This Ain’t Goodbye

It really doesn’t feel like I’ve traveled for almost 3 weeks. And I can’t believe this will be last night of my solo adventure.

You know, I could really get use to this kinda nomadic lifestyle. I guess it took an initial period to get used to the irrational concerns and fears of traveling solo, like having a major flight/accommodation screw-up, meeting weird people, or getting into sticky situations. And having an imaginative mind really doesn’t help cos you’ll start coming up with all sorts of possible scenarios like getting robbed, falling off a trail, fainting from hunger pangs, or getting stalked by some weirdo. And the list goes on and on.

I think after the first week of traveling I got the hang of things and got more settled in moving around and about pretty smoothly. And as the time when on I get less creeped out by those bad catastrophic scenarios my brain likes to postulate.

Of course when I get to a new city I’d usually start off being more cautious and checking out and exploring nearby areas first before venturing further out during the subsequent days. I’m pretty glad that I did my homework and spent those late nights before the trip reading online resources and planning my trip itinerary and details. It was a grueling process to plan city after city, especially having 7 cities to deal with in total. But it was good to have done that because it really takes away a lot of unnecessary stress and concerns when you’re traveling. Typically I’d be pretty tired out by the end of each day; imagine having to plan the next day’s stuff from scratch every night – I think by the first or second week I’d call it quits already. It spoils all the enjoyment of your trip and if you start dreading your days, then that’s not a holiday anymore.

I’m actually pretty surprised by how smooth things went during these 3 weeks. Apparently I got to all my destinations in one piece, never overslept, had all my flights being pretty much on time, went to most attractions/places that I really want to go as planned, and did not lose anything (lol). Biggest surprise is that my backpack has about just as much stuff as I started off. I thought by the second or third city by backpack would be overflowing and I’d be dying trying to squeeze everything in. I did a good job refraining myself from impulsive purchases (I’d remind myself – NO SPACE IN MY CARRYON). I bought a couple of useless things as usual, but nothing very big so thankfully my backpack’s not screaming from suffocation.

This trip has proven how much you can really do in just three weeks. Every city was awesome in its own way and people treated me well. I guess it was a bit of luck too that everything went well and met some really nice people along the journey.

It was a good decision to write; writing is like doing AAR on a daily basis. A lot of thoughts and memories get lost because they don’t get recorded down somewhere and it’s sometimes such a waste. The best thing about writing is that you’ll think through the day’s happenings and try to pick out all the little bits that made it eventful and special. And you’d realize they don’t have to be big spectacular stuff. Today I went back to the same restaurant for dinner because I loved the food (and mini desserts) there too much. I had another round of scrumptous food and when I was footing the bill, the waiter drew a smiley face on my receipt. I almost LOLed. The little things that make you laugh/smile and brighten your day. Even running into someone in the lift that’s staying on the same floor as me in the hotel gave me a good laugh, especially when that guy started calculating the probability of having 2 people in the same lift going to the same floor (except the ground floor), lol stats geek.

I now also realize how much I miss the outdoors. Combed Greenlake Park in Seattle, hiked Lands End and biked across Golden Gate to Sausalito in SF, biked the lake trails and city area in Austin… I can definitely say that the most enjoyable parts of this trip were all the outdoor activities and explorations on foot/bike. More than determined to get my knee back up in good condition because that’s really all that’s stopping me from running/biking/hiking.

Give me another chance and I’ll definitely backpack solo again. So soulful and so enriching; you’d feel like your hearts all filled up with a million happy and epic moments that blew you away. Glad that I took a leap of faith and went on this adventure.

P.S. I think I’ll continue writing still, even after this trip ends. Writing’s highly addictive.

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More than meets the eye

Today, my perspective of Austin changed 180 degrees.

When I first arrived at Austin, I was honestly not having the most comfortable feeling. Austin is known for being a very culturally-unique city, it’s slogan “Keep Austin Weird” says it all. I read a lot online about this city and I guess I got a bit freaked out by what people were saying. Night music scene is probably what Austin is most famous for, and many travelers who visited Austin told their stories about all the scary things that go on along the streets. Downtown was often described as not being the safest of places, and how peddlers can be aggressive and offensive to passerbys. 

After reading all that, I obviously couldn’t feel totally at ease when I came here. Of course there were pro-Austin reviews and write ups too that described Austin to be just as safe as any other city.

