Tuesday, December 6, 2011

1/12/11 - 6/12/11 - Epic USA post of my trip so Far.


01/12/11 – Hello USA, nice to see you again!

Firstly, a quick word on my previous trip to Japan. I know that I was meant to finish writing up my last post about Osaka – I know, I’m terribly slack. All I will say is that Japan is the most amazing country I’ve ever visited. Osaka and the attractions I saw there were all fantastic. I cannot recommend visiting the country enough – I can’t wait to go back.

Now, on to this trip to the United States of America.

After returning from Japan, the opportunity arose for my girlfriend, Emma, to travel to the USA in December, 2011. Naturally, I was keen to come along as well, but money was going to be the major deciding factor. Then, several Sound Design projects were dropped in my lap. These projects more or less earned me enough money to comfortably afford the trip. As such, I went ahead and booked my flights and accommodation, and waited eagerly for departure. Eventually Emma and I decided that we would visit Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York – the same places I visited with Peta in August, 2010.

As 2011 passed suspiciously quickly, before I knew it, the date of departure was upon me. Like all of my trips, it started with a trip to Brisbane Airport. Like last time, I decided to fly domestically down to Sydney before catching Qantas’ Airbus A380 across to Los Angeles. My parents were kind enough to give me a lift to the airport, but sadly Mum had to leave straight away to get to work on time. As dad parked the car, I tried to check in on Qantas’ self-check in kiosks.

I’m not sure how I feel about these. On the one hand, they work fantastically well for domestic services (wherein you just scan your booking form, weigh your luggage, collect your boarding pass and be on your merry way), but they are hopeless for domestic-international transfer flights. I did battle with the machine for a good five minutes (for some reason the touchscreen was incorrectly calibrated, and as such whenever I hit the spacebar, it hit either the “J” or “K” key), a customer service assistant came over and helped me. When he saw that I was travelling internationally after my Domestic flight, he informed me that I actually needed to see one of the check-in staff anyway as my passport needed to be visually verified. My question is, if a mandatory “human” check-in is required for Domestic – International passengers, why offer it as on option on your kiosks? Rather baffling. Kudos to the check in agent who assisted me though, he was delightfully friendly and really made me look forward to my flights ahead.

Then, Dad and I headed airside, and made our way to the small food court. I decided not to have my traditional bacon, eggs and super-salty toast, and instead opted for a croissant. After chowing down, I headed up to my gate for a quick happy snap before it was time for me to board.

Qantas Airways flight QF517 BNE – SYD
Boeing 737-800 VH-VYF “Evandale”
Captain Peter Budd
Seat: 19F
Intended Pushback: 0925
Actual Pushback: 1038
Intended Arrival: 1200
Actual Arrival: 1253

Yes, this is where the fun began. As noted in the flight details above, we went sweet f-all nowhere for over an hour. Apparently the engineers found a small dent on the aft of the aircraft. Like with anything with aviation, when something goes wrong, it needs to be checked, double checked, details faxed, verified, simulated, signed off, leaked to the media and blessed by a priest before the aircraft can take off. As much as sitting there on the tarmac sucked, I appreciate my life and I am glad that Qantas takes no chances when it comes to airline safety. Besides, I had a good three hours to connect to my international flight, so I was in no danger of missing it. When we did take off, not much happened. It was a very quick 1 hour flight down to Sydney.

After arriving in Sydney, I jumped on the terminal transfer bus, and headed over to the international terminal. I cleared immigration in about 10 minutes, and had a brisk walk around the terminal doing my plane spotting thing, and then headed to the gate.

Qantas Airways Flight QF11 SYD – LAX
Airbus A380-800 VH-OQD “Fergus McMaster”
Captain Rick Paul
Seat: 80A
Intended Pushback: 1500
Actual Pushback: 1516
Intended Arrival: 0950
Actual Arrival: 0953

This was my second time on this particular Aircraft. It is the exact same one that took me to Los Angeles last year. It was just as fantastic as last time, made even better by the fact that I managed to snag seat 80A – a window seat with no seat in front of me. This means that I got business class sized legroom at an economy priced ticket. Not bad. I also lucked out and had nice passengers seated all around me. The young woman sitting next to me, Kate, was a great seat buddy. She was heading over to Los Angeles and New York as part of a performing arts tour. Although I don’t think she’ll read this, I wish her the best of luck with her future.

