Saturday, September 24, 2005
PART NINE: Tikal, renovator's dream
As I write this, I'm now living in China and feel a little like a negative nancy as I ponder retrospectively on the experience. The thing is, despite the towering pyramids, the three thousand years of grafitti and the blood-soaked soils from the hundreds, if not thousands of battles fought on its grounds, I found the whole thing, frankly, a little underwhelming.
It's worth mentioning that over the course of these travels, I was reading a deeply depressing book given to me by a dear friend, called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Survive or Fail, written by a dangerously knowledgable chap called Jared Diamond. The book discusses the follies of extinct civilisations and draws comparisons with the modern world's short-sighted and rapacious existence. Essentially, Diamond's thesis is that most societies who are no longer with us came to grief through their own mismanagement of resources. The inhabitants of the Easter Islands, the Mayans, the Norse of Greenland, and many others, didn't just vanish. They starved themselves to death through deforestation, pollution, overgrazing, and a stupefying unwillingness to adapt to environmental change. Any that managed to survive then knocked each other's brains out over the last packet of M and Ms. By coincidence, the book covered many of the areas my companion and I traveled through, including Australia (my home), California (Diamond's home), the Netherlands, China, and Tikal. The book concludes that unless modern human beings prepare to make drastic changes to the way we live (which we won't), that shit's gonna get real fucked up (which, I firmly believe, it will). I never much liked the humans anyway and this book galvanised a lot of my personal beliefs about what a bunch of fucking idiots we really are. And I'm one of them. So, what's more, we're a bunch of hypocritical fucking idiots.
So, by the time I got to Tikal, having developed a blanket, shamefully racist dislike for whatever Spanish half-breed remnants of the Mayans that exist today, much of what I expected the impact of Tikal to be was replaced by a sort of sadistic glee at their horrendous fate, which really tarnished the 'magic'. As I've said before, it doesn't feel good to side with the Spanish.
Also, Tikal is now a major global tourist attraction, with a ticket office at the front gate. A line from Douglas Copeland's Generation X that has always stuck with me is "Purchased experiences are not real". That motto comes to me every time I fork out to see a tree, some clean water, a bird or two or, in this case, an ancient ruin. I wanted impenatrable jungle thickets surrounding the ruins, not well-maintained lawns. I wanted a babbling mountain stream to fill my canteen from, not a grinning Guatemalan hustler selling Sprite every 200 metres. I wanted the possible danger of bits of 2000-year-old brick crushing my skull, not treated pine struts and banisters bolted to everything to ensure that didn't happen.
That said, despite the commercial aspect and the hordes of tourists and the odd guy walking around with a revolver on his side (no, he wasn't a cop), the Tikal park is a rather beautiful place. Much of the vegetation that was removed for the site's excavation has re-established and there is a good deal of wildlife cavorting around, including hummingbirds which are just about the most heart-melting thing you'll ever see. And man, they fo' sho' is mighty tasty!
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
PART EIGHT: Guatemala
Juan wouldn't let up. After numerous encounters with numerous taxi drivers who circle around international airports and border crossings like sweaty vultures, we knew the best thing to do is always to have a bit of a sit and a think before committing to anything, but such was Juan's hustle, we relented and agreed to take his taxi to Tikal, the largest Myan site in Central America, and our destination for the day.
Travelling is learning. The price was $40 for about 60km, a tour bus, or 'collectivo' would have cost us almost as much, so we dragged our back-twisting packs through the carpark to his 'taxi', a shitbox '78 Corolla with only rust holding it together. I'm not too fussy though, I used to drive a Datsun 120Y. 1975.
We took off and some of the vehicle's mechanical problems surfaced immediately. First, there was no suspension in the rear. I'm not saying the suspension was bad, I'm saying there was NO SUSPENSION. Every bump resulted in ungodly thud that sounded like the axle was carving a new rut in the road. It was so bad, that around every corner, the Crapolla would veer dangerously to the left, resulting in fishtales and near-collisions with oncoming traffic. After five kms or so, JUAN told us he'd need some of the cash upfront to buy some fuel and pick up a spare tyre. I gave him the cash.
Off we went again in Juan's trademark deadly style, bumpy, bumpy, skiddy, skiddy, killy, killy. The further we went, the more cocky Juan got and the faster we went. He was throttling that Corolla at about 80 when a high-pitched whine started chiming from the rear right side. That's where my beloved companion was sitting. She was feeling a little travel weary by this point (we take shifts) and was not amused by the condition of the vehicle, nor the way it was being driven. She was even less amused by what happened next and, I gotta say, that's when the trip lost it's novelty as far as I was concerned, too.
