A Travellerspoint blog

USA

Why we love the road trip...

semi-overcast 15 °C

...because you may not see this at home - a sly swipe on the ubiquitous "Baby on Board" signs?

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And chances are, you won't see two identical white Maseratis, spotted within five minutes of each other, just outside San Francisco. I was too stupefied to get photos of either car, but I did manage to snap these old classics. Don't you think the driver of the Bronco looks like a Lego figure?

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You get to ponder different perspectives and political views.

The numbers left out in this sticker? - There are nearly 12,000 gun-related murders a year in the U.S., which since 1990, amounts to almost 300,000 deaths - Americans killing Americans. That does not include gun-related accidental injuries, fatalities and suicides.

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We stopped in Tucson for lunch and walked down a street filled with these lawn signs. We asked someone about them - Rosa is a Mexican woman who was an "undocumented" immigrant (nicer term than "illegal") who after years of living and working in Tucson, was discovered by authorities. She sought asylum in a church, and when the police tried to remove her, the community rallied.
It appears their pressure may have worked.

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It is so much fun to watch the landscape change. A single hour's drive can make the world of difference. Our original plan was to follow the coast road right up from San Diego to Newport, Oregon.

It started off with great drama - sand dunes. Signs on the highway warn about sudden sand storms - something else I would love to see from a safe distance, and not while driving. Our weather was warm and calm and the sand dunes posed perfectly for their photos.

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After we spent five (5) hours inching our way along the historic Pacific Coast Highway through greater Los Angeles, we realized we would need at least two weeks to do that drive properly. Good on us for avoiding the terrifying maw of L.A's freeways, but we soon discovered that finding proximity to the coast on a beautiful Sunday was not an original thought. No matter - first we drove through picture-perfect little towns like Cardiff-by-the-Sea, and Encinitas, and that warmed us up for the crawl through auto body shops, adult entertainment palaces and 2 for 1 pizza joints.
We loved this business plan - Liquor and laundry.

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Just when we thought our drive couldn't get any more picturesque, we arrived at the Los Angeles Port Authority - miles of containers followed by miles of refineries.

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No matter - The famous Venice Beach was just around the corner - home of Muscle Beach, rollerbladers, dog-walkers and Baywatch. They sell those skimpy red one-piece bathing suits made famous by Pamela Anderson - Stephen suggested I buy one.

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We walked along the main drag - past rows of T-shirt shops and hot dog stands.

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Venice was always well-known for its beachfront community of shingled cottages and we wondered if they might have been torn down by now, but no - much of this area is still filled with 3-storey apartment buildings and tiny, colourful homes. This sweet little house is typical (although we're quite sure the rents are no longer a bargain) and just a block from the beach, accessed by this charming flower-filled lane.

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Muscle Beach - this is where the ex-Governator got his start. His younger, buff self, complete with enhanced body parts,
is immortalized on this wall.

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We had our lunch -lamb gyros - on a bench by this park where fit young people were climbing ropes, doing chin-ups and otherwise staying bikini-ready. We watched this gentleman expertly slamming the punching bag for several minutes, and he then began showing passers-by (mainly young, attractive women) how to box. This being L.A., I figured he was someone with a backstory - moved here from Pittsburgh, landed a few bit parts in movies, but never quite made it. This is the land of broken dreams, after all. There are so many characters, my imagination just whirled into overdrive. This would not be a healthy place for me to live. For all I know, this man lives in Malibu, drives one of the aforementioned Maseratis, and comes down to Venice Beach to work out.

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My imagination went through the roof when we came upon this oddity. I didn't get the front view on film, but in addition to his fetching bathing costume, and fanny pack (!?!), this man had a broad gold medallion around his neck, and inexplicably, two horns on his head. There are undoubtedly fetishes in L.A. we know nothing about, but we were honestly at a loss.

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Moving on up the coast, the scenery moved from this:

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To lush green pastureland, with beautiful random trees:

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To this - higher elevations again, and a more northern look. We left southern California behind.

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We spent a night in Eureka, CA - on the coast, and we were struck by what this city must have looked like at one point, when lumbering and shipping and fishing were at their peak. I love the grandeur of some American small towns, even if they have fallen on hard times. Buildings like these are still intact, and they're beautiful. We had a modern dinner in an historic building - will this be a town that can reinvent itself?

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We were soon into farmland, heading into the Salinas valley - overwhelming in scope - impossible to guess, but I would think 10 miles across in the valley - planted rows, greenhouses, orchards - much like Mexico - these are the fields that feed us.

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Wine country - no explanation necessary.

