Tuesday, 30 October 2012

San Antonio

 I arrived in San Antonio on Saturday night after a long bus journey.  The bus left El Paso in sunshine and within 45 minutes we were in the middle of the desert - brush land with an overcast sky.  It was as if all the colour had been drained from the environment.  It stayed like that for the next 5 hours.  Gradually the colour started to come back into the landscape but it was so gradual that it was almost unnoticeable until suddenly we were back into colourful landscape about an hour outside San Antonio.  
I’m glad that I don’t live in some of the towns I’ve stopped in very briefly. both on the bus and the railway.  I take back what I’ve said about some of the wee towns across Central Scotland.
San Antonio is a beautiful city unlike any that I have been in.  Obviously at its centre is the Alamo.  Now believe it or not I do mean right at the centre as in one of the town squares.  I thought that it would be on the outskirts but it’s not.  It’s a site that means  a great deal to Americans probably comparable to Bannockburn. However we don’t treat it with the same reverence.  

Like much of old San Antonio the Alamo was saved by a group of women in the early 20th century who refused to allow the city fathers to destroy building and ares of the city which the women felt neded to be preserved.  So the Alamo, an almost sacred site to Americans, doesn’t belong to the government, the state legislature  or indeed the American equivalent of the National Trust but the Daughters of the Texas Revolution.  The Riverwalk which stretches for almost 20 miles through and around San Antonio was also saved by the same group.  Given that it is this that gives San Antonio its character today it was a very good save because if it had been covered over into an underground river the city today would be a totally different place.

Unlike many towns/cities in the Southern part of the USA on the border with Mexico many of the missions built during the 17/18th century have been preserved.  Without these missions San Antonio, Santa Fe and others would not exist today.
San Antonio is a very attractive city to visit, easy to walk around in and well worth a visit.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

El Paso

I arrived in El Paso a couple of nights ago via a Greyhound bus.  The journey was quick given the distance that we covered.  Most of it was through desert land where you could occasionally see the lights of small towns off in the distance.  There were a number of occasions when there were lights flashing across the desert from installations( electrical I think) but it may have been from a few military bases.  Rosewell was one of the towns that we passed so I could see why some folk might think that those lights were UFOs but 
really it was evident where they were coming from.

El Paso is part of Texas.  It’s the furthest west that you can go into Texas I am told, but it is actually nearer to towns in New Mexico and Mexico than any in Texas. New Mexico is kind of like an inverted isosceles triangle with El Paso at the point taking up all the space left this side of the Rio Grande. On the other side is Mexico.  From where I am sitting at the moment I could be in Mexico in 10 minutes - walking.

In some respect El Paso reminds me of many British towns where the commercial areas have moved out to the outskirts of town leaving very little in the centre.  El Paso has taken the bold step of 
placing their convention centre right in the middle of town and surrounding it with 7-8 large museums.  So there is a look of affluence until you turn a corner and there is the older part of town which needs to be regenerated.

The Plaza square, which is the centre of town has a water fountain crowned by 3 alligators.  Now you might ask why.  Apparently up until the late 1960s there was a pond there and the city kept 3 alligators in it.  No particular reason that anyone could give me. it just seemed like a good idea.  Maybe it was useful for getting rid of people that the city didn’t like.  It’s certainly one of the oddest things that I have seen.  The folk of El Paso still call the square “La Plaza de los Lagartos”(Alligator Plaza) and not San Jacinto, its official name.

El Paso is making the effort to keep a number of its old buildings but unfortunately not early enough.  Of those that remain probably the one that they’re most proud of is maintaining the Paso del Norte hotel.  It is not particularly beautiful externally although it is supposed to be a good example of early 1900 century American architecture but it has the most beautiful Tiffany dome in its dining room.
Just outside is a statue to Fray Garcia who found El Paso del Norte.

On the outskirts of  the city centre is the Magoffin House, which was built in the 1870s.  It is an adobe house, which was then lime washed. It is probably more the kind of house that we were used to seeing in cowboy films.  Up until the 15 years ago it was owned by the same family but it had come down through the female line and the name of the family is now Glasgow and has been for the last 90 years.  There must be some Scottish heritage in there.

