Uncle Sam – One Bloke’s Impressions.

I wrote this blog whilst travelling the US in mid 2009, having deleted the original blog, people keep asking where they can see it. So herewith, I’ll add photos as time and place permit – some are on this laptop, others are stored at home.

Perth – LA

Salutations from the desert … US style – a little oasis called Las Vegas, “Vegas baby,” in local speak. But before I write of the joint, there is the journey to speak of.

I flew out of Perth just after midnight Saturday, bound for Los Angeles via Sydney. It wasn’t an auspicious start, there was a last minute plane change (blocked loos) and some bloke had obviously been making a nuisance of himself on a previous flight – I suspect he had something to do with the loos. The constabulary were monstering him, so we had a 40 minute delay, while they practised ‘Attitude Adjustment’ and Qantas scrambled for a replacement aircraft. It was just one of those things, better to have working loos and a subdued drunk than vice versa, most of us were happy with the outcome, then I stuffed up (it had been a bad week!).

I’d asked for an aisle seat, to which the lovely Qantas lady had said, “Sure.” I ambled on board, found the seat and waited for the two people next to me to arrive. A bloke lobed in (window seat) and close behind him, Jabba the Hut, female style. “Where are you?” she demanded in thick Kiwi accent. “I’m here,” I innocently replied, “No, that’s mine! She delicately informed me, “You’re in the middle and what’s that bag?” The overhead lockers on the short-haul Boeing were smaller than normal, I hadn’t been able to get my bag into one of them and was waiting to ask one of the cabin crew for help.

I was sure I was right, but everyone was being held-up, so I said, “No problem, we’ll ask the crew when they come along. “What about the bag?”, Jabba yelled. I could see two bags and one was more of a problem than the other, “I’ll just put it on my knee until the crew can help,” I replied, thinking, “Oh God, the plane’s full, I’m stuck here.” The crew were lovely, sorted my bag and explained that Jabba was right – my tired eyes (that’s another story – the new lenses had not arrived in time and I’m having close-up reading issues), meant that E looked like D to me. Further, because of the plane change, it was a different seating configuration, my ailse seat was now a middle row seat! I apologised. Jabba thundered into the aisle seat, unfolding all over the arms and into my space. She was obviously well-practised, forcing her way back against the chair, with her right arm claiming the arm rest. I knew I was going to spend the next four hours in the middle seat, hunched forward beside the aggressive mountain of flesh. I smiled meekly at the chap in the window seat, he just looked away. I couldn’t say I blamed him.

Somehow, Jabba continued to spread! She glared at me, I knew the cow was daring me to protest. Ah, why not! I looked at it, ”You know,” I said, “All my life, I’ve been terrified I’d have too much to drink one night and wake up beside something like you and here I am, haven’t had a drink and the bloody nightmare’s happened.” Well, it wasn’t going to be a good trip anyhow. Laughs from the neighbourhood, Jabba said, “Just f$^&# sit there and don’t move.”

“I hope you’re flying back to New Zealand,” I replied, as I resolved to hunch for the flight. Silence.

At one stage, I offered to pass over an orange juice to the bloke in the window seat, but he pointedly wouldn’t take it from me, “This is too hard, “I thought, “I hope things get better on this trip.’ They did, but one last mention of Jabba. As she left the aircraft, reaching solid ground in the terminal at Sydney, Mr Window Seat caught up with her, “Are you alright dear?” he said, as he reached for her hand!

Time to wing my way across the Pacific, in a Jumbo, I love those planes, just so damned reliable and graceful looking – to me, the DC3, which I flew in a lot as a kid and the 747 – 400 are the two best passenger planes the world’s had so far and this trip was suddenly looking a lot better. Upgrade! To Premium Economy.

Now I’d looked at that option, but couldn’t work out what you got for the extra money. Don’t hesitate. This is the way to travel long distance. You can stretch for miles, the seats are big and the price is considerably less than Business Class. Jeff, the American guy from Iowa beside me, had also been up-graded (the plane was full) and like me, he was ecstatic about it. It’s more or less the same as business class, except that you have two choices of wine and main course rather than four and the décor is a little less salubrious, but not much. And joy of joys, Vasse Felix was on the list! This felt like home! Things were looking good.

I wandered around, asking my fellow passengers what they thought. Like me, they were lapping it up, so much so, that when I told some of them I planned to write an article about it on my return, they all agreed to be interviewed and photographed. A young couple from Sydney, Luke and Kerry were heading for Las Vegas for some fun, they’d flown Premium Economy before and said they wouldn’t fly any other way on long haul. Jan and her little daughter Tori were flying to Los Angeles for a wedding, Jan thought it was fabulous for little kids as well – they could comfortably curl up and sleep. A mum and daughter also said what we were all sub-consciously thinking – how great the Aussie crew were.

Sue and Geoff were looking after us, Sue has been in the job for 30 years, in fact she’d just attended an Ansett Reunion down in Hobart and Geoff had been in the job for 21 years. He and I had a chance to talk later. Married for all those 21 years to Leanne, he finds the travel works well for them as a family. They have three boys, Tim (19), Nick (17) and Cameron (12) – all three play soccer. He usually does two long-haul fights a week, most of the time across the Pacific and they get a minimum 36 hour break between shifts. And yes, Jet-Lag affects them the same as you and I. He’s been with Qantas all that time, loves the company and it’s reflected in the quality of the service and the genuine good feeling, just remember that depending on the aircraft, there are either 32 or 36 premium seats available on long-haul flights, I’ve been First Class once in my life, (yes an upgrade) and business class, (when the company is paying), but this strikes as the perfect solution between comfort and wallet.

We couldn’t see much of LA as we flew in first thing in the morning, it took me a while to realise it was smog – five hours later, it still hadn’t lifted! I was flying on to Las Vegas with US Airlines, so I made my way by free shuttle bus to their terminal and my first dealings with the way things are done in the US – it’s very similar to buying a car, there’s always a catch and there’s always more money to pay. I checked-in my suitcase, “Jut swipe your credit card there sir.”

“Why? I’ve already paid for the ticket.”

‘Yes that’s right sir, but your luggage is extra.” I really began to appreciate the integrity of our Aussie way, the Yanks had already got me a few weeks back with their Visa Waiver programme. You do it on-line, Veronica (who does know about matters US) had assured me it was free, but try as I may, I couldn’t get past paying a $50.00 fee. It later turned out that Google had allowed a company to hijack the US government site with the “fee” by-pass. To be fair, the US Government has complained, but the rort goes on. I smiled to myself, when, like all visitors, I was finger printed on arrival (it’s OK, it’ electronic, rather than ink), thinking, “Yeah, you do this so you know who’s fingers have been burnt.”

But, hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m loving it and the people are fantastic, it’s just that you have to be completely on guard when you purchase anything, a “catch” is built in to the system. Oh yeah, US Airlines. A lot different to Qantas. Laid back? Herded really and nobody listens to the cabin crew, nor does the crew seem to care, people wander up and down the aisle (before we take off). It’s all very commuter and ‘shrug of the shoulders’, quite chaotic. I kept thinking, “Struth, I hope their maintenance is better organised.” Fifty minutes and the most un-drinkable coffee later, it was Viva Las Vegas.

Fourteen bucks gets you a return token to the airport on the shuttle, it was 30c outside and wonderfully, madly chaotic. In the shuttle bus, suitcases were piled in the aisles, people scrambled over them to find a seat and the driver kept calling out hotel names, somehow, I found myself at the Luxor Hotel.

Vegas Baby.

Now it needs be understood that Las Vegas is basically a bunch of themed hotels, (with gambling machines in every space), plonked in the desert. By day, it’s nothing to look at, but then the only reason people go out by day, is to fly in or out, this is ”Night City” and I love it!

It’s mad, glitzy, gloriously and obviously fake, but alive. It’s spread out, so much so, as of today – well, tonight – I’ll use the monorail to get around, but yesterday I walked it (after five hours afternoon sleep), from 7.00pm through to just after midnight. That old Presley song captures it perfectly… “turning day into night time, night into day time …” In fact Elvis talked to me on the sidewalk (he’d left the building) and the Bellagio Casino has a constant fountain display which is synced to Elvis singing “Viva Las Vegas,” you can’t help but stand there with the other couple of thousand and enjoy it.

Everything is larger than life, hundreds of small Mexican guys (none of them seem over five foot), line either side of the pavement, handing out cards offering girls and call-girl and strip joint cards. Millions of the cards lie all over the streets. Pedestrians only cross the road at traffic lights, nobody, absolutely nobody jaywalks. And the Aussies are in town, from Human Nature to that Aussie male strip review, ‘Thunder Down Under’.

Violence? Haven’t seen anything. Walking the streets of Vegas at night, feels far, far safer and relaxed than Northbridge back home in Perth, this is truly a place for everyone and their families to come and have fun and they do! The joint is pumping – you can wander into any casino, dressed as you want, street sellers sell ice-cold bottled water, bands play on terraces, you can get a great meal for $10.00 and a bottle of Jacob’s Creek for $9.95c and you’re allowed to walk around with a beer, wine or cocktail in your hand. Want to go to a show/ Cher’s in town, so is Bette Midler, B.B. King left yesterday (it’s OK, I’m catching him in Memphis) and Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood are doing a joint two nights next week. Oh yes, there’s also Marie and Donny Osmond every night, plus a host of entertainers I’ve never heard of.

I’m still stunned at the lack of menace and the goodwill and friendliness of local and visitor alike, I genuinely can’t wait to hit the streets again tonight, although I will venture out a little today (there’s no coffee making facility in the room – they want you down where the poker machines are) and on the advice of Deb and Mark, I’ve got to go see the lions in the foyer of the MGM Casino.

Tonight? At 7.00pm, I’ve got a front row seat at Cirque De Soliel’s ”Beatles “Love show, then, given my penchant for things vampire, I thought I’d amble up the strip and catch “Bite,” a vampire show on at Stratosphere Casino, it looks a little naughty, but hey, as the saying goes, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Monday and a hot wind was blowing into Vegas from the surrounding mountains. I’d woken late, well, this is a night town anyhow and I had two shows to catch this evening, but first, a little about Las Vegas.

Half a million people live in the CBD and the area has a total population of almost two million. Somewhere around 5,000 people currently move to the city every month and although there is a downturn, Las Vegas provides a relatively cheap holiday – if you don’t gamble! I may be the only person who came and never slipped a quarter into a machine –they’re throwing me out today! Year 2000 statistics show visitor numbers at 3.8 million and1,000 flights in and out of the international airport per day, so make no mistake, this is business on a massive scale. Oh yes, I forgot to mention yesterday that Tom Jones is in town, Rod Stewart is about to arrive and so is Eric Clapton, it seemingly never stops.

Speaking of scale, the power and water usage defies contemplation and yes, Global warming is causing furore. The city is currently sucking surrounding aquifers dry and the talk now, is of building massive desalination plants on the coast and piping the water in over the mountains and they want to build three new coal-fired power stations to cope with the need!

I went up the tower at Stratosphere Casino at midnight, the view from outside, in all directions at 909 feet is mind blowing, as you’ll see from the photos. Closer up, or more down to earth, (especially on the free monorail trip from casino to casino), behind the facades it’s just acre after acre of concrete parking lots, concrete worker apartments, vast parking lots and construction machinery sites, speaking of which, maintenance on roads etc, is carried out night and day, 24 seven as they say, it’s a jungle out there.

Speaking of which, first up the lions at MGM. There they were alright, in the foyer of the casino. They bring half a dozen in every morning from a farm 25ks out of town and boy, are these pampered pussies! They’re all hand-raised by their keepers, no guns (bullet or stun) anywhere, it struck me that these felines probably have a latte and yoghurt for breakfast! Certainly when they arrive, they’re given a shower and shampoo and blow dried by stylists before entering the glass cage. It’s quite surreal, but hey, that’s Vegas.

After a quick power-nap, I arrived at the Mirage for Cirque De Soliel’s “Beatles “Love” show. I had a great ticket, B1 – just two seats in front of me and virtually on the stage. The two people next to me and in front of me, were all from Missouri and although they didn’t know each other (as couples), they were unanimous about two things – Missouri was the most boring place in the world and Australia was exciting, different and free. Yes, folks, they love us over here.

The show? Ted (Bull) told me the other day he was jealous of my going to see Love, as he’s a Beatles tragic and he’d also been told that the show would never tour. That puzzled me, as I thought that’s what Cirque De Soliel shows were all about (touring). In hindsight, I think his information was correct, the technology and machinery used is so breathtakingly complex, I can’t see that it would be possible to tour the show in its current format, so you’re going to have to come to Vegas if you want to see it and you should.

The music of course is fabulous and while there’s not a narrative as such, there is a thread, woven around four young boys and lads, (the Beatles), using characters from songs, such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Mr Kite, Father McKenzie, the Queen, Sergeant Pepper and Eleanor Rigby. Somehow, the dark days of the blitz are woven in, leading to the hippy era, with gurus, flower power and groupies etc. George Martin has woven in outtakes of the Beatles chatting at recording sessions and extend the music and songs. It was utterly lovely, visually surreal, colourful and an absolute feast of fabulous acrobatics, music and characters.

At one stage, a vast curtain billowed out from a hospital bed and we found ourselves passing it over our heads, then whoosh, it was sucked back and diamonds began twinkling all over the auditorium, as Lucy swept across the sky. The show was stunning and also unexpectedly comfortably nostalgic, it brought back all the memories of those days. I’d go again. No, I didn’t buy any merchandise, I’ve already got the album and like everything from Cirque De Soliel, it’s premium priced, which reminds me, there was even a Beatles chopper on display, it seems every show in Vegas, has a wildly chopped Harley somewhere, California chopper bikes are an integral part of the culture, but that’s just fine with me I love ‘em, in fact, I’d love to bring my cruiser over and tour the states a la Steve McQueen.

Show over, I set off for the next one, “Bite” the vampire show at Stratosphere Casino. Now you have to catch a cab or the monorail, it’s just too far to walk. To put things in perspective, some of the major casinos take up the area in Perth bordered by say William, Wellington, the Swan River and Victoria Streets –virtually the whole inner CBD would be swallowed up by one casino / hotel complex! And it’s cunningly done, you have to walk through each casino to get to the next, the monorail stations are basically in the casinos and when you’re walking through, the paths take you all over the gaming floor. The monorail is interesting in that it’s electronic – remote controlled – there are no drivers and again, as I mentioned yesterday, you feel quite safe at 2.00am, no need for transit guards here.

I wandered through the famous Sands and found they love their motorsport –Nascar racing, them good ‘ol boys, (plus Marcus Ambrose from Oz), are heroes, suits me, I also love motorsport. So, how was “Bite”? Actually, it was a lot better than I’d expected, I’d really thought it was probably going to be a strip show and I was a little embarrassed to be going by myself, however I needn’t have worried,

It was very much in the genre of Anne Rice Vampire books, overtones of eroticism and horror, yes, trashy, but hey, it obviously appeals to the dark side of yours truly. They used classic rock songs, from the likes of AC/DC, the Stones and the Eagles etc, not to mention an excerpt from Nessun Dorma! – don’t ask me, I don’t know either, except to say I’d never considered topless show girls cavorting as vampires a natural fit for that particular piece of music.

Surprisingly, there was a guy with an excellent singing voice and yes, he was a tenor and some fantastic acrobatics, a la Cirque De Soliel, enjoyable trash, perhaps a great way to finish off a stay in Vegas. It was, by now, well into the witching hour (about 2.00am), I’d got off the monorail at MGM and was walking through to Excalibur, which leads to the Luxor.

On a bridge over the water, ‘Bite’ came to real life! Out of the shadows, a voluptuous and, I must admit, rather attractive young red headed lady of the night clicked her heels and stepped out into the spotlight, “Well! hello honey, you are looking good enough to eat.” Great line. “Where are you heading now?”