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We left California with a bang - driving through Redwood Forest. We stopped at Lady Bird Grove (named after Lady Bird Johnson). There is a bronze plaque given by former President Richard Nixon, in honour of Lady Bird's commitment to nature, and to saving the redwoods from clear-cutting. Not sure if all the credit goes to her, but we are grateful that someone stepped up - these are (almost) as awesome as our old-growth cedars (kidding... our American friends). We wished we had more time to wander - there are dozens of trails and roads and campgrounds in the area - another trip.

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And then into Oregon, one of our favourite states. Oregon has everything - ocean, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, awesome state parks, sand dunes, Portland, Ashland, Crater Lake, wineries, breweries, a great food culture and no state tax. Plus, it has two dear friends, Piotr and Ela - we met them years ago in Mexico, so stopping by for two nights to visit feels like we've wrapped up our trip in the nicest possible way.

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At the turn of the century Oregon decided that this magnificent shoreline should be available to all, and in 1967, after a few challenges, it was put into legislation - not one inch of this beach is private property. The coast road is pure joy to drive - for great chunks it runs right along the water, unfettered by high-rise developments or gated communities. These were some of our views as we drove north from California.
We were also grateful for the cool, misty weather - preparing us for our return to Gabriola.

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We stopped in Lincoln City for outlet shopping - even with our battered dollar, Stephen scored two pairs of Levi jeans for $100 CAN. To celebrate,we went to Mo's for lunch. Mo's is one of those institutions - seating for 100, seafood chowder that is brimming with clams and butter, and a clientele that goes nowhere without a fleet of walkers. It was fun - plus we had a great view from our window.

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A pretty house in Lincoln City - wisteria and all. This house could be east or west coast, Canada or the U.S. - it just oozes Maritime charm.

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When Captain Cook discovered this area on March 7, 1778, it was the first location named on his voyage to the Pacific Northwest. He named it Cape Foulweather for its tempestuous weather - there are often 100mph winds.
We have visited it a number of times - this was a good day.

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We spent a day and a half with Piotr and Ela and toured around Portland - in pouring rain for much of it - so we have no photos of the city. It served as a reminder of how much we love this city. In the not-too-distant future we will be spending more time here.

And now...the end is near. And so we face the final curtain. So strange. We're in Port Angeles, WA - far across the water from our hotel room window is Canada. Here's our view:

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It will be good to be home, even better to see many of you again. I'll miss writing this blog, and really miss hearing back from you. With love, thanks and friendship to you all. Until next time.
Stephen and Ginny

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Posted by millerburr 20:46 Archived in USA Comments (14)

Confusion in the Copper Canyon

sunny 17 °C

I've read about the Copper Canyon for years - magnificent, wild, massive - it makes the Grand Canyon look like a rock cut (it is four times the size). This is one of Mexico's natural treasures you really have to work to get to - it is that remote. Finding adequate, correct, and current information about train schedules, lodgings, hiking paths, recommended activities, safety, etc. is challenging, but so worth the effort.

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The Canyon is not close to anything - it is most sensibly accessed from Chihuahua in the northeast or El Fuerte in the southwest - and train is the only option from the south. You can't see the canyon in one day, so you must stay at least one night in the main canyon area and preferably several to do it justice. Think of the canyon as being on two levels. The upper level is where the train runs and where the towns of Creel and Divisadero are located. You'll find forests of pine, fir and oak, and cooler temperatures. The bottom of the canyon is sub-tropical, with palm, fig, papaya, and avocado trees. Somewhere in the canyon you may also find fields of cannabis and opium poppies, as well as some motivated cartel types who have made safety in the area a moving target in recent years. Apparently that has subsided (the danger to tourists, not the growing), as long as you are with a guide.
But to begin at the beginning, to begin our trip, we drove through the most desolate, dusty, one-horse towns in Sinaloa to arrive at El Fuerte - an oasis set on the Rio Fuerte. A colourful, prosperous, photogenic pueblo that is an attraction all on its own - how we wish we had known in advance that El Fuerte was worth an extra day's stay.

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We passed by a stately main square, with an impressive municipal palace on one side, on past the town's museum, and then up the hill to our riverside hotel, the Rio Vista. This was the view from our balcony.

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The English-speaking owners ( two brothers) could not have been more welcoming. One of the brothers, Philippe, takes guests on river tours - he launches his boat on one end of the river and then floats down slowly to watch a huge variety of birds. Even from our deck we saw swallows, hummingbird, hawks, doves, orioles, red and black birds and birds with orange and black stripes. (I didn't catch the names, but I think one was a flycatcher). Philippe is also a great cook, and for dinner we had local black bass. Breakfast was served on the deck with this morning view:

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We left bright and early to catch our train to Creel. This famous train, called El Chepe, runs a total of 405 miles from Los Mochis on the Pacific Coast through to Chihuahua. The whole trip takes 15 hours, crosses 38 bridges, goes though 80 tunnels and covers a wide variety of terrain from flat agricultural to rolling hills to lake country to canyon country. Our section of the ride took eight hours.

