Painting tunnels on the sides of mesas

There’s some minimum relationship between the amount of time you have off and the amount of stuff you want to see, where, even if you’re driving places, and have the freedom to pull off wherever you want, you don’t really feel like you do.  You’re missing out on some of the best features of a road trip there, and in a way, you’re just driving instead of flying or taking the train.

This is why it was such a pleasure to have a little bit of slack last week in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona; to not be hustling madly to an end so much as hopscotching between and through cool things.  Turnouts, tourist traps, junkfood stops.  Leaning on the side of the car, stretching at a gas pump in the middle of nowhere.  Driving somewhere you’ve never been, the possibility of something amazing over the next rise.

Other notes from our adventures:

  • We went to Vegas without once setting foot on the Strip.  Instead we visited two different city/county parks.  Both were full of people who weren’t tourists, and waterfowl (even authentically unpleasant ones) that weren’t trucked in as decorations.  The water at one was even natural (no, seriously, wetlands exist in Las Vegas).  It’s nice to think of Las Vegas as a real city, though, and to hope that someday more of the nice people who live there can have good jobs that don’t involve so many things that are Bad For You.

Not a mirage, the duck assures me Sunset Park Sunset//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

  • As always, a 75mph speed limit is a hell of a thing.  Not to say i don’t sometimes drive 85 here, but i don’t set the cruise control on it for hundreds of miles and look at three-digit mileage signs as no big deal.

 

  • Driving to and through assorted national parks, a lot like family vacations of now long-ago years, made me think that while i was growing up, for my parents the National Park Service was kinda like their Disneyworld (not that we didn’t also go there once or twice).  Something of a reassurance that you were undertaking the best vacation you could possibly muster, and that you were going to be in the presence of awesome things.  A brand you could trust, and ironically for so many people days, it was the US government all along.  The familiar brown signs, clean restrooms, fine campgrounds with wholesome ranger programs in a wooded amphitheatre, and modest gift shops all pretty much perfectly suited to the task. That’s not to say it’s a comfort born solely of nostalgia, either; maybe they’re not for everybody, but places both new and old to me that Uncle Sam deems worthy of this designation have been universally worth my while.  Even without convincing the girl to go camping.

 

  • Thus, it was exciting to get to see two new places on this trip.  Saving the more famous of the two for later in the day, we set off from Moab to drive into Canyonlands National Park.  This is one of those vast, intimidating parks where there’s a sea of green on the map with tiny wiggles of road venturing timidly inward.  We didn’t do a heck of a lot of research in advance of our visit, so we really had very little idea what we were going to be able to see—for all we knew, this was the sort of place you needed a four-wheeler or a jeep to even get anywhere near.And while it’s a tiny patch of park that you do get to drive through, it’s the perfect place to take in so, so much of the park while only a mile from a parking lot.  Impassable//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js A gaping scar//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

    Pullouts that lead to fun rocks to climb on, short trails that let you drink in the scenery near and far for an hour or so.  And sure, you’re looking out on vastness that is inaccessible to your rental car, but you feel like you’ve seen it and played in it.Lonely bonsai//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js The low road//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

    Maybe we’ll come back with a tent and a mountain bike some other time.

  • But: definitely the same time of year.  We knew it was beautiful in Vegas this time of year already, what with visiting annually and all.   Dry, sure, but cool and clear and perfect weather for exploring.
  • Arches National Park always seemed to be the more famous of the two, what with its user-friendly landmarks.  Oddly, it turned out to be less so, with seemingly long (not that long) distances between these landmarks, which seemed more like anomalies than indicative of the whole place.  Most of the place is rolling, freaky-greenish-gray brush, and less sculpted red rock. What is this, an arch for ants?//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Creepily Organic Rocks//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
    Stranger still, you sort of get the impression that Delicate Arch, the most famous landmark is 1. bigger and 2. more accessible.  It’s actually a 1.5 mile steeply uphill hike away to get close to it, although you can see it distantly from an accessible viewpoint.  From the middle distance, it almost appears beset by ants, which are people that made the hike, but nevertheless, the scale is smaller-than-you-expected.That’s not to say there aren’t mindblowing things there.  Crawling around balanced rocks and lesser-known arches and windows as the setting sun lit them all on fire was amazing.  Sometimes it’s all a matter of accidentally being somewhere at the best possible time; the difference between ‘meh’ and something you’ll remember always.
    Red-eye, no. 2//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Red-eye, no. 1//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
  • In both cases, though, these aren’t the high-traffic National Parks you might have seen before.  Small visitor centers, and few campgrounds.  In the offseason, few people.
  • Being out in the desert in what’s technically the winter gives you a great appreciation for the sun.  Obviously i underdress, but the mere seconds or feet that separate you from light and shade make you want to layer up shockingly fast.
  • Despite the ample time in barren canyons, we were repeatedly struck by how forested northern Arizona is, and tried to pick what state it should resemble if we didn’t know any better.  Between Moab and the Grand Canyon, and between Flagstaff and Sedona are crazy scenic places to drive, just in ways we weren’t expecting.
  • On the other hand, the sparse, small towns in and around the reservations that we drove through can be pretty depressed places.  Lots of stray dogs and people who clearly have nothing to do.  We often wondered just what it was people did for work hundreds of miles from so much as a McDonald’s.  Given the number of people hanging around gas stations, probably nothing.
  • Obviously, the best contrast we could obtain for the quiet national parks would be to proceed directly to the Grand Canyon.  Lodges, visitor centers, bus systems.  In the offseason, no traffic jams, at least.  Previously, i’d been to the North Rim, so the South Rim was all new to me.What is there to possibly say about it, really.  It’s stupefyingly vast, and defies cameras and words alike.
    Creeping day-shadows, no. 2//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Gotta fill it up with something//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
    i think my favorite thing about it is standing on the cliff edge and hearing cars, or wind in trees to your one side and just silent empty air to the other.  There’s just nothing near by.  It’s a mile away and a mile down.Try and take photos all you want.  Obviously i did.  Many of them will come out great.  Just don’t expect any of them to substitute for being there.
    A speck with wings//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Just over that next ridge//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
  • The nice thing about being in a bigger park is the old lodges nestled within; leftovers of the parks’ origins as reasons-for-people-to-get-on-railroad-tycoons’-trains. These were not things we frequented in our youth; they were expensive and camping was more our speed anyway.Having said that, we were excited to eat in one of the restaurants, which was precisely the 1960s throwback we were looking for.  Quasi-regional simple meat-and-starch dishes, friendly service and solicitiousness of kids, old-school dress and decor (like you’re in the only finished room in a log cabin).  A few local beers on tap as a nod to modern days (come on, this is important). Packed with fellow travelers, even in a very off season.
  • Naturally, the opposite of this is your proverbial tourist trap.  Things which the girl and i seem to be drawn to, such as the drive-thru wild animal safari.  The thing about tourist traps is that in this day and age, on some level, they’ve got to make somebody happy, or 1-star Yelp reviews are going to finish them.  So often enough, even though they’re cheesy and may have a name like ‘Bearizona’, you know what?
    You’re going to see bears, and a lot of them.  Couple that with the electrified fences and drive-through gates, and the girl was living up her ‘Jurassic Park’ fantasy big time. If this is the baby...//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
  • Even though we’re elitist northeastern snobby assholes, we honestly love going to other places and having a good time and thinking, “you know, this place ain’t so bad…” in cities that maybe stray far from our walkable yuppy comfort zone. Take Milwaukee or Kansas City as places we were fond of.