“Bed darling,” I replied, by now, I’d learnt how to deal with vampires, “Take me with you honey,” she purred.

“The thought is very interesting,” I replied, “But I don’t think I should.” She vanished back into the shadows and I disappeared into the glass pyramid of Luxor.

And now I’ve got to pack, I fly out for Washington and wonderful friends Oscar and Susie De Soto, who you all remember from their time in Perth as the US Consul General.

Washington. Now there’s a name to conjure up images of power. I’d arrived late on Tuesday night, (there’d been an hour delay leaving Las Vegas, it just seems to be the way of air travel today – the delays in booking in (interminable queues and security checks), plus seemingly constant aircraft breakdowns), mean two absolutes should be factored in to travel plans – you need to be at the airport two hours before the flight’s due to leave and you can’t rely on getting to your destination at the time, or date you thought you would.

When we taxied in to Dulles airport at Washington, they asked those of us who were stopping at Washington to stay seated, while passengers who were travelling on got off first, then the plane was held up on the runway. By the time we reached the terminal, they informed those travelling on, that arrangements had been made to put them up in hotels for the night. And even when we came into the terminal, we discovered there was still a 15 minute shuttle ride before we got to the baggage carousel in the main terminal. But what the heck, the suitcase was there and so was I, more importantly, so were Oscar and Suzie.

What a joy to see them again, it had been five years and although emails keep the lines of communication wide open, nothing replaces the pleasure of actually meeting up. They haven’t seen many of us from their days in Perth, Terry and Jenny McGill have been the main visitors (they’re visiting again in August). Oscar tells me that Washington and Perth are about as far away as you can possibly get from each other – almost directly on opposite sides of the world New York actually starts to be closer (to Perth).

Suzie’s still working for the state department, but Oscar’s moved to private enterprise, although still heavily involved in consulting with various departments such as trade, foreign affairs and the Pentagon. And yes, they would love to move back to Perth – Suzie vows they’d live there in a flash if it was possible.

Just as she was telling me that, Veronica rang and I passed the phone over. I could hear them reminiscing about Leeuwin Concerts and the fabulous lifestyle in the West. Time to get out the present I’d brought over. Some of you will remember the farewell gift a group of us gave them when they left – a Dean Alston cartoon of the two of them standing by their Jag at a Leeuwin concert, wine in hand, grinning like Cheshire cats, the framed cartoon has pride of place in their study. Luckily Veronica still had a copy and I’d printed it out on to two t-shirts. I rather think they liked them.

Morning. Everything is so lush and green, it’s very similar to New Zealand, almost a sensory overload to anyone from Perth, Las Vegas (dry desert) was much more like home to me. We drove into the city, parked and went walk-about. First the White House, it’s exactly as the photos show, very white, with beautifully manicured lawns and gardens. Security, as to be expected, is absolutely invasive, on every corner, every doorway and every second car, marksman patrol the roof of the White House. But in the midst of it all, Michelle Obama’s vegetable and herb garden is on open display, it sort of imparts a feeling that she is striving to preserve what she can of a normal life for her family.

Washington strikes me as a rather cultured place, there are parks (small corner spaces and large parklands) everywhere, beautiful, grand buildings, very clean, in some ways, reminiscent of Canberra. What really washes over you, is an enormous sense of history and place – from the Watergate building, to the top hat Lincoln as wearing on the night he was assassinated. I had never really understood that so much of the civil was fought in this region – just yesterday, they had to call in the bomb squad to deal with an unexploded civil was shell at a construction site.

I’m also very fortunate, in that Oscar’s a history buff, there’s so much I learnt yesterday (and we’ve only just started, there’s three more days to go), but a couple of quirky things spring to mind – George Washington was desperate to join the British Army as an officer, but they turned him down as he wasn’t from a good enough family! That was a world-changing moment! Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were well over 6 foot, imposing men. And a Dr Mudd was inadvertently caught up in the assassination of Lincoln, (he was later pardoned), however, his real legacy is the expression “Turned to Mud,’ in terms of reputation.

Actually, I met, Abe, George and Teddy (Roosevelt) later that day, which segues into baseball. Oscar, Susie and son Mike, took me to a baseball match last night, their team is the Washington Nationals, playing against the Pittsburgh Pirates. They’d explained that their team hadn’t won a match for five years and they didn’t expect things to change anytime soon, however the one consolation was that they sort of felt close to Perth, with the Eagles and Dockers long term loosing ability.

Sure enough, the boys lost by one point, but it was fascinating to be there, on several fronts. Firstly we went by subway and it worked really well, moving 20, 000 fans and commuters, secondly, the non-loutish behaviour of the crowd, they were all just so polite and nice teach other. I’m stunned and a little embarrassed to say it, but Americans are a far more civilised and polite bunch of people in public than we are, there just isn’t the naked aggression that we see after large sporting venues disgorge their crowds, mind you, their drivers are still just as inclined to give the fingers and they use the car horn almost non stop.

At the stadium, there’s slightly more choices of food, but still not much in the way of healthy Mediterranean choices, you can buy wine, in plastic glasses, it’s quaffable, very much in the Swan Valley sharp / a little too young mode, but hey, as a non beer drinker, I was very happy to sink a red. And after all, I’d just shaken hands with three former presidents, so a celebratory drink was called for.

Celebrations? The De Soto’s might have been resigned to the Washington Nats loosing, but the headlines in The Washington Post today, scream “Nats Can’t Stop Bleeding, Lose To The Pirates Again.”

We got home just after midnight, and were reminiscing about Perth, when Oscar told me a wonderful story, a couple of months ago, a copy of a Clark & Dawes Report (from the 7.30 Report), had been circulating Washington, from State department to department and nobody realised it wasn’t real! Until Oscar let everyone know it was humour.

In fact, as I write this, Oscar’s just found the clip, it’s an old one AND West Oz related – it’s the one about the bow of the oil tanker falling off and over the end of the clip, the Washington political commentators have written, “It seems politicians are the same everywhere!” I sent Bryan Dawes a message telling him they’d achieved fame here in Washington, here’s his reply;

Greg

Just passed this onto Clarke, he thanks you for your information. We are releasing a DVD of the best of the past 20 years in September, perhaps Oscar can represent us in Washington. Still chuckling at this end.

regards

Bryan

And Oscar’s now emailing Bryan the clip (with the political commentator bit on it), all which means I’d better finish up and go have a shower – we’re heading out to the country today, you see Oscar and Suzie just happen to know of a winery! Tonight? Suzie’s cooking a lasagne … more red wine!

“What’d you do in Washington Grandad?”

“Well, one day, we did Margaret River.”

“What?”

Thursday morning and Suzie suggested we have a lazy day and take a casual drive up into the mountains. I started to worry when Oscar grinned at me and started humming the first few bars of ‘Deliverance,” but I needn’t have worried, mind you, I’ll get him.

We headed out north about 50 miles (80ks) through rolling green gentle hills, great road systems, although very busy with traffic, all of which gradually segued into beautiful farming land, dotted with small villages, antique shops and wineries! Now to be fair, they’d said not to expect too much, but that was fine with me, as we found ourselves in absolutely gorgeous country, surrounded by tree lined back roads in 29c sunny temperatures. Just perfect. We turned into a winery called Tarara, they’d never been there, but wanted to see if it was any good. As we drove along the long winding tree-lined private road, a deer ran across in front of us, Oscar mentioned that as well as deer, there’s also black bear, beaver and the usual squirrels etc, quite magic really and there are apparently deer in Oscar and Suzie’s suburb, in much the same way as we have roos in our outer tree-lined suburbs.

The winery was lovely and although the vegetation and trees were very different from WA, it had a Margaret River feel to it, very much so. In fact, we sat out on a balcony and tasted wine, cheese, crackers and chocolate for a couple of hours and it was almost eerily reminiscent of the balcony at Vasse Felix. Fantastic, The wines? Pleasant, in my mind, similar to much of what we get from the Swan Valley, fine quaffing, but a little sharp / fresh, but in the scheme of things, there were no complaints from this little black duck … or the other two.

Eventually we collapsed into the car and meandered back, taking the long way, crossing the Potomac (which flows through Washington DC) and is pronounced Pi (as in bit without the t) toe mac – can’t think of any other way to write it) into Maryland and walked along side the old canal system, which still has water it in some areas, but here is dry and overgrown. It runs between the river (which is shallow and rocky, hence the need for a canal) and the railway, very picturesque. In many ways, it’s very reminiscent of New Zealand, especially around the Cambridge area and also the Southern Highlands in NSW.

I have to confess I missed the freeway drive home, but boy did I wake up when we got there, you see Suzie, as promised, had baked THE BEST lasagne (her Italian grandmother’s recipe – oh God! But they hadn’t finished, with great flourish, Oscar produced a 1995 Heytsbury Cab Sav, they’d been saving for a special occasion. This was Heaven!

Now yes, I did feel guilty, they’ve now got only one bottle of Vasse Felix left, but hey, the three of us did it more than proud. So there we were, across the other side of the world, savouring one of the world’s best reds. Was it good? Like velvet, stunning. Sleep, (we’re going touring in the morning).

Friday evening, Washington DC and it’s hard to know where to begin, although Suzie’s just handed me the best Tequila – based Martini I’ve ever tasted, a really good start to anything, but perhaps I’ll kick off from where we started this morning, at the end, for so many, Arlington National Cemetery.

This weekend is a national American Holiday. Memorial Weekend pays homage to the sacrifices of American service men and women across the last 400 years and soldiers have been busy planting thousands of flags on the cemetery graves. It is an astounding place, situated in the grounds of what was the Southern General Robert E Lee’s mansion. The house looks across in honour at military personal who’ve passed away either in old age, or during battle, in every conflict from the Civil War on. In fact the initial use of the grounds was deliberate, they determined to bury the dead at his house to teach him a lesson.

All past and serving personal have the option of being buried at Arlington if they wish, with the government covering the cost of the entire funeral, they truly don’t forget them. Suzie’s dad is buried there and just below General Lee’s house, in an unexpectedly elegantly simple grave, John F Kennedy lies at rest, along with Jackie and their two youngest children, to the left, in an even simpler grave, marked with a plain white cross, his brother Robert Kennedy also lies at rest.

Memorial Weekend sees literally millions of Americans descend on Washington DC to pay their respects, including many, many Vietnam Vets riding Hogs (Harley Davidsons) – yes, there were a few Hondas, Yamahas and Triumphs, so I didn’t feel too bad about my Honda cruiser back home. Half a million believe it or not, will ride from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Wall, another deceptively simple Memorial. I caught a poignant, solitary moment of reflection for one Harley riding vet, the picture says more than any words I can conjure.

We made our way up to the Lincoln Monument, an icon shrine for the country. I must admit that as I stood on the steps below, where Martin Luther King made his impassioned speech during the civil rights marches some 40 years ago, I was utterly aware of the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (carved into the wall behind me) and the reality that what both these honourable good men had strived for, has now culminated with a black president. Oscar tells me the next memorial being built in these grounds is for Martin Luther King.

The Korean War memorial is striking for another race-based reason, it features statues of soldiers struggling through harsh winter-soaked ground and as I looked at the obviously black facial features of one statue, Oscar pointed out that the Korean War was the first time black American soldiers had mixed with white American soldiers, prior to that, in the Second World War etc, they had been segregated, that shocked me.

I should point out that there is a beautiful World War 11 memorial, but you can only cope with so much in one day, there is also a massive Holocaust building, which Oscar tells me recreates the horror of the camps etc, right down to the horrors of the furnaces, but I just could not face anything that harrowing. I was also conscious that the German people are celebrating 60 years of democracy this week and for me, it’s vital to look forward to a shared future, although II was still in for an unexpected sense of shame and horror later in the day.

Now if you’re coming to Washington, while everything seems grouped together, there is a lot of walking involved and what they don’t do well, is sidewalk cafes etc, you get the odd ice cream and cool drink vendor, but practically nothing in the way of cafes and table seating under umbrella shade etc. My one complaint about the USA so far, would be the quality of their take-away eat-out food, it’s truly bloody awful, most of it is junk food, full of fat and sugar, it’s even virtually impossible to buy a yogurt that hasn’t been adulterated with stuff. Our next stop, the Smithsonian Space and Flight museum was a case in point, the only café / restaurant in the massive building, was a two tiered McDonalds! You either starve, or eat the fat.

But what a museum, from a V2 rocket, to the Apollo Moon landing craft, a joint USA / Soviet mission (the two craft docked together) to the Wright Brothers plane, a DC3 suspended above us, the Spirit of St Louis flying alongside, it never seemed to stop, just sensational, truly an exhibition of world significance, I’d love the impossible opportunity of walking the museum without the crowds, you could spend days there, but then that applies to all the Smithsonians.

To explain, there are several Smithsonian museums spread across the city, each specialising in an area of American culture and life, from the original Smithsonian castle (the original family home), to the latest, the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Indian factor was beginning to gnaw at me, I’d been in the country for almost a week, but there seemed to be a cloak hiding anything Red Indian, nothing. I kept thinking of Australia and New Zealand, regardless of (and not making excuses for) the abysmal treatment of the Aboriginal and Maori peoples, both countries very actively promote the respective cultures of their native peoples, not so the USA. Black culture and music appears to have become the de facto native culture, it’s as if the American Indian doesn’t exist.

As we walked in to the new Smithsonian American Indian museum, Oscar and Suzie told me that the crowds we’d seen at the Space museum would not be here, they were right and I began to understand why. This is a museum unlike anything I’ve previously experienced, except Dachau. The Smithsonian people have handed the exhibition over to the Indian people to run and it is utterly and intentionally confrontational. It’s embarrassing to be white, doubly so, when there’s no escaping what we (as Europeans) did to native races all over the world, if I was them, I wouldn’t talk to us. Treaties? Jesus wept.

I vividly remember a late night conversation in New Zealand with my brother’s ex partner, Sheila, as she gently, but strongly told me why the Maori people (she’s Maori) historically have no faith or trust in the written word, (or following on, education), to them as a people, it all went back to the lies of the Treaty of Waitangi, they quickly discovered there was no honour or truth in anything the English wrote, as they lost lands and were herded away. The Australian Aboriginal people, a far more fragmented, basically nomadic society fared even worse and it seems we practised the same evil intent on the American Indian and dear God, the current plight of the Indian people is frighteningly similar to that of Australia’s Aboriginal people and the New Zealand Maori – displaced, angry, lost, ravaged by alcohol, diabetes and lack of employment.

I am of course, no expert on these matters, but it does seem to me that the Maori are currently in a better place than either the Indian or the Aboriginal, better assimilated, accepted and more aggressive in demanding their rights. The American Indian appears to be in exactly the same current situation as the Australian Aboriginal people, regarded as an embarrassing nuisance and trapped in the gutters of society, although at least Australia and New Zealand actively promote their native cultures, here in the USA, it appears to be actively submerged.

The museum began to depress and worry me, although the architecture was wonderful. I found myself telling Oscar and Suzie there was too much bleak darkness and no light, that some samples of everyday past Indian life would help. Deep within me, I knew I was wrong, I just wanted relief, then we turned an amazing corner.

I’d told my gracious hosts that I didn’t want to visit any art galleries, as time was at a premium and I could see art at home, I wanted to learn about the USA. The museum had other ideas.

Fritz Scholder, (1937 – 2005), artist, sculptor, printmaker, American Indian, I’d never heard of him, but we walked into an exhibition of his work at the museum that literally stopped me in my tracks.

It is of course an unlikely name for an Indian painter, but then his father was German and his mother Indian. He single-handedly changed the face of American Indian painting, forcing it away from the stereotypes of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. An insatiable reader, he absorbed influences and culture from across the world, developed a penchant for English cars (Rollers and MGs) and, interestingly for me, had a fascination with vampire mythology.