Well I’m off to San Antonio in the morning and I am expecting that to be quite different.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

On Route 66

I left Santa Fe yesterday to make my way to Albuquerque once again by train.  This was my shortest train journey but it was a bit strange.   I had to return to Lamy to catch the train.  Lamy is in the middle of nowhere.  There is a train station, a community library which uses the window ledges of the station and a few empty train carriages.  Now I didn’t explain in my last blog that this part of the railway is single tract so both trains use the same line at some point, which means that at some point one train holds up the other.  Trains around here don’t appear to run to time because of the “passing places”.  So we sat in the middle of nowhere for a wee while and then the train came and we all got on...... to a train full of Amish.  There were 3 “coach” carriages. 2.5 were full of Amish men, women and children.  Honestly I was looking for Harrison Ford and Kelly McGuinness.  Can I just say that I have met quite a few Amish people in my trips here but meeting a lot of them after a night and a day on a warm train ..... maybe not the best time to do so.

Albuquerque sits on what is know as Historic Route 66.  
In fact Albuquerque had the only crossroads of Route 66, which is commemorated there. For a short while in the 1930s you could drive from Denver to El Paso( North to South) and L.A. to Chicago( West to East and the roads linked there.

Albuquerque has made a real effort to maintain the buildings which were around at the time that Route 66 came into being. 

However this was only after it tore down a building of historic interest to the town and caused huge amounts of public uproar.

Apparently you have seen huge amounts of Albuquerque on TV and in films.  Because of the diversity of housing types, the weather and tax relief it fills in for many locations in America and sometimes Europe( not Britain).  Johnny Depp has finished filming “The Lone Ranger” here and Denzel Washington was in town filming. I’m presuming that The Lone Ranger was also filmed in the desert. On teh subject of buildings here is a very strange one built by Bart Prince who seems to be a well known architect(?).  This is his home.

It receives a lot of visitors almost all of whom  are turned away.  However William Shatner was filming in the area and his his chauffeur brought him to see the house.  When Bart opened the door to Captain Kirk and his opening words were”Beam me up Scotty”, he got to stay for tea.

Here’s how to celebrate Hallowe’en Albuquerque style.  I thought that this might appeal to Bah Humbug.

Albuquerque is a lovely city to visit, warm, friendly and with lots to see.  I would have liked to spend more time here.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Amtraking to Santa Fe

I left San Diego on another train which took me up to Los Angles along the coast.  It was a lovely run, saw some lovely beaches, and amazing stations. 

Once in Los Angles I had to get from one track to the next one to get my next train to Lamy, New Mexico.  Unusually there was an actual tunnel under the track.  Usually you just have to walk across the tracks which I find a bit strange because you have to watch for trains all the time.  
Since the journey was going to take just under a day I booked a roomette.  I’m glad I did but this was one occasion when British Rail does it better.  

My roomette had two seats which made down into a bed at night.  If two folk had been in it I think we would have been playing “kneesy” for a good part of the journey. When the bed was made up and I lay down I would say from wall to wall was probably about 5 and half feet across.  Anyone over 6 feet couldn’t have stretched out.  The second bunk was above my head. Since the edge of the bed was 6 inches at the most from the door I don’t think I would have liked it all if there had been two of us. It was dark by the time  we left the outskirts of Los Angles so I didn’t really see any of the scenery until the next morning.  As a sleeping car passenger I had dinner, breakfast and lunch on the train as it was part of the ticket.
Seats were allocated in the dining car so I met different people at each sitting.  We talked about the election, my trip, class reunions, the scenery, which was mostly desert but very colourful. All in all it was a very pleasant journey.  Then we arrived in Lamy.  The scenes where you see a station in the middle of nowhere exactly describes Lamy.  From there there was a shuttle to take me into Santa Fe.

Santa Fe is very different to other towns that I have been in.  It is almost exclusively built in the Pueblo Indian style with input from the Spanish-Mexican empire. Generally the houses are built of adobe brick often with a hacienda. 

Santa Fe is one of the oldest towns in America.  Some parts of it date from the early 1600s.  It was built round  a village square, bordered on one side by the Palace of the Governors and shops around the other sides.  

In Santa Fe when you get married you then parade through the town to your reception.