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This is the main transportation for locals (and as nationals they pay much less.) Tourists have the option of first and second-class cars. First class have fewer passengers, nicer seats, a dining car, and a more genteel experience (for twice the price.) We got a snack bar, worn seats and free entertainment. This gentleman boarded the train at some point and walked the aisles, selling apples, oranges and tamales. Sales must have been slow, as he quickly moved to Plan B. He wrapped a tie around his head, changed his shirt and with the help of very loud hand instruments that sounded like a cross between maracas and an accordion, began dancing madly down the aisle. My husband joined him with his own distinctive dance moves, much to the delight of the Mexicans.

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First class may have missed out on the impromptu talent show, but we both enjoyed the same spectacular views.

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We were on the very last car of the train, and had a grand time hanging out with the Mexicans on the outdoor platform. Every once in a while, the conductor would walk through and shoo people back to their seats, but within minutes, the platform between cars would fill up again - the smokers, the photographers and the little kids. It brought back great memories of my childhood train rides to Gaspe - hanging out with your head in the wind like a dog.

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This was also the best vantage point for appreciating the engineering marvel of this train track. Here ...one of many tunnels:

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Some of the crew that keep this train on track.

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Riding over one of the many bridges.

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Look carefully at this photo. You can see the train entering into a tunnel on the top left corner. Now look at the curving track below - the train has already maneuvered that track, curved around and come back - an otherwise impossible grade for a train to navigate. We didn't feel a thing.

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This track took 90 years to complete, to connect the remote regions of Chihuahua to the Pacific coast and marketing the view to tourists was a secondary priority. Since its completion in the 60s, tourism has grown and the two main towns, Divisadero and Creel, are where most of the tourists stay. The town of Divisadero was the first main tourist stop, and the train stays there for about 15 minutes - long enough to jump off and take in the first real view of canyon. From this vantage point, you can see the many layers of the canyons and peer far down to the bottom. There are a couple of hotels here, and this is one of the two main towns that offer tours to the bottom levels. This was also our first glimpse of the Tarahumara, the indigenous people who live in this area.

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Our new friends Bernie and Jody (from Vancouver) snapped this photo of us before we hopped back on the train. As it turned out, we were booked at the same hotel in Creel, so we hung out together for our whole visit. An unexpected bonus of this trip has been the many really wonderful people we've met along the way. Hopefully we will be able to keep in touch with some of them.

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Finally, we arrived in Creel, and were met by a man who explained that the hotel we had originally booked was full, but we would be going to the sister hotel. Needless to say, we were unnerved by this news, especially when we saw the exterior of the new place - razor wire, jutting rebar from the roof.
However, like many Mexican exteriors - the charm lay inside the front door. We walked into an open courtyard - quiet, cool, tranquil. Our room was spacious and spotlessly clean - all Mexican tile and furnishings. Included in our room rate of less than $50 was dinner and breakfast - delicious home cooking.
The town of Creel was a bit scruffy - a few historical buildings surrounded by a rather bleak collection of modest homes and businesses.

Now here's where our "Confusion in the Copper Canyon" comes in. Our research was not promising - websites were outdated, train schedules were conflicting, some sites encouraged advance booking, others promised 4-day hikes for thousands of dollars - we could not seem to wade through this mess to find concrete facts. Our impression was that the train ride was the best way to see the canyon (not true), and that Creel was the town with the most amenities and tour possibilities (true). If we had been able to find information that described the difference between top of canyon and bottom of canyon tours, we would have planned it differently. As it was, we stayed in Creel for two nights, and booked a tour to see the area around Creel - interesting enough, but we left knowing we had missed a lot. If any of you are planning a trip to the Copper Canyon, get in touch and we can point you in the right direction. So...back to our tour. We booked a 5-hour tour through our hotel with our English-speaking guide, Cesar.

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There were six of us in our group - Cesar picked us up in an aging van without seatbelts (entirely common in Mexico - when I asked Cesar about seatbelts, he just laughed). Our first stop was a food truck so Cesar could pick up his breakfast, and then we drove to the gas station to fill up the van. In the spirit of "going with the flow" (and stifling annoyance about his lack of preparedness), we amused ourselves by taking photos.