Often referred to, somewhat dismissively, as “The Andy Warhol of Indian Art,” at one stage, he refused to paint anything Indian, but a gradual rage built up in him, as he learnt of the past litany of injustices and returned to painting with a vengeance, in the process upsetting many Indian people with confronting paintings that made no attempt to shy away from the ravages and dependence of the Indian people on alcohol.

Some of his larger works were uncannily like much of Brett Whiteley’s work, all of it is incredibly powerful. Thankfully there was a book to purchase. If you’d like to know more:

www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/scholder/

www.fritzscholderpaintings.com

I didn’t need another museum after that, too much to think through, besides, Suzie was cooking Alaskan Salmon and Oscar had been begging her all day to make a particular Tequila-based cocktail. Not only that, we couldn’t walk any further.

Oscar hailed a cab to take us back to their car and forty minutes later, the cocktails materialised. Oh brother! I was going to write this last night, but Susie killed that ability. The salmon? Maate! Stunning, matched with a Jacob’s Creek Pinot Gris served in Leeuwin Estate glasses – I tell you, we’ve turned them into West Oz ambassadors, which segues into a nice little close, several of you are emailing back, asking me to pass on your best wishes to them. I’m doing better than that, I’m passing on your emails and as you’re finding out, they’re taking great delight in making contact with you.

Saturday, out in the leafy burbs of Virginia. A touch of humidity was sweeping down the short manicured streets of Oscar and Suzie’s community. Gentrified s perhaps the best way to describe the area, lovely trees everywhere, the houses are usually attached three or four story town houses, timber rather than brick. Think of the housing development around Minim Cove at East Perth, although the houses have been here for many years. Settled, gentle, leafy, quiet, reserved, in many ways these small satellite suburbs are hideaways from the surrounding high-powered constant bustle and movement of traffic and people in what is after all the capital of the USA.

But still, there are deer in the woodlands, red fox and squirrels and birds in every garden, sanctuary is a good word, mind you, the real world is never far away, the other night, there were four of us at the dining table, all working our laptops, we even caught ourselves sending emails to each other – it’s not as bad as it seems, I was on-sending messages from several mutual Aussie friends!

Oscar and Suzie had an interesting experience arranged for me that evening, we were going to the nearby Wolf Trap National Park, to see a live radio broadcast by Garrison Keillor, “Who?” I can hear you say, I’ll get to that shortly, first Oscar and I went looking for a NASCAR shop. Son Gordon wants me to get him a Marcus Ambrose shirt, Ambrose is an Aussie, V8 racing fans will no doubt recall that he was a champion racer in Oz before he left to try his luck in US NASCAR oval racing and by all accounts he’s starting to do very well.

NASCAR racing came about with the days of prohibition, the good ‘ol boys souped up their cars to make fast white lightening runs (to quick for the law to catch ‘em), these days it’s a massive sport, but more popular in the southern states and looked down upon by the more sophisticated northern states – Eoin Cameron and I know full well what it’s like to be frowned on for displaying an interest in the vulgar sport of motor racing – think how hard it is to get a V8 Supercar race result on ABC TV on Sunday nights.

Anyhow, Oscar didn’t hold out much hope of finding anything and he proved correct, the stores in the massive sopping centres were filled with baseball and gridiron stuff, “You’ll find what you want in Memphis,” he reassured me. We did take a look through a book shop, very, very impressive and yes, books are far, far cheaper than we can buy them, even allowing for the currency exchange rate, it was very tempting to lash out, well, I did, a bit of light reading for the thousands of miles of flying lying ahead of me over the next few weeks, Ronnie Woods autobiography of is life with the Stones.

We picked p Suzie and went down to buy some wine at a massive liquor store ad found a fair amount of Australian wine, including some form Western Australia – we’d just missed out on the last few bottles of Leeuwin Art Series at $29.95 a bottle. There were a couple of Margaret River labels didn’t recognise, on close inspection, the wine had actually been bottled in California, with the wine apparently from WA. There was another supposedly from McLaren Vale, that had a sort of Aboriginal design label and a name that somebody had obviously thought sounded Aboriginal – to me, it was more Hawaiian, so there’s obviously some interesting packaging / marketing ploys going down with wine at the moment, perhaps a result of the world-wide wine glut. It needs saying that the people in the store knew their wines, although they had no idea about Vasse Felix, they knew how good Leeuwin Estate wines and NZ Cloudy Bay wines were, as expected, Jacobs Creek is everywhere and very cheap. Suzie stocked up on wine, cheese and nibbles and we returned home for a power nap before our trip to Wolf Trap.

The national park is just a twenty minute drive away, along a narrow, winding two lane road, very Caves Road, albeit a touch narrower, Along with several thousand other people, we parked up and walked along with our chairs, rugs, food and wine, a lot like home. In fact, when I mentioned this, they grinned and said, “Actually, this is your fault, you’re the one who introduced us to this outdoor concert / picnic lifestyle and when we came home, we continued it. We come here to Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Centre for shows and concerts all the time now.”

After we’d wined and dined on the lawn, we walked down to the building were the live broadcast was to occur. Purpose built, out of timber, it is a brilliant building, quite capable of hosting a symphony orchestra, a play, a rock band, or a radio show, people are seated in allocated seats inside, or they can choose to sit on the surrounding lawns outside the building, catching glimpses, or watching large screens (if they’re in use). I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

The crowd was very WASP, the only black people were acting as ushers, it was obviously as Oscar had told me, middle America. Apparently Garrison Keillor has a broadcast audience in the hundreds of millions, revered and loved by Americans, certainly they were in raptures with him. Type in his name on Google and Wikipedia and you’ll find reams of information, including podcasts etc. I was fascinated and found it almost impossible to typecast him. He’s not a radio presenter in the sense that we know as the norm – no desk, he stands at a microphone and does a show. Very definitely an entertainer, the show is obviously well scripted and rehearsed with a tightly adhered running schedule,

The show / broadcast, which travels around the nation, is called ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, he gives gentle social commentary monologues that ramble off in all sorts of directions, as he ad libs and weaves poignant homilies into the tale. There are musicians on stage, playing bluegrass, rack and gospel. Keillor sings himself, in a baritone and sings short poignant songs he’s written abut every day observations It’s all very ‘down home with the folks,” but just when you think, ”This is so corny,” he injects an edge. He brought out the top student from Washington High, a black guy, who’d just won a national poetry reading competition and he performed a piece about being black with a white teacher.

Keillor has a make-believe community called Woebegone, (yes, I know, but the American audience doesn’t). Keillor is razor sharp, not a shark … I don’t think and he weaves a tale of normal incidents around the fictional community – kids borrowing money etc. He also has a troop of clever performers doing skit radio shows a ala those of the 1950s. It is genuinely funny and there is an edge of sophistication around it.

And the Australian references didn’t stop there, although I don’t think many in the audience would have been remotely aware, he and his team did a very clever sketch about a politician under siege, with ‘concerned’ local citizens worried about wombats, then there was the direct pinch, breathtaking to an Aussie.

It s of course, Memorial Weekend in the States, (the actual holiday is Monday) and traditionally he always does the Memorial Weekend show from Wolf Trap. He announced that he was going to do a song about the effects of war – “The Band Played The Star Spangled Banner”. Sound familiar? You bet, we know it as the Eric Bogle song, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda!” Interestingly, he left in the caustic anti-war lyrics, I thought he might have changed some of them, as being too much for American audiences. It was received well, although quietly, as people suddenly realised what was being said in the song. It was interesting to hear an Australian icon anti war song used in an American context on their national holiday commemorating the sacrifices of the forces. I’m sure you can listen to his version on the internet, as the show was / s available on the web.

Is there anything to compare with it in Australia? Perhaps the closest thing would be Macca’s Australia All Over on Sunday mornings, but that doesn’t have the peculiar and interesting edge that Keillor’s show has. One thing’s for sure, it gave me a glimpse into middle America that I would never have known about and don’t think this was all about Republican values, on the contrary, Keillor’s a Democrat and an open supporter of Obama.

And sadly, my time’s almost up in Washington, we’re heading over for breakfast with Vince and Sandy Di Pietro (Vince is our head Oz Navy honcho in the States) before Oscar and Suzie drop me at the airport for my early afternoon flight to New York.

Sunday morning and sadly it was time to take my leave from the wonderful hospitality of Oscar and Suzie, although we did it well and, I finally got my motorsport fix.

Vince and Sandy had insisted we come around for brunch, even though they’d been away – Vince had only got in at midnight from Trinidad (we walked into Bob Marley being played very loudly … beautiful).

Vince of course, is our Naval Attaché in Washington, a navy fly boy of old. Most of you will remember him from his days as Commander of Stirling Naval base, which is where I first got to know him. I remember when a bunch of us were staying on board the USS Stennis, a US aircraft carrier out on the Indian Ocean somewhere. There was a presentation after dinner, with the American Admiral of the Fleet giving Vince a plaque as a memento of the aircraft carrier – he made a clever flippant remark about size, but our boy Vince then presented the Admiral with a plaque from Stirling Naval Base, saying, ”Mine’s much bigger than yours.”

Speaking of things navy, I don’t know whether it’s hit the Oz news yet, but some of our own ships, after a tour of duty in the middle east hot spot, have been warding off Somalian pirates from commercial shipping and are now headed for various ports around the globe on a goodwill mission. Even though we’re a small nation in terms of population, we continue to punch above our weight in these unsettled times.

Vince and Sandy have a beautiful bungalow in the leafy suburb of McLean – it’s where people such as the Kennedys dwell, “Struth,” said Vince, “You’re here, I’d better put the flags out!”

“Mate, where’s the bloody Ferrari?” I demanded, “I’m on a car starvation diet so far this trip and Oscar keeps inferring, nicely, that, well, it’s not quite cricket … sorry, baseball.”

“Come with me,” said Vince.

First stop the study, framed, signed Ferrari pictures everywhere and, this will make everyone back home feel good – well, some of you, a framed, signed Dockers jersey – Sandy’s the Docker’s fan – they have two daughters at Notre Dame in Freo. But there was something else in the study, an autographed “It’s Time” poster, with a young Gough looking out intently. I wondered how the previous administration reacted to that when they visited. We went downstairs.

There was Vince’s model car collection, mainly Ferraris – he’s a fanatic. Many of the models have been signed by champion Formula One drivers and he’s got one Melbourne GP cap signed by everyone from Schumacher to Sir Jack and Stirling Moss. He also has a small Steve McQueen collection, which he’s hoping to build on. I expected all this, but what really took my attention, was a signed boxing glove from Rubin Carter (the Hurricane). I remember and have always loved the Bob Dylan song from way back in the 1970s, that kick-started the campaign for justice, speaking of which, Andrew Mallard’s been forced to accept the WA Government’s payout and in reality is being pushed into the mire of endless court battles, which will scar both him and our society even further, thank heaven’s for the sanity and release of motorsport.

Vince pulled the covers off the Mondial, red of course, with the pre-requisite bone leather interior, it’s in fabulous condition, a true classic and he plans on bringing it back to Oz with him. Oscar felt it was probably one of very few Ferraris in town on diplomatic plates.

We celebrated the bonds of friendship over Eggs Benedict and champers, along with a phone call to Veronica and then it was time to head for the airport and a momentary opportunity to get a quick shot of the Pentagon as we drive by – it’s actually quite hidden from view and only five stories high, which brings the terrorist aircraft attack into stark perspective.

Airports are seemingly the same all over the world today, it’s impossible to park, and the machinations of security make it virtually a waste of time for family and friends to do anything other than quickly say goodbye at the door. And in fact I prefer that, it’s easier emotionally, far better to be greeted on arrival than say goodbye. Hugs and gone, into the bowls of Ronald Regan Airport. There are many in Washington who refuse to use the name, pointedly using the earlier National Airport title.

Actually the name’s quite fitting, the place is decrepit, with patches of modern additions here and there. As usual, you have to remove your shoes and shuffle through endless queues, showing your passport to a thousand different uniforms, all screaming out orders. Airports these days are dreadful places, they ruin the travel experience.

There’s more, Americans are unnervingly polite – except for those who work at the airports, they’re bloody rude, the whole experience is of being barked and yelled at with orders, we wouldn’t tolerate it in Australia. There’s no sense of service, friendliness, or wish to help, the air is indifference and, as I’ve mentioned before, the internal airlines are actually a worry, standards are abysmal.

We were herded on to a tired American Eagle plane. You might book with a particular airline, but they sub-contract, obviously at a price, so you have no idea, or control over who you’re entrusting with your safety. The big hard-faced blonde hostess (Reg would have correctly said, “Boiler”), ordered us to stow things away, while she waltzed down the aisle pointedly and rudely telling people off then glaring at us all. I’d fire the cow, but I think I get the impression, she’s the standard American airlines want.

The plane creaked, rattled and groaned out to the end of the runway, then (not his fault), the pilot announced there was an air show on and we’d have to sit there for an hour! Thank God I’d bought Ronnie Wood’s book. An hour later, we had to taxi back to the terminal to take on more fuel. It was a late arrival in New York.

I did go for an evening wander through Times Square (it’s just been closed to traffic as an experiment). First impressions? People everywhere, smelly, vibrant, massive, fascinating and, totally unexpectedly, strangely, very, very reminiscent of Auckland – I felt totally at home (memories of boyhood days). The similarity is weird, but maybe I’ll change my opinion today, when I start touring around properly.

These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York

And the heart goes on seemingly forever, nor does it stop beating, the term 24/7 means New York. Where to start? Well, I figured the best thing to do, was jump on board one of the topless bus tours and get the lay of the land. It’s not a bad deal, $67.00US, valid for 48 hours, night and day tours, hop on and off where you want and a commentary thrown in … together is probably a better word.

We set off from the Greyline terminal, beautiful weather, 29c, sunny as, but the tour guide was a street-smart Puerto Rican bloke with an Italian accent, speaking New York – even other Americans had no idea what he was saying. We’d catch bits about his family and the obvious plugs for various shops etc, but nothing about what we wee seeing, I got off at round Zero, as I wanted to see it, but also as I couldn’t take any more.

The 9/11 site is now under reconstruction, consequently it’s hard to get a sense of what you know happened. There doesn’t appear a reverence about the place, probably because it’s a construction site and security guards are everywhere stopping you from taking photos thorough the fences. I think it will be an emotional place to visit when it’s completed, looking at the plans etc, but currently, what you do come away with, is a sense of absolute vastness, at just how massive the area is. Suddenly the reality that two large aircraft could disappear into each tower, comes into perspective, the collapsing buildings must have been terrifying.

Back on the bus, this time an old hunch-backed guy. I wondered of he’d survive the trip, I needn’t have, he spent the next leg complimenting any pretty young girls he could find. Thankfully the ferry stop (for the Statue of Liberty) was only five minutes away.

Queues! Oh my God, there ain’t no getting away from them and most of us got totally lost trying to work out the system. The best thing to do is go to the loo, buy an ice cream and a bottle of water and go to the back of the queue. You will be standing in it, slowly shuffling forward, for about ¾ of an hour, watching menacing looking groups of Hispanic guys push in, daring anybody to say anything. I did of course, but suddenly nobody speaks English, but, it seems they’re not used to some big old no-fazed Aussie walking round in front of them and smiling back. It became fun.

The queue tightens, some realise they don’t have tickets and have to leave, and rejoin at the back, yep, it’s a shambles. Security guards start yelling orders, it seems we’ve got to go through an airport-like security check. By this time, I was starting to think, I wouldn’t bother, but then I was probably only gong to be here once and I did want to see the old girl.

