Thursday, August 23, 2012

Camino de Santiago

After one of my less eventful train rides, my Camino adventure got off to a flying start (literally) when I suddenly realised we were at my station (cos an announcement would be too much to ask for). Clambered over my apparently unconscious seatmate (he would have had some surprise wake the hell up bruises when he finally returned to consciousness), grabbed my bags and, seeing as the train had just stated rolling away from the platform I did the only sensible thing, and jumped. Can't say as the security guard on the platform was quite as impressed with my feat of daring as I was, but then my Spanish is so bad he could have been offering me a job as a stunt double for some famous Spanish movies star, guess we'll never know :-)
Anyway set off to see what Ponferrada had to offer, which at 5 am is not a lot. But there was a castle and I was right in time for the pilgrims to be starting out for the day so I could, all creepy like, trace their steps back until I eventually found an Albergue (pilgrim hostel) and a helpful pilgrim who spoke enough english to make sense of my pathetic Spanish and mime routine to help me get a credencial (a passport for the camino to prove you really were crazy enough to walk as far as you say you did). And then I walked. For 12 hours and over 33km I walked through towns and villages, up and down hills, through woods and vineyards and into the occasional church. So that was day one. Made it to my first night's stop, snagged a bed in the Albergue and despite having lost all feeling in my feet several kms earlier (probably for the best) I was feeling pretty happy with how well I'd adjusted to hiking all day with a full pack, something I've not done in years.
And then I woke up feeling like a particularly aggressive croquet team had decided to use me as target practice during the night.
The next 7 days continued about the same, though gradually getting shorter (in duration if not distance). Set out about an hour before sunrise each morning, which was the only time you had to worry about getting lost as the yellow arrows marking the way were sometimes tricky to see in the dark. Usually got 8-12 km done before finding a trackside cafe for coffee and toast with the other early starters. Averaged about 20-30km per day, trying to find somewhere to sleep by mid afternoon. Gradually my muscles adjusted, my pack grew lighter as worn out clothes were discarded or little things were left behind while re-packing in the dark. Got blisters on my blisters and found muscles I'd long since forgotten ever existed. Occasionally would find someone moving at the same pace to walk with for a bit, but mostly enjoyed the solitude, exchanging 'hola's and 'buen camino's with other travellers along the way.
In the last few days, with the trail growing more crowded, and now fairly certain I would make it to Santiago with plenty of time to spare, my afternoons (once a bed had been secured for the night) were free to explore the area, sample the local cuisine, mingle with my fellow peregrinos or simply sleep. Enjoyed a few communal dinners and plenty of laughs, even if I didn't know what was being said most of the time.
It was an amazing experience, and the stunning scenery, sense of community and challenge of it more than made up for the aches, blisters and bruises along the way. Would love to come back and do the whole thing someday!
Arrived at the beautiful cathedral in Santiago today just in time for the noon pilgrim mass (didn't stay long as being neither Catholic our able to speak Spanish I was fairly lost), and with plenty of time to look around this place I'd walked so far to see, pick up my compostela (certificate of completion) and now comes the wait for the train back to Madrid and a (comparatively) relaxing week at Pueblo Inglés.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

