20 October 2014

Wash up USA

Jamie and Hanna Bear have done a reasonable job of telling you what we have done on our trip through the East Coast of the USA. Generally their reports were light hearted and not to be taken seriously. They replaced the necessity of writing postcards and I hope gave you some pleasure. This Blog is my own wash-up report of the trip and thoughts on what I found and did not find.

I should begin by saying I regret deeply not going sooner. Hanna, since my circumnavigation had encouraged me to plan a visit. I kept putting it off and then since 2010 I was not happy at the thought I should be so far away from her, when her health was clearly on the decline. Last year, she noticed how restless I was and understood instinctively that it was because we had not been travelling abroad since 2010. She knew that all my life I have been moving on every two years or so and needed constant change and new things to see and do, to feel content and happy. Against my judgement she persuaded me to book the flights and had wanted to help me plan it in detail. She would then have enjoyed the tales I told and the pictures I had taken afterwards. Now it is too late and I almost feel I have denied her the pleasure of it all. She was, however, with me in spirit the whole of the way.

I was most fortunate in my choice of travel companion. George, was patient with me and we got on like a house on fire. I shall always be grateful to him for coming along. There were times when I felt that I was dragging him to places I wanted to see and not ones that he wanted to. He never complained and at the end understood the overall idea I had of following the history of this huge country in an effort to understand it. He did all the driving, because he wanted to, had fun doing so, and I did all the navigating. Very early as a junior officer I learnt that officers do not drive, but are driven, so I was happy to let George drive me too. This combination of tasks worked well and I got better at navigating and less stressed when I made a mistake as we went along. I discovered that my iPad works as a navigation tool even when not connected to the Internet. One can plan the route before, while on-line and then set off and it will show you where you are. I used Google Maps and another Map App to good advantage, once I understood how they worked.

Driving and navigating in America is easy. The difficulty, if there is one, is in judging the distances when one is so used to measuring in kilometres. The signs are over generous in saying when a junction is coming up, which can be confusing sometimes. Otherwise if you can read English you can get about. However, the country is huge and the distances are great, so there were a few days when we had long ways to go. In all we drove 3066 kilometres.

I had three main aims in coming to America. Firstly to see my friend Brec again. We had got close during our crossing of the Indian Ocean and while in Malaysia when our first attempt failed. I last saw him in Gibraltar in 2002, but when we met again after 12 years it was as if we had parted yesterday. He and his wife Sandy, were very generous and gracious hosts. It was the undoubted highlight of my trip being with him, seeing his studio and having a short sail on his lovely little yacht OTTER. We will not wait another 12 years before we see each other again either.

My second aim was to photograph the autumn vegetation, the “Indian Summer,” or “Fall” leaves. I did not get the ultimate picture I was looking for, but I do not think I was cheated as we passed through many beautiful valleys and forests as we drove. If anything we were a little early for the best vegetation colours, or a little too far south and should have gone up to Vermont for the best of it.

My third aim was to visit various historic battlefield sites which interested me and about which I had read over the years. I was fully satisfied in what I saw and am grateful to George for putting up with me and this part of the trip. The views I had of the geography have given me a new insight into the conflicts of the battle for independence and the civil war, and have made the stories I have read come more alive. Some of the stories I will visit again now with the pictures I have taken of the places in which they occurred.

So how did we find America? It is a huge country and only when driving through it, do you fully appreciate it. The woods seemed endless, as if the whole country is all covered in forest. To our surprise these forests were all young in age. The really old trees could only be found, by us at least, in the towns and parks we visited. We thought that this was due to two factors. Firstly the felling by the settlers, to build their houses and settlements. Secondly, due to forest fires and we did see the evidence of this in some places. As the land is so large these forests are then allowed to re-naturalise themselves. The trees are all close together, almost like a thick jungle so they can never really grow large, until some are felled to give others space to breathe and grow. This at least is the impression we had from our view of the road, from driving the main routes from New Haven – Boston – Albany – Buffalo – Scranton – Philadelphia – Gettysburg – Washington – Williamsburg – Washington.

The east Coast is undoubtedly beautiful and is where the middle classes live. It is steeped in the early history of the country. The climate was better than I had envisaged and yet when one considers the latitudes we were in, should have come as no surprise. The noise of the crickets, cicadas and tree frogs did surprise. They were everywhere we went. The houses with their porches are nearly all made of wood in the countryside. Porches are such a good idea since the climate is so good in the, spring, summer and autumn, that one can just sit there and chill and watch the world go by.

The cities are something else entirely. Each has its own character as do the people that live there. New York architecture has attitude as do the people that live and work there. It is all brash and on the go and possible up front. The public transport system, as in all other places we visited, is clean efficient and easy to use. Boston was more refined, educated perhaps because of MIT and Harvard. Buffalo was an example of how the recession had hit America. A lot of derelict factories, poorer houses and people. Philadelphia was a good example of middle class America. We lived in Chestnut Hill and it was a pretty commuter dormitory. Washington was quiet, refined and exuded power from every pore of its being. The residents of these cities displayed the same characteristics as the architecture I felt.