The whining from the wheel was quickly followed by a loud pop. Juan's eratic style had pulled the rubber off the wheel in a spectacular blowout. Juan seemed pretty upset about it, but not at all apologetic. Given that I knew he had a spare in the boot, I didn't think it was too much of a problem. We were out in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a hill, and I looked at it as a chance to enjoy the view and have a fag. Which I did, as my companion seethed.
Juan pulled out the spare. I stared out into the distance with a relaxed smile. The spare didn't fit. My smile fell. Juan told me what I already knew (in Spanish) with no apology. My eyes became slits. After repeatedly trying to put a five-bolt tyre on a four-bolt wheel, Juan shrugged, gave up, and tried to hail passing cars for help. I reached for my stick. One guy stopped, another 'taxi' driver. He was much easier to deal with than Juan, and knew a little English. He explained that the tyre didn't fit. He also explained that he wasn't able to drive us the rest of the way as he was headed in the other direction. Juan's problem had become OUR problem. My companion's contractions started on the kittens she was about to give birth to on the backpack in the trench on the side of the goat track.
With the little Spanish I knew, I began asking Juan what the fuck we were going to do now, and how I could get my twenty back. Of course, the twenty was gone for good, and he did not know. Then another taxi pulled up, en route to Tikal. He knew Juan and came to some arrangment with him. After lengthy negotiation, we agreed (somewhat reluctantly on my part) that I was to give ANOTHER twenty to Juan and this new guy would take us the rest of the way. I looked over at this guy's car.It was a newer Corolla, and in much better condition. Not a bad option, you might think, except the car already contained the driver, the driver's wife, three of the driver's children, and a French couple about our age and, more importantly, our height.
Nonetheless, we shoehorned our bags into the boot, squeezed in the back seat with the Frenchies, while the driver's entire herd squeezed in up front. It was not a comfortable ride, particularly for my companion who rode on my lap with her pretty little legs hanging out the window.
We did get there eventually though, to an overpriced hotel near the ruins. Stepping out of the car and nearly treading on a tarantula was a highlight. As we marvelled at its hideousness, our driver jumped out and trod on it before we could take a photo. This offended me slightly, but I decided against launching into a lecture about the importance of maintaining the area's biodervsity. Even though we were in a national park. Instead, we tipped the driver and checked into our crappy room.
I swam in the hotel's pool as a storm rolled in and let the fat drops clean (some of) the caked dust out of my hair and nostrils. We'd made it to Tikal and the next day we'd see the ruins, which I'd been hanging out to do for ages. With some dep breathing, things were looking up.
PART SEVEN: Things that can suck my cock (a list)
Soooo, after Belize went to Guatemla, highlight: Antigua (beautiful colonial town), then Costa Rica for a week, then Venezuala for what was meant to be two weeks but ended up as one as we scurried the fuck out of there as fast as we possibly could to New York. Details later...
THINGS THAT CAN SUCK MY COCK (in no particular order) ...
1. Days Inn, Sherman Oaks
2. Day's Inn, Inglewood
5. American Express
6. American coffee
7. American customs officials
8. American border guards
10. Caracus (Venezuala)
11. The French
12. Jeff from Boston
13. My backpack
14. All the cunts in Caracus who wouldn't give me any change to make a phone call
15. Overpriced internet
16. Jeff from Boston
17. Sales taxes
18. Departure taxes
19. Lying scumbags
20. Defective taxis
21. Skytram, Costa Rica
22. The Empire State Building
23. Nigara on the Lake
24. Me for locking the keys in the car
25. My companion for making us go on the Skytram while the keys were locked in the car
26. Drivers in Costa Rica
27. The price of hotel rooms in New York
28. The price of cigarettes in New York
29. The price of everything in New York
30. The guy on the subway with the bandage over his leaking brain who told me I was disgusting
32. Ritz Camera
33. The Fuji Finepix
Of course, there's a lot more things to go on this list, but I left my paper copy at home. Stay tuned for additions.
Next chapter, Guatemala...
