Monday, July 28, 2014

Arriving in Arlington

A magnolia flower at the Arlington National Cemetery

Serendipitous moments, those unexpected happy coincidences, are some of the best things in life. I look out for them and am always delighted when they arrive. The morning I was leaving Barham on the 7.05am VLine bus to Melbourne, en route to the United States, I checked my Facebook page just one more time…

My friend from school, Burge, after years of Facebook silence, had posted a beautiful profile picture of herself and her two sons. “She’s posted it at 4am… What’s with that?” I had wondered.
I clicked on her page and lo and behold, she was now living in Arlington, Virginia in the United States. US geography is not one of my strong points and I had no clear idea where Arlington actually was, just a vague sense it may have been somewhere near Washington DC.

I sent off a quick message:

Hi Burge the Elusive,

I haven't seen you in years and suddenly, your beautiful face pops up on my newsfeed!! AND you live in Arlington?! (which, I actually don't know where exactly that is... but...) I'm about to hit the airways (as in sky, not radio) for LA (tomorrow) and making my way across the US to Washington DC for a writer's conference 26th - 29th June.

Have cut my "getting to Washington" a little fine but should be there by Wednesday, 25th June for some very speedy sight-seeing before the conference - only two things on my list to see: the Smithsonian's and Arlington cemetery.

Don’t know if you are close or far away from Washington or if in the world of amazing, serendipitous moments, you are able to catch up that Wednesday night - 25th June?

Annie xo

… and Burge responded back within minutes:

Annie, Annie, Annie!!

We're so close!! Let's lock in something for the 25th.  Do you want to come and stay??  My number is ***

Love Burge

As it turns out, Arlington is just across the Potomac River, literally a stone’s throw from Washington DC. I guess I should have realised that Arlington National Cemetery would be located at a place called Arlington…

Two weeks later, I was stepping off the Metro train at her local station, where Burge and her sons, James and George, were waving to me from the steps leading up to their street.

Although it seemed no time had passed, we hadn’t seen each other since our twenty-year school reunion in 2008; it was so good to talk and catch up on each other’s lives.

With James and George leading the way, Burge and I walked to their local café for lunch and afterwards we visited Burge’s favourite bookshop, across the road.
Books, beer, wine and chocolate - what's not to love?!
 One More Page, is my kind of bookshop; books, beer, wine and chocolate – pure genius! The owner and operator, Eileen McGervey, opened this small, independent, neighbourhood bookshop in 2011.

I loved the little recommendations dotted onto the various books
One More Page has a great feel to it and had it not been for my time limitations, I would have happily lost myself there for hours amongst the titles and pages. Eileen’s staff are warm and welcoming and have dotted little quirky reviews and recommendations onto books throughout the store. Even the US President, Barack Obama and his family have shopped here on at least one occasion.

Later that afternoon on the prior recommendation from my Barham friends, Geoff and Sal May, I caught a train out to Arlington National Cemetery.
Standing near Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial with Washington DC in the background
 A United States Military Cemetery, the first military burials took place there during the American Civil War in 1864.

Burial in Arlington National Cemetery is generally limited to active, retired and former members of the armed forces, Medal of Honor recipients, high-ranking federal government officials and their dependents.
The Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery - built in 1920

The 624-acre cemetery is the final resting place for over 400,000 people including President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Open to the public 365 days and on average, 5,000 people are buried at Arlington National Cemetery each year.
A sentinel guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I don’t know what it is about military cemeteries but the few I have visited seem to be permeated with the same profound sense of tranquillity. I first experienced it in 1994 when I visited the war graves at Gallipoli in Turkey. Standing on that Turkish peninsular, looking out over the Aegean Sea, I felt surrounded in a beautiful calm stillness, in direct contrast to Gallipoli’s violent and bloody history.

In 2009 the boys and I were on a four-wheel driving, camping adventure through Australia’s Northern Territory with our friends, the Wares from Hay and the Osters from Barham. Late one afternoon we called in to the Adelaide River War Cemetery south of Darwin. Once again I felt the same sense of peace I’d experienced half a world away and fifteen years earlier.
Arlington National Cemetery

The hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery is just the same and I found it well worth the time to visit and one of the many highlights of my trip.