New york, helsinki and 3 days

After a last day spent relaxing and exploring the shops and cafes in San Mateo, went through the already familiar ritual of restuffing the bags, said goodbye to Joyce, Doug and Hathaway, and settled in at the airport to wait for my flight.
Flew all the way back across the country and arrived bright and early in new york. With a 10 hour layover, headed into the city for a last day of exploring. Strolled around Times Square and Rockefeller Centre, then on a whim returned to the library (cos what else would a jetlagged nerd do to stay awake in new york). Found a surprisingly fascinating exhibition on the evolution if the new york lunch hour, and then joined the free tour of the library so got to see all the beautiful rooms and hear all about it's history which was really cool. Ducked down to the childrens library because they actually have the original animals that Winnie the Pooh and his friends were based on kept there. Indulged in a little more aimlessly wandering and then back to the airport.
Next stop was Helsinki for another 10 hour stopover so headed to the city to check out Finland. Got dropped at the train station with absolutely no idea what to do or where I was so just started following tram lines on the theory that they might lead somewhere interesting and hey presto, found myself in the historic downtown district. Lots of fancy shops, cobblestone streets (not so good for someone who hasn't slept in 2 days), parks, a waterfront market, cathedrals and lots of pretty boats in the harbour just begging to be hijacked :-) Seems like a really chilled out town. Spent a few hours exploring until exhaustion got the better of me and I returned very gracefully (I had an attack of my public transport induced narcolepsy on the bus...also on the subway in new york, so classy) to the airport.
The last flight got me finally to madrid where I eventually tracked down my hostel with just enough energy left to make my bed and fall into a mini coma.
Struggled awake 10 minutes before the end of breakfast, stored my bags and with my usual disdain for maps or any kind if a plan roamed the streets looking for something familiar. Of course, after so many visits pretty much everything in madrid looks kind of familiar but as always I eventually turned the right corner and found myself on Gran Via which just happened to be where I wanted to be. Had a bit of a stressful morning running around getting some cash flow issues sorted (long story but all worked out fine) which earned me a big slice of cheese cake and a coffee.
Taking an overnight train tonight to Ponferrada to start the Camino.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

San Francisco part 2

Day 3

After a morning spent watching Hathaway be adorable at the park, eventually motivated myself to jump back on the train to the city where, just for a change, I thought I’d go for a walk. Strolled around the hoity toity stores in Union square, and through the financial district and checked out the markets near the ferry building, then headed over to Oakland to catch up with some Istanbul friends for the night. Had a great night (and some awesome Chinese food) with Taylor, Matt, Chris and their friends. Lots of chatting and beer and raspberry mead which was a little obscure.

Day 4

Very gratefully borrowed a couch for the night and raced off early in the morning to meet Joyce at the ferry building. Made our way over to beautiful Angel Island where we joined a Segway tour. Spent a while learning to drive before setting off, and once I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t about to go plummeting of a cliff at any given moment, it was heaps of fun! Spent an hour hooning around and hearing about the history of the island. Also got some great views of the famous San Francisco fogs over the city and the bridge once we got to higher ground. Also, I had the Final Countdown playing in my head the whole time I was riding around which really added to the atmosphere for me anyway. In conclusion, they may be a ridiculous mode of transport but I want a Segway, just for the cool factor.

Hiked back to the immigration station for a bit off extra history before heading back to the mainland. Grabbed some lunch at pier 39 after Joyce headed home, then decided since it had been almost an hour since I climbed a hill, I’d walk to Coit tower for some more spectacular views over the city. Wandered through Little Italy and eventually stumbled on the Jack Kerouac Beat Museum. Its surrounded by topless bars, and I couldn’t be bothered paying $8 to go into the museum itself, but the gift shop was cool…well they had a car covered in authentic American road dust, lots of books and a selection of antique playboys anyway. Finished in Chinatown again, and then back for a delicious dinner and more adorableness from Hathaway.   

Day 5

Off to an early start, took the train back into town and hiked over to Fisherman’s wharf. Boarded a ferry that looked as if it had recently been attacked by a golf club wielding sea lion and headed for Sausalito. Having once again been misled by a transit website (shakes fist angrily), I believed that shuttles to Muir Woods ran every 20 minutes. They don’t. They have 4 per day from the busy tourist filled town and ferry port. The car park under a freeway a couple miles down the road gets the shuttle every 20 minutes. Makes much more sense that way clearly. Anyhoo, when the bus did arrive an hour later I was in the lucky half of those waiting that actually made it on board, phew.

After a twisty and scenic drive, arrived at Muir Woods which was definitely worth all the hassle. After walking among the very, very tall redwoods and being just amazed by them, I suddenly thought to myself “hey, you know what I haven’t done for a while? Walk up a hill. I better get on that”. And so I did. Hiked up for beautiful views over the area (you were supposed to be able to see the ocean but apparently it was closed due to fire restrictions…the trail was closed, not the ocean). Spent more time walking among the trees and continually overtaking and then being overtaken by the same delightful German family (slow walkers, grrr!) before rejoining the queue for the shuttle back to Sausalito (just barely avoiding being stranded in the wait and hour and a half for the next bus line again).

