Thursday, July 9, 2009

USA South West Trip - Thur 9 July


The last day of my vacation, we decided to all go down to the Santa Monica Beach nearby and enjoy some rays, surf and admire the beautiful bodies around us. After a arduous journey around the South West, it was nice to just lie down on the beach and do nothing. The water as cold but refreshing, and now I can say i've swam on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. :)

We walked to the Pier again for some final sightseeing and photo taking, before going back home to wash, change and head to the airport, stopping at a really nice pizza franchise called California Pizza.


Finally, I reach the airport, farewell my friends and flew back home. Suddenly, it was over, as if the whole trip was just a dream - the only sign of it happening was the 3kg i had gained and the nice tan i had developed. I also wasn't as scared as I was of the country when I arrived. Indeed, even though many people might critisise America, Americans and their way of life, I can honestly say they don't know America until they visit it. And once they do, they will fall in love with it. It is truly the land of opportunity and freedom; where people are kind, friendly, generous and are free to be themselves, eat and drink well, enjoy the beautiful nature - ranging from deserts to forests; canyons to volcanoes - and appreciate the idiosyncracies of this nation that gives it it's particular charm and personality.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

USA South West Trip - Wed 8 July


The next day we left the motel and headed towards Sequoia National Park. The park is famous of the huge Californian Redwoods or Sequoias - massive trees considered to be the biggest in the world.

We entered the park to find ourselves surrounded by the massive trees. We couldn't even hug them - you'd need at least 5-10 people to do it! We took photos, even standing on top of a massive fallen tree exposing its roots, which really gives you a good idea of just how big these trees are.

We drove through a tunnel carved into the side of a tree.. it was overrated. We also walked a bit to see a hut carved out of the inside of another fallen tree (did I mention these trees are big?)


We got to check out the largest tree in the world, nicknamed General Sherman. It is the biggest in volume, not girth or height. It is so big that the top of the tree has been pretty much fried due the number of lighting strikes on the poor thing. Even then, it's still the largest tree in the world. Looking at it, they liken it to a mouse looking up at a 6ft person. It is pretty impressive.

And that was it. Our road trip was nearing it's end. All we had to do is head back to LA (stopping at a mexican restaurant for lunch). We were kinda relieved to be back in civilisation where we could wash, rest and relax - yet also sad the trip had ended.

We had a celebratory dinner at the same Korean BBQ restaurant we went to last time - but this time we were more careful with drinking soju. :) Not only that though - we were too knackered to even drink!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

USA South West Trip - Tue 7 July


The next day, we packed up and left for the long trip back to California. I was glad because the ranch was filled with wild grasses that was really playing up my hayfever - I never thought I would get hayfever up there.

Anyway, we decided to stay the night near the Sequoia National Park and see the park itself the next day. So we could take our time driving back.


We stopped for lunch at Big Boy - a franchise diner famous from the Austin Powers movie (Dr Evil's rocket). Anyway, what caught me by surprise was that the diner offered Chicken Parmagiana. I was shocked - I thought it was invented by Australians (since i couldn't find it anywhere in Europe), yet here I was in the middle of the Mogave desert being served it. I definitely had to try it out.

As it turned out, it was not that great. For starters, the breaded chicken itself was flat, tough and dry - not thick, juicy and melts in your mouth like it's supposed to. Secondly, it was not topped with ham, tomato sauce and cheese; it was only topped with some napoli (or bolognaise) sauce and a bit of cheese. Lastly, it did not come with steak fries and a nice salad; it came served on pasta and napoli sauce. The salad came seperately, with some strange raspberry vinegarette which was actually quite nice if only it matched the meal.

Yep, it may sound patriotic, but no one does Chicken Parmagianas like the Aussies do! :)


We found ourselves a motel, managing to sneak in an extra person without them knowing, otherwise they would have charged extra. At first glance, the motel seemed alright - there was cable TV showing Michael Jacksons tribute in LA (good thing we weren't in LA that day - traffic would have been crazy), and a funny MTV show which targeted and followed the lives of "Douchebags". However, we saw some cockcroaches having a party on the floor. This meant I was not going to sleep on the floor this time as planned - i was going to sleep on the foot of one of the beds instead!

