Saturday, August 23, 2008

A few thoughts about America

When I informed my friends about going to America for a holiday, I received so many non-enthusiastic responses: “Why America?” “ I would not go there…”” It is a crazy country!” “Personally I don’t like the USA”, “Could not you find something better?” etc.

I have been thinking about it a lot in the last couple of weeks. If somebody asked me 3 weeks ago: would you like to have holiday in America, I would instantly answered “Of course, not”. Chris brought me up here. It was his choice of a holiday destination.
Now I want to put a few thoughts together about this event…

One thing I learnt long time ago: it is easy to dislike something you don’t know.
What did I know about China before I went there? Our TV always showed documentaries about grey poor people deprived of all human rights and longing for Western democracy. I went there – and everything I knew happened to be prejudice and bull shit: there were grey people as well colourful, there were poor people as well as very rich and many people in between, there were human rights as well as inequality, and most people did not give a damn about the West because for them China is still a centre of the Universe (and it seems, it is going to be this way soon).
I fell in love with China as soon as I learnt about real people and real life there: not perfect, not evil – just normal life as everywhere else on this planet.

What do we know about America apart from its government and its aggressive and bias international policies?

Those who speak English well enough to understand President Bush laugh at him.

Of course, we know Hollywood with its fantasy blah-blah. Some of it is good, some of it is trash, but it is not life – it is a form of art which should not be confused with reality.
Hollywood affects our perception a lot and spoils a lot!

We all saw ads of Las Vegas, which is also a fake city with very distant relation to reality but somehow it reflects on our perception of Americans in general.

I am trying to stretch my memory to recall everything I have learnt about America from various sources: pocket size romance books, American literature, art, - what does it have to do with reality?
How Theodore Dreiser defines modern USA? He is just as irrelevant to modern times as Dostoevsky to modern Russians…

Of course, during my lifetime there were accidental meetings with Americans which also left some impressions (and I am sure many people had similar experiences).
Who does not remember stories about: “the mountains which are taller in America, fields are bigger, trees and buildings are taller, sky is bluer than anywhere else”? Did not you feel annoyed by those stories and wished to tell them: go back to your wonderful country where everything is the best? I did.
All this American boasting does not really help to like them. On the other hand: it seems that they are right till certain degree and everything seems to be bigger here: it is an American obsession to have everything big. Well, they have room for big things in this spacious country. Does it make them bad?

Well, it is enough thinking for one day. There will be more impressions to absorb and more thoughts to think.

Driving in America

We spent 2 weeks driving in Nevada and California. This time is sufficient to make a few brief observations.

First of all, how beautiful their roads are! How well maintained and wide they are. Even in a desert all roads were excellent (no unsealed roads except some riding fun tracks). Even in declining and poor areas (by the way, we did not see many of such areas) roads were so much better than in Lismore. We observed plenty of road work sites and saw various stages of road building. After seeing this I can say for sure that the Lismore council goes for cheap solutions (we observed road building around Modanville and saw how it was done) and the result is obvious. Bad Lismore roads are memorable to everyone who drove there once.
Americans take their roads very seriously and the result is marvellous. I know that Australian population of less than 20 million provides for building roads in the country of the size of the USA (where they have something like 300 million people) and Australia is a country with good roads in comparison with Russia, for example. However, I believe, if our councils stop looking for shortcuts in road building we will benefit much more and at the end it will cost less.
Shortly, I was impressed by the roads.

How many huge roads they have! A road can have 6-7-8 lines one way. It is impressive and depressing at the same time. All lines are full, all roads are full. I had an impression that there is no off-pick traffic on American highways. Every line is choko-block, even in a desert. Only twisted tourist drives have easier traffic conditions. Looking at the amount of cars I understand why this country bullies the whole world in order to get as much petrol as possible. This country will be in chaos if they cannot drive.