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Our tour was to take us to a number of places around Creel - a church, some rock formations, a lake, a waterfall and a cave where the Tarahumara people live. The Tarahumara, also known as Raramuri (swift runners) are indigenous people who have lived in this area for centuries - there are reportedly between 65,000 - 70,000 Tarahumara living between the upper and lower levels of the canyon, as well as in the towns. They are famous for being long-distance runners, and for being shy and reclusive. I was under the impression that a "sighting" might be as rare as spotting a unicorn. Not so - The Tarahumara are everywhere, and as Cesar told us, our tourist dollars have been a mixed blessing. When I inquired about the appropriateness of us visiting one of their caves, he assured us that they welcomed the chance to make a bit of money from the sale of their baskets (beautifully crafted from pine needles and grasses), and tips for taking their photographs.

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This huge cave is typical of the rock formations in the area - and these enormous openings have provided shelter for the Tarahumara for centuries. They also live in little homes like the ones below - in both cases without running water and electricity.

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These little girls were selling their goods, but they did not make eye contact with us. A little boy approached us for money - Cesar had warned us not to give money to the children as it corrupts their way of life, but I fear it may be too late for that.

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We left this area feeling very queasy about the whole experience. These are human beings, and walking through their caves felt very much like visiting a zoo. I'm trying to imagine visitors from another country stopping by and observing us as we mowed our lawns and painted our fences and went about our day. Cesar assured us these people are happy in their lives, and possibly some of them are, but we saw no evidence of that. They are abjectly poor and they know it. We saw a young girl going through the garbage in Creel, drinking out of a plastic bottle she found. We saw dead-eyed young mothers and feral-looking young men. Many of them are married at 13 or 14, as they don't go past elementary school, if they go at all. Many children never go to school and the absence of any literacy really shows in their faces. All of this would be different if there was no exposure to the outside world, but the Tarahumara are no longer a primitive, self-contained community, and it would seem the conflicts between the two worlds are causing them harm.

The area is quite fantastic, with massive rock formations, many of them looking like frogs, mushrooms and even an elephant.

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The San Ignacio church, one of the few in the area that offers a mixture of Christian/native religion practices.

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From here, we drove to the Cusarare waterfall - a mighty roar in the rainy season, and a trickle this time of year. Still, it gave us a chance to get some exercise - 250 steps down (and back up again). On the path to the waterfall, we walked by a number of Tarahumara selling their wares, including this young group. We were struck by their expressions - maybe it is just shyness and reserve, but even the babies looked glum.

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As we were driving to the waterfall, this young boy ran across the road, climbed up the ladder on the back of the van and drove with us, clinging to the roof rack. Cesar introduced him to us - his name is Alejandro, and he is a deaf-mute. He has a place to sleep at night, but his family has largely abandoned him, so Cesar has taken him under his wing. He doesn't even know how old he is - Cesar thought he might be 13 or 14. Alejandro was given the job of leading us down to the waterfall - we followed his loping stride and every once in a while he would look back to make sure we were still there.

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I pointed to my camera and to him and he agreed to take a photo - it was all Stephen could do not to hug him. When we got back to the van, Cesar had a burrito for him, and we all gave him tips. We drove him back to his home and he watched the van and waved until we were out of sight.

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Our confusion still exists about the Copper Canyon. Is this an area that was better left untouched by tourism? Have our pesos made life better or worse? Apparently, there is controversy among the locals about the effects that tourism has brought to the region - the money is welcome, but the inevitable changes are not. Interestingly, we ended out travels through Mexico pondering that delicate double-edged sword of travel. We have no answers, but we'll leave with this image - taken from one of the stops on the way home.

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We're in Nogales, Arizona - preparing to begin our drive up the coast and back home. Our heads are full - so many emotions and images to sort out. The trip was impossible to put into words (although I tried!), but it was life-changing for us. I'll get one last post out before we get home - it will be so good to see you again soon.

Posted by millerburr 09:32 Archived in USA Comments (7)

New Orleans: art, architecture and curiosities

sunny 19 °C

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Art - in all its forms. Pretty much the credo by which New Orleans lives and breathes.

In addition to the dozens upon dozens of private galleries, and art-in-the-park displays, there are a number of significant public art galleries and museums. City Park, in mid-city New Orleans is home to MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art - a stately building with three floors set on several landscaped acres. Dave, Stephen and I wandered through for an hour and a half, and left after I pushed open the emergency exit and set off the alarm. (We were ready to leave anyway, and the security guard was understanding. I saw a sculpture outside that looked intriguing, and temporarily forgot to read)

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MOMA's front foyer, which provided a quiet respite for Stephen as he listened to a man playing a baby grand.