We were hoping to have dinner at a local japanese restaurant - we were kinda hanging for Japanese after all the diners and western style junk food we've had recently. Unforunetly though, it was closed, so we had no choice but to eat at Subway. Guess we can't get away from all the fast food restaurants.

Monday, July 6, 2009

USA South West Trip - Mon 6 July


We never thought we could do it, but we did - we got up around 5am, a quick breakfast, and then Billunta drove us all to Zion so we could begin our hike (poor Billunta couldn't come).

Because it was so early, the weather was blessedly cool. We took the shuttle bus to the hike starting point - in our case we choose to do one hike - the Angels Landing - a 5 hour ordeal.

It started out ok, with a gradually inclining winding path going up the cliff. Even then, some of us were struggling - all that junk food on the trip has not helped. Huffing and puffing, we got to a nice narrow canyon path that offered lots of shelter from the rapidly rising sun. Looking around, the scenery reminded me of what the Jurassic period might have looked like, pristine, full of towering rock faces, mountains and lush trees and ferns. The cliff closest to us looked very reminiscent of honeycomb (could you tell i was tired and hungry?)

After a while, we saw some people coming down and, thinking we were more than halfway there, asked "Are we nearly there yet?" People were surprised and looked at us with pity as they told us "you not even halfway yet, and you haven't got past the wiggles yet"! The Wiggles?

No, not the children's singing performers group, that would be rather surreal to see. They meant a very windy steep path just ahead of us. Now that was painful to walk up. Even though it was similar to walking up a long flight of stairs, after the hiking we've done so far, it was torture! Slowly but steadily we got to the top.

A bit of walking later, and we arrived at what we thought was the top of Angels landing - well, instead of Colin. We enjoyed the beautiful views of the valley below us and thought we could sit and rest, as well as worry about the long walk back down - until Colin pointed further out to yet another higher peak and told us "that's where we need to go!" We were not impressed and even getting grumpy at this point. Reluctantly, we followed Colin.

At this point, the hike got kinda scary and very dangerous. I was surprised that a country very into OHS would allow hikers to go up this route, with no railings to prevent people falling (and indeed in the past people have), and a series of chains that you would pull yourself up and around ridiculously narrow ledges (do not look down!). It was more rock climbing at this point. Adding to the difficulty was that people traffic could only go one way, so people had to wait for others to cross first. To be considerate, you don't stay in the middle scared out of your wits hanging for dear life - you go as quick as you can!

Anyway, after all is said and done, it was definitely worth it. An hour later we emerged onto the very top of the peak, to admire more glorious views that the previous view below cannot compare (an idea which we were skeptical of beforehand). We sat on the sun drenched peak to eat lunch with some rather feisty squirrels, who we're not supposed to feed. However, Yujin didn't realise this, and after throwing some food at them, found herself getting swarmed by the little rodents who suddenly became a little aggressive. Quite a sight being on top of the world on a small peak being attacked by squirrels.

We started the long trek back, which took a while but went quicker than going up. We stopped by a horrible smelling toilet halfway up the mountain which was surrounded by barrels imprinted with the words "Human Waste". I feel sorry for whoever is supposed to carry the barrels up to start with, and remove the existing waste - it's got to be the worst job in the world!

As we neared the bottom, we noticed it getting more hotter, as well as people just starting their hike. We were so glad we had left early because we could not have survived that hike with the heat!

We were so relieved to see Billunta at the bottom waiting for us, with life saving cool water and air conditioned car ready to take us to lunch. We were exhausted!

We went back to same diner as yesterday for lunch. I had jambalaya - a Lousiana style dish of shrimp and sausage in spicy saucy noodles - a way to make up for not having gumbo before.