Thursday, July 21, 2005
PART SIX: It´s so much nicer in Western Belize
As I said, Belize City is totally unrepresentative of what is actually a stunning country. From BC, we took a water taxi out to Caye Caulker which I think is about ten miles off the coast. It's an equal mix of Mestizos (natives who were forced off the mainland by the Spanish), Africans who were dumped there by the Brits who brought them out as slaves, and whitey tourists.
The official language of Belize is English, which came as an enormous relief to me, because my Spanish is el shitto maximosa. I realised in Mexico, just how much of a person is defined by their language. When deprived of my use of English, I had no personality. I felt like my body had been taken over by a big, dumb, wide-eyed retard, who can't say nuffint. It's a simple thing, but to be able speak the native tongue of the locals was a huge comfort.
Sadly, there was a touch of the del Carmens on Caye Caullker, with a lot of the locals looking at you as a big dollar sign. Still, lobster season had just started and the Creole influence in the food resulted in us stuffing our faces with loster, conch and snapper, cooked to perfection, for around US$10. I'd never tried lobster before and, having had my fill, probably never will again.
We ended up staying there for the Lobster Fest over the weekend. We probably should have gone on the Friday. The fest wasn´t that flash and accomodation prices doubled for that weeknd which put a bit of a tarnish on our time there. But the memories of Caye Caulka, for mine, will be the cheap rum cocktails, the stunning dusky women and the snorkelling, which, all in all, was pretty beaut. I also bought a cane made from a local hardwood It´s name translates as ironwood, cos it´s hard as fuck. I bought it primarily as a pretty souvenir, and secondly as a Mexican-bashing whoop-ass stick. Little did I know how soon I would have an opportunity to use it. Or at least threaten to.
Back on the boat, back to Belize City to get a tourist van out to the Cayo district, in the tiny country´s west. The AA really came out on the tourist bus. We´d paid the extra for the van as the guy who sold us the ticket said it cost a little more but was a much quieter, more comfortable option. He was lying. And, as it turned out, he was the biggest problem. He was ON the bus, for some reason. Initially, I found that kinda reassuring. Standing behind your product, etc. Right from the get-go, however, the driver had an attitude problem. When we asked if my companion had time to visit the ladies, we were met with a harsh response in the negative. We were going right away. Ten minutes later, my compaion had little wees leaking down her leg. She went off to the toilet, and came back, and there we sat for at least another five. As most readers will be aware, I also have an attitude problem. And by this stage, I also had a big stick with which to back it up.
About ten minutes into the two-hour trip, the guy who sold us the ticket (and also spoke the Queen´s tongue), started chatting up this chick behind him. They might have known each other, but I´m trying to paint him in the ugliest light possible for the purpose of this anecdote. Anyway, so this dispicable sleaze started yammering away to this girl in Spanish, EXTREMELY loudly. "llororllorlrorooll" "rllroorllrloroorooorrrroolooolllo," he prattled. "lllooroorlllrlrooool". If he´d ben speaking at anappropriate volume, this leg of the journey would not even rate a mention. It´s important that everyone understand that. "llororlrolyyyoyoyolllrorollooo". My companion and I were right next to the chick he was attempting to seduce, so we were right down the barrell of this guy´s spitty meanderings. It really started getting on my nerves. As if copping this guy´s Spanish spray wasn´t enough, the driver put a tape in the stereo. At high volume. Possibly to drown out the fuckstick next to him, it just occurrs to me. So the music was modern hideous Spanish pop, in the style of Christina Aguilera, but more romantic and with zero production value. So now we´ve got the rapist on one side and this unlistenable crud on the other.
After failed attempts at glaring the spittly rapist/murderer into silence and further failures attempting to locate the mp3 player to attempt to drown him out, the noise just kept getting louder. I started grinding my teeth away and eventually said to the rapist, "Look mate, either you shut the fuck up, the driver turns off this fucking God-awful fucking music, or (pointing at the stick) I will lose it, and bad shit will happen. OK?" The driver did turn the sound down (a little), and the rapist did lower his voice. For a while. Before long, the noise was back to its original level but by that time I was too sad to care. We got to San Ignacio town were we were dropped off on the main road outside of town. I was glad to be off the bus, but still tense from the ride.My companion went off to investigate where we needed to go to get the centre of town. I chainsmoked and looked after the bags.