    Phoenix isn’t really one of those.  Don’t get me wrong, we sat by a pool, drank beer, ate some good food, and saw some weird things, but at the same time it by far lived up to our expectations of SUV-clogged strip-sprawl.

    What it means that so much of the country is seeking this out is a question for another day. The iconic Saguaro//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

On southern Europe

It should go without saying that traveling with your wife is far different than traveling by yourself. My previous Eurailpass-heavy adventures were equally heavy with train station food and grocery store cookies and street vendor snacks. i wasn’t the least bit unhappy about that, but this time was filled with Michelin-starred restaurants, lavish buffets, liberal applications of patisserie and gelato, and hole-in-the-wall local recommendations. In short, i’ve got the girl to thank for my stomach finally seeing Europe, not to mention the fun of seeing favorite old places and new places with her.

Bits and pieces from two weeks of gallivanting:

    • Embarrassingly, we nearly missed our flight out of Boston.  We had been generically thinking it was 6-ish since we booked it and roughly planned accordingly.  Later, more detailed plans were made thinking it was 6.  It went into my calendar as 6.  It was 5:20.  We got off the Logan Express bus, hailed a cab, who did a great job going up and over Beacon Hill to the Callahan in heavy traffic, while i keyed in our passports and junk to check us in on JetBlue’s website on my iPhone just barely in time.  We made it with 5 minutes to spare, thus beginning an inauspicious first day of our trip.  Later, the shitheads at Emirates decided that two people booked together were best seated in middle seats on opposite sides of the plane.  Later still, our hotel in Monaco bumped us somewhere else because ‘another guest decided to stay longer’.
    • Monte Carlo was a lot more interesting than i remembered.  Still not a big place, still a place that’s mostly about gawking at rich things, but we got to see the old part of the city, with its fortifications, its tiny (tourist-clogged) streets, and its old Roman amphitheater.  It’s weird to think that relatively normal people live there and go to the beach and kick the ball around.  The train ride from Milan was much nicer than i remembered, too.  It swings and weaves along the Mediterranean coast, in and out of shady, green-covered cliffside and countless tunnels.  It’s a suitable introduction to the succession dramatic-yet-peaceful towns along the coast.  Maybe i liked it better because ten years later, the train was air-conditioned and fast, as opposed to roasting and interminably slow.  But apparently no matter what, the train trip is thrown into upheaval in Ventimiglia, Italy.
    • Monaco was the first stop, and the first place we noticed the ubiquity of selfie sticks, both for sale from street vendors, and in use by people of all ages, surprisingly least of all by the stereotypical millenial social-media types.  More the cruise ship crowd.  They. were. everywhere.
    • We very nearly were rented a fancy convertible in Nice, but they weren’t going to let me drive that to Paris.  Driving in France wasn’t so bad, though, especially with our curt British-accented GPS as dictatorial navigator.  Although she did up and route us into downtown Cannes for no good reason (maybe she wanted to see the movie stars, since it was during the film festival, natch).  Highways are very nice, well-marked, and very fast; 130km/h is a pretty comfortable speed limit indeed.  They’ve got very familiar-looking service areas (albeit with very convoluted parking lots).  And the thing is, while France is a big country, it’s not large by American standards, so we really transited a lot of it in a day and a half with a car.  Despite that, we still found ourselves doing a ton of driving due to our fairly ambitious itinerary.  Because, of course, at some point we left the highway.  For the innumerable rotaries of the suburbs of Avignon, the country roads to Uzès, and the windy mountain roads through the forests of the Cevennes national park were all a bit slower going, suffice it to say.  Even though it took us a long time on increasingly tiny little roads to get to Saint-Nectaire to buy some cheese (go ahead, dear, tell them about the cheese), it was a pretty amazing day for a road trip.
    • It’s kind of a great thing to be rolling through all these little French mountain towns, with tiny little bridges and ancient houses crowded onto modern roads. As great as the train is, this sort of thing is impossible to see that way, and the train is definitely not going to slow down for you to take a photo.  The flip side to it is, it makes you wish you had weeks more, not days more.  The sheer number of tiny little towns with tiny little restaurants that i did not have a beer in is dismaying.
    • And without hopping in a car to go road-tripping, we would never have discovered La Maison d’Uzès, a fancy B&B in a little, old old town that despite being fancy was worried about us getting there and kept the kitchen late for us in their Michelin-starred restaurant and insisted we sit down and eat while wearing jeans and a soccer jersey.  Really genuine hospitality.
    • Tolls are pretty steep; we probably spent €50 all told between Nice and Paris.
    • Driving through Paris (on the highways, i’m not insane) was predictably full of traffic; it probably took us an hour to go one mile due to a fender bender we didn’t even get to see.
    • Goodness knows i’ve been to Paris enough times, but it’s tough to actually explain just how comfortable it is for me.
    • For whatever reason, i found myself really working my rusty French pretty hard, particularly when the crazy yet insanely friendly gardien of the apartment building decided my replies were good enough that he just went faster and faster.  Maybe it was a function of spending some time further from Paris, but there were a bunch of times when i got out of the shallow end and away from the few sentences i’d thought through ahead of time, and had to begin ad-libbing. It’s more than a little fun, but tiring.  Almost as tiring as patting myself on the back for it.
    • Pâtisserie shops are so plentiful that only chumps go to just one a day.  Champions go to four.
    • Somehow, we walked in and got seated at two restaurants that we really should have had reservations for.  Go us.  One of them clearly was an open secret amongst American tourists (who probably watched the same TV show that we did about it).  We sat next to this group of bucket-listers who were shamelessly trying to one up each other’s travel stories (“oh, you simply have to get to Angkor Wat…”), and resolved probably a bit futilely to not become them.
    • Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to go straight from a balcony apartment and plentiful baked goods in Paris to being pressed up against sweaty Turks on an interminable subway ride in from the airport, but then again, it’s a fair representation of what Istanbul can be like.
    • Ironically, our first stop on the ‘kebab crawl’ the first night we were there was the first stop I made on my previous visit. It was a short 20 minute walk from Aksaray to Sultanahmet, it turned out (In 2008, the subway shut down at midnight, mid-journey, leaving me using inadequate, printed-out-from-not-Google’s-best-work paper maps to navigate the rest of the way, which went badly). Aksaray is a Muslim-dominated, working-class neighborhood and, it seems, a locus of good kebab places.
    • It (was) election season in Turkey, and boy is it more festive there. Giant buses with candidates’ names and mustachioed faces drive around blasting music, and big tents with flyers and enthusiastic supporters are all over the place, while PAs drone on about (presumably) all the good works that the party does. Alas, Mr. Erdogan’s party had the best stuff, but maybe it wasn’t enough, since he’s not a very nice person.
    • People, by which i mean men, in Turkey, walk around whistling bird calls.  In subway stations, airports, out on the streets.  Some seem to want attention for it, like they’re selling something, others are clearly just doing it because they enjoy it.  It’s a weird habit.
    • Then again, we also walked by a man serenading a cat at close range, who was not having it.
    • i don’t know if i’d ever really planned a trip before where there’s an element of it that’s so important where if it turns out to be shitty, the whole thing’s going to be a downer.  Historically, i’ve mostly not stayed in fancy places or put a heavy investment on one piece.  Not so this time.  So there was some trepidation when the van from the airport on Santorini pulls into a dirt parking lot near Oia’s water plant and says ‘we’re here’.  Never mind, however.  The guest house we booked was excited to greet us and as soon as we rounded the corner, all we saw was stairs down the cliff to our accommodation, and the caldera and the sea below.  Santorini is ridiculous, a landscape out of the imagination of a sunnier version of George R.R. Martin.  We stayed in one of the innumerable white-painted villas cresting the edge of the caldera like sea foam on a wave.  Both of us were guilty of having our brains register them as snow from a distance.
    • Strangely enough, there is more than one craft brewery on Santorini.  This is not by any means a bad thing, and apparently it’s getting easier to find American beers and our style of beers over there.  Good for them, catching up finally.
    • Through the magic of the facebooks, i knew that an old friend of mine from college was on the island at the same time, but i figured vacation wasn’t the right time to catch up.  Obviously, then she recognized me at a local winery.  Reminders of how small the world can be never fail to amaze.
    • It’s hard to figure out how everything on Santorini is so cheap, considering it’s a resort and an island.  We barely spent anything on food and drink, even in tourist-focused places.  One night, the lady who ran our guest house sent us to her little village‘s best restaurant, and we feasted and drank for like $30.  For that reason alone we questioned ever leaving.
    • Sure enough, the day of leaving such an easygoing, restful place was the most difficult travel day on the trip.  Turns out our flight off of the island was delayed the night before, so we could have slept in and enjoyed our patio some more.  Instead of the floor of the tiny airport.  The worse news was that our four hour delay instantly killed our plan of going to the opera in Venice that night.  i know, tough life, right?  Still, it was a disappointment.
    • Venice is one of those places that was almost certainly cooler twenty years ago.  And more so twenty years before that.  Even though 50,000 people still live there (maybe that’s all that ever did), it is more museum/mall than city for a lot of the parts that you’ll walk through.  Don’t get me wrong, those parts are beautiful still, and the gelato is cheap and delicious, but it’s also fun to take wrong turns and wind up in abandoned alleys and passages and see nothing but hanging laundry and the cranky glares of locals.
    • And obviously, with my postcard obsession, i care more about this than normal people, but i really really hate the scam for postage ‘stamps’ in Venice.  There’s no post office that i can tell, but every convenience store sells nasty looking ‘stamps’ for postcards which you put in a special ‘mailbox’ for €2 and some private enterprise takes it on its way.  A system only a Republican could love.  Then again, the postal clerk in Milan insisted i needed €2.30 to send a postcard through Poste Italiane probably because she was having a bad day and decided to fuck the tourist.  But then again, dealing with people who aren’t used to dealing with tourists is part of the fun of sending postcards.  At least most of them seem to have arrived.
    • A couple restaurants we went to have adopted the measure of handing you a glass of prosecco and a snack while you wait for a table so you don’t leave.  We didn’t.
    • i was amused/gratified to find that the Expo 2015 in Milan truly was a direct descendant of the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans of my childhood.  A whole bunch of exhibits about countries that can be summed up as, “Hello, we’re ________, please ignore what you’ve heard about ________ and come invest/visit!  Also, drink our local beer, which is terrible.”
    • By the numbers:
      • Distance driven: 1,134km (703 miles)
      • Pains au chocolat eaten: 7
      • Cans of 1664: 4
      • Bottles of wine: 4
      • Ice cream: 4 different types, 9 different times.
      • Kinds of transportation: Plane, train, boat, car, taxi, bus, funicular.  No donkey.
      • Biggest macaron: 3″ diameter
      • Smallest macaron: .5″ diameter
      • Metro tickets consumed: 18
      • Types of food purchased from street vendors without knowing what they were: 3
      • Items forgotten: 1 (an iPhone charger)
      • Acts of blasphemy committed in famous places of worship: a few, probably.
      • Amount of Bleu d’Auvergne cheese purchased in a misunderstanding over quantity: 1 lb
      • Maximum number of flights of stairs climbed in a day according to the girl’s iPhone: 75
      • Most miles walked in a day: 14
      • Honked at by French drivers: twice
      • Ships jumped off of: 1
      • Postcards sent: 27
      • Price of a selfie stick: €3