Qantas’ inflight entertainment on board their A380 is the best inflight entertainment I’ve ever used. The touchscreen is responsive (as long as you use the back of your fingernail), the range of entertainment options (movies, tv series, documentaries, games and music) is second to none, and their skycam (tail-mounted camera feed of the aircraft’s flight) is always a fun distraction during the daytime portion of the flight. I watched heaps of TV shows, but only one movie, “X-Men: First Class” which to be honest I didn’t really like, but that is by no part Qantas’ fault.

Also, given my ample legroom, I managed to achieve the impossible – 6 hours of fairly restless sleep on a long haul flight. If it wasn’t for the rollercoaster-esque turbulence experienced somewhere over Hawaii, I would have slept solidly for half the flight. One thing that definitely helped with my rest was the noise level. Firstly, the A380 is the quietest aircraft flying (for cabin noise, anyway). Then I wore earplug, and on top of that, I put on noise cancelling headphones. This reduced the engine noise down to a very light hum, and the earplugs blocked out all other noises as well.

After breakfast, we began our descent into Los Angeles. Just before landing, we were hit with some major turbulence due to the high winds that have hit Southern California over the past day or so. I managed to get through immigration in about 30 minutes, and then through customs in five minutes. The customs guard was fantastic – really chatty, very cheery and incredibly welcoming. I wish all border staff were like him!

Then, a shuttle to my hotel later, and I was safely back in Hollywood, California. As I had a spare day before Emma arrived, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself. Due to the high winds of the previous day, the internet connection to my hotel was down, so I couldn’t really find out where to go. So I decided to wander aimlessly. I did a lap around the “Church of Scientology” – a great big ugly blue building. It looks as obnoxious as what people say about the religion. I’m sure they are all for the most part very peaceful people, but their church does not look inviting in the slightest.

I went for some Quiznos for lunch – a sandwich chain like Subway, for those who don’t know. It was surprisingly delicious, and also rather cheap. One thing I love about the USA is how food is about half the price that it is in Australia. That combined with the strong Aussie dollar at the moment means that I have some awesomely cheap eats ahead of me.

I then jumped on the metro subway, and had a look around Hollywood Highland – Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Kodak Theatre, and the Hollywood walk of fame.

I don’t get the walk of fame. Yes, it has the names of famous actors, directors, musicians and other celebrities. Yes, they stood there to have their “Stars” laid. But what does this mean? Unless the celebrity is physically standing next to them when you see their star, there is nothing really connecting or “human” about the plaques.

There also seemed to be a heck of a lot of people standing around handing out demo CD’s of their music for passers-by. I guess that their philosophy is that the more people who know their music the better, but I don’t see how effective this could be in the long run, unless they luck out and give it to someone who is/knows a music producer. I didn’t take any of their CD’s, as I don’t have a CD player with me during my travels to listen to them. I figured that they’d be better off giving their copies to somebody who can actually listen to them, and save themselves the dollar or so it cost to burn the CD. Still, I wish them all the best of luck with their future careers.

Later that night, I went for some Italian food at a restaurant a few blocks north of my hotel. I had a delicious slab of Lasagne.  In true American fashion, it was a huge portion – a slab is not hyperbole. It felt strange eating alone at a restaurant, but I had a nice chat to the gentlemen at the table next to me. All in all, it was a nice evening, and a good start to my second trip to the USA.

Tomorrow, I meet up with Emma, we see Hollywood, and best of all, we’re in the audience for “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson”. Can’t wait!

02/12/11

Hollywood, Craig Ferguson, and Coffee Makers

So today I tried to pack in as much Los Angeles as I could in one day. It started by me taking a walk to my local Starbucks to use their wifi, as my hotel’s wifi was still down. While I was browsing on my phone, sipping on my hot chocolate, I saw a hummingbird flitter by. I’d never seen one before in my life, so this was a pleasant start to the day.