Burge's seriously delicious peach dessert
That evening Burge’s husband Paul (a scientist with the Australian Defence Department), cooked a delicious barbeque dinner that we enjoyed al fresco with salad and refreshments in their backyard. As we tucked into Burge’s magnificent peach dessert on dusk, I glimpsed my first ever firefly. James helped to satisfy my curiosity by capturing one so as to give me a close-up view.
James' hands and the firefly

These tiny, nocturnal, luminescent beetles have dedicated light organs that are located under their abdomens. The fireflies take in oxygen and combine it with a substance called luciferin inside special cells to produce a light with almost no heat.

My time with Burge and her family was all too short due to my other travel commitments but nonetheless, a wonderful 24 hours.
L-R: James, Burge, George and Paul

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Behind the Barr in Baltimore

Have you ever wondered if you can just turn up at an airport and purchase a ticket without a prior reservation? Me too.

For the past week I’d been asking everyone I met, whether or not this was a viable option. Opinions differed with every person I met. No one I met had actually done it; some thought it might be possible while others were adamant and said, “Oh no, Honey, you got to make a reservation and buy yourself a ticket way in advance.”

The reason I hadn’t booked a ticket in advance was because the arrival time of long-haul train journeys was so erratic – it was nothing to have a six plus hour delay on the California Zephyr.

True to form, we rolled into Chicago two and a half hours late. Fortunately the public transport is easy to negotiate in Chicago and I quickly made my way out to Midway Airport. The plane I wanted was the 7.25pm Southwest Airlines flight down to Baltimore Washington International (BWI) Airport… it was already after 6pm.

As luck would have it, they still had seats available and I could purchase one there and then at the counter; I quickly handed over my credit card and was then directed to the Express Bag-Drop line (I think they could safely drop the “express” in their title). From there, I sprinted through security… at least, I would have sprinted through security if only I’d remembered to pack my jar of Vegemite into my checked luggage, instead of my carry-on… fortunately it wasn’t deemed too dangerous (they didn’t taste it) and I was allowed to keep it. I ran on down the long, long corridors that airports are infamous for and arrived, out of breath and in a ball of sweat at the boarding gate, just in the nick of time.

My hosts for the next couple of nights, were NSNC member, writer, humorist, speaker and stand-up comic, Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski and her husband, Brad Borowy. Although we had only met briefly at last year’s NSNC Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, through modern technology and social media in the form of Facebook, we had been able to get to know each other better over the following months. Wojo had emailed and invited me to come and stay if I could work it into my excellent adventure itinerary.

It was great to be met with friendly faces as I arrived at yet another foreign airport. It was even better to arrive at their beautiful home in the Maryland countryside on the outskirts of Baltimore, that they shared with their two pampered pooches, Riley and Maggie.

Riley, practising his "Puss in Boots" eyes
The next morning Brad had to go off to work, leaving Wojo and her assistant, Ernie, the task of giving me a snapshot of life in Maryland. Together, we prioritised the day into: Laundry, Lunch, Nap, Baseball.

Laundry, while not exciting, is one of life’s necessities and when you’re travelling, the offer of a washing machine and dryer should never be passed up. I introduced Wojo and Ernie to the delights of our national spread, Vegemite, while we waited for my washing to finish.

Ernie diplomatically said it was, “okay” but I fear Wojo’s North American palate may be too delicate to fully appreciate the not-so-subtle and somewhat salty flavours of yeast extract… at least, that’s the impression I got from watching her facial expressions following her partial ingestion of a miniscule slice of buttered bread with Vegemite…

For lunch Wojo and Ernie took me to the Fallston Seafood Restaurant and introduced me to one of their state’s traditional meals, steamed crabs. Generously coated in McCormick & Co’s Old Bay Seasoning, steamed Maryland blue crabs are delicious to eat.
Steamed crabs with Old Bay seasoning

With the table covered in brown paper and topped with steamed crabs, we made good use of our “crustacean crushers”; the wooden mallets supplied by Michelle, our wonderfully attentive waitress, and used to extract the succulent crabmeat from the shells. I washed down my magnificent meal with a bottle of Bud Light beer.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to taking a nap.