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This lake is one of many in the park - it serves as New Orleans' Central Park, with much to offer its citizens. We did not make it to the Sculpture Garden, much to our disappointment. It is located behind the museum - is quite incredible - but we were on to another appointment. We'll check it out again the next time. In the meantime - have a look. If you are in New Orleans, this is a must-see. And it's free. http://noma.org/pages/detail/35/Background

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I love serendipitous happenings - the spooky, inexplicable things that just occur. We were walking down the street, and I remarked to Laureen that I wanted to pick up a fresh copy of the festival schedule for a keepsake, as mine was dog-eared and wet. One minute later, a young woman walked by, handing out fresh copies of the festival schedules! Further along on our walk, I was telling everyone about artist Candy Chang's "Before I die, I want to..." project. I had read about it a few years ago, and was so intrigued by how it had taken off. After a friend died, Chang fell into a depression, and part of her healing was to share with others her hopes for her own life, by creating an interactive wall on an abandoned house in her neighbourhood. She wrote the words," Before I die, I want to -------------------------, and left crayons for others to fill in the blanks. The answers have been funny, sad, poignant and very touching, and hit an enormous nerve. There are now over 500 "Before I die " walls in over 70 countries. Here is the link to her site: http://candychang.com/before-i-die-in-nola/

So things got even spookier when we arrived at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and found a "Before I die" wall painted on the side. Crayons were lying on the ground, waiting for our inspiration. Here's what we wrote:

Dave wanted to meet his idol Bobbie D - (Bob Dylan). Apparently he will pay $10,000 to anyone who can make that happen.

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In the spirit of ongoing travel, Stephen hopes to continue discovery.

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Our travels through Mexico taught me I have little to fear. My goal is to stop worrying; a most pointless and life-robbing endeavor.

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Laureen wants to paddle to Tonga. News to everyone, including her husband!

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We turned the corner and spent a couple of hours in this southern-centric gallery. A most interesting and disturbing collection of images - Jerry Falwell-inspired evangelical sayings (painted on crosses), lush painterly landscapes and dark and sexually-ambiguous photography. Fans of "True Detective" would love this place.

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Many storefronts have images or names set in tile mosaic in front of their doors. This is just one example - there are hundreds.

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Even homeless individuals in New Orleans take a unique run at their situation. This is a collection of real signs that were collected and purchased for an art installation. "Too ugly to be a hooker. I tried." - you don't know whether to laugh or cry. We passed by a young man holding a sign that should be added to this collection," I'll bet you $1 you just read this sign." It made us smile, but we were caught in traffic, and had to keep driving - would love to have handed him a few bucks. Louisiana is a poor state, and New Orleans continues to struggle to keep its head above water - both literally and figuratively.

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Architecture - Municipal buildings are grand and mansions are antebellum. (Plantations are not that far away). To walk three blocks in the French Quarter is to crawl inside a Crayola box and come out the other side with columns, porches, shutters, curlicues, wrought iron, gas lamps, hanging baskets and window-boxes. You can't decide, so you take 'em all. In fact, there are several distinct styles, but they all go together.

A couple chatting on their Bourbon Street balcony; oblivious to the party below

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Examples of typical features - tall windows, doors and shutters to protect from the heat

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The city is filled with parks - little pocket parks, big riverside parks, City Park, Congo Square and Audubon Park. Even Esplanade Avenue provides shelter, with its live oaks and blocks-long pedestrian walkway.

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Curiosities. Some of the eccentricities, one-offs and steeped-in-history beliefs and behaviours that help to define New Orleans.

How could you not trust your pet with this vet?

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Sadly, guns still figure largely in New Orleans, and many citizens have formed ad hoc groups to try and combat armed robberies and shootings and provide opportunties to help youth find a way out of gangs. In the meantime, the Whitney Bank has posted this notice on their front door. (In addition to vetoing robberies, they don't want the bad guys to smoke)

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Voodoo, magic potions, witchcraft (even the Madonna for the more traditionally-inclined) - along with tarot card readings on every corner, there is something for everyone.

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The Natchez paddlewheeler takes tourists up the Mississippi...and back in time, several times a day.

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And now, it's over. We were on the road for 131 days, and drove over 20,000 kms. Our car handled it all well - no flat tires and no breakdowns, but it could use a good spit and polish. The same could be said for us. We travelled well (no breakdowns), but it's time to scrub up.

Writing this blog has added a great deal to our trip - thank you all for helping us keep our memories safely stored. Your comments and interest have meant more than you could know, and have really helped us feel connected to home, family and friends.

