Monday, September 28, 2009

Travel: Five Best things about hotels

1. The tiny pads and free pens
2. You get your own safe. Just like you were a millionaire. *
3. They are the last bastion of the trouser press. *
4. All the cleaning is done for you.
5. There is always a handy Bible and sometimes other folklore books about things like Zen or Islam.

* - participating hotels only.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Travel: 6/6/09 pt2 – Saturday, eh: Vancouver, Canada

Gate in VancouverCanada is the US's personal New Zealand. On the surface, Canada looks very like the US. Same roads, same street signs, same stores, same clothes. Only a slight preponderance for beards gives you a hint at the vast difference that lies beneath the surface.

First thing that caught our eyes as we drove along the highway was a mega mosque. This is the equally vast equivalent of the American mega church and confirmed our suspicions that Canada is in fact a Muslim country.

There are several subtle differences that we immediately noticed with the Canadian way of doing things. Their traffic lights do a strange flashing green light thing that seems to mean, "go, but I ain't taking responsibility." Also there seems to be a conscious effort to make blocks of flats and other tall buildings ugly.

Building in VancouverAfter driving into the core of Vancouver and finding our hotel, we headed out for food. We had received a recommendation from one of Cath's colleagues. A place called "Sanafir" which is a Silk Road / fusion restaurant. Basically you are served a series of dishes based on points of the Silk Road which connects the Middle East / Mediterranean and Asia. It was great, enormously tasty food served by Bond Girls. I kid you not, all the women were supermodels in their own unique interpretation of the tight, black uniform. Any one of them could have met James Bond at the roulette table and ended up back in his hotel room, chastely under the sheets not realising this was their last night on Earth.

The street that the restaurant was on was one of the major going-out / shopping streets in the city, despite being in the process of being dug up. (If that's not too many "beings.") There were lines of young and enthusiastic "pimplies" lining up outside all sorts of pubs and clubs getting ready to shake their pimples to the music of their choice and maybe even, if their luck held out, meet another like-minded member of their sect and press pimples with them.

We passed a great human statue. Normally, I have a problem with human statues as the only real skill involved is being able to keep still. Personally, I feel if you have this skill, then buy a camera and produce great wildlife photography or buy a gun and become a sniper. Don't clutter up the streets. It almost only becomes acceptable when the outfit and makeup is intricate and, when there is movement, it is done well and in keeping with the theme. But in general, anyone with a few motors, some Mechano and a cloak could build a machine that does exactly the same thing; freeing the human version to go and work in a salt mine or something like that.

Amsterdam Batman Human Statue, by Jo JakemanIn Amsterdam, especially, the art-form has been lost. If you go to Dam Square, you'll see scores of "human statues" but instead of standing still in an intricate outfit with painted skin and stylised hair, you'll see middle-aged men in ill-fitting rented costumes, standing fidgeting on a box. However, sometimes they are so bad they become fantastic. (This is Rule 9 from Ed Wood.) My personal favourite is a man with middle-age spread, a Batman suit and a bored, dejected expression on his face. Only the truly ironic (or a rose-tinted child) would want their picture taken with this guy.

On one corner there was an enthusiastic troupe of Christian street thespians performing for a small group of mostly other Christian street thespians. I think they were re-enacting the parable of the non-Samaritans who passed by on the other side rather than help an ailing art form.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Travel: 6/6/09 pt1, US – Saturday in Seattle

The Seattle Times: WolvesToday is definitely a slow news day. The headline of the Seattle Times was about a dead cow and sightings of wolves.

After our breakfast waffle and coffee (or rather mine, as Cath had something healthier with her tea), we packed up and headed out. We first made an unscheduled stop at the kilt shop. That's right, the kilt shop. We'd seen a couple of people around town in kilts the colour of khaki shorts. I believe the colour is called khaki. They looked practical and not too out of place. And now we'd found the shop. I was sorely tempted: I even got measured up and talked models with the assistant. But the fact that they are only really practical in warmer climes and would be seen as weird in most places in the world put me off. I would not wear them enough. I'm still torn, and reserve the right to buy one in the near future.

KiltsWe did some research in Borders and bought a selection of magazines, including the essential Bitch. This was one of the few Borders in the country without a public restroom. This is due to the undesirables who often hang out on the street out back and on one occasion set fire to it. Having bought some stuff, we were allowed to be escorted to the bathroom.