On going back to places, and Seattle

A week or so ago, me and the girl were sitting on the slopes of Mount Rainier, eating cheese and drinking a beer. Looking up at the forbidding, snowy slopes, i was reminded of the last time i’d been there.
IMG_8384 Where nothing ever grows

Last time i was there, i was 21 years old, and it was the literal apogee of a lengthy road trip that started in Troy, New York a week and countless sleepless nights and gas station meals earlier. Not content with the visitor center, not content with the paved (steep!) walking paths in the immediate vicinity, we reached the end of same and kept going. At the end of a trail, we reached a mysterious outhouse, peed in it, and kept going further still. Into snowfields in the height of summer, traipsing across a glorious expanse of white at the top of the world. Later, we were called idiots who could just as easily have perished at the bottom of a crevasse without anyone knowing.
On the slopes of Mt. Rainier

i had my trusty Crayola 110 camera with me, so this part of the adventure was even documented.

So after getting back from this most recent trip, it dawned on me that visiting Rainier with my family in 1995 made it seem like a great day trip with my friends two years later. And that golden day at the end of that most epic summer in college made me want to show the wife that kind of grandeur. Going back to places is yet another limitless gift of traveling, but going back to places that are the same, when you’re so different, warps my fragile little mind.

It’s easy for us to find reasons to go to places, though, or back to places, or some of both. A whole year earlier, i’d been out in Seattle for a World Cup qualifier. In this case, the girl and i went out there to go run The Oatmeal‘s road race. It was full of cake and Sasquatches and other good cheer. When you pick such a flimsy excuse to go visit a place, though, you’ve got other things in mind. Like a sweet airbnb above an unfamiliar town. Warm basking rocks in the middle of a gurgling river. A sunlit bar window to eat pizza and drink beer. And a nice place to eat cheese instead of an ill-advised wander into danger.

Plenty of new places to come back to some other time.

Evening at the Dairy Freeze Plenty of parking A torrential mist Out on the river Seaplane over Seattle Night and the emerald city Serious Annette is Serious.

Notes from Brazil

Please forgive any lapses in tense; some of this was written varying amounts of time after the fact. Look on the bright side, it’s not handwritten this time.

GIG

• Rio’s airport (GIG) is like a sleepy, more run-down version of Terminal 1 at CDG. It is not air-conditioned, and the shopping and food is roughly on a par with what you’d find on a T platform, although they at least serve overpriced (actually, overtaxed) beer ($6.50 for a Brahma, $2 of which is tax, we think). There are about 12 wifi networks, with varying levels of sketchiness. The one I connected to wanted my name, email, and passport number, but made no effort to verify these, because obviously i did not use real ones. We’ll see how secure my iPhone really is, considering the lack of hygiene, so to speak.