Later on in the morning, I headed to the Hollywood/Highland area of Hollywood. I was waiting for Emma, who was going to meet up with me here. Unfortunately, her flight was delayed, and then she got stuck in major traffic, so I was waiting around for a long time. Throughout this time, the music artists I mentioned earlier tried to sell me their CD’s, but eventually after I politely told them that I wasn’t interested, we got chatting. They were mainly Jamaican R&B artists, and were very friendly. Still, I politely declined their music, as I’m not a big fan of their genre of music.

While I was waiting, I also bumped into Kate, the girl who sat next to me on the flight. Small world! Her and her performing arts troupe were about to perform at a nearby theatre. Sadly, as I was waiting for Emma, I couldn’t go watch.

Eventually, Emma did arrive. Unfortunately, she had taken a fall earlier in the day, and as such had a very sore rear end. Combine this with the fact that she is gluten intolerant, and was served food containing only gluten on her flight, and she was hungry, tired and sore. I tried to remedy the hunger problem by taking her to a “Johnny Rockets” restaurant in the nearby outdoor mall. The food was pretty average, but it would do for now.

By this stage, the day had actually gone by pretty quickly, and we had to make a beeline back to my hotel, and then on to Craig Ferguson. The downside to being in the studio audience means that you are not allowed any cell phones, cameras or electronic devices on you of any form. This meant that I had to leave my phone – a crucial timepiece and navigational aid in my room. So essentially, we were following some hastily-printed out instructions from the hotel front desk and relying on them solely to get us to CBS studios. Fortunately though, these instructions didn’t fail us, and we managed to get there just within the nick of time.

Then we were taken into CBS studios, put into lines, and led into the studio. The studio is much, much smaller than it appears on TV, as is the audience – a mere 150 people. Emma and I managed to score front row centre seats. This was both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing was we were very close to Craig, Geoff and the guests. The bad thing was that so were the gigantic video cameras they used to film the show with. This meant that Craig and the guests were always either partially or completely blocked from our view. Still, being in the audience was so much fun, and Craig seemed like a very nice and genuine guy. I know I will continue to be an avid viewer of his show, and I hope that one day I can be in his audience again.

At the end of the show, a raffle was drawn. Funnily enough, I won the raffle, and was awarded with a brand-new coffee maker. While I would normally be very appreciative of a gift like this, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with it. Firstly, I don’t drink coffee. Secondly, I can’t really cart around this large box all over the USA with me. Thirdly, if I did, the voltage difference between the USA and Australia means that there is a high risk that the coffee maker could cause a house fire (if it doesn’t have a transformer in it) if I plug it in. I have no idea what I should do with it.

After heading back to my hotel, Emma and I then grabbed a light meal at a local Mediterranean restaurant. Adequate (and not unnecessarily huge) portion sizes and tasty food made this a winner.

Tomorrow, Disneyland! The least-unhappy place on earth!

03/12/11

Disneyland, and the great journey to and from it.

So Disneyland, huh? It is pretty darn cool. Getting to and from there from Los Angeles? Not so cool.

The day started at the crack of dawn as we began the great journey to Disneyland. Firstly, we had to tackle the Metro system to Union station. Unfortunately, we missed the first train, which had a massive unforseen knock-on effect.

Transferring at Los Angeles Union Station, we had to then get an Amtrak train to Anaheim. Because of us grabbing the later train previously, it meant that we missed this one by about two minutes. This then meant we had to wait 70 minutes for the next Amtrak train. These Amtrak trains are huge. They are completely double-decker, and they are very wide. Unlike the trains of Japan though, they are huge, slow and loud.

Eventually, the lumbering rolling-stock did get us to Anaheim. From there, I had read online that there were bus transfers to Disneyland. What the website omitted to mention was that the transfers only run every hour. And because of our missed train, it meant that we also missed the shuttle bus. After walking around for a little while, we decided to just take a taxi to Disneyland.

When we eventually got to Disneyland (Emma had to go to her hotel to change clothes and such), it was incredibly overwhelming. Not necessarily in a bad way, but everywhere you look is a ride to go on, a shop packed full of Disney merchandise, or a family having a very full-on day.

I won’t talk much about the rides, except that they are all very entertaining. Even the more sedate ones are still pretty fun. Special mention goes to the Indiana Jones ride and Space Mountain. They were both incredibly intense and very fast paced. Really cool. I won’t really talk about my various activities at the park, either, because to be honest, it is all a bright, colourful blur of pastels.