Car rental companies always offer about 15 schemes all of which probably work out to cost the same amount, but the implication is if you pick the right one, you'll save money. The fact that Messrs Hertz, Avis and National are very well off implies otherwise.

Mr Hertz, feeling very generous in his vast mansion (so big he probably needs to rent a car to go from one wing to the other), we got a free upgrade to a "brand new Toyota Camry." Somewhat like being supersized for free. No, exactly like that. The car really was brand new. It had 104 miles on the clock. It felt so new, I wondered if it had been a stowaway on the Hyundai boat I saw the other day.

We drove back to our hotel to pick up our bags and use the toilets. I'm glad I did because I solved the mystery of the washroom sign. This mystery was caused by a sign on a door stating that the toilet was out of use, whereas last year the same door lead to the spare dining area which Cath was certain had no toilet facilities.

I also got to witness a slightly drunk and increasingly annoyed homeless guy being seen off the premises. He was insistent that he had been given a cheap room before and wanted one again. The hotel staff didn't deny it, but said the hotel was full. Which, judging by the breakfast room, was true. He started off calm, but eventually got frustrated and threw some business cards off the counter. He wasn't dangerous, crazy or particularly drunk, as far as I could tell; it was more like he was grasping at straws.

And then we were off. The US has so many small towns dotted around its vast and mostly empty country that naming them got hard after a while. There is a lot of repetition and many end up with quite odd names like (all from the Seattle area) Possession, Humptulips and Aberdeen.

We passed by a couple of Sacred Gambling Grounds (or "casinos" as the Slotmasheen Indians call them) and stopped off at a gas station / minimart in a genuine "redneck" community where I made the mistake of trying to find a healthy snack.

We slipped into the border patrol area and, where a sign declared that it was is open 24 hours. It's good to know as some countries aren't.

As the most foreign, I had to answer a few questions. But because this was a drive-through point, we didn't have to leave the car. In fact it was no different to finding a curious and chatty toll-booth operator, which is not uncommon in the US. She raised the barrier and we were in the fabled land of Canada.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Travel: 5/6/09 – Seattle, Friday

So, as the fates of breakfast oft decree, the breakfast room was pretty full. We managed to find a table, but, once three teenage sisters arrived, there was no getting near that waffle machine.

We had a specific lunch place in mind that our small guide spoke highly of. As we walked towards it, we realised it was not as close as we had thought. There should be a warning, "things on guidebook maps may be further than they appear."

Plymouth PillarsOn the way we passed four random pillars. Someone had built four pillars in a line as if there had once stood an old amphitheatre. They sit in a tiny area of concrete surrounded by some trees and this seems to qualify it being called Plymouth Pillars Park. The pillars commemorate a church that was knocked down to make the nearby interstate highway. The church was built in 1891, which could have made it America's oldest free-standing building.

When we arrived at our chosen destination, we found the place had a completely different name and menu. There should be a warning, "things in guidebooks may be less actual than they appear."

We doubled back and found a PF Chang, one of a chain of stylised Chinese restaurants. The décor is typical, slightly upscale American restaurant and not at all Asian. Their gimmick (and most US restaurants have a gimmick) is that the waitress mixes a sauce for you at the table. Pointless in our case as our food already came with a sauce, but the waitress enjoyed herself.

Because we are dangerous rock and roll funsters, we spent the rest of the afternoon in the library. That's it, bitches, the library. We had some future-fortune related research to do. But that didn't mean we couldn't browse for fun.

Top 5 Reference books found in random search of Seattle library:
1. Handbook of Structured Concrete (Kong, Evans, Cohen, Roll – who would appear to cover all four corners of the Earth.)
2. Shopping Centre Directory
3. Directory of American Firms Operating in Foreign Countries
4. 2005 Japan Statistical Yearbook
5. The International Book of Wood

Top 6 magazines found in random search of Seattle library:
1. Western Horseman
2. Water and Sewerage Works
3. Tea and Coffee Trade Journal
4. Trailer Park Management
5. Square Dancing
6. Sugar

Seattle buildingFire engines in Seattle (and probably other US cities) are very, very loud. And if the very, very loud siren isn't enough, they have a horn that is even louder. The firemen all wear headphones because otherwise they'd be deaf. Even people in the street in danger of being deafened. But if any country is going to over-react in terms of safety and somehow add a whole other level of danger, it's going to be the US.