Almost immediately, I was accosted by a ragged local with rage and the redness of hard drink in his eyes. "You looking for trouble?" he asked me after blurting something I couldn´t understand. "No. Are you looking for trouble?" I responded, some part of me itching for the opoortunity to work out my aggression on a living, bleeding thing. "You looking for trouble?" he went again. "Are you fucking looking for trouble?" was my reply, as I stood, lit a cigarillo and did as close to a Clint Eastwood slitty-eyed stare-down as I could manage. The guy backed off a little bit and said he doesn´t like Americans coming to town. "Í don´t like Americans either. I´m a fucking Australian. Orright?" I offered him a cigarette. "I am from Belize." "Nooooo." He didn´t quite get the sarcasm and lit up, and we had a civil chat about the relative merits of Belize and the US. By the end of it, he was feeling up my biceps telling me I was perfect and beautiful. Situation diffused. "Welcome to San Ignacio".
San Ignacio, in fact, everything we saw of the Cayo district reminded me of home. Not Sydney, but where Im from originally, the north coast of NSW. The British influence has created some similarities between Belize and Australia, such as saying there´s a "whole heap" of things, bitter beer and other little things like that. Specifically, though, the town reminded me of so many on the north coast. Run-down weatherboard houses, lush green hills surrounding, evening showers and lightning, steamy mornings, and a shallow rock-bottom stream running through. We lucked out on the first couple of nights, accomodation-wise. We went to a hotel called Marthas and we told there no standard rooms available, only the penthouse suite, at US$60 a go. That´s a fair bit of scratch in Belize terms, but we were up for a little luxury and took the room. I couldn´t throw my credit card at him fast enough. The hotel itself was a beautiful colonial remnant left by the Spanish, who later got squeezed out of Belize by the British. The building being so pretty, it was a fair assumption that the suite would be, well, SWEET. And it was. A huge room, with kitchenette and two balconies, one of which was enormous, fully equipped with hammocks, rocking chairs, outside dining setting and the like, and boasted views over all of San Ignacio town. And cable TV.
Though we only stayed in that room for two nights, we stayed at that hotel for five days and really enjoyed our time in the town. Bought some rocks from a guy who called himself Kenny G, local good-guy hustler, tour guide, concierge and occasional drug dealer, whose mantra, as my companion and I tired of after our considerable time with him was, "When the woman is happy, the man is happy." Anyway, he taught me how to smoke bricks in the local style by crushing a drink can, punching a couple of holes through it and smoking it like a pipe. It felt pretty seedy. But in a good way. I´m sure Martha would not have approved.
The tours around the town were pretty pricey, but we settled on one of the cave options. This guy Dave took us and a charming American family out in his 4WD to Barton Creek. The point where we got out of the car to get in our canoes was called The Last Post, a restaurant by the river in the middle of pretty much nowhere. The place was run by an American couple who´d run away from Miami after the last cyclone hit to live and work at The Last Post, sight unseen. They reminded me of so many of the adults I grew up surrounded by. Idealistic hippie-types who had made the decision to rough it in exchange for a little piece of mind and somewhere beautiful to raise their kids with hearts full of hope and eyes sparkling with optimism. They´ll probably wind up as property developers when they decide they want hot water ALL the damn time.
On the canoes we saw tortoises, a number of bird species, iguanas and a bush dog (or Tirar), which was all heartwarming and shit. Then we took the canoes further downstream and into one of the cave systems that the Mayans believed was a connection to the dark powers of the underworld and where they fucked off to when they´d had enough of their opressive regime. (NOTE: From birth, members of the lower castes of classic Mayan societies had the tops of their heads strapped down with a heavy lump of wood. This flattened the tops of their heads, making it easier for them to carry things on them, hence, making them more useful as slaves. A good thing to get away from.) The caves were pretty awesome. Pretty much what you´d expect from a limestone cave system, with the added attraction of visible ancient skeletal remains.
On the drive back, we had an interesting chat with Dave, the tour guide, who was a bit of a champ. He was half native (his grandfather was the local shaman, or so he claimed) and half Black, and sported rasta dreads and maintained a belief in the local boogie-woogie. We drive past a couple of guys who looked really sick, wore no shirts and carried machetes. Hard-lookin´dudes by anyone´s standards. I asked what was up with those guys. He said they´d been cursed. "Cursed? Hah! No, really, Dave what´s with them?" I told him I had trouble buying the whole curse explanation and suggested they were on crack He insited they´d been cursed for their wrongdoings and that if I didn´t beleive it, he said he could put a frog in my belly to prove he was on the money. And not smoking the crack himself. I told him that hocus-pocus only works on people who beleived in it. He took some offense to this, so to smooth it outI asked him if he could put a spell on me to make a little more handsome. Diffused. We drove on.So that was Belize. I left with a special place in my heart for the Cayo district and still feel that it´s somewhere I could set up the compound.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
PART FIVE: Belize City. Never again.