It’s quite lovely, as with several things, people had told me that it wasn’t as big as I would expect, but it was exactly as I had pictured. Another queue, to up to the top of the base, half an hour later to be told, “No, you have to get a special ticket a week before hand.” I didn’t get off the ferry at the Ellis Island Immigration Centre, I simply couldn’t take any more queues, or yelling security and ferry staff, my head was aching. I’m beginning to suspect that tourism in New York survives because of sheer numbers, which also make things chaotic. It isn’t actually a pleasant experience as such, it’s far nicer to wander around by yourself (or in your own group), I know that if I came again, I’d hook up with the bicycle riding tours

Back on the bus, this time a fabulous guide, a younger switched-on pro, great advice on eating, landmarks and getting around etc, if I hadn’t have wanted to get off at the UN building, I’d have stayed on, he was that good, so my advice to anyone taking these tours, is get off ASAP if the guide’s no good and jump on the next bus ‘till you get somebody good.

I didn’t rejoin the bus and wandered up the street to the stunningly beautiful Chrysler Centre. This is as magnificent as everyone says and I love Art Deco. All I could think was thank God the terrorists didn’t target this building, as it could never be replaced. By now it was just after five and I ambled back to the Roosevelt Hotel for a rest and shower, I was going to hit Times Square that evening

I checked my emails, by the way, every hotel offers broadband, line or wireless, it’s $14.95 per 24 hour period and it’s free at all airports, which is not bad, like Australia, it’s virtually impossible to buy an internet or mobile phone service, even for a short period, if you’re not a citizen with ID. I decide to check my bank – money runs like water and got a shock, there was several hundred dollars I couldn’t account for, I rang Visa.

Interesting, although I’d pre-paid the hotel bill, the Roosevelt had still taken another $100.00US out, obviously in case I ran up extra bills, but as US hotels don’t provide even coffee making facilities, let alone a fridge, I’d made up my mind not t eat at their over-priced restaurants. And that’s a thing, eating is a cheap, or as expensive as you want to make it, $6.95US at a deli gets you a great take-away meal.

Back to the missing dollars, Visa solved the mystery, I’d intended to stay at the Chelsea Hotel, but the on-line reviews of the place were so bad and Veronica has some friends who’d recently stayed there and left after a day, it was so bad, so I’d cancelled my reservation back on the 16th April. Yeah, you got it, they’d taken out three days accommodation last night. Of course, I had no proof that I’d cancelled.

Luckily I caught Andrew at home, (he’s house-sitting for me), got him to switch on my computer and send me the various emails to the Chelsea. I’ll be able to give you a full description of the hotel tomorrow! Suffice to say, as I write this, there’s a card on the desk in front of me, which states, “You’re in New York, Be Direct About It.” I’m with you, well, the Chelsea at 9.00am.

Out into the night, with a couple of things in mind, first, I’d noticed the night before, street vendors on every Times Square corner, selling LV and Gucci handbags. Obviously they’re fake, but what the heck, so I rang Jodie and asked if she wanted an LV bag. Is the Pope a Catholic? I did the deal last night and that was fun.

“$65.00 sir, genuine LV sir.”

“I’ll give you $35.00.”

“Cash, very cheap, this is genuine!” Yeah right. I started counting out the money (US currency is very confusing, the notes are all virtually the same colour), got to $25.00, he snatched it from me and started folding up the corners of the blanket he had the bags on, whistles started blowing, people yelling and suddenly all the pavement hawkers were running, the NYPD was on the trail. $25.00 for a LV bag? The label says it’s real!

I then went across to the Barrymore Theatre, I think you’ve got to catch a Broadway show while you’re in town and this one is right up my alley, Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon in “Exit the King.” The bloke at the booking office was great, “Sir, you’ll get the ticket for tomorrow (Tuesday) night’s show, half price at the Times Square kiosk tomorrow. Good advice, I will.

New York feels incredibly safe, night or day, I stopped to a motorcycle cop, he explained that back in the 1980s and very early 1990s, the place was a nightmare, with upwards of 2,500 people murdered each year, cocaine was sold on ever corner and it was a very dangerous city, but the introduction of Zero Tolerance had changed everything, with murders, mainly domestic! Down to 500 per annum, in a population of over 20 million. All I can say, is that just like Las Vegas, New York, night or day, is a far safer, nicer place to be than Northbridge.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped to take a photo of the Barrymore, with the sunset glowing in the background, a bloke was watching me, “How’s it turn out mate? He asked. Mate? Struth, an Aussie! Yep, from Brisbane. We swapped cameras and took photos of each other. It turned out his lady was back at the hotel resting, it seemed they’d done the Statue of Liberty ferry trip as well and fond it exactly as I had, too much noise, yelling and queues and had not gone on to do the other island, but they were in agreement with me, an amazingly safe, mad, massive, vibrant place, that they wouldn’t miss for anything.

Tuesday? The Empire State building, the Guggenheim, the Dakota Apartments, yes, the Chelsea, Central Park and the Broadway Show. Oh, yeah, thanks for the emails telling me you’re enjoying the tales, there’s always a lot more photos on the Loconut blog site want see more and yes, I’m very happy for you to on-send the sagas to other friends.

The New York final …and the first few hours in Memphis, Uncle Sam sure is a bloke of many contrasts. My first mission on Tuesday morning, was to call in to the Chelsea Hotel, re the money taken against my credit card. I didn’t really know what to expect – trouble? Contrition? So it was with mixed feelings that I walked into the joint. Here was musical and artistic history, but I was now there for the wrong reasons.

The bloke at the desk was just short of aggressive, but rang the accounts department, then said, “They’ll come down to see you.” A few minutes later a young lady did. The problem appeared to be a lack of communication, even the emails I’d sent the night before hadn’t been passed on / read. However, once she read them, she apologised profusely and set about correcting their mistake. I then felt relaxed enough to take photos, but I’m glad I didn’t stay there, it’s “Glory Days” are obviously long gone. I was also, by this time, convinced New York just doesn’t do tourism or service very well these days, the industry just doesn’t seem to care.

Next stop, one of the ‘same day’ Broadway ticket offices, these are great once you’re in the know, up to 75% discounts are available, but seat choice can be limited. I scored, 50% off row F – 6 rows back from the front to see “Exit the King” for $57.00, more on that later.

Back on the tour bus and another excellent guide, full of info, so they do have some good ones, but you just don’t know what you’re going to get. I guess the best advice for Aussies, Kiwis and Poms, is if the guide has a strong New York / Italian / Hispanic accent, you won’t understand a word over the PA system, best to get off and catch the next bus, they’re every ten minutes of so.

Going through Gramercy, we passed a huge conglomerate of apartments, 10,000 of them! They’d recently sold for around $10,000 billion, purported to be the largest residency deal in history – theirs or ours I suspect. Mainly one and two bedroom apartments, they were built at the end of WW11 to help house returning service men and women, these days, they rent out for between $1,500.00 to $3,000 a month – think those old brick apartments down on Terrace Road in Perth, only multi storied and taking up half a dozen city blocks.

Past the United Nations building again and all the country flags were flying, in alphabetical order of country. The Oz UN flag appears to be a light blue with yellow stars and the usual Union Jack corner piece, although I’m not absolutely sure if I’m right, the guide didn’t know either. On past the Trump Towers apartment building, amazing! We swished on by the Waldorf Astoria, but I didn’t need either the salad or walnuts – not at the prices I imagined then to be, I was looking for the Rockefeller Centre, as I’d been told the ‘Top of the Rock’ lookout at the top of the centre was a ‘must do.’

The building went up about 70 years ago and has some gorgeous Art Deco work internally. Walking up to the second floor to take the lift to the top, I looked out the picture window on my right, there was Radio Music Hall, compete with a sign telling me the Moody Blues were coming to town – a bloke could live in the states, just for the music alone!

The lift up to the top (850’ above sea level) is pure Hollywood. The roof of the lift is glass, a laser light show plays on the roof and the guide rails are lit up all the way to the top with blue lights – it’s like a science fiction movie, wonderful stuff. Then you go outside and get a little bit disappointed, because there are large sheets of Perspex surrounding everything, but you then discover there’s another two levels and no Perspex, magic. Next stop, the Empire State Building.

This is Art Deco paradise, but nobody seems interested. I appeared to be the only person taking photographs of the interior design features, it helped take my mind off the abominable queues, yelling, security and orders. Oh God! I swear we all had to show ID three times, queue in five different areas, be snapped at, ordered around, you might as well be in the army. I kept thinking, “Settle, settle, you’re only going to be here once, just put up with it.” Most people were just shaking their heads, with American people taking / accepting it far better than the rest of us. The view made it all worthwhile and yes, it’s taller than the Rockefeller Centre – have a look at the photo of the building with the weather dome, that’s the Rockefeller Centre. The 86th floor observatory I was on, is 1,050’ above street level (not sea level) and there’s another 250’ to go! Photos done, I got the hell out of there as quickly as I could. Next stop, the Guggenheim Museum, but first a little on getting around.

The topless bus hop on / hop off thing is a must in terms of getting reference points for where you want to go, the tickets ($67.00 US) are valid for 48 hours night and day, but time becomes the enemy, as you spend so long in queues and security checks, that hours are wasted, so the yellow cabs become essential. Most places you’ll want to go to (in the Manhattan general area), work out somewhere between $8.00 and $15.00, you can pay with cash or credit card, however if you hand over a ten bill for an eight dollar fare, don’t expect to get any change and, if you don’t key in a tip when you swipe the credit card, expect a torrent of abuse from the driver, who will then insist the machine’s suddenly not working and you’ll have to pay cash, either way, they beat you.

I must be fair … fare??, I did strike a lovely Sikh cabbie, who was originally from New Delhi, he’d lived in New York for 26 years and driving cabs for 19 of those, he was in Queens when the first plane hit back in 2001 and, like many, he thought that a restaurant must have caught fire, then the second plane hit and all hell broke loose, he said that nobody knew what was going on, there were fighter planes everywhere and he drove home to round up his family and stay home until things became clear. For him, the after effect has been that he’d only recently (in the last five months), started growing his hair and wearing the Sikh turban, as most New Yorkers thought he was a Muslim and he kept copping torrents of abuse.

The Guggenheim. This will remain a highlight for me and a reminder of how inspiring great architecture can be – it is art, it has a music of its own and New York (and Washington), have some wonderful, wonderful buildings. In fact the museum was actually smaller than I had expected, but exquisite in every detail. Then I went inside, Monets, Picasso’s Van Goghs, everywhere, topped off by an exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings, competed works and projects. One in particular blew me away. It was never built, but the model pictured another word. One of his clients had commissioned a building to feature cars and an internal planetarium. I just walked around and around the model, here would be the greatest automotive museum in the world, if anybody had the courage, or the money to bring the design to life, I hope somebody does some day. To my two architect friends, Chris Hardy and Audrie Scott, (hmm, both Kiwis – well, Chris did have to become an Oz to become a Perth City councillor!), I can see why you both have such passion for design.

Time was running away with me, the play was due to start at 7.00pm and there was so much left I wanted to see. There was no choice, I had to make the pilgrimage to Dakota House and, as it turned out, it was also the perfect opportunity to visit Central Park.

As well as the ubiquitous yellow cabs, there are also yellow rickshaws all over New York, I’d wondered about using them, but felt a little squeamish about slave labour – hard to explain, but the thought had made me uneasy. The Guggenheim is on the ‘Museum Strip’ alongside Central Park and the rickshaws are everywhere. I knew I had to cut across the park to get to the Dakota Building. One of the rickshaw guys asked me where I was going, I told him. “$15.00,” he said, “ Ten minutes, or we can stop off and look at stuff in the park as we go.” Part of me thought, “Hmm, it would only be an $8.00 cab fare,” but I said yes. One of the best decisions I’ve made on the trip so far, it is a brilliant way to see Central Park.

“There it is,” he said, “The Dakota Building and that’s Strawberry Fields just there sir.” I had to give him $20.00. First up, a walk through the Strawberry Fields memorial area of the park. There’s a lovely shrine to John Lennon, inlaid with mosaic tiles in the ground and a local bloke has become New York’s, unofficial Mayor of Strawberry Fields. Every morning he decorates the memorial with flowers in peace symbols and gives people a run-down on the Dakota Building – Yoko still lives there, hers (and John’s) apartment is the one at the top with the black railing around it. It’s a strange feeling to stand the entrance to the building and imagine Lennon starting to sign that autograph. That following moment will never make sense. No more photographs for the day, time to reflect.

I caught a cab back to the Roosevelt, showered and headed for the Barrymore Theatre. I figure if you’ve got one last night in New York, you’ve got to go to a Broadway show. There’s a lot to choose from – the usual Lion Kings and Phantom’s of the Opera, Mama Mia and so on, but the thought of seeing Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon together in “Exit the King” was irresistible, for an amateur ham like me.

The theatre was lovely, but I knew by now that New York just doesn’t do wine, if you want a beer or a cocktail, you’re in luck, but they simply don’t have a wine culture. Oh they have it, but they sort of sneer at you and say, “Red or white?” I said yes, to a red. Now this is supposedly an upmarket theatre. The wine was poured into a minute plastic glass – and it cost $8.00 US! I drank it, yep, Swan Valley sharp and went into to take my seat. It was a truly great seat, a little to one side, but spectacular. The lady beside me wasn’t so sure, “Hey, ya know, this ain’t so good,” she said, “ I ain’t been here before, how ‘bout you?” I replied that is was my first time. “ Hey, you’re English doll!”

“Na, I’m an Oz.”

“Well how about that, I’m Denise, I’m a security guard in Las Vegas. I could kill ya with one hit if I wanted to ya know.”

“Why would you want to do that?” I asked.

“Just thought I’d tell ya,” she said. “ I’m on holiday by myself, but I can take care of myself. My husband’s in the airforce, been in for 24 years.”

“Is he a flyboy?” I asked.

“Na, he’s a dentist, he’s gettin’ out next year. He wants to stay in Vegas, but I want to move back to Denver, we was there for 12 years.”

“You sound like a New Yorker to me,” I said.

“Hey, you’re pretty good,” she said.

“So, you’re not going to kill me?”

“Na. just kiddin,’ wanted to see how you’d react. I come to New York twice a year just to see Broadway Shows, whadaya reckon ‘dis is gonna be like?”

It was brilliant, off the planet, hysterical, clever, sad, poignant, twisted, fun and oh so reminiscent of certain just defeated leaders. Of course, Rush did it in Sydney and Melbourne in 2007, but this represents his (and Susan Sarandon’s debut on Broadway. And it would be totally wrong to not mention Lauren Ambrose, William Sadler , Brian Hutchison and Andrea Martin in their brilliant supporting roles. The critics have been raving and at the finish of this performance, the entire audience rose to its feet in rapturous applause. I looked around for the security chic. Gone. Then I remembered she’d also told me she collected autographs, sure enough, outside the theatre, there she was waiting by the side gate, I hope she got what she wanted, otherwise our Geoff may have found himself with a few bruises!

I usually do the blogs first thing in the morning, but I had to be up early, the coach dong the rounds of the hotels was picking me up at 6.30am, I rang them at 7.00pm. “Yeah, yeah, we’ll be there alright!” The Concierge told me they were always late.

Eventually we got to the airport and I had two hours before the plane took off for Memphis via Charlotte. Then something totally unexpected hit me, home-sickness, in an overwhelming flood out of nowhere, accompanied by a debilitating feeling of loneliness. I had no idea what to do, or make of it. Part of me just about changed my ticket there and then to head for home! I’m not joking. I really battled with it. Then I decided to ring Ted, to talk about John Lennon and the Dakota Building, just to keep things light. Bugger me, he asked if I wasn’t feeling lonely. Gulp. In the middle of half million people at La Guardia Airport. I lied, well, I did let it slip that it had crossed my mind at one stage. By now I was looking for a ticket office.

I got a grip, told him I had to get on board and did so. We taxied out and stopped. The pilot apologised and told us there was a stack of planes in front of us, delayed by bad weather over Chicago. There we sat for 40 minutes and all the while I was thinking, “I’ve had enough, I just want to go home.” And that feeling continued most of the day, I couldn’t shake it.