I’d like to say that I had a wonderful time in Santa Fe but I didn’t, it was the lowest point of this trip.  In fact it’s the only low point I’ve had.  I won’t go into what happened here.  Some of you know what happened and those who don’t can hear about it later.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

USS Midway

Well, I think that the only person who will enjoy this blog is Archie but I may be surprised.  
To get started San Diego is one of the major navy bases of the US.  The majority of its aircraft carriers are stationed here when not on active duty and so when it was time to mothball the USS Midway it was decided to do so here.  However rather than just mothball it the powers that be decided to turn it in to a museum.  

My hotel is in, what is now called, the Gaslamp Quarter however it was originally called the Stingaree area because it was very near the harbour and you could get stung there quicker than swimming with stingrays.  So since I was so near to the harbour I decided I would pay a quick visit to the USS Midway.  How wrong was I? 4.5 hours later wrong.  
It was an amazingly interesting museum.  It’s obviously stocked with all the aircraft of whatever sort ever that ever flew off the Midway’s decks.  As you enter the Hangar deck you are given an audio soundtrack which will guide you round the whole carrier.  
It’s simply a case of keying in the number attached and listening but in addition there are videos from an airman or someone from the carrier telling you about a particular incident associated with the plane / helicopter. Many of the exhibits also have a docent  beside them.  No idea what “docent” means.  It’s not a term associated with museums at home but it is frequently used here.  Anyway, these particular docents were all retired servicemen, who in one capacity or another had served on board the USS Midway.  They were all very happy to answer questions about the aircraft, themselves or anything else.  So between the three methods you are treated to an interactive experience throughout your visit. 

Here is one example.  This little plane( and I can’t remember what type it is) was the last plane to land on the deck of the Midway during the evacuation of  Saigon.  It was flown by a Vietnamese air force pilot, who had circled the Midway several times to drop a letter off.  This pleaded for permission to land.  The Admiral on board finally gave permission in the last minutes of the evacuation so the pilot was only able to make one attempt.  Luckily he was successful.  When he opened his hatch the men on board realised that he also had his wife and small baby sitting alongside him. What they did not realise until a few minutes later was that he had another 4 children crammed into the fuselage. They had been there for several hours.  The docent beside the plane was one of the men who had helped to pull the children out of the plane.  He had 2 children of a similar age himself and could not believe how the pilot’s four had all stayed in the limited space for so long.

Some of the many exhibits.  I have more but there is a limit to the internet upload for a blog.

The Tomcat - the type used in TopGun
 Standing on the air traffic controller’s spot.  The Safety net should a landing go wrong is just below me.(I’m not kidding and it’s for the controller to jump into. I’m about 100 feet above the water here)
 Pilots’ lounge - the chairs used all have a name for each pilot in the corp who is on active duty.  Pilots wait here to be called on deck.

The Flight deck  - takeoff

The bridge, captain’s and admiral’s quarters

Friday, 19 October 2012

San Diego

I left Santa Barbara Heading for San Diego on Amtrak again.  This time I was traveling business class which I think is about the equivalent of First Class at home.  I’m not at all sure how Amtrak works.  Business is definitely one step up from coach but you don’t have a reserved seat.  It’s first come first served.  On the other hand you do get a bag with various snacks and a small bottle of wine at the start of your journey. It was a 5 hour journey to San Diego so I arrived in the dark.
San Diego looked a lot different the next day.  Once again I took the trolley tour.  I think that’s about the fourth trolley car I’ve been on.  San Diego seems to be where California began but I am sure that I have heard other cities say that too. THe city is only 165 years old, so in the scheme of things it’s just a young thing.  I didn’t realise that almost all of southern California is desert.  San Diego and Coronado the island off its coast have been reclaimed through irrigation.  As you travel around the many different types of trees really frame the buildings, fountains etc but until just over 100 years ago there were no trees here.  It was only when a way to bring water here was found, that people settled.  Even today 80% of the water used in San Diego is piped into the city. Wish that we had that problem.
The Spanish/Mexican influences are becoming much more apparent both in the buildings and in the people.  Almost every other person speaks Spanish.
The trolley took me all over the city including out to Coronado island in the harbour.  We went out over the road bridge which was  a bit of a strange trip.  It’s a very high bridge. San Diego is in the middle of a heatwave(85-95 degrees).  At sea level it was beautifully sunny and hot.  Up on the bridge we were in a thick mist and it was freezing. Coronado is a beautiful residential/holiday resort with gorgeous beaches.  