• It’s amazing how easy and great it is to get back in the flow of things for the World Cup. Everybody wants to talk soccer with you, as soon as you’re identified as a fellow pursuer (usually because we are all wearing our country’s jerseys in the airport). You compare notes about games, cities, figure out if you’ll maybe cross paths again, take pictures, trade stickers.

• The big hurdle, is of course, next, as we hope to meet up with Herbert’s friend Rafael and secure our place to stay for the next three weeks. This better work.

Salvador

• No spoiler for those of you who read me on Twitter: it didn’t work. That’s right, 5,000 miles from home, we got stood up by our Airbnb host for a planned 3-week stay. Sure, we were highly under-charged for it, but it still kinda fucked us a bit. Here‘s the story:

We waited a while at the airport in case his unclear text meant we were to meet there, but then we got our rental car and set off for Itapua, which we pictured as a nice beach community. The satellite views made it look harmless and suburban, and the house looked good. We’d spent over 6 months talking to our host, Herbert, so while there was some apprehension, problems seemed unlikely.

We navigated ourselves well using printouts and a phone with a spotty data connection, and got through one gate in a neighborhood that looked close to Soweto (livestock and trash in the street), but without the friendly faces. The moment of truth, I show the address and the name of our host to the man at the next gate. It’s the right place, but Herbert’s not there. We know this, but we’re being met, aren’t we? No, no one’s there. No one answers the phone when the man at the gate calls the house. I call him on his mobile, no answer.

Sometime after that, a man in a VW shows up, starts talking with the guy at the gate about us. Turns out he speaks English and is Herbert’s neighbor, and he starts to intercede on our behalf. He’s got completely different phone numbers for our host, and gets him on the phone promptly. But he doesn’t want to speak to us. Because he’s had a heart attack. And a divorce. Not at the same time, i imagine. But recently, and the latter means his ex-wife, very angry at him, won’t let anyone into the house. Including us. Who have traveled thousands of miles. As the sun goes down, this ugly part of Salvador swarms with bugs in vast numbers, and we start to really question what the hell to do next. His neighbor, Carlos, a kind, hippy musician type who’s done all the talking for us, insists we come up to his house, and regroup from there.

Which we do. It’s modest, cluttered, but with a friendly golden retriever around; how bad can anything be with a nice doggie? It’s hot as balls. He bids us sit down, and we are just trying to get a hold of Herbert’s other contacts, desperate to get let in. Later, Herbert says (to Carlos, never to me, to whom he’s been emailing for months) his brother could bring us to another place, but we wanted no part of that; it could be dangerous, faraway, or both. Eventually, we thank Carlos profusely and get out of his hair. It’s amazing how you can watch a trip you planned for four years get nuked in moments, and yet still have a stranger warm the cockles of your heart. Traveling is just the best.

• Back to the car; the car is at least our sovereign territory, even though it’s fighting through crowded streets and bottoming out on speed bumps and stalling on hills. Now we’re hunting a hotel, all but blindly. Almost no internet. no sign of where to go, and about five hours to really do it. The winter sun has already set, so now it’s dark. Not that there are many street signs to work with anyway. With myriad turnarounds, we get a couple hotels attempted, and each tells us a couple others to try. There’s never quite enough wi-fi to get Expedia loaded in the lobby. The first one was dire, but eventually we found some that are typical European standard. Finally, we find a cluster of them and Steve and i get out and hustle around a long block to get in through some crazy security. At this point we have no idea what to make of Salvador, and are getting distinctly pessimistic, but at last we manage to get two rooms in a nice place for $120 a night. Better than we deserved. A safe bed, parking, and the Internet (which we would begin to learn is nearly universally flaky in Brazil).

• And a patio bar across the street, full of locals mostly. Here we learned about Brazilian beer customs; this is to say that you don’t necessarily order four beers for four people, you order beer for four people. It comes with four glasses and maybe two big bomber bottles in giant plastic branded cozies. Periodically, waitstaff will refill your glass for you. Also, we found a local dish that’s just steak cooked underneath a humongous layer of multiple cheeses. It’s delicious and deadly.

• Later that night, four of us decamp to the lobby holding our assorted internet apparatus out like a Geiger counter, looking for a steady connection. Ultimately, not liking any of the options in town (expensive, shitty, badly located), we found a good deal at something kinda resorty out of the city. Quite a change from our planned, in-neighborhood dwelling. But not in the middle of disastrous, paralyzing traffic, and with less livestock and trash.

Salvador Norte

• The mall, a.k.a. the hub for our transit in and out of the city, as it turned out. We stopped in on the way up the coast to our new digs, mostly in hopes of getting a SIM card for a couple of our phones. It turned out, though, that, there was a FIFA info desk there, including a sales point for buses to the stadium.

Now, after South Africa’s plan for parking (visit an old-school ‘ticketmaster’-type counter in a grocery store), we knew we had to scout it. Earlier in the day we were lucky to escape from a driveby of the stadium, and it was all but clear that there was no parking at all. But there are buses! And now we knew about them. With everything that had gone wrong, it looked like we were finally making progress, and were likely to be able to do what we came to do. And in the process, we met a helper that works for the mall named Felipe. Originally from Easton, Mass. Not, we think, one of my favorite sister’s former pupils, but still. Hell of a world. Also, nice guy; he spent an hour trying to help some other nice Americans from DC get their phones working on local SIM cards (you can’t even get a SIM for an iPhone 5s here, turns out). Eventually we decided it was futile, and thanked him profusely.

• It was time to bug out and head north to try and find where we’re staying in the daylight.

Itacimirim

• It looks like paradise, but there’s a big asterisk: they charge you up the nose for bringing in your own food and beverages. We are smuggling ours in at night, out during the day. Pity, there’s a gorgeous pool that really deserves a beer waiting on the edge of it. They want you to buy their food at the restaurant and pool bar, but outside of their pasteis, the food is not terribly good. And they run out of beer, which should not be possible.

Rainstorm in Itacimirim

• It was here we discovered that the fireworks stands are doing business in service of people buying fireworks (fogos) to shoot off during Brazil’s matches. The start, the end, goals. Since they’re nothing if not confident, i’ll assume that they’ve bought a lot of them, but there’s a perfunctoriness in the guy at the bar here’s lighting them off. No joy in it. Then again, Brazil was lucky to beat Croatia.

• i have just now realized that the stains on our walls here are all slain, fully fed mosquitos.

Salvador

• Today, we finally got into Salvador, and finally got to feeling like maybe our trip won’t be a total disaster. A place to stay, a plan to get into town, and we went to a game. Walked a few streets, met other soccer fans, drank some beers, and watched the Dutch completely annihilate Spain.

• It’s a long way into Salvador from where we’re at, but honestly, they really do have a good system for moving people into the stadium. There’s zero parking around it, and the neighborhoods are old and cramped on one side, and crappy on the other side. Instead, the local shopping malls are running buses into the stadium, with dedicated travel lanes in some cases. It’s a long ride, but it goes very smoothly. The area around Fonte Nova is closed off, too, with no one on the streets but beer vendors and fans, for the most part.