After a semi-nap at the hotel, we searched the town for healthier food options. In the end we had gumbo at the Steelhead Diner. ("Gumbo at the Steelhead Diner" was a hit for Joyful Horse Cakes in 1971.)

We rounded the evening off watching more improv; this time the same group as yesterday doing a Theatresports battle. It was enjoyable to watch skilful players with a lot of character (and characters) strip away much of the faff you get with theatresports and just make it fun. Even the judges were fun

Afterwards, we walked home through the crazy street people; past the alley rats; and home to the hotel to dream of the coming waffles.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Travel: 4/6/09 – It could be Thursday in Seattle

Hotel BreakfastOur new hotel was equipped with one of the wonders of modern breakfast technology – the waffle maker. This one was about 30 years old, but still makes a mean waffle. Or maybe the reason is that it is so old. We managed to pick a time where not so many people were down for breakfast and so there was plenty of room. There is a constant need for strategy in hotels with limited dining space to come down for breakfast at the right moment. The trouble is everyone else does the same and it's quite common for everyone in the hotel to assume a particular time will be the quiet time that day only to find the entire hotel trying to fit round a few small tables.

We did a little work at the hotel and then rewarded ourselves with some of Seattle's Best's coffee, not necessarily Seattle's best coffee.

Being "downtown" the crowd in the coffee house was less "authorly" and more "slice of life." On one table, a very large guy was telling his new Filipino bride how much he loved every little thing about her and how awkward the wedding had been. She seemed not so enthusiastic. And I was desperately searching for evidence to show this was a mail-order wedding or not. My slender gut says yes.

On another table a divorce defendant discussed the fineries of their case and some of the inconsistencies with the other side's case. It all sounded very confidential, so I listened all the more. It was hardly whispered so it couldn't really be called eavesdropping. In fact you'd have to try not to listen.

We checked out a place called Fuel that was advertised as dealing in "sports eats and beats." "Sports eats" sounded like healthy food, until we discovered the text had been "trussed" and should have read "sports, eats and beats." It was a noisy sports bar selling the sort of food enjoyed by sports fans, not the sort of food enjoyed by athletes.

This was definitely the hobo quarter (or down-and-out-town). Seattle seems to have its fair share of down-and-outs. So many in fact, that many must be down-and-out-of-towners. It's not clear why there should be so many or appear to be so many.

In a square near the tramp district, there was a market of several stalls. Almost not enough to call it a real market. They were spread out along a path so that market took up as much space as possible. The theme of the market was "things that aren't very good." The only food on sale were something like popcorn, but not exactly popcorn. Music was provided by a guy playing the violin over the Star Trek theme tune. He wasn't very good. Even with most of the music provided for him, so that he just had to play something at the same tempo and with notes that weren't too discordant with the original, he still wasn't very good.

We looked lost for a bit and a garbage man stopped on his beat and asked us where we wanted to go. We explained we were looking for healthy food, perhaps vegetarian. He radioed back to base and they looked up and recommended a place round the corner as probably "doing vegetables." It was the best they could suggest. But, nevertheless, it was a great and surprising service. We never found out how wide-spread this "garbage man tourist guide" service was.

What we were directed to was a pho place. Phos are a once-fad Vietnamese noodle soup. These were a bit bland but not as bland as the one I'd had a few days before. The bar opposite called Mitchelli's offered "Cock Tails." I'm sure they mean "cocktails" as the picture was of a cocktail glass with olive, not chicken feathers. I personally think it's some kind of gay code for a specific type of bar.

Dinner that night was at 94 Stewart, a cosy little place around Pike Place Market with a very friendly waiter called Andy, great food and good wine. I had a lamb burger and a beer from well-named Oregon brewery Hair of the Dog. Cath had muscles and a 2008 William Church Viognier.