We took a taxi-driver's recommendation on a place to stay. BIG MISTAKE. We ended up at a guesthouse in a room with two very narrow single beds seperated by an industrial fan that made a noise like a landing plane. But at 10pm in Belize City after a truly horrendous bus trip, what are you gonna do. The shared bathroom was a basement that stank of sick. The water has a high phosphorous content, which smells like farts and swimming around the dank concrete floor were little bits of shit which I carefully avoided as I had a very unpleasant, but very necessary shower. It reminded me of uni. As we checked out as quickly as possible the next day, I noticed a sign in the foyer which informed guests that smoking in the rooms was punishable by imprisonment. I ducked back into the room and chucked all my ciggie butts out the window onto the burnt-out car wrecks below.
PART FOUR: Mexico 'Sir, some blow?'
Playa del Carmen's a silly kind of place, all geared to US tourists, and full of short, stocky chaps whose aim in life is to strip Americans of cash. And Australians. It took just a couple of days for me to develop an intense dislike of Mexicans and the attitude that the Spanish-speaking world can suck my cock. In my experience, they were either aggressively extortionate or siccophantic and grinningly subservient. My attitude has changed somewhat since, thankfully. It doesn't feel nice to side with the Spanish conquest.
I bought a couple of rocks and some weed on the first day. The coke was OK, but the weed was woeful. Brown, full of sticks and seeds. If you tried to sell this shit in Australia, you'd get killed.
Our time there consisted of lazing around on the deack chairs and chez lounges on the beach, drinking cocktails, which went some way to balancing out the irritations of not being able to walk a step without some idiot pushing their crappy wares, and then being rude about it when I said I wasn't interested in a fucking hammock I'd have to drag around three continents.
Probably the most noteworthy incident, and why in an earlier entry I brought up my Vegas nosebleed, was an experiment I performed on the second of the four days we were there. Purely in the interests of science, of course.
After buying a few halfie bags from a guy who took me to his office and showed me his kilo stash, I ran back to my hotel room and took so much of the shit, I almost spewed. And it only took two bags! While I was a little disappointed in my performance, it really did the trick. While my companion slept, I wandered the streets. Across the road from where we were staying was what a thought was a seedy upstairs bar. The doorman had a machete strapped to his side. "This is my kind of party", I thought. I was wrong.
I went up the steps and realised it was an extremely locals-only karaoke bar. When I came through the door, it was like that scene in Police Academy when the seargent and his underling get directed to the Blue Oyster. The music didn't stop, but it was like it had. Everyone turned around and stared at me. While my stuff was kickin in to eleven. Never one to leave somewhere just because everyone wants me too, I ordered a beer. The barman looked me up and down. I smiled the stupid "I come in peace" gringo idiot grin I've adopted for the Spanish-speaking world. He looked me up and down again. Then he shoved a lighter in my face. And looked at me. I was feeling slightly paranoid by this point and was wondering why the fuck he was holding a lighter near my face. More come in peace from me. More lighter holding from him. I was getting worried. "Oh, fuck. He's looking at my pupils. Just like the doormen in Sydney clubs. "Oh fuck, they're gonna kick me out before I've even had a beer". "Problemo, Senor?" I asked, grinning again. He just gave me another, slightly different weird look. And lit my cigarette. It had been hanging out of my mouth the whole time. I drank my beer, and left.
After a little more street-wandering, I eventually found a beachside nightclub where I boogied on the sand for a few hours until they started playing Pat Benetar. Always a good time to leave. Rejecting myriad offers of whatever a chap could want (coke, weed, women), there was not much to do but go back to the room.
I decided to take the back streets and saw something that, despite my elevated mood, almost brought a tear to my eye. In Playa del Carmen, there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. Hundreds of them. I saw a little fox terrier cross lying in the gutter. He was skinny, covered in huge ticks and was twitching his last. I'm not a people person, I'm a dog person. I can walk past a hundred toothless beggers and feel nothing, but seeing this poor little fella broke my heart. I stopped and gave him some water from a nearby puddle and a little pat. In retrospect it was a foolish move as he pobably had rabies.