Enjoying steamed crabs at the Fallston Seafood Restaurant
Brad returned home from work in the evening and the four of us headed into Baltimore to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. A Major League Baseball ballpark and home to the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. We were there to see the home team play the Chicago White Sox and for me to experience my first ever baseball game.
In the stands at Camden Yards

Oriole star player, Chris Davis, batting
Armed with hotdogs and sauce and sitting high up in the stands, Brad, Wojo and Ernie explained the finer points of the game that has been played in the US since the late 1700s. Sadly the Orioles didn’t claim victory that night but the atmosphere and cheering of the crowd when a home run was hit, made for a memorable evening.
Ernie's selfie at the game: Brad, me, Wojo and Ernie

I concluded my day with Wojo and Brad with a late-night introduction to Arnott’s Tim Tam biscuits. Consisting of a couple of chocolate malted biscuits sandwiched together with chocolate cream filling and encased in a thin layer of yet more chocolate, this iconic Australian bikkie, first introduced in 1964, was in fact named after the famous American racehorse and 1958 Kentucky Derby winner, Tim Tam.
Trivia aside, I think my humble packet of Tim Tams restored Wojo’s faith in Australian cuisine…

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The California Zephyr

The California Zephyr arrives at Emeryville

In my quest to see as much of the country as possible, within a relatively short timeframe, I caught the Amtrak train known as the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago.
Crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains

My roomette for the next 50 odd hours
The two and a half day trip covered 2,438 miles (3,924km) across some of the most impressive landscapes in North America. The train trundled along at a relaxed pace giving me plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, eat my supply of Ghirardelli chocolate, talk with my fellow travellers, read, write and sleep.

Converted into a bed for the evenings
We left San Francisco by bus to Emeryville Saturday morning and got onto the Zephyr at 9am. I had booked a roomette; a compact room with two seats that folded down into a bed for the evenings.
Menu in the Dining Car

Lunch: crab cake sandwich and an iced tea
That first day, we travelled through the states of California and Nevada, stopping at towns and cities along the way for passengers to get on and off the train. We stopped at Sacramento, the capital city of California and then on through the Sierra Nevada fir-covered mountain range to Reno – “the Biggest Little City in the World”.

Founded in 1868, Reno really took off in the 1930s with legalised gambling and the country’s most liberal divorce laws. The Bank Club in Reno became the world’s largest casino during the 30s and 40s and saying, “I’m going to Reno.” was another way of saying, “I’m getting a divorce.”

Well-known American columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning World War II war correspondent, Ernie Pyle once wrote in one of his columns, "All the people you saw on the streets in Reno were obviously there to get divorces." (I sure that’s not the case today.)

Waking up in Utah
The second day, I woke up around 6am and looked out my window, onto the imposing desert landscape of Utah – true cowboy and Indian country. I felt as though I was on the set of the old Western movies, rerun during my 1970s childhood and that any minute Gary Cooper would ride past in pursuit of the Miller’s Gang or John Wayne would be in a gunfight with the Comancheros whilst simultaneously warding off an attack by Comanche Indians.

By 9.30am we had crossed into Colorado. The day was filled with spectacular scenery as we followed the Colorado River up through the Rocky Mountain range through numerous canyons and gorges. I kept my eyes peeled, hoping to spot a bear or two but no such luck, although I did manage to see a few moose and deer along the way.

The Colorado River is a favourite for white water rafting and kayaking with the rafters and kayakers traditionally “mooning” the California Zephyr as it makes its way past.
"Mooning" rafters

Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Short stop at Glenwood Springs, Colorado
I took the opportunity to stretch my legs on the platform at picturesque, Glenwood Springs, high up in the Rockies. The final resting place for Wild West legend, Doc Holliday of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral fame, Glenwood Springs is famous for its hot springs and mineral caves.

Colorado River
In between Glenwood Springs and Denver, we passed through the 6.2 mile (10km) long Moffat Tunnel and reached the highest elevation for the trip at 9,200 feet (2,800m) above sea level.

Colorado River
Leaving the Rockies behind
That night in the dining car, I was seated with a retired couple from Omaha and Elsa, an events manager from Chicago.