Having said that, you must be thinking why then did I decide to visit Austin? I came here for only one reason — culture. I’m a music junkie and the fact that this is the world’s most famous place for live music bought my heart. I did my homework, of course, and though there were much negative reviews of especially Old Pecan Street that’s filled with famous bars and pubs, there were things I read too that convinced me there must be more to than just what people say. Take extra caution I will, but visit I must.

I figured two things:

1. Any US city has its own dangers. Even any city in this world has its fair share of dangers, for that matter. I have visited 5 cities already on this trip and I cannot confidently say that any one of them is entirely safe. Every city has its safe regions and its shady dangerous ones. Some have more, some have less. Most US cities are clad with peddlers, baskers and homeless people on the street. Poor attitude towards them is merely digging your own grave. From past experiences, politely declining them usually suffices. Most will even thank you for your consideration and wish you well.

2. Any place or area that has sale of alcoholic drinks will mean possibility of meeting drunk people. Under the influence of alcohol, anything can happen. Anything. Hanging around places with pubs and bars at 2am alone is of course potentially troublesome and dangerous. I don’t actually think that Old Pecan Street is any more dangerous or unsafe than places like Gaslamp District in San Diego. It’s the same anywhere and so I figured the best to deal with this is not to put yourself in a spot in the first place. I have seen Old Pecan Street in the evening, it’s not at all scary like what people describe; it’s just like any other pub street.

The more I see of Austin, the more things clear up and the better I feel. I’ve had some misconceptions of this place and was honestly over-paranoid. I have seen downtown and yes, like any other city, it gets quiet in the day but near sunset onwards, lots of working class people stroll the streets and dine at restaurants in the area.

Biking the lake trail and several areas of the city made me change my view of Austin even more. I’d wonder where do all the people go in the day, and then I found out that everyone’s picnicking at parks, going for walks or bikes along the lake or taking a dip at Barton Spring Pool. That part of the city is awesomely beautiful. I thought Greenlake Park in Seattle was going to be the nicest lake I’ve seen, but Lady Bird Lake in Austin can definitely put up a good fight. The trail is so, so gorgeous and so natural with trees hanging over the dirt path and rocks by the lakeside.

Austin is extremely bike-friendly (as I have read about). People bike everywhere and it’s so cool that in certain parts of the city, they have designated lanes just for bikers. And mind you, these bike lanes aren’t the narrow ones you’d see while biking across Golden Gate Bridge. Urban planners ain’t stingy at all; bike lanes can be almost as wide as car lanes (of course they’re a little narrower, bikes are so slim). You’d feel privileged as a biker in Austin. Pedestrians and drivers alike respect and look out for bikers, the pavements in the city area aren’t that cluttered with people so it’s surprisingly acceptable to bike on pavements. Even on the road, cars are mindful when people bike on the road and people here seem pretty patient and easy-going. I usually avoid biking along road shoulders if I can but in many cities you have to bike on roads because it’s actually more dangerous to bike on pedestrian pavements with the immense number of people walking around. In Austin it’s really enjoyable to bike on the roads. There aren’t many cars in the city during the day so many a times almost the whole road is to yourself, which is pretty awesome. Cars generally give way to you and slow down if they come behind you (and that always makes me paiseh and try to speed up).

The weekend is here and I can feel the streets becoming more lively, it’s nice. I usually tend to have not-very-pleasant impressions of cities that look old and a little crummy. Many parts of Austin I’ve seen looks like that, but what I have come to learn is that an old-looking city doesn’t imply that the people are weird/dangerous/bad. In fact I get the feeling that Austin’s actually a lot safer than many other cities I’ve been to (of course excluding areas with highly drunk people at 3am). You don’t see as many homeless and druggy-kinda people around. And most don’t even bother about you.

Subjective Paradise

Vegas is like another New York. No one seems to sleep, and even at night the Strip is still packed with people.

Caught Blue Man Group (dream come true!) and they were so so so good. I was purely expecting a music performance, but I loved how they entertained and interacted with the audience. The late comers stint was awesomely funny, and very impromptu too. I liked how the whole show felt so real, and not scripted like there was already a fixed timestamp for every act that was to be put up. Their clever use of speechlessness made it very impactful because people pay more attention when there’s but only facial expressions and body language. As a result, everyone kept their eyes peeled and ears wide open. You’d enjoy a show even more when you pick up every little detail. Awesome, awesome show. Worth every buck spent.