All Americans we met are friendly to the core of their being and in some cases, particularly in restaurants, it seemed so overdone that it did not feel sincere anymore. We stayed in two private homes, (other than my good friends Brec and Sandy) and found their hospitality generous and kind. TV seemed to rule the lives of the residents as it was nearly always on in the homes and always in the bars.

American coffee, as I drink lots of coffee, needs a special mention. Everywhere we went we saw men and women hurrying about with a "coffee to go" in their hands. Even the "suits" in Washington were doing so and I saw one going into the White House Compound with one! In most places where they serve it, though, it tastes like Mississippi river water and probably looks like it too. I called this stuff, American mud. This is the main reason we did our best to find a Starbucks, as at least there they had Baristas and the coffee tasted like it should. We did, of course find other Cafes where they had proper baristas and so could get a reasonable cup of it, but they are few and far between.

Apart from two occasions, we stayed in three star hotels which I had found on line. Price was the limiting factor and this showed clearly in the standards we found. Apart from one hotel in Scranton (Brec had said, “who goes to Scranton, there’s nothing there!”) all the hotels offered a miserable “continental” style breakfast on paper or plastic plates and cups and spoons. In some there was no restaurant so you had to go to the lobby to get it. So if such things are important to you then take care when booking a B and B in America. The beds and the rooms though were generally clean and comfortable, even in those hotels which were getting past their prime.

Staying connected was one of the main things we did on this trip. In all places we stayed we had free wifi and so could email and use social media. For the first time I used my iPad in the Cafes we found. Some Facebook friends at least “liked” the links or posts and that the Blog was being read was also evident. However, no one ever placed a comment on the Blog and I have to question why not and whether it is worth the effort of blogging on the move if there is no interaction with my readers. Next year, Insha’Allah, I shall walk the Camino and had thought of blogging on the move, but should I bother carrying all the extra weight if no one is interacting with me? Some comments were placed on Facebook, but not all my important friends are on Facebook. I will need to think on this conundrum. 

I like America and want to go again and see other bits of it. Middle America and the West Coast are clearly on my bucket list now.

19 October 2014

Home again.

We were  early for our flight home, so that we could also post about our fun at the Air and Space Museum. We found a quiet corner where we could do that and also charge up the boys mobile devises.

This was the Jumbo we travelled back to Germany on. Once the boys had played with their various gizmos they went looking for a bar to have a drink. They found one with a couple of nice barkeepers who explained how American Football worked as it was on the bar TV.

This nice guy made a mean G+T while the other guy told Alan, at least how the football game worked.

So it was that a pleasant time was spent until it was time to board the flight for home. During the flight the boys watched a couple of films, tried to sleep a bit, but otherwise there was nothing of interest that occurred. 

When we arrived in Munich, we bears thought that we had all got on the wrong plane. The boys were not enamoured of the wait either, but needs must, when the devil drives. The plane on to Düsseldorf was delayed as it was over booked and they had to find volunteers to fly later. "Not us,"  we cried. These were to receive 250 Euros for doing so. They did not manage to find these volunteers so easily though.

At Düsseldorf it took forever for our bags to come of and we were glad that we bears were not in them.

George's wife and son were outside to collect us and then we were off to MG to drop off Alan and us bears.

The rest of the crazy gang were all pleased to see us, but we did not have time to tell of all our adventures, before Alan rushed us out the house on his bike to go and see Hanna.

Alan's log seat had been rolled away and someone had placed another candle holder on the grave, but when we arrived there were no candles in them. Alan put his seat back where it belonged and we then all sat and chatted about our many adventures. The little mouse came while we were there as well as the red squirrel, but otherwise we had the place to ourselves. So ends our adventures in America. Alan has said we can write again when we are in Malta, which is in a couple of weeks time. We think Alan may now write a little about what we saw and felt on the trip, but not tonight as he has now fallen fast asleep.

Last day in Washington DC

The sun was shining again on our last day as we checked out of the hotel and went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum at the airport. Here they have all the big aircraft which they could not accommodate in the museum down town that we went to. Alan was particularly keen to see the Space Shuttle DISCOVERY. We were too.

There were many aircraft there showing the history of flight from the Wright Brothers to space exploration all with in a 100 year period. Alan took lots of pics, but after four solid hours of the museum, which we think was well done, we were all in need of a coffee.

Using the iPad we navigated to a Starbucks which sadly did not have any chocolate chip cookies, so we settled for a raisin one. Then after a walk round a supermarket where the boys compared prices and products with those in Germany we drove to the airport and checked our luggage. Now all we have to do is sit and wait. Our next news will be from Germany, which we are not due to arrive in until Sunday.