What I think I both loved and hated the most about Disneyland was their insistence on making sure everybody was as happy as they could be. I mean yes, the staff were very courteous, and were always smiling, which is what any form of customer-service based company should aim for. What I didn’t like is how there is often a price tag associated with this happiness. For example, I liked that in one of the stores, they had hair-dressers that can style your child’s hair like a Disney princess. While I didn’t actually check the prices for this service, the price for the accompanying costume was north of $70 USD. It’s a fantastic idea to make kids feel special, but it certainly comes with a hefty price tag. With the price of admission and the astronomical price for food in the park, I started to wonder how anybody can afford to make the experience that little bit of extra magic for their kids.

The less said about the ride back to Los Angeles, the better. I had to catch another taxi to the train station, as the bus arrives at the station two minutes *after* the last train of the night leaves. Brilliant planning, Anaheim. The complete ineptitude of Anaheim’s public transportation pretty much forces you to either drive to Disneyland, or to stay nearby. It is far too much of a hassle to get there by any other means.

4/12/11 – Back to San Francisco!

So December 4th is my anniversary with Emma. As part of this, I planned in our holiday to go to San Francisco, as I had an amazing time in this city last time I was there.

My journey to San Francisco started far too close to the end of the end of my journey to Disneyland. A mere 4 hours separated the two of them. Three and a half of which I spent asleep. Needless to say, by the time I got to LAX, I was already dead on my feet. When I checked in, Emma and I had far too much time to kill before our flight took off. That is the downside to the Supershuttle service – they will get you to the airport and are fairly cheap, but they will get you there with many hours before your flight departs in case they hit traffic.

American Airlines Flight AA1920 LAX-SFO
Boeing 737-800 N906AN
Intended Pushback: 0700
Actual Pushback: 0729
Intended Arrival: 0815
Actual Arrival: 0853
Seat: 16A
Captain John Mitchell

I have not been having much luck with flights so far on this trip. They have all been delayed by at least 20 minutes. Apparently this time they forgot to install a seat cushion, seat cover, or actual *seat* for the co-pilot. I question how an airline can not forsee this and fix this before you get a plane full of passengers on board, waiting to get to their destination. It did help that the pilot did seem genuinely apologetic. Also, although American Airlines’ service was minimal, the times in which the flight attendants passed by, they did seem to genuinely care about you. The seats were also quite roomy, which helps.

Then, we had another horrible experience getting from the airport to the hotel. We decided to take the BART, which stands for “Bay Area Rapid Transport”. Unfortunately, somebody had obviously forgotten the “Rapid” aspect of this particular service, as we were stopping and starting and crawling along at any form of speed other than rapid. Next time, I’ll just stick to Supershuttle.
When we arrived at the Powell station, my previous navigational memory of San Francisco kicked in, and I was able to safely navigate myself and Emma to our hotel with no troubles at all. After dropping our luggage off, Emma and I headed down to Fisherman’s Wharf, where we dined at our favourite overseas chain restaurant – Bubba Gump’s. Yes, it is just as awesome as I remembered. Yes, I had the shipping container’s worth of Shrimp. Yes, I felt like my stomach was going to explode in a gigantic shrimp-firework after finishing. Yes, it was totally worth it.

We then went for a look around China Town. This town always fascinates me. Everywhere you look is an alleyway packed with shops that sell wares you can only find elsewhere in the Far East. We also visited the pet shop I went to last time. It had the same Macaw, which has apparently learned to talk in the last 18 months, and some other cockatoos as well. One of the cockatoos was so friendly, it even let me stroke it. I wanted so badly to take it home with me, but unfortunately I have reality to contend with. We also got to see chinchillas again. Emma and I decided that they are super-cute, but only when they are asleep. When they are awake, they look like they’re perpetually squished – as if they’re being pressed up against a glass wall that follows them around.

Later that evening, we went out for a nice meal at a Japanese restaurant for our anniversary. The food was fantastic. The gentlemen sitting at the table next to us though, were not. One of them took the stereotype of “Loud American” to the extreme. Every time he spoke his mouth was excreting perpetual sonic booms. Both Emma and I shot them grumpy looks, but stopped short of telling them to STFU.