I'm writing this from the Days Inn in Port Angeles, WA. We'll be back on Gabriola mid-afternoon tomorrow. On our drive north from New Orleans we had two delightful diversions (dear friends) to help extend our trip. We stopped in Palm Springs to see Bey and Andy, and last night in Portland to see Peter and Ela. We have reached all our destinations safely, and now we are two ferry rides away from home. We're hoping for a soft landing.

btw - someone (let's call him Stephen) was pulled over today (second time) for speeding. Our kind officer Peskio let us off with a warning and wished us a safe trip. I burst into tears. It may be time to come home.

See you soon - Ginny & Stephen

Posted by millerburr 19:50 Archived in USA Comments (13)

New Orleans-style - more butter, more booze and John Boutté

Part 1

semi-overcast 30 °C

So much has already been said about New Orleans, and said so well (Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Bob Dylan, to name just a very few). So much literature, so much music, so many TV shows and movies dedicated to New Orleans. Every visit here adds another dimension to what we already know and adds to the contradictions about this city that are so seductive and keep us coming back for more. If New York is a state of mind, then New Orleans is a mood and an emotion that slips through your fingers - too challenging to try and describe here. BUT - in words we all know and love, I'll give it a shot - Food, Music, Art, Architecture, and for lack of a better term - Curiosities

Food

“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”
Mark Twain

EAT Restaurant. We stopped here twice - cochon anyone? That's pork butt slow-cooked, cut into cubes and seared and served with smothered greens - just as southern as all get-out.

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EAT - we're only doing as we're told. As this restaurant suggests, we are not in New Orleans for the egg white omelettes. We are here to mop up sauces, savour fresh shrimp, roll our eyes heavenward over the culinary talents and deep-fried excesses and just...dig in. All too soon, life will return to moderate portions, low-fat yogurt and an eye to sodium levels.

That big Ruby Slipper - one of the top breakfast places in town, and where we first met up with dear friends Dave and Laureen for three days of music, food and beer at the French Quarter Music Festival. The Ruby Slipper speaks to the ongoing post-Katrina effect. When the owners returned home after the floods subsided, they opened four breakfast restaurants, and named them The Ruby Slipper. As Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz proclaimed, "There's no place like home" - that would be if home is the place you find eggs, bacon, grits, fried-green tomatoes, fried potatoes, butter, jelly, and a saucer-sized biscuit on your plate. When we commented on the size of the portions, our server said," You're in the south, man. We don't count calories, we count meals." He is not whistling Dixie - being dainty with food is not how they roll.

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Brennan's - a gracious New Orleans favourite - genteel service, old-money atmosphere for less than you might think.

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An oasis on Bourbon Street - the Bourbon O Bar. An old-school cocktail lounge with fresh talent and approach. We pulled up four stools and had a grand time chatting with the very charming bartender Rachel and listening to Eudora Evans sing. Great people-watching.

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We drank beer, but the focus was on hand-crafted cocktails. These are Baby Apricot Juleps - mint-infused Hudson Baby Bourbon, with Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur, an apricot garnish and served chilled on an ice cylinder. This cocktail is the brainchild of Cheryl Charming, voted New Orleans Magazine's Mixologist of the Year 2014. Please tell me why I didn't order one of these?

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I took a number of food photos, but most of them looked unappetizing. The vegetables on one plate looked like slugs. So, I'm sticking to exterior photos of the restaurants. We avoided tourist trap restaurants, talked to the locals for recommendations, and did not have one bad meal. I think that is great advice for anyone eating in New Orleans - do your homework, and ask the locals.

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We had heard great things about the Green Goddess, and luckily snagged the last table - right in a traffic area, with condiments on the bar, and the kitchen racket clamouring away in the background. Restaurant tables are at such a premium during Festival times, that you takes what you gets. The atmosphere of the place soon washed over, and we struck up a conversation with our next-door neighbours. Lovely folks from Burns Lake, B.C. - here to enjoy the Festival with their son and celebrate birthdays. Food was amazing - such synchronized, intelligent flavouring - a little party in the mouth - and unlike our neighbours, we had no room for an ice cream sundae with caramel-bacon sauce.

MUSIC

New Orleans has festivals of some description every week of the year, but April is packed with music festivals, and we had planned our trip there to coincide with the French Quarter Music Festival, which features almost entirely New Orleans performers. This is one of the largest FREE music festivals in the world. It has grown to attract over a half million visitors to listen to dozens of bands and singers on several stages over three days. In addition to the scheduled acts, there are buskers on every corner, and live music in restaurants and bars. All that, and the parade of characters who live in this city provides non-stop entertainment.