The next day, as my companion and I left our (extremely well priced, rather lovely) room, she turned to me with a look of horror. "Get back inside the room," she uttered. It became apparent that the blow had reopened my Vegas drinking-straw wound and a trail of blood was running down my face.
We tired of Playa del Carmen rather quickly and moved on to a town which has been described as what del Carmen was like ten years ago called Tulum. The town itself isn't much to blog about but the nearby coast is littered with cabanas, where we took residence for a few clean-living days.
We took a tour to the Sian Caan bioreserve which was fairly fabulous. We got picked up from our cabana and taken to the base. We were informed that they were a bit short on drivers that day, and would I mind if I drove one of the Jeeps through the park. Thankfully, my baggy shorts concealed my instant erection. It was my first go driving a manual with the stick on the right, but did not find it difficult at all, though I did have a couple of micro-sleeps on the long, straight, bumpy ride through the park to where the boats were. We then chugged around the mangrove swamps for an hour or so, checking out the splendid range of birdlife. Cormorants, eagles, hawks, all kinds of beaut shit. We had an hour or so for snorkelling around the reef and saw rays, lots of fish and other reefy things, as well as dolphins and sea turtles.
Rather than heading to the interior and checking out the 'real' Mexico as we were a bit tired of it by then, we headed down the coast, by BUS (never again, sweet Lord, never again), across the border, to Belize. This was, by far, the most vexing border crossing to that point, and since. First, we had to get off the bus, make our way through all the guys strapped with automatic rifles to officiate our exit from Mexico. Then, we had to get back on the bus, through the neutral zone. Then we had to take all our bags off the bus, go through Belize customs, put all our shit back on the bus. It was all a bit much after the six-hour bus trip. Thankfully, it was worth it, as the next entry attests. DO read on, won't you...
Thursday, July 07, 2005
PART THREE: Back to Los Fucking Angeles...
But we did get through it and spent the night near the airport at Inglewood, which you have heard of as the suburb in which Samuel L Jackson's character resides in Pulp Fiction. Not nice. And the hotel pool was closed by 6. Why the fuck do they close hotel pools after dark? That's when people are there. It makes me VERY ANGRY.
Anyway, back to LAX, (so-called, one can only assume, because it will definitely give a body the shits), for our flight to Houston, to get our conneccting flight to Cancun, Mex. That we did, with some more, rather ugly, ten-mile-high fighting. The AA came out again when told the was no lacto-ovo special meal on domestic flights. The sugar was low, but the blood was high that day, my friends. The fucking flight attendant was really rude about it too. Those glorified fucking waitresses think they're SO BIG since 9/11. Cunt. Her closed-eyed mealy-mouthed offer of a packet of chips was met with the sugestion that same be inserted up her crinkled arse. I was starting to lose it a little bit. I think it was all the preservatives. In the Charlie. Actually, I just said that for comic effect. Just that one time, Mum. Promise.
PART TWO: Shoshone on, you crazy diamond
Anyhoo, after our one-night Vegas experience which could have only been more complete if my companion had allowed strippers in the room (which she wouldn't), we took the long way back to LA via Death Valley so we could check out some desert. Apparently we have some of that burny bastard back home, but I've never seen it. We stayed in a little town called Pahrump (something like that), also in Nevada, which was just like Vegas, except really small. And shit. Except we did watch some late-night adult fantasy on HBO, which is my new favourite TV station. And not just for the late-night adult fantasy.
Next day was hot. 95 farenheit, pushing 40 c. But the kooky shit was, as we rolled out of the hotel carpark we noticed a very high mountain. With SNOW on it. Crazy. We drove an hour or so to find a town near the entrance to Death Valley National Park called Shoshone (Sha-shown-ee), pop 48. And it was tops. Most of my knowledge of the Shoshone area comes second hand from this guy Dave who runs a vegetarian cafe serving what just might be the only decent ESPRESSO (you have to scream it loud in the US or no-one understands) in the Western Whatevers. It started as a mineral mining town a hundred or so years ago and is now populated almost entirely by mad scientists, bitter novelists and refugees of Corporate America. Like him. He threw in the towel as a ladies' outfitter and moved out there with his wife and son. The wife, being French, couldn't take it, and moved away. Now Dave lives there with his boy, runs his business, and takes his pig for walks. Yes, his pig. And she's a little cutie. Every time I walked past his place, I found myself drawn to her. I've seen few examples of true, pure joy in my life, but the delight of that fit little black pig when you scratch her beyond the ears is about as close as it gets.