Back through the fog for one last (slightly rushed) stroll through the city to the Caltrain station. Going to miss walking around this city…even with all the hills.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

San francisco part 1

Day 1

So after a great-“I’m not sleeping on a train or in a paddock”-night’s sleep, o after a great  a train or in a paddock'got back on a train or two and made my way back into the city. Strolled along the waterfront from the ferry building to the Alcatraz landing…where I learnt that I really should have done some pre planning for this trip as there were no available tickets to the Rock until the end of August. Oops :P

So wandered down to super touristy pier 39 and jumped on an Escape from the Rock cruise so I figured that was about as close as I would get. After getting slightly creeped out by the English girl behind me who was playing some sort of morbid game with her family where they had to pick a door to walk through, all of which ended in a horrible death of some description (I’m pretty sure the family considered leaving her behind on the pier by the time we boarded), posed for the obligatory green screen photo and headed out.

Cruised out under the Golden Gate bridge, took a lap of Alcatraz, up under the Bay Bridge and back past the sea lions to the pier. Got a pretty good audio commentary and plenty of history along the way so that kind of made up for it. Stopped off for a bowl of clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, then wandered around the pier and down to Fisherman’s Wharf where I found the Museum Mechanique, a huge collection of old coin operated arcade games (and few naughty peepshows).

Hike up to Lombard to see the windy road (must suck to live on that street but very pretty all the same). Then up to Ghiradelli square (free chocolate samples, woohoo!) and watched the cable car turn around. Climbed some more hills and strolled through Chinatown and back to the train.

Day 2

After a super cute start to the day at Hathaway’s music class, we all piled in the car and headed to the Presido where we found a helpful security guard to direct us to the Yoda statue which is actually a fountain in front of the ILM building and the lobby was full of lightsabers, figurines and life-sized Boba Fett and Darth Vader. Nerd paradise!

Then since we were so close we headed up to Golden Gate Bridge and walked across. Great views and a very cool experience J Stopped for a giant pizza, and then with a certain someone very much in need of a nap (and it not being me for a change) I got dropped off at huge Golden Gate park for a few hours of exploring the parks. Found the Aids memorial which is actually a huge grove of trees, a creek and inscribed boulders. Very beautiful and tranquil. Found a series of trails off the beaten path and got some good Camino training done, but still only got less than half way through the park.

Hiked up to Alamo Square for spectacular views over the city and the Painted Ladies (they’re houses, not hookers by the way :P). Down past the fancy arts district and then back up through Little Saigon (apparently) and Chinatown again before heading back to the train once again.

Friday, August 10, 2012

I still say its better than flying

So after a relaxing morning stealing free wi-fi in a park in Centralia, eventually boarded the train to San Francisco.

So it was supposed to be 20 and something hours. Started pretty well, nice spacious seats, plenty of leg room, nice Washington and Oregon scenery to enjoy out the window…and then we stopped for the first time in the middle of a forest while they rebooted the train computer for 25 minutes (did lead to a great conversation with some dude in the cafĂ© about the chances of a zombie attack).

Then just after I got to sleep, there was a thunk, the brakes got slammed on and we again sat in the middle of nowhere while they tried to figure out what we hit. Turns out it was a tree and it managed to damage the engine so we limped to the nearest town and stayed there for nearly 2 hours while waiting for a replacement engine.