• Crowding around a TV with a bunch of other soccer fans on a hot day trying to get a glimpse of a game, drinking a cheap beer and watching a parade go by outside is not a bad way to go.

A singular focus

• Oops, the parade is cool-looking, with some capoeira performers (dancers? fighters?), but composed entirely of jesus freaks and a lot of anti-abortion crap.

Itacimirim

• Since we’re inadvertently staying on the beach, today we went for a walk on the beach. In the morning, at least. Games to watch in the evening, you know. While the weather’s not bad, not unbearably hot, we learned that if you are out from maybe 12-2, you will surely cook in the midday equatorial sun.

Typical Brazilian Beach Day

• Rain here shows up with all sorts of wind, dark clouds, whipping waves, and feels like the foreshadowing of a hurricane. Then it rains a little and then it’s gone. Never seems to be lightning or thunder, but it sure looks impressive anyway.

Not so azul right now

• Practically right next door to us is a nice town that has a small, but walkable main street, multiple bars and restaurants, we discovered. So, the important thing is, having had 6+ months to plan, we came up with a singularly bad one, and have accidentally stumbled into a better one.

Salvador

• Today we drove into Salvador without much of an agenda, without a game to go to. It turns out that our intel about Brazilian cities being deserted on Sundays is good, because the traffic was a total breeze. It resembled a normal city, with normal, calm driving, no gridlock, no insane wedging of cars and buses, and no danger of Guy wrecking his knee working the clutch on the Fiesta.

• Unfortunately, there’s not so much to do where we went. Miles and miles of ridiculous coastline on the peninsula that Salvador lies on, and it’s got the occasional restaurant or two, and it’s all fine in the daylight, but it’s deserted, practically. All the while we’re searching for the FIFA Fan Fest, the big screens and beer gardens set up in all World Cup host cities. It sounds cheesy, and it is, corporate-sponsored, carefully-branded fun, but it’s still a damn good time.

• Turns out that in Salvador, it’s set up at the Barra, at their iconic lighthouse. Or rather, it’s not. We find out that the city’s found a way to cheat their obligation to FIFA and its sponsors, and while ordinarily we’d approve of anyone throwing mud in the eye of Sepp Blatter and friends, it’s sort of a pity to miss out on watching games outside with lots of other enthusiastic fans from wherever.

Sunday morning pickup and more

• The Barra turns out to be another isolated thing to see surrounded by not a whole lot; a couple places to eat, a beach with some locals playing soccer, the few pretty crummy-looking restaurants are filled with Swiss fans waiting for their game, probably also disappointed by the lack of outdoor screen. Again, it’s such a pity because it’s absurdly picturesque.

• With a couple of shopping trips under our belt, we are pretty confident that grocery cashiers in Brazil are the surliest, most unwilling-to-do-their-job people on the planet. You can see the evident effort they put in to working so slowly.

Mundo das delicias

• Before GERvsPOR, we actually wandered further afield in Salvador. It turned out that the nice part of town is really close to the stadium. So now we have a nice place to drink some beers before the game. And if all goes well, a nice town square to drink beers with our fellow Americans with if our guys get to the round-of-16 match.

• Salvador is such such a weird city, though. It’s got suburban shopping malls in the middle of not-quite-favelas, dirt roads next to nice apartment towers, abandoned circuses next to permanently-unfinished skyscrapers, sheds that pass for bars with identical yellow plastic chairs, pedestrian overpasses turned into teeming bazaars, horses grazing in grass lots, and pedestrians running across highways.

Praia do Forte

• After we showed up and drank a lot and started making a huge damn racket during USAvsGHA, about five times as many people joined us. Pretty sure the bar owes us one.

• We’re working on making this our next home base, of course, and hoping that airbnb works better this time.

rural futebol field

Lençois

• This town reminds me of Mykonos, sort of. Lots of tiny shops and restaurants, mostly catered to tourists (in this case, backpackers, nature tourists), and tons of B&Bs (they call them pousadas). It’s impossibly quaint, extremely hilly. Very harmless, still sorta run-down (stray cats everywhere, occasional dogs, wrecked buildings, but very picturesque. Gaily painted, cobblestone streets, but way the hell away from everything; it was a 7-hour drive.

• There’s an ever increasing tally of bug bites, as we go on. It’s so much less bad than i expected, but they are still proliferating. If you look hard enough at many surfaces in your room , you’ll eventually see tiny ants running around.

• A fireworks stand by the bridge is doing fantastic business; every 10 minutes there’s a big boom, earlier during the match it was staccato explosions, loud because they echo in the tight streets and the valley. It’d have been a bit dangerous had brazil managed to pull out a win.

• Steve learned this morning that the giant party in town last night (which ran until 2am, near as we could tell) was in fact the start of the festival of São João. Meaning that there should be more, and that i don’t have to feel bad about being too sick and exhausted to go find the party.

Someone's got to do it

• Happily, whatever stomach bug i had seems to have gone away after a bit over a day.

• A word about food. The last two places we’ve stayed have been bed-and-breakfasty places, with enough similarities in their breakfast spread to tempt me to draw conclusions about what you might expect: hot dogs in what’s like a spaghetti-o’s style sauce, cold cuts, mini cheese bread balls (these are oddly disappointing), and obviously, chocolate cake. which is obviously my go-to. Ground up manioc is intended as a condiment for something we never quite figured out. Boiled cassava or yam, which was unappealing. And obviously, the universally de rigeur scrambled eggs.

• Also napkins are typically paper, and in a variety of odd little holders, always folded in a triangle. Nearly ubiquitous.

• Today we went on a hike. I was so pleasantly surprised that no plants and animals of the Brazilian forest had any interest in killing me. Honestly, it felt a little bit like California, insofar as there were insects, but they mostly kept the hell off of me and did not consume my blood. Lençois is a very crunchy town, catering chiefly to the ecotourism crowd, with lots of guides and crafty stores and stuff. At the same time, it’s mainstream enough that they did actually build a bar a couple kilometers down the hiking trail. Not fully stocked, and it’s clear that they portage their wares in and out, but seriously a bar in the middle of the woods in a national park. Further down the trail was a river in a rockfall that formed a huge natural pool of cool, cool water, brown as coffee, but still clear in the shallows. i sort of regret not being prepared to fully dive in, or to climb up the mossy angled rocks that people were ‘surfing’, down. But then again, the few hospitals we’ve seen in this country have done nothing to make us feel good about risking injury.

The ol' swimmin' hole

Almost touching

• So far, the best food we’ve had in Brazil was made by an Italian. Who owns a nice pousada here in Lençois. Also, he and his (Brazilian) wife were easily some of the most welcoming people we’ve met.

Praia do Forte

• Croatia’s team is staying here, and now so are we. Even if it is am Epcot Center style town, it’s comfy, still cheap ($4 caipirinhas, $3 beers), and there’s lots of people around to watch games with.