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Unfortunately, someone forgot to alert the weatherman (woman?), and we had a very soggy weekend - at times the rain and winds were so severe that the acts were cancelled. We did manage to see a few acts at the outdoor stages, but also caught up with some music on Frenchman Street, which is a compact few blocks of clubs, restaurants and street buskers. Sooner or later, all New Orleans musicans and many international ones come through this street. You can spend many hours in this area, club-hopping and listening to incredible music.

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Musicians set up all over the French Quarter - we stopped to listen to a number of them - some much better than others, but all deserving of a few bucks in the tip jar.

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Back to the stage acts - Thursday was sunny, so we parked our folding chairs and sat in for hours of great music - we listened to the Rebirth Brass Band, followed by the great Allen Toussaint, and just wallowed in the pleasure of it all - the Mississippi River on one side, stage in front, Abita beer in hand, and chats with people as they came and went all day. Food - blackened shrimp po-boys, spicy meat pies - life is good.

We headed over to another stage to watch veteran fiddler Doug Kershaw and Steve Riley - incredibly 78-years-old, and still rocking. He brought the crowd to their feet.

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And, the best for the last - John Boutté. He is an immensely soulful and personal singer, and after listening to him in an outdoor venue, we were so smitten, we caught him again at d.b.a, a club on Frenchman Street, where he has a standing Saturday night gig. His version of "Hallelujah" comes close to k.d. lang's. Our friend Dave had a chance to buy his CD and have a chat with him. Please excuse the weird, grainy, off-colour photo - it is the only one I have.

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One more blog posting to come - wrapping up New Orleans, if such a thing is possible. See you in a day or two.

Posted by millerburr 19:12 Archived in USA Comments (4)

Driving towards The Big Easy

sunny 26 °C

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See this beautiful highway? This road was our last memory of Mexico - our payback for every wrong turn, every pothole, every tope, every roadblock and every detour. This was bliss - mostly toll roads, but plenty of free roads as well - each kilometre well-paved and scenic; we zoomed along towards our very last Mexican mystery - the dreaded border crossing.

Just as our trip began in Nogales, so it ended in Laredo - no big deal. First we drove through a booth to have our car sticker removed and our money refunded (this was done at the beginning of the trip - we paid $400 US to have a sticker put on our car; an initiative put in place to discourage illegal car imports). Then, we waited in line at the border for about 45 minutes - a typical day at the Peace Arch. Pleasant chat with the border guard, he wished us a safe trip and waved us through. And that was it - we were unleashed into Laredo at 8:30 pm, after a 10-hour drive from San Miguel.

After such an uneventful border crossing, we had an even more uneventful night in Laredo - we chose a Super 8 because we can't get enough of cheap motels that smell like cleaning fluids and ate granola and yogurt for dinner as the Burger King looked too scary and everything else was closed.

Our luck turned the next day - we stopped in Victoria, Texas for lunch and a little visit. Texas is pretty darn flat, as our friend Bey had warned - so we wanted to break up the drive a bit. Stephen had read about Victoria, and especially about their old-fashioned deli - Fossetti's - which has been around for decades. The young woman in the grey T-shirt (a Fossetti) allowed Steve to take a photo - she said she was "selfie-ready" at all times! And indeed she was - so funny - my "selfie" readiness could use a little tending to at this stage in our travels, and our re-entry into the U.S. is a good reminder of that.

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We loved the décor - the long bar, the high wooden ceilings, the fans, the memorabilia. We also loved the clientele - very southern. The gentlemen in generously-cut suits, the ladies coiffed. Our waitress' black hair was teased, back-combed and beehived. We chatted with our neighbour; a charming man with fine manners and a very nice watch - he was in ranching. This deli was a microcosm of southern society - beautiful old town with gracious homes and gracious residents - all brought together over potato salad and peach cobbler. We ordered iced tea and sandwich plates - BLT's, chips and a dill pickle. I was disappointed not to have room for dessert.

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We were driving through oil country, so stayed the night in Sulphur, Louisiana - and splurged a bit after our Super 8 - this motel was clean, quiet and civilized. Next morning , we headed out for New Orleans - first stopped to get a long-overdue oil and filter change and wash for the car, and feeling all scrubbed up and ready for the big city, we zoomed out of town, over the bridge, and right into the arms of a state trooper waiting at the bottom. Apparently Stephen was driving 69 in a 50 mph zone, but the argument that he was simply following traffic was not compelling enough to prevent a ticket. We have no idea the amount (it will be large, and we don't want to annoy ourselves by looking just yet as we have until June to pay it online), but here's the irony:

On our second day in Mexico, I was stopped by the feds for speeding and got away with it. On our second day in the U.S., Stephen was stopped for speeding and got nailed. We drove for thousands of kilometres in Mexico without mishap - no police bribes, no flat tires - none of the potential dangers/annoyances that could have happened. Now we're on what feels like home turf, and we have to kep our guard up.