The Hotel de Coronado is where much of “Some like it Hot” was filmed.
Having seen the Old Town and all the different ethnic sections of te city I decided to visit Balboa Park next day.  It is a huge park where almost all the museums and many of the theatres are based as well as beautiful gardens.

Place de Balboa

 Lily pool

 A wee turtle trying to make his mind up whether to bake or swim
 The Artists’ quarter

Art in the park

Monday, 15 October 2012

Down the coast

I left San Francisco by Amtrak to travel to Carmel.  Amtrak is, in some ways, a step up from British Rail.  The trains are double deckers and if you are in “coach”, which I was, then you are on the upper deck.  Everyone is assigned a seat.  The seats all face in the direction in which the train is going and are four abreast with an aisle in between.The space around each seat is considerably  more than given on our trains.  I presume that this is because each seat has its own footrest, can be reclined and has its own individual table.  Amtrak’s timetables are, however, just as fluid as British Rail.

Like our trains many of the passengers have mobiles, which they are on constantly and which go off constantly.  The object behind me had a different ring for each individual person who phoned.  It was perhaps just as well that I was only on the train for 2 hours otherwise I might have been inclined to join in with another passenger that suggested something be done about this.  Given that we already had the mad women from Hell opposite us talking on her phone all the time I could understand where he was coming from. I can’t understand why passengers with mobile phones can’t be asked at the beginning of a journey to set their phones to silent/vibrate mode.  They could still use them but the noise levels would be somewhat less.

Anyway I arrived in Carmel, after a transfer by bus from Salinas which was also somewhat fraught since two of the passengers spent it haranguing the driver over their travel arrangements.  I came to the conclusion that there must have been a strange moon the night before.

Carmel is a beautiful, if twee, little town which has fought hard to remain much as it was in the first two decades of the 20th century.  
It has had a number of mayors who were actors/writers/artists among whom was Clint Eastwood. Houses in the immediate town do not have street numbers but names and many of them have a fairytale look about them as do the shops.  

Between the shops run many little lanes which are also individually decorated.

Trees grow everywhere and roads have to accommodate them and not the other way round.  It is built on the Camino Real( the King’s road) and having originally been Spanish has a very old Mission on the outskirts. 
Carmel is also the most dog friendly place that I have ever been in. Most of the shop owners bring their dogs to work and they greet you and well as their owners when you enter the shop.  Shops regularly give you change which includes a dog biscuit for your dog or one that you might meet. A number of restaurants allow dogs to eat with their owners and a few even have a dog menu. In the middle of a very upmarket shopping plaza is the Fountain of the woof - a fountain installed to allow dogs to drink while out shopping!

Carmel also has 110 art galleries in it which given its size is extraordinary.  It must have about 40-50 wine cellars where you can taste/buy local Californian wines.  I’m not sure if one is related to the other.
One of the relics of Clint Eastwood living and filming here is his pub - the Hog’s Breath.  Like many of the hotels and pubs in California is features an outdoor fire so that customers can sit outside to drink/eat.

Next day I headed  for Santa Barbara via the Amtrak bus and train. First of all I had an interview with bus service about the passengers who had harangued the driver on my way into Carmel.  Apparently the passengers had put in a complaint about the driver and I was one of the witnesses.  Very strange, they must have known that I wouldn’t support them.
Once on the train my journey was very pleasant and calm.  No odd passengers or many ringing mobiles.  For the first part of the journey the scenery was much as on the previous journey miles of dry, sunburnt land with flourishing fields of vegetables, fruit or vineyards in between.  The farmers and vintners must have artesian wells or something similar to supply the water required to keep their crops going.  However they do it the artichokes, lemons, strawberries and tomatoes are being well taken care of.  After St Luis Obpisbo we travelled along side the ocean until we reached Santa Barbara.  The scenery was glorious.
Santa Barbara is a very affluent town like Carmel but it’s totally different.  It owes its architecture to Spanish and Native American influences. It is a town that still relies on the sea for much of its industry so there are many fishing boats as well as pleasure boats in the 
harbour.  On Saturday there was a harbour festival so there was lots going on.

Children being shown where a fish’s eyes are by a Conservation person

 Sea urchin being eaten - this may look strange, but it was worse in real life.
 The view out across the straits to Santa Cruz was glorious.
 On Sunday there was a Porsche convention and an arts and craft festival all along the promenade.