We then headed straight back to the cabin to go swimming in the nice cool pool and hot spa to relive our tired aching limbs. So nice :)

Dinner was had at the place as we couldn't be bothered heading back out, and I was curious about meatloaf - a very American dish that I had not tried it. It wasn't as nice as i thought though, but I was told nothing tastes as good as your mums homemade meatloaf anyway.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

USA South West Trip - Sun 5 July


The first thing we did was go out and eat at another diner. This diner was awesome, with cowboy and road runner decore and with big cokes served not in glasses, but in large jars!

We then drove 4hrs out of Utah and into Arizona to see one of the most famous sights in the world - The Grand Canyon.

We arrived at the North rim, which is apparently less crowded and visited than the South Rim that most people see in the movies. We weren't really keen on driving another 5 hours around the canyon just to see it from that side though.

Anyway, the Grand Canyon is indeed grand and very different to what I was expecting - i thought it was just a big orange hole. But I saw instead was jaggered cliff faces showing layers of sediment worn away throughout the passage of time. Bright red, orange, yellow, white and black layers of colour made decorative patterns which made it alot more impressive and beautiful than i imagined. Still, maybe due to the other impressive sights i've seen, I wasn't overwhelmed. I still rank Bryce Canyon as my favorite.

After some photo taking and walking around, we headed the long drive back to our Cabin, stopping at pizza hut for dinner. As aways, the food is larger, more plentiful, and more unhealthy, with garlic bread sticks drenched in butter that came with the pizzas. At least they had an ok salad bar.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

USA South West Trip - Sat 4 July


The next day, we amazingly got up before 11am in time to check out and head out eastwards towards Utah. We had a quick lunch at another diner and spent most of the day on the road. We arrived at Zion National Park around 4pm in stinking hot weather (around 40 degrees). I was warned it was going to be hot in these parts but I wasn't prepared for its intensity that I was even questioning whether i'd be able to hike these areas.

The park itself was truly spectacular though. I was impressed by the sheer size and number of the vertical cliff faces in various textures and shades of red, orange, brown and white towering above and around us (to think i'd be hiking up on one of them a few days from now). We drove through the park, taking photos as appropriate; we drove through a very long man made tunnel right through the heart of one of the mountains, and emerged in very different looking terrain, a series of smooth pointed white peaks called Mesas. Amazing how they can exist all in one particular area of the country.

Figuring we had time, we drove on away from the park (and area where we were planning to stay), towards another famous park - Bryce Canyon.


This place is definitely one of the most stunning natural landscapes i've seen on my travels. A place very hard to describe or appreciate through pictures and film, especially around sunset. From up high on the rim of the canyon, one can look down to the multitude of jaggered pink, orange, white spikes and shards as far as the eye can see - it's like looking at a pink rock pine needle forest. Not the wisest place to land if you're parachuting down. Anyway, I could have spent hours admiring the scenery, but we had to quickly head back to the place we were staying at so we could get dinner there.


We got to the "Cowboy" Cabin at Ponderosa Ranch, a remote collection of wood cabins in the middle of nowhere. They have an awesome pool/spa and a decent buffet (though a bit pricey).

Anyway, we arrived just before midnight, hoping to place a pizza delivery before they close. Unfortunetly, we were too late! So we had a dinner of beef jerky, chips, fig bars and beer - based on all the snacks we had bought on our road trip. Not very exciting but at least we didn't starve.