But NONE of that could dampen our excitement and enthusiasm for arriving in New Orleans just two days before one of the biggest FREE music festivals - the French Quarter Music Festival begins tomorrow. I'll tell you all about the line-up in the next posting. Our friends Dave and Laureen are flying in tomorrow night, and we'll meet on Friday morning to begin some serious partying. In the meantime, some New Orleans impressions.

This brass band is one of many bands and buskers playing on the street, in addition to the scheduled line-ups

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This young man is either waiting for a gig or working up his nerve to perform.

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Bourbon Street - the most famous street in New Orleans, and for all the wrong reasons. This sign shows its origins (most streets have similar signs), but somehow Bourbon Street lost its way.

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The locals hate the fact that Bourbon Street and New Orelans are synonymous, but tourists have to go there at least once. It is over-the-top in excess, bad behaviour and poor judgement. We've been warned to stay away, to be discreet with our money, and to not engage in the hustler's banter. Fair enough - our walk home last night gave us our Bourbon Street fix - no need to return.

The strip clubs make me sad - very young girls wearing almost nothing posing by doorways, visual promises of "topless, bottomless" inside and watched over by large, ponytailed doormen. You can't come to New Orleans if you are easily shocked or offended - everything goes here. But the young girls and boys get me every time - still young enough to tug at the heartstrings, but already lost and at the mercy of someone else's agenda - this for me is the dark side of New Orleans. The Huge Ass Beers, the frozen daiquiris, the yelling in the streets- they do seem to be part of the NOLA experience for many tourists - and for them, hopefully nothing worse than the inevitable hangovers.

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Do they still call them "pasties?" Do they still use them?

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Old-fashioned neon - this city is a treasure trove of old signs, both neon and painted.

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On to more decorous, or at least more typically New Orleans signs. From this point on, I hope to show you images of the New Orleans we love. Like the graffiti and street art I found in Mexico, New Orelans is filled with fabulous graphic signs. This hat shop is a landmark in New Orleans

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Who can resist Dr. Seuss? This shop is filled with Seuss-inspired paintings and sculptures.

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The restaurant, Court of Two Sisters, a NOLA institution

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Royal House - great spot for a mid-afternoon beer break

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Cigar Bar - sweet aromas wafting out - if only we smoked!

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Swamp Dog - Google it for a great story

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Apparently being haunted is a selling point in New Orleans

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Bargain drag show (although Ru Paul is in town at a different venue)

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New Orleans-speak - "dat" is a real word

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Cafe du Monde is another New Orleans institution.

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Chicory coffee and beignets - hot dough dredged in 1/2 pound of icing sugar and dipped in milky coffee - mmmmm. The restaurant is cavernous and tended to by a squadron of ladies who careen around tables with heavy trays, and manage to clear, wipe tables, serve and collect money at an astonishing rate. The average turn-over on each table is a half-hour, so the line-up moves quickly. Great people-watching.

We left Cafe du Monde and crossed the street to see this sign on the back of a bike-taxi.
The World's Most Interesting Man has joined us for the Festival.

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Psychics and tarot card readers do a big business in New Orleans. There were tables set up all over the French Quarter; possibly they have taken business from this establishment, as this lady had time to check her phone and survey the street.

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The stores here could make you swoon. Everything from high art to low camp. These folks know how to merchandise - this is a typical window.

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Every Wednesday is Music in the Park at Lafayette Square - last night the headliner was Kermit Ruffin. Music is free, and you buy tickets for beer, wine and the food outlets - all so good. We ate jambalaya, burritos, drank Abita Amber and had a perfect seat on the steps of the statue of Henry Clay. We chatted with folks from Alberta, New York City, Jamaica and Chicago, and had a grand time.

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So much more - the magnificent architecture, the distinctive homes, the awesome live oaks, the food, the people, the music - all to come. Today we are off to see the Rebirth Brass Band, Allen Toussaint, and Irvin Mayfield - all on the waterfront stage. Thursday is a warm-up to the festival. Tomorrow we meet up with Dave and Laureen in the morning, and the fun begins.

I'll leave you with this image. It is perpetuating Louisiana stereotypes, but they're kidding, aren't they?

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Posted by millerburr 08:02 Archived in USA Comments (3)

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