Farol

• Finally we succeeded in getting into a place where we can set up shop and do what we want. Our airbnb came through just fine, and we’ve got a fridge full of beer, and our American flag hung over the couch. Incidentally, at least two Bostonians have visited here and left gifts. Typical of everywhere in Brazil, this place can only approach ‘nice’ so closely; it’s a luxury-condo building with immaculate grass, but the fountains are off and the furniture’s put away (oh right, the ‘off-season‘). And the apartment is beautiful, but has lots of expensive broken appliances, and i think other guests have partied hard here. fewer ants, though.

The festive season

• Steve and i weren’t the only ones out for a run this morning. There was even a local doing it. It’s really pretty comfortable walking, but when you are exerting yourself, you get sweaty and dehydrated pretty damn fast.

• The beach has vendors walking up and down all over the place; in Praia do Forte, they’re regulated, elsewhere they’re pretty much whatever. Here, there’s one that carries around a bucket of hot coals, and roasts a stick of cheese covered in oregano on it. Marshmallows can go straight to hell from now on, as far as i’m concerned.

Cachaça is dangerously cheap. Do people here have drinking problems, because if so, the ready availability of high-powered liquor for the equivalent of about $3 surely can’t be good for society, right? And it’s great, it mixes well in lots of things, you can shoot it, even.

• Some of the locals in the bar last night were pretty pleased when our guys got scored upon late, and were sure to use our chants against us. We more than deserved it, considering how loud we and the other Americans were. Both of us have to deal, obviously.

• That was tough, though. We were hoping to drive up to Recife and go support our team without so much on the line, but now it is serious business time. There will be large numbers of both teams’ fans there so let’s hope we’re all happy.

• Tipping is almost never done here, as there is a mandatory 10% ‘serviso’ on your bill. Not coincidentally, for every restaurant that’s great, you find two where service is less than motivated. Waitstaff will frequently hide from you outright.

• In planning our drive to Recife, we lament other countries’ lack of roadside motels. Our suspicion is that for the probably comparatively few who make drives like that, that’s why pousadas on top of gas stations exist. Of course, as the ads on tv would tell you, a gas station is a place where you get a fine meal with jovial company. Some of the ones we’ve been to, i might even believe that. Most, though, not so much.

• We’re practically in full rainy-vacation-day mode today. When the skies open up here it is a sight to behold. Even the gentle misting rains are splendid, so light as to do nothing but refresh.

A patch of smooth road

Maceio

• Steve was excited to get points at his beloved Holiday Inn Express here in Brazil, and was glad to find that they existed. We showed up so very late, and naturally, guards manned the locked door. We said we were there to check in; the skinny, shifty-looking guard asks, “Do you need beaches?” “No, we need to get into the hotel, to check in.” “Bitches. Quinze, desesseis.” Gutturally: “Hookers.”

“No. Let us in.” Figures that the trustworthy American franchise is the one that best manages to skeeve us out.

Recife

• So, we didn’t get to the game on time, but we did make it. Even though a lot of people might have called it a day, and called it a bad one, we turned it into a good one, one we’ll always remember. One that involved us running in sewer water, and us nearly bottoming out the car on a dirt road through a slum. An adventure among adventures, and something no sane person would call ‘vacation’.

Porto de Galinhas
• ’Galinha’ means ‘chicken’. Which is why everything here is unabashedly chicken-themed, from cheekily painted chicken sculptures (like other cities’ cows), to souvenir trinkets, to sandals, to phone booths. It’s kinda hilarious.
• The pousada we’re staying at is perfectly all right, although there are no panes of glass, much less screens in the windows. It’s bright and airy during the day, but necessarily closed up and darkened against the hordes of mosquitos at night. It’s a weird reminder of just where peoples’ priorities are, cost-wise. Air conditioner, sure, glass for windows, not so much.

Afternoon storm

• On the bright side, i taught myself how to make caipirinhas. Importantly, i learned that you can’t short-change any element of it, you have to beat up the limes some, you need a lot of sugar, and it needs ice and a straw. But it can be done, by the likes of me, even. i just hope that cachaça and limes aren’t too much more expensive at home.

Maceio

• It turns out the coast roads between Porto de Galinhas and Maceio are mostly far superior to the supposed intercity highway, BR-101, which was sporadically so potholed as to be nearly undriveable, never mind narrow, curvy, clogged with trucks that struggle up even the smallest hill, and under permanent construction.

Brazilian farm country

Hang on tight

• While we were distinctly discomfited by our first visit and stay here, Maceio has treated us a lot better the second time through. We arrived along the beachfront strip of hotels about 15 minutes before the start of the Brazil-Chile match, parked, and found a nearby umbrella bar with decent tvs, and a good empty table. It was getting busy, and initially our waiter seemed overwhelmed, but at some point he brought us a couple free caipirinhas (we were drinking beer). And then a couple more. And a couple more. At some point Guy had to slyly pass his on to me, since he had perhaps a mile further to drive. Tipping here is not customary, not expected at all, but we tipped the hell out of him.

• We were, of course, kinda hoping for Chile to pull off an upset. It’s somewhat rude to root against your hosts, but their general attitude of inevitability and their team’s underwhelmingness made them a tempting target. The crowd at this bar was also insufficiently involved, seemingly not taking the threat seriously until it went to penalties. At that point, a couple crazy old ladies appeared, and one of them was passing around her lucky teddy bear, so in the end i’m okay with them moving on. For now.

• The Radisson was Ghana’s headquarters hotel, during their regrettably brief stay here (they played well, although i feel less bad knowing their players apparently behaved somewhat badly). There were a few people who were obviously players in the lobby when we arrived, although we couldn’t piece together who they were.

• i am getting eaten alive by mosquitos in the lobby as i wait for a facetime call with the girl. In Brazil, as we’ve so often noted, even nice places can find ways to be shitty.

Morning at the fruit stand

Aracaju

• Aracaju is unlike other cities we’ve been to, in that it’s full of new infrastructure, shiny new cultural buildings and facilities, and the large apartment buildings are actually well-kept and clean, not dingy and destroyed up close. Wikitravel knows precious little about it. Upon reaching the shoreline, and seeing it dotted with oil platforms, we suspect we have the explanation.

• Bugs here are simply harder to kill than their counterparts at home. They’re both more evasive and then once you get one, you might not even succeed at squashing it the first time.

Salvador

• And so after our northern odyssey, we returned at last to our ‘home’ city of Salvador, which we’d honestly sort of kept at arms length thus far. And as a reminder of why, we were still half an hour away on a familiar stretch of highway when a column of thick black smoke rose ahead, and traffic came to a halt. Now, after seeing that every rural police station has to own supply of burned out husks of cars, we quickly assumed that that’s all it was, a beat-up car’s fiery death (goodness knows we had ample reason to fret that our own car was not going to make it). After a while, i got antsy and jumped out of the car, as has become my custom. I jogged down the empty oncoming lane and just kept running until I got closer to it, after all, why turn back until I had an answer? The answer was, it was no car, and no accident. A line of what looked like oil, or pitch, or something was strewn across both sides of the highway, lit, and fed with large tree branches. Beyond that, a throng of protesters, chanting loudly at a comically small number of police. Finally, one of the riots we were promised. After ascertaining that the party was unlikely to break up too soon, i jogged back to our car, again communicating as best i could to other stopped cars my information about what was ahead. Mostly arm-waving, really. One lady rolled down her window and replied ‘parler Français?’ to my ‘nao falo Português’. She went on to tell me that riots like this are obnoxious and very common, although increased police presence during the World Cup meant a break from them, since ironically that’s part of what they were protesting.