We made good time all the way to Denver, Colorado, where the train picked up more passengers and refuelled for our journey on to Chicago.
Once we hit the open plains country outside of Denver, heading towards Nebraska, the weather changed. We headed into the night with a severe weather warning slowing our progress and a spectacular light show from heavy thunderstorms lighting up my window.

East of Denver

Only a few days earlier, twin tornadoes had wrecked havoc near the small town of Pilger, Nebraska, wiping out the town's business district, obliterating its fire station and grinding 40 or 50 homes into rubble. I went to sleep hoping we wouldn’t encounter any twisters along our route that night.
Ate the last block when I still had 19 hours to go...

The next morning I woke up safe and sound although somewhat dismayed to discover I had polished off my entire supply of Ghirardelli chocolate I had bought in San Francisco.

We passed through Omaha, Nebraska, home to Warren Buffett. The Oracle of Omaha and the world’s most famous and successful stock market investor, Mr Buffett is worth a cool US$65billion or thereabouts. Call it wishful thinking but I was hoping to channel some sort of divine investment wisdom as we passed through town… I’ll let you know how that goes at a future date.

About to cross the Mississippi River on the Burlington Rail Bridge
For my last day on the California Zephyr, we crossed the states of Nebraska, Iowa and then at Burlington, we crossed the mighty Mississippi River into the state of Illinois.
The Mighty Mississippi 

Down in the dining car for breakfast, I ordered a spinach and mushroom frittata with that quintessential side dish from the American Deep South: grits. (I just wanted to say in my best American impersonation, “I’ll have some grits with that please.”) Porridge made out of ground corn, water and seasoned with butter, grits are pretty bland and mainly eaten as a breakfast dish.
Grits, bacon, frittata and a croissant for brekkie 

There had been a lot of recent heavy rain around Omaha and further east; the farming country steadily improved and we passed acres and acres of lush, green corn crops as we travelled on towards Chicago.

Talking with other passengers, I was amazed to learn the length of the summer school holidays in the US. The summer vacation, as they call it, starts at the end of May and goes through until September. (Apparently a left over tradition from the farming days of old, when the children were expected to help out on the farms over the summer.)

We finally chugged into Chicago, two and a half hours later than expected. When it comes to seeing a country in a relatively short space of time, you can’t beat a long distance train trip. So long as you’re not overly concerned about your arrival time and are prepared to be flexible, the California Zephyr offers a great way to see large tracts of North America as well as meet fellow travellers.

Friday, July 11, 2014

If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair...

Walking tour of San Francisco

Early Tuesday morning, I said goodbye to Ann and the City of Angels and caught the 6.55am flight to San Francisco. I was seated next to a beautiful Mexican lady named Paola; she was a journalist and former news anchor for the Spanish television network, Telemundo Media. The short flight of just over an hour passed quickly and we descended into Oakland.
One of the many helpful signs at USA Hostels San Francisco

I caught the BART train into San Francisco and made my way to the USA Hostels San Francisco; one of the top rated hostels within the US and my accommodation for the first night. An impressive hostel with clean, modern facilities; I was booked into a four-bed, female dorm with an en suite bathroom.

San Francisco Bicycle Rentals
After checking my luggage, it was time for a twenty-minute walk down to the Ferry Building to pick up a bike from San Francisco Bicycle Rentals and ride across San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The weather couldn’t have been better for my four-day stay in the City by the Bay; bright sunshine and cloudless, blue skies – with hardly a wisp of the infamous San Francisco fog.

The Golden Gate Bridge
It was an easy ten-mile bike ride from the Ferry Building in San Francisco, across the bridge to the picturesque town of Sausalito. I rode along the Embarcadero past Fisherman’s Wharf, along the Marina Boulevard past the Palace of Fine Arts, through Crissy Field and up onto the bridge – stopping for numerous “Kodak Moments” as I went.
About to pedal my way across

Looking up at one of the Art Deco styled bridge towers
The Golden Gate Bridge was built between 1933 and 1937 and spans the channel of water that links San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean, known as the Golden Gate Strait. For many years it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

I wandered around the tourist town of Sausalito for an hour or so, enjoyed a late lunch of grilled cod and salad, then caught the ferry back to San Francisco, taking in close up views of the infamous former prison island, Alcatraz.