I am surprised with the amount of driving people should do to get somewhere. All cities we saw so far (Los Angeles, San-Francisco, Las Vegas and some smaller places along the Western Coast) are overstretched. Americans prefer to live in individual houses than in apartments. It is typical for Australia too, and our suburbs are endless, just like here, in America. However, our suburbs have shopping centres, which are quite compact and if you park a car somewhere close to the shopping centre, than you can do your shopping on foot quite comfortably. In America shopping centres are stretched so far, and distances between buildings are so unreasonably big that walking does not make sense. It is more sensible to drive from one part of the shopping centre to another. Everything is spacious here. On one hand it looks relaxing. On another hand – it is impractical, and costly. Countries with compact residential tendencies such as Russia or China have an advantage. Councils have an easier job to provide for the population, maintenance is chipper. Well, living cheaply is not on American agenda. They spend generously, and unnecessarily, on their cities.

By the way, Americans spend a lot on their cars (I don’t mean petrol). They buy big cars, which are costly, and eat a lot of petrol, which is also costly. And they have ugly cars! I mean really ugly: huge, square, disproportional. This type of cars is popular, which means there should be some good qualities in them, but why not to design them? Don’t hey care? We spotted many huge campo vans: I never saw anything like this. The sizes are monstrous, basically a size of a house, which illustrates another observation I made here: Americans love their comfort very much. They would love to leave house without leaving it. They take it with them, probably, quite literally. When I watched American movies about going on camping tour/fishing weekend (Honey, I shrank our kids and alike) it always seemed to be a comedy element. Now I start thinking that it is actually quite realistic.

They have different road rules. It is not surprising – every country has own ideas how to drive well, but what a foreign driver should do on the road? It could be a good idea to have leaflets with road rules info somewhere on the border, so tourists can learn a little. Some situations are confusing and in 2 weeks we have not resolved them. For example, on the crossroad no car has a priority; all 3 or 4 sides have a “full stop” line and sign. How do they know which one has to go first, if all drivers come to the intersection at the same time? I think our way is more safe and comprehensive…

On the other hand, Americans have very few speed cameras in comparison with Australia, but many more road policemen on duty. I found it is so much better and relaxing. Australian police leaves an impression of money making machine more than a traffic control aid. American police does what police suppose to do: controls traffic and secondly, gives tickets, probably. I was always a believer, that seen a policeman on the road is so much more effective than receiving a letter with a fine 2-3 weeks later.

To finalise my observations: everything is good on American roads and travelling can be quite pleasant, but I would not want to do it myself – too much stress in a busy traffic and too many stressed drivers, especially in the cities (just like everywhere else in the world, I guess).
In New York we will have a chance to learn about public transport system.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

San Francisco

Why it is always the case that some essential moments are never mentioned in books, booklets and movies (San Francisco is so popular that it appears in all sorts of sources of information so frequently, nonetheless…)?

I would never guess that San Francisco is a cold city, but it is!
How cold it is here in comparison with the rest of California!
In one hour we drove from 36 degrees on the plains of California to 20 degrees in San Francisco.
From a monthly guide to SF in our hotel room I learnt that August here is “like the dawn of a new day. Cool summer temperatures begin to subside this month as warm weather rolls in and fog lifts by the afternoon”.
I am not sure I can say that cool temperatures subside when they reach 20 degrees in summer, and restaurants on the streets burn gas burners for their patrons, otherwise being on the street is unbearable.
By the way, last week they had 15 degrees max during the day! According to the local, the better month suppose to be September. One month a year fog sort of lifts above the city and you can see the sun. For the rest of the year, hot air from Sierra meets cold air from the ocean here. As a result it is always foggy and cold here!
Who calls it “summer”? It is worse than in Siberia!!! When we travelled in Siberia last year we had 30+ degrees for the whole week. Here they are happy to have 20 and call it “warm”! It is equal to our winter in the Northern Rivers. We meant to escape our winter but in SF we came back to the same winter environment, but even worse in some ways. It is so windy, that I could not continue our first expedition to China Town; I had to buy a fleece, otherwise I would die on the streets of SF. I caught a cold anyway and now I have a blocked nose.

And the fog, of course! I never knew that this city sank into a fog cloud. In the movies it is always sunny in SF, clear sky and people are dressed for a beach outing. What a fog they have here! The most remarkable fog ever! It covers tops of high buildings as if they are mountains and it moves so fast that I felt that the whole street floated with it. I have never seen before clouds shooting through the roof tops like missiles (nearly).

