs of bronzed people, in their place were hoards of pigeons. I'm sure it looks better in the sunshine, but I wasn't blown away by the beaches. They were nice enough, but so is the Costa del Sol I suppose. I think I'm turning into a beach snob!

I took the cable cars up the Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) with a Brit and a Belgian guy who didn't like heights and was not a happy camper swaying hundreds of feet above Rio. The view was stunning as the sun set behind the Cristo statue and bathed the city in warm orange. You could see the beaches and mountains and islands as the sky turned different colours and the lights came on. It was a wonderful vista and my faithful camera chose the moment we got there to break. The lens refused to pop out no matter how much I prodded and poked it, and since I had no money for a disposable one, I will just have to remember the beauty of the panorama. And buy a postcard.

Posted by Rowena at 10:54 PM
Category: Brazil

September 19, 2005

So Long, Farewell...

Sad to leave California. It's nice to be somewhere familiar. It's not exactly "Cheers," where everyone knows your name, but I feel like I know my way around to an extent and understand where people are coming from. I find LA a fascinating city: there's so much about it I like and dislike at the same time, and it's never dull.

I've bought a guidebook to South America (I don't know how much use it will be given that it's trying to pack an entire continent into one book) and I'm off to Brazil this afternoon!

No more free internet access, so no more long and boring blog entries...

Posted by Rowena at 05:19 PM
Category: USA

September 18, 2005

Santa Barbara

I spent a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and I decided to go up there for a day to see it again. Public transport took, as usual, forever to get to the Greyhound Bus Terminal, and I ended up being dropped off Downtown in the middle of nowhere. I walked purposefully with no idea where I was going before finding one shop that was open and being told that I had eleven blocks to go. I set off and marched through what was pretty much Skid Row: everything barred up, hardly any traffic, gangs of homeless people hanging around or passed out or coming up to talk to me. I got to Greyhound and went in the maintenance entrance by mistake, passing buses undergoing repairs in a dark garage, then stumbled upon the main terminal.

When you 'ride the hound,' or indeed any public bus in the US, you meet people who you would never normally see from the windows of your car. In Europe, people of all walks of life use public transport, but here, it's mainly only those who can't afford cars. It amazes me how in these cities the rich can segregate themselves from the rest in wealthy enclaves and forget that anyone else exists since they don't see them. Geographically, it's not that far from Beverly Hills and Bel Air to South Central and Compton, or even Downtown. I suppose it's the same in most cities, to a greater or lesser extent.

I had forgotten how beautiful Santa Barbara is, and how much I enjoyed living there. It seemed like a calm oasis after LA, and I wandered around the streets, checking out the courthouse where I used to work, and State Street, where I used to potter around. I headed over to Isla Vista, where I lived and where UCSB is located. There were some new buildings and a lot of construction work, but it was mainly the same. It's a gorgeous campus with a lagoon, beach, museum and a big Rec Centre with an incredibly well-stocked bookstore and restaurants, where I worked in a pizza place and a salad bar. It was moving day and all the new freshman and their parents were running around buying things and unloading mountains of stuff from cars (why would you need to stockpile Pepsi?). The students seemed young, spoilt and vacuous - or maybe I'm just bitter? I envied them living in Santa Barbara for a few years and having access to all the things available there. I wandered around I.V., through D.P. (they're into their abbreviations) and the beach, passing lots of surfers, skaters and skinny sorority girls with megaphone-loud squeaky voices ("like, totally, and then, like, she said..."). I walked along the beach to Coal Oil Point, where I used to watch the sunset and I observed all the little pecky birds that run with the tide.

I was sad to leave Santa Barbara and it seemed to take forever to get back to LA. I hadn't slept properly for about a week and had been getting up very early and going to bed late. I couldn't face Downtown at night - it was scary enough during the day - so I disembarked in Hollywood. I went for a cup of tea with a guy I'd met on the bus who was a concert pianist/coffee shop manager. He was obsessed with Chopin and very into a strange form of yoga. He showed me a book about it and it was full of wacky theories about how people came from "Mars Sector 6" and Jesus was from Venus. It was all I could do to keep a straight face, but he was a nice guy and it's always interesting to meet people with different - very different - ideas to your own.

I ended up waiting an hour and a half for a bus. I stood next to Preston Sturges' star on the pavement (I've no idea who he was) and had a long chat with the other person waiting there - a teacher from Inglewood. We discussed all kinds of things and put the world to rights, and when the bus finally came, he helped me figure out where I had to get off to catch the 33 to Venice. I waited for the 33 at a junction and got talking to a guy called Robb and we analysed a car crash that happened as we were standing there. By this point, it was 2.30 in the morning and I was tired after a long day of walking around and not much sleep. I couldn't face waiting for perhaps another hour for a bus and was getting cold, so I decided to get a taxi. Robb told me he'd help me hail one as they were few and far between, but unfortunately they tended not to stop for a huge bloke with missing teeth clutching a beer can. I managed to coax one over and headed back to Venice and the snoring crazy lady in the bed next to mine.

Posted by Rowena at 08:27 PM
Category: USA
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