By the time we reached California we were already 3 hours behind and so got stuck behind other trains at Sacremento and lost another hour there. So after another hour and a half on the bus around San Francisco and another train to San Mateo only 4 hours later than planned. Not too bad, and hey, at least there was no turbulence. I mean, imagine if I was on a plane and it hit a tree, ugh. Plus the scenery along the way was stunning.
Spent a relaxing night catching up with Doug, Joyce and Hathaway and scheming for the rest of the week.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Zombies ate my Brain

Well, after a busy last day of shopping in New York (and one final trip to Stardust) we made our way to the airport. I, believing I was flying with American Airlines, left Brittany at the Jetblue terminal with the hope that we’d be able to find each other again inside. However, after several minutes spent trying to find my flight, one of the helper type people did a search and informed me that I was flying with JetBlue as well (be nice if they’d told me that) so had to backtrack, stand in line to check in, find Brittany for some more fun filled standing in line to get through security. That gave us only a few minutes to get to my gate and say goodbye (we’re already working on plans for next year’s trip) before I boarded. And then we sat on the tarmac for over an hour waiting for a chance to take off, sigh. I was seated next to a nice chatty couple though so they kept me entertained and didn’t seem to mind that I kept falling asleep on the dude’s shoulder whenever the turbulence let up.
 Headed to my hotel in Portland, they couldn’t find my reservation so I got upgraded to a queen for the same price I paid for a single and had all of 4 hours to enjoy it before getting up again, enjoying the free breakfast buffet and taking a scenic tour of Portland on the light rail (looks like a nice place) to Union station where I was just in time to board my train to Centralia in Washington. Beautiful scenery along the way, made me wish I had more time to explore the area. In Centralia, having struck out at trying to get a ride to Run for Your Lives, I thought I might try hiring a car so the guy at the train station gave me a print out of all the car rental places in the area that he believed would be open.

So I get to the first address on the list and its an auto care shop. Ok, so maybe they do car rentals as well? Thought I better check…and they don’t. But big shout out to Jorge for putting in the legwork for me to confirm that there were no car rental places open on the weekend, and then arranging a taxi, and letting me hang out in his air conditioning until the cab arrived. Also, big thanks to Tom from Affordable Taxis for the fascinating commentary of the surrounding area (and for capping the charges) as we got massively lost trying to find the event (signposts people, really) and getting me there with enough time to register, set up my “tent” (it was a tarp, a bit of rope and a few sticks) and rehydrate (super hot day!) before my wave started the run at 2.

I say run, there wasn’t honestly that much running done aside from the sprints through the zombie infestations. The track was a motocross course so it was very uneven and slippery, plus with the heat being so crazy, everyone gave up on the running idea pretty early on. We also learnt that it was much safer to go through the zombie areas in a pack (using your fellow runners as meat shields) so there was a fair bit of waiting for enough people to gather before facing the horde. Aside from the zombies there was crawls through the mud, jumping over high walls, lots of hills and dips, zombie infested mazes, a slide down into a pool of muddy water and the final obstacle, a crawl through the mud under an electrified fence (you only got zapped once, that’s for sure!). I made it 2/3 of the way before a sneaky chaser zombie grabbed the last of my 3 flags but still finished the race (41 mins for 5km) and I got my medal, a hug from a very muddy volunteer and joined the queue for the decontamination showers (also known as a hose).

 Threw out everything I wore for the race (the shoes went to charity) grabbed a delicious Portobello mushroom sandwich and settled down on the lawns to watch some great bands (including Red Means Go and Rum Rebellion) play the Apocalypse Party. Gained a few minutes of celebrity when I foolishly answered the DJ when he asked if anyone was there from another country, and was subsequently forced to give the crowd my best “throw another shrimp on the barbie, mate” to prove I was really Australian. Headed back to the campsite for a restful night of listening to my fellow campers periodically try out their wolf impersonations. Grabbed a ride back to Centralia for a tasty bargain breakfast and a long wait for the train to san Francisco.

Friday, August 3, 2012

New York, New York part 3

Day 6 cont

After enjoying some relaxing around the hotel time on Wednesday evening , we prettied ourselves up and headed back out to Broadway for the Newsies which was really good. So amazing the way they interact with the sets and great songs. Found Juniors for a couple slices of cheesecake, and while walking back to the hotel to eat, we evidently walked past Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion or whatever he wants to call himself now). I was sadly far to distracted thinking about my cheesecake and missed it but I’m sure it was very exciting…the cheese cake however, was delicious!