Again, there were not enough beds, but at least I could sleep on a sofa instead of the floor. It was here that I was determined to not sleep in a single bed throughout my whole time here - i mean, if i'm on holidays I want to do things I normally don't do in normal life - like sleep in a normal bed. It makes it feel more like an adventure that way. :)

Friday, July 3, 2009

USA South West Trip - Fri 3 July


We went for another state today - Arizona - to see the famous Hoover Dam, which is one of the greatest industrial wonders of the world. The amount of manpower, lives lost, resources and innovation that went into building this massive dam, in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees, is hard to fathom. It's hard to complain about the hard work we do when we compare it to what the people building it went through. It's a truly impressive sight to walk on and admire. There's also a monument built with a map on the floor of the position of the stars when the dam was completed - this way, anyone in the future from earth or outerspace can know when it was built instead of looking at the date (since dates are an arbitary relative way humans know time/date, whereas stars/planets are not). Anyway, we didn't stay too long due to the oppressive heat - i don't know how people could live there.


We got back to Vegas in time for lunch at The Bellagio. Lunch Buffet in the Bellagio is famous, maybe because it is inexpensive ($20) for high quality food. Standing in line to enter and waiting for people already there to leave, it's clear from the way they people leaving are stroking their bellies with a glazed expression in their eyes that the food is good, and plentiful. We made a note to leave ourselves later with a more cheerful happy expression for the benefit of those still waiting in line. Anyway, the food did not disappoint, only my stomach did for not being able to eat as much as I wanted. I have fond memories of the roast turkey meat, the freshly prepared shrimp rice paper rolls, the mini burgers (Colin told me there's a proper name for them but i've forgotten - is it sliders?). I'm only surprised that a place like this only has one toilet cubicle for the male toilets, not even a urinal.
How are people supposed to make room to eat more?


Those who come to Las Vegas expecting the same crazy partying they see from the movies will be bitterly disappointed. Las Vegas is a playground for the rich - if you ain't got money and willing to spend it, you not gonna see anything but nice pretty buildings. For starters, you only get free drinks and food if you gamble alot of money in the more expensive tables - not the $5 dollar blackjack table or 2 cent pokies. Secondly, you have to look the part - dressed to impress.

Considering we were all poor and packed for travelling and hiking, and also keeping in mind Billunta was injured and Yujin was too young to drink or go into any bars (even in Sin City), the only thing we could really do is drink and walk around admiring the different casinos and their novelties. No bars. No girls. No clubs. No crazy parties and getting into mischief. Zilch. Nada. The closest we got to anything regarding risque was collecting cards of call girls from the line of people handing them out on the street everywhere we went, then playing "guess how much she costs to call to your hotel room?" and revealing the answer which is written on the cards somewhere (the average was around $40 - apparently this is just the calling over cost; the cost of doing what you want with them is expensive and negotiated). Was it the best bachelor party ever? Probably not. But I can't complain, i mean, I'm in Vegas with a group of awesome friends in a middle of an awesome road trip - what more could one want! :)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

USA South West Trip - Thur 2 July


We got up early in the morning to pack our things and hire "the grandpa car" we were planning to drive around in for the next week. It was a sky blue Grand Marquis with a boot that even Billunta could sit in comfortably if he should feel so inclined. Even then, it only managed to fit the 5 of us and our luggage.

We left LA into the Mohave desert, noting the stark difference of LA to the flat sandy plains and towering rocky mountains in the countryside around us. We also passed the greatest concentration of spectacular looking windmills i've ever seen.

Anyway, our first stop was at In-n-Out burger fast food restaurant - which only exists in California. I was recommended to order the burger with "animal fries", which appears to be a secret codeword for getting something not on the menu, which is fries drenched (literally) in bacon bits, melted cheese and 1000 island dressing. After filling my arteries with the stuff (I swear i could feel my heart murmuring while eating it), we continued on.


We headed towards Joshua Tree National Park, famous for the strange hardy spiky trees that grow there, and only there in the whole world. It is a rather eerie landscape, being in the middle of the desert with random large boulders, mountains and trees scattered around the place - and nothing else. We spent a few hours climbing over things, taking photos, pretending to be trees, and other touristy things.