The Improvised Man posterThe evenings entertainment was an improv show by Unexpected Productions, whose work I have admired before. They did a show called "The Improvised Man" in the style of Ray Bradbury stories, which was exceptionally well done, despite an audience of 11. Incidentally, I think I was 11 when I last read Ray Bradbury.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Travel: 3/6/09 – Wednesday = Seattle

Seattle BayFirst order of the day was to check out. The conference being over today, we couldn't justify our luxury hotel any more. We left our bags and Cath went to the conference and the free coffee there whilst I went to a branch of Tully's, another local coffee outlet. I sat, read, wrote and listened to the eclectic mix tape the store played. One track was in Dutch by great Dutch band Bløf. It seemed unlikely to be listening to Bløf so far from Bløfland but I'm sure a local music journalist could explain it in terms of the local music scene.

BløfI picked up some lunch-like things from a Chinese bakery and wandered through some more of the market. I watched some more fish being thrown, a giant squid being abused and tourists being scared with a monkey fish, before heading back to Tully's. While I was in there the second time, the chairs were replaced. Two burly, not-too-much-nonsense guys came in and replaced the chairs around as people sat and drank coffee. I assume they were official and not part of some elaborate plan to steal old chairs leaving newer ones in their place. I'm glad I was there when it happened, because even though the new chairs were quite different, I doubt I would have noticed whatsoever had I come back after the fact. I like to think I am that observant, but men don't notice the minutia like women do. Minutia like new chairs, new shoes, changes of hair style or colour.

Actual lunch was a plate of Thai food served by a Middle Eastern man. I had it with that exotic Thai drink, Dr Pepper. Actually I had the Dr Pepper because I never see it and there was a stage, when I was knee-high to something mid-sized, that it was my favourite drink. I am way taller than that thing now and Dr Pepper is just a quirky cola that you only find in unexpected places. Although I hear that in some quarters it is still popular and people even drink it warm. I kid ye not.

Typical Dr Pepper drinkerIn full conference husband mode, I made myself feel better about not being the main bread-winner by visiting the hairdresser. My hairdresser (or barber, as he corrected, although he had been a hairdresser) was originally from Mexico but eventually found his way to Seattle and has been cutting hair for 25 years. Because of the length of my hair his first question was if I was a musician. Nope, lazy comedian. Being a Seattle barber, he'd cut a few rock star hairs, including members of Nirvana and, one time, Kurt Cobain. Were I the type, I would have said "wow" and been part-, full- or even over-awed. It was at least a cool thing to tell the kids back home. And to tell the truth there is a modicum of awe as it is my closest, if somewhat tenuous, connection to a dead rock star whose work I do admire. I guess closest connection apart from seeing his widow in concert.

NirvanaThe barber asked an innocent question at the end about if he wanted it cleaned up underneath. I said, "yes" expecting some clipping action under the back of the hair. Instead he got out the vacuum cleaner and hovered up the back of my hair! I'm not sure if it was just a local thing or something only he does to dumb tourists, but it certainly was a first.

Sporting my new post-grunge locks, I grabbed an iced decaf latte and skipped over to the conference centre and used the free internet until Cath came and only just recognised me.

We carted our stuff over to our new hotel on Pioneer Square. Coming from the old one with it's fluffy bears, four-poster beds and real coat hangers, there was a period of adjustment. Our view was now of a blank wall instead of Puget Sound (it's a kind of bay).

We seafooded at McCormick's and of course saw a rat on the way home. A gallery a couple of doors down from the hotel was preparing itself for something big. That thing, explained an emerging artist, was the next day's art walk. The artist added that he worked a lot with larva and insects and they seemed as much the creators of the art as he was. We said we'd try and come by, and maybe shake antennae with a few of them. We didn't make it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Travel: 2/6/09 – Tuesday, must be Seattle

GullsDue to time travel, I woke up at 6:20 am. I sat on the balcony over the sea and listened to the roar of the city. Like many big cities, Seattle has a background roar of traffic and... well, just traffic really. I observed a pair of seagulls clamour around the tin roof just below our balcony. One had an odd tendency to stand on one leg. In fact, for the first 15 minutes I thought he only had one leg. Every now and again one or the other would fly off or disappear under next door's balcony. They didn't even know or care that I existed.

Ships came in and out the harbour. I watched the steady progress of a huge container ship laden down with containers bearing the name Hyundai.