After a night in a room, chilled by what the manager described in drawl as a "swamp cooler", refreshing ourselves with two-dollar forties (big longies), we hit the road again to the actual Death Valley. It's basically a big salt pan, hot as fuck, and not really that impressive. But the surrounding countryside was truly awesome. After every corner, another rock mountain would reveal itself. And it is harsh country. Rock, after rock, after rock. We pulled over to check out a little cave that was on the side of the road. Just standing there in the blistery heat, I could understand what Dave was on about. You could really find yourself out here. Maybe you wouldn't like what you find, but you could do it. We're pretty sure we heard a rattlesnake. We definitely saw tumblweeds. And we definitely saw a jackrabbit. Ever seen one? FUNNY-LOOKIN'. No creature needs ears that size. Except when there are rattlesnakes around, I guess. Maybe they're for shade. All in all, I found the Nevada countryside awe-inspiring and incredibly restful. I even found myself thinking it could be a good place to set up the compound. The land is really cheap. And you can have as many guns as you want.
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Part One: Los Angeles to Vegas
First stop: Los Angeles, California. That's in the United States of Whatever. LAX is by far the most horrible place I've ever been in my life. And I HAVE been to Lithgow. Dirty, overcrowded, enormous, totally utilitarian save for the proliferation of a symbol that was to become a recurring feature of our travels throughh the US -- the Star Spangled Banner. LAX is a harsh place, an excellent primer for the rigours of a city that in many parts seems like it's either not quite yet First World, or was, maybe 50 years ago, and has been on the slide ever since.
After a 14-hour flight from Sydney, via Fiji (where no less than NINE quality, Bic lighters were snatched away, by presumably chain-smoking nico-fiend customs officials), all we wanted was a tall G and T and a comfortable bed.
For reasons I'm still yet to fathom, this vague notion led us to Santa Monica. Maybe it was the song (Sheryl Crowe has much to answer for), or the lure of the Sunset Strip, but that's where we ended up on our first night in LA. Really, it was pretty dull, not much to report. Think Bondi, but with more Mexicans.
We stayed in an overpriced room that smelled like Laksa paste and wandered around, for a time at least, delighting in the familiar. Sunset and Hollywood Boulevardes, the Hotel California, homewares stores that stock exactly the same shit as Sydney stores -- but a season or two behind. The ciggies were cheap -- gotta love that -- and we noticed a phenomenon that would only increase the further along we made our way south, the abscence of jiggers on spirit bottles in bars. No tightarse 25ml shit in the Wild West. Its freepour all the way.
One point of interest in Santa Monica came to me when I went for a wander at four in the morning, having my body clock all out of whack. The only people around at that time of night were Mexican and Black guys getting up really early to go to work (Whitey sleeps in), and the homeless. Back in Straya, there are really only three reasons someone ends up on the streets -- madness, addiction, or choice. But here in the Whatevers, the only difference between guys driving trucks, painting houses, or kicking shit in an office and the guys pushing their meagre possessions round in a Wal-mart trolley is three months' wages. I stopped to ask a young bloke, about 23, where I could get a drink at this time of the morning. He told me everything would be closed but his friend, a bearded, dreadlocked, pockmarked old grumble-bum a few metres might have a shot for me. "Hey, you got a shot for my man from Australia here?" Dan asked the old dude. "Nah, sorry man, I don't drink" replied the old codger in a voice that could be doing voice-overs in a 7-Up commercial.
From the delicate drabness of SM, we took a bus right through town to Hollywood. Specifically, West Hollwood which is a fair bit cheaper than Beverley Hills. And I gotta say, we had a pretty fucken awesome night. The kind of night you go to the US for, the kind of night you could only have in LA. We had a few drinks just down the way from our hotel (Hollywood Downtowner) at a small bar where the drinks were cheap, but it was expected you tip $1 for every one you have. And, like Australia, it was NON-SMOKING (the two ugliest words of the English language), but that gave us a chance to reel in our surrounds, standing on the stars of Hollywood heroes whose names we did not recognise (Hey, it's the shitty end of town, remember) and laugh at the six-wheeler SUVs throating past.