A change of plane at Charlotte and another hour or so to Memphis, yes, with the by now, obligatory wait, this time for just 20 minutes at the end of the runway. My bag was one of the first off, I went outside, looking for the usual cabs and shuttle buses, nothing, a few small buses with rental car company names on them, they were car park shuttles for their customers, but no cabs, or anything and there hadn’t been any transport advice signs in the terminal either. I had no idea what to do, or make of it. Then I saw a public transport bus, so I went over and asked the driver for some help. He told me his bus would get me there and to get on board and pay $1.50, gratefully I did so, as did two French women.

Almost an hour later, we’d travelled through some pretty rough neighbourhoods and we were the only three Europeans on the bus, with everyone looking at us, an interesting experience. Then a white cop clambered on board. In his 50s, he was a huge man, more than morbidly obese, but then I figured he wouldn’t need to run, his belt was full of guns and handcuffs. He stared at the three of us, “Come from the airport?” We nodded, He shook his head.

By now I’d noticed the signs all over the bus, stating that violence was against the law and anyone perpetrating violence against drivers and other passengers was up for 20 years in the slammer, there were also large billboards on the streets with the same message. I was thinking that I should have gone home and I don’t get nervous about anything. God knows what the two French women were thinking, they kept making nervous eye contact with me. The cop got off, which was a worry, then we stopped by a hospital, several young black guys with bandages and no shirts got sullenly on the bus. There was no doubt we shouldn’t have been there.

The bus pulled into a terminal, The driver got out, told the French women they needed to change buses, they got out and a lady driver took over our bus. “Where y’all goin” she said, I realised she was talking to me.

“ The Sleep Inn,” I replied.

“Where’s that?” she asked the rest of the bus. They all seemed to know. “I’ll get ya there now honey,” she said. She did a couple of minutes later. And surprise, surprise, it’s a really nice hotel, there’s small precinct of them AND, not only is the internet free, there’s a coffee peculator in the room, plus a fridge and a microwave and downstairs in the foyer, constant free popcorn and coffee, they could sure as heck teach Las Vegas and New York how to look after hotel customers.

I took a late afternoon walk down to Beale Street, ordered some Nachos while two guys played great live blues music in the pub courtyard, then wandered along Riverside Drive, beside the Mississippi, before coming back to the hotel, to write this blog and get an early night, for tomorrow, I’m off chasing Elvis, but I think I’ll get a cab.

Homesick still? It’s starting to recede, aided by the fact that there was a lovely email from Suzie and another from Brad Eoin’s producer), asking me if I’d like to go on air at 6.20am next Tuesday (love to) to talk about it all, but I wouldn’t’ want to be haunted by the feeling too often … “long distance information, get me …”

Salutations after several strange days. I needed to think about my time in Memphis before putting pen to paper, while at the same time, I was caught up in the American Way of doing business – travelling in the US of A can be a trap for the unwary; to explain.

The Hotel System

If, like me, you prefer to pay when you book accommodation etc, hotels across the USA still want to swipe your credit / debit card when you arrive, no real problem if you offer a credit card, but a real issue if you offer a debit card. They automatically (and without asking, or telling you), charge you anywhere from $200.00 – $500.00 US, apparently to protect themselves against guests running up debts at their restaurants etc. Most of them, by the way, don’t even provide coffee in the rooms, or fridges etc, just paper cups for a glass of tap water.

The crunch is, it can take anywhere from 5 – 14 working days for the money to go back into your account. It doesn’t take much calculation to imagine how much money these hotels are sitting on every day, which is not theirs to have or use. I currently have almost $2,400.00 AUS somewhere in US hotel aether land and they don’t like being questioned about it.

I rang VISA Australia and they’re as angry about it as the customers, but tell me there’s nothing they can legally do. They say they receive phone calls all the time these days from people with unexpected funds missing out of their accounts. The suggestion is to refuse to hand over a credit or debt card (if you’ve pre-paid) and if the hotel insists on a ‘holding deposit,’ then only agree to a cash payment that will be refunded to you when you leave.

Cancelled Hotels

I cancelled two hotels well before I left Perth, the Chelsea Hotel (New York) and the Artisan Hotel (Memphis). Both of them went straight ahead and took money out of my credit card for the nights I had been due to stay. The Chelsea Hotel refunded the money two days after I kicked up a fuss and called in to see them about it, the Artisan is playing cagey – I suspect there’s not much I can do until I get back and lay the official complaint suggested by VISA.

And the saga continues, I arrived at the Holiday Inn (Denver) yesterday evening (a day early) and although I had pre-paid, I handed over my credit card to pay for the extra day – guess what, the hotel has taken out another payment for the four days that have already been paid for. When I questioned the manager about it, she said, “Oh, well, l we’ll check that and see.”

I’ve never struck anything like it, the hotel industry in the USA is at best sharp and at worst, they are gouging thieves, I for one wouldn’t recommend visiting the US, unless you can stay with friends, which is lovely.

Prices

Nothing is what is seems, or as stated. I’ve reached the conclusion that the American business system is based on lies. All of us in Oz have suffered the problems of buying a car – there’s the price, but … “You want a steering wheel? Licence? That’s extra” and so on, in the USA, that applies to everything you’re going to purchase, whether it’s a cup of coffee, a T-shirt, or a meal (and that’s another story again!). A $19.95 shirt becomes $22.95 and add another 30% if you’re dealing in Oz dollars, often there’s at least two taxes to add to a price, sometimes three! – Federal, State and County. The only way to try and understand what you’ll actually pay for something, is to automatically add at least 20% to everything and you’ll be somewhere near the mark – or should that be stain!

Tipping

Oh God! I am over it, Americans are the world’s best stand-over merchants, don’t let anybody tell you that tipping is voluntary, they’ve got scamming down to a fine art and believe me, it’s NOTHING to do with service.

I’ve previously mentioned the angry cab driver in New York, who blatantly cancelled my attempt at a credit card payment, as I didn’t press the Gratuity tab, but coming out of Memphis yesterday (Saturday) morning, from the hotel to the airport beat that. The pick-up had been pre-arranged, quoted ($30.00) and booked. Guess what, we get to the airport and the cost was $35.00. I’d taken the charge into account the night before and made sure I had the exact money on me (they rely on not giving you change), plus I had a one dollar note (for a tip). But the bastard beat me – I had no choice but to give him $40.00 and ask for $5.00 change. This guy was good. “Oh, … I’ve got the wrong shirt,” as he ‘felt’ for his wallet. I let it go for another 30 seconds, knowing I was beaten, then got out, thinking, “ Just get out of here Gregory.”

The Airlines

In my experience, American airline companies deserve to go broke, they are the greatest gougers in the world. Service is non-existent. You turn up at the terminal, there’s a check-in outside, signs everywhere telling you to tip, the bloke dealing with you earnestly tells you that “Your bag is seriously overweight Sir, is there something you can do?” There is, the solution’s in your wallet, plus $15.00 for your suitcase, (that isn’t part of your ticket price). There’s no food (not even a biscuit) while you’re flying – you can buy snacks, although coffee, tea and water is free.

Some companies have really good cabin crews – United Airlines are great, the worst is US Airways – don’t go near them if you can possibly avoid it. And gouge – they’re the experts in the trade.

I wanted to come out of Memphis a day early (I’ll get to that later) and rang US Airways to see what was possible. Anything was really, BUT! They insisted it would cost me another $291.00 US to change the booking – for what was a $188.00 fare that I payed for three months earlier.

I took a walk and decided to abandon the paid for flights and buy new fares, just walk away from the money I’d already spent. Yes, I still had to book through US Airways – the American system is weird, it’s virtually impossible to fly direct to anywhere, egg: You can’t fly from Memphis to Denver direct, you have to go to Phoenix (Arizona) then on to Denver. I was seated next to a guy from Phoenix yesterday, who was going to work in Texas (the other direction!), but he had to fly to Denver for a connecting flight. He told me it drives everyone mad and adds hours on to travel time, but nobody seems to be able to fix the system.

Anyhow, I rang the company and made a new booking – for $166.00 plus (of course!) a $25.00 service fee. I did try last night, to cancel Sunday’s flights, but their press buttons 1, 2, 3, & 4 system doesn’t cope, so I sent an email instead, a reply bounced back … “Thank you for your inquiry, a customer service (hmm) representative will be in touch with you in the next five days.”

How did the flight out of Memphis go? This time (5.25am), the check-in was inside the terminal, “ Your bag is over the limit Sir.” But to his credit, he wasn’t looking for money, “You’ll have to take something out sir.” I grabbed the plastic bag with all the electrical leads (camera, phone, laptop chargers etc), nope, still not enough Tired, not thinking properly, I then grabbed the toiletry bag. Yes, the weight was now fine, “That’ll be $15.00 sir.” See what I mean we’re already $40.00 over the quoted price, but by now I don’t care, I just desperately wanted to get out.

I get to security, shoes, belts etc off, then the security bloke looks in the toiletry bag and takes out the toothpaste, shaving cream, hair product, not to mention a debate about after shave. By now, I’ve decided to convert to Islam, I’m with them! Then all hell breaks loose, security guards are coming from everywhere, “You’re bleeding sir, what happened?” People are putting on surgical gloves. NO! I don’t want THAT examination! It seemed I’d cut my hand re-opening the suitcase, what’s more, I’d put my hand into my jeans pocket to get out my passport etc and smeared blood all over the white shirt I was wearing.

They gave me a tissue, I cleaned up as best I could in the loo, and, when I reached Phoenix, brought a new shirt at an airport shop – that’s how know $19.95 becomes $22.95.

Memphis

I have never been so confused about a place, or my own feelings in my entire life, in fact, I still think I need a few months to sort it all out in my head. I do think it has been a journey of self-discovery – realising that I’m one more middle class, middle aged and conservative than I had thought , with a defined comfort zone. However, something about the place made me very, very uncomfortable, within half an hour of arriving, my brain was screaming at me to get out and that message and feeling became more persistent every waking hour, until it utterly overwhelmed me. Yet there is no rational reason for my responses, I wasn’t threatened, the hotel (and staff – the Sleep Inn) was the best I’ve stayed at, wonderfully courteous. Perhaps I simply didn’t ‘get’ the place. Without exception, other tourists I talked to were really enjoying it – I’m already receiving emails from them, asking me to send them photos etc. And there was so much I wanted to see. I did, but I had to force myself, literally putting one foot in front of the other.

The city is poverty-stricken and it’s obvious. There must be middle class and wealthy enclaves somewhere, but I saw no sign of them. It’s not the absolute Third World shame of Halls Creek, but pretty close to the recently cleaned up Fitzroy Crossing. Houses are derelict, (the suburbs all are), there’s broken glass all over the streets and paths, it’s dirty and unclean. Cabs don’t patrol the streets and even when you call one, they sort of stop to see if you’re genuine. I went to the Stax Museum, it’s in a very dilapidated part of town and when I called a cab to go back to my hotel, the cab driver (black) suggested I shouldn’t really have been there on my own (he was being helpful). The cabs wouldn’t be licensed for private use in Australia, they’re that dilapidated. I began to realise the enormous difference between the Deep South and the wealthy, educated north.

To put things in perspective, it is similar to the Kimberley, without (I think) the hideous alcohol problem, there’s obvious unemployment, lack of education and decent living conditions. There was that same sense of loss, of things not being right. The other problem, that’s astoundingly obvious, is obesity. The black people, especially the women are enormous, gigantic and the minute you go to buy something, it becomes obvious why – shocking diet.

I could not find a supermarket – there was a massive shopping conglomerate in the middle of the city, called Peabodys’, but many of the shops were vacant and there was nowhere to buy decent food. Food – if you can call it that, is cheap, but dear God. It’s mostly shredded chicken and pork ribs, all friend, there’s no other way, with beans and corn. And everything seems cooked in sugary fat and coated in tomato sauce. I did think I’d eat Nachos, BUT, just like Las Vegas, they don’t have cheese, it’s the most hideous yellow, plastic, sweet goo covering the chips. I basically didn’t / couldn’t eat while I was there, I survived on coffee tasting thick shakes, or mile drinks.

Don’t get me wrong, the serves are generous to the point of disbelief, there’s no way you could eat a quarter of what’s supplied, even if it tasted alright. On my last night, I went for a paddle steamer cruise and the staff, would not let me take a small portion, they came over, got my plate and filled it past capacity, then poured tomato sauce all over it. My last meal was a bottled milk on the walk back to the hotel. But I looked at the local people and they were wolfing everything down and going back for more. Everything is washed down with beer, plus coke and lemonade etc, along with Jack Daniels. Wine? “ Certainly sir, we have a white and a red.”

Elvis & Gracelands

I don’t know what I expected, (I’ve been an Elvis fan all my life), but certainly nothing like what I found. This was business on a massive scale. Elvis is Memphis and Memphis is Elvis. Gracelands is about 15 miles out of the city centre, you hit Elvis Presley Boulevard and it explodes from there. I’ve posted a complete album of photos of the experience on my blog. If you’ve got the time, it’ probably worth the scroll. The house, built in 1939, was no doubt very gracious in its day, still is, so far as the exterior is concerned. The interior? You have to remember that it’s state of the art early 1970s, it would have been incredible luxury for the period … I think.

One thing I’d never read about, was his interest in horse riding and breeding Palominos, suddenly here was a real person, but I began to feel a little intrusive, almost as if this person’s soul has been laid bare for all to see, in what I sensed was his sanctuary away from the insanity of stardom.

The adulation at the grave site was palpable and also, for me, a little uncomfortable, again, that sense of intrusion, that this is big business and whatever the family can make a buck out of they will, in complete contrast to the minimal fuss around where John Lennon was murdered. And the reason why Elvis is now buried at the house filled me with horror – he was initially buried in a mausoleum at the Memphis Cemetery, but the police got a call one night about two blokes trying to break into the grave. They attended, only to find that it was two police officers trying to break in! The family petitioned the State Governor to allow the body to be reburied, in secure conditions at Graceland.

Souvenirs? You name it, they were available in countless tacky thousands, there’s even a Harley Davidson shop (Elvis loved bikes, as well as cars) – he also had a Honda, so I’m OK! The car museum has some fascinating stuff and the two private planes were interesting, albeit the décor, was, well, 1970s glam.

It’s worth doing, but probably memorable for all the wrong reasons, it’s just too much, but incredible, as it’s so over the top.

Stax Museum

Think Booker T and the MGS, Isaac Hayes and Ike and Tina Turner etc, a fabulous period of music. I’d forgotten that the studio had folded in it’s hey day. Sadly the collapse is attributed to the assassination of Martin Luther King (in Memphis). Until that dreadful moment, black and white people mixed freely (at Stax and Sun Studios), but as the rioting came in, the racial divide became bitter, new management took over and the ‘family feel’ was lost.

Sun Studios

This was a fabulous tour, the others (Stax and the Rock & Roll Soul Museum), you were left to wander around, but this was a real tour, with a great guide, I came away with as real sense of history and achievement, hell I even had my picture taken standing where Elvis used to stand, holding the same mike. I ad to fight to get into the picture, as an Elvis impersonator, wanted to have centre stage! I didn’t want to leave. And a fascinating bit of trivia, Sam Phillips, the legendary fonder of Sun (he passed away about five years ago), used part of the $40,000 he got for Elvis to co-found the Holiday Inn chain, which is where he made his big money, so it could be said that Elvis started that off!

The Rock & Roll Soul Museum

This is actually part of The Smithsonian Museum institution and was more informative from the point of view of piecing together the two cultures of black slaves (gospel) and poor white share- cropper farmers (hillbilly / country music).