Seattle Puget Sound with Hyundai boatAt shortly before nine we grabbed some coffee from the conference breakfast area, and I attended one of the sessions available to anybody (only Cath had paid up, I was a conference husband for the next few days; Free to play golf and have tea with other conference husbands, of which there seemed to be none).

During the late morning, I wandered through the maze of Pike Place Market and then topped up my caffeine level at a branch of Seattle's Best Coffee. It's pretty good, but I'm not sure it's the best.

Seattle Puget Sound with Hyundai boatAfter that, I wandered around some more; joined Greenpeas; bought an ironic hat and some bubblegum cigarettes; and visited the bubblegum wall. I don't normally do so many bubblegum related things in one day, but when in Rome... The latter is a wall outside an improv theatre which has lots of bubblegum squashed into it. It's a local attraction and somewhat artistic and somewhat gross at the same time. Back at Pike Place Market, I finally got to see some fish being thrown. It's apparently one of the things that you must see and there are often tourists hanging about the same corner waiting for a new fish to emerge.

HatFor dinner we had Vietnamese and were happy to see that some places do serve more normal American portions. Nouvelle cuisine isn't very American, being French and hard to spell. And small in size.

In a random drugstore, we found another of those American products that make you shake your head in wonder. This month it was Identigene – home DNA test kit. "for mother, child and alleged father." It's not really a home testing kit. It's a kit for taking the necessary swabs and an envelope to send them to the lab. It does not include the $119+ for the actual test.

DNA Testing KitDown one of the narrow alleys between buildings, we caught sight of a scampering. And sure enough, as large as life and twice as smart, was a rat. We pretty much saw a rat every day after that. Seattle is all about coffee, rain, rats, fish, tattoos and totem poles. Not necessarily in that order. Somehow grunge got dropped off the list.

On the way back, we had to wait for a huge long train heading from the harbour area out of town. It was loaded with Hyundai containers. I guess they'd finished unloading the boat I'd seen that morning.

Luxury hotel it may be, but either the walls are really thin or the people next door were really loud.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Travel: 1/6/09 pt3 – Monday in Seattle

Having taken off at 11 am and flown for 9 hours, it was now, obviously, 11 am. The day had nearly run its course, yet it was still morning. Welcome to the exciting world of jetlag.

The second language of Seattle-Tacoma Airport for signs and announcements is Japanese. (That is except for a couple of signs where Spanish was the second language.) It seemed an odd choice, but I'm sure there is a good reason for it.

We drove through the industrial part of town in a taxi that reminded me of the death traps that used to patrol the streets of Beijing. In fact when Cath got out, she nearly brought a bit of the interior with her.

We checked into our luxurious waterfront hotel with its four-poster beds made out of tree trunks, balconies over the bay and TVs the size of cinema screens.

BedIn Seattle there are fish motifs on everything including most hotel pillows; and you are never more than a few hundred yards from the nearest totem pole. But the real motif for this hotel was the bear. Bears sat on the pillows waiting for you to hug them, bears leant against columns on the reception desk, bear footrests stood proudly in the room. Not a place to be ursophobic. I hear that they get a lot of large, bearded gay men in the bar too, but it could just be a rumour.

We had lunch at a fast-food middle-eastern place in one of the mazes adjoining Pike Place and followed it up with iced tea in a crumpet shop. We were too full to try the crumpets, although they looked authentic and hand-made.

BearsThere seem to be a lot of runners in this town. We watched a couple jog up the steep hills. And then noticed a few heavier people struggling up the same hills. It seemed to contradict Cath's theory that larger people should be healthier as are used to carrying more weight around.

Back at the hotel, we napped and enjoyed the cooing gulls that nested in hotel crevices.

After registering early for the conference so that Catherine could collect her free rucksack, we had dinner at the hotel's restaurant. It's a five-dollar place. That is in any guide it will have five dollar signs next to it. It was what is still called nouvelle cuisine, despite it being as old as I am. I ordered the ribs as I was feeling hungry, and a plate arrived with two of them. Two ribs! Tasty and attractively complimented, but a rack it was not. If that was a rack, Kate Moss has a rack.

That night, as the door proclaimed "No Moleste" to the world, we slept on Catherine's observation that we seemed to be only two people in town without tattoos.