We holed up at that bar for a few hours and met two people. One was a fairly cool, wordly guy who'd returned home after working for the US military's 'fun with codes' department over in London and Dublin, and another guy who was smitten with my companion and told her he'd just got back from stalking a similar-looking girl who was the lead singer of a punk band in Germany. Greeeeaaaat. He had a shrine and everything. We left the latter to his sadness and cigarellos and hit Hollywood Boulevard. We checked out some (appropriately free) political college comedy, some live music at a hippie cafe's open mic night, and then, well, we just wandered around. And around. Went to a couple of cool night clubs and soon realised that cover charges are completely negotiable and the evening culimated in what, for me, had been the realisation of a life-long dream. While standing on a corner, near Sunset and Vine, a gangsta-type, dressed in full Sean John regalia, asked me if I was straight. "Erm, am I straight?" I repeated. "I guess I am, but I really don't want to be." "OK, man, what you want? I got it all. Speed, weed, ex, rocks, yo man, what you want." Two mintues later I was in the proud possession of two big, fat rocks of coke. For only $40! Thing was, it was around 2 am, so the next hour was spent looking around for somewhere I could buy something to smoke it through. A dude hanging out at the all-night tobacconist was most hepful in telling me what I needed. One glass tube and a curly-girl later, we were on our way back to the hotel. Needless to say, the result was another sleepless night in LA. An interesting point worth making here is that cocaine is everywhere in the US. You may have heard the statistic that 90 per cent of US banknotes contain traces of cocaine. When I was grinding up the last of it to snort, I looked closely at the bedside table and noticed that the cracks between the bits of wood were filled with the shit. So I started looking at all of the surfaces in the room and I reckon, if you were desperate enopugh, you could have collected the cracks' contents and sold it in Australia for $200. Maybe that's why it's called crack. Ha!
Although we had a great time in West Hollywood, it seemed to us we'd had the best of what LA had to offer. It was time to hit Las Vegas. In a momentary lapse of reason, we rented a compact from a Rent-A-Wreck in Pasadena. The driver came and picked us up from our place the next morning and so the adventures of driving in the US began.
The right-side, left-hand-drive thing took a little getting used to, but nowhere near as difficult as I'd expected. From Pasadena, we drove what we thought was around 18 miles on the way to Vegas. As it turned out, it was actually 18 miles in the OTHER direction, which landed us in Sherman Oaks, the valley. And, dude, it was, like, sooooo valley. Squaresville, but nice enough. Had a pretty good Italian meal and stayed at a Day's Inn, where the guy on the desk made me so fucking angry I nearly chucked a Rusty (Crowe) and beat his ass down. The I-15 had taken its toll on my famous temper but I managed to control myself. For a while.
By this point, just three days in the US, our bowels had impacted thanks to a diet that was almost exclusively cheese. I couldn't beleive it but after the Santa Monica crepes, a Hollywood breakfast that gives me conniptions as I think about it even now, a couple of Burger King vege burgers (much better than OZ), the Italian salad in Sherman Oaks (lettuce and cheese), and a multitude of variations on that rennetous theme, I could my life-long love affair with mozzeralla coming to a sickening end.
Next day, we hit the I-15 (again, but in the other direction this time) and got a real taste of freeway driving. And I gotta say, I was pretty fucking impressed. The speed limit was 70 the whole way, but no-ne was doing less than 90. That's 130 km/hour, and most of the traffic was pulling a hundred, easy. Including me. I'd have gone even faster if my insistence on driving on the left hadn't slowed me down. Several hundred miles and a couple pounds of cheese later, we hit Vegas at around 4 in the afternoon. Of course, this isn't the real Vegas. Vegas only happens after dark when the lights come on.
We stayed at Excalibur Casino, mainly because it was the first exit off Frank Sinatra and I'd had enough driving by then. The level of tack was pretty much what you'd expect in a Knights of the Round Table-themed Vegas casino with 1000 rooms. It was nasty. But we lashed out and got a room with a jacuzzi, had an early night, then got in the morning so I could lose $150 on Blackjack. Outside the casino, during the night, Vegas was everything you've ever thought it to be, multiplied by a hundred. It's all that's ugly and beautiful about US culture crammed into a dry hole in the middle of the Nevada desert. Hookers, schoolies, cops hanging out at doughnut shops. And the soup of the day at the Excalibur's breakfast bar? CHEESE.