The next day, I joined a group of fellow travellers from the hostel for a walking tour of San Francisco. Brendan, our tour guide, kept us entertained with fascinating snippets of the city’s history or “bullshit facts” as he so quaintly put it. Who knew Chinese fortune cookies did not originate in China? They were allegedly the brainchild of a Japanese man, Makoto Hagiwara and originated in San Francisco.

Brendan took us through Chinatown, the largest in the US, past the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company in Ross Alley; past City Lights Bookstore and the historic bar, Vesuvio Café – famous hangout of Bob Dylan. We passed the extensive queue at Mama’s Café – famous for it’s breakfasts and the pizza shop where Francis Ford Coppola is said to have written the screenplay for The Godfather

We hiked up Telegraph Hill to see the Coit Tower and enjoyed the view looking out over the city. Coming back down, we passed through Levi’s Plaza, headquarters to Levi Strauss & Co, the dry goods company founded in 1853 by German Jewish immigrant, Levi Strauss. In 1873 Strauss joined forces with Russian immigrant, Jacob Davis and they began manufacturing the world’s first denim jeans.

Just as fascinating as the tour was meeting my fellow tourists; I talked with people from all over the world, including Kathleen, an urban planner from Caracas in Venezuela and Daniel, a university student from Taipei in Taiwan.

Late in the afternoon I made my way to the accommodation I had booked through Airbnb. I had a room on the 10th floor of a brand new apartment building near the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF is widely regarded as one of the world's leading universities in health sciences).

My hostess, Trang, was a lovely Vietnamese lady who was studying dentistry at the UCSF and her adorable nine-month-old son, Tirian. Trang had grown up in Vietnam and had worked as an air traffic controller, then an airhostess in Taiwan before coming to America; her husband is an oncologist, currently working in Houston, Texas.

A bowl of clam chowder on the go
San Francisco is a food lover’s dream, famous for its seafood, sourdough bread and chocolates and only an hour’s drive from the Sonoma and Napa Valleys wine regions. Fortunately it is a very hilly city, so there are plenty of opportunities to walk off any calories consumed!
You won't regret visiting this little beauty!

Lone Sailor Memorial
Day three saw me joining a group of thirty other global travellers for an all-day luxury bus tour of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Upon crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, Keith, our driver and tour guide, pulled over at the memorial to the Lone Sailor and we enjoyed a champagne breakfast, looking back towards the bridge.

Our day included visiting the famous winery, Jacuzzi; named after its owners, an Italian family who immigrated to America in the early 1900s and developed an aircraft manufacturing company and the now famous hot tubs.

The start of the day...
The Sonoma and Napa Valleys wine region was first developed in the 1850s and is now well known internationally for the quality of the wine produced there.

The Bartolucci Family’s Madonna Estate was the setting for our picnic lunch and I, along with my new wine-touring buddies Hazel, Paul, Casey and Lisa, went shares in a rather excellent bottle of red. Jamieson Ranch Vineyards was our final stop for the day and we enjoyed a glass of classic Napa Valley Chardonnay in the late afternoon sunshine, looking out over the vineyards.
With some of my wine-touring buddies at Jamieson Ranch Vineyards

By the time Keith had the bus turning for home, we had John Denver playing at full noise over the stereo system and the bus was considerably rowdier than when we had set out that morning.

The end of the day
We arrived back into San Francisco around 5pm ish and Hazel and Paul (who were visiting from Boston, Massachusetts) invited Casey, Lisa and me, up to their room in the Westin Hotel to enjoy the views and another glass of wine.

Segway touring, San Francisco style
For my final day in San Francisco, I booked myself onto the advanced Segway tour which encompassed numerous steep streets, including twice descending the famous Lombard Street, known as “the crookedest street in the world”, with its eight tight, hairpin turns.
Looking up towards the beautifully landscaped, Lombard Street

On my last night, Trang, invited me to join her for dinner. She cooked a delicious meal of broth, packed with beef, vegetables and noodles. The meal and conversation was a lovely conclusion to my time in San Francisco.

Good food and great company makes travelling so much better