Now that we've got your attention

• Thus began a fun 24 hours in Salvador, wherein we were delayed by a riot and fire, ripped off three times by three different bartenders, interviewed by multiple TV networks, and finally, taken for a R$60 cab ride to a bad neighborhood by a cab driver who was at best an idiot, but most likely an asshole or even someone who meant us harm.

• It is normal for Salvador cab drivers to flagrantly run open red lights late in the night. This guy started off in the wrong direction, which we chalked up to trying to get on bigger roads back to the hotel, but kept going. Fortunately for us, we know this city pretty well by now, and smelled a rat pretty quickly. Eventually he turned back into town, ending any fears of getting stranded in some rural shithole, and prompting the question of whether he’s taking us somewhere totally wrong, or to some buddies of his in a dark alley. We try to point out to him where we actually want to go, and our knowledge of the town is sufficient that he’s not misunderstanding us. So he blows through red light after red light, and we’re officially concerned. In the end, he’s got to stop at one, since a cop was sitting there. I figure that’s the safest harbor. Steve, on the other side of the car was noting that it was across the street from the Sheraton (there’s a Sheraton, apparently). “We’re getting out.” We do, and hustle onto the sidewalk, and i cuss the guy out as i walk away. He throws it into reverse, and I keep yelling at him. “Wrong! Bad!” with thumbs-downs and worse. He gestures for money, then points at the cop. So now I’m the criminal. I throw a $R50 note at him, flip him off and bid him get the fuck out of there. The friendly doorman at the hotel meanwhile finds us a cab that he’ll vouch for, further proving that doormen are the best people. The next cab driver was fine, although riding through Salvador at night with him listening to Phil Collins’ treacly worst was a bit surreal. From then on, we had someone in the back seat double checking our route with the magic blue dot.

• I’d be remiss if i didn’t mention the hotel that was so much work for us to get back to. A formerly no doubt opulent 70’s-modern palace in mustard-and-red with a concrete/stucco angled facade overlooking the beautiful eastern beaches of Salvador, it should by all rights have been perfect. Or, instead, musty, smelling of urine in places, and with pry-marks by the handle of every single door. This is what we got for not having good enough internet and having to wait one more night to book rooms in Salvador after all our American brethren had taken all the good ones. And it was not cheap either.

And it could so easily be amazing. This is about the most descriptive statement you can make about Salvador. It could so easily be amazing. But just like the rest of the city, they just find a way to screw up a can’t-miss place.

It's for sale...

• Take for instance our last day in Salvador, before the USA-Belgium match, a beautiful (hot) day to walk through the beautiful old town and see just why it’s worthy of being a UNESCO site. It’s like a hilly, older Vieux Carré, but without any drunk yahoos, and it’s totally amazing. People would get on planes to see this, to walk the streets, to eat at an outside table, to gawp at the old churches. But it’s an island, connected to the airport by untrustworthy cabs, with few hotels in a walkable radius, and surrounded by places you’re better off not lingering in. Who knows how it came to be so; our suspicion was that a lot of the bigger companies, best employers seem to be in office parks around the city, that it’s some form of Brazilian ‘white flight’. And Salvador is maybe their Detroit. It’s the sort of thing where you wonder what they were protesting. And whether or not their government spent too much on bringing you here, and not making here better.

Lazy day in the Pelourinho.

• It was disappointing to find that there really wasn’t an organized cheering section for the USA at the match. Apparently it really was quite something when the “U-S-A” chant got rolling, but to us it just felt like the only thing that worked, and we felt like we missed the chance to really belt some things out like we did in South Africa. It would have been good to be able to get back at the Belgian contingent, who were nice in person, but as a group felt like they needed to taunt us when they took a lead. That noted Belgium-USA rivalry apparently boiling over.

The home of the brave

• The real sign that we were tired and ready to come home, though, was the reaction of the locals, many of whom delighted in making throat-cutting signs and shouting “bye-bye, USA” at us. That’s nice. We just traveled thousands of miles and spent a buttload of money in your hole of a city and this is how you treat visitors? Way to undo the work of all the nice people we met, assholes. But there’s the problem, and maybe the news articles at the outset were true; people here just aren’t that excited to welcome visitors, for the most part. It’s a job, it’s a thing that’s happening, but there’s no joy in it. Just business. On the bright side, the people that we met that were the exception to this rule are that much more special to us.

Rio de Janeiro

• It’s like night and day here. A couple nights ago, Steve coined the term, to ‘Brazil’ it, which is to say they take something that’s intrinsically nice, or pleasant, and make it slipshod, or downright shitty. There’s almost none of that here in Rio. Proper highways that do not at any point pass through a major bus terminal, bridges that exist, no speed bumps or crosswalks in the middle of 100kph traffic. A clean, efficient subway that’s safe at all times of day. Streets full of people going to work, not livestock.

• Never mind how beautiful it is; forget the beaches, which are not so big a draw for me, i’m talking about the absurd drama of these enormous 2000-foot-tall rocks, like cartoon lumps after a mallet to the head, jutting out of the coastline, stretching the city’s fabric. It’s breathtaking, even from the street.

The picture postcard

• Not a connoisseur of beaches, i, but i suspect, given mere walk-by experience that these probably are justly famous. They’re wide, soft, and at least on this day, caressed by waves that are enough to remind you you’re in the ocean, but not the sort to rough you up. And naturally, there’s private enterprise from makeshift pay showers, to wi-fi-tents, the obvious beverages, and more fixed bars and restaurants. It’s a hell of a thing to sit and drink a (still inexpensive) caipirinha, while watching the sun leave the beach in late afternoon (short days + hot weather still registers as some sort of an error for me).

• Notable here is the familiar configuration of the FIFA Fan Fest on Copacabana beach, multiple giant screens, pristine sand, thousands of other futebol fans. We’d have partaken the hell out of that, as we had in Johannesburg, Durban, Frankfurt, and Berlin, and shame on Salvador for cheating its visitors of such a great way to have a good time and good cheer with locals.

Summer-winter sunset

• The trip up Pão de Açucar (Sugar Loaf) was amazing, sort of a great unofficial end to the trip; a madly steep cable car ride, watching the hazy sun finish its day, and the lights of the city come on. Watching the insane approach of flights landing at SDU from uncomfortably close. Sitting and having a beer and reflecting on how many unvacation days went into this vacation and how truly earned a beer on top of a mountain can be.

A morning swim

• By contrast, getting up to Corcovado is a shit show, and we failed at it. They Brazil’d it. There is this and plenty of other reasons to come back someday with the girl.

• There’s even a small craft-beer scene around Rio, mostly beers that are dark as hell, presumably as a reaction to the weightless, clammy riceyness of the likes of Skol. It’s about damn time.