We then headed out towards Las Vegas, where I had my first (and only) attempt at driving on the "wrong" side of the road. Boy it was scary! Even though i drove on just the highway with not many cars around, doing so on the wrong side of the road, in the biggest car i've ever driven, during nightfall, with headlights that were either too dim or too bright, in speeds of miles instead of kilometers, is a little overwhelming. The nice thing though was that I got to drive on the famous Route 66, which is an old road that originally connected across the whole country from left to right. Now it's only used for nostalgic reasons since new bigger faster highways have been built. It's nice to know that even though America is not as old as most countries, you can still get a feel of history by doing things like this. If only it was still light outside, i could enjoy the scenery more and imagine better what it was like 150 or so years ago..


We finally made it to Las Vegas at around midnight, tired, and hungry as we couldn't find anything open on the road, even fast food restaurants were closed. Many smaller casinos where open though, from the time we entered Nevada. It seems that Nevada is the only state that allows gambling, hence Las Vegas being built in such an area - the middle of the desert - but as close to LA as possible.

Approaching the Las Vegas strip however, all thoughts of tiredness and food were gone; I felt like a bug that's drawn towards a bug zapper. The neon lights of the strip reminded me of that too. The sense of size and amount of money you could see that has been spent on this place is overwhelming. Massive buildings and casinos advertising american consumerism and sin at it's best - giant coke bottles, harley davidson bikes, adult clubs, a hooters owned casino, a black pyramid that beams light up into space... huge casino complexes, some still being built, causing traffic chaos with it's construction, others providing some kitsch or unique element to draw in gamblers - paris with the full size eiffel tower; The Venetian with it's indoor and outdoor canals, towers and gondoliers; The Bellagio with the famous musical fountains in front (it's hard to imagine that Las Vegas has a water shortage crisis)..

I must admit that after driving through the strip I was slightly disappointed with where we were staying - Circus Circus - because it didn't really have any of that. We were also further away from the action that I thought, despite it being on the strip. I realised then that Circus Circus is one of the original casinos that is now lost it's appeal since the new grander ones were built, and now generally caters for families and people who can't afford the prices of it's neighbours. Circus Circus isn't cheap, but comparatively not expensive either, and in all i'm glad we stayed there instead of a hostel further out, just for the experience of staying on the strip itself.

Anyway, we managed to find parking and our way through a maze of corridors and pokies to the reception area, then through another maze of lifts and pokie areas to our room. Finally, we could relax. After freshening up, we went back down to the main casino area of Circus Circus to see what fun we could have. We went to a smaller casino next to and owned by Circus Circus called "Slots of Fun", quite a sad dingy casino compared to it's neigbours, but cheap and good enough for us. We got cheap beers and we sat out the front of the casino, enjoying the scene and drinking on the street - which is the only place you could do it in the US. I also ate my first foot long hotdog. It didn't last very long since i was famished.

We didn't do much more that night, being exhausted and all, so we called it a night. Unfortunetly, because there were two double beds and I was the only single person there, I had to sleep under the desk.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

USA South West Trip - Wed 1 July


I figured it was time to actually see the beach properly, so me and Yujin went to Santa Monica while Billunta did other things. Because Billunta wasn't around, we had to catch the bus. One downside with LA is that public transport is slow, inconvenient, and confusing. It's a car city, and I'm glad I had friends who lived here who could drive me around - I don't think it would be much fun being a tourist backpacker with no car here.

Anyway, we first checked out the malls and did some shopping (cause that's the American thing to do). Then we walked down the beach coast and onto Santa Monica pier, full of buskers were busy performing, street vendors, artists, and all kinds of souvenir shops. There was even a small amusement park with rollercoasters and rides - on a pier! I was rather amused the the restaurant Bubba Gump" which served - well, you know what movie it's from, right?

That night, Colin and Alexis finally arrived, so we could begin our road trip the next day. We had a reunion dinner at Hooters - mainly because I wanted to see it, since my Hooters experience in Korea was more Goosebumps, and I wanted to see what it was supposed to be like. I wasn't disappointed. :)

Hey, I am trying to get the real American cultural experience here, right?