Beale Street

This is where is all happened (and still happens), when the sun goes down. The music section of the street is closed off, blues and rock music echoes from every door and open space. It’s just a sensory overload of great music, although, t does seem to be manly tourists and local musos, rather than local people. Everything is there, from Gibson (the guitar factory around the corner), to the B.B. King Blues Club, a night on Beale Street is a must.

Memphis Conclusions

If you love blues and rock and roll, Memphis is an absolute must. I did it the wrong way – making my own way around, apart from the trams in the Main Street precinct, transport s almost non-existent, far better to book on a tour that takes you from your hotel to the main destinations, otherwise you’ll waste hours trying to get from place to place. Allow for about $35.00 US cab fare each way from the airport, stay in the main hotel precinct and allow around three days. The place will be a cultural shock, although I wouldn’t expect other people to be as unsettled as I was – I still have no explanation for it.

In a post-script, I sat next to a lovely young lady on the plane out of Memphis, she (Tamar) is from Georgia – the old USSR, not the USA – and in her third year as an exchange student at the University of Mississippi, she finds the place fascinating, but related to my feelings. She explained that her experience was that racism still existed and that a kind of reverse racism was in play, as the black people sought to exist, poverty is absolutely pervasive, unemployment amongst black people is very high, education standards were abysmal, although excellent facilities were in place and she also agreed about the food – she’d put on a lot of weight when she first arrived, but took advice as to getting proper food in from other places. She was going to work in San Francisco for the summer holidays, before spending a few weeks with a friend in New York, all of which she was sure would give her the cultural food she craved. Her aim is to return home to Georgia and work in education administration.

Talking to her for an hour or so (on the flight to Phoenix) helped me enormously, I understood that it wasn’t just me, Memphis is a very sad place, with an incredible history of oppression, hope and music, hopefully they can overcome the issues, nobody should have to live as they do.

Would I recommend it to visit, a guarded yes (for the music roots), but I would never go back.

Denver

More on this next time, suffice to say, I feel like I’ve rejoined my world. Proper food and the scenery! Magnificent. I’m in a hotel just 20 minutes drive from Red Rocks, where Leonard Cohen is to perform tomorrow night, so I drove over there – bloody Hell, you do have to think going through intersections! – yesterday, ran into 200 odd people running up and down the stadium steps and a photographer who covered the Moody Blues concert way back in the early ‘90s. It was so good to have something in common with somebody.

I asked him how far away the mountains were (you could see the snow-capped peaks), “About an hour’s beautiful drive,” he replied. Less than two hours later, I was standing at 1,430 feet … in falling snow! The scenery was so god, I’m going back today, although I’ll make sure I’m back in phone range to talk with King Cameron. I’ll send you all two lots of photos – the Memphis stuff with this email and a separate one with the Denver, Rocky Mountains stuff, (the little birds are Humming Birds, they come up from Mexico for the summer.

Postscript

United Airways have overcharged my credit card for the new flights to Denver, by $US 181.34 – unbelievable, as far as I’m concerned it’s fraudulent and it’s vital to get the message across to the unsuspecting public as soon as possible.

So, there I was in LA, a little earlier than expected, but a not unwelcome change of plan – more on that later, let us talk of Denver – well, Colorado really, I realised I’d spent four days in Denver and never once saw the CBD, apart from occasional glimpses of it from Highway 70.

It may well be a wonderful city, but there didn’t seem any incentive to go there, office blocks are office blocks, shops are shops and the road layout seems to deliberately avoid the city centre. Now there’s a thing, the road system, it’s magnificent, although it can be tricky for unsuspecting Oz motorists – they sometimes shorten names – Colo Springs is actually Colorado Springs, that sort of thing and you have to remember that the exits are usually on your right – the slow lane. Hmm, slow? Great roads, 110kmh (65mph) limit, but everyone sits on 120 – 130kmh. For the truckies amongst us, none of the semis are running tri-axle trailers, they’re all running duals, occasionally spread axles, but always duals, and the pans / trailers are at least 50,’ (8’ – 10’ longer than ours), so they’re obviously allowed to carry far more tonnage per axle than we are in Oz.

The trucks don’t run bull bars, but a lot of the cop cars have what we’d call nudge bars. The roads are concrete rather than bitumen and often grooved, to help with adhesion in ice and snow. Deer and moose are a problem in much the same way as roos are in Oz, so you’d think the rigs would run bull bars. Another interesting thing was the rule that heavy vehicles have to switch on their hazard lights when travelling up hill (and these are reasonable hills – we are talking about the Rockies). To put that in perspective, it’s approximately 1,420’ to the top of Greenmount out of Midland, Denver is already 5,000’ above sea level, heading west on Highway 70, within an hour, you’ve reached 11,000 feet several times, some of the gradients are over 10%!

This is tourism country, it’s the mainstay of the Colorado economy, which was built on gold mining – their Boulder City is a little bigger than ours! And that leads in on how best to describe the Denver region; really, it’s made up of satellite cities spread over a vast area of plain, at the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, connected by a large system of freeways. There are four airports (one, an air force base), but the International Airport takes the cake, it is HUGE and I mean huge, not to mention a LONG way out of town – the cab fare to the city? $75.00 US at a 45 minute fast run. The runway system is huge, taxing in or out from the terminal can take 20 minutes (with no delays), the pilots fairly fly along the ground. It was explained to me that business comes in the winter, (8 – 10 months of the year), for the skiing. With the snow and ice, those daring young (and older) men (and women) in their flying machines need all the distance and width they can get, to land or take off.

Like several other huge US airports, an underground monorail system connects the different terminals with the main terminal, so it can be a while before you get your bags and leave, or enter and get to your plane. Hiring a car was far cheaper than using cabs and quite simple to do, besides, Memphis had taught me a lesson about transport, only New York is a no-need-for-a-car joint, everywhere else is, very much like Perth, utterly dependant on private cars. It’s the usual story in terms of getting car rental quotes, it’s always double what you were originally told, but by now, I was becoming aggressive in price rearranging and it works – basically the US runs on the Asian system – if you’re mug enough to accept the quoted price, that’s what it costs (plus taxes!), but you can get the cost down. Having said that, you MUST scrutinise every bill (hotel, rental car, whatever) at the end, American business is simply incapable of sticking to any agreed price, they try it on. And once you know that’s how they work, it’s quite a delightful (in a world-weary way) exchange – they apologise in the most synthetic, sincerely cheerful way and you double check your wallet and fingers on the way out the door.

Roman, a lovely Polish guy I’d met on the Leonard Cohen internet site, who lives in Denver, had advised visitors well, the Holiday Inn, at Golden, west of the city, was just ten minutes from Red Rocks, an older hotel complex, wireless internet was free and so was car parking – oh yes, hotels in the States slug you around $25.00 per day to park your car.

The next morning, I drove up to Red Rocks, it was stunningly beautiful. Locals use the steep steps etc for exercise and for visitors that ain’t easy, one has to acclimatise to the height above sea level (you’re now 6,000’ above), breath runs short very quickly. A guy my age lugging cameras around and I got talking. He was there to photograph a concert that night and was the official press photographer at the Moody Blues concerts all those years ago, we clicked.

He told me about a place called Echo Lake, around an hour’s drive away, where he assured me I’d see snow. I went. I did. I went further, another 5,000’ or so to the top of Mt O’Brien, just over 14,000’ above sea level, snow was falling everywhere, beautiful. Snapped a couple of guys on Harleys at the summit, but they were beaten by the lunatics who rode push bikes to the summit and I have no idea how they managed it, I got hit with Altitude Sickness and it stayed with me in some form or other throughout most of my stay in Colorado.

It affects everybody differently and some not at all. At the summit, I felt dizzy, headachy and slightly nauseous, I was very glad I wasn’t on a motorbike. Well off the mountain by nightfall, I had a more or less permanent ache in the stomach, it made sleep difficult, but once I understood what it was, it was easy enough to ignore. Some people are never troubled, some acclimatise in a few hours, some take a few days and some never get comfortable, they say the trick is to drink a lot of water.

It is breathtakingly beautiful country, the pictures tell more than I ever could. Way down at the entrance to the park, there were some beautiful tiny birds flitting around a dish the ranger had hanging from his shelter. They were Mexican Humming birds and migrated to this region in the summer each year, oh boy were they difficult to photograph on the wing. 

I was due out at the airport at 6.30pm, as old friend Cherry Obremski was flying in from Oklahoma. Some of you will no doubt remember Cherry from her time living in Perth, working for the American Chamber of Commerce, while one of her daughter’s still lives in Perth, these days Cherry lives back home in Oklahoma, with her other two daughters.

She’d wanted me to fly to Oklahoma, but the peculiarities of the American flight system, meant it was virtually impossible to get a direct flight form Memphis, or anywhere else, I would have had to have flown to Denver, then to Oklahoma, then back to Denver, for another $1,000.00 US, so I’d suggested Cherry come over to Denver for the Cohen Concert – it’s a lot cheaper for US citizens to get cheap internal flights.

Ya’ll be please to know she ain’t changed one little ‘ol bit and it was lovely to see an old friend and reminisce about Perth. We found a chain Italian Restaurant close to the hotel and surprise, surprise, they had Oz wines and traditional Italian meals – I could eat at last, although the damn altitude sickness thing was making life a little difficult. The young waitress serving us (NO, I cannot write Waitperson!) was delightful and getting ready to spend a year or so in Australian, via Hawaii, she can’t wait to get to Oz. If I say so myself, our verbal picture of Margaret River had her swooning.

Cherry told me she loved the mountains and wanted to go – in fact she and her husband had lived in Denver 30 years ago and she missed it. I suggested Mt Evans, but she had other ideas, “Vaile, that’s where I want to go!”

“Where’s that?” I replied. Turns out it’s one of several ski resort places for the well-to-do, all within a 160 – 200km radius west of Denver – most of us have heard of Aspen, which is about another 50kms south west of Vaile. Aspen? Yeah, remember Andy Williams and his wife Claudette? From memory, she shot her lover up there, as you do. But I figured I was safe, we weren’t lovers and neither of us was packing a gun. Hmm, hang on, Cherry’s from cowboy country, I never thought to ask! Cherry???

Monday dawned, crystal clear and the sun shining. We decided to go to Red Rocks first, as Cherry had never been there – outdoor concerts weren’t her thing back in them thar’ days. At the venue, they told us there was a strong chance it would rain the next day and that we’d be well advised to buy plastic ponchos and we’d need portable small seats with backs – three hours without a back rest can be painful. We decided on that basis, that we’d go do some shopping. The phone rang, it was Roman Luszpak, Polish immigrant, civil engineer, Cohen fan and all-round bloody good bloke, was I in town yet.

From there. it was a lovely succession of meeting people I’d ‘talked’ to on the net, but never met. Leslie, who’d flown down from Vancouver, Lizzy from Florida – I could have followed her back there – Denise, Kelsey and last, but by no means least, the irrepressible and insane Mary with her long-suffering husband George.

Why is she insane? She is addicted to Cohen, they’ve gone to his concerts all over Europe and the States – I think she’d seen around 20 of them at last count, oh it’s not quite as bad as it seems, their son works for an airline, so they get free flights, albeit stand by. Vibrant and full of life, I kept looking at George. Now, he’s not exactly a wall flower himself, they run nightclubs and he looks a lot like the bass player from the Moody Blues, in fact I thought it was him at first. But he’d already told me that while he likes Cohen, he’s not a fan as such. Now don’t think he’s hen-pecked, he’s not, it’s more a matter of him indulging the lady he loves. Secretly, I think he has a great time anyway. One thing I can tell you, is that Cohen fans are the same the world over, any one of them would have fitted in perfectly with our mob at Sandalford, there’s also a slight interesting edge to Cohen fans, I can’t quite put my finger on it, perhaps it’s an aura of music, poetry, art, wine, love and laughter. I just felt utterly at home with them and we drank and laughed long into the night, which was good, as gnawing home-sickness was still a constant shadow.

It was the Big Day, Tuesday June 2nd, my raison d’etre for the trip, the Leonard Cohen Concert was on that night at Red Rocks, I also had to be back at the hotel in time for an interview with Breakfast King Eoin Cameron, so we planned our 350kmround trip with precision – Cherry was to drive, I’d take the photos, besides, she knew where she was heading. We briefly met Diana and Dave who’d also arrived for the concert, another lovely couple, but we were heading out doing the tourist bit. Everyone was worried about the weather, however I reassured them that I’d never been to a wet outdoor concert yet. Little was I to know how good that prediction would be!

I did have one stop in mind, the previous day, on the way to Red Rocks, I’d seen a sign saying “Buffalo Bill’s Gravesite.” Too much for me, I had to see it. Cherry laughed and said, “That’s so bizarre, even with Altitude Sickness, you can’t have imagined it.” I hadn’t. We went. And there he was, in his final resting place high up in the Rockies overlooking Denver. I knew he’d passed away peacefully, making money as a showman, but it was fascinating to see a legend from childhood days become real. There were plaques everywhere, including the slightly surreal fact that he was a Master Mason – it said so on one of the plaques. The inevitable tourist shop was actually very good, yes, it had the usual “stuff” but there was some interesting items amongst it all and I finally got to meet and talk with real American Indian people. This was / is Arapaho country and he’s regarded with affection as a friend of the Arapaho.

Back down on to West 70. The weather was atrocious, more so the closer we got to the mountains, but I was really glad we’d decided to come, as it was fascinating and beautiful. And the road system is superb, I took a few photos of the road just to show how everything moves, on a massive scale – three lanes, four lanes wide (in both directions). We passed through a three mile tunnel completed in the late 1970s at an altitude of 11,000’ The sheer scope of it all and the magical scenery was simply wonderful, in spite of the driving rain.

Although Cherry was a little disappointed, she didn’t remember this sprawling turnpike system, in her day (not that she’s old!), the road was a winding adventure and it took most of the day to get to Vaile, it took us just under two hours. We were there a couple of weeks before the season kicks off again, I know, I know, it’s supposed to be summer, but I’d learnt the previous day, that some of the flora only has a six week opportunity each year to flower etc.

I bet it costs a bucket load to stay there in season, there are condominiums everywhere, thousands of them, the whole resort is done-out like a German, or Swiss mountain village, cars aren’t allowed, they’re parked in large car parks on the edge of the town and buses constantly circulate for those who don’t want to walk. There were shops everywhere and everything was on sale, drastically reduced. I was fascinated to find Billabong as a major shop, selling ski wear! Maybe they do in the Snowies and NZ?

Robert Hitchcock could make a good living here, there were statues everywhere and for sale, much of it featured native animals, a timely reminder that I was in another world. This was home to Moose, Mountain Lions, Bear and Deer, camping out here is a whole different story to camping in Oz, mind you, scrub cattle nosing around your tent in the Kimberley can be a little tricky, but I venture to suggest not as tricky as having a mountain lion or a bear amble through. You’re advised not leave things lying on seats in your car, as bears have no hesitation in breaking car windows and climbing in to get what they want. I haven’t seen a scrub bull do that yet, thank Heavens! It was all very idyllic, although my own preference would have been to have seen bear and mountain lion in the wild, shops just ain’t me. Cherry suggested I buy Vaile t-shirts etc for grandkids etc, but really it wouldn’t mean anything to them or most of us, I just couldn’t see the point, besides, you’re talking to someone who years ago tinkled the ivories at the Skyline restaurant in Queenstown, so I know my mountain resorts. What I don’t remember from way back when, is the altitude sickness, it was constant. A lady in the tourism office said it might take a few days to settle and that lots of water was very beneficial. Maybe I’m just not a mountain man, as much as I love them. Time to head back to the lowlands of Denver.