In Summary

• Met and chatted with (22): Ghana, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Uruguay, France, Chile, England, Venezuela, Australia, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Germany, Nigeria, Netherlands, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Belgium, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina
• Photos with (9): Ghana, Uruguay, France, Chile, Venezuela, USA, Germany, Brazil, Canada
• Media from (3): Brazil, England, USA
• Distance covered: 3,450km
• Speed bumps (they call these lombadas): too many
• Bottomed the car out on speed bumps: approximately 35 times
• Days without being dry: 3
• Ate at McDonald’s: 1 time
• Bug bites: 33 (approximately)
• Caipirinhas: lost count

At the end of a continent

So i’ve been joking amongst friends at how hilarious it is that the girlfriend and i took two teenage girls that we’re not related to to California a month ago. Considering my guilt of being a thirtysomething single white male, you’d think i’d be on CNN by now, assumptions being what they are. Oh fine, it’s easy to pick on CNN. Moving on.

It had been forever since i’d spent any quality time in and around Los Angeles. Spent a night and left a beloved t-shirt in Long Beach in 2005. One of the big road trips blew through in the middle of the night in 1998. The only time i’d ever been to nice parts of the area was in late 1993. i was anorexic as hell, and under the delusion that i would get in to Caltech. My dad also believed the latter, and that a weekend in California could fix the former. It was pretty nice, though; i was cold on a fairly warm day in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. Got to take a tour of JPL. Felt so guilty about eating normal meals that i ran three miles in my Chuck Taylors. All things considered, i don’t think the trip was successful.

Anyway, it’s convenient to joke about how much of a hellhole LA is, and make no mistake, i could not handle living there; the traffic lights, the driving, driving, driving, the brown cloud, the sprawl. But there’s no way a city that size couldn’t have so many fun, glorious, weird things to do, and it’s a pity that it took me so long to get to them.

no lifeguard on duty
For instance, our splendid Airbnb’d abode in weird, weird Venice Beach. Tiny little streets bordering the beach, leading to tinier alleys and then a wide (paved) boardwalk, a thoroughfare for all manner of wheeled conveyances. Lazily swerving bicycles, fit, weaving rollerbladers (apparently this is not out of style there), skateboarders, trikes, mutant hybrids of any of the above. And those were the people that were moving, upright, to say nothing of the hordes of shambling homeless, the stoned, the strung out, the merely lazy, greeting and conversing with each other in varying levels of sanity.

a lot to observe
i was glad that we were able to convince the teenagers to drive up the hill to the Griffith Observatory, too. They’d seen it in movies, and so had i. It looked cool, even without Optimus Prime standing next to it, and there’s a view that made me wish i’d brought my SLR after all. And it’s a damn science museum that’s open late at night and free. Late-night science is good!

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Amusingly, the girl and i were able to run the teenagers into the ground repeatedly. One night, they probably thought we were driving home, but in reality i pulled up next to Pink’s Hot Dogs. What i was struck by, there, and at Randy’s Donuts, too, was how humble, how friendly these tourist landmarks are; no resentment of tourists, no impatience, just a hot dog like all the others. Only better.

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And then there was Disneyland. Where i haven’t been since i was 1. Or so i’m told. My guess is that it wouldn’t have seemed so small to me then. The gap between the state-of-the-art California Adventure and the original was immense. Not that i didn’t have fun at the latter, too, but it was just packed, crammed, overrun. As opposed to the engineering that you come to expect of the Mouse, evolved over decades, across the street. It almost makes you appreciate their work more, but at the same time, you wish there was a way that the original could be more enjoyable on its own terms.

Retracing my steps

Last week, oddly enough, found me in New Orleans for the first time since 1986.  While i’d passed through Louisiana once in 1998, i’d never been back after moving away, and was the last in my family to lay eyes on what became of where we used to live.  Not to mention the last to go back and experience the city as an adult.

It will not surprise, likely infuriate those who know me when i say i didn’t need directions to my old house.  The relative locations of everything were still known to me; the interstate, the service roads (service roads are a foreign concept to the girl) and motels that flank it, the McDonald’s, and where it is relative to the Wendy’s.  The main business road and corresponding lack of a real downtown.  The other roads that sort of let you circumnavigate the town surrounding my neighborhood.  Familiar names, and the hints of familiar landmarks.  Not the Wal-Mart, but the plaza where it stood.  Not the pizza place, but a different one in the same spot.  The ancient nemeses CVS and Walgreens doing battle where a different pharmacy once stood.

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Finally, my old neighborhood.  Southern, concrete streets that once seemed to tick by slowly on the school bus thumped rhythmically under the rental car’s tires as i slowly read off the themed street names that faintly registered familiarity.  And then my old street.  So tiny.  The walk to the bus stop now looked ludicrously small, the boundary we had free reign over so near to our house.  And our house, not what you’d call large either.  It was big enough that we had rooms that we were simply forbidden to enter, a spacious backyard, a driveway, and yet, it looked so modest, so crammed in amongst neighbors, and yet still the same; immovable in brick and therefore tough to alter the appearance of that much.  The slight bend in the driveway to the tiny garage, rendering the latter unusable by our van, and therefore basically every modern SUV that’s now de rigeur down there.  The big kitchen window where we sat while waiting for my sister to never eat her vegetables.

It blows my mind to look at a place that is now completely other to me, but nevertheless know for a fact that my 7-year-old feet trod every inch of it, and to know it’s the setting for all manner of things that remain indelible until i kill those brain cells with alcohol.

Speaking of which, it was fascinating to visit New Orleans as an adult.  My experiences with the city as a kid, at least the ones i remember were primarily related to the Audubon Zoo, the 1984 World’s Fair (which had a damn space shuttle, so you know it was pretty important to 8-year-old me), and Café du Monde.  And maybe the nice parts of the French Quarter.

It was therefore very strange to me to experience it as being closer to Las Vegas than the wholesome historical stuff i vaguely remembered.  As related to us by a French Quarter (he pronounced it “Voo Carr-ay”, reminding me how mutilated Louisiana French pronunciation can be) local, the longtime residents don’t much care for the tarted-up commercialized to-go-cup bacchanalia of Bourbon Street, the same way Boston locals scorn Quincy Market. At the same time, with so much of an old city’s heritage tied up in those occupied blocks, there’s more than a bit of tension evident.  Personally, i found that history much more fascinating while sipping on a drink the same way Tennessee Williams or Jean Lafitte might’ve in the same places they would have.  And there’s nothing wrong with a little tarted-up bacchanalia, either; happy people and good cover bands and freedom of open-containers make for a damn good time, too.

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Another thing that was radically different from my memories was visiting a plantation. An ancient house, but updated with modern, scarily stylish ideas, with an old outbuilding turned into a bar that would be impossible to get into in any city, and tour guides sporting the latest in hipster facial hair and highly pleasant nonchalance about the fact that you can touch everything in what he calls “our house”.  Far from the stuffy museum that i remember enduring when company came to town.  One thing remained the same, though—not a lot of mention of the little issue of slavery.

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One thing that was utterly the same, though?  Café du Monde.  We usually got it take-away as a kid, so sitting down and being waited upon was fun.  We went three times in four days, and every day went home happily coated in powdered sugar.  It’s cheap, it’s always open, and it’s delicious and unique.  It’s not of this country.  If teleportation was a thing, i would go there every single day.