I think that 4 nights in Vegas is a bit too long, at least for me. If you’re not really into casinos and all that nightlife action, then 3 nights would be just right. Enough to explore the zillions of hotel casinos and malls along the Strip and shoot scenes of spectacular architecture and neon lights to your heart’s content. Vegas is an interesting place, though not really my cup of tea. There is definitely more to than just casinos and entertainment, but not extensively more to be honest. Nevertheless, a good stopover to personally get a taste of this entertainment paradise (pun intended, lol).

Vegas

A city that’s as commercialized as you can ever get. Everyone is trying to sell you something — show tickets, grand canyon tour packages, half-price dinners, photo shoots with mascots, souvenirs, sunglasses… You name it, you get it. Money-making runs through the blood of this city; every waking moment you’re bombarded with sights and sounds of something that involves a trade of cash forsome form of entertainment or pleasure. The Strip is flooded with casinos at every corner, and surprisingly enough every casino you see has people, even during the day, so you can imagine how congested this place must be.

For a city that is extensively dramatized by shows like CSI for being a heartland for all things bad — crimes, murder, drugs, gambling, and everything you could possibly associate with the dark side of the rich and famous — it’s actually a very safe place. So if you had this picture in your head of Vegas with loitering drug traffickers and mafias all along the street, then that’s pretty inaccurate because you don’t get any of that. At least along The Strip. Perhaps that exists in other shady parts of Vegas, I don’t know (and I don’t really want to know or witness either).

One thing that I don’t really understand is the surprisingly large number of kids/children you see around. Vegas is a pretty place that does have some bit of attractions that are catered for the young ones, but to me it isn’t exactly a kid-friendly kinda city with all that adult-rated activities and media plastered all over the streets. 

I thought that New York City’s materialistic, but Vegas is probably several times more in comparison. Just walking down Las Vegas Blvd is enough to realize how showy this place is. It’s incredible how much they managed to compact into just this one street. Buildings alone are pretty spectacular — you’ve got your Eiffel Tower from Paris, Statue of Liberty from New York, in-house theme parks, and shopping malls with very, very elaborate decorations. If you like architecture and design, you’re in for some really gorgeous masterpieces. Everything is so well-packaged, and so eye candy-ish. People dress fashionably, and carry themselves well. You see people from all walks of life and culture. Just put on a pair of shades and you’ll fit right in.

Everything feels somewhat pretentious here. When people smile at you, you don’t really know if they mean it, or if it was just merely for show. Every individual on the street seems to carry his or her own agenda; nothing feels very genuine.

I didn’t expect myself to like Vegas very much, but nevertheless still wanted to stop by to see for myself what it’s really like, and if there’s really more to this place than just money, entertainment and pleasure. Perhaps because I didn’t carry much expectations in the first place, I’m actually liking this place quite a bit.

It’s different, of course. Culturally, Vegas is probably on the other end of the spectrum if you were to compare with a spot like Point Loma in San Diego. I like zen kinda places, but Vegas has its fair share of USPs too. There’s always so much going on everywhere you look, and you probably can’t find one spot that’s close to being quiet. I love it when I walk into a hotel or mall and they’re playing a familiar tune; you’d feel welcomed already. Even along the streets you’ll hear good music. Genuine or not, people seem to be having fun and enjoying themselves. And that kinda rubs into you.

On a side note: my room came with an iPod charger/player = Stereo Hearts on eternal replay, heh.

No place to be ending but somewhere to start

I think the most ironic place for a person who doesn’t believe in luck, chance or gambling is Vegas. Didn’t know that Vegas started off as a railway town; licensed to allow gambling since 1931. That’s like 80 years of gambling history. Wonder how much money has been lost by gamblers in Vegas. And people still go back. I still think it is quite amazing that people can put so much on the table and leave the future returns to (some portion) chance. Hardcore players are usually extremely skilled, have good judgment and have the ability to calculate their risks as they progress through a game. I admire such people, cos to me such games are like rocket science.

I decided to stop procrastinating and start working. Too much of anything isn’t good, no?

2 more hours to kill. And they don’t even have a cafe here. I thought I could at least get a second breakfast while waiting.

I’ve got a pocket, got a pocket full of sunshine

First day of the year, last day in San Diego.

Woke up today and impusively decided that I shall ditch all my plans for the day and just bum around. Supposed to go to Sea World but from read ups and photos I see online, it seems like one of those classic iconic city attraction that all the kids would bug their parents to bring them to and the poor parents would have to fork out $73 per pax to appease the pestering. I think of all the cities I’ve visited thus far, I have done the least in San Diego and chillaxed around the most. But then again, I think it’s a good juncture to bum around since it’s about midway through my trip; don’t wanna burn out by combing city after city.