5/12/11

Today we did “The Bridge” – we cycled the Golden Gate bridge. It was fantastic. Emma has a theory that whenever she travels, she takes Brisbane with her. At least the weather, anyway. The weather so far has been fantastic – clear skies and sunshine all day long. The wind definitely kept the temperature down – it seems to be perpetually cold in San Francisco. The wind on the bridge itself was incredibly chilly - it easily brought the temperature down several degrees, and it was so powerful that it blew you around forcefully.

After getting to the other side of the bridge, we rode down to Sausalito where we had a late lunch. Emma, being gluten intolerant, has found it difficult to find meals at restaurants – the USA seems to mainly serve meals with either bread or pasta in them, which is a no-no for her stomach. Fish and chips seem to suit her alright though, so we’ve been keeping an eye out for them. I had my first “cheese steak”, a sandwich filled with shredded steak, onions and melted cheese. Apparently its birthplace is California, so I felt that I was at least eating something quite authentic.

By now, we had missed one of the last ferries back to San Francisco. This meant that we needed to wait quite a while longer for the next one. As such, we spent over an hour huddled on a park bench playing UNO on Emma’s iPhone. Not the worst way to spend an hour, but the freezing cold definitely made us wish we were indoors.

We then had to find the return garage for our bicycles, which was quite confusing when most of the bicycle rental outlets were closed. Eventually, we found it, quite literally in a basement.

Then, we took a bus back down to Geary Street, and we had to walk 6 blocks to get back to our hotel. This was definitely an interesting experience. It is amazing how much a city can change over the space of six blocks. It gradually switched from very run-down buildings with shady characters outside to five star hotels with doormen on the other side of the block. I definitely squeezed Emma’s hands tight in a few moments, but there was definitely no real danger as long as we kept walking. If we were walking down this street a few hours later though, and I wouldn’t be so sure…

Finally, we had some nice takeaway for dinner. Emma grabbed some Japanese food, whereas I grabbed some Thai. We then sat on our bed, watched TV and enjoyed a nice low profile dinner in San Francisco.

6/12/11

Today we had a look around the Ferry Building, and the farmers markets nearby. Emma and I have made a pledge to try and eat food that we have never eaten before, wherever reasonably possible. As such, for breakfast/lunch, I had a Japanese-style rice triangle filled with rice, miso paste and sushi. I then tried a Tamale, a Mexican dish made with ground up corn and cheese. While the Tamale was quite bland on its own, it is more a vessel for the various sauces that you top it with. Needless to say, as it was Mexican food, with the sauces added, it turned out quite spicy, but pleasantly spicy, not lip-numbingly so.

After wandering around inside the ferry building and sampling some of the local produce, we headed to SOMA, or South of Market Street. We had a look in a local bookstore, and then headed to the Museum of Cartoon Art. Essentially, it was a museum devoted to comic strips from Newspapers. It had strips from the very early 1900’s all the way to modern days. They had a feature on “Archie”, showing how it has changed over several generations since its birth in the 1940’s.
After taking a break back at the room, we headed precisely three stores down from our hotel to a Japanese restaurant called Katana-ya. As indicated by the large line outside this cramped restaurant, the food was delicious. I had a great big bowl of Ramen with some tempura vegetables, and Emma had her standard bowl of Udon. We seem to be eating a lot of Japanese food on this trip, but that’s because it is awesome, and it plays nicely with Emma’s gluten intolerance.

Then, we headed out for some dessert. We headed to my favourite ice cream store in the forever – Swensens. Last time we ate at a Swensens, we were in Thailand, so it has been a long time coming. The ice cream was delicious, but different to the type we had eaten in Thailand. Not in a bad way, just not exactly what I was expecting. I guess it has just been franchised in Thailand, as the San Francisco store (which is actually the original shop) was just a walk-in ice cream counter, as opposed to somewhere where you could also grab drinks and food. Still, a nice way to end a very food-oriented day.

Up next: Our last day in San Francisco, and then NEW YORK!

2 comments:

  1. Fantastic Read, you should be a travel journalist!

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