We arrived back at the hotel to be greeted by a very sombre group, the show had been cancelled, due to shocking weather conditions. I must admit we’d been thinking during the day that it was going to be a cold, very wet experience and I couldn’t for the life of me work out how they’d keep the band dry, let alone warm, not to mention putting a 74 year old small bloke on stage in a thunderstorm. So really, you couldn’t complain, it was the only choice the promoters could make. They’d scheduled in a replacement concert for the following Thursday, but for many of us, it was impossible, people had to back at work, Kelsey had left her two year old with her mum and so on. I needed to work out what to do, but first the call from Eoin.

We’d actually arranged to do the interview the day before, but the twin disasters of the Air France crash and the bankruptcy of General Motors had relegated my US gallivanting to the next day, so apologies to those of you who missed it. It was a lot of fun and very good for the soul to talk with home again … and therein lies the key to the next decision. Cherry had to go back to work the next day, for me to stay on would mean cancelling other trips, rearranging flights and paying for more accommodation and car hire. The trip was already way over budget, costing far more than I’d planned or even dreamed, I’d seen the fabulous concert at Sandalford, I was missing my family and friends and I’d received an email about a job I’d love and the possibility of an interview during the second week of June, a week before I was due back, so the solution was a no-brainer really, time to come home.

The second I made that decision, a load seemed to lift from my shoulders, I thought, ”Yep, I’m coming home.” It didn’t matter if it took a little while to get there, I was on my way. I’d done enough travelling. However I still wanted to stop off in New Zealand, but the more I tried to change flights etc, the harder and more expensive it became – the airlines simply do not want to help, or here of any change you might want to make. It baffles me, I would have thought it was a service industry and that in these tight times. a customer with a reasonable request would be looked after. No.

It took me around four hours on the internet and phone that night to rearrange things, you’d be lost without email and internet connection these days. At least Qantas has an American 1800 free call number that actually puts you through to an Aussie back home. And things got interesting, in that I’d originally booked everything through the Flight Centre in Fremantle, as it was too complicated to do it on the web. I wasn’t sure who to contact, so I rang the Flight Centre, who told me I had to deal with Qantas direct. I rang Qantas, who told me I had to deal with the travel agent, this to and froing went on over several phone calls and emails, until I eventually struck a lovely young Qantas lady in Brisbane, who agreed that it shouldn’t be so difficult. She rang me back half an hour later, having changed my flights to get me out of Denver the next afternoon and out of LA on the coming Friday night, all for an extra cost of $36.00 US. I agreed with alacrity. What was fascinating, is that at the same time, the Flight Centre emailed me, then rang, to say that they could do it, but the airlines wanted another $650.00 US. I thanked them for insisting that I use Qantas.

In the knowledge that I’d have two nights in LA, Cherry asked me where I was planning on staying, but now I was watching every penny and thought, “Hmm, more money.” She came up with a brilliant solution, priceline.com I’d never heard of it. They put deals together for airlines and hotel companies across the USA, you log and put in a bid for where you want to stay / fly etc and it’s either accepted or rejected. Consequently I put in a bid for $50.00 per night for the Radisson and got it!

Now there was a catch, the system is designed to weed out overseas visitors – it doesn’t accept an overseas credit card, but Cherry put her card details in, with my name as the guest and it accepted it. So the tip is, if you’re touring in the states, can cope with a bit of uncertainty and have a US based friend who will use their credit card (you just give them the cash), you’ll save at least half on hotel costs, and, as I did, two thirds!

The last day in Denver, the clouds rolled back, Red Rocks, or Wet Rocks as I’d now christened it, was glistening in the sunlight, but not for me. Nor was I particularly sad about it, which surprised me, I just felt that the Universe obviously had other plans for me and that I’d happily go with the flow … as long as it led home! Although I was sad to say goodbye to the lovely friends I’d made, I know some of us will meet again and I was able to assure them that my prediction about never going to a wet outdoor concert had proven correct.

Cherry wanted to visit Boulder and if we had time, go up to the ski fields at Eldora, that suited me and off we buzzed in the rental Hyundai. Originally a gold mining settlement, these days Boulder is a somewhat larger and more refined city than our Boulder. It’s a university town, very pretty and about a half hours’ drive west of Denver. We looked at our watches and decided we had time to head up the mountains. I’m glad we did, one last tramp through the snow, more beautiful scenery and a lovely little town called Neverend. On the way back down, we stopped off to photograph some lovely scenery, a couple were taking pictures of each other, “Can I do that for you?” I asked.

“Bloody hell, an Aussie!” the bloke replied, they were visiting from Sydney. Yep, home was calling me.

It’s always sad to say goodbye to friends, when you really don’t know when you’ll see them next, but at the same time, you’re grateful that you’ve both had the opportunity to spend time with each other and catch up. Cherry reckons we should meet in Greece next year, I didn’t really have the heart to tell her, that apart from New Zealand (which is also home) and a little trip to Bathurst (which is home) in October, the last thing on my mind, was travelling.

I settled into the American Airlines Airbus, I do like flying with them, good planes, nice people and they’re a Frequent Flyer partner with Qantas, finished Ronnie Woods book just as we touched down at LA. Into the Radisson (they’ve got a free courtesy bus, as do most of the big chain hotels) and decided it was time to give a little thought about what to do over the next two days. The omens were good, this was more like home, free internet and decent coffee etc in the room.

After I’d showered in my sumptuous $50.00 a night Radisson suite, I ambled downstairs to grab a bite to eat and have a look at what was possible in terms of looking around LA on the Thursday and Friday. I went over to the Concierge, they always know what’s happening.

I said I’d like to see Universal Studios and probably Disneyland and I might go downtown for a look. She told me in no uncertain terms that I did NOT want to go downtown by myself, that it was fine to get a tram out to the beach and back, she felt I’d enjoy Universal, but that I might find Disneyland a little boring “… at your age sir, no offence.” No offence taken. She told me that LA was so spread out, I’d be better off taking a combined LA Sites and Universal Tour in one, I looked through the brochure and decided she was right, I’d do that, then see how I felt about Disneyland for my last day. She booked it for me and told me to be at the desk at 8.30am.

Now being in America is no different from being in Australia, sport is king, every bar, every hotel has at least two televisions going, playing baseball and gridiron. There is no escape, in much the same way there’s no escape from AFL or cricket over here. I gave the first bar a miss and headed into a restaurant space. Very nice, piano playing, quiet, elegant and you didn’t have to sit in the restaurant and do the a la carte bit, there was an accompanying lounge bar, serving drinks and snacks. Perfect, the Radisson was getting better by the minute.

A waiter came over, they had an excellent selection of wines and a great small meal menu. I told the waiter I didn’t want anything big, another guest spoke up and said, ”The Lobster Tortilla, it’s perfect if you just want something after a flight and it’s not expensive.” He was spot on, $12.95, yeah, plus tax, but it was perfect. I began to feel very good. This was how I’d felt in Washington, civilised.

By this time, the pianist was doing a great medley of Eagles numbers, very laid back, very Californian, I glanced over at the pianist. There wasn’t one! The grand piano was plugged in, no attempt to disguise the lead and the keys were, well, doing their electronic player-piano thing.

It was disconcerting, sort of not quite real, but I reasoned that if the hotel was full of pricks like me who’d screwed a cheap deal, then there probably wasn’t the money for a real pianist, was there? I ordered a desert and another red and pretended somebody like Adam Harris was playing. I went to bed quite content, but smirking to myself that nothing in the good old US of A was ever quite as it seemed.

Thursday morning, I woke up about 6.20am, pushed the curtains back and there virtually at moist eye level, was the Flying Roo coming in to land. I couldn’t take my eyes off her and thought, “Yes, only another day and a bit.” I could feel Oz. With a renewed spring in the step, it was time to go visit Hollywood.

As with most cities (including Perth) shuttle buses go from hotel to hotel picking people up for tours, it took about an hour and a half to get to the tour company’s depot, where we were all processed for the tours we were going on. The quoted $119.00 became $131.00, with something called a Fuel Allowance, then there was the tax. There was a lot of grumbling – a lot of Aussies and Kiwis who weren’t happy, but they had us by the balls, a long way from our hotels. New arrivals, including some English and French people were particularly unhappy, but the rest of us explained it was a national con, although none of us had seen the Fuel Allowance before. The driver pasted up the large sign telling us tipping was the norm (and specifying the percentages expected) and we set off.

Now the tour was fascinating and the driver / guide really good, we went all through Beverley Hills and looked at stars houses, including Bill Cosby’s, Frank Sinatra’s old place and across the road from his, Dean Martin’s old place, now owned by Nicholas Cage. There was Nichole Kidman’s joint and homes owned by stars I’ve never heard of, but I bet the kids would know who they were. The home owned by Jennifer Lopez was quite impressive, however Steven Spielberg’s house takes the cake, although only just, from the Aaron Spelling? house. But the house that really rocked for me and was more or less just an afterthought for the tour guide, was the house designed, built and lived in by Salvador Dali. I asked him to stop the bus while I quickly took a couple of shots. Wild, magnificent, impossible, I’d give anything to have a closer look, you’ll recognise it instantly in the photos.

What did strike me, was how very Perth it all was, green manicured lawns, obvious, if somewhat ostentatious wealth, sure the houses were older, but driving through Beverley Hills was eerily similar to driving through Peppermint Grove etc. Charley Chaplin’s house is now an exclusive private girls school and on it went, with quirky things, such as driving down the road where the Beverley Hillbillies old truck scene was filmed etc. Then we were off to downtown Hollywood, for a 45 minute stroll along the strip.

The first thing I ran into, was a wreath laid over one of the stars in the pavement and cameramen and reporters everywhere, “What’s cooking?” I asked, it seemed that David Carridine had been studying the Michael Hutchinson book on solo pleasure. I could say that it seems to be a hanging offence, but that’s so tasteless I won’t … oh I must, I must, it’s too good a line to leave out. I walked on, right into a statue of a pirate.

“Ahh!” thought I, “Here be Johnny Depp.” Nope, it was the entrance to the Ron L Hubbard building, I could feel Tom Cruise willing me to walk in for a character assessment, but I resisted and kept walking, following the stars. It’s a bit of a let down to find out that the stars actually pay an annual $25,000 to have their name on the pavement. “Hmm,” I thought, thinking of the ghost of Carridine, “I suppose the estate keeps paying up.” Then I came across several blank stars, where names had obviously been erased, fame is such a fleeting thing.

At the start of the Walk of Fame, there’s a garish silver monument, featuring four silver female stars of the screen, topped by a smaller Marilyn Monroe in gold, there are only two stars in the pavement beside this monument, one for the Beatles and one for Elvis. You’ve gotta take a photo, but there’s no meaning to it, well there wasn’t for me, I walked on.

There, in a cruel twist of fate, was a large billboard advertising Leonard Cohen’s Live DVD. I laughed out loud, mind you, the old boy should be proud, it was on the Whiskey a Go Go building. In fact there were well know places everywhere along this strip, the Comedy Room, the Viper Room and so on and Johnny Depp was around, he’s got a massive house up on top of the hill overlooking Hollywood, it previously belonged to somebody else well known but I can’t remember who, sorry. After a while, it just becomes a torrent of names you sort of half recognise. Next stop, the Hollywood sign – well, as close as you can get.

It was not a bad look-out, overlooking the Hollywood Bowl, with LA sprawling out in every direction, the tour guide assured us it wasn’t smog, just a bit of sea haze. Yeah right. We all turned around and took the obligatory photo with each other in the scene. Next stop, those who were getting off at Universal Studios, “A bus’ll be back to pick you up from here at 5.30pm, the entrance is over there, just show ‘em your ticket,” Fair enough.

You gotta love the upgrade system. See, you buy your ticket to these things, BUT, if you pay more money (another $50.00), you can go to the front of the queue and not stand in line. There are a whole lot of themed rides, all of which are free / part of your entry price, but you do have to queue, unless you cough up the extra. I couldn’t justify it and thought I’d wander round and see what on earth I’d come to see. I gradually realised it was all based on themed rides and lots of souvenir shops, plus a conducted tour of the movie lots. Oh well, in for a penny. I joined a queue, to see the Mummy Return’s of something like that.

Bad mistake. Not that there was anything wrong with the ride, quite the opposite, it was terrific, no, the problem was me, I’ve never been able to do roller coaster / swing type things, I get sick. Yep, this was a wild ride on a roller coaster, even backwards. In the finish I just closed my eyes and hoped I’d make it. I did, but it took an hour or so for my equilibrium to return. I also learnt that they wisely place large signs outside each attraction depicting what sort of ride it is, if I’d read the instructions (something I never do, as some of you know), I’d not have found myself with my stomach just behind my eyeballs 

Next up, Jurassic Park, it too was fantastic, with just one wild plunge down into the water at the finish, a lot of fun. I was getting into this. Then I remembered that Mark and Deb had told me I had to do the Water World Show (the Kevin Costner movie), I headed for it. Great advice, this show is outstanding, a genuine show and a technological masterpiece, don’t miss it! I came out of it really wowed and then realised I could hear the Blues Brothers, sure ‘nough, there was THE police car and Jake and Elwood were shakin’ it on stage. By now, Universal had me. I went next door to the Horror House, something I always like, but this was the only disappointment of the day, it was very poorly done, surprisingly amateurish and didn’t do justice to the great horror stars and movies they’ve produced. The only saving grace was the Frankenstein lightening generating set from the original Boris Karloff movie, a fabulous piece of film history. On with the show

I decided to take the Studio Tour. To get there, you travel down four sets of escalators, literally down a mountain side, I’m not joking! Then you queue up and get onboard the articulated, multi car tram for the tour. The tour guide was as camp as a row of tents, which sort of suited the tour, American people loved him, non American’s rolled their eyes, you could have grown instant corn on his spiel, but hey, it is show biz.

Now the tour doesn’t actually take you into a studio, although, if you are willing to pay some extra money (no, not the ‘go-to-the-front’ money), you can go on another tour that takes you into a working studio, but in all honesty, the free tour is so good, there’s no need.

I could rave on about all the effects and scenes, like the Jaws exhibit etc, but the stand-outs for me, where the fountain courtyard that’s featured in so many horror movies, the subway scene where the road collapses down on you and a petrol tanker slides down besides the tram, then the whole thing floods, the Bates motel (from Psycho), they even had an actor playing Bates and an incredible scene from War of The Worlds, with a wrecked 747 – they tore a real one apart for the film. It is breathtaking.

Back up the top, I walked into one of my favourite characters, from one of my favourite movies, Beetlejuice and simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to have my photo taken with him. Food was an issue, it’s deep fried, or Fairy Floss, or cans of soda, nothing edible. Souvenirs? What do you want? The shops are everywhere, although I couldn’t find anything Blues Brotherish, nor could I find anything from the old classic horror days. I did find the perfect gift for son Gordon, he, like most of us, has always love the Back to The Future movies and there it was, a model of the Delorean as it appeared in the movie, I’d never seen one before.

This was truly a really enjoyable day, I’d recommend it to anybody, so I started giving serious consideration to Disneyland, not least because I wanted to get a couple of Disney things for granddaughters Caitlin and Lila. However, it was taking us well over an hour and a half to get to the hotel and I knew that I had to be at the airport by 9.00pm at the very latest (10.30pm take-off) the following night, but the Disney Tour didn’t leave Disneyland until 7.30pm. The driver told me it was quite usual not to get away from Disneyland until 8.00pm, as there were always stragglers, so it began to look a bit too difficult, the tip here, is that you should do Disneyland on a day you’re not flying out somewhere.

Back at the hotel, the concierge agreed, saying that they sometimes don’t see the tour bus back until around 10.00pm, she then said, “Why don’t you hire a car for the day? It’s only $45.00 and it’s a pretty straight run, a ticket for Disneyland’s around $69.00, so it’s basically the same cost as the tour and you can come back when you need to. Brilliant. She printed out some maps for me, marked the route and booked the car, telling me that if I got down there just after 9.00am, I’d beat the big queues. Done.