And the bridge! The one which suppose to be famous is invisible due to the fog, and another one, which is not famous even if it is a copy (sort of) of the Golden Gate bridge is grey!

Famous China Town in San Francisco was our first destination! Visually it is less impressive than Sydney China Town: the gates look insignificant, there is no well designed street as it is in Sydney, or even in Brisbane for that matter. Australian China Towns were designed quite recently, according to the modern ideas of beauty and comfort, that’s why they have a strong element of fake decorative purpose. SF China Town formed well before anybody thought of comfort for pedestrians, and this place is authentic, especially in contents. I would love to shop here! I am afraid no airline will tolerate excessive luggage…

Apart from China Town there are many entertaining things in this city. Outside the CBD – designed in 1970s therefore boring and full of copies of Twin World Towers: square and rectangular – and well before sleeping suburbs full of monotonous residential developments there is a band of old residential suburbs built well before modern regulations. They keep flavours of the past, full of architectural and topographical surprises and excesses, pretty and charming. In between there are streets of busy cafes and restaurants, small shops and old churches, sex industry streets and well designed gardens. This is the best of San Francisco with international and historical flavours. We would be happy to spend more time there, but alas… it is time to go.

We will remember busy streets, fat seagulls, sleepy and horny sea lions on the Pier 39, practically invisible in the fog Golden Gate Bridge (we will remember that we hardly could see it!!!), twisted and steep streets, the magnificent collections of the Modern Art Museum and Asian Art Museum, cold winds along the streets and strange optical effects on the water and in the air…

San Francisco is a city to remember, and to visit, but, please, get dressed for a cold weather

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Clouds in San Francisco

Pay attention to the strange optical effect in the clouds: the pyramid makes an impression in the sky. San Francisco is full of strange optical effects and illusions.

Glacier Point View, Yosemite Park, California

Pot Hole Dome, Yosemite Park

Yosemite Park, California

Eastern Sierra, California

California offers so much more to a human eye than Nevada!

Even the Death Valley was prettier than Nevada desert. Despite its ugly title the Death Valley had a variety of shapes and sizes of hills and mountains, sand dunes, salt lakes… It was more entertaining than Nevada desert.

But what a variety of climatic conditions and living environments California offers!

After the Death Valley with its desert environment we visited Mammoth Lakes District. I instantly felt at home. Who could imagine that California offers Siberian scenery? I expected Canada to be very similar to Siberia, but California???
Rivers and lakes with rocky beds and crystal clear and icy cold water, rocky mountains with pine trees, cliffs and occasional sandy beaches, modest flowers among grass, squirrels on the trees – it is all so familiar from childhood. It is exactly what Mammoth Lakes are. The only pleasant difference is absence of mosquitoes. Whatever the reason is – there were no mosquitoes whatsoever, while in Siberia mosquito plague is one of the worst problems in summer. Apart from this, the picture is basically identical!

Also we saw Mono Lake, which happened to be the most surreal landscape, one of the most memorable I’ve seen so far (and definitely it will be always one of the most memorable images of America for me), despite quite a modest vegetation around it. It is a combination of snow white and crow black islands among gentle blue-purple-pink waters of the lake, banks, sky and mountains on the horizon.

And of course, we visited Yosemite Park, which is made of rocks and pine trees, but rocks of an incredible size and pines of an incredible size!!! It is another memorable impression of America. What a gigantic playground of Nature! It is a good place to learn how insignificant we are in comparison with the forces of Nature. When you see a huge mountain broken apart like a plastic toy you ought to reflect upon a few questions, feelings, sensations… What a depth, what a space! It is one of the most beautiful places on this planet which are the must to see…

We saw endless hills with dried yellow grass just like in Victoria; we saw fruit and corn plantations which are so huge in size that can be compared with Bundaberg sugar and macadamia plantations. I have not noticed along the way any petite farm like ours; everything is huge!

I saw here mountains visually quite similar to mountains in Switzerland and Kazakhstan.

And coastal line offers quite a tropical environment, as I remember from Los Angeles.

What else will I see in this colourful state?

Mono Lake, California, August 2008

Santa Monica Beach, August 2008