Day 7 (also know as, the day we stood in line…a lot)

Headed back over (and all the way across) Brooklyn to Coney Island and were treated to the first non overcast day in quite some time. Wandered around the beach and strolled the boardwalk, then grabbed a beer at Ruby’s to psyche ourselves up for our hotdogs from Nathan’s (they host the hotdog eating competition and have a huge clock counting down to the next one) which were pretty darn tasty. Wandered through the amusement parks and checked out the Cyclone ( a wooden roller coaster built in 1927. We thought about riding it…and then we thought about the fact that its 85 years old and made of wood and thought better of it.

Headed back to the city just in time to grab a coffee and settle down in the standing room line for the Book of Mormon. Had another crack at the lottery but still no luck so had to endure 2 and a half nerve wracking hours of trying to count how many people were in the line ahead of us and would they all be buying 1 or 2 tickets (they only have 28 standing room spots per show). As it turned out, we got the last 2!! Did a little happy dance at the ticket window and raced back to the hotel for comfy shoes, then straight back to the theatre to claim our spots at the railing behind the audience. Was still a really good view and the show was soooo good it totally made it worth standing up for the whole thing. Its written by Trey Parker and matt Stone and was absolutely hysterical with some great songs (though you wouldn’t want to be singing the lyrics in public :P).

Stopped at the Stardust diner for dinner and some really amazing performances from the staff, then raced for the Empire State building as our New York Pass expired at midnight. And then we stood in line. Got our tickets, and stood in lne some more. Then when we thought we were at the end of the line, there was another line (they clearly left this part out of Sleepless in Seattle). Finally made it to the 86th floor and the view of the city by night was just spectacular. Did a couple laps (mostly cos we got separated and it took a few rounds to find each other again but managed to enjoy the view at the same time), then got to stand in line again to get back down.

And now its our last day L Time to get the hotel room packed up, do some last minute shopping (not that I have any room left in my bag at this point anyway) and then its off to the airport.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

New York, New York vol. 2

Day 4

Another busy day. Started at the Rockefeller Centre again to enjoy the amazing view from Top of the Rock, then on a whim joined the Rockefeller Centre tour which turned out to be really interesting. Went over all the history of the buildings, the artworks and the politics behind them. Stopped by the beautiful St Patricks cathedral and then hiked down to Grand Central for a bit of a look around.

Headed across to Little Italy for lunch and mini cannolis, then down to Chinatown to stock up on lychees and do some shopping. Headed back to the hotel for a relaxing swim in the pool, then trekked down to the harbour for a twilight cruise. Got held up by President Obama’s helicopter leaving town which was pretty cool, and the city look so beautiful by night.

Day 5

Planned to zip through the Natural History Museum in the morning, and we eventually got through it by 2 in the afternoon. So much to see (and dinosaurs, did I mention there were dinosaurs cos they kind of rock). Headed over to Central Park and grabbed a couple bikes, found the Alice in Wonderland statue and grabbed a late lunch at the Boathouse, before heading back to Broadway to give the Book of Mormon lottery another shot. Still no luck so went to the village and found a couple cheap bars for dinner and a drink or 2.

Day 6

Got a later start today (for some mysterious reason totally unconnected to the night before I’m sure) and took a train to Brooklyn so we could walk back across the bridge to enjoy the amazing view. With the rain starting just we headed for the Guggenheim, which is a really incredible building. Also it has inspired us to become famous artists by painting a canvas all one colour, putting it next to another canvas painted a different colour and giving it a pretentious back story. Seems to be working for everyone else in there so why not J

Planned to do a little more exploring in Central Park, but with the rain getting heavier Brittany took the far more sensible option of returning to the hotel via subway, while I spent an hour getting increasingly damp and lost (and loving it) wandering around the Ramble and eventually finding my way back to the hotel all bedraggled and splattered in mud, bet I’m impressing the fancy New York folks to no end.