I went into the sports bar, yeah, I know, loud sports broadcasts, but I was tired and starving. I ordered fish and chips at a very reasonable $10.95 +! plus a wine and sat down. Another bloke came along, he’d been sitting there before. Now he was very interesting, he and his associates, who joined us a short while later, run a consultancy company working for Delta Airlines.

Now I couldn’t comment on Delta, but I did have some comments about other American airlines and the country’s airport system. They listened, then told me I was completely correct, the system was an abomination, simply because there were too many people to process, it was past critical mass. They told me it was no longer possible to provide service, it was just a matter of trying to process the numbers. Profit margins were nil and they expected a lot more airline closures, “Don’t expect to see baggage become free any time soon, in fact there’ll be extra charges for other things as well.” They said it was easy for somebody from Europe, or Australia to comment and the comments were right, but if I looked at Heathrow, that had also become a nightmare. They said Australia was the envy of the airline world, in terms of the service provided and it made it doubly hard when Americans returned and said, “Hey, take a look at how good it is in Australia.”

They were also very candid about the use of poor black people, telling me they had been the backstay of the American economy, (the minimum wage has just gone up to about $6.00 an hour!), that it was becoming harder to get people to work for the subsistence level wages offered, especially with the black people, who since Obama’s election were holding out the hope that he would fix their lot in life.

And there I had it, as confrontational as it might be, equality might exist on paper, but the economy relies on black labour working for virtual slave rates, they have no option but to force people to tip. I suddenly understood Memphis, if I was black, I wouldn’t trust, or like my white presence either.

I think President Obama has a weight on his shoulders that far outweighs that of any other President. We see him as an alternative to the lunatic war-mongering neo-con savagery of the Bush years, but the black people see him as the person who can change the system and lead them out of 21st century slavery and poverty. God help him.

Disneyland – I needed some fantasy.

Friday looked good, I was going home and thinking about my granddaughters was a good feeling. Hi ho, hi ho, a shopping we will go.

The rental car was a mafia staff car black Corolla and yes, by the time I’d put on insurance and a Sat Nav device, the cost was a long way from $45.00, $88.00 to be exact, but I no longer cared. The Sat Nav device was PERFECT!

… almost.

I leant very quickly that “Keep right” doesn’t mean “Go right,” it actually means don’t go right, just keep in a sort of right direction.” You very quickly get used to The Voice telling you, “Recalculating.” And, if you go through a tunnel, The Voice says “No signal, loss of direction,” as you emerge into the bright light of a thousand different exits, with absolutely no idea where to go, or what to do, but eventually, I found myself on some motorway, heading towards Anaheim. The Voice seemed happy, quiet even, having told me to turn right in seven point eight miles. I was cruising, so relaxed, I switched on the radio, then it happened.

The Sat Nav thing was stuck to the windscreen – it fell off and apart! The Voice started urgently saying “Loss of power in ten seconds, eight seconds, six seconds,” silence, except for three million cars and trucks rushing by me in four hundred different lanes, all of them knowing where they were going, except for one little black duck, sorry, Corolla.

Panic. Then I thought, “Just get off at the next turn-off, find somewhere to park and see if you can put it together again.” It took a while but eventually I got it reassembled, although I couldn’t get a voice, but it was recalculating where to go. I stuck it back on the windscreen and away we went. The bloody thing fell of three more times, but by now, I knew how to put it together again, while maintaining warp speed, it sort of worked out OK, leaving it on the seat beside me and glancing at it now and then, but I wished I’d used good old maps.

Next thing I know, I’m entering the Disneyland car park. The advice was excellent, I was there before the crowds. But I suspect that as I was there a couple of weeks before the heavy season, I got away with it. I think that far better advice came from Robin and Jim, who said, “Book a Disneyland hotel and you won’t have to queue.” It’s very definitely a destination for kids, you’ll need two days to do the kids justice, stay at Disneyland would be my advice – if you’re there with kids.

The whole thing is fantastically well organised, constant free shuttle busses run between the car parks and Disneyland, the ticket box sellers are really good in picking what you need e.g. Single person? Family? Living in LA? etc and in you go, with exactly the pass you need, simple and very well done.

It’s obviously a place for children, but you do see a lot of retired couples wandering around thoroughly enjoying reliving their childhood. As with Universal Studios, there are free theme rides everywhere and souvenir shops on every corner, blocks of them really. And just like my visit to Universal, I stuffed up with my first choice of ride. I didn’t really understand that it was a ride, it just seemed to be a display about Star Wars. Suddenly I’m inside a ‘space shuttle’ and we’re strapped in, with a mad robot piloting the thing.

It was brilliant, exactly like being in a Star Wars movie, launching, speeding amongst the stars wild manoeuvring, sudden stops etc, incredibly realistic, stunning really, but utterly beyond my sense of balance or stomach. I sat there praying it would end soon, that I wouldn’t vomit over everyone, that somehow my legs would work, if ever we landed. We did, but it took me two hours to get over it. The ride is wonderful, I’m the klutz.

After a long walk around in the fresh air, I decided to chance the Pirates of the Caribbean exhibition. It was really well done, quite magical and very much the norm for Disneyland stuff, it’s aimed at kids, it’s tame, it’s very safe and extremely well done. Their Haunted House was far better than Universal’s Horror House, with great use of holograph images etc, which is one of the reasons it’s almost impossible to get photographs, you’re allowed to use cameras, but not with a flash, simply because so much of what you see is electronic and also a flash would expose the machinery and people behind the scenes and who wants to ruin it for the kids? Not me.

Time for some lunch and a very pleasant surprise, yes, there were all the usual fried dreadful foods, but Disneyland also had fresh fruit etc for sale, this was the first time anywhere in America I’d seen healthy food choices made available for people, it was really good to see. I had a fabulous Scallop chowder, followed by a banana. A happy little Vegemite was I.

I went for a ride on the monorail. Well I had to. I remember reading about it when I was a kid, if fact this is the 50th anniversary of Disneyland’s monorail system, the first full time monorail in the world. I wandered through Toon Town, even met Mickey Mouse, but truth be known, through no fault of Disneyland, I was bored, it’s not for adults, taking kids there would be an absolute pleasure, but adults are far better off with Universal Studios. I decided to do one more ride, “Finding Nemo” in the submarines. As I stood in the queue, my ears pricked up, the announcement about the ride was being made in Australian, Struth!

Yep, true to it being an Aussie film,, they’ve kept the Aussie character , while you’re in the submarine, the guides voices are Australian (it’s supposedly an Aussie navy sub, but I didn’t see Vince anywhere) and the journey is through the Great Barrier Reef. I felt like I was on the bloody Manly Ferry. I disembarked, thinking, “Yep, that’ll do for this trip, you’re surrounded by Aussie voices, time to go.” I stopped off to get the prerequisite stuff for granddaughters, sizing is difficult, doubly so when you look at the price and know they’re going to grow out of it all. Speaking of which, I couldn’t resist buying something for myself – Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – he’s now perched on top of the Hookah Pipe in the lounge.

Back to the car and how to programme in my destination? It kept giving me several Radissons, but I couldn’t make it choose the one I wanted, so I typed in Los Angeles Airport, that confused it. After ten minutes of trying, I gave up and rang the rental company. “It shouldn’t fall off sir, I do apologise. Just press the Recent button, it should have our depot there.” I did. It did. The Voice? “There’s a volume knob on the side of the unit sir.” Off we went, it fell off two more times, but I got there in plenty of time. Threw my bags in the hotel courtesy bus and walked unsuspectingly into the nightmare that is Los Angels International Airport. Oh God!

The courtesy driver was really good, “Qantas? Ahh, now, their terminal is here, but sometimes their flights seem to leave from the terminal next door, there’s not much choice, but to get out and see which is the right one. It’s not far to walk if you’re OK and your bags have wheels, if it is the other terminal. I’m really sorry about that sir.”

It was the other terminal. I walked into utter chaos. The signs said my flight was to the left, but I couldn’t see anything Qantas, I asked, “No sir, Qantas is in the middle.” Fair enough, push through the hordes with their cases, all going back and forth with glazed eyes. Another four hundred metres and there was the Qantas queue, you beauty.

“Your bag’s a little overweight sir.”

“By how much?”

“1.5kgs sir, can you take something out?” An idea flashed through my brain, but it’s too violent to write here. “Not really, I’m already carrying my cabin bag and Disneyland souvenirs, surely 1.5ks is nothing to worry about?”

“You can pay the excess fee if you like sir.”

Yes, that’s the answer, how much?”

“$35.00 … US, sir.”

“No problems, here’s my card.”

“Oh no sir, you can’t give it to me, you have to pay at the Qantas counter on the other side sir, here’s your boarding pass, just take your case over there and they’ll deal with it.”

“Over where?”

“I’ll come with you sir.”

We marched across the hall to the other side, where he handed my ticket to a totally disinterested tart, who walked away. A few minutes later, by now there was a queue of us, a young lady asked if she could help. I explained the situation, “Yes sir, but I’ll need you boarding pass.” I pointed out the tart who had it, she went down to talk to her, Tart pointed at the counter, the young lady picked up my boarding pass, came back and to her credit apologised. Taking the money, she then told me I had to take the case to another area where it would be processed. I exploded. $50.00 AUS for 1.5kgs and I still had to go walking for another half a mile? A shrug of the shoulders, yes, basically. If I never fly again, it will be too soon. With any of them!

We all headed for a queue. Orders, loud orders. Stand here! Do that! Present that! Oh God! The case finally disappeared, now it was time to find the departure lounge. I and many others, went in the direction of the sign, only to find they’d moved it and it was completely the other side of the building. We found a queue. The queue. The only queue, with just one person checking passports and boarding passes for multiple aircraft, not only that every now and then a buxom barking bitch walked alongside us telling us we had to have everything ready, or we’d go to the back of the queue. On her second round, I couldn’t take any more and told her we were ready, the bloody airport wasn’t, could she get her boss, immediately. Applause and agreement from everyone, except Americans, they appear to meekly accept it and look horrified when you complain. However, the only effect it did have, is that she went away for a while and when she came back, she never spoke a word, although we did make eye contact, hers dropped, not mine.

In the holding cage, sorry, lounge, somebody said they were in the middle of alterations, somebody else piped up and said he’d been coming through the bloody airport for 15 years and it was always being altered and always a shambles. But there was some good news, we were to fly on the new Airbus, in fact it was the Nancy ’Bird’ Wake, I began to really look forward to that. Somebody was worried about being in an Airbus, I said that they were great planes, they didn’t just fall out of the sky, the Air France thing had blown up and we weren’t being told the full story, general agreement. And as I write this, the French Government has just announced that there were two known terrorists who had threatened French aircraft on board the plane.

On board we go, eagerly, only to find that Qantas have been greedy with their seats in economy, it’s tight, very tight. If you were anything over 5’11” you’d struggle and if you were big, you’d be doomed. I realised that there’s far more leg room on American planes (all of them), than Qantas. The greedy sods have put in an extra row of seats in every cabin. Now it’s not as bad as the shocking seating we had in the Boeing across to Perth on the Sunday morning, but there’s no excuse for it. Cramped up for 17 hours and they have the cheek to lecture you about deep vein thrombosis! I don’t think there’s as much room between the seats in the new Airbus as there is in the 747s and nor did other passengers.

On the plus side, the aircraft is magnificent, the grunt at take off is spell binding, you can tell how much thrust it’s got and quiet? It’s stunningly quiet. This is a fabulous aircraft that economy passengers will grow to hate because of Qantas. If I was Airbus, I’d sue them.

I’ve already written about all the health issues on the flight, which is not the fault of the airline, but what does need saying, is how good the cabin crew were, how efficient, how helpful etc, they were an absolute credit to both Qantas and Australia, shame about the company’s attitude to economy passengers. Sadly, I came away feeling slightly ashamed of Qantas and I wanted so much to praise the difference between them and US companies.

The staff and attitude are far better and our planes don’t rattle and shake like some of the American planes, but Americans can at least sit in a little more comfort (leg room). As I mentioned, the seating configuration on the Boeing from Sydney to Perth was an abomination, from memory, it was The City of Warrnambool, I can see why Nick Cave left. If I could only leave the bloody house, I’d go to the exhibition – I’ve just been told that the Swine Flu test results won’t be ready until at least 6.30pm tomorrow (Friday) night and possibly not until Monday! Our system couldn’t cope with an epidemic, five to seven days for a test result???

I also covered the debacle at Sydney airport and my return home in a previous email, so what’s left to say? A few thoughts and additions from some of you.

Many of you have written to say how much you’ve enjoyed it all, Faith (Comestibles), tells me it’s been a ‘must read’ item for her office staff. Nev Whittey wrote to tell me how he’d got into trouble at an American Yacht Club not so long ago, for befriending a black servant.

Barry tells me he also got Altitude Sickness in Colorado three years ago and rightly says, “..It’s like sea sickness, you don’t care too much, whether you live or die.”

Robin writes that she also hates tipping with a passion and can’t wait to see us all at the end of this month.

The McGills sent me a message (through Veronica), that they also had been hit with terrible homesickness when they were in San Francisco, despite the fact they were travelling together. Susie told me the same thing had occurred to her a couple of times while living in Perth, despite the fact that she loves the place,

Claire sent this fascinating link about Denver’s international airport, the Conspiracy Theorists are obviously having a ball, not taking their medicine http://www.anomalies-unlimited.com/Denver_Airport.html

Susie’s been really worried about what I now think about Americans and traveller after traveller agreed with me that travelling is no longer a pleasure, it’s an awful, awful grind. She also tells me that Memphis has just been voted the second most dangerous city in the USA. And here I must declare my abiding affection and gratitude for Oscar and Susie’s marvellous friendship. Indeed, I’ve worried about what I’ve written sometimes, as I had had no wish to in any way offend my treasured American friends (not just Oscar and Susie), but you can only tell it as you find it.

Me? I’m glad I did go. At this stage, I’d not go again. There were parts of America that I loved, but I kept thinking “I can see all this (except the moose, mountain lions and bears, which I never saw) in New Zealand, for far less money and far more pleasantly.”

I’m very sad that I couldn’t get to see my mate Gordon, seeing Leonard Cohen and Gordon were rally the lynch pins of the trip. I’m going to try and arrange that after the visit to Bathurst, if I’d known what I know now, I’d just have gone to NZ.

I really liked American people as friends and individuals, they are simply lovely and genuine, what I loathed is the American way of doing business. It’s no wonder their economy has collapsed, it’s built on deceit and slave labour. I loved Washington and New York was such a buzz, not to mention the once in a lifetime opportunity to see Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon in Exit The King – the programme and ticket are prized mementos. Memphis shocked me to the core, Colorado was magnificent, breathtakingly beautiful and Los Angeles was fun – as with Washington, I could happily live there.

I met some lovely new people, several of whom will I know become great friends, including my fellow Leonard Cohen fans and Rosemary (on the plane home) – she’s already offered to organise a tour of the Harley Davidson factory. Come to that, I think my time is over in terms of travelling alone for long periods, I wouldn’t do it again without a partner. It’s funny to have been so homesick to see family and friends, then be ‘locked away’ in isolation for days on end, unable to see anybody – I feel like I’m home, but not quite there, stuck in limbo, but I have had time to read P.J O’Rourke’s’ new book “Driving Like Crazy” (I was too sick to read it on the way home). It is wonderfully funny and wry and also a book for anybody who likes cars, the trip on the Baja with O’Rourke and Mike Nesmith (the Monkees), still has me in fits.

Finally, Veronica, Ken and Robina proved you can’t put a value on true friendship and yes folks, it’s true, there’s no place like home.

And one add on (June 2013). The Nancy Bird Wake is the Airbus 380 that became crippled over Singapore. If you want a magnificent read, the Captain’s book is a must-read.

All Good Things

Greg

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