I think the more legit reason for the high propensity to bum around here is that I love Point Loma too much, haha. I just can’t seem to like anywhere else in San Diego, and I’m biased so I kinda don’t have the interest or mood to see any other parts of San Diego. Sea port village area is probably the second favourite area I’ve seen, awesome place to go to for a stroll under the hot morning sun. I checked out the famous Gaslamp Quarters and sort of saw a bit of Old Town San Diego, but weren’t really that spectacular. I knew that Gaslamp probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea, given that it’s an area packed with pubs/bars/clubs with a well, very happening night scene. But I went there anyway, just in case I would be proven wrong — but nope, it’s just as I expected. Dressy people, party animals and alcohol junkies. Too much clutter for my threshold.

San Diego zoo was, to be very honest, so-so. I think I had too high expectations to begin with, being the #2 zoo in the US (and being so damn expensive), so I was thinking well this better be good. To be fair, it has tonnes of animals and a very wide variety of them too. Most zoos in US will probably pale in comparison. But I guess maybe zoo visiting isn’t really my sort of thing. You’d see the standard animals and some really cool special ones that are rarely seen, but overall I couldn’t say that it was a visit that blew me away.

And so I just decided to stroll aimlessly along the streets of Point Loma today. Too bad it’s still pretty foggy, else I would get to see the nice clear blue skies once more before I go. It seems that almost every family in this neighborhood owns a dog, especially those handsome large breeds like retrievers and huskies. Every other person you meet on the street is walking his/her dog, and every other car that passes you by has a dog (or dogs) peeking their head out of the car window enjoying the nice Californian breeze. Every dog I see makes me miss mine. Wonder how he is doing now, and I wonder where he is. At least I’ve gotten over the grieving and taken it as a rite of passage.

This will also be the last night I’ll be staying in a hostel. Quite glad that I chose to do a variety of accommodation – both hotels and hostels, and picked different hostel chains to stay in. Every hostel has its own unique flavour, and all three I’ve stayed in at Seattle, San Fran and San Diego all had their nice bits. I think that the quality of your experience depends a lot on your dorm mates (if you’re sharing a room with other backpackers/travelers) and the other people living in the hostel in general. I stayed in dorms at all three cities — in Seattle, people in the dorm kept to themselves, no one really talked to each other but everyone really respected each others’ privacy and were very zi dong. I kinda liked it that everyone quietly minded their own business and didn’t bother about others. In San Francisco, there were tonnes of people (mainly students) staying in the hostel (being a rather big one) and people really made themselves at home. Hostel facilities were very elaborate and impressive, and what was really nice was that the staff went around on Christmas Day cheering people up with Xmas greetings and surprise candies (lots of people were just bumming around the whole day because nothing’s open on Christmas Day). I had rather rowdy dorm mates in San Francisco though — two Australian girls that were crazy shoppers (they were traveling for two months all over Canada and USA and doing NOTHING BUT SHOPPING). Seriously, I don’t even think you can even wear every clothing / pair of shoes more than 3 times with that many pieces. Sorry, I’m a girl that just cannot wrap my head around extreme shopaholism.

Anyway, the dorm rooms were really nice in SF, but those two girls were amazingly messy people. Their barang occupied more than half of the room space and was really quite an eyesore to be honest. Most travelers tend to head out early in the morning and sleep early. But they were kinda the reverse so it was pretty annoying at times when they came back late at night or in the wee hours. Disclaimer: they were nice and friendly people, just with habits that didn’t really go well with other travelers (another traveler from London couldn’t help but started bitching about them (in a nice way) after one night of staying in our room cos she’s a real light sleeper).

In San Diego, this hostel’s really one of a kind — typically you see students and youngsters staying in hostels but in this one you find a lot of families with little kids staying here. And I think some people stay here for quite long periods of time (in stretches of weeks). It’s more of a chalet feeling than a hostel — low-rise, near the sea, very homey feel.

Well on a side note, at least I wouldn’t be banging my head against ceilings anymore for the next few cities since I’ll be staying in hotels and not sleeping at the top bunk bed in dorms (somehow I keep getting the top bed) and having to dodge the low ceilings.

New year resolution: bang less walls and table legs, bump against less ceilings. Oh and one more important one: fix that old stupid knee injury for good.