18 October 2014

Visit to the Capitol

The sun was shining when we got going today. We went first to the airport to extend the car hire for one more day, then drove to a Metro Station where we left the car and rode the Metro into the centre of town.
The building is impressive and we first did our own tour of the House Of Representatives, where sadly no photos were allowed. But in the main hall we were allowed to take photos.

"Freedom" this is the plaster model for the statue on top of the Capitol

We then lined up for a tour of the rotunda which started with a 12 minute film. Our guide had some problems with the equipment, as the boys had to wear an earphone amplifier which was meant to give them only her voice in their ears. There were so many people being guided around that this was most necessary. 

Our guide

Sadly the ceiling of the rotunda inside was also being refurbished, like the outside!

We were all suitably impressed by the whole building. Alan couldn't resist one last trip to the shop before we went outside into the sunshine.

We two bears are a bit lost at the foot of the stairs to this huge building, but it proves we were there!

A stop for coffee and a walk through Chinatown, then it was back on the Metro.

George couldn't leave America without having eaten a hamburger so we stopped at a "Wendy's" to have one before catching the sunset over the parking lot of our hotel.

We've been told to sit quietly in the corner, now while Alan gets on with his packing. George has done his and it may take Alan quite awhile before he is finished!!! We're all right as we have our places firmly reserved, not sure about the rest of the stuff though, goodness knows how it is all going to go in!!!

17 October 2014

The sun shone in Jamestown

The sun shone today and laughed at us for our despair yesterday. Inside this large museum complex  we found a memorial to the 350th Anniversary of the Jamestown settlement.

The boys took us first to the Powhatan Indian Village where we found bear skins in the lodges or yehakins as the Indians called their reed huts. We were a little afraid to be scalped ourselves, so today we did not chat up any dusky maidens. We did explore the yehakins though, and had a bit of fun playing hide and seek with the boys.

Alan gathered us in and told us to behave as we were now going aboard some ships. Moored in the little harbour were three replica ships that brought the first settlers to Virginia. This time it was Alan's turn to chat up a young maiden, and they had a nice chat about sailing then and now. Well, he does know a thing or two about it.

We spent quite some time on these two vessels and only left when groups of school children came aboard. 

In the fort, Alan chatted to the cook who was making pasta, about recipes and such. We also saw some very happy chickens running about, the blacksmith was working hard at his business and in the largest building, which was the church, we found some tablets with prayers on the wall.

Honour satisfied we left Jamestown to come back to Washington and after a three hour journey, again using the iPad to navigate by, we arrived at our last hotel. 

16 October 2014

Dinner in Williamsburg

The boys, well Alan really, were in need of a glass of red wine to compensate for the torrential downpour which stopped play today. They were recommended to go to "Rocco's Smokehouse", which was down the road a block or two, as being one of the few places that sell alcohol with meals. 
They left us in the hotel as they always do, when they go out for a meal and walked the two blocks to the said restaurant in the rain. Getting over the four lane highway in the dark and rain was the next problem. It would appear that very few Americans go out at night on foot in this area, for there were no pedestrian crossings at all. They solved the problem by pretending to be cars and crossing at the lights, when they turned in their favour.

The cook stood at the door to welcome them, but Alan refused to kiss him as it said, but did give him a cuddle. Nothing could go wrong with the evening now, but Alan cursed that he had not brought his camera. George saved the day with his phone.

Alan got his glass of Merlot and when it came to George's beer the waiter brought him three glasses of the local brew to try.

Choosing what to eat in this "meat heavy" restaurant was not easy either, but the whole experience did compensate them for a very rainy day.

George's meal

Alan's meal

There is nothing finer than a good glass of wine when you have been "pissed" off by the events of the day.

The boys returned happy and content, even though the rain had not stopped. We think they will sleep well tonight, but we are going to need ear plugs, for we feel they will snore the night away as if they are  chopping down a rain forest.


This morning when we got up, it was overcast and very warm and humid. Like being in the tropics. Outside the front of the hotel are some "Wau Waus" which sadly did not bring us much luck today.

We went back in time to 18th century Williamsburg and visited those places we left out yesterday.

In Germany there are people who run around in Middle Age Costumes, so having Americans running around in 18th century costumes, since they cannot go that far back in their history, is about the same. We found another pretty maid to chat up and she found us so sweet she even gave us a cuddle.

This woman showed us around the House of Burgesses, which was the seat of Government in Virginia in those revolutionary days.

We then left historic Williamsburg by bus to find a coffee house in the modern side of town. While in the bus it started raining cats and dogs! After our coffee we returned to the car to then drive to Jamestown, but when we got there a torrential down pour had us running for cover in the Cafe.

The boys, rather demoralised, returned to the hotel as there was little real point in going on just to get soaked to the skin. Tomorrow promises to be sunny again, so we will visit then, before making our way back to Washington.